The first time was like this.
I was reading when Dad got home. His voice echoed through the house and I cringed.
I put the book down and sat up on the bed. “In here, Dad. I’m in my room.”
His footsteps on the hallway’s oak floor got louder and louder. I felt my head hunching between my shoulders; then Dad was at the door and raging.
“I thought I told you to mow the lawn today!” He came into the room and towered over me. “Well! Speak up when I ask you a question!”
“I’m gonna do it, Dad. I was just finishing a book,”
“You’ve been home from school for over two hours! I’m sick and tired of you lying around this house doing nothing!” He leaned close and the whiskey on his breath made my eyes water. I flinched back and he grabbed the back of my neck with fingers tike a vise. He shook me. “You’re nothing but a lazy brat I’m going to beat some industry into you if I have to kill you to do it!”
He pulled me to my feet, still gripping my neck. With his other hand he fumbled for the ornate rodeo buckle on his belt, then snaked the heavy Western strap out of his pants loops.
“No, Dad. I’ll mow the lawn right now. Honest!”
“Shut up,” he said. He pushed me into the wall. I barely got my hands up in time to keep my face from slamming nose-first into the plaster. He switched hands then, pressing me against the wall with his left while be took the belt in his right hand.
I twisted my head slightly, to keep my nose from grinding into the wall, and saw him switch his grip on the belt, so the heavy silver buckle hung on the end, away from his hand.
I yelled. “Not the buckle, Dad! You promised!”
He ground my face into the wall harder. “Shut UP! I didn’t hit you near hard enough the last time.” He extended his arm until he held me against the wall at arm’s length and swung the belt back slowly. Then his arm jerked forward and the belt sung though the air and my body betrayed me, squirming away from the impact and…
I was leaning against bookshelves, my neck free of Dad’s crushing grip, my body still braced to receive a blow. I looked around, gasping, my heart still racing. There was no sign of Dad, but this didn’t surprise me.
I was in the fiction section of the Stanville Public Library and, while I knew it as well as my own room, I didn’t think my father had ever been inside the building.
That was the first time.
* * *
The second time was like this.
The truck stop was new and busy, an island of glaring light and hard concrete in the night. I went in the glass doors to the restaurant and took a chair at the counter, near the section with the sign that said, drivers only. The clock on the wall read eleven-thirty. I put. The rolled-up bundle of stuff on the floor under my feet and tried to look old.
The middle-aged waitress on the other side of the counter looked skeptical, but she put down a menu and a glass of water, then said, “Coffee?”
“Hot tea, please.”
She smiled mechanically and left.
The drivers’ section was half full, a thick haze of tobacco smoke over it. None of them looked like the kind of man who’d give me the time of day, much less a lift farther down the road.
The waitress returned with a cup, a tea bag, and one of those little metal pitchers filled with not very hot water.
“What can I get you?” she asked.
“I’ll stick with this for a while.”
She looked at me steadily for a moment, then totaled the check and laid on the counter. “Cashier will take it when you’re ready. You want anything else, just let me know.”
I didn’t know to hold the lid open as I poured the water, so a third of it ended up on the counter. I mopped it up with napkins from the dispenser and tried not to cry.
“Been on the road long, kid?”
I jerked my head up. A man, sitting in the last seat of the drivers’ section, was looking at me. He was big, both tall and fat, with a roll of skin where his shirt neck opened. He was smiling and I could see his teeth were uneven and stained.
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “Your business. You don’t look like you’ve been running long.” His voice was higher-pitched than you’d expect for a man his size, but kind.
I looked past him, at the door. “About two weeks.”
He nodded. “Rough. You running from your parents?”
“My dad. My mom cut out long ago.”
He pushed his spoon around the countertop with his finger. The nails were long with grease crusted under them. “How old are you, kid?”
He looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t care what you think. It’s true. I turned seventeen lousy years old yesterday.” The tears started to come and I blinked hard, got them back under control.
“What you been doing since you left home?”
The tea had gotten as dark as it was going to. I pulled the tea bag and spooned sugar into the cup. “I’ve been hitching, panhandling a little, some odd jobs. Last two days I picked apples—twenty-five cents a bushel and all I could eat. I also got some clothes out of it.”
“Two weeks and you’re out of your own clothes already?”
I gulped down half the tea. “I only took what I was wearing.” All I was wearing when I walked out of the Stanville Public Library.
“Oh. Well, my name’s Topper. Topper Robbins. What’s yours?”
I stared at him. “Davy,” I said, finally.
He smiled again. “I understand. Don’t have to beat me about the head and shoulders.” He picked up his spoon and stirred his coffee, “Well, Davy, I’m driving that PetroChem tanker out there and I’m headed west in about forty-five minutes. If you’re going that way, I’ll be glad to give you a ride. You look like you could use some food, though. Why don’t you let me buy you a meal?”
The tears came again then. I was ready for cruelty but not kindness. I blinked hard and said, “Okay. I’d appreciate the meal and the ride.”
An hour later I was westbound in the right-hand seat of Topper’s rig, drowsing from the heat of the cab and the full stomach. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep, tired of talking. Topper tried to talk a little more after that, but stopped. I watched him out of narrowed eyes. He kept turning his head to look at me when the headlights from oncoming traffic lit the cab’s interior; I thought I should feel grateful, but he gave me the creeps.
After a while I fell asleep for real. I came awake with a start, unsure of where I was or even who. There was a tremor running through my mind, a reaction to a bad dream, barely remembered. I narrowed my eyes again and my identity and associated memories came back.
Topper was talking on the CB.
“I’ll meet you behind Sam’s,” he was saying. “Fifteen minutes.”
“Ten-four, Topper. We’re on our way.”
Topper signed off.
I yawned and sat up. “Jeeze. Did I sleep long?”
“About an hour, Davy.” He smiled like there’d been a joke. He turned off his CB then and turned the radio to a country and western station.
I hate country and western.
Ten minutes later he took an exit for a farm road far from anywhere.
“You can let me out here, Topper.”
“I’m going on kid, just have to meet a guy first. You don’t want to hitch in the dark. Nobody’ll stop. Besides, it looks like rain.”
He was right. The moon had vanished behind a thick overcast and the wind was whipping the trees around.
He drove down the rural two-lane for a while, then pulled off the road at a country store with two gas pumps out front. The store was dark but there was a gravel lot out back where two pickups were parked. Topper pulled the rig up beside them.
“Come on, kid. Want you to meet some guys.”
I didn’t move. “That’s okay. I’ll wait for you here.”
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s against company policy to pick up riders, but my ass would really be grass if I left you is here and something happened. Be a sport.”
I nodded slowly. “Sure. Don’t mean to be any trouble.”
He grinned again, big. “No trouble.”
To climb down, I had to turn and face the cab, then feel with my feet for the step. A hand guided my foot to the step and I froze. I looked down. Three men were standing on my side of the truck. I could hear gravel crunching as Topper walked around the front of the rig. I looked at him. He was unbuckling his jeans and pulling down his zipper.
I yelled and scrambled back up to the cab, but strong hands gripped my ankles and knees, dragging me back down I grabbed onto the chrome handle by the door with both hands as tight as I could, flailing my legs to try and break their grip. Somebody punched me in the stomach hard and I let go of the handle, the air in my lungs, and my supper all at once.
“Jesus fucking Christ. He puked all over me!” Somebody hit me again as I fell.
They grabbed my arms and carried me over to the open tailgate of a pickup. They slammed me down on the bed of the truck. My face hit and I tasted blood. One of them jumped up on the truck bed and straddled my back, his knees and shins pinning my upper arms, one hand gripping my hair painfully. I felt somebody else reach around and unbuckle my belt, then rip my pants and underwear down. The air was cold on my butt and upper legs.
A voice said, “I wish you’d gotten another girl.”
Another voice said, “Who brought the Vaseline?”
“Shit It’s in the truck.”
“Well…we don’t need it.”
Somebody reached between my legs and pawed my genitals; then I felt him spread the cheeks of my butt and spit. His warm saliva splattered my bottom and…
I pitched forward, the pressure off my arms and hair, the hands off my bottom. My head banged into something and I struck out to hit my hand against something which gave. I turned, clutched at my pants, pulled them up from my knees, while I sobbed for air, my heart pounding and my entire body shaking.
It was dark, but the air was still and I was alone. I wasn’t outside anymore. A patch of moonlight came through a window six feet away to shine on bookshelves. I tasted blood again, gingerly touched my split upper lip. I walked carefully down to the patch of light and looked around.
I pulled a book from the shelf and opened it. The stamp on the inside cover told me what I already knew. I was back in the fiction section of the Stanville Public Library and I was sure I’d gone mad.
That was the second time.
* * *
The first time I ended up in the library, it was open, I wasn’t bleeding, my clothes were clean, and I just walked away…from that building, from that town, from that life.
I thought I’d pulled a blank. I thought that whatever my father did to me was so terrible that I’d simply chosen not to remember it. That I’d only come back to myself after reaching the safety of the library.
The thought of pulling a blank was scary, but it wasn’t strange to me. Dad pulled blanks all the time and I’d read enough fiction to be familiar with trauma-induced amnesia.
I was surprised that the library was closed and dark this time. I checked the wall clock. It read two o’clock, an hour and. five minutes later than the digital clock in Topper’s truck. Jesus Christ. I shivered in the library’s air-conditioning and fumbled at my pants. The zipper was broken but the snap worked. I buckled the belt an extra notch tight, then pulled my shirt out so it bung over the zipper. My mouth tasted of blood and vomit.
The library was lit from without by pale white moonlight and the yellow glare of mercury streetlamps. I threaded my way between shelves, chairs, tables to the water fountain and rinsed my mouth again and again until the taste was gone from my mouth and the bleeding of my lip had stopped.
In two weeks I’d worked my way over nine hundred miles from my father. In one heartbeat I’d undone that, putting myself fifteen minutes away from the house. I sat down on a hard wooden chair and put my head in my hands. What had I done to deserve this?
There was something I wasn’t dealing with. I knew it. Something…
I’m so tired. All I want is to rest. I thought of all the snatches of sleep I’d had over the last two weeks, miserable stolen moments on rest-stop benches, in people’s cars, and under bushes like some animal I thought of the house, fifteen minutes away, of my bedroom, of my bed.
A wave of irresistible longing came over me and I found myself standing and walking, without thought, just desire for that bed. I went to the emergency exit at the back, the one with the alarm will sound sign. I figured by the time any alarm was answered, I could be well away.
It was chained. I leaned against it and hit it very hard, an overhand blow with the flat of my hand. I drew back, tears in my eyes, to hit it again but it wasn’t there and I pitched forward, off balance and flailing, into my bed.
I knew it was my bed. I think it was the smell of the room that told me first, but the backlit alarm-clock face on the bedside table was the one Mom sent the year after she left and the light from the back porch light streamed through the window at just the right angle.
For one brief moment I relaxed, utterly and completely, muscle after muscle unknotting. I closed my eyes and felt exhaustion steal over me in a palpable wave. Then I heard a noise and I jerked up, rigid, on the bedspread on my hands and knees. The sound came again. Dad…snoring.
I shuddered. It was strange. It was a very comforting sound. It was home, it was family. It also meant the son of a bitch was asleep.
I took off my shoes and padded down the hall. The door was half open and the overhead light was on. He was sprawled diagonally across the bed, on top of the covers, both shoes and one sock off, his shirt unbuttoned. There was an empty bottle of scotch tucked in the crook of his arm. I sighed.
Home sweet home.
I grabbed the bottle neck and. pulled it gently from between his arm and his side, then set it on the bedside table. He snored on, oblivious. I took his pants off then, pulling the legs alternately to work them past his butt They came free abruptly and his wallet fell from the back pocket I hung the pants over the back of a chair, then went through the wallet.
He had eighty bucks plus his plastic. I took three twenties, then started to put it on the dresser, but stopped. When I folded the wallet, it seemed stiffer than it should, and thicker. I looked closer. There was a hidden compartment covered by a flap with fake stitching. I got it open and nearly dropped the wallet. It was fall of hundred-dollar bills.
I turned the light off and carried the wallet back to my room, where I counted twenty-two crisp hundred-dollar bills onto the bed.
I stared down at the money, four rows of five, one row of two, my eyes wide. My ears were burning and my stomach suddenly hurt. I went back to Dad’s room and stared at him for a while.
This was the man who took me to the mission and the secondhand stores to buy clothes for school. This was the man who made me take peanut butter and jelly to school every day rather than part with a crummy ninety cents’ worth of lunch money. This was the man who beat me when I’d suggested an allowance for doing the yard work,
I picked up the empty scotch bottle and hefted it, shifted my grip to the neck. It was cold, smooth, and just the right size for my small hands. The glass didn’t slip or shift as I swung it experimentally. The glass at the base of the bottle was extra thick where the manufacturer had chosen to give the impression of a bigger bottle. It looked very strong.
Dad snored away, his mouth open, his face slack. His skin, pale normally, looked white as paper in the overhead light. His forehead, receding, domed, lined, looked egglike, white, fragile. I felt the base of the bottle with my left hand. It felt more than heavy enough.
I put the bottle back down on the table, turned off the light, and went back to my room.
I took notebook paper, cut it dollar-bill-size, and stacked it until it felt as thick as the pile of hundreds. It took twenty sheets to match the stiffness of the money—maybe it was thicker or just newer. I put the cut paper in the wallet and put it back in the pocket of his slacks.
Then I went to the garage and took down the old leather suitcase, the one Granddad gave me when he retired, and packed it with my clothes, toiletries, and the leather-bound set of Mark Twain that Mom left me.
After I’d closed the suitcase, stripped off my dirty clothes, and put on my suit, I just stood looking around the room, swaying on my feet. If I didn’t start moving soon, I’d drop.
There was something else, something I could use.…
I thought of the kitchen, only thirty feet away, down the hall and across the den. Before Mom left, I’d loved to sit in there while she cooked, just talking, telling her stupid jokes. I closed my eyes and pictured it, tried to feel it.
The air around me changed, or maybe it was just the noise. I was in a quiet house, but just the sound of my breathing reflecting off walls sounded different from room to room.
I was in the kitchen.
I nodded my head slowly, tiredly. Hysteria seethed beneath the surface, a rising bubble that threatened to undo me. I pushed it down and looked in the refrigerator.
Three six-packs of Schlitz, two cartons of cigarettes, half a pizza in the cardboard delivery box. I shut the door and thought about my room. I tried it with my eyes open, unfocused, picturing the spot between my desk and the window.
I was there and the room reeled, my eyes and maybe my inner ear just not ready for the change. I put my hand on the wall and the room stopped moving.
I picked up the suitcase and closed my eyes. I opened them in the library, dark shadows alternating with silver pools of moonlight. I walked to the front door and looked out at the grass.
Last summer, before school, I’d come up to the library, check out a book or two, and then move outside, to the grass under the elms. The wind would ruffle the pages, tug my hair and clothes around, and I would go into the words, find the cracks between the sentences and the words would go away, leaving me in the story, the action, the head of other people. Twice I left it too late and got home after Dad did. He liked supper ready. Only twice, though. Twice was more than enough.
I closed my eyes and the wind pushed my hair and fluttered my tie. The suitcase was heavy and I had to switch hands several times as I walked the two blocks to the bus station.
There was a bus for points east at 5:30 A.M. I bought a ticket to New York City for one hundred and twenty-two dollars and fifty-three cents. The clerk took the two hundreds without comment, gave me my change, and said I had three hours to wait.
They were the longest three hours I’ve ever spent. Every fifteen minutes I got up, dragged the suitcase to the bathroom, and splashed cold water in my face. Near the end of the wait the furniture was crawling across the floor, and every movement of the bushes outside the doors was my father, belt in hand, the buckle razor-edged and about the size of a hubcap.
The bus was five minutes late. The driver stowed my suitcase below, took the first part of my ticket, and ushered me aboard.
When we passed the tattered city-limits sign, I closed my eyes and slept for six hours.
Copyright © 1992 by Steven Gould