This story is by Victoria Collins and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The foghorn startled me awake. The clock on the oven told me he would be home in less than thirty minutes. Scrambling to clear my math homework from the kitchen table, I remembered the spaghetti sauce from a few nights before and decided that making chicken parmesan was my best bet. I carried my books to my room and hurried back to the kitchen to get started.
His footsteps sounded on the stairs twenty minutes later. They were as heavy and purposeful as always, giving no indication as to what his mood might be. He came into the apartment and I offered my greeting, “Hi, Dad! Welcome home.”
He lifted his hand and made his way to the sink to wash up. “What’s for dinner?”
“That’s it? Just a piece of chicken with ketchup smeared on top?”
“There’s pasta and salad too. And I used the rest of the spaghetti sauce from the other night.” The defenses came pouring out before I thought better of it.
“I want beef tomorrow night.”
He grabbed my arm, “Excuse me?”
“Yes, sir. Tomorrow we’ll have beef.”
“That’s better,” he sneered as he released his grip. “Now, how much longer on that slop?”
“About fifteen minutes.”
When dinner was ready, he took his seat at the table. I filled his glass with water from the sink and set it down in front of him before sitting down. When he picked up his fork to start on his meal, I followed suit. The business of cutting my chicken into pieces and mixing them into the pile of sauce and noodles on my plate made it easy to keep my eyes down. If he wanted to talk, we’d talk. Otherwise, eating in silence was best.
His fist came slamming down on my hand. I wondered if I had been chewing too loudly. The tiny bones in my hand felt as though they had all been crushed. My fork clattered to the floor and my good hand shot to my mouth to keep the food and a scream from coming out.
“This chicken is tough. I don’t ever want you to fix this again. And I appreciate you trying to use leftover sauce, but make sure there’s enough of it to go around next time.” The complaints seemed endless. I did my best to remember each one of them, but the pain in my hand was making it difficult.
His leg came up underneath my chair, tipping it backwards. The rage in his eyes told me this was only the beginning. My chair hit the floor and the contents of the table followed. He shoved his own chair away from the table and stood over me, “I’m going out to get some food. My guess is you took one of your little afternoon naps and ran out of time. In case you forgot, I’m your only priority.”
There wasn’t any use crying, at least not until after he was gone. He hated tears and the list of things he hated was mine to keep track of. He stood over me waiting for a response. My head had hit something other than the floor on my way down and I stopped clutching it long enough to look at my fingers. Relief that there wasn’t any blood washed over me. Having grown tired of waiting, he kicked me in the familiar spot that never seemed to get back to normal before the next round.
“Do you understand? Don’t act like you’re hurt. I would never hurt you.”
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
“After you clean this up, why don’t you go to bed? I don’t want to see any more of you today. You’ve got one hour.” And with that, he was gone.
I busied myself with cleaning up the kitchen and scrubbing the floor, the best I could with a hand that was now absolutely useless. If he wasn’t satisfied with my efforts, he would be sure to get me up when he got home from wherever it was he had gone. The familiar struggle in my mind began.
It had been this way my whole life. My Mom was gone and my Dad had learned how to hurt me without anyone ever thinking anything of it. When I was little, he had it easier. I was always climbing trees and racing the neighborhood boys on my bike. His bruises blended in very nicely with the ones that I managed to cause without his help. As I got older, the boys started to see me differently. They traded their bikes for cars and our tree forts were turned over to the next batch of kids on the block. My Dad saw to it that the boys who had been my only friends kept their distance. He warned me about what it was they would want and he made sure they knew they weren’t going to be able to get it from me as long as he was around.
School became my focus. I tried to make friends with the girls, but we didn’t really have much in common. Taking care of my Dad and our apartment didn’t leave me with the time they had for sleepovers and going for fries and shakes at the drive in. I wondered what it would be like, to be in a normal family, but my Dad’s words lived in my head. Things with him might not have been great, but they could always be worse. He taught me not to challenge him by warning me that speaking up would only make things worse. He was quick to remind me that there were people out there who would love to hurt me in ways that were far worse than what he would ever do. My job was to do my best to be happy with the way things were and to keep him happy too.
And then I met Jesse. He was different from the other boys. He was nice to me no matter what. He didn’t seem to care about my long legs or my tiny waist, in fact, it was months before he ever gave me any kind of compliment. For the first time, excitement over being alive flooded my mind. Life turned into something to be enjoyed rather than just endured. At first we talked when we ran into each other outside of Mr. Murray’s classroom by our lockers. Then we started having lunch together. Eventually, we found ways to see each other outside of school. Jesse seemed worth fighting for.
The way things were at my house was something I kept to myself. Part of me figured everyone had their own struggles, but my biggest fear was that if people found out what was going on, it might change. As terrified as I was of my Dad, I knew I could handle the life he had given me. The only thing that terrified me more than he did was the thought of what life would be like if I had to come up against someone or something worse than him. He was my Dad and he would only ever take things so far. Whether he was sorry or not, didn’t matter. Any hope that I had of my Dad learning how to change had faded when the bruises wouldn’t.
Jesse knew, he saw the bruises and he asked me about them. I couldn’t lie to him. He said he wanted to get me out of there and that was when we had our first real argument. I told him that I didn’t want out. He said he didn’t believe me and I couldn’t blame him.
He tried to convince me to speak up. He was always asking how I was doing and offering to find a way to help. Things weren’t any worse or any better, but something inside me was changing. I was starting to believe that it might be time to do something for myself. Jesse told me that he had talked to his parents and if I ever decided that I wanted help, all I had to do was call.
My mind turned back to the fact that my Dad would be home soon. The lies I told everyone else weren’t enough for me anymore. It was time for more than just getting by. The risk to believe Jesse and to trust his parents seemed worth taking. I put the bucket away and draped the rag over the hamper to dry and then I picked up the phone and dialed the number that I had been carrying around in my pocket for three months. Jesse’s voice came over the line giving me the strength necessary for the words that had lived in my head for so long to come out of my mouth, “Jesse, I’m ready.”
The door clicked shut behind me, “So, his name is Jesse then?”