Sample Chapter

Chasing Grace is the story of Cathy Callahan, who runs away from home at age ten to escape her mother’s abuse and to find healing, love, happiness, and God, whom she first met in a Chicago public park when she was five.

She spends the next thirty years looking for all these things in all the wrong places from Chicago, to the High Rockies in Montana, to a dark alley in Reno, to San Francisco. Finally, she turns to face her demons and discovers grace not where she expected, in Chicago with her mother, but in the last place she thinks to look.

Even before she runs away, Cathy is always scanning the horizon for the kind of happiness she can wrestle to the ground, control, and make last forever. Her first glimmer of this is at Immaculate Conception Grammar School. In first grade, she discovers the God of little Catholic children; a loving nun whom she adores; and the church’s array of byzantine rules that absolutely guarantee eternal happiness in heaven. She cannot believe her good fortune!

But almost immediately, in second grade, the system begins to crack. This is the story of her First Communion.

CHAPTER 4

Sister Cyprian was our second-grade teacher. She was ancient and fat, with folds of dark flesh pillowing out from her white wimple. Her eyes were dark brown and set deep in her frowning face. Kids whispered that she was crazy.

It was her job to shepherd us through our First Holy Communion. She had to transform ninety squirming kids in dirty, disheveled uniforms into little angels in white dresses and veils, pressed navy slacks, white shirts and navy clip-on bow ties who marched “quickly, quietly” to the altar rail to receive Communion for the first time—hopefully without fainting, hitting one another, speaking, throwing up, gawking, or committing one of the many mortal sins to which receiving Holy Communion exposed us.

The reason Holy Communion was both so exalted and so dangerous was that once the priest had “consecrated” the thin little wafers of bread by saying, “This is my body. This is my blood,” they were the actual body and blood of Christ! That meant nobody could touch them except the priest. We had to kneel at the Communion rail, bend our heads back, and stick out our tongues at an angle exactly parallel to the floor so that he could pop the little hosts into our mouths without dropping them.

I had only to glance around our second-grade classroom at characters like Terry O’Hara and Sheila Connerty to see how terribly wrong that process could go.

The preparation was an ordeal for all of us, especially Sister Cyprian. In the weeks before the big day, she prowled up and down the aisles as we did arithmetic problems, chanting, “The body and blood of Christ… The body and blood of Christ…” She had a slight lisp and trouble with her “r’s,” which was doubly unfortunate, given her name. Gina Galletti cornered me one day at recess and asked, her brown eyes wide and fearful, “Who is Kwithe?”

Sister brought in some unconsecrated hosts and showed them around. That afternoon, they were just shiny little white wafers about the size of quarters. They looked more like ultra-thin plastic tiddlywinks than unleavened bread, whatever that was. I could not get my mind around them becoming the body and blood of Christ. Which part? The finger? Which Christ? The Baby Jesus? The mostly naked man hanging in agony on the Cross atop the blackboard in the front of the room?

This particular magic trick was a hard sell, even to those of us who were eager for more God, more lore, more power. We looked at Sister with slitty eyes, unable to mask our skepticism. Terry O’Hara asked, “S’t’r, if you cut open a consecrated host, would blood come out?” My question, exactly! I could easily imagine Terry stealing a consecrated host, running it out to the parking lot, laying it down on the blacktop, and slicing it open with the switchblade knife he had shown us at recess.

Now it was Sister’s turn to squint. She was nowhere near as canny as Sister Mary Celeste had been.

“No one knows, Terence,” she said enigmatically, letting a silence fall as we each pondered our own version of the priest tripping and accidentally dropping the gold-lined cup, or ciborium, in which the consecrated hosts were kept, and hundreds of tiny white wafers falling all over the marble sanctuary floor and bursting into bloody little bombs, and the blood flowing down into the pews and flooding the church, and everybody squishing home in blood-soaked Mary Janes and saddle shoes.

“It is a fate too horrible to contemplate,” Sister said quietly. She relied on this phrase a lot. Without Sister Mary Celeste’s ability to read minds, she had no way of knowing if people were asking real questions or just being “smart-alecky,” so she fell back on something that evoked a general sense of uncertainty and dread.

Every year, the solemn First Communion ceremony was marred by mortifying, and often messy, incidents. Kids burst into tears, overcome by the thought of God seeping around amid the rubber bands and metal of their braces. Others fainted from hypoglycemia, since you couldn’t eat or drink anything except water before Communion. Still others suffered nervous gag reflexes and vomited. Medical emergencies were common among First Communicants, and Sister did her best to ward off the worst of them by suggesting that if you suffered one, it was because the Devil had entered your body and your mind. Another tough sell, since suffering was usually encouraged.

“Let Sister know if the Devil has entered your stomach and you feel unwell,” she said, holding aloft a small plastic bucket that she had decorated for the occasion with white crepe paper, a large white satin bow, and a small crucifix.

When the big day actually arrived, I was torn between the thrill of having God actually inside my body (Would I see the bright all the time? Would I stop lying to everybody and being two people?), concern about what would actually happen to the host once I swallowed it (I had reached “Digestion” in the Encyclopedia Britannica), and most importantly, how to keep looking holy and perfect even if the host got stuck to the roof of my mouth. (We had done some practice rounds with unconsecrated hosts and experienced first-hand how easily the this could happen with the glutinous little wafer.)

At the moment when the host was actually placed on my tongue, God was the farthest thing from my mind. I just kept moving the wafer around in my mouth so it wouldn’t stick anywhere before it melted. I didn’t feel much of anything, let alone experience the bright. Mostly, I just focused on Sister’s final, dramatic admonition before she released us into church for the big show. As we stood waiting in the back vestibule, she pulled herself up very straight, drew in her breath, raised her arm with one finger pointing to heaven, and said so loudly that many of the people sitting in the back pews heard it and turned to stare at us, “And don’t chew the Baby Jesus!!”

It was a good thing our First Communion was in the spring, because the stress was too much for Sister Cyprian. The next week, she dislocated Denny Quinn’s shoulder after she caught him stealing Pagan Baby money. We never saw her again. Rumors flew that she had been sent to a home for insane nuns.

For the last two weeks of school, we had Sister Mary Celeste. She questioned us over and over about the lead-up to our First Holy Communion and the incident with Denny, implying that Sister Cyprian’s breakdown had somehow been our fault. Her first-grade class was given to a novice sister who left the convent that summer and moved to California. Sister Mary Celeste stopped calling us “little children” and started calling us “people.”

“People, you are in for a rude awakening in third grade! You will learn the multiplication tables and long division, and Sister Patricia Marie will not coddle you!”

Denny slumped in his seat, cradling his arm in its sling, and shot Terry O’Hara a dour glance. I caught Lisa’s eye and smiled. After all our academic and spiritual triumphs, and with the certain knowledge that no two people understood or played the system as well as we did, it would take a lot more than multiplication, long division, or Sister Patricia Marie to scare us.

*

Sister Patricia Marie was a little rabbit of a nun. She was barely five feet tall and had a white face, watery blue eyes, a pink nose, and a pinched mouth. If I stood on tiptoe, I was taller than she was.

She did not coddle us. She taught us the multiplication tables and long division, but there was something about her not towering above us that made her seem less magnificent and powerful than Sister Mary Celeste, and less scary than Sister Cyprian.

It made for a rather dull, workaday year. We learned more about Holy Mother the Church, got better at kickball, solidified our friendships and cliques, got more smart-alecky and also better at disguising it, put on inches and pounds, became more adept at managing both our schoolwork and—with the help of more sophisticated math—our sanctity status with the Church.

I developed the habit of doing long division problems with numbers that ran all the way across the page to pass the time while Sister explained things for the fourth time to the dumb kids. It made me feel a little like Ghost Girl, but that was okay. I didn’t mind Ghost Girl coming to school sometimes. She knew how to blend in and stay out of trouble—and was really good at putting her feet on the Arthur Murray footprints, even at school.

I had a lot more information about God now, more do’s and don’ts and magic tricks, but I hadn’t actually felt the bright much since first grade. In fact, I hadn’t felt it at all. More and more, it seemed like God was something way far away and definitely outside me, not something that swirled around inside me like the bright had. Knowing that God was the most important thing, and having less and less access to Him, made me even more nervous than I usually was.  I wondered if maybe God didn’t let me feel the bright anymore because He didn’t traffic with girls who stole and lied, and then sent poor Ghost Girl home to deal with Mother.

Sister Patricia Marie’s most memorable words were spoken on the sweltering last day of third grade: “Next year, people, you will have Sister Agatha. Sister Agatha has lived in New York!” She paused and scanned the room from atop her desk riser. Whatever she was trying to tell us, we weren’t getting it. She followed up pointedly with, “People from New York are different from those of us with Midwestern roots.” Again, a swing and a miss. “Your horizons will be broadened!” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded good.

*

I had that summer pretty well covered. The librarian at the Wilder Park Library had helped me sign up for “summer camp” programs on “Arts and Crafts” and “Nature Lore.” Between that and swimming classes at the Elmhurst public pool, I would be away from home most of the day.

Home didn’t change much. Ghost Girl had become very skilled by her third year in the driver’s seat there. She didn’t feel at all, rarely thought except about things in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and managed everything pretty well. She was solid even when Lisa’s mother came to pick me up for a “boy-girl party” at Terry O’Hara’s house. Mother stood at the door with her arms folded as I went out in my party dress, which I had borrowed from Lisa’s older sister and which I thought made me look very pretty for the first time in my life. As I passed in front of Mother, she hissed, “You look like a basketball player!” Ghost Girl just stared at her and walked out the door.

The problem was that in the summers, it got confusing who was Ghost Girl and who was me. Before, the difference had been that I felt the bright and God, and she did not. Now that the bright wasn’t around, I started to worry that somehow over the summer I might sink into Ghost Girl, and she might sink into Dead Girl, before I realized what was happening. A little string of fear started growing inside me like the line of mold in our garage. More and more, I blamed God’s absence from my life on the darkness that Mother saw in me. If she were right about that, she might be right about everything. If that were the case, there was no hope for me.

In July, Sheila Connerty died in a car crash. She and her mother were on their way down to Bloomington to visit her grandparents, and they had a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Lisa said, “She’s happy with God in heaven.” I flashed on all the time off Purgatory that Sheila had piled up by sitting in the cloud of chalk dust in Sister Mary Celeste’s class. That night, as I lay in bed watching the stars out my window, I wondered where Sheila really was. Her body was already starting to rot and turn to dust, but where was Sheila? I tried to imagine her in heaven with God, smiling and eating ice cream, but the picture wouldn’t come.

Most of our class attended Sheila’s solemn high funeral Mass. I knelt at the consecration of the hosts, determined to get back to where I had been with God. I wanted desperately to feel the bright again, but Ghost Girl didn’t like being pushed aside and kept trying to make me go numb. During Communion, she made me start thinking about getting together with the gang in the parking lot after Mass, and about how she might like to start coming to school with me more. Before I knew it, Mass was over and I had lost my chance to connect with God again.

That same summer, I started having dreams that woke me up at night. Mother was coming into my closet again—only I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move even one little finger, or get up into the cracks in the ceiling. Other times, I was standing inside an enormous Mason jar with holes in the lid, like the ones people used to catch lightning bugs on hot summer nights. Mother was pouring water into the jar. The water got higher and higher. I swam and swam. Finally, my head pressed hard against the top of the jar, but the holes were too small to climb out and the water came up over my nose so I couldn’t breathe. I jerked awake all sweaty.

In other dreams, I raked her over and over just like Dad did with leaves in the fall, only the rake was really sharp. Her skin came apart and flew into the air. Then her blood spurted all over me until, again, I couldn’t breathe and woke up gasping for breath.

I couldn’t deny my darkness when I startled awake like that. I hated it, hated that I didn’t know how much of me was the darkness and how much was something else, maybe something good. Hated that I didn’t know how to fix it, kill it, lose it, or somehow become better than it. Hated that I didn’t really even know what it was. On the other hand, I was pretty sure Mother and I were the only two who saw it. The two of us and, of course, God.

When school started, the dreams came less often. I was determined not to let Ghost Girl push me around anymore, and to spend the year getting back my closeness with God. He would either have to take away the darkness, or get used to it. I thought about finding a way to fool Him, too, but realized that was impossible. Besides, I was exhausted. I didn’t think I had it in me to keep one more plate spinning.

*

Sister Agatha and I turned out to be kindred spirits, even though she was from New York and did not have Midwestern roots. She was just a little older than Sister Mary Celeste—and very athletic, smart, and matter-of-fact. She often leaned back in her chair reading a novel by Charles Dickens or Henry James while we copied our multiplication tables over and over in our notebooks or “worked ahead” in our new fourth-grade history books. Sometimes she took the eraser end of a pencil and idly scratched up under her wimple as she read, pulling forth bright red hair when she withdrew the pencil. She had pale, pale Irish skin like mine. I thought she looked like I probably would look at her age. She often gave us extended recesses and, when there were no other nuns around, took a turn at kickball herself.

Now that we were in fourth grade and expected to know certain things, like that the Earth was round and 7 times 9 was 63, we actually did study subjects other than Religion. Still, Sister Agatha was always ready to toss out the Revolutionary War in favor of our increasingly complex, and increasingly sexual, questions about Religion. Sister Agatha loved rules—the more byzantine, the better—so Holy Mother the Church was just the place for her. The more sexual our questions became, the more deliciously arcane the Church’s answers got.

Helen Pulaski, a lanky, morose girl who looked like she’d been born in one of our school uniforms, asked unexpectedly one afternoon during History class, apparently apropos of Washington crossing the Delaware, “S’t’r, if you were riding in the car with your mother and thinking maybe you might kiss a boy if you had the chance, but you were pretty sure you wouldn’t have the chance, and then as you were crossing the railroad tracks a train hit you and you died instantly, would you still go to hell, even though you were on your way to Mass and planning to buy your mother a rosary at the church store?”

“Of course,” Sister replied, barely looking up and flicking a speck of dust off The Infant of Prague, a chubby little Baby Jesus with a miniature crown and red cloak. Helen might as well have asked if 6 times 8 equaled 48.

Sister Agatha believed that both good and bad behavior deserved instant, dramatic response. I guess she figured that if she could balance our “records” a little here on earth, God wouldn’t have so much to do when we died. If we behaved well or gave some promise of one day mastering the 12-tables in multiplication, she could be jolly. Sometimes she even read to us from one of her novels.

If we misbehaved, the results could be sudden and electrifying. One day that spring she caught Mary Frances Kennedy reading a Wonder Woman comic book when we were supposed to be writing the names of states on a blank map of the United States. There was a brief tug of war, which Sister won, then a moment when Sister realized she was holding the scantily clad Wonder Woman in her very hand, and then a terrible smashing of the comic book into the waste basket.

“You and your impure magazines!” she sputtered. “Sins of impurity…sins of disobedience!” She made MaryFran hold out her hands, palms up, and whacked them three times with the ruler. Hard. Then, after a slight hesitation, two more times. She pushed MaryFran back into her seat, turned, and strode to the front of the room. MaryFran whimpered softly. I had an urge to pat her trembling shoulder, but thought better of it.

*

The next day, Sister gave a pop quiz in Catholic Geography, which was supposedly far more accurate than regular Geography. I was delighted. It would showcase a brilliant system I had designed that year for passing notes in class. Mostly, the note-passing system was just a way to show everybody that I wasn’t a goody-goody, even though I was smart. Plus, I was kind of bored and tired of being perfect—or pretending to be perfect. Long division wasn’t as fulfilling as it once had been.

The note-passing system was based on a procedure that was already in place. Whenever assignments or tests were passed out, the first person in each row took a sheaf of papers from Sister and walked down the row, placing one on each person’s desk. What my note-passing system added was that the “passer” surreptitiously collected from people in his or her row little scraps of paper with vital messages scrawled on them: which boys “liked” which girls that week, speculations on what the nuns did and wore when they went back to the convent after school, and invitations to “come over” after class.

The “passer” deposited all these notes in a miniature mailbox made of three-hole lined notepaper, slung under the desktop of the last person in the row. (The little mailboxes weren’t necessary, but they highlighted the cleverness and bravado of my scheme.) When the last person in the row collected the tests or assignments, moving from back to front, he or she distributed the notes. The only flaw was that you could only pass notes to people in your own row, but I was working on that.

That afternoon, the first person in each row took a handful of pop Catholic Geography quizzes and walked slowly down his or her aisle, handing one quiz to each kid. Three people in my row slipped tiny scraps of paper to the “passer,” who left them in the little mailbox under the last person’s desk.

The quiz asked us to match two columns: Places and Saints. A tiny bend of the Mississippi River was where St. Isaac Jogues had gotten his fingernails yanked out. Maryland was where Fr. John Carroll had founded the first Catholic Colony. The quiz was a snap, even with many of the saints under consideration peering over our shoulders. I finished early, and started a long division problem that stretched the width of my notebook paper.

“STOP!” Sister cried, as if we were contestants on The $64,000 Question and our futures rode on these quiz scores. “Collect the papers!”

The last kid in each row stood and moved forward, picking up quizzes and delivering the illegal notes. I had advised them to sort the notes according to where people sat, so that they would always be delivering the top note, and to hold the deliveries in their left hand while they collected papers with their right. Some kids didn’t seem to get this, even when I demonstrated it at recess, but there was only so much you could do with the kids Sister called “dumb-bunnies.”

Suddenly, a scuffle broke out over in Row 7. Squeaky O’Connor stood over Helen Pulaski’s desk, pulling on her test paper as she tugged at his note-carrying hand. In the confusion, five tiny wads of paper scuttled to the linoleum. Leave it to those two!

Sister was on the scene so quickly I hardly saw her move.

“John O’Connor, stand back! Helen Pulaski, stand up!” Squeaky edged back, staring in horror at the scattering of crumpled notes on the floor. Helen pulled herself up and glared down at him. Sister’s eyes moved slowly from the floor to the other kids delivering notes—who now stood frozen in the aisles, trying to hide their fistfuls of wadded scraps in their pockets, under their belts, or down their shirts. Terry O’Hara raised his hand to his mouth and started eating his.

Sister often reminded us that she was “not born yesterday.” She grasped the situation immediately. A plot of gigantic proportions had been hatched against her authority, against the link she provided to us with Holy Mother the Church, against God Himself. Squeaky and Helen were now only small dots on an infinite field of black. Her gaze shifted from Terry, to Denny, to the other usual suspects. Somehow, she seemed to sense that they were not to blame.

She moved from one standing kid to the next, holding out her hand for evidence. Each kid deposited on her palm a nest of sweaty little scraps of paper. She glided to her desk and placed the notes in her top drawer. She wanted us to know that they would be read later, and perhaps trigger a second wave of her anger.

“Who is behind this?” she asked darkly. Nobody moved a muscle. She waited. Silence pulsed through the room, palpable and terrifying. Adrenaline shot in electric lines from my stomach all the way out into my toes and fingertips.

This could not be happening. I had only intended to have some fun and keep people from thinking I was a goody-goody. It had seemed so innocent. I had never thought about how it would look through Sister’s eyes, and I didn’t see why I should take the blame for something I hadn’t really intended. Maybe I wouldn’t have to. I could wait this out, as long as nobody ratted on me.

“Everyone take your seats,” Sister said in a low voice. The shamed note-deliverers skulked back to the last seat in each row. “Whoever is behind this has committed a mortal sin—worse than a mortal sin because it was calculated to make fun of God. And Sister! Calculated by some evil and devious mind…a mind taken over by the Devil! Whoever has done this, stand and confess your sin!”

I would not, could not, have my connection with Sister severed. I might not be feeling God’s presence much lately, but my whole life rested on IC and its trappings. Without that, I was nothing. Worse than nothing. I was Mother’s. It felt like my soul was shriveling into a dark wrinkled thing the size of a pea. I stopped breathing. Part of me wafted out the window and sat on a branch of the tree just outside, looking in on the horror.

“Who was it, Lisa Delgado?” Lisa stood and stared at the floor. I knew I should confess and save her, but I couldn’t. “Then you are as guilty as that person! Who is it, Helen Pulaski?” Helen stood and stared at the Blessed Mother, obviously seeking intercession. It was clear that Sister would go all around the room, calling each kid to his or her feet and asking the question. With each kid who committed a “sin of omission” on my behalf, my Purgatory got worse. It might already be hell. How could I have done this? What had I been thinking?

At some point, she was going to call on me. Neither I nor Ghost Girl was capable of standing up, looking Sister in the eye, and telling a huge, mortal-sin-level lie. Maybe I could redeem myself by confessing. She would have to admire my courage, at least. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I raised my hand. Sister’s eyes bored into me, and she nodded without speaking. I stood and said, “It was me, Sister.”

She stared for a long minute, then picked up the red plastic ruler and began walking slowly toward me.

“Class, Cathy Callahan has been fooling us. She has tried to make us believe that she was a good student, a good child of God—but we see in her the Works of the Devil. Works of the Devil!” She smacked the ruler against the side of my head, so hard I almost fell over. “Hold out your hands.”

I held them straight out, palms up. The red plastic ruler rose in the air and sliced down onto my hands. Up, and cut down with a soft whistle. Pain seared up my arm. Up again, and down on my forearm. She hit my hands and the insides of my forearms eighteen times, as hard as she could. The counting kept me from passing out. Red bumps started rising on my arms, and smears of blood oozed around them. I was far outside myself, but tears still rose in my eyes.

Finally she stopped and stood staring at me, breathing hard, her face contorted and deep red. I looked at the Blessed Mother, not for intercession but so I wouldn’t have to look at Sister.

“Your sin is so large that God may not forgive it,” she said, not screaming anymore, but loud enough for everyone to hear. “It is even worse because you did not confess immediately, but let your classmates suffer.” She shoved my shoulder. “Do you understand?” she yelled.

“Yes, S’t’r,” I whispered.

What?!”

“Yes, S’t’r,” I said more loudly.

“Go home now. Sister Thomas Aquinas will call your mother. She will want to see you and your parents tomorrow, I am sure. Leave us!” she said with dark finality.

I looked around the room. Nobody looked up at me, not even Lisa. I walked out to the parking lot in a daze. My arms stung and throbbed. I considered making a Visit to the Blessed Sacrament to ask what to do, but I would not be welcome there. I slunk past the huge wooden doors of the church, under the eyes of the cement angels, away from IC.

*

My mind was all static and white noise, flying out in every direction. The welts and cuts needed mercurochrome, or at least washing, but I couldn’t go back to the girls’ washroom. I was damned in the eyes of Sister, the Church, and IC. Maybe even God. Probably God. I couldn’t show up at home until after school was out, or Mother would get suspicious. Maybe I couldn’t show up there at all, if Sister Thomas Aquinas had put in her call.

So I walked. Through Wilder Park, past the greenhouse and playground and library, heading in the general direction of 221 Fairgrove, my arms held out a couple inches from my body, my mind screaming things I couldn’t quite hear. It made me dizzy to look at the slow swelling, the beginnings of purple splotches under the crisscross of dark red stripes.

On Grove Avenue, a sprinkler swung a huge fan of water lazily back and forth over someone’s front lawn. I stood at the end of the sweep and held out my arms. The blood thinned and dripped into the blades of grass. When I looked up, a curtain fell back across the window where a lady had been watching me. The door flew open and she came toward me across the lawn, frowning. Maybe to help, but I couldn’t take the chance. I ran. For five blocks, until I had to stop and catch my breath. I hid in some shrubs until I saw kids walking down Elm Park Avenue. School was out.

I took the back way to 221 Fairgrove, edged along behind the garage, and washed my arms again with our garden hose. It hurt, but it was a good thing to do. I grabbed my bike and headed away from the house, pedaling fast and trying to think. My arms were deeper red and purple now, with pinpricks of blood and yellow liquid still pushing out of the welts. They burned and ached at the same time.

As I pumped farther and farther away from the house, my situation slowly began to sink in. Everything at IC was over. Holy Mother the Church, Sister, God, indulgences, heaven, the bright, everything. Even if the school took me back, I would be an outcast. Sister would treat me the same way she treated Terry O’Hara, like a rat who had somehow gotten enrolled in school with the good little children, but who didn’t belong there. I couldn’t go back, even if they let me.

All I had left now were Mother and Ghost Girl. That was worse than nothing. Without the connection to IC and God, however tenuous it had become, I would sink quickly into Ghost Girl, then into Dead Girl, then into whatever terrible state was beyond that.

From my left, down Prospect, a dog barked frantically. Then, a sickening moan. I stopped. Sweat gathered on my face and legs as I leaned forward on my handlebars. Halfway down the block, I spotted Brendan Higgins, a skinny redheaded kid from our class who caught baby squirrels and pulled off their legs. He was running across their front yard with a big stick, chasing something. I rode slowly down the other side of Prospect and stopped two houses away. He had Maxine, their collie puppy whose tail fur he had brought to school, trapped under a manicured hedge against the white picket fence between their yard and the neighbors’. He was stabbing viciously at her with the stick, and there was blood on her shoulder.

Maxine could have run sideways along the fence, under the hedge, until she cleared the yard and was free in the street—but she didn’t. Her high-pitched yelps made me shiver. Tingles crawled all over my body and I felt dizzy again.

Then, in one breath, I knew exactly what to do. I rode back to our street, hid my bike in the bushes four doors away, and walked as normally as I could up the concrete steps to our front door. The house was dark and cool inside, and smelled like furniture polish. I ran upstairs and changed into navy shorts and a white T-shirt. I grabbed my red jacket from the front hall closet and crept through the living room. I could see her out the window, in the back yard, digging in the garden. Frowning, pushing dirt on top of purple petunias, slapping it down with a trowel.

Her purse was on the hall table. My hand was moist and shaky as I reached inside for the sharp-edged black wallet. A flush came over me as I pulled it out and opened it. I took every cent, $36.87. It was like someone else was doing it, somebody older, smarter, better prepared, and more practiced.

That person moved back into the living room and took the photo album down from the bookcase, carefully extracted a picture of my dad and me, looking at one another and smiling, and stuffed it into my pocket next to the money. I moved silently out into the sunlight.

My knees felt liquid as I pulled my bike from the bushes, ripped the clothespin and playing card from the wheel, pressed them into the dirt beneath the bushes, and rode away.

At the stone quarry, I covered my bike with gravel and made myself walk, not run, out to Route 83. Outlaw skills seemed to come easily to that older, smarter person inside me. I hid in a field of tall dry prairie grass and watched the cars fly by, thinking that some of them must be on their way to Colorado or Montana, or at least Wisconsin. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time by the side of the road with my thumb out. A ten-year-old hitchhiker in a red jacket attracted attention, even if I was tall for my age and looked much older. I had to avoid regular people in family cars. They would turn me in, and I’d be dragged off to jail—or worse, home.

I climbed up to the road and crunched slowly along the gravel shoulder as if I were just taking a walk, but meanwhile sizing up each oncoming car out of the corner of my eye. A beat-up old red pickup truck looked okay, so I stuck out my thumb—but too late, and not like I meant business. The truck whizzed by, and the driver craned around to look at me.

I had to get off the road, fast. A white truck with PIE painted on it came barreling toward me. A whole truck filled with pies! I took it as an omen, stepped out into the road, and waved both arms above my head so he either had to stop or run over me. The truck screeched off to the shoulder, leaving black skid marks on the hot pavement and sending up the sharp smell of burning rubber.

I ran to the cab. The driver frowned down at me. His face was lined and deeply tanned, his hair dirty, gray, and longer than I’d ever seen on a man.

“Whatsa matter with you, kid?” he bellowed.

“Please, please, I need a ride right away!” I tore off my jacket and held up my arms. “Somebody beat me up and I have to get home!” He narrowed his eyes.

“What am I supposed to do about it?” He scanned the field, I guess looking for an adult who was attached to me.

“Take me HOME!” I screamed and started to cry. “PLEASE! PLEASE!”

“Pipe down!” he yelled. Then, after looking around again, “Come around the other side.” He opened the cab door a crack, and I was up the steps and beside him in a flash, crying more now and holding out my arms. He looked at them, lit a cigarette, and stared out the window while he took a couple puffs. Then he looked back at me.

“Where do you live?”

“Where are you going?” I glubbed through the tears.

“North Side.” He was going into Chicago! The wrong direction! Still, I was off the road. He could at least take me out of Elmhurst, and I kind of knew my way around Chicago. Or I could figure it out from the little maps at the El stations.

“Me, too.” I sobbed.

“What’re ya doin’ way out here?”

I started crying more loudly and wrapped myself around the red and blue anchor tattoo on his right forearm.

“PLEASE! PLEASE! Take me home!” I screamed incoherently, at the top of my lungs. That seemed to get to him.

“Pipe down! Okay, okay. I’ll take ya home. Stop crying!” He put the truck in gear and we roared back onto the road. I huddled against the passenger door, sobbing quietly and sneaking peeks at Elmhurst trailing away behind us out the window. I felt empty, relieved, excited, and terrified all at the same time.

I quieted down to reward him and buried my face in my hands, hoping he’d just leave me alone and drive. It worked for about three minutes. Then he started in again. Parents. “The Smiths.” School. “Public.” The more questions he asked, the worse my answers got, and the more he smoked. Each time he flicked a Winston out of the red pack, I thought he was going to kick me out of the truck.

“Whereabouts on the North Side?”

“You can drop me anywhere.”

“Yeah, but where?”

“State and Madison.” Even I knew that wasn’t on the North Side, but it was the only street corner I could remember. He looked at me sideways and lit another cigarette.

“Kid, I don’t know what you’re up to. I do know you’re lyin’. I’m takin’ you to the cops.”

“No! If you do, I’ll tell them you kidnapped me!”

He thought a minute, then said, “You’re comin’ with me.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. Sister had warned us that most strangers, especially Protestants, were intent on selling us into white slavery. It wasn’t clear what white slaves did, but it was very bad and smacked of impurity. Maybe I should jump out of the truck, run back to Sister, and demand to be taken in as a nun in training so I would be held safely in God’s arms forever—but I’d made them hate me. They had seen the dark thing inside me. Instead of being Sister’s pet and God’s favorite, I was the prisoner of a grisly stranger, bouncing around the cab of a truck rumbling toward the North Side of Chicago.

He revved the engine and we started going faster. I couldn’t do anything until we stopped, but then I’d make a run for it. I could outrun any kid at school, and I bet I could outrun him. As we entered the city, rickety old buildings started to fly by—dark brown brick and cement, dingy gray wood. We wound through neighborhoods with signs in Italian and German, old men sitting on stoops in their undershirts with beers dangling from their fingertips.

He looked over at me and glared.

“You got me in some trouble, and now I gotta fix it. Shit!” He slammed the steering wheel with his palm. I stared straight ahead and pretended not to hear. Just like Ghost Girl would, except I felt alive. Scared, but alive. He turned on the radio real loud, then snapped it off, lit another cigarette, and slammed the steering wheel again.

I had no idea where we were, but the signs over stores got grimier and the streets got more potholes. He pulled into a big lot surrounded by a chain-link fence, and parked so fast that before I realized what was happening, my door was slammed right up against the metal fence. I couldn’t open it! The only way out was through him, on the driver’s side. I lunged like a football player, but he caught me by the shoulder of my jacket like he’d expected me to make just that move.

I pulled and squirmed, pushed and kicked, but he grabbed me by the shoulders and put his face two inches from mine. I winced from the cigarette smell. He said, very low, “Listen to me. Shut up and calm down. You just pretend like we’re friends while we walk over there.” He gestured up the street. “One peep out of you, I’ll call the cops and they’ll throw your ass in jail so fast… You hear me?”

I nodded.

“Anybody asks, you’re my niece. Right? Okay?”

I nodded again. He grabbed my wrist, almost like we were holding hands but so I couldn’t slide away. We walked up the cracked, dirty sidewalk past a bar with a neon “Pabst Blue Ribbon” sign sizzling in the window and people laughing and yelling inside, past a launderette, and past “Mollie’s Bakery” into a narrow alley. I would have run at that point, but his hand was too tight around my wrist. He started dragging me up a grimy putty-colored staircase that climbed up the back of a dark brick building.

I did not want to be inside with him, and flashed on the wolves who gnawed off their legs to get out of traps.

“Let me go!” I screamed, and pulled hard at my hand.

“You want the cops?”

Maybe I should let him call the cops—but they would take me home for sure, and I might as well be dead if that happened. I shook my head. On the second landing, he knocked on the door. I was shaking and grabbed the wood railing. I could throw myself over it and carry him with me to the alley, but it was too far down. I would never survive. He knocked again, harder this time.

The door swung open. A large woman in a floor-length jade green silk robe stood with one hand on her hip, the other holding a cigarette and an amber-colored drink with a maraschino cherry bobbing on top. The robe was covered with tiny red and black dragons and open at the top so her powdery white breasts spilled out. She looked about as old as my mother, but with blue-black hair piled on top of her head, red rouge and lipstick, and spider-web mascara. My mother would have called her “brassy.” She looked from him, to me, and back to him.

“Good Lord, Stan, what have you done now?”

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