The Forgotten Ones

Hayley Miller

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Flamboyant graffiti lines the walls, voicing the unspoken words of the silenced ones. The walls scream with colorful emotion and lean under the burden of delinquent paint. This is where voices are heard. This is where the truth is spelled out in big, spray-painted block letters. This is where opinions rage and roar without the fear of the law, without the fear of contradiction.

I walk past each masterpiece, an artist’s own diary, and stop in front of my own spray-painted block letters, my own raging opinion, my own delinquent paint. Faded and worn, it peeks through layers of dust and overlapping paint, still visible and proud to be my voice. I may have left this big city and my small world within it behind, but the marks I left on this wall are here to stay.

I remember the fury that burned inside my teenage self. The wall was my own canvas on which I took out all my anger. Now it is an archive, a compilation of those that came before me, after me, and everyone in between. While other people are featured in newspapers, magazines, and the covers of billboards, we write our own story on the concrete walls that surround us. We were the forgotten ones.

I came here to escape my sorry excuse for a mother. Whenever she was home, which she wasn’t very often, she was passed out on the couch. There was an equally probable chance of either me finding her alone, bruised, and cradling a half-empty bottle of whiskey or laying in the arms of her deadbeat boyfriend. Throughout my childhood, I can barely remember a time when she wasn’t dating some guy that looked like someone she just plucked off the street one day. Even more so, I can barely remember a time when her face wasn’t splattered with bruises, each one various shades of deep purple.

One boyfriend seemed to stand out like a sore thumb from the rest of them. Mike managed to stick around through most of my highschool years at Brookfield High School. When he got tired of beating my mom to a pulp, leaving her to her own devices on our cracked kitchen floor, he’d come after me. While my mom crumbled to the ground into a lifeless heap without a fight, releasing only a few whimpers, I fought back with all 100 pounds of power that I had. But 100 pounds of skin and bone, the result of years of malnutrition, stood no chance against over 200 pounds of muscle and fading tattoos.

Every morning before school, I’d clumsily cake my face with the cheap concealer I found in my mom’s “drawer of necessities” as she called it, leaving a faded yellow cast over my face as opposed to angry, purple splotches. Her “drawer of necessities” consisted of a pack of cigarettes, a bag of unknown pills that I was forbidden to touch, and an assortment of makeup that she put on whenever she went “out on the town”. Even then I knew that “out on the town” meant something entirely different. I always figured that’s how she ended up bringing home a new random guy each week, each with varying degrees of tattoos and piercings.

My little brother, Jack, was subjected to the worst role of all, a bystander. As an infant to the influential age of four, he sat hunched over in corners or hiding behind chairs, crying to the rhythm of beatings. A sob would break with each new punch or slap, creating the soundtrack to all of our pain. After each fresh beating, I’d cradle him in my aching arms and whisper happy stories and empty promises into his ears. He’d trace his gentle finger along the outline of my bruises, kiss his own clammy palm, and press his palm against each one, my own little doctor.

I hated my mother with every bone in my body for letting us live like this. It was her fault that we lived in a trailer park, barely surviving on her salary as a hairdresser, or at least that’s what she told me she did. I was almost positive that hairdressers don’t work those kinds of hours. Despite her elusiveness and constant secrets, whatever she did barely paid the bills and definitely didn’t cover all the necessities. If it weren’t for school lunches and my best friend, Vicky, we would have never survived. The only redeemable quality about my mother was that she brought Jack into this world, my only purpose for living. Even she had a soft side when it came to him. She held Jack with such reverence, as if she knew that he was the silver lining in our broken household.

A hint of jealousy would burn inside me, mixed with guilt for feeling this way, every time she rocked him to sleep or fed him with the same baby spoons she never touched for me. I was her teenage baby, the baby that got her thrown out by her parents. I knew this because she blamed me for our problems every day. He was the baby that she wanted, that she “thought” she could care for thirteen years later. Key word “thought.” As soon as I was eligible, I got a job as a cashier at the local supermarket. While mom was off on another one of her excursions, or just too high or drunk to care, I’d use my cashier money to make sure Jack and I were taken care of.

When that still wasn’t enough, I always had Vicky. She was the only one that I ever allowed to come to the trailer. The first time I brought her home, I watched as her eyes scanned the wreckage of dirty laundry piles, the mountain of dishes in the sink, and the overflowing trashcan. Not to mention, the empty bottles of alcohol and cigarette butts that laid scattered across the small expanse of our kitchen that doubled as a living room. She let her mouth fall open for a few seconds before a smile was once again plastered on her face. She didn’t even flinch.

Ever since then, she would come over bearing gifts, bags full of stolen food that she snuck from her house. She’d cheerfully say, “Jess, please do me a favor and eat these Cocoa Puffs! You know I hate them and my parents will get mad if I don’t eat them.” We both knew that she loved Cocoa Puffs, but her attempt at normalcy was always appreciated. She’d even accompany me to the graffiti walls and watched as I released my anger in my own form of therapy. I’d hold my hand out every few minutes, and she’d place the next color of spray paint into my grasp until my masterpiece was complete.

Up until the age of five, I left Jack on the threshold of our trailer, holding a sippy cup and his beat-up old blanket wrapped around his scrawny body. He’d wave me goodbye as I ran to the bus stop. On his first day of Kindergarten, I was the one that walked him to the bus. I was the one who packed his lunch, and I was the one who met him at the bus stop that afternoon. All while mom slept off another one of her hangovers.

By the end of my senior year, I had saved up a substantial amount of money with plans to go to the local community college. I told myself I could leave Jack at home with my mom as long as I checked on him every few days. That was until I was endearing another one of my routine beatings from Mike when Jack walked through the door. He hadn’t seen one in awhile, because they were usually before he got home from school or later that night after his bedtime. Instead of crumbling on the ground in a heap of tears like I expected him to do, my very innocent and very young, 5-year-old brother scrunched up his face and ran right in between my weakened figure and Mike’s swinging fist. He stood tall with his hands on his hips, proud in all of his glory as a mighty 3 foot tall kindergartner. Without a moment’s hesitation, Mike slammed his fist into Jack’s jaw, knocking him off his pedestal.

As I studied Jack’s wailing figure, I launched myself at Mike, putting in all my effort to inflict the same pain on him that he has on us for years. Although he left unharmed despite a few bruises I managed to cause, he walked out the door with a shaken expression on his face that looked misplaced on his built body. I assumed that he’d never had a girl give him a run for his money. I slammed the door with a smirk on my face, triumph pumping through my veins.

The following week, after graduation, with my high school diploma tucked safely under my arm, I packed up what little belongings we had into the barely-running minivan that had been collecting dust in our driveway. I left that life and our trailer park behind, with a giant wad of cash and Jack buckled into the backseat. Before we embarked on our new life together, I drove to the walls that held my story. I picked up a bottle of spray paint for the last time and carefully scripted the word, “Goodbye,” followed by the date, the finale to the series of artwork that I had created.

Now as I run my fingers along the same word that represented my freedom, I realize that I have come full circle. Tomorrow is my first day as the new art teacher at Brookfield High School, with Jack as my favorite new student, almost 10 years since I walked those same halls. My artwork reigns far beyond these walls now, instead hung on the walls of homes and schools alike. I’ve come back to give the forgotten ones the voice they deserve, the voice I never had.  

1 Comment

One Response to “The Forgotten Ones”

  1. Amy Voettiner on May 5th, 2017 10:42 am

    Great Article Hayley! When I brought you to New York I didn’t know it was a a time for you to study the streets for an article. This was very well written! Great job!

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