Run For Your Life {Short Story}

This is a short I did for a competition. It touches on a subject I have seen shades of in too many lives. I just want to say this. If you know someone who is struggling with any kind of domestic abuse, your kindness, confidence and listening ear could be the drop of goodness that turns the tide in their self confidence and gives them courage to run for their lives. If YOU are that person, there is help and hope…ALWAYS. Here are a couple of resources (please use a safe computer – libraries are great – to explore these options!):

Safe Nest 646-4981 & 1-800-486-7282

Domestic Abuse Resources

Run For Your Life

It all started with a word. Written in block letters. Black ink pressed into nondescript white paper. That word was enough to break open the shell I’d been living in; the tattered and broken skin that surrounded me and kept me from feeling the sunlight on a bright day or the mists of rain that fell whenever the barometer dropped.

My name is Hayley and I’m a survivor. Before that word I was certain I was the only one to scratch my way straight from hell, to endure the bloody abuse of another person’s fury and still have a beating heart. I thought for sure he was right. No one would ever love the ragged torn mess of my spirit trampled into the dirt.

I didn’t even recognize it anymore.

And then the woman with cornrows and skin the color of strongly brewed mocha pressed the torn off piece of paper into my palm. At the grocery halfway between the eggs and the orange juice, without saying a word. Only a flash of white teeth and colorful skirt. My body reacted to her touch, the beating of a hummingbird heart as fear clenched it.

One of the effects of repeated abuse is the taste of dread that lingers in your mouth like bad medicine. But it was only a word I’d never seen before. I tucked it into my purse and snuck through the store hoping to be a chameleon, unseen, giving no cause for one more jealous outburst. The old bruises were covered, the cut on my lip where the force of his knuckles split it in two almost healed and covered with careful artistry. The art of hiding torture and I could win the academy award.

When I got home he was gone so I could step to the sink and vomit my anxiety before hurrying to the computer.

One word from a stranger – Sankofa.

My hands began to tremble. I felt certain he could sense what I was thinking through the walls and down the street at the bar where he was gearing up for another round.

This woman knew. Somehow she’d seen past my makeup job to the frightened refugee beneath. Her word was telling me to run for my life. The idea ignited a riot of nerves and rapid fire questions.

Where would I go?

Could I do it?

What if he found me?

Was he right?

Was I stupid?

Selfish?

Repulsive?

Useless?

Did I even deserve to be free?

The mirror over the sink looked back at me – a woman with terror etched into her skin. I could still remember the look on his face when I lay on the ground that night, hoping if I held still long enough, he’d stop. Trying to breathe shallow so the burning break in my ribs wouldn’t betray me. It was a look bordering on hatred and remorse. The warm slug of spit he left on my arm told me hatred won out.

I ran a finger down my cheek, watching it bump over the bruises and scars. My mothers’ last words rang in my ears.

“It’s never too late to have a happy life, Hayley.”

How many times had I sworn she was a liar? Happy? That word sounded impossible. But life. That I wanted. That I clung to no matter how badly he tried to wrench it out of me. Slowly with tender fingers I washed away the makeup to reveal blossoms of sick color. The truth was painted on my face and down my arms, mushrooming across my ribcage.

For the first time in years I looked that woman in the eye and whispered the words.

“I deserve to live.”

She looked surprised and then resolute.

Caught with a sudden decision, I grabbed the paper, a change of clothes and a few odds and ends that meant something to me, stashing them in a tote before dialing the one number I’d refused to call since we ran away from my hometown four years earlier.

Three rings felt like a thousand years. My heart beat deep in my chest and I walked briskly away from the apartment, the scene of my incarceration, the epicenter of my abuse.

When her voice came on the line I almost couldn’t speak. Emotions closed around my throat and sobs caught my words away.

“Hello? Hayley, is that you?”

“M-mom…”

I could hear the breath catch in her throat.

“Hayley.”

The word was a whispered prayer. The next sound was her calling my dad, the jingle of keys and the simultaneous slam of car doors.

“Tell me where you are.”

I struggled to control the relief raging through my chest at the sound of her determined voice.

“I’ll be waiting at the Church on West Pacific.” I was checking over my shoulder every two seconds as the fear mounted between my shoulder blades. It couldn’t be this easy, could it? Every fiber of my being sensed the danger of my movements. Each step felt like a resounding nail in my coffin, cementing the reaction I knew would come. I could already smell his breath saturated in alcohol and see his hatred glazed eyes.

Alcohol was the root of his problems. It had always been a part of our relationship, the unspoken elephant in the room. When the economy dove and he lost his job, one love blossomed while the other shriveled. The occasional stinging comments about my hair or weight quickly transformed into outright punches coupled with screamed obscenities.  The next day remorse turned into daily resentment. My body was a witness to his loss of control, shouting the evidence in his face. He chose to drown it out, fueling the next maniacal rage.

Though we lived in a large city three hours from my hometown, my parents were at the door of the church in two. My nails were nubs. The ticking of the clock in the corner was a second by second alarm screaming out my escape. I could tell by the rocket of my heart rate when he’d be home. I shivered at the sound his voice would make, the instant escalation from anger to fury when he didn’t find me waiting with dinner and permission to continue our tradition.

The car was a haven of tinted windows and door locks. I closed my eyes while the tires squealed away from the curb. We were bank robbers speeding off in the getaway car. The precious currency we had stolen away was my hope for life.

It would be four solid weeks before I looked at the woman in the mirror again. Twenty-eight days of hiding in my childhood room. Slowly I remembered the dreams that had sprung up there and gathered them back into my arms. On day twenty-nine I came out. My chest was beginning to expand where the ribs had healed. The bruises that haunted my flesh had yellowed and faded. I hadn’t tasted blood for almost a month. The woman who looked back at me over the pedestal sink was hardly recognizable. Mother had done her best to add flesh to my cheekbones and fill out my jeans where they’d hung limply from my hips. The appetite that starved on a diet of anxiety resurfaced at the sight of home cooking delivered on a plate of safety.

Yet the refugee inside of me was still waiting for his knock on the door. When it came on day thirty-one the explosion I was bracing for never surfaced. I could only imagine the look on my father’s face when they came nose to nose over my life. He’d always been a quiet man, but even I could hear his steady words up through the stairs.

“Come around here again, go near my daughter you filthy slug and you’ll know what kind of bullets I use in my gun.”

I was holding my breath in abject terror brought on by the sound of my tormentor’s voice. I’d experienced his worst. I wasn’t prepared for his quick dismissal, the roar of his truck as he peeled from the drive or the click of the locks slipping into their slots on the door. It took me a moment to remember he was only a bully. And all bullies are cowards.

I knew I had a long way to go before his words would be uprooted from my heart. They were burrowers, sinking tiny barbs below the skin to root in the most tender parts.

But there was a hope burning in my chest that hadn’t been there before. It flamed to the surface on day forty-two, when I knew for sure he wouldn’t be coming back. My Dad was sitting beside me on the sofa while the TV droned around us. His arm slid around my shoulders and I realized he was sniffling.

“Hayley, I’m so glad you’re home.”

He stopped because now tears were streaming into his white mustache.

“We prayed so hard that one day…. What made you call?”

There hadn’t been a word about that man in forty-two days. Even his visit had gone unmentioned, though I could feel the charge in the air for days after their confrontation. When Dad asked the question it reminded me that I had to start talking soon or I might never say the words. The truth we’d hidden from neighbors and friends for four years would be forever silenced by remnants of fear. That silence felt like permission, agreement that I’d deserved the beatings and threats. But I knew now. I knew it wasn’t true.

The well that had shriveled to a trickle in the overbearing sun spilled over, one bucket at a time. I told him about the taste of a fist thrown into my face out of the blue. Of the lies he hurled at me and the way my scalp turned to fire when he would yank me up by the hair. I told him how I covered it all with long sleeves, makeup and false smiles. The excuses for missing work when it hurt too much to move the next day and the endless promises that it would never happen again.

There is a horrible kind of death that happens to a father when they know they’ve been unable to protect their child from the worst humanity has to offer. I saw it happening as I spoke and yet the flood of confessions went unstemmed.

It was late into the night when it ebbed. He held me in his arms, quietly sobbing.

“I want to kill him,” he said finally.

“Me too,” I agreed. “But that woman in the store, her I want to hug and thank and ask…why?”

“You said she gave you a word?”

“Yes. It’s African. Sankofa. It means when the village is destroyed, go in and find what’s worth keeping. Take it with you, leave and never look back. Dad I looked in the mirror and all I saw was burned flesh. The only thing to salvage was a longing to live.”

“So you left and never look back.”

I wrapped my arms around his thick chest and placed my head near his heart like I had when I was a girl. It beat a firm and steady rhythm that echoed sixty years of goodness.

“No I found what was worth keeping. It’s here Dad. Real love from people who know all my flaws. Somewhere inside me there’s hope for real happiness and that maybe I deserve a piece of it.”

“No maybe, little girl,” Dad spoke into my hair, “You deserve every last crumb.”

One word, written in block letters. Black ink pressed into nondescript paper. Because of it I am a survivor. Today I keep that scrap of paper until I can pass it on to another woman with haunted eyes and terror nibbling at her soul. One day another prisoner will have the courage to run for her life.

 

By Christene Houston (c) 2012

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Cindy
    Apr 8, 2013

    Wow. Gave me goosebumps. Good job!

  2. Kara
    Apr 9, 2013

    Wow is right! This was so powerful Christene! I am still processing it all. Thanks for sharing your talents!

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