Stripped Read online

Page 4

And…he does. He drives away, leaving me on the side of a highway, miles from anywhere. In that moment, I hate him. I didn’t think he’d just leave me here even if I did get out of the car. Another sob slips from me, and then another, and then I’m bawling again. Miles pass under my feet slowly, so slowly. Eventually I call Devin, my closest friend, and she comes to pick me up.

  She’s my closest friend, other than Mom.

  Who’s dead. It hits me all over again.

  I slip into Devin’s car and slump forward against the dashboard. “She-she-she’s gone, Devin. She died. Mama died. ”

  “I’m so sorry, honey. I’m so sorry, Grey. ” She leaves the radio off and pulls away off the shoulder, back onto the highway heading away from the Medical Center of Central Georgia and out to where we live.

  Devin lets me cry for a long time before she speaks. “Why were you walkin’ on the side of the highway?” Devin has the perfect southern belle accent down pat. She cultivates it, I think. I’m always trying to sound less like a mid-Georgia hick, but the accent creeps in sometimes.

  “I got in a fight with Daddy. He…he always has to be in charge. You know? Everything, all the time. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t. Everything has to be his way. Even when we were fighting, he had to control what I did and what I said and what I felt. ” I sniffled. “I…I think I hate him, Dev. I do. I know he’s my Daddy and I should love him, but he’s just…he’s a jerk. ”

  “I don’t know what to tell you, Grey. From everything you’ve told me, he is kind of a jerk. ” She glances over her shoulder as she changes lanes, and shoots me a sympathetic smile. “You want to stay with me for a while? Momma and Daddy won’t mind. ”

  “Could I?”

  “Let’s grab your stuff,” Devin says, trying to be cheerful.

  Daddy is in his study with the door closed. That tells me a lot; Daddy never, ever closes the door to his study unless he’s really upset or “deep in prayer. ”

  I pack a bunch of clothes and my toiletries in a bag, grab my duffle bag of dance gear, my stash of allowance cash from the drawer of my desk. I look around my room, and it feels like it’s for the last time. On impulse, I snatch my iPod and charger off the desk along with the charger for my phone. I go back to my closet and shove all my clothes into the suitcase, bras, panties, dresses, skirts, blouses, heels, sandals, all of it shoved into the Samsonite case until it’s overflowing and I have to sit on it to get it closed. I had planned to pack more thoroughly but for some reason I just know. This is it. The end.

  I take in the posters of various dancers on my walls, the Broadway playbills from the trip to New York Mom and I went on for my sweet sixteen…it all seems juvenile. The room of a child. A little girl. There’s even a shelf in one corner full of American Girl dolls from my childhood, all dressed neatly and sitting in a row.

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  One last glance. My framed photo of Mom and me in Times Square goes in my purse. She looked so happy there, and so did I. That trip is what inspired my love of dance.

  My dance bag is slung over my shoulder as I pull the suitcase down the stairs. The wheels thump from step to step until I’m on the landing. The front door is before me and the closed French doors of Daddy’s study to my left. One of them swings open and Daddy fills the space, eyes red-rimmed, face haggard.

  “Where are you going, Grey?” His voice is hoarse.

  “Devin’s. ” I hold up the acceptance letter for USC, the envelope with my room assignment, my new roommate’s information, check-in instructions. “And then L. A. I’m leaving for college next week. ”

  “No, you’re not. We’re a family. We need to stick together during this trying time. ” He tries to step closer to me, and I back away. “Your mother just died, Grey. You can’t leave now. ”

  I huff a disbelieving laugh. “I know she died. I was there! I watched—I watched her die. I have to go—I have to get out of here. I can’t stay here. I don’t belong here. ”

  “Grey, come on. You’re my daughter. I love you. Please…don’t go. ” His eyes are wet. Watching him cry hurts but doesn’t change the fact that I hate him.

  “If you loved me so much, why’d you leave me on the side of the highway?” I know it’s not fair, but I just don’t care.

  “You refused to get in the car! What was I supposed to do? You punched me!” He slumps to the side against the closed door, resting his head on the wood. A tear slides down his cheek. “She was my wife, Grey. I’ve been with her since I was seventeen. I lost my wife. ”

  I tip my head back, trying not to cry again. “I know, Daddy. I know. ”

  “So stay. Please stay. ”

  “No. I…can’t. I just can’t. ” I hold the strap of my purple-patterned Vera Bradley purse in my hands and twist.

  “Why not?”

  I shake my head. “I just can’t. You don’t understand me. You don’t know anything about me. I know she was your wife, and I know you’re hurting just as much as me. But…without her, I don’t know what to do. She made this family work. Without her…we’re just two people who don’t understand each other. ”

  He seems so confused. “But…Grey…you’re my daughter. Of course I understand you. ”

  “Then why do I like to dance?”

  He seems puzzled by the question. “Because you’re a girl. Girls like to dance. It’s just a phase. ”

  I have to laugh out loud. “God, Daddy. You’re such an idiot. Because I’m a girl? Really?” I groan in disgust and hike my dance bag back on my shoulder. “That’s exactly what I mean. You don’t understand the first thing about me. I’m just like Mama used to be before she married you. You know that. And that’s what bothers you about me. She was this free and wild dancer, and she married you and she changed for you. I won’t do that. That was her choice, and that’s fine. For her. But it’s not my choice. I don’t want to be a pastor’s wife, Daddy. I don’t want to go to prayer meeting every Wednesday, two services on Sunday mornings and small groups on Mondays and women’s Bible study on Thursdays. That’s not my life. I don’t even like church. I never have. ” I let that sink in, and then I drop the real bomb: “I don’t believe in God. ”

  Daddy’s lip curls in horror. “Grey, you don’t know what you’re saying. You’re upset. It’s understandable, but you can’t say these things. ”

  I want to scream in frustration. “Daddy, yes, I’m upset, but I know exactly what I’m saying. This is stuff I’ve wanted to say for years. I just haven’t because I didn’t want to upset Mom. I didn’t want to fight. I’m basically an adult, and I…I don’t have anything else to lose. ”

  “Grey, you’re eighteen. You think you’re an adult, but you’re not. You’ve never worked a day in your life. Your clothes, your manicures, your dance classes, everything, it’s all paid for by the generosity of the congregation…the church that I built on my own. I started with six people in the back of a restaurant in 1975. You wouldn’t last a day on your own. ”

  Wrong thing to say. “Watch me. ” I pick up my suitcase and extend the handle, tip it onto its wheels, grunting as the weight nearly topples me over.

  Daddy moves in front of the door. “You’re not leaving, Grey. ”

  “Get out of the way, Daddy. ”

  “No. ” He crosses his arms over his chest.

  I set the suitcase upright and rub my forehead with the back of my wrist. “Just let me go. ”

  “No. ” He seems to swell, to take strength from defying me. “You’re not going to that Babylon. Los Angeles is the home of…of…prostitutes and homosexuals. You’re not going there. You’re not leaving. ”

  “Daddy, be reasonable. ” I try the cajoling method. “Please. You’ve known this is what I’ve wanted since before Mama got sick. ”

  “You’re not leaving. That’s final. ”

  I do scream then, an enraged howl. “God, you’re so motherfucking stubborn!” I want to shock him with my vulg