“Slapjack”

Usually we play Go Fish or War, but not tonight.  It’s the third night in a row we’ve been sitting in my room with the door shut trying to ignore the “fuck you’s” that our parents are throwing at each other in the kitchen.  Slapjack is our game for the night.  Carter shuffles the cards, and they lock to each other and buzz as he lets go of the bridge and the cards thump against the berber carpet.  We don’t say anything to each other about the fights; that was from our younger years, when we used to put our ears to the wooden doors, and I would ask Carter if they were going to divorce because he’s three years older and knows everything.

Flip, flip, flip, slapjack.  My hand rests on top of Carter’s; I was too slow.  He pulls the cards toward him.

Dad likes to call us out to listen to their arguments sometimes.  Carter and I sit in the living room, in the matching blue chairs with the gold stars that are impossible to slouch in.  He’ll turn to us in the middle of mom’s screams and say, “Do you see how nasty your mother is?”  Our lips stay shut, but Mom has never called us lazy pieces of shit or laughed at us when we cry.  Last night, when he shook us from our sleep at three in the morning, Mom’s jaw clenched as she watched us sit on the gold stars, and she pushed her auburn hair out of her face.  She nodded in agreement with everything Dad said.  We were back in our beds within ten minutes.

Carter flips a nine, I flip a five.  Dad’s in the kitchen, slamming cabinets open and closed, and the silverware rattles as he thrusts the drawer back in.

Mom’s voice bellows over the noise.  “Leave the kids out of it, James.  What kind of father drags his children out of bed to make them listen to their parents fight?”

“You always make me sound like the fucking bad guy.  I’m done, I’m out, Cyndi.” I hated how he lingered on her name and sounded like he was spitting something bitter out of his mouth.  I put down a card.  It’s only a queen, but Carter waits a few seconds, looking at the carpet and listening to Mom call dad’s bluff.  We’re waiting for the signal that it’s safe to come out: the rubber on the bottom of our front door screeching across the tile and the walls echoing as Dad slams the door shut.  He only ever takes his car keys with him.

An eight, two, king, six, three, queen, jack, slapjack.  There’s a loud thud as Carter’s hand strikes the card.

“This is all your fucking fault.”  It’s Dad again, and I can picture him with sweat dripping down his temples, and his nose always looks like a hook when he yells.

“Just leave then.  Pack your shit and get out,” Mom screams.  My stomach feels sick.  I stare at the diamond pattern in the carpet as I hold my breath for a second.  Dad’s walking around the house now.  We hear the roll of the suitcase hitting the grout lines between the tiles.

A four, seven, queen, three, six, five, queen.  Carter’s flipping faster, his card on top of mine before I can get my hand back to my stack.

“Stupid fucking bitch.”  Flip, flip, flip.  Carter grinds his teeth, and his hazel eyes are staring down the stack of cards in between us. We hear our father laugh, a deep laugh, and my hand’s shaking as I put down a card.  We hear the zipper of a suitcase race around the corners.  Carter flips an eight.  Four, ten, nine, ace.

Dad laughs again.  “This suitcase is for you, Cyndi.  I’m not leaving my own fucking house.”

Carter’s hand slaps the carpet.  There’s no jack.  The muscles in his hand tense as he curls them into fists and pushes himself onto his feet, knocking over the stack of cards as he walks to the door, turns the knob, slams it shut, and I’m left sitting on the carpet, with the cards scattered around me:  the reds, the blacks, the hearts, the clubs, the jack with the hook nose staring back at me until I close my eyes.

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