She didn’t notice the clouds on the horizon, like a distant mountain range, or the cornflowers blooming by the railroad track, or the dead armadillo she hit in the early darkness that morning, still lying, swollen, on the highway. She didn’t think back on the day’s work: five surgeries, one unsuccessful, conflict among the nurses and a new set of forms to fill out. She thought about supper and how quickly she could get it on the table. She thought of the children, and how she must leave them again in a few hours, and she was filled with guilt.
As she turned off Main Street, there stood a child on the roadside. Her heart fell, her stomach twisted, her throat tightened, all of it. It was her child— barely seven, skinny, suntanned, pigtailed, brown eyed, just a few freckles. Mary Jean. Her baby girl, with a suitcase and tear-streaked face.
“Honey, get in here! What is wrong?”
“I was running away,” she whimpered, with not much of an explanation.
Ellen would remember this, in her old age, as the saddest moment of the hardest season of her life. She did what she always did— she prayed, a sort of guttural dispatch, in which she cast all her distressed organs, fear of what might have happened, and, for the time being, even the exhaustion, away from her. Then she took the situation by the horns and within minutes of getting home, opened up, along with green beans for supper, what her daddy would’ve called an “old fashioned can of whip-butt”.
How could the older ones let such a thing happen? Why would they?One had gone to the pool, without permission, and the other two, well, they helped Mary Jean pack. They didn’t think she’d get past the driveway, but told her to take extra socks anyway. So she spent the precious hours at home mediating and judging the complex relational turmoil of her four children.
When the time came for her to get ready for night school, she carried Mary Jean up the stairs and let her sit on their bed. James would be home soon. They would have two minutes to exchange necessary information before she would have to go.
She came and stood over the little girl who had wiggled herself under the covers.
“Listen, baby girl. You can only run away when Mommy is at home. Okay? If you run away when Mommy is not at home, you’ll get in big trouble. Understand?”
Mary Jean sucked in her breath dramatically, and nodded, “Can I sleep here?”
“Yes. Daddy will be home soon.” She brushed the hair from the little forehead, kissed it, and turned off the light. She heard the sound of a car door slam. Good. They would have all of four minutes tonight, and they would need it.
As she cracked the door shut, Mary Jean said, “But Mommy, if you were at home, why would I run away?”
“That’s right, baby. Now go to sleep.”