I blink groggily at the sudden bright light. When did I end up on the floor? Why's my head pounding? Why am I sticky? Why can't I remember what happened?
“Get up!” my dad snarls, stirring me from my thoughts.
He kicks me hard in the ribs when I hesitate. The ache in my lower back and in my butt answers my questions. I was sold to someone again.
Why is his money worth so much more than me? Who was it this time? Was it someone I know? I wonder as I obey.
“You’re a stupid, filthy slut,” he tells me, spit flying in my face.
I stare at the floor while he berates me. Being told how worthless I am hurts, but saying anything isn’t worth the beating I’d receive. I know I deserve being yelled at.
“Get out!” he hisses suddenly, face red in rage.
I stare at him in disbelief. He's never told me to get out before.
"I said get out! Get your crap and get out of my sight!" he growls, shoving me.
It doesn't take me long to get my stuff packed. I don't have much. I didn't realize until I started moving around just how much I hurt. Each step feels like razor blades inside me. I take everything I can cram into my duffle and backpack.
I walk on shaking legs to the only place I’ve ever felt anywhere close to human: J&M Quarter Horses, owned by the Lopez family. I’ve only been there twice, but it feels more like home than my real home ever did.
It takes over an hour on foot before I see the large horse farm. Mares and their foals graze in paddocks on the left hand side of the drive. Yearlings buck and play in paddocks on the right hand side of the drive. Beyond the mare and foal paddock are the stallion paddocks. Beyond the yearlings are the weanlings. Straight ahead of the drive is the house, a beautiful blue two-story house. A little to the south and to the left of the house is the main barn. The stallion, yearling, and mare barns are on the other side of the house. The main barn keeps the show horses and weanlings. The barns are matching in blue and yellow tin. About sixty yards behind the main barn are the two massive arenas, one indoor and one outdoor.
I approach the main barn cautiously. I'm terrified of being busted and sent back to my dad.
The door is unlocked, which doesn’t help my growing fear of being found.
I make my way up the wide concrete aisle until I find the stall I'm after. A huge palomino is dozing inside, oblivious to my presence outside her stall. The plaque outside reads JM Wind Glider, with the gentle mare’s barn name ‘Lulu’ underneath.
“Hi, pretty girl. I won’t hurt you. I just want a place to sleep,” I murmur gently, unlatching the two locks on the stall door.
The poor thing is startled by the noise.
“It’s okay. I just wanna sleep here,” I whisper, offering my hand for her to smell.
The palomino nickers softly and bumps my hand with her nose.
“I didn’t bring any treats,” I tell her.
I curl up gingerly on the straw with the backpack as a pillow. It isn’t the worst place I’ve ever slept, and the smell of the horses is so comforting I almost drift right off, until something sniffs my face. Lulu’s warm breath tickles my cheek for a second before she licks me and lies next to me.
“You’re a good girl, Lulu,” I murmur, reaching over to pet her.
She cranes her neck around and rests her huge head against my stomach. It feels nice. I almost feel safe; I haven’t felt that way since my mom died. Completely exhausted, I drift to sleep with my fingers knotted in Lulu’s white mane.
I wake to the daughter of the owners, Lily, coming into the barn. She starts feeding the horses, which are beginning to clamor for her attention…and their food. All except Lulu, who is busy nuzzling my hair.
Does she think I'm her foal? Maybe she knows I'm a mess? I guess groggily.
“Lulu? You okay, pretty girl?” Lily asks, bringing Lulu’s feed.
I scramble against the wall in fear. This makes me hurt horribly. Gasping, I try to make my tall, skinny frame as small as possible. I know Lily enough to know she probably won’t hurt me, but I distrust people in general.
“What’re you doing here?” she asks, dumping the feed in Lily’s trough.
“I needed a place to stay,” I reply warily.
“Lulu likes you a lot. How did you— You were being abused, weren’t you?”
Ashamed of the horrid things I’ve been through, I nod.
“Do you wanna brush Lulu after she eats? Did you bring anything with you?”
“My phone. I've got my clothes and my textbooks and my laptop. Sure!” I reply.
“I thought Lulu was hurt when she didn’t start in about food.”
“She was busy doing my hair.”
I grin at her, but it feels fake.
I'm trembling pitifully as I slide the hot pink halter onto Lulu’s head.
“She seems bigger today,” I murmur.
“She’s big for a mare. Sixteen-point-three hands,” Lily tells me, leading out a gorgeous black stallion who quickly tries to attack me.
I slam the stall door shut in front of me. I’ve never been afraid of a horse before.
“Hey! Bad boy! Sam, if you don’t start being nicer, we’re gonna sell you,” she scolds the horse.
His ears flick but he’s only halfway paying attention.
Lulu nuzzles my face lightly, almost as if she’s checking to see if I'm okay.
“I'm okay,” I whisper, rubbing her ears.
“She likes that. She’ll go to sleep if you do it long enough,” Lily tells me.
“Is it safe to come out?”
“I have Sam in the cross-ties. He can’t hurt you.”
I lead Lulu out slowly, hooking her halter on the cross-ties by her stall.
“Are you entered in any shows this summer?” I ask, trying to be friendly.
“A couple. One with Mr. Moody-Butt here and one with a new colt we got,” Lily replies.
Lulu dozes while I groom her. I wince a few times when my shirt rubs my raw welts the wrong way or when my other injuries are aggravated. Her golden coat shines when I'm done with her.
I help Lily turn the horses out into the paddocks. Shame, pain, and fear have been my only company for so long I’ve forgotten it can be nice being with people.
“I gotta go change,” she tells me, leading me towards the house and out of the cold.
“Are we gonna go for a ride?” I ask.
“Not right now.”
I stand quietly by the front door. I have no idea if I'm allowed to sit in the living room or what I should do. The heat of the furnace makes me sigh in relief.
“Have you met my parents yet?” Lily asks, coming down the simple oak stairway towards me.
Flushing, I shake my head. I figure I’ll be punished later for not moving.
“Follow me,” she says, guiding me through the beautiful, plush living room and into the equally gorgeous kitchen with a breakfast nook and attached dining room.
An adult couple is standing by the granite island, drinking coffee. The first thing that hits me is they actually smile warmly at me; adults have never smiled at me before or acted like they were happy to see me. The second is they look nothing like Lily; they’re on the medium side, color-wise, like me, while Lily is as fair as her name.
“Mom, Dad, this is my friend, Avriel Chaim,” she says, smiling.
“Um, hi,” I murmur shyly.
“Hey. I'm Mariah, the ‘M’ in J&M. You came and rode last summer, didn’t you? Are you from around here?” her mother says.
“Yes, ma’am. I've lived here a year; before, we lived in Israel. I ran away from my dad.”
“Do you keep kosher?”
“No, but my dad does. Are you gonna make me go back?”
“Not unless you want to. Did your mom?”
I shake my head quietly. Masochist is pretty high up on the list of things I'm not. I really don’t want to talk about my dead mother with them either.
“I'm Jared. How old are you?” the tall, black-haired man asks.
I'm very scared of him. I don’t want to know how he’ll punish me for sneaking into his barn last night. I'm also afraid of being used by him.
I pray softly in Hebrew with trembling lips. I need all the help I can get right now.
“Jared, we need to get going or we’ll be late,” Mariah tells her husband.
I'm scared they’re gonna dump me on the side of the road somewhere.
I pad quietly after them to their black Impala. The knots in my stomach refuse to leave, even when I settle next to Lily in the backseat.
But why would Lily have gotten all dressed up to watch you be abandoned? She’s so pretty. Okay, Avriel, focus on something other than the pretty girl. Was she adopted? She looks nothing like them, I think, staring out the window.
“What happened to your mom?” Lily whispers, brushing her curly blond hair back from her face.
“She died,” I reply bluntly.
“Aw. I'm sorry.”
She reaches towards my face slowly, and I freeze in expectation. It’ll probably knock me out if she slaps me and my head hits the window.
“It’s okay; you have straw in your hair,” she murmurs, picking it from my dark curls.
I'm not really surprised when we pulled into a church parking lot. I know from school that Lily’s a Christian.
“I-I’ve never been to church,” I fret.
“Avriel, it’s okay. If you don’t want anyone hugging you, tell them; they’re not gonna get mad,” Lily whispers.
I'm scared to death as we go in. I don’t really know what to expect.
The people are very nice. They make a genuine effort to welcome me and make me feel like I belong. No one’s ever done this before.
Midway through the sermon, I have the strangest feeling. I long for something I should know but don’t. The best way I can describe it is wanting to go home but not remembering where home is.
I break my eyes away from the guest speaker to try getting Lily’s attention.
“What is it?” she whispers, not looking the least bit mad.
I describe the feeling to her the best I can. Tears spring to her eyes at my words, but, before I can start apologizing, she smiles at me.
“Do you wanna be a Christian? God’s asking you to come home,” she tells me.
“How do I do it?” I reply.
“I know you pray, and that’s exactly what this is. Repeat after me. Lord, I believe You sent Your only begotten Son Jesus to die for me. I confess I'm a sinner, and I confess my sins before You. Jesus, I'm asking You into my heart. Save me from my sins. Purge me of them. Give me a new heart and a new mind. Thank You. In Jesus’ name, amen,” she murmurs.
I whisper the prayer quietly. I don’t care about the tears running down my face or the soft, broken sobs escaping my throat; I normally hate crying. I'm used to being hurt for it. Lily doesn’t slap me, though. She just clutches my hand tighter.
After praying, I feel lighter. I feel more peaceful than I ever had. For the first time, I feel loved and wanted. Valuable, even. I feel like I could take on every demon in Hell and win.
At their home, I try to make myself useful. I don’t want to be accused of freeloading.
As Mariah lays some pizza dough on the floured counter, she informs me: “Avriel, we’re gonna call Family Services after lunch and explain the situation. If they’ll let us, we’d like to foster you. But does that bother you?”
“No, ma’am, I’d like that,” I reply, kneading the dough.
“What do you like to do?”
“Um, I like being around the horses. And reading. I draw a lot. Being outside. I'm active.”
“I remember you rode a lot with Lily during the summer and on Christmas break.”
“I got in trouble for it.”
“Why? You were being good!”
“My dad doesn’t like me.”
My hands tremble as I slide the pan into the oven.
“What was it like in Israel?” she asks.
I'm grateful for the distraction from the panic flitting around inside my head.
“It’s beautiful there, but my life wasn’t…pleasant,” I explain warily.
I don't want to tell a near stranger how my parents fought over my father hating me.
“Was it hard adjusting?” she asks.
“Not really,” I mumble.
I wince as my shirt brushes my wounds again while I cut up peppers. I'm starting to feel more of the soreness from the rape. More than anything, I long to lie down and sleep off the pain.
“Did he leave marks?” Mariah asks, her green eyes lighting up with concern.
Ashamed, I nod. I'm afraid of being blamed; other people have done this. And I believe them. If I was worth loving, this wouldn’t happen.
“I'm not gonna ask what he did; when you’re ready, we’re here.”
“I'm not good,” I whisper again and again.
I know I'm bordering on a panic attack. My pulse races in my ears, nearly deafening me. My chest aches; I feel like I can barely breathe. I end up collapsing against the cabinet, which really hurts.
“Avriel, you need to breathe. Come on. Breathe, sweetie,” Mariah coaxes gently.
I draw in a gasping wheeze obediently. It sounds horrible, almost like an accordion. I'm trying to think past my pain and my fear. But I can’t.
Please. I can’t take this. You have to do something; I'm drowning in this pain and fear, my heart cries to God.
And then something amazing happens.
“Avriel, you’re not in this alone; I am with you,” a warm Voice whispers in my mind.
I know without a doubt that this is God. Like an invisible blanket, peace covers me. It melts into my very soul.
I whisper a prayer of thanks as I stand slowly.
“Avriel, are you okay?” Mariah asks.
“I'm better. I have panic attacks sometimes. God helped,” I reply.
I tell her what God told me. She grins when I finish.
I burn my hand trying to get the pizza crusts out. It isn’t bad enough to worry about; the back of my right hand will probably be red and sore for a few hours. I've had much worse at my dad’s house.
Mariah gives me a cold aloe gel to rub into the burned skin. I sigh with relief as it takes the heat out; I’ve never used it before.
She laughs when I coat my mini pizza with cheese and veggies. The crust is barely visible when I get done.
“Mmm,” I murmur, pushing the heel of my hand against my temple.
My head was only aching naggingly at church. Now, it's on the speeding track to a migraine. For me, the escalation from headache to migraine sometimes only takes a few minutes.
“Headache?” Mariah asks.
“Migraine, I think.”
“From not eating? Or is it normal?”
“Not eating and stress. I haven’t eaten for two weeks.”
I whimper pitifully from the white-hot vises gripping my skull. It’s all I can do to keep from either throwing up or crying. My eyes are squeezed shut against the pain.
I'm given some orange juice to sip, along with some Tylenol. The sweet liquid helps some.
Mariah strokes my shaggy, black curls gently while I try to make the pain stop. I flinch and moan in pain; having my head touched makes it feel like molten lava spikes are being driven into my skull.
“Is Avriel okay?” Lily asks.
“He has a migraine. How was Twizzler?” Mariah replies quietly.
“He needs to go to a trainer. He doesn’t understand ‘whoa’, his lope is so bad I only took him four strides, and he tries to eat the reins while you’re on him.”
I accidentally doze sitting up for a few minutes.
Next thing I know, Mariah’s gentle voice is calling my name.
“Avriel, lunch is done,” she murmurs, her tan hand placing my pizza on the table.
My stomach roars with hunger at the sight and smell.
“Thank you,” I whisper gratefully.
I join them in praying over the meal before digging in. I'm struggling to pace myself with the food. I want to hurry up and eat before my food’s taken away; I'm not sure when my next meal will be.
“You’re the first kid I’ve met that likes veggies,” Jared grins.
“I-I-I don’t really eat much meat,” I murmur.
I have a good reason not to like meat. I ate spoiled beef once when my dad didn’t feed me for a week-and-a-half; I was sick for days. I was twelve when it happened.
“Do you have a veggie you like best?” Mariah asks, breaking me from my thoughts.
“Broccoli, carrots, squash, cucumbers, beans, and tomatoes are my favorites. Oh, and pickles. I can't be trusted not to eat an entire jar of pickles,” I mumble.
A few minutes later, the phone rings shrilly, making me jump. Jared leaves the table to answer it.
“Hello? He’s here. He isn’t feeling well right now,” Jared says quietly, warning evident in his voice.
“Looks like I’ll have to leave,” I whisper.
“Look, Avriel is no problem. No, you listen to me, Mr. Chaim, I don’t know what you’ve done to your son, but it’s stopping,” Jared tells my dad firmly.
After getting off the phone, he calls DCFS about the abuse I’d suffered. Someone will be coming to talk to me in the morning.
“Are you happy here, Avriel?” Lily asks.
“Yeah, I am,” I reply.
“After lunch, I’ll show you your room.”
Lily leads me upstairs after lunch. My room’s huge. It’s sky blue with lime trim. It works somehow. The bed’s big enough a friend won’t have to sleep on the floor. A maple desk rests under the window so I can look out over the horses while I do homework. Two Bibles rested on it. One is a Hebrew copy that includes even the books cut from the KJV. The other is a NIV one. There is a walk-in closet. The bathroom’s closer to a master bath in size than a regular bathroom.
“Wow. This is great! Thanks,” I tell her, meaning every word.
The rest of the day drags by slowly. I’m terrified by every little noise. I never relax; I'm constantly afraid my dad will find me and drag me back. It won’t be hard if he decides to. Thanks to my terror, I’m awake all night long. On the bright side, I read up to II Kings in the NIV and up to Exodus in the Hebrew copy.
I jump when the doorbell rings while I'm eating breakfast. To me, this always meant horrid pain and money for my dad; I forgot about the man from DCFS coming. I decide to hide from whoever it is. I hear the front door open from my hiding spot in the pantry.
“Hello. I'm Mark Stewart. I'm with Family Services,” a male voice says at the door.
“Avriel’s in here. Um, he’s scared of men,” Mariah explains.
Their footsteps are growing steadily closer to my hiding place.
“He was in here. Avriel, where are you?” Mariah says.
I don’t dare move.
“Avriel Chaim, get over here.”
Her tone warns me I’ll be in trouble if I don’t obey, and I don’t wanna find out how they’ll punish me.
Head hanging contritely, I step out of the pantry.
“Did he pay yet or will he pay after?” I ask timidly.
“Avriel, did your dad sell you?” Mariah asks, appalled.
I nod slowly. I'm so ashamed.
“No one’s gonna do that to you here. I promise,” she soothes gently.
Mark begins questioning me carefully. He examines my injuries gently.
“What was this caused by?” he asks, lightly probing the deep gash on my side.
“He whipped me wi-wi-with a cut-up garden hose braided with chain dog leashes,” I whisper unevenly.
“Have you seen his back? It’s incredible the kid’s still alive.”
Mariah peers over my shoulder at the deep wounds and scars marking my olive skin.
“Is he gonna be taken from his dad?” she asks.
“This is going to court. Avriel, when was the last time you ate?” Mark asks.
“Before yesterday? Wednesday, two weeks ago,” I reply quickly.
“I need to get pictures of your injuries.”
I relax a little when Mark leaves.
A phone call from Mark comes in just before Lily and I leave to catch the school bus. The court case has been set up for Thursday.