Content Warning: references to domestic violence
Rhonda Pruitt was stupefied as she sat down on her kitchen barstool and slammed her elbow onto the laminate countertop. The letter trembled like a dried leaf in her hand, but her watery eyes fixated on the return address label:
Thomas L. Campbell
Partner, Campbell and Custis Associates
The law firm’s New York City address followed. Rhonda tried in vain to imagine Tommy, now a grown man, wearing a crisp suit behind a fine desk on the hundredth floor of a building far more impressive than anything Rhonda had ever seen in the dregs of south Alabama. Had he managed to go that far? Hundreds of miles, an entire seaboard, away from Campbell’s Mobile Home Lot and its dozens of trailers, all stacked far away from the mansion that Tommy had once called home?
Rhonda knew why he left. Everyone in Campbell’s Mobile Home Lot knew why, even if they only mentioned it in hushed tones. It came back to her now, a memory like a whisper – the night that Tommy had run from Campbell’s Cowards.
Only Rhonda called them that, of course. She wouldn’t say it to their faces, but that’s what they were – all of her neighbors. She conceived the moniker when she had first moved into Campbell’s Mobile Home Lot after her marriage was finally dissolved in 1986. She noted, with the bemused smile of a bitter woman, the raised brims of hats, the askance glances, in her direction as soon as her neighbors spied a young, solitary divorcee unloading her rusted Chevy into one of the manufactured homes. Rhonda had shrugged at the gang of boys who shouted obscenities at her as she gardened on her tiny patch of grass, and she regularly opened her front door, with a deadpan smile, for the police officers who always seemed to find a reason to “check in on her” – a little lady, all alone – whenever there was “trouble in the neighborhood”. There was no point, Rhonda acknowledged, in pointing them to the gang of boys; after all, these officers were their fathers.
But Rhonda soon began to wonder why all that bravado evaporated, like mist in the morning, around the Campbell family. The Campbells owned the whole lot; Gerald Campbell had taken the helm of his father’s mobile home business just a few years before Rhonda’s Chevy pulled into the lot. Rhonda got her first letter from Mr. Campbell a few months after she arrived: “rising maintenance costs” and “unavoidable fiscal circumstances” meant another $50 a month for her lease of a 25 x 15 square foot patch of Campbell’s property, otherwise known as “Lot 73”.
But oddly, “maintenance” never seemed to happen. Every year, the flooding worsened as Campbell’s Mobile Home Lot was drowned in rivulets of water during the torrential thunderstorms that Alabamians knew well. Rhonda and her neighbors watched helplessly as bricks and dirt washed away, siding splintered, septic tanks flooded and power lines crashed in the mud like felled twigs. A handful of her neighbors had complained, loudly, that their homes were sinking, that their investments (for most, the only ones they had) were worthless.
But all of the complaints stopped soon enough after a few of the oldest tenants threatened Gerald Campbell with a lawsuit. Rhonda reckoned that Gerald had laughed heartily at that one, safely sequestered as he was in his pristine mansion just a few miles from the mobile home lot. Amused or not, his response was swift. That month, the offending tenants got fresh letters in their mailboxes: “changing financial conditions” meant that their units owed another $200 a month for their leases. Rhonda watched listlessly from her front stoop as a dozen vans ambled out of Campbell’s Mobile Home Lot in defeat only days later. She had brand new neighbors within the week, and she was certain that they knew who the boss was - and to never cross him.
So all of Campbell’s Cowards were resigned when a brutal March thunderstorm wreaked havoc on south Alabama one early Spring night in 1990. Rhonda watched a striking bolt of lightning through her kitchen window as a half inch of water pooled on the linoleum floor under her barstool. Rhonda just sighed to herself, wondering how soon she’d lose power this time.
A furious knocking jolted her from her trance; Rhonda’s head jerked upward as she realized there had been no bright flash of light. But it wasn’t lightning, clearly, as a fresh peal of the sound told her that some fool was pounding on her door. Rhonda pushed herself upright as water filled her slippers. No one visited her; if they ever did, she never wanted to see them. But the rapid knocking started again, followed by a muffled plea. It was the desperate voice, not the words, that truly alarmed her.
Rhonda splashed through her living room and flung the door open, revealing a lanky boy drenched in his hooded sweatshirt. She drew back in shock when she recognized the angular features and now matted blonde hair of Tommy Campbell. Rhonda had never met the boy before; Tommy lived with his father and two older brothers at the Campbell estate, but she had seen his name and picture in the papers for his high school’s chapter of the Rotary Club and, of course, his passing yards after the football games every Friday night. But God knew that none of the Campbell children ever set foot in their father’s mobile home lot. They belonged downtown, spending their father’s ill-gotten money among their friends.
“Please,” the boy gasped at Rhonda. “I need help! I’m Tommy Campbell. I swear to God that I won’t hurt you. I just need to rest for a bit, that’s all.”
Rhonda stared at him, mouth agape, unable to make sense of the strange declaration even as rain pounded on both their heads. “What?” she shouted at him. “What in the hell are you doing? Why are you here? What do you want with me?”
Rhonda briefly considered if this was some filthy trick, a bizarre ploy by the neighborhood boys to trap and assault her. But the horror, and trepidation, in Tommy’s eyes gave her pause.
“I swear on my life, I just need to hide,” Tommy rasped at her again. “I know, ma’am, that you don’t know me from Adam. I know you owe me nothing – God only knows what my family owes you. But no one else will help me – I tried, I knocked on a dozen other doors already. They’re all too scared of him.” Tommy’s eyes shut tightly as his dark blue eyes brimmed with tears.
Rhonda’s jaw went slack again as she examined the trembling boy before her for any hint of a lie. His terror could not be an act; this boy was afraid for his life. Rhonda gulped down her better wisdom, which clearly told her to slam the door shut in his face.
“Get in here,” she hissed, “now!” Without another word, she gripped the soaked shoulder of the boy’s hoodie and dragged him into her living room.
Fifteen minutes later, Tommy perched on Rhonda’s barstool and gripped a cup of weak coffee between his shaking hands. Rhonda had no clothes to give him, but she wrapped him in a fresh bath towel as he hunched over her laminate counter. Even so, she kept her eyes on him as she dragged one of her dining chairs up to the counter and sat, arms crossed, while the hot beverage sent steam floating past his languid eyes.
At last, his gaze shifted back to her. “Thank you,” he whispered. “I don’t know what I would’ve done. They were so close!”
Rhonda’s eyebrows shot up. “Who are ‘they’? What in God’s name is going on? Where’s your father?”
Tommy shuddered at her last word, startling Rhonda into silence.
“Far away from me, I hope.” Tommy sobbed into his mug. “He…he called the police. When I ran, I mean…I never thought he’d do that, but I barely made it even here.”
Rhonda’s jaw clenched tightly as her confusion deepened. Tommy Campbell, the stellar student, the star athlete, running from his proud, fabulously wealthy parent to a hovel of a trailer park?
Tommy took a quick gulp of breath. “He heard me. Talking to Matt Carter.”
Rhonda nodded, the new name stirring a vague recollection in her mind from the high school’s football roster. “One of your teammates?” she queried Tommy.
Tommy’s stare returned to the coffee in his hands. “More than that,” he explained. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he clarified: “More than that to me.”
The tenderness, the warmth in his voice fit the pieces together, at last, in Rhonda’s mind as understanding dawned.
“Dad heard me,” Tommy continued, his voice cracking again, “when I told Matt on the phone that…that I loved him. I think Dad suspected, wondered why we were always together but…” Tommy’s head dropped like a rock against his chest. “He didn’t know for sure. When he heard me, though, well, he lost it.”
Tommy slowly pulled back the hood of his sweatshirt, revealing a welt the size of an egg purpling on the right side of his temple. Rhonda gasped at the size of the bruise, amazed that he remained conscious from such a blow.
“I ran,” Tommy said. “I just ran. As fast as I could. He chased me up to our gate, but I got over it before he could pull me down. That’s when he must have called the cops.”
Tommy’s words proved prophetic as a fierce pounding, followed by fresh muffled voices, erupted behind them. This time, however, Rhonda knew the voices well; after all, they had appeared at her door many times before. Tommy’s head jerked up as Rhonda whipped around toward her doorway. Suddenly, there was no time for Rhonda to count the cost for what she had to do next.
“Go to my room,” she hissed at Tommy. “My bedroom – now – lock the door and hide under my bed. Don’t make a sound, for the love of God.”
Once Rhonda was confident that the boy had sloshed his way to her bedroom and discreetly shut her door, she turned back around. The pounding knocks had resumed, followed by a pronouncement that Rhonda had ample warning for:
Rhonda swallowed back her mounting nausea and cracked open the door, blinking in feigned confusion as the shapes of two officers came into view.
“Officer Phillips,” Rhonda stated calmly, as the first officer nodded curtly.
“Ms. Pruitt,” he answered. Then, with no preamble, he continued. “We would like come in for a moment, if we may.”
Rhonda swallowed hard again. The thinly veiled request did not hide, or soften, the order.
“Of course,” she answered.
Officer Phillips and Officer Rollis stood in Rhonda’s still drenched living room; neither seemed particularly perturbed to be standing in a pool of dirty water. Rhonda kept her expression perfectly bland as she leaned against a tall bookshelf, hands demurely crossed at her waist. The officers took their time perusing the room, offering her no illumination as to the reason for their presence. Officer Rollis casually plucked a woven basket – a gift from Rhonda’s cousin in South Carolina – off a shelf. Rhonda did not dare tell him to put it down.
“Ms. Pruitt,” Officer Phillips finally interjected. “We happen to be on the lookout for a young man. You may know him, actually – Mr. Thomas Campbell. Most folks ‘round here call him Tommy.”
Rhonda shrugged. “The name is familiar, Officer, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met him. Gerald Campbell’s son, right?”
Officer Phillips nodded. “That’s the one. Well, one of his boys. Seems he’s gone missing tonight – his poor father is frantic with worry. Understandably, of course. Your neighbors, thankfully, have been wonderfully helpful. They think they saw him pounding on doors throughout the lot earlier tonight, and that he might have headed in your direction. Mrs. Hutchison next door swore that she saw a young man running past her trailer a half hour ago.”
Rhonda furrowed her brow and acknowledged the tale with a gentle nod.
“We don’t suppose you’ve seen the boy anywhere?” Phillips continued. “Dark blonde hair, tall for his age?”
Rhonda considered for a moment, and let her eyes wander to the cracking roof over her head. “Can’t say I have, Officer,” she finally replied. “Terrible weather tonight, you know. I don’t know that I could see a torch in this downpour. I’ve surely not seen a teenager milling about.”
The officers glanced at each other as the skin prickled on Rhonda’s neck.
“Are you sure?” Officer Rollis chimed in. “It’s mighty important we get him home safely. Gerald’s breathing down our necks.”
Rhonda shrugged again. “Haven’t seen him, officers. But happy to let you know if I do.”
Officer Phillips leaned back against the creamy tan wall behind him and crossed his arms. “Are you absolutely sure, Ms. Pruitt?” His eyes narrowed to a squint. “We certainly wouldn’t want to suspect any goings-on around here, around your home, you know. Mr. Campbell surely would not appreciate that, either,” he added silkily.
Rhonda inhaled softly, and fixed her gaze firmly on Phillips’ eyes. “Quite sure, officers. Seems to me that a rough-and-tumble boy like that would be downtown. Not out here in a flooded trailer park!”
The officers peered at each another once more; clearly, they could not think of an explanation for why Tommy would be there, either. The trio exchanged pleasantries for another moment before the officers tipped their hats and exited through the front door. Rhonda waved, nodded warmly, and shut the door quietly before either of the men could discern the relief written across her face.
Rhonda waited five, then ten, minutes until she was certain that they were long gone. Only then did she stride into her bedroom, wrench a frantic Tommy out from under her bed, and wrap her palms around his cheeks.
“You have to run. Now.” She looked deeply into his eyes. “They are headed downtown. Go the other direction. Hitchhike if you must, but get out of Alabama."
Tommy nodded firmly. “Thank you,” he gasped. “What can I do for you? How can I repay you?”
But Rhonda just shook her head. “You have enough to worry about. Get out of here! Be safe. I can take care of myself.”
Two decades had stretched between that night and the crisp letter's arrival at Rhonda’s doorstep. Rhonda had stayed in the little dilapidated trailer park (now “Campbell’s Community Homes”) during the intervening years, with barely a thought for Tommy. Every so often, when her neighbors whispered to each other about "that strange boy who disappeared", she might vaguely recall the night that a scraggly teenager had mysteriously appeared on her stoop. But she always shook the thought away and went about her business – until that letter arrived, with “Thomas L. Campbell” splayed across the top. Apparently, he never forgot about her.
Dear Ms. Rhonda Pruitt,
I could hardly believe it when my clerks told me that you still reside in my father’s mobile home lot. You may have already heard that it won’t be his for much longer. My firm has won a lawsuit against him on behalf of the State of Alabama Housing Finance Authority for his many abuses of tenants over the years. My dearly estranged brothers want nothing to do with our old home, so I expect that I’ll inherit the mansion soon enough once my father heads to a state penitentiary after his civil trial is concluded.
That leaves me with a large empty house – a house which I don’t have too many fond memories of. Since I’ve gone far too long in recompensing you for what you did for me that stormy night years ago, I’d like to make it right now. The Campbell estate is yours, if you’ll take it. I would be honored if my husband and I could visit you there one day. In the meantime, I would be glad to be counted as your friend. You have my address now, and my door is always open if you fancy a trip to New York City. I would never have made it here, if it had not been for you.