David had told Kate she could take his cherry red, 1968 Mustang on the drive back to the house where she used to live with her real father and his hatred. Kate thought her stepfather was trying to give her a boost. Revving the engine, Kate smoothly slid into the left lane leading onto the highway, grinning widely, her cigarette clenched between her front teeth. She took a deep inhale, her eyes fluttering, as her fingers tapped nervously on the steering wheel.
David’s father had smoked inside the Mustang since the day he got it. Kate took the cigarette from her mouth and lifted it in a salute. She had never met Grandpa Daniel, but she was sure she would’ve liked him.
If David’s stories were to judge, Grandpa Daniel would have get a kick out of Mrs. Stilinski. Old Mrs. Stilinski had been Ainsley, Kate, and Eric Reed’s neighbor since before Kate was born. She was a feisty old bat, pretty rude most of the time, but she used to let Kate hide in her shed, bringing her lemonade and cookies, and water spritzers when the summer heat was high, so Kate loved her whether Mrs. Stilinski wanted it or not.
When Ainsley and Kate left in the middle of the night when Kate was twelve years-old, it was Mrs. Stilinski who had hid over five hundred dollars in the flower pot on her porch for them. It was Mrs. Stilinski who told Ainsley where to go.
So, naturally, it was Mrs. Stilinski, who was irredeemably nosy anyway, who called their that morning to tell her Eric had sold the house, and did they want anything from it, because her father was going to sell everything off.
There were only the photo albums. “They were so big, and there’s so many of them. Two boxes of them. It was too risky to take them that night.” Ainsley explained. “But they go back generations. Of my family, not his.”
There was no question whether Ainsley would go. David had said he would be willing, but Kate quickly reminded him of her father’s threats when Eric heard of Ainsley re-marrying.
“I still want to know how he found out. I bet it was one of your brothers.” Kate had grumbled.
“Never mind about that,” Ainsley said. “Eric was obviously too much of a coward to actually do anything.”
“Well, I’ll go.” Kate said, and not one to waste time, headed toward the front door.
Kate picked her Caterpillar boots just in case she had to kick something. Or run. Plopping down on the first step of the stairs leading up from their front door to their apartment, she began to put them on.
She heard footsteps on the stairs behind her. They stopped just a couple of steps above her and her mother’s voice floated down to her.
“You never wear your boots during the summer. Not if you’re off work.” Ainsley noted.
“Just thought it was a good idea, Mom.”
There was a pause and Kate could almost feel her mother thinking, re-examining, doubting her own decision.
“Kate—“ She began, but Kate interrupted her, pulling harshly on the laces of her right boot.
“You’re definitely not going. David’s definitely not going. And I’m getting you those photo albums.” Kate finished double knotting her laces and stood up, turning to face her mother on the stairs. Behind Ainsley, her husband David stood on the top of the stairs, watching silently. He seemed a bit worried as well, but as always, he kept his doubts to himself, and only the look in his eyes gave him away.
Ainsley’s lips compressed, a shadow of regret crossed her face. “Maybe if I had been braver, and have gotten them sooner, you wouldn’t have to do this.”
A wave of anger so strong washed over Kate. She almost felt faint with it. “No, Mom.” She said, fighting to keep her voice even, because she wasn’t angry with her mother, not by a long shot. “You were brave enough, for years. You saved our lives.”
Ainsley ducked her head, trying to hide her smile. “If you say so.” She said, but Kate could tell she took the words to heart. Above them, David met Kate’s eyes and smiled at her. ‘Thank you’ he mouthed.
David was Kate’s stepfather, but he was Ainsley’s husband first, and both David and Kate had a silent war going against the words Kate’s real father poured over Ainsley’s head for years. Kate knew David was relieved Kate was going instead of Ainsley. She didn’t mind. She’d rather David put her mother first.
“Besides, I’m an adult now. Da—Eric hasn’t seen me in years. He might be too drunk to recognize me.”
“Hilarious,” Ainsley deadpanned, frowning at her daughter.
“Besides, I could probably kick his ass now.”
“Oh, God!” Ainsley scoffed. She twisted on the stairs, one hand on the railing to shout up at her husband. “Our we really letting her do this?”
David shrugged his shoulders, laughing softly. “She’s not wrong.”
“That’s just great.” Ainsley spun back to face her daughter. “I don’t really need those photo albums if it comes down to it.”
“No,” Kate took a step up, nearer her mother. “Those are our families’ photos. We deserve them.”
Ainsley stared into her daughter’s eyes, searching for what, Kate didn’t know. Kate stared back, looking at the features of her mother’s face. The features she knew by heart. The high cheekbones, the blue, blue eyes, the pug nose, Kate could recall each detail with perfect clarity whenever her mother wasn’t in her sight. She remembered the same features marred by bruises and cuts, so many times, twelve years ago. “He’s taken enough.” She whispered.
Ainsley blinked, seemingly taken aback. After a moment’s hesitation, she nodded. “I’ll still be praying.”
“Good. Love you.” Kate glanced up at David. “You too.”
Then turning, she opened the front door, and strolled out without looking back.
“What if he hits us again?”
Kate blinked the recent memory away, taking another drag of her cigarette, her attention on the road.
“It still hurts.”
The young girl shifted in the passenger seat, careful not to put too much weight on her right side.
Kate shook her head irritably, squaring her shoulders and straightening in her seat. Shut up, she mouthed.
The young girl had Kate’s blond hair, tangled, and her hazel eyes, red rimmed from crying. “I don’t want to see him again.” She said.
Kate let out a breath of air, and flicked her finished cigarette out the window. Her eyes stared straight forward at the highway, the middle distance brushed with Impressionist strokes from the heat of mid-summer. Though the air was heady with pressure, Kate kept the air off and the windows down.
A drop of sweat rolled down Kate’s face. Her hair whipped about her face, but she didn’t bother rolling the window up. She reached for her pack of cigarettes without looking away from the road, fumbled a cigarette out, put it in her mouth, took her lighter out from under her thigh where she always put it to keep it within reach, and took her other hand off of the wheel to cover the flame as she lit it around the strands of hair floating about her face.
The young girl watched her wide-eyed. “You shouldn’t smoke.” She said, reproachfully.
Kate breathed in the smoke from her first drag, and then exhaled a cloud into the car. “Shit.” She said. “Shit.”
A few hours later Kate was pulling into the driveway of her father’s house. At the head of the driveway, Mrs. Stilinski stood, her blousy hair blowing in a soft breeze, and her uniform of starch white shirt and flowered skirt almost blinding with cleanliness.
Kate put the Mustang in park and climbed out, her arms sticky with sweat, her hair a mess. The young girl walked beside her as she approached Mrs. Stilinski, staring wide-eyed, trembling, at the house.
“What are you going to do with that shovel?” Was the first thing Kate said, gesturing to the shovel Mrs. Stilinski held in her hands like she was brandishing an axe.
“It’s just in case,” Mrs. Stilinski replied stoutly, shaking it in Kate’s face. “You look terrible.”
“You look old.” Kate shot back. Mrs. Stilinski cackled.
“God, you’re taller though. What are you doing with yourself?”
“Working at my stepdad’s welding shop, for now.”
Mrs. Stilinski sneered. “What, no college? What did I burn my bra for?”
Kate huffed a weak laugh. “So I can work in a welding shop. Besides, wasn’t that after your youth.”
“Doesn’t mean I wasn’t out there burning my bra.” Mrs. Stilinski snapped.
Kate let out a real laugh this time, then cut it off with a short gasp, glancing apprehensively at the house. The young girl took a step back, glancing at the house too, looking ready to run.
“Geez,” Mrs. Stilinski griped. “Let’s just get this over with, then.”
“Yeah,” Kate clenched her fists, shaking her arms as if getting ready for a fight. “Listen, just stay on the porch for right now. I don’t want to piss him off.”
“I’ll stand right by the door.” Mrs. Stilinski said, turning immediately and heading up the porch steps.
“Okay,” Kate replied, but her voice was so soft she doubted Mrs. Stilinski heard her. She started up the steps. At her heels, almost stepping on them, the young girl followed her, gripping the back of her shirt.
“Everything’s going to be fine.” Kate whispered to herself.