How did I make the decision that truly mattered?

My journey to hell and back began over a decade ago when I was 22 and wild. I kissed Blake Buckner one night and was to be married to him when I was not quite 23. We had been out at a bar in San Francisco where you could smoke, and then we went to his apartment and drunkenly ate stale bread and butter, and then we made out. I had known him for several months in a friendly way — we lived near one another — but a few days before the bread and butter I noticed, out of nowhere, an insistent desire to be near him.

Everything happened so fast; I was at a short period in my life when I really felt like I had got my acts together. After a protracted gastrointestinal issue, I was finally the level of thin I always really wanted to be. I had two part-time jobs and a condo apartment to myself. I had absolutely no sense of consequence. During this period, I had always craved the attention of men, and it was thrilling to feel that, for once, in such abundance that I could take it or leave it. I was so fleetingly confident in my ability to bend a man to my will, in fact, that when I realized I was pining for the man I would marry, I invited Blake to my grandmother’s 75th birthday party — a bold strategy for courtship. By the time the birthday party came around, we had eaten the bread and butter; I think we were already in love.

Blake’s appearance was very deceptive; no one could ever suspect him to be violent, although he was sometimes plagued by intrusive thoughts and knocked constantly on wooden tables and doors. On a certain day, we went out with some of his friends and he had been drinking all day, and then his old girlfriend arrived. I was upset because she sat on his lap. Then she held his face in her arms tracing his cheekbones with her fingertips and kissed him while he wrapped her in his broad shoulders with me right there; he didn’t stop her so I went to sit in the car. He came bellowing over, so I locked the door. He put his fist through the passenger window then dragged me through it. After receiving a few punches in the head, one of his friends drove me home. At home, I tended to my sore head, scrapes and bruises, but what hurt most was that it happened at all. The next day when he arrived at the flat he was full of remorse – things would be different, he wouldn’t drink and he would never hurt me again.

I believed him; things did improve for a while. Soon I discovered I was pregnant, he seemed over the moon with the news. A few months later, we had a little argument over his leaving the front door ajar upon his return from his drinking escapades. During the argument he punched me in the stomach. I ended up in the hospital with a ruptured cyst on my ovary. The baby was all right. Returning home I gave him an ultimatum – that if he ever hits me again I would leave him. He pleaded with me and agreed to all my terms.

However after our baby was born the drinking continued, and the abuse continued. I stayed, as I could not see a way out. Brief times when he was sober, things seemed pleasant. My way of life became moving from one house to another with him, as people became aware of my situation (the domestic abuse), although I had learnt to hide the bruises and he was good at not leaving them where they could be seen. Over the years I took out several Intervention Orders on him, which I then dropped when he made his promises and sometimes, even, threats against me.

On our child’s birthday he received a gaol sentence of several months for drunk driving and assault on a police officer. I still didn’t leave. During his time in gaol I visited often – he made more promises: no more drinking, no more abuse. When he left gaol, things were great for a while, and I hoped that his time in gaol had changed him. I got pregnant again, this time with twins. When I was pregnant we moved again, this time to be closer to his family, as I was going to need help and support with twins on the way. This was a move I should never have made. His father also had a drinking problem; they were a bad influence on each other. During my pregnancy he abused me again and again. Another time I pulled a kitchen knife on him and he laughed, as he knew I would not use it, then he spat in my face. There were times when he was at the hotel with his parents, I would pray that someone would knock on my door and tell me he was dead, rather than face him coming home. I was trapped; the only people I knew were his family. I had no way out.

Once our new babies were born, things remained the same. I looked after the children; he went to the hotel or to smoke dope with a mate. Life was tough and often there was no money for food. I stopped eating so what we had would go further. As long as he had his beer he didn’t care. He would complain when the babies cried and tell me `to shut them up or else.’ Every day I lived in fear, never knowing what his mood would be.

One day I left him to care for the twins, so I could collect our eldest child from daycare. I returned home to find one of the twins was cold and shaking, I was horrified. It turned out they had a dirty nappy and he had put them in the bath with a cold shower running, in the middle of winter. A few weeks later when i wanted to breast feed one of the twins; I went to her cot and found a blanket over her, a shirt was wrapped around her head and shoved in her mouth. Quickly I removed it and she gasped for breath. I was shocked and angry. How could he do this to his own child? I confronted him and rang his parents for help. When his parents arrived, his father was drunk, saying `it’s alright son, I know she’s bullshitting’. He swung a few punches at me, then left to go to his parents for the night.

I was distraught, frightened, and knew I had to protect my children. I found the phone book and looked under ‘Domestic Violence’ in the front. I got several phone numbers; I started with the first. The first few refuges I rang were full and asked if I could wait. Finally I rang a Salvation Army refuge, and an elderly man answered; I don’t know how he understood me through my many sobs as I tried to tell my story. He said `not now, tell me when you get here, do you need help, how soon can you get here?’ my reply was` we are on our way.’ I grabbed my box of photo albums, a garbage bag of clothes for the children and myself, and took my dog, which had been a loyal friend for many years, and we left.

Driving early that morning, I was a little scared of the future, but not like I had been every day for the last five years. The eggshells I had been treading on were gone, my children could cry and I didn’t have to shush them. I was determined to turn my life around.

I spent a week at that refuge before moving interstate. I changed my name, and began to rebuild my life. A few months later, I moved into a housing commission house, got part time work, and had started making friends for the first time since leaving school. Life was great.

Fourteen months later, after I trusted the wrong person, Blake contacted me. He pleaded with me to believe that he had changed, he been to counseling, anger management etc. etc. He was real convincing – the old charm was back. I agreed to give it a trial, but said that things would have to go slowly. He could not live with me. And no more alcohol. He saw us once a month to begin with as he lived a long way away. Soon he moved to the town where I was living.

One weekend he was staying with us, he started drinking. We were having a conversation and at some point it escalated and I asked him to leave. I walked over to the door, opened it and said we could have the conversation another day. He grabbed me by the hood of my sweatshirt, threw me out my door and got on top of me and started choking me. I managed to break away and ran out the front door. He caught up with me at our front lawn, pushed me to the ground and started punching and kicking me. I thought he was going to kill me. Our neighbour’s voice called out that she had called the police and he fled.

A few days later, Blake Buckner was apprehended by the police for assaulting his estranged wife. The only problem was that Blake had already been arrested for the same crime days earlier, and records showed that he was currently serving his six-month sentence in prison. They checked. He was still there.

Before the time-travel division could be called to untangle the apparent paradox, though, my mother in-law came and cleared everything up: Blake had a twin named Jake who had a habit of going to jail for his brother’s crimes. In total, Jake says he voluntarily served four sentences for Blake, simply because he loved his brother and believed he wasn’t ready for prison life. Since Jake was serving time for his brother’s crime I never met him.

She explained; “It all started in the ’90s when Blake signed up for the Army and went through months of training, only to decide at the last minute that he didn’t want to be shipped off to Iraq to serve as a helicopter mechanic. Jake said, “What the heck, I’ll go for you” — he’d fixed a few cars in his neighborhood, so how hard could a helicopter be?”

“Since no one caught them (Jake became a crew chief in Iraq), the twins kept pulling the ol’ switcheroo every time Blake got into trouble. Jake had some run-ins with the law himself and insisted that his bro was too soft and delicate to spend time in prison … despite the fact that Blake was a violent wife-puncher just like his dad who repeated abused his wife and children,” she cried.

When a judge told her to cut that shit out and sentenced Blake to six months in jail, Jake once again stepped up and turned himself in, pretending to be his brother. Apparently they didn’t bother to check his fingerprints because they didn’t know he had a twin, never mind one stupid enough to take his place.

Flash Flood

The odour that wafted into his nostrils as he waded through the flood water was similar to that of fresh fish and dead plants, making him feel a little bit nauseous. Two weeks ago the same road that was now occupied with flood water would have been bustling with life at all levels. The bleating of goats strolling by would have been heard and the crowing of a rooster would have filled the air. Children would be running around with barely any clothes on their backs and adults would be busy with chatting with each other. But it was not two weeks ago, it was the present and more than half of the village land was occupied with flood water, causing the people to vacate their homes and to find shelter at the village town hall-one of the few locations where the flood had not gotten to.

The curve of a small smile settled on Oche’s dark face as he spotted his two friends on a canoe just at the end of the flooded road. He quickened his steps, the water rising higher on his body at every step that took him closer to where the canoe was. By the time he finally made it to where the canoe was, the water level around him reached his waist.

Taking the outstretched hand of one of his friends, he took a leap into the canoe, and after which he exchanged some morning greetings with his friends, for the sun was just peeping out from the far horizon. The next moment he and his friends got into preparation for the work ahead of them-fishing. They fixed the fishing line on the thin bamboo sticks, picked up the bait-worm-from a deep bowl-and fixed it on the fishing line. Done with preparing the fishing line, Oche picked up the only paddle in the canoe and started paddling, gradually propelling the wooden canoe to their site of fishing, the rhythmic upward and downward movement of his wide shoulder blades very visible from his bare back as he paddled. The more he pushed the paddle in and out of the deep brown water, the more the tiny beads of sweat on his back multiplied. A school of very tiny fishes swam past the corner of the canoe and the sight stole a smile from Oche.

The boys made small talks as they went on with their journey. The lankiest of them all complained about the state government’s negligence of their plight while the stout one complained about the shortage of food in the village after many farmlands were submerged and destroyed by the flood. Oche only listened to their complaints and wished that things would miraculously get better for them all. Oche withdrew the paddle from the water when they finally got to their destination-a site just in front of a big old church. The water level was extremely high here and could reach Oche at his neck if he decided to dive in. The three boys got into work by throwing in the baited fishing lines into the deep water.

Oche tightened his grip on his bamboo stick as he started to feel a weight pulling on it. A fish had eaten his bait and was hooked. His hands still tight on the bamboo stick, he pulled it out with a force enough to land the fish and the fishing line inside the canoe. He carefully freed the fish from the hook, making sure that his hands were safe from the mouth of the sharp hook, and then he gently threw the fish-about the size of his wide palms-into a bucket filled with water. The fish that was gasping for water before, swam giddily in the bucket of water the moment it was thrown in, probably not aware that the newly found freedom was a temporary one.

Oche had just thrown into the water his fishing line for the second time when he and the other boys saw a boy about the age of twelve paddling past them. The boy had a thick long hair and was only on khaki shorts.

From the way he held his makeshift paddle which was a long, thick bamboo stick; Oshe could deduce that he wasn’t so experienced with using a canoe. And again, the makeshift canoe-made with bigger bamboo sticks tied together horizontally and vertically-wasn’t steady on the water. The other thing that gave Oche the greatest worry was the direction that the young boy was paddling his canoe to-behind the church building-where the water current was extremely high.

Where are you going to!” Oche had to cry out to the boy, gaining the attention of his two other friends in the process.

“To fish!” the boy replied with a firm voice.

Oche could already tell that the the boy was going to fish from the bamboo stick and bucket that was on the boy’s canoe. What he didn’t understand was why the boy wanted to go to a place farther than where they were.

“The current is too high over there!” Oche cautioned.

“I know. It’s okay!” the boy replied and turned his back against Oche, giving Oche a clue that he had already made up his mind. Oche sighed and focused again on his fishing.

“Why are you bothering yourself?” his stout friend, Ekere asked.

“He looks too young. I don’t think he can handle the current over there,” Oche replied, the skin of his forehead furrowed. A fish got caught up in Ekere’s hook before he could say anything back in reply, so he focused on drawing the fishing line out instead.

“Why are the fishes treating my hook as if it’s without a bait,” the tallest among them, Abutu complained loudly, making Oche and Ekere to laugh at him.

“Keep trying and don’t give up yet.” Oche patted Abutu on his back. Abutu grudgingly drew out his fishing line from the water and fixed in a new bait on the hook, before sinking it back into the water again. But a terrific sight suddenly flashed before him just at the moment he turned around to drop the hook back into the water. With wide open eyes, he finally released coherent words from his mouth. “Where is the boy?”

Oche and Ekere instinctively knew who Abutu was referring to so with their fishing sticks still in their hands, they simultaneously turned around to meet with the sight that immediately replicated on their faces the same horrified look that Abutu had on his. The empty canoe of the young boy was just at a distance a little bit far from theirs, and being rocked by the fierce water currents. Oche’s eyes quickly roamed the region before him and they suddenly landed on what looked like the head of a human, just some few meters away from the empty canoe. The head suddenly disappeared but then reappeared again. It was only then Oche realized that it was indeed the head of a human and not an animal.

“He is over there!” Abutu shouted, as he too had now seen the boy who was trying to raise up his hands. The water current was taking him farther and farther away from them at every passing second. Oche had to act fast so he immediately drew out his fishing line and placed it on the canoe

“What are you doing?” Ekere quickly held unto Oche’s hands.

“I need to go!”

“It’s too dangerous. You said it yourself; the water current is too much!” Abutu tried to make Oche change his decision of risking his own life to save the boy.

Oche had a lot going through his mind. He remembered the six-year-old girl who had drown a few days ago. Rumors went around that the little girl had gone to take her bath alone at the village river, when the water level was almost two times higher than usual. He knew her and he had wished that he was there to save her.

He had an opportunity to save someone now and he couldn’t let it go by. Yes, the water current was much but he trusted his swimming skills. He was the best in swimming among his peers. Without heeding to the persistent pleas of his friends, he quickly dived into the water and started swimming forward and away from their canoe. He propelled one arm after the other with as much speed that he could possibly muster.

The more he tried to close up the great gap between him and the drowning boy, the more the current took the boy away from him. It was becoming frustrating. He increased the power of his strokes, causing him to involuntarily gulp in some of the contaminated flood water. His hope came alive again when he noticed that the boy had managed to hold onto a twig from a small tree. Swimming along the direction of the water current made it easier for him to get closer to where the boy was, but then, he couldn’t help but to dread what would happen when swimming back to the canoe.

A few more strokes and he finally reached where the boy was. He extended his right hand to the boy who had the most frightened look he had ever seen. The chest of the boy got elevated and depressed at every second due to his erratic breathing. The boy took Oche’s hand and afterward he wrapped his hands around the neck of Oche.

Oche turned around and started swimming against the current-the part he dreaded the most. Sharp pains were already emanating from his biceps and his eyes were hurting him. He gathered up some courage and tried to overcome the force of the current that was very well against him. He felt choked as the boy’s grip on his neck suddenly became tighter. The boy was traumatized and scared.

Making single strokes with only one of his hands, Oche tried to use his other hand to free the tight hold of the boy around his neck but it was fruitless. He had only one option left-bear the temporary discomfort and focus on the important task of swimming to safety with the boy.

The more his muscles became weaker, the more he pushed himself above his limits. He could see his friends now, they were waving at him.

Slowly and steadily, he was beginning to close the gap between his friends and him. He was beyond exhausted by the time he reached the canoe. With the help of his friends he was pulled into the canoe along with the boy.

The faint voices of his friends congratulating him appeared to be floating in the air. His breathing was rapid and he couldn’t feel his numb legs. He fought to keep his eyelids open but they threatened to shut his eyes. He looked beside him and saw that the boy appeared to be alright. He took in a deep breath of relief and smiled. In the next seconds that passed by he became tired of fighting to keep his eyes open so he let his fatigue win over his body. His eyes slowly shut and he fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.