Letters from Richmond | Blogmas 2017

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By Olivia J Bennett

December 20th, 1934

The only thing bright that December were the lights.

Candles light up both wrinkled and smooth faces, ground with unwashed dirt.

Even the warmth of a hearth or bustling storefronts couldn’t melt the division between the people who had enough food to eat, and those who didn’t.

Many houses along my street didn’t even put up lights, because then that would only mean a larger sum on their electrical bill.

But the thing I noticed, was how not even the brightest Christmas lights could reach our eyes, for five years of fearing for your livelihood did something strange to the American population.

But that night, in that small diner in Kentucky, the light did reach my brother’s eyes. And for that, I’m grateful.

~

Benjamin fishes around at the bottom of the milkshake with a french fry. “Aw man, did you eat the cherry?”

I pucker my lips and bite into another fried chicken leg. “No.”

“You did, didn’t you?” he exclaims, tossing a french fry across the booth.

“Okay, okay, I did,” I tell him, smirking.

Ben narrows his eyes and slams his hands down on the greasy counter. “I get it next time, Hazel.”

I roll my eyes and take a sip of my cola. “Okay.”

“Promise me, you twit!” he says.

“I promise,” I playfully sneer at him.

Peering at me, Ben sits back, slurping the milkshake.

I lean forward and tug on his newsboy cap. “Why the long face?”

Ben shrugs. Someone drops a dish in the back and the following sounds of disdain echo throughout the empty diner.

“I dunno,” he shrugs. “Do ya think mom and dad will be mad at us for goin’ out?”

I chew on the end of the chicken leg, my stomach sinking. I don’t want him to be worrying about that junk. “Probably,” I say, holding up a few bills. “But this is my own jack I made myself.”

Ben laughs, his red cheeks puckering up. I smile. Something warm rises in me. Even though Dad hasn’t had a job in 3 months, I’m glad Ben can find it in him to laugh. We’re tight as it is – Ben and I probably won’t get this luxury again for months.

I’m tempted to leave a tip, but I’ve only got ten cents left. My stomach churning, I stuff the coins in the pockets of my faded print dress.

“Let’s go, Ben. I’ve still got school work to catch up on,” I say.

He wrinkles his nose, and some of his freckles disappear into his face. “Alright. I’ll go ask if Charlie wants to play checkers or somethin’.”

We slide out of the booth, but as I reach to get my coat,  something thick and hot sears down my dress.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Miss Hazel,” William, the waiter, exclaims. He immediately grabs his towel and reaches to wipe the chili off my dress.

My hands burning, I back away from him. “No, I’m fine,” I say through gritted teeth.

William wrings his hands. “Please, Miss Hazel, let me help ya.”

I smile at William, my face nearing a grimace, which is strange because I usually take a fondness to him. “No, William, I’m fine. I can do it.” I grab one of the napkins and begin rubbing furiously at the sauce seeping into the blue flowers on my dress.

“Uh, oh,” Ben says, and tries to pick some beans off of my skirt.

I glare at him. “Ben, I’ve got this. You just run along home now.”

Ben frowns. “I’m not gonna walk home in the dark.”

I breathe, looking out the diner windows. The neon lights illuminate the falling snow. “Alright, wait here, then.”

I storm off to the bathroom. Pulling off paper towels, I turn on the sink, cleaning my dress as best I can.

Looking up, I peer into the grimy mirror. My face is flushed pink, and my dishwater blonde hair has lost its sheen.

Something sparks inside my gut. It’s just chili, Hazel. You probably made William feel awful – and he’s a swell guy.

I grab the hem of my dress and flap it up and down, attempting to dry it. Frowning, I realize – it’s not the dress that bothers me.

It’s the way the endeavour drew the whole joint’s attention. It’s the way William rushed to help me, grovelling at my feet, when I damn well didn’t need it.

I can clean my own skirt.

Sighing, I stuff the last of the paper towels into the garbage can.

Exiting the bathroom, a handful of people in the diner turn to see me in my cream and blue dress, stained a ruddy brown. An old man at the counter slurps his coffee, eyeing me.

Sighing, I give William a bashful tip of my cloche hat. Ben shouts after him, “Bye, William!”

“Abyssinia, kids!”

~

I tug Ben’s hat further down around his ears. Street lamps and Christmas lights cast soft shadows on the mounds of snow. We walk home, but Ben won’t stop bumpin’ his gums.

Our home, a small ranch in the suburbs, glows warmly. Giggling, Ben and I slip in the back, as to not alert our parents that we’re coming home after 7 pm.

Their voices rise to the surface even before we make it inside. I press a finger to my lips, making saucer-eyes at Ben. We crouch behind the stairwell, peering into the kitchen, lined with cream tile.

“-what do you even do all day, huh?” Ma shouts.

“Honey, there are no jobs here-” Dad hisses.

“Well, go somewhere else outside of Winchester! Lexington, Mt. Sterling, somewhere!” she shouts, but then reels back. “You had a job in Lexington for a while; go and see if you can find somethin’ in the Apple!” Ma throws her hands up. Boy, when mom’s angry, she’s a real live wire. I know from experience.

Dad rubs his temples. “I’m trying, honey. It’s just no one wants to hire a middle-aged man who’s been a motor vehicle engineer for thirty years! Kentucky’s got enough a those.”

I swallow, my insides worming and writhing. Ben grabs my hand. Dad’s really not getting his job back. They laid him off a while back – they said it was temporary, so we acted like it was temporary. He’s still been job hunting, but with no luck.

Ma crosses her arms, pops out a hip. “You’ve seen the bills piling up, right?”

Dad hardens. I glance at Ben, make sure he’s doing okay.

“Soon enough, we won’t have enough savings to pay for this damn house. We can’t pay to fix the roof,  I’ve used up all the fabric in this house making clothes for that growing boy of yours – for heaven’s sakes, Ben’s barely got any shoes!”

Ben squeezes my hand. I glance over at him, and his eyes are wide, infused with fear. I press my lips against his ear and tell him that everything’s going to be alright.

I hear the clacking of Ma’s spectator pumps – the ones she insists on wearing in the house even though we’re definitely not the kind of family who has ‘inside shoes’ and ‘outside shoes’.

My stomach twists – for a second, we believe she’s found us out and she’s coming over to us – but she just corners Dad even more.

“Food stamps aren’t enough, George. I have no more ways to provide for this family, and it sure seems that you’re not willing to help.”

Dad says nothing. Ma’s given up – I can hear it inflected in every syllable of her voice.

Ben squeezes my hand again, and I look down at him, crouching in the darkness. He shakes his head, almost crying now. I haven’t seen him cry since he broke his arm three years ago.

I nod, and we escape up the stairs, the old wood creaking in protest.

I put Ben to bed, and I blow out his kerosene lamp – ‘cause we haven’t had electricity in months. Even though he’s twelve, I lay with him until he falls asleep, listening to the shouts and biting words one level below us.

~

Without knocking, Ma comes into my room. She’s in her nightgown and undoing her pin curls.

“Yes?”

“How much of that did you hear?”

“Enough,” I say, picking at some loose threads on my quilt.

“I’m sorry, Hazel.”

I look at her up and down. Back in the day, my ma was a looker, a roundheels kind of gal. Married my dad because he was a lover with silver cufflinks. Two kids and two decades of homemaking has worn her down to a nub of a person.

“It’s fine.” I feel my hands clamming up, my legs getting restless. The candle inside my stomach rears its ugly head.

Ma sighs, and I can’t tell if it’s because she’s frustrated with me or with Dad.

~

I crack my window and light a gasper. Ben’s face won’t get outta my head. I keep seeing his fear, feeling his fingers between mine.

Moments flash through my head as I suck back the tobacco smoke.  Moments of sneaking my bread roll to Ben under the table because Mom controls the food like a hawk and he needs the nourishment more than I do. Moments of skipping school, walking with Ben to the rich neighbourhoods of Winchester, pleading if we could sew, clean, pull weeds, anything for a dime.

Moments of desperation that don’t deserve to poison Ben’s childhood.

I change into my nightshirt and breeches, and lay on my threadbare rug, letting the cold, December air fill my room. The ashes at the end of the cig burn my fingers, so I toss it outside. Watch as it melts a hole in the snow.

Staring up at my ceiling, I finger the small, gold necklace around my neck. Gold.

My Grandmother Margaret gave me this for my sixteenth birthday, two years ago. Only the matriarch of this family could afford such a luxury.

I sit up, something buzzing at my fingertips.

A widow with old money, Grandmother Margaret lives in Richmond, Virginia. She never approved of Dad’s marriage to Ma, but she still sends us letters and expensive gifts frequently.

She will help us – why hasn’t Dad thought of this, already? I light another one from the deck and pace my room. Grandmother probably hasn’t sent us anything because she doesn’t really know how bad it is.

She hasn’t helped us because of the way my ma’s got a streak of white trash in her.

But if her two adored grandchildren show up at her doorstep with pouty lips and knobby knees, she can’t refuse. I know Grandmother’s got a heart under all those mink coats and pearl strings. She wouldn’t send Ben kits to build wind up cars and planes, and she wouldn’t have sent me a typewriter if she didn’t care.

I pull down my leather briefcase from above my closet. I pack two print dresses, along with a pair of pants and a blouse. Shoes and socks. Undergarments, hairbrush, toothbrush, and a journal with envelopes. My cloche hat.

Sneaking into Ben’s room, I grab some of his clothing and stuff it into a backpack.

Winding my alarm clock to 5 am, I sleep, bleary-eyed and restless.

 

December 21st, 1934

I shake Ben awake. “Hey,” I whisper.

Ben rolls over, eyes fluttering. “What?”

“Get up. We’re leaving.” I toss him his tweed coat.

“Huh? Where?” he murmurs, pulling on his cap.

“Somewhere . . .  fun.” I hand him his backpack and an apple to chew on for the ride.

We creep down the stairs, sneaking cans of food into our pockets. I grab some blankets and toss them into the back of Dad’s truck.

Ben shivers in the cold as I brush the snow and ice off of the red, faded truck.

Richmond is only 6 hours away; we’ll be there by nightfall, right? Right.

The rust on the faded, red door falls to the driveway. I crank the front of the car until it starts humming.

Running back to the front seat, I push down on the shift pedal and turn the key. But the engine grumbles and groans.

Ben climbs into the back, curling under the blankets. I crank the key harder, but the car only whines at me.

“Shit,” I hiss, slamming my palm on the dashboard.

Ben abruptly sits up. “You need help? Dad taught me how to-”

“No, it’s cold, Ben.  Third time’s the charm . . .”

I take the key out, let the old truck breathe. I hop back out, crank to get the engine revving again. Jamming the key back in, I give it one last go, and finally, after moments of sputtering, the metal beast roars to life.

In the orange-gray dawn, Ben and I drive east, towards something better.

~

A small red bulb clicks on around 30 minutes into driving. An empty tank.

Ben sits up from napping in the back. “Aw, man.”

I shake my head, trying to stop my hands from trembling. “No, no, we can stop at Mt. Sterling to get gas.” I heave in a panic, but there’s nothing but thick, black smoke that fills my lungs. God, I hate myself.  Why didn’t I check the tank before leaving?

I see Ben shrug from the rearview mirror. “Sounds like a plan.”

Three minutes later, the engine of that rusty Ford pickup wheezes to death. The mile marker says that we’re only 4 miles outside of Mt. Sterling.

I guide the rolling car to the snowy shoulder of the two-lane road.

Ben jumps up and down, climbing into the cold daylight. “Oh, neato! We can hitchhike like those hobos in the talkies!”

I frown at him, but by his sneer, he knows I’m not actually mad. Walking in the snow at 7 am is not the most effective mode of transportation.

Every time a car zooms by, Ben jumps up and down and sticks out his thumb. Yet the shiny black automobiles continue to pass us by.

Ben slumps. “You sure this is a good idea, Hazel?”

“Yes, Ben,” I frown. “Aren’t ya having fun?”

“I mean, kinda. I’m just cold.”

I take the scarf from around my neck, and Ben presses it against his pink cheeks. Maybe we shoulda waited until later in the day. I can’t even keep Ben warm without the car.

Ben has resorted to jumping up and down and waving his arms every time a car passes by. I let him do it because I concur it’s the only thing keepin’ him from freezing.

It’s nearly eight am now, and Ben and I huddle together as we shuffle across the snow-laden shoulder of the road.

Brakes squeal beside us, and I wrap my arms around Ben’s shoulders, pulling him out of the way.

“Well, if it ain’t Hazel Thompson,” a young man’s voice says as he cranks down the window.

Warren Simmons holds a cigarette between his teeth as he peers out of his truck at us. My jaw drops – I haven’t seen him since sophomore year, day after he turned 16. Rumor has it that his parents put him in the military so they didn’t have to feed him. Guess we all thought wrong.

“Warren? Where’ve ya been?” I exclaim. Ben pokes his head inside the window, trying to reach the warmth from inside the car.

“Workin’. Traveling around the Greater Lexington area,” he says. “Get in, will ya? Why are you two on the side of the road like a pair of cats?”

“Thanks, Warren!” Ben shouts and hops into the back. He adjusts his cap eagerly.

“It’s a long story-”

“It’s ‘cause Hazel broke Dad’s car!” Ben interjects. Warren jolts the car into drive.

“Is not! We just ran outta gas, that’s all.”

“Well, where you headed?” Warren asks, turning on the windshield wipers.

My first thought is to lie to him. I haven’t seen him in three years – he could be a hood from all these years on the streets.  

It’s a little late now – we’re already in his car.

“Eventually, we’re going to Richmond because that’s where our grandmother lives,” I say. I was going to continue, fabricate a story, but at this point I’m just sayin’ nothing.

“How’re your parents doing? Why ain’t they with you?”

I said  it’s a long story, Warren.”

He shrugs, tosses the butt of his cigarette out the window. “Sorry for asking.” A silence as long as the road fills the car. Warren turns on the radio in the background. “Since it looks like y’all are traveling alone, my friends and I have got a place just outside Mt. Sterling. You can stay there for the night, get rested up. Hell, we can probably even point you in the right direction.”

I light a cig and crack the window. “Thank you, Warren, but I’ve gotta consult with Ben first. He’s the chief ‘round here.” I turn around and tug on his cap, and he sneers at me.

“Damn right I am!” Ben says.

Warren laughs and turns up the radio, running his fingers through his brown hair. I laugh and toss my half-smoked cig out the window. Maybe Warren’s alright.

~

Around lunch, we start driving in the backroads, where trees bookend our sight and the roads are nothin’ but tracks of dirt and gravel.

Canvas tents reinforced with insulation and the smoke from a fire peel out from the white and brown woods. Someone’s decorated the tents and surrounding trees with holly, garland, and a tattered red ribbon.

“Welcome to our own, personal Hooverville,” Warren says, stepping out of the car.

I scratch my head. “So you’ve just been a few towns over this whole time?”

“Yup.”

Ben runs ahead of us, leaping over snow banks. A dog barks within the circle of tents.

“We all thought you was out helping the military with relief efforts. Like with those service project things they always advertise on the radio,” I say, nudging Warren’s ribs.

“If only,” he says, ducking under a branch. Loose snow rains down. “Then I wouldn’t have to sleep in the damn cold every night.”

I chuckle, but then realize that he’s not shuckin’ and jivin’ – they really do sleep in the cold.

And I realize Ben and I will have to sleep in the cold too.

Tucking some dishwater blonde curls up around my numb ears, we enter the camp. It’s just a clearing with about three tents. Patches of worn ground indicate that two others were recently taken down. A muddy golden Retriever bounds around a small campfire, chasing a boy about Ben’s age. I recognize the boy as Frankie, Warren’s younger brother of 14.

I motion to Warren. “Why’s Frankie here?”

He chews on his words for a moment. “Says he likes it. Doesn’t have to listen to Mom and Dad out here.”

I suppose the conversation’s over because Warren walks away.

One of the tents rustles, and a young, colored woman climbs out. By her gait, not her face, I’d put her in her mid-20s.

“Ya pick up some more street cats on your way back in, Warren?” she calls out to the truck.  She turns to me. Ben’s nowhere to be found. “Jean Martin. I’m the resident entertainment in this fine establishment.”

I shake her hand.  “Hazel Thompson, resident, uh . . . runaway. Ben, my brother, should be around here somewhere.”

Jean smirks at me. “Welcome to the place where taxes don’t exist.”

~

Everything happens real fast after that. We settle into a tent, and Jean picks out a melody on an out of tune guitar.

By that point, the cool, winter sun has begun its descent, and the shadows start growing long faces.

Warren gives us older ones a can of soup each, and the boys one to share. We warm them over the fire.

By the way the paths have worn down, by the number of bindles in the corner, I can tell there have been others. “Is it just you guys? You sure we’re not stealing someone’s tent for the night?” I ask.

Jean gnaws on her tarnished spoon. “You wanna take this one or should I?”

“Nah, I got it.” Warren looks to me and Ben, the latter who hangs on to Warren’s words like they’re ghost stories. And they very well might be.

“Lots of folks come and go, but we had a guy who pretty much founded this place. James, he said his name was.  He’s probably 28 now or somethin’. Said he was sick of sleeping on the dirt, sick of traveling from town to town making shit dough. Sick of freezing and starving in the winter. So he stole a ring from the jeweler’s back in October. Got himself locked up in the Big House on purpose.”

Warren sucks on the end of his cigarette like he can’t breathe. I look over to Ben, whose eyes are wide, glittering with engagement. I elbow him, and he frowns, looking less excited.

“I’m sorry, Warren.”

He laughs bitterly and tosses the butt of his cigarette into the fire. “It’s a long story, Hazel.”

Jean clears her throat. “Yeah, he tried to convince us to come ‘long with him. Fought with Warren ‘bout it for weeks. We didn’t want six months in the hoosegow followin’ us around.”

I stare into the fire, trying to will its warmth around me. “Makes sense.” Ben snuggles close to me. I think it’s finally sinking in to him, too, that we’re really not at home, and we’re not going back. Not for a while.

I look up and see Warren nearly glaring at the fire. His eyes are rimmed with an angry red. I want to say something, but words escape me like the smoke from the fire that wafts up into the night sky.

Warren breaks the silence by slamming his empty can down onto the frozen earth. “What a sonuvabitch.” He storms into his tent, the stiff canvas cracking in the wind.

Jean scratches her head, smirking at me. “He gets like that. Give ‘im half an hour or so, and he’ll be back.”

I pick at the threads on my coat. “Thanks, Jean.”

“You shred it, wheat.”

~

Jean and I clean up, and she sings along with the radio, blasting from Warren’s car. She and Frankie swing dance for a while, and she invites me in, but I shrug. I’m a dead hoofer anyway.

I sit near the fire, watching Ben, Frankie, and Jean all hoppin’ to the music from the Christmas big band. Ben laughs, smiles, kicks a ball and rolls around in the snow with the dog.

This is what he deserves. Somethin’ real, somethin’ free. Not the turmoil from this jaded age.

But he’s also twelve and needs a mom and dad.

I open up my journal just as one of Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats start up. Mr. President’s crackling and charismatic voice fills the spaces between the bare trees.

Grandmother,

I hope you are doing well. You probably won’t get this letter before our arrival, but you know me. I still feel the need to write this.

Ben saw me writing this letter, and wants to tell you that he’s grateful for the board games. We all are.

On another note, life on the road is somehow better and worse than I thought it would be. Reconnecting with Warren is nice, and Jean . . . well, Jean’s something else. I think you’d like her.

Regardless, I’m excited to see you. I love you, and Ben does too.

Thank you in advance. See you in a few days. Maybe we can go window shopping like we always do.

Love,

Hazel

Sure enough, Warren wanders out. By that point, both Jean and Frankie are asleep.

“I believe that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment of what Americans have always been doing — a fulfillment of old and tested American ideals.”

Snow falls softly as Ben and I wrap ourselves in layers and layers of blankets. We wear our pajamas, coats, gloves, scarves, hats, and all of the socks we brought, and still, Ben’s nose turns pink and my teeth chatter.

“The artistic lines of the White House buildings were the creation of master builders when our Republic was young. The simplicity and the strength of the structure remain in the face of every modern test. But within this magnificent pattern, the necessities of modern government business require constant reorganization and rebuilding.”

I rub his shoulders, and he curls in closer to me. “We’re gonna be okay, Ben.”

“I believe you,” he says. Pause. The biting wind leaks into holes under the tent. “I just miss my own bed.”

“We know that the principles of harmony require that the building of the new structure shall blend with the essential lines of the old. It is this combination of the old and the new that marks peaceful progress in building government itself.”

“Me too, Ben.” I consider for a moment. “Do you want to go home? We still can.”

“It is a good thing for everyone who can possibly do so to get away at least once a year for a change of scene. I do not want to get into the position of not being able to see the forest because of the thickness of the trees.”

Ben bites his nails, and I take his hand out of his mouth, fumbling in the darkness. “No.”

I wait for him to tell me why, but he just rolls over and uses my shoulder as a pillow.

“While I was in France during the War, our boys used to call the United States “God’s country”. Let us make it and keep it ‘God’s country’.”

I hear Warren turn the radio off, and the warm, encouraging voice of Mr. President disappears from the air.

 

December 22nd, 1934

When I finally unfreeze my limbs and climb out of the blankets, Ben’s nowhere to be found.

I sit up, already feeling the cold leeching the heat from my body. We have to make tracks today, continue on to Richmond.

I suppose Warren could take us back to Dad’s truck, but then it would just be me and Ben, for another 400 miles.

There’s a discomfort I feel when I think of making this trip alone. It’s sinking in that this was a massive undertaking that I probably should have brought gas money for. Maybe I could convince Warren and Jean to come with. Maybe there are better job opportunities in Virginia for them.  

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t ask them to tag along because I need them there. Just for . . . moral support. For their own benefit.

Hopefully Warren and Jean like the way I sweet-talk.

I change into my pants and blouse and tuck my knee socks in. My cloche hat and a pretty ascot scarf. My oxfords. I assume that Ben has already changed, so I pack up all our stuff into a bindle.

The two sit around a fire, and I hear the shouts and barks of the boys near the stream.

“Morning,” Warren says, already gnawing on the end of a cigarette.

“Well, ain’t you a kitten,” Jean says to me, eyeing my outfit. Narrowing my eyes, I can’t decide whether she’s teasing or whether she’s really being cruel.

I huddle by the fire. Warren hands me a can of potato soup. “So, Ben and I still need to continue on to Richmond.”

He nods. “Yeah, I know.”

“I mean, this is actually really great and I’d love to stay, but, you must know I can’t,” I plead.

Warren smirks at me. “Actually, none of us know why, but that’s beside the point.”

I grimace at him. “Well, we’re headed to Richmond, but we’re without a ride-”

Jean peers at us. “You tryna bum a ride off us?”

She sees right through me. Might as well drop the facade. “Not exactly . . . just, tell us how to get there and we’ll be outta your hair.”

Warren glances over at Jean, who’s got her fists all balled up. “Hell, we could even go with ‘em. East coast has got a lot better opportunities than this middle-of-the-road state.”

Jean rolls her eyes and ties her hair back in a strip of denim. She grabs Warren’s elbow and drags him off to the side.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t at least attempt to eavesdrop.

I hear nothing of merit, though, and the two come back over.

Warren smiles. “You’ll still have to convince Jean, but Frankie and I are in. Jobs are scarce ‘round here, and I’ve shoveled every damn driveway and sidewalk in a fifty-mile radius.”

I jump up, clasping my hands. “Thank you so mu-”

He cocks his head. “Nothin’s been decided yet, dollface.”

“Right.” I smooth my tweed pants.

Warren goes to the stream to fetch water, as well as deliver the news to Ben and Frankie, while I attempt to sweet-talk Jean. I take a handful of cans and silverware and dump them into the tub of water, kneeling down next to Jean.

“If you’re over here to try and convince me, it’s a lost cause, blondie,” Jean snaps.

I smile, slightly uncomfortable at the reference to my locks and my intentions. “Well, you’ve got me there.” Jean gives me the side eye. “Actually, I came to ask about you. I know a little about Warren, but how’d you get to this place?”

Jean shrugs. “What’s it to ya?”

I chew on that for a moment. “‘Cause I’ve gotta know why my fellow woman is out here. There’s gotta be more like us.”

Jean laughs through her nose, and white puffs dance in the air. “I didn’t really run away. My parents just stopped providing for me when I was eighteen.” She stands, brushing snow off of a blanket and folding it up. “Especially since I wanted to be a musician.” Jean suddenly drops the blanket and puts her hands on her hips, falling into character. “No daughter of mine is going off an bein’ a radio canary! Not in this economy you won’t, Jean Martin!”

The facade drops, and Jean turns sour again. “That was my dad, ironically a lazy sonovabitch.” Jean twirls some of her coils, and for a moment, I see her charisma, her passion, and ultimately, her pain under all that barbed wire. “They stop providing for me? Then I’ll stop livin’ under their roof. So I’ve been on the road for four years. Four long years of waitressing and cleaning during the day, and performing all night, makin’ a name for myself. It don’t matter though. They still don’t want nothing to do with me.” Jean says, rubbing her soapy hands dry on her pants. She laughs, spitefully. “I dare you to find a story better than that in your pretty little life, Hazel Thompson.”

And the thorns are back. She tosses me another dirty can, and I peel off the paper label. “I don’t have a better story than that, Jean Martin.”

~

Warren comes back with Ben and Frankie in tow. He stands in the center of the camp and stomps out the fire.

“It’s been decided. We leave for Richmond today.” He pauses as Jean shoots him a look. “There’s no harm in it, Martin. Hell, maybe someone’ll find your croonin’ voice desirable along the way. It’s not like we’ve got anything tying us down.”

Jean lights a cig as Warren begins taking down his tent. “You’re off your rocker, Warren Simmons.”

~

In town, Warren lends his car – and his dog –  off to a friend, a middle-aged man with skin like leather. The encounter ends as fast as it begins: a slap on the shoulder and a few words exchanged over the butt of a cigarette.

The man, whose name I learn is Ernest, drives us back into the forest, where the road crosses the tracks. He turns around and gives us a half-toothed smile. “Watch out for those brass hats. They’ll drag ya off to the coppers if they catch ya.”

Everyone else hops out of the truck, but I stay behind. “Thank you, Ernest.”

The man smiles through his gasper. “No skin off my nose, flapper girl.” He shakes my hand. I climb out, and Ernest drives away.

The rails have been cleaned out by passing trains, so the trenches are piled high with the white stuff, stained gray from coal. We walk along the rails, quiet. Ben and Frankie skip and hop along the planks of wood, chasing each other in circles.

Jean, Warren, and I keep silent, always looking over our shoulders for a stream of smoke and a small, yellow headlight.

Maybe an hour or so goes by when Warren tells everyone to hush. We freeze, and Ben grabs onto my hand.

Warren tilts his head towards the white and brown forest, and we scramble off the tracks.

About five hundred feet away, the train appears in the clear, cold day. Warren peers over at me as we crouch in the snow. “Listen up. When the train comes by, we’ve got one shot. Since there’s a road just up ahead, the train should be slowin’ down. Only transport trains ride these rails, so we oughta jump onto an empty boxer.”

My eyes widen in horror. “We’re jumping onto this thing?”

Jean sneers at me. “Yeah, how else did ya think we’d get on.”

I ball up my fists under my gloves. “Alrighty then.” I turn to Ben, whose nose has flushed pink. “You think you can do that, kid?”

He nods, ferociously.

“Alright. We climb out when the engine’s passed, then we run. Doesn’t matter what car you get onto, as long as we meet up somewhere,” Warren says.

The train whistle pierces the thin air, and the smoke crowds out the snowbirds in the trees. We crawl forward. My nervous body heat melts the snow below my outstretched stomach.

Jean elbows my ribs. And then winks at me.

I swallow. Man, what an enigma. “Thanks.”

Jean rolls her eyes. “Run, dimwit.”

Warren and Frankie sprint forward, and my stomach lurches. The rest of us run out onto the gravel as the train speeds by, going at least 35 miles per hour.

Which doesn’t sound fast, but trust me, it is when you have to grab onto a rusty metal pole on the end of a blurry train car.

The brakes squeal, and Frankie and Jean disappear into the whizzing train, jumping into car doors that have slid open.

My hair unfurls from under my felt hat. The snow, the cold, doesn’t seem to slow as the wind whips past us. “Ben, go, now!”

He inches as close as he can to the track and then leaps up. My insides twist for the split second he’s in the air. But then he too flies by, safe, on the train.

I stare up at the train, watching the metal and wood beast fly by.

I can’t do this.

Warren and I are the only ones left. He gives me wide eyes. I look to my left and see the caboose crawling up on us.

“We have to go! There’s a boxcar with an open door approaching. We’ll take that one,” he says, bending his knees.

“I can do this.” I grit my teeth.

“Damn right you can,” Warren says. But then he grabs my hand, and I peel it away.

“No, I can jump on just fine.”

I look over to see Warren crease his forehead, but the car – and the end of the train – is coming on too fast.

The iron wheels spit sparks, and Ben, Frankie, and Jean scream at us to jump.

And so we do.

Warren throws himself in head-first, but I’ve hesitated a split second too long. Careening forward, my upper body barely makes it into the boxcar. I kick at the ground as my legs drag along the sharp gravel, and my knees are so close to the wheels I can feel the heat radiating off of the iron.

Warren spots me as I claw at the wood, and he scrambles over. We lock eyes and hands, and immediately, I regret everything. Immediately, I hate myself for that single moment I took to let go of his hand the first time, and I hate myself for hesitating.

Warren strains as he pulls me up, and I kick at the gravel.

I collapse onto the wood, heaving, as the strips of white and brown forest fly by. The panic, fluttering like a flock of birds’ wings, slowly leaves my gut.

“What in God’s name was that?” Warren exclaims, helping me to my bloody and wobbly feet.

I stand up straight, feeling every scrape ring up and down my body. I sigh. “I’m sorry.”

I slump against one of the boxcar walls and some cold sacks of potatoes, while Warren paces back and forth, grabbing at clumps of his hair.

“I cannot believe you! That was so unbelievably stupid!” Warren shouts, breathing hard.

I wince as I pick a piece of gravel out of a gash in my shin. “I’m aware.” All I can do is watch as Warren has a cow, grumbling and kicking over sacks.

He eventually calms down, and sits on the floor of the boxcar, across from me. My cheeks turn into tomatoes.

“Whaddya think would have happened if I hadn’t jumped on that car? No, what woulda happened if you didn’t jump on this car? Would you have left Ben behind just because you thought you coulda done it yourself?”  he says, cocking his head at me.

Dabbing at my scrapes, I avert my eyes and stare out the door.

“You’re not gonna talk? Fine then, I’ll just dry up.” Warren stands and looks down at me. “Well, are you gonna just sit there, or do you wanna find the others?”

I take his hand, and he pulls me up.

~

The five of us congregate in a boxcar in the back for a few hours. Warren checks a roster to see where the train is headed, and he says that if we move to a car in the front now, we’ll make it to Richmond just fine.

The second boxcar has a shipment of apples. Ben and Frankie play rock-paper-scissors while Warren, Jean and I all kind of just sit around, gnawing on the fruit.

“Good to know y’all finally made it,” Jean smirks, but her voice tells me that she’s only being half mean.

Warren raises his eyebrows. “No thanks to Hazel.”

At this point, I’m too exhausted to fight back, so I just glare at him.

He shrugs.

I tuck myself in a corner of the boxcar, pushing open the slatted wooden door. The winter sun fades to orange, turning the snow a sparkling pink.

With each bump of the train car, I feel a pinch in my heart, realizing that we are traveling further and further from Kentucky, further from Ma and Dad.

Still, I wonder if this was a bad idea.

I look over to Ben, smiling and laughing with Frankie, looking out of the boxcar with bright eyes, and I do feel alright about it. Maybe it’s me just trying to justify it to myself. Maybe it’s something else.

“Jeez, Hazel, don’t think too loud,” Jean says, smirking at me. Her brown eyes sparkle as she crouches by me.

I rub my eyes, sitting up from my stiff position. “Sorry.”

She hands me a strip of cloth. “The cut on your left leg is still bleeding. Bandage it up, would ya? I can’t bear lookin’ at it any longer.”

I reach behind me and open up my bag. “No, that’s alright. I’ve got some cloth-”

Jean rolls her eyes. “Goodness, girl. Just take it.”

Pursing my lips, I take the fabric. Wrap it around my leg. I ain’t a damn charity case, Jean.

Warren’s sleeping across the boxcar, I think.  

Jean catches me looking at him. “Don’t mind him. He blows his wig way too easily.”

I smirk. “Sounds about right.”

“I can hear ya, you know,” Warren says, sitting up. I look over to Ben, who has fallen asleep sitting up. Frankie wandered off somewhere, but Warren doesn’t look too worried.

“We weren’t exactly whispering,” I say.

Warren sighs.

Jean looks between the two of us. “What happened back there? It seemed to be more than Hazel just dilly-dallying.”

I bite the inside of my cheek and laugh spitefully. “I didn’t want Warren’s help gettin’ on the train.”

Jean frowns. “That’s whack.”

“Yeah, I know.” And then, to Warren. “What I don’t understand is why you’re so damn mad at me. Me being this way ain’t no skin off your nose.”

Frustratingly apathetic, Warren shrugs, curling his lip. “‘Cause I thought we were gonna miss it. And I thought I was gonna leave Frankie on that train.”

My words come off my tongue like fire. “Well, you didn’t have to wait for me.”

Jean, who I kinda forgot was still there, stands. “This sounds like private matters, so I’m gonna scram.”

With no acknowledgement, Warren jumps back in. “Yeah, well I did wait for ya. There’s no taking that back.”

I swallow. I think about not sayin’ it. But then I do. “It sounds like you’re mad at yourself, then.”

“Don’t you tell me how to feel, Hazel Thompson,” he snaps.

“Okay.” Pause. “I’m sorry.”

“Damn right you are.”

~

The frozen moon turns the snow bluish. The trees become black paper cut-outs.

Jean brings back an armful of potatoes, and we eat those and some apples for dinner. We all huddle together, arm to arm, to try and conserve our warm breath.

Later, Ben and Frankie turn over and sleep. Warren keeps watch, and he lights a cig. Jean plucks on her guitar.

“We should be in Richmond by 9,” Warren says.

“Sounds good,” I say. He doesn’t respond. Not sure why he would at this point.

Silence. The cracks and rumblings of the train. The occasional whistle that always sends us hushing our voices.

Warren sits on the edge of the boxcar, opening the door, hanging his feet over the edge. The gravel whizzes by.

I get out my own cigarette, and he holds his out for me to light it with. “Thanks.”

I inhale the warm tobacco. Blow it out as it trails out of the boxcar.

“You know, Ben was so excited to take this little vacation. I . . . didn’t think we’d end up here,” I say, looking at Warren’s unwashed face that is silhouetted by the moonlight.

Warren shrugs a laugh. At least that’s some semblance of warmth.

I sit up, and my tailbone aches from sitting on the stiff wood. “Ben thought this would be an adventure. I don’t think he’s understood yet that this ain’t a movie. We really need help and we really ain’t going home any time soon. Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Haven’t crushed his dreams yet.”

I’m not sure why I’m rambling. The words started, and now they don’t seem to want to stop.

Unresponsive, Warren twists around and looks at Ben and Frankie, on their bedrolls. “Ben’s taking a liking to Frankie. Seems like they’re having a gay old time.”

I smile, drawing circles on the wood grain with my grimy fingers. If my fingers look like this, I can only imagine what my 2-day old waves look like. “Yeah. I wonder if they knew each other in school.”

“Yeah.” Warren tosses the butt of his cigarette out of the car, and lights another. The conversation burns out like the end of my cig. “So what’s in Richmond, anyway?”

Smirking, I wrap my coat tighter around my body. “My grandmother’s this wealthy socialite in Virginia. We . . . need money, and she’s got lots of it. I’m planning on sweet-talking her, as I often do,” I say, laughing at myself a bit.

Warren fortunately finds this amusing as well.

“Our house will probably be foreclosed soon . . . so I wasn’t about to let that happen.” I shrug, suddenly ashamed and out of words.

Warren smiles, amused. “You’ve got guts.”

I furrow my brow, confused for a moment. “Thanks.” I toss the rest of my cig out of the boxcar. Swinging my legs over the side, the cold air cuts through my pantyhose, shredded to pieces at this point. “So, are you going to tell me somethin’, now? You’ve heard why I’m here.”

Warren sighs, staring out into the cold night. “Sure, I’ll tell ya something. It’s a sob story, though,” he says, looking over at me.

I shrug, smile, and tell him that I can take it.

He sighs heavily, preparing to speak. “It was late 1931. You and I, we were sophomores, and the depression was hitting my family hard. You know how it is: you find ways to get by, until you can’t anymore.”

Smirking, because I very much do know how it is, I think back to two years ago. My world consisted of journalism, butterfly sleeves and sleepovers with my friends. I try and remember Warren back in ‘31. Who he hung around with, what his hobbies were. And suddenly, I have an image of him cracking a bat at a baseball, riding his bike home, and staying silent in class.

I look at him now. How irrevocably different.

Warren scratches his head, stumbling for words. “So, my parents approached little sixteen-year-old me, and said:”

He puffs  up his chest and drops his voice. “‘Son, you’re almost a man now, and that means you’ve gotta provide for this family too’.”

The facade drops. “So, they sent me away to find work elsewhere. Gave me all my stuff in a little suitcase and sent me to Lexington and made me promise to send ‘em as much money as I could.”

Warren laughs, spitefully. “And hell, sometimes I still do. Eventually, Frankie joined me. Then James found us and we’d been living in that little camp ever since.”

I’m not entirely sure what to say, because his jaded voice doesn’t match with his normally detached, gruff demeanor. He seems shaken up, different, ever since the boxcar incident.  So I ask: “You seen your parents since?”

“Nah.” He shakes his head, as if to clear the thoughts. “I’ll bet you this cigarette that my dad’s been sitting on his ass for 3 straight years,” he says, holding up the little white tube.

I take it from his hands, and twirl it in between my fingers. “Three straight years. That’s a long-ass time,” I say jokingly.

Warren laughs, and then he laughs some more. Of course, I can’t help but join in, and then it’s just the two of us, howling with laughter, legs swinging off the edge of a boxcar, three days before Christmas.

What a strangely beautiful sight.

~

The whistle wakes Jean up at around 8. She strums a Christmas carol on her guitar as Warren curls up to sleep.

“I wonder as I wander out under the sky,”

I open up my journal to a new page, and start writing.

“How Jesus my Savior did come to die,”

Mother,

There’s no need to worry about me and Ben. We’re safe, and I’ll make sure it stays that way by the shirt off my back.  I hope you’ve read my letter I left for you- if you have, then you’re aware of what I’m doing.

Already, I can sense your doubt on my claim and my ability to keep Ben safe, and I can assure you that I have and I will. Myself on the other hand – well, I’m a little worse for wear.

“For poor on’ry people like you and I,”

I’m sorry for leaving you and Dad the way I did and for causing all this confusion and whatnot. But I’m not sorry for leaving. I stand firm on my conviction, and truly, isn that all we really need in life?

Warren – you remember Warren, right? The Simmons’ kid? Well something happened, and in so many words, he told me that I’ve got a problem, and that problem is that I don’t want help from anybody. That I want to do it all myself.

And . . . he’s right, Ma. I guess I get it from you.

“I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

Ben and I miss you guys, We love you, and we’ll be okay.

Love,

Hazel.

I address and stamp the envelope, slip the letter in, and stick it in my jacket pocket.

Soon enough, the station approaches. I wake everyone up, and we jump off the train, just out of sight of those brass hats and station masters.

Bleary-faced, we keep our eyes on the train amidst the others. Once all of the crew has checked out and left for the night, we sneak back on, curl up with the apples and potatoes, and sleep.

 

December 23rd, 1934

“Alright, kids,” Warren says as he paces along the dirt, just outside of Richmond. Jean rolls her eyes at the condescending name. “Jean, you scope out the art community. Find playhouses, theaters, joints with entertainment, see if any of ‘em are sponsored by FAP. Frankie and I’ll look around for any jobs that need done, as well as any places that are hiring.”

And then Warren looks to me and Ben, raising and eyebrow. “And you two. Y’all go find what you came here for.”

He sneaks a smile in there, and maybe, after everything, he’s forgiven me for the stunt I pulled with the train.

Warren glances at his watch. “It’s 12 now. We meet back here at 5pm. Be sure to bring back something.”

Ben and I conquer the something part first. We barter off some clothing for food.

Later, in a public restroom in the back of a restaurant, I smear the grime off of a mirror. I comb through my oily hair, change my hosiery, and clean my face. Try and make myself look as presentable as I can.  I know Grandmother won’t let us in her house if we look like street rats.

Swallowing, I pinch my cheeks to give them some color. Seeing myself in the mirror, the flame, the small candle of anxiety burning at my diaphragm, roars with heat. Suddenly, I want to vomit. It’s all become so real. This is it.

I grasp on the white ceramic, holding myself up, and breathe, staring down at the grimy sink drain.

I will do this. I will find her and find safety and convince Grandmother to lend us money to pay off the house, for food and clothes, to survive  When things are better, we’ll come home and Ben and I will be fine and Mom and Dad will be fine.

I will do this. I will make sure everything works out.

Heaving, I stand up, smooth my blouse, and walk out to find Ben.

~

We know that Grandmother lives on the east side of the city, but we have no idea how to get there. An address, but no map.

Ben and I spend hours searching for one, but he has to give up his shoes to an old man, who gives us a wrinkled map, and points us in the right direction.

Ben sits on a street corner, stuffing extra socks into the toes of my oxfords. “Why can’t we just pay for a cabbie, Hazel?”

I rub my temples and stare at the map. “Because we don’t have any jack for the cab, Ben.”

“Oh.” His voice drops.

I pinpoint Grandmother’s street on the map. “But we will soon!” I pull Ben up, and tug his hat lower around his face, flushed pink from the cold. Christmas lights, already on at 2pm, twinkle in his eyes. “Think of it as just another adventure. You’re Flash Gordon, and I’m Dale Arden, just like at home, right?”

The sadness, the confusion, brushes away from his eyes, and he smiles. “Damn right I am!” And Ben begins to poke my ribs and tickle my sides and I can’t help but tear up.

Not because I’m laughing, but because that anxiety, that little yellow candle, has turned a melancholic blue.

~

We push through the crowded streets of Richmond, painted in white snow and dressed with fur coats of garland.

Around 3pm, we make it to the swanky part of Richmond. Up on a hill, where the houses have 2 fireplaces and a large, front window displays a glittering chandelier.

Thankfully, it’s not gated, otherwise, I have no idea how we’d get in. But once we comb the streets to find Grandmother’s house, I take Ben’s hand.

My palms sweat, and the flame in my gut rises to a crackling hearth. This whole endeavor – Warren, Jean, the camp in the woods, the train – flashes in my mind’s eye. Is it all worth it?

Yes. Absolutely, that voice of conviction scolds me as the gravel of Grandmother’s circle drive crunches beneath our feet.

The butler, a larger, middle aged man with slick black hair, sees us, and something lurches in my stomach, nothing short of hope.

He steps forward. “We don’t take tramps here.”

I frown, skidding to a stop. “Albert – don’t you remember us? We’re George’s kids.”

Recognition flashes across the butler’s face, but it’s tinted with something else. “Oh, yes.” His forehead creases as he looks us up and down. “I’ll fetch Margaret.”

I smile, genuinely. “Thank you, Albert.” But he’s gone.

Ben and I twiddle our thumbs in front of the gravel driveway, leaning on a support beam.

The large white door creaks open, and Grandmother Margaret pokes her torso out, with flushed pink lipstick and a dated coiffure. Her face brightens when she sees us, chasing away the shadows of old age.

I beam. “Grandmother! How nice to see you-”

The frown creasing her forehead accentuates her already wrinkled face. And then, softly, “Where’s George?”

Panic. That’s what I feel in my gut. But, skimming the surface, is confusion, and so I run with that. “Didn’t you get my letter?”

Grandmother shakes her head, exhausted. “Oh, no. I don’t check the mail. Why didn’t you call me?”

I stammer. “Because . . . we couldn’t pay for the phone bill anymore.”

Grandmother´s jaw clenches, and any semblance of love evaporates from her body. “Oh.”

“Which,” I interject, “is why we’re here.” And out comes the spiel I’ve been preparing all afternoon. I climb up the steps to meet Grandmother at her door, plated with bronze. “Father hasn’t wanted to tell you this, but I’m here because I wanted to do what’s best for Ben. You can understand that, right? Well, Grandmother, I’m not here to ask you for money, because we both know that is beneath us. However, I am asking you to help me and Ben, your beloved grandchildren-”

“Hazel.”

I startle a bit, having been cut off mid-speech. “Yes?”

“Hazel,” Grandmother says, clasping her hands and looking down. “You’re eighteen, and you’re aware of the situation between me and your parents. However, none of this is my place to deal with.  I don’t think I can help you.”

The cold seeps into me, and I’m not sure if it’s because of her words or because of the shock that slows my very heartbeat.

“Can’t you imagine what your parents are feeling right now?” Grandmother scolds.

The flame inside burns the delicate tissue of my lungs.  I want to tell her all of it, right here, right now, right on her marble steps. I want to tell her how hard it’s been. How I can’t let Ben stay there anymore. How we need something different.

But I see the spiral staircase and the wrought iron behind her, and I know that none of my words will ever be able to make her understand.

So, choking back nothing short of heartbreak, I say, “I understand, Grandmother. See you another time.”

I descend from the marble steps, and Ben looks absolutely horrified.

“I’m calling your parents. This is absolutely unacceptable behavior, Hazel!” Grandmother calls after us.  

I whip around. “Good luck with that. Dad sold our landline months ago.”

Grandmother clenches her fist. “You two are unsafe out there! Your parents need to come and get you right now. I’ll . . . I’ll arrange for a train to take you back, something!”

I shake my head, tugging at threads to keep Jericho’s walls from coming down. “No thanks, Grandmother.”

And I take Ben’s hand and pull him off the manicured lawn.

~

“Hazel!” Ben exclaims. “I . . . I don’t understand! I thought you said we could stay with Grandma and she’d-”

I skid to a halt and kneel down to face him. “I know what I said. And . . I’m sorry.” I stop because if I continue along that rabbit trail I’ll surely lose it right here. “Can you just wait until we find Warren and Jean again?”

A muscle in Ben’s jaw feathers. “Fine.”

Not ‘okay’. Not ‘yes, Hazel’. But ‘fine’. And that is the cleaver that separates the two halves of my heart.

~

I forget what it’s like to breathe.

Ben and I make it back to the campsite at around 5:30pm. Tents are set up, and a fire is roaring.

Warren approaches us, raising an eyebrow. “Where you guys been?”

And suddenly, I can’t hold it together any longer. The strands I’ve weaved for my psyche snap.

“You want to know where I’ve been? We’ve been groveling at my grandmother’s doorstep, because she won’t let us in!” The emotion inside of me rises to a scream. “She . . . she won’t help us and we’ve come all this way and now this is just a big, fucking mistake!”

Both Ben and Jean gasp, but I don’t care.

Warren’s brows knit together. He looks concerned, but also confused. “What? What do you mean?”

“I mean this was all for nothing, Warren!” I shout, throwing my coat off my shoulders and ripping off my hat, stomping it into the muddy snow.

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Hazel,” Jean says, her eyes wide and murderous.

I laugh, spitefully. “You know, Jean, I wish I was. I really wish I was.”

Jean just looks at me. Shakes her head and says, “We came all this way for nothing. Pathetic.”

I can’t breathe. Can’t think. The anger, the rage, it rings and deafens in my ears. A cold sensation worms through my body.

Ben lets go of my hand and begins sniffling. This – and only this – snaps me out of it.

I fall to my knees and grab his face in my hands. He rips it free. “No, Hazel.” His lip trembles. “You were wrong-”

“I know, I know Ben,” I plead, squeezing his hands. “I’m so sorry-”

Tears fall down his face. “I wanna go home.”

I open my mouth, but all my words hang on my breath. Ben turns away and hides in our tent.

My chest caves in. A black hole has formed where my heart was, and I want to fold in and in on myself until I disappear. Caustic anxiety and fear vibrates my limbs.

Warren stares at me, his face a lethal mix of confusion, disbelief, and anger.

“I . . .” I can barely breathe, barely think. Everything falls, the curtain is torn, and finally, I’m not clouded by my own fear, my own pure, unadulterated emotion, or even my own sense of control.

I’ve reached the end. The end of myself. And the bottom is cold and hard and unforgiving.

All of the curtains I’ve put up to block out the sun come down. All the walls I’ve put up to keep out the enemy have only been containing the disease within myself.

I feel everything and nothing all at once.

What have I done?

“Get out of here,” Jean spits at me, but I barely hear her.

Warren turns around to fight her, tells her that we need to calm down and talk this out. She just yells at him and then he gets mad and I can hear Ben sobbing inside the tent and the crackling of the campfire has risen to a scream and I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.

“I’m sorry!” I scream. Even the wind and snow fall silent at my words. Jean and Warren turn around, wide eyed and still stricken with emotion. I laugh, nearly sobbing. “I’m not sure what you want me to say other than ‘I’m sorry’. I really am.”

The sobs constrict my chest, and I step forward, tears racing down my cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I’m awful, and I’m sorry that I dragged you all into my mess. Because that’s all this really was.”

I hear Ben crawl out of our tent, silent. I throw up my hands, laughing and crying and shattering into a million pieces. “This wasn’t about any of you. This was about me and you all don’t deserve to face the consequences of what I’ve done.”

The flame, the black embers flare up inside of me. I have to face it. I have to, because I have come to the end, the great and terrible end, and there it is.  Staring right back at me.

“Warren, Jean, you’re right.” I furiously wipe at my wet cheeks. Through gasping sobs, I say, “You’re right. I did all this because I didn’t want to wait around. I didn’t want help, and . . . .  and I don’t want help. But I don’t know how to stop it and it’s still here and I can’t change it!”

I clutch my stomach, put a hand over my mouth because it’s all too much and I’m afraid I might squeeze out my soul along with my sobs. “And I . . . I hate myself because of it. I hate myself that I can’t even bring myself to receive help from anyone! That I think everyone is against me and that I have to do it all myself.”

I strip the layers of myself like ripping fabric. “But I see it now. I don’t have to do that.” I wrap my arms around my middle, feeling about an inch high, trying to get the sobs to stop. “But it’s too late. I’m just so sorry you all had to be in the middle of me figuring that out.”

I have no more words. Ben, Warren, Jean, and Frankie all stare at me with big eyes, but I can’t see them because I’ve squeezed my eyes shut. I weep with the howling of the winter wind.

Suddenly, Ben throws himself into me, and I collapse. We fall to the cold ground, and my brother holds me while I sob. I hear Jean and Frankie come around the sides of us, and Warren puts a hand on my shoulder.

And, for the first time in my eighteen years of life, I let them comfort me. I let them help me. Because I can’t do this on my own. I shouldn’t have to.

 

December 24th, 1934

We catch a train home that morning. No one says much, and I haven’t spoken since last night. I don’t feel I have anything to say.

Despite the numbness, a relief has washed over me. A glowing light is beginning to replace the gnarled, black branches in my soul, in my heart, and even if that light is just an ember, I know it will grow into something more.

I open up my journal to write, but this time, to my father.

Dad,

It’s been one hell of a few days, hasn’t it. I assume that mother has shown you my letters, and that you’re up to speed on what’s going on.

Much to my chagrin, Grandmother rejected my request for help. In retrospect, this makes unfortunate sense. Hindsight is 20/20, right?

Well, Ben and I are back in Winchester. I’m spending the last of my money on a milkshake for Ben at the diner we always go to, and for a stamp to send this to you.

Jean continued on to Lexington. She mentioned moving to Nashville. She says that’s where all the big music stars come from nowadays. I’m not sure if she forgives me or not, but she did ask for my mailing address. We’ve gotta go see her when she makes it big.

We left Warren and Frankie in Mt. Sterling. Despite what he said, Warren does have a soft spot for this part of Kentucky. Says he wants to stick around for old time’s sake. There might be other kids who need to find refuge in their camp. He tells me not to be a stranger.

And Ben. He looks so wonderful, so young and on the brink of change. God, I love him. But I think there will always be a deep mourning in my heart for what I put him through these last few days. I don’t think he knows the gravity of the situation, and I’m almost glad he doesn’t.  

As for me, I’ve realized some things. That I can’t do this alone. That it’s okay to reach out. That it’s essential for the survival of humanity – not to the human race, but to the part of us that makes us more than animals. Maybe it’s a little late for me to be learning these things, but hey, better late than never.

I love you, Dad and Mom. I’m sorry for anything and everything I’ve done, and I am changing. I will change. But I think I need to do that changing away from home. I’ll be okay. I always have been, and I believe I always will be.

Come find me where the rails meet the river. I’ll be shoveling sidewalks, frying chicken, and mending clothing. I’ll never be far.

Love,

Hazel Thompson

I slide the letter into a mailbox by the diner. Smiling, Ben and I get back into that old, rusty truck. Warren and I found it in a junkyard, and pumped it back up with gas.

The sun shines brightly off the snow as I drive Ben home. I stop at the end of our street, a few houses away from ours.

But Ben doesn’t get out when I put the car into park.

“You sure you have to leave, Hazel?” he says, looking down at his lap.

“Yeah,” I murmur. I grab his chin, forcing him to look at me. “You listen to me, Benjamin. Your sister’s old now, and she’s gotta go and do adult stuff, okay?”

Ben rolls his eyes, but by the rims of red around his eyes, I can tell he’s upset. He swallows. “I love you, Hazel.”

I smile, and my heart breaks. “I love you too, kid.”

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