I run through the train station, my feet pounding the hard floor with every bound. The other travelers serve as obstacles that I must dodge, slowing me down. But that's okay, because they slow him down too.
I look behind me, and there is Clara. She's behind me, but she's not so far behind that I worry about her. She will catch up. I was always the sprinter, but she can outdo me in stamina every day.
"Hey! Stop those kids!" The man's booming voice travels far in the open building, but luckily only a few people even look up from their feet. Most of the passengers are content to simply pass by, ignoring everyone and hoping to be ignored in return. "Someone stop them!"
A man's eyes follow me as I pass him, but he makes no effort to grab me, to capture me, to take me back to that horrible man.
I feel my legs slow, and I know that I can't go on like this for much longer. He will continue to pursue us, and eventually someone in the crowd will intervene. Eventually, I will be captured. Now is the time to stop running. To hide. To think.
I have put quite a bit of distance between myself and the man now, so I lean up against a pillar, trying to catch my breath. In just a few seconds, Clara is next to me, taking one heaving breath after another. I notice a few tears on her face, but I know that now is not the time to mention it. We have to find a place to hide.
We don't have much time.
Before I get a chance to really look around for potential hiding places, I feel someone grab my arm. It's not tight, definitely not threatening. Still, it scares me. I turn to see the kind face of a small woman. She is about my mother's age. My mother. "Come with me, you too," she says hurriedly. "Come with me. I won't let him get ahold of you."
I look at Clara, and she shrugs. "Anything is better than being caught by him," she says.
The stranger pulls us along, through a small, semi-hidden door that leads outside of the train station. I don't know where this woman came from, or what the purpose of that door is, but I'm thankful for it. Maybe this will help us get away. Clara and I continue to follow the woman out into the sunshine. She glances around, and once she decides that no one is paying us any attention, she leans down to our level. "Go down to the corner, turn left, and there's a little bakery. It's probably not very busy this time of day. Go up to the register and ask for Johnny - he's my little brother - and tell him that Nancy sent you guys. Let him know that I'll explain when I get back, which hopefully will be soon." Through the door, we can hear the muffled bellow of the man who has single-handedly ruined our lives. "Go, now!" she says, shoving us forward.
We walk down the street, trying not to draw attention to ourselves. Once we get to the corner, we turn left, and Clara slides her hand into mine. I look at my little sister, and I see that her eyes are brimming with tears once again. I give her hand a squeeze, and we continue on. We get to the little bakery, and I see that Nancy was right. There isn't anyone in the small pastry shop. We push open the door, and the bell rings. Ting-ting-ting. A man steps out of the back room with a big smile on his face.
"Well, hello there," he says. What can I get for you two today?"
"Are you Johnny?" I ask, despite the fact that the name-tag on his chest clearly says, "JOHNNY" in bold letters.
He nods and taps his name-tag softly. "Yep, that's me."
Before I can say anything, Clara steps forward and grabs his hand, which is very unlike her. "Your sister Nancy sent us. She's at the train station, and she helped us get away from our step-dad. She said that you would help us. You have to help us. Please, please help us." With that, my little sister bursts into tears. I have to remind myself that she's only ten, and that that's too young to be facing something like this.
Johnny looks shocked, not knowing what to do. However, his stunned reaction only lasts a second, and he is down on his knees, embracing Clara. "Hey, hey," he says softly. "It will be alright. Don't worry." He stands up, but his hand still encompasses Clara's. "Hey Mark," he calls, and a boy not much older than me pokes his head out of the back room. "Keep an eye on the front of the shop for me, okay? I'm going to take my cousins to see the kitchen."
Still holding my sister's hand, Johnny heads for the doorway that Mark is coming out of. While I am thankful to be in a seemingly safe place, I make a note of his quick, effortless lie to his employee.
When we're in the back, he pulls two wooden chairs up next to each other, facing the counter that he leans against. "Okay," he says, his voice still confused, but soft. "I don't know what's going on here. Who are you guys?"
"I'm George, and this is my sister Clara. Your sister found us at the train station when we were running from our step-dad." I look at Clara, who's trying to wipe all the moisture off her face. "And she told us to come here, so we came here."
"And how old are you?"
"I'm fourteen, and she's ten."
"Do you have any other siblings?"
I shake my head. "Nope. Not any that matter at least."
He raises his eyebrows at that, but doesn't comment on it. He thinks about all that I just told him, and slowly shakes his head. "Alright. Now can you tell me why you were running from him? I don't want this to sound like a police investigation or anything but if I'm going to help you then I need to know more details." I just look up at him for a minute. Is he serious? Does he really expect me to tell him everything? My face must give my thoughts away, because he sighs and shakes his head. "Look, you don't have to tell me everything. I don't expect you to bare your soul. But you have to give me something to work with."
I look down at my hands, and then at Clara. She's too young to have to deal with any of this. I reach out and grab her hand, and she smiles at me. I look down at our arms, covered down to the wrists with our sleeves. It's not out of place now, as the autumn air is starting to cool. What Johnny doesn't know, though, is that even in the heat of the summer, our sleeves are pulled down to our hands, covering the dark bruises.
"Our stepdad," I start, "is not a good man. Our mom..." I shake my head. I'm not ready to talk about her yet. "We took a trip this weekend because his friend was getting married or something. We ended up coming back early because the bruise on my mom's face was too noticeable, there was no way that she could have hidden it. Usually he's smarter than that, usually he's careful to hide any marks that he leaves."
Johnny's face falls, his shoulders sag. I want to look down at my hands - saying all this out loud, especially to a stranger, is humiliating - but he meets my eye and I can't break the contact. "Does he hurt you too?"
Instead of answering, I watch as Clara pulls her sleeves up to her elbows. I close my eyes. I can't stand to look at the dull colors that cover her skin. I should have stopped him. I should be able to protect her. I expect Johnny to gasp, to cuss, to stand up and demand justice, something. But he doesn't move. For what seems like forever, he just sits there in silence. After about a minute, Clara pulls her sleeves back down and leans into me. I try to transfer the strength that I don't have into her, but I have no way of knowing if it works.
Finally, Johnny stands up and goes to the front. I hear him talking to Mark. "We're gonna go ahead and close for the day. We have some family issues going on that I need to take care of. Go ahead and close up and you can head on home." He comes back into the back and pulls out a loaf of bread. "Do you guys want sandwiches or something? I'm going to go help Mark close the front of the shop and I have to wait for my sister to show up."
Without waiting for us to answer, he pulls out meat and cheese from the fridge, and leaves the food and a knife on the table. When he's gone, Clara looks up at me and shrugs. "Well, I am kinda hungry."
"I know you want to help them, but why can't you ever just leave things alone, Nan?" Johnny and Nancy have been in the office for a few minutes, while Clara and I sit in the main restaurant part of the bakery. We can't hear everything perfectly, but the conversation has been getting louder.
"Was I just supposed to let them get caught? When I went back, I watched. You should have seen their mom. She was... Johnny, I couldn't let that man take them with him. I couldn't just stand by and allow these kids to become broken like their mom. I can't sit back and let that happen to others."
"Nancy they aren't injured puppy dogs! They can get in trouble for running away. We can get in trouble for kidnapping."
For a few minutes, all we can hear is indistinguishable sounds as they continue talking at a lower level.
I look at Clara and force myself to smile. "Don't worry, kid. We'll be alright. I promise."
"What about Mom?" she asks. "Will she be alright?"
I go stiff. Mom. She could have prevented all of this. She could have stayed away from him, she could have not married him. She could have tried harder to get away. She should have protected us.
"Damn it, Johnny, I couldn't bear the thought of them going through what we went through. No one helped us and-"
"And we're doing fine! We're successful in our careers! We made it through alright."
"Why can't you see that they need us? Why do you think that they aren't worth it?" The pain in her voice gives her question a different meaning. Why didn't anyone think that we were worth it? There's a thud, like someone slamming something on a table. Heavy footsteps, fading as they go away from us.
Nancy comes out of the door and gives us a small smile. "Can I get you guys anything?" Clara and I shake our heads and she exhales slowly. "How much of that did you guys hear?"
"Enough to know that your brother wants nothing to do with us," I snap. I don't know why I'm taking it out on her. What I'd like to do is burst into the back, show her brother my arms. My back. The bruises, the burns, the clear signs of abuse that paint my skin. This is what you'd be sending us back to, I want to tell him. But I know that I wouldn't actually be able to do that. It's humiliating. I wasn't able to protect anyone, not even myself.
Nancy puts a cool hand over mine. "He's just... He's been hardened by the world. When we were kids... Our mom died when we were young, and our dad started drinking. And then he started beating us, and no one helped us. For years, we suffered abuse until I turned eighteen and managed to get permission to take Johnny away from there, and he came to live with me. And we've had to make it on our own, and it's been really hard. And I don't know if he'll ever forgive the world for not getting us out of there." She sighs. "But I want to help you. And I know that Johnny does too, deep down. Don't you two worry. We'll get you out of there."