Author’s note: Cody was born Cooper. He changed his name in an attempt to leave his past behind him.
“Cooper, what happened?” Julianne ran for him as soon as he came in the front door.
“It’s nothing,” he tried to brush past her but she would have none of that.
“Don’t you tell me nothing, Cooper!” she said angrily, grabbing his arm.
“Ok, ok. Keep your voice down.” He gestured outside. He didn’t want Uncle Phil to know he’d been in yet another fight.
“Get upstairs,” she whispered. “I’ll be up in a minute.”
Cooper went upstairs and flopped backwards on his bed staring at the ceiling. Stupid Tommy Flanagan had it coming.
Julianne didn’t knock. She didn’t need to since they shared a room. She came in with a deep metal bowl filled with towels and ice. She sat down on the bed next to him.
“Who was it this time?” she asked, almost warmly, as she cleaned the cut over his eye.
“Stupid Tommy Flanagan.” He winced as she dabbed his head with a damp cloth.
“And what did Stupid Tommy Flanagan say to set you off this time?”
She wrapped some ice in a towel and held it on his eye. And he smiled. Sometimes he thought maybe he got in so many fights because she took such good care of him when he was hurt.
“I won’t tell you that, little sister.”
“Why not, big brother?”
“Because it will hurt you.”
“It can’t hurt me, dummy. They’re just words.”
She put her arm around him and he put his head on her shoulder. “Well, I’m not going to repeat it anyway.”
“Why do you get in so many fights, Coop?”
“Cause people say such nasty things to me.”
“Sticks and stones, Cooper. Sticks and stones.”
“I know, I know,” he sighed, sad to have disappointed her yet again. “I just get so damn mad sometimes, I can’t control it. Are you mad at me?”
“I could never be mad at you, Cooper.” She snuggled in to him. “I just don’t want you to get hurt. And I don’t want you to get in trouble with ’you know who.’”
“Yeah, that’s something I probably should’ve thought of earlier.”
“Let me see.” She lifted the ice off his forehead and seemed happy with her work. “Hands?”
He held his hands out for her inspection.
“No knuckle marks. You might be able to get away with lying.”
They both knew that was a dangerous game. If Uncle Phil caught them in a lie, he’d whoop them both. Cooper couldn’t risk Julianne that way. He wouldn’t.
“I’ll just come clean. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time, right?”
“Do you think you’d be so angry all the time if Mom and Dad were still alive?”
This question made his heart hurt. Was he this angry before they died? It was hard to remember, they’d been gone so long. He wasn’t angry in his last memory of them. He didn’t remember being angry around them. Maybe he did only get angry when they died. Or when Uncle Phil started pounding on him. Or Julianne. That’s was when he got so angry he scared himself.
He shook himself out of his thoughts. “I’m not angry, Jule. Not as long as I still have you.”
“You’ll always have me, Cooper. Always.”
Not every day was bad. Since their uncle didn’t really care if they were dead or alive, they had a massive amount of freedom to do as they pleased. As long as Julianne was home in time to make dinner, he didn’t care how he spent their days.
They would walk for hours in the summer. Down to the lake. It was a good five miles away. But that didn’t matter. They would walk to the ends of the earth to get out of that house, away from him.
“Do you think Daddy knew what an asshole his brother was?” Julianne asked him one day as they walked.
“Half-brother,” Cooper corrected. “And I think if he did, he would’ve made sure we didn’t end up here.”
“I’m going to make sure my kids end up with you.”
He loved it when she talked about the future. It made him feel as if they actually had a future.
“Me? Why? I’d be terrible with kids.”
“No you wouldn’t. You’re warm and gentle and you would make them feel safe and loved.”
She always made him feel like he was a better person than he really was. She smelled like orange blossoms…probably from all the time she spent in the grove. Hiding from uncle in the trees. He didn’t know how she did it. He spent just as much time in the trees as she did and he came out smelling like dirt and bark. “If you say so…”
“I do.” She took his hand and smiled at him so warmly, he believed her. He actually believed that he was warm and gentle despite the fact he got in fight at least twice a month. “What about your kids?” she asked him when they got to the water. They sat in the dock dangling their toes over the edge.
“My kids? I’d have to find someone to marry me first.” The truth was, for all their talk of escape, Cooper found it really hard to visualize any kind of future for himself. If he really tried, he could imagine Juli in the future, but never himself.
“Of course you will. Why wouldn’t you?”
Cooper shrugged and blushed preemptively, knowing she was about to tell him how wonderful he was. If only he could see himself the way she did.
“You’re going to find someone awesome to marry someday, Cooper. She’ll be beautiful and funny and kind and she’ll be a great mother. She’ll be an amazing cook and gardener and she’ll make you so very happy. She will give you a home.”
The sun reflected off her blonde hair giving her a halo. She looked like an angel. “You’re my home,” Cooper said bumping her shoulder with his.
“For now.” She said, bumping him right back, their toes making hundreds of concentric circles in the lake. Crop circles in the water.
He knew something was wrong when she didn’t harass him about his homework. She always made him do his homework. She said it was their only chance of ever getting out of there. Going to school, getting a diploma, then a job so they could leave this rotten place. They’d been talking about running away since the day they’d gotten there and realized what a monster their uncle was.
But she was quiet that day, more quiet than usual as she cooked dinner diligently. Serving their slob of an uncle. Cooper hated when she waited on him, but he didn’t dare challenge his Uncle. Now that Cooper was bigger and stronger, their uncle had taken to beating Julianne to hurt Cooper. It was a very effective maneuver that kept Cooper well in line. If they could just hang on a few more months, he could graduate high school, get a job and move Julianne out of this hell hole, out of this miserable life.
When he heard her sobbing in bed that night, he knew. He knew what his uncle had done to her. Or had maybe been doing all along. Cooper gripped his sheets tightly, knuckles white, fighting with everything he had, the impulse to get out of bed and kill his Uncle. He closed his eyes and could see himself getting out of bed and calmly walking down the hall to his Uncle’s room. He’d never hear him coming. He was always passed out drunk. Cooper would go into his room, maybe with a baseball bat, or maybe not. Maybe he’d rather use his fists, his bare hands, and pound on him, the way he had been pounded on so many times. He would pound on him until he bled, until he was dead.
He wanted to so badly, kill his uncle at that moment. This was an entirely new level of rage for him. He’d never thought he was capable of killing someone until now. He never thought he would feel the desire to take another person’s life. But there it was, festering in his heart. He fought it. It was hard, but he fought it because it wouldn’t help her. It would only hurt her and she’d already had enough hurt. Too much hurt.
Instead, he swallowed his anger, unclenched his fists and crawled out of bed, padding over to her, pulling back the curtain they had hung from a string for some semblance of privacy in the room they had shared since they were ten and twelve.
Julianne lay in the moonlight with her back to him, pillow over her head to muffle her cries, her shoulders shaking. He felt his heart splinter in his chest. Watching her suffer hurt more than any beating their uncle had ever given him. He lay down on her bed, curled an arm over her and started to cry right along with her.
She lifted her head from under the pillow and turned into him, sobbing silently. He held her tightly and stroked her hair.
After a while, she spoke, “Please, don’t ask me what happened. Don’t make me say it out loud,” she whispered.
“I won’t,” he whispered in the softest, most gentle voice he could muster. “I won’t.”
“We’re going to get out of here someday, aren’t we, Cooper? We’re going to leave this place and never look back.”
“I’m going to get you out of here. Soon. I promise.”
“Just don’t leave me, Cooper. Don’t leave me behind.”
“I won’t.” It didn’t occur to him to make the same request of her.
She slept when she was all out of tears. He didn’t. He spent the rest of the night watching her, trying to quell the wave of rage he felt that made him want to tear his uncle limb from limb.