Before They Wake by Mike Burrell

Sarah cursed the dogs the first few mornings their distant yelping awakened her. But now she directs silent thanks to them as she peels back the cover and eases from the bed, her gown whispering over the cotton sheet. The pale glow of the neighbor’s porch light leaks through a part in the curtains, and Sarah stands by the bed, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the shadows, listening to the steady breathing of her daughter still wrapped beneath the gathered bedspread.

The barking is getting closer, and her heart thumps when a car’s engine moans and headlights flash through the curtains, lighting the mirror and glittering the brass on the closet door. Then the dogs are silent, and Sarah watches the dark lump of the covers squirm, knowing it will take more than flashing lights and the rumble of a car to wake Jill. Back in the summer, Jill slept through a howling storm that pushed at the thin walls and strained at the trailer’s underpinnings while Sarah and her mother worried and paced the floor. 

She holds her breath for a moment, listening for her mother down the hall. When she hears nothing but the air-conditioner’s grinding fan and the hiss of air through the vents, she exhales and takes slow, measured steps to the foot of the bed where she lifts her robe from the footboard and looks down at Jill’s curled shadow. She imagines the twelve-year-old body under the covers as a tropical fruit, ripening out of control. Though Jill looks sweet when she sleeps, Sarah knows that soon she’ll see the anger and the baleful stare that has replaced her daughter’s little-girl smile. 

The first morning Sarah tried to escape the trailer, she disturbed her mother when she flushed the toilet. The next morning the slapping of her slippers against her heels had awakened the old woman. “Say-ruh! Say-ruh!” were the first words from her mother’s lips. Sarah’s name is the only thing about herself that she thinks is pretty, and her mother has always distorted it in that high, grating voice of hers.

Sarah’s bare feet slip through the carpet to the scarred linoleum on the bathroom floor. She sits down on the toilet, trying not to think about her mother or Jill. But she knows the shoebox she toppled with the vacuum cleaner yesterday still lies beneath the bed like a ticking bomb. Sarah swears to herself she would have jammed all of Jill’s private things back into the box unmolested if the pack of cigarettes hadn’t tumbled from atop the pile of photographs and wrinkled paper. “Oh, no, Baby. Not something else for us to fight about,” she had said as she lifted the cigarettes, the slick cellophane crinkling in her fingers. Then a name leered from a note scrawled by Jill’s friend, Rebecca. Steve sounds totally dreamy Jilly. She’s pretty sure Steve is the name of the teenage thug she ran off the patio a couple of weeks ago. All during the confrontation Jill had cried and stormed about as if she were going to burst, while the boy skulked away wearing the feral snarl of a predator being shooed away from his prey.

Sarah stands and listens for movement in the trailer, then she overcomes the urge to flush the toilet and steps across the rough linoleum of the bathroom floor onto the carpet. Only a few feet from her mother’s room, and Sarah can tell the door is open from the scent of lilac and liniment spilling into the narrow hallway. She inches along until she reaches the door and peeps into the room.

That room. Just enough space to jam a bed, a night table and a chair. But it had warmed Jill to the whole idea of moving into this tin box when Sarah showed her the little room and told her it would be hers. It had been so much fun taking Jill shopping to buy posters, curtains, and a bedspread. It was worth the strain she heaped on her already burdened credit card balance. Then her mother came to live with them and insisted on having the room. 

“I’ve kindly got used to my privacy all these years,” the old lady had said when Sarah told her that Jill loved the little room. “Can’t you make Jill understand?”

Her mother still had that withered face, clouded by the same mask of defeat she used to wear home everyday from her job at the mill. Being the old woman’s only hope, Sarah could never figure out how to say no to her. 

“Don’t worry, Baby,” she said to Jill as they transferred Jill’s things to the back bedroom. “You’ll get your own room when we move to a bigger place.”

“We’re not ever getting a bigger place, Mom,” Jill said through the tears melting her face. “We’re getting littler.”

She sneaks past her mother’s room, recalling their move from a real house to a dinky apartment, and now, to this rackety shack with its wobbly floors and fake pine paneling and thinks, God, we are getting littler.

            She cringes at the thought of Jill and her mother, always yelling across the mountain of years that separate them. Sarah sees herself in the middle, sometimes mediating the conflict, but usually just yelling in both directions. 

The bed squeaks and the covers rustle. Sarah leans against the wall, hoping her mother will sleep a little longer.  She dreads hearing her name trumpeted through the darkness, but more than that, she dreads asking her mother again to pay rent when she wakes up. The old lady hasn’t had to spend any money since she moved in with Sarah, and the wad of cash she keeps pinned inside her housedress has swelled into a fist-sized lump.

Sarah asked her mother for money a few months ago when she noticed her salary lagging behind the relentless clump of bills growing like a fungus in the mailbox everyday. “I didn’t ask you to pay me for raising you all them years,” the old lady sobbed. “Don’t I already cook and look after that daughter of yours while you go to school at night? Ain’t that payment enough?” 

That had been the bargain they struck when her mother moved in. But that was before the brakes had to be fixed on the car. Before she knew the power bill would be over a hundred dollars a month during the summer. And it was before Jack stopped paying child support.

Sarah shuffles into the kitchen, where she turns on the eye to the range and watches the glowing circles of the element under the pan she poured coffee into the night before. She cringes at the thought of Jill and her mother, always yelling across the mountain of years that separate them. Sarah sees herself in the middle, sometimes mediating the conflict, but usually just yelling in both directions. 

Jill resents her grandmother taking her room, but she’s been lashing out at Sarah long before the old lady moved in. “I can live with Dad. He left you, not me,” was the ultimate weapon she launched at Sarah. “No, Baby, I need you here with me,” was Sarah’s usual answer. But one night under the stress of work, night classes and her mounting debt, Sarah exploded, “If you don’t think your father left you, just call him and ask him if you can move in.” 

A little flicker of hope had drained from Jill’s face after being told that her father left his second wife and disappeared without a forwarding address. Sarah learned about vanishing fantasies long ago. She knows that her daughter will soon discover how thin the walls of a home can be. Then she, too, will pace the floor when those hard winds blow.

The coffee gurgles in the pan and Sarah turns off the eye and fills a mug. With her coffee in her hand, she slips out of the kitchen toward the front door. The door gapes open without a squeak, and she places her foot softly on the rugged cinder block step below, feeling it rock under her weight. She keeps stepping down in the darkness until she feels the smooth concrete of the patio. 

A cool promise of autumn stirs the morning air as she inches along to the lawn chair. She eases down on the seat facing the narrow gravel driveway that curves around her lot. The long stretch of shadow beyond the driveway is a pasture where the trailer park’s owner grazes his cattle. Across the pasture the darkness is perforated by tiny rectangles of light from the houses along a road. Wooded hills rise above the lights in dense silhouettes, and beyond the hills the long spine of the mountain borders the starry skyline.  

She sips her coffee and glances over at her fifteen-year-old Pontiac now resting beside the trailer and wonders what it would be like to steer the tired old beater out onto U.S. 11 away from all this mess. She has a little money for gas, and if she started now she might even reach Chattanooga before it ran out.

She knows Jack would do it. Though every thought of her former husband is usually couched in hatred, sometimes she envies his ability to leave his problems behind like worn-out clothes. But she knows that her past and her future are two things she could never run away from, and now they’re both sleeping inside the quiet trailer.

“I can finish my degree this year,” she whispers, practicing the speech she will try to give them when they wake. “I can get a better job. And we can start digging our way out of this hole we’re in. But I can’t do it without your help.”  

Then she cringes at the sobbing and wailing that will come when she asks her mother for money again. This time the tears will have to be endured.  And when she confronts Jill over the cigarettes and the boy, there will be shouting and crying, and  bursts of “I hate yous,” that have replaced Jill’s threats to move in with her father. Sarah fears that if Jill says it too often, she’ll come to mean it. 

A swallow of bitter coffee stirs an unspoken fear that today will be the day when  everything just blows up. And she’s amazed at how stupid she was, believing she could figure out how to avoid that day by just sitting out here alone in the dark. 

A cloud ignites and glows like an ember in the sky as a fiery arc across the mountain is greeted by a swelling chorus of birdsong. For a moment, she feels like a child, witnessing some kind of magic. But soon, the birdsong fades while shadowy cattle move in the pasture, and the trees and houses along the road beyond slowly take form. 

If life has taught her anything it’s that there’s no such thing as magic. She knows it was just a sunrise. It happens every day. Still tingling from that moment, she’s thinking how it might be worth trying to capture it again tomorrow. But just then the trailer creaks, and her thoughts are shattered by her mother’s shrill mantra—“Say-ruh! Say-ruh!”

Then Jill, yelling, “Can’t you be quiet? Some of us are trying to sleep!”

“Well,” Sarah says, tossing the tepid coffee into the gravel. “They’re awake now.”

Mike Burrell was raised in the Appalachian foothills of northeast Alabama. After retiring from the practice of law, he earned an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His short fiction has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The McGuffin, Kennesaw Review, and the anthology Climbing Mt. Cheaha: Emerging Alabama Writers. His first novel, The Land of Grace, is forthcoming from Livingston Press. 

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