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“Of it all.” I dug my fingers into his arm. “Of why some people make it their life’s mission to cut others down. Of why some people live only to make others suffer. Of those people never understanding what it feels like to be on the receiving end, to be living in a constant nightmare of their making, their face the demon, their voice and treatment the dagger in the heart.”

With his free hand, Levi brushed back the hair from my face. Picking up a sponge to run over my body, the feel of water trickling over my cold skin, soothed some of the ache.

I blinked away the blurring of my eyes, and said, “My mom was the product of people that purposely kept her down. It was why she needed the drugs. Why she turned to drugs. To numb the pain. Because it isn’t a pain you can relieve with pills. This pain exists too deep, it’s as unreachable as it is untreatable. It exists on its own plane, and only if you’re lucky can you cope with it.” I sighed. “My mom wasn’t one of those people. She took the drugs to numb it, until the drugs took her. She didn’t fight. She didn’t even try.”

Levi ran the sponge up my arm, bringing it to my hands on his wrist. I felt his chest tense against my back, and I understood why when he took one of my hands and pulled it back. I left it hovering where he left it, and with the sponge, he ran it down my inner wrist, the warm water running over my scar.

I felt his breathing change, grow choppy, and with a cut and sad voice, he asked, “What happened, Elsie? What happened to you to make you do this. To want to end your life?”

He peppered kisses along my neck, and instinctively, I tipped my head to the side to allow him access. I knew he was trying to help me, to show me with his pure heart that he was here for me, he was caring for me, but his question evoked memories I’d tried to keep hidden, locked away. His question set them all free.

As though as I could physically feel the darkness those girls brought into my life, my body tensed as I heard their laughter flood through my mind, and their words skewer my soul.

I gripped Levi’s arm and he pulled me as close as he could. “Her name was Annabelle Barnes, and she came into my life when I was sixteen.” I paused, her name pulling difficult feelings from within.

“When you were in the group home?” Levi asked.

I nodded my head, as he repeatedly stroked back the hair from my forehead. It felt nice. “I was put into the group home when I was fourteen, after my mom passed. There was no room left in foster care, so they took five of us and put us in the group home. The women that cared for us were nice, and the other girls…” I shrugged. “I didn’t speak to. I didn’t speak to any of them. The only time I would was when one of the staff asked me to answer them back. Most were fine with my notes, so I could mostly keep my voice hidden. They didn’t judge me, the girls ignored me, and I kept to myself. It was a lonely life, one I didn’t like, but I didn’t hate it either.  I missed my mom something fierce, drowning in a world of little hearing and no purpose, but I was carrying on. I was getting through.”

I flinched, remembering the sound of Annabelle walking through the door that first day. Of her putting her things on the spare bed in my room. Of her angry eyes and her haunting face.

“Then when I was sixteen,” I explained, “Annabelle came to the home and my life changed.” I shifted against Levi’s chest, but he held me close.

“I got you, bella mia. I got you.”

I closed my eyes and exhaled through my nose. “From the minute she arrived she was angry. I don’t know what had happened to her in her original home. I never found out, she never talked about it, but it made her bitter. Nasty. It made her cruel… and I became her target.” I shrugged. “I was an easy choice, I suppose. I was quiet. I stayed in my bedroom, reading and writing poetry, while the other girls in the house immediately wanted to be her friend. I think it was fear of her that had them going along with anything she said.”

Levi’s hand had stopped moving on my head, and I could hear his heavy breathing. I could practically feel the anger radiating from his body. But now I’d started, I wanted him to understand. It was the final part of me that was hidden—it was the most important part.

“At first I’d feel her stares as we were driven to school by one of the staff. She’d sit opposite me and she’d watch me, silently, no expression on her face until I was unnerved. That quickly escalated to whispers with the others girls, pointing at me and laughing—but always where the staff couldn’t see. I would never have told on them, I thought it would only make matters worse.”

“Elsie,” Levi murmured. “I—”

“It didn’t matter either way, because it did get worse. So much worse.” My voice shook, and Levi turned my head to face him with his finger under my chin.

“You don’t have to tell me yet, if you’re not ready.”

“I have to,” I whispered, unable to stop my flow of words if I tried.

Levi didn’t question me or argue, he gave me a simple kiss and pulled away. I rested my head back on his shoulder. “It started slowly, but she began to find me at school, in the washrooms or out in the yard. She’d hover near me, never letting me out of her sight. The other girls from the house did anything she said. But it was worse at home. My things started to go missing. She’d destroy my homework in front of my face, smiling as I watched her do it. She’d try to make me talk, try to coerce me into arguments, but I stayed quiet.

“Then we got a new carer, Abbie. She was lovely, but she wanted more from me. I knew she was trying to help, but instead of letting me write down my questions and answers to the others in the house, she wanted me to speak. She had read my file, she knew I could, and she thought she was helping by encouraging me to talk. She thought she was building my confidence—her good intent did the opposite, causing it to be destroyed.”

I swallowed, and my chest burned when I thought to the day I finally spoke. “We were sitting around the dinner table, and Abbie asked me about my day. I pulled out my notepad to reply, when she put her hand over mine and shook her head. “Speak,” she said. I panicked and looked around the table seeing Annabelle smile, triumphant. It was the moment she’d been waiting for, and I knew with just one look, when my voice fell past my lips, that I had given her the ammunition she needed to attack.

“Later that night in my room when I laid down to sleep, I heard her laughing in her bed. I remember freezing, embarrassment surging through my veins, because I knew it was at me. I squeezed my eyes shut, when she started making strange noises. Then I realized what those noises were meant to be—me. My heart raced as I tried to ignore her, then I felt the bed dip. Her arms pressed to the mattress on either side of my body. I was paralyzed with fear. But she didn’t hurt me like I thought she was about to do. I opened my eyes looking up at her and she was watching me. “What’s it like to be dumb?” she asked and my heart fell. “That’s what it is, right? When you speak like a retard? Dumb? Deaf and dumb, because you sound fucking stupid when you speak?” she raised her voice, and clogged her throat to sound like me. “I’m Elsie Hall, and I’m a fucking retard,” she mocked. I turned into the mattress. Her hand was suddenly in my hair and she yanked back my head, gripping my cheeks in her hand. “You don’t turn from me until I tell you to, dumbfuck.” She paused and started laughing. “Dumbfuck, that’s you, dumbfuck.” She jumped off my bed, leaving me terrified, with tears in my eyes.”

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