Chapter One My name is not Hillary. Yesterday I wasn’t Elizabeth. This is my confession.
It was junior year, the first day of spring break, and I was about to take my life and ram it into a 7-Eleven plate glass window.
This dramatic vision was typical of my pessimistic nature.
The optimist in me, that tiny part that barely existed, preferred to think that I was going to vanish into glorious, invisible freedom.
Was I really going to do this?
Was this extreme risk really necessary?
I imagined Gross Dave’s fist in my face. I heard my mother’s vacant voice, gritty with contempt and betrayal balanced on her tongue. The time for self-doubt had come and gone. I couldn’t turn back now, even if I wanted to. I had done too much.
I looked around the busy bus station platform and watched a group of kids in matching black warm-up suits mill around piles of luggage and tennis rackets, texting and laughing at each other. Mothers occupied themselves with screaming children, their shrieks cutting into the air like tiny soprano birdsong.
Making my way across the platform, I was relieved to see that the other passengers were completely self-absorbed, buried in newspapers and tablets, texting or talking on their phones, or simply staring blankly ahead at nothing. No one looked at me as I passed by, and so I was able to blend in, as planned. I looked like any other seventeen-year-old girl in jeans and a puffy down coat walking to the platform in ordinary sneakers on an ordinary Friday.
A pulsing white noise whooshed into my ears that day, vibrating into my head under my pale pink baseball cap. This particular hat had been an excellent choice. I hated pink in any shade. It reminded me of my father, so I never wore it. The static that dulled my brain did not lessen. Instead, it amplified the sounds around me, like speakers vibrating on a concert stage. I could hardly believe that this deafening sound existed only in my head.
My bus stood buzzing and coughing at the end of the line. It looked brand new, its sleek blue body gleaming like midnight with a large greyhound embellished majestically on its side and above the front bumper. The door was open, and I saw that the bus was almost full.
I boarded, guided by my natural inclination to head to the back where I could sit undetected, invisible. I was a creature of the quiet and the unseen. Over the years, I had trained myself in the fine art of silence and could be so quiet that sometimes I thought I wasn’t breathing. In my mind, I could sometimes convince myself that people did not see me because I did not want to be seen. My mother, for example, had stopped seeing me once I started high school, when she relieved herself of any further responsibility for me. And so began the litany of excuses for getting high in our living room or walking around the apartment wearing only panties, cradling a bottle of wine to her chest.
“Oh, Jaynie, I didn’t see you there.”
“What the hell are you doing home from school?” (This, on a weekend.)
“Jesus Christ! You almost gave me a heart attack. I thought you were at work.” (This, at eleven o’clock at night.)
“Get out of my sight, you little nothing. I can’t stand to look at you. You look just like your father.” (This, as I walked into the kitchen for breakfast, her words slurring so they sounded more like getotamstulilnoffin.)
Willing these memories away, I walked between the rows of plush blue and gray seats arranged in pairs on each side of the aisle. But halfway to the back, I hesitated, reminding myself of my earlier inner lectures. If I was going to pull this off, I would need to shake my old patterns and let them fall away like Skittles out of a bag. So, somewhat reluctantly, I turned around and made my way back toward the front of the bus. I had no way of knowing then, that a simple 180-degree turn would change the course of my life.
The only available seat was at the front, directly behind the driver, who was separated from the passengers by a metal partition bearing curly-edged posters that warned of safety risks and chronicled the passenger’s bill of rights. The boy who occupied both seats across the aisle was so engrossed in his book that he didn’t look up when I slid into my seat. I ducked my head down, looking away almost immediately because I didn’t want him to catch me staring.
I also had both seats to myself, and I slid over to the window and settled my backpack beside me, leaning it against my thigh. My hands were sweaty despite the cold air swirling around the open door, so I wiped them on my jeans. I hoped the driver, just inches from me, couldn’t see my heart beating through my jacket, or the beads of sweat gathering on my brow.
As I sat down, I couldn’t help but notice the boy’s handsome profile, which made it hard to look away. He was dressed in faded blue jeans and a long-sleeved navy polo shirt that peeked out from under a thin navy windbreaker. His thick black curls brushed his shoulders and were both shaggy and glossy in a way I had never seen before, at least not on a guy. He could have been any boy, on any bus. I hoped I had the same effect, and apparently I did, as he was as disinterested in me as I wanted him—and everyone else—to be. And that was just fine with me. But he was handsome. And I was drawn to the way he was trying to shut out the world, as if, like me, he thought he might be invisible.
Standing at the front of the bus, the driver welcomed us aboard in clipped sentences, reviewed some safety precautions in a monotone voice, and told us it would be a long two days to Santa Barbara, the bus’s final destination. His uniform was too tight for his bulky frame—he looked like a professional wrestler playing dress-up—and I had to strain my neck to see his face, like you do when you sit in a front-row movie seat. He did not smile, but he looked at the boy, who did not raise his head from his book. Returning to his seat, the driver put on his seat belt, and as if he were a clumsy symphony conductor, he pulled the handle to close the doors, adjusted his seat, and checked the mirrors. I had been the last passenger to board.
And then we were on our way, the bus hiccuping away from the curb. As we pulled out of the station, the boy across the aisle shifted, crossing one leg over his knee, and looked over at me at the same time I stole another glance at him. Our eyes locked, and we both looked away immediately, with me turning my gaze out the window and him retreating back into his book, bending low over it to allow his curls to completely obscure his face and then leaning against the bus wall.
I couldn’t stop myself from looking back again, propelled by a boldness that accompanies disguise and anonymity. My eyes fell on his soft leather messenger bag, which overflowed with books and legal pads, on the seat beside him, conveniently keeping anyone from sitting next to him. It occurred to me that I had done the same thing with my backpack. His behavior reminded me of, well, my own. I glanced at my own bag, reassured by its weight against my leg, and looked out the front window at the same time the driver looked in the rearview mirror, gazing at the boy, who gazed back at him. It was all like a game of hide-and-seek—glances stolen, then quickly taken back, and then surfacing again.
I was so paranoid that I saw trouble everywhere I looked. Better to keep my head down and not look. But did I really want my new life to swallow me up, to gobble my new voice before I had even found it? Or should I climb out of the silence and emerge in California full of the hope I had never felt before? I hardly knew. But I had about forty-eight-hours to figure it out before I got there.
The bus turned onto 11th Street and nosed into the noisy lunchtime traffic. Heading across busy Penn Avenue, we passed the chrome, glass, and steel of downtown skyscrapers before crossing the Fort Pitt Bridge and ambling through neat little residential neighborhoods.
I had often imagined that when I graduated from high school I would leave Pittsburgh forever; as in when I took the first step across the geographic border of the city, I would visualize it crumbling into ash behind me and watch it scatter into nothingness as the wind carried it nowhere. Now I saw our apartment building falling into dust, taking Gross Dave with it. I spared my pitiful mother.
Within forty-five minutes, we had crossed into West Virginia. One state down, eight to go. As we maneuvered along the road and across the mountains, I willed my body to take it down a notch, from DEFCON 1 to DEFCON 3 or 4. No one, and I mean no one, knew or cared that I was gone. No one was looking for me. And I had at least a few days’ head start before Dave would miss his money. Best of all, I looked nothing like myself. For right now, at least, I was satisfied that I was safe.
Against my will, the reading boy returned to my mind. From what I had seen, it was as if he, too, was trying to obscure himself. I assumed he was alone on the bus and felt that, like me, he was avoiding human interaction. The bus hummed with the chatter and laughter of the other passengers in the seats behind us. It was as if they occupied a dimension apart from our quiet trio up front, where each of us was lost in our own private thoughts. I became preoccupied with the circumstances that had put me on a Greyhound bus headed so far from home I might as well be leaving the country. I shuddered at the memories.
It was the phone call that had spurred me into action, and upon reflection, I was both surprised that it took so long and amazed at the perfect timing.
Since I was eleven-years-old, I had been lulled, I realized then, into the complacency of a new normal. I didn’t notice what had happened because it had been so gradual, as if an animal had been gnawing off my arm, tiny bite by tiny bite. How absurd it all seemed upon further reflection so many years later. I marveled that I had let things go so far, but then, I had had little choice. I had been just a kid.
The principal had interrupted me in civics class, telling Ms. Reppert over the intercom to send Jaynie Haart to the main office immediately. I had never been called anywhere before. I thought I was safe at school because I curled my personality into the smallest of balls and lived in a world where I never dropped anything, never slammed a door or a drawer, never chewed gum, and never wore loud shoes. I sat at the back of the classrooms as much as I could. I only spoke in class if a teacher called on me. So, it threw me off guard to hear my name crackled over a speaker for everyone to hear. Faces turned and torsos swiveled as I gathered my backpack and left the room.
I crept through the empty corridors of Carnegie High School, accompanied only by that unmistakable waxy, sweaty smell created by hundreds of kids streaming down hallways like shimmering fish.
“Sit down, Jaynie,” said Principal Vignaroli as soon as I entered her office. She got right to the point. “This is Mrs. Erickson from social services.”
She motioned to a gaunt, petite woman in a powder-blue pantsuit. Her hair was a stern helmet of frosty blonde feathering.
“I’ll let her explain what has happened.”
The two women looked at me with expressions of concern.
What could possibly have happened to bring attention to myself, I wondered as I sat silently in one of the wooden chairs opposite Vig’s desk. Erickson stood by the file cabinets, peering at me like a bird ready to peck at something.
I rested my backpack on my lap, only my tight grip on the straps betraying my attempt to hide my anxiety. Had something happened to my mother? Was I now an orphan? I could only be so lucky. Would I become a ward of the state? Thoughts of group youth homes, halfway houses and foster care careened around my mind.
Erickson began her speech with a tight little cough.
“This morning our office received an urgent and disturbing report about your, er, home life.”
I could tell she was using rote and well-rehearsed words carefully. She coughed uncomfortably again, but I refused to fill the silence with anything but an expressionless look on my face. I had no doubt that she was about to ruin my life. I wasn’t about to help her.
Flustered by my lack of response, she plunged awkwardly on.
“This caller reported that your mother and her boyfriend,” she said, pausing to glance at the legal pad in the leather portfolio she was holding, “uh, her boyfriend David Hoenig, are constantly drunk and high, and you are at great risk if you stay there.”
She and Vig exchanged glances.
“Is this true, Jaynie?” Vig asked so gently I almost wanted to think that she cared.
In moments like these, when your entire life hangs in the balance, it’s hard to know what to say. So, I just didn’t say anything.
Instead, I watched a tiny ant as it made its way slowly along the floorboard, never wavering from its course just a few centimeters from the wall. It stayed in a consistent straight line and kept a steady pace despite our presence in the room, and despite Erickson’s annoying cough and the noise in the front office. It wasn’t afraid of us. It didn’t even notice us. And it was a zillionth the size of us. How was something like that even possible?
Vig moved around the desk and took the chair next to mine, her matronly dress spilling around her. She smelled like lavender. I genuinely liked her. But I didn’t trust her. I didn’t trust anyone—not even the tiny ant that didn’t know I existed.
“Jaynie, you are one of our brightest students,” she began. “Your test scores are off the charts, and your grades are consistently exceptional. I can’t imagine that any of this is true, that you could accomplish all this with the home life that Mrs. Erickson has just described.”
We both looked at the social worker, who gave a little toss of her head. Her hair, I couldn’t help but notice, did not budge.
“Regardless of the truth, now that a complaint has been made we will need to follow up,” she reported officiously.
“Follow up?” My own voice surprised me since I had decided not to speak.
“Schedule a home visit. Meet your mother. See where you live. That sort of thing. What time does your mother get home from work?”
I laughed on the inside and said nothing. Work? That was a joke. Mom worked as little as possible as a cleaner for Maid Me for Me. We lived mostly off of my father’s police officer pension. I worked part time at the public library to pay for the basic necessities of my own life—things like toothpaste, food, clothes, and school supplies.
“Look, cooperating is really to your advantage,” Vig said. “We’re trying to help you. Let’s get this cleared up so you can put it behind you.”
“Um,” I began hesitantly, readying myself to spin a tale that Dad would have been proud of. “See, it’s the second anniversary of my father’s death this week, tomorrow actually,” I lied.
Dad died when I was eleven, but a more recent death better served my needs at the moment. I paused so Vig and Erickson could murmur the appropriate platitudes before I continued, leaning toward them to assert my eagerness and sincere desire to please. Then I hit them when the zinger. “He was a police officer killed in the line of duty.” This part was true.
Again, I paused for their even more distressed responses, and Vig nodded.
“Yes, I do remember hearing something about that,” she said, frowning.
I was afraid that she would remember the entire story and catch me in my lie, but she didn’t say anything else, so I continued.
“Mom doesn’t do so well the week before, and she drinks too much, that’s all.”
Vig and Erickson nodded sympathetically.
I asked who had made the call, but Erickson refused to say anything other than that it was an anonymous male caller.
I ran down the list of possibilities. There weren’t many. No one paid any attention to me. Was the caller the guy who ground his coffee beans in the apartment above us every morning? Or one of my teachers? They barely knew me. I made sure of that. Was it one of our neighbors? Maybe one of them had seen Mom and Dave stumbling home drunk one too many times, or had gotten fed up with the distinctive smell of pot coming from our apartment. But why take it out on me?
I decided to go on the defensive and looked from Vig to Erickson and back to Vig, and then I took a deep breath and did my best impression of haughty indignation.
“Is it really fair to take the word of an anonymous prank caller over what you know about me?” I squawked, trying not to let my voice quaver too much. I gained momentum as I continued. “What’s the point of having such a good reputation as one of your ‘brightest students’ if you don’t even trust me?”
It brought me great satisfaction to hurl Vig’s words back at her.
Neither one of them said anything, and Erickson closed her leather portfolio. If she pursed her lips any tighter, they would turn white. Vig rose and ushered me out.
When I reached the door, I hesitated and looked over my shoulder. Erickson had taken my chair, and she and Vig were whispering about me, but they stopped abruptly when they saw I hadn’t left yet. I looked past them and onto the floor. The ant was gone.
As I returned to my class, walking down silent hallways, my companion was the numbness that accompanies uncontrollable doom. I might have convinced Vig and Erickson that there was nothing going on—this time. But I was on Erickson’s list. And I knew that once you were on The List, you never got off.
Now, just one week later, having dodged Erickson (probably thanks to Vig), I was passing through the stark mountain landscape of West Virginia. It was true that I had stolen from Gross Dave, and from the innocent Hillary Kemp, who in my mind had become almost like my twin. Although I had never met or even seen her, we were now inextricably linked and would be for the rest of our lives. I could never forget her and all that she would do for me. No matter what happened in the coming weeks or months, or even years, we would always be connected, whether she discovered me and my deceit or not. But I was not an identity thief—not yet. Technically, there was still time to change my mind, even if in my core, I knew I wouldn't.