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The bird’s song whistled sweetly as I crossed the broken bridge to the other side of the flowing river. It’s been there for years, made of metal; twisted and turned in the ways that time wished it to. It was faded in color, but ripe of crimson red rust and old age. It simply led to the other side of the river, but at 17 it took me to a place of peace and comfort. I was entering an imaginary world where everything was perfect. I leaped over the old tire that fastened the last few inches onto the other side of the bank, and ventured into the woods. It was early morning and the leaves were swaying in the wind and some sheep dogs barked up the dusty road. It was one of those perfect mornings when it wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold, and the flowers trickled with the slightest bit of dew. I was in love with the serenity around me, only wishing that the magic would never end. As I wandered deeper I heard a soft muffled sound coming from my left. My curiosity got ahead of me, so I went searching for the source of this racket.
That summer I had stayed at my grandfather’s house and helped him with his farm. I got a part time job at the local Winn Dixie and loved helping out around the house; but I usually kept to myself. I was the only one I could trust. After Jade’s party last year, the night I lost my best friend in the accident, nothing was ever the same. I envisioned life in a completely different way; appreciated it more, and thanked God every night to be alive. I got away from all of them, all my old “friends”, that were never really friends at all, and I moved up here and taught myself instead of going to school. I was at peace with myself, and for some reason, I didn’t miss it at all. Everything was better.
I crept quietly now, getting closer to what I realized was a small child. A little girl, curled up underneath the branches of a red oak tree. She was clothed in torn jeans and a dirty white undershirt. It was dead center of the summer, but I knew she had to be cold. No shoes and greasy hair, she couldn’t have bathed in the past few weeks. Walking slowly towards her and looking into her deep brown eyes I asked her what her name was. She humbly responded, “Dakota”. I observed her skittish behavior and knew she was trying to distance herself from me. I asked her if she would like to come along with me, back to grandpa’s house, but she refused. I thought perhaps she knew nothing of a warm bed and hot food to eat, so I told her I would be right back and I vanished into the depth of the woods. I ran quickly, wondering if she would trust me enough to return for her. Thoughts raced through my mind as I sprinted the two miles back to the house. I wondered if she had a family, or if she had a home somewhere in the woods. As I ran into the house, looking for some food for her to eat, my grandfather was working hard at his tool bench. That was what he did; he worked until his fingers bled. Of everyone I knew, I resembled him the most. We were independent people, and we didn’t need anyone else to complete us.
I came back to the place where I saw her before, and she was no longer there. I sighed out of grief; I wished I hadn’t left her there. I began looking around; wandering through the woods, searching in and out, and I crossed the river three times. It was not an accidental noise; I know she wanted me to hear her, so I followed it. I saw her curled up in a ball again, as if she was afraid to come in contact with anything or anyone. She was secluding herself from the rest of the world. She reminded me of myself in a way, how I wanted to get away from everyone and be alone. I tried to give her some of the food, but she wouldn’t take it. I thought of some way to earn her trust.
I sat down next to her and asked her questions, which went unanswered. So I began rambling on about myself, trying to let her know who I was and get her to tell me more about who she was. She wouldn’t say anything. I had no idea what time it was, but I was sure I had been there for hours. I mentioned something about my mother, and she muttered something about hers and I prodded, trying to learn as much as I could about her. I told her how I came from a busy suburban area, a place where all around you could hear the car horns of impatient businessmen and women trying to get to their 8:00 meetings on time. Everyone was in such a big rush, that there was no time to sit and think for yourself. I hated it there and I would have done just about anything to get away. I didn’t know if she even understood anything I was saying, but I told her anyway. I could wander outside for as long as I wanted and not have to worry about getting lost. In fact I loved being lost. On a summer night, sitting on a hill watching the sun go down and not caring that it would be dark soon and I might not find my way home. I knew I would get there somehow, sometime. I told her about my family downstate and how I was very different from them. They were material people; they demanded more ‘things’. I was never that way; I had two pair of jeans, one full of holes, the other for special occasions. My tennis shoes were falling apart, but I wouldn’t give them up. I was simplistic, in my mind and soul. I knew Jesus, but there were few other people I trusted with my life. My friends had a good time drinking and getting into hard drugs, but my ideas of fun revolved around reading and lying on the beach in the middle of the night listening to the waves crash along the shore. I loved learning knew things, but I hated school. I hated being told what to do. They didn’t understand me, and I wouldn’t let them. I just figured no one could. I wasn’t the same as everyone else.
This girl intently watched and took in every word I said. I felt a connection with her, even though she was unresponsive and frightened. She grabbed my arm and whispered, “I get you.” I didn’t know how to react. It was like one of those times when a little kid asks you where babies come from, and you search the depths of you for a satisfactory answer, but can never do better than ‘a stork drops them off’. She finally opened up to me and told me that she ran away from home a month ago and she had been living in these woods, stealing food out of my grandpa’s garden at night. She didn’t belong either, but for a completely different reason. Her parents were abusive and she couldn’t take it anymore. I immediately felt that I was taking life for granted, that I had more than I needed, and that I was lucky enough to have things that I want. We talked for a while longer and then I brought her back to the house.
When we walked to the door, my grandfather paused from his work just long enough to look up. “Who’s this?”
Surprisingly, she responded herself, “I’m Dakota, nice to meet you.”
He nodded and a mere smile formed from the corners of his mouth. “Good. She needs some friends. I was getting worried.” We just looked at each other, smiled, and went inside. My three-year old beagle greeted her with his tail wagging, like he had been waiting for her to get home. I poured us some lemonade and we went outside in to the bright sunshine. It was nearly two o’clock now, and the sun was perfectly placed between two fluffy white postcard clouds. We sat in the grass and took in the warmth around us. Though I had only met this little girl four hours earlier, I felt closer to her than many of my friends back home. She was intrigued by the ants on the ground that worked hard everyday to build something that could easily be destroyed in minutes. But it wasn’t such a crazy idea in my mind. We do it everyday. We work and strive to make something of ourselves, to be great, when it could be over at any moment.
That evening we went for a drive down past the corner store to Riley’s fishing dock; the best place to watch the sun sizzle down into the water. Everything was calm that night, with only two delicate swans that slid gracefully over the water’s edge. I thought back once more to the party last summer, how different this scene was.
The night of the party was wild, somewhat of a blur. Some friends left slammed and slept on the beach. We tagged along, only to wake up in the morning to find Taylor lying on the shore, unconscious. She had jumped off the boat and landed on the edge of the dock, and at that time we had no sense to think she was really hurt, so we crashed and found her dead the next morning. Just then, with Dakota, I scanned the dock, recreating every scene from what I had been through. It almost seemed surreal, even though those images never escaped my mind.
I was glad I had someone here with me now, so I wouldn’t cry. I couldn’t be weak in front of her, so got up and asked her if she wanted to jump in. It was cold out, but we swam for hours. The cool water woke me up, made me feel more alive. That’s just when we needed. We went back home and as she curled up on the couch, the first warm place she had to sleep in a month, she whispered, “Hey Jordan, Thanks.”
I didn’t really know what she meant, but I was too tired to care. “You’re welcome. Goodnight.” It was over, and I knew I had to wake up. So once again, I crossed the bridge back to reality.