My head thuds like wet clothes in a dryer. Thud, thud, and thud again. Before I can do anything, I am twisting violently, my feet lifting from the floor. There are bursts of fear shooting through me, and it’s electric and painful. My heart is punching against my insides like an angry bully. And my world is torn in every possible direction. I extend one hand to find something solid. And the other I press against my chest, which is only seconds from exploding. Everything in this fractured moment in time happens all at once.
Then it suddenly changes, and I float. And it seems like forever that I drift. I can feel my lungs burn, but before I can force myself to breathe numbness reaches my fingertips, and a warmth fills my face. Then I wet myself and fall deeper and deeper into the endless pool of emptiness. But I don’t surrender.
I throw my arms and legs outward like an octopus and reach towards the voices that boomerang between my ears. I hear pots and pans bang, and force my head in the direction of the noise, but my neck is loose and floppy. That’s when I feel the support of multiple hands. But they hold me as if I am a broken. And this only grows the fear inside me.
I try again to make it right, but I can’t.
So it’s made right for me with cold water. Immediately I am soaked, my cotton footed jammies soggy down to the feet. I gasp and force my eyes open. In front of me, I see the pale, waxy face of my mother. Her lips are moving, but her words are distant and foreign. Everything about her is odd; I barely recognize her.
I close my eyes to force the chaos out. And this makes everything worse. I feel the tension in my mother’s grip tighten, as my body shakes back and forth. There is fear in her voice as she calls my name again and again. It’s too much. So I force my eyes back open, and the noise around me slips back into silence. And the tension in her grip releases.
There is the familiar taste of blood from the large split in my lip and it means I’m alive. And I am grateful. I look down from the sink where I am perched and watch my feet dangling helplessly. I have no control over them.
Everything that’s wrong is slowly fading.
I raise my head and find my mother again; her eyes are heavy with concern. And I watch as she extends her arms wide and then drives her hands together with a powerful clap just inches from my face. Suddenly my ears ring violently with truth. And the empty spaces around me begin to fill. A few seconds tick until the void completely closes and the room snaps into focus. I am back.
“What happened?” I ask. My words are slow and careful. A bit of clotted blood is clinging to my upper lip.
“You ducked,” my mother said. “And you embarrassed your father!”
“Yes, baby. It was time for punishment, and you ducked. You know very well you need to take your punishment like a man.”
“Like a man,” I echo back.
My mother brushes some loose hair from my face and dabs my bleeding lip with her tissue. She drops the tissue suddenly and holds my face tight, drawing me close as if to kiss my lips. Her stare is long and apologetic. Then she releases her hands, and slumps in defeat, her arms dangling by her side.
“You scared me,” she whispers. “Please don’t duck next time.”
“Now go upstairs and get yourself ready for bed.”
I slide myself from the counter, and tramp upstairs, every step leaving a squish and puddle.
It wasn’t but twenty minutes later that I hear footsteps on the stairs, heavy with consequence. But seconds before the massive form breaches the doorway, I throw back my covers and lay perfectly still, making body rigid as steel.
And in the darkness, I whisper. “I am ready now momma. I’m gonna take my punishment like a man.”
R.E. Hengsterman is a writer.