When Robert’s car broke down the second time, he said, “You kids stay out of my hair. Go across that ditch to those weeds.” Ma leaned her head against the window and looked out. She wasn’t crying. “You, Injun,” he said to me. “Take the blanket and get.” Naomi followed me through the tall weeds. We could hear him swearing back there. Already we were getting bit up. We peed, then we spread the blanket and sat down.
We heard him swear and bang on the car, and Ma told him to go find help, there was nothing else he could do by himself. Naomi lay down on her side, her back to me. I thought about the way she slept in the night lately, with her fists clenched and her eyes squeezed shut. I said her name, but she didn’t answer. She was the oldest and had always been the boss. You’d never know it now.
I think Naomi stopped talking somewhere in West Virginia, when she realized we weren’t going back. Now we were across the border into Alabama. Heading for Galveston, Robert said. She hated him, maybe more than I did.
It was okay the year he went away. Ma didn’t even mention his name. She took his picture off her dresser and laid it facedown in the drawer, under her stockings. Then he came back, just like that, and the picture went up again. He started right in with his fighting.
“Why’d you let him come back?” I asked Ma.
“I don’t know” was all she said.
“If he hits me once – ” I told her.
She looked down at her hands. “He’s not going to hit you,” she said.
“Or you,” I said.
She shook her head, still looking down at her hands.
Once, I heard her say she used to love him. “He was so good to me after their daddy died,” she said. She was talking to our neighbor, though, not to me.
I remember when Robert came to live with us, after our father died. I remember, too, the story Ma would tell about when I was born, how I looked so dark – redskinned and with lots of black hair – that she thought they had given her the wrong baby. “She looked just like an Indian,” she said. Robert heard that story, and he started calling me Injun and saying how someday he would find an Indian family to send me back to, where I belonged. Ma heard him talk like that to me, but never said a word, so I wondered if it was true that I was the wrong baby.
When things got really bad with Robert, though, Ma said what she felt like to him. Sometimes he’d slap her for it, sometimes he didn’t do anything. You never knew when it was coming. He’d gone after us just once and Ma lit into him, fists and all. Then afterward, because we were scared and crying, she came into our room. She stood in the doorway, like a caught animal. She held onto the doorframe with both hands. “It’s all right,” she told us from where she stood. “You’ll be all right,” she said. She didn’t come any closer.
Now Robert was going to Galveston to work because he knew somebody there. Really he was going to get away from “trouble” – all the people he owed money to. “Mean son of a bitches,” he called them. “Just love to kick a man when he’s down.” He made Ma buy the car with the fifty dollars he gave her, and he put some old plates on it that he found somewhere. Ma wanted to get to Galveston as much as he did. She had a cousin who lived nearby in Beaumont, and an aunt, too, and maybe they could help us. She didn’t tell Robert about the cousin and the aunt.
“You thirsty?” I said to Naomi.
Something skittered through the grass, and I jumped, held still, listened. I heard more sounds: bugs, birds, animals, the breeze through the grass. The afternoon sun beat down. A nearby tree gave some shade. I lay down, too. I rolled over so I was touching Naomi, and I fell asleep.
I woke to the sounds of Robert banging on the car, still trying to fix it. Naomi shaded her eyes with her hand and watched a gray bird in the tree.
Ma called, “Audrey. Naomi. Where are you?”
We went back to the car. Ma was sitting in front, on the passenger side, with the door open. She was combing her hair. Her face was flushed from the heat. She started pinning up her hair, and it made her face look thin and old.
Robert leaned under the hood. Tools lay on the fender. “You go in those woods,” he told me. “I saw some kind of shack in there. Maybe somebody lives there.” He pointed. He knew better than to tell Naomi to do anything. She wouldn’t look at him or answer him. Once, when Ma wasn’t around, he slapped her face for it. She didn’t even blink.
“You tell ‘em the car’s broke down,” Robert said. “Tell ‘em come help.”
I looked at Ma. “Go ahead,” she told me. “We’re not going anywhere.” She knew I was thinking about that time he drove me and Naomi out in the country and made me get out because he said I was acting smart. He came back and got me half an hour later.
I was just turning to go when an old pickup truck came down the road. It was the only traffic since we’d stopped. We had to take what Robert called the back roads because he was afraid of being pulled over. Robert stood on the shoulder to flag them down. It was hot out. The hair around his ears and against his neck was wet. The truck slowed and they stared at us as they went by, an old man and old lady. She had a polka dot kerchief tied around her head. A big yellow dog in the back of the truck barked at us as they went by.
“Son of a bitching bastards,” Robert said. He kicked at an empty cigarette wrapper on the side of the road, and the dust blew back against his pant leg. “Go on,” he told me.
I didn’t see any house, but I headed where he’d pointed.
“And see if they got anything to eat,” he called after me.
The woods were full of tiny bugs. I slapped at them as they went for my face and arms. I kept looking back. The blue of the car showed through the trees. Then the trees closed and I didn’t see the car anymore. I went back a few steps until I could see it again, to make sure they hadn’t left. I looked ahead through the woods, trying to make out a house. I wondered if Robert had been lying. I started walking again, but I didn’t know if I was going in the right direction. Then I parted some branches so I could pass on, and I stepped into a new place.
It was an open place, full of light.