When I was eight years old, I came up with a brilliant idea. I asked my Aunt Sally to draw a picture of me grown up. I was convinced that the portrait would somehow shed light on my future, just like the Magic Eight Ball I kept on my desk. Sally took on the challenge and dusted off her wooden box of drawing pencils and her Strathmore spiral sketchbook. I sat down across from her at the kitchen table, trying hard not to move. No peeking, Sally teased as she drew. My heart thumped fast as I listened to the scratching sound of her graphite pencil hit the paper, bringing the grown up me to life. When Sally finished, she pushed the sketchbook across the table and sang, “Ta-da!” I grabbed a hold of it, squeezing the wire binding. I looked down and saw that Sally had drawn me with chiseled cheekbones, long, straight hair swept behind my ears, and big, bright eyes outlined in charcoal. I stared at the eyes for a long time. They were the eyes of a grown up girl, one entirely sure of who she was. The problem is, I’m grown up now. I’m not that girl in the drawing.
I think about this as I get out of my car and stand on the cracked pavement of the apartment complex in downtown Willimantic, Connecticut or “Heroin Town” according to 60 Minutes. I’ve caught a glimpse of my reflection in the driver seat window. I pause to stare at it. I certainly look like a woman that’s got it all together, but I know better. Inside, I’m a broken girl still searching for all her pieces. I look away and push my sunglasses up into my thick mess of curly blonde hair. I remind myself that there are more urgent matters at hand; such as this Friday afternoon’s surprise home visit.
I head to the front steps of apartment 113. It’s hot, humid, and the streets are bursting with life. A bass thumps from the back of a beat up Hyundai that creeps past. The booming sound vibrates beneath my feet. A couple of girls stroll by me pushing baby carriages. Their bellies, still swollen from giving birth, bulge over the waistbands of their short shorts. The babies inside the carriages are barefoot and crying wildly. I don’t stare. I stay focused on the apartment door. There are a bunch of guys huddled on the porch next to it. One of them leaves the porch and heads to the Hyundai with the booming bass that has now pulled up to the sidewalk. He walks with his hands stuffed into his baggy Southpole shorts pockets and then exchanges something with someone in the back seat of the car. It’s quick, like a handshake. I’m watching now. I look away, but it’s too late. Something in the air shifts. They’ve noticed me. My body tenses. I’m suddenly aware of how out of place I am in my maternity Gap khakis. I pull my Department of Children and Families ID tag out from under my t-shirt and think of my brother Danny. He grew up to be a police officer. He once drove me through a neighborhood like this in New Haven, before I was a social worker. He pointed out the drug deals he spied in the daylight and the park where people shot heroin at night as if we were at a zoo eyeing exhibits. Everything about his unmarked vehicle and my blond hair that day screamed we didn’t belong. Danny had tried to reassure me. Don’t worry, he said patting his hip, I’ve got my gun with me. I shake the memory away. I don’t have a gun.
Now, I’ve been a social worker for four years and in those four years I’ve never been afraid. I’m too smart to be afraid. I know all the rules. I don’t do home visits in the kitchen because there are knives there. I count how many pairs of shoes are at the front door because that’s how I can tell how many people may actually be home. I don’t bring in my purse; I always wear my badge and I keep my driver’s license in my front pocket. I make sure someone knows where I’m going and if I know I’m pulling a kid, I have police back up. Of course, all of this smartness and bravery was before I was pregnant. Now I’m anxious in the grocery line, never mind on a home visit. I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast, or exactly what time I told my husband Jack I’d meet him for pizza tonight. In fact, I think I’m already late. I rub my round belly, the one that has expanded over the past eight and a half months and think, Just one more visit Lily. After today, I’m on maternity leave.
I hold up my fist and knock on the bolted door. After a minute, the locks click open and Nikki answers dressed in a black sheer blouse that exposes her white lacy bra underneath.
“Hey Nikki,“ I say. I stare at her eyes, smudged with black eyeliner. “I’m just stopping by to see if you’re okay. Mrs. Henderson from Head Start said she hadn’t seen you or the kids all week. Is everything alright?”
Nikki doesn’t answer. Instead, she turns around and yells something in Spanish to someone in the house. She says it too fast for me to understand.
“You coming in or what?” Nikki looks back at me and opens the screen door. I reach for it, but she has already let go. The door slams shut in my face as Nikki heads into the apartment. I push it back open and follow behind her.
Inside, the shades are pulled tight. It reminds me of the way my grandma used to keep our shades pulled when I was a kid. Sometimes Grandma kept them down for days while she lay in her bed with her bedroom door jammed shut. But this is the only thing in the apartment that’s the same as my childhood and for a moment, I feel guilty for the times I’ve complained mine was hard.
I walk into the living room, past the dirty clothes piled in the corners. There are no pictures on the walls or knick-knacks on any shelves. The brown linoleum floor is peeling up at the edges. It smells like cat piss and vomit. I hold my breath and wipe the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand. I try my best to spot anything that looks out of place.
Nikki sits down on the worn brown leather couch. I sit across from her on the lazy boy chair. I set my clipboard on my lap.
“Everything’s fine.” Nikki says matter of fact. “The kids have just been spending time with their daddy.” She leans back and crosses her legs.
I pause. Daddy? Last I knew Daddy was in jail. The hum of the box fan in the corner stifles the silence instead of the heat. I start to feel dizzy until the sound of pitter-patter feet racing down the stairs forces me to sit up straighter and get it together.
“Anna!” Sofia, age three, runs to me. She’s wearing her Dora nightgown, her hair a tangled mess. She comes close and climbs up on my lap, pushing my clipboard to the side of the chair. I help her up so she doesn’t kick my belly by accident.
“Hi Sofia,” I say giving her a squeeze. Sofia pats my belly and says, “Baby!” I smile at her and then look at Nikki. “Kenny’s out of jail? When did this happen?”
I wait for Nikki to answer. She doesn’t get the chance.
“Who the fuck are you?” A man’s voice startles me. I turn around and see Kenny standing at the bottom stair holding Sofia’s younger brother Xavier in his arms.
I’ve never seen Kenny until now, so I study him. He’s a tall white man, with a scrubby goatee and crew cut hair. He isn’t wearing a shirt, just baggy shorts that fall below his knees like the ones on the guys outside. Tattoos decorate his sculpted arms, a spider web on his forearm, a skull on his left shoulder and a ring of thorns around his neck. Xavier, almost two, wears nothing but a bulging diaper and a fake Spiderman tattoo on his right shoulder. His little fingers are wrapped around a plastic toy gun. Boom, his tiny voice says. He points it at me. Kenny laughs.
“Kenny,” Nikki stands up. “This is Anna, the social worker I told you about.”
Kenny looks at me as he sets Xavier down. He doesn’t say a word. Instead, he walks over to the large fish tank that’s pushed against the living room wall. I’ve never noticed the tank before and wonder how I missed it on my way in. I peek closer at it. A Boa Constrictor is coiled inside.
Kenny unlatches a small metal cage next to the tank and pulls out a white mouse by its tail. The mouse squeaks. Kenny tosses it into the tank and says, “We don’t need a fucking social worker.”
Sofia snuggles her head into my neck, pulling me closer. She squeezes her tiny hands around arm, pressing the tips of her fingers into my skin until her cuticles turn white.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m not here to upset you. I’m just trying to do my job.” I look at Nikki. I’m worried. Things had been getting better. I’m afraid this will change now that Kenny’s back. It was Kenny after all that gave her the black eye she had the day I met her and Kenny that was responsible for the track marks that used to be up her arm. At least according to Nikki.
The boa hisses. It startles me. The mouse presses his body against the glass trying to escape. The boa snaps his mouth open and sinks his teeth into the mouse’s fur, coiling his body around the prize. Amused by this, Kenny laughs, shoves his hands in his pockets and then glares at me. I sense his disdain for my presence.
“Boom!” Xavier yells, breaking the silence. He points his plastic gun in the air this time and starts to jump up and down on the couch. No one stops him. Instead, Nikki yanks Sofia off my lap and Sofia starts to cry.
“You going now?” Nikki darts me a look.
I stare at her, speechless. I can’t believe how rude she’s being. I decide she must be putting on a show for Kenny.
“Yeah.” I stand up and grab my clipboard off the chair. “I’ll let Mrs. Henderson know the kids will be back to school on-“
“Monday.” Nikki cuts me off. “They’ll be back Monday.”
I head to the front door and Nikki follows, not to be polite, but to make sure I leave. Sofia is still crying. She reaches her hands out to me. Her cheeks are red and her nose is a mess of thick snot that drips like glue. I wish I could take her and Xavier with me, but I can’t. It’s not that simple. Today, all I can do is write a report.
Back in my car, I turn the keys and the engine revs. I flick the air conditioner on and off, trying to jar it to work. The radio hums on low. Michael Jackson is singing about the man in the mirror. I shut the music off.
I lay my head back on the seat, just for a moment. The cool air finally blows from the vents. I shut my eyes and see Xavier and his little plastic gun. I see Sofia’s tear streaked cheeks. The kids on all my caseloads haunted me. Their stories played over and over in my head, the same way my own childhood did. One day I wanted to write them all down and change the things I couldn’t control. If they were fiction, I could write them anyway I wanted to.
My phone buzzes. I pick it up and see a text, from my mother. Grandma is not doing well. It says. Are you going to go see her or not?
I toss the phone. How many times did I have to remind Mom? Grandma was not the kind of Grandma you baked cookies with. Besides, Grandma hadn’t been “doing well” for years. Wasn’t that why Mom turned the other cheek each time Grandma called me a whore or grabbed me by my hair and tossed me into my bedroom closet when I was a kid? I had no reason to go see Grandma at that convalescent home now. What would it fix?
The truth was my childhood, just like my cases at the Department of Children and Families, were each missing one thing: a happy ending. I sigh, thinking about the little girl that wondered who she would be grown up. The one that dreamt of becoming a famous author, but became a social worker instead. I laugh to myself remembering how I was once convinced that the black Bic pen I used to document in each child’s file had the power to save the world. It was my documentation after all, that was used as evidence in court. Finally, I woke up. I realized that most days I left the office at five o’clock with the other social workers, with oversized tote bags swung over our shoulders and empty coffee travel mugs in our hands. We walked out the door as if all children were suddenly safe at five o’clock. I knew better now. The truth was, we were all swimming. We had too many cases, too little time, and not enough safe homes or foster parents. It was all too broken to fix. Just like Mom and Grandma. Just like me.
I feel a sharp jab on the left side of my belly. “Lily,” I say out loud, “What are you doing in there?” I feel another kick and smile. I think of the way Jack lit up when the doctor said we were having a girl. “My own mini Anna,” He had said, looking at me with such pure happiness and love that I thought he might burst. I feel another kick. What would it feel like to hold the baby in my arms? People told me being a mother would come naturally, but I wasn’t so sure.
The sound of my passenger door opening startles me. I sit up quick, realizing I have sat too long with my eyes shut.
“Can you give me a ride?” Kenny says. He leans in to my car. I feel a lump in my throat. I stare at him, feeling uneasy. I didn’t lock my doors. What’s wrong with me? Sitting here in this apartment complex like I own it? This pregnancy has taken over every brain cell, I think.
“What?” I immediately think this is a stupid thing to say. I should say get the hell off my car and then back up and drive out of here.
“Listen,” Kenny leans in closer. “I know I came off as a real asshole in there. You know, it’s just that I’m trying hard to get my life together. You know, for my kids now that I’m out of jail. Seeing a social worker on my turf just reminds me of the stupid shit I’ve put Nikki through.”
I stare at him and the red t-shirt he’s now wearing. Was he serious?
“I just need a ride to the convenience store down at the corner. The guy down there, Lucky, the one that runs it said he’d give me a job. I want to go down there before he changes his mind. You know, it’s tough to get a job outta jail.” He pauses, studies my face. “Hey, I tell you what; you don’t even have to bring me back. I’ll walk back or catch a ride from someone else after.”
“Sorry,” I say. “ I can’t.” I feel stupid when I say it. Why can’t I? What if he asks? Because it’s against the rules, I remind myself. Taking a convict fresh out of prison in my car is not smart. Even my cloudy pregnant head knows this.
“Alright, alright. That’s cool.” Kenny says. He holds his hands up in the air as if I’m a cop that has told him to put his hands up. He starts to walk away. I push my foot on the brake and click the gears into reverse. But I can’t back up yet. Kenny hasn’t shut the passenger door. I reach over to grab it, but I’m too late. Kenny’s back, and before I know it, he’s in the car. He pushes my hand to the steering wheel. He slams the door shut and takes out the gun in his shorts pocket. He points it at me, his eyes glaring.
He doesn’t have to tell me to drive. I just do it.
No one seems to notice Kenny in my car. It seems like no one is around now. The guys huddled on the porch are gone. The girls and their babies are gone too. It’s me and Kenny and the black gun he sets down on the dashboard.
My heart thumps, my mind races. My hands are glued to the steering wheel. Kenny is leaned back in the passenger seat, his legs straddled. I eye the gun. I have no idea how to use it. If I grab it, chances are he’ll get to it first. He may shoot me before I have a chance. I keep driving.
Okay. I think. Get yourself together. Keep your cool. I’ll just bring him to the convenience store like he asked, right? Maybe that was all he wanted. I know deep down this is naive, but I hope for it anyway. I can see the convenience store ahead. I’ll just drop him off and then I’ll call the police. I actually believe in this plan for a split second.
Kenny cracks his knuckles. He drums on his thighs; some sort of beat that’s reminiscent of a rap song I don’t quite recognize. He raps under his breath.
Let’s buy guns and kill those kids with dads and moms
With nice homes, 401k’s, and nice ass lawns
He stops and looks at me. “You know Odd Future? They the shit!”
I shake my head no. Kenny laughs.
“Right, right. I shoulda figured. What you listen to? Britney Spears?” He laughs again. He reaches for my radio and turns up the volume. He lets his hand linger there, just above me leg. My radio is set to 96.1, America’s best variety of today and yesterday’s favorites. Soon, the car is filled with the sound of Adele’s song Chasing Pavements blaring from the speakers.
“Fuck!” Kenny says. He moans to Adele’s voice, not knowing the words but trying to sing along anyway. I see the convenience store ahead. I put on my blinker. Kenny reaches and grabs my leg. He squeezes it tight.
“Keep driving,” He says.
I want to puke. I want his hand off of me. I don’t know what to do.
Kenny lets go of my leg and runs his fingers through my hair, gently tucking my loose strands behind my ear. “Don’t worry,” He whispers. “I’ll be gentle.” He licks the side of my face.
It is in this moment that my life flashes before my eyes. I feel Lily kick. I think of Jack, waiting for me at home. I know if I keep driving, if I go wherever Kenny is planning to take me, I’ll never see Jack again. I’ll never hold Lily. I know all about the statistics. I think of the boa and the mouse. I won’t be that mouse. I’ve got to fight. Now.
I press my foot as hard as I can on the gas. The car revs. The speedometer moves up quick. My cell phone lights up with more texts from Mom. If only I had left that apartment complex sooner, I think.
“What the fuck are you doing, bitch?” Kenny grabs my steering wheel with one hand, and leans in closer to me. I feel his breath on my face.
My heart is pounding so fast that I think it might beat right out of my chest. I press the gas harder. There are no cars in my way. I see the guardrails to the right and the telephone poles that line Route 6. I see a cop car parked in the commuter parking lot on my left, waiting to hand out tickets. He spots me. His lights flash, his sirens blare. I don’t have time to pull over.
“Fuck you!” I yell at Kenny and with both of my hands I jerk the steering wheel all the way to the right. The car spins. I feel Lily kick once more. I scream. I forget about Kenny and his gun. I feel the smack as we hit and all I can see is a flash of red as my Jetta wraps its front end, like putty, around the telephone pole.
Everything goes black.