I wasn’t guilty, but I wouldn’t call myself innocent either. Not necessarily. I mean, kind of, but not really.
Did I steal a car and set fire to things with faulty reasoning? Yes. Did I lie and crash a wedding reception and beat up a kid? Yeah. But did I travel coast to coast and back again in less than a week and ride in a hot air balloon, and rescue as well as be rescued in the process?
Not entirely untrue, either.
The memory of the last week is a blur with moments of sharpness clouding my vision. I lay on my bed, studying the ceiling as I have for so many years. The door is closed but I can still hear my mom shrieking with terror in the kitchen. As I have for so many years. I was so determined to get out and save mom and me, but I ended up right where I started. Just a little bit more aware that there is a world outside the walls of this house, there is a world of mystery and love and still, violence.
Then there was her. The memory of her races up towards me and attacks me like violent waves pulling me in. And once I’m past the thrashing and straining for air, I give in. I stop fighting. My hands stop clawing the dark water and all is peaceful. For a moment I am dead or at least on my way to death, drowning in her. The remainder of who she was now floats around my entire being silently and constant. Like the calm aftermath of a storm.
I turn onto my side and yell out strange sounds and vowels that don’t really turn into words. Because for or a moment I am there. Not here, in the present, but in the past floating back to the adventures of yesterday.
The puke threatened to escape my mouth before I did the trailer.
The rope handle of the duffel bag scratched my skin as I hauled it over my shoulder. The front door to the motor home creaked when it opened, and creaked when it closed, sending unmistakable chills up my spin, despite the sweltering heat of the summer morning. When I imagined this day, this glorious day of freedom, I thought I’d get more satisfaction from closing that door behind me. But I was honestly just terrified.
Terrified my step dad would wake up and beat the living crap out of me for even thinking of running away. Terrified the neighbors would see me stealing his car and call the cops. Terrified my mom would stare at me with her big black eye and ask why her son was abandoning her.
Well I wasn’t. As I began working on my first hot wiring job, I recited the vow I created years ago when I first started planning my run away. The moment I was safe and on my feet, I would rescue my mom and end the life bruises and burns and lies that she built for us.
The wires were slippery and warm as I fumbled through the procedure like surgery. Careful, double-checking, and over thinking. By the time I finished, it wasn’t perfect, but I could feel the crusty fabric on the seats heating up as the sun rose higher and higher into the sky. I was running out of time.
I decided to keep the tools. The car was a piece of crap and I might’ve needed them down the road. This trip could not afford to be delayed a second.
My destination wouldn’t wait forever.
With the quiet click of the car door echoing in my head, I climbed into the vehicle, shifted gears and pulled forward. The car started out of the parking lot in an eruption of rattles and screeches, flinging gravel as I drove. I cringed at the noise, my fingers trembling on the steering wheel.
Come on, Daniel. Come on, it’s seven AM; no one in this trailer park will hear you.
Taking too long to look both ways before pulling onto the road, I twisted my shoulders and rubbed my neck, then slowed my breathing, all attempts to relax.
None of which actually worked.
The car and I started down the road. Turning left, then right, we drove one point three miles and ended up in the center of town. Another two miles and we were on Jefferson Street. The road that point four miles later would transform into the high way.
I had this memorized, for years it became the anthem of late nights at the library, avoiding going home and researching the easiest escape routes away from here. Eventually, the librarian and her staff kicked me out because I stayed so late, offering to help stack books-.
“Shit.” I cursed, pulling myself from my thoughts. “Shit, shit.”
There was suddenly a cinder block in my stomach as the car came to a stop behind a long line of other cars, all trying to leave the town and hit the highway. Bumper to bumper was the traffic line up that clogged Jefferson Street. Before I could even think to back out of the lane, a few more cars came up behind me, blocking me in. My whole body trembled as I ran my hands through my hair.
“No freaking way.” I said out loud. If my step dad woke up and realized his car was missing, he was going to come looking. If he walked through this pile up and saw me in his car…
I swore again slamming my fists into the steering wheel. It was far fetched and crazy and what took me less than ten minutes to drive may take him a half hour or more to walk, but anxiety still pushed my mind into further desperation, lunging toward fear.
My idiot brain forgot to think about the reopening of the factory. Instead of opening at nine, after three weeks of no operation, they started opening at eight to make up for the loss of work. And since the whole damn town ran on what money the factory produced, everyone who could had a job there. My step dad did at one point, but he was one of the ones they fired during the temporary shutdown. Too hung-over to go into work too many times.
So line up was from people heading to work using the expressway. Which was, of course, the quickest way out of town. My lungs gulped in air, trying to steady the heartbeat thumping away above them. A sweat broke out across my body. Refusing to let any part of myself calm down, I lifted my eyes to check the rearview mirror, as if Steven, my step dad, could’ve caught up to me by now.
And there she was. A girl, weaving in between the trucks of the tough towns folk, and the minivans of the soccer moms, and the cars of those who found themselves pissed about the work they were headed into. Tall and proud she walked past the cars and the astounded glares from the people sitting in them.
“What the hell,” I muttered to myself as I leaned in closer to the rearview mirror. “What is she…”
I shook the thought of the girl off. Not what I needed to worry about. I began to recite the next steps I’d travel to continue in the direction I wanted to. The times it should take me, approximately. Then my vow to my mom. To our right to-.
Knuckles hitting the passenger window of the car threw my thoughts into the air. Then like a bullets they slammed back into my brain, shoving through my body before drowning in the acid that formed in my stomach.
Steven found me. I thought. Steven, for the love of Christ found me. I’m going to die.
With a shaky breath I faced my stepfather.
But to my surprise, it wasn’t Steven. It was the girl who only moments earlier was walking through the traffic backup.
I glanced into the rearview mirror and noticed that she had in fact disappeared.
Of course she’s not back there you idiot, she’s banging on your passenger window.
Our eyes met. I noticed instantly that hers were a bright blue, just like my moms used to be. They were shining and full with things I had yet to experience, like wonder and innocence, even hope. She knocked again, but I sat frozen just staring. When she motioned for me to roll down the window I finally blinked away from her. Keeping my gaze forward I shook my head.
But I could still see her, out of the corner of my eye I could see her smile widen. She knocked, and then motioned again, still grinning. Out of sheer curiosity and maybe a little because she looked like a happy version of mom, I reluctantly rolled down the window.
“Please,” She said immediately. “Please, I need help.”
I gave her a defeated look. “I’m sorry I don’t have any money.”
She batted the comment away. “I don’t need money, there are two people who are searching for me and I absolutely cannot let them find me.”
My eyes brows rose in confusion at her. What is she talking about?
“Long story short, I need a ride.”
“Oh,” I said, still stunned by her boldness. “I can’t do that.”
Cars were beginning to honk at us. I felt fidgety, shifting my weight because of how uncomfortable I was. A girl coming up to me in the middle of a traffic jam looking for a ride. Not normal.
“Sure you can, actually, I’m positive you will.”
“Unlock the doors please.” She said, her voice soft.
“Are you kidding me?” I snapped, my heart beginning to pump faster. “No, get away, get the hell away-.”
“Please, dear friend, hear me out.”
“I’m not your friend.” I spat.
She smiled a kind of smile I had never seen before in my life. Something genuine and honest. “But you will be.”
Without a moments hesitation she grabbed the roof and pulled herself up, allowing her legs to swing in through the open space.
“No!” I said again, trying to push her incoming limbs back out the window. What did she think she was doing? For all I knew she could be looking to murder me, she could be crazy.
“I’m serious, bitch. Get out of my car!” I shouted. In that moment I felt a frightening kind of power surge through me. I felt like Steven.
“You need me.” She said calmly, as she plopped into the passenger seat.
I blinked at her. I’m not sure if it was the shock or the rage but I couldn’t speak a word.
She reached into a black leather book bag that looked like it was from one of those expensive stores in the mall. Yet, everything else about her screamed secondhand, I would know, because that’s what I was wearing too. So I stared at the girl with ratty hair holding the high end bag and noticed that it still had the price tag on it. None of it made sense.
My jaw tensed, and I clutched the steering wheel even tighter. “Listen chick, you need to-.”
“Here.” She pulled her hand out and let the bag drop to the floor. In between her fingers were three one hundred dollar bills.
“If you take me as far as San Diego, this,” She gestured with the money. “This you can have.”
My mind couldn’t register anything else. I only had about one fifty to make it to the end of my trek. The money might’ve ended up saving me down the road, or at least make the trip easier. But I couldn’t let the fantasy of luxury take away from the fact that a stranger was handing those privileges to me. A stranger who, without invitation, climbed in through my car window.
“How do you know I’m even going there?” I said, narrowing my eyes.
“I don’t.” She said, keeping her hand outstretched. “That’s the point of the cash, friend.”
Of course stopping by San Diego wasn’t the most direct route. I quickly tried to calculate if the three hundred would be worth it after the cost of gas was factored in.
A honk from behind me snapped my thoughts back into perspective. If I needed the money down the line, I would’ve regretted not taking her to a place only a couple hours out of the way.
Traffic started to move and ignoring my instincts, I pressed on the gas and moved with it.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” She said, smiling softly. “Now that that’s settled, let me introduce myself. My name is Gracie.”
“Hi,” I muttered, focusing on weaving in between the cars. “Daniel.”
“It’s so nice to meet you, Daniel. I promise,” She held up three fingers. “To make this ride as bearable as possible and not be a burden on you or your generosity.”
I scoffed her way. “Whatever.”