Highway | Teen Ink


October 5, 2013
By Storygirl95 GOLD, Longmont, Colorado
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Storygirl95 GOLD, Longmont, Colorado
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Favorite Quote:
"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Highway Chapter 1/Intro

I am a drifter. A loner, a nobody, a ghost. The highway stretches before me, a vast and unending path to nowhere. It has consumed me entirely and made me a part of it. My hopes, my dreams, my goals. They all no longer exist. I have become the road. I do not know my name. All I know is this lonely journey. People see drifters as mysterious people, secret heroes destined to save the day. This is not who I am. I am no Clint Eastwood movie, no cowboy, no hero. The only thing under my gruff exterior is the soul attached to the passage. Even so, I don’t mind this. All people follow a trail, the trail of life. But theirs is troubled, filled with struggle and fraught with turmoil. My way is another kind entirely. For me, the way is lonely and cruel to be sure. As true as this is, it is the only friend I have had. On this path there is no room for religions, for discrimination, for hatred. There is no rich and poor, no right and wrong, no reverence or disdain. The never ending isle strips away all but the persons bare sole, pure and unblemished by the troubles of the world in its essence. I am gifted, for while I know not the feeling of a family, I know what it feels like to be whole. For we all are the same deep down. Race, gender, status, and age apply not when stripped down to the soul. We are so much more alike than anyone can ever believe. The passage forces people to see that we are all connected. Do we not all cry? Laugh? Bleed? Is it not true that everyone can smile? We all breathe the same air, and we all share the same emotions. We were born this way, and it is still all there, deep inside.
Your days are full of children, friends, and spouses, all believing yourselves to be righteous and sure of your lives. But there is always that nagging feeling of doubt and uncertainty, feeling as if there is something missing. My days are full of dusty shoes, gathering particles that other travelers created. Days of colossal mountains of purple and navy, the peaks dusted with early winter snow. Mornings of scorching heat, the sun rising high in the sky like the chariot of Apollo, might and immensely powerful. Evenings of cool breezes, the stars twinkling elegantly and joyfully. They tell stories of ages long past, heroes forever immortalized in the sky as a reward for their deeds. I have sat awake many a night just gazing upon those stars listening to the crickets and cicadas sing their song in perfect and cordant harmony, and felt the world around me become a part of my being. One cannot describe what it feels like to be connected to every creature around you, to feel every molecule in your body ignite in a blazing conflagration with the feeling of just being alive. Here there is no doubt or worry, and nothing can be missing. Only one who has traversed in such a matter can understand. If we happen to pass each other on our way to nowhere, we do not exclaim nor do we even carry on much conversation. For we know that words are unnecessary, for we are a part of each other and therefore whole. Some people catch glimpses of our world, like artists and singers. I firmly believe that some of these people have seen at least a piece of this. So while you go about your lives, I will keep on drifting. I will continue to walk along the side of the highway. I am the guardian of the deserted avenue, the spouse of the quiet pass, the sibling of the tender route, and the friend of the broken boulevard. I am here to follow that highway and to help others see the world how it really is. I am waiting, and I always will be. I will be looking down that street until the dirt below my feet greets me like an old friend. We only wish for you to understand, just as we do. To quote a famous song some of you might know, “ I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

Highway Chapter 2
I’ve never quite noticed just how beautiful a spider web can be. The thin threads sparkle with fine and silky elegance, but are the equivalent of steel. How can something be so tough, yet be so beautiful? The spider takes hours weaving it, so delicate and precise as if it is the only task in the world. But why? Why does it spend so much time on this task? The web is weak and vulnerable, easily destroyed. If it is not first destroyed by some gust of wind, some raindrop gone awry, or perhaps some animal running by, it is ruined by a human being. A careless swat, a twirl of a broom, and the brilliance is gone. So why does the spider continue doing it? It should know it will be destroyed. Why not make a more practical web to catch bugs, not one made with immeasurable effort. Maybe it is too much to expect reason from a spider. It does not know any better. It cannot know that everything will be in ruin because of a human being. Because after all, isn’t that what we do? We consume everything in our path like a black hole, sucking in all life before us in an attempt to forge a path ahead. Humans defy the laws of nature. They cheat death, create weapons unlike any in the wild, and think themselves ultimate in every way. Other life forms just don’t have a chance. This race, once on level with others, has become poisoned and corrupt and they will not stop until they have obliterated all that is in their path, and the world eats itself from the inside. It sickens me. But still, I am one of these humans. I am part of a world I can’t escape from, no matter how much I long to. Despite this, I will never give into the society standard. I refuse to be the standard.
I live in this retched town, populated with the most delusional people on the planet. Everything here is pleasant. The sun, the sky, the plants. All of the children get along. They pretend that everything in life is perfect, and that they have every reason to be content. They don’t ever question life. Unless they come in contact with me. Being left all by myself at a very young age, I have always been different. With no parents or siblings to speak of, I had become that child. At first, they tried to act like I was normal. But I knew that deep down, they found me to be an anomaly. Something that was not pleasant and perfect. A smudge, a mark, and imperfection in their polished and immaculate world. I didn’t feel as if I had anything in common with these kids, and so naturally I was withdrawn. But you can bet I tried my hardest to be like them. As we got older however, I started to become less and less like them, and when their parents told them they shouldn’t play with me anymore, I wasn’t surprised. Tommy didn’t want to play soccer, Janie couldn’t sleep over because she was helping her mom, and Jacob was doing homework and couldn’t go to the park. I knew it was all a lie. The excuses starting to become more forced, until I stopped calling. This was when I truly became alone. I would wander the streets, dejected and stooped, and hoped that nobody would notice me. Nobody talked to me directly unless absolutely necessary. But I knew that despite my attempts to be invisible, I was like a neon banner. Rumors and murmurs followed me everywhere I went, so palpable I could feel them forming like a trail. Under my feet, in front of me, looming onwards. I would get the looks of pity, their faces twisted in an expression of mock concern. I hated those looks more than anything in the world.
They disgusted me. I didn’t need their pity. I wasn’t some poor sap who had an incident and now I was a tragic example to the world. People would stray away from their work to whisper conspiratorially to one another. “I heard she eats garbage because she can’t afford food.” Another. “Poor girl, I can’t believe she lives alone.” And yet another. “She’s like an animal.” The voices filled my head until I could bear them no more. The time it took me to race back to my little sanctuary carried on how many voices I heard. I used to go home and cry about it. My cries filled the air with despair and pain, my young soul being ripped apart. It happened every day I left the house.
One day, when I was laying there, something changed. It had suddenly come to me that nobody could hear me cry, and nobody could feel my pain. I was essentially wasting my life on these people. These people who had tormented me my whole life. I knew that if I continued to be this way, I would end up killing myself. And that’s when I began to change. I refused to be their “tragic” tale. That girl, did you hear? She killed herself. How awful. I guess she just couldn’t take it. No. I would not let them win this game. The black hole wasn’t going to consume me. For I was human too, and I held the same power of destruction.
So I made their lives as difficult as possible. I cut off my braids, dusted off my knees, and dried my eyes. If they wanted me to be different, I would. I transformed into who I am today. Like a butterfly, I emerged from my cocoon of silence and pain, and showed the world just how colorful I was. I took up cursing, and used my vocabulary as often as I could. I beat up any kid who insulted me, spoke back to any adults that had conversation with me, and walked around the streets at night.
It was hard at first, to keep that up in all the situations, especially as the rumors got worse. Some said I had killed my parents, that I was dangerous. But I adjusted to it, evolved into a tougher species. My skin got thicker, and I began to just brush off the insults and lies. I had built up a wall between myself and the rest of humanity, and nobody could have taken it down. The looks of pity had turned into fear and worry, and it made me feel better. I was something that was different. I was glad that they always had a constant reminder that I was there, continuing to ruin their perfect lives. I was rebellious in every sense of the word. And that bothered them. They complain, but I haven’t committed any crime or offense, so they cannot have me removed. I wouldn’t let it be that easy.
Although I had gained freedom and satisfaction from my plans, I still felt as if something was missing from my life. I felt as if there was a void in my very soul, and I couldn’t fill it with faces, or voices. I was missing an essential piece of life. They only time I seemed to partially fill that void was when I went for walks around the forests nearby. The woodland animals caused me to have a sense of aching yearning. I longed to be part of this world, instead of a part of mine. But animals are only animals, and I couldn’t imagine such a boring life, foraging and doing the same thing every day. The only thing I didn’t like about the forest was the noise.
So many animals and bugs made noises at the same time, they clashed with each other. The cicadas and crickets were opposites, and together they made sounds that grinded together uncomfortably. I could not see how nature allowed both of these insects to live in the same area. Even so, there was something innately magical about the world outside, and I liked it more than any other place. The feeling of missing something seems to intensify, as if I am close to finding out why it exists. Like a child’s game of hot and cold, it hints at the answer. But I am never able to find it. It is another difficult thing, and I decide to give up on it. Why should I work for something I can’t attain? Whatever I can’t have isn’t worth it anyway.
These nights I just lay on my bed, staring out the window, gazing up at the pale, luminescent moon and all the little stars. They are but specks in the sky. While most nights I go to sleep within a few minutes, there are nights where some force keeps me awake and I think. I think of my life, of the people and the world, and I think of the spider. Is it sad that its web has been broken? I feel as if my soul has become a web. The hole in the middle never goes away, and all of the strings have been broken beyond repair. But each night it tries and tries again with futility. I cannot be woven back together before I am destroyed again. I think of the mornings and the nights where I am brushed away like the web, to emerge and try again with results that don’t differ. As I drift off to the land of dreams and darkness, I think how sad it must be. My life is the melancholy of the spider.

Highway Chapter 3

I don’t remember much about my life before I joined the path. I don’t remember my name, my life, my identity. I just have glimpses, shattered memories. A shard will occasionally come to the surface, and I will regain a small piece of my past. And personally, I don’t want it back. I don’t need anything more than the life I have now. I can see faces of people, but without expression. Only a blank stare is around every corner. I remember the broken glass, the flashing lights. I remember the pain, and the sorrow. It hurt me for a long time. And I can remember the anger. An anger so potent, it was all that I thought about. My soul was consumed in darkness, slowly being eaten alive from the inside out. I remember the sensation of falling, over and over again in what felt like an inescapable cycle. I might not remember all that had happened, but I was not a good person. I didn’t know the truth. I was shunned away from society, or perhaps I left for my own reasons. I remember being on the trail for a long time, only moving to keep myself alive. The journey was only for food, shelter, and water. I didn’t stop to take the time to truly see. And this was my error. Some force had given me the chance to be a part of the world, and I was marginalizing it. It took me much longer than intended for me to finally find my way. But even so, I still found it, and that was all that really mattered.
I remember my awakening vividly, sitting on that grassy hill at night staring up at those stars. The moment was indescribable. It was amazing just how much the experience had changed me. Aside from seeing for the first time how the world is, the entire fabric of my existence had been altered. I had become shock absorbent, worries plagued me no longer, and I had become free. I was never angry anymore. It had been a big change from before, where it was controlling. I was no longer a puppet to my emotions. My patience had increased exponentially. I was, in many senses, a being with complete peace and a feeling of being whole. I didn’t question why I lived, for I could feel my decisions affecting the world around me, and how I played an important role, no matter how small. In truth, I was lucky, for I had become the messenger of this life which gave me rebirth. I had purpose. I walk along the side of my road, and watch the little dust clouds I create each time I step.
I am heading to a town by the name of Silverland. As it comes into view, I have to wonder if I will find another. Although my “job” is to help guide people to the truth, it is rare that I am able to successfully recruit another such as I. some people are content to live with their lives, and reject the idea of change. I like to believe that one day, just like me they will come to realize they need the change. And then there are others, ones who are ready to be shown the way, and yet they are not. I speak to them of course, and try to nudge them in the right direction, but it does not always come to pass. If they do not want to go, I cannot force them. The only way to see the truth is by your own willingness to change and your spiritual being up to the task of such a journey. In the approximate 5 years since my awakening, I had only found one other person to the other side of the awakening. I’ve had to watch many reject the call, and I feel sorrow for their loss. Alas, this is all part of the life I live, and it is worth every second.
As I enter the gates, I can immediately feel the people inside. The busy souls, the people hard at work. Although it is not the connection with another drifter, I can sense the outlines and shapes of their essence. A baby crying, some kids chatting, two women gossiping to each other. A small town, but a flurry of activity. Preparing myself for what would come, I set an easy pace and continued on to the town. Hopefully I could find someone.

Highway Chapter 4

I awoke to the soft rays of the sun lighting up the inside of my eyelids. Rubbing my eyes drowsily, I stretched. I padded into the living room of my humble abode turned on the television. “Nothing is on, like usual.” I think to myself. I flicked lazily through the channels, attempting to find some form of entertainment. I gave up on the effort.
I have this house because the mayor felt bad that my parents had died, and then later on he wanted me out of the way. He said I could have the one bedroom apartment on the edge of town for free as long as I didn’t break the law. I get cable because they fear my wrath if it was cut off.
I got dressed, picking an outfit I designed to stand out. I snickered as I thought of the faces of the people today. The reaction was more entertaining than television.
I grabbed my iPod and turn to my favorite song, blasting it out of my headphones without a care. Pulling my hair into a ponytail and grabbing a granola bar for breakfast, I strolled out of the door. I commenced the usual walk around the neighborhood, my head high with an expression of arrogance and disdain. I knew I was different then these people, and I was grateful. But even as I strutted through the town, something seemed different. Everyone had gone, and the streets were barren. There was only the shop boy.
“Oi, idiot!,” I say, “Where the hell is everyone?”
He jumped, and reluctantly turned to me.
“I-I th-think they are w-watching the st-stranger by the g-gates.” He meekly replied, almost trembling.
I took off in that direction. Sure enough, there seemed to be a crowd, although they were widespread and not concentrated. Nobody even noticed my approach, a first in my life. “What is this all about?” I wondered to myself. The air had a strange feeling to it, one of confusion and fear. It’s as if the atmosphere had the texture of being heavy. A baby started to cry, but was shushed by its mother. The silence among the people was almost palpable. They all seemed to gravitate towards the building in front of them, our local bar. Strangers are rare, but they never cause a reaction like this.
I opened the door to the bar and quietly stepped inside. The quiet was unnerving, and I was suddenly cautious. Everyone in here might as well be dead, for there were no signs of life. All bar conversation has stopped, and all eyes are on the stranger sitting at the bar. I couldn’t get a good look at him for he was in the shadows of the drink shelf, but it wasn’t necessary to see him to feel what it was that caused the quiet. Everything about the man seemed different. He had a foreign aura about him, as though he was a different species. There was a feeling in my stomach that I couldn’t quite name, and it fluttered every time my eyes looked to the figure. “What the hell was up with this guy?” I questioned myself. He appeared to be tranquil despite being able to feel what must have been 20 stares inside the bar.
Something about these peoples behavior made me angry. It irked me that they were just staring at the stranger in town, even though he had a strange influence. It reminded me of my younger years, the stares, the curiosity, and the unnatural quiet when I came around. Everyone who was the slightest bit different was suddenly an alien creature. I couldn’t stand it anymore. Why was I being so uncharacteristically muted and submissive? I would not be confused with these ordinary people, and I would not let them do this to another person.
I cleared my throat loudly. Nobody blinked an eye, but then the stranger turned, and my breath caught in my throat. Finally clear from the shadows, I could now see his features. Cropped brown hair lay atop his head, filled with natural blonde highlights. He had light stubble spread across his lower jaw, interrupting the smooth texture of his skin. Almost a golden brown, it glowed radiantly in the sunlight. His bone structure wasn’t sharp, only rough, as if he spent days outside. And his eyes were so absolutely piercing, I could feel my soul as if I had taken it and cut it into pieces of cloth for use in my wardrobe. Blue, but dark, as if his pupils had decided to fade into them. They reflected so many things I had never seen before, and I wondered to myself what it would feel like to delve into those and just submerge yourself into the depths. He was, by many standards, handsome. He looked to be about 25, although I couldn’t be sure.
His eyebrows seemed to half rise at me, as if I had suddenly become intriguing. Realizing that since he was looking at me, so was everyone else, I mentally shook myself out of it. Tearing my eyes away from him I felt that anger return.
“Hey, you lazy asses!” I barked out, “What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you have anything better to do than sit on your butts all day? Jobs to get to? People’s lives to ruin? Get out of here!”
I tried to look menacing, and took a step towards the nearest table. There were murmurs from around the room and people started to get up and leave. I had caused a stir in the silence, and broken the strange magic that had enveloped the town. The stranger was still looking at me, but I pretended not to notice. Unsure of what to do now that the bar crowd had mostly cleared out and was diminishing by the second, I turned to leave.
“Wait. Can I talk to you? I just need a few minutes of your time, I promise.” He said in a mildly gruff but beautifully toned voice.
I was startled by the sudden question. I turned around to see him languidly walking over to me. With each step closer, that strange feeling in my stomach grew, until I realized that it was the same feeling I get when I visit the forests. That empty yearning feeling that I couldn’t comprehend. What connection did this man have with such a personal part of my life?
As he got closer, I realized just how big this man was. His figure was muscular, but not overly so. It was strong, but compact and concentrated. I only reached the top of his shoulder. He was wearing blue jeans, and a light jacket the color of jade with a white t-shirt underneath. His shoes were worn leather, and they were covered in dust. A person would have to walk on a trail for weeks to get shoes that dusty. Realizing he was waiting for an answer, my brain scrambled for a reason to avoid his request. Finding none, I just replied with a non committal shrug. He smiled, showing off a row of perfect teeth, and gestured to the bar.
“Come on,” he said, “I’ll buy you a drink.”
I followed, not quite sure what was about to happen. We sat down at the nearest table, alone in the empty bar except for the staff. He folded his hands in front of him, and directed his gaze to my eyes.
“Let me tell you about a little something I like to call the truth.”

Highway Chapter 5

She had been there, as if it were fate. I had come into the small town, and made my way to the local bar in an attempt to get information from the locals.
People who are ready to start on the path usually are a strange breed. They act different, some more than others, and they stand out. This can manifest in many ways including acting out, excessive shyness, or sometimes even changes in their physical appearance. They cut their hair, start wearing different clothes, suddenly have markings on their body that they didn’t have before. They feel as if they need to change something, due to the call of the road, and so they react. Almost everybody in the world has at one point received the call, but in many it isn’t strong enough, and it is pushed away deep inside. In others it is stronger, but they can fill the “void” left from ignoring the call with other activities such as joining organizations or helping others.
And then there are those that are irrevocably drawn to it. These are the people I try to guide the most. If an opportunity presents itself to help the other of lesser feelings, I gladly take it, but they are not my main focus. If these individuals cannot find their way, it is a bad scenario. At best, they live their life feeling as if some part of them is always missing, always looking to the stars and wondering what they missed. In the worst case scenario, they don’t make it. They mistake the feeling of wanting something more as a feeling of hopelessness they cannot endure, and they take it upon themselves to cope the only way they know how. This is a loss that we all feel, so deep in our consciousness that it can leave a hole for weeks, or if the person had been known, years. It is unacceptable to allow such a thing to happen if there were any way to stop it. But as I said before, we cannot force someone to join us, for they would never awaken without their free will. All of this, of course, makes candidates easy to learn about. Because they are different, they are generally shunned away from the “normal society.”
As I entered the bar, I had long since noticed the quiet that was forming. Like a blanket of snow covering the town, everything was muted and hushed. The people were starting to notice I was here.
Just like how candidates of the path are noticed as different, so am I, if not even more so. There is something about a drifter that makes humans feel uneasy. Perhaps they start to feel as if something is missing. Being in a town where everyone knew each other didn’t help, for now I had become a stranger of interest.
Sitting down near the drink rack, I examined the various liquors they had. Sweet, sour, smooth, rough. I turned to the bartender with a breezy smile.
“Cuba Libre, please.”
Polite and well delivered, a voice pattern I had developed early on. I wasn’t generally a drinker, it fogged up the brain, but it was a social activity. The goal was to get the people to talk to you, and alcohol was popular among most. I sat in a relaxed pose, unthreatening and friendly. This place was even more quiet than usual. Everyone had gone dead silent. In big cities, people hush their voices, but they still move about with their general lives. It seemed to me that I would not get any information from anyone around here. I could feel their stares boring into my back, but I pretended not to notice. “I hope nobody is here” I thought to myself, “You couldn’t have had a moment of peace.”
Just as I had been about to get up to leave after finishing my drink, thinking my pursuit of knowledge a hopeless case, she had cleared her throat. I turned in my chair, only to see her standing defiantly in the middle of the bar. Everyone’s attention on me, they had yet to notice the girl. I knew right away that she was special. Her essence was vibrating with life, and I could feel a hint of that connection shared with drifters. Even though it was not developed all the way, I could see more of her than her outline. She was strong-willed, rebellious, and withdrawn from people. I could feel her sorrow, and her pain, but I couldn’t get to the depths. This girl’s soul was phenomenal. She was definitely an individual that needed to find her way. She couldn’t be any more ready in her life than right now.
Standing just inside the front door, I could see everything reflected back in the rays of the sun. She was there, in fitted jeans with laces down the sides, and wearing a snarky shirt that said, “ I refuse to engage in a battle of wits against an unarmed person.” She was also wearing a short black jacket, little chains on the sleeves glinting in the sunlight. Her shoes were gray cloth converse, laced up with neon blue strings.
Her hair was a brilliant copper, so bright it seemed to glimmer in the sun. It was long, reaching just past her shoulders, and was waved. Her tousled locks framed her pale face, her skin like porcelain. The only imperfection being the freckles dusted along her nose. Her eyes were emerald, deep and unwavering.
It was hard to see her through those eyes, for they were closed off from the world. This girl had built up her barriers. She looked to be a teenager, but a bit later in life. Maybe 16, or perhaps 17? I couldn’t quite tell. She stood awkwardly, gangly and tall, but it did not detract from her look.
The crowd had finally turned to look at her, now that they had noticed where my gaze was directed. Their faces contorted in odd facial expressions, and I knew that this girl was not a favorite of any of these people. When I noticed she had not said anything after clearing her throat, I raised my eyebrow at her. Did she change her mind? She paused. Then, her head held high, she shouted some obscenity at the crowd. With a growl of disdain and defiance, she looked around the room as if expecting someone to challenge her exclamation.
After a few moments of silence, the people began to disperse with low grumbles and several nasty looks. I had not removed my stare, for I knew that she was the one. She seemed to stand for a moment, unsure, and then turned to leave.
“Wait,” I said, afraid I was losing the chance to speak with her, "Can I talk to you? I only need a few minutes of your time, I promise.”
I needed to connect to her now, or I would lose the opportunity to show her what she needed to make a decision about the path. The next few minutes were absolutely crucial.
She froze, and turned slowly to face me. I took slow steps toward her, easy and loping. She looked like a cornered animal, and so I had to move slowly and carefully, for she seemed as if she might be about to bolt out of the doors. I could see as I got closer to her that she was surveying me, taking in all that she could in what I assume was an attempt to prepare herself. She was obviously confused, and for good reason.
I was the manifestation of something she had felt. I knew all too well the feeling of yearning and emptiness I had before I had found the way. Once, when I met another drifter, I felt an intense increase in that emotion, for it was what I had been missing. She could only be feeling the same. After another pause, she simply replied with a shrug that didn’t seem to say it mattered either way.
I smiled, hoping that it would put her at ease. I had already overcome half the battle. No I would just have to keep her interested and hope she made the right choice.
“Come on,” I said, “I’ll buy you a drink.”
Nothing alcoholic, for she was definitely underage. As we snuggled into the seats by the shelf, I folded my hands in front of me and directed my gaze to her eyes.
“Let me tell you about a little something I like to call the truth.”
Here we go. I started at the beginning. This was the ultimate story, and here was my most important reader. I began to talk.

Highway Chapter 6

This man was unlike any I had ever seen before. To me, it seemed as if there would be no way to fathom his existence at all. Here was quite possibly the first adult to treat me as if I was a human being, and not something to be feared and despised.
At first, I thought him not real. A figment of my imagination, perhaps, or a hallucination caused by the heat outside. But then more time I spent next to him, the more I began to feel that he was, in fact, very real.
He had ordered me a coca-cola, and it now sat in front of me. The glass bottle with red and white labeling was what I was looking at now, trying to avoid looking directly at the man. He was talking about “the truth” as he had called it earlier.
“Hey, Veronica” he said, jolting me out of my thoughts, “Are you okay?”
My heart raced. How did he know my name? Did I tell him? I must have. Did he tell me his name and I didn’t hear? I turned my gaze to a point just over his shoulder to appear to be looking at him, and fixed an expression of innocence on my face. “Of course I’m okay,” I replied snarkily, “What makes you think I’m not?” he paused, and for a moment I thought I had offended him. But then he only continued on with his tale.
For obvious reasons, my default voice had become tough and defensive, an aggressive tone to make everyone back off and stay away from my barriers. I thought it best to listen to the rest of the story he had to tell.
“Although it’s very hard to explain, it’s almost like having what you could call and ‘inner peace’” he explained. “Monks sometimes find their way onto the path, and some singers and writers or artists have also discovered the new world.”
He went on, keeping his eyes fixed upon mine. His gaze was not strong however, and I was not threatened.
“Some people find it on their own, but it seems that the time it takes is significantly less if someone who has already found it helps along the way.” He said. “It is something different, to be sure, but it is definitely the most important and wonderful thing that has happened in my life.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. What the hell was he even talking about. Spiritual enlightenment? “Inner peace?” Was this guy some kind of deranged hippie? I should’ve known when I saw him that he was crazy. And yet he was so strange in such a marvelous way. I didn’t know what to do anymore, so I did only what I know best. “What the hell are you talking about? Have you lost your mind?” I growled at him, the corner of my lip turning up in a snarl. I expected him to get mad. To shout, to scream, to stomp around. To tell me that I was irrational and annoying. I expected any or all of these things, but none came. He didn’t do anything at all. He just sat there, in that mahogany chair lit up by the sunlight, casting shadows over his face.
The silence filled the room again, as it had before, the only sound coming from his long, calm breathes, and my short infuriated ones. A moment passed, but it seemed like an hour, the time flowing like lava as we stood. An awkward stalemate, one created by myself. And then, as quick as lighting, he was up from that chair.
He stood, towering over me. Then, with excruciating and deliberate slowness, he leaned over. His knees bent and head tilted, he was now in a position that it would have been impossible to not look into his eyes without turning around. I found that, once again, those eyes were overwhelming. And again, I found myself drowning in them.
Lost in the sea of emotions, I felt as if I had become a part of the waves. I could see the world from his point of view, with an immense knowledge and sense of wonder. I could see myself reflected back at me, my hair radiating the light streaming in from the windows. And for a moment, all was still. But then he spoke, and I was ripped away and forced back into my own consciousness.
“All that I say it the truth, and you know very well that it is,” his voice was soft and gentle, yet it held authority. “I know that you are ready for the truth. I also know that you are scared. You are scared because I am different, and so are you. After seeing this town, I can only begin to imagine the past you have had to endure.”
He paused and then continued.
“I can see your pain, and although I am unaware of its origins, I still understand.”
As I moved to object to this statement, he cut me off.
“Something to tell you that I am not lying. You have, for most of your life, had a feeling that you can’t describe. Something is missing, something crucial to life. It is an aching yearning inside of your stomach, one that increases when you are in an environment other than the city. And it is intensified right now, as we speak, and has been ever since I started talking to you. Is this not true?”
How? How could he know something that had been my darkest secret? I had never spoken of this to anyone, not even to myself late at night. My mouth hung agape in surprise and wonder, and my brain began to fog up. So many thoughts were racing inside of my head, and I was beginning to develop a headache. How did he know? Why did he know? What made this man so special? This all had become too much for me. He was still standing there, his eyes boring into mine. He was so close, too close. Not physically, for he was still the same distance as before. Emotionally though, he had busted off the walls of my barriers. When his eyes connected to mine, I felt them break down. I felt the anger rise inside of me, welling up like a geyser inside the pit of my stomach. Nobody has ever done such a thing. How dare this man act as if he knew me! He was wrong, he must be, just some stranger gone crazy who happened to know about the feeling. I knew I was becoming delusional, but I couldn’t stop. I was losing my walls by the second, and I knew that I couldn’t keep this up much longer.
The fury inside erupted, and I used that to my advantage. I threw the walls back into place, violently shoving them back where the belonged. I sprang back to life, recovering from my shock. My voice was cold and bitter as I shouted at him.
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m getting out of here, you crazed and delusional man! I don’t even know why I stuck around in the first place.No, you get out of here and don’t ever talk to me again. You’re a lunatic!”
I couldn’t stop the words. They all came out, falling like rain, and landing drop by drop. I stood there, breathing labored. Again, he stood there, and did nothing. There was no response. I waited for yelling, or disappointment, or anger. I received none. I waited for anything. But I had caught the one reaction.
His body did nothing, but there was a flicker in his eyes. One of sadness I couldn’t comprehend, swimming in those eyes. It seemed almost as if there was a downpour of rain trapped inside of his eyes. But then, like a flash, it was gone, buried in the depths of the sea. A calm look resumed its place on his face, and he was at a standstill. I had already seen what had passed.
I had hurt him, I knew, but it was not like I how I had hurt others. I waited for the satisfaction to come, as it had when I had forced away the townspeople that hurt me, but it didn’t come. All I felt was tired. I hunched over, my hands on my knees as I attempted to recover. All I could see was the sadness.
Against my will, I began to feel myself cry. The tears came, unbidden, and soon they streaked down my face. For the first time in so many years, I was crying again. The sound of my uncontrollable weeping had filled the air, and I struggled to breathe. I had hurt him, and yet it had hurt me. Why did it bother me that he had been sad? Why should I care? I couldn’t fathom why I was crying. It was something driven by an unknown force, and I couldn’t stop it. If I cared, why did I say that to him in the first place? Once again, the barriers I had put up had caused me to reject another person. Goosebumps rose up on my arms, and my face began to feel warm. I wouldn’t even look up at him.
He moved towards me, perhaps hoping to say something. But as he sounded out the first word, I sprang away. Dodging the attempt to catch my sleeve I ran for the exit. Slamming my body against the door, it gave and I was free from the building. I heard him call from behind,
“Veronica! Wait!”
His voice filled with concern only made me cry harder. I ran farther than I needed to, until I couldn’t run anymore.
My world had become blurry, and I could feel the hot tears sliding down my face. All I could feel was my pain. And again, as with many times before, I could taste that distinct flavor again. That wretched taste of saline.

Highway Chapter 7

I don’t quite understand what happened. We had sat down at the table, and I had begun to tell her about The Way. It seemed strange, for the entire time she had been staring at the coke bottle sitting in front of her. I could tell that she had been purposely avoiding looking at me. I wondered if she found it hard to look at my eyes, simply because I had felt a lot of the things she had, and that showed.
At one point, when asked her name, she replied lightly with hers. Veronica, she said. A beautiful name, and it certainly suit her well. She didn’t ask for mine, but that was alright for I would have none to give her. She seemed spacey, so I called her name to bring here attention back to me. She did, but her eyes were fixed on a point just over my shoulder. A common trick used by to be drifters, for they didn’t feel as welcome as they should have been, and don’t look people directly in the eye. Subtle, but detectable if you know what you’re looking for.
She snarked out a reply to my call, which made me pause, but I kept talking. This girl’s barriers were like a fortress. To bring them down, it would require a large amount of effort and an extended period of time. Hopefully, if all went well, I would have the time needed to help her adjust to a world that isn’t nearly as harsh. I could only imagine what kind of life she had in the past to bring out such an attitude. Everything I did here was crucial, with one misstep being fatal.
I kept an even stare, but it wasn’t intense or scrutinizing. Voice soothing, hands folded respectfully, and an easy demeanor were all important in this equation.
I was telling her about how it had been so important for me, and then the moment came.
“What the hell are you talking about? Have you lost your mind?” she barked at me, her lips curling back in a fierce animal-like snarl.
Then, she was silent. She was waiting for a reaction, I knew, and I wasn’t going to give it to her. For one, I didn’t want her to think that such a reaction was the only way to get things done. Secondly, with all that this girl had gone through, she thought that all someone could be is angry. I wanted to show her that not everyone in the world had to be so angry and violent. The room was silent now, the only sounds being our breaths. She was panting, confused and angry, while my breaths were long and calm.
This was the most important time, I knew. For this was the time where she would decide if she wanted to come with me, to embark on this unexplainable journey. I had to take some action, and that action had to be perfect in every way. I knew that with a girl like her, I would have to get up close and personal, to make her see me, but I couldn’t be threatening. I wanted to show her I was her friend, but that I knew more about the world. I wanted to make her see that I was here, and real, and that I could teach her.
With lightning quick reflexes, I leaped out of the chair next to me, mildly startling her. She only reached my shoulder when i was standing a full height, and I knew I could use this to my advantage. With planned and deliberate slowness, I leaned over to her, until my face hovered just above hers. I didn’t want to scare her, and it seemed that I had chosen wisely for now I had all of her attention. She seemed lost once she had made direct eye contact, and my suspicions had proven to be true.
I then told her how she could know that I was telling the truth. Talking of the way can seem, at first, a little bit crazy. But then, if you speak of that feeling that we have known all too well, they stare at you in amazement. Most likely, they have never spoken of this, but it is such a prominent part of their lives they cant believe that you understand. I also knew, from experience with other drifters and my own experiences that the feeling increased dramatically when in the presence of a full fledged drifter. It has never been explained why, but it has always proved true. It’s as if the body understands and wants what they have and in turn tells the receiver of its desire. With a voice of authority and reason I told her of the feeling, and I told her of the pain that I could see buried deep inside her eyes. Usually when you speak of this, they become intrigued and want to know how you can tell. But this girl, she had an unusual reaction. She had become very angry.
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m getting out of here, you crazed and delusional man! I don’t even know why I stuck around in the first place. No you get out of this town and don’t ever talk to me again. You’re a lunatic!” she shrieked in fury.
She was absolutely livid. I didn’t react in any way, as with last time. But in truth I was stunned I was stunned, for the first time in a very long while. And because of this, I allowed that emotion to come into my eyes.
Veronica’s words had been harsh and cold. I had not expected her to be so angry. The girl had become so interesting to me, and I felt for her, and now she was violently exclaiming at me. It made me a little bit sad on a personal level. But I had become mostly sad for I knew that these words meant she was slipping away. I thought she would have been happier on the road, but I knew she had thrown up another wall, and this time I was on the other side of it. I only wanted her to not have to feel that pain anymore, to let the road fill her with everything she could've ever imagined.
When I saw her peculiar expression, I put that emotion aside, for it would only make things worse. I didn’t expect what came next, for she started to cry.
Softly at first, but then the tears began to roll off of her face. They streaked across her cheeks as her anguish could be heard, amplified by the walls of the bar. This girl was full of surprises, even to me. I wasn’t sure what to do about the situation, so I attempted to reach out to comfort her. Why was she so sad? Was it because I was sad? Or was she thinking of her past? This poor girl was so confused and pained, but I knew that beneath that tough exterior she was a gentle person. It was the only explanation. But as I reached for her sleeve, she sprang away from me. She ran into the door with painful force and ran out of it. Rushing to follow her, I could see her outline.
“Veronica! Wait!” I shouted to her, my voice filled with worry.
I had blown it, and now she was gone. Still, I wasn’t sure she wouldn’t still be ready to go. I took off after her, my legs hardened from long years on the road taking bounding leaps. I passed a few shocked people, and almost stopped to ask if they had seen her go by, but figured I didn’t have time. She was an extraordinarily fast runner, and I couldn’t afford the lost time. I must have attempted to follow her for at least half an hour, but I had lost the trail. For being such a small town, the streets were surprisingly tricky to navigate. I cursed. I would never find her now, which meant I wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk to her and calm her down. While I could feel drifters from a mile away, if they hadn’t connected to nature yet, the range I could detect them became less than 10 feet. Even if I searched all day, I probably would still never find her. Running my hands through my hair in frustration, I sighed and let my hands fall to my sides.
Maybe I could come back another day, for she was obviously not ready today. I headed back to the bar, still empty. I looked at her mostly untouched coke, abandoned on the table. It seemed like a metaphor for her life now, left alone, cold and unwanted. I felt the loss heavily. I thought I could save her from her sadness by helping her find the truth. Had I made some error? Was I too aggressive? Should I not have spoken of her pain? Stupid, I told myself. I could have just cost that girl her freedom. I knew that I was being hard on myself, but I had felt just how much she needed it. She was so close. Was she not ready at all? I had been sure, it seemed. She seemed more ready than people on the path have been before. She was so interesting, this Veronica, even by drifter standards. I wished I could have found her, for I think she might have gone had we had another conversation.
With no other choice, I packed up my stuff, and headed to leave. The sun had risen in the sky, and I guessed from its position it was around two in the afternoon. I lingered for about another two hours, stocking up on supplies and spending an unnecessary amount of time trying to get a man to draw me a map of the area. It was not absolutely vital, but it was nice to know if I would have another chance to gather supplies and look for others in the next few days.
It had been close to three hours since I had last seen Veronica, and I resigned myself to the fact she was not coming back. With another long sigh, I made my way to the front gates.
All was still as the people watched me leave, and for a moment the world was on mute. Footsteps shattered the silence.

Highway Chapter 8

It hurts. It hurts so much. I am filled with pain, and it hurts more than can be imagined. My lungs are burning from the run, screaming while I drag in quick labored breaths. Bits of glass and dirt are still embedded in my knees from when I lay on the ground, but I didn’t bother to brush them off. The physical pain was nothing compared to what was happening in my very soul. I couldn’t see through the tears that still filled up my eyes. It was as if I had a well inside of them, one that always refilled, no matter how many times it was emptied. I couldn’t hear anything except the shrill keening that came from my own mouth. Shut up! I shouted at myself. But to no avail, for I could not stop. The air was laced with sorrow and laden with anguish. I now lay on my bed, writhing in my despair and hopelessness. Why had I become this way? What had I done in life to deserve such pain all the time, a constant burden of painful melancholy? The world was toying with me, and I didn’t know if I could take it anymore.
It leaves me without a family, in this godforsaken town full of monsters in disguise. Then it ruins my childhood and makes me cry at nights long and hard. Then, just when I think I am safe and have toughened up, it does this to me. It gives me hope for a friend, and then crushes my dreams. Of course the first person to be nice to me in a long time if ever at all had to be crazy. It had been so cruel to me. The thoughts passed through my head in a never ending stream. I didn’t have any sensation but the pain. My incoherent cries and whimpers became words. Words I repeated over and over again.
Why me? Why me? Why me? It isn’t fair. I had begun to yell, to scream, and to shout the words. My voice was a growl, a battle cry. I howled at the world, bellowing out my complaints and those words, over and over again, until I could scream no more.
I lay silent now, only the sounds of my breathing keeping me company, reminding me I was alive. My head swam from the voice exertion and I had spots in my vision. My throat had since begun to ache and feel dry. There was a lump forming there, and I tried to swallow it, but I had no water.
What was I doing with my life here? Life wasn’t fair, and I should know that more than anyone. It had never been fair, and it never will be. So what? I thought I had learned that lesson long ago. This was the reason I had grown thicker skin. Life hadn’t been fair, so I had adapted to it, evolving to a new species. I was the prime example of survival of the fittest. Had I now reverted back to a child? I knew that I was being ridiculous.
What the hell is wrong with you? I told myself. Why question the world being unfair? You have to take what it gives you. And thinking back now, I had truly ruined the only good thing life had given me.
The man in the bar had been truly special. He had known the secrets about me and seemed to have all the answers. He was an interesting man, one whose name I didn’t even know, but who knew mine. He was the first person to seem to care, and he was definitely the first one to “get” me, you could say. When he had seen me at the bar, he could tell there was something different than others. But for the first time, his reaction hadn’t been one of disdain or fear, instead one of interest and happiness. He had looked at me with those beautiful eyes, and seen something no human has ever seen before. I was at last a friend, a person to care about, and more importantly, an equal. Although it was clear he had more knowledge on things I cannot understand, he did not treat me as a child who is entirely ignorant and blissful. He knew I was rough, and edgy, but he also knew I was pained, and not some delinquent child. He was the only man to not greet my attitude with some aggressive remark, sometimes even embarking on violence. And even though it made me kind of mad I could not get a rise out of him, it also made me greatly relieved and was very calming. I had insulted him in that bar, several times, and yet he was still willing to talk to me.
I was childish, immature, and selfish. I let my emotions get the best of me, and ruined the only gift I had ever been given. Instead of asking why me? I should have been asking Why not me? Bring it on. I didn’t have anything to live for in this town anyway. I know that not a single resident would be sad to see me go, for they would have a celebration. What would have been the harm in going with him? But now he was gone. What had I done? I didn’t know what to do. Had my opportunity been lost? There was no way he could still be here. It had been at least two and a half hours since I ran off. He would have left by now. Right? Something was there, in the back of my mind, urging me to not give up. There was still hope he was still here. Maybe if I hurried, I could catch him on the way out. I really doubted it, but it wouldn’t harm me to try. I would do everything I could to salvage this chance, and I would not let it slip away without a fight. Something had brought us together, and I was putting all my hope into that something keeping him here.
But I can’t just run after him. What if he is outside of the town? He doesn’t have enough supplies to maintain two people. What had he said about the journey? We would be on the road a lot, camping with nature. That’s all I could remember. I cursed and berated myself for not listening better. I would just have to get general outdoor supplies. Bare minimum, for he could be heading out the gates right now. I could only catch him if I could still see him, and the road outside was not very long before it branched off.
I jumped out of bed, leaping through the air like a gazelle. I sprinted across my room and searched frantically until I found the duffel bag I was looking for. Large but light, it would be essential. Extra pairs of tennis shoes and converse, clothes that were light for the days of scorching sun and a few longer sleeved ones for chilly nights. What else? I was becoming frustrated. Food? Water? Radio? What do I need? I threw in my water bottle and some sunscreen. God knows I would burn to death out there. No need for blistering skin on a journey. I hesitated in the bathroom, then grabbed my brush and a stack of hair ties. I grabbed the money I had been saving forever, “gifts” from the mayor as an incentive to not stalk the neighborhood. It wasn’t much, but I might need it. I stuck two walky talkies in my pack and started to run for the door, before realizing I didn’t have anything to sleep on. Frustrated, I raced back to my room and grabbed the sleeping bag in the closet and my pillow and with a hurried frenzy, struck them in the back, filling every nook and cranny.
Then I spied the very small box on my drawer. It held the only things important to me in life. Could I really leave it behind? I decided I could take the time to shove it in the very last bit of space. With no more thought to anything else, I took off through the door, not even stopping to lock it.
I was leaving my life behind, and everything that went with it. I could only pray that he was still here, or this would have all been for nothing.
As I ran down the street as fast as humanely possible, I kept thinking the same thing. “Please be here, please be here, please be here, ”I pleaded to the universe. “I’m sorry I messed up, please don’t take this away from me.” I raced down the alleyways taking every shortcut I knew, scanning the town as I sped past. He wasn’t anywhere normal, so they only place he could be if he was here would be the gates. My legs were on fire and my breaths were ragged. But I didn’t care. I would run until my legs buckled under me and I collapsed.
I rounded a corner too harshly, and skidded into the wall. I hardly missed a beat. I was going to find him. I WAS going to find him. I wouldn’t accept any other option. I rounded the bend to the gate and found myself faced with the longest stretch of road in the town. There, at the far end of it, was the man. He was walking to the gate, prepared to leave. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“This is really happening.” I exclaimed in disbelief.
I could tell it was him for he still wore that jacket, towering over most of the people that had gathered to see him leave. His hair was reflecting the sun, so much I could see it even at the end of the street. I dashed down the passage, feeling my muscles burn at a whole new level. I could feel my saliva start to pool in my mouth, for I was breathing so hard I had no time to swallow in between the forced hyperventilated gasps. I wanted to shout to him, so he would know I was here, but I couldn’t make any noise while I was running. I was closing the space between us faster than I would have thought possible. The crowd was quiet, but that might have been because all I could hear was the blood rushing through my ears and my heartbeat thumping sporadically. He stopped, as if something had called his attention. An then, sooner than I had anticipated, I had reached the crowd.
I had misjudged the distance between myself and them, so I did not decelerate enough before I was upon them. I crashed into a girl from my school, a cheerleader. We tumbled to the ground, where I unceremoniously landed on her. My bag went flying across the spectators only to land, sprawled out on the side of the road. The girl shrieked in indignation, but I had no time to apologize, nor would I have anyway.
I forced my way through the nearest people, and the rest parted like a sea. Just as I reached the end to come out to the other side, I tripped on something. I threw out my hands to catch myself, and collided with the dirt below, hard. My hands stung with pain, and blood came away when I pulled my hand back. I heard someone behind me snicker, and I realized that one of the jocks also from my high school had stuck his foot out.
As I got ready to retaliate, I heard footsteps and a figure arrived before me. With the sun shining in my eyes, I couldn’t really see, but I knew who it was.
There was the man I had been hoping for, standing right before my very eyes. I had not been too late.
I must have looked a mess, bloody, messy hair, eyes puffy from crying, gasping on the ground like a madman. But as he bent down, I saw the most amazing thing. He was looking right at me, with those gorgeous eyes. And on his face, shining like a sun, was the brightest and most beautiful smile.

Highway Chapter 9

She had come back. Even from the end of the street, I could hear her footsteps. I didn’t quite know it was her, I could only hear that whoever it was happened to be running like a bull. The noise increased and I began to feel a strange sensation.
But I knew this sensation, for it was one I had encountered many times before in my life. I stopped, suddenly aware that it was the feeling of encountering another drifter. Faint, but still very alive.
A small smile graced my lips as I knew it was Veronica. She had come back for the purpose of travelling with me. I knew that had to be why, for otherwise she wouldn’t have come back at all, much less sprinting down the street like a crazed horse.
I turned around to greet her as she came close enough, only to see her crash into a blond girl wearing a cheerleading uniform. They both tumbled to the ground, Veronica landing very ungracefully right on top of the other one. The girl responded with a very high pitched whine, but Veronica was already jumping away for her.
She must of thought me leaving, for her pace was just as fast as before, as if I was running away at this very moment. She hadn’t even stopped to retrieve her bag when it had gone flying away.
This made me happy, for it showed me how much she had wanted to go on the journey. The people spread out, fearing that she would mow down another one of them. I saw the blur of moment the same time I saw her emerge from the sea of people.
Another boy wearing a football uniform had stuck his foot out, by no means an accident, and Veronica had caught her ankle on his. She crashed to the ground, hands thrown out in an attempt to catch herself. Her palms were scratched up pretty bad, and when she shifted and pulled her hands away, there was blood on the ground. Nothing serious, I knew, but it still had to have hurt. He chuckled under his breath.
Resolving to deal with the boy in a moment, I looked to Veronica. Laying on the ground, huffing and puffing, and her hair askew, she was still a beautiful girl. Her eyes were puffy, from the crying I assumed, but they held no hint of tears now. Something about her spectacle had made her even more special. She looked as if she were about to viciously attack the boy, and with good reason, until I walked up to her.
She looked up at me as I came closer, straining her eyes against the sun Stopping about a foot away, I bent down to help her up. I smiled at her, a genuine smile, for she had turned a day of sorrow into a day of joy. I held out my hand for her to take, and she raised her arm before hesitating. Grasping her forearm instead of her scraped palm, I pulled her upward until she was standing next to me, although a bit shakily. That was good, I thought, for her fall hadn’t caused any damage.
I let her go once I was sure she wasn’t going to fall over, and walked over to where her bag had fallen. Everyone’s eyes, including hers, followed my path. I picked it up from where it had laid, a green duffel bag. It was lighter than I expected, and I wondered what she had put inside. I put it over my shoulder and walked back to where Veronica was standing.
Before I got there though, I stopped in front of the boy who had tripped her earlier. A jock by definition, he was tall and muscular, but not as tall as I was. Using my extra height as an advantage, I stood over him with a disapproving look on my face.
“Next time you see someone walking by you, you should keep your extremities to yourself. You could seriously hurt someone like that. We wouldn’t want your ‘mistake’ to cause anyone pain now would we?”
He looked at me, defiant, but I knew he would back down. When another moment passed and he still hadn’t said anything, I spoke again.
“Did I word that simply enough for you? Let me try again. Pain is bad. Girly get hurt. That’s bad. You no do that again, okay?”
His face grew red, and several people in the crowd snickered. I gave him a look, daring him to say something. He seemed to size me up, and I could tell he wasn’t liking the odds. I was taller than him, and my muscles, toned from long days walking and surviving in the wild, were just a strong as his if not stronger. He held my gaze for a moment longer, then looked away, mumbling something incoherent.
Although those on the path weren’t violent people, it didn’t mean that we couldn’t fight or didn’t. We did what we needed to do, and that included punching him in the face if he attacked me.
Veronica was following me with her eyes, and I could sense her amusement at the situation. The boy had probably bullied her for years.
I needed to talk to her, but in front of all these people didn’t seem like an appropriate place. It also didn’t seem like a good idea to leave those cuts on her hands open. I turned to her.
“Are you ready to go?” I asked.
without any hesitation, she nodded. We would stop once we left the gates, perhaps to find a bathroom where she could wash her hands, and then I would speak to her about what she needed to know. I nodded, and turn to the gate. She caught my sleeve.
“Wait one second,” she said.
I was curious, but I did wait. She turned to the people still gathered, and took a long hard look at every one of them.
“Ever since I was little, you guys have made my life a living hell," she announced, "But now I know, that every one of you are the people that I need to feel sorry for. You can’t see anything but this town and your ‘perfect’ little lives. But your lives will mean nothing in a few years, and I will be happy. I bid you all farewell.”
Her voice was defiant and snarky, but powerful and assertive. Low murmurs broke out within the crowd, but she had already turned away, walking past me. I could only imagine the liberation she felt during this moment. I gave one last look at the people, and then quickly caught up to Veronica.
She was looking straight ahead, with no intention of looking back. I could see her future stretch out before her, just as the road did.
“We need to pull over, I need to talk to you, and you need to get those hands washed. I wouldn’t want you to get an infection," I said.
She seemed surprised by the sudden interjection on her musings, but she agreed. We looped around, for there was a small pit stop just behind the town. She went into the Ladies Room while I browsed the racks politely. The man running the place didn’t seem to even notice our presence though, so I just waited for Veronica to come out. When she did, we relocated ourselves onto the bench outside.
I pulled a little tube out from my bag, ointment. “Here,” I said handing it to her, “it will help it heal faster.” She smeared the clear fluid onto her hands, wincing slightly, but overall reacting well to the pain. That was good, for one needed to be tough to be out here. She gave it back to me with a small murmur of thanks. She seemed hesitant now, and not the confident proud girl she was before. I could only wonder what was bothering her.
Figuring she would tell me if she wanted me to know, I shrugged it off.
“Look,” I began, “I need to know that you are completely and entirely ready for this to happen.”
As she started to interject, I held up my hands, signaling her to let me finish.
“Now don’t get all defensive on me,” I said, holding my hands up in a calming gesture, “it’s just that this is a big decision to make. The Way is very lonely sometimes, and even though you have me now, you won’t forever. If you find your way, you won’t want to stick around, because you will be doing what I do.”
She was looking at me thoughtfully now, so I assumed I had her attention.
“This also isn’t a journey for the faint of heart,” I continued, “We camp on the road for 3, 4, sometimes even 5 nights at a time. There are bugs, and animals, and you will get dirty. It isn’t generally dangerous, but we do occasionally share the road with bandits.”
That brought back bad memories.
“But the reason I am telling you this,” I interjected again, “is only because I think that you can do it. I am not trying to scare you or ward you off, I am just letting you know that this isn’t easy. But I do strongly believe you can do it. You have had obvious hardships before, and everyone in that town seemed to be mildly afraid of you. It is very clear you have the thick skin required for such a task. I also can see that you want to go on this journey with a passion. I do not know if it is just because you wanted to get away from there, which I wouldn’t blame you for, or if you are seeking a truer meaning. Maybe it’s a mixture of both. Whatever it is, you have already gone to great lengths to make this happen. So I am telling you that I believe you can do this, but I need to know you are willing and ready to do this. I can’t take you with me if you can’t commit to sticking it out.”
I leaned back, to let her know I was done talking. She sat there, glancing between the ground and I, looking back and forth. Then with a sigh, she turned her whole body towards me, folding her leg up onto the bench with the other dangling just above the ground. An interesting quirk, I thought to myself in amusement.
“I…” she hesitated a moment more, then continued, “I originally thought to go because you were so different than everyone, just like me. Then I thought, why not, I have nothing here for me anyway. While I am still mostly there, I want to be like you in a way as well. You just seem so content with the world right now. I still think you are a little bit crazy, but I think so am I. The crazy people need to stick together right?”
I smiled briefly.
“I think I am ready for it all.” She said in a shaky tone.
I raised my eyebrows at her, for that had not been certain at all. She glanced at me, and then with a deep breath changed her tone.
“I mean I AM ready. Not I think. I know I am ready. One hundred percent into this.” She said, much more resolved and confident.
This girl was returning back to normal again. She was looking at me, as if she dared me to challenge her claim. I could see her determination and her eyes had ignited with something akin to rebellion. I knew, that even though it might not be for the right reason, she was going to do this. But hey, is there a “right” reason? I didn’t start for the right reason either. As long as you end up in the same place, it doesn’t matter the reason.
“All right then!” I said with a deep breath. “Let's get going! We got at least a few miles ahead of us, maybe more until we hit a good spot to camp!”
“Five miles or more? Why the hell is he so perky about it?” I heard her question under her breath.
I took off, leaving her behind. I heard her scramble behind me for her stuff, and called out in indignation.
“Wait up! Don’t be a jerk! Come on!”
I had started to walk faster, just to bother her. As she caught up with me, she gave me a glare and grumbled.
This was going to be interesting, to say the very least.

Highway Chapter 10

He was an extraordinary person, that was to be sure. He had helped me up, grabbing my forearm instead of my hands because of the scrapes. He had even held on until he had been sure I wouldn’t take another nose dive.
I wanted to nail that stupid pretty boy jerk in his face. He had always been an idiot, and he made snarky comments, but this was the first time in a while he had physically attacked me. When we were little, I beat him up for making fun of my hair. He went crying to his mother, of course, and I got to spend several hours in the mayor’s office listening to a lecture.
The town just expected him to take care of the nuisance I had become, despite him not wanting to a single bit, so when I got in trouble it was where I went. Everyone in the office knew me, for it had become my second home. When I was bored, it had become my hobby to cause trouble on purpose. Eventually, he just got tired of it. I was too young to be kicked out without seeming morally wrong, and I hadn’t broken any laws. I pushed the limits of everything, but stayed within the boundaries. He started to essentially bribe me, with my house and the money I had saved up.
As I stared at the jock now, though, he seemed really boring compared to the man walking away. I realized he was getting my bag, retrieving it from where it had gone awry. He made his way back to me, but stopped in front of that stupid boy. And then, he became the best person in the world.
He told the boy not to trip people at first, but when he didn’t reply, he made a joke at his expense. The man speaking to him like the stupid boy he was, his face grew red with anger and embarrassment. The people around us started to laugh, for they knew it to be true. Seeing that expression on his face after he tripped me was priceless. I hadn’t known this man had such a sense of humor and wit.
As he had when I beat him up, he backed down. It was wise he didn’t try to get in a fight with the man, for he was taller and had a more powerful build. I also had the feeling he knew how to fight. He turned to me, and asked if I was ready to go. Feeling I was as ready as I was ever going to be, I nodded. But as we turned, I realized that I couldn’t leave without saying something to these people. They may have ruined my life, but it had made me change into something better. I would always resent them, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t thank them. Catching the man’s sleeve, I asked him to wait.He gave me a curious look, but followed the instruction.
Positioning myself in the middle of the circle of people, I took a long, hard look at every single one of them. I felt the memories come rushing back to me, and they made me so angry, but I could tell how they had all changed me. Whether this was change for the good or the bad, I would never know. All I knew is that I was about to embark on the biggest journey of my life, and I might have missed the opportunity if it hadn’t been for them. The man behind me had seen me as different, and that might have been from these people. They would never have such a journey, and suddenly I felt only pity for their lives of monotone and banal activities. I spoke, loud and clear,
“Ever since I was little, you guys have made my life a living hell. But now I know, that every one of you are the people that I need to feel sorry for. You can’t see anything but this town and your ‘perfect’ little lives. But your lives will mean nothing in a few years, and I will be happy. I bid you all farewell.”
And with that, and my head held high, I pivoted on my heels until I was turned the other way. I walked past the man, strutting with confidence and power. Even as I heard the murmurs, I didn’t look back. When the man caught up to me, his long strides outpacing my medium ones, I didn’t look back. And even when we were out of sight, I didn’t look back. I wouldn’t, for that would mean I cared something for the place and the people in it, and I was done with that. I would not look at the past, for I only cared for the future.
The man interrupted my thoughts, saying I should wash my hands for fear of infection. I had forgotten they were scraped in the first place, but now that I had turned my attention to them, they protested with a fiery and sharp stinging sensation. They scrapes had stopped bleeding, but the skin was still torn.
We stopped at the old pit stop in the back of the town. I went in to wash my hands while the man stayed outside. I ran my hands under the warm water and yelped at the pain. Still, it needed to be done to I pushed through the pain. While I washed, I reflected upon the events of the day.
How could my life change so much in a matter of a few hours? Here I was, in this tiny bathroom, with a man I didn’t even really know waiting outside for me, about to leave on a journey to who knows where, to achieve an “inner peace.” Fate sure had a sense of humor.
Oh, the soap stung so much. Keep going, I told myself, talking both about the soap and about what I was doing. Finishing up, I reached for the paper towels and gingerly patted my skin dry. My palms looked a lot better, but they were still pretty torn up. I would’ve liked to have seen the man punch him, but you can’t always get what you want.
I sighed, looking at my reflection in the mirror. My hair was a mess, my eyes still puffy, my makeup smudged into practical inexistence expect for the ring around my eyes that made me look like a raccoon. I did my best to get it off, but there was still some of it there. I look so stupid, I told myself. But the truth was, I was probably the happiest id ever been in my life. It was like I was on an emotional rollercoaster, anguished and sorrowful one minute, and then happy-go-lucky and joyful the other. “Get it together, girl,” I thought to myself.
I found him outside, where he said he needed to talk to me. Suddenly nervous, I joined him on the bench. Before that though, he gave me a little tube of something that looked like Neosporin.
“It will help it heal faster,” he offered.
I took it from him, with quiet thanks. This gesture of kindness, though insignificantly small, was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for me. I suddenly felt bad now, because I remembered flashbacks to the bar. I yelled at him, I insulted him, I did everything nasty I could think of short of physically assaulting him. I might’ve even done that had I thought myself capable of putting up a fight.
Yet here he was, handing me ointment for my little scrapes. He had also looked at me with a genuine smile of happiness when I had crash landed in front of him, like I was exactly what he had wanted to see. The only things he had ever done were nice, and all the things I had done were mean. I resolved to apologize to him later, even though it wasn’t generally my thing.
He started to talk about me being sure about this choice. When I tried to interrupt my displeasure, he silenced me with a hand and kept talking. He should know by now that I don’t do things and give up on them.
But was that true? I gave up piano, soccer, and every kind of sewing project I had ever done. Now that I thought about it, I hadn’t really gone through with anything. But this was different, I told myself. This would be my thing.
I had folded up one leg on the bench, making a little bowl, while my other leg almost touched the ground. It was the position I sat in I was planning on listening to something. Music, nature, and now the man.
He spoke of believing in me, and again this caused my heart to stutter. It seemed no matter how trifling or trivial the action, his kindness was something so foreign and yet so wonderful. He asked me if I was going to stick with this, and not expecting the question, I stuttered out my answer, glancing back and forth between him and the ground.
“I originally thought to go because you were so different than everyone, just like me. Then I thought, why not, I have nothing here for me anyway. While I am still mostly there, I want to be like you in a way as well. You just seem so content with the world right now. I still think you are a little bit crazy, but I think so am I. The crazy people need to stick together right?”
He smiled for a second, and I was proud of my achievement.
“I think I am ready for it all,” I said quiety.
He raised his eyebrows at me, and I thought a bit too late that I had sounded out an insecurity. I glanced at him again, and steeled myself for a second try. You have nothing to lose, I told myself. You are readier than you ever will be again.
I took a deep breath and said, “I mean I AM ready. Not I think. I know I am ready. One hundred percent into this.”
I was glad to find that this time, my resolve and confidence rang true.
“All right then!” He said with a deep breath, sounding satisfied with my answer. “Let's get going! We got at least a few miles ahead of us, maybe more until we hit a good spot to camp!”
What? Is he kidding?
“Five miles or more? Why the hell is he so perky about it?” I mumbled under my breath.
He practically sprang out of his seat like a young deer. He was speed walking now, leaving me scrambling for my stuff. I yelled at him,
“Wait up! Don’t be a jerk! Come on!”
Now he was walking faster, and I could tell it was just for his own amusement. Great, I have a wonderful traveling partner. I caught up to him after a short run, grumbling something about idiots and certain blond haired men being in that category and giving him the nastiest glare I could muster. Thus we began our trek across the stretch of highway ahead of us.
The sun was beating down now, for it was about 4 in the afternoon, the hottest time of the day here. I could swear I was losing pounds of weight because it all came out as sweat. I had also begun to feel light-headed, and I didn’t understand why. I started to lag a bit behind the man, only a step, but always one behind.
I heard the man clear his throat, only to look over and see him take a large swig of the water in his bottle. Feeling stupid and moronic, I tried to convince myself he hadn’t cleared his throat to draw attention to the fact I wasn’t drinking water. But no matter how hard I tried, I knew that was what had happened. At least he didn’t bother me about it.
I retrieved my bottle from my pack, still feeling embarrassed, and downed about half of it. Probably not the best idea, but I didn’t really care at the moment.
Feeling much better, I resumed the pace he was keeping, staying alongside him this time. The road was quiet, and I had started to feel unnerved. The man was completely at ease, but I had never had such silence before. So to fill it, I began to talk to the man. How long was I going to keep calling him the man? It sounded like a bad eighties band name. Now introducing Katy Larson and The Man! Here to perform their new hit, “You Don’t Know My Name.”
“So,” I started awkwardly.
I waited for him to say something.
“So” he replied.
I guess I would be doing the talking.
“Um,” I stammered for time, “I didn’t quite catch your name back there. I’m Veronica, as you know, and you are?”
He seemed surprised at my question and then shrugged.
“I don’t really have one. I used to, but I don’t remember it.”
Nonplussed, I couldn’t even speak. Who the hell doesn’t have a name? Maybe no middle name, sure, but everyone has a name.
“What am I supposed to call you then. Hey, you? You there? Hey guy that I’m traveling with?”
He again shrugged noncommittally, no doubt thinking it strange I cared.
“You can call me whatever you want I guess.”
This was just ridiculous.
“I’m going to go insane if I can’t use a name to talk to you. If you don’t care what it is, I’m just going to give you a name.”
He looked at me peculiarly, but seemed okay with the suggestion. Another few minutes passed by in silence as I thought of a name for him. Studying him from top to bottom, many names came into my head. Casey? Nah, that’s not it. Jason? He wasn’t that kind of guy. Brian or Charles? Wrong hair. Finally a name popped into my head, and with nothing better, I decided that was what he was going to be called.
“I got it!” I exclaimed, almost making him jump. “Your new name is Matthew! But I don’t really like the full name for you so I’m just going to call you Matt. Okay?”
He pondered the name for a moment.
“Matt? Why Matt? I mean, it’s a fine name, but I never thought of myself as a Matt.”
I gave him a glare, saying tartly, “Because I think of you as a matt and you ‘didn’t care’ as you said so I gave it to you and now it’s your name. You can’t do anything about it.”
I was offended at his mockery of my name. I crossed my arms and turned my head away.
“Matt huh?” I heard him say.
He said it a few more times.
“I kind of like it actually,” he said to me.
I turned away from him, my arms still crossed, and gave him a harsh toned, “whatever.”
Even if he was lying, he was still trying it. Another minute passed.
“Do you really kind of like it or are you just lying? If you were, don’t do it now.”I asked quietly.
He looked at me with a slight smile and replied, “Yeah I do. It’s as good a name as any other. I think I could be a Matt in real life. I have the Matt hair too.”
I hid my smile at the hair comment. I didn’t want him to think he had won.
“Well good, cause it’s what I’m going to call you, Matt.” I said, putting special emphasis on his name.
He smiled once more and we talked to each other on and off again for the rest of our walk.
It was surprisingly easy to carry on a conversation with him, and I found myself gabbing on and on while he answered my questions. Despite the constant stream of my voice, he didn’t seem to mind it at all. We talked about many things. The Way, at first for it was a common topic with him. But then it turned into thing like his favorite color, purple. Cats or dogs? Dogs. Right handed or left handed? Right. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you want with you? A toolbox. Why? So he could build a boat. He asked me back all my questions, and by the end of the night, we knew all the little things about each other.
When we weren’t talking, I was admiring the scenery. We were always on the side of the highway, but that didn’t mean we missed any nature. There were omnipresent mountains to the west, amethyst and sapphire. They loomed over the rest of the natural world, but they were kind. Wild flowers of all kinds grew in patches around the street. Bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes sprouted from the sides, joining Daisies and brown-eyed Susans. I didn’t know the names of the flowers, but Matt did, and he answered all of my questions with amazing accuracy. Of course, I wouldn’t know if he was wrong, but he seemed sure enough about his answers that I had to believe he knew. He seemed to be enchanted with everything wild, just like I was. We passed a gurgling brook, and a trickling stream.
At the latter, we stopped to refill our water bottles, or rather just mine mostly, for I had drank it all at an unwise pace. He dropped little purifying tablets in the bottles, and I watched as the tablets fizzed away. With trepidation I tried the water, and it turned out to be absolutely delicious.
We saw anthills as big as my leg, which I steered away from, for I did not want to provide them with an afternoon snack. Matt laughed at me, but shut up when I glared at him. We passed countless lakes, baby ducklings trotting after their mother.
Maybe I was like the cygnet, mixed in with baby ducklings when I was meant to be with the swans. Perhaps Matt was a swan? I burst out laughing, but wouldn’t tell him what I was laughing about. Swan Matt, the new ballet.
We also got to see a turtle crossing the road, a painted turtle I was informed. I was worried he would get hit by a car, for he was crossing the street, but Matt said cars hardly ever used this highway and to not interfere with his crossing. The birds chirped overhead, singing in harmony like a well practiced choir.
I was getting really tired at this point, but I pushed onward. One, because Matt wasn’t going to stop, and two, because of all of the wonderful things I was seeing. By the time we reached “base camp” where we were setting up for the night, I didn’t ever want to move again.
I dropped my bag, and then promptly collapsed to the ground.
"Oh sweet grass,” I moaned, “I will never leave you again.”
Matt snickered at my affection towards the ground.
“Oh, and there’s one of those anthills about a foot away from you.”
I jolted up to look, but I only saw Matt smirking at me.
“You jerk!” I admonished him, “I thought you were serious! One day I’m actually going to get attacked by ants because I won’t believe you!”
He faked an apologetic look, and I reminded myself to smack him in the arm later. I lay back down again, because I didn’t want to move.
“Even if that had been true, I wouldn’t have cared. I’m so tired I would have let them eat me alive if it meant I didn’t have to move.”
Matt rolled his eyes, mumbling something about being overly dramatic. Yes, I would definitely have to smack him. I stared at the sky, streaked with fiery rays of red and soft glows of a pleasant pink. As the sun went down and the evenings gave to twilight I decided to get up.
After I had regained feeling in my feet, I limped over to where he had built a fire. I pulled out my sleeping bag like he did, and laid it out away from the fire, just enough to stop myself from being hot but not far away enough I was cold.
We had discussed my supplies easier, and it was decided I had pretty much everything I needed except maybe a few more pairs of clothes and some “basic” things I needed, like water tablets, and a first aid kit, and flint and steel. All things we could get in the next town, only about 4 miles away from here.
“My feet are killing me!” I exclaimed, “Why did we walk so much?”
I sank down to the ground again.
“You said five miles” I commented accusingly, “we walked, like 25!”
I shot him another glare when he scoffed.
“Please!,” he said with an attitude, “try 10.”
I didn’t have the strength to argue, but I mumbled in rebellion, “You still said 5.”
He threw me a MREA, and I hastily wolfed it down. It was pretty decent in many senses. Matt took pity on me and suggested I go down to the stream a few meters away. I hobbled over there, and sat down taking off my shoes and stuffing my socks in them.
As I submerged my feet, the water was freezing. But after the initial shock, I got used to it. It was an amazing feeling, the muscles relaxing after a hard day, the water lapping gently against my ankles.
This was a world that was so magical and awe filled, one could live in it every day for the rest of their life, and they would still see something new each and every single day. I sighed in content.
Twilight was fading away, and it was getting dark. Deciding it didn’t want to fumble around for my shoes in the dark, I ruefully extracted my feet from the river.
Leaving the shoes off but putting on the socks, I limped up the hill again, although this time with a much less noticeable disability.
“Have fun?” Matt asked as I appeared again.
“Actually, I did yes. No thanks to you though.”
I reached over and gave him a light punch in the arm.
“What was that for?” he asked, mildly victimized. “That’s for making fun of me earlier!”
We settled in our sleeping bags, and I watched the stars. After several minutes of star gazing, I rolled on my side to face Matt. His face was turned upward, still looking at the specks in the sky.
“Hey,” I called softly to him.
He didn’t roll to his side, but he twisted his body so he was leaning on his arm, his eyes directed towards me.
“What’s up?” he asked with attentiveness.
“Look, I , uh,” I stuttered, unsure how to put it, “I don’t do this very often, so don’t expect it okay?”
He nodded his agreement, although he looked quite confused.
“I just, I just wanted to apologize okay?” I said, my voice speeding up with embarrassment.
Matt sat up a little more, giving me a clear view of his bewildered face.
For what?” he asked.
“Today, at the bar, I said some really not nice things to you. And, I just don’t think you deserved that because all you are is nice to me and I am just mean but anyway it doesn’t matter cause I wanted to apologize and I did. Sorry, that’s the end of it.” I started to ramble.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Calm down, okay?” He soothed, his hands up in a placating manner. “It’s very nice that you apologized, and I really do thank you for something so heartfelt. But really, you don’t need to apologize. You were upset, and we all do things we regret when we are upset. New things are scary, especially things like this and how fast it happened. All that matters is that you chose to come anyway. But still, that’s a very nice gesture. Thank you.”
I looked at his face, for some sign of insincerity, but it was not there. He was looking at me softly, now, so I turned away slightly.
“Do you want a hug?” he asked playfully.
“No.” I replied a little forcefully.
“I’m going to come over there, I’ll do it, I’m going to give you a hug.”
He was messing around and I knew it. I turned to him and said in mock anger,
“If you hug me I’m going to hit you again.”
He chuckled and I couldn’t help but let out one of my own. Our laughter filled the air, mixing with the sounds of other nature, out of place, yet somehow completely cordant with the other sounds.
After we had calmed down, we lay in silence again. At first, I thought Matt had fallen asleep, for he was turned away, and very silent. I wished I could have asked him something.
“Matt. Are you awake?” I asked in a whisper so soft, he might not have heard it even if he had been awake.
I didn’t think we was, so it startled me when his figure replied with a sleepy “mmhm.” Now I felt bad, interrupting his sleep. I was quiet for a moment.
“Is everything okay?” he asked with sleepy concern.
“Is it worth it, Matt?”
He turned over, so I could see him.
With bleary eyes, he asked me, confused, “Is what worth it?”
I gestured to our little camp and the surrounding area.
“All of this. Is it worth it?”
Understanding dawned on his face. He yawned, and then gave me a brilliant smile.
“Oh yeah. It’s worth every second.”
With that I turned the other way, pretending I was falling asleep. I heard him shuffle in his sleeping bag.
And then, with a gentle voice similar to mine, he softly said, “Goodnight Veronica.”
I lay for a while, still, and calm.
Then, with that same softness, I said, “Goodnight Matt.”
With the owls hooting, the fire crackling, and the river gently gurgling, it created a nature-made lullaby. I looked one more time at the stars before my eyes closed. And then, I let sleep overcome me and welcomed the land of dreams.

Highway Chapter 11

This was going to be a learning experience, for both of us. Veronica clearly wasn’t very well versed in the art of wilderness survival. We were walking alongside the road, the sun’s fiery rays increasing the temperature by several degrees in the already hot climate.
I had a full water bottle, and I knew it would last me until we got to a resting point outside of the town. Veronica had told me she had a water bottle as well, but I thought it strange, for she wasn’t drinking any of the liquid inside. Did she really not know that she needed to stay hydrated? Judging from her slow decrease in speed and look of exhaustion, I could easily answer that. Apparently not.
Sighing inwardly, I reminded myself how much this was going to benefit her. I am who I am today because of this journey. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened to me without it. I might not even still be alive. She needed this, and there were just things she needed to learn on the way. Nobody is perfect.
I cleared my throat just loud enough to catch her attention, and then took an exaggerated drink from my bottle. Her face flushed with color, and she immediately retrieved her bottle from her pack. Purposely ignoring me, she proceeded to gulp down about half of her water bottle. Another mistake, but she was a novice after all. The map showed there was a stream a little ways away, so if she ran out of water she could refill her bottle there.
She had caught up to me now, and we walked in silence. It was comfortable to me, for a majority of the time I spent on the road was by myself, accompanied only by my shadow and the nature around me. My conversations were limited to listening to the chatter of the animals, the babbling of the brook, the whispers of the wind. But for her, I knew that she was becoming more uncomfortable by the second. She kept fidgeting, and looked back and forth between me and the ground below us. Just as I had begun to think I should engage in some kind of conversation, opened her mouth.
“So,” she said, awkward and quiet.
“So,” I replied, not quite sure what she wanted me to say.
She paused, and then said, “I didn’t quite catch your name back there. I’m Veronica, as you know, and you are?”
Caught off guard, I looked at her surprised. Then, I shrugged. I suppose I should have seen this coming. I didn’t remember much before my awakening, and that included my name. I never found a use for a new one, so I just left it alone. I didn’t need a name when I was a part of something so big. Bugs didn’t have names, plants and animals were not called John, or Nancy, or Dave. We were all a part of nature. I didn’t blame anyone for wanting a name, I just didn’t feel as if it was important to me.
“What am I supposed to call you then? Hey, you? You there? Hey guy that I’m traveling with?”
I shrugged again, not sure what to respond with. It didn’t really matter what she called me, and I thought it a bit odd that my name was such a pressing issue to her. But better to be worried over a name than a past. I would prefer not to talk about my past if the need not arise.
“You can call me whatever you want I guess.” I said in non committal tones.
She told me that if I didn’t care, she would give me a name. Giving up on reasonable conversation, I resigned my fate. She pondered the name for a long time, making me awkwardly uncomfortable due to her intense scrutiny and continuous looks. She murmured something about having the wrong hair. How does a name describe someone’s hair? She suddenly proclaimed that my new name was Matthew, but that she was shortening it to Matt. It was an odd choice of name, I thought.
“Matt? Why Matt? I mean, it’s a fine name, but I never thought of myself as a Matt.”
She gave me the trademark glare that I was becoming accustomed to, and said tartly,
“Because I think of you as a matt and you ‘didn’t care’ as you said so I gave it to you and now it’s your name.”
She seemed offended at my lack of glee for my name, and crossed her arms, looking stern. I laughed inwardly, but kept it inside for I feared she would punch me if I laughed at her out loud. I didn’t know something so trivial would be important. But I thought I would give her a chance.
“Matt huh?”
I rolled the name off of my tongue several times, trying to get a feel for it. I guess Matt was as good a name as any other. I should be thankful she didn’t go down a spiteful path and start calling my Kelly. Or something worse.
“I kind of like it,” I announced to her.
She still looked cross, and turned her head away, mumbling a harsh whatever, but I could tell she wasn’t really truly mad at me. After a minute or two, she turned to me. She asked me if I really liked it, or if I was lying. I replied, honest yet polite.
“Yeah, I do. It’s as good a name as any other. I think I could be a Matt in real life. I have the Matt hair too.”
I added this last comment to make her smile. She hid it from me, but not before I could see the corners of her lips tilt up in the beginnings of a smirk.
We began to have a steady stream of conversation, most of the talking coming from her end. I didn’t mind this, for even though I was quiet, I enjoyed the company. It was lonely, and at least for now, I had a companion. We started talking about common things, and I repeated back her questions. Her favorite color, blue. Cats or dogs? Dogs. Right handed or left handed? Right. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you want with you? Large branches and fire. Why? So she could signal for help.
We walked amongst the nature, often slowing down so Veronica could watch the world go on around her. I would explain things to her, why that turtle was going there, what that structure was. This species of flower bloom at night, this lake is home to 25 kinds of fish. She was enamored and awed by everything here, as were all drifters including myself. It was good she already had such a connection to it, for that connection would make the awakening much easier.
After a pause to fill up her bottle with water from the stream, we resumed our journey. As we passed a large anthill, home to a colony of millions, Veronica purposely passed to the other side of me, avoiding it. I laughed, but quieted when she gave me that look. She was a very interesting girl. As we reached our camp site, a few miles out from the next town, Veronica collapsed onto the ground.
She murmured about never leaving the grass again. I snickered and then told her there was an anthill by her head. She jolted away, and then gave me a nasty look as she scolded me for scaring her, saying she would one day not believe me and then get eaten by ants. She said something about being okay with that as long as she didn’t have to move. I rolled my eyes, mumbling about her being so melodramatic.
Later, she walked up to the fire I had made, and rolled out her sleeping bag. It seemed she had the most basic supplies she needed, and I was impressed she had remembered to bring most of it. She then promptly began to complain about her feet.
“You said five miles” she commented accusingly, “we walked, like 25!”
Although it must have seemed long to her, it was not the longest I had ever walked.
“Please,” I scoffed at her, “Try 10.”
It had been longer than 5, but I wasn’t letting that melodrama go unaddressed.
“It was still more than 5” I heard her mumble.
I threw her a meal ready to eat from my pack and we ate hungrily, for it had been a while since our last meal. Understanding it had been a long day, I suggested she dip her feet in the cool river and few meters away. I used to do this before my feet had toughened enough, or just when I needed relief.
When she was gone, I reflected on just how different she was from anyone I had ever met before. The other person I had helped find the truth had been a young girl, around Veronica’s age, a year older. But she had been nothing like her, small with black hair and brown eyes. She was quiet and reserved, her voice barely every rising above a murmur. She had also been a girl who had been adopted but then had reached the age of majority and had moved out. The whole journey I received no conversations aside from about The Way. She wasn’t cruel or spiteful, she just was a very quiet girl.
Veronica was spunky down to her every molecule, and she was tough as well. She was loud and not afraid to say what was on her mind. Although harder to understand, I found Veronica to be special, a one of a kind among the drifters and ones that will be.
I heard her returning and asked, “Did you have fun?”
She snarkily replied that she had, with no thanks to me. She walked over to me and punched me in the arm without warning, catching me by surprise.
“What was that for?” I asked, feeling like I was being “abused.”
She told me it was for scaring her earlier, but it think it was also for making her walk 10 miles. We settled in, and I took up my usual evenings stargazing route. I traced the shapes with my eyes, silently telling the stories.
I heard Veronica softly call, “Hey.”
I twisted my torso so that I was leaning on my arm and facing her.
“What’s up?” I had asked her.
With a great deal of hesitation, she started apologizing to me. I sat up even further, to get a clearer view of her face. Mine must have been completely bewildered, for I did not know why she was apologizing until she spoke of the bar today. Finally understanding why she had been acting weird a majority of the day, I set out to calm her.
I explained to her that I appreciated her gesture, but that it was unnecessary. Everyone had a hard time at first, and rejected the idea. But she had come, and that was all that mattered. I’m pretty sure I cursed out the first person to tell me about the way. She looked at me, fiercely searching my face for signs of dishonesty. This was when I could tell just how vulnerable she really was.
Although she knew how to take care of herself, it mattered to her that I wasn’t lying. She was so unused to truth, it had to be checked over and over again for any signs of false elements.
“Do you want a hug?” I asked playfully, trying to make her laugh.
She gave me a no in the form of a grumble. I threatened to hug her again before she replied that she was going to punch me again if I hit her. I laughed, for this seemed exactly like something she would say. The laughter became contagious, and she too was soon laughing. We settled in again, and I began to feel sleepy. Just as my eyes became heavy, I heard Veronica’s voice.
Hushed and muted, she called my name, asking if I was awake. I could barely hear her when I was awake, and was only capable of doing so through years of fine tuning my listening skills to hear creatures far away. I replied with an affirmative noise, to let her know I was listening. She was silent, so I turned in the bag to face her if everything was okay. I was concerned by her lack of response.
She took me by surprise again, asking me if it was worth it. After a moment of confusion, I realized she meant the voyage. I told her, beaming, that it was worth every second, and that was the truth. It was the best thing to have ever happened to my life.
She turned away, giving the allusion of sleep. Softly, but loud enough she could hear, I bid her goodnight. She paused, and then with that quiet voice answered my goodnight with her own.
When morning broke, I woke up. I watched the sun rise over the horizon, slowly beginning its trek across the sky. I watched as it turned from ebony, to navy, to cerulean, and light blue. Just as the yellow had begun to peer over the horizon like a child peering at the dessert on the table, I decided to get ready to leave.
Stretching leisurely, I got up, changed, and put out the fire. I glanced over to where Veronica was sleeping, and couldn’t help but smile at the sight. Her hair was splayed out, her mouth slightly open, and her nose twitching at some dream. She looked rather peaceful when she was asleep, and I couldn’t tell that she was a girl with such a pained and angry past. Her face was relaxed, and it made her look like an entirely different person. I would have liked to have let her dream a bit longer, but we needed to head out pretty soon. It was six right now, and I wanted to be out of the town around twelve-thirty in the afternoon. Dreading the confrontation that was sure to come, I went to wake her up.
“Veronica,” I called softly. “Veronica, wake up.”
She stirred, but didn’t prove more responsive. Sighing, I bent down and shook her shoulder.
“Veronica,” I said, a bit louder and forceful this time.
She jumped, now open eyes bleary with sleep filled with confusion. As she woke up a little bit more, she realized it was just me. It was obvious nobody slept around her often, which made me believe she lived alone.
“What?” she asked drowsily, her voice taking on a child like tone.
“It’s time to get up, we need to head to the town up ahead. Get your stuff packed. We’ll eat breakfast and go.” I said, yawning.
She repeated the action and sat for a moment. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as I had thought. Then from behind me I heard her say,
“What do you mean let’s go? What time is it?”
She looked at the thin digital watch on her wrist, and moaned.
“It’s six in the morning! What the hell is wrong with you? I am not going anywhere at six in the morning except back to bed!”
So it was going to be difficult. I thought I should try a more reasonable approach first, tell her why it’s important.
“Come on, Veronica. We need to go into town today to get you supplies. If we don’t go now, we won’t make it out in time to get to the hotel outside of it in time.”
I had told her that if we got all of our errands done tomorrow, we would have time to make it to the small motel and stay there for the night, instead of outside. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but I thought some extra motivation would be good for her.
She stirred again, but then continued to ignore me.
“Besides, if you want to do this, you’re going to have to cooperate with me here. I wake with the sun and sleep with the sun. It’s just the way it is. Help me out.” I pleaded to her.
She swatted me away snapping, “And I will work with you when it’s not so god forsaken early. But right now I will do no negotiating with you. Now leave me alone.”
She buried her head underneath her pillow.
Sighing, I realized I would have to resort to more desperate measures. I tried to be reasonable, so now I would be unreasonable.
“If you don’t get up, something not so good is going to happen. Are you sure?”
She lifted her pillow off her head, giving me a glare.
“You don’t have the guts.”
I raised my eyebrows, but shrugged.
“Alright, Veronica, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
I picked up my empty water bottle, and watched her snuggle back into her sleeping bag. Making my way down the hill to the creek nearby, I filled my bottle to the brim with the clear water. It was freezing, especially since it was morning, and I consoled myself with the fact that I had tried being the good guy.
Creeping silently up the hill, I approached her still form. Her sleeping bag was already unzipped most of the way, so I didn’t have to worry about it getting wet. Then, with a flick of my wrist, I opened the bottle right over Veronica.
She bolted out of that bag faster than a jackrabbit, screeching like a banshee. Her clothes were stuck to her skin, and her hair was matted to her forehead and clinging to her back. It was dripping over all that had been missed by the stream before. It took her a moment of flailing around to see me standing there, a now empty bottle in hand.
“You!” she cried accusingly, “Did you just pour water on me?”
She was fuming.
“Well I warned you a few times,” I said casually, “if you had listened to me in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this problem, don’t you agree?”
She just stood there puffing angrily, looking as if she were thinking on how to plan my untimely demise. I strolled to the side of the camp her stuff was on, and I threw her bag to her feet.
“Come on, we’re running late.”
I finished gathering the rest of the camp into bags. Ignoring her presence as she grew increasingly irate, I zipped up my backpack, shouldering it in one fluid motion. Freed from her strange moment of silent fury, she sprang back with a force.
“Do you expect me to just stand here and take that? You just poured water all over me because you suck, and now you want me to be all hunkey dorey with that? Oh yeah it’s fine, I love to be doused with water in the mornings. Is that was you expect I’ll say?”
She was growing more upset, and this wouldn’t end well if we continued on.
“What I expect,” I replied with authority, “is that we get things done when they need to be done, and that we do it together. If you don’t want to do this anymore then be my guest, I’ll take you to town and you can get directions to where you’re going.”
She faltered in her no doubt nasty reply, and seemed at a loss for words. I didn’t want her to leave, and it was highly doubtful she would, but she needed to know that she chose this and therefore needed to be committed to it. Faced with this ultimatum, she would take being doused in water any day.
Deciding not to say anything that might kindle the embers of her anger, I merely told her that she should change for she could get sick if she kept on wet clothes. As she went off to change, still looking slightly murderous, I hoped fervently this wasn’t how all of our mornings were. I remember being stubborn enough to keep arguing. I also made a note to myself to keep an eye out for a revenge prank from Veronica.
She slowly trailed back, mumbling a string of curses the entire way, all about me. I caught quite a few words I couldn’t even believe someone her age would know. She marched past me, grumbling, before she realized she didn’t know which way to go.
As I walked past her, she called my attention back.
“Just so you know, Matthew,” she said menacingly, “I’m not coming because I forgive you. I’m only here because I have nothing better to do, so don’t think it’s because I like you. I don’t. And I’m still mad at you. Are we clear?”
She was mad now, but I was sure she would come around. But to avoid another fight, I just agreed. She lagged behind me, still complaining under her breath. I pondered if my “full name” had some significance of being in trouble, but decided it didn’t really matter. She would get over it, in time.
The town was only a few miles away, and we were making good time. The sun had just come up all the way, and it was bringing the animals that weren’t already awake to life.
As with the day before, Veronica was entranced with the nature around her. She spotted some colorful flowers by the side of the road a myriad of buds and blooms attached to long rods, and slowed significantly to look at them. She turned, as if to ask me, but then stopped and crossed her arms.
“Those are Baby Snapdragons. Beautiful, aren’t they?”
She didn’t look at me, but she didn’t look away. I was getting the silent treatment, but it wasn’t necessarily the cold shoulder either. I would make her less mad with me before we got in the town.
I explained to her how a beaver built a dam, how a woodpecker got its food. I explained everything we passed. And though she wouldn’t respond or take a pause from “ignoring” me, I certainly had her ear. The way to her heart was through nature. She also seemed to have a strong love for stories and tales.
As we reached the town, I was finishing telling her about the time I saw a beaver bring down an entire tree. She had resumed walking next to me, not hanging back. I had, at the very least, lessened her anger to the point she wasn’t thinking of horrible things to do to me while I am sleeping. Or perhaps just not right now.
This town was at least twice the size of Veronica’s, so there wouldn’t be as many people sensing us and becoming uncomfortable. It was also located right on the highway, so a lot of “strange” people came to the town.
Veronica looked around the town with a smile on her face. Had she been here before? If she had been, it was a good trip. I could see it in her eyes.
We had left around seven, and it had taken us an hour to get here. That left us with 4 hours before we headed out. Getting everything we needed for a good price would take anywhere from 2-3 hours, especially if they were in a bad mood.
Now done looking back at her memories, Veronica looked bored senseless.
Hoping to cheer her up, I turned to her and said, “You know, this is going to take a while. You can come if you want, but I think you would have more fun if you explored the town. I’ll tell you what, do whatever is fun in this town, but don’t draw any attention to yourself. The last thing we need are people staring at us the whole way through town. I’ll meet you here at 11:30, I would say. Does that work for you?”
Her eyes lit up with excitement, and I wondered if maybe I was going to regret this decision. I couldn’t see much harm in it, and it would put her in a better mood, that was great.
“Okay! I got it!” she practically snag, the first words since this morning.
I didn’t know if she heard me correctly, so I made her repeat back what I said. With no other reason to hold her back, I set her loose on the unsuspecting townspeople.
“Be nice!” I shouted to her as she was trotting down the aisle.
She raised her hand to show that she heard me, and I felt the littlest bit reassured. I went into the little shop to get Veronica’s basic supplies.
After a conversation where I convinced the man to give it to me on sale, I spotted something to the side. It was just sitting there, lonely but hopeful someone would pick it up. I didn’t know if Veronica would like the item, but to me it just seemed like it would be a great present for her. I thought of it as a “welcome to the club” present. It wasn’t very expensive, so I snatched it off of the shelf.
“I’ll take this as well, please,” I said to the cashier.
The whole key of keeping incognito was to stay distant from people, but be polite to everyone. Keeping an easy going demeanor and having proper manners are critical to making yourself seem normal. I should have told Veronica that, I told myself, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I trusted her enough to know she wouldn’t do anything really stupid, and she seemed plenty capable of getting herself out of most situations. She was quick on her feet, which was a quality that drifters needed to have to avoid detection as being “different”.
I spend the next few hours browsing through stores, making sure there wasn’t anything we needed.
When it came close to 11:30, I looped back and returned to our rendezvous spot. I began to grow concerned as time passed from 11:30, until it was 11:35, and 11:40. When she was half an hour late, I grew seriously worried. Had something happened to her? What was holding her up? Where was Veronica?
Just as I prepared to search the town, she showed up from behind me.
“Hi. Sorry I’m late,” She said.
What had she been doing? Forcing back my frustration, I took a deep breath to calm myself and my voice.
“What took you so long? I was worried," I asked.
I made it sound as casual as possible. She looked sheepish, but responded softly and calmly.
“They are having this weird event over there and I ended up on the other side of the people. I had to work my way through very slowly to not call attention to myself. I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
She seemed concerned I was upset. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding. It would be absolutely horrible if I lost my young charge on only the second day. Pleased she was at least trying to listen to me, I gave her a grateful smile.
“Are you ready to go?” I asked her.
She nodded, looking just as relieved as I was to have found me again.
“Oh wait,” she called as I started to walk to the general direction the motel was in, “Here, catch this.”
She threw me something from her bag, and I narrowly avoided being smacked in the head with it. Examining it, I realized it was a walkie talkie. I looked to her with question in my eyes.
“I had them sitting around the house, and I thought they might be useful. Now we can communicate when we are away from each other.”
I gave her another smile, and stowed away the walkie in the side packet of my backpack. We had to go back to where Veronica had been a few minutes ago to get out of the correct gates.
As she had said, the people seemed to be having some sort of parade. The origin was unknown, for it was a bunch of paper kites flying by in the sky, confetti raining down upon us. Dragon kites swooped through the air as if they had the actual wings, and colorful lizards soared across the clouds. Whatever this was, it had drawn quite the crowd, and they were blocking the exit. We were going to have to weave right through the middle of the throng.
Veronica had instinctively drawn closer to me, our shoulders brushing against each other. I turned to her, almost having to shout over the noise.
“We’re going to have to go straight through them!”
She seemed hesitant, and I wondered what was causing her trepidation. I held out my hand for her to take, something to keep us together.
“Come on!,” I yelled to her.
She looked at my hand and back at me before shouting, “I’m not a baby! I can take care of myself! You just worry about your own well being!"
Deciding it didn’t matter as long as she didn’t get lost, I nodded, only replying to stay close. I hadn’t even known this town had housed so many people.
It appeared the finale had come, for the crowd’s voices had become more frenzied and manic. A gigantic kite, twice my size, rose up from the horizon, swooping down on the people. Passing only an inch above my head, the kite began a flight pattern similar to a dance, diving down and then careening upward. The people were all cheering at the kite show, and they swayed like an ocean wave, threatening to wash us away.
The space in between people was non-existent, and it was so hot it was sickening. Mob mentality was a very powerful thing indeed.
I felt emptiness by my side, or at least a gap where I thought it would be occupied by a certain girl. I looked for Veronica in the crowd, but couldn’t find her. I searched the waves of people for her vibrant hair, and began to panic again when I couldn’t spot her. Was she lost? Should I try to push through and hope she’s at the other end? I pushed through the people, searching high and low.
Forcing myself into a calmer state, I set about searching more methodically. I scanned the crowd, staying in the same place, a solid rock in the middle of a stream.
Suddenly I felt a body slam into mine. I stumbled, but didn’t fall. When I saw who it was, my relief was evident. There was Veronica, looking a little frazzled, but otherwise unharmed. She mimicked my relieved look, and closed the minimal space in between us.
Taking my hand like a lifeline, she looked at me and nodded. We weaved in and out of the people, sticking to the edge once we got there. She held on to my hand, as if for dear life itself. As we finally cleared the masses, I saw our exit. Picking up speed but still maintaining a firm grip on Veronica’s hand, I dashed to the other side.
We stopped to catch our breath, her legs shaking a little bit. Perhaps she was claustrophobic? But even if she wasn’t, being around a lot of people was always uncomfortable for people like us. We felt too confined, used to the vast expanses of nature when you might as well have a grain of sand in relative to your size. She seemed suddenly aware we were linked together, and pulled her hand away like she was about to be burned.
“All right then,” I remarked after we had calmed down, “I think it’s about time we left. Don’t you agree?”
She agreed entirely. The walk to the motel was about an hour and a half, but it had been infinitely more pleasant this time around, for I didn’t have a teenager brooding at my side, constantly insulting me. She asked me about the plant life, and what was their role in the environment. I have never met a girl who can ask as many questions as Veronica did, but it was okay. The more she learned, the more connected she would feel.
She already seemed a less pained girl than before. Something about the outside made her smiles come more frequently, and made her laughter easier. She asked me more silly questions. Did I like scrambled eggs? Who was my favorite singer? Which was my favorite sport? It went on and on, and I answered. I would often repeat them to her, for the sake of learning.
We arrived a bit later than I was expecting, but still came early enough to get a reservation. We headed up to our rooms, and set most of our stuff down. It was about two in the afternoon, and we didn’t quite know what to do.
I was lying in bed, sorting supplies and counting everything. Veronica was watching an old movie in here, for my room had a bigger television. She would occasionally mumble something to the television, absorbed in what was happening on the screen. Suddenly, she was leaning over the edge of the bed, folding her arms.
“So, are you like that?” she asked, looking up at me from her position.
“Like what?” I asked.
She pointed to the television, and I twisted my legs to the side to see the screen more clearly. It appeared to be an old western movie. Okay, I thought, I need to straighten this out right now.
“Not at all,” I scoffed at the movie, “I couldn’t be more different if I tried.”
When she gazed at me curiously, I decided to elaborate.
“We don’t wander around and become ‘heroes’, we help people who need to help themselves. Think of it this way, I have in common with the Lone Ranger as much as you have in common, with, let’s say that boy yesterday.”
She snorted in discontentment, and plainly stated, “Well I guess you are pretty different. The only thing I have in common with him is that I breathe. And sometimes he even needs to be reminded of that.”
This comment made me smirk, and then I snickered lightly. With nothing else to do, I watched the rest of the movie with her, getting her to join me in making fun of the acting and plot.
When we got hungry, we went down to the lobby, where right outside a man was selling delicious looking hot dogs. Veronica and I ate them under the fading sunset, leaning against the bench and watching the sun say its farewells. Veronica said she was going to head up, for her feet were “going to just wear away.” I watched the sun for a moment as she walked through the doors, and then caught up with her.
We settled in for the night. I took a shower before she got the idea, for I wanted the water temperature to be in the positive ranges. Not to say I knew she would take a long one, I thought it highly likely.
As the warm water cascaded across my face, I began to think. Veronica still was rough and tough, and she would likely even be a mild version of this when she had her awakening. But still, I was glad to see that she had already become happier. She was going through a process, I knew, and I was happy to be there for her. She was rather endearing actually, even when she looked like she was planning to kill you for waking her up. I hoped she wasn’t too mad at me for that. I felt like I would miss her when she found The Way.
Drifters rarely ever stay together, and if they do, it’s only for a short time. We were just made to be lonely when it came to human contact. The whole world was connected to us, and it wasn’t necessary to have a companion besides the wild.
Even so, I would miss her spunkiness and attitude. I would never tell her this, of course, and I would be there to wish her good luck and to say farewells with the utmost empathy and happiness when she found her way. I found it odd that I was even wondering about this. Since when did I feel like I wanted a companion? I shrugged, figuring there were mysteries in the world, and I would never figure them out by worrying over them. It’s like trying to solve algebra by chewing bubble gum. You can try, but it won’t do you any good.
Turning off the stream of water, I stepped out onto the plush rug beneath my feet. Even though I preferred to sleep at night, it was good to “freshen up” at different places in towns so that I didn’t look like a ragamuffin. Putting on a white t-shirt and some plain black basketball shorts, and towel drying my hair, I entered my room only to hear a fervent knocking.
Opening the conjoining door between our rooms, I came face to face with an irked Veronica.
“What’s up?” I asked her nonchalantly, leaning in the door frame.
She gave me an irritated look.
“If you are quite finished stealing all of the hot water, I would appreciate being able to take my shower now.”
I suppressed a smile at her impatience.
“Go ahead, it’s all yours, princess.”
She gave me that glare I had come to know so well, and scowled, replying “Don’t call me stupid nicknames. No Vee, no Ronny, none of these. And especially not princess. All right?”
I put my hands up in a defensive matter, holding back a smirk.
“What happened to ladies first, anyway? Have you no chivalry? Chivalry, art thou dead? Actually, you know what, it’s okay that you went. I would want to let the ladies go first, so that definitely applies to you.”
Ouch. She was certainly sassy tonight.
“Oi, watch it,” I grumbled.
She laughed, basking in her victory.
“ I am the master of the universe!” she sang as she bounced away.
What a strange girl, I thought, but I couldn’t keep from smiling. She took her shower, long as I had expected, and then again came knocking on my door.
“Who is it?” I asked innocently, making my voice a high and feminine as possible “I wasn’t expecting company. Golly, who could it be at this late hour?”
I heard her muffle a laugh from the other side. Then all of a sudden, the door swung inward, smacking me head on.
“Oh!” I heard Veronica exclaim, “I didn't know you were in front of the door. Oops.”
I held my nose, for she had smacked me in the face. It stung, but I wasn’t bleeding at least. She had been unusually kind enough to get me an ice pack from the fridge.
Although it was obvious she hadn’t meant to hit me in the face, Veronica sure found it amusing.
“Oh me, oh my!” she mocked, her voice higher and exaggerated as well, “I apologize for your nose darlin’ I was always clumsy. Never could dance at the square dances back home. Poor Billy from out back never did recover from that broken toe.”
We both chortled at that one, and Veronica confiscated my television for her own use. When I got up to get a glass of water, she was on the ground, and when I came back, she was laying on my bed stomach first, her feet swaying back and forth.
“Shoo,” I said, attempting to reclaim my spot.
She wouldn’t budge and I thought about pushing her off, but I wasn’t that mean. I had already poured water on her. But then she had smacked me in the nose with a door. I figured we were pretty even. I took a spot on the ground, and watched a talent show with her. This arrangement didn’t last very long, because I had a “big head.”
The beds were surprisingly large for how small the building was, and so she separated it with an imaginary line and cleared room for me to sit.
I had found a book on the table earlier, a mystery thriller. With nothing better to do, I lay against the headboard and started to read. Veronica had flipped the channels and come across a documentary on Meerkats, and was now watching them with fascination. I wondered how she was comfortable, for she had her feet crossed and leaned up against the headboard, and she was watching upside down. We continued this until it was around 10, and Veronica began to yawn. She tucked her legs under her and stretched, preparing herself for bed time.
“I’m still mad at you, you know,” she said drowsily, taking me by surprise.
Remembering the gift in my bag, I smiled.
Stretching as well, I simply replied, “Is that so? Well I suppose if you are mad at me, you don’t want the present I got you today. Such a shame.”
She exclaimed something about secrets, and asked me what it was.
“I can’t tell you. But you obviously don’t want it because you are mad at me, so I’ll just have to take it back.”
She told me I was being a jerk, and to stop it. After a little bit more prompting, she finally conceded that she was not mad at me, and did, in fact, want the present. Glowing in my victory, I reached across her for my backpack and pulled out the little toy.
A stuffed octopus, it was vibrant red with yellow tentacles that had blue suckers. On its face was a content smile, his little eyes cole black. The bottom side of one of his tentacles read happiness. At first, Veronica didn’t say anything. I thought she might have disliked it, and was about to yell at me for thinking her childish enough to want stuffed animals. Then, after a long moment, she took him from me.
As she looked at me, I saw the smallest smile of happiness there. A genuine smile, one free of attitude or sarcasm.
“Thank you, Matt. Really. He’s so adorable.”
She looked at me, and then looked away, fearing I would see her little smile.
I was happy she liked the octopus. I couldn’t be sure what she liked. And then, she could have just as easily told me it was too infantile for her. She got up to leave, the octopus snuggled in the crook of her arm. We bid each other goodnight, and just as she was about to leave, she peeked back in.
“Hey Matt?” she asked.
When I looked up, making an affirmative sound, she said, “If you ever tell anyone that I like him or other stuffed animals, waking up to being soaked is going to be the least of your problems.”
With an unusually cheery smile to follow such a statement, she popped her head back out. Despite the fact I had just been threatened, I was happy. I felt victorious and accomplished, for I had found the indestructible Veronica’s weakness.
Sometimes something so simple could be the answer to a solution. I wouldn’t have ever thought I would have gotten that smile over something like the little octopus. I had found the secret, and as I went to bed I smiled at the unexpectedness of it.
The toughest girl I had ever met, one full of snarkiness and attitudes, was in love with such a soft, plushy thing.
They say to be grateful for the little things. And tonight, I will agree with that. Tonight, I was thankful for all the good things in the world. I was thankful for my life, in this moment, and thankful I had been chosen to be a part of it. But most of all, I was thankful for stuffed animals.

Highway Chapter 12

I heard the scream. At first, I thought it to be her. But then I realized it was coming from my own mouth. I am running so fast my lungs burn as I drag in air. The broken glass glints in the moonlight. The floor is slick with an unknown substance. I slip, suddenly falling. It all blurs, and I feel numb. The feeling of numb overcomes my body. I am falling, unable to catch myself. Then he is there. I can’t see his face, but I know who he is. My face twists in agony, and I try to speak. I am silent, suddenly rendered mute. I can only reply with a silent scream.
I jolted awake with a start. Covered in sweat, my shirt soaked, I could feel drops rolling down my forehead. I looked around my surroundings, shaking off remnants, and remembered that I was in the woods with Matt.
It was only a dream. What a strange dream, though. What was happening? Why was I dreaming about something so odd? And yet, I felt as if I knew that dream. Something about this wasn’t right. But I looked over at Matt, peacefully sleeping, and I chased away the shadows.
I was here, and it was only a dream. Letting the sound of the fire and the cool night air lull me, I snuggled back into my sleeping bag, and fell asleep.
“-onica” I heard softly, almost like a part of my dream about rabbits. “Veronica, wake up.”
The voice said. I shuffled in my bag, still attached to the dream world as I was petting a stray rabbit from the field.
“Veronica” the voice said, much more insistent, followed by a shake to my shoulder.
The sudden contact made me jump. Trying to clear my eyes of bleariness, I realized Matt was crouching there, in front of me. He said something about leaving. Looking at my watch, the time read six. Was he out of his mind?
“It’s six in the morning! What the hell is wrong with you? I am not going anywhere at six in the morning except back to bed!” I exclaimed.
There was no way I was doing anything so early in the morning. I slept until 10 a.m.
I buried my head back into my sleeping bag. He tried to reason with me, convincing me his insane request was necessary for us to make it to the motel. It was bribery, and I had, admittedly, fallen prey to the thoughts of a warm shower and fluffy pillows. When he pleaded for me to work with him, I swatted him away exclaiming angrily that I would when it wasn’t so early. Leave me alone, I thought to myself. Just wait another few hours.
Matt made some threat about the consequences of not waking up, but I was too tired to take anything serious. Sneering, I told him he didn’t have the guts to do anything. He left, mumbling about warnings, and I began to sink back into sleep. Just as I felt my eyes get heavy, I was rudely interrupted.
A wave of iciness washed over me, and I jumped out of my sleeping bag. The sudden frozen liquid caused me to yell, shocked by definition. My clothes were sucked to my skin as if they had been melded together, and my hair was sopping wet, dripping all over my back. I was shivering, my teeth chattering uncontrollably.
I searched the area for the source of my discomfort, only to see Matt standing there, a still dripping bottle open in his hand.
“You!” I screamed at him accusingly, “Did you just pour water on me?”
I could feel my anger rising, heating up my chilled body. He simply remarked that he had warned me. I could feel my breath hitch, quickly deteriorating into puffing breaths. How dare he? Who the hell did this man think he was? I looked at him murderously, thinking on how I would make him pay for this. He was too big for me to downright attack, but I could sneak something. Maybe I could let a squirrel loose in his sleeping bag, or set a raccoon on his clothes. No, that would be too simple. Maybe I would kick him wildly every night, letting him believe I am dreaming. It would be an “accident”, and it would cause interrupted periods of sleep. If I couldn’t sleep, neither could he.
He threw my bag at me, telling me to get dressed. He ignored my presence as I got madder and madder. I could feel my cheeks flush, and a headache had begun to grow. I didn’t quite know what to say.
Then, recovering from my moment of confusion, I barked at him, asking if he expected me to be okay with this. This was not going to just happen without me saying something about it. What gave him the right? He looked at me with those eyes, unaffected by most everything.
“What I expect,” he replied with a no-nonsense tone, “is that we get things done when they need to be done, and that we do it together. If you don’t want to do this anymore then be my guest, I’ll take you to town and you can get directions to where you’re going.”
I froze mid sentence. What did he just say? His voice had gone from happy-go-lucky to one of authority and power. I realized with frustration that I was the one who was the underdog. I was relying on him to give me something else in this world, and that meant following some rules. Would he really let me go so easily? He sounded rather serious, and I was not willing to go back to that wretched town. Hoping looks could kill, I trailed off to the forest cover, using every curse word I knew to describe him.
Peeling off the wet clothes, I put on dry ones hastily, still chilly from the polar water still sticking to my skin. Taking a hair tie from my wrist, I pulled my hair into a ponytail, hoping it would keep the water away. Fuming, I walked back to where he was.
Only stopping to grab my bag, I marched past him, ignoring him. Realizing I didn't quite know the way, I stopped and waited impatiently for him to show up. Once he walked past me, I felt my anger rise again.
“Just so you know, Matthew,” I said his name with a vengeance.
I told him he wasn’t forgiven, and that he was just a guide. He agreed. We walked to the next town, while I gave him the cold shoulder and attempted to ignore every part of his existence. As we walked, I spotted a group of beautiful flowers. I turned to Matt to ask what they were, then remembered my anger for him and crossed my arms instead. He told me what they were regardless. I kept my eyes straight ahead.
The rest of the journey he told me more stories. I tried my hardest to ignore him, but couldn’t help but listen. He told the best stories.
We reached the town, and I realized that I knew this town. We used to come here on field trips in elementary school. This was my favorite place to be when I was younger, for my life had not gone down the drain yet, and I had friends who would accompany me. I had only begun to feel the isolation.
I looked about, remembering my adventures throughout the town. Ice cream there, reading books there, playing tag in that field.
When Matt suggested I do some exploring, I forgot my anger in the rush of elation. I agreed wholeheartedly, and ran off.
“Be nice!” he called from behind.
I put my hand up to show I had heard, and then started to explore. I went through all of my hotspots of back then, smiling at most of the memories. Kids were playing soccer, and I sat on a nearby bench, watching them play. Their laughter and energy was refreshing, and I laughed lightly.
I imagined myself playing with them, the ball flying towards me before I evaded and took control. I envisioned kicking it down the field with expert footwork and bringing my leg back for the winning goal, sending the ball careening into the net. The other players came to my side, rushing and cheering, lifting me up on their shoulders.
Shaking my head, I reminded myself it didn’t matter now that none of this had happened. A childish fantasy, it was one I often dreamed when I was younger.
I always wanted to be lifted up on someone’s shoulders, but I had never gotten enough interaction with anyone. The students didn’t want to play with me, and I wasn’t encouraged to join any teams. I wasn’t a “role” athlete.
I looked at my watch and discovered that I had been sitting on the bench for longer than I had expected, and it was now 11:15. I needed to meet Matt back at the gates, and despite being angry at him, I didn’t want to make him worry. I set out on the route back to the gates.
As I rounded the corner, the sight of people flooded my eyes, there were a few hundred people gathering at what appeared to be a parade. They were swarming the area, and I saw no way through. Not wanting to shove people, I made my way around the thin path that had formed at the edges, having to wait twice while some party goers flounced by. It took me forever to make my way back to Matt, and I could see he was worried before he even saw me.
When I greeted him with an apology, he informed me in a strained voice he had been worried. I looked away from him, telling him about the parade, but worried he was upset. He breathed out a sigh, and then gave me what appeared to be a grateful smile, asking me if I was ready to go. I nodded.
Then, remembering I still had the walkie talkies, I threw one at him, telling him it would keep us in touch. Smiling, he headed towards the direction of the parade.
The crowd had grown even bigger, something I had not thought possible. Something about all of these people made me uncomfortable. Whatever it was made me nervous, and I moved closer to Matt, my shoulders brushing against his. I wasn’t one for affection, but I suddenly felt an instinct instruct me to stay close to him, and I was happy to oblige. He yelled something about going through them, although I could barely hear him over the constant roar of the people. He held out his hand, as what I guessed to be a link attaching us together.
But I wasn’t a child. I didn’t need to hold someone’s hand to get through this., I became embarrassed, and withdrew. I snapped at him I wasn’t a child, and to worry about himself. He told me to stay close. I tried to follow him through the people, but the space was non-existent.
People were moving spastically, and I lost sight of him a few times, being blocked by a person. But when a rush of partiers ran through us, I was swept away by the wave like motion of the crowd. Trying to force my way through, I looked for Matt. He was tall, so I tried to spot him that way.
After a few panicked moments, I managed to spot him. But he was several feet away, and gaining an inch seemed a battle. Using my instinctual desire to my advantage, I ducked in and out of the people, weaving, and shoving when necessary.
He seemed confused, and I guessed he was trying to “sense” me. There were too many people, so he was just looking around. Forcing my way through the people in front of me, I accidently pushed them away with too much force, slamming into Matt.
He looked at me relieved, and I grabbed his hand with force. I didn’t know if I could find my way if I got lost again.
We finally made it out of the crowd, and I was immensely relieved. I noticed our hands were still attached and, feeling silly, pulled my hand violently out of his.
We started to make our way to the motel, and I asked him more questions. I wasn’t too angry at him anymore, and I loved to hear him talk about nature. I also asked him some silly questions, for it made us both smile.
When we reached the small building, we checked in. we had nothing to do, so while Matt sorted supplies, I took advantage of the television in his room. It was bigger, and I was bored. Watching an old western, I began to think about how similar Matt was to the silent protagonist. When I voiced the opinion to him, he scoffed, comparing me to the boy who had tripped me.
We made fun of the bad acting and plot, enjoying the cool rooms protecting us from the heat. When dinner came, we ate hotdogs from the local vender. I headed upstairs to our rooms, for my feet were still killing me from yesterday, and Matt stayed for another few minutes.
Just as I was getting ready for a much needed shower, I heard Matt taking one. Irritated he had gone first, I thought about flushing the toilet and scalding him. But I was not that mean, and so I waited around. When he finished, I knocked aggressively on his door, fixing an irate look upon my face. After admonishing him, he told me it was all mine, calling me princess. I growled at him for giving me a nickname, and expressed my displeasure. Then, I told him he could have gone first anyway for it was ladies first, after all. He appeared mildly stung, and I reveled in my victory.
I gathered my sleeping clothes, colorful shorts and a soft t-shirt with a musical score on it, and headed into the bathroom. I turned on the water, the warmth and water pouring down on me blissful. As I scrubbed my hair and body, I reflected on how crazy my world had become.
It had been strange enough without Matt being involved. He was someone I couldn’t even describe. Sometimes he made me so mad I couldn’t stand it, such as this morning and when I can’t get a rise out of him. But then, he also has this uncanny ability to make me happy. I’d known him for two days now, and yet he had already become someone different to me. I didn’t like to think that someone was special enough to change me, but I already felt as if he could. I felt myself becoming less unhappy all the time. Something about this situation was soothing.
Today, in the crowd, I had felt drawn to him, as if he were safe. I thought I didn’t trust anyone, and while I wasn’t telling him all my secrets, I had placed a part of my life in his hands. And he had done only good things with that part. Except for this morning. I didn’t know what was going to happen to this, to us. Now I sound like there even is an us. He had said I would want to leave when I “awakened” as he called it. But could that be true? Could I really be alone again? I had done it for years, but I was growing tired of it.
Telling myself I was thinking too hard, I shut off the water. Taking my brush out, I ripped through my hair savagely, erasing all evidence of tangles.
Becoming bored again, I knocked on Matt’s door. He answered in a high falsetto voice, with an added Okie twang. I stifled a laugh, not wanting to let him know he was funny. I flung open the door in hopes of surprising him, but I ended smacking him in the face. Feeling slightly bad as he held his nose, I retrieved an ice pack for him. Although I wasn’t proud of the accident, it was funny as hell. I apologized in a voice similar to his, speaking of being clumsy. He snorted, and we both laughed.
After that, Matt found a book and was reading, while I watched a singing competition show. When Matt got up for a glass of water, I seized the opportunity to steal his spot on the bed. He came back, and tried to shoo me, but I didn’t budge, and so he moved to the floor. His head was blocking the television, though, so I scooted over to the other half of the bed, allowing him to claim half a side.
I found a documentary on Meerkats, and was now watching it upside down, my legs crossed and leaning on the wall above the headboard. As I grew tired from waking up so early, I thought to mess with Matt one more time before going to bed. I told him I was mad at him still, to which he replied that was a shame for now he couldn’t give me his gift. He had bought me a gift?
“Secrets are bad! Come on, tell me what it is!” I exclaimed.
He refused, and with some more complaints and name calling, he finally gave in. Extracting it from his backpack, he held up what looked to be a stuffed octopus. Not knowing what to say, I was silent. In truth, I thought it was the cutest thing I had ever seen. For a moment, I thought I should reject it, because I didn’t want to seem childish and vulnerable. But Matt wasn’t judging, and he even seemed worried that I wouldn’t like it. And so, after a second, I gently took the animal from him. It reminded me of the only happy times of my life, and his little content smile brought one of my own to my face.
I thanked Matt, for it truly was something special to me, despite being such a small act. I got up to leave, feeling sleepy, the octopus cradled in my arms, fur puffing out where I held him. Then before I left, I threatened him into silence, for nobody else could know I liked the octopus.
As I lay snuggled in my blankets, the octopus next to my pillow, I felt warm and happy. Matt had found the only thing I was a softy for, and it made me happy. I would cherish the octopus for a long time. Sleep made my eyes heavy, and I began to drift away. I could feel the fluffy tentacles of the octopus brushing against my face, and I smiled. Tonight, instead of bunnies, I would dream of the sea. And in the sea would be my octopus.
Running again, the walls blur past me. The cheery smiley faces are no longer cute, for now they only seem macabre. The man is there, his dark hair matching his aura of black despair. I am frozen in horror, surveying the scene before me. Her body is limp and broken, lying on the floor. Blood is pooling out from around her, staining her white dress and leaving it maroon and tainted. I feel confused, for I know not who she is, but only that she had been important. I hear my own scream again, and watch in fear as the man rises from his crouch. He stands there in front of the woman, head down, still looking at her. Beside him is a sharp knife, and the light streaming in from the windows gleams against the silvery surface, catching the crimson drops as they fall from the tip. The air is sharp, the metallic smell of the woman’s blood, sickeningly sweet, filling the air. I can’t see her, for her face is turned away. All I can see is her hair, once a beautiful copper, now tainted with the very same vermillion that is on the weapon. My legs shake, and suddenly they give in. the man seems to notice my presence for the first time and takes a step towards me, over her body. As he looked up from the ground, I saw his expression. His face was twisted with a wicked smile.
I jumped up in my bed, smacking the headboard. Cursing quietly in pain, I looked around in fear. The remnants of the nightmare clung to me like a parasite, turning every dark shadow in the room into a fearsome monster. In a moment of paralyzing panic, I thought I saw that smile in the darkness, but then it was over. The darkness returned to normal, shadows were only shadows. The light from the moon filtered in, cascading into my room like a stream.
My hair was damp, for I had obviously sweated a large amount. I was still shaking, as if a shiver had overcome my body. Goosebumps rose up on my arms and legs, and I could feel how tense I was. . Why was I having these dreams? What were they about? They always had that terrible man in them, and now the woman. But she had been alive in the last one, and she had been hurt, if not dead in this one. Something about the dreams felt entirely wrong down to my very soul, and they scared me bad each time I had them it seemed. These were not like the nightmares I had as a child, ones of monsters or evil villains. These dreams were dark and painful, and remained for a long time, as if they had a message to tell me.
Drawing in several shaky breaths, I attempted to calm myself by singing a lullaby softly. I didn’t want Matt to wake up in the next room, but I couldn’t sit here like this anymore. I had sung this lullaby since I was very little. I couldn’t remember who had taught it to me, but I had a feeling it had been someone very close to me. As I softly trilled the lullaby, I saw the octopus I had been given next to my pillow. Seeing its goofy smile gave me a bit of relief, and I drew it close it me, tucking it under my chin. I swayed softly as I continued to sing, feeling better with each moment. It was a soothing song, despite perhaps being a bit haunting. I had known it as long as I could remember, and I could never forget the words. Something about it always calmed me down, even when I had been sad as a child. It was like magic.
Looking at my watch, it read 4:30. Matt would probably wake me around 6 or 6:30, I thought. Settling in with a hope of sleep, I soon realized that my efforts were futile. And so, with nothing better to do that didn’t make noise, I counted how many dots were on the popcorn ceiling. I lost count once, and had to start again. There were 1,536 bumps, stretching from one end to the other.
The day was starting to come to life outside, the sky becoming lighter and lighter until it was a pale blue. I was exhausted, from yesterday and now today, and felt my eyes finally becoming heavy. Of course, this was when Matt decided to knock on my door. I didn’t respond at once, for I was fatigued and did not want to get out of bed to answer him.
“Veronica?” he called, “Are you awake?”
I attempted a groan, and he seemed to hear me through the wall.
“Let’s not have a repeat of yesterday, okay? I don’t want our mornings to be like that.”
It was a reasonable approach, and I knew I would face consequences if I didn’t wake up. Dragging my weary, bone-tired body out of bed, I went to answer the door.
“What?” I asked sleepily, the heaviness still in my eyes. The light coming from his room blinded me momentarily, but my vision adjusted. Matt regarded me for a moment, and I could only imagine what I looked like.
“It’s about time we started to get ready,” he answered softly, “is that okay?”
He was expecting a fight, I knew, but I was too tired to give him more than a mumble. I went to my sink, splashing my face with the crystal cold water, trying to wake myself up. Resolving to stay away from scary movies and sugar, I hoped I would sleep better tonight because I was so tired. I refused to believe these dreams were of importance, for I didn’t have any connection to things like that. I thought it merely to be some unfortunate circumstances. I had always had nightmares after watching scary movies.
I got dressed, putting on a pair of black shorts and a white, breathable t-shirt. Gathering my stuff, including the newly added octopus, I checked to see if I had everything and turned to leave. Matt was waiting for me, seemingly confused by the absolute lack of protest I was raising.
“Are we going?” I asked, a bit of my attitude seeping back into my voice.
Relieved I had at least greeted him rudely, he nodded. We trekked out of the hotel, and departed on the road
“Where are we going?” I asked Matt, who was studying a map intently as we walked.
“We are head to a town called Smithington,” He replied.
Expecting the question that came next, he said, “It’s just a quick stop. I need to get a new map of the area. Then we will head to the bigger city Thicksville. There is someone there who I want you to meet, an old friend of mine. He is a drifter as well, but he has taken to staying mostly in the city. I think he has lost it, but he lives a mile out of the city and walks there every day. He likes to tell stories to the kids in the city, and the locals can’t do much about it.”
He sounds kind of like me, I thought to myself. When I voiced the thought to Matt, he smiled.
“I could agree with that, he’s just as crazy.” He said, giving me a snicker.
I pushed him, simply saying, “You sir, are a jerk.”
He only laughed. We traveled along the side of the highway, speaking little snippets of conversation along the way. Matt didn’t seem to be the kind of guy who talked a lot, but he would always answer my questions and carry on conversations we had engaged in. All I had to do was start the conversation. The road was an interesting place, so I never ran out of material. What was that hawk doing? Were those prairie dogs scared of us? Did owls really lick lollipops? He smiled at that one, before saying he hadn’t ever seen one doing it, but couldn’t be sure.
For being as wise as he seemed to be, and achieving this “inner peace,” he still was a kid at heart, always joining me in reciting jokes and puns. It made him even more endearing. Something about him was unlike anybody I had ever met before, and it wasn’t just that he knew about what I was feeling. He seemed to always know if a joke was a bad idea, or if I was mad how to make me forgive him. It was alien to me, and I dismissed it as just being thankful I had met someone who wasn’t unkind.
Still, he was the first person I thought I could call a “friend.” My feet had ceased to scream at me when I walked, but there was still a dull ache that occurred. When we stopped to fill up our water from a nearby stream, I dropped onto my knees and sat down, resting them.
Matt glanced at me for a moment, but understood I was resting, and took an unusually long time to look at his map. I got up after a few minutes, wanting to rest more but understanding we needed to head out.
We reached the small town, and I browsed the shelves of a nearby store while Matt talked to a heavyset man with a mustache about the map. Hoping to find a gift for Matt to act as a return gift for my octopus, I was disappointed as I came up empty handed. I returned to where he was, still talking to the man. He seemed to be giving Matt a hard time, and I came to understand that the thing that made me like Matt, made others bother him. This would have made me mad had I been Matt, but he wasn’t at all. His voice remained polite and breezy, and his stance was open and friendly. I supposed this was how he got around all the time, and I resolved to get him to teach me how to do it. Although I thought that the people who rejected us deserved getting yelled at, I also thought it would be good to get what I wanted without threats. If I was to do what Matt did, I would have to be friendly with locals.
Finally getting help from the man, we headed out of the town. It was soothing to the soul, walking beside this man and listening to the birds call each other. The sounds of streams and animals filled my ears. A Tumbleweed rolled by, crunching as it hit the ground, and then leaping confidently again like it owned the place.
“Hey, Matt,” I called.
He turned elegantly, walking backwards so he could see me.
“’Sup?” he said, nodding to me.
“How can you talk to those people so calmly? They purposely bother you.”
He appeared thoughtful before saying, “I just do. When I first drifted, I was rude to everyone all the time. But then I figured out pretty quickly this wouldn’t get me anywhere, and so I changed tactics. You have to maintain a voice that is casual, and non-threatening. Make them feel like you aren’t going to ‘bother’ them, and so stay as polite as possible. Obviously, if they’re really rude, you can say something to discourage that, but most of the time it’s just best to take a little bit of disgrace to get what you need. People like to feel they have the power.”
I tried to create the tone he used, asking him if it worked. He had to work with me on it for a little while, but after a time I could recreate the voice to use in situations. We walked an obscene amount of miles, the sun beating down on us, and I began to get irritable.
“Matt, we have been walking forever. Can’t we take a break?”
I was sweaty, I was hot, my calves hurt, and I was just plain tired. He looked at his watch, and then the sun, and then at me. He thought for a second, and then began singing.
What was going on? Had he gone crazy at last? He was singing a crazy song that I remembered from long rides on buses or trips to places. He was singing, and it was the most bizarre thing ever. Here was a grown man, tough from long days, stubble shading his chin, singing to a kid’s song. He crouched in front of me now, swaying in a ridiculous way. I realized that he was gesturing me to join him in his absurd endeavor.
“No way,” I said, scooting away from his outstretched hand. “I said no! Stop trying to get me to do it!”
I exclaimed as he moved again, still holding out his hand.
Sighing with exasperation, I complained, “You aren’t going to leave me alone until I sing with you, isn’t that right?"
He laughed, interrupting his song, and agreed.
“All right.” I said, mildly annoyed but finding his antics just a bit amusing.
“Hey now, hey now, here’s what I say now,” he sang the first line.
Looking grim, I sang the next line.
“Happiness is just around the corner.”
He continued, and I began to fall into the routine of the song. I felt myself become more energized as I sang the silly song, and I put more into it.
“Hey now, hey now, here’s what I say now, we’ll be there for you!”
At this point, we were shuffling along the road, dancing in time to our tune. Without even realizing I had left the spot we were in, we finished our song quite a ways away from the place I had wanted to rest.
“Where did you learn to do that?” I asked Matt, surprised I had had more energy now.
He glanced at me and then, covering a smirk, said, “A magician never reveals his secrets.”
I rolled my eyes at him, but couldn’t remove the smile that had attached itself to my face. We took turns singing the stupidest songs we could think of, to pass the time and help us ignore fatigue and pain. Matt was a horrible dancer, but I couldn’t have been much better.
When we finally reached our camp spot, I felt giddy and silly. Matt and I set up the camp, telling each other really bad puns.
“All the toilets in the police station were stolen. Police have nothing to go on.” Matt said, snorting.
I laughed, and countered with, “ I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.”
He chuckled. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out his flint and steel to start our fire.
“Wait!” I said hurriedly.
He paused, looking up curiously.
“Could I,” I said awkwardly, “I mean you, could you teach me how to light a fire?”
He looked surprised, but seemed happy to oblige.
“Come here,” he said, a friendly smile upon his face.
He gave me the flint and the steel, telling me which was which. He demonstrated how to strike them together to create sparks, and told me to gently blow on the tinder when the sparks caught.
I tried several times, creating a shower of sparks, but never catching.
“Slower,” he said, observing, “If you strike it too fast the sparks won’t hit the tinder and will go out before they can catch on fire.”
I grew frustrated until I said, “I am going slow! The stupid thing is just broken.”
I huffed, and turned away from the fire.
“Never mind, this isn’t worth it," I grumbled.
I heard a sigh from behind, before Matt called me back.
“What?” I asked, peeved he was making me think of this.
“Come here.” He said with authority.
Sitting back down, he handed me the tools. Before I could protest, he shushed me.
“I’ll help you, okay?” he said.
He scooted behind me, then used his extra height to reach over me, his arms creating a circle looping down from my shoulders to my hands, which he held. I was very aware of his closeness, and I could smell what I assumed was him. He smelled like minty gum, which I thought odd because I had never seen him eat a piece.
Pulling myself away from the strangeness of being so close to a person, I tuned into what he was doing. He brought the steel down on the flint at a 30-degree angle. Quick, but not jerky. Sparks showered from the tools, and we almost caught the tinder on fire. When he gestured for me to repeat the action and get it started, I gave him a doubtful look.
“You can do it, I promise. Just give it a try.” He urged gently.
Sighing, I attempted to recreate the action. Bringing it down with swift but accurate precision, I struck the flint at a perfect angle. The sparks flew away from the tools, burning embers glowing and hot. They landed on the tinder, and started to glow against it. A small line of smoke rose from the material.
“Blow on it, quick,” Matt instructed, “But not very hard.”
I bent down to see better. Blowing softly and with gentle care, I fanned the fire. It grew, and soon caught on to the wood. And just like that, I had started the fire.
Matt gave me a cheer and a high-five.
“I knew you could do it!” He said.
It was such a simple task, but it made me feel more accomplished than I ever had before. I hadn’t ever really followed through on anything that didn’t work right away for me, but here was the product of my efforts. I smiled at Matt, who gave me a brilliant grin in return.
We sat by the fire, and talked as we ate. The sun had gone down, and we could see the stars that were coming out. We stargazed for a while, following shapes in the sky. As we settled in for the night, I unzipped my octopus, who I had decided to name Ozzie, from my backpack, hiding him hurriedly in my sleeping bag. Matt hadn’t seemed to notice. I would accept the animal, but I wouldn’t want anyone to know I slept with it.
I said my goodnights to Matt, and sank into my pillow. I would sleep tonight, I hoped, for I had no contact with sugar or scary things.
The exertion of the day, along with a lack of sleep, caused my eyes to feel heavy almost immediately. I felt myself slip into sleep, and hoped for a night of quiet and dreamless sleep.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Highway Chapter 13

Smack! Was all I heard in the middle of the night. What the…? I thought to myself. I had gotten up to get a glass of water, when I heard the noise from next door. I wondered if Veronica was okay.
I pressed my ear against the door, for I didn’t want to barge in and suffer her wrath. The rooms were connected, and the walls let through almost all noise.
She was cursing quietly, and I raised my eyebrow at her colorful language. Where did she even learn those words? She was seventeen, of course, but I had met teenagers before and none of them knew as many curses as she did. It occurred to me, through her string of obscenities, that she had hit her head against the backboard on her bed. That would explain what that noise was.
Reassured, I almost pulled back before I heard her voice again. She had started singing softly. Why would she be singing so early in the morning? It looked to be about 4:30 outside, which wouldn’t have been the time I chose to sing.
The words were gentle and soft, a lullaby. The more I listened, the more I heard the lyrics. They were rather haunting, appearing to be about a woman who had to watch over another child as her own baby cried for her. She sang, a voice surprisingly beautiful, and the lyrics came streaming through the wall.
Don't you cry
Go to sleep my little baby
Go to sleep my little baby
When you wake
You shall have
All the pretty little horsies
All the pretty little horsies
Dapples and grays
Pintos and bays
All the pretty little horsies
Way down yonder
In the meadow
Lies a poor little baby
Birds and the butterflies
Flitting round his eyes
Poor little baby crying
I wondered who had taught her the lullaby. She had no parents to speak of in that town, and I could tell that nobody had befriended her. I figured that someone in her family taught it to her when she was young. I didn’t know what happened to them, but I didn’t ask. If she had wanted me to know, she would have told me.
Her voice was shaken, and I became concerned about her. Perhaps she had a nightmare? She would never admit that to me, so I decided not to ask her. As I said, if she wanted to tell me, I would be all ears, but until then I would respect her privacy. I was just starting to get her to open up to the world, and I couldn’t jeopardize her trust. Everything we did here was crucial to her awakening.
Returning to my bed, I went back to sleep.
I woke again a few hours later, rising with the sun as I always did. I dressed in a purple shirt and beige but light pants. I got ready and begrudgingly knocked on Veronica’s door, preparing myself for another battle of wills like yesterday. She didn’t respond.
I called her name, asking if she was awake. She groaned, and I sighed, thinking another morning of issues was about to arise.
“Let’s not have a repeat of yesterday, okay?” I said, hoping to avoid catastrophe, “I don’t want our mornings to be like that.”
I heard her roll out of bed, and she opened the door.
Her appearance gave me a bit of a shock, for she looked terrible. Her hair a mess from sleeping, she was hunched over and tired. Her eyes were red and bloodshot, with dark circles shadowing them.
Rubbing her eyes, she gave me a sleepy “What?”
I told her we needed to get ready, and then added “is that okay?” concerned she was unwell. I was ready for her to argue with me again, but she only mumbled. I was even more concerned now, but before I could ask if she was okay she closed the door to get ready.
Deciding to be thankful we didn’t have a situation, I finished packing the rest of our supplies.
She strolled out of her door irritably saying, “Are you going?”
Reassured that she had her usual attitude back, I nodded. We resumed our journey out on the road.
Veronica waited while I checked the map to see our destination route. She asked me where we were going, and I told her the next town was just a stop before we went into a town called Thicksville. I wanted her to meet an old friend of mine, one I had met just before my awakening. I felt like Veronica would learn something from him, as I most certainly had. Plus, we were already relatively close to the area. It was only about two days travel. I laughed to myself, thinking Veronica would strongly disagree with me that two days travel was relatively close.
She said that she sounded kind of like him when I described him to her, and I laughed. I told her I could agree with that, because he was just as crazy. I snickered, to show her I was joking, and she pushed me, telling me I was a jerk. She asked me more questions about our surroundings, and then asked me if owls really ate lollipops.
Surprised by such a silly question, I snorted, chuckling at the thought. I said, “I can’t say I’ve ever seen one doing such a thing, but I also can’t be sure it doesn’t happen.” We stopped by a stream to fill up our bottles, and Veronica sat down with a resounding thunk!
I glanced at her, not originally planning to stop, but took a long time filling up my bottle and looking at the map. She must have not fallen back asleep after waking up this morning, and I could tell the fatigue was affecting her.
She got up after a few minutes, and we continued walking. We entered the small town of Smithington.
While Veronica went into a nearby convenience store, I attempted to get a local to help me either find a new map, or update mine. As usual, the guy had taken up an attitude with me, but I didn’t let myself get frustrated. Forcing on the charm, polite and nonthreatening. I knew that they felt as if they were missing something when I was around them, but I was used to it. Unlike Veronica, I had been subjected to this in many cities and understood what was going on. I had learned the social way to react to these people’s frustrating behavior.
Finally getting help from the man, I thanked him, and proceeded to head out of the town. Veronica called me, and I flipped around so that I faced her while walking backwards.
“Sup?” I said.
She asked me how I could maintain my composure when talking to others who spoke down to me. I explained that I had been rude to them at first, but then later realized it didn’t get me anywhere in the end. Explaining the stance and voice to her, she attempted to try it herself. We worked on it, and I tried to encourage the voice she used when she was just generally happy about things. Soon she was speaking in perfect tone, a stance open and friendly.
We walked on, making good time. If we walked like this the whole time, we could make it to camp just before nightfall. Suddenly, from behind, came Veronica’s voice.
She complained that we had been walking for too long, snapping out a question of a break. I looked at the sun, judging the time. We didn’t really have time for the kind of break she was talking about. What could I do to improve her experiences? She needed to do something fun to gain some energy and to bring her out of her bad mood. Thinking of her wonder when we entered the town, it made me believe her childhood was the happiest time in her life, despite its drawbacks. A song from when I was a child came into my head, and I started singing.
Swaying back and forth in a silly jig, I bent down simultaneously to get as close to Veronica as possible. She looked at me as if I had gone mad, thinking I had snapped. I gestured for her to join me in my frivolous dance and song. She told me there was no way in hell. I got closer as she tried to move away, until she sighed, exasperated. After understanding I wasn’t going to leave her alone, she agreed.
I sang the first line for her. Purposely looking as if I was making her commit murder, she sang the next one. Soon, as I had anticipated, she sang with more gusto and energy. She was smiling now, and we had already danced across the street a ways. She seemed surprised we had moved with so little effort, and voiced her thoughts. When asked how I knew how to do such a thing, I told her a magician never tells his secrets, attempting to sound mysterious. She rolled her eyes, but was still smiling.
We sang the whole rest of the way, reciting the most ridiculous songs we could think of. Veronica wasn’t a very good dancer, but neither was I. We got to where we were going to camp, and I got the materials to make a fire while Veronica and I exchanged puns.
She suddenly asked me if I could teach her to make a fire. I agreed, happy she wanted to learn to do things like this. It was good to teach her, as she loved to learn.
I demonstrated how to strike them together to make sparks. She took the flint and steel from me, and tried to light them several times. She was going too fast, and at too sharp an angle, so the sparks weren’t well placed and they went out too quickly. I told her to go slower. She tried again, but didn’t understand what I meant. She exclaimed in frustration that she was going slow, and threw the tools down, turning away from the fire. I sighed.
She seemed to have this habit of giving up on something if it didn’t work right away for her. I needed her to see that the best things in life take some effort. It isn’t always easy.
“Veronica,” I called.
She turned to me, an irate expression on her face.
“What?” she asked, annoyed.
“Come back. Let’s try it one more time.”
She looked at me in defiance, and I knew I would need to make her do this.
“Come here.” I said, with more authority.
She seemed to listen to what I said if I used that tone, as a child might to their parents. She looked aggravated, but came back anyway. I shushed her as she started to protest, telling her I would help her. I came up behind her, looping my arms around hers to be able to reach her hands. If she felt how to do it, I knew that she could.
As I leaned in, I noticed that she smelled like strawberries. I wondered why, for she hadn’t eaten any as far as I had seen, and she hadn’t packed any scents.
After I showed her how to create sparks that stayed, she gave me a doubtful look as I told her to do it again. I encouraged her, for I knew she could do it and just needed some inspiration. She struck the flint with perfect technique, and smoke rose from the small pile of tinder. Telling her to blow softly, she picked it up like a baby and kindled the burning embers. The fire spread to the wood, and she rejoiced. I cheered her on, giving her a high five. She was proud of herself, and I was proud she had kept going, even if she needed a little help.
We settled in for the night, watching the stars and getting comfortable. Veronica reached into her backpack and took out Ozzie, the octopus I had given her, quickly stuffing him in her sleeping bag. I smiled to myself, delighted she liked her present enough that she slept with it. But I knew that any outward sign would cause a fight, and she would be too embarrassed to sleep with Ozzie again. She appeared to think I hadn’t seen, for she snuggled into her sleeping bag like usual.
She fell asleep, and I pondered her odd actions last night. She seemed troubled by something, and it was giving her sleep problems. The night before, she had sprung up from her sleeping bag, drawing in ragged breaths. I woke up, but was still half asleep. By the time I turned around to ask if she was alright, she had gone back to sleep. I thought to myself that I would stay up tonight, and see if she had any troubles. I was used to not sleeping when necessary, so one night of vigilance wouldn’t kill me.
Stepping around her as stealthily as possible, I relocated to the top of the hill right across from us. It was a small, grassy knoll, and I made sure she could see me if she were to wake up. She would talk to me if she wanted, and I always found lying on a hill, looking up at the stars the most soothing environment.
I waited for trouble, listening to the crickets chirp at each other, mingling with the cicadas down by the stream below. The world was vibrant with life, and I could feel the connection I had with every creature. I could feel Veronica too, although not as much.
Humans in general were harder to feel, for they were so complex in their emotions and souls.
Drifters could be felt from miles away, for they were like vibrant auras in the sea of life. I had noticed that I could sense Veronica from about 20 feet now, instead of 10 like before. She was beginning to connect to nature more, now that we had been on the road. She was coming closer to finding the truth. I knew I would be happy for her when she awakened, but I would be sad that she was going to drift away.
I had never met someone like her before, not exactly. Sure, I had met plenty of angry people who had painful pasts, more than I could count. I would say that most of the people who became drifters were like this. But I had met far fewer people who had up so many barriers, and who seemed like they had so much pain. And still, even fewer who were secretly people who liked stuffed animals and were overcome with joy when completing such a small task as lighting a fire. She was fierce, but she was also gentle when need be. She sang on the streets with me, stole my bed and television, and cuddled stuffed octopi at night. Veronica was truly a special person, and I was grateful to have had the chance to know her.
I sat on that hill for hours, watching the night creatures come to life.
Around what I guessed to be about 2 am, Veronica began to stir. She was twisting and turning in her sleeping bag, mumbling something incoherently. I managed to catch a few phrases, many of which consisted of the words “don’t” and “please.” She was sweating profusely, the moonlight glistening off of the drops on her forehead. Her hair was plastered to her forehead, and her shirt was sticking to her skin. Her face was twisted into an expression of fear, something I had never truly seen. She kept mumbling, her tone getting more and more desperate.
Wondering if I should wake her up, I paused hesitantly. I had never comforted someone with nightmares before, and these were unordinary. These nightmares weren’t about zombies, or monsters, or something like being bullied or being left alone. Her face showed that she was genuinely scared. What was she dreaming? Her presence was too faint to read entirely, but I could feel the distress coming from her. Just as I was about to stand to wake her, she lurched out of her sleeping bag.
She whimpered so quietly I almost couldn’t hear. She paused a moment, breathing raggedly. I kept my eyes ahead, to give the allusion I hadn’t seen her wake up. Through the peripheral, however, I could see her look at my empty sleeping bag with confusion. With a voice mixed with vulnerability and concern, she called out shakily.
“Matt?” she asked.
I called to her from near the top of the hill, a few feet away.
“I’m up here. I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to do some stargazing. Don’t worry, I’ll go back to bed soon.”
I worded this so that she would know she hadn’t awoken me, and that I couldn’t sleep. I also put in the last sentence for I also wanted to leave her alone if she wanted the privacy, and to give her the sense she didn’t have to feel compelled to speak to me. If she was going to tell me what was going on, she would have to do it on her own terms and be completely in control.
She sat in her bag for several minutes, and I thought she might have fallen asleep again. Then I heard the shuffling of material, and the crunching of grass. She padded up the knoll, stopping to rest beside me.
She lay next to me, staring up at the stars. I could see her shivering, although it wasn’t because of the night breeze. She didn’t look at me, and I didn’t look at her, trying to figure out what she wanted from the situation. Deciding to stay silent, I waited.
Her breaths began to even out, her body began to still, and her clothes began to dry. Her skin wasn’t sweaty anymore, the cool breeze drying it up. We sat like this for about 10 minutes, and then she turned to me.
“Matt?” she called, soft and uncertain.
“Yeah?” I replied, keeping my voice calm and peaceful, hoping to transfer my energy.
She opened her mouth, then closed it again. She seemed unsure what to tell me, and so I started the conversation.
“What’s up? I see that you couldn’t sleep. Got something on your mind?”
She nodded, and then lay silent, refraining from telling me. Just as I was about to engage a conversation gently, she spoke.
“Just a bad dream,” she said, “It’s no big deal.”
I nodded, knowing it wasn’t true but keeping the dialogue light.
“Well,” I said gently, “that’s too bad. But we all have them.”
She agreed. We lay quiet again.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked tentatively, walking on eggshells, “I often find that talking about dreams helps me understand them. You don’t have to, it’s just an idea.”
She bit her lip in a sign of indecisiveness, and thought about it.
“Well,” she began, surprising me with her sudden speech, “I am always running. I don’t know from what, but I am. And I fall.”
She paused, before continuing on.
“It’s just me, and I can’t see what I’m running from. It’s too dark to see anything.”
Her voice betrayed her, for I could tell this was not a true statement. She knew what she was running from, and didn’t want to tell me. I wouldn’t have been able to tell if I hadn’t been dealing with people up close for years, before I had even been awakened.
Still, it was something, and that was definitely more than I thought I would get. Planning my next words carefully, I turned to her.
“Interesting. It’s too dark to see what’s chasing you?” I asked, and she averted her eyes, another sign of her lie.
“Well I can’t help you there,” I said, “but generally when people have dreams of running and falling, it’s that they feel there is something they can’t win against, but trip because they feel hopeless about that something.”
She made a small noise, and then became silent again. I sighed inwardly, wishing she would tell me what was really bothering her. The silence was thick and heavy now, almost palpable.
Deciding to break the quiet, I said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Sometimes we have dreams we just don’t understand, and we never will. Dreams are very odd things most of the time, and they seem to have a mind of their own.”
She looked at me for the first time, and I saw a flicker there. One so small it was barely noticeable, but one that spoke of relief in my words.
“You’re right,” she said, forcing a laugh out of her mouth, “It’s all just a dream. There isn’t much use worrying about It.”
Her tone of voice wasn’t certain at all, but I let it drop. Being around this girl was excruciating, having to be careful of everything. She had just started opening up to me, and I couldn’t afford to have her shut me out now. I was trying everything I could to help her through, but it was like walking on thin ice.
She was staring at the stars now, lost in her thoughts and the infinite number of specks in the sky.
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” I questioned, returning my eyes to the ceiling of light.
“They’re the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” she replied, mesmerized by them.
They had a tendency to make you feel insignificant and small, but also part of a universe bigger than anyone knows. Feeling as if some stories would make her feel better, I asked her if she had heard the stories behind the stars. She shook her head.
We settled into the grassy earth, and I began to tell her the tales of the night sky.
“There is Aquarius, the water bearer,” I said, pointing out her location “and that’s Aquila, a mighty eagle who carried messages for the gods.”
I continued, story after story. I had studied the stars at great length, reading anything I could get my hands on. I knew every major myth that existed, and many of the minor ones. I told her of myths and gods, of heroes and villains.
She was sucked into the legends, adoring the fables. When I was done with a story, she would point to another group of stars, asking about those. There were more than enough stars in the sky to keep speaking of sagas, and Veronica took advantage of this.
We sat on that hill for hours, me reciting narratives, and her listening with intense focus. She had rolled over from her spot to see the stars more clearly when I pointed at them, and she was now shoulder to shoulder. She asked questions about the stories, laughed and felt sad, and protested when I spoke of the villainous scoundrels.
We were a part of the stars for nearly 3 hours, at which point Veronica began to fall asleep. I didn’t want to wake her by directing he back to her sleeping bag, and so I let her be. Looking at the sky, I thought I could squeeze in about an hour long nap. I didn’t know if Veronica would be startled if she woke up next to me, but I figured she would be even more confused if she woke up, alone and on a hill, and so I stayed where I was. I also didn’t want to cause a break in her slumber by accidently bumping her shoulder.
The grass was soft and springy, and the night breeze blew gently. It was soft like silk, caressing our faces, and running through our hair like a mother might do to a child’s messy hair. Veronica was still and peaceful now, only shifting to bury her face in the grass. I smiled at her appearance, childlike and soft now that she was asleep.
Her hair blew around playfully, wisping through the air. She was scrunched up, her legs touching each other, and she had one hand on the side of her face, the other at her side, the fingers half curled. She had arranged her arm in a way that it formed a circle, which I assumed was to keep certain stuffed octopus cuddled up against her. She was actually very sweet looking, her face alight in the pale glow of the moon. Her long eyelashes gleamed, and her eyelids softly flickered as she dreamed. I thought to myself that she felt better, hearing stories from me after a nightmare. I hadn’t solved the problem, but I had provided temporary relief.I only wished I could help her cure the nightmares, so they would leave her be.
But right now, she was lying beside me, breaths even and soft, and seemed content. I hoped she was dreaming of heroes and myths, where good always trumps evil.

Highway Chapter 14

My legs ache and my lungs burn from drawing in the ragged breaths. He is behind me, only a step away, nipping at my heels like a dog. I am running, yet he is so close. His languid strides outpace mine, for his legs are significantly longer. I am small, my legs the length of a child’s. My mind is present day, but I am stuck in the past. My shoes are slick with her blood, the woman with the red hair. On his face is a maniacal grin, but as he said my name, his voice is deadly soft.
“Veronica,” he calls, sickeningly sweet, “Why are you running? Come play with me.”
I sense the madness underneath, the rage and lunacy seeping through. I slide across the floor as I turn a corner, smacking into the wall with excruciating force. Pain explodes across my shoulder, and I cry out in pain, dropping to the floor. “
It’s okay, darling” he said, sneering the endearment. “I only want to see you a little closer.”
I staggered up from the ground, wincing at my injured shoulder. I slip on the blood covering my shoes, merely a few feet away this time. I can feel the hot tears slide down my face, for I am so scared. I lay there trembling as he strolled up leisurely, taking his time. I am frozen, and the world seems to slow down.
“I told you to stop running!” he screams, finally reaching me.
He grabbed my hair, jerking me around. I cry out to make him stop, but he is furious now. I can smell the pungent alcohol on his breath, sharp and disgusting. I try to pull away, but his grip on my hair is impossibly strong. He pulls back like a violent animal, and I whimper in agony. He giggled like a raving madman. He raised the kitchen knife he was holding into the air, and it came arching down.
I woke up with a sudden start. Unable to stop myself, a whimper escaped my lips, quiet and pained. I could feel pain in my shoulder and head, as if the man had been causing me pain in real life. Slowly, it subsided. It took me a few minutes to relieve myself of the flashes of the dreams. The man’s smile. The sharp knife. The woman, lying on the floor, lifeless and cold. How come I couldn’t see her face? I could only see her stained dress, once such a beautiful white. And how did the man know my name? He felt somehow familiar, but I couldn’t remember who he was. It was like there was a wall there, one so impenetrable to my view, nothing could gain access.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. The dream were getting worse, and at a startling rate too. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe it was coincidence by now, and if I told myself that, I was a fool.
Looking over to where Matt’s sleeping bag was, I hoped I hadn’t woken him. To my surprise, I found him missing. Cold fear gripped my heart, and my stomach was in my throat. He’s just getting water, I told myself. Or he got up to get more firewood. Although the pile still looked quite full.
Suddenly uncertain, I called out, “Matt?”
He answered from above, and I let out a sigh of relief to see him on the top of the grassy hill, only a few feet away and very much present. He said he would be back to bed soon, that he had just had trouble sleeping.
I was still shaking, and my breathing was forced. I was on the verge of tears, and I couldn’t understand why. The dream affected me profoundly, and I suddenly found myself wanting nothing more than a bone crushing hug. What am I saying? I didn’t hug people. I hadn’t hugged anyone since the 3rd grade. I don’t remember before that, but I’m not sure I want to.
But there was Matt, just sitting there, staring up at the stars, and he seemed so serene. Maybe I could tell him about the dream, and he would understand? He seemed to always know the answers, so maybe he knew about this? But I had only known him three days, an ephemeral friendship. I couldn’t tell him something like this. It was too personal, and I was tired of being hurt. It seemed doubtful he would cause me pain, but I had thought that of others before. No, I wouldn’t tell him about the dream. But still, would it be so bad if I went up there and sat next to him? I allowed myself this momentary weakness.
I worked my way out of my sleeping bag. Being grateful for the darkness, I hoped Matt wouldn’t see me trembling. I ascended the hill, coming to a stop and resting my Matt. The grass was soft and squishy, almost like a bed. He acknowledged my presence, but lay quiet on the hill. Was he thinking about something? Maybe he had a nightmare as well. The thought seemed laughable, but I supposed it happened to everyone.
The night breeze was cool, brushing against my damp and clammy skin. He still hadn’t spoken, and I found his absolute lack of reaction odd. He wasn’t very talkative, it’s true, but he still hadn’t said anything about my waking up.
“Matt?” I called softly, unsure of myself.
“Yeah?” he replied, calm and peaceful.
His tranquil demeanor was somehow comforting. I opened my mouth to say something, but closed it again, not sure what to say. If I wasn’t going to tell him about the dream, what was I going to talk about?
He suddenly turned to me, and asked me if I had something on my mind, wondering what was causing my insomnia. I hesitated, and then told him I had a bad dream, but it was no big deal. He asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I didn’t, and I prepared to tell him that it was nothing. But he just seemed so attentive, and I wondered if I told him about it he could help me. He hadn’t found a challenge he couldn’t overcome yet.
I told him about running and falling, but left the parts with the man and the woman out. I figured telling him something would help me, but I wasn’t sacrificing my boundaries. He talked with me for a while, and I began to calm down. He had a very soothing voice, and his entire presence was relaxed and calm. He told me not to worry about it too much, and I looked at him, trying to find some sort of insincerity. There was none.
It was a relief to talk to him, and I wondered if it showed. My breaths evened out, and I was steady once again. He was telling me that dream are weird sometimes. I nodded, and we fell back into silence. I thought myself to be good at concealing what I was thinking, but it seemed that he always knew when I wasn’t being entirely truthful. I had told him I never saw what was chasing me, and he accepted it, but I could tell he knew it wasn’t true. He didn’t press me for details, but it had become quiet now.
It was silent, and I could feel an awkward barrier forming between us. I couldn’t think of what to say, so I looked to the stars, brilliant and vast.
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Matt suddenly asked from next to me.
I agreed softly. He asked me if I had ever heard the stories of the stars. I told him I hadn’t, and felt bubbly excitement rise inside my chest as he started to tell me about them. He always told the best stories. As he began to speak of gods and heroes, I smiled happily.
I studied him, seeing him through a new filter of moonlight. His hair was shining, the dirty blonde seeming pale and iridescent with the rays shining on it. His eyes were still that beautiful depthless blue, and I marveled at them even though he wasn’t even looking at me directly. They had been the first thing I had ever liked about him, and they still drew my attention. They seemed less sad this time though, as opposed to when I had first seen him. His voice was light and gentle, and when I would ask him if he would tell me another story, he complied. I rolled over, to see exactly where he was pointing.
We sat together for hours as he told me wondrous fables. Every time he would finish, I would point to another constellation, asking him what its story was. I didn’t want to keep him awake, but I didn’t want to go back to sleep. He didn’t seem to mind a single bit though, and so we kept going.
Shoulders brushing, the cool breeze blowing, and only the stars and each other to keep us company. I began to grow sleepy, and my eyes became heavy.
I was scared to sleep again, and I wanted to hear more stories. Still, I felt calmer and tranquil with Matt by my side, and it made me relaxed. I fought the yawns, but I couldn’t stay awake. Finally, I gave in to the impulses, and let sleep gently wash over me.
“Veronica, it’s time to wake up.” Matt called softly, interrupting my sleep.
I made a noise, indicating my disapproval of the situation. He placed his hand on my shoulder, gently shaking it.
“Come on. It’s already seven. We need to get moving.”
I lifted my head, confused for a moment as to why we were on a hill. The events of last night flooded into my mind. First the nightmares, but then the wonderful rest of the night. If it was seven, I had only had about two hours of sleep. We usually woke up at six though, so I suppose another hour of sleep was good.
Sitting up, I moaned to Matt, “Why do we have to wake up so early?”
I drew out the early, and he laughed.
“It’s just how it is. Sorry. Now, come on. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today, and we slept in an hour.”
With an exaggerated sigh, I heaved myself up from the ground. Swiftly getting ready, I joined Matt where he stood waiting on the other side of the hill.
We set off, the morning sun already out from behind the mountains. Sleepy animals had emerged from their burrows and nests, and were now taking on their daily tasks. A furry chipmunk scurried along a tree, gathering nuts. A blue jay sang above, perhaps engaging in a mating call, hoping to attract a mate. I noticed these little things lately, and it only made the outdoors even more tantalizing. Matt and I sang songs as we walked along the road, swaying in unison. We laughed at ourselves.
“Matt,” I called to him. He gave me his attention and I said, “As with the octopus, if you tell anyone that I sang and danced, I will legitimately hurt you.”
He smiled, saying he wouldn’t dare. I was so tired from last night, but I tried my best to stay active. When we stopped at a stream, I splashed myself in the face with the water, the icy water invigorating. Matt stood a ways away, looking at the map. There was a fork in the road, and he was figuring out which way to go.I decided to test out the walkie talkies, and then lure Matt over to the stream to splash him as payback for the other day.
I filled up my bottle with water, and left the cap unscrewed. Smirking, I pulled the black communication device out from my backpack.
Pressing the button on the side I said, “Excuse me, Matt? Can you hear me?”
He paused, mid-read, and looked confused. After a moment it dawned on him that he was hearing me through the walkie talkie
“What are you doing?” he called from across the street, where he was standing.
“Just trust me!” I called back.
He looked at me oddly, then shrugged and pulled out his walkie from the side pocket of his backpack.
“Hello?” I heard him crackle through the device.
“Houston, we have a problem. Could you come over here? Over.”
Again he looked at me, then replied, “What seems to be the problem, command?”
Snickering at his response, I teased him, for he had not said over.
“Command what? Over.”
He paused and then spoke into his, “What? That’s your code name.”
I laughed again.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying. You have to say over at the end of the transmission, Houston. Didn’t they teach you this in school? Over.”
He appeared to understand, and rose his eyebrow at me, putting a fist on his hip.
“All right,” came the voice over the walkie, “What seems to be the problem, command? Over.”
He put emphasis on it this time.
“My bottle doesn’t seem to be functioning. Could you come check it out? I also can’t find the tablets. Over.”
I couldn’t quite see, but it appeared he rolled his eyes. As he came over, I tried my hardest to be casual. He looked at me strangely, and I was glad my plan wasn’t elaborate. He turned to get the tablets from beside some of his stuff, and I prepared the bottle. As soon as he turned back, saying something, I launched the water bottle’s liquid at him.
“Ha! Take that!” I shouted in victory, “that’s for the other day!”
He was silent for an extended period of time, and I became worried I had made him mad. Then, out of the blue, he started laughing. A boisterous roar, it filled the air.
“You,” he said, still chuckling, “You are a sly one, my friend. I knew something was up, but I didn’t expect that. You are such a devious teenager!”
He chortled, shaking out his clothes and running his hands through his sopping hair. I smiled at him, glad he wasn’t mad. I basked in my victory. Attempting to air dry his clothes, he shook his shirt.
“I really should’ve seen that one coming,” he said, giving me a wry look.
I laughed at him, and went over to the stream, crouching to fill my bottle back up.
“I’m sorry, but it just had to be done. It’s really your fault for not knowing me well enough to not stay on guard.”
He didn’t say anything, and I looked over to see him gone. What? I thought to myself. Suddenly I felt a force push me forward, and I landed in the river. Right. In. the. Freaking. River. The stream was shallow, but it was still deep enough to get all of my clothes wet.
I looked up to see none other than Matt, smirking like he had just pulled off the best prank ever.
“You jerk! You’re such a snot! You can’t get revenge on me for getting back at you! That just doesn’t work!”
He shrugged, looking as innocent as possible.
“I’m sorry, but it just had to be done. You should know me well enough to stay on your guard.”
He snickered as he repeated my words from several minutes ago. Standing up, I despaired at the sad state of my clothes. They were even wetter than Matt’s and I whined as I examined them.
“I’m never trusting you again!” I said to him, although I didn’t really mean it.
Still, I wasn’t going to let him get away with this. Trudging to the edge of the stream, I leaned against the side melodramatically. I gave him the glare of all glares and moaned about my clothes again.
“You’re so mean,” I said, drawing out the last word.
Sighing out loud, I looked up at him pathetically, where he was still smiling, but with a look of pity for me too.
Using the most pathetic voice I had, I weakly said, “Could you at least help me out? You shoved me in here and now I’m stuck.”
He snorted, and I reassured myself he deserved what was about to happen.
“All right,” he said, still smirking, “I guess that would be fair.”
He knelt down, offering me his hand. Planting my foot on the wall lining the stream, I gripped his hand and proceeded to pull. My body was supported by the wall and his center of balance was off, so my plan went perfectly.
He plunged into the water, getting completely drenched.
“Ha! I win! Mwuhahahaha!” I crowed in victory.
Matt looked at me solemnly, not expecting this development. He rushed into the stream, and splashed me with an excess of water, surprising me. With a cry of indignation, I splashed him back. We attacked each other with the water, exclaiming every time an icy wave hit us.
Soon we were laughing at each other. We broke down, having to lean on the edge for support. We were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe, and my eyes started to tear up. We managed to disrupt every creature around us, and if any person were to come by, they would think us mad.
We eventually calmed down, although my sides still hurt. Huffing and puffing, Matt heaved himself out of the water. He was taller than me, and when I attempted to do the same, I found myself too short. Matt was leaning his hands on his knees, still out of breath.
“I’m stuck, Matt.”I said, this time serious.
He looked at me as if I was crazy.
“Do you really think that I’m stupid enough to fall for the same trick twice?” he asked.
Oh, no. I tried again, seeking to gain a foothold in the wall, but finding none.
“I’m serious, Matt.” I whined.
He watched me struggle for a moment, then approached cautiously.
“I swear, if you pull me in again I am going to tackle you.”
Looking at him in annoyance, I snapped, “Okay, okay! I won’t, just get me out of here. It’s cold.”
He braced his foot on a nearby rock just in case, and offered me a still wet hand. He pulled me out of the water, leaving me huffing on my hands and knees.
“Maybe next time you won’t splash me and then pull me into some water. Without me, you couldn’t have gotten out.” He commented offhandedly.
“Well maybe next time you won’t dump water on me while I’m sleeping, causing retaliation, and then get pulled into water for pushing me. You wouldn’t have ended up in there at all if you hadn’t pushed me.”
He scoffed, but still smiled. Both soaking, we gathered our stuff and headed down the road, making a path with the water droplets that fell from our clothes and hair. We must have looked so ridiculous.
We air dried after a few hours, but our hair was intensely ruffled. I ran my hands through my hair in attempt to tame it, but I was no use. My hair wasn’t going to look normal down, and I had nothing to put it up with. Bemoaning my fate to Matt, he looked at me strangely.
“Why does it matter?” he said, obviously bemused.
“It’s all over my face! And I just look ridiculous! It’s easy for you to say it doesn’t matter, all you have to do is ruffle your hair a little and it looks fine!”
I reached up for his hair and ruffled it, to make a point. He tried to dodge my fluffing, but it was too late.
“See?” I said grumpily, “Your hair is just like it always is.”
He shrugged, rolling his eyes. He thought for a second, looking around, and then stopped in front of a plant.
Peeling off a piece he explained, “This is called Dogbane, you can use the vine part to make ropes.”
He worked on the plant for a moment, then produced a small circle of vine. Perplexed, I asked him what it was for.
Sighing, he said, “It’s to put up your hair silly! You complain about not having a hair tie, and then don’t know one when you see one.”
Feeling silly, I took the circle from him. Smoothing back my hair into a ponytail, I used the loop to tie it back.
“Thanks.” I said.
He smiled at me and said, “Anytime. Nature has a way of giving you exactly what you need. Everything has a use, right down to the littlest speck.”
Feeling better now that my hair wasn’t in my eyes, I continued walking again. After another long day, we reached our camp.
“We’re going to town tomorrow right?” I asked, wishing with all my might for a shower and a soft bed.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling, “We are. Missing a bed?”
I nodded enthusiastically. We set up, and Matt supervised me as I started the fire again. It made me happy to see the fruits of my efforts literally ignite.
It was getting darker now, and the sun had almost disappeared, only a slice in the sky now. I felt a strong sense of dread towards the coming night. Last night’s nightmare had been terrible, and I didn’t know how well I could cope tonight. I wandered around the camp, finding sanctuary by the side of a hill overlooking the pond nearby. Matt was settling in for the night, having already changed. He yawned, and I was reminded of how he was up late last night with me. He watched me pace to the hill, and padded over to me.
“Hey,” he said drowsily, “You coming?”
There was no way I was going to admit I was scared to sleep, but I didn’t have any other excuse to avoid it.
Making it up as I went, I said, “Not right now, I’m not very tired.”
I tried to make my voice nonchalant, but it was a terrible lie. Anyone who hadn’t slept the previous day would be tired, and he knew just how little sleep I had gotten. He didn’t say anything, but I knew he didn’t buy it for a second. He knows, I thought. Even so, I wouldn’t bring myself to say I was scared. I would keep the façade going for as long as possible, no matter how weak it was sometimes. It was the only thing I had left.
Matt spoke from his position next to me, saying, “I’m not that tired either. Let’s stay up for a little while and talk. We can do some I Spy.”
I knew it was only for me, because he was just as tired. I felt the urge to snap at him that I didn’t need company, but I didn’t want to shun him away. I resolved to say I was going to bed before it got too late. Just because I wouldn’t sleep didn’t mean he couldn’t.
He stayed up with me for a while, and we played games. We ran out of things to spy, however, so we ended up talking about life. He told me about his friend we were meeting, and I told him a funny story about a lizard jumping on this girl’s nose that had been mean to me. She freaked out, even though it was harmless. It was getting late now, and I decided here would be the cutoff.
I faked a yawn, and rubbed my eyes.
“I think I’ll head to bed now,” I said, making my voice sleepy.
He agreed, and we strolled down the hill together. As we snuggled into our respective sleeping bags, Matt called out to me.
“Hey, Veronica.”
I looked to him, only to find his eyes directly staring into mine.
“I just wanted to say that you can tell me pretty much anything. It’s your choice, of course, but know that I’m always here. Okay?”
I didn’t know what to say. I went for a mix, putting my tough and soft sides together.
“You’re so weird,” I said, starting with tough, “But thanks, I guess. I understand.”
I made my voice softer the second part, so that it seemed more gentle. He bid me goodnight and I did likewise, lying down in my bag, Ozzie snuggled in the crook of my arm. His crooked smile was endearing, and I held him just a little tighter.
I lay in the most awkward position I could find, hoping the discomfort would keep sleep away. I lay awake and listened to the bugs, focusing on different ones so they didn’t blend. I listened to the birds, the bugs, the bees. I thought about anything that would keep me awake. I felt my eyes start to get heavy several times, but I pinched myself as hard as I could, almost crying out.
I could feel the dreams lurking there, deep in my subconscious, but omnipresent and ready. I knew I would have to face them eventually, but I sure as hell would make it as hard for them to get me as possible. I hadn’t been worried about nightmares since I was a kid, and none of them had been this serious.
At first, they were of things kids are usually scared of. Monsters, aliens, zombies. But then, as I was left in solitude, they were all about having no friends, or parents. Of course, these were more painful, for they didn’t disappear when I woke up.
With the things before, I woke wake up and they wouldn’t exist. But these other dreams were, in fact, very true. I would wake up and I wouldn’t have anyone to comfort me. I would go to school the next day and have no friends. There was nobody to eat lunch with, nobody to partner up with in class. I was paired with the teacher or the kid who had been missing a friend that day, who proceeded to avoid me like a plague. It wasn’t that they hated me, at least not at that time, it was more that I was different. Their parents didn’t like such an anomaly hanging around their kids, and so they told them to only converse with me when necessary.
I had nobody on parent teacher conference day, nobody in the PTA, and nobody to chaperone for our field trips. I was in elementary school, higher up in the grades.
I remember this one time we all had to bring snacks to school, and we were all assigned a date. When the child brought snacks, they were rewarded with a beanie baby from on top of the bookcase in our homeroom. The teacher had so many, in so many colors. Many students had a hard time choosing, but I knew exactly which one I wanted. There was a small little lady bug, wedged back into the corner by the other animals. It was a simple little thing, with a red torso and six black string legs. There were eight spots sewn into its back, and it had two little bead eyes on its small head. It was never chosen by anyone, and I felt like that was because it was made for me.
Being kids, we didn’t have any money to buy snacks. This meant we were required to get our parents to buy them for us. Still, my teacher absentmindedly assigned me a day, and I was so excited. I sprinted out the door at the end of school, to go see the mayor. He was the one who gave me the things that I needed, and so I would need to ask him. It hadn’t bothered me that much that I didn’t have parents, for I didn’t know any better. I was lonely, of course, but I hadn’t felt the true isolation in full.
I entered his office, and he was talking on the phone. The mayor was not exactly what I would call a cruel man, but he was not one suitable for raising kids. I waited patiently for him to get off of the phone, just as I had been instructed.
Once, I interrupted a phone call, and he had given me a twenty minute lecture on not bothering adults. I couldn’t bother him in many situations. If he had a call, a meeting, guests in his office, or if he was working on paperwork. This didn’t leave much time, but there were moments. He got off of the phone, and noticed me quietly standing there.
“What do you need, Veronica?”
It was a tired voice. I told him I needed money to get snacks for school.
He looked at me sternly, and said, “I can’t give you money for silly things like that, Veronica. The city gives you money to give you basic necessities, not to buy snacks for school.”
He stood up, preparing to leave. I tugged on his sleeve.
“Wait!” I exclaimed, “If we bring snacks we get a little stuffed animal. There is this little ladybug that is meant for me. I need to bring in snacks or I can’t get it. Please, sir?”
I didn’t even really know his real name anymore, because I had become accustomed to just using sir. Irritated, he yanked his sleeve out of my grasp.
his important office voice he scolded, “I told you I can’t. You need the money for more important things. A ladybug is not a necessity.”
He straightened his jacket, walking through his door. I ran after him.
“You don’t understand! This is important! I’ve never asked you for anything like this before. Please. Pretty please with cherries and ice cream on top?”
He had become angry now, and I knew I had asked too many times. It had been so important to me, and I was furious he couldn’t understand.
“Veronica,” he warned, admonishing, “No means no. I will not discuss this anymore. I have a business meeting, and I don’t have the time to deal with such trivial matters. Run along home now, and don’t ask me again.”
With that, he left. I trudged down the street, downtrodden. When I got home, I threw down my backpack and cried. To me, that ladybug had been everything. And now that I had no snacks, I would never get it.
I went into school on my assigned day, empty handed and ashamed. The kids grumbled when they learned of my failure to provide nourishment for them. We ate animal crackers the teacher kept in her closet, but they were nothing compared to what we usually got to eat.
Other kids brought in strawberries, or brownies, or sometimes even entrées like lasagna. Sally’s mom had made it for her, and we all clapped for her contribution. She got to pick one of the big stuffed animals, usually reserved for especially good behavior.
I never got one of these, for I never had anyone to show my good behavior to. I couldn’t share with kids because they never asked. I never hugged someone who was sad, for their friends reached them first.
I tried to talk to the teacher, to explain to her I didn’t have any money, and she said she understood. When I grew elated, she told me that she couldn’t give me one. She understood my predicament, and didn’t blame me, but couldn’t give me a stuffed animal because then others would want one without bringing in a snack. She couldn’t favor me.
The ladybug was never chosen, left behind, shoved into the corner.
I came back a year later, passing her room in the hall, and it was still there. It broke my heart, and became the gateway for my longing for parents. I was never quite the same after that day.
I lay in my sleeping bag now, thinking of the small animal, and doing all that I could to stay awake. The hours passed, and I spent them in a half-asleep state. I dreamed a bit, more awake than asleep. I saw a boy, one smiling with joy. He was dancing with what appeared to be a younger me, laughing and hugging my younger self. It’s my brother, I realized in my more lucid moments. I couldn’t remember what happened to him, or anything else about him. Only that he was my brother.
As the sun began to rise, I waited for Matt to “wake” me up. I hadn’t slept at all, and it had felt lonely. Even though Matt had been right there, next to me, I still felt isolated when it was silent.
I reflected back on that poor stuffed animal, shoved against the shelf, almost like me. I wanted that bug so bad, simply because it was me. I pondered over the fate of the stuffed creature now, and I wondered about mine. Would I be stuffed behind others my whole life? Or would I finally be chosen? I could only wait to find out.

Highway Chapter 15

I woke up to the sun, as usual. I looked over to Veronica, who sat beside me on the hill. She looked so tired, and I understood why. After two night of lost sleep, along with getting up so early for her, it all added up. I decided that we could wait an hour before heading out. It was only an hour, but she could benefit greatly from even that. Sleeping in meant a little more walking, but we would still make it to town before the sun went down the next day.
I watched the sun rise, it vibrant and flaring rays stretching out, dying the sky in various reds and pinks. Feeling mildly guilty, I woke Veronica up. She asked me why we had to wake up so early, drawing out the last word in a whine. The sleepy undertone made me laugh.
We set off after she had gotten ready, singing and dancing as we had the day before. She threatened me, saying I better not tell anyone about this or about her love of stuffed animals. We stopped at a fork in the road, and she filled her water bottle from the nearby stream. As I was looking at the routes, I heard a crackling come from my backpack. I didn’t understand until Veronica’s voice came through, emitting noises from the side pocket.
Pulling out the walkie talkie she had given me, I looked across the stream to her. I asked her what she was doing, raising my voice to be heard over the distance. She told me to just trust her. I gave her a look as if she had gone a little bit loopy, but shrugged anyway. I was up for whatever little game she had planned.
She said there was a problem, using the code name Houston. I looked at her again before deciding to play along. I asked what the problem was, using the nickname command. She snickered, and then asked me what I said. I didn’t understand what the problem was. Had I not spoke clearly enough? She teased me with humor that I had to say over at the end of every transmission, over. I put my hand on my hip in a gesture of mock offense, and repeated my line, emphasizing my over. She told me she couldn’t find the tablets and that her bottle wasn’t functioning, making sure to include the ending word. I rolled my eyes, and headed back to help her.
Why didn’t she know where the tablets were though? She had been using them for days. When I walked up, she was acting strangely. She wouldn’t look at me, and she had a completely straight face, attempting to look casual. I knew she was up to something now, but I didn’t know what. I turned to gather the tablets from beside a few things, and was surprised when icy water landed on me, soaking my clothes.
Startled and shocked, I saw Veronica standing there shouting in victory. I was stunned, and I couldn’t even gather words. Then a laugh bubbled up inside me, and I chuckled rambunctiously. I couldn’t stop laughing.
I didn’t think she would do that! She was spunky, that was a fact. I told her she was a sly one, and quite the devious teenager. I looked down at my sopping clothes, and attempted to shake free some of the liquid. I supposed I should have been more thoughtful of her revenge for splashing her. She apologized sarcastically and told me I should have kept my guard up.
She bent down to fill her bottle, this time for drinking use. Seeking some fun and laughs, I snuck up behind her quietly. When she turned, she saw me missing from my previous location.
Reaching out quickly but gently, I pushed her into the bank. She exclaimed in indignation, and told me I was a jerk and a snot. Smirking to myself, I repeated her words back to her. She told me I was mean, and lay against the side of the bank. Giving me the most pathetic look she could muster, she asked me to pull her out. She was shivering slightly, and I felt a little bit bad. I knelt down to help her up, and was caught off my guard again when she pulled on my hand, forcing me into the river.
She crowed in victory, offering a villainous laugh to accompany here exclamations. She was full of surprises, and I couldn’t believe I had fallen for two tricks in a row. I splashed her with water, and she shrieked. She splashed me back, and we ended up laughing at each other as we had a water war. I had to lean on the wall to support myself I was laughing so hard. After my breathing calmed down, I pulled myself out of the water, leaning my hands on my knees, trying to breathe after laughing.
I saw Veronica struggling to get out, and she told me she was stuck. Did she think I was that stupid? I had fallen for her tricks twice, but I wouldn’t fall for the same one. She told me she was serious. After a few moments of her attempts at getting out, I cautiously moved to help her. I warned her I would tackle her if she pulled me in again, but she informed me with a snappy voice she wouldn’t. I braced my foot against a rock for support, and pulled her out.
I told her maybe she shouldn’t have pulled me in, offhandedly and playful. She told me that she wouldn’t have if he hadn’t pushed her first. I scoffed, but smiled at her.
We gathered our stuff, and still dripping, went down our path. She bemoaned the fate of her hair, telling me it looked awful. I wondered why it mattered, for we weren’t going to see anyone special on the road. She exclaimed that it was easy for me not to care, for my hair went back to normal if I ran a hand through it. Proving her point, she reached up and tousled my hair before I could doge her attempts. She grumbled that my hair was fine. Thinking I could make her something to tie it back with, I looked around. Ha! I thought to myself as I spotted a plant called Dogbane. The stems were very flexible and could be used to make rope. Weaving the stems together swiftly, I created a little loop to hold back Veronica’s hair. When I offered it to her, she seemed confused until I explained it was a hair tie for her. I told her nature could provide so many things you needed, if you knew what to look for.
We made it to our camp for the night, a nice little glade with a pond below and a small lookout hill, surrounded by trees. I supervised Veronica as she started the fire, watching her eyes light up with joy when she saw the burning flames. She was acting a bit strange, pacing back and forth, until she came to rest on the hill. Wondering what was the matter, I wondered up to the hill, stopping next to her.
“You coming?” I asked, hoping I would be able to understand.
“Not right now,” she said, forced, “I’m not very tired.”
It was a lie, and a bad one too. She wasn’t expecting me to ask, and was obviously uncomfortable with the real answer. I looked at her with the shadows under her eyes, fidgeting in small jerky movements. Then it dawned on me.
She was scared to go to sleep. She would never admit she was scared to anyone, and it made perfect sense considering her behavior. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to sleep either. Her nightmares were horrifying and unnerving, if last night had been any indication. Delivering my own not so wonderful lie, I told her I wasn’t either.
I resolved to stay with her as long as she needed me to, even if that meant all night. It was highly probable she would just pretend to go to bed, but I was still going to calm her and help her as long as I could without pressing her. I finally felt like she was close to me now, if only a little. She had admitted she had a bad dream, and even that was a feat for her. She had grown up in such an environment that she had to be tough, where nothing could bother her or she wouldn’t be mentally sound. Every little insignificant weakness was material for exploitation, and so she just stopped having those. That she was showing me one at all was already a testament to her trust. If I played my cards right and continued to show her the truth about the world, she would have a happy soul before awakening. I told her about my friend Julian, because I knew she loved stories.
“Like I said, he is a drifter, but he isn’t out on the road a lot. He is a quirky guy to put it nicely, but deep down he is very caring. You just have to get used to his ways of showing affection. One time, I visited him for his birthday and he tugged me around town, shouting that I was his best friend.”
She laughed, having a hard time envisioning me being pulled across town.
I said, “When I first met him, it was before I awakened. I was feeling sorry for myself for some reason that I can’t remember, and he grew fed up. He thought it a good idea to throw me into the river. He said that the water would cool off my head.”
I remember how mad I was when that happened. I almost tried to beat him up. I would’ve if I thought I could have taken him. Veronica told me a story from her younger years.
“This girl, Ariana I think,” she said, “she was making fun of me for my hair when I was sitting in the sandbox, near the trees. This little lizard came along, stopping in the sandbox. She freaked out when she saw it. Apparently she wasn’t too fond of lizards, and they scared her. I picked him up, because I wasn’t scared of him, and I told her he wasn’t so bad. Just as she came close, he hissed at her, doing that little side flaring thing lizards do when they're scared. She backed into a tree, where a family of them were chilling. And one of them landed right on her nose. She flailed, and ran away when he fell off. It was like the lizards were on my side.”
I was happy that at least some things in her childhood weren’t all bad.
She faked a yawn, saying she was tired. I knew it to be untrue, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. She would either stay awake all night or try and fall asleep in a few hours. I would try to monitor her throughout the night, and attempt to make sure that if she had nightmares I would be there to wake her and calm her down. I wanted to let her know that I was here, but I wasn’t sure if I could say anything without her backing away from sudden concern and care.
I called to her, and said, “I just wanted to say that you can tell me pretty much anything. It’s your choice, of course, but know that I’m always here. Okay?”
She paused, as if unsure what to say.
“You’re so weird,” she told me, but then her voice softened, “But thanks, I guess. I understand.”
I was relieved that I had chosen correctly. Only someone who had seen her thought processes could understand when she was being gruff and when she was being protective.
We scrunched down into our sleeping bags for the night. I waited, and as I had expected, she wasn’t falling asleep. She was turned away, so I couldn’t see her face, but she shuffled far too often to be sleeping. Her breaths were not even, her body not relaxed, and she squirmed in discomfort. I fell asleep, but awoke several times, checking on her quickly. She wasn’t sleeping any of the times I looked at her, but she wasn’t thrashing around like yesterday.
As the night turned transformed into morning, I awoke with the sun. Sighing quietly, I could tell Veronica had gotten very little to no sleep last night. Her position was uncomfortable, and she was hunched over like she was miserable.
I got up and stretched, gathering supplies. I “woke” her up, and she got ready. She was trudging along, slower than usual. I wasn’t sure the poor girl could be any more tired. I wondered if I could get her to drink some coffee when we got to town. I wasn’t a person who drank coffee a lot, but with sleepless nights it was a go-to in the morning. She wasn’t going to be happy to walk for the next two hours to get to town. She walked next to me, but behind a little bit. She seemed to stagger along, and I wondered if she was just going to drop to the ground. When she didn’t notice I had taken a turn, she almost smacked right into a cliff wall, only stopping because I called her name.
Okay, I thought to myself. There was no way this is going to work. I wanted to get to town to meet up with Julian and get some supplies, but Veronica really needed sleep, or at least to not be on her feet anymore. One of us was going to get hurt by accident, most likely her. Clearing my throat, I stopped. She looked up at me with weary and drained eyes, and I felt my resolve grow.
“Come here, Veronica.”
She did, giving me a sleepy suspicious look.
“I’m going to carry you to town, okay? You need to be off of your feet.”
She looked at me, stupefied, still half asleep. Then the look was replaced with one more incredulous and surprised.
“What the hell are you talking about, Matt? You are not carrying me anywhere. I’m perfectly fine.”
She declared with defiance, forcing herself to be a little bit more awake.
“Veronica, you are too sleep deprived for this right now. When we get to town you can have some coffee or sleep in the hotel. But as of this moment, I am not going to let you walk. You are not fine.” I tried, hoping to reason with her.
This girl was so adamant about anything and everything, this conversation included. She was more stubborn than a mule. She told me she was completely fine, snapping at me with a glare. Here was another point in time where I had to be careful. I wasn’t one of the scolding adults she had come to know, and I knew the stigma would be hard to break.
“You almost just ran into the wall! There is nothing about you that’s fine.” I said, the more authoritive tone in place. Before she could interrupt angrily, I bent down so I was face to face with her.
“Please, Veronica” I continued gently, “just let me carry you. Feel sorry for this old coot. I worry too much, but please humor me.”
Her jaw worked, trying to form words. With her arms crossed and an indignant sigh, she looked away.
“Fine, you crazy weirdo. Do whatever you want, but don’t expect me to be happy about it. You’re impossible, you know that?”
I smiled at her, and shrugged innocently. Rolling her eyes, she came up behind me. I crouched, making my arms into loops for her to step into.
“Hold on first, I wouldn’t want you to fall backwards,” I warned.
“No, really?” she said, voice full of sarcasm.
She held onto my neck with one arm while she stepped into mine. Making sure she was ready, I hoisted her up in a piggy back ride. She made a small noise when she lifted off of the ground, but remained still.
“Just so you know, I’m only doing this because I feel bad for you. You are getting pretty old.”
I made a noise that indicated I was hurt.
“Hey now,” I said, “ I’m only 25!”
She snickered, commenting I was almost thirty. I pretended to be offended, but I knew she was only joking, trying to take on a subject that wasn’t our position. I carried her along the road, listening to her absentminded chatter. She was surprisingly light. I didn’t expect her to be heavy, but she was tall, and she had strong muscles considering she hadn’t been out doing a lot of physical activity.
She yawned, and I could feel her grip lessen somewhat. She was tired, and now that she wasn’t engaging in activity, she was feeling the effects of her insomnia. She jolted every now and then, waking from momentary lapses in consciousness. Without seeming to notice she was doing it, she nestled her head into my shoulder. Soon she was mostly limp, slumbering peacefully. I smiled as she murmured something in her sleep about bunnies and octopi.
The two hours it took to get to town were hardly enough time to sleep, but it was amazing how a nap would leave you more refreshed. As she dreamed what seemed to be harmless dreams, I walked on. I didn’t mind carrying her, even with the sun beating down, because she was as light as she was.
In a few hours, we reached the town borders. Veronica, still dozing on my shoulder, stirred because we had stopped. The rhythmic movement of my walking had in part lulled her to sleep, like when parents take their children for rides in the car before bed.
“Veronica,” I called softly, “Veronica, we’re here.”
She raised her head, taking an arm away from my neck to rub her eyes.
“Wha?” she said, still stuck in her dreams, “Oh. Okay.”
I let her down carefully.
“That’s what you get for making me listen to you. I hope I drooled on you.”She said playfully.
I informed her that she had not, fortunately. She stretched leisurely, and yawned. She seemed much better, despite still looking exhausted. A power nap was exactly what she had needed. We strolled through town, Veronica with a new spring in her step.
I sensed Julian before we even got into town, and I could feel he was in the local tavern. Thicksville was a large town, more like a city than anything else. So many different people came here, it was the perfect place for a drifter to get in and out without anyone even batting an eye. Unless you stayed there. For a long time. And you are the strangest, loudest, most irritating but lovable person on the planet. Like Julian.
Veronica was looking around at the new and tall building with wonder, probably never having seen and actual city before. Cars crowded the city streets, the sounds of honking and revving engines a creating a cacophony. The sidewalks were filled with people strolling about. A mom, soothing her crying kids. A street performer, playing a rendition of a song I didn’t know. A lady with 8 dogs being pulled along by their leashes. We were not the most interesting people in this city, that was for sure. I couldn’t decide whether to wait for Julian to come find us, for I knew he sense me outside of the town. But he didn’t seem to be moving, and I wondered if he was too lazy to come greet an old friend.
Sighing, I decided to seek him out. Veronica stayed close as I weaved in and of the crowds, and managed to keep up so I didn’t have to slow down. I was glad to have a street smart companion with me, for this city would have been a disaster with someone who didn’t know how to navigate. As we approached the bar, I told Veronica that Julian was inside. She hesitated strangely, drawing closer to me. I suppose her caution was understandable, as she had never met another drifter before, and Julian was an odd one indeed.
We pushed open the door to the tavern, proceeding to take seats near the bar.
I spotted Julian sitting there, and I said, “Not even going to say anything, you crazy coot? Have you gotten so lazy, old man, you can’t greet a friend?”
He rose from his seat, an indignant look on his face.
“If I remember something about you, kid, it’s that you never put your effort into anything! You couldn’t even finish lighting your fire! And yet you call me lazy.”
He crossed his arms, looking surly, and murmuring, “Old man! I’m only 15 years older than you! Have someone tell you you’re old at 40 and let me know how it feels.”
I smiled, and opened my arms for a hug.
“Come here, you.” I said affectionately.
We embraced, patting each other on the back. He ruffled my hair like I was a child, and I brushed away his hand. Veronica was sitting in the booth, watching the exchange with awkward interest. I gestured for her to come over, and she hesitantly did so.
“This is Veronica,” I said, introducing her, “she’s traveling with me. She wants to find The Way.”
He studied her, and then started laughing. Veronica looked to me, confused. I put up my hands in a helpless gesture. I didn’t understand the man anymore than I did when we first met.
“Look at you!” he exclaimed loudly, pulling me into another hug, “Teaching people things. Now you’re just like me!”
I untangled myself from his bear hug, playfully saying, “I will never be like you, Julian. Nobody is like you.”
He chuckled. He turned to Veronica, suddenly enveloping her into a hug as well. She made a startled squeak, and pushed herself away from Julian, surprised by his behavior. He was quite the interesting person.
“Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to scare you, silly girl. Victoria, was it?”
I sighed, correcting him.
“Veronica,” I stressed, “Say it with me. Ver-ron-ick-cuh.”
He gave me a wry look, and told me I was a smartass. Veronica stifled a laugh. This was going to be a long day. I told Julian we needed to check into a hotel first, and then we could chat. He insisted on staying at his house, but I talked him out of it.
“Sorry, Julian. I already promised Veronica she could take a real shower. Not whatever that thing that spouts freezing water of yours is called.”
He looked offended, saying real showers were for sissies.
“Julian lives on the very edge of town , in a secluded little cabin.” I explained to Veronica, “And he’s very defensive about it.”
We checked into the nearest hotel, Julian scoffing the whole way and saying something about “no appreciation for the wild. I call my shower and shower.”
I smirked. He was exactly as he had been a few years ago. Veronica was trailing off to the side, obviously confused. She was on my side, but was far enough Julian couldn’t reach her. I think she was worried he was going to hug her again. I remember I thought him a raving lunatic the first time I met him.
Veronica seemed at a loss, unsure of what to be doing right now. I wanted her to learn a few things from him, but she would have plenty of time to do that tomorrow. For now, I thought I would release her from the nightmare that was Julian.
“Hey Veronica,” I called.
She looked up, not sure if she should be relived she was in the conversation or concerned because she was.
“Do you want to do some sight-seeing?”
She nodded, elated to have a reason to be gone.
“Here’s a map of the city. Now remember-“
She cut me off quickly.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Don’t draw attention, be safe, be nice to people. Use the walkie talkie if someone is late or something happens.”
I raised an eyebrow at her, and she suddenly looked even more awkward.
“Uh, I mean, I understand. Thank you for teaching me the rules?” she asked innocently, trying to make me smile.
I gave her a little one, and sighed playfully.
“Okay, well I’m off!” she said, ready to bolt.
“Not quite.” I called, forcing her to come back. “I think there’s something you’re forgetting about?”
She looked at me oddly, bewildered.
She thought a moment and said, “We are meeting back…”
“At the tavern we came to when we got here.”
I pointed it out on the map.
“And when?” she asked.
“How about six?”
She agreed, and ran off hastily. I couldn’t tell if she was excited to see the city, or if she was just glad to get away. Probably a bit of both. I turned back to Julian, who was observing me with a questioning look.
“What?” I asked.
“Since when do you have that voice?” he asked me back.
I gave him a dubious look, not understanding. He sighed.
“The voice you just used. Since when do you have the ‘listen to me’ voice?”
I shrugged, telling him I didn’t know what he was talking about. He sighed in exasperation, throwing his hands up in the air. We snuggled into a booth, and caught up on lost time. He asked me of my travels, and I asked him of his life here. We laughed for a long time.
“I’ve missed you, my old friend. “I said, wiping the tears of laughter away from my eyes.
He agreed, then looked at me seriously for a moment.
“Tell me how you met your companion.”
I did, and he listened intently. I didn’t want to intrude on Veronica’s privacy though, so I only told him the basics. When I was finished, he leaned back.
“She seems attached to you, especially considering she’s only been with you for five days.”
I shrugged off the comment, saying simply, “I’m just the first person she has met who is relatively kind. As you can imagine, like many she wasn’t very accepted in her town.”
He nodded, but looked as if had had more to say.
“Hey, Julian,” I said, “How would you like to hang out with Veronica and I tomorrow? She thinks you are strange, but I think she can learn something from you. Preferably it something about life, not about how to drink 4 shots under a minute or how to pick a lock with only a bobby pin.”
I gave him a look pointedly, and he laughed.
“Actually, I’m feeling like I need to stretch my legs a little bit. What would you say about me traveling with you until you reach Townston. Its only about two days travel.”
I paused, worried about how Veronica would feel. I also didn’t think she wanted it shared with anyone else she had nightmares, which would be pretty hard to conceal. Still, Julian was a sensitive guy, and I was sure that the two would be able to coexist.
“Sounds great.” I replied.
We exchanged more stories, and then Julian had to leave for some errands. We parted ways, where I was heading for the tavern to wait for Veronica. It was about 5:45, so she still had time.
Julian’s statement had bothered me. Was she attached to me? I never really noticed. I noticed that she liked me more than others, sure, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I told myself I was thinking too hard.
I sat in the crowded tavern, and waited. I wasn’t kept there for long though, for Veronica showed up about 5 minutes early.
“Did you have fun?” I asked.
She told me she did, and then proceeded to tell me about all the things she saw. We ate dinner, and walked back to the hotel.
Veronica took a shower first, and I had to listen to make sure she didn’t pass out from fatigue. Fortunately there were no loud noises of anything falling, and she came out unscathed. I took mine and got dressed, settling in for the night. Veronica knocked on my door.
“It’s open,” I called.
She complained of the heat, and went to stand on the balcony just outside of our rooms.
“Hey,” I said, “I told Julian he could go with us when we travel, so he’ll be with us for about two days until we reach the next town."
She poked her head back in, a look of dismay upon her face.
“Do we have to? He’s just so weird.” She complained.
“Be nice,” I gently admonished, “He’s a really great guy. He’s helped me in more ways than I can count. Sure, he’s a little eccentric, but that’s just how it is.”
She looked at me doubtfully, thinking herself tortured.
“You have to learn to be open-minded with people. If you start disliking him just because he’s different, you become the same as everyone who shunned you because you were different.”
She looked at the ground, suddenly finding her slippers the most interesting thing in the world.
“I’m not like them.” She whispered, angry but sad.
I sighed and sat up, closing the book in my lap.
“I know you’re not, Veronica,” I commented softly, “And that’s why I’m telling you this. I don’t want anyone to think you are like that, because you aren’t.”
She went back out to the balcony without another word. After about half an hour, she came back inside, shutting the door.
“He isn’t going to hug me again, right?” she asked, partially serious but also part frivolous.
I laughed, saying, “I don’t know. Probably not. Just bear with him if he does. He is quite strange, but it grows on you after a while.”
She rolled her eyes, but accepted the statement. She yawned, and I thought of her sleeping tonight. The nightmares couldn’t have gone, but she napped soundly this morning. She didn’t seem too worried about it, and I wondered if something had changed. After discussing her favorite attractions of the city, she bid me goodnight.
“Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite. Literally," i joked.
She looked at me in horror, before realizing I was just kiddimg. She told me I was a snot. She seemed content today, if a little bit off. Sleep deprivation does things to people.
I felt myself falling asleep, so I turned off my light and burrowed under the covers. Thinking of my old friend and Veronica, it reminded me of my situation. I reacted the same way when I first met him, except I was more angry. Hoping they didn’t get into as much trouble as we did. I smiled at the thought.
This was going to be an adventure, one I might regret arranging. Still, it was peaceful tonight, and I was grateful. I hoped the calm and tranquility would last.
I had no idea what was about to happen.

The author's comments:
This was soooo hard to write. :(

Highway Chapter 16

I was so tired I wanted to die. My eyes burned, and I couldn’t rub away the sleep. A headache was slowly building behind my temples.
I trailed behind Matt, feeling the exhaustion spread to my entire body. It permeated the rest of my limbs, and I began to walk just like a zombie. I was so tired I almost didn’t even see where we were walking.
Matt called my name, and I realized I had almost run into a wall. Matt cleared his throat and we stopped. He told me that he was going to carry me to town. I thought I had misheard him because I was tired, but he seemed like I heard him right. Was he serious? I wasn’t going to let him carry me. I voiced the thought to him, and told him I was fine. He insisted I wasn’t, and to just let him carry me. I told him I was fine again, snapping at him. He reminded me I had almost run into a wall. As I was about to yell at him, he bent down to my eye level, just as he had in the bar the day I met him.
“Please,” he said gently.
He told me to humor him. I thought a moment, my teeth clenched, but finally agreed to let him carry me. I was tired, and he was stubborn. I told him he was impossible, and then made fun of him being old. He pretended to be offended, but I knew he was joking.
I felt awkward at first, because I had never had a piggy back ride before. But the tugging on my eyelids became more persistent, and my head came down to land on Matt’s shoulder. He was warm and comfortable, and I fell asleep.
I dreamed not of nightmares, but of fields of bunnies. In that field was that boy I had seen last night, my brother. I wondered why I knew he was my brother, but I didn’t know who my other family members were. I was in the smaller version of myself again.
He smiled down at me, a brilliant row of white teeth showing. He had freckles on his face, skin almost as pale as mine. His hair was slightly overgrown, hanging in front of his face. He was tall and gangly, but with strong muscles. Many could say he looked solemn, but his smile was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. He grabbed my hands, swinging me around in a playful dance. We laughed together, and I felt a happiness so complete it filled my heart overcome me. The boy was about my age now, on the verge of eighteen.
We lay down in the meadow grass, laughing about some joke.
“What are we going to eat today, big brother?” I had asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied,
“Mom had to work late tonight. How about I make you some macaroni and cheese?”
I exclaimed with joy at this and tackled him in a hug. He laughed, swinging me high in the air.
The dream transitioned to a bedroom filled with stuffed animals. The boy played with one of them for me, making it dance. He sat on the edge of my bed, and told me a bedtime story. I watched my smaller self tell the boy she loved him lots.
“More than I love candy!” I exclaimed.
The boy laughed, and gave me a kiss on the forehead. He tucked me in, and rubbed his nose against mine in a farewell gesture. I watched as I begged him to sing for me, just one song. There was a crash from downstairs and some yelling, and I jumped. What was that? He hesitated, then began to sing quietly. I realized with a start that it was the very same lullaby I had sung the other night to sleep.
I was interrupted by Matt’s voice telling me we were here. I stretched feeling refreshed, and telling Matt I hoped I drooled on him.
We entered the gigantic city, and I marveled at all of the building, tall as the sky. I kept up with Matt as he moved through the crowd. We approached a tavern, and he told me his friend was in there. I could find him, for he felt different like Matt.
He was a big man, thicker in build than Matt, and was just as tall. He had medium dark skin, and a graying mustache. His hair was short, a buzz cut. Matt insulted him, and he insulted him back. Then they embraced like two old friends, patting each other on the back. His laughter boomed out of him, echoing around the busy room.
Matt gestured for me to join them.I cautiously approached, and waited as he introduced me to the man, Julian. He studied me for an awkward moment, and then started laughing. I looked at Matt, confused, but he shrugged. He exclaimed something about Matt being like him now. Matt said nobody could be like him. He suddenly grabbed me for a bear hug, and I squeaked in surprise.
I pushed away from him semi violently. He apologized, telling me he didn’t mean to scare me, and calling me Victoria. Matt corrected him, sounding out each syllable in my name. Julian called him a smartass, and I stifled a giggle.
We went to check into a hotel, his friend following us. I wasn’t sure where I fit in here, where I was in the equation. I stayed by Matt, but kept out of range of Julian’s strange behavior. That was why when Matt told me I should do some sightseeing, I was more than ready to go.
He tried to give me a send-off, but I interrupted him, listing the usual things. He raised an eyebrow at me, and I wondered if I should have interrupted. I stuttered out a reply, “Thanks for teaching me the rules?” it was to butter him up, and he knew it. The corners of his lips turned up ever so slightly. He reminded me of the time and the place as I tried to leave and then released me.
Feeling excitement from such a vibrant city, I wondered around. I saw the famous landmarks, including but not limited to a giant rubber band ball and the county’s tallest building. I browsed the shops, looking at the trinkets and knick-knacks.
Little things kept reminding me of my brother. Memories flooded back at every opportunity, tearing down the wall of things I couldn’t remember. The painted turtle reminded me of my stuffed one. The Hawaiian flower reminded me of the days we would pretend we were on vacation there. We would have fake parties and do the limbo, wearing flip flops and silly leis. The smell of gingerbread made me think of our gingerbread house. The frosting wasn’t sticking, so we just glued it together. Why was I just remembering him now? I hadn’t known about him for years, and suddenly he decides to pop up in my memories. I felt an odd sensation build in my stomach.
Shrugging it off, I continued my pursuit for landmarks. When it came close to time to meet Matt, I walked to the tavern. We ate dinner there while I told him about all of the cool things I saw today.
We headed back to our hotel, and got ready to go to bed. After I took a shower, I went out to the balcony conjoining our rooms.
Matt called to me from inside, saying Julian was going to come with us for two days. I made a face at him. He was too… everything to me. Too much was going on with that man. He told me to be nice, that he was a really good guy.
When I gave him a doubtful look, he said, “You have to learn to be open-minded with people. If you start disliking him just because he’s different, you become the same as everyone who shunned you because you were different.”
I was startled by the comment. I thought back to all the painful nights those people caused me. No, I was nothing like them. I told that to Matt, whispering. I was furious he would suggest the idea, but finding truth in the general statement. My face grew hot with embarrassment.
I looked to my fuzzy slippers, examining them as best I could, just so I wouldn’t have to look at him. He sighed, and closed his book.
“I know you’re not, Veronica,” he commented softly, “And that’s why I’m telling you this. I don’t want anyone to think you are like that, because you aren’t.”
Feeling awkward and uncomfortable, I went back out to the balcony. The night air was cool, and the white noise of the city served as a constant backdrop. It was loud when compared to the forest, and not nearly as beautiful. Still, it was calm out here. I thought to myself that I should give this Julian a chance. Matt held him in high regard, something that is no easy feat.
I trotted back in, and asked Matt if Julian was going to hug me again. It was a legitimate question, but it was mostly just to lighten the mood. He told me he didn’t know, but to bear with him. He said Julian grows on you. I rolled my eyes, but decided I would give him the chance he deserved.
As I began to grow tired, I worried about my sleep. But I had slept this morning to only have dreams full of my brother. Maybe they were over and I was just rediscovering my family through dreams. Reassured, I dismissed the worries from my mind. The only thing that remained was the odd sensation, one that had increased since this morning. It wasn’t fear or worry, but this mix of feelings I couldn’t understand.
Brushing it off as something I ate, I bid Matt goodnight. He joked with me about bed bugs, and I called him a snot.
I hopped into the plushy bed, tucking Ozzie inside the blanket. I rested my weary head on the pillow, and drifted off into dreamland. If only I had known the true nightmares waiting for me.
I’m with my brother again, this time lying on a hill as the sun set. I am both the younger version of myself and another being entirely. I can feel and hear what she sees, but I can pull back and see from above as well.
It had been the most wonderful day, as he had taken me out to explore and have a picnic. As he read to me from my favorite book, I snuggled into his shoulder, wrapping my little arms around his neck.
He sighed, saying, “I think it’s time to go back vee-bee.”
I pouted, and he raised an eyebrow at me. Reaching out in a flash, he lifted me up high.
“What’s that? Oh, no! I thought I heard the tickle monster! He’s coming!”
He rolled to the ground, pinning me under him. He tickled me, and I flailed, trying to get him to get off. I was laughing so hard I almost cried. Suddenly he stopped.
“Shhh. I think he left.” He cupped a hand around his ear. “No, he’s back!”
He tickled me again. He lifted me into a piggy back ride. He listened to me chatter happily, a smile on his face. He carried me to our house, a small little bungalow on the edge of town. We entered, and he dropped me off on the couch with a slight Thump! Giggling, I pulled him onto the couch as well.
“I got some hot dogs at the store today,” he said, smirking when I gasped, “Tonight, we shall have a feast fit for kings!”
He entered the kitchen, and I played with the stuffed bear he had given me as a birthday present for turning 6. I was seven now, and proud of it. The bear was a pretty ballerina, pink tutu and bows on her ears. I had named her Stephanie. My brother came back from the kitchen, a peculiar look on his face.
“Veronica,” he said, spacey and bizarre.
“W-what?” I asked, stuttering.
His behavior was unlike him indeed, and I felt confused. He crouched in front of me, his eyes serious.
“You know how sometimes bad things happen and we have to leave the house for a while?”
I nodded. We left sometimes, went out and slept in the park. He told me we were going on an adventure.
“Is daddy being mean again?” I asked quietly.
Sometimes daddy came home and was mean to mommy.
He paused, and said, “Yeah. He isn’t in a very good mood. Look, I need to talk to him really quick. Will you go get ready? Get your blanket and pillow. Don’t forget anything. I’ll be out soon, okay?”
I was worried about him because sometimes he would talk to daddy and come back hurt. With a gentle push, I scurried to my room. I gathered all of the things I needed, making sure Stephanie was with me.
As I came back downstairs, I heard my brother arguing with daddy. Peeking in carefully, I spotted him standing there. His fists were balled up, his face alight with anger. He was scaring me now.
Frightened, I called, “Big brother? What’s wrong? Why do you look so mad? Is something wrong?”
He looked to me, interrupted. His eyes grew worried and sad, and he flickered between daddy and me. Shooting daddy a glare, he came over to me.
“No, Vee-bee, everything is fine. We just had a little fight, that’s all. You ready?”
I nodded. Daddy was sitting at the table, but I only saw his legs. We hurried out of the house, my brother almost carrying me. He held my hand to comfort me, but his face was set in a determined look. It was quiet, and then the silence was shattered.
There, was a scream behind us, bloodcurdling and loud. My brother looked back, and quickly bent down to my level.
“Listen very carefully, Veronica,” he said, gently shaking me, “You need to stay right here okay? No matter what you hear, or see, stay in this very spot. I mean it. I need to go get some people to help me with something. I’ll be back soon. All right?”
I told him okay, and he pulled me into a bone crushing hug, giving me a kiss on the forehead. He stood up, and started running towards town. I waited, scared and alone. After a few minutes, he appeared again, alone. Where were the people? He ran inside the house.
I was terrified, and I decided to go to him. He had said to stay in this spot, but he had come back. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him, and so I followed him into the house, running as fast as I could. I went upstairs, figuring that was where he would go. I heard a noise in mommy and daddy’s bedroom. Thinking it was my brother, I opened the door.
Daddy was standing above mommy, a knife in hand. She was lying on the floor, not moving. She was bleeding, the liquid seeping into her pretty white dress. I fell to the ground, my knees giving out on me.
“Daddy? What happened to mommy? Why do you have a knife?”
He looked up at me with a wicked smile.
”Your mommy was bad,” he said, his voice dark. “She didn’t listen to daddy when he told her to shut up.”
He stepped towards me, over mommy’s body. I was paralyzed, fear filling my body. Something was telling me I should be scared. I remembered my brother telling me to leave the house if daddy was being mean. Mommy wasn’t looking at me, and I was scared daddy had hurt her. Suddenly unfreezing, I ran out of the room.
Where was my brother? He knew how to make daddy stop being mean. He always saved me from him. Now he was behind me, almost stepping my on heels.
“Veronica, why are you running? Come play with me.” Closer now.
“Don’t you want to play with your precious daddy? That’s not very nice. You’re hurting my feelings.”
His voice was not normal, slurred and demonic. My lungs were burning now, and I had slick shoes. I must have stepped in the blood upstairs. Why was she bleeding so much? I tried to run around the corner, slamming into the wall. Pain exploded in my shoulder, and I heard a resounding snap. I whimpered. It hurts so much I start to cry.
Daddy comes up to me and grabs my hair, yanking on it. I cry out, feeling some strands come out.
“Daddy, stop!” I choke out, “Please, daddy! Did I do something wrong? I’m sorry!”
He is suddenly angry, a vicious snarl on his face.
“How many goddamn times have your mom and I told you not to run in the house? Now daddy’s going to have to punish you for not listening, just like your mother.”
He smells like that funny stuff he drinks, beer. He raises the bloody knife, and brings it down. I close my eyes, waiting for the pain, but it doesn’t come.
I look up to see my brother there in front of me. He is holding daddy’s arm, his knuckles turning white.
“You bastard,” he gritted out, “Would you really stoop so low?”
He spoke to me. “Why are you here, Veronica? I told you to stay outside!”
He sounds angry too, but not like daddy.
“I…” I stumbled. “I’m sorry. I just saw you come in, and it was dark, and I was alone. I was scared!” I cried to him, the tears increasing in my eyes.
“Whatever. Just get away from here! This time I really mean it! Run as fast as you can to the town. Tell the sheriff that daddy hurt mommy really bad. Don’t stop for anything.”
He was locked on to daddy’s arm, who was surveying the situation with amusement.
“She isn’t going anywhere. Veronica, don’t listen to your brother. Stay here.”
I looked back and forth between them, trusting my brother but not wanting to leave.
“But…” I said to my brother, hesitating.
He snapped at me, “Just go! Get the hell out of here before I make you!”
He was shouting at me, and it made me jump. He had never yelled at me before, and especially not with those words. I backed away with salty fluid streaming down my face, running to the exit of my house.
I bolted down to the town, the darkness disorienting me. I found the Sherriff’s house, knocking on the door frantically. My shoulder ached, as I pounded on the door. He answered, rubbing his eyes sleepily.
“Help!” I cried, “Daddy hurt mommy really bad, and now he is fighting with my brother. Please!”
He recognized me after a moment, and talked on his radio. Scared for my brother, I left the sheriff despite his calls to me. I galloped across the town, my legs shaking from the exertion. I almost ran into our door.
Prying it open, I could see my brother in the kitchen still, panting. He was covered in cuts, a long gash down his side. His green shirt was torn and stained with blood. Why was daddy hurting him? He didn’t do anything wrong. Thinking desperately of a way to help him out, I looked for something like what daddy was using. Maybe if my brother had a weapon he could make daddy not be so mean.
I spotted a pocket knife sitting on the table, and picked it up. Running back to the kitchen, I saw them engaged in a battle, my brother getting a cut on his cheek. My brother kicked daddy in the shin, shoving him away.
“Hey big brother!” I shouted. “Use this!”
I threw it to him, and he barely managed to catch it, giving me an incredulous look. Suddenly his face became furious.
“Why are you back?” he raised his voice in frustration. “
The sheriff people said they were on the way!”
He looked relieved for a moment, until daddy stirred from the ground. Suddenly he looked very scared, and shoved me away from the kitchen. As he got up, my brother opened the pocket knife, the blade gleaming. Darting around daddy, he kicked his leg out from under him, despite daddy being taller. He stabbed him in the face with the knife, injuring his eye and leaving a long wound.
He fell to the floor, screaming in agony. I was frozen, shocked by the blood and violence. There was so much blood everywhere, my vision began to tint the color. My brother looked at daddy, now motionless. He went to check on him, and I wondered what he was going to do.
“Why did he hurt you? And mommy? Is she okay? Are you okay?” I blurted out, a stream of questions coming to mind. “Did you hurt daddy like he hurt mommy?”
He staggered over to me, his legs unsteady. He dropped next to me, telling me to look at him.
“I know this is scary Veronica, but-“
He was cut off, and I looked behind him only to see the knife stuck into his back. My dad stood behind him, smirking and bloody. The gash across his eye was gruesome, and it caused me to feel nauseous. Watching my brother fall, he saw our dad there.
Frantically turning to me, he said, “Run! Run away from him, Veronica! Go find the police again!"
As my dad began to step towards me, I sprang away from him. I tried to make it to the front door, but he was too close to it. It would have meant running right by him. I hopped the stairs two at a time, seeking refuge anywhere. I found my brothers room at the end of the hall, busting in through the door.
My father was coming up the stairs, limping along them loudly. Frantically searching for a place to hide, I started to panic. Surely he would find me in a closet. Looking down, I remembered that my brother’s room had loose floorboards. He would hide stuff under there he didn’t want daddy to see. Scratching at the boards with my hands, I tugged on them. I managed to get a few fingers under the board, and I jerked on it. The board rose, catching my finger with it, and snapping off the nail. As I heard him reach the top of the stairs, I shambled in, landing hard.
I replaced the board with as much precision as I could with my now bloody and shaky hand.
“Come on, Veronica.” He called in a sinister voice, “Come on out.”
He walked into their bedroom, pacing around.
“What happened with your brother was just an act.”His voice was fainter now. “He’s fine. Now stop being silly.”
His footsteps were heavy, his voice pained. I knew enough to know this hadn’t been an act.
I heard from my room, “It’s okay. Mommy is here too. She will be sad if you don’t come out. Would you want to her to be sad?”
He walked through the hallway, dragging against the wall. I saw his feet when he walked into my brother’s room. I didn’t dare to breathe.
“We are throwing you a party! We all spent a lot of time on it. Is all that effort going to go to waste?”
He came to the closet door, smiling maniacally.
“Surprise!” he screamed, flinging open the closet door so hard it smashed into the wall.
Frowning, he thought for a moment. He stopped right above me. My heart was beating so hard I could only hear the rush of blood in my ears. He’s going to find me, I thought. My heart was beating too loud, leaping out of my chest. I was crouching on my legs, and they were going numb, thousands of pins and needles stabbing me.
The knife leaked blood onto the boards, and I barely suppressed a shriek when one of the drops landed on my upturned face. He froze as if he had heard a noise, and I was sure he knew I was below him. Then I heard it too.
Sirens were blaring down the road. Help was here, I thought with relief. We were saved. He cursed, speeding across the room. I heard a window open, and then he was gone.
I pulled the board away and hauled myself out, breathing again. My brother! I rushed down the stairs, almost tripping. He was there, lying on the floor. Gasping in pain, he looked over to me.
“The police are coming, big brother! Daddy left! We’re going to be okay!”
I rushed to his side. He smiled, placing his hand on my cheek.
“That’s great vee-bee.”
He spasmed in pain, his back arching.
After a few pants, he gritted out, “Vee-bee, I’m not going to make it. And I am so, so sorry.”
I looked to his stomach, where a stain had formed. Blood was coming out of everywhere. I never knew someone had so much blood.
Panicked, I asked, “What are you talking about? The medicine people are going to come save you. You’re going to be fine.”
My voice broke, and warmth coursed down my face. He gave me a smile, the beautiful smile I loved.
“No, vee, I’m not. But you are, and that’s all that really matters.”
He was so cold, and I held his hand in mine to warm him up.
“What are you saying?” I asked, my agony growing.
My brother couldn’t die. He was the only person I had.
“Who’s supposed to take me to picnics? Tell me stories? Sing lullabies to me? Who’s going to stop the tickle monster?”
My heart was breaking, the sensation of being ripped apart visiting me. My chest hurt, and I whimpered in torment. The suffering was unbearable, to see him laying here with a knife in his stomach.
“I’m going to pull it out. Then you’ll be fine.”
He caught my hand weakly, shaking his head.
“Listen,” he choked, “I don’t have much time.”
He gestured for me to get closer. He pressed his forehead against mine, looking me in the eyes.
“I love you vee-bee, and I always have. Don’t ever forget how much I love you. You are the most important person to me in the universe. Do great things with your life, don’t ever settle for anything.”
My tears were dripping to the floor now, right beside his face. I told him I loved him too.
“Don’t cry,” he said softly, “This isn’t the end.”
He was fading, I could tell, but I wouldn’t accept it. He gave me a kiss on the forehead, smudging it with blood.
“Will you sing for me, vee-bee?”
Forcing back the tears, I began to sing our lullaby. I wasn’t very good at it, but my brother sat back in my arms like it was the best thing ever. He closed his eyes, listening. His head lolled back, and I stopped singing.
“Big brother?” I asked, “Big brother!”
I shook him. When he didn’t respond, I shook him again.
“Wake up!” I screamed, “Wake up, big brother! Don’t think this is funny! This isn’t a game!”
He wasn’t responding. My sorrowful keening filled the room, and I wept for him. My heart had been cut up, a chunk leaving with him.
I cried for my mother. I remembered the nights I would sit with her before bed, watching soap operas. She had a fondness for white sundresses, and she smelled like fresh linen.
Looking back at my brother, he was too peaceful to be alive. I longed for him to wake up and tell me it was a sham. I needed to hear his voice, listen to his joyous laughter. I wanted to see his eyes, ride on his shoulders.
Cradling his head in my lap, I stroked his hair. I sang to him again, the same one he sang to me when I couldn’t sleep. Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry, go to sleep my little baby. When you wake, you shall have, all the pretty little horsies. My song was broken, and like shattered glass cut me. Every word was an acceptance of his death, and yet I didn’t know what else to do.
When the police men busted down the door a while later, I was still singing to him. They looked at each other, and searched the house. They exclaimed when they found my mother, and paramedics came in. a man called to me, asking my name. I didn’t respond, only singing a little louder. Paramedics tried to take him away, and I wasn’t going to let them. He was fine here, by me.
“Don’t you touch him!” I screamed at them, a wild animal.
They backed away, and waited for the officers. The sleepy-eyed sheriff came through the door, shocked at the scene.
“Veronica,” he called, “What happened?”
I ignored him, returning to stroking my brother’s hair. They told him they couldn’t get close. When he tried to approach me, I lashed out at him, kicking his leg. He stood back stunned, and gave some orders to a group of men. They came around me, circling cautiously like I was crazed.
Before I could react, they had my arms secured. The medics put my brother’s body on a stretcher, and I shrieked at them.
“Let him go! He doesn’t want to go with you! Let go of me!”
I broke free, running a few feet before being restrained.
“Don’t touch me! Stop! Stop!” I screamed after them.
“Veronica!” I heard a voice shout right inside my ear.
A vigorous shaking accompanied it. Still thinking of the dream, I flinched away. It was dark, and all I could see was my father, gripping a knife.
"Get your filthy hands off of me, you scum!” I screamed.
The wonder of the voice pulled me back, grabbing my face in his hands.
“Look! It’s me!, it’s Matt. Shh, it’s me, it’s me.”
My vision cleared, and I saw his face. It was Matt. It had all been a dream, and I was here in the hotel room. But it had been no ordinary dream, because it had happened in the past. I suddenly felt a longing well up inside me, erupting. I was so scared, and my heart hurt so much.
Without thinking, I flung myself at Matt, wrapping my arms around his torso with force.
“Oh, Matt,” I cried in distress, “Matt. Why?”
I said his name over and over again, burying my face in the crook of his neck. He seemed unsure what to do, but eventually wrapped his arms around my body.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, “Did you have another nightmare?”
I withdrew my hands from his sides, now resting them against his chest. I clenched his shirt in my fingers, nodding helplessly.
“Oh, baby girl,” He sighed sadly, adding in a sudden endearment that only made me cry harder.
He tried to pull me back to look at him, but I held fast. I could feel my heart tearing in two, the gaping hole that had been torn reopening. I was bleeding on the inside, and it was critical. My father had killed my mother and my brother. My brother would have been fine if it wasn’t for me. I interrupted his check to see if our dad was dead. He would still be alive today if I hadn’t opened my mouth.
“It’s just a dream,” Matt said, “You’re okay now. I’m here, you’re here, and we are safe and sound.”
I clenched my knuckles so hard they turned white, shaking my head.
“No its not, Matt. It wasn’t a dream. I’m here now, but it was all very real."
He didn’t say anything else, and waited for me to release my death grip. I mourned my brother a second time, bawling into Matt’s shirt, soaking it so that it stuck to his skin. When I slightly released my hold, he pulled back to look at me.
"What happened?” he asked, looking at me with strength and determination.
I crumpled, telling him of the past. I told him everything, wailing when I spoke about my brother. I told him every excruciatingly painful detail, and he seemed stunned. But throughout all of this, he held me steadfast, never letting go. I looked up at the end, to something truly astonishing.It was dark and hard to see, but we were in the light of the moon.
Streaming down Matt’s face were tears. I had never seen him cry before, and yet here he was weeping with me. He pulled me close, tucking my head under his chin.
“I’m so sorry.” He said, over and over again. “I’m so sorry Veronica, I am so very sorry.”
I pulled away slightly, confused.
“Why?” I asked, uncomprehending.
“I would never want to wish that on anyone, much less you. I am sorry such a horrible thing happened to you. My poor, poor girl.”
I leaned into him again, a new batch of tears flowing. I was shaking, writhing in pain as I cried. It was heart wrenching to feel the emotions a second time, and I wished I would die. At least then I would be freed from this terrible agony.
I cried for hours, sinking into Matt’s arms. He soothed me as best he could, stroking my hair and rubbing my back. Feeling guilty, I told Matt how I had caused my brother’s death.
“It’s all my fault,” I said brokenly, “If I hadn’t stopped him from checking he was dead, my brother would still be alive. I caused my brother to die.”
I pulled away from him, feeling I didn’t deserve someone like him .if I couldn’t even keep my brother alive, then I shouldn’t get close to Matt.
“That isn’t true and you know it.” Matt said, his stern voice behind me.
“It is! You better not try to protect me from someone, Matt, because you’ll die too.”
He set his jaw, looking strict.
“That’s ridiculous. You weren’t the cause of his death, and you won’t be the cause of mine! Your father killed him. Nobody could have known that it was harmful to not look.”
He had crossed his arms. I backed away, frustrated and feeling unworthy.
“I killed him,” I said quietly.
Matt hesitated for a moment, and then strode towards me, getting close. I backed up until I hit the wall, where he leaned over me.
“Now you listen here Veronica,” he said crossly, “You did not kill him. Your father killed him with a knife. It was not your fault in any way. If anything, you helped your brother by giving him a pocket knife to hurt him with at all. You are in no way guilty of anything except being a caring sister. Don’t you ever say something like that again.”
I looked away, entirely uncertain.
“Look at me,” he said, much more gentle.
When I didn’t, he softly placed his fingers under my chin.
“I know it’s hard not to blame yourself. Trust me, I do. But I can tell you that you did nothing wrong. Look me in the eye and tell me you really believe it’s all your fault.”
I looked to him, ready to say it again, but my voice faltered. I did believe I had distracted him, but it wasn’t necessarily true that it was the reason for his death. I looked away again, giving him the answer he needed.
He held my face in his hands, brushing back the sticky strands of hair away from my face. Softly, I wrapped my arms around his neck, gently snuggling back into his neck. There were no more tears, no more cries, no more voice breaks. I was all dried up, and I had only the empty shell left by the events.There was only a small part of me left, one that I shared with Matt.
It was tiny, an insignificant speck, but it was there. It glowed warmly like an ember in my soul, struggling to get noticed. It was vibrant for such a small speck, and full of life. It was the only happiness I had left in my heart, but it was stubborn. It hung on with amazing strength, even when the flood flushed out every other part of me. My sorrow was an immense sea, the despair overwhelming. Still, it kept glowing in that sea, holding on like Matt was holding on to me.
He led me over to my bed, still damp with my sweat, the blankets thrown off. He sat me down, but I caught his hand.
“Could…” I said, stuttering, “Could you please stay with me tonight?”
He smiled, but it was sad.
“Of course. I wouldn't dream of leaving.”
I tried to give him a smile too, but it was more like a grimace.
He stretched out on the bed, leaning against the headboard. I was lying with my head pressed to his shoulder, my legs bent the other way. He had tucked me under his arm, so that I was comfortable.
"What’s the date?” I asked suddenly curious.
He thought back, scrunching his nose.
“August 22nd, I believe.”
That made sense, for that was the day it had happened, something told me. 10 years ago to this day, I had lost everything, and life was just letting me know. We lay silent.
“How come I can’t remember my brother’s name?” I asked, quietly.
Matt said, “Maybe you haven’t remembered everything yet.”
When I stirred nervously, he added, “I think you’ve remembered the actual event, but names are tricky. I’m sure in time you’ll remember his name. It sounds like you both loved each other a lot.”
I nodded, thinking of his smile. I could remember everything about him now.
Days of fun in the sun, laughter, singing in the rain. I remembered how he would always forget to wear a hat, and so he would get sun burnt or rained on. I remembered other times, times we had to leave for a while. We would play in the park at night. He would push me on the swings, play tag in the fields, and gaze up at the stars. I didn’t like the dark, but he always had a way of keeping my mind off of it. He would tickle me when I pouted, sing me to sleep when I had nightmares, and read books to me. We used to lay in meadows and read entire chapters. He would let me interrupt to ask what a word meant, and he would tell me, helping come up with a way to remember what it meant. He made me dinner when mom wasn’t home, always made sure I wore a jacket, and checked if I brushed my teeth every night. He was with me all the time.
He had friends, and they would come by and ask him if wanted to go out. He just shrugged, saying he had plans but thanks.
I told him he didn’t have to be with me all the time, but he just smiled and said, “I know. But why would I go out with them when I could hang out with my favorite sister?”
I smiled, telling him I was his only sister.
“So you think,” he commented mysteriously.
He laughed and gave me a hug.
Yes, I loved him very much. Hopefully I would remember his name, for I felt like something was missing without it. I vowed to myself that I would never again forget him, keeping every memory safe and secure.
I grew sleepy, finally relaxed. I was scared to fall back asleep, but Matt was warm and strong.
“I’m so tired, Matt, “I said.
His head was rested upon mine, and it was soothing when he started to sing. He hummed a song in a low tone, and I snuggled a little bit deeper into his shoulder. It wasn’t until I was too far gone that I realized he was singing my brother and I’s lullaby.
Unsure of what to think about that, I felt myself fall into my dreams again. This time, they were sweet dreams about my brother, and one dream about Matt.
For the first time in days, I slept like a baby.

Highway Chapter 17

I woke up to her screaming. The loudest, most savage and terrified screech I had ever heard came from Veronica’s room. I rushed to her door, figuring the worst. Had someone come in while I was sleeping? But I was such a light sleeper.
“Veronica!” I yelled through the door, knocking rapidly.
She didn’t answer. I tried the handle but the door was jammed. Stepping back, I ran into it with my shoulder, busting it wide open. I searched the room for the reason for her distress. But nobody was there. Veronica was still in bed, but just barely.
She was thrashing around violently, throwing off her blankets. Her hair was slicked against her head, as well as her clothes. She had the most pained expression I had ever seen on her face as she writhed in bed. Was she having another nightmare? This was nothing like the other night. She was screaming words now.
“Don’t you touch him! Get away! Stop!” She screamed.
Deeply concerned, I rushed over to her. Shaking her, I called out her name. She wasn’t responding, still trapped inside a monstrous nightmare.
“Veronica!” I yelled.
She was struggling, and so I put her face in my hands, leaning close enough to her ear she could hear me even through sleep.
I shook her shoulder again. She bolted upright, flinching away from me. She shrieked at me not to touch her. What had she been dreaming about? Gently putting me hands on either side of her face, I pulled her close to me. She struggled to get away, but I kept her close.
“It’s me! Look!” I hushed her, telling her it was just me several times.
She stopped, clearing her vision. Suddenly, she lurched into me, encircling her arms around my waist with an iron grip. She cried my name, burying her face into my chest.
I asked her if she had another nightmare, despite knowing the answer. She withdrew her hands, nodding weakly.
“Oh, baby girl.” I sighed.
Here was the girl I had been with for a week, the toughest girl around, crying desperately. It broke my heart. She had told me no nicknames, but she was my baby girl. She had become so important to me in such a small amount of time. Yet here she was, hurting. And I couldn’t do anything about it. I tried to get a look at her, but she wouldn’t budge.
“It’s just a dream,” I soothed, hoping to make her see she was safe.
She told me it wasn’t. Confused, I just held her and waited. I could feel the wetness of her tears drench my shirt, but it didn’t really matter. I would be here for her any way I could.
When she lessened her hold on me, I pulled her back to look her in the eye.
“What happened?” I asked, determined to be strong for her.
This was when my life changed. She told me about her family, the ones she didn’t remember. She spoke of her brother, and I wondered why she was crying with such a happy tale. But then she spoke of her father and mother, and one fateful night. She said it all, her voice distorted and broken.
She was shattered, and I didn’t know how to pick up the pieces. I was stunned into silence, shocked by her tale. I had seen a lot of violence in my time, but I have never heard of something so graphic and traumatizing.
I was angry, for no person deserved that, especially not her. But seeing her now, splintered and empty, it tore up my heart. I felt a part of myself explode with pain, correlating directly to hers. She was my baby, but she was crushed, and I didn’t think I could help her this time. Her sorrow became my sorrow, her melancholy affecting us both. My vision began to blur, and I realized I was crying.
I hadn’t cried since I found the path, for there wasn’t anything to be truly sad about. But something about Veronica had changed me, and she had claimed a part of my heart as her own. She looked up at me, surprised I was weeping too. We could both feel the salty warmth come down our faces, and it connected us.
I pulled her close once more, apologizing over and over again. She asked me why, and I told her she didn’t deserve it. I had known life to be very cruel, but never like this. She cried for hours, clenching and unclenching my shirt. I rubbed her back and ran my fingers through her hair. This was the only thing I could do for her, and so I would.
She made some remark about being the cause of her brother’s death. Incredulous and bewildered, I told her that wasn’t true. She came back at me, biting out that it was, and that I shouldn’t try to protect her or I would be next. What had gotten into her? She was making ridiculous statements. She was blaming herself because she didn’t know what else to do, but it was not correct in any sense. She said it again, quietly.
Thinking this was getting out of hand, I marched towards her. She backed away until she ran into the wall, and I leaned over her. She had just experienced a violent dream so I was worried she was scared, but she trusted me enough to know I wasn’t going to harm her. J
ust like the first day we met, I made direct and up close eye contact with her. Summoning all of the sternness I could muster, I told her she was in no way responsible for his death, and to never say such a horrible thing again. Chastised, she looked away.
“Look at me,” I requested softly.
She didn’t, so I hooked my fingers under her chin and gently turned her face towards me. I asked if she really truly believed she killed him. She looked as if she were about to agree, and then faltered as our eyes met again. She turned away, and I knew she didn’t really believe it. She just had nobody else to blame but herself.
I swept back the sweaty hair from her face. She leaned in again, and wrapped her arms around my neck. It wasn’t in fear or sadness, merely because she wanted to. I led her to bed, thinking it beneficial for her to lie down. As I turned to get her blankets, she caught my hand.
She asked me if I could stay with her tonight, stuttering. My heart beat painfully, and I told her that I would. I had no intention of leaving her, perhaps not another night ever again, but especially not on this one. I would be here until she decided to leave.
I carefully positioned myself against the headboard, trying not to jostle Veronica. She laid her head against my shoulder, and I tucked her under my arm. I placed my head on top of hers, listening to her breaths get progressively calmer.
She asked me the date, and I replied. She told me it had happened ten years go to this day, and I held her just a little tighter. She asked me why she couldn’t remember her brother’s name. I didn’t know, but usually repressed memories came back in time. I told her I was sure she would remember in eventually, because it seemed they both loved each other very much. She nodded.
She told me she was scared to sleep, and so I started to hum a lullaby. Realizing a bit too late it was the one she had been singing the night of her nightmare, I expected the worst. But no outburst came, no tears were shed.
After a while, she began to grow limp. I was worried about her dreams, but her eyelids simply fluttered and closed peacefully. If she did have a nightmare, I would be there to wake her up before it even got remotely serious.
Expecting Julian to be late, I guessed we could lie like this until about eight. That would give Veronica four hours of sleep, and anybody could tell she needed it.
I looked at her and I was sad, for I could only think of her leaving me when she awakened. It wouldn’t be out of spite, but drifters just didn’t generally stay close to anyone. I would wish her happy travels with a smile on my face, but I would always remember and have a place for her in my heart.
For now though, she was here. She was with me in the moment, and that was all that needed to be focused on. I would help her while I could, and enjoy her company as much as possible. With that thought in mind and a sleeping girl tucked under my arm, I let myself drift asleep.
I woke up when the sun rose, but didn’t stir. Veronica lay peacefully. She had somehow ended up snuggled on my lower thigh, her sleeping form stretched out. Her feet were hanging off of the bed, and I repressed a laugh.
The sun streaming through the windows cast a soft glow on her form, her messy hair creating a halo around her face. Even with mildly puffy eyes and exhaustion written on her face, she was still achingly beautiful to me. She was sleeping soundly now, even looking peaceful. Perhaps she was done with the nightmares now that she had remembered. I hoped with all my might that this was the truth.
The city’s roar served as background noise, but I could mostly hear the birds chirping outside the window. Oftentimes we would flock to nature and animals, and they would do the same to us. There is no greater gift in life than connecting to nature all around you. It is what makes us whole.
To my surprise, right around 7, Veronica stirred. I froze, concerned I had awoken her. She shifted, and then opened her eyes sleepily.
“Matt?” she asked, blearily looking around.
She seemed to take a moment to remember what happened last night. Her cheeks flushed, her face turning red. Why was she embarrassed?
“Did I? Did I fall asleep on you and stay that way all night?” she asked awkwardly.
She thought that I was going to treat her differently because of last night.
“Yeah,” I replied, “But I slept on you all night too.”
She looked really uncomfortable now, for she had never expressed such emotion to anyone before. She had faced serious repercussions for displays of far less.
“Veronica,” I said, “Nothing is different, okay? Stop looking like you did something mortifying.”
She seemed unsure, so I decided I would just have to show her throughout the day. I stretched, and told Veronica we should get ready.
“Julian is always late. If there’s a time for something, he’s going to be late. I would expect him to come by around 8:30. He’s one of my best friends, but sometimes that man is just so irritating.”
She stifled a laugh, and it was good to see she still could smile. When I looked at her eyes, they were infinitely sadder, and it sent a pang through my heart. But somehow, she still managed to smile. I marveled at her strength, especially for one who didn’t know what to do with her emotions.
Packing our stuff, we lazed around on the balcony. I made a coffee run, and we were drinking it while we felt the cool breeze blow through our hair.
The city was already bustling, but it was generally quiet, for a lot of the inhabitants were still sleeping. Veronica and I were passing the time by telling each other silly jokes. Soon, our laughter filled the little balcony. Veronica seemed to pep up a little bit now that she had caffeine and stupid puns in her system.
Around eight, we shuffled down to the entrance, waiting for Julian.
Veronica said, “He’s really strange, but you seem to like him a lot. I’ll see if he ‘grows’ on me, like you said.”
She smiled slightly, and I laughed.
“That’s Julian, alright.” I chuckled, “Like a parasite. He just kind of latches on.”
I pantomimed a parasite latching onto my arm. Veronica hid her laugh, and I heard a throat clear behind me. There was Julian, tapping his foot as if he were irritated.
“You don’t scare me anymore, Julian,” I said, “The only thing you’d do is push me in a river again. And if you haven’t noticed, I’m a lot taller than I used to be.”
He scoffed, asking me if I thought him incapable.
“I did it. If I can, he can.” Came Veronica’s voice from behind.
They snickered together as she recounted the story. They were both rascals, and I had only noticed that it was going to be a problem. Absolutely wonderful. This was going to be a long few days. After waiting for the two sudden companions to quiet down, we left town.
Veronica seemed happy to be on the road again, despite her probable dislike of walking so much. She was unusually quiet. I assumed it was partly due to the fact Julian was there, and partly because she was tired. I also think she was still waiting for some sign I treated her differently. Hopefully she would understand in time that it only made her more real to me.
“Hey, Matt,” she called, asking me what some flowers were.
“Matt?” Julian asked from behind, confused.
I forgot about the name. Realizing he hadn’t seen me since I was younger, I explained to him that Veronica gave me a name because I didn’t really have one. I gave her another strange look, one that told her my name didn’t matter that much. Interesting enough, I thought of myself as a Matt now. I didn’t originally care about my name, but now it felt like a part of me.
“I would have gone insane if the whole time I knew him I just called him things like hey you. Or person. Or perhaps really weird blonde guy.”
I gasped in mock sadness, saying, “Ouch. Low blow.”
Julian surveyed us a moment, then said, “I would have just called him snotball. Or delinquent kid.”
Veronica smiled, and I gave him a light punch in the arm.
“I think I like you, kid,” he said.
Veronica’s face darkened slightly, because she hated nicknames.
“Just a fair warning, Julian. I wouldn’t give Veronica a nickname. She’ll make you regret it.”
She looked at me as if I was dirtying her reputation, but hid a smile. We walked on, Veronica thinking Julian’s antics to be normal. She was right, but it meant she didn’t laugh at him as much.It had only been us out on the road before, so introducing a new person into the mix was a little strange for her. She walked on my side, close enough she turned when we did but not close enough to be touching.
We stopped to fill our water bottles, and I looked over my shoulder to make sure I wouldn’t end up wet again. Please don’t dump her in a river, I thought. If Julian did something stupid because it was funny, Veronica would be mad at him. If she was mad at him she wouldn’t want to hear what he was saying, the whole point in him coming along. Fortunately, we continued without an incident.
We talked about the natural world as always, with Julian imputing things. When we reached our camp, the sun was going down.
“Veronica, would you make the fire?” I asked her when Julian was getting more water.
“By myself?” she asked, doubtful, “What if I mess up?”
I smiled at her reassuringly before saying, “You’ll do fine. You’ve done it the past few nights, and you can do it now. I promise.”
She was nervous because Julian was here. She kneeled by the tinder, hesitantly holding the flint and steel. Taking a deep breath, she struck down perfectly, causing a shower of embers that caught fire immediately. She bent down and blew gently on them, kindling it. It caught fire with the rest of the material, and she had created a glowing circle of warmth. Julian applauded, complementing her.
“You already know how to light a fire? Your friend over there took nearly two weeks to light a fire, and he was mediocre at best.”
She looked at me expectantly, and then started laughing, falling back on the ground and rolling.
“Hey!” I said, offended, “It was windy all the time! Two weeks isn’t that long of a time.”
He scoffed, but flung his arm around me and pulled me into a friendly hug. Meanwhile, Veronica was still laughing. I cleared my throat, and she stopped, sitting up and wiping her eyes.
“Sorry, sorry,” she apologized, still smiling, “It’s just funny to think of you not knowing anything.”
They continued to talk about my earlier years, much to my dismay. But still, she was getting along with him, even if it was at my expense. Julian was a silly guy, but he knew a lot about the world. He’d been a drifter since he was a teenager, and had taught my teacher. We sat by the campfire and told stories.
We laid out our sleeping bags, with me in the middle and Veronica and Julian on either side of me. Veronica didn’t take out Ozzie, something not entirely unexpected.
The firewood pile was running low, so I volunteered to gather wood. I hoped Julian could use my absence to his advantage, and teach her something she wouldn’t be comfortable learning with me there. I also hoped that something was something beneficial, like connecting to people, and not something like how to hijack a car.
While I was searching the ground, I reflected on last night. She had been very vague about her father’s disappearance, probably because she didn’t know. It troubled me, for I had not read any stories in the newspaper about such a tragic story. I always picked up a copy in town, to keep up on the world news.
This meant that in all likelihood, he was still alive and out in the world. The thought made me nauseous, and I had to take a few breaths to settle my stomach. Hopefully he was far away in a distant continent, or perhaps not even alive still. I wondered if Veronica had contemplated the idea. I wished she hadn’t and never would, for it would only cause her distress.
I headed back to the campsite with a bundle of wood. I entered the clearing, surprised to see Julian alone. Panic seized my heart for a moment. I had become hyper aware for her safety.
“Where’s Veronica?” I asked my voice low.
Julian looked at me, saying, “Calm yourself. She’s up on that hill over there.”
I looked and saw her dark figure, arms wrapped around her legs.
“Did something happen to you guys last night?” Julian asked as he tended to the fire.
“What do you mean?” I asked nonchalantly.
“Don’t play games with me, kid.” He responded, looking up from the fire. “You know what I mean. Something is not the same here. You both look at each other differently than you did yesterday. Especially her.”
He gestured his head towards Veronica. Sighing, I realized that this man was going to be the death of me. He knew me better than any other living person on the planet, and that meant he knew when I had something on my mind.
“Why is she over there? Did you say something to upset her? Julian, the purpose of you coming was to teach her something, not bother her!”
He looked at me sharply, and shook his head.
“Don’t you yell at me,” he scowled, “I did teach her something. It just might not have been what she wanted to hear. Either way, don’t act like you know everything in life. You may not be the same kid as when I first met you, but experience counts for more than you think. And my experience tells me that she has changed since yesterday. I’ll be damned if that girl doesn’t love you. And whatever happened last night was the shifting point in your relationship.”
I looked away, wondering if this was true. I know I cared for her immensely, but did she feel the same? The way she had looked at me last night made me think that she did. But he said he had taught her something. Did he tell her that she loved me? And she didn’t want to hear it?
“Julian, do you realize what you could’ve done? Veronica is not a very trusting person, understandably. She has up barriers to everyone. You can’t just break down walls like that right away! I just got her to open up to me, to let down the walls a little, and now you tell her she loves me? Do you understand what kind of a shock that is? If I’m lucky she just won’t want to talk about it. If I’m not, she’ll just shut down on me completely.”
Realizing my anger was getting the best of me, I pinched my nose in between my fingers, breathing in and out in slow, deep breaths.
“She needed to hear it. Now that she knows, she can think about it. It’s something you have to do with new drifters. I did it with you. Remember when I told you what you didn’t want to hear?”
I nodded. I was acting tough, pretending I was better than everyone else. He pulled me aside late one evening, and told me I needed to wisen up. He said that the world wasn’t fair, and that I would never get anywhere by pretending I was tough. I wouldn’t get anything, except maybe a beating by a group of people I thought I could handle.
It made me so mad, I remember, but it was true. I had been beaten up before I had met him, underestimating my opponents. I would normally have just brushed it off as another stupid old man, but his abruptness and brutal honesty caught my attention. I was still as headstrong, but I thought about my actions more.
“Why do you have this annoying habit of being right all the time? You’re impossible. I guess I should go talk to her.”
He gave me a thumbs up, and I slowly ascended the hill.
Veronica was sitting there, her head rested on her folded arms.
“Hey,” I called softly.
Her eyes flickered over to me, and then returned to their original position.
“Hi,” she responded.
“Is this seat taken?” I asked, gesturing to a grassy spot next to her.
“Not that I know of,” She answered.
I sat down, thinking about what I should say.
“Listen,” I began, but she cut me off.
“You know,” she started, “I don’t quite understand how life works anymore. It was always complicated, but the past few days have been crazy. Isn’t it strange, the things that happen? I guess you could say fate has a sense of humor.”
She was still looking straight ahead.
“Yeah,” I replied, “You could. Life isn’t something that can be figured out exactly, just something that can be researched and that one can come to a better understanding with.”
She agreed, and resumed her silence. Just as I was about to speak again, she shuffled.
“Did you ever have a teacher, Matt?” she asked, “Something akin to our arrangement?”
She was avoiding eye contact, and partially withdrawing. It bothered me she had used the word arrangement, and not something like our relationship, or friendship. I knew her better than most, but this was still a very slippery slope.
I didn’t have the best past in the world, what I cared to remember. I also didn’t feel excited to explain my teacher. Still, she had shown me something very personal last night. There was no doubt she felt like her world was spiraling out of control, confused about her feelings and worried that she had lost a major barrier. I sighed.
I was going to have to tell her, because that way she would know about me like I knew about her. We had to even the scales, or she would balance them herself by withdrawing completely.
“Yes, I did.” I responded, settling in for the questions.
She looked at me, mildly surprised.
“What was he or she like? How did you meet? Do you still see them like Julian? Was it Julian? If you don’t mind me asking.” She asked, adding in the question with embarrassment.
I chuckled at her enthusiasm, and thought about Julian being my teacher.
“No, it wasn’t Julian. I would have killed him. Or we would kill each other. He’s just a friend of my teacher.”
She was attentive now, and I knew this was the time to get her to trust me. I was going to have to be honest, and tell her about my past.
“The first thing you have to understand Veronica, is that I wasn’t the best person when I was young. I’ve learned so much since then, but that’s how I started.”
She nodded, completely polite and on her best behavior. Taking a deep breath, I continued.
“My parents died when I was about your age, in a car crash. I didn’t have anyone to really take care of me, except my aunt. We didn’t get along very well, and I moved out as soon as I turned eighteen. I wanted to have control over something, so I got into things like drugs and alcohol. I hung out with the wrong crowd, and I did some bad things. I don’t remember everything, but I remember one night. I broke into a store, just because I needed something to do. I took too long, and got caught by the police. I was charged with attempted robbery. It was the first crime I had actually gone through with, and so they went easy on me. After I spent a few weeks in a rehabilitation center, they let me go. You see, I was angry all the time. I couldn’t understand why, but I was. It consumed me, and made me do things I regretted. I got into fights with people on the streets, trying to take out my anger on someone. Eventually, I left town because so many people were mad at me. I had just turned nineteen. I was on the road for weeks, wandering, confused and angry."
I paused, taking in a breath before continuing.
"One night, I was got in a fight with a man from a town I was visiting. I had clearly underestimated him, and wasn’t doing so well. I was in trouble, for the man was older than me, and he was very angry. Right in the middle of the fight, right before I was smacked around, a stranger intervened. He called to the man, drawing away his attention. I was sure the stranger was about to get beaten to a pulp, but he talked the other man down. It wasn’t until he walked into a nearby streetlight that I saw what he really looked like. He was as tall as Julian and I, but he had bigger muscles than me. He had dark hair, longer in the back than the front. He was dark skinned, but it was more like a serious tan. He was bigger than the man who was fighting with me, and it was easier to talk him down because he was obviously stronger. After he left, the stranger asked me if I was okay. I was mad he had interrupted my fight, despite me losing, and I cursed him out. It was strange, because he just rolled his eyes and picked me up from the ground, lifting me by my shirt. He told me that I should get my wounds attended to, but I shrugged him off. At this point I was frustrated, and I looked for something to calm myself down. I liked to smoke back then, and he offered me a cigarette. He told me about the path, although a bit more forcefully than I did with you. I remember thinking he was crazy, and almost beating him up. He was stronger though, so I just listened. Thinking I had nothing better to do, I decided to follow him. The stranger eventually became my teacher. My life was a mess, and he was the one to pick it up. Julian was his best friend, and so I spent a lot of time with him. He was the only one that could keep me in line, and I respected him for that. It made me mad, but it was also a nice change. He was special, and I needed someone who was different. As for seeing him still… he isn’t with us anymore.”
Veronica was listening with intense focus, sitting in front me on her folded legs.
She said, “I’m sorry, Matt.”
I knew she was talking about my past and the fact that he was gone. It surprised me she didn’t ask how he died, but I realized she was respecting my privacy like I did with hers. It was a sweet gesture, one that showed respect for my feelings.
I looked over to where Julian was, conveniently “sleeping.” I couldn’t tell if he was, but I doubted it. Thanks Julian, I thought to myself. Still, Veronica was listening intently, and she wasn’t withdrawn.
Figuring I should tell her the whole story no matter how unpleasant, I asked, “Do you want to know how he died?”
She jumped, startled by such a question.
“Um,” she stalled for time, “only if you feel comfortable talking about it. Don’t feel any pressure.”
She bit her lip, a quirk I was associating with her nervousness. I gave her a soft smile, ruffling her hair much to her displeasure. I began to tell the story, her lying on her stomach with her arms crossed on my legs, looking up at me. Funny how she thought I would want comfort. How could she tell it was sad? I guess I wasn’t the only one who knew who.
“It was the best time of my life since my parents died. My teacher, Johnny, had really changed me. I wasn’t as angry anymore, I stopped smoking, and I learned to finally follow through with things. He was the ultimate positive influence, gentle when needed, but also very strong and strict. He knew how to stop me when I was angry, and he could back up any threats he made. Still, he understood I needed help, and taught me more things than I can count. Then, a month before I awakened, there was a terrible night.”
As I explained, I began to flashback, remembering the events through dusty memories that hadn’t been touched in years.
I had been pissed about something. It had to do with a boy stealing my radio in town. I was infuriated, for Johnny had given it to me as a present, and now it was gone. I was generally good with my anger now, but something on this particular night made me livid. I marched into town where the little rascal was, and I beat him to a pulp.
I felt bad afterwards, even offering to take care of his wounds and made sure he got home safe. My teacher had instilled the feelings of guilt, and it was now affecting me. He took off, and I went back to camp. When I came back, my teacher knew something was wrong. When he extracted a reluctant answer to his questions, he merely sighed, admonishing me for fighting. It had been a while since my last fight, and it was uncharacteristic for me now.
We talked for a bit, and then stopped to settle for the night. What I didn’t know however, was that the boy I had beat up was in a gang of bandits. Unfortunately, he had gone back and complained to his friends about me. So right before we went to sleep, they came rolling by in a group of 6 people. They were after me, and tried to poke a fight. My teacher tried to be reasonable, and made me apologize to them as well as apologizing himself. For some reason though, they didn’t like us.
Maybe it was because we were drifters, or because I had beat up their friend. Whatever it was, it made them closed to all negotiations. They wanted me, but not alive. I had messed with some pretty violent bandits. They tried beating me up, but I incapacitated one of them. Johnny intervened, of course, because he cared about my general well being. He wasn’t generally the most violent guy, but he did what was necessary. I was street smart and so was he, and we took out 4 other guys. We didn’t kill them, we wouldn’t ever, but we knocked them out. But as I was finishing my fight with my last guy, I heard a gunshot. I turned around as fast as I could, only to see the last man go down. I wondered where the shot had come from.
My teacher suddenly dropped to the ground. He had been shot in the chest, but he was still alive. I rushed over to him, trying to assess the damage, but it was already too late. The bullet had severed an artery, and he was bleeding out fast. He was dying. I tried to drag him to town, to get help from the doctor, but he was too heavy and I wasn’t strong enough. He stopped me halfway there as I collapsed.
“Listen,” he said, barely breathing, “You’re a good boy. You act tough and are too headstrong, but you are a good person .You’ll be a fine drifter one day. Don’t go off the path. I promise you’ll have a fulfilling life. I’ve put too much effort into you for you to fail now. Don't get into fights, or at least ones you can’t handle. I can’t be here to save you anymore. I’m sorry. I should have stopped you. Either way, you’re alive. I’ve had a good life, and it’s time for me to go now. Find Julian. He’ll teach you everything else you need to know. I’m happy I got to know you, and it’s been one of the happiest experiences of my life, teaching you. Now be a good boy and get away to get some sleep. How do you expect to travel in the morning if you don’t sleep?” he ruffled my hair in a fatherly fashion, and then went limp.
“I hadn’t lost anyone so close to me since my parents died. Julian found me the next day, sleeping next to him. We dug a grave together, and buried him in the soil that he loved so much. Julian took me under his wing after that, and I awakened a month later, on my 20th birthday.”
I finished. I looked to Veronica, only to see her crying. I didn’t mean to make her cry. I lifted her face, wiping away her tears.
“Don’t cry,” I said, concerned, “It’s okay. It was a long time ago.”
She shook her head.
“I’m sorry, Matt,” she murmured, “It’s just so sad. I’m sorry it happened to you.”
She wrapped her arms around my neck, squeezing me tight. I hugged her back, burying my face in her strawberry hair. After a moment, I pulled back.
“The lesson for you in this story is that you can’t blame yourself.” I said, referring to her perceived guilt. “It was me who attracted the bandits, but I wasn’t solely responsible for my teacher’s death. He didn’t blame me, nor did anyone else.”
I brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes.
“I had a hard time dealing with that guilt,” I continued, “For a long time. Even after I was awakened, I still felt bad. But I learned to forgive myself, and to understand it wasn’t all my fault. Julian helped me a little bit, forcing me to ‘get over myself’ as he put it. The point is that I know it’s hard not to blame yourself, but you need to. I guarantee nobody would hold it against you now. Do you understand?”
She nodded, still misty eyed. She gave me a sad smile, and I gave her one in return. She seemed so attentive and involved now, and I hoped it meant she wasn’t going to withdraw from her sudden feelings. Now that we knew about each other, it leveled the playing field.
“Come on,” I said nodding to the camp, “It’s getting late, and we both need some sleep.”
She agreed, and we headed down the hill, Veronica’s shoulder brushing against mine. Julian appeared to actually be asleep now, and so we settled in quietly. She poked Ozzie’s head out of her backpack and made him wave, attempting to make me smile. I muffled a snicker so I didn’t wake up Julian. She was already making me smile.
We watched the stars from our sleeping bags, and waited for sleep. When I looked over at Veronica, she was dreaming peacefully. Smiling to myself, I thought about how lucky I was. I had wonderful traveling companions, and my best friends sleeping at my sides.
For all I knew, the future could be terrible. I could be alone. I could feel lonely. I could even not make it. But right now, none of that mattered. Right now, I was just going to love my life.
I looked to the stars, admiring their beauty, and felt a warm feeling spread throughout my body. It was the feeling of complete and utter peace.

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Highway Chapter 18

I awoke to the soft rays of the sun enveloping me in warmth. I was so comfortable, and I was lying on a squishy pillow. Sighing to myself, I realized I would have to get up, for Matt would wake me soon.
I sat up, rubbing my eyes. Strangely, the sight of Matt filled them.
“Matt?” I asked, wondering why he was here.
I had flashbacks to last night, and I remembered. Looking down, I realized what I had thought to be a pillow was actually his leg. I flushed, suddenly embarrassed. I knew I fell asleep on him, but I didn’t think I was on his leg.
I asked him if I had been on that all night, and he said yes. I chastised myself for doing something so stupid. I had been upset, and with good reason. That warranted seeking comfort, but it didn’t warrant sleeping on a person the whole night. Or crying my eyes out for hours as I explained every detail.
I had been exploited for telling someone I tripped, or for crying because I didn’t get what I wanted. The kids called me a crybaby and spread rumors throughout the school. I eventually learned not to cry at all, for it only caused me trouble. Had I caused him embarrassment? Had I just messed up a relationship? He didn’t seem upset, but he was good at masking his emotions.
He told me that nothing had changed, and to stop acting like I had done something mortifying. I was still unsure, because displays of emotions have always caused me trouble. Never once have they produced something good.
I looked at my watch, and was surprised to see it said seven. Why were we sleeping in? He told me Julian was always late, calling him irritating. I hid a smile. Maybe Matt really was fine with last night.
I prepared myself for the worst. I didn’t know what I would do without him. He was the only thing I had left now, everything else being carved out of my soul. If I were to lose him, I could just say there wouldn’t be anything else for me to care about. I felt very empty, an odd numb sensation crawling over my body.
But Matt was here now, and his presence filled the void at least a little. Hoping to see if he was really uncaring about my actions last night, I joined him on our little balcony. He went to get coffee for us, which was bliss for me because I was so tired. I had slept very well the hours I had gotten, but I hadn’t slept many. There was quality, but not enough quantity.
We sat together, telling each other silly jokes.
“Did you hear about the cross eyed teacher who lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils?” Matt said.
I laughed. We kept going, becoming more energized as the coffee worked its magic. I told Matt I would give Julian a chance, to see if he would grow on me. He made a motion of Julian attaching to his arm like a parasite.
A throat cleared behind us, and I looked to see Julian tapping his foot. Matt said he wasn’t scared of him, because he couldn’t throw him into the river. I said that if I could, he could. Julian smirked as I retold the story.
We headed out to the road, and I relished the quiet and atmosphere of nature. It had only been a day, but I still felt more confined in a hotel than out in the open. It was quiet between the men, and I didn’t mind. I didn’t know what to say with Julian around, because I didn’t want him to think anything strange about me. Only Matt could sing with me on the road, and only Matt would know I liked stuffed animals.
I wished I could talk to him privately, to try and get a feel of his view of me after last night. I asked him what some flowers were, and Julian voiced confusion from behind.
Matt explained I had given him a name, the whole time giving me the look that it didn’t matter that much. Yep, he was still a snot. I explained I would have gone insane if I hadn’t given him one. Julian commented that he would have called him snotball. I smiled, thinking I should have given him a sillier name just to spite him. He called me kid, much to my discontent. I hated nicknames so much. The only one who could get away with a nickname was my brother. And maybe sometimes Matt. But hardly ever.
Matt warned him, saying I would make him regret it. He was sullying my reputation! I gave him a glare, but my lips still twitched into a smile. We continued on, me keeping a healthy distance from possible hug attacks. When we stopped for water, Matt looked over his shoulder. I snickered, knowing he was worried one of us would shove him in the river. I thought about it, but he hadn’t done anything to cause retaliation.
When we reached camp, Matt suggested I start the fire. I was hesitant, for I didn’t want Julian to think me incapable of simple task, and worried I would mess up. But Matt gave me a reassuring smile, encouraging me to do it. I took the tools with hesitation. Managing to strike the flint at a correct angle, I showered sparks on the tinder. Gently blowing on the embers, I watched as they caught the wood on fire. I heard Julian clap from behind me, and he complemented me on my achievement.
He told me Matt couldn’t do it for two weeks. He attempted to defend himself, saying it was windy. For some reason I found this to be hilarious. The Matt I knew understood everything, and yet I was hearing he hadn’t built a fire for two weeks. I started rolling on the ground, my sides hurting from the laughter. He cleared his throat, giving me a wry look. I apologized, but I wasn’t really serious.
Julian told me about Matt when he was young. The time he got attacked by raccoons for bothering them, and the time he accidently dropped his some of his clothes into the river, washing them away. It made me feel better about my mistakes, and I smiled as I heard them.
We sat around the campfire, telling stories. Matt left to get firewood, and an awkward silence overcame the camp. I felt as if I should say something, but I didn’t know what it would have been.
“Hey, kid,” he said, turning towards me. I made a face at his nickname. “Please don’t call me kid, okay? My name is Veronica.”
I tried to be polite, but I didn’t want a pattern to form.
“Whatever,” he said, “Either way, I wanted to talk to you about something.”
I was confused, but nodded my head.
“You’ve known the kid for six days, right?”
I nodded again, wondering what the relevance of the question was.
“You seem to be pretty close to him too, wouldn’t you say?”
I shrugged, but agreed that I did care about him.
“So?” I asked, irritated he was drawing out his point.
“So,” he said, “Don’t you think about how much you care about him?”
I paused, wondering I if did think about it. I supposed I did, but mostly because he was so different.
“What I’m trying to tell you is that you care about him more than a friend.”
I drew back, suddenly startled by the implication of me liking Matt a different way.
“Not like that,” he exclaimed, irritated, “I mean you care more than you would care about a friend.”
I sat back, confused.
“What do you mean? He’s my friend, someone who is different. I care about him, but I don't get what you’re saying.”
He sighed, looking away.
“I’m saying that you love him, you dolt.”
I drew back.
“What the hell are you talking about? I don’t love anybody. Look, I don’t know you, and you obviously don’t know me. If you did, you would understand that I don’t love anyone. Including Matt. I just care as a friend.”
He stood up, and sat next to me.
“I mean no offense when I say this, Veronica” he said, using my name, “But I know more about what I’m talking about than you do. And I know, with confidence, that you love him. I may not know you that well, but I know what love looks like, and you have it.”
My head was reeling. Did I love Matt? Sure, he was special to me, but did I love him? He had always been there for me, especially last night. He was the first person to treat me as if I was special, and I had grown attached fast. But even so, didn’t that mean I was just fast friends with him?
The only person I can recall loving was my brother. My mother wasn’t around enough as far as I remembered, but he always was. I remembered that warm feeling I felt with him. Did I feel that way with Matt? I certainly felt something. I was so confused. My head swam, and I couldn’t think straight.
“I don’t,” I started, “I don’t think so. Loving someone is a big thing. I care, but I don’t think I love him.”
I grew angry, my voice biting. He didn’t understand me. He was assuming he knew how I felt, even though he hadn’t known me long. But even so, I was feeling uncertain. If I loved him, what did that mean? Loving someone involved putting your life in their hands. It meant putting all of your trust into someone, and hoping it worked out. Loving someone meant you were so emotionally invested in them; they had a part of you. If something happened to that part, it was forever lost. Loving someone meant that you were entirely open and bare to this person.
Ever since my brother died, I have never let myself be vulnerable to anyone. If I did discover I loved him, it would mean that the power levels would fluctuate. If it were to be compared to scales, I would be high in the air. My barriers were the only things I had, and he had already broken down some of them. If I loved him it would mean they would be gone entirely.
I got up, saying something about clearing my head.
“Veronica,” he called, as I was about to leave, “I’ve been with the kid for years, and I know him better than anyone on this planet. So when I say this, I know it’s true. He loves you too. I just wanted to let you know.”
A lump was forming in my throat. He did? It was all so staggering. I hadn’t cared about anyone until I met him, and I could believe Julian’s statement could be true. But I didn’t know how to deal with this. I didn’t remember what happened when I first loved my brother for it had been so close to my birth, so I didn’t understand how the relationship worked. Do I tell him? Does he tell me? I frantically walked up a nearby hill, hoping the distance from them would help me understand.
The night air was cool, blowing through my hair gently. The woods below were alive with life, the animals and insects settling down for the night. The stars shone brightly, and I lay on my back, staring at them. I traced them with my fingers, drawing the shapes and recounting the stories. The stories that Matt had told me. Everything I did seemed to be involved with him.
Sighing, I ran my hands through my messy hair. I was sure he would come up soon to talk to me, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I didn’t want anyone to have the effect over me that my brother did, but I didn’t want to shun away Matt like I did with others. In truth, it was probably too late to repel that influence, and had been from day one. And with the way he had held me last night, crying for me, it was even more impossible to ignore the obvious thought laid out in front of me.
Thanks, Julian, I thought angrily. You just ruined my carefree journey. I decided I would wait until Matt came up to talk to me, and hear what he had to say. I almost wished he would just scold me for being mean to Julian, and avoid the topic altogether. If Julian told me, would he tell Matt? I didn’t doubt it.
Sure enough, he emerged from the trees, looking around. He engaged in conversation with Julian for a moment. I sat up, crossing my arms over my knees and laying on them. I could feel him look at me, then back at Julian. After another talk, he started to walk up the hill, looking slightly irritated.
“Hey,” he called.
“Hi,” I responded.
I was going to say as little as possible. He was going to have to break down this last barrier, and I was going to give him a fight. If he made it, it meant he really cared. He asked me if the seat next to me was taken, and I said no. I told him that life was crazy, and that it didn’t make sense. He agreed.
After a pause, I presented a question. Did he have a teacher? Someone that was like he was to me? I wanted to know if it was normal. Was I strange for caring so much about Matt?
To my surprise, he said he did. He had never spoken about him before, and I wondered why. I asked him about his teacher. What was he like? How did they meet? I had the thought that perhaps it was Julian. As I asked, I realized that I was prying.
He had never put his nose where it hadn’t belonged, and I worried I had. He laughed at the idea of Julian as his teacher, saying they would kill each other.
Soon, though, he had delved into his past, telling me the story. He warned me that he hadn't been the best guy in the world, and I listened attentively. I didn’t imagine him being in any sort of trouble so it was interesting to listen. He told me of his past, and how his parents died. It struck a chord with me, for it was something we shared. I didn’t actually know what happened to my father, but I tried not to think about it. He told me how they met, and how he wasn’t alive anymore.
I apologized, feeling his loss. I didn’t ask him how he died because I didn’t want to push him. He respected my privacy, so I would respect his. He had gained my attention now, despite my attempts to stay partially withdrawn. He asked me if I wanted to know about his death, and I jumped. I told him he could if he wanted, but that he didn’t have to. I was worried I had forced him into a situation where he felt he had to tell me.
My nervousness must have shown, for he smiled softly at me. Catching me off guard, he ruffled my hair affectionately, only to receive grumbles. I wondered why I let him get away with things like that. He looked unsure and sad. This was not a good story. Thinking of the time I had leaned on my brother’s knee when he was upset, I moved to do the same to Matt, showing him I was ready to listen. The only example of how to show I cared was with my brother, so I would do some similar things.
As he told the story of his teacher, I felt my heart begin to ache. I could see the story as if I was there, imagining a younger Matt leaning over his teacher. There were startling similarities between our stories. As I listened, I could see the pain in his eyes. They looked as if it was raining inside, a flash flood of emotion. Without understanding why, I began to cry. As he had done for me last night, I cried for him.
Why does life cause such cruel things to happen? Why is it that just when we’ve gotten back on our feet, when we finally feel safe, it washes it all away? When he finished, he was surprised to see me crying. He told me that it was okay, that it had happened a long time ago. I gave him a hug anyway, holding him tight. He buried his face in my hair, hugging me back.
After a moment he pulled away. He told me the point of the story was to not blame yourself. He had brought on the bandits, but it wasn’t all his fault. I was still feeling guilty about my brother, but I understood what he was saying. I gave him a small smile, hoping to reassure him I was okay. He gave me one back, before commenting that we should get some sleep.
Julian was asleep, and so I decided to do something silly. Trying to make Matt laugh, I stuck out Ozzie’s head. I made the little octopus wave to him, and he suppressed a chuckle. It was good to see him laugh again, and I was reassured that he was okay. We said our goodnights, settling in. As we snuggled into our respective bags, I thought about love.
I didn’t know if I could love someone again, if it was even possible. Still, I thought to myself, if I was going to love someone it should be him. He never pushed on my barriers, but they just seemed to melt away. I had felt something the first day we met in that bar, and it had only grown since then.
It seemed absurd to love someone in less than a week, but we were unusual people. We didn’t fit the status quo, and that was okay with us. He had already claimed a piece of my heart, the glowing embers. He had made it through today, and had made me feel like I had more control. We knew about each other’s past now, and I felt more balanced on the scale. I figured if I had to love anyone in this world, I couldn’t have picked a better person than Matt.
As I felt my eyes grow heavy, my subconscious promised sweet dreams tonight. My brother and Matt had taken up residence in my dreams now, driving away every shadow. They filled my dreams with light, blazing with brilliance. And just like a fire, the sparks I felt for Matt grew. He had blown on them gently tonight, and they were spreading. They had caught fire on the material around them, and had created a small fire. It burned inside of my heart, warm and bright.
Soon I drifted off to sleep, listening to the fire crackle.
Matt woke me with the sun like he usually did. I battered at him ineffectually, but got up, stretching. He attempted to nudge Julian awake with his boot as I ate a granola bar, but he wouldn’t move. I wondered if I was about to see someone else get dowsed with water.
Suddenly Julian’s hand shot out, grabbing Matt’s ankle and making him fall right on his butt. I burst out laughing, watching him get up with an incredulous look on his face.
We set off on the road, laughing as Matt grumbled. When we stopped for water I pulled Julian aside.
“I just wanted to say that you were right. Don’t ever tell him I said this, but I do love him. Just saying.”
He laughed, throwing his arms around me in another unexpected hug.
“Dude!” I exclaimed, irritated, “Stop hugging me! Haven’t you ever heard of personal space?”
Matt chuckled from behind us, saying, “He hasn’t. Julian would know personal space if it smacked him in the head. But you could try hitting him anyway.”
I pried myself away, laughing at his comment. Julian sulked in the corner, before deciding to give Matt a punch in the arm.
Now pouting, he said, “Why does everyone hurt me all of the time? I don’t see you guys hitting each other.”
We chuckled, and continued walking. This was nice. I had two friends with me, one who I loved and one I respected in at least a tiny way. Despite being a ridiculous guy, Julian was pretty insightful, and I was grateful for him showing me how much I cared about Matt.
We bid our farewells just outside of the town, and I let him hug me one last time, even putting an uncomfortable arm around him.
“Don’t get into trouble now, okay? Don’t let him boss you around. He’s just a wuss. Someone needs to insult him while I’m not around or he will get confident. So tease him a bit.” He said to me.
I gave him a smile and nodded.
“You’ve found someone very special to love, kid. Take care of him, and let him take care of you.”
I gave him a pat on the shoulder, saying, “I know. And I will. Thanks again.”
He went over to Matt and said his goodbyes. Who knew when we would see him again? There was a lot of road in the world. We waved as he left, calling out to be safe.
As we walked into town to look for a motel, I looked up at the sky. Dark clouds were rolling in, ominous and filled with malevolent intentions.
“Those don’t look so good,” I commented to Matt, and he looked up.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “We’ll be inside before anything happens. It’s going to be a lot of rain it looks like, but it shouldn’t last more than a few hours. Do storms bother you?”
I turned away, suddenly feeling childish.
“Well, I’m not too fond of lightning.”
He said, “I’m not too fond of thunder. It doesn’t make me jump, but it isn’t my favorite type of weather.”
We walked on, and I felt a little bit reassured. About the weather, of course, but that it seemed like Matt really didn’t care if I was scared of anything. I could be who I wanted to be with him, and it made me happier than I could ever describe.
We headed back out to town from the motel, Matt speaking with the locals. After he was done, we hung around. We browsed the town for a while, but scurried for cover when it began to rain. We took refuge in our rooms, watching television and talking about animals.
The past few days had been idyllic, and it made me wonder how my life went from sucking to being full of joy. I was watching an old western again, using Matt as a pillow. At first, I had worried it would have been awkward, but he acted like nothing was out of the ordinary. Matt was telling me how close he thought I was to awakening, that it would be anytime within the next few weeks. I wasn’t really listening, focused on the movie. As it ended, the hero ran off into the sunlight, leaving behind a forlorn lover.
“Hey,” I called, suddenly thinking. “What are we going to do when I awaken? Are we just going to keep going to towns? Maybe I can help you with what you do!”
Matt was silent, and I twisted to look at him.
“Matt?” I asked, wondering what was wrong.
“I…” he trailed off, suddenly quiet.
I looked at him with a frown, concerned and confused.
“I didn’t think you would stay after you had your awakening.” He finally said.
I sat back, bewildered.
“What do you mean? Where else would I go?”
He was scaring me now, and I wondered if his feelings had been true after all.
“I told you already. Drifters don’t stay together. Once you’ve found the way, you go off to find others. Once you awaken it makes more sense.” He tried, attempting to soothe me.
“What is wrong with you? Don’t act like you understand! I thought maybe you did after last night, but it’s clear to me now that you don’t.”
He looked stunned, trying to figure out his course of action.
“If you didn’t want me to be with you, just say so! Don’t blame it on the path. I don’t need you to take pity on me. God knows I’ve had enough of that already.”
I was on my feet now, infuriated. How could he act like this now? Was it something I did? I had thought I loved him, and that he loved me. Had Julian been wrong? He hadn’t seen him in a long time. How could I have been so stupid? I let my feelings get in the way of seeing things. This was just an arrangement. Matt didn’t want to babysit me forever, only until he had seen me safely to the other side. It was his job. I was just another part of his job.
He leaped to defend himself, saying, “It’s not like you can’t come with me! I just didn’t think you would want to! I only said it because nobody has ever stayed before. I’m not trying to shove you away! Don’t think I wanted to get rid of you! I’ve never met a pair of drifters before. It’s not that normal, that's all.”
His words fell on deaf ears. I was livid, but I was also despairing. The little fire in my heart was going out, for it didn’t have any more fuel.
“You don’t want me around, okay? Look, I get it. You’re older, I’m a teenager. We’re too different. Don’t pretend for my sake!”
He tried to say my name, but I interrupted him.
“Stop it! You could at least have the decency to admit it!”
I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, my tone becoming progressively more bitter and cold.
“Look, calm down! I don’t know what happened in the past ten minutes with you, but this isn’t getting us anywhere.”
Damn those eyes of his and that calming voice.
“You can’t just expect me to be happy about everything, Matt! Don’t tell me to calm down when you were the one who caused it. First you don’t even want to stay, and then you can’t admit it to me! I was going to tell you I loved you tonight! What was I thinking?”
He stood shocked for a moment, and his eyes softened.
“Oh, Veronica,” he said, reaching for me.
I thought it a sign of pity, and I was through with that. All of my life I have been looked down on, pitied and seen with disdain. No, I thought to myself, I would never let someone do that to me again.
“Don’t you touch me!” I growled at him, springing away from his stretched out arm.
A flash of lighting came through the windows, illuminating our faces. I flinched, the blinding light startling me. I had never done well with thunder storms. I couldn’t stay here anymore, for I could already feel the tears cascade down my cheeks. Life had once again destroyed the only things I loved. Or perhaps it was all me?
Before he could protest, I ran through the door. I didn’t know where I was going; only that it couldn’t be here. I didn’t want to hear his sugary sweet words convince me that it was okay for me to leave. If I couldn’t hear them then I couldn’t be swayed by them.
The storms intensity was picking up. The wind whipped around, blowing in the rest of the clouds. It was raining, but it wasn’t especially heavy. Matt was coming down the stairs as I busted through the door, much to the shock of the employees at the front desk.
“Veronica, wait!” he called, “Let’s work this out! I’m sorry if I was insensitive! Please come back!”
I ran as fast as I could, my legs burning and threatening to buckle under me. If I could lose him, he wouldn’t be able to sense me. I rounded every corner I could, once slipping down an alley. I saw him run by across the street, and sank down once he left.
I felt bad, because he had seemed so frantic. But I didn’t want to go back now. I didn’t want to hear those heart breaking words come out of his mouth again. What little was left of my heart thumped painfully against my chest, and my lungs ached with every breath I drew. Didn’t he love me? I could have sworn he did after last night. He had cried for me the morning of the nightmare. Shouldn’t that mean he cared? I was so confused. Why did life send me such an amazing, blissful experience, only to tear it down viscously?
I didn’t want him to leave. But he never said he would, I thought. Another thought sounded, opposite of the first. He said that it wasn’t normal to be together. That he had never seen any pairs before. The first one again. But he said it’s not like I couldn’t go. He wanted to apologize, he's looking for me. The battle raged inside my head, thoughts switching back and forth between positive and negative. I could hear him calling my name faintly, looking far off.
I didn’t know what to do. He had always been able to fix every problem I had, taken on every challenge. It seemed so uncharacteristic for him to leave me if I wanted him. He had seemed so concerned at the hotel, and now he was chasing after me in the rain.
The storm was getting worse by the minute, the rain coming down more heavily now. The lightning scared me, and I just wanted to lie in our hotel room and watch stupid movies. I wanted to tell stupid jokes to Matt, to sing, to dance, to laugh. I wanted nothing more than to be in his arms again, hearing him comfort me. Even if it was a lie, it was what I wanted. Still, I didn’t believe he would lie to me now.
Julian couldn’t have been wrong. We didn’t have to be normal. We were never normal, right from the start. We could challenge the status quo. We hadn’t had problems doing it before. I got up, peeking around the alley for Matt.
“Hey there,” I heard a voice call from behind me.
I whirled around, seeking the voice’s owner. It was hard to see in the gloom, but it appeared there were about 4 guys standing there. Oh, no, I thought to myself. These men couldn’t have been good guys. Nobody normal wandered around in the rain at night, especially not in groups. Where had Matt gone? I couldn’t hear him now, and I feared the worst.
A flash illuminated the alley, allowing me to survey the situation. There were four, and they were big. Not so much the same kind of strong as Matt, but more the strong that’s all power but no staying strength. Still, there was no way I could take on all four of them if they decided to make a move.
“Hi,” I said cautiously.
Maybe I could back away slowly. I didn’t want to make them mad yet, for it would only make my situation dire. Every moment I spent here could be a moment Matt came back. At the same time, every moment could be drawing him away. This situation had the possibility to escalate to violence, and extremely quickly.
“Your hair is beautiful. Did anyone ever tell you that?”
Crap. These guys were definitely out to get only one thing. That was not a simple complement. I needed to get out of here, and fast. I took a step back out into the street, wondering if I should just bolt.
“Come on, where are you going sweetheart? We’re not gonna hurt you. We just want to talk.”
Yeah right. You wouldn’t talk if I gave you truth serum.
“Look, I really need to be somewhere. I have a friend waiting for me who wouldn’t be too happy if I was late.”
The one in front, ring leader it looked like, smiled again, taking another step towards me.
“You have a friend? Is that why you were curled up against a wall in the middle of a gigantic storm? If I didn’t know any better, I would say you’re just trying to get away from us. Right boys?”
They all jeered behind him. I was walking backwards steadily now, ready to sprint. Matt had to be around here somewhere right? Or perhaps I could find shelter in a building? They wouldn’t do anything with other people around.
But the alley I had chosen was awfully secluded, and the darkest place in the city. I cursed myself quietly. Of course, I had picked the most dangerous area possible for my hiding place. I wanted to scan for Matt, but I didn’t want to take my eyes away from the figures in front of me.
The ringleader was getting too close now, and I turned to get away. I was a fast runner, especially now that I was stronger from walking on the path. But I had waited too long, and he snatched out, grabbing my wrist.
“Not so fast, little bird. Don’t fly away.”
I gasped as he crushed my wrist in his hand, leaving bruises. But I was quick on my feet from so many years of torment at my school. Nobody had ever tried something like this, but there had been attempted pranks.
Whipping around as fast as the lightning around us, I threw out a foot, catching him in the groin. He dropped to the ground like a stone, and I took the chance to flee. I sprang away with excessive force, running like a wild boar. The others were chasing me now, and they were unexpectedly fast. They were taller, and so they took bounds where I took steps. Still, I managed to keep them off my tail.
I was searching frantically for any sign of Matt. Where was he? This town wasn’t that large. It wasn’t until it was too late that I realized they were herding me. I had thought myself clever and quick, evading them. But now as I saw the first man in sight again, I realized I had made a fatal error. As I slowed, one of them crashed into me, pinning me to the ground.
“Gotcha!” he whispered into my ear, his breath making my skin shiver with revulsion.
“Get off of me, you filthy pig!” I shouted.
I was done with this situation. If I didn’t get to Matt in the next minute or so, I didn’t even want to know what was going to happen.
“Matt!” I screamed, as loud as I could.
My voice was drowned out by the roaring wind and the clashes of thunder. I elbowed the man, catching him in the stomach. With my lungs free from weight, I tried again.
“MATT! Matt, where are you?”
I screeched over the howling of the storm, my voice carrying this time.
“Veronica?” I heard faintly.
“Matt! Help! I’m over here! There’s a bunch of guys!”
The man I had elbowed covered my mouth with his hand, pressing me against his body. I bit him savagely, and tasted metallic blood.
“Matt!” I yelled again, and then I saw him come into view.
Quite a ways away, he stood against the storm. It was difficult to see, but I could tell from his height it was him. Suddenly, I was hoisted up on the guys shoulder. I tried to wriggle free, slamming my fists into his back. He was running to a truck across the alley, cursing at me. I was thrown into it violently. I felt my head ram into the metal back. The truck was some sort of moving vehicle, for people’s furniture.
Despite being wobbly, I crawled my way to the entrance. Matt was close now, but was faced with two opponents. He looked to me frantically, and I tried to crawl out.
“Francis, Louie, take care of this punk. We got the girl. I’ll meet you back at base.”
And then, the door closed. I was left with the two men, both glaring down at me. The one I had bitten walked up to me, and before I could say anything, slapped me across my right cheek. It stung, the pain of the lash not expected. I didn’t cry despite the pain. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.
“Bet you’re not so tough now, are you?”
I lashed out at him with my foot, hoping to catch him off guard. The ringleader restrained me, slapping something cold onto my wrists. Metal handcuffs. The second guy tried to come near me, but was too scared to get into range. After seeing what I had done to the ringleader, he wasn’t eager to share the same fate.
The first man bent down over me, away from my feet. Carefully lifting my face, he examined the welt that was forming. He frowned, looking at the other man.
“You know the boss doesn’t like it when you hit their face. It ruins the appearance. It looks like she won’t have any major damage, but it will be swollen for a while. He won’t be happy.”
The man shrugged, giving me a glare that I returned. The ringleader turned my face to him.
“You’re a spunky one. That’s fun. But still, you’re a bit too wild. Don’t worry, we’ll fix that. In no time you’ll be just like everyone else.”
He expected some fear, maybe tears. I spit in his face. He jumped back, and I smirked. He drew a hand back, but paused. He pinched his nose.
“I can’t ruin your pretty face just yet. But fair warning, you better learn to knock it off. There are much worse people out there than me.”
I snarled at him, wild and aggressive. I wouldn’t show them I was scared, no matter how terrified I became. They stopped once more, after about 30 minutes of driving. The men got out, and didn’t return for about ten minutes. I used this time to try and find anything to escape with.
But all of the windows were boarded up, the metal solid, and nothing to attempt to pick the lock on the handcuffs with. Maybe I could leave a trail for Matt? The only things I had in my pockets were change. He would never see it in the dark. Looking at my undershirt, I realized it was neon green. Using a part of the handcuffs that had worn away and become sharp, I desperately tried to rip off a piece. Finally freeing it, I slid over to the opening of the truck.
I was terrified they were going to find me there, and take away my only means of a trail. I slipped it to the corner of the truck, leaning on my side. This way the cloth would fall out when they opened the door, and hopefully they wouldn’t spot it. As I hastened to get back to my spot, I barely made it. They came back just as I had leaned back against the wall.
They lifted another girl onto the truck. She was small, birdlike, and had black hair with startlingly blue eyes. I glanced over to where the piece of my shirt was, and was relieved to see it on the ground behind them. I would do this whenever I could. They shut the door again, moving to the front with the driver. I attempted to speak to the shaking girl, but she couldn’t understand me. It seemed she only spoke Chinese. I tried to speak with gestures, but it was too hard with my hands handcuffed behind my back.
We stopped two more times. Once for a bathroom break which I refused, and once because the girl had been pounding against the door until they handcuffed her like they did me. Each time I tore off a piece, and barely made it in time to lay back. If they caught on, they would take a different route. When we stopped a third time, they hauled us out.
There appeared to be a small camp of only a few guys, probably totaling 10 if you counted the two they left behind. We had arrived at a small building, an abandoned storage structure. Screaming and kicking, I was the difficult one to carry. The ringleader had thought it best to take me so I wasn’t hit again. He held my legs in an iron grip, and he pressed my face against his shoulder to muffle my shouts. He smelled of sweat and fish. The camp had gone relatively quiet now, and they were gathering around to see the new “guests.” This was sick.
They brought us to the front, dropping us to the ground none to gently. I immediately noticed the tall figure in front of us, as all eyes were on him.
“What did you bring to me today, boys?” he asked, and I felt the chills go down my spine.
I knew that voice, but I couldn’t figure out why. He turned, and my world suddenly froze.
“Well, well, well,” he said ominously, “If it isn’t Veronica. So nice to see you drop by.”
I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t hear, and my heart didn’t beat. For he was standing in front of me, alive and well.
There, smiling at me, disfigurement still running down his face, was my father.

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Highway Chapter 19

I woke up to the suns warming rays, stretching leisurely. I pulled myself out of my sleeping bag, padding over to Veronica. I shook her shoulder gently. She batted at me with displeasure, but awoke anyway.

As she ate breakfast, I tried to wake Julian. He wasn’t an early morning riser, and I became concerned when he didn’t move. Suddenly, his hand shot out, pulling me to the ground. I gave him a shocked look as he laughed, and grumbled when I saw Veronica giggling too. The rest of the morning consisted of them making fun of me as they whispered conspiratorially.

When we stopped for water and they were talking, I only assumed they were planning a prank. Suddenly Julian gave her a hug, and she exclaimed, asking if he knew what personal space was. I told her he didn’t, and wouldn’t if it hit him in the face. She laughed, but he punched me in the arm. I proceeded to complain about being a victim.

Even so, I was glad that they were getting along, even if it was only to make fun of me. When we said goodbye to him at the gates, Veronica even let him hug her again, putting an awkward arm around his torso. She would miss him a little, I thought, and so would I. He gave me a hug after her.

“Take care of yourself, kid. I’m not here to fix your mistakes anymore. Take care of Veronica too. She’s a very special girl, and you won’t meet another like her. Let her be a part of your world, and she’ll let you be a part of hers.”

I nodded, smiling. I gave him another bear hug, slapping him on the back. We waved, telling him to be safe.

We wandered the town a bit, looking for a motel. Veronica commented on the clouds, and I could see that a storm was approaching. She looked concerned, so I told her we would be inside before anything happened. I asked her if storms bothered her, and she said she wasn’t too fond of lighting. I would make sure to have the television turned up and the windows closed.

I spoke to the locals as we browsed the town’s stores, hoping to hear of travelers. They said there had been one man, a traveler with something really wrong with his face. I brushed it off, thinking it another discriminated view. We got to the hotel when it started raining. Veronica was watching another old western, lying on my leg. I could tell she was still hesitant, worried that any sudden show of affection would cause me to withdraw. She wouldn’t talk about it, so I would just have to show her that it was endearing. I told her how close she was to awakening, within the next few weeks perhaps. I could sense her 30 feet away now, a long way for a drifter that hadn’t made it yet.

She asked me what we were going to do when she awakened, wondering if she could help me. It made me freeze up, for the question surprised me. What did she mean, we? I never really thought about her staying. Nobody keeps traveling after they make it, they separate. Sure, if we see each other on the road we are happy, but we don’t stay together. Hadn’t that been the reason I had been sad to see her go?

She was concerned by my sudden silence, and turned to look at me. I told her that I hadn’t thought she’d have wanted to stay. She was confused now, pulling back to look at me. I tried to soothe her, to help her understand. I told her again, saying it would make sense afterwards. I didn’t know why we didn’t stay, but we awakened and then didn’t come back. She was frustrated now, telling me I didn’t understand. I had obviously worded the sentence wrong. She was questioning my feelings now, and I knew this to be getting out of hand.

I was stunned by the sudden bite in her words. Should I talk over her? Should I stand up? Maybe I should give her a tight hug until she calmed down. She was up off the bed and on her feet now, absolutely livid. She told me to just admit I didn’t want her with me. That was ridiculous! Rushing to correct her, I told her frantically that she could stay with me if she wanted, it was just not normal. In the five years I’ve been a drifter, I have never seen any pairs stay that way after the awakening. She didn’t seem to hear, now reasoning out why I wouldn’t want her to stay. I tried a more authoritative voice, calling her name.

I was interrupted, her voice now cold and bitter as she yelled at me. Tears were welling up in her eyes, and I felt my heart ache as they fell down her face. I told her to calm down, to work it out with me. Then she told me that she loved me. Although I had been told last night, I had never heard the words come out of her mouth. Feeling my heart soar, it was quickly cut to shreds as she turned away. I tried to pull her in for a hug, to comfort her. I wanted to tell her she could stay as long as she wanted.

She pulled away, a lightning flash illuminating her face. She cringed, and I was reminded of her fear. She ran out the door, and I followed her as fast as I could. I called to her, pleading to come back and talk it out. I’d waited too long to say what I had needed to.

The storm was worse now, the wind pushing back my hair, my clothes getting soaked within a few minutes. I ran off in the direction I had last seen her, but she had lost me. Still, I wasn’t going to leave her out in the storm. Thunder boomed and lightning flashed, and I could only imagine Veronica curled up in a ball.

I called her name, each time more desperately. My voice was hard to hear over the howling of the wind, but I knew if I came close I could sense her.

“Veronica! Come on! I’m sorry, okay? Please come back!” I called.

There was no answer. After what seemed like an eternity of rain and lightning, I heard a voice faintly. Was it her? Did she need help? I ran off in the direction of the voice, hoping with all my might she was okay. She called for help, telling me there were a bunch of guys. What?

She was screaming now, making it easier to find her. As I finally saw her across the street, I understood what she meant. She was over some guys shoulder. Were they kidnapping her? There was no way they would take her while I was still breathing.

I sprinted to what appeared to be a truck as she was thrown in. I prepared to leap in after her, only to find myself faced with two opponents. Two men got inside, leaving me with the other two. I looked to Veronica desperately, surveying her for damage and planning an escape. But they were closing the door, and I couldn’t get past the guys.

When the door closed on her, I felt as if my heart was being wrenched away. I quickly memorized the truck, gathering every single piece of information I could. I may not have been able to stop them, but I would track them down without hesitation and take Veronica back. For now, I had two men with gangly figures circling me.

Cursing, I realized I didn’t have a weapon. One man was holding a pocket knife, the blade glinting when the light flashed. I could wrestle it away from him. The man behind me swung predictably, and I ducked, kicking his leg out from under him. The other one tried to attack me with the knife, and I gripped his wrist before he could bring it down.

I used his now off balance state to my advantage, pulling him forward until I had my knee of top of his back. I twisted his wrist, prying the knife away from his fingers. The first man was up and ready now, and tackled me to the ground. We wrestled briefly, and I pinned him under me. I punched him hard, and his face went slack.

Rounding on my remaining opponent, I brandished the knife in warning. I wouldn’t ever dream of killing him, but he didn’t need to know that. I darted around him, confusing him as he spun in circles to keep up with me. He went for a punch as I stopped, and it was just the opportunity I needed. He used all his strength for the blow, but that meant he had poor technique. The opening was created when he lunged, and I slammed my elbow into his ribs.

He paused, and I took the opportunity to hit him just behind his knee, knocking him to the ground. As he went down, the scene became quiet. I had fought so many times when I was younger, and I was immensely grateful to see that my survival instincts hadn’t left me.

The man was in pain now, and I pulled him up by his jacket, slamming him against the wall. Hard enough to hurt, but not hard enough to knock him out.

“Where did they take her?” I asked, shaking him.

He looked at me in defiance, and I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.

“I asked you a question. Let’s try again.” I growled, summoning every piece of me that was threatening, “Where is she?”

I used my height against him, looming over him ominously. He looked scared this time. I made a low, guttural noise in the back of my throat, slamming him against the wall again.

“Stop, man!” he cried out, shaking. “I can’t tell you! If I do it’ll be my head, okay? I’m sorry about your girl!”

He was lying. He could tell me where she was, but he was scared of his boss. He would have to be more scared of me if I wanted an answer. I took out the knife, ramming it into the wall beside his head.

“Well I don’t about your boss and what he does,” I commented, “But what I do know is that you’re here with me now. And I also know that I am not a happy man. You wouldn’t like me when I’m in a bad mood, so don’t make me angry.”

He paused, his breath caught in his throat.

“If you don’t want this,” I said, gesturing to the knife in the wall beside him, “Somewhere over here, that is.”

I gestured to his trembling form. He still didn’t say anything, so I started psychologically. I sighed, stepping back just a little bit.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” I said.

I clicked my tongue in disapproval.

"All right then,” I said, nonchalantly, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

I tugged the knife away from the wall, using it to dig out the dirt from under my fingernail. I hoped this worked, because if it didn’t I couldn’t do anything else. I wouldn’t kill him, and so this was my last chance. His eyes followed my movement carefully, and he screamed when I suddenly lunged forward.

“Wait! Stop! I’m sorry! Look, I’ll tell you! I’ll tell you! Just don’t do it!”

My heart gave away in relief, but I still had to be aggressive. I raised an eyebrow at him, leaning to touch the wall with one hand.

“I don’t know. Why should I let you say it now?”

He whimpered, and tried to draw back into the wall.

“I’ll give you one last chance. Now, you better not lie to me. But I don’t think you will, because then somebody could get hurt. You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”

He shook his head, too terrified. Leaning in, I asked again.

“Where did they take her?”

He rose his eyes to the heavens, but then looked back at me.

“There’s an old storage building outside of town. She’s there.”

But there could be hundreds of those. It wasn’t enough.

“Where outside of town?” I asked.

He hesitated, looking panicked. I leaned my arm against the place where his neck and sternum met, pressing slightly.

“I said, Where outside of town?”

He cowered again.

“I don’t know, man!”

When I made a dissatisfied noise, he cringed.

“I’m serious! I wasn’t paying attention. It’s to the south of here, about a 45 minute drive. That’s all I know, I swear!”

I would have liked to get more information than that, but it seemed he was telling the truth. I wondered if I should press him more, but every moment I spent here was a moment Veronica was in danger. Hoping to glean one more thing, I leaned over his form, now on the ground.

“I believe you. One last thing, what did you want with her?”

I was pretty sure I could guess, but I wanted to know what I was walking into.

“I don’t know everything about it. All I know is that we bring in girls, and then they leave again. It’s some sort of trade, I think.”

I looked at him with disgust, and he backed into the corner.

“You told me what I needed, so I’m not going to kill you. But if you follow me, or tell anyone else to follow me and I find out? Your boss will be the least of your worries.”

I felt unnatural doing and saying such violent things, but Veronica needed me. I would do whatever it took to make sure she was safe, even if that meant I had to knock a few people around. Or get knocked around myself. I turned away, keeping my guard up for a surprise attack. But he seemed too scared to bother me now, and I left without incident.

As soon as I was out of view, I began to run. I needed a map, and something to transport myself with. I didn’t have a car, but I couldn’t run for 45 minutes. Even if exhaustion wouldn’t have been an issue, it still would take me far too long. The longer I took to find Veronica, the more the probability of never finding her again increased. I would sooner die than let that happen.

I raced through town, looking for any shop that was open in the storm. A pocket of light attracted my eye, and I saw the man running the shop put up the closed sign. But before he could lock the door, I rammed through it. Gasping for air, dripping, and a fervent look in my eyes, I couldn’t have been a pretty sight. I asked the man if he had a map of the structures around town. I expected a fight, but I must have surprised him, for he just handed me one. He fled the room, not asking for payment. Not believing my good luck but not wanting to question it, I quickly scanned the map.

There were two storage building about an hour’s drive from the town. I didn’t know which one, but I had at least some sort of idea. I could have used the stuff at our hotel, but I didn’t have time to get it.

I raced back into the storm, galloping through the streets. Surely there was a taxi, perhaps a bus. But the cars had all tucked themselves away from the storm, which was getting even more violent. I spotted a horse stable, and I knocked on the door. Nobody answered, and so I tried again, pounding and shouting.

One of the stallions was fussing about in his stall, banging against the doors. He didn’t like the narrow space during the storm. Feeling terribly guilty but entirely resolved, I hopped over the small fence.

I approached the beautiful black horse, avoiding his kicking hooves. I let him smell my hand as he whinnied. He stopped his bucking, and allowed me to come close. I placed my hands on his snout, placing a soft kiss there. Horses were included when it came to animals loving us. I would be slower than a car on a horse, but I would be faster than if I walked.

I hastily saddled him up, and opened the horse gate. I mounted his back, gently nudging his sides to make him go. We sped off into the storm, whipping by the town. The horse’s hooves clicked on the concrete, and soon we were in dirt. I was worried he might slip, for the ground had become muddy, but he just kept going.

We galloped across the field, keeping a brisk but not pushing pace. I didn’t want to tire the horse out. He wasn’t mine after all, and I wanted to make sure he got back safely. I’m coming, Veronica, I thought. I will save you.

I cursed myself for letting her leave at all. I should have just pulled her into a hug, or gotten so close she had to look at me. That had always worked before, and yet I hadn’t done it then. Why? Was I just too confused? I didn’t even understand why it was important to say anything anyway. We weren’t normal in general, and I didn’t plan on being the same any time soon. She loved me and I loved her, or at least that’s how it used to be.

I didn’t know what I had done to her, if I had ruined our relationship. She had become an all consuming part of me now. I had always felt lonely, but I hadn’t felt strange about being lonely until I met her. Then, it started to seem as if there was something missing in my life. As we grew closer, I felt the void begin to fill. It was almost as if the path was telling me to find her and care for her, and to no longer be alone. I knew now that I couldn’t live without her, but I might have understood too late. I immensely hoped I could salvage the situation.

Either way, it didn’t matter right now. Even if Veronica hated me with every fiber of her being, I couldn’t leave her. I had contributed to this mess, and it had snowballed. She could hate me all she wanted, but I was going to get her out of there, alive and well.

I had given up all hope of staying dry, my clothes sticking to me. The wind caused the rain to smack me in the face with a painful sting, but I pushed through. I gently urged on the horse, hoping to get close. I found the first storage house, getting off the horse.

I looped his reins around a nail in the wall, sheltering him from the rain. I looked into the windows stealthily, but it appeared as if nobody was there. I cautiously peeked into the doors, and then embarked on a more thorough search.

Exclaiming in frustration, I slammed my hand into the wall. I had picked the wrong one. I had spent too much time already, and now I would have to make it over to the next one. The map didn’t even specify exactly where it was and which route to take, so I would have to stumble in the dark until I found it.

Quickly coming back outside, I climbed onto the horse again, trying not to pull on his wet coat. At least the weather seemed to be clearing up a bit. As I looked to the sky, I realized that we were actually just in the eye of the storm. It would get exponentially worse soon, so I needed to hurry.

Patting the horse gently, I urged him on again. He was remarkably resilient, not showing signs of exhaustion.

It was hard to see now without the constant lightning, and I searched for any clue on how to get to the second house. A flash came from behind, and I glimpsed something colorful. Slowing the horse, I got off to examine it. It was muddy, but appeared to be a piece of torn cloth. I looked at it strangely, and almost discarded it.

Wait, I thought, didn’t Veronica have a green undershirt that color? I had seen her pack it. There was a piece of torn cloth from her on the side of the road. The sight of her shirt made me angry, for I could only think of the men who kidnapped her and their possible actions. But then, it wouldn’t be outside of where she was being held. This had been deliberate, something left by Veronica.

She was leaving me a trail! Her shirt is bright enough to see in the gloom, and she tore it off for me to follow the strips. I felt a feeling of warm pride well up in my chest. She was absolutely genius. How did she get away with that? Hang in there, I thought. I’m coming.

I got onto the stallion again, following the direction the cloth had come from. I spotted a few more along the way, each time becoming more reassured she was near.

The rain was starting to pick up again, the lull ending. The wind was increasing in ferocity, almost blowing us over. Suddenly a flash of lightning lit up the whole area, an ear shaking and sky shattering crash sounding above me.

The building was big for a storage unit, closer to a warehouse than a shed. Still, it wasn’t big enough I couldn’t search it quickly. I hid the horse in a nearby shed, giving him a pat and another kiss on the snout.

“Thank you,” I said to him.

He only neighed his indifferent response. I cautiously approached the unit as I had done before, slipping by the windows lithely. This needed to be clandestine. I didn’t know how many people could be in here, and it could be fatal if I just rushed in. I spent as little time as necessary to study the layout of the building. If I needed to split with Veronica, I would have to know the exits and escape routes. I was a good fighter, but I couldn’t take on more than a few guys at a time. I also didn’t have any other weapon than the pocket knife, which wouldn’t fair well against a gun. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, it’s said.

The place was mostly quiet, except for a few lit windows. A few drunken men were laughing at something, asking for more liquor from the serving girl. As I had guessed, they were using girls as objects and selling them. The waitress was dressed in skimpy clothes, the scarcity disgusting. She had bruises on her arms and legs, and I looked away. Not only were they selling these girls, they were abusing them too. These men were the lowest of the low.

If I had to make a run for it with Veronica, I would definitely set the police after them after she was safe. Although there could have been more inside, it seemed there were only about eight guys here. If I took them out in small groups, I could rescue Veronica without suffering any major injuries. I just hoped they didn’t have guns.

I noticed a smaller container off to the side, and headed over to it, thinking they kept the girls there. But as I turned in that direction, I heard a shriek come from inside the complex. It had to have been Veronica’s, for I had heard it before and it sounded familiar.

Gritting my teeth angrily, I wound my way back. One of the windows to a darker room was slightly ajar, and I stealthy opened it. I cut open the screen with the pocket knife, and slid my body through the small window. It was a bit of a tight fit, but I was soaking and slippery, so I slid through.

It was dark, but I could pick out the shapes of a few belongings. Someone was using this as a temporary hideout. Suddenly there was movement from the bed, and I jumped back. I hadn’t seen the man when I came in, and I froze. I didn’t dare to breathe, my hands gripping the pocket knife tight. If he woke up and saw me, I would have to do something, and fast. I wouldn’t kill him, but I would need to silence him before he sounded an alarm and alerted the rest of the people. When the man relaxed again, rolling to his side, I let out a breath.

This was a dangerous situation to be sure, and I only hoped I would make it out of here relatively unscathed. I wished for Julian, for he would be the one to offer me wise council. Do I make my way through as quiet as possible? Do I start to knock them out? His experience in combat wouldn’t have hurt either. I wondered if I could phone him, but I didn’t know where one was. Besides, if there was even a phone at all, the connections wouldn’t be working in the storm.

I wanted to rush to where I heard her scream, but that could get me killed. More importantly, if I got killed, she would be left here. I shuddered to even think about the things that would happen to her. No, she wouldn’t fall prey to such people. She was going to have a happy life as a drifter, and she would help so many people. Life had sent me here today to protect her, and I wasn’t about to screw up her only chance of help.

I opened the door slowly, sliding through the crack. I could hear the men laughing raucously, whistling at the waitress. I didn’t want to confront them yet, as I still had the element of surprise. I felt the walls on my way through the narrow passages of shelves. Right, right, left, right, left. I was memorizing the way to different places, creating a map in my head.

I came upon a room separated from the rest of the area. Perhaps a small office, one that was used for their so called "boss." This had been where I heard Veronica’s voice come from earlier. If he had done anything to her, I wasn’t sure I would be able to control myself.

Taking a deep breath, I pushed away the anger from my head, making it clearer. I didn’t throw it away however, transferring it to my limbs. I was a much better fighter if I thought clearly, but still had the strength that only comes from a heated situation.

I could feel her now, so I knew she was in this room. She didn’t feel hurt, as there wasn’t a stream of conscious pain. It was strange, for I could also feel her paralyzing fear and distress coming off in waves. This was a scary situation, but it wasn’t as if she was scared of the men.

“Just hold on, baby girl”, I thought, “I’m here to save you. It’ll all be over soon.”

I grasped the knob, and prepared myself for a fight

I opened the door.

Highway Chapter 20

I couldn’t move. It was as if my body was frozen in a block of ice, immobilizing me. My worst nightmare was standing casually in front of me, looking down with a smile on his disfigured face. The grin made his wound even more ghastly than before. I didn’t remember what it looked like, but I could see it now.

The eye was completely destroyed, a slit running across it. But the cut didn’t end there. It started at his eyebrows, coming down to the end of his nose. It was gnarled and scarred, a faded red color. It was an awful sight to see for anyone, and I wondered how these men hung around him like this. He bent down, crouching in front of me.

He reached out for my face, and I couldn’t even flinch. Lifting it with caution, he examined where I had been slapped. I couldn’t even think anymore. He frowned, the scar contorting at odd angles.

“Who did this?” he asked, that voice causing uncontrollable shivers to rise again.

When I didn’t answer, he stood up.

“Well?” he asked, his voice loud and commanding, “Who was it? This couldn’t have been an accident during the struggle.”

He gestured to me. When it grew quiet, he wandered around the circle, scanning over each man. He came to stop next to the two men who had brought me here.

“Jack? Marshall? Could either one of you have something to do with this?”

His voice was casual and light, but it held a deadly undertone. The man who had hit me, Jack, fidgeted nervously.

“Come on, fellas,’ he said breezily, “Things happen, I understand. Just tell me.”

Jack spoke up.

“She had just bit me, that’s all. She was thrashing around and I was mad. I know you don’t like that though boss, so I’m sorry.”

My father drew in a deep breath, as if preparing to say something. Then, without warning, he lunged at Jack. He punched him in the face violently, knocking him to the ground.

“If you knew I didn’t like it, why would you consciously do it? Because you were mad? If I acted on my emotions like you did, you would have just gotten a lot more than a punch.”

He looked at him with disdain, the anger written on his features.

“I’ll have you know that you picked a terrible person to hit, my friend,” he said, dark and annoyed, “This happens to be my daughter, and the only other surviving member of the family. Do you still think it’s okay you hit her?”

He shoved him as he tried to get up. On his way over to Jack, he tripped on the other girl’s foot. She screamed, much louder than one would have thought could have come from such a small girl. She didn’t stop, and so he rounded on her.

“Shut up!” he said, leaning close to her face.

The gruesome sight made her look faint, and she seemed like she was going to collapse right there. He sighed, pinching his nose.

“Put her with the others,” he commanded to another man, gesturing to a small unit off to the side.

He picked up the frantic girl, slinging her over his shoulder. When he went for me however, my father intervened.

“No, not her. I need to speak with my daughter about some very important matters. We need to catch up. Isn’t that right, darling Veronica?”

His smile made me feel sick. He told another man to take me to the dressing room first, and then to his office.

“To be clear, she isn’t one of the normal girls. If I find that anything has happened to her, whoever did it will have to face the consequences. Does everyone understand?”

They nodded, looking away. The man picked me up, and began to walk away. He went inside, and my spell was broken. Now that I was not under the influence of my father, I could move again.

“Let go of me you freak! Put me down! I said let go!”

I pounded on his back with my fists, kicking in the air. He winced as he shifted me, picking up the pace.

“Oi!” he shouted, “Stop fussing! Watch what you say to me!”

I continued to attack him, elbowing his neck as best I could.

“Oh, yeah?” I asked, challenging and defiant, “Or what? Are you going to hit me? That didn’t go over too well for the last guy.”

I smirked at him, attempting to show my contempt. I didn’t understand my father being here, but I still wouldn’t let them bully me. He hesitated, and shrugged.

“He didn’t say I couldn’t carry you the whole way, or even that I had to take off the restraints when I set you down.”

I smacked him in the head one more time out of spite, thinking of a plan. If I could make the man mad enough, I could get injured again. That didn’t sound fun, but the more incapacitated the group was from fighting with my father, the better. I called him several names, and hit him every chance I got. Why wasn’t he doing anything? I suppose after the display outside, they were all scared of my father.

Where had they taken the girl? What was my father planning on doing that required me to be separated? The questions flashed through my mind like the lightning, and I didn’t have the answers to any of them.

The man stopped inside a small room, one of many inside the unit. They must have been offices. The room was littered with outfits, ranging from formal wear to Halloween costumes. I was sure I knew the reason why they were all here. The man dropped me to the ground, finally glad I wasn’t on his back.

“The boss wants you to change into something.” He said, gesturing to the racks of clothing.

No way in hell was I about to change for him.

I glared at him in defiance, saying, “And if I refuse?”

I was going to make this as difficult as possible. He looked entirely frustrated, and I wondered if I had finally gotten to him. Instead of going after me, he pulled out a walkie talkie. I cursed myself as I remembered mine, sitting back at the hotel. A whole lot of good it’s done me.

He spoke into the radio, calling my father.

“What?” came his irritated reply, crackling through the device.

“She doesn’t want to change, what do I do?”

They conferred for a moment before ending the transmission.

“He gives me permission to dress you if I have to. Your choice, really.”

God, he was disgusting. The look on his face told me that it would be his pleasure to follow out the instruction. No way. I thought about attacking him, but I was still handcuffed and he was too large for me to win.

“You’re sick,” I spit out at him, wishing looks could kill.

He shrugged.

“So what’s it going to be?” he asked.

I gave him a glare.

“I don’t need your help, you freak.” I responded.

He shrugged again. Why wasn’t he uncuffing me?

“Do you expect me to be able to change with handcuffs on? You’re even more stupid than I thought. I guess you can’t expect much from the help.”

His face grew red with anger, but he still refrained from action. My father must have really done some horrible things to people who didn’t follow orders. He stormed over to me, unlocking and wrenching away the handcuffs. When he didn’t leave, I snarled at him.

“What, are you gonna stand there? Enjoy the view? Get out of here! Or should I say you hit me? I could easily smash my face into one of these bars.”

The fact that they feared him could be used to my advantage, and I was going to milk it for all it was worth. Without another word, he went out the door, where I heard a resounding click. Great. After he was gone, I sank to the floor.

Why was I here? Why me? I had finally become happy again, and then this happened. And it wasn’t even a normal kidnapping, where I could free myself with more ease. The spotlight was on me, and there wasn’t a way to get out.

Where was Matt? What if he couldn’t find my clues? It wasn’t raining as hard as before, but it was still dark. What if he wasn’t even coming? The small doubtful voice had come back. Maybe he gave up. He isn’t going to track you down in the rain. You pushed him away too many times. He won’t find you, or even try.

No! He would find me, right? I bet right now he was running through the rain, racing to find me. But… What if he wasn’t? I switched between my thoughts. He hadn’t shown up yet. He wouldn’t be able to find the trail at night. Maybe he was even dead. Those men left behind could have killed him. But it would take a long time to run here, and my shirt was neon green. And he seemed to be such an experienced fighter; I couldn’t believe they would have killed him. But what if they did?

I felt tears start to well up in my eyes. Stop it! I told myself, this is no time for crying! I needed to be strong here, or I wouldn’t make it out alive, much less with my sanity. Matt wasn’t dead, I told myself. If he was alive, he would be coming to rescue me, and there needed to be something to rescue when he got here.

Even if he was dead, I still needed to make it out of here. I had gotten myself out of sticky situations before, and I would this time. Both my brother and Matt had worked too hard for me to just give up now. It would be a disgrace to them.

Thinking of my brother gave me strength. My father had killed him, but not before he gave him the same scar he bears today. I won’t let you down, I promise. I thought, gazing at the ceiling above me.

If my brother could hurt him at my age, so could I. I wasn’t a kid anymore, or at least I wasn’t so small. I was almost an adult legally, and he couldn’t bully me around anymore. The initial shock of seeing him was wearing off, and I could think much more clearly now. Next time we met, I wouldn’t freeze.

I stood up slowly, leaning on the wall. I rubbed my wrists, now bloody and bruised from my fussing. They had dug into my skin when I used the worn down serrated edge to cut off parts of my undershirt.

The rain pattered softly on the roof, creating white noise in the background. I wondered if the storm was ending. Sighing, I set off to look at the outfits. They were all entirely too revealing, which made sense. Still, I wasn’t going to put any of them on.

After a few minutes of searching, I spotted a formal dress at the end. It was a dark blue, with thin straps. Contrasting light blue flowers ran across the side, outlined in glittering rhinestones. It was a ball gown, flaring out at the hips. It was way too girly for me, but it was the most decent thing in the room. Sighing, I unzipped the dress and stepped into it.

The fabric rustled from underneath as I zipped and hooked it. I wondered why they had such a formal gown in here, but decided not to think about it too much. There was a full length mirror leaned on the wall, and I saw myself reflected in it.

My hair was a dripping mess, sticking out and tangled. My face was still swollen where I had been hit, a black and blue bruise forming. Still, I could have looked worse. The blue dress complemented my pale skin, and looked good with my hair. It was a beautiful dress, which made it seem even more wrong to be in a place like this. I didn’t appreciate my hair hanging in front of my face, and I looked around for something to put it up.

There were makeup cases littered about, but I would never give them the pleasure of seeing me with it on. I wasn’t one of their girls, and I refused to even act like it. I spotted a basket full of hair accessories across from me. Why did they have all of these things? Did they like to dress up the girls? I wouldn’t be surprised. If they were sick enough to kidnap girls, they were sick enough to dress them up.

I shuffled through it, finding a large hair clip shaped like a Plumeria. It had blue jewels encrusted along the edges, with a white substance like porcelain used for the flower. I wondered if I could break it to make shards for a weapon, but it seemed too synthetic. I twisted my hair into a bun and used the clip on it.

I hated my hair when it was put up, but it was better than it hanging in my face, dripping on everything. After tucking in the strands and making sure it was going to stay, I looked around.

There were no windows except one at the very top of the wall, as I had first seen when I came in. I wondered if I could stand on one of the racks and try to reach the window, but I was doubtful. Still, I was going to try what I could.

I shoved the racks, and the wheels on the bottom shifted. After I positioned it below the window, I climbed on top of it. The dress hindered my movement, but I managed to reach the top. I was too short to reach the window, but it was within jumping distance. My still wet shoes were slippery, and slid on the metal bar. I leaned against the wall unsteadily, and took them off. I also peeled of my socks, for I would need relatively dry feet to do this.

Could I pull myself up if I could get a hold on the edge? Just as I was about to try, I heard a knock.

“I’m coming in,” The man from before said.

“Just a minute,” I called, “I’m not ready yet.”

I lunged for the window, but my hand slipped on the ledge. I sliced my hand against a nail, but didn’t cry out.

“The boss wants to see you, hurry up,” He said.

I had bought a little bit of time, but I heard a key turning in the lock. I leaped down from the edge, almost falling forward. If he saw me trying to escape, he would handcuff me again. If I wanted to have any chance of getting out of here, I needed to remain unrestrained.

He appeared just as I had reached the mirror, and I pretended to fix my hair. He looked at my figure slowly, his eyes traveling up and down. He didn’t hide his look of appreciation.

“Hey,” I barked at him, “Keep your eyes to yourself, pal.”

He looked away, but I already felt disgusted. He had said that I was going to see my father, so I looked frantically for anything last minute I could use as a weapon. I couldn't get the man with it and try to escape, but I had an element of surprise with my father.

“Come on,” he said, nodding to the door, “He’s waiting. You don’t want to make him wait.”

I didn’t have anything I could use. Suddenly, I spotted a metal hair comb in the basket, the edges sharp and strong. It wasn’t much, but I could get my father in the other eye if I timed it just right. But how was I going to get it with the man still there? He would see me if I just picked it up, and I couldn’t pretend to put it in my hair because of the clip already occupying it. Realizing I didn’t have any shoes, I hoped to distract him that way.

“Do you expect me to go without shoes? You didn’t have any, and now I’ve just been sitting here without shoes. The floor has so many things on it. I don’t think my father would appreciate if I got an infection because somebody told me hurry up and I got cut.”

He looked at me incredulously, saying “They’re right over there!”

He pointed to a box. It wouldn’t have hurt to walk over there, but I did see several pieces of sharp things.

“I can’t go over there! I’ll get cut by those pieces. Bring them over here!”

He seemed like he was going to say no, but changed his mind. Apparently fear was a big factor here, and it was a good thing too. He turned, grumbling and went to get the box. As he was facing the other way, I swiftly grabbed the comb.

Where would I put it? I don’t have any pockets. I had seen a girl put a gun under her dress in movies before, so I tucked it between my leg and the folds of material. It wasn’t an ideal place, but it would be unseen and I could reach it if I was in a bad situation.

“Hey,” he said, sounding confused.

My heart froze, for I thought he had seen me. But he wasn’t looking at me still, and I wondered if he knew I had moved the rack. Don’t notice, don’t notice, don’t notice, I chanted in my head. I hadn’t had time to move it back before he came in, and it the mistake could’ve just cost me my freedom. The man turned towards me, and I forced myself to keep a straight face. If he hadn’t noticed, I couldn’t give it away.

“You don’t look like the boss very much,” he continued, “Do you look like your mom?”

My heart gave away to relief, and I sighed to myself with relief. I gave him another glare, not inviting conversation. He set down the box, and I looked at them. I was too clumsy for the heels, which was unfortunate due to the number of them in the box. I spotted a pair of small strappy ones, the heel only a few inches off the ground. Thinking it was the best I could do, I reach for them.

The man was watching me now, and I panicked when I almost dropped the shoe. I had carelessly forgotten about my hand, which was bleeding now. It wasn’t serious, but it had made my hand slick. I wouldn’t be able to hide it from him if he was watching, and he would demand to know what happened.

Hoping to distract him, I answered his question.

“I don’t know,” I said as he looked to my face, “I don’t remember her. But my brother says I did, and I believe him.”

Although these people didn’t deserve to hear about my brother, talking about him kept my thoughts clear. I strapped on the shoes as I continued to talk, slipping twice. I stood a little unsteadily, and gestured for him to lead the way. Now was the time to be on my best behavior, for I needed them to let their guard down.

“Walk in front of me. I don’t want any funny business, all right?”

I scoffed, but nodded anyway. He pressed a hand against my back, and I resisted the urge to slap him. I closed my hand, putting pressure on the cut to stop the bleeding.

He led me across the warehouse, taking several turns into aisles. I tried to memorize the path, in case I needed to bolt. I wondered why they didn’t blind fold me. Was it just because this didn’t seem like a permanent hideout? Did they think they would never see me again? Or was it something more sinister?

We came across another office like the one I was just in, and the man told me to stop.

“He’s just inside.” He commented.

I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t have much of a choice. But before I saw my father again, I needed to ensure I wouldn’t freeze. I thought of my brother and Matt, all of the good memories. Then, I thought of how my brother stood up to my father, of him stabbing his eye. He had bled back then, and so he could now. He was not invincible.

I thought of Matt, how strong he had seemed when he stood up to the boy who had tripped me. He was coming; I would just have to wait. Then I thought of all the bad things my father had done to me, the memories flooding back.

My brother had shielded me from most of the abuse, but the rest of my family wasn’t given the same protection. I thought of my mother’s ankles, so pale, covered in bruises. Her milky white skin always had some color in it. My brother would joke that he got dirty when I would ask why his face was dark in places, but it would never wash away. I knew then at least a little, but it was clear to me now.

Even when he was sober, my father was still violent if you made him mad. Thinking of these things made me angry, and I used that anger to clear my head. If I stayed mad enough, I would be able to drive away the fear. I steeled myself, resolving to piss him off but stay away from the breaking point. Even though I wasn’t as small anymore, he was a bigger guy.

If I could drag out the time it took to talk to him, Matt might be able to get here before anything could occur. I didn’t know what was going to happen afterwards, but I couldn’t let that distract me now. The only way to survive this was to focus on the moment.

I gripped the doorknob, slowing turning it. When I entered, I heard the door lock behind me. The sound of the click startled me, but I didn’t let it show. My father was standing in front of a desk, looking over a large book. He didn’t turn, and I wondered if he heard me come in.

I could hear the rain outside come down harder, and the wind howled ferociously. I peered outside the small window, hesitant to look away, but curious about the storm. A flash of lightning lit up the mildly dark room, a large crash sounding almost immediately afterwards. I flinched slightly.

I had told Matt I wasn’t too fond of lightning, but I was actually very scared of it. It reminded me of nights I had spent alone, under a table. My father was still facing the desk, and I began to grow irritated. The man who had tormented me and my brother for so long couldn’t even look at me?

“Hey,” I called, making my voice as snarky as possible, “Are you going to stand there all night?”

He laughed under his breath.

“She speaks,” he said, “I had thought you might have gone mute. Your lack of reaction was surprising.”

He turned to me now, smiling. He had put on an eye patch now, covering most of the scar. Why was he acting so nice? He must have wanted something, but I didn’t know what. I hoped it wasn’t the reason the other girls were here, or he was even sicker than I had originally thought.

“Could it be that you perhaps don’t remember me? Sometimes young children repress memories.”

He asked, looking at me curiously. I wish I didn’t remember you, you scum. I don’t want to have any association with you.

“Oh, I remember you. I could never forget such a lowly piece of scum like you.”

The anger was keeping me alive, but I needed to be careful I didn’t push his buttons too much. He frowned, looking mildly upset. Then, he laughed. It was a loud, roaring laugh, as if I had said the funniest thing in the world.

“I knew you would grow up to be sassy. You’re a tough one, just like your brother.”

He wiped his eyes, leaning backwards on the desk for support. Again, he was acting suspiciously kind for what he used to be. He obviously hadn’t changed, or he wouldn’t be running this operation. If anything, he had become even crazier. I proceeded with caution, attempting to gauge the situation.

I could feel the comb against my leg, but I wasn’t close enough to cause enough damage. Since the door was locked behind me, I would either have to get his keys or attempt to escape through the window as I had before. Either way, I would need an ample amount of time.

I also couldn’t make much noise, for I was sure the man was waiting just outside. His mention of my brother made me boil on the inside, but I forced it down. Ever since I had been with Matt, I had become much better at controlling my anger. I decided to use the voice he used to talk to uncooperative locals, but not quite as polite.

“Why am I here?” I asked.

He seemed to ponder the question for a moment before leaning back.

“Why? Because fate brought us back together, my dear.”

I bit back my retort.

“You see, I run this fine operation,” he said as he gestured around, “And we move around. I pick up naughty little girls who need help and give them new homes.”

He made it seem like a positive thing. His lunacy had definitely increased since I last saw him. He was sick, a perverted old man. Still, his eyes held that gleam of intelligence and cunning, and I knew him not one to be trifled with. He may have aged, but his mind was just as sharp. He had also seemed to have taken good care of his body, judging from his speed and strength when he punched Jack.

“I knew you were a sick bastard,” I said with defiance, “But I didn’t think you were this disgusting.”

He seemed discontent with my comment. There was no laugh following, and I wondered exactly where he drew the line. He was too hard to read, and so I couldn’t judge what did and didn’t affect him. He moved away from the desk, pacing around the room. My eyes followed his every movement, and I tensed in anticipation. He still wasn’t close enough for me to deal sufficient enough damage.

Suddenly, he stopped.

“The fact that you’re here means that you haven’t been a very good girl. But the case is different with you, Veronica,” he said, “I’m not going to find you a new home, because you’re going to come back to your first one. I’m sorry that I left you, because I haven’t been there to have the proper influence on your life. It seems clear to me now that you need me. You’ve become unruly and wild, and so I’ll just have to fix that.”

Before I could react, he slapped me, in the very same place as the man before. I tried to get up from where I had sunk to the floor to attack him with the comb, but I stopped myself. He had retreated just far enough away that I couldn’t reach him.

My face burned with agony, having been abused twice in the same day. Fighting back the reflexive tears, I spat at his feet. This was going to be painful, but I would just have to wait.

He looked at me hard, and I recoiled by reflex when he stepped towards me. Damn it, I thought. I hadn’t meant to show any type of weakness. My brain was strong, but my body wasn’t. He bent down on my level, leaning forward ever so slightly.

“You look beautiful in that dress, darling. Your hair looks better pulled back, you should keep it that way.” He said, a hint of madness seeping through his voice.

Just lean a little closer. He was so close, I could almost jab him right now. I had wanted to drag out the conversation in hopes of help, but this was already getting out of hand. Much to my disappointment, he stood up again.

“You know, with each passing day you look more like her. But you aren’t quiet like her; you’re more like your brother. Too spunky for your own good. The kind who doesn’t like to take orders. These things are good some of the time, but not in excess. And so, I will take it upon myself to embark on the noble task of saving you from yourself.”

He was a lunatic, and I knew it. He was insane, thinking himself a good guy. He wasn’t even drunk, or at least not that I could tell. He was messing with me, and I could start to feel my anger rising. He was waiting for me to give him a reason to beat me into submission.

I wouldn’t fall for his little tricks. I refused to play his game. I knew how to play, but it wasn’t as a pawn. I had known enough manipulation in my life to push his buttons too.

“Yes, you are such a noble man. If you can still even call yourself human. Do women run away from you now? My mother was a beautiful woman, but she would never marry you now. That face of yours is absolutely hideous, if I do say so myself. How do you even look at yourself?”

He whirled around, his face livid. Had I gone too far? He stormed over to me, picking me up from the ground. He slammed me violently to the wall, his hands at my throat. My head exploded with pain, and I felt myself become dizzy. I tried to reach for the comb in my dress, but I was trapped.

He shook me, saying, “You stupid girl! How dare you say such a thing to me! I killed your brother and I can kill you!”

The exclamation startled me, as I was not expecting such a violent response. He stopped, looking at my surprised face. He shoved me into a different wall, where I leaned for support. My back was scraped now, having been pushed against the rough concrete walls. He was standing across from me looking smug.

“That’s right,” he said. “So you remember that night? Your brother confronted me when you came back. I was irritated that he would challenge me, but you two left before I could respond. He always took you everywhere, trying to keep you away from me. Then your mother wouldn’t shut up, and so I made her. But your brother, he was a bit more difficult. He thought he could take me in a fight, and he was very wrong. He may have given me this scar with your help, but I still killed him. He was too defiant, but I made sure to take care of that. Will I need to do the same to you?”

I was furious now, and had given up any ideas of sparing him. I lunged, trying to tackle him in fury. I wanted to hit him as hard as I could, to leave him with more scars than my brother could ever hope to give. He caught my hands as I reached him, pulling me into an awkward embrace.

He had his hands on my wrists, arms wrapped around me so that I was facing away from him. I struggled to get out, attempting to elbow him.

“Don’t you dare talk about him! He’s too good for you! You don’t deserve to even think about him. Let go!”

He only laughed increasing his hold. He was still so strong. I was struggling with all my might, but I still couldn’t gain any leverage.

“But is it I who doesn’t deserve him? Are you sure you should even speak of such things?” \

What? What did he mean?

"I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, you crazy idiot.” I shouted, still struggling.

“Why, I only mean the fact that you helped me kill him.”

I froze. No, I thought. What was he saying? He noticed my rigid posture and leaned in, brushing up against my ear.

“Yes. You know it’s true,” he said, his voice sickeningly sweet, “You killed him as much as I did.”

I tried to draw away from him, but he was impossible to get away from.

“You’re insane!”

He chuckled, the vibrations against my back causing shivers of revulsion to go down my spine.

“Yes, my dear, I am in a sense. But you know I speak the truth. You rushed into the house after he had sent you out, and caused a distraction. He gave me the scar, but didn’t check if I was dead because of you. You were crying, and you selfishly called to him. If it hadn’t been for you that night, I would have died and he would have lived. I thank you.”

No. No. he couldn’t be serious. I wasn’t… I wasn’t the one who got him killed. He had stabbed him. But it was true that I had interrupted him.

“I was only seven!” I shouted to him, suddenly flashing back to that night.

All I could see was his blood, the wound, his beautiful smile. I was still, slack in my father’s grip.

“But a seven year old has been around long enough to understand responsibilities and follow orders. You were bad, and you didn’t listen. Look where it got you. You killed him. It was all your fault, and you know it. Why even pretend? Just accept you helped me,” he said.

He turned me around to face him, but I hardly even noticed. I had hurt him, it had been my fault. He would still be alive today. Why had I killed him? Didn’t I love him? He had done so many things for me, and this was how I repaid him.

“It’s okay,” my father said, “Because you only wanted to help me.”

He held my face in his hands, and I felt my tears start to fall.

“You killed him, and that’s bad. But I forgive you. It was a horrible act, one that broke my heart, but I still love you. Because you will always be my daughter, no matter what you do. You did it because you love your daddy. Isn’t that right? You’re daddy’s little princess.”

He pulled me into a hug. He still cared. Did I even deserve someone after my brother? He was warm, and his voice was gentle as he murmured something into my hair. But why did this seem so wrong?

I was confused, and I was becoming dizzy. The room spun around me and blurred. Where was I? Suddenly lightning flashed, and the room was illuminated. I was in the storage house, my father holding me. Why did he not smell right? He smelled like a basement, dank and musty. I felt like I should be expecting mint.

Why? Who smelled like mint? The image of Matt flashed into my brain. That’s right, I thought. He smelled like mint when he comforted me after a nightmare. What had that been about again? The flashes came back to me, coming as quickly as the lightning.

My father's grin as he stood over my mother. The bruise on my brother’s face. His laughter at our pain. They all conflicted with what was happening. Wasn’t I a daddy’s girl? I was his princess he said, even though I didn’t deserve it. Why was I having flashbacks about him?

They kept going in my mind, all of the times he hurt us.A bruise, a scrape, a cut. Once, a broken arm. I was confused, my vision fogged up like an early morning horizon. Then, the night with Matt. The yelling. What had he said?

“Don’t you ever say something like that again!”

What had I said? I had told him about my brother, about the truth. My head began to clear as I recalled that night, and the dream. The memories came back better than before, showing me all of it, down to every detail. My brother had been looking at me before I had said anything. I might have called to him, but he was more worried than I was.

Then my father had stabbed him, and tried to make it seem like a ruse. How could I think him a good man? He was running a slave operation here for girls, and he beat his employees. He had messed with me psychologically, and I had fallen prey to it. But the vicious storm outside filled my vision with light, and I began to think.

Matt was right. I hadn’t killed him, and I needed to stop blaming myself. My brother had loved me too much for me to fall into a trap as simple as this.

“No,” I said, so softly he couldn’t quite hear.

“What?” he asked, tilting his head.

“No!” I said, this time much louder.

I pulled out the comb from under my dress, slamming it into his shoulder where my head had just laid. I shoved him as violently as I could, and he ran into the corner of the desk. He looked at me in shock, sliding down to the ground.

“I did not kill him, and you know it. You’re nothing than a murderer and a sick psycho!” I snarled, “I will never let you control me. If you haven’t noticed, I’m not the same little girl you can manipulate anymore. If my brother could almost kill you when he was my age, I can finish the job.”

I stood several feet away, my head held high in pride and contempt for him. He was bleeding profusely from the shoulder now, but it hadn’t been sharp enough to do any serious damage. I had wanted to go for his face, but it was too late now.

He pulled out the comb, and stood shakily. He began to laugh, a crazed high pitched laugh that increased in frequency. Just like mad scientists on television, my father was laughing uncontrollably. He walked to the other side of his desk, still chuckling.

Without a split second in between, his voice dropped.

“You really got me there,” he said, his voice deadly quiet, “You think you can take me? Ha! What a laughable comment. Tell me, Veronica, if you remember everything, do you recall this?”

He held up a knife, glittering in the moonlight. Was that?

He nodded to me, saying, “This is the very same knife I had that night. I brought it as a… memento you could say. It gave me satisfaction every time my scar would hurt.”

He was walking towards me now, slowly as if he had all the time in the world. Then quick like a snake, he shot out with the knife, slicing a spot on my cheek. It stung, but it wasn’t my major concern. He still had the knife poised and ready.

Had he truly lost his mind? He laughed at my reaction, and leaned close to my face, before violently ripping off his eye patch. He grabbed my face, rubbing his cheek against mine. It felt like sandpaper as it grinded up against my skin, the gaping hole molding around my cheek.

I screamed louder than I ever had before.

“Do you feel that, Veronica?” He screamed, “Feel how rough it is? That’s what I live with everyday! Feel what your brother did!”

I struggled to get away, my stomach churning. This was absolutely disgusting! I kneed him in his groin, but missed slightly. I jolted away, slamming into a wall.

I looked frantically for a weapon. Why didn’t he keep anything else on hand? The only weapons in this complex were with henchmen. Come to think of it, where was the man who had brought me? He had probably gotten tired of waiting and had gone to get a drink.

My father was advancing now, still keeping a slow pace. I knew his reflexes were fast now, so I kept myself springy and ready, in case he jumped again.

“I think your mother’s face doesn’t quite suit you,” he said, sounding strangely lost, “I think you need to look more like me. I know! I’ll give you a scar to match! Then we can look alike, father and daughter!”

Something in his brain had snapped, more than before. He had an intense look in his eye, one of a dog with rabies. Did he plan on carving a lash into my face? What was I going to do? He had the only real weapon in the room, and he had a tight grip on it.

“Come here,” he soothed, “It’ll only hurt a little. Then you can be just like me.”

I circled with him, avoiding various items lying around. If I tripped, it would be over.

“Go to hell, you worthless, bottom feeding, piece of insignificant pond scum!” I shouted to him, hoping to make him lose his focus.

We continued our dance, him lunging and me withdrawing. I continued to taunt him, to make him even more enraged.

I blocked him with his desk, both of us running around the other side. He wasn’t tall enough to reach across, so he just twisted with me. We were at an awkward stalemate, neither of us moving. My heart was racing so loud I almost couldn’t hear the thunder outside.

Thump thump! Thump thump! Thump thump!

The noise filed the room, my heart beating in an opposite rhythm of his. There wasn’t anywhere left for me to go, and I couldn’t find where the comb had been. My father winced as he shuffled along with me and had to lean on his shoulder. It made me satisfied that I had caused him pain and made him bleed, even if it wasn’t serious.

Just as he looked like he was about to lunge forward with his knife to cut me, we heard the door click. We both froze, our joints becoming rigid.

Who was at the door? I couldn’t take on two different people. As the figure came into view, my heart exploded with joy.

Standing there, sopping wet and ruffled in appearance, was Matt. He surveyed the situation, and I felt how strong he was, both in mind and body. He would be able to take these people, and he would save me.

He smiled at me, giving me a wink.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said with a grin, “You wouldn’t believe the storm out there.”

Highway Chapter 21

I opened the door, surprised to see Veronica and another man standing opposite the sides of the desk. She seemed beaten up, but relatively unharmed.
When I entered, they stopped, both turning to stare at me. I winked at Veronica as a look of relief came upon her face.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said, smirking, “you wouldn’t believe the storm out there.”
She smiled. I’m here to save you, I thought.
The man across from her was staring at me curiously, and I wondered who he was. It was too dark too see him clearly, but as he turned a bolt of lightning lit up the room.
On his face was a long a jagged scar, rendering his eye useless and grotesque. Something about it seemed like I should recognize it. It didn’t dawn on me at first, but as I saw Veronica’s eyes look towards him again, they were filled with hatred and fear. Suddenly, it clicked. This was the man who had something wrong with his face back at the town, and he was none other than Veronica’s father. She wouldn’t have been that scared if it had been anyone else.
Why was he here? He was holding a sharp kitchen knife. What an odd choice of weapon.
He was tall, almost as tall as me. He seemed to be later in middle age, but he still appeared to be fit and strong. But his eyes were not entirely healthy, for they held a sense of madness in them.
I glanced at Veronica, who was wearing a blue ball gown and had her hair put up. She looked beautiful, but it was strange. Had they made her change? She also hated her hair up, so I came to the conclusion that my guess was right.
Armed with only a pocket knife, I was concerned about his weapon. I was sure the men of the complex would hear fighting, and would come to engage in the fight. I needed to make it out with Veronica, even if that meant leaving the man who had caused her such pain behind. She was my number one priority.
I thought I could at least ground him for a few minutes, just enough time to get away. If I needed to, I would toss Veronica onto the horse outside and tell her to ride away as I stayed behind. She wouldn’t be very happy about it, but she would go anyway. Her survival instinct was strong.
“I hate to interrupt,” I said, keeping a calm voice, “But I think you have someone who is important to me, and I’ll be needing her back. So if you could just let her go, I would be much obliged.”
There wasn’t a chance he was going to, but I needed him to think my guard was down. The man’s body posture suggested he was an excellent fighter, and I needed to get the first blow to surprise him. I wasn’t sure if I could win in a one on one fight if he got the first hit.
He was bleeding from the shoulder, and wondered what happened. Could Veronica have stabbed him? With what? He laughed, a low chuckle filled with dark malice.
“My, my, my,” he said to Veronica, his face twisting into amusement, “You’ve got all sorts of friends, don't you? Didn’t you learn the first time that people can’t protect you?”
She looked to me, and then back at him.
“He’s better than you ever were. Besides, I already took a chunk out of your shoulder. It’s not too hard to harm you.” She said, her head held high with disdain for him.
That’s my girl, I thought, spunky even when scared.
“Veronica,” I called, keeping my eyes trained on the man, “Why don’t you come with me? That is, unless you’re having a good time.”
She scoffed, and I was pleased she could keep a level head in such a situation. The man moved, and Veronica flashed to the other side of the desk, avoiding his lightning quick blow. She was trapped behind him now.
“I think she was mine first,” he said, “And I’ll be keeping her.”
He turned to her, telling her he would deal with her in a second. Pivoting on his heels, he faced me, holding up the knife.
“You picked a bad man to mess with, my friend,” he said, smirking.
I didn’t reply, only reaching for the small knife in my pocket. Mine wasn’t nearly a match for his, but it allowed me agility where his gained strength. It was awkward and clumsy, and would slow him down.
I circled around him, engaged in a dance of predators. He lunged, fast like a snake, and I barely dodged. The first few seconds would be the hardest, for I couldn’t pick up his fighting pattern. He bobbed and weaved crazily, but I dodged each swing before it reached me. I attempted a few quick jabs, but he was just as fast in body movement. Here was someone who was well versed in fighting.
Suddenly, I tripped on a stool behind me. I lay still, acting as if I had been hurt, in order to draw him in. But as soon as I was ready to strike, he lurched forward, dropping. I looked up to see Veronica perched atop his shoulders, pulling back on his hair. It looked a bit ridiculous with her in the dress, but she was absolutely vicious.
He snarled, shaking her off. She landed on the floor with a hard smack! Taking the opening as he went for her, I kicked out his knee, bringing down my elbow on his neck. He fell, landing face down. He wasn’t dead, only down, and I didn’t know how long it would take for him to get up.
“Veronica! Run!” I shouted.
She leaped over him, only to have him catch her ankle as she came down. She tripped, landing face first. I rushed to help her, but she had other plans. She screamed in fury, ramming something into his leg. It was a hair comb, now embedded into his flesh.
I pried his hand away from her leg, and picked her up.It wasn’t the best situation, but she was in heels and I didn’t want her barefoot. I could only hope nobody stopped us on the way out. The man was shouting into his radio, calling out orders.
“That’s your father?” I asked as we sped through the complex, taking the route I remembered.
“Yeah!” she called, “He’s great, isn’t he?”
I scoffed at her sarcasm. We came across the room I had entered before, a very sleepy man waking up to violent radio calls. He looked astonished when we came in, but I hit him before he could react. Fainting, he slumped back into bed.
“Come on,” I said, gesturing to the window, “Through here.”
She slid through with my help, and I followed as quickly as I could, hearing shouts rise up inside the building. Frantically, I took her face in my hands.
“Listen!” I called, raising my voice over the ever increasing storm, “There’s a horse just a little ways away from here, in the nearby shed! Get on it and ride to town. Get away first, and then find some help. Tell them I’m at the second storage unit south of town. Don’t look back, don’t stop, and don’t let anyone catch you. All right?”
She was already soaked, the rain pelting on her body.
“Have you gone crazy?” she asked, furious.
I shook my head.
“You’re the most important Veronica! We don’t have time to make it out together just yet. They’re already coming, and I can’t fight when I’m worried about you. Go!”
She could hear the voices from inside, and she looked torn.
“Okay!” she called, “But I need to get the other girls from out of the shed! I can’t leave them here to fend for themselves!”
I was frustrated, but she looked untenable.
“Fine,” I said, “But do it quickly! If you can’t get it open, then I’ll do it later. Now go!”
I stressed the last syllable, hoping to nudge her along.
She suddenly pulled me into a crushing hug, shouting, “Don’t you dare die on me now. I’ll never let you rest in peace.”
I smiled. She ran off into the storm, and I focused on the voices. I could use the darkness for cover, but I needed to keep them away from Veronica until she left.
A man stuck his head out the window we had just exited. I struck out with quickly, smacking his head into the window, and pushing him back inside.
I hadn’t killed anyone yet, and I wouldn’t if I could do anything about it. Still, it didn’t mean I couldn’t give them major headaches.
Two down, six to go. Seven, if you counted Veronica’s father.
I snuck around, hiding myself in a bush. I heard two voices come around the corner, their flashlight beams sweeping around the storm. When they passed me, I leaped onto one of them, knocking him down.
We wrestled on the ground, my extra height my advantage. The other man jumped on my from above, trying to get his arms around me. I lifted my arms so he had my torso, leaning back so he was pushed to the ground. I kicked the man that I had previously tackled, knocking him back as he tried to assault me from the front. I slammed my elbow back, catching the man’s face behind me. I leaned back again, crushing him against the ground. He flailed, and I flipped so I could hit him again. I hit his jaw, and his face went slack.
The man left was getting up, so I dropped into a low stance. He lunged forward, and I caught him arm. Jerking it forward, his head collided with my own. He looked dazed, and I swept his ankle out from under him. He fell back, landing with a thump. He went limp, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
These men weren’t nearly as good as their boss. Perhaps they were just hired help. With these two down, it meant I had cleared half of them already, without me sustaining any serious injuries. I heard shouts, high pitched ones that rose above the storm, and I gathered that Veronica had freed the others. Please hurry, I thought.
I stalked the building, sidling along the wall and peeking around the corners. The storm made it hard to see, but lightning was flashing sporadically, lighting up the area every minute or so. I hoped Veronica’s father was still downed, for I did not look forward to fighting him again.
Suddenly, I sensed a figure around me. The storm made my ability to sense others fuzzy, but I could still feel their presence. Hoping I was concealed enough, I waited, the small knife clenched in my pocket. The man came around the corner, and just as I was about to strike, he shined his light on me.
“He’s over here!” he called, and I cursed.
So much for staying hidden. Still, if they couldn’t find him they couldn’t find me. I took him by surprise, lunging at him. I grabbed his arm, twisting it backwards. I removed the flashlight from his possession, arcing it down so that it hit the back of his head. He stood shakily, and I kicked him in the stomach. He landed against a wall, and went limp.
Hurrying, I dragged his unconscious form over to a bush, and bolted. Three men were somewhere around the complex, not counting the boss. Hopefully they wouldn’t find the man I had just knocked out.
The rain was coming down at a sharp angle, stinging against my skin. My clothes didn’t have a chance against the cold, but I wasn’t shivering. The heat of the battle warmed up my muscles, keeping them loose and ready. I resolved to make it out as soon as possible so Veronica didn’t have to worry.
She must be on her way to town now, but wouldn’t be there yet. I would just need to hold off these men until help arrived, or until they were no longer threats.
The man I knocked out had a gun on him, but I didn’t know whether to take it. I didn’t want to kill these men; or rather it wouldn’t have been right. I knew how to use a gun, learning when I was out on the streets. But I could always use it to scare them. I wound my way back, pleased to find him still hidden.
I removed the gun from his side. I could hear a voice nearby, searching for the man who had called out. I peered around the bush, hoping to survey the situation.
He appeared to be alone, but I wasn’t sure it was so. Often, other attackers hide, making it seem as if there was only one member. I took a deep breath, clearing my head. I looked around, hoping to spot the ambush. I saw slight movement in another bush nearby, and I carefully wound myself around the cover, pausing when I saw the man lying in wait for me.
Sneaking up stealthily, I reached up behind him, covering his mouth. He struggled, but I kept a firm grip around nose until he slumped backwards. Stopping quickly to make sure he still could breathe, I got up again.Suddenly, a shot went off by my ear.
I whirled around, only to see a man squinting through the rain. They had guns, and now they were using them. He could only see me faintly, his eyes not accustomed to such darkness. But mine had adjusted an hour ago, and I could see much better.
I slid when he shot again, using the now slippery mud to dive away. I ran right into his leg, and he jumped back. But before he could get away, I pulled it away, causing him to slip as well, his gun being washed away by the rain. He slid as he tried to get up, and I realized I could coat myself in the mud to make myself too slippery to grab. I rolled around, splashing myself in the muddy puddles.
The man had finally regained his footing, and attempted to find the gun. Giving up, he settled for tackling me. He tried to wrap his arms around me, but I was too slick and slipped away from him. The man who I had seen at first had come over now, seeing us fight. He lunged for my arm, attempting to yank it back. Again, I was too slippery, and so he pulled away with nothing. I lashed out, kicking out the first man’s leg. He went down, and I used the opportunity to hit him with the butt of the gun.
After he lay still, I pointed it at the other man. He froze, looking horrified.
“See this?” I called above the storm, “I have a gun. You don’t. What are you going to do about that?”
The man was obviously not prepared for me to have a gun, and he was terrified. He dropped to his knees, muttering something about it just being his job.
“Please, man,” he pleaded, “Look, it’s the others. I didn’t even want to do this; they just talked me into it. You can hurt them as much as you want, just please leave me alone!”
This man didn’t seem to have loyalty to anyone, and he would willingly use people to save himself. I gave him a look of disgust. What a lowly coward. I knocked him out by whipping out with the pistol again. If I had left him, he may have come back and attempted to get in the way.
Veronica’s father was nowhere in sight, and I thanked every god I could think of. She would be racing to town, or perhaps she might have even gotten there already. I had managed to protect us both, and even though Veronica was a bit banged up, she was safe now.
It hrew the gun aside, not liking the familiar feel of the warm,slick metal in my hand. I turned to leave, planning out where I could take refuge while the storm blew over. Deciding I would go back to the other warehouse, I started to walk. I heard a scream behind me, a feminine one. It wasn’t anyone I recognized, but it was one of sheer terror.
There were still girls here? I thought Veronica had let them all out. I turned back towards the unit, only to see a girl stranded on the roof.
She was screaming, “Ayúdame!” which I knew to be “Help me!” in Spanish.
I glanced around. Veronica’s father could be around anywhere, and I didn’t want to risk running into him. But still, I couldn’t leave a defenseless girl caught on a rooftop, perhaps even more so because he could be about. Sighing, I rushed towards the building.
There was a fire escape on the side, and I leaped up to catch the ladder. I climbed, almost slipping in the rain twice. The metal was slick, covered in the rain. I reached the top.
“Calm down!” I yelled at her, trying to speak over the storm. She didn’t seem to understand. She screamed again, and pointed over my shoulder. What?
Pain exploded in my shoulder just as I turned to see what was wrong. I hit the ground, searching for the source of my discomfort. I felt a long gash across my shoulder, warm and bleeding. Lightning flashed again, piercing through the gloom. I looked up to see Veronica’s father, a wild snarl on his face.
Damn it, I thought to myself, how could I have been so stupid? One lone girl, up on a rooftop, after I knocked out all the men? It had been a trap, an obvious one. I had let my guard down too soon. Now there was no way I was going to be able to escape without leaving the girl behind and getting hurt.
I hadn't liked the gun, and now it was still sitting on the ground far away. Now I realized that had been a mistake, one that could prove fatal. He was still wielding the knife, sharp and wicked like the smile on his face.
“You may have taken Veronica away from me,” he shouted, “But not for long. I can always find her again, and I always will. Killing you is just a bonus.”
He was laughing now, the sound being mixed in with the wind. He took a step towards me.
“After her brother,” he said, “It devastated her. Still, she could pass it off as a fluke incident, perhaps because he had been so young. But if I kill you, that’s a different story. She thinks you’re strong, that you can do anything. If I kill you she’ll know that she can never get away from me, and that I’ll kill anyone she gets close to.”
I could only see the lunacy in his eyes, and I understood he was having a mental breakdown. He was on the verge of becoming hysterical, his maniacal laughter continuing.
“And it’s all because of you. Did you come here to save her today? Do you love her? Is that what she thinks? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is you’ve given me a wonderful psychological tool with your death, and I thank you.”
I was angry, angrier than I had been in a long time. But it wouldn’t do me any good to lose my focus now, and it was just what he wanted. I won’t play in your games, you mad man. I raised my head so I could be heard better.
“You act like you’ve already killed me. I think you’ll find it’s a lot harder than you expected. And yes, I do. I hope she knows, because otherwise I haven’t been very good at expressing things. But I’m not dead, so don’t thank me yet."
He smirked, his attitude full of cockiness and disrespect.
“You think that you can take me?” he asked, starting to circle.
I shrugged, repeating his action. I pulled out the small knife, and he laughed.
“Is that all you have? And you really expect you can win against this?” he asked, lifting up the kitchen knife.
He thought too much of himself, which could be his downfall. He was good, that I didn’t doubt, but anyone could lose in a fight. I could lose to any young fighter, and so could he.
I noticed he was limping ever so slightly as he circled, and his shoulder seemed to cause him pain. Veronica had really gotten him good, and with a hair comb no less. I felt pride well up inside my chest, and I thought of her to keep my mind clear.
“Well,” I said, hoping to cause him anger, “You’re limping around with a hurt shoulder, and you can’t see out of one eye. All of which, were caused by teenagers. I think I have a bit of an advantage here.”
I didn’t know that for sure, but I knew that he reacted badly to anger, and I wanted to make him lose his focus.
“I mean, come on,” I continued, “Is it really so hard to contain a few small kids? You’re taller and stronger. You must really not know how to handle them, huh? That scar’s pretty nasty.”
He screamed in rage. His face was absolutely livid, so red it looked like a tomato. He lunged with his knife, a move I had long anticipated. I dodged it effortlessly, kicking him as he was off balance. He fell, but got up just as quickly.
“How dare you? I’ll teach you to open your mouth!” he exclaimed in fury, “I was just going to kill you quickly, but now I’ll make it slow and painful!”
We fought with each other on the rooftop; the constant lightning flashes the only light. There were several close calls, for I couldn’t see in between the strikes. I received several small cuts, and so did he. He managed to give me a cut on my face, and the blood coursed down my cheek.
The girl from before was huddled in the corner, thankfully. If she got involved, I couldn’t assure her safety.
He lunged and I parried, the cycle continuing. He was getting tired now. I had developed increased endurance over my years on the trail, whereas he only developed muscles. He was stronger than me at first, but I would wear him down. He was also too bulky to get around as nimbly as me, for I was more compact in frame. He had obviously never had his victims last this long before.
“I’m no teenage boy,” I called to him, “It won’t be as easy.”
He simply continued attacking he swung it down, and I barely countered with the pocket knife. It was so much smaller, and I couldn’t stop the blade from coming close to my neck. Using every shred of strength I had, I pushed him away just enough to hit him. His face was was leaned in, and so I head butted him. It hurt, but I needed to get the knife away from my throat. He was standing in a daze, and I tackled him to the ground. I punched him several times, but he didn’t pass out.
He grabbed my shoulder from the ground, and I screamed in pain. Gritting my teeth, I pushed him back, leaning a leg on his wound. He also cried out. I shoved him into the concrete, simultaneously putting pressure on both gashes made by the comb. I reached for the knife in his hand, but he flipped, creating a long gash. It burned, and I let go.
He stood up, leaning over me. My hand wasn’t numb, and I could still move it. But he didn’t need to know that, and I could actually do what I was going to do before. He was on his guard now, and knew how good I was at fighting now. I would have to make him truly feel like he had all of the power. I only hoped his sadistic instincts would kick in and he would attempt to torture me like he had said. Resigning myself to pain, I waited.
He came up to me, putting a foot on my ribs and pressing down with enough force to crush them. My world spun for a moment as I forced myself to focus. The pain was absolutely excruciating. Each snap that came from them created an agonizing wave that followed, drowning me in a sea of pain. Veronica, I thought, Think of Veronica. Her hair, her eyes, her beautiful smile.
The nausea was coming. Her puns at night, her silly country voice acting.
He had moved to my arm now. Just a little bit closer, I thought, just a little bit more pain. Her cuddling Ozzie, her head resting against my shoulder. Her sopping wet hair as she pulled me into the river, laughing maniacally.
Her tears for me the night I spoke of my past, her fascination in nature, stars, and stories. Her look before she said goodbye, the bone crushing hug.
Only a few ribs were broken as far as I could tell, but I mostly had fractures. I cried out, a mix of pain and exaggeration. He laughed again, leaning in. He had forgotten I had the pocket knife, absorbed in his anger.
When he came close enough, I grabbed his head, burying my fingers in his hair. Bringing down the knife with as much strength as possible, I slashed across his face, almost identically to the previous slash that had caused the scar. He wrenched away, howling in pain. He clawed at his face, tearing away pieces of skin. It was grotesque, and I had to look away before I vomited. His screeching rose though the air, and he dropped to the ground.
Why was he doing that to his skin? He would kill himself! I tried to gesture to the girl, to get her out safe and sound while he was distracted. She leaped over him, but slipped on the slick rooftop. I bent down to help her, only taking my eyes off of Veronica’s still screaming father for a second. Unfortunately, that second had been too long.
I heard the knife puncture my side before I felt it. The pain was delayed, almost as if I was in shock. But sure enough, I looked down at it, the knife sticking out. Veronica’s father was staggering along the roof, and he smiled when the knife clattered to the ground as it slipped from his weak grasp. It was bleeding profusely, seeping through my shirt like a sieve. I was still standing, although I couldn’t comprehend why. Perhaps I had just been grazed? It was strange I could only feel an ache there.
Veronica’ father attempted to reach me, but couldn’t keep from swaying. I couldn’t feel the knife in my hand anymore, and I didn’t know if I could fight. The girl was shivering in a corner now, burying her face in her hands. Before any of us could react, he lunged forward unsteadily. He tripped on the girl as he moved, knocking him off balance. He was now leaning dangerously over the rail.
I tried to grab him, to stop him from falling. He didn’t deserve to live exactly, but I wouldn’t let anybody die if I could help it. He was supposed to be in jail for the rest of his life, not falling off of buildings. He looked as if he were steady for a moment, but then leaned over even more. Without warning, he fell off of the edge.
Had he slipped? I moved as quickly as I could to the rail, hoping I could still see him. I could, but there was no way he was alive. He hadn’t landed in a survivable position. I felt my legs buckle out from under me, and I fell to the ground.
“Matt!” I heard a voice call.
I looked around, only to spot Veronica.
“Hi,” I said, not quite registering what had happened.
She looked confused and frantic.
“Why?” I asked, looking at her curiously, “Why are you here?”
She rushed over to my side, kneeling next to me.
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t leave you behind with other guys. I sent one of the girls ahead to the town, because she spoke a little English. What happened? I thought the knife missed?”
She was so concerned, and I felt happy she cared about me. I was bleeding out, and so I began to feel dizzy. She pulled my arm around her shoulder, attempting to get me down the stairs she had just come up. I tried to walk, but I was losing my balance, and I almost fell. Fortunately, there was only one flight of stairs, and she dragged me down it. When we reached the ground floor, she pulled me out a now open door. I fell from her grasp outside.
The edges of my vision were starting to cloud up, but I forced them away. Was I dying? I knew that I was. The knife wound had been too serious. I couldn’t feel my tongue, and so my words began to slur.
She told me that I was going to be just fine. I smiled at her, knowing she understood I was dying. I reached up to her face, placing my hand on it. I frowned when her cheek was smeared with blood.
“Sorry,” I said, worried I had upset her.
She kept telling me I was fine.
“No, baby girl. No.” I told her firmly.
I told her to listen, but I was interrupted by the pain finally coming to me. I arched my back in agony, writhing around. As the initial wave passed, I panted.
I told her I loved her, because I hadn’t said it before at the hotel. She needed to know just how much I cared before I went away. She told me she loved me too, and my heart glowed with joy. I reached around her head, touching her hair clip. I told her she was beautiful, but that she should have her hair down, for she liked it that way. I took it out for her, her hair coming down in waves.
She really was beautiful in her dress, and I was glad I was going to see her as my last vision before I faded away. Her hair was now clinging to her face, and so I brushed a strand away. She was my baby girl, my beloved friend, and my favorite person in the entire world. She was my angel.
I told her how she had changed my life, and how thankful I was. She was crying.
“Don’t cry,” I said, frowning at her, “You’re okay. Everything will be fine.”
She shook her head. She was saying something about not leaving her, but I was fading, and fast. But I had to say one last thing before I left.
“Please don’t let this bother you,” I said, more relaxed this time.
The pain was draining away like the blood, and I could feel myself grow limper. It was cold, but she was holding my hand in hers, so I didn’t mind.
“You will be the most beautiful drifter there is. I can already tell you’ll help so many people. You are the sweetest, most loving girl I have ever met, and I want you to spread that love to others. You’ll awaken soon, and it will all be better. Remember how much I love you right now, and keep that love in your heart. If you ever feel lonely or sad, just remember me in your heart.”
She was weeping now, hunched over as she held my hand against her face. The rain was clearing up rapidly now, as if Veronica’s presence had brought down sunshine again.
“It’s never really goodbye,” I said weakly, fighting to keep my eyes open, “I’ll become a part of nature now, and you’ll always have me with you. Stay strong, okay? Never change who you are. Remember every single ounce of love you have received and give some to others. It’s time for me to go now.”
She was shaking her head frantically again.
“Veronica, my beautiful baby girl, I am the luckiest man in the world. Thank you for loving me as I love you. Be a good girl and don’t get into trouble. Take care. You are always going to be the most special person in my heart. It’s time for me to leave you, but I’ll meet you again someday. I love you.”
She was screaming something, but I couldn’t hear.
When my vision faded and I went completely limp, the darkness closed in. I wasn’t afraid of it, because my life had truly meant something now. Instead, I welcomed it like an old friend.

Highway Chapter 22

Matt was smiling at me, despite my situation. He looked to my father, asking him to give me back. My father sneered, turning to me. He asked me if I hadn’t learned the first time someone tried to protect me. I replied snarkily, telling him Matt was better by far. I could see his muscles tense and shift as he moved, and I remembered him telling me about getting into fights. He may not have done it in a while, but he still remembered everything.
Matt called to me, asking me if I could come over, unless I was having fun. I scoffed, finding it funny he still had a sense of humor. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father move. I jumped out of the way, hopping to the other side of the desk. He told me he would deal with me in a minute, and turned to Matt. Now that he had his back facing away from me, I could attack him. He was engaging in a dance with Matt, both of them circling with predatory grace.
I spotted the comb glinting off to the side, and grabbed it. Matt tripped on a stool, and I cursed. He wasn’t getting up, and I began to worry. Just before my father struck at Matt, I leaped onto his back, tearing at his hair. There was no way I was going to let someone else die because of my father. He threw me to the ground, and turned towards me, furious.
Matt lashed out from behind, kicking his knee out and elbowing him. He went down, and Matt called for me to run. I leaped over his form, only to get caught as he shot out a hand to trip me. I landed face first, and shook away the dizziness from my head. Matt moved to help me, but I was already in action.
Screaming, I rammed the comb into my father’s leg as hard as I could, feeling it sink into his flesh. He screamed. Matt pried away his hands, lifting me up bridal style. He asked me if that had been my father as we raced out of the hallways, and I told him sarcastically he was great.
We came upon a room as the man inside woke up to angry radio calls. Matt punched him before he could react, and told me to hurry through the open window. With his help, I slid through. The heels hindered me greatly, but I didn’t know whether to chuck them or not. He grabbed my face in his hands, shouting instructions to get away over the wind.
Had he lost his mind? Like I was going to leave him here alone! He shook his head when I asked him if he was crazy. I heard voices inside, and I knew he was right. We could only go one at a time really, for they would be on to us now and the horse couldn’t ride as fast with two people.
I reluctantly agreed, but not before telling him I was going to free the girls that were still here. They had been put in the shed nearby, and I wouldn’t leave them to fend for themselves. He said okay, and told me to hurry up. As turned to leave, I thought better.
Spinning around, I pulled him into the tightest hug I could give, telling him he better not die on me now.
I ran off towards the shed, my dress sticking to me as the rain fell down. The storm had reached its climax, and was becoming intense. I found my way to the building, almost slamming into the wall. It was locked from the outside, but someone had left the keys on the door. What kind of idiots got away with such an operation? Thinking I shouldn’t question my good luck, I unlocked the door.
I flung it open, stepping inside as quickly as possible. It closed behind me with a click. I scanned for guards, but there were none. A group of about ten huddled girls lay on the floor, shivering. I was sure I wasn’t just because it was cold. They started at my appearance, but went back to normal when they saw I was only a girl with a bruise on her face. They thought I was just another prisoner.
“Hey.” I called, trying to get their attention. They were still huddling, and whispering among each other.
“Hey!” I tried again, this time attracting a few stares.
“Shut up!” one of them hissed, “They’ll hear you. We all get in trouble.”
I would have to show them they were being stupid. I stepped up on a box in the corner, so that I was above them. Putting my fingers in my mouth, I whistled to them.
Then, I simply held up the keys. They broke out into a murmur, all speaking in languages I couldn’t understand. I had taken Spanish in high school, but I never really learned much and graduated early. They pushed a girl to the front, and I recognized her as the one who spoke to me earlier. I was glad somebody understood English here.
“Where?” she asked, her English slightly halting. It was only something she had picked up, but at least she could understand.
“Outside.” I replied, “My friend came to recue me and I found the keys, so I decided to let you out."
I walked over to the door, unlocking it again and holding it open. They stood there strangely, as if they couldn’t figure out where to go. Suddenly, the girl shouted something in Spanish, and it travelled through the pack, being translated to the other languages. They all rushed forward at the same time, a wave of girls screeching as the rain hit them. They scattered, and I was glad the town was close enough they could all find it.
I ran out myself, scanning for Matt. I couldn’t find him, and so I just ran to where the horse was supposed to be. I spotted the girl who knew English up ahead, and I called to her. She turned, following me. We reached the horse at the same time, and he reared at our unfamiliar faces. But as soon as I swung around his other side to avoid his hooves, he quieted down just a little.
“Shh! It’s okay horsie. Matt sent me, the man you took here. Can’t you smell him on me?”
I was worried the scent had been washed out by the rain, but he sniffed me and settled down. I got on, pulling the girl up beside me. I wasn’t sure how to ride exactly, but he was a very tame and calm horse. I pulled on his reins to lead him out of the shed, and got ready to gallop.
Suddenly, there was a scream behind me. A girl's, it was surprising it rose from above the wind. What was I doing? I was leaving behind not only Matt, but also defenseless girls. I was doing exactly what I had done with my brother, and that had only led to him getting hurt.
No, I wouldn’t leave Matt behind, even if that meant I had to get a bit more beaten up. He was probably too busy stopping the others to save the girl, and that only left me. But still, someone needed to alert the town, and they had to know how to speak English.
“I’ve got to go,” I said to the girl behind me, sliding off the horse, “I’m needed here.”
She looked at me incredulously, looking as if I had taken leave of my senses.
“You crazy?” she asked, “is bad here. Come with me.”
I shook my head, telling her I had to help a friend. I told her to say what Matt had told me, and I sent her away. She looked reluctant, but nudged the horse on. I flung off the heels, wincing as the gravel dug into my feet. Still, I had better mobility now. But the dress was still too long. I saw a box opener in the corner of the shed, and cut off the layers on the dress until about my knee. That was better.
I raced back into the storm, heading for the direction of the scream. She was in the building somewhere, but I needed to be careful. Matt may not have taken out all of the men yet.
He’s going to be furious, I thought, but he’ll just have to deal with it. I reached the window I had come in quicker than I could have imagined, thinking about what could be happening to the girl. I slid through, pausing to make sure the man inside was still unconscious. To my surprise, there were two men passed out here. I swiftly made my way through the complex, searching for the girl. Nobody seemed to be inside, and I was grateful. Not finding her anywhere inside, I concluded she had run up to the roof.
I searched for a flight of stairs, and found them in the corner. I sprinted up them, coming to a door. I opened it very slowly, peeking through. If she was screaming, it meant there was one of the men. To my surprise, I saw Matt circling another figure. A bolt of lightning flashed, and I saw it was my father.
Matt told him he wasn’t a teenager, referring to my brother. My father arced his knife down, and Matt barely parried with his smaller one. The sound of metal grinding against metal filled the air.
Did I try to help him? Should I distract my father? But Matt didn’t seem to be doing too badly, despite a cut on his face. The last time I had interrupted a fight like this one, it ended badly. I decided I would wait until absolutely necessary. Matt head butted my father and tackled him to the ground. He grabbed Matt’s shoulder, making him cry out in pain. Matt shoved him back, putting pressure on the wounds I had inflicted.
Suddenly, Matt cried out, lying still on the concrete. He looked up as my father rose, and I wondered what was wrong. He didn’t look particularly hurt, so why was he just sitting there? My father leaned on his ribs, crushing them. Each one made a loud snap!
What was happening? Did Matt need help? Why on earth was he just sitting still? I moved to attack my father, but Matt’s behavior made me think. He had done something similar inside, and I had been too late to notice it. Perhaps he was drawing him in? I waited to see, wincing each time I heard a crack. When he leaned in, I stepped away from the door to be ready to strike. But as I suspected, Matt grabbed his hair, slashing his face with the small knife still in his hand. He fell to the ground screaming, tearing at his face.
Matt gestured to the girl I had heard screaming, now huddled in the corner of the rooftop. Suddenly, my father lunged towards Matt, just missing his side. He looked down, surprised.
My father swayed dangerously, attempting to attack Matt again. He tripped on the girl’s foot, landing on the rail. Matt tried to reach for him, but it was too late. He fell off, and I could hear the crash as he landed.
I got ready to call to Matt, but he suddenly fell to the ground.
I rushed to his side, seeing the blood pool around him. I had thought the knife had missed, but it had hit him after all.
“Hi,” he said, as if this were an everyday situation.
He asked me why I was here, confused. I told him I came back to help the girl, sending the one from the shed to town. He was bleeding too fast, and I needed to get him medical attention.
“Come on,” I said, slinging his arm around my shoulder.
He tried to stand, walking a few steps before having to lean heavily on me. He was so big, and I could barely keep him on his feet. We dragged against the wall until we made it to the ground floor. The girl from the roof had long since sprung away, nowhere to be found. He would be fine if I could get him some help, or even if I bandaged his wound.
He collapsed just outside of the door, and I kneeled next to him. Bits of glass and rocks dug into my knees, but I didn’t care.
“Matt!” I called, “Matt, it’s going to be okay. You’ll be fine.”
He gave me a knowing smile, and placed a bloody hand on my cheek. It smeared across my skin, and he apologized.
“Look,” I said, “its okay. You’re fine. You’re fine.”
I repeated the phrase, a mantra of sorts.
“No, baby girl. No.” he said weakly.
“Listen,” he choked out, his back spasming in pain. He panted, wincing.
“I love you,” he said when he recovered, “I love you so much more than you could ever know. I didn’t tell you at the hotel, but I should have. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone my whole life. I just wanted you to know.”
My heart exploded with joy, warmth spreading through my body. But it was wrong, for he was losing it. He was dying, I knew, for nobody could bleed like that and live. But I wouldn’t acknowledge it, not until he stopped breathing.
“I love you too, Matt. You’re the first person I’ve loved in a long time.”
He gave me an achingly beautiful smile.
“Why is your hair up?” he asked, reaching around my head, “You look so beautiful, but you should have your hair down. You don’t like it up.”
He frowned, and I let him take it out, causing my hair to tumble down. I expected it to be sopping wet, but the rain was tapering off, and so it was mostly dry. How did he know about my hair? Once again, he knew so much about me that I didn’t even realize. He brushed a strand out of my face, and I caught his hand.
“Don’t you die too, Matt. Please. You’re all I have left.”
I was crying now, the saline filling my mouth. The tears splashed onto his cheek, mixing with the blood from the cut. It swirled into the drops, tingeing them with red. He was in pain, but so was I. What little was left of my heart was being cracked, bit by bit, until it shattered.
“You’ve meant so much to me, baby girl,” he said, taking in pained breaths, “And I can’t thank you enough. I was always so lonely on the path, but you changed that. You filled the only part of me left open by my awakening. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Stop. Stop it! Don’t say it like you’re dying!
The agony was prominent, filling up my lungs like water. I couldn’t breathe.
“Don’t cry,” he said, frowning, “You’re okay. Everything will be fine.”
I shook my head. What was he saying?
“I won’t be fine without you, Matt! How could I be fine? You’re the only one I love. Don’t you leave me. Please.”
My voice broke, and I felt my heart finally collapse. He struggled to say something, so I propped him up on my legs, cradling his head.
He gave me a grateful smile, and said, “Please don’t let this bother you.”
Why would I not? I was losing the only person I cared about. He was my favorite person, my love, my joy. I loved him as equally as I did my brother, and now I was losing him too.
I held his hand against my face, warming it up. He was so cold, just like my brother was that night.
“You will be the most beautiful drifter there is. I can already tell you’ll help so many people. You are the sweetest, most loving girl I have ever met, and I want you to spread that love to others.” He said, and I felt my heart swell in adoration again.
Why was he telling me this?
He told me to remember how much he loved me, and to hold it in my heart. If I ever got lonely, I should just think of him.
“I don’t want to think of you, Matt! I want you to be there so I don’t have to be lonely! You can’t do this to me. Don’t leave me alone again! I can’t lose anyone else. Please. Please.”
All I could feel was the pain, and I leaned over Matt, hunched over. The sound of my sorrowful keening echoed across the space. No. Please, not again.
“It’s never really goodbye,” he said, squeezing my hand.
He told me it was time for him to go, and I shook my head frantically.
“No, Matt, no. Don’t even say it, you’ll be fine, you’ll make it. No!”
He hushed me gently.
“Veronica, my beautiful baby girl, I am the luckiest man in the world,” he said, “Thank you for loving me as I love you. Be a good girl and don’t get into trouble. Take care of yourself. You are always going to be the most special person in my heart. It’s time for me to leave you, but I’ll meet you again someday. I love you.”
This couldn’t be happening again. Could life really be so cruel?
“What are you saying? Come on! Get up! Please! We’re just outside of town! Don’t you dare leave me, you stubborn idiot. Get over your melodrama and stand up!”
I was screaming at him now, hoping I could use my voice to give him life.
“You can’t die. I told you, I won’t let you rest in peace! Don’t break that promise to me! Matt! Matt!”
He went limp in my arms, no longer responding. God, please no.
“Why? What the hell do you have against me?” I shouted to the sky, asking any god there was. “Haven’t you done enough already?”
I screamed in fury, leaning my head on Matt’s chest. I looked up again.
“Please don’t let him die. He’s the only thing I have left in this world. I’m sorry I squandered your gift to me, but don’t punish me like this.” I pleaded. “I’ll do anything, just don’t let him die! Please. I know I’m not your favorite, and I’ve done some pretty questionable things, but I’m asking you for help. I need you now. Please help me. Tell me what I should do!”
I got no answer from the clearing sky, only silence. I couldn’t tell if Matt was breathing, but his face was deathly pale. I wept for him, for he was gone. But then my sorrow was replaced with anger.
I was suddenly filled with a vicious fury, and a whirlwind of rage swept through my body. I had lost everyone I cared about in my life, and I had cried long enough.
Why wasn’t I even trying to change what was happening around me? Maybe life was trying to screw me, but maybe it was presenting me opportunities to help myself. I looked down at my Matt, my beautiful beloved boy. I was his baby girl, and I was just sitting here. I tried to get him down the stairs, but that was as far as I had gotten. But was I just going to sit here now? No. No way. I would not let life win this one.
I stood up, screeching across the land.
“You aren’t going to take him away from me! My life has been screwed up enough as it is, and I’m not letting you ruin the only good thing about it. So I’m warning anyone who’s listening, I won’t let him go. No!”
I peeled off Matt’s jacket, and lifted up his shirt.
The stab wound looked horrible, deep and bleeding. You wouldn’t think he had much blood left, but it was still seeping. With a clearer view of his chest, I could now see it move. I place my hand on his heart, and felt a pulse. It was very faint, but still there.
“You aren’t going to die, Matt,” I said intensely, “At least not today. You are not going to die because you tried to save me. You might die for some stupid reason, but it won’t be about me.”
I looked around, hoping to find anything to bind the wound. But there wasn’t much except my dress, and that wouldn’t save him. I didn’t have anything to stitch up his wound. What do I do? Please tell me.
As I prayed for help, I suddenly became very aware of the sounds around me. The birds chirping, the wind blowing, and a fire crackling. Wait, a fire? Fire’s meant supplies, and supplies meant tinder. Perhaps there was some cloth? Maybe there was something to help me stitch up Matt’s wound.
I rushed inside, skidding around the corner. I saw the fire, but cursed as I couldn’t find supplies. The only thing that was there was a metal fire sticker, glowing hot.
Could I cauterize the wound? I had no idea how, but it would close it. We had learned about it in med class junior year, but we hadn’t demonstrated it. His wound was so big too, and I didn’t have anything to clean the gash first. Wait! There was some alcohol in the corner. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
Thinking I had no other choice, I carefully removed the metal rod. I rushed outside with the liquor, and splashed some of it on Matt’s side, cleaning it as best I could. I waited until it dried, for I didn’t want it to catch on fire. How hot did the rod have to be? If it was too hot, it would just burn his flesh, making it even worse. It was red hot, which didn’t seem right. I would wait until it just barely glowed. I hoped Matt would make it that long.
Realistically, he could die at anytime from the blood loss, especially since I had no way to get him back to town besides walking. Even then, he could die afterwards or because of an infection. Still, I was going to focus on the moment right here, right now.
I used the small knife in his pocket to tear off more of my dress, almost making it indecent. I looked around frantically, and spotted some rope just inside. It was probably used to tie up girls, but I was more than happy to have it. I sawed through a section of the rope large enough to wrap around Matt’s side. I would have to hope the cloth didn’t slide around too much.
The metal was cooler now, and I prepared myself for the worst. I was glad that Matt was unconscious, for this was going to be painful. I pressed the metal into a portion of the wound, searing the flesh. The smell almost made me vomit as it reached my nose, but I kept going. I took breathes through my mouth, hoping to block out the sickening scent. Matt twitched slightly, and I prayed he wouldn’t wake up.
The wound was horrible, an angry red with a bit of black skin. I couldn’t tell if I was doing it right, and it worried me. Still, the part I had burned didn’t seem to be bleeding much, so I continued. After I did the other sections, I hastily got together the dress scrap and the rope.
Pulling on Matt’s torso, I stuck the rope under him, and laid the dress down on his wound, tying the rope as tight as I could. I didn’t want him to be unable to breathe, but I needed to stop the blood from flowing to there.
Now how was I supposed to bring him to town? Matt had taken about an hour to get here, and he had a horse. I had sent the girl away to town with it, but there was no way they could get all the way over here and all the way back without Matt dying. I cursed myself for not knowing how to hotwire a car, and I wondered if Matt did.
“Matt!” I called, hoping that maybe he would resurface just enough time to tell me how to hijack the car.
I patted his face gently, trying to wake him. When he didn’t move, I began to panic. I stuck my head against his chest, listening and feeling for movement. I breathed a sigh of relief as I felt his chest still rising faintly. But he was running out of time, even with the bleeding mostly stopped. He had passed out from Hypovolemic shock, and could have a cardiac arrest any minute now. I would have to drag him. Even if I didn’t make it in time, I still had to try.
He was too heavy to carry with an arm over my shoulder the whole time, and so I would have to switch. I hooked my hands under his arms, getting a good grip on his upper torso. I pulled him along, talking to him to keep calm.
“You are not going to die on me. You’re such a self-absorbed, rude, annoying person. You have a huge ego. Your hair sucks, you’re too tall, and you wake up too early. You’re obnoxious, stupid, and have the weirdest sense of humor ever.”
Perhaps if I insulted him enough, he would wake up to defend himself.
“Still,” I continued, “I love you exactly how you are. You’re also a sweet, caring, wonderful person. You always care for others, even if you don’t know them. You have eyes that are like seas, muscles so strong, yet a touch so gentle. You’re witty, loving, and are always willing to do whatever it takes to cheer me up.”
My arms were straining, and I could feel them start to shake. I shifted positions, slinging his arm over my shoulder. I mixed it up, almost carrying him on my back but not quite. He was so much heavier and taller than I was, and getting my back thrown out wouldn’t do him any good. I switched positions in several minutes, creating a cycle.
“You’re not dying on my watch. You know why?” I asked to him, keeping my mind off of the exhaustion I was feeling. “It’s because you aren’t the same as anyone else. You aren’t my brother. You haven’t been stabbed in the stomach, being left to die as you bled out slowly. You aren’t your teacher. You haven’t been shot, and you won’t die in my arms. I refuse to let you turn into them. They died, but they did it for a purpose. You don’t have any use in dying besides leaving me. If you want, you can leave after you get better, but not like this. You are NOT my brother or your teacher, and you won’t share the same fate. Even if it kills me, I will make sure you get out alive.”
I pulled until I couldn’t anymore, and my legs buckled.
"Get up!" I told myself.
Matt didn’t look worse, but he definitely wasn’t better, and I was constantly checking for a heartbeat.
My limbs were so drained, and I guessed I must have dragged him a mile and a half. It took so long when I had to pull him, but I was still too far away from the town. I stood up shakily and tried again, whimpering when my arms screamed at me.
Could it really end here? After I had done so much? Was I really about to pass out and let Matt die? I couldn’t pull him anymore. I tried, tugging with all my might, but I just kept falling. He was going to die in the middle of the road, and I couldn’t do anything about it.
Where was the help from the town? They had probably just heard, and were preparing to leave. Would they be too late? I assumed so. I crawled over to Matt’s still form, his chest only rising half an inch at a time. He looked paler now, and I knew he was close to death.
Why? Why can’t I just have this one thing? I tried so hard. Even so, I had taken the gift for granted, and now it was being taken away. I lay across his chest again, feeling the tears come back. They were hopeless tears, ones that accepted his passing. I was going to lose him now, despite everything we had been through. But as I lay against him, I heard a peculiar noise.
As I looked up to see what it was, I recognized the sound to be a horse running along the ground. Thinking it a bandit, I took the knife from the Matt's pocket. If Matt was going to die, it sure as hell wouldn’t be because a lowlife killed him. But as it came closer, I recognized the face.
The sky was bright and shining now, the sun coming up over the horizon. Riding the same beautiful black stallion as before, shouting my name, was Julian.
He pounded thunderously across the plain, rearing to a halt right next to us. He hopped off adroitly, trying survey the situation.
“What the hell happened? Last I heard, Matt was fighting some guys in the complex. But I was just there, and everyone is knocked out.”
He bent down to examine Matt, seeing my makeshift dressing. He surveyed us both, taking in my ragged appearance.
“My father was there, and he got in a fight with Matt. Matt won, but not before my father gave him a terrible gash. Don’t touch it. It was bleeding too much, and so I tried to cauterize it the best that I could. Julian, he’s dying. I tried so hard, but he’s dying.”
My voice was raising in hysteria, and I knew I was going into shock.
“Your father?” He asked, then continued, “It doesn’t matter. What does he have to do with this?” I had forgotten he didn’t know, but I didn’t have time to explain.
“It’s a long story,” I said, “But I don’t have time. I can’t lose him, Julian!”
He gripped my face in between his hands, soothing me.
“Shh! You did the right thing. It seems you’ve stopped the bleeding, but he needs medical attention fast. You don’t look too good yourself.”
He checked over his wound one last time, and then stood up.
“Get on the horse,” he said.
I sat, uncomprehending.
“Get on the horse!” he said again, “Unless you want him to die!”
I scrambled up, trying to follow orders. He lifted my shaky body into the saddle, making sure I was stable. Then he lifted Matt on in front of me, slinging his body across the horse.
“Ride to the south for another mile. Don’t take any turns, and don’t stop. Ride as fast as you can, but if the horse starts rearing, slow down.”
I was astonished, wondering how he got here.
“How did you know?” I asked, “And where did you get the horse?”
He smiled. He showed me how to keep Matt on the horse, and told me how to steer.
“I had taken shelter at the town during the storm. This girl came flying down the street on the horse, shouting to everyone. She told us about you and the kid and this place, although it was a bit hard to understand. I was worried they would take too long, so I set off myself. After I reached the building, I only had to follow the drag marks.”
He was the most beautiful sight right now, and I leaned down to give him a kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you, Julian. I mean it.”
He smiled.
“Don’t thank me yet. Now go!” he said, and I nudged the horse to make him move.
The poor animal was probably exhausted, but he still performed with amazing speed. We galloped through the valley.
What about Julian? What was he going to do? I shook off the thought, focusing on keeping Matt in the saddle.
He was sliding a little bit, but I kept my arms around him. I couldn’t feel his breathing over the movement of the horse, so I just had to assume he was still alive. We made it to town in record time, the horse’s hooves clicking against the asphalt. We rushed past shocked civilians, and went straight to the hospital. I skidded to a halt, almost falling off.
“Help!” I shouted to the gathering crowd, “Somebody help me! My friend’s been hurt really bad and he’s dying. Where is a doctor?”
People rushed inside to get the emergency workers, and they dashed out of the door. They took him to an operating room, shouting to each other medical terms.
I didn’t have anything to do but wait, and so I took up pacing around the lobby. The nurses tried to get me to see one of the doctors for treatment of my injuries. I snarled at them wildly, telling them I was fine. I wouldn’t treat my injuries until I knew Matt was safe. They left me alone, mostly because they were scared, but also because I wasn’t in too bad a shape.
News reporters crowded around outside, but I refused every interview. Julian arrived after an hour, and proceeded to sit down next to me. He said nothing. Once a police officer came in and tried to get information about the case, but I didn’t tell him anything except the address. When he pressed for more, Julian firmly told him no and essentially kicked him out.
When one hour turned into two with no word on Matt, I nearly had a breakdown. I marched up to the receptionist’s desk, screaming at her.
“Why haven’t we heard anything yet? Are you guys even trying?”
I screeched more obscenities at her, leaning over the desk threateningly. Julian had to practically drag me away before they called security, picking me up from behind before setting me down a safe distance away.
“Let go!” I shouted.
He made me face him before saying, “Stop it! If you keep yelling they’re going to kick you out! What good will you do him if you’re gone?”
I must have looked sad, for he came closer. He wrapped his arms around me, and I cried. Julian was the only one here who could understand my worry.
Waiting. Waiting was all we did. Seconds turned to minutes, minutes turned to hours. Julian eventually got me to visit a room to be examined, with the promise to rush in if he heard any news. I sat impatiently as they looked over me, but I was relatively fine. They cleaned the wound I had gotten from the nail on my hand, and bandaged it. She also gave me some ice for my cheek and checked out my wrists.
After a bit, I returned to Julian’s side. We waited again. He had his arm around me now, a mix of comfort and restraint.
After three hours had passed, a doctor came in and walked to us.
“Are you the family of the man who came in with the stab wound?” he asked, and we nodded.
There wouldn’t be any record of him, or at least very little of one, and so he couldn’t use an actual name. He paused, and I was sure Matt was dead. But then, he spoke.
“The wound was very deep and jagged. He lost quite a lot of blood. But whoever cauterized that wound saved his life. It was messy to fix, and he’ll have a large scar, but he is still alive today because of it.”
Matt was okay? My heart exploded in happiness, my soul full of joy. When he saw me rejoice, he smiled.
“He’s not out of the woods yet,” he said, more serious, “He could still go into shock, or the wound could get infected. Still, his future seems pretty bright. If he makes it through the day, he will be home free.”
Julian thanked the man.
“Wait,” I called, “Could we see him?”
The doctor turned, smiling at my eagerness.
“In a few hours, yes. But he just got out of surgery, so you’ll have to wait just a little bit.”
I bit back an irritated reply, leaning into Julian’s shoulder again. We sat and waited some more. Julian got something to eat, but I didn’t feel very hungry. He made me take a roll, and I chewed on it absentmindedly.
After what seemed like an eternity, we were told we could go see him. Resisting the urge to sprint down the hallway, I followed the guide to his room.
It was quiet, and he was lying on his bed. Several machines were hooked up to him, and the constant beat of his heart sounded in the background. He was still frighteningly pale, but he had regained some color in his face. He had bandages across his side, and one on his face.
“Can I touch him?” I asked the nurse, worried I would accidently set off a reaction of some sort.
She told me I could, as long as I was gentle. I reached to the uninjured side of his face, placing my hand on his cheek. He wasn’t nearly as cold, and I ran my thumb over his smooth skin. He had made it.
“You’re too stubborn to leave, aren’t you?” I asked.
Julian chuckled, seconding the statement. After asking permission, we settled down into Matt’s room. I didn’t want to look away from him, but my eyes began to droop. I hadn’t slept since the kidnapping, and I was thoroughly exhausted. As my eyes fluttered and I fought the yawns, Julian informed me he would watch over Matt. I snuggled into the hospital chair, and fell asleep.
Julian woke me late afternoon, telling me that Matt was stirring. I rushed to his side, gently holding his hand.
“Veronica?” He asked as he saw me, and I nodded.
“I’m here, Matt. And I won’t ever leave you again”.
He looked around to see Julian there. Seeing the confused look on his face, he explained everything to Matt. After he finished talking, Matt looked tired. The nurse thought it would be a good idea for us to shoo, but Matt sleepily requested we stay. She warned us she would kick us out if we interfered in his recovery process, and we promised to behave.
I told Matt to sleep, giving him a kiss on the forehead. He slept for most of the night, and so did Julian and I. I didn’t realize I had missed so much sleep until now.
The next morning, the hospital deemed Matt as fit enough to be transferred out of the E.R. and put on a general hospital floor. Julian got our stuff from the hotel while I stayed with Matt, fussing over him. He complained, but I knew he appreciated the concern.
We spent the next few days in the hospital, and then they cleared him to go home. No hard physical activity for another few weeks, they said. I laughed, thinking how devastated Matt would be. Would we be able to go out on the road?
“If you try to travel despite the warnings, I will personally beat you up. Being in the hospital would be the least of your worries.”
He smiled at me, saying, “You wouldn’t hurt a cripple, would you?”
After he was discharged, we stayed at the hotel with Julian. Matt wanted to set out on the road again, but I threatened him into staying for at least a week.
The news reporters interviewed us several times, but we only told them that there had been a trade going on. Matt and I were reported as heroes, but we just shrugged it off. We told Julian about it, leaving out a few more personal details. But we told him most of the story, including the part about my brother. I had allowed Matt to tell him because I knew that I could trust Julian, especially after all he had done for me.
Matt and I discussed what we had wanted to say the night of the kidnapping in depth, often over corny westerns. He had come to like them after watching a few, and we always saw them together.
One day when we were watching one and Julian had gone out to run late night errands, Matt pulled me over to his side. I protested, worried about his wound. He scoffed and told me I was worrying too much. After several moments of struggle, I gave up. I snuggled into his neck, enjoying the feeling of his chest rising up and down.
I had thought I had lost him, but something, or someone, had given him back to me. He buried his face in my hair, and I breathed in his minty scent. We were at peace now, both basking in the glow of the sibling like love we shared. It was as if he was a brother, almost a father. He was still my friend. We didn’t question the nature of it too much, only enjoyed it.
After Julian came back and called us strange, we got ready for bed. Matt still had to be careful, but he was so much better.
I stuck Ozzie’s fluffy head through a crack in the door, and Matt chuckled quietly. I gave him a gentle hug before I left, and he gave me a kiss on the forehead.
“Goodnight, Veronica,” he said with a smile.
“Goodnight, Matt.” I replied.
As I snuggled into my bed, I reflected back on how my life had changed. I could hear Matt humming to himself as he got into his own bed. I realized with a smile that he was singing my lullaby, probably not even realizing it. Listening to the familiar and comforting melody, I felt my eyes close.
I dreamed of heroes and stars and nights. I dreamed of daytime parties, of dances and songs along the road. I dreamed my reality, but I didn’t mind.
For my reality was a dream come true.

Highway Chapter 23

I was falling. There didn’t seem to be an end to the fall, and so I just waited. Was I dead? It didn’t feel as if I was alive. I looked down to my side, but there was no wound waiting.
Suddenly, I wasn’t falling, instead sitting on a bench. What?
The room around me was so bright, and I had to shield my eyes before they got adjusted. Once I could see again, I looked around. I was in a room that was entirely white, sitting on the bench, with nobody else in sight.
Well, I thought, if this is the afterlife, it isn’t anything like I had thought it would be. There were no windows, but there was a door.
Hoping I wasn’t violating some unspoken afterlife rule, I got up and walked over to it. I opened it, marveling at the sight in front of me.
Stretching out in front of me was a vast valley, one full of life. Small lakes littered the ground, full of beautiful clear cerulean water. Many types of plants grew, ranging from the tallest sycamores to the smallest wildflowers. Pinks, blues, red, yellows. Every color imaginable was spread out before me, and my eyes tried to draw it all in.
The birds were chirping, flying around with their friends and family. Butterflies flitted around my head, their colorful wings reflecting in the sunlight. I saw a mother deer stop to drink some water, her young fawn not far behind. He had a coat dappled with white, his little legs still shaking. Fish swam across the lakes, their glittering scales gleaming.
What was this place? It was absolutely beautiful, a place of peace and happiness. Nothing bad seemed to happen here. Not even the predators were attacking any prey. The sun’s shining rays came down across the valley, spreading warmth and joy. All the animals looked up to it, basking in its radiance. Right through the middle lay a beaten down dirt trail, looking inviting.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” as voice asked.
I jumped, whirling around. But as I lay eyes on the figure, I froze. For standing there in front of me, a smile on his face, was my teacher.
“Johnny?” I asked, confused, “What are you doing here?”
He rose an eyebrow, but chuckled.
“Calling me by my first name at last, huh? You used to insist that we didn’t use names.”
I laughed, remembering that. I didn’t want to have a past, and so I never used my name. But he still didn’t explain why he was here.
“Am I dead?” I asked, thinking I already knew the answer.
He pondered the question, pacing around the small hill we were on.
“Well,” he began, “That’s a hard question to answer. You aren’t dead yet, but you might as well be.”
So I was dying? I remembered seeing Veronica before I passed out, but I thought I was dead already.
“So is this the afterlife?” I asked, wondering how it could be any other place.
It was so breath taking; I couldn’t help but feel it had to be. He nodded, sitting down. He gestured for me to join him, and I did.
“You got taller,” he commented, and I agreed.
It was silent for a moment.
“How do you feel about this?’ he asked, looking at me, “Do you remember what happened?”
I nodded, watching the scenes play out in my head.
“How do I feel?” I asked, “Well, as good as to be expected from being dead. I don’t hurt, if that’s what you’re asking.”
He sighed, shaking his head. Another moment of silence followed.
“I meant how do you feel about being dead, essentially.” he said, “It’s a shock to most people. Then again, you knew you were dying.”
I didn’t say anything, trying to figure out what he wanted me to say. When I didn’t respond to his comment, and sighed again.
“So I hear you have a new apprentice. What’s that like?”
I thought of her, and smiled to myself as the memories came rushing in.
“She’s great,” I said, “You would have really liked her. She’s the spunkiest, craziest girl ever, but I wouldn’t want her any other way.”
The corners of his lips turned up in a smile as he heard me talk.
“It sounds like you really care for her.” He said.
I agreed. But the more I thought about her, the more I began to feel a strange sensation build up in my chest. Now I couldn’t get the image of her crying out of my head. It made me upset to think of her being sad and not to think of her being happy. If I was dead, I wasn’t supposed to be sad. Wasn’t the afterlife supposed to be an extremely happy place?
“She’s really special to you, isn’t she? After all, you died for her.”
His sudden question made me start, and I tried to mumble out a reply.
“Well, yeah,” I said, “of course I do. She’s my apprentice, right?”
He smiled softly, shaking his head.
“You care about her more than an apprentice, my young friend. You know, but you won’t tell me. You’re confused now, right?”
I felt as if we should be discussing old times, not talking about my relationship with Veronica. Why did he even know how I had died? Why didn’t I have any pain? Was it an afterlife thing? I thought it strange that I didn’t have any physical pain or wounds, but I was starting to feel an ache in my heart.
I brushed it off as missing Veronica. Of course I would miss her, for she was the only person I had loved for a long time.
“I’ll be fine.” I said, facing him, “I miss her a lot, of course, but it’s all okay. She’s safe now, and that’s all that really matters. I might have died, but at least I’ve ended up here. I’ll stay here, right? Or is this kind of like a transfer area?”
He didn’t answer, and stood up to walk around again. He examined the sun, pausing to let its rays warm his cheek.
“I’m here today,” he said softly, “To greet you. Yes, it’s true that you are on the other side, or will be very shortly. But it isn’t the same with you as with others. When people die, they are met by someone who they trust. This is why I came, and not someone else. But you, you are different.”
He gestured for me to walk with him, and I did. We wandered through the forest, listening to the wildlife overhead.
“What do you mean, I’m different?” I asked.
Dying seemed a pretty non complicated thing to me. You are living, and then you’re not. He hushed me, bringing me along a path.
I saw some baby snapdragons along the way, and I thought of Veronica. She had been so excited to ask me what they were the day I splashed her, she almost forgot to be mad at me.
Johnny led me through the forest, expertly finding his way around the foliage. We passed several small communities of animals, all frolicking about peacefully. After a walk where I tried to extract information from Johnny in vain, we came out of the forest.
We were up on a canyon now, high above the forests below. I could see the small room from up here, and insignificant speck now. We sat down again, leaning our legs over the wall. Could you get hurt if you fall if you weren’t alive anymore?
“Listen, “Johnny began, “You had a little accident. When her father struck you with that knife, it wasn’t supposed to hit you.”
I looked at him, confused. An accident? Since when were there accidents? I always figured that you died for a reason. It may have seemed like an accident, but there was usually a reason.
“What are you saying?” I asked, my mind growing slightly fuzzy.
“I mean your death wasn’t supposed to happen yet.” He said, “You were supposed to keep living after this night. You died by mistake.”
I suddenly found this funny. I had been accidently killed. Ha! I was quite possibly the only person to be an accident. Johnny was looking at me strangely, probably because I was laughing.
“Oh, that’s funny,” I said, “How is someone’s death an accident? I died to save Veronica, that doesn’t seem like an accident.”
Once again, she invaded my thoughts. Her beautiful hair tumbling down, the gorgeous dress she was wearing.
“The point,” he said firmly to get me focused, “is that you aren’t ready to be here yet. Now I’m not saying you can’t be here, because you obviously can be. I’m just saying you aren’t scheduled to be here yet.”
I looked at him quizzically. Did they need to book me a room or something?
“Well I can’t really help being here,” I said, slightly irritated, “Sorry if that’s an inconvenience. I didn’t want to be here.”
He gave me a reproving look, and I turned away. I was 25 years old, but he was still my teacher.
“I see you still have the ability to be snarky,” he said wryly, “I wasn’t saying that it was bad you are here. I suppose I should explain your situation a bit clearer.”
He looked out from the canyon, observing the wildlife. He was glowing, although I couldn’t tell if it was just because of the sun’s rays. He looked exactly the same as when he had died, perhaps in even better condition.
“You are suspended in time here, and always will be. But in life, time still moves. Right now, you’re just barely alive. You’re close enough to death to be here, but you haven’t actually left yet,” He said.
When I didn’t say anything, he continued.
“So, there’s still a chance that you could be revived. But that choice is entirely up to you.”
I gave him an incredulous look. I could come back to life because I wanted to?
“Seriously?” I asked, and he nodded, “That’s amazing! I didn’t know that! But you make it sound like it could be bad. Why wouldn’t you go back?”
He didn’t say anything, and I wondered what was wrong. I stood up, leaning against a nearby tree.
“It’s just hard because life is hard. I’m sure you’ve noticed how beautiful the land is. This is a drifter’s paradise. And if I asked you right now to go back, you would hesitate. You already aren’t as sad as you should be about your death.”
He replied. That was ridiculous, I was sad. But was I really? I did find it strange that I kept being drawn in by the world around me. Although I kept thinking of Veronica, it did seem like a lost cause. But wasn’t that normal for death? Before I could say anything however, he shushed me.
“You think that you died because you needed to save her, that’s what you told me. But this wasn’t entirely true. You didn’t need to die to save her, but it’s an excuse now. This world is affecting you as we speak. Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want to live here.”
I tried, but the land was beautiful.
“That’s unfair. You can’t ask me a question like that and not expect me to say yes. Like you said, it’s a paradise.”
He stood up as well, coming to lean next to me.
“Yes, it’s wonderful. But don’t you feel like something is missing? Perhaps a certain little girl? I’ve known you for years, and I’ve never seen you talk about someone so fondly.”
I couldn’t think straight anymore. Why wasn’t I just saying I wanted to live again? Something about the land around us made me question my decision, and I felt a voice in my head say to stay. Why go back? Veronica didn’t need me anymore. She would be sad, but she would be fine.
Why was I thinking such strange things? She was bawling her eyes out when I died, screaming at me. I tried to lessen the impact of my death as much as possible, but I didn’t know how it would hurt her. Wouldn’t it hurt me too? I had found it strange how fine I was with leaving her behind.
But that ache was forming in my chest, and I kept thinking of her. Everything I saw reminded me of something about her. I couldn’t stop replaying her face in my mind, her tears splashing on my face. Each one that fell seeped into my heart, causing pain.
What was I doing? This land was beautiful, more gorgeous than I could ever describe, but it wasn’t worth it. I would come back some day, and I would enjoy every moment, but I couldn’t stay here if I didn’t need to.
“I can tell you’re thinking it over. This place has a certain pull, for it wants to keep you when you’re dead. It’s such a wonderful place, but it isn’t for ones who want to still be alive. The pull is hard to resist, but I’m sure you could come back to life if you want it enough. The question is, do you? I’ll support whatever you decide, but you have to be completely at peace with it.”
The suns warmth tried to distract me from my thoughts, but I only reminded myself of Veronica. Her hair was beautiful in the sun in life, but I couldn’t see it here. I couldn’t see her beautiful eyes, greener than the leaves on the trees. I couldn’t see her smile, whiter than the snow capping the mountains off in the distance. I wouldn’t hear her laughter, her singing, her snarky comments. The world around me was so tempting and marvelous, but it wasn’t really my world. My world was only mine when Veronica was in it. It broke my heart to leave, but I needed to get away while I still had a chance.
“I can’t stay here,” I told Johnny, “Not when she’s waiting for me on the other end. It hurts so much to leave, but I need her like I need air.”
He smiled, pulling me into a bear hug.
“I was hoping you’d say that! Come on, you need to hurry.”
We rushed through the forest, only stopping when we reached the small white room.
“I’ve never done this before, so I don’t know what will happen. Go sit back down. Hopefully you’ll fall asleep and wake up on the other side. Just so you know, you might come straight back. I don’t know how long you’ll live, but it’s worth a try.”
I nodded, stepping towards the room.
“Thank you so much Johnny,” I said, “Veronica will be so elated. As for me, I’ll be the happiest man in the world. Goodbye.”
He called out right as I walked through the door.
“You take care of her, okay? She seems really special. Good luck. If I happen to see you come back, what should I call you? I don’t think kid sounds quite appropriate.”
I smiled at him, answering the only name I could ever use.
“Call me Matt,” I said, “I’m a Matt now.”
He nodded, stepping back.
“Goodbye, Matt.”
With that, I stepped inside. I lay across the bench, hoping for something to happen. I began to feel sleepy, and I heard far off voices. My eyes closed, and I was falling again.
When they opened again, I didn’t recognize my surroundings. At first I had thought myself in a different white room, still dead, but I began to notice the subtle things that told me where I was. I had made it to a hospital somehow.
Ow! The wound I had before throbbed violently and I looked to see dressings on my side. It ached deeply. This was too painful for the afterlife, and so I figured I had made it back alive. Someone rushed to my side, grabbing my hand. Looking up, I saw my baby girl.
“Veronica?” I asked, my throat dry.
She nodded, squeezing my cold hand gently with her warm one.
“I’m here, Matt. I won’t ever leave you again.”
I couldn’t stop my heart from jumping at her words. She was here, right next to me. I could see every feature I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I let the sight of her flood my eyes. After a moment, I tore my eyes away from her.
I saw Julian standing on the other side of me. Why was he here? How did he get back? What happened? Seeing the look on my face, he explained what had happened. He told me about how Veronica cauterized my wound, and then proceeded to drag me most of the way to town. I looked up at her, relishing the feeling of her hand holding mine.
My baby girl had saved me, but not just from death. She had saved me in life too, showing me how to truly live. I knew without a doubt that I had made the right decision to live again, if only to be by her side. I was feeling myself fall into sleep again, and I almost panicked.
But this wasn’t the same feeling of slipping away as dying, this time merely being sleep. It was likely I wouldn’t die in the hospital, and even if I kind of did, I knew how to get back. The nurse tried to shoo Veronica and Julian out, but I stopped her.
“Please,” I slurred slightly, “Let them stay. They make me feel more relaxed.”
She gave them a stern set of instructions, but let them stay. Veronica leaned over me and gave me a kiss on the forehead, telling me to sleep. I was happy to oblige.
They transferred me to a general floor the next day, which meant more freedom with visitors. Veronica watched over me like a hawk, talking to me like a child.
“Don’t eat that! It’s bad for you,” she’d say, “Stop twisting to the side, you’ll open up your wound!”
I wasn’t allowed to reach for anything if she was there.
“Come on,” I said playfully, “You’re acting as if you’re my mother.”
I complained to tease her, but I was happy she cared enough to fuss over me. She had almost lost me, after all, and I didn’t blame her for worrying too much. I would do the same if our positions had been reversed.
When they finally discharged me a few days later, they told me I couldn’t do any hard physical activity for a few weeks. I scoffed, thinking them insane. Did they honestly think they could keep me off the road for weeks?
Veronica scolded me about it, much to my dismay. She threatened me, and I teased her about hurting a cripple. I tried to get Veronica out on the road, but she threatened me again into staying.
“I won’t go with you if you leave,” she had said, “I mean it. Don’t expect me to drag your body to another hospital. It was a onetime deal.”
I laughed, carefully pulling her in for a hug.
Reporters bothered us for days, all hoping to get story details and interviews. We told them the basics, but left out the personal things. Veronica had me tell Julian about her past. I was surprised, but something had obviously gone on while I was asleep that made her trust him. It was another thing that made my heart fill with joy.
I made it a point to tell Veronica just how much I cared about her as much as possible. I didn’t know when I would die permanently, but I did know I needed to spend the rest of my time with her.
One night, we were at the hotel, watching old western movies. She had gotten me into them, despite me usually thinking they were ridiculous. She was sitting next to me, so it was all too easy to pull her in for a side embrace.
“Matt, stop it!” she protested, “You’ll hurt yourself again!”
She worried too much, and I told her so. I was healing up nicely, the skin coming together again. I would always have a scar, but it was worth it to be able to stay here. After a few vain struggles, she gave up.
She snuggled her head into the crook of my neck, and I buried my face in her hair, breathing in the scent of strawberries. It felt so wonderful to feel her in my arms, to see my baby girl alive and happy.
After a while, we got ready for bed. Veronica made Ozzie stick his head through my door, and I laughed at the fuzzy octopus. She gave me a hug before she left, and I planted a kiss on her forehead. I hummed a song absentmindedly, realizing later that it was Veronica’s lullaby.
The next few days were like this, idyllic and full of joy. After a thorough examination from Veronica, she cleared me for road travel.
“Just don’t do anything really stupid,” she said.
We set off after we said goodbye to Julian, enduring his endless bear hugs. Veronica and I sang songs on the road, laughing at ourselves. Life had returned to normal, and we were both happy with it how it was.
We reached camp early, and explored until it got dark out. We chased fireflies around, Veronica marveling at their glow. She forbade me to do any setting up, and so I sat down while she got the camp ready.
She made the fire, and I smiled, thinking of her frustration just a few weeks ago. Now she was a pro, lighting the fire with no effort. I went to gather some wood after promising to be careful.
When I came back, she was fussing with something. It appeared to be a little box, ornate and silver.
Not wanting to invade her privacy, I asked carefully, “What’s that? Just a little memento?”
She opened it, coming to sit next to me.
“I’ve had this box ever since I was very little. It has a few things inside.” she said, and took out a photo.
“It’s a family photo,” she continued, “My father isn’t in it because he was taking it.”
She gave it to me, and I gently took it. There was a younger Veronica, about 7, with her older brother. He had Veronica’s eyes, but otherwise looked more like his father. He was about her age now, so this must have been taken soon before he died. But as I looked to her mother, she was smudged out. Veronica saw my look of confusion, and explained.
“It used to have my mother in it too. But one day, after I was really mad at school, I threw it in a pond. I was mad that I didn’t have anyone to chaperone me on a fieldtrip, and sad that they had left me behind,” she said, “I didn’t remember what happened to them, only that they had gone. I soon realized my mistake and dove in after it, but the top was already smudged. I can’t remember her face now.”
She looked infinitely sad, and I put my arm around her. She leaned into my shoulder, and started looking through the rest of the tiny box.
There was a friendship bracelet, her brother’s she said, a penny that had been run through an ornament machine, and a birthday card folded up into a tiny square. She read it aloud, and I knew it was from her brother. I thought she might cry, but she just smiled.
“Matt?” she suddenly asked, and I turned to her.
“What’s up?” I asked.
I thought she might want to talk about her family, but it wasn’t the case.
“When we were at the complex and you were dying,” she said, wincing at the word dying, “I wondered if you knew how to do something.”
I nodded for her to go on.
“Do you know how to hijack a car?”
I sat in stunned silence. What? What kind of question was that? I gave her an incredulous look, nonplussed. When I didn’t say anything, she smiled.
“Oh my gosh! You totally know how! I knew you would! Would you teach me?”
Oh, no. Just because I knew from living in the city didn’t mean I would teach her.
“No way!” I said, upset.
She pouted at me.
“Come on!” she said, “Don’t be a spoil sport! There are things I need to know about to make it in the world!”
I scoffed, looking at her like she was crazy.
“Yes,” I replied, “But hijacking a car isn’t one of them! I’m not going to teach you. If you want to know useful things that aren’t highly illegal, I’ll teach you those. But there is no way that I’m ever going to show you how to steal a car!”
She made a face, giving me a glare and muttering something about being a killjoy.
I’ve made her into a delinquent, I thought ruefully, it’s only a matter of time before she asks me how to break into a second story room from a tree. After seeing the expression on my face, she laughed.
“You look so distressed!” she exclaimed, “It’s not like I was planning on doing it for fun!”
I gave her a doubtful look, and she pushed me playfully. After a few more attempts of getting me to tell her how, she gave up.
We settled in for the night, watching the stars. I told her a few more stories, and she sat in content silence. I listened to the crickets and cicadas sing their song, and relaxed now that I was surrounded by nature again. I fell into sleep gently, like a leaf falling from a tree.
I awoke to the sound of movement next to me. Looking over with bleary eyes, I saw Veronica wriggle out of her sleeping bag. She didn’t notice I was awake. She had a peculiar look on her face, and I wondered if something was wrong.
I brushed it off, thinking she just needed either a walk in the night air or to relieve herself. I snuggled back into my sleeping bag, feeling sleepiness overtake me again. But as I started to fall asleep again, I wondered if she was okay.
It had been 15 minutes since she left, an unusual amount of time for someone to be gone. She wouldn’t have gone far, for she didn’t like the dark. She never told me, but I could tell by the way her eyes flitted back and forth nervously if we hadn’t made a fire before the sun set.
I propped myself up on my elbow, scanning the woods. When I couldn’t spot her, I began to worry. It’s nothing, I told myself firmly, you’re worrying for no reason. My assertion proved to be right when I finally spotted her on top of a nearby rock, flat from rain erosion. But something about her posture was odd.
She was stock still, and she wasn’t doing any of the things she usually did. When she was still, she had a habit of fidgeting. Twirling a strand of her hair, shuffling her feet, crossing and uncrossing her legs.
Becoming concerned, I decided to see if she was okay. The worst that could happen is that she would think I worried too much, which she probably does already. When I approached her unmoving form, she didn’t even look up.
“Hey,” I called, hoping to break the unnatural stillness.
She didn’t say anything. I crouched down beside her, wondering what was going on. Her eyes were open, but they were glossed over. All of a sudden, she started to twitch. Slightly, almost like she had an itch she couldn’t reach. What was happening?
The more I watched her, the more concerned I was. Was she sick? Maybe she was sleep walking, but laying down. No, that wasn’t it. If she sleep walked, she would have done it before. Not to say I was awake all the time, but I was a light enough sleeper to know when someone was moving around me.
I tried to gain some information by sensing her, and it struck me. There was an anomaly that hadn’t been there before. I felt the sensation increase, and I realized what was happening. She was awakening.
Could it happen so soon? She’d been with me for a little over two weeks. I thought I might be wrong, but the feeling was unmistakable. I could practically feel her connecting to nature, her consciousness expanding by the second. She was transforming, just like a caterpillar in its cocoon.
I suppose I hadn’t figured it out earlier because I hadn’t ever seen someone awaken directly. The girl I traveled with before had hers one night when we were at a hotel. She hadn’t even gotten up, at least not to my knowledge. I had always been under the impression one needed to be outside for it to happen, but apparently not.
Worried I might disturb Veronica's metamorphosis, I didn’t know if I should do something. She looked rather uncomfortable, understandably, but I thought I could ease her discomfort a little if she wasn’t laying on rock. Very carefully, I shifted her head off of the ground and onto my leg.
There, perhaps she’ll escape some pain. Awakening is an experience like no other. You can feel yourself become a part of something bigger, and you can sense the life around you. As amazing as it is, it has a tendency to be painful as well. Every drifter I’ve talked to agrees, and so it must just be a part of the process.
It pushes the limits of the human brain, unlocking some part that had been closed off before. It hasn’t been used before, or at least not very much, so it becomes a hot spot of activity. Just like when you learn something for the first time, especially as a young child, your head hurts a little. Take that, and multiply it a few times to try and understand what it feels like.
I settled in for a while, getting comfortable. The process always took at least a few hours. We haven’t ever figured out why, but some believe that the brain is adjusting to its newfound discovery. Nobody has ever died when they awakened, but we wonder if something bad would happen were someone to be interrupted.
The state a person enters as they begin to change is almost like a trance. The body shuts down as if it’s asleep, only focusing on what’s happening. Just like Veronica was now, the body is still, except for some slight twitching in many cases. So, it isn’t very easy to stop the process, but it might be possible.
Many worry that the brain wouldn’t be able to take the sudden warp back to reality, and that the person would go into shock. This could mean the brain shutting off the area for a long time, if not forever, causing the person to be cut off from awakening. Or, some hypothesize it could end up even worse, possibly even in death. We never tried to stop someone, for obvious reasons, and so we still didn’t know what would happen.
I can remember my awakening clearly. Julian and I were out on the road, and I began to feel strange. I wandered through the forest with the excuse of needing a walk. I ended up nestling myself between a boulder and a mossy tree. Julian found me 10 minutes later, or so he said. He understood what was happening right away, as he was more experienced and had seen it happen to others many times before.
I “woke up” a few hours later, an entirely different person. Your core values and personality are still there, but you are a different person. In some, the effects seem mild, perhaps just being generally happier. Others, like me, were totally transformed.
I was a bitter person, especially since it was so close to Johnny’s death. But after my awakening, I was hardly angry at anything. I had found peace when I awakened, and it made me a much calmer and more patient person. But I underwent just as much change when I met Veronica.
While it was true I was calmer and not angry, I wasn’t quite as happy as I should have been. My life was wonderful, and I was grateful for the gift I had been given, but it was lonely. I had merely accepted this as the sacrifice I had to make to receive such a gift, but I didn’t realize it didn’t have to be that way.
She was so strange, so different, and so spunky. I had met other drifters, but never anyone like her. She had a habit of making me laugh more often, and making my smiles come easier. She had filled in the void of loneliness I had in my heart, for now it only had our mutual care for each other. She had changed my life, and I hoped I had changed hers. The only question now was whether she would stay.
She had expressed interest in staying, and I desperately wanted her to. But as I’ve said before, drifters haven’t ever stayed together before. I was worried she would come to and decide that she needed to travel after all. I would support her decision, of course, but I was going to be absolutely devastated if she left. I really shouldn’t have gotten so close to another drifter, but it happened before I knew it.
She wriggled her way into my heart. No, she didn’t do that.
It was more like she busted down my ventricle wall, exclaiming, “Hey, Matt! I’m here, and that’s just how it’s going to be. Boy, this place sure is cozy!”
Okay, she probably wouldn’t say boy anything, but still. But something told me that she wouldn’t leave. She had seemed so upset about even the idea of leaving the night of her kidnapping. She could change her mind, but I doubted she would. She may change radically like me, but her basic feelings were still going to be there.
I watched the night sky change colors, lost in my own musings. I would check on Veronica every now and then, feeling the change in her soul. I was reassured that everything seemed to be going okay, and that I could start to sense her better by the minute.
Drifters had such a unique connection when they were fully fledged, so much that we didn’t need to talk about feelings to understand them. Not to say we didn’t talk to each other, we did, it’s just that our conversations weren’t about trying to get each other to understand what we were feeling. We were just as connected to each other as we were to nature, if not more.
As the sky began to lighten and the sun peeked curiously over the horizon, Veronica began to stir. Her connection faltered for a moment, then exploded into mine.
It was like her mind was a flood, and it had just broken the dam that was mine. I could feel everything, even the slight sleepiness she was experiencing. As she stirred again, I waited.
She opened her eyes.

Highway Chapter 24

It was good to be out on the road again.
I poked and prodded at Matt endlessly, making sure he was fit to travel. I didn’t want another incident.
We said goodbye to Julian on the way out, and I gave him an almost tearful hug. I was going to miss the idiot that was my friend, and he had done so much for me. He told me not to worry about it too much, for I would always know where he was if I wanted to visit.
Matt and I had singing contests, but we also had duets. We laughed the entire way to camp, and I could feel the glow of happiness enshrouding us. When we reached our destination for the night, I made the fire.
I told Matt he couldn’t help me, because he could end up hurt. He rolled his eyes, but sat down nonetheless.
We chased the fireflies through the night as we waited for our water to boil to make dinner; ramen. I landed in the middle of a patch of them, and they all flew upwards, bathing me in light.
After a while, Matt went to get firewood. I gave him an anxious glance, but he assured me he would be careful. Sighing, I reached down into my bag to retrieve Ozzie. He had been squished to the bottom, and as I reached for him my fingers brushed against something sharp. What was that?
I extracted it carefully; worrying a shard of something had made its way into my bag. Oh! It was my memory box. I had forgotten I’d even had it, but I remembered when I grabbed it last minute before sprinting out the door to chase after Matt.
I smiled, wondering why I had wanted to bring it. I suppose I still wanted to hang onto just a little part of my past. Matt came back, asking me what I was holding. I told him, sitting next to him as I opened.
The first thing inside was the photo of my family and I when we went to a tropical island. It was our only big family trip, but it was a special one indeed. When I saw Matt’s quizzical face however, I remembered the top of the picture was damaged.
I told him about the time I threw it into the river by my house. I had been so angry, and I wasn’t thinking straight. After I chucked it in, I realized that it was the only thing I had left, and so I dove in after it. Unfortunately, the space my mother occupied had been water damaged, and so I went home sopping wet for no reason. I still kept it because it had my brother in it, but she was still gone. I hadn’t opened this box in forever, and I wondered how everything was in such good condition.
I had wondered why I knew that it was my brother in my dreams, but it was because I had this photo. I never understood what happened to them, until now, but I still kept it because it reminded me that I had a family once.
I told Matt that I couldn’t remember my mother’s face anymore, even after the memories started rushing in. How come I could remember my father and brother, but not my mother? I must have looked sad, for Matt put his arm around me. I leaned my head on his shoulder, trying to absorb his warmth. The rest of the things in the box only made me smile.
There was a friendship bracelet that my brother wove in one of his art classes. I remember making one of my own for him, even though he already had one. He took it happily, exchanging his for mine. It had been too big for me, but I had kept it safe.
There was a penny that had been run through one of those machines for tourists that we had gotten when we went to an amusement park. I always loved it there, for my brother would buy me ice cream and we would go on the Ferris wheel. At the bottom was a square of paper. Curious, I unfolded it carefully.
It was a birthday card from my brother. This had been for my 7th birthday, and he had made it himself. The front had a picture of stick figures. My brother hadn’t been the best artist ever, but it hadn’t mattered to me. The figures were holding hands, standing in front of a birthday cake. The inside had a scrawled message, the handwriting pretty but disorganized. As I looked over it, I read the message.
“Happy 7th birthday to my favorite girl in the world!” it said, “I hope you have a good day! Wow, seven years old. Pretty soon you’ll need a cane just like old man smithy next door! Did you know you’re almost half my age now? That’s awesome, isn’t it? I just wanted to give you a card to document this important occasion in your life. After all, you only turn seven once. So, here it is. I love you very much vee-bee! Happy birthday my dearest Veronica, and here’s to many more. With lots of love, your (hopefully) favorite boy in the world. P.S. if not, it’s just your brother.”
As I read, it brought a smile to my face. I waited to be sad about his loss, but his card only made my heart swell up with affection. He had always been silly, but really only with those he cared about. Despite being a bit of a solemn teen, understandably, he always had a smile for me. I looked at Matt, who was searching my face in trepidation.
He expected me to cry, and his concern made me feel affection again, this time for him. Hoping to ease his worries, I closed the box and changed the subject.
I asked him if he knew how to hijack a car, thinking of how much I could have used it the other day. He looked stunned at my question, but didn’t say anything. His lack of reaction told me that he did indeed know how to, but didn’t want to admit it. He must have picked it up in his not so noble days. I exclaimed in joy, asking him if he would teach me. He looked upset, and I was worried he was going to have an aneurysm. He quickly told me he wouldn’t, and I asked him why not.
What was the big deal? It’s not like I needed to steal cars a lot. I said that I needed to learn certain things to make it in the world. He told me that he would teach me things, but not if they were illegal. Pssh, what was up with him? He’s the one who knows how to do it in the first place. When he still refused, I turned away.
“You’re such a killjoy. It wouldn’t have hurt.” I mumbled to myself.
He looked legitimately concerned, as if I were a troubled youth. I told him to chill out. It’s not like I was looking for a new pastime. He playfully gave me a doubtful look, so I shoved him. We settled in for the night,
Matt telling me a story about three sisters who found a way to fly up to the sky, only to be enamored by them which made them want to stay. The crickets and cicadas sang peacefully, and I relaxed as I heard their familiar tune.
It’s funny, because I used to hate them together. They sounded so different to me back then, and I didn’t understand how nature could put them together. But now they were in perfect harmony. They lulled me to sleep, humming out a melody. But my sleep was restless, and I woke several times, an odd feeling in my stomach.
Each time I awoke, it had grown, a mass sunken to the bottom. Why did I feel so weird? Had I eaten something that distressed my stomach? But I ate normal food from the town today, and none of it could have given me food poisoning easily. Besides, I didn’t feel sick, just very off.
I suddenly became hot, sweat breaking out on my forehead. The warmth was unbearable, and I felt almost as if I was feverish. Deciding a walk in the cool night air would help, I wriggled out of my sleeping bag. After a small walk I thought I should return to camp. But something was urging me to stay out, to keep going.
Why did I feel this way? Maybe I should tell Matt. Perhaps I’m sick from something. Maybe I had an infection in one of my wounds, but it was in my system. But again, that didn’t seem to be the case.
I kept walking, coming to the top of a flat boulder. The crickets sounded funny, and I wondered why. Each sound seemed to be distorted. My vision was off too, just a little bit fuzzy. My legs almost collapsed as I lowered myself onto the boulder, thinking I should sit down. What was happening? I didn’t seem to have much control over my body anymore, and it was frightening.
Matt, I thought, I should call him. Something here is not normal. But just as I raised my head from the boulder, I felt myself go weak. What if I was dying? I tried to move, but my limbs just didn’t respond. I could see and hear still, but my body didn’t move. I didn’t understand.
The noise of the crickets was getting louder now, an almost painful roar. They rose above the sound of the river below, the owl hooting. But even with their noise, I could suddenly hear everything. The hopping of the little rabbit down below, the squeak of the field mouse, even the fluttering of the butterflies across the valley’s wings. How was that possible?
To my relief, Matt suddenly popped into my view. Did he know what was wrong with me? He called to me, his voice nearly drowned out in the other noise. A look of understanding crossed his face, and he sat down. He pulled my head onto his leg, relieving me of the discomfort from the hard rock. Why wasn’t he doing anything? He looked as if this was normal. Didn’t he worry I couldn’t move? Suddenly, my brain burst out in pain.
The excruciating agony spread across my head, blooming outward like a flower. I was still frozen. I expected my body to be writhing around, not locked and rigid. The roar of the world around me increased, filling my ears. But as I was lost in the sound, individual ones began to call. Softly, at first, but then louder each time. Their unique noise expanded over the other sounds, until they were all I could hear.
First it was the owl, his various hoots. But then he was drowned out, covered by the crickets again. Over and over, the sounds made themselves known. Every species in the area created a connection between us using their sound. Then, they repeated the process, creating something else. I felt my brain connect with theirs, and I heard their thoughts. Some didn’t think about much, only focusing on their current task. But some had complex thought patterns, figuring out how to approach problems they were facing. Miraculously, I almost became them.
With the sparrow, I could feel the air swooshing against my face as I beat my wings. I moved in time with the ant, steadily carrying my load. I could feel the water rushing against my sides as I swam with the fish. I was feeling each animal, being each animal. Every second was another second of something else. It flashed by my eyes, waiting only long enough for me to understand their feelings. It was as if every molecule in my being belonged to something, to someone, even down to the pieces of algae.
I felt them all scatter, only to come back with more information. But just as I thought my brain would reach a range of area, it would expand. Each expansion caused waves of pain to flood my senses, and I wondered how I wasn’t screaming when it happened. But the pain would be quickly replaced with the soothing experiences. I could feel the plants sway in the breeze, the old willow tree sigh as it stretched its old muscles. The underwater plants relished the cool liquid around them, little bubbles sticking to their sides and making them laugh. Everything alive had a conscious, no matter how small.
I was nearing the last creature in the valley, and as I lived with it, my world stopped. I couldn’t see anything, for the world had gone black. But I was not unconscious, as I still had my vision and hearing. I couldn’t even see Matt anymore. I could see the blackness, but there was no connections happening around me. Suddenly, an orb of light flitted into my sights, lighting up the area around me.
The orb expanded, stretching out in front of me. It encompassed the entire area, engulfing me along with it. It was startlingly bright, and I had to shield my eyes to avoid being blinded. The light dimmed, being replaced with the soft glow of sunset. I looked around, surprised to see the little glade outside of my childhood house.
What was I doing here? There was no way I could be dreaming again. Right? But as I looked around, I saw myself sitting on a tree branch. Next to me was my brother, nestled in between two large branches. I wasn’t asleep, how could I be dreaming? I was standing next to the base of the tree, but the two figures didn’t react to me anyway.
This is a memory. Nothing else makes sense. Suddenly, my smaller self spoke.
“Jacob is in a better place now, right?” she asked, tears in her eyes.
I looked down to see a small pile of dirt, a tiny piece of cardboard with the name Jacob scrawled on it. Jacob was my hamster, I remembered. My father let him out while we were at school, and he got hit by a car.
“Yes, vee-bee,” he replied softly, taking her hand, “He’s running around on wheels made of gold, eating whatever he likes.”
My younger self smiled, squeezing his hand. She was quiet for a moment.
Then she said, “I’ll miss him. He was my only best friend besides you. Now he’s gone. He didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
He sighed, watching the sunset turn into twilight. He jumped down from the tree, holding out his arms for my younger self to jump into. She did, giggling as he swung her around. He set her down, crouching in front of her. He brushed away a tear, and held her close for a moment.
Then he faced her, saying, “I know it’s hard to understand, Veronica. But the truth is that everything and everyone has to leave eventually. I’m sorry Jacob didn’t get to say bye to you, but it’s alright. Do you know why?”
She shook her head, looking away.
He gently turned her face to him saying, “It’s because it’s never truly goodbye. You are always going to see them again, and so it isn’t a forever farewell. It’s just a time period where you do different things. But even when you’re apart, you still are connected. They are watching over you, as long as you still think of them. Jacob is probably looking at you right now. Even when you’re mad they left, they still care about you. Does that make sense?”
She smiled, giving him another hug.
“Does that mean grandma is watching over us? I think about her lots.”
She said, looking up to him. He nodded, swooping down to pick her up. He put her on his shoulders, making airplane noises.
“Hey,” she called, a look of uncertainty on her face, “Does that mean you’ll have to go away to someday?”
He stopped, pausing. Suddenly, he laughed.
“Yes, my silly vee-bee. I will have to go someday too, but it will be okay when I do. You’ll think about me, and I’ll think about you. I’ll always be there in some way.”
She gave him an awkward hug, wrapping her arms across the top of his head. He laughed, turning away from her hands.
“Yeah, I’ll love you forever!” she said, “And you’ll love me, right? Because it’s never forever!”
He smiled. As they walked away, the vision began to fade. But before it went black, I heard my brother’s reply.
“I like the way you say it, vee-bee,” he responded, “It’s never forever.”
Suddenly I was back on the boulder. The connections came rushing back, and I noticed something different. I could feel my brother in everything. He had been right. I could feel his essence in the soil, the plants, and the animals. He had helped make up all of this, and would continue to. It was never truly goodbye, huh? Didn’t Matt say something similar when he was hurt? Everyone but me had known. This was when I started to feel Matt next to me.
My body twitched on command. Could I move again? Not exactly. I closed my eyes, wondering what was about to happen.
The more I thought about Matt, the more I began to feel his connection. But there was nothing instant, and I wondered what was happening. The cacophonous roar had ceased, and now I could only hear Matt’s gentle breathing. His eyes looked beautiful in the moonlight, watching over me. Suddenly my brain, quiet and calm a few seconds ago, burst into suffering again.
But this was on a new level, and it was all directed towards Matt. It was as if the pieces of me bounced off, unable to connect. A new wave of fresh agony washed across my body. It hurt my head at first, but then my heart, my stomach, and my entire being. Thousands of little sections of me ached painfully, all consumed with the fire that was the attempt at contact. Then, all was inert.
My pain subsided for a moment, and the world was still. Then, like a volcano erupting, my consciousness spilled into Matt’s. I felt everything, down to the smallest molecule. I felt his loss for Johnny, his sadness about his parents, his past life. But then I also felt his love of Julian, his wonderful years on the road, his joy at awakening. I could sense his fears, his sorrows, and his joys. I became him.
I saw myself through his eyes, stirring from what looked like sleep. And then, I felt his love for me. As his heart beat with mine, I could feel the affection there. He thought me to be an amazing person, one that made him happy. It was as if I had possession of a piece of his heart. It was in everything he did. His fond memories, many with me in them. His pride when I lit my first fire, his happiness when I liked Ozzie, his joy when I told him I loved him too.
I could also sense his sad memories. Many were of his past life, but they also had me in them. His sorrow when I cried that night, his sadness at the thought of me leaving, his agony at the thought of me kidnapped. I felt almost invasive, for I wasn’t supposed to be Matt. Then, as suddenly as it came, it went away.
I felt my paralysis lift, and I twitched again. Slowly, I opened my eyes. Matt was still sitting there, now looking at me. I flexed my hand, testing my regained mobility. Finding everything as it should be, I sat up, leaning away from Matt’s knee.
“Veron-” he started to call, but I twirled around.
Launching myself into his arms, I hugged him fiercely.
“Matt, Matt, Matt,” I called, saying his name, “I love you so much. I love you. I love you.”
I kept repeating it, hoping to engrain it in his brain. He held me close, stroking my hair.
“I know. You showed me the same time I showed you. I love you too, baby girl. I love you so much.”
I leaned back, looking up at his face. I laughed, wiping away my tears. Why was I crying? I realized that they were tears of joy.
“I know,” I said back, repeating his words.
So the connection had been mutual. I held onto him for a moment more, rejoicing in the feeling of being alive. I could still feel the animals around me, but not quite as strongly. They were all normal now. If I tried really hard, I could reach out and connect to one of them at a time.
“Wow,” I exclaimed to Matt, not sure what I should say about this moment.
He laughed, slinging an arm around my shoulder.
“It’s really something, isn’t it?” he asked with a mirthful grin, “Did it hurt? Sorry if it did. But wasn’t it worth it? You are finally a full fledged drifter!”
I sat, my mouth slightly agape. That was what had happened? I had finally awakened? The thought only added to my elation. I could only agree that it had been worth it.
“My head still hurts, though,” I complained, rubbing my temples, “Not nearly as bad as before, mind you. Just a headache.”
He smiled, patting me on the shoulder.
“Yeah,” He replied sympathetically, “That’ll be there a day or two. You’re brain just went through quite a lot.”
He gave me a kiss on the forehead, smoothing back my hair. He picked me up bridal style, swinging me around.
“Het, Matt! Watch it!” I scolded him, “If you get hurt again I’m going to hit you!”
He only laughed at my admonishment, saying, “Well I’m glad your sassy persona is still there.”
Was I supposed to have changed? I certainly did feel different. There was a sense of inner peace inside, a calm and tranquil feeling washing over me. Wait! I didn’t feel any pain. Not physical discomfort, but emotional.
Ever since I remembered my brother, a piece of my soul had been shattered, always hurting. It was gone now. It was smooth like the surface of a mirror, no cracks in sight. The awakening had healed me. It only left me with the love I carried, and not the pain. I felt the very fabric of my being become healed, an expert seamstress sewing up all the holes and weaving new threads into the blanket that was my soul.
He set me down next to my sleeping, settling next to me. We talked about the event for a while, and I asked him more questions.
“What happened with you won’t happen to every drifter I meet, right?” I asked, anxious.
I didn’t enjoy the pain that it took to create the connection. He shook his head.
“You’ll be able to understand the emotions of every drifter, but you won’t have any pain during the connection, nor will you go as in depth,” he replied, “We had our depth happen because I was the first drifter to connect to you. The same thing happened with Julian and I.”
How come he gets it twice? No fair! I shoved him, and he exclaimed that I was mean.
“What was that for?” he asked, giving me sad puppy eyes.
“That’s for having it happen to you twice. No fair.”
He laughed, pulling me into a hug again, ruffling my hair. I tried to dodge, but it was too late. When he let go, we sat down again. Suddenly thinking of his anxiety of me leaving and his statement at the hotel, I decided to point out the obvious.
“Hey, Matt,” I called, smirking when he looked to me, “Guess what?”
He looked bewildered, and so I leaned in close.
“Well, I just awakened, and I’m done now,” I said, laughing at his confused face, “And I’m still here! Haha! In your face! You were so wrong!”
He smiled, leaning back while I made fun of him. He was laughing so hard he couldn’t even sit up. Deciding upon causing some mischief, I thought to prank him.
“Actually,” I said slyly, “I think I don’t feel like it anymore. Maybe I should go. See ya, Matt!”
I hopped up, skirting away. I hoped he wouldn’t think I was serious, or there would be a problem. Fortunately, he could tell I was kidding, and I sensed he wasn’t upset.
“Oh no you didn’t, you sly little fox!” He exclaimed loudly, “Nobody can escape me! I’m the super hero, Mighty Matt!”
He chased after me, catching up to me in a few minutes. He roped his arms around my waist, lifting me. I squealed in delight, laughing at his silliness.
“I don’t see a cape. What kind of super hero are you?” I asked playfully, laughing at his sudden self proclaimed title.
He scoffed, saying, “Pssh. Capes are for amateurs. Only real super heroes are always in disguise. Either way, I’m the kind of super hero who saves damsels in distress. Don’t worry, milady, I have it all under control!”
He carried me back to our fire, setting me on my sleeping bag. I gave him another shove, telling him he was an idiot. But I said with only the utmost affection, of course.
After we calmed down, we decided we were both tired and needed to sleep. But as sleep washed over me gently, I thought one last thing.
I was a drifter now, and I would leave part of my old life behind now. But still, I would always remember the people I loved, the place I came from, and the things I learned from. Because if I didn’t forget those things, they would always be there, waiting for me. I would say farewell to them, but it would be okay.
Because after all, it’s never forever.

Epilogue#1: Veronica

Just as the sun rose up above the horizon, we crested the hill. I smiled at the sun’s golden rays, enjoying the warmth they projected onto my face. Our shadows stretched out in front of us, distorting our image so that we appeared to be colossal giants. There lay my old town, a speck among the vast expanses of nature surrounding it.
I could feel the people below, but only faint outlines. They didn’t blend with the other creatures, so vibrant with activity and exuberance at being alive. Matt turned away from surveying the town, looking at me.
“Are you sure you want to do this, baby girl? You don’t have to. It’s really not a big deal,” he said nervously, “It won’t ever become a problem. We could just get your stuff and leave.”
He was referring to why we were here. I had left a few things at the house I would like to get, if they were even still there. But the reason he was so worried was because I wanted to talk to the mayor as well. When I left, I hadn’t officially told anyone I wasn’t going to be living there anymore, and so I was still a resident of the city. I didn’t want to be attached to any city, because my home was on the road.
“Matt,” I said in a soothing tone, “It’s all right. Really. I want to be free from the constraints of the city, once and for all. Don’t worry so much. I’m fine with what happened now, I promise.”
He looked unsatisfied, but gave in anyway. We strolled leisurely across the ground, stopping at the small city gates.
“You don’t have to go with me, Matt,” I said, “I can do this on my own. You can stay if you want, I suppose, but it would be better if you just waited here. I’ll radio my position.”
I gave him a smirk at the mention of the radio, attempting to make him feel more at ease. He shuffled his feet, a habitual sign of his concern. Still, he respected my need for closure, and instead leaned across one of the posts on the gate. After he wished me good luck, I made my way through the town.
It was quiet and peaceful, most of the people still sound asleep. I spotted some kids playing tag in the field, their joyous shouts the only sounds in the air besides the gravel crunching at my feet. I smiled as I passed, enjoying the smiles on their faces.
Children were special, humans who had been left alone, their souls allowed to be pure. There was no way of knowing what they would be like when they grew up, but for now they were like angels.
I walked languidly along the streets, heading towards the mayor’s office. People emerged from their homes, the early birds rubbing their eyes sleepily. But it wasn’t long before they noticed me. I was rather easy to spot, mostly because of my hair. There were several surprised gasps, and I began to hear whispers. More people came out of their homes, enticed by the gossip about me.
It had been two weeks since my awakening, and so it made it a month they hadn’t seen me. But instead of the close whispers they usually engaged in, there seemed to be a wall around myself that made them back away, just like with Matt on the fateful day I met him. They were speculating on my return.
She had come crawling back after he left her on the side of the road, someone said. She killed that man too, just like her family, came another. These rumors should have hurt me, but they didn’t. Perhaps it was just because they couldn’t be farther from the truth.
No, that wasn’t it. It was because of Matt. Ever since I had awakened, I could feel him from long distances, an ever present connection. I could sense the wave of concern washing over him, his trepidation. He was probably thinking of chasing after me right now, if only to protect me. But the fact was that he was doing just that where he stood. He was always there for me, even if he was not right by my side.
Their comments were like a fly buzzing around my ear. An annoyance, but not a real problem. They seemed confused by my lack of hatred. I smiled sadly for them. They didn’t understand how much joy and love was in this world, so trapped in their misconceptions of society. I hoped they would someday wake up, and at least try to find some of that love.
I reached the mayor's office, the concrete bricks reminding me of my younger days. The building seemed so much smaller than it had when I was young, and it made it easier to go back in. I didn’t hold resentment for these people anymore, but they had still been a source of pain for me. I pushed open the door, the little bell on top ringing. The secretary looked up, and paused for a moment.
“I’d like to see the mayor,” I said politely, using the drifter persona Matt had taught me, “I’m sorry I didn’t book an appointment, but I’ve been traveling for a little while and haven’t had the time to make one. Is he available?”
She seemed shocked at my sudden behavior, used to my courser approach. I still had all the sass that existed before, but it wouldn’t get me anywhere here. She excused herself, and went to check on him. She came out hesitantly, telling me that he was in fact available, but I would have to make it quick for he had a business meeting in ten minutes. That was plenty enough time. She let me in, and I was greeted with the sight of the older man before me. He hadn’t changed since I was a child, his appearance the same. He looked up cautiously.
“Well,” he said, “If it isn’t Veronica. What can I do for you today?”
He looked awkward, and I understood he expected me to come back and beg to stay at my house.
“Hello,” I said to him, “It’s nice to see you again. It’s been about a month, huh?”
I held out my hand for him to shake, and after a few bewildered moments he took it.
“I understand you’re a very busy man, so I’ll make this brief. I left without notice before, and so I still technically live here,” I said.
His face twisted in trepidation.
“But now,” I continued, ignoring his expression, “I wish to inform you formally that I have moved to a new residence, and so will no longer be a part of the city population. I apologize for any inconvenience I caused without telling you before, and I thank you in advance for understanding my situation.”
He seemed so confused. Understandably, for I hadn’t spoken rudely, or even cursed once. He was waiting for some fight, but I wasn’t going to give him one. He didn’t deserve the effort. He stuttered out a statement in which he understood, and I gave him a smile. I shook his hand again, turning for the door.
“Wait,” he called as I reached the door, “What happened when you left? You just seem so different.”
He was breaking out of his professional mode, astonished by the sudden change in demeanor. I looked back, giving him another smile.
“I found someone who loved me just the way I was,” I replied.
He sat down, not quite understanding. As I turned to leave again, I had a thought. Didn’t the mayor know my family before the incident? I bet he knew my brother’s name! It had seemed strange that I had remembered everything about him, but his name still wouldn’t come to me.
“Sir,” I called, “If I may ask a question?”
He looked up, nodding his consent.
“I was just wondering if you by chance knew my family?” I asked.
He nodded again, his expression becoming fearful. He was worried I was about to explode on him. I could have been mad, for the city was partially responsible for his death as well. When he ran into town that night and came back alone, I understood they had shunned him away, refusing to help. After a lot of thought, I realized it hadn’t been out of spite, but more the assumption that my father had just been drunk and they didn’t want to deal with him.
“I didn’t remember what happened for a part of my life, as I’m sure you know,” I said soothingly so as not to startle him, “But I regained all of the memories. The only thing I can’t seem to grasp is what their names are. Could you perhaps tell me my brother’s name?”
He relaxed, but his posture wasn’t quite tranquil. He was calmer, but he still thought I was waiting for a chance to pounce.
“Simon,” he said, the name sounding foreign on his lips.
Simon, huh? I liked it. It definitely fit him, and I felt the last piece of the puzzle fall into place with this new knowledge. I thanked him, heading out the door.
“Veronica,” he called as I left the building, opening the door in a hurried way, “I’m sorry about what happened. We didn’t know, but we should have. I’m sorry.”
I gave him another smile, this time slightly melancholic. I didn’t say anything, just turned away again. I raised my hand in the air, calling out a farewell.
Suddenly, something collided with my leg, causing a resounding Thump!I looked down to see a little girl around 8, her pale blonde hair contrasting with her sky blue eyes.
She looked up at me in concern, exclaiming, “Oh my gosh! I’m sorry miss, I just tripped. My stuffed animal got thrown by one of those stupid boys. Where did it go?”
I laughed at her, telling her it was all right. I spotted her stuffed animal a few feet away from me. With a sudden shock, I realized that it was no ordinary animal. It was the little ladybug from the classroom, it had to be. There was even the slightly messed up stitch on one of its spots. I picked it up carefully, crouching down to her level.
“Is this the one you lost?” I asked, keeping my voice gentle and happy.
She rejoiced, taking it from me and giving it a fierce hug.
“Thank you!” she said happily, still hugging the bug.
“You sure like it a lot, don’t you?” I asked with a smile, enjoying her look of bliss.
“Yep!” she said, “Mommy thinks he’s plain and boring, but I love him!”
The ladybug had finally been chosen, only to go home with a little girl that loved him. It would have made sense for me to be sad that it wasn’t living with me, but the little girl’s smile made my heart fill up with joy. It had been chosen, and that was all that really mattered.
Suddenly she said, “Thanks! For helping me, I’ve made you an official ladybug club member. It’s special.”
I thanked her, showing exaggerated pride at the honor as she explained “the code”. She asked me my name, and I replied.
“I like your hair, Veronica. You’re so pretty!”
She was the most adorable girl on the planet.
“Thanks,” I responded, “But I only wish I was as pretty as you! I have to go now, but I promise to uphold the ladybug code.”
She smiled, and then ran off to play. I made my way to where Matt was, reaching up to ruffle his hair as he looked anxious. I told him to stop being such a worrier. I showed him my house as I packed a few more sets of clothes, and while Matt wasn’t watching, I grabbed a stuffed lion.
I would give it to him later, and he would laugh. This way, we would match. As Matt surveyed my house for other things I might have needed, I noticed a spider web in my window.
As I studied the beautiful piece of architecture, I realized what I had been wondering. The spider made a web everyday simply because it was what it loved to do. It could be knocked down more times than you could count, and yet it would continue. It loved to have something to be proud of, even if it didn’t last long.
Didn’t I take pride in every fire I built, even though it would eventually go out? I still did it because I liked it too. I had been wrong back then, about the spider’s melancholy. It wasn’t sad at all. In fact, it was filled with pride and glee. As I looked at it now, I realized that if I was going to be anything, I would be happy.
I could see things in a different perspective, and I found the town to be a better place. I could see the ladybug with the girl, the spider spinning its web. As I walked away with Matt, I glanced back this time.
I wasn’t any of the things I had thought I was. I wasn’t the sorrow, or the joy of the spider. I wasn’t the crushed ladybug, nor was I the ladybug with a home. No, I was something different.
I was the baby girl of Matt, the dear friend of Julian, the sister to a beloved brother named Simon. I was a drifter, one connected to nature and life. I was the girl who cuddled octopi at night, the one who adored stories, and the one who stargazed every night before bed. I was all these things, and it made me the luckiest girl in the whole world.
I was me, and that was the best thing I could ever wish to be.

Epilogue: Matt

The sounds of the morning birds were the ones to wake us gently from our slumber. I looked over to Veronica, my lips turning up in a smile as I saw her sleepy look. Her hair was disheveled, her eyes half closed, and her mouth wide open in a humongous yawn. Still, she was the most beautiful sight in the morning. I was thankful every day I woke up with her by my side.
It had been a month since her awakening, and she was still here. We packed our belongings after we ate. Veronica reached into my bag, pulling out Leo. Leo was the name of the stuffed lion she had made appear out of thin air, a sort of silly gift that was given in response to Ozzie. She took him out too, before walking up to me. I was sitting down, sorting our supplies, so she didn’t have any trouble performing her nonsensical task. She placed Ozzie on my head, his tentacles covering my eyes, and Leo on my shoulder.
“Is there any particular reason they are on me right now?” I asked, finding her as strange as ever.
Just because I had connected to her when she awakened didn’t mean I understood her thought processes. She giggled, sitting down next to me.
“Just because,” she replied, not elaborating further.
I removed the animals from my body, playfully chucking them at her.
”Oh come on!” she exclaimed, “You looked so pretty! I decorated you! You really needed some flair.”
She snickered at my bewildered expression. Yeah, I didn’t understand, and I probably never would. It seemed I had a habit of becoming friends with people who didn’t make any sense.
Julian was so weird; I didn’t think you could understand him if you spent every day with him for the rest of your life. I chuckled at the thought, sure Veronica would agree with me. Well, if she wanted to “decorate” me, I would just have to do the same to her.
Saying I needed to get more water from a close by stream, I slipped into the forest. I pulled some vines from the tree, creating a makeshift loop. There were some fallen flower blossoms floating in a small bank separated from the water. I fished them out, carefully arranging them into the vines so that they stayed. I reemerged, sneaking up behind Veronica. Swiftly, I placed the “crown” on her head, holding it there so she didn’t knock it off.
“Hey,” she complained, “What are you doing?”
I pulled back, retrieving Ozzie from the ground. I set him on top of my head, stepping back.
“A king can’t leave his young companion without any flair,” I said, watching her face become confused as she examined the little circlet of green.
“I have my crown,” I continued while gesturing to the octopus, “And now so do you.”
She laughed, telling me I had finally lost my marbles. I took Ozzie off of my head, but she let her crown linger for a while. She was a princess in this world, one who would become a queen someday. She had already taught me more than I could have imagined. I had thought I would be the instructor, but she had shown me equally as many things. She muttered something about me being strange again.
“What was that?” I asked innocently, completely aware of her words.
She didn’t respond, and I raised an eyebrow. Reaching out quickly, I wrapped my arms around her torso. I heaved her upwards, and she screamed in surprise.
“Weird person attack! I repeat, weird person attack!” I exclaimed loudly, “This is not a drill! Oh no! It’s too late, it’s already got her! Run away!”
She laughed at my antics, squeaking when I held her up too high.
“Let me go, you lunatic!” she shouted, giggling as she was accidently tickled.
I did, setting her on the grass. She sprang up, latching on to my neck. I jumped, not expecting her sudden assault.
“Please,” she scoffed, “I taught you how to be weird. You didn’t even know the meaning of the word when I met you.”
She let go when she realized she couldn’t bring me down. We bickered playfully over the subject on who was weirder. To me, this was just another day on the trail. This was my life now, and I enjoyed every second of it.
Even when Veronica had gone down to town and I was wracked with worry, I was still happy about life. For the town reminded me how we met, and I was grateful to it for giving her to me. She had stayed calm the whole time, her connection full of joy and tranquility.
She had made me happy, and had taken away the only missing thing in my life. She was the reason I was no longer lonely. The more I thought about the connection to other drifters, the more I realized we set out to help others so we weren’t lonely. What we did with the gift of companionship was our own choice, but we had been granted numerous opportunities to be happy. I had never understood until the day I woke up in the hospital, but we were never meant to be alone.
I can understand the “normal” people a bit better now that I had someone important to me. While they spent holidays with friends and family, I spent them with Veronica and Julian. They were my friends, they were my family. I knew the feeling of family, and I understood the phenomenon of truly loving someone, something I hadn’t had since my parents passed away.
There was absolutely nothing in my life that was missing. I was surrounded by the most amazing world, and I had the most amazing girl to be my companion. She was there when I stargazed, there when I saw the mountains, and there when I watched the sunrise. I began to think of us as a unit, not her and I. We sing on the road, we feel the cool night breezes and sweltering hot days, and we watch our shoes become dirty from the particles of dust. The only difference is that hers were converse and mine were boots.
We watched days and night fly by, the journey never ending. A daunting task, but one we both understood was necessary, and one we took pleasure in. We travelled everywhere we could walk. We made it back to Julian’s house, and let him convince us to stay there for the night. We shared stories with him, and in the morning left with fond farewells.
We went to many cities, big and small. Some had a population of hundreds, some thousands. We met interesting people in our travels, swapping stories and spending time with others and basking in the glow of good company. We spent many a day talking to other drifters, speaking of things only they could understand. We look for others who need our help.
Veronica seems particularly interested in helping people, a trait she picked up early on. She loved to teach, and she loved to learn. Both of which you need to be a successful mentor. At least, that’s what I think. Who can say if I can be considered a success? But with all the things I had done wrong, I must have done something right, for she had turned out to be an amazing person, and I knew she would be an impactful and loved drifter.
She had joined our ranks, embarking on the quest we all shared. We would continue to follow the path, to safeguard the way for the others slumbering in their denial, waiting for their hibernation to break. We would be there when they emerged, blinking in the sunlight. We would show them as others had shown us, and we would continue the cycle.
As we walked along the sidelines with another days travel ahead, I could see what was going to be. But the future wasn’t here yet, and we only focused on the present. We would go down that road when we crossed it. The present was here, and it was a precious gift. We would keep doing what we were doing, and would always remain vigilant.
We are waiting, we are watching, and we are hoping. We always will be.
Our fate is in the hands of nature now, laid out for us. It is compressed into a long ribbon, following the lines painted across the ground. We will follow it until we can’t follow any longer, and the ribbon snaps.
But before that happens, we will walk along that line. Anything could happen, and we could just have to wait and see.
The future before us is a road, stretching out just like a highway.

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This book has 1 comment.

on Oct. 17 2013 at 8:35 am
Wow, this is a really great story! I would suggest that you seperate it into paragraphs, because when everything is crammed together it makes the dialouge confusing and it's like listening to someone talk without a single breath. Know what I mean? Despite that it's a totally awesome book and I award you five stars. Happy writing!