I walk to school with a lunch I packed. Older kids walk by and they laugh at or whisper about me. Nobody knows what I’m holding back. Wearing the same clothes I wore yesterday. I’m all alone as I go on my way.
I walk the same path everyday. See moms hug their kids as they send them off to school. Can’t even imagine my mama hugging me. Hard to picture something that never happens. Most kids look forward to Christmas and summer vacation. I dread it. At least when I am at school, I know I’m safe. Even if it’s just for a little while.
Mama was always strict with me. If my hair was not braided, she’d grab hold of it and pull me by my hair. She’d get mad and yell at me if my shirt wasn’t tucked in or my bed wasn’t made or my room wasn’t clean. If I didn’t eat all my food at supper, I’d have to eat it for breakfast the next morning cold. If my grades were not what she thought they should be I got everything taken away so all I had left to do was study. When I’d get sick, she would tell me it was my fault because I wasn’t wearing warm enough clothes or I wasn’t washing my hands when I should. Then she would take me in the bathroom and scrub my hands so hard they bled.
Daddy walked out on us when I was three. That’s when things started to get worse. Mama started drinking. She had to work two jobs just to keep a roof over our heads. Was left by myself most of the time. If my hair wasn’t braided she would shake me hard and said the next time it happened, she would cut off all my hair. If I didn’t eat my food, she would just throw it away. Sometimes I was sent to bed without supper. It got to where I would be scared to even cough around her.
She started to pound me. Sometimes for no reason at all. It used to be only once or twice a week. Now Mama pounds me so often I flinch whenever she comes near me. When she was drunk, I would get it twice as bad. She wouldn’t even remember it the next morning.
I used to make up stories. If Mama had given me a bruise or a black eye I would say I had ran into a door or gotten hit in the face with a ball. When Mama broke two of my fingers because my hair wasn’t braided, I said I had slammed them in a car door. One time I ended up in the emergency room with a severely sprained ankle. When the doctor asked me what happened, I told him I had fallen down the stairs.
I tried to rotate the stories hoping people wouldn’t catch on. If I used one excuse then I would have to wait a while before I used it again. Maybe if I waited long enough people would forget I had already used that one before.
When I started to run out of stories, I would wear a sweater or long sleeved shirt to school. The teacher wonders, but she doesn’t ask. It’s hard to see the pain behind the mask I wear. Even though the teacher doesn’t say anything, I know by the way she looks at me she knows what’s underneath the sweater. Mama said if I ever told anyone, I’d get it even worse. She said I was a wicked and ungrateful child and I deserved everything I got. I believed her. I had to bare the burden of a secret storm. Sometimes I wish I was never born.
Sometimes I cry in the middle of the night. If the neighbors hear they turn out the light. I know my life is in the hands of fate. One time when morning comes, it’s going to be too late.
I have to be careful to hide the truth. There is part of myself I can never tell anybody. One slip of the tongue or one misplaced trust and my life would shatter completely. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to get away from my fear.
I’m in the emergency room again. It’s the second time this year. The doctor said I had a concussion. Mama came home drunk and hit me so hard I toppled backwards and cracked my head against the wall. A couple hours later I was so dizzy I couldn’t even walk straight.
When the doctor came into check my head, I leaned forward just out of his reach. I hate it when people come up behind me. When he did lay his hand on my head, my whole body went tense. I didn’t move a muscle. I couldn’t. My eyes were locked, like a deer that had been caught in the headlights. I closed my eyes trying to think of a funny movie, the way I do when Mama pounds me. When I opened my eyes again, I saw the doctor looking at me strangely. I think he must have seen something in my eyes because he said,” Hmmm, maybe you should talk to the child psychologist.”
I heard footsteps coming toward my room. Then I saw a lady standing in the doorway. She had short dyed blonde hair, like Mama, and brown eyes. When she walked into my room, for a couple of seconds I thought she was Mama. I started to panic.
“I didn’t tell them anything, I swear. I swear to God! I didn’t tell them anything!” Mama hates it when I say I swear to God, but I also know when I say that, she is more likely to believe me.
“It’s all right, honey,” the lady put her hands on my shoulders. I tried to fight her. I was crying so hard, I started shaking. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
“She hyperventilating,” I heard the lady say. “Get her some oxygen.”
I opened my eyes. I must have been sleeping. I turned my head and saw the lady sitting in a chair near my bed. She poured a glass of water and handed to me.
“Feeling better?” she asked.
I nodded. “I thought you were my mama. You look like her.” I felt I should apologize. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. You just had a panic attack, that’s all.”
So, that’s what it was.
“Who are you?” I finally asked.
“I’m the child psychologist. My name is Dr. Zawacia, but since my last name is hard to pronounce you can call me Dr. Z, okay?”
I nodded again and took a sip of water.
“Well, now you know my name, but I still don’t know yours.”
“Okay, Audrey. I hear you have a pretty nasty bump on your head.”
“Can you tell me how it happened?”
“I…uh, well…I…got hit in the head…with a…ball?” I stammered. It was more of a question than an answer.
I knew Dr. Z didn’t believe me.
“You don’t have to lie to me, Audrey. Whatever you say will be confidential. Do you know what that means?”
I shook my head.
“That means whatever you tell me will stay just between us.”
“You mean you won’t tell anybody?”
“I can’t promise that until I know what it is.”
“I didn’t get hit with a ball. I hit the…wall.”
“How did you hit the wall?”
“How did you fall?”
“I was…” I stopped.
“It’s okay, honey. You can trust me.”
“Who hit you, honey? Was it your mama?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
Dr. Z’s blood boiled. Child abuse was the worst. Even though she had no children of her own, she couldn’t even begin to fathom how someone could hurt their child.
“Oh, baby,” she said. “Audrey, you have to tell me. Does your mama hit you a lot?”
“Sometimes…when she’s drunk…that’s when it’s…the worst. But you can’t tell her I told!” I pleaded. “She said if I ever told, she'd pound me within an inch of my life.”
“Honey, do you understand how serious this is? I have to report this to Children’s Services,” Dr. Z said. “I promise I won’t let your mother hit you again.”
The Children’s Services people took Mama into custody. A lawyer came to see me. Dr. Z said I had to tell them everything in order for them to help me. When I was released from the hospital, they took me to the courtroom and showed me what was going to happen. They asked me some practice questions like, ”What grade are you in, Audrey?” and “Do you know the names of my two dogs?” They said all I had to do was tell the truth.
On Court Day, when I started to tell the judge about Mama pounding me, Mama stood up and shouted, “She’s lying!”
The judge had Mama removed for the rest of my testimony.
Then Mama came back and told everyone what a wicked child I was and I got everything I deserved. No one was going to tell her how to discipline her own child. Children don’t get enough discipline theses days.
Dr. Z and the other doctor told what they knew and had observed. A couple people I didn’t know tried to defend Mama by saying she couldn’t have hurt me too bad since I was still alive.
Finally, after what seemed like months, the court concluded Mama was an unfit mother and I was to be removed from her care.
Mama stood up and said, ”You want her? You can have her.” And walked out.
I looked at Dr. Z.
“Who is going to take care of me?”
“Children’s Services will find you a nice family to stay with,” she answered.
For the first time, I felt safe.