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

I do not remember much about the long car trip except singing along with Joan Jett on the radio. When we first arrived in Florida, we stayed at a motel, then a trailer that smelled like low tide. I have memories of walking around that trailer park carrying Luke's bottle and begging for milk.

Our car always smelled of pickles and mustard from all the fast food we ate in it. I was enjoying my usual kids' meal in the backseat when my mother shouted, "Shit, shit!" A flashing red light made the car's windows glow rosy, and I liked the way my hands looked, as though they were on fire.

A siren blared. Dusty banged the steering wheel. "Ashley, you keep saying you gotta go potty, okay?" my mother ordered.

A police officer asked where our license plate was.

"Mommy, gotta go potty!" I called loudly.

"Where're you headed?" the officer asked.

"To my stepfather's house," my mother said in her most genial voice.

"We're just in from South Carolina. We're moving here," Dusty continued rapidly, "so I'll get a new Florida plate tomorrow."

"Welcome to Florida," he said, glancing at me and Luke before arresting Dusty for not having a license plate on the car or a valid driver's license.

My mother alternately cussed and cried while we waited for Dusty to be released. It was several hours before we could go home to our apartment. The shoebox-style building was on tree-lined Sewaha Street. "We're living in a duplex now," my mother explained, and I sensed that we had come up in the world. Three days later I encountered more police officers—the ones who broke up our family forever.

I was sitting on the stoop dressed only in shorts when the police cars pulled up. "He's not here," my mother said when they asked for Dusty. One of the men kept coming toward her. My mother, who was holding Luke, screamed, "I didn't do anything!"

"Mama," I cried, reaching both hands up for her to lift me as well. A uniformed man pushed me away and snatched Luke out of her arms. I tried to rush toward my mother, who was already being put in the backseat of a police car. The door slammed so hard, it shook my legs. Through the closed window, I could hear my mother shouting, "Ashley!" Someone held me back as the car pulled away. I struggled and kicked trying to chase after her.

"It's okay! Settle down!" the man with the shiny buttons said.

I sobbed for my Teddy Ruxpin. "Winky!"

"Who's that?" The officer let me run inside. I pulled Winky out from under a blanket on my bed. "Oh, it's your teddy. He can come too." He grabbed two of my T-shirts and told me to put one on and to wear my flip-flops. My Strawberry Shortcake T-shirt ended up on Luke, although it was way too big for him.

At the police station a man in uniform handed Luke to a woman in uniform. Luke tugged on Winky's ears as I sat beside him and the female officer. In the background I could hear my mother yelling for us, but I could not see her. Two women wearing regular clothes arrived. One lifted Luke; the other's rough hand pulled me in her direction. The woman who held Luke also took Winky.

"No!" I cried, reaching for Winky.

"It's just for a little while," the first woman told me.

"Winky!"

My mother came into view for a few seconds. "Ashley! I'll get you soon!" Then a door slammed and she was gone. I turned and Luke was no longer there. I was pushed outside and loaded into a car.

"Mommy! Luke!" I cried. "Winky!"

"You'll see them later," the woman said as our car drove off.

Thinking about that moment is like peeling a scab off an almost-healed wound. I still believed everything would return to normal. Little did I know, I would never live with my mother—or see Winky—again.

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