Harry’s fingers let me loose a little bit and I yanked my arm away and ran to the stairs. My heart was bouncing inside me like it wanted out. It swished so loud in my ears that I couldn’t hear my footsteps or his. I got to Mama’s room and her closet door was open. I slipped into the dark and pulled the door shut behind me. I fell down on my hands and knees and crawled through the shoes and clothes and trash on the floor.
I found my spot in the corner and pulled my knees up to my chin. I wanted my blankie, and my stomach growled that it was hungry, but I wasn’t going back downstairs. Not until Harry was gone. Not until Mama came to find me.
Wendy never forgets to make dinner. I eat until my tummy’s full, but I hide food in my napkin and take it to the room that I share with Jerry and Sean. Sometimes I look in the kitchen trash can and find food in there too. I hide it all in my room. In a box under my bed, or in my closet inside my shoes.
Wendy breathes out a big breath when she finds it. She almost always finds it, but sometimes not for a few days. ‘Phew, what a horrible smell! Good Lord almighty. River, you don’t need to hide food any more. You get three squares a day here. Don’tcha know that?’ She pinches her nose and throws the chicken sandwich into a trash bag. I had to tear it into three pieces to hide it in my shoes.
I nod and stare at the floor.
Wendy doesn’t squint, and she never hits me, but she looks sad when she finds the food. When I have bad dreams, she shakes me a little to wake me up. She always says, ‘You’re safe here.’ I don’t say anything back. I don’t say anything ever. She’s sad about that too.
But I still hide food, and cry at night, and miss Mama, even if I feel bad for making Wendy sad. Just like I made Mama sad.
I just told my parents what Reid did for Deb last fall. They’re shocked, and grateful, but it hasn’t changed their opinion of him where I’m concerned.
‘He’s using his money to buy you.’ Mom shakes her head, aghast. ‘He has an endless supply of financial resources – as impossible as it would have been for us to pay for that private room, how is it a sacrifice for him? He’s not stepping out on to any limbs for you.’
I peer at her. ‘What do you expect him to do to prove himself to you?’
Her arms crossed over her chest like a shield, she slumps back into her chair and scowls at the tabletop. ‘I don’t know if it’s possible, to be honest. We’re always going to be worried that you’ll end up hurt.’
‘Mom, horrible things happen, and we can’t prevent them. There isn’t some grand destiny controlling it all –’
‘Oh, Dori.’ Dad has tears in his eyes. ‘Have you lost your faith? Have you really?’
I stare at my hands, because I can’t look at him and answer truthfully. ‘Maybe what I have faith in right now is the fact that Reid loves me, and that I love him. And maybe some day that, too, will no longer be true … But we all had faith that Deb would become a doctor. We had faith that Bradford and she would get married, and they would be happy together. She had faith in those things too. I always thought that some day, when I lose you and Mom, I would have Deb to lean on. We’d share each other’s grief. And now, I’ll go through that alone. Or maybe tomorrow someone will run a stop light and you’ll lose me too –’
‘Dori!’ Mom gasps, and I glance up and see the shock on her face. ‘Don’t say that. Please don’t say that.’
‘But it’s true, isn’t it? Deb just slipped and fell, and now her life is basically over.’ At the agony painted on their mirrored faces, I amend, ‘She’s not who she was, and I can’t pretend she is. Nothing is certain. Nothing is preordained.’ Dad closes his eyes, and I hate knowing I’m causing him pain. But I have to make them understand how I feel, so they can learn to accept who I am. ‘All I know is this – I’m loved by my parents, and my dog.’ I lay a hand on Esther’s wizened head and she nuzzles into my hand. ‘And I’m loved by Reid. I don’t want to think about ten years from now, or two years, or next week.’
They exchange a glance, and I know they’ve already discussed their united reaction should they fail to talk me out of him. Their Parental Plan B.
‘Okay, Dori. Okay,’ Dad says. ‘What do you – what do you expect us to do?’
I know that any compromise reached will be strained, but I’ll take it.
‘I want you to give him a chance. You wouldn’t object if everything else in this relationship was identical, but it was with Nick instead of Reid.’
‘Nick doesn’t have a worldwide reputation for womanizing!’ Mom says, her blurted words finding a too-easy target.
My answer is subdued, because of course it hurts to think of all of the girls he’s been with, and all he has access to. ‘Reid didn’t love those girls. He loves me.’
‘You’re darn right he didn’t love them. Or respect them.’ My father shades pink, but doesn’t stop there. ‘How do you know what lies he may have told them to get them into bed?’
‘I only know what he’s told me.’
‘Exactly,’ he huffs.
‘He wouldn’t have to lie, or say an untrue thing, to get girls into his bed.’
Mom eyes me. ‘And that doesn’t worry you just as much? If not more?’
Esther’s muzzle sits lightly on my thigh, her eyes staring up at me, anxious. I reassure my dog with careful strokes, but I can’t convince my parents that their fears are misguided. The atmosphere is unbearably tense, and their protectiveness – a shield behind which I’ve always moved freely – has become a thick bridle. Even as I try to relax within it, I’m pulling against the restraint.