No, no, this isn’t happening, it can’t be.
He’ll calm down, relax his hands and uncurl the fists he keeps hurling at my face.
I swear to God, he’s not a bad guy.
He just gets emotional.
He thinks I’m cheating on him.
If I lay still enough with his hands around my throat, he’ll realize what he’s doing and stop.
What if this is it?
What if they never find me and I become just another missing persons ad floating around bus stations and curling at the edges?
Some people are never found.
Maybe if I don’t fight back he’ll calm down.
He’ll remember that I love him.
I love him.
I do love him.
I love him, right?
Sometimes I’m not so sure.
He tells me I’m a terrible person and maybe he’s right.
Maybe I deserve this, deserve everything.
I hope not.
I saved a butterfly from dying once upon a time,
too young to understand the concept of karma.
Too young to understand that what goes around doesn’t always come around.
Sometimes what comes around is worse.
I might be passing out now.
Am I passing out?
At least then the pain will stop.
My mouth is bleeding.
Please make it stop.
They find her in a bus stop with flowers in her hair. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, not like this. Not in bits and pieces and flashes of a life that started out right and ended wrong. A little girl whose smile shone so bright and was snuffed out by the darkness that sought it out like moth to flame.
I read her story over my morning coffee with the TV telling me the day’s weather in the background. I swallow the lump in my throat and remember that I once found myself in similar places, surrounded by similar darkness. Even now, far removed from the faces that once haunted my dreams, I distinctly remember the metallic taste in my mouth as it filled with blood drawn forth from someone else’s hand. The sensation of breathlessness as someone else wraps long fingers around a soft throat and squeezes until the air left inside the lungs has turned rancid and the need to inhale becomes desperate.
It’s strange when I read the stories of the ones who didn’t get away. They remind me of butterflies who never got the chance to escape the jar. They remind me of the girl who once looked back at me from a grimy bathroom mirror with fatigue and resignation shining in her eyes, thoroughly convinced that there were no other choices than to remain and wait for the end to come.
Smoke curls its way up to the ceiling as the teenagers recline on ratty pillows. The floor is cold and a bit damp, but it’s nothing the dehumidifiers running at full speed in the basement can’t take care of. Passing the pungent joint back and forth, they go from silent and serious to giggly and rambunctious in very little time. One of them tells a story of when there were frogs in the basement and one jumped on her and she did the splits in an effort to escape her amphibious attacker. The other laughs until she chokes on the smoke she’d been valiantly trying to hold within her lungs. Great plumes of gray erupt from her nostrils as she laughs at the idea of her rigid sister doing painful splits while screaming about frogs.
It’s the only way they can cope with the reality that awaits them outside the confines of the basement. It’s another small town, another stepfather, another family that barely functions upstairs. Watching the mother that fought tooth and nail for them whittle herself down into someone so small she’s barely visible has brought the sisters together, a united front against the advancement of the Evil Stepfather. It’s a familial game of chess and there can be no winners.
The crunch of tires on gravel signals the return of their stepfather. Quickly snuffing out any remaining smoke and turning on the fans, the girls run upstairs to continue washing the dishes he’d left for them. The lists of chores grew longer the more he insulted their mother, as if giving the girls plenty to do would somehow distract them from the blatant emotional abuse.
The only time they bond is when he’s drunk, a delicate balancing act that both girls learn to do well. Keep things lighthearted, never insult or jibe, go along with drunken jokes that fall flat on sober ears or risk invoking the alcohol-soaked beast within. Faking laughter long enough to forget how to actually smile. Neither of them discuss the transformation of their mother from amazon to wallflower.
Some things are better left unsaid in the name of survival.
I was fascinated with the books lining my grandfather’s shelves. Great tomes devoted to all sorts of delicious subjects, each one bound in leather and adorned with gold lettering. I couldn’t always read the titles. Some were in languages I had never learned. He would lock himself inside his office with his books and spend hours drifting away. I liked those times the best, because they meant I could sneak past the living room almost undetected. On the rare occasions he would leave the door open slightly and take a walk down to the beach, I would poke my head inside and try to figure out what exactly made him tick. Try to discern what made him do the strange things he did to me in the living room when my grandmother wasn’t looking.
Sometimes I would watch her through the window as she hung wet clothes up on the line while his callused hands worked their way under the hem of my shirt and up over my back. I would mentally cry out for her to come back inside so he would stop before he reached around to my front. My sister, seated on his other knee, told me years later she would stare at the clock on the wall and try to read the time even though she was still too young to have learned it yet.
I learned how to keep secrets long before I really knew what they meant.
When the police came to our house to question us, my sister and I locked eyes and lied for him. The hold he had over us, telling us what he did was secret and good girls would never tell, was too strong to be shaken even by female officers with kind eyes. Accusations put forth by other family members only got him five years in prison. I still wonder what would have happened if I had told the truth.
(To be continued.)