Authors: P.J. Rhea
“Carla was working at the hospital as a nurse’s aide then, that’s how she met her. She told me that she’d seen grief before, but Grace was so alone in her grief. There was no family to console her or to tell her what she needed to do. Little Evie had no idea what was going on. After all, she was just a baby, and she would cry from fear, not understanding why her mother was wailing and crying.
The staff at the hospital wanted to do something for Grace, but no one knew what to say. Carla said she was just compelled to help Grace, so she sat next to her and gently took Grace’s hand. They sat quietly for a long time until Grace started to talk to Carla. She said she wasn’t sure what to do to survive. She told Carla that they had lived week to week for almost three years and she had no job and no money for the next week’s rent. Carla offered to let Grace and Evie stay in her rental house. She declined the offer at first, not wanting to take advantage of her. But Carla assured Grace that they would work it out. Carla proposed that Grace do some much needed cleaning for her, and then once she found a job they would work out the rent amount. At that time, all Grace had to live on was the small check from social security for Frank’s child and what she could make cleaning for people. It seemed like the perfect solution.
Carla said she was thrilled to have Grace and Evie as neighbors and grew closer to them with each passing month. Grace and Evie were doing well enough, but Grace was so lonely after losing Frank. She was still a kid really. After all, she was only nineteen years old when she became a widow, and she felt so lost and alone. Carla tried to talk her into going back to Oklahoma, to her parents. She was too proud at first. They had not parted on good terms. Grace wasn’t ready to forgive her father for some of the things he had said, and she wasn’t about to ask for help from him. Then it changed from too much pride to too much guilt. She felt so guilty for what happened to Frank and for how hard things were for little Evie. But then Ralph came into the picture and, well, as they say, the rest is history.”
When Carla spoke of Ralph Dark her voice would take on a sickened tone. Almost as if speaking of him made her stomach turn, but her face would look angry. It was clear that she hated the man; there was no doubt of that, and I was certain that as my memories continued to come I would feel the same way.
“Carla said that Grace met Ralph when she was cleaning a house where he was doing odd jobs for the owner. He asked her out to dinner and was a real charmer in the beginning. Carla told me that she’d often wondered a thousand times what would have happened if only Grace had gone back to her parents before meeting that man.”
Jason had listened patiently to the details told to me by Carla Wilson and seemed unable to speak for several minutes.
“What a sad story,” Jason whispered while staring out into the room as he reflected on the details of what I’d shared with him. “So your dad died when you were two years old?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I shrugged. I knew in my head that I was Evie and that it was me that all this had happened to, but I could not accept it in my heart. I still felt like we were two separate people, and I had no memory of a father named Frank. My father was a wonderful man named Bill, and I could not make my mind think of anyone else in that role. All the same, I was moved and saddened hearing about the young couple and the tragic end to what must have been a deep love. I felt so bad for Evie having lost her father at such a young age. I felt it for Evie, not for me. When I would write in my journal, I often wrote letters to Evie, giving her praise or trying to comfort her. Maybe as more details came out and I started to remember more, I would be able to somehow mesh us together to be one person.
Once we were in our bed, I cuddled close to Jason. I needed to feel comfort and wanted to feel secure. I would sometimes feel as if I couldn’t catch my breath. It was as if I couldn’t get my lungs to fill up completely. I knew it was the tension that came from just trying to grasp all that was happening. It was still so freaking unreal. It felt as if it were still happening to someone else. Once I was safe in my familiar world, I drifted off to sleep easily, exhausted to my core. It seemed like only seconds passed before I began to dream of Evie again.
Evie was excited because it was her birthday. Her mother had made a cake from a mix and placed nine candles on it. She had been allowed to invite two of her friends from school to her party. She had never had friends over before and was excited beyond words. Emily was her best friend at school, and Evie told her all her secrets. Well, most of her secrets. Evie never told her about the things Ralph did in the bathroom.
Emily had short black hair cut in a pixie cut and dark eyes that became big and round when Evie would talk to her. The other little girl, Rachel, a redhead with freckles across her nose and bright blue eyes, was the daughter of a lady Evie’s mom cleaned for. She was in the same grade as Evie but not in the same classroom. They mostly played when Evie tagged along on the days her mom cleaned for Rachel’s mom. Grace tried to make the party as much fun as she could, but money was tight. Ralph wasn’t getting to work a lot, and, as a result, he was drinking more. He was mean when he was drinking and both Grace and Evie were silently hoping that he would stay at the bar until the party was over.
The three little girls giggled and played for at least an hour. Soon it was time for the cake and ice cream. In the middle of singing happy birthday, the sound of the door slamming shut startled them all. Grace and Evie both looked at each other, knowing things could end badly. Ralph Dark walked into the kitchen holding his half empty whiskey bottle and a six pack of beer, which he placed in the refrigerator. There was no doubt why the whiskey bottle was half empty. He was staggering and cursing, yelling terrible things in front of the little girls. Evie was so embarrassed. Without thinking it through, perhaps because of the bottled up resentment she needed to release, she opened her mouth and yelled at him.
“Why can’t you just leave us alone?”
The room fell silent, and Evie knew the minute the words crossed her lips that she would pay for her outburst. Ralph looked at the two little girls who had come to celebrate with Evie; the fear was obvious on their faces. I guess even in his drunken state he knew that it would not be wise to do anything in front of those young witnesses. He smiled at Evie, and her blood chilled from the fear that crept up her tiny body. I could feel it too. Our bodies started to tremble and that familiar sick knot twisted in our stomachs.
“Well, okay then, I will just go watch a little television while you girls finish up here. I assume that will be soon won’t it, Grace?”
The look on his face gave Grace no doubt that someone would pay dearly for Evie’s words, but she slowly nodded in agreement. There was no hiding her concern. I could hear her heart pound in her chest as loudly as I could hear and feel Evie’s own heart. Together they were like a pounding drum leading up to a climax of tragedy. The children sat for the next several minutes in silence. Emily looked as if she might start to cry, and she asked to go home. She knew from Evie’s stories that Ralph could be very mean, and she didn’t want to be there if he started to yell again. Grace was aware of the tension and tried to make light conversation with the girls about school and their plans for the summer break. She tried with all the effort she could muster to act as if everything was just fine.
“Who’s ready for cake and ice cream?” “Me.” “I am.” “Me too, please.” They all squealed feeling relieved that Evie’s mother seemed to have relaxed. She was acting as if all was well again.
Once the refreshments were eaten it was time for the gifts. Evie had never had more than one gift to open on her birthday, and even the tension that filtered in from the other room could not take away the thrill of receiving gifts from her mother and her friends. Evie opened her big gift first. The one she knew was from her mama. Mama’s gift was in a large shopping bag that had paper flowers pasted all over and pictures of butterflies colored in bright colors. It contained the most beautiful doll Evie had ever seen. She had curly blond hair and blue eyes that would open and shut. Grace had purchased it at the secondhand store and cleaned it up. She’d made a beautiful dress for the doll from scrap material and a pair of bloomers from an old pillow case that was too worn to sleep on.
As Evie lifted the doll from the bag, all three girls smiled brightly and giggled with delight at the special doll. Evie’s friends seemed to envy the gift and that made it feel even more special to Evie. She told both her friends that they could hold the doll while she opened the gifts they had brought. Rachel had brought a box wrapped in striped paper and topped it with a bright yellow bow. Evie took her time when opening the gifts from her friends. She wanted to save the pretty paper, but she also wanted to savor the happy feeling that came with receiving the gifts on her special day.
In the box from Rachel were some ribbons and bows for Evie’s hair and a brush and comb set with a small mirror so Evie could fix her hair for school. Then from Emily, wrapped in paper covered in pictures of balloons, was a coloring book and one of the big boxes of crayons. For a short time Evie was so happy she almost forgot what had happened earlier when Ralph came home, but when she heard the clock in the hall chime, she knew the girls were about to leave. Once their mothers came to pick them up and the kitchen was clean, Grace told Evie to go straight to bed. I knew she was hoping Ralph had passed out in the recliner as he so often did when he had been drinking. If he happened to sleep through the night, maybe he would forget what was said.
Evie had not bothered to change for bed but had climbed under the sheet still wearing her little green dress from the party. She lay in her bed listening for any sound that might imply he was coming for her. Evie was about to drift off to sleep when Ralph came to life. He was stumbling around and bumping into things. He would curse and mumble but then he got loud. She could hear him screaming at the top of his lungs about how that snot-nosed brat was going to learn a lesson. Evie knew he had his belt because he would always fold it in half and make snapping noises with it before spanking her. She heard Mama rush up the stairs in front of him, trying to calm him and telling him to just let it be and come to bed. Ralph ignored Grace. It was apparent that he could not be distracted. The closer he got, the louder he became. Evie’s bedroom door flung open, and he came in with the belt held high ready to strike. Grace was holding his arm and pleading with him not to hit Evie.
“Ralph, please, you’re too angry, and I’m afraid you will go too far. Calm down, please, and then we will think of a punishment,” she reasoned. Ralph was so angry his entire head was blood red from it. He had a wild look in his eyes, and Evie cowered under the blanket afraid she would be beaten worse than she had ever been. Ralph had spanked her with a belt almost once or twice a week for any little thing, but he had done it before almost like a game to remind her who was boss. He didn’t even have to be angry to whip her. He enjoyed doing it. But this time was different. He was furious and Grace knew once he started he might not be able to stop before doing serious damage.
“Please Ralph; please don’t spank her while you are so angry.” He stopped for a second and with an eerie calmness looked at Grace and said,
“Well, someone is going to pay for the brat’s smart mouth, so if not her then who?”
Grace put her hand on the belt and with the sacrifice of a mother’s love for her child, she nodded in agreement. Evie had her head buried under her pillow and tried to block out the terrible sounds from the next room. Grace tried not to scream but at times it was just too much and she would have to. It seemed to go on for a long time. Evie was so afraid he would kill her mother, but what could she do? Why had she said it? Why hadn’t she kept her mouth closed? Then her sweet mama wouldn’t be going through this now. As she lay in her bed watching the shadows made from the moon passing over her walls, Evie focused on a picture that hung on her wall near the door. It was a picture of Grace and Evie before Ralph came to live there.
Mama is so beautiful
, she thought. They were both smiling in the picture and somehow looking at the picture calmed Evie.
The room grew darker and the sounds from the room next to hers had stopped. She could feel her eyes begin to droop, but Evie didn’t remember falling asleep. Suddenly she woke up to a silent house. For what seemed like an hour she just laid there listening to the sounds of the house. Was Ralph still home, still in the room with her mother? Had he killed her? I could hear every worried thought that passed through Evie’s mind. I could hear her heart beating loudly and the exaggerated breathing as she tried to work up her courage to go see her mama.