Hello Stranger — Part II


He thrust the door open with such force that its hinges cried out in a high-pitched “eeee” from the strain, and with it, my inner childhood world splintered open.

Out tumbled the images of favorite animated movies, mixing with reality. Like Bambi, my mother was gone, and like the Gargoyles, whose bodies harden into stone as the sun’s rays cast over them, my entire body stiffened, from head to toe, and my tears froze in their ducts.

“Why are you crying?” he demanded to know from his position in the doorway.

I clenched the corner of my nightgown in my fists, and stared up at the muscular man blocking the doorway. His aggressive posture — fierce grip, piercing scowl, and heavy cologne — dominated the room. He looked down on me like Scar sneering at Simba from the Lion King. His new eyebrow scar from his motorcycle accident made him all the more menacing.

Each encounter with him made me feel smaller, like I drank the shrinking potion from Alice in Wonderland, but no matter how small I felt, he always spotted me. I felt the grip of his shrinking patience tighten around me as he waited for my response, but I couldn’t speak, and could hardly breathe. It was as though I were captured and being constricted. Mowgli being dizzied and squeezed by Kaa in The Jungle Book came to mind.

My silence made him angrier.

“Are you bleeding?” he demanded to know, shifting his weight as if to let go of the knob and strike.

If I didn’t have bleeding wounds or broken bones, then I didn’t have a good reason to cry.

“No,” I wanted to say, but couldn’t find my voice. There was a painful lump in my throat, and my eyes started to water up again. Barely able to breathe from the snot in my nose, I kept my mouth slightly open, as my head moved millimeters left and right, shaking “no” instead. I stared at him barely blinking.

“Then stop crying, and go play downstairs before I give you a reason to cry.”

Was this a test? If I ran past him would he let me go? I felt the distance between the window and door collapsing in on me. The whole room suddenly began to shrink, and I found myself becoming dizzy and nauseated.

I weighed which was worse: my fear of running past him, or the fear of what would happen if I didn’t. Like a jaguar’s slow-rolling back, muscles rippling in preparation to attack its prey, the wrinkles of his shirt shifted across his chest and stomach.

Between blinks, I imagined all of the ways he could rip me apart, uncomfortable scenes flashed in my mind— black belt, my bare backside, his lap. I stopped blinking.

My eyes stung, but I knew the pain would be worse if I cried. Is he going to hurt me? I stared, wishing I had had the forethought to wear pants instead of a thin nightgown. My eyes widened as I watched the rise and fall of his chest. He breathed with ease, as terror continued to wreak havoc on my lungs.

Just then, I caught a glimpse of my curtains fluttering in my peripherals, which flashed the image of my mother climbing out of the window onto the roof back into my mind.

Oh no. Did he notice the open window? Immediately my concern transferred from myself to my fleeing mother. What if he chased after her? Don’t look; don’t look, so he won’t either. I forced my eyes to stare downward. I looked at the white metal pole of my bed, near the ladder to the top bunk. It was the closest thing other than him, to being straight ahead that I could fixate on. I didn’t want my vision looking anywhere near the window.

As I looked at the white bed frame, I could still see his black boots and jeans up to his knees. I stared even harder at the carpet, until each individual carpet fiber came into focus, tan lump after tan lump. I spotted a single strand of my mother’s long blonde hair resting across the carpet fibers. I focused on that strand. His shoes became blurry. I tried with all my might not to think of my mother climbing out of the window and running across the driveway again.

No one knew it, but I had seen her sprint away like that before, when he had chased her out of the front door at gunpoint. He always had his black gun near him. He even kept it under his pillow while sleeping. We all knew it. He showed everyone he wanted to control: his other girlfriends who came to visit, his main girlfriend who owned the house, and all of his children. We were all afraid of it, my mom and I especially because we’d seen him use it to scare and hurt other people.

He had used it to scare my mommy away. I saw her sprint across the front yard, barefooted without a shirt on. He ran after her, pointing his gun at her all the way until she ran across the street and around the corner toward a field. It was daytime then. My window was open, so I heard him yell, “If you ever come back, I’ll kill you.”

No one questioned if he meant it. We all knew he did. He didn’t make threats; he made promises, mean promises.

But she did come back, to say goodbye to me, and the proof was inches from his boots and fluttering in my peripherals. She risked her life just to tell me she loved me.

I stared at the floor, trying not to cry. The door hinges groaned from the weight of his grip on the knob, and a creak of the floor under his foot suggested he was preparing to take a step forward. My heart pounded in my ears at the prospect of him coming closer. Suddenly, the breeze at my back whispered the idea to me, run. Adrenaline kicked in. The heat washed over me as my insides filled with lava and returned from stone.

I sprinted under his armpit, squeezing through the crack between the white doorframe and the black belt on his hips. Once in the hallway, everything became a dizzied blur. The cabinets to my left, my brothers’ room and the bathroom to my right all swirled into streaks of color. It didn’t matter that my vision was blurry; I saw the closed door to his bedroom dead-ahead clearly. I wanted to be sick at the sight of it.

It felt as though someone grabbed me at the back of the neck, slapping around fuzzy memories that darted through my mind like a pinball machine: the sickened feeling from drinking “adult juice” with him and his friends, flashing lights, the feeling of heavy hands moving everywhere across my body, and the image of my mother handcuffed to his bed, rattled through my core. I ran faster.

I cornered left and my red and white beaded socks slipped as I descended the brown-carpeted stairs. I narrowly grabbed the rail on the way down, but it wasn’t in time to prevent the friction between the stairs and the tender bruises on my backside. I pushed down the pain, and didn’t stop moving. Downstairs, there was the hum of people: unknown adults somewhere, a T.V., and two of my younger brothers at play. I scanned my surroundings quickly. I saw movement in the direction of the kitchen, the empty dining table to my left; a tan reclining chair, maybe with my grandma sitting in it, but maybe she went home already.

I couldn’t tell, but I wasn’t looking for her. I continued to scan my surroundings. Family photos covered the wall of the living room straight-ahead, each happy image a lie or, at least, half-truth.

I filled the empty floor space in front of the “Wall of Achievement,” a wall dedicated to the innocence of childhood artwork and academic awards for being able to recite the ABCs, spell compound words, and to read Dr. Suess books. The downstairs bedroom was to the left. A small arched hallway, containing the stair closet and one entry to the formal living room, was to the right.

In the direction of the downstairs bedroom, was a hallway that led to a bathroom and the garage, I spotted my older half-brother, the person I was searching for. As soon as his eyes met mine, we’d had an entire conversation — covering what was wrong — without words, and he knew exactly what to do. We’d always had that near psychic connection that twins have, even though he is three days older than me and born to a different mother.

We lived in his mom’s house. Most of the time, the only people home were his mom, my big brother, two younger brothers, and I. One other person lived there permanently, but he was rarely home. My big-brother quickly hugged me, freeing my lungs to breathe a sigh of relief. The spinning of the outside world slowed down. He grabbed my hand, and guided me into one of our hiding spots, the closet underneath the stairs.

With my big-brother, everything would somehow be okay.

Everyone else on the first floor continued what they were doing, oblivious to everything crumbling my world. My big brother and I hovered on the other side of the closet door — listening. With one hand, he held his index finger to his lips, signaling Shhhh…and with the other, he pulled back on the doorknob as hard as he could, locking us in for safety. From the light trickling in under the door, I could see the outline of my big brother’s biceps as he tried to protect me.

We listened for steel-toed boots walking upstairs. Heavy footsteps thundered slowly across the floor above. We listened closely to determine where the footsteps were upstairs. I pictured the upstairs floor layout in my mind. From the top of the stairs, there was a bedroom to the left. On the wall straight ahead, there was a bathroom and my brothers’ room. On the right wall, there was my room and cabinets, which stored things like towels and bedsheets.

The heavy steps moved from the direction of my room, across the hall, to the room overhead. We listened for a long time, trying to determine if he would come downstairs. More feet went up the stairs and into his room above us. Through the ceiling, we heard mumbled voices. The loudest one was his, but we couldn’t tell what they were saying. When it was clear that the footsteps weren’t coming down the stairs, the stiffness in my body switched off, melting and bouncing away like Flubber.

We made our way to the back of the closet to some storage bins we liked sitting on and rummaging through. Instictively, we navigated through the dark to sit on the ones that stored our karate-sparing gear. As we bumped into the vacuum and supplies on our way to the boxes, I became aware of the burning sensation on my cheek and shoulder. I touched the hurting spots and winced. Why does my cheek and shoulder burn? The reason occurred to me moments later, from scraping against the blue jeans of the scary man upstairs: my father.

When we heard the heavy steps moving directly above us at the top of the stairs, we silently stood up, and cracked open the blue lids to put on our sparing-gear in the dark.

Hello Stranger — Part I