Encounters

[fiction]

Kristen’s dog is named Banjo. He’s big—not just tall, fluffy too, and cream-colored like the living room carpet. When I pet him, my hands sink down all the way to the second finger joint. He’s so big, he reminds me a little of the horses up at the farm.

I was never really around Snap and Ginger much. Brian didn’t like them. He said that in America we’ve made our animals our idols and we serve them now instead of the other way around. Sometimes, I remember that when I’m playing with Banjo and I push him off. But then he gets so sad that I can’t stand it, and I go back to petting him and I try to forget about Brian.

That’s what the social workers, and the people from the group home I was at before Kristen’s, want me to do. But it’s easier not thinking about Brian than it is forgetting the farm. When Kristen, my foster mom, picked me up from the library after school today, the clouds were already grey and low. When we got to the house, it was sprinkling, and now it’s raining in a sort of lazy, drippy way while me and Banjo sit by the sliding door. We watch the porch soak up the drops until the flaky paint swells and looks ready to peel off. At the farm, I made my room on a day like this. I cleaned out an old shed with rain leaked through its roof, swept it out and filled it with quilts and pillows and horse blankets. Brian was bringing in more and more people, but the shed was all mine. I had a place to sleep on my own, and stretch my legs without bumping into someone else. Brian didn’t care as long as I came back to the house to eat and listen to his teach-ins.

I’m not in the shed, though. I’m in a normal house, waiting for dinner like a normal person. Beside me, Banjo whimpers. He can tell when I’m nervous or upset.

In the kitchen, a bowl scrapes against the counter. Kristen. She’s got a sixth sense like Banjo, only more annoying. I can feel her eyes searching for me, and finally settling on the back of my neck like a weight.

At the group home, they said Brian didn’t really know anything about me. He was just really good at picking out the people he knew would want him.

“Leigh, why don’t you come help with the salad? Meatloaf’s almost done.”

I shake off Banjo, get up. “Yeah.”

She means well. I guess.

Being with Kristen’s got me thinking more about my real mom, and I wish it didn’t. When she was pregnant with me, Mom was so sure I was going to be a boy that she didn’t bother changing the name she’d picked out. Leigh Allen Shaw. Allen was my grandpa’s name, so at least that part sort of makes sense. But there are so many ways she could have changed Leigh. Leigh Anne, Leah, Leyla. All kinds of ways to twist it, make it more like me, or at least more like how I wanted to be.

That’s pretty typical of me and Mom though. We never fit together right, like I was a size too-small shirt she bought one day and just kept forgetting to return.

While I make Greek salad and Kristen mashes potatoes, I think about me and Mom’s last few years together. Things could have been different if she’d kept a closer eye on me. Maybe if she cared where I was going, I wouldn’t have been walking around the neighborhood that night. I wouldn’t have seen the lit up garage, the metal folding chairs, and the plastic tables loaded with Tupperware containers of hamburgers, pasta salad, and homemade pickles floating in vinegar. And even if I had, I’d’ve known better. I wouldn’t have gone in.

*     *     *

After dinner, we stay at the table and Kristen helps me with some homework. I just had my sixteenth birthday two weeks ago, but because of all the time I spent on the mountain with Brian and his group, I’m just now finishing ninth grade. I don’t mind so much. At the group home, I had a tutor who helped me finish eighth grade, so at least I don’t have to go back to middle school. And at Harding-Davis, I fit in more with the fourteen-year-olds than the kids my own age. We’re all sort of lost.

While we’re working, Banjo comes under the table and flops on my feet. When I first came to stay with Kristen, she told me that she bought him to be a guard dog. “Can you believe it?” she said, rolling her eyes. “He’s about as intimidating as a rug with legs.”

I don’t know if that was the truth or if it was because she thought I’d be scared of him. I’ve never been scared of Banjo, though. He’s huge and a barker, but he’s hands down my favorite part about living with her.

I’m smart enough to figure out that Banjo isn’t supposed to be what’s important about this place, though. The way my social worker kept talking about her, I know Kristen was the thing I was supposed to stick to. She’s been a foster parent for fifteen years. I guess they thought she’d have a better shot connecting with me than everyone else who tried. “Connections” is a word they talk about a lot, and how important it is for someone like me to make them. The thing is, I have plenty of connections. They just never worked out. I mean, I lived with Mom for a long time too and that didn’t really end well.

Right now, Kristen taps the back of my hand with the back end of her pencil. “Earth to Leigh.”

I jerk upright, pulling my feet out from under Banjo so he yelps. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Let’s start over, all right?”

Most of the time, I don’t think I can really love Kristen the way you’re supposed to love a parent, but then we have moments like this one. I get really excited, until I remember Brian. What if I just feel the same way about Kristen that I did with him? I thought he would change things, take me out of all the misery and anger I was in, and look where that landed me.

I can’t remember the first time I saw him, but I know when I recognized him. It was in the garage that night. He was tall with kind of shaggy brown hair and big hands. Cute, in an older way. He looked like he should be working, or in college at least. He said he lived on a farm up the mountain with Mary, his cousin. He was hanging around our neighborhood because he wanted to start a ministry—something that would show people how there were bigger things, bigger forces moving through us. Mom and I never really went to church, so I didn’t pay much attention until he stopped and looked me head on. “Someone hurt you, little girl,” he said. “You’re wearing it under your skin.”

At the group home, they said Brian didn’t really know anything about me. He was just really good at picking out the people he knew would want him. I know that now, I guess, but it doesn’t change that what happened next was the best moment of my life.

Brian got out of his chair and crossed the garage to me. He put one hand on my knee and the other on the back of my neck, and I leaned into him.

He kissed me, the first real kiss I ever got. My mouth was sour from the pickles, but his tasted like the iced tea they’d been passing around.

*     *     *

School ends every day at 2:45, but Kristen doesn’t leave her job till 3. She doesn’t want me home alone, so I wait at the library across the parking lot. She makes me wait there because that’s where her friend, Ms. Lucas, works.

I don’t mind. Ms. Lucas’s nice. She never asks questions and doesn’t check up on me much, just gives me books to check out sometimes. The Book Thief and Chains and Catherine, Called Birdy. I take them home, but I don’t read them. The best thing about the library is that I get to check my email without Kristen looking over my shoulder every five seconds.

I’ve gotten a lot of emails since I came back. I don’t bother opening most of them. There’s only one I’m really looking for, and when it finally pops up today at the top of my inbox, my stomach squeezes shut and I feel like barfing. It’s from Mom.

Hi Leigh,

I read some things on the computer the other day. I don’t know if they let you look at it where you’re at, but I want you to know it’s not true. They didn’t come asking for my side or anything.

The people from social services say you’re still in the area. Let me know if you want to talk. We can meet up at Muncie’s.

That’s it. No sign off, and I don’t know what she’s talking about. The nauseous feeling keeps on building as I click out and open another window. When I type Brian’s name in the search bar, it all comes together.

The article’s from some magazine site and it’s called REACH OF MODERN DAY MANSON REVEALED. Chunks of text pop out at me, along with bright pictures of the mountain and the farm.

Brian Wilder, who had been living with his cousin Mary Davenport since 2014, began to surround himself with a group of followers in the spring of 2015. The people drawn to him were young, bright, and disillusioned with the lack of spirituality and the hypocrisy they saw saturating modern culture—much like Wilder himself.

The notable exception to this trend was Davenport, who at fifty-three was both older than Brian’s other admirers and entrenched in her local community. Even though friends and family expressed suspicion of Brian and his supporters, Mary never indicated that she was anything but confident in her young relative.

I start tapping the mouse as fast as I can. Eventually, it stops at the end of the page and I see it.

As with all stories of this nature, Wilder’s charismatic psychopathy obscures the undercurrent of societal complacency that fed his actions. One of the first members of Wilder’s group to speak with the department was a minor whose name has been withheld. Captain Rollins expressed frustration with what he calls “the lack of any sort of family or community support system.” According to Rollins, “As far as we can tell, this young lady went missing in 2016. There was no report filed with the department. The school did not investigate. She was gone for two years, and as far as anyone was concerned, she had vanished off the face of the earth.” 

I lean back in the chair. I’m the girl they’re talking about. Everybody else there was eighteen, at least. It was one of Brian’s rules.

Brian taught me some good things. He said that sometimes you have to make yourself a rock—you don’t argue, you don’t even speak. You just let them know you’re not giving up. And eventually, they have to accept that.

Except me. I was special. He told me that a lot.

This is what Mom’s worried about. She thinks I’ll be angry when I figure out she didn’t look for me.

It’s kind of funny, because the thing is, I always knew she wouldn’t. When I left with Brian, I was counting on it.

I log into my email again and delete the message.

*     *     *

We’re in the store when someone recognizes me. Kristen said she needed new curtains for the living room, but afterwards she steers us towards the food aisles. “I’m too tired to cook.”

“Can we have hot dogs?” The words pop out of my mouth and I think they surprise both of us. Since I came to live with her, I haven’t really had opinions on food. I’ll eat just about anything.

“On the grill?”

“Yeah. With chips, maybe?”

She pauses. Shrugs. “Fine by me.”

I go to grab a pack of buns and nearly collide with a cart being pushed by an older lady. Maybe in her fifties. I can’t place her until she opens her mouth.

“You were at Mary’s farm,” she says. “I saw you there.”

Recognition sizzles down my spine, makes my fingers clumsy and heavy. I haven’t been preparing myself for this, but I should have known. Mary had a lot of friends. I don’t know this one’s name, but she looks like the women who would come over, watching us from the kitchen and glaring over their lemonades. Like they had a sixth sense, knew things were going to go wrong.

“You were there when Brian killed her.”

She’s not loud, but the words are huge, bigger than I can understand. Bigger than I want to think about. Her face, the yeasty smell of bread, and the lights bouncing off of the plastic packaging all combine into a wave of nausea that nearly bowls me over. Shaking my head, I back up faster and faster until I collide with an aisle display. Bags of potato chips crunch under my back. The woman stares at me.

“Leigh, what’s going on?”

I look up. It’s Kristen, without the cart, looking between me and the woman.

The woman laughs, but there’s no joy in it. “You’re her mother?”

“We’re done here.” Kristen grabs my arm and wrenches me to her side, leaving Lays bags scattered across the floor.

“What were you doing? Why weren’t you watching her?”

Kristen pushes me in front of her, walking so fast her sneakers clip my heels.

“You little bitch,” the lady yells. I can’t tell which one of us she’s talking to.

Kristen stops, and for a minute I’m terrified she’s going to yell back. Then she changes her mind and pushes me ahead.

“Keep going. It’s not worth it.”

We get to the car. Without curtains, without anything. I buckle myself into the front seat, shove my hands under my thighs to warm them. Stop them from trembling.

“Look at me,” Kristen says.

I don’t look up.

“Don’t pay attention to people like that.” She turns away to stare into the rearview mirror. Her eyes reflected back are rimmed with red. Why is she crying? Isn’t she supposed to be the best foster parent in the county or whatever? Didn’t they train her for stuff like this?

“They’re hurting so badly, they don’t want to admit that he hurt other people, too.” She sniffs and turns the key in the ignition, then pauses, her foot on the brake. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I was in the kitchen when the gun went off. The bread knife I was holding slipped, taking off a chunk of my fingertip.

“Jesus!”

I was so busy wrapping up the cut that I didn’t notice when Brian slipped in through the back door. When I finally saw him, he was sitting at the table, shaking. The chair rocked with him.

“Leigh? I need a bath.”

In the shower, he threw up three times. I got in with him to help wash his hair, and a little bit of blood leaked from my bandage and mixed with the water dribbling down his neck in a barely pink trail.

My finger healed with a scar—an indentation that puckers my skin and looks a little like an uneven seam. I rub at it now, pressing my nail deep into it until it feels like it’ll split back open.

Kristen and I stay in the car, not moving, for a long time.

*     *     *

The next time I’m at the library, I pull up Mom’s email from my trash bin. I say I’ll meet her at Muncie’s this weekend. Twelve o’clock Saturday and my foster mom’s coming with me.

*     *     *

The morning of the visit, I dream about Brian. We’re in the shed, on the ground, with the pillows and horse blankets all pulled together so there’s room for both of us. I’m looking over his shoulder while he does it. Light comes through the boards in the roof, showing the dust and flakes of crud swirling everywhere and falling down on us. “I love you, little bird. You know that, right?”

The Coke souring in my mouth, I see my life, but through her eyes. It’s a straight path, and it cuts through everything—what she did and didn’t do, what I chose and didn’t choose. No matter what, it leads the same way, ends in the same place. With us in this booth, and something awful between us.

I realize that my whole time here I’ve been saying I like it when he does this. But really, I don’t. I never have. For the first time, I wonder why I’m letting him. As I focus on the rust flecks speckling the back of his shirt, he melts into a swirl of colors, and my eyes open to the ceiling at Kristen’s house. She’s knocking on my door. Shit.

I knew Kristen would be mad that I emailed Mom. At first, she tried to talk me out of it. “Her parental rights were terminated. She’s not safe for you to be around.”

But Brian taught me some good things. He said that sometimes you have to make yourself a rock—you don’t argue, you don’t even speak. You just let them know you’re not giving up. And eventually, they have to accept that.

That’s what I did, and eventually Kristen caved. I don’t know if she’s forgiven me for that yet.

I scramble off the floor and start throwing everything back on the bed. Banjo’s snoring on the mattress, but I ignore him, piling pillows, sheets, and blankets against his back. When Kristen opens the door, she catches me with a quilt overflowing from my arms.

“I’m sorry,” I say. My tongue’s dry and thick. I am so, so stupid.

She sits on the bed, ignoring the mess. “I don’t care if you sleep on the floor.”

I cling to the quilt, like a shield. “I slept in a shed. Up at the farm.”

“I know. And if it makes things any easier for you, you can stay on that floor as long as you want. Okay?”

I don’t know what she wants me to say.

Kristen sighs. “I know you want to see your mom. I’m just really worried for you. You understand that, right?”

I don’t answer.

*     *     *

Muncie’s is the kind of diner they shoot movies in. It opens at five and when I was a little kid, Mom would sometimes take me there before school. It was close enough to the bus stop that I could run back to catch the bus, syrup still smearing my face. From the way Kristen looks at it when we pull in, I know she thinks it’s a dive. But to me, it looks the same as it always did.

Mom doesn’t, though. She’s sitting in the back, in our usual booth. She stands up when we come in, and I realize she’s shorter than me. Her hair’s grey at the roots. She stares at me.

“You got tall.” The smoker’s rasp that used to make me think of movie stars now just reminds me of the shriveled, charcoal lungs they show us in health class.

“Yeah,” I mumble stupidly. “I guess I did.”

Kristen tells me to get whatever I want and takes a seat in the booth behind us. That was her part of the deal for taking me.

“You want pancakes?” Mom asks.

The laminated menu’s sticky. “No. Maybe mac-and-cheese?”

She snorts. “You can make that at home.”

“I could make pancakes too.”

I order mac-and-cheese and collard greens and a coke. Mom asks for a sweet tea and tells the waitress, loudly, that it’ll all be on one check.

“You already ate?”

She shrugs.

“So,” she says when they bring out the drinks, “you wanted to meet.”

I did. Because no matter what any court says, she is still my mother, and through her is me. If I can understand why she wasn’t looking harder, why she let me go, then maybe—

None of this is anything I want to tell her right now. I stare at my glass. “I thought you wanted to.”

Then maybe I’ll know why I didn’t see through Brian. Through all of them.

She lets out a huff I can’t figure out. I wait.

“You read the paper?”

“Yeah.”

“You ran away a lot,” she says finally.

I’m surprised at the anger that comes up. “Never for that long.”

“You’re telling me.” Her fingers are tapping against the table and I can tell how badly she wants a cigarette. When I was a kid, I used to tell her to go outside, that I could wait. I was so desperate not to be a problem to her.

I want to be a problem now.

“There was a lady in the store who thought Kristen was you.”

Her face folds in on itself, the wrinkles carving deeper into her mouth and forehead. I’ve hurt her. Good.

“So?”

“She asked why you weren’t watching me.”

Mom snorts. “You think that if I went and dragged you away from that place, you wouldn’t have old bitches hounding you in the grocery store? Have I got news for you.”

The Coke souring in my mouth, I see my life, but through her eyes. It’s a straight path, and it cuts through everything—what she did and didn’t do, what I chose and didn’t choose. No matter what, it leads the same way, ends in the same place. With us in this booth, and something awful between us.

Not for the first time in my life, I realize that I don’t understand her at all.

She’s tapping the table again. “People hate each other. It’s just the way of the world. Everyone’s always picking on everybody else.”

The frustration that boils up is so scorching, I struggle to swallow. “He killed someone, mom. I was living with him and he killed someone.”

“Come on. I never met that guy. How was I supposed to know he was going to go and shoot that old lady?”

“That’s not the point.”

She swirls the ice in her glass, not looking at me. “Here we go again. Look, I know I wasn’t the kind of mom you wanted, okay? You were leaving all the time, and I just got tired of losing you every time I pissed you off. I’m sorry. I just got tired.”

The food comes out—macaroni soupy and the greens huddled in a limp pile. My stomach roils, but I wait until the waitress leaves to answer her.

“I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Oh yeah?” she snaps “How was it supposed to work?”

“You could’ve called the police! The paper said you didn’t even do that.”

“Yeah, well, see how great things went when they got involved.” Mom jerks her head at Kristen. “Now you’re in foster care and CPS is all over my ass.”

She has a point. I guess.

“The thing is, people say it was all my fault. That I should have been keeping a better eye on you, should have called the police, whatever. But you know how I am. You always have.” She looked at me. “You made those decisions. You made yourself.”

I look at her, and I can’t speak. I want to scream about all the things that she did that people told me were definitely, categorically wrong—the things that everyone but her and me can see so clearly as what pushed me to Brian and the farm. But I can’t. Because she is right and wrong at the same time.

I did make myself. There is no way around that.

There was her, and then there was me. And under all the things she did was what I decided, and what I did. Under her was me, always.

*     *     *

Kristen and I don’t talk on the way home. I sit in the passenger seat and lean against the window, watching the telephone poles passing outside and our reflections in the glass. A headache builds behind my skull.

When Mom said goodbye, she didn’t mention meeting up again. I don’t think I’ll see her for a long time.

I don’t know how I feel about that.

There’s going to be a trial for Brian. Kristen says that I might have to testify. Right now, everyone’s trying to keep me out of it because of how young I was, but it all depends on if the other people will talk.

Thinking about seeing everyone again used to terrify me. Actually, it still does. But now I play it like a movie in my head.

I’ll walk to the front of the courtroom. I’ll have to swear on something—a Bible, I guess. Maybe Kristen will be there too. I can look at her when I’m talking. Not him. I don’t think I’d be able to say anything if I was looking at Brian the whole time.

They’ll ask me questions.

How old were you when you met Brian Wilder?

Fourteen—no, thirteen. My birthday was three days away.

Did you know that Mr. Wilder was planning to kill Mary Davenport?

No. I couldn’t see it then.

I made myself not see it.

What did he do?

I heard a gun go off. And then he came in and told me that Mary was dead. And that he didn’t mean to do it, he was just so angry. He said he would protect me, always. And I believed him, up until the police came and took us away.

I’ll say all of this, even though I don’t want to. Even though it’ll hurt like knives.

If I made myself, maybe I can try to remake me, too.

I imagine the last moments in court, when they’ll tell me I can go. I’ll think back to Muncie’s and that one, blinding moment when I saw Mom and understood everything she was and wasn’t.

At the end, I will look up. I will see him. I’ll see him for what he really is.

 

Claudia McCarron learned everything she ever needed from books. She is a recent graduate of Shepherd University, where she was an editor for Sans Merci, the school’s journal of literature and art. She lives in West Virginia with her family.