Back in the day—a generation ago—an announcement would come on at 10:00 p.m. every night on the local TV channel. Katie’s father had told her about it. Sometimes interrupting a commercial or TV program, a male voice said the same thing to parents each night: “It’s ten o’clock. Are your children at home?” Well, it was past ten o’clock. It was past midnight. And Katie’s mother still hadn’t come home.
Katie turned off the movie she was watching and looked out the sitting room window and down the blackened street. Most of the street lights were burned out. One just in front of her house, though, stretched a faint yellow glow over their splintered picket fence and patches of blown-out dandelions. Their yard always looked so ugly. If I had a can of white paint, thought Katie, I just might paint the fence myself. She laughed a little to think of how shocked her friends would be if they saw her painting. She wondered if any of them would offer to help. Maybe Gustavo would. But there was no money for a can of paint. No money for anything.
Now it was 12:15. Katie’s mother had never come home this late before. Her mother wasn’t a good driver—ever. Driving after staying out this late partying, though, was especially dangerous. Katie’s mother always drove the car home, no matter how bombed she was. One night, as she pulled the car into the driveway, she ran into one of the poles that held up the carport.
It collapsed on top of the car. A huge dent, more like a crater, on the left side of the hood and scratches everywhere evidenced the end of the carport, but Katie’s mother wasn’t hurt. “Stupid thing!” she yelled as she stepped out of the hand-me-down Ford. “I told your father this carport wouldn’t last when he put it up. And now, look! I’m lucky to be alive!”
What if tonight her mother had accidentally driven into a ravine or run a red light and smashed head-on into another car? Where would she go if something happened to her mother? She had no relatives she knew of. Do they put fifteen-year-olds in orphanages?
Katie watched now as headlights neared. It was the Ford. Running quickly into the living room, Katie pushed “play” on the remote, grabbed her potato chip bag, and sat on the floor in front of the couch. She didn’t want her mother to know she was watching for her.
Katie heard the loud creak of the door and turned to see her mother steady herself on the entryway table. After stumbling twice as she made her way across the living room, Katie’s mother leaned heavily on the back of the couch.
Then she noticed her daughter sitting on the floor. “Katie! What are you doing? You know you have school tomorrow! Can’t I leave you alone for . . . for . . . even a minute?” She brushed her hair out of her eyes and dragged away a loose strand stuck to the bright red lipstick on her thin lips. “How dare you . . . how, how dare you . . . stay up this late!” She stopped talking, dropped her purse on the couch, and stared at Katie.
“I was . . . well, the truth is that I was waiting for you to get home. You . . . you really shouldn’t drive when you’ve been drinking, Mom. What if you have an accident?”
“How dare you tell me wha—what I should do! I’m your . . . your mother!” she stammered, looming above Katie in tall, heeled boots.
Katie, sitting cross-legged on the floor, couldn’t get away fast enough. She just didn’t see it coming. A moment earlier her mother had appeared too weak and dizzy to harm a fly. Now she was a seething, potent black widow, and Katie, cornered by the couch at her back, was the fly in her mother’s web. Kicking and slapping her over and over again, years of bottled anger smashing open, her mother ranted irrationally and spouted obscenities that Katie had never even heard before. Katie had never been so frightened in her life. While drunk, her mother had hit her more than a few times before, but this was different. This was a nightmare.
Katie searched her mother’s face for the mom who used to sing to her at night as she lay in bed or the mother who years ago hugged her tight and smoothed her hair before Katie ran out to wait for the bus. That mom was gone. This mother’s eyes spit hate, and her face stretched to strangle Katie.
She crawled around her mother’s legs and scrambled along the splintered floor, her mother flailing kicks behind her. Katie was finally able to get up and run into her room. She slammed the door just as her mother fell into it and began pounding and yelling for her to open up. The phone lay on the bed where Katie had left it. With her weight against the door—there was no lock—she leaned over and snatched the phone. The kicks on her thighs ached, and her face bled. She called 911.
Before it began to ring, though, Katie quickly pushed the off button. If I call the police, she thought, they’ll take me away. They’ll put Mom in jail. Dad’s already gone. I won’t have anyone left. And if Dad comes back, I won’t be here. A picture of her father smiled at her from atop the chest of drawers across the room.
Katie held her back to the door for the next five minutes until her mother stopped banging and slumped to the foot of the door. When she was sure her mother had either passed out or fallen asleep, she grabbed her pillow and the old, thick blanket at the foot of her bed and climbed out the window as she had many times before.
Stuffing the pillow and blanket into the lower branches of the backyard tree, Katie swung up. Her left thigh ached so much from the beating that she had to drop back down and try again. Once up in the tree, she pushed her pillow and blanket through the door of her tree house and climbed in. As she’d grown older and bigger, the tree house seemed to shrink. She couldn’t even stretch out straight on the floor anymore. Still, Katie arranged her pillow and blanket on her habitual spot on the board floor, now slick with use. She sunk her head into the pillow and stared up into the night sky. From the spot where she lay, she could just see through the crack between two slats in the roof. It was not, however, a good place to lie in a rainstorm.
Dad said he was going to fix it, thought Katie. That’s not going to happen. He’s not coming back—ever. Tears slid out the corners of Katie’s eyes and onto her pillow. She closed her eyes and saw herself reaching as high as her six-year-old self could, standing on the tips of her toes, to hand nails to her dad as he built the floor of the tree house.
“This will be our special house, Kate. And whenever you need me, I’ll be here. You just tell me when, and I’ll be here.”
Sure, sure, Dad. Sure you’ll be here. You never even call me.
This time Katie’s tears fell onto the floor of the little house, and, after a long while, she slept.
Gazing at Katie over the top rim of his reading glasses, Judge Bellows appeared disgusted. In fact, he looked at her just as he would examine a foreign object, slimy and nasty-looking, that he had just found in his bowl of Wheaties. Fishing the object out, the judge spoke to it.
“What do you have to say for yourself, young lady?”
Katie felt like crawling under the Persian rug on the floor of the judge’s office—like she was the lowest scum on earth. Seated in a wide, straight-backed, wooden chair directly opposite the judge’s face, she looked down at her hands and twisted the tarnished ring on her finger slightly so that the small black stone lay centered. Katie’s father had given it to her before he went away.
“Your grandmother gave me this ring,” he had told her. “She said to give it to you when you were old enough to wear it. So hold on to it, baby, until it fits. Your grandmother said it has been in the family for generations.”
I bet Dad never imagined the hand wearing this ring would slug Mom, thought Katie.
Her mother sat in a back corner of the judge’s office under the American flag and a picture of George Washington kneeling by his horse. Her fair hair unusually pulled in a twist at the back of her neck, speaking only when spoken to, Mrs. McBride’s answers were seldom more than “yes” or “no.” She wore the only dress she owned, a white dress splattered with blue forget-me-nots. It was the same dress she wore on each of the two Sundays six years ago when she took Katie to church.
“Well, Katie?” asked the judge. “We’re waiting.” Indeed, Judge Bellows; Pam Collins, assigned as Katie’s social worker; and a tall police officer, all looked at her expectantly. Even Katie’s mother, who had heretofore kept her head lowered, looked up across the little room at her.
“My mother, well, she . . .” began Katie. She stopped, though. They could still put my mom in jail, thought Katie. How long would they keep her in there? And where would I go? What would happen to me?
“Yes? What about your mother?” he asked as he looked over at Mrs. McBride.
“Nothing,” answered Katie weakly, averting her eyes from the judge’s face. “Nothing. I really don’t have anything to say.”
Judge Bellows straightened himself in his chair. He appeared much taller now. “You are charged with causing bodily harm to your mother. I’m giving you a choice, Katie. Your first option is to spend time in a juvenile detention center—two months minimum. More, if your behavior there is not outstanding.
“As for your second choice, Miss Collins here may have had a bit of inspiration this morning. She knows I am always open to suggestions; I’m not the most conventional of judges,” added Judge Bellows with a slow, deep chuckle. “Miss Collins’s father is in charge of a unique, two-week pioneer trek being held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the pioneer settling of our city. Before this hearing today, and with my approval, she contacted him. Mr. Collins has graciously consented to allow you—if you choose—a place with one of the handcarts, and it seems to me to be your best option. Miss Collins would make all the arrangements. The timing is perfect; school is out this Friday in your district, and the trek starts Saturday.”
“Well, which will it be, Katie?” asked the judge sternly.
She looked straight into Judge Bellows’s squinty eyes. “What’s the trek going to be like?”
“It’s a handcart trek, and, to be honest, it won’t be easy. You’ll be walking ten to fifteen miles every day, and you’ll do your share of pulling the cart.” The judge stopped to clear his throat and then continued. “It’ll do you good, Katie. How about it?”
She thought for a few moments. “I guess I’ll do the trek,” Katie answered finally. “Will there be other kids my age?”
Judge Bellows smiled. He looked relieved. “Lots of kids your age. At least one hundred of them.”
“Does the court have your approval, Mrs. McBride?” he asked.
And with the assenting nod of Mrs. McBride’s head, the sentence became final.
That night Katie slept badly. Monstrous, hollow-eyed, and moaning creatures appeared, faded, and reappeared in dream after dream. They lurked under her desk at school, behind the shower curtain, and outside her window. The last monster Katie saw frightened her so much that she shot straight up in bed. From behind an old and weathered wooden door, a horrifying, misshapen duplicate of Katie herself lurched from the darkness. In what remained of the creature’s decaying hand, it clutched an empty bottle of scotch.
Katie closed her eyes tightly and breathed deeply. It’s just a dream. It’s just a dream. It’s just a dream, she repeated to herself. Sliding back down under her covers, she waited until her heart stopped jumping and then, noticing the daylight through her window, Katie held very still to listen.
She heard no sound from her mother’s bedroom. That was good. If there was anyone she did not want to see this morning, it was her mother. Showering and dressing noiselessly and in record time—it took her just twelve minutes—Katie tiptoed out the door and headed toward the bus stop. She didn’t bother to eat breakfast. She didn’t know if she could find anything to eat in the kitchen, anyway.
At school, her head began to ache, and she wished that she would have at least looked around for a slice of bread or a glass of milk. To make matters worse, the annoying, one-minute warning song began sounding in the hallway as she walked to her second-period class. Students walking near Katie quickened their steps.
“Keep them dogies movin’—movin’, movin’, movin’!” blared the loudspeaker.
“Movin’, movin’, movin’. Yeah, I’m movin,” Katie called to the speaker as she rolled her eyes high. “Do they think we’re cows or something?” she complained loudly to a few students as they rushed by cautiously, gliding in a look-I’m-not-running attitude just in case a teacher or administrator appeared nearby.
Sure, this might cut down on tardies, thought Katie. But we’re not a stupid herd of animals. A song between classes would actually be kind of cool if the music they chose was halfway decent. Like some Red Hot Chile Peppers. Then the hallways would really rock. But Rawhide? It’s just a scratchy theme song from an old western series. Katie very much resented being treated like a farm animal.
As long as they’re rounding us up, they might as well provide lassos and bullwhips for the teachers monitoring the hallways, thought Katie. She chuckled to herself as she imagined Mr. Black standing outside his classroom door cracking a bullwhip at the hustling behinds of passersby.
“Head ’em up, move ’em out, Rawhide!”
Katie slowed her pace as she recognized the end of the song. If she wasn’t careful, she would move through her class doorway just as the tardy bell rang, and that was way too soon. Slow down, Katie, she warned herself. Why avoid making a scene?
There it was—the bell, finally. But the door was just a few yards away, and it was still too soon to walk in. Turning to a nearby locker, Katie began fiddling with the combination to buy time. Instantly the lock dropped open in her hand. What have we here? thought Katie. See what happens when you hurry too fast to class? You forget to make sure your lock is shut tight, and someone like me gets into your locker! . . . someone like me . . . .
Inside, just calling for her to take it, was a shiny blue iPod, complete with headphones. Katie examined the pictures plastered all over the locker. I know whose locker this is! This is Laura Drummond’s! Laura Drummond, the richest kid in the school. Laura was in Katie’s math class, and Katie knew for a fact that Laura’s dad had just bought her a new generation iPod, smaller, light pink, and with twice as many gigs.
She won’t even care, thought Katie. And I can always put it back in her locker. She probably never shuts it tight. Katie slipped the iPod into her backpack and headed toward the doorway to her class. Everyone thinks I’m a criminal anyway. Especially after yesterday. I might as well act the part. Katie McBride, criminal at large.
Sauntering into the classroom, she looked around. Mrs. Maxwell sat at her desk in the back. “Oops! Am I late again?” Katie sang out, dramatically opening her eyes and mouth wide in surprise and clapping her hand to her mouth.
“It would appear so, Katie,” responded Mrs. Maxwell in a hushed voice as she continued marking the roll.
Several students paused their pencils and looked up at the commotion, but most recognized Katie’s voice and simply continued writing in their journals.
Oh well, thought Katie, you can’t win every time. Of course, she hadn’t expected much of a reaction from Mrs. Maxwell. Actually, if any of her teachers could be called cool or even halfway normal, it would be Mrs. Maxwell.
Just in case anyone was still watching, Katie swung her head around as she walked toward her desk, a move that she knew called attention to her long black hair. Then, patting Brandon on the head and tapping Cammy’s foot with her own as she made her way down the aisle, Katie finally sank into her chair and glanced up at the start-up assignment written on the whiteboard.
Journal Entry #45 (Last one of the year!)
If you could change anything in your life, what would it be?
Explain your answer.
Katie slowly closed her eyes and ran her fingers through her hair. What would I change? What would I not change would be a much easier question. She laughed to herself.
The first thing I would do is erase yesterday, Katie thought. To erase yesterday, though, I’d have to erase a lot more. I’d have to erase what happened a year ago—the night my mother kicked my legs black and blue with her boots. And then I’d have to erase all the times she smashed me after that. If I could just remember to get out of her way faster.
Sighing deeply as she opened her classroom journal, Katie began writing. Teachers never read these journal entries anyway, she reasoned.
First of all, my dad would come back, and he’d never go away again. I’d change my mother, too, of course. She wouldn’t drink anymore. And she would smile. Of course, she’d never hit me again. And then I wouldn’t have to hit her either. I’d live in a nice house in a good neighborhood, and I’d do my homework every night.
Here Katie stopped her pen. It had never occurred to her before that she might want to do her homework. I guess I would do it if I had a normal family, she thought to herself.
Hmmm, what would I really be like if things were different? Katie wondered as she rested her chin in her hand. She was surprised then at how exhausted she suddenly felt. I shouldn’t be this tired. It’s not even noon yet. Katie felt soggy and colorless, like broccoli left boiling on the burner far too long. Folding her arms on top of the desk, she laid her head down and imagined herself in a different kind of life.
There I am right now. I step out of our SUV and wave good-bye, no, blow a kiss, to my mother. She blows a kiss back at me and drives away happily, her sunglasses (which I picked out for her) flashing very coolly in the morning sun.
My friends are all waiting for me on the grass outside the school. (There are at least eight of them.) After big, smiley hellos and hugs, we head toward the school entrance. Sean Adamson is standing close by, and when he sees me with my heavy book bag, he is right there at my side and offers to carry it for me. He asks me if I’d like to hang out with him on the weekend. As we pass through the front doors, the sun rises high in the east, transforming the bricks of the school into bars of gold.
Now Katie laughed her laugh. The stupidity-of-it-all laugh. The this-is-it-Katie-darling-and-there-ain’t-no-more laugh that was becoming more and more frequent for her. She let her eyelids slowly sink down to shut out her thinking and then squeezed them once tightly to stop any tears. Letting her eyes roll, she caused her mind to blank.
“Hey, Katie.” It was Mrs. Maxwell. She opened her eyes to find the teacher kneeling by her desk.
“Hey,” she replied, her voice void of any feeling.
“Bad morning?” the teacher softly questioned. Katie’s only reply was to lower her eyelids and roll her gum over with her tongue to give it a slow chew.
“See me after class, okay?”
Okay,” Katie mumbled.
She tried hard for the next forty-five minutes to pull herself up again, but it was impossible. She just didn’t seem to have the strength to reach down inside and lift out a laugh, a clever remark, or a sarcastic smile.
There was even a perfect opportunity. Small class groups were doing frozen depictions of images from the poem “Invisible.” Brittany, Kim, and Carl held pointing arms and fingers motionless in the air as they stifled mute, mocking laughs with their free hands. The object of their pointing fingers, practically perfect Patricia Samuels, sat still, her knees pulled up almost to her chest, her face hidden as her head bent to her knees. She had her arms locked solidly around her ankles. It was actually quite impressive. But then it happened. Practically perfect Patricia fell over. The problem was that Patricia’s pose happened to be from on top of a desk. So when she fell, she fell far and fast.
Everyone jumped up at once. A few even ran to Patricia’s aid. However, there was no need for concern: Patricia looked up and smiled. She was fine.
Whoa, Patty, thought Katie, what are you going to do next for laughs, huh? or even Hey, Pat, good thing you’re fat—thick padding always helps ease a fall! But as soon as each thought occurred to her, it slithered back down and died in her stomach. She simply didn’t feel up to it today.
Katie certainly didn’t feel like talking with anyone after class, either. Before the ending bell, she came up with a plan to slip out quickly, without Mrs. Maxwell noticing. But for some reason, a few seconds after the bell rang, Katie was still at her desk. She didn’t know why. Maybe it was because she actually liked Mrs. Maxwell. Maybe it was because she didn’t have the pick-up-and-go to get going. But there she was.
Positioning herself into the desk adjacent to Katie’s, Mrs. Maxwell hesitated before speaking. “You weren’t in class yesterday, Katie. I hope you weren’t sick,” she finally said.
“No, Mrs. Maxwell. I wasn’t sick. I was in juvenile court.” This didn’t seem to be what Mrs. Maxwell expected to hear. She sat silent, concerned and still.
Silent conversations were always stressful to Katie, so she blurted out the truth. “What happened is that my mom hits me, and sometimes she beats me up. I think about calling the cops afterwards, but I never do. The night before last, she was really mad—and she was crazy drunk. She was going after me, so this time I hit her first. I beat her up before she could beat me up. She was the one who called the cops.”
The teacher said nothing. She appeared not to know what to say.
“That’s where I was,” added Katie. “At juvie.”
Mrs. Maxwell finally spoke. “Oh,” was all she said. Then, “I’m sorry.” But she looked like she meant it.
Katie straightened in her chair and tried to smile. She didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her. “It’s okay. I don’t have to go to jail or anything. I just have to go on some stupid two-week pioneer trek. The judge said it would”—and here Katie lowered her voice in a deep-throat parody of the judge’s—“ ‘do me good.’ ” With slender fingers, she signed extra large quote symbols too, just for effect.
“So,” Katie said as she stood up, “can I go to my next class now? I’ll be late.”
“Sure. Go to class now,” replied the teacher. And then in a softened tone, she added, “Let me know if I can do anything to help.”
Katie didn’t bother replying to that. As if a teacher would or even could do anything to help her with the mess her life had always been and always would be. “Bye, Mrs. Maxwell,” she said simply.
“Wait, Katie,” Mrs. Maxwell called as Katie walked to the doorway. “Don’t you want me to write you a late excuse for your next class?”
“No . . . thanks, anyway,” called back Katie, already out the door.
Arriving home that afternoon, she stopped to gaze at her reflection in the tarnished mirror that hung on the wall just inside the front door. The mirror reminded Katie of herself and of the chain of grandparents and great-grandparents who had ultimately given her life. Stained with dark smears, fissured around the corners and clouded over, the entryway mirror and Katie’s family were very similar. In fact, the mirror and its destiny of deterioration probably began right here on this wall when Katie’s ancestors, who built the home, placed it there. Had the mirror not been cared for as it should, or was it just that the natural state of all things, whether living or not, is eventual ruin? Katie thought “ruin” would describe her family perfectly.
“I’m home,” she called out halfheartedly, never losing contact with the reflection of her own dark eyes in the mirror. Katie held still for a few seconds as she often did when she came home from school. She listened for footsteps—for maybe her dad’s footsteps—or for the sound of his voice or her mother’s calling back to her. Really, though, Katie expected no reply. And there was none.
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