“Orion” by Anastasia Selby
At twelve years old I ran away. My mother and I were living in a pool house behind a mansion in Issaquah, WA. At the wealthy middle school, I was one of the only kids that wore cheap stretch pants and huge, body-hiding t-shirts. I listened to hip-hop and never took my headphones off. If I did, I would hear the other students whispering about me. “Look at her shoes,” they’d say. “She smells like cigarettes.” I’d only lived there for three months, and I hadn’t yet made one friend.
I hated the school, and I hated the pool house, which smelled of my mother’s cigarettes and didn’t have any real rooms. My mom left at seven in the morning, so there was no reason for me to wake up and catch the bus to school, where I would likely have to sit near someone who would whisper in my ear, “dirty,” or “white trash.” I’d spend my days watching daytime television and eating Top Ramen, imagining that some day I’d be able to live where I wanted, that somehow my life would turn out okay.
One afternoon, when I saw the white flash of my mother’s car pull into the driveway at 1:30, I jumped from my spot on the couch and crawled into the office partition that made up my half-room, hiding myself under my bed covers. I heard the latch of the door click, and the growl of my mother’s voice calling my name. My mother terrified me, especially when she was angry, and I could feel the rumble of her anger in my own chest.
“I know you’re here,” she yelled, slapping her foot on the linoleum floor, “fucking come out here!”
“I don’t want to!” I yelled from under the covers, my fingers curling the folds of my cheap comforter towards me.
“Well, if you had gone to school like you were supposed to, you wouldn’t have to,” she said. I could tell by the volume of her voice that she was now leaning over the partition, looking at the shape of my body under the covers. “Come out, now, or I’ll get you out myself.”
I didn’t answer her, and she hit her hand against the partition, walked around it, and grabbed the end of my comforter, pulling and yelling at the same time.
“Come the fuck out here!” She yelled, and I felt myself spin as the comforter was yanked from my fingers. I lay on the bed, facing up, and watched her fling the comforter across my room. It landed on my dresser, knocking over the small glass ballerina my grandmother had given me. Before I could get off the bed, my mom grabbed my ankles and pulled me. I slid from my bed to the floor. As she dragged me, I tried to kick my feet, but my mother had always been strong. Her limbs were short and compact, and she often beat men in arm-wrestling contests. She dragged me out of my room, into the living-room, where I finally kicked free and jumped up.
“I’m running away!” I screamed at her, making sure to back away so she couldn’t grab me.
“Oh, really?” She laughed, “I’d love to see that, I’d love to see you run away. I’d finally have some free time!”
“Fine,” I said, and started towards my room.
“Oh, no,” she said, pushing me back, “you don’t get to take anything of yours. In fact, hold on,” she held her finger up at me, turning to get her purse. When she had her wallet, she pulled out the money in it, throwing it at me.
“There’s thirteen dollars. It’s all the cash I have. Good luck!”
We both stood there for a moment, looking at each other. My mom was testing me; she did this every time I threatened leaving, and it usually worked. I’d never run away before. But this time I bent down to pick up the money, crumpled it up, and shoved it in my pockets.
“I have to get my jacket,” I said, and she let me go into my room, where I grabbed my jacket and emptied out my school bag, filling it with my journal, a book, my walkman, and my little stash of babysitting money. I walked out of my room and looked at my mom’s face. She was scared, I could see it in the whites of her eyes. But she wouldn’t back down, I knew, and if I stayed I’d have to go back to school. I walked past her, and shut the door behind me.
In downtown Seattle, I went to a Mexican restaurant and ordered chips and salsa. I sat there for hours, writing in the journal I’d brought with me. The owner eventually came up to me and asked me if I was okay, leaning his head, which was framed by a lacquered mullet, down into the yellow light that illuminated the table. I nodded, packed up my journal, and left the restaurant.
At Pioneer Square, I met a fifteen year-old kid who looked ancient. His Jnco jeans were dark with stains. He had a deep furrow that didn’t disappear when his eyebrows straightened. “My parents kicked me out because they caught me kissing a boy,” he told me. “You can stay at Orion Center, but you have to tell them you’re thirteen.”
At Orion, they logged me in and told me there’d just been an outbreak of scabies. I lay awake on my cot, the smell of bleach heavy on the sheets, as the two girls I shared my room with fought in the bathroom. One of them had slept with the others’ boyfriend. One had blonde hair and the other red. They were sixteen. When they were finished fighting, they both walked into the room, their bare feet sticking to the gray-painted floor. “I fucking hate this place,” the red haired one whispered, and she pulled her blankets over her.
“At least you’re not home,” the other one said.
“Shut-up,” the red haired one said, and reached over to turn on the clock radio. The Metallica lyrics floated me to sleep.
But I’ll take my time anywhere,
Free to speak my mind anywhere,
And I’ll redefine Anywhere,
Anywhere I roam,
Where I lay my head is home.
Three days later, I finally allowed the social worker that had been assigned to me to call my mother. I was ready to go home, not angry at her anymore. The thought of school felt almost comforting. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, maybe I would find a new place to sit, or dedicate myself to doing well. Things could change.
“Your mother’s on a business trip,” the social worker said when she came back into her office, where I was sitting. They had the same kind of partitions that made up my room at the pool house. “She can’t come pick you up.”
I was sitting in a plastic chair, and I felt the hardness of it against my back. “Okay,” I said, not knowing what else to say, feeling my anger rush back up into my throat, accompanied by something even more familiar, a pain that felt like my insides were disintegrating, or had vanished completely. I looked at the floor, a partition of carpet with worn edges that revealed the plastic strings weaved into the bottom.
“But,”she said, going to sit behind her desk, “we found your dad.”
“My dad?” I said, looking up quickly. The woman, I can’t remember her name, had straight brown hair. She seemed old to me then, but now I realize she must have been in her early twenties. “I haven’t seen my dad in years.”
“I know,” she said, “but we spoke with him.”
“How did you find him?”
“In the phone book,” she said. “He has the same last name as you.”
“I know,” I said, “but my mom said he doesn’t live here anymore.” Throughout my childhood, I had begged my mother for my dad. It wasn’t his fault he was absent, but hers. I was sure of it.
“He can come to pick you up, if you’d like that.”
I looked down at the carpet again. That last time I’d seen my dad was a couple years ago. He’d picked me up at the apartment I lived at with my mom in his gold Cadillac; he always drove Cadillacs, they were his favorite cars. I’d gone to the swap meet with him, where he seemed to know everyone, and bought me a cheap metal bracelet with fake abalone. I played with it when we stopped at a bar and he asked me to wait in the car for him, it distracted me from how hot it was, how wet the backs of my legs were stuck against the hot leather seats. I’d worn it for weeks, until the clasp had broken. It was in my little room in the poolhouse, in the ballet-dancer jewelry box. My mom had hated how much I loved the cheap bracelet, especially because, over the next two years, my dad had called me only three times, each time promising that he would come pick me up, and never showing. I would cry for hours, waiting for him.
“Okay,” I said. I wanted to see my dad, and now he had to pick me up, there was no one else to do it.
When my dad showed up, he looked the same. In my memory, he is very tall, a dark figure with peppery gray hair and a deep voice. My father was big, imposing, and didn’t smile easily. I’d been in the Orion kitchen, helping to make dinner, and my social worker came in and told me he’d arrived.
I was right, he was still driving a Cadillac, this one dark blue instead of champagne colored. It smelled the same, though, and a blue scented tree hung from the rearview mirror. He threw my backpack into the backseat and I climbed into the front. Maybe this was it, I thought to myself. Maybe he would finally love me enough to keep me. As if he knew what I was thinking, my dad turned to me as he started the car.
“You know this is only until your mom comes back,” he said, beginning to pull out into traffic. He was wearing a button down shirt with pearl colored buttons, and cowboy boots. “I’m living in a motel right now. That’s no place for a kid.” The way he said “kid” sounded weird, as if I were an inanimate object.
“I know,” I said, not really knowing. We drove to the poolhouse. He’d talked to my mom, he said. She was worried about me. According to other people, my mother was always worried about me.
My dad stayed with me for three days. All I remember of his stay is that I tried to make him coffee with Folger’s crystals, and I made it wrong. I’d never made coffee before, and we only had powdered milk to use as cream. He’d glared at me, and I realized that there was no out. He was not better than my mother.
I don’t remember anything about my mother getting back home. I do know that a few weeks later, I burned myself on our propane fireplace, and sat in our livingroom while pieces of skin fell from from my leg, waiting for her to get home. She’d told me never to call 911 if something happened, because the ambulance would be too expensive. I still have a scar from that burn, but when I see the scar in the mirror, in only feels like the physical manifestation of absence; a memory that had to be burned into me, to remind me.
Anastasia Selby is a writer of short stories and is currently working on her first novel. Her work has been published in The New Ohio Review, Ardor Literary Journal, The Atlantic, The Red River Review, and Metazen.