How could someone make decision after decision attempting to get away from their past and somehow end up right back where they started?
I’d spent the last five years running, and now, it seemed I was going to have to retrace every excruciating step. My heart told me that nothing good could come from heading back to the place I’d grown up, but I knew we had nowhere else to go. Every ache, every pain, and every bruise reminded me that we had to escape. I couldn’t lie to myself anymore; there was one place in the world where he’d never reach us. We just had to get there.
I’d grown up rough. I’d seen more than one woman slapped around by her man, and to be truthful, it had never really bothered me much. It was the way of the world, or at least, it was the way of our world. It was all I knew.
I wanted a different life though, so I’d gone away to college, and later, I’d tried to carve out a life in the beige community where mothers brought their children to school in minivans and joined the PTA. I wanted a husband who paid taxes and would take his car to a mechanic for routine maintenance. He wouldn’t get his hands dirty, wouldn’t raise his voice, and wouldn’t carry a gun.
I’d never imagined the world I chose would be far worse than the one I had left.
I only had three days to get to where I needed to be, and I wasn’t going to hesitate. I wanted to be there and settled before my clean-cut husband came looking for us.
So, for the past week, I’d counted down every minute until his business trip. He had no idea that I was planning to leave, and honestly, I thought he would have killed me if he had. My first order of business was to pack two duffel bags full of things I refused to leave behind: mementos, my laptop, and a necessary change of clothes for each of us. I refused to waste precious space on anything I could easily buy later.
The morning after he’d flown out on his business trip, I raced around the house as fast as someone covered in bruises from neck to thighs could—which wasn’t very fast. I’d spent so many hours planning our escape in my head—organizing items in order of importance and deciding what we would take and what would be left—that it only took me an hour to pack everything we needed.
By the time I was finished with the bags, I was in a cold sweat from both pain and nerves. He’d never come home from a business trip early, but I felt like every moment I wasted was one more chance for him to change his habits, and I was strung as tightly as a violin string.
When everything was packed into our car, I picked my girl up off the couch where she was watching cartoons and got her ready for the day as if it were any other morning.
On Tuesdays, we usually went to a Mommy and Me class at a yoga studio downtown. This meant, as I pulled out of the driveway, the neighbor across the street wouldn’t wonder where I was going. He wouldn’t think about me or even pay enough attention to realize when I left. I also felt comfortable dressing her in yoga pants and a tunic without anything standing out. Perhaps I’d seen too many spy movies or read too many books or maybe it was just my natural inclination toward paranoia, but I was sure that we needed to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Except for Tuesdays, my husband expected my girl to be dressed like an advertisement for some snobby boutique—no jeans, no rain boots, hair perfectly parted into ponytails with elaborate hair ribbons that matched her outfits. She looked adorable, but it was hard watching her sit stiffly on a chair in her frilly dress while other girls jumped and rolled around on the floor in their overalls. It wasn’t normal. I had a feeling he had this obsession with my daughter’s appearance because she looked nothing like us.
When we moved here from Eugene, new people always did a double take when we were together. My husband had light brown hair and eyes, and his skin was a ruddy pink that I’d originally found extremely attractive. It wasn’t until I saw it redden with anger that the pink hue started to remind me of a petulant child’s. My skin was pale with a peaches-and-cream complexion. A stereotypical redhead, I have a few freckles and green eyes. This is why, when people commented jokingly, “Wow, she doesn’t look like you guys, does she?” about my olive-skinned, dark-haired child, he began to imply that she was adopted.
From the beginning, he had known that the child I carried before we were married wasn’t his, but at the time, he’d claimed that it didn’t matter. Once he saw her, the bigoted asshole had changed his tune. It was one thing to pretend she was his if no one would know the difference; it was quite another matter entirely if the truth was written across her beautiful face.
God, I couldn’t wait to get her away from him. It was so close I could taste it.
We’d gotten on the road at around ten, but I didn’t feel my tension ease until Portland was over an hour behind us. About an hour and a half south of Portland, we made our first stop. We had to lose my BMW. We needed something less expensive and far less ostentatious if we wanted to fly under the radar—plus, I hated it.
It was pure luck that the car was even in my name. When we bought it, my husband had been called away for some work-related problem, and by the time the paperwork was finished, the title was in my name only. He hadn’t been happy about that turn of events, but once I committed another transgression, his focus had changed, and he didn’t bring up the title again. It was one of the few possessions that was mine, free and clear.
Earlier in the week, I had posted the Beemer on Craigslist in Salem, and thankfully, I’d gotten a hit. That Craigslist post was the reason I’d brought my laptop with us. I’d taken down the posting, and if he didn’t have the computer, I hoped it would be hard for him to trace our steps.
The buyer was meeting me in a grocery store parking lot in a little town outside of Salem. The post had stipulated cash only, and I knew the man meeting me was a sure thing because the price I was asking was so low. It was just enough money for the used Toyota I’d also found on Craigslist.
When we arrived at the grocery store, my nerves were back in full force. What if the buyer didn’t show? What would I do with our bags in the thirty-minute lag between selling one car and buying the other? What if the seller didn’t show, and I was stranded in this tiny town without even a taxi service? What if we looked suspicious, and the police decided to stop? My mind raced with the possibilities.
I parked the car close to the store entrance and waited for the buyer. He’d said he’d be driving a late model green SUV, and I clocked him the minute he turned into the parking lot. When he and a woman pulled up and parked across from us, I felt a sense of relief. Meeting with a strange man, hours from home, made me a little nervous. Watching his lady grab a screaming infant from behind her seat calmed my nerves even more.
I quickly climbed out from the car and walked to stand in front of my girl’s door. While I was comforted to know the man had brought his family along, I wasn’t taking any chances.
“Hey! You Kate?” He walked toward me with his hand lifted in order to shake mine.
“That’s me,” I said with what I hoped was an easygoing smile.
“Man, she’s a beauty. Is your asking price the same as when we emailed?” he asked.
He seemed perplexed as he looked at my car that he’d probably expected to be trashed. It was far from trashed. Back in my old life, my car could have been called cherry. No crumbs marred the seats, no fingerprints were on the windows, and the rims sparkled in the late morning sunshine. I didn’t blame him for being confused. If I were buying a car far below Blue Book from someone I didn’t know, I would have been waiting for the other shoe to drop, too.
“Yep. That’s it. I’d just like to sell it. I’m not comfortable doing a test drive with you, so if you want it, you’re going to have to just, you know, buy it without driving it.” I tried to sound confident, but I wasn’t sure if this was going to work. “I’m sure you understand. I’ve got my girl in the car. I’m not driving around with a stranger.”
While I spoke, he nodded his head.
“Yep, no problem. With the amount you’re selling it for, and since you already drove it here, anything that could be wrong with it, I could easily fix, and I would still be getting a deal.”
His face reddened, and I was sure he was wishing back those last few words. Who in the world told someone they were selling something too cheap? Eh. It didn’t matter. I just wanted it gone.
“Okay then. Did you bring the cash?” I asked him impatiently. I wanted to get this transaction over with.
“Yep, it’s in the car with my wife. Give me just a second.”
He walked over to his wife’s window, and I watched them banter for a minute before I reached in my purse for the title. I wondered if they were genuinely that happy with each other or if this was a show put on for the outside world. I knew all too well the difference between what was shown in public and what went on behind closed doors. I knew how quickly a charming smile could turn to a scowl the second no one was looking. I repressed a shudder before walking back to meet him to exchange the title for cash. I breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t notice the name on the title.
Once we were done, I grabbed a grocery cart and piled our bags and my girl’s car seat inside. We watched him drive away with satisfaction. Well, I felt satisfaction anyway; the girl in my arms, sleeping on my shoulder, hadn’t woken up during the whole transaction.
We waited only fifteen minutes before I saw my new car pull into the parking lot. By this time, my girl was awake and begging to get down, so I sat her in the cart and ran my hand through her hair, hoping she’d be patient just a little longer. This transaction was the trickier of the two. I knew my car would be easy to sell without a test drive, but I was also going to have to buy this new car without testing it out first, which meant I was relying on the honesty of someone I hadn’t met. This car had to get us to where we were going, or we’d be screwed.
The woman who jumped out of my new Toyota was in her mid-fifties with salt-and-pepper hair in long dreadlocks down her back. She was wearing some type of multi-colored gypsy skirt, and as she walked toward me, she jingled as if she were wearing a hundred little bells.
I slowly stepped toward her as I watched her take in our appearance. I knew we looked weird. I was sure she’d never seen someone show up to buy a car with only a grocery cart filled with duffel bags and a toddler. However, she didn’t say a word. If I was judging her correctly, she had an almost knowing look on her face.
“Hi, are you Stargazer?” I asked hesitantly.
I had assumed that, for whatever reason, the name she used in her ad was an alias; however, looking at her now, it was probably her actual name. I could feel the corners of my eyes getting tight, and I was hoping that we could get this over with quickly. Between the stress of exchanging cars and the physical exertion of moving around our bags, my body was beginning to revolt. At this point, I wanted to buy the car, so I could just get in and sit down.
“Hello, there!” she called back. “You must be Lacey! Want to come take a look at my baby?”
“Yep, that’s me! I’ll be right there,” I answered her, nodding my head, as I struggled to push our bulging cart across the pavement, my movements stiff and awkward.
“Ooh, your little girl sure is a cutie!” she said with a smile on her face. “Hello, sweetheart!”
I inspected the car while she chattered away about how long she had owned it, what the mileage was, and how she had just come from vacuuming it out and putting in a vanilla-scented air freshener that she’d made herself—detailing the whole process with words like infusion and scented oils. She was super nice, but she was driving me crazy as she prattled on and on. The longer we stayed in one place, the antsier I became to get on the road. When she finally got around to handing me the title, my girl was fidgeting with impatience, but she sat silently, waiting for me to put her in the car. She was used to staying quiet while around any other adults, except for me. She knew the punishment that could come from speaking up at the wrong time.
We got on the road about twenty minutes later, driving away in a car that smelled strongly of patchouli oil and vanilla. I didn’t mind the smell though. All that mattered was the car worked like a dream. I just hoped it continued to do so.
After a quick stop to get us fast food for a late lunch, we got back on the interstate and headed south. There were no more errands to run and no other stops to make. I was almost home, and I was worried that once we got there, life would become even more complicated.
I grew up outside of a town called Eugene. Its biggest claim to fame was the state university and, more specifically, the university’s football team. It was where I’d met my husband although I never brought him home to meet my father. I’d been trying to distance myself from that life, so I’d pretty much just pretended it didn’t exist during my four years of college.
My husband strangely never asked to meet my pop. For a while, I’d wondered why he chose to completely ignore that part of my life. It seemed to me that someone would want to know his or her future spouse’s family. Eventually though, I’d chalked it up to total self-absorption. He didn’t care about my previous life because it didn’t directly impact him. That had worked in my favor, so I’d been happy with the status quo.
I’d gone home only a few times during college, and the last weekend home during my senior year had changed the course of my life forever. After that, I’d refused to look back.
We got to Eugene at about three in the afternoon, and I’d left the city, taking back road after back road on my way to where I’d find my father. I wasn’t sure where he was living, but I knew exactly where he’d be at three o’clock on a Tuesday. It was the same place he’d been every Tuesday my entire life and where he’d be every Tuesday until he died.
As we pulled up outside the gate, I was filled with a jumble of emotions I didn’t even bother to sort through. It had been a very long day, and my body was so weary that I wasn’t sure how I’d even make it out of the car. Maybe I should have waited, grabbed us a hotel room, and returned bright and early the next morning, but as soon as I brought the car to a stop, the guard at the gate was walking toward me. There was no time to back out, so I sighed quietly and rolled down my window.
“Whatcha need, beautiful? You lost?” he asked me with a smile pulling up the corner of his mouth.
“Nope. Looking for my pop. Can you let us in?” I muttered distractedly, rubbing the bridge of my nose with my fingertips. A headache was building in between my eyes, and I didn’t have the energy to care how annoyed he looked that I was neither nervous nor trying to flirt my way in.
This guard was new. He hadn’t been here five years before, and it looked like he was a recruit. No patch yet.
“Well, who’s your pop? Is he expecting you? This is private property.” He was smirking with a cocky look in his eyes that hadn’t been there seconds before.
Five years ago, I would have put him in his place, but I was too tired to fight. I just wanted to get to my pop, so I could finally rest.
“Poet,” I answered him shortly. “Look, just call him, okay? No, he’s not expecting me, but it won’t matter. You’re new here, so I’ll give you a little heads-up. You don’t want to keep me waiting.”
He looked at me quizzically, and then he stepped away from the car and pulled out his cell phone. Soon after that, his hand came up to rub the back of his neck, and he turned to face me as he disconnected. “Sorry about that. I’ll just get the gate open, and you can go on up.”
It was obvious that whomever he’d spoken with wasn’t happy to hear that I was waiting at the gate.
When I pulled up at the clubhouse, there were a few guys outside, working on motorcycles and sitting at picnic tables, shooting the shit. All of them turned my way as I parked and got out of the car, holding tightly to the doorframe to steady myself. I recognized a few, but I didn’t acknowledge any of them. I was here for Pop, not to socialize. These weren’t my people anymore. I was surprised to find my backbone returning though, the longer I stood in the yard of my childhood. I was the princess here. It may have been long ago, but I knew my status had not changed.
My thoughts went blank as I saw my father walk quickly out of one of the garage bays with two men on his heels. I didn’t even glance at the men; my eyes were eating up my father as he paused for a few moments and then took long strides toward me. He hadn’t changed a bit. His gray long hair was parted down the middle and hanging down his back in a ponytail. His beard, which had always reached his chest, was cut short, but his smile and shining green eyes, which were just like mine, were achingly familiar. He was smiling at me up until we made eye contact, and then his face changed to one of concern. I wasn’t sure what emotion was showing on my face, but he knew that something was wrong.
My body sagged in relief as he reached me. We were safe. He was here, and we were surrounded. Nothing and no one could touch us now.
“Pop,” I whispered as he wrapped his thick arms around me.
“My Brenna girl. Where have you been, lass?” He squeezed my middle in a tight hug.
My relief was unfortunately short-lived because the moment he squeezed, my body tensed in pain. I promptly lost consciousness and felt nothing.