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One Night

What would you do if your child was faced with a quick death or a short life of pain and torture?

By Elizabeth Kaye DaughertyPublished about a year ago 12 min read
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I met a woman from South Africa while living and working in America. We got along well, and she volunteered to tell me the story of how she decided to leave her country and what life was like while she was there.

This is a snapshot of her life in South Africa. Names have been changed to protect those involved.

***

The sun beat down on the streets of Lesitele. I fastened my daughter into her seat, listening for the satisfying click that promised her safety. I closed the heavy truck door and slipped into my own seat, dropping my wallet and bag onto the passenger seat.

A breeze fluttered through the open windows, bringing the scent of street vendors as they rotated their wares: tanned leather, perfumes, and fresh vegetables including the ones I’d supplied them with. I took a deep breath and smiled back at my daughter through the rearview mirror. She kicked her legs and smiled, too, and then her gaze moved past me.

I snapped my attention to the other side of the windshield and found a familiar face. “Hey,” I said through the open window. “Luan. What are you doing?”

Luan smiled at me, the sunlight washing over his sweat-soaked skin. His shirt stuck to his body, what was once probably white but had been stained brown from his years of long, hard labor in the rural farm fields. Including mine and my husband’s. “Leanne, how are you?”

“It’s a good day,” I replied, craning my head through the open window. “Oh, your watch.”

Luan held up his wrist, a leather strap wrapped around it sporting a shining, square watch face.

“I got my husband one just like it for his birthday,” I said. “It looks good.”

“You both have good taste.” His smile shifted and bordered on lecherous.

I leaned back. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have much time to chat.”

He pointed his hand to my driver’s side wheel. “I don’t mean to bother you, but your tire looks low on air.”

I craned my neck further. “Really?”

I reached to unfasten my seatbelt then open my door, but motion in my peripheral view gave me pause. A pair of arms rushed through the open window and latched around my wallet. Hands palmed it.

“Hey!”

My daughter jumped.

I threw the door open and launched out of the car. The hands let go of my bag and retreated as quickly as they’d invaded.

“Stop!” I lost my voice on the wind and the sounds of the parking lot with its muttering engines and clamor of the nearby street.

I hoisted my daughter into my arms and pressed her to my chest where her rapid breaths tangled in my hair.

I turned to Luan, but Luan was gone.

I grit my teeth and hurried to the other side of my car, scanning the crowd over my daughter’s head and squinting against the harsh glare of the great sun overhead. We charged ahead and into the crowd milling between street-side stalls as my daughter clutched my shirt. “Mommy,” she mewled. “Where are we going?”

I shushed her and stroked her light hair as I wove between bodies of neighbors, of strangers, and of customers. None of them were Luan. None of them were his thief accomplice.

The sound of jaunty laughter crashed against my ears. I followed the sound of it with my eyes, next, and found myself before a group of policemen outside a barber shop. One of them sat with a cloak across his chest and legs as one of the women trimmed his short, dark hair.

“Thank God,” I breathed, and they paused their conversation to watch me approach. “Officers, you have to help me. I’ve been robbed!”

The one in the chair looked me and my daughter up and down. “Not of your tongue, it seems.”

“Please, sir, they can’t have gone far. I know one of the men who stole from me.”

One of the other policemen lifted an eyebrow. “Are you sure you didn’t just forget that you loaned him something?”

My jaw fell. “I would remember giving a man permission to take my entire wallet!”

“Listen,” the man in the chair spoke again. “Young white thing like you? Be glad they didn’t kill you before they robbed you. And that they didn’t take your pretty little girl with them.”

I managed to hold my back straight and my head up as the world around me teetered. “Are you saying you won’t go after the thieves?”

“I’m saying you should think about helping us out,” his tone chided me while he put forth a smooth, wet smile. “You’ve got to have friends, right? White women? Single, want to get married? I’ve always wanted to marry a white woman.”

I looked away, scanning the crowd when I knew by now the men who stole from me had gotten away.

The officer leaned forward, his cover slipping to the side to show his name stitched into his uniform. Officer Chapel. In his hand, outstretched, was 10ZAR. “Hey,” he said in a low, whisper-voice to my daughter in my arms. “Why don’t you take this, little girl? Talk to your mom.”

Wide-eyed, my naïve daughter twisted from my body and reached. I jerked us both backwards. “Don’t touch that, Helena. If you’re not going to help, then…”

“Come on,” he chided, his words glancing off of my back. “You have to give help to get help.”

But I didn’t hear him. I didn’t look back. I closed the door of my car on the outside world and blinked through my tears on the drive home.

Ofcolaco. The rolling fields of green farmland peppered with the stony farmhouses of my neighbors once had made me feel safe, like I belonged. But now the long shadows of twilight spread along the road to welcome me back.

I pulled up to our farm and unstrapped my daughter in silence. She draped sleepily over my shoulder and nestled against me beneath the eaves of our farmhouse.

“David,” I said in a low, hushed tone as I shouldered open the door.

My husband found his place at my side. “Leanne, Helena,” he cradled our daughter’s head and ushered us inside. “Come, quickly. Did you hear or see anything?”

“What’s going on?”

David sighed, then dumped a kiss on Helena’s forehead. She stirred in my arms. “Let’s put her to bed,” he said. “Then we can speak.”

Words we didn’t say weighed on me as I headed to the back of the house to our daughter’s room. We passed through a gate in the hallway and unlocked two doors to get there. If only I’d had these kinds of protections on my car, earlier…

I pulled Helena’s clothes off of her and settled her under blankets. “Good night, my beautiful princess.” I kissed both of her cheeks.

She giggled in her tiny, tinkling voice. “Night, Mommy.”

My husband leaned over her and tucked the blankets tightly under her arms. “Sweet dreams.”

“Daddy…” she said sleepily, before her eyes closed as she drifted off.

We stood together, watching her. Peaceful. Serene. I hoped that her youth would let her forget today’s memories when she got older.

The last remnants of light began to wink out of the sky.

“Did you pass anyone on the road?” David asked as he reached the kitchen, near the front of the house. He took ground coffee from the cabinets.

I shook my head. “I saw Luan in Lesitele.”

My husband waved the words off. “No, I don’t think he would know.”

“I have to tell you something,” I said. “About Luan.”

“Please,” I heard his voice drag like tired feet, sore from walking miles uphill. “I should tell you my news first. It’s about the Smith family.”

“The Smiths?” I repeated, dumbly. “On the other side of the fields?”

He nodded, but the motion was grim and heavy. “They’re dead.”

I made a gasping sound, but it felt more like choking. “Another robbery?”

David sagged as he closed the top of the coffee maker. “I would not tell you if it were not for the circumstances. The husband was the fortunate one. A clean shot through the head. His wife… suffice to say there were many men that raided their farm last night.”

I hadn’t realized it, but I pressed my back into a chair as my legs gave way under me. My hands and legs became icy cold. “And their son?”

“Praise be to God, they didn’t find him. He’s the only survivor. Not even the dogs… We need more security,” David parsed his words. “More than locks. More than alarms.”

“No sleeping,” I muttered.

“Shift sleeping,” he said as the coffee pot filled with deep brown liquid. “This is why I had to tell you. I wanted to ask if you would take the first watch. I can get to work as soon as the sun rises, that way.”

I nodded, more out of habit than an honest response.

“What happened in Lesitele?” David asked. I wasn’t sure how long the pregnant pause in our conversation had stalled us.

Like coming up for air in a half-frozen pond, the memories flooded to me with sharp clarity. “Luan robbed me,” I said. “Him, and someone he knew. They took it all…. everything we made today.”

My husband knelt before me and cooed softly as he brushed aside the tears that had gathered on my face. “Not everything,” he whispered.

He set a mug of warm coffee in my hands.

“David…” I muttered, my vision drifting over my husband’s hands. “Where’s your watch?”

His already grim face somehow darkened another shade. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

My stomach soured and I set the coffee aside.

David stood upright and ran his hand through his thinning hair. New silver strands caught the low light as he did. Then he went to the sink with a glass he took from the cabinet and filled it with water from the tap. He slugged it all back with deep gulps. “So that I’ll wake up in a few hours.”

I nodded, then took a tentative sip from my mug.

David leaned forward and put his lips to mine. “I should get to bed. I’ll see you in a while.”

I took a deep breath and nodded. I got up and turned the kitchen light off behind him, bringing the chair with me and into our daughter’s room. I quietly positioned myself in the center and tucked a leg under me as I cradled my warm drink in my lap.

Night settled over the house like a fog. It seeped into the foundation in thin slips between the doors and the walls, through gaps in the windows, and swirled on my skin.

I filled my coffee cup once more. My daughter stirred under her blankets but didn’t wake.

Our breaths measured the night. For hours, I sat at the door to her room in silence that gradually became comfortable, foot tucked neatly beneath me and resting my cup on the bent leg.

A light glimmered in the corner of my eye. A number of things crossed my mind as to what it could be: a firefly that had gotten in the house, the winking of a star or satellite through the window, a passing flashlight in the distance, and then the more obvious thing, David’s phone.

At not quite two in the morning, it’d be odd for his phone to ring. I narrowed my eyes and nearly teetered the chair as I leaned forward to listen for its buzzing.

The light came again, and I snagged a better look at the shape of it. A reflection from the face of a watch. David’s watch. The same watch I’d seen on Luan’s wrist.

The calm of the night crashed around me as a man grunted, bedsheets flew, and feet hammered the floorboards.

The dark air caught in my throat when I surged forward. My mug clattered to the ground and splashed lukewarm coffee. I thrust my leg from under me and it cracked against the ground, throwing me off my balance. I dropped, colliding hard enough with the floor my teeth clicked. White hot pain lanced from my ankle to my hip, spreading numbness in its wake as I struggled to right my limbs beneath me.

“Leanne!” My husband’s voice tore through the air.

He rammed against the bedroom door, flooding his silhouette with light before the shadows of men descended on him from all sides. The doorway darkened again.

I shouted something, but I couldn’t hear myself.

Hoisting myself up with the help of my daughter’s bedroom doorknob, which I promptly slammed hard shut behind me, I stood upright and throbbing. I slumped forward and caught myself on the opposite wall and the thunderous sounds of fighting spun around me.

I scrambled along the length of plaster to our bedroom door, but the room was empty. Our bedsheets were half torn off, stunk of sweat, and boasted a swatch of bright blood across David’s pillowcase. I collapsed against the mattress and drug my body forward and over to my bedside table. My nails dug into wood as I threw open its drawer.

I palmed the weight of our 3.57 magnum as heavily as the two truths that surfaced in my mind, cold as the gun’s metal. David was hurt and outnumbered. If my husband wasn’t dead already, he would be soon. My daughter and I would be alone.

There was only one way to protect my daughter, to make sure that she never left our home in the hands of men who would steal her away. To ensure her fate was not a kind death that came after a short and painful life.

The steps I took were agonizing, summoned from strength that comes with grave surety and the knowledge that it would end soon.

Both of my hands and the barrel of the gun rattled against my daughter’s bedroom door.

“Helena,” my voice cracked. “Helena, it’s Mommy, open the door.”

Her small body would have knocked me down without the doorframe for me to steady against as I fell.

“I’m scared,” my daughter said. “I heard Daddy yelling.”

“Daddy’s fine, sweetheart,” I lied, ushering her back with my empty hand. “We’re going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.”

At once, I crushed my hip into the floor and hoisted Helena into my lap, pressed against the back corner. She squeezed a stuffed animal to her chest, her wide eyes searching mine in the darkness.

Even now, she shone with vibrance and a pure heart that deserved so much better than what I could give her in these moments. “I love you, my beautiful princess,” I said. “You know that, don’t you?”

She nodded and her tiny fingers found the tears on my cheeks, easing them away. I held her touch there, the trigger guard of the gun digging into the back of her hand.

“I love you, too, Mommy,” she said.

“Close your eyes, Helena,” my whisper brushed the cloud-soft tendrils of her hair. “Be still.”

Her gaze lingered on me for a moment longer, and then she did as I said. Her eyelashes fanned shut and she pressed into the natural curve of me, a shape that could never have been made for anyone else.

I pulled every trembling sensation away from my arm, letting it coil around my heart instead to keep it pumping for just as long as it needed to. Not more than a moment after her last breath. Helena never flinched or pulled away from the gentle pressure of the barrel on the base of her skull.

A terrible sound thundered through me. “Leanne,” David shouted as the bedroom door clattered against the wall. “Helena!”

I dropped the gun, unspent, away like a poisonous snake.

“Daddy!” Helena opened her eyes and reached forward.

Through tear-soaked eyes, I stared in awe at my husband who toppled around us. His body heaved with great, silent sobs and his arms pressed us together. Blood pooled at the corner of his mouth and patches of it had dried along his cheekbone. But he lived.

The following hours raked over us as he held each other on the floor of Helena’s bedroom. We must have moved, adjusted then readjusted, but we never left that spot until the rays of dawn bled through the panes of the nearest window.

We called the police station the moment we untangled ourselves. David’s hands were bruised, and so was his jaw. My ankle was badly sprained. The robbers had taken everything from our pantry and some jewelry from our room. But that was all.

Before lunch, I answered a knock at the front door.

When I pulled it open, a too-familiar smile greeted me. “Good morning, Leanne.”

“Good morning,” I said, without meeting his eyes. His name-tag read Chapel.

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About the Creator

Elizabeth Kaye Daugherty

Elizabeth Kaye Daugherty, or EKD for short, enjoys a good story, cats, and dragons.

Though she has always written fiction, she found a love of creative nonfiction while studying at Full Sail University.

https://linktr.ee/Ekdwriter

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