by Rikki Wooden
There is no God in this dry, dreary town.
My bare thighs stick uncomfortably to the leather seat as I drive the blue 1979 Ford truck down route 51 toward Arizona. The air conditioner is not working which forces me to roll down all the windows. The heat pours in making my armpits sweat though it’s only ten o’clock in the morning.
I drive past the river where I’ve spent many summer days lounging. The calming lull of the water calls me, like a mermaid to a sailor, beckoning to let the sweet coolness engulf my body.
Up ahead on the corner is a sign with red letters saying: Monte’s Casino. Inside, people are sitting in front of slot machines that greedily eat their coins. Among the crowd, my mother works an eight-hour shift tending to players with coins jingling in their pockets.
At the red light, I see Hal’s Drugstore where my mother’s boyfriend, Tony, frequents.
I turn down the road to my house and pull into the driveway, and the car sputters to a stop. One day this piece of junk is going to break down, I think to myself.
As soon as the door creaks open, a voice calls out, “Annabeth?”
I walk into the living room where my mother is sitting at the kitchen table.
“Let me guess. You were at Emma’s?” Teresa’s eyes narrow. She’s wearing her all-black work uniform ready to leave.
“It’s not a big deal,” I roll my eyes. Teresa doesn’t have a motherly bone in her body. She had me at eighteen, the same age I am now. I don’t think Teresa wants to be a mother. The less I’m around, the better it is, she doesn’t have to pretend to be a mother, and I don’t have to pretend to be her daughter.
“As long as you weren’t with that McGraw boy.”
Lucas McGraw, a neighbor from across the road. His hobbies include hiking, rafting, and picking up girls (not in that order). Unfortunately, or fortunately for me, his neat, light brown hair gelled over to the side and pearly white teeth are no match for his dull and useless brain — which is radio silent.
“You shouldn’t spend all your time at her house.”
“They invited me over. What’s the big deal?” anger creeps into my voice. I always wonder if she is jealous of Sander’s family relationship with me. I’ve known Emma since Pre-K when I threatened to beat up one of the boys who picked on her. We have been inseparable ever since. They often invite me over for family vacations, dinners, family movie night; even ask my mother and me to come over for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They give me something Teresa can never give me—a family.
“Do you think those people care about you?”
“It was just dinner, Teresa.”
“I can take care of you.”
“Microwavable chicken from a box is hardly a dinner.”
She doesn’t say anything and flips through a stack of bills.
“I’m glad you’re my daughter,” Teresa says turning toward me.
I laugh, shrugging. “What makes you say that?”
“Emma,” Teresa starts, “that girl has everything. Two parents who love her, a little brother, a scholarship to a university, even a freaking dog. God knows she doesn’t need that job. It’s just something fun for her.”
“You’re smart and brave…much braver than me,” she whispers to herself. “Nobody gives you anything. You make do with what you have, and you should be proud.”
It makes me uncomfortable whenever she shows me affection. It’s something she doesn’t often do. My life isn’t perfect, but it’s not Emma’s fault she doesn’t have a dysfunctional family. Teresa makes me feel like Emma is the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz trying to find a brain, and I’m the angry gatekeeper not letting anyone pass. Who cares about brains? Or courage? Just click your heels and disappear.
We look at each other for a brief minute. I stare into her chocolate brown eyes that reflect mine. Her body sags and her eyes swollen from lack of sleep. Right below the shirt sleeve on her right arm, a black and blue bruise peeks out.
“Did Tony hit you, again?” I say, electricity shoots through my veins.
Teresa shrugs. “He’s no longer our concern.”
I nod not quite believing her.
Her arms embrace me, and she inhales my scent. Her voice reaches out to me. “The things I would’ve done if I wasn’t stuck here. The world can be yours.” Teresa’s voice sounds light. We make conversation until it is time for her to leave.
The words echo throughout my head. The world can be yours. The only world I know is the unfortunate events that happen one after the other. Like my father, after he had one too many drinks and broke a beer bottle over Teresa’s head. I was six years old, and I held her hand as she got thirteen stitches on her forehead. When I was twelve, her then-boyfriend beat her to a bloody pulp. I walked five miles to the Sheriff station to report him.
I can still taste the metallic from the blood gushing out of my mouth from the fights where I faced Teresa’s many boyfriends, and when they became tired of hitting her and switched to me. I learn how to fight my demons; I don’t need Him, and He isn’t fond of me either. There’s no time for prayer when you’re on your knees begging for the pain to stop.
I’m out the door heading to the local ice cream shop on the corner. I’ll spend my day scooping ice cream for a lousy ten dollars, so kids can dope up on sugar and get sticky chocolate sauce on their fingers.
I walk in to Emma sweeping the gray marble floors. The red stools clean, the ice cream already on the counter, everything in place.
Emma sees me and throws the broom over the counter.
“Thank God you’re here. I almost died of boredom,” Emma snaps her pink bubblegum.
“You saw me an hour ago.”
“Yeah, but so many things happen since then. Did you hear that Mark is engaged?”
“I thought he broke up with Margaret?”
“They did, but now they’re back together. Just in time for a fall wedding. I love weddings!” she went on a mile a minute, “Oh, what should I wear? I think Mary Anne can whip me up something nice…you never guess who called me this morning after you left,” Emma grips my arms.
“Jacob! Can you believe it? After all this time, he wants to make amends. He spent all summer cuddling up to that Texan girl and now he thinks he can get back with me.”
“Unbelievable,” I mutter.
“He wants to go on a trip with me somewhere exotic like Hawaii or California.”
“What’s so exotic about California?”
“Movie stars live there, and there’s Disneyland.”
“You want to go to California just so you can meet movie stars?” I look at her skeptically.
“I always wanted to meet someone famous.” Emma’s eyes sparkle, “Like that one guy in the movie where each district has the battle to the death?”
“You mean Liam Hemsworth in Hunger Games?”
“No, he’s the guy who lost an eye in the superhero movie.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re talking about Chris Hemsworth.”
“Wait…. Those are two different people?”
The bell on the door rings and a mom with two little kids come running in. The day passes by with little excitement. It is nearly 5 o’clock, and the place is empty. Emma is wiping down the tables while I’m refilling empty ice cream containers.
The door opens, a young man with neatly gel hair walks in. He’s wearing a red plaid shirt, dark blue worn jeans, and black boots. He looks deep in thought, glancing at the different ice cream flavors.
“Lucas McGraw it’s been a while, what can I get for you?” Emma bounces over dropping the supplies on the ground. Speak of the devil, and he shall appear dressed in light—or at least a plaid shirt and cowboy boots.
“Ain’t it beautiful out?” Lucas says with a grin.
We are surrounded by dirt and rock. The nearest sign of civilization is the McDonald’s that comes just before the WELCOME TO HELL sign.
“It sure is Lucas McGraw.” I give him a sad attempt at a smile.
“HA!” he snorts, his cheeks turning red, “I know that’s not what you’re thinking.”
“So, what brings you here Lucas?” Emma ignores our weird exchange.
“I just want to stop for a treat before I get on the road.”
He points at the container in the back. “Say, you mind if I can try the butter pecan?”
I scoop up a small portion on a spoon and hand it over. “Where are you going?” I find my voice asking before I can stop myself.
“Got a job in Little town, Arizona doing construction.”
“Wow, construction makes a lot of money.” Emma nods in approval.
“Yeah, I need a break from this town.”
‘I hear you,” I say, cleaning the countertop.
“Amen!” Emma chimes in.
“Say,” Lucas gets my full attention. “Do you ever get a feeling there is something more in life and someone, somewhere is just waiting for you to realize it?”
In this moment his piercing blue eyes reaches the depth of my soul and pulls out my deepest, darkest thoughts.
“But that’s just me,” he shrugs his shoulder. “I need to get out of this town, you know?”
“No, I get it,” I say, nodding. “Sometimes I feel like that too.”
“You’re going to Little town, Arizona.” Emma looks at him.
He shrugs not having the slightest recollection.
“It literally has the word little town in its name.” Emma and I share a look.
“All you need is one reason to leave. I know I can’t make any money here, so I got a job somewhere else,” says Lucas. “But anyway, I’ll take a small cup of peanut butter pecan,” he smiles leaning against the counter.
I nod and scope it in a small cup. “That will be $3.99.”
He hands over cash and puts some in the tip jar. “I’ll see you, ladies, soon. But hopefully not too soon,” he chuckles grabbing the cup. He waves goodbye and walks out the door.
“I can’t believe he got a job in construction,” I say, staring after him in disbelief.
“I can’t believe he gave us a $5 tip for a $4 ice cream,” laughs Emma.
“Well, we never said he was smart,” I put away the money.
“Dibs on the $5!” Emma snatches the money out of the jar.
“It’s going to get dark soon.” I glance outside.
“I’ll stay here to switch shifts with Becky and Layla and you can head home.”
I nod my head and slowly make my way to the car. Inside, I sit perfectly still in silence staring up ahead. I think about my life and everyone who plays a role. My best friend Emma with a big mouth and a heart of gold. Then my mother who is barely in my life long enough to say hello but works hard for a living. Lastly, Tony, the scumbag who whirls through my life like a hurricane. Is this all there is in life? Is Lucas McGraw right about getting out of this town? There must be more to life than going home to a house of loneliness filled with empty bottles of regret. I’m afraid to go and leave everything I know behind. But I’m more afraid to stay.
I arrive home to the back door slightly open. I push it open to see beer bottles all over the floor. I walk into the kitchen, where dishes are in a pile on the counter and dirty clothes on the living room floor. Tony is here. He probably wants to get what is his and some of ours.
Tony sits in the brown leather chair facing the TV. His hand wraps around a cigarette, puffing poison into his body. He reeks of cheap alcohol and cigarette smoke.
Tony’s back is to me as I move silently towards my bedroom, but the floorboard betrays me and lets out a squeak.
“Come over here a second.”
My body freezes and my heartbeat speeds up. I walk over to the chair, cautiously.
“Go and make me something to eat,” Tony says in my direction, not taking his eyes off the television.
My throat becomes dry, and I force myself to speak, “We’re out of food.”
He mutes the show and turns his body. “Are we going to have a problem?”
I prepare myself to run for the bedroom before he charges at me with the cigarette and burns the inside of my thumb. I let out a single cry and drop to the ground. The searing pain jolts throughout my body. I scramble to the kitchen and throw open cabinets and drawers trying to find anything to protect myself.
He is right behind me and shoves me into the kitchen cabinets. I kick his stomach and get in a few more jabs before he grabs my left leg. His grip is firm, but I manage to pull his head toward my body at an awkward angle. I hit his shoulders and bring my knee to his lower abdomen several times and push him away.
I turn and run to the bedroom leaving him on the kitchen floor. I slam and lock the door and begin pulling out clothes from the closet as tears flood down my face. My breaths became shallow as I sit on my bed. Looking around the small room and realize there wasn’t anything personal. There are no photos on the wall of a happy family or cute decorations to brighten the room. I have no trophies or medals. Not even a single postcard from a vacation I can never afford. These four white walls hold secrets of pain and anger, but not anymore. It ends now.
Tony slams his shoulders into the door. His thuds become more and more as he repeats, “I’m coming for you.”
I open the window and climb out, making my way to the truck just as he starts to break down the door. I jump in the car and turn the key, but nothing happens. Turn the key repeatedly hoping it would start; pump the brakes and turn the key, still nothing. I burst out laughing, slapping the wheel. I laugh so hard I made no noise and wipe tears from the corner of my eye. I open the car door and left the keys in the ignition.
I run around the corner past a group of kids playing in the sprinklers on the front lawn. The soles of my feet burn on the dirt path. Going down the familiar road away from my house to the only person I trust.
“Tony…after me…hurry.” I say in shallow breathes.
Sensing the urgency, she takes off her apron and we run through the back doors leading into the back entrance of the parking lot.
With no sign of Tony, we jump in the car and peel away. At first, I look behind me to see if Tony is following us. But as Emma keeps driving, the more I feel at ease. I roll the window all the way down and lean my head out the window. Finally, I am able to breathe as the wind blows through my hair. It wipes away any abuse and bad memories from my life.
We sing along to “Unwritten” while saying goodbye to all the places in town. The yogurt shop where we spend many days (like today) gossiping and collecting a paycheck. Past Monte’s Casino where my mother is busy working, unaware her only daughter is gone. Past the single good memory of this town at the lake. I’m saying goodbye to all these places and the people in it. Although I hate to admit how scary it is to go into the unknown, I continue to put distance between myself and this town. With each mile, I gain a little confidence and energy. My spirit renews. My heart fills with joy as we continue to sing along to the radio.
Maybe God does exist. Just not in this town.
I don’t know where I’m going, but anywhere is better than here.