In the Middle: Ch. 2

Monday, June 10, 2019


The class valedictorian is a peppy red-head named Rebecka. Captain of the cheerleading squad, Student Body President, and leader of the town’s youth group, she’s the golden girl of our school. For most of our high school careers, Rebecka and I swam in vastly different social circles, but the past year, Rebecka made it her mission to become my greatest friend. 

Throughout the year, she had escorted me to just about every class, looping her arm through mine like we’ve been best friends forever, and always slipping me an invitation to some event or another that I wouldn’t attend. 

The night Brad died, I remember seeing a picture of her when she was little, her hair frizzy, her freckled face lit up by her gap-toothed smile caught in the middle of a laugh. The picture was hanging on the wall of the room where I last saw Brad, her image forever etched into my last memory of him. 

Now, she stands at the podium on the stage in front of me, and gives her glowing speech, the last words of her high school career.

“Last year, a tragedy took the life of one of our fellow classmates, a senior whose memory has echoed through the halls of our school as we follow in his footsteps toward this day here, our graduation. We now know how precious life is,” she says, meeting my gaze with a sickeningly sweet smile, “and we won’t take the time we have for granted. Most importantly, we won’t take each other for granted. We have been tied together through this tragedy. Tied together with strength, love, faith, and hope--”

I don’t hear the rest. 

I stand up, and shuffle my way past the knees of my classmates sitting in their organized row until I reach the aisle. I see my mother stand at the sight of me walking toward the door, but I don’t stop.

 I have to get out of here. 

I throw my graduation cap onto the passenger seat as I start my car. My hands grip the steering wheel tightly the whole way home.

When I arrive, I move as if on autopilot, rushing into my room, throwing open the closet door and rummaging through the closet until I find my duffle bag. I pack whatever belongings I can fit, and then toss the bag into the trunk of my car. 

I’ve just closed the trunk door when my parents pull into the driveway.

 My mother comes rushing out of the passenger seat, waving a blue envelope above her head.
“Sarah! You forgot your diploma!” she says. “Normally, if you miss the ceremony, you have to wait a few weeks for the diploma to be mailed to you, but Principal Baker made an exception for you. I should probably send her a thank-you card. She’s done so much for you and this family ever since…” My mom stops herself before she can say the words out loud, crosses her arms over her chest, and narrows her eyes at me. “You know, Sarah,  I just have to say it was really rude of you to just walk out of the ceremony like that. You only graduate from high school once in your life, you know, and I really think you’re going to regret missing such an integral part of your youth. I mean, you of all people should know how important—"

“Mom,” I say, and she stops talking so quickly a small hiccup escapes the back of her throat. “I’m leaving.”

My dad clears his throat, finally stepping out of the car to engage in the conversation.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” he asks, crossing his arms in solidarity with my mother.

“I don’t know yet,” I say, shrugging. 

And for the first time in over a year, I feel a small smile twitch my lips at the opportunities behind my statement. 

If I don’t know where I’m going, I can go anywhere.

“Well, I think we should talk about this,” my mother says. “Right, Bob?” She looks at my father, desperation in her eyes.

“Yes, we should. Absolutely. We can’t just let you run off without knowing where you’re headed,” he says.

“Fine,” I say. “We can talk over dinner.”

And perhaps because for the first time in a year I actually do talk over dinner, and—with the stipulations that I’ll call them every hour on the hour to let them know where I am, as well as before bed and as soon as I wake up—they agree to let me go. And for the first time I feel like I might actually get to escape the pit of emptiness swallowing me whole.

I hug my parents one at a time outside the house, tell them I love them, and promise I will call if I ever need anything. 

Then, I get in my car and start to drive. 

As I pass Brad’s house, I see his mother walking down the gravel drive with a bouquet of fresh picked flowers in her hands. She raises her hand to wave at me, but I turn away and look straight ahead. 

As I pull onto the highway heading west, I turn off my phone in case my parents change their mind and try to convince me to turn around. I tell myself I won’t go back, no matter what, and refuse to look in the mirror until the sun finally sets.

With nothing but darkness behind me and the headlights illuminating the road ahead of me, I finally have hope.

****

I stop at a motel on the northern outskirts of Denver just as the sun begins to blink the arrival of a new day. 

The man at the front desk is barely awake as I hand him my driver’s license and the credit card my parents got me when I was sixteen in case of emergencies. I’m grateful for the lack of small talk during our brief interaction, mumbling only a quick “thanks” as he slaps my room key and receipt on the counter. 

As soon as I’m in my room, I turn on my phone, sighing at the overwhelming pouring of messages that instantly buzz my phone to life. I have nearly thirty missed texts and calls with voicemails from my parents alone, each one sounding more urgent than the one before.

My dad’s last text threatens to file a missing persons report if they don’t hear from me by the morning; a few messages from Rebecka ask me if I’m okay, what happened to me during the ceremony, and that she’ll pray for me. I delete the single remaining voicemail from Carmen, Brad's mom, without listening to it. 

I’m not ready to hear her voice.

Instead, I dial my parents home phone number, surprised when my mother answers on the first ring.

“Hello? Sarah, is that you? Are you alright?” she asks, the worry in her voice making my chest ache with a pang of guilt.

“I’m fine, mom. I’m staying at a motel in Denver.”

“Denver? You drove all the way to Denver without calling us a single time? Do you realize how worried your father and I have been? We were about to call the police to come find you! We thought something terrible had happened! We thought—” She starts sobbing, and I hear a few shuffling noises before the gruff sound of my dad clearing his throat.

“Sarah,” he says, sounding exhausted, “we’re glad you’re alright. We understand you’re an adult now, and we’re trying to give you the freedom and space you think you need, but you’ve got to cut us a break here. We’re your parents and we love you, and that means we need to know that you’re safe, alright? That’s all. We just need to know you’re safe.”

Tears sting my eyes, and I nod my head. Then, remembering he can’t see me, I say, “Yeah, okay. I’m sorry, dad. I just…I need this. I really need this.”

He sighs. “I know you do, sweetheart. Now, get some rest. We love you.”

“I love you too.”

I get in the shower after we hang up, cranking the heat as high as I can. The steaming water scalds my skin, turning my freckled, pale skin a beet red under the spray, but I don’t care. The heat feels like a long overdue cleansing, and not just from the scum of sitting in a car for nearly ten hours with fuel and gas-station coffee refills my only reprieve. As the water washes over my skin, the steam billowing all around me, I feel as if I’m being cleansed from within too. As if all the baggage and words left unspoken from the past year are finally being washed away.

I step out of the shower, and take a look at my foggy reflection framed in the mirror, allowing a tiny smile to creep onto my small, thin lips . It’d be easy to blame my dully pale skin on the sleepless hours I spent in the dark car, but I know it’s more than the long night of travel sucking the life from my complexion. The constellations of freckles sparkling on my skin are a result of genetics rather than a hint of sunshine past. 

I partly dry my just-past-the-shoulder length, light brown hair with the travel-sized dryer next to the sink and wrap it into a bun at the top of my head. I stare at my reflection for a moment longer, gazing into the dark black pupils of my azure-colored eyes.

Brad used to say they were my best feature. 

I turn away, and rummage through my duffle bag until I find an old t-shirt to sleep in. I close the curtains, blocking out the view of the sun rising over the distant mountains, and then I curl into the queen-sized bed, wrapping the covers tightly around me.

I’d like to say I sleep peacefully, but the nightmares return as soon as I close my eyes.

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