Maria was exhausted. The store had been busy this Saturday with marathon runners and cyclists from today’s race. Even with four Kodak picture machines, there was a line since early this morning. Family members wanted pictures of their loved one at the 26-mile mark, a few blocks away.
Maria was doing much better than she anticipated. Only sixteen, she was a mother, a partner, and now had survived six months at the camera store. She got the job two months before the baby came and Mr. Ramirez gave her time off when Nicky Jr. was born.
Her Spanish was improving. Nicky worked with her every minute that they were together. Mr. Ramirez and his wife coached her as well, and many of the customers spoke only Spanish.
Things were hard at home now with the baby, but the young couple was surviving. Nicky worked second shift as a mechanic in one of the city’s remaining factories. He was so lucky to get that job right out of high school. The factory was close enough to his parent’s house, where the little family shared a basement apartment, that he could ride his bike to work. He was a tough guy, and could handle anything on the street.
Maria met Nicky eighteen months ago. She was a waitress in a dive bar. Maria looked a lot older than she was. She told Nicky that she was eighteen, graduated from high school out east, and came to KC to live with her sister.
Of all the lies she told him, that she lived with her sister was the only one he knew. She told him that her sister moved back home, but she liked her job and wanted to stay.
In truth, Maria was fourteen when she met Nicky. Her real name was Melissa, and she was called Missy at home. Maria was about as creative as she could be with her limited experience from the rural prairie.
What she didn’t want him to know was that she ran away from a farm in the middle of Illinois. Her father had been visiting her attic bedroom in the drafty old farmhouse at night for about four years.
She couldn’t take it anymore. She was certain her mother and siblings knew about the visits, but nothing was ever said or done. She didn’t have the courage to go against her father, even as she fought him off viciously sometimes.
Sometimes she thought about killing him with the knife her dad and brothers used for butchering hogs.
Instead, she got on a bus to St. Louis, and then boarded another bus until she ran out of money that was in the next large city, across Missouri. She cut her long, brown hair short, and dyed it blonde. She had Nicky’s name tattooed in a heart on her ankle.
Initially, Maria only spoke a few words she learned in freshman Spanish. Uncertain about where to go, she headed for an Hispanic neighborhood. That is where she met Nicky, who at eighteen had been a Boy Scout and just graduated from high school. His brother paid for a short course in mechanics and helped him get the factory job.
The part-time job in the photo shop gave the couple extra money they were saving to get their own apartment.
Out of the corner of her eye, Maria noticed a group of young people milling outside around the door. The store was closing in five minutes. “Damn,” she thought to herself. “They will probably want a stack of pictures.”
At 4:55 p.m. they came inside. She looked closer at the group and realized with horror that it was her two brothers and another woman she didn’t know. The woman wore running clothes and number 2366 across her chest along with her marathon medal.
Fear swept over her like a spring rain across the flat farm fields she left behind.
What if they recognized her? She was still not an adult.
The woman stepped up to the counter and asked in English, “Do you have any digital camera bags?” Even though Maria didn’t know who the lady was, she was terrified as the woman was with her brothers.
“No habla Ingles,” said Maria, trying to mimic Nicky’s accent. Maria pointed to the back room, and quickly walked away.
“Mrs. Ramirez,” Maria said. “I’m not really feeling well. Do you think I could leave several minutes early?”
“Of course,” she said, and Maria walked out the back door.