EXCERPT: Ashley Rhodes-Courter's 'Three Little Words'

I was an intuitive two-year-old soaking up language and behaviors from a crew of rowdy adolescents who were trying on adult attitudes and habits. I got attention by acting grown up, and my mother bragged about how early I was toilet trained and how clearly I spoke.

My mother had a carefree attitude. She was too self-absorbed to fuss about my safety. Although she always strapped me in my car seat, her battered truck did not have seat belts. Driving down a bumpy South Carolina road, the unlocked door popped open. I tumbled out, rolling a few times before landing on the shoulder. My mother turned the truck around and found me waving at her. I was still buckled into the seat.

When my mother began living with Dustin—whom everyone called "Dusty"—the whole mood in the house shifted and Aunt Leanne wasn't around as much. Dusty was like an ocean that changed unexpectedly with the weather. One moment he could be placid, the next he turned into choppy waves that broke hard and stung. I cowered when he yelled. Since my mother was busy with me, she did not always have the perfect hot meal her boyfriend expected ready the moment he walked in the door.

"Can't you even bake a damn biscuit right?" he yelled after he saw the burnt bottom on one, sending the pie tin flying like a Frisbee.

I hid under my blanket as I always did when the fighting started, hoping it would protect me from their nasty words or physical brawls. I peered through a hole at a single object—like a shoe—and tried to make everything else disappear.

I remember when my pregnant mother awoke from a nap and found my aunt and Dusty sitting close together watching television. She caught them tickling and laughing. My mother screamed at my aunt, "How could you? He's the father of my baby!"

"You sure of that?" my aunt screeched back before she slammed the screen door behind her.

After that, she was gone for weeks, and I missed her so much that I would curl my hair around my own fingers and pretend it was her doing it.

Not long after that, there was a new baby: Tommy. My mother brought him home in a yellow blanket and let me kiss his tiny fingers. I don't remember much else because he came and went in less than two months. Sometimes I thought that I had dreamed him or that he was merely a doll I was not supposed to touch. The last time I saw him, he had suddenly stopped moving and turned from pink to gray. We all sat in a room and everyone passed him around. He was lying in a box that was padded with a pillow.

My mother got pregnant again shortly after Tommy disappeared. A few months later she married Dusty, and for a short time we seemed like a happy little family. But only nine months after Tommy was born, Luke arrived premature. Before my mother was even 20, she had managed to have three children in less than three years.

At least Luke—unlike me—came into the world with a father. At birth my new brother weighed only two pounds. My mother had to come home from the hospital without him.

"Did you really have a baby?" I asked my mother.

"He has to stay with the nurses until he gets bigger," she explained.

A few days later I awoke to her sobbing. Dusty was trying to comfort her, but she pushed him away. "It's all your fault because you hit me!" she yelled.

I tried to understand how Dusty's hitting her could harm the unborn baby. I rested my head on her belly. It felt like a balloon that had some of the air let out. "When can I see my brother?" I asked.

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National Center for Missing and Exploited Children|Courtesy of PI Phillip Klein
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Seth Poppel/Yearbook Library
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NASA/GSFC/JPL/Colorado School of Mines/MIT