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To Save Isaac and Myself
Fear gripped me tighter than I gripped the bundle that I held so tightly against my chest, despite how my arms felt like rubber bands and my chest burnt from running in the cold night air. I had been expecting time and time again to be stopped by someone along the streets or for a cry to come from the bundle, alerting anyone and everyone that would be listening to my intentions. But no cry had come, and I had seen only cars drive by, their headlights shining along the dark streets and blinding me as I ran. I stood motionless now on the concrete porch of an all-too-familiar house, its windows darkened as if the house itself were asleep as well and not just the people inside it. Holding the bundle with one unsteady hand, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out my cell phone. I searched through the contacts until I found a number I never thought I would call again, and with a quick press of my thumb, I dialed it and held it to my ear.
The groggy voice on the other end made my heart jump into my throat, and I could barely speak for fear along with the other emotions slowed my tongue.
“Hullo? Who is this?” the voice said.
“Cam, it’s me. I need some help. I’m on your porch.”
“I’ll be right there,” he replied reluctantly. That stab of guilty pain shot through me again, and I pulled the bundle tighter to my chest and hummed a little to calm myself. It did me no good because without warning the door was thrust open and the darkness of the house birthed a dark figure. It startled me, and I gasped.
He stood there, holding the door open enough so that I could see his face, but the rest of his body blocked the inside of the house.
“Shh! You’ll wake my parents! What do you want, Mel?” he asked me quickly, biting off each word angrily.
“Can I come in?” His reply was that of silence, and so I prodded more. “Please?”
Again reluctant, he stepped away from the door and let me by. His dark shadow led me to the kitchen, and I stood there watching him as he turned on the light, casting the demon-like shadows from the room and exposing my bundle and me. I looked up into his face and saw how exhausted and angry he looked. It was as if he was feigning patience with me.
“What do you want?” he whispered angrily.
“I need some help,” I muttered.
“I know you need help. I’m very aware. But I can’t help you the way you need it,” he replied, his voice coated in a sickening sarcasm that cut me down quicker than I had ever expected. I swallowed loudly.
“What is that?” He came at me suddenly and pulled back the blanket, exposing the child underneath. He reacted as if I held a snake in my arms, jumping back and pulling his hand to his chest, his eyes wide. “Where’d you get that?”
“He’s my nephew.”
“Why do you have him? What are you doing with him?”
Unable to speak for a moment, thoughts buzzed around in my mind, and I couldn’t sort them out. So much was happening. I looked down at the baby I held in my arms and began to brush my fingers across his sandy-gold hair. It fell in locks around his forehead, framing his face and making the sleeping child seem almost angelic. My fingers brushed across his pale skin, parting the hair away from his face, and then tracing a long swollen bruise down from his temple to the beginning of his jaw just below his ear.
Cameron gasped and stepped forward again to see the gruesome mark on the child’s face. Dark and swollen, a purplish-blue mar marked on his perfect ivory skin. I pulled my hand away.
The first few times I believed Chad when he told me that Isaac had fallen. Isaac was still wobbly on his chubby legs, and so the lie was believable. But I saw him thoughtlessly shove the child one night, Isaac falling hard against the wood floor, his little head smacking on the leg of the couch, followed by a paused wail that sent me rushing to his side to give my idea of motherly comfort. It was then that I realized that all the bruises and scratches that I had seen before were not from carpet burns, bumped heads, or accidents. They were from his father. “Who could do this to a child?” I whispered. It wasn’t meant to be heard by Cameron, but it had been. I said it to myself because I could not comprehend how any person could be so monstrous as to hit a two-year old.
I looked up at Cam with pleading eyes and watched his face harden.
“You tell me.” He spat the words at me. The words were meant to wound me and they did. I was too upset to try to hide the look on my face, and for a moment I thought he regretted his words because his face fell, just as mine had. My eyes brimmed with tears.
“This is Sara’s child?” he asked after a moment’s pause. I nodded. My mind went back to the days Sara cried because she could have no children. She always had me, the little tagalong sibling that she had always taken care of out of duty. Though she had treated me like a mother, I was never her child. I was always unable to fill that void. She and her husband had tried and tried to have children, and it had taken them years to have Isaac. He was Sara’s angel. It never seemed fair to me that after Sara had finally received what she wanted that God took her from Isaac and me. I never understood that. Nor could I understand how Chad, Isaac’s father, could neglect Isaac like he did. Chad knew that Isaac was Sara’s angel. I guess that didn’t matter to him though because he had lost love for Sara long before she died. He never hit her that I knew of, but there were nights that I sat ready to call the police if he did. The verbal abuse was enough to make me scream. It made Sara scream. For a while Isaac had brought the family back to earth and we had been ok. Until Sara became sick.
“You can’t hide that baby here.”
Cameron’s voice pulled me out of the dark recesses of my mind, and I nodded slowly. I knew that before I came. It was just that Cameron was the only person I could turn to.
“You aren’t helping him by kidnapping him,” he said. “Why didn’t you just call social services? The authorities? Someone?”
“I couldn’t bear for him to go into a foster home. I’ve been in those, Cam. I know what it’s like to grow up alone. And I cannot let that happen to him. I won’t let it happen…” My words trailed off, and I began to cry again. I couldn’t make Cameron understand. He didn’t know how it was like in the foster homes. Sara was sixteen when I was six. She went to high school and worked every night after school while I went from home to home. When she turned eighteen, she gained custody and saved me. She never had to do that, but she did. She was a mother to me when I had none, and now I had to do that for Isaac. I had to save him like she saved me. I was only a year younger than she had been when she received custody of me, so I knew that if she could take care of me, I could take care of Isaac.
“Why would you even care what happened to him anyway?” Every word he spoke reminded me what had happened. I hated the feelings he created in me. The regret came at me like a flood, and I could barely stand it. I struggled to find words.
“I have to take care of him.”
“Why? Because you need to make atonement or something?” He cursed, shaking his head and then pulling his fingers through his auburn-colored hair. I stood so close to him, a few feet away, in touching distance. I hadn’t been near him for almost a year now and being here, seeing that look of hatred and hurt and disappointment in his eyes, tore me apart. Isaac’s weight in my arms seemed twice as heavy. Cameron’s smell, a mix of Hollister cologne, laundry sheets, and Juicy Fruit, lingered in the house and brought back a flood of memories that I could not keep back with the walls of my mind; it broke through like a torrent of angry water, and every single memory of the times I had spent with him invaded my thoughts. The thoughts varied from the school dances we attended to the afternoons we spent together at the lake with his family. Somewhere, in the midst of perfection, we slipped up and the scarring from that mistake had crippled both of us, and it was my fault. It would have been ok if I hadn't overreacted. Cameron had assured me time and time again that it would be an adventure, but I wasn’t ready for that; so I took measures into my own hands. The look he had on was a mirror image of how his face looked almost two years ago when I told him what I’d done. The tears fell harder now until my shoulders slumped, and my body was racked with sobs. Even then, when he could see me broken, Cameron said and did nothing.
“I need some help,” I pleaded, though I was sure it was no good to do so. His amber eyes looked up at me finally, and I looked away, the coldness of his gaze cutting into me so that all I could do was stare at the child in my arms.
“Just call child services! What is so difficult about that?” he hissed.
“Cameron, I told you I cannot do that without a guilty conscience!” I stifled the scream rising in my throat.
“You can’t do that without a guilty conscience?” he mocked, snickering a bit to himself. “I can’t believe you sometimes, Melanie. Why is he worthy of your affections? Why does he get your protection? You are just as much a monster as his father is,” he said coldly, jabbing a finger at Isaac, his eyes still targeted on me.
I turned blindly away from him, stumbling towards the front door to escape the iron hot words that branded me.
The tears spilled out of my eyes, burning them, and the darkness of the hall made me oblivious to the rug in front of me. I felt my feet tie up and my left ankle roll awkwardly. Falling was now inevitable, but I was wary of the innocent creature I held in my arms; and I tried to move my body so that I would not hurt him. My knees hit the tile floor with a sickening thud and pain shot up both of my legs. I knelt there gasping, praying to God that Isaac wouldn’t wake up. He didn’t. Somehow, by a miracle, he slept through the commotion of that moment. Despite my pain, I could only allow my mind the room to worry about Cameron’s parents upstairs and I hoped that they didn’t hear me.
Before I could even gather myself together enough to attempt to stand up, Cameron had me by the elbows and hoisted me up onto my feet. My legs screamed in pain, but I could not stop it. He turned me to face him so that I was inches from his face. I was still crying, but I could make out the dark contours of his face: the straight nose, curved high cheekbones, and jaw that narrowed down into a shelf of bone on his chin. His chin was quivering as he worked his jaw again and again. That face was shaded mostly, but I could see those eyes. Those amber eyes sparkled with unshed tears.
“Look, I don’t know why you came here,” he whispered harshly, his breath warm on my face. His hand was still around my arm, holding me closer to him. “Did you come here for forgiveness? Huh?” The grasp tightened, and my fingers started to tingle like they were covered in a thousand pinpricks because the blood wasn’t flowing well anymore. My arm began to numb.
I shook my head. “I just—needed—help,” I blubbered, my throat constricting again. I hated how weak I felt right now. I blinked, fighting the fresh onslaught of tears that assaulted me.
Cam’s grip on my arm loosened, and he pulled my hand out from under Isaac. Cam shoved a cold dull object into my palm. Instinctively, my fingers wrapped around whatever he had given me. I held it up.
Keys. They were his car keys.
“You wanted help, and that’s all I can give you,” he mumbled. He stepped away from me slowly, backing up, and crossing his arms as though he had a terrible pain in his chest. I bit my lip to keep from crying. My arms tightened around Isaac’s sleeping figure.
“Thank you,” I whispered, turning towards the door while feeling for the cool metal door handle. It turned easily in my grasp, and I propelled myself out the door though my legs ached from movement. With one final hesitation, I turned back and through tears, whispered something I had never told Cameron—something I should have said a long time ago.
“I’m sorry, Cameron.”
I turned now, pulling the door closed behind me, and as the door was inches away from latching I heard his voice say the most freeing words.
“I forgive you.”
I raised Isaac up to my face and kissed the top of his head. Cameron’s words had helped me more than he could have ever known. In the moment that he granted his forgiveness, I became truly free because at that moment, I forgave myself too.