This story is by Liz J. Pack and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My chest constricted as I swung my feet out the car door and placed them shakily on the hot gravel outside. With increasing difficulty, I pulled the thin dry air into my lungs. My mind flashed red as my breaths became shorter and more shallow. I searched desperately for a physical sensation to anchor me to sanity. With effort, I concentrated on a single drop of sweat as it ran from my forehead, down my right cheek, to my neck, and disappeared into the collar of my damp t-shirt. The process was slow enough that when the drop of sweat was gone I was able to take a deep, steadying breath and open my eyes again.
Oh, Amanda, what have you gotten yourself into? I shook my head as I looked out over the brown barren landscape that stretched into the curve of the earth, disappearing into a clear blue sky. It was beautiful because it was immense. I was smaller than I had ever imagined while looking at any night sky in my entire life.
I felt crowded with the heat of the exposed sun, but I knew that I didn’t have time to dwell on my physical discomfort. I had to do something. My mind took stock of my situation with precision. I was at least 15 miles away from a town or gas station in either direction. I was out of water, having recklessly chugged the bottle I had bought the last time I had stopped. My car was overheated and had two flat tires (one of which I had switched out for the spare about three hours ago). My bank account had about $56 in it. It wasn’t enough for the tow truck I had called 4-1-1 to get the number of. The only things I had going for me were a mostly full gas tank (not useful, since I couldn’t drive my car), and a phone with 85% left in its battery.
This thin life line, my crappy phone’s almost full battery, was so pathetic that laughter built in my chest. Unable to hold it back, the bitter laughter broke out and hollowly filled the cab of my 1995 Geo Metro. Who could I call? My scanty contact list was full of people I was trying, unsuccessfully, to drive away from.
What a pathetic runaway! It wasn’t bad enough that I didn’t have a single person to help me, but I couldn’t even rely on myself to make it in this hostile, desert world. My laughter grew as I realized the cosmic irony of my situation. My quest for freedom had led to being trapped.
I wish I had…a mom. The thought came unbidden. I, of course, did have a mother, she was even alive, as far as I knew. But I didn’t have her number, and if I did have her number I would never call it. I just wished I had someone to take care of me. Tears burned my eyes and spilled into my eyelashes and onto my cheeks. I was still laughing, but the laughter was occasionally punctuated by sobs.
Every moment of isolation crashed in on me. The day I had run down the rickety back steps of my mom’s house, holding my arm and looking for safety. The bowl of soup I stared into while trying to figure out when and where I was going to sleep. The first time I was fired because I had no way to get to my job. The morning I received my bank statement and realized that Bryce had stolen from me. They converged into a messy ball of emotion in the middle of my chest.
After a few minutes my composure returned. With some trepidation, I began to think about the possibility of waiting for a stranger to drive by and take pity on me. My heart clenched at the thought. Strangers were not friends you hadn’t met yet. They were people who hadn’t had a chance to hurt you yet. And the way my day was going, I was sure the next stranger to drive by would be a serial killer or rapist. Or both.
Maybe, I thought, there is a contact in my phone that will surprise me?
My doubt mounted as I unlocked my phone and began scrolling through my contact list. Danielle Avery came first. My old coworker. I had her number purely because she had asked me to take some of her shifts at the Arby’s we both worked at. We definitely did not know each other well enough. Shortly after Danielle’s number came about five guy’s names followed by “(Do Not Answer).” These wouldn’t do, seeing as I had been taken out by each of them and they had been sufficiently creepy to warrant a warning next to their names. I scrolled through a couple more coworkers names and came to Tamara Johnson, my old landlady who had insisted on calling me “Blondie” and worshipping the ground Bryce had walked on. And then Bryce Nelson.
I paused and stared at his name on the screen. A small bubble to the side of his name held a smiling picture of him. Tiny on the screen, I could still see the seemingly guileless grin that had first led me to trust him. I was running faster from him than from anything else in my previous life. Yet he seemed to be the only person in my phone that I knew well enough to ask for a favor…
The moment my heart entertained the idea of relying on Bryce again my brain revved into overdrive and scrolled far past his name, skipping contacts that I knew would be as fruitless as the ones that had come before. With two more swipes, I had reached the end of my list, Kelsey Thompson (a neighbor) and Ralph Watterson (an old manager) taking up the final two spaces. As my eyes lingered on these final names an infinitely cold feeling began to push from my heart down through my stomach fighting the heat the seemed to be pressing in on my skin on all sides. I was alone. So utterly alone that no one would care if I died of dehydration in this endless desert. The people that had known me, the life I was running away from, would carry on with barely a thought for me now that I was gone. And if I died…
I stood abruptly and flung my phone toward the endless desert landscape.
Immediately regretting this I dashed forward to the place I had seen it land. Luckily, it missed the rocks. I unlocked it again and found that it still functioned. With relief I sat on the ground.
I had made it this far in my journey purely on adrenaline. Two mornings before, I had packed my bag with trembling hands, knowing that I only had an hour to pack and leave before Bryce would arrive home and talk me out of it with words that rendered my thoughts swirly. My first day of travel had been a nightmare, as though I was being chased. The second day I had started to feel lighter. Then there was the third day, me, my broken down car, and the desert…
“Where are you going, Amanda?” I whispered.
Defeat washed over me and I slumped to the side and laid on the ground. Rays of sunlight bit at my cheek and forearm.
I had run away so far and so hard that I had never stopped to consider the importance of knowing what I was running to. This thought grew in my mind like the shadow of a tree as the sun goes down. My unknown destination, and all the possibilities it held, were like a light breeze: as I thought about them, the heat of the day became almost bearable.
I braced my hands against the dusty ground and pushed myself up. I didn’t dust myself off, I just walked deliberately toward the road. I grabbed my backpack and closed and locked the doors of my car. With steady steps I began walking in the direction I had been driving before. I willed myself to face forward. I don’t care if I never see that car again.
As my feet padded the long road beneath me, my fear siphoned away. The prospects were bleak, but I was taking action. I wasn’t giving up.
Slowly, the sun went down. Slowly, I felt the heat in my skin dissipate. Slowly, the shadows of scrappy sage plants grew.
Then suddenly, bright lights found my back and a car pulled up beside me. With relief, I saw the state patrol emblem on the side of the vehicle as a female voice called from inside.
“Miss? Do you need a lift somewhere?”