2020-2021, Short Story

The Trail

By Joanna Cooper, ’23

The sun was finally starting to set over the trail as we dragged our bags behind us.

“Second night,” Amber stated, noticeably exhausted.

“We got through it last night, we can do it again tonight. This time we actually have blankets,” I reminded her.

The garbage bags we had used to keep us warm the night before stuck out of her backpack, and received weird looks from passers-by as we continued down the path. We came across some blankets in an abandoned barn earlier that afternoon so we took them with us, as we were pretty sure no one would miss them.

“We really didn’t think this through, did we?” Amber remarked.

“We thought it through enough to get this far, haven’t we?” I shot back.

Then some not-so-nice words were exchanged, and we ended our quarrel with a simultaneous sigh. We were both worn out and it was starting to show through our language. We walked on in silence as the sun continued to lower, and the world started to glow in the eventide.

Once we had gotten back into the rhythm of things, we kept going until dark. I clicked on the flashlight and quickly scanned for cops before hiding the light in my sweatshirt. We kept it on to have a dim glow as we walked, but didn’t shine it in front of us out of fear of being too noticeable.

About an hour later we were still dragging on until we had both stifled a yawn one too many times.

“Jolene, I’m gonna die. Right here. If we don’t stop, I’m gonna die right here on your feet,” Amber said.

“I’m sure you are. You won’t be missed,” I joked back. “All we have to do is make it to that tree. That giant one right around the corner,” I told her while pointing into the night. 

“Thanks for pointing into the dark genius, that really helped.” 

“Yeah of course, that’s why I’m here. You could never make it without me.”

“Definitely not,” Amber said, rolling her eyes.

“Come on, we’re almost there. It’s like 50 more steps. We got this,” I reassured her.

We made it to the tree and we both collapsed against the trunk. We obviously couldn’t sleep out in the open like this, because there was no way either of us would wake up before the trail got busy again. But we had been walking since six that morning with only a few breaks. This was a well deserved rest stop. Last night, we had found an old, broken down truck off the side of the pathway where we were able to get some sleep. This was our first all-nighter since we left, and we weren’t sure exactly how it was going to work. We sat in our own thoughts for a while until I noticed Amber was nodding off to sleep. I figured that if I was awake, nothing awful could happen. I kept watch, even though there was nothing to be watching, and let her sleep off that day’s walk. I guess I must have dozed off as well because the next thing I heard was a voice that wasn’t familiar to me.

“Oh no, we’re alright thank you. We, uh, just came out to watch the sunrise but I guess it was too early for us,” I laughed nervously. That was the lie I mustered out of me when the young woman, maybe in her mid-twenties, who was going on an early morning run, asked if we needed help. The woman, still jogging in place, gave us a suspicious look but nodded and continued on her way.

I shook Amber awake and she shot up in a daze. “Dad?’ she asked, looking around frantically.

“No, it’s me, Amber. It’s me,” I said trying to calm her. My heart had dropped at the mention of her father. Neither of us had spoken to our families in days, and it started to hit us all at once.

Fast forward to a few hours later, we were still trudging through the muddy path, as it had poured on us that morning. We hadn’t spoken much since this morning, not out of anger, but out of sadness. Though we both knew this was best for us, it was still hard to leave our loved ones behind. Especially for Amber because of the little siblings she left at home.

After another mile or so I decided to speak up. “You okay?” I asked cautiously, to which she responded with, “No. Who would be okay with doing what we’re doing? Why did we even decide to do this? We can’t do it. We’re not gonna make it. This was a stupid idea.” I figured getting it out would help relieve some of the stress so I let her continue for a while. When she finished, I tried to console her, even though our doubts were mutual. We discussed our plans for a while to make sure we were on the same page and it also gave us some clarity.

By the time the sun was directly above us, we knew it was time to eat. We had limited our meals to one a day to give us energy but not waste our money. We strayed off the path to the main road and continued until we reached a gas station. We entered the convenience store and decided how much we would spend that day. When we picked out a reasonable amount of snacks to keep us moving, we checked out. After we had left and were far enough away from the store, Amber pulled out an extra bag of chips from under her sweatshirt. I smiled and took a stolen candy bar out of my pocket. Sure, this wasn’t the most moral thing for us to be doing, but it kept us alive. I didn’t think a small bag of Hot-Cheetos and a Hershey bar were going to be missed much. We threw out the bags and wrappers at the first trash can we saw. I kept walking but noticed that Amber wasn’t with me. I turned around and saw her staring at the bin. 

“What are you doing?” I called back to her.

“Come here and read it,” she replied, still transfixed on the can.

“Read what? The trash can? Why do I need to read a trash c-”

“Just read it!” she snapped.

I hurried over to her and began to read the label out loud, “State of Pennsylvania- OH MY GOD!” I yelled, but quickly quieted myself. We had done it. We made it out of New York. We must’ve crossed the state border when we went through the woods coming back from the convenience store. Though we hadn’t gone far, this was still a major milestone for us. The further we got, the more motivation we had. Amber finally looked up and gave me the most genuine smile I’d ever seen from her. We accounted for our things and then continued walking.

Starting then there was a different energy. That was the first big sign of progress we had come across and it only made us more eager to find the next one. Luckily for us, the rest of the afternoon, and even into the night, went smoothly. Unless you count the time I tripped over literal air and fell flat on my face, we had a good night. We found a little barn on the outskirts of the woods that was unlocked from the back, so we camped in there for the night. I still didn’t think it was a good idea for us to both sleep, so we rotated who kept watch every couple of hours. When the sun rose, we packed up our belongings and were off again. 

After walking for a couple hours, we started hearing sirens. We wouldn’t have paid any mind, but they sounded different than normal. It sounded much closer to us than it sounds from the road. I turned around and there were police motorcycles on the actual trail, not on the town roads surrounding us. I tapped Amber on the shoulder frantically and pointed, unable to speak out of fear. We knew this would happen eventually, we just didn’t think this soon. We also figured that since we were no longer in state, we would be safer from this. But no, we knew what was happening and our instinct was to run. What else were we going to do? We used our limited years of track and field training from school and dodged people, strollers, dogs, trees, you name it. We just couldn’t stop; we had come too far to stop.

“This way, Jolene,” Amber yelled to me, ducking under a branch and into the woods.

I followed and we kept going, jumping over logs and avoiding muddy patches, as we ran as fast as we could through the unfamiliar forest. The sirens became more and more distant, and I realized they must’ve passed us after we cut in front of the family going on a bike ride. There was a clump of people on the trail that made it nearly impossible to see anyone duck through and into the woods, so we decided we were safe. I slowed to a jog and Amber soon did the same.

We caught up with each other, each with tears in our eyes. The combination of fear and physical pain was too much for both of us, so we decided to take a break under a large oak tree. My body ached from the water bottles in my backpack smacking against my back as I ran, and I’m sure Amber felt the same.

After taking a few sips of our limited water, we helped each other up and continued to walk through the woods. I’m beyond thankful that we didn’t turn back to the trail that day because I’m more than certain that if we did, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Though we didn’t know it yet, the further into the woods we walked, the closer to safety we got.

Eventually, we started hearing the rush of cars again, and I started to panic. Amber assured me that we would be okay and that we just had to focus, breathe, and not let ourselves get distracted by the unknown. She was right, I didn’t know what was waiting for us on that road. It could be the cops waiting to take us home, or it could just be rush hour traffic. We ended up close enough that we could see the street from the woods, so we crouched behind a bush and watched for a couple minutes. 

“Amber, look,” I exclaimed pointing at a nearby front yard, where two bicycles sat, just waiting to be ridden.

“Are you insane? No. Absolutely not. You know I can’t ride a bike,” she protested. 

“Come on, you can do it. You have to try. This can like double our travel speed.”

“Or it can decrease it because I’m going to keep falling over.”

‘Well, we don’t know, do we? We have to try. Please.” 

After many more minutes of arguing, Amber finally agreed to try. We made our way closer to the house, while making sure to stay hidden. I squinted to see into the small square windows of the one car garage, and saw it to be empty. I looked back and forth across the road. Traffic had slowed, so I turned to Amber, “Now’s our chance. Let’s do this.” She looked at me with doubt, but shrugged and nodded. And with that we sprinted across the road, and I immediately hopped on the larger bike. 

“Amber, let’s go. We have to go now.” 

“I can’t. I don’t know how.”

“Keep it steady with your arms, hold on tight to the handle bars, swing one leg over the seat, and start pedaling,” I told her, trying to explain how to ride a bicycle to someone who has never done more than look at one. 

“You can do it. I know you can, and deep down you know you can too.” 

And with that, Amber forcefully swung her leg over and started pedaling. With astonishment, I watched her pass me. “Let’s go slowpoke, we got places to be,” she called back to me playfully, trying to sound calm while I knew she was freaking out inside. I snapped myself back into it and quickly followed her.

Though we were now in the open, we were moving much faster than we had been throughout the whole journey. We flew down hills, over gutters, and past neighborhoods. Amber remained steady on the bike, most likely out of fear. Nevertheless she was doing it. We were doing it. We were getting away. Away from the people we hated, the places we hated, and the lives we hated. We had much more ahead of us, more than we could’ve ever imagined. But in that moment, all we cared about was each other and not stopping until we were safe, and most importantly, happy.

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