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I passed the bountiful basket of hot biscuits, because my mother told me to. I poured my father the premium fresh squeezed orange juice into his pre-chilled glass, because he told me to. I stabbed a section of my undercooked, runny scrambled eggs with my fork and stared at them. The fork barely even possessed enough power to hold together the watery mess they were. My mother is on this new kick where she thinks that by eating undercooked food, will save the withering environment by using less power to cook. She evidently missed the part where undercooked food causes salmonella, e.coli and bacterial diseases resulting in an agonizing death. See also: child neglect. See also: child endangerment.
It was Sunday morning, and our family was suited up in our enviable designer clothing to go to church. This was more than a weekly event for me because I was, unfortunately, the pastor’s daughter. I had the responsibility of being pretty, but not seductively so. Pious, but not overly in-your-face. Gracious, kind, and polite, but in good balance.
My mother’s plate looked like that of a picky six year old. She hardly ate anything during our daily meals, and promptly scampered off to the bathroom afterwards, leaving spewed chunks of previously digested food on the cold tile for one of the staff members to clean up. This frail brunette woman was the living definition of an emotional wreck.
I inquired my father about his sermon for the morning to pretend/show that I care, “What topic will you preach about today, daddy?” but I really meant was, “What false hope will you implant into the gullible congregation today, pops?” But of course, the truth is always better kept inside. “Janice, do I ever tell you?” he answered with a sly smile on his lips. “Nope,” I said back with a pretend pout on my cherubic face. I was playing my role of adoring daughter and he loved it.
After the service my parents went out to dinner to some classy, expensive restaurant with their church friends, leaving me in an empty house devoid of any adult supervision. The cooking and cleaning staff had off today, so I was completely alone for a change. I walked through the massive front doors and threw my pale pink tote bag onto the stiff chair in the grand room and looked around. I never really took the time to look at the interior decoration of our house, because frankly, I didn’t really care what my mother did with the place, as long as I had my own room. But in that moment, I looked around at every abstract painting, every lamp, the stately grandfather clock, with the carefully placed matching furniture, and wondered how much it all cost to hire someone to plan and purchase all of these unnecessary items. The cost of everything in this room alone would be enough money to feed an entire impoverished village in Africa, I reflected. Suddenly, I was disgusted at everything in my pretentious home. See also: shallow. See also: HGTV wannabes
In an angry blur, I stomped up the steel spiral stairs to my room/ personal sanctuary, and slammed the door shut. I turned up the shiny dial on my stereo, and blasted the music my father called the “demonic angry girl rock” that he absolutely hated. It had a hard, booming beat and wild, crazy guitar riffs, all pulled together with the lead female singer’s piercing spouts of screeches. The anti-conformity attitude of it was the underlying force that drove me to do something that had been lurking on the outskirts of my mind ever since puberty.
Without thinking about it, I grabbed my old Jansport backpack from inside my walk-in closet and stuffed in the first things I could think of. I packed a few shirts and tank tops, a pairs of jeans, some flip flops, and my lucky purple elephant charm for good luck. I smashed open my heavy piggy bank of cash that I’d been stowing away since age 7. I grabbed the bills and stuffed them into my backpack without bothering to count them. I then dashed downstairs and scoured the snack pantry for food to bring along, but was disappointed to only find repulsive organic fruit leather and dry baked chips. I opted for the chips and stuffed in a bag along with a bottle of Fiji water. I slung the bag over my shoulder and walked out of the place that I’d called home for 15 years of life without one glance back. I stood on the front porch and seriously considered going back inside, unpacking my bag, and having a good laugh about how outrageous I was. But I was sick of being suffocated by my phony parents, sick of being suffocated by the phony church community, and sick of being suffocated by the strict structure of school. Feeling independent and in command of my life, I slid on my black sunglasses, laced up my Pumas and sprinted for the bus station.
Sunday evening didn’t seem to be a particularly busy day in the bus travel business, because the station was pretty much abandoned when I finally arrived, out of breath and disheveled from dodging cars and facing the wrath of the wind. The haggard old woman behind the ticket counter was protected from potential armed ticket-nabbers by a plastic shield that separated people from any physical contact with her. I sympathized with her situation, having to be pent up in a small booth without air conditioning seven days a week, though she probably lived before it was even invented. I smiled at her in an attempt to apologize for her career misfortune, but my kindness was impassible to her rigid exterior, probably hardened from years of some serious ticket sales. The sullen woman uttered a question, “One-way, or roundtrip to where?”
Confidently, I answered her, “One-way to Portland.”
I gave her the $150 I owed for my golden ticket out, and as she slid it under the opening to mo, she said “Good luck.” As if she knew everything I was running away from, and everything I was about to encounter, just by looking at me.
Sitting on the crooked wooden bench awaiting the arrival of my Greyhound chariot to whisk me away to freedom, I dumbly thought about how it would’ve been smart to bring an entertaining book or trashy gossip magazine. Time seems to go by tediously slow when waiting for something thrilling to happen.
The Greyhound bus finally arrived, and as it stalled to let passengers aboard, I quickly grabbed my backpack and climbed onto the massive bus. After handing the driver my ticket, I paused to scan the available seats on the bus. I settled with a window seat next to a friendly looking middle aged woman, who faintly reminded me of a nicer version of my idiotic mother. She was reading an Oprah's Book Club novel, and drinking Vitamin Water. I glanced down at her prim J. Crew attire and briefly wondered why she was riding a dirty Greyhound bus instead of sitting first class on a flight to Martha's Vineyard. She flashed a warm smile at me that shocked me so much that I forgot to respond appropriately and smile back until she was already back to reading her engrossing novel. As the wheels began to roll, I hugged my backpack close against my chest and leaned my head against the cold glass window, and drifted into a dreamless sleep to commence the 37 hour voyage to Portland.
I groggily pried open my eyes to see how far I'd gotten. When I glanced over, the woman that had been sitting next to me had since left, leaving a depressing gap of empty space next to me. To fill the void, I put my backpack in the seat. I looked out of the window again and saw a standard green highway sign that read "10 MILES TO PORTLAND".
I'd finally arrived at the Portland bus station, and my excitement was so overwhelming that I practically tripped down the bus steps to get to land. With my trusty backpack on my back, and the crisp air cooling my face, I finally felt true independence. As I stood in the middle of the bus terminal, people were all around me, pushing past me with places to go. My adrenaline rush quickly drained as I realized that I hadn't thought about what I was going to do beyond this point. I never really believed I would get this far away from Georgia. I decided to act like I knew exactly where I was going, just like everyone else seemed to, and began to walk towards bright lights that appeared to be the heart of the city. As I was walking, my stomach began to angrily growl at me, and I realized I hadn't eaten anything since yesterday's undercooked breakfast. The thought of the organic chips in my backpack made my stomach lurch even more, so I resorted to getting a quick fast food fix at McDonald's, because I knew how disgusted my mother would be. After my revolting yet filling meal of a greasy double cheeseburger and large order of fries, washed down with a sugary soda, I was sick of trudging through the streets. I decided to stand on the side of the road and stick out my thumb to wait for a ride. I felt like one of those carefree hippie chicks from the 70s without any sense of danger, for America then was all about peace, love, and marijuana.
A large cargo truck finally acknowledged my extended thumb, and pulled over to the side of the road to pick me up. I felt his eyes slowly scan me up and down as I attempted to climb into the huge truck. I finally closed the heavy door and settled in, fastened the loose seatbelt, and looked up at driver. He seemed to be in his late 50s, with a lifetime’s worth of beer settled in his protruding belly. He had overgrown facial hair, probably neglected from weeks of traveling. Empty liters of Pepsi bottles were strewn about the floor of the truck, along with cigarette butts, crumpled Snickers bar wrappers, and grease saturated Burger King take out bags. He smiled at me, revealing his eroding yellow teeth, which were probably also neglected along with other facial hygiene.
“Where to little lady?” he asked me with a wry grin.
“Umm,” I stammered, “a motel for the night, I guess.”
A classic rock station was playing faintly in the background, but the droan of the truck’s powerful engine overpowered the sound of the old laid-back music. We drove on in silence, and I naively believed that I was safe with this strange man. Soon, we arrived at the motel. On the motel’s sign, “24 HR MOTEL”, the 2 and 4 were blinking, and the L and E were completely dark, making it look like 24 HR MOT. I grew uneasy as the man parked and got out of the truck, leaving me inside alone. I really hope he doesn’t think I want to get a room with him, I thought as he opened my door for me. Well, at least he’s courteous. I grabbed my backpack from the grimy floor, and he helped me down to the road. His warm grip on my arm was too forceful for my comfort, and I pondered on how I could detach myself from him.
“Well, thanks for the ride…..” I said, hoping he’d take a hint.
“You take good care of yourself now. A pretty young thang like you ain’t safe this time o’ night, ya hear? Whatever youz runnin’ away from, cain’t be as bad as what you’re gunna face on these here streets of Portland,” he warned.
“Thanks,” I said.
And with that, he revved up his truck and drove out of the parking lot and into the thick blackness the night. I stood there and soaked in the scenery. I was in a desolate area of the city, surrounded by run-down buildings and dimly lit street lamps.
With the temperature dropping lower with each passing minute, and my energy level slipping away with each sluggish blink, I decided to invest some cash into a cheap motel room for the night. Just imagining the fuzzy cable, warm running water and semi-clean sheets lifted my spirits enough to march up to the customer service desk. The lazy looking middle-aged man working behind the desk was aloofly staring at a 10 inch television screen, what appeared to be Three’s Company reruns. See also: minimum wage slacker.
“Hi, how are you?” I asked gently, not pausing long enough for a response, “I need one room for the night, please.”
“Sure, I just need to see your license,” He said sarcastically, obviously knowing was far from adulthood.
“You and I both know I’m not eighteen,” I began, trying a new approach, “But if you let me get a room, maybe if you’re lucky…,” I winked, “you can come visit me later tonight and-”
“You get a room in this motel, I go to jail. I touch you, I go to jail,” He interjected sternly.
I pouted at him, but he was unfazed. Realizing there was no way to win in this situation without stealing a room key or killing him, I cursed at him and walked back out into the dreary night, feeling defeated.
I began to wander the dark streets once more, this time looking for a decent place to hide out for the night. Cars whizzed past me, making me shudder even more in the harsh coldness. A thick stench began to attack my nasal passages, so I looked down to see where the source was. I was standing in a puddle of dark yellow pee. A ragged looking elderly homeless man, dressed in dirty layers of stained clothing snickered at me. I put my head down and kept walking.
The darkness of the night grew denser, and as the presence of street lights became less and less apparent, I could tell I was entering a shady part of the city. Eventually, I stumbled upon an alleyway that looked good enough to be a potential hide out for the night. A few seemingly abandoned cardboard boxes were huddle together next to an overflowing dumpster, so I set my backpack down and sat on the damp ground.
“OW!” cried an aggravated female voice, “John!! Please don’t hurt me again!!”
I swiftly got up to leave, “Sorry, I didn’t now anyone was in here.”
“No, no! It’s okay, stay. You won’t find anywhere else decent to sleep tonight.” She peered at me through her makeshift cardboard bed, “You must be a newbie. Is this your first night?” she asked gently.
“Yes,” I said. My voice was shaky, filled with emotion I didn’t realize I’d possessed until now. “I tried to stay at this crappy motel, but you have to be eighteen.” Hot tears infiltrated my eyes, and I began to cry.
“There, there now. It’s okay, it’ll all be okay.” She patted my back and tried to console me.
“Sorry,” I wiped my dripping nose clean with the back of my hand, “I don’t know where that came from. I’m Janice.”
“I’m Fire.” she said, softly smiling at me. “I don’t usually do this sentimental shit, but I can tell you’re a good kid. Whatever you’re running away from, you won’t find the answer out here.” She pulled a crumpled pack of Marlboro cigarettes from beneath her and lit it with a neon pink lighter. The small flame illuminated her face for a split second, revealing her grungy appearance and dyed red hair.
“I left home from Nevada six years ago when I was eleven. My mother was a crack addict. I could deal at first; she’d go out and get her fix after work, then come back home and everything would be normal. But then she lost her job, leaving us without lights or running water for days until she could run into some money doing odd jobs around the city. Soon, she ran out of money altogether. She didn’t have any cash for crack, so she prostituted me to her dealer; I split.”
I felt her staring at me in the darkness, waiting for a reaction.
“Wow,” I uttered, “I’m so sorry.” She took a long drag of her cigarette.
“Whatever. It was fun at first, but after the excitement goes, it’s all about survival. I don’t remember the last time I took a shower, my last meal was a stolen Twinkie from some convenience store, and I never know if today will be the day I get stabbed or shot or raped by some crazy street kid. I can’t even get tampons without having to steal.” she said.
“Wow,” I choked out again. Then it hit me. What real issue did I have to run away for? So what, my parents are pretentious idiots and I have to pretend to be a person I’m not. At least I know my mother would never willingly let someone take advantage of me, and I’m guaranteed to have food and electricity when I get home. My petty complaints don’t compare to that of Fire’s. “I’m soooo stupid!”
“Don’t worry kid. They have a deal for runaways that want to go home down at the police headquarters,” she said. “They’d be overjoyed to have the opportunity to one get of us bums off the streets.” She added bitterly. Her cigarette was condensing, leaving it stubby looking. She took one last drag and stabbed the remains into the ground. The ashes flickered a brilliant orange, and then faded into the darkness.
Silence overtook the alleyway, and a police siren cried in the distance, soon followed by Fire’s soft snoring. I spotted a lone shred of cardboard a few feet away, brushed a few cockroaches off of it, and laid on it, using my backpack as a pillow.
I awoke the next morning to the sight of Fire sitting cross legged on her cardboard bed, talking softly to a boy who looked about our age. After I wiped the grainy sleep boogers out of my eyes, I began to get up, when a harsh cold attacked my feet. I looked down to find that my Pumas had been taken.
“It happens,” Fire said apologetically, “Someone must’ve stolen ‘em while we were sleeping.”
The thought that some stranger had been lurking anywhere near me while I was asleep sent chills through me.
“I’ve gotta head into town today to take care of something, but I can show you how to get to the police station if you’re ready.” she told me.
I scoured through my bag to find the pair of flimsy rubber flip flops I’d packed before I’d left. I slid them on my dirty feet and threw my bag over my shoulder.
“You’re going to take a left down Mullin Street, then keep straight until you see a CVS, then cross the street and you’ll see the police headquarters. Don’t worry, you can’t miss it.”
There was a pause. Part of me didn’t want to leave Fire, to stay with her and be her homeless street companion, but the wiser part of me knew my place was back at home.
We embraced. “Take care of yourself Fire. Thank you for everything,” I said.
“Sure. Things aren’t always the way you think they are. You’ll learn.” And with that, Fire walked out of the alley and into the busy streets of Portland.
Not wanting to remain in the dirty alley a second longer than necessary, I grabbed my backpack and left, carefully following the directions Fire had given me. Walking through the hectic streets, a sense of satisfaction washed through me. I knew I had a home to go back to, and everything would turn out fine.
I arrived at the CVS pharmacy store where I was to cross the street. I pressed the button at the crosswalk post and waited for the authoritative outstretched palm to morph into an animated walking man. A flood of people pushed past me to cross the street, snapping me out of a quick daydream of my plush bed back home that awaited my arrival. The halt signal was displayed on the screen again, but the cars had yet to resume driving, so I briskly began to walk across the street. Suddenly, what felt like a solid wrecking ball, punctured me, and an overwhelming sensation of throbbing pain shot overtook me. The world went black.
I pried my eyes open to see if there was a heaven, or if the eternal darkness of death had already swallowed me whole. I was alone, in the same alley from the previous night, wallowing in excruciating pain. I tried to sit up, but attempting to move my leg opened up a gash like a bleeding human mouth. The throbbing was echoing in my head, to the point where my thoughts were drowned out by the bass line of my pain. When I attempted to open my mouth to cry for help, my lips were so cracked and my throat was so dry, that sound refused to come out. My pants were drenched with my own blood. I could feel certain bones splintered out of shape and bruises developing on my sides. My vision faded as blackness began to pollute my vision.
Somewhere in the distance, the sweet smell of my mother’s perfume filled my nostrils with the warm feeling of home. I felt the starched back of my father’s business shirt familiarly on my palm. My head tilted involuntarily, with my strength flowing from my form. The outlines of mother and father lingered before me, drifting closer and closer, and I was gone.