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Dreaming In Color

One

She stayed where she was even after the front door slammed. Sometimes he came back. So she waited until she heard the car go roaring off down the street. Then she sat up against the cupboard door, looking around at the mess. She hadn't cried this time, hadn't tried to reason with him, or to defend herself. It hadn't made a difference.

Her face hurt. So did her hips and the backs of her thighs, where he'd kicked her. She looked at the spaghetti sauce splattered on the wall, the pieces of broken plate, the chair lying on its side by the sink. Spaghetti all over the floor, some of it mashed into the linoleum.

Her heart wouldn't slow down. It kept rapping too fast in her chest. She had to breathe through her mouth and it made her lips sting. Blood ran down her chin, dropped into her lap. Penny had slept through it this time, thank God. Last time she'd come running in and Joe had slapped her, sent her flying all the way into the hall. It was bad enough the things he did to her but she couldn't let him start hitting Penny. And if she'd awakened this time, he'd've hit her again. Next time, though, she might come running in and Joe would hurt her. That couldn't be allowed to happen. It was one thing for him to hit her. She was used to it by now. But Penny was only six years old; she hadn't done anything wrong; she deserved better.

She staggered into the bathroom, ran cold water in the sink, and bathed her face. No more, she thought, her heart still going too fast. If she didn't take Penny and get out of there he'd wind up killing both of them.

She ran to the bedroom, got the old suitcase from the back of the closet, and started shoving her clothes into it. Then, moving fast, she got the duffel bag and went to Penny's room. She wasn't going to waste any time thinking about it. They were going, and right away, before he came back.

"Honey, get up," she said softly, touching the sleeping child on the shoulder. "Get up and get dressed."

Opening her eyes, Penny murmured, "Where we goin'?"

"We're leaving. Get dressed fast as you can."

"Where we goin'?" Penny asked again, sitting on the side of the bed and watching for a moment as her mother emptied drawers, pushed clothes into the bag.

"Away," Bobby told her, running her tongue over her split lip, feeling the sting. "Get dressed now. We've gotta hurry."

"Are we running away?" Penny wanted to know, pulling her nightgown over her head.

"That's right," Bobby said, at the closet now.

"Good," Penny said, reaching for her jeans. "I hate it here. Where we goin' to?"

"I don't know," Bobby said breathlessly. "Hurry up. And don't forget Mr. Bear."

"What about Mr. Rabbit and all my other books and toys?"

"Listen." Bobby dropped down in front of her, fumbling at the buttons on Penny's shirt. "We can't take everybody, just Mr. Bear. We've got to go right away, now, before Daddy gets back. Okay?" She got up and handed the child her sweater, then grabbed the pillow and comforter off the bed. Arms laden, she tore through the house, out the back door to the car. After tossing the bedding on the back seat, she got the trunk open and threw in the duffel bag before running inside for her suitcase and their coats, Penny's boots and backpack.

Grabbing up her handbag and the keys, she did a quick check of the house. The envelope with all their important papers. She got it from the desk drawer in the living room. What else? Think! There was nothing else she wanted, and the urgency was singing in her ears. Go, go, go! She opened the freezer compartment of the refrigerator and grabbed the foilwrapped package from under the stack of frozen pizzas. Her secret savings. Nickels and quarters she'd saved for months on end, converting the change into bills until she'd amassed almost three hundred dollars, all she had in the world.

Penny was standing in the kitchen doorway, thumb in her mouth, taking in the mess.

"Come on, honey." Bobby lifted the child onto her bruised hip and picked her way through the shards of crockery, the slime of spaghetti. "We're going now."

She got Penny settled in a makeshift bed in the back, then climbed into the driver's seat and got the car started. The old Honda was falling to pieces. The valves were about shot and it had an oil leak. Just get us away from here, away from him, she prayed. Tasting blood in her mouth, she reversed out of the driveway and headed down the street. Knees shaking, hands slick on the wheel, she drove automatically. She had no idea where they were going. Just as far away from him as they could get.

"What about school?" Penny asked, startling her.

"You'll go to a new school when we get where we're going," Bobby told her. "Lie down now and go to sleep."

"But where're we goin'?"

"I don't know," Bobby said tiredly, feeling the bruising deep in her legs. The pain in her face throbbed in syncopation with her heartbeat. "Somewhere nice, somewhere far away."

"Daddy's a bad, bad man," Penny said, her chin resting on the back of the passenger seat. "He'll be sorry we're gone."

"Yeah." Bobby sighed, one eye starting to swell closed. "Real sorry," she said, imagining his rage when he returned home to find them gone. He'd probably smash up the whole house. Then he'd collect his guns, get in the car, and go looking for them. First he'd go to Lor's house and wake everybody up, demanding to see his wife and kid. That's what he'd done the last time. He'd made such a screaming fuss Lor wound up calling the cops. They'd booked Joe again for disturbing the peace. And after the cops had taken him away, Lor said, "I'm real sorry, hon, but you're gonna have to go." She'd had no choice; she'd taken Penny home. He'd behaved himself for two weeks after the cops let him out. Then he'd started all over again.

"You lie down now and go to sleep," she told Penny. "We've got a long way to go."

They were on highway 17, headed east. She'd always wanted to see the ocean. If the car held up, she'd drive it right to the Atlantic, find some seaside town where they could start fresh. Someplace small and clean, just a couple of rooms. She'd get a job, settle Penny in a new school. "Don't fall apart on me," she whispered to the car, hands tight on the wheel, eyes straining in the dark.

Penny lay down cuddling Mr. Bear and began to sing herself to sleep. Bobby listened to the small voice singing "Mr. Sandman." Penny got through two verses before her voice thinned, then stopped. Bobby put the radio on low and concentrated on the road.

At first she kept checking the rearview mirror, expecting him to come racing up behind them in the Firebird. It didn't happen, and after a while she stopped looking. She got all the way to Elmira, where she just had to stop. Her head ached so badly she could scarcely see, and a steady pain radiated up and down her thighs. She pulled into a twentyfourhour service center and gassed up the car, then drove around back to where all the long-distance trucks were parked. Putting the seat back as far as it would go, she wrapped her coat around herself and closed her eyes. Every few minutes she jerked awake, her heart hammering as she surveyed the area. No one came anywhere near them. At last she fell into a kind of half sleep.

Rain drumming on the car roof roused her at just after six the next morning.

Penny was already awake, looking out the window, Mr. Bear in her arm.

"Hungry, hon?" Bobby asked.

"Where are we?"

"Outside Elmira," Bobby told her. "We'll get some breakfast, then go on."

"I gotta go to the bathroom."

"Okay." Bobby held her breath and turned the key in the ignition. The car started. Relieved, she let out her breath and drove back around to the front of the service center. Then she and Penny ran through the rain, following the signs to the ladies' room. A couple of women on their way out gave her a look, and Bobby lowered her eyes. A glance in the mirror showed her how bad she looked: her right eye purple and swollen almost shut; her lips puffed out, her nose swollen too. No amount of makeup would cover the damage.

After she and Penny had used the toilet and had a quick wash, they went into the restaurant, where she sipped at some coffee while Penny ate scrambled eggs and toast. Mr. Bear had to eat too. Penny shared every bite with him, telling him what a good boy he was after each forkful of egg. Bobby kept looking over at the door, expecting to see Joe come charging in with his shotgun. She imagined people diving under the tables for cover as Joe let go with both barrels, then changed guns and started firing one of his handguns. Glass shattering, screams, her body bouncing as the bullets tore through her flesh. Was it the fear? she wondered. Or was the coffee actually bitter?

Penny wanted some Jell-O, but Bobby couldn't stand the thought of staying there another minute. She got an order of cherry Jell-O to go and another coffee. Five minutes later they were on the road again. The rain made it slow going. It was hard to see in the downpour, especially with one eye almost closed. They crawled along at forty while everything on the road went past sending sheets of water splashing over the little car. Her arms ached from her fierce grip on the wheel. In the back seat, Penny ate her Jell-O, telling Mr. Bear he couldn't have any because he hadn't eaten all his breakfast.

*

After Binghamton the rain let up, and she made good time all the way to the interchange at Interstate 84. They stopped so Penny could have a grilled cheese sandwich and Bobby took three aspirins with another cup of coffee, then looked at the map, trying to choose which way to go. She decided they'd take 84 to 684, then cut along secondary roads into Connecticut. She'd heard of Stamford but none of the other towns. So they'd stop in Stamford and she'd buy the local newspaper, see what kind of jobs were available. If they got lucky, she might get a job right away and then she wouldn't have to waste money on a motel. She'd rent them a room and get Penny started in school. Things would work out. They had to.

It was late afternoon by the time they arrived in Stamford. She found an inexpensive motel on Route 1 and bought a newspaper at the front desk. While Penny sat in front of the TV set eating a burger and fries from the McDonald's drive-thru, Bobby circled ads in the Stamford Advocate. First thing in the morning, she'd start making calls. If anybody asked, she'd say she'd been in a car accident.

Penny watched Sesame Street, an old episode of I Love Lucy, and a repeat of Happy Days. Then Bobby got her into the tub and sat on the toilet while Penny blew soap bubbles between her hands and sang the theme song from Happy Days. Bobby got down on her knees beside the tub and washed Penny's hair, then sat with the towelp-wrapped child on her knees and dried her hair.

"Your eye's all big and purple," Penny said, touching the tip of one tiny finger to her mother's temple.

"I know."

"Does it hurt?" Penny's small face twisted sympathetically.

"A little."

"Poor Mommy," Penny said soberly. "Daddy's bad. Is he gonna come find us?"

"No," Bobby said strongly, her throat starting to close. "We're never going to see him again. Tomorrow I'll find a job, and then we'll look for someplace to live. We're going to stay here."

"Right here?"

"In this town."

"Do they have schools here?"

"Sure they do."

"Where're we gonna live?"

"We'll find a place."

"Where?"

"Maybe by the water," Bobby said. "Wouldn't you like to see the ocean?"

"Yeah." Penny grinned. "We could go swimmin'."

"In the summer we could."

"Did you bring my storybook?"

"Damn! I forgot. I'll get you another one tomorrow. Okay?"

"I like that storybook. I don't want another one."

"We'll get another copy of that same book, Pen. Don't fuss, please."

"What'm I gonna read before I go to sleep?"

"I don't know," Bobby said tiredly, fitting Penny's nightgown over her head. "How about if I let you watch one more TV show instead?"

"Okay." Penny ran to turn on the set and began changing channels until she found a show that captured her attention.

Bobby checked the door again, making sure it was double locked and the chain was in place. Then she tried the window and, satisfied it was locked, sat down in the leatherette chair by the desk and lit a cigarette. Penny made a face and waved dramatically at the air, but didn't complain as she usually did. When the show was over, she announced, "I'm going to sleep now."

"That's my good girl," Bobby said, settling the blankets around her. "I'll take a shower now. I won't be long."

"Leave the door open," Penny said as Bobby turned off the light.

Bobby kissed her, then went into the bathroom, leaving the door ajar. Penny was afraid of the dark. The bathroom light would have to stay on all night.

There were large bruises on her hips and thighs and one on her breast. She stood under the hot shower, with the curtain pulled partway back, her eyes on the door as she soaped herself. She thought of Joe bursting into the room and her heart began racing. She had to keep telling herself he didn't know where they were; they'd never see him again. Over and over, she told herself they'd never see him again; he'd never find them.

In bed, with Penny deeply asleep, she lay on her side facing the door. Once she had a job and they'd found a place to live, she'd call her aunt, let her know they were all right. Aunt Helen would never tell Joe where they were. And he knew better than to go anywhere near her. Helen would call the police if she so much as saw his car pulling into the driveway.

Bobby closed her eyes but couldn't relax. Her body still hummed to the motion of the car on the road. And the slightest sound from the parking lot made every muscle in her body go tight. It was almost worse fearing Joe from a distance than it was facing him in the same room.

She turned over, her bruised hips protesting, felt too vulnerable with her back to the door, and turned back. She was wide awake. Slipping out of bed, she went to sit at the desk and smoked another cigarette while she watched Penny sleep. Finally, she lay down again and gazed at the ceiling. Eventually, exhausted, she slept.

It wasn't until they were at McDonald's the next morning, while Penny was having an Egg McMuffin and she was having a coffee, that she realized most of the job ads she'd circled were out of the question. Who was going to look after Penny after school? She knew no one in the area, which meant a full-time job was impossible. What had she been thinking of? She'd have to try to find some kind of live-in work. The domestic ads offered half a dozen possibilities. Cautioning Penny not to move, she went to the restaurant pay phone and began making calls, keeping an eye on Penny and checking the door every few seconds.

Three of the people listened until she mentioned Penny. A child was out of the question. End of call. Two said they'd see her. She got an answering machine at the last place and didn't bother leaving a message. She sat down again and went through every single one of the help wanted ads from start to finish, in every category, even office work for which she had no qualifications. Aunt Helen had been after her and after her to take typing, but Bobby never had. She should've listened to her aunt.

There was an ad for a live-in practical nurse. She didn't have any training but she'd nursed Grandpa until he died, dealing with the bedpan and the medications. She knew how to look after sick people. And the worst that could happen was they'd say no.

"Stay here, hon. I've got one more call to make."

Pen nodded, preoccupied with feeding Mr. Bear the last of the Egg McMuffin.

The woman who answered said, "I can see you this afternoon at four. Let me give you the address."

Bobby wrote it down, then asked for directions.

"You're not from this area?" the woman asked.

"No, ma'am. We're new to the state."

"I see. All right." She gave the directions.

Bobby got them down, then said, "I'll be there at four. Thanks very much."

The woman hung up without even bothering to say good-bye, and Bobby returned to Penny's side, not holding out much hope for that interview. The woman had sounded like the impatient sort, and kind of snooty. God, she was scared. Her money wouldn't last more than a few days. She had to get settled somehow. She couldn't go back to Joe. He'd kill her this time. And she couldn't go to Aunt Helen's again. Not after all the trouble Joe had caused over the years.

"I love you dearly," her aunt had said. "But I can't have that man coming here, threatening me with guns. You've got to get right the way away, Bobby, far enough so he can't find you."

The neighbors had called the police on Joe the last time and after they'd taken him away, they'd said she and Penny could go to a shelter. She'd never even known there were places like that, or people who cared, and she'd wondered why nobody had ever told her about them before.

She'd been amazed to see so many other women with their kids, a lot of them black and blue like her. It was a secret place, and you couldn't give anybody the phone number or say where you were, in case the husbands found out and came around making trouble. It was going to that shelter that first gave her the idea of running away. She'd gone back home to Joe after five days because she'd had no place else to go, but in the back of her mind she had the idea. And that was when she'd started saving, keeping back her change, hiding it in a jar under the back stairs. She'd never actually planned anything. It was just there in her mind in a place she called One Day. And months went by before One Day arrived, and she and Pen got in the Honda and drove away. One Day was now.

Please let one of these people want us, she prayed silently, running a hand over Penny's hair. We really need a miracle.

At the first place the woman who came to the door took one look at her and Penny and said, "I'm sorry. The job's been filled." She took a step back and quietly closed the door.

The woman at the second appointment invited them in and talked baby talk to Penny, who refused to say a word and sat with her arms folded tightly across her chest. Bobby was told what the job entailed: cooking and cleaning for a family of five; they were shown a small room next to the kitchen that would be theirs. Finally, the woman said, "I've got three other women to interview this afternoon. I'll have to let you know."

Bobby gave her the motel number and took Penny back out to the car. She wasn't a bit optimistic about her chances. The woman had never once looked her in the face.

It was too early for the practical nursing appointment but she decided to go along anyway in case she had trouble with the directions. She found the house quite easily and sat parked at the top of the driveway to wait until four o'clock. It was a lovely house. The lawn out back went right to the water's edge.

"I've got to go to the bathroom," Penny announced.

"You'll have to wait, hon."

"I can't!" Penny insisted. "I've got to go now."

"Oh, damn. All right. Come on." She and Penny got out of the car and went up the walk to the front door. Bobby felt depressed and frightened and oddly defiant. No one was going to give her a job looking the way she did. Who was she kidding? She and Pen would spend another night in the motel, then use the last of their money to go back home. And maybe for a week or two Joe would be real sweet and sorry. But in a month or six weeks, maybe two months, he'd break some more of her bones and then he'd kill her. All she could do was beg Aunt Helen to take Pen. Joe didn't care enough about Pen to want to kill her. He wouldn't care if Pen went to Aunt Helen's.

The woman who came to the door stared at Bobby's face and said, "What on earth happened to you?"

"I was in a car accident. Ma'am, I know I'm early for our appointment but Penny's got to go to the bathroom real bad."

The woman looked down at Penny for a long moment, then sighed and said, "Come on in. The bathroom's at the end of the hall on the right. Can she go alone or do you have to take her?"

"I'll take her, if that's okay."

"Would you like some coffee?" the woman asked, frowning slightly as she looked again at Bobby's face.

"That'd be great. Thanks a lot."

"Fine. The living room's here," the woman pointed. "I'll just get the coffee."

It was the prettiest house Bobby had ever seen. Even the bathroom was pretty with flowered wallpaper and yellow fixtures, bright yellow curtains on the window.

"Who's that lady?" Penny asked, as Bobby helped her to get her jeans down.

"Damn!" Bobby whispered. "I forgot to ask her name. I didn't even tell her mine. She'll think I'm some kind of moron."

"Are we gonna visit?"

"I hope maybe she'll give me a job and let us live here."

"I'd love to live here," Penny said. "It's nice."

"Keep your fingers crossed, hon. It's about time we had a bit of halfway decent luck."

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