Kathryn Anne Hindenlang, Burn The House Down

I sifted through old dolls and mementos, and I found Yellow Blanket, a token from the home I grew up in, the home my parents now prepared to sell, post-separation and mid-divorce. The love-worn, waffle-woven fabric, the satin edges I had slid across my face. Not something I needed to sleep, but a cool, culled lullaby. That night after the rummaging-packing-keeping-sorting-tossing, I drank some more, again, and called a friend who told me that the best thing about childhood is that it’s over. But what if that’s not true?

What if my childhood had been assigned a case number, the name of a man, and an encounter? Can I call it an encounter? No, I can’t call it that. It—this thing treading on memory laced with questions that dance in my head like a relentless ghost, crept into my first soccer game when my coach yelled at me and I wasn’t sure what I was remembering.

No satin song here, but a pang, prodding, pulling at a feeling of I did something wrong. I did nothing wrong, but after the game ended I cried, not because we had lost, but because of the stinging, the please-stop-pushing-pulling-ringing lingering in my ears and on my skin.

My mother said I was a bad sport and that if I cried at another game she wouldn’t come anymore. There’s a photograph of me from when we got home, still in uniform, shin guards still on, small but fierce, tan tear-stained sweat-lit face, body on the couch, chin propped up by palm, thinking, wondering, and subconsciously wanting that sweet, allaying, soft-spun, sun-yellow square.

In late summer of 2013, when I was thirty-one, I stayed a week at my father and his wife’s home, the one he bought after the house I grew up in was sold. One day, while I was there, prompted by an upcoming move and the need for answers to those too frequently cropping up pangs and jabs and pulls, when no one else was home, I finally addressed the thing, the it, the gnawing gut-wonderings-still-not-knowings, with my mother. It happened after a series of emails. A fight. My phone rang. It was her. She demanded to know what I was referring to by a single statement that read, “There are things I remember that you don’t know about.” One I-know-better-than-to-write-this but true sentence out of so many.

Despite hesitation and initial refusal, after her repeated insistence, I said it. I said the thing. I said what I remembered and waited for her words—any words—amidst a silence loud enough to puncture. She spoke: “I don’t know how you remember. They said you wouldn’t remember. You told it to me then exactly as you tell it to me now.”

Everything hit at once: overflowing well, mind out of body, body out of skin, pieces strung together, self breaking into pieces, so much explained, so much left unspoken, burst of how-could-you-not-tell-me-I-could-have-had-a-case, question of is-this-some-strange- peace-or-am-I-numb draped over me like a sheet. And later I fought. Again. And again. Tried for a case six times. Saw slivers of light only to have hope slashed.

Everything at once in that concrete-turned-quicksand-usually-safe-haven patio—and I’ve been here before, felt a flood there before, years earlier during a different kind of breaking—and the well-known horsemen came then, too. Doom and damage unleashed, regurgitated. Panic, perspiration, struggle for breath. Paralysis of body and mind and its opposite: I paced, unable to stand still or sit, grasped for damage control, too much spilled out, couldn’t find or see an exit.

In her utterance a revelation, a confirmation, a seeming-forever: my first life memory is a haunting confirmed twenty-seven years later by my mother after she was diagnosed with cancer, perhaps confronted by her own mortality and the things she carried. But I carried things, too, and I carried this, as the person who was abused, assaulted, though the latter term wouldn’t officially be used until my undergrad years when I was raped, which is both distinct and separate yet also the same story, an even more grossly mishandled case. And with it a sharp return, questions of that first memory mechanized back; louder thoughts, more frequent, new glimpses, more pain, more sensing-haunting-not-yet-knowing bubbled, rose, surged to the surface.

I moved out of that house years ago, the one where it happened, the one where I lived until age eighteen, but he’s in each new apartment, there before I arrive, in the floorboards, the corners of my bedroom ceilings, the weight of the air, the cream I stir into my coffee. I see his scars on my cheeks in the mirror, again hear the words ringing in my ears, now knowing they are his, spinning repeatedly in my head, and I want—no, I need—to reach into the scene and scoop my two-and-half-year-old self out.

Get me out. No one got me out.

We were playing in my sister’s room. Then I disappeared. He took me.

My five-year-old sister, my then-protector, noticed, felt it, made her way across the hall from her room to mine and stood outside my locked bedroom door trying to get to me, hearing my crying, banging on the door, the barrier between rescue and what would follow.

But I’m glad she didn’t get in because he would have gotten her, too. Except he already had, in different ways, and she remembers. He brought her candy, taped her shut into a utility crate, locked her in a closet. He called them games.

He babysat twice, this son of our neighbors across the street.

I grew sick. Then sicker. Night terrors starting in elementary school with no explanation known to me. A seizure disorder began in second grade: searching for treatment to stabilize me, years of swallowing nine pills a day, hair coming out in clumps when brushed. In my second year of high school, I began to fade away into a skeleton, not by choice or any kind of deliberate decision, but from a progressive overtaking by something not me.

I came close to death on multiple occasions. Then, years passed. In some of them, I was truly happy, though still ill and haunted. In some of them, I drank. And drank. It took off in college, at first recreational and then increasing, again overtaken by something not me— one became too many, while a million was never enough. I found a rush of light in cocaine and ran that until whole days got whited out, and I was nothing more than an empty plastic baggie, my fingers scraping out the insides to rub on my gums.

I remember. They said I wouldn’t: the now-dissolved Department of Family Services agency for our hometown, and a previous therapist. They told my parents to deny a history of abuse, and my parents followed these instructions. When the staff at the now-shut-down hospital I was admitted to at the age of sixteen–– as the flashbacks and the disappearing got worse–– asked about a history of abuse, my parents said no. That was the third time I almost lost my life.

The same year, I moved through four different cities in three different states—for school, work, more medical treatment, and in two cases a roof over my head at a relative’s, always working towards freedom and healing, grateful to be able to stare some of my deepest fears in the face, confront them head on, and overcome them, in spite of the difficulty and further trauma of these places and their happenings—I filed another report, with new memories of the old wound, brought on by an excruciation so great, it forced my mind to previously cut-off places. Sometimes the body and mind sever to protect each other and survive, and in time, through mindful steps, work, effort, help, and connection, in addition to those lifting shifts I count as blessings, though others simply call them the payoff of one’s work, the parts come back together.

Penetration. Copulation. I had to say these words. I remember reading, being moved by, and deriving strength from Yolo Akili’s words: “Remember: Oppression thrives off isolation. Connection is the only thing that can save you. // Remember: Oppression thrives on superficiality. Honesty about your struggles is the key to your liberation. // Remember: Your story can help save someone’s life. Your silence contributes to someone else’s struggle. Speak so we can all be free. Love so we can all be liberated. The moment is now. We need you.” It is then, even if only in moments, that I felt again as I had felt before— heard and seen for who I was and not what was done to me. I did everything I could to get myself back. So much of me has long been gone––though at my core, my being remains, the embers still glowing, no matter how dim.

I had to intentionally dive even deeper into the haunting, enter and sit with each second—not that it was a place or thing easily escaped—and now all the details were on the surface, too often playing themselves over and over against my want like an old home movie someone keeps cueing up and forcing you to watch, the content of which you wish had never happened, or, when you can surrender and accept that it did and you can’t change it, wish you could press stop. I entered anyway. I hit replay, this time by my own volition.

I remember the exact amount, color, and angle of lighting coming through the left of the two windows. He had drawn both the blinds shut. The light came down in a slender beam, sharp enough to laser through years of not knowing if this was real, and met his splotched, marked face, the face that would speak, the face I see when I don’t want to. I remember that what I previously thought was a dresser between the two windows was my changing table.

I remember I was initially standing—braced, stiff, knowing something wasn’t right—before he moved me and did what he did, and that he loomed over me by what seemed like miles, a giant, foreboding tree. I remember his reddish hair and the smells of dirt and oil and something I wasn’t familiar with at the time, a musky cologne, as he approached. I remember his words verbatim, the words that ring in my ears, the words I told to my mother when she asked later that day, and again, identically, over two and a half decades later to her on the phone.

I remember it all and I told it to the police, to attorneys, the DA—added every memory of it to my report before learning that even though the laws have changed, the statute of limitations has expired for me and the new laws cannot be applied to my case.

I learned M had a rap sheet and an FBI record, though some things are sealed and redacted in the documents I have. Once, while living in San Francisco, Facebook prompted me to add him as a friend from a list of people I might know. I retched. I double-checked locks and looked over my shoulder, and scoured the rooms and stores I entered for weeks, and even longer.

The family has daughters near the same ages as my sister and me. When my mother told the parents, B and L, what happened, L denied everything and broke down into hysterical tears. B was silent, but on the way out, he went after my mother, placed his hand on her shoulder, and thanked her.

I never drove past the house after it was sold in 2006, during my parents’ drawn out divorce. I didn’t want to see it, feel it, be reminded of the bedroom, the little me locked inside; and I didn’t want to see the neighbor’s house either, both reminders of M and what he did. Though at one point, I took a match, lit it, and burned the house down in my mind; though in reality it was a razor dragged across my thighs. It wasn’t to mentally destroy evidence in any way, but more of a misguided effort to stop the haunting by erasing the place in which it began, to escape the pain, and feel something I could control.

I kept fighting and fighting until one day, towards the end of a session with a therapist, when she asked me what I was feeling upon noticing a shift in my body position—my raised shoulders, the way I was sitting, a loosening of my muscles, even a change in my face—I said and truly meant for the very first time, “I don’t need to reach into the scene and scoop myself out.” Her reply shocked me just as much. “It’s because you’re doing it right now,” she said. And even though I know this feeling can and does change, fluctuate, get tugged on, months after that moment, though my story does not end here and this is merely a part, I will write this, sober of body and mind, but not somber of spirit or heart.

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