Innocence

 

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For the thirteenth time in her life, Mint Julep Greene watched trees, grass and scenery fly by the car window.  This time it was endless pine trees that painted a feeling of desolation as Mint bounced in the passenger seat of the 1999 Jeep Cherokee.  Her forehead bumped against the window accidentally as she leaned as far away from her mom as she could.  Trixie Greene sat in the driver’s seat, music cranked up and blaring out of the radio, completely oblivious to Mint’s attitude.  

“Ain’t no mountain high enough.  Ain’t no river wide enough!” Trixie sang off key at the top of her lungs with the radio.

Mint glanced over at her then refocused on the dismal trees, their colors faded under the overcast, early afternoon sky.  A few spread out houses, rusted tractors and wilting sheds were now beginning to dot the late autumn landscape.  They had crossed the state line of North Carolina about two hours ago, heading for a small town called Pinewood on the eastern end of the state.  Gradually, the terrain had grown flat, flat, flat.  No hills.  No distant mountains.  Not even sufficient buildings to block out the straight line of the horizon.  Only pine trees and the occasional field that was currently empty since it was November and all the crops had been harvested.

“Beautiful countryside, isn’t it,” said Trixie, chewing her gum garishly, and looking over at Mint.  

The hurt of her mom’s frequently broken promise of “This is our last move” kept Mint silent.  Mint had known better than to trust her, but everything about Banksville, Ohio, the place they had left behind, was the life she had always dreamed of.  The small farmhouse they rented, the school, her classmates.  Mint even thought the boyfriend her mom chose that time would finally last.  He was quiet and strong and seemed nothing like all the others she’d dated (save the ones Mint couldn’t remember from when she was very young).  But there was another reason Mint chose not to speak just now: the manner and timing in which her mom had moved them.  

Mint focused on the scenery--blurring greens and browns, an opening in the trees, two houses and a shed with a rusted tin roof--to force the memory to the back of her brain.  The memory.  The humiliation when she had told her friends, the seething anger every time Trixie popped her head into Mint’s room with a lilting comment about their “new adventure” while Mint packed.  The utter devastation of losing the $1,000 first place prize money because the essay contest rules stipulated that the student had to be physically present at the awards ceremony to win--no exceptions.  And all for her mom’s selfish obsession with running from her problems.

Trixie had turned back to the road, happily ignoring Mint’s lack of response.  “Ain’t no mountain high enough.  Ain’t no river wide enough,” she sang.

They drove on for several minutes before the number of houses increased: small, modular homes that all looked like little boxes with roofs, shutters and lines around the outside indicating the neat siding.  Many of them had flowerbeds, bushes, but barely any trees in the yard.  Sections of pine interrupted the flow of houses now and then.  Several mobile home parks flashed by, surprising Mint at the sheer quantity of the cheap structures.  Mint associated mobile homes with poor people and had seen few of them in the other twelve locations they had lived.

Another few miles took them past a row of stores, Dollar General, an appliance store, a place called Piggly Wiggly with the face of a huge pig wearing a paper hat just smiling away, right up there with the letters of the store.  They stopped at several red lights.  There seemed to be a gas station on every corner, far more than this tiny town warranted in Mint’s opinion.

Further down, the stores and businesses thinned out.  A desolate-looking motel sat on the left, right after a dilapidated ice cream shop that had a large painted ice cream cone for a sign, made out of neon lights and what looked like reshaped steel beams.  The neon lights read Icey Mike’s.  They passed by several more deserted-looking buildings, an abandoned house with no windows and vines crawling all over it, another house that looked like the owners should abandon it but it still had cars outside.

The houses thinned out and Mint could see more and more trees.  Then Trixie slowed the car and turned in to what should have been a driveway but was nothing more than a yard, overgrown with stiff brown weeds that couldn’t hide the trash lying all over it.  At the back of the plot, in front of a dull-looking pine forest, stood the ugliest hovel she’d ever seen.

“So what do you think?” asked Trixie brightly, parking the car and turning off the engine.

“What--is that?” said Mint, indicating the small, rectangular building in front of them.  In front of her sat none other than a “poor person’s home.”  She and her mother were not the richest of women, but the twelve different homes and apartments they had lived in had always been clean and decently kept up.

“This--” said Trixie, taking the keys out of the ignition and looking for the one the landlord had mailed her “--is your new home.”  She glanced out at the rectangular structure then over at Mint.  “They’re called mobile homes.”  She said the last two words slowly like she was talking to a two-year-old.  “Some people also call them trailers.”  She hopped out of the car, her large gold hoop earrings jangling, then reached in to grab her coat from where it was hanging on the back of the driver’s seat.  Slipping it on, she shivered slightly in the brisk air.  She reached back to pull her curly 80’s permed hair out of the nape of the jacket and paused, elbows pointing like arrows.  Mint still sat stationary in her seat.  

“Well, aren’t you getting down?” Trixie asked.  She finished extracting her hair in a flurry of fingers and frizz, looking for all the world like an electrified poodle was clinging to the top of her head.

Mint stared straight ahead.

“Come on,” said Trixie slapping the leather driver’s seat repeatedly with both palms.  Mint didn’t move.  “Fine.  You stay here.  Sleep out here tonight for all I care.  I’m gonna go check it out.”  

She turned toward the house and picked her way across the yard, looking ridiculous in her jean mini-skirt and calf-height cowboy boots she had insisted on buying to go with the theme of moving to the country.  Mint watched her pull the screen door open further, which was already hanging open from a loose hinge.  After applying the key, she tried the doorknob.  It turned, but the door was stuck.  She pushed on it, then pushed on it harder with all her weight, making her washed out blond frizzy hair bounce.  Mint wanted to go up and grab the horrid, juvenile pink bow on the top of her head and yank it right out of her hair.    

Finally, the door flew open causing Trixie to stumble inside.  She stood up and brushed herself off and called back to Mint, “I got it!”  Trixie walked into the house and disappeared from view.

The trees around the house and on the other side of the road looked as forlorn as Mint felt.  Alone now, she could not stop the thoughts she had been avoiding on the entire drive here to Pinewood, North Carolina.  How close she had been to those $1,000, what having that money would have meant for her.  She could feel tears welling up behind her eyes but didn’t want to cry.  Not here.  Not now.  So she did the only thing she could.  She got out of the car and faced her current problem.

Many times Mint had looked on a new scene, a new place she would have to learn to call home.  During her sixteen years of existence in this unfair world, she had created a system that brought some measure of security to her undulating life.  Face the situation.  Size up the problems.  See what I can do to improve them.  Each inevitably temporary home could never be the everlasting home she still dreamed about, but she could make it endurable.  Her skill of cooking, learned from Food Network, and her growing knowledge of inexpensive home decor tricks, thanks to Pinterest, quickly transformed her physical world into at least a shadow of the feeling she called home.  

This, however, this--mobile home--(she couldn’t even think the words without disgust)-- was going to be a project of quite some undertaking.  A challenge as she had never before had to endure.  She scanned the yard, littered with broken beer bottles and crushed McDonald’s cups, already beginning to make a list in her head.

I’ll pick those up tomorrow….Diarrhea brown walls on the trailer.  Maybe a different color will make a slight improvement.  Faded black shutters; paint those.  Rickety wooden stairs at the front door; paint those, too.  She took in the rest of the ugliness of house and yard, filing away ideas for improvements as she went.  She moved toward the front door now, stopping herself just in time from stepping on the decaying body of a dead opossum hidden in the grass.  She hurried past the rotting flesh before the sight of crawling maggots could etch itself on her mind.

The interior of the house almost made her wish she had stayed in the jeep.  Thinking positively that the inside could not be worse than the outside, she saw she was very wrong.  Mint’s eyes rose as if in slow motion from the olive green carpet, matted down and black on the main thoroughfare through the living room, to the dirty yellow walls, then to the kitchen cabinets, many of them with doors hanging from one hinge instead of two, like so many broken arms.  The anger which Mint had held back for six days, since the day Trixie had declared they were moving again, finally erupted in a volley of violent kicks to the counter that separated the kitchen and the living room.  

“This is the ugliest (kick) stupidest (kick) nastiest (kick!) DUMP (KICK!) I have ever seen!”  She moved around the counter into the kitchen where there was a fresh set of ugly, half broken cupboard doors begging to be pummeled.  “You expect me to live here.  You expect me to follow you all over the earth, running from your stupid boyfriend problem--your stupid--stupid SELF problem.  Aren’t you ever going to see that YOU’RE the problem?  YOU’RE the reason your stupid life is never going right.”  Each word was said with great vehemence and speed, hissing through her teeth, and punctuated frequently with more violent kicks to the cupboards.

 She had succeeded in knocking one of the pressed wood doors completely off its hinges and putting a serious dent in what turned out to be a dishwasher that must have come over with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower before Trixie came running from the opposite end of the trailer yelling--

“Mint!  What the--what are you doing?!” she screamed, holding Mint in a restraining bear hug from behind.  Mint lashed out with her feet one final time but hit nothing more than thin air.

“Why did you have to ruin my life, Mom?  Why did you take me away when everything was just about to change and be GOOD for once?”  Mint’s throat sounded hoarse as tears now entered her words.  Her voice cracked and she buried her face in her hands.  “I almost had it.  I almost had that money.”  Her shoulders shook as she could hold the tears back no longer.

“So that’s what this is about,” said Trixie, releasing her and stepping back.  Trixie’s manner grew cool and detached.

“I won that money and you couldn’t even wait one more week for the awards ceremony.”  Mint let out a groan as she sobbed into her fingers.

“Oh, come on,” Trixie huffed.  “It’s not that bad.”  She leaned against the wall behind her and picked at her bright pink, plastic nails.

“Yes, it is!” Mint screamed suddenly, feeling the blood rushing up her neck and into her cheeks.  She recognized Trixie’s iconic gesture when fending off her own guilt.  “I won it--I EARNED it--with that essay I wrote!  I was going to use that money to save up for a car so I can--”  Mint stopped, catching herself before letting slip the plan she had formed when she was thirteen.

“So you can what?”  Trixie looked up with a gleam in her eye and abandoned her nails.  “Look for your daddy?”  She took a taunting step toward Mint, the heel of her cowboy boot making a dull clunk on the torn linoleum.

Mint turned to her slowly, lifting her face from her hands as if bewitched and unable to stop herself from surrendering to the enemy’s gaze.  “How did you know that?” she whispered, wet strands of her long, brown bangs clinging to her lips.

“Really, Mint.  You’re not very hard to figure out.”  Trixie assumed her indifferent pose of one hip cocked while she placed the heel of the opposite foot on the floor, toes pointed upward, sashaying her foot from side to side.  One hand grasped the elbow of the opposite arm while she surveyed her pink talons coolly.

“All those questions all of a sudden:  ‘Where do you think he is?’ ‘Is his last name the same as mine?’ ‘Do you think he’s within driving distance?’” she said in a high-pitched, mocking voice.  “Ha!”  She threw her head back and the laugh came as a rough sound from deep in her throat.  “If you wanted to keep it a secret, you shouldn’t have asked such obvious questions.  It didn’t take much to figure out why you entered that contest...especially when you wrote about ‘My Dream Home’.”  Trixie said the last words in a bitterly mocking tone.  “I’m surprised you even won with such an original title.  I didn’t have to read your essay to know you weren’t describing a house.”  She spat out the last word.  

“You want to know the truth?  I’ll tell you where he is...but it won’t do you any good.”  She put both feet flat on the floor now and leveled a menacing gaze at Mint.  “You won’t like what you’ll find in the state penitentiary.”  She twisted the words slowly back and forth, like a knife into the heart.  She leaned forward, reminding Mint of a snake sniffing out its prey.  “He’s a murderer,” she hissed.

The breath Mint had held suspended until now rushed out.  “Shut up, just shut up!”  Her fists were balled at her sides and she leaned forward with the intensity of her words.  “When I was twelve you told me he was just a drunken bum.  The year after that you told me he was a hippie in a commune out west.  You’ve given me a different story every time I’ve asked, and now you tell me he’s a murderer?”  Her voice rose to a higher pitch.  “I don’t believe you, alright?  I don’t believe you!  You lie about everything!  You’re lying about this too!  You ARE lying about this, and I’m going to find him.  I’m going to find him and leave you for GOOD!  Then you can run wherever you want, ALONE!”

Mint shoved past Trixie, grabbed the car keys from the counter where Trixie had left them and stormed out the front door.  Mint didn’t know where she was going to go, but she wasn’t staying here.

 
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The Black Truck

Two seconds later Mint found herself outside in the jeep shaking so hard she could barely put the key in the ignition.  For a wild moment she pictured herself flying down the freeway, back towards Banksville and all she had left behind.  Maybe her friend Angie would let her stay at her house until Mint figured something out.  Maybe Angie’s parents wouldn’t mind her staying if she paid some rent each month.  Mint could get a job...she could live with them for two years...then find her dad and move in with him when she was of age.  Maybe….  

She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes.  It wouldn’t work.  Legally she would be a runaway.  The law could find her and make her go back with Trixie.  Besides, she had nowhere else to go...legally.  And she had promised herself to keep a good record and reputation.  I’m not putting the burden of a rebellious, arrested teen on him.  I don’t want to ruin his life.  I want to lead a good life like I know he has.  I’m not going to embarrass him.  And I don’t care what she says.  I know he’s a good man.  He just has to be.

The words about her father comforted her, even though she had no proof one way or another if they were true.  But if she could not hope in her father being a decent man, then what hope did she have?  She could...she could leave when she was eighteen, find a job, get an apartment, live the peaceful life she had always wanted.  Because a life with Trixie was more than she could bear.  But a life on her own, with no blood family, would never be enough.  Her mom was an only child, and her grandparents were dead.  That left only the possibility of her dad.  She had to find him.

The tears were still wet on Mint’s cheeks when she heard Trixie come out the front door and make her way across the yard.  Mint stiffened automatically.

“Hey,” said Trixie, tapping on the window softly before opening the door.  For a fleeting moment Mint had considered locking her out.  Trixie pulled the door wide and rested her hand on the frame.  “Hey...I’m sorry about that in there.”

Mint looked at her mom quickly in spite of her determination to keep a stony exterior.  Trixie had argued often throughout their life together and said more hurtful things than a drill sergeant on a new recruit’s first day, but she had never apologized--ever.

“It’s--it’s ok.”  Mint didn’t mean to say the words.  They were her habitual response to apologies.  What her mom had said earlier was unforgivable, but the relentless morality that Mint had instilled in herself rose up before she could stop it.

“Look, I know you probably need a breather.  That place in there,” Trixie rolled her eyes toward the trailer, “needs to be cleaned up.  I’m going to work on that, and I thought, maybe--if you want--you could go get us some groceries.  I know you kinda enjoy grocery shopping since you cook and all.”

Mint stared at her mom hard.  When had Trixie ever offered Mint the more enjoyable chore?  When had Trixie ever done chores?  Usually the aftermath of an explosive argument was made up of Trixie touching up her nails and giving a haughty sniff every time Mint passed through the room as if to say “I’m not going to console you for an argument that was your fault.”  The times that Trixie had taken responsibility for her part in turning the conversation from discussion into argument were nil.  

Mint managed to nod.  Trixie gave Mint her credit card and the cell phone they shared then went inside.  Mint took a few more moments to pull herself together, relieved for the chance to get away, before searching the GPS for the nearest grocery store.  After she found it, she started the car and pulled up to the edge of the road, checking for traffic.  Left, right, then left one more time.  She pulled onto the road, her glance lingering for just a moment on the pines that circled behind the house and came up to the edge of the road.

A movement among the trees caught her eye at the same time a mud splattered black truck came speeding toward her.  Intent on the movement in the trees, Mint had pulled out into the wrong lane.  She swerved right, narrowly missing the truck.  The driver honked long and loud at her then hoisted himself halfway out his open window to turn and yell obscenities at her, embellished with a few choice hand gestures.  The image Mint had seen at the edge of the woods had registered in only a fraction of a second:  tall guy, black hair, short and a little spiky on top, black leather jacket, hanging open to reveal a dark gray T-shirt, pale skin--very pale--more white than flesh-colored, standing out against his dark clothing and the deep browns of the forest behind him.  And eyes.  Eyes that seemed to be directed straight at her.

His image burned in her brain.  She glanced in the rearview to verify what she had seen but only the reflection of tree trunks and undergrowth met her eyes along with an image of the speedily receding truck, barreling down the road in the opposite direction.  

Mint gripped the wheel, steadying herself.  An erratic type of fear had settled into her brain, a fear that logic had a hard time displacing.  Another part of her knew she was overtired, stressed and still on edge from the argument.

She tucked a loose strand of dark brown hair into her ponytail and forced herself to breathe evenly.  Her overanxious state, a result of the sudden crashing change in her life along with the volcanic outburst that happened earlier in the kitchen, must have made her extra jumpy and caused her to imagine things that weren’t even there.  She slowly returned to normal, keeping both hands on the wheel as she glanced down at the GPS now and then.  The nearest grocery store was only a few miles down the road, a straight shot.

Mint rolled down her window a bit to cool her flushed cheeks.  She rearranged the black and white decorative scarf around her neck and hitched up the sleeves of her ribbed V-neck sweater.  Past Icey Mike’s, the deserted motel and the sundry “poor people’s homes” that lined the way, was a small grocery store on the right, so small that she hadn’t noticed it when she and Trixie had gone past it the first time.  Pinewood Grocery, a large white plywood sign read above the store.  An outline of a grouping of pine trees flanked the words on the left.  

Mint slowed and turned on her blinker.  A shiver ran up her back as she entered the parking lot.  There, parked at a cocky angle and barely off the road, was the mud splattered black truck that Mint had almost run into.  Her brain ground back into gear.  I know it didn’t pass me...it was going so fast in the opposite direction there’s no way it could have taken a different, longer, route and still showed up here ahead of me.

Mint parked carefully, trying to give herself time to slow her thoughts and calm her jumpiness. Perhaps she hadn’t noticed the truck pass her or maybe it could have reached the store ahead of her at the speed it had been traveling, even on a longer route.

Mint got out of the jeep holding to the logic she had concocted.  Inside the store, she grabbed one of only three rickety shopping carts and pushed it ahead of her, ducking her head in embarrassment at the rattle-clang-bang it made as it protested being used.  She picked up some fresh veggies, pasta and meat, then stopped by the freezer section to get some hot pockets and the other junk food that her mom liked.  Mint went to the checkout, relieved that she was no longer drawing stares with her clanging cart.  

The blond girl who was ringing her up looked to be the same age as Mint.  She was just an inch or two shorter and her name tag said “Megan.”  The girl didn’t even say hello as she scanned each item, making a loud blip as she passed it over the laser beam.  Then the door opened and in walked the guy who had cussed her out.  He had wild-looking red hair and sauntered like he hadn’t a care in the world.  By his side walked the figure Mint had seen in the woods!  The front door was not very far from the registers and Mint got a very good look at the dark one.  His eyes were a cold, misty blue, like the center of a chunk of ice--and he was looking directly at her.  She turned her attention back to the conveyor belt, pretending to round up her items for the clerk’s convenience.  She glanced up to see where the guys were.  They were walking toward the cookie aisle and the leather jacket one was not looking at her anymore.

Megan noticed Mint’s attention to the guys and said, “I’d watch out for those two if I were you.”

“What do you mean?”  Mint was affronted at her abrupt tone, as if she had been accused of doing something wrong.

“At the beginning of the school year a girl was found dead in the woods outside the school.  The police said she had been hit by a vehicle.  That same day one of the kids found blood on the fender of that dirty black truck out there.  There’s a gang of them that share it, but Ben--the one in black--was driving it that day.  When the police checked it out, they said it was deer blood.  Ben claimed he had hit one on his way to school that morning.  The police had no evidence to prove he killed her, but Ben is lying.”  The girl’s green eyes were dark with mystery.

“How can you know that--”  Mint didn’t often confront, but something about the girl made her angry.

“Maybe you don’t believe me--”  Megan flipped the last box of microwaveable pizza rolls in a bag.  "--but I’d hate for you to be his next victim.”

“Well, thanks,” said Mint, “but I think I can handle myself.”

Megan stared at her for a second then said, “Fine.  Suit yourself.  I was just trying to help you out.”

Mint paid quickly and left.

“Well, way to make an enemy your first day here,” Mint mumbled as she left the store.  

She heard the door open and close behind her and turned to see Ben and his flaming-haired friend following her.  Had they been hiding among the shelves just waiting for her to leave?  Chills ran up her back.  She gripped her keys tighter.  Had Megan been right?  Was he really a murderer?  Now was not the time to be thinking about that.  Mint walked as calmly as she could to the jeep, then tossed the groceries in the backseat, the bags spilling their contents onto the seat and floor, but she didn’t care.  She glanced over and saw the red-haired one pulling Ben to the truck by his sleeve, keeping him from following her to her jeep.  She hopped in the driver’s seat, started the engine and gunned it out of there.

A few hundred feet down the road Mint dared to look in the rearview.  They were following her!  Not too closely, but they were definitely there.  On the road.  Behind her.  She pressed on the gas.  So did they.  She doubled her speed.  So did they.  She zoomed past Icey Mikes--and a cop that she hadn’t seen hiding out in the vacant lot beside the ice cream place.  She was going way past the speed limit.  The cop pulled out behind her.  The truck wasn’t there anymore.  It had been right behind her just a moment ago and now it wasn’t there.

The cop flashed his lights.  Mint slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder.

“Crap,” her voice came out in a squeak in an effort not to cry.  First the move, then the fight with her mom.  A weird truck and two guys creeping her out and now she was pulled over for the first time in her life.  Her hands shook slightly as she put the jeep in park, so she clasped them in her lap.

The cop who walked up to her car had straight sandy blond hair and greenish blue eyes that looked hard but slightly troubled somehow.  However, when he asked Mint for her information he seemed anything but troubled.

“License and registration, ma’am,” he demanded.  He was pretty tall, even for a cop, and nicely filled out.  The emotions of the day came over Mint in a wave.  Something about the man made her think of her absent father.

“Sir, please help me.  There were some guys following me just now from the store.”  Her voice shook and sounded rather breathy.

“There’s no one behind you, Miss.  Now please hand me your license.”

“I know there’s no one behind me, but right before you pulled out to follow me, there were some guys behind me.”

“Miss, there was no one behind you when I saw you drive by, well over the speed limit, I might add.  Have you been drinking?”

“No.”

“Drugs?”

“No.”

“I’m going to ask you one more time to hand me your license.”

He didn’t believe her.  Not.  At.  All.  Maybe she was losing her mind.  Maybe she had imagined the whole thing.  She just wanted to get home and go to sleep for a very long time.  But there was no home awaiting her, just a dump called a trailer.

In a fog, Mint pulled her license from her purse and the registration from the glove compartment and handed them to the officer.

“Just sit tight and I’ll be right back,” he said, tapping the sill.

I hate when they say that.

She sat on the side of the road for twenty minutes, hands clenched on the steering wheel, wiping a tear off her cheek now and then, while he did what cops do in their cars to make life more miserable than it already is.  I can’t believe I got pulled over for the first time in my life on my first day in this stupid small town.  Finally, she saw him walking back to her car.  The white paper in his hands would not be a note to welcome her to Pinewood.
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