“I’m taking Butch out,” I said, while standing in the hallway outside my parents room.
It was 7 a.m. on a Friday morning in August and I was reporting my activities to them, as I had to do all the time. I was sixteen. School was out and I got no reprieve from either of them. How I hated summer for this reason.
There was no answer. Perfect.
I unhooked our small black Lab from the indoor leash they kept him on. At least he wasn’t muzzled overnight like at other times.
I bent down to pet him. Tears welled behind my eyes as I ran my fingers through his thin black coat. Gently, I inspected the cut Mom left on his head after hitting him with the broom for barking. I kissed his wound and then nose. “Come on,” I whispered. “We’re gettin’ outta here.”
We descended the spiral staircase two at a time, but not too quickly or loudly. I stopped to listen for footfalls from above. My hands were so sweaty the leash almost slipped out of my grasp. “Come on,” I whispered to our overeager dog. “Shh.” I unlocked the bottom door and we stepped out into the new morning. I secured his leash on the pole beside their Chevy Impala.
Inside, I opened the door opposite the exit and flicked on the light switch with my left hand. On my way downstairs, my right hand lightly touched the wall as I brushed away a few cobwebs. The basement was unfinished and consisted of one main room and a smaller alcove where there was a huge hole in the wall. It was dirty and depressing down there but it was better than the attic; for one thing, I could negotiate movement a lot more easily.
Once in the alcove, I saw my old exercise bike as if for the first time. I pedaled that thing furiously every single day, twenty-five miles without fail and in sixty minutes exactly. This activity had become so necessary for me, even when I wasn’t locked in the basement, I went down to ride. Then they made me stop and started piling my plate high with potatoes at dinner, which I had to eat or be force-fed.
I reached into the hole, grabbed the handle of the bright blue cosmetic bag and pulled it out. When I searched one more time, I found the paper I had previously hidden under our mattress. I folded The Toronto Sun over twice and stuffed it in my bag.
My hands were shaking so much. My cheeks had flushed with fear. I clung to my treasure and started to climb the ten stairs to the top. On each step, I stopped. I was almost hyperventilating as I trained my ears to any noise from the upper floor. Voices. Angry yells. Sweat poured off me. Time was disappearing fast. I stopped mid-stair and spun on my heel in sheer panic. Back in the basement, I had no choice.
I grabbed a painted brick and stood on the yellow milk crate. I used it to tap on the small window someone painted shut years ago. Sometimes Mark, a guy who worked with Bob, would be walking or running by late at night and talk to my sister and I through the opposite window; I wondered if it ever entered his mind that they locked us down there.
The filthy window yielded quickly, but not before I got a feel for putting a little force behind my smashing. Carefully, I used the broom and dustpan to clear away the shards of glass and other debris; if caught at that moment, I would say I saw the broken window from outside and decided to clean up the mess. The coast was still clear so I then tossed my little bag through the open window, free and clear, right beside where Butch relaxed. Although I couldn’t see him, I put a finger to my mouth and repeated my “Shh.”
It was more than half done. I practically ran upstairs. I still took squeak breaks because I knew that every step in that building sighed and groaned when people even looked at one. Astute, I was like a mother bear with new cubs at her side, while danger was palpable in the early morning’s searing heat.
I protected my plan from everyone including my sister; she couldn’t keep a secret for a doughnut, let alone to save my life. On rare Saturday nights, when Mom and Bob drove twenty miles to attend their Weight Watchers meeting, they let us roam freely about the apartment. During these times, we relaxed a little. In honour of Mom–who thought watching an Osmond smile and make stupid jokes would automatically make us Mormon–we turned on the TV show and goaded them, “Convert away.”
I also used this time to run across the street to Bennett’s Grocery and Ice Cream Shop. I doled out candy to my sister after these outings so she wouldn’t focus too much on my activities. Once she was happy, I hurried to our room and spread the paper open on the bed. I flipped straight to the Help Wanted Ads.
I petted Butch again and thought about my job. “Be right back,” I said, knowing how badly I needed to get away from my stone prison. We lived in Brockport’s Post Office, getting the apartment for a reduced rate as Mom and Bob became the janitors. It was a heritage building, which was so carefully preserved and admired. Where they saw beauty, I saw jail.
I started walking quickly. There was no traffic or people. That was good. As I felt my resolve tighten, I noticed the fresh coat of teal blue paint on Bennett’s store. Passing by, I wondered if Mrs. Bennett was really there for twenty-four hours at a time; she was the owner’s mother who was such a grumpy woman, she chased school kids down the street with her broom, after they peeped in the window where she sat in her rocker. I was almost as terrified of her as I was of Mom.
About my job. I had two. I worked as a cashier for $2.15 an hour on weekends at Canadian Tire. I couldn’t save much because Mom confiscated my pay the moment I got home. I did manage to keep a few odd pennies away from her though, so I had $5. Tomorrow, however, I worked at Rick’s Cottages, owned by Sue, my best friend’s parents, who were from New York and were so nice to me. My sister and I worked there cleaning the little cabins. After work tomorrow, I’d have $24 more, which would help a lot. I had no idea how my sister would react when I abandoned her at the gate after work but I just had to get to Toronto.
Two minutes later, I reached the foot of Turner Mountain and one of the two roads out-of-town. Directly opposite there was the gate and gravel road into Rick’s Cottages, which was situated on Lake Brockport. I loved the area. There were so many trees. Also, there were trilliums, Ontario’s flower, just beyond the bushes; I knew this because, when we lived with Grandma, Mrs. Maywood, the minister’s wife from across the street, took us kids nature hiking. I admired my picturesque little town a moment longer, disappeared into the bushes, where I picked a concealed spot, and set my bag down.
Mom and Bob would be up soon so I hurried home. As I got closer to that fortress to hell, I noticed pressure building in my chest. My hands shook and I felt a bit disoriented. I gulped in deep breaths and tried to calm myself. No matter how terrified I was, I operated on instinct.
Twenty feet ahead, a yellow Acadian approached. It slowed and a good-looking man rolled down his window. “Excuse me,” he said, with a smile, “Do you know where the road to Billings is?”
At that moment, I wasn’t prepared to be confronted by someone. No. I did not talk to anyone unless I absolutely had to. I never met people’s eyes either; I always walked with my eyes fixed on my shoes, the mud, the snow, the little dogs, anything but the people. Suddenly, when Peter Frampton’s song, “Baby I Love Your Way” came over his radio, I couldn’t help but look up and smile. I gazed into his warm and kind eyes and gave him directions.
“Great, thanks.” He nodded and then his tires started to move before I stopped him.
“Are you going there now?”
“Billings? Yeah I am,” he said.
It wasn’t Toronto but Billings was on the way. Before I knew what I was doing, I spoke again. “Can I hitch a ride with you?”
He looked hesitant for a moment. Then he smiled. “Sure you can.”
“Thanks. Could you stop at the foot of the mountain for a second?”
He nodded that it was okay so I jumped in.
A minute later, I ran into the bushes and returned to the car in an instant.
“There,” I said, throwing my blue cosmetic bag—my only suitcase, containing all my earthly possessions—into the backseat. “I’m all set.”
I was free. As the man’s car chugged up the steep incline, I left them all behind. My prayers had come true. Someone was finally whisking me away, far from the reach of my cruel parents.