Friday, March 18, 2016

Liberty by Susan D. Harper

Shawn is starting a new life away from her abusive husband, and seeks a new companion; by Susan D. Harper.

The rhythm of the turn signal sliced through the silence in the car as the air conditioning blew lightly onto her throat, drawing goose bumps. When the light turned green, Shawn left the interstate exit ramp and headed east. Sunlight, then shadow, then sunlight played across her as she went under the overpass. Sighing heavily, she wondered if she had completely lost her mind.

She told the woman she'd come and look. The more she thought about it, the more uncertain she was about doing it. She shook her head.

"I'm barely able to take care of myself right now, let alone a dog," she whispered.

Her life was far from settled. Her mouth set into a frown as she thought of the restraining order she had recently filed against Jake to keep him away. And now she was considering a dog?

Her eyes drifted to her slender fingers gripping the steering wheel and her left ring finger, where the skin was just a little lighter.

He wasn't always so angry, Shawn thought, looking out the driver's side window. The first few months after the wedding had been good. It was after she miscarried that things had changed.

Pulling up to another light, Shawn drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. I really have no time for a dog, she told herself. Why did I let Jessica talk me into this. Sure, it'd be nice to have a wagging tail to come home to, but her new job was demanding. She came home late at least once a week. Since she lived alone, the dog would spend a lot of time without her. It couldn't be a good environment.

Shawn put her hand on the turn signal wand. She looked in the rearview mirror and then ahead of her. She could easily do a U-turn when the light turned green and get back on the interstate. She would call the woman and tell her she couldn't come. She would tell her that it wasn't a good time.

"You can blame the puppy mill for her being skittish," the adoption coordinator had told her over the phone. "She just wasn't socialized much. She's been in a kennel most of her life, probably only let out to go to the bathroom and to have puppies." Shawn was familiar with placing blame, although she had usually been on the receiving end of it. She let her hand fall into her lap and went forward when the light turned green. She could at least look at the dog.

Her thoughts went back to Jake. When she miscarried, he had blamed the doctor for not being more attentive. He had blamed her for not being more careful. He blamed her job at the bank, so he made her quit. He started driving her everywhere. Shawn thought he'd come out of it, especially when she became pregnant again. He did come out of it, until she miscarried again.

The doctor couldn't explain why to Jake's satisfaction. He said that they should be patient. The second time, Jake blamed no one but her and took it out on her every chance he got. Rather than waiting for Shawn to recover, he insisted they begin trying again. She wanted him to be happy. She wanted him to stop scaring her, so she had agreed. Sex became an obligation rather than an expression of passion and love.

When she finally became pregnant again, Jake relaxed a little. Shawn didn't. While preparing for the baby, she also prepared to leave. She knew her chances of carrying the baby to term weren't good.

He rarely let her leave the house without him, but the doctor appointments during the day enabled her to drive herself while he was at work. There were garage sales to explore for nursery furniture and baby clothes. While she was out, Shawn talked to a lawyer. She opened her own checking account. She found several affordable apartment complexes. She talked to a temp agency. She planned.

Shawn pulled off the main street onto a small shaded road. Oaks lined both sides, their branches stretching across it, closing in around her. She fumbled for the switch and put down her window. Fresh air rushed in, and she breathed deep. An occasional patch of sunlight flashed on the blacktop as the branches moved in the late summer breeze. She watched mailboxes for the woman's address.

She spotted the right mailbox and slowed down. Dogs started barking as soon as she turned onto the gravel driveway. Shutting off her car, Shawn looked out her windshield. She could see muzzles between the slats of a tall wooden fence and gate. She got out and headed towards the front door.

"Come this way," a voice called and then a screen door slapped shut. Shawn turned towards the voice coming from behind the wooden gate. The gate opened and a woman with a head of blonde messy curls let her through.

"Quick," she said while holding her leg out to block the yipping and jumping dogs. She had an assortment of dogs, most of them mixes. Shawn noted two Labrador Retrievers, what looked like a Miniature Dachshund with long hair, a Boxer, a Golden Retriever mixed with what looked like Collie, and a Cocker Spaniel at the back of the pack.

"I'm Debbie Stark, the adoption coordinator for this part of Tennessee," the woman said gesturing towards Shawn as she crossed the yard heading to the deck stairs.

"It's nice to meet you," Shawn said following her and dodging dogs.

"The dog's inside. She's just not ready for the rest of these loud mouths," she said over her shoulder. They went up the deck stairs and into the house. Shawn wondered what she meant by "not ready."

They crossed the kitchen into an office area where a large kennel sat with no door. The Beagle peered out of the kennel at them.

"What did you do to your arm?" the woman asked.

Startled, Shawn looked down at her left arm and then at the woman. "Oh... I... tripped over my own feet."

"Break it?" she asked.

"Fracture."

"Ah, well this one, as far as we can tell, did have a broken leg at one time, because there are markings on her leg where they put a plate in."

"Poor thing," Shawn said looking at the dog. The dog remained in the kennel. Dark, weary eyes looked at the coordinator and then Shawn. Brown ears folded down into perfect triangles on the sides of the dog's head.

"Like I said on the phone, we don't know what all has happened to her. We just know that she is very timid." She wondered how a dog confined to her kennel most of her life could break her leg. She sat down on the couch across from the kennel.

"You said something about multiple litters?"

"Well, we don't know how many she had. But yes, there was more than one. That's what they do at puppy mills - keep them penned up and pump out puppies. She's been spayed now, though."

Held captive in her own kennel, she thought, shaking her head. "How sad for her," she said aloud. Shawn got down on her hands and knees, her chestnut ponytail falling over her shoulder. As she did this, the dog backed further into her kennel.

The woman clucked her tongue. "Awww... don't let that discourage you. She eventually does warm up. She just needs patience."

"It's okay," Shawn said softly, stretching out her hand. The dog watched her intently but didn't move.

"I have heard of no instances of aggressive behavior from her," the woman said. "Like I said, I just think she's very unsure."

"Right. Who could blame her," said Shawn. She inched closer to the kennel, her hand on the edge of it. Shawn slowly put her hand inside. The dog wiggled sideways away from her. Shawn pulled her hand out and looked at the dog thoughtfully.

"Okay, she's coming home with me," she said, surprising herself.

"Great!" said the woman. "I have her paperwork almost ready to go." Within a half an hour, the woman was helping Shawn load the kennel and other dog supplies into her car. She pointed the kennel opening at her in the passenger seat so the dog could watch her while she was driving.

During the drive home Shawn talked softly to the dog, who kept an eye on Shawn. Periodically, Shawn would slowly reach through the kennel door with one finger and try to pet the dog's nose. Each time the dog would squirm away.

She just needs reassurance, Shawn thought as she went up the highway to her exit. She's starting a new life. It has to be scary for her. Shawn smiled sadly.

She remembered the day she started hers. It was late morning when she realized that she was miscarrying for the third time. Jake was at work. Calmly she began to pack what she could. When Jessica arrived to take her to the hospital, they loaded her things into the car. She called Jake on the way. Since he was out in the freight yard, she left a message for him to meet her.

But, he didn't meet her at the hospital. He didn't call. He wasn't there when it was time to go. Rather than go home, Shawn stayed at Jessica's. He didn't call there either. The silence spoke volumes to Shawn.

After a week at Jessica's, Shawn wanted her car. It was time to move on. When Jessica took her home, Jake's truck was not next to her Honda in the driveway. She couldn't just jump in the car and take off, since there was a spare set of keys to her car that were in his bureau. She wanted them so he couldn't take the car. She would have to go inside. Jessica waited in the car in front of the house. Shawn's stomach lurched as she walked up the driveway and went into the house.

The house was still and dim. She stood silently in the entryway and listened while her eyes adjusted to the dark. Slowly, she made her way up the stairs to the master bedroom. She switched on the light and pulled open the top drawer of his dresser. Moving aside some socks, she uncovered the spare keys in the back of the drawer. She dropped them into her purse and closed the drawer.

A thump came from the kitchen. The hairs on her arms and neck stood up. She heard a car horn from out front, and Jessica call her name. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. There was heavy footfall on the stairs. On shaking legs, she moved to the closet and jerked a sweater off the shelf as he walked through the door, unsteady on his feet.

"I'm staying at Jessica's for a while," she said, turning towards him, lifting her chin, and looking him in the eye.

"You're what?"

"We need a break."

"We don't need shit." She could smell the beer as he walked further into the room. Shawn backed away from him and moved to the left.

"I think it's best," she said, no saliva left in her mouth. "I need time."

"You don't need shit," he wavered slightly, leaned against the wall, and glared at her.

"You didn't come," was all she could get out.

"No," he said.

"Why not?"

"You're damaged goods," he said, smirking. His red-rimmed eyes glittered. "Why bother."

Shawn swallowed back tears.

"Worthless is what you really are," he said icily.

"I see," she said, suddenly tired. She looked towards the bedroom door.

He lunged forward, losing his balance. Shawn skirted around him and went out the door. She could hear Jake grunt and then start after her. She was halfway down the stairs before he pushed. She lost her balance and fell forward, skipping the last four steps. She put her arms out to break her fall. A sharp pain shot up her left arm when she landed.

Jake came down behind her and kicked at her legs. "Get up." She scrambled away from him, getting to her feet and holding her wrist. Shawn felt his eyes burn two holes into her back as she reached for the front doorknob. When she opened the door, Jessica was standing there.

She ran down the steps, groping in her purse for the keys. Jessica was beside her. Her fingers closed around the keys and pressed unlock. She saw her car light up.

"I'm okay, get to your car. I'll meet you at home," Shawn yelled to Jessica as Jake lumbered across the yard behind her. Jessica veered off and headed to her car. Quickly Shawn opened the door and slipped in, throwing her purse into the passenger seat and slamming the door. She fumbled for the automatic lock and pressed it, locking the car just before Jake arrived at her car. He pounded on the driver's side window and tried the door handle. Shawn cringed. Shaking, she tried to get the key into the ignition, but missed badly.

Jessica screamed at Jake, "Leave her alone, you fucking bully!"

Jake ignored her and pounded on the window again yelling, "Good for nothing, worthless piece of shit! Where do you think you're going? Get out!"

She tried again and got the key in. She started the car, barely glancing to see where Jake was before backing out of the driveway. He stood in the yard, red-faced and yelling. She raced down the street behind Jessica, barely able to hold onto the wheel.

Two weeks later, she moved into her own place. Jake wasn't done with her, and she had to get a restraining order, but she was on her own and managing.

"Until I lost my mind and rescued a dog," she whispered, turning right onto her street and looking over at the dog. "What are we going to call you, anyway?" The dog set her head down on her amber paws and looked up from her kennel in the passenger seat. Shawn thought for a moment. "How about Liberty? We'll call you Libby for short. Do you like that? Libby?" Libby looked at her, sighed heavily, and closed her eyes. Shawn turned back to the road.

She made the quick turn into the apartment complex and headed to her building. Her stomach promptly tied up into knots. She gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. Even with the restraining order, she couldn't stop her apprehension. There had been too many times that she had approached her apartment building and found Jake parked out front.

As Shawn pulled into a parking space, Libby whined. Shawn looked into the kennel to see the dog half standing and staring at her. She reached her hand slowly out to the kennel door. Libby sniffed. Shawn smiled weakly at her and then scanned the parking lot for Jake's truck. Not seeing it, she got out and went around for Libby. She pulled the kennel out and locked the car door.

"Better safe than sorry," she told Libby.

She lugged the kennel to the apartment building door, setting it down heavily. Her wrist throbbed. She unlocked the door and set the kennel inside. Leaning over, Shawn pushed it towards her apartment. The door to the apartment building closed behind her. She unlocked her apartment door and set the kennel inside, pushing it towards the middle of the room and opening the kennel door.

"Get out and take a look around the apartment, Libby."

Libby was still in the kennel as Shawn headed out the apartment door to get the rest of the supplies. The day was dimming. Behind her, she heard the familiar squeak of the apartment building door as it opened and two chatting women exited. Shawn gathered the remaining items from her car and headed to the building. Arms full, she was relieved to find the apartment building door ajar. It had not closed completely after the two women came out, so she wouldn't need her key to open it. She backed up to the door and stuck her elbow into the opening. The door opened wide enough for her to back the rest of the way through. She turned and walked quickly to her door. Shifting papers and an empty water dish onto her cast, she shoved the key into the lock.

"Here, let me help you," a voice said from behind her. Shawn froze. Jake reached around her from the right, placed his hand on hers, and turned the key. Shawn made sure to keep a firm grip on the key.

Jake pushed Shawn forward into the apartment, sending everything in her arms flying. The door closed behind them. Libby shuffled in her kennel and whined.

Shawn turned to face Jake. "You're not supposed to be here. I'm going to call the police." She moved towards the phone in the kitchen. Grinning, he stepped into her path.

"I just came to see how you're doing all by yourself," he said. He looked to his left at the floor. "What's that?" he asked, pointing to the kennel. Shawn felt nauseous. The last thing Libby needed was Jake.

"It's a dog," she said slowly.

Jake laughed loudly. "That's funny! Is this your baby, Shawn? Nice."

Shawn took a step towards the phone again. Jake cut her off.

"Jake, please leave. I don't want you here." Shawn began to tremble.

"I'll leave when I want. I don't need you telling me what to do." He was looking at Libby in the kennel.

Shawn followed his gaze. Libby was sitting up and watching them through the top window of her kennel. She scratched at the floor of her kennel and whined, but did not come out.

"Stupid dog. Looks like a mutt. What a chicken shit. Figures that's what you'd get, something good for nothing. It fits you."

Shawn swallowed around the lump in her throat. "She's not a mutt. She's a rescue. She was abused. I wanted to help," Shawn said, eyes burning with angry tears.

Jake turned to her, rolling his eyes. "You wanted to help, did you? Aren't you sweet?" He took another step closer to her. "Trying to help others, that's nice." His voice began to rise. "Well, God knows you can't help yourself." He took another step. "What about me? Can you help me, Shawn?" he asked, grabbing her cast and jerking her to him.

Libby lunged from her kennel, growling and barking. She wedged herself between Shawn and Jake with teeth barred. Snarling, she jumped up and pushed Jake with her front paws. Her momentum was enough to surprise him and throw him off balance.

"Hey!" Jake said letting go of Shawn and stepping back. Shawn ran for the phone and began to push 9-1-1. The dog continued to growl, placing herself between Shawn and Jake.

"Unless you want to go to jail right now, Jake, leave," she said pushing the last one and putting the phone to her ear.

He hesitated, debating. "Stupid mutt," he said as he did a fake lunge at Libby, who stood her ground. He jerked the door wide open and walked through, letting it slam closed.

"9-1-1, what's the emergency?" The operator asked from the phone in her hand.

Shawn locked the door. The apartment building door squeaked open. Shawn waited to hear it close and then listened through the door for sounds in the hall.

On shaky legs, she walked across the small, empty living room and sat on the floor. She leaned against the wall.

"Hello? 9-1-1, is there an emergency?"

Libby looked at the door and then at Shawn. She bowed her head and stood up. Shaking her head, her ears flapped noisily. She turned from the door and walked towards Shawn. Libby sat down, tilting her head slightly.

"Hello? 9-1-1, did someone from this phone number need assistance?"

"I'm sorry. My husband, I..." Shawn struggled to compose herself. "I have a restraining order against him, and he came into my apartment. Once I was able to get to the phone and dial, he left."

"He left the premises?" asked the emergency responder.

"I think so." Shawn said.

"No assistance is needed?"

"I... I don't know if he's really gone." Libby watched her.

"We will send someone. What is your address?"

Absently Shawn rattled off her information. The operator told her that help was on the way. She hung up and set the phone on the floor. Libby sidled over to her and sat down. Shawn held her breath as Libby put her paws out before her, stretched, and then lay down. She was within her reach. She debated whether to try and pet the dog. Her hand itched to go out to Libby's head and give it a gentle rub. But, she was afraid to kill the moment. They quietly regarded each other.

When she could take it no longer, she slowly reached her hand out. Libby moved her head away from her hand, but didn't get up. She sniffed Shawn's hand instead. She slowly moved her hand around the side of Libby's head and gently began to rub one ear. The dog closed her eyes.

4 comments:

  1. i found this a very moving and credible story. although you guess what´s about to happen the tension is palpable. fine piece of work.

    Mike McC

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  2. A powerful story, very realistic yet optimistic at the same time. The excellent profile of the abuser shows a deep understanding of the power and control issues that underpin domestic abuse Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Realistic situation, characters, and dog. There's much tension, and a satisfying culmination. I enjoyed the story.

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