Rachel’s sixteenth birthday was notable in three ways: it was the last day of the school year, the day of her first kiss, and her last day in her childhood home.
The kiss was with Emily Prince, at the end of her drive as they parted ways after having walked that much of the way from school together. She fairly skipped up the driveway to her house – only to stop short when she saw her father standing in the doorway, looking at her with such fury that she knew he must have seen.
“Go to your room,” he snapped. “We’ll discuss this later.”
She hastily retreated up the stairs and shut herself in her room without protest. She would much rather stay out of his way until he cooled down.
She put on some music, pulled out her journal, and almost managed to forget about the confrontation that was surely coming as she dreamed about how to spend her summer.
That last about as long as it took for her mother to get home. Only minutes after the front door swung shut, Rachel could not turn her music up loud enough to block out the sound of her parents talking – or rather, yelling – about what was to be done with her, could not block out her father’s shouts (“I will not have some filthy dyke for a daughter!”) or her mother’s more measured but no less distressed tones (“She needs to be shown that this unnatural behavior will not be tolerated. Maybe we’ve been too soft with her; she needs proper discipline to straighten her out”).
There was no discussion when they called her down to dinner. Her father simply informed her flatly that in the morning they would be sending her to live with Aunt Golda.
She’d never been fond of Aunt Golda; her father’s elder sister was a sour woman who had even more of a temper than Rachel’s father himself and was never short of a critical word for her son Eric. It almost failed to surprise Rachel, that morning her parents dropped her off, when her aunt announced she would be staying in the attic room, showed her up to her new quarters, and locked the door.
The days settled into a predictable pattern so that they soon blurred together. A few times a day Eric would silently appear at the door to escort her down for meal; as these were invariably accompanied by Aunt Golda lecturing on the error of her ways, she almost preferred the solitary confinement. Sometimes when Eric came upstairs she would plead with him to help her. He did not appear unsympathetic but he did not respond to her entreaties either. Then again, he had surely been ordered not to and in his place she supposed she would be scared to disobey too.
Her journal was among the small bundle of belongings she’d been able to bring from home, and she spent much of her time writing in it her desperation and fear, and fantasies of being anywhere but there. If it weren’t for that and the window she didn’t know how she would have kept herself sane. She spent hours watching the world pass by through the single window in the attic room.
And in those hours that she observed the passers-by, she came to notice a familiar face. At first she thought she must be mistaken, must be imposing wishful thinking on the features of some stranger with a passing resemblance. But no, that slim build, short dark hair, and heart-shaped face could be none but Emily’s. And from the frequency with which she appeared on that street, the girl who had for a day been her girlfriend must live quite nearby.
Rachel tore a sheet from her journal and scribbled out a note begging for help, briefly explaining where she was and what had happened. She folded it up into the best paper airplane she could remember how to make, scrawled “EMILY” across the wings, and sat down to wait until the next time Emily passed the house.
When she opened the window and threw the airplane, she thought for a few horrible seconds that it was going to get caught in the branches of the tree that screened the attic window from direct visibility of the street, but then it passed clear and landed on the sidewalk some yards in front of the other girl. Rachel found herself holding her breath as Emily bent to pick up the paper contraption, curiously unfolded it, and read it through. Emily looked up towards the house and Rachel leaned as far out the window as she dared, her waist-length hair cascading down around her, hoping she would be at least somewhat visible through the leafy branches that stood between them. Apparently she was, for Emily ran up to the side of the house, and their eyes met.
Emily looked about, quickly assessing the surroundings, and immediately began to clamber up the tree and onto the boughs that extended towards the window. Rachel would not have thought the closest branches extended nearly close enough for someone to cross the gap to the window, but Emily was taller and more athletic, not to mention more daring, than she. With Rachel reaching out from inside to steady her, they were able to pull her safely inside.
Rachel hardly remembered what happened in the next hour, it passed in such a giddy blur, a jumble of news and promises and kisses and plans, until finally Emily had to leave, but swore to return the next evening.
In the next days Rachel’s spirits were greatly improved. Yes, she had still been betrayed by her family, she was still stuck in solitary confinement in her evil witch of an aunt’s attic, but now at least she had one good thing going for her and one hope to hold onto. And in those hours when Emily was there, they were discussing escape plans and what to do next. Emily’s parents knew and accepted who and what their daughter was, Emily assured Rachel, and would be happy to take Rachel in until she figured out where to go from there. It was amazing how much a little hope and promise for the future could do.
Rachel could see, too, that Aunt Golda had noticed and was frustrated by her rise in spirits. She felt rather satisfied by that; she would not be broken so easily.
Then came the day when it all went wrong. Rachel was helping Emily to cross to the window from the tree when Emily lost her footing and slipped. Rachel held onto her arms with all her strength, but she was still dangling perilously and Rachel knew she couldn’t hold her grip for long. Emily grabbed desperately for any purchase and seized on the nearest thing at hand – which happened to be Rachel’s hair. Rachel could not help screaming in pain. Between the two of them Emily somehow managed to scramble up, but the sound of thudding footsteps on the stairs signaled that they had been caught.
The lock clicked open, and then Eric was there in the doorway. Rachel found herself pleading desperately, almost incoherently, “Don’t tell Aunt Golda! Please, please, if you care at all, don’t tell her.”
He looked between the two girls for what was surely only a few moments but seemed agonizingly long. Then finally he said, “Very well, I won’t tell her.” And he disappeared back downstairs.
And Rachel thought that disaster had been narrowly averted – until the next evening, when Emily didn’t show up, and didn’t show up, and didn’t show up.
So focused was she on watching the window that she didn’t notice the door opening until Eric said too pleasantly, “Expecting someone?”
She whirled around, gaping at him.
“Don’t expect to see your little girlfriend again,” he continued with a sickening smirk.
“Wha?” she gasped.
“You said not to tell, so I didn’t tell; I just thought some friends and I would take matters into our own hands.”
“What? What happened? Where is she?”
“In the hospital, I would imagine. She’s been taught a lesson she won’t soon forget,” he said smugly.
Too furious to think of a response, she simply slammed the door in his face.
That night desperation spurred her to what she’d never dared before. She opened the window as wide as she could, perched on the sill, and jumped for the branches. Her landing was neither elegant nor pleasant, but she had made it. She clambered to a more stable position, and silently made her way down.
As soon as she reached the ground she took off running. She was winded, exhausted, and frustrated by how much time had passed by the time she made it across town, wishing nothing so much as that she’d had money for a taxi.
But finally she made it to the hospital. “Emily Prince, I’m looking for Emily Prince.”
It almost killed her to see Emily bruised and bandaged, but her girlfriend looked up at her arrival and gave her a weak smile. “Rachel! You’re here.”
“You going to stay with me now?”
Rachel managed a return smile. “Couldn’t keep me away.”