Sylvia

Based on the true story that shocked the world in 1965.

In the early summer of 1965, 16 year old Sylvia Likens stepped foot into 3850 East New York with hopes and dreams. She left the house three months later, emaciated with burns, bruises and scratches. What happened in those endless months would later be described as "the worst crime ever committed in the state of Indiana". This is the story of a girl who had hopes and dreams.

This is Sylvia's story.

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23. An Unprovoked Anger

Another school day was finished and over with as kids, once again, ran home just in time for dinner. I had been in no hurry to get back. I was sitting on one of the steps, in the warm breeze of an August afternoon, yet I was shaking. If I had stayed up all night, it would have made no difference to my exhaustion. By the morning the bed sheets were in a knot and aside from a few vivid dreams, I hadn't slept a wink. My brain was constantly searching for an answer; why does Gertrude hate me?

I soon noticed Jenny, wearing a grin that seemed to sneak onto her face; considering what had been happening those past couple of days, I was surprised at how happy she seemed to look, as though she was hiding a secret that she was far too excited to keep to herself.

"What is it?" I asked, and her face finally lit up as though grateful I had asked.

"I have some left over money from daddy - we could go over to the park and buy somethin' to eat?"

My face automatically lightened into a grateful smile, and we immediately began making our way down the street, with the thoughts of us getting to savour something that wasn't soup. But it was also a time for Jenny to clear some of her guilty thoughts, as much as I didn't want her to.

"How are you?" She sounded timid, I imagined nervous to bring it up.

We both didn't understand it. I kept my head hidden down, afraid to show the true pain it had caused me. I didn't want to think about it; thinking about what had happened only made me realise it was real.

"She didn't scare me." I lied, trying to lift up a happier mood that I was so desperate to keep.

Jenny, however, had other plans.

"I would have done somethin'..." She insisted, keeping her hands clasped by her stomach and her chin firmly against her chest.

"I know." I assured, and Jenny seemed relieved - as did I. I knew it wouldn't have continued forever, not if we kept our heads down until daddy would arrive back to collect us.

We arrived at the park gates; the glorious smell of nature and food cooking on the grills filled the air around us. Once we had passed the play area, I noticed the peacefulness and quiet environment we had found ourselves in, and I felt an inner calm that wasn't possible to feel back at the house. It was God's beautiful creation that was the sun, the sky, the air around us. I breathed in deeply, savouring the freshness and perfume of the air which gave me both peace and exhilaration at the same time. We pranced across the greenery, and we soon came to three food stands towering over our starving bodies.

"I'm thinkin'..." She stopped for a second, pointing her finger to each individual stand, "- a hotdog with mustard and pickle?"

"One of daddy's old favourites." I smiled, with that excitement of eating something that we hadn't tasted for so long.

"Here's the money," she replied, as she grasped the mere $2.00 we had left on us and handed it to me.

We carefully made our way to the stand as the old man turned on his feet.

"Could we have two hot dogs with extra mustard and pickle, please?" I eagerly asked, and the old looking man in the cart nodded tiredly and went about his work.

We stood waiting; a gentle breeze helped us overcome the heat that the sun seemed intent on giving. My eyes couldn't help but gaze over to Jenny; she stared to the floor as though anxious. It was only until she told me what was truly bugging her, that I felt an anger that I had seemingly been holding in for far too long.

"You don't think Gertie will mind do you?" She asked; reluctantly, I could tell. Those doubts in her mind were beginning to make her think what she could and couldn't do.

"Jenny..." I sighed; that woman had done just about everything she could to have stopped us from enjoying ourselves.

"Make that one actually." She quickly insisted.

I held her gaze for a while. Her face was scared. I hated seeing my little sister so timid and shy; she was always like that, but that house had a stronger effect on her. I was frustrated, I guess; angry that Gertie had made Jenny paranoid that she couldn't have even grabbed a bite to eat.

"- You shouldn't feel so afraid of her..." I mumbled, but I was being a hypocrite; I was equally frightened of Gertie all the same.

"You enjoy your one. You deserve it." She smiled; a defeated smile, and yet I could tell she wanted to eat.

The man slowly passed down the steaming hotdog that seemed to hypnotise both of us into a dream. I handed over the money as we wandered back over to a small bench underneath a willow tree. It created a good enough area of shade to escape from the soaring heat, even just for a minute. I grasped the hotdog with a steady hand, somehow scared it would have fallen from my grasp; that would have been $2.00 gone down the drain. I felt bad about eating it in front of Jenny's peering eyes. The way she looked at me, but retreated away when she noticed I had seen her.

"I can't eat it..." I finally came to a resolving conclusion, placing it down onto my lap.

"Sylvia, look - it's my present to you." She informed, however I was reluctant to bite into it, "...Sylvia, you deserve it more than me." She sounded serious, something that didn't fit right with Jenny's personality.

I still couldn't have eaten it. I decided that the only way to have solved the dilemma was to piece it in half - at least then we would have both gotten to taste it.

I pieced it slowly, "- it's only a small bit. Gertie won't notice." I reassured.

Jenny held it in her hand weakly. She stared down at it - then to me again.

"You mean... lie to Gertie?" She repeated.

"How would she notice?" I asked again.

Jenny's face seemed to sink deeper and deeper into her train of thoughts. She nodded reluctantly, however I could tell she was happy to eat it. We both eagerly devoured our quick treat as the spiciness of the mustard and the tangy pickle seemed to mix together perfectly. It had been a while since the taste of warm bread had touched our lips; it had been too long! We both finished it so quickly that I hadn't even realised I had swallowed it. We stood up, my hand guiding Jenny, as we brushed down the crumbs from our dresses. We chuckled together, as a sense of disobeying Gertie's rules seemed daring but fun. Though as we began making our way back to the house, a sense of worry and fear began to overwhelm my thoughts; that similar feeling of starting school for the first time and walking into a new class - I was very experienced with that feeling.

As we began trailing across the pathway, a young girl quickly caught the attention of my eyes. It was odd at first. Maybe I was wrong, but something about her seemed far too familiar. I carried on through the park; minding my own business, as it were. Though before I knew it, I felt Jenny's hand break away from my grasp.

Little did I know, that mysterious figure was my sister.

"Hey, kid!" Diana smiled.

It was like a reunion, kind of cheesy. Diana peered over at me, scuffing up my hair slightly - she always loved doing that. Diana was an adult; having a family of her own made me trust her even more than just any ordinary sister. She stayed in Indianapolis while we all travelled around.

"What are you doin' here?" Jenny spoke softly.

Diana chuckled, "oh, I get it! You guys don't want me here. Am I crampin' your style?"

Jenny and I both erupted in a fit of laughter. I hadn't seen Diana since we had moved. Needless to say, it felt good to see such a caring face.

"Gettin' taller, huh?" Diana mumbled, pointing to Jenny as she gave a smile, "by December, I bet you'll be taller than Sylvia."

I was quick to interrupt, "- and what's so bad with bein' short?"

"Ain't you sensitive today!" She moaned, "can tell you got that from mama."

There was silence. Once Diana had mentioned our mother, we swallowed the conversation and left it there. Neither me, nor Jenny wanted to bring up the shoplifting incident again.

"You two have gone quiet?" She said.

Jenny and I glanced at one another.

"It's just -" Jenny began to speak, "the new place we're stayin' at - -"

"- Oh, dad told me about that." Diana interrupted.

I was hoping Jenny wouldn't bring it up, so I decided to speak before she would have had the chance.

"You know how it is - they're just pretty strict..." I uttered.

"Come off it you two!" Diana argued.

I understood why she behaved in that way. You see, we were brought up with a daddy who used the belt - we received punishments when they were needed.

"You should see what they've done to Sylvia!" Jenny frantically called out.

Diana stared at me with a dumbfound expression.

"Right, so what have they done that's so bad?"

"Jenny, just leave it - -" I insisted, but my little sister was having none of it.

"She hit her and accused her of stuff - she even - -"

"- You guys makin' stuff up again?" Diana moaned, and I kept my chin firmly to my chest. She muttered a sigh of disappointment, "- is she like the evil step-mother in Cinderella?"

Diana always liked to make a joke out of everything, maybe that was why it was so nice being around her; she never took things too seriously.

"Yeah, if only I was just as gorgeous as Cinderella," I smiled, trying hard to forget Jenny's revelation a few moments before. I knew Jenny was looking at me, probably confused as to why I had changed the subject and not persevered with telling Diana. I understood why Jenny was more willing to tell on Gertrude than I was - she hadn't yet fully understood that we weren't the only kids in America who got punished.

"I don't know, Sylvia - you're pretty darn close." Diana insisted, scuffing up my hair once again, "...anyway, I gotta' leave."

"What - why?" Jenny asked.

Diana began slowly walking away, "I need to be some place," she carried on, "- just be good and you won't get punished as much; simple."

I smiled one last fake smile, before setting off down the dusty trail. I dreamed that what she had said was the case; to just be good so I wouldn't have gotten punished. But it seemed that Gertie was beginning to find excuse after excuse to teach both of us a lesson. I fathomed the reason why I couldn't have told Diana was because she wouldn't have believed me in the first place.

________________

It was the evening, and I sat up in the bedroom alone; twiddling my thumbs with boredom. The scent of soup pervaded the outside hallway, yet I wasn't feeling up to eating. I didn't see any logic in sitting with them and acting like nothing had ever happened. Especially seeing as earlier that afternoon, I had eaten a beautifully made mustard and pickle hotdog. I tried my best to forget about ever eating it, as I realised my spirit would soon be crushed with soup that wasn't even hot.

"Dinner's ready!" I heard Gertrude's voice shout from the bottom of the steps.

I heaved myself from the mattress, as I quickly checked that there were no crumbs left on my dress. It probably would have been wise to have had a bath after I had came back, though Gertie had a strict rule on bathing before 6pm. I creaked open the bedroom door, making my way down the staircase; trying my best not to think about the hotdog that I continued to taste in my mouth - it seemed easier said than done. I got through the kitchen doorway and I saw all the children, including Jenny, all sat around the circular table.

"Sylvia - here." Gertie pointed to an empty seat next to Jenny and Paula.

I shuffled through the tightly spaced kitchen, and slumped myself onto the wooden chair. Jenny grinned at me for a second, as I gave a smile. Though we soon retreated eye contact as Gertie began placing the soup down in front of everyone's prying eyes. Jimmy playfully kicked at Johnny's feet as they pinched each other in retaliation.

"Paula, say grace will you."

Paula nodded slightly, and we all placed our heads down for a prayer. Sometimes, as horrible as it sounded, I questioned if those prayers even worked.

"Thank you Lord for this delicious food and drink, in which we are lucky to enjoy. Amen."

"Amen."

The spoon was placed with Shirley, as she eagerly began shovelling the spoon into the bowl. I glared down as the soup spiralled from my breath that seemed to hit it. I gazed around the table, seeing Shirley slurping all the soup from her spoon as everyone seemed to watch her with envious eyes. It was crazy at how a starving belly could make a person so jealous.

"Got an A in my English text today, mama." Stephanie said, interrupting the heavy silence that had once settled in the room. 

Gertrude looked at her, wiping down a few plates that had been left in the sink.

"Of course." Paula muttered; a jealous glint in her eyes as Stephanie shot her a glare.

Maybe if Paula hadn't been busy running around with a married man, she would have gotten better grades too.

"Einstein." Johnny smirked, poking his food with his fingers. 

"At least I actually get good grades, Johnny." Stephanie insisted. 

"- Mama, you can't let her get away with that!" He shouted angrily, and I was sure he was about to fling his plate into the air. 

But his mama's attention wasn't on him, or Stephanie. 

"What's that on your face?" I heard the woman suddenly question.

I hoped that she wasn't looking at me, as I turned in my seat. I felt my heart ramming itself against my chest, and her eyes were glued to me. 

"It's mustard." She spat, "- I smell hamburger on your breath."

The fear sat on me like a pillow over my mouth and nose; smothering me. Enough air made it's way by it, as it allowed my body to continue functioning, and yet it was crippling all the same. Jenny looked on; her eyes ignited with anxiety that she would have gotten noticed too

I attempted to justify it, to explain it if Gertie would have let me.

"But I - -"

"- What you been eatin'?" She questioned; her fingers tapping the table.

I refused to speak. My lip began to quiver, and I felt the tears at the back of my eyes pleading to escape. What was the big deal with eating a hotdog? I didn't understand why it meant so much to Gertie.

"Someone been buyin' you food?" She accused again.

The way her voice said that sentence made me sure that there was a rule on someone buying you food, and I was reluctant to admit that someone had.

"No - no!" I denied.

She moved towards me. It was the way her face grew red, resembling how high her temper was exceeding.

"You lyin' to me?"

I shook my head. Once again, fear and anxiety found me. It spoke to me in its cackling voice. It told my legs to go weak, my stomach to lurch and my heart to ache. I couldn't have silenced its voice.

"Of course she is." Paula insisted, but I shook my head once again - and again, "- I bet her mama's been buying her food."

"You're always underminin' me!" Gertrude argued.

The thoughts accelerated inside my head. I wanted them to slow so I could breathe but they wouldn't.

"I swear I wasn't with her!" I cried; my voice grew louder each time Gertie's did.

My mind whirled, trying to grasp onto a single thought, only to frantically think of something else, and then something else. There was no stopping Gertie.

"I take you in, Sylvia! Didn't I - didn't I take you in when no one else would have you?" She provoked, and I felt as if she would have jumped on me and clawed my eyes out at any second.

She was like a panther latched onto its prey. There was no getting away from her - no undermining her. She knew that, as did I.

"I'm tellin' the truth!" I yelled, talking like I didn't have enough time to say what I needed to.

Gertrude's sentences were fragmented and her thoughts seemed to jump from one thing to another. My words bounced off her like they were hard rain. She was right in front of me, her fingers were white-knuckled, and an outstretched hand was close to holding onto my collar. Everything was a blur, and all I had on my mind was making Gertie see sense. If only I wasn't so stupid. The only thing Gertie saw in me was a misbehaving child, and she was certain on making sure I knew that.

"Lie after lie with you!" She screamed, and her powerful voice had soon successfully overpowered mine.

None of my attempts at defending myself mattered, and I soon felt a burning sensation whipping across my scalp - followed closely by an unexpected tug at my hair as I was suddenly flung onto the kitchen floor. My head bashed first into one of the counters, and a crushing pain on one side of my head pounded away with little consideration. It made me want to pace about - I couldn't sit, couldn't lie down or relax. The continuous muffles of shouting sounded about the room.

"Tell the truth for once in your life!" I heard a voice scream over and over again, and a shoe repeatedly jabbed at my leg.

"I haven't done anythin' wrong!" I shrieked back; my hands clutching my face as the side of my head pulsated and thudded.

"Tell her the truth!" Paula threatened, standing over me with her fist bawled, but Gertie ushered her away.

"I didn't..." I struggled to speak; the pain robbed me of my breath, and made each word jumble and fail at being understood.

"- You didn't what!"

"- I wasn't with her!" I begged.

All I could think about was to force myself back to my feet. I attempted to clutch my head, just to settle it, even for a minute. I couldn't breath, think or understand. Gertie's breaths were shallow, and she roughly wiped her forehead with her hand. It seemed she realised she wasn't going to get anything more out of me. She reached out to my bowl of soup, snatched it away, and chucked it into the sink. I watched the only food I would have eaten for that night, slowly spiral down the drain.

"Can't admit to what you've done, you don't deserve any damn food." She muttered, and she hurried out of the kitchen in anger.

I was left sitting. I kept my eyes glued to the table; not looking at anyone's faces but the wood that continuous patters of tears would fall upon. I felt everyone's eyes watching my every move and expression. I cupped my hands around my head, praying for the spinning to stop. Everything I did, no matter what it was, only seemed to aggravate the pain even more. And everything I did, no matter what it was, only seemed to give a reason for Gertrude to lash out.

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