Sarah waited until she heard her husband’s deep snoring beside her. She carefully pulled back the covers and placed her bare feet on the floor. The bedframe groaned with the sudden shift in weight. Sarah froze in place.
She looked over at Jeff’s prone silhouette in the darkened room. He hadn’t moved. She breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn’t going to wake up anytime soon. Not with that much alcohol sloshing around in his bloodstream. The longer he stayed passed out the better. She had things to do.
As she padded down the short hallway to check on her kids, she felt a sharp pain in her left foot. She hobbled to the bathroom and shut the door behind her before flipping on the switch. Bracing her foot against her knee, she discovered the reason for her pain.
Glass. A healthy shard of it, too. Undoubtedly from the vase Jeff threw in her direction earlier. She bit down on her bottom lip as she pulled it out. She tossed the piece of glass into the sink with a clatter and looked at the damage to her face in the mirror.
The harsh fluorescent lighting wasn’t kind. But even if the illumination in the room was softer, she still couldn’t dismiss the battered image looking back at her.
Is that really me?
Quick tears filled her eyes, but she willed herself not to cry. Things hadn’t always been this way. There was a time when the two of them were happy. Young and naïve and without a dime to their name, they had tried to make a go of it. For the baby’s sake. And she loved Jeff. Or at least she had back then.
Combing back her dirty blonde hair with her fingers, she tried to look past the bruises and see the woman she once was. She couldn’t find her.
She would turn twenty-five next month. She felt much older.
Disheartened by the stranger looking back at her, she opened the medicine cabinet to look for some Tylenol and a Band-Aid. She thought about the chain of events that led up to their latest fight.
It started out routinely enough. Jeff was late – again – coming home from work. And already drunk after spending several hours at the local watering hole. She held his dinner. Jeff took one look at the food on his plate and griped, “Leftovers again?”
Sarah started to reply, but Jeff cut her off. “Just get me the ketchup.”
She brought him the bottle and he poured ketchup over his meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans. He wolfed down his dinner, then lay on the couch in front of the TV and flipped through the channels with the remote. Long accustomed to his volatile mood swings when he drank, Sarah steered herself and the kids away from him.
After washing the dishes, she read a story to their three year-old, Michael, and tucked him into bed. Then she gave Matthew his bedtime bottle and laid him in his crib. She kissed his downy forehead. “Sweet dreams, baby boy,” she said softly and turned out his nightlight.
When she came back into the living room, she was surprised to find Jeff still awake. She hoped he would pass out on the couch and leave her in peace. Her nerves were frayed from walking on eggshells around him.
“Nothing good on tonight,” he muttered. Tossing the remote onto the floor, he got up from the couch and made his way on unsteady feet to the kitchen. Moments later, his booming voice resounded throughout the bungalow.
“Hey! There’s no more beer!”
Jeff’s large frame filled the space in front of the open refrigerator door. Sarah didn’t know what to say. He slammed the door shut.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We needed diapers. I’ll go tomorrow, okay?”
He started to reply, but his attention was drawn to the leaky faucet at the kitchen sink. In the heavy silence, the steady dripping seemed overly loud.
Jeff cursed under his breath. “I thought you were going to get that fixed today!”
Sarah could hear Michael stirring in his bed in the next room. “Jeff, you’re going to wake up the babies,” she said. He ignored her.
“Why didn’t you call a plumber like I told you to?” His face had turned an alarming shade of crimson. “I swear... I can’t count on you to do anything around here!”
“But—I did!” she stammered. Her stomach and mouth felt sour. She sensed the situation was about to spiral out of control. “The plumber came this morning. I found one who would do a free estimate, just like you said, and he took a look at it.” She stopped.
Matthew started to whimper in his crib. “Jeff, please,” she whispered. “Keep your voice down.” Again, he ignored
“So why didn’t he fix it?” he demanded, as he took a step toward her. Sarah backed away.
“The estimate was too high,” she answered. “Something about a gasket or something that needs replaced. He said it would cost around seventy-five dollars.” She paused. “We don’t have that kind of money.”
Jeff glared at her. “What is that supposed to mean? You’re saying I don’t make enough money! Isn’t that what you meant to say?”
Sarah knew it was a loaded question. She swallowed hard.
Sarah shook her head. “I—I didn’t say that, Jeff.”
He let out a string of expletives as he quickly walked toward her. Sarah pressed her back against the wall. A surge of adrenaline coursed through her as he closed the distance between them. But then he brushed past her through the doorway and into the living room.
“I get no respect from you,” he said. His tirade continued as he scattered the evening newspaper across the floor and lifted up the sofa cushions in search of the remote control.
“I go to work every friggin’ day and bust my hump at the plant while you sit at home with the kids doing nothing.” He turned to look at her. “I mean... what kind of work is that?”
He found the remote next to the coffee table. “Not that you could get a job. God only knows you’re too stupid to get anything that pays any real money. If you’re gonna sit at home on your butt all day, the least you can do is keep this place clean and have a decent meal ready when I come home at night!”
Sarah pressed her lips together as a bubble of anger simmered inside her. She knew he was grasping at anything to bait her with. Their tiny, two-bedroom bungalow was spotless. As well as her kids.
Jeff began his protests anew as he settled onto the couch to watch a football game, but Sarah tuned him out. She leaned against the doorway and stared out at the night through the living room window.
It was frigid cold outside. The bare branches of an ancient oak tree in the side yard scratched its fingers against the windowpane. A sliver of moon was captured in the upper left corner of the window, stark white against a starless sky.
The forecast called for snow tomorrow. Maybe she would bundle the kids up and build a snowman. Matthew had never seen snow before. The scenario made her smile.
Her thought processes were interrupted by the sound of the baby’s muffled crying. She turned on her heel and started toward their bedroom.
A sudden explosion went off next to her face. At first she thought a gun had been fired. But then a shower of broken glass rained down on her, and she instinctively ducked her head and covered her ears. She whirled around to find Jeff glaring at her from across the room, his lips drawn back in an angry snarl.
“Don’t you walk away from me when I’m talking to you!” he bellowed.
She looked down to find the remaining pieces of the glass vase scattered across the carpet at her feet. Behind her on the wall, the thin plaster was caved in where the object had struck.
Her heart pounded in her chest. Jeff had been aiming for her head. Her breath came in ragged gasps as she turned to face him.
“Have—have you lost your mind?”
Jeff’s hands balled into fists at his sides.
Without thinking, she picked up the jagged bottom of the vase and hurled it back at him. It bounced off his meaty shoulder and landed on the floor. Sarah turned and ran for the bedroom.
* * *
Sometime later, Jeff stumbled out the front door and climbed into his truck, leaving Sarah in a crumpled heap next to their bed. She could hear Matthew wailing in his crib. She knew Michael had to be awake as well.
She listened as Jeff revved the engine and drove away. Tears dripped off her chin as she uttered every foul name and word she could think of. She slowly got to her feet. On her bureau, a glass paperweight in the shape of a bird caught her eye. Jeff had given her the trinket a long time ago, when his words and hands were soft and never hurled at her in anger.
She picked it up and felt the heaviness of it in her palm. Before she knew what she was doing, she threw it across the room and shattered a hole in the window.
“I hope you die!” she screamed. “Just die! Die! Die!”
She stopped crying and wiped the tears from her face. Her children needed her.
Lifting her youngest from his crib, she gave him a bottle and then crawled into bed beside Michael. While Matthew only wanted to be fed and was too young to understand, it was obvious her older son knew something wasn’t right. He wound a lock of her hair between his fingers and nestled his head in the crook of her neck. It took him a long time to fall back asleep.
Not knowing what else to do, Sarah changed into her nightgown and stuffed a hand towel in the hole left by the paperweight. She had no idea how she would explain it to Jeff. She was too exhausted to think about anything more tonight. She went to bed, where she willed herself to slip into that peaceful place where reality no longer exists.
* * *
She was awakened by the sound of Jeff as he stumbled into their bedroom. He reeked of cigarette smoke. Mumbling under his breath, he fumbled to remove his shoes and pants by the side of the bed.
Sarah lay still, praying he would fall into bed and pass out. Please, God... please. Don’t... let... him... touch me.
She imagined his rough hands pawing at her, his kiss sloppy and tasting of stale beer. He had done it before, coming to her after they had fought, oblivious to her battered physical and emotional state. Slurring his apologies, telling her it would never happen again. Breaking her resolve until she felt obligated to give him what he wanted, feeling utterly empty inside even as Jeff’s body filled her own.
Thankfully, Jeff fell into bed beside her and passed out almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Her mind a jumbled weave of emotions and thoughts, Sarah felt a spark ignite within her. Her heartbeat quickened as the spark grew into an ember, then a fiery flame.
A part of her truly hated him now. She listened to his noisy snoring, smelled the cloying stench of liquor coming off his body. The walls pressed in on her, squeezing the air from her lungs until she could no longer draw a breath. The thought occurred to her, not for the first time, that one of these days he wouldn’t stop punching.
And then this man will be raising your children.
The ice in her stomach turned to steel. And it was at that moment Sarah knew she had to leave, this time for good.
* * *
Brought back to the present by the sound of Matthew stirring in his crib, she closed the medicine cabinet door and went back to her bedroom, favoring her left heel as she moved quietly about the house.
Taking an overnight bag and an old suitcase from the closet, she emptied out her clothing drawers. She packed Matthew’s diaper bag, then crept into the children’s bedroom, where she filled a large laundry bag with clothing and shoes and a few favorite toys and books. She wanted to take more but knew she had to travel light.
Money, she thought. I need money.
She found Jeff’s work pants in a tangled ball on the floor. She found his cell phone in one pocket and his keys and wallet in another. She opened his billfold. Not much cash. But his credit cards and ATM card would come in handy tonight. She put the items in her purse. Then she went to her bureau and eased the bottom drawer open. Tossing aside their wedding album, she pulled out her Michael and Matthew’s baby scrapbooks and put them in the laundry bag.
Dressing quickly in jeans and a sweater, she pulled on her coat and gloves and quietly opened the front door. A blast of frigid winter air stung her face and cut lip. As she walked toward the old station wagon beneath the carport, she glanced over at Jeff’s truck, parked at a sharp angle across the curb. Sarah marveled he had made it home.
Charged with adrenaline, she looked over her shoulder as she carried items to the car, certain she would suddenly find Jeff’s hulking form standing over her, demanding what she was doing and where did she think she was going.
After several trips, she was finished. She then bundled the kids in blankets and took them to the car. Michael woke up as she was carrying him down the front porch steps.
“Shhhh... it’s okay, big man,” she said. “We’re going for a ride.” He fell back asleep.
She harnessed Matthew into his carrier and buckled Michael into his car seat next to him. She carefully closed the car door. Then she turned to face the small clapboard house she and Jeff had shared. Not a home in any sense of the word; just a wood and concrete structure where four people had once lived together.
Looking up at the night sky, she searched for that same slice of moon she had seen earlier through the living room window. She found it high above her, hidden amongst the feathery foliage of a towering evergreen. She watched the plume of her breath materialize in the cold air as quick clouds skirted past. Within seconds, the moon was gone.
Sliding into the driver’s seat, Sarah prayed the car would start. Then she prayed the sound of the engine turning over wouldn’t wake Jeff. The carport was right next to their bedroom window. She turned the key. It started. She backed out of the driveway, keeping an eye on the front door of the house, her heartbeat pulsing in her throat.
No sign of Jeff. She put the car into gear and pressed the gas pedal.
She drove into town and pulled into an all-night convenience store. She started to get out but stopped short when she caught her reflection in the rearview mirror. She fumbled through her purse and put on a pair of sunglasses to conceal the swollen, purple flesh surrounding her eyes.
Inside the store, she quickly went down the aisles, filling her buggy to the brim with formula, diapers, bottled water, and snacks. At the checkout counter, the cashier looked at the contents of her cart, then took her credit card without comment and ran it through.
“Uhhh... this one’s maxed out,” he told her.
Undeterred, Sarah pulled out another card from Jeff’s wallet and handed it to him. “Try this one.”
The transaction went through, and Sarah loaded her purchases into the car and filled the tank with gas. Then she found an ATM and emptied out their checking account. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do.
Heading west out of town, she stopped at the first bridge she came to. She took Jeff’s cell phone and wallet from her purse and went over to the railing, where she hurled the items across the dark expanse of water.
“That should slow you down for a while,” she said.
Back on the freeway, she decided she would drive a few hours and then find someplace to stop for the night. She wanted to get as many miles as possible between herself and Jeff before he woke up and realized what she had done.
She had no idea where she was going. She had purposely gone in the opposite direction of her mother’s house in Pittsburg, because that was the first place Jeff would look for her. He had tracked her down twice before. The first time, her mother told her that surely it wouldn’t happen again, and Sarah gave Jeff another chance. The second time, after he broke her nose and two of her ribs, they were pulling weeds in the vegetable garden when Jeff suddenly appeared on her mother’s back porch, looking contrite and holding an enormous bouquet of flowers.
“You know, honey,” her mother whispered, “sometimes a woman’s gotta take the bad with the good.”
“Sorry, Mama,” Sarah said softly now as she drove through the night. “I’m not you.”
As the miles wore on, the landscape changed from rolling hills and rural countryside to industrial factories and paper mills, their massive smokestacks stretching giant fingers toward the sky. In front of her, an endless ribbon of gray highway rolled out toward the horizon.
Afraid she would fall asleep at the wheel if she drove any further, Sarah took the next exit and searched for a motel. She found a Ho-Jo’s and a Holiday Inn, but they were too expensive. Several exits later, she drove into another industrial district, passing one city block after another lined with warehouses and factories, with an occasional diner or drugstore tucked in.
She was about to retrace her steps back to the freeway when she spotted a lit sign for what appeared to be a motel. Pulling into the parking lot, she peered through the windshield. The lobby windows were frosted over. She couldn’t see much except for a faint glow of yellow light. She glanced at her watch. Nearly three a.m. She decided to give it a try.
Inside the cramped lobby, she came to a thick acrylic partition, scratched and yellowed with age, with a circular hole in the middle for the exchange of keys and currency. She wondered if it was bulletproof.
No one was behind the desk. Looking around, she took in the water-stained ceiling tiles and scuffed linoleum floor. In the corner, a lifeless philodendron sat in a stand, its limp leaves turned a sickly yellow-green from lack of water and light.
The place was a dive. But she was too tired to care.
Not wanting to leave her kids outside in the car any longer than she had to, she knocked loudly on the partition. “Hey! Is anybody working here?”
She brought her face as close to the filthy partition as she dared. Through a narrow doorway, she saw a pair of blue-jeaned legs propped up on a table and a black-and-white portable television. A male voice floated back to her.
“What?” she said.
Finally, the night clerk pushed back his chair and ambled over to the window. If he thought it odd to see a woman standing in front of him wearing dark sunglasses at three a.m. in the morning, he didn’t show it.
“Yeah?” he muttered.
Sarah cleared her throat. “How much are your rooms?”
The answer was thirty-five dollars a night, plus tax. Sarah passed two twenties through the circle. The clerk handed her a single key and her change.
“Any chance breakfast is included with the room? Donuts or something?”
The clerk sneered. “For thirty-five bucks a night, lady? I don’t think so.” He shut the cash register drawer and went back to his television.
Sarah carted Michael and Matthew to the motel elevator, and the ancient contraption slowly groaned its way to the second floor. When she came to room 212, she inserted the key and opened the door. The smell of cigarette smoke and sour laundry hit her first. Her nose crinkled as she flipped on the light. She was greeted by drab plaster walls and threadbare carpet so stained it was hard to determine the original color. To her left in the tiny bathroom, dark rust streaks stained the sink and toilet. There was a single towel and washcloth on the towel rack.
“It’s not the Ritz, but it’ll have to do,” she muttered.
She locked the door behind her and carried Michael to the nearest bed, where she turned back the thin chenille bedspread and tucked him in. Then she laid Matthew down on the other bed and surrounded him with pillows so he wouldn’t roll over onto the floor.
She rubbed her arms. The room was freezing. She went over to the radiator below the single window and turned it up as high as it would go, but it gave off only a meager amount of lukewarm heat. When she pulled the sheer drapes aside, a graffiti-filled brick wall stared back at her. She turned around and stood in silence as she took in the sparse contents of the room.
So this is what my life has been reduced to. Two twin beds and a coffee pot.
The first threads of fear and doubt began to weave their way through her mind. “What am I going to do?” she murmured. “How am I going to take care of my kids?”
Her entire body began to tremble and she burst into tears. Her knees gave out and she fell to the floor, racked by sobs. “Please, God. If you’re real, please keep my children safe. Please show me what to do. Please!”
Physically and emotionally drained, she didn’t bother changing out of her clothes. She climbed into bed next to Michael and pulled the covers up to her chin. She had just fallen asleep when she was jarred awake by the sound of a phone ringing.
She sat up in the bed. The sound had stopped. It couldn’t have been Jeff’s cell phone. It was lying on the bottom of the river. And she didn’t have one. She looked over at the phone on the bedside table. Had Jeff found her somehow? But... that was impossible!
She turned on the bedside lamp and dialed the operator. After five rings, the same detached voice as the man in the lobby came on the line.
“Did you just forward a call to this room?” she asked.
“No calls,” he mumbled, and started to hang up.
“Wait!” she said, as she thought of another possibility. “Did a man come into the lobby after I checked in? Tall, big shoulders, with short dark hair?”
“Look, lady. I don’t want any trouble, okay? If your old man’s after you, you need to get yourself someplace else. Find one of those hideout places for women or something.”
“You mean... like a shelter? But... I don’t even know which town I’m in! I don’t know where to go!”
“It ain’t rocket science,” he told her. “Look in the phone book.”
Her hands shaking, Sarah hung up the phone and took a wooden chair from the corner and braced it under the doorknob. She checked the lock again.
In the bottom drawer of the nightstand, she found a tattered Yellow Pages directory. She had no idea how current it was. Flipping through the pages, she looked under the S’s for Shelters but didn’t find what she was looking for. Next, she tried the W’s for Women’s Services. Nothing.
Then the directory fell open to the C’s, and her eye caught an ad for a local church that sponsored a women’s shelter and soup kitchen. In bold print was a number for a twenty-four hour crisis hotline.
She hoped it was still in service. After a few rings, a woman’s voice came on the line. She said her name was Ruth.
Sarah fumbled through the conversation and soon found herself pouring out her heart to this complete stranger. The woman didn’t interrupt her. She waited for her crying to slow down before she asked Sarah where she was.
“I—I’m not exactly sure of the name of this place,” she said. “I think it’s on Beaumont Street.”
“Oh, that’s not far from us at all,” the woman told her. “Why don’t I give you directions and you can come by in the morning after you’ve gotten some rest. Do you have a car?”
“Yes, I do. But... my kids. I have to keep my children with me. Will that be a problem?”
“Not at all, honey. Be glad to have ‘em. One of our mothers moved out yesterday. She had the largest room. Plenty of space for the three of you.”
The woman then gave Sarah directions to the shelter and she scribbled them down. She thanked the woman and crawled back into bed next to Michael and closed her eyes.
* * *
Matthew was up before the sun, wanting a bottle. Sarah fed and changed him and took a quick shower while Michael was still asleep. Then she packed the kids in the car and followed the directions the woman on the phone had given her.
Three exits up from the motel, she found the address. It was a church. She pulled into the small parking lot.
“This can’t be right,” Sarah mumbled. The church was in a rural area, surrounded by a few farms and fields. Behind the white clapboard building was a modest ranch-style house with a towering oak tree in the front yard. A detached garage sat behind it, with a staircase on the right side.
She checked the address again and sighed. There was a dark sedan parked in front of the church. “Maybe someone here knows where this place is.”
Thinking she would run in for just a minute, she locked the doors and told Matthew she would be right back. She hurried over to the door and went inside. The hallway was dark and she didn’t hear anyone bustling about.
“Hello?” she called out. “Is anyone here?”
A door opened to her left and a slice of light lit the hallway. A woman in a cranberry knit dress greeted her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone was here.”
Sarah hooked a thumb behind her and said, “My kids... they’re in the car. I just need directions.”
She showed the woman the address and told her about her call to the hotline.
“Hotline?” the woman asked. “What hotline?”
“I, um... I’m looking for the women’s shelter.”
The woman appeared flustered. “I’m the new church secretary. I’ve only been here a few weeks. I don’t know of any hotline or a shelter. Let me give Pastor Dave a call.”
Sarah waited in the office doorway, where she could see her car through the glass exit door. The secretary’s cramped space was a mess, with piles of papers and books and sticky notes tacked everywhere.
The woman hung up the phone. “He’ll meet us in the parking lot. He lives in the parsonage next door.”
“I don’t want to be a bother,” said Sarah.
“No bother. My name is Margaret, by the way. Pastor Dave is such a kind soul. He won’t mind.” She prattled on as they walked down the hallway. “I’ve been trying to put things in order back there. Lord knows it’s a mess. Pastor Dave’s wife died a few months ago. She was the church secretary.”
A man was waiting for them in the parking lot, dressed in jeans and a heavy winter coat. He extended his hand and smiled. “I’m Pastor David Williams, but you can call me Dave.”
Sarah shook his hand. He was a tall man, with salt-and-pepper hair and kind eyes. She noticed he kept looking at her swollen bottom lip and sunglasses.
“You said you called the hotline?”
Sarah nodded. “The ad was in the phone book for a women’s shelter and soup kitchen. A woman answered and gave me these directions. She said her name was Ruth.”
Pastor Dave’s face turned ashen and his mouth went slack. Margaret stared at her with a look of bewilderment. “We haven’t had a shelter or soup kitchen in a while,” he said in a thin voice. “We used to run one in the city. My wife ran the hotline. But it was disconnected over a year ago.”
Sarah’s heart sank. “Must have been a mix-up. Sorry to have bothered you.” She turned back toward her car.
“What else did this woman say?” he asked.
Sarah didn’t want to waste any more time here. “Uh... just that I told her I have children and she said another woman with kids had moved out yesterday so there was a large room available.”
A look passed between the pastor and Margaret. “Thanks anyways,” said Sarah. She went to her car and unlocked the door.
“Wait,” he said. “I have a place you and your kids can stay.”
Sarah looked at him.
“Come,” he said, beckoning with his hand. “Get your children and I’ll show you the apartment over the garage. My daughter and grandchildren left yesterday to go back to Florida. It’s empty now.”
Sarah didn’t know what to do. Margaret came over to the car and offered to help her with Michael and Matthew. Sarah noticed the woman’s eyes were brimming with tears. “Ruth sent you here,” she said. “I don’t know how, but she did.”
“What are you talking about?” Sarah asked.
“Pastor Dave’s late wife – her name was Ruth.”
Sarah felt strangely numb as she followed them up the stairs to the large room over the garage. The space was clean and furnished, with a crib and two small beds made up with quilts against the far wall, a separate bathroom, and a kitchen just big enough for a refrigerator and stove. A coffee maker sat on the counter.
Two twin beds and a coffee pot.
A wave of peace washed over then, like nothing she had ever felt before. She knew this was from God and that right here, right now, He was with her. Not within the walls of a stained-glass cathedral or the hushed halls of some ancient place of worship, but here in this humble efficiency apartment on the outskirts of rural Pennsylvania.
Michael ran over to the nearest bed and climbed onto it. “Can I have this bed, Mommy?”
Published in Lady Literary Magazine
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