She was falling.
Plummeting gracefully toward the frigid waters of South Carolina’s Cooper River below. Her arms were held out at her sides, palms up. She felt the cool rush of air between her fingers which were spread apart, but not flailing against gravity’s undebatable embrace. She uttered no sound, and her eyes were closed. Her falling body inspired the appearance of a human missile searing through a brisk, early morning breeze, had there been anyone present.
While the girl’s body radiated an odd peacefulness throughout the hundred foot drop, her mind raced along behind her clenched eyelids at a rapid pace. As if watching the important scenes from a classic movie played in fast forward, painful memories of her childhood flooded in from the farthest reaches of her soul.
A sorrowful picture of her mother’s funeral appeared. Plumes of darkened cloud cover across Charleston’s gray horizon gave way to a steady rainfall as the procession began. Like teardrops from Heaven, the rain felt cold against her skin. It brought with it the scent of raw fish, murky but somehow fitting under the somber circumstances.
She stood in front of the casket, looking down at the body of a withered old lady who simply couldn’t have once been her beautiful mother. The frail person lying before her appeared much older than forty-two. What was left of her once vibrant strands of chestnut hair had faded to a pale shade of dun, the ends split and graying at her neckline.
The body was on it’s side. Bony fingers from each hand were clenched into fists and held together at her waist, as if still reeling in pain even after death. Her mouth had opened slightly at some point before the viewing. It formed the same expression used while exhaling her final breath, the one her daughter had witnessed.
She glanced up and suddenly realized that everyone was watching her. Close family and friends. Distant relatives who she hadn’t seen in years. Still others were complete strangers, perhaps longtime acquaintances of her mother’s whom she had never met. She recognized their curious gazes. They were all waiting. Wanting to see the poor twelve year old daughter finally breaking down at her mother’s casket. Why is it that so many people feed off the anguish of others?
Asking aloud for eternal harmony, yet anxiously awaiting the next travesty in order to attend.
The girl displayed resilience though. She refused to shed even the smallest amount of tears in front of any expectant onlookers. No one would get to see her cry. Her mother had asked her to be strong when the cancer was first discovered two years before. She needed her daughter’s strength, her youthful courage as the first debilitating rounds of chemotherapy began. And so she respected her mother’s wishes. Remaining strong throughout the suffering. Refusing to give in even while gazing upon her mother’s body for the last time. She hoped her mom was proud.
The girl’s father did cry on that sad day though. He mourned for hours on end. He took solace in those around him, accepting their hugs, their acts of kindness. And as his wife was being lowered to her place of eternal rest, he looked to the heavens above and silently pleaded for answers. What had she done to deserve this? Why now? Why them?
Receiving only rainfall in return, he lowered his head and noticed his daughter. He saw her stone-faced expression. Her refusal of anyone’s offered support. Her apparent lack of emotion. He knew nothing of the promise she’d made to her mother. He could only see what was standing before him. And it was then when his heart grew cold.
A month passed before her father began hitting her.
They had talked very little during those awkward weeks following her mother’s passing. She often caught him glaring at her from the corner of her eye while trying to concentrate on homework at the kitchen table. She saw the resentment he no longer bothered to hide. It made her wary of him. She began avoiding him altogether, and hating herself for it. He was her father. They needed each other, now more than ever.
He arrived home late from work on that fateful evening, staggering through the front door, his breath reeking of alcohol. She was watching television in the dark. Upon seeing his condition, she tucked her legs under her, trying to make herself smaller, more hidden within the crevice of the cushion.
Her father slammed the door shut behind him. He dropped his lunch box on the floor where it landed on it’s side, spilling open the contents. Still in his work boots, he approached her in a stumble. He raised his hand above his head. She watched his fingers curl into a fist. Exhaling a sharp breath, she managed to close her eyes.
He uttered one word before swinging his fist upon his cringing daughter. "Why?"
Five years passed. The beatings continued. Not every night, but when he drank. And he’d steadily become an alcoholic. A demon having taken up residence within him. Demanding of liquor in order to quench the pain. And when that wasn’t enough, something more was needed. Something violent.
She became an expert at covering up the bruises. Often awakening to a throbbing pain upon her left temple, or to the burning of blood vessels as they tunneled crimson trails through the white’s of her eyes. An aching muscle in her shoulder. A tightening of breath as she slowly rose from her bed.
She would stand in front of the bathroom mirror, assessing the damage. Concealer for the bruise around her eye. Flesh-colored blush for the fading purple wound upon her cheek. A long sleeved shirt to cover her shoulder. Combing her bangs down over the welt on her forehead. Then off to school. Her secret, her curse hidden under layers of Maybelline and several year’s worth of academic solitude. Her success rate was flawless. After all, hiding the truth was easy when no one cared to look.
A portrait of Johnny flashed through her mind. Her hands started trembling as she fell. Her Johnny.
She caught him watching her from across the room. Study hall. Everyone was leaned forward in their seats, texting messages on their cell phones or finishing up some math homework. She glanced up from the book she was reading. Their eyes met. Her heartbeat quickened it’s pace.
He wore his dark hair long. Strands of it hung down over his left eye. He watched her through his bangs, his gaze intense. She knew who he was. Who didn’t?
Johnny was a receiver on the football team. He drove a motorcycle to school. He’d been associated through one rumor or another with practically every popular girl in the school. And yet here he was, unable to pull his eyes away from her.
She watched as his square jaw curled up into a smile. She glanced away, the warmth of a blush creeping up from the base of her neck. Was this really happening?
He made his way through the sea of swinging arms and legs, of chattering classmates spanning the entire width of the school corridor in between classes in order to approach her.
She felt someone standing behind her as she stood at her locker. She turned. Her breath caught in her throat.
"I’m Johnny," he said, the smile returning. The drawl of his true southern accent nearly caused her to drop the textbook she was holding.
"I know," she stammered. It was all she could think of to say.
"You’re Jessica," he said.
"I know that too."
His pleasant smile opened to a grin, revealing his teeth. Perfectly straight. Frosty-white, even the incisors. Those pointy teeth protruding from each corner of the jaw. Tiny fangs. His resembled sharp daggers, remaining hidden, but peeking below his upper lip every time he smiled. She unconsciously waited for them to suddenly grow several inches as he stood before her. The handsome teenage vampire like in all of those top selling novels.
She watched as his hazel eyes fluttered down to the books she was carrying. "Biology," he mumbled. He lifted his gaze back to her face. "So I was wondering. I need to raise my grade so I can stay eligible for football. And Ms. Miller always lets people go to the library during our study hall whenever they need a little extra help."
"You want me to help you in biology?" she asked.
"Unless you’re not interested," he said. "I can go and..."
"I’ll do it," she cut in.
Again his smile. Not since her mother had anyone looked at her that way. She felt her cheeks growing warm again, but she didn’t care anymore. She couldn’t peel her eyes away from his face. Those masculine lines around his jaw. The allure of his eyes. Sometimes a deep mahogany. An instant later resembling the jaded color of the pine needles on the evergreen standing in the school courtyard.
"Thanks," he said. "I’ll see you tomorrow then?"
"Okay," she breathed.
She felt his hand brush against hers as he attempted to rejoin the flowing mass of students making their way in either direction of the pale-colored hall. His fingers curled around the edge of her trembling hand and gently closed. Just enough for her to notice. Enough for her to never forget.
It was on the third day of their study session in the library when she caught a glance at one of Johnny’s biology papers which had slipped out of his text book as he opened it to the appropriate page. It had already been turned in and graded. At the top of the paper in bold red ink she saw a 97%. A higher grade than what she had received on the same assignment.
She looked up and met his sheepish expression. He slowly refolded the paper and tucked it back into his book. Then without a word, he slowly reached over and closed her book as well.
"I guess you caught me," he whispered under the hushed atmosphere of the library.
"You’re better in biology than I am," she said.
"It got us together though."
Her mouth opened. She was unable to hide the shocked expression upon her face. As she watched, he slowly moved his hand across the table and placed it upon hers. Their fingers slowly interlocked.
Without thinking, she reached up with her other hand and brushed the bangs out of her face, exposing the deep bruise upon her forehead. Several days old, it had begun shifting in color from an ugly purple, to a fleshy yellow-green.
She watched as his eyes grew wide, before realizing what she’d done. Her fingers tightened their hold on his lanky fingers.
"I fell...in the shower," she whispered. Her eyes fell to the walnut tabletop. She was unable to meet his questioning gaze.
"And the one last week?" he asked. He released his hand from hers and raised it toward her ear. Gently guiding his index finger beyond a tuft of auburn hair, he caressed the soft skin directly behind her earlobe. "The one I saw right here?"
His touch was so light she barely felt it. And yet the realization of someone finding out her secret after so many years of hiding the violence brought a wave of gooseflesh up and down her arms.
"I guess I caught you too," he mumbled.
A lone tear escaped from the corner of her eye and made it’s way down her cheek. Johnny reached out and wiped it off. His skin felt rough upon the tender flesh just below her eye, which had recently healed. But as he pulled away she silently yearned for it back. She wanted him to hold her battered face between his hands and whisper into her ear how everything would be okay.
She leaned back in her chair instead. Her back grew rigid as her arms fell to her sides. "I can’t talk about this right now," she said. "But if you can be patient..."
"Okay Jess," he said. "I’ll try. But that’s all I can promise."
And as the murky depths of the Cooper River quickly approached, yet another image flashed through the bursting fireworks of her sub-consciousness. A memory so clear, so fresh in her mind. A final unraveling which began only twelve hours prior.
"Come home with me," he said.
"You know I can’t," she answered. "He’d kill me."
She watched him roll his eyes toward the ceiling. Directly behind them hundreds of students were filing out of the building following the dismissal bell. The constant noise of ten dozen conversations all happening at the exact same moment left the area in a normal state of chaos. Neither of them noticed though.
As if standing together within an impenetrable bubble, they were able to concentrate on each other’s words without interruption. Inches apart, backed against her locker, his face close enough for her to smell the breath mint dissolving on his tongue.
"We can go to my parents, Jess," Johnny pleaded. "We can fix this."
She started to tremble. "I can’t. Somehow I think this is kinda my fault and..."
"Jess stop it," Johnny cut in. He leaned closer, placing a hand upon either side of her face. She loved when he did that. She’d never felt so safe. He exhaled a deep breath. She could practically taste the scent of cinnamon. "Please, let me help."
"I need to talk to him first," she said. "After everything, he’s still my dad. I owe him that much."
"You owe him..."
He stopped and closed his eyes, trying to stay calm. When at last he opened them, she stared into the soft hazel color of his soul and wished for a way to hide there forever.
"Tonight," she promised. "I’ll talk to him."
He leaned in and brushed his lips against hers. He hesitated, their lips touching just enough for her to consider it their first kiss. Then he backed away from her. A worrisome expression lined his face as he turned and made his way toward the exit.
"I’ll talk to him, Johnny," she mumbled to herself.
She normally heard him when he got home from work. The rattle of the loose doorknob. The slamming thud of the door as he staggered inside. It’s sound echoing throughout the house, alerting her. Preparing her.
Softer footfalls leading into the kitchen meant he hadn’t stopped at the bar after work. It meant a quieter evening spent in her room. A night without violence.
The heavy thudding of his boots as he tramped down the narrow hall though, sometimes dragging his back foot, occasionally stumbling in the dark, groping his grimy fingers along the paneled walls for support, meant something else entirely.
On this day, while relaxing under the massaging streams of a hot shower, she neither heard the front door opening, or the stomping of her father’s work boots as they made their way toward the bathroom, the ominous sound growing louder with every step. He had arrived home much earlier than she normally expected him. He’d caught her unprepared.
She turned off the water, unaware that she was no longer alone inside the small confines of the bathroom. She pulled back the shower curtain in order to retrieve her towel when she spotted him. She sucked in a sharp intake of breath, instinctively backing up against the shower wall.
He was leaned back against the counter top, head tilted forward, his drowsy, partially closed eyes focused entirely upon her. His dark hair stuck up in tufts upon his unwashed scalp. His work clothes, worn out blue-jeans and a thinning, white t-shirt, were covered in grease stains from where he worked. He hadn’t shaved in days, his jaw now shadowed in dark bristles. Worst of all, she could smell his breath from the across the room. The familiar stench of whiskey exhaled upon her with each rise and fall of his chest.
"They let me go," he mumbled, his voice sounding hoarse. "Said I had a drinkin problem. Told me I needed help. The bastards."
She watched his eyes moving up and down and realized that she was standing before him naked and dripping wet. His breathing started to quicken. Short huffs. Hot tangy breath. She threw a glance toward her towel, hanging from the hook only several feet away.
"You look just like her," he breathed.
His eyes fluttered shut. She could practically see the gears turning inside the foggy realms of his mind. Trying to focus. Dueling with the inner demon. He tilted his head back, clenched his fists. "Like she’s still here," he said.
She stepped forward, reaching for her towel. Her foot slid on the tub floor, making a squeak, alerting his attention. She lunged. His fist lashed out.
She toppled backwards into the tub. Her tail bone landing upon the tub floor with an aching thud. Her head flailing back against the tub wall. The bathroom spinning out of control.
He advanced, reaching for her. His eyes widening, fists opening.
"Daddy no," she pleaded. "I’m not her!"
As she lifted her knees toward her breasts defensively, a shadow from the bathroom door drew her attention away from her father’s hulking form. She watched it’s stealthy approach as her father stepped into the tub. Through his legs, she recognized the black leather jacket rounding the corner as the leering shadow shrunk and became flesh and bone. She saw the dark hair covering the top half of his face as her father placed his fingers around her neck. Those hazel eyes. The square jaw. She screamed.
"Get away from her!" Johnny ordered, stepping into the bathroom. He’d been worried all afternoon. Feared for her safety. Felt like he had to do something. So regardless of her wishes, he came for her.
A hissing sound escaped her father’s lips as he straightened and turned. No one had ever caught him in the act of beating his daughter. For just a moment a look of fear appeared on his face. But it didn’t last.
"Get the hell outta my house!" he demanded.
He stepped out of the bathtub, advancing toward the stranger in the leather jacket. The trespassing punk trying to play hero.
Johnny backed into the hallway, allowing her father to follow. He threw a glance toward the bathroom where she remained in a naked, shivering state of disbelief.
"Jessica run!’ he hollered. "Get out!"
She rose to her feet. Ignoring the towel, she reached for her thin, ivory-colored nightgown folded on the bathroom counter. She threw it over her head as she entered the hall, squeezing behind her father who was following Johnny toward the back of the house. She turned and watched in horror as he suddenly lunged, arms outstretched, hands reaching for her boyfriend.
"Jessica run!" he screamed again.
And she did.
Down the hall toward the front of the house. Through the kitchen as a loud thump echoed toward her from the hallway. Out the front door as the crack of splintered paneling entered her ears. She hesitated, hearing a painful yelp. Figured that it must’ve come from Johnny. Realized that her much larger father would probably kill him in his drunken state. And then she continued.
Along deserted back streets through the south end of Charleston, Jessica never slowed. Running barefoot, her ghostly nightgown flowing along behind her. Past the huddled forms of the homeless who barely noticed her silent advance through the fabled streets. Under the rows of mature palms which lined the streets, their outstretched fronds rustling in the breeze, as if reaching out for her.
It wasn’t until she reached highway 17 when she realized where her legs were taking her. Then it all made perfect sense. Breathing hard as she ran, her lungs gasping, she didn’t stop until she reached the Cooper River Bridge.
Resembling the Golden Gate on the opposite coast, it was the largest cable bridge east of the Mississippi. Still only a few years old, it practically glowed under the overhead lighting constructed along the towering cables, and the moon’s thin, wintery crescent from above.
A concrete sidewalk ran along the side of the bridge in order for tourists and local walkers to absorb the true beauty and power of the Cooper River below. Many divers made their living collecting prehistoric shark teeth on the river floor, which had traveled in from the neighboring Atlantic. It’s eighty foot depths were widely known as being the murkiest flowing waters along the eastern coast.
As a chilling breeze raised gooseflesh along her scantily clothed body, Jessica scaled the mesh wire fencing which separated the sidewalk from the hundred foot drop to the river below. A lone vehicle drove by, it’s horn piercing the silence created by an early dawn. She ignored it.
Hesitating just long enough to allow an oncoming wind to blow it’s tendrils through her hair, and to catch the flaming crest of the rising sun to the east, she released her hold on the wire fencing and began her fall. Her entire night had been spent running through the streets of Charleston.
She was exhausted.
With the chilly air howling in her ears like a coyote’s mournful cry, she thought of Johnny one last time.
He was running.
He carried a bruise over one eye, a slight limp to his gait, but he was very much alive. As he sprinted along the sidewalk of a familiar street, she could hear him calling out her name. The image was so clear, so vivid. And as the impenetrable waters of the river rose before her, a last fleeting thought ran through her mind.
Maybe Johnny had fought off her father’s drunken rage and gotten away. If so, then surely he had taken off through the streets in search of her. Maybe he was looking for her at that very moment. Calling out her name and praying for a response which would never come. Maybe things would’ve turned out for the better after all. Maybe her Johnny was still alive!
Jessica opened her eyes.
No one heard or saw the splash as the frigid waters of the Cooper River opened up and swallowed her body into it’s near bottomless depths below. And as the waves slowed to a rippling current under the massive bridge, a sound could be heard echoing through the historic streets of Charleston. The frantic shouting of someone in urgent need of assistance. Ghost-like howls, repeating a name over and over again through the early morning air, without ever receiving an answer.