Jason Christopher. Fan of puns, porn and panic attacks. Send all hate mail to
Ain’t Ain’t a Word (So I Ain’t Gonna Say It)
Marcus dove under the dining room table. He felt his mother’s fist graze the back of his head. The hair fluttered as two of her knuckles swung past his blonde mop. The boy scurried to the middle of the floor. He wished he could beam himself far away; someplace where he was wasn’t “Sherri’s son”; someplace where he could be “Marcus.” No more cold. No more hunger. No more bruises. No more harsh words. That was wishful thinking, the kind his mom was always screaming at him about.
Sherri flung the chair Marcus had been sitting in against the wall. It splintered into five or six different pieces; one of the broken legs landed beside Marcus. He grabbed it and tucked it between his legs and chest. Sherri banged on top of the table.
“Get out of there!”
Marcus and Sherri lived in an old farmhouse at the edge of town. Sherri always said they lived in the “Boonies.” The neighbors on either side of them were senior citizens who kept to themselves. The occasional car would go by, but Sherri and the kid mostly lived in solitude. Marcus knew that’s why she would scream. No one would hear her.
“Get out!” she bellowed.
Two more chairs went flying. Sherri dropped to her knees. Her face was wrinkled and the mouth tight. There was bitterness in her eyes. Marcus had seen it from time to time when Dad had still been around. The venom was usually directed at his pops, so Marcus rarely felt Sherri’s wrath. Dad had walked out nine months ago, though, and the kid had become her new target.
“Come here, you little asshole!”
Sherri crawled toward him. As she reached out to grab his shirt, he cracked her on the knuckles with the chair leg. His mom yelped, flinching and banging her head against the table. Marcus thought about running, but nowhere seemed safe. He knew the longer he kept evading her, the angrier she would become. She had already begun crying from the goose egg forming on the back of her skull, and her breathing was getting choppy. It was the asthma. Sherri had worked herself up into another asthmatic fit. This was common during the fights. Marcus had been frightened the first time it happened, afraid his mom was dying, but he quickly learned that something as small as asthma wasn’t going to keep Sherri from socking him.
Sherri ripped the chair leg from his hands, tossed it aside, and dragged Marcus out by his hair. She began beating him on the back with her fists. He folded into his defensive mode—face to the ground and hands over the back of his head. Sherri only ever punched him on the back. She had discovered it was an area that didn’t bruise very easily. A few months back, she had cracked Marcus right in his cheekbone. The skin swelled up and turned the color of a rotten plum. Sherri’s solution was to apply some of her concealer to the area. ‘Faggot’ was the favorite word of Marcus’s classmates, and his suddenly wearing make-up brought the word out more often. Since then, Sherri had been careful about not hitting him too hard where anything could show. A shirt would hide any damage on his back.
Marcus used to count the number of blows Sherri dealt out. The highest he had ever reached was fifty-four. He tallied the numbers in his head to measure the level of Sherri’s anger. A good beating was one that topped out below twenty. That meant she could be reasoned with. Lately, the thrashings had been in the thirties and they had come so often that Marcus gave up his numbers game. He just clenched his jaw and cried to himself.
Sherri stopped. Marcus tilted his head slightly to watch her. She bent at the waist and hacked, pulling her asthma inhaler from her pocket. The boy heard the ‘pssh’ sound of the nozzle as Sherri sucked in the contents. Her breathing calmed. Briefly, she looked like the mom he remembered. She caught him peeking at her.
“Quit crying,” she hollered. “Eleven years old, you’re acting like a pussy! Quit crying!”
She thwacked him a couple more times on the back. The last hit dug into a nerve, and Marcus’ whole back screamed out in pain. He clenched his jaw tighter to keep quiet. One of his molars cracked. The piece of tooth crumbled off and slipped down his throat.
“This stupid bullshit…” Sherri stood over Marcus’s study area at the dining table. On it was a notepad and the novelization of Last Action Hero. Marcus had been working on a book report when Sherri leaned over his shoulder and saw that he had written the word ‘ain’t.’ She grabbed his pencil, snapped it in half, and thrown it back in his face. That’s when the hitting started. That’s when Marcus dove for cover.
Sherri picked up the book. “Why in the holy hell are you doing your book report on this? It’s a goddamn movie! It’s not a real book!”
Last Action Hero was the only book Marcus had left. Two weeks earlier, Sherri had torn all of his other ones up when she discovered he had thrown out her grocery store coupons on accident. Every last book had been ripped into pieces and strewn around his room.
Marcus looked up. Sherri opened the book to the middle and tore it in half. One part was chucked on the table; the other sailed at Marcus.
“Now what are you going to write about, pussy?” Sherri picked up the notebook and began reading it. “Let’s see your brilliance. ‘Jack Slater ain’t no ordinary cop.’ ‘Ain’t’? How many goddamn times do I have to tell you, Marcus? ‘Ain’t’ is not a word!” She stomped over to Marcus.
“Look at me!”
Marcus kept his eyes to the floor.
“Look at me, you motherfucker!”
Sherri grabbed Marcus by the hair and forcefully turned him around. She was now inches from his face. He could smell her stale breath. Two bottom teeth were missing. Periodontitis had caused them to rot and fall out. The holes were inflamed.
She told ahold of Marcus’ jaw. “You’re going to pass sixth grade. You hear me? You’re going to pass, and you’re going to graduate, and you’re going to go to college because you’re not going to end up like me or your dad. Quit being so fucking stupid!”
It was true Marcus wasn’t doing well in school. The absence of his dad had gummed up life, and Sherri’s moods weren’t making it any easier. He tried to care about his grades, but it was a chore. Math sucked, history sucked, science sucked, and reading and writing were quickly losing their appeal. Sherri calling him a ‘goddamn loser’ and a ‘sack of shit’ everyday had him doubting his abilities, and her insistence that he was too smart to be so dumb confused the boy even more.
Marcus tried to hold back his tears.
“Are you still crying?” Sherri slapped him across the face. “Stop crying!”
“I’m sorry, mom.” Marcus went to hug her, but was pushed away.
“Crying isn’t getting you out of this! You do a book report on some piece of shit, and you want me to not be mad? Do better!”
“ I’m trying,” Marcus exclaimed with a mouthful of snot.
“Do better! Look at me. Ain’t ain’t a word…”
Marcus swallowed his spit. “So I ain’t gonna say it.”
“Ain’t ain’t a word…”
“So I ain’t gonna say it.”
“Ain’t ain’t a word…”
“So I ain’t gonna say it.”
Sherri let go of his jaw.
“Go finish your report.”
“I can’t,” Marcus mumbled.
Sherri straightened up. “Why not?”
“My book…it’s ripped.”
A tremor went through her body. “You think I’m made out of money?”
“No-I-I need to have the book with me! Mrs. Wynkoop said its part of the grade-it-it-it-it’s ripped.”
Sherri whipped him across the face. He went down, banging the side of his head against the concrete wall. Sherri continued hitting the boy, sometimes with fists, sometimes with open hands. Marcus felt blood dampen his hair and envelop his ear. He cried out for Sherri to stop. She continued to swing.
Her voice was unintelligible, piercing shrieks. She grabbed Marcus by the shoulder of his sweatshirt and hauled him across the floor to the kitchen. They stopped in front of a wooden door. She undid the latches. On the other side was a landing situated between two other doors. One was a rarely used side entrance to the house; the other led to the basement. Marcus tried kicking the side entrance open. Sherri yanked him closer to her while she unlocked the basement door.
The underground coolness rushed up the steps and enwrapped Marcus. The stink of wet dirt hit his nose, and he remembered why he never went down there. Sherri, holding the boy with both hands by the back of his shirt, took three mighty swings and launched Marcus down the stairwell. He soared over the majority of them, only crashing into the last four. The left elbow snapped, and a searing pain flew up his arm to his brain.
“I hate you! I wish you were dead! I wish you were never born!” Sherri slammed the door shut, the bang echoing down the stairs and reverberating in Marcus’ chest.
The locks were set, and Sherri’s marched away. Two small windows provided the only illumination, though the sun was nearly gone and what little light there was filtered through the plants outside. Marcus sank his teeth into his bottom lip as the broken elbow throbbed. Even the slightest movement felt like a bone was cutting open a muscle.
Marcus cried silently to himself. Each sniffle forced him to inhale the damp, powdery dirt of the basement floor. Above him, he could hear Sherri throwing things around. Her ranting was a mush of incoherent curses and damnations.
It was late-November. The seasonal chill was already robbing Marcus of his body heat. He remembered his birthday was in three days. Depressed, he allowed his pain to overwhelm him, and he fell asleep.
It was nighttime when Marcus awoke. There was no sound from his mother. He sat up, propping himself up with his right arm and careful to avoid bumping the left. Something his dad always said came to him as he tried to brush the dirt from his head: “I look worst than shit on toast.” Marcus never understood what that meant exactly, but he felt it was the right description for the moment.
His eyes began to adjust to the room. The filth and moisture kept the basement from being useful for anything except giving bugs a home. Three of the brick walls had been painted white; the color let Marcus know where the floor ended and the wall began. Off to his right was a wooden wall with a door in the middle. This was the coal chamber. The previous owners didn’t invest in a modern furnace until the late sixties, a few years before Sherri and his dad purchased the place. He had followed his pops into the room once when he was smaller. The walls were made of stone, which had blackened from the coal dumped into the room. A large hatchway with a metal door hung high on one wall. Dad told him how a truck would come once a week or so, back up to the hatch, and fill the room with coal. The owners would then shovel the coal into a furnace over the winter. The boy wasn’t sure if he was yanking his leg, but Dad also claimed one of the truck drivers didn’t clear the room fast enough and wound up buried alive. Dad was always telling stories, though.
Marcus didn’t like the chamber. Sometimes at night he thought he could hear the truck driver groaning, calling out for someone to come downstairs and unbury him. Sherri and Dad swore they never heard a peep, but Marcus was sure. The groan would slowly climb, going floor to floor, and roll across his bedroom floor. The kid could feel the noise wind through the hairs on his arm and settle into his chest. Sleep was never easy on nights when the voice summoned Marcus, and the dark circles under his eyes just angered Sherri the following morning.
A small shaft of moonlight arced through one of the windows. Marcus saw his breath roll out, momentarily visible in the beam before disappearing into the blackness. It was frigid. The knuckles in his fingers ached from the cold, and his knees tingled with pinpricks of cold. Marcus’s heart was beating faster. His breathing was quick and, no matter what he tried, it wouldn’t slow down.
He followed the beam to the window. Marcus’s brain went cloudy as he walked. Something was wrong. His skull felt like it was filled with cotton candy. A wave of fright coursed over him as he felt the urge to collapse. He stopped; fist clenched and near his mouth, he fought against his brain’s desire to tumble into the shade.
The brick wall shocked his hands with its iciness. Marcus held onto the sill with his good arm and weakly hoisted himself up to the window. Beyond the flower bushes was the back porch, a sunken brick mess that Dad had sworn he was always going to fix. There were three wooden patio chairs with their varnish flaking off, leaving a pile of white chips at their legs. A swing with a busted frame took up a whole end of the patio. Sherri had told Marcus to stay away from it, claiming that it was too broken to use, but she never hauled it to the road for the garbage men.
The window’s lock had rusted in place. No matter how hard he tried, the boy couldn’t get it to budge. He wasn’t going to smash the glass, either; the sound would draw Sherri instantly. His had to be a quiet escape.
Marcus’s arm tired and he dropped to his feet. His heart beat continued its hastened pace. Squinting as hard as he could, he began searching the dirt floor for something sharp. Nails, broken sprockets, gears, and screws littered the floor. Over the dirt he brushed his hand, hoping it didn’t touch something alive. A sharp poke alerted him to his prize. Taking ahold of the object, he held it up to the light. It was the flat end of a paint scraper that had snapped from its handle.
The coal chamber door opened. Marcus stopped moving. His heart began to beat faster. He waited for the door to open further; waited for a growl to roll out; waited for a pair of eyes to open and size him up.
Minutes passed before Marcus felt it was safe to move. He cussed at himself in his head. Nearly twelve years old and he was worried about monsters and dead truck drivers. In a broken hush, he began repeating, “Monsters ain’t real. Monsters ain’t real.” The mantra didn’t calm him. The cold was tenderizing Marcus’s skin. The cotton candy was fighting its way back into his head.
He spied the lip of a metal bucket that had sunk into the dirt and dug it up with his good hand. Even though it was dented all to hell, it seemed sturdy enough to hold the boy’s weight. Sticking it under the window, he climbed on top of it, and began picking at the lock with the paint scraper.
It was an hour before the lock finally busted. Marcus had tried to pick and saw as gently as he could, hoping the noise wouldn’t vibrate up the wall to Sherri’s room on the second floor. Both ears had been on the alert for the slightest sound. He tossed the lock to the ground and began pulling on the window’s U-shaped handle. Years of remaining shut had formed a seal between the jamb and the frame that fought Marcus’s tugging.
Strengthening his grip, Marcus put both feet flat against the wall and pulled as hard as his body could. Creaks began to emanate from the jamb. The window broke free. Marcus lost his grip on the handle and fell backwards to the floor. The window, with decades of build-up in its hinges, remained open.
Whatever energy his body had stored away began surging through his veins. He jumped back up on the bucket and tore away the dried out bushes. Sores opened on his hand as the thin twigs thrust into his skin. Marcus didn’t care. Freedom was on the other side. More and more cuts appeared, turning the hand into a red mitt. The more he ripped apart, the clearer the view became.
The giant lilac bush in the backyard cut a shadow across the patio. There was movement in the dark. Marcus stopped digging.
Sherri stepped out. She was dressed in jeans, heavy boots, her winter coat, and a thick hat. As she walked toward Marcus, she moved the scarf from her mouth and tucked it under her chin. Her right arm held something against her chest. When she got close enough, Marcus saw it was his hamster, Houdini.
Sherri’s voice was calm. “You think I’m stupid, kid? I heard you. Was wondering how long it was going to take you to bust that open.”
The bucket rocked underneath Marcus.
“What’s your plan?”
Marcus searched for words. “I…I dunno…”
Sherri sat Houdini down on the bricks. The animal didn’t move, tucking itself into a ball to preserve heat.
“I just want you to learn, Marcus. Ain’t ain’t a word…”
“Mom, please lemme out! Please!”
“Ain’t ain’t a word…”
He replied with a mangled sob. Sherri raised her right foot over Houdini.
“Mom, no! Mom! Mom!”
“Ain’t ain’t a word…”
Marcus hollered as Sherri brought her boot down on his hamster. The little creature squealed and popped. His innards spewed out. Sherri stomped on it again and again and again until Houdini was unrecognizable.
The bucket collapsed, sending Marcus to the basement floor. Nothing stirred inside of him. There was never going to be an escape. He knew she was stronger than him. Sherri had won.
Marcus heard her throw open the back door. The boots she wore thundered across the floor above him. There was the banging of pots and pans in the kitchen, and the sound of the sink being turned on. Trails of pipes ran along the basement ceiling. Marcus watched the one leading to the kitchen shake as water rushed through it.
The sink went off. Sherri fiddled with the locks and kicked open the door. Light hurried down the steps. Marcus kept focus on the water pipe as his mom clomped down the stairs. She sat a big object by the foot of the stairs. Paying him no mind, she stepped over Marcus and began nailing the window shut. A few times she hammered her finger and cussed.
“Thanks for opening this, shithead. It’s not like the heating bill isn’t high enough all ready.”
When she was done, she walked back to the stairs. Marcus heard her throw the hammer and nails up to the landing. He refused to look at her. If he put up no fight, maybe she would leave him be. That’s all he wanted, and that was the best plan he could come up with.
Out of the corner of his eye Marcus saw Sherri pick up the big object. Before he could figure out what it was, he was doused in cold water. The shock put an end to his dead possum routine. He shot up and gasped. Sherri stood in front of him wielding a large pot. Marcus crab walked backward, banging into the coal chamber wall.
Sherri sauntered toward him. The air couldn’t get in fast enough for Marcus, and his throat kept clenching. His mom squatted down in front of him.
“You just had to do better.”
Marcus closed his eyes in anticipation of a slap, but it never came. When he opened them, Sherri was walking up the steps. This time she gently closed the door and set all of the locks.
The water felt like it dropped Marcus’s temperature thirty degrees. His vision shook, as his head wouldn’t stop bobbing and weaving. The jaw muscles quickly grew sore. His torso kept convulsing. The heat was gone.
The boy’s heart began banging against his breastplate with the same force Sherri put behind one of her punches. Marcus searched around, hoping that maybe he would find a blanket buried in the dirt. There wasn’t enough force left in him to try the other window or kick the basement door open. The idea of even walking pained him.
From out of the coal chamber came the groan. It swelled through the wooden walls and made the pebbles around Marcus dance in the air. The voice was deeper than what had reached his bedroom. It was some colossus bellowing from a trench below the earth. The groan erupted again. The vibrations invaded Marcus and warmed him. The heat was brief, but paused the cold long enough for the kid to regain a few of his bearings.
He forced himself to crawl into the chamber. Unable to prop his body up, he fell on his side and outstretched his good arm. His hand flexed, pulling his weight across the dirt a little at a time. The beast would groan every few seconds, as if encouraging the boy to cross a finish line.
Once inside, Marcus couldn’t see anything. He tasted the coal dust, jerking his memory to that moment with his dad. A few broken pieces of the black rock were scattered about. Marcus pulled himself to the center of the room and went limp. The voice kept sounding off. Heat would come; heat would go.
Marcus’s inhalation grew sharper. Not much was making its way to his lungs. His heart was banging away without any pattern. The cotton candy invaded.
A blue light began to fill the room. Marcus rolled his head to the side. Within arm’s reach was an intact piece of coal. It bounced up and down. Marcus realized it was matching his heartbeat. It kept pace with his hammering organ. The blue like crept up the wall and enveloped the ceiling.
A long, cracked fingernail burst through the top of the coal, followed by a finger. Soon, six other fingers were emerging until a whole hand was visible. Purple blotches dotted black skin like amoebas in inky water. A lean wrist was revealed, rising out of the coal and stopping at the elbow. Another arm appeared. Both slapped their palms on the ground and began to push. A humanoid form surfaced.
Marcus struggled to identify the figure. It lifted one leg out of the coal and planted a hoof on the floor beside the boy. The other leg came out, and the demon loomed over Marcus. The chamber was too small, forcing it to hunch over. Oily white hair hung down to the middle of its back. Strands of it kept swinging in front of the face. Two spiteful eyes stared at Marcus. The demon’s body was surrounded by a blue aura, which supplied the light to the room. Between its legs was a thatch of silver and gray pubic hair hiding the genitals. Marcus could see ornate markings all over its body. Decorative art had been branded into its skin. The waves of some ancient sea curled across the stomach; symbols that might have been a language wrapped around the neck; over its right breast, a planet sat alone amongst a star field. Their beauty caused Marcus to cry.
The demon straddled Marcus and expelled a fog from its mouth that shrouded the boy. As the vapor coiled around him, Marcus felt warmth return to him. He was wrapped in an ethereal blanket. The cold vanished, and sensation returned to his limbs. His heart slowed down until it was back to a normal pace. The muscles softened in his neck and back. His brain blew out the cotton candy. The bone in his left elbow snapped back into place. Marcus only felt a brief pinch before it began to heal itself.
Though the blanket evaporated, the heat remained. Marcus’s eyes were half-lidded in relief. The demon took a hold of his left arm and felt the formerly broken bone. It squeezed and prodded at the joint, seeming satisfied with the way it healed. Raising a finger, it directed Marcus’s attention to a circular growth adorning its left breast. More artwork appeared to decorate the spot, though the boy couldn’t make out the details.
Digging the nail in, the demon cut open the skin and pulled out a gold medallion. Purple mire dribbled from wound as the thing placed the coin inside the boy’s hand, closing the fingers around the gold ornament. The demon spoke. It was language only assorted souls had heard, and Marcus understood every word.
It opened the hatchway door. The moon illuminated the crisp night as the demon lifted Marcus through the exit. Dew had frosted on the grass, but melted as the boy crawled through it. He stood up and looked back at the demon. It gave him a nod, and shut the door before Marcus could say anything.
Not a sound outside. The insects had died or gone into hibernation. There were no leaves to rustle, and no wind to blow them. The smell of oncoming snow lingered in the air. Marcus waited in the yard, like the demon had asked him to.
Sherri wailed from her bedroom. There was a rumble and a crash. The demon howled and shattered the bedroom window. Marcus heard his mom scream some more. He tracked her bawling as she ran down the stairs. She wasn’t yelling out for Marcus. She just kept yelling, “Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus! Oh, shit!”
The demon howled again, this time from the first floor. Marcus walked over to the house, standing on an old sandbox to peer through the kitchen window. At first, he didn’t see anything. Sherri and the demon continued to trade screams, and he could hear things being thrown. He then saw his mom sprint into the dining room. She didn’t get far before the demon grabbed her by the waist and tossed her into the kitchen. Her right leg broke as she landed against a wooden cupboard. The bone split open her skin.
The demon stalked Sherri, spitting like a cat. It then looked to the window and directly into Marcus, speaking once more. A question was posed to the boy. Sherri flipped her head to the window. All the venom and tightness were gone from her face.
“Marcus! Marcus, help me! Please!”
The demon finished asking its question. Marcus sighed and nodded. Taking the same finger it had used to remove the medallion, the demon dug its nail into Sherri’s left eye and scooped it out. His mother’s scream reached a pitch that snapped her vocal chords. The demon inspected the eyeball before tossing the glob aside and leaned toward Sherri’s open socket. Marcus watched its penis grow erect. He decided he had seen enough.
Stepping off the sandbox, he made his way to the middle of the yard. The medallion was still wrapped in his fist. He opened it, examining the art chiseled in the gold. One side depicted a giant maggot with several rows of pincers. Dwarfed by the maggot were demons similar to the one in the house. They brandished tridents and curved swords as they attacked the behemoth. Marcus flipped the coin over.
On the other side was a woman with short-cropped hair. She sat with her legs to her chest, an antique knife in her grip. Clad in only a thin shirt, the woman looked to her left. She wasn’t in fear; her eyes were bold and challenging. Behind her stood the silhouette of a being with a horn protruding from the middle of the head. Its arm was raised. The hand hung over the woman’s head. Three of the fingers were outstretched while the middle finger and thumb made a circle.
Marcus remembered the demon’s instructions. Looking around his yard one last time, he closed his eyes and clenched the gold medallion as he imagined a new terrain. No more cold. No more hunger. No more bruises. No more harsh words.
The image of this fresh land grew stronger in Marcus’s head, more real to the boy than his country home had ever been.
The escape route opened itself to him.
Marcus squeezed the medallion tighter and disappeared.