An excerpt from “All That Matters”
by Carey Shook
It’s after midnight when my phone starts ringing right next to my head. Nobody ever calls me after midnight, so immediately I think of the worst case scenario; someone died. But then I see that it’s just Max and my body relaxes a bit. That’s when an alarm goes off in my head.
“It’s almost midnight,” I say when I answer the phone. “Are you okay?”
I try to get out of bed as fast as I can. I immediately hear yelling in the background; no doubt her father. God, I hate that man. Anytime Max mentions him I get this creepy feeling that reminds me of my own father. I whip the blankets off my body and search my floor for a shirt. When I can’t find one within hand’s reach, I give up.
“I need you to come and get me, Cooper,” Max whispers.
Her voice is so faint that I can barely hear her.
Something bad has happened and I know it. In the background I can hear her father pounding on the door. He’s not knocking. He’s not asking to come in. It sounds like he’s going to beat that door straight down. He’s screaming her name. Mary-Alexandra. Nobody ever calls her by her full name, not even her mother or teachers or me. If someone’s calling her by her first name, something’s horribly wrong.
“Is that your dad yelling at you?” I ask as I try not to slam my door open.
I suppose I need to be somewhat considerate of my family since it’s so late. Or early. Whatever.
“What’s going on, Max? Tell me what’s going on,” I say as calmly as I can.
When I get to the bottom of the stairs, I slip my shoes on, not even bothering to put them on all the way. I’m out the door within a millisecond. I can’t let her be there anymore. I have to save her.
“I’ll tell you at your house. I need to stay with you guys. I can’t live here anymore.”
“Max, no, tell me what’s going on!” I reply, my voice raised.
I’m not angry; I’m just so fucking worried about her. I had this feeling that something was going on with her father, but I figured she would’ve told me if there was. She even promised me in December that if something was going on that she’d tell me. I start the car before even putting my seatbelt on. We only live four blocks away, anyways.
And then she hangs up on me.
I slam the heel of my hand into the steering wheel. I keep my phone in my left hand, which is shaking like nobody’s business. I can’t decide if I should call the cops. I could also call that social worker from the hospital, back when she broke her nose. Shit. I’m so stupid. I’m so fucking stupid. The social worker thing was all the way in November. It’s mid-February now. I’ve been clueless since fucking November.
“Holy shit,” I mutter as I pull onto her road.
The speed limit’s twenty, but since it’s almost one in the morning, nobody’s on the road, and anyways, this is an emergency, so why would I not go thirty-five?
As I turn on her road, I can see Max coming out of her house. She barely has enough energy to close the door all the way. That’s when she falls down. She tries to grab the side of her father’s car, but I can tell she’s not going to make it before she hits the ground.
How the hell am I going to keep a brave face in front of her? Tears are burning my eyes, but I swallow them back. Somehow I manage to put the car in park before I open the door and run to her side. I yell her name over and over again as I reach for her wrist so I can try to pull her up to me. I have to make sure she’s away from here as soon as possible. I have to make sure she’s safe. I just got her, for Christ’s sake. I can’t lose her. Especially not like this.
Max winces as I grab her wrist. She pulls it back towards her body, but at least her eyes are open now. She’s running her eyes over my bare chest. I want to tell her that I didn’t have time to grab a shirt from my dresser when she called, but I figure that it doesn’t really matter.
“Max,” I say quietly.
I gently take her arm back and begin to push her semi-baggy sleeve up. All along her once flawless skin are bruises; small bruises, healing bruises, new bruises. It makes me want to throw up. Not because it looks disgusting, but because her own father did this to her. That’s the disgusting part. I don’t think you can go half an inch without touching a bruise.
And that’s only one arm.
I look at the door behind her, half expecting her mother, at least, to come out and get her. Then I look back at her, praying to whatever God is listening that she can’t see how upset I am.
“Mary-Alex,” I whisper, pulling her into my arms. “What just happened? What was so bad about this time?”
She shakes her head, and after a few minutes she replies, “Just bring me to your house. Please, Cooper.”
When I start to stand, I have to let go of her slightly.
“But don’t let me go,” she cries. Actually cries. Tears are starting to run down her cheekbones, but only a few. I’ve never seen her cry before.
I bring her back into my arms once I’m standing. I gently pull her up and lead her to the passenger seat of my car. At least it’s warm in there. Well, warmer than outside. I know how easily Max get’s cold, since she’s from Florida and all, so I made sure to turn the heat on. Once she’s sitting down I tell her, “I’m never going to let you go.” Then I take her bags and throw them in the back. When I finally sit in my seat and close the door, I see she’s buckled up already. I still don’t bother to put my seatbelt on. Instead I take her left hand and hold it tightly; like I said, I’m never letting her go. Especially not now.
When we get back to my house and park the car, we silently make our way to my room. There’s no use in bringing her to the bonus room since nobody else knows she’s here. If Mom finds out I can tell her that Max used the extra key to get in. Then I realize that, if she really is going to stay here for a while, I’ll have to tell Mom what’s going on. And that won’t be an easy thing to do.
“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” Max says once she sits down on my bed.
She props her ankle up on a few pillows. I want to ask what happened, but we can talk about that later.
“Mary-Alex,” I say from the window, where I’m trying to decide what to say to her.
“Can you not call me that, please,” she mumbles.
“Max.” I sigh as I make my way to her. I sit my hands on her knees. “What your dad has been doing to you isn’t right.”
She looks up to me.
“You think I don’t know that, Cooper?”
We stay quiet for a while, but I never take my hands off of her. I can’t let her down right now, even something as small as not keeping a hand on her.
“How long had it been going on?” I ask.
She stays quiet for a minute or so.
So I was right. It’s been going on since fucking November and I had no idea.
“Max,” I say.
The tears start pouring out. Unlike earlier it’s a lot of tears this time.
“That’s why I was so freaked out about the social worker, Coop. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.”
She rests her head on my chest.
I stroke her hair and pull her onto my lap. Comforting her feels so right, like I’m meant to do it. I don’t even think twice about how to respond around her.
“What did he do this time? Are you okay?” I ask, afraid to know the answer.
“He kept, like, slamming my head into the fridge until I could finally get away. And I think I tore a ligament in my ankle.”
“That’s why you were limping,” I say, semi-thankful that I didn’t have to awkwardly ask about that. “Is your head okay?”
“I mean, it still hurts, but that’s because I’ve been crying. I think, at least. I don’t know.”
She continues to hold on to me. Her breathing is so unstable. She’s just so scared right now. She has no idea what she’s supposed to do, if she needs to go to the hospital, or maybe even call the social worker again. She doesn’t know what exactly to tell me. I don’t even know how much I want to know.
That’s when I know I have to tell her. I was trying so hard to never bring it up. She’s asked me so many times why I hate my own father so much, and I always change the subject. But I have to tell her now. She has to know that she’s not the only one. She has to know that she can trust me and Mom. She has to know how truly safe she is at this house.
“My dad used to hit me and Tobey,” I mumble. I look down to her to see her initial reaction.
All she says is, “Um…”
I continue to stroke her hair. I can tell how much it calms her down.
“When Mom found out, they got divorced. It had been going on for a good two years. That’s why—”
“Why you hate him so much….” she finishes my sentence. She suddenly holds on to me tighter, as if that’s even possible. “I can’t believe it.”
I try to kiss her forehead, since she thinks that’s cute, but we’re not in a position for that. Instead I kiss the top of her head, something I don’t have to reach for. We stay quiet in this huddle for a good ten minutes. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say here. I haven’t dealt with anything this serious since my own incident, and that was eleven years ago. I could go on and tell her how, yes, even though I do still hate my own father, he’s not that much of an asshole anymore. But he never got like how Max’s father did. My head was never slammed against things. The worst thing that happened to me was that he tried to strangle me, at one point. That was when Mom walked into the house early and found out.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, Cooper,” Max says in the quietest tone ever. Her voice is cracking a lot. “I’m sorry I woke you,” she adds.
“No, no, no,” I reply. “I’m really glad you did, Max. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I didn’t come get you.”
And it’s the truth. What if her father knocked her unconscious? She practically was when she walked out of the house. And all those bruises on her arm… I don’t even want to think about what her entire body looks like. No wonder she’s been so self-conscious for the past few months.
She runs her hands through my hair like she always does. I’m glad with even something this serious going on that she can still be herself with me.
“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” she repeats.
“You can stay here, no problem. Mom leaves at seven, so when Amanda and I leave, you’ll have the house all to yourself,” I tell her. “I’ll text you all throughout the day. And I’ll tell Mom that you’re going to stay with us. I’ll probably have to tell her why though…”
And that’ll be an interesting conversation. I already know what Mom’s initial response will be: call the cops.
Max straightens her back so she can see my face.
“I know I can trust her, but I don’t know how to deal with that,” she says. “With her knowing.”
“Max, she won’t tell anyone. She’ll help you out and take care of you like you’re her own daughter.” That last part is definitely true.
I hold her face, rubbing my thumb softly on her cheekbone.
“Do you want to talk about anything?” I ask.
“I want to sleep,” she answers immediately.
In response, I kiss her.
“Goodnight, Max,” I whisper.
I let her get comfortable. She faces the window and I wrap my arm around her. This is the first time I’ve kissed her since Friday after school, which was the last time I saw her. Max hasn’t been allowed out on the weekends for the past few months unless her father was gone for work, and I guess that all makes sense now. Then my mind wanders to how she’ll be living here for a while, how long for, what room she’ll be staying in. I’m going to have to have a long talk with Mom in the morning about this. Mom doesn’t even know that she’s my girlfriend yet.
How the hell am I going to hide this from my sister? Mom, Tobey, Dad and I decided not to tell Amanda the real reason why Mom and Dad got divorced. Dad never even touched her or Mom. He’d never hit Tobey or I if it even sounded like they were close. We, mainly Mom and Dad, decided that since it was hard enough to deal with the divorce that it’d be easier to not tell her the real reason why. She probably wonders why Tobey and I still can’t stand being around Dad, but it’s too late to tell her now. Eleven years too late.
I think about the past for too long. I think about the worst bruise I ever got. I think about that time Tobey had to go to the hospital because he broke his arm “playing baseball.” A social worker didn’t talk to us then, like how they did with Max. I guess since his own father took him into the hospital, there wasn’t anything suspicious about it.
Max is trying to hide it, but she’s crying very softly. I don’t want her to know that I know this, so I start to slow my breath and act asleep. As I’m drifting off, I think about how much I really do love Max. I would’ve said it to her tonight, but that would be too cliché to do it when something shitty happened. I don’t know when I’ll say it, or what’s going to happen as we figure out what to do with her father. All I know is that right now she’s safe with me, and that’s all that matters.