Charlie’s mother sucked down the last dregs of coffee from a Styrofoam cup and stared at the empty driveway in front of the house. She cut the truck’s engine and climbed out. Once inside, she passed through rooms, clicking on light switches and opening and shutting doors. As she scaled the steep steps to her daughter’s attic bedroom, she rehearsed the list of where Charlie wasn’t: Charlie wasn’t listening to music on her headphones or painting her toenails putrid green, one foot propped on the bathroom counter. Not in the living room, sprawled on the couch, eating cereal from a bowl on her stomach like some bloated sea otter. Not in the backyard with her dog, nor in the front room, and not in her bedroom either.
To stave off the next thought—a thought she knew well for both its frequency and the panic that was sure to follow— she gazed out Charlie’s bedroom window at one cloud wisp moving between the tops of pines.
The car’s engine growled as Charlie waited for the traffic light to click over to green. To her left hooked a road leading to the abandoned hospital, and to her right was a mound of yellow grass before the Interstate-5 on the ramp. She glanced at the side view mirror half expecting to see a car pulling up next to her, the driver, someone she used to know, giving a wave and a smile. Such a thing happened a lot in this small town. The person, likely from her parents’ church, would motion for her to move off to the side of the road and proceed to ask what she’s been up to if she was coming back to church, youth group, puppet ministry practice. She realised at least ten percent of her wanted that to happen. Instead what she saw was a ribbon of grey pavement heading toward the centre of town and a sign for Denny’s turning ever-slowly on a paint-chipped pole.
On the passenger seat rested a red and white carton of Marlboros, an open package of lighters, a 12 pack of batteries, and a beat-up Discman. She decided to play the first CD she found. Lifting the dirty Sublime CD case from the floor, she knew it was empty. Once she lent it to her best friend and never got it back. She tossed the CD case back to the floor and reached for the album, Crash, by Dave Mathew’s Band.
She snapped the lid closed and adjusted the earbuds, letting the familiar melancholy music wash over her – a soundtrack to give her courage. It was time to put as much distance between her and Roseburg, Oregon as possible. She hated who she was in Roseburg: a tweaker who ended each night knocking on Omar’s front door, praying under her breath for that night not to be the night that he turned her away. Getting high made the world sharp as a magazine fashion shoot with rich colors and smelling of chemical gloss, but the highs were unavoidably tainted by what came after—the plummeting into waves of hopelessness. Coming down revealed reality as cardboard boredom, pockmarked and dented, and she hated how that was the truth she had to face. She tapped her rings on the steering wheel and felt resolved. She’d miss the river, but California had an ocean.
“You ready for a road trip, Lady?” she called to the back seat. “I bet you are.”
Lady cocked a black ear and whined.
Charlie’s mother clicked her tongue in disappointment though no one was there to hear her. On the floor were stacks of Rolling Stone Magazines and textbooks and a pink hair dryer still plugged-in. The dresser drawers slumped open, spilling polyester—a consignment store style Charlie had taken on recently which made her look like a stranger, or desperate for attention, or like she had robbed an old man, had stolen his loudest butterfly collared shirts. She counted three plastic cups on the floor, a sight that would upset her husband. She could hear him say, “Dirty dishes breed ants.” One of the cups was still half full of something the color of electrified piss.
On the overthrown bed was a bottle of Nyquil, empty HALLS wrappers, and a folded piece of stationary with pictures of kittens chasing balls of yarn—stationary from when Charlie was younger and in love with cats—when she would carry around books about cats and rattle off the different breeds and facts whether you wanted to hear them or not. She picked up the kitten stationary and unfolded the top half. The letter began Dear Mom and Dad…
She sat down on the edge of the mattress, dropping the letter on the bed.
Charlie was not in the kitchen drinking the last of the orange juice. Not in her brother’s room. Not looking for something in her car. No, her car wasn’t parked in the driveway. She had known Charlie was gone before she had even begun searching the house. There were times she could stop herself before she got carried away—it seemed, at last, being carried away was the perfect response. She stared at Charlie’s bedroom walls—she had painted them Sea Blue last summer as a surprise. Charlie loved the ocean.
Once in what felt like a previous life, she had painted a little girl room the color Victorian Tea Rose. Charlie was seven then and enamored with the color pink and Anne of Green Gables and cats. At seven, Charlie sill loved Jesus. That was before living with the constant fear of what Charlie might do next. Before the words that she had said in the face of that fear. All things that could never be unsaid.
I miss my real daughter. Let me know when she comes back.
Someday I hope you realize what you’ve squandered between us.
I tried, but you ruined our chances.
Words hung between them like winter coats in a walk-in closet making it impossible to see each other clearly. She was partly to blame for that, she knew. But she was trying to be a better mother.
In movies, running away is what happens before the character arrives at a new life and a new way of being. Charlie decided that the movie about her life would be soundtrack by obscure bands like This is A Standoff. Bands that Omar liked. The heroine, played by herself, would be beautifully aloof, and the people of her life would be quirky and interesting. Every moment would be perfectly lit and framed. She’s on a city sidewalk where lights burn brightly against the clear sky. She’s sitting against a storm window, looking over the ocean that’s folding over itself in a frothy madness. Someone, who looks a lot like shirtless Omar, leans in a doorway. You’re beyond all of us, this Omar look-alike says. You’re going where I can’t follow. A different ideal she supposed than the one her parents were chasing, but at least they had taught her the importance of devotion. A life of finding a higher purpose to every moment. A life for vision.
She decided to drive until she couldn’t anymore then sleep at a rest stop. She had done this before—spent the night at a rest stop with heroin-sick Omar—it was easy enough, and no one asked you to leave. She checked off in her head her main concerns: cigarettes, gas money, dog food. She had cashed her last paycheck from the HI-HO, bought enough of everything to last at least a week. Everything except more meth but that was on purpose—she needed to stay level. For the first time in a vapor-filled year, she had some clarity. She had to leave; she had to stop seesawing.
Before leaving, she had borrowed her father’s vintage pistol, removing it from the shoebox kept in her parents’ closet. She figured it was loaded because her dad had told her once, but she didn’t know how to check to make sure. The gun was in her purse on the floor in the back. Lady crawled over the divide, knocking the batteries off the passenger seat, resting her narrow black head on Charlie’s lap.
When Charlie was fourteen, she had found Lady in Jacksonville while antique shopping with her mother. After she had witnessed the dog nearly hit by a car on Main Street, huddled in the gutter and shivering, she begged her mother to let her bring her home. It was a sign, Charlie knew, they needed each other. On the ride home, her mother reached over the dog and patted her arm.
“I like the name Lady,” She said.
Lady peed whenever excited, and for that reason, her father didn’t let her indoors, so she stayed in the backyard. Charlie still snuck her in at night, and no one seemed to notice. Or more likely, they were too busy with the other things she was up to—the rumours of promiscuity and hard drugs—to be concerned with a little rule broken.
Once when Charlie had snuck back into the house with Lady at her heels after going out with some friends, she found her father standing in her upstairs bedroom. He was partly in shadow, partly in the moonlight streaming in from the roof window. He stood there uncommonly quiet. She could hear her mother downstairs weeping in the hallway. When he finally spoke, he sounded like he was out of breath but at the same time resolutely still.
“Where have you been?”
Lady slinked through Charlie’s legs and sat between them. Her tail thumped a nervous rhythm on the wood floor.
“Do you hear your mother?”
“I went out to think—pray,” Charlie said. “You guys, relax.”
Her father surprised her by making a noise like an engine that wouldn’t turn over. In his right hand, she noticed, was the purse she used to hide a syringe from the first time she tried to inject meth. The high from shooting meth, she had been told, was different than snorting or eating it. When you shoot up, before you can even count to three, you’re feeling it. She had found it difficult to inject alone, and stabbed herself several times before giving up. The result had left her with a bruise the size of a sand dollar in the crook of her left arm. She had swallowed the meth in a wad of toilet paper instead.
Charlie didn’t know what response to give her father. None seemed appropriate—not lying, not turning away, not even apologizing because who would believe her. She wished they could know how not caring about sinning felt. She was sorry for disappointing them, but she was freer than she had ever been before. She wanted to say, where I’m going, you won’t be able to follow, so quit standing in my way.
Lady barked once and folded her tail beneath her.
Charlie’s mother had believed some of their differences, perhaps not all, but some would be swept aside if she could show her daughter that she loved her. They would find common ground, and even if it only lasted until the new paint smell faded, it would be enough. And so while her daughter went away for a week to visit her grandmother, she made a plan.
Ladies from church came to help clear the room, removing Charlie’s bed and her piles of clothes off the floor. She was embarrassed when Nancy Floyd found an empty box of condoms in a suitcase.
“You see what I’m dealing with?”
Nancy Floyd nodded.
She remembered that Nancy Floyd’s grandson had driven drunk and killed a man. She felt comforted that they had this family disappointment in common.
“You can talk till your face turns blue.” She realised she said this to create distance from Charlie’s life decisions. She needed this distance. God, I’m doing the best I can here. “In the end, all we can do is pray.”
“Why don’t we do just that?” Nancy Floyd motioned for the other women to join them in a circle. “Let’s pray that Charlie comes home to a new way of living. That God changes her heart.” The women held hands, and for the first time in months, she felt like she was standing still.
As the women gathered items like shoes, porcelain dolls, and a collection of dusty teapots shaped like cats with their paws as spouts, and piling them at the foot of the stairs—she focused on prying a mirror off the wall. Charlie had written Hell Here with sparkly, puffy paint on the mirrored surface.
Donna Van, a newer member of the church, helped her with the cumbersome frame.
“So glad to finally get rid of this.”
When they lifted the mirror, they found a thin construction paper journal stuck to the wall by time and pressure. She peeled the booklet off the wall. Charlie had made it in church camp her ninth grade year. She flipped it open, her eyes sliding easily to a prayer, Please help me lose ten pounds before tenth grade.
“God can use our mistakes,” Donna Van said, glancing at the book.
Whose mistakes? Charlie’s? Hers?
“Here let me.” Nancy Floyd came over helped Donna Van lift the mirror, manoeuvring it down the stairs.
Someone, Charlie’s mother couldn’t remember now who it had been, decided that before they painted the walls, they should write scripture verses on them. It would be something to ward off whatever was oppressing Charlie.
It was a large room with an awful lot of walls to cover. Soon they were inviting other people from the church. Over the next few days, girls from the youth group, old friends of Charlie’s, arrived and wrote blessings and wishes on the wall like signing a Get Well card or a school yearbook.
Afterwards, Nancy Floyd helped her put down layers of primer. Over the primer, layers of deep blue. She remembered thinking that it did look like the sea, the darkest most calming parts. As she moved her paintbrush back and forth, she remembered the pile at the foot of the stairs. None of that old stuff made any sense anymore, not with the ways the blue made the room feel. She was going to have to bring in ways to reflect light – a glass bead curtain and some crystal votive in the windows. Charlie’s childhood things—on second thought, maybe she’d keep them in a box, just in case Charlie wanted them in the future. All parenting is a matter of letting go; she had reminded herself. She was trying hard to like this new version of her daughter.
At times, she woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat. When Charlie spent the night at a friend’s house, she found herself driving to the friend’s darkened street. “To rest my mind,” she told her husband.
Whenever there was a call of laying-on of hands or a visiting prophet came to church, they were the first to walk to the front of the Sanctuary. When out to eat or shopping, people from their church would pull them aside and ask how they were doing with it all. In those moments, she’d managed to rest her hand limply in their handshake or reassure them with a squeeze. God knows. God Knows. Both were ways she expressed that she was tired, but hanging on the best she knew how.
Startled by her voice whispering, “Lord Jesus,” she picked the kitten stationary from off the bed and continued reading. The words swelled then pushed against her like waves, threatening to pull her under. Dear Mom and Dad, I’m leaving. I’ll give back the car when I can. Don’t worry about me I’m more street smart than you realize. Sorry about everything. Call you soon. Love, Charlie
She glanced one more time around the room before descending the stairs. She would call her husband at work. She would be calm. It’s a family emergency. He’ll come home early. They will report the car missing to the police. They could report it stolen. Would they arrest Charlie? What would she think of them then? She was still a kid. How do they continue when the worst has happened? No, not the worst. The worst was still out there.
Charlie headed south. It was late afternoon, and traffic was sparse. The hills, burnt from the summer sun, streamed past in a beige blur, and the warm air whistled through the crack in her window. She could taste burning wood in the air. She coughed and flicked a cigarette, and told herself not to give a flying fuck about the what if’s—it was time to commit. She could see the black smoke billowing in the distance before rounding the corner where the interstate swerved behind backyards. A thin man in sweatpants and a flannel was prodding a yard debris fire. A toddler, wearing only a diaper and pink rain boots, came around the house, pulling a hose.
Charlie’s mother was ever looking for Charlie’s former self like she was watching a shadow slip across a wall. Charlie imagined her shadow was a person who was into giving her time to church missions and giving back money found on the ground. Someone who would turn her nose up at girls in too short shorts. Someone who’d wear a promise ring. This shadow her mother conjured up in her presence, sometimes with just a look, seemed to have stitched herself to Charlie’s skin. For even when her mother wasn’t around, the shadow sprawled out in front of her like a choice. More often it loomed behind her like an accusation.
“No more thinking about the past,” She said to Lady thinking this was just the thing a heroine in a movie would say.
Lady scrambled off the seat onto the floor, turned around, and climbed back onto the seat. With a press of the door’s button, Charlie rolled down the passenger side window. Lady squeezed her long nose through the opening and wagged her tail. Charlie pulled out another smoke and lit it. Her stomach burned from exhaustion from days without sleep and without eating properly, smoking too much, and the stale meth aftertaste, churning in her stomach. It really could have been any or all of those things. She rubbed the back of her hand against her clammy forehead.
Each passed gas station, Taco Bell and Burger King, each consignment store purchase— from Big Red gum to the week old refrigerated hoagie in its clear plastic coffin—were artefacts of her story, props on the movie set. Every time Lady hunkered her hind to take a whiz or shit in some strip of grass, glancing behind her with eyes begging the question, Is it okay that I’m doing this here? Charlie wanted to applaud.
“That’s it, Lady. That marks the spot.” They were here. Here’s the proof.
She switched batteries in the Discman and drank the last of her coffee. Her progress rocketing by in mile markers: 131 miles to California; 60; 20; 10; 5.
By the time they passed the Welcome to California sign, it was around ten, and the sandwich had sobered her some. Going this far had been, she realized, the only real goal she had, and now all she could think about was sleep. She pulled the car into the nearest rest area and parked close to the bathrooms where the lights were the brightest, just in case.
“Calm down, Lady. Sit still.”
She placed her purse in the back window and drew a blanket over her legs. A semi truck’s headlights spun through her back window.
Now she was a runaway. A runaway. She fidgeted with the purse straps pulling out the gun handle so she could easily reach it. She figured what she’d need to do if someone messed with her. She’d hope that Lady would bark and scare them off. Lady turned around over her legs.
“Be still, girl.”
Charlie closed her eyes and tried to sleep. Where was Omar right now? Probably at home in his cramped living room, shooting up, belt in his mouth, and boots on the table. His dog sleeping languidly on the ground. The TV painting the room greenish blue. The volume turned off.
“If I were home right now,” She said to herself. “I’d be doing all the same, boring shit.” She’d be driving by Omar’s to see if his light was on. She’d probably be nervous to knock on his door, but she’d do so anyway. She liked to think she’d say something to his face about how she couldn’t watch him slowly kill himself—heroin was much worse than meth. Just ask anybody. She would tell him it was time for them both to get clean.
Then she remembered all the people who were likely there—his drug dealer, his drug-dealer’s girlfriend, his new friends—all heroin addicts, all horrible people to hang around—and she knew. She wouldn’t have said any of those things.
She would have sat across the room and watched Omar’s hollow eyes and downturned mouth waiting for the Omar she used to know to surface from his numb stupor. Eventually, she’d drag herself off the couch and back to her parents’ house.
“Go back home? You want to go back home?”
Lady’s tongue fell out of the side of her mouth.
Charlie pulled the gun out of the purse and felt the weight in her hand. This was the only security she had left. She anticipated the worse that could happen. She imagined the car breaking down and having to thumb for a ride. She imagined someone trying something with her because she was a runaway, and no one gives a shit about runaways or what happens to them. She imagined having to use the gun on someone. How it would feel going off in her hand.
“Bang!” Charlie said pointing the gun into the cab of the car. “Bang! Bang! Bang!” She aimed the gun down on Lady whose watery brown eyes darted away. The pistol barrel wavered over Lady’s temple then just above her ear. Lady whimpered and put a paw on Charlie’s arm.
Charlie couldn’t handle a gun. The ocean was awfully big, but with a river, well at least with a river she could see to the other side. She could navigate a river.
On the drive back, she thought about her parents and how angry they must be. She could apologize and say, Go ahead take away the car for good. I deserve it. If they had found her note, there was absolutely no way to say she was at a friend’s or working late or had forgotten to call. That stupid note had sealed the deal for her. By the time she passed the familiar Denny’s sign, Charlie felt resigned to face her parents’ wrath. It wasn’t nearly as frightening as Omar’s rejection. She pulled into an all-night Chevron and parked by a pump. The gas attendant tapped the window with a pack of Marlboros, and she slid the window down.
“Just gas tonight, thanks,” she said. “Twenty please.”
“Alone?” The attendant had a white-beard and wore a denim jacket over a sweatshirt.
“I have my dog.” She waited in silence for him to finish pumping the gas. He returned the cap, and she handed him a twenty.
“See you around, young lady,” he said.
“No. You won’t.” It felt good to lie.
Charlie pulled down the drive. The gravel crunched under her tires. Lady had sprung out of the driver’s side door before she had a chance to get out. Her parents stepped out on the porch. Her dad’s face was in the dark, hidden by the overhang, but her mother ran toward her. Her eyes were red-rimmed and frightening. She pulled Charlie out of the car and pressed against her. Charlie felt the sound coming from somewhere deep in her mother’s belly before it escaped from the porch in her father’s baritone voice. He was laughing. They both were.
Sharla R. Yates lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by way of the Pacific Northwest. Her poetry chapbook, “What I Would Say If We Were To Drown Tonight,” is forthcoming in 2017. Her nonfiction story, “Address,” was a finalist for the 2015 Columbia Journal Writing contest and the 2016 Penelope Niven Award in Creative Nonfiction. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction.