I looked at the stairs and though I had only recently passed my nineteenth birthday I felt about as old and arthritic as I imagined old Mrs. Chamberlin had felt on occasion. I also had a feeling I was not going to like what I heard. That certainty had been building all through AJ’s recounting of their tale.
Finally I put my food on the bottom step and slowly started up into the dark. Me not wanting to hear didn’t change the fact that I needed to know. It didn’t change me having an obligation to listen and do what I could to help. I owed it to Hannah who had sought refuge in the home I managed. I owed it to Mr. and Mrs. Bly – even if only their memories – for their acceptance of me. I owed it to Harry, God rest his soul, because he had stood by me in my own time of troubles. And I owed it to myself too. I had been through many awful things in my life and there had always been someone there for me. I’d be nowhere near the person I wanted to be if I hid from paying forward the acts of kindness I’d received, no matter how unwilling or hesitant it had been offered.
I knocked. “Hannah?”
The rustling of the bed sheets told me she heard. A quiet, “Come in.” bade me enter.
Even in the dim light coming in through the shutters I could tell she’d been crying. Before I could ask she said, “It was awful Riss. It was just awful.”
There was a moment of silence and then I felt compelled to sit with her on the bed. We both drew our legs up and sat criss-cross facing each other, the way girls do when they are sharing confidences at a sleepover.
I tried to carefully pick my words. “Hannah … AJ … and maybe me too … thinks there is more to the story than you’re … well more than you’re saying.”
“With those boys? Just the gruesome details,” she shuddered. “They … they tried. I … I fought. I probably would have eventually lost; it was three against one. But one of the things we were taught on the wards was how to handle an attacking patient. We dealt with PTSD, anger management issues, dementia due to brain injury, and all sorts of things including detoxing drug addicts. We had to know our stuff.”
I let her ramble. It was her story, she had the right to tell it her way. “I used what I’d learned but … but I couldn’t have lasted long enough for them to get tired and give up. They … they wanted what they wanted.” She hiccupped a small sob. “It just makes me mad. We’d been friends. I thought they were nice boys; safe. If Mr. Nichols … AJ … hadn’t made so much noise coming down the stairs we’d probably both be dead now. That’s what they had planned for him at least.”
I patted her shoulder and knew it was inadequate when I did it. But what else do you do? “It’s OK, they didn’t succeed ‘cause you kept your head. Even AJ knows it and said as much.”
“He … he did? Really?”
I nodded. “Yes he did. But … but he still thinks there is more to it. Feels guilty and he isn’t quite sure why. Hannah, I’d like you to tell me, did they hurt you?”
“Hurt me?” she laughed brokenly. “Yeah. But not the way you think. They tried. They left bruises in places I’d prefer not to talk about. But they never succeeded at their real goal. Even if they had I know I could have survived it. What’s once more?”
Her words shocked the pee doodle out of me. “Hannah?” I asked, not even sure how to finish the question.
Hannah understood anyway and didn’t make me ask twice. It all came out like she’d been waiting, holding on ‘til she could pop the cork to someone she thought would give her understanding. “It was right after we moved to Uncle Bill’s. I thought I wanted to fit in. I thought it was the fulfillment of all my dreams when we were stuck on the farm. Now I look back at that time, before Dad died, like they’re an ideal and I’d give a lot to go back and change some of the ways I acted, take advantage of what might have been.”
She stopped and her eyes were unfocused and full of unshed tears. “I thought Chad was fun. He paid me the kind of attention the Prince Charmings of my daydreams always had. Oh Riss, he was a perfect specimen of a young man – blonde wavy hair, great build, educated – at least until he expected payment for his ‘sevices,’” she sneered. “I was so stupid. They call it date rape but walking in the back garden hardly qualifies as a date. I said no I don’t know how many times and when I tried to scream he shoved my shirt in my mouth; I couldn’t breathe and after a while I passed out. When I came to he was gone; he’d just left me in the bushes. I ran crying to Uncle Bill of course because Sol wasn’t home. I thought he’d protect me, avenge me … but he only blamed me. Told me if I acted like a tramp and sent out certain signals I shouldn’t have expected anything different; that I brought it all on myself.”
I said a few choice, creative words about “Uncle Bill” starting with the fact he was likely left on the doorstep as a baby after the animals thought he was too ugly for them to raise and Hannah slowly relaxed. She didn’t smile exactly but I could practically smell the relief she felt. “Shoulda heard what Sol called him when he found out … and to his face. But eventually he caved to Uncle Bill and Shantelle’s point of view and desire to keep things quiet and not make a fuss because Chad’s family was pretty powerful. I don’t think Sol believed what they said, that it was my own fault, but he didn’t defend me very much either. He told me later there was a price for living in Uncle Bill’s world and we had to face that fact and toughen up.”
I didn’t even want to talk about Sol to Hannah, not yet, not in her condition … maybe not ever but I was still shocked. “What about your momma?” I asked, horrified that anyone could rationalize what had happened to Hannah.
“We were forbidden from saying anything to her. Uncle Bill threatened to send her away for her own good if we bothered her. He said she was too fragile. That became his go to threat for controlling Sol and I. And it worked – at least for a while – until Mom overheard him tell Sol that right before he was reassigned. Mom started waking up to what was going on around her. But about that time Uncle Bill got her to this new doctor for her ‘headaches.’ He diagnosed them as stress induced migraines and put Mom on this really strong medicine that kept her buzzed. She’d sleep a lot and when she was awake she was pretty zoned out. Uncle Bill blamed Sol’s leaving and my ingratitude when I started fighting him about how much she was taking. I made the mistake of telling him I’d talked to a couple of the doctors on the wards about it. He blew up and then – mysteriously – my school program got cut. It was all downhill from there. I thought for a while that I was the one that was gonna crack until AJ offered me a way to earn some money of my own, a chance to get away.”
“Good Lord, what a Picadilly play,” I muttered.
“Yeah, and I haven’t even told you the one how the housekeeper got fired over some complaint of Shantelle’s and how she … she told me some other things that were going on including the fact she’d been having an affair with Uncle Bill. I know it sounds like the plot of a bad television show. I used to think that it was because of Uncle Bill’s money … that he had too much, that we were living too affluently and that somehow made things happen the way they did. But working at the warehouse I met people who were the exact same way. They may not have had the money to have it happen in the same kind of setting but it was the same kind of cockamamie stuff going on. I learned the hard way it doesn’t matter how much you have or don’t have, it is what’s on the inside that dictates how you act. I guess you did too. Maybe I deserve some of the trouble though because of the way I used to act.”
Not knowing exactly what to say but needing to say something I told her, “Don’t think that Hannah. You were a kid mostly and just had some growing up to do. You didn’t ask for what that … that Chad did and you didn’t deserve what those three boys tried to do. You didn’t cause your uncle to act the way he acts. Bad things happen. All we can do is survive them, learn from them, and then try to make our little piece of the world a better place to balance out the evil. At least you didn’t go looking for it like I did with Sol. It is still hard to believe where that piece of stupidity has taken me. I feel guilty whenever I weigh my good fortune so I’ve given it over to God.”
“Can you? Just let it go like that I mean?” she asked disbelievingly.
I shrugged. “Sure. On the other hand I’ve got a bad habit of picking it back up and putting it back into my bag of burdens. The day I learn to leave it alone I’ll have passed a mile marker in my life. I worry most about how Pita will take it when she’s old enough to understand.”
Hannah asked, “Then why tell her?”
“’Cause there’s no good profit in lying, you’re only digging your hole deeper. Eventually you have to learn to lay the shovel down. And if knowing the mistakes I’ve made prevents her from making similar ones I’ll accept whatever comes; hurt and otherwise. But I’m not the topic of conversation here. You are. Um … you know … you know it doesn’t have to be the way you’ve experienced … with that Chad and those boys. … right?”
One shoulder lifted in a half shrug. “Sure. For some women I guess. I’m not stupid; but I’m not sure that … you know … I’m cut out for that sort of thing. Look at the mistakes I made.”
I shook my head. “Don’t start thinking like that. It’s not … not … Oh phooey. Look, the one time I was with Sol I was honestly left wondering what all the fuss and bother was about. But with Dino … it’s completely different.” The way I said it gave us both the embarrassed giggles. Finally I hugged her and said, “It’s not just the circumstances, but the person you’re with, what you want out of it and how much you trust the other person you’re with. I don’t mean to preach at you but … but I really believe you need a public, forever-type commitment to really get all the … er … benefits out of it.”
We snickered a bit and then all of a sudden she started crying. “Oh God Riss. I killed two men and I don’t think I’m even sorry for it.” The wall had cracked and the final bit of poison was freed and allowed to bleed off. I held her and rocked her just like I would have Pita and she eventually fell asleep exhausted. I covered her and crept out of her room. The hallway was pitch dark and I was feeling the definite need to feed my baby girl when I headed to the bedroom only she wasn’t in her cradle. Then I heard Dino downstairs singing a Greek lullaby he said his father had sung to him.
Nani nani my child.
Come Sleep make it sleep
and sweetly lull it.
Come Sleep from the vineyards
take my child from the hands.
Take it to the sheepcote
to sleep like a little lamb,
to sleep like a little lamb,
and to wake up like a little goat.
The words always tickled me but they seemed to work … most of the time. “Has she been fussing long?” I asked stepping into the kitchen trying to hide my condition. I was surprised to see AJ still up. “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”
“Can’t,” he muttered dejectedly.
“Where’s Kerry?” I asked Dino as I took Pita from him.
“Fed, watered, and put to bed. He was falling asleep as soon as we got in from chores.”
“I’m sorry,” I said as I tried to juggle Pita who quickly grew hysterical once she saw and smelled my damp shirt.
“Don’t be,” he smiled. “Go feed that girl before she eats you alive. I put your rocker by the stove. It’s dark enough for modesty over there and warmer than any place else.”
Putting Pita to feed was like I remember trying to hook the hose up on an old vacuum that had already been turned on. She tried to bite me too. “OK, none of that,” I told her. I’d been warned the day would come and took evasive action. It only took twice and she got the picture; use manner or lose the meal ticket.
“Damaris?” came the quiet and tired question.
Dino said, “Let her finish feeding the baby AJ.” I could hear the edge to his voice so they’d obviously already had this conversation at least once.
“It’s all right Dino. What is it you want to know AJ?”
“Is … is Hannah … OK?” he asked, knowing the words he used were unequal to the question.
“She will be,” I told him. “With time and care. There’s a lot involved that I don’t feel at liberty to explain. Those three boys came close but as Hannah herself said they didn’t reach their goal. But it’s all wound up with some other stuff. But none of it is your fault. She didn’t say it outright but I think knowing you actually helped her to not lose complete confidence in the male of our species. You helped her over some hurdles but she has a few more to jump.”
He growled, “Some … someone else hurt her? Is that what you’re saying?” AJ could be discerning when he put his mind to it.
“I’m not saying anything of the sort but if I did I might could also say it happened in the city before you entered the scene. Now stop growling. I’m not sure why you care anyway,” I added egging him just a little.
He snorted in disgust. “And just why should I clarify that when you won’t tell me what happened?”
“Because what I know isn’t any of your business … yet.” I paused for effect then told him, “But getting where you might be going might be easier with a friend in the right place. And if you want my opinion, under the right circumstances I could be that friend.”
Dino strangled on a half-suppressed laugh at AJ’s outraged expression. “You should see her negotiating with Mr. Chamberlin.”
AJ ignored Dino and answered me with a disgruntled, “I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t think too long,” I warned. “A girl likes to know where she stands.”