Get our free newsletter
Terrell Hunter sets scrambled eggs and strips of turkey bacon on a piece of white toast. He slathers strawberry jelly on a second piece of toast and mashes the sandwich together.
The 15-year-old, known to his friends as Heavy T, stands at the kitchen table and eats, dressed in long blue satiny shorts that he slept in. He’s shirtless. Fat spills in waves from his 4-foot-11-inch frame.
It’s just after noon on a weekday in June, but inside Terrell’s house, it feels like 5 a.m. Gold curtains block out the light. A rolled-up bath towel snakes the mail slot in the front door.
Terrell is a few bites into his breakfast when his head jerks toward the front door across the living room. As he listens to the sounds from the street, he drops the sandwich on the table. A car door slams. Terrell lumbers across the apartment, dives for the couch, lies flat on his stomach, and buries his face in the crack.
He lies still and waits.
From the street, nothing: no voices, no sounds of steps. Terrell remains buried in the couch, waiting for the knock at the door.
A couple of minutes pass, and it doesn’t come. Terrell eases himself up, inches the curtain back and peeps out the picture window.
At the curb sits a blue Ford sedan, not a police cruiser, not a silver Chevy Impala like the guys from the Child and Family Services Agency drive. Terrell tumbles off the couch, walks to the kitchen, and picks up his sandwich.
“This is my life,” he says, putting on his gangster shtick. “I’m not afraid of shit.”
His tough words aren’t enough to knock down Terrell’s fear. He is terrified. Since March, he has lived in dread of getting caught. When someone knocks on the door, he hides. When he steps into his neighborhood, he scans the street. When the phone rings, he answers in an old man’s voice and tells callers Terrell is not home.
Terrell isn’t wanted for drugs, weapons, stolen property, or any of the other crimes that take place in the courtyard behind his home in the Greenleaf Gardens complex of Southwest. He isn’t wanted for breaking the law.
The agency is hunting Terrell because his weight is ruining his health. In March, his mother lost custody of him for not keeping him thin. Since then, the 15-year-old has been an unlikely fugitive, running and hiding, slipping away when he gets caught, fighting to stay free, and getting bigger.
If Terrell had his way, he would be slim, slender, tall, and muscular, like Jay-Z, his favorite rap artist. He’d be covered with tattoos and smoke marijuana and skinny cigars. “I’d be a millionaire,” he says one afternoon, sitting in the dark apartment. “A lot of cars. A lot of girls. I’d be splurging.”
In real life, Terrell is a child who wears his H&M jeans so low it’s hard to walk. He asks 30-year-old women for their phone numbers and sleeps with a giant stuffed dog with plastic eyes the size of silver dollars.
Terrell grew up on a street lined with squat two-story brick town-house apartments. The yards are dotted with cigarette butts and the occasional tiny plastic drug baggie. He lives with his mother, Leslie Abbott, 32, his two younger sisters, and Leslie’s boyfriend, Bruce Wooten, who’s in his 40s, served 20 years on a murder rap and wears a rattlesnake pendant around his neck.
Terrell rarely sees his father, who was the same age Terrell is now when Terrell was born. If Terrell was ever thin, he doesn’t remember. When the other kids grew bony angled and vertical, Terrell stayed stumpy and spread outward, always the shortest and widest kid in his class.
One evening in 2005, Terrell, who was 13, returned home from his grandmother’s house in Southeast. He flopped down on the couch and wheezed, sucking rapid tiny breaths of air. He had forgotten to take his asthma inhaler to his grandmother’s house.
His mother handed it to him, and Terrell took a few blasts. The medicine did nothing. “I can’t breathe,” Terrell said to his mother and tried not to cry. It wasn’t Terrell’s first bad asthma attack. His color looked OK. He wasn’t crying. As Leslie debated whether or not to call 911, his breathing got worse.
Terrell describes the attack like this: His lungs felt like they had filled to the top with sand. They were stuck and would not follow his command to breathe. As his head reeled, his panicked breaths turned a rapid volley of gasps.
When the paramedics arrived, they strapped a mask across Terrell’s mouth, hooked him to a machine that pumped soft and cool blasts of air into his lungs. Even with the treatments, his breath was smothered.
Terrell tried to stay cool as they loaded him into the ambulance. “I’m fine,” he told the paramedics. He thought he might be dying, but he didn’t want to overreact if it was nothing.
After waiting for several hours in the emergency room at Howard University Hospital and then being transferred to Children’s Hospital, Terrell blacked out and went into heart failure. Leslie watched hospital staff plunge a tube down her son’s throat and fix him to whirring machines that kept him alive.
“It scared me to death,” she says.
The next thing Terrell remembers, he woke up in a hospital bed “hungry as hell.” His mother was in the room. He had been unconscious for three days.
Three weeks later, when the hospital released Terrell, he did not return home. An ambulance drove him to Cumberland Hospital for Children and Adolescents east of Richmond in rural Virginia. It was a familiar place: Three years earlier, Terrell had spent six months in the hospital’s weight-loss program and dropped 75 pounds.
When the ambulance unloaded Terrell, hospital staff remembered him. This time, he weighed 341 pounds, required oxygen, and was too sick to move.
“I was fat. I was lazy, tired, sleepy, sick, and worried. Stressed out, scared, useless,” Terrell recalls. Being back at the hospital felt like failure.
At Cumberland, doctors worked to turn around the damage. Physical therapists exercised Terrell’s muscles. Nutritionists limited him to 800 calories a day, Stage 1 in the hospital’s program.
Dinner was a bite of turkey, a salad, and a vegetable washed down with
Crystal Light. “Nothing but Crystal fuckin’ Light—breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Terrell recalls. “My favorite was the pink one.”
Although doctors prescribed drugs to control his asthma and his food cravings, Terrell felt like he was starving. He begged other patients for their tiny boxes of Golden Grahams and traded his clothes for food. On good days, cafeteria workers slipped up and gave him extra.
Terrell dropped as much as 1.5 pounds a day despite the extra food, his body racing through fat stores and releasing molecules called ketones. The process, called ketosis, made his breath smell like acetone.
When Terrell talks about his time at Cumberland, he complains about how the food tasted like plastic, how a doctor outlawed dodge ball, how staff separated the boys from the girls after one patient worried she was pregnant. “I hate those people. I want to get that place shut down,” he says.
Yet Terrell thrived at Cumberland; he scored A’s and B’s at the hospital school, learned tai chi and yoga, and took aromatherapy sessions in relaxation class. “We sniffed all types of scents and stupid shit, in the dark, lying down,” he recalls.
Terrell woke up at 7 a.m. and slept at 10:30 p.m. On Mondays he lifted weights. Tuesdays was “social room.” On Fridays, he gathered with other kids around a television in the common room for movies.
As his weight fell, Terrell began ambling around the campus behind a walker. Soon nutritionists bumped Terrell to Stage 2 in the weight loss plan—up to 1400 calories a day. The food was the same, but the portions were larger, he says.
In Stage 3, a dietician helped him choose his own food. By then, Terrell had progressed from the walker to running laps around the track, from zero to 15 push-ups.
When the hospital filmed a promotional video, it ended with a shot of Terrell tossing a basketball through a hoop. “Cumberland,” the voiceover says. “Where young people can succeed.”
Terrell was succeeding, but staff worried about what would happen if he returned home.
Leslie and Bruce made the two-hour drive to visit two or three times. They stayed at a lodge on the hospital’s 98-acre campus and checked Terrell out for day trips. For breakfast, they took him to Shoney’s, where Terrell liked the hot syrup at the buffet.
Despite the weight loss, Terrell still suffered; his legs remained bowed and uneven, and his knees flamed with pain.
In June 2006, Cumberland sent him to St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond for surgery. Terrell was excited. He hoped straightening his legs would make him taller.
Terrell remembers lying on the bed before the anesthetic took hold. Doctors had explained the procedure. They would open his legs and expose his bent shin and calf bones. They would saw through the bones, twist them straight and drill silver pins into the bones to anchor them in place.
“They was like, ‘We are going to give you something to help you sleep,’” Terrell says. “I’m like, ‘OK.’ I passed the fuck out. The next thing I woke up in pain like a motherfucker.”
Later, he looked at his legs, wrapped in red bandages and imagined what they looked like underneath. He wouldn’t see the scars until the gauze came off three days later. He returned to Cumberland in a wheelchair, legs ringed by braces the doctors called “tomato cages.”
In late September 2006, Terrell weighed 137 pounds. He had lost 60 percent of his body weight and recovered from his surgery. His leg braces were off. His treatment was finished.
While he was in Cumberland, his mother fought a neglect charge related to Terrell’s health problems. She lost full custody, then gained a half-step toward getting him back, winning protective custody just before he was released.
Terrell could go home instead of into the foster-care system. When Leslie picked him up, it had been months since she last saw her son. She thought he looked sick. Bags of skin replaced fat. The bones in his face were visible for the first time.
Terrell moved back into his second-floor bedroom. He came home with his clothes and his rap CDs. And he had something new: a family treatment plan that included meeting with a personal trainer, attending therapy, and following a nutritionist’s diet plan.
At first, kids at school didn’t recognize him, but slowly the old Terrell returned. Leslie did not stick to the regimen, and Terrell slid into his own plan, based on the staples of his past lifestyle. He stopped doing the exercises he learned at the hospital. He traded salad and baked turkey for Big Macs and candy.
Leslie says the backslide is not her fault. Before a knee injury kept her from working, she sold shoes four days a week for $8.50 an hour at Shoe City in Northeast. On her days off, she earned as much as $100 a head braiding hair.
“This boy is 15, going to be 16 years old. I can’t watch him 24 hours a day,” she says. “They want me to hold his hand, take him to the Y, make him eat salad. No, he has to want it for his self. It’s not about me. It’s about him.”
Leslie says she would have had to quit her job to follow the rules. How could she afford that? To her thinking, the healthy food Terrell needed meant she needed more money, not less.
She tried to make the house healthier, baking instead of frying, swapping turkey products for pork. But the truth is, when she was at work, she had no idea what he ate.
As he got bigger, Terrell’s weight caught the attention of CFSA, which monitored Leslie’s custody. Her drug use raised
flags, too. Four months after Terrell left Cumberland, he had put on 36 pounds, and Leslie had tested positive for PCP, opiates, and marijuana.
In court, the agency argued that the drugs made her unable to provide for Terrell’s medical and emotional needs. The judge agreed. The case was no longer about just obesity. In March 2007, Leslie lost custody.
Terrell does not run fast. Chest pushed out, he swings his legs wide and rolls his shoulders back and forth, twisting from his waist. The effort leaves him sweaty and breathless.
In late March, police and CFSA workers showed up to take Terrell away. When they arrived, Terrell was hanging out inside his apartment with his cousin. The two boys raced out the back door. Terrell ran next to the taller boy, trying to stay in his cousin’s shadow so the police wouldn’t see him.
The ruse didn’t work. An officer snagged Terrell and escorted him to the front yard where a bald guy from CFSA waited with a car.
At the agency’s Sixth Street office near L’Enfant Plaza, Terrell sat surrounded by workers “talking their jibber jabber shit.” It seemed like they knew everything about him. They peppered him with questions. What have you been eating? How often do you go to school? How often do you go to the YMCA?
It felt like an interrogation. Terrell lied. He told them he was eating salad, working out, studying hard, doing everything he was supposed to be doing.
After what felt like an hour, Terrell asked for directions to the bathroom. The workers stayed in the room while he walked into the hall. He found a doorway to a flight of stairs and walked down them, creeping out to the landing on the first floor. Straight ahead sat an information desk and a security guard running bags through an X-ray machine. He walked by them, stepped into the street and kept walking, biting his fingernails and tossing glances over his shoulder.
An hour later, he walked through his front door.
In the weeks that followed, Terrell’s life continued as if nothing had happened. He went to school and hung out with friends in the neighborhood. Sometimes he lifted weights with Bruce at the Y, which had given his family a free membership.
Things were cool, so cool, in fact, that Terrell almost forgot anyone was looking for him.
Then, late one morning in English class, a voice came over the PA system and told Terrell to come to the office. Imagining Bruce downstairs springing him from school, Terrell gathered his jacket and hat and walked to the office.
Downstairs, the bald guy from the agency stood by the office door. There was nowhere to run. Terrell found himself back at the Sixth Street building, again answering questions.
It was before noon when Terrell was picked up from school, and his stomach rumbled. He asked for some food. A woman from the agency put him in a car and drove him to get lunch.
On the way, Terrell thought about jumping out at a light but waited. The woman pulled to the curb in front of McDonald’s, turned off the engine, and handed Terrell some money. She stayed in the car.
At the counter, Terrell ordered a Big Mac, large fries, and a large Oreo McFlurry to go.
With the bag of food in his hand, he walked through the lunch crowd toward a side door. He passed under the golden arches sign outside the door and onto the red brick sidewalk, putting distance between himself and the woman.
After 10 or so blocks, when he knew no one was following him, he sat on the sidewalk and devoured his meal.
Terrell never went back to school. He stayed home, slept past noon, then sat inside, curtains closed, and kept vigil for the men in the silver Chevy Impalas.
He quickly developed a system for avoiding the bald guy. If he stayed in bed, everything was cool. He could listen to the man knuckling the door or watch from his window. If he made it ’til 5 p.m., he was free. They wouldn’t come looking for him after quitting time. Wednesdays were bad days to be at home. The bald guy always seemed to show up on Wednesdays.
Terrell was nervous when his mother had the day off, or when his cousin stopped by with his girlfriend and three kids. How are you going to pretend no one is home with the television booming downstairs?
He worried more about the bald man than he did about his weight. Early one afternoon that spring, he sat on his bed in his underwear. It was around 11 a.m., and he had just opened his eyes. Asked about his weight, he guessed he was up to around 190. He was nowhere near as heavy as he had been. But he was gaining.
“I worry about it,” he says. “But as long as I don’t look unattractive, I’m all right.” Terrell does not think he looks unattractive. He has a girlfriend. “I look fat ’cause I got this extra shit,” he says, pointing to the skin that sags at his waist.
Terrell doesn’t like to talk about his weight, but he will talk about food, if the topic is taste, not calories or fat content.
“I just eat when I’m hungry. I eat a lot of junk food—chips, soda, whatever,” he says.
One afternoon, Terrell and Bruce drive to Wendy’s for lunch. Bruce orders a chicken sandwich. Terrell asks for a Baconator, a small fry, and a small vanilla Frosty, 1,480 calories in all.
Good evening, Terrell,” jokes Bruce as Terrell mopes down the stairs in shorts and a T-shirt, his mouth open in a deep yawn. It’s 11:30 a.m., a Wednesday in mid-May. Leslie is off work, but she has two heads to braid.
Lately, she has started to worry. Terrell’s report card arrived from his final semester. He failed Spanish, English, algebra, everything.
Earlier, after walking her daughters to school, she told Bruce it might be better for Terrell to get caught, to go through the process, to get help. Maybe he could stay with his grandmother, she reasoned.
“These people are like leeches,” Bruce yells. “You start with them, and they keep on pinching. They’re taking a teenage boy and turning him into the streets. When the only thing he’s doing is eatin’? And that’s not a crime.”
Bruce is pissed. With all the fat kids out on the street, why were they bothering Terrell? Leslie has a teenage niece who’s probably 300 pounds. “Why they not pickin’ her up?” he asks. He was thinking about filing a lawsuit.
The agency had also started checking on Terrell’s sisters, taking them from school to the hospital for checkups, interviewing them about Leslie and Bruce. The Terrell problem was snowballing, and Leslie wanted it over.
“I just want Terrell to get back in school, to get his education,” she says, looking like she might cry. “He has to repeat the ninth grade. Terrell’s too smart to be doing that.”
In a week, they had another court date. Leslie knew if Terrell showed up, they would take him away. She was thinking that might not be such a bad thing.
“If they take you, I want you to be ready for that,” she says when Terrell reaches the table.
“They ain’t taking me anywhere,” Terrell says.
He had a plan. He would show up to court a little late as if he wasn’t staying with his family. He would explain to the judge why everyone should stop messing with him.
“What are you going to tell the judge?” Leslie asks.
“I’m going to tell the judge to lick my ass crack,” Terrell says. “No seriously,” he starts again. He would tell the judge he shouldn’t have to redo the ninth grade since they chased him away from school. He’d say he was done gaining weight and that he wanted to stay home.
Leslie hands him a dollar and change for the bus before she heads out the door with Bruce.
“You want me to shut the door?” she asks.
“Leave it open,” Terrell says, sunk deep in the worn-out couch.
Terrell walks to the kitchen and sets four links of turkey sausage sizzling on one of the good burners. Breakfast will be sausage and eggs, and he’s thinking about making pancakes, too, when a police car creeps by outside. No big deal, Terrell thinks. Cops pass all day long.
Terrell walks to the front door just to make sure. With his body mashed against the open door, he peeps his head out. Across the street, near the bus stop, stands the bald man from CFSA. Terrell pulls his head inside. He eases the front door shut and spins the lock in the door knob.
He walks to the kitchen, stares across the living room at the metal door and waits. The sausages sizzle in the pan.
The door erupts. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!
“Open the door!” a man’s voice yells.
Terrell tiptoes to the door and hesitates. He reaches for the door, spins the deadbolt fast, turns, and walks upstairs to his bedroom. He reappears wearing a pair of black Nike Air Max high tops.
“Open the door!” one of the men yells through the mail slot.
Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!
The door shakes in its frame.
Terrell stands in the kitchen, not moving. He cracks the back screen door open, peeks out toward the clothesline, and slips out.
Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!
“Open the door!”
Neighbors are gathering in their front yards. Soon, an officer appears around the side of Terrell’s apartment, gripping him by the wrist. A lady down the street yells something unintelligible.
“Fuck you,” Terrell shouts and jabs the middle finger of his free hand in the air toward the lady. Then he’s in the back seat of a cruiser, sticking his feet out so the officer can’t close the door.
Like before, the agency didn’t hold him for long. Again he found himself at the agency table. This time, when a worker asked him about his weight, he says he stripped off his T-shirt, dropped his baggy shorts, and paraded around the room in his underwear to show them firsthand.
And like before, there was McDonald’s for lunch. This time, a man walked with him into the restaurant and stood there as he ordered a Big Mac. Terrell ate his sandwich in tiny bites, just to give the guy shit.
Again things got weird. When they arrived back at the agency, Terrell refused to go in. He kept walking. The man yelled at him but then just let him walk away, like there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
In fact, there wasn’t, except to call the police. Social workers try to control children with “social work and helpful methods,” says Mindy Good, a CFSA spokeswoman. “You could follow the kid and say, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute,’ and talk about things,” she says. “But would you tackle him? No.”
Then why do they keep coming for Terrell? That is what Leslie can’t understand: “If you already know he’s going to run, and you’re going to let him go, leave him the fuck alone,” she says.
One afternoon in late June, he is lying half-asleep under a Scooby Doo blanket. Leslie’s nephew and his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son are sitting on the edge of Terrell’s bed playing NBA ShootOut on a PlayStation. A week ago, a judge committed Terrell back to Cumberland. The next time he gets caught, they won’t take him to Sixth Street. He’ll go straight to the hospital, back to Stage 1, 800 calories a day, tai chi, and physical therapy.
Terrell has been thinking about that. For him, Cumberland is prison. He has already spent almost two years there, and he’s determined never to go back. If they catch him, he’s already started plotting his escape. But Cumberland is “surrounded by all these forests and shit,” and Terrell doesn’t know the lay of the land. Maybe he could hitchhike out or pay someone on the side of the road to bring him back to town?
“Why don’t you just go down there?” says his cousin, looking away from the game. “You only got a certain amount of time to be down there.”
“I’m not an idiot, man,” Terrell says. “They are bound to keep me down there for years and shit. I’m not going.”
Downstairs, Leslie is braiding a woman’s hair. Walker, Texas Ranger, is dropping bad guys with karate kicks on television. The front door is open to keep the apartment cool. If the men show up today, Terrell knows he is doomed.
But he doesn’t get up and hit the streets running. He closes his eyes and falls back asleep.
By early September, Terrell had enough. He had spent much of the summer at his grandmother’s house in Southeast, dodging the CFSA. He had one close call, hiding in the closet at home when social workers stopped by.
It was boring, he says. The way he saw it, the running would probably continue until he was 18, when they would have to leave him alone.
“That isn’t exciting to me, man,” he says one afternoon, sitting in his mother’s house. “I get tired of that shit.”
Besides, Terrell explains, he has a new problem. He started Wilson High School two weeks earlier and still does not have new clothes to wear.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Terrell is wearing True Religion blue jeans, an orange Aéropostale shirt, and Nike Charles Barkleys, which he calls “old ass” and “dusty.”
“I’m about to stop going to school,” he says. “I don’t want to go no more. I ain’t got shit to wear to school. Sooner or later, I’m going to say, ‘Fuck this.’”
The choice wasn’t his. Although he walked by police officers every day at school and had been busted for truancy, so far no one had figured out he was on the run.
That ended on Sept. 13. At around 10 a.m., a friend of Leslie’s who works at the school called. When Terrell arrived that morning, the woman told her, police and CFSA workers were waiting for him.
He walked right into the trap. A man loaded Terrell in a car and set off for Cumberland.
Later that afternoon, Leslie sits on the couch in her apartment, worrying about her son, wondering where he is. Try as she might, she can’t see this ending well.
As she sits talking, a boy in a black polo shirt walks up the street from the subway station. When he gets to the apartment, he turns and walks toward the door, steps inside, and grins.
“How did you get away?” asks his mother. There is no happiness in her voice.
As Terrell tells it, he got under the CFSA guy’s skin. “I kept calling him faggy. I told him I was going to punch him in his shit,” Terrell says.
Then, as they drove together, Terrell says he tore up the guy’s Mapquest directions to Cumberland and threw them out the window.
At a stop light, Terrell opened the window, reached outside for the door handle and beat the child locks. Again, the guy didn’t chase him. Terrell took the subway home.
“They want to put me in a trick box, but I’m too smart for that,” he says. While he talks, he glances from his mother to the picture window.
Terrell is free, but his story is not finished. Leslie knows the men will be back. In court, the judge warned her she could get six months in jail for hiding her son. The problem isn’t going away.
“So now what?” she asks Terrell.
“I don’t know,” he answers. “Life is a, uh. Life is a, uh,” he raps.
Most likely, life for Terrell will once again be his second-floor bedroom. He will not go back to school. When the knock comes on the door, he’ll hide. Before he goes outside, he’ll scan the street.
Terrell walks over to his mother. She lifts his shirt and hugs him around his belly.
“All ’cause you want to be chunky,” she says.