Escape from Aqualand
My school bus spit me out at the castle gates of Aqualand, a campground on the edge of the Potomac River. The air brakes groaned as the yellow beast turned then pulled its heavy belly full of high school kids away.
I looked around to see if there was anyone to pick me up. The twisty road leading home was surrounded on both sides by lush, green trees for about half a mile, and I was the only human there.
I breathed in the tangy aroma of fresh cut grass, fish, and wood smoke. It was Friday, almost summer vacation, and I had a dollar. Life was good. I shrugged my backpack higher on my shoulders and headed down the street.
When I finally reached the end of the road, I was greeted by peacocks and deer, enclosed in a chain link fence. I walked over to pet a friendly doe on the nose before making my way further.
“Welcome to Aqualand!”, the large, peeling sign screamed in bold, black hand-painted letters that were adorned with sun bleached lavender cartoon bunnies.
I stopped at the camp store, recently painted fire-engine red. The sweet perfume of aged wood and fresh paint greeted me when I opened the door. The camp manager, Bob, had his eyes glued to the TV which was turned down so low that the detergent commercial flicking across the screen sounded like a tinny hiss. Bob mindlessly stroked the fat orange-striped cat purring loudly on his lap. I slapped my dollar on the counter, and he nodded. I grabbed M&Ms and popped open a coke.
I walked to the bathhouse. It always reminded me of a prison. It was painted a very drab gray, and everything inside was gray. It even had gray shower curtains. That was unforgivable gray overload, in my book. I threw my empty coke can into the trashcan by the women’s room (gray, of course).
We had a room built adjacent to our camper that doubled our space. We used it as a dining room, office, and living room. I walked through the front door and was surprised when our next-door neighbor greeted me. She’d been watching my brothers and sister until I got home.
“Your mom and dad are shopping and running some errands. They should be back in a couple of hours.” she said, smiling. “See you later!”
I smiled back. If we got the chores done before Mom and Dad got home, we could goof off a bit. It was my job, as oldest, to make sure everything was done. My older little brother and sister always pitched in with no problem, but my baby brother had to be micromanaged.
“Hey, guys!” I greeted the kids, and they ran up and hugged me.
“Hi, Toni Lynn. I’m hungry.”
“When are y’all NOT hungry?” I laughed. “Did Mom tell you which snacks you could have?”
“No.” they answered.
This left me in a quandary. Mom usually had really great snacks ready for the kids after school. There were plenty of groceries in the house but also a clear rule that we could not touch any of the food without express permission from our parents. Mom and Dad were strict. We were spanked with a belt when we disobeyed, and we were spanked hard. We’d gotten in so much trouble for this over the years, that I wouldn’t dream of touching any of the food.
I remembered my M&Ms. I wasn’t strictly allowed to have those either, but I’d saved money from my lunches through the week, so I felt I had a right to them.
“Don’t tell on me.” I laughed. They promised they wouldn’t, and I made them do the Chickadee swear just to make sure.
We stood in a circle and held our hands out to each other in the shape of a bird and chanted, “Chick-chick-chickadee. Chick-chick-chickadee. Chick-chick-chickadee!” I’d created the chickadee club when I was 11 to help us stay out of trouble. Even my sister who was born to tattle kept chickadee secrets.
I divided up my M&Ms between them.
“OK, guys. After you finish your snack, we need to clean up.”
The next hour-and-a-half was spent straightening up. My baby brother, as usual, didn’t finish his chores so we finished them for him. By the time we were done, it was starting to get dark, and we were all hungry. I regretted spending my dollar on candy and soda earlier. I could have gotten a big bag of chips and fed everyone.
I looked outside to see if my boyfriend, Brian, was home. Brian was several years older than me, and he had a job. He always went out of his way to look out for all of us, so I knew he’d grab food if he was home. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.
We tried to distract ourselves. We played some games together, and when we got tired of that, we watched TV. Finally, we heard the unmistakable sound of our big, white van pulling into the drive.
The kids ran out yelling, “I’m hungry! I’m hungry! I’m hungry!”
The sky was a dark, cobalt blue and a mist of rain was falling. I walked up to the driver’s side of the van where my dad was sitting to see if they needed help bringing in groceries.
“Why didn’t you make the kids anything to eat?” My mom yelled at me from the front passenger side.
I was surprised. She hadn’t told me to make food. I was annoyed and hungry, but I tried to remain polite. “ I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was supposed to make…”
“You aren’t stupid, are you? You’re just lazy! There’s food in the house!’ she was screaming now.
“I know there’s food, but we aren’t allowed to touch it.” I tried to keep my voice calm.
I was tired. I was tired of being singled out as the worst kid. I was tired of seeming like a perfect, happy family at church then coming home to be yelled at, cussed at, put down, and beaten.
“Don’t give me that excuse. I’m tired of your excuses!” she yelled.
That was the final straw for me. I’d never really stood up to my parents before, but I knew everything that was going to happen. When my mom was mad, she would nag my dad until he punished me. He’d finally lose his temper and take everything too far, beating me with whatever was close at hand. Then she’d yell at him and make him stop. I would skulk around until bedtime, and the next day life would go on as if nothing happened.
“It’s not an excuse! I was just following your rules! But it doesn’t matter, does it? If I made the food, you’d be yelling at me for that. No matter what I do, I get in trouble!”
My mom was not used to me answering back to her like that. Several slaps across the face in my early teens had taught me to keep quiet, and I had four moon-shaped bruises on my fist where I’d already dug my nails into my palms to try to keep my mouth shut up.
Mom turned to Dad, who up until now, said nothing.
“Are you going to let her talk to me like that?” she yelled at Dad. “Oh, yeah. Toni is just your little princess who can do no wrong isn’t she? She gets away with everything.”
Something flashed in my Dad’s eyes, and I knew what was coming. He talked in a low rumble. “Get inside now.”
I’d heard this so many times. It always meant a beating. Dad was going to hit me, but he wanted me inside so no one would know. I stood my ground.
“If you’re going to hit me, do it here where everyone can see.” I said. It was raining harder then, and I could barely see his face through the blur. It didn’t matter.
Dad grabbed me by the hair and pulled me to the door of the van. He kicked me in the face then started slamming the door on my head over and over. When I fell into the gravel drive, he stepped out, pulled me up by a fist full of hair and dragged me, screaming, into the front room.
He pushed me against the wall. My little brothers and sister were huddled together against the other side of the room, crying.
Dad lifted me up to the wall with one hand and started hitting me with his free fist. My mom came in and said, “That’s enough, Tony.”
He turned and pushed her.
“Stay off her!” I yelled. “If you’re going to hit someone, hit me!”
Dad pushed me onto the futon and began punching me hard while I curled into a fetal position. My mom stood frozen, with a look of shock on her face. My biggest little brother held the two younger kids to him. They were all sobbing.
My dad was rearing back for another big punch when my boyfriend kicked down the door. My normally quiet, shy, gentle boyfriend pulled my 6'1 300 lb dad away from me with brutal force.
“Stop it!” He yelled. “Stop.”
Dad stood and pointed at him. “You leave.” He yelled.
“Not without her.” Brian replied.
I looked at my siblings. I could have left a long time ago, but I didn’t want to leave them behind.
I held my hands out in the Chickadee promise, and they held their hands out, too.
“I’ll come back for you.” I promised, tears streaming down my face.
I was numb, as my boyfriend loaded me into his car. We drove the same path I’d walked earlier that day. Rain was falling steadily now, and I watched it roll down the windshield. When we turned onto the highway, I turned back to look at the fairy tale towers, they glowed bright white against the dark sky.
That was my last night behind the castle gates. I never saw them again.