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Sticks and Stones
“You dumb little s**t! Can’t you do anything right? Dumb a** boy!”
Pa shoves my face into the floor again. I cough, blood streaming into my mouth from the cut on my forehead.
“I’m sorry Pa. I won’t do it again.”
“I’m sorry, Pa,” pa mimics, his voice an oily sneer. “You little s**t! You should know how to clean shoes properly! Dammit! You don’t see your brother doing any s**t like that, do you?” He gestures to Cade, sitting like a statue at the scarred oak table. Pa presses his hand slowly down on my windpipe. This is one of his favorite moves. It terrifies me, but requires almost no effort on his part.
“No Pa,” I gasp. “Please stop, Pa. I’m sorry.”
“No. You need to toughen up. You’re a pansy boy. Look at your brother! He’s tough- not a little girl like you. Why can’t you be more like him? You’re worthless. You’re nothing to me. I oughta kick you out. But I don’t. Why? Cuz I’m a good Christian man.”
He throws his head back and chortles, his hand pressing harder and harder on my throat, until I finally fade out into nothing.
When I come to, Pa’s passed out and snoring on the ragged grey couch, cradling his whiskey, and I’m still on the floor. I slowly pick myself up, gagging slightly. I brush my fingers across my temple, feeling rivulets of crusty dried blood. I head into our tiny bathroom and look at my reflection in a shard of mirror on the wall. I have five finger-shaped bruises on my throat, a black eye, a large bruise on my forehead, and a gash on my temple. Nothing major. I push my dark brown curls away from the cut and gently rinse it off with the trickle of tepid water that comes from the faucet. I look at the bruises and determine that they should be faded enough after three or four days so that I could go to school. I suddenly hear a clanging come from the kitchen and dash out of the bathroom.
“Cade! Are you wet-round-the-ears? Quiet! Do you want to wake him up?” I hiss furiously at my twin.
Cade looks at me with his trademark deer-in-the-headlights look.
“Sorry,” he whispers.
Ten minutes later we’re out on thge sagging porch, paper plates of scrambled eggs balanced on our knees while Pa sleeps off his Kilbeggan’s inside.
“Eli,” begins Cade.
I hold up my hand. “Don’t. I’ve heard you say you’re sorry a million times. But what does it change? It don’t make him stop.”
“Makes me feel better,” he mutters.
“I dunno. Just does.”
We finish eating in silence, staring at the woods around us.
“D’you-” Cade begins hesitantly. I look up.
“You ever think ’bout runnin’ away?”
I stare at him and scoff.
“Every day. But really, Cade, where would I go? How would I get there?” I shake my head. “There ain’t no point in even thinkin’ ‘bout it.”
I srtand up and peek through the grimy window at the couch. “he’s still sleepin’. Let’s go.”
We slip into the house, rinse our plates and set them to dry, then tiptoe to our bedroom.
“Lemme know what I miss in school tomorrow,” I say nonchalantly as I climb the ladder to my top bunk.
Cade grimaces. “You won’t be missin’ much.”
I laugh quietly. “Don’t I know it.”
I wake up the next morning to the sound of Cade rattling the dresser drawers.
“Shut up, dipstick,” I groan, shoving my face in my pillow. But I’m too late. Our door in suddenly thrown open with a crash, and Pa stands in the doorway, his face a bright, broiling scarlet, his eyes flashing at the two of us.
“What’s the meanin’ of all this noise?!” he roars.
“I-I’m sorry Pa,” stammers Cade, white-faced. “I-I suppose i opened the d-drawers too loud.”
Pa’s face softens, then twists into a sneer as he turns to face me.
“And what are you doing in bed, boy?! You gotta go to school, wise-a**!” He clears the distance from the door to my bunk in two steps.
“Worhtless,” he spits into my face. Before I can even blink, Pa grabs me and throws me to the floor. I crash to the ground and groan as i hear a loud crack. The air whooshes out of me, and I gasp for breath. A heavy, numbing, dull pain spreads through my left arm, which is c rumpled beneath me. Pa kicks me, hard, in the ribs. Once. Twice. Again. Crack.
“Get up! Pansy-a**!” he bellows.
I moan. Pa shakes his head and strides out of the room. Cade rushes over to me.
“Eli,” he whispers. “Eli, are you okay?”
“Never been better,” I gasp. I sit up, stifling a scream at the sudden burst of pain in my side. “I’m pretty sure my arms broken. Mebbe a rib.”
Cade closes his eyes. “You gotta get to the hospital.”
I shake my head. “No.”
“Yes. You got a plaster cast lying around? How ‘bout an X-ray machine? C’mon. I’ll get Miss Lila to drive us. She don’t ask too many questions.”
I slowly pull my jeans on, and Cade helps me with my shoes. I feel blood trickle down the side of my face as we stand, which means that the cut from last night must’ve reopened.
Pa doesn’t even look up from the TV as we edge out the door.
Cade and I slowly stumble down the gravel driveway and onto the dirt road, my left arm cradled to my chest, the other thrown around Cade’s shoulders as he supports me. The arm I can deal with, but this rib is killing me. It’s getting harder to breathe now.
We walk the mile down to Miss Lila’s, my breathing getting more and more labored with each step. I try to ignore Cade’s huffing and puffing, focusing instead on the little puffs of dust that burst up every time he steps down.
When we finally reach,. thew old, run-down house, Cade sets me on the porch steps and rushes up to bang on the door.
“Miss Lila!” he calls.
Miss Lila comes to thbe screen door. She’s wearing her usual pink housedress and her two little boys are peekin’ round the skirt.
“Why, Cade! What’re you doin’ round here?”
Cade turns and points to me. She gasps, so I guess I must look a sight.
“Bo, Louis, go on and find your sister.” The boys scamper off into the belly of the house and Miss Lila opens the screen door and steps onto the porch. She comes up to me and presses a hand to my cheek.
“Boy, what’s he done to you now?” Miss Lila’s ex-husband used to hit her. She knows what it’s like’ That’s how come she don’t ask questions.
“My arms broke. Mebbe a rib.”
Miss Lila clucks her tongue. “You boys get on into the truck. I’ll be right along.”
Cade helps me into the bench seat of the old Ford and Miss Lila hollers through the screen door.
“Emma Lou! Emma Lou! You gotta watch them two boys for a bit. I’m driving the Holcomb boys to school, ya hear?” A muffled reply comes from within the house and Miss Lila nods and hurries to the car. She slides in behind the steering wheel and starts the whiny old engine. We back out and soon we’re rumbling down the old dirt road. Fiery ropes of pain snake down my arm and especially my side with each bump and rattle, but I try not to let it show. I’ve gotten real good at that. Now I can bury the pain deep down inside, but even so, I still feel like I’m just about to crawl into a hole and die with the pain of things. I squeeze my eyes shut tight.
“You boys shoulda taped that arm up ‘fore ya’ll left the house,” she says disparagingly.
“There weren’t time,” protests Cade. “Plus Pa woulda gotten mad.”
“Hmm.” Miss Lila’s mouth turns down at the corners, but she doesn’t say any more till we reach town.
“Cade, you goin’ to school, or you comin’ with us to the hospital?”
Cade shoots a glance at me as I open my eyes. “Well, we got us a big history test today...”
“You go on to school, Cade. I’ll be fine.” I say, my voice hoarse with pain.
Miss Lila nods. “Alright then.”
We drop Cade off at the school, then drive quick over to the hospital. Miss LIla parks the Ford and helps me put of the cab. It’s all I can do not to yell out loud from pain.
“Hold on now,” Miss Lila whispers. “We’re almost there.”
Another rope of pain twists inside me, and I feel my body tighten up in rigid lines. What little blood was left in my face rushes away. I lean on Miss Lila, groaning as the tiny motion of her steps makes the pain flare sickeningly. When we get through the doors the nurse at the desk stands up.
“Mercy!” she says, pressing a hand to her chest. She quickly presses a button and speaks into a little speaker next to the computer.
“Loretta, we have a young man here, with severe injuries. bring a gurney, stat.”
The nurse flutters over, papers in hand. She ushers us to some blue plastic seats, and I gasp with pain as i sit. The nurse shoves the papers into Miss Lila’s hand.
“Help is on the way dear,” she says.
I lay my head back and close my eyes. I’m getting dizzy with the pain. After what seems like an eternity, I hear the clatter of a gurney stop in front of me. The six or so nurses accompanying it help me on, and I can’t help hollering out loud when they lift me. They whisk me down a long white hallway to a chilly room. Two of the nurses leave, and one of the four remaining gently moves my broken arm off my chest. She deftly cuts through my T-shirt and gasps quietly. I lift my head to see an enormous pattern of boot-shaped bruises splattered across my torso. I let my head fall back to the pillow, biting my lip to keep from screaming. The nurse swiftly cuts through the rest of my clothes and gets me into a hospital gown. It’s rough and scratchy, but at least it’s clean. Pa never lets me wash my clothes with the ‘superior members of the family.’ The nurses stick an IV into my wrist and I sigh gratefully as the swirl of painkillers instantly invades my head. I drift in and out of consciousness during the X-rays and my brain feels fuzzy and clouded when the nurse tells me they’re prepping me for emergency surgery. By the time they have the anesthesia ready, I’m fast asleep.
I wake up in a freezing, bare white room with a steady beeping coming somewhere to my right. I shift my weight, then wince as burning pain rips through my torso. The beeping accelerates, then slows. I blink slowly, and notice that my left arm is in a dark blue cast up to my shoulder. I glance around the room and start when I see Cade slumped in the plastic chair near the door.
“Cade!” I whisper, my voice hoarse. I clear my throat. “Cade!” My brother jumps, opens his eyes, then smiled as he focuses on me.
“Eli! You’re awake!”
“How long’ve I been sleepin’ for?”
“‘Bout a day or so. Miss Lila done picked me up after school and when i got here, they said you was still in surgery.”
There wasn’t time to say much else, cuz right then, a doctor came sweeping in. He was tall, with dark, beady eyes like a bird’s.
“Ah, hello, young man. How are you feeling?” I frowned. The doctor had a Northern accent, the words all fast and clipped.
“Just fine,” I said, making sure to draw the words out.
“My name is Doctor James. I’m the one who performed your surgery.”
I stare blankly at him. “You broke your arm in two places, and shattered two of your ribs. Some of the pieces shifted, which is why you needed surgery. Are you feeling okay now?”
I nod slowly.
“Alright. If you don’t mind talking to me for a few minutes, the state requires me to fill out this from here.” He brandished a sheet of paper. I nodded again, and he pulled up a chair next to my bed. Cade stayed by the door, his eyes flickering between me and the doctor.
“What is your full name?”
“Middle and last name too, please.”
“Elijah Holcomb. Don’t got a middle name. My Pa don’t b’lieve in middle names.”
The doctor pushed his glasses farther up his nose. “What is your father’s name?”
“Griffis Holcomb. Most folk call him Griff.”
“Don’t got a mother.”
“How old are you?”
“What is your date of birth?”
“Uh, sometime in July, I think.” The doctor frowns. “What year?”
“SIblings’ names and ages, if any?”
I point to Cade. “Cadis Holcomb. He’s my twin brother.”
“What is your address?”
“32 Meskitt Hollow, Turntree, Alabama.”
“Do you got to school?”
“Why is that?”
“Well...I...get-uh- sick, a lot.”
“Alright. Do you like where you live?”
The doctor leaned forward in his chair. “Elijah-”
The doctor smiled a little half-smile.
“Okay, Eli. Does you father hit you?”
A sudden cold spread through my body, and it felt like all the air suddenly got cut off from my lungs.
“N-no,” I choked.
Dr. James frowned. “Eli, it’s okay to tell us. We won’t let your father hurt you anymore.”
“B-but he doesn’t. Honest.”
I thought back to a particular bad day, when Pa had given me one of the worst whippings I’d ever gotten. It was for goin’ and tellin’ my teacher how I’d gotten a bruise on my cheek. I’d told her it was Pa who had whupped me, and she brought in people from the government and he sheriff all down to our house. Pa managed to explain it all away, tellin’ them I was imaginin’ things and how all I’d really done was trip and hit my cheek on Pa’s old wooden chair. All them city people swallowed the story, and later that day I got the worst whippin’ of my life. I done learned my lesson, though. Keep my mouth shut.
“Eli.” The doctor’s losing patience. “We saw your scars. And the bruises. It’s very clear to us that you are being abused.”
I swallowed. “P-Pa’s just tough on discipline.”
“Eli, we examined your brother, and he has no signs of any-ah- discipline- anywhere. Why are you the only one receiving this punishment?”
“Because... I’m...I’m... not as good as him. I’m weak. I gotta be stronger.”
Dr. James shook his head. “No, Eli. You’re a very strong young man. And we’re going to make sure that both you and your brother get good, safe, new homes.” He stood to leave, but i grabbed his arm.
“Please-make sure we’re together. Please.”
The doctor smiled wanly. “We’ll try.”
He walked out of the room and quietly closed the door behind him.
I felt tears build up in my eyes, and I brushed them away angrily. Why was I crying? Crying is for pansies. Cade stood and came over to my bed. I looked up and was startled to see that he had tears in his eyes too. Without speaking he bent and put his arms around me, and for the first time in both our lives, we cried.