in a dark dark room

I have not always been insane.
When I was younger I was bored. “You think too much,” she said to me.
I tried to think less. I did.
When I was younger still I had nightmares. “Pray about it,” she said.
My knees bled as they scraped against the cold, bare floor.
There were monsters in the darkness. They waited until the house was still. They knew I would never sleep. They waited until the light just beyond my window flickered and went out, and even the dead, non-living things were quiet.
The shadow streaked under the door then, the lone nightlight from the bathroom making giants of all things. The door creaked open
Slowly
Slowly
Slowly
Until wide enough for a monster to pass through.
I closed my eyes and prayed the monster away. There was no answer.
I heard a voice in the dark. It wasn’t God then. I heard him later, though.
It wasn’t late enough, so when I heard him at last his voice mixed with the monster and they were one.
God was the monster long before she told me to pray to him.
On trembling knees I prayed, heart hammering against my ribs.
I prayed and hoped he wouldn’t hear me.
***
The house then was gray. The gray of charcoal and of rain, the gray of the waters surrounding a drowned man. An uncertain gray. A death gray.
Lucy and I sat on the porch letting our popsicles melt down so we could slurp up the red juice. Lucy’s left a red tint around her lips, themselves pale and petal pink. She wore her hair in knotted, tangled pigtails that would stiffen and stand on their own by the end of the summer.
I wore my hair in tiny french braids with stark white beads on the end, my scalp blistering under the pull of the braids. I loved them and Lucy loved them, but I still envied her the tint left by the popsicle. Just beyond our tiny yard was the house that the Branson’s sometimes lived in.
Mr. Branson always lived there. The kids and Mrs. Branson were the ones in and out. If on a Sunday Mr. Branson didn’t attend church (which was most Sundays), Mr. Branson would drive to the next county and purchase two large brown bags. We never saw inside of the bags, but Joe Branson said his dad only drank “cheap liquor.” Mama and Daddy were still church-going then, and Lucy and I didn’t know what liquor was.
But Joe made it sound enticing.
From our vantage point on the porch we could see and hear the comings and goings of the Branson’s. Beside the washed out gray of the house was a large oak tree, a dirty rope with a broken wooden string slung around the lowest branch. Just beyond that the Branson’s yard.
Lucy and I started at the sound, a loud clatter of something heavy falling beyond our yard. We glanced at each other before racing across the yard, our bare feet kicking up red clay and dust. It was our habit to press our noses against the Branson’s living room window, in spite of Mama’s warning. It was a Saturday, but she was still catching up on her “stories,” so we were on our own until late afternoon.
In our fashion we crept up the chipped concrete stairs and moved in to the window. The front door was slung open and inviting, but we knew better than to go in. The window faced the cluttered living room. In the middle of the room a sagging couch held Amelia, Derek, Harold, and baby Emma in Harold’s arms. Joe was nowhere. Emma was wailing, a screechy, terrified sound. Muffled sounds wafted to all of us from the back room.
As suddenly as the clatter came the house fell silent.
Then everything exploded.
Mrs. Branson screamed. It was a bloodcurdling scream, and Lucy gripped my arm, her dirty nails piercing the skin. Amelia and Derek covered their ears with their hands, their eyes meeting ours. Harold clutched Emma to him, tears streaming down his dirt covered face.
Our view was obstructed by Mr. Branson, but only briefly. When he moved Mrs. Branson stood before us, shielding the children cowering on the couch. It didn’t stop Mr. Branson. He swung at her with a crowbar, and it caught her on the arm. She shrieked in pain but did not move.
Mr. Branson threw the crowbar to the floor and moved in on Mrs. Branson wildly, gripping her hair. He dragged her to the ground and out of our line of vision, oblivious to her screams. He threw open the screen door and it clattered loudly against the house, its sound reverberating through the neighborhood. Lucy and I screamed, and Mr. Branson stilled us with a monstrous glare.
As she was dragged bleeding onto the porch, Mrs. Branson’s eyes caught mine and in that moment I felt my own soul wither.
Her eyes were the bright blue of the first Spring sky in Georgia. They glittered with youth, normally. Then they were bloodshot, a cut adorning her right eye. They met me and they pled with me, but I did not know what she wanted.
Mr. Branson dragged Mrs. Branson down the stairs and into the yard. He tossed her down a rag doll, and began kicking her, in every place his legs could reach.
When his legs tired he used his hands. The blows were sickening and heavy, and after awhile she stopped screaming.
Amelia, Derek, Harold, and baby Emma joined us on the porch, and we wailed together. Mr. Branson didn’t hear us, and Mrs. Branson was already gone.
Mr. Branson was so focused on Mrs. Branson that he missed Joe. I saw him. His eyes met mine.
They were the same Spring blue of his mother’s. They looked like sunshine and new beginnings.
“Hey!” He shouted once. Mr. Branson stiffened and wiped his mouth on his hand. Even from the porch I could see the blood on his wrist.
Mrs. Branson’s blood.
“You ready, boy?” Mr. Branson yelled. He whirled around and stopped. He froze for a moment before a sneer played on his grotesque lips.
“You gonna kill me, boy? You ain’t ready.”
The first shot hit him in the gut. The second his neck. The third hit him in the head.
I turned away for the rest.
I wasn’t insane then. By the time the police came and the social worker spoke in hushed voices to Mama and Daddy about mine and Lucy’s fragility I had already separated myself from what we had seen.
Watching a woman beat to death by her husband and watching the husband’s body explode should be enough to make you crazy, but it wasn’t. Not for me.
I did have nightmares though, after. At night. Before my dreams were empty.
After they were plagued with monsters.
Every now and then the monster would turn into Mr. Branson. He would moan. His face would be shattered, pieces of him stuck to everything. A piece of him on my shoe.
I would stand over him while Lucy pled with me to leave and Joe Branson cradled his mother in his arms.
I would kick him in the face. Hard. His eyes would fix on me and the light would out.
This was the nightmare I remembered. The one I didn’t share.
It was real.

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