Amanda clutched the bed sheets. The fabric twisted between her fingers, her knuckles matching the color of the white linen. Like the legs of a thousand icy spiders the tingle of fear prickled up her spine and crawled toward her neck, raising a field of gooseflesh across her arms. He would be home soon.
Pale slivers of light crept into her bedroom through the crack under the door and around the ill-fitted frame. It angled across the front of her room covering the worn carpet like a yellowed blanket. The light inched its way up her dresser, some if it lost in the darkness of two missing drawers. On top sat her pink ceramic unicorn, chipped and faded with age. Its golden horn glistened atop its head. It looked happy. At that moment she wished she could be the unicorn.
The knob on the door jiggled once, twice, before the latch released with a heart stopping click. The door groaned loud and long as it swung open. The dark silhouette of her mom stood in the entrance; the opening of the door framed her like a painting of misery. Her joints looked like swollen balls connected by fragile sticks. Her hair was a snarled mess and her back stooped forward as if carrying a burdensome weight. Amanda remembered a time when her mom was beautiful. When she sparkled like the unicorn. That was before she remarried. Before she met him. It felt like a hundred years ago.
Her mom wrapped Amanda in her shaking embrace. Her arms were all bone, her skin as cold as night. Amanda wanted to cry. She wanted to beg her mom to leave, to pack their things and go. But she didn’t. She knew mom wouldn’t listen. Amanda bit into her bottom lip and pinched her thigh, hoping the pain would distract her from the moment.
The bed swayed on its squeaking springs as they held each other. Amanda felt her mom’s pain radiate through her sobs. A sad, hopeless pain. A drop of wet struck Amanda’s forehead and streaked down the side of her face. She looked up. Her mom’s eyes were filled with jagged red lines like an angry road map, her eyelids quivered as she held back more tears. With her thumb she brushed away the fallen tear from Amanda’s cheek then bent down and pressed her lips against her daughter’s forehead. A simple kiss that begged forgiveness.
Amanda’s mom forced a comforting smile and pushed her way to her feet. Amanda extended her arms, hoping, wishing she would hold her for just a minute longer. Her mom choked at the sight and swallowed hard as if something large was caught in her throat. She blinked the water from her eyes and scrubbed the tears away with weathered hands. She stood facing the door, shaking her head from side to side as if to dismiss the building guilt. Her mom wiped her nose across her torn sleeve, hurried to the door, and left the bedroom. The door shut behind her. A key filled the lock, followed by a metallic clack. The sound echoed off the naked walls of Amanda’s bedroom.
Amanda listened to the hurried padding of her mom’s feet against the wooden hallway floor. The noise eventually faded in the darkness. She was alone. Amanda watched the unicorn through a fresh shower of tears; its horn gleamed in the dirty light. The unicorn was brave. Amanda knew she needed to be like the unicorn. He would be home soon.
She couldn’t sleep. If felt like tiny grains of sand rested under each of her lids, drying and scratching her eyes. Every creak and flex of the old studs in the house rippled through her insides. Her stomach twisted and cramped. A violent slam downstairs rattled the thin pane of glass behind the bed, interrupting the earsplitting silence. Amanda sat upright, waiting, staring at her bedroom door with an unblinking vigil. He was home.
She heard his muffled groans, low and deep like the foghorn on a faraway ship. The floor under the bed trembled as he stumbled up the stairs. Amanda drove her fingernails deeper and deeper into her legs with each of her stepfather’s advancing steps. His feet scraped across the wood as he staggered between the creaking railing and wall.
As he approached, the scent of cheap perfume wafted under the bedroom door. Amanda remembered that her mom called it the scent of loose women; the only kind her stepfather would find this time of night. Her mom tried to justify his actions. She told Amanda that he had urges. Urges that men like him needed to satisfy. He was their provider, and out of desperation her mom saw the good in him when no one else did. Even though he’d gotten worse, more aggressive, she wouldn’t leave him. Not even now. Not even for Amanda.
Amanda knew his urges were never satisfied. Even after his late night prowling of the streets, her stepfather always hungered for more. Amanda’s mom promised they would be safe behind these locked doors. They have always held him out, always kept them from his grasp. But the doors were tired, and they started to sag as if they were losing the desire to protect them.
He plodded down the hall until he came to a stuttering stop outside her bedroom. The shadows of his feet stretched under the door and into her room like dark ghosts. The door thumped once, sprinkling down dust from the molding. Silence. A slight creak of a floorboard. Silence. She forced her eyes closed and held her breath until her lungs filled with fire. She imagined him standing next to her, the rotten smell of his hot breath bathing her neck, his calloused hands groping and grabbing. Amanda’s body shuddered against her will.
Another thump shook the door. A louder thump; one delivered by a balled fist or a lowered shoulder. Then another. He stumbled forward; striking the door with all of his weight then tumbled to the hallway floor with a rolling thud. His head lay still, his hungry green eye peered through the bottom of the door. Shifting. Searching. Her stepfather jammed his fingers under the crack. They crawled inside her room like filthy earthworms, wiggling and scratching at the wood. Amanda’s room filled with the mixed stench of perfume, dirt and copper. Her stomach roiled with fear. She cupped her mouth in her hands as it pooled with saliva. Bile streamed through her teeth and out her pursed lips before breaking through her fingers like water through a ruptured dam. Amanda’s throat burned as if she just spit up a quart of acid, her sheets were soaked with a bitter, yellow froth.
He mumbled then struggled to climb back on his feet. His boots clunked with the weight of concrete blocks, his fingers clawed at the walls raining chunks of plaster to the floor. He fell. A loud crack rang out, like someone snapped a dry branch in two. He groaned and shuffled his feet. The floor creaked underneath his weight as he staggered away from Amanda’s bedroom door.
Her stepfather’s footsteps grew quieter, more distant as he trudged down the hall. Silence. Thump, thump, echoed in her ears. Amanda bit into her sheet; her teeth ground and shredded the cloth. The sour taste of the bile dripped in her mouth. Crack. The sound of wooden splinters ricocheted down the hall. There were a few seconds of agonizing silence; the wait felt like hours. Then, the house filled with screams. Her mother’s screams. Amanda wanted to help, but her body wouldn’t move. It was frozen in place, her joints locked against her will, her muscles rigid and tense.
She could only listen as her stepfather forced himself onto her mom. His moans, her screams, followed by the crunching sound of someone biting through the rind of a ripe watermelon. Flailing legs and arms kicked the walls and floor; the vibrations rattled Amanda’s dresser, shaking the unicorn off the side. It struck the floor and exploded into a thousand ceramic shards. The screams stopped, but the munching, the wet slurping continued. Amanda’s eyes filled with tears. Her mom’s kind, caring heart would be eaten – right after her brain. Her stepfather was a zombie.