Twenty-nine years earlier
Startled, the little boy awoke.
Confused and scared, his eyes fluttered then opened wide as he gazed into the darkness of the room. Strange noises had woken him. Or had it only been a bad dream? No, not a dream… there they were again. His heart sprinted at the low growls, shrieks, and whispers. Was someone hurt? He couldn’t tell, but it scared him.
His ears pricked, and he strained to pick up any sound. He knew no monsters hid under his bed or crouched in the corners of his room. But still… what if?
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning flashed and split the night sky with an erratic zig-zag across the horizon. The boy relaxed. Scaredy-cat he chided himself aloud. It’s only a storm. The low moan of the approaching storm had roused him from his sleep.
Storms didn’t scare the little boy–his dad had taught him how to stay safe. And his dad was his hero – he was a soldier and knew everything about safety. The boy watched and learned, bonding with his dad over fun outdoor trips … like when they went camping. Just the two of them. But his dad wasn’t home that night. His unit was on a military field exercise. The boy closed his eyes and said a prayer for his dad’s protection.
His fists uncurled, releasing the bedsheet from a steely grip as he counted the seconds to the next crashing boom of the thunderclap. As the thunder rolled, he thought he heard the strange noise again. What was that? Did the rumble disappear into the night? No. The sound came from the end of the hall.
With his frightened heart slamming against his ribs, he gathered the courage to get out of bed and hitched up his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajama pants. Barefoot, he padded across the room. With great care, he quietly turned the doorknob and stepped out into the hallway.
He had to pee but didn’t have far to go. The bathroom door across the hall from his room stood open. He slipped inside, softly closing the door behind him. When he finished, he opened the water faucet just enough to wash his hands under a warm trickle before he slipped back into the hall. That’s when he heard it again. That noise. Without making a sound, the boy crept along the wall until he stopped in front of his parents’ bedroom. Pressing his ear against the flimsy wooden door, he listened.
There! The sounds he couldn’t label came from inside. Fright washed over him. Mom! What is wrong? Why are you crying? With a racing heart, and hands clammy with a cold sweat, he turned the knob with great care. He eased the door ajar, just wide enough to peek through the opening.
Heavy drapes obscured the faint lights of the night sky, causing the boy to blink a few times against the dim shadows. His eyes adjusted, and he tried to make sense of the burly shape silhouetted against the inky dark of the room. The boy stood motionless, his feet rooted to the hardwood floor, blood pounding in his ears. In horror, he watched the dark shape bending over his mom. She whimpered. To the small boy’s ears, the sound was a cry of pain. Like when I fell and scraped my knees the other day, he remembered.
A high-pitched cry broke the boy’s paralysis. “Mom?” he probed. BOOM! Another thunderclap cracked the air. “Mom? Mom…. are you hurt?” the little boy cried out as he flung the bedroom door wide open.
“Fuck!” He heard the man’s cuss at the same time his Mom screamed.
“Ryan!” she shrieked and grabbed a throw blanket as she jumped off the bed. “Get out!” Enraged, she grabbed his arm and pulled him into the hallway. “Why the hell aren’t you in bed? You should be asleep!” His mother’s voice sounded harsh as she dragged him to his room and pushed him inside. “Go back to bed…and stay in your room! Go to sleep!”
Confused and hurt the boy hurled himself onto his bed. Embarrassment and shame twisted in his tummy. But why, he didn’t know. He’d angered his mom. She’d been furious, - but he had just wanted to help. A sick feeling settled in his belly.
The boy knelt on his bed and propped his elbows on the windowsill. His hands cradled his face as he watched as the lightning strikes became fewer and fewer. The storm finally moved away. As Ryan watched dark clouds rush across the night sky, tears rolled from big blue eyes, dripping onto his pajama sleeves. He felt all tangled up on the inside. What is this man doing to my mom, and why is she so mad at me? He’d just wanted to check out the weird noises and see why she was crying.
When dad had left, he’d hugged Ryan. “Take good care of Mom for me, buddy,” he’d said, and the boy nodded his promise.
His mind shaped a large cloud into a dinosaur, and he wished he could ride it across the sky to visit his dad. His battle buddy–that’s what dad called him.
The storm had long passed when the boy awoke again. His mom was in the kitchen, reading the newspaper and drinking her morning coffee when he’d shuffled into the room.
“Good morning, sleepyhead.” Looking up from the paper, she sounded pleasant. But the boy was suspicious. Is she still mad at me?
When he didn’t answer, his mother frowned. “Swallowed your tongue, boy?”
“Mom, who was that man last night?” He moved towards the table, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
“What are you talking about, Ryan?”
“The man in your bedroom… what did he do? Did he hurt you?”
Her tone sharpened. “Ryan, come here.” Grabbing his small arms, she pulled him until he came to stand between her knees. “Look at me,” her stern voice demanded. But the boy kept his eyes glued to the kitchen floor.
His mother’s manicured fingers shot out to push up his chin. He stared into her eyes with a blank face.
“You had a nightmare. No one tried to hurt me.”
“But I saw him.” The boy knew he wasn’t supposed to talk back, but he disobeyed.
“Nonsense Ryan!” She shook the boy’s small shoulders, but the defiance didn’t leave his eyes. “There was no man! And nobody was in my room. Stop making up stories. Do you hear me? And Ryan? I don’t expect you to bother your father with this make-believe monster story when he comes home. Do you understand?”
Ryan nodded. He understood this tone; he’d experienced it often.
Sour-faced, she released him from her grip with a dismissive push. “You’re so like your father.” The boy’s throat closed, and his eyes watered at the dislike he heard in those mumbled words. It didn’t take much to irritate his mom. She was often agitated–with him and his dad. As much as he wanted to please her, on certain days, he could do nothing right. No matter how he tried. She doesn’t love me.
“I asked you a question, Ryan!” A final shake of his shoulders and the boy answered, as if on autopilot. “Yes, ma’am.” But he knew because he had seen the man. When he’d watched the clouds move, he saw him coming out of their house, get into his car and drive away.
It was the first time Ryan realized his mom lied.