Page 53 of Pretend Ring Girl

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She reaches to tug it from my wrist, but I turn away from her before she can touch it. “Mom, stop! I just want to go to bed.”

But that minor act of defiance opens the floodgate of her frustration.

Her hand slaps across my cheek, the pain like a lightning bolt that makes my eye feel as if it’s about to burst. She’s never hit me before, and the shock almost immobilizes me. I duck my head just before the onslaught.

“Spoiled, slutty, defiant, disrespectful daughter!” She shouts, raining blows on my head and shoulders.

I wish I could say I fight back, but I can’t. I’m frozen, and I just stand there and take it.

Just then, the front door slams open. “What in the HELL is going on here?” My father’s voice bellows, and it’s enough to stop Mom in her tracks.

A sob escapes me, but I don’t dare look up.

I know what he sees: me, standing in a tight dress and heels, hunched and protecting my head from my mom. My necklace broken on the floor. The empty beer bottle where she left it on the kitchen table.

“Christina, what the hell is wrong with you?” Heavy footsteps approach, and my dad’s warm arms wrap around my shoulders. It’s as if he’s suddenly turned me from stone back into a real girl, and I sag into him, the tears like a flash flood on my cheeks.

“Oh sure, play it up,” my mom snorts. “You should know your precious baby girl just strolled in ten minutes ago, dressed like a prostitute, after ignoring my texts and calls all night.”

Dad hugs me to his chest, and his voice is savage when he responds. “She’s a grown woman, Chris. We knew she had plans to go out. You should be happy she was home as early as she is. Why the hell were you calling her so much? If there was an emergency, you should have called me.”

“It was your boys’ night, and the LT called me to come in. I needed her to babysit. We agreed-”

“WeagreedSloane babysits three nights a week, and as needed, if shedoesn’thave other plans. Besides, we talked about this. The LT knows you’re desperate to promote, and he’s taking advantage of you. Picking up every spare shift won’t get you his job. You have to stop running yourself ragged, and then taking out your frustration on the kids.”

Mom’s voice breaks. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I just was so angry, and frustrated, and then she strolled in here like no big deal and I lost it.”

I’ve still got my head buried in my dad’s burly chest.

“Sloane, honey, are you okay?” He pulls me back gently to meet my gaze. “Jesus Christina, she’s got a fucking welt on her cheek and it looks like you tried to strangle her. What thefuck? We deal with domestics all the time, and you’re always so horrified. I don’t understand how you can do this to your own daughter.Lookat her.” He turns me gently to face my mother.

As soon as he points them out, I can feel the injuries he’s describing. And one look at my mom’s horrified face tells me it’s just as bad as he says.

“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry-” she steps toward me with her arms wide, but I flinch away. I don’t do it on purpose, but instinct takes over. The depth of sadness in her face tells me just how badly she feels, but the damage is done.

My dad’s voice is resigned. “Just… get the ice pack and let me take care of it,” he tells her. “Maybe you ought to go to our room to cool off.”

Mom doesn’t make another sound. She grabs the ice pack from the freezer and leaves it on the table, then takes a bottle of water from the fridge and heads to their room.

“Come here, baby girl.” Dad leads me gently to the kitchen table and settles me into a seat before handing me the ice pack. “Put this on your cheek.” It feels wonderfully cold against the hot sting, and he looks closer at my neck under the light. “I think your neck will bruise a little, but it shouldn’t be too bad.”

I nod in silence. So much has happened in the last forty-eight hours I feel a peculiar numbness settling over me.

Dad hops up and grabs me a bottle of water and some ibuprofen. “This will help with the swelling.”

I take the pills and continue to stare listlessly int the distance.

“Honey, I… I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry this happened.”

I shrug. “It’s not your fault.”

“No, it is. I knew your mom was overdoing it with trying to catch up at work, but I thought she was handling it. She feels like she has something to prove. I just didn’t realize she was capable of something likethis.”

I don’t say anything, but the truth is, I did know. Some part of me has been terrified of her anger since I was little. She’s never struck me, but I’ve always been afraid that she might.

Now I know that fear is justified.

“Are you going to be okay?” My dad’s voice is so anxious, I have to draw my focus to him. And what I see shocks me—I’ve never seen my big, strong dad look more helpless.

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