* Her entire body shook. Her breath came in short, wheezing spasms. Shiver after shiver ran over her already cold body. It feels like a freezer in here, she thought. Mechanically she guided her rusty car toward home, past one familiar landmark and another.
Never before had she felt so diminished. So crushed. Like her soul had simply been trampled on. Never. She had suffered all kinds of humiliation, scorn and danger before—but this? What had just occurred defied comprehension.
As she waited for a traffic light to turn green, she leaned her head against the window. She prayed the light would stay red forever, fearing she was too destroyed to go on. But she knew she needed to continue driving. She needed to be home. Mercifully the day at work had come to an end. The violent parking lot encounter was behind her and—she was still breathing. Yes, still breathing and moving. Violated. Bruised. Horrified. But somehow, still alive—a startling discovery. An involuntary chuckle escaped past her downturned lips.
Robotically she lifted her right foot from the brake when the light turned. The car hesitated slightly—just enough to shoot fear into her battered heart. No. It could not die again. She couldn’t afford another repair bill, nor could she miss one more day of work. She couldn’t even miss another second of work for that matter. Her heart rate quickened, her mind propelling her thoughts towards two small, wide-eyed faces. Kitt and Damien. Her two gems. The only ones who could still make her smile. Her sole reason for carrying on. They depended on her to at least put some noodles on the table each night. She must not fail. She dared never miss work again. Already she was past due on the electric bill and every night she feared coming home to find her shack of a house dark and cold. Colder than it already was.
After the barely decipherable hiccup, the car recovered, as if it had caught a stern warning glance from a rigid schoolmaster. It groaned and creaked, one mile after another. Nearly there, she voicelessly nudged it forward. She dared not relive the horror of what had happened moments earlier in the parking lot. Not now. Just focus.
She drove on, heart in her throat, dreading the possibility that her lowly hovel might be pitch black and cold when she arrived. She’d made arrangements with the mother of her school-aged babysitter so Kitt and Damien could at least temporarily find refuge with them should power to her home be cut. Rounding the final the corner, she gasped—darkness. Or wait—was there a faint pencil line of light seeping from the far side of the tiny structure? Indeed there was. Though it cast only an anemic glow onto the white snow, it was as if she had seen the portals of heaven. She pulled herself from the barely warmed car, exhaled slowly, tilted her head back ever so briefly. With eyes closed, she wordlessly breathed a grateful sigh into the crackling night air.
Instinctively she pulled her scarf up to shield her face from the onslaught of icy air. In a few steps she blew in the front door, threatening to extinguish the timid flames in the open fireplace. As long as the wood supply would last, she had resolved to use the bare minimum of electrical kilowatts.
The four arms that instantly encircled her and the squeals of delight that ignited the sparse living space fueled her flagging spirit. At once her face shone, liberally bestowing whatever light she still possessed onto her beloved treasures. For a moment all else dissolved into the sound and sight of love and belonging. The gaunt young girl who watched over the little ones pulled on her outerwear and disappeared with a faint wave out the door and into the vehicle that had appeared in the driveway moments earlier.
Continued in Behind Each Face*
*Because this story appears in the recently published book, it is subject to restrictions as to where it can be posted in its entirety.
* revised and edited, 2015
© Julia Penner-Zook, Behind Each Face