Josie by Judith Desterke


Josie held her breath so that when the lightning streaked across the sky she could hear the crackle of the bolt as it bathed the town in an icy light.  She laughed wildly as the thunder roared overhead, rattling the window panes and causing the roof beneath her feet to shudder.

Josie’s full name was Josephine Farley and she was standing on Heath Fitch’s roof, wearing nothing but an oversized sweater that came down just past her butt. Her long brown hair was tussled and growing wet from the rain. This was customary behavior for Josie.  Whenever a storm was brewing Josie would slip through the fence in her backyard and climb up the ladder and onto his roof.  If Heath joined her Josie was glad, but if not she would just sit silently in the storm, feeling wonderfully small.  “Amazing” she muttered as she tilted her face to the scattered drops of rain that were cold and refreshing on her pale skin.

“You know you’re crazy right?” Josie turned and felt her pulse quicken under Heath’s lazy green-eyed gaze.  He was leaning out the window to the roof, a playful smile on his lips. His brown hair was nearly shoulder length and he raked it away from his face with a rough mechanic’s hand.

A breeze caught Josie unaware and she shivered, wrapping her arms around her waist.  He reached an arm out and she took it as she slipped through the window.  As soon as the window closed behind Josie she could hear the Moody Blues crooning about the pain in rejection and a loveless life.  Smiling, Josie crawled into Heath’s bed, breathing in his scent.

“Make yourself at home.” Heath said dryly.

“Why thank you Heath, I will” she said with a wink.

“So your mom out tonight?”

“No, Ray is over.”  Josie pulled a face.

“Ah” Heath sat beside her on the bed, absently studying the black engine oil that stained his hands “the great Ray.” He snorted in disapproval. “What a prick.”

“Indeed.” Josie watched the fan spin, lurching violently on the ceiling, yet for all its efforts, going nowhere.  She could relate.  Since her father had committed suicide last year and her sister had moved out with her boyfriend, she was the automatic caretaker of her mother, Marlena.  If Josie was gone for more than an hour she would come home to find her mother in tears, lying on her bed with a blanket wrapped around her fragile frame.  Ray called these episodes “just one of her ploys for attention.”  Ray was scum.  Josie hated the way he would look at her with predator eyes while he nursed the can of cheap beer that was perpetually in his hairy hand.  If Josie was better person she would chase Ray away from her mother and help her find a good man, but she was not willing to risk her freedom.  She was eighteen, all she wanted to do was live her own life. She could not risk having her mother single again.

Heath rose from the bed, disturbing Josie’s musing. He crossed the room and extracted a joint from his dresser.  He lit it and passed it to her as he sat down.  “You looked awful glum” he explained.  Josie hummed appreciatively; she could use a break from her suffocating thoughts.  They toked in content silence for a few moments.

Heath took of sip of water after a time and cleared his throat.  “Do you ever think about us?”  Josie frowned and looked at him with confused glassy eyes.  He looked at his hands uncomfortably.  “I mean do you ever think about where we go from here?”

Josie’s mind was maddeningly sluggish. “Like in life?” Heath never talked about the future, and they definitely did not talk about “us”.  He had been in and out of foster homes all his life.  He knew just as well as Josie that the future was unpredictable and hopeless to try and bend to your will.  As for the idea of Heath and Josie being an “us”, they had never even brushed on the topic.  They both knew that if you made a relationship with somebody, it was only a matter of time before it fell to ruins.  So instead they never spoke about it.  Everything happened naturally with them, nothing was expected or anticipated.   Josie toked again, hoping to get so fried she would not have to have this conversation with Heath.  It terrified her.

                  “No I mean like-” Heath watched the smoke spiral about the room, avoiding Josie’s face “if I left, would you come with me?” He turned and looked at her with sad eyes.

Josie looked back at him and knew he was serious. Would you come with me? He began to smile and she was unsure why until she realized she was nodding and then she was laughing, suddenly and strangely elated.  She was leaving home.

“Mom, I’m moving out with Heath.”  Josie’s jaw dropped in the mirror.  Oh God, not that.  She squared her shoulders and tried again.  “Mom, I’m going with Heath… to help him move in.” That is obvious bullshit.  Fuck it.  Josie re-tussled her bangs and turned away from the mirror.

Heath had got accepted into a college in British Columbia, exactly where he wanted to go.  With no scholarship and no credit with the bank, Heath had to work for every last penny of his tuition. So here he was, twenty six and getting ready to drive from his home in Redwater, Alberta to the west end of British Columbia and Josie would be damned before she let him leave her here.  In fact she had this new life with Heath all planned out.

She imagined a small apartment flat, quite unassuming on the outside. They would be within walking distance of a park, he would teach her to rollerblade there.  Heath would be away at school a lot but Josie would work as a waitress and discover her artistic side during her free time.  She would visit her mom and Ray on the long weekends.  Independent.  

                  Josie reached the landing just as Ray was leaving the front door.  He looked grim and if he heard Josie say “bye” he did not acknowledge her.  Frowning, Josie carried on to the kitchen where she found Marlena in tears.  Josie’s mother sat rocking herself on the floor, and her hands covered her mouth which was forced into a silent scream.  Even before Marlena said a word Josie saw her apartment flat go up in flames.

Josie sat on the floor beside her mother and placed a gentle hand on her back.  Upon her touch Marlena began to cry. It started out as a moan, low and heavy but climbed to throaty wail; a single brokenhearted note that reverberated in the hushed kitchen.  Josie sidled closer to her mother, murmuring to her, trying to bring her within reason.

“Momma, com‘on let’s just talk this one out.”

The moan grew to a panicked hiccupping.

“Sh, everything’s gonna be alright.”

Finally Marlena managed to add the word “No” to her rhythmic sobbing.

When she finally stopped shaking Josie helped her mother to the couch and Marlena told Josie over tea and a small mountain of tissues that Ray had left her.  She told Josie what had been happening.  She would pause often and look thoughtfully at her hands cradling each other  on her lap.  “He’ll be back.” She would say suddenly before continuing to tell the story. Josie stayed up with her half the night before she managed to convince Marlena to get some sleep.   When she was undressing she collapsed in tears again and so Josie accompanied her until she fell asleep again.

Then Josie went outside – for the sun was now rising- and took the glass jar out of the stump in the corner of the lot.  She withdrew a slender joint and fit it into a black quellazaire.  She climbed onto the rusted trampoline, lit it and lay on her back watching the birds and butterflies and feeling the beat of her heart strong and loud in her chest, feeling the air rush in and out of her gigantic feeling lungs.  She let herself drift into a state of torpor and her mind mingled with the spirit-like wisps of cloud; clouds as fluid and impermanent like her.

Wind beat the sides of the house and rain drummed on the windows.  The trees were hunched over in the yard, looking as miserable as Josie felt.  The warm glow coming from Heath’s window seemed out of place. A fly was drowning in the condensation on the windowsill.

Josie unpacked her bags, quickly and calmly. Her laptop was playing Kasabian. You go your way and I’ll go my way. No words can save us, this lifestyle made us.  Josie felt a lump form in her throat as she realized that she understood the lyrics for the first time.  She should have known she would not be able to leave that easily.  She imagined she would have been more upset if it had been a shock to learn that she would not be able to leave home; but Josie had known this fact since the day her sister had moved out with (her boyfriend) and even before that she had known it was a race to leave the gate.  Survival of the fittest.  Of course she couldn’t leave her mother.  “British Columbia: Ha!”  Josie slammed her sock drawer shut.  Maybe she wasn’t as calm as she had thought.

Grabbing a glossy magazine Josie flopped onto her bed, hot tears threatening to spill onto her cheeks.  She flipped through it, not reading just looking at the pictures; pictures of overly happy celebrities basking in their wealth and prosperity.  Josie scoffed at the glowing image of Lady Gaga in a dazzling wheelchair claiming that “getting older shouldn’t stop a person from being fashionable.”  Just when she was about to put the magazine down a photo jumped out at her. The title read: Investigation Closed on Rita Swan’s Disappearance. The photo captured the girl’s weeping mother wrapped in the arms of a handsome man while the rest of the family gathered around her.

A new idea crept into Josie’s mind.  It worked its way slowly and methodically through her brain, and cocooned itself securely in her desperation. She placed her arms behind her head and smiled while she watched the idea morph into a complex and devious plan.

Josie wished she could have written her mother a note or let her know that she was going to be okay but that would ruin the entire scheme.  This will break her heart. It was true that her mother would be heartbroken, but things could be worse.

Before Josie had met Heath the world seemed devoid of colour.  It seemed a cold and hostile place and life felt like a prison sentence.  While other girls her age were daydreaming about boys Josie was fixated on death. It appeared to be the single means of escape from the next rising of the sun. Her mother’s dependence on Josie was the only thing that kept her from leaving.

If Josie was honest with herself, she had abandonment issues.  She pushed people away and spurned compliments as manipulation. What do they want from me?  She would muse while a girlfriend would gush over her soft brown hair. She smiled and laughed and talked like all the others but felt completely detached from everything that she said or expressed.  She did not hate herself but her life.

A dried leaf crunched under Josie’s bare foot and she could not help but feel like the withered house plant casting its debris around the room was appropriate for the mood.  She pulled a sweater over her shoulders and grabbed her bulging leather backpack and a sleeping bag from her bed.   She had everything that she needed for a day on the open road.

Changing her mind she scribbled a note on a scrap piece of paper.

Gone to seek my fortune.  Sorry.  I need to see the world.
Lots of love, Josie

She slipped on her shoes and out the window.  She hurried down the street, walking backwards for a few steps, she silently said goodbye to her mother.

She said she was taking a cab. It was overcast again as Josie walked down the road towards the highway.  She always admired hitchhikers.  Living off of nothing, having faith in the kindness of strangers.

Josie sighed as she walked down the highway her hand out thumb up and a smile on her lips.  Somewhere between the doorway of Heath’s home and the highway Josie had found true happiness.  It was finally over.  She was getting what she had wanted.  Heath had been great but the problem was lulled to sleep not fixed.  She had left him, she was truly alone now and it felt amazing. 

                  Thunder cracked overhead and Josie’s smile broadened.  The world flickered in the pale blue light of the storm.  The world is beautiful.  Josie stretched both arms to the sky her left thumb still up.  She felt very alive.  Apparently the closer a person is to death the more they feel the life that is left in them.

A horn sounded behind her and Josie dropped her arms, surprised.  She turned and saw a silver bearded man on a black motorcycle smiling at her. “Sweetheart,” he growled in a smokers voice “I want to be caught in this storm about as much as you do.  There’s an underpass a couple miles up, come on kid.”  He held out a helmet and kicked the bike in gear again, holding the clutch in but indicating he was ready to go.

How fitting. Josie thought with a quiet chuckle.  “Thank you!”

She awkwardly clambered on the bike, wishing she had now ruined the moment with her lack of grace and almost screamed when he let the clutch out and bike roared to life.  “Hold on sweetheart!”  Josie trailed her hands in the wind instead, her body electric with the fear of falling.

Josie could not leave without saying goodbye to Heath.  She felt sick as she walked up the steps to his front door.  She felt like one of those soldiers that went around after the war, knocking on the doors of Bambi eyed women, telling them their husbands were blown to bits along with the neighbors old racehorse.  Sorry about your loss.

                  She knocked and stood there waiting, with her heart pounding for what felt like five minutes.  She wondered if he had heard her knocking.  Come to think of it, she had not knocked very loudly.  She smashed the door with her fist. He heard this time.

“Hey you.” He leaned on the door, smiling.

“Hey” she suddenly felt like a schoolgirl, petty and foolish with her backback on her shoulders and her hair unwashed.  “Um, can I come in?”

“Of course.”

They moved upstairs silently.  Heath could tell she was out of sorts and he was probably thinking of what to say, Josie’s throat was closing up like it always did before she had a good cry.  She sat on his bed and he pulled up a chair and sat close to her, waiting for her to say something.

“Heath, I can’t go to B.C with you.”  She blurted as though that was the most important thing that was happening right now.  He waited.  “Ray broke up with Mom and she’s right back to how she used to be and I just can’t go and live another life and leave her here.”

Heath sighed and scratched the stubble on the side of his cheek irately.  “God damn it.” he muttered now scratching his scalp as though the irritation Ray presented was literal.  He brooded for a moment longer before he suddenly returned to Josie.  “Josie, I am really sorry about what happened to your mom. Really. But you can’t let her hold you back from living you own life.  You gotta look out for yourself too.”  Josie was overwhelmed that he would let her off the hook so quickly and began to cry.  Heath continued.  “I am the first person to say that you take really good care of your mom and I respect the shit out of you for that.  But you gotta let her face her issues; you can’t always hold her hand Josie.”

“I know, I know.”  Josie wiped tears from her flushed cheeks.  “That’s why I’m going to my sisters for the week.  I can’t handle this.”  She hated lying.

“But I’m leaving this Wednesday.  You would miss me.”

“I know, so this is kind of goodbye.”  Josie half laughed, half cried and Heath picked her up from the bed and wrapped her up in his arms.

“I don’t say goodbyes Josie, I say see you later.” Heath said and Josie could hear him smiling at their old joke while he said it.  She felt her chest cave in with sadness for him.

“So what puts a pretty girl like you out on the road?” The biker, who was called Joseph, was half leaning, half sitting on his bike, his arms braced behind him.  With his sunglasses off he actually looked very kind, almost like a badass grandfather.

Josie leaned against the concrete pillar under the bridge, watching the wind stir the darkening sky. “I wasn’t living.”  She was startled by the sureness of her voice and readiness of her words. It was as though she didn’t even have to think about what she said anymore, she just spoke direct from her brain.  Is this how everybody else talks?  “I was surviving, and I didn’t want to stay anymore.”

Joseph looked at her with a look in his eyes that said he knew what she meant.  “So you’re not coming back then huh.”  She shook her head.  “Well I’m sorry to hear that kid, I think you could have been something special.”

“Maybe, but it’s not always about being something.” Josie did not even know what that meant, she just knew she was at peace. She did not want to be something special.  She did not have to be anything at all anymore.  Joseph nodded solemnly, deciding not to fight her and lit a cigarette. When he offered her one she accepted.  She always loved the smell but the taste was rotten.  Her head buzzed but her mind was blissfully still and silent. It began to rain.

Once the rain had stopped and Joseph and Josie had eaten several unpleasant strips of beef jerky and Joseph had told some almost too crazy to be true stories, they had set out again.  He let her off by a feed store just off of the highway.  When Josie would not accept any beef jerky Joseph gave her a warm, if not slightly awkward hug and quickly drove away.

Josie used to have a weird sort of relationship with the boy who worked her two summers ago and so it was not difficult for her to slip around the back and onto the old empty cargo carrier beside the train tracks.  She watched the sun rise and when the nine o’clock train stopped she boarded it unnoticed.

Josie sat on the edge of the door and watched the scenery fly past her.  When she found the meadow she jumped.  It hurt a lot more than she thought it would but after some muffled cursing and laughing she felt okay again.  The meadow was filled with wild bluebells.  Dark green plants with deep blue flowers filling the air with a musky perfume.  They only were out for two weeks in the springtime. This was it.

Josie unrolled her sleeping bag and sat on it cross-legged.  She listened to the sounds around her for a while before she sighed and plugged in her ipod. She played Uncle Kracker’s Follow Me.  She opened her backpack and -after some rifling around- withdrew a surgical needle. Josie’s hands were shaking as she withdrew the huge looking syringe and threaded the needle onto the end of it.  I make you free and swim through your veins like a fish in the sea. Pulling the plunger all the way back Josie swallowed.  She did want to leave, and there was no other way.  She whined as she pushed the needle in her arm and pressed that ridiculous amount of air into the vein. Uncle Kracker was calling her to follow him. Everything is alright; I’ll be the one to tuck you in at night if you want to leave.


One thought on “Josie by Judith Desterke

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