The bus was unusually noisy that day. Children ranging in ages from wee little tykes of 5 or 6 through high school seniors almost reaching the age of majority but not quite mature enough to vote and just barely having enough sense to come in out of the rain. All exuberantly enjoying the last few days of school, anticipating a long hot summer without any obligation to sit still, or listen up, or pay attention.
The ride home was bumpy as usual. Didn’t they ever replace the shocks on these buses? Probably didn’t have the money, most folks didn’t have much and we weren’t any different. Jostling back and forth between thickly padded dark green seats kids jockeyed for those at the very back. The very seats that Mrs. Parks had longed to avoid and gotten into so much trouble over were considered a rare treasure. The older kids always hoarded the cool seats, the very back row, out of sight of the driver where you could kiss that cute boy or copy your buddy’s homework with impunity on the long ride home.
That moment wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, the ride home was always noisy and smelling of unwashed sweaty kids having spent hours playing and waiting in the hot sun. There was no hint, no clue, that this moment would be remembered past the dinner hour. Nothing special today. No ma’am nothing special about this at all, just another day, another bus ride home.
That was true enough, until rounding the last corner nearest to my stop I saw something that shouldn’t have been there, someone who should have been somewhere else. He should have been at work or goofing off with his stupid friends, but no he was here standing around waiting for me. This did not bode well, no, not at all. The first words out of his mouth weren’t ‘hey kid”, or “about damn time”, but “we have to go home and pack, right now. He’s tied her up again and this time he used that skinny wire not the rope he usually uses.”
Hearing that my stepmother was tied up wasn’t such a crazy concept, not a new idea at all, and I knew that it wasn’t normal behavior for adults. None of my friend’s parents fought or tied each other up. I’d asked them and they thought I was foolin around, talking crazy, making shit up, but I wasn’t. If she was tied up I knew that she was drunk again and trying to leave him, or trying to find the car keys. Or just being a pain in the ass and he got tired of dealing with her and there she was pretty as you please, pissed off, pissed drunk, and not going nowhere until sleep overtook her or she blacked out and didn’t remember a damn thing.
This was the opportunity we had waited for, Lum and I. We had to get our stuff and out the door before anyone could stop us or we’d be stuck just like that prisoner in the bedroom. Except daddy never tied us up, he just threatened to. He scared us into being good, or good enough at not being caught that it didn’t matter.
“Judy,” Lum said,” I found her, she’s in Tallahassee working as a nurse at the hospital there and if we can get there I’m sure she’ll take us in.” I was turning 13 in a few months and Lum was all I had in the world, the only person I could trust. Lum was the only person I loved, although I couldn’t have summed it up that concisely. He was my brother and everything I aspired to be except for the boy part, and that would be silly who’d want to be a boy.
So I did as he said, I packed. Took my school backpack and filled it with two pairs of shorts, three mostly clean t-shirts, some panties, and my old beat up flip flops. I didn’t have much else, and it all fit in neat and tidy like I was heading out for an adventure.
It took less than twenty minutes, get in- get out, and down the street heading towards town where cousin Teddy, would meet us in his old beat up pickup truck. The truck had been red once before years in the Florida sun had bleached out all trace of color making it a muddy orange. A stick shift, three on the tree, with stripped gears and both floorboards so rusted out that you had to be careful not only where you put your feet, but watchful that something might bounce up from the road and hit you while you weren’t paying attention.
Teddy had agreed earlier that the day to drive us to the interstate highway about 15 miles away. He didn’t trust driving too far from home since his Chevy had a radius of 20 miles or so between breakdowns and Geraldine (he named his truck, why I don’t understand) was overdue for another mechanical failure any minute. She was regular that way, absolutely undependable except for on a schedule unbeknown to anyone except herself she’d blow a gasket or drop a u-joint like clockwork leaving Teddy stranded more often than not.
From I-75 we could hitchhike. At least that was the plan, if you could say we had a plan, more like a light at the end of the tunnel and we prayed that it was a truck heading west towards the sunset and my momma and not some disaster waiting to happen.
Driving westward towards momma, I realized that I didn’t even remember what she looked like. I guessed she’d look like me, or Lum. Would she be blond with bright blue eyes, or brown haired with hooded greenish yellow eyes? Maybe like me, smallish and skinny with a perky nose, tiny ears and a petite frame that promised to be a perfectly proportioned petite young woman, or tall and stocky with ears like howdy doody and big feet and hands like Lum. Nope, I had no firm idea. I didn’t even know her real name, daddy called her ‘gone’ like ‘your momma, she’s gone. She left you when you were a baby.’ No name. No pictures. Nothing but a fantasy that felt like someone else’s dream, or it did until today when my brother and I boarded a truck westbound.