FIVE YEARS EARLIER
My wrist is stiff as I run a hand back through my hair, damp and tousled after lying in the bath for the past hour, dipping my head below the water every once in a while to count how many seconds I can hold my breath for. My record is ninety-three, but I wish it was more.
I sit down on the edge of the tub and reach for the packet of painkillers by the sink. There’s only a few tablets left, so I’m hoping Mom will stock up on some more soon. I pop two of the tablets out of the packaging and clamp my fist around them, enclosing them in my palm as I lean over and fill myself a glass of water. I swallow the first, and then the second, then pour the remainder of the water back into the sink.
My gaze falls to my shoulder. The skin is grazed on the back of my shoulder blade, but it’s stopped bleeding now. Below the fresh cut, there’s a deepening bruise, a mixture of purple and blue. I prod it with my fingers, and it stings from the pressure, creating a dull ache beneath my skin, deep under the surface. I’d grab myself some ice from the kitchen, but I’d have to pass the living room, and the last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself. It’s after eleven. I should be asleep by now. I have school in the morning.
I get to my feet and stash the remaining painkillers back into the cabinet above the sink, at the very back of the second shelf from the top because it’s the highest I can reach. I already know I’ll need them tomorrow. When I click the cabinet door shut again, my empty reflection stares back at me in the mirror, and that’s when I notice the tiny cut in my lower lip. I edge forward, pinching my lip between my thumb and forefinger as I examine it up close in the mirror. I can’t remember when I got it, but it’s not fresh, so I know I didn’t get it tonight.
I shake my head and step back. It doesn’t matter when I got it, because as soon as it heals, there’ll be another to replace it. The same way there’ll be more blood, the same way there’ll be more bruises.
My reflection is still there, my eyes lifeless and sunken into my face, my shoulders slumped low and my lips set in a permanent frown. I press a hand to my forehead and push back my hair to reveal a deep cut that runs parallel to my hairline. It’s taking forever to heal, and I’m starting to worry that it’s going to turn into a scar. Quickly, I smooth my damp hair back down over it, then turn away from the mirror.
I grab my shirt and pull it on. There’s a row of fading brown bruises along my lower back that I need to cover, so going shirtless is never an option anymore. There’s always something new to hide. I slip into a pair of shorts, then toss my towel into the drained tub and glance at myself one last time in the mirror before I leave the bathroom. Nothing is on display, so I’m good to go.
Carefully, I push open the door a few inches, and as silently as I can, I step out into the hall. There are no lights on, and it’s dark. I can hear the sound of the TV from the living room and the sound of my parents laughing in unison at whatever show they’re watching. I keep my steps light as I edge along the hall toward the stairs, but I notice that the living room door is open a crack as I grow nearer, and instead of disappearing upstairs like I should be doing, I creep over and peer around the doorframe.
Mom and Dad are on the couch, their bodies entwined. He has her held close against him, his arms wrapped securely around her, his chin resting atop her head. Although she’s laughing, she still seems tired. She only got back from the office just as I was locking the bathroom door and climbing into the bath an hour ago.
I back away from the living room and spin around, running up the stairs as fast as I can, two steps at a time. Against the carpet, my footsteps are almost silent. The door to my room is wide open, the light still on, but I stop for a second to peer into the room on my right, my brothers’ room.
I squint into the dull room as my eyes slowly adjust. In the bed on the left, my youngest brother, Chase, is asleep. He’s on his stomach, his face pressed into his pillow with one leg dangling over the side of the mattress. Over in the bed to the right, Jamie is snoring softly. There’s a bruised lump on his forehead from earlier in the day, when another kid on his fourth-grade baseball team hurled the ball at his face by accident.
I wish my bruises were only accidents, too.
Stepping out of the room, I pull the door closed, but not completely. Chase is still scared of the dark and he likes it to be left open, so I leave a safe crack of a couple inches and then turn for my own room.
It’s exactly as I left it. My math homework is spread across my floor, nothing more than worthless scraps of paper that aren’t good enough to hand back in next week. One of the sheets is torn into three uneven pieces. It’s the one that contains the single equation I messed up on. But one simple error is apparently one error too many, even if it is only seventh-grade algebra. I’ll need to fix it tomorrow, and then pray my damned hardest that everything is finally up to his standard.
I gather up the papers and stuff them into my backpack, then I turn off the light and climb into bed. Only it hurts, so I wince and breathe out, moving onto my right side. I pull my comforter up to my chest, and I lie there in the dark for what feels like forever, staring aimlessly at my wall. It always takes me a long time to fall asleep.
I raise my left hand and hold it up in the air. I flex my fingers, then roll my wrist in a circular motion three times. I’m supposed to do this a bunch of times during the day, but I keep forgetting. After having my wrist in a cast for the past four weeks, it’s super stiff. It could take another few weeks before the fracture heals fully.
There’s sudden footsteps against the stairs and I drop my hand back down immediately, squeezing my eyes shut and pretending to be asleep. I do this a lot, so I’m pretty good at it. I even open my mouth a little, deepening my breath.
My door opens, and there’s a moment of silence where he hovers for a couple seconds before he takes a step inside. And I know it’s him. It’s always him.
He enters, closing the door behind him with a soft click. There’s no sound other than his breathing for a while, and then I begin to sense him slowly moving around my room. I don’t know what he’s doing, and no matter how badly I want to roll over and open my eyes to check, I don’t want to take the risk, so I stay as still as possible.
I hear some fumbling, and I think he could be searching through my backpack, because there’s the shuffling of paper, and after what happened earlier in the night, it seems likely it’s my math homework he’s after. Silence again. More shuffling. A long sigh that sounds almost like a groan.
And then he speaks, letting his voice break the silence. His words are low and hushed as he murmurs, “I’m sorry, Tyler.”
I don’t know if he thinks I’m asleep or awake, but I do know that he says sorry a lot. I also know that he doesn’t mean it. If he did, he wouldn’t have to say it again tomorrow, and then the day after that. I’m scared he’s always going to have something to apologize for.
I continue to keep still, because the quicker I can convince him I’m asleep, the quicker he’ll leave. And I think he’s buying it, because he hasn’t said anything else. I don’t think he’s moved either, and I don’t know where in my room he is.
A few minutes pass where nothing happens, where I focus on my breathing, where I pray that he’ll leave. And then there’s more footsteps that are hard to hear against the carpet, and then the opening of the door, and then one final pause. He sighs again, but he sounds annoyed, and I can’t tell if he’s annoyed at me or if he’s annoyed at himself. I think it’s me. It usually is.
My door is pulled shut, and he’s gone.
I exhale in relief and open my eyes. At least I know it’s over for tonight. I can get some sleep now; only I won’t, because I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in months. I’ll wake in a few hours, where I’ll stare at my ceiling for a while before I fall back asleep, and then repeat.
Yet although I can never sleep well, this is always the best part of every day. That time where I know that for the next seven hours, I’m safe. I like that feeling, but I also hate knowing that tomorrow, I’ll have to do this all over again.
Tomorrow, I need to go to school and keep on acting normal in front of everyone.
Tomorrow, I need to try my best to keep tonight’s fresh injuries hidden from Mom.
Tomorrow, new bruises will develop and new cuts will appear.
And they will all be caused by Dad.