I was seven the year that they finally took me away from my mother, who had a crack and heroin habit and once tried to pimp me out to one of her dealers. Thankfully, I had no idea what was going on and the guy just laughed at her. In fact, I think he might have been the one to finally call her in.

When the cops and the child services people came, I ran out the back door. I don’t have much memory of them. I wanted to get away. My mom was passed out in the other room. The apartment was filthy.

Despite it all, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay where things were familiar. I wanted to stay with my friends that I’d play with at the pond. We’d throw things in it — a chair, a pumpkin, branches, sticks, rocks. We’d share rides on their bikes and walk through the apartment complex and just hang out being kids.

I ran over to Miguel’s apartment but his family wasn’t home. I pounded on the door, certain the people in cop uniforms and sunglasses were just behind me, ready snatch me with their hard fingers.

When it was obvious that Miguel wasn’t there and I’d never see him again, I ran to the next place I could think of —Derek’s. In hindsight, I don’t know why I would’ve run to his place so quickly and not one of my other friends. I think it was because he lived closest to Miguel and I knew I was being searched for.

Derek occasionally bought weed from my mom, and he’d given me a few guitar lessons. My hands were too small for the instrument but he used to show me some things anyway. He let me play his guitars — he had an acoustic named Valerie and two Fenders named Cassidy and Mallory. He had a Les Paul named Haley that he wouldn’t let me touch, but he showed her to me one time.

I liked him. He smelled good and his apartment was clean and smelled good and he was funny. He was handsome and in his early thirties and hippie-ish, and he always let me stay there later and watch movies from his DVD/Blu-Ray collection when my mom would forget to come get me. Then he’d walk me home once it was nine o’clock, and he’d smoke a cigarette along the way and tell me stories about hanging out with his favorite bands. I was fascinated by them. It was like he was telling me stories of about great warlords and legendary heroes.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” I’d asked him once.

“I have 2 girlfriends right now,” he said. He had a really soft, gentle voice.

“What are their names?”

“Athena and Lani.”

“How old are they?”

“They are 19 and 20.”

“And who was your girlfriend before that?”

“Before them, there were briefly some girls named Imani and Jackie, and before them there was Cassidy and Noel, and before them there was Victoria, and before her there was Kajira, and before Kajira there was Chastity and before Chastity there was no one for a couple of months, and then there was Allegra…”

“You’ve had a lot of girlfriends,” I said.

“I meet a lot of girls,” he said.

“Are you going to marry any of them?”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“But don’t you want a family?”

“I have a family,” he said. “A family isn’t just moms and dads and their kids, you know.”

“You have kids?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t want kids. I just mean, speaking in generalities, a family can be any group of people that loves one another, doesn’t have to be moms and dads and stuff.”

“What’s generalities?”

“Generalities is like saying, ‘the way things usually are.’”

I ran up to his door and pounded on it with both fists and he answered almost immediately.

“Zelda,” he said. “What are you doing here?” There was a cigarette between his lips.

My throat felt like hard, heated meat. I was huffing and red with fear and anger. I could barely talk.

“They’re going to take me away,” I tried to say.

He’d never shown much affection before — he was always friendly in an aloof, disinterested way — but now he squatted down and looked me in the eye.

“They’re going to take me away,” I tried to say again.

I couldn’t get out the words. My face was very hot and getting wet. My chest felt like a freezer and my throat felt like an old rusted metal duct.

“Calm down,” he said. “What happened?”

I couldn’t talk and so I just put my face in his shoulder and let it all pour out.

He awkwardly put a hand on my shoulder. I felt the muscles in his right arm fire as he pitched his cigarette.

“Come on,” he said. “We gotta take you back home.”

I cried harder, nearly fainted.

He pried me off and looked me in the eyes. His were blue. He had long, blonde hair and a slightly darker blonde goatee. When I got older and saw Chris Hemsworth in the Marvel Thor movies, I’d think of him.

“Zelda,” he said, and he didn’t get mad or excited or anything. “You have to tell me what’s going on. Do I need to call the police?”

I finally was able, through my madness of sobs, to get out what was happening.

He shook his head and stood up.

“You’re gonna get me in trouble if they see me with you. They’re gonna have a bunch of questions, and I don’t want them searching my apartment. But if you walk back over there with me, we can explain to them what‘s up and nothing bad will happen.”

I lost my shit again, put my face in my hands.

“Hang on,” he said.

He disappeared inside the apartment. A few moments later, he came out holding one of his guitars. It was a Fender Jaguar — the light blue one that he’d named Cassidy.

“You remember Cassidy?” he said. “You played her when I’d give you lessons. I said she liked you, you remember? Because you got a good sound out of her even though you didn’t know how to play?”

I looked up at the guitar. The day was cloudy and chilly but somehow the guitar’s surface was still gleaming as though the warm sun was out.

“Cassidy’s very important to me,” Derek said. “I named her after the real Cassidy, the girlfriend I had. I liked Cassidy a lot, maybe even enough to start a family with her someday.”

He put her down, handed her to me. I took the guitar by the neck, and my hands were grubby and damp from rubbing all my tears away. The wood was chilly and the strings were cold.

“I’m going to send her with you,” he said. “Cassidy’s going to protect you. I bought her off of the guys in Sponge, do you remember them?”

I nodded. One of his warlord tales.

“Cassidy’s been through a lot,” he said. “And she’s going to protect you now, wherever you go. You can take her with you. She’s yours, okay? So you don’t have to be scared of anything now.”

I didn’t know what to say. But Derek pulled out a black case with a zipper and put Cassidy inside of it. He handed me the case. It was heavy but I held onto it.

He held out his hand.

“Come on,” he said. “We can say you came over here to get your guitar, and hopefully they’ll just let you keep her. I’ll talk to them. I can say that I’d promised her to you as a gift if you ever left, and you came to get her and that’s why you ran off.”

I finally stood up and walked with him. My legs felt like they were made out of wood. I didn’t feel like me. Only my grubby hand, tucked into Derek’s, felt like it was made of skin and bone.

He talked to me as we walked down the sidewalk, which was dotted with cold puddles. It had rained the night before. The cement was both dark and light with wetness and I watched my old shoes as I walked. I watched Cassidy moving next to my shoes, the long end of the guitar pointed out in front of me. When I looked right down and couldn’t see my hand carrying the case, it looked like Cassidy was flying along right next to me.

“You’ll have to get an amp for Cassidy,” said Derek. “But you can tell your new family about it and I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to make it happen. I’d send a small one with you but I don’t think there’s room for it. There’s a cord in the front pocket of her case that you can use.”

At the words, ‘new family’, I started to get upset again.

“Sometimes things change even when you don’t want them to,” Derek told me. He’d lit up another cigarette and was smoking it. “I don’t really know what else to say, cause I don’t know you that well, but sometimes things change. You get comfortable and then the universe sees you’re comfortable and decides to change things up, cause it’s gotta make you grow. You can’t grow if things stay the same. But in another couple of months, you’ll be comfortable again. I promise. You’ll get older, and you’ll get stronger, and you’ll start to be able to see when things are gonna change and you can prepare for them. You get used to it.”

He kind of paused, took a big drag on his cigarette. When he breathed out again the cloud of smoke engulfed his entire head and he looked like a dragon or something for a few seconds, like he was nothing but smoke and steam above his shoulders.

I heard his voice speak to me from inside the smoke.

“Cassidy will protect you,” he said. “We’ll make sure the authorities let you keep her. I don’t see why they wouldn’t… but just stay with Cassidy, and everything will be fine. I promise.”

Derek saw I was struggling to carry Cassidy’s case, kind of letting it scrape against the sidewalk, and he took her from me. My arm was sore from holding her but I didn’t say anything.

We walked along the half-wet sidewalk back towards my mom’s building where I could see flashing lights, and for the first time that day I inhaled the cold air and though my throat still felt swollen and hot, I could begin to imagine a time when it wouldn’t anymore.

Everything is a work in progress.