Ahha (Anna) Antipova was four years old the day her strung-out mother left her and her brother on the side of the road. After a year in a Russian orphanage, the siblings were brought to America by English-speaking people who promised a safe, forever family. Learning a new language and culture was nothing to Anna, who grew into an overachiever in a home with strict rules around biological verses adopted children.The primary caretaker to her adoptive parents’ blood children, Anna spent most of her teen years doing anything she could to please her parents. In fact, she excelled in everything she touched. Abram went the other way, stirring up trouble and expecting his younger sister to clean up his messes. She didn’t mind, it was only another year or two, Anna reasoned. Besides, he’s all I have.Until one day…Two weeks before high school graduation, Anna sat in an emergency room surrounded by strangers. With permanent scars at the hands of her adoptive mother, she needed to escape a home that was no longer safe. The problem was, she was only sixteen. A minor with no legal rights to emancipate herself, Anna struggled to find a way out. Counting on the kindness of strangers and her boyfriend, Elliot, Anna found herself desperate to find a way out. But it was not easy. With the system working against her, she could see no escape.Until another day…That was the day she became fearless.
Anna sits on the emergency room bed on top of thin white blankets. Beside her, Delaney chatters about the class vote for senior superlatives while a tall paramedic named Gage checks on us from time to time. Elliot holds Anna’s hand and lets the two girls talk without interrupting. When he reaches for something or checks his phone, Anna jumps and grabs his hand. I stand in the doorway of the private room, the last one at the end of a long corridor. I’m grateful for the privacy she has here and know there’s no way her parents can get through those doors; we’ve already told social workers what’s going on. For now, she is safe. And Gage is standing guard.
Just back from an x-ray on her neck, Anna is waiting for a woman from the domestic abuse center to come and talk to her about what’s going on at her home. Hoping they will assign her an advocate, I try to keep my mouth shut. I’m not used to feeling helpless in these situations. Finally, unable to take just standing around, I ask the kids if they are hungry.
Ten minutes later, I return with seven types of snacks from the emergency room vending machine. I watch them fight over who gets what and smile. Finally, they look like normal kids. It’s the first time since Anna was assaulted that I’ve seen them laugh like this. I laugh too, telling Anna to throw me the chocolate-covered pretzels.
It’s three more hours before a woman named Cheryl shows up from the local domestic violence shelter. She asks Delaney, Elliot and I to leave the room within minutes. Anna looks at me nervously, asking the woman why we can’t stay.
“They’ve been here with me all day. They are my support system,” she pleads.
“I’m sorry,” Cheryl says, shaking her head. “You are a minor and I don’t have your parents’ consent to talk to anyone. The only person I can talk to is you. You are going to have to do this on your own.”
“Okay,” Anna says, looking down at the bed.
“Anna, it will be okay. Just explain what happened and answer all her questions. She’s here to help you. She does this for a living. It’s going to be okay, I promise,” I say, unsure about Cheryl’s gruff demeanor myself. You better not make me into a liar, lady.
“Okay. I trust you.”
“It’ll be fine, Anna. You can do this. I’m proud of you,” Elliot says, kissing her forehead.
“Yeah, this is nothing. You’ve got this,” Delaney pitches in. "You're a soldier."
I smile at her and mouth “I love you.” She doesn’t see me.