I heard crunching on the gravel. I stopped playing with my doll and peeked around the corner of the house. A man who looked to be my father's friend walked towards the front door. He was tall and dark. I didn't know we were expecting a visitor today. People rarely came to our house. We rarely met people. Our house was lovely to me, but they called it an embarrassment. I understood better once I saw other houses in the village. We lived in a small cabin with little furnishings. The walls and floors matched: Grey cement, and there was always the faint smell of clay in the air. Dust collected on everything. It was hot and the only form of air was to have the windows open. But our house was a single level so having the windows open caused its own problems. Dirt often flew in and settled easily.
I can't remember if we always lived here. Mother said it was because when we moved I was young. Sometimes I imagine living in a place bigger than this, where I can run around and eat food at a table instead of sitting on the floor. I would try not to think such ungrateful thoughts. It brought red shame to my cheeks. After all, for my eighth birthday, mother made me my very first doll. She cut a piece of cloth from the woven rice bag and gave shape to the doll's body by filling it with small pebbles. It was my 10th birthday; double digits were special. I loved the doll immediately, naming her Annie. My mother frowned upon the uncultured name. I rolled my eyes when she wasn't looking and whispered to Annie not to be offended. Mother was moody.
She would control it in front of my father. It was shocking, she would snap and yell when he was at work, but as soon as he came home she never raised her voice -- respect for a man, I had learned. I recall a night many weeks ago. My mother questioned the hour my father came home. I didn't hear his answer, only a loud slap. My mother yelped in pain, and I heard another slap, like claps of thunder rolling after one another. There was quiet after that. Followed by soft wailing. I shut my eyes tight, my stomach sinking recognizing the sound of my mother's sobs. More than anything else I yearned to run into her arms and hold her tight, hushing her cries and patting back her hair the way she did mine when I would cry. But fear rose like bile in my throat. I swallowed and shrank as small as I could into my blanket. My legs curled around myself and I drifted into a troubled sleep.
When I woke the next morning, my mother was in the kitchen and father gone for work as normal. He was a tradesman, struggling like the rest to make ends meet. We only traded homemade items, the village constantly seemed to be in a hard time in terms of money. I figured I was too young to understand. Neither of my parents mentioned what had happened the night before. Over time, I pretended not to notice the yellowing bruise enveloping my mother's cheekbone.
From indoors, my mother called my name and I snapped out of my thoughts. Before walking in I brushed the dirt off my knees and made sure no stains were on my dress. I had only received it as my 10th birthday present four days ago. Mother had sewn it from a cloth not large enough to make clothes for her to sell. I was lucky.
Upon entering the house, my mother met me at the front door and led me past the guest with a smile although her gaze was lowered to the floor. I clutched Annie tightly between my small fists. In the kitchen, my mother brushed me off even more. She kneeled in front of me, being careful of every detail. Straightening my sleeves, the hem, and making sure the back was tied securely. Then she dipped her hands in the bucket of water and patted down my hair with her palms. Weaving it into a tight, thick braid. I turned to face her and realized she had been crying. My father would be coming home soon, she told me. Until then, she told me to go to my room and put on my best pair of shoes then sit in front of the guest without asking any questions.
Sighing, I went between the curtain that marked my room and slipped into a pair of closed-toe sandals. Besides the ratty pair of flip-flops I used when going into the village, these were the only shoes I owned. My mother handed me a glass of water to take to him.
Holding Annie for support, I slowly crept back into the main room where he was seated playing with his mobile phone. It was large and shiny -- much better than the old, scratched up one my father had. He smiled at me as I placed the glass in front of him, and I frowned at his yellow teeth. Chuckling in amusement, he gestured for me to sit down. I turned to sit across from him and heard a no in a rather commanding tone of voice. Patting the empty seat next to him, he motioned for me to sit beside him.
I swallowed thickly and sat down. I stared downwards, not able to lift my head. He smelled foul, like something old and sour. I yearned to run into the kitchen and into my mother's arms. I longed for her embrace, her scent of sweet almond milk. I didn't want to sit here anymore. The man raised his hand and ran it through my hair, pulling out the band that held the braid. "You are so pretty," he whispered to me. I cringed at his touch, feeling a deep quiver run down my spine. A chill cast in the room, I involuntarily pulled my arms over my chest and hunched. "Are you cold?" he asked me. I didn't respond. Placing his hands on my thighs, he turned my body towards him. I gasped at the touch, he smirked and placed his hands higher. "Lets play a game," he muttered. I broke free of his grip and turned my body in the complete opposite direction. Pulling his chair a bit forward, he leaned to look at me, forcing me to meet his gaze. I looked at him only from the corners of my eyes. I took in his dark, round face. His lips were scratched up. The unruly eyebrows and scattered stubble. He had small, squinted eyes and a long nose. "Get used to it," he muttered. And to my horror, laughed. The front door opened and I relaxed the slightest hearing my father's footsteps. He looked at the man and grimaced. They exchanged a nod of understanding. "You have my approval," my father told him.
From the kitchen, I heard my mother let out a soft wail. I hadn't realized she'd been listening. The man stood up and I felt a weight lift from my chest. He was leaving. But as he reached for a bag, I saw I was wrong. Instead he took out a large folder and told my father the money was inside. I couldn't understand what was happening. Leaving Annie on the chair, I said I was going to my mother and began walking towards the kitchen. My father shouted at me to stop. I was to leave with the man. A pain in my stomach erupted, making me feel as though I was to vomit. A deep, gaping hole opened in my chest. I felt suffocated and a deafening throb banged in my head. Every instinct in my body told me to run as fast as I could, as far as I could get from here. But I was too shocked to move. My knees began to shake and I wiped back the tears dripping onto my neck. The man came over to me and grabbed me by the arm. No one stopped him. It was time to leave. From the kitchen, I heard my mother collapse into full-on howling sobs. She was going to drown herself in tears. I wished I had the capacity. As the man pulled me out the door I tried to stop him. He yanked me effortlessly. We got to his car and I remember leaving Annie. Weeping, I begged for him to only fetch my doll. He told me to shut up before he would have to, forcefully. Without her I was entirely alone. Nothing to touch or remember home by. "Please," I begged him. He shoved me back, pushing my shoulder and slammed the car door shut.
I looked out the window trying to memorize everything I could about the scene. I did not know if I would ever return. Already, nothing looked the same. How could this be the home I went to sleep in last night and wake up to this? As the car began to pull away I saw my father standing at the door. He looked into my eyes and I saw the soul of a shallow man. I have felt nothing since. Over time, I've stopped noticing the yellow bruising covering my heart.