I'll Fly Away
Chapter One: Poor Wayfaring Stranger
(Author's note: although this story is from the POV of an original character, features a wildly AU origin story for Hawkeye, and begins 31 years before the events of the movie, I promise it eventually becomes an Avengers fanfic. Bear with me.)
I'd been hiding behind the oleanders since just after midnight. The mosquitoes were bad. I'd pulled on a sweatshirt and put socks over my hands and a bandana over my hair, but they still got my face and neck, and occasionally bit through my clothes.
I'd stopped crying after a couple hours. What was the use? It only made it more likely that somebody would hear me, and that would be the last disaster. I was tired, so tired my brain felt bruised, but I didn't dare go to sleep. So in my head I ran through every song I knew, every poem I could remember, bits and pieces of Lord of the Rings, anything to keep me awake and not hysterical.
Around me slept the campus of Armstrong State College, and around it the city of Savannah. A hundred and forty thousand people, of whom I knew exactly four. Three of those were my parents and my little sister, and I was never going to see them again. The fourth was the person I was waiting to see, as soon as the sun came up and the building was unlocked.
I played the Aragorn name game. His true name, Aragorn son of Arathorn. Isildur's Heir. Estel. Elessar, the elfstone and the renewer. Strider. Longshanks. Dunadan, man of the West. Wingfoot. Telcontar, Elvish for "Strider".
Three days ago I'd been inside this building talking to an admissions counselor. Her name was Rachel Barton. She seemed really nice. In a few more hours I would find out how nice.
Many are my names...Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkun to the Dwarves; Olorin in my youth in the West, in the South Incanus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.
Holy God, I was thirsty. I wish I'd thought to stuff a couple of Cokes in my backpack. But with ten minutes to cram in one bag everything you get to take with you from your entire previous life, your choices get a little random. None of my books; those are replaceable, or I can probably find most of them in the library. Mostly clothes; I have to have those every day. All my money, of course, two twenties, a five, three ones, and the change in my piggy bank. My address book. The little photo album I'd put my favorites into, to keep with me when we moved so I wouldn't have to wait till everything was unpacked to show my new friends where I'd come from. That seemed almost funny now.
All that is gold does not glitter / Not all those who wander are lost; / The old that is strong does not wither, / Deep roots are not reached by the frost. / From the ashes a fire shall be woken; / A light from the shadows shall spring; / Renewed shall be blade that was broken; / And crownless again shall be king.
A grey light was gradually seeping into the sky. Not much longer now.
I'd forgotten to bring my toothbrush.
Tall ships and tall kings, / Three times three: / What brought they from the foundered land / Over the flowing sea? / Seven stars and seven stones / And one white tree.
I'd drawn the White Tree on the cover of my diary. Mama wouldn't let me have it back. She claimed she was going to burn it. I kind of hoped she would. Daddy might or might not "beat me within an inch of my life" (her words) if he read it; but I wasn't planning to give him the option. Mama contented herself with one hard slap that bounced my head off the doorframe, and a ten-minute deadline to get out of her house. Too bad I wasn't a big enough nerd to keep my diary in Elvish. Damned if I'd ever keep another one, in any language.
Above all shadows rides the Sun / And stars forever dwell; / I will not say the day is done, / nor bid the stars farewell. It goes pretty well to the tune of "In Christ There Is No East Or West."
Tolkien was a Catholic, of course. He'd probably be horrified that someone like me was taking comfort in his words. He'd be on my parents' side, though God knows Mama and Daddy wouldn't claim a Catholic as a fellow-Christian. Still, you take comfort where you can find it. Which is what got me into this mess.
The sun was up now. I took the socks off my hands, took the bandana off my head and finger-combed my hair, which had gotten a certain amount of sand, twigs and spiderwebs into it. I looked around to make sure nobody was in sight before I slipped out from behind the bushes. I sat down on a bench and tried to look like a normal person who'd just gotten up early. In the early morning chill I was cold even with the sweatshirt, mostly since I was still damp from sweating. I'd walked for hours, in the evening when it was still hot. I stank.
I wondered what my parents were telling Diane about where I'd gone. I wondered if she'd believe them. At six, I don't think it had occurred to me that parents could lie.
A custodian came by with a big wad of keys at the end of a long chain on his belt. He unlocked the building. I nodded to him; he nodded back and went on his way.
Once he'd left, I got up and strolled up the steps and through the door. I wandered around a little till I'd found the admissions office (still closed) and the women's restroom (open). I took a quick wash in the sink, changed my shirt, used the toilet, and fixed my hair a little better, using a real comb from my purse. I had a goddamn black eye. Great. I found I could mostly hide it by combing my hair over to that side and letting it hang in my face. There was nothing I could do about the bug bites. At a distance they looked like zits. Ugly, but acceptable. I scanned my reflection again.
Get your hair out of your face, honey, you're too pretty to hide like that, said Mama's voice in my head, and I started crying again. Shit.
Luckily nobody came in during the time it took me to get hold of myself, blow my nose (a lot) and wash my face in cold water. Eyes still red, but what the hell. It was the best I was going to get. I drank several double-handfuls of water from the sink. Some better. I stuffed some extra toilet paper in my pocket in case I broke down again.
I stepped back out in the hall and walked down to the admissions office. I found a copy of the student paper, the Inkwell, and sat on the floor with it. I read every word twice over, even the classifieds, and finally dug a pencil stub out of my backpack to do the crossword puzzle. I was almost done with it when the secretary came to open up.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
I kept my head down like I was in the world crossword puzzle championship, with the clock ticking. "I'm waiting on Ms. Barton," I said.
"She'll be in around eight. Do you have an appointment?"
"No ma'am," I said, "But I talked to her the other day at orientation, and she said come by if I had questions."
"Okay," she said. "You can come in and wait for her inside."
"Thanks," I said, and followed her in. I sat in one of the plastic chairs, tucked my backpack between my feet and tried to look like I belonged there. Like a college student. I'd been so close. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from crying again. A Elbereth Gilthoniel, silivren penna miriel, o galadhremmin ennorath, na-chaered palan-diriel... Tolkien, you old sucker, it's easy to make things rhyme when you get to make up the language.
"Good morning, LaShonda."
"Good morning, Ms. Barton. Someone to see you." I looked up, then remembered the black eye and looked back down again.
"Come on in," said Ms. Barton, and opened the door to her office. I took a deep breath and followed her in.
"What can I do for you?" she asked, setting down her purse and her briefcase.
"My name's Jeannine Dupree. I talked to you back during orientation."
"Oh yes. I remember you."
"This is kind of weird but..." I took another deep breath. "But I'm in trouble and I don't know anybody else in town. We just moved here. Last night my mama threw me out of the house. I was hoping you could tell me where to go."
"Are you all right?" she asked, looking at me keenly. I was sure she wasn't missing much: black eye, bug bites, grimy clothes, probably some spiderwebs.
"I had kind of a rough night," I said.
"I imagine so," she said. "How old are you?"
"Just turned seventeen last month."
She frowned. "That makes things difficult."
I nodded. "Yes ma'am."
"Do you have any relatives or friends you could stay with?"
"No ma'am. Like I said, we just moved here. I don't have any family closer than North Carolina, and those are just cousins. I barely know them." And they'd be on her side too, I thought, but didn't share that with the nice lady.
"Where did you spend the night?" she asked.
I considered several bullshit stories, but in the end I was too tired to be smart, so I just said, "Hiding in the bushes, waiting for somebody to open up the building."
"How did you get the black eye?"
"Mama slapped me," I said. "She didn't hit me all that hard. She just slapped me, but it knocked me into the door frame. It's not as bad as it looks."
That seemed to push her over some kind of line. She picked up her purse and briefcase. "Come with me," she said, and led the way back out into the main office.
"LaShonda," she said, "something's come up. An emergency. Reschedule my appointments for the morning. I should be back by noon."
"All right," said the secretary. She didn't even look surprised. Did this happen often?
"Come on," said Ms. Barton. I followed her out of the building and around back to the parking lot.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Right now, we're going to my house to get you a shower and some breakfast and a nap," she said. "While you're doing that, I'll be making some phone calls."
"I don't mean to put you to all this trouble," I said. "If you can just tell me where-"
"We'll get to that," she said. "First things first."
"I have some money," I said.
"You hold on to that for now," she said. "I can afford breakfast and a shower."
"Yes ma'am," I said meekly. "Thank you." I might as well take what I could get while the getting was good.
Ms. Barton's house turned out to be a nice grey ranch-style in a neighborhood of similar houses, with big old oak trees draped with Spanish moss all over the place. There was no other car in the carport; did she live alone? She did have a wedding ring. Maybe Mr. Barton was at work.
The door from the carport opened into the kitchen. A kid was sitting at the kitchen table, eating Froot Loops and reading. From the short standing-up sandy hair, I guessed it was a boy. The book was The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Howard Pyle. I felt a twinge. I'd loved that book when I was little. I'd been thinking about reading it to Diane when we finished Dr. Doolittle.
"Hi Clint. Come out from behind the book for a minute," said Ms. Barton. "Jeannine, this is my son. He actually has fairly nice manners when he's not reading."
"What does 'buxom' mean?" the kid asked, still reading. Ms. Barton was looking in the refrigerator and either ignored him or didn't hear him.
"It means, um, with big bosoms," I said, and blushed. Possibly more than this nice lady wanted her son to know.
The kid lowered his book and looked at me with interest. "Thanks," he said. He looked about ten. "What happened to your eye?" he asked.
"None of your business," said his mother firmly.
He shrugged and went back to his book, but I caught him glancing at me occasionally from behind the pages.
"Jeannine, we have cereal, eggs, bacon, grits and oatmeal. The grits and oatmeal are instant. We have bread for toast. There's orange juice and milk, or I could make you some coffee."
"Cereal's fine, ma'am. I'm not a big coffee fan. If you'll show me where things are, I can wait on myself."
She ignored this and started putting things on the table: Cheerios, Raisin Bran, a gallon of milk, a carton of juice, and after a moment's hesitation, the Froot Loops. She pulled a bowl, spoon and glass from the dishwasher, still warm and steaming slightly.
I settled on Cheerios, though if I'd been by myself I'd have gone for the Froot Loops. I was uncomfortably conscious of being a strange almost-grownup in this kid's house. Awkward. But probably it wouldn't be for long. I ate as fast as I could without looking like a pig. I'd forgotten how long it had been since I'd eaten. No wonder I'd felt like crap. I hadn't gotten any dinner, since Mama had thrown me out as soon as I got home yesterday evening. And I'd probably walked ten or twelve miles in the course of the night.
"Can I get you anything else?" Ms. Barton said.
"No ma'am, I'm fine, thank you," I said, and carried my dirty dishes to the sink. I started to wash them but she stopped me.
"I'll get those. Come with me, I'll show you the bathroom. Do you have a change of clothes with you?"
"All right. You get a shower and clean clothes, and I'll find out what our options are," she said.
'Our' options? That made me a little nervous. I didn't actually know this woman at all. She hadn't asked me why I'd gotten thrown out; if I told her the truth, how would she react? But what lie could I tell her, that wouldn't make her either call the cops or send me back home? She had our address and phone number, after all; it was all on my application. Probably she'd send me back home anyway. I started thinking about how to avoid getting the crap beaten out of me if that happened.
Their bathroom was nice, with thick dark-blue towels and no rust stains in the shower. Plenty of hot water too, and two different kinds of shampoo (Clairol Herbal Essence and Batman. Easy to tell whose was whose. I went with the girly stuff. Did Mr. Barton use Batman shampoo? Maybe he was bald.)
Clean hair, dear God. One of the blessings of this life. A loon is he who will not sing, / O, water hot is a noble thing!
I snuck some of their toothpaste and brushed my teeth with my finger. A hell of a lot better than nothing. They had red mouthwash. Cinnamon flavored. Tasted like red hots. I felt almost human, but now that I was clean and fed I was yawning my head off.
"Feeling better?" Ms. Barton asked me as I came out of the bathroom.
"Yes, ma'am," I said, and yawned again.
"Good. I made up the sofa bed for you. Why don't you catch a couple hours' sleep, and then we'll discuss what to do next."
I was too tired to argue. I followed her into the room with the folded-out sofa bed and oh, God in heaven, a whole entire wall of bookshelves. How was I ever going to get any sleep in here? I tried not to stare as I shoved my backpack under the bed part of the sofa and climbed in.
Art books. A whole shelf of Time-Life Books about history and nature. The fattest dictionary I'd ever seen. (I unwrapped my hair and spread the towel on the pillow to protect it from the wet.) Paperbacks, looked like novels. Some romancey-looking pastel ones, and some darker-colored ones that were maybe detective stories. And oh, God, science fiction and fantasy. Clifford Simak. Andre Norton. Fritz Leiber. Anne McCaffrey. Tolkien, of course. C.S. Lewis.
I yawned again, so hard I felt like my head would split at the jawline. I gave up and lay down. No way would I be here long enough to read even one book, and it would be worse to leave one half-read than not to start at all.
It seemed like I'd barely shut my eyes when a tapping at the door woke me up again.
"Jeannine? I'm sorry to wake you up, but we have some decisions to make," said Ms. Barton. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. My hair was half-dry and all tangles. I must have slept for a while after all.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"About 11:30," she said. Almost three hours. I could have slept another twelve. And where the hell would I sleep tonight?
"Coming," I said. "Let me comb my hair."
Ms. Barton was waiting for me at her kitchen table by the time I got my hair combed and tied back with my rolled-up bandana. I looked around, but didn't see her son anywhere.
"Clint's staying at a friend's house for the day," Ms. Barton said. "We'll have some privacy. Now. Can you tell me what happened last night between you and your mother?"
Might as well get it over with. Dee, my camp counselor, said that one thing about telling the truth is it makes it easier to keep your story straight.
"Mama read my diary and found out I had a girlfriend," I said. "She gave me ten minutes to get out of the house, and she said if I ever came back Daddy would beat me black and blue."
"Do you believe her?"
"Yes ma'am, I do."
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"Yes ma'am. I have a little sister named Diane. She's six."
"Do you think she's in danger?"
"No ma'am. She hasn't done anything wrong."
"How about your girlfriend? Is she at risk?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so. I didn't call her by name in the diary. Mama and Daddy don't know her. I met her—we met at church camp." The sorry, sick humor of that hit me hard in the gut and I put my head down on my arms and clenched my teeth and swore I would die before I would cry in this stranger lady's kitchen.
"Is she likely to write to you?"
"No ma'am," I said without raising my head. "She doesn't have my address here. I hadn't sent it to her yet." And I thanked God and all his angels, even if they didn't want to be thanked by somebody like me.
"All right. Well, we can't send you home. I'd rather not turn you over to Child Protective Services. And you can't stay here."
"I understand that, ma'am." I sat up straight and tried not to look pitiful.
She looked at me sharply. "No, I don't think you do. Let me explain. Probably the best solution for you is to get a court to declare you an emancipated minor—that means that even though you're not eighteen yet, you're able to take care of yourself like an adult and you're no longer under your parents' control. It's something that can happen automatically, say if you got married or joined the army before you turned eighteen. But it can also be done with a court order. It's easier if your parents agree to it, but it can also be done against their objections if the court feels it's not in your best interests to live at home."
"You've already been accepted at Armstrong; you're a mature and responsible young lady. That's a good start. But you need a place to stay and a means of supporting yourself—a job, not public assistance. One thing you can't do is just get someone to take you in; they could be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. In your case, getting taken in by a single woman could look suspicious, especially to someone as narrow-minded as your parents."
"But you're married."
"Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"It's all right. How could you know? But in any case, that's the only reason I'm not offering to have you stay with us. I don't want to hurt your chances in court, and I'd also like to stay out of trouble myself, if possible."
"I've been talking to some people at Armstrong. Student housing tells me they have an empty dorm room they can put you up in for the quarter. Financial Aid keeps a fund for emergencies; they can pay your tuition for the quarter. And I think we can get you a work-study job to cover your room and board, with maybe enough left over for books."
"You mean I can still go to college?"
"Damn straight you can, young lady. It's your best ticket out of this mess." She glanced at the clock, now showing five till twelve. "Get your things together. I have to get back to my office. I'll take you to talk to some people in counseling and testing."
I scrambled under the sofa for my shoes and backpack, then trailed her to the car and climbed in.
"One more thing," she said. "I had a hunch that your parents might be hiding something. They didn't want to give us their former address. But I had LaShonda look back in your file and she found a query letter you'd sent us last year with a return address on it." She looked embarrassed. "I called the police department in Calhoun. They told me your parents had several domestic disturbance calls on record."
I bit my lip. We're not supposed to talk about things like that. With anybody. Especially not strangers.
"I apologize for investigating without asking you," said Ms. Barton. "But I think it's important that we have that information, in case your parents try to make you look like a runaway."
I nodded. "Yes ma'am."
She buckled her seat belt, started the car, and took me...home.