Dad lined up the five children along the side of the unmade bed, faced to witness the crime scene. The thin, pilled sheets were balled up, to expose a split in the bed’s mattress, with foam chunks partly squeezed back into the incision. The afternoon sun was making its way out after a long day of blazing the galvanize roof of their board house. By now it hovered just over the gallery, to be soon replaced by the dew.
“Who did this?”
Had he spoken with more thunder, they would be less afraid. His smooth demeanor was unnerving. He fingered his moustache, twirling and smoothing it. If the culprit remained in hiding, he said, they would all pay the consequences. He gave them some time.
“Say it was you, Ingrid. He won’t hit you.” Ashton negotiated with the baby of the set, trying to save them all from a merciless lashing. Angeli chimed in, begging Ingrid to martyr herself. But they all knew that the two year old’s dexterity could never permit her to hold a razor blade steadily enough to slice through the layers of a new mattress.
“Peter pay for Paul, and Paul pay for all.” Dad taunted. He wiped his face with the inside of his security guard uniform shirt, and motioned to Ashton to fetch his leather belt, ready to initiate judgement. The room spun and the greys of it blurred, as the boy tiptoed to unhook the broad black embossed belt, with the heavy silver buckle, from the back of the door.
Dad surveyed their brown, tear-glistening faces for guilt. Angeli looked away when she felt him reach her eyes. She allowed the overgrown part of the front of her hair to shield her from his inspection. Her stomach wrung like wet laundry, thinking back to when she discovered the razor blade in the dust pan. She had been sweeping their parents’ bedroom and saw the sharp silver edge shine among the gray fluff. Impulsively, she picked it up and tested it on the bed for sharpness. Like a scalpel, the blade slid through the fabric, and the foam innards bubbled out.
Dad folded the belt in half, and while squeezing it, ran his hand down its length. Baby Ingrid whimpered, frightened to feel her first beating. The eldest, Patricia pleaded for pardon. Marilyn stifled her emotions, biting down on her lip, mentally rehearsing prayers they learned at school. Ashton forced himself still through trembling, because all experienced West Indian children know that flinching calls for a second serving of licks.
Dad slapped the belt against the bed post. The children gasped and froze, anticipating their fate. Eyes open, though burning with tears, they lifted their heads high, honoring their truth.
Dad started at the end of the line, aggressively pulling Ingrid by her curled arm, to set the first example. The baby shrieked in fear, reddened and choking on her voice.
Angeli lunged forward, and between breathy sobs confessed “It was me! Dad, it was me!” It was she who busted the mattress. She closed her eyes and put her hands out for retribution. He looked for the honesty in her face, which was indisputable. Dad released the baby’s tiny arm, and she slumped, caught by Pat before hitting the ground.
“Well, what ya waitin’ on? Sew it back up!”
The belt clanked, skating across the floorboard where Dad flung it carelessly. He pointed to Mom’s sewing station with one hand, pulled a lighter from his pocket with the other, and exited to the porch to smoke his evening cigarette.