Any comments (as long as they aren't unnecessarily mean...) would be very much appreciated.
She looks calm, but I can see that that is only a guise. There is turmoil inside of her, a current rippling restlessly beneath that smooth surface. What a sense of power there is to peer beneath the thin and dented shield she has constructed—a shield that she naively believes protects her. How unaware she is that it may as well not be there, so easily is it disregarded. When I smile, though, there is no trace of the mocking I cannot help but feel. And she smiles in return. Am I not, after all, the friend and confidante she has come to feel closer to than even her peers?
“Are you okay, JJ?” I ask gently, my voice full of concern for her well-being. It is part of why she loves me so. I arrange my features into a mask of sympathy and understanding. She nods, then shakes her head, giving a defeated half-laugh. I enjoy the sound of the distinctly bitter note.
“Yes. No… God, I don’t know.” JJ pulls her long legs up against her chest, her eyes looking more and more like bruises as they turn to me. “I don’t know. What’s it like to be okay?”
I crouch before her, place a comforting hand on her bare arm. The feel of smooth, warm skin, surprising muscle beneath—ah, what a sensation. “What is it?” She shakes her head, her eyes swim with tears. “JJ, it’s me. You can tell me anything. You know that, don’t you?” My voice is soft, tender even. And when she looks at me she sees strength and comfort. Strength and comfort enough to spill the dirty little secrets I already know. I will savor listening to them.
She looks away, stares at the bright clean wall for a moment. “I don’t know where to begin.” Her voice is a whisper, haunted, on the verge of complete hopelessness. While I imagine the slow and painstaking steps it will require to push her heart off that narrow verge, I am careful to play my chosen role to the hilt and take her in my arms. Trusted friend that I am, she stiffens only momentarily. I feel the catch of her breath in her chest, a barely choked back sob.
Soothingly, I murmur, “Just start at the beginning. I have all the time to listen.” Cradling her, I rock slightly and feel the weight of her head against my shoulder.
She takes a deep breath, and then begins to speak. “I guess it all started when Mom died. She was our rock, looking back, the hub that we all revolved around. Dad loved us, but Mom lived for us. I guess… I guess Dad lived more for her than for us. But he did love us. Then.” She speaks with hesitation; as if she’s trying to convince herself more than me. “We were all adopted. Mom miscarried twice and the doctors told her that it would not be wise to go through that again. The way she talked, I’m sure she was crushed. But Dad asked her if she wanted to be pregnant or if she wanted to have kids.” A faint smile fluttered over her lips, gone nearly as soon as it appeared. “As it turned out, she wanted to have kids. They began the process of adoption and only three months later they were told the agency had a baby boy they could adopt. That’s like lightning speed for the adoption process. It happened so fast because Nick was born premature and could have had lung problems. It’s easier to get a baby with any hint of health defects. He didn’t, have lung problems that is, but he is sterile.” JJ paused, sighed, and her head grew heavier against my shoulder as I listened.
“As for me, well, I guess I took longer. I was a healthy baby and healthy babies are in demand. And Dylan was fast because he’s black. So there we were, a happy family, at least for the first twelve years of my life.” Eyes like pools of night-dark water blinked, pushed away the unwelcome sheen of tears. She had shed too many tears already. Tears never helped. “Then Mom died. God, it hurts still. Coming home from work, someone threw a frozen turkey off of an overpass. Random act of violence. It tore us all up—but Dad just fell apart. He just stared all the time, barely talked. Went through the funeral preparations like a zombie. And after she was in the ground, he threw himself into work. In the morning he’d be gone before any of us woke up and when he got home in the evening he’d lock himself in his study with more work. Dad… Dad didn’t know what to do with us without Mom so he just closed off and ignored us. It was up to Nick to deal with me and Dylan. Dad deserted all three of us.” She drew in a shuddery breath. “I think I hate him for that. I know he hurt but so did we. And maybe, maybe, if he hadn’t dumped so much onto Nick, Nick wouldn’t have started bullying us. That’s when it really began, you know, with the bullying. He’d pick on us relentlessly. I’m only two years younger so I’d yell back, but Dylan… Dylan was only ten. Dylan would cry for hours. The—the day it started, Nick had been after Dylan all day.”
Her breath hitched; the smooth plane of her back jerked against my circling arms. A smile wanted to settle itself on my lips, but I did not let it. Sensing her pain, I rubbed her back gently, comfortingly, silently allowing her to continue. “I stormed out of my room to Dylan’s, yelling at Nick. He’d been so terrible for days and I wouldn’t take it anymore. We started screaming at each other, so loud Dad couldn’t ignore us anymore. He got on Nick, told him to act like a man. And when Dad walked away, Nick turned to me and he had this look in his eye. I didn’t think anything of it, didn’t really even notice it right then. I just sneered at him and headed back to my room. Dad had told me to go to bed. I woke up in the middle of the night when Nick yanked my head up by my hair. He’d always liked pulling my hair. I sat up, snarling, wondering why he was there and more than a bit annoyed about it. There was a thunderstorm raging outside, and I didn’t think I’d be able to get back to sleep with it thundering so much. Nick said something, but I don’t remember what. And then he lunged at me, backhanding me in the face. He used… I think it was the belt to my bathrobe to tie my hands behind my back, and sat there stroking my hair. I could feel him, feel his hardness, and it frightened me. I didn’t understand what he was doing or why.” JJ paused. A tear ran down her cheek, a wet line I doubt she even knew was there. Gently, I caught it on the tip of my finger, listening as she continued. “He started to rape me and it hurt so much I couldn’t help but buck against him. Struggling, confused, I eventually could do nothing more than lay there while he grunted and battered into me. When he was done, he untied my hands, wiped my blood from himself, and left without a glance back.” She took a deep breath, steadying herself.
Dry-eyed now, her voice was emotionless. The composure was regained, the shield carefully hoisted. “I wanted to tell Dad, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Nick said he would kill me if I did. Besides, would anyone even believe me? He was popular, made good grades, was a first-string player on the junior varsity football and basketball teams. Nick was—is—a golden boy. And I noticed something in those shaky days after; Nick stopped picking on Dylan. It was if he had exercised something with me and could go back to being almost nice to his little brother. I could feel Nick’s eyes on me at times and it made me shiver inside. It was going to happen again; I could see it in those eyes. And still I said nothing. When the night came, knowing what was coming, I fought him with everything I had. I got hurt so badly, I coughed up blood for days afterward. It became a pattern. Nick would come to me and mellow out for a few days. Then he’d start acting meaner, start picking on us. The bullying would reach a peak and then the cycle would start over. When Dad started dating Anna and someone actually started taking an interest in us, Nick slowed down a little.
But it never stopped.”
Once more her voice trailed off to silence. In my mind’s eye, I could see her, the little wisp of a girl with big blue eyes, watching her brother in tortured silence. Biting her lip when his shadow fell across the foot of her bed; closing her eyes at his touch. I knew what it was like to live with hate, but I had to wonder what it was like living with fear.
“It started getting even worse. Whatever he could think of to humiliate me, to hurt me without leaving marks, he did. He’d make me—“ A note of disgust crept into her voice as she continued, “make me beg him to fuck me. Make me tell him how good it felt, how much I wanted it—how much I wanted him. Then one night he called me into his room. He said he wanted help with something, but then I saw the webcam. For the first time in months, I said no. Nick couldn’t believe it. I remember, very clearly, how the surprise flickered over his face and then how his eyes hardened. He slugged me in the gut, hard enough to drop me to my knees, hit me again so that I fell to the floor. Then he started kicking me, again and again and again, silently. That was his way, threatening with silence rather than shouts. As he hit me, I thought ‘Maybe he’ll kill me. Maybe it’ll be over’ even as I threw up from the pain. But he went away, left me on the floor. A couple of weeks later, after my bruises had more or less healed, he came into my room and set the camera on my desk.” JJ’s voice trailed off, her face blank even as she blinked away the tears.
I rubbed a hand against her back, comfortingly, as she curled up like a cat and stared at the wall. “That’s what my life is. That’s what I am. My brother’s little whore.” She turned those enormous, wounded eyes back to me. I knew what she was thinking. She wondered if I would turn from her in disgust; pull away from this damaged girl. Instead, I wrapped my arms around her, felt her tense beneath my touch.
“You’re more than that, Ally.” I whispered, using what I knew was her brother’s nickname for her, pressed my cheek to the top of her head. “You’re much, much more.” On those simple words, I held her as the hot flood of tears she had held in for so long flooded out. I rocked her to sleep, gentle, trusting sleep, as I imagined the net I would string around her.
I was right, you know, I did savor listening.