by Michael Henson
By the third day in his new school, the Boy’s funk eased up and he understood he might need to know some things. He began to look around. Halfway through the trip to school on the big yellow bus, he recognized the shelter for battered women where he had once lived with his mother and his sister back when they had just left his second father and his mother first went into treatment.
Maybe, he thought, maybe they’ll know where she is. Maybe she’s back there and doesn’t know how to reach us.
That night, at their foster home, he told his little sister, “I think I know where Mama might be.”
Sissy cried every night at bedtime because she wanted her mother. She stopped crying when he told her this, but he could tell, she was not ready to believe him.
School bus was not like the regular bus where you got off wherever you wanted. So he had to wait until they got to school. Once at school he marched straight in through the big front door and straight out the little back door and he hiked all the way to the street where he knew the shelter to be.
It was a long walk, and he took a couple wrong turns, so it was mid-morning before he marched up the ten steps onto the porch, where he came face to face with the big oak door.
That door was a problem. To get in, you had to know the key pad code, and they never let kids know it. So he stood next to the door and waited. Soon enough, a woman and her two kids came out. He slipped in before the door could swing shut.
Nobody saw him slink past the office and tiptoe straight up the stairs to the room where they used to stay before somebody switched urines on his mother and she had to go back into treatment. The door to their old room was locked, so he went to the second-floor Common Area and looked in. There were women at work at all the computers, but none of them were his mother and none of them looked up to ask him why he was there, so he went to the Office and asked to know, where was she?
“Beg pardon?” asked the front desk woman from behind her plastic screen. She pushed her glasses down to the tip of her nose and gazed at him from over the top of the frame. He did not recognize this woman. The one he remembered was friendlier and did not look at him with such an unrelenting critical gaze.
“My mother,” he said. “Do you know where she is?”
“Your mother? And who might that be?”
He told the woman his mother’s name.
“Honey, she’s long gone,” the office woman said. “She’s been gone a month or more.”
She made a quick cut of her eye to a woman next to her working at a computer. That woman looked back to her and picked up a phone.
“When is she coming back?”
“Honey, I don’t know if she’s ever coming back,” the woman said. “Ain’t you in foster care now?”
He did not answer. How would she know that he was in foster care if she did not know him? There was a third woman now. He remembered her; she was the Director, looking in from the doorway of her office. The Director tilted her head to one side and asked, “Shouldn’t you be in school right now?”
The other office woman, the one who had picked up the phone, talked softly to someone on the line. The Director folded her arms and leaned against the doorframe of her office. The first office woman leaned over the counter and repeated the Director’s question, “Honey,” she said, “Why ain’t you in school?”
None of them had moved, but it felt to him as if they had formed a ring around him. He wondered, What should I say? What should I tell them? He was still calculating what to say when he saw that the woman on the phone had clapped her palm over the speaker and started to whisper to the Director.
It seemed to him now that he had put himself in a dangerous situation. I got to go, he thought. I got to get out of here. He thought he heard a siren. Was it a siren? Had they called the police on him? Was the siren coming for him?
By this time, another woman had come down the stairs and she stood in the hall to watch. Then a second, and a third. A child of maybe three or four wrapped her arm around her mother’s leg and held her close and watched. The second office woman started to speak into the phone again.
The Boy turned on his heels and stepped to the big oak door. He turned the knob and pulled, but the door was too heavy. It would not budge.
“Honey,” the first woman said, “Don’t be in such a big hurry. We ain’t out to hurt you.”
The words were supposed to reassure him, but he only felt the circle grow tighter around him. It was as if the women had each edged a step closer. He turned the knob and pulled the door again. Still, it did not move.
“Honey,” the woman said again. “Stop a minute and tell us what you need.”
He needed his mother. He needed a place to live with his mother. He needed his real father who had died. But these were not things he could easily say to these women.
The siren spiraled closer. It was a mistake, he realized, to have come here. This place—the paneled walls, the counter with its plastic shield, the open hall and the big oak door—had begun to feel like a trap. He had thought he was sly, but he had let himself into a trap. The woman at the counter continued to press him with questions. The siren wailed steadily closer. It felt harder and harder to breathe.
The woman at the counter continued to speak. She spoke gently, but this only compounded his confusion. The Director and the woman at the phone spoke quietly to one another. Were they still on the phone with the police? The encroaching siren and the voices of the women, and the paneled walls and the big mute door all conspired to confuse him and to scramble his thoughts until, with a buzz and a snap, the big door opened. In the blinking sunlight of the porch stood a woman with a baby on her hip. A barely healing, plum-colored bruise circled her left eye.
The woman and the Boy faced each other in the doorway. He was surprised to see her; she looked surprised to see him; each one blocked the other. The siren continued to swell closer, but for a moment, he was held struck immobile by the familiar, angry plum of the bruise. But in a moment, he realized this was his chance. He pushed past the woman and she pulled the baby out of his way. “Hey,” she shouted after him. “Watch where you’re going.”
He stumbled down the stairs, two at a time. He caught his heel on the final step, and fell hard to the pavement. He ripped his jeans and tore a blistered, stinging, scabrous patch on his knee, but after the initial wave of pain, the approaching siren filled his brain and he could think only of getting away. He pushed himself up and limped to the sidewalk.
Which way to go? The wail of the siren reached a peak of intensity. He still could not see it, but the sound of it seized him body and brain. It shimmered inside him as, from down the block, the big, white brick of an ambulance rounded the corner, roared up to where he stood—red lights flaring left, right, and center—and then roared past him down the block.
Immediately, the siren sound began to recede. Other sirens converged across his mental map to a place somewhere to the south of where he stood, but he understood now he was in no danger from them.
He felt foolish from the marrow of his bones to the tips of his fingers. This whole venture had been foolish. He had wasted a whole day of school and would now be counted truant. The school would report him to his foster people and he would be on punishment there. The torn jeans were his only good-for-school jeans and the ripped edges would rub the raw skin at every step. The Director and the woman with the bruised eye stood on the porch. As they watched, he was sure they judged him foolish. He was sure the women back in the house were talking of that fool of a boy who came looking for a woman long gone.
He wanted to run, but his knee would not let him. So, limping and awkward, he ran on one leg and hopped on the other.
He heard the Director call his name. All the way down the street, he heard her call out, we just want to help. But he wanted no help; he wanted only to escape the eyes of the Director and the bruised woman on the porch, and the eyes of the couple walking hand-in-hand on the sidewalk and of the passengers on the bus just now passing; he wanted only, in his hobbling, busted-knee way, to outrun his foolishness, his embarrassment, and the swelling of his shame.
Michael Henson is author of five books of fiction and four collections of poetry. Secure the Shadow, a novel, was published in 2021 by Swallow Press, the literary imprint of Ohio University Press. He is a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative.