Part 1: Escape
Jennaleigh Michaels stood alone beneath a flickering overhead light in front of a closed gas station, waiting for the 1 AM bus to anywhere. It was 12:58 AM, and she had already been waiting in the cold, December air for nearly an hour. No bags, no carry-on, just her cell phone, an over-sized wallet with an undersized sum of money; $27.00 to be exact, an old can of pepper spray that her brother had gifted her a few years ago, and the clothes on her back.
She hadn’t taken the time to properly pack up her belongings since she hadn’t planned on leaving so abruptly, but due to her circumstances and her clear lack of options, she did what she did best: she put miles between her and her problems, both physically and mentally, or at least she liked to believe.
She pulled out her phone from her pocket and checked the time.
Any second now, she thought to herself. These buses were rarely late, one of the few subjectively efficient things about them. She knew she was close to escape, but she couldn’t shake the fear she had of him finding her before she boarded. She imagined him pulling into the parking lot recklessly and stupidly fast; he always drove like that when he was angry. He would hop out of his truck, and speed walk towards her, closing the distance before she could plot a route of escape. He’d look around to see if anyone was around, if not he’d scream and call her a stupid c**t, if someone was within earshot, he’d still call her that, but through clenched teeth and a quieter, less noticeable tone. She’d prefer the former; she had noticed that if he had to suppress his rage around people, then when he got her alone his wrath was worse, and often held more tangible consequences.
She unlocked, then glanced at her phone again nervously.
“Where the f**k is this damn bus?” she asked aloud, a wisp of nearly translucent smoke erupting from her mouth. “Just my f*****g luck, go f*****g figure.”
Jennaleigh looked up at the night sky, then down to snow covered ground beneath her and began to cry. It wasn’t fair. Why her? She asked this question often in the direction of the sky, never even a well timed gust of wind in response, no source of hope to cling onto, no convincing signs from beyond that gave her suffering a reason. She was tired in her bones of pointless tribulation and felt her sanity would soon unravel.
She heard the slow and gaining sound of wheels turning on snow, and suddenly her heart sank. She slowly brought her gaze up towards the road, clutching the can of pepper spray in dreaded anticipation.
It was the bus, a little over two minutes behind schedule, barreling down the road and towards the gas station.
Jennaleigh let out an audible sigh as her lips quivered with a mix of relief and gratitude.
“Thank Christ,” she said aloud to herself as she shoved her phone back into the pocket from whence it came.
The bus quickly turned into the gas station’s lot, pulled up and underneath the flickering light dangling above Jennaleigh’s head, then came to a screeching and abrupt stop before its’ doors opened before her with a hiss. She quickly stepped onto the bus, head down as she traversed the metal, spiky stairs. As she reached the top, she lifted her gaze and was met by two small slits for eyes, hidden behind sagging, aged skin and thick, large lenses. The bus driver was old; older than Jennaleigh had ever imagined a bus driver could be. An old woman with frizzy, curly auburn hair that reminded her of Rhea Pearlman, circa 1985, only longer and with visibly more intention of hiding graying dead-ends. The woman spoke in a shrilly boom, seemingly unaware of her immense volume.
“Hey there, honey,” The driver said loudly. “That’ll be $25.00 tonight. It’s a 300 mile drive, no stops. Well, barring a whiteout that is, but lucky for us the forecast is relatively clear. Ya’ll good and ready?”
Jennaleigh smiled and nodded as she hastily pulled out the money from her wallet. She put the two singles she had remaining back into the wallet before turning her flustered visage towards the seats. A few rows back from the front of the bus, on the left was an elderly man, probably in his 70’s. He wore a forest green Mr. Rodgers style cardigan. Upon the tip of his large, protruding nose rested a too-small-for-his-face pair of wired and crooked glasses. He glared at Jennaleigh with angry eyes and an expression that shouted his impatience.
Behind him another 3 seats back was a pretty, middle-aged woman reading a picture book to a wide-eyed little girl around 5 with a brown mop-top. She smiled as she pointed out the pictures and enthusiastically read the book in an endless plethora of shifting, whimsical voices.
At the very back of the bus was a young woman in a soldiers get-up. Full camo, hat and boots to match. She was leaning back, feet up with her cap over her eyes, arms crossed.
“Why don’t you go on and get settled for the long haul, honey,” the voice of the bus driver snapped Jennaleigh back into the present.
“Okay,” she responded with a nod and a smile.
She quickly trotted to the seat closest to her; the first seat on the right, directly behind the driver, and plopped down. She didn’t realize how tired her legs were, how tired she was after standing for as long as she had been. Before she could process anything else, the driver spoke once more.
“Alrighty then, last stop of night. Onto the road again we go,” the driver said as she shut the sliding doors with a satisfying hiss; a hiss that filled Jennaleigh with an impossible relief. The driver put the bus into drive, rotated the steering wheel and slowly began to pick up speed; first a crawl through the lot, a brief stop, then a speed-walk as it turned onto the dark, snowy road, before becoming a steady jog, then at last a beautiful sprint. With each passing moment of acceleration, Jennaleigh found herself loosening her grip on the can of pepper spray inside her pocket, until at last she no longer felt the urge to hold it at all. The fear that she had of him finding her had all but vanished for the first time in a long while. When was the last time she had been free like this? Probably not since Jason, she thought to herself. Her brother would have never let anyone hurt her like Charlie had. She missed him more than ever in those moments she felt helpless, which was the majority of her days as of late. No longer though; she had reached the limit of what she could handle. It was only a matter of time before he would end up killing her. She often wondered if that was the reason she had stayed with Charlie for as long as she had. Maybe she wanted to die. Maybe she couldn’t handle a world without Jason, or if she could, maybe she didn’t want to. She knew that Jason would have wanted her to stay alive though, and this was the driving voice behind her new-found reasoning. She had rediscovered her will to live after Charlie, in a fit of rage slapped her so hard across the face that she flew into a dresser and crashed onto the ground, gripping her bleeding face in pain. As she cried on the floor, an old picture of her and Jason fell off the dresser, floated like a feather through the air and landed, face-up beside her. She grabbed it and starred longingly through teary eyes. Jason had has arm over her shoulder; they both smiled at the camera fiercely. She picked it up and quickly pocketed it before Charlie could see. Who knows if he’d have tried to take it from her. He didn’t like her having anything that wasn’t approved by him.
Jennaleigh decided to stop thinking about Charlie. She had escaped and she didn’t have to live in fear anymore. She had no immediate plan for the future. Maybe she’d try and reach out to Amanda, her former BFF, and once soon to be sister in law. She was sure that if her once upon a time bestie knew her situation, she’d be more than willing to help her get on her feet. They hadn’t talked in a few months, but they had cried on each others shoulders many times before, so Jennaleigh figured her odds would be good.
She grabbed her phone, scrolled through her contacts and pressed on, ‘Amanda <3’.
Jennaleigh was surprised after she heard Amanda’s voice after the first ring.
“Jenna? Oh my God, how are you?” said Amanda, radiating with genuine curiosity.
Jennaleigh paused, inhaled deeply and audibly before responding.
“Honestly? I’ve been better.”
“Really? What’s been going on? Everything okay?”
“Um… no,” Jennaleigh’s voice crackled as she held back a river of tears from overflowing. “No, it’s not. I left. I ran. I had to get away. From him. From Charlie.”
“Oh my God, you left Greenbrooke? Where are you? What happened? What did he do to you?” Amanda asked, concern resonating through her words.
“I got on a bus. I don’t even know where it’s going. I just had to get away from him. I can’t… couldn’t handle it anymore. I know that Jason would have wanted me to live and try to, I don’t know, find some sort of semblance of happiness even though I know I don’t deserve it,” Jennaleigh said, believing every word.
“Jenna… you do deserve happiness. You’re an amazing person and you don’t deserve whatever he’s putting you through. Jace would have been proud of you for getting out of there. I’m proud of you. I know we haven’t talked a lot recently but I’m glad you called me. What are your plans? Do you have anywhere to go?”
Jennaleigh began to sob; her eyes were broken dams overflowing now, years worth of pressure and buildup emerging. A part of her regretted leaving so suddenly and arbitrarily without making a plan first, and now she felt guilty for making Amanda feel obligated to shoulder some of the weight of her problems. The last thing she wanted was to be viewed as a burden, especially by her.
“I’ll figure it out, don’t worry. I just have to get my bearings and I’ll be okay,” said Jennaleigh, regretting calling Amanda on a whim, and trying to take advantage of her kind nature.
“F**k that. You’re coming here, at least until you get on your feet,” said Amanda matter-of-factly.
“Amanda…” began Jennaleigh before getting cut off.
“Shut up,” said Amanda, “You’re coming and that’s non-negotiable. And do me a favor, alright? Do not say that you don’t wanna impose or that you don’t wanna burden me. You’re not. It’s my idea and that’s all there is to it okay?”
Jennaleigh chuckled as she wiped tears from her eyes. She had forgotten how amazing Amanda could be and how it was almost as if she could tell what Jennaleigh was thinking and knew exactly what to say to comfort her. She was a true friend.
Jennaleigh knew there was no arguing with her. She spoke softly after a long reflective beat of acceptance.
“…thank you, Amanda. I promise I’ll make it up to you. I’m sorry. I…” Amanda cut her off once again.
“Jenna. Don’t apologize. You did nothing wrong, you’re doing nothing wrong. You did the right thing, I can’t stress that enough. Okay, so first things first, find out where that bus is going and let me know so I can come get you.”
“I will, I’ll ask the driver. All I know is that it’s like, a 300 mile drive, hopefully in the direction towards you. I just got on the bus about 10 minutes ago,” said Jennaleigh, crying finally under control.
“Okay. Let me know. And Jenna? I just want you to know that it’s gonna be okay. I love ya,” said Amanda, choking up.
Jennaleigh felt her heart surge with hope and gratitude.
“I love ya too, talk soon, bye,” she said and ended the call. She stuffed her phone back into her pocket and rose from her seat. She took a few steps and stood beside the bus driver.
“Excuse me,” Jennaleigh said, “Can you tell me what town this bus is headed for?”
“Sure. We’re headed towards Buffalo. Got a long drive through the hills. We’re looking at 5 or 6 hours at least with the current weather conditions,” said the driver stoically.
“Buffalo…” said Jennaleigh to herself under her breath. “…that’s only a few hours away from Pittsburgh.” She grabbed her phone once again and unlocked her screen. ‘NO SERVICE,’ was in all caps across the top of the screen with the signal bars crossed out beside it.
“S**t,” said Jennaleigh putting her phone back in her pocket again.
“What’s that honey?” asked the bus driver.
“Sorry, nothing. Um, do you know how long we’ll be traveling through these hills? I just don’t have any service on my phone,” said Jennaleigh impatiently.
The driver glanced beside her and angled her nose down, looking over the top of her glasses at Jennaleigh, smacking gum obnoxiously as she starred for a moment, almost in a contemplative manner before replying.
“At least a couple hours sweetheart, maybe longer, really depends on the weather. You picked a helluva night to travel if you don’t mind my say so.”
Jennaleigh glared at the old driver, annoyed.
“Yeah, well I didn’t exactly have the time to consider all the variables,” she said as she walked away from the driver and back to her seat. The driver didn’t seem to hear her words, or if she did she didn’t seem to care as she kept her sagging facade glued to the snowy road in front of her.
Jennaleigh pulled out her phone once again and began to text a message to Amanda.
Hey, not sure when you’ll get this since I’m driving through East bum f**k at the moment and lost all service, but I’m headed towards Buffalo. We’re about a 6 hour drive away, dependent on the weather. Hopefully it doesn’t get much worse. I’m so sorry for this, Mandy. I really didn’t wanna involve you in this, I just didn’t know where else to turn. Mom still blames me, even though she won’t say it, for Jason, so that was never an option. I guess I just wanna say thank you. Thank you for being here for me even though I haven’t been there for you. After Jace, I shut down and turned all my focus to Charlie and this is where it led me. I should have been there for you, too. I wasn’t the only one who lost him that day, and I’m sorry I shut you out and wasn’t there, I just didn’t wanna be reminded of him, it was too painful. Here we are again, with you coming to my rescue. You’re a true friend Mandy, and again, I’m sorry. Sorry for the rant, and sorry for a million things in a million different ways, text me when you get this. Ttys. Love you.
She was crying now, again. She felt that that was all she did now. She had a million reasons, after all. Wasn’t hard to find an excuse. She knew that she was pathetic and wondered how anyone could ever love her and actually want to help her and see her happy. She deserved Charlie, and what he did to her. It was her fault; Jace, what happened to him. He wouldn’t have even been there if it wasn’t for her. She hated herself and wanted to die. She shouldn’t have left, she should’ve stayed with Charlie until he finally beat her to death, that way she could find Jace in the afterlife and tell him how sorry she was and how much she loved, and missed him. She didn’t wanna deal with this life without him and all the pain of his memory that haunted her every waking moment. She was tired, so f*****g tired of it all. She started to close her eyes as she leaned her head against the window next to her, thinking of Jason’s face, tears rolling down her cheeks, as she fell into a well staved off, but inevitable sleep.