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I ran down the slippery steps two at a time, craning my neck at the last step to double check that I had locked the door behind me, causing me to almost trip as the sound of my flip-flops on the cement floor echoed in the large basement.
Safe, I assured myself, as I relaxed my death-grip on the small notebook and rickety tape recorder in my hands, I’m safe.
But I wasn’t going to think like that. Not now that I had locked myself in this moldering sorry-excuse-for-a-basement yet again. Not now that I had homework that was due tomorrow.
Not now that I was forced to hide from the monsters upstairs.
I took a deep breath to steady myself and sat down with my knees crossed on the cold, hard floor. Normally, I would bring a blanket or a towel or a pillow down here with me but not tonight – there was no time. What with the slamming and the shaking and the broken glass –
And his blood and her hair and their screams and-
No. I couldn’t think about that. I took another steadying breath – this one a little shakier than the last – and opened my notebook to where I had folded the corner of the page over a few hours earlier in French class.
I owned one small notebook to my name so I made sure that I made it last between all of my classes for the entire school year by writing small and by writing only what I needed to remember.
Which wasn’t much for today’s French class, apparently. The page before me was only a quarter of the way filled with my minuscule, cramped handwriting. To me, the writing was perfectly legible but I’m sure that if I had shown it to anyone else, it would seem as illegible as chicken scratch.
Not that I ever needed or would ever need to show it to anyone else.
It read: “Very good – très bien. Good – bien. Bad – mauvais. Very bad – très mauvais. Ex. Je suis bien. Record yourself describing yourself as all four of these. Complete Oral Recording 6 assignment by tomorrow.”
I turned the flimsy-looking tape recorder in my hands and studied the buttons on the side of it. One button was for “Play”, one was for “Stop”, one was for “Pause” and then there were two buttons to rewind and fast forward and one to delete an audio clip. Simple enough. I just had to record myself saying four phrases and then hand this back to my French teacher at tomorrow’s class. I could do this. I could-
Crash! The noises upstairs started to get louder. When I ran down here with my hands clamped over my ears and my head bowed and tucked – as if I was in a freaking air raid - the noises were only threatening. I could easily tune them out. But now I was starting to hear crashes, the sounds of things breaking and, worst of all, screaming and shouting. Worse still is if I concentrated hard enough I could actually hear what they were yelling about.
But I could only hear it. Never understand it. I’d never understand what they argued about.
Nonetheless, when things got to this point I would usually just wait it out by forcing myself to go to sleep – a task that I was getting progressively better at as the lonely days and fitful nights went by. But tonight I knew – knew with a sinking feeling of dread in my gut – that I had to get this homework done tonight and turned in tomorrow. I knew I couldn’t afford to skip another Oral Recording assignment. My teacher would freak. She’d be forced to give me an F again and I knew that would not sit well with my parents.
Crash! Another noise, this time of glass breaking. Another frustrated howl. Another screech.
Stop. I had to focus on completing this thing and going to bed. I took yet another shaky breath and pressed “Play” on the tape recorder.
“Je suis très bien. Je suis bien. Je suis-“, I was cut off by the sounds of more things breaking upstairs. I could’ve continued by raising my voice slightly to be heard over the noise, but I didn’t want to alert my parents of my presence down here. This was the only relatively safe place left in the house and I don’t know what they’d do if they found me hiding down here.
Yet, I cut myself off less because of the background noise and more because of my shock at how scratchy my voice sounded in my ears. I replayed what I had just recorded to make sure that I wasn’t imagining things and the most abrasive voice I had ever listened to played back to me. I cleared my throat and tensely pressed the “Delete” button on the side of the recorder.
Okay. I just had to start over, that’s all. But the noises were becoming louder and more frequent and if I wanted my teacher to hear what I was even saying, I would have to speak louder. But I couldn’t risk getting caught-
Another crash. Another shout. This was getting out of hand. My palms were sweating, my heart was racing and my back hurt from the way I was hunched over my notebook.
I had to move somewhere else. Somewhere quieter. I gripped the tape recorder tighter in my right hand, took my notebook in my left, and crawled to the farthest, darkest, wettest, and smelliest corner of the basement, mercifully not running into any spider webs or rats on the way over.
I set down my notebook, cleared my throat once more and pressed “Play” on the tape recorder, hoping that the stone wall I was pressed up against would somehow muffle the noises coming from upstairs.
“Je suis très bien. Je suis bien. Je suis mauvais. Je suis-“, this time I was cut off by the loudest sound I had ever heard. As if the entire house above me had somehow caved in on itself and the whole thing had gone up in a fiery explosion. I didn’t know what they were doing or throwing or breaking up there but I sure as hell didn’t want to be a part of it. I had to finish this assignment and go to bed.
I deleted the latest audio clip and tried again, this time speaking faster – my words almost jumbling over the other - hoping that I’d be able to fit everything in the second-long gaps of quiet.
But just as I was about to say “très mauvais”, a large BANG! came from the door to the basement. My mouth slammed shut and my trembling fingers clicked the “Stop” button before I had time to finish.
“What the hell you b-“, his voice growled, the last word getting cut off by a woman’s bloodcurdling scream. There was another bang! from the door and then the noises got more muffled as they moved to a different part of the floor above me.
I exhaled, realizing that I was holding my breath the entire time. They didn’t open the door. They didn’t come down here and find me and yell at me and-
I’m fine, I told myself. I didn’t know why I was so flustered tonight. It wasn’t like this night was any different than the others. It wasn’t like they didn’t fight like this every freaking night. It wasn’t like I wasn’t forced to sleep down here every freaking night. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen my actual bedroom for at least two weeks now.
I wasn’t though. I wasn’t fine at all. I was starving and sleep-deprived. Starving because the only thing I had eaten today – and had eaten for the past week – was thick brown soup from the school cafeteria at lunch, as that was the only thing my pocket of allowance money could buy. Sleep-deprived because of – not only the noises that came from upstairs almost all night long – but because of the gnawing sense of worry and anxiety and nerves that ate away at my subconscious throughout the day and night (that combined with my gnawing sense of hunger).
I wasn’t fine. I knew that. Yet I was forced to keep telling myself this every minute of every day. To ensure that I didn’t panic or do something stupid or crazy. I couldn’t afford to draw attention to myself. I just had to survive high school, graduate, find a good time of the day to gather all my things and run. Run away from the fighting and the hitting and the screaming and the fear.
Away from them.
BOOM! Another crash. Suddenly, I realized that running is all I had been doing for years now. Coming home to chaos and immediately retreating someplace to escape. Tonight, that was the basement. Last week it was the attic. A month ago it was the garage. Every time, I would hide and wait it out.
Wait out the storm that raged viciously throughout the night as I sat in my capsized boat in the middle of the ocean.
Another ear-splitting scream, another echoing shout. These thoughts and realizations only seemed to make me weaker instead of stronger. Made me want to hide more than to get up and face the music. My hands were shaking so bad that I was struggling to hold the tape recorder, so I set it down and formed my hands into fists to try to ease my nerves.
But it wasn’t helping. My lips were trembling and my breathing was becoming awkward – my breaths coming out in hasty gasps – and I knew that if I didn’t do something I’d end up having a panic attack down here in this musty, old basement.
Down here alone, afraid and in the dark.
The thought only seemed to suffocate me. I grabbed the tape recorder and the notebook and crawled back to my original space in the lighter, middle part of the basement.
I tried to stand up as I thought maybe pacing around for a little while would help, but the minute I tried to hold my weight up on my pencil-thin limps, my legs buckled beneath me and I landed awkwardly on the cement floor, skinning one of my knees in the process.
Great, now I was bleeding.
Blood. I could see it everywhere. The walls, the curtains, the TV screen, the-
Stop it, I told myself. But I couldn’t stop. I anxiously ran my trembling fingertips through my long, tangled hair and remembered the sight of this morning. The sight I woke up to.
His blood. Her hair. Them screaming at me when they found me in the kitchen desperately foraging for food. Claiming that I was stealing from them. His eyes were bloodshot and her eyes were puffy and it was as if they had spent the entire night screaming their voices raw, crying their eyes out and drinking themselves to death. Me not knowing what to say or how to act or what to do because I hadn’t seen them look this murderous in years. Me just standing there and taking their complaints – their insults. And, when it wasn’t enough that they had screamed at me until I was sobbing on the floor – struggling to breathe – he grabbed me by my shirt and flung me across the room. Then they were both on top of me. I managed to scratch his cheek, his blood still caked under my long fingernails. I also managed to pull out a chunk of her hair, the look in her eyes making me immediately wish I hadn’t.
At some point, they had stopped fighting me and had started fighting each other instead, making it easy for me to grab my notebook and slip out the busted front door, running as fast I could to my school.
The rest of the day was spent hiding from everyone, avoiding suspicion. I had made sure to clean myself up as best as I could in the girl’s bathroom before first period started but there was another event of the day that definitely drew attention…
Another loud crash and another loud scream tore me away from the hell that was my subconscious mind and into the hell that was my reality. My life.
Somehow, skinning my knees had caused me to blackout. Or maybe it was the sight of blood. Or maybe the overwhelming, suffocating feeling of exhaustion and hunger that was eating away at me minute by minute.
It didn’t matter. I forced myself to sit up, despite how weak I suddenly felt. My lack of sleep and proper food was starting to catch up to me.
I rummaged through my notebook to the page that I took my French notes on today. But, underneath the little blurb of notes was a tiny smudge. Or, at least, it looked like a tiny smudge at first glance. My vision was starting to get blurry and I was having trouble breathing-
“Son of a bi-“
“You never do ANYTHING you lousy piece of sh-“
More shouting. More fighting. I had to go to sleep. My body was trying to tell me that. But I had to see what I had written down-
There. My eyes suddenly snapped into focus on the small translation I had scrawled hastily on the page just before French class had ended.
“Broken – cassé”
French was my last class and at that point in the day the prospect of going home to a world of chaos was so overwhelmingly suffocating to me that I was having trouble concentrating throughout the lesson, making it a miracle that I had taken notes at all.
But, towards the end of class when the teacher was about to dismiss us, something inside me snapped. I don’t know what set me off. Whether it was the two girls next to me who were snickering to each other – either sharing an inside joke or laughing at me – or the teacher who kept checking her phone throughout the lesson for the time, smiling to herself as if she just couldn’t wait for class to end so she could go back to a loving and welcoming home or if it was the sound of the persistent ticking clock in the background.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
Whatever the reason, the second before the teacher opened her mouth to dismiss us, I had the nerve to draw attention to myself, raise my hand and ask in my raspy, unused voice, “Excuse me, miss. I was wondering. How would you say ‘broken’ in French?”
The room was suddenly quiet, everyone in awe of the kid who never spoke asking a question out of the blue. Not just any question but a question that had absolutely nothing to do with the lesson. My face burned and I slumped in my chair, immediately regretting that I had said anything at all.
But before I could say something else and take it back, the teacher spoke up, “Broken? Well zat is cassé”, she said in her French accent, spelling the word out on the large chalkboard behind her. When she turned back around to elaborate or ask me exactly why I wanted to know what “broken” meant in French, I had already hurriedly written down the translation and almost half the class had gathered their things and stood up from their desks, causing the teacher to purse her lips, clap her hands in finality and say, “Alright zen. Class dismissed. Everyone please come to my desk to pick up your tape recorder for today’s azzignment.”
I deliberately avoided meeting her gaze as she hesitantly handed me a tape recorder. Yet, as I was leaving the room, I risked a glance and caught her looking at me not as I expected – with an annoyed or angry expression – but with a look of confusion, sadness and…pity.
I didn’t feel better when I sensed everyone’s eyes on me as I half-jogged out of the school building, desperate to get away from all the whispers and chuckles and quick glances.
I stupidly thought that I could delay going home – delay the inevitable - by doing the homework from the rest of my classes at the park that was just across from my school. But, by the time I had done everything - excluding my French assignment - the sun was setting and I knew in my gut that I had to go home.
Whether I liked it or not.
Now I sat in my little space in the basement feeling more alone, depressed and afraid than I had in a long time.
And that was saying something.
The noises were so loud that I could hardly hear myself think anymore, as if they were in the same room as me lashing out at each other like wild animals. The floor rumbled with every crash! plaster fell from the ceiling with every bang! and my ears rang with every hair-raising scream and every raging howl.
I looked at the translation of the word “broken” again that sat lamely in front of me and I felt wetness on my cheeks.
That’s when I realized I was crying.
I suddenly didn’t care if they could hear me or not, I was past my limit of fear. I was numb with fear. High on fear. Though instead of feeling alive and like I could do anything, all I felt was empty and depressing blackness in the form of a hollow hole deep in my chest. The darkness was swallowing me up. My breathing was labored. An inhale sounded as if I was gasping desperately for air after nearly drowning, only to be swept back down into the raging, black seas. An exhale was almost no exhale, just a sad little puff of air that said what does it matter?
What does anything matter?
All of the sudden the tape recorder was in my hands, wet from the tears that wouldn’t stop coming. I pressed the “Play” button, suddenly uncaring of the hurricane upstairs or how my voice sounded so ravaged and raw or how I couldn’t even remember what we were supposed to say for the assignment anymore. Trying to remember was like dipping my hands into a black, ice-cold lake.
All I saw was darkness and all I felt was numb.
I said the first thing that popped into my head, the first thing that bubbled up to the surface.
“Je suis cassé.”
I was crying harder now, not knowing or caring if anyone could hear me upstairs or if anyone would be able to understand me in the recording. I realized what I had just said was so true to my situation that it was no wonder I had asked my teacher how to say it in French. Not because I was pissed at my life and wanted to annoy the hell out of everyone but because I knew in my heart and soul that that one word was the only thing I felt day by day, minute by minute.
The only thing that described me as I lay in my pathetic and wet ball of shame in the middle of a dark, smelly basement, hiding from my monsters.
I said it again and again, not knowing if I was saying it to convince myself it was true or to just have something to say for myself for when I turned this in tomorrow and my teacher realized I had failed the assignment.
If I survived the night.
“Je suis cassé. Je suis cassé. Je suis cassé”, I hissed into the black recorder’s speaker.
I am broken. I am broken. I am broken.
Soon my hissing turned to fervent mumblings and I felt hot and cold all over. The only thing I could see was the harsh, yellow glow of the basement’s lighting above me and the only things I could hear were the crashes and profanities that were screamed from upstairs.
That and the sound of my broken voice as I rasped out with all of my might the one thing I knew was true anymore.
I am broken.