by Tammy Ayers
A gunshot, followed immediately by screaming and arguing in the alley, woke Krystal up in the middle of the night. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but her heart beat as hard as it did the first time she heard it. She sat up, clutching her blanket tightly, listening to the argument already moving away down the alley. Usually, it took a full two minutes before she started hearing sirens. She counted out those minutes as much for the hope of hearing those sirens as for the calming effect they had on her.
When she was young, Mother would come in and check on her anytime there was noise in the night. “Did that wake you, honey?” she’d ask as she came to sit on her bed and smooth her hair back on her head. “Don’t worry—it was just a cat fight.” Or lightning. Or a car alarm. “But see, it’s stopped now. And I’m right in the next room if you need me.” Then she’d get her a glass of water and say she loved her.
“I love you, too, Mommy.”
That past was so far gone that it was like it had never happened. Now that the neighborhood had deteriorated so badly, the sound of gunshots was common.
Mother’s parenting skills had deteriorated as much as the neighborhood.
In the middle of her counting, Mother stormed into the room. “Did it come through the window or the wall?” she snapped like it was Krystal that had fired the gun and possibly damaged the house.
Krystal had never imagined it coming through the wall or window until that moment and was now more scared than ever. “Shouldn’t we call the police?” she asked. She knew the error of her question as soon as it came out of her mouth. Even at thirteen, she knew Mother had illegal drugs in the house, usually scattered all over the coffee table in the living room. She quickly changed gears and tried to appeal to Mother’s human nature, if there was some left, “What if someone’s hurt?”
“I’m sure someone else will call. Go back to bed.”
Before Krystal could utter another word, Mother had left, slamming the door with finality.
Krystal reached a count of one hundred and twenty and the sirens still hadn’t started. She strained her ears for any sign of noise: the cries of someone calling faintly for help in the alley or the sound of sirens far off. But it was complete silence. She could feel its weight. Even the arguing had moved far enough away that she couldn’t hear it, or it had stopped altogether.
It was only a few years ago that Krystal and anyone else could use the alley behind her house as a short cut to and from school, for garbage collection, or for access to a backyard driveway. But slowly, she couldn’t use that alley at night because it became the domain of the teenagers and twentysomethings of the neighborhood who were likely to harass you, steal anything you were carrying, or throw rocks and bottles at your car. That group was slowly overcome by drug dealers and gang members and Krystal wouldn’t even use the alley in the day time. Even the sanitation service stopped picking up trash in the alley and now the trash had to be carted to the street in front of the house.
One of Mother’s earlier and more decent boyfriends put a chain lock on the back gate, a deadbolt and chain on the back door, and bars on the back windows. Mother and she dutifully stood in the kitchen as he gave a demonstration on how to break through the bars should a fire occur.
But he was soon gone. And then a parade new boyfriends came and went, each one seedier than the last. In the early years, Mother still cooked dinner and food could be found in the fridge so Krystal could make herself lunch. Then it began with one or two nights of Krystal making dinner while Mother slept out on the couch. Then Krystal started doing all the cooking and the shopping with the small amount of cash Mother gave her. The boyfriends became less and less decent, bringing with them harder and harder drugs that Mother bought with the money she received from welfare. The only demonstrations that Krystal was getting these days were how to roll a joint and cook heroin on a spoon.
Mother said that Krystal’s father had used her as a way to make his family angry. Mother wasn’t from the same social status as he was. And once he found out Mother was pregnant, he decided making his family angry was no longer a fun game. The courts forced him to pay child support, but he and his family fell onto some bad luck and could no longer afford the monthly payments. The payments decreased and decreased until they stopped altogether and Mother had to finally apply for welfare.
The sound of sirens roused Krystal from her reflection. How long had it taken this time? She had lost count. She looked at the alarm clock. An hour until she had to get up, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep.
Seventh-grade history class was not Krystal’s favorite class and it happened to be the first class of the morning. Why did her favorite class, math, have to happen at the end of the day? It would be so much easier having that first rather than this snooze fest. Krystal doodled a spiral in her notebook to look like she was taking notes, but as the spiral got larger and larger, she felt sleepier and sleepier. It was hypnotic. She squirmed herself lower down into her seat and started another spiral.
Krystal’s ears perked up and she was brought back to history class. She had heard the tail end of her teacher’s last sentence the stable thing in your life. Nothing is stable in my life she thought with a dry laugh. To find out what he was talking about, she raised her hand and asked him to repeat what he just said.
“Whether you continue to go onto college or not, if you are to continually grow as a person, learning and education will always be the stable thing in your life. Got it, now?”
Krystal nodded her head vigorously as she was scrambling to get the phrase down on paper. Something had clicked in her head. Stability. It was something she had wanted for a long time. How could she have never seen it before? School, learning, and education had already provided her the stability she wanted and would continue to give her stability for as long as she could see into her future.
Krystal’s desire for school and learning was born at this moment and burned into her soul. She immediately wanted to give everything to school because it had given her so much and would continue to give even more. She pulled out her history book, opened it up to the chapter they were on, sat up straight in her chair, and prepared to take notes for real.
When she got home that afternoon, she went straight to the kitchen table to study. Sally Kay and Judge Turner and the weird cooking guy would have to find someone else to religiously watch their TV shows. She was giving up afternoon television cold turkey.
That had been two years ago and Krystal’s passion burned even brighter now than before. She loved everything about school. The reading, the homework, the learning, and the possibilities of it all. It made her want to become a teacher so she could stay in this nurturing environment and hopefully inspire some lost little girl like she had been inspired.
But there was a problem. School was not something Mother valued. Mother knew that it was the law that Krystal went to school through high school so she grudgingly put up with it. But she had told Krystal, on numerous occasions, that as soon as Krystal graduated high school, Mother’s welfare would decrease because she no longer had dependent children. So Krystal would have to get a job to make up for that loss as soon as she graduated.
“And don’t think that’s going to relieve you of your cooking and cleaning duties, either,” Mother’s boyfriend snickered. Mother joined in the laughter. “She’s really cute, and thin, too—so hard to find thin women these days—she would make bank on the street.” He looked Krystal slowly up and down. Krystal felt sick and like she needed a shower after his gaze.
Krystal was horrified and waited for Mother’s equally horrified reaction.
Instead, Mother asked if that was true, would she make a lot?
Krystal ran from the room as much in disgust as in trying to hide her tears.
At school, she was lucky to have her guidance teacher, Ms. Caban. “Starting now, at the beginning of high school, is the best way to plan and try to get that full scholarship.” She handed a class schedule to Krystal for her to follow. “It sounds to me like that’s the only way you’ll get to go.”
Krystal murmured her agreement.
“Well, as long as you’re not picky about the college you go to, or what you major in, that plan I gave you will give you the best chance to get one.”
“I would really like to be a teacher, but I’m not going to be picky. I just want out.”
Ms. Caban said that Krystal wanting to teach was wonderful because many universities were offering math programs to women in exchange for teaching in underprivileged schools for a short period of time. “Does that sound like something you would be interested in? Do you like Math?”
Ms. Caban explained that Krystal would need as many math classes as possible if she wanted to succeed.
Krystal didn’t want to just succeed, she wanted to excel. Even if that meant forging her mother’s signature on the Advanced Placement class approval forms. AP classes were not something Mother valued.
The class load was considerable, but Krystal stayed after school, getting in some uninterrupted study time and then claimed she had been hanging out with friends when Mother asked where she had been. Hanging out with friends after school was something Mother valued.
After several A’s in her AP courses, Ms. Caban invited her to have a meeting to track how her plan was coming along. It was all working out and she said she was proud of her. “We need to start thinking about applications now that it’s getting close to the end of your sophomore year. The application fees and transcripts would cost money, though.”
Krystal’s heart sunk. She didn’t have any money and Mother was unlikely to give her any. Her dream of teaching, and leaving, seemed to be fading away.
“Did you say that your mother was on welfare?” Krystal nodded. “Okay, good, because I can look for small grants given to underprivileged kids to cover the costs associated with applying to colleges. I’ll send a note for you to come in when I have more information.”
Ms. Caban was able to act as her sponsor for the application grants so that Krystal could keep this from Mother. She knew Mother would not appreciate nor allow her going off to college. Who would cook and clean for her if Krystal was gone?
Krystal continued with her difficult class load and once her senior year rolled around, time was a blur for Krystal. On her college applications, she had the address of her high school as her address and Ms. Caban called her into her office. When she sat down, Ms. Caban pulled out five large envelopes addressed to Krystal. Every letter was an acceptance letter. A couple had offered partial scholarships, but none had offered a full ride.
Yet assured Ms. Caban. She still had to hear from seven more colleges.
Krystal left the office feeling conflicted. She was completely surprised and elated that she had been accepted to any college, let alone all of them so far. But she was fearful that none of them were offering a full ride. Yet she added in her head in Ms. Caban’s voice.
Five more acceptance letters, and one rejection letter, drifted in here and there. And on one bright, beautiful spring day, Good News came. A college in Wisconsin would offer a full ride on the conditions that she entered the teaching program, majored in math, and taught at an underprivileged Wisconsin school for two years.
Krystal froze after reading the letter. Time kept on ticking, she could hear the clock and students in the hallway, but it seemed so far outside herself that it wasn’t real to her. Tears fell from her eyes, but she wasn’t aware of crying.
Finally, Krystal’s eyes came into focus and a huge smile spread across her face. She told Ms. Caban what she had read so quickly that she couldn’t understand it the first time. Krystal took a breath and said calmly, “I’ve been accepted for a full scholarship.”
Ms. Caban jumped up and screamed. She came around the desk to give Krystal a big hug.
Keeping a secret as big as going to college on a free ride would normally be a tough secret to keep from the people that you lived with. But more and more, when Krystal came home from school, Mother and her boyfriend would be comatose on the couch. More often than not a used needle would be nearby.
August 15 was the day that she could move into her dorm and Ms. Caban surprised her with an economy plane ticket to Wisconsin. “I could get fired for this, but I have never seen someone who worked so hard or deserved so much as you do!” Krystal gave her a huge hug.
Krystal attended graduation, but Mother did not. Which was fortunate for Krystal since they announced what college she would be attending as she received her diploma. She knew she would have to tell her mother sooner or later, but she didn’t want to have to spend one second under her roof once she told her. So she decided that she would tell Mother the morning she was leaving for school.
On August 14, Krystal came home and expected Mother to be passed out on the couch, but she did not expect to find her lying halfway off the couch in a huge pile of vomit, no boyfriend anywhere to be seen. She rushed over and turned Mother’s head to make sure she wasn’t choking, checked for a heartbeat, and called an ambulance. They allowed her to ride with Mother to the emergency room, where they asked her to wait in the lobby.
I have to make a tough decision Krystal told herself. I have to leave on my plane tomorrow no matter what happens tonight. I cannot let the foolish, selfish choices of Mother ruin my chances of being a successful adult. But how could she leave if Mother was very sick, or even dead?
Krystal imagined what her life would be like if she stayed, whatever the reason. A low-paying, stressful job, perhaps trying to put herself through community college and get whatever job she could get with a community college degree. She probably wouldn’t be able to escape far from her neighborhood on that kind of salary. And that was the best-case scenario. Worst, she’d be working on the street.
She couldn’t. She just couldn’t accept that life, no matter what happened tonight.
In the early morning hours, a doctor came looking for her and said she could see her mom if she wanted to. She had to. She had to tell her. Now was the time. No matter what.
She went into Mother’s room. She looked so small on the hospital bed, almost like a child. Her eyes slowly opened as Krystal approached the bed. Recognition did not register in her eyes at first, but then it came, only for a second before rage filled them. “How dare you call the cops on me! I was fine! Why couldn’t you just leave me alone! Get out! Get out of here and GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!” The short burst of anger tired her out and she laid back on the bed and partially closed her eyes, taking ragged breaths.
Krystal was so shocked that it didn’t even register what Mother had just said. Surely it was just gibberish that had come out of Mother’s mouth. But slowly the words sunk in. God bless it, Mother had just given her an out. She knew it was cowardly and unforgivable to just “listen” to Mother, but there was no point in telling her about it now. When Mother was home and somewhat sober, she’d call and tell her where she was.
As she left the room, Mother called, “Don’t be there when I get home.”
Krystal turned as she stepped into the hall and said quietly as she shut the door, “I won’t.”
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student