Chapter Eleven: Isabelle
A few days after the incident with Alice and Ryan, I decided that I couldn’t stay in Albuquerque anymore. Lance begged to leave with me, but I knew I had to go on my own. I had tried to find somewhere I belonged—where disaster couldn’t follow me—and failed. It was time I stopped looking and made something for myself. I had been right to leave Dane out of it.
I went with Lance down to the local used car junkyard and managed to find an old, beat up 1990 Toyota Tercel in a sickly green for $300. I beamed with pride as the bored pot-bellied yard owner handed me the keys and waved me away with a lazy flick of his wrist.
I jumped up and down excitedly, stopping when I noticed the miserable look on Lance’s face. “Oh, Lancelot,” I hushed, wrapping him in a hug. “I’ll see you again one day. We’ll keep in touch, I promise.” I drove him back to his suburban-box home and stepped out of the car after him, for one last goodbye.
He sighed defeatedly and held me away from him by the shoulders, forcing me to look him in the eyes. “Please don’t leave me, girl. I need you here.”
I shook my head. “Until we meet again.” We hugged for a long time. When he finally let me go, I threw my bag in the Tercel’s passenger seat—the bag that I had found carelessly thrown on Alice’s front lawn, its contents spilling out around it, tossed aside as I had been—and blew Lance a kiss, speeding away, the thrill of excitement and terror crashing over my body. I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go but I decided to start by seeing the west coast.
I stopped for gas at the edge of Albuquerque, feeling the excitement starting to slip, questioning myself as the gas glugged its way into the Tercel. Through the driver’s side window, I noticed the corner of my well-worn copy of “Passion in the Wind” sticking out of a tear in my bag. I slammed the gas pump back in its hold, a powerful mix of rage and frustration boiling in my throat, and ripped the book from my bag, tossing it in the pump-side trash can. A sudden realization of my naiveté hit me and I jumped back in the car, feeling embarrassed for what I had allowed myself to believe about love and friendship and family.
I sped away from Albuquerque, my mind filling with the memory of Ryan thinking he could have his way with me in the back seat of his car, and of all the others—Sam, Randy, Phil—who had thought I could be taken for granted, taken advantage of so easily. And I had—so easily, so naively— been misused and disregarded. Had I let that happen? My face burned with embarrassment.
I considered stopping to see the Grand Canyon as I sped through Arizona, but just the thought of being there made me feel small and unimportant, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I drove without stopping, away from everything and everyone, until I entered the city limits of San Diego. After a full day of driving, exhaustion threatened to take the wheel from me, and I pulled over to a deserted parking lot off the highway and climbed into the backseat, falling asleep quickly, despite the evening chill.
I was awakened by a sharp tapping at my window and jumped up in terror, hitting my head on the car ceiling. The sun was uncomfortably bright, shining through the windows and directly into my eyes. The tapping sounded again and I looked around wildly, shielding my eyes from the sun, until they came to rest on the figure of a man in a blue uniform, motioning for me to get out of the car.
I opened the door and squinted at him, steadying my tired legs. He was tall, I had to look up to see his face.
He looked down at me through dark sunglasses. “Miss, what are you doing here?”
I looked at myself and then around me, forgetting for a minute where I was. “I, uh…”
“You can’t sleep here, miss. You understand?”
I nodded fervently. “Yes, uh, sorry, officer, I was tired and didn’t want to crash my car, so…”
He nodded and surveyed me methodically. “You’re not from here, are you?” He looked inside the car and eyed my one beat up bag.
I shook my head. “No, sir.”
He sighed. “Okay, just be on your way now, and don’t let me catch you again, ya hear?”
I nodded and with one last look at me he headed back to his squad car. I breathed out a sigh of relief and sank into the driver’s seat, considering what to do next.
I followed the highway and found myself on the beach. It was mostly deserted and the breeze from the sea sent pleasurable chills down my spine as I settled into the sand. I tried to superficially enjoy the moment but it didn’t take long before thoughts of Dane hijacked my mind, the scents and sounds of the beach ringing too familiar for comfort. The thoughts were happy at first, memories of living in the little green house with him, and the first time he told me he loved me.
But soon, a dark cloud passed overhead, taking my mood with it, an uncomfortable chill causing the hairs all over my body to stand on end. Quickly, reality crashed down and I remembered all Dane had done for me and how I’d repaid him. I’d left him, alone in South Carolina, because I wanted to protect him? Because I needed family? He was my family, more so than psychotic Alice or her spawn Ryan ever could be. I’d hurt him and taken him for granted, and for what? I missed him more than I wanted to.
I picked up a handful of sand and threw it aggressively at a seagull that had landed in front of me. It squawked and flew away, swerving too close to my head.
Tears dripped down my face and I pulled my knees up to my chest, burying my face in them. “You’re such an asshole,” I whispered.
When the tears finally slowed, I looked at my phone and considered calling him, just to hear his voice, but decided against it, thinking he would want nothing to do with me now. I hadn’t spoken to him in over a month, surely, he’d given up on me. I shook the thoughts from my mind and curled up into a ball, letting myself sink into a tear-induced slumber.
I awoke abruptly from a nightmare, sitting up so fast my head spun. It was the same nightmare I’d had at the Flower Garden, just after Kay died. A sob caught in my throat as I realized I was alone, still on the beach, the sun slowly beginning to make its descent into evening.
In the dream, I was running down the hospital hallway, Kay waiting in her room. Running, running, running, but the hallway never seemed to end and I kept going around and around in circles. Until, abruptly, the sound of machines beeping and Kay’s strangled voice calling for me filled the halls, vibrating loudly in my skull. Overwhelming terror gripped my body and I stopped running, unable to move, feeling Kay’s life slip through my fingers. That’s when I woke up, screaming for Kay.
I hadn’t had the nightmare for months, not since Violet had talked to me about making myself feel okay. Why was it coming back now? I picked myself up off the beach and headed back to my car, my head throbbing and stomach growling incessantly. I just need some food, I assured myself. I drove to the nearest value mart and got a couple of sandwiches and a large bottle of malt liquor. I sat in the car, drinking myself into a stupor, staring out into the trees that lined the store building and feeling incredibly alone. I convinced myself that that’s the way it should be, to avoid trapping others in my web of disaster.
I hadn’t realized I’d fallen asleep until the sound of shopping carts banging together startled me awake. The store was closing, and the parking lot was empty except for me. Darkness was beginning to settle in on the horizon, and I realized I had to find somewhere to spend the night. I only had about half of Kay’s money left—thanks to Alice and Ryan—and didn’t think spending any of it on a hotel was worth it. I had no plan and didn’t want to risk running out of money before I could come up with one.
I decided to drive on the interstate and stop at the first campground I could find. One came quickly, and I pulled into the grounds, hoping I could simply drive in without drawing attention. As luck would have it, the attendant at the gate was fast asleep in his booth and if I kept the engine in neutral I could skirt by without making enough noise to wake him. I drove through with my lights off and found a small empty campsite, parking and climbing into the backseat, settling down for another night. I searched under the front seat until I found my bottle of liquor and downed the rest of it, waiting for the sweet warmth to send me off to sleep.
I awoke just before the sun, and despite the tiredness that pulled heavily at my eyes, I knew I couldn’t risk staying in the campsite any longer. I raced out of the wooded campground and onto the highway, stopping at a gas station after a few hours, to clean myself up in the small, grimy bathroom and restock my food supply.
The cashier looked at me strangely as he rang up my items. “’Dem devil winds are blowing through, you feel that, girl?”
I ignored him, handing him a few crumpled bills.
“Do you feel that strange desire boilin’ in your blood?” He grinned at me with tobacco stained teeth.
As if on cue, the door blew open and a strong gust of wind made me stagger backwards, a sharp chill running down my spine. I widened my eyes at the cashier and grabbed my items, running quickly back to my car.
I remembered hearing about those “devil winds” before. The Santa Ana winds. Supposedly, they wreak havoc every year on Southern California and make people do strange things in their wake. I shook my head at myself as my breathing returned to normal. It’s an urban legend.
I continued on my way, until the winds became too strong to drive through, the car lurching dangerously to the edge of the road. I pulled over to a rest stop and decided to wait them out. At that rate, I was never going to make it out of California.
I sat silently in my car, watching the trees bend at the mercy of the winds, garbage cans flying wildly across the highway. The rest stop began to fill up as more and more people followed my lead and decided to wait it out. My hand moved, as if on its own, towards my phone and began dialing Dane’s number. In a panic, I quickly hung up before it rang and dialed Lance’s number instead. I shook my hand, staring at it incredulously.
“Isa!” he shouted into the phone, picking up on the second ring.
“Hey, Lancelot. How are things?”
He sighed heavily. “Girl, I hope you’re calling to say you’ve changed your mind and are coming back to get me, ’cause fuck, I am bored out of my mind.”
I smiled. “As tempting as that is, I told you—.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll bring bad luck and misfortune unto my home and family, yadda, yadda, yadda. You’re ridiculous, you know that?”
I laughed. “I know…I’m starting to think this self-discovery-road-trip-bullshit was a stupid fucking idea.”
“Yeah, maybe. How is it, anyway? Where are you?”
I looked at map I had strewn carelessly across the passenger seat. “Ugh, it’s okay. I guess I forgot what it was like to be alone, you know? I feel so alone…ugh, never mind! That’s too deep. I’m leaving San Deigo, heading for Nevada now.”
“Ohhh, shit, how’s the beach? Girl, you are never alone, I’m here for you. Albeit, I’m all the fucking way in Albuttcrack, but still, I am. I heard that the Santa Ana winds are going through there now, are you caught in it?”
I scoffed. “Yeah, I’m actually sitting on the side of the road now ’cause it’s so crazy. And you know what? My fingers just randomly dialed Dane’s number before I called you, isn’t that weird? You think it’s the winds?”
He laughed. “Isabelle, that “devil winds” thing is just a myth, there’s no actual proof of it. I think it’s just you wanting to talk to Dane, honestly.”
“I much prefer the winds thing, Lance.”
“I know, Isabelle, but you can’t blame them this time.”
I sighed. “Should I call him? What if he hates my fucking guts now?”
“How could anyone hate you, you sweet, fucked up little thing?”
I didn’t respond, listening to his breath on the other end. “You’ll be okay without me for awhile?”
“I’ll make do. Just let me know where you end up, okay?”
“Okay. Bye Lance.”
“Bye, babe. Love you lots.”
“Always.” I hung up and stared at the screen, where Dane’s name sat, right under Lance’s in the call list.
I held my breath and dialed, partly praying he wouldn’t pick up. But he did.
“Hello? Isabelle?” He breathed uncertainly into the phone.
“Isabelle. Where are you, are you okay?”
I sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“What?” He sounded scared. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing, nothing. I’m just…I’m sorry I left you, but also glad I did because everything is just a fucking pile of shit, and at least you’re not in the middle of it.”
“Oh, Isa, what happened?” I described for him the events of the past few weeks. He sighed heavily. “Baby, I’m sorry it’s all fucked up. Are you ready to come home yet?” he pleaded.
I looked at my reflection in the rear-view mirror. “Not yet. I want to. I miss you, but I just need to figure this out, find a way to disaster-proof myself before coming back to you.”
“Isa…if anything, the disaster is not being with you right now.”
Tears flooded my eyes and I cleared my throat. I wanted nothing more in that moment than to jump on a plane and go to wherever he was. “I’ll talk to you later, okay, Dane? I love you.”
“You too, sweetie. Come back soon.”
I lost track of the time I spent, searching for myself, on the open road, going state to state. I spent the nights hiding in my car in abandoned parking lots or sneaking into campgrounds, each time the fear of getting caught lessening. I developed a system of survival, and by the time I had made it to Omaha, I had gotten into a rhythm. Some days, I would sneak into tourist sights with a group of sightseers and marvel at the wonders with them. Sometimes I would just drive, heading east, to the opposite coast. I didn’t stay anywhere for too long, nor did I try to make friends.
I hadn’t entirely intended to go back to Detroit. Although I missed it, I wasn’t sure there was anything left for me there. That was, until I met a small, elderly Kenyan woman named Aluna on a guided tour of the Indian Cave State Park in Nebraska. She reminded me of Elaine, her warm, honest face compelling me to share my life story with her. I hung back with her as she struggled to climb the steep hills and she encouraged me to talk, to distract her from the pain in her aching legs.
“Tell me your story, young thing. Go.” She flicked her wrinkled hand in my direction and I started talking, as if on command, bringing her up to speed on my life until that moment. She nodded along with me, until we reached the top of a hill, and I stopped to stare out into the vast green landscape of the park. I realized, suddenly, that had been the first time that I told my story without feeling the guilt and anguish and terror I had felt until then. This time, I felt nothing.
I spun around and smiled at Aluna. She stumbled back in shock and I grabbed her fragile hips, pulling her along with me to the next hill.
“What are ya smiling for?” she huffed as we walked.
I shook my head, looking around in wonder. Maybe, something had been accomplished on that long and lonely road trip after all.
The tour ended and I sadly said goodbye to Aluna, giving her a gentle hug.
“Thank you dear,” she said softly. “Have a good time in Detroit.”
I frowned at her. “What do you mean, Aluna?”
She smiled, showing off her multiple missing teeth. “Yes, dear, it’s clear that’s where you are meant to be.” She winked slowly at me and shuffled off to join the rest of her group.
I watched her go, stunned. But then I knew for sure, that yes, the change—the peace—I felt meant it was finally time for me to go home.
Just as I pulled into a rest stop inside the border of Illinois, my phone rang, the shrillness making me jump. I stopped the car and fumbled in my bag for it, pleasantly surprised to see Dane’s name on the caller ID. After I had called him during the Santa Ana winds, we had talked several times, briefly, to ensure the other was still alive. He understood my need for aloneness, and had only once been the one to instigate the call. This was the second time, and I wondered if he could sense that I was headed home.
“Isabelle, baby,” he said through a smile when I picked up.
“Dane, how are you?”
“There’s something I wanna tell you,” he quickly replied, skipping the pleasantries.
“Okay, what is it?”
“I’m back in Detroit.” He chuckled when I didn’t respond. Detroit? How could he be? Could he possibly know that I was heading back there myself?
“Really?” I asked, flabbergasted.
“Yes, baby, really. It’s been long enough. And you are where…?”
“Dane, this is crazy…I’m heading back to Detroit too.”
He paused and we both burst into laughter. “Disaster has been averted, Isabelle.”
I sighed happily. “I’ll be home in a few days.” I smiled widely, knowing the time had finally come.
“I can’t wait.” We said our goodbyes, promising more in person, very soon.
As the days passed and I got closer and closer to Detroit, I felt my excitement start to ebb. The drive felt painfully slow, but too fast at the same time. Was I ready? As I raced through Michigan, I had to stop on the side of the road several times to breathe. The car was becoming too small, the motion making me sick.
About the third time I stopped, two or three hours outside the city, I had to ask myself the truth: do you really want to go back? I calmed myself and nodded at my reflection in the rear-view mirror. I have to. I need to. Yes, I want to. It’s time.
I pulled into the Detroit city limits and followed the directions Dane had given me. When I arrived, I closed my eyes and counted to ten before getting out and following the neatly marked pathway through the iron gate and over to the row where she now rested, forever. Kay’s gravestone was plain and grey, a terrible attempt to remember the most vibrant woman that ever lived. But, it was all that the state would pay for, and she had no other family that was willing or cared. My eyes filled with tears as I remembered the last time I had ever seen her.
I put the handful of dried purple flowers that Kay had given me for my birthday on the base of the stone and sat down in front of it. The inscription read:
“The Most Beloved Anna-Kay
Rest in Peace
It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was enough. I sat there, until I felt like my tears were growing stale. Everything that Kay had ever said to me, where her death had led me, flashed before my eyes. Despite it all, Kay was my mother, and she had done the best she could. And now I would do the same.
I sighed shakily and traced the imprinted words of her headstone with my fingers. “I have to do this on my own,” I whispered. The sound of footsteps behind me made me turn.
“Isa?” It was Dane, surprise encompassing his face. I hadn’t told him I had arrived yet, but he had somehow stumbled upon me.
I jumped up and he pulled me into his arms. The familiar smell of his sun-kissed skin caused the tears to flow all over again. The ache in my heart for him was still there, if not stronger. Something was different, though, as I looked into his eyes. I smiled at the realization that it wasn’t him that had changed, but me, and for the better.
“You’re home,” he sighed, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
“I’m home.” And I knew in my heart that no matter where I was, I always would be.
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