My life used to be normal. Like every other kid, I used to get up in the morning, go to school, come home and do homework. Occasionally, something new and exciting would happen—I’d get an A on a biology test I thought I’d flunked, or I’d get hit on by someone who the rest of my sophomore class had deemed ‘exponentially attractive,’ but miraculous things usually don’t happen to people, especially not to me.
I ran away from home when I was sixteen. Why isn’t exactly important, at least not now; and even if it were, I wouldn’t be talking about it right off the bat. For now, though, I’ll simply explain it like this: Things had been going well up until recently. Sure, I had my ups and downs. I’ve stood on enough street corners to know how little it takes to get ten dollars, but how much it takes to get to that point, and I’ve crawled into enough strange cars with enough strange men to know that I could just as easily not wake up the next morning when I’m offered a drink. There’s not much else you can do about it when you’re hungry and don’t want to risk getting sent back home just because you walk into a homeless shelter. My dad made sure of that.
When you’re cold, alone, and not sure what else to do, you learn to use what you have to your advantage. It just so happened being sixteen and underage was a bigger advantage than I ever thought it could be.
I know how easy it is for your life to change. It happened to me the night I was raped.
I’m not going to go into that either, at least not now. I’m trying to gauge my current situation to see just how much I should reveal and how much I shouldn’t. With that said, you’re probably wondering just why I’m writing about this when I don’t have to.
Long story short: I recently met a psychologist named John. He found me sitting in the alley with half my face swollen up and my right eye so badly bruised that I couldn’t even open it. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m trying not to get too long-winded. It hurts to move, let alone write. John said I could wait until the morning to write something, or just tell him a little about myself, but I’m strong. I can do this.
John said that for every journal entry I write, I can stay at his house for one day.
My name is Dakota Hammel. I’m 5’5”, 120 pounds, have short blonde hair and a tendency to speak my mind when I’m not supposed to. I guess you could say that’s the reason I got beat up, but I’m not going to go into that.
I guess this is it then.
The start of something new.
John’s in the kitchen making dinner. I’m feeling a little better, but not a whole lot. As of writing this, I’m swimming through a haze of drug-induced painkillers, but it isn’t a bad feeling. Hopefully this entry will make at least a little sense. If not, oh well—I can’t help it.
When I showed John the journal last night, he was surprised at how well I could write. I watched him sit in his recliner while he read my entry, glasses set at the end of his nose and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He looked like a psychologist you’d see on TV—poised, dignified, aristocratic. Then again, you’d most likely never see a psychologist dressed in an undershirt and a pair of boxer shorts on TV, but that doesn’t much matter. All that mattered was that after he got done with it, he nodded and said that I’d done well, that he was impressed with my writing and that I should keep going at the pace I was. I kind of got the impression that he’d still have let me stay in his house even if I didn’t write my entries (at least, not yet,) but whatever. I guess my English teachers were right about one thing—I was a good writer. At least I have one thing to my name.
I’m not sure what else to say. John offered to let me sleep in his guest room the other night, but after I laid down on the couch, I wasn’t feeling up to getting up. He’s set me up with a comforter and one of those fancy pillows you get when you buy the bedding packs, and I’ve got the TV all to myself. He says he’s going to take me to the doctor tomorrow to get a checkup and to get tested for STDs. He guessed my question, and apparently knew I was going to say something, because when I opened my mouth right after he told me, he said that I was ‘his stepson.’ I feel a bit uncomfortable with being labeled as his kid, if only by marriage, and going to the doctor under the stipulation that I was beaten and raped, but oh well—I’d be going to the doctor for the same reason anyway, sans being his stepson.
I think he just finished dinner. He’s calling me. I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to get up or not, but this is better than nowhere to stop.
I just went to the doctor.
The jury is in.
I have the following wrong with me: Two broken ribs, several hematoma on my face (including in my swollen-over eye,) a sprained ankle and, most embarrassingly and obvious of all, an anal fissure. I expected something had happened during the rape, mostly because of the overwhelming pain I’d been experiencing without the painkillers, but I wasn’t sure that it would be that bad. Thankfully the doctor reassured us that everything would be fine and that all I needed was bed rest and warm baths, but it didn’t make the experience any less embarrassing.
On the way home in John’s car, I confessed my feelings to him. When I finished, he asked me a question I didn’t expect.
“Are you embarrassed because you think you should be, or because you are?”
At first, I didn’t know how to respond. I was so blindsided by the comment that I could hardly even think. John, per his usual self, had continued driving without a word, while I simply sat there with my hands in my lap and my heart hanging halfway down my sleeve. When he came to a stoplight, he slowed to a halt and turned to face me, his kind eyes the calmest I’d seen them in a long time.
“Well?” he’d asked.
I don’t know, I’d responded.
I never did answer his question—at least, not directly, or to his face. Now that I think about it though, I’m not necessarily sure why I was embarrassed in the first place. Maybe I was embarrassed because society deems people who are the victim of such crimes as dirty, unwanted creatures, things that crawl around in the mud and turn their heads up to look at you with sour eyes; or maybe it’s because the personal belief that once you are raped, you are nothing is so strong, it often overwhelms you to be in another person’s presence. I don’t feel either of those things—I could care less about what society thinks and I’ve felt like I was nothing since the day my dad pushed me out of the house. To that, though, I can’t say why I’m embarrassed. That’s easily the simplest answer I can muster up without dawdling over it for an indefinite amount of time.
Anyway, I’ll get past that any keep going.
After we got home, John helped me get situated on the couch before he disappeared into the nearby hallway. He was gone for a long time before he came back out and gestured me to stand. I’m not unable to walk, but it’s something I’m still struggling with, particularly with my fissure and my broken ribs in combination, not to mention my ankle. John quickly noticed my struggle and laced his arm around my back, then guided me into the bedroom.
When I stepped inside, I nearly gasped. The sight of the freshly made-up bed, the rollaway TV, the open-threshold bathroom and the portable fridge nearly forced tears in my eyes.
“It’s yours for as long as you’re here,” John had said, then helped me into bed.
I’m here now, lying in my new bed while writing this journal entry. It’s still a bit hard to believe, going from sleeping on the ground to reclining on a nice, soft mattress. I have the TV playing in front of me while John prepares lunch for the two of us in the kitchen. I’m supposed to take my painkillers with something in my stomach, so until then, I guess I’ll just lay here and watch TV.
At least now I know this isn’t a temporary proposition.
I had nightmares last night. I can’t really remember what they were about, mostly because they were the kind that you can’t recall a few minutes after you wake up, but I do know that they didn’t have anything to do with getting raped or beaten up. That was what surprised me most about the whole episode—none of the dreams revolved around my life or anything that happened to me recently.
When I talked to John about it, he said they were ‘stress dreams,’ then asked me about my sleeping schedule. I confessed that I’d been having trouble sleeping the past few nights, to which he nodded and said that he’d noticed, particularly because of the color of my one eye the past few mornings. I wouldn’t have noticed anything because I haven’t bothered looking in a mirror since I got here, so when I asked if he had any suggestions about helping me sleep better, he merely shrugged.
“Not much I can do,” he’d said. “Gotta deal with it on your own.”
He wouldn’t prescribe me sleeping pills, nor would he go and buy me some from the store. His reasoning? They wouldn’t help with your nightmares anyway. Of course, when I said that at least they’d help me get to sleep, he said that running away from the problem wasn’t any way to deal with it—at least, not in this instance. The way he said it implied that running away was, in fact, a way to deal with a problem sometimes.
I’m not sure what else I should write about. I started a bit earlier in the day because I woke up so early, and John’s been at work all day and won’t be back for at least another hour, so I’ll probably just watch TV until I hear the front door open.
Hopefully I won’t have any more nightmares tonight.
I had another nightmare.
It was about my mother.
My mother’s been dead since I was eleven.
Even now, hours after I woke up, I’m struggling to put together her picture in my head. It was so vivid in my dream, so vivid that, in fact, she didn’t seem dead. That was probably the most startling thing about her—she looked so young, so alive, so real. She looked not a day past dead in her long, flowing nightgown and with her beautiful, blonde hair spilling down one shoulder. Dad used to say I looked so much like her before he started drinking. Her soft brown eyes, the speckling of freckles across her cheeks and around her eyes, her soft chin and her soft skin—she seemed so real, so alive, so vividly here.
Maybe that was the other part of the dream that scared me. She was standing in the doorway, hands braced against the doorjamb, a picture perfect image of my childhood wrapped within a single moment.
I haven’t talked to John about it. He’s sitting in the chair in the corner of the room now, reading from a big binder that he always takes to and from work. I haven’t really bothered to talk to him at all since he announced his presence and said he was going to sit with me while he read over some stuff. I guess it doesn’t really matter, considering he’s going to read this later, but I’d probably feel better if I could talk to someone.
That’s the funny thing about this whole situation. It scares me how easy it is to talk to him, but it scares me even more that I actually want to talk to him. I know you’ll be reading this, John, and it isn’t anything against you, but I’ve never had someone who’s cared about me as much as you do since—well, since forever.
Sorry I trailed off there. I had an epiphany.
I guess maybe that’s a good thing, right? To know that I have someone to talk to and someone who understands me, if only slightly?
I think that’s a good thing.
I know it is.
I talked to John this morning. He said everything was just fine.
When I first sat down at the table this morning, I didn’t expect to hear that. At first, it took me a moment to try to understand what he was saying, then I saw my journal sitting on the kitchen counter and sighed.
“Everything you’re going through is normal,” John had said. “You’re breaking through a barrier that you had to put up to protect yourself.”
Normal wouldn’t be the exact word I’d use, but I could understand his point—as in, the point of having to consciously and subconsciously strip layers of protection away from yourself in order to open your heart to another person. When I’d first been propositioned in that alley almost a week ago, I could hardly believe someone would try to get a hookup with someone who looked beaten to within an inch of his life. Now, though, I can easily see how willing I’d been to turn someone away just because they offered help.
John is, as he usually is after he gets home, in the kitchen. He says he’s going to cook something more than just hamburger helper or spaghetti tonight, seeing as how it’s Friday night, and that he wants the two of us to sit down and watch a movie or something—TV at the least. I’m fine with that. I’ve since navigated out of the bedroom and onto the couch on my own with the help of a cane he offered me. My ankle isn’t as bad as it was earlier in the week, but it still hurts. I’m just glad it isn’t broken. I don’t like the idea of not being able to walk around. It keeps you from being able to run when you need to.
I’m trying to figure out what else I should write about. Other than talking to John about my feelings about being here this morning, not much has happened. He was at work all day, I laid in bed watching TV, took a bath, some medication, ate a sandwich or two—that was pretty much it. I should say that I’m looking forward to watching TV with John and what he’s cooking for dinner tonight. Whatever it is, it smells good. My stomach’s already rumbling.
John said he wants to get to know me a little better, so he wants me to write about my childhood. He said that it doesn’t matter what kind of story it is, good or bad, but he would prefer to hear something good, particularly because he doesn’t want to upset me in any way. Even though I already told him that I would be fine with writing about whatever he wanted me to, he said to write about something good, something that made me comfortable and wouldn’t push any sore spots. With that in mind, I guess I’ll start.
My parents took me to the beach when I was little. I had to have been only five or six, just barely old enough to experience something enough to possibly remember it. Back then, the family was still together, wholesome in comparison to how life was after mom died. I remember waking up one morning to the sound of my parents in the kitchen. Dad was still young back then, before the alcohol and anger set in, with silky black hair tinged with a handsome streak of grey. He used to drink coffee in the morning before he switched to alcohol—always dark, no sugar. My mother was still as gorgeous as always, even more so compared to how she’d looked when she was standing in the doorway in my dream. She didn’t like caffeine, so her mornings were usually spent in harsh disarray, her hair in knots before her usual shower. That particular morning, they’d been talking about something casual, though my dad seemed to have been the only one keeping the conversation. My mother, eyes bleary and makeup still unapplied, hadn’t realized I had woken up, so it was no surprise when dad swung me into his arms upon noticing my presence in the foot of the kitchen.
The first words out of his mouth to me were, “You wanna go to the beach?”
An hour later, we were rolling down the road in the family car with a freshly-loaded cooler in the back seat.
If I were to take a picture of the area we lived in and the resulting drive to one of the most important places in my young life, it would look like this: A two-story house in a small, suburban neighborhood seated at the edge of a sprawling metropolis. Thirteen years ago, it would have been one of the greatest places in town to live in. At the time I left though, the city was having such a hard time with the invasive coniferous plant population that no one wanted to live there. Much of the once-beautiful maple trees that used to cover the neighborhoods now bore the fruits of human ignorance. At the age of seven, I once pointed to a tree in our front yard and asked why there was another tree growing out of it. My mother said not to worry, that the ‘tree’ I thought was growing out of another tree was simply a branch and there was nothing wrong. Why she told me such a thing, I don’t know, but I can only imagine she wanted me to believe that there was nothing wrong with the tree, that all was well and that whatever strange anomaly it bore was nothing more than normal. I, however, knew better. Within the next three years, the pine tree growing out of its maple host uprooted the entire structure and my father had to call a factory to take it in. The once-perfect living area eventually faded into obscurity and settled neatly into its new place as the backbone to the big highway which led to the beach. Once you got on that road, it didn’t take much more than a look outside to judge how long it would take to get to the beach. On those rides, I was always quick to point out that we would soon be at the beach on those seemingly-endless trips.
We’re almost there! I would happily cry.
“We know,” my parents would both say, often at the same time.
We would all laugh and things would be well, happy times that happened before the bad times came.
The first day I went to the beach, I was the happiest little kid alive. Little did I know it would be the last time I would ever see it again.
I know what you’re thinking, John—I used to live on the coast. I’d be wrong to say that I didn’t, but the ‘beach’ we went to was never really a ‘beach’ beach—it was a small pond turned into an attraction so homeowners would buy the properties in the neighborhood I used to live in. It worked, for a time, but after ‘it’ happened, no one ever went back. No. There was no going back to a place filled with such hate and misery.
To put it simply, the trip to the beach itself went just fine—I swam in the shallows, my dad stood just a few short feet away, and my mom alternated between reading a book and taking pictures of me and my dad. There was nothing immensely impacting about the visit that could have traumatized me in any way at the time, as I was just a little kid and would not have known any better. The actual unease would come years later, after I entered my teens and learned about what had really been happening at the beach all those years ago.
Once, during my joyous rampage through the shallows, I tripped and almost fell face-first into the water.
When I opened my eyes, a face looked up at me.
I screamed, hurled myself from the water, and ran to the shore, all the while crying that someone in the water was looking at me.
My dad told me there was nothing to worry about.
My mom said I was just seeing things.
Weeks later, after I’d forgotten the event and told my parents I wanted to go back, they said we couldn’t, that they’d drained the lake because something had happened to the water.
The truth behind the story?
Someone really had looked up at me from the shallows, but that someone wasn’t alive. That someone was dead.
There’s not really much more to say, other than that someone had been killing people and dumping them into the lake. Sure—I could go on a lengthy tangent to say how it could have affected me and how it could still be affecting me, but there wouldn’t really be any point. It might serve its purpose, sure, but it almost might not do anything more than just make me feel stupid for writing it.
I know you wanted me to write about something good, John. I’m sorry I ended up writing about this, but I think it’s at least in part good. It helped me remember that there was, in fact, good times in my childhood, and I had experienced my share of happy moments, regardless of the things that were destined to come.
I don’t know what else to say. I’ve written almost two pages. Hopefully you won’t be disappointed.
I’m in a bit of a disorganized mood. I woke up this morning with my head by the footrest and my ribs in screaming pain, so it’s not hard to say that today hasn’t gone very well. John told me that he came in once during the night because he’d heard me struggling, then tried to calm me down so I wouldn’t end up hurting myself. I vaguely recall waking up, panicking, then hitting him in the face before passing out. His black eye this morning proved it.
It’s about three-thirty PM right now. John’s been at work since eleven and I’ve been up since ten-something. I don’t remember when exactly, but it doesn’t particularly matter. Right as I got out of the shower and wandered into the living room this morning, John had been scrambling to get out the door. He’d said hello, told me about what happened last night, pushed his other arm into the loose sleeve of his jacket and picked up his suitcase before he walked out of the door, yelling that he’d made me lunch as he ran down the driveway.
Lunch was, and technically still is, two mayonnaise-tomato sandwiches and the remnants of the vegetable salad he made the other day (the night he said he was going to ‘make something special.’ We ended up watching some Lifetime movie about a boy and his dog.)
I don’t think John’s read my journal entry from last night yet. If he has, he didn’t mention it, but I’m guessing he didn’t from the way he didn’t bother to mention anything about my journal when he walked out the door this morning. It’s usually the first thing he comments on when I walk out of the bedroom and sit down at the kitchen table, but not today. Then again, that could just be because he was in such a big hurry to get to work, but I don’t know.
The whole journal thing is starting to make me feel a little weird. When I stopped writing last night, I felt like I was just dumping my problems on someone who didn’t really need to hear them, at least in the sense that they didn’t initially want to hear them, but ended up having to hear them because the person (being me) forced them (being John) to listen. This’ll probably come up shortly after John reads this, because I know he’ll have something to say about it, but before it does, I want to say something right now—I know I’m not forcing any of this on you, John. If you didn’t want to hear about what I’m going through, you wouldn’t ask to read my journal. Hell, I wouldn’t even be here if you didn’t care to read about my life, but I guess that’s how the world works. If you want to learn about something, you have to read about it. If you don’t want to learn about something, you don’t read about it—you just let it go. I guess that’s why I feel a bit weird talking to a journal, even though you’re usually always reading it and giving me nearly-constant feedback. I feel like I’m dumping stuff on you that you don’t need to hear.
I liked the prompt you gave me yesterday. I know you haven’t mentioned anything about it yet, but it really gave me a sense of direction when it came to yesterday’s journal entry. I know a prompt a day might be a little much, but maybe a prompt a week or something would be good. It gives me a security net, but pushes me to climb the rungs when I’m forced to. Not that I’m necessarily being forced into anything, but you get my point.
Sorry my journal entries are getting longer. It doesn’t seem like I have a lot to write about. It seems like I’m mostly rambling.
I dreamed about a pelican flying across the sky. The sun was setting and it looked like a supernova was exploding in the distance. The outer rim of the sun was a shade of pink and the inside looked like hot, melting wax. At the end of this day in my dream, just as the sky above was turning a shade of purple and the stars were beginning to twinkle to life, the clumsy pelican desperately flapped its wings, awkward in its attempts to carry its huge weight across the sky. It was no real bird, that much was for sure. Its wings were too ornate, with their intricate, swanlike flourish at the end, and its body looked like the cockpit of a small private plane than anything else. Whoever I was dreaming about was walking with his grandmother. He asked her if she saw it and she said yes, then he called to his family, to which they looked up and awed over the clumsy creature floating across the sky.
I don’t know what the significance of the dream was, but I thought I should mention it, just because it was such a beautiful, awkward thing.
John read my journal entries last night. He got caught up with work the past two days and wasn’t able to read them, but this morning, after I got up and sat down at the table, we talked about stuff—the dream, me hitting him, my unease about writing to a journal. He apologized for not keeping up-to-date and said that it probably would’ve helped if he’d read it before he tried to calm me down. After a moment of hesitant laughter, he reached across the table and gave my shoulder a brief squeeze, then returned his hand to his side.
“It’s weird,” he’d said, then looked down at his hands. “Writing about what’s going on, I mean.”
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I simply waited for John to continue. When he didn’t, I let out a long exhale and closed my eyes, grimacing when my ribs flared up in response to the action. John’s first reaction was to ask if I wanted some medicine, to which I replied yes, but he didn’t speak further on the topic of my unease while he combed through the cabinets. It seemed like he was deliberately taking his time with looking. Why, I’m not sure, but when he came back with the painkillers and a glass of water in hand, he reseated himself, took a deep breath of his own, then looked me in the eyes.
“I used to have the same problem. You know what I did? I told myself that no one had to see it except me. I know I’ve been asking to see your journal, but if at any time you don’t want me to see it, just tell me. I’ll respect your privacy.”
But what about me staying here? I’d asked.
“I trust you. I know you’ll keep writing.”
It seems almost impossible to think that you can become so close, so comfortable with someone in such a short amount of time that you’d be willing to give them everything—your life, your home, your deepest, darkest secrets. I used to never be this unguarded. Now, though, I’m not particularly sure. I mean, I’m completely comfortable with John, otherwise I wouldn’t have been here for as long as I have, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with how low I’ve let my barriers fall. I’ll probably get another talk about this, John, so hopefully you have something to tell me. I just hope it isn’t any of that ‘people are good by nature’ bullshit, because if people really were ‘good by nature,’ I wouldn’t have been homeless for as long as I was.
“People aren’t good by nature,” John said. “They’re good by nurture.”
When he initially said that, I wasn’t sure what to think. Now I think I’m getting it.
He read my journal earlier this evening after getting home from work. At first, I wasn’t sure if he was going to, because he looked like he’d had a bad day. His eyes were bloodshot and he had bags under them. When I asked him what was wrong, he simply shrugged my comment off and ran his hand through his hair. He stood in the doorway for a moment, suitcase still in hand, then closed the door before crossing the room and settling into his recliner to read my journal. It took him a while to get through the entry, mostly because he kept pausing to rub his eyes and temple, but when he finished, he nodded and walked into the kitchen. It wasn’t until after dinner was done that he sat down at the table and said the words I opened this entry with.
“People aren’t good by nature. They’re good by nurture.”
He explained that it wasn’t in our nature to be good to one another, that if that had been the case, the human race wouldn’t have survived for as long as it had. He said that had we always been nice, and had we always chose to accept one another, we would have never gotten anywhere. I was quick to repute, asking why blood had to be shed in order for someone to get anywhere, then he said a few simple words that changed my entire perspective on my opinion.
Those words were simple.
Those words were: “You’re here, aren’t you?”
Even now, a few hours after hearing those words, I’m still shaken. The moment he’d said it, every part of my body had started hurting—my ribs, my ankle, my eye, most of my face. I hadn’t fallen, I hadn’t tripped, I hadn’t had a train run into me and I hadn’t had something fall from the sky. The only thing I’d been hit with was a realization.
“You’re here because you got beat up,” John had said, “because if you wouldn’t have been an inch away from death, I would have never stopped to ask if you needed help.”
He said that the majority of the homeless never leave an impact in your mind because they all look the same—dry, washed up, sad with maybe a long, grey beard and dirty clothing. He said that society has become so accustomed to seeing such people that we don’t think twice when we see them, that they’re simply invisible blips on the map of overall success. Some succeed, some fail, but we’re always a part of that map. He said that the one thing that will get someone’s attention, regardless of time or place, is blood.
“You were bleeding. You were hurt. You looked like you were about to die.”
So he helped me. That’s why I’m here. Because I was almost dead.