As a kid I lived with neglectful parents at best. At worst dad would turn his screams and fists on me but I learned quickly how to dodge the worst of it. Mom wasn’t much help, she’d just smoke in the kitchen and bitch at him for staying out so late.
At the time we lived basically in the middle of nowhere, our nearest neighbors were a long walk away for a six year old and we had trees between us. No one to run to for help. But I was pretty small for a kid my age. I learned I could fit pretty much anywhere. The closet. Dryer. I think even once I tucked myself under my futon in such a way I could still get some air but no one could see me.
I was a master at hiding. But it wasn’t for a good reason.
One night though, one night I chose to do something different.
I could hear it in dad’s yells, he was pissed and was about to get violent. Mom wasn’t helping either, just piling fuel onto an inferno of a flame. So I knew I had to find a good hiding spot. I’d gotten the idea a few days before, when I realized the lattice covering the bottom half of the back porch had a hole in it. Not big enough to fit a full grown man, most likely, but it could fit a skinny six year old no problem.
So wrapping myself up in my blanket and grabbing my hippo stuffie, I snuck out my window and ran into the backyard. In the middle of autumn. When it was forty degrees out and the temperature was steadily dropping.
I crawled under the porch, scraping my elbows and getting splinters in my palms but I fit inside. It was actually quite spacious compared to most my hiding spots, I couldn’t sit up all the way but I had plenty of room to spread out my limbs.
Of course I was also getting covered in dirt. It’d rained a few days ago so the mud was still a little wet. I wrapped myself in my blankie the best I could and settled in for the night.
But soon, even with my blankie and my hippo, my teeth were chattering so hard I could barely breathe. I didn’t want to go back inside though, knowing if my dad caught me I’d be in for the whipping of my life. So I had to tough it out.
“Honey, are you cold?”
That voice was not the voice of my mother, scratchy from all the smoking and screeching she did. It was sweet, like honey. I turned over to see the dim outline of a woman, lying on her stomach next to me. She had a pretty butterfly necklace and was just as dirty as I was.
I nodded, not wondering how she’d been down there without me noticing.
The woman belly crawled forward and wrapped her arms around me and suddenly I became warm. Like I was sitting next to a campfire. I snuggled into her arms, not minding the mud, after all we were both dirty.
“You’ve gotten so big,” the woman said, examining my face. “How old are you now, Alex?”
“Six.” How did I know this woman again? I didn’t think I did.
“Six!” The woman gasped. “You’re all grown up then. I’m so happy.” She sighed pleasantly and stroked my hair. I’d never felt so cozy in my life.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She smiled, I could hear it in her voice. “I’m Lily. What’s your favorite thing to do?”
I had to think for a second. “I like board games. And coloring.”
Lily chuckled. “Just like me then. Could never get enough of Scrabble. But I guess you’re still too young to play that, huh?”
I nodded. “Lotsa words. I wanna play it though. I like the tiles. Would you play with me?”
I heard Lily sharply inhale. “I… I don’t think I can. Your daddy put me under here, and I can’t leave… but…” She thought for a second. “Alex, could you do me a favor?”
“Of course!” This lady was oh so nice. Why wouldn’t I do her a favor?
“When you wake up in the morning, go to the police station. Ask for an officer by the name of Lowell Joyce. Tell him where to find Lily, okay? Under your back porch. He’ll come and he’ll get me, okay? And… and then maybe we can play Scrabble.”
Yippee! I was too excited about the possibility of playing Scrabble to notice how Lily’s voice caught at the end. I nodded vigorously. “I’ll do it! We can be on the same team, right?”
Lily softly laughed.
“I’ll help you understand the rules. Goodnight, Alex.”
When I woke up the next morning, I heard Lily’s voice.
“Go now. Your dad’s gone to work. I’ll tell you how to get to the station.”
Rubbing my eyes, I crawled out from under the porch and went into the house to grab my shoes and a coat. I shivered in the frosty cold. But I thought Lily was right behind me.
After my shoes and coat were on I started walking. It was long enough to get to the neighbor’s house. I really can’t remember how long it took to get to the police station, although I have no idea why no one pulled over to see what the hell a six year old in dirty pajamas was doing walking alongside the road. Lily kept guiding me onward.
“Wait. Okay, cross the street now.”
“Turn right here.”
“Keep going! You’ve almost made it!”
I nearly collapsed with exhaustion by the time I walked into the station. The guys out front chatting and having a good time didn’t see me until I almost made it to the front desk.
“Whoa! Kid! You okay?” One of the officers knelt down to my level, eyes wide.
I nodded. “I’m okay. Can I speak to Lowell Joyce?” I asked.
One of the other officers picked me up. “Sure kid, sure, let’s just get you someplace warm, holy shit your lips are blue…”
I remembered quietly scolding the man about watching his language. ‘Shit’ was a bad word.
I was given some warm cocoa and wrapped up in a blanket by the time an old man with a graying mustache sat by me.
“Hey kid. I’m Sheriff Joyce. What’s your name?” He asked.
“Alex.” I set down my cup and looked him straight in the eye. “I was told to tell you that Lily is under the back porch. You need to go let her out so we can play Scrabble.”
I had never seen a grown man turn pale before.
Lots of things blurred together at this point. I remember being taken back to my house and there were a lot of police cars and people around. The back porch was surrounded by yellow tape, and someone was taking a black bag away while my dad was in handcuffs.
After that, I lived with my grandparents. Sheriff Joyce and his wife.
I tried to ask about what happened and who was Lily but I always got shut down. I was too young to know.
But life got better. A lot better.
Grandpa was the best man I could’ve hoped for in my life. We went out on weekends to the movies where he let me have the giant soda even though I’d have to pee in the middle of the movie. When I asked if I could drink when I was thirteen he let me try a beer. I spat it out and didn’t touch it again. He never judged me for my love of art, letting me paint my own bedroom multiple times over the years. I felt safe around him. He never laid a hand on me. My grandmother was amazing too, over the week she’d homeschool me along with teaching me things that you wouldn’t learn in a school, such as how to respect others but not take their crap. And cooking. Lots of cooking. I could make my own birthday cake by the time I was twelve. But I usually just made them for my friends. I got a lot of those, after I was free from my dad.
When I turned sixteen, Grandpa took me back to my dad’s house.
The whole thing had been bulldozed over. But I could still see the yellow tape wound around a few trees, faded and torn.
We sat together on the back of his truck. He opened a beer and drank half of it before setting it down and grabbing me an orange soda.
After I’d drank it he told me.
“Lily was your mother.”
Good thing he didn’t tell me as I was swallowing, I likely would’ve had it coming out of my nose. “My mom?” I questioned, confused.
“Your actual mom. The woman who lived with your dad was not your mother.” My granddad grabbed another beer. “Lily was my daughter. I loved her so much… but when you were around six months old, she vanished.”
My stomach dropped. “My dad just imprisoned her under the porch?” I asked, starting to feel sick.
Grandpa took a deep breath before setting his unopened beer down. “That’s…. something I’ve never been able to understand. Lily told you to find me? And that she loved Scrabble?”
“Yeah. She kept me warm that night. I probably would’ve frozen to death if she hadn’t been there.” I was a stupid kid, even I knew that.
Grandpa went dead quiet before he opened that beer and slammed the whole thing. “… Alex, Lily had been dead the whole time she was gone. When we dug her up she was bones. Experts confirmed it, and your dad confessed to what happened. They’d gotten into a fight and he threw her down the stairs. She… broke her neck.” He clenched his fists. “I knew he had something to do with her disappearance, but I never had proof until you walk into my station, covered in dirt and telling me she was under the porch.”
I was floored. I couldn’t breathe. All I could do was shake my head.
“But- I saw her! She was alive! She had this butterfly necklace…” I trailed off when Grandpa pulled an evidence baggie from his pocket.
There was that butterfly necklace all right. Rusty, and parts of the paint had chipped off, but I remembered it as clearly as I remembered Lily’s voice.
Grandpa took a shaky breath as he pressed the bag into my hands. “… Lily loved you so much. ‘ts why she stuck around that bastard. You were her whole world. She was constantly taking pictures and sendin’ them to us in the mail. Sometimes a mother’s love can accomplish things that no human can do.”
My eyes overflowed with tears as I clutched the necklace to my chest. Choking on sobs, I leaned against Grandpa. He held me tight and I swear I felt a few of his tears land on the top of my head.
And for just a brief moment, I swear I felt that warm love I felt that night under the porch.