Just when I was preparing to face the fact that no one in their right mind would be stopping for a hitchhiker on the shoulder of Highway 63 at a quarter past two on a December morning, a weary looking GMC Sierra, rusty and deteriorating, veered onto the road’s shoulder, its tires crunching through the deep snow as it rolled to a stop. A snowplow was fastened to its front bumper. I held a hand across my eyes, shielding them from the headlights’ blinding beams and from the wind that somehow tasted much sweeter than all the gales I’d ever tasted before—I suppose the air in and around your house loses its flavor when it’s all you’ve breathed for fourteen years. I stood like that for a few seconds, reluctant to believe this person was one of those rare things—good Samaritans, my mother called them—in this wretched world.
My doubt was misplaced. “You jumpin’ in, or what?” a kindly voice, clearly male, asked. His face was obscured by the headlights’ brilliance.
“Uh, yeah,” I muttered quietly. As I climbed into the passenger seat, I said a little louder, “Thanks.” I’d never been inside a vehicle before, at least not that I could remember. The seatbelt was a peculiar little mystery, but I figured it out.
“Not a problem. Here, let me throw that bag in the backseat, give you more room.”
My chauffeur, despite his meticulously trimmed beard, didn’t appear much older than my fourteen-year-old self. He had a baby face with big, round, amiable eyes, brown gossamer hair, and a general character that told me I could trust him. He wore a black t-shirt and jeans; no need for a jacket when your truck has A/C and heating.
“So, where’re you headed?” he asked once I had buckled my seatbelt. The seats, though well-worn, were remarkably comfortable.
I shrugged. “I, uh… I hadn’t really thought about that.”
He laughed, and I relaxed a little. “Not a lot of people stopping for hitchhikers these days, are there?”
“No, sir. My parents used to say it’s too dangerous, which I guess is true; you never know what kind of person you’re picking up.” I was a stranger to life on the road, but I found it easy to feint some knowledge.
“Yeah, well, you don’t strike me as one of the bad ones. Do those parents of yours know where you are?”
I shook my head, feeling the smile fade from my lips like the flakes of paint on this man’s truck. “No; they’re the reason I’m here.” Even as the words spilled from my mouth, I realized this unrestrained truthfulness might have been a lapse in my judgement; this bearded man seemed like a righteous fellow (God-fearing, my father would have said), and it wouldn’t surprise me if he decided to either take me home or straight to the police station. Of course, he didn’t know home was but a mile down the road in the direction he had come from, but still.
“The reason you’re here?” That’s all he said for a while. He put the truck into gear and climbed back onto the road. “If you don’t mind me asking, what’d they do to chase you away?”
My mouth settled into a grim line. I knew I had set myself up for this question, but I had no way of answering it. “Just… just some stuff,” I said.
The man raised a conciliatory hand. “Hey, you don’t want to answer, I won’t press.”
I felt my bottom lip begin to quiver, and I was suddenly grateful for the darkness.
“Hey, you okay?” the man asked when we reached the intersection at the highway’s end, the first sign of city-life.
I realized I had been crying, the sound of my sorrow drowned out by the truck’s rumbling engine. Now, at our first stop, my sniffling was distinct. I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“You okay, kid?”
I couldn’t bring myself to answer him. I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the window, covering my face with one arm. I felt the truck turn left and jerk to a halt. The blackness behind my eyelids turned to a purply-red. The man returned his tentative hand to my shoulder and my eyes cracked open. We were in the Blue Store’s—the highway’s gas station, ice-cream shop, and antique shop all in one—parking lot, parked directly beneath its singular streetlamp.
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “It’s just…”
“It’s quite alright, kid. It’s quite alright. Don’t be apologizing to me—here ya go.” He handed me a cardboard box of tissues, which I gratefully accepted.
I cried some more, holding a wad of Kleenex to my flowing nose. My face was flushed with embarrassment, but when I snuck a peak at the man, he was staring out his window, the back of his head to me. His long, unkempt brown hair was slick with sweat, and a mess compared to his beard.
“Thank you,” I said once my emotions were in check. I handed the Kleenex to him, and he set it on the dashboard.
“Not a problem.” He spoke gruffly, but his voice was that of a younger man, as if his vocal cords had not followed the rest of him into adulthood. “So,” he said after some minutes of silence, “any idea where we’re headed yet?”
“Anywhere,” I said with a final sniff.
He nodded slowly, lips pursed. “Okay. And…”
“I know you’re not too compelled to explain your… predicament, we’ll call it, but I’d sure like to know what’s going on, or at least a little of it. Might help me help you, if you see what I mean.”
“I do know what you mean, but… I just… aw, man, I don’t even know where to start.” The vase, said a voice in my head. The vase is where it all went wrong.
“Well, let’s start with your parents. Were they… were they good to you?” The man scoffed at himself. “Gosh, I suppose that’s a stupid question; if they had been good to you, you wouldn’t be here, right?”
I nodded, having a little chuckle myself. “No, I guess not.”
“Right.” He peered expectantly at me. His eyes were wide and wet, but not sad.
“So… I’ve had what some might call a unique childhood. Where you picked me up… we were maybe five minutes from my house, but that’s the farthest I’ve ever been from home.”
The man’s brow furrowed, forging deep crevices into his forehead. “How old are you?”
His eyes narrowed, and the ravines running between his temples deepened. “Now, what’s a boy been doing locked up at home for fourteen years?”
“Same things as any other kid—studying, doing schoolwork, exercising when I can—only I’ve never left the house to do any of it. My parents have always brought my work to me, and I do it in the basement.”
“And… and have you been outside?”
“Yes, of course—never very far, though. My parents own fifty acres of the forest behind our house, and I’ve explored plenty of that, but… but they’ve never let me past our property lines.” I was pleasantly surprised at the steadiness in my voice; my sorrow had come and gone, replaced by some sort of beautiful clarity.
I shrugged. “Couldn’t tell you.”
We both fell silent beneath the streetlamp’s yellow glare, him with his analytical eyes which had grown even wider and the restless grooves in his forehead, and I with my honest lack of answers as to why I had been forced to remain a prisoner all my life. I could tell he was sampling the look in my eyes, perhaps to see if I was lying.
Finally, he scoffed in amazement and remarked, “That’s crazy.”
I laughed in spite of myself; I laughed because he was right. And then, I stumbled upon the answer. “I… I guess they did it because they love me, but…”
“But not in a good way, not a good kind of love.”
The man averted his eyes, shifting his gaze to the faded GMC logo on the steering wheel. I had been finding him easy to speak to, and his sudden uneasiness made me feel something like guilt.
“As in…?” he trailed off, keeping his eyes trained on the wheel as if we were still moving; his hands gripped it tightly.
“As in they… oh, God, this is hard to say.”
“I think I’ve got it.”
I pressed my lips together and nodded, feeling extraordinarily awkward. The man—Josh, he later introduced himself as—parted his lips, closed them, opened them again, and sealed them.
“I’m sorry, I can just… you know,” I said, opening my door. A bitter breeze nipped at my exposed skin, stinging my cheeks; it no longer tasted sweet.
“No, no, close that door,” Josh said without turning from the steering wheel. “I’m not leaving you here just because you had a rough childhood. Come on, now. I’m the one who should be sorry for reacting like that, but I’ve never really dealt with anything like this.”
I swung the door shut, relieved; I had been prepared to set out into the cold night, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to.
“Geeze, man, that’s… that’s some tough shit.”
I nodded again, still scrounging for the right words. “They’re pretty unstable people, as you can probably imagine,” I said with a humourless chuckle. “I… I think I pushed them over the edge. It’s partly my fault this happened in the first place.”
Josh finally met my eyes again. “It doesn’t sound to me like any of this is your fault. It sounds to me like you have—no offence—some seriously sick parents.”
I grinned, but there were no laughs left in me. “Well, I do, but they never showed what I guess you could call their true selves until recently… it’s like they kept their real feelings hidden until I got angry at them. Two days ago, I went a little way past our property line, just to watch the semitrucks go by. When my dad came home from work, or whatever he was doing—I’ve never asked what he does or where he goes—he saw my footprints and got super pissed at me.” I felt my throat begin to swell again; Josh handed me the Kleenex box. “Thanks. Anyway, he came downstairs and started yelling at me, louder than he’d ever yelled before. I got scared, and he used to tell me fear has a strange way of fading into anger, and so I started yelling back at him. He tried to grab me, and I tossed a vase of African violets at him. They’ve always been his favorite flowers, and after that vase broke… it’s like something in him broke, too. Like the wall that was holding back the monster in him, and he… he…”
“The wall crumbled,” Josh finished.
“Yes,” I uttered, jamming a tissue against my face to stifle a sob.
Josh embarked on another silent journey into his consciousness, his eyes settling back on the steering wheel. The currents of hot air flowing from the truck’s vents now sounded like a hurricane. I fidgeted in my seat, wiping at my nose with Kleenexes, glancing restlessly from the windshield to my window and back again.
“Well, my name’s Josh,” Josh said at last, shaking his head as if waking from an outlandish dream. He met my gaze and held out a hand.
Shaking it, I said, “Charlie.”
“Charlie. Good to meet you.” I was relieved to see the amused grin on his face.
“Good to meet you, too.”
“Well, Charlie, I don’t think any of this is your fault. There’s something I used to hear a lot… I think it went something like ‘it is a man's own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.’ My cousin used to say that; he’s a writer, big on quotes and stuff like that.”
“That’s Gautama Buddha’s quote,” I said. “My dad would’ve liked your cousin; he was always adamant about me keeping up with my reading habits and all that garbage.”
Josh snorted. “Garbage is the word I’d use for it, too.”
“Hey, as long as you can speak the language, right?”
“Exactly.” Josh looked at me with genuine compassion in his eyes (not the false stuff that sullied my father’s irises) and I felt a pleasant warmth seeping into my stomach. “So, a kid who’s been locked up all his life doesn’t have many places to go, eh?”
“Nope, none that I can think of.”
“You don’t have any other family that’ll take you in?”
I shook my head, feeling my stomach turn cold again. “My parents never talked about any of our family members, and I never bothered asking.”
I thought Josh was about to slip into another of his quiet thinking-periods, but he only nodded his head twice at the wheel before looking back at me. “Well, how’d you like spending the night at my place?” he asked, then assured me he wasn’t one of the sketchy drivers, just as I wasn’t one of the sketchy hitchhikers.
“Yeah, okay, as long as you don’t mind.”
“Hey, no wife yet, no kids—just me, and you don’t seem like much trouble.”
“Thank you, Josh. This really means a lot.”
“Don’t mention it—and don’t huck any vases at me.”
Josh lived in a beautiful yet humble house on Birch Street, all the way across the city from Highway 63’s lonely extents. It was constructed of red bricks with a roof buried under several feet of snow. The windows were all dark.
“Home, sweet home,” Josh said as he turned the key and pulled it from the ignition, letting the engine die with one final grumble.
“For now,” I snickered.
“Yes, for now. Do you mind grabbing my coat from the backseat?”
“Sure,” I obliged, figuring it was the least I could do.
Birch Street was a quiet little road—at two in the morning, anyway. Not one window that I could see had a glow in it, and the only sound to be heard was the scraping of winter’s bare branches in the mellow breeze coming in from the lake.
Inside, I was greeted by a frail golden retriever who looked to be on his last legs. His elderly eyes were tired and cloudy, his nose bone-dry. His fur was soft and silky, though, and he smelt well enough. He prodded fervently at me, nudging my hands with his face.
“That’s Bentley,” Josh said, unfastening his steel toed boots. “He does that when he wants to be pet.”
“Hi, Bentley.” I rubbed his ears with true affection, realizing for the first time how much I loved dogs. His pestering turned to a series of satisfied grunts, and he leaned his head against my leg.
“Were your parents dog people?”
“No, we never had one.”
“Ah, same with me. Bentley used to be my grandparents’—this house was theirs, actually. I bought it from them just a few years ago, before they passed.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. They lived good lives, died quick deaths. Bentley’s getting ready to join them, I’m afraid.”
“How old is he?”
“Um… I think he’s around fourteen now.”
“Fourteen? Holy cow, that’s pretty old for a dog.”
“Oh, yeah, he’s a stubborn one; been fighting old age for years.”
The house was peaceful and had an archaic feel. An old painting of a twilit street hung to my left as we approached a short staircase that led to the kitchen and dining room. A chandelier dangled above the table—nothing fancy, just a few glass crystals.
“You can stay in the guest-room,” Josh said, gesturing to another much taller staircase. “I haven’t had anyone here in a while, so it’s nice and clean.”
At the top of these stairs, sitting against the banister, was a metal sewing machine that must’ve been made decades ago. It had a foot pedal on the bottom, which turned a big round wheel in order to… well, to sew, I assumed.
“Was this your grandma’s, too?” I asked Josh.
“Yep. I never asked where they got it, but they’ve had it for as long as I can remember.”
The guest bedroom was luxurious in comparison to the dank basement I’d spent my fourteen years of life in. The light, for one, was much brighter and didn’t flicker. The walls also had not only drywall, but paint. There was a massive window looking out on Birch Street, and two miniature canvases hung on opposite walls, one reading stay calm and dream on, the other telling me to relax, you’ve earned it.
I smirked. “Yeah, I guess I have.”
“Well, I’m exhausted,” said Josh, poking his head through the door. “If you’re hungry at all, help yourself to whatever’s in the kitchen and please, please don’t let me be wrong about you. I’ve worked hard for this house, and I’d hate to have anything missing when I wake up in the morning.”
I assured him I wouldn’t be stealing anything other than his food, and he bid me goodnight before closing the door again.
With a heavy sigh, I dropped my single backpack on the floor and collapsed on the bed, which sank beneath me as if it were trying to swallow me whole. I could get used to this, I thought.
Of course, I knew I wouldn’t be staying here forever—probably not, at least—but for the moment, I was content. I lay on my backside, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the soft, gentle humming within the walls, and eventually fell asleep with the light still on, anticipating the new chapter I had just entered in my life.
It was titled Freedom.