We snuck away in the middle of the night, staying off the main roads, cutting through yards and alleys until we reached the safe house. Mom had hastily packed a few changes of clothes for us in preparation, careful to be sure that Father wouldn’t find out. Uncle Mark was waiting for us, ready to whisk us away to the first of many women’s shelters we would flee to over the next few years as we’d continue to trade one unpredictable home for another.
We had our own room on the second floor of an aging, historic brownstone, a private space to escape to when things felt unfamiliar and scary. The shelter spilled over with battered and broken and terrified families. Mamma bears bristled with trauma as they tried their best to protect their cubs.
Time did not exist in this space; neither hours nor days nor weeks nor months passed with any recognition at all, and before I knew it, we were heading back out into the world to survive on our own once again, the same way we’d left it.
We set up camp on the top floor of a rundown yellow two-story house on the outskirts of Stillwater, near the old prison. Steep, paper-tarred steps led up the back to a makeshift patio, which was also gummed black. The sun softened the gunk in the summertime, and the smell would reach into the pit of my stomach with noxious claws.
Mom got a job making bowling shoes, earning just enough money to squeak by, but it wasn’t long before Father came back along to sabotage the progress she’d made. I didn’t understand why she would let him back into our lives, but I didn’t think she really understood, either.
After a while, there were days when she just wasn’t able to show up for her shifts, when her face was so beat up that she couldn’t find the strength to show herself in public, embarrassed and ashamed of what people would think. What if they thought she deserved it?
Did she think she deserved it?
“You fucking idiot.”
Father jabbed his finger in Mom’s face until it repeatedly poked the bridge of her nose.
“Stop it, Lee, you’re hurting me,” Mom said.
“You realize they’re right out there, don’t you?” Father asked.
“Who’s out there, Lee?” Mom asked.
She opened the back door and peered outside.
“You fucking called them, you bitch, you called them!”
Father shoved her, hard, and her head bounced against the wood as the door slammed shut. He grabbed a handful of her hair and dragged her into the living room like a rag doll, then dropped her onto her back and sat on her chest, pinning her arms down with his legs as she screamed.
Father went to town on her face with his fists, hitting her over and over again until blood was everywhere and Mom was silent. Until there was no noise left in the room at all except Father’s heavy breathing.
I hid under the kitchen table and bit down on my knuckles to choke back the tears, thinking Mom was surely dead this time, afraid he’d do the same to me if he found me. Father crept out of the room without giving me a second glance, as if I didn’t exist at all.
I tiptoed through the kitchen. Mom wasn’t moving. She looked like a corpse. Her face had been pounded into goulash, chunks of flesh mashed into bone. I wondered if she was alive. I leaned in close and tilted my head to listen for her breathing.
A few minutes passed like this.
They felt like an eternity.
There was a loud pounding on the door, and I dove back under the kitchen table. I huddled as far back in the corner as I could wedge myself as Father’s footsteps came back up the hallway. He dropped a wet towel on Mom’s chest as he walked past her, then peered out the back window before opening the door.
“Hey,” the man said, tall blue jean legs and cowboy boots.
“Hey man, what’s the happs?” Father asked pleasantly, as if he hadn’t just beaten the living crap out of his wife, who lay there, unmoving, just a few feet behind him.
“Not much,” Cowboy Boots said. “You ready to roll?”
“Yeah, man, I’ll grab my bag and be right down.”
Father tried closing the door, but Cowboy Boots stepped in at the last second.
“Yo, I can wait right here.”
“Nah, that’s alright,” Father said. “You go back down. I’ll be right out.”
Cowboy Boots disappeared, and Father shut the door behind him. He walked back through the kitchen, stopping briefly in the living room to look at Mom, who was sitting up now, holding the bloodied rag to her face.
She was still alive.
Father shook his head, then skirted the wake of carnage with his duffle bag in hand like he couldn’t wait to escape into the scorching sun of indifference.
A few weeks later, dishes shattered against walls and wood smashed into splintered pieces. Father’s voice rang out the window while Mom’s cries went unanswered. I stood on the tarred stoop and waited for the turbulence to blow over and the silence that would inevitably follow. I had to go to the bathroom, and it was getting harder and harder to hold it. I crossed my legs, shifting every which way, as things crashed around inside the house.
The fighting raged on until I couldn’t hold it any longer, so I crouched down to relieve myself in my overalls. The late summer sun scalded and judged me. Aunt Mary drove up in her Jeep Wrangler and hopped out of the suicide door. I stayed squatting, my underwear full of shit.
“Hi, Matthew,” she said, followed by “What the fuck?!” sailing from calm seas to category five hurricane, as most of Father’s family was prone to do.
“What’s going on up there, Lee?” she screamed at the house.
The back door flew open.
“Get the fuck off my property,” Father said as he waved his shotgun wildly in the air.
“Your property? Your property, Lee? Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t own this shit-hole. You couldn’t even if you wanted to. What a joke, sponging off your woman like loser trash. What, you think you’re a big strong man with that gun?”
She hoofed up the stairs unfazed. Father looked around like he was trying to find a quick way to escape, while I tried to disappear into the corner of the deck.
Aunt Mary winked at me and whispered, “You stay put.”
She was at least half a foot shorter than Father, but she shoved him aside like a pile of dirty laundry and went inside the house as he muttered something incomprehensible under his breath. She came back out with Mom, the whole time threatening Father within an inch of his life if he even thought about touching her. Aunt Mary grabbed my hand and escorted us both down the stairs to the Jeep. I was still embarrassed that I had gone #2 in my pants, so I huddled on the floor behind her seat where she couldn’t see me. I was in the clear until we got to Aunt Mary’s house, where Mom had to wash the shit out of my clothes and give me a bath.
We didn’t even spend the night.
Mom brought us right back home a few hours later.
Once the swelling and bruising around her eyes and nose had healed up enough that she could cover the rest with makeup, Mom got a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken after she was let go from the sewing factory. Father was supposed to watch me during the day, but he almost always slept until late afternoon, so I was left to my own devices. I spent a lot of time playing with my friend Clifton, who lived down the street in a pale yellow house with dark brown trim almost identical to our own.
One day, shortly after I started kindergarten, the bus dropped me back home, and I walked down to Clifton’s house like I did most days. An older man I had never seen before answered the door dressed in paint-splotched, faded blue jeans and a stained white t-shirt.
“Hi mister, can Clifton come out to play?” I asked.
“Clifton isn’t here right now,” he said. “His daddy took him to the store real quick. They should be back in a little while.”
He looked past me down the alley.
“Say, I need to pick up something at the drug store in town. Would you like to come with? Maybe we’ll run into Clifton. You can even pick out a toy before we head home. My treat.”
I climbed into his rusty truck, grabbing the inside door handle to help lift myself up in order to reach the tall ledge with my foot, and then awkwardly pulled myself onto the edge of the bench seat onto my stomach. Throwing my legs around to the floor, I flipped right side up so I could sit on the seat while my legs kicked in the air.
We drove the winding road that led from Oak Park Heights toward downtown Stillwater, descending into the valley, passing the steep bluffs along the St. Croix River. The many rainy days we’d had over the summer provided a tremendous amount of green, and the trees and grass and flowers had exploded into a lush Minnesota rainforest.
The man parked his beat up truck on Main Street and led me by the hand into the store. He picked up a few things and placed them into a wire basket as we walked the aisles. Standing next to him, my head barely reached his thighs. He was much taller than my father.
We strolled around a corner and there was the toy aisle in all its glory, filled with colorful packaging screaming, ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ as my eyes filled with longing. There were so many choices, but he’d said I could choose just one, so I settled on what looked the most exciting: an orange and blue NERF gun that shot neon green foam balls.
The man helped me into the truck this time, lifting me up by my wrists and setting my feet onto the ledge, then pushing my bottom as I scrambled onto the seat. The rusty door complained as it shut. He drove the same way home as we’d come, slowing down as we passed the truck stop diner nestled beneath the bluffs on the side of the highway heading out of downtown. I’d been to that diner once before with Grandma Hazel earlier that year, around the time I’d just turned five. She’d taken a styrofoam cup of coffee to go and bought a newspaper from the coin-operated rack on our way out, setting the folded paper on the car seat between us and wedging the coffee cup in its usual place on top of the dashboard against the inside of the windshield, where it had steamed up a large circle on the glass.
“Are we going to the diner, mister?” I asked, hoping I could get one of the giant M&M cookies from the display case.
He didn’t answer. The truck slowed down, but instead of turning right into the diner’s parking lot, he turned left in the opposite direction, onto a dirt road heading toward the river.
The mammoth tires pulverized the gravel, trapping us in a cloud of dust, sending loose rock pinging against the undercarriage. Tall grass stood erect like wheat along both sides of the road, while an abandoned industrial building loomed up ahead at the bank of the river. He swung the truck to the right, along the railroad tracks and an overgrown cluster of bushes, as the sun slipped silently behind the cliffs, hushing the river valley, except for the crickets which noisily chirped their anticipation of dusk.
The man got out of the truck, came around to my side, opened the door, then picked me up underneath my armpits and set me down on the gravel. The smell of dead fish clung to the humid air. He took my hand and directed me to the crumbling cement wall holding the earth against the river. We stood there for a minute, neither of us saying anything, watching the river laze along. The silence filled me with unease, and I nervously watched bits of leaves and foam and an occasional piece of river wood drift by.
We explored the abandoned building, the part that was open to the elements, and I heaved chunks of collapsed concrete into the river. They kerplunked as the water swallowed them whole. Everything was in a state of decay. Eventually, we grew bored with kicking up sand and dust into the twilight air, and headed back toward the truck.
The man opened my door, hesitated for a moment, then said, “I should check you for wood ticks,” like an afterthought.
He turned my little body to face away from him toward the train tracks, and, reaching around me, undid my belt, unbuttoned and unzipped my pants, then pulled them down around my ankles. He slid his big hand down the front of my underwear and felt around. His fingers stung like ice cubes and the chilly air bit at my eyes.
The calloused hand reached around to my bottom, and I could feel his breath, hot on the back of my neck. It was putrid, like he’d not brushed his teeth in weeks. I stood frozen in place, afraid to move even an inch. His breath coupled with the smell of rotting fish made my stomach lurch in violent somersaults.
“Can we go home now?” I asked.
My voice was tiny, but it startled him. He quickly pulled his hand out of my underwear and stepped away from me, looking at me as if seeing me for the first time, like he didn’t know if I was a human or a dog or a cricket.
He cleared his throat as he dragged his feet against the rock.
“Yep, you bet. There are no wood ticks on ya, that’s for sure. Yep, you’re in the clear, and Clifton is probably back home by now, anyhow…”
“I don’t want to play with Clifton anymore,” I said as I pulled up my pants.
I gazed out the window as the rocky cliff-face whizzed past, feeling tired and confused and spooked because I didn’t know what we had been doing by the river, and I didn’t like the feeling of what had just happened, even though I didn’t really know what had happened. He’d said he needed to check me for wood ticks, but something about the way he did it felt wrong.
I wondered what would happen if I flung the truck door open and jumped. If I could tuck myself into a ball quickly enough in mid-air before landing in the gravel along the side of the road, and roll safely into the dogwood, maybe I could disappear into the burning bush forever?
I threw the NERF gun in the garbage can behind the garage before I went into the house. I never wanted to see it again. Never even took it out of the box. I felt silly for wanting it so badly in the first place, plus, the thought of telling Mom how I’d gotten it made me feel dirty and guilty.
I never saw the man again after that day. It was as if he’d vanished, or—and I desperately wished this to be true—maybe he’d never existed at all. But either way, Mom was so wrapped up in her own battle for survival, I don’t think she would have noticed if he’d been sitting on our back steps waiting there for me every day for the rest of my life.
Matt Rydeen is an LGBT author, a member of the Loft Literary Center, and has spoken excerpts from his upcoming debut memoir, Cherry Lane, at Toastmasters International. He is passionate about partnering with organizations fighting to end domestic violence as well as the stigma of mental illness, and works to champion change by providing a personal account of how easy it is to fall through the cracks, and to raise awareness that the system, although designed to help, still fails many abuse sufferers that go unnoticed. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can learn more about his life and thoughts at mattrydeen.com.