I couldn’t really remember much about that afternoon. A guy I’d never seen before, with an Australian accent, and a beard and tattoos, told me his name was Spencer. He said he was given my description―tall and thin, black curly hair, green eyes, olive skin―he knew my name and said Lance had sent him.
Lance. A name that made my blood run cold―a name I didn’t like to even think of, let alone speak―and everything was a blur after that. I remember getting into a car with Spencer, the bearded guy, knowing whatever he planned to do to me couldn’t have been worse than what I’d already been through.
He had a warm hand, a gentle hand, and worried eyes. I wasn’t even aware he was holding my hand in the back of that car until I realized I was squeezing something to death, and looked down to see his fingers threaded with mine. He looked at me like he was scared I would break.
But I was already broken. And with that realization, that all-too-real, “I’ll never be free of him” realization, came the tears I was helpless to stop. I hadn’t allowed myself to cry in a long time. ‘It was a sign of weakness. Only girls cry’, Lance had said. Is that what I was? A little girl? He had taunted me, ridiculed me. He’d done the most unspeakable things to me, things that still haunted my dreams. It was part of the reason I didn’t sleep. I was too scared to close my eyes…
But this kind man never let go of my hand. His name was Spencer Cohen, and he kept apologizing for scaring me. Spencer explained that he helped couples reconcile, a kind of matchmaker who helped put relationships into perspective. That was why Lance had contacted him. Lance wanted me back, but Spencer didn’t know Lance had abused me. He knew now though, and he was so very sorry. Spencer was taking me somewhere safe, where he couldn’t find me.
It didn’t matter. None of it did.
Even if he did take me back to him, I wouldn’t fight it. Because I understood now. I’d never been free of him. I could see now, the darkness that followed me was the memory of him, and even though I’d made my escape, I was never free.
I was so utterly exhausted. A tiredness that words couldn’t explain. My mind was enervated, slow, and disengaged, and I couldn’t focus no matter how I tried. Everything whirled out of my grasp.
When we stopped and Spencer got me out of the car, I half expected Lance to be there. But he wasn’t. I found myself at Spencer’s place, on a couch with a blanket, and I sank into my mind. It was the only safe haven I had, where I was safe, truly safe, from those who hurt me.
I didn’t know how long I sat there. I had no recollection of time passing. Then we were on the move again and things got surreal, and I wondered if I’d lost grip on my sanity. Because Spencer took me to a huge house, a secure house, supposedly, and who should open the door but the one and only Helen Landon.
I sat on the sofa in a daze. I could barely ask her if any of this was even real when Mr Allan Landon walked in. The Allan Landon and Helen Landon, the powerhouse couple of theater in LA, sat staring at me with kindness and sympathy in their eyes.
“It’s so cliché,” I said, feeling foolish for doing so. “But he really was charming in the beginning. I didn’t even realize he’d isolated me. By the end of the first six months, I was living with him, I had no friends, no one but him.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I really was so naïve.”
Mrs Landon put her hand on my arm. “No, you weren’t,” she said. Her voice was kind but determined. “The fault is his, not yours.”
I had to blink back tears. “Then in the last six months, he started to get possessive and mad if I was late.” I swallowed down the taste of bile that threatened to come up. “The first time he hit me, he’d been stressed at work, and he was so sorry. And I believed him.” I scrubbed at my tears. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Mr Landon said gently. “You’re allowed to cry. You’ve lost a lot. You need to grieve for that.”
Grieve? I hadn’t grieved for anything. I’d barely survived it.
I continued with my story, unwrapping my past, my guilt, and my pain for them all to witness. “I got through my first year at the Actors Academy and knew I had to come out to my parents. I couldn’t put it off. But they…” I shook my head and let out a shaky breath. “They kicked me out at the beginning of my second year. I spent a while living rough, then I met him. He paid for me to go back to college, something I could never do on my own. I lived in his expensive apartment. And at first, it was exciting that I could do these things because I had no money, no family.
“It took him less than twelve months to completely own me.” My voice shook, but I needed to get this out. “The last time he hit me, it was my birthday. The only thing he gave me was a black eye and a split lip. I swore it was the last time. I left with nothing. I had nothing. Everything I thought I had was his. It was always his. I quit my job. I left school. I left my cell phone he’d given me on the kitchen table and never went back. I stayed at a homeless shelter with my backpack and one change of clothes.” I glanced at the bag at my feet. It was everything I owned. “I never thought I was a materialistic person until I had nothing.”
Spencer frowned. “But those few things mean a lot. They’re your worldly possessions, and they’re everything.”
I nodded at him, and I knew all eyes were on me. “Then you found me,” I said, still looking at Spencer. I thought I’d escaped…
“I had no idea,” he said again. “Well, I knew something was off with him, but I didn’t realize, and I’m so sorry to drag you back through this.” Spencer explained for everyone, “Yanni’s ex-boyfriend contacted me to find him. It’s not what I usually do, but he lied so convincingly.”
God. I almost laughed. “He’s a piece of work.”
“But you went back to college?” Mrs Landon asked me.
I nodded sadly. “He took everything, but I couldn’t let him take that from me. Acting is what I do. It’s the only good thing in my life. I left the Actors Academy and started at Pol’s Acting School.” I looked down at my hands, trying to speak with a conviction I just didn’t feel. “It’s not as revered or exclusive, but I’m doing it on my own, and that’s more than he gave me.”
Mrs Landon’s eyes were glassy, and she raised her chin before rubbing my arm. “Yanni, that’s the sign of a true actor. One who fails to give up on his craft when he has nothing. That is a sure sign of strength and drive, and believe me, to make it in this industry, you need both in spades.”
“I can’t go back to Pol’s,” I said softly. It was starting to dawn on me that everything I’d gone through in the last few weeks was all for naught. “If he knows I went there…”
“I never told him,” Spencer said adamantly. “I told him nothing. Actually, when I had a feeling he wasn’t what he seemed, I told him you had a job in a bookstore in the city. We went to see if he turned up there looking for you.”
I almost didn’t want to know. “Did he?”
Spencer and Andrew both nodded. “Yeah.”
I fought back more tears. “He won’t ever stop.”
“Did you tell the police?” Andrew asked.
“Yes. I filed a restraining order, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
Spencer nodded like something made sense. “That’s why he asked me and not the police or a detective agency to find you.”
I put my coffee back on the tray and sagged back into the sofa, and for a while, no one spoke. Mr Landon eventually broke the silence. “Yanni, when did you eat last?”
God, I couldn’t even remember. I tried to think… I didn’t even know what day it was. Mr Landon stood. “I’ll go see what I can find,” he said as he walked toward the kitchen.
My God, this was all too bizarre. I shook my head in disbelief, scrubbing at my face and letting out a crazy-sounding laugh. “This is so surreal. I can’t believe I’m here sitting beside you, and the Allan Landon just offered to get me food. I don’t know what I did to deserve this, or is there a Punk’d camera hidden somewhere?”
Andrew snorted. “No cameras. They’re just my parents. Spencer said you needed help, so I helped.”
Mrs Landon put her hand on my arm. “Yanni, I want to tell you something. I have been where you are. It was a long time ago, before I met Allan. Actually, it was Allan who helped me leave my first husband.”
All I could do was stare at her.
She smiled at me. It was a warm, motherly look that made my chest ache for my own mother. Another loss I couldn’t bear to think about right now. “I’ve known the fear and hopelessness you feel. That exhaustion you feel in your bones, I’ve felt that. You will get through it if you let us help you.”
I started to cry again. She understood me, what I’d been through. She just described everything better than I could.
Mrs Landon kept on talking. “I’m the Managing Director at Acacia Foundation. It’s a center for men and women who are going through the same thing. We help people understand their legal rights and help them with police proceedings. We help them get back on their feet, find them somewhere to live, and employment placement.”
Mr Landon came back into the room then, carrying another tray. Food; I could smell it from across the room. “It’s just leftovers,” he declared, putting the tray in front of me. There was Mexican beef, rice, and vegetables with flat breads, and I ignored the pity on their faces as I ate it. Lance had always been so particular about what I was allowed to eat, and for the last month, I’d been at the shelter with no money, no food. I was lucky to see half a meal a day. And God, I’d never tasted food so good. I ate far too much and my stomach threatened to explode. When I was more than done, I sagged back into the seat and closed my eyes. Relief, guilt, and shame washed over me.
Then I realized I hadn’t waited for permission… Oh God. “I’m sorry,” I said quickly, panicked.
“What for? Come on,” Mr Landon said, standing up, waiting for me to do the same. “You can sleep in the guest room, and we’ll deal with tomorrow after breakfast.”
Not wanting to see the pity on their faces and not wanting to risk angering anyone, I picked up my backpack and followed Mr Landon obediently out of the room. I followed him down the hall, keeping my head down and seeing no more than his shoes and legs in front of me. He stopped at a door, opened it, flipped on a light, and stood aside. “This guest room has its own bathroom. Use whatever you need. Sleep well, and we’ll see you for breakfast. Any requests? Helen will probably insist I eat yogurt and fruit, but I make a mean bacon and eggs.”
I stepped into the room and held my bag in front of me. This was so strange. Today had gone from survival mode, to nightmare, to the Twilight Zone. I mean, I stood in the fanciest house I’d ever seen, I’d been fed a hot meal, and had a bed that wasn’t a dirty cot. Had my own private bathroom, and he’d just offered me breakfast. And he, who was offering, was Allan fucking Landon. “Uh, I don’t expect anything… You’ve already done so much.”
He gave me a smile that tried for bright, but there was a sadness underneath. “Okay. If you need anything, Helen and I are upstairs. Just call out. Nothing is a problem. Goodnight, Yanni.”
He pulled the door closed, and the quiet click of the latch made me jump. I walked slowly to the bed and took in the room. It was huge; the bed was queen-sized and looked as soft as clouds with the white duvet and pillows. The curtains were white, matching the bed, and the walls were a pebble brown. There were fancy plates as wall decorations down one wall, and it was very clear that the Landons had impeccable taste or an interior designer who charged like a wounded bull.
I looked down at the carpet, only to find my dirty shoes instead. I quickly took them off, careful not to mark the plush floor coverings any more than I already had. Then I noticed how filthy my socks were, so I pulled them off too, only to reveal my dirty feet.
I was going to ruin their carpet. I ran to the first door, only to realize it was a walk-in closet, so I pushed on the second door to reveal the private bathroom. I turned the water on and stripped down as fast as I could, and not even caring about water temperature, I scrubbed my body with soap. My face, arms, torso, neck; I even washed my hair with soap, scrubbing harshly at my scalp. I scrubbed down my legs, but the dirt on my feet was too ingrained. I sat on the shower floor and scrubbed them raw, but I couldn’t get them clean.
I would never be clean.
I didn’t even know I was crying until my lungs burned for oxygen. I sucked back a breath and sobbed. Holding onto my knees, I let the water wash over me. I cried—for everything that hurt, for everything I’d lost. I cried for what had been taken away from me: my dignity, my pride, my self-worth.
I cried for the person I used to be. Because he was gone. My innocence, my youth, was ripped away from me, and I felt old. I was twenty-one, yet I felt I’d lived a hundred years.
I was so, so tired. I was battle-worn. I’d fought with everything I had, and I lost.
All I could do was cry. I cried until my tears ran dry, until I remembered where I was.
Eventually I stood up and shut the water off. I dried off and buried my face in the towel. It was soft and warm; two of the simplest things so easily taken for granted, until you’re on the street with nothing. I’d missed towels. The stupid things you think of at times like this.
Then I realized I had no clean clothes.
I couldn’t very well sleep in their nice clean bed in unwashed clothes. I certainly wouldn’t sleep naked. I doubted I ever would again… I picked up the clothes I’d taken off and inspected them. I hadn’t realized what state they were in. I thought I’d been doing okay…
With the towel wrapped around my waist, I went back out into the room to my backpack, with hopes of finding my spare clothes cleaner than my others, when I noticed a neatly folded pile of clothes on the end of the bed.
Mr or Mrs Landon must have put them there when I was in the shower.
I wondered if they’d heard me crying.
The clothes they’d left me were a pair of track pants, a T-shirt, and a long-sleeve sweatshirt. They had clearly been someone’s once, loved and worn, no longer wanted. The significance wasn’t lost on me.
I dressed quickly, relishing the comfort of clean and warm fabric against my skin. I climbed into the bed with my backpack and sank down in the mattress. I pulled the blankets up to my ears, too exhausted to think about how very surreal this was.
My tears had dried up, though my heart still ached. Like every night for the last month, I’d slept with my backpack under the blankets with me. I closed my eyes and tried not to panic. I told myself over and over I was safe here.
I’m safe here. I’m safe here. I’m safe here…
I slept with the light on.