The Hummingbird's Cage
Author:Tamara Dietrich

I can’t remember what set him off this time—some trouble at work, most likely, that carried over. And it was mid-November, and Jim never does well during the holidays. But this time I was vomiting blood, and feverish. I was afraid I was bleeding inside, and convinced him to take me to a doctor. I swore I wouldn’t say anything.

To all appearances, Jim was the concerned and loving husband, holding me up as he walked me through the doors of the clinic. He was near tears as he explained he’d come home to find me half conscious at the base of the stairs, our little daughter frantic, trying to rouse her mother. The nurses seemed as concerned for his welfare as for mine.

But the clinic doctor was young, fresh off a hospital residency in Phoenix and clearly not stupid. He could tell a bad beating from a fall. He called the local police department, which referred it back to McGill County for investigation as suspected domestic assault.

The doctor had me admitted to the small regional hospital, where I stayed for two days. During that time, he visited me to check on my progress, and to press for details.

I could tell he meant well. He asked what happened to my bent pinkie. How I came by the scar that bisects my left eyebrow. The scalding burn on my back. He said he would send someone from the local domestic violence center to speak with me, if I wished.

I didn’t wish anything of the sort. He was young and earnest. To men like him, illness and injury are the enemy, and they are soldiers in some noble cause. I felt like he was flaying me alive.

“You’re safe here,” the doctor said.

I stared at him. He was a fool.

“Where’s my daughter?” It was not a question.

Jim didn’t visit me—he wasn’t allowed to visit while the report was under investigation. He was put on paid leave from the sheriff’s office, so he stayed in our house outside Wheeler, putting Laurel on the school bus every morning, waiting for her when she got home again every afternoon.

When I was released from the hospital, I returned home and Jim moved in with a buddy and his family. They commiserated over what was clearly a misunderstanding. A bad patch in a good marriage.

An assistant county attorney met with me once. She came to the door in heels and a tailored skirt suit that showed lots of shapely leg. Her hair was pulled back in a sleek ponytail. She wore dark-rimmed glasses, but only for effect. They made her look like a college student. I’d never met her, but knew of her—police officers and officers of the court are members of the same team. And cops gossip like schoolgirls.

Her name was Alicia and she was full of swagger, lugging an expensive briefcase, a cell phone clipped to her belt. She couldn’t have looked more out of place in Wheeler than if she’d parachuted in from the moon. If I’d had the smallest sliver of hope for rescue, which I didn’t, Alicia dashed it just by showing up.

We sat at the kitchen table, the better for her to take notes. I poured her a cup of coffee that she didn’t drink and set out a plate of oatmeal cookies that she didn’t touch. I fed her the story Jim had made up, and she saw right through it. Just like the doctor in Arizona, Alicia pressed for “the truth,” as if it were something tangible you could serve up on demand, like those cookies.

“According to the medical report, your injuries are consistent with a beating,” Alicia snapped, impatient, glaring at me over her dark rims. “We can’t do anything unless you help us. He’ll get away with it. Is that what you want?”

I was calmer than I thought I’d be. I shook my head. “He already has.”

Alicia’s penetrating stare bordered on disgust. She slapped her folder closed and stood up. I was surprised—she had a reputation as a terrier, and I thought she’d put up more of a fight.

“Women like you—” she muttered under her breath, shoving her folder in her briefcase.

Something snapped inside. I stood up, too, heat rushing to my face.

“And women like you, Alicia,” I said through clenched teeth.

She froze for a second, studying me. “What are you talking about?”

“You really should be more careful. When your boyfriend, Bobby, knocks you around, don’t call Escobar at the station house to cry on his shoulder. The man can’t keep a secret. And, my God, you should know it’s a recorded line.”

Her pretty face turned scarlet. Later, I would regret being so blunt, so mean. But caught up in the moment, I couldn’t stop myself. Laying into her felt electrifying, like busting loose from a straitjacket, and for the barest second I wondered if this was how Jim felt when he lit into me.

She slammed the front door behind her and we never spoke again. I did see her in court at the hearing for the plea agreement. Without the cooperation of the victim—that would be me—the case was weak. Jim’s defense attorney and Alicia worked out a deal: if he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct, the felony assault charge would be dropped and he’d serve minimal time. A felony conviction was too great a risk for Jim—it would mean the end of his police career, not to mention a lengthy jail sentence.

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