"Bruises" by Darby Huddleston
The convoy of KSUPD vehicles soundlessly pulled out of the parking lot, and the barrage of red and blue lights dispelled down Claflin Road. I rubbed my eyes, peering after them, making sure he was really gone. It was nearly six o’clock in the morning and the dark horizon above an onslaught of trees didn’t promise a November sunrise for another hour or so. There was a frosty stillness outside; everything seemed to be sleeping but me. Meandering back inside, I methodically paced the main lobby waiting for further instruction. Waiting for my supervisors to finish speaking with the girl whose mascara was smeared on her cheeks from crying all night. Waiting for permission to go to bed. Pacing was something to do: making a circle over and over again, maybe sometimes an oval. Thirteen steps exactly. Or Sixteen16 when I lost my train of thought, or glanced upward to check the time.
After some time, my legs became bored with their monotonous circle, and I leaned against the nearest wall. In measured staccato, a clock above my head clicked at me in Morse Code. I closed my eyes and tried to decipher the message:
… .-.. . . .--.
SLEEP. Unquestioningly, I adjusted my breaths to its battery-powered rhythm. Counting seconds rather than sheep, I began to feel drowsiness weigh down my limbs. But images swam in the dark behind my eyelids to the beat of metronomic ticking above me. Angela shoved to the floor, screaming. Tyler dragging Angela by her ankles, by her hair.
The purple, hand-shaped bruises on her neck. The missing pieces of his flesh in Angela’s fingernails.
Blackmail and threats on her phone; the 243 calls he left her. Policemen groping her injuries, photographing contusions.
Tyler with his hands behind his back, wildly craning his neck behind him; hungrily looking for her.
Chase and Bethany, the Residence Life Coordinators of Haymaker and Ford Hall, emerged from the office doorway with their heads bowed. The three of us exchanged a half-hearted smile; it was clear how exhausted we all were. Chase shook his head with a small frown and readjusted his glasses.
“It seems like just about everything is wrapped up here,” Bethany said. She glanced carefully through the office door at Angela, who was choking on violent sobs and hugging herself tightly. She was muttering to herself amid heaving breaths. I realized I had been staring for some time when Chase politely cleared his throat and shifted his weight lethargically.
“What we need you to do is submit an Incident Report as soon as you can, so the police can process the information in the morning. Make sure it’s thorough—this will more than likely be read by the Office of Student Life, and used in a court hearing.” Chase stared down at me, making sure I understood. “Write down everything you saw and heard, and be as accurate as you can. Put all the facts into chronological order, and be as unbiased as possible. I need you to do it right away, before you forget anything.”
I nodded wordlessly and bit the inside of my cheek, certain that my voice would give away my disappointment. It was apparent that I wouldn’t be going to sleep any time soon, and it took all the willpower I possessed not to roll my eyes. Once Angela had been escorted back to her room and Bethany and Chase left, I trudged down the dimly lit hallway to my room, huffing and puffing under my breath.
Thank You! Your Incident Report has been successfully submitted, the webpage said. Closing my laptop, I slumped in my recliner and could only let out a feeble moan. Running on half an hour of sleep, staring at a bright computer screen for two hours, and writing a four-page report, my eyes were burning, begging to be closed for a little while. Covering my face with my hands, I slowed my breathing. Behind the dark backdrop of my hands, the last five hours unfurled before me again: bruised legs, pulled hair. Calloused hands clenching ankles: dragging, struggling. The muffled sound of hysterical sobs echoed in my ears, making my head spin slowly like a record.
Get some breakfast, said my left-brain, or maybe my stomach, get some food in yourself. My legs mindlessly obeyed, slowly plodding down an empty stairwell.
I wasn’t hungry, but I lifted one leaden foot after the other to the dining center. Fortunately it was still early in the morning on a Saturday, and the few tired faces that were munching toast or slurping oatmeal were ones I didn’t recognize. I wanted to be left alone as my wild and winding thoughts attempted to sort themselves out; seeking purpose and reason, like AP Lit students furiously searching their novels for symbolism and theme. This time the authorial intent was unknowable to me, and God did not offer hints in elementary motifs or dialogue.
Someone in a hairnet slapped wet eggs on a plate for me, and I quietly managed a “thank you.” It felt like coughing up gravel as the words left my throat.
My mind moved in slow motion as I lifted my food to my mouth while I dumbly stared outside. Withering grass. Blueberry yogurt. Bike racks. Scrambled eggs. The sunrise. It was all I could do to process one thing at a time. The whole picture—morning color peeking through the trees, my half-eaten breakfast, the purple bruises on her neck—it was too overwhelming, like looking at the sun. Which reminded me that my eyes were still on fire, so I closed them while taking a sip of milk. Weakly, I sighed to myself.
What weighed on me was exhaustion, the comforting idea of collapse. I felt dead tired. But more than that, I felt reborn in a way; it is a lot of hard work to climb out into the world again when you think about it. 4:05 A.M. last night, I was reborn when I discovered that evil people were at K-State just like anywhere else; evil people lived a floor below me in Moore Hall. I had shaken his hand; I had talked briefly a time or two with him. I remember thinking he had a nice smile.
Childishly, I had forgotten that evil people didn’t announce themselves as the antagonist, like in the movies. Real villains prowled into peoples’ lives disguised as good friends and caring neighbors and boyfriends who promised, “It would never happen again,” ten times over. A fresh layer of my unperceived innocence was ripped away from me at 4:05 A.M. that night that believed domestic violence was confined within the TV screen as I watched Law and Order: SVU between the slits of my fingers covering my eyes.
But you couldn’t write that in an Incident Report. All you could do was robotically relive the nightmares of your peers that you were hired to clean up. The bare facts, in chronological order. What I couldn’t include in the IR was the primal sob I heard from Angela in the elevator when it was all over; the sob that still howls in my ears sometimes. What I couldn’t write in the IR was the way I couldn’t fall asleep for two more days after that. Or the countless times I caught myself looking over my shoulder, or the dancing images of battered ballerinas in dreams. Or the way I hated myself for being so sickeningly happy that it wasn’t me; that my mess of a life wasn’t as shitty as hers. Thanking God I had a father that reminded me I was loved at least a few times.
What I had forgotten to put in the IR was the fact that chronological order is meaningless because I still relive that night sometimes, even though it’s over. I’m sure she does too, fingering healed bruises that still feel tender months later. But you can’t write that in an IR, because that’s not the truth. Even though it is what happened.
Pushing around my unfinished eggs with a fork, I felt hollow inside. The undeniable brokenness of the world had slapped me in the face good and hard, and I could no longer ignore its presence in Moore Hall, at K-State, in my heart and everyone else’s. But a victory had still been won when Tyler Harrison was led away in handcuffs like a mad dog. One more young woman could live freely without someone to hide from, even though she never thanked me. Even though she screamed and cursed at me when we told her Harrison was taken away. I set my fork down and began swirling the remaining milk in its glass.
I had come alive at 4:05 in the morning because there is deep truth in the midst of tragedy and crisis. There is something exhilarating about shattering facades and facing your demons, even if what’s underneath may be worse than you had imagined. My favorite part, the real horror, is that you will never be quite the same afterwards. I had been reborn at 4:05 in the morning because good and evil were seen clearly for a fraction of a second, like lightning cracking the sky into shards of dark glass. Brief as it was, I knew that I had seen it: dazzling and deadly. Some milk spilled out of my glass and I mindlessly dabbed my tray with napkins.
I felt at home wading waist-high in the sandy swamp of someone else’s suffering, because picking up the pieces of a stranger’s life is so much easier than making small talk. You also come to know yourself in the swirling currents: stuck yet never swept away. The grime and the chafing wet sand keep you grounded, pinned to reality. The messy, slow-moving slop, like quicksand, seeps into your clothes, takes hold of your legs—pulling you under if you let it. Like the crew of a sinking ship throwing dispensable cargo overboard, you find out what really matters to you and what was simply weighing you down. Meaningless crap, like soggy, milk-soiled napkins.
Instinctively, I dove into Angela’s swampy mess to pull her out, but the sand and the muck and dead reeds of her life had found their way onto my skin too. It was then that I realized I had graduated from being a novice and second-guessing Resident Assistant. There was far more at stake than pinning up bulletin boards or sniffing hallways for the skunk-smell of marijuana. That was easy. I had been so distracted with planning programs and paperwork, and all the minor details of the job that I had forgotten why I applied in the first place. There were people with real problems that needed help cleaning up, and some of the mess was bound to get onto me too.
And the mess had certainly found its way onto me. Looking down I discovered a glob of blueberry yogurt on my forearm, unnoticed in the midst of my mental ramblings. Wiping most of the blue-purple goop from my arm with my forefinger, I licked off the stuff and examined my sticky skin. Traces of the yogurt were still left on my arm, leaving what vaguely resembled a bruise. Whether the remaining residue would stain my skin or my shirt, I didn’t mind in the moment—Angela wasn’t the only one left with bruises.
I picked up my tray and left.
Coming back to my room I curled into a ball on the carpet floor, in the dark, ignoring the flecks of sunlight creeping through the window blinds. The hard floor wasn’t uncomfortable; it was cool and solid. I needed at least one thing to be solid, tangible, unyielding. With my eyes closed I gingerly clasped a hand around my ankle, feeling for fleshly shackles that could drag me away. There was no other hand but my own, and I carefully massaged the skin in relief. Silent tears dripped onto the carpet as I imagined Angela, just a few floors above me, in the fetal position on the floor. Curled into a ball like I was, in the dark, groping her ankles to make sure she was free.