By Kirby Fields
Nana is in one corner, threatening to call the police. Dad is in the other telling her to go ahead and do it. She holds the phone in her left hand, her right index finger hovering over the keypad like she’s about to detonate a bomb. My brothers huddle at her feet, begging her not to.
“Please don’t, Nana. Please please please please please please please.” That’s my brother, Jack. He’s two years younger than me. The baby, Tyler, repeats after Jack—“please please please”—but he doesn’t really know what he’s saying.
My dad says, “I’m serious, Rita, go ahead and call.
I deserve to be in jail. I deserve to be locked up.”
No one claims otherwise. Still, Jack says, “Please.”
Nana’s finger hovers.
My dad’s gut looks like he has either a basketball or a dead flounder in there, depending on whether he is using. Right now it is closer to a flounder, which explains a lot. He breathes heavily and I can see the skin flop loosely under the T-shirt that says “Conway Little League” across the front. The cursive y in “Conway” doubles back and underlines the “C-o-n-w-a.” Conway is where we live. It’s in Missouri. The shirt is from when dad coached Jack’s baseball team. One time when he was pitching, dad told him to hit the other team’s best player. Jack did. Somehow word got out that he hit him on purpose and Jack was suspended for the rest of the year. Dad didn’t coach after that.
“Do it,” he growls. “Do it.”
I am watching the scene play out in front of me from my seat on the floor, my legs tucked underneath. Tear-stained cheeks, I sniffle wetly, half expecting dad to tell me to shut up but he never does. My scalp stings. Dad dragged me across the carpet by my hair and I can feel where the hair refused to let go. A pink island of a burn tattoos my right calf where it scraped across the shag. I’ve always hated this carpet. Long like it needs a haircut. Drop a quarter and it’ll disappear forever, which right now doesn’t sound so bad. My forearm feels like one big charley horse. A fist-shaped bruise, centered between my wrist and elbow, blooms in both directions. My arm hurts but I’m thankful that it’s not my face. The force of the punch pressed the crook of my arm into my nose, which made me feel like I was going to sneeze. My eyes started watering and I told them to stop but they didn’t. That was about the time that Nana arrived. She must have heard the racket from next door. She just started another cycle of treatment, so it must have been something for her to come all the way over.
“What in the world?” she asked, before taking out her phone. “I’m calling the police.”
My dad says to do it.
My brothers say, “Please don’t. Please please please please please please please.”
“Please please please.”
I sit on the floor, bone-bruised and weary.
My mom gnaws on the quick of the nail of her left middle finger. She usually uses when dad does, but her tell isn’t in her gut. It’s in her eyes. I’m too far away to see one way or the other. Part of me wants her to be; most of me doesn’t.
Nana’s finger hovers. She says to my mom, “Gracie?”
Mom gnaws for a few seconds more and then says, “Please.”
Nana puts away her phone. My brothers stop “please-ing.” My dad says, “I knew you wouldn’t do it.” I don’t know if he’s talking to Nana or to mom. It is three o’clock in the morning. I look at my mom. She doesn’t look back. The next morning, after dad leaves for the site, I shove as much stuff as I can into a duffel bag that is lying around from when I used to cheer. Sweatpants, bras, T-shirts. Hair dryer, flip-flops, socks. The special toothpaste I use so I can eat ice cream. It all gets crammed inside, like I am a bank robber in the movies, stuffing pillowcases full of cash. I have tapped on plenty of windows in the middle of the night, begging for a warm place to stay if only for a few hours, and I accept each offer without complaint, no matter how uncomfortable: the couch stacked deep with decorative pillows; the floor between the bed and the wall, a draft whistling through the ill-fitting baseboard; curled up at the foot of a mattress like a dog. I’ve used shoes for pillows and beach towels for blankets and I’ve been stepped over more times than I care to count. Despite the lack of comfort, though, the nights really aren’t that bad. They’re just something to get through. It’s the mornings that make me feel less than human, displaced, like some kind of a refugee, and I pledge to myself that I will no longer be so unprepared. I will no longer step into clammy underwear after a shower, brush slick teeth with the side of my index finger, or tighten a borrowed hat around my head to hide my ratty hair. I will no longer feel sticky in third period and then remember that I am not wearing deodorant. Shit. Deodorant. I grab it from my dresser and toss it into the bag.
The house is unnervingly quiet when I step out of my room. Still, but inhabited. Like it’s hibernating. Tyler makes a sleep sound from the back bedroom. A mew. I stand at his door and peek in, careful not to wake him. He mews again. Twitches. The space between his eyebrows contracts. He looks concerned. But what could possibly trouble a 5-year-old boy who still has the full faith and love of his parents? Mom is asleep behind him. Her lumpy body is a mountain range next to his tiny frame: her hips and shoulders the peaks, the rest of her the valley between. Her face bears no trace of the turmoil from the night before. Not even the night, really. More like four hours. Her face bears no trace of the turmoil from four hours before. I look at the two of them, wonder if mom ever cast her shadow over me so I could rest. I try to remember but can’t.
When she drapes a protective arm over his chest I turn back down the hall. The rest of the house is empty. Shards of cat food halo her dish; a single stray piece, bloated, floats mysteriously in her water. No one has seen the cat for weeks. On the table, the milk from Jack’s cereal sours in its bowl. A half-empty carton of orange juice sits on the counter, the cap nearby. Normally I would clatter the bowl into the sink, re-cap the juice and return it to the fridge. Normally I would do my part to hold everything together. So dad doesn’t yell; so mom doesn’t cry. But not today. Today I follow a different instinct. Today I open the refrigerator door but instead of putting things back in I take everything out: two liters of flat soda, taut with air; briny pickles and fuzzed-over cherries; three cartons of eggs, not a dozen among them; an olive jar filled with loose pimentos; a half-eaten sandwich in its lazily folded butcher paper; dented apples, softened limes, a styrofoam takeout container with I know not what inside. I stack everything on the counter. Clutter it until the Formica disappears underneath. Let someone else clean up this time. I walk out the front door. Something crunches under my heel. More cat food from our phantom pet? I don’t pause long enough to find out. I go to school at the mall. I know that sounds like a joke but it’s not. I really do. Conway’s original high school—the only one that anyone around here can remember, the one where mom and dad met—was blown away by a tornado three years ago and the new building keeps getting delayed. At first it was because it came out that the initial contractor had some kind of a side deal going with a member of the school board, so…. So then it was because the next contractor was employing illegal immigrants, and people around here don’t like immigrants taking their jobs, illegal or not, even if they are jobs that no one else wants. Now they’re delayed because…. Well, I don’t know why they’re delayed. They just are. Dad keeps saying that he would have been done by now if they would have given the contract to him like they should have done in the first place. For the life of him he doesn’t understand why they didn’t. When I start to tell him it’s because he makes crappy ranch-style houses with uneven floors rather than forward-thinking educational complexes, mom tells me to hush. She doesn’t always know exactly what I’m going to say before I say it but she usually has a sense. I have to give her credit for that at least.
Anyway, the mall. It’s not like we have class in the food court or anything. We don’t take tests with the confused smell of Sbarro’s/Wok and Roll/Mickey D’s thickening the air; we don’t lead oral presentations with an Orange Julius machine whirring in the background. We meet in the mall parking lot, actually. In trailers that sit on deflating tires and that sway when the wind blows hard enough to flutter your hair. Those makeshift offices that you see outside of construction sites? That’s basically where we go to school.
It’s second period, and I am in trailer #3, the ELA trailer, my duffel bag filling the full width of the already cramped aisle. Ms. Jenkins, her hair stabbed with a pencil to keep it in place, holds forth about Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. She says something about the Wife of Bath being promiscuous on account of the gap between her teeth.
The class snickers at the word “promiscuous,” but I don’t really know what she’s talking about because I’m not paying attention. Instead I’m thinking about the idea of a pilgrimage and about what makes it different than just taking a really long walk. I’m starting to come around to the notion that a pilgrimage usually has something valuable at the end of it and that a long walk doesn’t, when I’m pulled out of my thoughts again, this time by someone calling out my name. It’s Ms. J. She holds a slip of paper.
“Cassie. Mrs. Rhodes wants to see you.”
I hear the words but fail to process.
“Cassie,” she repeats. “The principal.”
Voices behind me hiss, “The principal. Oooh, the principal.”
I turn and say, “Shut up.”
Ms. J says, “Cassie.”
I pack up my stuff and shoulder my duffel, which disrupts every desk I pass on the way out. Papers scatter in my wake. When I knock Kenny Simon’s notebook to the ground he whispers, “Bitch.”
I snap back, “Asshole.”
Ms. J: “Cassandra!”
She holds out the referral for me to grab in stride, her eyebrows cocked and hips jutting out a little more than I feel is appropriate. It’s not yet 9 o’clock, and for the second time this morning I leave a room without looking back.
The “Principal’s Office” is not in one of the trailers. In the interest of honoring the inherent authority of an educational administrator (or something like that) they have, instead, converted one of the mall’s security hubs to serve in that capacity. It has all of the amenities of a regular office—filing cabinets, a copy machine, posters of cats hanging from tree limbs (“Hang in there!”)—with the added benefit of also housing a cage that was originally intended for the interrogation of suspected shoplifters.
I am on my way to the cage now, schlepping my duffel across a parking lot checkered with yellow lines but lacking even a single car. The weight of the bag gives me an unintentional gangster lean, the bag-side leg a stiff half-step behind the other. Walking in this morning I felt like those two kids who shot up Columbine. I don’t have the trench coat—or the arsenal, for that matter—but as I carry in my right hand literally everything I need in my life to survive, I can’t help but feel fully prepared for battle, no matter the enemy. My family, my teachers, my classmates, and now, apparently, the principal.
Shell and I skipped class last Friday, which I assume is what this is all about. I’m not normally the kind of student who ventures off campus in the middle of the day, though I’m surrounded by people who are. Some sneak behind the church across the street to smoke cigarettes (or whatever else they can get their hands on). Some head to the Taco Bell on Main to order from a menu that has five ingredients but 30 options.
Some just go home because they prefer the privacy of their own toilet to, well, you know. (I’m serious about this last one. I know this girl who holds it every day rather than using the school bathroom. One or two!) I, on the other hand, have never done anything I’m not supposed to do. Well, not before last Friday, anyway. I had been on my way to the air-conditioned tent that passes for the cafeteria when I felt Shell’s arms tighten around me. He slipped his forearms just under the line of my shirt and interlocked his fingers just over the snap of my jeans. My body puddled, but it wasn’t the right time and definitely not the right place so I wriggled away.
“Shell,” I said, carving out a little space.
“Where you going?” he asked.
“To lunch.” I gestured to a table in the far corner. Amy 1 and Amy 2 were saving me a spot. I waved. They waved back, though the smiles fell from their faces when they saw that I was with Shell. “Where else?”
“Somewhere else with me.”
“But I’m supposed to go to lunch.”
“Skip it.” He said it so simply. Like I had a choice. And for the first time in my life I realized that I did. I shrugged apologetically to Amy 1 and Amy 2 but they already knew.
As soon as they saw me with Shell they knew.
Which brings me back to this makeshift principal’s office. I hand my referral to the secretary, Mrs. Gormely. Her three boys graduated from CHS. They are all Marines now. The American flag that hung behind her desk at the original school was one of the only things that survived the tornado. Everyone said it was some kind of a sign. I never thought so at the time, but I have to admit that, looking at it now, draped in the same spot that it had hung previously only behind her new desk, I do think it pretty remarkable that this flag of all things made it through. Seems to me that a flag would be among the first things to get blown away. But, then again, maybe it’s got a better chance than most on account of being designed to flap in the wind. Maybe it survived because it was built to withstand. Anyway, Mrs. Gormely. She holds the receiver against her shoulder and punches a number on the phone. The line rings on the other side of the cage, not 10 feet away. Mrs. Gormely knows my name but she reads from the slip anyway.
“Cassandra Lowe is here to see you.” A pause, then more loudly: “Cassandra Lowe. Cassie.” She hangs up. “You can have a seat.”
I sit on a military-issue bench. The horizontal grooves make a zzzt sound when I run my nails over them. I do this three or four times but then Mrs. Gormely gives me a look so I stop. I look around the windowless room. It feels like we’re under something even though I know we’re not. Ground or water. I can’t tell which. I adjust my breathing to the chalky air. Mrs. Gormely clacks away at her keyboard. A fan on her computer hums like central air. I’ve never been to the principal’s office before so I don’t know if this is standard operating procedure. Am I supposed to sit and think about what I’ve done, or is she really so busy that she can’t keep our appointment, even though she is the one who summoned me? I decide that I’m supposed to sit and think, but instead of thinking about what I’ve done I decide to think about what I’m going to say.
I figure that denying I skipped is no good since I never bothered to come back.
Attendance records will show that I was there in the morning but not in the afternoon, and there’s no sense in trying to argue against what seems to be indisputable, even to me. A note from my parents? Not likely. And forged? I don’t think I’ve fallen that far yet. Next I consider relying on my good reputation to request leniency. Something like, I know I messed up but I promise that I’ll never mess up again, and if you don’t believe me just look how good I’ve been up to this point. I made a mistake, your honor. I’m sorry. I decide that this approach is likely to get the desired result—a warning at best, a day of after-school detention at worst—but I wonder if this is the infraction that I want to trade for my reputation. Once that veneer of goodness is pierced it’s hard to smooth it back over again. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not planning on doing anything worse than skipping class on a Friday afternoon, but it’d be nice to have the Get Out of Jail Free Card in the event that something does comes up, if not for me, then for Shell. After all, reputation is transferrable, right?
In the end I decide on the catch-all that explains away everything from tardiness to not having read the assignment to spending an entire class with my head on the desk: “girl problems.” The one advantage of being a teenage girl. True, it’s a little less fail-proof with a female principal who has likely used this excuse herself from time to time— I’m sorry, School Board, but I must postpone tonight’s vote because I have, well, because I have girl problems—but, as a euphemism, it could stand for any number of things, not one of which can be disproved. Yes, “girl problems” it is, so when Mrs. Rhodes’ door opens I stand to make my case only to be silenced by the presence of Ms. Admire—Susan—who follows, not two steps behind.
“Cassie,” Mrs. Rhodes says. “You know Ms. Admire.”
“‘Susan,’” Ms. Admire corrects. She extends her hand. I don’t shake it. I don’t know why.
“I am sorry to pull you out of class but we were hoping you had some time to talk.”
Ms. Admire is one of the teachers who everyone thinks of as cool. She wears tennis shoes (black Chuck Taylors), keeps an open dish of candy on her desk (mostly chocolates but some individually wrapped Twizzlers), and has been known to invite students over to her house for an end-of-year pool party (I wouldn’t be caught dead). I’m not even sure she’s a teacher, actually. More like a guidance counselor? Which means that she doesn’t have to give you a grade so she’s more like a friend. Oh and she refuses to go by her last name.
No matter how many times she insists somehow it just never feels right.
“OK… Susan. What do you want to know?”
Remember how I said before that even though our school is at the mall it’s not like we meet in the food court? Well apparently that was a lie, because here we are—Mrs. Rhodes, Susan and me. We’re sitting on basically patio furniture while the mall-walkers, bargain hunters and new moms circle in a continuous loop. They’re like the second hand on a clock that ticks the minutes away. My duffel is tucked under my chair, the heel of my left foot, crossed under my right at the ankles, in constant contact.
They said I could leave it behind but there was no way I was taking that chance. We all have Orange Juliuses in front of us. Well, two orange and a strawberry. Mine is the strawberry. It’s hard to look dignified when you’re slucking from a straw so out of respect I avoid looking at Susan as she finishes her drink before asking, “Why don’t you tell us how things are going at home?”
“I don’t know,” I say. Flecks from her drink pepper her upper lip. Lizard-like, she licks them off. “OK, I guess.”
I hunch over my own drink and play it off with a sip. Slllp. “You know.”
I don’t mean “you know” as in literally you, Ms. Admire—dammit, Susan—know how things are at my home, but the reality is that she probably does or at least that she has some idea. With a population of 20,000, Conway gets pretty much the worst of both worlds: We’re not big enough to be cosmopolitan, but we’re not small enough to be quaint. The problem is that, even though we’re not quirky enough to warrant a day trip, we suffer all of the negative aspects of small-town life: There are no jobs outside of service work, everything closes at 5 except on Sunday when they don’t even open at all, and everybody knows everybody else’s business, whether you want them to or not.
“Speaking of home… how is your mother?” This is Mrs. Rhodes. She hasn’t touched her Julius. Condensation bubbles and slickens the outside of the cup. “No one would ever accuse her of being the smartest young scholar to graduate from Conway High but few students in my time here have better exemplified the Eagle spirit, that’s for sure. I’m sure you’ve seen the picture. The one that was on the front page of the Conway Current when we won State in ’95.” Of course I’ve seen the picture. It hangs above the mantle in our living room, higher than her wedding picture, higher than all of the school portraits of her children. She was a cheerleader then, and she is at the top of the human pyramid, her arms thrust skyward in a crisp V for victory and the wattage of her smile bright enough to light the night. Her cheeks are tan and smooth; her teeth un-yellowed and as straight as tombstones. Apparently some people complained that the football team itself wasn’t featured on page 1, but several others recognized the photo for what it is: a pure expression of Middle American youth, as magnetic as it is fleeting.
“Did you know that that photo got picked up by the AP?”
I stare blankly.
“The Associated Press. They pick up stories and pictures that catch their eye and then disseminate them to newspapers across the country. Your mother’s glowing face smiled at Americans from sea to shining sea. What’s the term nowadays? ‘Viral?’ Your mother was viral before viral was cool.”
I hadn’t known that.
“Listen,” I say, “thanks for the drink and I appreciate you acting like you care about my family and all but can’t we just get on with what you called me here for in the in the first place? I’d like to get this over with.”
Mrs. Rhodes and Susan exchange a glance. Susan pushes away her drink.
Mrs. Rhodes says, “And what do you think we brought you here to discuss?”
“I’m busted for skipping class on Friday afternoon. Right…?”
Judging by the looks on their faces, I think for the first time that perhaps that might not be right after all.
“Yes, well, we’ll have to have to talk about that too, of course.”
“Cassie,” Mrs. Rhodes leans in. “You’re 15 years old, and while I’m sure that feels like a lifetime’s worth of experiences…” I cut her off.
“It is a lifetime’s worth of experiences. My lifetime.”
“Yes, well, that’s precisely what I mean. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own experiences that we fail to recognize that there are other lives being lived that are different than our own but that we have just as much of a right to, nonetheless.”
“You’re telling me that I have a right to a different life? Like, the Constitution guarantees it?”
“I don’t mean a legal right.”
They’re a riot, these two.
“What Mrs. Rhodes is trying to say is that there is the life you are given and there is the life you make and they can be two very different things.”
For the first time I notice a manila folder on the table in front of Susan.
“I’m not here because I skipped class, am I?”
“Cassie,” Susan begins. She leans in and presses her palms together, and for a second I think she is going to lead us in prayer, which wouldn’t be the first time, but instead of talking to God she continues speaking to me. “When someone calls Child Protective Services,” she says, “with allegations of abuse….”
“Whoa whoa whoa. Abuse? Who said anything about…?”
“About misconduct, then.”
“Alleged.” Mrs. Rhodes adds, trying to be helpful.
Susan resets: “When someone calls Child Protective Services about alleged misconduct the county, in turn, notifies us.”
“They just want us to be aware in case we notice anything, uh, off.”
“Whatever that means nowadays.”
I am sitting across from my guidance counselor and my principal. I recently skipped class for the first time in my life. And they are the ones who are nervous.
“Who called CPS?” I ask.
“We don’t know.”
“You don’t know or you won’t tell?”
“All we know is that somebody called. About you.”
“Do you at least know what they said?”
“They said that they were concerned. About your well-being. Your physical well-being. They keep us in the loop just in case we notice anything….”
I cover the bruise on my arm with my hand.
“Off. I know. You said.”
“Listen, Cassie, I know this can’t be easy, not for any of us,” Mrs. Rhodes says.
She looks at Susan, who taps her index finger on the folder. “But the reality is that I am your principal and as your principal sometimes it is my job to have not-easy conversations, especially if I believe that my students are in danger….”
“I told you….”
“Or if I believe that they may not have a safe place to stay when they go home.”
Her eyes fall to my bag. I try to tuck it farther under my chair but it’s no use.
“Obviously,” Susan says, “everyone’s first choice is that you remain with your family, but if circumstances dictate that you need to reside elsewhere….”
“Temporarily, of course. If circumstances dictate then we want to make sure that you find someplace that is stable and safe.”
Susan glances toward Mrs. Rhodes and silently asks for permission to continue.
Mrs. Rhodes answers with a single, sensei-esque nod and I think oh my god Susan is going to ask me to stay with her. She’s going to take me in, like the adorable stray that I am. What do you think about that, all of you popular girls who congregate in her office after school and who ask her to sign your late pass and who stop by her house to show off your dress on the way to the dance? Looks like she likes me most after all. But the invitation to be my new cool mom never comes. Instead, she opens the manila folder to reveal a brochure. It’s folded in thirds, like those handouts at the truck stop, enticing you to stop at one tourist trap or another. Caves where it’s 60 degrees year round. Amusement parks where only suckers pay full price. “Wild Animal Parks” where the wildest thing on display is a mangy zebra with hair as coarse as the hay they don’t feed it. But I don’t recognize the brochure that Susan has kept hidden, not even when she turns it around and slides it in front of me.
“‘Saving Grace,’” I say, reading the words on the cover. “Saving” curves across the top of the page, “Grace” a straight line below. Together they form a setting sun. Or a rising. I don’t know which. I flip the brochure over. Centered on the back are the words: “For in the day of trouble He will keep us safe in his dwelling –Psalm 27:5.” I flip it back over. I see now that maybe “Saving” is meant to be a rainbow.
“So what is this?” I ask. “Like a church or something?”
“It’s a shelter.”
“Like Souls’ Harbor?”
Souls’ Harbor is where the town’s homeless people stay. People who haven’t bathed in I don’t know how long mill about out front. I hope this isn’t a brochure for Souls’ Harbor.
“It’s not a brochure for Souls’ Harbor. It’s like a special place. Just for girls.”
“Girls who don’t have anywhere else to stay.”
“How many times do I have to tell you?”
“Girls who would rather stay somewhere else.”
“Isn’t that all of us?”
“No, Cassie. It’s not. That’s what we’ve been trying to say.”
A baby in one of those bassinets on wheels cries. Her mom sits on a bench and talks on her phone. She pushes the stroller out and back like a yo-yo. The baby keeps crying.
“They don’t have much room,” Susan says, “and they are super-selective about who they let in. But I know someone who works there and I gave her a call this morning, and as luck would have it they have an opening. I’m not saying that you have to make a decision right now, but how about you just check it out. Survey your options.”
Everyone is quiet. Susan and Mrs. Rhodes look at me then at each other then back at me.
There’s an address on the bottom of the brochure. It’s all the way across town.
“How do I get there?” I ask.
“Come on,” Susan says. “I’ll give you a ride.”
Kirby Fields, author of “Shelter Me,” has an MFA in Playwriting from Carnegie Mellon University. His plays have been produced or developed in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City. He is proudest of UP Theater’s production of his play K Comma Joseph and LAByrinth Theater’s reading of Summer Session with the Bones Brigade; an excerpt of his in-progress prose adaptation of the latter was featured on episode 65 of The Other Stories podcast. He is from Joplin, Missouri, and now lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan with his wife and two sons.