It's all a big cycle. Round and round and round we go. The house is silent. I look in the mirror and balk at the reflection. A sense of unease settles over me when I realise I don't know who's staring back. It's happened before but it never fails to amaze me. The front door slams and I jump. Put on my blank face. Ready, set, go. The precise, heel-to-toe clicking of shoes lets me know who's entered without even seeing their face. His face, stony and sombre. He pushes my bedroom door open a crack and peers round. Hands by my sides and expression set, despite the wild beating of my heart. I resist the urge to clench my fists and walk towards dad. He turns his back on me and heads to the kitchen, knowing I'll follow.
The house is beautiful – too beautiful for people like us. It's picturesque. One floor, open plan. Modern furniture, straight out of a glossy magazine. We're surrounded by trees and grass. We're in the middle of nature. In the middle of nowhere. There's the small, narrow riverbed that almost wraps around the house like a moat. So no-one can get in? Or so I can't get out?
"Gray will be over later," he says, not looking at me. A flash of fear shoots through my fragile body and I start to shake involuntarily. I shouldn't get so frightened at the mere mention of my brother's name, but I do. Gray with his sharp, black eyes and his strong hands. I'd watched Natural Born Killers more than once and every time I did, I was reminded of Gray. Natural born sadist. I think even dad was shocked by his behaviour the first time he held me down, laughing as I screamed and cried hysterically, begging him to stop.
The silence ticked over, minute by minute. I relaxed slowly when I realised I was going to be okay, at least until Gray arrived. But the front door slams again and I tense up. But these footsteps are slow and deliberate, not fast paced and light. Uncle Leo comes into the kitchen; messenger bag slung over one shoulder. When his eyes meet mine, he smiles, warm and reassuring.
"You okay Darren?" he asks quietly and I nod, feeling the corners of my lips turn up when he runs a hand through my hair. I blush too, and Dad notices. A creeping coldness arrives in his eyes and his voice is strained when he says my name.
Any hope of things going well disappears with those two syllables and I can already feel myself slipping away, retreating to the back of my mind as an observer, rather than a participant. Uncle Leo shares a look with him and dad grabs my arm, pulling me to standing.
"Josh," Leo murmurs, putting a hand on dad's shoulder. Words are exchanged through another look and dad loosens his grip, but doesn't let go.
"Come on," he grunts, pulling me towards his room. When the door is closed and the curtains are drawn, he makes me sit on the end of the bed. I can tell how angry he is when he roughly shoves me backwards and pulls at my t-shirt. I try to steady my breathing. I stare at the ceiling until eventually the pressure on my body lessens and I can barely feel a thing. I slip away gratefully and only come back when a cold, hard hand meets my face. My head snaps to the side and I look around the room. I'm no longer on the bed, but curled in the corner. Dad's face is right in front of mine. Still angry, but with a hint of worry. I look down at my body and I'm fully dressed. I blink, trying to remember how I got here. But there's nothing but empty space and I give up.
There's a deep pain in my lower back and an even deeper one in my head. I pull myself up and walk awkwardly out of the room and to my own. I keep my clothes on when I wrap myself in a blanket and crawl into bed.
The bed shifts when Uncle Leo sits down next to me. I stay facing the wall, unable to vocalise my thoughts even if I wanted to. His hand brushes stray hairs away from my face gently and I lean into his touch.
"Are you okay?" he whispers and I nod mutely. The bed shifts again and I panic, thinking he's going to leave me. But he lies down instead and wraps an arm around my waist. I sigh, expelling the breath that I'd been holding in. His fingers entwine themselves with my own and we lie quietly for a long time.
"Uncle Leo?" I turn to face him, our faces just inches from each other on my tiny bed. He runs his hand over my face. "Do you think we could run away?"
He stops for a moment. I don't know why I'm asking because I know the answer. I ask him this every time. He gives me the answer he's been giving me since I was six years old.
"Maybe one day."
I nod sadly, accepting what he's trying to say. I should know by now that leaving may sound easy, but it's harder in practice. I also know that if it were possible, he'd have taken me away a long time ago.
"Do you love dad?" I suddenly question, genuinely curious. There's no hesitance and no doubt in his tone.
"Yes." A few seconds pass before he repeats my own sentiment. "Do you?"
I think about all the bad things he's done, all the times he's hurt me. I think back to when I was six, to sitting on his lap as we watched television. I remember the confusion and hurt I felt as he touched me. Those feelings lingered for so long afterwards. But it couldn't have been wrong, because granddad started doing the same thing. Even Gray started doing it. Maybe this happened to everybody.
But there was the other side to the relationship. The times when he'd tell me he loved me. That week I was so sick with the flu. We'd watched my favourite movies and he'd made all my favourite foods. I slept in his bed all week, but it wasn't horrible like it usually was. There was loving cuddles and silly stories that made me laugh.
Tears fall down my cheeks at the memories and Leo wipes them away. I'm cradled against his chest and trying to stop the waterfall. I did love him, but it physically hurt. It was easier to hate, easier to simply forget the good things.
But we were family, and that love was supposed to be there. I asked myself if I'd really leave if I had the choice.
No. I'd stay because this was my family, flawed or not. I'd stay because no matter how much I despised them, I'd always love them twice as much.
A soft kiss is pressed to my lips and I let myself drift off, safely ensconced in Leo's arms.