It was the summer after my freshman year of college when I decided that I wasn’t going back. I hadn’t performed particularly poorly, though I wasn’t anyone’s star pupil, either. Being that what it was, I hadn’t decided to drop out because of my grades. I was definitely still on a fairly safe trajectory to a degree. No, being from a small town I was in the first generation of my family to head off to college, my brother being the first to do such a thing. I know what you’re thinking. No, I didn’t drop out because I realized that he was out-shining me, either. He was almost ten years older than I was, so he’d long-since graduated and had returned home to get a position as a local elementary school teacher. I think that might have been part of the reason I decided college wasn’t for me, the returning home bit. I didn’t want to return home, and up to that point my only exposure to college-graduates was at the local schools. Given my propensity for rash and poor decision making I decided I couldn’t live that life and called up my then-boyfriend, Eric. The conversation, though lost to me through time, went something along the lines of “Let’s run off together!” and was completely fool-hardy. Of course, Eric was tickled pink. He’d been scared the whole year I was at college that I’d find me some fraternity boy and leave him. Eric’s parents didn’t have the money to ship him off to college, and the thought of taking out loans is shameful to most home-grown folks like us. That’s really neither here nor there, though.
Eric had a beat-up pickup truck that ran mostly on hope, with some gasoline for good measure. It had holes rusted in the floorboard and a paint job fit to scare the stripe off a skunk. When he’d managed to buy it – scraping together cash from odd jobs – we’d both nearly cried. It was the best damn vehicle either of us had ever seen. This is all to say, I was feeling a little dubious about the whole “running away” thing, given that five miles out of town the hood on that pickup popped up like it was possessed by the devil himself and sent Eric swerving off into a shallow ditch. I don’t think I made any noise at all while he got out of the truck to fix it. The ride was unbearably silent after that. I’d learned very quickly in our relationship that when Eric took a fit I didn’t want to do anything to attract attention to myself. So I sat quiet as a church mouse on the front seat of that death machine and didn’t even think about it.
We were probably about three miles from the state line in the middle of a whoppin’ forest when the engine overheated and we were left stranded on the side of the road. We’d come prepared for just such an event, though. We had a tent and some bed rolls stuffed in our backpacks, since we’d already been planning on camping out for the greater part of the rest of our lives. Eric pulled out his compass, figurin’ where the truck was so we’d be able to find our way back to it in the morning. He’d already decided which way we were going into the woods, I just followed. It hadn’t been too awfully late when we’d broken down, but we just kept walking until the sun was starting to set. I gathered my courage and adopted a real sweet tone, like y’do when you’re approachin’ a wild critter, “You think we might ought’ta start beddin’ down?” Eric turned around and looked at me and there was something dark in those eyes, something haunted. I swallowed up my fear and just nodded real slow like and we kept walking.
It was prob’ly close to midnight when I finally gave out. I couldn’t walk anymore and I was too tired to try talking to Eric again, so I just popped a squat on a tree stump. It was like I’d set the boy on fire he whipped around so fast. He was running right for me, his features all twisted up and scared. I started to stand up when I felt something push me back down. It was a gentle kind of nudge more than a push, followed by somebody whisperin’ in my ear. I’ve not got a inklin’ of what it was they said t’me, but I was damn near in a state of bliss and I sat right back down. Eric’s face started to get all fuzzy and disappear like I was movin’ further and further away from him. Then I felt him grab my arm. I started to ask him how in the hell he’d gotten to me so fast, when he was so far away a second ago, but then I saw his face again and this time I was scared. It looked like he’d gotten into a fight with a pair of scissors and lost. There were criss-crossing scratches all over him, covering him from head to toe. His clothes were all bloodied and cut up and one of his eyelids was closed in a way I didn’t like. I started howlin’ rather than helpin’, which just set him off and he whopped me real smartly across the mouth. I think that’s what did it for him, sealed his fate right then. I blinked and then he was on the ground fightin’ some specter I couldn’t see. All I could see was what it was doin’ to him. It had him pinned to the ground and was rippin’ him to smithereens. I’m ashamed to say what I felt watchin’ that was relief, then I dozed off right back on my stump.
I woke up close to dinner time, with the midday sun beating down on my noggin’. It didn’t take me long to remember what had happened, given my lip had swelled to about three times its usual size. I took quick stock of my surroundings: I had both backpacks with the contents seemingly untouched, a loaf of homemade bread I hadn’t ever laid eyes on before, and a compass laid out real pretty next to it all. I decided it was best not to look a gift horse in the mouth and I tore into the bread. It was some of the most heavenly stuff I’d ever eaten. I wrote a quick thank you note in the dirt and repacked one backpack to have all the things in it I’d need. Then I set out back towards the truck, prayin’ I’d be able to get it started so I could get home. It wasn’t until I’d gotten to the truck that I started wondering where Eric had gone off to. Or I s’pose I was thinkin’ about where he’d likely been drug off to. If he’d ever make it back to the truck. Then I felt a real soft push in the direction of the truck door and I knew without thinkin’ that I’d never see that boy again. I nodded my understanding and clambered in.