Tug of War

Five-year-old Eliot wants to make a birthday card for his father, Tony. He pulls two sheets of paper from a notepad and selects a freshly sharpened blue crayon from the box. "This is a picture of me running Tony over," he says. "I want to draw a picture of me killing Tony."

There's a crude box, the outline of a car. He puts a smiling face inside. That's him, the driver. He draws a stick figure in front of the car. That's Tony.

Eliot returns the blue crayon to the box and pulls out a new color. "Mom, is this red?" he asks.

Sitting beside Eliot at their kitchen table, Darla Carrigan nods her head. She looks like she's about to cry as Eliot scribbles red across the stick figure. "And when I run him over," he explains, "his head would get cut off and there would be blood."

Done with his picture, Eliot asks Darla, "Can you write 'Happy Birthday'? Write 'I hate you Tony b-word hole.'"

"I can't," Darla tells him.

Eliot's big brother, seven-year-old Ethan, is more than happy to help. He writes "I hat you Tony but holl" in big letters and shows it off around the table.

"He's a liar," Eliot says as he studies his card. "Next time I see him, I'm going to punch him in the face and choke him."

He folds the paper and pushes it aside. Now he wants to write a letter to his friend Ricky. He dictates the message to Ethan.

"Ricky, Tony is trying to kidnap me."

Despite the harsh words, Eliot doesn't seem upset or even fazed — almost as though it's a game. His older brother, on the other hand, looks worried. He was the first one to draw a picture of killing Tony, and he understands the situation a little better. He knows there's a court involved. He even wrote the judge a letter. It was one line that told the "juj" where "toyn" had touched him. But Ethan doesn't want to talk about that. He doesn't want to talk about Tony except to say he doesn't want to see him.

"Fire truck!" Eliot yells, breaking the silence. He runs to the window to watch the truck go by and starts chatting away about where it must be going.

Darla Harrison was eighteen and getting over a bad relationship when she left her childhood home in Arkansas for Texas. She wanted to join the Army. She had absolutely no interest in guys or love. Until she met Marco "Tony" Olivarria in 1997.

A mutual friend introduced them, and they spent the entire night at a little family restaurant, just drinking coffee and talking. He was a clean-cut soldier, six years older, just back from Kuwait. She had a shaved head, pierced nose and tattoos. "I was not the girl next door, and he was definitely the boy next door," she says.

After a week, he told her he loved her and took her to Arizona to meet his family. They spent every day together. Three months later, she came home from work one night to find him on bended knee. "It was like a fairy tale — almost," she says. "I was living in the moment. Everything was going to be perfect. We got married, and things changed."

It started with little things, like each of them hanging out with their separate groups of friends rather than each other. Then it progressed to fights over Darla's smoking weed, because Tony didn't approve. At his insistence, she went into therapy. "Darla's always had anger issues," Tony says. "She used to verbally and psychologically abuse me. She gave me a lot of problems. I'd leave for a couple of weeks, come back and couldn't find her. And we were married. She tried committing suicide one time."

Darla says that incident was triggered by her father's trying to reconnect with her. They had been estranged for years because he had molested Darla and her oldest sister. Darla was five when she told her mom. Eventually — after foster care and a lengthy legal battle between her parents — Darla's mom won full custody. Her father was supposed to have supervised visits at his parents' house, but he didn't follow that rule for long. "At that time, we were old enough to know to stay away from him, but the verbal and physical abuse still occurred. I went home with bruises." Sometimes he used a belt, other times a switch. "One time he hit my sister so bad you could feel the welts through her flannel pajamas."

So when Darla's father suddenly called to see her, she broke down. "I just lost it," she says. "I got drunk so bad, locked myself in the bathroom. I went crazy." Tony wanted her committed, but she wouldn't go. Instead, she worked through her issues in therapy. "My therapy was all about dealing with my sexual abuse," she says. "As an adult was when I finally got over it, dealt with my demons and said, 'I didn't do anything wrong here, and I'm not going to be a victim for the rest of my life.' Everything was great. Therapy was going great. My marriage was getting better."

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Jessica Centers