Not a Perfect Angel After All
Being the daughter of the local minister has its disadvantages. Such a status requires an upbringing of the most religious kind, where one was taught to properly sit in a pew from the earliest age. It was the childhood where you learned to be respectful even to those who did not deserve it; It was the life where you became known as the ‘bible girl’ for the verses that lingered always from the tip of your tongue —Father always said that your actions will determine other’s salvation and damnation.
But no one had ever thought to ask Cassie about how she felt about her father’s occupation.
The toe of her shoe scuffed the pavement as she paced the sidewalk. Her hands were tucked into the pockets of her coat that hid her nonexistent curves from the biting wind. Her yellow braids bounced with every step taken. Even at eighteen, she looked like she was just entering puberty. Her face was gently rounded from the lingering baby-fat. and her cheeks vigorously flushed. She hated it when people pointed out her youthfulness.
“Don’t worry, he says,” she muttered. “We’ll be done before three today, he says. ‘We’ll make it this time, I promise.’ Yeah right.”
A gust of wind blew the scarf into her face. She peeled it from her cheeks and tossed it over her shoulder. She then heard the door swing open behind her, heard her father’s farewells to the Chartwell’s. Heard his booming laugh that endeared him to anyone who crossed paths with him. She knew that he used his laugh to hide himself from the world, to keep people from looking a bit too closely.
She didn’t bother to wait for him before climbing into the back of the car. She pulled her beanie down to hood her eyes. She heard the driver side door open, followed by the rustle of cloth, and the car door slamming shut again.
“You didn’t need to seem so rude, you know.” He said. Keys jingled. The click as it was inserted into the ignition switch. “They asked if something was wrong. You’re setting a bad example of Christianity.”
“I thought Christians weren’t supposed to break promises either.” She licked her lips. The moisture burned the chapped skin. The metallic taste of blood hit her tongue, and she felt in her pocket for her Chapstick.
“Stop acting like a child.” The engine roared into life. The burnt smell of the heater warming up wafted into her nostrils. “We’ll just rearrange the visit for another day this week. We’ll get there at some point, I promise.”
“Like you said last week? And last month?” She snapped. She yanked her beanie off, slammed it on the seat next to her. The sudden existence of light burned her vision. “You just want to pretend that she doesn’t exist. You would rather her rot in there than…….”
She jolted back as the car screeched to a standstill. Her father’s hands were white against the steering wheel. His chin lowered into his chest. She couldn’t see his expression, other than the tautness of a smooth jaw that left even the most faithful of wives secretly committing adultery from their spots in the pews.
“You have no idea what I have to do.” His voice was cold. “I’ve been trying to protect you. Be grateful that I haven’t overridden your visits entirely.”
“Like you would stop me.” She slumped, crossed her arms. Her father didn’t reply.
The red trail was still fresh when Cassie had gotten home from school. She had flown into the kitchen to make pizza rolls. She was hungry, even though she had eaten well at lunch and had a snack on the bus. Momma said it was because Cassie was growing so quickly. Cassie herself thought that it was the hard work of being in fourth grade. Momma was just too old to remember just how difficult life was as a child.
Cassie started when she found the glistening drips on the tile, beginning at the sink and tracing their way around the kitchen table, and into the hallway. Her eyebrows furrowed. She climbed onto the counter and opened the kitchen window before leaning out.
“Uncle Matthew, Momma spilled paint in the house!” The only answer she got was faint whirring of the table saw being switched on in the garage. She sighed and slid back off the counter.
She found the mop in the cabinet and began scrubbing at the red marks. Daddy would not be happy if he came home and found out Momma had made a mess. If Momma did something wrong Dad would just give her that strange look that always made Momma cry before disappearing into his office to ‘pray for her sins.’ Cassie didn’t understand why mom being miserable would make God angry, but she didn’t want dad to make momma even sadder.
She dragged the mop behind like a resistant puppy as Cassie followed the trail from the kitchen and up the staircase. The trail continued to the door of her parents’ room.
Cassie hesitated before grasping the handle. She had always been told to never go into Momma and Dad’s room. It was their private space, Dad had told her. Even if she had nightmares or didn’t feel well, she could not open the door. Always knock, never come in. Goosebumps crawled up her arms at the thought of his wrath.
But then she remembered the paint stains, and how angry her Dad would be if he saw them. At worse, Mom or Uncle Matthew would see her, and they wouldn’t be as bad as Dad. The knob turned easily in her hands, and the door swung open. Too late. She realized someone else was in there.
Blood streamed in rivulets down her arm to the floor. She clawed at her arms, moans and whimpers ripping from her throat. Clumps of hair lay around her feet.
Cassie flopped onto the bed sheets. She stared at her navy-blue ceiling, studded with golden stars. A solitary moon was painted in the center, its amateur gray strokes able to be counted.
Her mother had painted those on there when Cassie was just a month old, according to Uncle Matthew. She had spent hours on the ladder, trying to transform the blank canvas above her, trying to recreate the night sky for her newborn to sleep under. Cassie tried to picture that, a younger version of her mother balancing on the top rug, smiling, laughing, normal, as the paintbrush danced across the smooth ceiling.
Her father had tried to have them painted over once, several months after the ‘Incident’. Cassie had refused. She had locked her door, and didn’t emerge until hours later, when her uncle finally convinced her father to let her keep the paintings.
Her father had also kicked out Uncle Matthew for interfering in ‘personal matters’ and encouraging ‘sinful rebellion.’
Gears began turning in Cassie’s mind, and she pulled out her phone. She dialed in a number and tried not to think what her father would do once he knew. She put the phone to her ear.
“Uncle Matthew? Can I get a ride tomorrow?”
The sawdust coated Matthew’s throat like the back of his hands. Woodchips gathered in clumps on the floor around his feet along with the dozens of beer cans he meant to clean up, but never did. His eyes stung from the adulterated air. His burly arms were usually white from lack of sun. Now they were tan from the light layer of grime. The dark blue outline of a cross traced around his wrist.
Sure, Matthew believed that there was a God out there within the universe, but he wasn’t what he would call religious. They glared at him through blinded eyes and called him a sinner, told him to repent for his many sins. A bit hypocritical if you asked him. They didn’t seem as generous as the person they claimed to follow. The only person who he would have called generous was his sister. Maka married the pastor of the church believing his faith would draw her closer to the redemption that she craved. Matthew couldn’t convince her otherwise.
He argued that he could find God buried within the wood itself, rather than the church. Part of him imagined that Jesus had been the same. He pictured the Savior in the workshop, bloodied and nail-scarred hands shaving pieces from the misshapen and splintering wood. Maybe that’s where the Savior learned to chip at people’s hearts. And maybe that’s why Matthew followed in that same path.
Matthew had barely shut off the saw when Cassie ran in, screaming his name. Her feet scattered the woodchips on the garage floor like moths in the night. He gripped her shoulders before she could fly into him: hoisted her light body into his arms.
“Hey, sugar. What’s wrong?”
Stray hairs poked out of her ponytail. Cassie’s face was flushed. She sobbed loudly; tear stains painted her cheeks.
“Mommy’s hurt herself! Something’s wrong with mom!” She pointed toward the house, wheezing between her cries.
He dropped her and ran.
Dad was opening a card when she walked down the stairs, purse slung over her shoulder. He looked up from the flimsy cardboard and frowned.
“And where do you think you’re going?” He asked.
“For a drive with Uncle Matthew.” She said. She grabbed her wallet from the junk drawer. She wasn’t allowed to keep the wallet in her room, not after he deemed her keeping currency and her license upon her person too much of a temptation for ‘risky behavior.’
Her father slipped the card back into the envelope, but not before Cassie read the large Thank You on the cover written in brightly colored lettering.
“You did not ask me whether you could leave.”
“And you didn’t ask me if I wanted to stay.” She tried to step past him. He grabbed her biceps, his large hand wrapping around her thin limb. His grip was strong. Any tighter and his fingernails would have broken skin.
“I am your father. I’m only doing what I think is best for you.” His voice was quiet but carried a stronger power than his grasp. It was the same authority that allowed him to lead a church, to convince them to kneel at the altar below his pulpit as though they were bowing to God for the repentance of their sins. If it had been anyone else but Cassie, they might have been swayed.
“Funny, because I think you’re doing what is best for you.” She tried to tug herself free. “And that doesn’t sound like something that qualifies you for parent of the year.”
“How dare you….” His voice slowly died into nothingness. He studied her face, his grip never loosening. Something in his eyes faltered briefly.
“No. I forbid it.”
“You can’t stop me,” she shot back. The wrinkles on his forehead deepened. His grip tightened, and she winced as his fingernails sunk into her skin. She dug in her nails into the back of his hand until his group loosened enough for her to back away. She stepped into her sneakers, not even bothering to untie them first.
“I’m trying to protect you from a sinful influence!” His voice became a crescendo. “Do you want to lose everything you have been given? Because the power of God can take away from those who fall away from Him!”
“She is my mother!” She screamed.
“It’s your own damn fault she’s in there!”
“They believe possible cause for her actions is temporary insanity.” The nurse flipped through his notes. “According to her medical history, she has been previously suspected by her physician for depression and was prescribed Chlorpromazine to treat Schizophrenia. But there was not even a trace of the medication found within her system.”
Matthew pinched the bridge of his nose when his eyes began to throb. The pain was accompanied by the strong desire for a stiff drink; something to burn the back of his throat and distract him from the bitter reality before him. He had slept in the hospital waiting room, Cassie curled up against his side like a small kitten seeking warmth. She slept soundly; his was in fits.
“That still doesn’t explain why she snapped like that.”
We’re considering possible causes right now.” The nurse folded his notes against his chest. “For the record Mr. Narron, how was your sister’s home life? Were there any problems in her marriage that you are aware of, possibly issues with raising a child?”
Behind him Matthew could hear Cassie’s young voice, chatting with the doctor who had volunteered to keep her occupied. He tried to imagine what the ten-year-old (“Almost eleven,” she had proudly declared to him the day before while he had shooed her, braids and all, onto the school bus) must be thinking. And for a moment he wondered just how much she knew regarding her mother’s hospitalization.
“It was great as far as I knew.” The lie coated his tongue like oil. “They couldn’t have been happier.”
“Do you honestly think I didn’t hear her cry when you would leave? Every damn night you would tell her to repent over a sin that didn’t even exist and would pray for the salvation of her soul when she didn’t even have a damn idea what was wrong with her. You drove her to this you….”.
Cassie’s head was down for a long pause. When she raised her head again, the pink against her cheek seemed to highlight the liquid fire in her eyes.
“Well, looks like I finally found that button.” She hissed.
“You tell me you’re trying to protect me? Then God forbid that people see the sin in your life.” She turned and fled the house, the screen door swinging gently in her wake.
“Hello.” Even to her own ears Cassie’s greeting was shallow and shaky.
“I’m here to see patient Maka Gordon?”
The secretary handed back Cassie’s Identification. If she noticed the fresh bruise spreading across Cassie’s jaw she didn’t acknowledge it. Instead she pressed a button that the girl couldn’t see and leaned down into the microphone. Cassie’s hands were slick as she slipped the wallet back into her purse.
“We have a Cassie Gordon to visit her mother Maka Gordon?” The secretary held onto the headpiece lightly for a moment. Then she released and looked at Cassie. “You’re clear to enter.” There was a small click and the door was unlocked. The secretary returned to her screen. The click-click of computer keys echoed into the air.
Cassie looked back one more time. Uncle Matthew was sitting on one of the rickety chairs, flipping through a magazine. He looked up as though sensing her hesitation and smiled. He gently waved a hand, silently shooing her through the door.
Cassie entered an empty room, almost entirely void of objects besides a table, and several chairs. A window above her head allowed sunlight to light the room with a cheerful glow that reflected off the pale-yellow walls.
Cassie sat down in one of the chairs. She clenched her wallet. She felt the leather give underneath the pressure. She forced herself to exhale. Breathe, don’t think. Breathe, don’t think. Breathe, don’t thin….”
The door opposite her opened. Cassie forced a smile to her lips.
Her mother stared down at the ground. Slowly she lifted her gaze to meet Cassie’s. For a moment Cassie imagined there was a flicker of recognition in the woman’s eyes.
The aide at the older woman’s arm guided her forward to the table. Maka approached slowly, her eyes darting about the room before coming to rest on Cassie’s fingers, tightly clasped in front of her. The scene reminded Cassie of an injured dog, too dazed to understand what was happening other than to know that he should be afraid.
The aide carefully lowered her down into the chair. He patted her shoulder, and with a friendly smile stepped back—close enough to assist without encroaching upon their privacy too much.
“How’re you momma?” Silence. Her mother stared through her.
“I’m going to be leaving home soon,” Cassie swallowed the lump in her throat. “Uncle Matthew said I could come live with him, at least until I can get on my feet. I’m going to get a job, maybe an apartment. I’m going to be super busy, but I promise to come see you more often, alright? At least once every few weeks.”
Her expression was distant, unreadable. But she reached across the table, laid a hand over the younger’s own. A small rumble formed in her throat, slowly escaping her lips, and transforming into a singular word.
Hot tears blurred Cassie’s vision. She swallowed and smiled, even as the liquid overflowed and spilled over her cheeks.
“I love you too, Momma.”
Martha West was born and raised in Letcher County, Kentucky. A senior at University of the Cumberlands, she is set to graduate in Spring 2019 with degrees in English and Public Health. She plans to further her education with a master’s degree from the Cumberlands and to write children’s literature, with influence from the Appalachia culture that shaped her.