I was born an identical twin. Many years ago, I looked up the meaning of our names. Vera, who died after living for only two months and twelve days, means faith. My name means strength. After reflecting on what I endured through childhood, I realize that faith died to give strength a chance at life. So, I must take courage. My sister's death saved me because I needed her faith to survive.
I grew up in Joliet, Illinois, right outside of Chicago. Mama was short and petite with a short afro. She was strong and fierce. Her skin reminded me of brown sugar mixed in with the sun’s glow. She worked the day shift at Caterpillar Tractor Company out on Route 6. Working at the CAT was a big deal back then because it was one of the major companies in this area that allowed people of color to break the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck. Mama did not just provide a stable home but afforded us more significant opportunities by putting in long hours on the job. Working long hours had its ups and downs, eventually taking a toll on us, more so on me, because Mama and dad divorced when I was a toddler. One story told to me was that my dad kidnapped me, and another was that after the death of Vera, Mama needed a break to deal with her grief. She took out a restraining order against him after she had gotten me back. As a result, Daddy couldn't be within 100 feet of me. So, I began talking to my identical twin even though she passed away when we were babies.
Vera, why don’t Daddy love me? Why won’t he come to see me?
Valerie, Daddy, does love you. He will come to see you soon, twin.
When I was nine years old, my family had a get-together as they did almost every weekend, which involved music, food, marijuana, and alcohol. Family members would come over to hang out and have some fun winding down a long work week. I had a bedtime curfew of 9 p.m. I tried to get my way and stay up later, but Mama didn't go for it this time. I was jealous because my siblings didn't have to go to bed. My sisters were six and seven years older than me. One already had her license and the other a driver's permit, so they hung out with the adults. I headed to the back of the house, stepping down into my sanctuary of rest. My other sister's room was connected to mine, as both were built onto the house. She had to go through my room to get to hers.
I got ready for bed in the bathroom, dawning my Sleeping Beauty nightgown with matching undies. I thought nothing of not having my robe on because I was in my house. When I came out of the bathroom, I saw my uncle's friend smiling and winking at me from the kitchen. He had a joint in his hand, took a lighter from his pocket, and lit it. He waved to me as he inhaled the smoke and let it roll out of his mouth, slowly replicating cloud-like shapes as he stared at me. The second hit sent the smoke floating through the air before he returned to the front room. The smell of marijuana drifted into my bedroom, and to me, it smelled like roses. I was not too fond of the scent because roses reminded me of funerals and death, and the smell lingered in the air.
The man was tall and thin with ashy skin, the color of black coffee. He had squinty eyes and bright teeth close together, like a sly fox. I didn't think much of it at the time as I turned right. Later that night, I woke with a hand over my mouth and pain radiating from my most sacred part. My eyes were as big as plates. The man said, “Shuh, if you say anything, I will kill your mother. When I take my hand away from your mouth, you will be still and shut up.” I closed my eyes at that moment because I thought he was going to kill me right then. I held my breath so I wouldn't make any noise. Then I heard it again. “Open your eyes, look at me, and don't turn away, or I will punch you,” as his lips curled into a menacing gesture.
Vera. Please help me.
I'm with you, love. Val, do what he says.
Vera, I'm trying, but I'm scared.
Val, I'm scared too.
Mama, help me.
Vera, I can't. My throat... I can't.
As the pain continued, I listened to the music playing in the front of the house: "It's A Family Affair" by Sly & the Family Stone. I knew no one could hear me unless I screamed. Above the music, I heard my uncle say, “Shit, y'all can't beat me at no spades.” He had a raspy voice when he was excited. As tears began to fall, I could see my uncle in my mind slamming the card on the table, about to break his knuckles as he said, “Take that! Big Joker, we just set y'all fools.” Mama's loud laughter bellowed through the hallway because she was his partner, and they were winning. My closed eyes filled with tears listening to Mama’s voice and holding my breath to deal with the pain.
The man’s free hand went to a place no child should have to witness, what I assumed was his private part. In the front of the house, I heard Mama burst out into a fit of laughter. My auntie’s high-pitched voice hollering, “Cheater! Cheater!”
Suddenly the man’s face was moving around in circles, and he had a wicked grin forming as he hurt me and masturbated simultaneously. The black ring he wore had a crack in the stone, which tore the skin around my private area, making me bleed into my Sleeping Beauty underwear. I saw stuff coming out of him spilling into the wet bath towel he had taken from the bathroom. In the distance, I heard an aunt say, “If I pick up the last hand won, it better have a spade in it from yo Black ass.” Finally, the stranger's face returned to normal as he spoke death upon Mama if I told anyone about this. I didn’t realize that blood in my underwear was associated with womanhood until I began menstruating, which differed from being violated.
One evening I felt something wet in my underwear. I knew I had not peed on myself. I ran to the bathroom and pulled my underwear down. I saw blood. I had a flashback of when my uncle's friend touched me in my bedroom, and his ring cut me, but there was no ring this time. I began pacing. I grabbed toilet tissue to stop the bleeding. I could see the old Sleeping Beauty underwear with the smallest amount of blood, and I got scared thinking back to that night with the stranger. I stuffed myself with tissue and ran to my middle sister's room right next to Mama's room.
I didn't bother to knock. I pushed the door open and screamed, “I'm bleeding!” My eyes welled up. My voice cracked. I took deep breaths to calm down. My sister sat on the bed pretending to watch TV with her boyfriend, but I knew they had been kissing because she instantly wiped off her lips. But she immediately focused on what I was saying. She asked me where I was bleeding. I didn't want to speak with him in the room. I looked at him and back at my sister. She sensed it and asked him to go into the living room. I started crying softly and told her I was sitting on my bed and felt the wetness in my underwear. “Am I dying?” I asked her. When people lost a lot of blood on TV, that's what happened, they died. She got up and walked to me, then held my hand, wiped tears from my face, and spoke softly, “No, baby. You are not dying; sit next to me on the bed.” I was terrified because I didn't understand what was happening to my body. My sister knew, so she went to her dresser drawer, pulled out a pad and a tampon, and advised me that I had got my period. She taught me the difference between using a Kotex pad and a tampon. I shivered at the thought of shoving something inside of me because I remembered the pain from my uncle’s friend when he stuck his finger inside me.
Vera, I have started my period now. I’m only eleven years old. I thought that happened when you were grown.
But sissy said it only lasted a couple of days, Val.
Mama didn't tell me nothin’ about it, Vera. Are you in heaven?
I'm not sure. What is heaven, Val?
At church, they say it's where God and his son live and has something people want to go there to get, but they never come back like you, sis.
Oh, it's a place that I like ‘cause I get to watch over y'all and talk to you, so I like it here.
Can you make mama come back home at night?
Mama can't hear me like you, sis.
Vera, have you seen God or his Son?
Vera didn’t answer if she had seen God, so I still didn’t know if God was real.
This was the day my voice vanished.
Valerie established NHerself Expressions, LLC, and her YouTube channel (NHerself Expressions) to focus on sharing delicate and complex subjects, with the main concentration being to help others heal from traumatic situations. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and years of drug addiction has dedicated the last 20 years of her life to supporting others on their journey of healing and recovery. Valerie is a 20-year corporate professional with experience in Front-Line Leadership, Telecom, Technical Support Operations, Training, Account Management, Vendor Relations Workforce Management, and Human Resources. Valerie is an accomplished and sought-after Spoken Word Performer. She especially enjoys writing creative short stories and poetry. Valerie is also working on her creative nonfiction writing, a memoir, “BLUE BUTTERFLY: Exploitations of Innocence,” that details her journey to triumph and healing. She shares the pivotal life moments and lessons that fuel her passion for helping those in need. Valerie is a native of Joliet, Illinois, currently residing in Georgia. To inquire about booking, contact NHerselfExpressions@gmail.com. She welcomes sharing excerpts of her book with you and her spoken word poetry.