Between the near-constant nightmares every time I closed my eyes to sleep, Luke and I had been given plenty of opportunities to discuss my fear of what had already happened to me and what was coming in court. I still believed that my fear meant I was to blame for everything—if I’d done the right thing, I would be full of confidence as I went to face my abuser, right?
“It’s okay to be scared about this, Cassie. You don’t have to put on a strong face for anyone. No one expects you to just be okay through all of this.”
Luke spoke calmly as I sat on my bed trying to formulate my best argument. I quickly gave up as I started thinking about the day ahead of me and how challenging it would be to face Jim’s lawyer directly.
“I will be with you the whole time, supporting you and encouraging you. Cassie, it’s okay to be scared, but I want you to know that you don’t have to be. You are protected, nothing is going to happen,” he continued as he pushed a piece of hair away from my eyes.
I looked up at him to speak. “Luke, believe me, I am beyond happy that I will have you there with me, but I am still scared. Today I will have to walk into that courtroom, just like yesterday and probably tomorrow and the next day as well, and stare him in the face, the man that ruined my life in so many ways. How do I make myself okay with that scenario?” The words and thoughts made my stomach churn.
My head dropped again. I stood up from my bed and walked over to my window. The blinds were down all the way, covering the glass. I twisted the plastic rod on the side of the wooden window frame and the blinds slowly separated like cracks in a sidewalk. Gentle rays of sunlight filled the area surrounding the window.
I crossed one arm over my stomach and took a step closer. I reached my other hand up to one of the blinds at just about eye level. With my index finger, I tilted one of the blinds down and looked outside. I was surprised by how much sunlight covered the area outside my window. It was April 6th— still technically winter in the Midwest. Last week’s snowstorm had left us with over a foot of the white stuff on the ground. By now, it had all been plowed from the streets and was at the stage of annoying everyone plagued by having to trudge through it every day.
I lifted my finger from the blind, and it returned to its original position. I dropped my head and felt it tap against the window. I don’t know how long I stood there thinking about everything. I didn’t notice Luke stand up. I was not aware of him again until he came up behind me and placed his hand on my shoulder. I turned to face him and looked up into his eyes.
My mind was turning, full of everything Luke had been saying to me as well as my fears. I didn’t want to let my fears control me, but they were so strong it seemed almost inevitable. I didn’t want to continue fighting against my desire to return to faith, but my doubts were intense. I had no idea what to expect from today or the rest of this week for that matter.
Eventually, I decided to just stop thinking; let everything go. There was nothing I could change now. The day had come, and it was time to face him. I locked my fingers between Luke’s. I leaned my head against his chest and looked up at him. Although I wasn’t happy, the sight of his face brought a smile to mine. He leaned his head down and gave me another one of his amazing, sweet kisses.
As it ended, I opened my eyes again and realized he had been smiling the whole time, too.
“I need to get ready.” My voice was weaker than I would have expected it to be.
“Alright. Are you sure you’re okay?” Luke was still concerned.
“No, but I don’t think I will be until all of this is done and over with,” I said with a deep breath.
I turned around and walked over to my closet. The door squeaked slightly as I opened it. There, hanging from the golden hooks on the inside of the door was a pristine outfit set out specifically for today.
On one hanger was a pair of black suit pants with faint blue pinstripes streaming from hip to cuff. There was a neatly pressed blouse with six buttons down the front, the same faint blue as the pinstripes on the pants—clearly two pieces of one collection. A small black cardigan with sleeves that reached down to my elbows completed the outfit.
This was not the style of dress I preferred. I had always been the type of girl to enjoy a simple t-shirt and a pair of worn down jeans with a few holes in them. I hated having to dress in such nice, professional looking clothes. I changed from my sweatpants and tank top into my bathrobe. I grabbed the horrible outfit for the day and headed over to the bathroom.
My shower didn’t do much to relax my jittery nerves. Back in my room, I dried my hair so that it was as straight as a pin. It had been several weeks since I had styled my hair this way. I was surprised by how long it had gotten. The length made me happy; I enjoyed my long hair, which now reached nearly halfway down my back. Almost two years ago I had cut my hair from my elbows all the way up to my chin in an attempt to stop him from coming after me.
I sat in front of the vanity that was against my wall, across the room from the window. It had been with me since before he entered my life. A shiny, silver metal rim encased the big mirror. There were dents all over, and in some places, the shine of the silver had begun to fade.
The mirror I looked into was not the original. It had been replaced about three years ago when it broke. I could remember that night as though it had just happened yesterday. I had ended up alone in the house with him—a situation I knew would end in disaster. I ran to my room and tried to lock the door, but I soon realized he had broken the lock on my door the week before this encounter. I had no choice but to fight my way out this time.
I had developed a habit of keeping a box of heavy objects close to my bed, for times just like these. I closed my door knowing it would only be a matter of minutes before he came looking for me again. I quickly made my way over to my bed and pulled out the box of heavy objects. I didn’t pay attention to what I had picked up, but whatever it was, I gripped it as tight as my hands would allow. Before long, I heard the all too familiar sound of his footsteps approaching my doorway. I scrambled from my bed toward my door, but I was too late this time. He already had the door open by the time I made it over to my only way of escape.
He walked into my room and shut the door behind him. I started backing away, toward my bed, being careful to avoid him as he tried to grab me.
“Come on, I just want to give you a massage. Come relax with me on the bed, Cassie. You know you want to.”
I had now seen that the object I had pulled from the box was a heavy rock, probably from one of my various trips to the beach as a child. I clenched the rock tightly and continued to back away from the door. He kept walking toward me, trying desperately to grab me and take me down like so many times before.
He took another dodge forward and missed my waist again. I lifted my hand with the rock in it. He saw the rock and warned me against throwing it. He was, after all, my father, right? That did it for me. With all the strength I could muster up, I threw the rock at him. I missed his head, which I aimed for, but the mirror behind him took a hit straight to the center. Shattered glass sprayed all over the area surrounding the hit. I took his distraction as my opportunity to run. I ran all the way to Luke’s house. That was the first night I told Luke about my stepfather.
The haunting flashback sent massive, icy chills down my spine. I would be relieved when all of this was over.
I glanced around at the clock on my shelf and realized the time I had been dreading was here. I stood up from the vanity, put on the cardigan and grabbed my black pea coat. After slipping into a pair of black boots with a small heel, I gathered everything together and walked out of my bedroom.
“I’m ready.” My voice was heavy.
“Remember to take deep breaths and tell the truth. That will speak for itself, I promise. It is time to put him where he belongs,” Luke encouraged.
I nodded because I had no words.
He squeezed my hands as he spoke. “These are going to be his final few days of freedom, but your last few days of bondage to him. Once all of this is said and done, you will get to move on as much as is possible, but he will be stuck rotting in a jail cell with only himself to blame.” Luke’s words were filled with passion; they brought a smile to my face.
When we arrived downtown, Luke and I walked together down the quiet side road until we made it to the intersection of River and 35th street. The air outside was colder than I had been expecting. I shivered as I stepped into the crosswalk. Luke pulled me close to him; the heat of his body was so wonderful against my frigid skin. By the time we arrived at the justice center, the snow had picked up and was coming down consistently with thick, heavy flakes.
The walk from the parking garage to the doors of the justice center seemed much longer than the day before, but Luke and I finally climbed the cement stairs and walked inside. We waited through the line for the metal detectors at the entrance and we both passed through on the first try.
“Twenty-two please,” Luke stated as another man on the elevator selected his floor and looked at us expectantly.
The other man looked to be a lawyer of some sort. He wore a light gray suit and carried a small, black briefcase. The elevator stopped on the seventeenth floor to let him off and continued on to the twenty-second floor. I was never one to enjoy heights much. The elevator ride made my stomach churn.
We walked down a long, dimly lit hallway. At the end of the hallway was a large set of double doors. We proceeded through them and found a small lobby.
Luke was not allowed in the courtroom until my testimony was over because the state couldn’t risk him influencing my testimony. He pulled me close to him and we separated.
Shortly after I sat down beside Hannah, Judge Breelan entered the courtroom. The bailiff commanded us all to stand in his honor, and he dismissed us to take our seats as he opened the trial for the day.
“We are here today continuing the case of the State of Ohio vs. Mr. James Whitlin, case number A06775.
This case is being prosecuted by Ms. Hannah Jones for the State and the defendant in this case, Mr. Whitlin, is being represented by his own lawyer, a Mr. Martin Smith. The defendant has entered a plea of not guilty to the charges set before him. Yesterday we heard the testimony of the state’s star witness and today we begin with defense’s cross examination of this witness. At this time, I call Cassie Flynn to the stand.”
My heart sank at the sound of my name.
I stood up from my chair beside Hannah and walked over to the daunting witness stand. The bailiff reminded me of the oath I took the day before, and I took my seat on the stand.
Then, I made a huge mistake. Possibly one of the biggest mistakes of the entire day. I happened to glance over at the defendant’s table.
I pulled my stare away and focused forward, but not before seeing his disgusting face. Did he have the audacity to smile at me? He had gotten quite a few more wrinkles in the months since he left. His hair was now grayer than the sandy-blond it had been in my childhood. His whole appearance was just repulsive. My eyes met his, but I quickly turned away. I looked over and saw Mr. Smith. He was not my favorite person in the world, but from that point on, I decided to keep my focus squarely on him. Then the questions began.
“Ms. Flynn, in your own testimony yesterday, you described that the first incident occurred in the middle of the night, while you were sleeping. My first question to you then is how could you possibly remember an event such as the one described?”
“I am able to remember the event that night because the things Mr. Whitlin was doing are what woke me up, what shocked me and changed my life forever.”
“Is it not true that you thought that night was a dream?”
“No, Mr. Whitlin whispered in my ear that it was a dream to try to make me forget everything. I was confused because it was the first time anything like that had ever happened to me.”
Mr. Smith seemed a little thrown off by my response. It took him a minute to recover and come up with his next question.
“The next story you told the court yesterday claimed that Mr. Whitlin started committing these crimes against you during the day. You provided a specific timeframe in which these crimes progressed. How is it that you were able to so easily remember each specific event you described?”
“The things that Mr. Whitlin did to me are not things someone forgets easily. I know, I have tried. Everything I went through at the hands of my former stepfather will be a part of my memory for the rest of my life, so, of course, I remember everything about it.”
“Were you a good student in school Cassie?”
The sudden change in Mr. Smith’s questions threw me for a loop, but I knew I had to keep up with him. I couldn’t let myself fall into any traps.
“I wasn’t a straight-A student, but I wasn’t the worst either.”
“Do you think you could have been a straight-A student if you would have tried harder?”
“Probably. I think that’s true for most students though.”
“So, if you had more potential in school, why didn’t you try harder? Were you lazy?”
I felt myself beginning to lose my composure. These weren’t even difficult questions, and I was already having trouble coming up with answers. I started searching for the right words to answer Mr. Smith’s slew of questions, but I didn’t have to search long.
“Objection! Your honor, these questions call for information that is not relevant to the case.”
“Objection sustained. Mr. Smith watch your questioning.” Judge Breelan was firm.
I was relieved to have a moment to compose myself before Mr. Smith continued with his questioning.
“The story you provided following the one about the incidents starting to occur during the day, revolved around the time you claim Mr. Whitlin began asking you to perform sexual favors on him. In your description of the incident you made it seem as though my client was not a threatening force during the incident, in fact, you mentioned that he eventually gave up trying to get you to do anything; yet in your description of how you felt afterward, you describe feeling threatened. So, which is it? Why the confusing testimony? Were you having trouble getting your story straight?”
What kind of question was that supposed to be? I could tell Mr. Smith was already getting desperate for material to pick apart. That gave me a little hope because it told me that his cross-examination would not last long.
“It is true that during the actual incident Mr. Whitlin did not threaten me, he rarely did. The threats would come immediately after the incidents when Mr. Whitlin felt the need to cover himself and ensure he would be safe from the police another day. In my testimony, I described feeling so threatened because of the comments Mr. Whitlin would always make afterward.”
“Do you consider yourself to be an honest person Cassie?”
“Yes, I would say so.”
“So, you never lie?”
“I wouldn’t say I never lie, but in general I don’t.”
“So, you admit that at times you do lie?”
I sighed under my breath. “Yes.”
“In that case, how can anyone in this courtroom believe anything you described yesterday? How do they know you didn’t just lie about your whole story?”
“This courtroom can be assured I wasn’t lying about my story because I have no motive to lie. Why would anyone ever choose to make up such horrible and disgusting stories about themselves?”
“You say you have no motive to lie? What about the fact that you never liked my client from the beginning of his time in your life? Don’t you think it’s possible that you made up these stories just so that you could get rid of the one person in your life that you have never liked?”
“If I was going to make up stories for a trial in court, to get rid of someone that I have never liked, wouldn’t it make more sense to make them stories that wouldn’t require me to sit up on a witness stand, going into the kind of detail I had to go into yesterday? Mr. Smith, I may not tell the truth one hundred percent of the time, just like pretty much all of America, but when I sat in this spot yesterday, I took a solemn oath to tell nothing but the truth, and I told one hundred percent of the truth.”
My teeth were clenched so tightly together that my jaw was starting to hurt. The look of shock on Mr. Smith’s face said enough for me; although, he was a practiced lawyer, and it didn’t take him long to recompose his face and proceed to his next question.
“In each of your stories, I happened to notice one common theme: the absence of your mother. You always describe these incidents as occurring when your mother is conveniently missing from the house. How do you explain that?”
“Well, obviously Mr. Whitlin wasn’t going to do anything when my mother was around. His whole goal in all of this was to keep everything a secret and keep me from telling anyone. If he did anything when my mother was home, he knew she would eventually catch him.”
“Do you believe your mother did a good job raising you, Cassie?”
I wanted to jump over the side of the witness stand and punch Mr. Smith as hard as I could. I knew he was trying to play with my head. I knew that he was aware of how I felt about my mom, and now he was trying to use that against me.
“She tried her best, I guess.”
“Why didn’t you tell her about the crimes if you believe she was a decent mother?”
“I didn’t tell her because I didn’t think she could handle the truth at the time. I felt the need to keep some things from her, and as I have mentioned several times, I was scared.”
“If your logic behind Mr. Whitlin only committing crimes when your mother was gone was that he was fearful of getting caught, then how do you explain Mr. Whitlin continuing these supposed crimes even after you did finally tell your mother?”
“Mr. Whitlin’s whole scheme in doing these things was about lying. He lied to me when I was younger, and once I told my mom, he lied to her. He told her he would stop when he didn’t have any intention of doing so.”
“Cassie, you seem angry when you talk about Mr. Whitlin. Are you angry?”
“Yes, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well, during your testimony yesterday, you continually brought up how fearful you were of Mr. Whitlin. If you’re so angry, how can you be fearful?”
I could tell what Mr. Smith was doing. It was exactly what Hannah said he would do. He was trying to come up with questions that would make me out to look like a liar or as if I was insane. I would not give him that satisfaction—he would not defeat me.
“You can be both angry with someone and fearful of them at the same time. I am still fearful that one day Mr. Whitlin will be able to come back and make good on all of his threats, but I am also angry with him for everything he put me through.”
Mr. Smith paused for a moment. He brought his hand up to his chin and rested it on his closed fist.
“In the last story you told yesterday regarding the crimes, you gave an elaborate description of what you say was the last time the crimes between you and Mr. Whitlin progressed. How were you able to recall such specific details?”
“This is just as I said before. The things Mr. Whitlin did to me, especially that day, are things that I will never be able to forget. They have become a part of me, it is difficult for me to bring up these memories, but not impossible.”
“If you can bring up these memories so clearly, why did you wait so long to tell anyone? You could have told your friend Grace, your boyfriend Luke, your mother, but you didn’t, was it because you had nothing to tell them?”
“No, the police report clearly shows that I had something to tell them. I waited so long to say something to anyone because I was fearful, as I mentioned both yesterday and today. I lived in fear of Mr. Whitlin for nearly eight years. It was difficult for me to break away from that fear and go to the police.”
As I finished my response, Mr. Smith paced back across the room and joined my former stepfather at the defendant’s table.
“No further questions,” he said sternly as though he was frustrated with how the cross-examination had gone.
The quiet and still courtroom turned into a chaotic mess once Judge Breelan dismissed us. I stood up from the chair beside Hannah as fast as I could. By the time I turned around, Luke had already walked into the room and was by my side, wrapping his arm around me. His warm embrace felt incredible after this horrible day. I did not see where Jim and his lawyer had gone. I did not care either. Now that I was with Luke again, I knew I did not have to worry. I could see the news reporters that had been a part of the background all day, emerging and approaching me, probably hoping to get a statement.
“Are you ready to go?” I heard Luke whisper in my ear.
“Okay,” Luke said in a heavier voice as he took hold of my hand and led me out of Court B and toward the elevators.
Luke and I quickly made it back out to his truck. I was happy to see that in the time we’d been in court, the snow had finally stopped falling.
Luke seemed upset, almost troubled as we started the drive home. I couldn’t be sure what was bothering him, but I had an idea. I knew he wanted me to talk to my mother. I decided not to bring it up until after we got home. I kept replaying everything that happened that day. The pain from my past felt like a scar that had been reopened these past two days and was just sitting bare on my skin, exposed to the world, with no way to protect it.
My mind kept returning to one part of the trial. A part I didn’t think would bother me as much as it was. The last set of questions from Hannah the day before, about my broken relationship with my mother. Up until today, I hadn’t given her or our whole situation much thought. I was so angry, hurt and confused about her whole reaction to everything that I just shut her out altogether, but now Hannah’s questions, the emotion in her voice and on her face, were just penetrating my heart and mind so deeply. It was as if something inside of me was saying I needed to fix things with her before it was too late.
I was so lost in my inescapable thoughts that I hadn’t realized we were so close to home until Luke turned on to my street and pulled into my driveway. In the few weeks before trial, he had essentially moved into the house with me, because my nightmares had become a nightly affair. He had only moved some basic things into the house, a toothbrush, hairbrush, a few sets of clothes. He still made frequent trips home, which I often accompanied him on, to keep his family updated on court proceedings. Today, however, he said he was just going to stay with me; in fact, that was his plan for the entire trial. He assured me it was cleared with his family; they knew how difficult this was for me.
I had grown quite attached to Luke’s family – they were generous. His parents were two of the nicest people I knew. I don’t think that in the four years I had known them that I’d ever seen or heard them act selfishly. Luke had only one sibling, an older sister named Emily. I had only met her once, at Luke’s graduation party. The rest of what I knew about her came from stories told by the family. Emily was beautiful, even more so when I had met her in person. She had bright blond hair, with natural highlights, which she had worn just past her shoulders for most of her life it seemed. Her eyes were similar to Luke’s: a pale shade of blue. They looked almost like crystals in the pictures. Luke did not tell me much about her, neither did her parents. Anytime I asked about her they would all tell me she was studying abroad for yet another college degree, she would have to be old enough to be going for at least a master’s degree by now. It seemed almost as if her life was meant to be a secret like she was working on some top-secret project that couldn’t be revealed yet. Luke would always say that maybe someday I would get to meet Emily again and get to know her better. The secret surrounding Luke’s sister often puzzled me, but I didn’t let it come between Luke and me; he wouldn’t keep anything that important from me.
Luke and I walked into the house. It felt emptier than usual, darker. I knew it had to just be my mind, still filled with all the thoughts of my mother making it seem that way. Luke walked into the guest room where he had been staying, and I made my way over to my bedroom. It felt good to change out of my dreaded professional outfit and into something more comfortable. I threw on a pair of old jeans and the first top I happened to pull from my closet. I hung up my court clothes and pulled my hair back into a loose ponytail. I was tired from everything in court that morning, so I walked over to my bed and just lay down with my arm thrown across my eyes.
Eventually, I heard Luke come in to check on me.
“Cassie? Are you feeling okay?”
I uncovered my eyes and looked over at Luke. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Luke walked into the room and joined me on the bed. He placed a gentle hand on my cheek. I should have known by now that he would see past my lie.
“Are you sure? You feel like you have a fever. Are you sick?” He placed his hand on my forehead.
I sat up in my bed, so I was almost at eye level with Luke. I couldn’t keep my head held up for long and I let it drop onto his shoulder. “I’m just exhausted and I can’t clear my head,” I mumbled against Luke’s shoulder.
I felt Luke wrap his strong arms around me and squeeze tight. I had longed for his embrace the whole time I was on the stand in court; I was so relieved to be wrapped in his arms.
“When was the last time you ate, Cassie?”
“I don’t remember.” I honestly had lost track. I knew it was not today, but I wasn’t sure if I had eaten the day before either. My appetite had been so irregular lately.
“You need to eat something, that’s why you’re so weak and pale.”
“I can’t.” My voice was low.
“If I try to eat, I feel like I’m going to get sicker than I already am. I cannot eat when I’m so stressed out. Please don’t make me.”
Luke lifted my head and stared into my eyes. His seemed even more beautiful than before.
“Cassie, please eat something. I promise you will feel better after. I don’t want you to relapse back into anorexia. You have been doing good lately. You’ve made so much progress with everything, do you want to lose that?”
I sighed and looked down.
“Cassie, please. I’m going to make you something. Will you please try to eat?” Luke was nearly pleading.
“Alright,” I muttered quietly.
Luke gently kissed the top of my head and walked out of the room. I crossed my legs on the bed and dropped my head into my hands. The thoughts about my mother had momentarily subsided while I was talking to Luke, but now that I was alone again, they came rushing back in. I hadn’t cared at all for so long; since she left. So, why now was I suddenly so tormented by thoughts of her?
Luke returned shortly carrying a steaming bowl of soup. He walked in and set the bowl on the nightstand next to my bed. I felt him join me on the bed and start rubbing my back. I leaned back, and he opened his arms, so I fell into his embrace. He wrapped his arms around me and just held me for a few minutes.
“What are you thinking about?”
I let out a deep breath. “It’s just like my mind is stuck on replay, and I can’t push fast forward or skip or anything. The questions from yesterday just keep running through my head, they’re making me think so much.”
“Which questions in particular?”
“The last set I answered, about my mom.”
“What specifically do you keep thinking about your mother?”
“That’s the thing, this whole time since she left, I haven’t thought about her hardly at all. She has barely crossed my mind because I just didn’t care, but now I feel almost like something inside of me is bringing up these thoughts like a warning, saying that I have to fix things with her before it’s too late.”
“What do you mean?” Luke sounded surprised by my last comment.
“I’m not even sure what I mean. I just have this eerie feeling that before too long I won’t be able to fix things with her anymore like the damage will be permanent.”
Luke didn’t answer right away. I knew he was contemplating what I had just said – he always furrowed his eyebrow when he was in deep thought. It seemed almost as though he knew what I was saying was true, but he couldn’t tell me that he knew.
“Well, what do you think you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” I said as I dropped my head again.
“Cassie, do you believe that you’re ready to try to work on things with your mom?” he asked.
“Honestly, part of me wants to but part of me is still so hesitant. I’m still not sure I can trust her. How do I know I won’t just forgive her for everything and get our relationship back on track and then get stabbed in the back again? I wish things could be the way they used to be, but I am afraid they won’t ever be able to be that way again.”
“Cassie, I know it’s hard to trust her again, what she did does not exactly qualify as good parenting. But I think it would be in your best interest to try to start forgiving her and repairing the relationship.”
Luke let the subject drop after that, he was never one to push anything too far, a quality I had always loved about him. When I’d eaten enough to make him happy, he left me alone to sleep for a while, but I wound up sleeping clear through ’til the next morning, no nightmares. I was surprised and almost happy to wake up to my alarm in the morning instead of those horrible images.