by Valerie O'Riordan
By Thursday everyone’s saying evacuate and by Friday morning the roads are jammed. We're half a mile from home and already we're stuck and by ten we’re starving because Ma didn’t pack lunch in case she woke Da. There’s a McDonald’s not far though so I say I’m getting out. Ma says I'll whip you silly before I let you out of my sight. But I say you touch me and I'm phoning Da and let's see who'll get whipped then. As usual the mention of him starts her crying. She’s all oh Tommy what’ve we done, oh Tommy we’ve killed him, so I just go ahead and get out. There's plenty walking anyway, plenty like me without hazmat gear though most of them have faces already poxy with sores and their hair’s missing in huge baldy clumps. I try not to breathe too much. I'm dizzy when I hit Mickey D’s. I've no cash so what I do is I follow this soft-looking granny type back to her car and tap her on the shoulder and when she turns and says yes sweetheart I push her down and snatch her carton and run. I get back to our car all shaken and Ma's on the phone. She's going Liam I’m sorry Liam we’ll turn around, and I can hear the tiny buzz of Da like an electric razor screaming bitch bitch bitch! Ma holds out the phone like I’m supposed to want to talk to him and I go no way and she mouths Tommy he's on his own and I go so fucking what and she says we have to go back Tom it's not fair it’s evil and I say you’re having a laugh and she crosses herself and says just do this one thing for me love. I say I got you a stupid burger didn’t I. She says I've given up so much for you. I say suit yourself then and I throw the food on the ground and I climb up onto the verge. She’s yelling after me to watch out. I look around and this old bird’s staggering towards me, her face all bubbly with yellowy-red lumps running with pus and whatever other toxic crap. She’s going help us help us. Ma’s yelling Tommy oh God so I let this woman grab me. She’s rubbing her wet stinking face all over mine. She's not a woman she's a girl she's a kid she's my age but her face is destroyed and she's hunched like she's what fifty and she falls over when I shove her off. I look at Ma who's wailing and I shout happy now?
I've been thinking a lot over the last year or so about first-person narratives and voice, about when the first person is most useful, and about how to balance the reader's needs (exposition, context) with a narrative style that feels true to the character. This story is part of a loose series that I've been developing as I've been working this through: they're all very short, very fast, almost breathless soliloquies around a moment of crisis, where the reader's experience is (almost) secondary to the narrator's. If I'd told this story in the third person, with a little more distance, I don't think I'd have been able to get the right tone: Tommy's panic, his petty defiance and fear, his misdirected love for his mother.
Valerie O'Riordan's work has appeared in Tin House Online, The Manchester Review, LitMag, The Lonely Crowd, The Mechanics' Institute Review, Fugue, and other journals. She is Senior Editor at The Forge Literary Magazine.