She ran away when she was seventeen. Met up with a guy on the bus and together they rode to Denver. But he turned out to be trouble. One night she slipped away from the room they rented. By the neon strobe she packed a bag, took his wallet while he slept. On the way out of town she stopped at a diner with a funky name and ordered a chicken dinner. Ate it to the bone.
It was a bad space. She couldn't go home. Let's leave it at that. And she didn't have anywhere else to go, except names on a map. She preferred the blue roads, the ones that branched off, growing more and more anonymous, changing names in different locales, adapting to the terrain. Often dead-ending.
She was okay on her own. She knew enough to get by. Her step brothers had taught her karate. Really more like Three Stooges gestures. She knew how to scream. Enough to do damage to her vocal cords, until her stomach muscles ached. Until black night melted and she moved on. Her few possessions tied to her back.
She carried in her pocket stray bits. A bottle cap. A white cockleshell. A key. To what door she did not know. A piece of paper with a phone number on it that accidentally blew away from her. It skidded across the road and whooshed up an embankment, airborne over a barbed wire fence, and landed in a field of stubble and stick grass. She cut across that snowy field to a farmhouse. Long abandoned.
The front door was open. So she closed it. A grease-yellowed curtain lightly exhaled, the window sash unlatched. Trash, swirled into corners, occupied the first room. Loose wallpaper sagged, water stained. In the back on the first floor was a kitchen. A mouse scurried from the back of the stove to a crack in the floorboard. She righted an overturned chair. The silence scared her.
A fury of thoughts flooded her brain, most of them connected to late-night horror movies watched on TV.
There was a staircase in the middle of the house, dividing it in two. She gripped a rail and ascended one step at a time. Listening for monsters. Creaks and audible breath. The whoosh of bat wings. Upstairs she found more of the same. Remnants. An old Sears catalogue. A pile of rags, once clothes. Animal droppings. A tin plate covered a hole back when there used to be gaslight. She picked up a child's toy, a bobble head plastic boy. The wire to his head a weak neck.
Who were they, the former occupants? What moved them on? Had the family disintegrated, broken by divorce, violence, stupid mistakes? There were all sorts of reasons. She tried to draw from the clues left behind some kind of explanation. She reckoned they were young and dumb.
She never meant to stay. It rained the next day, and the day after that. A solid week of damn miserable rain. She lit a fire in the fireplace, expecting any minute for a neighbor to come check the place out, for a cop to pull into the puddle-rutted drive. Instead it was as if she'd fallen off the face of the earth. She learned to keep her own company, separate the voices inside her head. The good ones from the bad and make up her own mind. In town she bought groceries and hauled them back to the farm. Simple fare, easy enough to cook over the fire or eat raw. She licked her fingers and wiped them on her jeans. Slowly a sense of well-being came over her. The kind that comes with a full tummy, warmth, and forgetfulness, where the crazy windmill inside her finally slowed down.
* * *
Years later while slicing tomatoes, she will look up. Her memory ignited by who knows what. Another kitchen, another house, she remembers. Through the window the back yard with the kids' swing set is aglow with late afternoon light. And putting down the knife, she breathes a prayer.
Jane Hertenstein has been involved in community building in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago for the past twenty-five years and splits her day between cooking breakfast for 300 people and writing. She leads a creative writing workshop at an area homeless shelter and is also the co-city rep for SCBWI, a national organization for writers and illustrators for children. Jane has published two books, one a young adult novel titled Beyond Paradise which was a PBS Teacher Recommended Book, and Orphan Girl. She has also published a children's picture book titled Home is Where We Live: Life at a Homeless Shelter Through a Young Girl's Eyes. Her short stories have appeared at tonopahreview.com, WordRiot, cantaraville.com, and Rosebud magazine.