They put me in my second group home the day before my thirteenth birthday. Group home. It’s a label that makes the taxpayers sleep better at night.
For an orphanage, this one could have been worse. We were warm in the winter, even though we baked during the summer, when we generally slept bathed in our own sweat. They made sure we were clean whenever there were witnesses, at least. And as long as the bruises didn’t show, nobody got in trouble for bullying, which saved our hands and our faces.
Lydia came to me that first night, when the others had forced me out of my assigned bunk and into a corner and hard floor for my bed. She was 16, with the longest red hair and eyes so green, like emeralds. She tucked me in her own bed. It was the first time anyone had tucked me into anything.
When we weren’t in school or doing chores, Lydia would teach me how to whip stitch and hem, to read a sewing pattern and eventually create my own. Her mother had been a seamstress. Lydia said I needed to learn a skill to keep me honest in this world. It was the best year of my life.
James Ruben stood five-foot-ten in his bare feet. He had wavy, thick hair and a crooked smile, and he didn’t care that Lydia was only 17 to his 24. He wore expensive rings on his fingers and clothes that were fitted, not just off the rack. He took Lydia to fancy places, and he didn’t mind when she brought along her younger friend. He even called me sister, bought me the first, brand-new Barbie doll I ever had.
I don’t know how he managed to ferret us around. I still haven’t figured out how Lydia would be gone all night long, only to magically appear by morning. James seemed to know the rules about beating a girl, too, because it took a few months before he finally left a bruise I could actually see.
Lydia came up with excuses then, and I believed them with her. She was the only family I had in the world. For reasons I didn’t understand at 14, my devotion wasn’t enough for her. For the first time in her life, Lydia felt like she mattered. She was someone when James claimed her, even when he claimed her with his fists.
I found Lydia crying one night because James had another girl, some woman actually, with raven hair and blue eyes and curves in all the right places. She was crazy with grief, so crazy I thought she might hurt herself. I guess that’s why when she snuck out the next night, I followed her.
I knew there was going to be trouble when she walked into the tenement house. There were too many windows with only shadows of color, and men who whistled and laid hands on Lydia as she went up the front steps. An old man in a sleeveless shirt with tattoos that looked like blue rivers up and down his arms found me in the bushes and ordered me home with a fierce whisper that didn’t carry past my knocking knees.
When I didn’t move, he made me tell the whole story. He knew James, he said, and he walked me into that whore house bold as brass. There was a closet by the front door. He pulled the bat from there before pointing me to the right door. If I was bent on getting killed, he said, I might as well give Ruben a good fight.
I ignored the noises coming from the doors I passed, low moans and guttural laughter. The house reeked of alcohol and something swarthy and rank. There was a sickening thud outside James’ door, followed by a low moan. Lydia’s voice. I didn’t think then, just turned the doorknob, which miraculously turned.
He was on his knees on the bed, his fists pummeling so that blood splattered in all directions. He turned when he heard my stupid gasp. At first, his eyes didn’t focus. When they did, he laughed at the bat in my hand. He told me I was going to be begging for it, that I could just leave that useless stick by the door and come on in.
It all happened at once then. I saw that Lydia wasn’t moving, and there was so much blood, so much blood. I stepped backward to get away, lifting the bat over my head as I moved. That’s when he lunged from the bed, still laughing, my Lydia’s blood still splattered all over him.
I don’t know what happened next except that I was never so terrified and angry in all my life. I heard the muffled thuds, the grunt, the sound like a melon breaking open. When I came back to myself, he was lying on the floor at my feet. The blood around his head was so red it was black, a big pool of it that threatened to cover the scruffy toes of my tennis shoes. And there was this piercing sound in the air around me, like a keening wail that made my flesh crawl. Except the noise was coming from me.
When the policemen came, they found me huddled under the covers. I’d pulled Lydia’s arm over me. It took three of them to pull me off her.
By the time they released me from the hospital, I was sent off to a foster home this time, with four elementary kids they made me feed and bathe. I didn’t mind because I had killed a man, and nobody seemed to want to punish me for it. All they’d told me was I didn’t have to worry about James Ruben any more. I didn’t get to see my friend Lydia buried, but I knew he was dead as sure as she was.
After two years of penance wiping snotty noses and watching my foster parents get drunk every Friday night, I fell in with some college drop outs, just some hippies really. It was protection against the world out there and warm bodies to huddle together on cold nights. We camped out under bridges mostly, picked up day jobs to pay for food.
In the summer, we moved south to the Gulf of Mexico. The sand wasn’t white like sugar, more like coarse grit, but the waves made a soothing sound and the water kept going and going. I might have gone on living like that forever, except one day I wandered into the laundromat to do some washing.
Milo Barnes was a big, round man with a happy laugh and ruddy cheeks. That day, he was trying to fix two of his machines while listening to three women complain because he’d lost yet another seamstress. He looked so helpless, I took pity on him. I offered to do the alteration jobs the ladies were hollering about.
They liked my work. Milo liked me. Before long, I had enough steady money to find some roommates who actually liked a roof over their heads instead of dreaming by the stars. That’s where your brother found me.
Until I saw that tabloid story about James Ruben and his tattoo shop, I thought he was dead. I thought I had killed him. And the only reason I felt guilty was because I wasn’t guilty about it.
Now that he’s found me, he won’t stop until he’s beat me to death. Up until 9 months ago, I probably wouldn’t even have cared. But I do care now, very much. The only thing I care about more is not having anyone else be a victim to that man because of me.
That’s everything, or the worst of it anyway.
So, what do I do now?