These are much better than dresses, she thought, holding them close to her heart with one hand and closing the closet door with the other. It squeaked. She froze, but didn’t hear a sound from father, so she crept back to her room and dressed in George’s clothes.
The shirt hung limp and the pants needed a belt to stay up, but they muted her chest’s premature bulges and hid the curve of her oversized waist. They may have been made of Wal-Mart cotton and polyester, but to Jess, they were armor against the wandering eyes and hands of the church boys.
“Keep the pants on,” whispered Momma. “Don’t bow to his will like I did.”
“Why do I have to dress like a girl?” asked Jess, twining auburn hair around her scraped knuckles.
“Because that’s how you were born.” Rev. Blake’s thin lips morphed into a bow and arrow. “The lord created men and women different for a reason.”
“But he didn’t create department stores,” said Jess. “I don’t care what parts I have as long as I don’t have to wear dresses every Sunday.”
It was like the arrow shot from Rev. Blake’s lips had glanced Jessie’s nose, sending a splatter of blood on to his cheeks, turning them red. “Jessica. You are my daughter. You will attend my worship services dressed like a proper woman.”
“That’s bullshit,” she hissed. Her father wanted everything to appear perfect, but Jess knew he never practiced what he preached. All he cared about was control.
“Watch your tongue.” Rev. Blake slapped her.
She took it like a man, not flinching as his calloused palm slammed into her jaw.
“Fuck you,” she spat, hoping he’d hit her again. She’d need a good bruise to convince the school social worker that the beloved Rev. Francis Blake was an abusive father, especially since he started making generous donations to County Middle School.
Unfortunately, Rev. Blake was too smart to take her bait. He leaned in close. Jess smelled whisky and lilies masking the burning stench of his drugs. She tilted her chin up, first seeing how crusty yellow snots hid the sores in his nose before finally getting brave enough to look into his eyes, which were gray like concrete walls poking out of a snow bank. “I will not put that dress on.”
“You will,” he whispered. “I’m going to leave the room. If you are not downstairs in ten minutes with your dress on and your hair braided, you will be grounded, and you will not get supper for a week.”
“I can’t,” she said, thinking of how the dress squished her unwanted breasts and the waist that kept growing, but exposed her knees, allowing air and hands to reach other places.
“And why is that?” whispered Rev. Blake.
“I hate dresses.” Jess closed her eyes so Rev. Blake wouldn’t see her tears. She had always hated dress, but last Sunday, Tommy Goodman’s actions had convinced her she would never wear one to church again. So far, she had only told Momma’s spirit because she feared no one would believe her. However, Rev. Blake was her father. His need for control had driven Momma away, but that didn’t mean he didn’t love her.
If he loves me, he will believe me, thought Jess.
Her breaths quickened, but each time she inhaled, she imagined she was pulling more pieces of Momma inside her. Even though Momma was physically far away, her spirit could still help Jess be strong. After three long gulps under Rev. Blake’s glare, Jess choked out the words she’d been holding in all week: “And because last Sunday, Tommy Goodman played with my panties during your sermon.”
A blue vein bulged on father’s forehead. “Tommy Goodman is a fine young man, and I will not tolerate you slandering him.”
Rev. Blake turned his back on her and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Jess flopped onto her bed and bit her tongue, so she wouldn’t cry.
He hates me, she thought. I bet he knows exactly what kind of man Tommy Goodman is and turns a blind eye to it because Tommy Goodman is an obedient little sheep while I’m fat and rebellious.
She counted to ten, opening and closing her fist, then got up and stood in front of her mirror. The paint was peeling off its frame, revealing dark wood. The glass was warped and spotted, scarred from decades of existence. Jessie traced the outline of her padded jaw, round nose, and hazel eyes. Her fingers were stubby like a boy’s, but the buttons on her brother’s shirt strained against her chest.
She looked back at the dress. It had poufy short sleeves, a tight bodice, and a skirt puffed out by tulle. It would make her look like an overweight, sinfully regurgitated Barbie. The magazines at the grocery store made her think boys didn’t like chunky girls like her, but her weight didn’t stop Tommy from touching her. It was like he was the big bad wolf and she was all three of the pigs he wanted to eat.
She looked back at herself. The white button up, loose everywhere but her chest, and navy pants that needed a belt to stay up, were a much preferable way to dress, one that would keep Tommy’s hands away from her undergarments.
She shivered. She could still feel his hands tickling in places they didn’t belong. She should have punched him right there in the congregation, but she had been afraid. No one had seen what he was doing; they wouldn’t have understood.
Shame and anger mixed like baking soda and vinegar, evoking a frothy tide that exploded inside her. When she looked back at the mirror, her reflection was gone, replaced with image of Rev. Blake typing emails to her Aunty Cassie and Grandma while worms ate Momma’s body.
“Momma, you’re not dead,” screamed Jess as her hand shot forward, punching the image of her father’s smug face. The mirror shattered. “You just ran away because Rev. Blake was mean to you.”
“Jessica Gertrude Blake,” boomed Rev. Blake’s voice. “What in the Lord’s name is going on up there?”
Panic twined around Jess’ insides as her father’s feet stomped up the stairs. She stuffed a sweatshirt, bible and piggy bank into her school bag, and then climbed out the window. She scurried across the porch roof, leapt onto a tree branch and disappeared into the cornfields behind her house.
Jess clung to her school bag like a security blanket. She cooled her forehead on the bus windows. Even though she’d scrubbed her hands and face in the station’s bathroom, she still itched from her trek across the corn, potato and wheat fields of Northern Maine.
Momma’s spirit had stayed with her the whole time, telling her where to turn and hide so she could reach the bus without being seen. She bought a t-shirt in the station’s gift shop, and cut her hair with scissors she borrowed from the clerk, claiming she was just going to use them for a school project while she waited for the bus to arrive.
Her bag was lighter now that she’d emptied two-thirds of her piggy bank in exchange for the t-shirt and a ticket to Portland, where her Aunty Cassie’s house was. At 13-years-old, Jess was too young to get a job. Anyone in the County would know whose daughter she was and send her back to Rev. Blake straight away.
Aunty Cassie, though, hadn’t directly spoken to Rev. Blake since Jess turned six. She still sent Jess cards filled with $10 bills on Christmas and her birthday, and even though Aunty Cassie was the Rev. Blake’s sister, she called Momma every Friday while Rev. Blake was watching sports at Bill’s Bar. Jess wasn’t supposed to listen to what they spoke about, but when curiosity got the better of her, she heard words like control freak, abusive, and sociopath.
“Is anyone sitting with you?” squeaked a voice.
Jess rolled her head away from the window to inspect the voice’s owner. It was girl, maybe 17 or 18, with hot pink hair cascading from her head to her hips. She wore a lime green shirt with black fishnet sleeves and baggy black cargo pants. The boy standing beside her had the same sharp chin and fierce blue eyes. His Mohawk was dyed an even brighter shade of blue.
Jess closed her eyes, searching for the voice that had been guiding her since she left home. She took a few deep breaths, but didn’t feel the pockets of cold air that had been guiding her escape.
“I’m alone,” croaked Jess, cautiously eyeing the Jesus freak patch on the girl’s messenger bag. “I’m on my way to visit my aunt.”
“Is it okay if we sit with you?” asked the boy, picking at a blister on his finger and not making eye contact.
Jess nodded. Rev. Blake never associated with people who dyed their hair unnatural colors.
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” The pink-haired girl fished a miniature bible out of a pocket that looked big enough to conceal a whole village.
“My father is a pastor, but not a nice one,” said Jess. “He doesn’t think Christians are allowed to dye their hair, but I think he’s just a big bully.”
The girl’s mouth opened wide the like the base of a bell, yet the laughter that poured out was more musical than bells that sang the end of Sunday Worship. “Jesus loves everyone, no matter what they look like. Where in Portland does your aunt live?”
“On the top of Pollack Hill,” said Jess.
“That’s awesome!” The girl grinned, and her cheeks turned pink like her hair. “My name is Rosie, and my brother is Pat. We live on the same street. What’s your aunt’s name?”
“Cassie,” whispered Jess, looking around to make sure she didn’t recognize any of the passengers.
“Cookie Cassie makes the best ginger snaps,” said Pat, picking his cuticles. “Maybe she’ll let you come to Mass with us tonight.”
During the 6-hour bus ride, Jess learned Rosie and Pat had spent the previous week up north on a retreat where hundreds of teens gathered to praise God and make music. Jess didn’t say a whole lot about herself, but the siblings didn’t seem to mind. They were happy chattering about Jesus, cookies and their favorite Christian rock songs.
“I didn’t even know heavy metal could be Christian.” Jess stepped off the bus and was greeted with a cacophony of squawking gulls and growling engines. She sneezed when she inhaled dead fish and oil fumes.
“The air takes some getting used to, especially if you’ve spent most of your life in The County.” Rose picked her lip, staining her black nail polish with pink lip-gloss while she scanned the crowd. “Is your aunt picking you up?”
Jess shook her head, missing the curls that would have normally bounced with the movement. “I was going to walk to her house. How are you getting home?”
“We’re walking too,” said Rose. “Its only a couple miles from here. You can stay with us so you don’t get lost
Jess looked around. Dozens of busses were loading and taking on passengers. A homeless man sat barefoot on the curb with a sign asking for food. A group of teenage boys sat near the terminal, strumming acoustic guitars. A woman with tight jeans and a leather jacket walked a pack of seven yapping poodles. Behind her, a man with green hair was so engrossed in his phone that he didn’t see the one of the poodles stop to poop. He stepped in it and kept on walking.
“This your first time in a city?”
It took Jess a few minutes to realize Pat was speaking to her because he was looking at her feet, not her eyes. Having picked his cuticles to the point of bleeding, he was now biting his fingernails.
“It’s my first time outside the county,” admitted Jess.
Pat held his scarred hand out to her. “We’ll be your guides.”
Cautiously, she let her palm touch his. Long, thin fingers swaddled her hand in sticky warmth. She was glad his fingers weren’t stubby and cold like Tommy’s.
“Jessica, your father is worried sick!” were not the words Jess had been hoping to hear when her aunt opened the door and swept her up into a hug. After crushing Jessica with her squishy, vanilla-scented bosom, she held Jess at arms length and said, “I hardly recognized you with short hair, but I’m so glad you’re here, safe.”
“Please don’t tell Rev. Blake,” said Jess, pleading with her aunt’s moss and tree bark eyes.
Aunty Cassie sunk to her knees, cupping Jessica’s face with her chubby fingers. “Honey, why did you run away?”
Jess hesitated, watching how Aunty Cassie’s piggish nostrils flared every time she inhaled. There were no sores insides her aunt’s nose, and no needle marks on freckle-infested arms. When Jess inhaled, she smelt cinnamon and butter. A cool breeze ruffled her hair and caressed her arms.
“Tell her,” whispered Momma’s voice. Jess could barely hear her over the beeping horns and barking dogs. “She’ll believe you.”
Jess nodded, once again breathing slow and deep, so she could swallow the fragments of Momma and keep them safe inside her.
“He hits me and makes me dress like a girl,” confessed Jess, praying Momma was right. “I know I’m a girl, but I really hate dressing like one.”
Aunty Cassie rubbed the edge of Jess’ jaw, right where father had hit her early that morning. She bowed her head, momentarily leaning her forehead on Jess’. “I’m so sorry honey.”
“I tried telling him a boy did something bad to me,” continued Jess, “but he didn’t believe me.”
“That’s horrible.” Aunty Cassie sandwiched Jess’s hands between hers. “You’re safe here.”
Jess sniffled. The draft blew harder.
“You have one more thing to tell her,” whispered Momma as her cool breeze enveloped Jess. This time, she couldn’t stop the tears from trailing down her cheeks.
“Aunty, have you heard from my momma?”
Aunty Cassie’s curls bounced as she shook hear head. “She emailed me a couple weeks ago saying she was leaving Rev. Blake, and I haven’t heard a peep since.”
“I think she’s dead,” said Jess before she was swept away in a rip tide of tears. She took deep breaths, trying to suck up as much of Momma as she could, so she wouldn’t drown in the tears, but no matter how hard she tried, the right amount of air just wouldn’t fill her lungs. “Are you still going tell him I’m here?”
“We’re going to talk to the police and social services.” Aunty Cassie gave Jess a warm sweat shirt, fresh out of the dryer, paused the washer mid-cycle, turned the stove off, left the vegetables on the counter, grabbed her pocket book and loaded Jess into her car. They sped past rows of houses crammed together like cornstalks covered in peeling paint.
In less than 15 minutes, they arrived at a large brick building with double glass doors and concrete steps. Aunty Cassie’s chins bounced as she leapt up the steps three at a time. Her shoulders remained straight as she marched through the doors to a woman who was sitting behind a glass window.
The woman tucked a strand of gray hair behind her ear. “What can I do for you ladies?”
“My niece is being abused by her father. She traveled all the way from The County hoping I’d help her get away from him. I plan to do just that.”
“I think he killed my Momma,” said Jess as a fresh wave of tears threatened to drown her.
The next hour was a whirlwind of questions from a handful of adults in various states of decay. The police officer that interviewed them was fat and bald, like a blue and brown beach ball. The social worked was a short woman in a brown pantsuit with frayed hems and coffee stained sleeves. The psychologist had short hair and square shoulders that made Jess think it was a he, but the high pitched voice and button-straining chest made Jess think it was actually woman. The whole time they poked and prodded her with the same sets of questions, Momma’s ghostly hand was holding Jess’.
By the time Jess and Aunty Cassie left the police station, nothing was settled. Jess’ future hung in the balance of red tape, paper and overworked state employees. The only things she knew for certain was that her dinner would be chicken pie from Fat Cat Bakery, she was going to go to the same “Youth Mass” as the kids from the bus, and Rev. Blake had consented to her spending the night at Aunty Cassie’s, claiming he’d drive down to Portland, first thing in the morning. Jess hoped the social workers in Portland were more immune to Rev. Blake’s charm than the ones back home.
Jess worried her way through dinner, but an hour later, when she stood in front of the biggest church she’d ever been in, holding hands with Aunty Cassie and Pat while singing “Lord I Lift your Name on High,” Jess decided she didn’t have to worry. People of every shape, color and size surrounded her. Girls wore pants and dresses equally; there was even one boy in a skirt. They all lifted their hands and voices to praise the lord. Jess felt closer to God here than she ever had at home and knew with a certainty she’d never felt before that He had a plan, and it didn't involve returning to Rev. Blake or The County.
Jess closed her eyes, getting lost in the symphony of youth and love. Blurry colors danced behind her eyelids, eventually forming into tall fir trees, a man with a red flannel shirt and a white hound. The dog bayed and dug until its teeth closed around a partially decayed, maggot infested hand. A cold breeze whipped through the woods bleaching the landscape with snow. Her mother appeared in the white light, not moldy and wormy, but whole, clad in her favorite blue dress with her auburn hair blowing in the wind.
“I’ll always be with you,” she sang as angels lifted her by the arms and showered feathers on Jess.