It had been a bad evening, the flashes of my disagreement with Oona running through my mind and being exhausted from lack of sleep, had ignited another militaristic nightmare. Something about it seemed important and everyone was mixed in – injured and fallen buddies, Oona and Liam. Suddenly, I was standing, hand on the trigger of a gun aimed at Liam in a turban, a dress in his hand stained with blood. It didn’t make sense, and Oona’s voice faded in and out just out of frame. I woke up in a jolt and a sweat. It was very vivid and felt real. I got up and went to the kitchen and splashed water on my face at the sink. There on the counter were the pills that mom had offered earlier to help me sleep. Oona’s voice from the dream still haunted me, as I remembered the fear on her face the night before. I would do anything never to see that look on her face again. It was a mixture of fear and failure. And, I played right into it on the phone, but it wasn’t her I didn’t trust. I knew that she could take care of herself. That wasn’t the point. The point was she was making it impossible for me to take care of her! Even my promise to be there for her seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. I wanted to hit something! I knew that wouldn’t help, not for the long term. It was a temporary fix for something that wasn’t going to go away by punishing myself. I had learned that lesson months ago, and I knew that acknowledging my true feelings and what I needed was the key to resist hurting myself. I thought the counselor was crazy when he said that, but I was finding out it actually did make sense and was keeping me from taking things into my own hands, dealing with things instead of escaping the feelings they brought up. The truth was, more than anything I was tired, and I was finding it hard to sleep where I wasn’t forced into a dream world where I was fighting for my life or involved in warfare so I grabbed the bottle and reluctantly took the medication I had been prescribed to help.
I sat on the couch waiting for them to take effect. Celeste came in, kissed me on the forehead, and said something about going to bed early. The pills kicked in much quicker than I had expected. The television began to blur in front of me. I looked at my phone in my hand and hoped Oona would text me when the date was over. It was the least she could do to ease my mind, I thought. I tried to fight sleep, thinking I might miss something, worried she might need me, but I was fading fast. I ran my free hand through my hair and looked at the phone one last time. I barely felt the slight vibration in my hand moments later, but in my stupor, I figured it was just a notification. “I really need to change my settings…” I muttered. Never realizing it was a notification that would change everything.
The next morning, I woke up to the sun shining through the window. The television was off, and a blanket had been placed over me, I smiled and stretched, my mom and sister were always looking out for me. I still felt groggy from the pills but more rested than I had in months. “Man. I should have taken one of those pills long ago…” I thought, reaching for my phone.
My phone! Oona! I fumbled around in the couch cushions and noticed it on the floor where it must have fallen during my sleep. I picked it up and saw that I had three missed calls from her and three missed texts. That was unusual. My heart started beating hard in my chest; I checked for a voicemail. It seemed to take forever to connect so I switched over to the message icon to see what she had said. The first two texts were less than five minutes apart and just said, “Rob?” Then, the voicemail began, and in a voice I barely recognized as Oona’s, crying and scared, she whispered, “Please, I need you.” It was then that I saw the last text that she had sent and it felt like a knife in my heart and made the hair on my neck stand up, “You said you’d be there”
I was in shock, “What happened?!” I groaned, raking my hands through my hair with frustration. The sting of her words settled deeply, past my heart into my soul. I had let her down.
Just as I was beating myself up for falling asleep and not feeling my phone, Celeste came running down the stairs, crying and frantic, “Robbie! We have to pray!”
I was in a fog trying to process everything, but instinctively I knew, “What happened to Oona?”
Celeste ran to me and hugged me, “It’s awful!”
I knew that, I needed to know more! I barely recognized myself shaking my sister in frustration, “What happened?!”
Celeste drew back, hurt by my agitation and my anger, I had never done anything like that to her. She was my baby sister. The words my mom had told me since she was born echoed in my ears, “Young men are supposed to protect girls not hurt them.“ I drew back, realizing how tightly I was holding her. I had never done anything but treat her gently and with love and protection, but my mind wasn’t thinking about her. Everything in me was focused on Oona at that moment.
I released my grip, apologized, and tried again, “Tink, what happened?” I used the name that reminded her of my protection and my love to replace what my emotions had forced.
She rubbed her arm where I’d grabbed her and wouldn’t look at me, “She won’t say, but it must have been awful.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, “What? A car accident? Is she hurt? Is Zella with her?” I could feel the desperation rising up. I had abandoned her, and now I was clueless about what had happened.
“It wasn’t anything like that. But, yes, Zell is with her…” her words trailed off.
“What aren’t you telling me?” I could see that she was struggling with how to share what she obviously knew.
“Zell said she isn’t talking,” I waited as she grabbed a breath and found my eyes, her own misty with tears and pain I couldn’t fully comprehend. “But, she…”
She paused so I pushed, “Celeste, you have to tell me.”
Slowly she raised her eyes to mine, pained, “She cut the word ‘RAPED’ into her arm.”
“What?!” I was angry and disappointed and searching for answers other than the one my mind offered because it was too much to bear! Surely, she was mistaken? Surely, he had not… I gritted my teeth, “Liam.”
Celeste dropped her head and looked at her hands, “We don’t know. She isn’t talking.”
But, I knew. Everything I had experienced in the last twelve hours pointed to the truth of that night, who, and what had happened. My mind raced with what to do – go to Oona or kill Liam? I jumped up, grabbed my keys, and got in my truck. I thought about going to Oona’s, but there was only one person that I could see through the red in my eyes, and the picture sickened me, “LIAM.”
I had visions of killing him as I drove to his apartment, the apartment where Stephen had set him up, the apartment that the church was paying for! That knowledge made me push the gas harder to get there faster. Who did he think he was, anyway!?
I got out of my truck and slammed the door, I forgot about my bum leg as I jumped out, and pounded on his door. Liam opened it with a smile that faded into fear as he realized who it was.
“Who do you think you are!?” he asked, trying to push the door closed.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” I questioned, barging through his flimsy barrier.
“I asked you first.”
“I’ll ask the questions!” I demanded. That’s when I saw his laptop. His eyes darted to its position. Military training cues you in on certain tactical moves and recognizing that look of fear, I knew. Walking toward it, I glared at him, “What were you doing?”
Liam reached to shut down the laptop as he said, “Preparing a lesson…”
I interrupted him, grabbing it off the counter away from his grasp, “Yeah? Let’s see what we’re studying this week,” I hit a key and the pictures lit up displaying girls in their various forms all beckoning for every man’s attention, “Or should I say WHO?” My eyes went cold. He was a snake, a pervert, and a coward! I couldn’t take it anymore. Those girls had faces to me – Zella, Celeste, Oona! I growled, “Is that what they are to you!? Bodies without names! Is that what you were thinking about when you raped her!?”
Liam struggled to keep up and said in defense, or out of fear, I wasn’t quite sure, “It’s not what you think.”
I smirked and raised the laptop over my head, smashing it into the floor. “Yeah, and neither is that,” I finished with a condescending tone.
“Hey! That isn’t- ”
Enraged I cut him off and rammed him up against the wall adjacent to the door. “You’re running out of excuses, and frankly, I don’t have time to hear them!” I forced my forearm against Liam’s throat.
“But Dude, she was-” he started.
I cut him off before he could finish whatever lie he attempted to tell, “Don’t you dare!” I pushed in harder, watching him struggle to breathe, “Did you ever stop to think that she had feelings, that ‘NO’ might actually mean NO?” Did you? I never trusted you! I knew you were a jerk from the day we met! I could kill you!” It was only then that I noticed Liam was really struggling for breath, and his eyes were about to roll back in his head. I released my grip just in time. I watched him collapse to the floor. “Isn’t it ironic that the one thing saving you right now is the thought of the girl that you tried to destroy?”
He started to choke and wheeze, regaining his air. I wasn’t sympathetic. I took in his apartment with its tidy couch and decorative pillows, the Bible open on his coffee table. It was the perfect picture, the perfect trap. It made me sick. I kicked what was left of the laptop across the room, “Only Jesus can save you now.” I walked out and slammed the door, leaving him to think about what he had done and what was coming.
I got in my jeep and raced to Oona’s side, wondering if she would even see me. I had to calm down, my anger wasn’t going to help her, and until Stephen got home or Oona told us what happened, Liam would just have to wait. As much as I hated the thought of that, I knew that if I didn’t cool off, I would find myself back in his apartment to finish what I started. That would only make matters worse and get me in trouble with the law and ultimately, keep me farther away from Oona. When I pulled up to their house, Mr. Stuckey was there, sitting outside on the stairs with his head in his hands. I didn’t know what to do or what to say, so I thought I could just sit in my truck until he left, but he didn’t look like he was leaving any time soon. I could tell that whether I wanted to or not, I was going to have to say something to him before I could hopefully see his daughter. I said a prayer as I grabbed my crutches, I had no clue what I was going to say.
He didn’t seem to notice me at all as I approached the steps. Maybe I could step past him and get into the house? I considered how I might maneuver around him when I saw his head lift and heard his throat clear before he said, “She won’t talk to anyone.”
“I heard,” I acknowledged.
His eyes were bloodshot and he looked old, not the usual picture of perfection and power I had seen in him before, the look of a man undone. I had seen that haggard look before. “Do you know?”
I wasn’t sure exactly the answer that he was looking for so I responded again, “I heard.” Maybe I could get through the conversation with those two words, but deeply I wanted to talk to this man, this broken tower, and hear perhaps for the first time the truth of his heart.
His demeanor changed, and he clenched his hand in a fist, “I will nail him to the wall.” He was furious. He wasn’t throwing things or yelling. He was simply speaking from a place of power and authority, and I had no doubt that he would annihilate the perpetrator. He would do legally what I had done literally, and unlike me, he would show no mercy. Cut throats like Jeffrey Stuckey didn’t give second chances.
“Is she…?” I let the question linger, unsure what to ask exactly. Okay seemed too casual under the circumstances. Of course, she was not okay. Hurt was ridiculous. I imagined she was hurting on every level that a soul can experience pain.
He seemed to sense my dilemma so he offered, “She might talk to you.”
I can’t explain what those words did in my heart. If we can experience elation and joy in moments of such great sorrow then that is what I felt, but it was probably more accurately, hope. His ‘might’ suggested that perhaps I meant something to her. Perhaps she found me a safe place to hide and confide. Maybe he saw something in me that she needed. All those thoughts filled my heart and led me to let myself into the house and up the stairs to her room, though I had no idea what I would say when I got there.
Thinking not to disturb the peace of the house, I quietly let myself in and found my way to the stairs. I got halfway up and stopped. There huddled at Oona’s door was her mother. I had never seen her in that shape before, slumped against the door, twisting her hair and rocking back and forth, it was a glimpse far too intimate for a stranger. I didn’t know what to do. I considered leaving the way that I had come when she lifted her head. Her makeup was streaked, her eyes were glassy and her perfectly coiffed hair was gathered in sections where she had apparently been twisting each strand in nervous grief. For the first time since I had met the woman, she resembled less a monster and more a child, broken and desperate. I was speechless.
“I did this,” she mumbled.
I almost didn’t hear her – she barely groaned it from her raspy throat. I didn’t know what to say or how to respond or even if I should. It wasn’t a question but a statement, and how could I argue? So much of how she had treated Oona is what led her to this place, but not this tragedy. That was not her fault even if she had helped set the stage.
I walked the rest of the way up the stairs and sat beside her, resting my now throbbing leg on the step in front of me. “Has she said anything?”
Her answer was short, “No.”
Even though this was about what happened to Oona, she didn’t seem to be thinking of her in that moment but beyond her to the problem. “What did I do? How do I fix this?” The questions were desperate and seeking, but there were no answers.
“It can’t be undone.” I admitted. “The most we can hope for is that she is healed.”
Her eyes hardened, the monster rose above the frailty, and she declared, “I will fix this. I can’t let him push her.” In amazement at how quickly her demeanor changed, my jaw almost dropped. Unlike the confused and broken woman I had just happened upon, she suddenly stood up, ran a hand down her hair to attempt to smooth it, sniffed and walked away saying, “Excuse me, I have a call to make.”
It took me a minute to process what had happened. It was as if she were two different people at that moment, and sadly, it appeared cold and hard won out over being vulnerable and hurting. Maybe if she were more willing to be weak, she might find the healing she seemed determined not to let her daughter have, the same healing I was committed to seeing her daughter experience.
The minute I walked into the room, it was dark. I could barely make out Zella in the corner sitting in a chair with her feet pulled up, knees to her chin, no doubt praying. “Anything?” I asked, hoping she might have said something to her at least. I would even be content with just hearing she asked for a glass of water. She looked up at me and shook her head returning to her position. What do you say in moments like those? There was nothing to say.
Oona was sleeping, curled up in a ball on her left side facing the wall, no doubt doing her best to escape reality. Even though I couldn’t clearly see her face, I realized I had never seen her so tender, so weak, or so precious. I walked up to the side of her bed, across the room from the chair where Zella remained unmoving.
I stood there for a minute, feeling helpless, before I turned and asked Zella, “You hanging in there?” She didn’t look so good, pale, afraid, not at all the way I had ever described her.
She looked up, sad, “This is all too familiar.”
I knew that she was referring to my sister. Just 6 months ago Zella had kept vigil by her side, waiting for her to process her own trauma and loss. That’s when I realized how painful and confusing it must be to find herself in that place again with another friend. I walked to her and wrapped my arm around her, “You remembering Celle?”
“Yeah,” she responded. “You weren’t here, but it was awful. It was weeks, just like this. Silence. It nearly broke me. I can’t do it again.”
I squeezed her arm and apologized, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”
“The crazy thing is,” she started, “Oona was. She was a rock when I was sinking. She wasn’t cold and uncaring, and she kept me sane!”
I smiled despite the circumstances, “I can imagine.”
Zella looked at me, eyes brimming over with tears, “She’s amazing, Robbie. She didn’t deserve this, but if I know her, and I do, she will be okay. She will rise up from these ashes and find a grace and mercy few experience.”
I grinned, looking toward the bed, “I think you’re right.” I focused my attention on Oona. I was content to watch her sleep. Watching her frame rise and fall, I could feel a deep desire rise up within me to protect her. Seeing her lying there, broken and hurting, I just wanted to wrap her up in my arms, shut out the hurt, and take her away from this house that wasn’t a home. I wanted to protect her from all of this, her family included.
Then it hit me – the conversations, the way she made me feel, the way she made it so easy to share my heart and my fears – I had fallen in love with her. The thought came out of nowhere but felt so natural in my heart. Of course I had, even during our short correspondence back and forth while I was in Afghanistan, there was something different about her, something special. As much as she doubted her worth, I cherished her. As much as she felt unworthy of love, I couldn’t deny the love I was experiencing for her. No doubt, if I told her any of this, she would slap me and call me a fool. I sat down next to Zella on the side of the chair and prayed, “God, please give me the wisdom to help her!”
Monday morning, I woke up intent on talking to Stephen. He had been out of town and had gotten back on Sunday night, or I would have already addressed him. I informed my dad of my suspicions, and he agreed that I needed to share what I found with him as he was the youth pastor and before anything started circulating in the community, a private conversation needed to be had. He didn’t have to convince me. It was the permission I was looking for, if I was looking for it. Monday couldn’t come fast enough for me, and driving to his house, the fury hit me again.
Stephen opened the door before I could knock twice, “You’re mom said she figured you were on your way to talk to me.”
I had worked myself up on the ride over, thinking about all I wanted to say, but still furious, words wouldn’t come out. He opened the door wider and invited me in to sit so we could talk. I pushed past him into the living room and paced.
“Robbie, what are you so upset about? Do you know something about what happened to Oona?” He sat down across from where I was standing, crossing and uncrossing my arms, putting off enough energy to blow up the room. “Dude, you gotta talk to me,” He continued, “I am not the enemy here. We don’t know what happened or who did it, but, you, burning a hole in the wall with your anger isn’t going to solve anything.”
I looked at him, “You are wrong about one thing.” I looked at him, letting the anger focus my words, “We know exactly who did this.”
Stephen stood up and put his hand on my shoulder, “Why don’t you tell me what you think happened.”
“Think!? I went to his place the morning after. He was looking at porn and had the nerve to smile when he opened the door!”
Stephen became solemn, “You really think this was Liam?”
I corrected him, “I am sure it was. You should have seen him! He is guilty! His tone, his eyes, the way he was guarding his space! He hurt her, and I could have killed him!”
Stephen seemed concerned, “Please tell me you didn’t assault him. Robbie, you can’t just assume he is guilty and take justice into your own hands. You could get arrested.” He clutched his hands together as if begging me to calm down but not saying it, and he asked me to start from the beginning.
So I told him what I thought, the off-handed and inappropriate comments I had overheard about some of the girls, including Oona. I told him that I knew he was hiding something and how I felt he had trapped her by inviting her to his apartment. I told him what I saw the next day when I barged in on him and how I was angry that I was the one that had to find it out. I told him that I was disappointed in him and the church that they hadn’t done a deeper investigation into his character and his motives before allowing him to work with youth!
Stephen stopped me at that point, “You think I am responsible for this?”
“I’m just saying, he’s here because you hired him.”
“That’s not fair,” he reached for his phone.
“Who are you calling?” The cops. The board. The pastor. I didn’t care as long as justice was served.
“Liam,” he responded as the phone rang and soon picked up. “Hey, I think we need to have a conversation.” He paused. “I need you to be honest with me about what you know about what happened last night with Oona.” Another pause as I could hear Liam defending himself. “I hear you, but we need to have this conversation in person, right now.” Another longer pause as I heard Liam’s voice on the other end. “I will be at my office in ten minutes, and you need to be there when I get there.”
He hung up the phone and looked at me, “We don’t make accusations. We ask questions, and we allow the person to confess. That is where we start.”
I sighed angrily, “He’s gonna deny it and get away with it. They always do.”
He stood up, “Son, look at me.” I stood up and looked at him, and he continued, “I’m taking your word seriously. I trust you and you’ve never lied to me, but this isn’t something I can just take your word for. I will talk to Liam, hear his side, and I will be very clear about his choices if this proves to be what you think it is.”
“Rape.” He looked at me as I continued, “That’s what it is. Rape. And, I hope he goes to jail.”
Stephen put his head down, “I hope, for everyone’s sake, that you are wrong.”