It was a hot summer day in Mississippi when we piled in my mother’s car and began the road trip from Yazoo City to Gulfport to see my father. Throughout the trip, there was a great deal of silence as my mother drove and my brother and I sat stiff with anticipation. It would be our first encounter with our father after my mother left him and he flooded and destroyed our home and set our family photo albums on fire. I stared out the window while my thoughts poured in like a dozen or more bullet trains with no crossing in sight.

I was still confused by my father’s crying on the phone when he begged us to come visit him. Please Lord, let him be really really changed. Just please watch over us and let everything be ok. I wanted so desperately to believe that everything was on its way to changing and my father would never hurt us again, allowing us to be a normal family. My mother had actually left him this time! Surely that had to have made him want to change. Even though I hoped for the best, I knew the worst was possible. What if he was planning something? What if this was the time he would take us for good? I had to believe it wasn’t. The thought made me tremble and want to vomit. No. Things had to get better. They had to. Besides, my father was staying in a home where several of his relatives lived; He couldn’t hide anything with so many people under one roof. But… he had already been able to hide so much. I couldn’t escape the fear and need to be on guard, but, nonetheless, I wanted to see my father, and I was hoping with all my being that he had truly changed.

My thoughts were interrupted when the silence was finally broken by my brother.

“You’re not going to let him come back home are you, moma? I know we’re going to visit daddy, but I don’t want him coming back home.”

Although my mom’s eyes were wide and glazed with fear, the determination in her voice didn’t go unnoticed.

“No, son, I’m not. I can’t keep doing this. I promise I’m not going to let him hurt ya’ll anymore.”

I felt sick to my stomach. I hoped she didn’t let him come back home. Sure, I missed my father, but I was not ready to go back into that cage. My brother’s facial features reflected my feelings.

“Please don’t, moma, because he hasn’t had time to change that much yet. He’s going to have to prove he’s changed, and that’s going to take time.”

“Moma, he’s right. I don’t want daddy to come home either. I’m still scared of him,” I told her.

“Listen to me, both of you, I’m not going to let him do anything to you again. I will call the cops if I have to this time.”

My mother glanced in the rearview mirror to see if I was paying attention to her.

“We will be there in a few minutes. Your dad’s aunt lives right up the road. And I meant what I said. I promise you two. You won’t have to go back to living like that.”

Please God, let her be telling the truth. I can’t live like that anymore. I’m so tired of always being scared. As my chin began to shake, I folded my arms and tucked them under me. I couldn’t cry now; it was too late. I could only hold tight to the hope that this was a step in the right direction. I knew we had arrived when my mother turned onto a gravel driveway and there sat my father’s white Toyota truck. A double-wide mobile home occupied the space and attached to the front was a small wooden porch with no rails.

My father stood on the porch with his hands in his pockets. To anyone else looking, they may have seen a rather plain man in jeans and a t-shirt. He was five feet seven inches tall and medium-sized with a small gut. His hair was gray with a few splotches of blond left, and his eyes were an emerald green. I saw my father through a different set of lenses. I saw a terrifying man with soulless eyes that had great power and authority. He was exceptionally intimidating and manipulating, and I saw something dark every time I looked at him. I was almost sure that if anyone looked close enough, they would see that his eyes were empty; they would see the darkness, too.

My father greeted us when we stepped onto the porch.

“I was worried y'all wouldn’t come, but I’m really glad that you did."

My mother avoided looking my father in the eyes, but she did not appear frightened or worried.

“Yes, we came, Budd.”

A smile spread across his lips before he turned to me.

“Come in and see everyone. It’s been years since they have seen you.”

That was true. I had very little contact with my father’s family; I didn’t know them very well, but I had been curious about them. I followed my father inside and met my great aunt and several cousins. Over the course of the next couple of days, I got to know a great deal about my paternal family members. After seeing the gentleness of my great aunt, I stuck close by her side, absorbing everything she had to say. I had been so preoccupied with getting familiar with everyone that I didn’t think much when I noticed my father walking out of the sliding door into the yard with my mother following him. Maybe he is still apologizing for everything he’s done. I held my hope and continued enjoying the company of my new family.

I’m not sure how much time passed, but it didn’t seem like very long before I heard my brother outside yelling.

“This is bullshit! We had a deal!”

There was only one deal that was made recently. My head began to spin so rapidly that I wasn’t sure I could make it to the sliding door. My chest began to ache, and my throat began to contract. Please God, don’t let it be. I made it outside where my mother and brother stood facing each other. My father stood to the side like he didn’t know what was happening. My brother had his feet planted firmly on the ground and his fists balled at his sides. It seemed as if smoke would start pouring from his ears at any second. My mother looked terrified. Her eyes were wide and panicked and her entire body was visibly shaking. She looked from my father to my brother as if she was trying to figure out who was who. The chaos made the situation confusing for my twelve-year-old mind.

“What’s going on?”

Although in the deepest pit of my heart I knew the answer, I refused to believe this was happening. Surely God wouldn’t let this happen. Tears pooled in my eyes as I struggled to regulate my breathing.

“She’s taking him back home, Brandi! She promised us, and she’s already taking him back!”

I witnessed so many emotions cross my brother’s face that I wasn’t sure if he was going to attack someone, call the police, or just scream. My mother seemed to recognize it at the same time I did. When she spoke again, her voice was steadier and calmer.

“Just calm down and listen to me. I know what I’m doing. I meant what I told you two. Everything’s going to be ok. I just need you to trust me.”

The pool of tears overflowed, spilling from my eyes and rushing down my face. I didn’t understand. She wouldn’t have lied to us. I gasped for air while I openly sobbed. I stared at my mother hoping for some sort of explanation. Her eyes reflected the same desperation and helplessness that I felt. My heart ached as if pieces of it were being chipped away, and my mind went haywire trying to process what was happening. I felt like I had swallowed a handful of sewing needles.

“Moma…”

“I need you to trust me, Brandi. Remember what I promised ya’ll? I will keep that promise, but I need you to keep believing in me.”

My brother’s gaze landed on me. His eyes were dark and narrowed, and his lips were tightly clenched in a straight line. After studying me for a moment, he began to slowly shake his head back and forth.

“You can believe what you want to believe, Brandi. But I know he hasn’t changed that fast, and I’m not going back to living like that. I can’t tell you what to do, but just think about all the things he has done. Do you really trust him?”

Of course, I did not trust him. I had learned that from time and experience, but I wouldn’t dare say so in front of my father for fear he may strike me down. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to go back home with my father. I also didn’t feel comfortable knowing my mother would be alone with him. My mother seemed to sense my hesitation.

“I know you’ve been wanting to see your other cousins that live in Long Beach. It’s ok if you want to stay here a little longer; It’s the summer, and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind having you.”

My father quickly agreed, and the decision for me to remain on the coast was made. My brother appeared relieved and anxious at the same time.

“Yea, you stay here and just hang out for a while. I’ll go with moma because I’m not leaving her alone with him- “

He looked straight in my father’s eyes before finishing his sentence.

“-And I won’t let anything happen.”