The cold porcelain of the toilet felt like ice against my bare backside as I sat hunched over the white, billowing taffeta and tulle of my wedding dress. The faucet was running, nearly drowning out the sound of my soon-to-be sister-in-law and maid of honor, Stacy, pounding on the door. I pinched each end of the white stick between my fingers, watching as the second pink line darkened before my eyes.
The back restroom of the First Free Will Baptist Church in Fort Hood, Texas, could barely fit the toilet and sink, but suddenly there were two people inside the tiny room, and the walls were moving in closer by the second.
“For better or worse, remember?” my bridesmaid Carly said. I didn’t have to see her to know she was annoyed with Stacy.
My sister-in-law was a female version of her brother. Blunt, snarky, and generally grumpy, and that was before she was comfortable enough to show the extent of her cruelty.
I closed my eyes, holding the stick to my chest. Mascara thickened the tears puddled high on my cheeks. Shawn and I had met almost exactly a year before, just a few months after he’d been stationed at Fort Hood. Remembering the way I felt when he walked into Legend’s Pub was what had helped me forget how bad the fighting could get, the times he’d pushed me to the floor, shoved me against a wall, choked me, or slapped my face, to that almost-quiet moment in the church. Shawn had gotten so good at groveling, I’d agreed to marry him after the last desperate apology and promise to change. I clasped the pregnancy test tighter. I couldn’t afford bad decisions anymore. They no longer affected just me.
My right hand gripped the stick as I picked my cell phone off the sink counter and tapped the display with trembling fingers. Mama picked up after one ring. She’d moved to Baton Rouge just after I turned eighteen, exactly two years after the accident. I was the only person she disliked more than Shawn.
“I knew it. I knew you’d call. What? Do you need money?” she asked.
“Mama,” I chuckled nervously. “Have I ever asked you for anything?”
“The um, the wedding is in a few minutes. I wish you were here.” The only sound on the other end of the line was her breathing, and I imagined the lines around her lips from smoking since she was fifteen deepening as she refused to speak. I held the back of my hand that held the pregnancy test against my forehead. “How is Frank?”
“He’s still off work. His back, you know. He moved in last month. Why?”
“Oh,” I said, thinking about her two-bedroom apartment and how crowded it would be.
“And Johnny, too.”
“Johnny. His…son? Isn’t he thirtysomething?”
“Yep, got a divorce.” She blew into the phone, and I remembered sitting deep in my chair as a child, avoiding the low-lying haze of cigarette smoke always present when Mama was home. That was no place to raise a baby. She was right. The phone call was a waste of time.
“That’s great. I’m happy for you, Mama.”
“I should probably, um…”
I pressed End, and stood, placing the stick on the counter next to my phone. The faucet squeaked when I turned the knob. The cold water felt so good running over my fingers, freeing, as if I weren’t stuck in the tiny bathroom trying to figure out how to leave with Shawn’s baby growing inside of me. I thought about my options, and as grateful as I was to have them, the thought of walking into a clinic was too much. So was being tethered to Shawn for the rest of my life, the bond of a child more secure than any wedding ceremony.
The suds slid off my skin and down the drain. The reflection in the mirror caught my attention, and I froze. Most days I didn’t recognize myself, but the fear and hopelessness had made a home in my eyes. My tears had pulled black lines down my cheeks. Honey-blond waves had escaped from my bun, poking out from beneath my veil and framing my mess of a face, the same one that had won Miss East Texas just four years before. I wasn’t sure I remembered how to smile like that anymore. That girl was gone.
In less than twenty minutes, Shawn would be standing at the end of the center aisle, waiting for me to promise in front of his family and half the base that I would love and obey. No one would know about the child I was carrying, and even if they did, they had no clue that the added stress would only make Shawn’s already short temper even more frightening.
I reached for a paper towel and used it to wipe away the bright red lipstick from my lips.
“Darbs?” A softer knock sounded. “It’s Carly. Can I come in?”
I swiped the stick off the sink and opened the door, letting Carly slide through. She quickly shut the door behind her before Stacy could squeeze her way in. “It’s just so small in here, sweetie. So sorry,” she said to Stacy while closing the door in her face. The lock popped into place when Carly pressed the button in the center of the knob, and she leaned her back against the door. Between my dress, me, the toilet, and the sink, I wasn’t sure how Carly could fit inside, but like all things—she made it work.
“Jesus, she is obnoxious,” Carly hissed. “Her bratty kids are in the other room stuffing chocolate in their mouths in full view of their worthless father. How much did you pay for the flower girl dress and that kid’s tux? They’re covered in chocolate. Are you sure you want to attach yourself to that for life?” When I didn’t answer, she blanched. “Oh, God. You don’t.”
“I called Mama.”
“Oh, shit,” she said, clearly not worried about swearing in a church. Her sweet, Southern drawl barely made it a cuss word. “To tell her you’re backing out? Is she coming to get you?”
I shook my head and stared at myself in the mirror. “No one’s coming to get me.” My voice sounded as broken as I felt.
Carly fussed with my hair. “Listen, if you want to do this, we’ll fix your face and you’ll look beautiful.” Recognition flickered in her eyes. “Darby…stop me if I’m out of line, but, honey, my car is right outside the side door. I’ll grab your things when no one is looking, and I’ll take you wherever you want.”
Carly didn’t say anything she didn’t mean. She was a stunning blond Southern belle with glistening green eyes, a tan year-round, enough bleach on her hair to do ten loads of laundry, and shimmery everything. She’d been married to her husband, First Lieutenant J. D. Bowman, for eight years, and they had two beautiful blond little girls. J.D. was a good man and a strong officer in the army, but Carly ran their house, and no wife at Fort Hood was more respected. She made a killing selling makeup, and her parties were more like women’s empowerment retreats. She’d tried talking me out of marrying Shawn as soon as she’d found out we were engaged. She’d also hosted our engagement party.
“I don’t know. Everyone’s waiting.”
“No one would wonder why, Darby. We all know what happens at your house. You can walk away from this guilt-free.”
Carly licked her handkerchief and wiped the skin beneath my eyes. “If this is what you want, I’ll go get you some of my lipstick, because you need a little color. If it’s not, I’m going to get my keys, and I’ll be waiting for you outside.”
“What about your kids? What about J.D.?”
Carly hadn’t seen the white stick I was holding behind my back. She had no idea that the decision I made would be for the baby I was carrying. I simply didn’t care that much about myself to do something so embarrassing and outrageous.
Carly nodded and excused herself. Her voice carried through the door as she coolly made an excuse to leave the Sunday School room the three of us were using to get ready in. I counted to fifty and then opened the door, smiling at Stacy.
“There you are,” she said, her chestnut, frizzy waves already falling from her makeshift bun. “Carly’s outside. She has her whole stash of lip stuff out there. She wants you to come pick a color so she doesn’t have to bring it all in.”
“Oh, that sounds nice. Would you mind making sure Allie and Jonah are ready? Did Allie’s dress fit?”
“I just checked on them. I got most of the chocolate out. I swear Brian is dumb as a box of rocks. They’re in the groomsmen’s room with Shawn and Brian. Her dress is a little big in the arms, but she’s really excited about her flower basket. And before you ask, yes, Jonah knows to walk slower this time.”
I opened the door and peeked down the hall. The ceremony was about to start, the pianist was playing Pachelbel at my previous request—Canon in D. Shawn’s family and all our mutual friends were in the sanctuary, and the side door was less than ten feet away.
“No one will see you. If you’re going to pick something out from Carly, go now. We only have a few minutes,” Stacy said. She had the same commanding tone as Shawn. Nothing was ever a request.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, stepping out. My heart was pounding, my hands sweating. Even though freedom was just outside the door, I’d never been so terrified in my life. The stick was slipping out of my sweaty hand, but I clenched my fingers, refusing to leave it behind. Shawn didn’t need more reason to come after me.
“Darby!” Stacy called, sounding angry.
She handed me the brown wristlet she’d bought me the previous Christmas. “You might want this. I’m sure Carly will want to be paid.”
As promised, Carly was sitting in her Lexus, her company name, Lipstick & Jesus by Carly, and her phone number in bright pink vinyl letters on the back window. I sat in the passenger seat, my wedding dress spilling over the console onto her side.
“Anywhere but here.”
“The bus station?”
I looked at the wristlet on my lap and nodded. “I have two hundred dollars. Think that’s enough?”
“Don’t you worry about that.” Carly patted my hand and then used that hand to pull the gear into reverse. We backed away from the church, and we pulled out into the street.
I turned up the radio, trying to drown out the sound of the many voices warning me of the consequences that would come with leaving Shawn. He’d warned me dozens of times what would happen to me if I left him. Sometimes, by the look in his eyes, I was sure he didn’t even want me, he just couldn’t stand the thought of me with someone else. More nights than I could count, I’d lie awake to listen for sounds of an impending attack.
Carly turned down the volume and then grabbed my hand and squeezed. “You’re doing the right thing. It’s only going to get better from here.”
“I know,” I said, looking out the window.
“Do you need anything from the house?”
I thought about it, knowing that any minute, Shawn would realize I wasn’t there, and he would go straight to the house to catch me packing. I shivered at the thought of getting caught in a whirlwind of his rage and embarrassment.
“No,” I said. “I can’t chance it.”
“Maybe I can figure out how to get in the house and grab some of your things. I could send them to you. Anything you can think of offhand?”
“Oh, Darby. I’m so sorry.”
One side of my mouth curled up. “Don’t be. This is a good day.”
Carly shook her head, her hair moving with it. “I knew it. I knew that son of a bitch was…I’m going to talk to J.D. when I get back. Maybe if Shawn gets in trouble that will slow him down. We’ll all hope he doesn’t look for you, but…”
“He’ll come after me. All it’ll take is a favor.”
“You mean Shawn’s brother.”
I nodded. “Derek does something with computers for the government. He can’t tell us exactly what he does—not that we’d understand, anyway—but he’s mentioned meeting Edward Snowden before the whistle-blower thing. It’s probably just a matter of time.” I sighed.
“Then we need to get you far enough away he can’t find you. Any ideas? Wait. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. Maybe try to call me when you get settled in? Stay off the grid and all that. Lord, I wouldn’t even know how to do that. Cash, I guess?”
“I left my cell phone in the bathroom. And I don’t know your number. Even if you tell me, I’m afraid I won’t remember after I get where I’m going.”
“No problem.” At the next stoplight, she fished a black Sharpie from her purse and opened her Bible, writing her number on the title page.
“Carly, I can’t take your Bible.”
“You’ll need it. I’ll send you what I can retrieve when it calms down around here,” she said around the cap in her mouth. “I have a feeling Shawn’ll be watching me for a while.”
The light turned, and Carly pressed on the gas. She winked. “Don’t you worry about me. I’ve got that little boy handled. He don’t scare me.”
The seat belt dug into my chest as Carly pressed on the brakes to keep from missing our turn and pulled into the Greyhound bus station. She fished into her purse, and then she tucked a thick stack of bills into mine. “I’m not sure how much is there. At least six hundred. It’s the cash left over from my last party. Should get you a one-way ticket a few states away, meals, and a change of clothes.”
I shook my head. “This is too much.”
“You need it more than I do. I just want you to be safe. Besides, it’s exactly a month away from Independence Day.” She lifted her chin, a proud grin softening her features. “You’ll be celebrating extra this year.” She grabbed my hand, placed the palm of her other hand on the Bible, and closed her eyes. “Dear Lord, we pray for a safe trip for Darby. Watch her and keep her. We pray the next journey of her life is smooth, that she finds happiness, and continues to live her life in a way that honors you. In the name of our precious Jesus…amen.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank Jesus. He’s the one who’s going to get you through this. He will, Darby. Believe it.”
I hugged Carly over the mounds of white tulle and taffeta, wiping my cheeks the moment we pulled away.
“Okay, enough of that,” Carly said, clearing her throat. “This is the rest of your life. It’s a happy moment. I love you. Safe travels.”
“Thank you. So much,” I said, before pulling on the handle and stepping out. I slipped the pregnancy test into my wristlet, held the Bible to my chest, and took stock of my surroundings. No one, coming or going, tried not to stare. I focused on pushing through the glass doors and finding what I was looking for on the board above the ticket counters. The goal was to get away, far and fast. Texas and Louisiana were out. So was Oklahoma. Kansas, maybe? I cringed. Kansas didn’t sound like a destination for an adventure. The station with the cheapest fare, farthest away from Fort Hood, and leaving within half an hour, was Colorado Springs, Colorado. I just hoped there were still seats available.
“Are there any seats left for Colorado Springs?”
His fingers clicked on the keyboard in front of him. “One.”
“I’ll take it!” I said.
He noticed my dress. “It’s economy.”
He tilted his head back, looking at the computer monitor through the bottom of his bifocals. “Checking any bags?”
“A hundred and one dollars?”
He gazed at me over his glasses. “And eighty-two cents.”
I counted out the cash and placed it on the counter, along with my license. The man behind the counter took it, and my heart began to thump against my chest again. I held my breath while the ticket printed, and exhaled only when he handed it to me, along with my ID.
“Next!” the man said, and I turned, looking for the bay number that matched my ticket. My dress swished as I walked to an empty seat in the corner. Just before I sat down, a woman with a thick Hispanic accent came over the speaker system and called for us to board.
The priority ticket holders lined up first. One by one, they walked out to the bus and climbed the steps. The urge to glance over my shoulder and watch the entrance was impossible to ignore. I imagined Shawn running through the doors, not calling my name in desperation, but yelling for me like a stern stepfather, making a scene. My knee bounced up and down, the used Steve Madden heels I’d bought from the thrift store digging into the back of my heel. The priority ticket holders were clearly in no hurry, so I wasn’t sure why they’d paid extra to board first.
The announcer called for general boarding, and I stood, trying not to push my way to the front. I wondered if Shawn was at the house or calling to harass my friends on my whereabouts. He was smart. He would come to the bus station, and I had to be on the bus to Colorado Springs when he did.
I followed the tiny, hunched-over grandmother in front of me, helping her to climb the steps. Lifting her leg seemed to take hours, and pulling up to the next step felt like years. Finally, she was at the top, and then so was I. Those sitting in seats stopped settling in to gawk at me in the white, puffy wedding dress, undoubtedly noticing my smudged mascara. If anyone came looking for a runaway bride, the people in the station would point them in my direction.
My dress hit every person sitting in the aisle seats between the first and eighteenth row, where I finally found an empty seat by the window. I sidestepped in and sat, clenching the Bible to my chest. “Please, God, please help me get out of here safely,” I whispered.
Every car that pulled up to the station, and every man who stepped out, caused a panic deep within me. It could be any moment that Shawn would step out in his suit, surrounded by his brother-in-law, sister, and friends in an attempt to stop me.
The bus’s engine was a steady rhythm of low humming and whirring, and I watched as the driver and a few station employees loaded the checked bags and discussed something that definitely wasn’t important enough to keep us sitting there even a minute longer.
Finally, the driver nodded once and climbed up the stairs, sitting in his seat. He grabbed his radio, his voice squished together and monotone as he attempted a joke and told us where we were going and passenger safety procedures.
I imagined seeing Shawn through the large glass windows, pushing his way through the station, his eyes finally settling on me. “Please, please, please,” I whispered under my breath. My knee was bobbing again, a scream building in my chest.
Just before I could stand and beg for our departure, the driver closed the door and put the bus into gear, pulling away. As the bus slowed for traffic before driving into the road, I sat back against my seat and sighed loudly.