By Nicole Mancha
I shift in my chair for the fifth time in twice as many minutes, attempting to relieve the discomfort of the stiff metal backing against my spine. Dr. Maryanne Warner sits across from me, scribbling furiously. It’s exhausting to watch, so I cannot even imagine how it must be for her. She looks up every so often over the rim of those gaudy mauve cat-shaped glasses to gauge my emotions today. Her blond hair is in a chignon, and she insists on wearing a pink ensemble even though it washes her out. Unfortunate.
I had attempted to cover my arms before entering her office, but it didn’t relieve the stinging pain below the paper-thin fabric. Sleeves cover raw, angry gashes. The cloth sticks to my wounds, pulling away as I move again, and I cringe inwardly. I try to keep my stare neutral, but I must fail because Dr. Warner furrows her brows.
“Another fight, Madeline?” Dr. Warner asks with a tone that says she disapproves, but it doesn’t matter what she thinks. It won’t change our weekly visits. If I get into more fights, maybe I could come twice a week. It wasn’t like her office was any better than most of the other rooms in this joint; the concrete floors, shit lighting, and heavy metal table with no character, no pictures, or trinkets pushed against an unwelcoming gray cinder block wall. But it had one thing that none of the other ones had.
Direct sunlight filtered in through a substantial bulletproof glass window directly towards my seat. I would do a lot to get more sessions with Dr. Maryanne Warner. Whether the sessions help or not? Well, that was up to interpretation.
“Yea,” I say, smiling at her, just a bit too wide. A bit too enthusiastic. Just enough to put her on edge and provide extra entertainment during my visits. The guards on my floor used to tell me I reminded them of the Cheshire cat. If only I were full of smiles and pointless riddles instead of a sharp temper and a nasty disposition.
Dr. Warner presses her palms into the arms of the chair and adjusts. The way she then crosses her legs and folds her hands in front of her tells me I make her nervous. Good.
She clears her throat and straightens her back, attempting to look taller before she says, “So, Madeline, tell me about Tom.” Before I can help myself, my lips pull back, and my left eyelid twitches. I try to control the physical reaction before she sees it, but it is no use. Her pen hits the paper, and she scribbles a note. I squeeze my thumbs with the rest of my fingers, hearing my knuckles pop while fighting the urge to try to break out of my restraints in order to rip the ballpoint from her hands. “What about him?” I ask, as I lean forward as much as possible before it becomes uncomfortable. My ankles loop around the bottom of the chair, rubbing the sole of my worn canvas shoe against the floor, trying to ground myself before I do something stupid. I couldn’t get sent to the hole. Sunlight didn’t exist there.
“Well, your stepfather—” she started before I kicked out my leg, hitting the corner of the desk. Even the weight of it couldn’t hold my rage, and it screeched as the movement made it shift.
The guard in the corner of the room moved forward, but Dr. Warner shook her head no, even though I knew she was scared, as her eyes grew wide, and her chest hitched a breath.
“He wasn’t my stepfather. He just happened to be dating my lovely mother,” I sneered. Then, correcting my posture in the chair and leaning back, trying to control myself.
“You’re right. I apologize. But they were engaged, yes?” she asked, tapping her pen lightly on the edge of the paper, a nervous tick as she watched my movements, my breathing, the tension in my shoulders as she reminded me.
“Not for very long,” I smile. She cleared her throat and scribbled more nonsense onto her notepad.
“Maryanne, have you ever watched someone that you love, more than they probably deserve, get hurt? Like truly hurt. Not physical pain but the emotional turmoil that leaves them a shell of what they used to be?” I looked her straight in the eye, not even allowing myself to blink, holding her gaze, daring her to flinch. She hated when I used her first name. Although she would never admit it, I saw her cringe every time I chose not to use her title.
This place wanted to paint me as a predator, a wild animal, and an uncontrollable thing. If that was the case, then someone must play the role of prey.
Dr. Warner leaned slightly back in her chair, desperately trying to create space where there was none, in the cold room with cinder block walls and most anything that could be thrown bolted into place. She was the safest she could be with a security guard hovering by the door, but my presence unnerved her. She didn’t have to say so. I could see it from the slight pivot of her torso towards the wall and the way her arms gently folded in front of herself.
“No. No, I have not,” she finally responded, surprisingly, honestly. After the last nine months of meeting with me, Dr. Warner finally learned that nothing but honesty would get me to open up.
Previous psychologists tried to connect with me through shared trauma, empty promises of early release for good behavior, and even the assurance of a visitor. Still, I knew none of it would hold water. Dr. Warner was different. She knew what I needed—for someone to finally listen.
“When I first met you, you asked me about Tom. Every single appointment I come here, you ask me about Tom. Why is that?” I ask. Genuinely curious about her answer.
“Isn’t it because of what happened with Tom that you and I have to meet this way each week?” She responds, dropping her arms, her defenses. I look at my reflection in her ugly glasses, the black numbers on my jumpsuit scream back at me.
This is the most we have talked about Tom since the start of my sessions.
Sure, Tom was the reason the judge said I needed to be here, but we both knew that wasn’t the case. I was here because no one was there for me in my corner. No one to protect me when they said they would. I had been surrounded by fairy tales and lies about how much I was loved and cared for. I had been alone in that courtroom without a soul who thought I deserved to walk.
“Tom was happenstance. If it weren’t Tom, it would have been someone else. Another loser my mom brought through the doors without considering her carelessness. Without consideration for her children. If not Tom, it would have been someone worse than him. Just gotta thank mommy dearest for waiting to find someone until I was old enough to do what needed to be done and to be there for Emily,” I say in one long breath, and suddenly my chest feels less tight.
This is the most I have ever said in four years on the subject. But Dr. Warner is different from the others. I heard a rumor she was offered another job out of here, but she stayed. She feels she can make a difference. She cares. Probably to her detriment, but she deserves to see something for her sacrifice. I was finally ready to release the demons that had been building up inside me since I sat on trial, clawing at my stomach, and begging me to let them free. What we tell her here probably gives her nightmares.
“Was Emily always your responsibility?” Dr. Warner asks, tilting her pen towards the paper, preparing herself for my following sentence.
The release I felt before runs on like a high. The weight of my decisions got me locked up here, and the constant need to be ready for war while behind these walls is muted for once. I feel as though I can breathe freely without consequence.
“Not when she was born. My mom was great until Em was about two. Then my dad left. She couldn’t handle it, you know? She was weak. He took off with some bitch he met at a bar and never even looked back. The day he left, he didn’t even say goodbye to Emily or me, just grabbed his bags and walked out as my mother tried to stop him. She was pathetic,” I feel my lips pull back into a sneer.
The image of her tearing at his clothes and crying hysterically while 9-year-old me held my toddler sister in my arms, trying to soothe her. The chaos made Emily’s cheeks bright red as she wailed for my mom and her sandy brown curls bounced as she sobbed. Sobbing for the mother who needed to be there for her, but the mother we knew was lost to us at that moment.
“My mother was only worth as much as a man said she was. She couldn’t be alone, so after my dad took off, she became a shell of a person for years. That is until she met Tom,” I could hear the disgust dripping off each word.
Dr. Warner stops scribbling on the paper and meets my gaze, the sadness evident on her face. And I repress the urge to smack her. It wasn’t her fault. Ordinary people feel sympathy, compassion, and sadness for those who had it worse than they did. I wasn’t ordinary anymore; who knew if I ever really was?
“I don’t need your sympathy, Maryanne. Some people don’t get to enjoy their childhoods, much less have one. Some of us are forced into adulthood when those there to protect us fail. Darwin’s theory and all,” I say, hopeful the sympathy dissipates from her features.
“And you were the strongest?” she asked, adjusting her glasses with her pointer finger.
“I’m not the one buried 6-feet under, am I?” I responded with a calm smile. Her shoulders shift back again, the constant battle between her wanting to know more about the monster that lives inside me but afraid of what that means she will see.
“What happened that night?” Dr. Warner asks, ignoring the pleasantries now and her training, going for the kill and hoping she doesn’t miss. Her eyes follow me, rapt with interest. We’ve never been this far before, never explored the moment where everything changed, how I got to this shit hole in the first place.
“Maryanne, you ask me what happened that night as if you want to know, but you don’t,” I respond, the cuffs around my wrists bite into them as a strain against them, the anger I felt that night flowing through me again as I remember each moment more clearly than the last.
“I know it must be difficult…” she begins, but I cut her off with a laugh.
“Difficult? That’s the word you choose? No, Maryanne,” I say with a snarl, “It isn’t difficult to remember. Hell, it wasn’t even difficult to do. I remember every single detail of that night. I don’t know why you need me to explain it to you when you have the police reports in my file. You know exactly what happened that night without me needing to repeat myself,” I can feel the blood trickle down my wrists as I pull against the steel cuffs to the point that my skin can’t take the pressure. Adding to the scars laced up and down my arms. A warrior’s tattoo that I never asked for.
“Madeline, I apologize. Perhaps I pushed too hard. Maybe we should wrap our session for this week,” she places the notebook on the metal desk and angles the pen on top.
We both know what this is. Dr. Warner doesn’t want to end the session early, we’ve come so far, but without me, there is no moving forward. This isn’t your typical therapy session, and she has a job to do, see if I can be “rehabilitated” or whatever word they want to use to pretend they help us in any way when we know the entirety of our progress is on our own. Dr. Warner knows this, I know this, and so do the rest of the inmates that overcrowd this prison.
Suddenly sirens blare through the building, and the speakers come on as the guards are all called into the hallway outside Dr. Warner’s office. The guard standing by the door looks at Dr. Warner, but the screams outside the door call his name. I watch as he hesitates but soon makes up his mind as the yells get louder. Finally, he rips the door open and sprints through.
Dr. Warner has lost all color in her face, the pink outfit was truly not the way to go this morning, and she stands pressing her back against the wall in the corner. The sigh escapes my throat before I catch it, and she looks as though I have horrified her with a roll of my eyes and shrugging shoulders.
“Maryanne, do you know why people like you don’t end up in places like this? I guess I should say, why don’t you end up on the other side of the bars in places like this?” I ask, watching her features blank in confusion.
“Because people like you will be doormats for the rest of your life. People like you have the luxury of not having to protect yourself. In fact, people like you are the reason that 17-year-old girls are tried as adults and put away for 20 years because people like you cannot fathom how people like me could do something so heinous without having a fucking clue of what it is like to be me,” I feel the anger rising in my chest again. This time I can’t tamp it down.
“You want to know what happened that night, Maryanne? I was tired of seeing my mother being used as a punching bag and my little sister watching her future unfold. She is nothing like me, she is perfect, sweet, and kind, and I could not sit by one more day and watch her soak in the toxic mess of my mother’s relationship any longer,” My fingernails dug into my palms, and I felt the warm trickles of blood begin to slither down my wrists.
“There was no other outcome to that night,” I whispered, as painful memories surfaced. The room swirled around me, and my breath hitched in my chest. In my mind is a different kind of prison, where I squeeze my eyes shut as the scene plays in my head repeatedly, just like it does every evening in my nightmares.
In my mind, I sit across from Emily, trying to distract her from the screaming downstairs. At 17, I was more of a parent to her than our mother ever was.
“And then the princess slayed the dragon and was her own damn happily ever after,” I whispered to 10-year-old Emily, her eyes wide and mouth agape at the use of my curse words.
“Maddie! That is not a nice word!” Emily whispered back, but I could see the little twinkle in her eyes, and she pushed back a curl from her face. The smile was welcome as the raging between Tom and my mother got louder and louder as the minutes ticked by. But it was only a matter of time…
SMACK, the sound of skin hitting skin rang out in the silence, and Emily’s eyes shut hard, the tears already forming. I took a breath, closed my eyes, and steadied myself for the yelling to continue, Tom’s voice rang out, and another slap reverberated through the walls.
Emily jumped out of bed and yanked the door open, “Stop hitting my mommy!” she screamed, racing down the stairs. I wasn’t fast enough, she had never done anything like this before, and I made it to the bottom step just in time to watch as Tom pulled back and backhanded her across the face.
My chest constricted, and air burned my lungs as I lunged forward. My palms met Tom’s chest with an unanticipated force, rocking him backward off balance.
“You stupid bitch!” he screamed, gathering himself to grab me.
Emily’s cries pierced the air, and my mother held her back; her eyes were void of emotion as she watched her boyfriend reach for me, her daughter, and refuse to help. A small part of me thought she hoped he would hit me too. Maybe he could slap the defiance out of me.
I scrambled towards the kitchen, my stocking feet betraying me as they slipped on the cold tiles, as I desperately tried to get out of his reach. His fingers wrapped around my arm, and he yanked me hard towards him, stretching my socket as far as it would go without pulling it out completely. The force of my body slamming into his stunned him, and I grabbed the closest weapon I could find.
The stinging pain in my wrists and pathetic gasps from Dr. Warner brings me back to the room as she is still pressed into the corner but now focused on me and not the blaring sirens. Her breaths came slowly as if each one was attached to my words.
“The funny thing, Maryanne, is that I don’t really remember that part. The knife slicing through his flesh. I was so tired afterward, the cops said that I had stabbed him 27 times. Can you believe it? 27,” I paused before looking directly into her eyes, “I’m only sorry I couldn’t make it an even 30.”
“What happened after that?” Dr. Warner whispered, her voice so low I almost thought I had imagined it.
“Judges don’t take kindly to DA’s being killed, especially if there was no evidence of abuse in the home. Mom wouldn’t let Emily take the stand, and she sure as shit let me take the fall. I ruined her happily ever after, even if her Prince Charming was an abusive asshole,” I cranked my neck to the side, hearing the pops and feeling instant relief from the tension that had been building from my shoulders, “She never thanked me, you know. It was only a matter of time before he did to her what I did to him. But if you had heard her story on the stand? PHEW, she was a real Meryl Streep for that performance. Honestly, I was almost impressed.”
“Why didn’t you appeal?” Dr. Warner asked, slowly taking a seat once more. The sirens had stopped blaring, and guards walked past the door with inmates cuffed, bloody, and bruised. I had missed a good fight.
“When your own mother takes the stand against you, what good is an appeal?” I asked.
The guard would be back soon, and I wanted a few more moments with Dr. Warner before they hauled me out of here.
The guard reached the door, and I knew it was time. I yanked hard on my cuffs. The metal ripped through my skin, and my thumb popped out of place, and I wrenched my arm releasing my right hand from the metal. Dr. Warner screamed, and the guard rammed through the door but not before I grabbed the loose pen off the desk. He lunged for me, and I shoved the pen’s tip straight into his chest, millimeters from his heart. I felt the tip rip through skin and tendons before reaching the sternum, and I pulled back, yanking down, so it broke off in the cavity.
Guards stormed the room, and hands threw me to the ground, my body slamming into the cold hard concrete, blood filling my mouth as my teeth ripped into my tongue on impact. Zip ties replaced the cuffs that hadn’t been able to restrain me, and I felt them tighten until I could no longer feel my fingers. I was snatched up, and a smile stretched across my lips, blood trickling down my chin, watching Maryanne.
“I just wanted to help you, Madeline,” Dr. Warner pleaded, her eyes swam with tears now. She wasn’t meant for places like this. She should know better than to show weakness. The sharks would begin to circle.
The laugh I let out was sharp, and Dr. Warner reared back as if she’d been slapped. “Only God can help me now, and I’m pretty sure you need to believe in his existence for his help.”
As they dragged me out of the room, I turned my head to get one more ray of sunlight and laughed loudly as I remembered that was something that Tom would never have again.
Bio: Nicole Mancha bleeds true crime and is mystified with supernatural fiction. When she isn’t writing, you can find her with a book in one hand, coffee in the other, and her mini doodles Mogs and Pepper by her side. Nicole holds an MFA in Creative Writing, an M.Ed. in Urban Higher Education, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Literacy, Language, and Culture.