5.A Chapter by smkrwt
The wind brushes smoothly over my face, a thousand soft feathers dusting my skin in the freshest air I’ve breathed in years. Gus’s window is rolled down too, and I can see he enjoys it, the cool spring air. It’s already afternoon, but I don’t think the temperature has even touched seventy. The thermometer in the car says today’s peak was sixty seven degrees, but those things are often off.
We streak down the highway at seventy miles per hour. I’ve only had to fill up on gas once in the five or six hours we’ve been driving, and I’m sure this tank will last me the rest of the way there. It’ll have to, because I’m running low on Gus’s cash, and I’m sure that by this point the authorities are monitoring every one of his accounts, scanning for even the slightest transaction that would give them his whereabouts--or more accurately, my whereabouts--which makes it impossible to make any more withdraws from his card.
The sun glints blindingly off the hood of the car, but by now my eyes have adjusted, and focus solely on the black asphalt before us. The landscape has flattened out tremendously, with trees zipping past too quickly to get a good glimpse of them. The forests are now long gone, but small groves and copses are still scattered around here and there. If the eye is quick enough to catch them. Their leaves are all greening, shifting between jade and emerald as the wind rustles them and the sun bounces off their shiny backs. One of the most colorful times of the year, the most vibrant. I’m glad I chose this time to escape.
When Gus asks for lunch, I hand him another apple, along with a box of crackers. I reach over every now and then to get a handful of crackers from the box for myself, munching on the multi-flavored squares while I drive. Each time I reach over, he tilts the box courteously in my direction, allowing easier access. It’s almost as though we’ve developed some twisted sort of diplomacy between us--not exactly a friendship, but an alliance. I begin to wonder if he might even help me if the authorities catch up to us.
“Lisa,” he asks, resting his head against the back of the seat, looking out the window, “Why did you escape in the first place?”
He’s honest, and open, sincerely curious about my predicament.
“I wanted a change in scenery,” I tell him, sounding completely serious. He senses the sarcasm though, and persists.
“Yeah, right. What was it that you hated so much about the place that made you crazy enough to drag a hostage out? What do you want from them? What do you really think they will let you bargain me for?”
I sigh--he’s asking too many questions, and he knows it. There’s fear in his eyes, but determination in the set of his jaw. He’ll pull my answers from me, one way or another. Even from silence, he can figure out what I am saying.
So I decide to not let him make any assumptions, and answer his questions as he asked them.
“Did you see the place you worked in? People--sane, good, honest people--were being beaten, just because they believed differently from the rest. Because they spoke out about their beliefs, because they wanted something better. The institution was all good and righteous for the people who caved, and gave in, but there are some of us who are unwilling to do that. And with the people who are like that--people like me--what other end for us is there in that place besides death--physical or otherwise?”
“I can see that,” he says, agreeing gracefully, but carefully. “But what did they ever do to you? I mean, honestly, all they’ve ever done is kept us safe, out of harm.”
“Yeah, but the price is our own minds--our freedom to think and decide freely. Do you want your every decision made for you like you were a child?”
To this, he has no answer. Instead, he asks again, “What do you want from them?”
“Nothing--just to be left alone.” I inhale deeply before continuing. It’s complicated if I reveal too much, but I can’t see how I can just expect this man to obey me blindly without even giving him a little bit of information to go on--if I'm not at least a little bit honest with him, I'm really not any better than the people I'm trying to run from. “I just want to be able to say I’ve had it with them, and leave as I want to. To tell them that they can’t control me as they please. To be allowed to live as a human--whatever my definition of that word may be.”
“Gus,” I say, speaking his name for the first time. I say it warily, remaining aware of the power of a name. Giving him the distinction of an identity to me will make him more than just a body if I kill him--now he has a persona, a character I can relate to, and that will just make it harder to pull the trigger. But I need him to feel as though I trust him, and he can trust me. “Why did you choose to work at the institution anyway?”
He looks at me, shocked, as if the answer was too obvious to even allow a question like that. As his features fall back in to place he turns from me, mumbling, “I’m not sure…”
He’s silent for a few moments, brooding as if he was locked in a small capsule and had nothing else to think of. I glance over at him a few times, to check that he’s still awake, and his eyes are open. As soon as he catches me looking at him, the words spill from his mouth.
“What did you do to get thrown in there?”
I brake quickly, throwing both of us forward against our seat belts. The tires screech, but there is no one out here to be a witness to the spectacle, no one to catch me. The highway is just as empty as it has been, just as empty as it ever will be. I stare straight out the windshield.
After a few moments of tense silence, Gus says, “I guess I shouldn’t have asked you that.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” I respond tightly. My throat feels constricted, my heart as though a noose as been contracted around the organ, though I can hear my pulse thudding in a mad rush through my ears.
“Do I even want to know the answer?” he asks cautiously.
I pause for a moment, thinking about it. “No, you don’t,” I say eventually.
He nods evenly, believing me. It’s easy to imagine a person is capable of the vilest things, especially when you don’t know them.
“So,” he says after another long pause as I begin to drive the car along again, pulling it forward and accelerating slowly. “What do you intend to bargain me for, if you don’t want anything from the people who imprisoned you?”
I close my eyes briefly, opening them before I let the car stray too far. “I don’t think I ever intended to bargain you for anything.”
And with this he is silent, sensing the inevitability of his own death at my hands, if not now, then some other time in the future, when we’re caught, and he’s in the crossfire. There is no fear from him though--only acceptance, and it is now that I realize that I’ve just dragged him across that invisible line separating me from the people who threw me into the institution, and whether he likes it or not, he is now on my side.
The road gradually begins to narrow as we continue on, the shoulder slowly disappearing until it is just a strip of concrete not a foot wide on the side of the road. We come to our first stoplight at an intersection. These roads have long been abandoned, but the light still runs on a timer. There is absolutely no need for me to stop, but I do anyway, because if I run through the red dot in the sky before me, it will shatter the glorious delusion that what I’m searching for is still there. And that is the last thread of hope I have.
The town slowly creeps up around us, first sprawling plants of gardens and parks that might have once been tamed and trimmed by the locals, but were now rolling lazily out of their places. Then the parks slowly give way to manicured lawns as the town greets us with its first nice neighborhood--Wandering Oaks. Where I used to live.
I drive silently down the familiar, deserted lanes and avenues, my eyes sweeping over the large, beautiful houses, remembering the people--faces and names of them--who used to live in each emptied lot. It looks as unlike any ghost town you would expect to see--with lush plant life, tidy houses, and the expectation to see someone walking down the drive way to pick up the mail or water the flowers or take the dog for a run. But there is none of that. This isn’t a town lost somewhere in the desert, with chipped paint, slanted shutters and broken doors. Wisps of cloud hung like cotton in the sky, and the presence of a slight breeze that shook the delicate tree limbs made everything seem very vacant and lost all the same. It is as deserted as any ghost town, the only life the plants and the bugs that survived among them. And of course, me and Gus, rolling lazily down the road, brushing past every house with a heavy cloud of tension between us.
I stop at the next sign, then pull onto a street named Birch Boulevard. My town had always had a thing for naming roads after plants. After passing a few more intersections between streets, I pull onto Apple Blossom Row, the street of my childhood. Everything is just as I remembered it, perfectly preserved, almost like a museum. I know most of the town has been abandoned for a long time, but it looks like nothing is amiss--the neighbors just sleeping, the lawns trimmed, trees pruned, flowers watered, weeds pulled. The sidewalks are spotless, brilliantly white in the brightness of the sun, reminding me of the harsh blank walls of the institution.
Finally I see it, just a few more houses down the street, right on the corner, but I let my foot ease off the accelerator, letting the car progress slowly forward on its own. The spreading chestnut tree in the front yard is in full bloom, casting a circle of shade on the grass surrounding it. The purple rhododendrons in front of the porch are just blossoming, the tips of the orchid stems about to burst open as well. Pansies line the small walkway that leads from the driveway to the steps of the open porch. I can almost see myself running through the rotating stream of water from the sprinklers as a child with my brother, my grandparents watching us from their perch on the porch swing.
I turn off the car as it rolls up next to the sidewalk in front of the house. Gus looks out the window with placid fascination--there are no houses like this in the cities, none at all.
“Wait here,” I say, almost a whisper, opening the car door. It’s not like he can go much of anywhere anyway, but I want him to stay put. This moment is for me, alone, and I do not want to share it with anybody--especially not the man I’ve chosen as my hostage.
I can’t help the smile that takes over my face as I walk around the car. Something in the center of my body is tight--not like the noose around my heart I had felt earlier, but like my chest is not large enough to hold the amount of drug-like joy that is welling up inside of me. I jog across the lawn, hopping over the row of pansies to get onto the small walk that leads to the porch. I slip my hand behind one of the decorative shutters of the front window, ripping the key from its hiding place and sliding it quickly into the lock. I pause a moment with my hand on the door knob and I feel as though everything around me hesitates at this moment--the wind ceases, the sounds of chirping birds fading into the background, the orchestral hum of bugs quieting in wait for this moment as I hold my breath.
Then the moment passes. I release the air in my lung and turn the knob, stepping gently across the threshold into my home.
The house is dark, no lights on, no curtains open.
“Nanna?” I speak into the emptiness, hope threading my voice. “Papi?”
The welcome mat beneath my feet is worn, the colors of the flowers that decorate the borders faded. A Greek welcome is inscribed on a wooden plaque that hangs from a nail on the wall across from the door. There is a thin layer of dust that has accumulated on a small blessing prayer framed beneath the greeting. I turn to the left, stepping into the living room.
“I’m home,” I say aloud. My fingers brush over the decorative antiques that line the coffee table and mantelpiece, remembering the feel of each item even after years of separation from this place. The door to the kitchen is open across the room, a thin stream of yellow light streaming from a window through the cracked door. I quickly turn away and head towards the stairs.
I glance into my grandparent’s bedroom--it’s empty, the yellow floral wallpaper still intact, the bed made, dresser drawers closed, rug vacuumed, everything tidy and in pristine condition. My own room is down at the end of the hall, door tightly closed, but I turn the opposite direction, heading instead toward another room with the door ajar. I rap my knuckles gently on the frame.
“Alec?” I say, peeking in. Sunlight pours in on the dark blue walls. The bed is messy, items of junk strewn across the floor. I carefully pick my way through the mess to the window that looks out on the front lawn. I can see a few branches from the chestnut tree, though it is on the other side of the house from here, and far below on the street, there is Gus, still waiting in the passenger seat of the car. His eyes are scanning the scenery, taking in every piece of information he can from the colors and shapes of the surrounding area while I’m gone, probably trying to look for a way to escape. I smirk grimly, but the grin quickly fades. I turn to go out of the room and head back down the stairs.
I head back towards the kitchen, opening the doors wide to the yellow walls, gleaming white counters and silvery appliances. A crystal vase is set atop a doily on the polished wood dining table, an oil painting of the countryside tacked to the wall behind the table. Pictures of fruit and bread decorate the empty wall space around the cabinets, and embroidered towels hand on silver hooks and rings around the counter. Nothing is out of place, it is so strange.
Maybe they’re just out for the day, I try to convince myself as I continue to look around. Maybe gone to get some more food, stock up on fruit. We’d been living in the house for at least two years after people had begun to move from the town to the city, the two years preceding my supposed crime and capture. Why wouldn’t they be here now? I stifle all my worries and fears beneath a layer of excuses, walking aimlessly around the house until once again I find myself in the kitchen staring at the counter.
There is a patch of space, slightly shadowed, and, unlike the rest of the marble counter, it does not shine reflectively in the muted light. I walk slowly over to the patch, dread building up in my chest, reaching higher as my throat tightens. The patch takes form, a rectangle of pinkish paper, the shadows highlighted by streaks of dark ink, words, a letter. I pick it up to read.
…We’ve left. We are on the run now, for certain, and we are not coming home, for good this time. If you ever return, please forgive us. We wanted to find you, but we couldn’t, we couldn’t save you. We’re going to the city in the sky of green clouds. Find us if you can. We will wait there….
My hands are trembling as I hold the paper, and it takes all I have to place it gently on the table and walk away. They’re gone. I can’t grasp this fact, and my head begins to hurt as I try to get my mind around this fact, my thoughts suffocating, wisps of thought and feeling vanishing into nothingness before they can form and allow me to comprehend anything. What was the use--the use of the time wasted in that prison they called a hospital, the time wasted in planning my escape? I should have just let myself die, it would have been easier for all of us. My body is shaking, terrified of the loneliness that now faces me without my family. I feel the gun, its weight heavy in my pocket, and I pull it into my hand, where somehow it feels lighter. I spin on my heel, and rush out of the house, raging, mad, just like they said I was at the institution.
Gus is still in the car as I storm out of the house, but as he spots me, gun in hand, the glazed look on his face is taken over by a look dominated by terror.
I yank the car door open, but he is still buckled in, so instead of being dragged out, his arm snaps straight with the force of the opening door.
“What’s the point!” I scream into his face. His eyes are wide, scared, and this angers me even more. I step back angrily and march to the center of the lawn.
“Lisa,” he starts carefully, but I cut him off.
“Shut up! Just shut the hell up!” I can feel the tears prickling my eyes. He can’t see this--the tears that are the evidence to testify against my weakness. But they spill over, coursing down my face anyway. I don’t dare acknowledge them.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” he whispers, and I c**k the gun, pulling the trigger and shooting the glass out of the side view mirror on his door. He keeps still.
I can’t think. Everything is tight, like a string squeezing my body until it will implode. I can hardly breathe, my throat constricted, choking me. The noise around me has resumed, the singing birds all too cheerful and loud, insulting my pain. My vision is blurry, obstructed by tears, but I can see that Gus is terrified. Still, despite my violent rage, he holds out a hand, placating, begging. I grip the gun tightly and point at him, and his hand stops.
“Lisa, don’t do this,” he asks, pleading for his life.
“What then?” I yell. I take the gun and place the barrel at my temple. “This then? Is this what you want? You all do, every single f*****g one of you, for me to die! For my family to be gone! Well now they are. What the hell do I have left anyway!”
I fall to my knees, letting my hand falter slightly from the side of my head. Sobs wrack my body, wrenched out of me like the wind was stealing back every breath of air I’d ever used. My own voice stings the back of my throat as I scream, and the pain becomes more than just a physical overload, but a mental sensation that steals all thoughts from me.
“Lisa, please,” I hear Gus say again.
“What?” I scream, my hand tightening involuntarily on the gun.
There’s a thunder next to my ear, and an external pain rips across the side of my head. I start in shock, my vision clearing until it is so sharp I can actually see Gus’s pupils dilate fifteen feet away before darkness takes hold.
© 2011 smkrwt