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I’m not entirely sure what brought me here to sit on this lonely road. I simply got up, let my body lead me, and walked without thought. Somehow, I ended up here; sitting on the side of the road that slices through the forest my daddy and I used to play in before mom died. I thought about going in and letting the forest swallow me, but I couldn’t make myself. The musty smell brings back too many memories, and there are too many broken bottles lying around. I gaze into a jagged, dark-brown shard of glass lying next to me, glinting cruelly in the sunshine. A girl within stares back at me, knees-to-chest, huddled in a black hoodie even though it’s the middle of summer. Her hands are scarred and mangled, and her gaze is intense, deep brown eyes burning into my own. I sigh, pull my eyes away, and rub the back of my silvery-scarred hand. A summer breeze teases my short, mousy brown hair, and gives the trees behind me voice, sending them into a flurry of whispers, asking why this strange girl is sitting here.
I wish I knew.
A while ago, I was the girl who knew how everything in life would play out. Everything was planned: college, careers, marriage, children, and even what my funeral would be like. I had plans of what to do when daddy’s raspy voice would yell “Shayla LEIGH! Get your butt in here!” And I had plans of how to take care of daddy, even though he now cared for the bottle rather than his daughter. My plans were concrete, and nothing was going to change them. Well, at least, I thought that. A year ago, I learned all it takes to topple an immovable object is a bottle of whiskey.
Daddy had called for me again from the back yard. His tone was harsh, so I knew he had more to drink than he usually did. My plan was to just stay calm; if I did, usually daddy would, too. Though, when I saw him; sparse, scraggly beard peppered with a few stray ashes from the cigarette held between his thin, chapped lips; beady, bloodshot eyes; and that all too familiar bottle clenched so tight his knuckles had gone white, I knew this was not daddy. I tried to turn and run, but he grabbed a handful of my hair, and yanked back hard.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” his voice rang out like a gunshot, cruel and determined.
“Daddy, stop! Let me go!”
He shook me back and forth violently, making spots dance before my eyes.
“Run away from your father, hm? You scared of me or somethin’?” he growled, anger seething from his pores.
“Bill, you aren’t right! P-please stop!” I choked out, fear swelling in my throat. I could feel my heart beating frantically like the wings of a trapped bird, the sound pounding in my ears. I thought my heart may burst, but that was before he wretched me upright, and whispered in my ear with warm, tainted breath:
“I’ll show you something to be scared of.”
My blood ran cold, my heart stopped.
People wonder how I can still love daddy, but I know it wasn’t really him who took the rest of that bottle and doused me down. It wasn’t daddy who lit that match.
My skin felt like it was boiling, every nerve engulfed in pain. I didn’t bother screaming, I don’t think I could have made a sound anyway. The only thing that mattered was to run, get away, make it stop. I ran as fast as my skinny legs could carry me, while that man in daddy’s skin watched, and took a long drag on his cigarette with a grim smile. My body was screaming to stop, shut down, and die, but I wouldn’t let that happen. I pushed forward. I jumped the chain-link fence into my neighbor’s yard, and scrambled into their pool. The screeching pain became nothing more than a dull throb. My heartbeat was the only sound I could hear. It pulsed softly. Quieter. Quieter. Silent.
And that’s where I blacked out.
I woke up a few days later in the hospital, covered in bandages and sore all over. My neighbors stopped by once, carrying grim faces and somber eyes. They brought me flowers, but at that point, I would have preferred an aloe vera plant. They said they found me clinging to the side of the pool with blistered fingers, barely breathing. I wheezed a chuckle at this, and instantly regretted it due to the burns clawing at my sides, but it did sound like me. My daddy always said I was a fighter. They also told me that man was in jail, and could never hurt me again. A few days later, my flowers had wilted, and the overpowering sterile smell of the hospital was stronger than ever. An uptight woman with pursed, painted lips came to me one day, after I had healed a bit. A social worker. She had come to take me to my “wonderful new family” that I would simply adore. Being 15 at the time, choice is just a myth, and I was forced along.
The family she placed me in couldn’t have been more stereotypical. Working father, stay-at-home mother, two straight-A and perfect children. I swear, they had a white picket fence to top it all off. No lie. They welcomed me kindly and treated me well, but I think we all knew that I didn’t belong there. They had something good going for them. They didn’t need a broken girl with scarred arms and chest dragging them down. I couldn’t let myself deface their lives. I had to get out of there.
So, here I am. Sitting on the side of this worn, cracked road, waiting. But waiting for what? I let out a helpless sigh.
A deep rumble answers me, thundering up the road. I stand up, dust myself off, and jut out my thumb.
The rumbling grows louder, a faded red pickup sputtering into view. The driver, an older looking woman with silvery-auburn hair pulls the truck over next to me.
She calls out to me in a sweet voice accented with a twang. “Where ya headed, Shuga?” she beams, flashing me a smile. I can feel her grin spread into my face as well, her mood contagious.
“Uhm, I’m not sure. I have nowhere planned. Where are you headed?”
Her eyes travel down my arm, and rest on the back of my hand. Something broke in the woman, her smile fading, the crinkled starbursts that were nesting in the corners of her twinkling green eyes gone. I hurriedly struggle to pull my sleeves over my hands, embarrassed.
“Shuga, what’s yer name?”
“That’s a beautiful name, Shuga,” she paused, perplexed for a moment, “What’cha doin’ out here, Shuga? Ain’t you got a home you should be at or somethin’?”
I look away, and softly murmur, “I don’t have a home, really.”
The woman bit a ruby-colored lip, nodding slightly. “I see… Shuga, if you don’t mind me askin’… How did you—“
“It’s a long story.” I break her wizened gaze and stare at the ground, suddenly interested in the various pieces of broken glass littering it.
I could feel her warm smile on me again.
“I’ve got time. Say, I was headed down to this diner I know, why don’t we head down there, and you can tell me your story? Lord knows a girl like you could use some comfort now.”
I can’t resist that inviting smile. “Okay.”
I climb into the truck and slide into the beaten leather seat.
“I’m Deb, by the way.”
Deb seems nice. I like her. She seems to know I don’t want to talk, and silently makes the truck lurch to a start.
I slide off my hoodie, suddenly feeling suffocated by it. The scars adorning my chest and arms gleam with a silver sheen, uncovered and unabashed. I glance at the road behind us.