Mama used that word all the time. Hearing it was just a regular part of growing up.
“Which one of you little fuckers made this mess!” she would say. We were always “little fuckers” to her.
So I used it in Mrs. Moore’s class. Not on purpose; it just came out, you see, when I got frustrated with this kid. “Why’d ya do that, ya little fucker,” I said.
As you can imagine, I ended up in the principal’s office.
“That kind of language is unacceptable, young lady,” Principal Maynard said, tapping his desk with his favorite blue pen, the one with Carver Middle School printed in white lettering on the side.
“I’ve phoned your mother,” he said, and was about to say more, but there was yelling coming from the receptionist’s desk, then Mama burst through the door.
“Mrs. Granger,” Principal Maynard said, sounding surprised.
Mama shot me a look that said, You’re gonna get your ass beat when we get home. Then she turned to Principal Maynard and said, “What the fuck did she do now?”
Maynard was stunned yet again, but I wasn’t. Like I said, Mama used that word all the time.
He decided not to suspend me. “I can see you have certain influences at home,” Principal Maynard said, out of earshot of Mama of course. “So I’ll give you detention for one week instead.”
The next day, when I reported to classroom 307 to serve my time, I hoped no one would notice the bruises Mama had given me the night before.
“She was angry. Mama was always angry,” I told Dr. Clayton. He was the court-ordered shrink assigned to my case.
“Why do you think she was so angry, Nora?”
I stared at Dr. Clayton. I liked the way he used my name when he asked me questions. He was one of the few adults in my life who treated me like I mattered.
“My sister Tina decided to go live with Dad,” I said.
Clayton nodded and wrote something down. “And you? You decided to stay with your mother?”
“Oh, I wasn’t invited to come with Tina.”
“Why’s that, Nora?”
I had to collect myself because it was coming back, the rage, the anger that got me a court-ordered shrink.
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Alright,” Dr. Clayton said. “We’ll come back to that another time.”
No, we won’t, I thought. I didn’t want to admit that my sister’s dad wasn’t mine; Mama doesn’t even know who my father is. In their tumultuous relationship, both cheated on the other more times than either could count. So my bio dad could be any number of men in town. But he was the only father I had ever known, and he knew what she was, the things she did to us, but he still left me with her.
“How does that make you feel, that your father took your sister but not you?” Dr. Clayton asked.
“Makes me feel swell, Doc,” I said.
“You don’t mean that.”
I glared at him, the way Mama did when someone really pissed her off. “Of course I don’t mean it. Neither one of the two people in the world that were supposed to love me unconditionally gave a shit about me. So how the hell do you think I feel?”
I felt the rage coming again, almost boiling over.
And maybe Dr. Clayton felt it too, because he said, “How about we stop for today?”
The orderly came and took me back to my room. I stepped inside, then heard the familiar click of the door being locked behind me.
Amy Ballard was in detention with me, as usual. She was my best friend, and we got into a lot of trouble together. Sometimes I thought that was to the only thing holding our fragile friendship together.
“My parents said we’re moving at the end of the year,” Amy blurted out after Mr. Lawson read us the rules of detention.
Amy spread her arms and looked around the room. “Because of this. Because I’ve been in detention most of the year because I don’t go to class anymore. Dad said, ‘Maybe a change of scenery will do you good.’” Her voice was mocking, but I could see that Amy really wanted to go. To leave me just like Tina and dad did.
I slunk down in my seat and barely said a word to Amy for the rest of detention.
“Are you mad at me?” she asked while we walked home.
“I’m just mad that my only friend is moving away.”
“Yeah, but we still have the rest of the year,” she smiled.
But we didn’t, because Amy went missing a few weeks later. She was labeled a runaway.
When I got home that evening, Mama was sitting on the couch, her usual dinner of Pall Malls and a 6-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on the coffee table in front of her.
“Where the hell’ve you been?” she barked.
“I started detention today, remember?”
She just stared at me, at the bruises on my arms. I covered them, then went into my room.
I was thirteen and pretty much on my own. Amy’s moving away was hitting me harder than I thought, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
At least we have the rest of the year, I said to myself
Then she was gone sooner than expected, and I didn’t care about much of anything after that.
Dr. Clayton asked me to write down my feelings in regards to Mama.
“It may help us get to the heart of the matter,” he said.
I spent a few days in between sessions trying to express my true feelings about a woman who didn’t like me, let alone love me. The day to see Dr. Clayton finally rolled around, all I had was one word written on the page.
“Let’s see your list,” Clayton said.
I was reluctant to hand it over because I knew how lame my list was. But I did and considering it contained the one word, Dr. Clayton stared at it for several moments before commenting.
“Is this all you could think of?” he asked.
“It’s the only word that kept going through my mind,” I told him.
He set the list down on his desk. “Tell me what you remember about your mother, Nora.”
“Well, she’s a drunk and a mean one at that. She always has a cigarette nearby, the only thing that seems to calm her down. Also, I don’t remember her ever smiling, not in my entire life.”
“Mmm hmm,” Clayton said. I knew he was trying to collect his thoughts before asking another question.
On the desk that sat between us, Clayton laid down a picture of my mother, and next to it the list I wrote of my feelings about her.
The picture was one I had in my notebook. I stole it from her photo album. I had crossed out her face so entirely that you couldn’t even make out what she looked like. And next to the picture was the list I had written. The only thing on it was the word “Hate.” But I had written it over and over, at least fifty times, and the text became more and more erratic as the list went on. In the end, it didn’t even look like my handwriting.
“Mama was a monster,” I said to Dr. Clayton.
Then he did something totally uncharacteristic. He took my hand and said, “I’m so sorry Nora.”
And then I did something completely uncharacteristic . . . I cried. Then I began to rage, so much so that I was escorted back to my room by not one, not two, but three orderlies.
Principal Maynard called me into his office. I wasn’t surprised to see Amy’s parents there. Earlier that day, the school had held an assembly in the gym where a local detective talked about runaways and the dangers of teens on the streets.
He ended the assembly with a plea. “If anyone knows anything about the whereabouts of Amy Ballard, please let your parents or Principal Maynard or myself know. I’ll leave my number with the school secretary.”
Amy’s mother sat quietly crying next to her husband, who shot daggers my way. He always thought I was a negative influence on her. I found it funny because he didn’t know shit about who Amy really was, so I became the scapegoat.
That same detective from the assembly came in and sat next to me. “Hello, Nora. I’m Detective Wallace. How are you?”
“Fine, I guess.”
“I’m working on Amy’s case.” He paused and smiled. It was a genuine smile. “Sometimes kids run away and are afraid to come home because they think they’ll get into trouble. Amy’s parents just want her back, so if you can tell me about the last time you saw her, maybe there’s some information that could help us find her.”
Mama walked in then and sat down opposite the Ballards. She never took her eyes off me.
“I . . . I don’t know where she is. The last time I saw her was lunch on Wednesday. She looked kinda sick.”
“Sick how?” Wallace asked.
I shook my head, “She told me not to tell anyone.”
Mama said, “You better tell this man what you know Nora.” Her voice was firm, not threatening. But I knew she’d give it to me good if I didn’t say.
I looked at the detective with tears in my eyes. “She told me she was pregnant and was scared her parents would find out. She was going to get an abortion that day, that’s all, but I don’t know what happened to her.”
Amy’s mother burst into tears. Her father stood up. “How could you keep this from us!”
Mama sat there shaking her head at me.
“I thought she’d come back! I thought she’d be back by now,” I screamed.
“Mr. Ballard, please sit down,” Detective Wallace said. Then he looked at me and in a kind voice he asked, “Do you know who the father is?”
I looked down at my hands. “She wouldn’t tell me. I asked her, but Amy didn’t want me to know.”
A uniformed officer suddenly appeared at Wallace’s side. “Check all the clinics, both official and not; see if anyone saw Amy Ballard.”
He looked at me and said, “Thank you, Nora, for your help. We’ll do our best to find your friend.”
But they never did.
“Mama thought I knew where Amy was,” I said in my next session with Dr. Clayton. “The Ballards had been calling daily, harassing Mama, telling her I knew and she needed to make me tell them where Amy was. I told Mama I didn’t know, but she didn’t believe me.”
“’Don’t lie to me you little fuck!’ Mama said. ‘You two bitches have always been up to no good. Now you got me involved in your shit. You tell the police what they need to know, so I don’t have to deal with this anymore.’”
I paused and looked at Dr. Clayton, “It was always about her . . . always. She never cared about me. She only wanted me to say something, even if it was a lie, so Amy’s parents would get off her back.”
“What happened next, Nora?”
“Well . . . she grabbed my arm and started dragging me toward the door. ‘We’re getting in the car and going over to the Ballards’ to end this shit,’ Mama said. No, I told her, I’m not going.”
“That’s when she slapped my face. ‘You’re a fucking liar,’ she said.”
Dr. Clayton just listened, so I went on.
“I didn’t even know I’d done anything at first, but Mama was on the ground . . . I guess I pushed her.”
Clayton nodded, and I continued.
“She was so mad at me. ‘I’ll get you for this you little fuck,’ she yelled. But before she could get to up, I hit her. I didn’t even realize I had anything in my hand. Blood poured down her face, and she sat there on the floor, in shock. I knew she’d get me, maybe kill me, so I hit her again, and again, and I just kept hitting her until I couldn’t even make out her face anymore.”
I looked at Dr. Clayton, expecting to see the judgment in his eyes, but there was none.
“It was in my hand. I didn’t even remember picking it up. This old bust that Mama bought at some flea market. ‘Looks like Garth Brooks,’ she told me. It was cracked and covered in blood, and hair, and bits of Mama’s skull, I guess.”
I looked up at Dr. Clayton. “That’s enough for today,” he said.
It’s kind of funny how people will accept what you say when it fits what they want to believe to be true. Dr. Clayton had already made up his mind that I was driven to this terrible act by an abusive mother; that I wasn’t at fault. The police had already made up their minds that it was all unintentional, that my mother didn’t need to die, but brought much of it on herself.
If you’re a kid, and you wear the right clothes, sit and speak respectfully in court, and look sufficiently remorseful, judges will want to give you the benefit of the doubt.
Which they did.
“You have experienced more hardship in your few years on the planet than I have in my entire life thus far,” Judge Cromwell said at my hearing. “It would do society no good to keep you locked up, Nora Granger. You will be on probation for five years and remanded into the custody of your aunt.”
Life was good with my aunt. I liked her husband, even her three kids. I was thriving at school and had made a new best friend. It couldn’t have worked out any better if I had planned it myself . . . which I in fact had.
Mom was a horrible human being who made poor choices then blamed everyone else for the mess that her life was. She deserved to die, and I was happy to do it.
Some of what I told Dr. Clayton was true, but I was well aware of what I was doing when I was doing it, and it felt amazing. There is nothing about the day Mama died that I regret.
But Amy . . . that was different. It was the rage that had boiled over and couldn’t be stopped. I didn’t intend to hurt her. It was an accident. But she laughed at me. How could she do that?
We were hanging out at this abandoned house, a place we used to go when we had had enough of our parents. Only druggies ever hung out there, but most times it was just us . . . like that last day.
“I don’t want you to go,” I told her. Amy was drinking and smoking pot; I had a Pepsi.
But Amy was in a foul mood that day; I don’t know why. She said, “Stop whining. You’ll get some other friends for god’s sake. Besides, I’m done with this shit town, this shit life, and my shitty friends.”
I looked at her. “You mean me?”
Amy laughed. “Are you crying?” she said and laughed harder.
I can still see the look of surprise on Amy’s face. I could still feel the rage that grew inside of me, and how easily I grabbed that stupid scarf she wore no matter what the weather was like. And I can still feel the excitement that washed over me while I tightened it around her neck.
Amy’s legs kicked and she scratched at my arms and tried to get my face. Finally, she stopped moving. I thought I’d be sad . . . I thought I’d feel something . . . but I didn’t.
I rolled the body down the decrepit steps that led to the old basement of that house. It was full of junk and trash, and I hid Amy under all that debris. I’m sure she’ll be found one day, but by that time I’ll be long gone, long enough so suspicion won’t come back on me.
I’ll have to be careful though, living with my aunt. You know, play it cool for a while.
But I can wait, wait to see those moments just before a life has ended. I can wait until I’m able to feel that excitement race through me once again.