Penny looked out her window wondering when her life had become such a disaster. She had excelled in high school earning her an invitation into the National Honor Society for academics, and she was a star on the softball field as well as captain of the cheerleading squad. After high school, she spent four years at the local college earning a business degree. She had plans to open her own advertising business after working for another company to gain real world experience. That was her plan, but she now realized that dream would never happen.
During her senior year of college, she attended a party for one of the sororities. While there, she met Max who had dark, smoldering eyes and a devilish grin. Their connection was instantaneous, and they spent the rest of the night dancing and talking. Over the next several months, the two had a whirlwind romance. Max was everything she dreamed of in a man. He catered to her every need while encouraging her dream of one day owning her own business. So, when Max proposed that spring, Penny enthusiastically said yes.
That summer, Penny got hired on at a small advertising firm outside of Dallas, and Max began teaching history at a local high school. By the following summer, the two were married and living in a two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs. Between the two of them, they were able to make a modest income that provided for a few weekend getaways every few months. As a public-school teacher, Max’s salary was several thousands less than Penny’s, and after a few beers, he would begin complaining that he was not paid what he was worth. He often made snide remarks about Penny thinking she wore the pants in the family because she earned more money. To ease the tension, Penny encouraged Max to apply to graduate school to become a principal. She took on more clients to earn more money, and what little extra money they had went toward the cost of graduate school. Max excelled in the program with his charismatic personality and with Penny writing his papers for him. Through those two years, Penny devoted her free time to Max’s success and happiness. Gradually, friends stopped calling, and Penny stopped going out with them. She justified her sacrifices by telling herself that when Max became a principal, life would go back to the way it was after they married.
A year after earning his principal certification, Max had not landed a job. He blamed the school district saying that others were jealous of him and were holding him back. He began stopping at bars after work before coming home an angry drunk. Soon, Max began drinking at work to take the edge off, and by winter break, he spent more days at home drinking than he did at work. When teacher contracts were issued in May for the next school year, the school district notified Max he would not be returning.
The same Friday Max received his news, Penny returned home from work not knowing a storm had been brewing throughout the day. Max was settled into his recliner with a glass of whiskey in his hand. Penny bent down to kiss him on his cheek, “Hey, baby, I’m glad you’re home. I bought us some steaks for dinner. How’s that sound?”
“Whatever,” Max mumbled as he snapped his feet down to stalk to the kitchen for a refill.
Penny retreated to the bedroom to change out of her work clothes. She hoped that once Max heard her good news, his mood would improve. She was ecstatic about their future, and she would not let Max dampen her mood.
Sitting at the dining room table, Penny eyed Max over her wine glass trying to determine the best opportunity to share her news. She could tell something was distracting him, and after many failed attempts to start a conversation, Penny decided she would go for it.
“Baby, I’m so excited. Today, the president of our company announced they are opening an office in Houston, and they want me to run it.”
Max glared at Penny before snatching his plate up to toss it in the sink. He grabbed his glass of whisky and walked to the kitchen counter to refill it before he said, “Well, aren’t you special. How many guys did you have to sleep with to make it happen?”
Shocked by his words, Penny rose slowly to take her plate to the sink. Determined to not let her mood be ruined, Penny responded, “Baby, don’t joke that way. You know how hard I have worked over the last three years. They are just acknowledging that hard work.”
Max remained silent drinking his whisky at the counter. Penny walked back to the table to get her wine glass for a refill.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for me, for us, for you.” Penny continued.
Max finally turned around to ask with darkness in his voice, “What do you mean an opportunity for me?”
Penny felt the stillness in the air, and she knew she needed to choose her words carefully, “This could be the fresh start you deserve. You can apply for a principal job in a district around Houston where they will appreciate you. But, there won’t be a rush for you to find a job. With the money I will be making from the promotion…”
Penny never saw the glass fly across the room that bashed against the left side of her head. Whisky and blood poured down her face. Max stormed to her grabbing her by the neck and growled, “Do you think I need your money? You work because I allow you to work. We both know they gave you a promotion because of the way you wiggle that behind for them.”
Max thrust her against the wall and began punching out his built-up anger. Penny pulled up her arms in an attempt to protect her face, but she was no match for his brutality. After he spent his anger, Max dragged her by the hair to their bedroom where he threw Penny on the bed and collapsed next to her. He draped his arm around her and whispered in her ear, “Remember, baby, you’re forever mine.”
Looking out her window the next morning, Penny stared at her reflection which showed the evidence of last night’s storm. After giving herself a few minutes to wallow in self-pity, she began to formulate her plan.
“Jacob! Stop playing in the mud puddles and help me unload the car,” Pen yelled at her six-year-old son who looked at her with a smile that melted her heart. “After we get the car unloaded and have lunch, we can go explore for a little bit. Now, come carry a box.”
Jacob ran up to grab a box that was half the size of his little body and staggered toward their new home. Pen fought the urge to swap the box for a smaller, lighter one, but she knew her little boy was fiercely independent and would only insist on carrying the oversized box. This independent spirit filled her with pride as she watched Jacob climb the steps on the wrap around front porch. After he entered the house, Pen took a moment to scan her surroundings. A habit she could not break even after so many years. She sighed and forced herself to relax. This was a good move for her and Jacob. Their new two-bedroom cottage sat on half an acre with access to Toledo Bend Lake right in their backyard. Pine trees surrounded them on both sides, and a national forest was within biking distance. Neighbors were close enough if an emergency occurred but far enough away for privacy. A complete opposite of the tiny one-bedroom apartment they had been renting in Houston where you could hear your neighbors through the walls and the closest park was five blocks away. Jacob spent more time indoors than outside, and he only saw his friends at school. Pen worked long hours to support them which left little time to play. Poor Jacob never had time to be a boy.
Pen was dragged back to the present when she heard, “Mom! Mom!” coming from inside the house. As she began walking toward the steps, a beaming Jacob bounced out the front door carrying a green lizard in his hands. “Look what I found. Can I keep him?”
Laughing, Pen replied, “Where did you find this little guy?”
“He was crawling on the window in my bedroom. So, can I keep him? I promise to feed him every day. So, can I please?” Jacob pleaded.
“Do you remember how you felt when you were cooped up inside our Houston apartment? You stared out the window everyday wishing you could escape to the outside world. Is that what you want to do to this little guy?” Pen ran her hand through Jacob’s charcoal colored hair while waiting for a reply.
Jacob continued to look down at his treasure as he responded, “I guess not.”
“Tell you what,” said Pen, “How about we take him over to our azalea bushes in front of the porch to release him? That way, he is free, but he is close by.”
Jacob nodded his head and walked to the bushes. As he released the lizard, he said, “Bye lizard. I will miss you.” The lizard, oblivious to the boy’s sadness, scurried away into his new home.
“Come on, let’s get the last things out of the car and then, I will make your favorite lunch,” Pen urged Jacob.
The lizard quickly forgotten, Jacob exclaimed, “Mac and cheese!” before running to the car. Pen smiled after him wondering how she could be so lucky.
After finishing lunch, Pen and Jacob walked down their sloping backyard to the pier that extended out over the lake. Since it was late in July, Jacob begged to go swimming, but Pen promised him they would that weekend if they were finished unpacking their boxes. For now, she satisfied his aquatic urge by allowing him to wade in ankle deep water which he enthusiastically did while bending over to attempt to scoop up minnows that swam by his feet.
Pen stared out over the lake enjoying the tranquil ripple of waves caused by the couple of boats passing by as well as the gentle breeze which alleviated some of the oppressive heat. She, too, would have enjoyed a quick dip to cool off, but those boxes were not going to unpack themselves. She would allow Jacob these few moments to play and explore. Then, they would have to get back to work. Before they knew it, the next three weeks would be over, and she would be starting her new job teaching English and Business classes at the local high school in Burkeville. Pen never planned on teaching; however, when a friend from college called one night complaining about how difficult it was for her school to find a quality teacher in their small rural town, she could not stop thinking that this would be the perfect opportunity for a fresh start. Lord knows she needed it after the last few years. So, after doing some research of the area, Pen called her friend back and applied for a teaching position. She was hired after a short interview and began making plans to move. Jacob would enroll in the first grade at the elementary campus which was on the same grounds of the high school. The two buildings were within walking distance of each other, so Jacob would be able to walk to Pen’s classroom at the end of the school day. With her little savings, Pen rented the cottage on the lake which was only a fifteen-minute drive to the school. Her salary was slightly less than what she earned in Houston, but the cost of living was much lower in rural East Texas resulting in Pen being able to breathe a little easier. Their life would be better. She just knew it.
Pen sighed and shook her head when she focused her attention back on Jacob who had plopped down into the water instead of only wading in ankle deep. She should have been upset that he defied her, but in reality, she was envious that Jacob didn’t have a care in the world. Unfortunately, they needed to get back to unpacking. “Jacob, it’s time to go inside.”
Jacob looked up at her with disappointment, “A little longer pleeease.”
“Sorry, buddy. Too much to do. Now, run back to the house and get changed. Make sure to toss those wet clothes in the washroom.”
Jacob stepped from the water and ran straight to Pen, arms extended ready to spread his wetness to her. Pen screamed, “Aaah! No, you don’t!” Dashing up the hill, Pen and Jacob filled the trees with laughter. Just as they reached the backdoor, Pen slowed and exclaimed, “Okay, I give. You caught me.”
Laughing, Jacob threw his wet body onto Pen making sure every piece of her clothing was damp. “Ha! Ha! Now you have to change clothes.”
After they finished unpacking last night, it was too late for Pen and Jacob to go exploring, so Pen promised they would get up early for a bike ride before it got too hot. So, Pen should not have been surprised the next morning when Jacob raced into her bedroom, jumping onto the bed. “Wake up! Wake up! You promised we could go for a ride!”
Pen peeked at the clock next to her bed and moaned, “6am. Jacob, it’s too early.”
“The sun is coming up so get up!” responded Jacob. He then began jumping around Pen to insure she would not go back to sleep.
“Okay, okay!” Pen laughed. “Let me get dressed. Go eat some cereal while you wait.”
Jacob was still eating breakfast when Pen entered the kitchen. “Thank goodness. Time for a cup of coffee,” she thought to herself. “Hey, buddy, did you find your helmet yesterday?”
“Mom, I’m too old for a helmet,” Jacob answered.
Pen took a deep breath preparing herself for the argument she knew was coming. Her baby didn’t want to be treated like a baby. “You know the rules. No helmet, no bike ride.”
“But, Mom, I’m not a baby. Kids will make fun of me, and other parents don’t make their kids wear them,” Jacob whined.
“You know I don’t care what other parents do. My job is to keep you safe, so find your helmet. I will be ready to go in five minutes.”
Jacob placed his bowl and spoon in the sink and stomped off to his bedroom. When he came outside strapping on his black helmet with lightning bolts on either side, his frown remained on his face until he looked up at Pen. Grinning, Jacob asked, “What are you wearing?”
“Well, I have to keep myself safe too. No one will say a word about your helmet because they will be too busy staring at mine and wishing they had it,” responded Pen as she finished strapping on her helmet which was painted bright purple with hot pink and fluorescent green polka dots.
Jacob jumped on his bike and yelled, “They sure will be staring at the crazy lady!”
Smiling, Pen knew she had won the battle today; however, she also knew he would eventually win the war because as much as she fought it, Jacob would grow up. Pen peddled fast enough to catch him and said, “Let’s just ride around the neighborhood this morning little man. You take the lead but watch out for cars.”
An hour later, the two had biked down every road in the neighborhood, and Pen felt every bump in her behind. Luckily, she convinced Jacob to stop at the local park to play. While he slid and swung, Pen stretched her muscles and worked out the pain she knew would be worse tomorrow. Shaking her head, she wondered when a bike seat became so uncomfortable. Jacob seemed unphased by the torture Pen had endured, and she was determined to hide her pain from him. She refused to admit she felt old.
From the corner of her eye, Pen saw a black pickup truck with dark tinted windows pull into the parking lot and her heart began to pound. It cannot be him. He was serving out his sentence at the prison in Huntsville. Her mind knew it could not be him, but that did not stop the panic attack she felt spreading through her body. She had to get to Jacob to make sure he was safe. Pen started running towards Jacob yelling, “Jacob!” He looked up confused from the sandpit he was digging in with a stick. “Jacob! Let’s go now!”
“But I’m not ready,” Jacob countered.
Pen glanced over her shoulder at the truck and held her breath when the driver’s door began to open. Just as she saw a petite, blond woman emerge from the truck, Pen’s right foot snagged a root sending her hurling face first to the ground. Jacob ran to her asking, “Mom, are you okay?”
Pen rolled onto her back and began laughing realizing how she had overacted and picturing the sight she must have been falling to the ground in her brightly-colored helmet. Jacob gave her a curious stare and said, “You really are a crazy lady.”
“I’ll show you crazy lady,” Pen threatened as she jumped up to chase Jacob who screamed, “You can’t catch me crazy lady!”
Laughing loudly, Jacob jumped on his bike teasing, “I bet I can beat you home!”
Following closely behind, Pen responded, “You’re on! Last one home washes the dinner dishes!”
That evening, Pen reflected on what had happened at the park. She did not understand why she reacted that way when she saw the truck. There were thousands of black trucks with dark tinted windows. Plus, she knew she and Jacob were safe. He was locked up miles away. But, still she had this feeling in her gut that something was not right. Shaking her head, Pen mumbled, “Stop it. You are going to drive yourself insane. Everything is fine.”
“Mom, I’m finished taking a bath. Can we watch Jurassic Park and eat some popcorn?” Jacob asked walking into the kitchen with damp hair wearing his favorite dinosaur pajamas.
Pen smiled down at her precious little boy thankful he still enjoyed watching movies with her. “Sure, buddy. Get everything ready while I finish the dishes.”
Two hours later, Jacob was curled up next to Pen sound asleep exhausted from the day. Pen gently moved out from under him and scooped him up to carry his little frame to bed. As she tucked him in, Jacob sleepily said, “I’m so glad we moved here, Mom.”
“Me too,” responded Pen. “I love you.”
Drifting back to sleep, Jacob whispered, “Love you, too.”
Pen kissed him on the cheek and softly walked out of the bedroom feeling so much love for the little guy who had become the center of her world in such a short time.
The bruises on Penny’s face had finally faded enough for her to return to work. Just in time too because her boss Kirk was beginning to pressure her about how much work was piling up while she had been home with the “flu.” She was ready to get back to work and get out of the house. Max decided to take the week off as well under the guise of taking care of Penny, but they both knew his true intention was to keep a close eye on her. He warned her that night while he clutched her to his chest that she better not call the police or try to leave. If she did either, he would make her pay dearly.
The next morning while Penny stood in front of the kitchen window contemplating her future, Max came strolling in whistling an upbeat tune. He kissed her on the cheek and said, “Isn’t it a beautiful day? Feels like we are finally getting a fresh start. I gave your promotion some thought, and I think it is the right move for us. Make it happen.”
Penny smiled faintly and replied softly, “Sure, baby, whatever you want.”
“That’s my girl,” Max responded cheerfully.
The rest of the week, Max continued his cheerful façade by pampering Penny with massages and fancy homemade dinners. He told her to rest and relax while he catered to her every need and spoke of what their new life in Houston would be like as he spent hours searching the internet for places to live and principal jobs he could apply for soon. At night they snuggled on the couch watching their favorite movies. Penny almost felt back to normal. Almost. But, when Max squeezed her a little too tight or his shoulders tensed for just a moment if Penny disagreed with him about something, she knew his true nature hid beneath the surface. She prayed that she could execute her plan before it reappeared.
Monday morning, Penny looked over her face in the bathroom mirror thankful for the miracle of make-up. She had worked for thirty minutes expertly applying foundation, concealer, and powder to hide the final greenish tones left behind. She hoped everyone would contribute the extra layers to her covering up the paleness caused by the flu because she needed to fall back into her normal routines and to not raise any suspicions for everything to fall into place.
Max was eating a bowl of cereal at the kitchen counter when Penny walked in to get a cup of coffee. He did not hear her, so Penny took a couple of seconds to breathe deeply and put a smile on her face before engaging him into a conversation telling herself, “I can do this. Make him believe you.”
“Hey, baby, you ready to see your students again?” asked Penny
“Yes, the students but not anyone else. Luckily, there are only a couple of weeks left before school is out for the summer. I can do anything for two weeks. Right?” Max responded.
Penny widened her smile before answering, “Yes, you can do anything for two weeks.”
Max jumped up exclaiming, “I’ve got to go. Make sure to clean the kitchen before you leave. I’ll be home by six so have dinner ready by then.” He walked over to Penny to hug her tightly and whispered in her ear, “Remember, baby, you’re forever mine.”
Penny remained frozen where she was until she heard Max drive away. Then she ran to the bathroom and puked up the coffee she just drank. Doubt began creeping in as she splashed cool water on her face. Could she really pull this off? She looked at herself in the mirror eyeing the green bruises that were visible where she had washed away some make-up. Griping the edges of the sink, Penny looked straight into her own eyes and said confidently, “Yes, you can do anything for two weeks.”