By Rebecca Nick
I remember my first few times traipsing down this rugged path, stumbling over the bushes and rocks that seemed to tug at my ankles, yearning for my clumsy feet to catch and send me tumbling to the ground. I can vividly recall the day that the taunting shrubbery and fallen branches had bested me, when a little tumble over some twigs and rocks had cost me my job. I rushed down this very trail, about to be late to work for probably the fifth time that week.
“This is the last straw, Brianna”, my boss asserted on that gloomy Tuesday morning.
He leaned against the cold metal wall, arms crossed, listening to my footsteps outside the door. He looked me sternly in the eyes as I flung open the “Employee Only” door at the supermarket, still catching my breath from the long walk there.
“One more strike and you're out! Fired!” he shouted. “Got it, hun? So when you go home tonight and run to your mommy crying because your mean boss threatened to fire you, just remember that there’s nothing she can do about it!”
The words echoed through my ears. There is nothing my mother can do about it; my mother is gone. I had no mommy to run home to, and no home to run to at all. I just wanted to sink down to my knees, hands over my face, and let the river of emotions come pouring out through my eyes. Despair and sorrow for my long gone parents. Hate toward my boss, toward my stepfather, and toward all the rest of society for treating me the way they do. Frustration for the fact that I am stuck in this hole so deep that I’ll probably never get out. Anger at myself for not having done something about it when I still could. I wanted to scream so loud that the whole world could hear me and everyone would feel my pain.
Despite all that, I used all the strength I had left to repress all those feelings and think only about how I needed to keep this job. As horrible as it is, as mean as the boss is, as lazy as my co-workers are, I need to put up with it, because without an address, or clean work clothes, or proper transportation, I’ll never get another job in my life.
“Remember what happens if you show up late again, Brianna.”, my boss shouted from the breakroom as I clocked out. It was a cheerful tone with an undertone of ridicule. I glared, saying nothing, as I walked out the door.
I think there is a certain point in everyone’s life when they think they’re at their all time low, when nothing could ever get worse, yet somehow, it always does. As for me, I have experienced that feeling many times, beginning from a very young age. This was one of those times, no home, no family, and barely holding on to what seemed to be the worst job in the world. I was sure I would make it to work on time that next morning.
I got up early and dashed down the uneven ground and through the swaying trees. My mind was focused solely on how I was going to be able to face my cruel, menacing boss that morning. It didn’t cross my mind to be cautious of the unsteady ground that lay before me. I stepped down a hill onto a patch of slippery pine needles, and went skidding down the slope. I reached to stabilize myself on a low hanging oak branch that offered a deceitful helping hand on my left, and ended up snapping the rotted branch from the trunk of that derisive tree. Smacking into the unforgiving ground, I slid down the prickling pine needles and oak leaves until my foot caught a rock, bending my ankle in a way no ankle should be bent.
My mind still fixed on getting to work, I hastily got back onto my throbbing feet, only to collapse back onto the ground once again, as a crippling jolt of pain shot up from my ankle and all through the nerves in my leg. I picked myself up again, slower this time, and hobbled down the path, determined not to let a silly sprained ankle stop me. I realized in a short time that it was too far of a walk, and I’d never make it at that speed. This is when the bad got worse. The realization that I had lost my job, my only source of income, had sunk in. I’d have to live on what little savings I had until maybe, if I was really lucky, I could find a new job.
Unfortunately, I was not lucky. To this day I still curse that taunting trail that cost me my only source of income, my only warm place to stay in the winter. That day I saw the slightest bit of light shine through the bitter clouds, when I realized that I’d no longer have to deal with the awful monster I once called my boss. Soon after, the darkening sky went overcast once again, and I found out that starvation makes much worse company than a dreadful boss I’d see only five days a week.
Ironically, the little bit of blue sky and sunshine that peeked through the clouds was now literally being covered with an overcast grey, as I stepped onto the sidewalk. I made my way into town, thinking of how it was hopeless to expect that today I might find a meal to eat, to fill my empty stomach. It’s true, the saying that money can’t buy happiness, but in the past year I’ve realized most certainly that a lack of money can cause great anguish and unhappiness.
As I glided down the sidewalk I’d walked so many times, I studied the cracks that tore through the pale pavement. As a child I always avoided the cracks, hopping and skipping between the lines like a ballet dancer on the pavement. I genuinely believed the saying “if you step on a crack you’ll break your mother’s back”. I was so careful, but one time I missed. For a while I felt guilty, I blamed myself, thinking that it was my stepping on the crack that had broken my mother’s neck.
I strode through the old, crumbling buildings downtown. Up a few blocks, then down a dark, dingy alley lined with overflowing bags of rancid trash. A few stray cats hissed, then scurried away, scraps of old meat and dead rats hanging out their mouths. Sometimes I feel a bit like those poor cats. I turned the corner and approached a big green dumpster that stood out the backdoor of a restaurant. I always seem to find the best food back here. Ever since I lost my job, this has been about the only way to find a meal. Most find it appalling that anyone would go to such lengths, but it’s all done for survival. Anyway, a lot of the food isn’t half bad. Often still packaged and sometimes fresh and warm; people are so wasteful.
The back door of the restaurant was cracked open, and warm light flooded out into the clouded morning air. Inside was a clamour of dishwashers, cooks, and servers preparing for their lunchtime opening.
“Wooooah! Watch out!” One man exclaimed. There was a clang of metal smacking against the ground, followed by the piercing sound of shattering glass.
I froze, unable to move. A flood of memories poured through my mind. A tall, dark haired man in a leather jacket. My mother, dodging plates and glasses that shattered just above her head, falling in pieces like deadly blades ready to kill. I stood, peering from behind my bedroom door, shaking, lip quivering. I held back my tears for fear of what would happen if he heard me whimper, saw me watching. I couldn’t take the belt one more time. Not again. The snap and sizzling pain, a red mark that would last for days, sometimes weeks. I covered my ears to block the unbearable screaming. His wedding band fell to the ground as he shattered the bottle from the beer he just downed. I refuse to call that evil man my father. My father is in heaven and no one could ever replace him, I told myself, my young, fifteen year old self. A river of tears ran down my mother’s face. She stood pale and shaking in the corner as he drew the shattered bottle toward her throat.
I snapped back to reality with a jolt, a shiver running down my spine. I reached my hand out, and watched my fingers shake uncontrollably. Still thinking about it, I wonder why I ever blamed myself for what happened to her. It was not my fault or her own that she took her own life. It was his. All his. Still unable to move, I began to re-acquaint myself with reality. It’s been a while since my last episode. I’ve been slowly improving the dam that I built to contain all those horrible memories, but I guess it still wasn’t strong enough to contain such a demonic force. Finally regaining motion, I fled the alley and went to find a quiet place to collect myself---to shake those thoughts from my mind.
I passed a small brick building. The bright “open” sign shone through the large windows that dominated the front wall, and beyond the windows hung a small TV and a sparse collection of wooden chairs and tables. I approached the building, a tear began to roll down my cheek, I turned my head and moved quickly past the fading brick and bitter-sweet smell of coffee.
The best place I knew to find solitude and peace on a cloudy day like today was just a few blocks down, no more than a mile. I needed some place to collect my thoughts and let out my tears where no one else would bother me.
I wandered through the fields of tall grass and dainty purple and orange flowers, only visible to the observant eye. Towering pine trees bordered the empty meadow and deserted playground. The often vibrant and lively park was desolate this afternoon. I guess most people aren’t a fan of the somber grey clouds that sometimes like to creep in this time of year. Personally, I’ve grown to enjoy such weather, especially with the quiet peace it brings. Strolling toward an inviting park bench atop the hill, I stopped, startled, and did a double take.
Just at the edge of the forest, sitting almost motionless on the curb of the sidewalk was a young woman. She turned her head, eyes wide, as if she’d seen a ghost. Frightened, I flew back onto the grass, flinging my backpack down the hill. I looked over again, and she was talking to herself, deep in conversation, as if speaking to a loved one. Living like I do on the streets, I’ve known a lot of mentally ill, and can recognize one when I see them. I immediately felt sorry for her and sorry that I had been so frightened by her. I know what it’s like to be constantly judged.
Below me, my belongings were scattered. My bag had unzipped and all my clothing spilled out onto the dirt and flowers. I gathered and shook out my t-shirts, then picked up my coat. Under it I discovered my journal, sprawled across the ground, opened to a spread of pages I recognized immediately. I made myself comfortable on a patch of clovers and fixed my eyes on the scrawled cursive letters.
Sometimes when I journal, the aspiring author in me comes out and my daily experiences become a dramatized story. I know now that such ambitious dreams hold little place in my bleak future, so I channel those aspirations into my everyday notes and stories. This one I played over in my head as if it were a movie, every little detail and character coming to life once again.
It starts, scene 1:
It was a frigid fall morning, nearing the first coldspell of the season. Dark, menacing clouds rolled in from the west, creeping slowly toward the quiet town. The faint voice of a newscaster trickled out the door of a coffee shop, warning viewers of the coming rain, as if the grim sky couldn’t speak for itself. It was the only noise that broke the silence of the near deserted town. The forest behind me began to sway, red and yellow leaves dancing like a flickering fire. Through a narrow alley the wind howled, as if it were a lonely wolf calling hopelessly to its family in the night. The polar gust penetrated my thin, tattered hoodie, and chilled my entire body down to the bone. Desperate for protection against the forces of mother nature, I stepped into the small coffee shop that beckoned with its warmth and safety. The sweet smell of coffee and fresh baked muffins overwhelmed my senses, and I was embraced by a radiant heat that thawed my frozen bones. I took a seat in the corner, not sure how long I could stay in this oasis with an empty wallet.
Only a few of the pale oak tables were occupied in the cafe, and most customers were either absorbed in the daily newspaper or working diligently on a laptop. Even so, I noticed that unmistakable glance of judgement from many of the preoccupied eyes in the room. With shabby clothes and the entirety of my belongings fastened to a backpack, it was inevitable to get such a look wherever I go. I pulled out my journal from the depths of my bag, and began to confide in its trustworthy pages.
Amongst the soft sounds of pages turning and coffee pouring, I picked up two distinctive voices from across the small room. Two ladies, surveying the room full of empty tables, shot a glance in my direction. With faces of pure disgust, they strode over to the open seats that bordered the wall opposite my table, all the while whispering and snickering among themselves. I couldn't pick up more than a few words of their secretive conversation, but I knew exactly what they were saying.
One lady sported a large diamond-encrusted band around her left wrist, and just above that a brand name purse hung from her arm. The other flashed some sparkling hoop earrings as she whipped back her perfectly curled golden hair. As they sat waiting for their coffee, probably low fat, skim milk lattes with no sugar, they continued to point their long, brightly colored fake nails toward the corner where I sat quietly trying to ignore them and focus on my pen and paper.
I overheard one of them mentioning my “revolting hair and dirt covered clothes”, saying I should learn how to bathe myself. The other began to theorize that I was plotting to stuff all the napkins and straws in my bag before leaving, like for some reason those who live on the streets need a hundred straws. Besides, I don’t steal. Never have, never will. Even in such horrible situations I think it’s important to be courteous and think of how others will be affected by your actions. I guess that’s just something my dad taught me as a child. That, and the ability to ignore others judgements and opinions. I never did quit catch on to that one. As much as I tried to ignore what those stuck up, ignorant women were saying, I couldn’t help but take some of it to heart. When you hear something repeated enough, as untrue as it may be, it can start to become more believable. I don’t know what I felt strongest, the urge to suckerpunch those two in their fake, plastic faces, or the urge to break down and cry because I was to see a glimpse of truth in all the horrible things they’re saying.
I wiped the salty teardrops from my flustered cheeks, closing the dusty, dark red covers of my journal. I’ve been judged, made fun of, and talked about countless times since the day I was kicked out onto the streets. I’ve been pushed around and taunted. Yet somehow, that one day in that one coffee shop seemed to be the worst of it all. It’s the day that drove me to my breaking point, made me run from this cruel world and escape to the eternal darkness where no one could ever hurt me again.
I guess I’d been bottling everything up for so long, and it was that moment that set me over the edge. The bottle began to overflow. Luckily, I had capped it just before it went too far, because that day, right after I had set down my pen and paper, I marched over to the table on the opposite wall and threw up my fists. I was about to put a dent in someone’s face, when I guess I realized that it just wasn’t worth it. Just in time. I went running out of the cafe sobbing, and made a big, hysterical scene for all those enjoying their morning coffee. Whatever the reason, I can never seem to keep my composure when I relive that day.
I sat there in the soft grass, staring blankly at the conversational young girl on the curb. I needed to sit quietly and take everything in, find places to store all my uncontrollable emotions, as I every now and then must do in order to keep myself sane. Then, one bottled up jar of emotions started leaking and seeping out into my brain. My thoughts started wandering down a spiraling rabbit hole I knew shouldn’t go down. But I couldn’t help it.
I couldn’t help but think, what if the doctors had noticed my father’s tumor just a month sooner, or what if mother and I weren’t so caught up in our own lives and had noticed his symptoms? Would things be different now? Whatever the answer, it’s best I not think about it. I have to avoid those thoughts and simply deal with what is, even if the situation that is leaves me feeling broken and invisible, nothing more than a ghost haunting this cruel world. Besides, it pains me too much to think about her. That piece of my soul she once occupied with her endless love was ripped away, flesh torn and blood oozing, the moment she took that helpless, agonizing leap into the world unknown, leaving me behind to suffer the consequences. The hole in my soul, the gaping wound that now leaves me vulnerable and crippled, will, I’m afraid, never get the chance to fully heal. She left me to fend for myself. I’m no doctor, and wounds of this magnitude will require stitches, or even surgery, if they are to begin healing. I was left to eternally suffer the agonizing, heart wrenching pain that brings me to my knees, insides screaming, whenever that tender flesh is disturbed. But somehow, no matter how hard I try to put up a wall or blur them out in the lost hope to mediate the pain just the slightest bit, it never seems to work. Mother and Father seem to be the only thing in this world that I can ever think about.
The pain I’ve been trying to ignore for so long only keeps worsening. Sitting here, letting myself wander down the treacherous path that is my past is making it worse. I just have to face what happened and try to move on.
Packing up my backpack, I headed across the meadow to find the discretely marked trail that will bring me back to my wooded home. I entered the dark woods and followed a narrow deer trail that travels and winds all through the forest. Nowhere do I feel as at home as I do among the towering ponderosa pines and beautiful oaks.
A few miles back in the woods, down a rugged path of bushes and rocks, I reached my eternal residency. A small shelter made of some rope, a tarp, and a mighty oak tree. But this time the tarp lay flat on the ground. Hanging from a low branch in the oak was a rope, dangling in the shape of noose, occupied by the corpse of a girl who had put up with just a bit too much abuse and taunting in her short lifetime.
I set down my bag, spirit entering the lifeless body that swayed from the tree. A day wandering the streets I once lived, invisible and lifeless, was just what I needed to get closure, to ultimately realize why I had felt such a strong urge to leave this world.