What few will understand, though, is that Wells has earned that childlike joy. Because she was denied it the first time around.
Today, there are no children playing outside in the cul-de-sac neighborhood in Chesterfield, Virginia. Towering pine trees line a bluff that buffers the homes from boulevard traffic noise. Six modest, mostly split-level houses surround the circle, and a lone cedar tree stands at its apex. For the three Wells children, this is where it all began—the running, the competition, the abuse.
Back in the 1980s, there was always something going on in the cul-de-sac. Frisbee, football, dodgeball. Bike, egg-on-spoon, and three-legged races. But the straight sprints—they were the Big Deal. In the summer, 10 or so neighborhood kids held daily tournaments, chalking out lanes on the street, running sprints and relays using napkin holders as batons. Parents would gather and cheer from front porches. “We lived in a very competitive neighborhood,” says Tonni Wells, 35, Kellie’s older sister. “It was cutthroat. If you wanted to hang with the cul-de-sac crowd, you had to be a fast runner.”
Tonni was a fast runner. Which meant Kellie wanted to be, too. She tailed her older sister to track practice and tried to do the same drills and workouts. Kellie ran against the neighborhood boys; when she beat them, she talked trash; when she lost, she cried. “I just wasn’t into losing,” says Wells.
There was always something else going on in the cul-de-sac, too—the explosive rage of their father. A chemical engineer with a penchant for numbers, he grew irate one day watching Tonni struggle with simple math, counting out 13-plus-7 on her fingers. “He was so mad, he hit me in the chest,” she says. “I fell over backward in the chair and broke it.”
It was her mother, however, who bore the brunt of his anger. Jeanette Wells was a carefree spirit, a smart, beautiful woman who smiled when she worked out, made up dance routines on the spot, and spontaneously broke into song while shopping. She worked hard to ensure her kids could travel with the track team, go to dance class, and wear nice clothes. Arguments sometimes escalated over money, but Tonni doesn’t know what they were fighting about the time she ran inside for a Popsicle on a hot July day and found her mother cowering behind a chair, her arms raised and her nose bloody. All she knew was these people should not be together, and when she was a sophomore and Kellie was in fifth grade, her father moved out.
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For a while, things were okay. Divorced life hit a rhythm; it wasn’t great, money was scarce, but Jeanette worked long hours to keep life for Tonni, Kellie, and Jason (now 27) as normal as possible. And then Jeanette met Rick.
Tall, muscular, with a head of dark curls and a persuasive, charming demeanor, Rick Gomes was a high school gym teacher and multi-sport coach. He favored Gucci sweaters, expensive cologne, and Gold’s Gym tank tops that showed off his biceps. “He was God-awful handsome,” says Tonni. And he had a reputation. Word around Tonni’s track friends was that he had a creepy way of talking to and looking at the girls. “I had a feeling, like, bad news,” Tonni says. “It was a weird premonition.”
Jeannette asked Tonni to give him a chance. And nearly a year later, the family had moved into Gomes’s house, where he behaved himself—at first. He shot hoops with Kellie, taught Jason how to play video games, and wrestled with him on the floor.
Only Tonni sensed that something wasn’t right. “I’m onto you,” she told him. “I’m not as dumb as my mom.” And soon enough, the monster came out.
It started with the shouting. All three siblings struggle to describe the vicious, booming arguments between their mother and Gomes. His voice was plug-your-ears deafening, run-to-your-room terrifying. When he drank, it was worse. Much worse. And he drank a lot. When he was drunk and mad, “he was like the Incredible Hulk coming alive,” says Jason, whose own voice is mildly hypnotic for its slight Southern lilt and gentle tone. Often, Gomes rode the crest of his rage right into Jason’s room. He’d demand the boy stop playing his video game and then pummel him when he didn’t do it fast enough, or send him to the yard to pull every single last weed. “If he couldn’t inflict pain, he would find other ways, emotionally, to destroy you,” says Jason.
Gomes found plenty of ways to shatter Jeanette’s self-esteem. He monitored her calls. Took her paychecks from her teaching and cleaning jobs. Demanded receipts as proof she’d gone where she said she was going. Under the man Kellie once likened to a warden, her fun-loving mother dissolved. “She was sad all the time,” says Kellie. “Some nights he wouldn’t come home or he’d come stumbling in drunk. It would tear her up.”
The wrestling matches got more painful. The choke holds got tighter, the arm behind the back went higher. Jason cried but he never told Gomes to stop. The boy was intent on showing the man how tough he was, how much he could take. His mother stood by, pleading, yelling, powerless.
Gomes gave Tonni a wider berth. He chose instead to mess with her head—standing on the sidelines of her track meets, he’d taunt her about not being good enough.
But for Kellie, it was worse. Far worse. What happened drove her out of the house, to the one place she felt safe, the one place she was free of fear, the one place she could still be the kid from the cul-de-sac, the kid determined to be the fastest one out there.The track.