“TANNER?” MY MOTHER’S whispered voice comes across the phone.
My body tenses immediately, going on alert, and the smile adorning my face dies instantly.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” I ask, pulling over to the side of the road. I wasn’t going to pick up the phone since I was driving, but when my mom’s name popped up on the screen, I had to answer. In life, there are certain people you don’t put off answering a call from, and my mother is number one for me.
“Baby, I need you to come and get me.” Her voice is so muffled it’s as if she’s covering the phone, afraid someone will hear.
“What’s going on?” I fear the answer she is going to give me. In the pit of my stomach, I can already hear the words that will escape her lips, and I don’t want to hear them. I never want to hear them.
“James has been drinking again.”
The asshole said he was going to AA, claiming he was getting his addiction under control for my mother. Unfortunately, James is a violent drunk, not one who passes out or can function on the stuff. He is downright nasty.
The first time I saw marks on my mother and questioned it, she did what she always does: covers for him, makes excuses for him, blames herself for why she’s so badly bruised she can’t go out of the house for a week.
I told her that, if it ever happened again, I would take her the hell out of there and wouldn’t give a shit if she wanted to come or not. If I had to duct tape her to the car to get her wherever in the hell I took her, I would.
“You have got to be kidding me,” I snap a little too harshly into the phone. I can visualize my mother flinching at the tone. I dig deep and take a breath, needing to calm myself for her sake. There is no sense in adding to my mother’s pain, especially when she called me for help. “I’m on my way. Is he there?”
James is a big man, and when I say big, I mean five-eleven and between two hundred fifty pounds to three hundred. The thing with him, though, is he can move and do it fast. He’s been trained for years by the police academy, after all.
“Yes,” she muffles into the phone, a slight tremor in her words. “He’s passed out in the living room.”
Crap. Their living room is where their front door is, and from the way their house is set up, even the back door can be seen from there. Getting my mother out might be tricky without waking him, but I’ll give it everything I have.
I throw the car into gear and begin the twenty minute drive to her, keeping her on the phone with me. “Gather up what you need, Mom. Throw it in a garbage bag if you have to. Be quiet and move quickly.” I pause, pain splitting my heart in two. “Can you move … quickly?” What if she’s hurt to the point that she can’t move? Oh, God.
“I … I’ll try.” She groans roughly over the line and sniffs her nose, no doubt crying. I would love to reach through the phone and take away her pain. On to plan B.
“Where are you in the house?” I maneuver the car in and out of traffic, feeling like every precious second away from her is a second too damn long.
“Bathroom. I locked the door.” A small bit of comfort comes from that, even if the flimsy lock wouldn’t keep James away from her if he really wanted in.
“Stay there. Don’t come out. When I get there, I’ll pack for you, and then we are gone.” Where the hell are we going to go? I have no clue yet. I do hair for a living, so it’s not like I have elaborate exit plans for escaping from a cop who’s supposed to love my mother. That’s a lie right there.
I knew the first time he put a hand on her that he didn’t, but she was too damn infatuated with him to listen. I’ll do what I always do—figure it out as we go, moment by moment. That’s what I do: I fix it.
“Okay.” Her voice comes out weaker than only seconds before, and I fear she may pass out on me. If he hit her in the head, she could have a concussion. I have to keep her alert, with me.
“Mom, keep your eyes open. Do you hear me?” She mumbles something. “How bad is it?” My heart squeezes. I can’t lose my mom. I just can’t. She’s the only thing I have in this world.
“I don’t think he broke anything, but it’s not good, Tanner. Really not good.”
Rage bubbles up, but I push it down. Now is not the time for it. I have to get my mother out of there, then, and only then, will I let that flow through me.
“Okay. I’ll be there soon. Stay with me.”
The light ahead is red, and I’m getting pissed off at the stupid thing for not changing. Why won’t it change? There are no other cars coming down the road. Change! All right, so I’m losing it a bit. I can’t! Be strong, Tanner.
I shake my head and begin to tell my mother about the woman who came into the shop today, wanting a huge change with her hair, going from blonde to brunette with pink and red highlights. My mother’s breathing is steady, and every once in a while, she’ll say something in the phone, acknowledging that’s she’s listening. I question her often, keeping her as alert and awake as possible.
Finally, I pull up to the one-story, tan house with green shutters and beautiful landscaping around the front with flowers in bloom everywhere. Isn’t it amazing something that looks so pretty from the outside is hiding something so dark on the inside? But isn’t that how it always is? Judging a book by the cover. As long as it looks good, there’s nothing wrong. It’s just like people.
Everyone looks at James as an upstanding man, serving and protecting the town of Anglewood, Tennessee. No one would ever suspect he did this to my mother. No one. They would more than likely ostracize my mother for even claiming such a thing.
“Mom, I’m here. I’m coming up,” I tell her, hanging up the phone and throwing it into the passenger seat. I briefly thought to call the police for help, but as quickly as it entered my head, it left. With James’s all-American boy status around here, I know they won’t do shit and will simply turn it around on my mother. Then she would be stuck. I won’t allow that. She’s out.
I kill the lights before fully getting up the driveway, not wanting to make noise if I don’t have to. Lights illuminate the home with only a few of the drapes closed, the living room being one of them. I turn off the engine and get out of the car, only shutting the door enough to turn the dome light off on the inside. I have never really had to do this quiet stealth thing before. Hopefully, I can pull it off.
Peering through the window of the living room, I see James lying on the couch, half on it and half off. His wide mouth is open, and drool is falling out and onto his blue T-shirt that has a huge wet puddle. Gross. I never thought for a moment that he was good-looking, but my mother saw something in him. What, I didn’t have a clue. Still don’t.
I open the screen door with a slight creak and cringe at the sound, wanting to yell at it to shut the hell up yet simply staring at it angrily. Turing the door handle, I find that it’s locked. Shit.
I pull my keys out, holding all the keychains and keys hanging from it to silence them, and then open the door slowly. My eyes stay locked on the man on the couch as I creep through the living room, into the kitchen, and back to my mother’s bedroom.
My heart constricts as I look at the room. The lamp on the side table is turned on, but it’s crashed on the floor, the shade hanging on to it by a thread. Clothes, blankets, jewelry, papers—well, everything is tossed to the floor, and the mattress is partially exposed. But the kicker is the blood on the sheets. Quite a bit of blood is smeared on the fabric, and it’s bright red. Shit.
I move to the bathroom door, but I don’t dare to knock.
“Mom,” I whisper softly, holding the door handle, my other hand on the top of the door, and my ear pressed to the door, trying to listen. “Mom, it’s me. Open up.”
I hear slow movements on the other side of the door along with some muffled groans. Then I feel the lock click in my hand, and I turn the handle.
Oh. My. God.
My entire world stops and tilts on its axis. This isn’t a beating. This is so much more than that. Her beautiful face is almost unrecognizable with bruises forming and cuts with blood oozing out of them, falling down her face, into her eyes, and down her cheek. Her long, strawberry blonde hair is matted to her face with the blood. Her clothes, for lack of a better word, are ripped and torn in so many placed it looks like she’s wearing tattered rags.
“Mom.” I bend down in front of her, not wanting to touch her yet wanting to desperately, just to make sure she’s here with me.
I jolt my hand back, clutching it. I can’t add to her pain, and nowhere I touch her would help right now.
Tears form in my mother’s eyes, but she doesn’t shed them. “Baby, get me some clothes, and I’ll get dressed while you pack things.”
I seriously don’t think she could dress herself judging from the way she’s holding her arm and the pain etched in her face. She said she didn’t think anything was broken, but I’m seriously rethinking that one.
Instead of arguing, because God knows how much time we have until James wakes up downstairs, I nod, unable to form words. I then get her some baggy clothes, hoping like hell they won’t hurt too badly.
Everything from that second on is a flurry of activity on my part. I grab two bags from the shelf in her closet and begin hastily throwing in my mother’s things, grabbing shirts, pants, shoes, and everything in-between.
Opening the dressers, I continue with the packing. Well, it’s not really packing, more like swiping the entire drawer and stuffing, but whatever. I toss my mother clothes in hopes that she will be able to get them on her, but if she hasn’t by the time I’m done, I’ll help her.
It takes me less than five minutes to pack up everything of my mother’s that I can see and enter the bathroom. She’s sitting on the toilet seat with a towel blotting away the blood on her face.
“Mom, once I get you out of here, I’ll get you cleaned up.” I kneel down before her and slip on her tennis shoes, tying them quickly as her body trembles. I have to get her out of here before whatever control she has erupts. “I have two bags packed. Is there anything else you need?”
Her eyes lift to mine, tears pooling in the green depths of them. Please don’t cry. If she does, I’m afraid whatever strength I have will dissipate, and I will follow.
What child wants to see their mother hurt? Not me. Tears would do me in.
“There’s a box. I hid it in the corner of the closet. You need to peel back the carpet from the right corner and pull up the plank that is beneath it. Inside is a shoe box. I need you to get it and my purse, but that is in the kitchen, so we can get it on the way out.” Even though her voice is strangled with pain, I can sense the strength within my mother in her words. God, I love her.
“Stay here,” I order, moving quickly back to the closet and doing exactly what my mother said. I yank the yellow box out, which has a bit of weight to it, but I don’t have time to look. Instead, I grab another bag, one that has my mother’s gym clothes in it and throw the box inside.
I pile all the bags by the doorway, and then it hits me. Can she walk out of here, or am I going to have to carry her? There’s no way I can carry the bags and her. Hell, I can probably barely carry her. Double Shit.
Mom listened, staying right where I left her in the bathroom. Her eyes meet mine, sorrow blooming in them. Enough of this.
My adrenaline pumps through my veins, and as it courses, all I can think of is getting her out of here now.
“Can you walk?” I move to the side of her body where her arm doesn’t look like it’s hanging on and help her rise to her feet as she inhales quick pants. Talk about a tough woman. I’m not sure I would be able to be this strong after what she has endured. It’s another thing I’ve always admired about my mother.
“Yeah,” she says weakly, taking a step before her knees buckle a bit.
I hold her weight as she regains some of her balance and is able to walk a few more feet. After a bit, she’s doing much better about getting her legs moving.
I grab the bags, hoisting them over my shoulder and picking up one in my hand. Mom stays by me as we walk slowly through the house.
Entering the kitchen, I spot my mother’s purse on the counter. “I’m going to get it, so I want you to lean against the chair for a minute.”
My mother nods at my whisper.
I glance at the couch to find he’s gone.
James is gone.
Panic spreads through my veins like wildfire as I search around frantically. I grab my mother’s purse and fling it around my neck. “Back,” I whisper as I meet my mother halfway from the chair she was holding.
“You fucking bitch!” James’s angry growl comes from behind me as he yanks my ponytail and tosses me across the room like I weigh nothing.
As I crash to the tile, the wind momentarily gets knocked out of me. I look up to see him slap my mother across her face before she plummets to the ground in a boneless heap.
“Get up!” he screams at her, kicking her hard in the ribs.
I get up—my whole intimidating five-foot-four self—drop my mom’s bags, and stalk toward them. He senses me coming and turns around, moving lightning fast and striking me across the face. I fly through the air as pain sears my lip and cheek. The metallic taste of blood seeps into my mouth, and I lick it. Luckily, I didn’t hit anything on the way down from his horrible punch.
James begins to really punch and kick my mother as tears stream down her face.
“Leave her alone!” I scream, getting his attention.
“What? She’s a fucking bitch. You, on the other hand, would be nice to have.” As a devilish gleam shines brightly in his eye, I get the feeling he’s not talking about using me as a punching bag.
He lands one more blow to my mother then begins to stalk my way. I look around the kitchen for something, anything to use to make him go away. I have no doubt that, if he gets me down to the floor, it’s going to be over for me, for my mother. There’s no way I can fight off his bulk, but I refuse to give up.
Continuing to scan the room, I move backward as he continues to come toward me.
“Don’t run. This will be fun. I promise you’ll enjoy it.” His smarmy ass actually licks his lips, and bile comes up my throat, burning the back of it. No way in hell.
I eye the knives in their tidy, little, wooden block holder on the counter and make my way toward them, keeping one eye on James.
“Stay away,” I tell him, but it falls on deaf ears. If anything, the words make him happier, like I’m a challenge; and that’s the last thing I want him to think.
I grab the biggest knife out of the holder, placing it in my left hand and a smaller knife in my right.
“Aw, you think you’re gonna hurt me with those?” He flat out laughs, but it’s so sinister it sends chills up my spine. “I can disarm you with those in a second,” he gloats. I know he’s right. He’s trained for this. I, however, am not. Hell, I’ve never held a knife to another human being ever. I’m not sure what in the world I’m doing.
The adrenaline pumps through my veins as I try to steady my shaky hands. If I want me and mother to live through this, I’m going to have to do something, but what?
My hands tremble as I clutch the knives, knowing they are my only lifeline. “Go away, James. Just leave. Get out of here.” I’m wasting my breath, though part of me hopes he will just leave and go away to some other place, disappear like some miracle from above. Tough luck there.
“Fuck no. I’m just getting started.” His steps get closer, his fingers turning into fists.
Without thinking, I throw the smaller knife at him, the blade entering the left side of his chest by his shoulder. He stops, momentarily frozen, as if my throwing the knife at him wasn’t even on his radar.
“You just threw a knife at me, you little cunt,” he growls, not removing the knife. His furious eyes pierce me, almost knocking me back a step. Oh, God … There’s nothing like pissing off a raging bull.
I move the other knife to my right hand, needing more control of it. The adrenaline inside, along with my mother’s safety, fuels me.
With his bulky arms at his side, he comes closer, the menace in his face reminding me of The Hulk. I try not to let the fear show, but I’m pretty sure I’m doing a shitty-ass job of it.
“Stay away,” I say again with a tremble in my voice. Dammit, go away!
“You fucking little bitch. You’re just like your mother. After I’m done fucking the shit out of you, I’m going to kill you right in front of her then beat the fuck out of her some more.”
Burning. I feel like I’m burning. The fear is still there, but fury masks it, pulling me into a red-filled haze. He will not hurt my mother again.
I point the knife in front of me, directed toward him as I run to the other side of the room. I just have to get my mom up and out of here. It’s possible, right? No. No, it’s not possible. Shit!
He charges at me, this time at full speed. The knife in his shoulder is not slowing him down a bit, and I’m not quick enough. He grabs my arm holding the knife and presses some part of my arm that is so damn painful I have no choice except to drop the knife and hear it clatter to the tile floor.
No. No. No.
He pulls my side up against his body, and I smell the alcohol on his breath, my stomach churning from its potency. He keeps ahold of my arm while punching me twice in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me. If he weren’t holding my arm, I would have collapsed to the floor in a heap.
“You’re as stupid as she is. Let me show you how I make sure your mother knows her place in this house.”
I begin to fight and struggle out of his grasp, using my arms to hit, nails to scratch, and legs to kick. Even drunk, he’s got great reflexes and deflects all of them, putting in a couple more slaps and a kick of his own to my shin that bursts with pain.
“Stop!” my mom’s hoarse voice says from the floor as she tries to pick herself up from it, but she doesn’t make it far and collapses again.
“Fuck you, Mearna. Your daughter needs to be taught that she shouldn’t put her nose in other people’s business, let alone put a fucking knife in me.” His next punch is a doozy, knocking me hard to the tile floor as he fully lets go of me. This one was to the chest, right between my breasts, and I feel like I can’t breathe. At all.
I gasp, trying to suck in air as he leaves me on the floor, heading toward my mother.
“Guess I need to shut you up first before I fuck your daughter,” He barks at her.
With all the strength I can muster, I scan the floor, looking for the knife. It couldn’t have gone far. With James’s back to me, I hold in all the grunts of pain, being as quiet as I can. I find it on the other side of the kitchen island. Gripping it with all my might, I rise to my shaky feet, still remaining quiet, letting the anger give me strength.
“Bitch!” he yells, sending a shattering blow to my mother.
On instinct alone and as quickly as my messed up body will take me, I make my way over to his back. My brain shuts down, and all I hear is my mother’s cries. Holding the knife with both hands, I raise it high and begin to plunge it into his back. He screams in pain, and I get two more jabs in and out of his flesh before he turns around.
I step back as he lunges toward me. Then I stick the knife out, and it pierces his chest.
“You bitch.” This time, he gurgles the words.
I pull up on the knife that is inside his body with a strength I didn’t know I had in me as he falls to his knees. I keep pulling as blood coats my hands. I must have hit his heart or some major blood supply because the white tile around us instantly becomes red.
James makes one last attempt to grab my feet, but I pull the knife out of his body and jump to the side, my body screaming at me the entire time.
He falls to the floor in a loud thud while my heart pounds, and my blood stained hands shake. What did I just do?
“Tanner!” my mom says from the floor, lying there in the fetal position, snapping me out of my new discovery.
I watch James to see if his chest rises and falls, and when it doesn’t, I slowly make my way over to him.
“I’ve gotta make sure this is done,” I tell her in a blank voice that I’ve never used before. It’s as if I’m a different person, allowing her to take over my body for the moment. It’s like the me I’ve known my whole life decided to leave my body.
“Let’s just go. Let’s get out of here,” she says in haste. “I don’t want him hurting you, Tanner,” she pleads, bringing me slightly back from the fog, but not much.
“Mom, if he’s still alive, he’s going to come after us. If he’s dead …” I trail off, knowing then the cops would be after us, and it would be one giant cluster-fuck that I don’t know how to fix. First things first—keep us safe.
I walk over to James, the knife still clenched in my hand, and make my way to his face. His cold, brown eyes stare back at me, unmoving. I don’t want to touch him, but I have no choice. I put my hand under his nose to check his breathing, and nothing happens. I place two fingers on his wrist and check for a pulse, or I try to since I’ve never had to do this before and have only seen doctors and nurses do it. I move my fingers around a couple of times, but I don’t feel anything.
He’s dead. And I killed him.