Sweat burned my right eye as the dusty autumn air flew past my face. I dodged flying leaves and flecks of hay left and right, as my shins ripped through the whipping lashes of long brown grasses. The jagged fingers of thorny bush reached for and gripped my legs as I blew past. I stepped down hard and rolled my ankle to the right, almost falling to the ground as my arms flailed over head. The sound of kicking gravel and dragging rubber ground to a halt somewhere behind me.
Beams of red and blue illuminated the otherwise dead or dying brown field, along the edge of an unfamiliar wood line. I sprinted down the farmer’s path that dipped under muddy puddles and my feet crashed through the occasional film of ice that covered them. I could smell the exhaust spilling from the angry super-charged Ford only two-hundred meters or so behind me. It was angled half on the yellow-brown grass, ass sticking out into the gravel road. The cold air stung deep in my lungs. My heavy panting produced steaming clouds of signal that gave me away every few seconds.
I knew his shouting and angry gaze were faster than his feet. His stocky legs wouldn’t carry his giant belly much further down the path. My legs were strong and pumping with adrenaline. The path was in rough shape, and so was this middle-aged cop. I looked over my shoulder one more time as the faint sound of his jingling keys slowed to a defeated clink-clank. I ran for a few hundred more paces, deep into the bare bones of the wood line.
I was too far in now to see the police car peel off, but I was sure it would. He didn’t have the longevity to hunt me down in here. The burning embers of layered sunset were fading to purply-blue, a signal for him, that it was time to go home. He’d fill out his paperwork and punch out for the day, having done his due diligence. And then some.
I tossed my bag of stolen food next to a mangled oak tree, distorted by the intertwining vines that were slowly choking the life from it. I hunched over, breathing deep, and drops of sweat fell from my face, reviving the once-vibrant colors of autumn that crackled beneath my feet. The cool air chilled my wet skin, and my breathing slowed as my heart did. My hoodie was dark with sweat, and the pink of my skin was ribboned with scarlet where the field had taken tiny slices of leg. I rotated my foot in its socket, my ankle still throbbing. I needed someplace to call home tonight, too.
I grabbed my bag and angled my path back toward the road. I wouldn’t head straight out, but maybe reach the road a little further down from the farmer’s path. I didn’t know the neighborhood, or even this town, but I definitely knew the type. I’d use my child-like face and turn on the charm, get a meal somewhere and maybe a bed for the night. It was the time of year that I had to find a roof and four walls to protect me when the sun went down. There were no shelters in the farm towns on my hitchhiking journey from New York to Seattle. The nights were becoming deadly cold.
Twenty minutes into sunset, I acquired a target. I was still, I had guessed, about a hundred yards from the road, but I could see the peaks of a roof peering over the boney trees that surrounded it. I made a long, wide loop, so as not to approach it from the back, suspiciously. Most of the windows were dark, except one on the ground floor. The dusky night sky was flecked with the first stars of night. The smoky clouds of my exhale reminded me, This has to be my home for tonight.
It was one of those houses, like so many in the rural rustbelt. It was old and nearly all wood. The white paint chipped and peeled in nearly every crevice of its towering body, and the floorboards crackled and moaned beneath my feet as I approached the door.
No door bell, I thought as I peeled back the wood-framed screen door and put my hand on the old, metal knocker. These farm towns are all the same.
I raised and tapped the heavy metal on the door with a soft delicacy and waited. I saw a shadow move across the illuminated room to my left, and a frigid breeze shifted papery crisp leaves around the path behind me. A chill ran down my neck and I closed my eyes, practicing my most innocent internal monologue.
I bet they’ll answer with a shotgun in hand. I mentally rolled my eyes.
The heavy door cracked, and a suspicious eye took survey of me from the ground up. At a measly five feet and one hundred pounds, I was a threat to no one, she decided. The door pulled open, and the warm smile of maternity greeted me, as the narrow light of the room enveloped my body.
“Hello,” She seemed so calm. “Can I help you with something?”
“Umm, hello ma’am,” I started with a dramatically timid tone, “I got lost in the woods on the way to my great aunt’s house, and she doesn’t have a phone. I was wondering if I… if you would be willing…”
“Please come in,” she cut me off. “I’d be happy to give you a bed for the night. You can start off again in the morning if you’d like. Would you like some tea?” She scanned the woods. “It’s deathly cold out there.”
I paused for a second, impressed with how good I’d become at manipulating people.
Piece of cake, I thought, surveying her odd, full length dress. Its neck line and sleeves were detailed in lace, matching the conservative, but grandoise style in which her house was designed.
Country people are so odd. She’s got to be some kind of Amish or something, I figured.
“I was just starting a fire,” she told me, gesturing to an old-school fire place in the room filled with warm light. “Would you light if for me?” she asked.
I ventured over and lit the fire. The room was like a museum, old-timey and as well-preserved as she seemed to be. Very old fashioned, but typically odd, for these folksy country towns. I asked for a washroom to clean up my legs. She smiled and pointed down the hallway as she hung an antique tea kettle on an old iron rod inside the fireplace.
What the hell, I thought. I rubbed my hand down the smooth, cold hallway feeling for a light switch and found none. Before I could get annoyed, I found a washroom to the left, lit up in the bluish hues spilling in from the moonlit woods, unprotected by the naked, pre-winter branches rattling around the house. The old sink wasn’t a sink at all, but an old water basin with a pitcher of water next to it. I looked over my shoulder at the empty hallway, wondering how this odd woman lived like this at the end of the twentieth century. Even here in middle-of-nowhere-U.S.A. I found no light switch here either, and was starting to get irritated. But my oddball host was so kind, I resolved not to bother her. I was lucky, and grateful, for shelter. The moon lit the basin as I cupped water onto my legs and rubbed the sting away with bits of dried blood. I took a few minutes to breathe and meditate, gently wiping the mud and sweat from my face and body.
After several minutes, a wave of white light splashed into the room. I stood up quickly to peer at a car, fast approaching through the wooded driveway at the front of the house. My face startled me in the mirror, or maybe it was her expression, as the reflection of her mouth over my right shoulder warned me, “they’re here,” with a voice that echoed somewhere far away. I quickly leaned to the window and looked. Too late. The door crashed in and familiar footsteps pounded down the hallway after me. I bolted from the bathroom and felt his body slam mine into a cold Victorian wall.
The cuffs clinked around my wrists as he peeled my face off the wall with his giant, chubby mitts around my upper arm. The tea kettle started to scream as he led me out of the screeching screen door and down the steps to the backseat of his mud-stained Ford. I peered through the bars of the backseat window and at the house. The light was off now.
I for sure got this woman arrested. Wow. Only country cops are gracious enough to shut the lights off for you, I thought.
In the dark, I couldn’t make out much, spare the peeling white paint and the chimney smoke, drifting into the chilly night.
We pulled around the driveway and his lights flashed across her face, wide-eyed and crouching in the bushes. She peered at me anxiously as we pulled forward and passed her. My eyes met hers through the bars of my window, then darted toward the cop behind the steering wheel. I couldn't believe he'd missed her crouching there. I hung my head in relief, and in shame.
She must’ve made a break for it, I thought to myself. Thank God they didn’t see her.
The green mile markers reflected light on his face as the gravel road turned to blacktop. I stared at his stubbly chins and too-tight black collar from the back seat, adorned with shiny brass stars. I hated his fat ass.
“How’d you know where I was?” I questioned my own competence at this point.
He scoffed and angled his rear-view reflection at me, cuffed and staring at him with disgust.
“What kind of idiot lights a fire in a house that’s been condemned for a hundred years?” he snickered as I glared at him, frustrated and confused. “You could’ve started a massive wildfire. They say that's how the last resident died, lighting that fire. Neighbors called us.”
My expression softened as I tried to understand what he meant. Hair raised on my arms and prickled the inside of my dirty sweatshirt as I twisted around and leaned back. The last bit of smoke curled toward the stars, above a blackened forest of skeleton trees, reaching for something, anything, to touch.