February262011

Courage

It started in a tree. Amelia sat in the little elbow between branch and trunk with her sketchpad resting on her knees and a pencil in her hand. She sketched her house in the fading glow of afternoon, dashing out the lines for the kitchen window.

She could see the corner of the driveway, so she saw her dad’s car pull into view and out again. She heard his door slam, heard him shuffle and stumble. She imagined she could smell the beer from her hiding spot in the tree. A few slammed doors later, the cycle started. He yelled, her mom’s murmuring voice tried to soothe him. He yelled more.
She saw the shadows in the window, silhouettes. She saw one raise its hand and swing it down. She saw the other fall. Both Amelia and her dad stared, unmoving. The second silhouette never reappeared.

Amelia couldn’t move. Not when her dad did, not when she saw him dragging something past the window. Not when she saw him carrying a lumpy bundle toward the garden shed. Not when the police came. She sat in her tree and watched.
"Hey, up there," said one of the well-dressed detectives. His partner joined him, looking up into the leaves.

"Talking to trees now?" she asked. Then she saw Amelia. "Oh, hey there. How long have you been watching?"

Amelia said nothing.

"What’s your name?" asked the first detective. No answer. "Are you the Johnson’s daughter?"

Amelia nodded.

"Hey Sweetie, why don’t you come on down?" the second said. "You’re safe now."
She didn’t move.

"I’m going up there." The detective grabbed a low branch and pulled himself up. He struggled without the full range of motion in his arms, limited by his suit jacket. Amelia laughed a little as he fell, sprawled out on the ground.

"You okay?"

"Yeah. Great. I got this," he said, picking himself up. He turned and reached for the branch a second time.

"Take your jacket off this time," his partner suggested, suppressing a chuckle.

"Right. Good idea." He put his jacket on the ground and tried again, this time able to swing one leg onto the branch. He grunted and strained his way to a branch next to Amelia’s, while she and his partner laughed.

"So," he said, "what’s your name?"

"Amelia," she said.

* * *

As good as watching the police handcuff her father and push him into the backseat of the car had been at the time, now she questioned whether talking was such a good idea. She sat in a metal chair in the corner of an office while a woman made phone calls, only showing her frustration in between hanging up and dialing the next number on her list.

"Hi Ms. Armstrong, it’s Linda from Foster Care. I have a girl named Amelia here, she’s twelve years old, and the police just arrested her father for killing her mother. She needs…okay, I understand. Let me know if you change your mind." She hung up again and sighed. Amelia simply stared, lost in her own thoughts. So Linda substituted an imaginary soundtrack of things she thought Amelia was thinking.

"I know, Sweetie. We’ll find someone soon, I promise. Anna Parker is next, she’s a softie. No way she’d  turn you down." Linda started dialing. "Just hang in there."

* * *

Linda must have been right, because an hour later they stood at the door to Ms. Parker’s apartment. Footsteps thudded toward the door, pulling Amelia back to reality from wherever she had wandered with her mind. She fought for focus, doubts and fears threatening to drag her back. She fought for a smile, and she fought back tears. When she didn’t think she could fight anymore, the door opened.

* * *

"Amelia, breakfast!" The voice woke the girl from restless sleep. She had no dreams she could remember, but an uneasy feeling had pervaded her mind all night. She rolled out of bed and rubbed her eyes, then opened the door to the smell of bacon. She smiled for the first time in at least twelve hours. She  hurried down the hall and into the kitchen, nearly crashing into Ms. Parker and her frying pan.

"Careful!" Ms. Parker said, lifting the pan above Amelia’s head. "Don’t want to burn you. How are you feeling?"

"Good," she said. "Well, better."

"That’s good. Grab those plates over there, the pancakes and eggs, and take them over to the table please. The bacon’s just ready, I’ll bring it over in a minute." Amelia carried the food over and sat, hands folded in her lap. Ms. Parker glanced over. "Honey, you can start eating, don’t wait for me. You must be hungry, I bet they just had snacks at Linda’s office." Amelia smiled for the second time in ten minutes, which for her might have been some kind of record.

The TV was on in the adjacent living room, and Ms. Parker had turned it to the news. The anchor’s report snatched up Amelia’s attention with one word: Johnson.

"Police arrested Walter Johnson yesterday for the murder of his wife, Lucy. Their twelve-year-old daughter, Amelia, was placed in foster care. This morning, guards at the prison where Walter was being held while he awaited trial discovered that he had escaped during the night. Police will not comment on whether they believe his daughter’s life to be in any danger."

Amelia stared at the screen, at her father’s face which glared back from his mug shot. Ms. Parker came up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Oh my goodness…don’t worry, Sweetie. They’ll get him. I won’t let him hurt you. I promise." When Amelia didn’t move or speak, Ms. Parker patted her on the back and returned to her breakfast.

Amelia stared at where the wall met the floor, and her food grew cold. Ms. Parker cleaned it up after an hour and switched the TV to the Disney channel. Amelia got up and trudged to her room, shutting the door behind her. She sat and leaned up against it, huddling against any intruders.

She heard a knock from the front door. She heard it open, and heard Ms. Parker’s voice.

"Hello? Oh…oh my. No, I’m sorry, I can’t let you in."

"Is my daughter here?" The voice struck at Amelia’s chest. Her father’s voice.

"Amelia, the girl they talked about on the news? No, she’s not here." Amelia smiled at Ms. Parker’s apparent gift for lying. Her father might have just met his match. "I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. No wanted criminals allowed in my apartment."

"Liar, I know she’s here. Let me see my daughter!" Amelia heard a scream, a thud, and then silence. Quickly she checked, relieved to see that she’d locked the door. The knob wriggled. The thud of her father’s knock pushed her forward.

"Let me in, Amelia. Now."

"No," she said.

"What? Amelia, is that you?"

"Yes it is. And I’m done being afraid of you." She noticed the phone on her nightstand for the first time. She ran over, picked it up, and dialed.

"Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?"

* * *

"How are you feeling?" Amelia asked after a few moments of uncomfortable silence. Ms. Parker moved a little and the hospital bed creaked.

"Better. The doctors said it was close. If he’d pulled the knife back out, I might not have made it."

Amelia nodded, twisting a corner of the sheets between her fingers.

"Are you okay, Amelia?" Ms. Parker asked. "I heard you stood up to him."

She nodded again. “That was the first time I ever spoke to him.”

"Ever? Really? You never said a word to your father before yesterday," Ms. Parker said in disbelief.

"Nope. I saw what happened when my mom talked to him, and I learned from her mistakes."

"Wait. You saw him hurt your mom, so you didn’t talk. You watch him kill her, and you’re able to say something?"

"I couldn’t take it. It wasn’t about survival anymore. Someone had to stand up to him."

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