My nose left a dent in the drywall, a triangular indentation outlined with blood. It stood out only slightly from the other specks and flecks, droplets and splats that already decorated the pale yellow surface. After all these years, the wall resembled a work of modern art – blood the medium of choice.
That sort of thing happens to a wall when someone routinely slams your face into it.
My knees scrambled, bending in first one direction, then another, struggling to find that point where they could lock, stiffen and hold me up.
A new smear for the wall.
I slid to the floor, my arms and legs splayed at odd angles, blood from my nose spurting onto the dirty gray carpet. The firing flash bulbs slowly faded into the rushing red film filling my eyes. I bit my tongue, redirecting my mind away from the rage, concentrating instead on pain. Always the pain. I forced my nails deep into my palms. I had to hurt myself. Better me than him.
“Get up, bitch.”
I gathered my wits, stuffed my anger into its thin mental bag and got to my knees. Before I could gain my feet, the steel-toed boot slammed into my ribs. There was little in my stomach, but I retched what there was down the front of my t-shirt.
“Filthy bitch,” he yelled, “look what you did!”
The small puddle of vomit, more water than food since he’d not fed me all day, soaked into the carpet. Just another stinking blotch. I pulled myself into the fetal position, clutching my ribs, forcing my mind to the pain. The rage boiled like stomach-acid in my throat, scorching the tissue. I swallowed the fire, whole and hard.
He stood over me, his shadow weighing more than I, a threat in every inch of him. He reeked of booze and marijuana, the smell enough to make me sick again. I closed my eyes, preparing for the next blow. Instead, he spat, a huge steaming wallop – it dashed into the back of my head.
“Coward. I’ve had enough of you for one day.”
His boots clomped away to the door. “Your mother sends her regards.”
I heard him laughing as the door slammed. A few minutes later, his motorcycle roared and thundered off down the road.
I was five when my father died, eight when my mother came to Wintersburg. She left home and family because she couldn’t deal with the scrutiny, the responsibility of raising a child like me. I knew she wished she could have left me behind. She just wasn’t up to taking care of me.
Sometimes a child is born to someone because the adult need a parent. That’s how I felt about my mother. She gave birth to me so I could take care of her. That was my job, had always been my job. I used to have to cry to remind her I needed to be fed more than once a day. When I was older, I cooked to make sure she ate something more than cold cereal or Pop Tarts. I picked out her clothes so she wouldn’t look like a woman who made her living on the street, and I read to her so she’d have something more in her mind than soap operas and reality shows.
I was born to care for her.
And I didn’t blame her for any of it.
My mother was a good woman, but not a strong one. She almost died when she gave birth to me. I reminded her so much of my father, and some days she could barely stand to look at me. She said I had all of my father’s ways, his strength and power. I guess that’s why I take care of her.
Someone had to do it.
We were in Wintersburg just two days when she met Sam Regan. He wanted her and was willing to do whatever it took to have her. He convinced her to go out with him and poisoned her that very same night. Now, she’s got to stay with him. Without the antidote, she’d be dead in a week. There was no way she could leave him. Not even for me.
I rolled over on the floor and stretched, extending my legs outward to gain an additional inch. The pain, florid and pulsing, faded as did my bruises. I took my forefinger and thumb and squeezed my broken nose back into place. The bloodstained t-shirt stuck to my cracked ribs, but as the blood dried, my damaged bones healed.
The beating was over, and my mother was safe for another day.
I lay still and contemplated the water-stained ceiling, slowing my heart and listening to the minutes, then hours whizzing past my ears. A gray spider’s eggs hatched in the web under the chair in the corner. A bit of the bumpy white – well, it used to be white, paint drifted down from the ceiling. I was twelve when that dirty snowflake started to fall. I was fifteen when it landed on my chest.
When Sam slammed the door open, I noted the gray at his temples. He had a large throbbing bruise on his left cheek, a bit of blood on his lip. He’d gotten drunk in the bar again, probably got his ass kicked. He was here to take it out on me.
It was either me or my mother.
I took the first blow in my stomach.
He was in fine form, pounding me with fists, feet, knees and elbows. Despite all I could do to prevent it, he killed me. Sam Regan beat me until I stopped breathing and my heart stopped. Then he flopped down in the middle of the floor and peed in his pants before passing out.
My eyes closed as my body began to mend.
It takes a lot longer to heal when you’re dead.
Five years passed before I was whole again. I could tell Sam hadn’t been to the basement. Spider webs draped the doorways, windows, and every other surface. When I could stand, my imprint lay at my feet like a CSI tape-out, the dust on the floor a full inch deep. The two windows were boarded, and when I tried the door, I found it was also planked over. Sam had turned the basement into my coffin.
For only the second time in my life, I experienced fear. I hadn’t been there for Sam to vent his anger. He didn’t realize I was still available to take his pain, to help him cope with the sickness that drove him to hurt others. All I could think of was what my mother must have been going through.
I drove my fist through the door and the incarcerating planks. I twisted the lock out of the door and kicked the planks free of the wall. The destruction of the door heightened my anxiety, fueled my power. I didn’t bother with the stairs. I went straight up through the floor.
Hardwood flooring splintered like hard sugar.
The child, a young boy, stared at me with large brown eyes – just like mine. He had shaggy brown hair and a narrow face, like my mother. His fear – no, his terror filled the room with purple flames, but he wasn’t afraid of me.
“Daddy’s going to be mad that you broke the floor.”
He sat on the floor in front of the television; at least I thought it was a TV. I hadn’t seen one since I was ten. The boy had some sort of remote control in his right hand, a cast on his left.
“Where is your mother?”
My voice sounded harsh, hoarse. I hadn’t heard myself in so long, hadn’t spoken to anyone, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to sound. There had been no one to talk to in a decade, except Sam.
“Mommy went shopping,” the boy said. “Daddy went with her.”
“Is Sam your daddy?”
“Does he still get mad?”
“Uh, huh.” He canted his head and considered me. “Are you my sister? You kinda look like mommy.”
“Did Sam… your daddy, did he do that to your arm.”
“Yeah. He had… he has bad days sometimes. He says I make him mad.” He lowered his eyes. “I try not to.”
He perked up, his eyes sparkling. “Mommy says I’m strong. She says I have to be strong, to be good. I’m protecting her whenever Daddy…”
“Your mom, she doesn’t try to stop Sam from hitting you?”
He laid the remote aside and stood up.
He wasn’t very tall, and slight, like my mother. There was little in the boy to mark him as Sam’s son. Again, he canted his head, inspected me. I squirmed a little as he watched me, embarrassed by my filthy t-shirt and ragged jeans, now tight and short on me. After a few seconds, he seemed satisfied he could ask me what he wanted to know.
“Mommy told me about you. She said you were really brave. She said you protected her from Daddy before you went away. Where did you go?”
I couldn’t answer. I dropped to my knees, the gashed floor between us. Voices from the past, sounds I heard while I slept slammed into my mind.
My mother saying, “Just leave her in there, Sam.”
My mother saying, “We’ll have another child soon, baby, you’ll see.”
And finally, my mother laughing, saying, “Just don’t kill this one.”
Tears touched my cheeks, the first ones I’d known in fifteen years.
“Are you going to stay with us now?” He startled me when he laid his plastered hand on my shoulder.
I looked into the eyes that were so familiar. “What’s your name?”
“Sammy. I’m named after my dad. What’s yours?”
More tears as I strained to bring my name to my lips, but I couldn’t remember. The only thing Sam had ever called me was bitch. I swiped away the tears. “I’ll let you name me. What do you think my name should be?”
Sammy didn’t hesitate. “Diana, like Wonder Woman.” He peered over into the hole in the floor. “Yeah, definitely Diana. Diana Prince.”
I thought I remembered Wonder Woman, but I wasn’t sure. I looked at Sammy. Now that he was closer, I could see the purpling, the impression of Sam’s knuckles on his face.
“Diana, we’re in trouble,” Sammy said. “Daddy’s going to be really mad about the floor.”
“Sam, does your mom… our mom… still have to take the blue medicine?”
“Blue medicine? I don’t know. What’re we going to do about the floor?”
He stared at me. His eyes – my eyes – were already old, aged by fear. He aged a year while I watched him.
“Don’t worry, I can fix it.” I walked out over the hole, floating, and closed my eyes. I let my energy heal the space, rejoin what was broken. The splintered wood drifted back toward the hole, the molecules slipping into place. When my bare feet touched the floor, it was once again whole.
“Wow, you are Wonder Woman!” He danced out across the floor.
The muscles in my face flexed, moving into a vaguely familiar pattern. I smiled. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done that.
The door across the room opened. My mother came in, Sam behind her. They were laughing, bags of food in their arms. When she saw me, my mother’s bag fell to the floor, French fries spilling out across the hardwood.
Sam looked down at the fries, then up at me. “What the hell?”
I took Sammy’s arm and pulled him behind me. I didn’t stop to wonder why I wanted to protect him. He needed protection. I was going to give it to him.
“Hello, Sam,” I said.
I didn’t acknowledge my mother with word or look. She fell back against Sam, her hand to her mouth. He shoved her aside, his eyes never leaving my face.
“Well, what do we have here? A little wonder, that’s what you are.” He grinned, his voice lower. “You been away for a while, little girl. Your mama was right. She said I couldn’t kill you. You’re my favorite kind of toy.”
I didn’t respond. I kept my eyes on him, but for once, I let my thoughts settle into the rage taking form in my stomach. It was a large dog, but it was rapidly outgrowing that shape. “I see you got yourself a replacement, Sam.”
My mother took a few faltering steps toward me. “Honey… sweetheart, Mommy is so glad…”
I didn’t try to hide the disgust I felt. She drew back, back until she hit the wall, yellow suffusing her white face. An appropriate color.
Sam removed his jacket, a sick stupid smile on his face. “Yeah, Daddy’s glad to see you, too, honey.”
“You’re not my daddy, Sam.” I turned my back on him, squatted and spoke to Sammy. “Little brother, I’m going to leave now.”
“You’re not going anyplace,” Sam roared.
“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’d like it very much if you’d come with me. I’ve been alone a long time and it would be nice to have some company. You can teach me how to be Wonder Woman.”
“I said…” Sam grabbed me by the hair and tried to pull me to my feet. I didn’t move; my hair didn’t even break. He had to regain his balance, lost as he anticipated jerking me to my feet.
“And Sammy, if you come with me…” I took his hand, the one in the cast, and held it over my heart. The plaster glowed for a second, grew warm against my chest. When the glow faded, I ripped the plaster away from his healed hand. “No one will ever harm you again.”
Sammy’s eyes widened. He held his hand up in front of his face and flexed his fingers. He looked at me and smiled.
I turned my attention back to Sam. He was standing over me, his breathing shallow and thick, his face red, the muscles in his arms bulging as he crunched his fingers into fists.
I stood. Sam was well over six feet, but I no longer looked up at him.
“I’m not such a little girl any more, am I Sam? You should think about this. All the times you beat me, broke my bones – even ruptured my lungs – I was always there for another round when you needed a punching bag. You killed me, yet here I am.” I stepped forward, glaring into his bloodshot eyes. “Do you really think you’ve got anything for me if I decide to fight back?”
I took another step forward, nudging the big man’s chin with my forehead. “Things have changed, Sam Regan. Move, or I’ll destroy you.”
Sam teetered backward. He kept his eyes on me, but that hard belligerence he favored was seeping from his face like the urine down his leg.
I took Sammy’s hand. “We’re leaving now.”
Sam continued to back away, but when we passed my mother, she reached out for her son. “Sammy… sweetheart…”
“Don’t touch him.”
“You just can’t take him away,” she said. Tears rolled down her cheeks leaving a squiggly trail in the thick makeup caked on her skin. She batted her eyes, the artificial eyelashes black against her pale cheek. Her peroxide blond hair spilled from its pile into her face, adhering to the moisture. She sniffled. “What am I going to do?”
“No idea, Mother, nor do I care.” I opened the door.
She held out a hand, as if to touch me, but then drew it back. “Honey, you can’t leave me here.”
For a second, the old feelings of pity and concern crept in; but the way her eyes danced, refusing to look at me, brought me back to the present. “Mother, what’s my name?”
She stared at me, her face blank.
“That’s what I thought. Goodbye.”
I led Sammy out onto the porch and picked him up into my arms. “We’re going to go far away, OK?”
“Sure. How are we going?”
“How would Wonder Woman travel?”
“She would fly,” Sammy said, a big grin on his face.
“Great, then we’ll fly.”
As we reached the treetops, I heard Sam yelling, “Damn it, this is your fault. Why didn’t you stop her?”
“Please, honey, it’s OK. We can have another baby. OK?”
The door slammed closed.
Another baby. Guess I’ll have to come back next year. After all, that’s what Wonder Woman would do.