a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
[Content Warning: mention of drug use and implied motor injury/death]
When the hitchhiker opened my car door, her eyes were like an animal’s, fearful and wild, darting every which way like she expected something to jump out at her.
She clicked the seatbelt closed with bitten-down fingernails. “Go,” she whispered.
I did. It occurred to me right then that I was probably making a terrible mistake, but she didn’t seem dangerous, not yet.
We were in the backwoods of Tennessee, and the road wove in and out of thick tangles of trees. Sometimes a cliffside would slink out of the woods and catch me unawares. I’d grip my steering wheel hard and my heart would pound in my ears as loudly as one would expect driving parallel to certain death.
Now, though, it was only forest, occasionally punctured by groups of leaning shacks, each with at least one shattered window and an American flag hung near the door. My GPS had gotten lost, and I was banging on the dash with one hand and steering with the other.
I had no idea where I was. The GPS was displaying the same loading screen, and the sun was going down.
I hit it one more time for good measure. Nothing happened.
My passenger was staring at me. “Do you know where we are?” I asked haltingly.
“Bledsoe,” she said. Her hands were fidgeting—she’d pop and crack her knuckles over and over again.
“Bledsoe,” I repeated. “Good.” It was a start. “You wouldn’t happen to know how to get to the nearest city, would you?”
She shook her head. “I’m not from around here.”
At the time I didn’t question it.
Truthfully, I was feeling a little relieved. She didn’t look or act like a crazy person. Her clothes were sort of strange, a grey button down over biker shorts, both of which looked too big for her, and her eyes kept doing that flicking back and forth thing, but I figured she was probably just nervous. She’d climbed into a stranger’s car into the middle of the woods, after all, and she had no idea who I was or where I was going.
I wished I could tell her somehow, how nonthreatening, how pitiful I truly was. Maybe by telepathy or something. It was almost a little humiliating to speak aloud. I never liked to talk about myself, who I’d become.
Where I was going was Miami, to meet some old college friends and party on the beach and drink my problems away.
Who I was was another story. I was rather looking forward to a week of pretending I wasn’t twenty-seven, jobless, and too broke to buy a plane ticket, which was why I was driving.
It wasn’t even my car—my mother’s plastic Jesus figurine was glaring at me reproachfully from where He was glued to the dashboard. I’m sure He thought I was an idiot.
The hitchhiker shifted in her seat nervously. The road had started curving wildly to the left, and my nails were turning white where I dug them into the steering wheel.
A faded sign near the edge of the road read “TO INTERSTATE” and, so suddenly I nearly missed it, a thin, twisting road broke through the trees. The brakes squealed as I yanked the steering wheel to the left, sucking in my breath hard, blood pounding in my ears.
“Oh god,” murmured my passenger. She was clutching the armrest, a sick look on her face.
She was young, I noticed with a jolt, much younger than I’d thought, barely eighteen or nineteen. Shit, whispered a voice in my head, what are you doing? Picking up random, scared-to-death teenagers in the middle of the woods? What if she’s running from something and someone’s following you this very moment? What if she’s not running from anything and you get charged with kidnapping?
I let out a long exhale as we settled onto the road. I had never been one to make good decisions.
“4 MILES TO INTERSTATE: SOUTHBOUND”, read another sign, chipped and crumbling, and I realized I’d never asked her if she had a destination, or at least a general direction she wanted to head. Or even her name.
It would probably be best to do that before we were too far away, I decided, but I didn’t want to seem urgent either. The wild, haunted look had not left her face.
Silence hovered over us like a cloud as the last rays of sunlight dipped beneath the treeline. My GPS was still loading, flickering on and off. I’d ruled it useless, but as the road wove to and fro through thickets of trees I prayed for it to turn on and guide me. How had everyone done it with only maps, especially at night?
“Good god,” I muttered, jerking my steering wheel to the left to avoid a collision with a large oak. The passenger gasped, tensing in her seat.
“Sorry,” I said with a little whisper-laugh. “Interstate’s soon, and we’ll be out of this. Hey, you never told me where you wanted me to take you.”
“Anywhere,” she said. “Anywhere away from here.”
The voice in my head was screaming again. You idiot.
“Anywhere?” I asked hesitantly. “How am I supposed to drive if I don’t know where I’m going?”
“I don’t know,” she said, unhelpfully. “Just—somewhere safe, alright?”
The silence descended again, and I was almost glad of the darkness, so she couldn’t see the fear on my face. Who was this girl? What had I done?
“Do you have a name?” I blurted. A name, at least, would make her seem more real, and less like a hole I had dug myself into.
“Lane,” she said softly, “like the road.”
“Cool name,” I replied, and that was when it started. I could feel the tension beginning to roll off her like waves. “Nice to meet you, Lane, I’m Angela.”
In hindsight I don’t know why I did it. Maybe I was scared. But Angela wasn’t my name, not even close.
Finally we reached the interstate. I merged on easily, relieved to be out of those hellish woods, but as we sped down the smooth, fluorescent-lit road, slowly a new fear settled on me. I’d already been driving eight hours, and without the constant threat of hitting a tree or rolling off a cliff, I began to drift, eyelids heavy.
More to keep myself awake than anything else, I started to talk. I talked about everything—my hometown, my sheltered, dull high school years, my rebellion once I got to college, my addiction, my stint in rehab, my absolutely useless degree in philosophy, my lack of job, my ex-boyfriend, my mother’s plastic Jesus figurine, the stupid tattoo on my upper back I was working on getting lasered off.
And Lane listened. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Not like Olivia, my friend from college, who would always interrupt with a story of her own, or like James, the aforementioned ex, who always told me I was being dramatic, what kind of fucking idiot gets addicted to weed anyway, or like my mother, who dismissed me as stupid and immature and never even considered that I might have real emotions too.
No, Lane’s wide, frightened eyes saw me as I really was, as I sometimes couldn’t even see myself— human. She heard me like I was someone who deserved to be heard.
“Wow,” she said quietly, once I had fallen silent. “You don’t think your mother ever loved you? Isn’t that what a mother is for?”
“I guess,” I said wryly. “I wasn’t the daughter she wanted.”
“I never had a mother,” she said. “But if I did, I wouldn’t care about who she wanted me to be. A person’s more than just a daughter.”
I smiled. She was turning out to be wise.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I don’t give a shit what she thinks anymore. I’ve stopped trying to please her. It’s just that I depend on her, sort of.”
I nodded. Money, and a place to live, and transportation. I was tethered to her. Like a child.
“If she really didn’t love you, why would she give you those things?” asked Lane. Her voice was confused, almost sad.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe she feels like she has to.”
“She has to?” echoed Lane.
I didn’t answer. The road was becoming a hazy mess in front of me, everything swirling together.
“I had a daughter once,” mused Lane. I barely heard her.
I fought back a yawn, blinking several times to try to clear my field of vision. It was only nine thirty, but I suddenly felt very stupid for thinking I could drive all the way to Miami by myself. I had no money for a hotel, so I had to keep going. I was supposed to meet my friends tomorrow at noon, but I wasn’t even out of Tennessee yet. Plus, I had picked up a goddamn hitchhiker, and I needed to figure out what to do with her fast, because I wasn’t about to bring this wide-eyed, skittish girl into Miami, even if she had started getting comfortable with me.
“Hey!” said Lane sharply, shaking my shoulder. I sat up very straight and gasped. I was currently straddling two lanes.
“Oh god,” I yelped, forcing back another yawn. I bit my tongue hard and focused in on the sting, the rusty taste of blood. Maybe that would keep me alert.
But soon the road in front of me had become a blur again and I was driving with my eyes half-closed.
“Do you want me to drive?” offered Lane quietly, and I must have been too exhausted to think straight, because we pulled over right away, switched seats, and merged back onto the highway. There was no use fighting it anymore, I fell into a deep, fitful sleep.
When I opened my eyes again, sunlight was streaming through the windows. I stared at the passing countryside for several minutes, pretending to be still asleep, but then it hit me.
A hitchhiker was driving my car. Almost immediately, the voice in my head started yelling in alarm, but I forced it down.
I looked over to Lane hesitantly. “You don’t have a license, do you.”
“I did, once,” she said. “Oh, good morning, by the way.”
“Morning,” I said. But the vagueness of her answer had left an uneasy feeling in my gut.
I was suddenly hit with a wave of nausea and a feeling, deep down, that something was very very wrong.
“What do you mean, you did once?” I ventured. “What happened to it?”
She said nothing. She was closing off again, I could see it. It was almost a physical change, her shoulders hunching, eyes growing wary, fingers turning white where she gripped the steering wheel.
“Lane,” I said, gently, “why did you hitchhike, yesterday?”
“You can trust me,” I reminded her. “I’m going to help you. Promise.”
I had never considered myself a very honest person, but that promise was the truest one I’d ever made.
“Lane,” I echoed, when she was silent again, “I need to know what you’re running from. I need to know how to find you somewhere safe.”
“I know where I need to go,” said Lane suddenly, adamantly. “I remembered, I have friends in Charleston. They’ll help me. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
My heart was beating fast now.
“Lane.” I surprised myself with the amount of conviction in my voice. I’d never found it in myself before. “Lane, who are you? What are you running from?”
I should have seen it right then. I should have sensed it, the way her breathing tensed, her eyes started doing that darting back and forth thing again. I should have realized what I was doing to her.
I didn’t. I pressed on stubbornly. Persistently, as though she was something to be conquered.
She fought me well. Her walls, which I had watched come down, built themselves up again. She stayed silent. I could not move her.
Eventually I lapsed into silence too, a dreary fog. Something was eating at me. Something like guilt. It took me a while to put a name to it.
We spoke at the same time. “My name isn’t Angela,” I said.
“Angela, your mother does love you,” said Lane, and it felt shameful, almost, to hear her say my false name so earnestly.
“What?” What the hell does she know, muttered the voice in my head incredulously.
“She does,” repeated Lane. “She does. You don’t love your child because you have to. You love them because they’re your child. They’re everything to you.”
“You don’t know my mother,” I said. The look on her face was enough to stop me in my tracks. Her eyes were staring straight ahead, but they weren’t seeing anything.
“No,” she said. Her voice had taken on a strange quality, something melancholy, something toneless. “I don’t. But my daughter. I saved her. I saved her.”
I said nothing. I couldn’t even move. I was frozen in place.
“I saved her,” echoed Lane. “I would have done anything for her. She’s faraway now. But she’s okay. She’s safe.”
She kept saying that. Safe safe safe. Her eyes were glazed and blank, but she was shaking. Her fingers were white.
“What happened to her?” I whispered.
“I saved her,” Lane said. “I saved her from her father.”
Her hollow, empty eyes were shining with tears. Something was beginning to dawn on me. Some vague terror, creeping tendrils of alarm growing ever closer.
And then Lane jerked the steering wheel to the left.
Someone screamed. I think it was me. There was an enormous crunching noise, and everything went brilliantly white. And then—nothing.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.