Six years old.
She hears him tell her mama that he don't like them nappy-headed girls no more.
For the first time, she understand the difference between Black and White.
Eight years old.
She doesn't like the way his white hand feels on her nappy brown hair no more.
For the first time, she understands that adults ain't always right.
Ten years old.
She hears her baby sister's seven-year-old voice asking when she could go. She don't wanna play this game no more.
For the first time, she knew the difference between safe and at-risk.
She slips inside the room without knocking.
Step-Daddy is startled.
The baby is happy.
"Come here," sister calls in the lightest voice she can muster. "Mama's
asleep. You can watch cartoons if you promise not to bother. Keep it on
low and sit real close so you can hear. Until I come and get you,
everything is free and clear."
The child smiles and runs past her sister to the TV.
Big sister avoids Step-Daddy's eyes focusing on the space in between.
"What do you want?" She asks him.
"I want you to earn your keep," is what he said.
"But I do my chores and make good grades..."
"But I have to watch you two all day and I never get to play."
She knew what he meant.
Not sure how, but she knew.
The stories older kids whispered weren't made up; they were true.
So she said, "I'll do whatever you ask me to do."
For the first time, she really felt physical pain.
She learned then how to hide without having to abstain.
She learned how to turn a switch off in her brain.
And that was the only thing that kept her sane.
He bought them all the best things:
Clothes, art lessons, and a coveted domain.
She and Baby grew up in the household she had saved.
The bed was made,
and she no longer cried when the time came to lay in it.
Nineteen years old.
Baby walks in without knocking while her sister's trying to change.
There's a big bruise on sister's hipbone and one on her shoulder blade.
The off switch in sister's brain stays on when Baby's around.
She can't find the words to say.
She almost cries,
considers asking why,
but finally just turns around with a sigh.
Baby wanted to know, "Where'd you get those bruises?"
Sister'd never been good at outright lies
and with Baby it was useless.
So she tried to cover it up another way.
"Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answers to. Just focus
and get yourself done with school. Then we'll get outta here, Baby, and
I won't get bruised."
"Why don't you just tell me the truth?"
Sister almost snapped, but held back. "Just trust me. I'm doing this for you."
The day after Baby graduated
she came home to find her things packed.
Mama was crying over cornbread but she couldn't find her sister or stepdad.
Baby started asking, digging, prying.
Mama just kept stirring, rocking, crying.
Baby started screaming and fighting.
Mama hurt so bad she thought she was dying.
Baby went searching for answers.
She knew something bad had happened to her sister.
Maybe if she'd been stronger and not let Sissy dismiss her...
When she got to the door that was locked
her knees almost buckled, but she braced up and knocked.
Then she called
and she cried.
and plied at the knob.
Then fell, crumpled and broken, to floor with a sob.
After what felt like an hour but was less than five minutes
the door unlocked and opened and Baby knew it was finished.
Strong arms grabbed her shoulders and lifted her face.
"Stop crying, Baby, we're gettin' outta this place.
Go grab those boxes and don't listen to anything they say."
Baby started to argue.
"STOP IT! We're leaving today."
Twenty years old.
She drags her baby down the hall so they don't have to take this no more.
For the first time, they walked out and shut the door.