Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.
The week following the Purify Patience rally, the Asher’s phone rang off the wall, and reporters with GPS-equipped cars were occasionally able to locate the cabin in the woods. Most of the requests for interviews were, if not friendly, at least professional.
Beverly Asher, contacted for interview after interview, remained steadfast in her assertion that the situation in Patience was but one example of censorship and an "inauthentic, untruthful approach to educating children."
"Rather than focusing on me, why don't you talk to the kids in my class? Don't you think they would be better judges of Ironman's impact, than I am?" she told countless reporters who called and asked her to talk about the effect the book made on the students.
When the Today show interviewed Bev from their affiliate's studio in Dallas, she suggested that "adults ask students in their own towns whether or not they feel qualified to judge the value of a novel. Ask those same kids whether they felt they knew more about literature analysis and who they are as people, after having read a book and responded to it.
"Isn't that what teaching, learning, and growing up are supposed to be about? Questioning what we believe we already know, acquiring skills to think about it, and applying those skills to grow in knowledge? To test our limits and come out knowing who we really are, at the end of the day?"
Most of all, she told educators to take a hard look at what they were doing to ensure intellectual freedom. When Matt Lauer asked Bev if she had anything else to add, she smiled and said, "Make sure that the hypocrites in your town aren't trying to pull the toothpicks out of everybody else's eyes-- while they have an entire logging truck's load in their own. Matthew, Chapter 7, Verse 4...or something like that ."
"And, we're out of time," Matt said, looking away from the satellite feed and into another camera. "Next, we'll hear from a Wal-Mart greeter who was attacked by a tiki torch-wielding customer. That, and other horror stories, from the first face you see when you enter Wal-Mart. This is Today, on NBC."
By Friday, though, national news attention shifted when it was revealed that the sixteen-year-old daughter of a prominent leader in the Conserve the Family organization had accused him of sexual abuse. The Religious Right rushed to the leader’s defense, calling his daughter a liar and implying that she was working for the Democratic Party. Then the man admitted he had done it, blamed it all on alcohol, and announced he was headed to rehab. His wife—the mother of his daughter-- stood at his side. They were filmed holding hands and smiling, heads held high.
The news story about the sexually abused girl whose dad is a big shot in Washington, D.C. struck me to my core. Where was the girl now? Who was taking care of her? Did these people have any idea what kind of courage it took for her to stand up for herself?
Dr. Matt and I talked about it; I could not let go of my anger on her behalf. Instead of subsiding, it was growing more intense. I could not get away from it. Even though I turned off the TV and radio when the news came on, I still heard people discuss it when I was in line at the store or when customers came to the auto shop. When I thought about what this girl was going through, I had to stifle a scream that would have started in the soles of my feet and blown off the top of my head, if I let it out.
Even though I didn’t know the details of her abuse, I assumed that any time children were sexually abused, they I felt like I did that day in Mrs. Glover’s class when she picked on Katie DeMarest: a white-hot charcoal briquette.
"You’re still hiding in that closet," Dr. Matt told me. "You're still hiding from yourself. Know how I know?"
I ran my finger along the edge of his desk, and shook my head.
"It's still easier for you to be pissed off about somebody else being abused, than it is for you to take up for yourself." He leaned back in his chair and gave me The Look I knew so well, after nearly three months.
"Well, what do I do, Dr. Matt? How am I supposed to get brave, just snap my fingers or something?" I mumbled.
“Come out of the fucking closet!” he said.
Easier said than done. I doubted that Dr. Matt had ever been chased down and tackled by a man two-and-a-half times bigger than him. I told myself that I was doing the best I could, but I don't know if that's really true or not. I'm an expert at feeling sorry for myself. And I stayed stuck in a bad mood, thinking about that girl in the news.
Distraction from my anger came in the form of hanging out with Emma and getting ready for school to start. It had only been about a month since she showed up, but Emma already looked like a different dog. Her ribs were still a little visible, but not nearly like they were. She was so smart, too. She seemed to understand everything I said to her.
Bev was easy-going about having animals in the house, which was good, seeing as how the first time Emma came in, she lay on her back on the sofa, head on a pillow, and took a nap. She slept snuggled up right next to me, all night long. If I thought I slept well when I was tired out from running, that sleep was restless compared to how solidly I was able to relax with Emma there.
She was still a little skittish around David, and came completely undone if strange men came to the door looking for him. She ran and hid in my bathroom—jumped right up into the tub and hid behind the curtains. “Oh, come on, you puss,” I said to her softly, understanding completely how she felt.
I had come far enough, scary-thoughts-of-stuff-to-do-to-myself-wise, that I was allowed to stay by myself when David was up the hill working and Bev was at school, since her teacher preparation workdays had started. Ben and Stephen were determined to use every last minute of their summer vacation and were building a fort in the woods out of salvaged materials. I didn’t mind being alone; God knows I had enough practice at it when I lived in Northside. I started writing a book about my life since I moved to Patience.
I don't know if I'll actually do anything with it as far as having it published, but I thought that if I did, it might help other people like me to know they're not as alone as they probably think they are. I mean, I'm not an expert or anything and I have a long way to go, but I figure it can't hurt to record the journey.
Even though I was proud of the baby steps I was making by being able to write down what happened to me and not feeling like throwing up every time I reread what I'd written, I was still glad when Z.Z. called me and invited me to go to the Tyler Mall with Roxanne and her to go school clothes shopping. Jewel offered to take us.
In Patience, “school shoes” are the least expensive item of clothing. When I said flip-flops are the year-round footwear in our town, I wasn’t kidding. In the winter, kids wear socks with them. As Lisa said, I am living on the cusp of an alternate universe.
While Z.Z. and Roxanne are fans of the flip-flop, I’ve already decided to be different and wear my running shoes everywhere. A few kids here do wear cowboy boots to school—but I swore, after I wore them that terrible fourth grade year, that I would never wear cowboy boots again. And I won’t.
I was surprised when I returned from Tyler to find no one home. It was six o’clock, and I expected my family— that still sounds so funny to me to say!—to be home. I called the shop and got the answering machine; I tried David's, Bev’s, and Frank’s cell phones, and it was the same story. Ben was usually home by then, but I figured he and Stephen might be trying to finish up the fort.
By seven o’clock, I was getting worried, and Emma and I looked in the woods for the boys. There was a chainsaw on the ground; the site had been abandoned in a hurry, from the looks of things. “Mmmm, you guys are lucky your dads don't know you were using this and left it out,” I said aloud. I tried calling their names, but heard no response.
Coming back into the house alone, the familiar feeling of being dumped started knotting up in my stomach. I told myself that I was being ridiculous. Like they’d really leave me with the house. Stupid.
The phone rang. It was David, calling from the hospital emergency room. Ben and Stephen had taken the chain saw without permission and hurt themselves when it kicked back on them as they tried to cut down a tree. Both boys had cuts to their hands and upper legs, but they were going to be okay. He apologized for not leaving me a note, but said that he had been so freaked out, he didn’t remember to do it. Bev had come straight from school, and Frank was there, too. The boys would probably be released soon, and David said he'd call when they were headed home. “Lock the door and turn on the porch light,” he said.
"I think I may go for a short run, David. It's still pretty light outside, and the air feels cooler than it did this morning." I was already stretching out my legs, as we talked.
"Okay, well...don't go too far. Remember there are no street lights. It'll be pitch black out there once the sun sets."
I hung up the phone and said, "Let's go, Em."
Emma jogged alongside me as we crossed my favorite spot, the bridge. The sun had set faster than I thought it would; either that or I was getting slower at this whole running thing. I told myself that there was nothing to be afraid of. Taking a right and jogging up our driveway, I discovered that I lied. Before my mind registered seeing my mother's car in David's driveway, I heard the voice of the devil.
"Hello, Ash-Hole." My entire body jumped involuntarily and I sprawled, face first, onto the gravel. Emma, frightened by my fall, darted into the brushy undergrowth by the driveway. At least that’s where I think she went. I always close my eyes when I have the shit shocked out of me.
“Oh, did I scare you?” Charlie said sarcastically. He was sitting on a big rock that's on the inside of the first wide driveway curve. "What a shame," he said, and threw an empty beer bottle at my head. I covered my head when the glass splattered near my face, and he said, "Nice to see that some things haven't changed. You're still a spineless little thing, aren't ya? Hmph."
“Get up, Ashley Nicole,” my mother’s impatient voice said. I opened my eyes and saw my mother’s long toes sticking out of her sandals, on the gravel in front of my face. Hoping it was all a bad dream, I closed my eyes again and prayed that when I opened them next, I would be in my bed next to Emma.
Charlie rose from the rock and shuffled over to me, sending tiny shards of rock and sharp pieces of glass my way. I could feel warm stickiness on my mouth and chin from when I went from about four miles an hour to zero, using my face as the brake. I timidly touched my tongue against the inside of my lips. Dirt and blood. But at least there were no teeth floating around loose inside my mouth.
He stood right over me and looked down, then held his beer over me and allowed some to trickle down onto my head. “Leave her alone, Cheryl. You babied her too much already. No wonder that she’s a lying little bitch.”
Moving my head slightly to the right, I could see the outline of Emma’s white body, hunkered down in the weeds. I sensed her brown eyes watching me anxiously.
“Get up, Ash-Hole,” Charlie said, stepping away momentarily. I heard what I guessed was a bottle cap plinking on the ground. Lifting my head, I could smell the beer on him from where I still lay on my stomach, spread-eagle on the gravel driveway. My instincts were telling me to get curled up in a tight ball and put my body on lock-down, but I was slipping into Freeze, even though I knew it was the worst thing I could do.
“I said GET UP, you little bitch!” I could sense his presence at my feet, looking at my body from that angle, and flashes of what happened last May on the floor in my old bedroom sent me into scrambling mode. I scrambled, my palms, elbows, and knees screaming in pain at the feel of the gravel. I succeeded only in lifting myself up onto my elbows and knees.
"Hurry up, Ashley Nicole!" my mother yelled. "Charlie, she's just bein' stubborn. I told you, they've spoiled her rotten." I was shaking so hard that it took me a minute to find my balance. Charlie stepped forward and savagely jerked me to my feet by my arm.
I groaned in pain, and brought my free hand up to my mouth. My lips were opened up and caked all over with dirt, and what I would learn later were tiny pebbles embedded in my skin. Even after I was on my feet, he did not let me go. I heard a low growl from the underbrush, but apparently I was the only one who heard it, because Charlie and my mom said nothing.
“Wh-what are you d-doing here?” I managed, my body curving in on itself.
“We’ve come to take you home,” my mother said. “I talked to your father earlier today, and he agreed that it’s time for you to leave. He’s had all he can stand of you. ”
“I don’t believe you,” I said. “David..loves me. He would have told me himself if he felt that way… I’m staying here,” I said, trying to jerk my arm free from Charlie.
“You think so, huh? And just who the hell are you to tell us what you're going to do?” Charlie’s grip was tightening as he pulled me toward the cabin, and he was twisting my arm so hard that I was afraid it was going to break.
“He’s right, Ashley Nicole,” my mother withdrew a bundle of papers from her purse. “This is the custody agreement. Your father didn’t even fight for visitation rights when you were a baby. I’ve talked to a lawyer. Your father has no right to keep you here; I have full custody, and I intend to keep it.” She opened the driver's side door of her little green car and tossed her purse into the driver's seat.
“But what about..C.P.S. ? What about what..happened?” My head was filling with a sound I had not heard in at least two months: Whoosh. I felt myself starting to leave where I was, although my body was still standing in the driveway in the darkness.
She slammed the car door and laughed at me. “What about it? There were no charges. You lied and it didn’t work. Lots of kids do that, Ashley. They get into trouble, so they make up some crazy accusation. It got you attention for a while, but it didn’t work, and you’re going to have to face reality,” my mother said in her acidic tone.
Charlie bent my forearm backwards toward my elbow as far as it would go without breaking, put his face in mine so that I was inhaling his beer-soaked breath, and said, “Things are going to go a lot easier for you if you stop fighting. Now get whatever clothes your father got you to buy you off, and get in the goddamn car.” He released my forearm and shoved me hard toward the front door of the cabin, and that's when it happened.
Maybe it’s because I had been away from him long enough for the edge on my fear to get a little dull, or maybe it’s the Bo Brewster in me. Courage or desperation? Who knows, but at that moment, I realized that if I did what he was telling me to do, my life was over. I would be returned to a life of hiding, and I didn’t want to hide anymore. Once you know something, you can’t unknow it—no matter how much others want you to act as if you can. I had lived free of being terrorized for nearly three months. Tasting freedom and living in truth, I couldn’t go back into the prison of my closet and a life of lies.
I tried to make a run for the retaining wall. I knew the gate and pasture so well, I was sure I could get away. Charlie must still have the ability to read my mind, though, because he started grabbing for any part of me that he could hold onto, and I went wild, fighting him with my arms and legs, even trying to bite at his hold on me. At last he snagged my right arm and folded it behind my back.
I screamed, “No! I’m not letting you two abuse me anymore. I won’t go back with you!”
He brutally wrenched my arm, and I heard it snap. I screamed, fell to my knees, and curled my body into itself, instinctively cradling my broken arm with my good arm. My mother ran toward me, wigging out, just screaming, “Now look what you’ve done! Get up! Come with us, Ashley Nicole. NOW!”
Charlie said, 'Shut the fuck up, Cheryl!" then he bent low and muttered, “Want me to break your other arm, you fucking slut? Don’t you ever talk to me like that again! I OWN you."
Through gritted teeth I sobbed, “Fuck you, Charlie! You’ll just have to kill me. That’s the only way I’ll go back with you!”
Charlie stepped back from me and reared back on one leg as if he was going to kick me. I closed my eyes, turned my head to the side, and braced for the blow. Suddenly Emma was there, her vicious snarl filling the air so loudly that it sounded like a pack of dogs had descended upon us. She landed lightly on her feet and stood over me, an unceasing whir of snapping and biting at both Charlie and my mother. "What the fu--?" Charlie said as he stumbled back, completely surprised.
At once, we were all bathed in David’s and Bev’s headlights. David lurched to a stop, jumped out of his truck, and roared into Charlie like a tidal wave, easily knocking him down. He punched Charlie again and again, until Bev’s and Cheryl’s screams to stop before he killed him broke through the fog of his rage.
“Y’all are back?” the emergency room attendant said to David. “That’s some chainsaw, huh?”
“She didn’t break her arm using the…never mind. Can we please see a doctor as soon as possible? I think her lip may need stitching, too.” David said.
We sat down to wait our turn. David helped me sit down so that I didn't bump my arm, then handed me the ice pack I had been holding on my lip. I took it from him, but held it away from my mouth so I could ask him what I'd been dying to know. “My mom told me that she talked to you earlier today, and that you were ready for me to leave…she said you’ve had all of me you can stand,” I told David.
He smiled a little as he shook his head. “Well, that’s partially true .”
My face must have done my mother’s trick of slipping off my skull, because he hastened to add, “She did call me earlier today. She told me that she had spoken to a lawyer, and that since there were no charges filed in the case, she expected you to come back home immediately.”
“Oh,” I said, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even though the red-headed deputy had taken Charlie away in handcuffs and told David that Charlie would be charged with injury to a child and trespassing, I figured my mom and Charlie would still get their way.
“..And I told your mother that I expected her to go straight to hell, if she thought I was going to allow you to be put back in that situation. I told her that I love you and I consider it my job as your dad to protect you. That’s what parents do, Ashley. They love their children and keep them safe.”
“So now what?” I asked him.
“Now..we’ll wait and see if your mom still wants to fight me for custody. But don’t worry, Ash. I called my lawyer after I talked to her, and he told me there’s no way you’d be placed back with her. And that was before Charlie broke your arm tonight.”
“Ashley..Asher?” the E.R. nurse called. “No, that can’t be right. Nobody has a first and last name that similar,” she muttered.
David helped me up. “Yes, that’s me. My parents thought it was cute,” I said, rolling my eyes at him.
“I’m really proud of you for standing up for yourself, Ashley,” Dr. Matt said.
“Oh. Thanks. I mean, I didn’t really think about it, I just did what I had to do,” I said, smiling back at him.
“How did it feel when you told Charlie that you wouldn’t go back with him and your mom?” He gave me The Look.
“I don’t remember. I just did it... Hey, I did it without even thinking about it!
That 's pretty cool!” If my arm wasn't broken and my whole body wasn't one big bruise, I probably would have jumped up and hugged Dr. Matt on the spot.
He smiled. “Sure is. What you did took guts, Ashley. By speaking up for yourself, you broke Charlie’s power over you. You get that, don't you?"
“In spite of the fact that I ended up on my knees with a broken arm?”
“Yep. Consider it a war wound. You fought for yourself, and that’s the important thing. It takes guts to do that . That's a big step forward on your journey."
It was my turn to tilt my head and give him The Look. I searched my mind for the right words, because I could sense that I was starting to get the tiniest understanding of the reason that my mother turns her back on me again and again and again.
It didn't excuse anything that Charlie put me through or that she allowed me to be put through, and it didn't even start to resemble forgiveness or mercy. I can't imagine when or if that will happen. But somewhere in the deepest, darkest, most hidden depths of my mental closet, I could see light around the edges of the door.
I could feel myself being freed of the cocooning blankets of confusion, shame, and certainty of my worthlessness. For the first time in my life, I could sense that there is a reason that my mother doesn't do her job…but it has nothing to do with me. She's gutless. A gutless wonder.
“So..is that what’s missing from my mom, Dr. Matt? Guts?”
“Maybe. Probably. What do you think of your mom, Ash?”
“I’ll have to think about it. But I’ll let you know.”