The day she ran away from home, she took a book with her. It was The Ghost of Cougar Island. She took nothing else because she didn’t think to take anything else. She was young, about ten years old then, and didn’t think much about providing herself with food, water, and shelter.
She hid between two pine trees by the highway outside her neighborhood, sitting down on the prickly needles. It wasn’t far from home, but she was fairly hidden. She opened her book and pretty soon she immersed herself in reading because Liza and Bill and Jed were close to figuring out the mystery. She had read this book already, but that didn’t matter, the story was still there. A while later, she watched through the branches as her brother drove out, searching for his missing sister. She hid a little deeper in the trees. Still later, the neighbors drove out. Finally, the cops drove out.
They got her around noon, just as she was about to finish the book. The neighborhood boys saw her sitting there, staring at them like they were staring at her. The asked her if she wanted to go home. She didn’t. She didn’t at all, but she nodded and said yes because she knew that was what they wanted to hear.
So they brought her home. Her mother was crying, her brother was shaking his head, and everyone in the neighborhood stood there, watching the girl who ran away -- judging, wondering, assuming. Her mother took her inside and told her not to tell the cops that she hit her. When the cops asked her why she ran away from home, she said had felt unhappy. She said that it was okay, and that she wouldn’t do it again.
Her mother had a bad temper and didn’t know what to do with her hands when she got angry.
The flinching was bad. She flinched at any sudden movement towards her, like that time at Thanksgiving, when her mother had turned to her with a stone saucer and told her to put it on the dining room table. She had flinched at the heavy stone in her mother’s hands, which was swinging towards her, and when her mother saw the flinch, she was received with a smack upside the head.
Or that time when she was real young and opened her mother’s perfume box. Her mother kept a box of expensive perfume in her daughter’s bedroom drawers and was surprised one day when she found that her six-year-old had opened it and sprayed it on herself. This turned out to be one of the worst things the girl could have done, because her mother was saving the perfume to give to someone and now it was used and could no longer be given. She got a good beating for this one too.
Or maybe it’s strange that her worst nightmares were about missing the bus. This was because the first time she missed the bus, she was in second grade and had slept past her alarm. Her mother locked her in her bedroom the entire day as punishment. From then on she was paranoid about missing the bus, because that meant she would have to stay home the entire day. Or when she got sick once and went to the nurse’s office during school. The nurse called home to her mother and told her to come pick her child up -- she had a fever. Her mother had to drive to school and was not happy about it. She yanked her arm and yelled at her for being sick, for being too much trouble, for being stupid. The poor nurse kept trying to tell her mother that it wasn’t the girl’s fault she was sick. It was the germs’.
And she loved to read - especially mysteries and fantasy books. She would sneak books up to her bedroom and read them at night. She hid thin paperbacks under her pillow until her brother found out. Then she hid them under the bed. She knew that if she got caught, there would be no end.
One night, her mother caught her reading. She hit her, and then took out all the lights in her room. She was left with the dim glow from a table lamp and the threat that next time, she would be left in the dark. She took the threat seriously, but Harry Potter was too alluring -- a couple months later, she snuck up Deathly Hallows. She set her alarm to 3 am, hoping that then, she could read in comfort while her mother slept. It was a fatal mistake. The alarm rang and two sentences into Harry Potter, her mother come barging in before she could even hide the book.
Fear boiled up her chest and into her throat. She knew what was coming; She had become familiar with the ugliness in her mother’s eyes, how they looked like black stones, hard and shiny and dead. It brought up the bile in her stomach. Screaming, her mother pulled her by the hair, dragging her down the stairs. She watched as Harry Potter was thrown down the stairs too. She sobbed that the book was from her school library and that no, she can’t throw it out, please.
She was hit hard that night. Her mother used a broomstick, saying that she’s lucky it wasn’t a belt -- her brother got hit with belts. There was nothing to do but wait it out until her mother ran out of breath. When she went back to bed that night, her legs were stiff, her eyes and lips swollen.
She woke up the next morning and went to school with a fat bruise around her right eye. When her fourth grade teacher asked what happened, she said a tree branch was being mean and smacked her in the eye. Her teacher looked unconvinced, but didn’t press. When her mother went to do the laundry weeks later, she asked her why there was dried blood on her sheets. She told her it was from the beating. Her mother asked if it was really that hard.
There was nothing respectful she could say to that.
Later on, she found that she was angry too.
Like any normal person, she got angry after one too many pokes. And while the best thing to do was to stay silent, sometimes she lost it. She’d scream about how she felt, and her mother would always back herself up with, after all I have done for you, how can you say that?
She knew now that how she grew up wasn’t how most American kids grew up. She wouldn’t try and explain to her friends why she wasn’t allowed out and couldn’t talk on the phone like the other kids could. She wouldn’t detail why she kept her hair short or why her hair was so oily by the end of the week, because they couldn’t know that she was only allowed to wash it once a week. She couldn’t start to explain why she dressed weird, or talked different, or why she loved school so much, listened so much, did so well. They couldn’t understand that when she came home, she came home to a garage, where in the winters, her toes froze like stones until her mother came home and let her in. Even with the little she told them, they called her mother crazy -- a bitch.
The thing is, now, no one can come close to touching her after she felt the pus oozing out of her skin from her mother’s fingernails.
Nothing can bite more than her mother’s words, telling her that a dog ate her heart and there was nothing left in her chest but a hole.
No rejection can come close to her mother’s shunning, days locked in the garage without food, drinking water from the garden hose.
No heartbreak can break her heart more than her mother had.
And again and again she kept eating the bitter melon.
Zhudi Pan is seventeen years old and lives in New Jersey.