Reread the archives, always.
It was young and defenseless. And I killed it.
Despite the cold of winter, the inches of snow filtering into my boots, and the frigid temperatures, it stood nearly as tall as my 7-year-old self and even looked happy. With green leaves jutting from its brown branches, it was a piece of life in the dead of winter.
But I hadn’t cared. The small sapling, destined to rise dozens of feet into the air, was protruding from the ground in the perfect place for a fort.
I trekked the forest behind my house for nearly an hour looking for a place, and in the glistening sun, this small clearing with a large pine tree to the north, was it. The growing oak tree was the only thing standing in my way of obtaining the real estate for my tree fort.
At first, I grabbed the trunk, no rounder than a dollar coin, and bent it toward the ground. My hands were numb and the shade of peaches from the cold. I could barely feel the scratchy bark, the trees only protection, beneath my palms. The tree creaked but refused to snap. If it had a voice, I believe it would have begged me to stop. It had a life to live and it wasn’t going to give up that easily.
I bent the top toward the trunk of the tree, putting pressure on it with all my might. Birds squawked in the distance as the wood beneath me groaned, starting to give way. I, too, had a life to live and it included a tree fort.
Not a good, easy to remove snap. No. Not even half of the trunk snapped, and when I let go of the top of the tree, the sapling sprung back up to life. The green leaves shimmered in the now setting sun as the tree stood up straight, proud, and tall. It was determined to survive. It was only slightly maimed from my interaction with it and swayed in the chilly breeze as if to say that I was nothing to it.
With part of it snapped, I grabbed hold and moved it side to side, back and forth, up and down, and twisted it like a bottle cap, but it held on for dear life.
Frustrated, I pulled the kitchen knife from my red backpack and began to saw away at the trunk. Each fiber of the tree snapped away with every push and pull of the knife.
I focused entirely on my task. I ripped the remains of the tree from its trunk and stood with half the sapling in my hand, its green leaves sagging toward the snow-covered ground. All that remained of the young tree was a stump in the ground that I could dig out later.
The best part was that I could use the top half of the sapling to start my fort with.
As I stood back up, tree branch in hand, pain shot through my leg. I looked to see a pool of blood beginning to form under me. I took a quick moment to investigate the damage as I pulled my knee up to see a vertical slit in my jeans. Beneath the cloth, my flesh was pulled apart and was easily the width of my pinkie with blood spilling from it. The slice was almost too perfect like the cuts crafted purposefully in movies.
I set the branch down, its green leaves crumbling against the snow. Convincing myself ‘it was just a scratch’, I hobbled back to the house.
Before I left the forest, I looked back. In the sun’s golden rays, the snow glistened and every other footprint of mine was bloodied. Next to one of my red footprints was the trunk now splintered and dead. And across from it was the branch, still as green and alive as I found it.
But it wouldn’t be alive for much longer. I killed it and it would be browning by morning. It no longer had a chance to grow.
Not surprisingly, no one was home. My parents would be at the hospital for my aunt who was dying of cancer and my grandmother was still at work. I threw my jeans away after putting ointment in the large cut—which stung horribly—and slapping on a knee-sized bandage.
I said told no one—not because I thought I should hide it, but because I didn’t think it was worth their time. It wasn’t worth burdening anyone with a trivial thing like a cut when they had so much going on. The cut turned into a nasty scar—the kind that stays puffy 10 years later.
Still to this day, I look down at the scar and wonder what would have happened if I called for help. If I just let the sapling grow.
I woke up around 7 a.m. on a warm autumn day to a scream.
I sat up in bed and waited as I was unsure whether the scream was real or part of my nightmare. Heart pounding and sweat trickling down my back, I listened for the scream again and heard nothing but the leaves rustling outside.
“Help!” The word ricocheted through the apartment building up to my living space on the third floor. I could hear the woman’s voice clearly as if I was standing right next to her.
I jumped from bed, grabbed a sweatshirt from the closet, and ran out of my apartment in gray pajama pants.
My bare feet thumped against the dirty carpeted hallway, picking up small pebbles along the way that stung as my feet hit the ground. I turned into the dimly lit stairway and scurried down two flights of stairs to the lobby.
The apartment was weird in that way. The front door opened to a lobby where a stairway led down to the basement apartments and another one led up to the second and third floors. No matter what floor a person was on, they had to climb up or down around a dozen steps to leave the building. And there was no elevator.
Before I exited into the lobby, I froze in the doorway next to the small aluminum mailboxes. I left my apartment unlocked, what if I get robbed? I didn’t have shoes on, what if I get cut? What if the woman was getting hurt by someone and I got into the line of fire?
“Is someone there?” the woman asked, presumably having heard me rush down the stairs. “Can you help me?”
The word ‘help’ slashed deeply into me. Logic and reasoning left, and everything I saw and heard was in the backdrop of the sound of the screams I had woken up to. And, as if someone shoved me into the lobby, I stumbled out toward the voice at the bottom of the stairs.
In the sunlight from the lobby windows, the first thing I noticed was her silver walker with tennis balls on the bottom. It was simple and cheap, with no fancy storage areas or foldable seat—just like my own grandmother had. Her beige handbag, resting on her wrinkled wrist gripping the hand rail, was open and full of papers and medication.
As I stood at the top of the stairs, I looked past her black rimmed glasses into her eyes. The eyes of the woman whose screams resonated inside me.
She wiped tears from her cheeks, and in a raspy whisper asked, “could you help me up the stairs, please?”
It felt like a train bellowed through my frontal lobe. I couldn’t speak or say a word as I moved down the stairs to her. If my brain was working properly, I would have greeted her, asked her name, kept a conversation going—anything. But it wasn’t. And as I put my arms around her, feeling her thin skeleton below her black coat, I don’t recall saying a word.
We moved up the first stair, and she grunted, “I’m sorry.”
“This is so embarrassing,” she said as I lifted her up. She found footing on the next stair.
Tears fell from her cheeks to her flower-patterned shirt. “I’m sorry.”
Another step and more tears.
“I’m so sorry.”
One more step.
It’s grueling to look back on it. I had one goal: get her to the top of the stairs. I didn’t respond to her apologies, to her story of breaking her hip, to her explanation that she was going to a doctor’s appointment, or to the clarification that she and her only friend got in a fight.
Once we made it to the top of the stairs, she thanked me and hobbled through the lobby to her car. I was left to try and process what happened, but all I could hear were the shouts for help reverberating through my head.
I gazed down the stairs to the basement level where dozens of apartments with people in them sat. And I wondered, how was I the only one who came to her calls for help? It took me 5-10 minutes to wake up to her screams—on the third floor nonetheless—and get down to her.
I tried to reason good excuses for not looking out your apartment door to see what was causing someone to scream for help. I pictured a man wearing headphones in his sleep as to not be disturbed by other residents. I pictured a woman rolling her eyes, angry at the disturbance of her morning routine. Another person cooking breakfast for his children as they screamed that they wanted chocolate cereal, not eggs.
Then I remembered my own hesitance at the door to the lobby. And I turned on myself.
I should have said more to the woman to make her feel comfortable. I should have given her my number to call next time she needed help. I should have done more—
Her screams were played, rewound, and replayed in my head. I cried when I thought about how horrible it would be to live in a world where I screamed for help, begging and pleading, only for no one to come.
Knowing that she called for help and no one but me came validated too much. It was a fact that I didn’t want to confront. One that justified me never calling for help. One that broke all my fantasies about being saved ‘if I had just told someone’. One that told me that once you’re snapped in half, you’ll never be the same.
“Don’t tell anyone or bad people will come hurt me; do you understand?” the man asked.
I said yes. This was his way of asking consent. His way of justifying what he did to me every day for nearly a year while he lived in my family home.
I loved him since I was 8.
And I thought he loved me.
I justified his actions. Six years older wasn’t that much. We were only half related. If we were supposed to love each other, then why couldn’t he do what he wanted to me? To my body?
The day I stopped being whole came on a summer night when I was 11, and most of the windows had bulky fans blowing in our house: an attempt to stay cool when even at night it was 80 degrees.
As I pushed the door to my room open, I saw his brown shaggy hair in the dim lamp light. His large silhouette cast shadows on the ceiling as he sat on the top bunk of my bed.
At first, I was excited he came to visit me again. He’d been more and more distant recently, eyeing my older adoptive sister instead. But then, I heard a sob escape his throat.
He was crying, and after shutting the door, so was I.
It wasn’t until he turned toward me that the shine of the army knife pressed against his throat made my stomach lurch.
“I’m horrible.” His voice was quiet, but my gaze was trained on his lips as I made out each word. “I’ve done horrible things to you.”
I can’t remember what I said—or if I said anything at all. I remember crying. I remember struggling to stand, to think, to breathe.
“Do you want me to do it?” he asked, pressing the knife against his skin.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” my voice cracked as I shook my head no, over and over again.
We were supposed to be in love. A secret love. A forbidden love. My body belonged to him for a year; I didn’t understand why it had to be different now.
He removed the knife from his throat, gave a small smile, and left my room.
I could barely hear the fan in my window passed the thoughts racing in my head. Passed the pounding,
I didn’t have the strength to move as I cried myself to sleep on the carpeted floor.
We didn’t talk but pleasantries for weeks before his mom declared that he was to be returned. His large silhouette waved to me as he left.
In the days, months, and years that followed, my heart felt as if I’d been ripped out, stomped on, and then I was force fed what was left. I knew what we were doing was wrong. I knew in some way he forced me to do it. But none of it felt wrong. I knew I should talk to someone about it. Get help for my breaking self. I almost went to my mother. I nearly told my sister. I started to tell my grandmother—but stopped. It’d been too long since he was in the house. It’d been too long since it happened. I let him touch me for too long. He owned me for too long.
I told no one.
And no one asked.
No one suspected, I guess.
Maybe they were all too busy.
Or I wasn’t worthy of their help.
Ten years passed before I forgave my younger self.
Ten years later, I learned that I was part of a statistic. That 1 in 4 girls have been sexually abused and 93% of perpetrators were someone their family knew.
Ten years later, I realized the nightmares, panic attacks, depression, mood swings, lack of trust were all side effects of trauma.
Ten years later, I discovered that lack help seeking is common. In a study of 3,000 women, nearly half did not seek help for mental health problems relating to sexual trauma.
Ten years later, I understood that everyone is worthy of help. And the real question is if someone is there to help.
For five years and counting, I’ve embraced my younger self. Learned it’s okay that I didn’t—haven’t—told anyone what happened or how hard it was. Learned to forgive myself and move forward with instead of without.
It’d been nearly a week since that scream woke me up. I had nightmares of her dying, hated myself for not giving her my number, talked to everyone I knew about it, and now, I was ready.
Rushing down the stairs, I greeted her with a smile and a good morning. She thanked me as I helped her up each step and she explained that today she had a follow up appointment. Once we reached the top of the stairs, I asked if she had a phone. She said yes. I scratched my number down on a piece of paper and told her to call me if she needed help.
I would make sure she didn’t have to suffer like that again.
She thanked me and we went our separate ways.
And since, I’ve awaited a call. Kept my phone volume on all night. Readied for the moment when I could help her and set things right. When I could prove that calling for help does save people.