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We Are Stars

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The door to the Milton house swings inward on well-oiled hinges, barely a creak of the heavy wood to indicate its movement as Anna steps quietly out onto the step. She’s careful, glancing nervously up and down the street and shutting the door as gently as possible even though there’s no one home to see her leave. Castiel will already be at the University and Michael left early for the office, citing some seven am business meeting with one of their overseas offices, and who the hell knows where Father is. When she had asked after him days ago, Michael told her he was attending some conference in Boston, but frankly she doesn’t care. He’s never home, always at the office or away on some trip or other, and it just makes her escape that much easier.

She feels guilty for lying to Castiel, for telling him that she was sick when he’d knocked on her door to ask if she was coming to school today. If she’d had it her way he’d be running away with her, but when she’d brought it up to him months ago—ideas but no details, nothing that would tip him off to her plan—Cas had tensed up and spouted some nonsense about duty to the family and she’d known he wasn’t ready, despite being as unhappy as she is. They’d fought that day, the first time in years, and she’d known she was on her own.

Anna locks the door behind her, pushing her arm through the free strap of her heavy backpack and securing it against her shoulders. The flat of her sketchbook presses against her back, her one indulgence in a bag packed full of all the necessities she could squeeze inside. She’d left her cell phone behind, switched off and sitting on her bedroom dresser in a little pile with the contents of her wallet, minus her ID and all the cash she could withdraw from her small bank account without being caught.

She forces herself to move, stepping off the threshold and down the walk to the street. The first few steps are like walking through molasses; she’s craved this escape for so long, but now that the day has finally come for her to make her move, she’s terrified. She’s never known anything but this: a good, Christian family, the best schooling money could buy, her father’s rules and a gift-wrapped future just waiting for her to reach out and take it. She knows so little about the world outside her perfect little bubble, and the thought almost makes her turn tail and run back into the house, to abandon her escape before it’s even begun. It would be so easy to curl up in her bed and hide, to wait for Castiel and Michael to come home, to join them at their quiet, orderly dinner table and resume the role father had planned for her since she was a little girl.

But no—she needs to do this, to get out. Her feet move a little faster along the sidewalk.

A silver sedan glides past, heading the same direction as Anna out of their neighborhood, and she’s tempted to avoid the driver’s gaze and pretend that she doesn’t see but that would be too obvious. She makes herself smile and wave back at their neighbor, Naomi, as she heads off to work. If Anna’s lucky, it will just look like she’s going to school a little late, and maybe it’ll buy her some time before her family starts to look for her.

It’s a short walk to a street where she can catch the city bus, and Anna sits at the front near the driver, avoiding the glances of the other occupants, her hand wrapped tight around the metal pole beside her seat. She gets off as close as she can to the main road out of town, shouldering her bag again, and starts walking.

She had considered getting a bus ticket to the next town, but in the end, she’d ruled it out. Bus tickets are expensive, and she has about a thousand dollars that she’d stolen from the safe in Father’s office plus the couple hundred she pulled out of her own account, but she doesn’t know how long she’ll need that to last before she can find a job. She has some of Mom’s jewelry too, buried at the bottom of her backpack, but that’s a last resort, and she hopes she won’t have to pawn any of it. She would hate to have to sell the only memento she has of a mother that passed away when she was a child.

So she walks, hands coiled tightly around the straps of her pack, inhaling the smells of the swaying grass on either side of the road, letting the wind comb through her hair where it hangs loose against her shoulders. Every once in a while a car appears on the road behind her and she’ll turn, extending her thumb like she’s seen in the movies and on television, only to have them roll on past.

Hitchhiking is definitely easier in the movies.

Finally, a blue van with a ridiculous painting on the side of a woman brandishing a sword from the back of a polar bear slows to a stop beside her, the driver reaching awkwardly across to roll down the window by hand. Rock music spills out of the vehicle, blaring loudly out of crackling speakers until he hurriedly turns it down. The man is young, maybe a few years older than she is if she had to guess, with sleepy eyes and a friendly smile.

“Need a ride?”

She nods, slinging her bag free from her shoulders as she opens the door and hops up into the van. She coughs at the overwhelming odor of what she assumes must be marijuana smoke that hangs in the air and clings to the upholstery, and tries not to let herself look into the back through the ratty, beaded curtains that separate them from the rest of the van.

“Where to?” he asks.

“Are you going through Columbus?” Anna asks.

The guy shrugs. “Yeah I can make a stop there.” He extends a hand. “I’m Andy.”

“Nicole,” she lies, shaking his hand and settling her bag more comfortably on her lap.

 

 

Andy is friendly and asks too many questions, but he doesn’t seem phased when she gives him short, one word answers or doesn’t answer at all. He seems content to chatter on, his fingers tapping absently against the steering wheel along with the music. Anna settles in and watches the countryside roll past, letting his chipper voice wash over her, responding with a laugh or a nod or a smile when he pauses for reaction.

They reach Columbus, Ohio in a couple hours and Andy pulls into a gas station, putting the van in park and switching off the ignition. “Well, we’re here,” he says, scratching idly through his dark, curly hair. “There’s a couple motels near here I could drop you off at. Unless—” he chews his lip thoughtfully- “I’m probably going to keep going to Cincinnati tonight, if you want to tag along?”

For all that his van smells like a teenaged boy’s bedroom, Andy is nice, and she figures she might as well take his offer while she has the option. “Sure,” she says, smiling. “Thanks Andy.”

The sun is dipping low on the horizon by the time he stops in Cincinnati, pulling to a squeaky stop outside a motel on the outskirts called Twin Pines, ironic in that there is not a pine tree in sight. He offers her some weed—“for the road,” he says—before she shuts the door, but she just laughs and smiles.

“Thanks Andy, I’m good. Safe trip.” She shuts the door, shouldering her backpack and watching as the van peels away from the curb and back onto the road.

A kindly woman with tightly curled dark hair checks her in and presses a key into her hand, looking a little too understanding for her liking. It’s a cheap room and still she feels the sting of it as she presses the cash into the woman’s calloused palm, wondering if she could get a better deal elsewhere, until she sees the state of the room. It’s clean but dingy, the linoleum cracked and the bathroom fan whining in protest when she flicks on the light switch. If this is what fifty bucks would get her, she can only imagine what a less expensive room would look like.

“Suck it up, Anna,” she says to the empty room, dropping her bag down on the bed. “This is your life now. You better get used to it.”

Anna sits on the side of the bed and makes a collect call to California, wincing as she dials and hoping Charlie doesn’t mind accepting the charges. She holds her breath as she waits, the phone ringing tinnily in her ear.

“Hello?”

Anna lets out the breath she’s been holding in a rush. “Charlie?”

“Anna?” Charlie’s bubbly greeting sharpens with concern. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.” Anna kicks off her shoes and draws her knees up to her chest, leaning up against the headboard. “I did it, Charlie. I left.”

Charlie whoops from the other end, and Anna smiles involuntarily, pulling the phone back from her ear to protect her eardrums. Charlie had been the one Anna always turned to when she couldn’t trust anyone else, not even Cas, and it had been her idea for Anna to leave home. They’d hatched the plan together, just waiting for the right moment for Anna to run away.

“Well done my young apprentice; I knew you had it in you,” Charlie says proudly. “Where are you? When are you getting here? Oh crap, I have to wash the guest room sheets.”

Anna rolls her eyes fondly. “I’m in Cincinnati. I’ll be there in a few days. I’m just taking my time, seeing the sights on the way.”

Charlie’s end of the line goes silent. “You know, I could get you a bus ticket. You could pay me back later.”

“I’m fine, Charlie,” Anna says. “I have the money. I should be able to get there no problem.”

“You’re stubborn, you know that?”

“I know,” Anna replies, grinning ruefully. “And you love it.”

“I do,” Charlie sighs. “Too bad for you, I’ve got a new girlfriend now.”

Anna chuckles. “How is Dorothy?”

“Great. Looking forward to meeting you and kicking your ass at COD. So you better hurry up and get out here.”

“I can’t wait to meet her either.”

Anna lets Charlie chatter for several more minutes, going on about some catastrophe at work and the new intern she has in her department, Kevin, and his awesome yet terrifying mother, known to everyone as Mrs. Tran. Unless you count the occasional Skype chat, which Anna doesn’t, she hasn’t seen Charlie in person in five years, not since Charlie dropped out of high school and used her considerable skills to score a much coveted job at Google headquarters. She’s heard a lot about Charlie’s awesome job (“There are nap pods, Anna. Nap. Pods.”) and Charlie’s awesome new girlfriend, and she can’t wait to see all those things for herself. Anna lets her talk until Dorothy calls her from the other room for dinner, and Charlie has to go.

“You be careful, okay?” Charlie says. “I don’t wanna be hearing about you on the news. Unless it’s because you won some awesome, roadtrip karaoke contest.”

Anna rolls her eyes, grinning. “Goodnight, Charlie.” She hangs up the phone, shaking her head at her friend’s antics.

She eats an unfulfilling dinner consisting of a banana from her backpack and a bag of chips from the vending machine in the motel lobby then climbs under the covers and sketches for a bit, drawing the sunset over a field of wheat they passed as they approached the town. Finally she sets her sketchbook aside and turns on the TV, lying in bed wrapped up in stiff motel room linens, soothed by the dim light and droning of the late night shopping channel until she drifts off to sleep.

The next morning she manages to catch a ride from an elderly woman driving a beat up old pickup on her way through town. Anna’s starving by the time she finds herself in the second motel room of her journey in a place called Mitchell, Indiana, only two days into her journey and the food she’d packed long since eaten. There’s a laundromat nearby and she spends the afternoon washing her clothes. By dinnertime, she’s decided that she needs to splurge on real food, already tired of candy bars and chips from poorly-stocked vending machines. As she unlocks the door to her motel room, her backpack full of freshly laundered clothes, she spots a bar, the sign flashing dimly at her from across the parking lot proclaiming burgers and fries and cold beer. Anna smiles; getting a hot meal might not be so difficult after all.