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Cries in the Night

By:Kathy Clark


The back door slammed with such force that the small house shuddered. In the spare bedroom the woman froze in front of the ironing board, the iron paused in mid-air. Steam poured out of the holes with a hiss, but she didn’t notice. Instead, her gaze raced across the room and met the wide eyes of her son who had been playing with a boxful of Matchbox cars.

He dropped the tiny red Ferrari he had been holding and scuttled backward, disappearing under the bed. No words had been spoken, but he knew the drill. This wasn’t his first rodeo. He had learned early that out of sight also meant out of the line of fire.

The woman wasn’t so lucky.

Heavy, quick footsteps signaled the man’s approach down the hallway. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she realized she hadn’t taken a breath since he had entered the house. She exhaled slowly, trying to calm her nerves and steel herself for the battle ahead. Even before she saw his face, she knew he was angry … at her, at his son, at his boss, at his life. It didn’t really matter. He always came home to share his dissatisfaction with her.

“Where the hell is he?” The man wasn’t large, but when he was in one of his moods, he seemed to expand in size until his presence filled the doorway.

“Who?” she managed to ask, struggling to keep her expression under control. For some reason, it made him angrier if she showed fear even though her legs were visibly trembling.

He threw his car keys at her. She tried to dodge, but the unexpected movement and her own swollen bulk slowed her. The keys smashed into her left cheek, then fell to the floor with a clatter.

“You know who. That piece of shit kid. He left his goddamn sled in the driveway and I ran over it. Twenty bucks. Trashed. I work hard and get paid shit. And he just throws his toys around like they were nothing.”

“He’s usually really careful …”

He cut her off. “Didn’t he go to school today?”

“They had a teacher’s workday.”

“Then he has no excuse for not bringing in the garbage cans.”

“It was snowing too hard.”

“Not too hard for him to play.” He kicked the basket of laundry against the wall. “You fuckin’ baby him too much.”

“He’s only six.” She knew that arguing only made him angrier, but her motherly instinct was to defend her young.

The man’s dark gaze raked the room before focusing on the abandoned Matchbox cars. His nostrils flared and he moved toward the bed, knowing it was the most likely hiding place.

“No!” the woman cried. “Leave him alone.” She reached out to grab him, but he swung his arm to fend her off as if he was swatting away an annoying insect. She reacted by striking back. Unfortunately, the iron was still clenched in her hand. The hot surface landed flat against his forearm and the back of his hand. Steam oozed out of the holes as the skin sizzled.

With a guttural roar, he jerked back as quickly as possible and looked down at the arced-shaped blisters that had already bubbled up. Like an enraged bull in the ring distracted by the matador’s cape, he turned his attention back to her.

“What the fuck?” He knocked the iron out of her hand, grabbed the front of her sweater in his meaty fist and pulled her forward, over the ironing board which clattered to the floor. Her feet scrambled to keep upright as he dragged her over the metal legs.

“I … I’m … sorry, Carlos. I didn’t mean to …”

He silenced her with a punch in the jaw so hard that her teeth rattled. Momentarily dazed, she didn’t struggle as he slammed her back against the door frame. Her head cracked against the wood and she could feel the sharp edges biting into her shoulders. She didn’t fight back as he hit her again and again. She knew she deserved this. If she hadn’t hit him with the iron, he wouldn’t have come at her like this. The skin over her eye slit under his knuckles, and she could feel the warm flow of blood pour down her face. As bad as it hurt, she knew it was nothing like the pain he was feeling from the burn. So she let him take it out on her. She owed him that.

It wasn’t until his blows moved lower that her defense mechanism got its second wind. His fist buried into her breast. Swollen from the imminent birth of her baby, the pain shot through her like a lightning bolt. He drew back and would have landed a blow in her expanded abdomen, but she collapsed, trying in the only way she knew how to defend her unborn baby. He released his hold on her sweater, but instead of stepping away, he kicked her.

She curled her body in a protective shell, putting all the flesh and bone she could between his steel-toed boot and her stomach. He kicked her again and again, cursing her with words that burned her soul as much as her ears. Finally, she blacked out.

A child’s scream woke her. She struggled to open her eyes, but one was swollen shut.

“Mama, mama!” the little boy cried.

Her hands slid in the puddles of blood on the floor as she struggled to push into a sitting position. Her blood. She could see it staining the white yarn of her sweater. In the back of her mind came the random thought that that was her favorite sweater, and now it was probably ruined. She had so few clothes that still fit.

Her son’s small hands wrapped around her wrist and she stifled a scream as he pulled. Pains shot up and down her arm telling her it was probably either broken or badly bruised. Her brain struggled through the fog as she tried to remember where she was and why she was bleeding and aching all over.

Carlos! She straightened and tried to look around. Was he hurting Danny? Her son seemed to sense her fears and with a maturity well beyond his years, he comforted her.

“He’s gone. But he hurt you,” Danny told her.

“I’m okay,” she lied, trying, as always, to protect him from the truth. But this was worse than the last time which had been worse than the time before that which had been worse than the time before. She could remember them all. In a twisted measure of days, months and years, each marked a new ending and a new beginning of sorts. She had never doubted that she had done something wrong to deserve his anger, and she had never doubted she would survive. This time, she wasn’t so sure.

A searing pain, much deeper than all the others pierced through her, starting deep in her stomach and radiating out. She heard another scream and was surprised that it had come from her mouth.

“Mama …?” Danny’s voice was terrified.

The room began to swirl around her, and her vision blurred. Another pain doubled her over and she slid back to the floor.

… Julie’s cell phone began ringing as she juggled a bag of groceries in one arm and inserted the key into her back door lock.

“Hold on, hold on, hold on …,” she chanted as she hurried inside, dropped the bag on the table and pulled her phone out of her purse.

“This is Julie,” she spoke into the small receiver.

“We’ve got a domestic and fire at 238 W. Maple Ave.,” the voice recited crisply.

“I heard it on my scanner.” As she spoke, Julie held the phone against her ear with her shoulder and jotted down the address on a piece of unopened mail. “I’m on my way.”

“I’ll notify the officers on-scene. What’s your ETA?”

“I’m pretty close. I’ll be there in ten.”

The line clicked off and Julie let the phone slide off her shoulder and into her hand. She grabbed the perishable items out of the bag and tossed them into the refrigerator and left the rest of the items to be put away later. She picked up her keys, checked to make sure her thin billfold was still in her pocket and left without bothering to take the address with her. She knew it by heart. She had been there before.

Less than ten minutes later, she found a parking space. It had been snowing off and on all day, and it had picked up again just before she arrived. Julie looped her scarf around her neck, buttoned her coat up, pulled on her gloves and got out of her car. A white ladder truck and an engine with the familiar DFD logo painted on it were parked directly in front of the house, their hoses snaked across the snow. The generators rumbled, spotlights focused their harsh beams on the action, radios crackled with sporadic chatter and firefighters shouted back and forth to each other as they focused a steady stream of water on the blaze that had gobbled up the left side of the house.

Julie quickened her pace as much as she dared on the icy sidewalk made worse by the steady flow of water that was draining from the house. An ambulance was at the end of the driveway. The back doors were open and the stretcher was out.

“Hey Julie. Sorry to get you out on a night like this,” one of the cops said as he approached her. He flipped his little spiral notebook closed and tucked it into the breast pocket of his jacket.

“Is she alive?” Julie held her breath, afraid of the answer.

“Barely. He beat the shit out of her … again.”

“No surprise there. Why can’t you guys put him away for good?”

The cop shrugged. “She always bails him out and won’t testify against him.”

“I thought she had a restraining order against him.”

“She does. But an RO is only paper. It doesn’t stop fists.”

Two paramedics pushed the stretcher down the driveway from the house. A thin blanket covered the woman’s prone body. Her young son walked beside it, his hand on his mom’s arm, a gesture that was probably reassuring for both of them. It wasn’t until she got closer that Julie noticed the rounded mound showing the woman was pregnant.