Picking Sides////Berries

Non-Fiction

Daniel Dalton

            “Honey.”

            She whispered this through dry, cracked lips. The room was dark and quiet, but I could feel something growing just below the surface: the silent black pressing in around me. Twilight spilled in through my window, barely illuminating the toys and books scattered across the floor. Outside, the trilling lullabies of a lark sparrow trailed off. The heralds of evening would soon retire, but there would be no sleep for me. Not for this night, nor for those to come.

            She held me. In her warm grasp—which I now remember as frigid and unnerving—I found comfort. Dad didn’t hold me like that. He didn’t speak as softly as Mom did. He yelled, he was mean, and by mean, I mean cruel, unrelenting and punishing. These are things I felt, not things I feel. I was still crying; tears rolled down my cheeks and clung to the fibers of her woolen sweater.

            “Honey, if your Dad and I…”

            I could hear the tremble in her voice. Clear as glass, I can still hear it today: The arcing proposition that teetered on her lips. Here it comes. The kicker. The punchline that takes everybody listening a while to understand, but they still go along and laugh, not sure what it means.

            “If we were to be apart for a while, which... who would you want to be with?”

            “You.”

            No hesitation. No mercy, just rejection. No thought of consequences, just wrath and vengeance striking out blindly. Was I backed into a corner? I don’t remember. I do remember Dad was the bad guy, wasn’t he? He was the one who doled out punishment.

            And so the seeds flourished.

            “You’re grounded. No TV for a week. No friends over. Bed without supper. No books before bed. No more, no more, no more, no more.”

            So we left.

            That was when I stopped crying.

            I don’t remember packing up my things, or moving out of that old mobile home strapped to the side of a hill. The tunnels between the blackberry bushes used to be my haven: places only the dogs and I could fit. The next time I gazed out at the unkempt lawn, my hidden fortress was gone, overgrown, thorns and vines sweeping across the property. Choking.

            I remember after choosing to live with Mom, I didn’t get much of a say in how it all went down. I didn’t get to say much at all. Those vines gripped at my throat. Every second. Ever tightening.

            ***

            Divorce. Divorce is clean. Separation, however, is messy. It happens all of a sudden, with no warning. When wounds are fresh, blood pours from them, unrelenting, drowning. But when there are so many old wounds, all piled on top of each other, scar tissue holds back the bloodbath.

             What happened to all the books that were read to me? What happened to my dinosaur toys? When you’re six years old, you have all these thousands of different dreams about what you will grow up to be, and how many different things you will be, and how many cool things you will do. It changes suddenly. Upon moving into our new house, my mother and I just decided to not talk about it. I went from being an astronaut, to a paleontologist—architect—engineer—mechanic—doctor—fighter—pilot—firefighter—paramedic—farmer—knight, and a postman, to being responsible.

            Responsible. Responsible for myself, for staying well fed, for making sure I was alright, for making sure my Mom was alright, for everything that happened after that day. That choice was mine; its consequences were mine.

            

            I made it. I learned how to make it. I had to become the man of the house, so I did. I had to let go of all my toys, so I did. I had to stop feeling, so I did. Those first few years Mom and I were both as cold and hard as stone, never letting even the smallest blade of emotion show through the cracks in our sidewalk. Her job kept her busy; it kept her mind off the separation. They weren’t actually divorced, because to be honest, neither of them could decide if they wanted to take the plunge. I suppose something about them being in crippling debt and needing the tax breaks was a good enough reason to keep it up.

            ***



            Over time, the blackberry vines at my neck forced their way into my mouth, eased down my throat, sliding their barbed thorns deep into my lungs and stomach. There they sat, as I suffocated and starved, acid burning at their roots, taking hold deep in my breast.

            I pressed on, even with the writhing mass of vines still filling my mouth, dragging me around. To the store and to school, the vines pulled me everywhere I went. They were there from sunrise, to sunset. I guess something had to replace Dad.

            I remember how if I moved too much, the thorns would poke at my insides—never too hard, but a constant reminder my Dad was the bad guy. He was the bad guy. He was the bad guy. 
 I asked my mom.

            She told me, “We did it for you.”

            I heard only, “We did this because of you.”

            I was the bad guy. Maybe I was the bad guy.

             If I was the bad guy, and my Dad wasn’t, then instead of them hating each other, I thought they must hate me. This is my fault. I am responsible for this. I am the bad guy.

             ***

            During certain times of the year, little white blossoms would bloom all along the length of the vines. Honey bees would promptly swarm over them, pushing and shoving each other just to get at the sweet nectar. The pollen filled my nose, sending me into violent, half-choking fits of coughing. As each blossom aged, a berry grew inside me. Fat and plump with dark purple juice welling up inside, drawing nutrients from their roots in my stomach. Every year this happened. Each time the blackberries would ripen, they would fall either upon the ground, or slip into my belly, and rot. Harvest me.

            Five harvests later it was my freshman year of high school. My parents were mostly out of the picture. I never saw my Dad, except for dead silent car rides home after school, to Mom’s house. I had jumped around from place to place with my Mom, though we never spoke to each other. The most quantifiable aspect of my childhood that I can recall in minute detail is the lack of noise. Silent nights defined the span of years. 
 The first time I really recall being spoken to was when they invited me to go out for pizza. My Mom told me we were going to meet with my Dad, and just have a day of it. I shrugged as the vines dragged me along.

            My Mom’s red Volkswagen Bug pulled into the strip mall’s parking lot, coughing and sputtering; it rambled down the rows of filled spaces until we came to an open slot, a few cars from the entrance to Pizza Factory. In the truck parked next to us was Dad.

            He was fat. He had put on a hundred pounds since the separation. It was a struggle for him to get out of the truck. His ass-crack peeked out from beneath his massive pair of jeans as he climbed down from the cab. When we were all standing on the sidewalk, my Mom and Dad hugged.

            My heart skipped a beat. I hadn’t seen them touch since before the separation. In my memory, or what I chose to remember, they never interacted this way before. What did it mean? Could they be getting back together? Did they love each other again? Did they love me again? It had been eight years already, could they want to get back together? Would we be a family again?

            I smiled, my mouth still full with blackberry brambles.

            As my parents’ embrace ended, they both took one of my hands and led me into the pizza parlor. The vines pushed me forward, light with anticipation. As we walked into the restaurant, it was all smiles. Dad went up to the counter and ordered a large pepperoni with a two-liter of soda, while my Mom and I found a table. I didn’t notice the vines tightening in my throat. I didn’t notice my parents sitting across from me at the table.

            We waited for the pizza while they asked me how school was going, and how my grades were, and how I was doing, and if I was alright, and what I was excited for in the next few weeks.

            “Good. Fine. Fine. Yes. Not much.”

            Awkward silence. What wrath stems from silence?

            “Honey.”

            Same cold tone of stone.

            “We’re going to finalize the divorce.”

            Thorns sink deep. “Fine by me.”

            My Dad chimed in. “We just want you to know that we care about you, and this isn’t because of you.”
 What echoed throughout my mind, was this is because of you.

            “We love you very much, Dan, and we think that it’s just better this way. You’ll still see your Dad, all the time, right Bobby?”

            “That’s right!”

            It’s always been my fault.
 The vines quivered, and I could feel them start to pull on my gut, my lungs, and my stomach. They dragged along the spines and barbs that had driven themselves in deep. At first it was a yank, points of pain pinging up and down my chest. Then they began to pull harder and harder, dragging the embedded daggers up my throat, shredding it. My mouth was filled with blackberry juice and blood as the thorns raked my tongue and cheeks. Yard after yard of blackberry brambles erupted from my gaping maw. They started slow and picked up pace as the airways became slick with blood and berry juice.

            With a final yank, the roots in my stomach and lungs and brain and heart freed themselves. For a second, I thought I was rid of them. As the last few vines dripped from my mouth, I looked up.

            There, across the table, were my parents, looking at me. Smiling. Big smiles, their mouths half full of pizza. I asked to go home.

            Mom smiled and said, “Honey.”

            Always with the “Honey,” dripping sweet from her lips.

            “Of course, let me bring the car around. Are you not feeling well?”

            Blackberry juice dribbled down my lips and chin. The vines, which had been limp on the linoleum, twitched and trembled back to life. Like lightning, their green tendrils ensnared my arms and legs. A puppeteer and their vassal, they stood me up, and walked me out the door without another word.

            ***

            As soon as Mom left for work the next morning, I declared a war upon myself.

            The more vicious my efforts to pull them free, the deeper the barbs and thorns sank into my flesh and bones. I ran to the kitchen and fumbled through the drawers. The vines weren’t stopping me. I pulled a steak knife from the drawer, plopped myself down on the cold, cruel linoleum, and removed the knife from its plastic sheathe. I began to cut at each vine, working the steel deep. Wet sap seeped from the fibrous body, but it wouldn’t sever.

            I kept cutting in wild hope and reckless abandon, ignorant of collateral damage, savage in my attempts at rebellion.

            The line between vein and vine blurred. Sap mixed with blood as I cut back the green stems, their thorns digging ever deeper. I drove my knife into the vine, dragging the stainless blade sticky with sap up my forearm, slicing the vine down its center. Blood and sap poured out from a gaping wound on my arm, but I wasn’t done yet.

            I fell upon the vines still clutching my legs, and beat them back with my fists. My blood crying out, “War, or weakness! War, or death!”

            Every new punch left more thorns embedded deep in my thighs and balled up hands. Teeth clenched, I beat my legs until they were black and blue and red. When all the vines had been felled, twitching limp beside me, I collapsed. Laying there in the kitchen, smeared with blackberries, I watched the blood seep out of me.

            All was quiet for the longest time.

            I began pulling thorns from my arms and legs and chest and throat. Each barb shredded my skin on its way out, sending waves of pain crashing through my body. With each thorn came a tear. One at a time, dripping from my still stony eyes. The drips turned into a stream, running down my arms, mixing with the blackberry juice and blood. Sullen sobs eked their way out of my ripped throat. The house was quiet.

            Bleeding. Battered.

            Alone, as I had always been.

            At fault, as I had always been.

            That was the day I began to cry again.



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