Tough Luck by Mikayla Gordon

Gravel crunched as my car wheezed up the old country road I had fought so hard to

forget. I felt my heart squeeze as I passed the old oak tree I used to climb to escape the walls of a

prison disguised as a home. I could still see my old treehouse Papa had built for me on one of

those rare occasions he was sober and happy at the same time. There was no way I could fit in

that treehouse anymore. If I could, I would’ve hauled a sleeping bag up there and left the house

for the people who wouldn’t be haunted by the ghosts that lived there.

I didn’t tell Papa I was coming. Six years was like six days to him and he didn’t give a

damn when I moved out to live in the next state over. He would send me a letter from time to

time to tell me about a family death. But I never wrote back.


Mama had been sickly for her entire life. It never got too serious. So I didn’t give it a

second thought when Papa sent me a letter telling me she was sick again. I tossed the letter into

the fireplace like I always did. But a week later another letter came from Papa saying she was

getting worse and worse every day. I left that letter on the kitchen counter.

Another letter from Papa. I sliced it open and discovered my mother’s death. No details. No information about the funeral. Just: Mama passed on. Wanted you to know. -Papa.

I didn’t cry or regret being absent for her death. I just grabbed a beer from the fridge and

sat on the counter with the letter underneath my thigh. I finished my beer and packed a bag. I

wanted to leave the letter on the counter. I shoved it in my bag instead.


I finally caught view of the drooping brown farmhouse. Looked like no one was home. I

pulled up and parked in front of the barn to leave space for when the others showed up. I pulled

my bag from the back seat and walked around to the back door. It was unlocked- it always was. I

guess Papa still hadn’t gotten around to fixing the lock. The smell of whiskey flooded my senses

immediately. Ash trays littered the floor and stacks of cigarette cartons filled the countertops. I

threw my bag on the couch and opened the fridge: empty except for a pack of beer and a carton

of eggs. I grabbed a beer. I guess Papa had gone out for bacon like he always did on Saturday

mornings. I probably had about twenty minutes to myself before he came back.



Papa’s voice jerked me from my daze.

“Papa. Hey.”

I didn't know how to greet him. Never did.

“What the hell you doin out here?”

He already sounded uninterested.

“I came once I got your letter. About Mama.”

“I didn’t think you read them damn things. Thought maybe ya tossed em in a waste bin or

in the fire.” He hobbled to the fridge and got out his eggs.

“Well I do throw them in the fireplace- after I read them.” I walked over to him and

opened the pack of bacon he’d bought.

“Never responded.” Papa snatched the bacon out of my hand.

I hopped up on the counter and watched as he scrambled his eggs and fried his bacon.

“I never had anything to say to them. And you’ve never been keen on looking through the

mail anyway.” He peered at me sideways while he plated his food.

“Get up off that counter, girl. You ain’t a child no more.” I hopped down and took a seat

at the kitchen table. Papa followed with his breakfast.

“Still won’t make me breakfast, Papa?” He never cooked for me when I was a girl.

Always told me men shouldn’t cook for women.

“A man shouldn’t be cookin for no grown woman, Josephine. If you want something, you

can fix it yourself.” He hadn’t looked me in my eyes yet.

I hesitated with my next words: “Where is everyone?”

His head shot up and his eyebrows furled in what looked like frustration. He quickly

looked down again and stuffed a piece of bacon in his mouth. He proceeded to finish his food

and got up to rinse his plate off.

While he was at the sink, he said: “Ain’t nobody comin.”


I was seven when I heard the gunshot come from the barn. I had been up in my treehouse

playing with sticks. I didn’t give it a second thought. Papa was probably shooting his anger out

again. I peered out the door of the treehouse and saw Papa walking through the front door. It

wasn’t Papa shooting the gun.

I scrambled down the thick oak tree and started running toward the barn. I dragged the

barn doors open. Catherine, my older sister, was lying in a pool of blood. A handgun lying next

to her.

Papa's figure appeared in the barn door. He froze at the sight of her- we both knew what

she had done.

I didn’t cry for her. She never paid any attention to me. She was Papa’s shadow, going

wherever he went and doing whatever he did. We were sisters by blood alone.

Papa laid next to her in that barn for hours. Didn’t move her body. Didn’t call anyone for

help. After his initial shock wore off, he told me to go tell Mama. Not to go get her and bring her

to the barn. Just tell her. I told her and she vomited up her lunch before collapsing on the couch. I

cleaned up the vomit and put a cold rag on her forehead. Mama clutched one of my pigtails

before I could leave.

“Don’t tell nobody about this, Josephine. There ain’t no point.” Her black eyes bore holes

into my brown ones.

“But Mama, Catherine just went away. Aren’t our people going to come to her funeral to

say bye to her?” I saw the tears flood her eyes as I was speaking.

Mama yanked my pigtail so hard I saw stars. “Ain’t nobody comin, Josephine. They ain’t



“What? Why isn’t anybody coming? When is the funeral?” I already knew the answers. I

just wanted to hear him say it.

“Don’t ask stupid questions, girl. You know why they ain’t comin.” He tugged a beer out

of the fridge and leaned on the counter.

“Tell me why.” I was challenging him. He couldn’t admit it to himself when Catherine

died. But now his wife was dead too.

“Shut up.”

His voice trembled. Beer dribbled from his mouth onto the floor.

“Tell me.”

He slammed his fist on the counter.

“Damn it Josephine. I said to shut your damn mouth.” He set his beer in the sink and took

the whiskey out from behind the cookie jar. That’s where he’d always kept it.

“Why have you always run away from the truth, Papa. You knew what you were getting

into when you got with Mama. You knew what people would say.” I felt my muscles tighten,

preparing for him to yell or throw something at the wall.

“I don’t wanna talk about it, Josephine.” His voice was tight. He was on his second glass

of whiskey.

I felt blood rushing to my head. My cheeks burned and my muscles ached. He never

wanted to talk about it.


“Sit still or I’ll burn you again, girl.” Mama was doing my hair for church. She used her

old curling iron to loop my springy curls into something more contained.

“But Mama, I’ve got to use the bathroom.”

The scorch of the curling iron made me cry out and the smell of burning flesh made my eyes

water. I glanced at my neck in the mirror. Another burn to add to the collection.

“Hush and hand me the brush. It ain’t as bad as the last one.”

I handed her the brush and sat there trying not to pee my only church dress.

“Daphne! Let’s go! We gonna be late if you keep at that hair!” Papa called from the living

room where he was waiting with Catherine. Mama never did Catherine’s hair. It was already

smooth and wavy. Already good enough just the way it was.

Mama unplugged the curling iron and stared at me while I relieved myself. She hit me in

the chest when I took too long to wash my hands.

“I’ll cut your face the next time you waste my time like that.”

It wouldn’t have been the first time.


“I already buried her.” His voice was hardly a whisper.

I looked over at him, scarcely registering what he had said. His sharp blue eyes finally

met mine. He wasn’t lying.

“You didn’t even want to have a wake? I mean, aren’t they all going to see it in the

newspaper anyway, Papa? It would be better if it just came from you.”

“It ain’t gonna be in the newspaper, dammit. I didn’t tell nobody except you. And I didn’t

think you’d come all the way back here for this...”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Why wouldn’t I come back?”

“You know why ya wouldn’t come back, Josephine. You never cared for your mama the

way I did.”

“Are you serious? You let your family hurl slur after slur at her, insult after insult. They

called us mutts, Papa. You think we didn’t know how they felt? And you never said a damn thing

to defend any of us. You must've seen where they were coming from.” I spat my words out at

him. I wanted him to regret not being the man we all needed him to be.

“What was I supposed to do, Josephine? Get shot at for tellin em not to use the hard R?

For tellin em they were outta line?” He coughed up the words like it was painful.

“Yes! That's exactly what you should have done! How can you have a family like this and

not defend us when we needed it most? You’re a coward.” I felt the tears pooling under my eyes.

“Well if I am- then so are you.” The words slithered out of his mouth like poison.



I sat down on the couch next to Mama. She was reading the paper for the third time that

day, trying to find a new job. She’d just been laid off at the mill.

“Mama, why didn’t anyone come to see Catherine? Don’t they care that she died?”

She glared at me over her reading glasses before pushing me off the couch.

“I thought I told you not to talk about all that, girl. If you wanna know so bad, go ask

your daddy. He knows all about it.” Her voice never faltered but she set the newspaper down and

lit a cigarette. She was stressed.

I trudged over to the barn, where Papa was stacking our dwindling supply of hay. He

never liked me to be in there anymore. He liked to be alone with Catherine’s ghost.

“Papa, why didn’t anybody come to see Catherine?”

“Whatchu talkin about, girl. Stop talkin that nonsense. Don’t worry bout them.”

“But Mama said I should come ask you because you know all about it.” I knew that

would grab his attention. He didn’t like it when Mama said stuff like that.

“Your mama still upset about the whole thing, Josephine. She ain’t in her right mind

about it yet.”

“Maybe Mama wouldn’t be so upset if our people came to see about Catherine. They

never come to see us anymore, Papa.”

Papa never said anything when they called us bad names. But maybe they wouldn’t call

Catherine bad names anymore since she was gone.

“Hush about all that. They just busy, that’s all. Now I ain’t talkin about it no more. Go on

back in the house before I get a switch.”

Papa never wanted to talk about it.


“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” My tears dried up and were replaced

with burning anger.

“You never came to see about her. You was scared of her.” He wobbled over to the couch

and sank into it, whiskey still in hand.

“Of course I was scared of her!” I clutched the counter next to me and touched the scars

on my neck.

“I understand she made a whole lotta poor choices, Josephine. But I do think she loved ya

deep down in her heart.” My hand never left my neck as I stepped over to him slowly.

“Deep down? It shouldn’t have been deep down- it should have been in a place where I

could see it, Papa.” I was hovering over him now.

“She didn’t know how to show it, Josephine.” He leaned over and set his whiskey glass

on the cluttered coffee table.

“I don’t give a damn if she knew how, she could've tried. She never even tried! I was

nothing but a punching bag for her and a second thought to you.” I thumped down on the couch

next to him, exasperated.

Papa leaned his head back against the couch cushion and shut his eyes.

“I know.” He almost sounded relieved. Like I had cracked the code. He slowly lifted

himself off the couch and shuffled to the fridge. He grabbed two beers and shoved one into my


“Even if all them things are true, Josephine- now all we got is each other.”

I winced as he said it.

“Tough luck for us, then.”