And Justice for All
By Kathy Waller
The oak door was stuck. He threw his shoulder against it. On the third try, it shuddered and swung open, scraping an arc on the warped hardwood floor.
“I don’t care what you promised him,” he said. “This whole place is like tinder. So shut up.”
In the past hour on the road, his voice had taken on that low, dangerous edge that meant everything was her fault.
Shifting the child to her other hip, she followed him inside.
The flashlight beam swept across the living room, darted past furniture shrouded in a patina of dust.
“It’s filthy,” she whispered.
“We’ll sleep here. Tomorrow I’ll go looking for work.”
“But we’re miles from—I’ll drive you into town—”
“You’ll stay and clean up. House this size, probably take a month. Been empty since Granddad died, and that was before I shipped out for Iraq.”
Flaccid fingers brushed her neck. She gasped.
He pointed the flashlight upward past cobweb ghosts. “Wasp nest in that corner. Probably got rats, too.”
The child laid his head on her shoulder and whimpered. Fingering the bruise on her cheek, she stepped back, toward the door.
He strode through the dining room and into the kitchen. She paused, then hurried after, chasing the flashlight beam.
His hand was on a bolt, forcing it. “Basement. Grandpa put the lock up high where kids couldn’t reach. Didn’t want ’em tumbling down the stairs.” The bolt gave. He opened the door. “I’m going down. Might find a broom you can use.”
The child whimpered again and began to whine. She rocked him back and forth. “He’s hungry.”
“Then take him to car and feed him.”
“But it’s dark out—” He swung around, arm extended. She turned, shielding the child, a protective hand against her swollen belly.
When she opened her eyes, he was jingling keys in her face. “Cigarette lighter on the ring. It’ll keep you from bumping into the furniture.”
He dropped the keys into her palm. She gripped the lighter, flicked the wheel. Flame shot up.
“Go on. Get him out of here.”
“Maybe when you’re finished down there, we could—I did promise him.”
His breathing was audible. Hers had stopped.
Then he laughed. “Just my luck, I went and married a patriot. Mom, apple pie, liberty and justice for all. You really believe it works like that, don’t you? Poor, dumb little patriot.” His smile disappeared. “Go on. I’m tired of looking at you.”
He followed the flashlight beam down the stairs.
Eyes on the cigarette lighter, she listened. When concrete muted his boot soles, she lowered the child to the floor, then gently closed the door. The bolt slid smoothly into place.
She secured the child in his car seat, smoothed his hair, kissed him. Then, from the glove compartment, she took out a long, slender box. Opening it, she slid a narrow gray spike into her hand.
The rasp of the cigarette lighter, a hiss, then a shower of scarlet and gold, fire against the stars.
Before sparkle died to ember, she walked to the house and nestled the spike in the dry grass beside the porch.
Driving down the narrow dirt road, she checked the rearview mirror. The child slept, his face serene against a backdrop of flame.
Her lower lip trembled. “See, baby, Mama kept her promise. She gave you fireworks on Independence Day.”
Kathy Waller’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Texas Mountain Trail Writers’ Chaos West of the Pecos, Story Circle Network’s True Words Anthology, the Story Circle Network Journal, and the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise. Her story “Personal Experience” placed second in the 2010 Brazos Writers Writing Contest. She edits HOTSHOTS!, the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter newsletter, and is working on a mystery novel. A resident of Austin, Texas, she blogs at http://towriteistowrite.wordpress.com.