Bouncing her legs on the worn, leather couch, Willow happily followed along with Dora as she went exploring. No matter where the cartoon went, it was always better than the run-down apartment building where Willow lived. At the sound of splintering glass shards crashing across the kitchen floor, Willow abandoned Dora’s world, tucked her ratty teddy bear under her arm, and hightailed it out of the living room. Although she was only five, she knew all too well what was to come after the angry voices and the throwing things began. She had learned to read the signs, and sadly she was never wrong. There weren’t many places of refuge in the tiny apartment where she and her mommy lived. But there was one place she could always count on to ride out the violent storms.
To other kids her age, the dark recesses under the bed were a frightening place. But for Willow, the known horror that often surrounded her was far less scary than the unknown. Lifting up the faded blue and white patchwork quilt, she crawled across the dingy carpet and underneath the ratty mattress that smelled like smoke and pee. Dust bunnies clung to her clothes, clouding her lungs and making it difficult to breathe.
Once she settled in, she pinched her eyes shut and imagined herself miles and miles away. Whenever she was scared, she always went to be with her Angel Mommy. In Angel Mommy’s world everything was happy, beautiful and pure. Rainbows stretched across the sky over castles filled with unicorns. But the best part of all was Angel Mommy herself. Angel Mommy never drank too much out of the bottles with dark liquid that made her real mommy angry and then sad. Angel Mommy never had boyfriends who yelled at Willow or smacked her in the face or on the bottom. For Angel Mommy, Willow was her whole world—the only focus of her love and attention. They would play for hours and hours, running along the grassy meadow or playing hide and seek in one of the castles on the hillside.
She’d first begun to dream of Angel Mommy two years before at Christmas time. After her real mommy had drunk from the bad bottles and Mommy’s boyfriend had stuck himself with the scary needle, they started yelling at each other. Cowering on the couch, Willow had tried to hide behind the pillows. As Mommy and her boyfriend’s voices rose louder and louder, they began to push and shove each other. When Mommy tripped over one of Willow’s shoes, she lost her balance and fell into the small Christmas tree in the corner. Ornaments had broken and scattered along the floor.
After Mommy had screamed at Willow and thrown the offending shoe, hitting her in the face, Willow had tried to pick up the mess to make Mommy less mad. An angel in a long white robe was the only thing that hadn’t broken. It had soft, dark hair that she could stroke like one of her dolls, and it also had soothing brown eyes that gave Willow the reassurance she so desperately needed. Willow hadn’t let Mommy see that she kept the angel. And that very day, Willow named her Angel Mommy and always kept the ornament close to her side.
Under the bed, she let her hand creep down to her shorts pocket where Angel Mommy waited to give her comfort. Willow stroked the doll’s hair as the yelling in the living room grew louder. Just as she was about to plug her ears with her fingers, there was the bang of the front door blowing open and hitting the wall, like when Mommy’s boyfriend came home angry. More voices now. More yelling. More breaking glass. It sounded like the living room was being torn apart.
Mommy was begging someone with a voice that Willow wasn’t used to. It rang with fear, and it was usually Willow who was afraid, not Mommy. Thump, thump, thump. Willow began to shake at the sound. Was it pounding boots? Mommy didn’t like when Willow’s shoes made loud noises. Holding her breath, she prayed to Angel Mommy that the man in the boots wouldn’t find her. But even as she was saying the words over and over in her head, the scary person came inside her bedroom. She could tell right away from the size of his feet that it was a man. He started over to the closet. Clothes and toys began to litter the floor as he went through her possessions as if he were looking for something in particular.