"Matches" by Emma Murray
The girl slammed the door so hard that it popped back open and she had to take that extra embarrassing step back to force it closed. Her mother was still yelling in the other room, but the muffled screeching meant nothing anymore now that she was leaving. She would stop soon anyway and inevitably worry and miss the girl like she always had, but this time the girl wouldn’t come home unless things changed.
Her boots crunched through the thick snow, squeaking as it compacted like Styrofoam under her feet. A few snowflakes drifted lazily through the air, but it seemed to have mostly stopped. This was good as the girl was only fourteen years old and would have to walk to any destination. No buses came out this far from town. The only reliable mode of transportation for the girl and her friends was having their parents chauffeur them around, but tonight the girl would have to walk.
She thought about her next move as she walked down the dirt road that led to the dark highway. Abby or Caitlin’s houses were out of the question: those would be the first places her mother would look. There was one secret place she could think of, and with a smile, the girl took out her phone and texted the boy from the party last week. The boy with the slightly pouty lips that twitched a little before she had drunkenly kissed them. Dark-haired, sardonic but irresistible, tall enough and old enough and handsome enough to fall for: Daniel.
Warmth washed over her in a wave as she remembered that night, but her fingers were so cold, she could barely tap the screen, being forced to delete typo after typo before successfully reaching out for help. Quickly, she tucked her hands into her pockets and kneaded them into the soft cloth, coaxing the blood back, until she felt the familiar buzz and brought both phone and hands back into the frigid air. Four rapid vibrations before she could even look. Out with the guys. Try to pick you up soon. Stay on the highway. I’ll see you walking.
A snort of frustration escaped through her nose in a puff of steam as she glared at the messages, but it soon faded back into her usual malaise of apathy. Apathy was her own descriptor of herself. Her mother called it overdramatic teenage angst. Her stepdad called it being a stupid little bitch. Her therapist had called it clinical depression, but those medications never helped, so that shows how much he knew. Apathy was her chosen word, and although she knew it had negative connotations for most, she didn’t think of it that way. Each day, over her whole life, she seemed to care less and less, and while she missed the feelings she used to have, she also embraced the emptiness and absence of pain.
The dirt road finally met the snaking black asphalt that stretched out into the woods, completely unlit this far out. The girl had anticipated this and brought a flashlight to help save her phone’s battery. The wind whipped through her knit hat and attempted to tangle her hair, but the girl was thankful that her coat and several layers at least kept her body warm. Just twenty minutes down the road and her nose began to start its constant drip, only interrupted by the occasional dainty wipe of her sleeve across her face, trying her best to preserve her carefully applied foundation.
Ten more minutes passed and then the trees lit up and cast tall shadows as two cars swung around the bend, blinding the girl who instinctively jumped off the paved road into the piles of snow pushed up on the shoulder. Her heart leapt into her throat, but the cars didn’t stop, leaving her in darkness again. With a soft snort of embarrassment, she took out her phone again and texted Daniel again, with slightly more urgency. Then there was nothing to do but wait and keep walking.
Three more cars passed her, though thankfully they didn’t startle her as much as the others. She checked her phone every couple minutes but it stayed as dark as the road, and when she forced it awake, all she saw was the battery percentage dropping ever lower.
The girl had heard of hitchhiking, but it was something from long ago, an antiquity like horse buggies, but still, the idea crept into her mind and rerouted all her thoughts back to it again and again. It would be nice to be in a dry, warm car, and even though just the word “hitchhiker” seemed spun in the red thread of danger and murder, that almost excited her more than it scared her. What were the odds that some stranger way out here in the country would be a monster, just waiting to abduct a girl in the night? It’s not like you haven’t gone through things almost as nightmarish at home, she scoffed to herself. Then she decided.
Taking off her backpack and crouching down on the side of the road, the girl removed the full vodka bottle and took a long swig. A dreadful taste but pleasant burn flowed down her throat and she instantly felt a little warmer. She checked her phone again: still nothing. Another quick swig and she packed up before starting the trek down the dark road again. She practiced sticking out her arm with her thumb outstretched, but she quickly felt foolish and pulled her arm back to her side.
Her feet crunched down the road, sometimes slipping a little on the ice beneath, for over a quarter-mile before another car appeared. Catching her breath in her throat, she painted on a wide, friendly grin and stuck out her thumb as the headlights overcame her. Blinded, she had to close her eyes, but she made sure to maintain the smile that she was sure would win over any driver, but the lights continued on and just left her in darkness again.
With a sigh, she heaved her bag to the ground again and took another long drink. The bottle was much lighter when she returned it, and both confidence and warmth cradled her as the drink took effect. The girl checked her phone, but this time her heart hardened at his lack of response. He was just some loser from a party. Why had she expected anything more? Still, a few hot tears trailed down her face and she muttered a curse under her breath.
Before she had finished zipping up her backpack, another set of headlights weaved through the trees ahead then slipped around the curve and spotlighted her as a dark and blinded silhouette. Quickly, she flashed a smile and stuck out her thumb. The lights passed her and she opened her eyes. Then she heard the brakes squeaking slightly and the snow crunching as the car pulled over onto the shoulder a couple yards behind her.
Throwing back her head with a quiet laugh of relief, she picked up her backpack and turned toward the car. Both front doors were already open, each with a man climbing out from their seat.
“Chloe Hudson?” the driver asked and started to walk toward her.
“What?” her voice quivered, not comprehending. Then the badge, the holster, the uniform all registered in her mind.
“Chloe, your mother called us. She’s worried about you. We’re going to take you home now,” the police officer’s firm voice boomed as the second shone a flashlight on her.
“No!” the girl shouted and ran off the shoulder, stumbling down the embankment and grabbing trees to help her descent into the forest. The flashlight bobbed through the trees after her and the men were shouting, trying to follow her, but she was too fast for them. Inhibition and fear propelled her through the snow, darting around trees while small branches whipped at her face. Panting and with wild animal eyes, she ran until she was sure they had lost her.
They’ll call for backup. They’ll be back. These thoughts raced through her mind as she caught her breath curled up behind a fallen tree. Hitchhiking wouldn’t work now. They’d expect her to head back to the road. She’d have to keep going or they would find her, and she promised herself this time there was no going back. No more chances for her mother to believe her. She wasn’t going to let that man touch her again.
Taking out the bottle and starting to drink again, she suddenly realized just how intoxicated she’d become and decided to put it back untouched this time. She needed the warmth and comfort, but right now she needed her wits about her as well.
Trudging through the forest, the girl tried to walk far enough from the road to be more difficult to find, but also relatively parallel to it so she could find her way back, but she knew that her drunken state was not helping her efforts and she’d likely be farther off than she’d intended. After walking for twenty or thirty minutes, the cold was getting to her and she knew she’d have to stop for a while.
She knew he hadn’t texted her, she hadn’t felt the familiar buzz in her pocket, but she took the phone in her hand out of habit. At first, she didn’t believe the black screen that greeted her, but several taps of the various buttons confirmed it was dead. He wasn’t going to text anyway, she thought to herself while pushing down those terrifying thoughts of being alone and hopelessness that tried to bubble up inside her. If she could just rest for a little while, she could probably walk all the way into town. There’d be places to hide there. Warm, safe places. She could figure it out if she could just make it there.
She found it difficult to rest with the adrenaline pumping through her and her mind giving her visions of flashing red lights or beams of flashlights cutting through the brush every few minutes, sending her into a startled huddle, with her legs pulled against her chest. She was shivering and her pants were wet from the snow melting under her, but she barely noticed now that her brain was addled with vodka and fear.
The snow fell around her and gave her a little comfort, knowing it would soon cover her footprints.
Those policemen must think I’m crazy, she thought. Just some dumb runaway. They’re the dumb ones for never listening to me. Probably think my mommy just tried to take my phone away or ground me or something. Maybe it’s better they didn’t listen. I don’t think their fragile worldview could handle it.
She knew she shouldn’t but she took out the vodka again and let the burning sensation rush down her throat and radiate out to her skin. When she put it away, there was only a little over a quarter of the bottle left.
Time to keep moving, she thought, but her legs were numb beneath and she had to pull herself up against the tree to even stand. Forcing her legs to obey her, the girl stumbled a few paces before losing her balance and vomiting into the snow. She lay down, the side of her face buried in frozen white, and then vomited again, but this time she felt better. With tremendous effort, she got to her feet again and walked on numb legs for another ten minutes before she became disoriented and had to rest again.
Thinking back to a survivalist on a television show, she burrowed into the snow and tried to create a small space of moderate warmth, balling up and partially covering the entrance with her backpack.
The world started to spin around her and, without warning, her heart lurched and she missed her mom so much she began to weep. Composing herself a little, she told herself it wasn’t her current mother she missed, but the loving one she had when she was small.
Closing her eyes and trying to fight the spinning and impending tiredness, she focused on her favorite fragments of childhood memories. Her mother handing her a surprise strawberry ice cream at the neighborhood pool. Ripping through the silver wrapping paper on Christmas day to reveal the art set she’d been asking for all year. The time in third grade when her teacher selected her drawing as the showcase piece for the art show and how her mom had photographed her next to it, grinning from ear to ear. She smiled a little just thinking about it.
The memories gave her a little warmth, one by one, and soon she didn’t feel cold at all. In fact, she had started to sweat. A burning built up under her skin and her flesh started to sear. Ripping off her scarf and jacket, she panted like a dog. Then the spinning and the heat overcame her and she vomited so suddenly she didn’t even have time to turn her head. The unrelenting heat picked up and she couldn’t stop herself from ripping off the sweaters and finally even her jeans. Throwing the clothes outside her tiny den, she dug deeper into the snow and nestled herself into its coldness.
Finally, the intense hot flash was passing and her slight body curled as deeply in on itself as possible, shivering. She tried to reach out for her clothes, slightly understanding through the grogginess that she’d acted foolish, but she found she hadn’t the strength to even pull a sweater into her burrow. Sleep pushed heavy on her eyelids and so the girl retracted back into her comfortable, warm memories and told herself she’d be better in the morning when she’d slept a little and sobered up.
When the police officers found her, it was already past noon. The fresh snow had made her tracks difficult to follow and covered most of the entrance to her discreet den. They all stood around and commented how her green sweater and deep auburn coat had been the only way they’d found her at all, especially with another snowstorm on the way. The male officers moved uncomfortably as they dug her small, blue, almost nude body out of the hole.
“We should have a talk at the high school about this. Tell this story to scare them dumbasses from running away,” said one officer, scratching his beard and averting his eyes from the corpse.
“Poor girl. Chloe, right?” asked another, but no one answered him.
“They’d run away anyway and you know it,” said a third. “That’s just a part of growing up. They’re gotta realize you can’t just run away from everything.” Then he thought about this girl that looked so familiar but he couldn’t place, let out a soft sigh, picked up the green sweater, shook it out, and placed it over the girl, trying to give her one last act of kindness.
Emma Murray won the Scholastic Gold Key Award in 2005 for the short story "My Collection."