Thursday, 25 August 2016

A Step Too Far - Chapter 4

Walking from her dance class with her closest friend Stephanie, Annie was physically exhausted, but still bursting with energy and excitement.  Stephanie was just selected to represent their dance school in the under fourteen national championships!  A long way from the shy, awkward girl Annie knew from primary school, in the last couple of years Stephanie stood tall, with look of pride in her eyes and a smile on her face.  It was good to see, after so many years of sadness and tears.  And now, she was reaching to truly realise her potential!


Life had been hard for Stephanie.  Losing her mother to cancer at just six years old, and her father to alcohol soon after.  Alternating between angry and violent, and frightened and sorrowful, he struggled to keep himself going, let alone take care of a young daughter.  Annie never saw Gary at school, he never picked Stephanie up, or came to any school events.  She first met him when she was ten years old, and Stephanie nervously asked if she’d like to come over and play before her dad got home from the bar.  Annie never knew her own father and her mother paid her little heed, so she knew she had nothing to worry about getting home late, and happily agreed.

They played for hours in Stephanie’s room.  Talking, drawing, dancing, it was the first time Stephanie had a friend at her house in years and Annie felt a little honoured that Stephanie asked her before anyone else to open up to.  Her father rarely came home before midnight - especially on a Friday - so there was no need to hurry.  Annie felt she would like to meet this mysterious man she’d heard so little about and seen nothing of, but she knew Stephanie didn’t want it, so didn’t press the matter.

But on that night, at just 8pm there was the sound of a car pulling into the driveway and Stephanie suddenly went rigid.  “Quick Annie, run out the back!  You can climb over the fence and get out that way.”  Annie wasn’t scared exactly, but she could feel Stephanie’s fear, as if it pressed around her, making her uneasy.  She shook off the feeling and calmly said “Okay,” then quickly made for the back door, part of her worrying what made her friend so frightened, part of her not wanting to betray her trust by insisting on staying.  “See you tomorrow… Call me if you can, we can still talk tonight if you want,” she said with a smile, then turned out the door and ran to jump the side fence and time her exit so she wouldn’t be seen.

She glimpsed Stephanie through a window, running into her room and quickly putting things away, clearly to hide that anyone else was there.  “This isn’t right,” she thought to herself.  It’s one thing to respect her friend’s wish not to meet her father, but to run away from her when she was clearly afraid?  Annie read enough books and though she mostly avoided the nonsense in newspapers, she read enough to know about the world.  She suddenly felt a pang of guilt.  She rarely thought about the bad things in the world, there was just so much to do and so many things to interest her, it seemed pointless to dwell on the bad.  But she did know of it.  She knew children like her and her friend were abused in all kinds of ways.  She knew parents sometimes hurt their children, she knew a child doesn’t become as introverted and nervous as Stephanie without reason.  And all she did was say a few nice words to her, stand up for her when she was being teased, help her a bit when she fell behind in school.  For a moment Annie felt hollow inside and the bright spark that seemed perpetually in her eyes clouded with the hint of tears.

She stopped and turned.  Then crouched by a window to watch, and listen.

The man who walked in seemed almost like a beast Annie would draw or write about.  Not so much in his size, though he was large enough at six foot tall and over two hundred pounds.  But his eyes, the way he clenched his fists, the way his face looked like it was about to burst with anger, Annie couldn’t help jerking back out of sight, and just sat there listening.

“Those fucking cunts!” He yelled, almost screamed, “They keep me back two hours to finish a job, then they thank me by telling me I’m fucking fired!”  “To hell with them, I should burn down the whole God damn place and see how smug they…!”  The sharp sound of glass breaking disrupted his sentence.  But the sound didn’t come from him, it came from another room.  A moment passed in silence, “What the hell did you break?” Gary roared, his voice now coming from there as well, the living room.  “You fucking stupid bitch!  How the fuck do you walk into a giant God damn TV without seeing it?!”  “That’s the only bloody thing in this house worth it’s weight in shit and,” he paused and in the silence Annie could clearly hear Stephanie’s sobbing.  She should go to a neighbour and call the police… “Stephanie would hate her.”  “He might hurt Stephanie,” the thoughts came thick and fast.  “If I leave to get the police, he might do something before they get here, I can’t just leave her!”  She couldn’t get this wrong.

“I’m sorry honey,” he was quiet now, “I just… It’s just been a hard day, I, I don’t usually take, I just needed something after, you just need to be more careful, we can’t…” Stephanie just continued to sob.  Annie realised now, this was worse than usual, he was on some kind of drug.  She peeked in and saw him reach to embrace his daughter and out of the corner of his eye, he saw her.  He froze for a minute, not entirely sure what to think and his eyes focused on Stephanie, next to her on the floor were two used glasses she was trying to sneak back to the kitchen.

“Get out of here you fucking brat before I come out there and shove your head through that damn window!”  Annie vanished from the window in an instant.  This was her fault, she should have left when she was told, she shouldn’t have come in the first place, she shouldn’t have carelessly peaked in again.

He slapped Stephanie in the face and she fell backwards.  “What the hell did I tell you about bringing people over here?” he yelled, spit flying from his mouth.  He pulled his fist right back, Stephanie cowered against the wall, arms over her head, he towered over her huddled figure, “Please daddy, no!” - “NO!” screamed another voice.  The sound of a weight thudding against the wall next to her caused her to jerk.  It was Annie.  She’d grabbed his arm just as he went to punch Stephanie right in the face, he followed through and slammed Annie into the wall, through the plaster.

Annie passed out for a moment and came back to her head exploding.  The parts of her body she could feel were agony, blood dripped from her nose, her forehead, bits of plaster stuck in her right arm and leg, she was sure she was going to die.  But she couldn’t die now, she couldn’t just leave Stephanie with him.  Using every ounce of mental strength she had, she pushed away the pain, the dizziness, the exploding pressure in her head and slowly rose to her feet.  She couldn’t push away the fear, for the first time her her life, she really understood what terror was.  She couldn’t push it away, but she could hide it.

She stood an average height for her age, a little over four and a half feet tall.  Her dark brown hair still in a pony tail, but now in disarray.  Her school uniform, normally perfectly clean, pressed and neatly worn, was torn, dusty with plaster and red with her blood.  Stephanie just lay on the floor whimpering now.  Uninjured, but she had nothing left in her.  Annie stood between her and her father and looked up at him, she couldn’t help but tremble a little.  He could break her with the flick of an arm.

“Do you want more you stupid shit!?” “Get out of my way!” he was set now, he wanted to punish Stephanie and he was not going to be stopped.  He reached out his arm to shove Annie aside violently.  This time she had a moment to dodge, “NO!” she shouted and threw her entire weight into his belly with her right shoulder.  The pain seared down her arm like fire, he didn’t move an inch.  She fell a step back, hands clenched in fists and eyes glaring up at him.  “NO!” she almost squealed, “I know you don’t care if you die, or go to jail, or go to hell,” she shouted - she knew it was true - “BUT SHE’S YOUR FUCKING DAUGHTER YOU CUNT!” Her scream was so loud it even shocked her, filled with an anger and hatred she never knew she had in her to use.  She’d never even used those words before, but she knew that’s what was real to this man.  The only thing he understood right now, anger, hatred and swearing.

Gary stumbled backwards, looking down at this tiny thing glaring back up at him - her emerald green eyes burning with intensity - looking at his daughter sobbing on the floor.  A brief flash of lucidity, and he fell to the ground in tears, curled up like a baby in the womb.

Annie fell to the ground, unable to hold herself up any more.  Her body trembled and she had to hold back from throwing up.  She turned to Stephanie and held her until they both could sit up and talk again.  She inspected her own wounds and Stephanie quickly got up and helped her tend to them as best they could.  The bruises went deep, and some of the cuts, and she felt a sharp pain on the side of her chest.  She felt a sharp pain almost everywhere.

She didn’t leave the house that night, and a phone call to her mother was enough to satisfy her that everything was alright.  If anything, Gary was more of a wreck by the time he sobered up than before.  Despite her injuries, Annie stayed up all night and brought him some cool, damp cloths, water, coffee, some bacon and eggs - Stephanie hid in her room.  He eyed Annie the entire time like she was some monster, ready to pounce, and didn’t say a word beyond a barely grunted “Thanks.”  He couldn’t look her in the eyes.

Annie had no idea what the right thing to do in this situation was.  For all she had read and for all her cleverness and insight, she was still a ten year old girl and wasn’t equipped to deal with this.  So she talked to Stephanie, who just wanted her old father back, like before her mother died.  Annie knew if he had no chance of rehabilitation, she probably wouldn’t be alive now.  And she finally talked to Gary, head mostly in his hands, looking down at the table, or his feet, talking in a whisper.  All he could really do was say he’s sorry and keep offering to take her to the hospital and turn himself in to the police.  But Annie needed better than that.  Him being in jail did nothing for anyone.

So she Googled and read and called this number and that anonymously to ask questions and by Monday Gary was in a residential rehabilitation program, Stephanie was being looked after by an old friend of her mother and both were back in school.  The red mark on Stephanie’s face had faded quickly, and Annie laughed at how silly she was to be playing chasey and slipping down a flight of stairs when she finally went to hospital Saturday night.  She was so cheerful about it, no one questioned the story for more than a moment, even with Gary looking distraught in the background.  Her mum was vaguely irritated with her for it.  With fresh clothes on and her all cleaned up, it was just a cut above her right eye with a few stitches that showed.  The other thirty were covered.  Her broken rib made movement a bit sore, but it was easily bearable.


At thirteen years old now, Annie was proud of her friend, going through so much and coming out so strong.  She looked forward to one day seeing Stephanie on TV, along with the rest of the world, watching her dance with the passion she always shows now.

Annie was a fine dancer herself, but it was a fun hobby for her, not a goal or a dream.  Her dream was to teach.  To help children be able to learn better, to help teachers be able to teach better.  What problems could be solved if such a thing could be broadly achieved?  Drugs, poverty, hopelessness, depression, what can’t be helped at least somewhat by being better able to learn?  One day she would figure out how to combine her writing, her art and her natural abilities to really make a difference, to actually help some people.  But today, she would help her friend celebrate with enough ice-cream to start their own shop!

Entering their favourite ice-cream and crepe place they saw a beaming man in a well tailored suit, rising from  a table near the window.  He ran over and lifted Stephanie right off her feet in a bear hug, as she laughed.  “Dad!  I thought you weren’t due back till tomorrow!” He put her down and held his arm around her shoulders, still beaming down at her.  “I wasn’t, but the dance school called me this morning to tell me the news, so I cancelled my appointments and flew home, sorry I missed the announcement, but they told me you were walking down here, so I thought I’d drive ahead and meet you.”  Gary turned to Annie and they embraced warmly, he looked down at her like a second daughter.  Annie smiled brightly back at him, knowing how difficult it must have been for him to make it back today.  They all took a seat at the table and talked and laughed together until the waiters ushered them out hours later.

1 comment:

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