This was not the first time Jackie Baker had run away from home. In fact, over the years, she had gotten pretty good at it. It had become such an annual tradition that the packing took less than a minute, and the route to the bus station was so engraved into her feet that she didn't even need to look where she was going. There were about a billion excuses she would come up with to explain herself, but only a select few actually stemmed from some fraction of truth. Whether she realized it or not, there was a single reason Jackie would run away, and it was the same reason beloved and well-cared for pets would run as soon as the leash was unhooked or came loose: an instinctual, insatiable hunger for freedom.
However, this particular escapade was different from most because, for once, Jackie had a plan. She had not suddenly become overwhelmed by the calling of the wilderness-no, the feeling had crept over her slowly, planting seeds in her mind. And as the seeds took root, she began planning her grand escape; studying the street signs as she drove past them, drawing maps in her head of the best route out of the city. In her room, she had watched the clock by her bedside intently, until it finally ticked down to ten. Her mother's familiar footsteps crept up the stairs and into her bedroom, followed by a long creek and the quiet snap of the door shutting.
The moment had arrived. Jackie locked her door, sprung open the window, and soon enough she was racing across the yard barefooted upon the freshly mowed grass. As she reached the sidewalk she had slipped on a pair of ankle boots and laced them ungracefully in sloppy knots. Then, she began the trek to the bus station, the path familiar even in the darkness.
Jackie had always preferred night. In the daytime there were rules and order, you had to look a certain way, talk a certain way, act a certain way, but at night it seemed like anything could happen. The air was crisp and cool, making her body shiver with excitement. The sky was almost empty besides a few scattered stars and a shyly peeking moon. She found comfort in the vastness, in the unknowing of the night sky. It felt as if everyone was always telling her what was right and what was wrong, as if they were somehow above her and pitying her with their knowledge, but that vast sky told her that they knew nothing, and that she knew nothing, and truly no one knows anything of the world at all. But the fact that she understood and respected that unknowing, gave her a small sense of authority.
Like clockwork, the bus emerged from the haze of city lights and halted violently in front of the crooked bus sign. Jackie bounced up the bus steps and hopped into the front seat directly behind the driver.
"Good evening, Charlie." she chimed sweetly, leaning over the back of the bus driver's seat.
"That time of year again, huh?" the old man mumbled, itching at his silver stubble.
"Charlie, you're a saint, you know that? You really are. You're the only driver who never tattles on me." Jackie swooned.
"That's because if you get caught on my bus then I gotta talk to the police, and the police lead to paperwork, and I hate paperwork." Charlie had a deadpan voice, low and rough but with hints of something sweet that turned soar with age. He closed the door with the pull of a lever, air rushing out with a loud hiss. The bus launched forward, bouncing over every crack and pothole.
The city passed by in a monochrome blur, the buildings standing tall and uniform, like soldiers in a row. The bus was mostly made of silver metal, but the seats were a cozy polyester with a pattern of bright shapes straight from the '80s. Ads clung to the top of the bus, peeling away with only half the slogan remaining. The only other person on the bus was a snoozing old woman clinging to a crocodile handbag, sitting in the very last row. There was a particular scent to the bus that Jackie had become familiar with, and though it was complex, she had been able to narrow it down to a few factors: gasoline, body order, a hint of pine, and metal.
Jackie was wearing what she always wore during one of her escapades: a black dress and a gold necklace with a crescent moon pendant. Her hair was long and frizzy, prompting many to tease her that it looked like a witch's, but she had only taken it as a compliment. The only luggage she had brought with her was a suitcase of yellow leather, clothing popping out of the barely clasped corners.
Charlie stirred in his seat, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.
"You know...you're a good kid, Jackie." he sighed. "People will tell you you aren't, and that's just because you're a lil' different, but there ain't nothing wrong with being different you hear?"
Jackie nodded, a big dopey smile growing on her face.
"This is my philosophy on life: you know who you're gonna spend the most time with?" Charlie paused for dramatic effect, peering back at Jackie over his shoulder. "It's yourself. No one will ever know you, the way you know you. So, if you like what you see, then who even gives a damn about the rest of us."
"A saint," Jackie repeated, smiling warmly.
. . .
Across town was Oren Cleverfield. His name had always been Oren Cleverfield. In truth, it was never his name, until it was, until he found it. But deep down, it had always been there.
Like everyone else, Oren was born. Unlike everyone else, he was born in the backseat of a sedan on the side of the road. His parents had planned for his arrival to be in the highest quality hospital they could afford, with trusted doctors at the ready, but this is not how things unfolded. Oren was rather eager to get into the world, so his father, still dressed in a fine suit from a long day at the office, had to roll up his sleeves and pull him into it.
And like most infants, he was hideous, screaming and lashing out with his newly formed limbs, covered in slime and blood. Oren often pondered how strange it was that we ever evolved past that point; when we are fresh and new, we do not yet know the horrors of the world. It would seem that we would spend all of life screaming being witnesses to its cruelty.
Oren had changed a lot since he spilled out onto the seat of the sedan. He had begun as a little girl named Loren Cleverfield, but as the years dragged on the name didn't feel right rolling off his tongue, and the dresses his mother made him didn't fit quite right, and after years of discomfort and discovery, he finally found himself: Oren Cleverfield, the sixteen-year-old boy.
That night, Oren was driving in the very sedan he had been born in. The car was ancient, its engine as loud as a jet, like a great mechanical heartbeat. Despite his parents' disapproval, Oren refused to get rid of the old car. It had been a part of his life for so long, and taken him to so many places, that it felt as if it were a part of the family.
Oren couldn't help but feel strange, finally up in the driver's seat when he knew that sixteen years ago he had begun in the back. He thought life was somehow like that, you begin without control, and slowly over time reach a point where you can steer it in whatever direction you want, and when you do, you have no idea where you're going.
No. Literally. He didn't know where he was going. He was lost and driving aimlessly. The sky had grown dark and the street lights had begun to flicker on. The road seemed endless, a grey slate of rough asphalt, faded yellow lines passing under the car in a never-ending pattern. For a minute, there was a sense of panic that overwhelmed him, a primal insect to hurriedly find his way home and crawl into his warm bed, but then the panic subsided, and he was left with an unease-no-a thrill.
An excited, acidic feeling churned in his stomach. His hands went clammy as they clenched the steering wheel. He pressed down on the gas and began to speed up, feeling the ancient sedan jolt forward unsteadily. The hum of the engine was soothing, like a familiar cat's purr; He was surrounded by it, engulfed by the vibration and the sound. The road became a blur of grey and yellow that made him blissfully nauseated, like riding a roller coaster. Unlike most people, this was the very first time Oren had no idea what he was doing or where he was going and didn't care to consider why. He felt as if he were an astronaut launching out into outer space, the sedan rocking and shuttering as it broke through the atmosphere.
And just as quickly as the spell had begun, it was broken. A flash of fur passed the windshield as it shattered. The hood cracked down the middle in a painful metal shutter. Instinctively, Oren grabbed the wheel and jerked it to his right. The sedan flew over the side of the road, and into a grassy meadow beyond. The front smashed against the earth, the trunk weighing it back down until it finally tittered straight again. Oren tried to catch his breath, but the air refused to fill his lungs, only momentarily entering and escaping his quivering lips. He blinked, hoping he would see his white bedroom ceiling, but instead all he saw was shattered glass, and smoke, and blood.
He tried to unhook the seatbelt, but the mechanism was jammed keeping him strapped tightly against the seat. He grabbed a jagged shard of glass next to his feet and cut himself loose, crawling out the window. Glass clung to his shirt and cut at his skin until finally, he fell out onto the grass. He turned on his back, breathless, wincing. His eyes watered, not because of the smoke or the pain, but at the sounds coming from the sedan.
It was dying. He had killed it. It rattled and sizzled, the engine's last desperate cries.
Then Oren felt it. The overwhelming feeling that someone was watching him. He stiffened, his eyes widened and his lips thinned, and he dared to turn his head. Lying next to him was the deer. Or at least, what remained of it.
Its almond eyes, as black as the sky, were staring at him. Though they looked content, the death quick and painless, Oren reeled with guilt, unable to see them as anything but judging.