The Beginning of a Nightmare

My story starts early on a cold desert morning in Phoenix, Arizona. I was born to an unusual couple; my mother was the seventeen-year-old girlfriend of her former stepfather, who was only twenty-eight years old himself. I was not their first child; in fact, I was the brand new sister to a two-year-old boy. Surprisingly, my grandmother was there to witness my birth, standing next to my parents: her former husband and the daughter she accused of stealing him away.

On that day in 1982, I became the newest member of this dysfunctional family. It included my grandmother, who was the head of the household. She was a crafty and vicious woman, disliked by all. She was also a mastermind at cheating the system for money so she would never have to work. While she was nearly illiterate, she was most certainly not stupid. She believed in taking advantage of people whenever possible.

My mother, who was seventeen, was quickly learning her mother’s trade. Lastly, there was my father, of whom I have a few vague memories. My mother had only been fifteen when she and my stepfather had their first child. When my brother was about a year and a half, my grandmother obtained full custody of him on grounds that my mother was abusing him. He was living with my grandmother when I was born and my mother was living with her stepfather as his girlfriend. My grandmother had since divorced him. A few months after my birth, my father kidnapped my brother from my grandmother’s backyard. For the next two years, there was an arrest warrant out for my parents. My mom and dad traveled around to avoid law enforcement and we finally settled in Topeka, Kansas. Here, my younger sister Samantha came along and my parents officially got married.

Back in Arizona, my grandmother was still searching for my brother. Sometime between 1984 and 1985, my brother became one of the first missing kids to have his picture on the back of milk cartons. A few months later, a neighbor lady thought my brother looked like the boy she had seen on the back of her milk carton and called it in. Not long after, the FBI stormed our apartment and took my brother out kicking and screaming. Thirty-one years later, my brother would tell me what I could not remember at such a young age: that he was being badly abused. The stories he would tell me of our time in Topeka would cause my eyes to well up with tears; the severity of the abuse was heartbreaking.

On that day, this terrified little boy was sent back to live with our grandmother, a woman who would convince him she was his real mother. He would end up leading a life apart from us, but his supposed rescue from an abusive home would have its own path littered with fear and sorrow.

Soon after this incident, my parents divorced. My mother took my sister and me back to northern Arizona to live with our grandmother, so she could be near my brother. My father was sent to prison for a few months for kidnapping my brother, and he then moved to Phoenix. My parents shared custody of my sister and me, although we ended up living with my father most of the time.

Even though I would later learn that my father had been abusive to my brother, for the most part, I felt safe living with him. I can recall his small, yellow house that sat on a busy street. The smallest bedroom had two twin-size beds with matching bedspreads—one for me and one for my little sister, Samantha. I can remember my father taking us to the local swimming pool and letting us float around with floaters on our arms. Those days were fun for us. My sister and I would laugh and splash each other in the warm Arizona sunshine. Little did I know that happy days such as these would soon disappear like the leaves falling from a tree in autumn. I would always remember those days with tears in my eyes. If I could have talked to my four-year-old self, I would have whispered,
“Run! Run like hell and don’t look back!”
But of course, this is only wishful thinking. No one can turn back the hands of time—no matter how much one may wish to.

One afternoon, when I was nearly four, I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of my dad’s house. My two-year-old sister was sitting nearby, tearing up grass by the roots and eating the dirt. I had a headache and was holding my pounding head, watching her. A few weeks earlier, I had been attacked by a dog at my aunt’s house. The giant Great Dane had taken my entire head in its mouth and had clamped down on it. One eye tooth had narrowly missed my right eye by less than half an inch.

As a result, I had spent some time in the hospital and, after my release, I can vaguely remember looking in the mirror and being startled when I saw the wounds that would eventually heal into scars. There was one under my right eye, one long scar that went down my left cheekbone and a few other small ones.

On that particular morning, as I sat there, I watched a yellow Jeep pull up into the driveway. My mother was in the passenger’s seat, and in the driver’s seat was a man with long, gray hair. I smiled and waved a tired wave; their radio was blasting rock music and I remember how much it hurt my head. My father yelled for my sister and me to go into the house. I grabbed my little sister and started walking to the house. The man in the Jeep frightened me with his intense gaze. I hated how he was staring at me—it was very unsettling, so I ran toward the house with my sister, but the man jumped out of the Jeep and grabbed my arm.
“Where are you going, gorgeous?” he asked with a grin.
“My dad is calling me,” I stuttered.
“That’s okay,” the man said.
“My name is Brian, and you are going to be my daughter now.”

I looked at him in confusion. Why would I be his daughter?

My dad was yelling at my mother and pushing past her toward us. She was holding papers that I assume were custody documents. Brian pulled me and my sister over to the Jeep and pushed us inside. My mom got into the front seat and Brian started the engine. I watched in confusion as my father went over to Brian’s window and yelled at him to let us out, but Brian drove past him into the street. I waved to my father and he waved back. That would be the last time I saw my father.

I was frightened and confused, but there is no way that I could have known at that time how bad my life was going to get. There was no way that I could have known that my mother’s new forty-seven-year-old boyfriend had been wanted for child molestation back in the seventies. There was no way to know that he had escaped by fleeing to Alaska and working on fishing boats before circling down to Arizona and becoming a gold miner in the hills. I could not have known this then as I clung to my frightened sister.

For the next three hours, we drove north into the Bradshaw Mountains of northern Arizona. When we arrived at the mine where Brian lived, Mamma got out and opened a heavy metal gate. We crossed a creek and then drove about a half-mile up a hill to a small flat place in the road. There I saw a tiny thirteen-foot trailer sitting next to a tall mine shaft. I woke Samantha and apprehensively followed Mamma and Brian inside the trailer. It was so small, there was barely enough room to stand. After a minute of everyone just standing in the middle of the room, Brian picked Samantha and me up and set us on the top bunk.
“Okay girls, go to sleep,” he said.
Still in my day clothes, I fixed my sister a place and then lay down myself. My stomach was all knotted up, and I had an uneasy feeling about what was happening to us. I could hear Mamma and Brian talking outside as I drifted off to sleep. My life was about to become a living nightmare—one from which I would not be able to awaken for many years.

Life with Brian was a rude awakening for me and my sister. He believed in the strictest discipline and held to the notion that children were to be seen and not heard. He was very confusing at times. At night, he would read us stories. Samantha and I loved stories, but we always listened tensely, knowing the slightest thing could send him into a wild rage. Sometimes we would all go on mining excursions or hike to the lake behind the mine, but all of this was laced with an undercurrent of fear as Brian began laying out one rule after another. One of the worst of his rules was that my sister and I were not allowed to talk to each other, or to strangers. The only time we were allowed to talk was when we raised our hands and were given permission. We were also not allowed to play with other children who might accompany their parents on the mining expeditions that we sometimes went on.

The days would draw out, sad and long, and I would find myself jumping at the slightest touch or sound. Every tiny mistake, whether it was forgetting to close a door, dropping a dish, not coming immediately when called or talking without permission, would earn us a severe switching or belting. I had learned to count and would sometimes count the blows when we were punished, to keep my mind off the pain; usually, the average was fifteen licks. If Samantha and I cried, Brian or Mamma would beat us until we stopped. Many times we merely collapsed. Brian’s favorite stance for us when he beat us was to have us bend over and touch our toes. If we fell over or stopped touching our toes, the beatings would continue until we complied.

These punishments took place about three times a day for each of us. The worst part was that my mother would either participate in the punishment or stand by and watch. Sometimes I would run to her for help, only to have her shove me back at Brian, who would angrily grab at me.

Sometimes I would still be shaking from a recent beating when Brian would start reading us our nightly story. I would listen to the story and wish he were like that all the time. It almost seemed like he thought that the stories could absolve him, but they didn’t; a story could never wash away the pain that we suffered on a daily basis.

Brian forced us to call him Dad. I hated it, but I had no other choice than to comply. In the summer, Brian and my mother would work the mines and take the gold ore to southern Arizona to be assayed. This was the mid-1980s, and gold was at its ultimate peak in price. In the winter, we would drive farther up into the mountains where Brian and Mamma would cut down oak trees for firewood to sell in town.

On Sundays, we would go to a church in town. Brian would always warn us to not talk to anyone about our home life and only answer questions when asked. We were the quietest little girls in the church. I am still surprised that no one thought our withdrawn behavior was strange. Couldn’t they see our sad eyes and the angry looks that Brian shot at us? Or did they notice and just did not know what to do?

One summer day, about a year after we came to live at the mine, Mamma told me to undress and go outside and stand next to the five-gallon bucket to wait for my bath. She always stood us in that bucket and gave us our baths before we went into town. I did not want to undress and stand outside since Brian always came over and talked to me as he stared me up and down. Whenever I tried to turn away from his stares, he would get angry and tell me I was an ungrateful, selfish little girl. Although I was not a perfect child, I was certainly not selfish, and his saying so confused and saddened me.

On this particular day, I stood next to the bucket for a few minutes, trembling as Brian started inching his way over. When I could no longer stand his staring, I asked him if I could play in the sawdust pile until Mamma was ready for me. He just shrugged, so I ran over to the giant pile and covered myself with the sawdust.

A couple of minutes later, Mamma came out of the trailer yelling for me. I ran back to the five-gallon bucket and found that she was very angry because I had fine sawdust all over me. I tried to tell her that Brian had given me permission to play in the sawdust, but she grabbed me and started shaking me. She said I had the devil in me and that she was going to beat it out of me. I started screaming, half hoping someone would hear and save me, but of course, there was nobody to hear.

Brian came over and grabbed me. He put my upper torso between his legs and squeezed as hard as he could. I struggled for breath as his knees squeezed my five-year-old diaphragm. My mother began hitting me with a big leather belt. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I tried to break free. Brian squeezed harder and harder with his legs and Mamma said the pain was just the devil trying to come out. I screamed and screamed, but only my echo heard me. My mother laughed an evil laugh with every blow, and Brian goaded her into continuing. When I finally quit struggling, Brian let me go. I went limp and sank to the ground. I tried to get up, but I could not. I had a piercing pain in the left side of my rib cage, and every breath was torturous.

Mamma wiped me down roughly and dressed me. Tears rolled down my cheeks, but I was too weak to scream anymore. After she had dressed me, Brian came over and placed me in the back of the pickup truck with the canopy on it. I lay in the back as the truck bounced across ruts in the road on the way into town.

My little sister tried to hug me. I think she sensed there was something very wrong with me. The pain was so great, I could not breathe. I put a hand on the upper left side of my rib cage. I was sure I had three broken ribs. I was in terrible pain, and the motion of the truck was making it even worse.

When we got into town, Brian parked at the far end of a shopping area, like he always did. He got out and came to the back of the truck to tell us not to make a sound. Then he and Mamma walked off into the store. They usually came back hours later with groceries or tools or clothes. We sometimes had a couple of old dolls to play with, but we did not have many toys because they would make noise and someone might hear us. They would sometimes come out of wherever they were to take us to the restroom. I can still remember how refreshing it was to get out of the back of the truck and walk around, seeing other people and breathing the fresh air.

Staying in the truck, however, was better than the times we had to go with them. On the rare occasions that we got to come out, Brian would make us carry a belt so that other people could see what bad children we were.

In the truck, I would get up on my knees and stare out through the cracks in the canopy. I would see children walking by with their parents—little girls in pretty dresses, mothers laughing and hugging them. For a short while, I would imagine that I was them. But I was not; I was only a small girl with bright green eyes and dirty blonde hair. I was peeking out at the world from the back of a pickup truck. People passed by within a few feet of Samantha and me, yet they never knew we were there. We were two girls that did not exist—two sad, frightened little girls at the mercy of two merciless individuals.

That summer slowly turned into winter. My ribs never healed quite right. It felt like they bunched together and became a small knot, and even to this day, when I am running, I still feel pain in that knot. As time progressed, Brian and Mamma became more and more irritated. It was 1988, and the gold mining industry was suddenly experiencing an upsurge of activists protesting in front of the mines and in the surrounding towns.

These people were against the use of dynamite because of how it disturbed the animal habitats. Due to this, Brian was finding it harder and harder to get mining permits from the state. His frustration was turned back on my sister and me in a big way. Sometimes, we were left alone in the trailer and I would have to scrounge up something for us to eat from the ingredients in the cupboard.

The following spring, Brian was unable to get any permits and lost the mine. Shortly afterward, we packed our things, and Brian set fire to the tools and the mine shaft so the man that took over would have great difficulties. Brian said we were moving to Washington State to stay with his dad who had a small shop there. Samantha and I were excited. We felt we were beginning a new and perhaps better life. We would no longer be isolated. Brian bought a new trailer that was a little bigger, and we packed everything inside.

On the day before we were to leave, we came back to the trailer and found it had been broken into. Brian became angry, grabbed his pistol out of the truck and ran up into the thick manzanita brush. He came back with a teenage boy. He had the gun pressed to the kid’s head. Brian yelled at the boy to tell him where our stuff was or, he said, he would kill him. I remember standing in front of them, frozen, unable to move, and thinking that if he shot and missed, I was in the direct line of fire. The teenager was screaming, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! Your stuff is up in the brush.”

Brian laughed and said, “I should just shoot you anyway.” But he finally let the boy go and chased after him, firing the gun in the air. I will never forget that day. It is etched into my mind forever. I was so scared; Brian seemed so cold and dangerous.

We left a few hours later and hit the road for Washington. Brian seemed to be in a lighter mood as we traveled, and he told us stories of growing up in the Evergreen State. It took us about three days to reach Seattle. Sometimes, Samantha and I got to sit in the cab rather than the canopy covered truck bed. I would stick my head out the window and feel the wind whip through my hair as I smelled the new scent of the ocean. My sister and I pointed out exciting new sights to each other, although we were careful not to make a sound.

As we traveled during the day and camped by night, things seemed nicer. Mamma and Brian were preoccupied and did not feel the need to beat us so much. For those few days, I told myself that things might not be so bad and that everything was going to get better. Little did I know that a dark cloud was looming in front of me, the extent of which I could not comprehend as a child. It was a dark and ominous cloud that threatened to engulf me, not even leaving a trace.


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