‘Escape to Shelter’ – a short story by Kathy Badenock
by Kathy Badenock
Third place winner in 2021 H. Nigel Thomas / UWI Open Campus Fiction Competition
“Not tonight. Not tonight”.
She forced herself to relax the grip of her hands on the sheet she had pulled right up to her chin, despite the heat. The cheery floral pattern on the white cotton sheet was such a contrast to the terror she felt every night at the thought of coming to bed. Ears strained to catch the slightest sound of a brown calloused hand turning the handle on the door to her room and pushing it open after the rest of the house had gone to bed. Her mother had not blinked when her own father had bought the can of WD-40 to oil the hinges of the door. They had all agreed that the squealing hinges on the door was a huge bother especially in the night when their 15 year old daughter made her nightly pilgrimages to the bathroom to relieve herself. Her mother had not seen her stop, motionless at the public steps taken by the one who should have been protecting her but had now turned …
Grace struggled to make each breath of air even, as though in sleep. If asleep, her attacker would go away. This was the game he played and he had come out to play tonight with her mother working the night shift on her security job. Every last dollar was needed in the household especially with the uncertainty of the pending volcanic eruptions looming in the background in the same way he often loomed over her, pressing much too close as she washed dishes at the sink. The accidental elbow she had thrown into his ribs after that first occasion was punished publicly. “She rude. De gyal getting rude. Sum little boy ah talk ting in ah she ears”. Her father had been the source of the rumours of her involvement with “Tom, Dick an’ Harry”, all as cover for his unwanted and unnatural affections towards her, his own flesh and blood.
Grace peeked through the barely open slits of her eyes and looked at her salvation resting just inside the door to her room. The grey and black Jansport backpack that she normally used for school when school was not online was already packed with her emergency…nay…freedom supplies. The news to be prepared for a possible evacuation of the red zone had come like manna from above to the children of Israel in the desert. She saw this volcanic eruption as the answer to her fervent prayers each night, “Not again Lord, Not tonight”. Everything that mattered to her was in that bag. Everything that she needed to survive in a shelter and away from her caregiver turned personal monster was in that bag.
The entire two bedroom concrete house seemed to hold its breath in sympathy with her even as the handle of her door began to turn. Her heart beat a rhythm of SOS out of timing with the slow opening of the 10 year old painted plywood door on 15 year old hinges. One step, two steps and the smell of the Razac cream hit here even as she struggled to give an Oscar award winning performance of young woman in the throes of sleep. A brown calloused hand ruffled the bed covered in flowers starting from her feet, tracing a path up and ever upwards and ….pilling pillling pilling pilling.
Beep beep beep. Ding Dong Ding dong. A cacophony of sounds rang out disturbing the atmosphere of death in the house. Yes, death, for every time her father touched her inappropriately, a bit of her heart seemed to die even as she wished that she would find the strength to end him before she, that optimistic helpful young woman, faded completely from existence.
At the first sound of the noise, Mr. Jackson jumped and removed his hand as though burnt. He was frightened like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. They had been preparing for the possibility of evacuation. Those were the sound of alarms. This could only mean that it was time to evacuate. The father in him seemed to reassert itself and he violently roused his daughter from her sleep. They had to get their bags and head to the wharf to leave.
Grace pretended to jump from her sleep and gaze sleepily at the hated figure of her father in her room. She too had heard the noise and was eager to seize the freedom she was being afforded by the volcano. Without further ado, Grace got up and dressed stopping only to grab her pack on the way to the front door where she was met by her father as they walked side by side down the road towards the boat.
Already the village had come to life. What monsters must hide behind the painted walls, Grace wondered to herself as she looked around her at the village. There was a sweltering heat outside permeated by the smell of rotten eggs. As she looked towards the mountains, a light show was already happening as the summit of the la Soufriere volcano was lit up from the inside with an eerie red and orange glow. Dogs of doubtful ad varied lineages ran underfoot and added their yelps to the sounds of the village. In another lifetime, five months ago, her slim fingers would have itched to draw it while her large round, black eyes would store the vision in her memory until paper and oil crayons were available to pluck it from memory one line at a time.
Bow, bow, bodoom boom boom. Another explosion echoed, speeding already hustling figures to the wharf. Children of all ages with sleep on their faces and fright in their steps clutched their parents’ hands and bags twice their size as they looked to evacuate from the picturesque village. Masks in all colours, shapes and sizes adorned different parts of their faces. So much for covid- 19 protocols. Given what she was observing, many a chin, hair and mouth and even a few eyes would be protected from the errant covid-19 filled sneeze, cough or spit particle escaping by way of overzealous speech.
The church bell, police siren and car horns performed their symphony in the background as villagers performed their last minute evacuation dance weaving to and from with props of different sizes held aloft by arms, heads, backs and even mouths. Grace joined the crowd of bodies pushing towards the already lowered ramp of the boat. The smell of the boat’s engine was barely noticeable amidst the melting pot of body odour, sulphur and deodorant. She struggled to stay on her feet knowing instinctively that to fall meant to be crushed in the sea of bodies, all with the primeval push for survival. Looking around, it would appear that her father had gotten left behind on the wharf and she smiled broadly as the first whispers of freedom threated to lift her in a high akin to that experienced from smoking the ganja plant grown high in the mountains behind her home. Escape to the shelter was the plan. No one knew when they would be back home. That should give her enough time to make friends and find a way out.
The black and white boat was tossed left, right, up and down as it battled with the waves. It was as if a toddler was playing with the remote of his new toy boat. No one screamed as all eyes were glued to the mountains from whence their destruction was coming; their destruction but her help.
The sound of the boat’s horn roused everyone aboard from their reverie. Lights from the Kingstown harbour twinkled joyfully, getting larger and less mysterious as the boat made its final approach. Even at this hour, the wharf was abuzz with activity. Grace was hopeful that she could get lost in the organized disorder before her. A final jarring as the mechanical blackfish bumped gently against the wharf and the ramp was lowered. Reluctantly, then gaining bravado by the presence of the uniformed cadet officers waving them forward, the passengers of the boat disembarked and headed in the general direction of the awaiting buses. Finally, with more pushing, some complaining and much uncertainty, everyone was loaded unto the buses and taken to a shelter. “Is you alone? Way yo daddy dey? How yo mudda gwine fine yo?” were questions thrown at her from faces she recognized from her village. The unspoken understanding was that, in the absence of her parents, she would be taken under someone’s wing and looked out for since she was one of their own. For the second time that night, Grace relaxed. Her escape was looking successful.
The arrival of the shelter came less than half an hour later. The school looked newer than her own back in the countryside but was wearing the same uniform of light green with blue and yellow trim. Even the shelter managers seemed flustered by the influx of persons, after all, this was new territory to most. By the time the fifth family approached the table for sanitizing and filling in of the registration paperwork, the petite built woman at the desk with her experience showing in the lines on her face and too black hair had resorted to just recording the names of the head of the household and the number of persons in the family. When she came to Grace, her expression softened for a second. “you alone? Where’s your family?’
“Me dey. Luk me. Murdoo, dem stairs dey is a killa!”. This exclamation came from the stairwell which soon spat up a head and the body of a slightly overweight woman clad in security uniform. As she reached the top of the stairs, she paused for a moment, bending over to catch her breath which she had seemingly dropped at the top of the stairs. Her cell phone was still trying to belt out a strangled tune as its airways were cut off by the palm of her hand. She was somehow able to put it out of its misery when she answered, “Me dey. Ah reach. Tanks”. Grace looked at her mother and around her mother, eyes darting in fear at the now empty stairwell. The same woman she had spoken to on the bus shouted her name from a nearby bench and said with an affectionate smile, “Grace, ah bin call yo’ mudda. Ah know she wuking in town. Too bad yo’ fadda lost”. Grace responded with a tight smile. Despite her best efforts, she was no longer free. Her mother had found her and if her mother was there, it was only a matter of time before her father joined them. At least they would be at a shelter, in public and he wouldn’t dare demonstrate his depravity publicly, she hoped.
Gracelyn walked towards her only child, thankful that they were together despite the uncertainty that was to come. She saw the look of fear in her daughter’s eyes as she looked searchingly behind her to the stairwell and her heart nearly stopped beating in her chest. Even as she went through the motions of registering her family for a room at the shelter, her conscience again took up arms against her. She had seen the looks that her common law husband had been giving to her daughter these 6 months past. Similar looks and what they led to haunted her from her own childhood. Such was life. She had made it through and gotten out at 18 when she went to live with her now common law spouse. Grace would have to make it through as well without tearing their family apart. In these hard, guava crop times, there was little other choice: survive how you can.
The rising and waning tide of conversation around them as families came and settled in was background noise to the internal turmoil faced by these 2 females, each hiding their scars, their shame and their resolve behind blank black faces deep within the recesses of their minds. That night, Grace went to bed on a sheet of cardboard covering the floor in a classroom partitioned into 2 family rooms by a standing chalkboard. From her vantage point, she could see the bleached wads of chewing gum drained of their colour and flavour by the previous occupants of the room. The corners of the room still held the occasional wisp of pencil shaving that the unenthusiastic labours of the janitors would have missed and the cold, hard floor smelled like…well, unwashed feet but, for the first time in 5 months, she slept like a baby.
The air was heavy. The sixth sense of animals, birds and humans alike alerted them that something was imminent and inevitable…like death and the Independence Day goodies give away by the PM. And then, it happened; a loud noise like thunder accompanied by a shaking. Giant, grey florets of ash bloomed skyward ever widening as they went higher. La Soufriere had erupted explosively. Persons got up and hastened to north facing windows and balconies to see the ash plume. Those who couldn’t be roused from their slumber will see it later on social media. Grace slept through the first eruption which had allowed her to escape to shelter.
Through sleep and wake, Grace felt the energy in the atmosphere. Her mother had saved her a breakfast plate and she ate it on her bed of cardboard. During the remainder of the morning, she learnt where the bathrooms were, where meals were served and where the young persons planned on gathering. She had heard that mattresses and cots were going to be delivered later that evening. She opted for a cot; better safe than sorry.
Making her way back to the space that she shared with her mother, Grace’s step faltered as she heard her father’s voice in discussion with her mother, “me nearly miss de boat. Shabba three foot dawg trip meh in a de road an’ when me bin get up, de fuss boat did gone”. While she was away familiarising herself with the layout of the shelter, her father had arrived. It would appear that not even a volcanic eruption could keep him away from his family. So much for a complete escape. Deteriorating air quality due to the amount of ash in the air meant that persons stayed within the confines of the shelter as much as possible for the next week, only leaving their rooms to eat and bathe. Grace was sure to make friends with the other persons in the shared classroom, armouring herself in a blanket of friendliness and politeness publicly while privately cocooned in a corner of weary watchfulness.
A week passed and the shelterees began settling in to their new normal. Alliances were forged, spaces claimed and pretences had started wearing thin, much like tempers and sleeping cardboards. By that time, Grace had become relatively well known in the shelter as the big sister. She could be counted on to always be available to watch the children in the common area of the shelter. She had become particularly close with the family of Sharice, a precocious 5 year old from a temporarily single parent family household. Sharice’s brother was a tall, sensible youth who bore the responsibility of being the man of his home in his father‘s absence to heart. As a college student in the waning throes of hard hitting puberty, he was mature but not blind to the attractive and intelligent young lady who had befriended his younger sister. As a result, he tried to be the gentleman that his mother was trying to raise him to be; holding a spot in the lunch line, saving her a space around the table, standing guard at the bathroom door when either Grace, Sharice or his mother went inside. The flutter in the pit of his stomach, the sudden rise in body temperature and the tingling in his fingers at her presence, were just icing on the cake. Puppy love was blossoming amidst the now dusty corridors and well-trodded walkways of the shelter. Grace felt safe in his presence, safe enough to consider the room of Sharice and her family as an escape even within the shelter.
And then the mattresses arrived a week later. “Yo better tell she get a mattress. I hear de PM say we go get dem to carry home. Doh tek no cot. Me nah wah dat in me house’ said the voice of her father as Grace approached the family ‘room”. She knew that her temporary peace had come to an end. Even as most shelterees celebrated the arrival with happy smiles and high fives at the prospect of sleeping on something other than the floor, Grace cringed as her mattress was jammed next to that of her parents in the furthest reaches of the room…for protection. The soft white single rectangle looked like the silky inside of a coffin as she went late to her funeral, one of her father’s making that evening.
Ssssh, hush….A colicky baby next door meant that the mother was awake. Someone would hear her muffled screams. As night gave way to morning, Grace resolved to make good her escape. “Not again. Not another night”, she resolved. Racking her brains as to what to do, she looked up from her breakfast of fried luncheon meat sandwich and milo tea, as she heard her name being called as a pint sized human bounced towards her. Sharice was trailed by her brother carrying both their breakfast. Grace smiled at the child since her joy was contagious. Her smile widened as her gaze took in the brother and an idea began to take shape in her head. Grace looked at the young man, batted her eyelashes and invited him to sit next to her. She could escape to another room at the shelter. Better the devil of her own choosing from tonight.
About Kathy Badenock
Kathy Badenock is a graduate teacher and has been a member of the SVG Red Cross for over 12 years. Ms. Badenock, a published author, holds a Masters in Disaster Management and various post graduate certificates in a number of areas including Global health and NGO Management.
She is also a certified Trainer in Community Early Warning Systems, Enhanced Vulnerability and Capacity Assessments, a long time National Intervention Team Member and part of the National Society’s Volunteer Management Committee.
Ms. Badenock is currently assigned to the School Safety Unit in the Ministry of Education and is assisting as a with the ongoing Caribbean Resilience Building project here in St. Vincent.
Writing, like singing, is one of her varied creative outlets.