I’ve lived in a lot of shitty places.
I’ve lived in homeless shelters that smelled like dead rats and spoiled milk. I’ve lived under bridges and highways covered in thorns and intrusive ants. I’ve slept in abandoned alleyways under the thin blanket of newspapers and fast food wrappers.
But this one really takes the cake.
My gaze rakes over the crumbling cottage. One half of the roof was filled with sodden wood, and the other half had caved into the ancient building years ago.
But, I was on the run. And I already found out the hard way that living in hotels left behind a digital trace that she would be able to find me with. So I sucked in a big breath, straightened my shoulders, and shot my hand out to the door handle with a newfound sense of confidence.
Only, the rusted handle crumbled from the door the moment I put the slightest amount of pressure on it. I huffed and pushed on the door. Instead of swinging open, the thin frame fell back flat against the dusty floor. I coughed and fanned the dust from my face as I continued walking into the cabin.
The cabin was simple, with one bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen. All of the rooms shared a similar fate: soggy wood, dusty floors, an abundance of cobwebs, and questionable stains. While I could see evidence of nature making its presence known, there was next to nothing hinting at humans having ever lived here. Minus the moldy couch in the living room and a few shattered antique lanterns, of course.
After dedicating nearly an hour to inspecting the building, I finally decided to head to the hardware store only a miles off the nearest road, making it a two mile walk for me altogether. I laid down the suitcase filled to the brim with clothes and kept the black duffel bag filled with hundreds. I rifled through it, deciding that a thousand dollars would cover all of my expenses for my first trip. I stuffed the hundreds in the front pockets of my ratty jeans and began my trek back to the desolate Minnesotan town.
The moment I stepped away from the quiet woods and into civilization, my anxiety skyrocketed yet again. My thoughts were filled with the sounds of gunshots, screaming, and the words “Run, Jules.”
I wiped the sweat collecting on my brow and pushed away the dark memories.
I bought as much plywood and shingles as I could afford, ignoring the judgmental looks I got when people noticed my dirt-ridden jeans and tube tank. Since I didn’t have a car, I had to pay a little extra for their towing company to bring the supplies to my new house.
The sun was beginning to set when all of the supplies finally arrived. As the light dissipated from the sky, so did the heat. I ignored the trailing goosebumps and shivers as I set to work. I thanked my lucky stars that it was nearly a full moon, and combined with the light from the few lanterns I could save from the rummage, I was able to work perfectly fine.
I knew that only two layers of wood and shingles without any insulation would do little to solve the cold constantly seeping into the cottage, but I figured it would be a problem I could fix after I found a job tomorrow.
I originally estimated the roof would take at least a full 24 hours to fix up, but a surprising amount of the previous roofing was still good, and all I had to do was replace the cracked shingles and apply new roofing over the small area where it had previously collapsed. Within a few hours, I climbed back down and appreciated a job well done.
“That wasn’t that hard,” I scoffed. “Who says construction is a man’s job?”
Before the last word even left my mouth, an entire row of shingles slid down the side of the house and shattered against the ground. The sly grin slipped off from my cocky face and I grumbled out a string of creative expletives.
“Fuck it, I need a man,” I growled out, stomping back up to the roof with a new set of shingles to fix my mistake. I was too busy dealing with my frustration to notice the sound of movement in the nearby brush.
After another hour of re-laying loose shingles, I finally retired inside the cottage. There were only a few logs beside the fire place, so I kept the licking flames small as I prepared for bed. Bed being a bundle of sheets on the ground and a pile of old clothes as my pillow set right in front of the fire place. I laid down on the makeshift bed and closed my eyes, hoping that when I woke up again, I would have enough energy to face my busy day tomorrow.
I woke up sweating in the middle of the night. Despite the fire in the fireplace being replaced with nothing more than ashes and soot, I could feel waves of heat emanating from my back to my front. I huffed out a breath and kicked the thin cotton sheet from my body, turning around so I could give my back a break from the waves of sweat rolling off of it.
Except, the moment I turned around, my hands dug into a blanket of fur. At first my tired mind brushed it off, and my body cuddled into the comforting heat. But then I realized where I was, who I was, and what I was doing.
I gasped and sat up with wide eyes. Whatever rodent that had been warming my backside was long gone if the sound of scattering paws was anything to go by. I shivered at the idea of me unknowingly sleeping next to a raccoon or possum. Without the heat, or the fireplace, I felt another shiver wrack my form. I made a promise to chop wood and cover the empty windows first thing in the morning.
I woke up to sunlight streaming in through the empty window, nearly blinding me as I blinked my eyes open. I yawned and stretched, cracking a few bones in the process. I didn’t waste time in collecting a few bottles and a change of clothes from my suitcase before going out into the wilderness.
The morning breeze was so much warmer than the night air that I was nearly thrown for a loop. I was expecting the same harsh winter winds that had wracked me all night - not the gentle spring air that caressed me back into a state of exhaustion as I walked leisurely along a natural path.
I scoffed as a realization came to me. The one thing nature and I had in common was our bi-polar tendencies.
Finally I came to the natural spring I had first stumbled upon when traveling from town to town. I didn’t hesitate to shuck off my clothes and jump into the 6 feet of soothing water. I swam a few laps, trying to keep my feet from digging into the strange texture that was the clay flooring. I swam back to where I shucked off my clothes and collected the body wash and conditioner. I washed my hair and body thoroughly with the body wash before rinsing myself off in the waterfall. I replaced the bottle with my conditioner, letting it set in to my long, coiled auburn locks.
After I finished rinsing the conditioner out, I climbed back to the edge of the water and used my dirty clothes from the day before to dry the water off. I changed into the new clothes I had bought yesterday - black leggings and a grey hoodie with a wolf on it - grabbed the discarded clothes and bottles, and headed back to the cabin.
The walk to the spring was probably less than half a mile, so I still had plenty of energy to make due of the promises I had made to myself last night. I went to the hardware store yet again to buy panes for the windows, as well as an ax for firewood. I then jumped from store to store, requesting applications.
Everyone in town was friendly enough. I could tell that this town was mostly for old retired couples and a few weekenders who enjoy spending their vacations by the lakeside. They all seemed like mundane, simplistic people who could care less about my identity.
I loved it.
I realized it was nearing lunch time, so I walked into the cafe at the end of downtown and sat myself in the nearest window booth.
“What can I get for you today?” The boy asked. He was tall and lanky, with shaggy blonde hair and bland blue eyes. His attire was simple - just jeans and a shirt accompanied by a name tag reading Eren.
“What’s your special?” I asked, gaze barely skimming the menu. I knew the cheapest thing they offered was their 20% off special bacon and eggs.
“Crispy bacon and eggs cooked to your choosing,” he answered, bored gaze looking at me while also staring beyond me. I didn’t mind the lack of familiarity. I embraced it.
“Sounds great. Sunny side up with orange juice, please.” I ordered. He nodded, scribbled down my order on his notepad, and turned around to take more orders.
I let my gaze wander the cafe. It had a retro theme, paired with black and white tiled flooring and bright neon blue booth seats. The bar in the center of the cafe sat high with matching blue stools, and in the corner was a modernized jukebox. No one had picked any music, so the box was sifting through a random assortment of 80′s music hidden within its wide array of playlists. I was fascinated seeing the mix of the past and future come together to create something so creative - a touchscreen jukebox. I had never seen anything like it before.
The owner must be loaded.
My mind continued wandering off into thoughts about the people around this town when my plate was suddenly sat in front of me.
“Holler if you need anything,” the boy said before dissappearing yet again. I ate the meal quickly before leaving a $5 tip and getting up to pay.
“Are you new in town?” The woman at the register asked. Although everything about her screamed feminine fragility - long, cascading caramel hair, clear blue eyes, soft smiles, and deep dimples - her gaze seemed sharp and her smile just barely hid her stern expression. I nodded.
“Glad to hear it. You live near downtown?” She asked, ringing up my receipt before taking the wad of cash I handed her.
“Uh, kind of,” I answered vaguely. I lived about 4 miles down the highway and an extra mile off the road, but I wasn’t about to map out my location to a complete stranger.
“Good choice. Downtown is where all the snobs and rich folk are. Don’t be caught on the wrong side of Doltan, hun.” She handed me back my change with another small smile, but her eyes spoke an extreme volume of seriousness. I took note that her nametag read Lilly.
“Where’s the wrong side of town, exactly?” I asked, pocketing the change.
“Next to Hazelwood beach. Their houses may seem just as fine as the rest of ’em in downtown Doltan, but the people are far from kind.” Her warning sent goosebumps running along my skin and a part of me worried over whether I would have to trek another 20 miles North. I couldn’t risk going South or West.
“Not trying to scare ya, hun. They never come down here. Don’t make yourself a stranger - I love me some fresh company,” she said, patting my arm as she swung around the counter to continue waitressing. Even though she seemed far older than she looked, I couldn’t mistake the familiar motherly warmth in her eyes. I trusted her.
“Will do. Thanks for the food,” I said, shooting a wave in her direction as I began heading towards the door. I wasn’t watching where I was going, though, and I ran straight into a pair of steeled arms.
“Whoa, bessy, watch where you’re walkin’.” The guy grinned down at me. His grey eyes crinkled as he shot me a wolfish grin. He was bald with a thick beard surrounding his dimpled cheeks and exposed teeth. I ignored the fact that his canines were definitely larger than normal.
“Sorry,” I muttered, moving to leave. His grip on my arm tightened, however, and his smile suddenly turned a lot less friendly.
“What’s your name, darlin’?” He asked, his gaze skimming my body up and down. I froze on the spot as I made up a new identity. My eyes scanned the lobby and landed on the company name imprinted on the side of the jukebox.
“Juno,” I blurted out. Internally, I patronized myself. The first lesson in making new names is to adopt one that doesn’t resemble your own. I stifled down the growing panic and pulled away from him. He relented his grip.
“Well, Juno, nice to meet you. Can’t wait to see that pretty face of yours around here again.” With that, the man turned around and headed to the back of the cafe. I kept my eyes on him up until he dissappeared behind the swinging doors that read “management only.”
When he was out of sight, I forced him out of my mind and left the cafe quickly. When I saw that the sun was already beginning to set, I dreaded the hour-long walk home. I hefted the bags filled with tools and supplies and walked at a brisk speed.