She ran away for the first time when she was nine, fleeing from a pair of abusive parents. They drank and the only time they paid attention to her was when they weren’t wasted, which wasn’t often. She bumped through the streets of Wichita like a parasite in the veins of a giant monster. Her tenth birthday passed before she entered the foster system.
“She’s called Calista,” said a grown-up, when she was introduced to her foster mother. Calista, thought the girl. It had been so long since anyone had called her by name. Her own parents just referred to her as girl or kid. The mother was a smiling lady with red hair. “Pretty name,” she said. “I’m Jenny.” It wasn’t long before Calista began calling her mom. At first it was by accident, but eventually because that was what Jenny became to Calista. She never asked once about her old parents.
They lived alone together in Jenny’s small house. Calista went to school, befriended a boy named Dylan. After a year he moved away and she befriended a girl named Raven. Raven was there to celebrate Calista’s fifteenth birthday, the last one when it was just she and Jenny living in the small house.
A few months after Calista’s birthday, her mom brought a man into the house. Paul was his name, and he was tall and a little frightening to look at, but not unfriendly. He had a daughter named Amity, younger than Calista by two years but much, much prettier. She had beautiful honey blond hair and an odd, dark voice that sounded like it belonged in the mouth of someone who was older than thirteen. Amity wore revealing outfits and went out with boys.
Jenny and Paul got married. Amity and Calista were both bridesmaids, and they were now sharing a room, even though Amity had hardly spoken to Calista in the time that they’d known each other.
It was June, and after a while, Paul and Amity were fully moved in to Jenny’s house. But it was not such wedded bliss as might be expected.
Things began to go wrong when Jenny became pregnant. She took maternity leave from her job as an accountant and began to prepare the house for the baby’s arrival. Paul enlisted Calista’s help.
“I’ll be late for school,” she protested one morning.
“It don’t matter,” Paul said from the couch. “You can tell them you had to drive your mom to the doctor’s office.”
I don’t see you doing much, Calista thought. But she picked up the leg of a crib all the same.
“It’s too late for you to go to school now,” he said an hour later. “Stay home and help your mom put that crib together.”
“She can still go, Paul,” said her mom. “I’ll write them a note.”
“No, she can stay,” said Paul, shooting a hard look that meant something. “Call in. Tell them she’s not going.”
Jenny looked regretfully at Calista. “You can miss one day, right?”
“Sure, no problem,” Calista said. She did not mean it.
She had missed five whole days and been late eleven times by the time Jenny’s child was due, whereas Amity had a perfect attendance record. The night Paul took Jenny to the hospital was a dark and windy one. Amity and Calista stayed home and did not eat because Paul didn’t like to buy food unless it was for himself.
It ended up being the worst night of Calista’s life. Paul came home alone, with the news that the doctors had to perform an emergency cesarian section on Jenny, because the baby had flipped around inside her. The baby had survived and was still at the hospital, but Jenny had lost too much blood. They would not be seeing her again.
At first, Calista couldn’t speak. Shock took over. But after a few moments, it was replaced by fury. She wanted to scream, “You killed my mom!” But she decided to just leave. Now that her mom was dead, there was no reason for her to stay with this man who made her late to school and who treated her like dirt and who didn’t even make enough money to feed them every night.
Paul and Amity were embracing, and while they weren’t looking, Calista grabbed her mom’s car keys and took off. She didn’t really know how to drive, but she managed to get the car to a gas station at the edge of the city. She bought a pack of gum and a bottle of water, then threw herself into the car and cried and screamed and pulled at her hair until it started to come out in silky brown clumps. Her blue eyes in the rearview mirror, stained and running with tears and dark makeup, were those of someone hopeless and distraught. Jenny had saved Calista’s life. Had been her closest friend over the years they’d spent together. Now, without her mother, and having grown apart from her school friends, Calista was alone again.
She woke to the sound of tapping without realizing she’d fallen asleep. Her face stung with cold from leaning against the window. Calista looked up and jumped at the sight of a man who was clearly a police officer, standing with a fingertip on her windowpane. She wiped the moisture from her face and opened the door. The man looked at her, then down at a notepad. “Calista Bloom?” he asked.
“Who wants to know?” she asked defensively.
“Officer James Mendelman. Miss Bloom, I’m here to take you back to your stepfather.”
Her heart sank. All she could manage was a stammering, “Wh-what about my car?”
“We’ll have it transported back to you as soon as possible.” Mendelman put her in the backseat of his squad car. “Your stepsister told me about your mother’s death,” he said as they pulled out of the parking lot. “I understand how upset you are. Sometimes we do drastic things when we’re upset…”
Calista wasn’t listening. She couldn’t take her eyes off of her mother’s car.
There was a cot in the garage. This was Calista’s new bed. Paul tossed a sleeping bag at her that night, saying, “Amity needs more space.”
Sure, Calista thought. She can go f*** herself in that extra space.
After spending the weekend transferring her clothes from her dresser to cardboard boxes in the garage, she was exhausted. Too exhausted to argue once she was ordered by Paul to stay with Amity while he went to the hospital to get his baby, who was to be named Audrey, after Amity’s mother.
“Stay,” he directed to Calista before leaving. Like she had anywhere else to go.
She ended up going to bed before he even got back. As the next day was a school day, she got up, dressed, and made for the door. Paul threw out her arm to stop her. “You really gonna leave the house without meeting your little sister?”
Half sister, she wanted to snap. But she let him lead her to the master bedroom, where a tiny baby was sleeping on the bed. Paul picked her up and offered her to Calista. “Here, hold her.” On which note he promptly left the room.
Audrey was wrapped in a fuzzy blanket patterned with yellow ducklings. When she opened her eyes, blinking blearily, Calista could see that they were slightly green like her mom’s had been.
She carried the child out into the living room. No one was there. “Paul?” she called, though she knew no one would answer. “Amity?”
But they’d gone to school and work, and left her with no choice but to take care of the baby. Well played, thought Calista, carrying Audrey back into the bedroom. Very well played indeed.
Some days she went to school, some days she didn’t. Some nights they ate, some nights they didn’t. Without Jenny bringing in real money, they didn’t have a lot. Paul worked at Walmart.
When Calista didn’t go to school, it was because she was taking care of the baby or cleaning or there was some crisis that made her so late that it wouldn’t have made a difference whether she went or not.
And then there was that final day that she even tried to go. Calista woke up that morning to the sound of Paul raging in the living room, and Amity saying, “I didn’t do it, Dad!”
There was a bright purple stain on the couch. The room reeked of nail polish.
Paul came roaring over to Calista. “Was this you?”
She shook her head vigorously. “No. I swear.”
“You’re lyin’, I know it!”
“Well, clean it up, or there’ll be hell to pay!”
“I’ll be late for school!”
“You can forget about school, ‘cause you’re never going again!”
She couldn’t deny it. She’d known this day was coming. But Calista almost screamed when she saw the purple paint on Amity’s toenails.
The only thing keeping her there was Jenny’s baby.
Locked in the garage for things she didn’t do. Deprived of a meal if she forgot to wash a dish. Knocked around for being rude to Amity. Calista cleaned. She cooked. She tried her best to perfect the art of not leaving any sign that she was ever in a room, but Paul always found some way to pick on her, bring her down a little more. His verbal abuse sometimes exhausted her more than all her labor.
Calista didn’t think things could get any worse. That was only until Paul got suspended from work. They didn’t even know what he’d done, only that he was facing a temporary suspension. Money was a problem, but Paul found a way to fix it.
“Go lie on my bed,” he ordered one night. Rain blurred the dark windows.
“Just get in there, before I have to make you.”
It was probably the last thing she wanted to do. But Calista walked slowly to Paul’s room, shut the door, and perched on the edge of the bed. She heard men’s voices outside, then one of them came into the room. What happened next was horrible.
He left her lying in the twisted sheets, her face buried in a tear stained pillow. She hadn’t expected Paul to go this far, to use her like that. He was already horrible, but this was just… Horrible. Before the man left the house, she heard him ask Paul, “How much?” And this kept happening whenever Paul felt like they needed more money.
Calista couldn’t bring herself to get up until there were no more voices outside the room. Only then did she drag herself, legs shaking, to the garage, where she collapsed onto her cot and crawled into her sleeping bag, crying again about how unfair everything was.
“I can help you get out of here,” said someone one night. His name was Kurt, and he was the youngest person Paul had ever sent into the bedroom with her.
“Why do you even care?” Calista asked bitterly.
“I had abusive parents too. I know what it’s like. You don’t deserve to be here.”
“He doesn’t let me leave.”
“I can help. I’ll come back in a week. Have a bag ready.”
Heart pounding, she agreed. She had nothing to lose.
Kurt came back that day the next week. He acted like he was there to have his way with Calista again. He told her to grab the backpack full of supplies that she’d hidden under Paul’s bed. “Wait here until I call you,” he said. Then he slunk out of the room with his hand on his belt.
Calista waited just behind the door with her hand on the knob. Her heart was pounding. She hadn’t said anything about taking Audrey when she first met Kurt for fear he’d rescind his offer to help, but she knew she couldn’t leave that poor little baby with Paul and Amity. She’d waste away. At that moment, Audrey was sleeping in her crib. Calista picked her up gently and wrapped her favorite duck blanket a little more snuggly around her. She was just thinking about placing Audrey in the her backpack when she heard the shot.
Paul was lying on the ground, blood bubbling up from a hole in his chest. Kurt was standing over him, pointing a gun. “Please,” Calista heard Paul say.
Kurt looked him in the eyes and shot him.
It was like watching a train wreck. Horrifying, but she couldn’t look away. Calista watched the man who had abused her, forced her to slave for him, and sold her body to strangers, die on the floor she’d scrubbed a hundred times.
“Calista!” Kurt yelled. “Let’s go.”
She could barely speak. “I have to bring the baby.”
“Forget about it, we have to go before somebody calls the police.” He took a few steps toward the door. “Come on!”
Calista whirled around. Amity standing over Paul’s body, looking stricken. She heard a door slam and turned to see that Kurt was gone. He’d left her.
Amity was staring wide-eyed at Calista. “How could you?”
“Amity, it wasn’t me.”
“HOW COULD YOU?”
“Amity, I didn’t!”
“GET OUT OF HERE.”
“GET OUT OF HERE, OR I’LL KILL YOU TOO.” Amity began to sob.
Seeing that she meant every word she said, Calista shouldered her backpack. “Take care of Audrey,” she said, then ran out the door.
Well, Kurt helped me get out of there, she thought as she ran down the middle of their street.
Calista got on a bus. She got off in the middle of the city. She bought a cheap deli sandwich and sat down against a building. Not since the night of her mother’s death had she really felt like she had no viable options. Now there was nothing for her to do.
She felt nine years old again, walking through the city streets with a backpack on her shoulders. An hour passed before she realized it was her first time leaving the property in… How long? She’d lost all sense of time. Calista took a deep breath of fresh air. It smelled slightly of rain, and she smiled. When the sun came up and warmed her face, tears sprung to her eyes, and they didn’t stop falling. She walked slowly and without a purpose down street after street, no destination in mind. And when a squad car drove up behind her, flashing its lights, she didn’t try to run.
“Put your hands on your head.”
Jenny’s image, right before she left for the hospital, flashed through Calista’s mind.
“Calista Bloom, you are under arrest for the murder of Paul Bennett.”
Handcuffs clicked around her wrists. She remembered the time Paul hit her so hard she fell to the concrete floor of the garage. She’d had to scrub it until every speck of blood came up.
“You have the right to remain silent.”
Amity’s purple nails. All the mean glares she’d shot at Calista.
“Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
She didn’t think about the fact that she wouldn’t get a lawyer. She didn’t think about the fact that there was nobody to vouch for her. She didn’t think about the fact that she was probably going to prison for life. All that was going through Calista’s mind was why, why have I always had such goddamned terrible luck?