Ever since that last few times dad has whipped Jack, I wouldn’t let him do it anymore. I told him to take it out on me. I say that I’m older and I’m responsible and Jack is only ten; he should be playing with toy cars and boats and laughing at cartoons. It’s all my fault, not his. So now it’s my back that takes the pain for the both of us and I do it for Jack and I would gladly do it anytime if it means keeping Jack safe.
We walk down the path slowly and take in everything around us. It starts to get dark outside but I don’t want to go back. Watch the sun slowly disappear from sight, leaving a beautiful sunset behind and giving me a sight to remember. I don’t want to see dad ever again. I might even say that I slightly hate him. I hate him for the things he’s done—definitely. But then I hate the part of him that won’t let me or Jack move on. That one little part of him that thinks we should all be sad for the rest of our lives with him. I don’t want to be sad. I don’t want to spend my life crying and blaming myself. I just don’t.
We finally make it to the pond in the center of the park and watch a few family’s pack up their picnic blankets and drag their dogs to their cars. When everyone’s gone and the sun is almost all the way asleep, we take a bath in the pond. It’s cold water and somehow it feels good on my body. Jack is shivering a bit, but it seems like he’s enjoying it. We have to take a bath and get clean though. I know that we will be dirty again in a week of sleeping in our home, but it’s worth it to be clean even if it’s for a little while.
I change back into my clothes and help Jack out of the water. He catches a frog but I make him put it back. It’s not going to be a good pet if it’s just going to die. I know it will because our house is dirt and we would have to give it water and food. That’s something we don’t have. Jack starts crying but I tell him that if he leaves it, it will have a longer life then if we take it and he stops crying enough to hug me tight.
“You’re the best sister ever, you know that?” he asks. His eyes are puffy and his nose is running but I press his face into me anyway and give him the best bear hug I can manage given my strength.
“I know Jack. I will continue being the best sister ever. I’ll never stop loving you or keeping you safe. Do you understand?”
He leans back to look into my eyes and then after a moment, he nods his head. “Yes, I understand. I love you too.”
We start walking back home, both of us knowing dad’s going to be mad because it’s dark outside and we struggle to stay on the path while our eyes adjust. Jack’s unusually quiet while I pick up a flower separated from a bush. I know something’s off because even if we both know dad might hurt us, he finds a way to smile and make me laugh before we deal with it. Now he’s just walking next to me and keeping his head down.
“Jack?” I ask, watching him jump and then look at me like something happened and I might need his help. He relaxes after looking around for a minute and seeing that everything’s okay.
“What is it, Stella?”
“I just wanted to know if anything’s on your mind. You look a little sad.”
He looks forward and sighs deeply before stopping mid-stride and sitting on a rock. “Who wouldn’t be a little sad with the life we have. It’s hard enough to deal with being homeless but it’s even worse when we have to deal with an abusive father. We can’t just go to the police because no one cares about us. Nobody cares about homeless people. We all suffer because we have no money and I hate that. Even if we do tell the police and they help us, dad would have a psychotic episode. First his wife dies, then his children leave him. That would be the end of him. We may never get our father back at all because he’ll be in the mental hospital learning to not try to kill himself. It’s sad.”
“That’s really deep for a ten year old,” I say. I never knew that he had all of this boiled up inside of him. I wished he could’ve told me sooner so that maybe I could help him get it all out. It’s not good to keep something that intense inside you and not share it with someone. “But he is abusing us. Don’t you want that to stop? Don’t you want to have a normal life with a nice and fun family?”
“Of course I do Stella. I just messed up your happiness. I’m sorry if I made you upset,” he says with tears glistening in his eyes.
“No, no. Not at all. I’m happy you told me. In fact, would you like to walk with me in the park every day? It would be really fun.”
“Yeah! Let’s do that!”
And just like that, Jack is smiling big and adding a jump to his small stride, making me feel better and like a good big sister.
We walk back down the path that we recently ran down but we’re taking our time and stopping to do things like fix our shoes or laugh at a bird hopping funnily in the dirt—anything to waste time and avoid dad’s wrath.
When we walk out of the trees and barely spot our house in the moonlight, my heart almost stops. I squint and see my dad’s silhouette standing outside the fake door frame. If I could see his face, I would say its bright red and that’s how I’m guessing it is right now. I slowly walk towards him knowing what’s next but willing my eyes not to burst in tears. Keeping Jack behind me, we finally reach the house and I gasp as my dad grabs my arm with all his strength and throws me into the dirt resting under our ceiling.