“This is how girls left. They packed up their suitcases and walked away in high heels. They pretended they weren’t crying, that it wasn’t the worst day of their lives. That they didn’t want their mothers to come running after them, begging their forgiveness, that they wouldn’t have gone down on their knees and thanked God if they could stay.”
(White Oleander, Janet Fitch)
Cris-crosses of laceration snaked against my heel; the blisters popped in the heat. Ribbons of blood unspooled onto the dirt road. I blinked heavily, and the mascara dripped, pooling underneath my eye. I left home showered, powdered, a princess in silver stilettos and jean cut-offs, a halter top tugging tight at my breasts. Now, my make-up muddied my face, my brown hair brittled in the August sun. My lips chapped, my skin roughened with sunburn, and my halter top was saturated with sweat.
I kicked off the stilettos and shoved them into the suitcase I had crammed with clothes and knickknacks of my pathetic life. I had packed a cheap journal with a broken lock Ruth had snapped off in one of her drunken rages. I can still picture her now, throat heavy with drink and her voice stupid, sing-songy, lilting, drunk, reading each and every word of my “precious diary” as she put it. There were clutchings of clothing I had jammed into the suitcase, a pack of Bic pens, photographs of friends. Boys with pizza breath and kisses as awkward as braces and pimples, girls who would share a stick of gum with you but never answered desperate three a.m. phone calls. These kids would cry into news cameras and call themselves my best friends, but they still wouldn’t have bothered to form a search party if Channel Four Action News wasn’t watching.
Ruth’s eyes were bleary the last time I saw her, and my throat burned from screaming. The liquor sloshed around inside the brown glass bottle she flung at me. The contents trickled down the faded, yellow daisy wallpaper. I was exhausted of fighting, my throat raw, my eyes bloodshot from crying, snot running down my nose like I was some five-year-old with a head cold. I told her I was leaving. I wiped my face of all the mess, put on my make-up, and walked out the door without turning back. I heard her stumbling around in the kitchen, the clatter of coffee mugs falling from the cabinet, and then listened as she hurled them at the front door I had shut behind me.
I tugged my suitcase down the path leading away from my house.
I half-expected Paul to pick me up when I called. I half-expected him to hear the strain in my voice, the hurt in my heart like someone had slammed their fist through it dead center. When I showed up at his house, his hair was sticking up in fifteen different directions, and his eyes kept going from the bottom of my chin to the top of my halter top. He couldn’t even look me in the eye. The bastard. Tears streaming down my cheeks and my hands still clenched in fists. He turned me away. “What do you expect me to do?” He said, “I’m only seventeen.” I punched him as hard as I could in the gut where it would make him double over.
I sneered at him as I left. I think I said something like, “Yeah, well so am I.” Not the best parting words, but I think the look on my face said it all. Ruth couldn’t see two feet in front of her when I left her, and by the time I left Paul’s, I was so blind with hate. If I could have burnt the town to a crisp so that the rooftops looked like toast that got stuck in the toaster and burnt all the way down, I would have been singing like a lark. Instead, I dragged my suitcase along farther.
When I first saw the tents, I thought nothing of them.