Story by Chantal Boudreau/ Illustration by Roger Betka
Even if things settle into an uneasy calm, those who protect others can never afford to become complacent.
Something new will always come along, and we have to be ready for it.
“I need to talk to you…in private.”
I could see an urgency in Miriam’s expression. I considered her the kindest and most soft-spoken of the volunteers at the women’s shelter where I worked. A devout, older woman, she had retired from being a nurse a couple of years before offering her services up to the shelter. We exchanged pleasant small talk from time to time and I enjoyed her company.
“Sure — I was just finishing up this paperwork before my break,” I said. “I’ll take my coffee out to the back landing. We can talk there.”
It wasn’t much, a little wooden walkway with a couple of patio chairs that hedged the alleyway, but it did allow for some privacy. Miriam didn’t drink coffee, but she clutched her chamomile tea as we sat down together, trying to ignore the dank and dirt of the alleyway beyond. Something about the way she looked at me made me nervous. I tried not to fidget in response.
“You know I don’t just volunteer here, right?” she began. “I work outside of the shelter. I split my time between here and a community centre for seniors, Winterlea.”
I nodded. Miriam had worked in the continuing care sector and she liked to stay connected with that community. I understood her compulsion to keep helping for as long as she could. I felt that same drive. At times, it could be overpowering.
She leaned towards me. “Well, I know the kind of work you do outside the shelter as well, and I need your help.”
I froze, not sure if I should question what she meant by that. I had been playing the part of shelter worker by day and the vigilante known as Amnesty by night after I had turned to the streets to escape an unhealthy upbringing. My need to fight domestic abuse had been homegrown. Thanks to my special talents, I served as protector not just for the women under my wing but for anyone vulnerable and alone. Runaway street kids, homeless men as well as women, the disabled and the distressed – if it wasn’t a fair fight I would be there for them.
But there was only one other person who shared my secret and she had vowed to keep it to herself. I knew my friend and mentor; Alice would never break her vow. She had rescued me when I had stumbled into the shelter one night, naked and badly beaten, and eventually, in turn, I had rescued her back – in my own way.
“I know you’ll deny that you’re Amnesty. You want to keep it a secret. I promise, I won’t tell anyone, whether you agree to help or not. I value the work you do. There aren’t enough people out there willing to take on that kind of risk and responsibility.”
My stomach sank. Perhaps Alice wasn’t as loyal as I had believed her to be. Miriam caught a glimpse of my downcast expression, waiting for my response.
Nobody had confronted me with the truth before and I had no idea how to handle it. I wanted to flick on my “flight” response and the moment she turned away from me, alter her thoughts so when she looked back, I just wouldn’t be there. That kind of kneejerk reaction would only confirm her suspicions. Plus, if I ran from her, I would lose everything I had established for Amnesty.
“But… “, was all I could manage to get out.
Miriam gave me a smile, one of consolation.
“How do I know? Well for one, I’m aware of the hours you keep and the Amnesty sightings never coincide with your shifts at the shelter. I’m also aware of your mysterious arrival here. Nobody knows where you came from or how you ended up here in the state they found you. None of the other women here arrived like that. They snuck out on their abuser with a few of their belongings, or a social worker directed them here after they ended up in a hospital. You were the first and only.”
I started trying to beg off these things as mere coincidence, but Miriam wouldn’t let it rest at that.
“I also know you claim the injuries you come in with on a regular basis are the result of your martial arts classes but they are too frequent and, honestly, too severe. My husband practiced martial arts religiously, right up to the point where he had his stroke. After mastering one, he would move on to the next. The worst of his sparring injuries never compared to the worst of yours. And those injuries just happen to be there on the days following the Amnesty sightings. I don’t believe in that kind of coincidence.”
I stared at Miriam, mouth open. She had obviously been considering the evidence for a long time. I had never expected anyone to put all those things together. She wasn’t done.
“Now some might suggest that as a past victim of domestic abuse, maybe you’ve returned to your abuser and you are just trying to hide that…or that you’ve initiated a new relationship with a different abuser. But I know victims. I know all of the warning signs to watch for—and you’re no victim. You carry yourself with confidence, without fear. You show no sense of shame. You are open with others and you listen to them carefully. You’re secretive but not in a way that makes it seem like you’re covering up for someone else. We’ve all watched you change. I think you showed up here beaten that first night because you were one of those victims who chose to fight back. You haven’t regressed. I firmly believe you’re still fighting back.”
I refused to acknowledge she was right, but I stopped going on the defensive. I did continue to struggle with my reluctance to interact with Miriam, feeling exposed. I finally manage to get out a full sentence.
“You said you need my help. Why?”
“I’m certain one of my seniors is being mistreated at home. I’ve reported the incident to Adult Protection, but they investigated and they weren’t able to find enough evidence to support pulling him out and placing him elsewhere. I know he lives with his son and I’m convinced that’s who’s responsible, but I can’t prove it any more than AP could. You have ways of finding out that the rest of us don’t, and you can make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
I may not have been happy about Miriam’s approach to getting me involved in the situation, but I wasn’t about to say no. Predators often saw the elderly as easy targets, defenseless and prime for manipulation. This seemed like the kind of problem I sought to solve.
“Can you get me into the community centre as a volunteer? I’d like to meet this fellow and maybe talk to him.”
Miriam gave me one of her warmest smiles. “I can; you’ll need a security check. Have you ever been arrested?”
I shook my head. I had had close calls when I was living on the streets, before the shelter, and a few times I had almost been cornered in an alley or cul-de-sac while doing my rounds as Amnesty, but my unusual abilities had always served their purpose and allowed me an out. When you can reach into someone’s mind and alter their thoughts so they can’t “see” you, they have a hard time catching you.
“Good,” she said, with some relief. “I’ll bring in an application on my next shift. We’ll work out a time for you that doesn’t interfere with your schedule here…”
Her expression suggested “…and anywhere else you need to be,” but she didn’t say it.
Finishing off my coffee and shrugging off some of the lingering aches and pains that remained from a fight I had had a couple of nights before, I left Miriam nursing her chamomile. I had more paperwork waiting for me before I would get the chance to visit the latest ex who had made death threats towards one of our residents.
If anyone could convince him threatening her was unwise, it would be Amnesty.
— ♦♦♦ —
Miriam met me in front of Winterlea as I stepped off the bus. The stark-looking little building that served as a gathering place for local seniors was located in one of the poorer parts of town. Drug use was prominent in the area, with crime sometimes rearing its ugly head in the form of gang activity, but rent there had always been inexpensive and many of the seniors who really needed Winterlea’s services lived within easy walking distance.
One of the windows of Winterlea had been boarded over where it had been broken by vandals and graffiti peppered the wood and surrounding wall. I made a mental note to add the place to my nightly rounds.
“You’re going to help me prep lunch,” Miriam told me. “The kitchen is open to the multi-purpose room. I can point him out to you while we work and you should get the chance to talk to him while we’re serving the food.”
Eventually, one of the volunteers led in a shrunken man with wispy white hair. He shuffled along very slowly, suffering from tremors.
“That’s Rudy,” Miriam said, nodding in his direction. “He has Parkinson’s which really limits his physical ability. I’ve seen his son lose his temper with him before and snap at Rudy when he gets impatient. You can tell that his son is holding back – that tension to him like he wants to do more but can’t because he knows others are watching. Who knows what happens at home when they’re alone though. Rudy has a new bruise almost daily. His son says he falls a lot, which is possible with his Parkinson’s, but I get the feeling that something’s not quite right. It scares me.”
“Does he have the flinch factor?” I asked.
Miriam knew exactly what I was talking about. Victims of abuse often had a reflexive flinch response whenever anyone moved quickly around them, always on the defensive and anticipating a slap or smack. I had had that flinch factor when I was younger, but I didn’t have it anymore.
“On his good days, when he has more control over his body. I’ve seen it. But he has been getting progressively worse, so it’s not there anymore. There’s a hint of it if you watch him closely, but to the casual observer, it’s not that obvious.” Miriam reached for a carrot peeler with a sigh. “There aren’t any clear-cut signs of neglect. They have home care help. He’s clothed, bathed and fed as necessary … but when you’ve worked taking care of people for as long as I have, you pick up on things that other people miss. I don’t think I’m imagining the risk that something very bad could happen. I just don’t have the proof.”
I trusted Miriam’s instincts. Family illness could put a strain on a relationship. Caregiver burnout was a real thing and the son might resent his father and the demands his care requirements had placed on him, as far as time and effort, or even financially. Winterlea would offer a reprieve for him during the day, and home care would help, but Rudy’s needs still might be interfering with his son’s routines.
I watched Rudy for the rest of the day, trying not to make it look obvious. Whenever Rudy started to look my way, I would use my “disappearing trick” so he wouldn’t catch me staring. I did notice him start and recoil a little when someone got too close too quickly, but it was hard to see with his tremors unless you were watching him intently. Most people wouldn’t be able to stare him down the way I did without being noticed.
I decided I needed to meet his son, so when it was time for him to go, I offered to take Rudy over to the front door. His son was a large man, nearly twice Rudy’s size. He stood by the door dressed in dirty coveralls, his face red and his lips tight as he flicked his hat against his thigh impatiently. I could see the tension Miriam talked about, brewing dangerously below the surface. It reminded me of many of the abusers I had been forced to confront, men, and sometimes women, riddled with rage and looking for an excuse to vent it on someone in some way.
“I can help him to your car,” I offered but the son shook both his head and hand dismissively.
“No, I got this,” he said.
He clearly wanted to get Rudy out to the car faster than the old man could manage. Rudy stumbled part way there, and rather than easing him up again and slowing his pace, the son yanked him abruptly up and forward. It looked painful. Without thinking, I immediately chastised him for it.
“Hey – there’s no need to be so rough,” I called out.
“He’s fine, and we’re in a hurry,” the son growled back. “Mind your own business.”
As far as I was concerned, though, it was my business. Miriam had managed to convince me that Rudy did indeed need Amnesty’s help, and I wasn’t about to let him down.
I returned to the multi-purpose room and helped Miriam clean up as the last of the remaining seniors left. Once we were alone, I shared my plans for the evening with her. Rudy had his son listed as an emergency contact at the centre, so Miriam could give me an address for him.
“Do you have everything with you that you need?” she asked.
I didn’t exactly need much. It all fit in the knapsack I carried with me, just the close-fitting black outfit I wore that allowed for better stealth and ease of movement and the pocket full of white ribbons I kept on hand. I always wore one as part of my persona, a symbol of the work I was doing and the people I had chosen to protect. I had already decided I would wait at Winterlea until dark and then head out to do what needed to be done. Miriam left me to it.
“Make sure to lock up when you’re done here,” she said as she left. “And please try to be careful. I don’t like seeing new bruises on you any more than I want to see them on Rudy.”
The difference was my bruises were a consequence of my choice to act and if I earned them, it meant his son would be suffering far worse for our encounter. One night of bruises for me could result in the end of them for Rudy altogether, at least at his son’s hand.
I got dressed and I waited.
Darkness was my friend when it came to lurking in shadow. It was also the thing I fought against when it lingered in the hearts and thoughts of men.
— ♦♦♦ —
I padded down the alleyway towards the back entrance to the home where Rudy lived with his son. While reasonably maintained, the house before me was clearly old – a small bungalow with a back porch and rear-facing windows. Light spilled out from those windows, breaking up the darkness before me. While it made a potential encounter there less appealing, it did allow me the opportunity to look into the kitchen. Rudy sat there drinking tea at the table as his son muddled his way through the kitchen, apparently cleaning up after supper.
While I could see inside the house from my vantage point, I couldn’t hear what father and son were saying, but the son’s body language spoke volumes. Every move was tense and abrupt. Every gesture suggested hostility. I was prepared to actually force my way into the house if at any point it got violent. And it did come close, eventually.
Whatever discussion they were having grew heated, their voices raised enough that I could almost make out what they were saying from outside. Then came the moment I had been watching for. Part-way through prepping the kitchen garbage for disposal, the son snapped, barking something at Rudy as he moved towards him with seemingly ill-intent. Seeing him bear down on the old man with arm raised, ready to strike, I moved toward the back door, but before anything violent could happen, the son caught himself and stopped, mid-swing. He made an angry grab for the garbage instead and launched himself into the alleyway.
As a result, I had to dodge the sudden obstacle before me, not expecting him to charge his way out of the kitchen. I managed to avoid being hit by the door and evaded the son who moved through it with great momentum, but it drew enough of my attention that I wasn’t able to make use of my disappearing trick. My presence startled him at first and then gave him another reason to be mad.
“What the hell…?!”
Normally I could have avoided the blow he sent my way with a simple drop to the ground or a more complex break fall and roll, but I was still off balance from unexpectedly dodging the door. While I did manage to evade the worst of it with a partial block and parry, his first still connected in a painful way with my shoulder rather than striking my jaw full force.
I yelped and danced away, but that only seemed to feed his ire.
“God-damned vandal. Is this some prank to you? I just fixed that window, and now you’re back to do more damage. I’m not letting you get away with it this time.”
He lunged for me, but I side-stepped out of the way successfully. The movement jarred my shoulder and made me hiss in pain.
“I’m not here to vandalize anything,” I insisted. “I’m here to make sure you don’t hurt anyone who can’t protect themselves.”
“You expect me to believe that? I know the trouble you lot get into around here. The only one who needs protection right now is you. I’m not letting you get away this time.”
He made another grab for me and I would have avoided him had he not tripped over the garbage at his feet. He stumbled as he lurched; bowling us both over in the process and when I regained my bearings I realized I was pinned beneath him, the taste of blood leaching its way through my mouth. Trying to shove him off me wasn’t going to work and I was long past the point of using my “flight” ability to hide from him. Instead, I flicked my mental switch to “fight” – something I had initially assumed I would have to do anyway.
My thoughts immediately harnessed his current violent intentions at the forefront of my mind, creating the mental feedback loop that used his own aggressive nature to do him harm. I dug deeper, as I usually did once in that position, expecting the feedback loop to intensify and worsen. It did, there were some recent memories of the man lashing out in anger or frustration, but not to the extent to which I was accustomed. The farther back I went, the more the negative feelings I found were associated with shame, fear, and hopelessness, rather than hostility, sadism or rage.
I eventually released him from the feedback loop not because I had used his own cruelty and ill-intent to mentally lash him into submission, but because I couldn’t bear to force him to relive such painful memories. For the better part of his life, he hadn’t been the victimizer but rather the victim. What was even more unsettling to me was that his aggressor had been Rudy.
Rudy’s son sat in the dirt sobbing. “Why?” He demanded. “Why did you do that?” Why did you make me remember those things?”
“I told you, I’m here to protect someone unable to protect themselves. That’s what I do. You’ve been mistreating your father. You resent him – you resent having to take care of him after all he did to you. The temptation to take that out on him can be overwhelming.”
Rudy’s son sniffed loudly, wiping tears from his face with the back of his hand as he struggled to regain control. “So where were you when I needed protection?”
“Suffering the same way you were. I’m in no way suggesting what he did to you was okay. It certainly wasn’t. But you won’t fix any of that by giving into to the desire to take revenge. That hurts you too. If you can’t interact with him without dwelling on the past, if he’s too much of a burden, for whatever reason, then maybe you should leave the care-taking to someone else.”
I knew our encounter would leave him shaken enough that he wouldn’t be able to raise a hand to Rudy for a couple of days. I had done what I had needed to do, for the moment. I had stayed his hand and I had planted a seed of doubt, but I wanted to be a catalyst for even more change. I staggered to my feet.
“I’m not going to push you any harder than I already have. You’re not a proper villain, but I promise you I’ll keep watching. I’ll be back again if you don’t make things better. Contact the Health Helpline. Find some other way to make things work so you’re both better off. If there has to be a ‘next time,’ I won’t let you off so easily.”
I escaped into the shadows of the back streets, flicking the mental switch to hide myself from any prying eyes. I had been left almost as shaken by my encounter with Rudy’s son as he was. In addition to an aching shoulder and a bloodied face, I had been left with the question as to how many more I would have to confront like my last opponent, someone who had been broken by life and who struggled at that cusp of conversion from victim to victimizer.
Facing him down, I had left with more of a sense of sympathy than of victory; it reminded me that sometimes the villains still retained a fair amount of their humanity. If I had found myself responsible for caring for my abuser, what would I have done?
I couldn’t answer that — and it bothered me.
I distracted myself from these disturbing thoughts by glancing down at the white ribbon pinned to my chest. It had been stained pink again.
“Another one for my banner of battles,” I sighed. But this battle had taken an extra toll.
— ♦♦♦ —
Miriam caught me wincing as I walked into the shelter two days later, still sore from that last encounter. I think she noticed my pain ran deeper than merely a swollen lip and a bruised shoulder.
“Are you okay?”
I nodded. The confusion I’d been struggling with had subsided, leaving me numb inside. Things were no longer as black and white for me as they used to be. I was going to have to figure out how I wanted to handle the varying shades of gray.
“Nothing that won’t heal in a couple of days,” I assured her.
“I don’t know what exactly happened between you and Rudy’s son but he informed Winter lea yesterday that Rudy won’t need our services much longer. He’s on the waitlist for one of the residential care facilities and they expect to have a placement for him very soon. I’m relieved, but I was surprised. I expected him to have at least as many bruises as you do. The only thing different about him was that he seemed far more relaxed. He struck me as a changed man.”
I shrugged and then grimaced at the pain the careless gesture caused me. “Not changed so much as reminded where he had come from and who he really wanted to be. We came to an understanding. He wasn’t the kind of bad guy I normally deal with – just under a lot of pressure and misunderstood. But he is better off putting some distance between him and his father, so I’d say this is for the best.”
I didn’t go into detail about the clash we had had and what it had revealed about Rudy. The overbearing, hypercritical and sometimes violent parent he had been in the past was not the fragile old man ravaged by illness he was now. It wasn’t up to me to pass judgement and punish him for his past wrongdoings. I intervened when I did now to prevent bad things from happening in the present. I wouldn’t be fixing anything by ignoring him when he needed my help.
“Well, I owe you one,” Miriam said. “Hopefully someday you can collect. If you ever need my help, you have it. Your secret will always be safe with me.”
I considered this as turned on my computer and traced the inner swell to my lip with my tongue. Having a retired nurse as an ally would come in handy as long as I continued to spend my nights as Amnesty.
And with the number of people out there who still needed my help, I wouldn’t be stopping anytime soon.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Harbor Watcher. By Martin Grise Art by Toe Keen
Next week’s feature will be “The Harbor Watcher” by Martin Grise. It was September of 1940, a restive time even in neutral America, and particularly tense in New York, especially for the British. MI6 had intercepted coded Abwehr communications indicating that certain Italian immigrants in New York, still loyal to Mussolini unlike most of their Italian-American brethren, were involved in some sort of intelligence-gathering in the city. And so begins this story of intrigue and spying. Would the men hired be able to neutralize the threat in time? You’ll only find out by reading “The Harbor Watcher” next week.