2016 Barrett Winner
3rd Place Brittney Arafat
“I can’t do this anymore, I’m so sorry,” I whisper, kissing my sleeping daughter on the forehead. She stirs but she doesn’t wake. I head to the front door. My mother is asleep on the sofa, face set in the disappointed scowl that I've grown so accustomed to seeing. She always said I would never be a good mother, that I was too selfish and lazy to be able to take care of another person. She would get the last word again. I shut the door soundlessly, and then begin the short walk to the highway. The pregnant moon sits high in her throne of clouds, the wispy tendrils like pillows holding her aloft. Aside from her light the highway is dark and quiet, the silence and the moon a prodding reminder of the small queen I left behind wrapped in her pink blankets, asleep. I can see the outline of the woods, but everything else is hidden beneath a sea of shadows. When the wind blows, the trees walk with me, their childlike silhouettes skittering across the pavement mocking me. We walk together in silence.
The air is chilly and it smells like soil and rain, yet no drops have fallen. I adjust my suitcase putting the heavy bulk into my other hand, the weight of it causing my shoulder blades to burn, and I can't help but wonder despondently if I will be able to get a ride tonight. Three cars have already come and gone, their lights blinding as they speed past me then disappearing as fast as they came. Three cars; my daughter is three. I laugh at the irony, but my laugh dies out in my throat, transforming into desperate sobs.
From my peripheral I see a vehicle coming. Its headlights blaze as it crests the top of the hill. I run as close to the pavement as I dare, jutting my thumb out with my left hand and waving with my right. The van slows and come to a stop in front of me.
Jogging I rush over to it. The paint is silver and sparkles under the moonlight; like a star. Above the right brake light is a peeling blue bumper sticker, "Sometimes good things fall apart but better things can fall together," I’m falling apart, but I don’t think I will ever be whole again. Not without her. I bite my lip ashamed, and lean into the rolled down window.
"Where you headed?" He asks.
"Anywhere," I say, looking down the road into the darkness, in the direction away from her.
I nod, yanking on the handle, relief rushing over me as the warmth of the car fills my numb appendages. "Thanks a lot." I sigh, sinking into the soft grey seat. He takes my bag and sets it into the back.
It's started to rain; fat drops splash onto the windshield, running across the glass like an ocean of tears. I wonder what horrible thing has happened in the world to cause the sky to cry like this. Maybe it's crying for me.
"Buckle up." He says. He has a school teacher look about him, receding hairline, round rimmed glasses and all. He's dressed in a beige button up shirt and dark slacks. He doesn't take the car out of park until he hears the click of my belt as it snaps into its locking mechanism. Smiling he pulls back onto the highway.
The car is mostly clean aside from a few scattered stuffed animals and a crumb filled car seat strapped in the chair behind the driver's seat. There is a DVD player hanging from the ceiling and children's movies crammed in the middle compartment between his seat and mine. I run my fingers across the cases. If I could afford things like this, like fancy video players and movies and a car, maybe I would still be at home. Maybe I would still be with her.
I want to cry. I wipe my eyes with my sleeves, fighting the tears before they've even had a chance to fall. I feel a warm hand brush against my wrist. The touch causes me to yelp and I recoil from his touch.
"It’s just a tissue," he says.
My face flushes, embarrassed and I take the soft napkin, wiping my face and then blow my nose into the pliable fabric. "Thanks," I say.
"What are you running away from?" He asks with a kind smile. He has one of those faces that make a person feel safe like they're talking to a teacher or counselors. He looks like someone who wants to listen; someone who actually cares.
I don’t want to tell him, or maybe I do because the words are out before I can stop them. "I can't afford to take care of her," I whisper. "The bills keep piling up, there's no food in the fridge, the rents past due," my voice is warbling, and I can't keep the tears back anymore. "She's better off without me," I sob.
“I know how you feel,” he says, “life gets hard at times, but it will always get better.” I know he is trying to comfort me but the words only make me angry. How could he, mister fancy car and DVD player, know anything about what I’m going through?
“You have no idea how I feel,” The tone of my voice comes out harsher than I intended, but it’s too late to take it back.
He reaches into the dash and pulls out a small chip and passes it to me. It is bronze, only a little bigger than a quarter with a large 5 engraved on it.
“This chip represents 5 years of being clean. I loved getting high more than I loved my own kids, and now they are gone. This,” he gestures to the seat, DVDs and toys, “Is a reminder to me of what I’ve lost so I stay sober.”
I look out the rear view mirror, watching the lights recede as I'm pulled further and further away from home. I want to tell him to stop the car. I want run back into the night, down the highway and back to her. Back to my baby, back to Ann. I want to swear to her and to myself that things will get better, that while life is falling apart we can still fall together.
But I don't say any of these things. Instead I close my eyes swallowing to fight the pain building up in my throat.