Born in the heat of the Arizona Desert, Elizabeth Peake is only too aware of what hell is. In 1993, she decided to move her family to Minnesota, where hell goes by a different name. She has written numerous short stories and they have appeared or will appear in various webzines and print magazines, including Horrorfind, Art of Horror, Scary: Holiday Horrors and microSHOCKS. She currently resides in Louisville Kentucky with her husband and three children, and her website can be reached at http://elizabethpeake.com. She is currently working on The Darkest Hour, a full-length novel based on her short story 'The Holler'.
The beatings were the worst.
He seemed to be the angriest when he first came home from work. It didn't matter if the house was in order, and it didn't matter if I lovingly greeted him at the door. I never complained when he neglected to go to the market and I went hungry for days. I wasn't permitted to leave the house, and therefore I could not go elsewhere for food. He was the man of the house and deserved the best, and all I asked for was mutual love and to not feel afraid. And yet, I remained faithful to him and stayed by his side.
I can still feel the tip of his boot as it collided with my ribs.
A few years ago, I thought enlarging the family might soften his heart. I guess he could tell by the hints that I portrayed, my maternal instincts were growing stronger every day. He forced me to go to the doctor to make sure that I would never bear any offspring. He told the doctor that ugly bitches like me should never bring ugly babies into this world. I couldn't bear to look into the eyes of the doctor, so I turned away and hid my shame. I'm sure the doctor wondered why I stayed with this cruel man. I could only hope that he understood commitment and the promise to remain true and faithful under all circumstances.
He wasn't always like this. When we first met, he was so kind. He would hold me all through the night, especially when I was frightened of thunder and lightning. He would whisper into my ear how much he loved me and how much he thanked his lucky stars he had found me. We shared all the things that others take for granted: sleeping in the same bed, long car rides and lunches at the park. I loved him so much, and he loved me. He introduced me to his friends and family as his "number-one girl." We were inseparable.
About a year into our relationship, he lost his job. He was spending less time with me and more time with the bottle. As he jumped from one employer to another, I noticed he acted as if he no longer felt the same way about me…about us. Our relationship was deteriorating right before my eyes and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
I recall the first night I knew his feelings for me had changed. So long ago and yet in memory, it lingers as if mere moments have passed.
It was very cold, and the fierce, blowing wind whistled through the cracks in the windows. It was later than usual and already dark when he came home. I was sitting in my recliner when I heard the front door open with such a force, the doorknob made a hole in the wall. He was angry but I don't know if it was at the newly acquired expense or something brought home from work. His fists clenched tight as he turned to walk away. He took one step before he swung his right fist backwards, making the tiny hole much larger.He walked across the room and sat on the couch and looked at his knuckles in disbelief. His face had a 'How dare that wall make my knuckles bleed like that!' look, and I became frightened, but worried for his well-being. I walked over to see if I could help care for the wound. I didn't get very far with cleaning it before he swung his good hand and slapped my right ear, causing an explosion of pain. I let out a scream, which only made him angrier.
'Shut up, you bitch!' he screamed. 'You want the fucking neighbors to call the cops over all the noise you're making?'
I felt it would be best if I just left the room, so I did.
Time passed; that night appeared to be an isolated incident, and soon I forgave him. Although he was no longer affectionate towards me, neither was he hitting me. Each day, I hoped our relationship would return back to the way it was. Instead, our home had an unsettling quietness about it. There were no more late-night talks, nor were there any more drives or lunches in the park. I was so unhappy.
One day, he brought home a friend from work. They laughed and drank, seemingly having a good time. I dared not to approach either one of them. I didn't want to do anything that might ruin the good time he seemed to be having, and risk making him angry again. I had forgiven him for the past beating, but I certainly had not forgotten.
I could tell by their conversation that the topic was changing and was now concerning me. I couldn't believe my ears when I heard him tell his friend that things weren't working out between us; he had made a mistake and wished he could start over without me.
'I don't know Tommy, she looks mighty fucking unhappy to me,' his friend had said. 'Maybe she needs a man who can give her a better life, huh?'
His friend jokingly told him that if he decided to toss me out the door, then he would gladly take me in. How could they be talking about me that way? Did they know that I could hear them? Did they care? They spoke of me as if I were some inanimate object. How can someone you love discuss kicking you out of your home? They had to be joking. Their discussion just had to be born at the bottom of the beer cans they emptied. But the joking and laughing didn't hide the change in his tone of voice. Something was wrong, and before the night was over, my uneasy feeling would prove correct.
As soon as he shut the door behind his departed friend, he turned to me. His teeth clenched and his hands balled into fists, I began an unstoppable tremble. His accusing screams of betrayal were deafening. How dare I act so mistreated in front of another man! How dare I contemplate the very idea that life would be better elsewhere! My "betrayal" was more than he could handle.
He bolted towards me and I ran as fast as I could, but I never had a chance. Maybe if I were taller and a less-frail female, I might have been able to defend myself. And maybe if he hadn't been so tall and his muscular body much less rippling, I might have had a chance.
He cornered me in the bathroom. I tried to get around him, but he locked the door. He kicked and punched me until I could resist no more. I took the blows and continued my cries. When I thought it was over, he picked me up, threw me in the bathtub and turned on the faucet of winter-cold water. I tried to push my way past him, but he was much too strong for me. He held me under the cold water until I succumbed with fear. I whimpered under the cold splashes of liquid ice. With both hands and his upper body strength, he pinned me in the tub and I could do nothing. I tried to make a sound, but couldn't. Looking back, I don't know if my fear kept my mouth closed or the heaviness of his body against my ribs and lungs. Either way, I didn't try to speak. I hoped he would look into my eyes and see my plea for compassion. When our eyes did meet, his eyes were wild and filled with anything except mercy.
When his heavy breathing slowed, he let go of me. He sat on the side of the tub, looking at the wrinkled skin of his hands. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a soggy pack of cigarettes. One by one, he pulled out a wet cigarette and threw it at me. When the packet was empty, he crunched it into a ball and bounced it off my nose. I blinked but otherwise showed no emotion. My pain and my fear of him kept me from doing much else.
When he finally left the room, I stayed in the tub until I heard the television go on. Stepping out of the bathtub and putting my feet on the floor took several minutes. My pain-wracked body moved only an inch or two at a time. When I was completely out of the cold, porcelain hell, I crawled to the blue, plush rug by the sink basin and sat on the bathroom floor, shivering and racked with pain. Unable to move without feeling the invisible sharp stabs of a thousand needles, all I could do was think. Something about his eyes triggered a memory and I went back in time to another day when his eyes showed such a fury.
It was last summer, if I remember right. We were having a picnic at the park. Someone else caught my attention, for only a moment, and so I did not hear him when he asked me a question. He screamed my name with such a deep growl; my eyes quickly turned his way. His face was livid with anger, and what seemed like jealousy. His rage increased with every passing moment. A couple of girls walked by, and his face instantly changed to kindness. Looking back, I was very fortunate those girls walked by when they did. I could only assume what the outcome would have been, but in hindsight I think my assumption would have been very accurate.
As I sat on the bathroom floor, I decided it was time for me to leave. I knew I would have to be very careful. Failure could result in worse things than any beating. To be painfully honest, I wasn't exactly sure what he was capable of doing, and my pain-filled body didn't want to find out.
My biggest obstacle would be the doors.
It was part of his routine to shut and lock all the doors when he left. Only keys could open these locks, and these keys I did not possess. The day of my escape came quite by accident.
He had been outside for most of the day fixing something on his car. By late afternoon he seemed to be finished. Instead of coming into the house, he drove off in the car. Maybe he needed to make sure it was running properly, or maybe he needed to go to work. Whatever the reason, his abruptness was a blessing for me. Because he forgot the one thing I had been waiting on: he forgot to lock the house, with me in it.
Without thinking of the consequences, I ran out of the house. It wasn't the fear of the past that was driving me; it was the fear of the future. I ran blindly, well into the night. I crossed many streets and hid behind many cars. Every pedestrian and vehicle driver seemed to be watching my every move. Did they recognize me? Would they tell him?
My stomach was empty of food, but filled with a sickness only fear can produce. The acid churned and sloshed as I continued to run. The need to vomit overpowered my will and gushed from my mouth, but still I ran. The ghostly aches of beatings gone by began to surface and eventually slowed my pace. His gift of a slight limp during the bathroom beating was more prominent than ever. My throat ached from the forceful vomiting episode and my breathing was loud and whooping. I had no choice but to give my body the much-needed rest it deserved.
When I finally stopped running and slowed to a cautious walk, the darkness enveloped me. Strange sounds and people circled and hovered my skies. It was then that the realization of what I had done hit me. The dawning was as hard as his fists, and monstrously more frightening. Where would I go? Where would I live? What had I done?
I continued walking down dark streets and equally dark alleys. By now, he would know I was gone. Was he looking for me? That thought kept me going even as my body told me it was time to lie down and sleep. I was very tired, much too tired to be choosy of where I would sleep. My legs were aching, and I decided to rest for just a few minutes. A big tree's faint shadow on the leaf-covered grass in front of a seemingly vacant house looked so inviting, and so I sat.
A car stopped in front of the big house across the street from where I was resting. I crawled and hid behind the tree and watched as a woman got out of the car and briskly walked up the walkway to the front door. Keys jingled as she unlocked the front door, her friendly smile greeted the others inside the house. My eyes were heavy, and my body was tired. I stretched out on the cool grass for only a moment. I didn't want to stay too long. I was not certain how far I had walked, and I didn't want anyone to recognize me.
Recognition could bring him to me. Recognition could bring back the pain. Recognition could be the death of me.
Fortunately for me, I did fall asleep.
When I awoke, I was in a clean, soft bed. The friendly woman I had seen earlier was talking to me. She said I was very lucky to have found my way there. The "house" was actually a shelter for the homeless and for victims of abuse. The days that followed were filled with clean baths, good food and loving words. All the workers at the shelter fussed over me. Those were some of the happiest days of my life. After a couple of weeks, I felt as new and perfect as a newborn baby. Gradually, my nightmares became less often, and less horrific. I began to trust again and it felt good. And while I still became startled at loud noises and slammed doors, the aftereffects didn't include the shakes and terror they once brought. Yes, those were some of the happiest times I had known, but I knew I couldn't live there forever. I had to make space for others like me. Unbelievably, there were others who came to live at the shelter with the scars and disfigurement that made my previous life seem so good, so filled with happiness. I knew different, though. My scars were on the inside. My disfigurement was my keeper.
All too soon, it was time to move on, and start a brand-new beginning for myself. I didn't leave the shelter with much more than the ability to create that beginning.
It wasn't long before there was a new man in my life. And not just any man, but a man with a ready-made family!
I don't want you to think I became involved too soon. He knew my history and therefore approached me with caution. I tried to act uninterested, but the gleam in his eye (and the fact that he had two children of his own) eventually put my broken heart back together.
And although we have been together for a year, I tend to cringe when I hear his voice level rise, as he disciplines the children for wrongdoing. He has never hit them, and the love between them grows each day. Still, I remain cautious. Any survivor of the hell I endured would understand why.
They have made me a big part of their lives, and I couldn't be happier. He senses when I am fearful and assures me with love and kind words that things will be okay; and I believe him. It feels so good to believe in something.
I guess you are probably wondering if I have seen my first love since the day I ran away. Actually, I have. Several months ago, we took the kids on a leisurely stroll in the park. I saw him, and he tried to make eye contact. He recognized me and called out my name. I ignored him and he finally gave up and walked away. Maybe he thought it was mistaken identity. I sure hope so. That look in his eyes told me things had not changed, or rather, he had not changed. Things had changed for me, plenty of things. Plenty of good things filled my days.
The wonderful people at the shelter were right when they said my past would always be a part of me. They were right when they said the best medicine for my hurt and pain would be a loving family to care for, and to care for me. And in the short year I have spent with this beautiful family I have been blessed with, I have learned that love doesn't have to involve cruel words and that relationships are not built around painful beatings. I have learned that fear can cause an abusive relationship, but it can also be the driving force that pushes you to change your life. The fear that filled his life caused our abusive relationship, but it was my fear that ended it.
I hear his car in the driveway. He is back from picking up the kids at school. I go to the window and look at my family, and I am so happy to see them. I know that they will be happy to see me. The kids are laughing as their father takes turns whirling them around like airplanes. Their laughter is infectious, and I can hardly contain myself. They look through the window at me and wave.
Although the glass windows mute my happy bark, my wagging tail shows my family how happy I am to be a part of their lives.
(C) Elizabeth Peake 2004
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.