“She said that if I was ever in trouble, I should come to you for help.”
Goddamn. What exactly did I fuck up in my life to deserve this?
“I had to get away… I didn’t know what to do.”
Well, that makes two of us, sweetheart. What the hell am I going to do?
“Will you help me?”
Do I have a choice?
I like to think I have a pretty nice apartment. It’s spacious – I have two bedrooms, one of which is converted to an office, as I don’t – uh, didn’t – have a roommate. A living room with an attached kitchen. A huge bathroom, complete with a tub and a shower. It’s pretty nice.
But I couldn’t help but feel that it was suffocatingly small as I sat at the dinner table, sipping my tea and staring at the girl across from me who still hadn’t touched hers.
She was far too small to be 18 like she told me. I would put her closer to 14, and that was being generous. Her brown hair was a greasy, tangled mess, obscuring most of her face as she stared down at her hands. Every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of wide, brown eyes rimmed with black circles. It was the eyes that got me, the reason that I let her in. I knew I’d seen them before, even if I couldn’t quite remember where at the moment.
Her name certainly didn’t ring a bell when she showed up on my doorstep.
“Tracy… It’s Tracy Miller.” When she saw my look of confusion, she changed tactics. “You don’t know me, but you knew my mother. At least, I think you did. Her name was Rachel Miller… well, she would have been Rachel Lynch when you knew her.”
Ah, of course. Now I had a name to match the eyes. Although I had to admit that this left me more confused than I had been before. Why would Rachel Lynch’s daughter have come to see me?
A cough from across the table brought me back to the present. I thought maybe she was trying to get my attention but, no, she just seemed sick. Of course she was, she’d probably come from a state or more away. How did she even get here? I didn’t have an answer for that. I would guess that, if she had any money on her at all, it certainly wasn’t much. I felt a surge of protection for her, and then squashed it down. No, no, she was just a kid, she wasn’t my problem.
She coughed again and I sighed. Damn it, of course she was my problem. No matter my relationship with her mother, I couldn’t take it out on her. She was an innocent child and she clearly needed someone… she wouldn’t have come all this way for no reason.
I ushered her to the bathroom and commanded her to shower. “You can give me your dirty clothes and I’ll get you something clean to change into while I get them washed,” I offered, and I was relieved she accepted because her clothing was truly disgusting by this point. As she showered, I put a few blankets in my home office and moved my work supplies so she could stay there for the time being.
I did all of these things automatically as I tried to think over what I should do with her. After all, homeless(?) children don’t show up at my door every day. So what was I supposed to do with this one?
The answer was not forthcoming.
I was sitting back at the table by the time she got out. She handed me her clothes without a word and I showed her to her room.
“You can stay in here until we get this figured out, okay?”
She nodded. She hadn’t offered to talk to me about why exactly she was here, what kind of trouble she was in, but I found that I had no interest in asking. I had a premonition that I was about to have to clean up another one of Rachel’s messes. Typical. I turned to leave so that I could wash Tracy’s clothing as she got familiar with her new lodgings when I felt her tapping me gently on the shoulder.
I came face to face with an envelope that was once white, but was now gray with dirt and age.
“It’s for you. Mom wanted you to read it,” she said.
I nodded and succeeded in leaving this time, my hand clenching involuntarily around the hapless letter.
I shoved it in my pocket and tried not to think about it, simply because I didn’t want to.
Once the clothes were washed, I went to check on my charge and found her already asleep on the bed. She must have been exhausted, because no amount of shaking could wake her up. I decided to let her rest for the night and solve the problem tomorrow, come hell or high water. Really, she couldn’t stay here. It wouldn’t make sense. It wouldn’t be right.
She wasn’t my responsibility.
Except right now she was. So what the hell was I supposed to do? I went to my room, locked the door, and pulled out my cell phone.
Because I had to call the cops. Right? That’s what you do, isn’t it? But then why did I feel so guilty about doing it?
I thought it through logically. No matter what she said, she was clearly underage. She was sick, possibly hurt, and I had no idea what she’d been through trying to get here. Someone was probably looking for her. The police would know how to deal with her.
But then another part of me spoke up. Yes, someone probably was looking for her. Maybe that’s why she was here. She said she was in trouble – maybe someone was trying to hurt her? I doubted that her mother would send her here without good reason, it seemed like too big a risk. If I called the police, would I just be sending her back into the lion’s den?
With a sigh, I put my phone back down and opened my laptop to start on my work for the night. It wouldn’t hurt to wait until the next day… at least then I could hear her story Maybe that would make my decision easier.
I still did not read the letter.
“Did you sleep well?”
Tracy met me at the dinner table for breakfast. I’d made a full, traditional American breakfast for the two of us. After all, she looked like she needed it. By the way she started wolfing the food down, I guessed that she hadn’t eaten in a few days.
She grunted and I took that as a “yes.” I took a deep breath before continuing on to the less pleasant part of the conversation.
“We need to talk about why you’re here. What happened?” Wow, way to be blunt, good job, Harley. I mentally scolded myself. Tact is definitely not my strong suit.
Tracy seemed to have a hard time swallowing for a moment, but she managed to force the food down and look up at me with dread in her eyes. I felt a little guilty, but I had to know what I was dealing with, so I waited for the answer.
“Mom… couldn’t protect me from him anymore. It was the last thing she told me to do, to run away and to find you. It took me an awful long time to find you, you know. I had the address, but you live so far away…” her voice trailed off, probably because she noticed that I was stuck on the first part of what she’d said.
“What do you mean, it was the last thing she told you?”
Tracy turned into a mirror as her confusion surfaced. “Didn’t you read her letter?”
Another surge of guilt. “No, I haven’t yet.”
She was quiet for a moment, looking down at her half-eaten plate before pushing it away, as though she had lost her appetite. “Read it, and you’ll know,” she said.
She left me to my fate as she returned to her room.
It’s a bit cliché to start a letter that way, isn’t it? But it’s what I need to say, and it’s what you need to hear. I was wrong, and I know it now. And I’m asking you for help because my daughter needs you. Even after all that happens, you are the kindest person I’ve ever known, and the only one that I have now that I can trust.
I know you never liked him. Hell, nobody did. I lost my family for him. Although it will make you mad, I find that I somehow can’t bring myself to regret it. Because I love him. Yes, even after all this, I love him.
But he is a bad man. Just like you said. An evil, hurtful man. If I’d known, I would never have given birth to Tracy. I would never have had a child. But I did and I resigned myself to protect her as best as I can.
But I can’t protect her anymore, Harley. I’m sick, and the doctors found the tumor too late. I write this now because soon I won’t be able to write anymore. I don’t have long left, so the very last thing I can do is at least make sure my daughter is safe.
If I could take back what happened between us, I would. Oh, you know I’d do it a million times over. But I can’t, and now I’ll never have the chance to make it right. The only thing I can do is hope that this note will assuage some of your anger towards me.
Please help her.
I’m so, so sorry.
Unfair. Everything Rachel did was unfair. Hell, I knew that better than anyone else. She sent me this shitty letter with barely an explanation, and just expected that everything would be okay and I’d take care of her precious little angel.
But I didn’t care. I’d said good-bye to Rachel a long time ago. She was nothing to me, now. Just a bitter memory that was staying in the past.
So why was I crying?
I found her in her makeshift room. She was sitting on the couch, paging through a book that she’d plucked from my bookshelf. Dracula by Bram Stoker. Her head shot up when she heard me open the door, and her face went a ghastly shade of red when she saw me.
“I wasn’t… I didn’t mean… I’m sorry I took your book!” she sputtered. I had to smile at that, in spite of my best efforts.
“It’s fine. Dracula, huh? Certainly an interesting choice.”
“I like reading, but we don’t have many books in the house,” she said, her fingers absentmindedly trailing over the book’s spine. I’d already mentally decided to give her that copy, no matter which way this story ended.
“I’m sorry about your mother.”
She searched my face and found the answer she was looking for. Yes, I’d read the letter.
She nodded. “It’s okay.”
“How old are you really, Tracy?”
A moment of silence. “16.”
She was awfully tiny for a 16-year-old. More than tiny, actually. I was betting that she was malnourished. Well, we’d have to fix that.
“You ran away from your father, didn’t you?”
She nodded again. “He’s not a very nice man,” she added as explanation. I could tell that she wasn’t going to say anymore, so I continued.
“Do you think that he’ll look for you?”
She paused at that and became sort of thoughtful. “I don’t know… I hope not. He probably doesn’t care much about me.”
She looked back down to the book and I felt my heart breaking just a little bit. I couldn’t hand her back to her father… and if I called the police, I couldn’t be sure that that wouldn’t happen. I suddenly wanted more than anything to protect this girl, even if it was her daughter.
And, just like that, I’d made up my mind.
“You can stay here for now,” I said, and her eyes went wide with shock. “It’s summer anyway, so you don’t have to worry about school. There’s no harm in you staying here for a few weeks. We can decide together what to do about your situation. How does that sound?”
For the first time since she came into my life, Tracy smiled. It was a very good smile.
“Thank you so much!” she said.
And damn if that thank-you didn’t mean the world to me.
Tracy and I became quite close over the next few weeks.
She was wary of me, at first, and it was clear from her demeanor that Rachel hadn’t been able to protect her as well as she probably wanted. But gradually Tracy began to trust me – perhaps because I was her only connection with her mother, now – and she told me more about herself.
She loved to read. I gave her full access to my bookshelf and she had devoured every book on it within the first few days. She also liked cooking, which she’d had to do a lot of when her mother was sick. She and I started cooking supper together every night. I have to admit, I enjoyed the company. I could tell she enjoyed it, too.
Since we were becoming so close, I expected her question. It still didn’t make it any easier to answer.
She asked one night when we were sitting, eating supper. “Aunt Harley,” she’d taken to calling me, “how did you know my mom? She didn’t really mention you until she got sick.”
I know that shouldn’t have hurt, but it sort of did. Her daughter didn’t know that I existed until I was useful. Typical. But looking at Tracy’s open, guileless face, I knew I couldn’t keep the truth from her any longer.
“Your mother and I were best friends when we were children. Actually, we were best friends up until our early twenties. I was closer to her than anyone else in the world. Perhaps that was why I was so protective of her.” I paused then, trying to assuage the guilt I felt for leaving out a few important details. “I never liked your father. When your mother began dating him, I fought with her on it all the time. I knew he wasn’t good for her. But she just didn’t listen.
“It came to a head when she accepted his marriage proposal. She and I got into a big fight and… we both said a lot of things that we couldn’t take back.” No, that was wrong, I said something, just one thing that I couldn’t take back. But I continued, “After that, I never saw her again. I was leaving town and moving away, anyway, so we just sort of went our separate ways.”
Tracy looked thoughtful at that. Then she asked, “Does it make you feel better, knowing you were right?”
It was hard to tell her the truth to that. “No, no it doesn’t,” I said.
We’d allowed ourselves to feel secure. I continued putting off calling the police about Tracy – it was selfish, but I liked her presence. She and I had settled in as roommates, and I was beginning to feel like her mother more and more each day.
We thought we were safe.
The pounding on my front door proved us wrong.
Everything happened in the span of 15 minutes. That seems so short, doesn’t it? But, to us, it felt like hours.
I startled out of bed when I heard the pounding. I shrugged into a robe and stepped out into the hallway, only to see Tracy opening her door as well.
For some reason, this whole situation wasn’t sitting well with me. I could feel that something bad was going to happen. I motioned Tracy over to my room.
“Hide,” I whispered, pointing under the bed. I didn’t want to scare her, but the urge to protect her was too great. She scurried off to do as I commanded as I walked towards the door.
I didn’t have time to open it before the lock was blown off. I stood there, paralyzed, as a man barged in.
It had been a long time, over a decade, but I could never forget Harold Miller’s face. I could tell by the feral glint in his eyes and the familiar set of his jaw that it was Rachel’s husband – Tracy’s “father” – come to visit.
He was a hulking brute of a man, every atom of his body radiating deadly energy. He looked at me with utter hatred as I tried my damnedest to look confused. It was easy to look scared as my eyes fell on the shotgun in his hands.
“You filthy fucking son of a bitch,” he hissed at me. My heart pounded hard in my chest, so hard I thought my breastbone would crack. “Where is she?”
I remained as calm as humanly possible while looking down the barrel of a gun. “What are you talking about?” I asked.
He raised his hand and slapped me hard against the left side of my face. I practically flew into the kitchen table and slumped to the ground, my cheek on fire as I gasped for air.
“DON’T YOU FUCKING LIE TO ME!” he screamed. “She sent her here, now you give her to me and maybe I won’t blow your FUCKING BRAINS all over the goddamn wall!”
My mind was racing. I wanted to run for the door that was swinging open on its hinges, but I couldn’t. Not with Tracy still in the apartment. The thought of her trapped in my room made me sick to my stomach. No, I had to protect her, I had to.
I tried my best to glare at him as I said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, you fuck!”
He grabbed me by my robe and lifted me up, shaking me. “My daughter, Rachel sent my daughter here and I want the little whore back.”
“She’s not here, and I haven’t talked to Rachel in years. Why don’t you go back to the pigsty you crawled out of?” I snarled, panic taking over my mind. I needed to get to a phone, call someone…
He threw me hard onto the floor and my head rebounded off the floorboards. I groaned quietly, trying to stay in the room, in my mind, but everything seemed to be going dark on me.
“You goddamn bitch. You’re nothing. You were just jealous of us, weren’t you, you fucking dyke?”
Using the last of my strength, I looked him in the eye and said, “You’re fucking right I was jealous of you, you bastard. I loved her, which is more than you can say, isn’t it? I would have treated her right if she only gave me the chance. And you? What about you? You’re nothing but a shitstain. Wherever your daughter is, I hope you never find her.”
His eyes went cold and hard as he swung the shotgun towards my chest. I didn’t have time to so much as close my eyes when the shot rang out and my world descended into darkness.
I woke up to a mess. Physically, emotionally, and legally.
First off, I was surprised to be waking up at all. He’d shot me in the chest, for fuck’s sake. The doctors were amazed that I pulled through. The head surgeon who led my operation later confided in me, “you must have really wanted to live.”
I did, because I had someone to live for.
The police, of course, had questions. They wanted to know why I hadn’t turned Tracy over to them. In fact, they wouldn’t let me see Tracy until I answered them, although I later learned that she was hysterical until she was assured that I would make it.
“I thought you’d give her back to him,” I confessed. “I couldn’t let that happen.”
I thought they’d never let me see her again, but it turns out that that was enough. She returned to my side and told me what happened.
“While you were fighting with him, I called the police,” she admitted. “I knew they would find me if I did, but I didn’t want anything to happen to you. They got there while he was still searching for me.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. I wanted to thank her and hug her all at the same time, but I was still confined to my hospital bed. Instead, I showed my appreciation in another way.
“Tracy, how would you like to become my daughter?”
She looked at me with wide eyes. “Do you mean that?” she asked quietly.
“Yes,” I answered. “I want to be your mother, if you’d have me. We’ll have to jump through a lot of legal work, but I think we can make it happen.”
She was quiet for a moment, staring at her hands with tears in her eyes. Finally, she answered my question with another question – one that I wasn’t expecting.
“Harley… were you in love with my mom?”
I knew then that she’d heard what I’d said to her father. This time, I was able to answer without hesitation. “Yes, Tracy. I loved your mother very much.”
She gave me a smile – a bright, happy smile – and said, “Yes, Harley. I want to be your daughter.”
That was how the two of us began our new life, sitting together in that hospital room, holding hands and leaving the darkness of the past locked away in a prison cell.
May he rot in peace.