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05 September 2013 @ 11:30 am
LJ Idol Exhibit B: "Cross-Your-Heart Promises"  
Cross-Your-Heart Promises
LJ Idol Exhibit B | week fifteen | 994 words
It's Super Seekrit (Note: trigger warnings for implied sexual abuse.)


I'm Susie Barrett, and I live in Schuyler, Virginia. It's a nice enough town. Everyone says it's full of decent, honest people, and that matters more than anything.

I don't really know if it's true, though. There are things I am not allowed to tell other people, and that doesn't seem very honest:
- My Uncle Bobby is in prison, up in Ohio.
- Mama doesn't really like Mrs. Waterton, she just pretends.
- Lila McKenzie's Daddy is a bad, bad man.

I first noticed Lila's bruises last June, when we were changing into our bathing suits to go down to the creek. Lila's legs had ugly brown marks, like Benny's ribs do when he's been wrestling on top of a bunch of rocks. Lila was embarrassed when I asked about the bruises, and wouldn't say where they were from. We never did go swimming—Lila's Daddy came by a few minutes later and hollered that he wanted her skinny little rump back home that instant. He used a different word than 'rump,' but if I said it I'd get a spanking.

Lila looked real scared then, but he sounded pretty mad and I never like it when my parents get mad. Times like that, I sometimes wind up in trouble without even knowing what I did wrong.

Lila comes over to our house a lot, like best friends do. Her Mama died after Lila's little sister was born, so it's just those two girls and their Daddy. Sometimes Lila has to bring her sister along, but nobody minds. They're both happier here than when they're at their own house. Maybe they'd like it there more if their Daddy just didn't drink so much.

We like to run through the back field and chase after bugs, or pick flowers, or draw with chalk. We play hide and seek in the house, but not very often because Lila always wins. She brings her Barbies over sometimes, or if she forgets then we just play with mine. One day, while we were dressing them up, she took my Ken and put him on top of a naked Barbie and mashed them together.

"What are they doing?" I asked.

"Grownup things," Lila said.

"That doesn't look very fun," I said.

"It isn't." I didn't know why Lila sounded so angry, but I decided I'd better just let her borrow my Ken doll and ask for it back when she was done being mad.

Later, I asked Mama what kinds of things grownups did.

"Oh, going to work or the supermarket, or driving a car, or going out dancing."

I still don't think Barbie and Ken were dancing, not like that.

Lila came over the next day, so I asked her what she meant about grownups, and she told me. I didn't really understand it. Why would anyone do that? She said her Daddy did those things to her and it really hurt, which was why she didn't like to go bicycling to the store with me anymore.

"Maybe you could ask him to stop," I said.

"I ask him all the time, but he doesn't listen! Even when I promise I'll never ask for anything else ever again!"

Lila was crying so hard it made me cry, too. I didn't know what to do. "What if my Mama or Daddy explained it to him? So he'd know why it was wrong?"

"You can't tell them," Lila said. "You can't tell anybody, ever."

I knew Lila hated what was happening to her. But being sent away and having to leave her sister behind scared her even more. Her Daddy told her that's what he'd do if anyone found out.

That's when I knew what a horrible man he really was.

Sometimes, I think the truth about Uncle Bobby or Mrs. Waterton might just slip out one day. I'm only eight. I can't be careful all the time. But Lila's secret is a hundred times harder to keep inside.

She's awful skinny these days. Mama bakes her favorite treats, just to have them around, but Lila's never hungry. Her skin is pinched and grayish (what Mama calls peaked-looking), and she's sad a lot. And tired—when she stays over, she about sleeps forever. I wish she hadn't made me promise to keep quiet about her Daddy. It doesn't seem right. But when I bring up the idea of telling someone, she goes into a panic.

Her Daddy is a monster, and I don't think she sees how much of her he's already taken away.

In the end, someone else does the talking. Lila's aunt and uncle stop by one day while her Daddy's off at work. They want to know about bruises and bedsheets, and other things nobody will tell me. People whisper about the rest, but it's too soft for me to hear. The police come for Lila's Daddy by supper.

Lila says she and her sister will go live with their aunt and uncle now. That's four hours away! I don't understand why she's not more upset—it seems like everything she was afraid of is happening anyway. But she says it'll be different, because her sister will be there too. Lila's eyes shine like summer morning, and I try not to think selfish thoughts about how sad I'll be when she's gone. Mama says this is happy news, all around. We both pray it's true.

I tried to be a good friend, but I still wonder if I made the right choice. I'm glad Lila spoke up and that things will be better, but I'm also glad she blabbed instead of me. She might've been mad at me forever if I'd told anyone, even though doing what she'd asked wasn't helping either.

The truth found its way out, not just about Lila's Daddy but about how to make the whole thing right.

Some promises are meant to be broken.

Some secrets just need to be told.

If you liked this story, Idol community members can vote for it and other fine entries here.

whipchickwhipchick on September 5th, 2013 09:29 pm (UTC)
This is such an interesting piece - the subject is well-trod, but the voice is so specific that it's very engaging, even though I know what's happening through the whole piece. And the opening (the part before the cut) is wicked sharp.

I wonder if this is worth working on as a larger piece, perhaps one that gets out Lila's story in smaller chunks over a longer time, with other things going on? I'm so conflicted as a reader, whether the power of the voice balances out knowing exactly what's going on before I read it.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 5th, 2013 10:04 pm (UTC)
This is one of those cases where the reader knows what's happening, but the narrator does not. Just as the reader knows what the right choice probably was, but a child might never be sure.

I'm so conflicted as a reader, whether the power of the voice balances out knowing exactly what's going on before I read it.
I'd hoped it would, because as a grownup (and reader) in this day and age, you can't not know what's going on. But it is new to the characters, even if not to you (which, for the narrator, is a good thing).

Edited at 2013-09-05 11:30 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 5th, 2013 11:35 pm (UTC)
One of the things I tried to convey is how trapped everyone feels here. The narrator is trapped by her promise, and her friend is trapped by the threat of retribution for telling being something that seems even worse than what she's already going through (and that is so often the case, especially when victims are children).

That and how unimaginable it is that anyone would do this to their child or stepchild. As a child in a happy, typical family, how do you fully comprehend what your friend is going through? And how can your friend not still feel a little blindsided by it, every time it happens?
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on September 6th, 2013 05:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Desireex_disturbed_x on September 5th, 2013 10:51 pm (UTC)
I found myself having to stop at certain points because certain lines just kind of smacked me in the fact.

The POV and the way you wrote it was interesting. I guess I didn't expect this subject through this type of narrator.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 5th, 2013 10:55 pm (UTC)
I did warn about that over on the main page, but maybe I should put the warning at the top as well?

I had hoped the obliqueness of the references would be clear enough as to what was happening, but not overwhelming to readers who might have been through this themselves.
(no subject) - x_disturbed_x on September 5th, 2013 10:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on September 5th, 2013 11:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - x_disturbed_x on September 5th, 2013 11:29 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on September 5th, 2013 11:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
cindytsuki_no_bara on September 6th, 2013 06:00 am (UTC)
i love how eight the voice is - not just the way the narrator phrases things or how she talks about things she doesn't totally understand, but the fact that keeping lila's secret is the most important thing to her, even tho she thinks maybe it's bad enough that she should tell someone. and i really like that it has a happy ending for both girls.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 6th, 2013 06:14 am (UTC)
but the fact that keeping lila's secret is the most important thing to her, even tho she thinks maybe it's bad enough that she should tell someone.
That was one of the things that was most interesting about writing it. Getting inside the character, and her complete lack of perspective on the right thing to do (because her judgment is so limited) made for a different sort of internal conflict. If she were older, she wouldn't hesitate so much, but she doesn't know which choice to make any more than her friend knows that if she were to tell on her Daddy, SHE is not the one who would be in trouble.

I'd hoped to make the reader feel some sense of tension and frustration at the characters' situation, even while knowing why the characters were so reluctant to act. That bind is one that is all too common for victims of abuse, and for the friends who wind up sharing their secret.
(no subject) - cheshire23 on September 9th, 2013 08:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on September 9th, 2013 09:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Kellykajel on September 6th, 2013 02:00 pm (UTC)
This is really powerful. Ugh, to have that kind of secret, that you really don't understand, at that age would be so difficult.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 6th, 2013 04:52 pm (UTC)
She must wonder why it's happening, too, because who would do that to a child? To their own child?

It makes you hurt all the more for her friend, who has all those same questions and yet also has to live through it.
Pr0n Swansonacalculatedname on September 6th, 2013 04:41 pm (UTC)
...I got myself marked as spam again.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 6th, 2013 05:02 pm (UTC)
I wonder if you're simply not allowed to put links in comments outside your own journal? The anti-spambots are working overtime, and yet the Denial of Service thing is still happening.

I tried really hard to keep this piece in synch with the narrator's age. Words like "horrible" seem very much like words a little kid would know (even if they couldn't spell it), and I think a grownup (worse, a parent) who does this to a child really might seem like a monster. When you can't process how a regular person could be so evil, thinking that they're maybe not entirely a person actually makes more sense.

It's hard to know what goes on inside kids' heads, though-- even your own kids. I thought for certain that my son, by age 5, knew that his stuffed animals were toys (no), and I was surprised to find out that my daughter thought (clear up until about 9) that her toy animals talked to her. I could swear I knew that dividing line between real/not-real younger than that, but that still wouldn't mean that a different kid necessarily would!
adoptedwriteradoptedwriter on September 6th, 2013 09:15 pm (UTC)
I love the voice/perspective in this. Very engaging. Tragic but beautifully written. Glad Lila and her sister found a better place to live. AW
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 7th, 2013 07:30 am (UTC)
Thank you! The voice and the nature of secrets really made me want to write this one. It's a different type of character than I usually write, and her age and that of her friend put them in the position of trying to keep a secret that they don't know it would simply be better to tell.
Awesomely creepyagirlnamedluna on September 8th, 2013 07:29 am (UTC)
Kids' perspective can be really tricky - they tend to be really over-dramatic and use words as "often", "always", "that hurts!" while you realistically know they just don't want to or want to cause a scene. Unfortunately, we don't listen to kids either when they really want to tell something (I try to, but I've failed as so many parents sometimes to put my finger on what exactly was going on). So kids often don't really know what to do or say, and I think you portrayed that really, really well in Susie's voice. There's also this huge difference with Lila, who had to grow up beyond her years and is protecting her little sister, that's a whole another deal than not wanting to break a pinkie promise. Well done.
I also recognized a piece of myself in this and ... it hit home.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 9th, 2013 05:13 am (UTC)
So kids often don't really know what to do or say
Sometimes they can't even articulate what's happening, inside their own heads. They don't understand it, and they don't have a framework to understand it. That can make them even less likely to speak up about something bad that's happening. They may not even be able to tell you if you ask.

For this story, this is the type of secret that a child would probably eventualy tell... except that Susie knows what it would cost her friend, and why Lila is so panicked over that happening. Lila's father's threat binds both girls far too effectively, and that's the kind of horrible thing an abuser like that counts on.
(no subject) - agirlnamedluna on September 9th, 2013 07:03 pm (UTC) (Expand)
lriG rorriM: eclipselrig_rorrim on September 8th, 2013 08:02 pm (UTC)
This was really powerful, and really well-told. I will admit that when I saw the topic and started churning through ideas, it occurred to me to write something like this, but I stepped back and said "ohhh no". I'm glad you didn't step back. You nailed her voice, the story, and the heartbreak of the situation.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 9th, 2013 05:28 am (UTC)
A comic approach would have been a more obvious turn, but both of my previous stories were comedies-of-errors, and I felt I needed to stretch away from that. I also wanted a change of voice, and this one came to me very vividly-- this type of story, too, is so rarely told from a child's perspective.

In having these two girls be caught up in terrible secret, where they don't know what to do (all the choices are bad), I hoped to make the reader feel how much harder this is for children than we usually realize.

ljidolvillianljidolvillian on September 9th, 2013 01:47 am (UTC)
Powerful stuff, I like the distinct "voice" in this.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 9th, 2013 05:30 am (UTC)
Thank you! That voice really wanted to tell this particular story, and to convey how hard it is sometimes to really know the "right" thing to do-- especially when you're so young.

Love the username!
(no subject) - ljidolvillian on September 10th, 2013 12:02 am (UTC) (Expand)
favoritebeanfavoritebean on September 9th, 2013 10:53 am (UTC)
Ugh. I hope Lila's Daddy met an untimely demise. What a horrid person he is. I hope Lila does get better. That kind of abuse takes a whole long time to heal from. Some never heal at all.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on September 9th, 2013 09:13 pm (UTC)
That kind of abuse takes a whole long time to heal from. Some never heal at all.
The betrayal of trust, especially from a parent, is so very devastating. I think many people really don't understand that.

To get beyond that, to realize that none of it was ever you and that you don't have to let it define you, is really hard. I keep hoping that over time, we'll help more victims of abuse to reach that point. Society's attitudes are certainly better than they were 20-40 years ago.

This story was actually set somewhat in the past (1960s or so), though I'm not sure if that came through. It was more by the omission of more modern details than the inclusion of older ones. Regardless, this whole problem was even worse for victims back then.
alycewilsonalycewilson on September 9th, 2013 10:21 pm (UTC)
This was powerful and moving. I'd write more, but I have to start work soon and I want to get my votes in!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Birthdayhalfshellvenus on September 9th, 2013 10:56 pm (UTC)
Thank you, and thanks for reading! I imagine it must have been a busy weekend, for good reasons. :)
(no subject) - alycewilson on September 10th, 2013 12:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on September 10th, 2013 01:31 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - alycewilson on September 10th, 2013 01:51 am (UTC) (Expand)