Derrick had just entered his fifth hour of freedom. Squatting in the bushes he waited nervously near the A.T.M. The dawn was slowly approaching and it was only a matter of time before someone came to withdraw money. It wasn’t how he had planned to re-enter the world; but in truth he hadn’t made any plan at all. On the sidewalk Derrick saw the man who might possibly help him.
Steve was tired. After the stop at the A.T.M. his plan was to walk to the gas station to get some snacks, then go home and fall asleep playing video games. This was his routine every day of the week but he rarely thought about it; his mind was usually scrolling through different melodies he’d heard in musicals throughout his life. A late night job as a janitor at the local church put a little money in his pocket, which made him feel better about living rent free with his brother and his brother’s fiancé. At the very least he bought his own food. Yawning widely he fished his A.T.M. card out of his pocket and thought about which movie he should rent when he awoke later in the afternoon. A rustle in the bushes caught his attention.
Derrick had lost his nerve. He had never robbed anybody - never even been in a physical confrontation. Tightness enveloped his chest as his breathing became short. He thought of the techniques he had been taught: deep breathing, counting slowly, going to the proverbial ‘happy place’. His eyes became dry and unfocused. He began counting slowly in his head, his lips silently mouthing the words.
Steve stood unsure of what he was expected to do. The street was empty and for a moment he thought of just going home; pretending he didn’t see what he was seeing, but he knew that wasn’t right. The man squatting fell to his knees and placed his forehead to the ground as if in prayer.
“Excuse me…sir…are you all right?”
Derrick heard the words but couldn’t conjure their meaning. Nausea set in, but his stomach was empty and could produce nothing to expel.
“umm…wait here and I’ll go call an ambulance.” Steve said.
“No…no ambulance.” Derrick was able to say as a cold sweat formed on his forehead.
“Are you sure? You look like you need some help.”
Derrick didn’t want help; his desire being to help himself. The panic left and was replaced by a feeling of ‘fight or flight’. He looked at the man standing above him as an obstacle to overcome.
Standing, he stared Steve in the eyes.
Steve took one step back but kept eye contact. Looking around again, he saw the street was still empty.
“You’re money.” Derrick said slowly, his hands clenched tightly into fists. “I’m not going back.”
“uhhh….” Steve’s mind didn’t work well this time of day. “We all need money.”
“Give me…your money.” Derrick’s voice was calm.
Steve realized he was being robbed; that he was standing in front of a robber.
“Go to the A.T.M and take out all your money.” Derrick continued.
Steve’s bank balance was fifteen dollars.
“Listen, buddy,” Steve said, surprised by his own relaxed tone. “I don’t know you or your story, but I can assure you that I don’t have nearly enough of what you’re looking for. So, if it’s all right with you, I’m going to go home, and pretend this never happened.”
Turning around, Steve began walking away. He was beginning to feel pride in his handling of such a strange situation when he felt a sharp kick to the back of his leg.
It was the first time Derrick had ever struck anyone, and he didn’t like it.
Steve didn’t understand why Derrick had kicked him.
“I don’t have any money to give.” Steve said as though talking to a funds-raiser.
Derrick felt an unrealistic momentum to the situation. Reaching down, he grabbed a hand full of dirt and threw it into Steve’s face. Steve closed his eyes in time and was left with a mouth full of dirt.
Steve spit out the filth and did his best to suppress his gag reflex. “What is the matter with you?” He said, taking slow breaths so as not to swallow the mud that was forming in his mouth. He bent over and kept his mouth open wide; allowing gravity and salvia to the work.
Reality, as it always did, crept back into Derricks mind.
“I’m sorry. Just give me your money and this will all be over.”
“I don’t have any money, you jerk!” Steve said, slowly regaining his composure, his eyes were red and tearing. “Ohh... this is disgusting.” He wiped at his mouth his sleeve. “What kind of robber throws dirt in someone’s face? Haven’t you ever done this before?”
“No, I haven’t. I’m just trying to get out of town as quickly...”
Without giving it much thought, Steve kicked Derrick as hard as he could.
“How do you like it, huh?”
Derrick held his shin as waves of pain flowed throughout his body.
“How about I throw some dirt in your face?”
The first car of the morning drove past; the driver had other thoughts on his mind and paid no attention to what was happening on the sidewalk.
Derrick heard the car; the town was coming to life. Clenching his teeth to hold back the pain in his leg, he delivered a quick right-jab to Steve’s face, connecting squarely on the nose.
As his head shot back, Steve could see the pain he was feeling. It was bright and quick, like lightning in the night. He stood with his eyes closed as the brightness faded and a heavy throbbing began.
Derrick instantly regretted his action.
“Am I bleeding?” Steve said as he stumbled and dropped to his knees. “It feels like my nose…might be…hurt...I should…lay down”
Another car approached and Derrick knew this could be his end. Helping Steve to his feet, the two walked behind the bank and out of sight from the road.
The two sat behind the bank’s dumpster as the parking lot began to fill. The sun was up and the town alive.
Steve slept silently; dried blood covered his lips, chin, and neck.
Derrick, (unaware it was past Steve’s bedtime) was worried the punch had brought on a concussion. Not wanting to leave him and unsure of what to do, he began slapping Steve on the face.
“What is it?” Steve said, his eyes still closed.
“Stay awake, you may have a concussion.”
Steve blinked his eyes open. His nose ached and the back of his leg hurt. Groggily, he sat up.
“I’m going home. Good luck with your robber career.”
“Wait. You can’t go yet.”
“I’m hurt, tired, and sitting behind a dumpster. Why should I stay? And what are you still doing here?”
“I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“I was fine until you attacked me.”
“I apologize. It’s just that…I’m trying to…” Derrick’s voice caught in his throat. “I’m trying to…it’s no concern of yours.”
Time passed as the two sat quietly. It was a nice day and the breeze was refreshing.
“Go home and clean yourself up.” Derrick said, breaking the silence. “Again, I’m sorry.”
“Are you going to rob someone else?”
“No, I thought it would be easy, but…all I need is to get a few towns over, and then…I don’t know what.”
“Are the cops after you?”
Derrick thought of making up a story, but couldn’t see the point.
“Last night I took off from Harkem Hills.”
“The loony bin!” Steve said laughing. “Well that explains it then.”
“It’s a psychiatric institution, not a loony bin. I’ve been in and out of there since I was eleven; I guess I thought thirteen years was enough.”
Steve did the math on his fingers.
“I’ll be twenty-four in a couple months.”
Friendship makes people do strange things. Steve wouldn’t know this because he had no close friends. Those living in small towns can either be completely caught up in the lives of those around them, or completely isolated from it. Steve didn’t feel isolated, just a little separated. He enjoyed time with his brother and his brother’s fiancé, but never searched out anyone else to be friends with.
After talking for a while, Steve began to look upon Derrick as a friend; someone whom he could easily spend time with.
The topic of conversation was Steve’s life. Derrick asked question after question, wanting to hear all the things he had missed while growing up in and out of the institution. Time after time Steve’s answers were exactly what Derrick didn’t want to hear. No, Steve didn’t have a girlfriend. No, he didn’t have a car that he used on weekends to take long drives through the country. No, he didn’t go to college and attend wild parties. No, he didn’t have a career or any career goals. No vacation stories. No crazy adventures. No kids. No enemies. No friends.
“So what have you done with your freedom?”
“Freedom?” Steve said, thinking it over. “I guess I…do what I do.”
Steve could see in Derrick’s face that that wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear.
“You do what you do? That makes no sense.”
Steve smiled, enjoying the interplay of ideas he was involved in. His teeth were bloodstained and the pain in his nose was at an acceptable level.
“It makes perfect sense. You tried to rob me, right? You had your reasons, so you did what you did. See…it’s simple.”
The conversation stopped; Derrick not wanting to push any further and Steve content with what they had discussed.
Sleep for Steve was one of life’s great pleasures. He was tired, but didn’t want to go home. Stretching out on his back he watched a bird flying high overhead.
‘Fly free’, Steve thought. ‘Fly free on wings of splendor. Wings of splendor…does that make sense? Maybe I’ll stop by the library and get some poetry books.’
Derrick watched Steve in disbelief.
‘This guy is no help. I’ve got to keep moving. I’ve got to put more distance behind me. They’re probably already in town. They probably figured I wouldn’t make it much further. They’ll put me on twenty-four hour watch when I get back…no privacy. Wait, what am I thinking? I’m not going back.’
The tightness began its grip on Derrick’s chest. Lightness filled his head as his vision blurred out of focus.
Steve broke from his thoughts as he noticed the change in Derricks breathing.
“Are you all right?”
Derrick struggled for air.
“Got to…keep moving…”
“Where?” Steve asked, knowing Derrick didn’t have an answer.
Standing up, Derrick paced back and forth. Energy surged through him. It dared him to do anything other than stay a moment longer.
“I’ve got to get out of this town. The more distance the more clear my thoughts will become. Right?”
“I guess that sounds right.” Steve said, not wanting to upset Derrick any further. “You’re going to keep walking then?”
“I’ll never make it on foot, they’ll catch me.”
Steve thought for a moment and then snapped his fingers.
“The Church where I work. You could hide out there until we figure out where you could…”
Derrick had stopped listening. He had to leave; he had to leave now.
“…get some food from my house, a couple of magazines. You’ll be comfortable for a little while. Then…”
“Get up.” Derrick said, commanding more than asking. “We’re leaving.”
Steve stood up, yawning.
“Can you drive that?” Derrick said, pointing over the dumpster into the banks parking lot.
Steve laughed as he looked to where the finger was pointed.
“Can you drive that?” Derrick repeated.
“It’s nice.” Steve said smiling.
“Can you drive it?”
“I’m sure I could, a car’s a car. But it’s not ours to take.”
“Just to get out of town. We’ll ditch it somewhere good as new.”
Steve was flattered that Derrick would consider inviting him along on his adventure, but wasn’t sure what the point of the adventure was. He knew if he went home he would regret not taking the chance to be apart of whatever might happen.
‘Wait,’ Steve thought, trying to think logically. ‘I’m not a car thief.’
“Wait,” Steve said. ‘I’m not a car thief!”
“You’re covered in blood, and you’ve been lying behind a dumpster.”
“What are you saying?”
“You do…” Derrick said slowly. “…what you do.”
Steve liked hearing his own words used against him.
‘Maybe I am a car thief,’ Steve thought. ‘But I don’t want to go to jail.’
“But I don’t want to go to jail.” Steve said.
“Then you had better drive fast.”
The man walked slowly out of the bank and into the sunny afternoon. A bird chirped, a woman pushed a stroller down the sidewalk, church bells rang in the distance; a predictable day in a predictable town. He put his key in the car door, thinking about which errand he would run next.
Derrick tackled the man to the ground.
Steve stood watching as the two rolled on the ground scratching and pulling each other’s hair - the way people fight in real life as opposed to what Steve had seen in the movies. It looked like an even match until the man successfully pinned Derrick.
“Someone call the police!” The man shouted as Derrick struggled to break free.
Derrick looked at Steve, who stood watching.
“Help me, you idiot!”
“Police! Someone call the police!”
Steve walked to where they were struggling on the ground. The man looked up, thinking it was someone to help, and saw Steve’s bloodstained face.
“Get him off of me!” Derrick yelled.
“You didn’t say anything about hurting anyone.”
“Did you think he would just give us his car?” Derrick’s voice was strained and his face bright red.
Steve picked up a rock and held it high above the strangers’ head.
“Police! Someone call the police!”
“Hit him!” Derrick yelled. “Hit him!”
A group of women were looking out the window of the bank.
“Hit him with the rock!”
“I can’t. Wait, I’ve got an idea.”
Dropping the rock to the ground Steve picked up a hand full of dirt.
“Police! Somebody call the…umphhh.”
The man loosened his grip as dirt filled his mouth and eyes.
“I’m sorry, sir.” Steve said.
Derrick took the opportunity to break free from the momentarily blinded man.
“It’s just dirt,” Steve continued, “it will wash right out. I’m sure the bank would let you use their bathroom if…”
“Get in the car!” Derrick yelled.
Sirens could be heard in the distance.
Taking the keys that hung from the drivers’ side door, Steve got in and unlocked the passenger’s side for Derrick.
Derrick was yelling in his ear. Outside his door the man was stumbling to his feet. Inside the bank could be seen the general commotion that was occurring.
‘This is really something,’ Steve thought. ‘I bet it will make the news.’
Steve started the car and began pushing random buttons. Derrick continued yelling.
Finally Steve found the button he was looking for and the roof of the convertible slowly came down. With the top down everything was louder; the man spitting and cursing, the police sirens approaching, the birds, the engine. He could even here the people in the bank.
“I want to thank you. It means a lot that you’ve put your trust in me.”
Derrick took a deep breath and spoke as calmly as he could.
The cops were in sight, with their presence came a realization.
“I’ve done this before.” Steve said. “I’ve done this a hundred times before.”
The cops were thirty yards away.
“And you agreed with me. You do what you do.”
Putting the car in gear, Steve slammed down his foot and they were off…fast.
The cops were nowhere to be seen, having been quickly lost in town.
Outside Derrick’s window, trees passed at such a rapid rate they blurred into shades of brown and green. The wind howled in his face, throwing his hair back and drying out his eyes. Steve was yelling but he couldn’t understand what; he had never been so terrified.
“You spend your life doing something, and you never really know why. Then a moment like this presents itself and it all makes sense.” Steve shouted.
Derricks’ knuckles were white as he held the seat belt tight against his chest. He wanted to close his eyes but was unable too.
“My brother bought me a video game system a couple years ago. At first I didn’t think I would be into it, but boy, was I wrong.”
Thoughts of sitting in the day room leisurely looking out the window came to Derrick. If he was at Harkem Hills that’s what he would be doing. The boring monotony he so despised now seemed a safety he wished he could nestle into.
They entered a straightaway.
The car was traveling at eighty-seven miles per hour.
“It came with a racing game. You raced by yourself, time trials. After you beat the times set by the game, you were left to compete against yourself. The more I played the better I got.”
The car was traveling at ninety-two miles per hour.
“All I played were racing games, and I beat them all!”
The tension Derrick was experiencing was too much to be contained in his chest alone. It spread into his stomach causing knots to form out of the knots already there. It spread to his legs making them tighten to the point of cramping. It spread to his arms, neck, jaw, cheeks, and temples. To his left he saw a lake shining under the afternoon sun.
The car was traveling at ninety-six miles per hour.
“There were points where I questioned why I liked them so much. I didn’t feel they were anything other than a mere past time, but now I understand their significance. They were a training ground for today. A preparation needed for me to help you. Who knew?”
The straightaway was coming to an end; Steve could see the sharp right approaching fast. He looked at the speedometer.
“If we don’t get it to a hundred before this turn, we won’t have another chance. Let’s go for it!”
The car was traveling at ninety-eight miles per hour.
“Right, my friend?” Steve yelled.
One hundred miles per hour.
Looking to his right, Steve saw Derrick had lost consciousness. He brought his eyes back to the road; the turn was closer than it should have been. He slammed on the brakes but it was too late. The road turned to the right; the car went straight out over the lake.
Weightless and cold, Derrick regained consciousness. He opened his eyes and saw a solitary bird flying in the sky. His body felt numb and for a moment he felt he might be dead; his eyes letting him have one more view of nature before fading to a permanent black. He kicked his legs, their movement a sign he was alive.
Steve felt the kicking.
“Are you awake?”
The voice was inches behind Derrick’s ear.
“I think so.” Derrick said, watching the bird.
“Good, can you swim?”
The bird faded into the distance.
“I’ve never swan a day in my life, why do you ask?”
Lowering his eyes, Derrick saw where they were.
“I can’t swim! I can’t swim!”
Steve tightened his grip around Derrick’s chest.
“Relax, we’re almost at the shore. If you struggle you’ll drown us both.”
“We’re going to drown!” Derrick yelled, throwing his head back into Steve’s busted nose.
The flash of pain caused Steve to loosen his grip and let Derrick slide under the water. Blood flowed from Steve’s nose as Derrick pulled him under. With all his strength, Steve grabbed Derrick and swan towards the shore. With his feet able to touch the ground, he dragged his friend to safety.
Once on dry land, Steve lay on his back and stretched his body out; exhausted physically, yet mentally on fire. He was a lifesaver. A ‘hero’, one might say.
‘It’s moments like this,’ Steve thought, ‘that really define what kind of person you are. This…is a truth.’
As he nodded his head in agreement with himself, a shadow formed over him.
“Are you all right?”
Steve looked up into the eyes of the girl. She wore a look of concern on her face that he wanted to see turned into a smile. He tried to speak but blood from his nose filled his mouth. He gagged for a moment then coughed, blood spraying from between his lips.
“I’m fine, thanks for asking.”
Lily’s look of concern turned to confusion.
“What about your friend?”
Derrick lay face down, his feet still in the water. Turning on his side he threw up most of the lake water he had swallowed. Softly he began groaning.
“He’s okay.” Steve said, sitting up. “He just needs a minute or two. He almost drowned…and I saved him!”
“I’m sure he’ll be grateful for the rest of his life.”
Derrick began speaking softly between shallow breaths.
Steve walked side by side with Lily while Derrick stayed a few paces behind.
They reached Lily’s house and Derrick was calmed slightly. It was a nice home with woods on either side.
“My parents are out back so you guys just go up to my room and I’ll get you some food.”
“Are your parents going to mind you having company?” Steve said. “I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”
“That’s sweet of you, Steve. But it’ll be fine. Although you might want to clean yourself up. If my mom sees you like this she might insist on taking you to the hospital.”
Inside the house she directed them up the stairs to her room while she went to the kitchen.
“She seems nice.” Steve said, climbing the stairs.
“She’s crazy. She doesn’t even know us. We could be criminals for all she knows.”
“She’s just being nice.” Steve said, reaching the top of the stairs. “And besides…I think we are criminals.”
Lily’s room reminded Derrick of the rooms at Harkem; A bed, a chair, and a desk with a lamp.
The only decorations were two paintings hung side by side. One was an abstract that reminded Derrick of the trees on the side of the road. The other was of an expressionless clown wiping off his makeup.
Steve was lying in Lily’s bed; moving pillows around getting as comfortable as possible.
“You’re soaking wet. Get off her bed.”
“You’re right,” Steve said, getting up. He walked to the open bedroom door and leaned into the hallway. “Lily! Hey, Lily!”
“What!” Lily yelled from the kitchen downstairs.
“Do you have any dry cloths we could put on?”
“Look in my closet!”
Steve turned back into the room.
“She said to look in the closet.”
After picking out some cloths, Steve went down the hall to bathroom to clean up and change. Derrick quickly changed in Lily’s room.
The two sat on the floor as Lily entered with a tray full of ham and cheese sandwiches, fruit, a bottle of juice, and glasses.
“Lunch is served.” She said, placing the tray on the floor between Steve and Derrick. “Do you guys need anything else?”
“This is perfect.” Steve said, biting into a sandwich.
“This will be fine.” Derrick said, pouring a drink.
Lily sat down beside Steve and grabbed an apple.
“So how long have you two been friends?”
“A couple of hours now.” Steve said. “This sandwich is delicious. The perfect amount of mayonnaise, and that’s hard to do.”
“Thank you, I’ve been practicing.” Lily said, smiling at Steve in a way that made Derrick uncomfortable. “So you two just met this morning?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of a funny story. I was on my way to the A.T.M when…”
“Where did you get these paintings?” Derrick said, not wanting Steve to say anymore.
“I painted them myself.”
“Wow,” Steve said with a mouth full of food. “That’s real talent you’ve got.”
Lily blushed; Steve didn’t notice, Derrick did.
It was dark when Derrick woke up. Music could be heard downstairs; a sort of light jazz, which was interrupted every few moments by the sound of laughter. He sat up and stretched; his back stiff from lying on the floor. Turning on the lamp he saw he was alone.
His first thought was to climb out the window and make a run for the woods, but he was hungry again and thought at the very least he should get some more food before continuing on. Slowly, he walked down the stairs and into the living room.
Lily’s parents sat side by side on the coach, each with a glass of wine. Steve sat opposite them in an over stuffed armchair. On the floor between them Lily sat cross-legged; her back to the logs burning in the fireplace. Lily noticed Derrick first, and was unable to hide the sour look that passed over her face.
“Here he is.” Steve said, noticing Derrick.
The parents looked at Derrick and smiled.
“Hello. Did you sleep all right?” Lily’s mom said.
Lily’s dad stood, extending his hand.
“I’m Glen, and this is my wife, Sara. It’s nice to meet you.”
Derrick shook Glen’s hand.
“Please have a seat.” Sara said to Derrick.
Derrick took his place in the less opulent, less comfortable of the armchairs.
“Continue your story.” Steve said, taking a sip of hot chocolate.
“So…” Glen said, sitting back down. “I was getting a coffee, and the woman in front of me was buying lottery tickets. For some reason it sounded like a good idea. I bought three tickets, each one based on numbers that corresponded to my life, Sara’s life, or Lily’s life. When the numbers were announced and the man said Lily’s birth date, shoe size, and favorite number…”
“Seven,” Lily said. “It’s not that original, but it worked.”
“…our lives changed forever. We waited until Lily finished high school and then we moved out here.”
“Three years later and here we are,” Lily said. “Happy as can be.”
“It’s a dream come true.” Steve said. “There’s nothing better than good things happening to good people.”
“What are you going to do now?” Derrick said. “Live in the middle of nowhere with a pile of money?”
Glen and Sara looked at each other, noticing the tone in Derrick’s voice.
“I wouldn’t say this is the middle of nowhere,” Sara said. “This is a beautiful place to live; the woods, the lake, the peace and quiet. It’s a blessed life.”
Derrick bit his lip and stared at the fireplace.
“Do you want some more hot chocolate, Steve?” Lily said.
“Do you want some, Derrick?” Sara said.
“If it’s all right with you, I’d like to take a shower. Then I’ll be on my way.”
As Derrick reached the top of the stairs the talking and laughter started again.
The shower was refreshing; the pressure strong, the hot water plentiful. After twenty minutes he got out and dried off. Once dressed, he walked into the hallway. Down stairs he could here Glen and Sara; but not Steve or Lily. He went to Lily’s closed bedroom door and listened.
“How much trouble do you think I’m in?” Steve was saying.
“I really don’t know. You shoved dirt in some guys face, then stole his car and drove it into a lake. At least there wasn’t a gun involved…that’s to your benefit.”
“Yeah…no gun is a positive.”
“I’ll tell you what though, I’ll come visit you in prison every chance I get.”
“Really? I feel better already. Will you put your hand against the glass like in the movies?”
“Of course.” Lily said laughing. “It will all be so painfully romantic.”
Steve smiled brighter than he had in years.
“What ever happens, it will be worth it.”
“Why’s that?” Lily said, knowing the answer.
“Because I’m able to do this.” Steve leaned forward and kissed her softly on the lips.
“And I can do this.” Lily said, diving on top of him.
“My nose! Watch the nose.”
Derrick pulled away from the door and, in spite of himself, smiled.
There was knocking on the front door.
Walking quietly to the top of the stairs, Derrick could hear Sara speaking.
“Hello, Officer. Please come in.”
Sprinting into Lily’s room, Derrick saw Steve and Lily holding hands on the bed.
“The cops are here.”
“I told Glen and Sara what happened.” Steve said.
Derrick stood silent, feeling confused and betrayed.
“I feel terrible about what we did. It’s best to just take the punishment. You know, to free up our consciences.”
Glen called for the two to come downstairs.
Derrick opened the window. It was a two-story drop; he was sure he could land without injury.
“There’s nowhere to run.” Lily said. “If it’s a better life you’re looking for, here’s your chance to start it.”
Derrick thought of what a night running through the woods would lead to…nothing.
Steve got off the bed and stood by Derrick. The night air came through the window. Derrick took a deep breath as the bedroom door opened and the police officer entered.
“I want to thank you, Derrick.”
Derrick felt cramped in the backseat of the cop car, but it didn’t bother him. His handcuffs were a little too tight, but that didn’t bother him either. The ride was smooth and he was glad to see the lake as it looked under the moon.
“Why do you want to thank me? Look at the trouble I’ve got you in.”
“I’ve learned a lot about myself today. Plus, without you I wouldn’t have met Lily. Do you think we’ll make a good couple?”
“You seemed very natural together.”
“You’ve given me more than you know.”
“I’ve given you a couple years in jail.” Derrick said, turning towards Steve.
“It probably won’t be that long. Glen and Sara said they would help us get a good lawyer. I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out.”
“You’re an interesting man, Steve. I’m glad we’ve gotten to know each other.”
“I’m glad, too. You’re a good friend, Derrick.”
“So are you, Steve.”
“Hey, Derrick. I think my handcuffs are too tight.”
“So are mine, Steve. So are mine.”