And he didn’t deserve a response.
I turned away with what I hoped was a quiet dignity, but Cam wouldn’t even give me that.
His grip pinched my upper arm as he tugged me back to face him, and the blood drained from my face as the forceful aggression triggered memories.
‘Useless little bitch, give me that.’ Dad grasped my arm, his fingers bruising as he pulled me towards him, ripping the TV remote from my hand.
I froze in fear, anticipating the next blow.
‘Always in the f**king way.’ His breath stank of beer as he leaned into my face, his own face red with alcohol and anger. His eyes flashed. ‘Dinnae you look at me like that!’ His hand raised and I braced myself, my bladder letting go in fright before he backhanded me, sending me flying against the floor, my cheek blazing with red-hot pain that stung my eyes and nose. I felt wetness soak my pants. ‘Get out of my sight before I give you a proper leathering.’
I whimpered, trying to see through the tears.
‘Get up!’ He moved towards me and I scrambled along the floor …
‘Let me go,’ I whispered in panic. ‘Please let me go.’
Cam’s hand immediately fell from me. ‘Jo?’
I shook my head, my eyes refocusing on him. I could see he’d paled too, the disgust gone from his eyes and replaced with a frustrated concern.
‘Jo, I’m not going to hurt you.’
I made a scoffing sound. Too late. ‘Stay away from me, Cam,’ I managed shakily and this time when I turned to leave him, he let me.
I found Cole standing in the hallway, and from the undiluted anger in his boyish features I knew he’d heard every word of my tongue-lashing from Cam. He shook his head, his fists clenched at his side. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said as I shut the door behind me. ‘He helped with Mum and then … he was interested in my work, my comics. It was stupid. I thought he was cool. I’m really sorry, Jo.’
I leaned back against the door, still trembling. I had questions and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to hear the answers to them. ‘Why did you let him in?’
Cole heaved a sigh, running a hand through his hair. ‘I got home late and I must have woken her up. She was in one of her moods. She was yelling and I couldn’t get her to stop. And then I heard a banging at the door and then Cam was calling your name. He was going to wake up the whole building, so I answered the door to see who the hell he was.’
My jaw clenched. Cam knew the truth about Mum.
Could my life get any crappier? ‘Well, now he knows everything about me.’
As if remembering what he’d overheard Cam saying to me, Cole’s eyes narrowed in vengeful slits. ‘He knows f**k all.’
Cole just stared at me, and while he did I searched his face for marks. Was that redness on his cheekbone or just the light? My chest tightened with the weight of my emotions. ‘He says …’ I struggled, flexing my shaking fingers. ‘He says she hit you.’
‘It was nothing.’ Cole shrugged.
He shrugged and my entire world tilted dangerously. ‘Mum hit you? Has she hit you before?’ I felt the angry tears prick the corner of my eyes and Cole caught sight of them.
This time when he answered me, his mouth quivered a little. ‘Just slaps, Jo. It’s nothing I can’t handle.’
I clutched my stomach, feeling sick, and the tears spilled over my lids.
No. No! NO!
I sobbed and fell back against the door.
I thought I’d done everything that was in my power to protect him from the physical and emotional pain of a parent’s abusive hands. And it seemed I hadn’t done nearly enough.
‘Jo.’ I felt Cole approach me tentatively. ‘This is why I didn’t say anything.’
‘You should.’ I tried to breathe through my tears. ‘You should ha-have told me.’
His arms came around me and as so often of late, I found myself being comforted by my baby brother instead of the other way around.
Eventually the tears stopped and I moved to the living room, where Cole brought me a cup of tea. As the hot drink spilled into my stomach, it seemed to stoke the flames of my seething rage against my mother.
It had been one thing to neglect Cole.
It was another thing entirely to have physically abused him.
‘How many times?’
‘Cole, how many times?’
‘It’s just been the past year. A few slaps here and there. She says I look like Dad. I haven’t hit her back, though, Jo, I promise.’
I remembered the muttered comments of late about Cole’s resemblance to Dad – the bitterness in those comments, the blame, the resentment. I should have seen it. Worse, I remembered a bruise he’d had around his right eye and cheekbone months ago. He’d told me Jamie had clipped him when they’d got overly exuberant during a video game fight. I stared at his cheek. ‘The bruise?’
He knew what I was talking about. His gaze dropped to the floor, his shoulders hunched. ‘She was hysterical. She kept hitting at me and I was trying to get away without hurting her back, but I fell against the corner of the kitchen unit.’
Growing up with an aggressive father had made me skittish of confrontation, of arguments, of anger. I became passive. I didn’t anger easily. Until I met Cam.
Even then, I didn’t think I’d ever felt the kind of rage I was feeling now.
Cole had always felt like my kid. He was my kid.
And I hadn’t protected him.
‘I’m going to watch some TV for a while,’ I told him quietly, trying to deal with this new information.
‘Jo, I’m really okay.’
He sighed and got up. ‘I take it we’re not going to the Nicholses’ today.’
‘Okay. Well … I’ll be in my room if you need me.’
I don’t know how long I sat there staring blankly at the television, vacillating between walking into my mother’s room and smothering her with a pillow and just packing Cole’s and my bags and running for it, hoping that Mum’s threats were empty. At a sound behind me, I blinked and turned around. Nothing was there.
I thought I’d heard the front door open.
Now I was going crazy.
Exhausted by the tumult of emotions I’d gone through in the last twenty-four hours, I flopped back against the couch and closed my eyes. I needed to shower and change, but I was afraid to move towards my mum’s room. I was afraid that passive old me was about to lose my cool – big time.
A while later, the worst happened.
Mum’s door creaked open and I sat up, my muscles growing taut as I watched her appear in the hall. Her hair was all over the place and she was clutching her fuzzy pink robe around her as she shuffled into the kitchen holding an empty bottle and a mug.
Blood whooshed in my ears as my body stood up with no command from me to do so. It was as if I was stuck inside my head but no longer in control of what my limbs did. With my heart slamming against my ribs, I followed her into the kitchen.
She turned at the sounds of my footsteps, and leaned against the counter, putting the mug down. Her smile was weak as she said, ‘Hi, sweetie.’
Looking at her, all I could recall was the utter humiliation I’d felt at the hands of my father with his quick fists and hateful words. I lacked any self-worth because of that man.
How dare she try to do the same to Cole – try to undo all I’d done to protect him from ever having to feel that way? It was a singular kind of pain to have your parents find you worthless, find you so unlovable that they could hurt what nature told them they should protect. I’d never wanted Cole to feel that pain …
… and this bitch had gone and done it.
With an animalistic cry of deep, gnawing rage, I flew at her. My body slammed hers against the counter, her head snapping back against the upper kitchen unit, and I took satisfaction in her wince of pain.
How does it feel? How does it FEEL?
My hand reached up to grip her loosely but threateningly by the throat and she stared into my face with round, appalled eyes.
I leaned into her, trembling from my reaction, shaking with betrayal.
She’d betrayed us for gin.
She’d betrayed me by hurting what I loved most.
I sought to catch my breath, my chest rising and falling rapidly, and I flexed my hand around her throat. ‘If you ever …’ I shook my head in disbelief. ‘If you ever touch Cole again … I will kill you.’ I pushed against her. ‘I will f**king kill you!’
Her eyes flared and she nodded rapidly, gulping in fear. I glared into her eyes, somehow unable to remove my hand from her throat.
I felt a touch on my arm. ‘Jo?’
Slowly but surely, the world came back to me and I shuddered, relaxing my grip as I turned to my left.
Cole stood at my side, the colour leached from his face, staring at me as if he’d never seen me before.
I looked over his shoulder only to find Cam standing in the kitchen doorway, his expression grim.
When I turned, Mum was cowering against the kitchen counter.
What am I doing?
Shame flooded me … and I ran.
I flew past Cole, pushed past Cam, ignoring him as he called out to me. Throwing myself out the door, I hurried down the stairs in my bare feet, not knowing where I was going, just knowing I had to get away from the person I’d just become in that kitchen.
Something gripped my arm, wrenching me to a stop.
Cam’s face blurred before me, and I pulled away from him, trying to escape, but his arms seemed to be everywhere. I struck out at him, grunting and swearing at him, and the more I struggled, the more soothing his voice became.
‘Cam, let me go,’ I pleaded, exhaustion draining the strength from my limbs. ‘Please.’ The sob broke before I could stop it, and then I was crying, my hard, pained, loud, tear-filled cries muffled quickly against his throat as he enfolded me in his warm arms.
I fell against him, letting him hold me, my tears soaking his T-shirt and his skin as his arms hugged me tight against him.
‘Let it out,’ he whispered comfortingly in my ear. ‘Let it out.’
In their own time my jagged tears stopped, and my breathing became easier as Cam’s body heat and strong embrace provided a balm against the pain I was in.
It occurred to me that I’d had an emotional breakdown in front of the one person in the world I hadn’t ever wanted to.
And he had been kind.
I pulled back, abruptly letting go of Cam, but his hands still clasped my upper arms lightly. Not quite able to meet his gaze yet, I looked to the left, and movement drew my attention. The gasp caught in my throat as I tilted my head up to find Cole standing on the stairs, deep lines furrowing his forehead and his eyes dark with concern.
Cam’s hands rubbed up and down my shoulders in a gesture of comfort and I could no longer avoid his gaze. Our eyes met and I felt overwhelmed with emotion.
‘I’m sorry,’ I mumbled, my eyes sliding back up to Cole. ‘I better take Cole inside.’