For those who feel they are not good enough

Growing up without a dad, it was so easy to blame him for everything that went wrong. Mom wouldn’t have to be gone all the time if he was here. She wouldn’t be so stressed and angry. I would have done better in school if someone helped me with my homework. I wouldn’t be so alone.

It was hard for me to appreciate how hard mom worked for my sister and I. All I could see were the other families and how much happier they looked. Walking home from school I’d pass dads teaching their sons how to ride bikes or shoot hoops. I’d just walk faster, pretending I had something to do or someone waiting for me when I got home.

It was hard to keep pretending to the locked door and the dark house. Hard to realize that I mattered when most of my interactions with mom were post-it notes on the fridge.

Be back at 10. You’re the man of the house. Remember to feed your sister
-Love mom

And then just like that, everything changed. Mom got a new job as a live-in maid with Leroy, a wealthy corporate type living in a big house with extra rooms. His face looked rather like a toad that had been stepped on, and it folded into a vicious scowl whenever he happened across me. Passing my sister or me in the hallway, he’d look the other way and press his body to the far wall as though afraid of contracting a disease.

Mom told us not to take it personally; Leroy didn’t like any children. At first I couldn’t figure out why he invited us to live there at all, but I was 15 then and it didn’t take long to translate the leering smiles he gave mom. He was always watching her when she was cleaning, and it made me sick to be in the same room as them. Even worse, mom seemed to actually enjoy the attention. She made a show every time she bent over, luxuriously stretching her body when she reached high to dust.

I don’t suppose it was my place to fight it though. My little sister Casey was just happy to have mom around all the time, and money was a lot easier now. I still didn’t trust Leroy, but I figured mom knew what she was doing and could take care of herself. It wasn’t long before Leroy’s long looks turned into lingering caresses though. As always, Casey was more optimistic about it than I was.

“He’s going to take care of us,” Casey said one night. “And if he wants to be our new dad, then mom is going to make him be nice to us.”

“We can’t have a new dad because we never had an old dad,” I told her. “And Leroy won’t want anything to do with us either.”

But both of us were wrong: things didn’t improve, and they didn’t stay the same. They got much worse, much faster than we could have anticipated. Any noise was too much noise for Leroy. I could barely say good morning to Casey at the breakfast table without him slapping us quiet with his newspaper. He wouldn’t look away anymore when I caught him fondling mom either. He’d just stare right through me and keep going, taunting me, daring me to say something. Once I’d left a pile of my school books on the dining room table and he just dumped them into the trash without hesitation. It was clear that Casey and I weren’t welcome here.

We weren’t invisible anymore. We were openly despised. Casey wouldn’t speak up though, and mom refused to see it. She kept praising Leroy for taking us in and saying how much better he was than my real father. I wanted to stand up to Leroy, but seeing mom so happy I couldn’t bear the guilt of ruining this for her. That’s what I told myself at least. It seemed more noble than admitting I was afraid.

“Our life changed pretty fast, didn’t it?” Casey would say. “It’s easy to forget that Leroy’s life changed pretty fast too. It’s going to take time for him to learn how to deal with us. We just have to keep being good, and sooner or later he’s going to notice.”

I told her we were already being good, but she couldn’t look me in the eye. “Not good enough,” she said.

Casey hugged me and I held on because I knew she was being strong for the both of us now. She flinched at my touch though, and that was when I first noticed the bruises on her chest. She pulled away from me and put her finger to her lips. Don’t tell, her eyes pleaded. Don’t destroy our new life because of me. That time I couldn’t lie to myself anymore. I was the man of the house before Leroy arrived, and it was still my responsibility to protect the family. If anyone hurt us, it was my job to hurt them back.

I couldn’t lie to myself. It wasn’t for mom or for Casey that I was holding back. I was a coward, pure and simple. And it was my fault what happened next.

Less than a week later, Casey didn’t get up to go to school with me. When I got home I found dead in her room. Clothing torn. Black and purple bruises around her neck. Her hair was frayed as though she was dragged across the floor. Cuts and abrasions all along her little body. The only thing that didn’t look spoiled was her pure white hands. She hadn’t fought back. She’d stayed good, even with that monsters hands around her neck.

And still, I was afraid. More than ever now. I wanted to storm down to his office and break open the door. I wanted to gut the bastard, to scream at him for every silent suffering we took in stride. I wanted to let him bleed out on the floor, take his money, and run somewhere I could protect mom. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what he did to Casey, or what it must have felt like to be bludgeoned and dragged; choked and killed. I wasn’t as brave as she was.

I went to mom instead. Even if we didn’t get revenge, we could still get out. Mom didn’t answer when I knocked, but I heard her crying inside. My hand froze on the door knob, terrified that he was with her now. I forced myself to open the door anyway. Thank god, she was alone – sitting on the bed, looking up at me as I entered.

“You already know.” It was a statement, not a question.

Mom nodded, stifling back sobs. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” I sat on the floor in front of her, pressing my face against her legs. “It’s his fault. He did this to us.”

“You’re right,” she said, breathing easier now. “His fault.”

“But it’s not too late for us. We’re going to go away now, right? We’re going to be good. We’ll start a new life.”

She hugged me close, her hands running through my hair. “We have gotten away. This IS our new life. Even though it was your father’s fault for leaving me with two kids, it’s going to be okay. I’m free now.”

“Dad? I was talking about Leroy -” I began, but I couldn’t get the words out anymore. She was holding me even tighter. I tried to break free but her hands ran down my face to latch around my neck.

“I had to kill her, don’t you see?” mom’s words bubbled out with hysterical insistence. “I had to fix your father’s mistake. This is the only way Leroy would marry me. I could never force him to raise another man’s children.”

Maybe I could have struck her in the face, or broken one of her fingers and escaped. Even with her hands around my neck though, I couldn’t bring myself to hurt her. My panicked brain couldn’t make sense of what was happening. I struggled to get away, but my head was swimming as her fingers dug holes into my neck.

“Leroy has been so good to us,” mom cooed. “I’m so sorry, baby. This is the only thing I can do to make it up to him.”

I toppled backward onto the floor and was able to gasp a greedy lungful of air into my lungs. I screamed as loud as my battered throat would allow, the air escaping me like I was vomiting burning gasoline. Then mom fell off the bed onto me, her whole weight landing on my throat. I must have been on the edge of passing out then because I was only aware of brief slivers of broken time like my consciousness was a strobe light.

The door opening.
Leroy standing over me to watch.
Mom’s hands still around my neck.
The door opening again.
Casey standing in the doorway. Ripped and bruised as I saw her last.

And then I passed out for real. When I finally did wake up, I was still lying on the floor with mom on top of me. I pushed her off and struggled to my feet, panting and gasping and spluttering up blood. Leroy was on the floor too. Around both of their necks were the black and purple imprints of little fingers which dug so far into the flesh as to make permanent compressions in the corpse.

I didn’t call the police until after I ran back to Casey’s room. She was pale and stiff just as I had left her on the bed. The only difference was that her immaculate hands were now stained with dark streaks.

The police later confirmed her fingerprints on both Leroy and my mother. It seems as though they had already gotten married, and without any other living descendants I stood to inherit the house. It’s been four years since then, and I’ve tried to do my best to make up for what happened. I’ve given most of Leroy’s money away, and I’ve opened up the extra rooms to foster children without a place to stay. I volunteer every chance I get, and am even taking classes to become a licensed family therapist. I know I should have done more when I had the chance, but I’m doing everything I can now.

I’m writing this because I need to know what is left for me to do. When I lay down to sleep at night, why do I still hear her? It was bad enough when it was just me, but now two of the foster boys have told me they hear it too. Right before sleep in the broken time between waking and dreams, we all hear the same thing. Some nights it is no more than an intrusive thought that can’t be banished. Other times I feel the hot whisper and my throat will start to itch like little fingers brushing the tiny hairs of my neck. Every time the same words, begging, pleading, demanding; I can’t tell which.

“Not good enough,” she’ll say.

And I’ll know she was right.

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