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Behind the Door
I stood in the shower with water pouring over my skin and sinking into my hair. The water was coming out as hot as it could, so my scalp felt like needles and my skin started to turn a deep shade of red. I stood there until I couldn’t take it anymore. Then I turned off the water and stepped out. Moving slowly I walked across the rug, the green, fuzzy fibers snuggled up against my feet. I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around my shoulders, trying to suffocate the chill. Even though I knew the cold layer on my skin wasn’t just from stepping out of a hot shower.
As the steam started to clear I stared at myself in the mirror. And a scared, thin teenager stared back. I hadn’t been eating much lately and had gotten so thin. I studied the black circle encasing my left eye, the swelling around my mouth and nose. Then my eyes followed the line of my cheekbone, right across the bloody slit that ran down my cheek, which was the result of a book corner. I did my best to cover most of it up with make-up, and covered the rest with my thick, dark hair that fell past my shoulders. I cautiously tip toed out of the bathroom and across the hall to my bedroom. I got dressed in a pair of old jeans and a random t-shirt I pulled from the hamper. Picking up my backpack, I noticed my alarm clock. It was six a.m. and I was just on time.
Making sure I was quiet, so I didn’t wake my mom, named Sarah, and Frank; I snuck out of the house. Outside, I took a deep breath of early morning air. It smelled of dew, flowers, and the oak trees that filled the neighborhood, along with the nighttime chill that still laced the breeze. The bus stop was at the end of my street, and I was at it every weekday morning at six fifteen. The city bus would stop, and I would ride it to the public library. I would stay there until seven-thirty, and then I’d walk the rest of the way to school. The bus was five minutes late that morning, but I the driver managed to drop me off early.
When I got to the library I marveled at all the books, said hello to the librarian, and sat down at my table. I read for a long time with my nose as far in the book as I could manage. So when I looked up, it was past seven-thirty, and I was going to be late if I didn’t run. Millard High was the high school in Foster, Rhode Island. I was late, but so was my homeroom teacher. I The rest of the day went pretty smoothly, considering it was the last week of school. All we had next week was finals. So people were still pretty focused on the last few finals.
After school, I grabbed a bus near the library that dropped me off around my neighborhood, and then walked the rest of the way home. I grabbed the mail from the mailbox and headed up the driveway. The house was quiet when I walked in, and set the mail on the counter. It would stay like that until my mother, he got home from work. She never really got home at a specific time, because she worked in the ER and traumas came in at all times. Like my mother, he never got at home a specific time either, but instead of working he was out getting wasted at a bar or with his buddies from work.
I headed to my room to start the grueling process of homework. I was halfway done when my mother walked through the door, and with a huff at the books, I got up and walked to the kitchen to help my mother with dinner. She smiled weakly at me and then went back to chopping up some celery. I smiled back and started chopping up some carrots. When we had finished the salad and the chicken, both our moods had lightened up. We were laughing and joking when Frank walked in and slammed the door behind him. Immediately I knew it wasn’t going to be good. My concerns were confirmed as he stumbled over to the kitchen counter and the smell of beer and scotch overwhelmed us. My stomach twisted and my mother’s face crumpled in pain.
“What? What are you looking at?” Frank spat at us. He sat down at the table, and my mother and I started to set the table. I was setting out plates while my mother was pouring some milk. She tripped over the leg of one of the chairs and the jug went flying. It landed square in Franks lap, dumping all over him. Frank stared down at his lap and then up at my mother who wore a horrified look on her face. SMACK! Frank slapped her across the face and her head whipped around. When she turned back, I could see the red mark that was already forming, was streaked with silent tears. He threw a sloppy punch that was made worse when my mother flinched. His fist missed her face and hit the side of her head. She fell to the tile floor. I screamed and he stumbled around to face me.
“Don’t hurt her!” I yelled and he slapped me across the mouth. My head snapped back against the wall and I slid to the floor. He blinked trying to clear his vision and left the room. After he left my mother gathered herself off the floor and came over to me.
“He doesn’t mean it.” She rambled on as she brushed the hair back to see the back of my head, but stopped when I flinched. I stared at her for a moment and read the agony all across her face. Then we got up and started to clean the kitchen. The food remained untouched as we scraped it off the plates and into the trash.
“So what would you do if a guy came in with a banana in their leg?”
“That’s not going to happen!”
“Hey, anything could happen in the ER.” I laughed. “I bet you wouldn’t be laughing if a guy actually came into your ER with a banana in his leg.”
“Yes I would! Well, I’d fix the guy up first, but then I’d laugh my butt off.”
“Yeah, alright. Let’s get some sleep.” I said. Sarah giggled and plopped down on the bed, her blonde hair covered the pillow. Sarah and I’d been roommates through college and med school. Our junior year in college we had dated, but not for very long. We were just good friends. We’d always lived in this one apartment. Now we were working at the same hospital together, but we couldn’t part with this apartment.
Early the next morning Sarah threw a pillow at my head and ran for the door. The soft knocking was her mother who came over every Sunday morning and cooked for us. She insisted on it and we didn’t really push to get rid of her. We liked the food and Sarah loved seeing her mom happy. I plopped back on the bed and smelled muffins, eggs, scones. And listened to the sound of the electric mixer we had gotten Sarah’s mom for Christmas and Sarah and her mom talking.
“Oh, I love what you’ve done with the place.” Sarah’s mother said filled with pride. Which was kind of funny. Our apartment was basically one big room with a little kitchenette and a bathroom down the hall that all the tenets shared. We didn’t have a lot of furniture except for a big air mattress on the floor, with sheets from Goodwill, and a few plastic chairs that we had painted yesterday. They all surrounded an old card table. One of the legs had broken, but was now working with the help of some duct tape. Some duct tape also patched up a little hole in the window.
“Thanks mom.” Sarah laughed. “I painted the green one and Tom did the purple one.” We ate until our stomachs expanded. As always the food was superb. I was still in my boxers when I hugged Sarah’s mother goodbye and that’s how it always was. Sarah was in a big t-shirt and boxers too as she hugged her mother. She loved her mother so much and loved having her over, but these visits were bittersweet for her. She knew what her mother was going home to.
I woke up when my alarm went off and tried to get up, but the spinning of my head sent me back to my pillow. Sucking it up, I tried again and walked over to the bathroom. I grabbed some Advil and practically inhaled it. While I waited for the medicine to kick in, I got dressed and brushed out my hair, careful not to bump the goose egg on the back of my head. My head hurt like hell, and this was a pretty rotten start to my day. Stuffing my backpack, I realized I hadn’t finished any of my homework. S**t, I had a feeling that this day was going to really suck. I struggled to get to the bus on time and when I got there, two of the three people were already there before me. The bus ride was bumpier than I remembered and with every bump my head was jostled around. So when it came to my stop I gladly got off, feeling a little nauseous. Instead of grabbing a book off the shelf and reading it at my table, I just sat in one of the back isles with my knees pulled up to my chin. I stared off into space until seven-thirty and then walked the rest of the way to school. All around the day was pretty crappy, rude students, teachers who couldn’t care less, and a school lunch that looked like it was scrapped out of the inside of a dumpster. I was ready to get out of there by the end of the day and ninth period was the only thing standing in my way. I took my seat next to a guy who’s biceps screamed steroids and pulled out my notebook. A sub walked in and introduced himself. “Okay class, today we are finishing our current events unit with the Iraq war.” My face went pale, my stomach did a flip, and tears stung my eyes. I’ll just be strong, I told myself. I’ll just be strong. How many times had I heard about this on the news. I could do this. I held while he talked about the beginning of the war and U.S. involvement. But when he started talking about the effects the war had on American families and when the guy next to me asked how the families were notified, I broke. I ran from the classroom, from the school, past street after street. I didn’t know where I was going, but I just kept running. Finally I just collapsed, not caring where I was. I laid there in a heap, sobbing and when I pulled myself together; I raised my head and looked around. There were headstones peppering the grass, and an American flag flew proudly at the entrance. I was in the veterans’ graveyard. I turned my head and realized that I was in front of one of the head stones, my father’s. I lurched forward and grabbed the headstone. If only he were here. If only. My body was shaking and I thought I was going to throw up. It felt as if someone had stabbed me in the chest and was now twisting the knife. I stayed this way for a long time, until I felt a hand on my shoulder. As if it weighed a hundred pounds, I slowly lifted my head. A young woman with red-rimmed eyes, red puffy cheeks and a devastated expression I knew all too well, stood behind me. I had seen that look on my mother’s face many times before. The woman stood there for a moment and then another tear slid down her cheek and she walked away. I watched her go and then got up myself. Instead of taking the bus, I just walked home. As I walked up the driveway, the sun was starting to set and the sky was a beautiful dance oranges and pinks. When I reached the door, I heard something inside the house and froze. Until I heard a laugh, then I breathed a sigh of relief and entered the house. So it was going to be a good night. When I entered the living room I was surprised to see a puppy wiggling around by my mother’s lap. She was laughing and smiling as Frank pet the overly excited puppy. When she saw me, she looked as if she was going to give me a piece of her mind for being so late. But before she could get a word in, Frank started. “Niki we’ve been waiting for you, meet your puppy.” He pointed to the boxer puppy. Then it saw me and practically leapt off the couch. At the sight of someone new to smell and lick, he started wagging his tail so hard that his bottom started to spin around in a circle. I knelt down in front of him and his goofy paws, and I couldn’t help but laugh. He was so cute and happy. Even in this gloomy house. “Mrs. Hoodly just couldn’t take care of him anymore and wanted to know if I would take him.” Frank said as I scratched behind his ears. Mrs. Hoodly was our elderly neighbor who already had five other big dogs and she had to be at least eighty. That night the puppy slept with me and I named him Willy. It seemed to fit his wiggly personality.
It was late, about one, on a Wednesday night. I had finished studying and was about to hit the hay when Sarah burst through the door and jumped on our air mattress.
“Guess what?!” She was very excited.
“What?” I said blinking back my sleepiness.
“My mom! My mom is divorcing that bastard! Can you believe it? He was so pissed off. But don’t worry my mom’s safe, she staying with a friend.”
“Well that’s great Sarah, but … I wouldn’t start celebrating yet.”
“What are you talking about? My mom is not going to pull out of this.”
“Sarah.” I sat up and put my hands on her shoulders. “Your mom is a strong woman. I don’t think she’s going to back out of this.” I spoke slowly, choosing my words carefully and looked her in the eyes. “I’m worried for her safety and yours. I … I don’t want to see either of you get hurt.”
“We’re not. We’re getting away from the danger.”
“Ok. Well, . . . get some sleep. Don’t you have the early shift tomorrow?”
“Yeah, ok.” Sarah got up and I heard her head down the hallway. I watched her leave and then let my head hit the pillow. Sarah’s sweet little mother was divorcing her husband. The man that she had been married to forever. This man knew how to pour on the charm outside of the house. So when I first met the man, I had thought that he was a sweet family man. Just what everyone else thought of him. But Sarah had been there to tell me what happened behind the door, and I had seen the bruises on her mother and her. The last thing I wanted was that man angry, and anywhere near Sarah.
I normally slept like a rock. So it was no surprise that Sarah was already gone when I woke up. A cup of coffee was on the counter. I walked into the kitchen and sat on the counter with the coffee. Then my pager went off on the table, . . . ugh. I had to get to the hospital right away. I hadn’t looked outside since I had gotten up, but over night a massive ice storm had made the commute to work deadly. I threw on some clothes and took a bus to the hospital. It took forever and the ER was packed when I got there. I didn’t have a moment to breath until around six that night.
That’s when I saw Sarah in the cafeteria, and man, she looked like crap. Blood all over her scrubs and her hair in her face.
“Sarah.” I called and she lifted her head, but still let her hair hang in her face.
“Yeah?” There was an edge to her voice that I hadn’t heard in a long time. I couldn’t place it. Then… I crossed the room in record time and kneeled in front of her chair. I brushed the hair out of her face to reveal a black eye and a swollen lip. That’s when I realized that not all of the blood on the scrubs were her patients’. “I just fell on the ice.” She said lamely.
“Sarah. Don’t start that again.”
“It’s nothing, really. My shift’s over. I’m going to get a drink.”
“Sarah.” But she got up and just kept walking.
“Tom, we’ve got a trauma here with your name written all over it.” One of my colleagues called. I didn’t see Sarah until late that night. She was a tad tipsy when a man brought her home. He was tall with jet-black hair and mocha skin. He was very gentle with Sarah as he handed her to me. She was giggling and going on about some nonsense. I hadn’t realized how much he was supporting her until she was handed off to me. He left and I set Sarah on our bed.
“Goodnight Sarah.” I sighed.
Blood spattered across my face and scrubs. My hair that had been pulled tightly back, was now hanging around my face because of the struggle. Tom was trying to intubate him, but he wouldn’t stop thrashing. Another spray of blood cast from his mouth.
“Sarah! Sarah!” He would croak between coughs.
“Right here.” I called trying to concentrate on keeping his right arm down.
“I never told you…” He coughed again. More scarlet blood bloomed on his shirt and breaths became more ragged. “I’m sorry.” With a final gasp his body went limp. More suction was applied; they intubated him and tried to start his heart. I watched in horror, but he didn’t come back, he didn’t start breathing, and his heart did not start. When time of death was called, I took off my gloves and let them slip to the floor.
Tom must have given me a worried look, my friend Sam must have tried to touch my arm, but I can’t remember. I didn’t think, I just moved. I walked into the bar across the street bloody scrubs and all. Sat down at the bar and Bill gave me a drink. I was on my third when a familiar hand set a few bills on the counter. My head was lying limply in my arms, when I heard him speak, I raised my head.
“Sarah.” It was only my name, but it was spoken in such a kind and gentle way. So filled with concern for me. That was enough to make me crack. Tears spilled over my cheeks and Antonio gathered me into his arms. He carried me to his car, not even bothering to put me in the passenger seat. He just drove off hugging me to his chest.
The funeral was even worse. Not only had I had to watch his death and attend his funeral, but those last words rang through my head. ‘I’m sorry.’ My sorrow was still there but a lot of it had been replaced by anger.
The wet spring air was heavy, a fitting mood. Many people were there, most crying or wiping their noses’. Those were the people who knew him as a kind and gentle man. The ones who didn’t know the truth. Only three did, one was at my side with an arm around me. Another was standing across from me, and the last was in the ground. She was buried next to this monster. Tears still rolled down my cheeks and once the casket was lowered, Antonio whipped them away. We were walking back to his car when the woman approached us. I recognized her as an old neighbor.
“I’m so sorry about your father Sarah.”
Once the divorce papers were signed, Sarah’s mom got a little scared. I could understand why. Looking at the fresh bruises on her shoulders. The two got a little house on the edge of the city. It was weird not having Sarah in our apartment. I still saw her at work and sometimes we met at a movie or something just to hang out.
But I ended up seeing more of this Antonio guy. He seemed to become a good friend to her, but the two of us never seemed to mesh very well. He was great, but well maybe that was just it. He was great and I could see just from the way she looked at him, that he was more to her than a friend. And that I would never be that for her. I would always just be the friend, never the love of her life, like she was for me. I loved her, I always had.
Three months after the divorce, Sarah’s mother fell ill. She was hospitalized and Sarah sat by her bed, holding her hand and making promises to god if only her mother would get well. All the while the man holding her and assuring her was not me, but Antonio. Two days later, her mother died. I’d never seen Sarah that heart broken. She actually bent over in pain, and I wasn’t the one that pulled her into my arms, it was him.
Her funeral was awful and it only got worse when her father showed up.
“What are you doing here you bastard?” She made a move toward him, but Antonio kept her securely by his side with one arm around her waist. So she just spit in his direction. She didn’t seem to care that she was making a scene. She hated him.
The divorce had been kind of secretive, so no one knew what he’d done. The faces ranged from confusion to horror at the funeral. Sarah got pretty worked up again when her father put some flowers on the grave. Antonio remained calm and quietly escorted her to his car. I on the other hand followed her father to his car. The broken finger was worth the look on his face when I popped him in the mouth.
Six months after Sarah’s mother’s death, I was working an early shift and the chief of medicine called me into his office. He gave me great news, a promotion. I was now head of the ER.
I was walking on air as I made my way back to my ER. But before I could give Sarah, who should just be getting here, or anyone else the good news, a man stumbled in coughing up blood.
“Let’s get this man in a bed!” I called to the closest nurse. She rushed to get a gurney and I threw one of the guy’s arms over my neck. We lifted him onto the bed and I froze. The man coughing up blood was Sarah’s father. Blood was staining his shirt and his breaths were raged and forced. He was drowning, I realized. He was drowning in his own blood. All of the blood he’d made his daughter and wife shed, and he might die by his own. It seemed kind of ironic.
“Doctor! What do you need?” One of the nurses shouted at me. I broke my stance and started working to intubate him. He started to convulse and I called for assistance. More nurses came in and tried to hold him down to put some restraints on.
I turned my head to ask another nurse for suction when I saw Sarah frozen in the doorway. He coughed again and another spew of blood cast from his mouth. Sarah rushed in and traded places with another nurse who help me try to clear his airway. Then he started calling out in a gurgle.
“I’m here. I’m right here.” Another spatter of blood spewed from his mouth as he moved to try to see her. He started talking to her, but I only caught the last bit of the conversation.
“I’m sorry.” Then he went limp and I managed to get him incubated and his lungs clear of blood. His pulse was gone and I used the paddles. Once. Twice. Three times, but he was gone. Sarah dropped her hands as if he’d burned her, then let her bloody gloves slip to the floor and turned to leave. I watched her go as I called time of death.
When the alarm went off at six, Willy was curled up by my feet. Normally I wouldn’t get up so early on a Saturday morning, but Frank brought home a puppy and puppy treats. He’d over looked dog food, a collar, and a leash. I had planned to get those today with some money I had saved up from various jobs. When I got of bed, Willy stirred, but didn’t wake up. He actually snored a little, and I couldn’t help but smile. My head wasn’t as bad today, but I still took two Alive. Then I laced up my sneakers and pulled out my old pair. Since Frank hadn’t gotten a collar or a leash, I had to make do with what I had. I tied the two laces together and then tied the end loosely around his neck. Willy lifted his head and looked at me with sleepy eyes. He hopped off my bed and followed me out of the house. We started to walk to the pet store, but at first we didn’t make much progress, because he kept stopping to sniff every pebble and twig on the way. We finally made it to the pet store and Willy was hungry. I didn’t blame him; the last time he’d eaten was probably yesterday morning. I pulled him over to the isle with the dog food and grabbed a small bag of lams puppy chow. I ripped the bag open and gave Willy a handful, which he happily gobbled up. Then we made our way over to the accessories isle and I grabbed a leash and a collar. They were a sky blue that looked good with Willy’s coat. Willy pawed at my leg, and I gave him another handful of food. The lady who was stocking the shelves next to us, looked at us strangely. We probably looked pretty weird. As I walked to the cashier, I swiped two dog bowls. At the cashier I unloaded my arms in front of a bored senior reading a trashy magazine and popping her gum. The supplies emptied my wallet, but Willy looked pretty snazzy with his new leash and collar. He jumped up and tried to lick me as I fastened the buckles. I gave him another handful of food and then we left. Willy and I walked home, watching the people who walked by and stopping to smell everything again. It was a nice day and the wind was dancing through the trees. By the time we got to the house Willy was tuckered out. He laid down in my room and fell asleep right away. I unhooked his leash and hung it on my bed and started to unpack all of his stuff. Willy was so tired that he didn’t even wake up when I filled his bowls with food and water. Then I walked out of my room and into the living room. The house was still empty and I took advantage of it, to take some time to chill out. I melted into one of the chairs and closed my eyes. I must have fallen asleep, because when the door opened, I shook awake. Willy was lying at my feet and he raised his head at the opening of the door. My mother had the early shift this morning and shouldn’t have been home this early, and Frank was at a painting job. I raised my head to see who it was and then heard heavy work boots against the hard wood. I hopped out of the chair and looked at Frank trying to assess his mood. He was wobbly and his face was hard. Willy jumped up to greet him, I tried to grab his collar as he ran passed me, but he got over to Frank and jumped up on him. “Can’t you control this dog?” He knocked Willy over and I rushed over to him only to be hit square in the chest by Frank’s fist. I stumbled and reached out. Instead of grabbing hold of the counter to steady myself, my hand landed on a plate on the edge of the counter. The plate flipped off the counter and I fell on my back. The plate didn’t brake until in hit the ground. Although, the plate didn’t brake until it hit the ground. Willy whimpered and slunk away. As I struggled to breathe, Frank came over to me. A blow from his fist nearly sent me to floor, and the second did. I laid crumpled on the floor as he kicked me in the stomach once, then a second time, as I laid in the pieces of the broken plate. Then the garage opened and Frank kicked me again and spat, “Get up and clean up this mess you little s**t.” Struggling, I got up and stumbled over to the sink. I got the sweeper from under it and started to clean up the mess of broken ceramics as my mother walked in. “What happened?” She whispered. “Clumsy Niki broke a plate.” Frank tossed and walked off. My mother bent down and gently brushed a few pieces of the plate off of my arm. She looked at me with such sad eyes. I pulled away and continued to sweep up the rest of the plate. I dumped the pieces into the trash and headed back to my room, bent over. Willy was whimpering in the corner. I lowered myslef down onto the floor next to my bed and closed my eyes, holding my stomach. The next thing I knew, a wet tongue started licking my face. Tears ran down my face, but I couldn’t help laughing a little. Well, that is until a throbbing pain rippled through my stomach. Later that night, I heard my mother and Frank arguing, and apparently Frank’s supervisor had sent him home because when he showed up with scotch on his breath. That meant he wasn’t going to get paid for that job. And money was already tight. The next morning, I snuck down the hall with Willy. It was a nice morning with a light breeze and Willy was jumping up and down with excitement. We walked down to the Library and got there just as it was opening. There was a sign on the library door that clearly said in bold black lettering that food, drinks, and pets were not allowed. I promptly ignored it and walked into the library. The librarian looked over from the counter and smiled. Willy wagged his tail when he saw her, but kept following me through the library. I walked over to the computer and typed “dog books” in the search bar. Then I followed the computer to the pet book section and scanned through the titles. I pulled a book off the shelf called The Perfect Puppy. I just sat in the isle with Willy curled up next to me, and read. When I got about halfway through the book, it was about one in the afternoon. Willy’s stomach growled and I decided I better check out the book and take him home. I got up and called Willy as the librarian turned the corner. It would have been just a little bump, but when your torso is covered in black and blue bruises . . . I bent forward in pain and Willy wined and pawed at my leg. The librarian looked at me with confusion and concern, and quickly apologized. I pulled myself together and walked with her to the front of the library to check out the book. Once I had checked out the book, Willy and I walked home. It was later in the day, but a light breeze still ruffled my hair. The house was quiet again when we got home and Willy and I curled up together on my bed. He licked my nose and I scratched him behind the ears. In the morning I’d have to go to school and leave Willy by himself. At first I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with him, but after I thought about it. I decided the best plan was to leave him in the backyard and stick his food and water bowls outside. I just prayed Frank didn’t get home before me. Instead of going to the library that morning, I got Willy settled and caught a later bus that got me to school right as the bell rang. Thankfully my homeroom teacher never counted tardies. The day went fine, I had most of my homework done and I got my math test back and it turned out that I’d passed. That was kind of a shock. It was so weird, in elementary school; I’d been the picture perfect student. Always having all my homework done to perfection and all my tests I aced. I loved school and I had had a lot of friends, but the test of true friends is when something truly awful happens to you. See how many of them are there for you when they come over to your house and your mom comes home crying and shaking, or almost drunk. See how many ask if you need help or stay until you’re done with her. Well, none of mine stayed, and I was on my own ever since the end of fourth grade. When I got home, Willy was running around the backyard after a squirrel. I sat under the big oak and started on my homework. He ambushed me with big licks and a stick. I took the stick from him and threw it. He ran after it and brought it back. I kept throwing the stick and doing my homework for a long time. Eventually he got tired and slept with his head in my lap. The week continued like this, carefree and easy. There weren’t any problems with Frank and he even got promoted from a part time, to a full time painter. Which was really good and made the tension in the house ease ever so slightly. Friday afternoon, once the bus stopped I practically leaped off. Thank god, I thought, school was finally over. When I stepped through the font door and skipped to the back, I nearly ran smack into Frank. The smell of alcohol quickly drained the joy out of me. Something behind him caught my eye. I craned my head to see my mother lying on the floor, along with smears of blood and something just clicked. “You bastard!” I yelled. When he came toward me, I pushed him hard. A sober man would have been able to stand his ground, but that drunken man fell back and rage flashed threw his eyes. When he regained his balance, he came full force. A blow to my nose sent blood to spatter against the wall. And another to my stomach caused me to lurch forward in horrific pain. Willy’s barks were muffled behind the glass door. I fell to my knees and Frank grabbed a bottle off the counter. He put it to his lips as he walked out of the house. Once he was gone, I ran to my mother who was still unconscious on the kitchen floor. “Mom. Mom!” I shook her a little until her eyelids fluttered open. “Niki.” She whispered. I helped her to her bed and cleaned her up some. She stayed there the rest of the night. I went out to clean the kitchen after that. And spent the next thirty minutes scrubbing my mother’s and my own blood off of the cabinets and floor. The bleach burned my hands and stained my jeans. When I finished, I took a much-needed shower and crawled into bed with Willy.
Her father’s funeral was pretty bad. Everyone was telling her how sorry they were for her and it wasn’t like she could just tell them all what had happened. The only reason she cried was because of all the nightmares he brought back to mind. Not to mention the fact that he was buried next to her mother.
I had arrived late because my car had broken down, and found everyone surrounding his casket while the prayer was said. Sarah was being held up by Antonio and tears were flowing steadily down her face, but by the set of her jaw, they looked more like angry tears than sorrow. I stood across from her and watched as people set down their flowers. The casket was lowered into the ground. I think that’s when the dam finally broke for Sarah. Almost no one dared to speak to her as Antonio dragged her away.
I stayed for a minute and thought about how much I had hated this man for hurting Sarah over and over and her mother too. But the hate I had for him wasn’t even a comparison to how much I hated Antonio. I walked home letting the rain that had suddenly appeared soak through my suit. I had seen the way she clung to him for support, how she had buried her face into his chest. I would never be that for her. When we had dated it wasn’t me who had thought it to be amusing.
A car sped past me and a wave of water showered me. The next car slowed and the passenger door flung open. A petite woman with little blond curls and sparkly green eyes said,
“Get in.” Her voice was like little bells. So I got in and she drove me to my apartment. I threw my wet clothes in the sink and took a shower. That night I didn’t sleep.
The next morning when I arrived at work I saw the little blond stranger from the day before, sitting in the waiting room. Next to her was a little boy cradling his arm. I went and changed into my scrubs. I didn’t pay her any notice until I saw Sarah arrive. She got out of Antonio’s car and he kissed her goodbye. Fine. I thought. All the pain from yesterday resurfaced and I decided I’d show her. The little blond was in the exam room across the hall by then. Nurse Smith handed me a chart and I prayed it was hers.
It wasn’t. The patient on my chart was an eighty year old woman with a yeast infection. Yuck.
“Ron!” I grabbed him just before he headed into the room. “Switch me patients, you owe me one after that last week.” He flinched, remembering and handed over his chart. I slipped through the door before he could look over the chart. But before I closed the door, I heard him say,
“Damn Tom.” I glanced down at the chart and then said.
“Ah, Mrs. Ralston.”
“Oh, no this is my nephew. I’m Ms. Sampson.” That was a relief. I was very prepared to flirt with a married woman to distract myself, but she was single. I smiled at her and said,
“Let’s take a look at your nephew’s arm.” I examined it and found his arm was swollen and tender to the touch. Along with his story about how he fell out of his tree house, I ordered x-rays and took them down myself. He had a hairline fracture. I put a brace on it, to give the swelling a chance to go down, and gave them a date to come back and I’d put the cast on personally. As they were leaving she turned to me and said,
“Thanks a lot.”
“No problem Ms. Sampson.”
“You can call me Jodi.”
“And you can call me Tom.”
“Tom.” She said sweetly. I watched them walk out and then went to see my next patient.
When Jodi showed up with Stevie, she gave me a sweet smile. He chose a blue cast and I gave him the Sharpie out of my back pocket, so that people could sign it.
“If the cast gives you any trouble, give me a call, or your pediatrician.”
“Thanks. Maybe you could give me a call sometime.” Jodi said shyly.
“Maybe.” I replied with a play of my eyebrows. She laughed and rolled her eyes at me.
I did call her and went to pick her up the next week for dinner. She looked fantastic. She was wearing a little red dress and diamond earrings. Her little blond curls that I’d seen hang down by her shoulders, were pulled back into sort of a messy bun.
I took her to a fancy restaurant down town. She ordered the ceaser salad and I had a steak. We talked a lot. At first about simple stuff, the weather, the news. Then we talked about her family some, but then the conversation did a 180. And we talked a lot about my family, friends, and job. She was easy to talk to and I found myself spilling things. I told her about my place and how it was empty without Sarah there. About how much I missed her and what we had been through. I talked about the ER a little, but Jodi had a bit of a weak stomach with all the blood and guts. I didn’t blame her.
We sort of lost track of time and before we knew it, the place was closing up.
“You know, you’re really easy to talk to.” I said as we were leaving. It was dark out and the streetlights had kicked on.
“Well, thanks.” She laughed, like it was some sort of joke.
“What’s so funny?” I laughed confused.
“Well, it’s sort of my job. I’m a physiatrist.” She explained.
After my father’s death, I became a bit of a different person. Old emotions rose and tried to take over once again. And they almost won. Depression would have taken me if it were not for Antonio. He was with me everyday, through the good and the bad. I normally took the bus home from work, but after my father’s death, Antonio was there in the lobby every evening. Just reading the paper or a book I’d seen in the gift shop. He started just dropping me off at home. Then he’d come in for a cup of coffee, dinner, then he’d stay the night. Finally he just moved in. I was always with him except during work. And I was glad to have him there. I loved him.
Then one day we were in the frozen food isle, in Sal’s the grocery, Antonio stepped in front of me and put his hands on my hips. A sad expression, that had been hiding in his bottomless brown eyes all morning, deepened. He looked at me with so much pain and sorrow, that my hands flew to his face.
“What’s wrong?” My voice was a bit frantic.
“I love you so much.” He said. I drew my face closer. Panic was now rippling in my chest. “I’m being called back. They want me over seas.” Antonio was in the Army reserve, and now he was being called over seas. My thoughts raced. Being without him, for a month, a year, or even forever? Tears brimmed over when Antonio put his hands on my face. “But listen to me.” He fought to keep my eyes. “I love you and I’m coming back. I have never wanted to be without you. And when I come back, I never want to be.” He got down on one knee and pulled out a little black box from his pocket. “Will you marry me?” Now tears rolled down my cheeks.
“No.” I said, and his face looked hurt and he pulled away slightly. “Not until you come back to me.” A huge smile spread across his face. He slipped the ring on my finger; it was a simple gold band. I threw myself in his arms, and he held me tightly. He was going to come back to me. He was going to come back. He had to.
I stood on the runway with Antonio. I ran my fingers through his jet-black hair; it was so thick and wavy. My hand hesitated on his face and then rested on his neck. His mocha skin was smooth and familiar under my touch. He wrapped his arms around me. Sigh. Those arms had kept me warm for so many nights. Then those eyes, so soft and warm. Neither of us spoke a word on that day. He pulled me closer when I started to cry and when it was time for him to go, I got up on my tiptoes and kissed him hard. He met me, love for love, and pain for pain. He would come back.
I looked around after the plane was out of sight. Some people had kids, some were alone, one was pregnant, everyone was crying.
I was standing on the runway among crying women and their husbands. They were hugging them close, jaws clenched. Looking around I saw that every soldier here had someone with them. I was first to get on the plane, and shortly there after another soldier sat down beside me. His jet-black hair was messed up, like someone had been running their fingers through it.
“Hello, I’m Antonio.” He said and gave me a firm handshake.
“I’m Roy.” He seemed friendly, but didn’t try to strike up a conversation. About an hour in the flight, one of the guys in front of us asked if either of us had a pen. Antonio pulled one out of his pocket, but when he did a picture fell out. The guy thanked him for the pen and that’s when I noticed the ring on his finger, it was a simple gold band. “You got a wife?”
“Just about. She won’t say I do until I come back.” Then he handed me the picture. She had big crystal blue eyes and long blonde hair that seemed to vary from almost white to a deeper gold color.
“She’s real pretty.”
“Thanks.” He seemed sad so I shut up.
“You married?” He asked after a minute.
“No.” I said showing my left hand.
“I got a mom who hasn’t been the same since she delivered a still born when I was three. And out there somewhere is the dad who ditched us when I was seven.” I put my head against the seat and closed my eyes. He took the hint.
War is not like the movies. It’s not like the video games. It’s hell. Living hell brought straight from the underworld to torture the living. I can’t even begin to tell you the horror that we all saw. We were given information and acted. We’d go on foot through the city already so blown apart, it could barley be called a city.
Heavily armed men would be put up a hell of a fight. Sometimes we’d lose and we’d come out with less men than we came in with. More often than not, we’d storm the building and find innocent people. Mothers hugging children close and crying. Children so weak and broken. I can remember carrying one out of a building that was half blown apart. There were three of them under the rubble. Antonio, Joe, and I each carried one out. I can remember how weak they looked. Joe was afraid he’d hurt them, just by carrying them out.
Other times we weren’t so lucky, or should I say that they weren’t so lucky. Sometimes we’d just find bodies. Skulls smashed in. Gunshot wounds. Death. Most of the time eyes were still open. Those stares from the dead would haunt me in my sleep. The stares were distraught and begging for help that came too late.
Roadside bombs were another of the many that killed us off. I remember when the word came back that a small child, no more than six or seven, had been placed in the road and when one of our units swerved to miss him. They hit a roadside bomb. All of them died. So now what were we supposed to do? Just mow the kid down? Yes. Like I said, war is not like the movies.
Jodi and I went steady and she moved in with me. Only she didn’t put up with the duct tape, air mattress, or how the only thing in the fridge was an onion and some mustard. Peeling paint wasn’t her thing either. On the weekends she’d work her tail off scrubbing, painting, and grocery shopping for us. I helped with the painting and even some of the scrubbing, but I didn’t know how to grocery shop. Neither did Sarah. We would eat leftovers from when her mom for the week. Or we’d pick something up on our way to the hospital. Starbucks was right across the street from the hospital and it was Sarah’s favorite. She liked a tall non-fat latte and a banana muffin. I liked the blueberry.
Jodi and I shared a car. So she would drive me to work and then take the car to her office, or on a house call. One day after she dropped me off, I banged my arm into the door and cut it open. I went to the supply closet to grab a bandage, but stopped in front of the door when I thought I heard small sobs. I opened the door quietly and saw a blond ponytail sticking out from one of the lower shelves. Quietly, I walked around and accidentally startled Sarah.
She quickly got to her feet and I could see that her make-up was smeared and her cheeks were all red and puffy.
“I was just getting some gauze pads.” She sniffled.
“What’s wrong Sarah?” I asked gently.
“It’s Antonio.” She said reluctantly. A grave look crossed her face.
“What happened? Did he hurt you?” I looked her up and down.
“Of course not!” Now she was pissed off. “He’s going off to war. They’re calling him back over.” I saw her try to keep a strait face, but failed. Tears fell down her face again. I pulled her into my arms and kissed the top of her head.
“It’s going to be ok.” I could feel her tears sink through my shirt. That’s when I saw the ring on her left hand and I quickly looked away to find Jodi standing in the doorway with my scrubs in hand. Her forehead was creased and eyes tight. She dropped my scrubs and turned away. I ran after her.
“What?” She sounded more sad than angry.
“What you saw, it wasn’t what you think.”
“That’s what they all say.” She tried to turn away again, but I held her shoulders.
“Listen to me. Sarah’s boyfriend is going off to war. She’s worried he won’t make it back. I was just comforting her as a friend.”
“But you love her.” I had never told her that, but her being a physiatrist and they way I talked about her, probably wasn’t too hard to figure out. “You’re jealous that after all these years you’ve spent with her, … she chose another man. You love her.”
“I … did, but not anymore. Not after I met you. Jodi I love you and if I had a ring, I’d probably ask you to marry me.” I lied in a rush.
“You would?” She paused and looked down. “I will.”
“Yeah.” She jumped into my arms and I held her close. And swallowed everything else.
His letters did not come very often, but when they did, I would tear open the envelope and devour the letter, reading it over and over. It was hard. Not having him there in the morning when I woke up. Not being able to meet him for lunch on a slow day. Not having him pick me up after work. For the love of god, I couldn’t pick up the phone and call him! The worst was lying in our bed, on my side, staring at his pillow, and trying to fall asleep without his gentle snores. I wanted him to come home so badly. I wanted to walk down the isle and say ‘I do’. I wanted to be together ‘till death do us part’.
It was a nice day in late spring. The wind blew smells of fresh rain and blooming flowers and danced through the petals of my flowers. Daisies and daffodils covered my flowerbeds. I stood up and surveyed my work. Wet dirt crammed underneath my nails and the knees of my jeans were soaked through. I brushed off extra dirt as the mailman stopped by the house. He was a short thick man with hair that had once been brown, but was now streaked with gray; he wasn’t much for conversation. A little grunt was all he said as I thanked him for the mail and turned to go inside. I flipped through the letters quickly, searching for a certain style of writing. No such letter was found, but that didn’t dent my mood.
“He’ll be home in a week.” I sang to myself. The past year seemed to take an eternity. I just couldn’t wait for him to get home. He had told me in his letters about everything. About his friend he had made, and the people he had saved. But, he also told me about the people they had been too late for and the people whom he’d had to kill. About how a man died in his arms, and how the life leaves the lungs first and the eyes last. But I read every word anticipating the next letter.
Many had said that war changed people, and I feared that as many of his letters were filled with grief and sorrow. Only, I knew my Antonio was in there somewhere, and if needed, I would help him find that man.
Antonio and I were in the same sector, so we saw a lot of each other. We talked sometimes, but at night I’d curse and slam things around. He’d sit and stare off into the distance and listen. When I was through, he would say, ‘I know’. That was all, but it was enough because he got it. Which is exactly what I needed when we stormed this one building a month before we would get to go home. Intelligence had been reported that there was a large amount of weapons in this building. When we stormed it we found a lot of very pissed guys. All cussing, I’m sure, in some other language with large guns in hand. After firing for what seemed like hours, we took control and seized the weapons. On a scope of the building I heard some small cries coming from one of the closets. Gun drawn and Antonio at my side, I flung open the door. Inside a small woman sat huddled in the corner. She pressed herself closer to the back of the closet and covered her face as I tried to talk to her. After a few more whimpers I gave Antonio my gun and just walked into the closet. She gave weak little screams as I got closer. Then, I simply scooped her up. She stared up at me with terrified eyes and shook. “I won’t hurt you. I’m here to help you.” That’s when I noticed the plastic ties around her wrists. I lifted my hand and she flinched. I found out why when I brushed back some of her long black hair to reveal a black eye and a swollen lip. Not to mention the little bloody cuts that covered her olive skin. “I won’t hurt you.” I repeated as I grabbed a knife out of my uniform and cut the plastic ties off. I held her a little closer as I walked out of the building with Antonio covering me. * * * The woman’s name turned out to be Soña. She was kidnapped by one of the men in the group. They were holding her and five pounds of C4 for their boss. A man we still couldn’t find. Over the following days, we found out a lot about her. She was an American citizen that had been abducted while she was over here painting. She had no family in the states and was self-employed. So no one had noticed she was missing. Since she was an American, she stayed with us at the base and was due home on our plane. She stayed in our tent by choice, and kept close to me when I wasn’t storming buildings and patrolling streets. And Antonio bugged the s**t out of me the last month. Apparently just because I wanted to keep her safe, I was in love with her. I didn’t love her, but I wasn’t about to feed her over to some of the dogs over there. A few days before we were due home, Soña was quiet, even for herself. “So where ya gonna stay when we get back?” I asked. Soña who was sitting on my bed brushing her hair, stopped mid stroke. She looked down at the floor and said, “Nowhere. My apartment has most likely been given to someone else, I don’t have any family, and I came here on my last dollar to paint. She was still looking at the floor. I ran my fingers through my hair and looked down at the floor too. “Well, I guess … you could, um … stay at my place. You know if you want.” She raised her eyes to meet mine. They were guarded, but looked a little happy. “Thanks.” Antonio was across from us, reading, with a stupid smile strung across his face. I threw a book at him before I asked, “Hey Antonio, you ready to go home?” “There’s nothing I want more than to see Sarah. We’re getting married and I want you to be there.” “Yeah why not, besides I probably got to meet this Sarah.” He looked pleased. Antonio, normally a calm man, was now fidgety as the plane landed. Soña was sitting next to me, and Antonio was in front of us. Soña had fallen asleep on the long ride over, and was now leaning against my shoulder. I gave her a little shake. “Soña. Soña, we’re here.” Her eyelids fluttered open and she quickly repositioned herself. She turned toward the window, but out of the corner of my eye I could see her face was scarlet red, and a little smile played at the corners of her mouth. So I kept a hold on her hand. When the plane landed, Antonio quickly moved for the door, barely holding onto his bags. I let most of the other people off the plane before I grabbed my bags and took Soña off the plane. People were screaming and running toward the soldiers as they came off. Wives were crying, kids were laughing, and Antonio was wrapped around who I took to be Sarah. He raised his head and broke the kiss when he heard me laughing. Soña who had been like a vise on my arm, relaxed a little when she met Sarah. My place wasn’t very big, or clean, but Soña didn’t have anywhere to go. So she slept in my bed and I slept on the couch. I got up early and left a note for Soña. I went out for a run, bought a paper, and picked up some coffee. When I got back, I heard the sound of a vacuum picking up all sorts of crap. I unlocked the door and found Soña vacuuming my apartment. I set down the coffee in the little kitchenette, and to my surprise, it was spotless. I’d never done anything to clean that place before. Well, except mop up a drink I’d spilled with a dirty t-shirt, but she had scrubbed it pristine. “What are you doing?” “I thought you might like to come home to a clean house.” She said. I took a look around as she shut off the vacuum. The carpets were vacuumed, the table clean and oiled, and it looked like the bed had been stripped. I walked into the bathroom, off the bedroom and was overwhelmed by the smell of bleach, but man was it clean. “I think you’re looking at a career.” I joked. “No offense, but I was looking at a different lifestyle.” She laughed. “And what would that be? Becoming an amazing artist and selling paintings for millions?” “That sounds pretty good.” She sighed. “Hey, where did you get all that cleaning stuff?” “I got the bleach from under the sink and I borrowed the vacuum from your neighbor.” She said sheepishly. That surprised me. I’d thought that she would be too shy to do something like that. “Uh, hey, you want a cup of coffee?” She nodded and I gave her the other cup. “You need some help?” “Uh, sure you could um …” She looked around the apartment. “You could wash the windows.” She suggested and handed me a bucket of something. Ugh, windows.
Just beyond the security checkpoint, I stood anxiously. I must have checked my watch every twenty seconds. Then a little boy no taller than my knee called out that the plane had landed. I got up on my toes and was craning my neck trying to push my way through the crowd. Screams of joy rang through the airport as the plane started to unload. The first person off was a woman with long curly hair that was duplicated on the little girl that was sprinting toward her. Pearls of laughter poured from the little girl as her mother twirled her in the air. She was followed by three men. One was greeted with a woman struggling to run with a very pregnant stomach. The other was engulfed into the arms of an older woman I took to be his mother. The last man was attacked by two little twin boys no older than two.
I didn’t pay any attention to the rest because the next man that stepped off the plane consumed me. I burst through the crowd and took off running. Antonio just simply dropped his bags and opened his arms when he saw me. I jumped into his arms and buried my head in his chest. I didn’t even realize I was crying until he whipped the tears away. He normally took my chin in his hand and gently brought my lips to his. But not today, today he put his hand on the back of my neck, keeping the other arm around me, and kissed me hard.
The familiarity of him made me go weak at the knees, and he seemed to be happy to support the extra weight. I buried my face into his chest again. When I felt him sigh, I raised my face to his and met his gaze.
“I love you.” He breathed.
“I love you too.” I said as a few more tears slipped down my cheeks. Then our lips met again and it was like no time had passed at all.
A low chuckle broke our kiss as Antonio turned his head. Standing next to him was a man with dusty brown hair and muted green eyes. Next to him was a small woman with dark black hair and olive skin, her arm was securely wrapped around his, and she looked a little frightened.
“Sarah, this is Roy and Soña.” He said motioning to the man, then the woman with his arm still fixed around my waist. Antonio had written about Roy in his letters, and thought of him as a good friend. He’d also written very recently about this woman Soña. He wrote that Roy had saved her and even though he wouldn’t admit it, he loved her. Roy nodded at me and the woman smiled, relaxing a little.
I met Jodi’s family that weekend. We flew into Maine at nine on Friday and left on Sunday at lunch. Her mother had the same little blond curls and bubbly personality. Her father was nice, but I could see the judgment on his face. That is until he was told that I was a doctor. Everyone in the family were blonds, bubbly wives and golfer men. Except for Jodi’s sister. Her name was June, and she was a deep brunette. Stevie the little boy I had treated was her son. She seemed to be distanced from the family.
While Jodi was planning with the rest of her family, I talked to June. She was very nice and gave me tips on how to get on the good side of the family. Such as, their aunt Cindy hated it when people put their elbows on the table. Grandpa Frank hated it when men crossed their legs. And never ask cousin Sue if she would like something to drink. Or if I valued my life, I wouldn’t talk about politics with uncle Bob. I was also never supposed to ask about her parents marriage. Or make any sort of joke relating to how everyone else in the family was blond and she was a brunette. When I asked about her husband she said that he had died last year. She held her body strong, but I could see the grief in her eyes.
Jodi showed me around some, but couldn’t keep herself from her mother and aunt. They talked for hours on end about the flowers, silverware, and everything else imaginable. When we were on the plane Jodi spread a ton of pictures out in front of me, along with a lot of articles, phone numbers, and other things scribbled down on scraps of paper. It was definitely going to be a big white wedding. Her mom wanted her to have it in the church she was baptized in. Only Jodi wanted to have it in the church she dragged me to every Sunday. It was pretty big, with velvet pews and tons of stained glass.
The wedding was huge, a woman’s dream come true. Flowers were draped across the pews and seemed to be dripping down the huge stain glass windows. The church was packed. All of Jodi’s friends and family were there. My parents and a few other misc. family members were there as well. Sarah was sitting in the third row talking to June. Steve was sitting on the other side of June looking kind of bored. Sarah was wearing a little blue dress with a sweetheart neckline. Her beautiful hair lay around her shoulders, gently swaying as she breathed.
I quickly raised my head when I became conscious of the music playing and the people walking down the isle. I looked up just in time to see Jodi enter on her father’s arm. She looked beautiful. The bodice of her dress had intricate beading that continued down the dress and faded into the lace. The lace was intricate as well and worked its way to the back of the dress to make the train. Her little blond curls were put up on the top of her head in a fancy do that was held together by the veil. She was beautiful, but when the time came to lift the veil, I still expected to see the crystal blue eyes I knew so well.
I could barely keep up with Jodi as we were pushed through the crowd of family and friends giving us their blessings. Jodi’s father took her for the first dance of the night. I scanned the reception hall till I found Sarah toward the other end. She was standing there with June and her little boy. As I crossed the room, Stevie tugged on his mom’s pale green skirt. She said something to Sarah and left with Stevie.
“Hey Sarah.” I said as I came to stand next to her.
“Hey, oh congrats Tom.”
“Thanks. How’s Antonio?” I asked reluctantly.
“Ok.” She sighed. “I just got another letter from him. And you know it’s not like everything’s hunky dory, but he’s dealing with it. And you know Roy helps.”
“Oh yeah, that guy he met on the plane right? And now they’re good friends.”
“Yeah, but I won’t bore you with all that stuff. It’s your wedding day for Christ’s sake.” Her face was twisted with pain.
“He’s going to make it Sarah.” I comforted.
“But I don’t know if I’m going to.” She laughed, but it sounded wrong. After a brief pause, she said, “You’d better go dance with your wife.” That’s when I realized the change in music. So I went to dance with my wife, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sarah take off as I spun Jodi across the dance floor.
We arrived in Hawaii the next morning. Our hotel room was huge and had a view on the ocean. We stayed for a week, and what a week. We swam in the ocean, laid on the beach, ate amazing food, and didn’t sleep. The day after we got back, I went back to work. Jodi and I bought a house together a few months later. It was a nice white house with a small backyard and a white picket fence. Then Jodi got pregnant and it was kind of like a fairy tail. A beautiful wife, house, and a baby on the way. As Jodi’s stomach got bigger, Sarah grew more impatient. When Jodi was almost nine months pregnant, Antonio was due back.
On my run one morning I was thinking about Soña, and then I just kind of stumbled across this art store. I walked in and was greeted by a very short and spunky girl. “Hello! How are you today? What can I help you find?” She said in a rush. “Uh, my uh, friend is a painter, but all of her stuff got destroyed.” “Oh what a bummer. Well, what type of canvass does she use? Paint? Brushes?” “Are there a lot of kinds?” “Oh yes!” I ground my teeth. She laughed and said, “Let’s start with some basics that every painter can use.” I followed her into the back of the store. “Good morning.” Soña said when I walked in the door. “What do you have there?” “I was uh, running and just sort of stumbled upon this place.” I gave her the bag. “I just thought you’d want to, uh, paint. But, I didn’t know what you used so this kid at the store said there were some basics that you would probably be able to use.” I rambled on as she unpacked the things from the bag. She looked up at me with teary eyes. “Oh, god, is it that bad? I could take it back and,” Soña cut me off when she pressed her lips to mine. She threw her arms around my neck and I wound my arm around her waist. I was gentle. She always looked so fragile. What if I broke her? She broke the kiss but didn’t pull away. I looked into her eyes and even though they were filled with tears, they looked happy. “I love you.” I said when she put her head in the crook of my shoulder. She looked up at me and said, “I love you more.” This surprised me, I’d thought she’d pull away. But she didn’t so this time I started the kiss and she’d have to be the one to end it. Soña was warm against my bare chest, her breathing steady. We laid in my bed as the sky turned from gray to pink to blue. Soña didn’t stir until the sun hit the bed and birds chirped happily. “Mmm.” She said as she wiggled in the sheets. “Hey sleepy head.” “I think that’s the best nights sleep I’ve had since we got back.” “Yeah, you didn’t yell at all last night.” “I yell?” S**t, almost every night she would yell and cry in her sleep. I would run into the bedroom, shake her a little and tell her it was okay. She wouldn’t wake up, but after a few little whimpers, she would go back to a more peaceful sleep. She looked worried, so I lied. “Not really.” “Lair.” I laughed. “You want some coffee?” “Ok. You know you have coffee here right?” “Huh?” Well, you go out and get coffee all the time, I just wondered if you knew that you have coffee here.” “Oh.” I got out of bed and opened up a few cupboards. Sure enough I had a bag of Dunkin Donuts coffee and some filters. It was almost ready when Soña came out in a pair of sweat pants and one of my old t-shirts. Let me tell you, she looked hot even in that, and her bed head only added to it. She started arranging all of the art supplies on the table. She stared at the canvas for a minute and then got to work. I poured two cups of coffee and sat down beside her. She didn’t say anything or drink any of her coffee, she just painted. Reds, yellows, blues, pinks, oranges, and lots of other colors that I didn’t even know the names for went onto the canvas. She painted till her coffee was cold, the morning rush hour stopped, and the mailman dropped off the mail. When she was finished, she looked at it for a moment and sighed. “A sunrise.” I said. It was a sun rising over a lake with lush greenery, fishermen, and beautiful clouds tie dyed by the sunrise. She picked up her coffee and said, “A beginning.”
The next morning at the library, I arrived with Willy just as the doors opened. When I passed the librarian and said hello, I put the book I’d checked out earlier in the drop box. There was a little table by the window with a lamp. I sat over there with Willy at my feet and paid little attention to the book in front of me. I was thinking about last night. About how good it felt to push Frank as hard as I could. I was thinking about how long the past year had seemed. So long and hard. Which brought the thought of easier, happier times to mind. When my father was alive. Making us laugh, comforting us, and protecting us from anything and everything. We had played catch in the front yard with a football and Roy would come over and play too. I would catch it and take off running and they would both come running after me. Either my dad or Roy would scoop me up and run me over the line to make a touchdown. My mother and Soña would sit on the porch and try to learn how to knit from a book Roy had got Soña. We’d go in the house when it started to get dark and make dinner and sit around the table and laugh and eat. Soña always got to pick what we ate. One, because she was the best cook and two, because she was pregnant and ate the most of it. When a tear dripped onto Willy’s nose he licked it off and I realized I was crying. I quickly whipped the tears away. Whenever I thought of my dad I got this feeling inside my chest, like it was going to explode, so tight, like my throat. I got up abruptly and startled Willy. He hopped up and followed me until we were almost out. Before we reached the door, the librarian stopped us. `“Oh Niki, a new book just came in. I thought you might enjoy it, so I saved a copy for you.” She handed me a book with the title The Escape by Linda Frostle. I thanked her and left. I sat in the park and read. At first the book was sort of boring, but the more I read, the less I was able to put it down. At about noon, I left the park with Willy and walked home. Just itching to sit under the big oak and finish it. I played fetch with Willy until he slept and read. The Escape was about a mother, sister, brother, and their abusive father. The book seemed very familiar in a way I wouldn’t admit to myself. The sun was setting, but I lost myself in the climax of the book as the mother, brother, and sister tried to escape during the night. They got out ok and made it to the Womens’ shelter. The shelter helped them get on their feet and get away. But after they’d almost put it all behind them, the dad found them and this time he was madder than hell. Instead of showing up with his bare hands, ready for a fight. He came with a gun. There was a massive struggle that resulted in the death of the brother and father, and a trip to the hospital for the mother and sister. The ending left me in tears and Willy licked them off my face. It was almost dark now and Willy and I went inside. I helped my mother make dinner again that night. We were all pretty quiet and I barely touched my food. When Willy and I arrived at the library the next morning, I put the book in the book drop. “How did you like it?” The librarian asked. “It was so sad.” I said. “Yes, I know, but do you know how the whole thing could have been avoided?” I shook my head and she continued. “Well, if one of the kids or the mother had told someone and reached out for help early on.” “What?” I exclaimed. “No, that’s not how you solve those kind of problems. It only makes it worse.” “Why would it make it worse?” I could tell she was baiting me, but this conversation had taken such a surprising turn that I hadn’t yet regained my footing. “Because then he gets really mad or drunk and that never ends well I mean look how the book ended.” “Niki, the father in the book wasn’t a drunk.” Damn. “Oh, uh, I just got it confused with another story I read.” “You know that wasn’t a story, it was an autobiography.” There was a long pause and I watched, as some sort of old pain seemed to flash in her eyes. “Niki, I know what’s going on.” Again, damn. “You don’t know anything. I’d better be going.” I left with Willy and headed straight home. What was I going to do now? She knew the truth, but she couldn’t say anything, could she? I walked in the door and tried to shake what she’d said. I let Willy in the backyard and walked into the kitchen. I looked up as I came in and saw Frank at the kitchen table with an official looking paper in his hands. He stared at the paper as he spoke. “Today was my day off ya know. I had a great time. Shot some hoops with the boys, went out and had a nice lunch at the Blue Moon.” Frank said in a partially pleasant voice. “Well that’s,” I started. “Until I got the mail.” He interrupted in a voice that seemed to get louder and angrier with each word. “Your report card came in the mail today.” I think in that moment the life jumped out of me. “You stupid bi**h, you’re worthless!” Frank got up so swiftly that the chair fell over and hit the wall. He came toward me and I backed up. “Do you know how embarrassing it is to have your kid fail?!” He yelled. That made me so mad. He wasn’t my dad! Then I remembered what I‘d done last time. “You’re not my dad you son of a b!” Before he could touch me, I punched him square in the nose and was surprised that I had put enough force behind it to make him bleed. I heard Willy in the backyard, barking and growling. Frank moved toward me again and this time his eyes scared me. When I backed into the wall, he made his move. He punched me in the face again and again. Each impact sent an aching stab, deep into my face. When I fell to the floor, he tried to kick me in the stomach, but I dodged it and got up fast. I took off running and made it to the dining room before he grabbed me by the arm. I let out a blood-curdling scream when I heard my shoulder pop. He pulled me close to him and I stared in his eyes and then he pushed me hard. The china cabinet door shattered when I hit it. I laid in a heap of glass when Frank came over and started to kick me in the stomach and sides. He kicked me again and again. When I laid limp on the floor, he stood over me for a minute and then stopped through the garage with his heavy work boots. I laid there barely conscious in a pool of my own blood and glass.
“Soña?” I called into the bathroom. When no one answered I just walked in.
“Don’t you knock?” She asked laughing. She had just gotten out of the shower and had a towel around her; her long black hair was wet and hanging down by her shoulders.
“Oh, sorry. Antonio and Sarah are getting married tomorrow, and they invited us. So I thought you might want to get some clothes for it.” She just looked at me and smiled.
“Ok. Hey, come and look at this.” She led me to the living room and handed me another canvas. This one was of a big campfire with a log beside it. A few silhouettes were on and around the log looking in at the fire. Sparks rose up and lightened up the trees and vegetation close to it.
“I like this one. It looks warm.”
“Exactly.” She said beaming. “You know you’ll need something to wear too.”
“I have an old suit in the closet.”
“That suit has holes in it. You can’t wear a holey suit to your best friend’s wedding. Especially since you’re the best man.”
“Why do you think I would be the best man?” I asked since I hadn’t told her yet.
“It’s easy to see that you guys are best friends. You lean on each other when you need it, even though you would never admit it.” She paused as I looked at her and thought about that. “Plus there was a sticky note in the invitation that asked if you would.” She finished in a rush.
“And here I thought you were deep.” She laughed and went into the bedroom to change.
We went together to get clothes for the wedding, Soña wouldn’t let me see her in any of the dresses she tried on, but she insisted on seeing me in all of the suits I tried on. It was a painful process.
The next afternoon, when it was time for us to leave for the wedding, I knocked on the bathroom door.
“Soña? We need to leave soon.” After a few more minutes the door opened and Soña stepped out in a soft yellow sundress that showed off her tiny waist and little shoulders.
“Do you think this will work?” She asked a little worried, probably because I was staring.
“Uh, yeah. I mean, you look great.” I closed my mouth and whipped off the drool. We got to the wedding on time and Soña got a seat in the third row. Antonio cleaned up nice like everyone else, but the most surprising was the bride. I had first seen Sarah in the photo Antonio had showed me on the plane, and she had been in sweats then. The second time was in scrubs with her hair tied back. But now this was a whole different story. I was guessing thanks to the smug looking bride’s maid. Sarah was wearing a flowing silk dress with elegant beading. Her hair flowed down to her shoulders in gentle waves and she was wearing pearl earrings and necklace.
She looked beautiful and I patted Antonio on the back, who had the biggest grin on his face I had ever seen. But when Sarah got up to Antonio, some guy sitting next to a very pregnant blonde got up and left. A few moments later the blonde got up and left too. Other than that, the ceremony went by normally. When Antonio took her chin in his hand and kissed her, the crowd burst into applause.
The reception was all right. The drinks were strong and the music was loud. Plus not only were people celebrating the wedding, but the fact that Antonio and I made it home safely. Soña loosened up after a few drinks and we owned that dance floor. Not that either of us could dance.
Jodi and I sat in the third row next to a slight woman with black hair and olive skin. When the music started playing and the bride entered, I could have sworn my jaw dropped. I’d known Sarah longer than anyone else here, but I had never seen her like this. She was heartbreaking. Her silk train flowed behind her like ocean waves and Sam glanced over at me with a smug look on her face. No doubt all of this had been thanks to her. Sarah would have just worn jeans to her own wedding.
It took me a minute to remember where I had seen this dress before. Then it hit me; it was Sarah’s mother’s. The silk and beading flowed together effortlessly. The light in the chapel danced off her the different hues in her hair, and it made her look like she was glowing. I could only imagine what her eyes looked like. Then she reached Antonio and I snapped out of it. She wasn’t walking to me, but to another man. I got up and left the chapel. I sat on the bench outside and after what seemed too short, Jodi came out and she looked pissed.
“Tom, I don’t even know what to say.” She stood right in front of me with her hands on her hips.
“Jodi I wasn’t feeling well so I came out for some fresh air and,”
“No.” She cut me off. “Tom you know you can’t lie to me. You never could. I thought you were passed her. I mean come on Tom! We’re married! We have a baby on the way!” She was yelling now. “And in case you didn’t notice, she doesn’t want you! She loves Antonio! She’s marrying him! That’s why most people get married. I’m starting to wonder why you married me. Why? To Just to try to fill the hole? How am I doing on that? Because if you don’t get yourself in this marriage one hundred percent, I’m taking this baby. And I will leave your sorry ass!” I raised my head from my hands and looked up at Jodi.
“I loved her, and she never realized. I love you, and our baby, but it still hurts.” I put my head on her belly and she held my head and said,
Jodi held my hand for the reception; she gave me more support than I could ask for. And as we got in the car I said,
“Thank you.” and I squeezed her hand.
“I love you.”
I was on call at the hospital a few nights later, when I got a call from home. I heard Jodi’s voice through the receiver.
“Baby, my water just broke.”
“Oh, uh… I’ll be right there. Grab your bag and make your way to the front door. I’ll be there in five.” I told one of the nurses what was going on and jumped in the car. Jodi was in labor for twelve hours, but finally gave birth to a little girl we named Julie. She had he mom’s eyes and what looked to be her mom’s hair, but she did have my nose and cheekbones Jodi said.
She weighed six pounds eleven ounces. I will never forget the first time I held her. Her little, warm body cradled in my hands. I smelled the top of her head. There aren’t words good enough to describe a moment such as that. I never thought that I could love one person so much, or that any one person could be as perfect as she was. She was my baby girl.
That night Julie was sleeping in Jodi’s arms. Jodi was sagging back against the hospital bed with exhaustion, but refused to let her go. I sat in the chair next to the bed and held her hand. She had been staring at Julie and softly cooing her to sleep, but then she abruptly turned to me and told me that she didn’t want to go back to work.
“I see so many mothers and daughter come through. The mother is never there for her, or she is too busy with work to realize what is going on in her daughter’s life. I don’t want to be like that. I want to be here for this baby.” I listened to her and then reminded her that we would have to live on one salary, but we both agreed that a doctor’s would do fine. So the next morning she sent in her letter of resignation. She was always efficient.
I married Antonio before the week came to a close. A nice minister was good friends with Antonio, and he agreed to marry us in his church. We invited a few of our close friends and I pulled my mother’s old wedding dress out of the closet. I wasn’t planning on doing anything special, but slip the wedding dress on and stick a clip in my hair. But I should have known better with Sam coming. She spent the entire day taking me from place to place, having this and that done. We were actually almost late to the wedding.
When I walked down the isle, I didn’t think about all the people that were there, or that Antonio could be called back over seas at any point. I just looked strait ahead at Antonio and thought about how much I loved him and how I had no feeling of hesitation or unsureness. By the broad grin on his face, I could tell he didn’t either.
I remember the wedding so clearly, the vows, the rings, and the magnificent kiss. I know everything that went on that day, except who got up and left when I reached Antonio. I had wondered for a brief moment, but I had a few other things on my mind at the moment.
Our reception was a blast. They were pouring stiff drinks and playing great music. After, Antonio and I left for our honeymoon. Since everything was so sporadic, we didn’t have reservations or tickets or anything like that. So we just got in the car and started driving. We didn’t care what exit we took, or which highway went where. We just drove and had fun along the way. Eventually we ended up in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a rocking town and the people were very nice, but had no idea why we chose Omaha for our honeymoon. We ended up staying out of town for almost three weeks and let me tell you, those were the best three weeks of my life.
When we got back, I went back to work and Antonio started volunteering at the soup kitchen. He was always in the lobby when I got off work though. I didn’t see Tom until the afternoon of my first day back. I’d heard from the rest of the nurses that Jodi had given birth to a healthy baby girl named Julie.
“So how’s Julie?” I asked.
“She’s great.” Beaming with pride he took out a picture and handed it to me.
“Awww. She’s definitely got her mama’s curls.” I said as I admired the picture. It was of Jodi and little Julie asleep on a bed all wrapped up in a blanket.
“Sarah, we need you over here.” One of the doctors called and I turned to go, calling back,
“See ya Tom.”
“So how’s Julie?” Sarah asked. Julie was two and a half weeks old, now that Sarah had gotten back from her honeymoon.
“She’s great.” I pulled out a picture from my wallet and handed it to her.
“Aww. She’s definitely got her mama’s curls.” The picture was of Jodi and Julie curled up on the bed together, fast asleep. By now Julie’s curls had started to take shape and they were all piled on top of her head just like her mom’s. Sarah had just given the picture back as another doctor called her. “See ya, Tom.” She called behind her as she scurried away.
Later that evening as I was walking out of the hospital, I saw a very familiar sight that hadn’t been there for quite some time. Antonio was sitting in the lobby, reading the paper and waiting for Sarah. Then I saw Sarah rifling through her bag and she almost missed him. But he folded up the newspaper and she looked over. A huge grin broke across her face and she ran over to him. He pulled her into his arms and I she buried her face in his chest. Pain shot through my chest and I looked away. Sarah had moved on and so would I. I had a family. I buried all of my feelings as deeply as I could.
Little Julie got bigger and bigger. One day while Jodi was passed out on the couch, I was giving Julie a bath. She was looking at me with big eyes, while I blew bubbles in the water. Then she just smiled.
“Jodi!” I yelled, blowing more bubbles.
“What?” She said groggily. “I just got to sleep.”
“Come here! Julie just smiled!” At that Jodi was at my side.
“What?!” I blew more bubbles into the water and when they hit her feet, Julie broke into a full grin. Jodi and I spent the rest of the day getting her to smile.
The first time Julie laughed, we got it on tape and sent it to our families. The first time I saw her walk was at the hospital. I had had a hard day and didn’t even notice Jodi and Julie get there till I heard,
“Go get daddy!” I turned my head to see little Julie totling across the ER. It was slow, now, and she had no obstacles in front of her. She got pretty close but then fell over. I scooped her up and tickled the tears away.
Pretty soon she was on her way to her first day of school. Julie woke us up at four in the morning asking if it was time to go yet.
“Ugh, we better get her to school so she can learn how to tell time.” I groaned. Jodi laughed and put Julie back to bed. But when she woke us up an hour later, we just got up.
“Is it time to go yet?” Julie asked again, as she bounced up and down at the table: her little curls bounced with her.
“I told you Julie, when the clock says 7, 4, 5. That’s when you need to get your shoes on.” I said sucking down more coffee.
“Ok daddy!” She said and put another spoonful of cereal in her mouth. “Libby says dat we get a box of cayons.”
“Crayons, Julie.” Jodi said, packing Julie’s lunch.
“Will I get bue mama?”
“I’m sure you will baby.”
“What if I get geen and no bue mama?” I cracked up at Julie’s worried little face.
“If you don’t get a blue crayon, I will get you one Julie. Ok?”
“Ok daddy!” We finally drove Julie to school and she talked the whole way. About crayons, PB & J’s, tying her shoes, and she definitely wanted to if in kindergarten they planted a garden.
“I want to grow pudding. The little cups the nurses give to me at the hofpital.”
“Hospital Julie.” I corrected. When we got the school, Julie ran in without a glance back. I drove to the hospital with Jodi in the car since she was going to drive it home.
“I can’t believe she’s already in school.” She said after we parked.
“I know, it feels like just yesterday we brought her home.”
“She was just kicking me.”
“I was just lying my head on your belly trying to hear her.”
“We’re going to blink and she’ll be worrying about car payments instead of if you gets a blue crayon or a green one.” I thought about what Julie would look like when she was twenty. I figured she would be the most beautiful woman on the face of the earth.
“I love you.” I said and she turned her head and smiled.
“I love you too.” She said.
That night I was dropping off some paper work and the nurses’ station when I heard a familiar little voice.
“Daddy!” Julie ran up to me and I thrust her into my arms. “Look Daddy! I got a whole box of cayons! And I got tree bue ones! And I got a desk wif my name on it!” She squealed.
“So you had a good day?”
“Oh yes Daddy. My teacher is Mrs. Rick. She is rewy nice.” Julie talked the whole way to the car, but fell asleep somewhere on the ride home.
Antonio held my hair back as I threw up again.
“Ugh. I hate being sick.” I groaned. Then I threw up again and Antonio rubbed my back.
“You cannot go to work today.” He said as I rinsed out my mouth.
“I’ll be fine, and besides, these people are already sick. How much worse am I going to make them? The flu seems pretty minimal compared to three gunshot wounds in the stomach.” He laughed and pulled me into his arms. “And by the way,” I dropped off when he kissed me. When he pulled back, he wrinkled his nose. “What?” I asked slightly offended.
“You taste bad.” He said and I laughed. I got dressed and brushed my teeth. When I walked in the kitchen Antonio kissed me again. “Much better.” I laughed again and grabbed another cup of coffee.
“You ready?” I asked. He grabbed the keys and walked over to me.
“You could still take that sick day you know.” I looked at him and saw a hint of something in his eyes.
“Well, I haven’t taken a sick day in a while.” He smiled and kissed my neck as I called in sick. Let me tell you, that was the best sick day I ever had. Antonio took me out to a small park with a little stream. We laid in the grass and stared at the clouds. I rolled up my pant legs and splashed in the stream like a first grader. He laughed and came in after me. We had a water fight and ended up soaking wet in the middle of the stream cracking up. We watched the stars from our front yard with cups of hot chocolate. I remembered that day for days to come until another matter shifted my attention.
“I’m pregnant?” I said to myself. My period was like clock work and when I was late, I started to worry. Then when I paired that with what I thought was the flu, I bought a pregnancy test and chugged half a pint of diet Pepsi. “Pregnant?” I repeated. Later that evening, when I was walking out of the ER, I saw Antonio reading the paper. He got up and walked over to me.
“What’s wrong Sarah?” He asked and slung my bag over his shoulder.
“Nothing.” I said. “Well there is something, but it’s not bad.” He waited for me to finish. “I’m pregnant.” He looked at me for a moment, eyes wide, mouth agape. Then he suddenly picked me up and twirled me around.
“That’s great!” He smiled from ear to ear and I smiled with him.
“We’re going to have a baby.” I said and he spun me around again.
Over the next few months we learned a lot. About babies and how to care for them, and make sure they turn out all right. When we learned we were going to have a girl, we decided on Niki for a name. Neither of us had any family named Niki and we both loved the name.
I have to tell you, being an ER nurse is pretty hard when you have a nine-month pregnant belly sticking out. But it’s very handy when your water breaks in the middle of the ER. I didn’t have to go very far. Antonio was there a short time after I was wheeled into the delivery room.
A short time after that, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. I was glad that I wasn’t in labor for twelve hours like a lot of other women I’d heard about. Three hours was long enough for me. When the nurse gave her to me, I gasped. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She was covered in blood and such, but I could clearly she the her father’s hair atop her little head. Her skin was pearly white and her big eyes brown. She was all curled in on herself, her little fingers and toes balled up and pressed against her body. She had been crying so hard, which I knew was good, she was strong. But the moment they put her in my arms, she settled down. She was so small, but had such big pretty eyes.
“Isn’t she the most beautiful baby you’ve ever seen?” I sobbed. Antonio nodded and I swore I saw him wipe away a tear of his own. When he got to hold her, he was so gentle, as if he might drop her or hurt her with his rough hands. I smiled, we were a family now.
The next years were the best of my life. Niki and I were very close, but her dad was her best friend. They did everything together, fished, played baseball and football, and built a tree house. Soña and Roy came over all the time and the boys played with her while Soña and I tried to knit, talked, and cooked. She was a great cook and taught me a lot.
The day after Niki’s eighth birthday, when Niki was asleep, I found Antonio staring out the window in the living room.
“What’s up baby?” I asked and wrapped my arms around his waist and laid my head on his back.
“They’re sending me back.” He said, getting down to the point. He turned around and I stared into his eyes, reading the fear behind them. “Sarah, I’m scared.” He whispered, like he was telling me a secret. “I love you and Niki so much, and I,”
“Then come back to me.” I said cutting him off. “Go over seas and do what you need to do, but then come back safely to our baby girl and me.” He looked at me for a long moment. His fingers wound around a strand of my hair; he cupped my chin and kissed me. I loved kissing him, but this kiss was filled with so much fear and sadness that it was almost bitter. He never complained about going over though. He loved serving our country, but now that he had a family, he had so much to lose and it scared him.
Niki didn’t fully understand when we first told her, but when we started to pack him, it sunk in. He said he was coming back and that she had to be the strong one and take care of everything while he was gone. After that she didn’t cry anymore. Not even when we showed him off to the plane. Roy and Soña were there. Niki looked crushed to see them go. Soña had become a second mother to her and her daddy and Roy were her two best friends.
“You guys promise you’ll come back?” She said through a quivering bottom lip.
“You betcha kid. We’ve got a lot more fish to catch and your pitch still needs work.” She smiled and hugged Roy before she turned to her dad.
“I promise you that I’ll come back to you no matter what. I love you more than anything sweetheart. Hold down the fort for me while I’m gone.” She smiled and her lip quivered a bit more, but she didn’t cry. She hugged him hard and then he got up and looked at me. “I love you baby.” He said and kissed me. It might have been a little long in front of our eight year old, but I remembered what it was like when he was gone and I was going to get as much as I could now. Unlike my daughter, I wasn’t strong enough to hold back my tears, neither was Soña. Roy held onto her and kissed her hair. Then the two got on the plane. Soña and I waved goodbye with our free hands; Niki was holding our others tightly.
Life was rough without Antonio, but it wasn’t as bad as when I had been by myself. I still worried every minute about him, but I wasn’t so lonely. Niki missed her old fishing and baseball buddies, but I took her out a lot. She taught me how to fish and throw a decent pitch. We’d take pictures and send them to Antonio in care packages. We made it through the days. Niki had saved up her allowance and bought a calendar. She crossed off everyday and thought of it as one day closer to her daddy coming home, instead of one more day he’d been gone.
Until one night, I had tucked Niki in and was washing the dishes when my heart stopped. An official car had parked in front of our house. Time slowed as I walked to the door. I opened the door and two men in full uniform and grave expressions stood in front of me. When they told me Antonio had died, but was a brave man and served his country well, I fell to my knees. It was like someone had stabbed me in the chest and spun the knife around before yanking it back out. Then the told me that his best friend Roy had been taken as a P.O.W.. The pain stabbed even deeper. I stumbled backward and slid to the floor. I broke into tears and started to heave, I was sobbing so hard. The two men who’d come to give me the news tried to comfort me, but I couldn’t hear them. They’d just told me that Roy was gone and ... my husband, the father of my child, was dead. He couldn’t be. If he was …, I would have known. I… he …
Suddenly little Niki came down the stairs to see what all the commotion was about. But when she saw both of the men, her face dropped and she ran to me. Tears clouded my vision but I could see little Niki’s face crumpled in pain. Our tears ran together and soaked my shirt as I held Niki close. She was the only thing grounding me tonight. Niki eventually cried herself to sleep that night, but I never fell asleep. I just sat there on the floor against the wall with tears streaming down my face and memories of Antonio running through my mind. It was so painful to keep remembering everything and knowing he would never hold me again, never play baseball with our daughter again, never again. But the thought of forgetting him hurt even more.
By the time the morning came, I was numb. How do I get up again? How do I get dressed? It was like I had forgotten how to function. The phone started to ring, but I didn’t move. It rang again and Niki opened her eyes. They were still puffy and red. It rang again and she looked at me. But when I didn’t move, she got up and answered the phone. I faintly heard her talking to someone.
“No I won’t be at school today.” But I pretty much tuned out after that. I heard her hang up and dial another number. “I’m sorry, but Sarah won’t be in today. She’s an ER nurse. Uh huh, well, last night,” Again I tuned out, flinching away from the pain. She hung up and walked over to me. “I called the hospital and told them you won’t be in today, and the school knows I won’t be there today.” My nine year old had just taken care of what I should have done, and somewhere in my mind I knew it should be the other way around, but I didn’t think I could move. At least not today. “Mommy, you should shower.” Shower? What was that again? Niki helped me up and led me to the bathroom. She started the shower and helped me undress. I climbed in and just stood under the water. Niki reached in and grabbed the bar of soap. She handed it to me and then closed the curtain. I slowly rubbed the bar around my skin and rinsed.
When I got out of the shower, I wrapped myself in a towel, but before I could slide to the floor and break into tears, Niki came back in with a pair of sweats. Her hair was wet too, and she was in a different pair of pajamas. I got into the sweats and let her lead me to my room. She tucked me in and left a cup of tea by my bed.
I stared at the empty side of the bed where Antonio would lay. What was I going to do now? How was I going to put one foot in front of the other, let alone go to work, pay bills, and take care of Niki. Niki. My baby who was only nine and was taking care of me. She was strong. I remembered how all morning her face was sad, her eyes devastated, but the way she held her chin and walked, she was strong. Trying to be strong and take care of everything. I ended up falling asleep, but it wasn’t a heavy or good sleep.
When I woke up my pillow was wet but, I realized that today could not happen like yesterday. God had it only been a day? I was the mom and I had to take care of my baby. I got out of bed and walked over to Niki’s room. The door was cracked open and I peeked inside. She was on her bed, leaned over sobbing. She was clutching a picture of her and her dad holding up their catches. I’d taken it when we went to the lake a year ago. Hers was much bigger than his and she thought it was funny. When I opened the door, she turned around and whipped the tears off her face with her sleeve.
“Oh, hey mom.” She sniffled. “I was just going to make coffee.” I sat down on the bed and she burst back into tears as I pulled her into me. We cried like that for a long time, but when her cries slowed into small hiccups, I took her into the kitchen and made her some breakfast. She would not take care of me today.
She ate slowly as I made some calls. I called the school, the hospital, and with much effort, the funeral home. The whole time I just wanted to climb into bed and curl into a ball, but I had to be strong. For my daughter. For my husband. He would have wanted that.
The funeral was big and patriotic. Lots of people showed up and I wasn’t surprised. Everyone had loved him. Tears spilled down my cheeks, but, like my daughter, I kept my head high and refused to let my lip quiver. Burying a friend is one of the hardest things. But burying the love of your life is impossible. It was a closed casket, because one, he would have wanted it that way. Two because his body had been so badly burned, the only way they could identify him was by his dog tags.
Everyone who came cried and told me how sorry they were. But they could go home and forget. In a week it would be old news, but not to Niki and I. We would go home to an empty house and throw away the care package we’d made Antonio last week. And put the American flag that had been draped over his casket under my pillow. The next day I would have to go to work and Niki to school, but I couldn’t think of that right now. I could only put one foot in front of each other.
Soña continued painting and then started to sell a few. They paid for her supplies, but that was pretty much it. She loved to paint and would stand in front of her easel for hours without speaking. I would just watch as she turned a blank canvas into something beautiful.
One day I looked over at her canvas as she started to clean her brushes. It was a warm beach with white sand and crystal blue water. There was something about it though. The color of the water and the way the sand lay. It seemed almost seductive.
I turned around and almost bumped into Soña, but neither of us moved. We were so close, her cheeks were a little flushed. I closed the space between us quickly, and kissed her roughly. She kissed me back and when I pulled back to look at her, she moved with me. She pressed up against me and I took it from there. After that, I didn’t sleep on the couch anymore. I slept in my own bed with Soña curled up in my arms.
The next few years were the best and the happiest of my life. Antonio and his family were very close to us. Especially after they had Niki. She was a beautiful baby and she had her dad’s hair for sure, along with his brown eyes. Soña and Sarah became great friends and talked nonstop. Antonio and I loved being home. We’d play football with Niki and take her fishing.
A few days after Niki’s seventh birthday, Soña and I got some surprising news. I was drinking a cup of coffee and looking out of the window when Soña came up behind me. She wrapped her arms around my waist and said,
“Don’t freak out, ok?”
“Ok.” I said confused.
“Well, I’m uh … you’re a …” I turned around and looked at her.
“What is it?” She bit her lip and twisted a little.
“Well, I’m pregnant.” My jaw fell through the floor. She didn’t say anything; she just kept biting her lip looking at me. It took me a minute, but I got myself back together.
“That’s … good news.” I finally managed. She sighed in relief and wrapped her arms around my neck. It took me a few days, but I got to liking the idea of being a dad. Soña’s stomach got bigger as the months passed, but she sure was a cute preger. She did have all kinds of cravings, but I could burn water. So she learned and became one mean cook. We’d go over to Antonio’s and Antonio, Niki, and I would play football and baseball until it got dark. Soña and Sarah would knit on the front porch. Well, I should say try to knit. They weren’t very good. Then we’d go in the house and Soña and Sarah would cook dinner, but Sarah was just about as useless in the kitchen as I was.
The best years of my life, but like all good things, they can’t last. Antonio and I were both called back over seas. When I told Soña, she cried and it made my heart ache. Neither of us slept the night before I left. And the next morning went by way too fast. Before I knew it, we were at the base and I had to get on the plane.
“I love you too.” I whispered in her ear, and kissed her hair. She wiped her tears on my shirt, and we broke apart. I walked with Antonio on the plane. Last time I had had nothing to loose. But this time I had more than I ever thought possible and the thought of loosing all of that, well, it scared me to death. And I had this weird feeling … like I wasn’t going to see her again.
“Bye daddy.” Julie said as I headed out the door. Her little blonde curls bouncing as she ate a muffin and some orange juice.
“Bye baby, have a great first day in fifth grade.” I called back.
“Ok.” I kissed Jodi goodbye and got in the car. The drive was easy and it looked like today was going to be one of those good days. Boy was I wrong.
When I got in, the ER was a nightmare. There had been an apartment building fire and burn victims were coming in left and right. I didn’t have a moment to breath until that afternoon. That’s when I ran into Sarah sitting outside, crying. It didn’t look like she knew she was, but she did have a pained expression on her face. I walked over to the bench and sat down next to her.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I’d taken off a few days to go do some stuff with Jodi and Julie for her last few days of summer. So I hadn’t seen Sarah for a while, and I hadn’t had time today to catch up on the current drama at the hospital. She immediately sat up a little straighter and whipped away the tears.
“It’s…” She started and then hunched over and started to cry.
“Shhh. It’s ok, whatever it is, well we can figure it out.”
“This … is … something … you … can’t … fix.” She said between sobs. I was sure she was just over exaggerating, but then she said. “He’s dead. Antonio’s dead.” I pulled her into my arms for a lack of words. She was right this was something that I couldn’t fix. How could this be? Antonio dead? Sarah’s sobs tugged at my heartstrings.
“Do you know how Niki looked at me last night? She looked broken.” I could hardly imagine little Niki, (who’s bell’s of laughter could make a bolder smile, who’s legs were always covered in band-aids from playing football with the boys, Daddy’s little girl,) could look broken. But I guessed she probably looked something like her mother in my arms, crippled and shattered.
I spent the next five years a single mom. Taking care of Niki and working, but we were struggling and I was so lonely. Niki was fourteen when I followed her from school one day. She was behaving weird lately, and was getting home from school very late. When I asked her where she’d been, she wouldn’t say. So I followed her. She walked a long way, hands stuffed in her pockets, head down. When she stopped, my heart sank. She walked into the veterans’ graveyard. I drove home crying. Antonio was still an open wound after all this time. I wondered if remarrying would help Niki, help her forget. Or if it would help me fill this whole.
So the next day, when a painter at the hospital asked me for my number, I gave it to him. He was decent looking and seemed sweet. Two months later, we moved in together and everything was fine. For a while. I did not love this man, but I stayed with Frank to try to put our lives on a better track. His salary helped us a little and I wasn’t as lonely. He was sweet to Niki, but she seemed very guarded around him.
“There’s something about him mom.” She told me one night as I was kissing her goodnight. I ignored her protests, but she was more right than she knew.
The next night when I got home Frank was there too. As soon as I walked through the door, I was bombarded with questions about the guy he’d seen me with. The guy turned out to be Tom, and I assured him that we were just friends. He told me only sluts hang out with other guys when they were with someone else. When I told him to chill out and that he was overreacting, he slapped me. Square across the cheek and it made me feel like my eye was going to pop out.
I was blown away. Where had that come from? He apologized as soon as he saw my face and assured me it would never happen again. I put it aside and didn’t tell Niki, but I could tell she knew something was up. Frank’s abuse escalated, but it was always kept in private. He started drinking a lot more and he became uncontrollable when he was drunk. Niki never knew and as long as he didn’t touch her, I could handle it.
One day when Frank was beating me, Niki walked in. She screamed when she saw him kick me and rushed to my side. When she looked up at him and started to yell, he backhanded her, hard. I threw myself between them and he hit me again. Niki socked him and he did the same to her. Blood spurted from her nose and she fell back. He rushed in and started apologizing, but she pulled away and ran to her room. I followed her and locked the door. She grabbed a lot of tissues and put them against her nose. It stopped bleeding a little while later. I looked at her nose as I washed it with a damp towel, it wasn’t broken.
“Mom, we have to get out of here. We can leave, now.” She said and winced as she put some ice on her nose. I told her that we couldn’t, and that he didn’t mean it. She didn’t buy it. Later that evening Frank came up to me and tried to kiss me. I pulled away and he looked confused. He said he was sorry about earlier, and that it would never happen again. I reminded him that he had said that before. We agreed that he needed help and he called a place close to our house right in front of me. He promised me he would go and everything was fine for a few weeks.
On a Monday afternoon he beat me over a bill that had come in and this one was bad. It took me a while to get to the phone, because at first I couldn’t stand. I called his therapist and she said that he hadn’t attended the last five sessions. I thanked her and hung up.
The beatings came more often and became a lot worse I found myself remembering out how to cover up bruises, cuts, and black eyes. Even wearing turtlenecks under my scrubs to cover up the impression of a hand around my neck. And to my own horror, I was soon teaching my daughter these tricks. Helping her come up with stories if teachers or others asked.
On her fifteenth birthday, she got two books and a new pair of earrings in the morning and a black eye in the evening. I realized I was scared or jumpy most of the time. Every once in a while Antonio would creep in my mind and I would welcome the beatings, because the physical pain would distract me from the deep ache that tore at my heart.
“Hey Sarah!” Tom called from behind me. I stopped and turned around a little nervous. Almost every time I talked to Tom Frank found out.
“Hey Tom.” I said back. He looked at my face a little concerned. It was the end of the day and we had had people coming in all day. A ton of traumas and I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d sweated off most of my make up. I wasn’t worried about how I looked, I was worried about the black bruises that covered a lot of the left side of my face, and so I ducked my head a little left.
“Sarah, I’ve been worried about you lately. You’ve seemed a lot different and I was just wondering if you were ok.” He reached up to touch my face gently and I was sure he’d seen some of them.
“I’m fine.” I said quickly. “I have to go.” I turned and hurried away before he could say or see any thing else. I’m fine. I’m fine. I repeated to myself. Everything was ok.
When I got home there were lights on in the house, and when I opened the garage door I saw Frank’s car already in there. Then I heard…barking? We didn’t have a dog. The only person on the block, who had a dog, was Mrs. Hoodly. She had five big dogs and had just gotten a new little boxer. When I walked in, sure enough there he was, hopping up and down with excitement. Frank had a huge grin on his face. But where was Niki? She wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
“Where’s Niki?” I asked Frank quickly.
“I haven’t seen her.” He replied and got off the couch and came over to me. He pulled me over to the couch and started petting the goofy puppy. Where could she be? I hope she’s all right, I thought to myself.
Even though Antonio was gone, time still moved forward. And Julie got older and her interests shifted. Soon she wasn’t worried about what color crayon she got, but which color eyeliner looked best with her dress. In the blink of an eye she was driving and going out with her boyfriend almost every night. She was my little girl. Sweet and innocent, and naïve, but she was happy.
Julie was only a year older than Niki, but they were so different. Julie was happy and light. But Niki had become quiet and pensive. And in the last year she seemed … different. So did Sarah. They seemed edgy and hurt. Every once in a while, when someone raised their hand or threw something over to Sarah, she’d flinch a little. And then Niki started wearing much more consecutive clothing. Something in the back of my mind told me that something was wrong, but it was way in the back. I had plenty else to worry about.
I didn’t pay much attention until Sarah called me frantically. She didn’t want anyone to know but me. Only the ambulance takes at least two. So I brought Sam. When we entered the house Sam gasped and I froze. Niki was on the floor in a pool of her own blood. Sarah was kneeling next to her, tears streaming down her horrified face. Glass was everywhere and some dog was running around the house barking. He would run over to Niki, lick her face and then run over to us and then back. After assessing the situation, I just scooped Niki up and put her in the ambulance. I was sticking an IV in her when her eyes opened.
“Don’t worry Niki, we’re taking you to the hospital.”
“Where’s my mom?” She groaned, and a few tears slipped down her cheeks.
“She’s in the car behind us.” After we got in the hospital, she was swarmed by nurses and I took charge as her doctor. When I popped her shoulder back in place, and was stitching her up, I noticed the bruises on her body. They covered her body and ribs. She ended up actually bruising a few ribs and she had a black eye.
Sarah helped, but kept crying silently. And I caught sight of bruises on her too. How could all of this happen right under my nose? My best friend and the little girl that used to run around the hospital, now looked … scared and … broken.
And my best friend, the woman I still loved after all these years, was so different. After all of the pain she’d gone through with her father, mother, Antonio, Roy, Soña and Soña’s her unborn baby who had all died. All of them were gone. All the light and happiness that used to shine through her features and personality was gone. But I still loved her and it still pained me to see her and her daughter like this.
I’m not sure how long I was there, because the next thing I remember, was being loaded in an ambulance. Tom was loading me and Sam was getting in the front to drive. He was putting an IV in my arm when he noticed the two slivers of my eyes.
“Don’t worry Niki, we’re taking you to the hospital.” His voice was pained.
“Where’s my mom?” I whimpered.
“She’s in the car behind us.” He reassured me, his voice still had an edge to it. Those were the last words spoken on the way to the hospital. When we arrived at the hospital I was rushed to the ER, where doctors and nurses swarmed me. They pulled out each piece of glass and disinfected each cut and stitched up the deeper gashes. I went through a whole blood transfusion and they popped my shoulder back in place. That was the most painful, I screamed even though I didn’t have the strength to lift a finger. I tried to stay awake, but eventually exhaustion and all the drugs took over. Nightmares woke me in a cold sweat, gasping for breath. I felt a hand on my shoulder and a gentle voice put me at ease.
“Mom.” I breathed.
“It’s ok, I’m right here.” She sounded worried. I knew what I was going to have to say next. This couldn’t go on. What if he did something like this to her?
“I can’t take it anymore.”
“I know it hurts, but you can’t have any more meds for a few more hours” She didn’t know what I was talking about.
“I don’t mean the pain. I mean … home.” My mother was silent. She refused to look at me, instead focusing on the white tile that covered the hospital floor. “I can’t go back. I, I…”
“Shhh, go back to sleep.”
“No!” Oww. Yelling was not a good thing with bruised ribs. “Wake up and smell the coffee. I’m laying in a hospital bed with twenty stitches, a sling on my arm, and I just went through a blood transfusion.” I didn’t say another word. Neither did my mom. The next morning she pulled some strings so that I could keep the bed for the rest of the day. She worked while I slept. She came in after her shift as I was waking up, with a clean pair of clothes from the house.
“How do you feel?” She asked.
“Fine” I lied.
“Listen,” She started and sat down on the bed. “I know you don’t want to go back. And I know we probably shouldn’t, but it’s not like we can leave right now. We don’t even have a change of clothes. A toothbrush. And the only money we have is the seventy-five cents you left in your jean pocket. I don’t even have my wallet.” She’d been thinking about what I’d said and this gave me hope that we could actually get out of there.
“Alright, I’ll wait for you by the elevator.”
“Thanks mom.” I said as she left. She paused a second, smiled a sad smile at me and then walked out of the room. When she left, I got out of the hospital bed and made my way over to the chair where she had left my clothes. I carefully stepped out of the hospital gown and avoided bumping my arm. As I slipped on the jeans and t-shirt, I noticed the extent of my injuries. Fresh bruises laid across my ribs and stomach. Once bloody, cuts covered my body, stitches decorated my arms and face. Plus my arm laid in a sling. After I buttoned up my jeans, I slowly walked from the room and caught sight of my mother standing by the elevator. She rushed over when she saw me and wrapped her arm around my waist, supporting a lot of my weight. There was silence all the way to the car, but once we were almost home, my mother spoke in a hesitant voice.
“Niki, about, um …” I knew what she was talking about and all the hope I’d had about us getting out of there was gone.
“I’ll say I fell threw the glass slider door and sprained my wrist.” I sighed. After that no one said anything else.
Willy was very excited to see me, he whined and licked my face. My mother helped me to bed and I fell asleep with Willy as soon as I hit the sheets. I woke up early and listened as Frank and my mother left. Then I got out of bed and took a shower. The tiny scrapes and bruises on my arms and face, I managed to cover up with a little make up and the stitches on my face I could cover up with my hair. It was too hot though to wear a long sleeved shirt to cover up the stitches on my arms and there was nothing I could do about the sling.
I didn’t go to the library, that day. I was too ashamed. I just sat in the backyard and played fetch with Willy. He ran around the backyard barking at the squirrels and chasing the stick. Every time Willy got the stick, he’d drop it at my feet and lick my face. I would throw it again and he would leap up and run after it just as fast as the last time. He made me laugh.
Seeing Niki with that dog was great. She looked happier than I’d seen her in years. Willy was a great dog and he stuck to her like glue. Whenever she looked at him, her eyes filled up with the pride that you see in parents when they look at their kids. And boy did he love her, they were always together. So when I came home early one day for lunch, and I heard barking and scratching at the door, my stomach sank. I burst through the door and Willy was freaking out. He was barking and running back and forth from me to the dinning room. I turned the corner and nearly passed out. Niki was lying on the ground in a pool of her own blood. Glass was everywhere and she wasn’t moving. I rushed over and searched for a pulse. She was breathing and her heart was beating, but it was weak and her breaths were shallow. I ran to the phone and called Tom in hysterics. Sam and him showed up in an ambulance and loaded her up. I jumped in my car and followed them to the hospital. Ignoring everyone’s protests, I helped pull out all the glass from her skin and stitch her up. When they popped her shoulder back into place, Sam held me back. Niki went through a blood transfusion and she cried the entire time. She didn’t make a sound, but tears spilled down her cheeks. After she was all taken care of, Tom yanked me into the hallway. “Sarah, what the hell happened?” He whispered fiercely. “She fell through our china cabinet.” I said and stared at the ground. “And popped her shoulder out of the damn socket?” I didn’t say anything and his anger turned to concern. I looked away again, and he took my face in his hands. My hair fell out of my face and he dropped his hands like I’d burned him. I turned to see my reflection in the metal of the doorknob, and saw that all of the bruises on my face were exposed. They’d been healing, but most of them were still pretty noticible. I turned back to Tom and he touched my face again, more gently. “He did this to you, didn’t he?” I opened my mouth to speak, but quickly shut it. How could I tell him what I’d done? How could I expect him to ever come near me again when he found out that I had stayed with a man I didn’t love, and he beat us? I couldn’t loose Tom too. Antonio was dead, Soña and her baby had died in childbirth soon after we heard the news, Roy was M.I.A or P.O.W. or whatever they called it and the man living with my daughter and me beat us. I was so broken and ashamed. “Tom!” One of the other doctors called as a big trauma came in. He looked at my face for a moment and turned to leave. I walked back to Niki’s room and sat by her bed and held her hand. Eventually I fell asleep and when I woke up, Tom’s jacket, the one I’d given him for his birthday years ago, was draped over me like a blanket. Niki was sound asleep. I looked at the clock. Frank should be at wok by now and I could run home and get Niki some clean clothes. I threw the other ones out. The were torn and bloody. When I got home, the blue ford was still in the garage. “Damn.” I couldn’t back out of this now. I’d already opened the garage and pulled in. He must have heard me. So I mustered up some courage and walked into the house. Half an hour later, I managed to get out of the house with Niki’s clothes, split open arm, and some bruises around my neck that should start showing up anytime soon. “Ow.” I groaned as I stitched up my arm. I was almost done when Tom walked into the supply closet. He stared in horror at my arm and finally to the bruises around my neck because I hadn’t had time to place my hair so they wouldn’t show. “I’m going to kill the f*ing bastard.” He said and turned away quickly. “Tom wait! It’s not what you think!” He turned back around. “I just fell down the stairs. It’s nothing. Really.” “And the stairs strangled you too?” His eyes were narrow and he spoke through clenched teeth. He opened his mouth to say something more, but a nurse called him. He turned and walked away, just like earlier. Some part of me wanted him to stay and make me tell him the truth. To take Niki and I home with him. To save us. After Niki woke up, I gave her, her clothes and she told me about what she thought about going back. She told me that we had to get out. I told her to get dressed and left the room. My eyes were wet when she came out. She was weak and I rushed over to help her. She looked so fragile. With every step I cringed and my heart tore a little more. I thought more about what Niki had said and Tom’s reaction. Then an unexpected person came to mind, my mom. What would she think of my life and the life I had made for my daughter? She would have been disappointed. She would have hated Frank, but she would have loved Antonio. Antonio… And my heart tore again, deeper. Soon there would be nothing left, but then maybe I wouldn’t hurt anymore.
That night Frank came home with a chicken and helped my mother make dinner. They laughed and talked, but I wasn’t buying it. Not anymore. My mother had been dating him for a year, and at first it he was nice, but then he got very controlling and finally started getting abusive. My mother always made excuses for him and said things, like ‘he didn’t mean it’ and stuff. Then he was all nice afterward. But we could leave him, my mom hadn’t married him. So it could be a clean and easy break.
The next day I didn’t go to the library again. I just walked around the city with Willy. The park was green and lush, the shopping centers were virtually empty and the churches were buzzing on that Sunday morning.
I remembered how my mother, dad and I would go to church every Sunday. My mother really liked to listen to the sermon, but I would get bored and my dad would play with me. He would make great paper airplanes out of our programs, and make yucky faces at me as he took communion. This usually ended up with some half-hearted scolding from my mother.
Willy and I played more fetch in the park and he met a few other dogs. I never kept Willy on a leash anymore. I always kept it with me, but I never put it on him anymore. He just walked nicely beside me and always came when I called him. He slept with me every night and I had to admit that I loved that dog and his big tongue. He had brought back the old feelings of hope and joy that had been gone so long that I had thought I’d lost them.
I got home late, just as my mother came home. She rushed in, her eyes were red and she had a tissue in her hand.
“What’s wrong mom?” I asked quickly. She shook her head and ran to her room. Later that night I was woken up by Frank yelling and my mother crying.
“What are we going to do for money now?! I can’t believe you were fired! Can’t you do anything right?!” He yelled, then there was a loud noise and whimpers from my mother.
“I’m, I’m sorry.” She whispered. There was another noise and then he left. A few moments later my mother stumbled into my room. I rushed to get up, but she came and sat on my bed. She started stroking my hair and then to my surprise said,
“Let’s go.” I realized what she meant a moment later and then jumped out of bed. We threw some clothes in a bag and put them in the car. We went in the backyard and grabbed all of Willy’s stuff and let him sniff around for a while, while we talked. When we were about to leave, we herd a thump come from my mother’s bedroom. We both stood frozen in fear and Willy growled, when we saw Frank step out of the bedroom with a pistol. He must have come home while we were in the backyard. So we hadn’t heard him return. Without a word, he shot. The bullet hit the cabinet above my mother’s head. We screamed and Willy launched. “You thought you could leave me huh?! Well, if I can’t have you no one can!” Frank yelled and Willy’s teeth sank into his arm. He yelped in pain.
“RUN!” My mother screamed and we ran into my mother’s bathroom and locked the door behind us. Frank tried to fight off Willy and continued to shoot. There were two more shots, a whimper, and then there was no more growling.
“Willy!” Tears streamed down my face and I lurched toward the door. My mom grabbed my arm and yelled,
“No! We have to get out of here!” I think it occurred to us to use the window at the same time it occurred to Frank to use the butt of the gun to start breaking the knob off the rickety bathroom door. We struggled to get the window open with all the rust. He busted off the knob and came through the door as I dropped from the window. My mother was halfway out when he came for her. But she slid through just in the nick of time and we took off running like god damn mad men. Right as the car started up Frank came running from the house. He shot at the car as we sped away.
Afraid he might follow us, we ditched the car two blocks away from the library and I reassured my mom that the librarian would take us in. At first she was hesitant, but then I told her our other option was a motel where Frank could find us, or a shelter. Then she agreed and walked to the library. I pounded on her door and the librarian walked down in her pajamas with a worried look on her face. We rushed in and she seemed to understand what was going on and led us up to her apartment above the library. My mother explained quickly, but wouldn’t look at her. She looked so ashamed. I sat next to her, held her hand and rested my head on her shoulder. After they finished talking, the librarian offered us her pull out bed. We gratefully accepted and I fell asleep quickly.
When I woke up, my mother was getting dressed.
“Why don’t you have some breakfast? There’s some cereal in the pantry, and then we’ll leave.”
“Mom? Where are we going to go?” I asked sleepily.
“Last night, after you fell asleep, we managed to get some plane tickets to an old friends house. Our flight leaves in two hours. So shake a leg.” I ate my breakfast and the librarian gave us a ride to the airport. That ride seemed to take forever. Every blue ford that passed, we ducked our heads. Never the less, we made it to our gate and the librarian stayed with us. As we sat at our gate, I realized that I didn’t know her name. She’d helped my mother and I immensely and I didn’t know her name.
“What’s your name?” I asked brilliantly. She just smiled and said,
“The author.” I smiled, but then something else took all my attention. Someone. A tall man with jet-black hair, mocha skin and an army fatigue. “DAD!” I screamed. I couldn’t believe my eyes until he turned around. I jumped out of my seat and barreled down the terminal. I didn’t even know my mother was behind me, until she was ahead of me. He just dropped his bags and opened his arms. We hit him like a ton of bricks, but he stood tall and held us close. And even he cried.
Being in war tends to change a man, but being a P.O.W. for six years, that’s another story. He was a changed man. He was my father, he was alive, I loved him, and he loved us. So everything would be ok.
My father’s and Roy’s dog tags had gotten switched when they had been messing around earlier that day. So they had thought Roy’s body was my father’s because it had his dog tags and was too badly chard to challenge. And they had thought Roy was a P.O.W. because he was the only one unaccounted for. When in reality, Roy had died from the explosion caused by a trip wire and my father had been taken captive as a P.O.W. for six years; before there had been a prison break of all the American soldiers led by no than than my dad and another man.
He had tried to send us letters and tried to call when he had gotten back to base but, after we had been notified of his death we had moved. He was like a knight coming in on his white horse coming to rescue us.
Yet it was bittersweet because even though we were all together now, we were the only ones left. Roy was dead. Soña and her unborn child had died in child birth due to rare complications. And now Willy too. It seemed as if death had followed me my whole life. Death, and pain, and sorrow, but now with my mom and dad I could move on with them. I buried my face in my dad’s chest again and felt his arms wrap around me, promising that nothing would ever touch me again. And my mom, who was still holding onto my dad as if he would suddenly fade like a dream, nestled her face in my neck. All the pain, sorrow, and depression that seemed to weigh down all off my features was now being mended by all of the love now surrounding me. There would be scars, but I wouldn’t be bleeding anymore.