Mentions of domestic abuse, emotional manipulation, self-harm and suicide references, mental health issues and mild swearing.
No one sees the wolf but me; cobalt grey fur and piercing eyes, one blue and one green. She’s gorgeous so it seems fitting that her name is Acacia meaning ‘queen of the wolves.’
Red pearls bubbled up through the tears in my skin, melting and merging into one another to create a crimson river. Over time they would knit together and form silver lines on my once untarnished canvas. I am simply paper that has been painted on, a lottery card that has been scratched at. A stinging sensation rippled from my wrist upwards to that paler part at the inside of my elbow where the skin is stretched and thin.
Acacia planted her head on my leg and sniffed at the trail of blood that had started to spill and travel down my jeans. ‘I’m sorry girl.’ My hand rested on her head between her ears and ruffled the fur there.
My leg jerked; ‘shit.’ I leant over and pulled a handful of tissues out of the box, some cascading to the floor in my haste, at the sound of a key in the front door. Kicking my bedroom door closed, I dabbed at the red lines decorating my arm and let the tissues stick there in my hunt for a hoodie. The maroon one will be perfect, it’s old and already has paint stains on, who cares if it gets a couple more red splotches on it.
‘Jen sweetie I’m home.’ Mums voice travelled up the stairs and I rushed out to greet her with a smile pulling my face apart and creasing the corners of my eyes.
He backhanded me across the face, my cheek stinging and swelling almost immediately with heat as I choked on the saliva that had been forced down my throat from the sudden movement. Doubled over I watched his shoes retreat and heard the satisfying click of the door being locked behind him.
I wasn’t aware I’d even fallen asleep, but I was woken by my neck cramping and lifted my head up from its uncomfortable resting place. A vase I hadn’t seen before stood proudly at the centre of the oak table holding flowers I had never smelt before. Their floral scent was an assault, an acceptance of his guilt and a minor attempt at an apology. But to me they were beautiful.
‘Oh my god Vaughn.’ My hand rose to my open mouth in the sort of excitement I hadn’t felt since I had tossed and turned on Christmas eve, sleep being chased away by anticipaton. I reached for one, its thorn pricking at the tender skin of my fingertip and I jerked backwards.
‘You like them?’ His large frame leant against the doorway, his question hopeful yet expectant.
‘They’re gorgeous.’ I reached for one again and plucked a honey orange rose from the bouquet and held it tightly in my grasp under my chin, inhaling the sort of smell that only roses come with.
‘So, the crocodile tears will stop now?’ He shifted so his weight was on his other foot.
My face was set in a hard line. Now soften those features because people will notice the creases around your eyebrows and then they’ll look closer and see the sheen coating your eyes. And that can’t happen. Maybe if I act like I don’t feel then I’ll stop feeling and that’ll be enough to convince everyone despite my grades slowly spiralling and my withdrawal from social events. People only care so much; they’ll gradually stop inviting you on nights out and then the coffee mornings stop and passing’s in school corridors become nods of heads and a causal ‘you alright?’ rather than a squeal and an ‘oh my god you will not believe what Jason said to me last night!’ It’s easy to blend into crowds by removing yourself completely.
‘Are you getting a taxi home tonight?’ His slender fingers ran through my hair, lifting the soft tendrils and letting them fall.
‘My brother offered to pick me up today.’ His hand paused mid air.
‘Right.’ His voice took on a sour tone.
Shifting my head off his shoulder and tilting upwards to look him in the eye, I felt something icy run through my veins. ‘That is okay, right?’
‘Yeah whatever.’ His body seemed rigid, and I didn’t quite slot against it the way I had a few moments before.
‘You like Cato, what’s wrong?’
‘It’s just a bit like why would you shove it in my face? We all know your siblings are just so freaking perfect...’ His words dripped with a venom he was only just keeping in check. ‘And my step siblings tortured me when I was little, and you know that Jennifer. You know that but you have to shove in my face that you and Cato get on so well.’
‘I can get a taxi back if you’d like.’
‘Oh, don’t paint me a criminal Jennifer. You would love that, wouldn’t you? For everyone to think I’m just so unreasonable.’ He rolled over so his back was facing me as the movie continued to play in the background, unwatched. ‘You can ask your precious brother to come and get you now. There’s really no point you staying any longer.’
Acacia was my sense of something solid when I felt like I was drowning. I know others would see her as a sign of weakness, so I kept her a scrumptious secret all to myself. To me she was anything but weak; she had strong muscled shoulders and teeth filed into points that I knew would never hurt me. She gave me a sense of peace, of safety. And yes, I know she isn’t really here, but I see her as much as I see the walls around me, and I really feel her fur when I run my hand across the length of her back.
My mind created her to protect me at my most vulnerable and isn’t that beautiful that even in my weakest moments, I am strong enough to create something to protect myself.
I loved Christmas with the same intensity as when I was 5; lights that caught and shimmered, the sound of laughter from the people closest to you and drinking hot chocolates by the window and watching small white flakes form an untouched blanket on the ground. But he hated it. He’d once let the tears fall when we were perched on the end of his childhood bed and told me how Christmas when he was young was a traumatic experience.
‘Imagine having to open presents alone, they were all downstairs. Mum, Carol and Jordie but I opened mine up here alone because I didn’t get on with my step siblings as you know. Carol and Jordie would flick my toys around and steal my sweets.’
‘You once told me you adored Christmas because it was the only time you felt like a family.’ I responded, slightly puzzled.
‘What? No, I hate Christmas, doesn’t that sound awful to you?’
‘Sorry I must’ve misunderstood.’ I wiped my hand across my forehead to remove a drop of sweat that was sitting there. ‘I do enjoy Christmas; my dad pours brandy on Christmas pudding and then lights it and these blue flames shoot up but the cake isn’t burnt afterwards.’ I smiled at the memory.
‘That is so inconsiderate of you. How dare you…’ He shook his head in disbelief, quickly replaced by anger. ‘Well, I’ll self-harm now because of you, yes I think I’ll cut the word love into my arm and send you a photo of it on Christmas day, so you’ll see the damage you’ve done to me. After all you’re the reason I’m like this, I’ve never harmed myself before I met you.’
He was half true to his word, he did send me a photo, but he stopped after the ‘L.’ Needless to say, Christmas days after that haven’t felt quite the same.
‘Vaughn, I don’t want too.’ My breathing was heavy and broken. Everything seemed blurry.
‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.’ His body loomed above mine casting shadows in an already dark room.
‘I’m just going to call a taxi honey; it should be here in about 20 minutes if I call for it now.’ I spoke whilst swiping up on my phone to go into contacts and then typing the number into the keypad. I’d called so many times I knew the number by heart.
‘What is wrong with you?’ He protested; the vein is his forehead pushing outwards like a tree root raised up under the dry earth.
My finger was poised above the green call button. ‘It’s half nine baby, this is the time I always call the taxi.’ I spoke softly so as not to trigger him even more.
‘Don’t patronise me Jennifer. Why did you type the number in? Why not just select it from your recently called list? Are you trying to hide something from me? My god, you’re cheating on me, aren’t you?’
The familiar cold feeling of panic washed over me in low crashing waves. ‘No of course not. Vaughn I would never do that.’ Other than that not being the type of person I was, when would I have the time? We were together or we were facetiming so he could watch me or we were messaging constantly and my responses could never take longer than three minutes or I’d end up faced with the tirade of insults about me being useless and not caring and being the reason he’ll leave this world. ‘Look, there’s nothing there.’ I held up my phone to his face so he could see the combination of his name and taxi numbers I’d called in the last month.
He turned his face away as if stung refusing to look. ‘Stop, that won’t make it better and you know I’m not the sort of controlling boyfriend that will look through your phone. I just can’t believe you’d cheat on me.’ He shook his head and walked away.
‘Just have a look and you’ll see there is no one else.’ Desperation creeped into my voice as I stumbled after him.
‘I don’t need to look Jen. At least I know the truth now.’
Acacia looked up at me with sorrowful eyes and I tilted my head, motioning for her to follow me.
Train seats scratched at my thighs, my jeans button pinching my stomach. We lurched forward in silence and the train hummed to life, my heart thudding in my chest with a force that was beginning to make me feel sick. It had been his idea, of course it had been and now I was here and ‘running away.’ Was it still called running away if it wasn’t my choice and I’d been manipulated into being here? We were heading to Brighton, a place of beaches and hotels and memories never to be forgotten. As I stepped out of the train station, I knew this moment would be one forever seared into my mind no matter how small it seemed to someone else. Everything was lit up in bright reds and pinks and the streets were crowded despite it being halfway into the night. Acacia trotted along obediently beside me, her paws scraping at the pavement.
Days passed in a blur of blue hair dye, being locked in hostel rooms and his broken voice crying into the night, wind carrying away his words as he told me that when we got home he was going to end it all. Smooth pebbles cut into my palms as I gripped them tightly and begged him to listen to me and to stay on this earth, that this world needed him. I couldn’t see much out of my puffy eyes encased in red.
He brought an orange basketball that he called tango and it reminded me of the orange roses he’d brought me so long ago. He seemed attached to it until he bounced it hard against the floor, flinging it with such force that was brought on by being stuck behind two laughing girls, and the basketball rolled and continued to roll along the platform until it slid out of view and nestled itself under the parked train. Beyond reach. I wanted that to be me, beyond reach of him.
Eyes followed me as I walked back into sixth form with my blue hair after a week of absence, my face unmoving, unreadable. Suddenly I was intercepted by a middle-aged lady with greying hair cut into a sharp bob, straight as an ironing board and glasses sat precariously at the end of her nose. ‘Please come with me Jennifer.’
‘There’s someone to see you.’
She left me in a stuffy room where a man of about 30 was staring intently at me, ebony hair falling in front of his eyes. ‘This is just an informal chat; we have to do it for every minor that’s been reported as a missing person.’
I let my mind wander and honestly it wasn’t hard, I don’t think by this point I was completely switched on at the best of times. I was only dragged back into the conversation when I sensed him waiting for me to speak.
‘I need to make sure you’re not a flight risk. Are you planning on doing anything like this again?’
‘How can I be sure?’
‘Because it’s too much hassle coming back.’
It had been my idea to write a bucket list, a hundred things for us to do together. Become secret smokers and let the cigarettes dangle from our fingertips, ash crawling up the opposite end. Go to Paris to see the Eiffel tower lit up at night like it was covered in tiny stars. Go rowing and feel the foamy water lap at our feet as they dangled over the edge, suspended in water with the oars resting at the bottom of the boat just waiting to be needed for the gentle glide back.
‘Eat a bullet.’
‘Excuse me?’ I stuttered, Acacia’s head nudging my knee for attention.
‘For the final one. We could eat a bullet. We’d be legends.’ His face lit up in excitement as he took his hands in mine. Fear had settled over me again, this now familiar feeling and yet I still hadn’t learnt the art of saying no to him, so I nodded weakly and tried to hide what I was sure was written plainly on my face.
5 years later
If you’ve just met me, you’ll see dark purple hair, chunky boots and a lot of leather biker jackets. If you crept closer into that realm classed as ‘friends’ you’ll know I will never stop talking about boxing, my goal in life is to own a Harley Davidson and I’m not good at much but I kick ass at poker. But the real test of how close you are to me all relies on the answer to one question; what does my wolf tattoo mean? One or two people can answer, more would take an educated guess and get it wrong and the rest would spout some crap about seeing it on Pinterest. But all of them know my skin is thicker than scales.
She isn’t with me anymore. Acacia seemed to understand that I was okay and at some point had wandered off into the night, her slate grey fur and piercing blue eyes melting into the shadows of someone else’s mind or maybe she was only for me and now she had simply bled away from existence.
Silvery white streaks crossed in parallel lines over my forearms, the flesh slightly raised. But now they were accentuated with ink, dark and elegant and in the shape of a wolf shrouded in flowers. It was my Acacia tattooed over what I had created there previously.
Even in my weakest moments I am strong.