[T/W: Domestic abuse, mental health]
“Don’t you remember?” Ron’s gaze pleaded from just inches away. The corners of his eyes pinched, his lips tightened in a strained pout. “I know this has been a lot for you and must be so confusing. But that isn’t quite how it happened, is it, dear?”
“Well, Pen, what happened? We’re here for you.” Penelope’s father spoke warmly, although she noticed the same pinched eyes and strained mouth had begun to contort his face as well.
“Please, Pen, whatever you can remember, really remember,” her mother begged.
Penelope blinked as if at a camera flash, her face becoming blank. Her hands remained placidly folded in her lap, occasionally fingering the rings adorning each of her digits. She breathed silently through her nose, no movement in her slight shoulders or chest as she brought her eyes from Ron’s, to her parents’, and back to Ron’s.
“It is just like I said.”
I walked through the front door of our house at a little after ten o’clock at night on Thursday. Entering the house, I paused in the entryway. I noticed Ron’s shoes had been kicked off just to the right of the doormat, the left of the pair on its side; his peacoat slumped on the floor where it had fallen from the hooks on the wall. I walked a few steps forward the stairs when I heard Ron speaking on the phone upstairs, but I couldn’t make out the muffled words. I put my jangling keys in the bowl at the base of the stairs, and Ron’s voice cut out above me.
I heard him speak my name – “Penelope” – upstairs, like I was in the room with him. Then he spoke my name louder, like I was in the room but ignoring him. He tried to yell my name, but hiccupped on the second syllable, so a strong “Penel” came out, the “ope” forgotten. I cautiously walked up the stairs and told him that I was here. He asked where I had been, his words uneven and coarse. I reached the top of the stairs and told him that I had been at work, finishing up a last-minute change requested by our client; I still couldn’t see him in the dim recesses of our bedroom. He scoffed but did not ask anything further. I walked into our bedroom, and he stood from where he had been leaning against the end of our bed, his phone still beside him on our blue bedding.
Ron’s phone kept buzzing, but he didn’t seem to notice. I assumed he had hung up unexpectedly with whomever he had been speaking to, though I couldn’t make out the caller. When I asked if he would answer his ringing phone, he muttered under his breath and shoved the phone into his pocket. His phone kept buzzing from his pocket, but he ignored it.
Ron accused me of relapsing again, of staying with a coworker after hours to drink. I told him that I had a client project and began to pull out my phone to show him the messages back and forth about the last-minute changes. As I pulled the phone from my pocket, he swatted it out of my hand and told me he didn’t want to see my lies. I picked up my phone and began to walk out the door, telling him that I was going to take a drive and give him time to cool off. He told me that I wasn’t allowed to walk away from him and began to pursue me.
We reached the top of the stairs. I turned and told him I loved him but didn’t feel safe and wanted to let him cool down. He called me some names I would rather not repeat but generally accused me of relapsing and cheating on him. As I started down the stairs, he grabbed my right forearm, demanding that I stop. I hadn’t made it down more than a step yet. I told him to let go of me. Instead, he pulled me back up the half-step to the top of the stairs. He called me a whore, told me to go away, and pushed me with both hands down the stairs.
I woke up the first time feeling dull pain all over my body, lots of noise and lights, jostling, the back of the ambulance. I woke up the second time in the ICU, after they set my arm. Then they brought me to this room.
From his bedside table, Ron lowered his head to the cast on her left arm and sighed. He started to turn his face toward her parents, sitting in chairs pulled up to the foot of the bed. “It’s so hard to see her like this. She had been doing so well, but this feels like a real setback.” Turning back to Penelope, Ron stared. “We’re all here for you, Penny Lane. You can tell us the truth.”
Her father spoke next. “There’s no shame in slipping up again, Pen. We stood by you when you first told us about your problem. We stood by you when you slipped up a few months ago. We’ll stand by you now. We love you, Pen. We just want you to get the help you need.” His words came from such an earnest place, dripping with sincerity.
Her mother looked so scared. Penelope could only remember one other time she had seen her mother this scared. Her father had been away on a business trip when her brother had run away. He had found the remnants of an old hunting hut tucked away in the woods a couple miles from this house, subsisting on a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter he had pilfered from the kitchen in the early light of summer mornings. Her mother had tried to keep it from her father. By the time her father was due home, however, her brother had still not returned. Her mother sat on the stairs facing the front door, doing her utmost to will her brother into appearing ahead of his father. She stared with an intensity that believed she could alter reality if she simply focused her boundless love for her children enough. She stared at Penelope with that same intensity now.
“Pen, please,” her mother whispered. “Please. Tell us.”
“But… I’m trying.” Penelope stared back, matching her mother’s gaze. Her mother did not blink. In the silence, Penelope passed her eyes over her father and husband before looking down at her hands on the bed. “I promise, I haven’t slipped up again. I know… you might not believe me, especially after what happened. But I’m… sixty days as of tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you try telling us what you remember again?” Ron patted her cast gently and exchanged a glance with her father. “We just want to help you remember what actually happened. Go on…”
Her mother still hadn’t blinked when Penelope shrugged with a sigh, raising her eyebrows. She kept looking down at her hands.
I walked through the front door of our house at a little after ten o’clock at night on Thursday. Entering the house, I paused in the entryway. Ron’s shoes sat by the doormat, his peacoat had fallen from the wall hooks. I heard Ron on the phone upstairs, but I couldn’t make out the muffled words. I jangled my keys into the bowl at the base of the stairs, and Ron’s voice cut out above me.
I heard him speak my name – “Penelope” – upstairs, then he spoke my name louder. He sounded strange, absent. I crept up the stairs without answering. He yelled my name. I told him that I was here. He asked where I had been, concerned. At the top of the stairs, I told him that I had been at work, finishing up a last-minute change requested by our client. He was quiet.
Ron’s phone kept buzzing, but when I asked if he would answer, he put the phone in his pocket where it kept buzzing.
Ron asked me if I had relapsed again. I told him that I had a client project and began to pull out my phone to show him the messages back and forth about the last-minute changes. He may have been reaching to look at my phone when it fell out of my hand. He said he thought I was lying. I picked up my phone and walked toward the stairs; I wanted to cool off from the tense interaction after a long day. He asked me not to walk away.
At the top of the stairs, I told him that I loved him but that… that I needed some time. He said his mean words. I started down the stairs. He grabbed my right forearm, asking that I stay. I was only about a step down from the top. I told him to let go and pulled my arm away, slipping in the process. He saw me start to fall and let go of my arm—
“—Penny Lane, you don’t need to hide.” Ron seemed to be using her cast as a pew railing, his folded hands punctuating his sanctity as he prayed. “I—we—just want you to get the help you need, and we can’t do that if you don’t stay honest with us. It’s okay if we have to start the count over; we’ll build it back one day at a time.”
Her father nodded as Ron spoke. Her mother kept up her feverish stare.
I walked through the front door of our house at a little after ten o’clock at night on Thursday. Ron’s shoes sat by the doormat, his peacoat below the wall hooks, I think. I heard Ron upstairs. I jangled my keys into the bowl at the base of the stairs.
He spoke my name, but I felt strange, absent. I crept up the stairs without answering. When he yelled, I told him that I was here. He asked where I had been; he looked concerned. I told him that I had been at work. He was quiet and put his buzzing phone in his pocket.
Ron asked me if I had relapsed again. I told him that I was at work. Coworkers may have had alcohol, but I did not. I pulled out my phone to show him the messages but dropped it when I went to show him. He said he thought I was lying. I picked up my phone and walked toward the stairs. He asked me not to walk away.
At the top of the stairs, I think I told him that I loved him but that… that I needed some time. I started down the stairs. He grabbed my right forearm, asking that I stay. I started to slip. He let go—
“—No, that isn’t—”
“—Yes, it is. Yes.” Penelope paused, the fog of memory clearing for a moment to look at Ron. “Yes,” she stamped.
“No, Penelope.” He spoke calmly, unequivocally. She, a child, had just described the sun rising in the west, and he was duty-bound to correct her. She took a deep breath.
Ron pushed me down the—
“—No, that’s not—”
Ron let me fall down the—
Ron… tried to save me from falling down the stairs. I… must not be remembering right. I can’t quite remember clearly…
As she went on, Ron closed his eyes. She finished speaking, and he stood and kissed her on the top of her head, a few inches from the stitches above her left eye. Her father patted her feet under hospital blankets. When Ron turned to look to her parents, her father gave him a solemn nod, acknowledging a job well done; her mother hadn’t broken her stare yet. It wasn’t until her father put his hand on her mother’s shoulder that she flinched, blinked, and smiled glassily.
A nurse knocked on the door and cracked the door, tired and alert eyes scanning the room. “Everything alright in here?”
“Yes, everything’s alright,” Ron said, Penelope nodding behind him.