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

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.

"They had to take him from the hospital in Spartanburg to the one in Greenville where they can care for him better," my mother explained. "We'll drive up there as soon as we can."

In the meantime, my mother went back to work. Dusty was supposed to watch me while my mother worked the late shift. One night neighbors found me wandering through the trailer park alone and kept me until my mother returned home.

The next day she packed a bag and we moved into a Ronald McDonald House near the hospital.

We went to see Luke every day. Most of the time I had to wait outside in a room where there were little tables, coloring books, and crayons. Sometimes they would let me put on a mask and come into the room where the babies were kept in boxes—not like the wooden one that had held Tommy, but a plastic one that I could peek through when my mother lifted me up.

"Is he ever getting out of there?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," my mother promised. "He's strong like his daddy."

When Luke came home seven months later, he was not much bigger than one of my dolls. He sometimes wore a doctor's face mask instead of a diaper.

Aunt Leanne came by to help and called often. "Where's your mama?" she asked when I answered the phone.

"In the kitchen cookin' dope," I replied.

"I'm coming right over," she said, but when she did, Dusty refused to let her in.

Dusty worked as a framing subcontractor. After an argument over money, his partner stormed over to our trailer. Dusty locked him out, but he busted down the door and then started tearing up the house. A chair hit the wall and a table flew in my direction. I ducked, but my mother started screaming, "You almost hurt Ashley!"

"I'm okay, Mama," I said as I crouched in a corner.

"We need to move," my mother announced to Dusty while they cleaned up the mess. "There are too many bad influences on you around here."

"And you're an angel?" he shot back. "Besides, all my work is here."

"There's plenty of work in Florida." She kicked the broken chair into a corner. "I wish I had never left there after Mama died."

Her mother—my maternal grandmother, Jenny—had her first child when she was 14, but she put that baby up for adoption. Over the next six years she had Perry; followed by the twins, Leanne and Lorraine; and finally, Sammie. Then, at 21, Grandma Jenny was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had a hysterectomy. Sick, poor, and battered by her alcoholic husband, she decided she could not raise her kids any longer and turned them over to a Baptist children's home. My mother did not have much to do with either parent for many years, but when Jenny was about to die in Florida, my mother went to see her for the last time. Jenny was 33.

Using her small inheritance, my mother enrolled in cosmetology school. Before they would allow her to train with the hair treatment chemicals, she had to have a physical checkup. This is how she found out she was pregnant with me. My mother thinks she conceived me when she partied the night of her mother's funeral. In any case, I was born 39 weeks later. While she was in labor, she was watching The Young and the Restless, and so she named me Ashley after one of the soap opera characters.

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