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I connected with a hard blow to the nose, rolled on top of him, gripped his neck, and started to squeeze. After the pain, the unfathomable humiliation, this rage was completely pure and good. His hands gripped my wrists, struggled to pull my fingers away. He was making noises, hoarse and pleading, and I gradually realized he was saying my name.
That wasn't part of the memory.
And I wasn't back in that shack in the cotton fields. I was on a firm wide bed, not a sagging cot.
"Lily! Stop!" The grip on my wrists increased.
I wasn't in the right place - or rather, the wrong place.
This wasn't the right man . . . the wrong man.
I released my grip and scrambled off the bed, backing into a corner of the bedroom. My breath was coming in ragged pants, and my heart thudded way too close to my ears.
A light came on, blinding me for the moment. When I got used to the radiance, I realized with agonizing slowness that I was looking at Jack. Jack Leeds. Jack had blood streaming from his nose and red marks on his neck.
I'd done that to him.
I'd done my best to kill the man I loved.
"I know you don't want to do this, but maybe it'll help," Jack was telling me, his voice altered by the swelling of his nose and throat.
I tried very hard not to look sullen. I didn't want to go to any damn therapy group. I didn't like to talk about myself, and wasn't that what therapy was for? On the other hand, and this was the decisive hand, I didn't want to hit Jack again, either.
For one thing, hitting was a terrible insult to the one you loved.
For another thing, eventually Jack would hit me back. Considering how strong he was, that was not an unimportant factor.
So, later that morning, after Jack left to drive to Little Rock to talk to a client, I called the number on the flyer we'd seen at the grocery store. Printed on bright green paper, it had caught Jack's eye while I was buying stamps at the office booth at the front of the store.
HAVE YOU BEEN SEXUALLY ASSAULTED?
ARE YOU FEELING ALONE?
CALL TODAY 237-7777
ATTEND OUR THERAPY GROUP
ALONE NO MORE!
"Hartsfield County Health Center," said a woman's voice.
I cleared my throat. "I'd like to find out about the therapy group for rape survivors," I said, in as level a voice as I could manage.
"Of course," said the woman, her voice scrupulously neutral and so consciously nonjudgmental it made my teeth hurt. "The group meets Tuesday nights at eight, here at the center. You don't have to give me your name at this time. Just come in the end door, you know, the door that opens on the staff parking lot? You can park there, too. "
"All right," I said. I hesitated, then asked a crucial question. "How much is it?"
"We got a grant to do this," she said. "It's free. "
My tax dollars at work. Somehow that made me feel better.
"Can I tell Tamsin you'll be coming?" the woman asked. Definitely a local; I could tell by the number of syllables in "tell. "
"Let me think about it," I told her, suddenly frightened of taking a step that would undoubtedly add to my pain.
Carol Althaus lived in the middle of chaos. I had dropped all but three of my customers, and I wished Carol had been one of them, but I'd had one of my rare moments of pity and kept her on. I was only cleaning Carol, the Winthrops, and the Drinkwaters, and Monday was the day I did all three. I went back to the Winthrops on Thursday, and I remained open for the odd errand or special cleaning job other days, but I was also working for Jack, so my schedule was complicated.
Carol's chaos was of her own making, the way I saw it, but it was still chaos, and I like order.
Carol's life had gone out of control when she'd married Jay Althaus, a divorced salesman with two sons. To Jay's credit, he had custody of his sons. To Jay's debit, he was on the road all the time, and though he may have loved Carol, who was anemically attractive, religious, and stupid, he also needed a live-in baby-sitter. So he married Carol, and despite all their previous experiences with the two boys, they had their own babies, two girls. I'd begun working for Carol when she was pregnant with the second girl, throwing up intermittently every day and sitting limply in a recliner the rest of the time. I'd kept all of the children for a day and a half, only once, when Jay had had a car wreck out of town.
Probably these children were not demonic. Possibly, they were quite typical. But collectively, they were hell.
And hard on a house, too.
Carol needed me to come at least twice a week, for maybe six hours at a stretch. She could afford four hours a week, just barely. I gave Carol Althaus the best value for her money she would find anywhere.
During the school year, it was nearly possible for Carol to cope. Heather and Dawn were still at home, only five and three years old, but the boys (Cody and Tyler) were in school. Summers were another kettle of fish.
It was late June, so the kids had all been home for about three weeks. Carol had enrolled them in four Bible schools. The First Baptists and the Central Methodists had already completed their summer programs, and the house was even more littered with paper fish and bread glued to paper plates, sheep made from cotton balls and Popsicle sticks, and lopsided drawings of fishermen pulling in nets filled with people. Shakespeare Combined Church (a fundamentalist coalition) and the joint Episcopalian/Catholic Bible schools were yet to come.
I entered with my own key to find Carol standing in the middle of the kitchen, trying to get the snarls out of Dawn's long curls. The little girl was wailing. She had on a nightgown with Winnie the Pooh on the front. She was wearing toy plastic high heels and she'd gotten into her mother's makeup.
I surveyed the kitchen and began to gather dishes. When I reentered the kitchen a minute later, laden with dirty glasses and two plates that had been on the floor in the den, Carol was still standing in the middle of the floor, a quizzical expression on her face.
"Good morning, Lily," she said, in a pointed way.
"Hello, Carol. "
"Is something wrong?"
"No. " Why tell Carol? Would she be reassured about my well-being if I told her I'd tried to kill Jack the night before?
"You could say hello when you come in," Carol said, that little smile still playing across her face. Dawn looked up at me with as much fascination as if I'd been a cobra. Her hair was still a mess. I could solve that with a pair of scissors and a brush in about five minutes, and I found the idea very tempting.
"I'm sorry, I was thinking of other things," I told Carol politely. "Was there anything special you needed done today?"
Carol shook her head, that faint smile still on her face. "Just the usual magic," she said wryly, and bent to Dawn's head again. As she worked the brush through the little girl's thick hair, the oldest boy dashed into the kitchen in his swimming trunks.
"Mom, can I go swimming?" Carol's fair complexion and brown hair had been passed on to both the girls, but the boys favored, I supposed, their own mother: they were both freckle-faced and redheaded.
"Where?" Carol asked, using a yellow elastic band to pull Dawn's hair up into a ponytail.
"Tommy Sutton's. I was invited," Cody assured her. "I can walk there by myself, remember?" Cody was ten and Carol had given him a range of streets he could take by himself.
"Okay. Be back in two hours. "
Tyler erupted into the kitchen roaring with rage. "That's not fair! I want to go swimming!"
"Weren't invited," Cody sneered. "I was. "
"I know Tommy's brother! I could go!"
As Carol laid down the law I loaded the dishwasher and cleaned the kitchen counters. Tyler retreated to his room with a lot of door slamming and fuming. Dawn trotted off to play with her Duplos, and Carol left the room in such a hurry I wondered if she was ill. Heather appeared at my elbow to watch my every move.
I am not much of a kid person. I don't like, or dislike, all children. I take it on an individual basis, as I do with adults. I very nearly liked Heather Althaus. She would be old enough for kindergarten in the fall, she had short, easy-to-deal-with hair since a drastic self-barbering job that had driven Carol to tears, and she tried to take care of herself. Heather eyed me solemnly, said "Hey, Miss Lily," and extricated a frozen waffle from the side-by-side. After popping it in the toaster, Heather got her own plate, fork, and knife and set them on the counter. Heather had on lime green shorts and a kingfisher blue shirt, not a happy combination, but she'd gotten dressed herself and I could respect that. In acknowledgment, I poured a glass of orange juice for her and set it on the table. Tyler and Dawn trotted through on their way out to the fenced-in backyard.
For a comfortable time, Heather and I shared the kitchen silently. As she ate her waffle, Heather raised her feet one at a time when I swept, and moved her own chair when I mopped.
When there was only a puddle of syrup on the plate, Heather said, "My mama's gonna have a baby. She says God will give us a little brother or a sister. She says we don't get to pick. "
I leaned on my mop for a moment and considered this news. It explained the unpleasant noises coming from the bathroom. I could not think of one single thing to say, so I nodded. Heather wriggled off the chair and ran to the switch to turn on the overhead fan to dry the floor quickly, as I always did.
"It's true the baby won't come for a long time?" the little girl asked me.
"That's true," I said.
"Tyler says Mama's tummy will get real big like a watermelon. "
"That's true, too. "
"Will they have to cut her open with a knife, like Daddy does the watermelon?"
"No. " I hoped I wasn't lying. "She won't pop, either," I added, just to cover another anxiety.
"How will the baby get out?"
"Moms like to explain that in their own way," I said, after I'd thought a little. I would rather have answered her matter-of-factly, but I didn't want to usurp Carol's role.
Through the sliding glass doors to the backyard (doors that were perpetually decorated with handprints) I could see that Dawn had carried her Duplos into the sandbox. They'd have to be washed off. Tyler was firing the soft projectiles of some Nerf weapon in the general direction of a discarded plastic soda bottle he'd filled with water. The two seemed to be fine, and I couldn't see any danger actually lurking. I reminded myself to check again in five minutes, since Carol was definitely indisposed.
With Heather at my heels, I went to the room she shared with her sister and began to change the sheets. I figured that any second, Heather would exhaust her attention span and go find something else to do. But instead, Heather sat on a child-sized Fisher-Price chair and observed me with close attention.
"You don't look crazy," she told me.
I stopped pulling the flat sheet straight and glanced over my shoulder at the little girl.
"I'm not," I said, my voice flat and final.
It would be hard to pin down exactly why this hurt me, but it did. What a senseless thing to waste emotion on, the repetition by a child of something she'd apparently heard adults say.
"So why do you walk by yourself at night? Isn't that a scary thing to do? Only ghosts and monsters are out at night. "
My first response was that I myself was scarier than any ghost or monster. But that would hardly be reassuring to a little girl, and already other ideas were flickering through my head.
"I'm not afraid at night," I said, which was close to the truth. I was not any more afraid at night than I was in the daytime, for sure.
"So you do it to show them you're not afraid?" Heather asked.
The same wrenching pain filled me that I'd felt when I saw Jack's bloody nose. I straightened, dirty sheets in a bundle in my arms, and looked down at the little girl for a long moment. "Yes," I said. "That's exactly why I do it. "
I knew then and there that I would be at the therapy session the next night. It was time.
For now, I taught Heather how to make hospital folds.
I slid through the designated door the next night as though I'd come to steal some help, not to get it for free.
There were four cars in the parking lot, which was only partially visible from the street. I recognized two of them.
The side door we were to use was a heavy metal door. It slid shut behind me with a heavy thud, and I walked toward the only two rooms that were well lit. All the other doors up and down the corridor were shut, and I was willing to bet they were probably locked as well.
A woman appeared in the first open doorway and called, "Come on in! We're ready to get started!" As I got closer I could see she was as dark as I was blond, she was as soft as I am hard, and I was to find she talked twice as much as I'd ever thought about doing. "I'm Tamsin Lynd," she said, extending her hand.
"Lily Bard," I said, taking the hand and giving it a good shake.
She winced. "Lily?. . . "
"Bard," I supplied, resigned to what was to come.
Her eyes got round behind their glasses, which were wire framed and small. Tamsin Lynd clearly recognized my name, which was a famous one if you read a lot of true crime.
"Before you go in the therapy room, Lily, let me tell you the rules. " She stepped back and gestured, and I went into what was clearly her office. The desk and its chair were arranged facing the door, and there were books and papers everywhere. The room was pretty small, and there wasn't space for much after the desk and chair and two bookcases and a filing cabinet. The wall behind the desk was covered with what looked like carpeting, dark gray with pink flecks to match the carpet on the floor. I decided it had been designed for use as a bulletin board of sorts. Tamsin Lynd had fixed newspaper and magazine clippings to it with pushpins, and the effect was at least a little cheerful. The therapist didn't invite me to sit, but stood right in front of me examining me closely. I wondered if she imagined herself a mind reader.