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Saturday, July 11, 2015

Traumatic Beginning

Slamming my car door, I heard the screams and cries of children pouring out of the open motel room door. I sprinted from the parking lot to the room. What I saw inside stopped me cold.  

Straight ahead, a grungy six-month-old baby, clad only in her soiled diaper, dangled from the motionless doorway swing between the sink and beds. Her bottle rested just out of reach on the thinly carpeted floor. The flat affect of her face in the midst of the screams and cries suggested that this might not be her first exposure to such unsettling scenes.

To my right, a sobbing four-year-old sat on the edge of one rumpled bedspread. I noticed she wore the same food-spotted cotton shift I’d seen when she’d told me their names two days earlier.

Deni* tugged on the uniform shirtsleeve, pleading with the Sheriff to let go of her little sister’s arm. The bright-red hair also needed washing, but when the frightened girl turned her tear-streaked, freckled face towards me, my heart moved my paralyzed feet.

Approaching the narrow space between the beds, two images immediately registered. The squatting sheriff had his gun holstered on his hip, and both large hands gripped the fragile black arm of the two-year-old girl.

Jamie* screamed like a banshee, while maintaining her position under the bed. The pull on her arm must have caused her pain. Even so, she continued her struggle to keep from exposing more of her tiny body.

“Please, Sheriff, let go of her,” I said, raising my voice above the shrieks. His tenacious hold on the child’s forearm scared me, too. “Let me speak to her, please.”

“I’m not lettin’ go of this kid. She’ll high-tail it right back against that wall, and I’ll have a he—heck—of a time getting’ her back out.” He looked over his shoulder at me. “You go ahead and talk with her all you want, but I’m not movin’.”

“Her’s just scared,” said Deni, sobbing. I wrapped my arm around the little shoulders and grabbed for a tissue to wipe Deni’s wet cheeks.

“It’s okay, Deni. The Sheriff isn’t used to little girls; he doesn’t want to hurt Jamie.”

“Why’s he pullin’ on ‘er like that then?”

I reached out with my free arm and touched the officer, my pleading eyes boring into his. “I’ll crawl under and get her if she shrinks back against the wall. Please.” He released Jamie and stepped back, making room for me on the floor.

“Hi, Jamie. Please come over so I can talk to you,” I said, my face staring under the bed at the petite body a few feet away. “You girls are going to come stay at my house today. Did your mother tell you?” Both little heads nodded. “Did she leave with the deputy?” Again, the nods, silent tears falling all three faces now. I retrieved another tissue, blowing my nose before continuing.

“I’m gonna take the baby out of the swing, but I’ll need you and Deni to help me find your things. Can you come out and help us, Jamie?” The lovely, sorrow-filled, ebony face whipped over to check with Deni, who smiled her approval.

I backed up, and the rail-thin child scampered out from under the bed. “Thanks, Jamie. Okay, you girls make a pile on this bed right here,” I said patting the smoother surface of the second bed. “I’ll get the baby out of the swing and give her the bottle she dropped.”

“Hers Susie*,” Deni said by way of reminder.

“Okay, thanks, Deni. I’ll take Susie out of the swing while you girls find everything.”

The girls leapt into action, searching under furniture and in every corner space of the small room. I heard the pulling and slamming of drawers behind me as I made my way over to the baby.

I’d expected Susie’s little legs to recoil against me in protest, but she didn’t move at all while I lifted her out. I wondered how many hours she’d hung there as I shook off the well-worn canvas sling, sending the lightweight chains against the doorframe. I bent down to grab the bottle.

“Here you are, Susie,” I said. She reached for the plastic bottle, but a warning thought popped into my head. “Oh, let me see if the milk’s still good.” Twisting the cap off, the sour stench from the countertop assailed my nostrils. “Oh! Sorry Susie,” I said, “This milk will make you sick. “ Thick, pungent clods of curdled milk dropped out as I emptied the bottle.

Deni heard me and came running. As she lifted a clean, but empty bottle up to me, she said, “Hers got more bottles, lady.”

“Let’s get goin ’ here,” said the Sheriff from the doorway. “I don’t got all day for this, ya know?”

The Sheriff behaved as though he found this situation as uncomfortable as I did. Normally a likable man, the officer of the law growled like a wounded bear in front of the kids. The stress completely masked his tender side. I knew I needed to hurry.

 Filling the clean bottle with water, I feared another scene. “Okay, Sheriff, we’re about finished here, aren’t we girls?”

“Yeah, All the stuff’s right over there,” said Deni. “We don’t got nothin’ to put it in.“

“That’s okay,” I said, cutting off the Sheriff’s reply. I nearly laughed as I saw him close his mouth. “Let’s just ask the Sheriff to help us carry the piles out to my car. I’ll take Susie, and you girls grab whatever your arms can hold. Okay, Sheriff?”

Red-faced from restraining his anger or due to embarrassment, I didn’t know; I didn’t care. The sad little entourage of females left the motel room for my car. The Sheriff followed, both arms full of the belongings of three young sisters, now safe from the risk of being left somewhere along the highway.

As I rolled out of the parking lot, silence reigned inside my shiny red sports car. Each of us had unspoken questions.

At the end of the first block, Deni took the lead. “Are we going to your house? Or do you gotta take us to jail first?”

“All of you will spend the night at my house. I have two beds for you and Jamie, plus a crib for Susie. First, we’ll go to my friend Carroll’s house.”

“You got any kids?” Deni said.

“No, but Carroll has a baby boy and two girls. Stacey will be like a big sister to you ‘cuz she’s already been in school a couple of years. Shannon is three years old, so it’ll be fun for you to play with her, won’t it?”

“Why do we go there now?” Deni said, the wheels of her mind never still.

“Carroll is going to help me. We’ll have dinner with her family this evening. She’s a terrific cook, so you’ll be glad we came here first.”

When I heard the gravel of Carroll’s driveway crunching under the tires, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I’d made it this far.

While I gathered up little Susie in my arms, the other girls left the car and rushed to my side.

The four of us approached the door in a tight cluster. Just as I raised my hand to knock, the door flew open.

*Name changed.

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