The Long Way Home
by William Michaelian

The boy and girl were walking through the quiet streets very late at night because they didnít want to be killed in a car crash on the dangerous hill overlooking town. Just as the driver, an alcohol-fueled classmate of seventeen, was about to launch his assault, the boy ordered him to stop so he could get out of the car. When he stepped out onto the pavement, the girl followed. Everyone in the car laughed when they left them standing on the side of the road. The car roared off, leaving the two to find their way home. A few seconds later, they could hear the engine wind as the car raced blindly up the hill, then suddenly tail off as it sailed into space and landed on the other side. There was no crash. Luckily, no one was approaching from the other side, as had happened several times over the years. No one was killed. They heard the car picking up speed again where the road leveled off by the cemetery.

The fall air was calm and crisp. Another week of school had passed, another football game had been played, and another dance in the school gymnasium had come and gone. It was now past one in the morning. The boy and girl hardly knew each other, but the chilly air and the feeling of adventure brought them closer together. As they walked, they held hands. When the girl shivered and laughed, the boy put his arm around her to help keep her warm.

His car was still in the gymnasium parking lot on the other side of town, nearly two miles away. She needed a ride home, several miles out in the country. The stars were out. The houses were dark. At regular intervals, old street lamps cast their pale light on yellowing maple trees. A few streets over, a dog barked. In the shadow of an immense ash tree overpowering someoneís yard, they stopped and kissed. While they were out of sight, a police car cruised by. Was there a curfew? Neither remembered. Rules came and went, no one really paid attention.

They stood whispering in the dark, in the grassy space between two sleeping houses. The girlís perfume had evaporated and lost most of its strength. The boy inhaled the smell of her soft skin and light-brown hair. She touched his face, felt the sparse beard beginning to grow. They were about to kiss again when a light suddenly came on in a small bathroom window just a few feet away. They crouched near the wall and held their breath. Their hearts raced. When they heard the sound of a manís urine hitting water, they looked at each other and tried desperately, but unsuccessfully, not to laugh. The sound came to an abrupt stop. They got up and ran, and didnít stop running until they were seven or eight houses away.

After walking several blocks, they came to the city park. To save time, they decided to walk through it, rather than around. They stopped at the play area. It was like a silent metal jungle. The climbing bars were cold to the touch. The teeter-totter was full of slivers. The drooping leather seats on the swings were lifeless and limp at the end of their chains. The merry-go-round was a battered, rusted space ship fallen to earth.

They walked past the restrooms and followed a path under the sycamores, kicking at newly fallen leaves. There were no lights. What little light there was came from the lamps on the streets that bordered the park. An owl swished by. Instinctively, they quickened their pace ó then stopped. Something was moving up ahead. It was a man, stumbling over the uneven ground, obviously drunk. Hmm, he said, hmm, and then he coughed and spat on the grass. Hmm. God in heaven, he said, Lord Almighty, when is it going to rain? Hmm, hmm, and he coughed and spat once more. Dear mother, where are you? Am I the one who is waiting? Iím sorry. So sorry. But Iím coming home ó yes! and it will rain. I promise. Hmm, he said. Hmm. Oh, dear Lord, if I ever make it home. Dear, dear Lord. Why wonít it rain, Lord, why wonít it rain. Please let it rain.

Taking the girlís hand, the boy steered her away. They walked as quietly as they could, but the man called after them. Hello? he said. Hello? Whoís there? They started to run. When theyíd reached a safe distance, they stopped to catch their breath. Who was that? the girl said. I have no idea, the boy said. And I donít think I want to know. They kept their voices low. I wonder if he comes here every night, the girl said. Could be, the boy said. Probably lives somewhere around here. Poor guy. Or maybe the park is his home. Both were silent as they considered the possibility.

They started walking again. No one was following. They came to the edge of the park and crossed the street, leaving the residential area behind. The buildings in town were dark, but the street lights were brighter. There was almost no traffic. They passed the gas station and the hamburger drive-in, the Lutheran church, the library, and the brick fire house. To avoid the police station, they took a side street and walked past the water tower, a welding shop, and then a small electrical and plumbing supply shop. Before long, they could see the main two-story building of the high school. Both of them agreed, it looked like a prison. All it lacked was a guard tower, a search light, and some barbed wire.

They turned at the corner and followed the next street to the gym. His car was in a space not far from the building, the only vehicle not yet retrieved. He unlocked the door on the passenger side and opened it. The girl got in, then reached over and unlocked his side. While he was starting the car, she moved close to him. They looked at each other and smiled. What a night, the boy said. Iíll say, the girl said. The boy waited patiently for the engine to warm. At the same moment, they both remembered the man in the bathroom and started laughing. Then they remembered the lonely drunk man begging for rain, and the wild trip they almost took over the hill outside town. Then they noticed the clock in the dash and remembered how late it was, and that their parents were probably worried and wondering what had happened.

Reluctantly, he put the car in gear and followed the street until it led them into the country. After each stop sign he went a little slower, but the trip still ended too soon. While the car idled under an elm tree in the girlís driveway, they kissed each other good-bye. A light came on. The girl got out of the car and quickly went inside.

The boy drove home. After a brief scolding by his father outside their front door, he drank some water, brushed his teeth, and went to bed.

On Monday morning, the boy and girl resumed their life as prisoners in the strange place everyone called high school. But things were different.

William Michaelianís newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelianís other books and links to this siteís other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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