Maggie Stuart crouched in a corner of the closet in her bedroom. She was six years old, so none of the hanging garments were long enough to cover her, to hide her. She bent her knees and pulled them close to her chin, inhaling and exhaling slowly and quietly. If she remained very still, he might not suspect that she was home from school.
The front door opened. Maggie could hear voices coming from the kitchen, her father shouting that he worked a long shift and why was it so much to ask to find a cold beer waiting for him.
“Where is she? Where’s Maggie?” When her mother didn’t answer him, Maggie heard the crisp, clapping sound signifying that her father had slapped her mother, probably across her soft, pale cheek.
“She’s in her room.” Maggie knew her mother wouldn’t protect her. Mommy’s just too scared.
“You make me sick,” he muttered.
First came the quick hissing when he opened the warm can of Budweiser. Then the plodding footsteps making their way to Maggie’s room. Followed by a thud against her closed bedroom door.
“Leave Maggie alone, Dad!” By the proximity of his voice, Maggie knew that Paul was attempting to block her door with his outstretched small frame. Arms and legs spread out to cover his little sister’s bedroom. He had done that in vain over the past days, hoping to stop his father from entering the house through the front door. Maggie heard a scratching sound and then what could only be her brother being swatted to the ground.
The door opened with a force, slamming against the inside wall of the bedroom. Maggie heard him trudging directly to the closet. Hand on knob. Door opened. Filled with terror, she met his stare, dark with a mission.
Margaret took the bus to work because she was afraid to drive a car. She didn’t look at the other commuters or speak to anyone. She focused on a spot on the bus floor or the toe of her shoe and looked up only when her stop was called and the doors opened.
Each day after work, Margaret would go directly to therapy. When she took the earlier bus, she had time to go to the coffee shop near Dr. Harvey’s office before her session began. Today she bought a blueberry muffin and sat at a table against the wall. As she broke a piece off the large muffin and slowly chewed, Margaret watched a man and woman enter the shop and approach the counter. The man ordered coffee – light and sweet. The woman wanted hot tea. With their beverages, they sat at a table close to Margaret’s.
“You’re in a coffee shop. Why do you have to order tea? You’re so stupid. You make me sick.” He abruptly left the table with a shove, deliberately spilling the woman’s tea.
Margaret looked at her hands. They were trembling. She didn’t want the man to see her.
She tilted her head downward, closed her eyes and thought of Dr. Harvey’s words. Breathe in.
Breathe out. She tried to calm herself as best she could. As her heart rate began to slow and her hands grew still, she lifted her head, glad that she was able to maintain control. Margaret watched the woman clean up the spilled tea with the sleeve of her coat. Then the man returned to the table with a cinnamon bun and sat down. With his presence, Margaret’s anxiety resurfaced and her head throbbed. She noticed the woman stiffen as the man glared at her, taking large bites of his pastry. Margaret dropped her chin and looked down at the table. It was becoming more difficult to breathe, to focus. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath.
It felt like a blink, but when she lifted her head, the couple was gone and their table was cleared. Margaret looked down at the empty muffin wrapper. She thought she still had half a muffin and twenty minutes until her appointment. In reality, she had three minutes to traverse a ten minute course to Dr. Harvey’s office.
She arrived at his office winded and frazzled.
“Dr. Harvey, I’m sorry I’m late.”
“Margaret, you seem out of sorts.”
She focused on a painting of horses hanging on the wall behind Dr. Harvey. The room was silent. Margaret tried to steady her hands and hoped that her head would stop throbbing. Breathe in. Breathe out. She closed her eyes and saw the couple from the coffee shop. She opened her eyes and knew that Dr. Harvey saw her fear.
“Margaret, what is it? Did something happen today?”
“I saw him.” She drew her shoulder inward which caused her to appear small and childlike. She seemed to shrink before the doctor’s eyes.
“Who did you see?”
“I saw my father.” Her voice began to crackle and rise in pitch. “He spilled hot tea on Mom because she didn’t order coffee in the coffee shop.” Her eyes grew rounder and she squirmed into the chair and brought her knees to her chest and tilted her head down. She began to cry softly.
“Margaret, your parents are dead. They passed on years ago. You know that.”
Now in a little girl’s voice, she continued as though Dr. Harvey hadn’t said a word. “And Paulie ate the rest of Margaret’s muffin even though she said I could have it.”
“I did not! Maggie’s lying!” A boyish voice. Head lifted. Tightened jaw. Furrowed brow.
“Is that you, Paul?” Dr. Harvey inquired.
“Were you in the coffee shop with Margaret today?” The psychiatrist jotted something onto a yellow legal pad.
“Margaret was there, but after Dad spilled tea on Mom, Margaret left. Then Maggie was there for only a minute. But she was too scared to stay.”
“Did you eat the muffin, Paul?”
“Yeah, I ate it.” Paul looked down, embarrassed.