Over the next ten days we will be publishing the ten finalists from the 2022 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. The theme of this year’s contest was “The Night Before.” This, the fifth of our ten finalist stories, made it to the final round of judging with our guest judge, Laurin Jefferson. Today, enjoy Caitlin McCarthy’s story, “Escape.”
As I walk into the train car, I scan the seats around me for any other passengers. Luckily there are very few, an older man and a blonde woman who looks about forty. On the older man’s head lies a mop of dark gray hair, which is in desperate need of a wash. He is fast asleep with his chin on his chest and what looks like drool slowly sliding out of the corner of his mouth. He is wearing two jackets, each with their own unique pattern of stains, and the toe caps of his boots are littered with various tears. I walk past him and feel my nose burn from the smell of cigarette smoke and gasoline. I lightly cover my baby sister’s face with my hand and walk swiftly past him. As I get closer to the blonde woman, I watch her glance up from her computer screen and give me a disapproving look. I glare back at her and wonder what her deal is.
Right as I’m about to pass her she points her finger at my baby sister, Nadia, and narrowing her eyebrows she asks, “Is she your daughter?”
My mouth flies open before I’ve even registered what she’s just asked me. I try my best not to sound too aggressive and tell her, “No. She’s my sister.”
The blonde woman looks at me in a way that shows she doesn’t think I’m telling the truth. Keeping her eyes glued to her computer she mutters, “It’s a valid question, especially considering your kind seems to be having a rise in teen pregnancies lately.”
Her comment hurts more than she will ever understand. I storm past her and take a seat in the back of the train car. I feel a heavy lump in my throat form as I choke on my own sadness. With blurred vision I look down at Nadia sleeping peacefully in my arms. I stroke her chocolate brown cheeks with my fingers, her skin feels as soft as silk. I turn to look out the window and try to repress the memories of last night which have begun to resurface thanks to the blonde woman’s comment. Light raindrops begin to fall and I hear their pitter patter on the roof above.
I had been sitting in my bedroom trying to mind my own business, drawing in my sketchbook. I was using my favorite and only colored pencils that I’d had since 7th grade. They had been a Christmas gift from Mom. Back then we were almost inseparable and knew almost everything about one another. One year later she met Mark, who was good at first but began to show his true colors within a week of moving in with us. Now I’m in 10th grade and Mark has been living with us for the past year and a half.
Mark and my mom were screaming at one another, this time over Mom’s lack of working since she’d given birth to Nadia about a year ago. Mark was yelling something about how Mom needed to get a job or he would leave us all and we would “crumble without him”. He was always making empty threats to Mom, but she never failed to take it to heart. I heard Mom plead with him that she would try to find a job, she just needed to figure out who would watch Nadia. Mark said he didn’t care if she had to take the baby to work with her.
“I will, I will, I’ll take her with me. I promise I’ll find a job tomorrow, you won’t have to worry anymore. I promise.”
“Don’t make promises you know you can’t keep! I’m done working my ass off day and night just so I can provide for this family, Jada. You’ve been sitting on your ass doing absolutely nothing for too long. You need to grow the hell up!”
Whack! I heard the signature sound of a palm hitting Mom’s skin. My stomach did a somersault and I softly closed my eyes to push out a tear. It fell onto my sketch paper, joining the others.
A second later I heard Nadia’s screaming cries, she must’ve been woken up from all the yelling. I took a deep breath to help gather myself and walked out into the warzone to get to my sister’s room. Nadia is probably the most important person in my life and I would do anything for her, even if it meant having to encounter Mark.
Surprisingly the hallway and living room had been cleared and when I walked into Nadia’s room I found that Mom had beaten me to her. She looked terrible, Mom, her hair was all disheveled and her posture made it clear she was dead tired. When she turned her head to look at me I noticed that her eyes were red and her makeup had run down her face. She could barely look me in the eye for a second before turning away.
She used to always smile brightly when I walked into a room, it made me feel safe and loved. She would ask me how I was doing and we would gossip about our days together. I used to look forward to seeing her everyday, but now I simply dread seeing her in this rundown state.
I think it’s been over a year since I last saw her smile.
The rain outside begins to grow heavier and my ears flood with the sound of big drops hitting the roof of the train car.
I reach into my pocket and pull out my grandma’s crumpled letter. I slowly stretch it out and try to flatten the creases with thumbs.
I’ve never met my grandma before; Mom barely talked about her. All I know is that every year she sends me a letter to wish me a happy birthday and to let me know she’s thinking of me. Although her letters don’t tell me much about her, they’re enough for me to know that she would have my back if I needed her.
I read over her address again, even though I’ve already memorized it. 4376 New Garner Ave, Columbus Nebraska.
“Go back to your room Faye. I can take care of her,” Mom said to me semi aggressively.
“Sorry,” I sighed.
Right before I was about to leave, I’m stopped by the bright reddish-blue mark on Mom’s arm. She caught me looking and quickly placed her palm over the spot. It’s really no use though because the truth is she doesn’t have enough hands to cover the black and blues on her neck and thighs that tell the stories of nights prior.
That little lump started to form in my throat so I turned to leave only to find that Mark was blocking the doorway. I felt a wave of fear pulse through my bones before I’d even realized why. Standing in the doorway, Mark had a crazed look on his face that I’d never seen before. He looked at us like he was a predator and we were his prey. His pupils appeared larger and his face had a reddish hue.
Mom asked, “Are you okay, honey?”
“Fan-freaking-tastic,” he said with a crooked smile. He raised his fists, shaking them like maracas and giggling manically. I noticed his fingers wrapped around something in his right hand and upon closer inspection I realized it was an orange cylinder bottle with a white cap.
Sometimes my mouth moves faster than my mind and before I could stop myself I blurted out, “Whatcha got in your hand there?”
Mark’s head whipped around and I was greeted with a disgusting glare. Looking me dead in the eyes, he smirked and said, “None of your damn business, that’s what.”
Instead of creating more problems, I decided to give up the fight. Even though she would never admit it, I know seeing Mark and I argue hurts Mom deeply. A year ago Mom would’ve stood up for me if Mark had said something like that. Now she just stands in the corner like a scared child watching it all pan out. It makes me sick to my stomach to see her so afraid and so unwilling to stand up to someone she claims to be her “partner”.
Looking down at the floor, I walked out of Nadia’s room and into my own, shutting the door behind me. As I closed the door, I felt a surge of guilt for leaving Nadia behind. Luckily a second later I heard Mom and Mark leave Nadia’s room and shut the door of their own.
It was getting late and I knew I should be going to bed but I was too worked up from my encounter with Mark. So I decided to resume my drawing to help settle myself down.
Nadia has woken up now and I’m trying to keep her entertained by holding her high enough so she can look out the window. It’s amazing how fascinated she is by the rapid movement of the train and the land passing by.
I hold her close and firmly so that she feels secure and safe in this new environment. At least, this is what I’m telling myself when in reality she’s fine and I’m really the one who needs the comfort. Her tight curls smell like baby powder and lavender shampoo, which remind me of peaceful things like clouds, meadows and sea creatures.
As I colored in the little sea turtle I’d drawn, the bickering voices in the other room grew louder and louder. I didn’t need to hear what was being said to know what they were fighting about. I could feel the distress in Mom’s voice and the frustration in Mark’s.
Mom would plead her case, but in the end she’d ultimately submit to Mark’s incessant desire.
Deciding I didn’t want to listen to anymore fighting for the night, I jammed my earplugs into my ears and shut off the light. Closing my eyes, all I heard now was a low mumbling coming from the other side of the wall. After a few minutes it had stopped and I was finally able to start falling asleep.
As I drifted into a peaceful sleep, I imagined Mom, Nadia and I out for a walk in the park. In my dream we’re all smiling and Nadia is laughing her wonderful little belly laugh. The leaves on the trees are vibrant shades of green and the sound they make when the wind hits them is like a soft whoosh.
All of a sudden I was sent right back into reality because a dry, callused hand had just grabbed my wrist. My eyes flew open to find Mark standing over me. I opened my mouth to yell, but he took his other hand and covered it tightly.
His voice low and unhinged, he breathed out, “If your mother won’t give it to me, I’ll just have to take it from you.”
The rest I’m terrified to think about and relive in my mind. I’ve pushed the memory to the back of my brain where it will sit like a ghost and forever haunt me.
After he left I just lay there crying and shaking, crying and shaking, crying and shaking until I’d exhausted every muscle in my body and the only liquid left in me was my own blood.
I wanted to crawl out of my skin and leave my body to rot. I wanted to saw my wrists off because I could still feel his tight grasp on them. I wanted to cry and cry until my system was flushed clean of his toxins. But more than anything in the world, I wanted to leave.
I wanted to leave because I knew it was no longer safe for me there. I wanted to leave because I couldn’t take watching him turn my mother into something lesser than human. I wanted to leave because the thought that he could do this to Nadia turned my blood ice cold.
We needed to leave.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. With the thimble of strength I had left, I quietly slid my feet off the bed and onto the floor. Careful to avoid the spots on the floor I knew would creak, I quietly made my way to my closet and removed my largest duffle bag. With soft, shaky breaths I took my clothes off their hangers and jammed them into the duffle bag. I packed five days worth of clothes and left the rest in my closet. Then I dumped in my sketchbook, colored pencils, a teddy bear from Mom and all the cash I had into the bag as well. Creeping back over to my bed, I pulled out my box of valuables from underneath and extracted photos of Mom and the birthday card from my grandma. I put the photos in my bag and with the letter in my hand, I silently opened my door and peeked out.
No one was out there so very slowly I crept into the living room where Mark’s laptop was. With anxious fingers I pulled open the top and typed in Riverfront Train Station, Nashville Tennessee. Reading the address written on the card, I searched for the next train to Nebraska and found the next one was leaving tomorrow morning at 6:30. I selected two tickets and made them out to Grace and Hope Turner, in an effort to do anything I could to make it hard for them to trace us.
I slowly dipped my restless hands into Mom’s purse and searched for her wallet. Pulling it out, I slowly undid the zipper and took out her credit card. I typed the numbers into the computer and finalized the payment for the train tickets.
I made sure everything was back as I found it before I left to make my final stop in Nadia’s room.
Quiet as a scared little mouse, I slipped into Nadia’s room and approached her crib. I inched my fingers beneath her sleeping body and very slowly picked her up. She made soft coos, but thankfully did not wake. With my open hand, I scooped up as many clothes and diapers as I could carry and crept back to my room. I lay Nadia down on my bed and stuffed her items into the duffel bag.
By then it was almost two in the morning and although I was exhausted, I was also wide awake. Kept awake by the fear that was pulsing through my body, causing my hands to shake and my legs to feel restless. As I quietly paced back and forth in my room, I realized that what I was planning to do could change my life, our lives, forever. I was okay with that.
I know I’ve racked up more demons than I can count and that they’ll always be with me. But knowing that Nadia does not and will never have a single one is enough to keep me fighting mine.