I was too numb, too stunned by everything that had just happened to even cry. I just left the hollowed rooms of the upstairs floor and started walking, not even sure where I was going or what I could do when I finally settled on a place to stop. I think I walked for over an hour and definitely more than a few miles towards the main area of town before I stopped in front of the library, sat on the bench outside, and waited the twenty minutes it took for them to open before I could go inside.

There was only one possibility that came to my mind, the very one that Garrett had said with such bitterness. There was only one person I could think of to tell.

I had to log in as a guest on the library computer, since I didn't have my wallet or purse, before I could pull up Facebook and send Shiloh a private message, explaining to her what had happened with words that didn't seem anywhere near enough to convey what I was feeling or what I was asking from her. I didn't ask anything from her, in the end. I didn't have to. Within a few minutes after reading, Shiloh was typing her response back to me, horrified and outraged on my behalf, trying with typed words of empathy and love to fill up some of the holes my family had just gouged into me. It wasn't enough, but it was something, and I felt my eyes grow hot in relief that she cared enough to try. That someone cared enough.

"Where are you?" she asked me. "Are you safe? I'll come get you."

It wasn't a permanent solution, by any means. Shiloh's house was overcrowded as it was, and even if Cynthia was cool with me staying for a night or two now and then, I doubted she or Shiloh's father would be okay with me taking up residence as a new member of the household. But Shiloh was offering me somewhere I could go for at least the next few hours or days, and that was more than I had a few minutes ago. It was more than my own family was willing to offer.

It was over an hour's drive for her from her town to mine, but somehow Shiloh made it in exactly fifty-two minutes. I think she must have ran every red light and stop sign on her way over in her haste to get to me. I had tried to tell her to be careful, that I was safe and there was no rush for her to get me, but Shiloh obviously hadn't listened. As soon as I saw her petite figure come through the library entrance, pointed chin held high, narrow shoulders squared and drawn up in righteous fury on my behalf, I felt myself crumble inside with the weight of her caring, almost ashamed by the relief of being able to let myself feel my hurt.

Shiloh, small as she was, seemed larger to life and willing to fight for me, in whatever way she felt necessary. I could not remember anyone before her ever making me feel so protected, and somehow it gave me permission to be vulnerable. I knew that she would hold me up, that she would not let me fall apart completely.

Even before she had reached me I was crying, and although I was taller, she seemed to wrap me so fully in her arms that I was completely cocooned within her protective embrace. I don't remember how we got out of the library or into her car, but somehow we ended up there in the library parking lot, with me more or less sitting in Shiloh's lap, my face pressed into the hollow of her neck and shoulder as I sobbed until my throat ached and my stomach felt empty and sick with despair.

Through it all, Shiloh didn't speak. She didn't try to tell me it was okay, or that I would be all right. When I thought back to it later, I was amazed all over again by her understanding of how much this meant, how much I needed her to refrain from those meaningless promises. Instead she just held me, stroking my back and my hair, and occasionally kissed the top of my head or parts of my face. She held on until I felt drained of everything but exhaustion and the support Shiloh had tried to fill me up with inside, and even then, she stayed.

"I have to be crushing your legs," I whispered, my voice scratchy when I finally spoke, but Shiloh shook her head firmly, pressing another kiss to my head.

"I'm tough, honey, just like you. And there is nowhere else I want to be right now but right here with you, exactly like this."

"Thank you," I mumbled, leaning into her chest, snuffling back the last of threatening tears. "I just…I knew what they were like, but I didn't expect this to happen. Not this bad. Not like this. I should have known, I should have been prepared. But I wasn't. I just…I just wasn't."

"No one should ever be prepared for their family to kick them out of their house just for being who they are," Shiloh said firmly and with intensity, lifting my chin so that I had to look her in the eye. "No one should ever be kicked out of their family because of the gender of the person they love. I don't want to hear you say anything that even starts to hint at you blaming yourself for this, Taylor. Do you hear me? This was not your fault. None of this is your fault. And we're going to get you through this. Both of us. Okay? You're going to be safe, and you're going to have somewhere safe to go. I'm not giving up until we know this for a fact."

I nodded against her, too tired to argue, and besides, maybe she was right. She probably was; it seemed like once Shiloh decided things, she usually had a very good reason for her beliefs and her stance. If Shiloh thought she could help me, then there was no one else that I trusted more.

"Here's what we're going to do," she announced, rubbing a slow circle on my back. "I had time to think this through on the drive over. You're coming home with me today, obviously. I texted Dad and Cynthia about what happened, they're okay with you staying a few days until we figure out something more long term. But it's like this, Taylor, you're sixteen years old. I don't think what your parents did is even legal. They are legally responsible for you, you're a minor. They can't kick you out for something like this without even sending you to a relative or anything, that has to be illegal."

"I am not about to call the police to tell them about this," I interrupted, shaking my head. "If they were forced to take me back, Garrett and Geri would just make my life hell. They would put me in a religious school, or homeschool me like they do Gillian and Gwen. They'd take my phone and the internet, everything. I couldn't see you, Shiloh. I couldn't even talk to you. I don't want them to take me back. Not anymore, not after this."

"I understand," Shiloh said slowly, biting her lip as she thought. "But there has to be something else we can do, some other option. So…I'm taking you home. Tonight, you're going to try to relax, as much as you can. Tomorrow, I'll take you to school with me as a guest and talk to the guidance counselor assigned to our grade. I've talked to her a few times over stuff going on in my family. She's pretty cool. I think she'd probably know something we could do for you, or at least a few more options. Someone can help, Shiloh. Even if you don't live with your family, you have to go somewhere. Somewhere has to be safe and accepting. I have to believe that. But don't 'worry about that now. You can stay with me until we figure out where."

I understood her belief and determination, even admired her for it. But as I settled over onto the passenger seat and leaned my head against the window, lapsing into quiet as Shiloh finally put the car back into drive, I couldn't fully believe it myself. What sort of place could be a home for me, even temporarily, if not my own family or Shiloh's? Where else could I go, and how could I possibly actually want to be anywhere else?


The night wasn't as long as I had expected. Shiloh had obviously warned or possibly even threatened her family into giving me space; even Chelsea had no sarcastic comments when we came through the front door. Cynthia and Shiloh's father more or less ignored my presence, other than for Cynthia to somewhat obnoxiously remind Shiloh that they had only agreed for me to stay for a few days, not forever. Even that was more than I could have expected from anyone, and I mumbled a thank you to her that she rolled her eyes in response to. Parker looked at us with wide, curious eyes, but didn't protest when Shiloh ruffled her hair in passing and told her she'd talk with her later. All in all, the entire LaBianca family was gracious and respectful in the face of my shock and exhaustion.

It wasn't like there was anything scandalous going on between Shiloh and me for them to ward off anyway. I was far too wrecked to have any sort of sexual desire, even for Shiloh, and Shiloh didn't even make an attempt in that direction. We spent the night lying in her bed in each other's arms, Shiloh's TV on in the background, and she didn't push me to talk or try to say anything in particular herself. With the steady, anchoring weight of Shiloh's arms around me, grounding me, and the background noise of inane laugh tracks, I was able to drift into sleep.

When Shiloh gently nudged me awake in the morning, giving me a quick kiss on the forehead for good measure, I was disoriented at first, expecting to see the close walls and low ceiling of my space beneath the staircase in my family's basement. It took me several moments to remember everything that had happened and where I was now, and when I closed my eyes and buried my face in one of Shiloh's pillows, it was because I was warding off a sudden rush of tears. Somehow, I had expected this all to be a dream, or to fade away and reset itself in the night.

But it was real. It was all my new and very uncertain life, and when Shiloh ran her fingers through my hair, I sucked in a breath, trying to steady myself to face it.

"We'll go straight to my guidance counselor and figure out what we can do, the second we get to school," she reminded me, scratching her fingernails gently over my scalp. "Come on, sweetie. I know my clothes probably won't work for you with my midget height status, but I'll make Chelsea lend you something. I can't promise it will be up to your tastes since she usually dresses like a wannabe hooker, but she has to have some leggings and a t-shirt somewhere at the back of her drawers or closet."

I'm pretty sure Chelsea deliberately picked the lamest clothes she could find for me to dress in. Her chosen T-shirt had a huge frog holding up its "fingers" in peace signs, and the leggings she threw my way were red and black plaid, not exactly matching the style of the shirt. But I didn't care. I wasn't trying to impress anyone, and hell, maybe the mismatched homeless attire look would actually work in my favor. No sixteen-year-old I knew of would deliberately choose to dress like this, and surely an adult working in a public school would notice that.

Shiloh cursed under her breath and rolled her eyes when she saw me dressed in Chelsea's "generous" castoffs, but Chelsea was already headed off to school, getting a ride from Cynthia, and had locked her bedroom door. As Shiloh, shaking her head, made her way to her car, loading Parker into the backseat to drop her off at her elementary school first, she gave my hand a squeeze.

"I'm sorry. You don't have to go to class or anything, so just ignore anyone who looks at you, or I'll deal with them. Maybe we can go pick you up a few things after school or something."

"I don't have any money," I started to say, but Shiloh raised her eyebrows at me.

"And I do. And you need more to wear than a dress and my stepsister's rags. So hush."

I watched as Shiloh dropped Parker off at her school, calling out to her that she loved her and to have a good day. It hit me again, as it had so many times already, that Parker took Shiloh's place in her life for granted, that a little girl not so far from my sisters' ages loved and accepted her older sister without seemingly a thought of what sins she might be committing, with unquestioning belief in Shiloh as a good and worthy person. I realized not for the first time as I observed Parker's casual response to Shiloh's goodbye wishes how much my own sisters were being cheated out of. Whatever problems Parker might have, fear for her soul and the loss of her sister were not among them. Whatever insecurities she faced, she could be certain that she and Shiloh were in the family for good, no matter who it was they loved.

Shiloh noticed my quiet as she drove out of the elementary school drop off line, her eyes catching mine in the mirror. She gave me a small, understanding smile tinged with sadness and reached a hand to cover mine.

"You'll see your sisters again," she said softly, seeming to understand my thoughts. "One day. We'll make sure of it. They're going to know that you love them, no matter how we have to get that message out."

How could she know that this was what I was worried for when it came to them, over everything? How could Shiloh know me enough to know my fear that Garrett and Geri would somehow erase my sisters' memory of my love for them, or maybe even their memory of my existence?

As Shiloh pulled into one of the student parking spaces at her school- like mine, located a pretty significant walking distance from the school itself since she wasn't a senior- she took my hand into hers, squeezing it tightly, and walked with me with her small shoulders back, chin held high. She made it obvious with her body language that she wasn't ashamed to be seen with me, and even if her confidence was partly for me rather than full reality, it helped me to stand a little taller and settle into a stride only a little off pace with hers.

She led me straight into the front office and introduced me to the secretary, having me sign myself in as a visitor and requesting a pass to her grade's guidance counselor, Ms. Jensen. The secretary handed me a visitor's name tag and wrote out the pass for Shiloh, and within a few minutes of the first tardy bells ringing, Shiloh was propelling me down the halls of her school and into another office.

The woman Shiloh introduced as Ms. Jensen seemed nice enough, on first impression. She was tall and sort of stout without being exactly fat, with short brown hair and a homely but pleasant face and plain but comfortable-looking clothes. Her smile when she greeted me and Shiloh seemed genuine, and I relaxed just a little bit. I liked that her office didn't look boring and professional, at least not in the way most teacher's rooms did. It had bright paintings and student art on the walls, a bookshelf that had funky sculptures as well as books and knick-knacks like stress balls and fidget spinners on the table by the couch and arm chairs that were obviously for students to play with. As she gestured for Shiloh and me to sit down, she didn't blink or show surprise when Shiloh took my hand and sat close to me. Another point in her favor.

I let Shiloh explain my situation to her. She was the one who knew the woman, and she was the one who actually went to this school and had some kind of right to ask for guidance. I just sat, chewing at the inside of my cheek, and occasionally nodded to confirm what she said or replied in answer to Ms. Jensen asking me a direct question. I didn't look at her much, but when Shiloh had finished laying out my situation, I made myself glance up to see her reaction. There was no judgment or disgust, no disapproval. Ms. Jensen only looked concerned and empathetic, and maybe even a little angry. For me? Was she actually angry on my behalf?

"First of all, Taylor, please know that you and Shiloh both made a wise decision to come to me about this situation," she began. "And I also want you to know just how sorry I am to hear that this is happening to you. It isn't fair to you, it isn't right, and most importantly, it isn't legal. With very few exceptions, all legal guardians with legal custody of minor children must provide appropriate shelter, clothing, food, and education for those children, no matter how the child identifies or how much they disapprove of their choices. You are a minor child, Taylor- you said you were sixteen?" she checked.

When I nodded, she continued, "They are obligated to provide for you until you turn eighteen. They cannot just kick you out of their home. That is considered neglect, and abandonment of a minor child, and moreover, that is considered a crime they could receive legal consequences for. Moreover- am I understanding you correctly when I heard Shiloh say that your family is living in a basement? Can you explain this a little more?"

I took over then, telling her about the slow process of the house being built above our heads and the cramped space we were making do with in the meantime. I had barely finished answering her questions about how we bathed and kept food before she was shaking her head, pressing her lips together in a thin line.

"Taylor, that situation- I'm not sure you know this, but it isn't legal to live in a house that hasn't been legally approved for lodging. Certainly not while it's still being built. There are safety concerns, and possible exposure to unsafe chemicals, among other things."

"Oh, I know," I exhaled. "Believe me, even my six year old sister knows we're not supposed to talk about it."

"Well, you and your sisters might have been told not to talk about it, but you've done the right thing, absolutely the right thing, by being the one to break the family code of silence," Ms. Jensen told me, giving me a small smile. "Every staff member in this school is a mandated reporter. That means that it's our legal duty to report any suspected child abuse or neglect that we hear about or witness. What you're telling me about is child neglect not only of yourself, Taylor, but your sisters too. Don't worry- this situation isn't going to continue."

I stared at her, taken aback, and slow, nauseating dread began to creep up my stomach to choke my throat. I don't know what I expected, exactly, but "reporting" my parents hadn't been it. I didn't want to get them in trouble. I just wanted to know what to do and where I could go.

"What do you mean, report them- like to the police?" I managed. "I don't want you to get them arrested or anything. I don't want my sisters to be taken away from them."

Seeing my distress, Shiloh reached for my hand, giving it a squeeze, as she too tried to reason with Ms. Jensen.

"Ms. Jensen, I understand what you're saying, but doesn't what Taylor wants matter too? She might not be old enough to live by herself entirely, but surely there's another option open to her. Besides, if the police made her parents move out they would be homeless, and if they charged them with neglect for not taking Taylor back, Taylor doesn't want to go back with them anyway after everything. It isn't a good situation for her."

"I understand and sympathize with that, Shiloh, but the fact remains that the law is clear on this matter," Ms. Jensen said, her tone soft but firm. "You've shared with me that Taylor and her sisters are being neglected, and I have a legal duty to report child neglect to social services. Just because the report is made and investigated doesn't guarantee that her parents will be in trouble, or that Taylor will have to move back with them. What it will do is give Taylor and her sisters an advocate, someone who is looking out for their safety and well-being. That person will be able to present all the options for Taylor's living arrangements and care, and that person will be able to determine if her sisters are safe in her parents' care and living quarters and to help them make the needed adjustments if change must be made. Many children have open cases with social services without leaving their families' care, and many families do not receive formal charges for abuse or neglect if they cooperate with social services' recommendations."

She directed a brief smile towards me as Shiloh squeezed my hand tighter.

"I know this must seem scary, Taylor, but you've done the right thing. This isn't a situation to deal with on your own. I'm making the call today, but in the mean time, is there anything you're in immediate need of? Clothes, toiletries? Are you able to stay with Shiloh again tonight if need be?"

"Yes," Shiloh said before I could even open my mouth, a hard edge to her voice. "Yes, she can. And I'll get her anything she needs. Don't worry."

She almost pulled me out of the office after her, ignoring the late excuse pad that Ms. Jensen was waving towards her. Ducking into the closest bathroom, she pulled me into a fierce embrace, burying her face against my neck.

"I'm so sorry," she mumbled against me, squeezing me hard against her ribs. "I didn't know she would go and report them. I didn't want to get them in trouble, not if that isn't what you wanted. I messed everything up for you even more."

I took a slow breath, let it back out, and wrapped my arms around her shoulders, closing my eyes and breathing in the scent of her hair against my cheek.

"No," I said finally, shaking my head. "No, you didn't, Shi. You did what you thought was right, and I guess she is too. Whatever happens isn't your fault or her fault, it's theirs. They made their own bed, and now I guess they'll have to see how it feels to sleep in it."

But even as I said it, even as I knew that I believed it, a part of me wondered. No matter what ended up happening to me, I could get by. It was less than two years before I was a legal adult. I could get a job, even if I had to drop out of school to do it, and get myself around with public transportation, save up enough to at least live in the crappiest, cheapest of apartments. I could survive.

But Gwendolyn and Gillian were still just kids, years away from being able to live on their own, a literal decade from the possibility. Could I be sure that they would be able to get through whatever happened to them, a fate that was far outside of their own hands? Could I live with the possibility that they couldn't?

As Shiloh lead me out the side door of her school, muttering something about not caring about detention for truancy at a time like this, I held her hand like a lifeline, willing to let her take me anywhere she wanted in her desperate effort to distract me from a future I couldn't predict or control. It felt in those moments like the analogy was not a simple comparison, but rather literal truth- Shiloh was the only thing left for me to hold onto, the only person left to keep me afloat.


It's been a few months now since that day in Shiloh's school, and I guess what they say is true- the more things change, the more they stay the same. At least in some ways. I still go to school, I still do homework and have rules and curfews I have to follow, and I still have to live with and get along with people that seem crazier to me sometimes than sane. The difference is that now I go to a different school in a different town, I'm also expected to keep a job and pay a few bills, and the people I live with aren't my parents or my sisters.

Something else that's stayed the same is that I still see Shiloh- and one of the best differences is that I can see her more often and far more openly, almost as much as I want to, and even if some people judge or disapprove of it, no one tries to stop me.

Ms. Jensen had been true to her word about calling social services, and within the next school day after our conversation, they showed up at Shiloh's front door. That sent her stepsister Chelsea, who was playing hooky from school, into a minor panic, thinking someone had ratted her out, until they specified they were wanting to speak with me, and that Ms. Jensen had directed them to my current, if temporary, address.

By the time they finished asking me about the circumstances of my life with my family and the reasons for my staying with Shiloh, I could tell from the women's expressions that this wouldn't be the last time I heard from them. I was right. Actually, I'm still considered an open case in the system, even though I'm technically not a ward of state or living in foster care.

Some time after talking to me, social services paid my parents a call. They didn't have advanced warning to try to cover anything up, so they walked in on them in the middle of the day, with the workers banging and sawing away to put the house together as Geri taught Gillian and Gwendolyn beneath their feet. I've always wondered how they could block out all that noise to focus on anything, and I guess social services had the same question and a lot of others too that Geri couldn't answer to their satisfaction.

My parents didn't end up with any actual charges of neglect, and the entire story of my sudden disappearance was no doubt glossed over into a story stretching truth so thin it was transparent if you looked hard enough. All I know is what I was told, and that came from my social worker, Penny. According to her, they had chosen to stay with a couple from their church until the house was fully finished and approved for officially living in. She didn't give me the specifics of which couple was willing to let a family of four move in with them, but I guess it doesn't matter. Gwen and Gilly were living in a house that had actual rooms and walls, even if they were sleeping on a floor or a pull out couch. If Penny had approved it, then it had to be safe and decent enough. Maybe being around two other people besides my parents on a daily basis, even church people, was even an improvement for them.

Both my parents and I were offered up choices in where I could go and how I would be looked after. We all agreed, without needing to meet face to face to further discuss it, that it would be best if I didn't return back to them. I'm sure their reasons for deciding what was best for me had more to do with fear of my corrupting Gwen and Gilly or possibly worse to them, telling their church friends of my sexual orientation, than any actual thought into what was best for me, but I guess the results were the same either way. Penny decided that I wouldn't be a good fit for foster care at my age and "level of independence," and besides, since there was no official charge against my parents for abuse or neglect against me, I didn't really meet the criteria of going into a foster home.

Instead, she had my parents sign consents for me to be accepted into an independent living program for young women between the ages of 15 to 20, designed with the goal of helping us to finish school and learn the things we would need to eventually live on our own as an adult, without being entirely on our own yet. I wasn't really considered emancipated from my parents, not completely, but for as long as I was enrolled in the program, the people directly responsible for me were my social worker and my house parent.

I live in a small three bedroom house with my house parent, Christy, and three other girls, Taryn, Elisa, and Danica, whose my roommate. The rules to stay in the program really aren't that difficult, especially compared to what Geri and Garrett expected out of me. We have to stay in school, maintain at least a part time job, and pay for our own phone bill and clothes. We take turns helping with cooking, cleaning, and paying towards food, and we rotate each month which utility bill we are responsible for. We aren't allowed to smoke, drink, or use drugs, and we have to keep from any problems with the law. Other than that, we're allowed to do as we want and come and go as we want, as long as we let Christy know when to expect us back. We can even stay out overnight, as long as we let her know ahead of time

. I don't push the envelope, but I stay with Shiloh on the weekends as much as I think her family is okay with it. Even though I live further away from her now than I had before, I see her at least a few days of every week. Between her car and bus passes, we make it work, and it's much easier to use face time, phone calls, and texting now on the days that we're too busy to travel. Compared to life in the basement, hiding under the stairs and texting in the dark because I couldn't speak to or see in person the one person who really knew who I was, life at the program was easy, even comfortable. For the first time, I was beginning to feel like I knew what I was doing with myself and my life, and like maybe the answers were going in a direction that I was okay with.

I could call my parents if I wanted to. Penny has their phone number and address, and I know they have mine too. But Garrett refuses to take my calls, and even though Geri used to, I've stopped trying to talk to her anymore. She never made the first gesture, and every time I reached out, she talked so much about God and sin and turning my life back to her idea of what's right that it isn't worth it to me to try to talk about anything real. Her version of dogmatic, extreme religion is the only language, hell, the only life, that Geri knows, and I won't try to teach her another way of living that she isn't willing to learn.

I would talk to Gwen and Gillian, even if they did want to quote the Bible at me. But my parents won't give them the phone, and I know they would probably call the police and press charges on me for trespassing before they would let me see them in person. I can't afford having any possibility of legal issues getting me kicked out of the program, so I don't try. I just hate that I can't have a relationship with them right now, that they don't have any way of knowing that I want one, that I didn't choose to cut them off or forget them just because that's what our parents have done to me. I hate that I can't work on helping them open up their world and their eyes, to start to see that there are so many ways of living beyond the way they've been shown, and that so many of those ways are okay or even better. I just hope that eventually they'll be able to see enough of life on their own to know this for themselves.

I'll always love them, and I hope they know that. I hope they still love me. That's something else that I'm starting to understand, how very open and strange it can be to love people in so many different ways. I still love Garrett and Geri, even after everything, even after I stopped letting them have any more words in my life. And no matter how things might turn out between Shiloh and me in the future, I know that I will always have a piece of me forever tied to her, forever loving her.

People talk a lot about first love, how magical and intense it is, how unforgettable, and they're not wrong, my memories and experience of falling in love with Shiloh will always be all of those things to me. But her role as my first love is not the only reason for the bond I'll always carry for her. Loving Shiloh and being loved by her has been the catalyst to opening the door to possibilities that had seemed once just daydreams and wishes, distant hopes unlikely to become true. Loving Shiloh has made me start to understand, for the first time, what people mean when they talk about the importance of loving yourself. Because for the first time, when Shiloh tells me all the reasons that she loves me, I not only believe her, I think that maybe, just maybe, she's right.

The end