“Who... who are you?” In nearly a whisper.
She asked for his name because she knew she needed to hear it out loud. Not made up, not invented. He was real, and maybe even... really there. She had been outside, before, she had played in the sand. There was a few moments once in a park, she ran away when her mom left and after her father, not for the first time, had turned his anger onto her. She ran away to find the fairies, and had found him instead.
“Dustin.” He said urgently. “I'm from the neighborhood. You have to tell me what's going on, why are you in there? How long have you... wait it doesn't matter. It's locked.” The door knob rattled with a creak of protest as he tried it. “Where's the key? Is your father home now?” A part of him wanted to ask her if she remembered him the way he remembered her, but now wasn't the time for a conversation like that. He focused on action, something he could do right now to help. Whether or not the person who locked her in there was her father he'd heard so much about was an issue that would have to wait.
“Dustin.” She breathed. Calm, thoughtful, confident Dustin. She tried to focus on the sounds coming in from outside. Tools being removed from the rack, being tried to pry the door in some way. Proof of something existing outside of herself. The feeling of the walls shaking when he wedged a pitchfork against the door and tried to leverage it open. The sound of him telling her to stand back. A grunt of frustration after a long time. Something being thrown to the ground in disgust.
The tools he tried weren't working, but he didn't want to leave her even for a moment. This felt like a fleeting chance they had to take. Had her voice, in quiet mutterings and calls for help been the ghost on the wind all along? If it had, they had missed many chances already. “How long... have you been in here?” He asked while he worked. He wanted her to keep talking, to not let her panic or anything. And while he dreaded the answer, he badly wanted to know.
“I've always been in here.” She said, as simply as her explanation so many years ago in the park. He could feel the blood drain from his face a bit. He ran through here every day. Every. Day. His heart beat angrily in his chest with the adrenaline from his effort. Action... he had to do something. Now.
“How long until he comes back?” He asked her urgently, pressing his fingertips against the slats in the door as he braced his back in frustration against it. He could feel the anger through his legs and to the soles of his feet.
She didn't know. Usually is was within a day of when she ran out of 'food'. She was nearly out right now. Probably tonight. But it was morning, Dustin had come by early on the way to school today to investigate the noises he'd heard days ago. Right now, they might have hours. It was from a spark of hope and desperation for an answer that he suggested he come back with better tools.
He was going to return she had to believe in him. There was panic in her chest when he told her, but she didn't want to beg. There was a mocking in her mind, a nagging that really even this was elaborately created by her own frail psyche, but she wanted to believe in the world outside of herself.
“I'm going to get some tools I'll be right back. Don't worry Meghan I'm coming back.” He repeated it, again feeling her fear, but he let the frustration he was feeling now fuel his sprint away from the building and away from the marshy land her house and her prison was on. It carried him home- the parents went to work at the same time school started and both worked today, they were gone and the house was empty. Luck, or fate? After a quick debate about it he decided to change quickly too. It wouldn't do for him to be running around in a school uniform today, while he was obviously not attending class. He had a feeling he wasn't going to go today anyways. It felt like seconds to him that he was back a Meghan's place.
Hours, it seemed to take hours. But the pins in the hinges came loose, one by one, and fell with a wet thud to the earth as he worked. He talked a little here and there, words of encouragement or small, cautious jokes. Mostly he was upbeat somehow- and it came through to her- the idea that things were going to be alright. The door gave way eventually (he still had to wedge it open first) and she wasted no time forcing it the rest of the way from her end. Gratitude pooled in her eyes and when she reached him her face fell lightly, tentatively against his chest. “Thankyou.” She whispered in a rush. He had nothing to say he just nodded mutely.
Something changed in him in that moment and he pulled her into a tight hug. For some reason he knew he was never going to be an astronaut, he was never going back to that school. He couldn't bring her to his parents, he didn't think it would go well. She might end up back with her father if he brought her to the police. Adults had a way of getting what they wanted, and he didn't want to let her out of his sight now. But somehow he knew he was going to be there for her, whatever that meant. “Let's go.” He said. “Lets get out of here.”
She nodded after blinking in the sunlight and asking him to wait a moment. He watched as she nearly tripped over the front porch steps and ran inside the house to get her old stuffed fairy bear, the one that he remembered from the park. It looked brand new, like she had never held it again after that. He handed her a juice box from his fridge at home he'd brought with him and told her to take it slowly, but she didn't listen to that advice. After she finished it they sat for a moment, before leaving. She knew this was goodbye, she was never coming back here. She didn't seem worried about her father showing up, but that bothered him too. She really might have died of starvation. He couldn't stop thinking about it and he felt horrible. If only he'd payed more attention, she would have been out so much sooner. But even as a child, what could he have done for her then? He wondered. What could he do now?
Wordlessly she put her arm around him in a small hug, sensing that something was wrong, that he was wrestling with an idea or a worry. It was funny that she was the one trying to comfort him and not the other way around. He could say something about it, but now didn't seem like the best time for humor. It was odd, but he let it go because it felt... nice.
For Meghan this was the first time in a very, very long while there was peace in her mind. The voices couldn't say anything to her now: they had been proven wrong. And, to top it off she hadn't made him up.
She muttered a quick, "I told you so" under her breath to them. If he noticed anything weird about her then he didn't mention it. He just watched her for a while, deep in contemplation. After they got back up and he suggested again that they go she reached out and asked him the obvious question. Where was it that he wanted to go? She didn't want to come back to this place, ever. Her hand dug into the knit of his sleeve and she got her courage up. “Can I stay ...with you?”
He didn't do well with personal or dramatic moments so he shrugged her hand away, at first, embarrassed. “I have a cousin in Aurora Skies. I was thinking about going to visit him? Today, I mean right now actually. I was leaving this morning!" He laughed, struggling to be casual about the decision he had come to in the front seat of her dad's broken down car. "Would you... like to come along? I don't think he'd tell my parents or anyone else about you and you'd be safe there for a while. I mean, for as long as you'd like, I bet.”
Aurora Skies? Where was that? Was it far? She felt empowered to be free now and knew she would be willing to go anywhere with him (which probably should have scared her a bit but c'mon it was Dustin after all this time, he was the calmest person she'd ever met, not that she knew enough people to count on her hands) but why not go to his family or someone in town? She nodded, mutely at first because she had no idea what was next. That was when she realized, was he planning on dropping her off there, like luggage and returning home? A small, pointed weight of doubt compressed her chest for a moment. ...not panic, do not freak out. She reminded herself. Of course he has to come back home, otherwise it'd look suspicious that he's missing too.
She nodded, materializing a small smile that didn't reach her eyes. "That would be nice."
"Good." He smiled back at her, missing any deception in her expression. He suggested that they leave circuitously through the back roads of town and secure more food for the trip as discreetly as possible. People in town didn't really know her anymore, but he was always out with friends and knew a lot of people here. They wouldn't be too happy when he turned up missing. The thought occurred to leave a note for his parents, but what would it have to say?
Weaving through backyards, a quick stop at his place again for a sleeping bag (the only one he had) and a couple dollars of his allowance money, probably not enough for a train ride. Which was just as well, they were runaways now. It was going to be a long walk and a lot of camping or hitchhiking to get to where they needed to be.
“What are you doing? Why are we stopping?” She asked after he darted from cover behind the Firehouse. “There's a small community garden here,” He told her under his breath. It was early but there were always volunteers working at the firehouse. “We're getting lunch, you need more than juicy juice from my kid brother's lunchbox.”
She stooped to help him and for a few minutes they just worked together, gathering. It was another first, working for her food. Something felt right about it, even though it's not like the garden belonged to them. While she freed the last bell pepper on the last plant she found herself overwhelmed and just stood for a second, staring at what they'd gathered, feeling blessed and a little awed by it. It was so much, and she usually just got an apple if they were in season, nothing she got to eat was very fresh. She didn't even know if she liked peppers or what they tasted like. But she was going to get to have some.
Seeing her stand there, fixated and looking like she was going to cry, Dustin cleared his throat and held a hand out to help her up. “We should probably get going again.” He reminded her gently. She took his hand and pulled him into another hug, tighter than the last. She didn't even know what to say, so she said nothing. A silent sob came up in her throat and died there. She was not going to cry, she was going to be strong and not a burden. She never wanted to be a burden to anyone again.
After a moment she felt his arms encircle her, returning the embrace.
It seemed a little like he was humoring her, but she didn't care. Comfort was a rare thing in her life, and she needed this moment. She just hoped that it didn't make it too hard to be separated from him later, after he dropped her off. But what was the alternative, ask him not to leave her and keep him trapped somewhere he didn't belong? If they stayed together, wouldn't he eventually feel that way and come to resent her? Not something she wanted think about now. He felt her shoulders relax against him, and he let her go, watching her face with his eyebrows raised.
"Let's go." She nodded to him.
By noon they were at the edge of town, probably only two miles from the train station. It wasn't a direct route to Aurora Skies in the north, but it was a start and might get them halfway through their journey. Meghan seemed to be enjoying the experience so far and Dustin found himself far more concerned about their situation. “I don't have enough. I really don't think we can take the train like I was hoping,” he muttered, feeling less like a heroic savior and more like, well some idiot who randomly decided to run away from home this morning with no real plan in mind.
Once again, Meghan seemed to instinctively pick up on his mood and she just smiled at him. “I'm okay with camping out for a while and walking... or whatever.” She shrugged shyly. “I'm okay with anything right now. Besides, worst that could happen is we become farmers and sell some veggies on the way there, right? Not exactly like Johnny Appleseed, but maybe we can go door to door, convince people to plant peppers.”
He stared at her, disbelief evident on his features. He was having doubts besides himself. Where was her confidence coming from? When she reached for his hand this time he let her take it. It's not like anybody was watching them out here and although it felt a little childish he wanted to protect this feeling. It was like they were kids again. Although this time she was ranting less about the supernatural and trying to be practical. Not that he was planning to knock on the doors of strangers announcing that they were runaways attempting to finance their bid at freedom or anything.
He smiled at her. She was naive but it was really sweet how she kept trying to make him feel better. He felt a little stronger for it so he guessed it worked. Even though it's not as if he was afraid of the chance they were taking in leaving together, a couple of kids alone with no help. This was the right thing to do.
More than anything he was glad that he hadn't been too late. Nobody was going to treat her like that ever again, he vowed to himself. He didn't care if the whole town came looking for them.
All right I know what you're thinking, it's a little too early for romance. And isn't it though? These two are just kids, but they did these nice things because they were friends, frieeeennnndsssss, ya hear me!? They're sort of starting back from when they were kids again and that's all. It totally doesn't mean anything. It's not like either of them are hopelessly romantic or anything! (Even though cough I totally am). Fun fact: Meghan was secretly worried she was getting cancer from being in the sun for this entire scene, she didn't want to ruin the mood and bring it up.
I also noticed after writing this part that it reminded me a bit of one of my favortie book series I used to read when I was little called the Boxcar Children. That was a whole family of runaway kids, but it always made me want to have adventures or write about them.
Thanks for reading!