(subject to change.)
The hum of the guitar and the song in my head were my escape, two to three minutes of time when I could pretend I was someone else, a singer on a stage, a voice in a choir.
For a spring day, it was bitterly cold. The bright blue sky had fooled me into leaving our squalid little house without my sweatshirt. And as my tiny sidewalk audience peeled away, some leaving dollar bills in my guitar case, others just leaving with a polite nod, my human shield against the brisk air fell away too.
The chilled breeze felt brittle against my skin as I quickly shoved the bulk of the money in the pocket of my shorts. I saved a few extra in my fist to hide in the secret pouch inside the case. Those extras would go into my secret stash, the stash that would eventually buy my freedom. All I needed was enough to rent a room for a month while I looked for a job, a room far away from here and far away from Bobby.
I couldn’t remember the day it happened, the day I became his possession rather than his significant other. Just like I couldn’t remember the day when he had crossed that line from being a pleasant, almost loving human to being a hateful monster. It’s entirely possible I’d just been blinded by his good looks and swagger and that the beast had been lurking there all along, just waiting to rear its ugliness. Now when I looked at Bobby, I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever thought him handsome. He was far too mean to be anything but hideous.
I stooped down to pack away my guitar, the one possession of mine that Bobby hadn’t hauled off to the pawn shop to pay his bookie or his dealer. I stuffed my pick and the spare dollars into the velvet pouch on the side of the case. Behind me, tires crunched the asphalt. A loud blaring horn followed, startling me forward onto my knees.
“Joelle, let’s go. I don’t have all fucking day.”
Even though I was just four feet from his jeep, he laid on the horn again. The young couple who had stopped to listen to my song looked back toward the clamor before disappearing into the coffee shop. Shep, the hyper, bug-eyed man who ran the corner market, popped his head out the door to see what the noise was about. He blanched and tucked his head back in the second he saw Bobby’s black jeep. Most of the locals had the same reaction whenever Bobby or one of his equally hated friends showed their faces in town.
I pushed to my feet, picked up my guitar case and willed myself to turn around. Bobby had his black cap pulled low over his head and his lips were pulled into a thin line under his moustache. The phrase ‘oh, how the mighty have fallen’ splashed through my mind. It had been one of many phrases my foster mom, Lolly, used to chant with her sing-song Jamaican accent, and it was extra fitting for the man in the jeep. I’d considered myself the luckiest girl at Branson High when I’d attracted the eye of Robert Dell, star athlete and most popular senior. I was only a sophomore, which made it an even bigger deal. My friends were nearly sick with envy when I was invited to sit at his lunch table, with all the senior big shots. I thought I’d won the golden ticket that year. But when Bobby’s football career didn’t pan out due to a bad knee injury and the glory days of high school had to be left behind for the harsh reality of adult life, popular, shiny Bobby Dell slowly morphed into the scowling, angry asshole sitting behind the jeep steering wheel. I supposed that was the reason I couldn’t pinpoint a day when he’d crossed that line. It had been a slow transformation, one that had caught me off guard. Slow enough to allow myself a few delusional moments of thinking the charming, pleasant Bobby would return some day. But I knew now he was gone for good, and even if the high school hero miraculously appeared again, it was too late. Nothing could redeem him now.
Bobby’s black hat poked out the window as he leaned through it. He slapped the roof of the jeep. “Move it, slowpoke.”
I shuffled toward the jeep and put my guitar in the backseat. As I climbed into the front seat, his big hand shot out.
With a huff of frustration, I stretched up and pulled the money from my pocket and then slapped it on his palm. He quickly counted it before folding it and putting it in his own pocket.
“Forty fucking dollars? You must have been singing off key today.” His laugh was like nails on a chalkboard to my ears.
I ignored him, something I was getting good at, and reached into my pocket for a rubber band. I swept up my dark brown hair into a ponytail and pulled it through the band. I knew Bobby was watching me, but I stared straight ahead and waited for him to put the jeep in gear.
“What the fuck is this?” His rough fingers touched my neck. I reacted as if he’d jabbed me with a hot poker. The jeep shifted from side to side as he twisted his massive torso and reached across the seats. He grabbed roughly hold of my arms and wrenched my body toward him before pushing me so that my back smacked the door handle. My head bounced off the glass.
“What are you doing?” I cried the second I caught my breath.
His angry blue eyes skewered me. “Who the hell gave you that hickey? I need his name so I can put my fist through his face.”
I grabbed at his fingers, but he was too strong. Terror flashed through me as I realized how easily he could kill me with just his bare hands. Then fear turned to rage. “It was you, asshole. You were so fucking drunk that you don’t even remember.” A sob burst from my mouth. “And in case you were wondering, I hated every fucking minute of it.”
My words stunned him at first, and I was sure he didn’t believe me. But it was the truth. My stomach turned sour just thinking about his hands and mouth on me. He clenched his jaw tightly, and his blue eyes felt like pointed daggers on my face.
The tight anger in his face slipped away. It seemed his disgusting attack on me the night before was coming back to him. I was almost certain I caught a glimmer of an apology in his face as he released me.
I rubbed his fingerprints from my arms as I shifted back against the seat. I blinked several times to keep the tears from falling. He threw the jeep into gear and pulled out onto the road.
“I need to go by Tim’s house, then I’ll take you home.” He spoke casually as if he hadn’t just grabbed and thrown me against the car door or accused me of sleeping around. His rock-filled head no longer allowed him to see when he was wrong, or for that matter, horrid.
“Just drop me off first. I don’t want to sit in the jeep for an hour while you two get high.”
“Not taking you home first. Just come inside to hang out with us. I haven’t seen you all morning.” He reached over and tried to take hold of my hand. I quickly pulled it out of his reach.
We turned the corner just as the safety rails on the train tracks started blinking. The woman in front of us slowed as the arms came down. Bobby smacked his horn. “Come on, lady. We could have both made it.”
I could see the woman’s angry scowl in her rearview mirror as she looked up to see who was rudely honking. Her eyes pulled quickly away as she discretely reached over to lock her car door. Bobby had no choice but to stop. It was noon, which meant it was the northbound freight train.
Bobby stretched up out of his open window to get a look at the train. It was still a half mile away. The jeep wobbled as he sat back inside. “Fuck. At least three engines so it’s a long one.” He raised his middle finger for the woman in front of him to see. “Yeah you, bitch. I should just nudge that stupid little car of yours right onto the tracks.” He grunted. “Looks like we’ll be here awhile. You were gone when I woke this morning, and my dick has been hard since then.” He reached over and grabbed my hand before I had a chance to move it. His fingers tightened around my wrist as he unzipped his pants with his free hand. “Why don’t you blow me while we’re waiting.”
With some effort, I pulled my arm free. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”
“I’m not kidding.” He reached in and pulled his erection free. “Come on, baby. That train’ll take forever.”
“Not a chance in hell.” I reached for the door handle. A scream shot from my mouth as he took hold of my ponytail and yanked it. I fell backward. My shoulder landed hard on the stick shift.
“You fucker!” Adrenaline helped me sit up. I held my breath against the pain and lunged for the door handle. I jumped free of the jeep.
“Where you gonna go, Joelle? Just get back in. Get in the fucking jeep.” His booming voice bellowed behind me like angry thunder but my feet kept going.
I ducked beneath the candy cane striped safety rail and stopped just inches from the track. I closed my eyes to feel the vibrations under my feet. More than once I’d stood in front of the rails, straddling my bicycle, absorbing the feel and smell of the train as it swept past. On my darkest days, days where it seemed shadows always outmaneuvered daylight, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to step in front of the train. It had to be a quick, almost painless death. Instant. One bone crushing blow and it would all be over.
I looked back. As if she’d just read my macabre thoughts, the woman in the first car watched me with round, terror-filled eyes. The train was torpedoing in my direction. The narrow engineer’s window looked like a single glass eye above an oversized nose as the train barreled toward me.
“Damn it, Joelle, get back in the jeep.”
I looked back. Bobby was lumbering toward me with nostrils wide enough to suck in a baseball. The vibrations beneath my feet grew stronger. My heart beat so hard, I could hear it over the roar of the train. The train was close enough for me to see the blue hat on the engineer’s head. His eyes mirrored the same look of horror as the woman in the car.
Birds perching on the electrical lines fluttered off as the powerful engine rocked the ground and split the surrounding air. As Bobby ducked his massive frame beneath the safety rails, I whispered to myself, “enough, Joelle, enough”.
My feet leapt forward, and I jumped across the tracks. My ponytail swept sideways and grit from the track pelted my bare legs as the train whirred past behind me. I took several clumsy steps forward, pushed by the violent rush of air.
I swung back around. Bobby was gone, stuck on the other side of the train. I looked down toward the tail end of the freight cars. I had about five minutes before the caboose waddled past and the moving fortress of iron and steel keeping me safe from Bobby disappeared. I could run, but I had no place to hide.
Then, in the long parade of olive green, gray and red freight cars, I spotted a boxcar with a wide open door. As frantic thoughts crisscrossed my brain, Lolly’s clear words came through the chaos. She used to chant them whenever I won a race at a track meet. “My precious Joelle, my little Joey, you sing like an angel, but you run like the devil is chasing ya.”
I started walking along with the train and then picked up to a jog, continuously glancing back to look for my magic carpet, the empty boxcar. The jog turned to a full out run. As my shoes pounded the hard ground, the tender spot on my shoulder throbbed, reminding me of the reason I was chasing a train.
I looked over just as the open door reached me. I jumped up, grabbed hold of the edge and landed, belly first, on that same edge of the car. The pain in my gut was sharp but disappeared quickly as I swung my legs up and into the boxcar.
I sat on my knees and looked around at my surroundings. It wasn’t exactly a richly woven carpet with gold tassels like the one in the Disney movie but it would do. The walls smelled damp and sour as if they’d been soaked in a vinegar brine, and they were covered with graffiti, messages and mementos from people who had traveled before me. Aside from a small pile of wadded up newspaper, two broken pallets and an empty coffee cup rolling from side to side, the boxcar was empty. The wood planks lining the floor had enough space between them that cool, diesel scented air floated up between the cracks. I could see the tracks race by in a continuous blur.
It took some skill and concentration to get to my feet, especially as the train began to accelerate in speed as it left the city behind. I walked to the opening and held tightly to edge of the door. The air cooled my face as I leaned my head out and looked back toward town. Bobby had stomped across the tracks, and his thick neck twisted above his shirt collar as he looked frantically around for me. I pulled my eyes away and a laugh shot from my mouth at the image of the jerk marching around town searching for me.
I walked to the back wall of the car, sat down on the splintery floorboards and wrapped my arms around my knees. The train chugged along. From the slight lilt of the boxcar, I could tell we were heading north toward the mountain pass. The landscape grew less civilized. The right corners of buildings and signs were slowly replaced by long stretches of tall grasses and fields.
I had no idea where I was going or what I would do once I got there. I had nothing. No money. No job. Nobody. Not even my guitar. But none of that mattered.
I was free.
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