Tennessee land can seem to roll like waves too gentle to break, but it does break in some places. Limestone cuts cliffs alongside the Holston riverbank where my brothers and I used to sneak off to when we lived in Kingsport. We would go to jump in the river, and sometimes other kids would be there jumping too. It was mostly all boys who swam alongside my brothers, joining them in their chant of my name as I looked over the edge with hesitation. Eventually, I always jumped. And these random boys would say I was tough, but flat as hell, not knowing I could hear their whispers despite the cicadas’ calls. I was maybe eleven and would blush dark red and pretend I hadn’t heard.
It’s April now; I’m a few months into seventeen and the hills are green, the dogwoods that line arching driveways are blossoming pink and white, and I sit next to my oldest brother whose hands I’d crawled away from in the darkness when I was a kid. For the most part, I’ve forced myself to forget those moments in the dark and others like it, and I’ll keep forcing myself until I cannot. I force myself even now, sitting in my brother’s car, smoking his cigarettes, and feeling welts swell bigger on my arms as I notice the beginning of bruises taking shape. At first I’d not felt the pain, but the sound of wood hitting flesh, the door slamming against my body, brought me to. Not even an hour earlier and I had been sitting at the end of my parents’ driveway, waiting. I’d called my brother that morning, but he had been in Bristol getting high and he hadn’t wanted to get involved. I called my sister-in-law, Amy, who made him get involved. It’s somewhere around three o’clock now.
Earlier this morning I had a purse slung around my shoulder, tucked inside was my birth certificate and social security card. I knew I needed these documents and that they would be hard to replace. I’d hidden another bag in the shed next to the house, planning to grab it the second my brother pulled into the driveway. But my mother suspected I was planning something and had watched me stash my bag from the window, and she had taken it while I was in the shower. The purse I had kept with me and slung over my head to hang it across my chest out to the end of the driveway and waited for my brother to show up. I waited for hours and recalled a past when I had loved my mother.
There she was, my mother, on a Saturday afternoon when I was five, fixing my hair in ribbons – long ones – pink, white, and blue. She sent me off to another child’s birthday party. We lived on “The Property” then and I walked past the rows of apartment doors, feeling more and more guilty with every step. My brothers had gone to friends’ houses to play and I watched my mother sigh sadly as they put their shoes on and made ready to leave. Later, as I begin walking down the hillside, I can’t stop thinking of my mother all alone in the apartment again. Within minutes I turn back, ribbons whipping behind me. I wanted to go to the party, but my mother had nowhere to go, so I tell her to come to the party, too. She smiles, says it’s not for adults, then hugs me and tells me I’m her sweet girl for coming back to her mother. Then the phone rings and my mother answers quickly. I sit on the floor staring up at her until she gets up from the couch and walks into the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. The thought of birthday cake enters my mind and I wonder about other treats that might have been at the party. Hungrily, I walk to the kitchen. I spread miracle whip on white bread, squish it into a ball, and then eat it like a roll.
It had been a few hours of waiting by the road, around lunchtime, when my mother had sent the children out to the driveway with instructions that I get them ready for lunch. I ignored the instructions and urged them to go back inside. My little sister would not budge, so I picked her baby body up and walked her inside. I wasn’t all the way through the doorway before my mother flew at me, fists flying, landing erratically as I shielded my little sister and slowly let her slide to the floor. That’s when my mother saw the purse and grabbed it, but I caught the strap and held on. She went to her bedroom, I followed, still holding onto the purse. She was quick, turned before I had my body through that doorway, just my arm and my right foot. That’s when the slamming began. And the sound and the pain and the insanity of it all made me let go. My mother ran to the bed, lay on it rocking back and forth and hugging the purse with one arm, crossing herself over and over with the other saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” I started to work the straps out of her fingertips, but quickly I gave up. The babies were all crying, all watching me, watching her be crazy, watching me not be the me they knew. I walked back out to the driveway and waited while my baby sister beat her fists against the window.
I was not sure how much time passed after I left my mother there rolling in her bed, more than half and hour, less than a full one. I leaned against the neighbor’s fence post, the final one dividing his pristine yard from our dumpy one, and I stared at the woods, the wide ditch at the base of the hill, and the spring weeds already as tall as my knees. Christopher came out carrying my sister. Matthew, Jonathan, and Nathan followed. They put themselves in the car and I did my best not to let them see me looking. Then my mother walks out, completely recovered from her fit. I hate when my mother is alone in the car with the kids, but I keep telling myself to stay put. So, I stay put. And my mother walks past the van and nears where I sit. I do not move. She tosses my purse at my feet and I feel a small amount of relief in my chest. As I reached for the purse she says,
“But here’s what you really wanted,” and sprinkles bits of my birth certificate, social security cards, and the numbers for help on the ground in front of me.
She waits, knowing I want to scoop up the papers but won’t, not in front of her. Finally, she says, “Get in the car, we are going to McDonald’s.”
I ignored her and did not move. When I heard her steps shuffle gravel and the van door slammed shut I still do not move. When she pulled out of the driveway and out of sight, I picked up the pieces already knowing the damage was irreversible.
The air was already heavy with humidity and my hair stuck to my neck and face. My mother returned, walked towards me and still I did not move.
“I brought you some lunch,” she said in her sweetest, most gentle voice.
I ignore her, stare into the ditch, wished like hell my brother would show up. My mother coos, “Rachel, you have to eat.”
She took a step further and I looked at her face; she was trying to appear tender. I stared straight into her eyes and fear moved throughout my body as I realized a ride might never come. Then I calmed myself knowing I could hitchhike if I really had to.
“I don’t want it,” I said to my mother.
Her face tightened then took on a look that was something like anger, something like mockery. She dropped the food on the ground in front of me and went inside. I sat with the food at my feet for a few minutes and then my brother finally arrived. I immediately jumped into the car.
“What the fuck is happening?” he asked.
“Just please let’s go,” I’d said, buckling my seatbelt and looking over my shoulder, worried that someone, anyone, might show up and try to stop me.
“God damn-it. I can’t leave without saying anything,” he’d said in a tone that scared me into worry—afraid he wouldn’t take me out of Rogersville after all. Instinctively, I locked the car doors.
He went inside and some five minutes pass before he comes back out carrying the bag my mother had taken from me. He threw it in the back seat and then got behind the wheel. He backed the car out in a fury.
“God she’s a fucking crazy bitch,” he says.
He lit a cigarette then hands me the pack. I light one too and then hand Brian the bag of food my mother had thrown on the ground.
“She thought I’d stay if she gave me a cheeseburger.”
“Right, because she’s always been so good about feeding her kids.”
I nod, look ahead and see the highway nearing, we stop at the one way stop where Choptack reaches highway 70, on the right Lakeshore Market seems still, though I know live bait is making circles in their tanks and worms nestle thick into dark, wet soil.
My brother opens the bag of food, takes a bite, and slowly chews.
“Might as well not let it go to waste,” he says.
He drives onto the highway and I lean forward, palms against the dash, tense until we get out of Rogersville and to Churchill, Brian’s town. Then I can breathe for a minute and plan my next move. I take another drag, the nicotine making me the tiniest bit dizzy, and Tennessee just rolls on.
Amy, my sister-in-law, twenty-one, skinny with huge blue eyes and dark curls, hugs me in the front yard of her and my brother’s house. Her mother, who lives next door, waves from the window. A cigarette trembles between Amy’s long fingers. She inspects my body and tears up.
“What are we going to do?”
“I’m going to Indiana,” I say. “My old ballet teacher is there now—she’ll help.”
A look of both worry and relief comes over Amy’s face.
“I want you to stay,” she says.
“You know my parents will do everything they can to hurt you.”
“We can get a lawyer,” she says.
“We don’t have that kind of money.”
“I’m making your favorite cheesy potatoes for dinner,” Amy offers hopefully as she lights another cigarette and sighs.
The next day my brother drives me a few miles down the road to a gas station alongside the highway. Claire, the one friend I had made at the ballet, is waiting in her car, her boyfriend at the wheel looking awkward in his tie and gelled hair. Claire looks beautiful though, all dressed up for a school dance, her hair high on her head, her lips painted pink. She gives me the sixty dollars I’d called and asked for the night before, which I promised to pay back. She hugs me and asks if we can take one last picture together. I nod, and she motions for her boyfriend to get out of the car. He turns on the camera, and my brother, who has been leaning against his car, high and bored, gets in and closes the door behind him. I know it’s time to leave, so I wrap one arm around Claire’s waist and pull the other behind my back to hide the bruises from the lens. Claire’s dress is a deep red, my shirt a bright red. Her one arm is around my waist, the other delicate at her side, her wrist pale and lovely, wrapped in a corsage of white roses and baby’s breath.
I plan to meet the receptionist, Sandy, from the ballet in Kingsport the next day. We were to meet at the public library and from there she was going to take me to the bus station. When I spoke to her on the phone she said she knew this day would come, though she said she was surprised it hadn’t come sooner. Having a plan to leave Tennessee gives me a little peace and in the evening I sit with Amy in her living room watching television and eating ice cream. I feel sad about the fact that I might not ever see her again after tonight, but as I’d done with the babies, I shut down those feelings as best I can — I cannot let that hurt get in the way of my escape. I take one of her cigarettes from the living room coffee table and walk out to the back porch, take a drag and close my eyes. I try to hear the kind of music that filled ballet studios and theatres, to believe I could have freedom, to convince myself I’ll find a way to save the babies. Some people might have called that hope, but it was just a story I told myself to believe. And I did believe, for years, until it was all too late. But right now, I smoke, I breathe, and then I hear the sound of tires crunching worn down asphalt, a car engine running in the driveway, and my sister-in-law slamming the back door as she dashed out of the house and grabs my arm.
“It’s your mom! I’m hiding you in the basement.”
“Okay,” I say and follow her down the back stair into the basement.
She hides me behind boxes of Christmas decorations and baby clothes my niece had outgrown.
“Don’t worry, my mom will be here in a minute,” Amy says, and runs back upstairs.
I hear my mother’s voice—full of indignation and lacking control. Then I hear Amy and her mother’s voices, telling my mother to go home because there isn’t anything here for her. I can tell my mother tries to go in the house, but Amy’s mother blocks the door.
“Lady, go home.”
My mother declares she will be back and with the cops. But she doesn’t return. It’s my father who shows up the next morning. This time I walk out to meet him. Brian and Amy sit in the living room. Amy is nervous and worried and Brian is impatient. I tell them I’m not letting them get in trouble for me, and then walk out the door.
My father’s eyes are dark, darker than usual, the way they get when he’s especially angry. He approaches me and I keep my ground, stare back at his angry eyes with equal rage.
“You can have your little vacation,” he begins, “but if aren’t on my doorstep first thing Monday morning I’ll have a warrant out for your arrest and I’ll file a complaint against Brian and Amy for harboring you.”
“Look at me,” I say. “I’m never going back to that house.”
“Like I said, be on my doorstep Monday morning or I’ll call the cops.”
“Call them,” I say, stretching out my limbs covered in marks my mother left.
I utter these words with confidence, but the truth is I don’t know if the cops will care. I hear that cases involving teenagers come down to their word against the parents’, and it’s usually the parents’ word that carries the most weight. It does the trick though, and I saw worry flash across my father’s face. But then he composes himself.
“You don’t look that bad. Besides, I saw what you did to your mother,” he replied.
“I didn’t do anything to her.”
“That’s not what she or the injuries on her body say.”
“You know I didn’t do anything to her.”
He didn’t argue with me then. Even he knew my mother’s lie that I hurt her would not hold, not with all the medical records out there bearing witness to my mother’s tendency to self-inflict wounds and the fact that I’d never raise a hand to my mother. Still, though with less confidence, he says, “Monday morning or I’ll press charges against Brian and Amy, and I’ll have you arrested as a runaway.”
I stood there and watched him walk away. Amy steps out and stands next to me, lights two cigarettes and hands me one.
“What are we going to do?” she says, releasing a cloud of smoke into the air.
“I’m getting the fuck out of Tennessee,” I say.
The next morning, I sit in the foyer of the Kingsport Public Library. The book smell is in the air, the tiled floor cracked and dirty. A public phone booth is built into the east wall. I walk over and sit on the swiveling stool in front of the phone, notice the pad and pen lying next to a phone book, take them up and write a note to my father. A librarian walks out the library doors, through the lobby, and outside with cigarettes in her hand. I quickly shove the note in my purse and return to the bench to sit next to my bag. The librarian comes back in, coughs, then asks,
“School out today?”
Just then Sandy, the administrator at the ballet, walks in, saving me from stuttering out a lie. She nods to the librarian, and takes my bags.
“Are you ready?” Sandy asks.
“Yes,” I say and gather up my things.
Sandy drives me to the bus station and gives me cash to buy a bus ticket.
“I’m glad you’re finally leaving. It’s the right thing. But remember, you can’t tell anyone I helped you. I could get in a lot of trouble,” she says.
“I know. I promise I won’t say a word. And I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”
“You don’t worry about that. I just wish I could give you more.”
“You better go,” I say, feeling anxious.
“I’ll leave once the bus pulls away,” she says, with a half smile.
The man in the seat behind mine pushes down the top of a brown bag to show me its contents—Southern Comfort—and offers me a sip, which I do not take. He asks what happened to me.
“Nothing,” I say and pull my sleeves down below my wrists, remembering how my father hated my habit of doing so, how he said it made me look sloppy.
Every time I start to doze off I see Jonathan running towards me, a giggle in his throat, his dark eyes lit up, waiting for me to squish him like I did every day. I wake up quickly to the feeling of weight upon my chest and sickness in my stomach, and the sound of the Greyhound humming slowly along the highway. I do my best not to close my eyes, to distract myself from the babies.
I get off the bus and hitchhike to the Fort Wayne Ballet, the school and company my teacher from Tennessee has taken over. I remember when she left Tennessee and she hugged me, held my face in her thin hands and said, “Of all my students you are the one I most don’t want to leave behind. If I could I would take you with me.”
My throat hurt and eyes threatened to wet, but I did not let myself cry. I’d just nodded and bit my cheeks. She had told me if it every became too much that I could always come to her. Looking back, I’m not sure how I ever believed this was a good idea, but I suppose that’s what feeling desperate does to a person. For whatever it’s worth, I know she wanted to mean those words, but the truth was the trouble was just too much—too many legal implications and she had her own family to worry about.
When I show up at the ballet I find my teacher in her office. When she sees me she stands up quickly, a confused look on her face. Then it hits me I’ve done the wrong thing, gone to the wrong place. I think I should have looked for my cousin who had been my favorite when I was little and still living in Texas. I heard he was living in Oklahoma—I should have found him and gone there instead.
“I just need a little time to work and save some money,” I say, wondering if my mother will also think to find my cousin, to tell him not to help me.
My teacher seems finally to realize what I’ve done. She moves from behind her desk towards me, pulls me close in a hug, then takes my hand and leads me to the vacant office next to hers.
“Don’t move. Don’t turn the lights on. Just wait here. I’ll be right back,” she says.
She walks away and I stand still, afraid to move, wondering if maybe I should just bolt out of the ballet altogether. I hear my teacher talking down the hallway. Another woman’s voice interrupts hers. She sounds irritated.
“If the situation is as bad as you say it is of course she would leave when told her you would help. Jesus Christ, Karen.”
“I don’t know. I just wanted her to know she wasn’t alone. I don’t know…”
“Where is she?” the other woman asks.
I hear both women walking toward the office where I’m standing in the darkness. My teacher introduces me to Kathleen, the ballet’s Marketing Director. Kathleen looks me over and I feel my face get pink when I look down at my disheveled overalls, my sweatshirt tied around my waste, and I notice for the first time how faded my favorite tank-top has become.
“Well, you can’t send her back,” Kathleen says.
My teacher nods, worried.
“Do you want to stay with me for now until we sort some things out?” Kathleen asks.
I nod because I don’t know what else to do. My ballet teacher asks me if I need anything. “Toothpaste,” I say.
She gives me twenty dollars. Months later, when it’s safe, she gives me clothes to wear in
ballet class and works it out so I don’t have to pay for classes. But right now she stands in the doorway looking unsure, something I’d never seen in her before.
Kathleen orders food at a drive-thru and asks what I want. I tell her I’m not hungry. She orders something anyway. On the drive to her apartment she tells points out that my teacher is going through a divorce, a custody battle, and harboring a runaway could cause her some real problems.
“It’ll be nicer at my apartment anyway. It will be quiet and you’ll have a chance to rest,” Kathleen says.
Her apartment is the entire first floor of an old house in a historic neighborhood. She shows me the bed in her spare room, where she keeps the television remote, and the fresh towels in the linen closet. She picks up her keys and I follow her to the back door.
“The food is in the fridge,” she says and goes back to work.
I notice how nice her house is – the hardwood floors, tall ceilings, and the smell of lemons. I’m afraid to touch anything, but finally give into tiredness and crawl into the bed in the spare room. From the early noon hour well into the night’s darkness I sleep.
I wake up with a jolt, and then hear Kathleen talking on the porch, she’s saying she didn’t know what else to do. She’s talking into a phone. I feel shame for being a nuisance. I get up and make the bed, go to the bathroom. Then return to the spare room and sit at the foot of the bed, unsure of what to do. The screen door creaks when Kathleen opens it, shutting it softly behind her.
She calls out, “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” I say and walk into the living room.
“Let’s go to dinner,” Kathleen says energetically.
I tell her I don’t have money for that and she says it’s her treat. We go to an Italian restaurant and I look at the prices and feel worried about ordering. I look for something cheap and order that.
Kathleen is gregarious, a beautiful red head with enormous green eyes that are hard not to stare at. I’ve never seen eyes like that and tell her so. She smiles and tells me she gets that a lot. She doesn’t ask me about my family, just what kind of food I like, what my favorite subject is, and other things like that – things no one has ever really asked me before. I tell her I don’t like garlic and she gasps.
“What do you mean you don’t like garlic? It’s an essential food group!” she declares.
“I just don’t I guess.”
“Oh my god. I’m Italian. Garlic is a way of life.”
“Oh. Well, maybe I can try it again. I guess I’ve only ever had it in pill form.”
“Well yeah, that’s disgusting. Of course you don’t like those. I’ll make fish with garlic sauce this weekend. You may like it,” Kathleen says.
“Okay,” I say, nervous about everything.
I call my sister-in-law from a pay phone to see if she knows how my brothers and sister are doing, she tells me that my mother put out a warrant for my arrest. So for weeks I do nothing but hide out at Kathleen’s and in the library, unsure of what do with myself. Kathleen cooks food that melts in your mouth and makes your tongue ache it’s so good. I didn’t know food could be like that. She takes me for a haircut, takes me to the movies, takes me around to meet her family. She worries I’m going insane with boredom. And she’s right, but more than anything I feel guilt. Pressure. I need to make something happen so that someday I could make something happen for my siblings. And I need to not be anyone’s burden. Though Kathleen will never say it, I know it’s crazy and difficult to have a random teenager in her house. I feel the pressure of my interference into her life constantly. It isn’t until I move to another state that Kathleen will remind me of what I owe her, though she will do so subtly. Right now though, I think Fuck it, apply for a job at a fast-food restaurant by the library because depending on the kindness of strangers, of hiding out at their expense, fills me with shame. So I get a job and think that maybe my parents never did put out a warrant, but when I show up for my first day of work a detective is there waiting for me.
“You have to come with me,” he says.
We don’t go far, just a short walk across a small parking lot to his car. We wait for a patrol car to come pick me up. I was quiet for a bit, then blurt out, “The woman I was staying with didn’t know I was a runaway.”
I’m taken to a juvenile detention center. On the drive over the officer asks me why I ran away. I say nothing and shrug my shoulders, my face burning. I don’t know how to talk about life with my parents, and there are some things I don’t want known. And even if I could find the words, my mother could always say I was a liar, and say it she would. I sit back – eight more months and I’ll be legal age. The months felt like eternity.
I look through the partition, look for the eyes of the officer in the rear view mirror.
“Are you going to take my bag away?”
“I won’t, but the people at the detention center will.”
“Will my parents get it before me, do you know?”
I was quiet for a moment. I’d written all these notes and letters to my father starting that day in the Kingsport Public Library. They were letters I’d never send, but wrote none-the-less. Angry letters asking why he’d let things happen they way they did. The letters were long and messy, but they were specific. I couldn’t bare the thought of my mother going through my letters, interpreting them for my father, never giving him the chance to read them himself. Or worse, he would see them and say nothing. Silence. He was so good at silence.
“Is there any way I can throw some stuff away? Just some papers I’ve written on?”
“There is a trashcan in front of the center.”
I prepared the letters for the trashcan by tearing them into pieces. The officer watched me but said nothing. When we got out of the car he pointed to the trashcan and I tossed my writing in it, the papers now surrounded by wadded up fast food bags and soda cups with straws jutting out.
Inside the detention center I’m checked in by somewhat terse staff, I answer their questions briefly, quick and quiet. I’m part angry, part depressed. That afternoon while sitting in a common room of plastic blue cushions, white cinder block walls, and girls my age, a lady comes in and takes me to her office. She is probably in her fifties and there are wrinkles around her eyes, which are bright behind thick glasses. She takes a deep breath, exhales in a tired way.
“I watched you throw this away from the window,” she says, handing me a baggie full of torn pieces of paper.
I took the bag and stared at it as she continued.
“I started reading through those and stopped myself. I don’t know what all has happened to you and I don’t think I want to know. But you don’t belong in here. Take those back. Keep them with you. You are entitled to see a lawyer. Did you know that?”
I shake my head no.
“Do you want to talk to the lawyer here?”
“I don’t have any money,” I say.
“You don’t need money to talk to her. It’s your right, if you want it.”
“I want it.”
The lawyer is also somewhere around fifty, is thin, and has hair that reaches sharply down to her jaw line. She asks me to why I ran away. I pick things to tell her that I think will matter the most, like not going to school. She says she’ll talk with the woman who found my letters and was there anything else I wanted to tell her. I sat there for a minute, pondering, feeling shame, troubled in a way I could not articulate.
“If you know what the letters say do I have to say it right now, too?” I ask.
“No. But you need to be prepared for the possibility for some of it to come out in court.”
I took a breath, “Okay.”
At the courthouse I’m greeted by a caseworker or probation officer – I’m never quite clear who he is. He takes me to a room where my parents are waiting. My father asks him to take off my handcuffs, which leads to my mother placing a loving hand on my father’s shoulder.
“Have a seat,” the unknown man says.
I sit. Feeling heat in my face as I look at this man, confused as to who he is supposed to be to me.
“So, you just up and left your siblings a few months ago?” he says.
“What?” I say.
“Your parents tell me you left home, left your little brothers and sisters. As your mother I and were talking about before you were here, you have to know if you aren’t at home to tell your siblings you love them, they will think you don’t.”
“That’s not true. They know I love them,” I say.
“No they don’t. Children forget things and if you aren’t there to remind them they will forget. Already they think you don’t care about them,” the man states.
I am overcome with incredible rage when I look to my mother, who is almost smiling at me. She knows the way to look, to sound, to behave. That part of me that knows how to hate comes out and I turn to the unknown man and look directly in his eyes.
“Go to hell,” I say.
My father reacts, forgetting the handcuffs, a dark stare, angry voice,
“You don’t talk like that, young lady!”
“Fuck you,” I say.
My mother gasps, an actual smile appears on her face as I give her the reaction she’s wanted all along.
“You see,” my mother says calmly. “She’s very rebellious.”
I wonder about the help the lawyer said I would have, where she was, and I begin to see there is not hope. If I could, if it wouldn’t really make me crazy, I’d scream. But I sit back down and say nothing.
“I can see we have nothing to talk about,” the unknown man says, opens the door and tells someone to escort me out.
I’m taken to a bench in front of the courtroom next to a girl about my age.
“What are you here for?” she asks.
“I ran away from home. You?”
“Too much to get into,” she replies with a laugh. “You want to go back home?”
“Well, you tell the judge and these people whatever they want to hear. Then you get out of here and just take off again. It’s as easy as that,” she says.
“You think so?”
“Yeah! I do it all the time. Just don’t get caught like I do. Ya know, don’t do anything stupid.”
The girl is taken away by an officer and shortly after I’m taken to a courtroom, where I am told to sit at a table in front of the judge, who glances at me briefly through thick glasses. The unknown man sits at his own table on the right side of the judge, and my parents sit in chairs a few rows behind my table.
“So you ran away from home because you want to go to school?” the judge says more than asks.
“Yes, and other reasons, too,” I say.
“And the state of Tennessee requires that you be registered with the school system.”
“Yes sir,” I say.
My mother calls out from behind me, “She’s lying! That’s not true. She’s lying!”
“Mam,” the judge says, “that was a rhetorical question. Tennessee does require registration. Please remain in your seat quietly.”
I did not turn around to look at my mother as she sat down, but I imagined she was defiant, staring at the judge. My father probably looked at him, too, or else stared not too particularly at anything. I’m surprised by my mother’s outburst. She had been so calm earlier, had known how to speak to the unknown man, but now she sounds frazzled.
“The fact is there are some real problems here…” the judge is saying when my mother interrupts him.
“The only problem is Rachel! She’s a liar and…” my mother is quickly interrupted by the judge.
“Mam do not interrupt me. I won’t tell you again. The next time you will be removed.” He looks at me.
“As I was saying, there are some real problems here, but this is a matter for Tennessee, a case for their jurisdiction. Will you go back with your parents and have your case heard in Tennessee?”
“Yes, sir,” I say, knowing I won’t.
I do not trust Tennessee and I’ll not return, so I lie to the judge and when I turn around my mother, pride wounded, will not look at me, but in the car she perks up, begins talking about life as if nothing strange was happening. I say nothing when she asks me a question. She turns around and looks at me front the front seat.
“You really think you could get away with any of this?”
I stare out the window.
“It’s okay, you don’t have to answer, it’s a rhetorical question,” she says sarcastically.
I notice my father is driving towards Kathleen’s neighborhood and I realize that my parents have learned that I’d been staying with her. They pull in front of her house.
“I’ll go in alone. It isn’t right for us to be there without her knowing and she’s probably at work,” I say.
“Oh she’s not at work. She’s in jail. That’s right. Jail. See what your little stunt caused? She’s just lucky I didn’t press charges.”
I get out of the van and both parents follow me closely.
“You know what,” I say, “I don’t want my stuff. We shouldn’t go in her house when she’s not there.”
“Oh no. We’re getting your stuff,” my mother says as both parents come towards me. I raise my hand to throw the house key into some bushes across the street, but before I can release the key from my fist my father lunges at me and so does my mother. Both of them dig at my closed fist, together prying at my fingers, trying to bend them open while my father pins my other arm down at my side. My hand is bleeding and so are both my father’s by the time they manage to get the key. They let themselves in and my mother walks around the house inspecting things, my father looks around, too. He finds my bag.
“See,” my mother says, “she’s packed your things. She doesn’t want you here anymore.”
Kathleen’s cat, who usually hid when new people were around, surprisingly, comes out despite all the commotion. I go to pet her goodbye. My mother, still inspecting the place, sees me bent down with the cat.
“Of course she has a cat,” my mother says.
I kiss the cat’s soft grey fur and then get up and walk past my mother, towards the kitchen, towards the back door. My father puts my bag down and starts walking towards me. I move quicker, go for the back door and feel my heart beating hard as my mother says his name in an alarmed tone. I know he is behind me and I move faster, get the door open and just as I’m nearly clear of the doorway, feel my father try to grab me. He gets a hold of the purse strap that I wear across my chest and down my back. I’m jerked back a little when he grabs the strap, but I recover quickly and lean all my weight forward, my hands at the doorframe, pulling with all my might. The strap snaps and sets me free. I run. I hear my father chasing after me, but I’m faster than him.
After a while I stop running. Catch my breath while looking all about me. Quickly I walk to St. Joseph’s Hospital, thankful for the cool air that hits my face as the automatic doors slide open. I sit in a lobby chair for a while, watching people come and go, some stopping at the information desk, some carrying flowers, some looking exhausted and unkempt. Seventeen, I keep thinking, so close to eighteen. I feel tired as I walk to the pay phone and call Kathleen’s office, afraid she won’t answer, that my being in her house had banished her to jail for who knew how long. But she answers.
“They told me you were in jail,” I blurt out.
“Well, I was at the police station. I wasn’t in a cell or anything. It wasn’t that bad. But Rachel, where are you? You can’t run again. People who helped you can get into a lot a trouble.”
“I know,” I say.
When Kathleen picks me up I tell her how my parents got into her house, that I’d tried to stop them, but now they have the key.
“Don’t worry about that right now. Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m fine,” I say.
We drive along in quiet for a bit, then Kathleen says, “The detective who arrested you is meeting us at the detention center to try and intervene with your parents. I called him to tell him I have you, that we are coming in, but that I’m not leaving you there all by yourself. He’s been very candid. He’s fed up with your parents—they’ve caused a lot of trouble. He says his counterpart in Tennessee feels pretty much the same.”
“Yes, but don’t get your hopes up. We still don’t know what’s going to happen. And listen, if worse comes to worse, if they make you go back with your parents, you can always come here again when you turn eighteen. There will be a place for you here.”
I don’t want anyone else in trouble because of me and can’t figure out how it is that kind people could be punished while my parents got to go on being cruel. I just sat there and nodded, said okay, but already I was planning to run again, maybe while driving back to Tennessee, maybe in Tennessee, but well before I got back to my parents’ house. I knew I would never be strong enough to leave the babies twice, and I probably wouldn’t be strong enough to survive living in that house again.
At the detention center the detective sits next to me in the lobby.
“You know, after dealing with your parents over the last few days, I don’t know how you lasted as long as you did. I’d have left years ago.” This man’s kindness makes me cry.
“You would have?” I manage to whisper.
“I would have,” he says, pats my shoulder before continuing.
“I told your father that you’re just going to keep running. Why not let you go, let you stay here where you have people that care about you. I hope I’ve convinced him.”
“Does my mother know?” I ask.
“We will find out,” he says, looking out of the glass walls of the lobby as my parents pull up.
Kathleen is outside on her cell phone, and, not knowing what my parents’ look like, goes right on having her conversation. The detective tells me to stay put and quickly walks outside, he says a word to Kathleen and she quickly hangs up the phone. My mother must have figured out who she is because she goes straight towards her and throws my house key at her and then lunges at her. Kathleen takes a few steps back and remains calm as the detective steps in front of my mother who has begun to yell. After a few minutes my mother storms inside; I can see she has lost control, my father follows her in, his t-shirt stretched tight over a protruding belly. He glares at me, but I don’t move. Workers at the facility have come to observe. The woman who had returned my letters steps in and tells my mother to calm herself. The detective stands between me and my father.
Kathleen comes and sits next to me, which sends my mother into further frenzy. She looks at me and says, “We don’t want you back anymore,” then looks at the detective and points at Kathleen, “but I don’t want her staying with that woman!”
My father tells my mother to get in the car or he’ll leave without her and storms out to the parking lot. As they drive away I see my packed bag through the window. The detective says as long as I stay in his jurisdiction he can protect me from my parents. So I do. He thinks I should stay with someone besides Kathleen, just to avoid possible complications with my mother.
Father Brooks, an Orthodox priest, and his wife, Jamie, a schoolteacher of children with special needs, are contacted. I end up staying in their unfinished basement until I turn eighteen. Out of respect, I go to church once a week, to vespers, while I stay with them, even though they know I don’t believe. I feel relieved that I can begin working on my life, on school, on getting a job. Still, I always feel myself a burden on the people who had given me so much, like Kathleen, Father Brooks and Jamie, strangers who chose to let me become close with them. I try not to dwell on all the debts I owe for all the kindness I received, but it’s difficult. And when I’m nineteen I leave Indiana for the University of Utah—a ballet program that wants me, housed in a place I’ve never seen, a place where I was excited to start fresh, to be a burden to no one. At first I felt forlorn, though soon enough that feeling subsided and I grew to love Utah—the mountains with many canyons full of redbud and aspen trees, the red desert in the south, and the air void of humidity. I’ve figured out that the West can get in your blood and the mountain air and desert dirt can settle in your bones. Slowly, I began to lick my wounds.