If there was an art to running away, Patty Finch didn’t know it. Twice before she had tried to escape, and twice before she had been caught and returned. This third try, she promised herself, would be different. This third time would be the charm. After this, her mother would never see her again. She would be gone forever. She would simply disappear.
About that much, at least, Patty Finch was right.
Spectators clogged the path connecting the parking lot and gate. She moved along with them, in no rush, studying the crowd. The biggest category comprised single young men, hats perched on the backs of their heads, sweat staining their underarms and backs. Even close to sunset, the day’s heat gnawed at them; every few steps they paused to peel cloth from flesh. Less common were the families, fathers with sons up on their shoulders, harried women pushing their daughters along, trying not to lose them in the growing flow of race fans.
It was a valid concern. Patty had never seen so many people in one place. Certainly, she thought, it was more people than lived in all of Hillsborough combined. Folks had come from nearby towns, drawn by the annual exhibition race on an original dirt NASCAR track, excited to see the speed and hear the roar. And they were just a little bit bloodthirsty, secretly hoping for a crash. In 1986, just two years before, Bobby Allison had set a course record and three men had slid cars into the river trying to catch him. Tonight Bobby was back, the best entertainment in fifty miles.Folks had come from nearby towns, drawn by the annual exhibition race on an original dirt NASCAR track, excited to see the speed and hear the roar.
Patty wove through a group of young men slapping each other’s backs and singing a Navy song, headed toward a likely looking family. The father had two young children gripped tightly around the wrists, and behind him the mother was carrying a baby. Bringing up the rear was Dot Kamlut, high-stepping to keep her penny loafers clean and fussing at the bow tied in her hair. She was skinny as a stick with an unfortunately shaped nose and not too many friends because of it.
The ideal candidate. “Hiya, Dot.”
Dot examined her for a second, trying to place her. Patty took no offense at this. The Finches hadn’t been in town more than a couple of months, plus Dot was in a different class.
Then she had it. “Maggie Finch?”
“Patty,” she corrected.
Patty fell into step next to her and glanced up ahead. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Kamlut seemed to have noticed.
“You like Mrs. Hall’s class?” Dot asked, still tugging at the bow strangling her hair.
Patty shrugged. “It’s all right, I guess.”
In front of them, the crowd split itself between corrugated metal walls. Dot’s father started down the middle of the three chutes, approaching the ticket taker and handing him a thin stack of paper. The ticket taker spoke, and Mr. Kamlut turned and looked back.
Patty pinned her eyes to the dirt and tried to appear insignificant, just another child in the crowd.
Mr. Kamlut gestured backward toward his family, the ticket taker nodded, and then they were moving forward again. Patty slipped an arm around Dot’s elbow, put on her friendliest face, and said, “Gee, aren’t you excited to see the races?”
Dot, it turned out, was very excited to see the races, particularly the handsome and daring drivers. She blathered on as they slipped through the gate behind Dot’s mother.
No one stopped them.
Patty breathed a sigh of relief. Twenty yards past the entrance she cut Dot of. “Gotta go find my mother. See ya, Dot.”
Dot gave her a hangdog look, her prospects for friendship once again slim. “Sure, if you say so.”
Patty almost felt bad for her.
“But let’s keep talking later,” she said, and Dot perked back up and gave her a smile. Patty turned and disappeared into the crowd, feeling pretty good about herself. After all, what harm could the promise do? She wouldn’t have to break it exactly. No, she’d be gone long before it could become an issue.
The path ended at the top of the stands, big poured-concrete steps set into the hillside. Below them curved the first turn. The track was packed brown dirt and it had a slight inward tilt, the result of bulldozers building up a berm around the outside. Behind turns two and three the Eno River glinted in the fading light. The whole track was fitted into a bend in the river, the area naturally flat as a result.
Patty counted the rubberneckers filling the stands. The number grew and grew, the size of the crowd delighting her. What an immense mass of people to never see again. Her heart fluttered. She knew—felt it in her bones—that where her other schemes had failed, this one would succeed.
Practice, after all, makes perfect.
The first time she ran away, her mistake had been inviting Janet Fontain. Janet was afraid of her own shadow. Patty knew that— hell, everybody knew that—but it had been a calculated risk. Janet’s parents were rich enough to own a five-bedroom house on Queen Street. They had a woman who lived in the old converted woodshed and washed and cleaned for them. They had a basement the size of a swimming pool and a larder that took up nearly half that space. Janet would have been a joke out there on the road, nothing but dead weight, but Patty aimed to get at least a few cans of peaches out of her traveling companion before ultimately ditching her.The first time she ran away, her mistake had been inviting Janet Fontain. Janet was afraid of her own shadow.
It hadn’t worked out that way. Janet lost her nerve, told at the first opportunity, and a policeman in a shiny black-and-white Ford interrupted Patty’s march to the interstate. He turned her around, walked her home, and delivered her right back to her mother.
Mildred Finch answered the door with tears in her eyes, hugged the policeman, thanked him again and again, and made him promise to come over one night for a home-cooked meal. He doffed his hat, said he’d make it if he could.
Then he was gone, and her mother stopped pretending.
“You little monster,” had been the first words out of her mouth, followed by a swift backhand that knocked Patty down to the rough floorboards.
“No back talk. That’s no way for a little girl to behave, is it?” Patty shook her head, pain shooting up her neck.
Mildred Finch made a fist, knelt, then buried it in Patty’s stomach. Mildred liked to hit. She was good at it and she liked it, and in her experience, such a combination was one of life’s rare treasures.
“No, ma’am,” Patty said, air slipping out fast between her gapped teeth like a snake’s hiss, the starburst of pain in her gut making it difficult to breathe.
“That’s better, little one,” Mildred said, and launched into her usual lecture about the evils of the world. As always, the chief danger listed was Patty’s father. They had been running away from him for two years, hiding themselves in various small towns dotted across the North Carolina countryside. Even at ten years old Patty had a sense of the strange resonance between their original escape and her own current desire to vanish. Her mother had run away and deemed it justice; Patty ran away and her mother labeled it a betrayal.
Mildred worked herself up into the usual frenzy, pacing back and forth, gesticulating wildly with her hands. Patty twitched each time one of the hands came near her.
“He was no-good trash, Patty. He pushed that rotten pecker into anyone who would take it. And who would take it? Who would let a man like that slide his slimy little worm into them?”
Patty knew the answer to this and gave the response her mother expected to hear.
“That’s right, little girl. If you want to get by in this world, if you want to see it true, that’s all you really need to know. Men are bastards, and any woman who would let them have their way, who would open her legs, is a whore. Isn’t that right.”
It wasn’t a question.
She nodded and tuned out as her mother charged ahead. It was a speech Patty had heard a thousand times before. Even then she was scheming her next attempt.The second time she ran away, a month after the first, no one knew her plan. The lesson of the first try had been very clear: tell no one, and no one can tell on you.
The second time she ran away, a month after the first, no one knew her plan. The lesson of the first try had been very clear: tell no one, and no one can tell on you. She kept to the alley behind the main street, Churton, and worked her way down to the intersection of Churton and King. A right on King would lead past the two- and three-story brick buildings downtown and then up into the rich neighborhoods filled with big houses. Straight ahead the road carried over a bridge spanning the Eno River and then dropped into the river’s floodplain, running a mile and a half past antique stores and fast food restaurants. It ended at the interstate.
Patty headed straight and made her way across the bridge. Fifty yards past it, parked in a turnout, was the black-and-white Ford.
A policeman, the same one as before, climbed out and walked over to her. He took of his hat before taking a knee. His hair shone blond in the sunlight and it was thin enough that she could see his scalp.
“Patty Finch?” he asked. This meeting had been no accident. “Yes.” The air slipped out between her teeth the same as when she’d been punched.
“The station got a call from your mama. I guess she saw you tying up that rucksack”—he pointed to her bag—“and put two and two together.”
Patty said nothing, just kicked at the dirt with the toe of her shoe.
“You know,” he said, “packing like that makes it pretty clear what you’re doing, don’t you think?”
He was right, of course. All the pieces came together then, and she knew exactly what had happened. Her mother had seen the missing clothes, or caught a glimpse of her stuffing them under her bed, and had divined everything about her plan. How could she have been so obvious? So foolish? She waited meekly for the policeman to smack her and call her stupid.
But he didn’t do that.
“Maybe we could take a little ride in my car and talk about why you’re running away. What do you think?”
Patty wasn’t used to being asked what she thought. She looked up from the ground, surprised. With him kneeling, his eyes weren’t more than eight or ten inches up and liquid brown. They had crinkle lines at the edges that made him look like he was smiling even when he wasn’t.
She nodded and got into the car with him, into the passenger seat and not the back like a criminal. She let him drive her up and down the streets. He did most of the talking. His name was Donald Rodgers. He was originally from Yanceyville, up near the Virginia border. He had been a police officer for about two years. He liked it just fine, thank you. The police car came to a stop. Patty realized they were sitting outside her house. Her shoulders hunched forward and she slumped down into the seat, watching carefully for any sign of movement at the front window.
“Tell me true, Patty—you scared of going back in there?”
Her head spun around and she looked into those big brown eyes and imagined for a second he would be able to save her. She nodded.
“I had a Pa who I couldn’t wait to get away from,” Don Rodgers said. “Used to beat me something fierce. And when he was too drunk to aim his punches he’d just swing wild with his belt. Like it was a whip.”
He paused, and they sat in the silence for a while.
“I’ll see what I can do to help,” he said after a bit.
She nodded again and climbed out of the car. He drove away from her slowly, and she sensed some reluctance in it. Could reluctance be detected in the way a car drove? She believed it could. She waited for him to turn the corner before going inside to face the music.
From Last Girl Gone. Used with the permission of the publisher, Crooked Lane. Copyright © 2018 by J. G. Hetherton.