Photo By Petras Gagilas
The puffing sound of my rapid breaths echo in the tiny, dark closet. I wrap my arms around my legs and place my head on my knees as my chest shakes with my sobs. The slam of the door sends a jolt of fear into my stomach. I scoot myself as far back into the closet as I can go, trying to hide behind coats and shoes.
As I listen to the sound of his heavy footsteps inch closer and closer to my hiding place, I can picture what he’ll find when we walk by the living room. I know he’ll see my mother slumped over in a drug-induced haze with the TV blaring in the background. He—my mother’s new boyfriend/supplier, Nick—will just walk on by without caring whether she is okay.
His footsteps stop outside my hiding place. I hear his panting, squeeze my eyes shut, and pray that he turns away from the closet and goes someplace else, anywhere else.
My prayers go unanswered. He flings the door open, and it hits the wall so hard that it shakes the closet. His giant, clammy hand reaches through the coats and grabs my arm roughly.
He holds me so tightly and so high that I’m dangling from his hands. I refuse to make a sound, though; he likes it when I cry. As he looks down at me, his top lip curls up and he growls at me.
“You stupid little girl. You can never hide from me.”
With a disgusted look on his face, he flings me from his hands. I hit the bed’s headboard with a heavy clunk. As he advances, I wonder why my mother kept me if this was the life she was going to give me.
A loud bang and the sound of raised voices wakes me. Shaking in fear, I try to squish myself into the corner of the closet, hoping that when he opens the door he won’t see me. There is a pounding of multiple feet coming toward my hiding place. The beating of my heart echoes loudly in the small space.
The sound of my name comes from outside of the closet, but it isn’t a voice I recognize. I try to mold myself into the wall to escape the nightmare that I’m sure is about to begin.
The voice is softer this time, more kind.
The person slides an ID under the door.
“Michelle, I’m a police officer. I’m here to take you somewhere safe. My badge won’t fit under the door. If you come out, I’ll show it to you. I promise I’m not going to hurt you.”
I crawl a little closer to the door and pick up the ID. It has a picture of a white man with sandy brown hair and green eyes. His name is Officer Jack Manning. I sit there on my knees for a while just looking at this ID, weighing in my head if going with him could ever be worse than my life right now. Standing, I make my decision. My hand shakes as I grab the doorknob and slowly open the door.
The sudden light from the bedroom makes my eyes ache. At first I can’t see him—he is just a blob of bright lights—but then my eyes adjust and he comes into focus. Officer Manning holds out his hand to me. My hand trembles over his for a minute until I look into his eyes and see how kind they are. Finally taking his hand, I let him guide me down the hall, past my mother and Nick who are handcuffed and sitting on the couch surrounded by officers. We step out of the house, and I look back at it, at my mother, one last time before I go into the police car. As I watch the neighborhood speed by, I think to myself, I hope that I never see this place again.
The smell of bacon wakes me from my sleep. My neck and backache from sleeping on the floor of my closet. I ran into the closet the night before after a nightmare had jarred me awake, even though I have been with this foster family since I was removed from my mother’s care. The Lightwoods are nice, and they treat me very well. However, I still feel safest in the closet after a nightmare or when something, anything, spooks me.
The creak of the door and the sudden beam of light into the closet tell me that Mrs. Lightwood came to wake me up and noticed that I wasn’t in bed.
“Michelle,” Mrs. Lightwood said while looking down at me with a small, sad smile. She had stopped trying to tell me that I didn’t need to hide in the closet. I guess she realized that it wasn’t about her; it was just my happy place.
Mrs. Lightwood leads me out of the closet while she starts to pick me out clothes for school. Mrs. Lightwood has a thing for looking perfectly put together at all times. It constantly feels like it is the first day of school, even though I’ve been at this school and in the second grade for weeks now. She lays the outfit out on the bed, sighs, and starts passing around my room. Mrs. Lightwood sighs again and picks up a folder off my desk.
“Michelle, Robert and I want to ask you a question,” she says with a careful look in her eyes.
My heart sinks into my stomach and tears start to sting my eyes. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’ll do better, I promise! Please don’t send me to a group home! I’ll be better!” My chest shakes with sobs as I beg not to be sent away.
“Oh, honey, no.” Mrs Lightwood brings me into her arms and rocks me back and forth until my tears subside.
“Oh, honey, we don’t want to send you away. We want to keep you forever. We want to adopt you if that’s okay with you.”
“You want me?”
“Of course we do. Would you like that?” Mrs. Lightwood asks softly, like she is afraid I am going to say no.
“You’re the only adults who have ever really taken care of me. Yes, yes! I want you to adopt me!” I exclaim jumping up and down.
Mrs. Lightwood smiles at my excitement and takes both of my hands into hers.
“I would really love it if you would call me mom.”
“Okay, Mom, can I ask you a question?”
Mrs. Lightwood crinkles her eyes with a puzzled look. “Of course you can, sweetie.”
“Can I change my name? I wanna start fresh with you guys, and I feel like my old will never go away if I’m still tied to it,” I plead trying to make puppy dog eyes at her.
She tilts her head a little to the side, which I knew meant that she was thinking about it.
“Well, if that’s really what you want, I’m alright with that. I’d always wanted to name my daughter Isabelle if you like that name?”
I look around the room that they gave me and try to pick what it would feel like to really fit in it. To be Isabelle Lightwood—no matter what it was going to be better than what I had before.
“Yeah, Isabelle. I like that.”
“Alrighty, we’ll fill out the paperwork and make it official, Isabelle.”
It’s the night of the honors banquet. The president will be announcing the valedictorian and presenting the honors awards. My heart is heavy. I know it is expected of me to be chosen as valedictorian and to get at least one honors award. I am a Lightwood, and Lightwoods have always been valedictorians. It doesn’t matter to my mother that I am adopted. Because she gave me the Lightwood name, I have to honor it.
The click of my mother’s heels on the ground lets me know that she is coming down the hall to my room. She stands in the doorway for a minute watching me smooth out my dress and assess myself in the mirror before she walks over.
“Isabelle, you look beautiful. I’m positive you will make your father and me so proud today when it’s announced that you’ll be valedictorian,” she says to me with her hands on my shoulders, looking deep into my eyes like she is trying to see into my soul.
I say nothing; I only nod my head and look down at my feet. Sometimes I wonder if she knows the pressure that she puts on me. Sometimes I think she does but doesn’t care. Other times, I catch her watching me doing my homework and she’ll be wearing this unidentifiable look on her face, and I wonder if she feels guilty for making me work so hard.
I sigh while looking at my reflection after she leaves my room, and the small, rounded cigarette burn on my calf catches my eye. My whole-body shakes as the smell of burning flesh rises in my memory. My memories of the man who burned me and the woman who gave birth to me had faded over the eleven years since my adoption. The only completely clear memory I have is that burn on my calf. I can still remember the feeling of the scratchy sheets on my face as he pressed his knee into my back and held his lit cigarette to my calf. The smell of burning flesh assaulted me as I screamed into the sheets.
The sound of the door was so loud that I heard it through my screaming. He moved his knee off my back and for one shining moment I thought that it was over. Until I felt the smooth hands of my birth mother on my shoulders still holding me down as he went in again with his cigarette.
A shudder runs through my body at the memory. Shaking my head, I force the memory away. My life is so much better now than it was then. It doesn’t matter if my mother feels guilty because she and my father adopted me when I was six years old. I shudder thinking about what my life might be like they hadn’t taken me in. I owe it to them to make them proud of me and do what they ask of me; it’s the least I can do.
“You’re Isabelle Lightwood. You’re Isabelle Lightwood. You can do this,” I repeat over and over again into the mirror trying to calm my nerves until my mother’s shouts from downstairs, “Isabelle, it’s time. Come downstairs.”
With one last look in the mirror, I turn on my heel and walk out of my bedroom with my head held high. I’m Isabelle Lightwood.
Sara Michelle is an undergraduate English major at the University of Mount Olive. She has been published on YouQueen.com and is one of the founding editors of The Olive Press.