Diamond Devil by Naomi West



I’m crying and running and running and crying. At this point, I’m mostly just curious to see which one will give out first: my tears or my legs.

Sixty minutes into my run, though, both are going strong. Turns out it’s easy to run when you’re putting your whole sordid, nasty, terrifying past behind you. When you’re turning your back on your family and your sins, running actually comes kinda naturally.

As for the tears?

Well, those come naturally, too.

My dad’s handprint on my cheek burns like he branded me there. He’s never hit me before, but he sure didn’t hold anything back from this one. And for a first timer, he did a damn good job. He slapped me right across the face as if he’s been waiting my whole life to do exactly that.

He regretted it as soon as it happened, of course. I could see that much in his eyes: fear, hot shame, the instant surge of self-hatred.

But no matter how much he regretted it, the damage was already done.

It’s kind of ironic that it’s a beautiful evening in Chicago. Shouldn’t terrible things happen on terrible days? It ought to be pouring buckets down from the gray heavens so that fat raindrops mix with my tears. Locusts should be descending on the suburbs like Moses and the Pharaoh just got into their little tiff. Someone I love should cut their own bangs.

None of that is happening, though. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the park I’m circling on my broad running loop is full of children and mothers laughing.

It’s not just Dad’s slap that’s seared on my skin—it’s also the things I said to him right before that. Things that crossed the line, that broke the thin ice we’ve been living on for the two long years since Mom’s diagnosis.

I wish I could take those words back, just like Dad wishes he could undo the slap. But like I said: the damage is done.

No turning back now.

So I parrot the words I said out loud to myself between painful gasps of breath. Why? Maybe because I’m a masochist and I like it. Or maybe because I just think I deserve to be punished. But not even punished in a cool, cosmic, God-strike-me-with-a-bolt-of-righteous-lightning kind of way. Just a petty, cruel kind of way.

“‘If only Mom’s cancer were contagious. Then all of us could be trapped at home, too. Miserable just like you are.’”

That’s what I said to him.

Even now, I can’t help but cringe. I’ve repeated my own words back to myself a thousand times since I ran out of the front door of the home I grew up in, and they aren’t getting any easier to hear.

My sister Celine didn’t know what to do when she heard me say that. She came downstairs in the middle of the fight, trying to play the peacekeeper as always.

“Stop!” she screamed. “Both of you, please, stop!”

But there wasn’t any stopping after that. I said what I said, Dad slapped me, and from that point forward, we were all stuck on the same nightmarish rollercoaster with no way off.

I wonder what Celine is doing right now, as I begin my third lap of the track encircling the neighborhood park. She’s probably still slack-jawed and staring at the door I ran through like I’ll come back any moment bearing flowers and cake and apologies.

Old Taylor might’ve done exactly that.

New Taylor just can’t.

Two years of watching your mother wither to a husk of herself will do that to a woman. She’s the one dying, but I feel like I’m losing parts of myself, too, with every pound that evaporates from her too-thin frame.

We almost avoided this fate. One year in, we were told that the treatments were taking. The chemo was working. The tumors were shrinking from golf balls to pinheads to nothing at all.

Then—Whoops, the doctors said. Scans were wrong. We made a mistake. Looks like you’re dying after all.

Thosetears were some I’ll never forget.

It got worse after that. Mom shrank faster; her skin grew pale and thin like tissue paper. Her eyes were the most haunting bit of all: gray and almost unseeing, like one of those cave fish at the Shedd Aquarium she used to take us to on rainy days when Celine and I were little.

She’s still here. For how much longer, none of us really know. I wonder how much of tonight’s fight she heard from her bed upstairs.

You know what I can’t get over most of all, though? That the shame in my dad’s eyes preceded him actually hitting me.

It started as a silly little bickering over my curfew. Yes, I still live at home—but I’m twenty years old now, and a midnight curfew for a grown-ass woman is almost a slap in the face in its own right.

If only Mom's cancer were contagious. Then all of us could be trapped at home, too, miserable just like you are.

It felt disturbingly good to say that to Dad when he tried to tell me where I could and couldn’t go. Those words have been bubbling up in my gut for almost two years of his overprotectiveness and paranoia.

But it’s more than that, too.

Dad is afraid.

And he’s been afraid since before Mom got sick.

I first noticed it when I caught sight of him making dinner in the kitchen one night and realized with a jolt just how skinny he’d gotten. He was never a big man, but the beer-gut dad bod I’d always known was gone. In its place was a skittish man, badly shaven, paler than he had any right to be.

His eyes never stopped moving, either.

Like he was waiting for a shadow to lunge out and strangle him.

Why would that be? I have no earthly idea. Archie Theron is a travel agent, for crying out loud. Not exactly a high-stakes profession. He’s a father of two, married to his high school sweetheart, living in the quiet, tree-lined suburbs of Chicago. There are no shadows out here who like to strangle people. The obscene property taxes pay for some very nice streetlights, actually, so there aren’t many shadows at all.

But you wouldn’t know that by looking at Archie Theron. He was the kind of scared that makes you scared, too, just by happening to glance in his direction.

I should’ve asked then what was frightening him. But the next day, we found out about Mom, and everything else dimmed in importance.

I wonder what he would’ve said if I did.

I snap myself out of my reverie and look up to realize the sun has sunk behind the trees. The park has emptied, too, and my legs are starting to quiver from exhaustion. My tears dried up at some point while I was thinking, though I’m not quite sure when.

With a sigh, I turn toward home.

Home. What a concept. It’s supposed to feel safe, isn’t it? You should never be scared to go home. You should never be afraid of what monsters are waiting for you in the corners of your room. You should never hate the people who also call it home.

But all those things are true right now.

Still, where else would I go? I’ve got nowhere else. No one else. I know better than anyone what happens when you dare to believe in a future or in other people, and as foolish as I may be sometimes, I’m not about to make that same mistake twice. I did that once, and it almost cost me my sister. I won’t do it again.

I take an easy pace around the final bend. Home is a few blocks away now. My thoughts have quieted, though I wouldn’t say they’ve exactly sorted themselves out. More like they’ve just agreed to take a breather. They’re as exhausted as I am.

I can see the Theron household way down at the end of the road. The rose bushes under the windowsills have gotten a little raggedy without Mom tending to them every day, and the yard has begun to outgrow its boundaries. But it’s still cute. Still peaceful.

For now.

I’m crossing the street when several things happen at once.

First, a blinding light appears in the corner of my vision.

Second, I look up to realize that a car is barreling towards me, and it isn’t stopping anytime soon.

Third, I do the only thing I can do: close my eyes and pray that death doesn’t hurt as bad as life has lately.