Don’t make me choose

Hayley ran, around and around and around, her gaze firmly fixed on a bare patch of earth criss-crossed by fat black ants.

The shouts from the house behind her got louder. She ran faster. The strain in her lungs and her legs distracted her from the angry voices she didn’t want to hear. It felt good. As she pumped her legs faster her lips peeled back to reveal her clenched teeth. A smile or a grimace?

Inside the house a door slammed. Hayley tripped and stumbled and fell onto the dusty lawn. She lay there panting. The shouting had stopped. She heard the garage door rattle up and the car start. Her heart cried out don’t go and she wanted to run after it but heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs so she lay where she was. The ground was still warm from the sun. Her father’s bare feet walked into view. She closed her eyes.

Hayley knew about divorce. Zach lived half the week with his Mum and half the week with his Dad. Rosie had to move away and Hayley still saw her Dad sometimes, with his new family. Hayley had already made up her mind. If they asked, she’d stay with her Mum.

“Hey, kiddo.”

Hayley squeezed her eyes shut. She had to harden her heart. You couldn’t pick both sides.

“Mum’s gone out for a bit. It’s just you and me. What shall we do?”

She buried her face in the lawn. She could smell dirt and grass, musty and sharp all at once. She didn’t want to have to choose, but the thought of leaving her mother made her chest hurt. Her mother needed her. Sometimes she couldn’t get out of bed and sometimes she cried for no reason, like that time at the shops.

“Don’t cry, Mummy, I’ll be good,” she’d said. Her mother had smiled through the tears. “What would I do without you?” she said, and she hugged Hayley too tight. Her Mum needed her.

“Kiddo?”

Her father crouched beside her. She twisted away from his touch. He shouldn’t make Mummy cry.

“Ah, Jesus, kiddo.”

He dropped heavily to the ground and gathered her in his arms. He was big, and solid, and he swallowed her in his embrace. He smelled of beer and smoke and mouthwash.

“It’ll be okay, I promise.”

He said that to her Mum all the time. Hayley didn’t believe him either but she wanted to. She put her arms around his neck and nuzzled in like she did when she was a baby.

“That’s my girl,” he said. He stood, lifting her with him. “How about a movie? You can choose.”

She shook her head. No choosing today. She couldn’t do it.