By Janel Brubaker
I held the phone to my ear and listened, stunned to the point of silence. I had known this would happen. Indeed, I had walked myself through it hundreds of times, hoping that when the day came, I would be prepared. I was not prepared. I had expected to receive this phone call years earlier, and yet I was still caught off-guard. I blinked slowly, frozen and unsure. The female voice on the other end of the call was saying my name, but I hardly heard her. I was too distracted by what she’d said, and how this news would affect me in the months and years to come. I was anxious and upset, torn between fear of the past and fear of what was about to become my future; my heart was beating harder and faster than before, my lungs had tightened which made my breaths shallow and swift, my skin felt clammy, and pearls of sweat lined my forehead.
“Chloe, talk to me,” the female voice said, finally breaking me out of the daze I had fallen into.
“I’m sorry, Sheriff,” I said, moving to stand near the window to my left. I stared into the yard where my five year old son, Lucas, was playing with the family dog. Lucas was the pride of my life. He and his father, my husband Vincent, had made me happier than I ever imagined I could be. Even with the residue of trauma still imprinted on my mind, I had found happiness. I was afraid it was all about to be undone. “I’m still here.”
Sheriff Tabitha Morgan sighed. I could sense the tension in her voice. “I’m sorry about all of this, Chloe.” I knew she was sincere. Sheriff Morgan had been an endless comfort for me, a champion for my health and safety. Even after the span of ten years, we had kept in touch through monthly phone calls and frequent emails. She had taken the place of close friend in my heart, and I in hers, though we had never told each other so. “If you ask me, this is a fault in the system, and a disservice to honest citizens like yourself.”
I couldn’t respond. I swallowed hard and tried to clear my mind of the thoughts which seemed bent on capturing my full attention: the smell of the court room on that hot August afternoon, the growing pit in my stomach as I was called on to testify, the terror I felt as I sat and answered the attorneys’ questions, and the looks of the jury as I returned to my seat, all rushed into the forefront of my mind, unbidden and unwanted reminders of what I endured nearly ten years ago. They were the cause of the fear I’d fought to repress for so long.
“I don’t blame you, Sheriff,” I forced myself to say. It was true, I didn’t blame her. Tabitha Morgan hadn’t been Sheriff at the time of the incident. In fact, it had been the first day of her third week out of the academy when she and her partner got the call. Her partner had been much more aloof and distant when they found me, whereas she had been warm and kind. How could I have blamed her for anything?
“Is there…anything I can do?” she asked, and I knew the offer was genuine.
“When…” My throat tightened and I had to clear it before I could continue. “When will…he…” I was spared the need to finish the sentence. Sheriff Morgan knew what I was asking.
“He’s supposed to be released on the first of June into a period of parole lasting up to eighteen months.”
I let out a slow breath, trying to recall everything I knew about parole for released criminals. I knew that the length of parole varied depending on the crime committed and the severity of that crime. I also knew that he likely wouldn’t be allowed to leave the state until his parole was finished, and even then, he would need to jump through a myriad of hoops to do so, or risk being sent back to prison.
“He won’t know where to find you, Chloe. You’ve moved out of state. You took your husband’s last name. You’re safe.”
I couldn’t stifle the sigh that left my body. “I didn’t feel safe while he was in prison, Sheriff. How am I supposed to feel safe now that he’s about to be released?”
She didn’t reply immediately. I knew she was trying to ease the concern I couldn’t hide, but she hadn’t lived the last ten years of my life. She only knew what I had communicated to her over the years, and I never gave her the whole picture. She didn’t know how long I had been unable to sleep in my own bedroom, or how nightmares of that evening still haunted me. She didn’t know that I still saw a therapist on a weekly basis and took anxiety medication daily. She didn’t know that I couldn’t, as a twenty-five year old woman, go anywhere alone after dark without hearing his footsteps behind me or feeling his hot breath on my neck. She didn’t know how my heart would race at the smell of whiskey, the same odor that had emanated from his hands and clothes and now made me feel sick. She didn’t know of the physical and emotional exhaustion from being on edge all of the time. How I always checked that the door was locked every morning when I awoke and double-checked that it had, indeed, locked whenever I came home…how I couldn’t even drive by the high school, my alma mater…She didn’t know how the exhaustion made me feel depressed and angry. These were the bulk of my emotional and mental stressors, and all while my attacker had been locked behind the walls of a state prison. What would I do and feel now that he was about to be released?
“If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call. I want to help if I can,” Sheriff Morgan said softly.
“Thank you,” I replied. “I appreciate that.”
I went through the rest of the day in an altered mental state. I was quiet and reserved, something Lucas had become accustomed to. I sat outside with a cup of tea that I pretended to drink and a book I pretended to read, and I let Lucas play. He was a happy boy, vibrant and full of laughter and curiosity. He didn’t need me to answer his questions about caterpillars or hummingbirds, nor did he really want me to. He was content that I was there, that I was with him. He liked to answer his own questions, and spent the afternoon searching the backyard for clues. Though the phone call with Sheriff Morgan replayed over and over in my mind, I did what I could to watch Lucas and forget everything else.
Vincent arrived home only two hours after I’d ended the phone call with Sheriff Morgan, and he noticed my reserve immediately. After everything we had been through, he knew how to interpret the meanings of the smallest details of my body language and facial cues. Where I was usually talkative, I was now quiet. Where I usually sat up straight with my hands in my lap, I now sat with my shoulders slumped and my arms folded across my chest. Instead of meeting his gaze when I spoke, I stared at my feet or an insignificant mark on the wall. He understood, as Lucas was yet unable to, that I didn’t withdraw from people or life without a trigger. He wasn’t going to bring it up until after Lucas was in bed, so he made chit chat over dinner, took on the responsibility of bathing Lucas and putting him to bed, and then met me in the master bedroom.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, leaning against the wall.
I met his gaze, wishing I could just get lost in his brown eyes and leave the stress of the outside world behind and avoid this inevitable conversation. After a minute I sighed and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Zachary Ulger is going to be released from prison next month,” I said. My voice was surprisingly calm and void of emotion.
I watched a frown disrupt his handsome features. He ran a hand through his dark, short curls and sighed deeply. I could see he was angry, he always clenched his jaw when he was angry, and I thought he looked a little afraid. It was for me he would be afraid.
“Sheriff Morgan called and told me just this afternoon,” I added.
“So much for justice from the damn justice system,” Vincent said through grit teeth.
“This release date is less than a year away from his original sentence. It’s not that extraordinary.”
“He still should be serving out the whole of his sentence!” Vincent exclaimed. “Why give him a sentence of eleven years if he’s not going to serve the whole time?”
“We’re lucky he wasn’t released sooner,” I heard myself saying. “It’s very rare for rapists to serve more than half their sentence once convicted. He was only convicted in the first place because they were able to link three other cases of rape to him through the DNA extracted from the rape kits. That he’s been in prison this long is a rarity, even with the other three convictions.”
Vincent stared at me in shock. “Are you…saying this is a good thing?”
I sighed. “No. I’m saying it was unavoidable. He was going to be released at some point, and now that time has come.”
“He shouldn’t be released at all!” he exclaimed, only catching the volume of his voice on the last few words. He ran his hands over his face. “I’m sorry,” he said after a moment. “It’s just…a shock.”
I nodded slowly and looked down at my hands. Vincent and I had been close friends when the rape occurred. He knew, firsthand, the emotional toll it took. He had been at the hospital the night of the attack; he and I had agreed to meet at his place that night to study for an exam, and when I didn’t show, he called my parents. They had explained what happened and less than ten minutes later, he had arrived at the hospital. He refused to leave my side for days. He slept on the floor of my bedroom. He walked with me to school, and he walked me to each of my morning classes. He went with me to therapy and, once he did finally move back to his parent’s house, he visited me no less than once a week to see how I was doing. He sat next to me through the whole of the trial.
Vincent had been my closest confidant in the darkness after the attack. It established an intimacy between us that never faltered, even after the trial and the conviction. Even though we had been friends before it all, I hadn’t expected him to remain as close as he had been during the trial. The worst of it had come and gone, and the time for healing had rolled in. I thought we would go back to before, but we never did. He still walked me to school and to classes, but now he held my hand. He still came and saw me once each week, but started to bring bouquets of flowers. Sometimes they were wild flowers from the field by his house. Sometimes they were small, odd collections from the store put together in ways only he would concoct. They were hideous creations, and I loved them all. They were weekly reminders that, even during the relentless, crashing storm of what my life had become, beauty and life could still thrive. With the flowers, eventually, came a romantic correspondence. He would leave his letter on the counter by the flowers next to where my own letter would be waiting. Because of him I felt like a normal teenager. Or, at least, as close to normal as I could possibly be. When he asked me to marry him after high school graduation, my answer was as natural and true as anything else in my life, and it all began because of the intimacy that was established during the days leading up to and during the trial. Our marriage was the one good thing to come out of the assault.
I imagined how hard it must have been for Vincent to have endured all of that with me, to have seen me at my darkest moments (and there had been plenty), and to know how I still struggled even after such an expanse of time, only to then hear of the release of the man who had raped me. It was probably much more than just a shock. I could see the trepidation in his eyes, the concern and rage he knew he couldn’t express for fear of raising my own anxiety. He would suffer in this with me, but where my struggle was acknowledged, his would be hidden. I held out my hands to him and he took them. I pulled his arms around me, causing him to kneel in front of me, and I placed my head on his chest. I closed my eyes and I listened to his heartbeat. It was a practice I had adopted shortly after the assault. I found it helped me to refocus my attention and find something beautiful amidst my world of agony. His heartbeat represented his life, and I was a part of that life. I liked to imagine that, somewhere amidst the blood and tissue and muscle, my name was etched on the organ that pumped life through his body. When his arms tightened ever so lightly around my body and his lips pressed against my forehead, I smiled. In his arms, I was safe.
One month later, Zachary Ulger was released from prison. I saw his face the next day in the daily newspaper. I had never really seen his face during the attack, and I had avoided looking at him in the court room during the trial, but now he was staring back at me from the pages in my hands, and all I could think was how normal he looked. I read through the brief article which touched on the rapes and the convictions, and then I froze when my eyes reached the last paragraph. The journalist had asked Zachary what he would say to his victims if he had the chance. His reply was short, and yet I read it over and over until I was dizzy. I set the newspaper down and looked away, tears glistening in my eyes. I told myself it was probably just for show, an insincere, cookie-cutter reply to prove that his early release was justified, and that I needn’t take his words to heart. But I was overcome with conflicting emotions. I wanted his reply to be sincere, but hated the idea that it could be. I breathed deeply as tears ran down my face. The knowledge that he might regret his actions did not bring me closure the way I had imagined it would. It only made me angry. I realized I had never wanted him to be sorry, I wanted him never to have assaulted me in the first place. That was a closure he could never give me.
About the Author:
Janel Brubaker recently graduated from Clackamas Community College with my associates in English and Creative Writing. She worked as a student assistant editor for the Clackamas Literary Review for the 2015 and 2016 editions. She is currently the Managing Editor of the M Review. She has been published in Sick Lit Magazine, Heartbeat Literary Journal, Crab Fat Magazine, Dark Fire Fiction, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Slink Chunk Press, (boink) zine, Corner Bar Magazine, Anomaly Literary Journal, and Sheepshead Review. Janel is currently pursuing a B.A. in Creative Writing from Marylhurst University