This is a piece that I wrote for my nonfiction class a few years ago. It was my first real experience writing something that was about me, rather than a fiction story. This is true. This is raw. Writing this was therapeutic. It was like, I released everything that I’ve felt since my childhood. I wanted to share this story with you.
My stepdad had been with us since I was four years old. When I was 14 years old, he locked us out of the house. There we were—Mom, Tristan, Chloe, Kody, and I—standing outside the front door of the house while Mom screamed and pounded for us to be let in, but it was no use.
It was the worst and best moment of my life. Worst since I didn’t know where we were going. Best since we were finally free of Brian. Things had been steadily getting worse between Brian and Mom. There wasn’t a night where they weren’t arguing. There wasn’t a dinner where there wasn’t curt responses and barbed words.
Brian kicked us out because he thought Mom was cheating on him. Again.
This was the third time he had kicked us out.
They had a repetitive process. Fight and then make up. Fight. Make up. Fight. Apologize. Fight. Fight. Make up. Rinse and repeat. It was a never-ending process. We’d move out, then we’d move back in. Or he’d move out then move back in. There was no end. Tristan, Chloe and I never talked about it, trying to make it easier for Kody. (Later, when Camron was born, we also shielded him too. It was like an unspoken rule between us three older siblings to prevent our younger brothers from seeing the truth of our shitty childhood.)
One-night, Chloe and I finally talked about it. That elephant that had always been there was finally acknowledged rather than shoved into a closet with the door locked and the key thrown out the window.
It was a bittersweet moment for me. Chloe and I were never that close. Tristan and I were close, being only a year and a half apart. He and I stuck together, two peas in a pod. But Chloe and me? After she turned 10, we didn’t get along—no more playing Barbies or playing dress up. I was no longer her hero who dressed up as a princess with her for Halloween even though I wanted to be a witch. Chloe looked at me, and she was angry and jealous. Why wouldn’t she be? Mom always asked Chloe, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” She grew up with this complex that she had to be exactly like her big sister, and due to that, our relationship was strained.
But that night so many years ago, we understood each other.
Chloe and I were in bed, feigning sleep, when Brian and Mom started fighting. Since our room was right next to theirs, we could hear them very clearly. It didn’t help that the walls were thin, and Mom and Brian weren’t exactly trying to be quiet. I was glad that Kody’s room was further away, so he couldn’t hear them arguing. Chloe was crying. I could hear her, and I asked if she was okay (clearly, she wasn’t), but like me, she was too stubborn to seek comfort. I got out of bed, laid down next to her, and held in her my arms. I pulled the blanket over us, hoping it would muffle the yelling. It didn’t. Chloe didn’t pull away from me, instead, she sought comfort from me. Her big sister.
She asked, “Why do they always fight?”
How was I supposed to answer that question? I was 14 years old. I should only care about boys and makeup. But I had to be the big sister: “I don’t know. But it’ll get better. I promise.” She clung to me, suspending that teenage independence she already developed at 10 years old, and we cried together.
The next day, Brian and Mom were getting along again. We went out to eat. Chloe went back to hating me. We were one big happy family. It was like the fight never happened. But it was all lies.
Here we were again, a few weeks later, standing outside in the rain, us kids crowding around Mom underneath the overhang of the garage. Chloe and Kody were crying, the latter clinging to Mom. Tristan was indifferent. I was resigned.
“What are we going to do?” I asked Mom again in-between the yelling and banging.
“I don’t know. But we’ll figure it out, okay?” she said.
Mom continued to yell and pound on the door until Brian threatened to call the cops. We left and stayed with a friend of Mom’s.
I assumed that we would move back in with Brian. They had that process after all. Fight. Kick Out. Make up. Come back. Fight. Kick out. Make up. Come back. I figured this would be the same. We’d stay with Mom’s friend. Mom would curse Brian’s name. We wouldn’t see him for a few weeks. But then he and Mom would kiss and makeup. We’d come back like we always did. Brian would apologize to Mom and to us kids. He’d shower us with presents and tell us that he loved us.
I was wrong.
We moved into our new house in Tulsa a few weeks later.
The house wasn’t perfect. It was smaller than the one in Broken Arrow. But those first few weeks in the new house? That was perfect. It was just us kids and Mom. She was our mom again. She played with us. She watched movies with us. She was our mom. Just ours. We lived in a crappy little house, but we were together.
Chloe and I shared a room again, and neither of us were very happy about that. Our room was cramped, barely big enough for the worn-out desk, relatively new dresser, and hand-me-down futon. Chloe and I hated that futon because the mattress always slipped out of the metal frame and we’d wake up hitting our heads. Tristan and Kody shared a room, and theirs was just as cramped. The house had rats in the garage, and the roof leaked when it rained, but we were together, and we were away from my stepdad. It was beautiful. I was happy. We were happy.
There was always this fear that Brian would come back, but Mom promised “This is it. I’m not going back. We’re not going back. I promise. It’s just us.”
I believed her. That was my mistake
A few weeks later, the bastard moved back in. I was pissed.
He’s been in my life since I was four years old. Growing up he was “Dad.” I still call him Dad when I see him occasionally. He stayed, and a part of me that will always love him, just like a part of me will always respect the fact that he raised children that weren’t his.
Brian was more of my dad than my biological father ever was. But he was cruel and vicious. He knew the right buttons to make us all cry. There were times I wished he would simply stay out of my life. There were times, especially on the days he and mom argued and threw things, that I wanted him gone. I didn’t want him as pseudo father or even a stepdad. If having him meant that my mom was always crying, then I didn’t want him. I didn’t need him.
Brian was an angry man who took out his frustrations on his girlfriend and his kids. He put my mom down, calling her all sorts of vile names: Whore. Slut. Skank. Worthless. Stupid. Cheater. He put us down, calling us all sorts of horrible names: Stupid. Lazy. Disrespectful. Ungrateful.
I didn’t need a father if he was going to be like that. I needed a mother. Of course, I didn’t quite have one of those either.
Living in Tulsa wasn’t perfect, even before Brian moved in. There was no win-win situation. Mom worked nights and didn’t come home until the next morning. I watched my siblings, ensuring they were fed, bathed, and safe. Mom was a shop alcoholic and half of the clothes in her closet still had tags. Mom spent money that she didn’t have which meant the pantry was barebones empty. But Mom was doing better. She was trying. She was better without Brian. And now the bastard was back. Again. So much for promises.
Brian came back because, in my mom’s words “He’s going through a rough time. He’ll only be staying until he gets a new job.” I couldn’t protest. What was I supposed to say? That he was a bastard, and I didn’t want him living here? I kept my mouth shut. It wasn’t like my opinion mattered.
Two weeks after Brian came back, I ran away from home. It certainly made for an interesting story come that Monday. I already had a reputation at Memorial High School for being quiet, usually tucked into a corner reading or writing with my earbuds in as I dared anyone to say something to me. Those brave enough to approach the rather standoffish new girl quickly became my friends. Being the new kid was horrible. But starting high school as the new kid? That was even worse.
We had moved to Tulsa to get away from my stepdad, and now here we were, a month after moving, and he was living with us. To me, fourteen and the oldest of 4, this was crazy. How could my mom let him come back? I didn’t understand it then, and 9 years later, I still don’t.
I couldn’t take that anymore. I couldn’t take Brian or Mom anymore. So that day, Saturday, I woke up early. Brian was at work, so I didn’t have to worry about him. I wrote a cheesy note that simply said, “I’m sorry.” I packed a backpack with clothes, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water. After I was dressed, I walked to the door. For a moment, I considered not leaving. I thought about my siblings: Tristan, Chloe and Kody. As the oldest, I was the responsible one. I made sure they got on the bus, did their homework, and finished their chores. That was my job. Being the oldest meant sacrifice, especially growing up in a broken home. But in a rare moment in my 14-year-old life, I thought about myself. I didn’t want to be responsible.
I was tired. I should have been thinking about school and boys, not concerning myself about if my stepdad decided to become physical with my mom. Again. In that moment of walking out the door of that shabby house with the rat-infested garage, I was selfish.
It was brilliant.
As I walked out that door, my heart felt like it would beat right out of my chest. I slowly closed the squeaky door. Once the door was closed, I ran. I kept running until I was a good few blocks away from my house. There was something. . .freeing about walking. But there was also guilt. I’d walk a few blocks then pause and turn around, looking back at all the responsibilities I had left behind. It was like I could hear my siblings: “How could you leave us, Keke?”
I had finally left my prison. I yanked open the barred door and ran as fast I could before I was caught. I was no longer bound by my mother’s expectations and my siblings’ need for the only true parent they knew—me. I was torn between excitement and guilt. I felt free from my prison but that crushing guilt at abandoning my siblings still came back. I swallowed that guilt and continued to walk. It was around eight in the morning. The sun was shining. It was a beautiful autumn day. People started on their daily business. I waved to a few neighbors I passed when I took walks. They probably thought I was out taking a walk again, but a longer one and that’s why I had the backpack. Walking didn’t make it seem real to me. It didn’t seem real until I realized I had nowhere to go.
I didn’t have any friends in the neighborhood. What did I do? Well, being a 14-year-old girl with no job, no cell phone, no car and no friends, I did the logical thing.
I walked to K-Mart.
It was a good two miles, on the side of a well-used road next to a Long John Silver’s and A&W fast food restaurant. Now that road is a four-lane highway, and K-Mart, Long John Silver’s and A&W are closed. The houses that once were across from them are gone.
The sidewalk was bumpy and uneven. I tripped more than twice on the way to K-Mart. But finally, I reached my destination.
What the hell was I going to do now? I walked into the store. The lady up front noticed my backpack and told me I couldn’t stay. There I was, a gangly bespectacled girl with a backpack, and she said I couldn’t stay because it would—in her words—“Disrupt the other customers.” She probably thought I was either homeless or a runaway. She was right about the latter, but I had hoped for a little sympathy.
With tears in my eyes, I asked, “Can I borrow the phone?” My voice cracked twice. That lump in my throat getting larger by the minute. I was barely holding it together.
“Yes, but you can’t stay here,” she repeated. As if I didn’t know that already. As if I didn’t know that her customers were more important than a teenage girl carrying a backpack with red-rimmed eyes.
I called my grandparents, proud that I had memorized their number. My grandparents were Brian’s parents. They had been in my life as long as he had. They enjoyed traveling so I didn’t get to see them that much, but they always made it clear that even though Tristan and I were not my stepdad’s biological children, we were still their grandchildren.
When my grandma answered the phone, suddenly no words come out. I felt like I was being strangled but somehow, between sobs and hiccups and the cashier rolling her eyes, I managed to ask, “Can you come pick me up? I’m at K-Mart. I-I ran . . . I ran away.”
There was a slight pause on the phone before my grandma responded, voice soft with that no-nonsense tone, “We’re on our way.”
“Okay,” I choked out.
I handed the phone back to the cashier. “My grandparents are on their way,” I said. She nodded, lips pursed. “Fine. Just don’t make trouble.”
I spent around twenty minutes pacing around K-Mart, ignoring the looks the cashier lady gave—as if I was a problem. I spent most of my time in the toy section, pushing the buttons and making noise . . . which was exactly what the cashier was worried about. But if she was going to be rude, I could be too.
I couldn’t believe that I did it. I’ve thought about running away before but this time, I did it. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that. I was still feeling guilty; pushing all the buttons on the noisiest toys helped to distract me from that guilt. After a while, I could feel the cashier’s eyes on me, so I walked back up to the front, that way I wouldn’t “disrupt the customers.” Not that there were any customers.
A few minutes later, my grandparents showed up, and I ran into my grandma’s arms. She gave me a hug, as did my grandpa. I felt safe and loved. They said I could stay with them until things were sorted out—my grandpa’s words.
For a moment, I was free. Then right as we were about to walk out the doors, my mom walked in, talking on the phone. The second my mom saw me, I was shoved right back into my windowless cell and the barred door slammed shut. She grabbed my arm and yanked me away from my grandparents while they did nothing.
“How could you do this to me?” she screamed in my face. Yes, because it was my fault that I wanted to run away from home.
I was dragged to the car. My grandparents looked at me with pity, but there was nothing they could do. My grandma told my mom. “You need to fix this,” and then she told me to call anytime. My grandparents left me.
The car ride was quiet. Mostly. Mom talked on the phone to her friend about how her oldest daughter ran away, and she just couldn’t believe I did this to her and to my siblings. I ignored her. A few times I contemplated opening the car door, rolling out action movie style and praying I didn’t get run over by another vehicle. I didn’t do it, but it was tempting.
Finally, we were back to that shabby house where my mom and I screamed at each other. It was back to prison where she threw things and I threw things. Tristan, Chloe and Kody were outside playing. Mom didn’t want them to witness our fight.
Or maybe she didn’t want to give them ideas.
“How could you be so selfish?” she yelled.
“I hate it here! He’s changing you again!” I yelled.
“So this is my fault? I am doing the best I can!” Really. She was doing the best she could? We barely had bread and milk in the house while she went out drinking with her friends. Tristan’s shoes were peeling at the bottom. Chloe needed new glasses. That was her best?
“Well it’s not enough!” I yelled.
It was a disaster. I slammed the door in her face and locked the bedroom door. I grabbed my iPod and listened to Avril Lavigne’s “Nobody’s Home” on repeat. The chorus kept repeating in my head:
She wants to go home but nobody’s home.
That’s where she lies, broken inside, with no place to go.
No place to go to dry her eyes.
The song played in my head until I finally fell into an uneasy sleep.
Later that night, Mom walked in. She laid down next to me, pulling out my earbuds and hugged me tight, waking me up. She said the same old things. “I’m sorry. Things will change. I promise. I love you.” The next day, she and I went out to eat and shopping. She got me a new purse, a notebook, and Ghirardelli chocolates—as if food and clothes could make me forget. My running away was never mentioned again, but it was not the last time that I left.
When I was 19, I ran away from home again, but this time I didn’t have to come back. This time, I had grandparents who could save me. This time, I was gone for good. This time it wasn’t running away since I was a legal adult. She couldn’t drag me back this time.
I’d been planning this move for a month, but I didn’t tell my mom I was leaving until the day before. My grandma and I have been talking for a few weeks. With the help of my friend, Angela, who understood more than most about my home life, I planned my escape. Angela and her dad took me to the storage unit and helped me gather my things. Angela helped me sort through the garage and find my books. I grabbed whatever I could. Whatever could fit in Angela’s dad’s car. Anything that wasn’t completely necessary was left.
Angela’s dad was going to drive me to Fayetteville to Mom’s parents. I knew I had to tell my mom though. To this day, I still don’t know how she didn’t know what was going on. I was very clearly gathering my things. I was very clearly packing. But she seemed so surprised while standing in the kitchen when I said: “Tomorrow I’m leaving. Angela’s dad is taking me to Grandma and Grandpa’s.”
My mom sighed, in that way she did when I had disappointed her. That sigh used to make me feel something. It doesn’t anymore. I felt nothing. I no longer needed her approval. I hadn’t since I was 14. She looked at me with those hazel eyes, filled with disappointment and betrayal.
“I told you I’d take you next weekend,” she said, her arms crossed. In my peripheral vision I saw Chloe in the doorway watching the argument unfold. It was her fault that Mom had found out so soon. I wanted to wait until the last possible minute, but Chloe had eavesdropped on Angela and my conversation. Thus, this confrontation.
Angela was waiting in my bedroom. She had offered to be with me when I told my mother I was leaving. I told her that I had to do this myself.
“You said that last weekend. And the weekend before that. Angela’s dad is taking her to Iowa. It’s on the way. I am leaving tomorrow,” I said firmly. Fayetteville wasn’t on the way to Inola—in fact it was sort of out of the way. Angela’s dad would have to go up then down to get en route to Iowa. But he offered. I didn’t ask but he offered. I couldn’t refuse it when I might not have another chance.
Mom’s lips were pursed. She was angry. But there was nothing she could do. I was a legal adult. I had my social security number. I could re-order my birth certificate. I had everything I wanted to take with me. Clothes, books, and artwork. The few things that I couldn’t find, I could replace.
The next day, I said goodbye to my siblings. Kody and Camron cried and clung to me, but I told them I’d call when I could. Tristan hugged me and said, “Good luck.” Chloe glared at me and didn’t bother to say goodbye. Mom looked at me and said, “If you want to come home, call me.”
I got in the car, and I was off to a new life. A better life.
A few weeks after living with my grandparents and uncle, my aunt Wendy—or rather Aunt Meme—came and picked me up. It was an adjustment for me. I’ve never really had a parental figure. With my mother, I always felt like the mom. Living at my aunt’s, I didn’t have to ask if I could make myself hot tea like I had to at my stepdad’s. Hell, there was food in the house. My aunt provided for me. She says, to this day, if I need something, tell her. I’ve never had that before. She helped me enroll in Pulaski Technical College and get all my basics courses done. She encourages me and lets me talk her ear off about my art, writing, photography—whatever my interest is at the moment. She’s teaching me how to drive, something that Heather never encouraged. Once, I ended up in the ER while she was in Texas on vacation. She was supposed to be home that Sunday. Instead, she was there the next day. When I asked her why she said:
“My kid is sick. Of course I’m here.”
It certainly threw me for a loop.
Maybe that’s why I started calling Aunt Meme ‘Mom.’ Neither of us are sure when it started but I call her Mom now. I think it probably started off as a joke. Either Paul, Paige, or Pagan (her children, my cousins) called her Mom and then I said Mom. It made sense. It felt right.
I’ve graduated from Pulaski Technical College a two and a half years ago. Come next spring, I’ll be graduating from the University of Arkansas in Little Rock with two majors. I know that is in part thanks to her, my mom. She may have not given birth to me, but she’s my mom. We joke that a stork just dropped me off one day and I’ve been here ever since.
I’ve lived in Arkansas for 6 years, and not once have I called my mother and told her to come get me.
Occasionally I go back to Oklahoma, for Thanksgiving, for a wedding, for a comic con, but I never stay long. I don’t talk to my mother. Or rather, I never actively call her. She calls, I stupidly answer, groan, and feel exhausted. Talking to my mother makes me want to smoke. She tells me how much she misses me, loves me, and how she wishes I was home. She suddenly has to go every time I tell her with certainty, “I am home.” Then she calls a few weeks later and starts into how the boys, Kody and Camron, miss me so much. Suddenly, I’m the one who has to go. She does that all the time, trying to use the boys so I’ll come back. That’s the reason why—even though I really want too—I can’t entirely cut her out of my life. I know her. I know Heather would be petty enough to make it so that I could never talk to the boys again.
That’s another thing that’s changed. I don’t think of my mom as ‘Mom.’ I think Heather. To her face, and when I talk to my siblings, she’s Mom, said through gritted teeth with lots of eye rolls, but to my best friends, my aunt and uncle, my grandparents, she’s Heather. I don’t know when that started. Maybe it had always been there, but now I had the courage to realize that I never thought of Heather as a mother. Even my friends know when I say Mom I really mean my aunt. and when I say Heather or my mother (usually with a tone of disdain) I mean my biological mother.
I keep in contact with Tristan and Chloe, especially now that they’ve both moved out of Heather’s. Now that they aren’t pulling me back into her drama, I can speak freely to them. Tristan is happy with his fiancée and a new baby.
Chloe and my relationship has never been this good. There was a time she only texted me for my Netflix password. She moved out of our mother’s house last year. Since then, Chloe and I have gotten closer. I think having us both out of our mother’s house helped. Made it easier for us to connect and be sisters. We FaceTime regularly actually. And I enjoy our conversations. We are sisters.
When I first left Oklahoma, I did feel bad. The guilt was crushing, and sometimes I wanted to go back. But now? I don’t. It doesn’t hurt anymore. I am home. I don’t have to go to Oklahoma if I don’t want too.
This time, I left my prison for good.
This piece is now published in Quills & Pixels 2019 edition! My first published piece! Quills & Pixels is the nonfiction journal for the Rhetoric and Writing Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I have the honor of being an editor for the 2018 edition and now, the honor of being a writer in this year’s edition!