Raped. Her best friend had been raped. Why? What had she been doing there? At that time of night. Many of these thoughts ran through Sylvia's mind as she heard the shower running. Rilah had been inside for too long now and Sylvia was peeking through the door. She saw Rilah sitting on the floor of the shower, crying. She had only stopped briefly before getting in Sylvia's bathroom. Sylvia heaved a heavy sigh and went down to join her family.
"How is she?" Her mom asked anxiously.
"In the shower. Crying." She sat down at the table and toyed with her food. She had lost her appetite, unsurprisingly.
Mrs Cunning tutted and shook her head. "Poor girl. On top of everything she's going through."
"What do you mean?" Mr Cunning asked, his deep voice grave.
"Her living situation. I didn't notice before but those foster parents of hers, they aren't the best parents. They are too . . . " Mrs Cunning paused, thinking of a better word. She settled on, "tough."
Sylvia snorted. "Try abusive and neglectful and biased."
"They abuse her?!" Mrs Cunning asked in disbelief.
"You see their son, Tyron? He gets new clothes constantly, he always brags about his new games and his car. Rilah? She gets hand me downs, doesn't have a phone and barely gets enough to eat. Oh, let's not forget the house arrest", she added heatedly.
"Why has she never said anything?" Mr Cunning asked.
"Why have you never said anything?" Mrs Cunning added accusingly.
Sylvia slumped on her chair. "Rilah avoids the topic, or won't admit it. She won't even tell Charlie. She's very secretive and she just shuts down when anyone asks her. So it's always better to have a happy, talkative Rilah than a sad, mute Rilah." She shrugs for effect.
"What about opening a case against them?"
Mr Cunning shook his her black head. "You can't open a case on behalf of someone. Even if you could, chances are high that she wouldn't give a statement, or testify if it came down to it." His face looked severe. "They've probably been manipulating her for years - one can't undo that in a day."
Mrs Cunning let out a long sigh. Sylvia leaned forward and looked at her father. "So you are saying it's hopeless."
"No, not hopeless. She's turning eighteen soon. She's free to leave and they have no right to keep her. She just needs someone", he looked pointedly at Sylvia, "to keep telling her that she can make out there on her own; she doesn't need them. If she can learn that, then she can start moving towards getting justice for herself."
Sylvia thought about the job she'd been assigned. Oh, if only Charlie was here. God knows that he's the only one Rilah would listen to. Or was. Miriam, the kind woman who had brought Rilah over, had told them how she 'shied' away from men. She only hoped it wasn't permanent. Another thought came to her. God, how would she tell Charlie? How would he react? Charlie had long ago laid a claim to Rilah. Not in a stalker possessive way but everyone knew that you mess with Rilah, you mess with Charlie. She could only imagine his reaction.
"I'll do my best to get that scum behind bars. He won't ever use that stupid d**k of his to harm another person again." Mr Cunning look vicious, and Sylvia saw the determined lawyer that had become so esteemed for his success and helping of families in need.
"You'll have him castrated?" Sylvia asked in awe, and hopefully.
"No!" Her mother exclaimed. "He won't. Wait, will you?" She asked, no longer sure.
Mr Cunning cleared his throat and avoided the question. "Let me take these." He stood up with the dishes and went into the kitchen, leaving a suspicious Beatrice Cunning.
They both looked toward the stairs where Rilah was standing, a plastic bag in her hand. She was dressed in one of Sylvia's jeans, a long sleeved t-shirt and Brandon's sweater. Sylvia stood up and hurried to her. She reminded herself to keep a decent distance.
"Where are you going? You are sleeping here tonight", she said in panic.
"I can't", Rilah replied hoarsely. "I have to go. Aunt Florence will be expecting her package."
"That's what you were getting so late? A package. What is it?"
"Some money", she lied easily. "She needed it - it was urgent." Her voice cracked a bit.
"Enough to put your life in danger?" Sylvia raised her voice a little and immediately regretted it. Rilah flinched and backed off.
"Rilah, I'm sorry. I'm just frustrated with this. They shouldn't be doing this to you."
"I'll see you at school". She opened the door and left. Mr and Mrs Cunning joined her as they watched Rilah walk down the driveway, along the road and up to her so-called home.
"I messed up."
"Hey", Mr Cunning rubbed Sylvia's shoulder tenderly. "Baby steps. We're treading on thin ice here."
"And the ice has already started cracking", Sylvia said with desolence as she watched her best friend enter a pit of snakes.
The Cunnings led their daughter inside and retired for the night. Sylvia changed into her pyjamas, tidied her bedroom and bathroom before facing her biggest task. The phone rang thrice before Charlie picked it up.
"Hey lil' sis, miss me already?" He laughed.
Normally, Sylvia would have snorted and told him 'in your dreams' or 'you wish' but today she couldn't bring herself to do so.
"Sylvie, you okay? What's going on? Are mom and dad okay?" He sounded anxious, worried.
"They're fine. I'm fine", she sniffled.
Charlie released a relieved sigh. "Okay, sweetheart. So what's wrong?" He paused, "Is Rilah okay?"
"No, she's not. She was raped Charlie."
"What?" It was a disbelieving whisper.
"It happened earlier tonight. She was sent somewhere and that's where it happened. She's not talking, she's scared of everyone, especially men. I've never seen her so scared", her voice cracked. "So broken. Charlie, it hurts to see her like that and - " Her voice cut off as she realised that it was too quiet. Charlie was no longer on the line.
At the same moment, all the way in London, Charlie felt his heart crack. He couldn't believe what he'd just heard but at the same time he knew it to be true; he could feel Rilah's pain. He felt her calling out for him.
He wished he had never left for London. He would have seen her go out, he would have followed her and prevented all this from happening. But he hadn't been there.