No Turning Back
By Kim Flowers
Chapter One Running Away
Ash wondered what kind of punishment a seventh-grade dropout runaway would get.
She’d been on the run for two days, walking through woods and fields. Her feet and muscles ached; she told herself to stay strong and ignore the pain. She didn’t feel like a juvenile delinquent, but according to her probation officer she was. Oh well. She just wouldn’t get caught this time.
The morning was much warmer than the night had been, and she stuffed her jacket into her huge gym bag. After hours of scrambling over fallen logs and pushing through thick foliage, she reached the end of the trees she’d been walking through. Cornfields lined with tiny plants bordered both sides of a two-lane highway. Buildings and houses stood in the distance.
Ash looked at her watch. It was 3:30, so other kids would be out of school, and she needed to get a few more supplies. Her shoes squished in the damp dirt as she walked through a field toward the road.
Her heart beat faster as she approached the town. She hoped that passing cars would think her blue bag was full of homework or something. She slunk into the first convenient store she saw for toothpaste and toilet paper, avoiding eye contact with the cashier. On the way outside she glanced at a newspaper stand to see if she was really in the town she should be. She smiled at the huge print that read “Clerksville Times”. Right on schedule.
When she jogged across a busy intersection and turned down a side street, the rumble of traffic was replaced by the drone of lawnmowers. Somewhere an ice cream truck chimed. She lowered her head so that her light-brown hair covered her face as little kids zoomed past on skateboards and bikes. Ash couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have one of their happy lives.
After an hour of walking through side streets and alleys, she decided to risk walking down a main road. She needed to ditch this town. A supermarket loomed ahead with a large group of trees behind it and Ash quickened her pace, knowing she’d found her way out.
As she walked down a row of cars in the parking lot, a beat-up, tan Ford Escort rolled up beside her. The engine sputtered.
“Hey, do you need a lift?”
Ash looked out of the corner of her eye. A man with sandy hair and wrinkled clothes drove the car. His hands rested loosely on the steering wheel and looked like they were smudged with grease or ink, especially his fingernails.
“No,” she said, as her chest tightened. She walked faster, staring straight ahead.
“Come on, get in. I’ll let you drive,” he said.
“I’m not even that old,” Ash said without meaning to. She clamped her mouth shut.
“You’re tall for your age, huh?” the man asked. “I bet that means you’re more mature, too.”
Ash rolled her eyes. She sauntered a few rows over to her right, ignoring the cars and people surrounding her, and headed to the store entrance. Going inside to get this man to leave her alone would probably be worth wasting a few minutes of time.
But then the car was in front of her, turning diagonally in the parking lane until the man stared her in the face with narrowed eyes. Ash froze.
“It’ll be a lot easier for you if you just get in the car,” he said. “No one will believe you when I throw you in the back and say you’re my runaway daughter, Freckles.”
A jolt of fear coursed through her for the first time. She squeezed between two vans and sprinted past the remaining rows of vehicles, gripping her bag with both hands. She circled the building and ran past dumpsters and through a smaller parking lot in back. The woods were just a few steps away.
Then she heard the man curse and she was on the ground, her cheek skidding across pavement, caught by her left ankle. Her bag flew into the grass; she clawed at it desperately, but the man gripped her like a vise. With a grunt, Ash flipped onto her side and kicked him in the face with her other foot. The man jerked back, pulling off her shoe, as blood gushed from his nose. Ash lunged for her bag and darted into the trees. She could hear the man yelling, but he didn’t seem to be chasing her. She ran until his cursing faded, crunching painfully on rocks and sticks with every other step. When she’d gone far enough, she sat beneath an oak tree with shaking hands.
“Calm down,” she muttered, breathing heavily. She took out her only other pair of shoes, shoving the unmatched one in her bag. No matter how many times she told herself to expect to meet freaks on the run, it never prepared her for when one showed up.
But Ash couldn’t sit around forever; she had to get going. She edged around trees, ducked under branches, and shoved her way through bushes and weeds. Her face was sticky with sweat. The scent of flowers filled the air as she toiled in silence.
When the sun went down Ash still walked, using her wind-up flashlight to show the way. She looked at her atlas; if she kept walking south, she shouldn’t reach another town for quite a while, and that was fine by her. Finally, as her steps turned into staggers and stumbles, she collapsed in a clearing. Wrapped in a blanket and using her bag for a pillow, she curled up on the ground to sleep.
Ash woke up way too late—around nine a.m.—and ate a granola bar. She put the empty wrapper back in her bag and took a few sips of water. She had to conserve supplies, but also knew that not eating or drinking enough would be dangerous. Ash walked through fields all morning, and saw nothing else around except a few houses and groups of trees in the distance. She felt like she was walking in the middle of nowhere, but knew there was a road in the distance because once in a while a car would drive from one end of the flat horizon to the other. She headed to the nearest group of trees for cover when she got close enough that the people in the cars might notice her.
After a small lunch, she spent the next couple hours hiking through the woods. In mid-afternoon she reached a clearing but hovered at the edge, unsure if she should go further.
The clearing was actually a yard, and a two-story gray house with blue shutters stood in the middle. The paint was faded, and one window had a piece of cardboard duct-taped over it. A driveway coiled south, but Ash couldn’t see the road. She wondered if the place was abandoned. This would be a good spot to take a break, and there might be something useful inside.
After several minutes of hesitation, she walked across the overgrown yard and peeked into a dirty pane of glass. She could see a brown couch and an old TV. The next room was a kitchen with a table and two chairs. Ash walked to the back of the house and gasped; a rope ladder swung in the breeze, hanging from a second floor window.
Ash just had to climb that ladder. She could reach the bottom rungs without a problem, but couldn’t pull herself up because her bag was too heavy. Unwilling to abandon her supplies for a moment, she dragged a small log over from a woodpile beside the back door and used it as a stepping stool. As she climbed, the bag cut into her shoulder and made balance wobbly. She launched herself inside, falling to the hardwood floor with a thump.
Two dressers, a desk, and a toy box were stacked in front of a door to her right. Two beds stood ahead; one of them had an old stuffed animal on it. The heads of both beds rested against the east wall, across from the barricaded door. At the far end of the room was another window that overlooked the south end of the house. There was also a bathroom. When Ash looked inside, she saw a chair shoved up against yet another door.
Something felt very wrong. Ash turned to go back out the way she’d come in, but then grit her teeth and dove under one of the beds.
The top of the rope ladder was scooting across the window sill.
Ash watched in indignation as a small boy dove into the room. A girl followed, stumbling because the entire rope ladder was now wrapped around her leg. The kids wore old clothes and carried school bags. The girl’s waist-length, tangled hair was dark brown; the boy’s was reddish-blonde and shot out all over his head. They both had bruises on their arms.
Ash slid out from under the bed and strode towards them.
“Get out,” she demanded. “This is my spot.”
The kids froze. “Who are you?” the girl asked.
“This is my hideout, I found it first.” Ash said.
The boy giggled. “We live here.”
“Oh.” Ash felt her face grow hot. That made more sense than that somehow every runaway in Indiana was migrating to the same creepy house.
“I’m Kevin Webster, and this is my sister, Dayna,” the boy said.
“What are you doing here?” Dayna asked, unraveling herself from the ladder.
“Leaving.” Ash said.
“You can’t.” Kevin stretched his arms. “They’ll be back any minute.”
Ash sighed and walked closer, ready to push them out of the way and tell them to mind their own business. But the girl, Dayna, stepped in front of the window and stared up at her. Ash stopped a few steps away. There was something about Dayna’s dark brown eyes that seemed both wise and melancholy. As Ash gazed into them she felt like she was falling and didn’t know why. She shook her head, breaking the trance. These kids obviously had it rough, but that wasn’t her problem.
“Did you run away from home, or what?” Dayna asked.
“Of course she did,” Kevin said. “Your parents are bad, aren’t they?”
“No.” Even that was too much. Ash’s chest constricted. “If you live here, why do climb in and out through the window?” Her face burned. She shouldn’t be asking questions.
“We weren’t supposed to leave today,” Dayna said, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed. “But we’ve been stuck at home for a week; we didn’t want to stay here and clean everything again.”
“I don’t blame you,” Ash said. “Where did you go?”
Dayna and Kevin looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
“School,” Dayna said, as if there were no other possible answer.
Ash smirked. These kids were even younger than she’d thought. “I have to get out of here.”
“Wait,” Dayna said. “At least let me get you something to eat.”
Dayna walked into the bathroom, and Ash could hear the chair that blocked the other door scraping across the floor.
Kevin sidled over to Ash. “I have some cars and dinosaurs. Do you want to play a game?”
She shook her head and looked at her watch.
He stepped closer. “So . . . you ran away from home?”
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and edged toward the rope ladder. Surely he wasn’t thinking of turning her in.
“Do you think we could go with you?” Kevin asked.
Ash laughed; she hadn’t expected that question at all. “No.”
An engine rumbled outside and Kevin rushed to the south window.
“Oh, great. Mom and Dad are back,” he said. “We got home before they did, though, so we shouldn’t be in trouble.”
A door slammed downstairs, and a man started yelling.
Kevin ran to the bathroom. “This isn’t good,” he said. “I have to go help Dayna.”
“Uh, okay,” Ash said, backing up further.
“Why didn’t you do your chores?” the man demanded.
Ash reached the other end of the room. This was too much. She threw the rope ladder out the window.
Kevin hurried over and grabbed her arm. “Wait, don’t leave. I’ll be right back.”
“I have to go,” she said, peeling his fingers from her skin.
As Ash climbed down the rope ladder and ran away, she heard Kevin shouting curses behind her.