Shirley had not left much in the way of belongings. A few worn, battered boxes of objects that held sentimental value and the musk of years clinging to them. Laura had taken them in without a care to examine them, exiled them to a corner of the basement whilst she got on trying to raise Kelly when Shirley went into the care home. Kelly’s memories of Sheila had been abstract, the smell of her, violets and chamomile, the soft, flabby crush of her embrace, her lilting gentle laughter and how it carried up into the air.
Shirley had been bitten by life. Her husband, and Laura’s father, Pete, had been a brutal, weak man who was quick to blame everyone else for his failures and in turn, quicker with his fists if anyone called him on it. They had survived as a family due to Shirley, who took it all in her stride, back at a time when marriage was something you believed required work. The work that was similar to a drop of water eroding a cliff face. Laura and Kelly’s generation knew the lie of it, even though some of their relationship choices had uncanny parallels to Shirley and Pete, a predisposition towards rough confidence and an ambiguity as to what rough meant in that context.
Shirley would say if either of them ever asked what stopped her from leaving or taking a knife to Pete’s throat whilst he slept. She would ask them to fetch down the mason jar that sat on the shelf in the living room, with the seal of cracked, flaking rubber and the lid sealed on with tape.
She would give an inscrutable grin and tap the lid.
‘I would open this up, and scream or cry into it, close it again and go on about my day. Your pa was an asshole, but he used to balance that out with being sweet. Over time, men like that, they don’t get sweeter as a rule. The jar kept me going on making sure you were alright.’
Laura had survived her marriage as her mother had. At first it was the same determination, and then the fortunate act of a 17-year-old drunk driver who had ploughed into Bobby’s pickup truck and killed them both. Bobby had been a protégé of Pete, without ever having met him. The only good thing he had left Laura was Kelly, and so she retreated behind the role of mother, unwilling or unable to trust her instincts to love again so freely. When she did date, Kelly noticed, they were tepid, plaintive men whose safety had suffocated their animal natures until they were muted, gelded soft boys with worn, adult features. Her step father William, had been one of them and Kelly had liked him, although she knew that the relationship was a band aid on an amputated limb for her mom.
Kelly, at that time, seventeen felt an arrogant pride in seeing the mistakes of her relatives and was determined to avoid them herself. No, she would not let herself be taken in either sort of man – the brute or the eunuch. She would be more cautious in who she let into her bed or her heart.
She was later reminded of the maxim, that if you wanted to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
Predators came in all forms. They adapted to their environment, wore the plumage of safe, appropriate identities but beneath it all, they still held the same crawling disdain for women. Barrett had been displaying some of his work for his final grade. He had long, shining hair and round spectacles, spoke with his hands and was informed about third wave feminism and the benefits of a vegan diet. Kelly had thought him safe, a good man who would align with her values even if he didn’t immediately set a fire in her loins.
It was two years into it that he struck her for the first time. He had gotten a scathing review by Harlan Foster for his last show, and although Kelly had sought to soothe him, he had taken it as criticism. His bony hand came up and caught her on the curve of her left cheekbone. The surprise hurt worse than the blow itself. A small, resigned voice at the back of her head gave an unpleasant chuckle and told her that she was not so unlike her mother and grandmother after all.
She had been six months pregnant at the time.
She had stayed. Laura was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time on the other side of the country, barely able to muster the energy for a conversation. Kelly had, by getting pregnant and quitting her work, tied herself to Barrett, whose success had been intoxicating even as his ego had developed an unpleasant, peevish swagger that resonated with deep, ancestral memories. Shirley was a ghost in ageing flesh, dementia had reduced her to unfocused smiles and an orderly to change her diaper. Kelly, stood in the bathroom with a cold cloth to her bruised cheek, realised how effectively Barrett had cut her off from anything approaching a support network. The price of his intensity and attention had come due. She patted her belly, squeezed out a few tears as he pleaded with her through the door and swore that she would not repeat the pattern of previous generations.
It was a year before he struck her again. She had just managed to get Georgia off to sleep, a fractious baby who conducted the tension between her parents like she were made of copper. He had come back from signing a new deal for more of his work, appropriations of other people’s Instagram posts recreated and blown up into hallucinogenic collages that generated controversy. He blamed the drink this time, but Kelly knew that vulpine smile, the opportunity to shut her down with a single blow. His smile knew her weakness, and she hated it. They had a beautiful home, tastefully decorated but Kelly would have burned it to ash if it meant her and Georgia got away.
Within six months, Laura and then Shirley had passed on. Barrett had been dryly supportive, a means to continue isolating and controlling her. He checked her emails, went through her phone. He had clung to her at the funeral, not as a gesture of comfort, but to keep her to heel. A single unguarded conversation might arouse suspicion.
He avoided hitting her face after that. If anyone asked him, he would have said that he liked the expression that came to her when he kicked her in the shin or drove his bony fist into her stomach. He reminded her what power was, even if he lacked the awareness to see that this was a metaphor akin to cancer being a reminder of good cellular activity.
Because, he said, he loved her.
Their collective estates were mostly medical bills, absolved by good insurance policies and a few objects. William had died of a heart attack when Kelly was eighteen, so it was down to her to sort through the collected detritus of a life spent surviving, sifting through the trash of discarded dreams and fragile shelters for anything worth treasuring.
The jar was still intact although the tape holding it closed had faded to the texture of parchment, its control now a thing of sentiment rather than physics. She kept it in the kitchen where it drank in the light of the day through the large window. She showed it to Georgia without letting her handle it.
Because, when she held it, Kelly imagined a hum of something inside, tapping against the glass, eager to be released. She would laugh and put it back on the sill, but it was a shrill, polite rejection of the senses.
She had never asked her mother if she had screamed into it.
She wondered if it would work for her.
Georgia had been at daycare when Barrett had sauntered in, gazing around the kitchen for something to use as a reason to hit her. Kelly wondered when that would finally stop and he would just come over and beat his frustrations out of him and into her. He had grown more violent in his rages. Luckily, he had stayed away from Georgia which Kelly would have found intolerable, and that too became a reason to stay in the perfect cruel trap of their marriage. He needed her. He had stopped progressing as a man and an artist, perfectly content to nurse his insecurities and failings, the only true child of their marriage and Kelly’s presence meant he had someone to take it all out upon.
‘What’s wrong?’ she said.
Nothing. Everything. He had moved past the point of needing an excuse as much as she had moved past trying to fight him. The bruises healed, the blood in her urine would fade back to the straw yellow and the limp would disappear on its own. The paranoia, the removal of her privacy had done more damage to her sense of self. She had been a good girl, with her lid screwed on tight but what was inside her.
She ignored the screaming hum aside when she dreamed about it. A kaleidoscope of humiliation, clowns chasing after her that had faded by the time she awoke. She would cry in the shower afterwards and then return to bed, desperate not to wake him.
In the kitchen, he grabbed the soft flesh on her left bicep, dug his fingers in and brought his other hand up across her face. She cried out, felt the heat of her own blood on her upper lip. His lips were pulled back over his teeth and his eyes gleamed like broken glass in a children’s playground.
She was stood with her back to the sink and he shoved her. The edge of the sink bit into the small of her back and she flailed to remain upright. Her fingertips touched the glass of the jar, warm from the light.
The humming called to her, travelling down the bone roads and nerve pathways into her brain. Older, wiser voices told her what she needed to do.
What she had always needed to do.
She pulled her left arm away from his grip and was punished with gouges where he had dug his nails in. With both hands, she picked up the jar, fighting the desperate, atavistic urge to smash it against his high, veined forehead or into his long, hooked nose. It would have injured him, but another instinct made a more compelling argument. Without words, only the crude magick of memories and a need to save herself before he lost it completely and ended up killing her.
She held the jar towards him and wrenched the lid off. It made a soft, sucking sound like smacking lips in anticipation of a good meal. The pneumatic hiss was audible between them and that, above the rising tide of his rage, made Barrett step backwards.
The silence, for a moment, was a bomb going off in the room between them. A pressurised wave that ripped everything to rags before Barrett staggered backwards, his hands to his face.
Blood welled between his fingers and Kelly held the jar forward. It vibrated in her hands and she held onto it with what strength she had left in her. Barrett collapsed onto his knees, then fell forward onto his stomach, his feet kicking out a tattoo against the tiles. She kept the jar aimed at him as he floundered and thrashed with agony. Whatever was happening to him robbed him of the ability to scream.
Kelly knew how that felt.
He brought his knees up to his chest, hands still at his face although they were smeared with blood which had spread out into a thick, dark puddle around his head like a halo. The smell of wet pennies and unseen, internal processes filled the air but Kelly kept the jar open and pointed at him. She screamed along with it, adding her voice to the chorus of pain and anguish that had been her terrible, unwanted legacy alongside her mother and grandmother.
She caught the faint scent of burning and stared, in appalled disbelief as smoke began to rise in tendrils from his still form. The jar hummed as it went about its work and she watched him flake, turn grey and then disappear into a few smears of ash and the acrid scent of smoke on her lips and tongue. The blood had boiled away alongside every inch of him.
She shut the jar, looked at what remained and replaced the jar on the shelf. She left the lid off. She sobbed and sunk to her knees, the kind of healing, ungainly cries that was beautiful and ugly in the same instant. When she stopped, she looked around and realised that Georgia would be home soon. She wiped her eyes and got to her feet.
She looked for a broom and a dustpan. The sunshine came in, a second wave of brightness and warmth at her back. She whispered her thanks and set to work.