We are standing in clusters among the dull concrete benches and tables that are blanketed by bright, burgundy awnings in the courtyard of Walker Jr. High School. There is an unusual chill in the air this January morning in Orlando. We have been preparing for this day in our classes because the first teacher, Christa McAuliffe, is lifting off on the space shuttle, Challenger.
“Look,” someone yells, “It’s right there.”
I watch, motionless, as the puffy, white caterpillar inches its way up the sapphire-streaked sky. A brilliant orange burst forms its large, billowy head and catapults its antennae high into heaven. In a matter of seconds, the antennae start to bow and begin their rapid descent to the earth below.
“What the hell was that?” my best friend Michelle asks.
“I don’t know,” Sonya says, chewing her thumbnail, “But it doesn’t look right.”
“Maybe it’s just that piece of the shuttle that separates when they take off,” I add, but I know there has never been an explosion like that before.
It doesn’t take long before the teachers begin flittering from group to group confirming that the Challenger has exploded. I look up at the emptied sky and its ghostly pale hue startles me. The creature has disintegrated leaving no trace of its existence.
At twelve years old, I cannot fully comprehend what has just happened. My chin is nestled into my arms which are folded, heart-shaped, across my desk. I stare at the television sitting atop a silver utility cart in the center of the classroom.
“We will not be changing classes for the remainder of the day,” the teacher says.
Nobody responds. We just stare at the television – as it replays the launch over and over again – eyes bulging with unshed tears. Nobody wants to be the first to cry.
“It’s God’s will,” mom says when I ask her about the Challenger.
There will be no acceptable answers to my questions here at home. Once I’m home from school, I am in isolation with no connection to the outside world. I cannot sit in front of a television and watch the latest breaking news, I cannot listen to the radio to find out what is happening; they are forbidden.
I am angry about so many things, but I swallow my words because I know they will only bring trouble. I have been beaten for much less. I don’t talk about what I have seen today in front of my dad. He is cruel and I know he will make fun of me and the conversation will take the all too familiar turn into why I am stupid and worthless. I do what I always do: I say nothing, pushing it all into the pile of silent screams I’ve been collecting.
Darkness brings a new kind of hell. Lying in bed I am no longer afraid of the hundreds of roaches scurrying around in my room or the haunting sounds of the cockroaches that so often fly above my head. I am pre-occupied. Something happened to me today. I cannot make sense of it. I am shattered. My nakedness revealing a raw pain like nothing I have felt before. The images I saw on television today etched themselves deep into my brain. In this darkness, I cannot make them stop exposing themselves to me.
I share this room with my three older sisters. I know I have to be quiet or risk the consequences. My twin sisters, Vivienne and Vanessa, can be brutal. They pummel each other with the sharp point of their high heels, ripping hair out, and destroying prized possessions. Mostly they attack each other, but anyone can be a target just by sniffling too loud or too often.
My oldest sister, Victoria, is a spy for my parents and will tell them if I so much as breathe the wrong way. I cannot trust her enough to talk to her. My two brothers, Thomas and James, are too young to understand. Talking to friends is out of the question as I am not allowed to talk to anyone outside of school. For the first time, I realize how alone I am. I try hard to hold back the sobs building in my chest and for relief I start to pray. I do not like God. I cannot separate him from the cruelty my parents inflict because of him, but tonight I am desperate.
“Dear God, please don’t let them die,” I pray, “They don’t deserve to die. They are good people and good people don’t deserve to die that way. If you can hear me, please, please, please save them, please don’t let them die. I need this from you. I need to know that you are not hateful and spiteful, that you can hear me, that you know I exist. If you care, if you are real, you will save them.”
I cry, silently, tears transforming my small bed into a pool of unimaginable pain. I beg for their lives, but I realize it is so much more than that.
I have spent the last three nights in a desperate state, each day bringing me closer to the edge. Today I learned that the remains of some of the crew members have been found. God wasn’t listening.
I hear a thunderous crack as if something has struck the core of the earth and split it wide open.
Drip, drip, drip.
I awaken to the remnants of the drink he had thrown in my face earlier, falling from the ceiling onto my forehead. I turn my head to the right – excruciating pain. He is standing behind the half wall. Something about his slow, methodic movements tells me he thinks I am dead – with our baby still inside me. He has till morning before anyone will know something is wrong. He is taking his time, cleaning meticulously, making sure he does not miss anything.
“You need to get out of here, now,” I hear a soft, distant voice warn me.
I am terrified, paralyzed by fear.
I am lying halfway hidden by a square end table that is nestled next to our new velvety sectional. A lamp sits on top of the table with an empty orange-tinged glass. To the left of my feet is the entrance to the dining room.
“NOW,” the voice says again, urgently.
What happened begins to weave its way through my pulsing head.
My purse was on the oblong oak table in the dining room which is situated next to a side door that leads into the garage. After he threw the drink in my face, I tried to get to it in an attempt to leave, but he caught me from behind and spun me around slamming me against the solid wood china cabinet again and again and again.
“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” he had said when he caught me, his yellowed teeth laced tight.
I could hear the dishes falling, clanking against the glass doors every time he pushed me. He had me cornered.
It was a game he played often – me trying to get up from the floor or move forward to catch my balance, he pushing me back down, putting me in my place. Degrading me was foreplay. He always continued until the powerlessness would disorient and defeat me. Then the violence would escalate. This time was not going to be any different.
“You’re going to kill the baby,” I had said, my voice high-pitched with terror, “If you don’t stop, you’re going to kill the baby.”
He did not stop.
I was tired of being beaten and bullied by him and the ludicrous game of pretend I had been playing. A fierce anger broke free from deep inside me. Even though he towered nine inches above me and weighed nearly a hundred pounds more, I punched him in the face – hard – catching the side of his nose.
It was a stupid move.
I regretted it immediately.
He did not flinch.
His short, red hair glistened with sweat. His mouth released a layer of alcohol and Skoal onto my face. The rage boiling in his bloodshot eyes and the quick bloom of red traveling up his neck was unmistakable.
“Oh, shit,” I thought as my body stiffened in preparation for what was coming.
He picked me up, like a groom carrying his bride over the threshold, and threw me onto the hardwood floor in the living room where I’d tried to escape just minutes before.
I am still in the same spot I landed, “NOW, NOW, NOW,” echoing loudly in my mind. I start sliding slowly towards the entrance to the dining room. Just then I see him crouch behind the half wall. I scramble to my feet and take off running through the dining room and out the side door. Terrified, I fight hard to stay upright as I run down the driveway. My head is pounding ferociously. Dinner is sitting at the edge of my throat begging for release.
“Please don’t let him catch me. Please, please don’t let him shoot me,” I say, my whispered pleas falling flat in the stifling August air.
He told me, not long ago, that he used to throw lit firecrackers at his ex-girlfriend’s feet when she’d turn to leave him during a fight. “She would piss her pants thinkin’ I shot her,” he’d said with a chuckle, a sickening grin spreading across his sweaty, bloated face. I know he has a gun. She must have known too.
I make it to the side of the street where my Jeep is parked parallel to the front of the house. I get in and start fumbling through my purse for the keys.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” my hands shaking uncontrollably, “Where the fuck are my keys?”
I look towards the front door of the house expecting to see him jump out at me. I dump out my purse and the keys tumble onto the seat. I start my Jeep and drive quickly down the desolate street – eyes blurry, head throbbing, stomach cramping – and head towards St. Elizabeth hospital.
I am sitting next to my sister, Victoria, waiting for an ultrasound in the hospital waiting room. There are rows of chairs throughout the large, nicely decorated room. I choose the one closest to the exit. I know this debilitating fear is not because of what happened, but what is about to happen. I am six-weeks pregnant and I’m still not sure I want to keep this baby. I have wavered back and forth over the last two weeks trying to make a decision.
We were broken up when I found out I was pregnant. I tried to make a clean break from him, but when I called to say I was pregnant his response comforted me. He was elated, even picking out names before we hung up. It made me think that maybe I had been wrong about him. I just needed to lighten up and be more understanding. If I could learn to get along with him everything would be okay. He seemed so sincere and I chose the easy solution: I went back. I thought things were going to be different – we were having a baby.
“You and Matthew can stay with me,” my sister says, “until we can find a safe place for you to live.”
I have a twelve-year-old son, Matthew, who luckily is spending the night with his cousins, missing out on another crumbling piece of my life. My sister flips open her cell phone to call the local women’s crisis center. She’s running interference for me, taking care of the police, the doctors, and the paperwork, because I can no longer function.
I retreat back into my head and everything around me fades.
I want so badly for someone else to make this decision for me. I do not feel strong enough. I do not have the courage to make this decision on my own. I am messed up and I know it. I was on heavy psychiatric medication until I found out about this pregnancy.
“Get rid of the man and you won’t need these anymore,” my psychiatrist would say before writing out my monthly scripts. He knew about the abuse.
I didn’t listen. I let myself be ripped apart inside and out and now I don’t think I can ever recover. I have been in so many bad relationships. I just can’t stop myself. I have invested 4 ½ years in this one. It is obvious to me now that I am not capable of making decisions on my own. How can I bring a child into a world I have no grasp on?
I am torn between having this nightmare end and the belief – that has been hammered into me – that abortion is murder. Maybe I will not have to choose. Maybe it has already been chosen for me.
“Sarah Bryant,” I hear someone call out.
I turn around and see a woman standing in a hallway, wearing hospital scrubs, her eyes circling the waiting room. As I stand, I feel like I’ve been in a car wreck. Every part of me hurts. I follow the ultrasound technician down the hall, moving anxiously towards fate, my sister walking quietly beside me.
The ultrasound room is dark except for the soft glow of the monitor mounted in the right corner of the wall near the ceiling and the computer screen at the left end of the bed where the technician is sitting. I lie down on the bed and stare at the white, paneled ceiling and dark florescent lights.
“Your chart says you are here because of a trauma?” the technician asks.
She is thin, with shoulder-length, dark-brown hair. The glow from the computer screen gives her the aura of an angel. I am hesitant to answer and I look towards my sister.
“Yes,” my sister says, “Her boyfriend assaulted her. She was knocked unconscious and is having stomach cramps. The ER doctor told her to get an ultrasound to find out the status of the baby.”
I turn towards the technician waiting for the look – the one that I have seen in so many others that says, “What the hell were you doing with a guy like that? Are you stupid?” – but it never comes.
“I am sorry you had to go through that,” she says, smiling warmly.
I am trying so hard not to cry, to seem like I am tough and can handle this. My sister is sitting to the right of the bed. She is beautiful with her makeup on and her curly red hair piled high on her head and so professional in her business clothes. I can tell she is tired though – maybe of me. I am pale, eyes swollen and red, with unkempt, dirty-blond hair.
“It’s ready now,” the technician says, “This is going to be cold.”
I wince at the coldness as she places the wand deep inside me moving around searching for life. I look at the monitor and can see nothing but lifeless, dark silhouettes. Anxiety starts to build once again and my mind races with questions. What am I going to do if this baby is alive? What am I going to do if this baby is dead? What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What am I going to do?
My thoughts are stopped short when something catches my eye.
“See this,” the technician says pointing towards the monitor.
I force my eyes to focus and I can see the fluttering of a tiny butterfly’s translucent wings. Tears form warm rivers down the center of my cheeks. I cannot hold them back anymore. I am awestruck. There, deep within me, is life; something I thought had died a long time ago. I squeeze my eyes shut, afraid I might be mistaken. When I open them again, though, I can see it more clearly: a baby butterfly, surrounded in a halo of white light, alive and protected in its liquid cocoon. Nothing can harm it. Not even me.
Only a month and a half has passed and I am in a new town, with a new job, and a brand new chance at life. Two weeks after the assault, I received a phone call about a job I had applied for nearly six months before. It required a move to a small college town two hours away, but I quickly found a new place to live.
“How was school today?” I ask Matthew as I reach over my increasing belly to place the soft tortillas on the dining room table in our new home. The walls are a soothing beige color. The hardwood floors cool on my swollen feet. The unfamiliarity of this place makes me feel safe.
“It was alright” he says, but I know the move has not been easy for him. I smile as he turns his head and looks up at me. I place my hand on his back as I reach over to set down the sour cream.
Sleep comes quick and deep these days. The move, the new job, and the new home have fallen into place effortlessly, my seemingly endless streak of bad luck transforming into something wonderful. I am even starting to entertain the idea that there is something beyond me coaxing these things into place.
My due date is still several months away, but I want to make sure that I have everything in order. I call Human Resources at my new job, explain what I need, and after collecting my information, the woman puts me on hold.
“Sarah, I am sorry, but according to our records you will not qualify for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.” She informs me that I must be employed here for twelve months to qualify. Once my leave extends past the two-week vacation time I have accrued, I will be let go. She also tells me that my health insurance will be canceled at the end of the two-week period.
I am stunned, speechless.
In my haste to start over, I had not considered the possibility that I wouldn’t qualify for time off from my new job to give birth.
“I have to put you on bed rest,” my doctor says and I know things will go downhill from here. She has held out as long as she can because I told her my job situation. I know there is nothing else I can do.
It is two weeks till my due date and I am lying in bed – unemployed and uninsured – my severely swollen legs propped up on pillows, fearful they might split open at any moment.
“Screw you,” I say to the spackled, white heaven above me.
I roll over, situating another pillow under my enormous belly, and go to sleep for a very long time.
The scalpel slices smoothly across my swollen belly and the wail of a baby reverberates around the cold, sterile room.
“I haven’t even taken him out yet and he’s already screaming,” the doctor says, laughing, “This one’s a wild one.”
It is Good Friday and I am lying paralyzed from drugs on the operating table.
“Look here,” the nurse says holding my new baby over my head, “he’s been kissed by an angel.” I can see she is pointing to the pronounced red birthmark in the center of his forehead.
“An angel’s kiss,” I say, deliriously happy, before succumbing to a drug-induced sleep.
I take him home on a warm Easter Sunday and introduce him to the new world I have created for him.
I stand to greet the director. He is a tall, thin man with graying hair and a soft demeanor. We step into a small meeting room and sit down at a round table in the center of the room.
I wait for him to speak. It is all I can do. Without work since my son’s birth, I’ve decided to return to school full-time. Because I have been attending school part-time for several years, my student loans are nearly depleted. The only way I can return full-time is to find an alternate way to pay for the costs.
“Let me tell you a little bit about us,” he says. He tells me that the scholarship program is named in honor of Dr. Ronald E. McNair, one of the astronauts who died in the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986.
Memories come rushing back as if they had been just below the surface waiting for the perfect moment to break free. I can see the smiling faces of the crew members; the bright orange explosion in the sky; the cold, gray courtyard at Walker Jr. High; and the dark nights of begging.
“Yes,” I say to him, “I watched the Challenger launch from my school in Orlando.” I tell him about the impact the experience had on my life.
I am sitting outside in the soft, green grass enjoying the shade of a large oak tree. In front of me is a lake offering up twinkling layers of gold as it yields to the warm, summer breeze. I pull out a picture from my journal of the Challenger crew members and my mind wanders to the questions I’ve been asking myself for the past few weeks since I met with the director.
Did God really hear me that night so many years ago? Was it Ronald McNair’s spirit that heard me? Is this just a coincidence, or the proof I’ve been seeking? Why did I have to endure so many years of hell to get to this point?
“Maybe,” I think, “Just maybe, miracles have been all around me and I just couldn’t see them. Maybe I didn’t want to.”
I look down at the picture and feel an overwhelming sense of peace. It looks like Ronald McNair is staring right back at me and I lean in to get a closer look. All of the sudden I see his smile widen and then he winks. I look away quickly – a little spooked – just in time to see a large, vibrantly-colored butterfly following the sparkling trail of the sun and disappearing where water and sky collide.