“What about Darien? I like that name,” I tell him. Darien is the romantic lead of my favorite show, Sailor Moon, and I don’t know anyone else with that name. We are walking across the Friendly’s parking lot.
“We’re actually thinking Damien. Like the Antichrist!” Skeet, your father, looks at me and laughs. I know he’s not joking. He’s holding the door open to the restaurant for me and my mom, standing next to a “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” sign. If this were a normal day Skeet wouldn’t be allowed in. But, this is a special day and a cold evening, so he is wearing shoes and the rarely seen t-shirt. He’s like a mix between a drunken Santa Claus and a redneck Beowulf from the Angelina Jolie movie, with ruddy cheeks and good humor, juxtaposed with a long blonde ponytail and dragon tattoos covering his arms. Mom is a few months pregnant with you and I don’t know what exactly we are celebrating by eating at a restaurant this evening, but to me it’s her sobriety.
You are born months later on July 7th, 2003, and Mom christens you Damien Skeet Pyles. Skeet has since fled from the law to the outer banks of North Carolina, but Mom rides the Greyhound bus eight hours for you to see him when you are a mere two weeks old and weigh roughly six pounds. Each time she returns her long brown hair has more knots, her face is again sunken, and her plump brightness of motherhood replaced with her old self, the life sucked out of her into beer cans and cigarettes. This is the Mom I know. Those visits last longer and longer. I stay with friends while she is gone. I am 14 years old.
Two years later I’m sitting on the rickety wooden bench in my friend Jenny’s kitchen, grasping the yellowing phone cord in my fingers. Tammy, or Tracy, one of those Outer Banks alcoholics, is on the other end of the conversation, trying to sugar-coat the situation.
“Kelsey, your mother, Toni, she’s got into some trouble,” she says.
“What do you mean? Can’t I talk to her?” I listen to her hemming and hawing while rubbing the grease off the phone cord. The room is filled with a low haze of cigarette smoke and dust. Lehigh, the local cement plant, coats every house in this dingy town with a thick layer of grey powder. Nobody bothers to clean it. We sometimes avoid drinking the tap water and get on with our lives. Something Tammy says quickly and under her breath gets my attention.
“The cops took Damien. Toni had been drinking and that bitch neighbor of hers called the cops.”
“What do you mean they took him?” I freeze. I’ve been worried about this happening. There’s no question you weren’t safe with her down there in the crack-laden alcoholic trailer. Our mother is no Teresa when she’s ten Budweiser’s deep. Nevertheless, she said you “needed your father” and left me in Lehigh Town - that’s what I like to call it – for good to fend for myself at fifteen. That was a year ago.
“They took him. Skeet’s in prison, but your mom will probably be out in a few days. Don’t worry sweetie.” I don’t know how the conversation ends, but that night I vow not to let anyone mess with me ever again.
A few days later I’m standing at the condiments table at the back of the high school cafeteria and my face starts to burn. The yellow plastic tray is conspicuously bare, with only two crusty chicken nuggets and a few spare French fries. My chest heaves in and out as I try to collect myself. I lift the tray first to the gallon container of Ketchup. About six full pumps fills the section, normally reserved for a vegetable, to the brim with the thick, red, and delicious paste. Next, I go for the mustard. The bright yellow just screams “stain” all over it. So, the mustard gets two compartments on my tray and I eye up the chocolate milk on the far right corner. I open the cardboard as widely as possible, forgoing a straw, and turn to walk and take my place amid various students at the lunch table in the middle of the cafeteria.
So the first few weeks that you’re getting acclimated to a new home – they tell me it’s called foster care and only temporary – I am feeling a familiar thump against my back a few times throughout those painstaking thirty-five minutes of High School Social Hell. Usually, I ignore it. It’s just a brownie hitting my back. I ignore the snickers from the gang of girls that I cannot see and the small piece of brownie on the bench next to me that is all too visible, a casualty of petty schoolgirl warfare. There’s another one. THUMP. Really, who gives up a piece of brownie for the sheer enjoyment of watching another girl squirm? I’d prefer to eat it, but I can tell exactly who would give it up. She sits facing the opposite direction at the table behind me.
Ginny Castle: red hair, freckles, and the name of an awesome Harry Potter character. Unfortunately, this Ginny opts out of cardigans and prefers garments with “juicy” glitterized across her backside. Today she opts for a white t-shirt, cornrows, and flare jeans with the required amount of tightness. She’s another Lehigh Town local. The town’s real name is Union Bridge, and it is home to two kinds of people, the Christians on the upper part of the hill, and the low-income alcoholic drug-users on the lower part. Ginny and I belong to the lower. She has been taunting me since I moved into her town to live with friends. Jeers on the street and screams of “slut!” from a distance are a daily occurrence. The food-throwing at lunchtime is an added bonus of late.
When the bell rings to end lunch there is the usual buzz of loud chatter from students, which turns into an audible and collective gasp as my tray clatters to the floor. I’ve positioned myself directly behind Ginny, and “drop” my red, orange, and brown concoction on her blank canvas of a back. She whips around to face me, her eyes wide and mouth screaming profanities. I try to reason with her. “You threw brownies at me!” I say. Alas, her screams are nonsensical and I reciprocate her threats. The kids are expecting a fight, egging us on for the sheer excitement to brighten Cornfield High, but are disappointed as a lunchroom supervisor steps between us and stops the yelling.
Mrs. Carter is my high school counselor and puts in a good word for me in the principal’s office.
“Kelsey’s going through a rough time.”
The principal folds his arms and looks across his large mahogany desk at me with judging eyes. He sentences me to one day in-school suspension and sends me back to the safety of Honors American Lit. I’m promptly greeted by Sara, the high school beauty, who tells the class, “It’s always the quiet ones who are crazy!” They all think it’s funny. They all think it’s over, but I know better.
Ginny is two years my senior, drives to school, and will be waiting for me when I get off the bus that same day. From the bus window, I can see the Lehigh tower growing closer and closer. From a distance it looks like a skyscraper and I sometimes joke to my friends that it must be a cruel joke to travelers coming here at night seeing a brightly lit tower and expecting some fancy city, only to arrive at a dusty town that takes twenty seconds to drive through and has no Wal-Mart. The bus slows to a stop. I see her standing outside with a group of Union Bridge teenagers and children surrounding her. She’s all decked out in street-fighting gear. Even from the bus I can see she’s put on thick rings and tennis shoes, the easier to beat the crap out of me with. I look down at my feet at the squishy Adidas sandals and grimace. I’m not dressed for a fight. I’m dressed to represent Cornfield High’s softball team with my baggy sweatshirt and last name across the back.
All fire, she storms up and punches me on the top of my head. We’re swinging around in circles. I fling her off. She thinks I’ve given up and smiles. Instead, I splay my arms and let my backpack fall to the ground. Nobody is going to mess with me anymore. It’s too trivial. I rush up to her beating her face as hard and as fast as I can. Her mouth is open in shock. I can’t stop. I put my foot behind her foot, and push her off the sidewalk onto the road. My face is hot and I feel like crying. I know I’m hurting her. I know her head has dropped five feet before hitting the ground, but I can’t let her keep doing this. I jump on top of her. My legs pin her arms down against her sides and I swing hard and fast at her face, wanting to crush it. There’s no blood, but even if there was I wouldn’t stop. My arm gets pulled back mid-swing. I look up. It’s Ms. Terry, Jenny’s mom, pulling me off Ginny. She urges me into her car. She doesn’t look upset, maybe a little surprised and a maybe little happy. This trivial problem is finally over.
Ten years later, I’m living a few miles from Cornfield High in my own house in Uniontown. My cell phone makes a tiny beep and I realize I’ve nudged it with my palm by accident. Ana Hamberg’s phone number has involuntarily popped onto the screen. Her contact information has been there for more than eight years. I first reached out to her when our mother was still living…still trying. The final time we spoke on the phone I sat at my kitchen table in Maryland and she sat presumably in a little office of Child Protective Services near the flat sandy shores of North Carolina. She told me what I already knew. It is North Carolina law that adopted children may not be contacted by biological family members until the child reaches the age of 18. No, she can’t tell me who adopted you. No, she can’t tell me which state you live in. No, she can’t tell me if you are alive and happy. I could have done less. I could have done more.
About the author:
Kelsey McQuay is an English undergraduate with a focus in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Tap Water" is her first published work. When Kelsey’s not reading novels for school she is mostly likely planning elaborate Harry Potter themed-parties and camping out at the library with her son.