When his mom decided it was time for them to leave and leave for good, Thomas knew they better get far away or he’d come and find them. The good thing or the bad thing, depending on how one looked at it, was that it was Christmas day and food was still cooking in the kitchen. Just another Christmas, with Mom sweating in a tiny room over a tiny stove, Thomas and Sara dreaming of the iPods or gaming equipment they could be enjoying, and Dad watching college basketball on his flat-screen television and drinking with a vengeance. This was the worst time they could possibly ever leave, and that was what made it the best.
“Thomas, I need your help,” Mom called.
He didn’t go right away, watching the game with almost as much interest as Dad. It was only when his father barked out his name that Thomas went. Dad wasn’t concerned about Mom’s needing help—he didn’t want any interruptions to his game. It would sure help them all out if the UNC Tarheels would score a little more often. Thomas got up, figuring he needed to take out the garbage or Benny, his dad’s dog.
“I want you to do something and not ask any questions, do you understand?” Mom’s voice was barely audible over the sound of the stove’s fan.
“What do you mean?”
“I want you to get your sister and go out to the car, okay?”
Right there and then he knew. Something was wrong. The way his mother looked and sounded today seemed different. The bruise above her lips was still swollen, but that wasn’t anything new. It was the look in her eyes, a look he’d never seen before.
“Where are we going?”
“Get Sara and take her to the car right now.”
He nodded. The smell of the sweet potatoes and the ham and the fresh biscuits and the macaroni pie all made his mouth water. But fear made his hunger go quiver in a corner.
Thomas wanted to ask his mother but he knew. The knowing part of him whispered for his mouth to stay shut and for his legs to start moving.
Getting Sara would be easy. In fact, doing anything now would be easy except taking Dad’s can of Coors Light away from him or turning off his game.
He was able to get his sister’s attention without a problem. She looked up when he came into the living room. She was eleven but she tried to act older. For a moment he mouthed that she needed to come, signaling for her to follow him. The game no longer interested him. All he could think about was his mother’s request.
“What do you think you’re doing?” his father asked.
Thomas hadn’t seen his father looking at him. Usually by now, about three-fourths of the way into the basketball game, he was in a semicoma that would only to be broken by another trip to the fridge.
“Every time you wave your arms Benny thinks you’re playing with him. So knock it off. Unless you’re going to take him outside for a walk.”
Sara didn’t need an explanation to follow into the other room. Dad’s tone was enough. Once inside the kitchen, Thomas guided her toward the back door.
“We need to go,” he said outside.
“Where’s that? I’m hungry.” They walked quickly out the door and to the car.
The first thing Thomas thought of as he climbed into the musty-smelling Nissan was his bike.
The bike that he and Mom had finally saved up enough to buy, a used and recycled mountain bike that they’d spent a hundred and fifty bucks on. A bike that when new would have cost over a thousand. A bike that had seen better days but still had some life in it.
Maybe not much of a life after all.
Thomas thought about what to do about the bike. It was getting rusty and the paint was chipped but he still loved it. Maybe he could ride it and follow behind the car. Or maybe they could fit it in the fifteen-year-old Maxima.
They waited in the car for ten minutes. Ten whole minutes. He sat in the front seat looking at the small house with the wild shrubs growing unevenly around it and the rusted-out white truck that couldn’t fit all of them in the front seat.
“What are we doing?” Sara kept asking.
“We’re waiting for Mom.”
“Where are we going?”
Mom had told them—no, she’d promised them—that they would be getting a special Christmas present today. Just the two kids. She had said she would give it to them during the day, that it was going to be a surprise, that they couldn’t mention it to Dad. This is her present, Thomas thought as he waited and worried that the next one out of the house would be the man with the glassy eyes and the tightened jaw. His hands felt sweaty as he rubbed them and tried to act like he wasn’t nervous in front of his sister.
Maybe she planned on leaving later. Maybe the fight they had when she started cooking dinner convinced her to go now.
The door opened and Thomas stopped breathing.
It was Mom.
All she carried was her purse. Maybe she had already packed a few things, but he didn’t see anything in the backseat.
How do I ask her about my bike?
As she climbed into the car, Thomas could see the fear on her face and in the way she moved. Before starting up the car, she turned to face both of them.
“You two, listen to me. We’re leaving and we’re not coming back, and I’ll explain why. But for now we have to go. Do you understand me?”
Sara began asking questions, but it was Thomas who told her to be quiet, not Mom.
He didn’t need to be told why.
He didn’t need to ask about his bike either.
The car left without hesitation.
Thomas and Sara had received the best gift ever: freedom.
The question was whether it would still be there tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.
And whether the man inside the house they were leaving would find them and reclaim them as his own.
© 2011 Jimmy Wayne Barber