By Jennifer Palmer
Jocelyn settles onto the lumpy mattress, closes her eyes. Listens.
The faucet in the corner leaks, a forlorn plop sounding as each drop hits the tarnished sink. The ceiling fan, the lone luxury of the place, clicks with each rotation, keeping time with the beating of her heart. The thin walls do little to mask noise from outside: the cacophony of car horns, the crackle of tires, the dull roar of the freeway. The person upstairs rolls over in bed, the creak of worn-out box springs clearly audible. Next door, she can hear the sounds of playing, a little girl humming to herself.
A door crashes against the wall in the little girl’s room and Jocelyn jumps, then curls instinctively, protectively, around her middle, her face against her knees, her hands shielding her head. The humming stops, replaced by a masculine voice, its angry tone cutting through the girl’s protests. A slap, the sharp, sickening sound of flesh hitting flesh, then a dull thump. The child cries out, prompting more shouts from the man. The door slams shut. All that is left are whimpers, soft sobs, muffled gasps.
Jocelyn shakes on the floor for an eternity. Gradually, the tremors lessen, then still. She uncurls, her motions furtive, before she remembers where she is. She looks at the faucet, the fan, the window, marveling at her freedom, then reaches for the wall. Leaning close, she listens, but all is silent next door. Perhaps she imagined it. Surely that’s it.
She gets to her feet, washes her face in the basin, looks at herself in the cracked mirror. She shakes her head slightly, as though to rid her mind of some thought, some ghost, then hurriedly splashes water on her face. Time to get to work; she managed to land a job at the diner down on the corner, and her shift begins soon.
Hours later, she returns, her feet sore, her back tired, a dull ache behind her eyes. Hunger battles against nausea, and she nibbles some soda crackers pilfered from the waitress stand at work. Everything hurts. Waiting tables is a thankless job, but she has money in her pocket, a start towards rent and groceries and a life free of him, and so can tolerate all the rest.
Her bedtime routine is simple. She washes her face, brushes her teeth, crawls onto the bare mattress on the floor. She breathes deeply, willing herself to relax. She is safe.
She drifts toward sleep, but the nightmare one wall over repeats itself. The door crashing open. The angry voice. Slaps and thumps. A child’s cries. Again, she huddles on her side of the wall, shivering in mute solidarity with the girl next door.
When it is over, she reaches for her phone, hands shaking, then stops in terror. He is there, looming over her, fists upraised.
“Little whore! Who do you think you are? Just like your mother. Worthless.”
She shrinks into the corner. Her hand moves involuntarily to her stomach, rests there for a moment. She closes her eyes, inhales deeply, then picks up the phone. It takes her three tries to punch in the number. She whispers to him as it rings. “You’re not really here. I am free of you. You’re not really here.”
A voice on the other end of the line, kind, calm, asks about her emergency, waits patiently as she chokes out her story, encourages her to repeat herself, just a bit louder, please. She says the words for the girl next door that nobody ever said for her.
“He’s hurting her. Come save her. Please, before it’s too late.”
She sits alone in the dark and waits for what seems like hours before the siren echoes outside, before boots ricochet in the stairwell, before fists fall on the thin wood of her neighbor’s door.
“Police! Open up!”
Curses then, muttered threats, a door thrown wide. Muffled conversation—she can’t quite make out the words—but her neighbor grows more and more belligerent. His daughter begins to cry. The man shouts something about his rights and is met by the calm, firm response of the officer. The door slams; the girl’s sobs recede. Jocelyn rushes to the window, sees a uniformed man helping a small form into the back of a cruiser, and a small prayer whistles out from between her clenched teeth.
“Keep her safe. Please, keep her safe.”
She lies down, then, closes her eyes, feels the barest flutter, the hope of the future, in her womb. As the tears leak out from underneath her eyelids, she listens. The drip of the faucet. The click of the fan. The horns and the tires and the freeway. And beyond that: silence.
Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at choosingthismoment.com. She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.