Laws of Motion

by Kate Crosby

feb 2016 story of the month

If it hadn't been for the rain she would have let her children brave the night. Her black cat and her Pink Panther, her little Jack Sparrow with the patch pushed high so he could watch the world with both eyes. Two months in a new apartment and the names of the streets were promising. Redemption Drive. Grand View Ave. An upward move, the realtor had said, opening the door to a basement flat. Garden level, he'd called it, though there wasn't a flower in sight.

Outside, ghosts hovered. In a burnt out streetlight, in the exhaust of cars that sped past the complex, in the fat white bags of trash slumped beside the curb. Lately she'd had the uncanny sense that the past was not the past at all, that the children's father might barrel through the door at any moment, a barrage of words, angry as gunfire. She envisioned the perspiration on his ruddy neck, red welts in the crook of his arm, the vein in his temple, blue as a bruise.

She had left and that was something. Others she knew, in the same boat, stared dumbly at brightness of her hope. She saw the paralyzing fear in their eyes, heard it in the tenor of their skepticism. How? they asked. Where? What if? She pitied their inertia, steeled herself against their sharp-edged doubt, their hard questions. She clung to the Why? — the one they never asked for the answer was too obvious. She wrapped its cloak about her children, shielded them in its folds, held the corners with a tight fist.

Samuel knelt on the counter, his brow against the window as she grilled cheese sandwiches on the stove. It was Halloween and water slipped down the pane. Beads of grease leapt from the skillet with sharp pops. His sisters were half-dressed, swatting one another with huge paws, tails tacked to their bottoms like afterthoughts. They were hot-tempered, ferocious. Twin fires fanned by the slightest breeze. Fighters, the doctor had said as they'd kicked their way into the world before they were due.

Samuel had none of his older sisters' mettle. He was doe-eyed, shy. Last week, while the girls were at school, she had taken him out to search for a costume. She had bundled them in sweaters and coats, layered thick scarves about their faces, armed them both against the wind.

He had chosen to be a pirate, gravitating to a cellophane package with a boy on the front. The boy wore a red bandana knotted on one side, his lips arched in an impish sneer. A cheap plastic parrot was clipped to the bag and Samuel opened this first. He curled the parrot's wire feet around his finger. On the ride home he strained against his seatbelt, the bird hopping as far as he could reach down the back of her seat.

Samuel wore the outfit now as he crouched by the sink, plastic dagger clipped to his belt, small fingers gripping the sill. Behind him, his sisters tussled on the rug with sharp feline hisses. The rain came down in heavy sheets. His white sleeves drooped like the slack sails of a small ship. She would make it up to them, she promised. She would buy them heaps of candy when the weather cleared, even more than she thought fit.

That night they stayed put in the yellow light of their new home. After dinner she dozed in bed with Samuel on her lap. She heard the distant wail of a police siren, the muffled shouts of strangers, the white noise of someone else's struggle. Down the hall her girls slept in their bedroom on a single mattress, back to back the way they'd done as babies. Their hands were clenched, pink and black tails entwined, their fleece ears alert to danger.

Shortly before midnight, a stray bullet ripped through the kitchen wall, shot from the window of some passing car. She would not know this until the morning, for now she was dreaming, keeping watch in the nest of a giant ship. A violent sound had knocked her from her post, a deafening clap of thunder which exploded in her ear and sent her hurtling towards a sea. She believed she was drowning and woke with a gasp, felt the heavy weight of her son on her chest, his warm breath dampening her neck. Her pulse steadied as she ran her hand along the hull of his little back. She closed her eyes and matched her breath to its rise and fall.

She discovered the bullet in the early hours, before her children awoke. There were bits of plaster on the kitchen floor, a scattering of debris. Wind whistled through a hole in the wall and she felt a fierce rush of blood beneath her skin. The What if? beat like a tiny heart, the Why? not hers to wonder.

The bullet was nestled amidst a pile of scarves by the closet, glinting in the dawn like a shiny eye. She pictured its trajectory through the night, imagined it tearing through the wall and sailing across the room, a hard bright thing she might have dreamt. Retrieving it from the folds, she turned it over in her palm. It lay still and cold against her skin, so much smaller than she would have thought. Her scarf was seared. A blossom of colored threads sprouted from a dime-sized patch, the yarn frayed like a network of veins. She ran her hand across the surface and assessed the damage, a superficial wound, a hole that she could mend.

BIO: Kate Crosby's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, The Journal, The Bellingham Review, and Beechers Magazine. She lives and writes and teaches in the greater Boston area.