“I’m kidding. You want to rest?”
He shook his head. “No. You need to get to your girls.” He looked at his sister’s house, just three houses away. “I wish I could return the favor. I wish I could help you find them.” His large hand that was cupped over my shoulder squeezed gently into my skin, and I hugged him back.
We stopped at Tavia’s front steps. Her house had a screened porch and a rickety screen door. Tobin’s voice was barely over a whisper. “Tavia! It’s Tobin! You in there?” He paused, waiting for a response. “Tavia!”
I pointed to my grandparents’. “I’ll be right next door. Holler if you need me.”
Tobin laughed. “You’ve done enough. Thank you, Scarlet.”
I nodded to him, and then crossed the yard to my grandparents’ drive. The grass was just beginning to turn green, and it was half soft, half crunchy under my shoes. My footsteps sounded loud amid the quiet night. Muffled noises Tobin was making next door were barely audible, but I felt like my every breath was picked up by a megaphone.
I pulled on the screen door, and it whined as it opened. I turned the knob, half expecting it to be locked, but it wasn’t. I walked in, trying to see through the darkness. “Mema?” My voice was as soft and nonthreatening as I could manage. My grandparents were getting older. If they weren’t obsessed with the news, they could have been completely oblivious to the outbreak. “Mema, it’s me, Scarlet.” I crossed the living room to the hall, and turned toward their bedroom. Pictures of our family lined the walls, and I stopped in front of one 8x10, noticing it was a picture of Andrew and me with the girls in happier days. No, that was a lie. We were never happy.
When I called my mother to tell her I was leaving Andrew, she scolded me. “You don’t know how good you have it, Scarlet,” she would say. “He’s not an alcoholic like your father. He’s not on that dope. He doesn’t beat you.”
“He doesn’t love me,” I told her. “He’s never home. He’s always working. And when he is home, all he does is yell at me and the kids. He acts like he hates us.”
“Maybe if you were easier to live with he would want to be home.”
Standing in the hall, in front of that picture, I held my fist to my heart in an effort to stave off that years-old hurt. When I chose to leave him, he had the support of his family—and mine. To them, it was a badge of honor to wear his ring. But he was an angry, sometimes cruel man. Of course, I was no doormat, but refusing to let him bully our children only led to louder arguments. The yelling. Christ, the yelling. Our former home was full of words and noise and tears. No, he wasn’t a drunk, or an addict, nor did he beat me, but living in misery is not so different.
I stayed as long as I did to protect the girls. The only person that stood between them and Andrew during one of his rages was me. When he would chase Jenna up the stairs and scream in her face, I would chase after him. I would hold him back, out of her room. His anger would be redirected at me so Jenna wouldn’t have to be afraid in her own home.
But he didn’t beat me. No, he did not.
Sometimes I wished that he had, so at least that was something I could offer my mother. A tangible sacrifice to lay at her feet so she could see that selfishness or something as shallow as boredom didn’t influence my decision. She might allow me that excuse instead of taking Andrew’s side and commiserating with him about what a horrible person I was to live with, and how they had that in common.
Our home was so quiet now, and the slamming doors and screaming were replaced with laughter and yes, persistent arguing between the girls. But in the next hour they would be snuggling on the couch. Their home was now a safe haven. I owed that to them after what Andrew and I had put them through.
I put my hand on the knob and turned, unsure of what to expect. Mema, my mother’s mother, was refreshingly neutral. She simply nodded when I told her my marriage had ended, and said that Jesus loved me, and to keep the girls in church. Nothing else really mattered to her.
The door moved slowly. Part of me braced for something to jump out from the shadows, and the other prepared my heart to see something awful. But when the door opened to reveal their tiny bedroom, with their four-post bed and dated wallpaper, I let out the breath I’d been holding. The bed was made. They hadn’t been in it, yet.
Just as quickly as the relief washed over me, it left. They would’ve been in bed by now. They weren’t home. That meant they had been collected, and if it was by the soldiers, the girls were more than likely not at Andrew’s, either. A sob caught in my throat. I refused to cry until there was something to cry about.
The picture in the hall caught my attention. The Jeep waiting for me on the outskirts of town didn’t have the same wallet-size photo of my daughters that the Suburban did. It didn’t have their drawings and school papers littering the floorboard. I reached up and grabbed the frame, and then threw it on the ground, letting it crash. Quickly pulling the picture from beneath the shards of glass, I folded it twice, and slid it snugly into my bra. Every photo album we had was sitting in a hutch cabinet at home. Their baby pictures, snapshots of birthdays and of them playing outside. It was all left behind. The picture poking into my skin might be all I had left.
I bolted from the house and let the screen door slam as I ran into the street. Tobin was standing on Tavia’s steps, holding himself up with her door.
I stared at him, and he stared back. She wasn’t home, either, and neither was little Tobin. “I’ll try to come back and get you.”
Tobin offered a small, understanding smile. “No you won’t. And you shouldn’t, anyway. I’d just slow you down.”
I watched him for a moment, seeing no judgment in his eyes. “My grandparents have a lot of meds in their bathroom. Ibuprofen, painkillers, Ex-Lax. The door is open. You’re welcome to it.”
Tobin managed a small laugh. “Thank you. I hope you find your girls.”
“I will,” I said, turning and breaking into a sprint. The next block was Main Street. It was well lit, the main road of Anderson, and boasted the only four stoplights in town. A four lane with room to spare on each side for parking, the road was wide, and didn’t offer much in the way of cover. I had so much momentum going when the streetlamp on the corner revealed my presence like an escaped convict, I just kept going, hoping I was lucky enough that no one would see. I flew across the street and the sidewalk, and cut across the funeral parlor’s back parking lot, shooting down the alley. A broken chair was right around the corner, and before I even thought to jump, my legs were already pushing me up and over.