She paused by the cross at the back of the sanctuary, her gaze flitting from the left to the right until she was quite certain nobody was watching her. Polly bowed her head and closed her eyes, shifting her doll under her arm as she folded her hands, her lips forming the words silently, the same words she’d prayed every day for three months.
“Please God. It's almost Christmas. I want my parents to be together.”
A lone tear trickled down her right cheek, making a ragged line on her sullied face.
Polly’s shoulders sagged as she slowly sank down and sat on the cold concrete. Her left arm lay on the lowest railing, her cheek pressed against her wrist as she sat there, swinging her legs, her other hand clutching the tattered doll she’d gotten for her birthday not three months before. Already the toy’s face was fading, the beige-pink fabric streaked with water stains.
There she sat, her dark black eyes staring off, past the church parking lot where the women still lingered, nattering away, ignoring their husbands, who were revving the engines and glancing at their watches between glares at their wives.
Her grip on the doll loosened, until it dropped onto the top step beside her, her arm hanging at her side limply.
The little girl stared off, past the usual Sunday morning church parking lot hubbub, past the straggly black limbs clawing the sky, towards the cemetery where row upon row of stone marked the passage of time since their watch had departed this world. Some were the old stones, the etched markings of letters and dates blurring into the crumbling façade. There were some newer markings as well, for those that still opted for sanctified ground.
“Poor thing,” Ethel Beasley murmured with a cluck-cluck sound as she shook her head soberly, her eyes widening as she leaned in close to Marlene Ford’s ear. “It must be so hard on the poor dear. I can see she misses her mother terribly.”
“Of course, it’s only natural she should want to have both parents at home,” Marlene said with a sigh. “Her hair, all straggly like that, unkempt. It really is surprising the courts would leave her with her father, after all that’s been said.”
“Why, she’s hardly more than skin and bones now, and her hair has lost its sheen. Not that she was ever a particularly happy child. There’s always been something about the look in her eye.”
“You don’t say. I thought it was just me all this time, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that girl smile.” Marlene’s eyes gleamed. “You know in Sunday school, they had the children write down what they wanted for Christmas. She said she wanted her parents to be together.”
“Now that would take a Christmas miracle. Her mother always was a wild one. Have I ever told you about the time she ran off…”
Polly turned her head abruptly, her gaze suddenly on the two woman whispering about her not twenty feet away. As though they could feel her looking at them they both stopped talking and glanced up, first Ethel and then Marlene’s gaze meeting the sobering stare of the child. Ethel sucked air between her front teeth sharply, tut-tutted and then trotted across the pavement towards her car.
“Come on then, Polly. Let’s go.”
Her father’s voice was low but there was still an edge to the words, a no-nonsense tone that told her he would not be kept waiting. Still, she looked up at him for a moment, towering over her, clutching the railing with her hand as her chin quivered.
“Now, Polly. And pick that doll up off the step. Someone will trip and fall and break their neck. Is that doll ripped already? Dammit.” He scowled as she pulled her feet up and positioned them on the pavement, about to stand as he reached down with a heavy sigh and grasped her wrist, yanking her to her feet as she stretched to grab the doll with her other hand. Polly yelped but it was a brief almost noiseless yelp, inaudible to anyone more than a few yards away.
But not so quiet that her father didn’t hear. His eyes narrowed as he tugged on her arm, her short legs racing to keep up with his long strides so that he wouldn’t drag her across the pavement.
“You know what can happen when you leave things lying on the stairs, Polly.”
As soon as she was in the back seat of the car he slammed the door, not waiting to check that she was buckled in. Polly reached up over her shoulder with trembling fingers and tugged on the seatbelt, dragging it down, fumbling with the clasp while her father walked around to the driver’s door and got into the car.
He sighed as he ran his fingers through his hair and then pushed his lips up into a sympathetic smile. “I know you miss your mom, Polly.”
Her shoulders shook violently as her mouth opened, imitating the form of sobs, tears streaming down her sunken cheeks, but no sound escaped her mouth. She shuddered, her body convulsing with the soundless sobs and her father sighed again, started the engine and drove away.
She walked as softly as she could, careful to place each foot in front of the other soundlessly on the floor. Her father was still in the living room, where he’d been since they got home from church. The first thing he’d done was pull off his tie, undo a few buttons on his shirt and push the sleeves up. Then he sat down on his chair and told Polly to get him one his drinks.
Polly knew only three things about his drinks, but they were three of the most important things she knew. The first thing was that she was never, ever, ever to take a sip of his drinks. The second thing she knew was that his drinks were almost magical, but not a good kind of magic. When he drank he changed. All of the mean points got meaner and the nice things about her father disappeared.
And the last thing she knew was that when her father had a lot of drinks, it would be a very long night.
There had been a lot of long nights since her mother had gone.
Polly had just finished in the bathroom when she started walking towards the kitchen, careful to prop her doll up under her arm so that the rip was upwards, so that none of the insides would spill out.
She froze mid-step, waiting for him to speak.
“Wudza git me assuther un.”
He waved the empty bottle in the air and she nodded, creeping towards the kitchen.
When she set the doll on the counter, some of the contents spilled out. She ignored that, went to the fridge and got the bottle. She’d had enough practice that it only took a few minutes of fumbling with the opener to get the cap off.
Then she dealt with the bits from the doll that had spilled onto the counter. From the other room she could hear his slurred words, hear him calling to her. Polly hurried with the bottle and then stopped herself, walking slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, so that she wouldn’t spill a drop.
She crossed the room and he grabbed the bottle from her hands and tilted it back, taking a swig. Polly turned and went back to the kitchen to get her doll.
As she started up the stairs he lifted his bottle and hand in her general direction. “I’lls be up soon en tuckya in luvs.”
She swallowed and nodded, climbing the stairs one by one. He was drinking this one fast, so she knew she didn’t have much time to get ready.
But she was prepared. Her nightie was set out so it took only a moment to slide out of her dress and into the cotton gown. She moved quickly, quicker than usual, and when everything was done she sat on the edge of the bed, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees as she rocked back and forth, back and forth. Listening. Waiting.
Then she heard the sound of something clunking against the floor, thick glass rolling on the lino followed by the sound of movement. She’d been downstairs enough times before to have a good idea of what was happening, the initial thuds followed by a low curse and then more thuds as he staggered back up to his feet and started towards the stairs. Each step was unpredictable, the footfalls coming at irregular intervals, but coming closer, the sound increasing slightly in volume as he made his way up to the top of the landing.
She heard the uttered, “whah” from almost right outside her room, followed by tremble of her bedroom wall as his fist struck it, then the clunk clunk tu-du-du-du-du. There was a loud crash, the sound of glass shattering, and then silence.
Tick tick tick tick tick…
Polly watched the clock for twenty minutes and then let go of her knees, her legs sliding down the side of the bed, her bare feet softly landing on the floor. She held her breath as she crept to the door, turning the knob a millimeter at a time until the latch clicked and she could tug it open slowly.
Pressing her face up against the tiny crack, she looked into the darkness of the landing, seeing nothing but the usual shadows from the partially closed doors to her parent’s room and the bathroom. When there was still no sound, she took a gulp of air and opened her door enough to poke her head out into the hallway.
There was no movement, no sound. She risked a step out and looked down the stairs.
Enough moonlight shone in through the windows for her to see his face was grey and still as the stones in the churchyard. He lay on his back, arms sticking out from his sides, one leg pushed back underneath his body, the other lingering on the stairs, his mouth open ever so slightly, a trickle of something dark having hardened in a jagged line from his lips.
Polly bent down, picked up her doll and scampered back up the stairs, slammed the bedroom door shut and turned the lock.
She sank down to her knees beside her bed, like she had done every night of her life, and folded her hands. Thinking back to a night not so long ago, when the scuffling sounds had been furniture and bodies downstairs.
“You’ve had enough,” her mother had screamed. “Y’aren’t supposed to take ‘em with the booze.”
“One ain’t gonna kill me.”
“They say no alcohol.”
“Dammit wimmin you ain’t bossa me. Givez me de fuzzin’ drink. Now.”
There’d been more scuffled, then the sound of fast footsteps, running up the stairs. Followed by something falling at the top and then a sharp cry, followed by a long silence. And then the looks and hushed whispers about what kind of mother runs away from her child....
Polly didn’t know how many pills it would take. She’d been stashing them in the doll until she counted up twelve and tonight she mixed them in with his drinks. But she wasn’t prepared to chance it. She’d left the doll on the step to make sure it happened again. Not what everyone thought had happened, but what had really happened.
Her boney knees pressed against the cold, hard floor, Polly folded her hands and closed her eyes.
No more, she thought. No more Daddy games.
“Thank you God. For getting my parents together again,” she said, her lips curling up into a smile.