“What? No,” I said, barging into the house. “No matter the issue, he has no right to put his hands on you, Mama. It’s not right, and we really should get you checked out. Let me take you to the hospital.”

She shook her head. “No. I’m not going to the hospital. I’m fine.”

“We need to make sure the baby is okay, though, Mama. Please.”

She lowered her head, and I saw the hurting in her heart. There was a struggle going on in her head. I couldn’t imagine what was going through her mind, though. Every now and again, I saw flashes of regret in her eyes that matched mine. My mother had lived a life of struggles, and I saw her battling against her pain every single time she blinked.

“I don’t have that kind of money for a doctor appointment . . . ,” she started. “I ain’t got no insurance, and Charlie will be upset if a bill comes through for it.”

“I’ll cover the cost. Really, Mama. Let me help you.”

She was seconds away from agreeing. Seconds away from doing the right thing for her and for the baby, but before she could speak, Charlie walked up behind me. I turned to see his eyes widen when he saw me, and he then glared at Mama.

“What the hell is going on here?” he barked.

“I’m taking Mama out for a little bit,” I said, trying my best to not showcase the fear that sat in my throat. Sure, Charlie didn’t look like a threatening man, but I knew the harshness that lived inside him. It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed Mama’s body being bruised at the hands of Charlie, but I’d figured ever since she got pregnant, he wouldn’t hurt her.

I’d been too hopeful believing that Charlie was not the biggest monster.

“Where?” he demanded. “You shouldn’t even be here.”

“I’m allowed to see my mother,” I shot back. “Come on, Mama. Get your things, and let’s go.”

“She isn’t going anywhere with you. Go ahead and make me a pizza, Jean,” he ordered Mama, which made my irritation skyrocket.

“She’s hurt,” I scolded. “I’m taking her to get checked out.”

He cocked an eyebrow and looked at Mama. “You going to a hospital?” he asked, his words low and controlling. “What the hell you going to do, Jean? Turn me in? Say I hurt you?”

She hesitated as she fidgeted with her fingers, looking down at the floor. “Of course not, Charlie.”

“Because I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

The way his words slithered off his tongue made the hairs on my skin stand straight up. Gosh, I hated him so much and despised how he used his authority to control Mama’s thoughts.

“No, you didn’t,” she lied. She blinked her eyes shut and shook her head back and forth. “I tripped. You know I’m clumsy, Hazel.”

No, Mama.

Don’t let him control you like this.

“Even still, you should get checked out because of the baby,” I offered, trying to tame the anger rushing through me. I needed to get her out of there. Out of that house, out from under Charlie’s control. Because I knew if she stayed any longer, she’d end up six feet under due to him taking it one step too far.

Maybe if we ran away together, she’d be able to get her mind clear again. Maybe she’d realize that we didn’t need Charlie. That we were better without him, that—

“She’s not going anywhere,” Charlie cut in. “The baby’s fine, and so is she. And you are not welcome here anymore. So get out.”

I stepped toward my mother, guarding her from Charlie. “I’m not leaving without taking her with me.”

He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and stepped toward me. “Get out, Hazel.”

“No,” I sternly stated. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He grabbed me by the arm and started dragging me toward the front door. For a small-looking guy, his grip hurt.

“Let me go!” I shouted. I tripped over my feet as he yanked me, and the second I found my footing, I shoved hard against his chest, making him stumble backward.

Before any thought, I felt the sting of his fist slamming against my face. I fell straight to the ground.

Holy crap.

The stinging sensation that overtook me made me want to vomit. He hadn’t just slapped me; he’d punched me. He’d sent me flying backward and crashing to the floor as if he hadn’t a care in the world for his actions. Was that what he did to Mama? Did he punch her repeatedly like she was a rag doll and not a person?

My head began pounding, and tears fell from my eyes as the pain engulfed my entire system. I went to stand, but Charlie came barging toward me, and he shoved me back down.

“I told you to fucking leave,” he hissed, his voice dripping with hatred.

“Fuck you,” I cried.

He raised his fist to hit me again, but Mama rushed in and took his hand into hers. “Stop, Charlie. Please. She gets it. She’s leaving and never coming back,” she swore.

I stumbled to my feet as my right eye stayed closed. Wetness dripped from my face as I wiped it. Is that blood? Charlie’s ring must’ve sliced into my skin.

“Right, Hazel?” Mama asked, looking at me with wide eyes filled with fear. She lived with that fear on a daily basis.

“Come with me, Mama,” I begged, my chest rising and falling at erratic speeds.