This wasn’t the first man Krystal left. Her former husband, a Gulf War veteran, could never escape his mind. When the PTSD became too much to bear, he’d drink. And drink. Krystal endured her husband’s behavior until Jay started understanding why his mommy begged for his daddy’s car keys. When he’d grabbed her throat and wouldn’t let go. When Jay yelled, “Get off my mommy!” That’s when Krystal left him.

She was just 23 and a single mom, but she’d been on her own for much of her life, anyway. In her home state of Virginia, her mother abandoned her at social services when she was nine months old. Her paternal grandmother adopted her—and then died when Krystal was 15. Krystal became a nomad, moving from home to home, just trying to finish school. She married at 17, had Jay at 19, then Adara when she was 22. It wasn’t until her husband almost strangled her that Krystal decided she’d had enough.

By the time Terrance* landed in Krystal’s life, she wasn’t looking for a man. She was 27, raising her children, paying the bills, and getting a licensed practical nurse (LPN) degree. She worked as a night auditor at a Ramada Inn in Virginia. He was an engineer from Houston who stayed there a few months while working on a job. He showed up, and he kept coming back, night after night.

She tried to ignore him as she’d been doing with all men for the previous four years. She rarely dated and never brought anyone home to meet her children. She figured it might be like that forever: Jay, Adara, and her in their home, making do.

Terrance proved to be too good to ignore. At 6 feet 3 inches, with powerful arms that he’d wrap around her, he quickly convinced her he was wonderful. Safe. He wanted to meet her kids. After three months, she agreed. “I am going to be the father figure,” he told them. “I love you guys. We’re a family now.”

Krystal had one thought: “This is it.”

Maybe she saw a few warning signs. Terrance could be intensely protective. Didn’t like her stepping out without her man. Didn’t like men talking to her at clubs. But that’s because he was worried about her, right? He loved her and didn’t want to share her with anyone else.

Krystal thought about how quickly he’d waltzed into her life, wanting to take care of her and be a dad to her children. She concluded that after nearly three decades in a world that didn’t seem to care if she was alone, someone wanted her, even with all her baggage. So what if it seemed like too much, too soon? She deserved this.

So when he asked her to leave school early to join him at his new work site in Chicago, she agreed. It would be a honeymoon, a test to see if they could live together in his hotel room. She packed her suitcase and left the kids with her half sister for a little while so she and Terrance would have some time alone.

Krystal was finally letting go and allowing herself to trust someone. For a while, it was fun. There were parties. Nice cars. Dancing in hotel rooms. High heels. New clothes. But one night he thought she danced too close to another man, and Terrance hit her. Another time he saw a guy at a club approach her. Even though she was careful to point out her boyfriend, he slapped her on the drive back to the hotel. “I saw you in that man’s face,” he raged. She hit him in the forehead with her shoe’s heel. It drew blood. She wasn’t a pushover. She’d fight back.

Her moment of self-defense didn’t stop the violence. One night, they were at a cookout at the hotel and Terrance wanted to leave. Krystal wasn’t ready yet. “I’m going to sit outside for a while,” she said. “It’s nice. I don’t want to go back upstairs.” He hit her, grabbed her hair, and yanked her head back. When she woke up the next morning, she wouldn’t leave the room. She’d been in Chicago less than a month.

A woman she’d met there kept calling; Krystal didn’t answer. Finally, the woman came to the hotel and made a manager let her into Krystal’s room. “Oh my,” she said when she saw Krystal’s face. “What happened?”

“I had a seizure,” Krystal lied.

She couldn’t stop lying to herself, either. He was so different most of the time. That wasn’t the man she met. Every day wasn’t bad. Something had gone wrong those times, and it wasn’t his fault. He was the man she wanted, the father she hoped her kids would have.

If there was a moment to escape, it was when she flew back to Virginia. She hugged her kids and faced a choice: Keep them in the same school. Finish her classes and start working as an LPN. She’d make good money, there would always be work for her, and she could start forgetting Terrance. She could heal.

Instead, she packed their bags and moved her family to Houston.