Strong Enough (Tall, Dark, and Dangerous #1)

by M. Leighton



Seventeen years ago

“What’s he gonna do, Mom?” I try to wriggle away from her, but she holds me too tight. I feel like something bad’s gonna happen, but I don’t know why. “Maybe I can make him not be mad. Let me go!”

“Shhh, baby. It’ll be okay. You have to stay here with me or he’ll take you, too.”

My heart’s beating so hard it hurts, like it did that time when Mikey Jennings punched me in the chest. Not even my mother’s arms around me makes the pain go away, and her hugs usually make everything better.

My eyes water as I stare out the window. I can’t blink. I’m afraid to. I don’t want to see what Dad’s going to do to my older brother, Jeremy, but I can’t look away either.

The longer I watch, the less I can move, like my feet are glued to the floor and my arms are strapped to my sides. It feels like I can’t even breathe. I can only stare at the cold, gray water and the two shapes moving closer to it.

I see Jeremy’s fingers clawing at my dad’s hand where it pulls him by his hair. It’s not doing him any good, though. Dad isn’t letting go. Jeremy’s feet sometimes drag along the ground, his ratty tennis shoes kicking up mud and grass, but my father never slows down. I can tell by the way his other fist is balled up that he’s mad. Madder than usual, maybe.

Jeremy got in trouble at school again today. They called Dad at work instead of Mom, so she didn’t even know until Dad brought Jeremy home. By then it was too late.

“No kid of mine’s gonna act like a monster. There’s something wrong with you, boy,” Dad was saying when they walked through the door. Jeremy was in front of him. Dad pushed him so hard, my brother fell and slid across the kitchen floor.

There really is something wrong with Jeremy. The doctor said so. He said Jeremy needed medicine, but Dad doesn’t care. It just makes him mad, makes him lose his temper with Jeremy even more.

I was standing at Mom’s side when Dad stopped in front of her. He put his finger in her face until it almost touched her nose. His eyes were that red color all around the edges like they are when he’s getting ready to whip Jeremy. “You’d better hope this little shit doesn’t turn out the same way.” He slapped me in the side of the head when he said it. It made my ear sting like a bee got me, but I didn’t even say “ouch.” I didn’t say anything. I knew better than to open my mouth. “One’s enough.”

Dad went and grabbed Jeremy by the back of his shirt, pulled him up to his feet and threw him out the kitchen door. Jeremy fell again, but that didn’t stop Dad. He followed him into the yard.

“Get up, you worthless little asshole,” he yelled. There was something not good in Jeremy’s eyes when he looked up. Then I saw him spit on Dad’s work boots. I knew he shouldn’t have done that. I knew it even more when Dad kicked him in the ribs. Now we’re watching my older brother get dragged away for punishment.

Rather than stopping at the old stump that he bends Jeremy over to whip him, Dad keeps walking right out into the lake. He doesn’t even stop at the edge.

My eyes hurt while I watch, but I can’t close them. Something about this time looks different. Feels different. Something about the hot tears streaming down my face tells me that this time is different.

Dad’s boots splash through the shallow water. He drags my brother behind him like he does a bag of trash when he’s loading up the truck to go to the dump. Jeremy falls and gets back up, falls and gets back up. He’s fighting for real now. He’s kicking and hitting. I see his mouth open wide like he’s screaming, but I can’t hear it. The only thing I can hear is my heartbeat. It’s like drums in my ears, it’s so loud.

Dad stops when the water is up to his waist. He pulls Jeremy to him. I see his face from the side, my father’s. It’s so red it looks purple. Veins are standing out all down his neck. My brother’s face is almost white, like he’s wearing ghost Halloween makeup. His eyes are dry, though. He stopped crying over the stuff Dad does to him a long time ago.

Dad yells something at Jeremy, his mouth stretching so wide it looks like he could eat him. Like a snake, just swallow him whole. Jeremy just stares up at him with his pale face. Dad shakes my brother hard enough to make his head snap back, and then he dunks him under the water.

I suck in a breath. I’ve never seen Dad do this before, no matter how mad he gets at Jeremy. Something in my chest burns while I watch Dad hold him under, like I can’t breathe either. Like air is stuck in there, burning. Just like I’m stuck in here. Hurting.