A burning sensation plagued Ethan’s eyes while sitting at his office desk, drinking his black coffee. He was not a morning person, always struggling to climb out of bed at six a.m. for work. His morning schedule was to have a cup of coffee first thing after arriving at the office, but he rarely had a moment to himself without being interrupted.
His desk was located in a corner cubicle surrounded by gray, fabric partitions. Tacked onto the partition wall to the right of his computer terminal were two pictures of Maria, his girlfriend of two years. Each morning, he would sit with his coffee and red, irritated eyes, staring at the pictures hoping that the day would soon be over so that he could be at home with her. The picture of their vacation in Paris was particularly enticing as it represented the one time that he could escape from the stress of social work.
The cubicle was bland and depressing aesthetically, but he didn’t have to spend much time at his desk. At any minute a new case may be thrown at him. After receiving a child abuse claim, one of the social workers at the office would be given all the information provided, at which point they would have to make a house call to investigate. Ethan was often the first choice for a case because of how much effort he put into each one.
Not having any pressing field work as of yet, Ethan began reading the online news. While scanning his favorite websites, he inevitably found disturbing stories about child abuse that helped fuel his motivation to work harder.
While engrossed in the tragic news, Ethan’s colleague and friend, Owen, crept up behind. Owen pushed down on the back of his chair, startling him. His arms flailed while trying to grab a hold of the desk.
As he realized that he had not actually fallen, he looked around to see if anyone had noticed his reaction. The initial embarrassment quickly faded away and a subtle irritation began to permeate. Hearing Owen’s bellowing laugh, Ethan turned around to confront him. “You’re a dick. How about you do some work for a change?”
“You about shit your pants, man!” Owen had to take a few deep breaths after laughing so hard. “I’ve got a case for you, actually.” He raised his arm and dropped a file on Ethan’s desk from three feet above the tabletop. The breeze from the file slapping down against the desk blew the papers out of the folder and onto the floor.
“I take that back . . . you’re not an asshole. You are a fucking child, though,” Ethan said, smirking.
Owen was known as a prankster. He was only in his early thirties, but looked middle-aged due to his thick, wannabe Tom Selleck mustache, protruding stomach, and a few well-placed wrinkles around his forehead and eyes. His dark-brown hair was also fading on the top of his head, but he would deny it if anyone told him so.
Ethan focused his attention to the powdered donut that Owen completely consumed over the course of thirty seconds. Shaking his head, he couldn’t resist commenting. “Wow, buddy. That’s going straight to your hips.”
Owen used his sleeve to wipe the powder that coated his lips off. “Focus, Ethan. I’m trying to tell you about your case, yet you’re more concerned with making hurtful comments,” Owen said with a straight face.
Ethan let him continue while nodding his head, vaguely taking him seriously.
“It sounds like another domestic violence case,” Owen mumbled with a mouth full of unnecessary carbs. “My plate is pretty full right now, so that’s why I talked Lin into giving it to you.”
“Wasn’t that nice of you?”
Owen’s eyebrows drooped downward. “Would you just let me finish? We got a call from a concerned female friend of the family living at the residence,” Owen said while pointing at the file he had dropped on Ethan’s desk. “Said the wife looked like she had been beaten up. Black eye and a split lip. You know, the typical signs of an abusive husband? She also mentioned that she’s concerned for their son’s well-being.”
“That’s all I have to go on?” Ethan opened the file and saw only a sticky note with an address and the word “child” underlined in a sentence describing the home where the abuse was reported.
“That’s all the information she gave, buddy. No other details,” Owen said, shrugging his shoulders.
Abuse reports should at least include names or other details about those involved, but many callers want to remain anonymous. Some are too scared to provide enough information that could potentially connect them to the report. That fear is one of the many influences domestic abuse has on people, the primary of which being why the abused don’t report it themselves.
Ethan stood up confidently from his chair and grabbed his car keys. “It’s best I handle this anyway. We both know that you don’t have the tact that I do.”
Owen shooed Ethan away with a waving hand gesture as he reached for another donut on the snack table, “Good luck to ya.”
Lin, Ethan’s supervisor, caught him before he could leave the building. “Ethan, I have complete faith in your ability, but I still need to remind you about procedure. You know we can’t get a warrant without any evidence, so be as personable as you can be under the circumstances to get inside that house. Your primary concern is the well-being of the child, but our hands are tied without evidence.”
“Yeah, no problem, Lin. I’ve got this.” Ethan said.
“I know you do.” Lin nodded while handing him the background-check sheets on the parents.
“The parents are both clean. Marcus Stewart has some traffic violations, but that’s about it. Martha Stewart has no record at all.”
“Oh, really? I thought she did some time for insider trading?”
Lin smirked. “You’re such a smart ass. The police have been called out to their home a few times before for domestic disturbance, but there was no evidence of abuse. Clearly, one or both of them have a bad temper. Be cautious.”
Lin was the sternest, yet sarcastic Asian woman he had ever met. She was the kind of person that told jokes with a straight face and never laughed at her own sense of humor. As the head supervisor for the office, she was attentive to her social workers and the cases they were involved with. Ethan felt they shared a similar dedication and personal responsibility to the helpless children in Citrus County. He respected how hard she worked because it wasn’t an easy job to keep track of several social workers and nearly a hundred cases that would be open at one time.
She was a petite five and a half feet tall, yet she never seemed to back down from adversity. Even when large and enraged parents came into the office looking for heads to roll, she would stand her ground. Ethan could see past her tough facade and knew how gentle she could be. Especially when interacting with children.
Ethan was well aware of his primary objective when starting an investigation. He needed to get inside the home to look for any signs of abuse, question family members and potential victims, all the while trying to remain objective to prevent assuming their guilt until proven innocent. While some anonymous reports were fake, often coming from an enemy of the family, Ethan didn’t want to take a chance that could result in failing to save a child from an abusive situation.
A negative connotation became associated with social work over the years. The negativity is derived in part from parents claiming unjust persecution and emphasizing the trauma of having their children taken away. Most neglectful, drug addicted, or abusive parents obviously denied their faults. But some social workers were in fact too aggressive. They seek to remove children from a home based solely on the reports despite actual circumstances and evidence, often relying on falsehoods or minor offenses to take a child out of the home.
Becoming a cynical social worker was easy considering the people he had to deal with on a daily business, but Ethan trusted himself not to make such a mistake. He considered his actions honest, refusing to jump to conclusions, but the bottom line was needing to find evidence. That usually required entering the child’s residence—aside from the physical injuries that can be visually verified—to determine other factors supporting the assessment of an abusive household.
Twenty-minutes after leaving the office, Ethan’s silver, Ford Escape rounded a corner entering Floral Park. The neighborhood—known for its historical homes—left him in awe as he observed single and two-storied mansions of different structural designs lining the streets that surprisingly intermingled effectively. Some were historically designed to look like English cottages or colonial homes, while others were more modern. His imagination began to wander well beyond his wallet.
Toward the outskirts of the neighborhood was a different story. The less wealthy part of the neighborhood contained smaller bungalow homes that were more common and affordable. He imagined the client’s residence would be a low-income home, probably not well kempt, but acknowledged the he was stereotyping. In reality, Ethan had witnessed abuse unrestricted by social class.
When Ethan finally arrived at the home, he found himself parked in front of a tan-colored bungalow. The yard was properly landscaped and free of any unsightly junk scattered about. The house looked fairly old, but was clearly maintained in good shape.
Deep in thought while walking up the concrete steps toward the front door, he quickly looked over the inspection check list in his notebook, followed by mentally preparing the routine he had been through many times before.
Subconsciously, the procedure for dealing with hostile residents had been ingrained after repeatedly covering the subject in training. Ethan had yet to experience a dangerously hostile situation, but in such an instance a quick departure to seek police assistance was considered the best course of action. He was always cognizant about the possibility of violence with each house call.
Ethan knocked on the door.
“Who the hell is at the door?” a male voice said from inside the home.
“Social Services, sir,” he replied, struggling to remain polite. Ethan assumed he was speaking to Marcus.
“We don’t need any help from Social Services!”
“Well, sir, we received a report of possible physical abuse, so I would like to enter the premises to investigate these claims. If you don’t respect my presence, then maybe you’ll respect the police that come knocking at your door next.”
“Go open the damned door, Martha!” the man said.
While anyone could refuse to let Ethan into their home without a warrant, they would immediately appear suspicious. Law enforcement would then become involved to continue the investigation. Any time Ethan had been challenged, he always used the threat of police participation knowing that most people were intimidated by having law enforcement at their door. Getting evidence to pursue a case would be difficult otherwise.
The door opened, revealing behind it a fairly pretty woman with red hair and smooth, pale skin. Her upper lip had a small, vertical scab that looked like it was nearly healed. Faint, yellow-green skin below her left eyeball, which was nearly unnoticeable surrounded by her pale complexion, was also evidence of a healing black-eye. She was very petite and no more than five feet, two inches tall. She would have a difficult time defending herself from an abusive husband.
Ethan stepped through the doorway and into the living room. “My name is Mr. Harper, and as I said, I’m with Child and Family Services.” He looked over at Marcus who was sitting in a recliner watching television.
Marcus was much taller than Martha by a foot. He was an African-American man that looked fairly overweight. His body noticeably sank into the cushions of the recliner, further supporting Ethan’s assessment. Ethan couldn’t spot an alcoholic drink nearby, so he assumed the husband wasn’t drunk—just uncouth.
Martha walked over and stood by her husband’s recliner. “So, you say someone reported abuse in our home?”
She pretended to look confused while questioning the report, but Ethan perceived her as being nervous. He could tell that she was discreetly probing for information as to who had come to her aid by making the phone call that she herself did not have the guts to make. “I don’t really know. We received a phone call from a woman that said she was a friend of the family.”
“It was that bitch, Nina. I’m sure of it,” Marcus said.
Martha rolled her eyes and placed her hands on the back of the recliner. “I’m sorry, Mr. Harper. My name is Martha Stewart and this is my husband Marcus. He’s had a rough day,” she said, trying to defend Marcus’s attitude to no avail. “And no, we’re not related to the Martha Stewart on TV.”
Ethan noticed a small boy, aged about six or seven, sitting at the dining room table in the open kitchen. “How old are you, buddy?” he asked while walking toward the kitchen.
“His name is Jerome, sir,” Martha said.
“Do you mind if I sit at the table, Jerome?” Before Jerome could respond, Ethan sat down next to him and placed his notebook on the table.
Jerome moved his food around on the plate with a fork, as if he was more interested in organizing than consuming it. While playing with his food, a large bruise on his arm attracted Ethan’s eye. The bruise looked like an outline of four fingers. Ethan deduced the cause being a squeeze from a strong hand, and the fingerprints represented a large adult hand. Ethan pulled out his cell phone. “I hope you don’t mind, Jerome, but I need to take some pictures of your bruises.”
“Are you fucking serious, buddy?” Marcus asked.
“It’s standard procedure, sir. I need to take pictures of any injuries on the child and of any safety issues in the house.” Ethan then pulled a digital voice recorder out of his pocket. “I also need to record our conversation, if that’s alright with you, Jerome?”
“Has Jerome eaten all his food yet, Martha?” Marcus said.
“He’s finished, Marcus,” she said while walking toward the table. She picked up Jerome’s plate and promptly dumped his leftovers into the sink.
Marcus’s voice began to bellow. “That’s not what I asked, Martha. Did he eat it all or not?”
Ethan started the recorder and chimed in to change the subject, hoping to avoid an incident. “Martha, can you explain to me how you injured your lip and eye?”
Before she could answer, Marcus answered for her. “Jerome hit her in the eye playing catch, Mr. Harper. Is that some kind of crime?”
“Thank you, sir, but I was asking Martha. It’s important that each individual answer for themselves when I’m asking questions. We at Child Services call it procedure. Once again, if you don’t want to talk to me, you can talk to the police.” Ethan held a stone-faced gaze in Marcus’s direction, even though Marcus wasn’t making eye contact.
“That’s right, Mr. Harper. We were playing catch and I let the damn ball slip through my hands,” Martha said, refusing to look Ethan in the eye. She began washing dishes in the sink, avoiding having to face him.
Ethan now focused his attention on Jerome. “Jerome, is that what really happened?”
The child hesitated to answer while looking directly into Ethan’s eyes, but he knew exactly what Jerome was thinking. Jerome wanted to tell a different story, but could not muster enough courage to do so before Marcus interjected.
“My son is going to tell you the same damn thing. I think you’ve outstayed your welcome, buddy.” Marcus lifted himself out of the recliner in an attempt to intimidate Ethan. He was a big guy, but not in great physical shape. “I’m done putting up with your shit.”
Martha glanced over her shoulder to see what was happening while pretending to be busy washing dishes, but she was only scrubbing dishes that were already clean.
Ethan didn’t budge, even though protocol said he should leave before the situation escalated. He was afraid of what would happen to Martha or Jerome before the police arrived. He also wasn’t sure if there was enough evidence of physical abuse to arrest him, assuming everyone upheld their ridiculous story about playing catch. He needed more time to talk with Jerome, alone.
Ethan continued to stare at Jerome and decided he would try one last time to get the truth out of him. “Jerome, if your mom really hurt herself playing catch, just say so and I’ll be on my way. You won’t see me again. But, if someone hurt your mom or caused those bruises on your arm, I can make it stop right now. But only if you tell me.”
Just as Ethan expected he would, Marcus intervened. “Jerome, please ask the man to leave right now!”
Ethan’s natural defenses came out as he became more assertive. “Don’t listen to him, Jerome. Just tell me the truth.”
Marcus slowly stepped toward the kitchen table, his fists clenched and teeth grinding. “Don’t say another word, Jerome. I’m not telling you again, sir, that you outstayed your fucking welcome!”
Ethan pointed at Marcus sternly. “If you say one more thing, I’m calling the cops. Let Jerome answer my question.”
Marcus now stood at the edge of the kitchen’s tile flooring. “You can’t tell me what to do in my own house. You get the hell out, now!”
Jerome jumped out of his chair and ran over to Martha, squeezing her tight and burying his face in her stomach. “Don’t hurt us, Daddy!” he shouted.
Ethan now had all the evidence he needed. He pulled out his cell phone and began dialing the police. “I warned you, Marcus, and now I’m calling the police.”
Marcus rushed toward Ethan and grabbed the wrist he held the phone with. Before Ethan could react, Marcus punched him across the jaw with his free hand. Ethan fell out of the chair and onto the floor, landing on his back. The force of the impact knocked the wind out of him and the phone out of his hand, which slid across the kitchen floor and under the refrigerator.
As Ethan struggled to regain his breath, he could only watch as Marcus pulled Jerome away from Martha, throwing the small boy to the ground. He was witnessing Marcus begin a temper fueled rampage. He had seen what uncontrollably violent people were capable of, so he feared for all their lives. Internal survival instincts—dormant throughout his entire adult life—kicked into gear as adrenaline began coursing through his veins.
Marcus turned toward Jerome and backhanded him across the left side of his face, using enough force to knock him unconscious. “I told you not to say anything, you little bastard!”
Martha reached for a frying pan that she had just washed moments before, swinging it with ferocity that she had not known until her maternal, protective instincts finally kicked in. The pan caused a loud clap as it slapped against Marcus’s back, directly between his shoulder blades. Unfortunately, her attack only made him angrier.
He slowly turned toward Martha, rage burning inside that was visible in his eyes. He ripped the pan out of her hand and shoved her violently against the kitchen sink. Her back collided into the dishes on the counter, causing some plates and glasses to shatter as they fell to the floor along with her.
Ethan lifted himself off the ground to his hands and knees, noticing Marcus grab a steak knife from the counter. Marcus shifted his focus toward Ethan and his jawbone became clearly visible through his cheeks. “Put the knife down, Marcus. Don’t do anything you are going to regret more than you already have.”
“You caused this, asshole. This is my family, and I’m not going to let you or anyone else take them away,” Marcus said, speaking in a calm and unwavering manner that terrified Ethan.
At that moment, he realized Marcus had made up his mind and there was no way of talking him out of it. Marcus rapidly lunged toward him, ready to cause bodily harm. Noticing that Marcus was barefoot, he quickly reacted by sweeping the broken glass on the floor with his arm, sending glass shards directly under Marcus’s feet. Some of the smaller glass shards embedded themselves in his arm. Ethan winced from both the pain and the sound of the glass shards crunching below Marcus’s feet, which was instantly followed by streams of blood escaping from the shredded, tender flesh of his soles.
Marcus fell off his feet from the pain, but caught himself by holding on to the table as he fell. With knife still in hand, he regained his footing and painfully stood up.
Ethan’s instincts took over again as he grabbed the longest shard of glass he could find nearby and sprung off the floor, shoving the shard up into Marcus’s abdomen. He felt flesh give way as the shard tore through the man’s stomach. Seconds later, Ethan’s fist became warm as the blood from deep inside Marcus’s gut seeped out and coated it. He loosened his grip on the shard as Marcus leaned forward and fell to his knees.
Ethan didn’t notice the glass had cut his hand in the moment that he tightly gripped the shard and thrust it inside of Marcus—probably due to the adrenaline that had overpowered his senses. Looking down at his palm covered in both Marcus’s and his own blood, he struggled to process the severity of what had just happened. The entire ordeal felt surreal. He had only wanted to slow Marcus down so that he could get Martha and Jerome to safety. But as he watched Marcus sit hunched over in a puddle of his own blood, he knew the wound could very well be fatal.
Martha ran to Marcus and held his drooping face in her hands. She began crying profusely and apologizing for not listening to him. Jerome sat motionless on the floor by the sink. He didn’t look either sad or angry. He showed no signs of emotion whatsoever, probably still recovering from a probable concussion.
Ethan looked down at his shaking hands, adrenaline beginning to dissipate, followed by an excruciating pain caused by the glass in his arm. Watching Jerome stare at Martha as she held his bleeding father, he decided to take the child out to his car. The young boy had witnessed more than any child his age should. Ethan could only wonder how much psychological damage had been done already.
Ethan dialed 911 on his phone. The dispatcher answered as Ethan placed his arm around Jerome to walk him outside.
“What’s your emergency?” a female dispatcher said.
“My name is Ethan Harper and I work for Child and Family Services. I need you to send an ambulance and police officers to 623 Baker St. I . . . uh . . . I stabbed a man who attacked me with a knife. He is bleeding a lot,” Ethan said, his voice quivering.
“Alright, Mr. Harper. Police officers and an ambulance are in route to your location. They should be arriving within ten minutes. Get some towels and put pressure on the stab wound to slow the bleeding. Please remain on the premises.”
“I’ll be here, ma’am.” Ethan ended the call and sat Jerome down in the back seat of his car. “Are you okay, buddy?”
The boy didn’t say a word or bat an eye. He appeared to be lost in thought.
Ethan began debating with himself over whether or not his actions were necessary. He had never even been in a fight before, let alone imagined stabbing someone. What would the police think? Would he go to jail?
Ethan almost empathized with Marcus. He was willing to do whatever it takes to keep his family together. Did he truly love his family? No. Ethan had witnessed a man that was controlling, violent, and insecure. He only wanted to maintain domination over his wife and son.
Ethan and Jerome quietly sat in his Escape, sirens becoming audible and gradually rising in volume as the police approached. Two police cars pulled up to the house, the ambulance not far off by the sound of it. Ethan approached the officers as they climbed out of their cars. “I’m Ethan Harper with Child and Family Services. The victim, Marcus Stewart, is inside with his wife, Martha. The child in my car is his son, Jerome.”
A female officer approached Jerome and sensitively tried to question him. The ambulance pulled up as the two other officers rushed inside the house. Two EMTs carrying a stretcher followed right behind them.
Ethan could see that Jerome was in good hands, so he walked back inside to see what state Marcus was in. He could see the voyeuristic neighbors out of the corner of his eye, standing on their porch to watch all the commotion.
The interior of the house looked like a scene from a horror movie now that he was seeing it from a different perspective. Martha was still sobbing while being inspected by one of the EMTs. The other EMT was checking Marcus for responsiveness. He was hunched over like a drunk vagrant, except for the puddle of blood in his lap and beneath him. The EMT checked his watch and said Marcus was dead on arrival.
Ethan placed his hand on his forehead and looked down at the ground. He had murdered another human being, but he didn’t feel like a murderer because he had acted in self-defense. The guilt he began feeling was too powerful to be justified by anything other than Jerome’s safety.