Eye of the Beholder

The hospital emergency room was crowded for 3 am on a weeknight. The cop closed his eyes for a moment, trying to clear his mind of anger and blood. When he opened them, he walked up to the registration window and began speaking to the attendant in a quiet voice.

Behind him, patients in various stages of personal agony looked on as the paramedics rolled the stretcher in. He watched the nurse's eyes widen in pity at what lay there. The girl might have been 18 or 19; it was hard to tell. Her face was swollen out of shape and her eyes could not open for the puffiness and crusted blood sealing them shut. Her hair was probably blonde, though it was discolored with mud and blood also. Her lips were moving but no sound came out. Her hands fluttered at her sides, clenching and unclenching at irregular intervals.

A doctor rushed over and the policeman gave a brief report. He had found the girl in an alley. He had thought she was dead, but when he had gotten closer he had seen her lips moving. He didn't say that she had been mumbling the word "no" over and over until her voice failed. Her clothes had been torn away and it was obvious she had been raped as well as beaten. The cop kept his voice carefully flat and neutral, but he seethed inside. The doctor said little beyond what was necessary, but he met the cop's eyes with a grim look that said what they both felt.

Over the next week the officer went to the hospital every day. Though the girl had been in shock when she arrived, the doctor assured him that she would live, but that she might have some permanent damage to her sight. When he approached her bedside, she shifted nervously then tried to smile. The effect was heart wrenching, but better than her reaction the first time he had come. On that occasion she had refused to look at him and began to cry, her battered body wracked with sobs. It was two more days before the doctor would allow him to see her again. He brought a female officer with him that day to try to get the statement they needed to mount an investigation. The girl's first words had hit him like a punch to the gut. "It's all my fault. I shouldn't have been hitchhiking." He'd heard it before and always found it difficult to understand how a person could think they somehow deserved abuse. He wanted to shake her and tell her that no matter what, no one deserved to be treated the way she had. Instead he stood silently, stiffly, in the corner of the room as the woman he had brought shook her head and gently spoke to the girl. "Of course it's not, sweetie. There's no law against hitchhiking. You did nothing wrong. Whoever did this to you had no right to." She stroked the girl's bangs away from her blackened eyes as the tears welled up in them. It was clear that she didn't believe the officer's words. In a low, dead voice she had told them her story. She expected no pity or sympathy, and gave herself none. A bitter edge crept into her voice as she explained how her ride had deserted her at a party and she had begun to walk home. It started to rain and she was soaked by the time a car had slowed down, its driver offering her a lift. Her voice broke and she swallowed once before she went on. She knew it was stupid she said, but she had been cold and tired so she accepted. When he passed the street she wanted without stopping, she knew there was a problem. When he drove through a red light without stopping she knew she would die. When he turned into the alley, she had tried to get away, but it was too late. She hadn't struggled after that, but he beat her anyway, leaving her for dead. "I know I shouldn't be alive." she finished.

Today the officer carried flowers for her. The swelling had left her face and he could see that she had beauty beneath the sickly yellow and green bruises. He set the bouquet on the nightstand next to her. She gave him a questioning look. "What are those for?" she asked.

"Well they're for a beautiful young lady!" he smiled.

Her eyes went bleak and she looked away from him. "I'm not beautiful." Her hand shook as she tugged her hair over the stitches near her eye. "I'm a freak."

He sighed and wondered if the perp. would survive the trip to jail if he happened to be the one to catch him. At least they had been able to get a good description of him and his car from the victim.

"That's not what I see." he said, trying to keep his voice calm. "I see a person who has had a bad experience. That doesn't make you bad." He looked her in the eyes, willing her to believe it, but she refused to meet his gaze and looked towards the flowers instead.

"Thanks," she said unenthusiastically.

He stayed with her for a while, trying to draw her out with questions about her life. They talked about her hobbies and interests and she warmed a little. When he asked about a boyfriend she fell silent and he saw the shadow creep back into her eyes. 'Damaged goods' she was telling herself. She might as well have shouted it.

A few days later the doctor released her. The cop was there when her parents came to take her home. The girl's mother had brought some makeup and pretty clothes for her to wear. While she was in the bathroom area changing, the doctor came in. The young lady would be good as new he said. Even her eyes had not been injured as badly as he had thought. There would be no permanent damage to them. When she returned, dressed in the clothes her mother had brought, the officer held his breath. She was quite lovely. The doctor told her as much. The girl's eyes filled with tears and she shook her head.

The policeman wondered if her eyes would ever heal.

Sonja Torres 1997

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