Authors: Suzanne Kamata
F+W Media, Inc.
Columbia, South Carolina, 1983
Trudy Baxter sank into the back seat of the squad car, her shackled wrists resting lightly on her lap. Outside the windows, fields of tobacco and cotton whizzed by. Mobile homes and loblolly pines wavered in the heat. It was probably a hundred degrees. Better here in this air-conditioned automobile than out there, she thought. Well, almost. She shifted and craned her neck to peer into the rearview mirror. Her lipstick was still bright, hadn't melted. She'd nicked a quality brand. That was weeks ago.
Today they were hauling her away, at her own mother's request, for a pair of sunglasses. She'd been boldâtoo boldâtaking the mirrored lenses into the dressing room along with a pair of jeans. She'd scraped off the price tag with a painted fingernail and perched the glasses on her head like a tiara. When she'd emerged from the curtained cubicle, she'd found a clerk hovering just outside. “Too big.” She handed over the jeans without even looking at the middle-aged woman in the faded employee smock, and strutted out the door.
“We'd been watching her for some time,” the store manager told the cops later. They were sitting in a little room at the back of the storeâTrudy, the policeman, the manager. Trudy's mother, Sarah, sat there chain-smoking. She didn't say a word, but Trudy knew that she was trying to distance herself from the whole scene. Fight the negativity. Focus on the positive. Sarah, the rich Charleston deb-turned-hippie. She was probably imagining peace signs or colorsâgreen, maybeâor sheep.
The shades were ugly. She didn't really want them. She probably would have given them away or ditched them in the parking lot. It was the thrill that she was after, the sweet adrenaline rush.
They'd all had their say. Officer Fred looked from the store manager to Trudy's mother and back again. “So what do y'all want to do?”
Trudy could tell he was hoping for an easy solution. An apology and a few weeks of sweeping up the shop floors, for instance. Maybe he was overdue for a doughnut break, maybe he was sympathetic to her situation. But she knew by the way that the manager avoided her eyes that the woman didn't like her. And she knew all about her mother.
Sarah fixed a cool gaze on her daughter and blew out a long stream of smoke. “Officer, I'm afraid I don't know how to deal with her anymore. I think she needs to be taught a lesson. Why don't you go on ahead and arrest her.”
Officer Fred looked to the lady in the smock, registered her timid nod, and sighed. “All right, then. Trudy Baxter, you're under arrest for petty larceny. You have the right to remain silent â¦.”
Riding in the squad car, Trudy looked out and saw a little blue bungalow, like the one she'd lived in when she was small. She thought back to that day when she'd found the For Sale sign stabbed in the front yard. When she'd figured the words out, she'd detonated. Without thinking, she hurled her body against the sign, which hardly budged, a sturdy match for her then-forty-pound bodyâthough it tilted a bit to the left. She stood in the waist-high grass, her chest heaving from the effort, then she launched another attack. That time, she curled her hands into claws and began scraping at the “sold” sticker pasted over the sign.
A door slammed. The scent of cigarette smoke. High heels clattering over the sidewalk. Then Sarah, her mother, was beside her, grabbing her hands, stilling her, looking at the blood.
“Trudy, what has gotten into you?”
“I don't want to move! I want to stay here! Don't make me leave!” She couldn't stop shrieking. She was a thing possessed.
Her mother winced, checked to see if the neighbors were spying at their windows.
“You'll like New Zealand. I promise. There will be lots of fuzzy wuzzy sheep for you to take care of. I'll get you a staff like Little Bo Peepâ”
“I don't want to! I don't want to go!”
Every time they moved, the promises were the same: It'll be fun, like summer camp, like Disneyland, like the Island of the Blue Lagoon in that dolphin book that Trudy liked. And always, she was disappointed. When they'd lived in that teepee, the adults had wandered around in a daze, smelling of the pungent cigarettes they puffed. They forgot to cook. Trudy had gone to bed hungry. She'd worn the same clothes for a week. She hadn't had any toys.
Trudy was sick of her mother's adventures. She didn't want any more surprises, any more promises of happily-ever-after. The kids at school teased Trudy about her dirty hair and her hand-me-down clothes and her hippie mother, but she was used to it. She could handle it. She didn't want to live with Baa Baa Black Sheep on the other side of the world. She wanted her pink room and the doll that Grandma Baxter had sent and the dandelions that sprouted in the yard.
“I'm not going. I want to live with Daddy.”
Her mother sighed. “Trudy, your daddy did something bad to you. He made you drink bad medicine. You can't live with him.”
A month later, Trudy, her little brother Joey, her mother, and her mother's new husband Clifford, got into the Peace Van (thus named because of the mural of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi painted on its side) and left the little white-washed house, with its square yard and red swing set, forever, Trudy shrieking all the while.
She'd shut up when the airplanes came into view. There they were, landing and rising into the sky, a whole flock of them. Trudy had never seen so many airplanes in one place in her life. They had always traveled by the Peace Van, or on foot until someone gave them a ride in the bed of a pickup, or scrunched together in a backseat.
“Kiwis, here we come!” Sarah had one arm hanging out the window. She was waving to every driver they passed.
Trudy knew this mood. Always, it was the same. Sarah, full of hopes for the future, for their new life in the teepees or the nudist camp or the little house in suburbia, sang and danced and bought extravagant presents for her daughter. This time it was a suitcase just for Trudy, filled with frilly dresses and patent leather shoes and a straw hat with plastic daisies on its crown.
Clifford parked the van in short-term parking. He'd already arranged for someone to come and get it. It was sold. They'd probably never ride in it again. Trudy didn't care. She hated that van. The kids at school made fun of it, and it smelled like incense and marijuana and adult sweat.
They walked, each carrying a suitcaseâTrudy dragging hers over the asphaltâto the airport. “Departures.” (Trudy could read the sign; she was a whiz at reading.) They found the desk for Kiwi Airlines and lined up behind the other peopleâred-haired, ruddy-faced, thin and fat. Psychedelic dresses, scuffed cowboy boots, frayed jeans, a suit or two. There were all kinds of people waiting to get on that plane.
When it was their turn, Clifford lifted their suitcases onto the luggage conveyor and handed over three blue passports. Trudy still held her suitcase. Clifford must've forgotten it. “Cliff,” she said. “Cliff. Cliff!”
He looked back at her then, away from the lady at the counter, then at Sarah, then at Trudy again. Little hills popped out on his forehead.
“You forgot my suitcase,” Trudy said, quietly now.
“No, I didn't.” Trudy wasn't sure, but it looked like he sneered. He looked away from her to her mother, and something passed between them. They were sharing some secret. Panic fluttered in Trudy's stomach. Why were they making her carry the heavy suitcase? Was it some kind of punishment? And then the thought was pushed aside as they broke away from the line, made their way up the escalator and to the security check.
They walked and walked down a long corridor, and finally Clifford lifted the suitcase out of Trudy's hands. Her mother picked her up, even though she was too big to be carried, and didn't set her down until they reached the waiting area. And who should they find there but Doctor Claire? What was she doing there?
Trudy liked Doctor Claire. She liked her fresh, clean scent and the white coat that she sometimes wore. Trudy liked the little pearl earrings that dotted her earlobes and the smooth, pale skin of her face. Doctor Claire was nice. Sometimes they played together with blocks. Sometimes Trudy colored pictures while Doctor Claire wrote on her yellow paper. And sometimes they talked about Trudy's bad dreams or her father or the mean kids at school.
Trudy ran up to greet her. “We're going to New Zealand,” she said. “Are you going, too?”
Doctor Claire looked over her head to where Sarah and Clifford were standing. Her lips pressed together tightly and her eyes narrowed. But when she turned her attention back to Trudy, there was a sweet, sad smile on her face. “No,” she said. “We're not going to New Zealand.”
Trudy thought that was strangeâ“we” when it was just Doctor Claire standing alone. She wanted to ask about this, but then her mother came over and hugged her tightly. “Your wish came true, baby. You don't have to go.”
None of it made sense. Clifford bent down to kiss her, but she shoved him away. Joey was now in his mother's arms, waving bye-bye. Trudy looked at her suitcase, settled on the floor next to Doctor Claire. She took in the huge airplane outside the window. The crowd was flowing toward the doorway. A young woman in a green jumper was checking tickets. Trudy caught her eye for just a moment and the young woman smiled at her. Then Trudy began running. Her mother and Clifford didn't run after her. They didn't want to miss their plane.
Trudy remembered crying for days, but things were different now. She was tough. All these years later, she knew she could be counted among the girls who clouded up the high school bathroom with their Marlboros, the ones who climbed on the backs of motorcycles with their twentysomething boyfriends, the ones who carried knives in their purses and carved their initials into desks. They acted like nothing could hurt them. No rules could tame them.
Trudy had been so many placesâeven New Zealand for two miserable monthsâthat the Pine Hills Juvenile Correctional Center seemed like just another way station. How bad could it be? Trudy saw the gates up aheadâlike Graceland or somethingâand the long, groomed stretch of lawn beyond. She felt a surge of hope. They could have picnics here. Play Frisbee! This wouldn't be any worse than that boarding school in England she'd been sent to for a year, or Sarah's old boyfriend's house. At that place, she'd slept on the couch. At least here she'd have her own bed.
She'd put things on the wall or on a bulletin boardâher posters of Marilyn Monroe and the Supremes, the little black and white snapshot of her and her father. She'd been a baby then. She didn't remember having her picture taken. She didn't remember her father, either.
They were beyond the gates now, approaching the main building. It was one story, sprawling, your basic no-nonsense design. Something that a kid with blocks might think up. Trudy would have added turrets and gingerbread trim. She liked pretty things. She'd always imagined herself living in a castle. Someday she'd be a famous model or a rock star and she
live in a mansion.