Dakota, recently 17, has runaway and is now in Orlando FL, making her way north.
On a rainy day in central Orlando a girl with tangled, mud-brown hair slipped into a nearly empty CVS. She walked with certain awareness, her blue eyes shifted back and forth uneasily.
“Ma’am?” a young clerk called to her, “can I help you find something?”
She jumped slightly at the attention called to her and shook her head fervently, hurrying along down the aisles. The clerk left his position behind the counter and followed her suspiciously, not even attempting to look casual. The girl’s jitteriness skyrocketed, she falsely admired the shelves bouncing on the balls of her feat and twisting a string in her fingers.
“Ma’am?” the clerk asked again, “are you looking for anything in particular?”
The girl swallowed hard and turned to him with faux confidence. “Um, well I-I-I was j-j-j-just looking for s-something t-t-t-to snack on, and a t-t-t-toothbrush,” she ducked her head, “I’ve lost mine. Also, a new jacket, mine’s been ripped.”
The clerk was instantly bored, figuring she was nothing more than a nervous wreck. He directed her to what to she wanted in a bored tone and then returned to his post behind the counter. The girl thanked him and hurried to the aisles he mentioned, also grabbing some extra items. After checking out, she quickly stuffed the things into her pack and she nearly ran out the door.
Three blocks down the road, the same girl blinked her eyes at a bathroom mirror, adjusting the dark green contacts. She grinned excitedly.
“Dark brown hair, correction, dark brown, curly hair and bright green eyes,” she said to her reflection, “along with complementary tan. All topped off with nearly fifteen miles between me and them. I am perfect!”
Dakota admired herself for a few more minutes before skipping out of the McDonalds bathroom and into the muggy, Florida air. The rain earlier that day, along with sleeping in a few ditches the nights before, had generously provided her the mud-tangled hair and dirt tan that disguised her. Add some faux green contacts she’d bought at CVS and she’s more than unrecognizable, she was a whole new person! This is a fairly good thing for your typical runaway.
Most kids thought of running away as an adventure, an easy thing to do for any modern teenager. Those kids were stupid. Dakota had planned her little trip for over a year, saving up for months and paying attention to roads, prices and people’s behaviors well. Not only was she the best budgeter of her age, but she was now a well practiced actress and very physically fit. To be a runaway, you can’t be squeamish, you can’t have a great love for luxuries like occasional showers and three meals a day, you have to be smart, fast and know how to take care of yourself. Most importantly, you have to be desperate. If you don’t prepare right, and don’t know how to handle the world, you’ll starve or be caught and put in JDC or even killed.
Dakota was desperate, she’d been ready to leave since she was ten, she even tried a couple times. But he always found her, she never made it far enough, never took the right precautions, he always brought her back to her personal hell he called home. Finally, one month after her sixteenth birthday, she hit the road directly after school. Dakota took a bus she knew went out of district, one of the special busses for smart kids, her friends referred to it. From there she took a public bus to Orlando and caught some Zs in a ditch below a busy highway before setting off on foot deeper into the city. She’d been careful of which day she left, summer vacation was just days away, no one would think anything of a teenager walking around on the streets. She knew just where to go, the city where no one cared about what happened to the person next to them on the bench, no one paid attention to amber alerts. They were too absorbed in themselves. Lastly, she knew how to pack. Two outfits, one to change into every other day, one for the cold weather, a jacket, a stick of deodorant, a brush, toothpaste and a toothbrush, and a bar of soap. She wasn’t about to be avoided for BO or lose a few teeth to cavities, however smart Dakota was, she liked her cleanliness whenever she could get it; even if that wasn’t often.
Now the newly transformed girl decided she could treat herself to something special. She’d been able to brush her teeth and pull her hair back as well as change into something fresh, so she felt she looked fairly normal, normal enough for a cheap patio lunch. Pondering the front of the store, she mentally counted her savings. She had a lot more than she thought she’d have, and if she was careful with it she’d still have extra for emergencies.
“You’re sixteen, a free woman, have some fun!” the tiny voice in the back of her head told her. So, with a grin and a shrug she stepped up to the host’s podium, feeling like royalty as he lead her to a table in the far corner.
The waiter introduced himself as Sterling and Dakota ordered a simple grilled cheese with fries and a glass of water. When he was gone, she stared up at the clouds thing about sterling silver. Her thoughts stole her away as she pictured fine jewelry hung on silver chains and golden pendants swaying from women’s collars as they danced to orchestra played music in a grand ballroom. It all felt so close now that she had left her putrid life behind, the first step in the right direction.
Her mother always told her she had good hold on herself and sense and to use that as her tool and weapon in life. Dakota was very young then, but her mother knew, her mother was smart. If only she’d been smart enough to take Dakota with her when she left.
Dakota could remember her strawberry blond curls and big, bright blue eyes, she could remember how her mother had held her close and how she tucked her in. But she also remembered how her mother locked the door at night, hiding the key to her room. She remembered the shouts and sounds of shattering glass when her father came home drunk, how he’d bang on Dakota’s door and her mother would plead him to stop and shout at him. She’d heard her mother be hurt and her father scream. The next night, she heard her mother whisper to her when she thought Dakota was asleep, how she told her she loved her and how brilliant and beautiful she was, how wonderful she’d be someday. Dakota lay there silent with her eyes squeezed shut, something deep inside her told her not to speak, not to move, for this was vital information. It was the last she heard of her mother.
“Miss?” Sterling said, snapping Dakota out of her reverie, “your drink is here. Sorry to disturb you, you were deep in your thoughts, weren’t you?”
She smiled slightly. “Yea, far away. Thanks.”
Sterling leaned against the table. “So are you from around here?” he asked casually.
His eyes were a bright yellow, a color she hadn’t seen before but instantly loved. “Um, sort of,” she said uncomfortably, “I’m from Apopka, here for the library. Got lost.” Dakota ducked her head slightly, looking embarrassed.
Sterling grinned at her; a dazzling lined with pearly whites that stood out brilliantly against his tan skin. “I here of people getting lost in this area quite a bit, nothing to be embarrassed about. The library is pretty sweet though, five floors I think. Have been before?”
Dakota shook her head.
“I could take you there if you like; I have lunch in about forty-five minutes if you stick around a bit after you eat. Or I could just hold your meal for a while and make sure you’re here when I get off,” he tacked on at the end, seeing the look on Dakota’s face.
She smiled this time, really smiled. She opened her mouth to politely refuse, but he cut her off before she could:
“Holding the meal it is, then?” he said with a playful grin, “a pretty girl like you shouldn’t be wandering around alone on the city streets, ‘s not safe. As a gentleman not of this generation- if you know what I mean- I refuse to leave you unescorted. So, to the library!” he spun around and headed into the restaurant the second he was finished.
Dakota could see him shaking with laughter, but she was grinning herself, speechless. This was the best day of her life. No creepy neighbors, no shouting, no Dad, no school, no ghetto neighborhood, no nothing. It was better than she thought it’d be, and now a very handsome guy was asking her out! Sleeping in ditches, walking around all muddy with uncomfortable contacts and eating scarcely was so worth this, she thought to herself, leaning back her head to soak up the sun. Soon she’d be out the city and not too long after that out of the state. He’d never take her back, he’d never hurt her again. She was free. Dakota had never felt more alive.
That is, until she heard a familiar voice say her name, sending her stomach into a fit of fiery panic.
Dakota’s head snapped painfully forward. There before her was her neighbor, and along with him was an ocean of terrible memories and feeling of terror and dread. He had a flyer, one of many posted around her neighborhood in Sanford, every around Sanford period. She could see the picture from where she sat, her face grinned back at her, pale and framed by her mother’s strawberry blonde hair, but as straight as hair gets.
The picture was a cut out of her with her friends from a party she went to a few months ago; she remembered coming home that night. How she’d dreaded it, how she wished she could run to Brittany’s house instead, run anywhere else. She remembered how her neighbor, Henry, eyed her in her party outfit. She always walked to her house, she never let her friends drop her off or pick her up in front of it. If they did, her father would freak and shout and throw things, and they’d know. It was cloudy, and half the street lamps were off, so all in all it was very dark out. Henry was in his yard, he called to her with his drunken slur. Even from with the darkness of the night and the distance between them she could see his slimy gaze slither down her, feel the burning heat of fear and panic twist inside of her. She ignored him and picked up the pace. Her father wasn’t home, no matter how much she hated that man, he was protection from Henry all the same and she felt distress coil inside her.
“Dakota, hey, I’m talking to you,” Henry slurred, slowly making his unsteady way across the street, into her path. “Don’t you know it’s rude to ignore people? You think after all these years of me telling you, it would’ve stuck.”
Dakota stared intently past him, keeping her mouth a thin line and shut.
“Guess not.” He said stiffly. He dropped his beer bottle, it shattered on the curb and alcohol soaked the grass, slowly he made his way forward, striding menacingly towards Dakota. “What’s wrong with you tonight, sweetie? You seem stiff.”
He reached out his arm to grab her and she bolted away, zigzagging down the road in the middle of the street. She knew that he would try to catch her and be thrown off when she abruptly changed direction, and with all the potholes in the street she knew he wouldn’t be standing for long. On cue, she heard a low thud and a grunt, followed by the sound of Henry scrambling to his feet and cursing to himself. Dakota got away that night, but other nights she hadn’t been as fortunate.
Now, Dakota scrambled towards the restaurant and slipped inside. No matter how different she looked with contacts and covered in mud, Henry would know it was her. He’d know by her mouth, her nose, the shape of her body and the way she’d walk. He paid attention to her more than anyone else, more than anyone should.
Inside she ran towards the back right, hoping to duck under a booth table or into the kitchen. She didn’t dare look back to see if Henry had moved on or followed her, she just ran; ran straight into a waiter carrying a tray full of drinks. Glass shattered on the floor, water, tea and soda rained onto Dakota and the waiter, making both of them shout out in surprise. Dakota’s first instinct was to apologize seven billion times and pick up the glass, but her first thought was, the dirt, the mud, my hair, my tan, MY DISGUISE!
Frantic and near tears, Dakota bolted into the bathroom and into the handicap stall. Her “tan” was washed off half of her face completely and had streaks in the other, her hair line blonde. She wiped what she could onto her hair and washed the rest of the dirt off, now pointless with a pale face. After that she changed into her clean long-sleeved shirt- wanting to as fresh as possible since she just washed up- rolled up the sleeves and marched out of the restroom, hoping it’d been long enough for Henry to have passed.
Immediately, she collided with another waiter.
“You know, I thought you would’ve actually gone with me to the library. Never did I expect for you to dump my own orders on me,” Sterling said with a wry smile.
“I’m so, so, so sorry!” Dakota begged, “I was just in a rush and I didn’t see you, and I-I-I…I’m sorry!”
Sterling laughed. “Don’t get too worked up, it’s fine. I saw you come in pretty quickly, I just thought I’d catch you and let you know I wasn’t really holding your order, but you didn’t see me and didn’t slow. Accidents happen,” he grinned wider. “Besides, now you owe me.”
“So why were you in a hurry, if you weren’t coming in to check on your food?” Sterling asked.
Dakota took a sip of her smoothie, browsing the selection of books contently, before answering. “I was trying to get away from this guy, an old neighbor. Really freaky dude, tried some stuff until my mom called the police and we finally moved away,” she lied smoothly, “I wanted to bolt before he could see me. He still scares me.”
“Oh. Sorry,” was all he said.
Dakota smiled at him. “Don’t be, you made it all better with this amazing smoothie. The honey is amazing in it.”
“Told you it would be. I used to work at Smoothie King, got to know the drink pretty well.”
Dakota grinned at him. Sterling was actually really nice, and funny, and easy to talk to. If it wasn’t for him, Dakota never would have made it to the library, considering she never planned on going. He was right, it was massive. Dakota had never seen so many books before in her life, and since she didn’t eat she had money to get a book. She didn’t know when she’d get a chance to read it, or if it’d even be too heavy to carry, but the thought was comforting. They spent an hour and a half at the library, Dakota got a small paperback and Sterling got a few CDs, and then headed back to the restaurant.
On the walk back, Dakota was extremely uneasy. Henry was in the area, and possibly her dad and who knew who else, looking for her, and half her disguise was down the drain. Sterling must have noticed her anxiety, because he suddenly, leaned down and said to Dakota in a low voice, “your safe with me, I won’t let anyone on this street hurt you. I promise.” And he slipped his hand into hers, something Dakota never expected and part of her screamed at him mentally for touching her, but she squeezed his hand, grateful for the comfort. He squeezed her hand back and smiled down at her, then continued to lead the way back to his work where Dakota spent the rest of her day, despite the travel she planned.
She sat at two person booth by the door playing solitaire by herself of a card game with one of the waiters to whom she generously offered the distraction. Sterling stopped to talk to her every time he had a second, his presence, wherever he was in the restaurant, was like someone had put a force field down between her and the rest of the world, like anyone who had her name on their lips could not walk through the doors of the restaurant. It was like nothing she’d ever felt, and she wanted to immerse herself in it for as long as she could. And none of the workers seemed to mind her presence at all, thankfully. At the dinner rush, they simply moved her behind the bar where she actually helped deliver drinks to men shouting at sports games on the TVs.
Dakota wished she could stay, wished she never had to leave the safe, watchful eyes of Sterling and his friends, but that nagging little voice in the back of her head that was always right, told her it could never last, would never last. All too soon reality was going to crash down on her. She held on to every moment with him as if for dear life, determined to remember this day more clearly than every before it.
“I…uh….” was all Dakota could manage. It never occurred to her that she would have to explain herself for this, not to someone like Sterling. She figured that if anybody were to ask her about her wandering around alone on the side of a highway, it would be a police man or her father, though they would probably around know.
Sterling raised an eyebrow at her, waiting patiently for an answer
“Well, what do you care anyway? I’ve only known you for a day after all. What I do is my business,” Dakota snapped, her hand on the door to march back out into rain and continue on her way.
“Whoa, hold on there little missy, not so fast-” Sterling put his hand on Dakota’s and pulled it away from the door, then he put the car in drive and pulled onto the highway. Dakota slumped back into her seat, crossing her arms, and tried to look angry, but really she was relieved that she didn’t have to walk all that way in the rain, and she was with Sterling again. “Why don’t you start explaining, we’ve got about twenty minutes or so until we get to my aunt’s.”
Dakota started to protest, alarmed at going to with him and missing her bus, but the look in his eyes told her she’d already lost, and they’d be sitting in silence if she wouldn’t talk. Dakota would always choose silence.
Sterling sighed loudly. Again. He’d been doing that repeatedly for about ten minutes, waiting for Dakota to tell her story. He really needed to get to know her a little better, at least by the end of the trip he’d know how stubborn she is. Currently, she was successfully ignoring him and wondering if she should hop out of the car when he stopped at a stop light, or if she should just make him drive her to the bus stop. Warm breakfast did sound nice, and in a cozy house, with Sterling. On the hand, there was the bus she needed to catch, which she’d get to by walking around in the cold, wet, dangerous city, alone.
Now Dakota sighed, catching Sterling’s attention. He seemed to get how down she was and took her hand, giving it a small, reassuring squeeze. She smiled at him, wondering how a boy like him, a stranger, could appear to care so much.
“C’mon why won’t you tell me?” he asked for the third time, “Did a boyfriend drop you off here after a fight or something?”
Dakota snorted, almost laughed.
“Or did you storm off and leave him?”
This time Dakota did laugh, Sterling grinned, proud of himself.
“Why won’t you tell me?” Sterling asked more quietly after a minute.
Dakota looked up at him, sorrow in her gaze, “I just can’t Sterling, I can’t tell you. It’s not your burden to bear.” She quoted the last bit with a small smile, quoting it from something she’d read once.
Sterling frowned, but nodded stiffly and left it at that.
Dakota decided to go with Sterling to his Aunt’s for breakfast. In the end, it wasn’t much competition. She knew she should be on her way to Tallahassee; she usually stuck to her plans much better than this, but she continued to tell herself that it was storming and it would be foolish to walk the streets in search for the right bus stop in this weather when she could be eating free food, waiting it out. After repeating this to herself a few times, she felt it was very good logic and continued to dry her hair in the powder room of Sterling’s Aunt’s grand home guilt free.
After washing up, changing her clothes and contacts and brushing her teeth, Dakota joined Sterling in the kitchen where he was making a feast of a breakfast for three. When she sat down he gave her a funny look, narrowing his eyes at her.
“What?” Dakota asked.
“Your hair…it’s blonde?”
Dakota’s cheeks warmed. “Um, yes. I, uh, died it yesterday, and washed it out just not. It was that temporary die, wanted to know how it would look,” she said stupidly.
“Huh. I like the blonde better,” he said with a smile and sat down across the table, gazing at her. “You’re beautiful.”
Dakota’s face warmed even more, she was sure it was bright red now. Luckily she was spared responding by the sound of something sizzling loudly.
“Shoot!” Sterling exclaimed, hopping out of his seat and to the stove.
“What is that delectable scent?” a voice called from the living room, Dakota looked up to see Sterling’s aunt saunter into the kitchen, wearing curlers and a bathrobe over a night gown and she wonder idly if that was how her mother sometimes looked in the morning, if she’d worn night gowns. “And who is this pretty young woman sitting at my table?” the woman continued, returning her interested gaze; Dakota quickly returned to studying her palms.
“This,” said Sterling, not turning from the stove, “is Dakota. I found her in the rain on the side of the 408.”
Aunty looked a bit alarmed at that. “Sterling?” she asked warily, glancing nervously at Dakota.
“Relax, Aunt Jen, I know her,” he reassured her, smiling at Dakota wryly.
Breakfast was like a big interview. Aunt Jen asked her question after question after question while Sterling watched from behind his fork and glass of orange juice, smiling silently to himself. She asked things like “Where are you from?”, “Do you work?”, “What school do you go to?”, “Are you religious?”, “What are your friends like?”, and “Do you have any hobbies?”None of the questions Dakota expected, like what she was doing walking on the side of the road. And Sterling was a great cook, all three had seconds and thirds, Dakota was surprised to find herself full so quickly, she couldn’t eat more if she wanted, and she really did.
After two hours of eating and talking with Aunt Jen, though, the rain lightened and Dakota knew she couldn’t wait anymore and asked Sterling to drive her to the bus stop.
“So am I going to see you again?” Sterling asked as soon as they were on the road.
Dakota looked at him, surprised.
“Come on, I’m not stupid. You’ve got something going on. You know, places to go, people to see. I get it.” He turned to her, his eyes somber. “What’s going on Dakota? I know you haven’t known me long, but I can help.”
Now she was choking back tears. What is it with him? She thought viciously, what is it with me?!
“Dakota,” he whispered, “please.”
Dakota stared straight ahead and opened her mouth to tell him some lame lie, another stupid excuse, but what came out instead was a short scream as she saw a brown van turn the corner, running the red light, and tear through the intersection, heading straight for them.