Maggie Jean opened her eyes. The lights spun wildly across the walls and ceiling and the sound of tires on gravel passed under the bedroom window.
She held her breath and waited.
She heard the back door open and then his step on the stairs. “Not tonight,” she thought. “Maybe he’ll leave me alone.”
The door opened, but there was no light from the hall. She knew he was waiting quietly outside the room–listening to the silence in the house, measuring his opportunity.
She held her breath again, lying motionless, pretending to sleep. He slipped quietly into the bed and touched her. She remained motionless, refusing to react as he clumsily tried to nudge her into position. Keeping her legs tight together, she didn’t budge; she didn’t react; she didn’t say anything; she couldn’t allow herself to breathe. He continued to fumble and push himself against her hip. After release, he slipped out of the bed and crept from the room.
She exhaled a long, ragged breath. It was as close as she had ever come to taking control. She was disgusted but sensed that somehow the power had shifted, and, in spite of her tears, she felt a little less dirty for the first time ever. Since her sisters had all left home, there had not been the protection of numbers. She was alone in the bedroom each night. There was no way to lock the door; there wasn’t even a doorknob on it.
She awakened early the next morning, but stayed in bed and listened for sounds in the house. Who else was up? What time is it? She turned over. Don’t get up yet. She slept again.
When she finally got up, she put on an old pair of Barbara’s pedal pushers. If Barb hadn’t left some of her clothes here when she joined the army, I wouldn’t have anything to wear. She pulled on one of Mel’s old shirts, tied it at her waist, picked up her sneakers, and opened the bedroom door. She looked out to the landing and down the curving stairway. Her parents’ bedroom door, on the other side of the landing, was open. There was no door on her brother’s room, but she couldn’t see if he was in there.
There were three bedrooms on three sides of the landing, with the stairway coming up beside her door. “Damn,” she muttered. No one had taken out the night bucket. It was sitting in its usual place on the landing. She would have to do it. Of all the chores she had to do, she hated that one the most. She listened. It was quiet downstairs.
Since the topmost stairs turned away from her door toward the landing, she had to step down to the third step. The curving stairs were steep and tight; you had to stay close to the wall to have room for your feet on the widest part of the steps, but she had gotten used to it. She had long ago learned how make it down the stairs without falling. She padded through the house to the kitchen.
She pulled on her shoes and went out the back door; her mother’s car was gone, but Mel’s old junker was there. He was probably still in bed. She walked across the dirt yard and down the path to the outhouse. When she came out, she followed the path around to the side of the house to her tree.
The huge box elder split into a Y about four feet above the ground. The two main trunks were each big enough to be its own tree, and the broad fork made a comfortable seat where she could sit and read if she wanted. One side leaned at an angle wide enough for her to climb to smaller branches and then work her way into the upper branches and the protective canopy of leaves when she wanted more privacy. This tree was her place. Rarely had any of her brothers or sisters, when they were home, ever climbed it. It’s my tree. The tall maple tree on the other side of the house was another of her climbing trees, but not for privacy, for the challenge. She was determined someday to climb high enough in it that she would be able to look out above the highest branches. There was danger in that–the upper branches were no thicker than her thumb.
Today, she scaled upward into the thick branches of the boxelder. She found a comfortable branch and settled in among the leaves. She leaned against the thick trunk, looked out towards the road and watched a car go by. No one I know.
It was quiet and she was alone. Alone. There was genuine pleasure in being alone. There was always noise in her house—silence was precious. She listened to the birds and to the breeze in the branches and tried to think of nothing. But she couldn’t.
Someday . . .
She looked down at the yard, overgrown with unmown grass, weeds, and Queen Anne’s Lace. She hated Queen Anne’s Lace. The hedge that separated the front yard from a small open field and the road was in desperate need of trimming—she’d have to do that, too. She thought about how her forearms would ache and her hands would tremble after whacking away at that hedge with the hand clippers for hours. Even so, there was something about attacking the hedge that gave her satisfaction, something about bringing order to the chaos of the hedge.
She wished school were in session. She hated the exile of summer. There was no life here, nothing and hardly anyone that she could care much about. She had no choices and no control. No one ever came to see her, but that was okay; she didn’t want anyone to see this house and the way they lived. Her brothers and sisters had never seemed to have a problem with friends visiting, but for Maggie Jean it was a humiliating thought. It was ugly and she was ashamed. Bad enough having no bathroom, but what if someone actually saw that bathtub sitting outside in the kitchen corner?
She looked over her shoulder to where the old clawfoot, porcelain bathtub stood in the corner behind the kitchen, next to the propane gas tanks. Every gas delivery meant someone saw the tub sitting there. What must the gas man think? Maggie Jean usually hid if she was there when he came; he could leave the bill in the door. Sometimes someone would heat up water and carry it to the tub for a bath. She never did, though. Sponge bathing in the kitchen was all she could do. Even though she could cover her body as she bathed that way, she still felt exposed and vulnerable. Outside in that tub would be even worse. Never enough privacy around here. Only in the tree.