I am five-years-old, and my favorite escape plan starts with Mom asking us kids if we want to run away with her. We all say– Yes!
She says, especially with the baby now, you’ll have to get along, be willing to help, and you have to promise to keep everything secret from Dad.
One sweltering afternoon while Dad is at work, Mom tells us kids to each get a large brown grocery bag and put some of our clothes in it. She tells us to roll the top down a couple times so the bag doesn’t rip. Do this now and hide the bags in the attic where the roof gets low– don’t fall through the ceiling, she says.
Months later, when Mom knows Dad will be out late for a deacon’s meeting, she tells us kids– quick– get your bags and run over to Beanie’s driveway.
We four kids clutch our belongings to our chests as we run through our dark backyard then down the side yard to the driveway where Beanie’s dad helps us slip into his car. It is silent as he drives to a neighborhood fifteen minutes away and drops us off at a second house. This gives him plenty of time to get back home, and later he can act like he’s been sleeping when my dad shows up banging on his door looking for us.
Mrs. Bentley, at house number two, stands behind a bush by the side of her garage. It is pitch black where she stands, and as soon as Beanie’s dad stops his car and turns off the headlights a house away, Mrs. Bentley rushes from her lookout spot, hurries to us kids, helps us into her black Buick saying– stay low– don’t peek out the windows.
Mom sits up front holding Baby Morgan. She tells Mrs. Bentley she’s so scared she’ll pass out, but Mrs. Bentley doesn’t say anything like– don’t worry, things will be fine– she just drives, and after a while there is the smell of manure, so I think we’re headed for a farm.
While Mrs. Bentley drives I think about what a smart woman she is. I think about how she is the only woman we know who owns her own car, and she’s the only woman we know who makes bunny-shaped birthday cakes for her two kids. She frosts the built-up, shaped layers of chocolate cake, covers them with fluffy white frosting and sprinkles sweet coconut shavings over the top. She makes the eyes, nose, ears, and whiskers from jellybeans and thinly sliced strips of black licorice, and her bunny cakes are so, so cute.
Mrs. Bentley is especially smart tonight because on her front seat, between her and Mom, she has placed a bag of groceries from her own house. This way when she gets back home if some nosy neighbor sees her walking to her house it will look like she’s just back from the grocery store. She’ll be baking chocolate chip cookies when her husband returns from the same deacon’s meeting my father attended, and the minute Mr. Bentley opens the door he’ll be so taken with the smell of warm cookies that he’ll never be able to imagine his wife was ever capable of assisting in any escape.
Weeks later, when Dad decides he must finally ask the deacons if they might know where his family has gone, along with the others, Mr. Bentley will say, No, I have no idea, and Dad will become so confused he will never figure out where we’ve gone. Heck, we’ll be four states away staying with another family who’s helping us get into new schools, helping Mom find a job, helping find a place for us to live, and when Mom sees that she has met so many kind people, she’s so glad she dared run away with her kids, and she’s so happy that Baby Morgan will have the chance to grow up in a calm home– and when we move into a small apartment with glistening white kitchen cabinets, and walls painted a sunny yellow, everyone in our new little family knows this is the happiest day of our lives.
It’s a great fantasy. I must dream it at least twenty times a week.
But tonight, down in the basement, the escape plan I cling to does not help me smile at all. I only feel a deep sadness, like the child part of me died at the bottom of the steps. I feel changed, different, like I crashed down the steps and landed in another place.
Hunger pangs rip through my stomach. I try to remember what I’ve eaten today, probably cinnamon-sugar toast, with milk– this morning.
I take a small jar of strawberry jam from the canned goods Mom stores under the stairway.
I will eat this. There is no way he can stop me.
It is by the canned goods under these steps that my family huddles when tornado warnings sound over the radio. Then even Dad seems to fear the power of the storm as his voice softens and he tells us this is the safest place. But we are never protected from the rages of his storms.
I take the strawberry jam over to the workbench and find a long nail. I jab at the wax until it cracks, and I pry it out.
The shimmering red jam smells delicious.
I go back under the stairs and hide the paraffin behind the tallest jars that hold dill pickles packed tight one against the other, a sprig of garden dill floating just under the lid.
I sit under the steps, and with my finger dig out a big strawberry.
It is good. I eat another, then another.
It is dark where I sit, but a shaft of light from a thick block of glass in the back-stoop shines into the basement, lands on the floor near me.
I’m grateful for the strawberries and the light.
Alice Morris, BS in English Ed, MS in counseling from Johns Hopkins, comes to writing with a background in art– published in The New York Art Review, and a West Virginia textbook. Although having a college background, she became more interested in rehabbing homes (sweat equity), making furniture, and in expressing herself through various art forms, and so never settled into an official 9-5 type of career, although she did substitute teach for thirteen years.
In more recent years she has turned her attention to writing. Her poetry appears in The Broadkill Review, Delaware Beach Life, The White Space-Selected Poems, Silver Birch Press, Rats Ass Review, and in various books and anthologies including Bared: Contemporary Poetry and Art on Bras and Breasts, The Way to My Heart, Ice Cream Poems, Rehoboth Reimagined, Destigmatized-Voices for Change. Work is forthcoming in Sanctuary (Darkhouse Books). She is a member of the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild, and Coastal Writers.
For the past thirty years, she and her husband have lived in a small town near the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Here they raised their two children along with the family pets– a rabbit, two cats, and a dog.
Author-in-hiding, Digital Artist-in-training, Student-in-perpetuum