Content warning: verbal parental abuse, mental illness, disordered eating.
…and please God, help me to be more kind and patient and respectful, but brave, yes also, brave…
She thought she heard the floor creak beneath someone's feet outside her door. Or maybe it was just the house settling? Making sure not to lift her head or neck, she slowly opened her eyes and shifted them as far as she could to the left before they felt sore and stuck. She tried to see if she could make out any shadows or figures through the sheer curtains they had placed on the french doors to her “room”.
And help me to find ways to make my Dad see how hard this has been for me, help him see how scared I am. God, please, I don’t want to die yet. I have accepted that I will die someday- that is scary enough- but not right now, not like this…
Tears began to sting her eyes as she closed them again and clutched her sheets, her arms straight down along either side of a tall, slender body. Doing her best to keep her entire person still and tight, she squeezed her abdominal muscles and clenched her buttocks the way she did each night as she said her prayers. This quiet time alone on the first floor of the house, while everyone else was upstairs in bed, was the only time she had to sneak in any type of exercise. Having to do these movements while laying in bed, as silent as she could manage, had been easier than she anticipated. While she was disappointed she could not work up more of a sweat, she was grateful to have these moments of muscle sculpting, and hoped the action was burning some calories and ridding her already lean body of any pesky fat cells.
So far, eighth grade had felt heavy for Nell. Heavy like her body used to be, full and thick and clunky, always carrying too much. Things were supposed to be different now that she was thin. Or, at least, now that she was not as chubby as she used to be. She was convinced she had a long way to go, despite the fuss some people were making. Moving into her father’s house seemed like the right choice that summer, after her mother had gotten back together with the pot smoking biker who referred to both of them as “beasts”. He once scolded her for blowing her nose into a tissue and tossing it into the trash. “Don’t you ever do that again!” he yelled as he passed the open bathroom door. “You’re being so wasteful, just like a beast. Fold it and use it again before you take another one.” Then he had doubled back and snatched the tissue box from the counter, leaving Nell no choice but to use toilet paper to catch the drips from her nose. She had felt ashamed for crying so hard after she heard him leave. From then on, she started stashing rolls of toilet paper from the linen closet in her top dresser drawer. She wondered if Carlos had found them yet. He had seemed excited to move into her room when she left.
More creaks. Nell held her breath. She was mid butt-clench, so she held her muscles tight and waited for the moment she could exhale and release. Her heart began to beat louder and louder.
Please God, please let her be done for tonight. Please just let her be getting a drink or a snack. I just need to breathe and rest tonight. I promise I will rest. Just let her go back upstairs.
She was certain now that Candy was downstairs. If it were one of the boys, they would have poked their head in and made a joke, or tried to scare her to be funny. Her dad would have stopped in to check and make sure she wasn’t doing sit ups on the floor again. She had made the mistake of doing that her first night there, and had paid dearly for it. That was before she understood that sheer curtains on french doors offered zero privacy whatsoever. Since then, she had taken to doing crunches on the bathroom floor with the door locked, while the shower ran to cover up any heavy breathing sounds. The only thing was, she had to get really good at taking super fast showers, or else the water could run cold and she would risk being found out. At least the steam helped her sweat more.
God, I don’t know what to do. Please help me to stop crying. She can’t see me cry. Please let her go back upstairs.
The creaking grew closer, then stopped. Then, the sound of Candy clearing her throat.
Shit, she is getting ready. Sorry, sorry God, and Jesus, please I’m sorry. I will try not to swear again, not even to myself.
But her prayers, her pleading, her promises, they were all fruitless and desperate acts. The pounding in her chest had violently rushed into her ears. She let out an exhale but held her muscles tight- this time out of fear, not fitness- and tried to blink away any remaining wetness from her eyes. The cream colored sheers began to showcase a large shadow that continued to shrink and sharpen as Candy got closer and closer to her room. Nell watched the faux gold handle on the right french door start to angle downward, until the devastating click released it open, and there Candy stood.
Her face was still, almost emotionless, except for the hellacious heat coming from her dark brown eyes. She had recently used a box dye to color her hair an odd, artificial shade of auburn, and it now surrounded her face in feverish tufts of frizz. Her complexion was pallid, almost waxen, with the exception of her very red, almost irritated looking nose. In fact, she had a large, bony nose, that only served to reinforce her likeness to a haggard old witch. Nell watched Candy’s thin lips move from a straight line that looked as if it had been drawn onto her face sharply and angrily with the pointed tip of a pencil, into a small pursed shape, until what resembled crepe paper folds formed around the edges of her mouth. Then, she sucked in as much air as she possibly could fit through her thin, large nostrils- preparing her body to survive off of the oxygen obtained in only that breath- before she unleashed her assault, her words of war, onto Nell.
“Let me just tell you something, little missy,” she began. “You may think you have everyone around here fooled- God knows your older brother isn’t aware of what you're capable of- and my boys, well, somehow you’ve got them snowed, but not for long…”
It seemed like she was trailing off, and Nell hesitated for a moment, but then started to speak before she could stop herself.
“Candy, I don’t know what you mean, I’m not doing anything–”
“EXCUSE me? Did I say I was finished?” Candy’s entire body looked like it was vibrating, reverberating hatred and anger with every word and movement. She had swung the french door open all the way now, and was in a leaning lunge position, angled toward Nell’s bed.
“I’m sorry, I just, I–” Nell was fighting the lump in her throat, and choked back any tears she may have left.
“And WORST of all, you are used to having your father wrapped around your little finger, aren’t you? Huh? Aren’t ya? The same way your Mom used to, right? Well I’m here to put a stop to all of that!” Candy looked almost as if she lost her balance for a moment, but quickly recovered, steadied herself, and straightened herself out. She let her piercing stare settle over Nell for a moment.
“So that’s it, huh? You're just gonna’ lay there, like a little spoiled brat, a little baby faking sick, who I had to give up my home office for." Candy gazed around the room momentarily, then back at Nell, scowling.
"I don’t feel sorry for you. Not one little bit. You’re pathetic.”
She turned around and yanked the door shut so quickly that Nell was shocked the hardware that held the sheer curtains in place didn’t fly off. She wondered how it was that no one ever heard Candy’s late-night visits to her room. Or did they? Would her dad, or Wade, or Walter, or Tate even come down to protect her if they had?
Suddenly, she realized she hadn’t taken a breath for maybe the entire time Candy had been in the room. She allowed herself to fill her lungs, feeling how sore they were from crying so hard earlier. Without opening her eyes, she felt around for her Santa Bear. She was too old for a stuffed animal, she knew that. She clutched him tightly to her chest anyway, and wept. She could feel her controlled, silent cry begin to graduate into more audible sobs, so she turned herself over and buried her face into her pillow. Poor Santa Bear was being crushed beneath her frail frame, and she could feel his plastic nose pressing into her rib cage.
What did I do wrong, God? Why is this still happening? How can I make things better, make them right? Why aren’t you listening?
She shifted her body so that she was on her left side, facing away from the wall and toward the door. She needed to be on alert, even as she fell asleep. She squashed Santa Bear into the crook of her neck, hugging him with her right arm, her left arm tucked beneath her body. Just then she felt an itch on her right hip, and as she reached her hand down to scratch it, she felt her hip bone protruding through her flannel pajama pants. It had never seemed that noticeable to her before. She covered herself with the old unzipped sleeping bag they had given her in lieu of a comforter, as to hide her sunken hips from herself as she slept.
Nell lay there, jaw quivering, eyes swollen, on her side with Santa Bear tucked under her chin. She stared at the french doors, relieved to see sheer cream stillness where there had been explosive chaos just moments before. Her breathing steadied, and she began to slowly, but in no way peacefully, drift off to sleep.
Thank you, God. Thanks an awful lot.