She couldn’t remember when the van first started chasing her. The days bled into each other like melted ice cream, runnels of Rocky Road and old-fashioned vanilla and sweet huckleberry dissolving into a soupy murk so acute it seemed to obscure her vision. She could not see things clearly, and if offered the suggestion that the obscurity was due to her drug and alcohol consumption, she would fix her mascara-smeared eyes on that person in what she believed to be a baleful glare and flounce haughtily away.
Truthfully, her baleful stare was a bleary-eyed, owlish gaze: unblinking, unfocused, utterly befuddled; and her flounce was a drunken stagger, weaving this way and that, and more often than not she would totter on those stiletto heels she always wore. Sometimes she fell off the heels and twisted her ankles, but only when the drink had taken her completely.
The sun blazed down, unforgiving and scorching. Hell would be like this, she was sure. She should prepare herself, because this would be her eternity. But she said the same thing in the winter months, when the January cold was bitter and harsh, and she hovered over heat vents in forgotten alleys.
But it wasn’t January; it was July, and July on east Sprague Avenue was blistering and relentless. The sun-baked macadam streets soaked in and reflected the sweltering heat in blurry waves that baked her face like a blast furnace. Sweat trickled from her brow into her eyes, blinding her further. Her limp, blonde hair stuck up in damp spikes, and the mini-skirt and tight tank-top clung like Velcro to her emaciated frame.
None of this stopped her from sticking out a skinny, sunburned leg and preening as a potential john drove by. The car didn’t slow, and she muttered an incoherent imprecation. Maybe the next one…
But no; that one crept by, slower than time, and four chubby faces topped with cottony hair peered out the car windows at her as if they were driving through a wildlife park and had spied an uncommonly repulsive specimen. She made a rude gesture at them. What did they know about survival? What did they know about being too hot or too cold and never just right? What the hell did they know about ice cream? What the hell did they—
The screech of tires brought her back to her surroundings, and she lifted her weary head, tottering on her heels. Alarm coursed through her, the only emotion clearly felt these days. She could drink until she puked and passed out; she could shoot up and drift in a haze of euphoria for days; she could give her body to endless johns for meager amounts of money or drugs; but nothing touched her core like the terror she felt when the van found her.
A car door opened as she bent to remove the stilettos, preparing to run. The driver was coming toward her, waving his arms like a madman, bellowing:
“Annette! Annette, wait!”
Annette? A case of mistaken identity, obviously. Her name was Sabrina—no, no, that was last week. This week it was Gloria—or had that been last month? Her name was anything that struck her fancy. And her fancy, at this moment, was not Annette.
Slinging the straps of the stilettos together in one hand, she took off running. In her mind’s eye, she ran like a gazelle. Truthfully, she staggered around like a mortally wounded hippopotamus. But it was enough to outrun the man, and he stopped, shouting after her (“Annette! Annette, stop!”) for a long time before jumping back into the van and giving chase.
He came around the corner a second before she went around another, and when he saw her he gunned the engine and the van lurched forward like a torpedo. But she was fleet-footed, and dodged between two buildings where the van couldn’t go. Down the alley, and then down another, and she lost her pursuit. She came to rest in the recessed doorway of an old, abandoned brick church, and she sank gratefully into the shadows, out of sight from passersby. The alcove smelled of stale beer, cheap wine and wino piss, but she didn’t mind; she’d smelled worse. One month this last winter she’d slept in a sheltered Dumpster, finding warmth amongst the flattened boxes and piles of garbage sacks. She’d carried the scent of rotting vegetables for days afterward.
But she’d lived. She was fifteen, maybe sixteen; she couldn’t remember now. Life had rolled over her and left her used beyond her years, a bit tattered. Her memory was the worst of the casualties of the chemical war she’d waged on herself. Yet her life of quiet desperation mattered to her, if not to anyone else. She’d lived, and she wanted to go on living, and no psycho in a minivan was going to take that from her.
So she pressed herself farther into the shadows as footfalls came around the building. Not her pursuer, she was certain. He always drove. He’d only gotten out of the van, like today, on a handful of occasions. But she didn’t want anyone else bothering her, either. She willed her racing heart to slow, willed herself invisible to prying eyes. It was so easy to go unnoticed in this street life. No one wanted to see, because no one wanted to take action. Seeing might mean caring, caring would mean helping, and no one wanted to spend the time.
A shadow came between her and the sun. A figure was stooping down near her. Her heart hammered at her chest, her pulse thundered in her ears. She couldn’t draw a breath to scream; she didn’t have the energy. How had he gotten so close? Had she fallen asleep?
It was too late to run. He was so near now she could smell his aftershave, something woodsy and clean and soothing. Hands were reaching for her, their roughened fingers tender on her shoulders. She remembered hands like his, tucking blankets up to her chin and smoothing her hair from her forehead after bedtime stories and prayers. The impulse to give herself up to those hands, to feel that safety and solace, was terrible and wonderful all at once.
“Annette!” he sobbed, over and over, and finally crushed her to his chest, tender and fierce, protective. “Annette, oh my God, my Annette! I’ve looked for two years. Oh my God, thank You, God!” And he kissed her sunburned, sweaty, dirt-smudged face over and over.
As she submitted to his embrace, Annette remembered huckleberry ice cream. And home.
©2007 Sharon Gerlach