[TW: This flash deals with an emotive topic.]
It’s Anna’s 10th birthday. She wakes to the sound of nothing, slips her feet from the bottom bunk, careful not to stand on the empty wrappers scattered across the floor by Joey. He’s her Dad’s housemate, and sleeps here when Anna doesn’t. It’s bad enough that he leaves his clothes in a spare drawer next to hers and that she found a pack of cigarette filters slipped between her two Harry Potter books, which were her Mum’s first editions and really should be back at the other house. But Anna knows she can’t say anything to Daddy about the fact she doesn’t like having some unrelated teenager sleeping in her bed, because he’s already told her he needs someone else living there so he can afford the rent, and, anyway, if her Mum saw sense and let Anna live with him full time it would be different and she would get her own room, all the time.
On nights when Anna lives with her Dad, he sleeps on the sofa and Joey gets her Dad’s bedroom, sometimes by himself and sometimes with one of the girls he brings back from the pub where Anna went once with the two of them, where Joey bought her a coke and she got a free refill and her Dad told her not to tell her Mum cos she wouldn’t get it, any of it, and Anna sat and read the whole of the Philosopher’s Stone while the men drank beer.
Anna knows she should be grateful for the fact Joey gives her Dad money and that her Dad lets Joey sleep in his bed when she’s there because otherwise she’d be on the bottom bunk with Joey on the top.
Anna’s Dad says he’s got a special ability to sleep anywhere – a trick from his army days – but sometimes it takes him a bit to get to sleep, and sometimes she worries about how long because she’s heard him late at night, thrashing and crashing in the living room with the TV up high and she can smell the smoke creeping up the stairs and she wishes it was him coming to give her a hug, not the stink of his cigarettes wrapping their ashy arms around her.
Anna has learned to be very quiet. She can get herself up and dressed, sort her breakfast, make Dad a cup of tea, nice and strong like back in the army, and today because it’s her birthday, he’s said she can walk to school all by herself. Mum says she wouldn’t dream of letting Anna walk alone, but that’s because she’s over-protective and still treats Anna like a baby – at least that’s what Dad says.
Anna dresses silently, passes the door to her Dad’s room where Joey is still asleep and she creeps down the stairs, trying not to get her hopes up about the present promises her Dad made, knowing that it’s not his fault he can’t get her much right now, but wondering if he did remember which of the Harry Potter books was next on her list.
There are no presents downstairs, nothing wrapped on the living room table like there would be at Mum’s, no loud welcome from her baby brother, or awful singing from her step-dad, no phone in her face as her Mum tries to record the first moment when she sees her daughter in double digits.
Instead of presents, the living room is covered with empty cans, one knocked over and spilt across the table and there’s a puddle on the carpet where it has dripped over the edge and Anna can hear the landlady already – telling her Dad he’s overstayed his welcome and she’s only not kicked them out cos he has a kid – and it’s not her fault he’s a mental case, and that she’s not a bloody charity case. And she wonders if the landlady knows about Joey, and she thinks probably not.
Anna empties the ashtray, but knows she won’t be able to clean her hands of the smell. Then she picks up the cans and puts them by the recycling box in the garage because it’s already full and the bottles don’t get collected for another three weeks.
And she creeps back inside and opens the cupboard where the cereals are kept and measures a handful of Cheerios into a chipped bowl, and closes her eyes, making a wish – because it is her birthday after all – and she wishes eating them might make her feel like the name – cheery-oh. And then she feels greedy for wishing something so selfish. And she wonders how you can feel greedy and hungry at the same time?
The milk smells bad, so she eats the little circles of cereal dry, studying each carefully, trying not to eat them too fast because the box has to last until next pay day which is even further away than the next bottle collection.
The milk means she can’t make her Dad a cup of tea, so she doesn’t dare bother him and even if she did, he looks quite peaceful lying on the sofa in the same clothes he wore yesterday.
Tonight, he’ll take her to Tesco as a treat and they’ll get a pizza from the reduced section and pay for it in pennies.
When Anna goes back to her Mum’s tomorrow, she’ll get asked what her Dad got for her birthday, with that look that says just how much Mum hates him. Anna will tell her Daddy is going to get a dog, but she won’t say he’s waiting till he’s back on his feet and she won’t mention that the dog makes her think about what her Dad said when her Mum got pregnant. That she was only having the baby in case Anna died, and if she did, her Dad would get a dog. Instead Anna will bite into the cake her stepfather baked, and she’ll taste the tobacco on her fingertips.
Hannah Storm writes flash and creative non fiction. Her work has been recognised in Best Microfictions, the BIFFY 50 and placed second at the Bath Flash Fiction Award. Her debut flash collection is published this year by Reflex Fiction and she has recently completed her memoir. When she’s not writing, Hannah works in media and as a mental health advocate. Her Twitter handle is @hannahstorm6.