How to Discover Yourself

CW: violence, language, and brief sex


(feel free to skip to the story if you want.)

One day I was thinking about the common “girls like bad guys” trope often found in fiction. One prime example is an action/kind-of-romance film from the 70's Badlands. It does appeal to most people because it fits in with what society considers “masculine” and “feminine” traits.

At the same time, I also appreciate fiction that subverts common gender tropes. Wonder Woman subverted the “strong male hero must defend the feeble woman” trope effortlessly.

So I took it upon myself to do this with the aforementioned trope. In addition, within a compelling story, main characters must have an arc—each character has to come away with the story changed.

Using these rules, I explored this dynamic—a “good guy” is attracted to a “bad girl.” While I appreciate dark story tones, the tone of this story is darker than I anticipated.

Even so, I hope you enjoy it.

I rocked back and forth on my feet. My knees were cramping, too. I raised one leg behind me, and then the other. I didn't have the best shoes, but they were what the street ministry team encouraged. Why anyone in 2016 would want to talk with someone in a suit and tie was beyond me. I looked across at my partner, Amos. We both looked at each other uncomfortably and pinched our lips. He wore the same stiff suit that I wore, freshly bought from Brooks Brothers. I figured if this didn't work out I could use the suit for an interview—or a date with Jessica.

We simply waited (and prayed—right, I was supposed to be doing that) as people walked by, often quickly avoiding eye contact. This was day 2 of the ministry. I had the divine opportunity to witness to a homeless woman who I quickly found out was just talking to the air; and to engage in a heated argument to argue on the finer points of pre-mellenialism vs. post-millenialism with a grumpy old man.

Amos was able to talk with an Hispanic woman who spoke only a little English; he awkwardly invited her to the Spanish services Sunday afternoon.

I thought about Jessica. Her ministry. It sounded more practical than the one I chose. Even before she graduated high school she spearheaded an initiative working with the city to build houses for the homeless. Then she just basked in the glow of having done a good deed before the graduation ceremony.

We've gone on dates. Curly auburn hair, upturned nose. Slight frame. She spoke in a soft voice. Her temperament was even, because she said a Godly woman never raised her voice. “She's supposed to serve the church, her husband, and most importantly—God.” I have had moments where I've successfully broken through her humor wall. Just the other week during a grad party, I sat at her table, grabbed a powdered doughnut, then proceeded to puff the powdered sugar as I was chomping down on it.

Dating her wasn't a complete challenge: I felt a connection with her a few times. Mostly when we would hold hands. We both felt we were too young to kiss. But hugs were okay. And that cemented the connection. But most of our interactions involved deep philosophical discussion. A few times these even got heated. She wouldn't cry, but she would get very quiet. I would start to leave, then return and apologize.

“Will, you're out of high school. You need to set a direction in life,” my dad would tell me.

I knew it would be in ministry. But for the time being it was designing Fortnite skins. Too embarrassed to do it at home, I brought my laptop to a coffee shop, selling enough to afford a treat once in a while beyond my parents' allowance.

But here I stood in the middle of the city, and wondered if I could keep this up for the rest of my adult life. Did I care that most of these people were going to hell? Kind of...? If I was honest I was doing it mainly because I felt I should.

“Would you like a personal relationship with Jesus?” I asked a young woman who was walking with her husband. At least the ministry team encouraged creativity with the opener. I figured people liked relationships more than they liked hell.

The couple paused. The woman regarded me with intrigue, and used the free hand not holding a shopping bag to brush hair aside. The man shoved his hands in his pockets and strode behind his wife. “What?” the woman asked.

I swallowed. “Would you like a personal relationship with Jesus?”

“What religion are you?” the man asked directly.

“Um...Christian...Protestant. I belong to New Day, just down the road.” Without thinking I shoved a tract toward them. They stood there. I took the tract back. “Have you heard about Jesus?”

“Yes, plenty,” the man said, poison in his tone. The wife turned and put a hand on the man's chest to calm him.

I forced a smile and pushed. “And what have you heard?”

So many thoughts were bubbling to the surface of the man's brain, and he was having to sort out what ones to say while still maintaining his dignity. “I heard he cares about the poor, but he also wants money—like, three thousand dollars—that goes to prostitutes instead of the orphanage in Uganda.”

My face started to flush. “Oh,” was all I could say.

The man, confident in his argument, turned. His wife hid behind her hair and followed him.

I looked at Amos. He bared and gritted his teeth as if to say, “that was awkward.” I was too emotionally drained to answer back.

Fifteen more minutes went by. Three girls about my age walked past me. One had visible tattoos with brown hair highlighted with pink. Definitely unbelievers. I cleared my though. “Excuse me, would you like a relationship with Jesus?”

The one with dyed hair slowed down, stopped, and turned, causing the others to do so as well. She eyed me. I flushed. Her eyes were a friendly green, and her cheeks were fighting her coy smile. A distressed tweed jacket was unbuttoned, revealing a white tank top highlighting her youthful form. She wore leggings underneath her denim skirt. The girl approached me playfully. “Excuse me?”

The other girls stood nearby, eyeing their friend curiously.

Not used to this kind of attention, I suddenly felt warm inside. I couldn't feel my legs and I fought to gain control of my tongue. “Jesus—have you heard about him?”

With a very direct, solid tone she said, “Jesus. Fucking. Christ.”

I nodded awkwardly. “Uh, yeah.”

She turned to her friends. “I'll catch up with you.”

“Anna!” one of them scolded.

She raised her hand in a farewell gesture. They got the point and started walking off.

The girl turned back to me. “What about him?” she asked. She stood casually, her hands on her hips, never breaking eye contact.

“Um...he's God's son. He...uh, paid for your sin.”

“Oh, God, do I sin,” she said in a mocking tone, rolling her eyes. “I can tell you all the shit I've done. Wanna start at age three?”

“Well—I mean—I—”

“I called a boy a bitch. Started to go downhill from there.”

I laughed nervously. There was a time for grace, but there was also a time to stand on your own two feet. “I don't think you're taking this seriously.”

“You're right. Never could take things seriously. So, what about you? What have you done that'll send you to hell?”

In the workbook, we were encouraged to prepare our own testimony. I was a pretty good kid overall. There was a time when I was a bit rebellious with my parents, so I started to describe it.

“I murdered my dad,” she said solemnly.

I looked down, preparing a word of encouragement, about how no one is too far from grace.

“Haha! I totally got you!” She said. Then she put a hand on my shoulder. “But seriously, here you are in the middle of the fucking city, wearing clothes you stole from Abraham Lincon's grave, and you're wanting someone to talk with you?”

“Well, you're talking with me.”

She removed her hand from my shoulder. I secretly wished for her to do it again. “I felt sorry for ya.”

“I feel sorry for you,” I replied softly. I needed to maintain focus.

She smirked and shook her head. Her bangs fell into her face. “You're such a fucking liar.”

“I'm being honest.”

She stepped in front of my face. I smelled her—why? Why now? I needed to keep my head clear. “You're being religious.” I started to argue, but then closed my mouth. “Good boy—you're learning,” she said. She said it very flirtatiously, not condescending at all. “What do you do for fun? Do you have hobbies?”

“I—uh—sell Fortnite skins?”

“With crosses? Holding Bibles?”

I had to chuckle at that. “No, just weird creatures. Goblins. Werewolves.”

“I'm an entrepreneur,” she said, beaming. “Of sorts.”

“Oh, that's—cool.”

She paused, and looked into my eyes. Paused for a second, then said. “Get your head in the game. Life's too short to wear a suit.” With that, she walked away. I found myself not able to keep my eyes off her legs in the denim skirt. She walked with an attractive confidence that I craved.

My head still buzzing, I turned toward Amos, who had his eyebrows raised in a “how did that go?” expression. I nodded, unsure whether I felt guilty or alive.

The evening ended quietly. My phone chimed my alarm, indicating quitting time. We were supposed to do this all week, but in shifts. I was set to take the day off tomorrow. Amos collected the remaining tracts and put them in his car. “So what was the girl talking about?” he asked. “Didn't see you praying with her.” He save me a slight smile.

“'s—nothing. She was already saved.”

“Really? Wow, she seemed really friendly. Remember, don't mix business and pleasure,” he said, winking. Then he closed the trunk, and we both got in to drive back to the church. I was later picked up by my parents.

The next day I sat in the coffee shop, making more skins and checking the statistics to see what people liked most. I was suddenly aware of someone in front of me. It was the girl from yesterday. I looked up. Unsure what to say, I just looked into her eyes.

Today she was wearing a long-sleeved dark purple shirt and jeans. “Well, well, well,” she said. That same sly grin toward one cheek. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Yeah, I'm getting some work done today.”

“Oh, Fortnite skins?”

I nodded. She had a really good memory.

“Can I see them?”

I turned my laptop around. She took a seat beside me. I tried to hide my excitement. Tried to play it cool. It just felt so natural. I turned back to my screen. I had designed a creature that looked like a cross between a spider and a scorpion, walking like a human. Her face brightened. “That is so cool! How did you come up with that?”

I shrugged. “I guess when I was high.”

She shot me a look, snorted, then turned back to the screen.

I was unsure what to say in this situation. I then remembered Jessica. Were we exclusive? Would she accuse me of cheating if she saw me with this girl? Before I thought, I said, “Can I buy you a drink?”

“Mocha,” she said, interrupting me. “Peppermint. Extra sprinkles.”

I closed my laptop lid and ordered with the barista. With my heart pounding in my chest I hoped the baristas wouldn't see who I was with...and then tell my parents. Word would get around to the church that I was dating a sinner. Then my chances with Jessica would definitely be ruined.

Once the mocha was ready, I handed it to her and set it down.

“You're name's Anna, right?” I asked. That wouldn't hurt, right? I'm just getting to know her.

“You haven't tole me yours. You do have a name, right?”

“To be honest a crack in the earth opened up and hell spat me out just the other day.” She chuckled. “Name's Will.”

“Nice to meet you, Will.”

“Why do you want to talk with me anyway?”

“You're cute.”

I blushed.

“A girl's never told you you're cute before?”

Now that I thought about it, Jessica never acknowledged it. She liked that I was driven, and that I was (for the most part) respectful. Lots of “husbandly” qualities, but she never said I was cute. For that matter, neither did I. Seeing someone as “cute” was a matter of the flesh after all, right?

“No,” I said.

I'd been warned missionary dating. Clergy told horror stories of men who would try to minister to a woman whom he was also dating, and eventually they got involved in Wiccan chants and demon worship.

But this girl seemed different. I also knew I was strong. Maybe I could leader her to Christ. “Did you grow up around here?”

She set her coffee down and settled into her chair. Thus began a conversation, a conversation in which I couldn't take my eyes off her. I forgot about my Fortnite skins. I forgot about her tattoos and died hair (or at least the fact that they were an indication of her sins). I forgot about Jessica. I forgot about my parents, and Amos, and the ministry team. I even forgot about the coffee shop we were in.

I didn't want the day to end. Eventually, coffee customers filed out. 4PM. Closing time. Anna and I were the only ones left.

I packed up my laptop. Anna and I continued talking. We walked toward the door. I was about to open the door, like a gentleman, but she aggressively pushed ahead of me and opened the door herself.

I thought about scolding her. But after our talk, I realized that would be useless. Instead, I bowed deeply. “Why thank you, my dear,” I said in a fake British accent.

“My pleasure!” she yelled jarringly.

We both laughed. For once in my life I felt...seen. Like I was connecting with someone.

We were about to head off in different directions, but she stopped me. “Tomorrow, some of my friends are having a party,” she said. “End of the summer fling. You know. I want you there.”


She pulled out her phone. “I'll give you my number.”

I sent her a text so she got it. “Thanks,” she said, smiling. “I'll give you the details.”

Amos certainly noticed I wasn't in my suit. I said I accidentally spilled coffee on it and it was at the cleaners. “Souls are more important,” I said.

I'm not sure if Amos noticed me disappearing halfway through, dumping my handful of tracts in the trash, or when I boarded the bus, nervously riding my way to Anna's party.

The house was on a gravel road about a quarter mile off the bus route. By the time I got there the sun was starting to set.

I wondered if I'd miss the house number, but soon found out the house number was irrelevant, as loud music disturbed the serene nature of the rural gravel road.

I approached the rustic 2-level house. I slowed, peering inside the window. People were standing in groups holding red Solo cups. I heard loud talking. Occasionally someone would guffaw, throwing their head back, their laugh audible from where I stood.

I opened the door, and the already heavy atmosphere washed over me. Anna, in the middle of a conversation with friends, did a double take in my direction, then walked over, beckoning me as she did. “Will! Over here!”

She hugged me. But not like Jessica. She wasn't being careful with how I might interpret the gesture. Her arms formed to the crook of my back, and my arms flowed nicely over her nearly-bare shoulders. I felt a rush when my hands touched her tank top and bra strap.

The embrace lasted a moment, but the endorphins stayed with me. “Will, come on, I want you to meet some people.” She led me by the hand (we're holding hands!), and she introduced me to gamers. While I wouldn't consider myself a heavy gamer, I liked hearing about some of the campaigns the other gamers went on. Even so, my eyes kept darting back to Anna.

I soon found myself alone, out on the back porch with a drink in my hand (don't worry, Pastor's just grape soda), feeling the cool night air over my skin. I didn't know these worldly people could be so—so—loving. They didn't pray. They didn't talk about the Bible. But to them I was already family.

I smelled the sharp musk of a cigarette. Turning to my right, I saw a young woman pull a cigarette from her lips. I studied her profile in the moonlight. Anna.

She turned, flicking some ash of the end. She approached me, and I took a reserved step back. “You don't like cigarette smoke,” she proposed.

I nodded curtly. She extinguished the cigarette on one of the deck benches and left it there, then continued her progression over to me.

I took a step closer to her, too. What was I doing? I was praying. Or was I? What I was I praying for? For salvation from this situation? For God to miraculously part the ground and have us physically separate? God, please, don't let that happen. I just need a taste!

I fought my urges, and eventually held her shoulders. She closed her eyes and smiled. “Closer,” she whispered.

I stepped closer, my hands wrapping behind her small back. She reached up and put her hands around my neck.

Why was she doing this? Was she asking for—? Only one way to find out. Despite the smell of cigarettes lingering, I leaned in, placing my lips on hers. She didn't back away. Was this possible? Did she really want me to do this? I had to stop. I had to stop. This wasn't me. This wasn't me at all. But I had to keep going. I kissed her a few more times; by now alarm bells were blaring in my brain; I gasped and stepped away.

I've seen chick flicks where girls would be offended by men frightened by intimacy. Anna wasn't. She was amused, keeping her eyes one me, and maintaining a coy smile. “First kiss?”

She knew me too well. What would Jessica..?—oh, what the hell! I nodded and smiled. “I didn't know what to—think.” I turned. “Was it yours?”

Her smile turned into a smirk and she put one hand on her hip, as if to say, “Do you really need to ask?” “You're probably the four hundredth guy I've kissed. Just wait until you hear about the fucking.”

I didn't want to know. Or maybe I did. I wasn't sure anymore. I needed time to think. I eyed the grape soda, briefly wishing it was alcohol. I looked at Anna again, who was unmoved from her position. “It's getting late,” I said, “I think I need to head home.”

When I did head home, though, I was greeted by my parents, sitting on the couch. Whenever they sat on the couch past 8PM that was never a good sign.

“Amos said you left today,” my dad said.

My heart beat faster. I thought of Anna. Her lips.

“Okay,” was all I can muster.

“Did you leave?”

“I don't want to talk about it.”

“Where'd you go?” Mom asked.

“I said I don't want to talk about it.”

“William!” my dad said.

That made me stop. I should have kept going. A part of me still wanted to pay for my sins. This was my surely my penance. I feel I deserved it.

My dad continued. “Would where you went please God?”

“Dad, I'm eighteen.”

“You're still our son. We care about you. God cares about you.”

Mom tried to take a softer approach. “If there's anything you need to tell us—if you're doing weed or meth—we're here for you. We'll help you get out of it—without judgment.” My dad nodded in agreement.

“Thanks,” I said, and continued up the stairs. I felt like I was penalized enough for my sins for the night. I would just have to take a break from Anna. I mean, I could just limit our interactions to text conversations. In fact, I remembered we had a pizza and movie night for young adults at the church. I could bring her along. I would have to be careful about PDA, for sure. What was the movie? Pirates of the Caribbean? In any case it would be a chance to talk to her about Jesus.

The next day I found out that would have to wait. Pastor Dave asked me to come into his office. Amos was there. Mom was there, too. Amos looked nearly fuming. Pastor Dave sat regally (after all, he was the senior pastor). Mom looked to be the softest—just there simply because Dad was working.

And they discussed what I had feared: my skipping the ministry, brushing off my parents, and—yes, the girl.

“I want you to read this book,” Pastor Dave said toward the end, handing me a thin paperback. “When I walked away from the Lord, it helped me.”

I took it mechanically. “Thanks.”

We ended the session with prayer.

“I'll be heading to the coffee shop,” I said, throwing the book into my backpack. I imagined it wouldn't stay here. I imagined it would end up in the garbage. Before I left my mom asked me to make good choices.

As I was waiting for the bus, Anna send me a text. “How ya feeling?”

The coffee shop could wait. I needed a friend I could talk to.

Eventually I found myself seated on her creaky futon, leaning forward. I didn't feel like leaning back.

Anna wore jeans and a white tank top, legs spread flagrantly over an easy chair. She sometimes took a sip of soda. Surprisingly the living room she shared with her friends didn't smell like cigarettes, though it looked as if Picasso's thirteen-year-old daughter was tasked with decor.

“It seems like your parents really care about you,” she said.

“Yes but—”

“You want your freedom.”

Damn. (Oh, sorry!) She knew me well.

She sighed. “I get it. It's a parent thing. My mom and dad do it to me. Had a talk the first time they saw me making out with a girl. Now I just say fuck off and hang up the phone. That, and if they talk about Trump.”

I smiled. “It's like...I don't want to abandon Jesus.”

“You don't have to abandon yourself.”

“I kinda do, though.”

“But since meeting me you feel more alive, don't you?” She paused, letting that sink in. “I gave you your first kiss!” she said, beaming playfully.

“I do, but—”

“Stop lying to yourself. You're not perfect you know. You fuck up just as much as me.”

I had to admit that I did. Her phone on the floor chirped. She leaned over and unlocked the screen. Her face brightened. “Oh my God, Will, you have to see this. Come here.”

Tentatively, I got up from my seat and walked over. She stopped me. “Okay, just promise you won't tell anyone, alright?”

I shrugged. “Uh, okay.”

She showed me a video. It was from cell phone footage. A driver in a hat and sunglasses displayed a wide-mouthed grin. “Dude, this guy's getting fucked!” he said, pointing his thumb behind him. The passenger holding the phone pointed the camera out the car window, toward a storefront. It was difficult to see at first, but figures were inside, moving about. Then, a man ran out of the establishment, carrying a duffel bag. He stumbled once, then got up and continued running. A dark-skinned angry man appeared in the doorway. Suddenly Will noticed the man with the duffel bag also had a gun in one hand.

The driver burst out laughing, as did the passenger. The man with the duffel bag ran to the car and opened the door. “Go! Go! Go!” the passenger with the camera said, and the car sped away. The store owner simply stood outside outside the store, brazenly shouting obscenities.

“Isn't that funny?” Anna exclaimed.

I tried to smile.

“Kevin really knows how to get the most shit.”

“So, wait you—”

“Told you not to tell anyone.”

“Or what?”

She leaned in close and whispered. “I'll track you down...and kill you.”

I should have been freaked out. I should have run out of there, called the cops. I should have told Pastor Dave, asked for forgiveness. I should have repented, prayed, stayed in the Word.

But I, again, felt the rush of feeling alive. Anna had that—that spark—that passion.

After all, surely she was joking. I rubbed her back. “After I kill you first.” She cackled like a cat, browsing through her phone. “Hey, real quick! A selfie!” She held up her phone in front of us.

I stayed there the rest of the day. Cooked a meal. As the clock struck 9PM I realized I knew I needed to get back home. My parents would undoubtedly be waiting for me on the couch again. Anna gave me a kiss before I walked toward the bus stop.

They were watching TV, but my dad ended the night with, “We need to talk tomorrow.”

I sneaked out almost every day, going on adventures with Anna. At one point I even saw her in her panties, she was that comfortable changing in front of me. I couldn't bring myself to cover my eyes. Yet she didn't pressure me into sex. I don't think I would live with myself if that happened, and she knew it.

I ended up missing dates with Jessica. She started to sound annoyed in texts. I wondered if this was her way of raising her voice.

My times with Anna were wonderful, magical. We did whatever. We watched movies. We danced to her favorite music. We make cookies. We made out on her couch. We hung out with her roommates, playing Cards Against Humanity, my arm never leaving her waist.

I got a text a few weeks later. “Come meet me by the dog statue in Washington Park.”

I did. She gave me a big kiss. “Do you love me?”

I'm pretty sure I'd said that a few times the past few weeks. So, yes, I definitely did.

“You also told me you hate your uncle, the owner of Unger & Sol?”

Well, I didn't exactly hate him. But I did tell her how he screwed my dad by promising a return on investment if he invested in the firm. It was a dry spell for his company. Now Unger & Sol was thriving, owning thousands of franchises from electronics stores to supermarkets. My uncle (the Unger part) has yet to share a cent.

“Well,” Anna continued, her hands remaining around my neck. “Today's the day you can get the money for your dad.”

I gasped. I would never—! Well, that wasn't true. And my parents were being (okay, I'll say it) asses, nagging me about coming home earlier. Maybe finding a blank check from a mysterious stranger for the amount he's owed would be a nice distraction.

Anna kept looking at me. She could see my wheels turning.

A beat-up Nissan pulled up. Two guys waved to Anna. They were the driver and passenger from the video.

Anna greeted them (thankfully, not romantically). They laughed and joked, and I heard mention of “Marty's Drug” and “equipment.”

I was just about to walk away when Anna skipped up to me, planted a huge kiss on my lips, then asked, “So, are you coming?”

She took my hand. I followed her. She and I took the back seat. The car smelled unusually fresh for people who stole for a living. Wait—did I finally name it? Was Anna a professional thief?

And what was I doing? What the hell was I doing? Seriously? A wide grin crossed my face. Anna must have seen it. She displayed an open-mouth grin, and laughed, tongue wide in delight.

We pulled up to Marty's Drugstore. “Guess I'm up,” Anna quipped.

Wait, she was, the—!

Anna took a gun from the passenger and stuck it in her jeans. “Remember,” the driver said, “at least $2,000.”

Anna scoffed. “Please, I can get that with pennies I find on the ground.”

I was about to reach for Anna's hand, but she was already out the door. All I could do was wait. My feet bounced nervously on the floor of the car. The other two men sat patiently. They might as well have been waiting for a parade to start. They started talking about their personal lives. Gus had a 3-year-old daughter. Stephen was studying to be an architect.

“So, Will, what do you do?” Gus asked.

“Fortnite skins,” I squeaked.

“Oh,” both said, nodding in unison.

Gus pointed to a motion in the store. Anna running. She was carrying plastic bags of small boxes—looked to be medicine and small equipment. She was grinning ear to ear.

“Will! Open the door!” Gus demanded. Moving through putty, I reached over and opened the other door. Anna jumped in, threw the bags in between us. “Go! Go! Go!”

We didn't head back to the park like I had hoped. I waited in the car while Gus and Stephen met a guy under an overpass, handed the guy the bags, and got a wad of cash counted out.

Stephen counted out the cash, giving us an equal amount. “And you get $628,” he said to me. “Not bad for your first rodeo.”

As we drove back to the park, the wad of cash sunk lower into my pocket. With a few more jobs like this I could pay back my uncle's money. I would just need to do it anonymously and make it look like it was from my uncle. But even that penance wouldn't make up for the immense guilt and shame I felt.

Did I deserve to go to hell?

Anna reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she said. “You did great today.”

Again, I felt a rush that covered over that guilt and shame.

While I spent time with Anna I continued to join her in her little “quests.” Gus and Stephen didn't join every time. Kevin joined sometimes. I helped where I could as we robbed small establishments, never visiting the same place more than once. They were getting pretty close to being done with one area of town, then a previous area they covered would get a slough of new businesses.

I hid money where I could. I soon had $5,000 saved, in addition to the $1,000 that I had in mind to secretly give Dad. I ignored the pestering of my parents, the calls for repentance from pastors. I even got the “Who are you? You've changed” talk from Jessica, who was now begging for me to join her on her next housing project.

I got my license, and Anna promoted me to driver. One time we robbed a convenience store together. She performed the theft, while I waited for her. I couldn't stop laughing. So I laughed, then I settled down, but then her laughter would start up again, and she'd kick her feet up and down in excitement, then I would giggle, doubling over the steering wheel in glee. And this would continue until we were both in tears, leaving the vehicle parked in Gus's driveway.

When summer rolled around again I was actually well off enough to be looking out for a new place...for both me and Anna, of course. Church was a memory, and my parents' nagging was now background noise.

We still weren't intimate. I still wouldn't feel right drinking or smoking pot, but I allowed her to whenever she wanted, and was getting used to the smell of cigarette smoke. It was even comforting. Because wherever Marlboro was, Anna was there, too.

We finally planned on a heist will all five of us, crammed in the car. Me, Anna, Gus, Stephen, and Kevin. Kevin liked to take the big ones, and he suggested the pharmaceutical lab right close to the bay. He expected we could easily get between $500,000 and a million.

Again, I was commissioned as the driver. Gus was demoted, and didn't mind in the least. My nickname was Speed Demon, after all.

I arrived, and dropped everyone off. This was an all-hands-on-deck, so nobody except the driver (me) waited in the car. Anna and Gus crouched behind a wall, waiting for Kevin and Stephen to disable security. Finally they disappeared.

I waited for several minutes. This turned into a half an hour. Then, I jumped when I heard an echoy gunshot. Then another. After a few seconds I heard a few more. Then it was quiet.

My heart pounded. Should I wait? For how long? Was I in danger now? My eyes were wide, scanning the building facade for any type of movement. Finally, I saw Anna, supporting Gus, who was bleeding from his stomach.

Anna reached the back passenger door, opened it, and guided Gus inside. He groaned, holding his oozing side. She got in the car, too, demanded, “Go! GO!”

“What about Stephen and—”

“Just go!” she screamed.

I hit the accelerator. I found out later they were dead. Anna stayed in the back, putting pressure on Gus's wound.

“Should we go to a hospital?”

“Fuck no!” she cried. “We have to get out of here!”

“But we don't have any money,” I shot back.

Anna hadn't considered this. “How much money do you have saved up?” she yelled. She must have moved, because Gus grunted.

“About ten at this point. Eleven” (Sorry, Dad)

“Good enough. Your house is on the way out of town. We'll grab it.”

I soon got to my place, set the car in park, then put my entire focus on getting to my bedroom. I paid little attention to what my parents were doing. I grabbed all my cash, stuck it in a backpack, and headed back down the stairs.

My dad stood in the way. I stopped cold. “Where are you going?” he asked. “What are you doing?”

“Nowhere. Just leave me alone.”

“Will, talk to us—we—!”

“Leave me the fuck alone!” My own voice surprised me. It was the voice of a monster. But at the same time it was thrilling. “I hate you! Get out of my way, you piece of shit!”

Suddenly my dad's face turned pale. His shoulders fell. He stepped back away from the door as I charged outside.

Hot tears touched my cheek; I wiped them away, and jogged toward the car that I had parked about a block away. Anna was still in the back seat. By this point she was covered in blood. Gus's eyes were getting heavy. “You got it?” she demanded.

“Yes,” I said, choking back tears.

“Then get us the fuck out of here!” she ordered.

My foot was heavy—I forced it to press down on the accelerator. My arms were rubber. I gritted my teeth, grunted. I tried everything to leave my parents behind. My dad's face stuck with me. Whenever I blinked I saw the sorrow. I wished I could drive back and wrap my arms around him, apologize, tell him everything.

But I couldn't. I'd already made that choice.

“Gus! No! Gus!” Anna screamed.

Once outside of town in a quiet area, we disposed of Gus the best we could. Underneath a drainage ditch by a creek. As we stood there in silence a moment I remembered he had a daughter.

Anna started to cry, wipe tears away, then noticed the dried blood on her arms. “Aw, shit,” she said, and started to wash herself with rocks in the creek.

I stood there, watching her. I tried to get a thrill from looking at her butt, at her waist. Anything to distract me. But I felt nothing. No, I felt something. Fatigue...regret.

After a few minutes Anna shook her arms. Most of the blood was off. Her arms were red from scraping them with a rock. “That's the best I can do. Let's get going.”

We drove until the forested areas gave way to desert farmland. Then desert nothing...the kinds of areas where you wonder who owns the land, and what would happen if you wandered onto it.

We soon found out. Nothing happens. Even if you collect sticks and build a fire...nobody's gonna bother you.

“Gus had a daughter,” I said, breaking the silence between us.

“Can we not talk about him?” Anna asked. “Please?”

I waited. “Then what should we talk about?”

“God, I don't know! Something fucking nice for Chrissakes!”

The venom in her voice hit a nerve. I started to cry.

Anna looked over. She softened, and reached out to my hand. “I'm sorry.”

“How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

I threw my hands in the air. “This! This life. Robbing places!”

“It's what I know.”

“I hate it.”

“Today wasn't normal. We went in blind.”

Another fountain of tears burst from me. “I told my dad I hated him.”

Anna was silent for a while. The fire crackled. She reached down to play with the sand.

“I'm—sorry,” she said.

“No, you aren't!” I seethed. “Shit, Anna. You act like you know me but you don't!”

“And I'm just a fucking whore to you!” she spat, and stood up, walking into the darkness.

Another flood of emotion washed over me, the fire crackling a foot away. Again, I was alone. Wherever Anna had gone, I didn't know. At that point I didn't care.

I wanted Jessica back again. I wanted the safety of the church, the comfort of my friends. Who could I go back to? Who would even want me anymore?

Only Anna did. She was the only one who truly cared about me.

Minutes later I calmed down, drained of energy and emotions. I looked for Anna. I found Anna sitting on a rock, facing away from the fire. When she turned to me, the glow of the fire glistened off her tears.

“I never told you about my dad,” she said in a whisper.

I knelt down, and rubbed her shoulders. She started sobbing again. “He was there for me. My mom—she was religious. Forced me into church functions. Literally smacked a Bible over my head.” she slapped her hand for emphasis, and sniffed, wiping her nose. “The courts wouldn't do anything. Because they found little cause for abuse. My dad couldn't bring himself to divorce her. But he wanted to legally get her as far away from me as possible.

“No restraining order, but my Dad still tried. He encouraged me to spend time at other peoples' houses. Would try to get my mom out of the house to spend time with me. But being at other peoples' houses, I started to get friends. Finally. I started to feel like myself. Finally.

“But I also started to be a regular teenage self. Sassing him. Cussing him out. Eventually, I said I—” the words caught in her throat. “—that I hated him. I ran away. Lived the two girls who wouldn't judge me.

“My dad still tries to reach out to me. Sometimes texts me and puts in lyrics to the pop songs he'd hear me sing. God, I was going to be the next American Idol, wasn't I?” She laughed and shook her head. “It's like he knows details nobody else knows. Why the fuck would he do that?”

“It seems like he wants to reconnect. He loves you.”

She shot me a glance. Her eyes were daggers. “He's trying too hard.”

“He's trying the best way he knows how.”

Anna looked down suddenly. “I—I guess you're right.”

I guided Anna to her feet. “Let's get closer to the fire. Ooh, looks like it's starting to go out. When I was involved in church,” I said, looking for a good stick in our stockpile as Anna lay back against a rock, “there were many stories of reconciliation. Old friends angry at each other. Brothers. Parents and children. I always found hope in those stories.”

“Why's that?” Anna asked.

“It's like—you never know when you're going to go—or when the other person is going to go. We like to pretend we'll live forever. We treat family like shit. We don't appreciate when they're here. So love becomes hate. We end up hurting those we love.” Again, flashback to yelling at my dad, not even ten hours before. “It sucks. So then we feel guilty. And we act like we can never reconcile. That we can never make things right. But there is always time to go back and reconcile. Why leave a relationship sour if you can mend it? Right?” I turned to Anna. She was pouting, lost in thought.

I joined her on the ground. “You can still reconcile with your dad,” I said. “It's not too late.” Or was I talking to me?

She turned to me, her eyes piercing. She was ready to fight. I imagined her screaming profanities at me, hitting me, but she just stared at me—breathing. “You—” she began, and her face broke into tears again. “—you are a better person than I'll ever be.”

She crawled over to me, and we embraced. There was something about the desperation of our situation. Our locale of open desert. The doors that we thought we had nailed shut. But all inhibitions broke loose. I drank her in. She begged for me. We cried, we laughed, we sighed, we lay under the starlight, naked.

Again, guilt rose to the surface. And I understood, finally. This was not who I was. While I had said “fuck you,” to my dad, I said “fuck you” to myself a long time ago. And here I was, miles away from how I saw myself. Driven by someone's need for me.

Was Anna feeling the same?

When it got too cold, and the fire died out, I put my clothes on, wrapped a sleepy Anna in some spare blankets from the car, carried her to the driver's side, and got in beside her. I fell sleep within a few minutes. It wasn't until the sun broke the horizon that I opened my eyes.

Anna, hair disheveled, was already awake. I rubbed my eyes and yawned. I pushed aside any guilt or shame I felt from last night. “Good morning,” I said.

Anna was stoic. She looked down at her lap, then at the sunrise. “I can't do this,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Anna breathed heavily. She looked down, then back at me. “Last night. I'm not talking about crime. I can do that. I just can't do—us.” I was speechless. I waited for her to continue. The silence hung over us. “You've changed, Will. I remember when we met. You were so—stiff. I softened you up. I wanted to see that playful you. I thought I did. I wasn't trying to manipulate you into this whole robbery thing. No, I really do have feelings for you. I would even say...I would even say I love you.

“I thought you were different. I thought you had abandoned yourself and that you were wild and free to do whatever. That you finally weren't yourself and I truly had someone I could see myself with forever.” A fuel truck traversed the highway, its chrome frame catching the morning sun. I was grateful for the break in the heavy silence.

“But then there was last night. You—” her voice came out thin. “—broke me.” She swallowed. “I've never shared that about my dad with anyone. No one. And I didn't because of what you did. Because you got in my head and you were talking about it so fucking selflessly!” She struck the seat cushion. She regarded me in silence for several seconds, then said, “You're not the man I thought you were.” Again, she sat there.

This was news, and my mind was reeling with how I felt. And what I could tell her. So many thoughts were clamoring for attention. I wanted her. But I didn't. Things were moving fast. We're on the run. Four guys just got killed. We made love last night. I miss my parents. What the hell was I going to do?

Again, Anna spoke, but she started shifting her weight away from me. “I'll give you the car. Our journey together ends here.” She opened the door and stepped out. I moved over to the driver's side, when Anna ducked her head inside the window. “And don't follow me,” she said, maintaining eye contact. After a few seconds she looked away, and turned, walking away from the car.

I think I saw her wipe a tear from her eye. Please, please turn around, I begged. I want to see your face one last time.

While part of me thought of following her, I knew that wouldn't do any good. Instead, I sat in the front seat of the car, and watched her walk down the desert road. She soon became a dark figure, blending in with the mirage of the desert morning. Then, a pickup truck drove by. Up ahead, it slowed. The small figure in the distance disappeared. The truck sped up again.

I exhaled and closed my eyes. All the tears I could have cried were gone.

I drove back home, thinking how far I'd come. Thinking about Anna.

I like to think that she's somewhere safe. Not just safe physically, but safe emotionally as well. I like to think that she rode with a kind old truck driver, who noticed her disposition and asked what's wrong. I like to think she opened up to her, and that, maybe, the truck driver gave her encouragement.

I like to think Anna continued robbing stores, but that each time she did, the thought of me tugged at her, and the desire to reconnect with her father. I like to think each time she sold merchandise to the black market, each purchase she made, that the emptiness she felt widened.

I like to think she spent nights sleeping with strangers, each time asking deep questions about who she was, never being satisfied with the answers her partners gave. I like to think she would extinguish her cigarette, and ask the guy to leave her room.

I like to think that on a dark, lonely night, when the wind was howling, when she was alone, by herself, that she thought of her father. And reconciliation. I like to think that the next morning she hitchhiked her way to town, took the bus, and arrived at her father's door.

I like to think she knocked on the door. Maybe a dog barked. Maybe her father scolded the dog. Would the sprinkler be on? Would kids be playing in the street?

I like to think her father opened the door, and that he was taken aback for a second, disbelieving tears filling his eyes.

I like to think they embraced, and that her father cried tears he'd abandoned just to move on. I like to think Anna was just as emotional, holding tightly to her dad, telling him how she loved him.

I like to think they spent time together. I wouldn't know how much time. I hoped it was enough. Because what I did—I did something I hadn't done in a while, except with Anna. I told the truth. I told my parents. I told the police. My church disowned me, and I began serving prison time.

Wherever Anna was (in prison, most likely) I like to think that she was truly living with integrity.

Because I've found it's miserable not to.