red / helga floros

CONTENT WARNING: child sexual abuse.

“Mom, I really don’t wanna go.” Red’s voice is as it always is when she’s confronting her mother: small and feeble, exactly how she hates feeling. She knows it’s pointless, too, to argue, but she really doesn’t want to go. She blinks, but doesn’t cry anymore—learned long ago it doesn’t change a thing. “I’m really not feeling well.”

“Nonsense,” Mommy scolds. She ruffles up Red’s hair and tugs at the hood of her sweater, lacing it tightly underneath her chin so she looks like a round-faced toddler. She hands over the basket with Red wine and chocolates, a couple of tupperware boxes with prepped dinners just ready for the microwave. “Off you go. And don’t talk to any strangers.”

Red sucks in a deep breath and exhales slowly. All right. Not like she ever had (or has) a chance, but still that traitorous sliver of hope pops up every single time. Maybe this time Mom will let her stay home. Maybe this time it won’t all…happen.

Granny is bad. As far as Red knows, she’s the only one who knows—every time she tries to bring it up, she’s shot down. She tried telling Mom once, eyes fogged up with tears, voice shaky, whispering that Granny’s hand had…touched her, somewhere where she didn’t want to be touched. Mom gave this weird laugh, half overbearing and half disbelieving, like she didn’t trust what Red was saying, or thought she was at least just being dramatic about it. Definitely overreacting.

But it never stops, and every time is the same. Or somehow worse. She hoped it’d stop when she got a little older, but she’s seventeen now and Granny is still too…handsy.

So, she really doesn’t want to go. And it’s just some casserole anyway, she curses to herself, angry that she’s going to have to go because of some casserole and wine. Granny isn’t even that sick; she could pick it up herself, or Mom could drive, stop by on her way back from work. It’s different when other people are around, too; it’s mostly when she’s alone at Granny’s—which is why she doesn’t want to be alone at Granny’s.

But it all comes back to how nobody but Red knows that Granny is bad, so they all make plans for ways Red can go visit alone—after all, grandchildren are such a blessing, and Granny is so happy whenever she visits, always calling Mom on the phone afterwards to tell what a great time they had and what a lovely kid Red is. Red just has to swallow it down.

Maybe she is overreacting. It’s just Granny, right? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not like…it’s not a strange man, not some big bad wolf with sharp teeth biting into anything. It’s Granny—Granny who smells like fresh baked bread and strawberry jam; Granny with soft hands and knitted socks.

The softness is so unsettling, contrasting with how wrong it all feels.

The way to Granny’s is pretty straightforward, but Mom always stresses anyway how Red is to not get into anyone’s car, something Red doesn’t really need to be told twice. She’s not stupid. She knows the city like the back of her hand: she knows crooks and alleys and shortcuts, knows the best candy store and where they make the greatest ice cream, knows everything as well as you’d expect someone who’s spent the last thirteen years exploring it to. So, she knows how to find her way to Granny’s house.

See, she’s not scared of the strangers pulling up offering a free ride and candy, not scared of getting lost walking down some unknown side street—no, not when she’s walking straight toward the real monster on her own.

She doesn’t want to go.

Why won’t Mom understand that she doesn’t want to go. Why won’t she understand she doesn’t want to be touched, the wrinkly hands too soft when pushing aside the off-white cotton of her underwear to—

Red doesn’t want to go.

She sits down on the ground, cross-legged on the middle of the concrete, not caring about how her dress will probably be stained by spilled-out drinks and spat-out gum and stomped-out cigarette butts which will make Mom angry and yell and ask her why she never thinks.

Red snorts. Doesn’t think. Oh, how she wishes she could turn her brain off and escape the constant thinking. Thinking and remembering and remembering and thinking it’s probably her own fault anyway, it’s the only thing that makes sense, because she never really says no or asks Granny to stop, because she doesn’t want to be mean to her…Granny’s old, and she wants to be kind to her, and if it wasn’t Red’s own fault, Mommy would believe her, wouldn’t she? She’d hug her, maybe, and hold her while she cried, maybe even cry with her…she wouldn’t just laugh and tell her to stop acting up and telling lies.

For a time, she thought a lie was something untrue. However, she’s learned that a lie is something the recipient does not want to hear you say aloud, whether it’s true or not.

After a while, she gets up from where she’s sitting. It’s not helping to put it off.

She barely makes it four steps when she’s approached by a woman looking to be in her early twenties. She’s got dark, almost black, hair, and angular features; a crooked smile and an outstretched hand. “Hey there, can I borrow a minute of your time?”

Oh, can you. Any excuse to show up later for Granny’s is good; a street seller is like a saint in disguise. Red doesn’t even care if it’s phone subscriptions or charity or some political cause she’d never support. She’s all ears.

“I’m Theresa Volkov and I’m here with the National Coalition Against Child Abuse. Have you ever heard of us?”

The world stops for a second; the words sucker-punch Red right in the gut. Everything is frozen, and she doesn’t move or say a thing till Theresa prompts her with: “We’re an organisation working to spread awareness of child abuse.”

Red swallows. She nods her head slowly. Swallows again. She licks her lips, tries to find her voice again. “Yeah?”

Theresa then launches into a speech that must’ve been prepared about different kinds of abuse and how they’re all traumatising and terrible, and how the organisation she’s with is working to not only spread awareness, but also to provide services and resources to support survivors.

Red only hears half of what she’s saying, brain preoccupied with a staticky sound and a memory of Granny’s soft hand on her skin.

“Would you like to support us?”

Red is trembling. She’s struggling with finding her voice again; she coughs awkwardly in an attempt to regain control of it, but afterwards it still comes out shaky. “Uh,” is what she manages. “Do you—have some pamphlets maybe? Or a card?”

Theresa’s face changes—and Red is ready to run, because she doesn’t want that kind of pity or whatever she has to offer. She just wants a pamphlet. She wants to figure this out on her own.

She thinks. She’s not sure—she’s tried telling Mom, but she never listens. She just wants someone who will listen and believe it.

“Of course,” Theresa goes on, and her voice is almost unchanged. There’s a slight edge to it now, and she’s keeping her eyes on Red, almost as if scared she’s going to run away or something. She picks up some booklets, all with titles about recognising abuse and recovering from it and understanding it wasn’t your fault. Red feels sick as she accepts them.

“I’m—” she goes on, swallowing hard, “I’m only seventeen, so I can’t—I’m not an adult, so I can’t sign up for anything, like to help you. I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” Theresa says, nodding her head. Her hand hovers for a moment over Red’s, then she withdraws it and just nods her head another time. “As I said, it’s just as much about spreading awareness.”

“Yeah.” The word comes out in a whisper, her hands clinging onto the booklets so tightly her knuckles turn white. “Yeah. Awareness.”

***

Later, back home from Granny, Red pulls the pamphlets out where she’d folded and hidden them away in her jacket pocket, careful to keep them secret.

It’s odd reading. A bad odd, but also an okay odd—some parts, it’s like seeing her own life described by someone else, which is creepy and unsettling and bad odd, but then there are parts which sound so…hopeful. As if it’s really possible for it to end. That’s something she’d almost given up the hope of: an ending.

She flicks through, and on the last page of the second pamphlet she finds a business card. It’s got a phone number for a free, anonymous support line. Red drags her index finger across the edge of the card, turning it over in her hand and playing with it as she focuses on her breathing.

She picks up the phone.

***

helga floros lives in a body. they’ve had work in witchcraft magazine, vagabond city lit, spy kids review, and other places.

See more: @helgafloros

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