I wasn’t sure how that would work out seeing as how a fence separated us and she wasn’t allowed to have company or to go anywhere.
But we made it work.
Every day after I got home from school Seraphina snuck over into my shed through an opening in the fence that we made at the end of the backyard. I had used a hammer from the shed to loosen the nails on two boards so that we could slide them out of the way and easily put them back in place to make it appear that nothing had ever been moved.
Seraphina and I spent a lot of time in my shed, playing with Barbie dolls and stuffed animals. I even started coloring again and I found that I really liked it.
We were inseparable, like sisters. But as the weeks wore on, I began to see just how different we were, how different our parents were.
One afternoon, the rough voice of her father yelling her name from the back door, caused Seraphina’s whole body to shake like she had been stuffed in a freezer. She ran out of the shed as fast as she could and scrambled on her hands and knees across the dirt and leaves and rocks toward the secret opening in the fence. I guess she was afraid if she ran upright that her father would see her from the back porch.
I helped her get through the fence quickly and I closed it off after she was on the other side. Minutes later, I heard Seraphina screaming from inside her house. I sat curled up inside the shed, shaking all over hearing her blood-curdling cries rock through every bone in my body. I wet myself it scared me so bad. What sounded like a long strip of leather rang out through the air. Over and over again. And Seraphina screamed and screamed until she fell silent. But even still, I could hear the leather strap beating down on her.
I sat curled up in the corner of the shed, sobbing into my hands, tasting salt and snot and bile in the back of my throat. For a very brief but profound moment, I had hoped he’d killed her so she would never have to go through that again.
I didn’t see Seraphina for a week after that, but then one day she was sitting on the grass in the backyard again, just like she was the day I met her.
“Seraphina?” I whispered quietly through the gap in the fence.
She wouldn’t look over, but I could sense that she heard me.
“Seraphina? Are you OK?”
She barely turned her head, but even at such an angle I could see the pain in her face. She was dressed in pants and a long-sleeved shirt even though it was warm outside. I knew why. I could only wonder what the bruises looked like underneath her clothes.
We were both afraid for her to come over to my side of the fence, but we also both wanted her to. So, after a few minutes, she finally snuck to the back of the yard and I helped her crawl through the opening.
“Did he find out?” I asked once we were hidden away safely inside the shed. “About you sneaking over here?”
She shook her dark head and lowered her eyes to the little lamb in her lap. “No,” she said quietly, “he was mad because I left my clothes on my bedroom floor.”
I thought that was the most terrible thing. The stupidest thing to get in trouble for. I just sat there staring at her with my mouth agape.
Seraphina hardly ever looked me in the eyes. She sat awkwardly, as if the bones in her back and bottom hurt too badly for her to sit with comfort. And I noticed she kept pulling at the crotch of her purple pants as if the material was aggravating her skin down there. It made me feel weird. Dark. I wanted to ask why she was itching, but I was too afraid. I didn’t know why.
Seraphina raised her eyes to me.
“I have to go,” she said suddenly and pushed herself—with difficulty—to her feet, the stuffed lamb secured in the bend of her arm. “I have to get back to my project.”
“What project?” I asked with intense curiosity.
Seraphina smiled, which I thought too was odd in such a circumstance—had she already forgotten what happened to her? She offered her hand to me. I took it and she helped me to my feet.
“Just something I gotta do,” she said. “I’ll tell you about it soon.”
And then she left, sneaking back through to her side of the fence without another word.
Fredrik has never held me so tight. His arms are wrapped around me so securely that if it were any tighter I wouldn’t be able to breathe. I feel his lips on the top of my head, and his heart beating powerfully against my back.
I lift my head from his arm and turn it slightly at an angle so that I can see him. There is moisture in his eyes. I’ve never seen him this way before and it reminds me of the things he told me he went through when he was a boy.
I kiss the tops of his knuckles.
“I’m sorry…if this is bringing back bad memories,” I say. “I can stop.”
Fredrik shakes his head and wipes his eyes before the tears can fall. “No,” he says softly, “don’t apologize to me; this has nothing to do with me. Please…just tell me the story.”
I kiss his knuckles again and reluctantly continue.
Seraphina was different after that last time her father beat her, but it wasn’t thanks to me or my mother. Because I tried to help Seraphina. I sat down with my mother one night when my dad was gone at the bar and I told her about what happened.
“But momma,” I said, “he beat her so bad. I heard her screaming and it gives me nightmares.”
My mother shook her head and stuck her fork in her mouth, taking in a bite of salad. “You should stay out of it, Cassia,” she said, chewing on the leafy greens. “Don’t you tell anyone else, either. Do you hear me? If you do, you’ll be in a lot of trouble yourself.” She pointed her fork at me. “Her daddy is some big shot government guy. Very dangerous. We don’t get involved, do you understand?” She sipped down the last of her water.
I nodded nervously, and while although I couldn’t understand why my mother—who was such a loving and smart woman—wouldn’t want to call the police right away about what was happening next door, I knew too that she must’ve been afraid of Seraphina’s father for good reason. And so I did as she said and kept my mouth shut.
This went on for three years.
By the time Seraphina and I turned thirteen—her a few months before me—Seraphina was a very different girl from the one I met on the grass holding the little lamb. She still took beatings from her father, but she didn’t seem afraid of him anymore.
She even started coming to my house. Walked right out her front door one day, up my sidewalk and my front porch steps. I was shocked when I answered the door and saw her standing there. For a moment, I just stood there staring at her.