A Safe Place

by Barbara Benson

Late Sunday morning, when the rain has cleared and church traffic thins, Kitty and Goat grab their jackets and scurry across the road into the woods. They feel safe there.

“Look,” pants Goat. “The trees have arms. They're reaching for us.”

He smacks brittle leaves as they run. Deeper on down, they light Marlboros that he has stolen from Thelma's sick table. They suck hard through the filters and blow smoke into the streams of sunlight that cut through the limbs. Glancing back, they catch sight of a gray, sinking porch and rot-black house that seem to lean against the branches. Out of breath, Goat starts to slow the pace and Kitty follows. They heave in more smoke and walk as the house grows smaller behind them. It’s late fall. The air is fresh, clean, and the sky has turned a deep clear blue, promising a day with no rain. Today feels different. Today the teens talk grown up. Today is Kitty's birthday. She is seventeen and done.

“Damn it, I know you can't stand it when Mama's bladder busts like that,” says Kitty, reaching for Goat as he plops down on a stump. “I get piss all over me, too!” she screams as she eases down to the ground beside him.

“We are both tired of going to school smelling like piss and puke. Nobody wants to talk to me either.” Goat's voice breaks. His foot grinds hard into the new winter earth. Tears streak his dirty face and threaten to roll down his thin neck. He pulls his breath again through the cigarette. Goat is the middle one and Kitty, being a girl and the oldest, has to peel the stinking clothes off their mother. Pig is only nine and no help at all. He has never been right anyway.

“Remember, Goat, the high heel night?” asks Kitty, flicking her ashes. “Whatever happened to that red shoe anyway?”

“The skeleton probably kept it,” says Goat, blowing smoke around his words.

“Which one was that?” asks Kitty.

“The skinny policewoman with big teeth”, says Goat. “Not the social worker one, not the one who kept asking me, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’”

“Remember how Pig slid down the wall really slow and we laughed thinking he was imitating a dying cowboy? He is a good little actor, you know. Maybe he should be in movies,” says Kitty, smiling into her smoke.

Goat drops his head and turns sideways.

“He is already in the fucking movies. He's just not the star. Why did you tell them that lie? Things would be different now if you had just told the truth,” says Goat.

“I don't know. The social workers and that damn police made me so nervous, asking questions, right up in my face and all. Then the very same questions at the hospital. I didn't know what to say, so I just kept talking. It must have sounded pretty true because I even started believing it myself. It really seems like a dream, even now,” says Kitty, coughing on smoke.

“I wished that you had just told them the way it happened. We would be free and rid of her once and for all,” says Goat as he pinches the fire off his cigarette.

“Part of it was true,” says Kitty. “The part where the heel stuck in his head was true. It was just that I didn't do it, that's all. Anyway, they believed me and nobody went to jail.”

“I hate this. I hate her, you, fucking Everything,” screams Goat.

Kitty does not disagree with him. She does not say, “Oh, Goat, you know how sick she is” or “She's our Mother and we have to help her.” Instead, she just wraps her arms around her little brother and strokes his greasy hair. Goat leans on her and cries harder. Digging his foot deeper into the dirt, he wipes his eyes and pushes her away. He reaches down and picks up something metal and twisted, a small cylinder.

“The hunters are back,” says Goat, carefully examining the empty shell and slipping it into his pocket. “They never miss a chance to kill, do they? I'm getting out of here and going to back to Jug and Tip's. They do stuff, go places, like hiking and to the park and library. They even took me to the movies once. They don't lay around in bed screaming all day with busted bladders, pissing, spilling food, puking and setting mattresses on fire. I'm going somewhere normal.”

“I don't think they're allowed to take in strays after age thirteen, Goat,” says Kitty. “You're too old now.”

“Says who? The skeleton? The police? YOU?” screams Goat, standing up and relighting a cigarette butt. “Anderson said I would have won that math pentathalon if I had made it to goddamn school on time that day. She has no idea what we have to do every morning before we can even get ready for school, much less homework if we have time, then sleep. Who gets to sleep! Mr. Coffee said I would need a doctor's excuse if I'm tardy one more time.” Goat rubs his head with both hands as if he's trying to wash away or erase something.

“Are you still telling them that you have lice?” Kitty asks, accusingly.

“What am I supposed to say? What would YOU say? What DO YOU say?” Goat brushes some leaves from his hair and stands up, stretching his arms to the sky. “Anderson says I am a real smart cookie and that I can do anything I want. She even cried that day when I told her that I was out of that damn school as soon as I turned sixteen. She hugged me so hard my neck cracked.” He picks up a handful of dead leaves and throws them against a tree. “She smelled like the flowers in Jug's garden that day, and I know she was chewing gum because her breath was peppermint. I'd never seen a real teacher that upset, crying and all.”

“What did she do then?” asks Kitty.

“She turned fucking mean on me. She grabbed my arm and shoved me into Mr. Coffee's office, that's what. He was standing there like a statue, holding my test scores and report card. That man makes me so nervous, plus I smelled like shit that day.”

Kitty stands up quick. “Listen, did you hear that?”


An old gray hound comes loping through the trees. Hackles up, bent low to the ground, it barks at the teens. Kitty claps her hands and growls back. The creature jerks and turns slowly, disappearing carefully back into the trees.

“Damn mangy hunting dogs,” says Kitty. “They can be mean as hell.”

Goat continues to wrestle with his school dilemma to his sister without acknowledging the dog. “Mr. Coffee just shook his head,” he says. “I thought he was going to cry but he didn't. He talked on and on, then made me sign up for advanced classes. He told me I was a lucky young man. I wanted to slap the shit out of him for calling me ‘lucky.’ Then he got mad and yelled, ‘Stop rolling your eyes and what is wrong with you anyway?’ He made me want to kill him and everybody in that damn school. He said he was going to call my mother, but I reminded him that my mother was dead.”

Kitty notices Goat's frail, dirty fingernails, crusted ears, long, greasy hair, and clear blue eyes. She knows how curious he is about everything and how smart he must be if he only had a chance. She remembers when he was born and how Thelma let her hold him on the couch. She would sit patiently while Thelma warmed a bottle, then sprinkle a few drops on her arm.

“Okay, we need to make a plan,” says Kitty. “I'll stay up with her at nights and you can fill in when you come home from school after you finish your homework. You just can't quit school, though. Try to keep your grades up and don't worry. Maybe they are right. I've heard about scholarships and loans for college. I'll help you,” she says. “I promise.”

She then pulls a wrinkled piece of paper from her pocket. It is a legal-sized envelope from the mill that she had meant to open yesterday. Goat watches as she tears the edge and unfolds a typewritten sheet. Kitty scans the form, then hands it to Goat. All he sees is the number $50,000.00, his sister's signature, and the word “beneficiary” written under his own name.

Thelma's blood curdling screams pound them like a swarm of bees shooting through the trees.

“She's awake now,” Kitty announces and loosens her grip on Goat. “Let’s go!”

“You mean she needs us to shovel her up from the floor, wipe her ass, and feed her the drugstore that Dr. Quack gave her. Xanax, Ambien, Tegretol, Percocet, Ativan, and God Almighty, what else?” snarls Goat.

“Which one makes you sleep?” asks Kitty.

Goat describes each medication and its purpose.

“You could be a doctor, Goat, I mean a real doctor, and fix busted bladders,” says Kitty, patting him on the back.

They rise up from their warm cushion of leaves and trudge back to gloom. Goat hands the paper back to Kitty, but she tells him to keep it in a safe place. Closer to the house, they spot a car in the yard and stop to watch Kick and Puddle leap out and slam the doors. Slipping into the back door, they hear their uncles cursing the spattered piss and what looks like coffee dripping down the kitchen wall.

“Where were you two shitheads? You know better than to leave her alone like this!” says Kick, swinging a wet rag at Goat. “This is not our job! We pay the rent and that's that. Do you hear me!”

Thelma has staggered out of bed and is lying on the kitchen floor. She is, at least, quiet but has to be cleaned and placed back into her bed. Goat escapes through the back door, clutching the beneficiary paper. Kitty stands accused by her uncles. Robotically, she lurches to the dresser and pulls a clean gown from a neatly folded stack, places it on the bed, and prepares a bath. She tries to block out Kick as he screeches for Goat to help them lift the dead weight, but Goat is gone. Catching the scene in a cloudy mirror that hangs sideways on the closet door, she watches them lift. They swing her up and onto the bed by her arms and legs. Kitty thinks she looks like a hammock. Thelma slurs and grunts, her eyes rolling around in her head like marbles. It all looks like a movie in slow motion. Kitty suddenly sees herself up close. She examines her frowning face and stringy hair, remembering how people used to say that she looked so much like her mother. Kitty’s paste-white skin, dark circles around her eyes, and crooked teeth are all too familiar, and she agrees that maybe she still looks like Thelma. Behind her, Puddle and Kick throw the soiled sheets into a heap and wipe their wet hands on their shirts.

“Where's Pig?” shouts Kick as he picks up his car keys from the floor. “He'd better not be out with them damn killers again or he'll get his head blowed off for sure this time.”

“I don't know,” says Kitty, still comparing her features in the mirror. “It wouldn't make any difference to him anyway. He's already been dead once.”

“Don’t start digging up all the past, nothing we can do about it now,” whispers Puddle.

She doesn't hear the pair leave. The house is quiet. Thelma is asleep. Pig is missing, and she knows that Goat sneaked back into the woods. She puts the dirty rags in a bucket and piles sheets into a laundry basket. Thinking about switching from part-time at the mill to full-time, second shift, thrills her. She imagines herself standing in her clean little cubicle, folding stacks of pantyhose. The more she folds, the more money she makes. She feels proud to have the highest production rate at the mill and the lowest rate of absences. Three days she missed helping Goat out of school trouble and five days she had spent making sure Thelma was alive. Several days she had missed work looking for Pig. He is always missing somewhere. One time, she had found him in the woods trying to bury himself along with a shotgun that he'd stolen from one of the hunters. He was lying on his back in a shallow hole, gun mounted on his chest while he scooped handfuls of dirt into his face. The last time she found him sitting next to a dead dog. Bloody tree limbs rested beside them. He was just sitting there talking to it, trying to feed it a piece of bread. He giggled like a baby when he saw her.

A gurgling sound oozes from the bed behind Kitty and she turns to see Thelma shivering. She gathers a wadded blanket from the closet and covers her mother. Examining the cluttered sick table, Kitty clutches a few bottles and reads their labels. Trying to remember what Goat had said about each one, she loosens the lids and pours some into her mouth, washing the bitter down with Thelma’s gray water. Taking a deep breath, she eases onto the space next to Thelma. Kitty tries to relax, remembering her life before this thing moved into her mama's body. Goat was only three years old. Thelma was different then. She cooked their breakfast, read stories to them at bedtime, laughed and sometimes sang with their daddy. She would brush her hair and sometimes braid it before school. She even drove a car. Things changed though when Pig was born dead and their daddy left.

It happened early one morning. Everyone was crammed into the car and rushed to the hospital. Kitty was left in the car with Goat but they got bored. She wandered inside, into the secret room, and watched while women in white slipped a slimy blue doll into a black bag. Thelma was screaming and thrashing so hard, they had to tie her to the bed rails. Then out of nowhere, the bag had started to move. The women grabbed the bag and tore the top right off, peeling it back like a banana until a tiny, pinkish-purple thing appeared back from the dead.

Lying next to Thelma, Kitty feels her arms and legs turn into lead pipes. She is living in water now. She starts to melt and feels her arms and legs float away. Her eyelids are thick, dense marshmallows. She drifts into what feels like sleep, but she hears the door open. Pushing her eyelids as hard as she can, they turn into blurry slits. Kitty knows that she has taken too many pills, but maybe she can get some rest before work tomorrow. She thinks that she sees Pig amble through the door and stop next to Thelma's side of the bed. He's standing still, and the open doorway illuminates him, creating a halo effect around his body. He does something so strange that Kitty has to let her eyes shut. He raises a shotgun and aims it at Thelma's head. Kitty tries to scream but chokes on salt. Her lips refuse to move. They hate her. There is a silence and she stops trying to move. She hears nothing now but her own heartbeat and an explosion that rings forever.

Barbara Benson is a native of western North Carolina, having spent most of her childhood on a cotton mill hill in Hudson. She currently lives in Asheville and works as a speech language pathologist for Buncombe County Schools. She initially became interested in writing short stories in the late 80s.

About The Safe Place — This story is based on a very dysfunctional family with little hope for the children of a mentally and physically sick mother. My early association with the cotton mill and the variety of families moving in and out of the village inspired the birth of this story.