The police officer’s eyes bored into my back as I walked away, and I didn’t start breathing properly until I had left the building and was seated in my car. I exhaled loudly, just sitting there with the engine off, gripping the wheel so tight my knuckles became white. I pressed a hand to my face, rubbing the stubble that had collected on my chin and cheeks. I calmed my racing heart that was pounding loudly like a bass drum and then started the car, driving off into the night.
The foreboding darkness descended all around me, providing a thick blanket that did little to smother my worry, numbness and pain. They were treating her death as a homicide. That’s why I’d been at the police station – I was brought in for questioning because I was the one that knew her the best. Obviously not enough, I thought, turning down our – well, it was just mine now, even though I knew I’d never be able to stop referring to it as ours – street. The apartment building was roped off with yellow police tape and officers and detectives were still hanging around.
Fuck this. I turned around, performing an illegal U-turn in the middle of the street. I knew in that instant that I’d never be able to go back there, never be able to enter the building without seeing her fragile body ruined and damaged. A lonely tear slipped from my eye to find solace in the rough hairs on my chin, the beginnings of a beard. The numb feeling that I was cloaked in hadn’t left my body since this morning, and right now, I didn’t think it ever would. With a frown stealing over my features, I pinched my arm to make sure this was real. Not that I would want it to be, though.
I pulled the car over to the side of the road, overcome by a sudden flood of images and memories. Ducking my head into my hands, I finally was able to cry for the first time since the doctor had pronounced her dead earlier that morning. But it wasn’t as if I hadn’t known that already.
It was well after midnight when Tom opened his apartment door blearily, yawning and standing there in nothing more than a pair of boxers. He didn’t question my splotchy, tear-stained face or my haggard appearance, for which I was grateful. Without saying anything, he sleepily grabbed a blanket before throwing it on the sofa for me, stifling another yawn as he mumbled goodnight. However I tossed and turned, unable to sleep, and I knew it had nothing to do with the uncomfortable couch. I gave up on my futile attempts, lying there in the dark with my eyes wide open, but even that did nothing against the waking nightmare that I was currently living in.
I left Tom’s apartment early in the morning, well before the sun came up, a cocktail of emotions swirling inside me as I got into my car and drove, welcoming the road sign that told me I was leaving Chicago.
I never gave my home of 21 years a second look as I made my escape out of the city that had nothing left to offer me and had turned my life upside down.
I didn’t stop for breakfast, only lunch, and that was mainly due to the fact that my stomach was rumbling demandingly, and was threatening to eat itself if I didn't feed it. I pulled over at a gas station conveniently located on the side of the road and ordered myself a small meal at the little diner attached to it. She would have called it cozy and quaint, what with the clichéd red booths and memorabilia from the sixties and seventies hanging on the walls. It was extremely bright because of the excessive sun streaming through the large windows that overlooked the drab highway and the cars that travelled hurriedly along it. The waitress who served me was bright and chirpy, her nametag reading ‘Jean,’ and when she brought me my coffee and grilled cheese sandwich, she flirted slightly and winked, a little put out when I didn’t react. I forced myself to eat the sandwich and swallow the coffee, chewing methodically like a robot, my body functioning on auto-pilot.
Leaving the diner, I had a random inspiration to suddenly use the ATM outside. I withdrew a large amount of money and was returning to my car when I saw a flash of red. I turned, my body instantly freezing and her name on my lips. It died when I got a better look at the girl, noting that the redhead’s hair was a lighter shade and only shoulder length, while hers had been down to at least her waist.
At that thought, her face instantly entered my mind, her smell filling my nostrils and the memory of the feel of her silky locks through my fingers made them twitch. A sudden feeling of nausea rose up and I covered my mouth, moving hurriedly to the nearby flowerbed behind the diner, where I emptied my stomach of the cheese sandwich and coffee. I used one hand to brace myself against the diner’s wall, and the other I pressed to my stomach, which was still twisting itself into knots. I heard a few comments of disgust as I spat, trying to remove the sour taste of vomit from my mouth.
When I’d pulled myself together and my stomach had calmed itself somewhat, I returned to my car. Checking my phone, I discovered that I had a few missed calls – some unknown numbers and a couple from Tom. I sighed, running a hand through my dull brown hair. She’d always liked the feel of my hair against her cheeks when I’d hugged her. Shaking my head, I told myself to stop thinking things like that. I slipped on my sunglasses – ones that she’d bought for me – to cover the sudden drops of salty liquid that had begun to flow from my eyes. I blinked furiously to clear my vision, about to start my car when my cell started to ring. I glanced at the caller ID as I picked it up, seeing that it was Tom.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Jon, man, finally.” Tom sounded relived. “Where the fuck are you? I came out this morning and you’d gone.”
“I’m in my car,” I told him, clearing my throat loudly as the tears made my voice break.
“Where in your car though? Dude, what’s going on? You knocked on my door after midnight looking like absolute shit, then you leave without even a note or something.” He was starting to sound concerned and worried and I cursed myself for bringing him into this. But then again, how could I not? He was my best friend; he’d always been there for me. I knew all I had to do was ask for his help and he would give it without a second thought. And this was no exception. “Look, are you in trouble with the cops?” Tom asked.
“What?! Why?” I asked, wondering where the hell that had come from. “What do you mean?”
Tom sighed exasperatedly. “Jon, the cops have been asking me where you are. They want to talk to you. Something about… Did you two have a fight or did something happen?”
I closed my eyes, breathing loud and creating bursts of static through the phone that echoed in my ear. “I… I…” I swallowed hard, my mouth dry. “Look, Tom, everything’s fine, okay? I just, I just got a call, and my cousin in New York is sick and I have to go and see her.” The lie slipped from my tongue easily, almost as silky-smooth as honey. I could practically hear my best friend frown.
“But Jon, the cops – ”
“I know, okay? I’ll… I’ll work something out because I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Trust me, I’m not in trouble.” Yet, I added silently.
Tom exhaled loudly. “Jon… I do trust you. Just... just don’t do anything stupid, alright? You know you can tell me anything.” There it was, that clichéd line that was said so many times, intending to be a reassurance. Instead, it made people do the opposite of what it was supposed to; it scared them away, leaving them to seek comfort in someone or something else. “Jon?” Tom’s voice broke through my thoughts.
“Hmm? Yeah, I know, Tom. I know. But…” I sighed. “Look, I gotta go, okay? I want to make the trip as short as possible.” I didn’t like driving long distances. I always got stiff and bored with seeing the endless stretch of black road in front of me, like a giant, never-ending tongue.
Tom snorted. “Why didn’t you just take a fucking plane, like everyone else?” I cracked a small smile. Tom was always able to coax a smile out of me, even when I wasn’t in the best of moods.
“Yeah, well, I’m not everyone else, am I?” My mouth twitched. There was a slight pause. “Hey, I really gotta go.”
“Alright. But you better call me again sometime, Walker, or I’ll think that someone fucking killed you and stashed your body in their trunk.” His voice was light, and I knew he meant it as a joke, but my heart sped up and the word ‘killed,’ and I felt the blood rush through my veins, almost like adrenaline. I forced a laugh.
“Okay, I’ll call you. Geez, Mom, just relax. I can take care of myself. Now I really gotta go, bye,” I added the last part hurriedly and pressed the ‘end call’ button, dropping my phone onto the passenger seat and pressing my forehead to the wheel. It was warm inside the car, but the sweat rolling down my back had nothing to do with the heat of the almost-summer sun beating down. My stomach clenched as I remembered Tom’s words: They want to talk to you. Something about… Did you two have a fight?
If only, Tom, I thought desperately. If only. Raising my head, I gnawed at my lip. If the cops were asking about me… that meant they were after me. And when they found me –
I shook my head, almost like I was trying to dislodge the thoughts from my brain, imagining them slipping out through my ears in words and images, falling to pool in my lap. I knew there was a reason why I felt like I had to take out money from the ATM. If the police were after me, they would be tracing my credit card. Cash, on the other hand, would be a lot harder to track. And my cell… That would be a problem too. They could easily trace my calls. I’d have to get rid of it now that I was on the run. I grimaced, the ugly look twisting and distorting my features. On the run. That made it sound like I had done something horrible… In a way, I knew I had, and I knew that taking off like this wasn’t going to prove my innocence anymore. If anything, it was going to make me look even more guilty, but at that moment I didn’t care, as stupid as I knew that was. I just had to get away; get my ass out of here so I could grieve the way I was meant to, and try not to let the images of the past few days taint the memories I had of her.
I started the ignition and reversed out of the space I had parked in. I knew there was no way I could go to New York; it had just been a lie, anyway. I turned back onto the highway, heading west at the first opportunity I got.
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