When It's RightBy: Jennifer Ryan
San Francisco, California
Home late from her shift washing dishes at the Jade Palace, Gillian pounded up the two flights of stairs as fast as her legs allowed. She hit the landing and turned right, racing down the hallway past her apartment’s open door to Mrs. Wicks’s unit at the end of the hall. She’d heard the screams from outside. Not the first time she’d answered that call, but so help her God, if her father touched one hair on Justin’s head, she’d kill him.
“I’m calling the police,” the babysitter, Mrs. Wicks, threatened loud enough for her voice to carry down the hall.
“Damnit, woman, he’s my blood,” Gillian’s father bellowed.
Gillian rushed into the apartment and spotted Justin with his arm cradled in his hand and pressed to his chest, tears shimmering in his eyes but otherwise appearing unharmed. She looked her father up and down, assessing the situation in a glance and the odds on talking him down from whatever ludicrous idea had taken root in his shadowed mind. Dressed in the same clothes he’d left in four days ago, his hair an oily mass hanging lank to his shoulders, he reeked of whiskey, cigarette and pot smoke, and acrid body odor. The wild look in his bloodshot eyes told her he hadn’t slept in a good long while. Riding a meth high, he’d probably binged for days. Soon he’d lose all sense of reality and need more of the drug, which wouldn’t give him the high he needed, since he’d overloaded his system. He’d crash, his body shutting down and putting him into a deep sleep for a day, or two, or three before he woke up miserable, needing more of what put him in this psychotic state in the first place.
Frustrated and angry, but resigned to this same worn-out routine, she shored up her resolve to get through this night, like she’d done too many times in the past, trapped raising a child with little money and even fewer choices. None of them good.
Her father paced, his movements jerky. He scratched at his arm, his legs, the back of his neck with his grime-filled nails. He slapped at his thigh, then bit at the tips of his fingers. A hint at how far he’d fallen down the rabbit hole. Not good.
“Dad, come on. Let’s go home. I’ll make you something to eat,” she coaxed, keeping her voice calm.
A powder keg of roiling rage, he could blow any second. You never knew what would set him off.
Justin cowered in the corner of the couch, his eyes wide and watchful. He didn’t move, afraid of drawing her father’s attention. Even at six, he knew the rules of this twisted game.
Mrs. Wicks moved into the kitchen, leaving Gillian to handle getting her father out of there and back to their place. She’d done it before. Usually, he’d come looking for her, but she’d been held up at work, and he’d found little Justin alone. Gillian never left Justin with him if she could help it, especially over the last year, when her father spent more time strung out and paranoid on meth than comfortably numb with booze and pot, like he’d been every day of her life.
The last two weeks had been hell. Gillian’s patience had worn thin days ago. If she could hold on, get her father out of Mrs. Wicks’s apartment and into theirs, she could take Justin and crash somewhere else for a few days until her father came down and leveled off.
Then, joy, they could start this whole thing over again.
I wish Justin and I were anywhere else.
Inside, the pressure built. How good it would feel to open her mouth and unleash a string of curses, insults, and blame for what her father put her and Justin through day in and day out. She hated him for spending his life drowning in a bottle and doing drugs, his life going up in smoke. Her life went up with it. Justin’s too. She wanted it to end. One way or another, just end.
Her father swatted at some imaginary bird, or butterfly, or dragon for all she knew. Only he saw the tormenting hallucinations. If he was this far gone, he was even more volatile and dangerous than usual.
“Dad, come on. I’ll make you a burger and get you a beer.”
“We have to go.” His words came out rushed. He swatted at the air again, this time spinning around to the right before he stopped and turned the other way again, tracking his imaginary flying devils, waving his arms over his head to swat them away.