Never shoulda told her. She said nothing bad would happen. Out of all of them, Linny’s Mom is the only one ever asked about the marks on my hands, the only one ever brushed my hair out of my eyes to look at me. She promised I’d be safe if I told her the truth. Instead, I stood up and lowered my jeans right there in Linny’s kitchen and watched their surprise, then horror, as they took in the welts on my thighs. Linny’s Mom cried, “Good Lord!”, and enveloped me in a warm cushy hug that felt just like I’d imagined. I closed my eyes until she let me go and told me to pull up my pants. Linny is so lucky, I thought for the millionth time. My eyes followed her mom as she wiped mascara streaks off her cheeks with both hands, sniffed long and deeply, then picked up her phone. Linny slid off her stool and softly took my hand in hers. She shook a little, like I do when Mama’s boyfriend is in the room. Probably never seen her Mom cry like that. “Yes, this is Mara Kivich at 1335 Lafayette Street. I need to talk to someone about a child who’s being abused’, Linny’s Mom said to who I guessed was the cops. She turned her back to us then mumbled, “Uh-huh… no, bruises and welts from a belt, oh… ok.”
Cops never did anything when they came to our house. Mama always said we were fine, it was just “a yelling match”. Dave was usually gone by the time they got there, slamming out the door like somebody did something to him instead of the other way around. The cops wrote down Mama’s stories in little notebooks they flipped closed with one hand. She had slipped on a wet floor and ran into a cabinet door that hit her right under her eye or stumbled on our steep basement stairs while carrying a laundry basket. The fingerprint bruises on her neck were never asked about or explained and they never asked me anything, either. An officer often said something like, “We want to make sure you’re safe, Mrs. Batch. Please give us a call if you need anything”, or “We’re here to help if you need us”, and gave Mama another of their cards. Upstairs I rehearsed what I would have said if they asked and pressed my face against the window glass until each cruiser turned the corner.
A wide shaft of sunlight fell across the kitchen island and landed on our feet while Linny’s Mom listened to the cops and mumbled a word once in a while. Not for the first time I stared at a Fruit Loops box on top of a giant silver refrigerator with Linny’s drawings, spelling tests, and pictures stuck to the front with magnets shaped like stars. They never ran out of Fruit Loops and there were juice boxes and grapes that Linny could just take from the fridge whenever she wanted. My gaze moved to the Cookie Monster cookie jar on the counter. I wished we were still scooted up to the island dipping our cookie halves in milk after scraping sugary filling off them with our two front teeth. My stomach flipped while a “you ruined it” chant taunted me. I never shoulda told. Linny’s Mom hung up the phone and looked at me, her sagging shoulders and wrinkled forehead said it before she opened her mouth. “They are going to get in touch with your Mom this afternoon, Sweetie. I’m..I’m sure they’ll get this all straightened out.” Linny dropped my hand, and ran to her Mom, who folded her into her arms just as she had done with me ten minutes ago. I felt alone, the same relentless chant circling in my head. “I’m…uh”, I stammered and looked away from Linny and her Mom, “gonna go”. “”You can stay for dinner, Cam”, Linny’s Mom said in a weird high voice, like nothing unusual had happened, like my Mom often sounded. She let go of Linny, but Linny’s eyes stayed closed and her arms remained locked around her Mom’s waist. “That’s ok. I have to ask a day ahead of time”, I reminded her. Her arms circled Linny again as she nodded. “Thank you, Mrs. Kivich. Bye, Linny”, I said and walked quickly down a hallway lined with smiling vacation photos and out the front door. Tears welled in my eyes, but I would not cry.
For a couple of days after a whippin’ the rules were looser, but getting home more than 15 minutes late was chancy, so when Dave called “Cam get in here!” as I came through the door I thought I’d had it. “You almost missed it! Your boy is about to fight for the featherweight title. Come ‘ere.” He patted the couch cushion next to him. I forgot about Linny and her Mom as I watched Conor McGregor hammer another wiry guy on the mat, relentless until the referee pulled him off. “Daaaamn!” Dave threw his arm around my shoulders and squeezed. “You see that, little girl? One punch! Bam! Dude’s on the mat and what does he do? What does he do, Cam?” “He keeps beating on him ‘til he wins!” I yelled and bounced my sore butt off the cushion as the new champ strutted around the octagon, an Irish flag held high between his bloody fists. “Look at me”, Dave said. I pulled my eyes away from the T.V. and tried to look in the black pools of his eyes. My smile faded. “Don’t you ever let anybody think you’re weak, whatever you gotta do. Your dude there,” he pointed toward the screen, “he just showed the world not to fuck with him.” He took a drag off his cigarette, exhaled in my face, and laughed. “You understand?” No, not really. I rarely understood Dave’s wisdom. I understood anger though, and Conor McGregor exploded with fury in the ring. I nodded my head. “Yeah, I get it. No mercy.” Dave smiled and stubbed out his cigarette in a sparkling clean glass ash tray. My mother washed them and sprayed air freshener around every night before going to bed. You’d never even know a smoker lived here.
When Mom came home she didn’t seem any different, just said “Hi, Baby”, but nothing about the cops or Linny’s Mom. Dave left for the bar after we ate goulash and watched the news. Sometimes he came in my room kinda sniffling after he got back and woke me up to say he was sorry. He said if I learned to behave he wouldn’t have to whip me, if I would just be good he wouldn’t have to be so hard on me. I always told him I would be better, and tried to figure out how until I fell back asleep.
Linny wasn’t at the bus stop the next morning, so I sat in our seat by myself and played who-lives-in-that-house. I liked it more when Linny and I went back and forth and made up stories about people in the big white house with peeling paint and pink roses growing up one side or the triangle-shaped yellow house with a huge golden dog stretched out in the driveway. Linny was silly and our stories much funnier than the ones I made up by myself. She walked into class and sat down just as the bell rang, but Linny wouldn’t look at me. I wanted to whisper to her, but Mr. Malcolm did not play around and he’d take away my recess if he heard. All morning long I stared at the back of her head. “Cammie Batch”, the teacher said, “please use “intention” in a sentence”. He seemed irritated. I looked down at my desk and tried to remember what intention meant, but all I could think of was going to Linny’s house for Oreos after school. Mr. Malcolm put his hands finger to finger in a steeple like he did when someone else took a while to answer, like he could wait all day. Normally I was good at this, but today my words disappeared. Finally, the recess bell rang. “Cammie, come to my desk”, Mr. Malcolm said as I watched Linny’s head disappear into the hall with everyone else’s. After Mr. Malcolm reviewed the word intention (it was nothing but a hope, really) and told me to pay better attention that afternoon, I raced down the hall and out the doors. There she was, right outside the building. “Oh good, you waited”, I said. “Cause I have something to tell you”, she said and shuffled her feet, her arms crossed tightly. “I can’t be friends with you anymore. My Daddy and Mommy said so.” She looked relieved.