by Amy Skelton
Editorial Note: The situation described in this story is all too common. Safe houses now exist in many cities and small towns, but clever abusers can all too often escape the justice system and wreck the lives of the innocent. This is but one small tale that occurs daily throughout the world. Whether this story is truth or fiction does not matter. It is a subject that society must address and correct.
Deborah stood on the threshold of the house, trembling with fear. She wanted very badly to go further, feel the crisp fall air, smell the fallen leaves and hear them crackle under her feet. It had been a very long time since she’d heard that sound. Eight long years she had been shut in her house, unable to endure the openness of the outdoors. Her doctor had diagnosed her with agoraphobia but she didn’t believe it. She knew it was more than that. Eight years ago something happened to her. Something that changed her in a deep and horrible way. She had many medical books and journals on her shelves. She knew she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She couldn’t explain to her doctor why she believed she was right. She had repressed the horrible memories of that period of her life so thoroughly, that it was more like a fading dream that still haunted her every waking moment.
* * *
Eight years earlier … in the misty dawn of a beautiful autumn morning, Deborah emerged from her house. She sat at her patio table with her steaming cup of coffee and lit a cigarette. She never smoked inside; her husband didn’t like the smell. It was five in the morning and he would be getting up in about an hour. Deborah used the extra hour to relax and be alone. He was relentless from the time he woke until the time he fell into bed at night. She couldn’t stand it anymore. Watching the beautifully coloured leaves fall from the trees, Deborah went over her plan again. She needed to escape. She didn’t know where she would go or what she was going to do about money, but that didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was her daughter.
On September twenty-eighth at two in the afternoon, Deborah’s life took a dramatic detour. She remembered the date clearly, as it was the day after her daughter Jenny’s tenth birthday. Jenny came to her mother and sat her down at the kitchen table. She had tears in her eyes but her chin was firm and her eyes blazed sapphirine fire. Deborah had never seen her daughter look so angry and sad at the same time. She was afraid of what she was going to hear but she sat quietly and waited for her daughter to speak.
“Mom,” she began, “I am going to tell you something. I know you are going to be mad but I can’t keep it in.”
Jenny looked down at her hands and Deborah saw she was twisting them together vigorously.
“I know that Gary is not my father,”
Deborah started up in protest and Jenny raised her hand to silence her.
“He told me that years ago, mom. That is not what I want to talk about. Just listen to me, okay.” Jenny swallowed hard and got the next part out in a rush.
“Gary has been having sex with me. He comes into my room at night, drunk, and puts his penis into me and has sex with me. I know you don’t know because he always hits you until you don’t get up. Then he comes into my room. I’m leaving this house. I asked my friend Katie’s parents if I could stay with them and they said it was okay. I’m sorry, mom. I wish you could come too but I know you won’t. I know that if you were going to leave, you would have by now. Good-bye. I love you.”
Tears were streaming down Jenny’s face as Deborah sat across the table from her, mouth open and paralysed. She shook her head vigorously and when she finally came out of shock, Jenny was half-way out the door.
She ran to her and screamed, “No, Jenny! Don’t leave me!”
Jenny cried harder and ran down the driveway with her little backpack. She didn’t look back.
Deborah didn’t want Gary to find out where Jenny was hiding. When he came home from work that day and found out that Jenny had left, he beat Deborah so badly she ended up in the hospital with a fractured skull.
She spent three weeks recuperating in the hospital. Gary came to see her three times. Once, the day after she was admitted, the second time after she had a stroke due to her injuries and the last time, when she could finally go home. She didn’t miss Gary in the hospital. She was happily entranced in a romance novel series that one of the nurses gave her to pass the time.
The nurses all knew what happened. Deborah never once told them what happened, they just knew. They were experienced and had seen it too many times to miss the signs.
She fell down the stairs.
Sure she did.
The doctor told her that she had options. She didn’t have to live like this, in constant fear. She replied, “Fear of what, doctor? Of falling down the stairs?”
She laughed feebly and the doctor shook his head. It was up to her now.
When Gary took Deborah home he was very gentle with her. He laid her on the couch, on some pillows that he had arranged and got her a nice, hot cup of tea.
She said, “Thank you, Gary. I missed having tea in the hospital.”
He smiled at her and asked, “Do you know where Jenny went?”
Deborah hesitated, only for an instant, before she replied, “No, I don’t know. She wouldn’t say. She just ran out the door and got into a silver car. I meant to call her friends and ask but you came home shortly after and…”
He shook his head and said, “I said I was sorry. What more do you want from me? Why is it never enough with you?”
Gary was yelling by the end of this speech but he took a deep breath and moderated his voice, “I will let you make those calls, since you know who her friends are.”
He left the house to go to work.
In the next few hours there were a lot of plans to be made.
Deborah needed help.
She knew that the only help she could find was at a shelter, but she didn’t know where it was. She looked in the phone book and called the number she found.
Deborah was relieved to hear a woman’s sympathetic voice on the other end of the line. She made arrangements for a room and told them her daughter was staying with friends but was concerned that her husband would be able to find her.
The woman at the shelter told Deborah that she needed to contact the police.
The woman offered to pick her up in her own car and take her down to the shelter where they would call the police and have Gary picked up.
Deborah said, “I don’t have any money. He has it all and I can’t access it.”
“That’s okay, Deborah, we will do what we can. By the way, my name is Wendy Barnes.”
Deborah smiled as she hung up the phone and went to pack her meagre possessions while she waited for Wendy to pick her up.
Gary came home from work earlier than expected.
He came up the stairs, saw the suitcase on the bed and immediately flew into a rage.
“What are you doing? Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
He grabbed her arm and Deborah didn’t protest. She knew that she was still too weak to do anything and she knew if Gary hit her again, it would be the end of her.
“Gary, please. Don’t hit me. I’ll die if you hit me again.”
Gary hesitated only for a moment before throwing her down on the bed. He grabbed her leg and twisted hard.
Deborah could feel her hip dislocate and the searing, agonizing pain it caused.
Gary jumped on her and started punching her in the stomach. Her screams were ignored and she could feel pressure building up in her head.
When he finally stopped, he said, “Where is Jenny?”
Deborah laid motionless on the bed. She whispered, “I’m not telling.”
Gary emitted a wordless scream and starting throwing things around the room. Her mother’s china and the precious pictures of the family crashed against the walls.
Deborah was crying but she knew there was help on the way. She let out a gasp when the doorbell rang.
Gary tore downstairs to yell at whoever rang the bell. When he flung open the door, his face was red and sweat was pouring down his cheeks. Wendy took a step back as the door flew open.
She opened her mouth but no sound emerged. She was surprised, and a little scared, to see Gary, but she stuck out her hand and said, “Hello, my name is Wendy Barnes. Elections are coming up and I am going around door-to-door to talk to my constituents.”
Gary was confused and still angry, but beginning to calm himself. He knew that if anyone saw him like this, then saw his wife, he would be in trouble. He already had to go back to the hospital and tell those moron doctors about how clumsy his wife was.
“Hello. I’m sorry but I don’t have time to talk. My wife has just fallen down the stairs again and she needs to go to the hospital.”
Wendy backed away again and replied, “Oh my god, how awful. Can I help? Would you like me to take her?”
Gary eyed her suspiciously. Why would a local politician want to drive Deborah to the hospital? He said, “No, no it’s fine. Thanks anyway.”
When Wendy got back into her car and drove away, Gary carried Deborah down the stairs and out to his pick-up truck. He threw her in the cab, sat her up straight and said, “Do up your own damn seat belt.”
While pulling out of the driveway, he was none too gentle. Slamming the truck into gear, he sped down the street, heading toward the hospital. Little did he know that Wendy was following in her car.
At the hospital, Gary asked for a wheelchair and went out to put Deborah in it. He wheeled her to the desk and then walked right back out of the emergency room.
Wendy ran into the emergency room and saw a woman sitting in a wheelchair, crying. The nurses hurried to help the woman and quickly carried her off to an exam room. Wendy was explaining the situation to the nurse at the desk when one of the others walked up to her.
“Do you know that woman?” The nurse asked.
“Yes, I spoke to her this morning. I’m from the women’s shelter. I don’t know what happened. Her husband must have come home from work unexpectedly. He was red in the face and sweating when he answered the door. Then he said she fell down the stairs and he had to take her to the hospital. I followed them in my car. Will she be alright? Can I speak with her?”
“Her hip was dislocated. She will be fine but we are going to do an MRI to make sure she suffered no further damage since the last time she was here.”
Wendy covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes widening, “When was that?”
The nurse replied, “Actually, she just left here today.”
A tear streamed down Wendy’s cheek. She thanked the nurse and went outside to get some air.
Sitting on a bench outside the door of the hospital, Wendy made a couple of phone calls. One was to the administrator of the women’s shelter, to get approval to act as she knew she must. She knew that if she was not careful, Gary could sue the shelter.
She also called the police and spoke to a detective that she knew personally.
“Hello, Detective Marshall’s office.”
Wendy sighed and said, “Hello, Martha. It’s Wendy. Is Ben there?”
Martha answered in a worried voice, “Yes, Wendy, I will put you through right away.”
Wendy heard a click and Ben answered, “Hi, Wendy. What’s up?”
She gave him the whole story and he listened in silence.
“I think she’s reluctant to talk and that’s why I called you. You have convinced a number of my ladies to press charges. If she doesn’t get out of that house, Gary is going to kill her. I know it, Ben. Please come to the hospital.”
“I’ll do what I can. I know Gary. I’ve picked him up for drunk and disorderly and a few other misdemeanours. I had no idea he was so violent but I trust you. You’ve seen some horrible things, Wendy.”
“You don’t know the half of it, Ben. The only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that these women need me and I so badly want to help them.”
“You do great things, lady. Keep it up. I will do my part as well.”
Wendy thanked Detective Marshall and hung up the phone. She lit up a cigarette and tried to relax. As long as Gary wasn’t at the hospital, Deborah would be fine. She was in good hands here and all the nurses watched their patient carefully.
After a few more deep breaths, Wendy went back into the hospital and was allowed to see Deborah. She ran to the woman and hugged her gently, introduced herself and apologized for not getting to her house sooner. Deborah told her the story of how she had come to be in the hospital immediately before the current incident and explained how embarrassed she was to be back the very day she was released. Wendy said, “This is not your fault. Please don’t feel embarrassed. It is for Gary to be punished for his crimes. Please don’t punish yourself.”
Deborah nodded and closed her eyes for a moment. She was relieved that she was in the hospital again. Gary couldn’t touch her there.
She laid back and took a few deep breaths but a sudden flash of her daughters face appeared before her closed lids. She snapped her head up and said, “Jenny! I need Jenny to be here right now. Gary tore out of here real quick and since I’ve been out, all he could say was, ‘Where’s Jenny, where’s Jenny.’ I know he went looking for her. We need to get to her before he does!”
Wendy ran over to the phone in Deborah’s room and called Detective Marshall again. Martha answered again and Wendy gave her the whereabouts of Deborah’s daughter. She told Martha to have Ben go there before the hospital, as it was an emergency and that little Jenny could be in grave danger. Martha hung up and immediately told the detective the news. He lit up his cherries and raced over to the house just in time.
Jenny was playing in the front yard with her friend when Detective Marshall arrived. Just as he was getting out of the car, Gary showed up in his blue Chevy pick-up.
Detective Marshall drew his gun and pointed it at Gary. Gary raised his hands and slowly approached his daughter. Jenny’s eyes were wide and fixed on Gary. She was about to run when Detective Marshall spoke, “Jenny, please don’t run. Come over to me, slowly. I’m going to take you to your mommy.”
Jenny was silent and Gary laughed, “Great, you take her to Deb and when I pick her up, I’ll have both my girls together again.”
Detective Marshall’s eyes never left Gary’s face and he knew that there was something wrong. His eyes were strangely dilated and his hands were shaking. Jenny had walked over to the police car and Detective Marshall had heard her gasp.
He said, “Don’t worry, Jenny. Gary isn’t taking you, or your mom, anywhere. Consider that a guarantee.”
Detective Marshall walked slowly toward Gary, still pointing his gun, and said, “Get on the ground with your hands behind your head.”
Gary rode in the back of the cruiser and Jenny rode up front. Gary had finally lost his temper. He was kicking at the door and the back of the seat, slamming his head against the window and yelling incoherently.
Jenny was leaning forward, crying and covering her face with her hands. Detective Marshall patted her shoulder and tried to reassure her.
“Don’t worry, Jenny. You and your mom will be safe now. I don’t know a judge in the country that wouldn’t throw this scumbag in jail for a long, long time.”
Jenny wiper her cheeks with the back of her hand and asked, “Do you think you can convince my mom to press charges? She’s scared of Gary. I am too. I had to run away but I didn’t want to.”
Detective Marshall answered, “I know I can get her to press charges. If I can’t, would you appear in court to testify against him? His abuse of you is enough to get him a good, long sentence. Are you too scared to do that?”
Jenny looked him square in the eye and said, “No, I’m not too scared. I hate Gary and I hate what he has done to my mom and me. I want him to go away forever.”
Detective Marshall smiled to himself and stopped at the police station. He dragged Gary out of the car, escorted him into the building and came back out right away. Jenny waited in the car and they were soon on their way to the hospital.
The reunion between mother and daughter was frantic and filled with tears. Jenny held her mother’s hand as the detective spoke to them. He told Deborah that he was filling out a statement as she spoke and that he expected her to sign it.
“If you don’t sign this, Gary will go free. After hearing your story, from the doctors, nurses and Wendy, I think I can say without contradiction that if you do not sign this statement and press charges, Gary will kill you. Do you agree?”
Deborah gasped and turned away and Jenny squeezed her hand. “Mom, he’s right you know.” Deborah turned to her daughter, with tears streaming down her face, and said, “I know, dear. It’s over. Give me the papers.”
It took a year for the courts to hear the case. Gary was in county jail the entire time and was not given the opportunity for bail. No one would have paid it in any case and Gary was broke. He was charged with assault, aggravated assault, assault causing bodily harm, sexual interference of a minor, sexual assault of a minor.
Gary was sentenced to ten years in prison but an appeal to the court was granted and his sentence was reduced to one year. Deborah and Jenny were devastated and Deborah got a restraining order against him. Gary ignored the order repeatedly and was constantly harassing them until the police agreed to put them into the witness protection program. Deborah and Jenny were moved to a new city, far away from home, where they were able to start a new life.
Deborah was able to start out on disability, making just enough money to live in reasonable comfort with her daughter by her side. Jenny had deep-seated emotional problems and was seeing a psychiatrist on a regular basis to help her deal with the horrible conditions of her childhood. Five years later, Jenny took an overdose of her anti-depressant medication and died before her mother had any idea of what was going on.
Now Deborah is still coping with the loss of her daughter and the permanent injuries she sustained at the hands of her ex-husband. She walks with a cane now and her head injuries have never healed properly, causing extremely painful migraines and dizziness. Gary is still free and even though she has not seen him, Deborah knows he is still looking for her. She doesn’t leave the house, not even to go to the end of the driveway to get her mail. The farthest she will venture is her front porch and even then, if a car drives by, she darts back into the house. One of her neighbours, who knows her story, retrieves her mail from the box and brings it to her every day. She also goes grocery shopping for her once a week. She feels an incredible sympathy for Deborah and does all she can to help her. Deborah has never visited her daughter’s grave since the funeral.
Amy Skelton is the author of Night Terror, published in Helios earlier this year.