The U.S. of After Chapter 5
My eyelids eventually parted to let me see that crazy red headed girl sittin’ in a brown leather recliner just across from me. Her fiery red hair was all tied up in a pony tail and she had on a plain denim baseball cap pulled down over the smooth, porcelain features of her face. She had some freckles on her nose that made her kinda cute to spite the fact that her soft lips were peeled back to show clenched teeth, but the expression seemed kinda forced as if she was tryin’ too hard to be mean. Her thin eyebrows angled down in the middle over green eyes that were squintin’ at me all hateful. Even though she was tryin’ her best to put on an angry face, I didn’t plan on testin’ her bluff.
It hurt to laugh, so I didn’t.
Of course I was seein’ all this in a sort of sideways view because I was layin’ down on a couch, my head hurtin’ somethin’ awful. I couldn’t move. She’d tied me up with somethin’ I slowly realized was duct tape because the sticky part was pullin’ on some of my arm hairs. She’d stuffed somethin’ in my mouth and I hoped it was clean. I couldn’t get that out either. She picked up a scratched, red aluminum baseball bat and cradled it in her arms like some kinda weird baby and then she started in on me with her words. I was just thankful she didn’t use the bat.
“You think you can just break into someone’s house and not get the crud kicked out of you?”
“Mhfffmmm,” I replied.
She stood up quickly with smooth mechanical motions and I noticed that she had changed into some jeans but was still barefoot. If I was to get away I could prolly outrun her if I got off into the woods, but I pretty much considered that a lost cause. She held the bat in one hand and reached out to pull the duct tape away from my mouth quick but it tore at the patchy stubble I had managed to grow.
“Yaaoowww!” I groaned after spittin’ the small wad of cloth out of my mouth. I hoped it wasn’t used to clean somethin’ even though it tasted a little like Pine-sol smells, kinda bitter and mediciny. An image of a toilet popped into my head and I winced.
She jumped right back into the recliner and pulled her feet up in the seat, her bony knees up near her face. She held the bat out in front of her as if I had the ability to break my bonds and come after her. I tell you if I could get out of that, then makin’ any threatenin’ moves toward that crazy chick would be the last thought on my mind.
“Ok,” she said finally after a short pause. “If, and I mean if you can convince me that you are not like some of those other people, I might just drag you outside and cut you free. But you better start talking. If I don’t think you are telling the truth, I swear I’ll beat you within an inch of your life.”
She seemed really calm about tellin’ me this, even though her voice was kinda vibratin’ funny, but I could sorta tell that she didn’t have a clue what to do with me. I figured she hadn’t really thought out what she was goin’ to do if and when she decided to cut me free. I didn’t think she would cut me free anyway. I think she had gotten herself in a bind by bringin’ me inside.
“Look,” I said, trying to sound as calm as I could but with my voice shakin’ kinda like hers. “I don’t mean you any harm. I was just lookin’ for food like anyone else. You let me go and I promise I’ll be on my way, no questions asked.”
Right then was when things changed for the weird. Her little mouth kinda opened a bit and then her eyes widened out . She took in a breath of air. She put her feet down on the floor in slow motion and leaned forward.
“Clayton…uh, Clayton…” she gasped.
“Clayton Delroy,” I replied. “Am I supposed to know you?”
“Oh my goodness… Clayton..uh.. Delroy?” she grinned pretty big now, and I could see how contagious her smile was and the dirt and grime no longer hid who she was from me.
“Dang,” I mumbled, as the memories of her face in the hallway at school came stumblin’ back into my mind. “Amy…Lawrence, right?”
She immediately pulled out a knife and I jumped a bit until she started cuttin’ the duct tape off of my feet and hands. She didn’t slip at all, and made quick work of it until I was sittin’ up next to her and she had me in a really uncomfortable but tight warm hug.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I just didn’t recognize you at all, what with the beard… sorry about the tape…and the vicious beating. Things have been rough, you know?”
I sat silent for a while, holdin’ the bandage on my head, and I listened to her talk about her Dad goin’ off on his forever trip, her food runnin’ out, her problems and her life in general. I only really knew Amy from high school at Little Axe and that was at a distance. It had been a couple of years since graduation on the football field with it threatenin’ rain. I sat quietly beside her as she chattered away not because of bein’ unable to talk to her, but because when we were in high school the only word she ever said to me was “excuse me” as she pushed on past in the crowded hallway. I didn’t really run in her social circle, if you get what I’m sayin’. She just sat there by me blatherin’ on about her whole experience and then that turned into her boohooin’ a bit once in a while until finally she just broke down and put both arms around me and held me close while I sat with my hands firmly planted on my knees. I patted her shoulder once in a while just so she didn’t think I was rude. She and her friends said and did some mean stuff to me in high school and even though I was all about helpin’ the needy, and the world had definitely ended, she didn’t really fit in my grand plan to get back to someplace normal.
Finally, I had to say somethin’.
“Yeah. I’m sorry about all that stuff happenin’ to ya,” I managed. “Things are kinda ugly and downright awful.”
She let me go and brushed the tears away from her eyes. It smeared some of the grime on her face and made her resemble some silly clown, but I didn’t say anythin’ about it. I mean, I don’t want to get into the balance of tellin’ a girl she looks funny, ‘cause if you tell her then she goes all self conscious on you and then is mad at you. Then if you don’t tell her she’ll look in a mirror later and is mad at you anyway. Either way, I figured I was done for in that area.
She sighed a little and smiled at me. I could see why them guys at school always fawned over her. She had a pretty smile, kinda like my Mom’s.
“I… I’m sorry about all the duct tape and stuff,” she said finally, quietly. “Things around here have just been kinda crazy and I’m all out of food, not to mention no water and no way to… Well I’d like to have a shower, y’know?”
“I just don’t think about it,” I laughed nervously, hoping I wasn’t lookin’ all troll-face. “I don’t even notice the smell anymore. Must be like it was back in the day before deodorant.”
“Yeah,” she smiled again, wipin’ at her wet green eyes. “I guess that’s probably how it was. How did they stand it?”
“If everybody stinks, then prolly nobody really does.”
She laughed and nodded. She had a really cute laugh, not like one of those snorty ones but one that sounded as if it belonged, somethin’ you look forward to hearin’. I just let my natural self come out, tried to dust it off from bein’ cooped up inside the hard shell I had built around it. She seemed to take to bein’ calm again pretty well, and we talked for a while until it started gettin’ to where the both of us were yawnin’ more than talkin’. Every time she’d yawn she’d smile at me, and even though she’d taken her cap off, untied her red hair and tried to smooth it down, it was all messed up still. She was still lookin’ more and more beautiful to me all the time. I didn’t tell her. I said a small prayer for her that she’d find some happiness somehow and that I’d find some, too.
Don’t get too attached, Clayton.
Soon we were thinkin’ about where to sleep and at the same time not feel all awkward toward each other. She told me I could sleep in her Dad’s old room and she would be in her room with the door locked. I figured that was prolly best and what made her feel safe. I went downstairs and made sure all the windows and doors were locked. I only had to re-lock the one I had tried to open earlier, and when I did I noticed my dried blood on the bottom of it. Man, my head hurt.
I found her Dad’s king size bed to be a welcome relief from sleepin’ on the ground. I could get used to this if I didn’t have to move on down the road the next mornin’. My stomach told me that I’d have to find some food tomorrow or it would start gnawin’ on my backbone, not to mention the dryness of my tongue clickin’ on the back of my throat. I think I was gettin’ dehydrated. I took these threats seriously, but they would have to wait ’til mornin’. I shed most of my clothin’, locked the door and I crawled into the bed (which was still made). Even though the afternoon heat was nearly unbearable, a breeze blew through the open window and the stuffiness of the room had worn off enough so that the sheets felt cool on my legs. I drifted off to sleep and tried to ignore the fact that my head was throbbin’ so. I figured I’d deal with that in the mornin’, too.