I weave through the well dressed, tanned skinned, pretty people.
God, please let him make a friend. Being the new kid is hard enough on its own, but Al’s so shy it’s that much harder for him.
My mouth's dry. My stomach's in knots. I should have stayed with him.
An image of me sitting at a table with Al, surrounded by a bunch of ten-year-olds pointing and laughing, flashes through my head.
I walk around the corner and speed up to get to his door. I close my eyes. Please, God.
I open them and peak inside the classroom.
Al sits in the same spot I left him at an hour ago. There’s a girl and two boys around him, smiling and talking. The girl giggles and covers her mouth.
My shoulders relax. Thank you, Lord. I know I shouldn't worry. Anyone with half a brain can see how great Al is. Toby was just a stupid exception to that rule. It’ll be different now, I can sense it.
I stand in the doorway. He seems to be enjoying himself.
This isn’t just a fresh start for me. It’s a new beginning for him too.
“Hey,” the older man who greeted me earlier says from down the hallway. He’s in his thirties, tall and slim. He walks up to me. “We really enjoyed having Allen here today. I hope you’ll come back soon.” His brows scrunch together. “Is he your… brother?”
“Yeah. There’s a big age gap.” I shrug. “My mom was between husbands.”
The guy laughs. “Is she here?”
His eyes scan me, as if he’s trying to figure me out. “Well, welcome to CFC. Are you from around here?”
“No, we just moved here from Norfolk, Virginia.”
“What’s your name?”
“Amber.” I hold out my hand. He returns the gesture, barely squeezing when our hands touch. I hate it when men give me a pansy handshake. I’m not some dainty flower.
“Tell me a little about yourself.”
I grin and bite my lip, trying not to laugh. I know he’s just being polite, but if I unloaded on him the horrors of the last two years of my life, I’d make the poor man cry. The things I could tell him.
It’s nice being the new girl. I hated all the looks I got back home. This man doesn’t look at me with judgment, or pity. I’m the new girl—not the damaged girl. I can totally work with that.
“Well…” I’m not sure what to tell him.
Al spots me and jumps to his feet. He rushes to the door then turns and waves to the kids in the room. I put my arm around his shoulders. “I can wait, Bud. I’m not in any rush.” I don’t mind the interruption, though.
“No, it’s cool,” he mumbles.
“No, it’s cool,” he mumbles.
I understand him only because I’ve learned to read his lips and body language and not rely on his voice. “Okay then.” I smile at the man beside me and wave. “I’ll take a rain check. Bye.”
We walk outside the building and cross the road.
The sun is bright. A warm breeze brushes past. There’s salt in the air, and even though I have no clue exactly what part of town I’m in, I’m sure I can’t be more than a few miles from the ocean.
I love Florida.
We get in the car and I head home. At the first stop light, Al says, “I’m hungry, can we get some food?”
I sigh. “I’d love to, but I don’t have any money. I spent the last of it on gas this morning to get to church.” Mentally I search my car—glove box, cup holders, ashtray. I’m sure there’s at least a couple dollars’ worth of change. Maybe I could get him a burger.
“Oh,” he says.
“I might have some change in here.”
“No, it’s cool.”
“I’ll get paid Friday and I’ll make sure to save enough for gas and lunch next Sunday, ‘kay?” I turn and smile at him.
He’s just barely big enough to sit in the front seat. He’s small for ten. Whatever genetics gave me my curves, he didn’t get. He’s skin and bones, but awesome with a skateboard. I see sports in his future..
“How did you like church?”
He shrugs. “It was cool.”
“Do you want to go back next week?”
I hoped he’d say that. “Good. I like it there too.”
There’s a long pause. “Why do you have that?” He points to the nail hanging from a string on my rearview mirror.
“Oh. That.” I stare at the rustic nail. I recall the day I hung it there, tears running down my face. I needed a daily reminder of the sacrifice Jesus made—something I could see and touch. It’s my bond with Jesus, because I sacrificed a lot too. I remember all the times since that day when I’ve needed comfort and reached up to rub my thumb across the smooth, flat side.
I take a deep breath and reach up to touch the cool, small piece of steel.
“It has to do with that thing two years ago, doesn’t it?” he asks.
My eyes go wide. “What thing?”
“The thing no one will tell me about. The thing that made you so sad.”
My heart sinks into the pit of my stomach. I thought I’d done a better job of protecting him from the darkness around me. “Have I ever told you you’re the smartest kid in the world?”
He rolls his eyes. “Yeah, sissy. Like every single day. So does that mean you’re still not gonna tell me?”
His words stab. My eyes sting with tears. I fight to hold them in. It’s not that I don’t want to tell him. He’s my best friend. I’ve always known I’d tell him one day. It’s just that he’s ten and I don’t want him to grow up yet. I’m not ready for him to know the world is full of evil. I’m not ready for him to know evil almost devoured my soul. I want to protect him from it. Always.
I hold my breath until the tears absorb back into my eyeballs. I refuse to cry in front of him. He’s too sensitive. It’ll make him cry if he sees me hurting. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you. It’s that I’m not sure you’re old enough yet. It’s heavy stuff.”
“I’m not a baby. I know something bad happened, but everyone treats me like a little kid. You can tell me.”
I wish I could freeze him just the way he is—just the way we are together. Every time he says something mature, it makes me a little sad. I want my kid brother to stay a kid forever. “Okay. I’ll tell you. But on one condition.”
“You have to promise you won’t treat me differently.”
He shrugs. “Why would I treat you different?”
“It’s just what people do. They act like I’m some damaged, fragile thing that could crumble at any moment. I hate the pity looks. It’s the worst. People feel sorry for me. But they don’t realize how offensive it is. I’m still me. I’m still, Amber.” I look at him. “I’m still your sister. You’re just going to know more about me, that’s all, okay?”
I drive to our new house. We’ve lived there for two weeks and it still feels like I’m visiting. It doesn’t have the home feel to it.
“I’m gonna fix us some food and drinks. Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
I rush inside and slap some pbjs together. On his I put extra jelly, just the way he likes them, then I fill a garbage bag with bottled waters and chips.
In just a few minutes I’m back in the car and on my way down the road. I drive a mile and park my car at a neighborhood pier. It’s just a little fishing pier, no more than thirty feet long.
It’s so pretty out here on the river—so peaceful. Hardly anyone ever comes here and I think it’s the perfect place to tell Al my story. It’s our place.
I reach into my glove box and grab a handful of napkins I’ve been hoarding. Al doesn’t say a word. He gets out and follows me onto the pier.
We walk to the end and sit down. Water sloshes just a few feet below us. The sun is high, but there’s a nice breeze coming from our left, just enough cool to keep it from feeling too hot. It’s the kind of day that makes me wonder how anyone can doubt the existence of God.
I look at Al. “Are you ready?”
His blue eyes are wide. I can tell he’s nervous. I’m nervous for him. I’m nervous for me. What will he think of me when he knows?
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It happened two years ago. It was on October 9th. I was fifteen.”
He’s going to kill me. His scorching breath is on my neck. His odor is stuck in my nose. The rape keeps replaying in my mind, torturing me over and over again.
I’m not sure if my heart is still beating. Everything in me has shut off. I’m numb. But I have to keep it together—this isn’t over yet.
He holds my head twisted into an impossible headlock with my body tangled across the front seat of his car. The engine growls to life as he turns the key. The car rocks back and forth over a bumpy road then it steadies.
I wish I could figure out where I am, but with every turn the vehicle makes, I’m more lost than I was before.
He drives with one hand on the wheel and his other clenched around my jaw—as if this is easy for him. My face is smothered into his stomach and with each breath I inhale his shirt, slowly suffocating.
I can’t open my eyes. They aren’t something I control anymore. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to see what he’s done to me.
There’s a professional way about his strength. He knew how to subdue me, and quickly, like he’s done this before. Methodical, calculated, professional. Military crosses my mind.
I don’t know how long he’s had me in his clutches. Maybe an hour.
Time doesn’t exist.
Why am I still alive? He’s already raped me, what more—I stop myself. I won’t go there. I won’t think about how he plans to kill me. I’m certain I won’t live much longer, but there is one thing I can do, if escaping is out of the question. I’m ready. I won’t go home to my family tonight, but I will send them my killer—or rather, his DNA buried beneath my fingernails when they find my dead body. I’m prepared to strike at the first sign he’s done with me. I know the second I claw his face off, he’ll end my life. So I wait, patiently, for him to try to kill me. I’ll put up one last fight—one he won’t easily walk away from.
The car stops. This is the moment.
He lets go of my head and snarls, “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you,” then reaches across me and thrusts open the door.
I see my escape and move so quickly I topple out backwards onto the curb.
The sun is almost set, giving me just enough light to see my surroundings. Houses dot the quiet neighborhood. Cars drive past, unconcerned with me lying on the sidewalk. The world is still here, unaffected.
I’m motionless. I’m alive. I can’t believe he let me go. None of it seems real.
I catch his black eyes on me as if he’s waiting to see what I’ll do. It snaps me back.
Rocketing up, I bolt in the opposite direction of the car like my feet are on fire. Not once do I look back. I have no idea if he’s driven off or if he’s chasing me. All I know is this isn’t the movies and I’m not going to be that stupid girl who looks back and trips. I just run. Running is one thing I do well. There’s no way he’s catching me.
I don’t know if I’m bleeding or if bones are broken. Everything is numb. It’s probably for the best. I can’t even feel my feet hitting the sidewalk, but I see the world flying past so my legs must be working.
I have no clue where I am. I don’t recognize anything.
The closest house is a small, sky-blue ranch with concrete steps. I barrel up the stairs and pound my fists into the door. “Please—” I whimper.
Seconds feel like hours. Why isn’t anyone opening the door?
Terrified to be stopped and so vulnerable, and needing to know where he is, I glance back at the street. I just know he’s gotten out to chase me and I’ll have to abandon this attempt at a rescue and flee to the next house.
The road is empty.
Oxygen floods my lungs. I gasp, sucking in rapid gulps of relief.
He’s gone. It’s over.
The door creaks open and in the gap stands a young girl no more than twelve-years-old.
My legs go limp. I can’t breathe. Did that really just happen?
I drop to my knees, collapsing into myself, shrinking into a blubbering ball on her porch. “Call the police.” My voice sounds foreign, broken and raspy. “Please help. I’ve been raped.” I’m hysterical, but I can’t calm my sobs.
I didn’t think I would live through this. Now I’m not sure I can live with it.
“Momma…” she calls. “There’s a girl… crying.” She sounds confused and scared.
I feel bad for her. I can only imagine how horrible this must look from the other side. Are my blue jeans even zipped? Am I even wearing a shirt?
A woman comes to the door and stands above me, but I can’t look up at her. I am nothing more than a puddle of tears with my face buried into my hands.
This can’t be real. I can’t really be here. My heart has stopped. I could lose consciousness at any moment. My body wants to shut down. My brain needs to shut off. Please, just let me wake up. Let this be some horrible nightmare.
She says, “Send the police. I’ve got a girl at my door crying her eyes out.” I assume she’s on the phone but don’t look up. She pauses. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her. I can’t understand anything she’s saying.” Pause. “Ummm… Miss… are you hurt?”
I’m so lost in my head it takes me a while to realize she’s talking to me.
I don’t know if I’m hurt. I still can’t feel my body. The pain inside my mind is all that exists. Reality, time, life—they are an illusion I’ve lost. I died in that car. All that’s left of me is a shell. My heart has disintegrated. My lungs have collapsed. All that holds me together is my skin.
I force myself to remain in the here and now long enough to decide I don’t want an ambulance. I want the police. There’s no medicine for a disintegrated heart. My mind is shattered. No hospital can fix that either.
That would take too many words to explain. All I manage to say is, “No.” I still can’t bring myself to lift my eyes to hers. The nothingness my hands offer is all I want to see.
“Miss, what’s your name?” she asks softly.
I’m not sure why she’s talking to me. I figure she’s being coaxed by the operator so I comply with her question, answering with as few syllables as possible, but never looking up.
“How old are you?”
The word is acid on my tongue. It’s filthy. It shouldn’t exist—the word or the… No. This isn’t real. I can’t really be here. I squeeze my eyes shut and push my hands harder into my face. Make it stop. Make this world disappear.
I don’t want it to be real. I’d rather be insane than here, crying.
The world around me fades. Memories rush through me, evil flashbacks I can’t stop. I hear his voice in my head.
He shouts at me, “Stop fighting or I’ll break your neck!” His grip on my jaw is so tight. I can’t breathe. “Take off your pants.” I don’t move. I’m deciding what’s worse, death or rape. He twists my jaw further and just an inch more would mean death.
She touches my shoulders and asks, “Can I get you something to drink?”
I shudder as my flashback disappears and I return to the moment. I still can’t open my eyes. The abyss my eyelids offer is my safety. If I open my eyes, and I’m really here, then this really happened. So, I can’t open my eyes. Not until I wake up. Please, wake up.
“Miss… can I get you a drink?”
She’s still here. I’m still here. Words are too difficult. I just shake my head.
Minutes, seconds, hours, they’re all the same. Time is unreliable.
Sirens chirp behind me to announce help is here. It snaps me out of my deliria. For the first time since I collapsed on the porch, I open my eyes.
It’s real. I’m here.
The police car parks with the lights still flashing. Two men step out of the vehicle and approach.
I use my shirt to wipe my face and catch the wad of snot about to drip to the ground. I’m a mess, but I manage to stand up.
My feet feel weird. I look down and find the toes of my shoes facing the wrong direction. My shoes are on the wrong feet. I flash back to when he crawled off me. He let go of my throat long enough for me to throw on my clothes. I scrambled for them and redressed in a millisecond, so desperate to have a layer between me and that monster. I should have opened my eyes. It was only a couple of seconds before he yanked my head, twisted it, and buried my face into his stomach again.
A cold chill snakes up my spine. I shiver and force myself to focus on the men in front of me. I’m here, not there. It’s over. It’s over. I’m safe. It’s over.
I repeat those words. It doesn’t help. It’ll never be over.
When the officers reach the porch steps they hesitate, as if I’m a wild woman who’ll attack upon any sudden movement. I must look like I walked right out of a horror movie.
The white guy is average height and build, mid-forties. Beside him stands a tall, skinny, black man in his thirties. I’m grateful for the mother and daughter behind me. They’re so kind and soft spoken I haven’t felt threatened until now.
These men, with their shoulders and backs stiff, are so dominant. I do feel like a mad woman, ready to maul either of them if they dare to step into my personal space. It seems my instincts to fight haven’t gone away. I know the cops are here to help, but their eyes are cold. Their jaws are tense and it seems like they’re frustrated. Can’t they see my pain? Don’t they care?
I hate them already.
The white officer starts to speak, but a screeching car interrupts, sliding into park in front of the house.
My stepdad, Sam, soars out of the driver’s seat and charges like a raving lunatic.
How does he know already? How is he here already? How long have I been here?
The white officer lunges to intercept him in the yard.
I can’t make out what's being said as the officer tries to calm him, but I do manage to hear Sam shout, “Well, you better find him before I do!” He storms off. His face is the exact shade of his orangey-red hair. He looks like he’s going to explode. His head might actually pop right off his neck.
I’m stunned. I can’t believe he just yelled at a cop.
I like it.
Sam’s always been a hothead. We’ve never made it through a day without fighting. But right now, there’s not a doubt in my mind, he actually loves me.
He seems devastated. I want to give him a hug, or a fist bump, or something to say it’ll be okay. But I’m not sure it will, and now doesn’t seem like the right time. He gets into his car and speeds off, by the officer’s orders. I hope he’s going to get a gun. I’m totally down for a man hunt tonight. First one to find my rapist gets to pull the trigger.~Amber