“Alright guys, are you all ready for winter break?” I asked the kids, smiling at them. We had just finished reading a story in the library, and I wouldn’t be seeing the kids until school started back up again in January. Which was truly a shame, because I adored reading with these kids, they were all so sweet, from loud, brash Simon, who was here because his mom thought it would help him mellow out (it wasn’t working), to sweet, silent Emma, who never spoke and just sat and watched me read. She had smiled at me once and that was the most interaction I had gotten from her.
The kids cheered. Except Emma, of course. She just continued to stare at me. Her hair was extra messy today, half of it hanging in front of her face, obscuring one eye. I thought it odd, but then again, she was a rather odd girl. Her clothes typically didn’t match in the slightest. Today was no exception. She wore leopard print pants with a zebra print top and a cardigan with rainbow polka dots all over it. Which concerned me, since all the other kids were all bundled up in their coats, and all she had was that flimsy cardigan. I suspected her family wasn’t well off, and I’d never seen her wearing a coat, so I planned to get her one and give it to her in January.
“Well kiddos, I guess I’ll see you all in January!” I called over the cheering children, who were now rushing toward the door to find their parents waiting outside. I turned to put the book back, and was startled to turn back around and find Emma standing in front of me.
“Her, Emma, what’s up?” I asked, crouching down to talk to her. “Are you excited for Christmas?” A pause, then she shook her head vigorously. “No? What kid isn’t excited to get presents?”
“I don’t get presents,” she whispered. I nearly fell over. She’d never spoken to me before, so hearing her voice shocked me.
“You don’t get presents?” I asked, sure I’d misheard her. I knew her family celebrated Christmas, her family was well-known in the community as being active members of the church. She shook her head again, confirming that, no, she did not get presents. I frowned. Were her parents just so religious that they didn’t give their kids presents, thinking it detracted from honoring Jesus or something?
“Well, how about this,” I said, “what if I get you a nice winter coat, and a couple of toys, and give them to you at the next reading?” A smile was the only response I got, but coming from Emma, that was like jumping and cheering. I smiled back, then the smile dropped off my face as I noticed something I hadn’t before. Her hair had moved slightly out of her face when she shook her head, and now I reached out and, before she could duck away, pushed it behind her ear.
“Emma! What happened?” I asked, making sure to keep my voice down, so as not to alert any other patrons. Emma’s eye was bruised, and when I looked closer, I noticed what appeared to be almost fully faded bruises lingering along her cheeks.
Emma remained silent, so I said, more sternly this time, “Emma, you need to tell me how this happened. It’s very important, okay?”
She fidgeted with the ends of her cardigan, then whispered, so quietly I almost didn’t hear it, “Dad.”
A few days later, it was Christmas morning, and I was at the police station. My family had kept trying to stop me, saying it wasn’t our business to intervene, and that surely, I misunderstood, because the Cook family were a pinnacle of the community, a paragon of a star citizen. Then I woke up Christmas morning and thought about the poor seven year old who wasn’t getting any Christmas presents, who had to go outside with no coat, and whose bruises came from the hands of her father.
“Officer Streeter, you aren’t listening to me, Silas Cook beats his daughter, I’ve seen the bruises, she told me, and you should have seen his reaction when he got her from the library!” Officer Streeter flipped a page of his notebook and wrote, Word of a 7 yro.
Right after Emma had told me the bruises were from her dad, I was momentarily silent, in disbelief that such a prominent figure of the community would do such a thing, when Silas himself stepped into the library, looking around for Emma. Before he saw us, I quickly pulled her hair back over her face, and rose to my feet, smiling at Silas.
“Hey there, Mr. Cook! Emma here was just telling me how much she liked the book we read today, I’m really happy that she’s starting to open up to me.” As I spoke, his nostrils began to flare, and he looked down at his daughter in disappointment.
“Emma knows better than to bother adults who have more important things to do than entertain her every whim,” he said, all but growling. That was the moment I knew for sure that Emma was telling the truth.
“Oh, no, Silas,” I said, a slight edge to my voice, so slight he wouldn’t notice. Unless he knew there was a reason for me to be rude. Sure enough, he jerked his head up to look at me as I spoke, eyes widening in surprise at my use of his first name. “I just adore talking to the children of the community. It’s important to take good care of them, they’re the future of this place, you know.”
He scoffed instantly. “You’re so young yourself, you clearly haven’t learned that children are better off being silent. Seen and not heard, as they say. But then, you’re barely more than a child yourself. Which means that you should be addressing me as Mr. Cook or sir. It’s very rude of you to do otherwise, and God doesn’t like rude children. Pray for forgiveness for your sins, and he will forgive you.” His gaze stayed on me a moment longer, his eyes drifting over my body, lingering uncomfortably until I crossed my arms over my chest. Finally looking away, he grabbed Emma’s shoulder and steered her firmly toward the door.
Is that what you do? I wanted to shout after him. Was that how he was able to forgive himself? Just prayed, like, “Hey, sorry I beat my kid again, but I go to church every Sunday morning, so I know you’re cool with it”? That wasn’t how it worked, you couldn’t just do bad things and then demand forgiveness. God doesn’t forgive people who believe that just telling him sorry is enough to make up for all the damage they’ve caused. There are too any people who believe that they demand forgiveness from God. Well, I decided I was going to show him that that wasn’t true. If God wouldn’t send him his karma, I’d do it myself.
I recounted the events that had unfolded to Officer Streeter, who began to look slightly more interested. He began to actually take real notes, and he looked me in the eye.
“Listen, Anna, I’m not saying I don’t believe you, or that I don’t want to help Emma if she really is in danger,” he held up a hand as I opened my mouth to protest, “however, you have to understand how difficult it would be for me to convince my bosses to launch an investigation into Silas Cook? You know as well as I do that people like Silas, white men who are at church every Sunday, they’re usually considered off-limits.”
“Liam, you always told me that you joined the police department to actually make a difference around here. You said that small towns are terrible with the power imbalance, and you sought to fix that. Now you have a chance to, and you’re going to do nothing?” Shaking my head in disgust, I stood up. “You’re just like all the rest of them. Taking his word over mine because he’s a man. We’re all at church every Sunday, but because you’re Asian, and I’m a woman, he will always have the upper hand over us, and there’s nothing we can do to change it.”
“Anna, wait! I can try. Okay? I’ll try. I can’t promise you a damn thing and you know that, but I can try. Isn’t that better than nothing? I know this probably won’t work out the way you want it to, but I am going to do everything in my power to get that girl out of there. Please trust me.”
I looked back at him to see him staring at me imploringly. I thought about how difficult this was going to be for us, to keep Emma safe, get Silas locked up for abuse, not lose Liam his job, and try not to get ostracized by our own community for shedding light on the things they’d rather ignore. We wouldn’t be able to do all of it and I knew that. But Emma needed us, I sat back down.
“Thank you for the ice cream, Miss Anna!” Emma calls as she runs down the steps of the library and ran to the park, careful not to drop her cone. She waves at Liam and my sister, Mara, as she runs past them walking down the sidewalk. Emma’s ten now, and Silas has been in prison for a year now. It took a lot to put him away, and we all get glares whenever we go to church, but it’s worth it to see Emma laughing and smiling like she does now. Her and Simon are prankster best friends, which exhausts me when I read at the library and find a fake spider somewhere, but it’s wonderful to get to watch her make friends. Her mother, Diane, hasn’t been to church since the story first broke, but Emma has a winter coat and Christmas presents now, so I reckon she’s doing alright for them. Silas got ten years, and while I’m sure the community will welcome him back with open arms when he gets out, I will stop at nothing to make sure that he never lays his hands on anyone again. I have a fire under my ass now to protect the kids of this town, and there’s not a damn thing in my way.