The house is quiet and still in the midnight darkness, three girls asleep inside. They are alone, upstairs in their rooms, parents not yet home from another Saturday night party.
A peaceful scene. So fragile. So soon broken.
In one room the teenager turns in the restless sleep of late adolescence. In another, her younger sisters are unmoving small forms, deep in the slumber of childhood. The dog snores softly on the floor at the foot of the youngest one's bed.
An uneasy calm surrounds them. Little prickles of fear pervade their dreams.
Wait! What? The older of the two young girls is suddenly awake, first disoriented, then as the room's familiar shapes emerge from the darkness, fully alert, protective instincts humming. The dog has wakened too, head up, ears erect.
That noise. The signal. Fear is coming.
The youngest sister still sleeps, blissfully unaware, half buried under a pile of soft stuffed animals. The older girl is relieved to have another moment to herself. She lets her eyes rest longingly on the bookcase against the wall, next to the bed.
Her bookcase. Only hers. Painted the same cheery yellow as the room, lined with her protective soldiers, the treasured books into which she escapes from the fear and chaos. Not of her dreams. Of her childhood.
Her books won't help her tonight. They never do. Their job is to block the bad memories, cover the scars, provide safe haven. After the storm. Still, their presence comforts her.
She runs a finger over the scalloped edge along the top shelf of her bookcase. Calms herself with the smooth symmetry of each dip and swell. Takes a deep breath.
Please, she thinks. Please. No.
Outside the window next to the bookcase, from the driveway just underneath, the noise starts again. Louder this time. Angrier. The inchoate rage palpable in the revving of the car engine. Over and over and over.
Vrrrumm. Vrrrumm. VRRUMM.
The bookcase and its contents begin to vibrate. She pulls her hand back as if burned.
Vrrrumm. Vrrrumm. VRRUMM.
As bad as it is, it will be worse when it stops. Because then he'll come into the house.
Vrrrumm. Vrrrumm. VRRUMM.
The teenager appears in the bedroom doorway. The dog runs to her side, whimpering. She's whimpering too, very softly, trying to hide her own fear, her need for contact, the pretense of safety. Hand resting on the dog's head she enters the room. "Are you okay?" she whispers.
Vrrrumm. Vrrrumm. VRRUMM.
The girl nods. Pats the bed next to her in invitation. Only 9 years old and already the maternal one. The guardian. Protector of the others. Not herself. It's the only way.
The teenager slides under the light blanket, teeth chattering, though it's a warm summer night. The dog jumps up too. As always, that's when the youngest one wakes, connected somehow to the dog, and flies across the room into the bed.
Huddled together, arms entwined, they wait. For the second act. So well choreographed, they know it by heart.
BANG! Like a gunshot the kitchen door hits the wall as he slams it open. The car had gone silent, they were expecting this. Still, they jump. The tears start, spilling like summer rain down cheeks gone white under smooth tanned skin.
They never hear the mother come in. They guess, they know, she must escape the car when he starts revving the engine, but she enters the house so silently they never hear her come in. And she never comes to them.
Him, they hear. Cursing, coughing, shouting, the violent thunder of his voice rolls, roils, explodes through the house. Hers is a low distant murmur, trying to calm his fury. Why does she speak? When will she learn it only enrages him further? They wait, shivering, knowing. A nanosecond of silence.
Then the worst sound. Fist connecting with flesh.
They hear the mother's small scream of pain. Their eyes are squeezed shut now, arms closed fiercely around each other, pulling them into a tighter circle, heads touching, fingers clenching the cotton blanket up, up, over their faces.
The dog is pressed against them, ears flat, a low growl rumbling from its soft belly. It too knows fear.
The sound comes again. And again. Oh, why doesn't she run? The raging river of noise rises to fever pitch. "WHO IS HE? I KNOW YOU'RE FUCKING HIM!" Rolling over the soft, pleading murmurs, "There's nobody else. Don't hurt me, please. Oh! Oh, stop! If someone looked at me, I didn't see him. No, I didn't. Please! Stop, you're hurting me!"
Reason falls on deaf ears, his booze-soaked unquiet brain a helpless victim to rage.
CRASH! A lamp? CRASH! A mirror? More slamming, more crashing, more cursing. But at least no more of that gruesome flesh on flesh sound. Just her quiet sobbing. Then, the clink of ice in a glass. He's mumbling, angrily, to himself. Pacing the front hall. Climbing the stairs.
They hear his labored, drunken breathing. Their fear grows.
The metallic sound of his Zippo grates as he stops on the first landing to light a cigarette. They can smell the acrid odor, almost taste the smoke. It's now or never. They look at each other, pale faces streaked with tears. They know what's next. The third act.
The worst act. For one of them. Forced to be fearless. Helpless in the face of overwhelming fear.
"Go!" the 9-year-old whispers sibilantly. "Get out! Take the dog, lock your door." The teenager looks at her, humbly, pleading, grateful, perhaps she knows too well, then grabs the little one's hand and they're off the bed in a flash, rounding the open door, back toward her room, the only one with a lock.
The dog begins to follow, stops. Looks back at the girl still huddled on the bed. "Go. Go!" she whispers urgently. Flapping her hands in a shooing motion. And it too pads away to safety.
Please, she whispers to herself. Please. No. Her hands still moving, shooing fear away. Lost, lonely, helpless. Please. She knows if she goes too he will kick down the door. Break more than the lock.
This is better, safer, for everyone. Well, everyone but her.
She slides down, pulls the covers to her chin. Closes her eyes. Her left hand reaches out to touch the bookcase. Holds on. Continues to hold on when he enters the room, mumbling, stinking of Scotch and Camels, whispering her name.
Her fingers tighten until the wooden shelf might crack as she drifts away, floats away, far, far away.
Where? She can never remember. Just. Away. From the pain. From the fear.
When she comes back, he is always crying. His hand strokes her hair. She turns her head toward the bookcase, a pure womanly gesture of dismissal. Oddly, he obeys, the bed rocks as he stands unsteadily, leaves, still crying.
Why is he crying, her eyes are dry.
Her grip on the bookcase slowly loosens, her aching fingers stroke the silky wood, reverently brush across the precious books, taking comfort in their touch, aching for their words to scrub her mind clean, scrape away the shame, the fear.
Not now. Not yet. She won't open her eyes, even in the dark, she can't turn on the light. Too much ugliness there. Fear hovers with the lingering stench of the cigarette smoke. And the worst kind of betrayal.
She takes a small breath. Another, deeper. Okay, she thinks. Okay. I'm okay. Slowly, in her mind's eye, she opens a favorite book, sees the words on the page, then the people in the story. Happy. Loving. Kind.
Something, so young, yet old beyond her years, she fears she will never be. Exhaustion overtakes her, small tears like clear, perfect drops of morning dew slip from her eyes, washing his smell from her face.
And then, only then, finally, she sleeps. One hand resting on the bookcase. Her bookcase. Once again, the house is quiet and still.
Wait! What? The woman is suddenly awake, first disoriented, then as the room's familiar shapes emerge from the darkness, fully alert, protective instincts humming.
Fear, huge and powerful, is crouching. Or is it?
She shakes her head, brushes her hair from her eyes. Makes a small rueful face. Takes a deep breath. Another. Oh, that's better. It was just a bad dream. They hardly come any more.
That old fear doesn't come at all.
Not since one summer evening of her 13th year. When her friends were gathered in her room for a sleepover. When he tried to come in, drunk, weaving, in rumpled, gaping pajamas.
That summer evening, when raw anger, pure self-preservation, a new, powerful sense of dignity trumped fear.
And she said, in a quiet voice, filled with ruthless intensity, ENOUGH! I hate you! You disgust me! Don't. Ever. Touch. Me. Again.
He never did. He died two months later. Suicide. She cried. With grief. More, with relief.
And then fear took other forms. Ones she couldn't escape. Phobias, locked onto her battered psyche with jaws of molton steel. Threatened to crush her, defeat her, bury her under pure terror. Filled her with panic, self-loathing, anger, despair.
For years she fought, the fear, the guilt, the pain. Slowly, slowly she gained control. Blossomed, turning to full womanhood like a flower to the sun. Opening her tightly closed heart and soul. Gladly welcoming love, trust, self. Free. From all but a small, lingering, manageable... fear.
Now, 30 plus years later, she reaches out, touches her husband's sleeping form, listens to the comforting sound of his deep, even breathing as her thudding heartbeat slowly calms.
Her gaze wanders over their bedroom with its warm, mocha-colored walls and bright white moldings, stops, lingers on the old bookcase. Her bookcase. It stands against a different wall now, still sturdy and strong.
A survivor. As is she.
It holds some older books under the scalloped edges of the top shelf, mostly newer ones below. Holds some memories too. But no grim reminders, no secrets, no pain.
It stands proudly in silent testament to her fierce hard work, her determination to heal. It is painted bright white. To match the moldings.
And to signal the purity of her triumph. Over the past. More, over the fear.
She slides back under the covers, curves herself around her kind, gentle, loving husband. Breathes a sigh of happiness. And sleeps, without fear.
If you're curious about why, how, where was the mother, here it is: Her Two Love Stories, from Dark Prince to Shining Knight.
Postscript: Though the words flowed on their own, this is probably the hardest piece I ever shared.
This story and others like it need to be told, heeded, heard. If only to protect, comfort, help other victims. To take away the stigma and the woefully misplaced shame.
For this plea I have no shame: Help yourself. Please. Speak out.Get help.