Being afraid is exhilarating.
I had just dashed up the carpeted stairs of our hundred-year-old house, pushing the laundry chute closed as I passed. I made it to my purple room and crashed into my dresser. I began scooping up all of the contents, throwing them into my small My Little Pony suitcase. I could hear my sisters in the next room doing the same, the sound of drawers crashing and the closet door being thrown open. My sisters usually approached their closet with caution, as one of them claimed that a witch lived in it. Now they were tearing through it, grasping at anything they wanted to keep.
Mom had said, “Pack your things! We’re going to California.”
She hadn’t said this in a friendly tone. It wasn’t like we had just learned we were headed to Disneyland or that we had won a surprise vacation to the beach. She had said it with terror and anger in her voice. She had said it with finality. It seemed as if we were moving back there, to be close to my grandparents and my dad.
Before giving us these instructions, Mom had picked herself up off the creaky wood floors of our entryway. It was there that my step dad had been standing over her, holding one of her wrists in his large, callused hands, his face sweaty and his eyes crazed. She had been on her back, her hair pushed away from her face, and her eyes opened wide with fear.
They had been fighting. I’m not sure what started the argument. I had had heard them yelling at each other in the night a few weeks prior, my mother calling him “Jackass” in a voice that I had never heard before. It had woken me up, and my first thought was that my mother shouldn’t be swearing. Once I had awakened more fully, I realized that they were fighting again, and that my mother was more angry than I had ever seen her. The pit in my stomach began to grow. I could not sleep that night.
Now that I was packing my things, perhaps never to see this room again, I felt a rush of adrenalin and a surge of excitement. My body was shaking with terror, as I had also just been in an altercation, but the danger had moved on. He was outside the house, presumably getting into his truck and driving away.
When he had pushed my mother to the floor, I attacked him. So did my sisters. We flung our tiny bodies at him, yelling and hitting and kicking with our might. It probably didn’t hurt him. He probably didn’t feel it as much as he reacted to it. He pushed us away with one arm, yelling into our faces, his mouth spraying spit. I wanted to lunge toward him again, to get my mother off of the floor, to prevent him from standing over her in such a menacing stance.
I didn’t have to. He dropped her wrist, muttered under his breath, probably some curse words, and turned around. He walked through the front door, slamming it in frustration and rage. The metal screen door quivered in his wake.
That’s when my sisters and I were given the instruction to pack, and we bounded upstairs to obey.
Minutes later, we had piled into our ugly grey and blue Dodge van. It seated at least 8 people, but the middle bench was missing. In that spot, my mother unfolded a pack and play for my brother, not even a year old yet. She placed him inside it to sleep while we drove. It would be at least fourteen hours before we made it to California. It would be at least fourteen hours before everything was better. It would be at least fourteen hours before I would have a chance to make sure my suitcase held all of my worldly valuables and enough underwear.
My sisters and I sat on the back row, looking at our brother in his playpen. Mom started up the van and backed out of the driveway. I noticed our tennis rackets laying near the side of the house, where we liked to hit balls against it. I would likely never practice on that side of the house again. My tennis skills would dwindle and fade.
Once in the street, my mom put the van into drive. As I looked ahead, I saw him again. My step father was standing in the middle of the road, staring at us in our flight, shaking his head and muttering. He was walking to the other side, but Mom did not want to let him. She stepped on the gas and aimed toward him. My heard leapt into my mouth. My sisters let out short screams, and my baby brother napped contentedly with his blanket. The van lurched forward, the target in its rectangular windshield.
I looked up to see the chocolate splatters on the ceiling of this van. They had gotten there the time my mother and step father had been fighting and she threw a chocolate milkshake at him. The stains of that argument were still there. What other stains would their marriage leave?
I closed my eyes. I just wanted to go to California. I didn’t care if I’d forgotten my stuffed rabbit or the globe that was really a piggy bank and kept all my money. It was time to go.
Just as the van was about to hit, Mom swerved. She continued to make the engine roar and the van shot down the quiet residential street, leaving him behind, still standing, in the rear view mirror.
We drove. Mom told us soothingly that we would go to grandma’s house. There we would be safe. We could start a new life. We might be able to live in our old house or see some of our friends. She would teach at a nearby elementary school. Of course, we would be closer to our father, and that thought was pleasing.
Mom’s determination and flight response lasted for about 30 minutes. She drove that van to the next rural town, and then slowed and pulled into a gas station. She talked to me, as the oldest child, working through what had happened and why she was right and that we should continue. However, she was really talking to herself, and all of that talking changed her mind. We were not going to California. She turned the van around, still talking to me, but really convincing herself.
We drove home.