Walking down the highway in nothing more than a pair of fluffy bunny slippers and the previous night’s pajamas, I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins. The sun seemed to nip at my heels as I shuffled along, adjusting the broken backpack on my shoulder every few steps. One strap had torn away from the bag itself, rendering it useless. Every few minutes a car or truck would pass, close enough to ruffle the tangled mess of hair that sat on my shoulders.
I must have cried myself to the point of dehydration. My tongue felt like sandpaper and every desperate attempt to swallow was like rubbing two pieces of scratchy velcro together. Not even an hour ago I was eating breakfast with my sister. Now I’m walking the two and a half miles to town with a parched throat no clue of what I was going to do or where to go.
I had gotten about halfway to town when another car began to approach from behind. I’d kind of become desensitized to the rush of air that smacked me as vehicles went by. It wasn’t until I could hear the wheels crunching on cement beside me that I realized the vehicle had slowed. Upon further inspection, the car revealed itself to be a cop car. The driver was a well-known cop in Gothenburg by the name of Jill. I’d heard plenty of stories from peers about her busting parties or pulling them over for “nothing”, but never really found any use for the information. She didn’t seem to be a bad guy from her appearance. Her hair was a soft brownish blonde, cut short enough to see her ears and the back of her neck. A few wrinkles along her cheeks and beneath her eyes revealed her older age.
Instead of stopping like any sensible person would, I allowed my emotions to control my feet. She followed along with her lights on, saying nothing. It was odd, and to be honest, annoying. Any cars that passed by would see me and my pathetic state being followed by a cop. I probably looked like an escaped psych ward patient. Who could blame them? I probably did belong in a mental institution. It didn’t sound like a bad offer at the time. Locked away from other people and the world itself. Just me and my thoughts.
“I don’t know where you’re going, but I bet you could get there a whole lot faster in a car.” she finally said, breaking the silence between us.
Of course her statement annoyed me. She only heard the half of the story that my grandparents/abusers told her. From my point of view, it was me vs. everyone else. My heart was filled with hate. The world seemed dull and cruel. I didn’t know how to see the beauty of life. My whole life was spent blindfolded by a suffocating mask of loss and anger.
“Leave me alone.” I growled, not even bothering to look at her. Immediately after I said it, I regretted it. Did I really just say that to a cop? Maybe I am just as bad as my grandparents seem to think.
Jill however, seemed unfazed. “C’mon now. Let’s go get something to eat and talk about what’s going on at home.”
It wasn’t the mention of food that swayed me, but the idea of someone listening to what I had to say. I turned to look at her briefly, again adjusting the bag full of clothes before nodding. I didn’t really know what to say. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to keep up my tough guy act or break down. My indecisiveness led to silence.
It was nice to be off the road and out of the heat. The breeze from the AC was soothing. I hadn’t realized my jaw was clenched the whole time I’d been walking. After my body had relaxed I could feel the ache. Most of the car ride was silent, except for the occasional scratchy voice through the thing on her chest. Once she spoke back, but that was it. It wasn’t until we had gotten to McDonald’s when the silence between us was broken again.
“Do you want to go in or drive thru?” she asked as the car found its way into the parking lot. There was no way I was going into a public place where a few of my peers worked looking the way I did. Blotchy skin, red puffy eyes, pajamas covered in stickers, and a mess of hair that put even a bird’s nest to shame.
So through the drive through we went. I ordered the cheapest meal I could find, a 4 piece chicken nugget with a small sprite. She got herself a Big Mac and a Dr. Pepper, and off we went. She didn’t seem to have a set destination, which wasn’t an issue with me. I’d only managed to get through one chicken nugget when she began to question me.
“So why’d your parents have to call the cops on you?” she said nonchalantly. She was driving with one hand, her body relaxed into the seat and her eyes simply scanning the sidewalks as we passed.
I had to think for a moment on what to say. Did I want to tell the truth, or tell her what she wanted to hear?
“Because I ran away.” I responded, looking out the passenger window.
“Why’d you run away?” she continued, seemingly unfazed by my attempt to beat around the bush. Rather than answering, I simply remained silent. Telling the truth would make things more complicated than they needed to be.
“I don’t know.” I mumbled, this time leaning against the window and trying to scoot as close to the door as possible. Surely she took notice, but paid no mind.
“I think you do.” she said with a raise of her eyebrow. She even went so far as to shoot me a quick glance before returning her gaze to the road. How dare she call me out for something I was obviously doing?
“Why does it matter? Nothing ever changes.” I said, a hint of annoyance creeping through my voice once more. Things would have gone a lot smoother if I would have chosen not to follow the road.
She didn’t say anything for a moment. She seemed to be chewing on what I said. Digesting it and taking in all that its worth.
“Why hide the truth? What are you trying to protect?” she finally said, still watching the road and driving in her nonchalant way. In the corner of her mouth was a splash of ketchup. I hated ketchup, causing a shiver down my spine. Her question was a valid one however. What was I trying to protect? My pathetic excuse of a family?
“I don’t know. I’m just tired of feeling like I’m crazy.”
The honesty in my statement was enough to surprise even myself. I did feel crazy. Anytime I reached out to my dad for help he seemed disgusted by my feelings, and me in general. I was tired of begging him to understand how much it hurt me not only physically but mentally when he put his fist to my face.
“Everyone is crazy to some degree.” she said with a chuckle. “Hell, I’m crazy too!” she paused for a moment, a sudden seriousness taking over. “I can’t force you to tell me what happened, and I don’t plan on it either. I want you to reach out on your own. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. Ever heard that saying before?”
Rather than responding I simply nodded.
“Think of the truth as your water. You can either take it in and feel good, or go without and feel empty.” she said, the car rolling to a stop. I hadn’t been paying attention for the last half of the conversation. I’d been more focused on trying to rip off a pesky hangnail. Once I had realized where we were, I couldn’t help the feeling of dread that brewed in my gut.
“Let’s go get this figured out.” she said, removing the key from the ignition and sliding out of the driver’s seat. It was like I had lost control over my limbs. Before I could really process what I was doing I was out of the car, back in the heat, and at the front door of the house I had just so desperately fled.
There was only a brief wait before my parents let me in. We all sat at the kitchen table and talked. I said what I thought they wanted to hear, Jill left, and I went to my room. Our conversation helped me realize that I am my own salvation. When I am ready to be saved, I will save myself.
Editor’s note: The writer wishes to dedicate this story to Officer Jill Larson (McCandless) who was killed by her husband on June 7, 2019.