Our final fiction of the 2016 Spring-Summer Edition is this harrowing story about runaways by a teen writer from Texas. Kind of reminds us that S.E. Hinton was only 16 when she wrote and published “The Outsiders.”
By Morgan Bennett
When Peter showed up on the doorstep he had one bag with him and little to say. He was a year older than me—seventeen—and almost a foot taller. Burt called him Beanpole once but never did it again after Peter turned his dark eyes on him and said, “Excuse me?” He said it politely but the real message came through and we all heard it. Burt was twenty-eight.
Peter was from out of state. Most, if not all of us were from Louisiana but Peter had come over from Mississippi, he said. Once, I asked him why he’d come to Louisiana. They way he looked at me, I thought he might hit me. The rule in the Delacroix home was no questions asked.
But despite what everyone thought, Peter had a sense of humor. He smiled slightly—I don’t think Peter was capable of grinning—and mimicked my accent, “Just couldn’t wait to get on over to New Orleans.”
I was from Louisiana, but closer to Baton Rouge. I couldn’t wait to get to New Orleans, either, once I’d run away from my uncle’s battering fists and probing fingers.
The Delacroix home was more of a Home, capital H. A shelter for runaways, sometimes up to twenty-five of us packed into a three-story Victorian on the outskirts of New Orleans. Burt and his wife Charlie owned the place and pretty much acted as surrogate parents. I don’t think the home was in any way official. No funding or anything like that, but no police either. So it was safe.
In theory, you stayed as long as you wanted or needed to and you didn’t have to say why. But most of us did anyway. Talk is therapeutic and Burt and Charlie Delacroix were possibly the kindest people to ever walk the earth. Something about them radiated trustworthiness.
Peter never told anyone what he was doing there, not until the night he and I left. I think it made everyone in the house uneasy. Most things about him made people uneasy. He was lanky, dark, laconic. He towered over you and … can you imagine black fire? It filled Peter’s eyes. Sometimes it seemed like his calm, polite demeanor was hiding someone on the verge of erupting.
Susana was twelve, the youngest girl in the home, and some kind of genius. When she arrived, I had been there around three months. We all figured she’d be one of those kids who only stayed about a week and then went home. But Susana—whom I swear could have qualified for Mensa—wound up staying until the end.
“It’s just, he doesn’t talk to anyone,” she said once while we—her, me, Burt, and another girl, fifteen, who did end up only staying for a few days—made dinner. “Except his girlfriend, of course.” Susana raised her eyebrows at me and grinned.
“Maybe,” Burt suggested thoughtfully, peeling a potato, “he just isn’t ready to talk about it. It takes some people longer than others.”
Susana nodded. She had told us all about her junkie parents just a couple days after her arrival, but it had taken me a month to tell my story.
We’d all laughed about Susana’s girlfriend comment, but there was a grain of truth in it. Peter talked more to me than anyone else. True, he never said much about his past but we talked about other things. Peter monopolized my attention. I guess that made me feel special. Who doesn’t want to feel special?
My uncle told me I should feel special. I was “good” and he was “nice.” I didn’t feel special, though. The words special and good and nice don’t describe the experience of an eleven year old with her face between the legs of an adult man.
And, anyway, I wasn’t unique. Though I went to live with him when I was ten, he didn’t touch me like that for almost another year. He had another special girl in the neighborhood. But then she fell out of favor with him, for the same reason, I guess, that I did when I was fourteen. I never fell out of favor with his fists, though. They didn’t have a preferred age group.
I told Peter about this when I’d been there eight months and he’d been there five. Everyone in the Delacroix home knew about the physical abuse, none about the other. Peter was the only one I told. Not Burt, not Charlie.
Some of the kids in the home got together. Why not? A bunch of hormonal teenagers all under the same roof. I got hit on a few times. I think that drove me closer to Peter. Unlike some of those other boys, he never seemed interested in me, not romantically or sexually or whatever. We were just friends. He wanted, once, to … but that happened later so I’ll tell about it in due time.
I asked him to kiss me one time, though. We were watching a movie. It was just the two of us in the living room, sitting on the couch. Peter had his feet on the coffee table, his arms crossed in front of his chest. I was next to him, cross-legged, my knee touching his leg. To an outsider it wouldn’t have looked very intimate but it was to me. Usually I had touching issues, but things were different with Peter.
Up to this point I’d never been kissed. Boys had asked me out a couple times and I’d always said no.
The movie didn’t hold my attention. It was a car chase action flick, not my type of thing, but Peter looked riveted. That day, with my mind wandering, he looked so, so beautiful.
He lifted his chin.
I played with the hem of my shorts, my stomach souring with nerves. I felt stupid, but still said, “I’ve never been kissed.”
His eyes flicked in my direction. “Yeah?” He sounded a little surprised, but not like he wanted the conversation to continue.
A commercial started and he gave me his full attention. “Do you think,” I said. “I mean.” He didn’t prompt me or try to finish my sentence. In a rush, I asked, “Would you kiss me?”
He looked at me silently for a second. Then, with no fanfare, he kissed me. Chastely, lips closed, four seconds. The commercial ended at the same time as the kiss and he never asked for another until the night we left the Delacroix house.
Like I said, in theory you could stay as long as you wanted. But there were catches. First, no one older than nineteen the house. It was for runaway youth. Second, no troublemaking. Burt and Charlie were lenient about what counted as troublemaking. During my stay, only two kids got kicked out.
The first, a girl, had not only been using on the property but also tried to give some of her pills to a fourteen-year-old named Ingrid.
The second kid to get kicked was this guy everyone called Teddy even though his real name was James. He wasn’t very tall and was blond with dusky blue eyes and a little baby fat that gave him soft, doughy edges. He was nice but too exuberant for me to spend much time around him.
One night three days after her arrived I woke up in the dark. The digital clock on my nightstand said 1:24 a.m. I lay still, listening. I’ve always been a very light sleeper but I hadn’t woken for no reason. There was a wet sort of sound coming from the foot of my bed, one that made my blood freeze.
My roommate had recently left the home, returned to her parents. I should have been alone in the room.
There was a quiet groan. As if it had removed my paralysis, I sat up.
Teddy was standing at the foot of my bed. His pants were undone, his head was thrown back, and his hand was slipping up and down his penis, the tip already starting to leak.
I choked on a gasp. His head came down, his eyes finding me in the dark, and his hand was suddenly still. Bile started rising in the back of my throat. I got tangled in my covers and more or less fell out of my bed racing to the door.
“Wait!” he called after me.
I guess so much might have been avoided if I’d gone to Burt and Charlie instead of Peter. But his room was closer and I guess part of me remembered that burning darkness in his eyes when he got annoyed or angry. I guess I wanted him looking at Teddy like that.
Teddy followed me out of my room, buttoning his pants. He saw me at Peter’s door and I looked back over my shoulder at him; in the glow of the hallway light, I saw him widen his eyes and shake his head emphatically as I opened the door.
Peter had a roommate, a thirteen year-old boy named Ezra. Somehow I managed not to disturb him as I stumbled to Peter’s bed and shook him. Most people wake up slowly, groggily; not Peter. He always jolted wide awake, snapping to attention. Somehow I managed, speaking around sobs, to get him up and into the hallway. Teddy tried to slink back into his own room but Peter caught him on the threshold. Despite looking like one of those guys who couldn’t lift a bag of flour, he pulled Teddy back into the hallway, letting him fall on his ass with a whimper.
Then there was a second where it seemed like Peter and Teddy were only two living people in the hall, the house, the world. Peter towered over the boy on the floor like a wrathful angel and the look on his face scared me so badly I almost asked him to stop, almost said it was okay really, but then I thought of Teddy’s Adam’s apple bobbing as he held his dick and then of my uncle leaning towards me and didn’t say anything.
If the commotion hadn’t woken the whole house, I think Peter might have done some real damage. When the Delacroixs came out of their bedroom, Charlie in the lead, and called Peter’s name, he got off Teddy, pushed his black hair out of his face, and gazed at them silently.
Up to this point everyone on the floor had been watching the fight—the beating, really—passively. No one tried to pull Peter away from Teddy. I don’t think anyone much cared for Teddy. A misfit among misfits; like Peter, he made people uneasy. But whereas Peter was mysterious, Teddy was slimy.
It wasn’t just that, though. Teddy was a pervert. As we’d find out later, he’d been jacking off to sleeping girls every night since his arrival. But on the floor after Peter had picked him up and thrown him back down, then when he was trapped between Peter’s knees, sniveling as Peter’s fist flew into his face, he was pathetic. Almost pitiable.
So why didn’t anyone step in? I think we were all a little scared. A lot of the kids thought his anger was extreme, but to me, Teddy’s punishment seemed just. No one had ever stood up for me before.
Teddy got kicked out two days later. We voted him out unanimously. Peter, too, almost got kicked. But he promised the Delacroixs it would never happen again and no one in the home seemed to have much problem with him. They said they didn’t, anyway. Some of the girls, the ones who had woken to find Teddy by their beds, were nicer to him. So Peter got to stay.
Even after things settled down people looked at us differently. Peter still didn’t talk much to other people and I’d always been kind of quiet so it was like we were on our own little island. Some nights Peter would come into my room and we’d talk in the dark, both of us on my twin bed with always an inch or two of space between us.
I’d never been that close to a person. And I was the only person he was close to. There’s something special in that.
But the truth is that I was stupid. There were signs, but I missed them. Soon after Peter started spending nights in my room, Charlie took me aside for a talk about being careful. She must have been able to tell I wasn’t taking her warnings seriously. Before the talk ended, she reluctantly told me she didn’t trust Peter. Charlie was twenty-six.
I trusted him despite her warnings. I knew he held some things back; we all did. It even occurred to me once that he wasn’t from Mississippi. His accent wasn’t quite right. But what did that matter? It didn’t, not at all, not to me.
Four nights before we left the Delacroix home, Peter came into my room. He got into my bed without saying anything and remained silent for several minutes. We just stared at each other in the dark. Usually we talked, but that night there was something about him that told me to stay quiet.
After a few minutes Peter moved his hand slowly. My heart rate picked up. He placed his hand on my cheek gently and I thought I might die. Peter had long, gorgeous fingers, piano-playing fingers. His thumb slid over my jawline and he ran it softly over my lips. For a second my eyes closed.
Peter said my name and I opened my eyes again. Our gazes were locked as he said, “I love you.”
I can’t say I wish I hadn’t said it back after the flood of surprise and happiness faded enough that I could hear myself think. I just wish I hadn’t meant it.
Even though I had this boy in my bed who had just told me he loved me and seemed to mean it, all we did was talk. Like I said, he wasn’t interested in anything else until the night we left the Delacroix home. As a matter of fact, that’s what we talked about that night.
With his hand still resting on my cheek, Peter said, “We should run away.”
I smiled at him. “That would be so romantic if we hadn’t already done it.”
He returned my smile. “From here.”
He thought about his answer for a minute. “Why not? You notice how people look at us?”
“Would you leave with me?”
No. I whispered, “Yes.”
“Good. But I need to do something first. In a few days I’ll come get you and we’ll leave.”
“What do you need to do?”
He touched the tip of my nose. “I’m planning something for you.”
The next day he was gone for most of the day. He showed back up at ten-thirty that night. I was in the living room with a few others when he walked in. He smiled at me and went upstairs to take a shower.
For the next two days nothing was said about our plan. If I hadn’t known him better, I would have thought he’d changed his mind or that he had never been serious about us leaving. But I knew he had been serious, and still was.
By the time we left there were only nine kids in the house, including Peter and me.
Susana, who was twelve. Even with her running away she’d probably have ended up going to some place like Yale.
Carter, who was fourteen and who had only been there four days.
Jay, also fourteen. He probably would have become a regular.
Olive and Oliver, fifteen year-old twins. They were orphans, in the Delacroix home to escape the legal foster care system that didn’t care about keeping them together. They were fraternal twins, but the dog-eyed look they had was identical.
Allison, who was sixteen, my age. I think she showed up a month or two after me. She was nice but couldn’t or wouldn’t talk.
And, finally, Jonah. He was seventeen, would’ve been eighteen soon, and had been there longer than me. If I was a regular, Jonah was a Fixture. No one called him Jonah, though. We all called him Norman because Charlie said he was the spitting image of Anthony Pepkin, who played Norman Bates in Psycho. Charlie was big on old movies.
I must be digressing.
The day before we left, all of us except Burt and Charlie, who were out grocery shopping, were packed into the living room, worshiping that American god, television. It was one of those scorching Louisiana summer days. Peter was sitting next to me on the couch, on my left. Susana was on my right. I wish I was still in that same spot. I wish I could have frozen time right them.
But I couldn’t. At one point, Peter nudged my arm. Without looking away from the TV, he said, “Tomorrow.”
The next night I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake in my bed, occasionally dozing off but never really falling asleep. At any moment, Peter could come in and we’d go.
When I’d run away from my uncle, I hadn’t taken anything that wouldn’t fit in a duffel bag. Now I had a few more possessions and they strained that same bag’s dark blue fabric. And yet it all fit. Honestly, if anything hadn’t fit I wouldn’t have gone. Any excuse. The Delacroix home was my home now and I didn’t want to leave.
So why did I?
I was sitting on the edge of my bed when Peter came in. I had planned to tell him I’d changed my mind, that I wouldn’t be going. But he rushed in and the way the moonlight coming in through the window made his dark eyes shine and the tightness in his voice when he said, “Let’s go,” kept me from telling him. His voice, his movements as he grabbed my bag for me, it was all filled with this … this potential energy. Like a rope about to snap. Like a match about to be lit.
When I hesitated, he pulled me off the bed and onto my feet, not only impatient but urgent. He was sweating, more agitated than I’d ever seen him, and that smell. I knew what it was, that smell. Yes, I knew.
“You’re not dressed,” he growled. Like on that day shortly after we met when I asked him why he came to the Delacroix home, I thought he was going to punch me. He didn’t, just yanked hard on my arm, pulling me to the door. “We have to go.”
“What – ”
“We have to go.”
So we did. I followed him in my pajamas and bare feet downstairs, to the front door, pretending I couldn’t smell that gasoline. I guess I should have screamed to wake the Delacroixs. But I didn’t. I guess I’ve always had broken parts.
Charlie, by the way, was an heiress. Not a millionaire or anything, but she got a good amount. And so she opened a shelter for runaways with a lot of land on the edge of New Orleans. Like I said, Charlie was one of the best people to ever walk the earth. She got out of that house. But she died in the hospital.
Peter and I ran across the giant front yard, far away from the house. We ran to the very edge of the property, two teenagers, two bags, smelling like gasoline, smelling like death. I can’t tell you how many times since that night I’ve come close to panic attacks in gas station parking lots.
Peter handed me our bags. “Wait here,” he said.
So I did. I waited while he ran inside, lit the match, closed the door against the blaze, and ran back to me. There are so many things I could have done instead but I didn’t do any of those things.
You say to your dog, Stay. Your dog stays.
Peter said to me, Wait. I waited.
I’d like to say I stood and watched, numb, as Peter burned the house down, because of shock, confusion, ignorance, temporary insanity. I’d like to say I didn’t realize what he was doing. I guess, in a way, I sort of didn’t. It was more like I couldn’t think of a way to stop him. It seemed like he was an unstoppable force, and I had no choice but to stand back and watch him ruin everything forever.
Like I said, he monopolized my attention and I let him, I let him become my all. When we were together, that was our time. No outsiders. Just me and him. He was jealous of me, overly so. But I called it love. What did I know about love? What do I know about love? Not much. He called it love, too, but what did he know about love? Maybe nothing.
By the time he had reached me again, people were screaming. There was a light in all the ground floor windows, already heading up to the second floor. Like the exploding cars on TV that day we’d kissed. But that was just a movie, this is real, oh god how can this be real?
I couldn’t look at the house, but I couldn’t move either. I looked at Peter.
“Peter – ” I choked out.
“Look at that,” he said softly. A window on the third floor lit up, illuminated by flame. “God.” The tightness he’d carried in his expression while we were in the house was gone from his face. The way his gaze roved over the house reminded me of how people in museums look at a piece of art: scanning it all over in hopes of catching every detail. That same awe was on his face, like he was a collector and he was looking at the Mona Lisa.
And then all of a sudden he turned. The fire in his eyes glowed brighter than the fire in the house. “Remember when I first got here?” he said, and his voice was different. More than ever, he sounded like he wasn’t from Mississippi. “When you asked why I was here?”
I tried to nod, but maybe it was too small a motion to be seen.
“This is why.” And he turned back to the fire. “My parents’ house.” His lips quirked into a small smile, at the past, at the present, who knows? “My parents’. Near Austin.”
Of course. The accent was off, and here was why.
At the time I wasn’t thinking about that. I was too busy fighting tears, from grief and the smoke of the rapidly rising fire, and the revulsion roiling in me, threatening to make me lose my lunch.
Peter stepped towards me and grabbed my waist. He put his lips on mine and I thought to push him, kick him, scream.
In my head I heard my uncle’s voice, all breathy and sugary: Don’t scream.
I choked on a sob, involuntarily opening my mouth. Peter put his tongue between my lips, the fire crackling to my left, his right, pulled me to him eagerly, roughly, and he was hard down there, pressing against me ohgodohgod.
Don’t scream, I thought.
Inside the Delacroix home someone screamed, so pained, so scared, so loud. That sort of scream sounds the same for everyone, man or woman, young or old. But I couldn’t help picturing Susana. She was twelve. Should have gone to Yale.
I felt Peter stiffen more and one of his hands slid under my shirt.
A siren started up somewhere.
I bit down on Peter’s tongue. I bit him hard enough to taste blood, so hard I thought my teeth would meet.
Peter shoved me away from him. I fell backwards onto my duffel bag, rolled off it onto the grass.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Peter screamed, covering his mouth with his hands. The fire cast shadows on his face and I got to my feet fast, knowing if I waited a second too long he’d kill me. Right there in the yard, with his bare hands.
I thought about running into the fire. To this day I wish I had. The only reason I can come up with now to explain my running in the other direction, away from the Delacroix home, towards the city, is survival instinct. I think it’s a shitty excuse.
Charlie got out by jumping from the third story balcony. She suffered third-degree burns and a broken spine. In the hospital she went into a coma and never woke up. I read all that in the newspaper. She was twenty-six.
Peter was arrested. His eighteenth birthday was in two months when we left the Delacroix home. His trial got postponed long enough for him to be tried as an adult. He got two life sentences, which personally I think is a little short. I read that in the paper, too. As far as I know, he’s still alive.
None of the others got follow-up articles. They got obituaries, which I cut out. I walk around with nine obituaries in my wallet everywhere I go.
I left my name in the dust of the Delacroix home. People call me Desiree. It doesn’t fit. I know I hesitate a second too long when someone calls me by that name. I guess that’s alright.
Morgan Bennett lives in Texas, where she is a senior in high school and writes a weekly column for the local newspaper. She lives with her mother, sister, and dog. She participates in the University Interscholastic League’s Ready Writing and Journalism competitions and plans to attend the University of Texas or Boston University.