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C2 From The Grave

The surge of adrenaline I had is gone, leaving in its wake a shaken shell of a girl with a crushing headache. Viscous liquid drips into my eyes, stinging, and I wipe at it, leaving a crimson stain on the brown leather wristband I always wear on my left arm. I rub at it with my shirt, but the stain persists, the crevices of the engraved vine soaking up the blood. This had been a gift. A reminder. Protection, of a kind.

My eyes fill with tears, whether from the pain, the confrontation with Pat, or long buried grief, I don't know, and I'm too weary at a deep soul level to parse it out just now.

Kyle creeps down the stairs holding a washcloth. "Is he gone?" he asks in a whisper.

I nod, and Kyle speeds up, taking the stairs two at a time with his long, gangly teen legs until he's next to me, pressing the wet cloth against my head. "You might need stitches this time," he says softly.

"Grab my bag," I say.

He nods and runs back up the stairs to my bedroom where I keep the first aid kit.

He opens the canvas bag and rummages around. "What do you need?"

"I have to wash it first," I say, trying to stand, but a wave of dizziness lands me back on my ass, and I groan at the impact.

Kyle puts a hand on my arm. "Let me help you."

I hate that he has to do this, but he's right, it's bad this time. I could walk him through the steps, but I don't want more on his shoulders than there already is. Instead, I pull out my phone and text the one person I know will help without question.

Can you come home? Urgent. Bring med supplies.

Blood is stinging my eyes, and I don't bother waiting for a response. I know he'll come. He always comes.

I touch Kyle's shoulder. "Thank you for your help, but I'll be fine. Blake will be here soon."

At the mention of Blake, Kyle relaxes, though the stress around his brown eyes doesn't ease. I must look even worse than I feel. "Remember, head wounds always bleed more. There are a lot of blood vessels close to the surface, so it looks worse than it is. I promise." My words seem to reassure him some. "Where are the littles? Are they okay?"

He frowns. "They're in the closet."

I close my eyes and sigh. "I'll check on them soon. Go do your homework."

He's about to argue, but the front door opens and Kyle runs to greet Blake.

"How's our girl?" I hear Blake ask.

"Not good," Kyle says, his voice so broken I feel my heart break a little too.

"I'll take good care of her."

I open my eyes enough to look at Blake, and he whistles as he takes the washcloth from me and examines the cut on my head. "Sky Knightly, you are a mess. This will leave a scar. Stitches would help."

"I can't afford the ER bill."

There's pain etched on his perfect face as he nods. "I'll do what I can."

He makes quick work of it, cleaning it first, then applying pressure to stop the bleeding. "I'll give it 15 minutes. If we can't get the bleeding to stop, I'm taking you in whether you like it or not."

He lifts my head gently and sits on the couch, then places my head on his lap as he holds sterile bandages against my wound. "What happened this time?" he asks.

"The usual. Just Pat being Pat."

"This isn't normal, Sky," he says softly and without judgment. Only love. Compassion. Kindness. All the things that make me feel weak right now.

"I know," I say. "But I can't leave the kids alone with him."

"There has to be a better way. You could still try to get custody."

"A single 24-year old who couldn't even make rent without her best friend paying half the bills and has the kind of work schedule we do? In what universe would a judge give me custody of three kids? Steve barely got custody of his own. Forty-eight hour work shifts that often become longer don't impress in custody cases. And Pat doesn't have a record, he's just an asshole."

"An abusive asshole," Blake says.

"Yes," I agree.

"Maybe the kids, and you, would be better off if you report—"

"Don't say it," I say. "They have no one else. No other family. With Pat gone, they'd be separated. Kyle would end up in a group home for teens. It would ruin them. Who knows what kind of abuse they would endure if the system got ahold of them. At least here I can protect them. We can protect them."

We've had this conversation before. Many times. The facts never change.

"And who will protect you?" Blake asks softly, as he strokes my long hair.

I don't have an answer for him. I will have to protect myself. That's always been my life, especially since my mother died giving birth to Kara.

"He's escalating," Blake says.

"I know."

And I do. I know Pat is getting worse. I know it's only a matter of time before this gets really bad. We get a lot of domestic violence calls at the station. And they're often the ugliest. I've seen my future with Pat, and it isn't pretty. So I know the risk. What I don't know is what to do about it. How to fix it. How to stop him. How to keep our family together and keep these kids safe. And stay alive.

After fifteen minutes, Blake checks my head. "Looking better. I'm putting butterfly bandages on it... though you really should get stitches. You'll need to ice it when I'm done."

"Yeah, I know the drill." Blake and I have known each other since we were kids. Fun fact, he was my first husband. Of course, we were in kindergarten at the time, so it wasn't legally binding. Then around puberty he realized he was gay, and all romantic notions between us ended. Now he's like a brother. A ridiculously gorgeous brother with perfect black hair and a perfect physique. And he's my roommate and surrogate uncle to the three kids I call my own. I don't know how we'd make it without him.

Blake hands me two pills and I pop them in my mouth without asking what they are. Pain relief of some kind, and that's all I care about.

When I can finally sit up, I realize he's dressed for work. "Our shift isn't until Saturday," I say, hoping I didn't screw up my schedule somehow. I don't have childcare lined up until the weekend.

"Steve called in," he says.

"Kid sick again?"

Blake nods.

"Poor guy. Single parenting sucks."

Blake laughs. "You would know. But I'm going to call and tell them to find someone else. I need to stay here with you, in case you have a concussion."

"No, I'm fine. Kyle's here if anything happens. You go."

He stands reluctantly, grabbing his bag. "You sure?"

I nod, but regret the movement as pain lances through my head. "I'm sure."

He doesn't look convinced, but I know he needs the money and there aren't many who can cover the shift. We're too understaffed and dependent on volunteers as it is. So I stand and walk him to the door. "See? I'm fine. Just a headache. I'll be right as rain tomorrow."

He snickers at that. "Tomorrow you'll have a black eye and feel like something that exited the back end of a sick dog."

"Thanks for the optimistic prognosis, doc."

He kisses the side of my head that isn't a bloody mess. "Be careful. Don't let that drunk asshole back in. And call if you need me. I'll be home in minutes. With backup."

"Thanks, Blake. For everything."

He nods and steps out to the porch. "I'll come straight home after my shift."

Once he's gone, I shut the front door and lean against it, closing my eyes as I collect my thoughts. I need a better plan than wait and hope I don't die at Pat's hands. But right now, I need to check on the kids.

I find Caleb huddled in the back of the closet in their bedroom, with Kara sleeping next to him on a pile of dirty laundry, her black hair stuck to her head with sweat. This used to be my room, so I know every nook and cranny and hiding place. I crawl in with them and he snuggles into my arms, his nose dripping snot onto my shirt as his tears swell his big brown eyes.

"He hurt you," he says.

I don't want to lie to him, so I say nothing for a while, and just hold him. Minutes later, his tears dry up and he sighs deeply into the crook of my arm.

I lean down, whispering in his ear. "Did you know this was my closet before you were born?" I ask him.

He shakes his head no.

I smile. "It was. And did you know there's a secret to this closet?"

Now his eyes widen, all fears forgotten as his young mind is gripped with the mystery. "A secret?"

I nod. "A hidden treasure. Want to see?"

He bobs his head eagerly, and I grin as I move clothes, toys and old shoes away from the corner. I pull up the edge of the carpet and show Caleb how to loosen the board to access the secret hiding place. "Go ahead and see what's in there," I tell him.

With all the eagerness of a curious six-year-old he reaches in and pulls out everything he finds. There's a box of dusty crayons that smell like childhood and summers and wax and imagination. A coloring book that's mostly colored in, but there are still some blank pages left. A metal box full of odds and ends I collected as a child: dried leaves, stones, loose change, a matchbook, some old Halloween candy that could probably survive the apocalypse, and a journal.

I take the journal from him and open it, my hands shaking. It's pink and green, with a dragon on the cover that used to be covered in glitter that's mostly faded now. Inside is my childhood scrawl filling up page after page with dates, times and the exact things that happened in the most boring and mundane detail. What I ate, what I wore, what so-and-so said that was completely awful and ruined our friendship. But somewhere in the middle my hands pause, and I slow my breathing as I try to make sense of what I'm seeing.

There's a shift in my writing. Not just a different pen or different hand, but a different language. Words turn to symbols. Glyphs. I don't recognize them, but seeing them sends shivers through my body, because as foreign as they are, they feel familiar. Like I should know what they mean. And it brings me back to my words. Hiraeth. Saudade. The homesickness and loss and nostalgia hit me hard, rocking me back until I'm pressed against the wall.

I slam the book closed and clutch it in my hands. Caleb has forgotten all about me as he scribbles in the coloring book. Kara is just about to wake from her nap and will need changed and fed. I ruffle his hair and plaster a fake smile on my face. "Now you'll always have something to do when you're in here," I say.

He nods, content with the small treasure of a child.

I pick up Kara and crawl out of the closet, still clutching my old journal, my head pounding from the movement. "What do you want for dinner tonight? Fish sticks or... fish sticks?" I try to hide my pain under a smile.

He looks up at me, a goofy grin splashed across his face, one that isn't fake or forced. Children are so resilient. It's the only explanation for how any of them survive to adulthood.

"Pasgetti!" he says.

I frown dramatically and put a finger to my mouth as if thinking about it. "That didn't sound like fish sticks. But I'll see if we have any noodles and pasta sauce, okay?"

He nods. "Okay!"

"Will you settle for fish sticks if that's all we have?" As if he has a choice. But he's a good boy and he knows how this game works, so he nods.

I'm about to walk away, when I pause, remembering the cat. "Have you seen Marshmallow around?" I ask.

Caleb doesn't look up from his drawing; he just shakes his head no.

I leave him to his closet and crayons and take Kara to the couch downstairs to change her. She looks up at me with large dark eyes, blinking slowly, as if she's trying to figure out the human words for all the deep thoughts she holds in her mind. I wonder if babies come to this world knowing all the secrets, but forget them when they learn how to speak.

I kiss her forehead and she smiles and wraps her pudgy fingers around my index finger. "Sky!" she says in her baby voice. The fact that my name was her first word still makes me weepy. She may not be my child biologically, but I've been raising her since she was born, and couldn't love her more.

Once she's changed, I put her in a high chair with a sippy cup and some cut grapes to snack on while I set about making dinner.

We do indeed have the makings for 'pasgetti', and a few hours later the littles are fed and happy and in bed, and the kitchen is cleaned up of Kara's attempts at using spaghetti as art. Only Kyle remains awake, watching me with worried eyes. "Some day he'll go too far," Kyle says, not looking up from the math book he's pretending to study.

"I'll be okay," I assure him.

Now he looks up, setting his book aside. "What happens when you and Blake aren't here anymore? What will happen to us?"

My heart breaks a little as I walk over to him and kneel so that we're eye to eye. "I'm not going anywhere. You're my kids and I'll always be here to protect you."

I can tell he's about to cry, and that he doesn't want to do it in front of me, so I let him go without a word as he runs upstairs to get ready for bed.

I stay downstairs, enjoying the peace and quiet. While Pat technically lives here on paper, he spends most nights elsewhere. With women. At bars. Drunk in alleys. When it's just me, Blake and the kids, it feels like a real home. Pat could be gone for the night, or for the week. We won't know until he comes back. So I've learned to take advantage of the moments without him whenever possible.

I get comfy on the living room couch and turn on the TV, flipping through channels until I find something semi-decent. Some kind of soap opera western fantasy thing. When I finally fall asleep, dreams haunt me. Dreams of faceless men taking the children away.

I wake in a cold sweat on the couch, the TV still on, my head pounding from a horrid headache. I check the time: 3:48 a.m. Too early to be up, too late to try to go back to sleep.

So I put on a pot of coffee, pop a few more pills Blake left me, and prepare a breakfast of oatmeal for the kids. As I sip my coffee and stir the oatmeal, I hear a thump at the front door. Probably Blake coming home after his shift. He really needs to work on being quieter in the middle of the night, though.

It's still dark out, and when I open the door, the cold mist of morning washes over me. The porch is empty—no Blake. Maybe it was the cat. I'm just about to go back inside when something catches my eye. A stained leather bag—cracked and old—sits at my feet. There is something unnatural to its shape. Something wrong. I lean down, and a rancid smell hits my nose. My stomach turns. I try not gag as I use the edge of my shirt to cover my hand and pull the bag closer. There is something. A piece of paper sticking out. I clutch it and read.

"I told you there will be consequences. This is but the first."

And then I see what's in the bag. And my stomach cramps and vomit spews from my mouth. I try to aim it at the potted plant to my right, but only half meet my mark.

I just found Marshmallow. Or part of her, at least.

Libre Baskerville
Gentium Book Basic
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