Highway Chapter 14
My legs ache and my lungs burn from drawing in the ragged breaths. He is behind me, only a step away, nipping at my heels like a dog. I am running, yet he is so close. His languid strides outpace mine, for his legs are significantly longer. I am small, my legs the length of a child’s. My mind is present day, but I am stuck in the past. My shoes are slick with her blood, the woman with the red hair. On his face is a maniacal grin, but as he said my name, his voice is deadly soft.
“Veronica,” he calls, sickeningly sweet, “Why are you running? Come play with me.”
I sense the madness underneath, the rage and lunacy seeping through. I slide across the floor as I turn a corner, smacking into the wall with excruciating force. Pain explodes across my shoulder, and I cry out in pain, dropping to the floor. “
It’s okay, darling” he said, sneering the endearment. “I only want to see you a little closer.”
I staggered up from the ground, wincing at my injured shoulder. I slip on the blood covering my shoes, merely a few feet away this time. I can feel the hot tears slide down my face, for I am so scared. I lay there trembling as he strolled up leisurely, taking his time. I am frozen, and the world seems to slow down.
“I told you to stop running!” he screams, finally reaching me.
He grabbed my hair, jerking me around. I cry out to make him stop, but he is furious now. I can smell the pungent alcohol on his breath, sharp and disgusting. I try to pull away, but his grip on my hair is impossibly strong. He pulls back like a violent animal, and I whimper in agony. He giggled like a raving madman. He raised the kitchen knife he was holding into the air, and it came arching down.
I woke up with a sudden start. Unable to stop myself, a whimper escaped my lips, quiet and pained. I could feel pain in my shoulder and head, as if the man had been causing me pain in real life. Slowly, it subsided. It took me a few minutes to relieve myself of the flashes of the dreams. The man’s smile. The sharp knife. The woman, lying on the floor, lifeless and cold. How come I couldn’t see her face? I could only see her stained dress, once such a beautiful white. And how did the man know my name? He felt somehow familiar, but I couldn’t remember who he was. It was like there was a wall there, one so impenetrable to my view, nothing could gain access.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. The dream were getting worse, and at a startling rate too. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe it was coincidence by now, and if I told myself that, I was a fool.
Looking over to where Matt’s sleeping bag was, I hoped I hadn’t woken him. To my surprise, I found him missing. Cold fear gripped my heart, and my stomach was in my throat. He’s just getting water, I told myself. Or he got up to get more firewood. Although the pile still looked quite full.
Suddenly uncertain, I called out, “Matt?”
He answered from above, and I let out a sigh of relief to see him on the top of the grassy hill, only a few feet away and very much present. He said he would be back to bed soon, that he had just had trouble sleeping.
I was still shaking, and my breathing was forced. I was on the verge of tears, and I couldn’t understand why. The dream affected me profoundly, and I suddenly found myself wanting nothing more than a bone crushing hug. What am I saying? I didn’t hug people. I hadn’t hugged anyone since the 3rd grade. I don’t remember before that, but I’m not sure I want to.
But there was Matt, just sitting there, staring up at the stars, and he seemed so serene. Maybe I could tell him about the dream, and he would understand? He seemed to always know the answers, so maybe he knew about this? But I had only known him three days, an ephemeral friendship. I couldn’t tell him something like this. It was too personal, and I was tired of being hurt. It seemed doubtful he would cause me pain, but I had thought that of others before. No, I wouldn’t tell him about the dream. But still, would it be so bad if I went up there and sat next to him? I allowed myself this momentary weakness.
I worked my way out of my sleeping bag. Being grateful for the darkness, I hoped Matt wouldn’t see me trembling. I ascended the hill, coming to a stop and resting my Matt. The grass was soft and squishy, almost like a bed. He acknowledged my presence, but lay quiet on the hill. Was he thinking about something? Maybe he had a nightmare as well. The thought seemed laughable, but I supposed it happened to everyone.
The night breeze was cool, brushing against my damp and clammy skin. He still hadn’t spoken, and I found his absolute lack of reaction odd. He wasn’t very talkative, it’s true, but he still hadn’t said anything about my waking up.
“Matt?” I called softly, unsure of myself.
“Yeah?” he replied, calm and peaceful.
His tranquil demeanor was somehow comforting. I opened my mouth to say something, but closed it again, not sure what to say. If I wasn’t going to tell him about the dream, what was I going to talk about?
He suddenly turned to me, and asked me if I had something on my mind, wondering what was causing my insomnia. I hesitated, and then told him I had a bad dream, but it was no big deal. He asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I didn’t, and I prepared to tell him that it was nothing. But he just seemed so attentive, and I wondered if I told him about it he could help me. He hadn’t found a challenge he couldn’t overcome yet.
I told him about running and falling, but left the parts with the man and the woman out. I figured telling him something would help me, but I wasn’t sacrificing my boundaries. He talked with me for a while, and I began to calm down. He had a very soothing voice, and his entire presence was relaxed and calm. He told me not to worry about it too much, and I looked at him, trying to find some sort of insincerity. There was none.
It was a relief to talk to him, and I wondered if it showed. My breaths evened out, and I was steady once again. He was telling me that dream are weird sometimes. I nodded, and we fell back into silence. I thought myself to be good at concealing what I was thinking, but it seemed that he always knew when I wasn’t being entirely truthful. I had told him I never saw what was chasing me, and he accepted it, but I could tell he knew it wasn’t true. He didn’t press me for details, but it had become quiet now.
It was silent, and I could feel an awkward barrier forming between us. I couldn’t think of what to say, so I looked to the stars, brilliant and vast.
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Matt suddenly asked from next to me.
I agreed softly. He asked me if I had ever heard the stories of the stars. I told him I hadn’t, and felt bubbly excitement rise inside my chest as he started to tell me about them. He always told the best stories. As he began to speak of gods and heroes, I smiled happily.
I studied him, seeing him through a new filter of moonlight. His hair was shining, the dirty blonde seeming pale and iridescent with the rays shining on it. His eyes were still that beautiful depthless blue, and I marveled at them even though he wasn’t even looking at me directly. They had been the first thing I had ever liked about him, and they still drew my attention. They seemed less sad this time though, as opposed to when I had first seen him. His voice was light and gentle, and when I would ask him if he would tell me another story, he complied. I rolled over, to see exactly where he was pointing.
We sat together for hours as he told me wondrous fables. Every time he would finish, I would point to another constellation, asking him what its story was. I didn’t want to keep him awake, but I didn’t want to go back to sleep. He didn’t seem to mind a single bit though, and so we kept going.
Shoulders brushing, the cool breeze blowing, and only the stars and each other to keep us company. I began to grow sleepy, and my eyes became heavy.
I was scared to sleep again, and I wanted to hear more stories. Still, I felt calmer and tranquil with Matt by my side, and it made me relaxed. I fought the yawns, but I couldn’t stay awake. Finally, I gave in to the impulses, and let sleep gently wash over me.
“Veronica, it’s time to wake up.” Matt called softly, interrupting my sleep.
I made a noise, indicating my disapproval of the situation. He placed his hand on my shoulder, gently shaking it.
“Come on. It’s already seven. We need to get moving.”
I lifted my head, confused for a moment as to why we were on a hill. The events of last night flooded into my mind. First the nightmares, but then the wonderful rest of the night. If it was seven, I had only had about two hours of sleep. We usually woke up at six though, so I suppose another hour of sleep was good.
Sitting up, I moaned to Matt, “Why do we have to wake up so early?”
I drew out the early, and he laughed.
“It’s just how it is. Sorry. Now, come on. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today, and we slept in an hour.”
With an exaggerated sigh, I heaved myself up from the ground. Swiftly getting ready, I joined Matt where he stood waiting on the other side of the hill.
We set off, the morning sun already out from behind the mountains. Sleepy animals had emerged from their burrows and nests, and were now taking on their daily tasks. A furry chipmunk scurried along a tree, gathering nuts. A blue jay sang above, perhaps engaging in a mating call, hoping to attract a mate. I noticed these little things lately, and it only made the outdoors even more tantalizing. Matt and I sang songs as we walked along the road, swaying in unison. We laughed at ourselves.
“Matt,” I called to him. He gave me his attention and I said, “As with the octopus, if you tell anyone that I sang and danced, I will legitimately hurt you.”
He smiled, saying he wouldn’t dare. I was so tired from last night, but I tried my best to stay active. When we stopped at a stream, I splashed myself in the face with the water, the icy water invigorating. Matt stood a ways away, looking at the map. There was a fork in the road, and he was figuring out which way to go.I decided to test out the walkie talkies, and then lure Matt over to the stream to splash him as payback for the other day.
I filled up my bottle with water, and left the cap unscrewed. Smirking, I pulled the black communication device out from my backpack.
Pressing the button on the side I said, “Excuse me, Matt? Can you hear me?”
He paused, mid-read, and looked confused. After a moment it dawned on him that he was hearing me through the walkie talkie
“What are you doing?” he called from across the street, where he was standing.
“Just trust me!” I called back.
He looked at me oddly, then shrugged and pulled out his walkie from the side pocket of his backpack.
“Hello?” I heard him crackle through the device.
“Houston, we have a problem. Could you come over here? Over.”
Again he looked at me, then replied, “What seems to be the problem, command?”
Snickering at his response, I teased him, for he had not said over.
“Command what? Over.”
He paused and then spoke into his, “What? That’s your code name.”
I laughed again.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying. You have to say over at the end of the transmission, Houston. Didn’t they teach you this in school? Over.”
He appeared to understand, and rose his eyebrow at me, putting a fist on his hip.
“All right,” came the voice over the walkie, “What seems to be the problem, command? Over.”
He put emphasis on it this time.
“My bottle doesn’t seem to be functioning. Could you come check it out? I also can’t find the tablets. Over.”
I couldn’t quite see, but it appeared he rolled his eyes. As he came over, I tried my hardest to be casual. He looked at me strangely, and I was glad my plan wasn’t elaborate. He turned to get the tablets from beside some of his stuff, and I prepared the bottle. As soon as he turned back, saying something, I launched the water bottle’s liquid at him.
“Ha! Take that!” I shouted in victory, “that’s for the other day!”
He was silent for an extended period of time, and I became worried I had made him mad. Then, out of the blue, he started laughing. A boisterous roar, it filled the air.
“You,” he said, still chuckling, “You are a sly one, my friend. I knew something was up, but I didn’t expect that. You are such a devious teenager!”
He chortled, shaking out his clothes and running his hands through his sopping hair. I smiled at him, glad he wasn’t mad. I basked in my victory. Attempting to air dry his clothes, he shook his shirt.
“I really should’ve seen that one coming,” he said, giving me a wry look.
I laughed at him, and went over to the stream, crouching to fill my bottle back up.
“I’m sorry, but it just had to be done. It’s really your fault for not knowing me well enough to not stay on guard.”
He didn’t say anything, and I looked over to see him gone. What? I thought to myself. Suddenly I felt a force push me forward, and I landed in the river. Right. In. the. Freaking. River. The stream was shallow, but it was still deep enough to get all of my clothes wet.
I looked up to see none other than Matt, smirking like he had just pulled off the best prank ever.
“You jerk! You’re such a snot! You can’t get revenge on me for getting back at you! That just doesn’t work!”
He shrugged, looking as innocent as possible.
“I’m sorry, but it just had to be done. You should know me well enough to stay on your guard.”
He snickered as he repeated my words from several minutes ago. Standing up, I despaired at the sad state of my clothes. They were even wetter than Matt’s and I whined as I examined them.
“I’m never trusting you again!” I said to him, although I didn’t really mean it.
Still, I wasn’t going to let him get away with this. Trudging to the edge of the stream, I leaned against the side melodramatically. I gave him the glare of all glares and moaned about my clothes again.
“You’re so mean,” I said, drawing out the last word.
Sighing out loud, I looked up at him pathetically, where he was still smiling, but with a look of pity for me too.
Using the most pathetic voice I had, I weakly said, “Could you at least help me out? You shoved me in here and now I’m stuck.”
He snorted, and I reassured myself he deserved what was about to happen.
“All right,” he said, still smirking, “I guess that would be fair.”
He knelt down, offering me his hand. Planting my foot on the wall lining the stream, I gripped his hand and proceeded to pull. My body was supported by the wall and his center of balance was off, so my plan went perfectly.
He plunged into the water, getting completely drenched.
“Ha! I win! Mwuhahahaha!” I crowed in victory.
Matt looked at me solemnly, not expecting this development. He rushed into the stream, and splashed me with an excess of water, surprising me. With a cry of indignation, I splashed him back. We attacked each other with the water, exclaiming every time an icy wave hit us.
Soon we were laughing at each other. We broke down, having to lean on the edge for support. We were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe, and my eyes started to tear up. We managed to disrupt every creature around us, and if any person were to come by, they would think us mad.
We eventually calmed down, although my sides still hurt. Huffing and puffing, Matt heaved himself out of the water. He was taller than me, and when I attempted to do the same, I found myself too short. Matt was leaning his hands on his knees, still out of breath.
“I’m stuck, Matt.”I said, this time serious.
He looked at me as if I was crazy.
“Do you really think that I’m stupid enough to fall for the same trick twice?” he asked.
Oh, no. I tried again, seeking to gain a foothold in the wall, but finding none.
“I’m serious, Matt.” I whined.
He watched me struggle for a moment, then approached cautiously.
“I swear, if you pull me in again I am going to tackle you.”
Looking at him in annoyance, I snapped, “Okay, okay! I won’t, just get me out of here. It’s cold.”
He braced his foot on a nearby rock just in case, and offered me a still wet hand. He pulled me out of the water, leaving me huffing on my hands and knees.
“Maybe next time you won’t splash me and then pull me into some water. Without me, you couldn’t have gotten out.” He commented offhandedly.
“Well maybe next time you won’t dump water on me while I’m sleeping, causing retaliation, and then get pulled into water for pushing me. You wouldn’t have ended up in there at all if you hadn’t pushed me.”
He scoffed, but still smiled. Both soaking, we gathered our stuff and headed down the road, making a path with the water droplets that fell from our clothes and hair. We must have looked so ridiculous.
We air dried after a few hours, but our hair was intensely ruffled. I ran my hands through my hair in attempt to tame it, but I was no use. My hair wasn’t going to look normal down, and I had nothing to put it up with. Bemoaning my fate to Matt, he looked at me strangely.
“Why does it matter?” he said, obviously bemused.
“It’s all over my face! And I just look ridiculous! It’s easy for you to say it doesn’t matter, all you have to do is ruffle your hair a little and it looks fine!”
I reached up for his hair and ruffled it, to make a point. He tried to dodge my fluffing, but it was too late.
“See?” I said grumpily, “Your hair is just like it always is.”
He shrugged, rolling his eyes. He thought for a second, looking around, and then stopped in front of a plant.
Peeling off a piece he explained, “This is called Dogbane, you can use the vine part to make ropes.”
He worked on the plant for a moment, then produced a small circle of vine. Perplexed, I asked him what it was for.
Sighing, he said, “It’s to put up your hair silly! You complain about not having a hair tie, and then don’t know one when you see one.”
Feeling silly, I took the circle from him. Smoothing back my hair into a ponytail, I used the loop to tie it back.
“Thanks.” I said.
He smiled at me and said, “Anytime. Nature has a way of giving you exactly what you need. Everything has a use, right down to the littlest speck.”
Feeling better now that my hair wasn’t in my eyes, I continued walking again. After another long day, we reached our camp.
“We’re going to town tomorrow right?” I asked, wishing with all my might for a shower and a soft bed.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling, “We are. Missing a bed?”
I nodded enthusiastically. We set up, and Matt supervised me as I started the fire again. It made me happy to see the fruits of my efforts literally ignite.
It was getting darker now, and the sun had almost disappeared, only a slice in the sky now. I felt a strong sense of dread towards the coming night. Last night’s nightmare had been terrible, and I didn’t know how well I could cope tonight. I wandered around the camp, finding sanctuary by the side of a hill overlooking the pond nearby. Matt was settling in for the night, having already changed. He yawned, and I was reminded of how he was up late last night with me. He watched me pace to the hill, and padded over to me.
“Hey,” he said drowsily, “You coming?”
There was no way I was going to admit I was scared to sleep, but I didn’t have any other excuse to avoid it.
Making it up as I went, I said, “Not right now, I’m not very tired.”
I tried to make my voice nonchalant, but it was a terrible lie. Anyone who hadn’t slept the previous day would be tired, and he knew just how little sleep I had gotten. He didn’t say anything, but I knew he didn’t buy it for a second. He knows, I thought. Even so, I wouldn’t bring myself to say I was scared. I would keep the façade going for as long as possible, no matter how weak it was sometimes. It was the only thing I had left.
Matt spoke from his position next to me, saying, “I’m not that tired either. Let’s stay up for a little while and talk. We can do some I Spy.”
I knew it was only for me, because he was just as tired. I felt the urge to snap at him that I didn’t need company, but I didn’t want to shun him away. I resolved to say I was going to bed before it got too late. Just because I wouldn’t sleep didn’t mean he couldn’t.
He stayed up with me for a while, and we played games. We ran out of things to spy, however, so we ended up talking about life. He told me about his friend we were meeting, and I told him a funny story about a lizard jumping on this girl’s nose that had been mean to me. She freaked out, even though it was harmless. It was getting late now, and I decided here would be the cutoff.
I faked a yawn, and rubbed my eyes.
“I think I’ll head to bed now,” I said, making my voice sleepy.
He agreed, and we strolled down the hill together. As we snuggled into our respective sleeping bags, Matt called out to me.
I looked to him, only to find his eyes directly staring into mine.
“I just wanted to say that you can tell me pretty much anything. It’s your choice, of course, but know that I’m always here. Okay?”
I didn’t know what to say. I went for a mix, putting my tough and soft sides together.
“You’re so weird,” I said, starting with tough, “But thanks, I guess. I understand.”
I made my voice softer the second part, so that it seemed more gentle. He bid me goodnight and I did likewise, lying down in my bag, Ozzie snuggled in the crook of my arm. His crooked smile was endearing, and I held him just a little tighter.
I lay in the most awkward position I could find, hoping the discomfort would keep sleep away. I lay awake and listened to the bugs, focusing on different ones so they didn’t blend. I listened to the birds, the bugs, the bees. I thought about anything that would keep me awake. I felt my eyes start to get heavy several times, but I pinched myself as hard as I could, almost crying out.
I could feel the dreams lurking there, deep in my subconscious, but omnipresent and ready. I knew I would have to face them eventually, but I sure as hell would make it as hard for them to get me as possible. I hadn’t been worried about nightmares since I was a kid, and none of them had been this serious.
At first, they were of things kids are usually scared of. Monsters, aliens, zombies. But then, as I was left in solitude, they were all about having no friends, or parents. Of course, these were more painful, for they didn’t disappear when I woke up.
With the things before, I woke wake up and they wouldn’t exist. But these other dreams were, in fact, very true. I would wake up and I wouldn’t have anyone to comfort me. I would go to school the next day and have no friends. There was nobody to eat lunch with, nobody to partner up with in class. I was paired with the teacher or the kid who had been missing a friend that day, who proceeded to avoid me like a plague. It wasn’t that they hated me, at least not at that time, it was more that I was different. Their parents didn’t like such an anomaly hanging around their kids, and so they told them to only converse with me when necessary.
I had nobody on parent teacher conference day, nobody in the PTA, and nobody to chaperone for our field trips. I was in elementary school, higher up in the grades.
I remember this one time we all had to bring snacks to school, and we were all assigned a date. When the child brought snacks, they were rewarded with a beanie baby from on top of the bookcase in our homeroom. The teacher had so many, in so many colors. Many students had a hard time choosing, but I knew exactly which one I wanted. There was a small little lady bug, wedged back into the corner by the other animals. It was a simple little thing, with a red torso and six black string legs. There were eight spots sewn into its back, and it had two little bead eyes on its small head. It was never chosen by anyone, and I felt like that was because it was made for me.
Being kids, we didn’t have any money to buy snacks. This meant we were required to get our parents to buy them for us. Still, my teacher absentmindedly assigned me a day, and I was so excited. I sprinted out the door at the end of school, to go see the mayor. He was the one who gave me the things that I needed, and so I would need to ask him. It hadn’t bothered me that much that I didn’t have parents, for I didn’t know any better. I was lonely, of course, but I hadn’t felt the true isolation in full.
I entered his office, and he was talking on the phone. The mayor was not exactly what I would call a cruel man, but he was not one suitable for raising kids. I waited patiently for him to get off of the phone, just as I had been instructed.
Once, I interrupted a phone call, and he had given me a twenty minute lecture on not bothering adults. I couldn’t bother him in many situations. If he had a call, a meeting, guests in his office, or if he was working on paperwork. This didn’t leave much time, but there were moments. He got off of the phone, and noticed me quietly standing there.
“What do you need, Veronica?”
It was a tired voice. I told him I needed money to get snacks for school.
He looked at me sternly, and said, “I can’t give you money for silly things like that, Veronica. The city gives you money to give you basic necessities, not to buy snacks for school.”
He stood up, preparing to leave. I tugged on his sleeve.
“Wait!” I exclaimed, “If we bring snacks we get a little stuffed animal. There is this little ladybug that is meant for me. I need to bring in snacks or I can’t get it. Please, sir?”
I didn’t even really know his real name anymore, because I had become accustomed to just using sir. Irritated, he yanked his sleeve out of my grasp.
his important office voice he scolded, “I told you I can’t. You need the money for more important things. A ladybug is not a necessity.”
He straightened his jacket, walking through his door. I ran after him.
“You don’t understand! This is important! I’ve never asked you for anything like this before. Please. Pretty please with cherries and ice cream on top?”
He had become angry now, and I knew I had asked too many times. It had been so important to me, and I was furious he couldn’t understand.
“Veronica,” he warned, admonishing, “No means no. I will not discuss this anymore. I have a business meeting, and I don’t have the time to deal with such trivial matters. Run along home now, and don’t ask me again.”
With that, he left. I trudged down the street, downtrodden. When I got home, I threw down my backpack and cried. To me, that ladybug had been everything. And now that I had no snacks, I would never get it.
I went into school on my assigned day, empty handed and ashamed. The kids grumbled when they learned of my failure to provide nourishment for them. We ate animal crackers the teacher kept in her closet, but they were nothing compared to what we usually got to eat.
Other kids brought in strawberries, or brownies, or sometimes even entrées like lasagna. Sally’s mom had made it for her, and we all clapped for her contribution. She got to pick one of the big stuffed animals, usually reserved for especially good behavior.
I never got one of these, for I never had anyone to show my good behavior to. I couldn’t share with kids because they never asked. I never hugged someone who was sad, for their friends reached them first.
I tried to talk to the teacher, to explain to her I didn’t have any money, and she said she understood. When I grew elated, she told me that she couldn’t give me one. She understood my predicament, and didn’t blame me, but couldn’t give me a stuffed animal because then others would want one without bringing in a snack. She couldn’t favor me.
The ladybug was never chosen, left behind, shoved into the corner.
I came back a year later, passing her room in the hall, and it was still there. It broke my heart, and became the gateway for my longing for parents. I was never quite the same after that day.
I lay in my sleeping bag now, thinking of the small animal, and doing all that I could to stay awake. The hours passed, and I spent them in a half-asleep state. I dreamed a bit, more awake than asleep. I saw a boy, one smiling with joy. He was dancing with what appeared to be a younger me, laughing and hugging my younger self. It’s my brother, I realized in my more lucid moments. I couldn’t remember what happened to him, or anything else about him. Only that he was my brother.
As the sun began to rise, I waited for Matt to “wake” me up. I hadn’t slept at all, and it had felt lonely. Even though Matt had been right there, next to me, I still felt isolated when it was silent.
I reflected back on that poor stuffed animal, shoved against the shelf, almost like me. I wanted that bug so bad, simply because it was me. I pondered over the fate of the stuffed creature now, and I wondered about mine.Would I be stuffed behind others my whole life? Or would I finally be chosen? I could only wait to find out.