"That'll be six eighty-one," Amy said to an elderly woman in front of her who was buying paper towels, Windex, and a few cans of soup. Her job at the dollar store was never too demanding or, for that matter, fast paced, as the woman slowly pulled a ten dollar bill out of her purse. "Here you go," said the woman slowly. "I don't have any coins."
"That's okay," Amy replied cheerfully. "I have plenty to spare." The woman smiled as Amy pulled money out of the register and put it in the awaiting hand.
"Thank you so much," said Amy's customer, picking up her bags and adjusting her scarf. "Have a safe night and drive carefully."
"You too," Amy answered, watching her exit the store. The door opened and closed, letting in a flurry of snowflakes and freezing air that made her shiver. It was early January, and after a nice holiday, it was time for work again. Amy still liked playing recordings of "Jingle Bells" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" on nights like tonight, when she was the only employee working at Dollar Farm.
Checking the clock on the register, Amy saw it was after eight o'clock. The store would be closing soon, and there were only a few customers browsing along the walls. Amy took a broom from under the counter and started sweeping the tiled floor in her workspace, knowing she would be mostly in total solitude until the store closed. As she swept, she thought about things, about how hard the past few weeks had been, and not just because of work.
Two weeks earlier, Amy was pulling into a driveway on East Apple Street. As she sat idling in her car, the headlights shining brightly on a row of snow covered bushes, she tried to take a deep breath
and calm herself down, but it was hard. She didn't know what to expect from inside that house, but if she waited any longer, it would end up so much worse. She stepped out of her car, plunging herself into darkness as she turned off the headlights and locked the door. Tightening her scarf and coat around her in defense of the bitter wind, she started up the front steps to the house, where every window was dark.
Amy shivered and, raising her fist, knocked three times on the door. There were no footsteps and no lights came on inside. She knocked again, then cracked the door open and stepped into a dark room, the wind whistling behind her as she shut the door. Leaning forward, Amy felt along the wall on the right, searching for a light switch. Before she could find it, she heard a voice.
"Hey Amy," it said.
She froze, recognizing the silhouette in the corner. "Hi," she replied gently.
"You're late," he said from the armchair, his voice soft with danger.
Amy cringed, her skin prickling. "I'm sorry," she said meekly. "I hit every red light."
She heard a click and saw the bright orange color of the flame as he lit a cigarette. "Of course you did," he said, "Of course you did."
The orange ash moved as he took a drag and lowered it to his lap. Amy imagined him in the darkness, blowing smoke into the air as he had blown smoke into her face on dozens of occasions, in restaurants and on outings.
A long pause went by and finally he spoke again. "You know what time it is?" he asked, even softer now.
"No. I kind of lost track," she said slowly.
"Well maybe you should get a watch," he said quietly. He paused, cleared his throat, and took another drag from his cigarette.
"Look, I'm sorry," Amy said, trying to work up some courage. "I already told you that. I'm here now. Isn't that what matters?"
"Don't tell me what to think Amy," he said. She could hear him exhaling, see his entire figure
from his hat to his boots. Even though he hadn't exploded yet, she had a feeling he would soon. He never had much patience anymore.
She stood there for a moment, frozen in fear, wondering if she should dare speak. Finally he leaned forward, adjusting himself in the seat. "You wanna tell me why you're really late?"
"I don't buy the red light story," he said, tapping some ashes into the ashtray at his side. "Why are you really late?"
Amy thought for a moment, trying not to panic. "I fell asleep at my house," she said lamely.
After a long pause, he said, barely audible, "You lied."
"No," she said quickly. "I didn't!"
"You did." He leaned all the way back, flicking some ashes aside, and said, "Come here."
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry if I lied!"
She could see the cigarette he was holding between his index and middle fingers. "Sorry," he whispered. "I bet you are. Come here."
Amy swallowed and met his gaze evenly across the room. Whatever happened, happened, and she needed to be brave. It wouldn't be the first time he would yell and beat her, and it certainly wasn't going to be the last. She forced herself to take first one step and then another, preparing herself for whatever was coming. "Be strong Amy," she thought. "It's going to be okay. This will turn out right."
Finally she was right in front of him. He looked up at her and she could make out the seriousness of his features, the narrow stare of his eyes and his pursed lips. Then he took one final drag from his cigarette before smashing it in the ashtray on the end table. He looked at it for a moment, watching the ashes dwindle down into nothing before blowing smoke into the air. He got to his feet slowly, slipping his hands into his pockets and looking out the window as he did so. Then he looked at her. "Do you have any idea how long I've been waiting for you?"
"It's my fault," Amy thought sadly. "I should know better than to do this."
"Well, do you?"
She looked back at him. "No, I don't."
"You really don't know what time it is?"
"No," Amy whispered. "I don't."
"It's eleven o'clock Amy," he said, his voice frigid. There was a long pause. Amy stood rooted to the spot in fear, feeling as though the room was growing colder and colder. By the light of a small nearby street lamp, Amy could see his icy stare void of any kindness or trust. To her, he looked like a predator, a monster, the very definition of evil. As she saw the fingers on his hand ball into a fist and hang at his side, Amy felt every muscle in her body tighten, and she waited.
For a moment nothing happened. Amy's mind was empty for a few seconds and then suddenly she saw stars floating before her eyes. He hit her in the jaw as hard as he could, and she stumbled backwards, knocking a pile of books off the table. One of her hands flew to protect her face, the other flattened against a wall, struggling to keep her upright. Sparks and tiny dots circled the air, the pain almost suffocating. He struck her again and this time, she screamed. "Please no!" she begged. "No!"
"If you don't shut up," he growled, gripping a bunch of her hair in one fist. "You'll be sorry."
Amy flattened against the wall and prepared herself for another blow. Her legs were shaking as they struggled to hold her up, bracing her for more abuse, but nothing came. Instead, he leaned in close and said angrily. "I have been sitting there for over an hour waiting. How the hell do I know you weren't just sleeping with some loser?"
She squeezed her eyes shut, pretending it was all a nightmare and that she would wake up soon, but his breath on her cheek was just as realistic as ever.
"Say something," he ordered. "Now."
She felt him trembling against her. Opening her eyes, she looked to the side, unable to meet his stare. "I wasn't," she said as calmly as she could despite the stinging pain she felt in her face and arms, and the buzzing in her ears. "I would never cheat on you."
"Yeah," he said, jutting his chin at her and breathing heavily as if to calm himself. "You better not."
Tears were pushing through, pouring down her face. She tried to conceal them, fearing the consequences, but none followed. Instead, as he continued to tremble, she felt something brush across her cheek. He wiped some tears away with his thumb, and Amy began to sense the change in him. On some occasions it happened sooner, on others not until the next day, but it was always inevitable. There was always peace after a storm.
He moved over to a lamp and switched it on. "Oh God Amy," he was saying, cupping both hands around her face. She glanced down at the floor, the bright light finally exposing the damage. "Look what I did. What have I done to you?"
She continued to look everywhere but at his face. The thought of what she must look like now was unbearable. "I wish you would listen to me," he said sadly, wiping some blood off of her lips. "If only you'd listen, then I wouldn't have to."
She could have left right then. Her car was parked out front, waiting to take her to a better life. But like every other time, she stayed, and instead of contradicting him, she said, "I'm sorry. I know I need to listen to you."
"I love you Amy," he said.
"I love you too," she said without hesitating. "I'm so sorry for what I've done."
A single tear worked its way down Amy's cheek. She swept the pile of dirt into the corner, scooped it up, and dumped it into the trash can.
Since that night two weeks ago, he had been better. Amy tried to think that being slammed into a wall wasn't as bad as being hit, but no matter how much she denied it, the truth was, he was only getting worse. Amy wondered how many other men in the world were just like her boyfriend. After all, her father had left her mother five years ago at the end of a crumbling marriage, and her older brother,
at the age of twenty-seven, was incarcerated for drug use. It saddened her greatly, that she was finding it more and more difficult to trust men in general.
She leaned the broom against the counter and checked the clock. Eight forty-five. There was only one customer left in the store, and he was by the wall browsing cards and party decorations. Fifteen minutes until she could count the drawer, close the store, and leave.
As she replaced the trash bag, putting in a new one and knotting the top of the old one, her mind traveled back to other places, before the time of her boyfriend, but not before the trouble began.
"Mommy?" she spoke from the doorway. Her mother had her back to the room and was washing dishes in the kitchen sink.
"What honey?" she answered. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Can I go out and play with Zach?"
"Oh, I guess," her mother said after a pause, picking up a glass and scrubbing it with the sponge. "But don't leave the backyard, okay?"
"Okay," Amy said and ran through the kitchen and out onto the back porch. She was so busy looking for her brother, she didn't notice how her mother's shoulders were trembling as she cried into the sink.
"Hi Amy!" Zach was dribbling a basketball across the driveway. "Come on!"
She was only three, but Zach had always looked out for her since she was a baby, helping her mother feed and change Amy. Now he taught her how to dribble and shoot the basketball. "That's it!" he cheered as the ball bounced off the rim. "You almost got it Amy!"
A smile spread across her face and the children looked at each other for a long moment. Then a scream came from inside the house. Amy and Zach both turned and looked at the back door. There was a shattering of glass and their mother screamed again.
"Come on Amy," said her brother and he took her hand, leading her around to the other side of
the garage. They sat in the gravel and, as more screams followed, he put each of his hands over her ears. He kept them there until the screaming stopped.
"Zach? Why does Daddy do that?" Amy asked, slipping her thumb into her mouth and looking at him.
"I don't know. He's just mean. I don't know why." Zach put an arm around Amy's shoulders and they leaned against each other. "But everything's going to be okay," he added. "I'll look out for you Amy."
She looked at him thoughtfully, sucking on her thumb, and twirled a braid in the other hand. "I hope everything will be good," she said slowly.
"It will be Amy. I promise."
It was such a shame, Amy thought, picking up a few old receipts that were crumpled up on the floor. It was too bad Zach turned out to be such a drug addict. He would have been a good big brother if not for the cocaine. But Zach had been sent to jail a year ago and was still doing his time. She used to visit him when he first went in, but now she had given up on her family completely: her father for being abusive, her mother for being weak and passing the trait onto Amy, and her brother for giving up his life to drugs, and for not keeping his promise to protect her. Then she thought of her boyfriend and sadly questioned whether there were any kind men left in the world. She never even looked at her male customers in the same way, instead turning a cold shoulder to them and treating them with little respect.
Why she was still with her boyfriend, she didn't know, except that she needed his financial support as well as his protection. When they were out at restaurants or the movies, he never hesitated to pay, always supplying the cash or credit she never had. But no other boys ever spoke to her or even acknowledged her with a simple nod or smile. Her boyfriend was known for his temper, and when he saw someone cross the line into Amy's space, he often got violent. It was humiliating to be associated with him when she was so different, but she had no strength to leave him. He provided her with more
money than she could want. She couldn't even imagine how he would react if she did try to leave him.
Sighing, Amy realized she needed to see him tonight. She was supposed to be there at ten, and hoped nothing would make her late. "It could mean my life this time," she thought sadly.
It was eight fifty-five. Amy scooped some trash off the counter by the register, and emptied the scraps of paper from her apron pockets before tapping on the register. She heard the bell jingle, signaling someone had entered the store, and was about to tell them it was time to close as she turned around.
One of the three men that had come in held up a gun and pointed it straight at her. Amy stifled a scream, her hands instinctively flying into the air. "Don't even move!" he yelled. "Don't move!"
Amy shook, her eyes shifting over to the only customer who was left in the store. They saw him too. "Get down!" yelled the first man. The customer remained frozen in fear, and one of the robbers struck him in the back of the head with his gun. The customer fell to the floor and was still. Amy took a step back.
"I said don't move!" yelled the man. His hand was shaking and Amy's body broke out in a cold sweat. "Shoot the cameras," he told his partners. "Shoot 'em!" Gunshots went off and glass broke. It was so loud, it drowned out Amy's screams. She collapsed onto the floor, her hands over her face.
The next minute went by in a blur. Amy sobbed into the floor as she felt the vibration of footsteps around her. She suddenly was pulled to her feet by one of the robbers, who aimed the gun straight at her temple. Tears streamed down her face and she shook violently. "Open the register," he ordered. "Now."
At first Amy remained frozen until she remembered what happened to the customer. Then slowly, her whole body trembling uncontrollably, she forced herself to think of how to open the register drawer. Her hands moved quickly but clumsily, and when the drawer flew open, he pushed her back to the floor. She curled herself into a ball and listened to them, the shuffling sound of dollar bills, the shouts, the curses. Everything was happening so quickly. Dollar Farm was being robbed, the customer
who had been struck down was likely unconscious, and she had never been so terrified in her entire life.
"Let's go!" one of the men yelled. "Move!" After a shuffling of feet, Amy heard the bell jingle, followed by sirens. She kept her hands over her face, still shaking, and a moment later, she felt a pair of hands gently prying her arms apart. "No!" she moaned. "Don't shoot!"
"Police!" said a gruff voice. "Police!"
"Please don't shoot!"
"Police! It's okay!"
Amy slowly looked up. A blurry face appeared in front of her, slowly clearing until she could make out the hat, the uniform and badge. "Are you hurt?" he asked, holding out his hand to her. "Did they shoot you?"
Amy tried to think despite her racing heart. "No," she said softly, her voice wavering. "I'm okay. I'm alive."
"You're alive," he said, "You are, and you're safe. Everything's okay now."
"What about him?" Amy sat up slowly, weakly, and vaguely remembered. "That customer. He got knocked out."
"He's okay," the police officer told her. "He's got a bad cut on his head, but he's okay. It's safe now. You don't have to hide anymore."
Amy looked into his face for the first time. He was a man in his forties who looked a lot like her father. Because of this, she hesitated to take his hand and trust him. He pulled her to her feet. She looked around the store, shaking violently, looking at the broken windows, the merchandise that had been knocked onto the floor, the empty register drawer. Over in the corner, the injured customer sat with two police officers, a blood-stained blanket held to the back of his head.
"You're so lucky we were in the area," he said. "I was writing a parking ticket and my colleagues were down at the Wawa. I heard the gun shots and called them for back-up. This could have
been so much worse, but you handled it well," he went on, seeing that she was still shaking. "When this sort of robbery happens, all you can do is comply."
She nodded, looking at the ground, and wiped a tear away with a trembling hand. "Where are they?" she asked. "Did you catch them?"
"Yeah," he replied. "We got 'em. Out in the parking lot. They almost got away."
Amy glanced out the front door but all she could see were flashing lights in the darkness. "You don't have to go out there yet," he said quickly, "But we would like to take you to the police station for questioning and to identify these guys."
"Okay," Amy said softly. "That's fine. We can go now." She didn't want to spend any more time at the scene of the crime. The police officer waited while she put on her coat, tightened the belt, and picked up her bag from inside one of the cabinets.
"Now when we go out there," he said, "You're probably going to see them, but they can't hurt you. We're going to take you to the station in my car. You don't have to say anything at all. You just have to walk. Okay?"
Nodding, Amy followed him outside into the freezing winter night. There were several police cars parked, lights flashing, in the fire lane, and an ambulance behind them. A few onlookers stood, watching in shock.
Huddling against the cold, Amy walked quickly, head down against the snow and wind. The police officer who had found her surprised her by putting a defensive arm around her shoulders. She felt her body tense automatically, and stared at the ground as she walked. When she finally looked up, she saw a man with his hands pressed against the hood of a police car. He looked up at her at the same instant she noticed him. She couldn't make out anything about his expression, except that he was staring at her in a watchful way that was terrifying. He continued to stare as she hurried by, and as he was made to stand up straight and was handcuffed. The last she saw, he was climbing into the backseat of the car, still looking her way.
"You don't have to worry," said the detective, organizing the papers on his clipboard. "We've got them behind bars right now. They can't get out. And because they were in possession of guns, they're going to be locked up for a long time." Amy sat across from him, hands folded in her lap. She was still shaken up from the events of the night. Her whole body was trembling and felt weak. In truth, Amy didn't think she would ever recover or forget the image of the gun that the man had pointed straight at her. She truly felt scarred. To her, knowing that the three robbers were going to be locked up for a long time had little comfort. No punishment seemed harsh enough for them.
She finally managed to thank the detective. As she picked up her bag and slipped on her coat, she thought about how her boyfriend was going to react when she arrived nearly two hours late.
"Excuse me," she told one of the police officers at the desk. "I need a ride back to the store. My car is parked there."
The man looked up from a bunch of papers. It was the same police officer who had found her huddling on the floor at Dollar Farm, too scared to move. He smiled. "Sure Amy, I'll take you back right now." He didn't hesitate to stand up and put his papers aside. Despite the fact that he closely resembled her father, Amy decided to go with him, and to trust him completely. There was something almost comforting about him, unlike any other man in her life that she had ever met.
Nothing was said between them on the dark ride back to the dollar store. Amy stared out the window as the snow blurred past. In her mind, she saw it again and again: the gun, the hoods and sunglasses of the robbers, the look of anguish on the customer's face as he was knocked to the floor. She heard the glass shattering, the sirens blaring, and pressed her hands over her ears, trying to shut out the realistic sounds.
A voice brought her back to the present. "You okay?" asked the police officer from the driver's seat, looking straight at her in the rear view mirror.
Amy lowered her hands to her lap and cleared her throat quietly. "Yeah," she lied. "I'm okay.
Everything is fine now."
As she met his gaze in the mirror, she thought about how she wanted to tell him everything: her complete story. Her mind screamed "Help me! Please save me!" but her lips refused to form these words. She couldn't tell him how afraid she was of the house on East Apple Street, of cigarettes, of tense, clenched fists hanging menacingly at a man's side. She wanted so badly to tell him she had been beaten every week throughout her college years by a man who insisted that he loved her. Angry tears poured down her face as she began to feel trapped, and she realized she couldn't even begin to explain her situation to the one person in the world who could help her.
A few minutes later, the police car pulled into the parking lot and stopped next to Amy's car, the only one remaining in the lot. She slowly unbuckled her seat belt, looking out at the snow, dreading her drive to East Apple Street.
He was still looking at her in the mirror, concerned, knowing. "Well, I guess I'll be going then," Amy said, still looking out the window.
"Do you need help with your car?" he asked. "That's a lot of snow."
"I'm sure I can get it off," she told him, but he was already getting out of the car, turning and opening her door as well. She stood shivering, and watched him retrieve an ice scraper from under the front seat.
Amy continued to watch him as he brushed the layer of snow off of the windshield and windows before beginning to use the ice scraper. She watched him working quickly and could tell he was struggling from the cold. Still he persisted as the minutes went by, and finally stood back, breathing heavily.
"There you go," he said, "Good as new."
She stared at him, disbelieving that he could have gone through all that just to help her, a girl he barely even knew. Again, she felt a rush of the desire to tell him, to reach out and ask for help from a man who she had never met before.
"Thank you," she said slowly.
He was looking at her again, this time sure that there was more going on with her than she was showing him. But all Amy could do was pull her scarf tighter around herself and unlock the car door. Looking over her shoulder, she forced herself to smile at him, to thank him for his random act of kindness. Slamming the car door, she started it, pulled the seat belt across her chest, and took a deep breath.
Her car slowly moved across the parking lot, struggling across the slush and ice. Amy turned on the radio out of habit and looked in the side mirror. She could see the silhouette of the police officer beneath the light, watching her drive away. She was driving away from a man who had seen past her facade, who wanted to help her, and who was probably the only man who ever would, or could.
She looked away from the mirror and turned onto the road that would take her to East Apple Street. The radio played softly her favorite song, and it wasn't apparent until then how much the singer reminded Amy of herself.
"Have I held out for something,
That is never going to happen?
It's not me that you love."
Shoulders shaking, Amy clicked on her turn signal and, instead of turning back to the safety of the police officer's silhouette, she went to the only one she had ever really known: the one in the corner smoking cigarettes, the one with the fists.