You expect to be frightened if someone raises their fist to you, and you are, the first time. You worry about the pain, the loss of teeth – maybe their knuckle will connect with your eye and it will pop as the punch lands. After the tenth time, the pain no longer concerns you; it’s a punctuation mark in the narrative of your day.
When I first lost a molar, it was like losing a loved one. I’d never had so much as a filling, never mind an extraction. The only thing I can be thankful of – I was always told I should be thankful for my punishment – was the speed at which my punishment was dealt. I stared at my hands, at the blood that dripped from my mouth, at the white tooth that stared back up at me.
“You understand why I need to do this,” he insisted.
And I’d nod. I did understand. All the while feeling a panic rise that I couldn’t externalize, because if I did, he’d get upset. That was one of the rules – never make him upset– why would anyone that loved someone make them upset.
He said he only did it because he loved me, he said that all the time, until the word love meant hate to me. He said it wouldn’t happen if I did what I was told. I guess that was right. I had upset him. I also couldn’t bear his children. That was my fault. I knew as well as him that he was sterile – I never pointed this out, I knew what was waiting for me if I did. The punches I’d received to the stomach probably meant I couldn’t bear anyone’s children.
I knew how to cope, how to minimize violence. And that’s what I did, every second of every day.
I didn’t have many friends; the ones I had told me they couldn’t see me like this anymore. That I needed to leave him. So, one by one, they left me. In times of strife, you really do find out who you can rely on.
When I received a text message from Sally, I was surprised. I’d not spoken to her in a long time. I met her at an old job, and as these things go, when you leave, communication becomes less and less until it disappeared completely. I missed working. Seems silly to even say that.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“All good,” I replied – just like I always did. He would check my phone, I didn’t dare delete text messages – he’d know if I did, and I’d know what would be waiting for me.
“I’d like to see you,” she said.
“I’m not sure if I can.”
“Please, I’ve no-one else to turn to.”
I knew what would happen if I agreed.
“I’m sorry, I cannot. Please don’t text me again.”
And she didn’t.
I felt a guilt rise in my stomach, like knives of regret. I was abandoning her, like all my friends abandoned me. He wasn’t going to be home for a couple of hours. I had time to go out. I’d done it before. The neighbors knew better than to say anything. Especially after last time. I wondered how different it would have been if he had a normal job. It’s a fucked-up thing, power.
“Hi Sally, it’s Erica. Sorry about the text, it’s a long story.”
“I was a little upset,” she replied, “I’ve no-one else to turn to.”
“Can you visit me? I don’t want to say over the phone.”
“Where do you live?” I asked, already expecting to have to turn her down.
She told me. To my surprise, it was only a few blocks away.
“How long have you lived there?”
Wow, only down the road, so close, yet so far. I’d barely made it out of my own street in the last six months.
“How long do you need from me?”
“Sure,” I said, “I’m coming over now.”
As I left the house, I saw Mr Pennysmith next door look at me in shock. He shook his head. He knew as well as I did. But I was doing something that hadn’t been afforded to me. I was going to help someone in need.
I felt a cold sweat grow as I labored along the street. A panic beaten into me, like a rat conditioned to turn down food due to electric shock treatment. I physically had trouble moving my legs to advance forth. My brain also betrayed me. The houses, the road, the signs all appeared uncanny and not quite right, my mind pleading with me to go home like a good little girl. I was not following what I was told, and I knew what was expected of me.
Her block came into view, and I realized I didn’t know how to find her house, number 145. I approached the first building. Walking up the driveway, I squinted to see the number. My eyes weren’t great anymore. I didn’t know if glasses would have helped. I couldn’t ask for them. Up close, I saw, 3. A feeling of dread hit me, knowing I’d need to search much farther than here. When the door swung open and an old man hollered at me, I panicked.
“Get off my property!”
I apologized more than I probably should have and raced to the curb, tumbling to the ground as I did.
“I’m sorry!” I screamed at him, and his demeanor changed, to that of confusion that a grown woman was acting like a child.
I was stuck a long way from home, a long way from my prison, and all I wanted to do was return and wait for him to get home, to prove I’d not disobeyed him.
My phone rang, and I felt the sky fall. He must have come home early. I had to answer before the third ring, otherwise I knew what would happen.
“Hello?” I said nervously, he’d never say anything on the phone, he’d act normally and kindly.
“Where are you?”
It was Sally.
“I can’t find you,” I said, beginning to cry.
“Where are you now?”
“Number 3,” I said, by then the old man had gone inside.
“It’s on the same side of the street, keep following until you see the red pickup in the drive. Hurry.”
I did. I ran. My ankle hurt, but I ran. I’d made a choice, a choice that would affect me badly. So, whatever it was that she needed me for, I’d do it, it couldn’t be worse than what awaited me when I got home. And at least I’d have helped someone else. I could hold onto that; it would give me support and warmth when I needed it most. When I had to close my eyes, when I had to take it.
I was out of breath when I saw the car. I wasn’t sure if it was the right house. I could only make out the outline, but I could see the flatbed and the vibrant color in the afternoon sun. She wasn’t waiting for me at the door. After confirming the number next to the door was correct, I knocked. From inside I heard her yell, come in.
A vile smell greeted me, that of ammonia. My eyes watered, protecting themselves from the stench. The place was a state. Cardboard boxes and grocery bags lay strewn on the floor. Anonymous stains decorated the carpet. My heart sunk. She didn’t need my help, she needed a social worker, someone who could really help.
I made my way into the living room to see Sally breastfeed a small girl, instinctively I faced away.
“Hi Sally,” I said.
“I have nothing left,” she said to the child, “please let go.”
Suffering is relative, I thought to myself.
I heard the sounds of little feet on carpet, and turned to see Sally buttoning up her blouse. She looked haggard. Her eyes sunken behind grey rings, her face gaunt and scared.
The little girl appeared healthy, though her white dress was dirty and frayed at the edges. I assumed it wasn’t in the best state when she started wearing it, kids that age grew so quick.
I knelt down, feeling shards of unknown origin prickle against my knees, the carpet hadn’t been vacuumed in a long time.
“Hello, and what’s your name?” I asked.
She raced over to me and stood uncomfortably close to my face. She said nothing.
“She doesn’t talk much,” Sally offered.
“Hungry,” the little girl said.
“Apart from that,” Sally tried to muster a smile.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
The girl gnashed her teeth in my face. Startled, I reeled back.
“Stop that!” Sally demanded.
The girl giggled and ran off.
Sally’s eyes followed her and waited for the footsteps to stop, then her face fell.
“I can’t cope anymore, I’ve nothing left,” she cried.
I sat next to her on the couch, and put my arm around her.
“Have you been eating right?” I asked, “you need proper nutrition to produce milk.”
Over my shoulder I saw into the kitchen, at all the dishes in the sink, the trash that piled up in the trash can.
“I’m scared,” she said, leaning her face onto my chest. I smelled her stale odor, that of uncleanliness and dirt.
“You have a lovely little girl; everything will be okay. Do you have a boyfriend or husband?”
She nodded and cried further. The stench hit me again.
“What do you need me to do? I have money.”
I searched around in my back pocket and handed her a wad of bills I’d collected for myself, just in case I had the strength to leave him. As I held them out, I could see all the creases and the coloring that had leaked from my jeans onto the notes. It was my freedom, and I was handing it over.
“I don’t need money,” she said, though I insisted.
When she finally took it, I was relieved, but anxious at the same time.
“Is your husband here right now?”
She shook her head.
“What can I do?” I pleaded, needing to feel like I’d made a difference. So that my punishment wouldn’t be for nothing.
“She doesn’t like him,” Sally offered.
“I could look after her for a while if you want?”
Sally looked up to me, like she was a child herself.
“Yeah,” I said, “I have an hour or so.”
It was in that moment that I knew I’d overstepped that fine line. I was now committed and I would have to pay for that, though suffering is relative.
“Is there anything I need to know?”
Sally got up and stopped in her tracks as she heard the little girl’s footsteps race around the upper floor. Sally entered the kitchen, returning a few moments later with a piece of paper.
“Everything you need is here,” she said, “I’ll leave this next to the phone.”
She placed it down next to an old rotary phone near the front door. She faced me, looking me in the eyes. There was pain behind them, pain that I could only imagine. Years of neglect, stress and fear.
I wondered if her husband was like mine. She didn’t consider changing her clothes, or picking up her purse that hung on the back of the door. She just left.
I sat in silence, in a strange house, in a strange neighborhood, and for the first time that day felt like I was the lucky one.
Moments later the little girl came down the stairs, and waited at the threshold of the room.
“Hello,” I said in my best happy voice, “you know, I never got your name.”
She smiled and gnashed her teeth.
“Hungry,” she said, her voice singsong, excited. She displayed none of the anxiety her mother did, “hungry.”
“I’m not sure I can help with that, sorry. Your mom won’t be long.”
“Hungry,” she said again, this time her mouth upturned, as if a tantrum was about to start.
“There may be something in the kitchen I can get you.”
I got up and made my way in. I’d never seen a place in such a state. Open cans sat on the countertop; the innards congealed to the metal for so long not even flies investigated. I felt a tug at my shirt. I looked down to see the girl stare up at me.
I could tell she was becoming irritated.
“I’m checking,” I said, making my way over to the cupboards.
I opened them up to reveal nothing. They were all empty. I was relieved when the girl lost interest in me and started to play with the handle of a door.
“Is that the parlor?” I asked, knowing she didn’t understand.
I unlatched the door, and opened it, surprised to see a dark passage that descended into the basement. The girl ran down, shouting Hungry to herself.
I’d never looked after a child before, and I’d already let her go somewhere she wasn’t supposed to. Then I remembered the note Sally left me, it had everything I needed to know. I returned to the front of the house and picked up the note.
Erica, no one has shown kindness to me like you have today.
I smiled as I read it, it was why I did it. I wanted to be there for her unlike my so called friends.
I’m sorry, it had to be this way. Gerald isn’t at work. She’s not my daughter.
The feeling of betrayal hit me like a punch, though this hit so much deeper, somewhere physical violence cannot reach.
My phone rang in my pocket. I saw the name, and my anxiety peaked. Two rings and I answered.
“Where are you?” he said.
I didn’t reply, not because I couldn’t, but I didn’t know what to tell him.
“Fine. I’ll find you.”
I knew he could. A click of a button and an App would give him my exact location. I forgot about the little girl. I didn’t even try and leave.
I was sat on the couch when I heard sounds at the door. At least he wouldn’t do anything here, not where there could be witnesses, especially a little girl. I felt my body tense, as the door opened.
It was Sally. She was as shocked as I was.
Just like I’d done a so many times before, she had come home, like a good little girl.
“Hungry,” I heard from behind.
I saw the little girl, her chin and mouth covered in blood.
As if she’d rehearsed it, Sally unbuttoned her blouse, and revealed her chest. I didn’t look away this time, I couldn’t. I glared in horror at the tiny bite marks that decorated her skin where her breast was supposed to be. The girl ran along and jumped, latching onto her scar tissue. Beads of blood ran down her skin. Sally glared at me, with an acceptance in her eyes.
“She’s not mine,” she said, not even flinching from the obvious pain, “I can’t even remember when she arrived, it’s like she’s always been here. She didn’t like my husband, and for that I’m grateful. I’m sorry I ran away; do you forgive me?”
I saw me in her. I saw the same indoctrination, the same repeated abuse. I nodded; suffering is relative.
There was a knock at the door.
“Who’s that?” Sally said, peering in the direction of the front door.
The little girl lost her purchase and fell to the floor.
Before I could answer, he let himself in.
“Sorry to bother you, I’m here to collect my wife.”
I could see it pained him to be polite, that he just wanted to explode there and then.
Sometimes problems solve themselves, when you least expect, in the most bizarre circumstances.
“Hungry,” the little girl said.
He knelt down.
“What’s your name?” he asked, I heard a sweetness in his voice I hadn’t heard directed at me for years.
She gnashed her teeth. He didn’t flinch, he never did. He probably should’ve though.
I think I giggled when she sunk her teeth into his neck. He had the gall to cry out. I resisted as my trained body wanted to help. Sally held me back.
“You never interrupt her when she eats.”
When he stopped breathing, she dragged him, like a wolf drags a carcass. Out of the room, and into the kitchen. We heard as his body thumped one step at a time. I knew I should feel upset. At least scared. But I didn’t, something more important to me took over my emotions.
“You should leave,” Sally said.
She could see in me what I saw in her, in her eyes I saw the years of abuse, and she could see it in mine.
“This is my burden, not yours. Please, let one of us be free.”