“You can stay. We have the room.”
I shook my head and told Jay’s mother, “No ma’am. You don’t, not really. I heard those people last night that came by and were muttering their worried complaints. I heard some of them wondering how they were going to feed seven more kids and who would take us all in. No thanks. This is hard enough as it is, I’m not going to see the rest of us split up just to make someone feel less guilty because they ‘did something’ for a bunch of orphans.”
“Won’t you at least wait for Jay and Marlene to come back? They’re on their way.”
“Nope. That’s one of the reasons why I’m hurrying. It is like pulling off a Band-Aid. Do you pull it off fast or slow? Either way it needs to come off. I’m one of those that prefers to pull it off fast and get it over with so things can get cleaned out and start healing. Just tell them it wasn’t anything against them … just that … that … Just tell them the Band-Aid thing.”
The kids were all piled in the car except for Baby and all his stuff. Baby was in a hospital bassinet sleeping – and not wheezing and snuffling for the first time that I could remember – and his stuff was on the floor beside it. I slid in the driver’s side window and with a single wave we were off.
In another time and place I would never have gotten away with it. Heck, in another time and place I would never be in the position that I am. I’m just glad I never revealed to anyone what my age actually was or they really would have freaked out. When people start feeling their conscience tickled they can get hard to deal with. I didn’t need any more hard; I had enough of it to deal with as it was.
The rest of that morning I wove the Clunker from Cedarville to Siloam Springs. It was only fifty miles, should only have taken an hour in a car, but it took half a day. And once we got there we were pushed through by people that didn’t know whether to be mean or scared. Guards literally walked beside our car through town so that we could get on the other side of it and head east.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I found a deserted stretch of road where I could pull over. “Geez,” I muttered, my hands shaking on the steering wheel. “Freaked out much people?”
Paulie asked, “Is everyone going to be like that?”
“No. Some will be better, some will be worse. But at least we are going in the right direction again. I want to try and make it to this place on the map called Huntsville. Any distance we get beyond that is gravy.”
“Can we stop and eat soon Dovie?” Bobby and Lonnie asked at the same time.
I nodded, “I’ll try and find a place we can pull off far enough. The road is kind of crazy right now. I just need to be careful and make sure we don’t accidentally land on someone’s private property and they get all nutzo like those people back there did.”
We wound up eating in the car as I never could find someplace I felt safe. It didn’t help when the kids finally opened up and started asking, “Did we really do the right thing to give Baby away?”
“I told you, stop talking like Baby was a dog we dropped off at the pound or a toy we gave to charity. Jay and Marlene … they’ve got what it takes to do the job we couldn’t.”
In a small voice Tiffany asked, “Are you mad we had to give Baby away?”
I wanted to growl but I suppose she just couldn’t understand. “I’m not angry exactly. I’m just … look, it hurts just like it hurts you guys. I feel bad that I wasn’t up for making it work. I also feel bad because I’m kinda relieved that we found someone that can take better care of Baby. I’m angry that someone threw him away to begin with … but I’m glad that we were able to save him for a little while. I’m just … It’s just mixed up, grown up feelings Tiff, OK?”
“OK, so long as you’re sure we did the right thing.”
“That I am definitely sure about.” And I was. What I didn’t tell her was that part of me was angry because it was the right thing. Sometimes doing the right thing is harder than doing all the other things combined. I was also a little angry that God answered my prayers about Baby. Stupid I know. I prayed that if we couldn’t take care of Baby and keep him well that He would send someone to us that could and that would do the job right. Geez … complain if God doesn’t answer a prayer the way you like and complain if He does; talk about ungrateful, but it was how I felt and I figured if anyone could understand that, God would.
It was dark before I found a place to pull over for the night. I felt like a rabbit with a hawk hunting for it. I found some scrubby trees to park behind outside of this little town called Flippin, Arkansas. The name made the kids laugh. I was too tired to laugh … and too tense. I’d seen too many people with guns sitting at the end of their roads. I knew somehow or other they were communicating with each other, warning that someone was coming. Might have been good for them … scared the bejeebers out of me.
I woke up to a tap on the window. I jumped away but then saw that it was a sheriff telling me to crank the window down. “Ma’am, we let you sleep here last night but its morning and you need to be moving on.”
I couldn’t say “yes sir” fast enough.
“But Dovie I need to go potty,” Mimi complained.
“We will. We’ll find a gas station or rest stop or something …”
The sheriff had overheard and said, “There is an aid station up the road about two miles. You’ll need to go through the check point anyway.”
I tried not to look suspicious but it must have shown. He said, “It’s run by the First Baptist Church. There’s clean water and an information desk if you are lost.”
“No sir. I’m heading towards Piggott.”
“I can’t imagine people from Arizona knowing about that little town.”
Realizing he had already seen the plates on the car, tiredly I explained, “My parents were married there. It’s just a point on a map to get us to where we’re really going over in Tennessee where my mother’s family is.”
Giving a piece of advice he said, “I wouldn’t make a habit of just pulling off the road and sleeping if I were a young woman with kids.”
“I didn’t want to bother anyone’s private property. I’ve been seeing people that … that didn’t look like they wanted to be bothered.”
He snorted gently. “Reckon you have. Now get on down to the aid station. Those kids are dancing in their seats.”
I said yes sir again and got out of there before he could ask for my driver’s license or anything
else that might cause more questions than it answered. Sure enough, two miles down the road I was ordered into a parking lot where I got the hairy eyeball until I told one of the men that a sheriff had told me that there was a place where the kids could use the bathroom and wash their face and hands. He turned away and spoke into a mic in an accent so thick I didn’t have a clue what he said, and then an older woman bustled out and started listing off a litany of services.
“No ma’am, thank you very much but just a bathroom and a place for the kids to wash up and then we’ll get out of everyone’s way.”
After the bathrooms I was washing Corey up while Tiff took Mimi and Paulie reminded Bobby and Lonnie how to do it properly … and to use soap and not expect the water to find them. I chuckled remembering Mom used to tell him the exact same thing. “Ok, everyone finished? Washed? Dried?”
They all answered, “Folded and ready to be put away properly.” It was a gag answer that I’d grown up hearing and that the rest of them had picked up while we were locked up in the facility.
“My lands,” a woman laughed when she heard their response.
I smiled cautiously and said, “Kind of a family thing.”
“I suppose it is. Have a safe trip and stay off any roads that are closed down or chained off.”
I nodded my understanding and soon enough we were back on the road. We were moving slow but at least we were moving. The stop hadn’t been much but at least the people weren’t mean or anything. They could have been a lot worse. I’d seen worse and was glad for any little bit that was better than that.
My goal that day was to get to Piggott. It seemed forever since we had left Arizona and Piggott had always been to me the last point before the light at the end of the tunnel would be spotted. Getting there would be both exhilarating and frightening. And it was.
We got chased by some crazies on horseback. Peppered by bird shot from some old man’s shotgun; it cracked the back window scaring the kids to death. Ran a roadblock by some guys that were too drunk to notice. And then when we finally made it to Piggott no one was home. No one. The whole town was taped off with hazard tape and signs with skulls and crossbones on them. Of course I didn’t see any signs until I was halfway through town because it was dark. All I could do was keep going.
That had to be one of the absolute worst days that we’d had. From the emotional hangover of leaving Baby the day before to pulling into a barn that night three-quarters falling down to get out of the rain so I could change our flat tire in pitch blackness. I finally got the tire changed after having to take everything out of the trunk and the kids out of the car. Then I reloaded the kids and the trunk and slid down in the dirt and just rocked myself.
I knew I wasn’t far from losing it. I could feel these tiny little cracks beginning to form around the edges, like stepping on a thin patch of ice. Every once in a while my psyche would just go crunch like I was ice someone was stepping on. It wasn’t easy but I managed to pull my shards together, throw some duct tape on them, and get back in the car.
“Is the tire fixed Dovie?” Paulie asked anxiously. “You were looking at it for a long time.”
“Tire’s fine Monkey. I just wanted to be sure and it was dark and hard to see. Let’s … let’s just sleep here tonight. Hopefully the barn won’t fall on us.”
“The barn might fall on us?!” Tiff whimpered.
I could have kicked myself. “I was being facetious Tiff. That means I was exaggerating. I’m … I’m just out of sorts.”
“Oh,” she said. “You shouldn’t do that anymore, it scared me.”
“Sorry. You know my mouth runs away sometimes.”
“I know. I’ve just never had it run at me before.”
I knew she didn’t really know what she was saying but it was the truth nonetheless. “Yeah. I’m just tired so everyone go to sleep OK? I know it stinks but …”
“At least we don’t have to smell no baby poots,” Bobby said, revealing a silver lining that I really wished he hadn’t.