Some people can't remember the exact moment they were no longer a kid, but I will never forget my first step into adulthood. I met Christina when I was in seventh grade. I wanted to be a detective then, like Nate the Great, the boy detective who got paid in pancakes. I posted flyers all over my middle school. Need a crime solved? Come see Laurie in homeroom 13B. Only $5! Christina was the only one who responded to my ad. Someone had stolen her Gameboy, and it was up to me to find it. In grandiose detective fashion, I whipped out my pocket-sized notebook and began asking questions.
"Has anyone been acting suspicious around your Gameboy lately?" I asked.
"Not that I can think of."
"Hmmm, interesting," There was really nothing interesting about it, but that's what detectives are suppose to do. "Did you leave your bag unattended at all today?"
"For a little while, in homeroom."
"Yes, very interesting." I said. "Did anyone ask to play with your game boy that you said no to?"
"One boy did." She said
"Ah ha! Who was the boy you told couldn't play with it?"
"His name is Dallas LaRose."
"Let's go talk to him."
We charged from my homeroom to hers and found Dallas.
"Did you steal her Gameboy?" I demanded.
Dallas really didn't say much, he just nodded his head and started to cry. He pulled it out of his bag and handed it to me. I handed it back to Christina, she handed me five dollars and out of this, began a friendship that would change everything.
We shared a passion for Calvin and Hobbs books and traded the ones we had like crazy, reading them under the stairs at our middle school until the pages became stained and tattered. We would sit together on the bus, playing tiger hand held games, and listening to Ace of Base on her CD player. Her bus stop was a few blocks before mine, and I would wave out the window before diving back into another game of hand held football or fighter pilot. She lived with her mother and step-dad just a short walk over the hill. The people with money lived on her side of the hill, the rest of us lived at the bottom. She had told me about her mother. She didn't want Christina hanging out with anyone "down there," and rarely allowed kids from any part of the neighborhood to come to her house. Her mother had aerobics at the gym up the street after Christina got home from school though, and so our ritual began. I would kick around the back yard, whacking tennis balls six houses over with my aluminum bat, occasionally peeking around the corner, waiting for it. After a while, this short little oriental woman would come speed walking down the hill, arms swinging violently. I remember how she always looked mad. She didn't just look a little mad, she looked how my dad looked when he got really mad.
Christina's mother would pass our house, and I would try not to peek around the corner, though I always wanted another look. One day the curiousity got the better of me, and I poked my head out just a bit. Perhaps she always got an odd feeling someone was there, because when I looked around the corner, we locked eyes, and she fired a look at me that sent ice shards slicing through my veins. About five minutes later, I would see Christina coming down the hill. She would always pause at the very peak, scanning over our suburban block, eyes burrowing the woods on her left, as if she believed her mother would leap out of the forest and suck her blood at any moment. She always had her Greyhound Maggie in tow. Maggie was the sweetest dog I had ever known.
"Watch this," Christina said one sunny afternoon. "Maggie come here girl."
Maggie came running at us full force, tearing divots in the lawn as she went.
"Yeah, so what? I've seen her do that like eight million times."
"No, not that. Watch this. "Night-baby!"
Maggie suddenly cowered in fear as if someone had been lashing at her with a belt. Just two little words, and the sweet little happy dog I had grown to love, became a cowering ball of terror.
"Maggie come here girl." I said. "What the hell was that?"
"Night-baby was her racing name, we got her from the Greyhound rescue when she couldn't race anymore."
Maggie whimpered a bit. I rubbed her head gently. What could they have done to this dog to make her like this? I read up on it a few weeks later, and discovered that they beat them, starve them, mistreat them, do really anything to them if they think they might move a quarter of a second faster. I glanced at my watch and my heart splashed into my stomach.
"Shit, it's 5:30. Isn't your mom on her way back?"
If I had said Night-baby at that moment, Christina and her dog would have been a matching pair. Terror was spreading across her too pale face. She cringed slightly, as if someone was holding a rolled up newspaper over her head.
"You have to go look and see if she's coming." She said.
I sighed slightly. Really, what was her mother going to do? I wasn't allowed to go to her house, but if my mom caught me, she would ground me for a week or so. I grabbed my basketball, missed badly on purpose, and chased after it toward the street. She was almost at the driveway! I dribbled back and ran behind the house, pulling Christina behind me. I put a finger to my lip and peeked around the corner again. I watched her cross the street, and start up the hill. I turned back to Christina to make a crack about being a mama's girl when I saw the tears welling up in her eyes.
"What am I going to do?" She said. "What am I going to do? She's going to kill me."
It was at that moment that I realized just how terrified my friend was.
"Wait, the short cut through the woods! She never goes that way! We can totally make it"
I peeked around the corner again, watching her mother's head disappear over the peak, grabbed her arm and started sprinting for the hill. I raced into the thick brush of the forest. I could hear the sound of Maggie's paws tearing into the earth as she pulled Christina along. Nothing moved faster than Maggie in my eyes, but in that moment I could see her straining every muscle in her body to catch me. Adulthood teaches us to fear broken legs and sprained ankles, but at that moment I feared nothing more than the look in her eyes and what it might mean if we didn't make it. We broke from the cover of the trees into the quiet suburban street, and I pushed harder. I scanned around me franticly trying to spot her mother, but she was no where in sight. We turned the corner, and came to a quick stop in her driveway. Both of us dropped our hands on our knees, trying to catch our breath.
"I didn't know you could run that fast." She said.
"I didn't either." I grinned at her. "See you at school tomorrow?"
"You bet." She grinned back.
I started to jog to the woods, trying to run, but still unable to catch my breath. I turned the corner, and slammed right into her. I was growing fast, and she was only five one, but she seemed more solid then her tiny frame should allow. I stumbled, trying not to fall on the ground, trying harder not to lock eyes with her. For just a moment they did, and I knew in that instant that she knew. Her eyes flashed dangerously with rage, as if fire burned behind them. My heart skipped a beat, and I kept running to my house, trying to believe I hadn't seen it.
The next day at school, I thought it was a dream. Whatever had been so terrifying to Christina must have just been in her mind. We went to our classes, met up for lunch, sat together for the bus ride back. I got off at my stop and made the walk back to my house. I glanced at my watch. Her mother would be coming over the hill to go to aerobics in less than an hour. My friend Evan caught up with me to ask about our Little League game on Friday. We talked about strategy and how we were going to kick the Yankees' ass. At twelve, it was still cool and taboo to sneak as may cuss words as you could into a conversation. When I looked at my watch, forty-five minutes had gone by. I told him I had to go, and ran to my house. I tossed my bag on the kitchen table and grabbed a coke from the fridge.
"How was your day honey?" Mom asked.
"It was pretty good." I said.
"That's nice," She said. "I think Christina left a message for you on the machine. It was hard to tell though, I heard it as I was coming up with the laundry. She sounded upset."
I walked down the hall, sipping on my coke, and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Had I known this was the last time I would see myself looking so innocent, I might have looked a moment longer, but you don't know the moment your life is about to change, especially at that young age. I clicked the button on the answering machine.
"Laurie, it's me. I...I don't know what to do. My mother went crazy on me. She said she knew I was out last night, and she...she tried to kill me! Sh...she chased me around with the meat cleaver. I think she's gone, but I don't know. I don't want to leave my room. I'm so scared. Please call me back."
I had been angry a number of times as a kid. Angry, I got sent to my room; angry I couldn't go out with my friends; angry I couldn't watch the R rated movies with my brother and father, but something new took over me. I felt hate, pure and utter hate. I walked to my room slowly, not seeing my mother coming slowly down the hall. I opened my closet door and pulled out my bat, the heavy wooden one I used to practice so my regular bat would be lighter in a game. I slung it over my shoulder, and started walking out of my room, when my mother turned the corner and put both hands on my shoulders.
"Where do you think you're going?"
I tried to struggle past her. I could tell she didn't want me to go, and she started to tell me so, when her eyes locked with mine. It was another turning point in my youth, the first time she knew that "No" was not going to be enough. She might be able to stop me for a time, but eventually I was heading over there. When I realized that recognition in her eyes, I stopped struggling, but did not drop the bat. She turned her head sideways and said.
"The bat stays here. Call her and make sure her mother is gone. Don't go inside, and if you see her, run. If she tries to hurt you call us. Ok?"
I put the bat down and grabbed the phone. I pretended to call, and then started walking to the house. I didn't know what to expect when I got there. I cut through the woods again, and found a thick, solid stick, that felt right in my hand. I walked up to the steps, rang the bell, waiting for her mother to answer the door, waiting for a battle, but instead the door inched open slowly, and their was Christina, that same sickly pale color, her fingers shaking, her eyes wet.
"She's gone, you can come in."
I walked into the house, loosening my grip on the stick, but unable to put it down. I came through the door, barely aware this was the first time I had been in the house. It was immaculate, like a photo from the Better Homes & Gardens pictures my mom kept around. That is until she took me in the kitchen. Pots and pans were scattered around the floor, along with silverware, and knives. Her mother had more kitchen knives than anyone I had ever seen. Sitting alone on the counter, the one thing from the drawer that seemed to survive was the meat cleaver. She stared at it, eyes brimming with tears, until she could no longer hold them. She hugged me, and I had to pause for a moment, completely unsure what to do next. My head cleared, and I dropped my stick to hug her back. We stood there, her head on my shoulder, soaking my shirt with tears, until she was able to stop long enough to speak.
"When I got home from school, she went crazy. She threw me into the counter, and she just kept hitting me, and hitting me, and she wouldn't stop. I begged her… begged her to stop, but she wouldn't! Then she stopped and I thought it was over, but when I looked at her, I realized it wasn't that she was finished, it's that it still wasn't enough. She went into the kitchen, and sh…she dumped out the drawer. That's when she grabbed the meat cleaver and chased me to my room.
She started walking towards her room, a completely dazed look on her face. When I was eight I had a friend who got hit by a car in front of me. The car barely nudged her, but she went into shock. I wondered if the same thing was happening with Christina now. She didn't seem to be there as she moved slowly up the gleaming white carpeted steps. Gazing around the house, I could barely believe it. People who have clean houses with nice furniture don't do things like this. They have conversations and go to therapists. People who live in a house like this can't be that way can they? She pointed at her door, the tip of her finger shaking. She had no words left. I stared at it, eyes wide, unable to fathom the deep gashes that had been driven into the wood. My own finger slowly reached out, and for a moment, matched hers hanging in the air shakily. I caressed the gash in the wood door; until that moment, I couldn't bring myself to believe this was real.
"She just kept beating at it with the handle." Christina said as she raised her shaky finger to the round digs in the door. "She pounded and pounded, and then I heard the thunk. I just keep hearing that over and over again. She just kept pounding and screaming, and then the occasional thunk. I saw the tip of the blade poke through once, or at least I think I did. Then I started to scream. I just kept screaming and screaming, and then I realized I didn't hear anything, and then… I called you."
The power of those words still haunts me to this day. She called me, and then she looked at me as if I had an answer. Finding a stolen Gameboy was a long ways away from this, but who else did she have? What else could I do? It took a moment to find my words, and finally I said.
"Did she, leave any marks on you?"
A smile crossed her lips then that I hope I never see again. Her eyes flooded with pain and desperation and heartache as she turned her back to me and raised her shirt. Bruises and red slashes ran across her back. I wanted so desperately to look away, but my eyes were locked, and that feeling of utter hate began to boil in me. I wanted my stick. I wanted to go to that aerobics class and start pounding. I could see one strike and then just vanishing into oblivion of revenge. Forcing its way to the front of my mind though was that soft look in my mother's eyes. She never said it, but to me they said: "There's a better way."
"We have to call the police." I said. "This has to be illegal."
"No! You can't do that?" She said.
"Why the hell not?" I said. "They can do something about this…"
"No they can't! My real dad has tried, and they won't do anything. Every time she has a story about me falling down, and how he's warped my mind to believe that she hurts me. Plus they look at how small she is, and I don't think they really believe she could do it."
"Well we have to do something! You can't keep living like this, she's going to kill you!"
"NO! You can't tell anyone!" She glanced at her watch. "You have to go, she could be home any minute."
"I'm not just going to leave you here like this! We have to do…"
"GO! You can't do anything about it, just let it go! I'll see you tomorrow."
She shoved me out the door, and locked it behind me. I stood on her porch, tears welling up in my eyes as I turned to walk home. I scuffed my Keds on the sidewalk as I went, eyes tracing the cracks, my mind desperately racing for something I could do. I came home and closed the door to my room. My mom knocked gently and started to come in.
"Honey, I think we should talk."
"Not now mom."
"Sometimes kids exaggerate how bad things are. They don't understand that…"
"DAMN IT MOM NOT NOW!"
Her eyes flashed with anger for a moment. She stared at me unable to grasp the words that had just come from her sweet little girls mouth. I heard the stereo turn down in the living room and the recliner slam shut. The thump of my father's boots stalking down the hall. My mom turned quickly, closing the door behind her. I could hear they're muffled voices in the hall.
"What the fuck is going on there?" He said.
"Dick let it go, she's just a little upset."
"No, I'm not going to let that lil' shit treat you like that. Let me go talk with her."
"Not now Dick, you've been drinking. Just come sit and relax with me."
Dad never laid a hand on mom. He tried it once before Sean and I were born, and she left him that very day. It took him two weeks to get her to come back, and he knew she wouldn't come back again. So he bottled it up, tucking it away with the memories of the horrors his father had unleashed on him in his youth. When Sean and I came along, he had something to direct that pent up anger and pain at. I clicked off the light and curled into a ball fighting back the tears. I had been saved from his anger, at least for tonight. His abuse was never serious enough that it could be considered a crime. The occasional slap across the face or pounding of the ass with a stick was all too typical in small farming towns like mine. It was just part of growing up. My eyes closed, and I begged my mind to drift off, encasing me in sweet nothing. Something nagged at the back though, denying me the sweet serenity of sleep. My eyes flashed open as a light came on in the back of my mind. I scrambled to my drawer, and pulled out the tape recorder my brother bought for me. I could still remember his words when he gave it to me:
"If you like asking people questions and figuring things out, don't be a fucking pig, be a reporter."
I fell asleep with the tape recorder clutched in my fingers. The next morning I got on the bus and sat next to Christina. She didn't want to look at me. After a few moments of silence, I pulled it out of my bag, pressed it into her hands, and said.
"There is something you can do."
It didn't take long. She came to my house a few nights later, her hands shaking as she placed the tape recorder in my hand. Her eyes were so weak at that moment, desperately pleading for me to say something. To tell her this was going to work, that everything was going to be OK. I tried to find those words she wanted to hear, but nothing came. Finally she said.
"I better get back. She's been coming back early. My dad said he's going to come and get that in a few days. Keep it safe."
She turned and ran up the hill. When she was out of sight, I opened my fingers slowly and stared at the little recorder. All of my friends' pain and suffering was sitting in the palm of my hands. I started to turn to go up my steps when I saw my father looking out at me through the screen, a bottle of Heineken in his hand. He glared down, taking another pull off the bottle, as I looked down at my shoes. Sometimes just meeting his eyes was enough to invite punishment when he was like this.
"What's that you got in your hand there?" He said.
"Nothing important dad." I said.
"Is that right?" He said. "Then why the fuck can't you just tell me about it you lying little shit?" He took another long pull from his beer. "I know what you're doing, I heard your whole little conversation, and I don't like it."
"Dad you don't understand."
"I don't understand?" He said. "Maybe you don't understand. You don't know a god damn thing that's going on in that house."
"I know enough."
"You do huh?" He said as he pushed open the screen door. "Give me that tape."
I side stepped him, pushing him against the railing. I ran into the house scrambling for my closet. I yanked out the board that my brother had tugged lose for me when my parents were on vacation and slipped the tape recorder inside. I yanked open my bedroom window and ran down the street, back into the woods. I stumbled down into the creek bed, breathing heavily, hoping he didn't hear me. After an hour I realized he hadn't followed me. I couldn't hide in the woods forever, so I turned to go back, hoping he would have a few beers in him and forget everything. I pulled open the screen door gently, hoping he was zoned out on the couch, listening to The Doors, washed away in one of "daddy's quiet times." I didn't hear the screeching voice of Jim Morison when I came home that night.
I could hear Christina screaming. I could hear the sound of objects slamming into flesh, and things being hurled into walls. I could hear her mother screeching at her in Chinese, murderous blood curdling rage pouring out of that tiny recorder in a language I couldn't understand. Occasionally I could hear Maggie barking in the background. Mostly I could hear Christina screaming, so unlike the girl I had come to know. Screaming like a child, screaming for the child that was dying with each lashing she took. Some people can't remember the exact moment they were no longer a kid, but I will never forget that first step into adulthood as I ran into the living room and snatched the tape recorder off the coffee table.
"What is wrong with you two?" I stared the longest at my mother. "How could YOU do this?"
"Honey, I was just worried, and I wanted to know what you were getting involved in…" She said.
"So you had to hear it? You had to listen to this?" I said.
"I don't know about this anyway Laurie." Dad said. "This could be easily misinterpreted. She could have just been overreacting to her mothers' discipline and..."
I sprinted down the hall and slipped my desk chair under the door. I could hear my fathers' feet pounding down the hall, his fist slamming into the cheap flimsy faux wood door. I wrapped the pillow around my ears, still able to hear the rhythmic beat. I could live with that sound though. It wasn't what I wanted to drown out. I could still hear her screaming those deep wails of her childhood dying. Those cries of our youth that would never be the same.
The next day her father met us at school and he was able to get the tapes to social services. Her father came once to speak to my father about having me testify. It was a very brief conversation, and her father did not ask for anything from my family again. She moved to Burlington. We saw each other from time to time, but her father was as crazy as her mother, just not violent.
They put Christina into the system, and she became another lost soul. She moved back to Essex, with a new foster family, and we started high school together. I learned much about social services in those years, mostly that many of the people who do it are in it for the money, not the kids. Christina had a wild spirit that could not be tamed, and after a while it seemed that she was rotating through families faster than I was buying shoes. We hung out in the same circles, smoking weed and getting drunk. As time went on though, my parents wanted me around her less and less, and did what they could to sever the connection. I tried desperately to keep in contact with her, but much like a child growing into adulthood, her hand kept slipping from mine. Christina came to me one day to tell me she received a package in the mail from her mother. It was every card and present she had ever given her. Something died in Christina's eyes that day, and it never came back.
I didn't believe it when people started telling me she was doing heroin. It took me six months before it really became clear. We were at a pay phone, waiting for her to try and score me a bag of grass, when I looked at her arms. It was August and she had long sleeves on. When was the last time I had seen her wear a short sleeve shirt? My eyes traveled up her body that had gotten far too skinny, to her shoulder bones that poked out further than they should, until I met her eyes. The black circles that lay under them, and the light that had been gone for so long, that I had been unwilling to notice.
The last time I saw her was right before I moved to Colorado. She showed up at my work in a desperate state of panic. I saw that scared little girl I had seen five years ago. Two guys were waiting in the car for her. They needed fifty dollars that she owed them, or they were going to kill her. I looked deeply into her eyes, and I was so sure it was a lie. At least 99.9% of me was sure. I knew it as much as I knew that in less then an hour my fifty dollars would be traveling up her spiked vein. In that moment, I had to choose. Was fifty dollars worth that .1% that might lead to me reading about her being found in a ditch the next morning? So I went. Some part of me was still enough of a child at seventeen to see nothing wrong with getting in a car to go to an ATM with three heroin junkies. I look back now and try to find one part of me now that would ever do something so stupid, but I did it. Maybe, despite the fact that I knew she was not the same person, every fiber of my being knew she wouldn't allow them to hurt me. She was gone, but I could still see her in there. I could still see my friend, desperately looking at me with pleading eyes; 'Say something that will make it all better.' Once again though, I had no words that could do that for her. Instead I gave her the fifty dollars, and they brought me back to work.
I watched her tail lights fade into the black of night, knowing I would never see her again. Despite my best efforts to believe otherwise, my friend was gone, and had been for a long time. I left for Colorado shortly after, and tried to leave it behind me. Sometimes I look back though. Sometimes I leaf through the tattered pages of one of my Calvin and Hobbes books and turn to a page that made her laugh. Sometimes I think about those bright summer days, watching Maggie tear divots in our freshly manicured lawn. Sometimes I dream of the light shining down on us in the peak of our youth, when all we knew was in that moment we were happy. I see yellow school buses and running through deep forests, surrounded by golden and crimson leaves. Sometimes I wake up at night in a cold sweat, and I hear those screams, echoing in the back of my mind. Sometimes I see those dark circles under her eyes and that dead stare looking back at me with no hope left. Mostly when I think of these times though, I wonder; did I do anything to make it better?
©2008 by Laurie Delaney