Author's Note: Ooo, look-it! Another chapter; and we're getting so close to the end of this epic! I like this one a lot, and I hope that you will too. Please, read & review and help me keep this one alive for the next few chapters so that it may finally be given a proper ending.
Mark craned his neck. He could see the scuffed edge of Roger's fidgeting sneaker. His foot was tapping so quickly that Mark thought it might fly right off of his leg. He and Karen Howard had been camped out in the Cohen kitchen for the better part of two hours, and, so far, Roger hadn't cracked. Ms. Howard had tried her best to work around the road block of teenaged angst, but to no avail. Roger knew how to keep things to himself. He'd steeled himself against prying eyes too many times to give up now.
"You couldn't think of a better lie?"
Mark glared at his sister. She was parked next to him on the couch, just as intent on watching their frail houseguest.
Cindy rolled her eyes. "No, really, Mark. What exactly is 'second honeymoon in the Caribbean' code for?"
"None of your business."
"It never is."
"Nope," Mark replied distractedly. He arched his back against the sofa's wildflower upholstery. Ms. Howard was tapping her pen on the kitchen table; Roger was staring hard at the pointed toes of her brown pumps.
Cindy sighed dramatically. Mark jabbed her with his elbow.
"Look, I told you that it's none of your business."
"It is my business. You're my little brother, Mark."
"Not seeing the connection."
"If your friend is-"
Mark shifted uncomfortably. "Okay, the fact that we both, at separate times, occupied the same womb, doesn't exactly entitle you to know everything that goes on in my life."
"You know, this kid has done something weird to you," Cindy observed. She raised her eyebrows, hoping that she looked sage. "A few months ago, you never would've said something like that to me."
"Yeah, well, a few months ago you weren't this obnoxious. Would you please shut up?"
"Not until you tell me what's going on."
"Please. Please. Please."
"No," Mark persevered, but his concentration was momentarily broken. Roger's foot wasn't tapping, and Ms. Howard didn't look quite as peeved. She nodded at Roger and got up to slide the kitchen door shut.
"Hm. Guess that means he can talk."
"I wish you couldn't," Mark muttered to himself, burrowing down into the couch.
"I'm going to pretend that I didn't hear that."
Cindy smiled at her little brother. "You know, I almost like you. You're practically tolerable when you try to stand up for yourself. I mean, you fail miserably, but at least you're making an effort."
Glancing toward the kitchen, Mark shrugged. "You have to stand up for yourself. Nobody else will."
"I know that you don't really want to talk to me, Roger."
Roger shrugged. Ms. Howard seemed nice enough; her voice had the same reassuring, confident tone as the emcee of an infomercial, and she never broke eye contact with him. Aside from Mark and Muriel, it had been a long time since someone had wanted to listen to him. And here she was, a complete stranger, eager to hear everything about his "situation," as she'd called it. Her interest was almost enough to make him forget that she was probably going to separate his family for good.
"That's fine," she replied. "A lot of kids don't want to talk to me. But, Roger, it's important that you understand that you need to talk to me. Now, Muriel is pretty good at her job. She's got a sixth sense about her patients, and I've always been able to rely on it. She seems to think that someone's been hurting you. Maybe your father."
"My father's dead."
Ms. Howard wasn't phased. "Oh. I'm sorry-- your step-father, then? You have a step-father, Roger?"
"What's his name?"
"Matthew," she repeated. Roger bit his lip. "Does Matthew hurt you?"
Roger stared at her.
"Roger, does your step-father hurt you? Does he hit you?"
"Ms. Howard, I don't-"
Karen shook her head. "Roger, please, just tell the truth. I promise that there aren't any consequences-- not for you."
"There could be."
"Roger, I work for Child Protective Services for a reason. It's all in the title; I want to protect children. And you, my friend, clearly need some protec-"
"No, I don't. I can take care of myself."
Karen closed her eyes and massaged her temples. "You have siblings, don't you, Roger? Muriel mentioned a little girl and boy."
Roger grimaced. She was using his name in every sentence, as though she might forget it if she gave it a rest. Each time Matthew got to him, his mother would do the same thing. Just to reassure him that she knew he was there. It was her way of acknowledging his pain; she couldn't--wouldn't-- stop it, but she wanted him to know that she knew. "Stop saying my name."
"Roger, I just-"
"Please! Stop it!"
"All right. All right. You have a brother and a sister?"
Ms. Howard stared at him for a moment. "Do they live with your step-father?"
"My mom and step-fath-- with them, yeah."
"And what's it like at home?"
Roger's ears were beginning to get hot. He didn't want to tell her; he didn't want to tell her anything. He hadn't even really wanted to tell Mark, and he knew that he probably shouldn't have. He felt sick. He could feel every scar on his body begin to flare and throb with fresh and acute pain. Annie's cries were piercing his eardrums, and he had the sudden image of both Annie and Adam, naked and bleeding. They weren't moving and Matthew was standing over them, belt in hand. He was smiling, the bastard. He was smiling and looking at Roger. 'You're next,' his gleeful expression seemed to say. 'You thought you'd gotten away, but it just isn't that easy, little shit.' Roger couldn't breathe. He wanted to hold his brother and sister, to make every ugly red line on their bodies disappear.
But he was in Mark's kitchen. And he was too afraid.
"You-- you have to tell me. I can't help you unless you tell me."
Annie. She was so little.
"Yes, yes. Please, just get it out."
Adam couldn't protect her. Adam couldn't protect himself. Oh, God. Adam.
"He tries to-"
God, Roger just wanted to be near them. Annie and Adam.
"Go ahead. You can tell me," Ms. Howard prompted, getting up to close the kitchen door.
Roger hesitated for a moment. His little sister's legs shaking. The raised welts on Adam's back from the fifth time he'd run to protect her. His mother, curled up on her bed or her shift manager's bed or in the bathroom with a bottle of Valium. She knew the right way to escape. Matthew. Matthew smiling and sipping his Jack. Matthew pushing him backward onto the stovetop after throwing dinner on the floor. Matthew spitting in his face the day that he came home from that first hospital stay. Matthew celebrating his wife's miscarriage; who wanted another one like one of his step-kids? Christ knows what she was thinking when she'd had them. You're a little shit, Roger. Just like that runt. Just like your mama. Just like your old man.
"You have stand up for yourself. Nobody else will," he could hear Mark saying. And he knew that he was right.
"He does what?"
"He hurts me," Roger whispered. He tried to find his voice; it had dropped into the pit of his stomach. "He hurts us. All of us."
Ms. Howard nodded. "Thank you for telling me."
Roger took in a shaky breath. He didn't have any tears left; they'd all come out the night before. Now, there was fear. "What's next?"