fiction

Away From Home. {fiction}

The girl is sitting cross-legged on the dusty gravel at the side of the highway.

In the driver’s seat of his father’s rusting, red pickup truck, Mark loses himself to the bassline of Metallica’s Orion.

The late afternoon sky is growing duskier, the heat of the summer sun softening.

A couple of miles behind Mark lies the gas station where he passes his time working; the small town where he lives is a familiar, uninspiring half-hour’s drive ahead.

The stretch of highway is barren except for the tall dry grass on either side, and the crushed beer cans and other discarded debris.

The girl has a cardboard sign propped in front of her, letters haphazardly scrawled with permanent marker: Away From Home. She waits, her right arm outstretched, thumb upturned.

She is still but for the flutter of the fingers of her left hand, as she fidgets with the threads on her cut-off jeans.

Mark is so adrift in his own mind that he almost misses her entirely, but the bright fuchsia flash of her bandanna distracts his thought, and for reasons beyond him, he stops.

From the driver’s seat, he reaches to open the passenger door. “Hey.”

She starts, eyes widening up at him. She’s twitchy; it looks like it is taking all the effort she has not to bolt in the opposite direction. But she stays where she is, and after a moment’s hesitation, cracks a smile.

“Hey, thanks, man.”

Mark shyly returns the girl’s smile and nods towards her bag, a tattered and fading olive green hiking pack set beside her in the dust. “Grab that for you?”

“I’ve got it.” The girl quickly swings the pack over one shoulder. She climbs into the passenger seat of Mark’s truck, and positions the pack between her feet.

She keeps one hand placed lightly on the top of it, fingers tracing the creases in the worn fabric.

Mark shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He reaches to turn off the music, and then hesitates, looking to the girl. “Mind if I keep it on? Helps me relax.”

The girl notices the CD case placed carefully on the dashboard, its cover scratched and dulled from use. Glancing at him, she echoes his shrug. “No problem.”

Mark twists the key in the ignition and turns up the volume on the CD player. The engine starts with a cough and a sputter of smoke, and inside, Metallica fills the truck with comfortable noise.

The girl breathes in the dry smell of dust and cigarettes thinly veiled by a pine air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, runs a hand across the cool slippery-scratchiness of her leather seat, and exhales softly.

The miles pass, and for a while, neither Mark nor the girl feel the need for conversation.

*****

She is watching the world pass from her window, her chin pressed into the palm of one hand. Billboard advertisements, gas stations and mini-marts, road signs. One Way.

She is watching it all disappear behind her, when a sudden, long-absent rise of happiness hits her.

Her somber expression melts into a wide smile that takes her by surprise, but which she cannot prevent, though she hides her mouth with the back of her hand.

Mark sees the corners of her eyes crinkle out of his peripheral vision. He inhales, thinks about speaking, but remains silent, and the moment passes in stillness.

Only when they reach the train tracks at the following intersection, and the smile has disappeared from the girl’s face, does Mark say: “So, where are you from?”

The girl takes a shaky breath. She looks at her lap.

“Oh, it doesn’t really matter.”

Mark shoots her a quick glance, but does not speak. He taps his index finger against the steering wheel, keeping time with the music.

The girl inhales sharply. “Look, there’s only so long you can stay with a person who hurts you, even if you love them.” She looks sideways at Mark. “Loved them. Whatever. I’m not from somewhere I intend to go back to, okay?”

“Okay. Okay, I got you.” Mark doesn’t press further.

“Just keep driving.” The girl shifts in her seat and stares ahead.

“Where are you going?”

“That’s what I said. Just keep driving.”

Mark’s brow and shoulders tense, and he reaches to turn off the music. The car falls into an uneasy quiet.

He looks at the girl. “Well, I live in the next town over, so I can take you as far as there, and then you’re on your own. Alright?”

The girl nods, but does not move her gaze from directly ahead of her. She sets her jaw.

A few more miles pass in silence, and at one point Mark thinks that the girl turns to look at him, her eyes full, but the grey of the highway has already lulled him back into his usual state of waking dream, and he cannot be sure.

*****

The highway makes way for smaller roads; fast food restaurants, diners and gas stations pass in closer proximity to one another, and then Mark begins passing small run-down colonial houses, some abandoned and boarded up.

American flags hang from windows and balconies. Mark used to anticipate his exodus from town, but four years out of high school working the same job has instead made it his seemingly inescapable reality.

He turns down a side street, and stops in front of a graying house with broken shutters.

The girl glances at him. “This is home?”

“This is me. This is as far as I can take you.” Mark gestures in front of him. He hesitates for a second, and looks at the girl. “You gonna be all right?”

She doesn’t reply, but instead lifts her backpack from between her feet, pulls open the car door, steps out, and walks down the street away from the house.

From the driver’s seat, Mark watches her go.

The girl walks slowly but deliberately. She does not look back.

Mark fidgets in his seat and tries to ignore the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He pushes a hand through his dark brown hair that has the tendency to fall over his eyes, but it simply settles back into its original position.

Finally, he opens the car door and steps outside, shivering slightly in the cool evening air — unusually cool for the beginning of summer in Nebraska, he notices, where the evenings are often just as sticky-warm as the days.

Mark walks up the couple of steps to his front door and stops on the porch, listening to the argument from inside. From where he is standing, he can smell his stepmother’s cigarette smoke and hear his father shouting. A crash.

Mark suddenly feels nauseated. He sees himself walking into the dim kitchen, putting his day’s money in the jar on the table, and heading downstairs to the room he rents in their basement. His head spins.

Mark takes a deep breath, and turns around. He walks back down the stairs, climbs once more into the driver’s seat of the truck, and turns the key in the ignition.

*****

The girl is sitting on a park bench at the side of the highway.

Mark can see her from a distance: her feet crossed in the dust, handwritten cardboard sign on her lap, one arm around the bag resting beside her on the bench.

He slows to a stop in front of her. He gets out of the truck, gives a hesitant smile, and opens his palm towards her as though he would take her hand.

The girl’s smile is as wide as the clear night sky above them. Without a word, she hands her bag to Mark.

Mark secures it in the back of the truck and then turns to open the passenger door for the girl, but finds her already sitting inside. He climbs into the driver’s seat, turns on the music once more, and pulls back onto the highway.

The girl turns to watch Mark for a moment, softly. “I’m Lily.”

“Mark,” he says.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

Mark looks into the darkness in front of him; the bright road lines on the highway are clear only for a few feet in front of the truck before they disappear into the night.

“Same place you are,” he answers, and he just keeps driving.

***

HannahSidenHannah Siden lives in Vancouver, BC. She also writes for Concert Addicts, and has been published in Megaphone and UBC’s The Garden Statuary. She’s a fan of peppermint tea, desert climates, and jam sessions.

***

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