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A new town. A new identity. Pregnant and alone.
I have no interest in befriending River. And he definitely doesn’t want to be befriended by me.
Then, he helps me rescue an abandoned dog. And, that day, I see something in his eyes that reflects back in my own. Sadness. Pain. Loneliness.
I know all of those things well.
An unwanted and unexpected friendship that somehow works. Then, without warning, it turns into something more.
River and I both have our secrets, and that’s okay. Because I understand him. And he understands me.
For the first time in my life, I have something I never thought I would have—happiness.
But happiness isn’t forever. Not for people like me.
Especially not when my past is waiting just around the corner, ready to come and take it all away.
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Monsters lurk in plain sight.
They wear ordinary clothes.
Have ordinary faces.
Work ordinary jobs.
Live ordinary lives.
But the monster is always there.
Lying in wait, beneath its ordinary skin.
Waiting for its moment.
And when its moment comes.
And it breaks free.
You won’t see it coming.
But I will.
And I’ll be ready.
Eight Years Old
I hate Sundays.
Sundays are when Mama goes to her weekly book club meeting. Sundays between five and seven p.m. are when Mama isn’t home.
Sunday between five and seven p.m. are when he hurts me.
But I can’t tell my mama that he hurts me.
He told me that he’d hurt her, too, if I told. He said no one would believe me anyway. Because he’s important.
My stepdaddy is the person you tell when someone hurts you.
He is a policeman.
The police are supposed to be good.
But he isn’t good.
I’m in the backyard, playing with the new basketball Mama bought me for my eighth birthday last week.
She left five minutes ago.
I know what’s going to happen.
He’s going to make me go inside soon.
He’s going to make me do things that I don’t want to do.
He’s going to do things to me.
I throw the ball at the hoop that hangs on the side of the garage wall.
It goes in. Hits the concrete floor with a thump.
I walk over and pick it up.
I throw it through again.
“River, come inside,” he calls from the kitchen.
I hate his voice.
I hate him.
I shut my eyes.
The ball rolls back to me, bumping against my foot.
“Now,” he barks.
I take a breath. Open my eyes.
I pick my ball up, hugging it to my chest. I slowly walk inside, into the kitchen.
He’s standing against the kitchen counter.
“Shut the door,” he tells me.
I obey, turning and closing the back door.
I don’t want to. Please don’t make me.
“Don’t make me tell you twice. You know what will happen if you do.”
I turn and walk over to him. My stomach starts to hurt.
I hold the ball tighter to my chest.
I stop a few feet away from him.
I don’t look at him. But I know he’s looking at me.
He reaches out and takes the ball from me, placing it on the counter behind him. There are the usual empty bottles of beer on there.
I see his gun belt lying on the counter, too.
His gun is still in it.
He never leaves it out like that. It’s always in his safe.
Why is it there?
My heart starts to beat faster.
“We’re going to play a new game today, River.”
My new daddy came and sat beside me on the floor in my room. “Do you want to play a game, River?”
“A game?” I asked excitedly. “I love games! What kind of game?”
He leaned closer to me. He smelled like stinky beer and sweat. I didn’t like the way he smelled.
“Well, this is a secret game,” he whispered. “Only good boys can play it.”
“I am a good boy! Miss Clarke says I’m the best behaved boy in her class.”
Miss Clarke was my teacher in first grade. I liked her. She smelled nice. She was pretty, too, but not as pretty as my mama. No one was as pretty as my mama.
“Okay, but if we play this game, you have to promise not to tell your mama that we played.”
“Because it’s a secret game. One that mommies aren’t allowed to know about.”
“Do you pinkie promise?”
“I pinkie promise. So, what’s the game called?”
He starts to unbuckle his pants.
I turn my face away. I stare at the picture tacked to the refrigerator. I drew it at school on Friday for Mama. It’s a picture of a puppy.
I really want a puppy.
I hear the clang of his buckle. The zip lowering.
My body starts to tremble.
Please don’t make me do this.
His hand takes hold of my arm and pulls me to him.
His usual stench of beer and sweat hits me. I feel sick.
“Look at me, boy.”
I force my face his way. I stare at the wall behind him. I can’t look at him.
“We’re going to do something different today. You know how, when you’re a good boy for me, Daddy gives you that special treat.”
I shut my eyes.
“Well, you’re going to do that for me.”
“P-please … I-I d-don’t want to,” I whisper.
He slaps me across the face.
I start to cry.
He slaps me again, harder this time. He grabs hold of my face, fingers pinching my cheeks.
“Open your eyes, boy.”
I do as I was told. Tears run down my face.
“Stop fucking crying. Only babies cry. Are you a baby, River?”
“Then, stop acting like one.” His face is bright red. His eyes are bulging. His fingers squeeze my face, hurting me more. “You will do as I tell you, boy. Because, if you don’t, you know what will happen.”
“I-I d-don’t want to play this g-game anymore,” I whispered. “I-I d-don’t think I like it.”
“Do you know what happens to little boys who break their promises, River?”