The first time her husband, Alfred, punched her, Anna Modena stayed on the floor for a while, not because he followed up the punch with a swift kick to her rib cage but because she couldn’t believe what had happened. She’d been punched and kicked before. Her father had done it plenty when she was growing up, but she had never expected her father’s ghost to come alive in the man she had married. She had escaped one horror to land in an atrocity. She couldn’t win.
After her wedding night, she learned to adjust like she had adjusted with her mercurial father. She was just 17 years old then, but she felt much older when it came to rules of the world around her. She knew that she couldn’t talk back to a man, that she should do what she was told the first time, and that she should always be on guard for a punch. These rules helped her stay on her feet and kept her alive, but it was her imagination that kept her sane.
She didn’t care much for anything except for her daughters. Those four girls provided the only welcoming light in the dim, double-wide trailer they rented at the end of Victoria Lane in Norwich, Alabama, a small town wedged against the northern edge of Interstate 20 just west of the state line between Alabama and Georgia. Megan was the oldest at 13 and reminded her of herself when she was young except that she had stayed in school and planned to go to college to be a doctor. Brittany, a child whose conception still brought Anna nightmares, was 12, just ten months younger than her older sister. Christina and Emma likewise were close in age only separated by 18 months at 10 and 8, but Emma’s difficult birth had put an end to Anna’s child-bearing days at the ripe old age of 23. She didn’t know what else she was good for and neither did Alfred.
The afternoon sun pushed through the heavy curtains in her living room exposing the dusty air that surrounded her as she sat in the old chair that formed one end of the semi-circle in front of the TV. The vinyl-covered cushion sighed under her weight as she shifted to get more comfortable. A man and woman argued on the talk show that played quietly before her, but she mostly ignored it. The girls would be home soon. That brief interlude between the girls arriving home from school and her departure for her job was her favorite part of the day. With Alfred at his day job, she’d have the girls to herself as she did every day during the school year.
A large vehicle grunted outside, but it didn’t slow down in front of her driveway, so she knew the bus had yet to arrive. Disappointment washed over her. If the bus was early, she’d have more time with her girls before she left. Instead, she feared it’d be late, and her precious time with them would be rushed. Finally, the roar of an exasperated engine surged and stopped near her mailbox. The exhale of the brakes gave Anna hope that she’d soon see her children. The bus roared to life again and ambled away from the stop, and as the noise of the vehicle faded into the distance, she could hear the animated cackles of young kids talking and laughing as they walked down the main street through the neighborhood.
Tiny, muffled voices arrived at her door, and Anna tensed as if she were waiting for intruders. She still felt overwhelmed with joy when her daughters returned home even though it happened like this every day. She missed them. She hated not being able to spend the evenings with them like the other mothers did, but her job put food on the table. She waited.
The door knob glinted in the dull light as the door swung open and Christina poked her head around its metal edge. The sunlight from outside enshrouded her like an angel descending from heaven. “Mama?”
“Chrissy! How was school?”
A smile wrapped around Christina’s face when she finally saw her mother sitting in the living room. “Okay,” she replied in the universal response she gave to every inquiry about her school day.
“Mama!” Emma shrieked as she trailed her sister through the door.
Both girls ran to Anna and wrapped their arms around her. She kissed the tops of their heads and hugged them close.
“Do you want a snack?” she asked. They shook their heads eagerly. Anna stood up slowly. The bruise on her left hip screamed at her and made her catch her weight on her right side. She almost tumbled over, but she steadied herself on right leg shuffling toward the tiny kitchen with her youngest daughters in tow.
She peered out the front window as she walked to the kitchen. The next bus would arrive soon she thought as she grabbed packets of crackers from the mostly-empty pantry and sat them before her eager daughters. As she poured them some milk, she heard a bus rumble to a stop outside her house again. Its air brakes hissed in a momentary pause before it rolled on down the street. Anna tensed and took a deep breath.
It took longer than usual for Brittany to open the door. She stepped through it quickly shutting out the flash of outside light before Anna’s eyes had a chance to adjust. Brittany had a grim look on her face as if her backpack contained some unbearable weight. She said nothing to anyone as she made a beeline for the bedroom she had once shared with her older sister. Her youngest daughters stayed quiet, but Anna could feel their eyes on her.
“Finish your milk,” she said finally. “And clean up your mess.”
The crinkling of the plastic wrappers seemed louder than it should have been as the girls busied themselves with cleaning up. Anna sighed and returned to the chair in the living room relaxing for one last moment before she had to leave for work. The girls joined her and sat on the floor before the TV.
“Why don’t you turn it to a cartoon?” Anna suggested. Christina gladly obliged and the girls sunk, zombie-like, into the odd world of a cartoon that Anna didn’t recognize. Anna smiled at her girls basking in the glow of the TV. Emma peeked over at her at one point but quickly returned her attention to the cartoon.
Anna wished she could sit there with them until it came time to put them to bed, a luxury she only experienced when one of them was sick, but work would beckon soon, and she’d trudge off down the street to catch the bus into town while Brittany put herself and her sisters to bed before Alfred came home. The monotony of her life weighed on her, threatened to pull her under. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and it all disappeared, not her daughters, but everything else. This other life, the one she wanted, existed out there. It kept her sane for she would otherwise crumble to the earth amid the sea of insults and bruises and despair.
A heavy knock rattled the thin door on the trailer. Anna opened her eyes to see the dust swirling in the light that broke through the curtains near the door. Christina and Emma looked back at her as if they had never heard an unwanted knock at the door, their expressions startled and uncertain. Anna winced at the pain in her throbbing hip. She stood up and stutter-stepped before she steadied herself and walked to the door.
When she opened the door, a short, stocky man dressed in all black stood before her. He wore a baseball cap with an unrecognizable logo on it and reflective sunglasses that captured the startled and puzzled expression that Anna felt at that moment.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. Is Mr. Modena home?”
“No, he’s at work. I’m his wife. Can I help you?”
The man tightened his lips across his face as if he were upset that Alfred was not home.
“Please give this to Mr. Modena. It’s very urgent.”
“What is it?” Anna tentatively took the paper from his hand. She looked at it as she waited for him to explain it. The tiny words crammed onto the pages befuddled her.
“It’s an eviction notice. You’re six months behind on your rent. The landlord has filed a motion to evict you.”
The rest of his words failed to reach her. She stood there watching him speak, his stern jaw flexing each time he mouthed a word. She felt like she was watching a muted TV. He finally pivoted away from her and returned to the SUV he had parked on the street. She wavered in place for a moment before she stepped back into the comforting darkness of her living room. She shut the door behind her. The girls, enthralled by the cartoon, ignored their mother. Anna took a deep breath and walked into the kitchen where she deposited the notice in the trash. It was time to leave for work.