I turned my back on the harsh glare of headlights behind me.
A horn blared in the distance, and I flinched slightly at the grating sound.
Damn cars think they own the whole highway. I sighed and brushed back a stray strand of ruffled black hair away from my face.
It had been a long night and my chest burned from too-deeply inhaling the cold January night air.
In a futile attempt at warmth, I drew my thin black jacket
tighter around myself and crossed my arms over my chest. And for a moment, I almost felt warm.
My breath formed white, smoke-like puffs ahead of me.
As I walked by it, my dark eyes were unconsciously drawn to the graffiti-covered highway overpass, the same one that Sara threw herself off of on Christmas.
Even now, I can clearly see her limp figure falling in a graceful arch to the ground, where her delicate form crumbled on the grey cement.
Sometimes, I hate Sara for being so selfish.
Other times, I envy her for that moment of peace she found, that serene expression that remained on what little of her face that was still recognizable.
I tightened my arms around me, though not because of the cold.
Tearing my gaze away from the overpass, I knew that I could not linger there all night.
When Dad finally woke from his alcohol-induced sleep, he would undoubtedly be worried, his bloodshot eyes wide and panicked; the smell of fear almost overpowering the strong stench of day-old Jack Daniels soaked into the once clean beige carpet.
But, I promised Mom that I would take care of him. Of course,
I would have promised Mom anything when she silently begged me with her large brown, tired eyes while she lay dying in that sterile white hospital bed, nestled under one of grandmas homemade quilts.
Well, a promise is a promise, I suppose.
And really, who am I to judge my father when I spent a good deal of my savings on liquor myself?
I took a deep breath that seemed to freeze me internally.
I relished that bitter sting; sometimes it was the only reminder that I was still alive.
Reluctantly, I turned. The bright lights of passing cars blinded me for a moment, but I was not bothered.
After all, I've spent my whole life walking in the dark.
Luckily, the way home wasn't too far.
Just five minutes on foot from the old Conoco gas station with the glowing red and yellow sign that had both C's burnt out, to the Sunny Springs Apartment Complex, a small group of identical red brick buildings ringed with black iron, fire-escapes twisting around every door and window.
Then just up the rusted blacks steps to the left of the rusted aluminum garden shed.
Then finally to the worn white door labeled with a tarnished brass 7B.
Looking at the ever-present collection of old shoes and yellowed newspapers that littered my path, I knew I was home.
I paused, staring at the whitewashed door for a moment, surprised by how pale and sick I looked even in the dirty brass doorknob.
But, knowing that I couldn't delay forever, I turned it slowly, only to be nearly over-powered by the nauseating stench of stale alcohol before the door was even fully open.
Dad was slumped down on one side of the couch, his bloodshot eyes squinting at me in the dim light of the one bulb that had yet to burn out from the cream table lamp.
Even in the oppressive darkness, I could see the coffee brown and pale yellow sweat stains on his once pristine white work shirt.
It was painful to see him in such a state.
"Hi, Dad." I muttered softly through chapped lips.
"Hey," He slurred. "Where ya been?"
His voice was mild and curious. I think I would've preferred rage to this drunken disinterest.
"Oh, around." I said casually, avoiding his gaze.
An awkward silence stretched between us, filled with all the things we'd never say.
This was how things were between us now, both of us walking around on eggshells.
He was too afraid to yell at me for being out past curfew, too afraid I'd leave him like Mom did.
And me, well, how could I bear to add another shadow to his once vibrant, warm brown eyes?
Thus, I never spoke about the musty smell of old food, alocohol, and misery, and Dad watched in silence as I flouted my curfew, trying to escape, if only for a few hours.
"Well, good night." I said at last.
He mumbled a thick "G'night" dropping his gaze back to the dirty once-beige carpet as I fled to the sanctity of my room.
With my soft blue bedroom door and an Amy Lee poster separating me from that sad shell of a man in the living room, I was finally able to relax slightly.
I dropped bonelessly onto my too small bed, curling my legs back so that my feet wouldn't hang over the end.
Lying on my baby blue bedspread, I kicked off my too-big black shoes and stared unseeingly at the blank white ceiling.
In the silence of my room, I could hear the soft rustling sound of the wind outside, and a passing cloud obscured the moon for a moment, steeping my sanctuary in even greater darkness.
I allowed my eyes to slip shut, though I wasn't tired.
Then, the familiar strains of "My Immortal" began to sound from the top of my vanity.
Below my reflection in the mirror, I could see my silver Motorola flip-phone glowing softly with white light from the small screen which declared "incoming call" in small black letters.
"I'm so tired of being here, suppressed by all my childish fears.."
Normally, I liked my ring tone, but lately, it had become something of an annoyance.
Finally, when the caller seemed determined to let the damn thing ring forever, I surrendered and picked it up.
"Hello?" I asked, trying not to sound annoyed.
"Alley?" It was Connor's voice.
"Yeah, what's up?" I asked casually.
"Just got off work, and I'm near your place. Wanna hang for a while?"
His voice was worried and hopeful.
I didn't have the heart to say no.
"Sure, meet me out front." I agreed.
"Out front" is what we called the driveway leading to the first building of the apartment complex.
"Alright." He sounded pleased. "See you in five."
Click. He hung up.
I snapped my phone shut, set it back on the vanity, and again pulled on my too-big sneakers.
Pushing aside the bars on my window with ease born from years of practice, I slipped down the black fire-escape to the chainlink fence that separated Sunny Springs from the rest of the world.
The fence only reached my chest so I usually jumped over it, but tonight I felt rather lethargic and simply used the perpetually unlocked gate.
Standing on the wet crab grass beside the front driveway, I looked down the road for Connor's ancient olive green jeep.
Several minutes ticked away in silence before I finally saw the familiar pair of pale yellow headlights driving towards me.
In the dark, I couldn't actually see Connor's vibrant red hair through the spotted windows, but I could imagine it, obnoxiously orange and slightly frizzy.
'Ah, the Lone Carrot rides again,' I thought with a slight smile pulling at my lips for the first time in a long while.
He pulled over next to me, and I tugged the dented passenger door open with a vicious yank of the handle, the only way it would open.
While strapping myself in next to him, I carefully studied the silvery buckle to avoid my friend's worried blue eyes.
"Hey." I said, still not daring to look directly into his eyes, but
rather staring at the freckles that littered his left cheek.
"Hey." He echoed softly. "You look...pale."
Connor didn't bother asking if I was okay.
We both knew I wasn't.
"Well, you know pale is the new tan now." I said with a another slight smile, my eyes flickering to his for a moment.
Connor smiled back.
"Yeah, you're a real trend-setter." He said dryly.
We shared a small grin.
Turning his gaze back to the road, Connor pulled away from Sunny Springs, and I watched my home become smaller and smaller in
the rearview mirror.
Neither of us spoke another word as he sped down the highway. I think he was afraid to say anything more.
Afraid that I would break down crying or screaming again as I had so many times after mom was diagnosed, after she got worse, after she never got better.
Nonetheless, looking into the rearview mirror, I could see his pale eyes shift towards me and then back to the road ahead.
Before he could finally muster up the courage to say anything, I hit the black power switch to the car's stereo.
A soft, jazzy sort of music played, and a male voice sang out in what was possibly supposed to be a sultry tone that came across, to me at least, sounding as if he were stoned.
"...Pink it's my new obsession,
Pink it's not even a question,
Pink on the lips of your lover,
'Cause pink is the love you discover..."
Pink, I mused, is the color of breast cancer survivor ribbons that Mom never had a chance to wear.
Pink is the color of the home pregnancy test that drove Sara into taking that swan dive from the overpass that night.
Pink is the color blood-shot eyes, raw from crying.
Pink is the color of Dad's drunken face just before he passes out, and I'm forced to roll him over onto his stomach lest he vomit and suffocate himself sometime during the night.
I sighed, tired of being plagued by melancholy thoughts, and quickly hit the small black button with a faded white number 5, switching the station to one blasting a screaming ode to teen angst.
At least it drove away my dark thoughts.
From the driver's seat, I still felt Connor's worried eyes flicker continually between myself and the dark stretch of road ahead, but I kept my gaze stubbornly turned to the window.
I was in no mood for yet another variation of the "Do you want to talk about it?" conversation.
Staring outside, I didn't really know where we were going.
Connor's small red-brick house maybe, or perhaps we would go to the Piggly Wiggly on Fifth Street, or maybe we would just drive in silence until morning, when the fresh sunlight casts radiance on the world and gives me the strength to brave another day.