Penny Saved, Penny Yearned

God did it burn. An orange spike of angry flame pushing back at the blackness of a rural Tennessee night. Penny lingered in the tangerine haze and watched the slick slither of fire eek across the surface of her dad’s station wagon. She stayed until the encroaching yelp of coyotes pushed her on her way. She set off down the road, but God did that car burn.

            Home was at her back, somewhere beyond the bonfire Buick and that pack of coyotes. Mosquitos lighted on her legs. She hoped they’d be the only things to make a meal of her. Penny swatted, and swore, and soldiered on. The next street light was five miles down where her path met State Route 16. She let her mind sift through the possibilities of where to go and who to be. No one ever asked Penny what she wanted from her life, they just told her what she needed to do, and who she needed to be. She smacked another mosquito.

           “Maybe New York,” Penny said to the moon, “Chicago? Or shit, why not California?”

           The moon leered down at her, big and white. Penny wondered what it would look like from the shore of the Pacific instead of smothered by a black, saw tooth silhouette of pines ten miles south of nowhere.

           She blamed Mrs. Henson for her current state, but this had been something built over years in Lee Hollow, Tennessee. It may have been the holler that spawned her, but she didn’t belong there. Her first inclination of a life less country fried came when Marlene Pickett picked on her for her hoodies. Penny preferred black zip ups with her favorite bands emblazoned on the chest. Marlene Pickett, as well as most of the girls in her class, were connoisseurs of pink camo. She smiled and thought about the other night when she and Marlene came to blows at a graduation party over their differences in music. Penny didn’t believe Nashville was the center of the goddamned universe and Marlene’s argument to the contrary was a mean right hook. Marlene’s beau, Colton, wrestled her back to his truck and away from Penny before Penny could hit back.

           Penny rubbed the skin under her eye, still split from Marlene’s class ring, then brought her fingers down to the pocket of her hoodie and felt for her stolen treasure: a thick roll of twenties from the box her dad kept under the kitchen sink. A howl scratched at her ears, still too close for comfort. She should have grabbed her dad’s pistol. She should have kept the station wagon. She should go back home.

            Penny brushed away the doubts, but the mosquitos persisted. She padded down the road, one foot in front of the other until she chipped away at the mileage between her and State Route 16. The junction was coming up, a thin ribbon of yellow light which zig zagged between the pine needles. She let out a breath, but behind her, she heard another wail, metallic and cold. The coyotes answered then skittered away into the trees.

            “Shit,” Penny muttered, casting a look behind her. Sirens. Someone found the car. A chill licked up the small of her back. It turned her sweat to ice. Her ears prickled, and she felt a tug, like a thread pulled taught at her shoulders. It strained to drag her back toward home, toward the last Iber’s Grocery store in existence, back to the town still happy with dial-up internet and tube television. The siren grew louder, more threatening than the coyotes. It morphed into the voice of Mrs. Henson, trying to pawn her son off on Penny for the millionth time. It was the straw that broke Penny’s back.

            Mrs. Henson undoubtedly meant well, but Penny refused. Those polite refusals grew less and less amiable the more insistent Mrs. Henson became. Penny heard the words buzzing in her head, the words which sparked this exodus.

            “A girl like you ain’t gonna do no better, honey.” Mrs. Henson had grown bold in her attempts that morning.

            “I could do far better than your son. Your son is a gap-toothed moron,” had been Penny’s response. It was worth it just to see Mrs. Henson’s eyebrows raise in abject horror, tucking themselves under the curtain of her hideous, teased bangs. It was worth losing her job at Iber’s ten seconds later when Mrs. Henson screamed for the manager.

            Penny cursed and cast another look over her shoulder to the red and blue lights pummeling the tree line.  They heralded the approach of the ferryman come to take her back to the hellish Mayberry of Tennessee. In that moment she saw herself returned to her place in Lee Hollow, doomed to live out her days, the Sisyphus of the South. She clenched her fists, ground her teeth, and stepped off the road. She crunched her way through the needles and cones and hid in the shadow of the trees. She preferred the coyotes to Lee Hollow; they would devour her quickly.

            The lights bounced back and forth, but the siren died. Penny waited, her hands grew sticky with sap as she braced them against the bark of a pine. The cruiser crawled by just as Penny’s heart reached her temples. She followed the black and white brick of metal as it rolled down the road, spotlight slicing a path through the trees in front of it. She stayed well behind it, keeping off the road and out of sight as best she could. The Junction was up ahead, a row of road signs and arrows pointing in either direction. Across the road from her, she heard the crack of a branch.

            “The coyotes are back.” She told herself. She breathed in the scent of the woods and held it in her lungs. She breathed the air out in a silent prayer, then stepped onto State Route 16. The cruiser kicked its lights off and sped off to the right, back to town. Penny went left and walked toward a new start. Every now and again, she heard the clip of a branch or a yip from just out of sight. She tried not to let it get to her. She let her mind drift to thoughts of Los Angeles, of nights filled with a sprawling bed of lights that mirrored the starlit sky above. She pictured herself walking down streets punctuated by palm trees and swimming with music.

            She became so enveloped in her vision that she didn’t see the pair of yellow circles materialize in front of her, or the second, or the third. The snap of a branch behind her pulled Penny from her daze, and those L.A. lights dimmed into three pairs of eyes glimmering at her in the dark. Penny halted and for the first time that evening wondered if all this was right. If she ran, she might make it back to Lee Hollow. The soft thud of paws padded towards her from behind. Penny knew she couldn’t go back, not now. But there had to be more than this. Doubt circled in her mind, telling her all the things she couldn’t do, who she’d never be. It told her how, when they found her body, everyone would talk about poor Penny who just wandered off and died. No. Penny pushed back at those doubts. If she wanted out, she’d have to struggle or die, that was the price.

            No one from Lee Hollow ever heard from Penny after the day she vanished. All they had to go on was an abandoned husk of a car and one other thing. Marlene Pickett was the one who found it, on her way to the Walmart, just up State Route 16. She had her boyfriend pull the truck over, but Marlene jumped down to the road before it had even stopped. She made her way over to the huddled lump of black covered with leaves and dirt and kicked at it with her boot. It was the tattered remains of a hoodie, but nothing more.

Christian Gabennesch is a native of Northern Kentucky. He spends his time writing, drawing, or, more likely, procrastinating. He talks to his cats as if they're people and treats people with a fear and aversion typically reserved for carnivorous, jungle beasts. This is his first published piece.