Going to Jackson
We left Sara standing outside a gas station in Jackson, Mississippi, waiting for her Mom, who lived just down the street.
“You better go before she sees you,” Sara said, hugging me. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” I said.
“You gonna be okay?” Tim asked from inside the rumbling diesel truck.
She nodded. “Yeah, she’s right down the street.”
We drove away, headed back to Arkansas. I watched Sara shrink in the rearview mirror until she became a small, dark spot.
It was me and Tim and Sara’s friend Sophy now. She was nuzzled up to Tim, so I sat, staring out the window, watching the fields flow by and listening to the motor, which filled my senses with its noise and violation.
Tim and I had just committed a felony by taking a minor across state lines. Sara was fifteen. We were both nineteen. I was thinking it would be okay. I was thinking no one even knew we were gone. All we had to do was get Sophy home and Sara would call her dad and let him know where she was. No one would even know how she’d gotten there. And it wouldn’t matter, because at that point, no one would even be thinking about how she got there; they’d be more interested in why.
The phone had woken me earlier that morning. It took me a minute to realize it was my step-cousin Sara.
“Hey, can we come over?” she said in a guarded voice.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” I was groggy and annoyed, and I just wanted to go back to bed.
“No, we skipped. I really need to talk to you. Please, it’s important,” she said.
“Sophy’s coming too. Please, it’s important. We’ll just be there a minute until Sophy can find her brother,” she said. “I really need to talk to you.”
“Okay.” I hung up and went back to sleep.
They showed up maybe an hour later. Sara was a slight thing, small and dark-haired, hiding intelligent eyes behind glasses. Her friend, Sophy was a more distant cousin. She was blond and pretty with skin reminiscent of rich cream. They were skittish and strangely enervated. I played guitar for them while they giggled.
“So you guys skipped school?” I asked.
“Actually we’re running away,” Sara said.
I stopped playing. Her face went serious and she started talking. It took me a while to realize that she was trying to explain that her father had been molesting her.
“I’m going to my Mom’s in Jackson,” she said, finally. “Can you take me?”
“My car’s broke down. Have you talked to Dan?” I asked, thinking I saw an out. Dan was her boyfriend.
“Can’t get ahold of him. I’m going with or without you. If I have to hitchhike, I’m going,” she said.
“What about Sophy?” I asked.
“She’s coming with me,” Sara said.
The girls hung around while I tried to decide what to do. I played guitar some more and bummed cigarettes from the girls. Apparently, their plan had been to get a ride from Sophy’s brother, but when it came time, he would only give them a ride to my house.
I was thinking that if I stalled long enough, a solution would present itself. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe Sara; I couldn’t imagine that she would make something like that up. I just didn’t want to be involved.
Her father had recently married my cousin, Mia, making Sara a step-second cousin. I had always been closer to Mia and her family than I was to most of my extended family. She had taken an interest in me, taking me to church and involving me in her children’s lives, when many of my aunts and cousins had seemed to distance themselves from me.
The situation had been complicated when my friend Dan had started dating Sara. Her parents were against it because he was eighteen to her fifteen. And his parents likewise, weren’t thrilled about it. I was implicated, being Dan’s friend, though the relationship had happened naturally, without my influence. I wanted Sara’s situation to improve; I just didn’t want to be the one to improve it.
It was about this time that Tim showed up. Tim was my friend with weed. He sold pot and sometimes meth. Sara immediately hit him up for a ride.
“All I got is an old diesel, but if you can cover gas, I’m in,” he said. “What’s this about, anyway? Why you girls want to run away?”
Sara looked at me and I explained the situation to Tim.
“What about you?” He asked Sophy. “Somebody been messing with you?”
“Not really,” she said.
We heard a vehicle pull up outside. The girls ran out the back door before I could say anything. I went to the door. It was Sara’s parents.
“Is she in there? Is Sara in there?” Mia asked.
“No,” I said. “Why would she be here?”
“I know she’s here,” Mia said. “Her and that friend of hers. The girl’s brother told us he brought them here, so you shouldn’t lie about it.”
We argued and grew angrier. I had loaned Sara some Anne Rice books and Mia had confiscated them. Sara had said they’d been burned as witchcraft.
“Where’s my book?” I asked, now, throwing out anything I could think of.
“They’re satanic,” Sara’s father Bruce countered.
“Did you read them?” I asked.
“No, I don’t read that kind of smut,” he said.
“Then how do you know they’re satanic?” I said.
Tim came out.
“What’s the problem?” he said.
“Is Sara in there?” Mia asked.
“Who’s Sara?” he said. “No, there’s nobody in there.”
“Does your father know what you’re doing?” Mia asked.
She didn’t wait for an answer. Instead she and her husband turned and went back to their car. We watched them drive away.
“Living with that, I’d want to run away too,” Tim said.
* * *
After we got back from Jackson, Tim dropped me off at home.
“Just deny everything,” he said. “Nobody knows anything.”
He drove off to take Sophy home, and I went inside. I called Dan and explained everything to him.
“I couldn’t get ahold of you in time to run it by you. Just say you don’t know anything, cause you weren’t really involved,” I told him.
I was glad that it was over, that we’d made it there and back with no one the wiser. I thought it was a good thing, what we’d done. It was just a question of Sara calling and letting Mia and her dad know where she was.
There was a knock at my door. It was a guy I didn’t recognize.
“Hey, is Sophy here? I’m her brother.”
“No,” I said. “She should be home.”
“She’s not. Have you seen her?”
“She left here a while ago,” I said.
“Who with?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Where’s Sara?” he asked.
“I think she was trying to get to her Mom’s in Mississippi,” I said.
After he left, my father came home, had dinner and went to bed. I didn’t mention the events of the day and Sara’s parents didn’t come back. I thought it was over, finally. Then I saw lights outside. It was a police car. A cop came to the door and knocked. Mia and Bruce were with him.
“Here’s your book,” she said, handing me one of them. “I don’t want this kind of Satanism in my house.”
The cop studied me. I wished I could hide my long hair. It was the habit of police in my hometown to refer to me as “ma’am,” though I wore a beard. More than that, I really wished Mia hadn’t referred to the book as Satanic in front of him. Small towns in the Bible-belt sop up rumors of the occult like gravy. I knew it would be around town soon, if it wasn’t already. And the police would remember it, regardless.
“Is your father here?” he asked.
“He’s asleep,” I said.
The cop was reluctant and clearly didn’t want to be there.
“Can you wake him?” Mia asked.
“He’s been working all day,” I said. “He works for a living.”
The cop looked at Mia.
“Please wake him up,” Mia said.
I told Dad Mia was here with the police.
“What the hell for?” he asked.
“She thinks Sara is here,” I said. I didn’t elaborate.
He threw on clothes and went to the door.
“There’s nobody here,” he said, annoyed.
“Could you look again, Billy? I’m sorry to wake you,” Mia said.
“Would you mind if I looked?” the cop asked.
“Come on,” Dad said, motioning. “Ain’t gonna find nothing, though.”
The cop went through the house, opening all the doors and checking all the rooms. Dad waited for him to come back.
“They’re not here,” the cop said.
“You quit telling people stuff about my son,” Dad said to Mia. He turned to the cop. “She’s good enough to live with a man without marrying him, but she wants to tell the police lies about my son.”
I was shocked to hear my father so angry. Mia apologized and left. Dad went back to bed, grumbling and angry. I was surprised that the police had been here, but more than that, I was surprised that my father had stood up for me so aggressively. I wanted to think he was just angry at being woken up, but his vehemence and condemnation of Mia seemed too strong to be mere annoyance.
I felt guilty for lying to him, though technically, I’d only omitted the truth. I sat on the couch, thinking about this, until I saw flashing lights and ran to the door. It was the police again. The car pulled up to the driveway and sat for a moment. I waited, wondering if I should go out to them. Then it turned around and drove off slowly. I went and found my mother’s old family Bible and started reading. I got through Leviticus before the police car came back. They came back every hour or so until well into the morning. I sat on the couch, reading, but I felt no comfort until my father rose. I listened to him in the kitchen making himself some breakfast and fell asleep on the couch.
The phone rang, waking me again. It was Lisa, Mia’s daughter. She told me that Sara had called from her mother’s. “I don’t know what the police are going to do,” she said. She was gruff and angry. “She’s coming home tomorrow. I suggest you don’t have anything to do with her.”
“Why is she coming back?” I asked.
“Cause her mother’s no account,” Lisa said. I could hear the smirk through the phone.
I hung up, puzzled. It didn’t make sense to me that she would come back. I began to doubt whether Sara had told the truth.
Everything seemed to be up in the air for the next few days. I expected the police to come back at any moment. I learned that Sophy hadn’t made it home for several hours. There was talk of statutory rape. Tim had disappeared and I stayed in the house. I tried to reach Sara to ask why she’d returned, but Mia kept her away from the phone. My father didn’t speak about what had happened. I was ready to explain it all to him, but he didn’t ask. If he had, I felt confident that I could at least make him understand. I’d gone over the events in my mind, and I felt that I had been in the right, with the exception of Sophy going off with Tim, which I chose not to think about. Sara had come to me in need, in a bad place. I’d just tried to help. I thought my father would understand this, if he knew. It seemed like something he would’ve done.
But I was afraid to go to him on my own. This was the way with us; we never talked about things, we just waited problems out, until they eventually went away. It was as though, at this point if one of us opened our mouth, so much would come rushing out, we’d never be able to stop.
Near the end of the week my Aunt Peggy had a fatal three wheeler accident. She flipped, and the thing fell on her and broke her back. Everything was suspended for the funeral. I tucked my hair into the nicest shirt I had, donned slacks and went with my sister, who was in from out of town. All she wanted to talk about was Mia.
“I can’t believe she’d say all that about you,” she said.
I was quiet, and didn’t tell her that Mia was right, or why I did it. I just wanted to drop the whole thing.
At the funeral, even though I was surrounded by people, I felt as though there were a kind of moat surrounding me, keeping everyone at a distance.
Before the sermon, Mia came over to me. She grabbed me in a big hug. “Family is more important,” she said. “Family shouldn’t fight. Everyone’s okay now, that’s what matters.” I didn’t know if I believed her, but I was grateful, like a dog jumping for scraps. Something shifted inside me and I could suddenly breathe again. I hadn’t even realized I couldn’t before.
I stood away from the family. My father sat near the casket and I noticed that he kept turning and glaring at me. I wanted to leave, but that would have been rude. After the service, he avoided me.
A couple days later, my sister wrote Mia a letter chastising her. “Don’t pick on my little brother,” she wrote.
“Why’d you do that?” I said. “I mean, I appreciate it, but just let it go.”
Lisa called the next day. “It’s sweet that she wrote it, but you need to tell her the truth.”
I never told her what Sara said. A couple years later, after I’d moved away and come back, I ended up in a class with Mia at a community college near my home town. As when I was younger, she was friendly and concerned, and took an interest in my well-being. I wasn’t sure how to feel towards her. I still didn’t know if I believed Sara. I hadn’t really had anything else to do with her after the trip to Jackson. She’d married and still lived near her father and Mia. One day, somehow the subject was broached.
“What she must have told you, to make you go through all that,” Mia said, smiling at me painfully.
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing.