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Break the Silence
I came home to find him handing my mom a bouquet of peonies and kissing her forehead. I brushed past them, but not before I noticed a patch of purple blooming on my mother’s collarbone. The color matched the flowers.
I sat on my bed and waited for the knock I knew would come. Proving my point, my mother appeared in the doorway.
“Kayla,” she said. “Why can’t you be happy for me?”
“Mom, this happens every time,” I sighed, leveling my eyes with hers. “Can’t you see that?”
“Don’t be silly,” Mom replied, narrowing her eyes. “That was once.”
My nose started tickling and I felt a pinprick of pain as my eyes clouded up. Instantly, Mom’s face softened and she wrapped her arms around me.
“Shhh,” she whispered, wiping away my tears and attempting to conceal her own. “He says it won’t happen again. That’s the last time.” I knew it wouldn’t be.
The bus dropped me off at the corner of Rose Avenue, leaving me to walk half a mile home. Honestly, I didn’t mind the trek; I’d rather not have been embarrassed about my life any more than I already was.
The kitchen wall of our little trailer proudly sported black spots of mold earned from years of negligence. I quickly checked each room for signs of life...mostly just for my stepdad. I let out an involuntary sigh of relief, shocking myself with the display of unwanted emotion.
“I’m fine,” came Mom’s soft voice from our dingy bathroom. “Really, I am. We all are.” Her voice broke a little as if she had been crying. I leaned against the wall next to the bathroom door and strained to listen. “It was just a one-time thing, completely my fault. It wasn’t even that bad….Hold on.”
Suddenly, Mom edged open the bathroom door, revealing my spot.
“Kayla!” She jumped. “You scared me.”
“Who’s on the phone?” Mom never used the phone. Actually, this was the first time I’d seen her using it in months; my stepdad didn’t like when she used it.
“Your aunt,” she responded. Her eyes looked startled. “She’s...going through some hard times right now. She doesn’t want it to get out, so...how about we just keep this phone call between us?” She looked nervous as she waited for my answer.
“Yeah, no problem,” I replied over my shoulder as I made my way to my room.
Dinner that night was tense. My stepdad was late, but Mom insisted that we wait for him. A few minutes before nine, he stormed through the door, almost unrecognizable. His eyes blazed with fury and not much else. In his hand was a bottle of whiskey. His gaze darted around the room, chasing something only he could see. When he spotted Mom and me at the table, his lips drew back into a gruesome shell of a smile. For the first time that day, I felt consumed with fear.
Mom put a firm hand on my leg. “Kayla, go to your room.”
There was no way I’d leave her with him. I wouldn’t; I couldn’t!
“Ok,” I whispered. Slipping silently to my bedroom, I clasped my hands to my ears, begging God to spare my mother just this once.
He was either busy, ignoring me, or not there, because my mother was anything but spared. A closed door did nothing to muffle the hate emanating from the kitchen as my stepdad expressed his anger the only way he knew how: blaming Mom.
I angrily shoved earbuds into my ears and blasted Say Something, by A Great Big World. I tried to clear my head, but thoughts kept flying around it, spinning my judgement into a knot. I didn’t know which way was up. I was drowning in my own sentiments, listening to Christina Aguilera in one ear and barely-concealed thumps in the other. At this point I gave up praying to God; it was useless if He never showed me He cared.
My stepdad left for work early the next morning, which meant I didn’t have to look him in the eye. I guess my mom was too tired to come out of her room, since she didn’t even eat breakfast with me like she usually did.
“Mom,” I called, knocking on her bedroom door. “Are you in there?”
I heard the click of the lamp light turning on as she slid out of bed. The door creaked open a few inches, but my mother hid behind it.
“Are you okay?” I asked weakly.
“Of course,” she replied. Her voice was hoarse. She had been crying. “I’ll see you after school.” Mom started to close the door, but with a surge of confidence I threw a hand out before it shut. I opened it wider so the hallway light would illuminate my mother’s face. Similar to my stepdad’s face from the night before, hers was unrecognizable. However, the similarities stopped there. Her right eye was rimmed with black. The corner of her top lip had split, and dried blood left a treasure map on her cheek. Horrified, I reached out to her, but she pulled away.
“Go to school, Kayla.”
I never know what to do. Thoughts fly through my head, spinning around and around. Sometimes, it’s all I can do not to give up. That person who said life was hard clearly didn’t know the half of it.
Have you ever come home to find someone you love facing death? I have. That day is forever burned into my memory. School hadn’t gone smoothly, either. Every boy I passed in the halls reminded me of my stepdad. I would look at their hands and imagine them forming fists. I would watch them smile at their friends and think of the way he smiled grotesquely at my mom. Everywhere I turned, all I saw was him; there was no escape.
I made record time that day as I jogged home. When I got there the lights were off.
No answer. I tried again as I went inside her bedroom. Instantly, a sharp aroma bumptiously invaded my nostrils. I recognized it from the time my cousin’s dog fell through the porch; it was the smell of blood. As my heart started racing the seconds that went by, I remembered my aptitude test at school told me I worked best under pressure. Systematically, I searched the miniscule room until I could almost swear the walls were closing in on me.
Nothing under the bed, nothing by the window; the only place left was the bathroom, and the door couldn’t open fast enough.
Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of my mother, flush against the worn-down floor. I dropped to my knees and brought my shaking hands up to her face, trying in vain to wipe the blood from her face.
“Mom,” I whispered through bewildered tears. “Wake up! Please--” I choked on my words and tears before I could say anything else. I willed my fingers to stop trembling as they searched for her carotid artery.
Her pulse was weak.
“Don’t move,” I pleaded, hoping she’d hear me. Grabbing the curling iron from the floor as a means of protection, I raced to the kitchen and frantically searched for my phone, listening for any indication that my mother and I were not alone. Dialing 9-1-1 for the first time was terrifying.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“My m-mother,” I stammered. “She’s been attacked….P-please, we need help…”
“Ma’am, where are you located?”
“Lot thirty-nine, Roselle Park,” I whispered.
“I’ve sent two officers to your location. They should be there shortly,” the dispatch operator assured me. “Can you stay on the phone?”
“I th-think so.”
“Is there anyone else in the home, besides you and your mother?” she asked.
“No; we’re alo--” I got cut off by a heavy hand on my arm, wrenching me around.
“Who’s on the phone?” my stepdad demanded. His presence was overwhelmingly intrusive.
“Ma’am, is everything okay?” dispatch asked. “The officers are on their way. Are you in danger?”
“Can I call you later?” I asked dispatch, hoping she would realize something was wrong as I pretended she was a classmate. “My stepdad is home.”
“Ma’am, is the attacker in the room?” she repeated.
“Sure! See you at school!” I said, attempting to sound cheerful as I hung up.
The man I no longer knew stood before me, narrowing his eyes. Suddenly, he grabbed my phone and slammed it against the table. I gripped the curling iron against my chest as my only source of protection. The cord bounced against my leg.
“Who were you calling?” he spat.
“My friend,” I said indignantly.
“Where is your mother?” my stepdad demanded.
“She went out,” I said quickly, not wanting any more harm to come to her.
His eyes began to narrow, and I saw a stupor set in. “With who?”
“N-no one!” I said, alarmed. He started to reach for his car keys, but I got to them first. “Wait! Could you answer a few questions for my research paper? I have to interview an influential man in my life,” I explained, hoping the officer would get to us faster. “It’ll only take a couple of seconds! Mom said I had to do it as soon as you came home.”
“It better be quick,” he said hesitantly.
As soon as I sat down and pulled papers out of my bag, the officers pounded on the door.
“That’s probably Mom,” I suggested.
My comment stoked the fire in his eyes, and he threw open the door.
“Where have you--” he bellowed before noticing the uniformed and armed men outside. “What is this?” He glared at me for an answer. “There’s no problem here, officers. You have the wrong home.”
“We’re going to need you to step aside, sir,” one of them said as they pushed past him. The first officer came over to me while the second stayed with my stepdad. “Are you the caller?”
“I am,” I said as courageously as possible.
“You disgust me,” my stepdad hissed. “After all I’ve done for you two! You’re ungrateful.”
I ignored him and the tears that painted my face. “Please, my mother needs help. She’s in the bathroom…” I pointed and followed the officer to Mom’s side. He checked her pulse and radioed in.
“Dispatch, I’m going to need an ambulance at Lot 39, Roselle Park.”
“I had a feeling you would,” the woman responded. “I sent an ambulance a few minutes after you left.”
Watching the paramedics lift my mother onto a stretcher and pack her into the back of the ambulance was surreal. Nurses in the waiting room ushered me into a chair, telling me I would have to wait until Mom was stabilized. My fingers trembled as if they had electric currents running through them. My mind kept going back to the policemen shoving my stepdad into the back of the squad car. The look he gave me was enough to shrivel the purple peonies he had brought home only days before. My memories gave me goosebumps as something on the table next to me caught my eye.
It was a pamphlet: Domestic Violence...Break the Silence.
Everything clicked into place. Suddenly, there was a word that defined what had happened, what had been happening for years. I wondered why she had tried to shield me from knowing about her abuse for all those years…why I hadn’t said anything sooner. But this time, it was different. This time, I would bring on the change. Clutching the pamphlet to my heart I realized nothing in life was ever set in stone, but one thing was certain: that would be the last time he would ever touch her.
And for that, I was grateful.