I. Love. You.

by Kathtryn Milders

Silence had never been a comfort to me. Everyone always boasts about how silence gives you a chance to really think about the situation you’re in, but that’s exactly what I’d always tried to avoid. If I thought for too long, it felt like I was drowning, like every time I tried to suck in a breath, instead of air, I got agony. So I didn’t think, and I always found a way to fill the silence. Except for that one time. That time silence was the best option, because who knew what would have come out of my mouth if I began answering the questions hurled at me? I’d been known in the past to approach law enforcement with what some might call an ‘attitude problem’, so odds are, it wouldn’t have been very nice.

A greasy police officer stood against the wall with his arms crossed casually over his chest. His hair was slicked back like the stereotypical Italian gangster, although I couldn’t imagine why; he was the most clean-cut officer I’d ever seen, and I’d seen a lot. His shirt was buttoned all the way up to his neck, even in the 90 degree, dry, typical Arizona heat, and he had a tie wrapped perfectly under the collar. He wore a black suit jacket and dress pants and shoes that practically sparkled under the dirty fluorescent lights; there wasn’t a smudge or scuff in sight. At the same time, he was the most unorganized and disheveled officer I’d ever seen. He had a stack of crumpled papers in his hands, a couple loose leaflets falling out and floating to the ground, but I could tell from the way he was flipping through them that he had no idea what the hell each paper was. His eyes were bloodshot and droopy; either he was stoned - not likely - or he’d been at the office too late the night before - probably. I gathered that he was the devoted kind, the spend-the-night-at-the-office-to-solve-a-case kind of guy. Beads of sweat lined his temples and he just ignored it because in that heat, wiping the sweat away would only bring more to the surface. There was one tuft of hair on the left side of his head that was slightly out of place even with all the grease, most likely bed head, or desk head if he’d fallen asleep for a few short hours at the office.

“What really happened?” he demanded. “The neighbor said ‘domestic disturbance’ when she called, but we don’t have all the details. We know this Brian guy is bad news. If you tell us what happened, if you help us, we can help you. And your mom.”

I scoffed. That guy was not interested in helping my mother, not that he could even if he tried. I’d been trying to save my mom for years, and I hadn’t ever gotten close to helping her. He was just doing what he was told to, something that I had never been very good at; it brought me a lot of problems, but I just couldn’t seem to learn.

“Good luck with that,” I smirked at the dirt-coated wall. I pursed my lips in annoyance. “Since I’m a minor, I don’t think you can keep me here. So I’m gonna go. Have a great day, officer.”

I stood and moved towards the door but when I tried to turn the handle, it didn’t budge. Locked. I huffed and turned around, flipping my almost black hair over my shoulder. I hadn’t been able to afford another dye kit in the last few weeks, so I knew my light brown roots were peeking through. I narrowed my eyes, shooting my most venomous look at the man standing arrogantly before me.

“You can’t leave,” He informed me, “Not until your ride shows up. Your brother’s on his way.”

“Now you’re really spitting a crock of shit,” I chuckled, “My brother left the day he turned 18.”

“He’s coming back.” The officer assured me. “He’s coming back for you. Your mother got spooked and called him, and she signed over custody of you to him.”

The door swung open and a new officer came in, the same tired expression on his face, took me by the arm, and guided me out into the hallway. He didn’t speak, but he never took his hand off my arm, as if he was afraid I might bolt if he did, which I probably would have. My mother was standing in the waiting room, crying and scratching her arm lightly, itching for a drink or a hit. I shook off the police officer and ran to her as soon as she was in my sight and threw my arms around her fragile frame. She was so small that whenever I hugged her, I was worried she might shatter. When she was high, she always forgot to eat, resulting in the skin hanging on her bones as if it were a shirt drying on a clothes rack. There was barely anything to hold. She seemed to be only half my size, and I was 105 pounds. Her hair was in knots and she just had the look of a junkie. Her face was practically gray and she had bags under her eyes. Her fingernails were yellow and her clothes smelled of booze. Sores were starting to pop up on her arms and her face from where she had scratched. She was so helpless.

“It’s okay,” I promised, “Shhh. It’s gonna be alright. I’m gonna take care of you. Don’t cry, Mommy. Why did you call Adam, Mommy? Why are you letting him take me away? How are you gonna get your food without me?”

She just whimpered and leaned into me in response. I knew that she’d be incoherent until she either got a fix, or got clean for awhile. I also knew which one was more likely. A hand gripped my shoulder and yanked me away from her, a low growl accompanying the gesture. I didn’t even have to look to know who was looming over me, although I did look, just to be sure. He was so much bigger than me that his shadow completely enveloped my body, the dark that washed over me representing his mood. While my mother had the look of a junkie, he definitely had the look of a dealer. Dark eyes that could shoot a look telling you that you had made a bad choice, and you were gonna pay for it. Hands with constantly bruised and bloodied knuckles, but it was obvious that he wasn’t the one getting hit. His front left pocket always bulged with dollar bills, as if he was always coming from a sale. And he never got caught. He could smooth talk and buy his way out of any punishment, which is why I knew better than to talk to the cops about him.

“Brian,” I spat as I turned, “How nice that they let you out of your cage. Guess they didn’t find your stash of-”

A stinging slap broke apart my sentence and my courage but we both knew that the word heroin hung in the empty space between us. I became silent as a stone as a couple officers grabbed him by the arms and pulled him toward the door. He didn’t struggle, though. He didn’t need to; he had already gotten the reaction he wanted. Before going out the door, he faced me and my mother and snapped his fingers expectantly.

“Jenna,” He barked, “Let’s go.”

“Mom,” I turned to her and spoke as sternly as I could manage, “Please. Stay here. Adam’s on his way. He can help. You don’t have to go with him. I can’t protect you if you’re not with me.”

“Jen!” Brian bellowed, making both my mother and me flinch, our automatic reaction whenever he spoke. We had learned long ago that words that sharp were usually accompanied by slaps that stung cheeks and left bruises that make-up couldn’t cover.

Mom looked at me with her withdrawal-infected, puppy dog eyes and I knew that she was going to leave me. He was the one with the alcohol and a stash of heroin hidden from everyone else but her. What did I have? Nothing that she wanted. I’d always just been the daughter that she never wanted: the accident. She bowed her head and slumped her shoulders as she followed him out the police station doors, as if making herself as small as possible would protect her from the beating that was surely waiting back at the apartment; like she thought that if she were small enough, he might not see her. And I just had to watch her go; an officer held me back.

* * * * *

I tried so hard not to fall asleep in the car, faking it so I wouldn’t have to speak with my almost unrecognizable brother. I faked it a little too well, though, because the next time I opened my eyes, it was pitch black outside and I was sprawled across emerald sheets. Adam had carried me inside.

“Damn,” I hissed, swinging my legs over the side of the bed.

I had planned at the station to hide out in whatever room I ended up in, ignoring Adam and any efforts he made to talk to me. I was pissed. How dare he just show up after years and try to run my life. He didn’t know anything, and I’d be damned if I was gonna be the one to tell him. Sitting on the bed, though, listening to my stomach gurgle honestly, I remembered that the last time I ate was the last time that I could safely get into my stash of cash in my apartment with mom. That was two days before. I looked at my phone and grinned. It was two o’clock in the morning. There was no way that Adam was still awake. It was safe to go to the kitchen. I inched open the door and tiptoed down the hallway. Opening the fridge, I was in awe. There was more food on one shelf than mom and I had had in our entire apartment for the last month. I just stood there and stared at it, tears blurring my vision for some reason that I couldn’t explain. I think I was jealous.

“Molly.” I jumped and slammed the fridge closed, backing into the corner at the sudden voice, taking a defensive stance.

It was just Adam, and his eyes were stern, but sad. He looked bewildered at my reaction. He was only twenty five but he already had the beginnings of crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes and a tired expression permanently worn on his face. A scar stretched from his right ear to his shoulder, disappearing at the collar of his shirt. I remembered when he got that scar, sneaking into the apartment after curfew. He had tried to climb up the fire escape but accidentally stepped in a weak spot. You see, our apartment had always been the cheapest of the cheap, the most run-down and inappropriate place to raise a child that you could possibly imagine. The whole thing collapsed under him and as he fell through the hole he had made, the edge of the metal tore up his skin. He sighed and rested a hand on the counter in front of me, leaning his weight on it. The floor must have been really interesting, because he couldn’t stop staring at it; he wouldn’t even look me in the eye. He seemed almost ashamed.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You didn’t scare me,” I snapped, going back to the fridge and opening the door again, grabbing out an apple, “You’re far less intimidating than the people I usually deal with.”

“Oh, um,” Adam stumbled, tripping over words that he had wanted to say to me for seven years. “Well I guess we should talk about-”

“Let’s get a few things straight,” I interrupted, “We don’t talk. You left seven years ago and haven’t said a word since then, and we’re not gonna break that streak. Second: I go where I want, when I want, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You are not in charge of me and you will not tell me what to do.”

If he thought that I was going to let him stop me from saving my mother, from getting her out of that apartment with that monster, he was sorely mistaking. I was pissed that he took me away from my mom, pissed that he ruined my plans.

“Well shit, Molly,” He ran his fingers through his honey hair with a huff. I had surprised him with my reaction. Good. “Look, I know it’s been hard for you since we left.” I scoffed. He had no idea. “But you will follow all my rules, or I’ll go to the police and tell them about mom and the drugs in the apartment.” My eyes shot up to meet his. He wouldn’t dare. “Rule number 1: You’ll be respectful. Not just to me, but to everyone. I know things have been shitty lately, but you are not allowed to take it out on other people. Rule number 2: You will not see mom, under any circumstances. I don’t care what the reason is or what excuse you have. It’s not safe, and you won’t do it. If you break my rules, mom goes to jail and you know it. There’s plenty of stuff in the apartment for the police to find that will send her away for a long time, and I’ll report it if it means protecting you.”

I clenched and unclenched my fists. Protecting me? It was almost laughable. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about me, but he knew exactly how to get me to follow the rules. I couldn’t see mom, but if I didn’t, she wouldn’t get food, she wouldn’t be protected. I couldn’t let her be defenseless, so I plastered a fake smile on my strained face and walked past Adam, knocking him with my shoulder on the way.

“Okay,” I agreed fakely, “I guess you’re the boss.”

He snatched the apple from my hand and tossed it in the air before catching it and taking a bite with a grin. He seemed way too proud of himself at the middle-school-stunt.

“You will not see mom,” He announced again, “I’m not stupid, so don’t treat me like I don’t see right through you. And no food leaves the kitchen. It’s more Clara’s rule than anything, but you still have to follow it.”

“Clara?” I demanded, hand on my hip, disinterest and disdain dripping from the name.

“My wife,” he said with a smile, “Shocked? Not everyone stays in this town and ends up like mom, Molly. Some people change for the better. You can get out, too. You don’t have to let mom hold you back.”

“You only moved one town away,” I retorted, sarcasm laced through the words.

“It’s still out, Mols,” he informs me. He rested his hand on my shoulder and sighed. “Mom is keeping you prisoner. You don’t have to let her.”

I shot him the same look I gave the cop then spun on my heel to go back to my room, stomping the whole way and slamming the door once I got there. And then there was silence. Again. And my heart started to race. And I couldn’t breathe. And I couldn’t do anything except sink to the ground and curl my knees to my chest, burying my face in them as the tears began, but I had learned long ago that if I was going to cry, it had better be damn quietly. And so it was. Damn quiet, that is. But just because something is quiet doesn’t mean it doesn’t crush you. The tears added to the silence but somehow I heard what they were saying. Failure. Mistake. Weak. Can’t even protect your own mother. She’s counting on you and you’re going to just let her die. He’ll kill her. It will be your fault. All of this is your fault. You’re the one that screamed and made the neighbor call the police. I released a breath as soon as I could feel the air in my lungs again. I wiped my eyes and looked up at the door knob, making sure it was locked, making sure I was safe. I would realize in the morning that that was a panic attack. I’d been having them for months.

I climbed underneath the emerald sheets and closed my eyes, exhausted, tired of trying, of fighting. And I dreamed about Adam. More specifically, about me and Adam, when we were kids. He’s eight years older than me and for years I was convinced that he was a superhero. My superhero.

My mother had always loved Adam. He was her angel, the baby God sent her right after she first got married to our father. He reminded her of happier times. He was the spitting image of her, from the honey hair to the button nose to the icicle blue eyes. She loved her precious boy. Not me, though. I was an accident, a drunken night two days before the divorce was finalized. And whenever she looked at me - saw my wavy, light brown hair and eyes that resembled sea glass, beaten and battered by ocean waves - she was really seeing my father, and that filled her with unexplainable rage. Each drunken rampage that went through Adam was always intended for me. She hurled insults at Adam, insults about how awful it must be to have a sister like me. It must be terrible to be related to a mistake, she would say, how do you even get out of bed each morning, knowing that you’re stuck with a monster like that forever? And from the very moment that I could understand that she was talking about me, I would start to cry when she spoke like this. But that was before I learned the value of silent tears, and each choked sob that would escape my mouth would earn Adam another slap. By the time I was 7, I knew how to hold in my cries until my mother was out of earshot. I knew of only one way that I could protect my brother, the only way that he would let me protect him at least.

After she was gone, Adam would never turn to face me, and looking back on it now I’m sure it was because there were tears in his eyes, too. But he would hold his hand out behind him, and when I took it, he would give it three strong squeezes, one for each word. I. Love. You. He would tell me without speaking. And then he would guide me back to my room, close and lock the door, tuck me in, and sit on the floor, sometimes just waiting to leave until I fell asleep, sometimes waiting with me all night. And then he turned 18. And he left my mom. And he left me. My mother became kinder after Adam left, mainly because she relied on me so much after the heroin dealers invaded the town. Sometimes I would still hear those words that left a sting in my chest like a slap would leave on my cheek, but mainly she was just helpless, sprawled across the bathroom tile, sometimes awake, sometimes not. And I had to help her, save her. I had to make up for the fact that my existence made her miserable.

This Adam though, the one I saw in the police station and the kitchen, wasn’t the same. He didn’t seem to be filled with that kindness and love for me. I was sure that if I looked hard enough, I’d see the same resentment in his eyes that I saw in my mother so often.

* * * * *

“Adam,” I whisper, squeezing his hand a little tighter. “I’m really hungry.”

“Sh,” he hushes me as he peeks his head out from behind the wall, “I’m gonna get us some dinner. I promise, okay? You just have to be quiet so mom can sleep.”

He decides that it’s safe and guides me to the kitchen, keeping me by his side as he hastily gathers supplies to throw together a couple sandwiches. I try to help, but I’m so short that my eyes barely reach the top of the counter; there’s not much that I can do. I start to hum “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes”, my favorite song from my favorite movie. Adam quiets me once, but after a few seconds I start up again and out of the corner of my eye, I see a soft smile spread across his face. He hums a few bars along with me every now and then, but for the most part, just focuses on making the food. He’s cutting the crust off of my sandwich when glass shatters on the tile behind us. My mother had dropped her nearly empty bottle of tequila, her hands shaking from the abundance of alcohol she had consumed. Adam and I both spin around and silence crushes the kitchen.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mom demands, her eyes cutting holes through me. “I told you to stay in your room.”

“I was-” I begin to explain, but Adam slides seamlessly in front of me and I trail off, knowing his signal for when I should shut up.

“We were just getting some dinner,” Adam calmly announces. “We haven’t eaten all day. Molly needs food.”

“Molly needs food,” she mimics, making his voice high pitched and whiny, while in reality it’s strong and steady.

She steps forward and smacks him. A gasp escapes my lips as his head jerks to the side. He doesn’t move it back to face forward.

“She needs to be punished,” my mom explains. “She’s a worthless, good-for-nothing, waste of space and money. She doesn’t need to be eating my food. God, how do you even look at her?”

I whimper, the words like fists in my stomach. It earns Adam another sharp slap and lecture. I squeeze my eyes shut and slam my hands over my ears for what seems like hours, but I’m sure is only minutes. When I open then, Adam is holding his hand out behind him, waiting for me. I take it and he squeezes three times then ushers me to my room, locking the door quickly behind us and scooping me up into his arms. He’s smiling again and he spins me around on his way to my bed. He tosses me gently into the air and I plop down onto the mattress with a giggle. He crouches down beside me and I turn on my side so our faces are mere inches apart.

“I love you, Mol,” he whispers, kissing my forehead goodnight. “I’m sorry she threw the sandwiches away. I’ll try again later.”

“It’s okay,” I say meekly. “Why doesn’t mommy love me, Adam?”

He sighs deeply, his eyes filling with agony.

“Go to sleep, Molly,” he advises. “I’ll stay with you.”

And he does. All night.

* * * * *

I woke up to sun streaming in through the window and to Adam lightly knocking on the door.

“We don’t lock doors,” He informed me in a cheerful voice. He had always been far too chipper in the mornings.

I groaned and rolled out of bed, shuffling over and unlocking it before flopping back onto the mattress. He poked his head in and smiled at me.

“Good morning, sunshine,” He greeted me, “You better get up and get ready for school. We leave in 30 minutes.”

“Just one problem, Mr. Perfect,” I smirked, “I already graduated. Three months ago.”

He pursed his lips and seemed to be studying me, as if trying to decide whether or not I was lying. I would be concerned about that too, except I really had graduated. I found that it was too hard to keep up with the bills at the apartment if I was wasting the whole day going to a place where I was ‘learning’ things I already knew, so I took a test, got a paper, and got three different part-time jobs. All of a sudden, paying the bills wasn’t so hard anymore.

“My diploma is back at the apartment,” I offered as proof, “I could run and get it to show you and-”

“Absolutely not,” He refused sternly, shaking his head, “I believe you. You’ve always been so smart; I’m sure it wasn’t hard for you to do. But you are not going back there.”

“You can’t keep me from mom,” I informed him, “You just can’t. Don’t you understand?!”

He came into the room and closed the door gently, then sat gingerly on the corner of the bed, resting his elbows on his thighs.

“I do,” He whispered, “I know why you want to go back. It’s for the same reason I wanted to stay when I was 18: you want to protect someone you love. But I’m going to tell you the same thing Clara told me, and you have to listen and really hear it. Mom does not want to change. She doesn’t want to stop drinking. And nobody can save her, not even you.”

“You just don’t get it, Adam,” I shook my head, trying to blink back the tears pooling around the edges of my eyes, “you left before it even got bad. It got bad because you left. Did you know that twenty minutes after you walked out the door with your bags, she drank all the alcohol in the house? All of it, and you know how much that is. And I spent the next three days in the hospital with her after I had to call 911. You could have saved her, and it’s because you didn’t that I have to. She’s in this mess because I couldn’t help her when I was 10. I didn’t even understand what was going on, so I couldn’t make it stop. I didn’t know what heroin was when I was 10, so I didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to use it, or date people that deal it. You have no idea what goes on in our lives. ”

“I know that she was going to leave you at the police station if it meant saving her own ass from being arrested. I know that whoever that guy was that they called the ‘domestic disturbance’ on is a drug dealer and always makes sure mom stays addicted. I know that he likes to smack you and mom around. I can tell from how freaked out you were in the kitchen last night. I know, Molly. I do.”

“I have to go to work,” I stated plainly, standing and grabbing my backpack, “If I don’t show up, I’ll get fired. Please. Do not take this away from me. It’s all I have that’s mine.”

Adam didn’t answer with anything but a nod and a gentle pat on the shoulder as he made his exit. I released the breath that I had been holding and took out my red uniform with shaky hands. At least he was letting me have something from my old life. It was a start, and I knew it would eventually help me see mom.

* * * * *

A gentle hand ran through my light brown hair and a soft kiss tapped my forehead. A familiar smile spread across my lips: a happy one, but a cautious one. Genuine, but tight, scared.

“I’m so sorry about last night, baby,” Mom whispered into my hair as she pulled me close, wrapping me in the embrace that I always longed for, “I didn’t mean any of it. I love you so much, Molly. Let me make it up to you. What do you want to do today?”

I jumped into her arms and we seemed to float around the room as she began to dance, knowing exactly what I wanted to do all day. It was always the same request after a particularly bad binge. She began to sing, and I closed my eyes against the absolute, pure beauty in her voice. She sounded like an angel instead of an addict. If I tried really hard, I could imagine that her hair was perfectly slicked back into a ponytail instead of thrown into a hangover bun, that her breath smelled of mint toothpaste instead of tequila, that her steps were certain instead of wobbly, stumbling. I could almost pretend that Adam wasn’t standing on the other side of the room, waiting for her to fall or drop me, so he could catch me before I hit the ground. I could almost pretend that something wasn’t going to go wrong eventually. Almost. As disfunction as it was, that was one of the best days I could imagine having with my mother. She was just sober enough to be coherent, but just drunk enough to believe that she truly loved me.

“Molly, Molly, Molly,” Mom sung in my ear, “Mommy will always love her little Molly.”

“Molly!” A sharp voice snapped my head to attention.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and apologized to my boss, not that we had any customers to impress. I receive a dirty look and a “tsk” sound at my apology, but then my boss moved on to the next employee, not finding anything else wrong with me. I grabbed the rag that I had been using as a pillow and started to wipe the cheap red countertop. The bell above the door jingled and I inwardly groaned about having to interact with someone.

“Welcome to Pizza Palace,” I said unenthusiastically without looking up, instead studying a mysterious stain on the countertop that wouldn’t come off. Whoever the customer was, they could wait. “Where your pizza is done and ready to go out the door in 7 minutes or it’s free.”

“Molly,” A shaky, tear-filled voice responded, the volume barely above a whisper, “Baby, I need you.”

I looked up and felt my heart break. Her hair was a mess, a rat’s nest making the left side shorter than the right. Her eye makeup was smeared down her cheeks, sopping wet with tears. Her clothes didn’t match and looked like they hadn’t been washed in days. But the first thing I noticed when I looked at her was the black bruise starting at her left ear and wrapping around to the corner of her lip, as if tracing the line of her jaw. I hopped over the counter and ran to her.

“I’m going on break!” I called over my shoulder as I ushered her outside. Once safely out of my boss’s sight, I looked closer at the injury. “Oh, mommy. What happened?”

“It was my fault.” She immediately offered me the same answer she always had. “I was being stupid.”

I sighed and shook my head, giving her a quick look-over for more injuries.

“I’m sorry,” I said sadly, “I should have been there to help you. What can I do now, though? What do you need?”

“I was so hungry, Molly,” She apologized, tears and snot mixing together on her face as she sobbed, “So hungry. And he wouldn’t get me any food. I knew where you kept the cash and I just-”

“No, mom,” I didn’t believe her, “You didn’t take any of the money.”

“No,” She agreed, “But he did. He found me when I was lifting up the mattress. He took it all. I’m so sorry, baby.”

It felt as if any small balloon of hope that was in my body deflated. Every plan that I had to get us out of this town, away from the drugs, shattered like a car window in an accident. Four thousand dollars. Gone. My mother was sobbing without making a sound, because we had both mastered the art of quiet tears. I pulled her close and tried to console her. Ever since I was old enough to get a job I had been saving any money that was left over after the bills were paid and food was bought. It had been slow going at first because at 14 years old, I had no clue how to make a budget or follow one if I did make it. But once I got the hang of being an adult, the money was easy to stash and save. None of mom’s boyfriends thought to look under the mattress. And all of a sudden, it was all gone. I was gonna have to start all over.

“It’s okay, mom,” I assured her, even though it was anything but, “It’s not your fault.” Except it was. “You didn’t know he would find you.” Except she should have because she was not discreet at all. “I’ll figure it out.” But I didn’t know how. “Are you hungry?”

She leaned back from me and looked up at me with her soft, pain-filled eyes, then nodded softly. I took her hand as if she was a child and led her inside, sitting her down at the table closest to the counter so I could keep an eye on her. She fidgeted in the seat while I cooked her a small cheese pizza, probably coming down off of the last shot of heroin. I put the pan in front of her and went back to the counter, staying at the cash register but my eyes never leaving her table. She ate one slice before standing and running to the bathroom. I knew she’s going to get sick. She always did when she ate during the let down. I sighed, grabbed a rag, and calmly followed her. Swinging open the door with peeling blue paint, I heard her retching in the first stall. I knocked on the door and leaned my head against the cool metal. The door unlocked and I pushed it open, pulled her hair back into a messy, stringy ponytail, and gently wiped the corners of her mouth. I felt her forehead. It was sticky with sweat and burning up.

“Mom,” I sighed, concerned, “Are you sick?”

“Just the flu,” She murmured, “Brian gave me some medicine.”

I dropped her hair, grabbed her shoulders, and turned her to face me. I took her chin in my fingers and forced her to look into my eyes.

“He gave you pills?” I demanded, “And you took them? What pills? Did you even think to look at what the hell you were taking?! He could have given you ecstasy or something!”

She shoved my hands away and, using the toilet paper holder as support, shakily got to her feet. She pushed past me and left the bathroom, throwing open the door with a huff.

“You are so rude,” She mumbled, bursting out of the restaurant.

“Mom, come back,” I called after her with a sigh, following slowly behind, knowing she wouldn’t get very far on her own.

I stepped onto the sweltering black pavement and stopped in my tracks. Brian was holding my mother by the back of the neck, standing casually next to his black Chevy truck, a truck that I could usually hear from a mile away, but that I had somehow missed that time. Stupid, I spat at myself in my head. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I clenched and unclenched my fists. I took a few steps closer then stopped, noticing that with each step I took, he squeezed a little tighter. My mother whimpered and tried to wiggle away, but his grip was too tight. She couldn’t free herself. Brian was grinning at me, as if he knew that he was personally responsible for ruining my life, and that that was the best thing that he could possibly do with his. I took a deep breath, calming myself so I didn’t make the situation worse.

“Let her go,” I tried to sound solid, unafraid, but it came out as more of a plea, “Brian. Just let her go.”

“You wanna trade places with her?” Brian offered, his grin grew into more of a sly scowl.

I swallowed and crossed my arms defensively against my chest.

“Fine,” I agreed with obvious sass in my voice, “Let her go and I’ll come over to you.”

“You know,” Brian smirked, “I would be worried about you two running off after I let her go, but I know you don’t have any money and she’s tripping out of her mind, so fine. Here she is.”

He removed his grip and my mother stumbled a few steps forward then collapsed on the ground, the drugs obviously impairing her coordination. I moved towards her, never taking my eyes off Brian. His stance made him look almost bored, as if this was a huge waste of his time. Once I reached my mother, I looked at the back of her neck, already she had purple bruises snaked across her porcelain skin. She was sobbing quietly, the only way to tell however, was from the soft quaking of her shoulders. Rage flooded my body and I propelled myself towards Brian. The full force of my entire body slammed into his stomach and he barely moved, just barely stumbled back. He grabbed me by the hair with a chuckle and, with unbelievable ease, tossed me off of him and to the ground. My palms scraped the pavement and I felt blood pooling on my hands. I was getting up when his fist slammed into my cheekbone, pain blurring my vision and the skin already swelling, my jaw unable to move. I groaned, trying to stand again. I didn’t want to let him win. He always won. And he won again. He slammed his fist into the exact same spot and I felt a crack.

That time I stayed down, eyes closed against pain that caused the pavement to swim before me. He chuckled and mumbled a casual “stupid bitch” before grabbing my mother’s arm and practically dragging her to the truck and throwing her inside. I tried my best to stand and go after her, but my head and the world was spinning and I dropped back to the ground. Brian revved his engine and sped out of the parking lot, just feet away from running me over. Once he was gone, I slammed the pavement with my fist, furious with my failure.

“Dammit,” I sob, “Dammit, dammit, dammit.”

* * * * *

When I returned to Adam’s house, I kept my head ducked down and tried to go straight to my room, but he called my name from the kitchen and came out into the hallway, blocking my path. I didn’t respond, my jaw was still swollen and hurt like hell. I just ducked my head lower. He stopped talking mid-sentence and stepped towards me. I stepped back. My heart began to race and my breathing became shallow. I was terrified of what his reaction would be. Even though deep down I knew he wouldn’t hurt me, I just couldn’t afford to trust people, at least not trust them like that, anymore. He sighed.

“Oh, Molly,” He murmured, “What happened?”

“Nothing,” I assured him, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m tired from work and I’m trying to go to my room and you’re standing in the middle of the damn hallway. So please move.”

He gave me a look that made it clear that he didn’t believe me and he didn’t know why I would even try to lie to him. He stepped towards me again, I didn’t move back because I knew it wouldn’t do any good, and cupped my chin in his hand, lifting my face to be level with his. Sorrow mixed with the rage in his eyes and I saw his muscles tense. Again, my heartbeat sped up. I was still petrified. He gently traced the outline of the bruise on my cheek and I flinched away, a habit that I had developed long ago whenever someone got too close and had a bitch of a time trying to break. Adam immediately stepped away from me and raised his hands in front of him, as if to show that he wasn’t trying to hurt me.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, dropping my head again and focusing my gaze on the ground, “It has nothing to do with you.”

“Don’t you dare apologize,” He commanded sternly, “none of this is your fault. None of this.” He opened his mouth to give me a lecture, I’m sure, but he seemed to change his mind. “You know what, we can talk about it later, but how about just having dinner for right now? Clara made a welcome feast.”

Clara. The wife. The woman that stole my big brother away, told him that he couldn’t do anything to help and so he might as well just leave. I hated her. Except I didn’t, because she protected him in a way that I never could. She got him away from the responsibility that he should have never had: me. We walked into the kitchen, him in front of me as he always had been before and me following like a lost puppy. Clara flashed a thousand watt smile and immediately pulled me into a bear hug, the kind of hug I never got from my mother. Her skin smelled like vanilla, comfort and warmth. She made me feel more at home than I’d ever felt at the apartment I shared with mom. She squeezed me tight, like a mother should, and gently rubbed my back, as if wiping away the day’s trauma. I felt myself start to cry, shoulders shaking as I hadn’t allowed them to in front of people before.

“There, there,” She soothed, smoothing my hair back and kissing my head, “It’s going to be okay. I know it’s been hard. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through since Adam left. I am so sorry you had to go through that.”

She pulled away from me and wiped my tears, offering a small, sad smile that I returned with as much enthusiasm as I could manage. Clara guided me to a seat with a full plate in front of it. My mouth started to water. Again, I saw more food in front of me than I had in months. Clara and Adam sat down, one on each side of me at the heads of the table, and each of them offered me a hand. I stared quizzically at them before Adam released a small chuckle.

“We pray,” He explained.

I nodded and took their hands. We bowed our heads, and I was shocked when Adam began to speak to God like He was an old friend.

“God thank you for the wonderful food we’re about to receive,” He said, “And thank you for my wonderful wife. I don’t know how you think I deserve her but I’m glad that you do. And more than anything else, thank you for bringing my sister to me. Thank you for letting me have someone so amazing to care about and protect. And thank you for keeping her as safe as you have, safe enough to survive. Amen.”

Clara whispered an Amen and gave my hand a gentle squeeze before letting go and picking up her fork. I glanced over to my brother and he was casually eating, as if he hadn’t just said the kindest words I’d heard in years. I remembered when I was little, he used to say things like that all the time.

“My little Molly,” He would smile and tell me, “You are just so darn cute” or “You’re going to be amazing.” Sometimes even “I love you more than anything else in the world.”

I grabbed my fork and scooped up some rice, savoring each delicious grain. I swallowed two platefuls of the meal before stopping to think about my mother. I took a deep, shaky breath.

“What is it, sweetie?” Clara inquired, placing a gentle hand over mine.

“My mom probably isn’t going to get to eat tonight,” I admitted, sniffling, “Her boyfriend showed up at Pizza Palace before I could give her cash for dinner.”

“Maybe we can take something to her?” Clara suggested, shrugging her shoulders, “I made plenty and it’s really-”

“No,” Adam said sternly, “Nobody is going near that apartment. It’s not happening.”

“Adam,” she said gently, but he interrupted before she even began to rationalize with him.

“No, Clara. You don’t get it. Do you see her face?!” I looked to my lap in shame, heat creeping up my neck, “it’s dangerous! Nobody protects anybody in that apartment. It’s a free for all. Nobody’s going there. End of story.”

“That’s not true,” I argued, my volume rising, “I protected mom. I did! How dare you say that nobody protects anybody else in our apartment. You don’t know what goes on! You vanished for 7 years! You have no clue what I’ve gone through to protect her! You don’t know what has happened to me because YOU weren’t around to protect us. You say Clara doesn’t get it but YOU don’t get it!”

I jumped up from my seat and stomped to my room, ignoring Adam calling for me from the table. I slammed the door and threw my fist into the wood. Glancing to my left, I remembered that this house only has one floor, and my window was the perfect escape.

* * * * *

I creeped up the rusty stairs of the fire escape that led to my mom’s apartment, making sure to hold tight to the cash from my tips at work that day. It was a measly fifteen dollars, but at least mom could order some food. I pushed open the window on the 6th floor just enough for me to slip in.

“Mom?” I called out, my voice not daring to go above a whisper, “Are you home?!”

My mother peeked her head out of the bathroom door and ran to me when she figured out that it wasn’t Brian. I allowed her to curl herself into my outstretched arms and I rubbed her back gently, hopefully soothing her.

“It’s okay,” I promised, “You’re safe. Look, I’m gonna stay the night with you, okay? We’re gonna lock the front door so Brian can’t get in and we’re gonna order chinese. I’ll keep you safe tonight.”

She nodded into my shoulder and I picked up the phone, dialing for food. It got to the apartment within twenty minutes and I quickly lost all the tips I had made that day. My mom was starting to itch for a hit again, so I had to feed her as she wiggled on the couch. She kept saying that Brian was on his way home, that he’d bring her something to “take the edge off” but if he wasn’t home soon, she’d have to use his private stash. I didn’t respond when she said these things; it would have just encouraged her to argue her case. There was banging on the door and mom and I both stopped breathing. I took a gulp of air and went to the door, looking through the peep hole. I released my held breath all at once and swung open the door.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I demanded.

“I could ask you the same question,” Adam retorted, “I’m not stupid. I knew where you went.”

I closed the door and walked towards mom, standing in front of her, blocking her from Adam’s view. I took a defensive stance, as if to alert him that I wasn’t going anywhere. Adam didn’t speak to me, just looked at me with eyes that resembled mom’s: just like a puppy’s. I opened my mouth to say something probably sassy and argumentative but the door swung open and Brian stopped in his tracks when he saw people in what he called “his man cave”. He took it well, though; he didn’t start screaming, just smirked and crossed his arms across his chest.

“Well, well,” He chuckled, “Family reunion? Jen, you didn’t tell me we were having visitors.”

“She didn’t know,” I explained quickly, “I just showed up and it’s my fault that he’s here.” I motioned to Adam. “It has nothing to do with her.”

“Come here, sweetie,” He made a “tsk” sound several times and held out his hand to me, “Let’s go to the other room and have a chat. I promise I’ll be nice.”

I started to move forward but in one seamless movement Adam stepped in front of me. I flashed back to when I was little. He always seemed to save me even when getting in trouble was my fault. Whenever mom went on a binge, Adam would escort me through the apartment like I was royalty, checking each room to make sure it was safe before he would allow me to enter. On the not so rare occasion that it started out calm then turned volatile, Adam always seemed to know before it happened, and he would always step in front of me. He would stand tall and strong, taking whatever sharp slaps or biting words that my mother had reserved for me. I realized that he was willing to do the exact same thing, even seven years later.

“She’s not going anywhere,” Adam stated plainly, then he called over his shoulder to mom, “Tell him to leave, mom. This is your last chance to protect your daughter. This is your chance to pay her back for all she’s done for you, a chance to pay her back for the life you’ve made her give up, the one she could have had. If you don’t tell him to go, we’re walking out this door, and we’re never coming back. Ever. She’s never coming back.”

I was about to protest, unwilling to just abandon someone that was so dependent on me for survival, but then I glanced behind me and saw my mother curled up on the couch, no longer shaking with withdrawal symptoms. A syringe laid on the old shag carpet, half of it covered by the blanket she had kicked off her legs.

“Baby, just talk with him, okay?” My mom suggested, words slightly slurred but a small, euphoric smile on her pale, chapped lips. “He said he’d be nice. I’m so tired, baby. Just talk for a bit and then we can go to sleep.”

Tears filled my eyes as I silently pleaded with her. How could she ask me to go with him? She knew what he would do to me. If she would’ve just changed her mind, told Brian to leave, then Adam and I could’ve stayed and helped her. She closed her eyes against the high and went into her own world, forgetting about me. Again. My lip quivered at the realization that my mother didn’t love me. She had never loved me, at least not as much as she loved the alcohol or the drugs. She hadn’t been clean since the day I was born, and she wouldn’t be clean until the day she died.

“We’re leaving,” Adam announced, putting his arm around me and guiding me out of the apartment.

Brian didn’t dare defy him, there was too much rage in Adam’s eyes and I wasn’t the one that Brian wanted. I wasn’t the one that Brian could control. I turned around one last time before the door slammed closed and the sound of breaking glass echoed down the hallway, before I heard Brian bellowing at my mom. My mother was picking up a bottle of whiskey. Adam was right, she’d never change, not even for me. I couldn’t save her. And even though I knew that it wasn’t my fault that she ended up that way, I still felt guilty, like maybe there was something that I could’ve done that I didn’t. Adam seemed to know exactly how I was feeling, maybe because he had felt that way when he walked out that same door 7 years earlier. He reached out behind him and took my hand. He gave it three strong squeezes as he led me out of the apartment complex and towards my new life.

I. Love. You. He said without a word.