For I Have Sinned
FIRST BYLINES: In many respects it’s easier to publish an established, even an award-winning writer, than it is to publish someone for the first time.
The reason for this is simple. When a query or story crosses our desk by a known writer, we are usually familiar with their work, maybe personally familiar with the author. In other words, these authors have a head start in the publishing game.
Still, we cull through hundreds of submissions seeking that story, essay, comic, or poem by a writer — older or younger — who has a unique voice, and has yet to be published. In essence, we become partners with authors beginning their careers.
Most important, we seek to showcase new work that is provocative and beautiful, work that adds to the conversation between artists, scientists, essayists, columnists, bloggers, poets, and fiction writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review.
My husband says I can’t do anything right.
“I love you,” I whisper to him at night, after he has his way with me, but he never responds. Instead, he leaves the room as though sickened by my very presence. I dig my fingernails into my hair and squeeze my eyes shut, trying not to cry. My ribcage is a poor shield for my heart, mostly because I practically wear that sorry organ on the surface of my bruised flesh.
Seven in the morning and it’s time to take Shauna and Steph to school. I had wanted to call them Sophia and Melody, but their father wanted boys and those feminine names had underlined the fact that my body had betrayed him. So he picked titles that he perceived as nearly male and in doing so seemed to strive for a sort of godly duty, transforming his daughters into sons, like water into wine.
With my hands flat on the chilly kitchen counter, I feel that familiar gravitational pull that reminds me that I am no longer asleep. I want to break and smash into the ground like a precious vase and let my soul slowly drift away. Footsteps come up behind me and then I feel a hand on my arm. I look down and see Steph, my six year old. I run a few fingers through her black hair.
“Hey, sweetie,” I say. “It’s almost time to go, okay?”
“Mama, why is your eye black?”
I touch the tender area around my eye and feel the scratch on my cheek; David’s cheap wedding band had sliced my skin the night before.
“It’s nothing, dear. Don’t ask stupid questions,” I say.
“Did you hurt yourself, Mama?”
“It was an accident.” There is a long pause. I have a strange feeling that Steph doesn’t believe me. She takes after me; she isn’t very trusting at all.
“Did Daddy make the accident?”
“No, honey. Let’s go.” I grab my bag and sling it over my shoulder. I open the front door and head out, as though part of me is looking to escape not only Steph’s interrogation but also the nightmare that my home has become.
Shauna is waiting in front of the house. It’s a sunny, crisp day in November and she is perched under the first rays of morning light, tousling a bit of soil in her hands. She is a year younger than Steph. I scold her for playing with the mulch in the garden and she whines when I pick her up and carry her to the car. Once the children are buckled up, I climb into the driver’s seat and turn on the engine.
I remember being in my mother’s car as a child. She would let me lean my head on the edge of the open window and watch the trees sail by like ships in the sea. Today is a day that begs for such childish indulgence, but alas, such things are of the past and must remain there. I steal a glance up at the trees and accidentally swerve on the macadam.
“Careful, Mama!” Steph exclaims. She is sitting beside me, watching intently, as though she knows something I don’t.
After I drop the kids off, I sit in the parking lot on the hood of my car, smoking a cigarette. I hear the click-click of high heels and turn my head. Winona walks over to the car, dressed in a black suit with a short skirt. There is a peacock feather on her black hat, drooping gallantly over her shoulder. She tosses back her brown locks with a black-gloved hand and leans gracefully against my car.
“I knew I’d find you here,” she says with her back toward me. I look at her, but she doesn’t look at me.
“Why? I’ve never stayed in the school parking lot for more than a minute after dropping them off,” I tell her, frowning. “Anyway, I said I would call you. You didn’t have to come all the way down from New York just to see me.” Finally, the woman turns and looks at me. She pulls herself up on the car and sits beside me.
“Didn’t you miss me, Lisa?” Winona asks sadly.
“Of course I did,” I tell her.
For two years, I have been a friend to this woman. It had been winter when I’d first met her. The nights were so cold that they froze my heart to ice. One particular evening, David and I screamed and threw things. I can’t recall much. Just that I was hit, hard. I fell down the flight of stairs that leads between the first and second floor. When I woke up, all I knew was that I’d been pushed. But I didn’t see David when I opened my eyes. Winona was there. She’d told me that she’d heard the screams from the road and felt compelled to investigate. She was cold, twisted, and manipulative; I hadn’t known it then.
She is my friend, but there is something about her that frightens me. Whenever she looks at me, I scarcely want to look back, because her eyes reflect something that I don’t want to see.
“I told you I didn’t want you to come down here,” I say, walking to my car. I climb in and she sits down next to me. Her peacock feather wilts over the seat, the bright greens and blues a contrast to the gray interior of my car.
“Why? Because I’m a bad influence on your ridiculous children?” she snaps. I avert my eyes, because I know she has that look on her face that means she is extremely angry with me. Her eyes are probably narrow and her brow slanted with the rest of her face, wrenched as though someone had taken a screwdriver to her flesh.
“Yes,” I whisper, afraid to say it any louder.
“I told you they were bad news. What were you thinking?”
“David wanted them.”
“And where is he? Busting his ass at work, cheating on you afterwards. You know he wanted sons. What makes you think he cares?”
“David does not cheat on me!” I yell. I turn the key in the ignition with a violent thrust and stomp on the gas. Winona laughs when I have to slam on the brakes to keep from speeding into a tree. I shout as many curses as I can think of and let my head fall against the steering wheel.
Everything is silent. I grip the wheel until my hands hurt and stare down at the cavity below the seat where my feet lean sideways against the upholstery. There is a rapping on the window. I pull my head up and try to regain my composure as I roll down the window. Squinty eyes peer at me from a handsome, smooth face. The principal adjusts his tie and cocks his head.
“Are you all right?” he asks. “I heard tires screeching, so I came as quickly as I could. Did you lose control of the car?”
“No,” I say, as I clear my throat. “No, I… it was her, she…” I gesture to Winona and look at the seat beside me. To my dismay, she has already left. I touch the seat and note the cold feeling of emptiness on the soft material. Why does she always have to do this to me?
It is two days until Thanksgiving. If it were up to me, I would ignore the holiday completely. But I know that David will be angry with me if I don’t cook up a storm and make the kitchen so hot that relaxing at the dinner table means sweating like a couple of race horses. I slump into one of the kitchen chairs and listen as the front door opens and David comes home from work. It is after two o’clock. The school bus will be arriving soon.
“Hi, honey,” I say automatically.
“Did you start dinner yet?” my husband snaps. I hear his briefcase drop onto the table by the door.
“No, love,” I tell him. I catch the ends of my shirtsleeves and pull them down until I can’t see my hands anymore.
“What are you waiting for?”
“I didn’t know what you wanted,” I say softly.
“I told you this morning, Lisa.” The footsteps come up behind me and I feel my husband’s hand on my shoulder. “I want roast beef. Is that so hard to understand? Or are you just too stupid to remember it?”
“Oh, God,” I mutter weakly. David’s pudgy face shoots in front of me so fast that I move my head instinctively and grind my body against the back of the chair. I have no choice but to admit to myself that I can smell another woman’s perfume wafting off his putrescent body.
“How many times have I told you not to use the Lord’s name in vain?” David backs up and goes over to the refrigerator. He searches through various bottles until he finds a can of soda. “You’ll go to Hell.” My husband’s stern voice follows me when I go to the living room sofa and lectures me about how I should be a better wife and why my existence until meeting him was a cesspool of debauchery. I wait until he is finished to turn on the television, because I know that trying to drown out his voice will only result in another beating.
When Shauna and Steph come home from school, David retreats to the bedroom while I play cards with the girls. Each time I look at their faces, I remember what Winona told me. I’m not sure how I feel about giving up my own children, so I just shrug to myself and play the part of the happy mother.
I don’t eat any supper tonight, so I go to bed early. I curl into a fetal position and hug myself to sleep, dismissing all emotions and embracing a clear mind. I dream that a madman with a bloody machete and a glass eye is stalking me, chasing me through the night beneath a harvest moon. When I wake up sweating, I feel my husband beside me, his chest rising with each heavy snore.
The house is as still as a crypt. I climb out of bed and put my feet on the warm, soft carpeting. It’s like an animal, lying there, stretched out and dying on the floor. I creep over to the closet and wrap a robe over my naked body. The odd tactility in the air nibbles at my flesh like an anxious lover as I cross over to the bedroom door. I mumble to myself when I receive a static shock from the doorknob and make my way into the corridor.
The farther I go, the stranger things seem. I remember the horrifying details of my dream and pray that it won’t come true. I pass my daughters’ rooms and don’t bother to look in on them; I find that I don’t care as much as I thought I would. I move silently down the hall, observing the pictures on the walls that appear alive in this dim light, the figures behind each frame seeming to move when I look at them from a certain angle.
When I hear the sound of glass clinking softly, I move a bit quicker toward the origin of the sound. I reach the top of the steps and look down. A dim light is emanating from the kitchen. Someone is in there. My heartbeat quickens and I step lightly down the stairs, hoping they won’t creak beneath my weight. When I reach the bottom, I ready myself for the worst. Slowly, I peek around the corner…
I see Winona, filling a glass of water at the sink. I gasp and sigh in relief. That same peacock feather is falling along her back, bouncing with each movement.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. I hear the fluorescent light on the ceiling buzz. It flickers a few times and then brightens. Winona turns around and sips her water.
“I decided to come visit you,” she says. I look over at the clock.
“It’s one in the morning!” I say incredulously.
“So? Broadway stars never sleep.” She giggles happily.
“Look,” I begin, pointing a shaking index finger in her direction, “I want you out of here! We were never that good of friends anyway and you’re always trying to tell me what to do! I happen to be a good Christian woman and you’re just interfering with my life.”
“Is that so?” Winona puts her hands on her hips and saunters over to me, grinning. “If you’re such a good Christian woman, then how come you’re treated so badly? Why would God allow such a thing to happen to you? Admit it: Lisa; you’re just a worthless pawn under the thumb of a tyrant! Ever since I met you, you’ve been useless. Why would God help someone as pathetic as you?”
“I am not useless!”
“If you’re not, then prove it! Prove that you’re not a complete coward!”
“And if I do, what then?”
Winona shakes her head and crosses her slender arms over her chest.
“I can’t respect someone unless they show they’re actually worth it. That goes for you, Lisa,” she says. I spin around when I hear footsteps behind me. David looks at me worriedly and raises an eyebrow, the wrinkles on his forehead tightening in contemplation.
“Who are you talking to?” he asks. I glance behind me. There is a glass of water on the table and Winona is gone. Somehow, she always manages to slip out the door before anyone else arrives, leaving me to whatever fate is before me.
I get up on Thanksgiving morning to find my husband gone from bed. I know he is probably downstairs making breakfast, so I revel in the time that I have to myself and slump down onto the floor. I kneel on the carpeting and press my palms together in prayer. As I close my eyes, I envision the greatness of God and ask for His help.
“Forgive me, Lord,” I say aloud, “for I have sinned.”
I spend the entirety of the morning in the kitchen, baking pies, preparing the turkey, and making the various other side dishes traditional to Thanksgiving. My prayer of the morning keeps me going, for I feel energized by the power of God, as though I can accomplish anything with Him on my side. I will prove Winona wrong today; God does love me and I am worthy of respect. When Winona realizes how strong I am, maybe she will stop yelling at me and go back to New York where she belongs.
Hours pass and the house is filled with the smell of good food. The girls are getting more and more impatient, so I order them to go play outside. It is one of those unusually warm days and both Steph and Shauna refuse to wear their hats and scarves. I don’t care.
I finish everything around three o’clock. When the feast is set out on the table, I call David down and tell him that I will cut the turkey before the girls come back in. I can hear them laughing outside as they run through the grass, their hair bouncing on pink and purple coats. David sits down at the table and I take a seat across from him. For some reason, I don’t feel like doing anything. A sudden weakness courses through my body and I think fleetingly of Winona and her commanding nature.
I push the tendrils of my black hair behind my ears and look at the feast before me. It is at that very moment that I decide it is one of the most abhorrent things that I have ever seen. Then I look at the mountainous brute on the other side of the table, his double chin nearly dripping down to the T-shirt on his chest that reads “Jesus Lives.”
I hate Thanksgiving, I reflect. On the same day every year, I have to watch David stuff himself until he’s so full that he has to unbutton his pants and wrap his hands around his belly as though he is pregnant. It’s not the idea of thanking God for my food that makes me dislike this horrid time of year, because thanking Him is something that I do every day.
No, it’s the fact that David says he is thankful, but he never acts as though he is. He says grace with such care, but as words spout forth as smoothly as ever, his mind conjures thoughts that are nowhere near holy. I know this because I have felt the brunt of his anger far too many times to count. I have had the wind knocked out of me by this sorry excuse for a husband. He has told me that my opinion is nothing.
“Thank you, Lord, for this bountiful meal.” My husband says that every year on the same day, but for the other three hundred and sixty-four days, I know he doesn’t care at all.
“Aren’t you going to carve the turkey?” he barks. I look down at the dead bird. I don’t see food; I see the rotting, greasy remains of affection that came from being miserably married to this abusive man for the past ten years.
“No,” I reply, realizing that this is the first time that I have gone against his wishes. “I changed my mind. You can do it.”
“I didn’t ask you,” the pig growls, his snout twitching with the promising scent of the dinner before him. “I told you. Here.” He passes the knife across the table. The metal glints under the flickering fluorescent light.
When I hold the blade, I remember him slamming his ham fist across my face, without the slightest bit of hesitation, so many times. If I don’t do what he tells me, it will happen again. I frown and stand from my seat. The legs of the chair scrape annoyingly across the floor tiles. I glance out the window and see my daughters playing joyously by the garden. Then I look at the turkey.
No further thought, I tell myself. Not a bit of hesitation.
In that very moment, I turn to David and stab the knife into the area below his ribcage. He doesn’t scream as I drive the blade up into his heart. I let the weapon sit in his flesh as he passes away while I carefully wipe the blood from my hands.
“There,” I say to myself. “I cut the turkey.” When I pull the knife from my former husband’s body, more blood gushes over his chilly flesh; he is a balloon of bodily fluids. I wipe off the knife and wrap a towel around it. Then I grab my car keys, put on my coat, and walk out the door. There is blood on my clothes, but I don’t care.
I know she will be there; Winona is sitting on the porch swing, one leg crossed daintily over the other. She stands up when I walk out the door, a wide smile on her face.
“Finally!” she exclaims. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Where will we go? What about the body?”
“We’ll head for Mexico. And forget about that thing in there; it doesn’t concern you anymore.” She heads down the sidewalk with her heels clicking against the cement. I linger behind.
When I pass Shauna and Steph in the yard, they stare at me, watching me go, watching me leave them behind.
“Mama,” Shauna calls. “Who were you talking to?”
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Winona tells them, glancing behind her. They watch me strangely, as though expecting me to say something. But I remain silent; Winona has answered for me. I look at them for the very last time and get into the driver’s seat of my car. I smile as we back out of the driveway, for I have never felt so liberated in my life. Winona pats me on the shoulder and lights up a cigarette.
“Before we head to Mexico,” I say, “I’d like to go to confession.”
Rosa Sophia is featured in our “First Bylines” section and had this to say: When I was sixteen, I was fairly certain that I would be published by the time I was twenty and hey, it worked out! I live in Salford Township on a farm with a close friend and I write as much as I can. My other interests include criminology, psychology, and auto mechanics. Next time you see a 1968 Thunderbird Landau Tudor rumbling down the road, that could be me! Someday, I want to own my own bookstore in Portland, Maine. Most of the time, all I talk about is writing.
Works by Rosa Sophia
First Bylines: For I Have Sinned