by Brian J. Jarrett
Foreigners, Richard Ray thought as he turned down one of St. Louis’ blue-collar side streets, leaving the main road behind. Small, modest houses passed on either side of the one-way street, a street so narrow that Richard thought he might clip the mirrors of the cars parked on both shoulders.
Crammed in like sardines. They deserved as much. Barely able to speak English, they clung to their old beliefs and habits, much to Richard’s chagrin. He’d already been on three home visits this week, and it was only Tuesday. Two Bosnian families and one black family, all reports by school staff about abuse.
Richard couldn’t prove abuse in the case of the black family, but they didn’t give a fuck either way. They couldn’t be bothered even to pay attention during the interview. Sitting on their dirty couch in a three hundred dollar apartment wasn’t the way Richard wanted to spend his workday. He didn’t want to be there any more than they wanted him there, but at least they could put some effort into it.
And the Bosnians…they were a different breed altogether.
He photographed bruises on the kids in both homes. The parents had been angry at first, the father in one home even threatening to punch Richard in the mouth. But a little talk about deportation set that asshole straight. Probably nothing would happen, the state would just let things go on like they always did, but at least Richard had gotten a little bit of something out of the experience.
Richard’s parents had both been lifelong alcoholics and professional losers, so sending Richard to college wasn’t even a consideration. He had an aunt on his mother’s side, though; a lonely spinster with a little money and no one to spend it on. She offered to pay for the nieces’ and nephews’ education, but with a catch: they all had to go into public service.
Without a means to fund his college, Richard took Aunt Kay up on her offer. He wondered if he should have been a teacher, now some ten years into the game, but with Aunt Kay dead and buried and her money dried up, going back to school wasn’t an option. The salary of a social worker didn’t exactly add up to much, surely not enough to fund an effort to go back to school and do something different. Richard remained caught in his catch-22: to earn more money he needed school, but to go to school he needed more money—money he didn’t have.
His twelve-year-old Honda Civic sputtered along the street, a car he hated but couldn’t afford to replace. The best he could afford on his shitty salary. He passed cars on either side of the street that looked very much like his own. He hated that. Rolling up on a house, he needed authority. To let these people know that he was in charge. That he should be respected. But driving a car as bad or worse than theirs only reinforced a notion that he was no better than they were. He couldn’t even afford nice clothes, instead sporting threadbare trousers and shirts with stains that just wouldn’t come clean.
Richard glanced at the opened manila folder lying atop the others on the passenger seat, reading the address printed at the top of the first sheet of white paper. He scanned the small houses, following their numbers as they ascended. Five houses up he found the address he needed, but cars packed the street out front, forcing him to go on a search for a parking spot.
He found a too-small space just up from his next stop and so he parked the car, barely squeezing in. He got out and tucked the manila folder under this arm before closing the car door. He locked it with the key, wishing he had remote locks and feeling that frustration of inadequacy rise up again. He saw the usual rust spots above the rear wheel well and wondered if it had spread since last year when he swore he was going to trade his piece of shit car in for a new one.
So much for that.
Tucking the keys in his pocket, he shook his head and made off toward the house in question. Dogs barked in back yards as people yammered on porches in gibberish Richard couldn’t understand. He hated that sound, like monkeys chattering in tree tops. The blacks could barely speak English too, but at least they didn’t have some other gobbledygook language to fall back on, talking shit about him as he sat there. The foreigners always talked trash about him in their tongue; he could tell by the tone and the look in their eye.
He arrived at crumbling concrete steps leading up to a one-story made of cheap brick. A deteriorating roof capped the structure. Weeds grew alongside in an unkempt yard that hadn’t seen a mower in at least a month. All the places Richard visited were like this; falling apart at the seams with beady-eyed little cockroaches spilling out like the guts of a dead cow bloating in the hot sun.
Richard climbed the steps and stood in front of the door. He took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. Feet shuffled from behind the door as a dog barked somewhere in the distance, probably from the back yard. With his luck, the place would smell like wet dog, or whatever spices they used in their cooking back home.
The door opened, and a young blonde girl answered. She had big round eyes set within an attractive face, despite a nose that was a little too large. Typical with foreigners, especially the ones with Jewish history. Richard recognized her from the case photos. Amila was her name. Despite it all, the name was almost pleasant rolling off the tongue.
Richard introduced himself. “Are your parents home?”
Amila looked at him like he was a Nazi soldier there to paint a star of David on her house. Eventually, she nodded.
“May I come in?”
Another pause, that same fearful look on her face. A few tense seconds passed.
“Of course,” she finally said. Her accent was thick, but not too difficult to understand. Second generation immigrants tended to speak English better than their parents.
Amila opened the door, and Richard stepped inside the modest house onto a torn linoleum floor. A strong smell, leeks or possibly ramps, filled the air. Some of the shit these people cooked…how they could even eat it Richard couldn’t understand.
He scanned the house like he always did when working a case file. He took mental notes as he did, looking for signs of cockroaches and other vermin. He’d seen his fair share of filth over the years. Once, he’d worked the case of an eight-year-old girl who lived with her hoarder mother. Richard had gotten the girl removed, but mom had promised to clean up to get her daughter back. They found the family cat’s remains in a back room, squashed flat like a pancake between layers of collected garbage.
But Amila’s house didn’t look too bad, all things considered. A little run down, sure, but reasonably clean. Surprising, given the state of the front yard. The backrooms Richard hadn’t inspected yet, but if the living room and dining room were clean, it stood to reason the rest of the house would be too.
As he eliminated unsanitary conditions from his mental checklist, the father entered the room. He wore a white wifebeater tank top t-shirt, the front speckled with old stains. Yellow sweat marks stained the shirt below the armpits. He wore black sweatpants, rounding out the ensemble with blue flip-flops. If there were such a thing as the fashion police, they’d have arrested the guy on the spot.
“Ajdin Beganovic?” Richard asked.
The man in the wifebeater nodded vigorously. He extended his hand.
Richard begrudgingly shook it. “Mr. Beganovic…”
“Please…call me Ajdin.”
Richard’s mouth formed a thin line. He didn’t like using their first names. He preferred to keep things formal; it made things easier when you had to come back and remove their children.
“I’m Richard Ray, with the Department of Social services.” Richard glanced around the room. “Is your wife home?”
Ajdin shook his head. “So sorry…she is out.” The elder Beganovic grinned, revealing disintegrating teeth. “Shopping. Women, right?”
Richard nodded, keeping his expression stoic. “I’m here because someone called the tip line.”
“Tip line?” Ajdin asked.
“They telephoned us,” Richard said, slower this time. “The person calling was concerned about your daughter’s welfare.”
Ajdin glanced at his daughter, his brow furrowing as fear crept into the corners of his eyes. “Amila? I do not understand. Amila is fine. There is no problem.”
Richard observed Amila, noting her expression. She nodded vigorously, a smile spreading across her nervous face. “I am fine,” she said. “There is no reason to worry about me.”
Richard nodded again. “All the same, I have to investigate any claims made to our department. That’s my job. I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course,” Ajdin said. “You must do your job.” He motioned toward the living room. “Please, Mister Ray. Have seat and talk with us for some time. You will see there is nothing wrong here and that we are happy family.”
Ajdin said something to his daughter in Bosnian, and she hurried off toward the kitchen.
Richard felt his chest tighten at the sound of yet another foreign conversation. “I have a few questions for you, Mister Beganovic,” he said, opening his leather satchel and removing the manila folder containing the paperwork for the case.
Ajdin looked at the forms with some concern.
“Just standard forms that I have to fill out for everyone,” Richard said. They were supposed to say that, to put the interviewee at ease. Keep them from getting spooked.
Amila returned shortly with a plate of pastries she’d gathered from the kitchen. “Tea will be ready in few minutes,” she said, bending down to place the tray on the coffee table. As she did, the front of her blouse opened enough to allow Richard to see down her shirt.
Richard hadn’t planned on looking, but it was a natural reaction. A man couldn’t help it. And as long as he looked away he wasn’t a pervert.
Richard wasn’t a pervert, but he couldn’t look away.
He couldn’t look away because the skin covering the young girl’s chest had been cut to ribbons.
Brutal slashes crisscrossed the pale skin, across both small breasts and stretching down to her stomach. To Richard, it looked as if the wounds had been made by a whip or a cane of some sort. The skin was red in most places; bruised a sickening purple color in others. Some of the wounds were so severe that the skin lay split open and exposed.
Amila noticed Richard staring. She stood quickly, clutching her chest, a look of fear spreading over her face. She glanced at her father. Richard knew that look; the look of a girl who received regular beatings at the hands of the person responsible for their welfare. Richard had seen that look more than he cared to admit and it made him sick to his stomach each time.
But this abuse, this level of savagery…it was something Richard had never seen before. This level of brutality was unprecedented in his career.
Richard glared at Ajdin Beganovic. He didn’t have to say a word; he said everything he needed to with his eyes.
A look of fear similar to Amila’s spread over Ajdin’s face. But Richard knew this look; it was the look of an abuser who’d finally been found out. The look of a man who beat the innocent and knew he now had to pay the price for his sins.
“Please, Mister Ray,” Ajdin began. “You do not understand.”
“Oh, I understand,” Richard said, standing. He felt the adrenaline flow into his system, making his legs a little shaky. At this point, he was supposed to excuse himself, get out of the house, and call the police. That was protocol. Considering this man was capable of whipping his daughter until her skin ruptured, who knew what he’d do to an outsider poking his nose in?
But if he left that girl inside this house, this literal Hell on Earth, what would happen to her? Would he kill her before the police came? If that happened, Richard would be in a world of shit.
No, he needed to get the girl out of there. He hadn’t a second to lose.
“Your daughter needs to come with me,” Richard said. His voice was shaky from all the adrenaline, but he held firm.
Ajdin continued to plead. “Please, you do not understand. Everything is fine here.”
Amila nodded emphatically. “I am good. No problems here,” she said, still clutching her the top of her blouse. “Please just leave us be.”
Richard shook his head. She’d been in this violent cycle so long that she’d developed Stockholm Syndrome.
“You need to come with me now,” Richard said. He turned to Ajdin. “I’m authorized by the state to remove this minor from the home if I see signs of abuse.” That wasn’t exactly correct, but close enough. Just let the fucker try and call him on it.
“No abuse. Everything is fine,” Ajdin reiterated. “Please, just leave us.”
Ajdin stood and took a step toward Richard.
“Stay where you are, Mister Beganovic. I’ll remind you that my office knows where I am and if anything happens to me, anything at all, you’ll be held responsible. Harming a state employee is a felony. You’ll go to jail for life, and your daughter will be placed in foster care.” While all of that might not have exactly been true either, Richard pulled out all the stops to keep this man, this monster, at bay.
Tears had begun to stream down Amila’s cheeks. “Please leave us,” she pleaded. “You do not understand.”
“I understand plenty,” Richard said. He glared at the senior Beganovic. “It’s you who doesn’t get it, sir.”
Richard gripped the teenage girl by the arm and pulled her along. She fought, but not much.
Ajdin took another step toward them. “Please let my daughter go. You do not understand.” He was practically begging now.
Richard held firm. He gathered up the case file before heading toward the front door with Amila in tow. She was crying now, begging to be released back to her tormentor. That’s the way the cycle of abuse worked. It was why battered women went back to their abusive husbands again and again.
Not this time. No way Richard would let this girl go back into that monster’s clutches. Maybe he’d never really wanted to be a social worker. Maybe it didn’t pay shit. Maybe it was a dead-end, thankless job. But today he’d at least do something worthwhile.
Today he’d be a goddamn hero.
Richard emerged through the front door with Amila in hand. Both she and her father now chattered back and forth in Bosnian. Richard couldn’t understand what they said, but the words came out choppy and fast, coated with fear. No wonder really; their world was about to change forever. Richard almost smiled at that.
Richard pulled Amila by the arm as they neared his car. He fumbled for his keys, dropping the case file onto the front sidewalk as Ajdin pursued, still chattering in Bosnian.
“Fuck!” Richard yelled. He retrieved the key fob from his front pocket, unlocked the doors, and proceeded to stuff Amila into the back seat. She resisted, struggling harder this time. Richard gripped her tightly, maybe too tightly, but he had to do what he had to do. The end would justify the means.
After some struggle, Richard finally got the teenage girl into his back seat. The neighbors had come out for the show now, all foreigners. A chubby, middle-aged woman wearing a stained apron clutched her ample bosom as she watched the scene play out like some real-life soap opera. Richard shot her a harsh, mind-your-own-business look. On the porch behind her, an ancient man with a three-day-old beard watched through smoky eyes.
Never mind the neighbors, he thought. Just get the girl out of here.
Ajdin crowded Richard now, screaming at him in Bosnian, his eyes full and flush with fear.
“Back away, sir!” Richard yelled, pushing Ajdin away. He pushed a little too hard, and the older man fell to the ground, landing on his backside in the overgrown grass. Apron Lady gasped; her hand covering her mouth in exaggerated fear.
Richard glanced around to find even more neighbors watching the scene. Let them gawk. Let them call the police. Richard would be notifying the cops anyway. Might as well expedite the process.
Richard slid behind the wheel of his Honda Civic. With a shaky hand, he shoved the key in the ignition and twisted. The overworked and aging engine turned over like an obedient dog. It might not be pretty, but the old beast always started. Richard had to admit the foreigners sure as hell could build engines.
With Amila sobbing in the back seat, Richard shoved the transmission into drive. He glanced over at Ajdin, still sitting in his unkempt front yard, hands outstretched, tears forming in his eyes.
Richard could only shake his head as he pulled away from the curb and onto the street.
His hands still shaky from the adrenaline rush, Richard blew through a stop sign, making a left turn. He stomped the gas pedal, speeding up another side street. The police barracks were ten, maybe twelve blocks away. That’s where he’d take the girl. There he would let the cops see the wounds. They could take pictures, do the paperwork and whatever else needed to be done.
He’d made the right call, removing the girl from the residence. It hadn’t been by the book, and it hadn’t been pretty, but it was necessary.
It was a hell of a rush, what just happened back at the Beganovic house. He wondered now if maybe he should have become a cop.
Richard glanced in the rearview, adjusting it down so he could catch a glimpse of Amila. She lay on the back seat in the fetal position, sobbing, her face buried in her hands.
“I’m sorry it had to happen this way,” Richard said. “I didn’t want things to get nasty, but your father left me no choice.”
He received no response from the back seat.
Richard slowed at a stop sign, reminding himself not to run it. He looked both ways, ensuring the intersection was clear before pulling out again.
He glanced in the rearview. The girl hadn’t moved. She still covered her face, but the crying appeared to have stopped.
“You’ll be safe with the police,” Richard said. “You might not understand this now, but this is for your own good. What your father was doing to you was wrong. Here in the United States, we don’t let that kind of thing happen. We protect our own. Now that you’re here you’ll come to understand that.”
Another stop sign approached. Richard slowed, looked both ways, and pulled out again.
Silence filled the car’s interior as the Civic’s four-cylinder engine buzzed, slipping out of first gear and into second. Richard traveled the block, slowing at another stop sign. He checked Amila in the rearview. She still lay in the back seat, curled up in the same position.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Amila, do you hear me?”
The girl lay motionless.
Had something happened to Amila as he’d struggled to get her in the back seat? She hadn’t hit her head, had she? Richard tried to remember, but the whole scene was a blur now. Maybe her injuries from the abuse were worse than he’d originally thought. Her wounds could be infected. Maybe that infection had spread, weakening her system. The stress and trauma of her removal from the home could have overwhelmed her.
“Amila?” Richard asked, his voice wavering.
Still, the girl didn’t respond.
Richard pulled through the stop sign, engaged the right turn signal, and pulled to the curb. He placed the transmission into park, considered the hazard lights, then thought better of it. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, not yet.
Something’s not right with her, a little voice in his head said.
She’s just upset, he reminded himself. Probably overwhelmed. Understandable, given the circumstances. But he still needed to make sure she was okay.
Richard turned around to check on her.
Amila sat up now in the back seat. Her shirt was off, lying on the seat beside her. The skin on her chest and her stomach had all turned that same bruise-purple color. It now had spread halfway down her arms, and up through the center of her chest between her breasts. On her shoulders thin, shingle-like scales covered her skin.
But what stopped Richard cold, what cemented him in place with his mouth agape and his eyes wide, was the girl’s face. It had changed; no longer did she look like a teenage girl. Now she was something altogether different. Sharp fangs extended from her upper and lower gums, protruding past thin, black lips. Dark purple scales covered her forehead and her cheeks, her nostrils now wide and flaring.
Her eyes were yellow now, the pupils no longer circles but tight, vertical ovals.
A quiet growl formed in the back of the Amila-thing’s throat as she stared right through him, those yellow eyes penetrating deep into his mind.
He tried to move, but he couldn’t. It was as if he’d been glued to the spot.
Richard remembered Ajdin’s words as he sat, frozen to the spot.
You do not understand.
Now Richard understood.
Now he understood plenty.
He understood everything as the monster in the back seat sank her fangs deep into his throat and began to feed.
Copyright © 2017 Brian J. Jarrett