Kesslyn Runs is my latest book, a novel set in the not-so-distant future about a 15-year-old girl runs away from her abusive foster home and the events that escape sets into motion. Here is an excerpt from the book:
It was dark when she awoke.
She knew it would be.
Her eyes popped open, and she lay there in her bead, her blanket wrapped tight around her, pulled up to her nose. So she could feel the heat of her breath underneath the cover. She was still cold, though. She was always cold. It was never warm enough in this house, the blanket they gave her was not thick enough, and they barely gave her enough clothes to wear. To cover herself, much less keep warm.
Most of the time, they didn’t want her covered.
She lay there, in her bed, listening to the noise of the house, fully conscious. Most mornings it was a struggle to emerge from sleep, a fight against the desire to go back to dreams of flying in a bright blue sky, the sun warm on her skin, wings beating hard and taking her far away. But not today. Today she was fully awake, her eyes adjusting quickly to the darkness of her room, watching the lights and the shadows move as the occasional car drove past.
She’d always been transfixed by this motion of light and shadows, and could lie in her bed and watch it for hours, listening to the cars come and go, seeing the mix of red and white light, wishing she was in one of those cars. Going anywhere but here.
And sometimes she did lie in bed, watching the play of light and darkness. To forget the pain. To forget where she was.
No one else was up. She lay there long enough, listening carefully enough, to make sure there were no creaks, no feet creeping or tromping or stomping around. Everyone else was asleep. She could hear Richard’s snoring, like some demonic machine slowly demolishing itself, from across the hallway. How his wife Monica could sleep through that was anyone’s guess. And she knew, drunk as he’d been around midnight, he wasn’t waking up any time soon.
Which was good.
She arose slowly. She still ached, still hurt, and knew she was bruised. Somewhere. He always left bruises. She slowly and silently took the blanket off, and sat at the edge of her bed. She’d slept in nothing but a grey sports bra and a pair of dark blue boy shorts. Because those were the rules, especially on nights when customers were coming over. Richard demanded the kids be easily accessible. Just in case.
And he almost always checked at bedtime.
Her feet landed softly on the bare wood floor. She slowly and carefully grabbed the small backpack she’d stowed earlier that evening under her bed. In it, she had everything she owned — everything she was allowed to own. Two small notebooks she’d been clandestinely writing in for the last two years, a pair of jeans, a pair of sweats, two tee-shirts, two more sports bras, a couple pair of underwear, two pair of socks, some pens, and the charger to her cell phone.
Her cell phone. The one someone had smuggled in several months ago and given to her. The one she had to hide in one of the half-dozen or so places around her room. She could easily bury her phone and her charger at the bottom of her backpack, and carefully plug it in late at night or early in the morning.
Not every foster kid in this house had a phone, but most did. They weren’t supposed to have them, but they were all good at hiding them, in cracks and crevices, under things no one would think to look under, behind things no one gave thought to having them behind. These tiny devices were their one real escape from the monotonous terror they all found themselves living in. Their one access to a world that didn’t always want to hurt them.
She turned it on and checked her charge. It was old and battered and small but it worked. Seventy-eight percent. Good. It would be enough. She placed the phone down beside her and carefully took the jeans and the sweatshirt she had folded up the night before and stashed underneath her pillow. The sweatshirt was a gift from one of the many men who visited her. It was plum colored, a size too big, and said “Je t’aime!” — French for “I Love You!” — on the front in a big pink heart. She hated knowing who it was from, and normally her foster father didn’t allow any of the kids to keep gifts from the customers, but Richard thought this one so funny that it served her right to keep it.
“I love you!” he laughed between gulps of sour beer. “You realize no one loves you, right? And no one will ever love you, right?”
“Right?” With that, Richard stared hard, viciously, threateningly at her. The stare that told her he wanted her assent. Her agreement.
“Yes, sir,” she said silently, sullenly. “No one will ever love me.”
She winced at the memory. Her muscles tightened, and she felt herself shivering. She didn’t want to remember what came next, and she knew if she didn’t put herself back in this room right now, at oh-dark-thirty in the morning, she would. And she needed to be here, to tramp the flashbacks down tight and keep them at bay for as long as she could right now, so she could keep her wits about and get clear of this house. She opened her eyes and put the sweatshirt on, quickly. It didn’t matter where it came from, what he thought it meant. It was soft on the inside, and probably the only really warm article of clothing she owned. She didn’t particularly love this shirt, but she would wear it.
And for her, it would say “fuck you” to him, and to all the men who came to this place to use her. And the other kids here.
This shirt means what I say it means, she thought to herself. It means someone loves me. Someone will love me. Love is out there. I just need to get free to find it.
This sweatshirt was also the only thing she owned which would cover the scars on her wrists. Some of them she carved into her own skin. There were times when she ached to end her life, to spill her own blood, to feel it ooze silently and slowly away. And times when the pain from cutting was the only thing that would make her feel whole. Calm. Like a human a being.
But there was that tattoo. That black, ugly tattoo that was simply a blur in the dim light, but she knew it was there, on the inside of her left wrist, mocking her, a bar code that showed the world she was a thing to be tracked and monitored and bought and sold. They’d drugged her, so she didn’t remember the ink and the needle, but she remember the pain. She remembered seeing it for the first time.
“That’s who you are. And it’s all you will ever be,” Monica told her one day with a voice that was sharp, cold, cruel, and pitiless.
She was Richard’s wife. She was a monster. Sometimes Monica would hold her down while Richard would rape her.
And sometimes Monica would rape her.
She looked at it for a moment in the darkness, ran her right thumb across it. It was almost as if she could feel the bumps of the lines. She’d memorized her number — they all had the barcode and they all had their numbers memorized — “JVX77-32898-826.” It was more real than her name.
Sometimes, she would forget her name. She never forgot the number. Someday, she would get it removed.
She grabbed the socks, light pink little girl socks with frilly anklets, and pulled them on, and then her jeans. She stood up silently, pulled her pants above her waist, zipped her jeans up slowly, and sat back down. She paused for a moment, held her breath, to make sure no one had heard even that slow, silent little zip.
Good. She started breathing again, deliberately and silently, and she felt around underneath her bed for her shoes. This was going to be the toughest task of the morning, tying her shoes in the dark.
There are any number of things you don’t learn in foster care, and at 15, one of those things she’d never been taught to do was tie her own shoes. Not until a few weeks ago, just a few days before her 15th birthday, when a kind 10-year-old boy who’d just recently arrived showed her how. It was hard, and her fingers felt awkward crossing and looping and pulling shoestrings, but she’d managed to master it well enough so that her foster dad rather grudgingly bought her a proper pair of sneakers, black Converse All Star high tops, rather than the Velcro strap shoes she’d worn as long as she could remember.
For the last few nights, she would get up in the darkness, just like now, and listen to see if anyone was awake, if anyone was prowling around, if anyone was softly sobbing somewhere in the house.
If it was quiet, she would practice tying her shoes in the dark. Over and over again. Until she could do it with her eyes closed. Until she was confident they wouldn’t come undone, at least not until she was far enough away from the house.
Pull tight, cross, over and under, loop, pull that loop through, pull it all tight. Twice. She felt confident. Her shoes felt tight. No need to redo this. She looked down and squinted at her shoes. They looked okay, the bows as neat as she could get them, so far as she could tell in the dim light. She took a breath, flipped her phone over, and looked at it.
“4:59” the time flashed dimly. Good. Right on schedule. She entered her password, pressed the icon for the Semaphore app — a texting app that borrowed allocated but unused phone numbers temporarily and allowed users to text as if they had real connections — and looked at the top contact:
“Hi” she typed.
And she waited.
She’d only been texting Jerome for a couple of weeks, and she’d gotten his name from another girl in foster care she knew in school. “He’s nice. He listens. He really listens,” the friend said.
So she scribbled his phone number on a gum wrapper, wadded it up, and stuffed it deep down in her backpack. Working up the courage to text him. To see if he was a nice as the girl said.
No one knew who he really was. Or where he came from. Or why he did this. Only that he was out there, talking, listening, and taking seriously — really taking seriously — the stories of terror and abuse the kids had to tell.
And offering them comfort. Some of the only comfort they had.
“Hi,” she typed the very first time. “I hear you are Jerome. I hear you’re nice. Is that true?”
I’ve been told that, he wrote. What can I do for you?
“I don’t want to live anymore.”
Why? What is happening to you?
“What isn’t happening to me is a shorter list. They hurt me. They don’t stop. They’ve done everything to me except kill me.”
I’m glad they haven’t done that. I’m sorry they are hurting you. What exactly are they doing?
“I can’t tell you. You can guess.”
You don’t have to tell me anything. I don’t need to know. Just know that I am here. I promise. I’m not going to leave you.
And he was as good as his word. Slowly, she began to trust him. He didn’t make any promises he couldn’t keep. He didn’t ask where she was, or if they could meet. He didn’t send any pictures, and didn’t ask for any. He didn’t say he would come rescue her, carry her away, keep her safe, even report what was happening to the authorities. How could he? He had no idea where she was, or even really who she was.
He simply listened. He talked. He was almost always there. He didn’t leave. He was just words on a screen, but to her, he was more real than anyone she’d ever met.
His was the first real kindness, and he was the first real kind man, she’d encountered in her life. Hers had been a life of almost pitiless and unrelenting brutality. She’d had a family, once, long ago, but vague memories of mom and dad were interrupted by yelling and screaming and beatings and one night a knife that flashed silver in the bright blue-white light of a kitchen, and then fountains and pools and puddles of red flowing and oozing and covering everything. And then her dad, lying dead, covered in gore, soaked in his own blood, while her mother screamed, “That’s the last time you take $20 from me, you fucking bastard!”
The police were called the following morning when she showed up for kindergarten in a blood-stained shirt. Her mother, sitting drunk and high on something in the kitchen still holding the knife, was arrested. The girl was then hauled off to foster care at the tender age of five.
And that’s when her nightmare really began.
So, she had no idea there were kind men in the world. If there were more men like Jerome, maybe someone could, would, one day love her.
Hey. It’s good to hear from you. You’re up early.
She inhaled quickly through her nose.
“I’m going to make a run for it.”
Careful. Don’t get caught. I don’t want them to hurt you.
“They hurt me anyway. I have nothing to lose.”
Okay. I’m here. I won’t leave you.
“You’d better not.”
She pressed the “off” button and put her phone in her front jeans pocket, screen facing inward, just to make sure that no one could see it if it lit up.
Backpack? Check. Jacket? Check. Courage? She took a breath.
“I have nothing to lose,” she thought. If that’s courage, then yes, courage. Check.
She gently grabbed hold of the doorknob, carefully and slowly turned it, and pulled the door slightly. Her foster dad, and the others who kept her — and the other foster kids — prisoner here had stopped hooking the outside door latches months ago, so confident were they that they had vanquished these kids. And she didn’t hear anyone lock her door from the outside last night, so was confident — at least as confident as she could be — her bedroom door was unlocked.
And it was. She pulled the door open slowly. It could creak, and she didn’t want that.
She made her way slowly into the hallway. Each step she took was careful, deliberate, as light as she could make it. It helped that she was a small girl, and one of the men who frequented her called her “a little leaf who could blow away in a strong wind.”
How she’d yearned for that wind, sometimes, to carry her far away.
Now, the moment of truth arrived. She was ready to become a leaf on the wind. She stood at the top of the stairs, looking down into the blue-black darkness. This is it. These stairs make a lot of fucking noise, she thought, especially about halfway down. Sometimes she lay in bed frozen in terror because she could hear him coming up those stairs, and she knew what he was coming for. And the tromping, the creaking, the groaning of those stairs, made it all worse.
Slowly, set by step, she walked softly. One foot at a time, stopping and holding her breath with every squeak and every pop of wood. She held tight to the railing, and halfway down, she though she heard something move in a distant, upstairs room.
She could breathe again. …