They See Me
I can feel their eyes
My Uber was waiting for me outside, I had been done packing everything I needed to survive for some time now and my family was doing whatever they were doing. It was time to run from home. I took one last look at my room, a sanctuary or a prison I still couldn’t tell and I set my farewell note on my bed. I crept through the house past everyone’s room. My brother was on a call with his friend, my mom was reading and my dad was asleep. It was only 9:30PM. He must have been working early the next day. Leaving the house wasn’t a problem, and the Uber driver didn’t say anything to me except an incoherent series of grunts as they greeted me.
I straightened my back in the passenger seat and cleared my throat.
“Excuse me.” I said.
“Can I change the destination?”
There was a deafening silence from the driver, but they turned to me, slowly, and sighed. With a raise of their eyebrows, I had my answer.
“East.” I said.
And the driver stared at me as if I wasn’t even in the car with them, so I opened my mouth to say it again but they stopped me.
“I heard what you said.” And that’s all the driver said to me.
I waited for them to continue, or maybe kick me out of the car, but they just looked at me, studied me. Those eyes under that baseball cap pierced my soul and for a split second I feared my intentions were as clear as day. The driver would go to my house, knock on the door and surrender me to the jaws of my family. But instead, the driver shook their head and headed east.
As we peeled out of my neighbourhood I thought I would feel relief, and same with when we were careening down the highway, but there was nothing. I thought my nerves would settle that all was said and done now but I always felt as if someone was watching me. When I turned to the driver their eyes were bearing down on me and I shivered, turning to the window and wincing at their gaze. Why the hell were they looking at me like that, with those critical lenses?
“What’s your name?” The driver asked.
I stiffened, as if jolted out of a sleep, and flicked my eyes to the driver without turning my head.
“Where you headed?”
I turned and frowned at the driver. The driver’s eyes caught mine and gestured to the GPS. That was two questions in the span of less than half a minute. Why did they want to know so much? I shifted in my seat.
The driver tightened and loosened their grip on the wheel.
“Well, I can see that. But where do I drop you off?”
“I’m… I’m not sure yet.”
I flinched at the silence that ensued. The driver’s face twitched.
“You tryna play me?” They asked, the emotion in their tone giving the words a sharp edge.
“No, no I’m not. I’m being honest with you. I don’t know.” I raised my hands in surrender.
The driver bit their tongue, their knuckles turning white over the wheel, and I turned my head back to the window. I caught my own face in the reflection and found myself looking into the face of a stranger. Each line, each shadow, each feature seemed unfamiliar, but not in a way like I hadn’t seen it before. I had known that face, that person, but never could have understood it. My head slammed into the back of the headrest in front of me. The driver had stopped the car.
The driver whirled, and I recoiled at the sudden pressure.
“What the hell are you doing here, man? I mean, it’s one in the morning on a Saturday, you’re dead sober in your early twenties and you’re catching an Uber with nothing but a hiking backpack and one word answers. What are you doing?” The driver asked.
That sounded personal, but I looked past it. And I contemplated answering. My lips began to form words, but I couldn’t have let the driver know anything. I couldn’t have forfeited anything to anybody. They would have sold me out. So I held my mouth shut. The driver clicked their tongue.
“You know what? I’ll tell you what you’re doing. You’re getting out of my damned car.”
Mark’s heart sunk, but he wasn’t surprised.
“Now that you bring it up, tomorrow’s good… Yes! Get out, now!”
Without another word, I slipped a twenty dollar bill into the driver’s palm, never got my change back and slung my bag over my shoulder. The last thing the driver did before they left was look at me, like really looked at me, and I froze under those eyes. As the driver peeled away, I cursed my jacket for doing a half-assed job of cutting the cold. Why had I picked up my brother’s varsity jacket that was two sizes too big for me? I had no answers.
Upon absorbing my surroundings, I came to the heavy conclusion that my Uber had deposited me on the side of a highway in the middle of a place I couldn’t name. Grain fields stretched to my left and right and the concrete road split them clean in half. There were a speckle of lone familiar trees up a low hill and below them sat a barn house.
My neck tingled. Eyes were trained on me, and I couldn’t tell where they came from. I was out in the open and couldn’t afford discovery. If anyone drove by they would question my presence and I would risk the chance of an encounter with the authorities. So I vaulted a wooden fence and made my way through the field to the barn house.
When I reached the building I turned on the valley below me. From the slight rise of the hill I could see pretty well over the fields, and even though I saw nothing but grass and roads, I still felt those seeing-eyes bearing down on me, reminding me of everything I didn’t want to remember, holding me in places I couldn’t stand to be. But there was nobody around! Nobody could see me!
I slipped into the barn and slid my bag off my shoulders. It was dark, real dark, but my eyes adjusted soon enough. I made quick stock of my surroundings. The walls were thick with dust but it was caked on, the ground was recently swept and a series of tools were set neatly on a table along the wall. Someone had used the barn house recently and I knew I would have to leave before they came back, but I needed my rest.
Just as I was laying my bedroll on the ground, I felt that dreaded feeling again. I was being watched. I turned, fighting every instinct in my body to freeze, to blend with the darkness, and I saw them. Two glowing eyes beamed down at me from the rafters of the barn. It was a barn owl…
I stared back at it, a wave of relief washing over me, but even though it was only an owl there was something about it’s stature that deeply unsettled me. It was judging me. I could see it in its stare. It was criticizing me. It was studying me.
Under the owl’s scrutiny, I felt bare, naked, exposed, and I shifted around to the other end of a stack of hay to put something between it and I. But even then, I could feel the owl watching me through the stack. I pulled my jacket over my head but that also proved futile, and I knew the owl must’ve thought I was stupid. So I sat there, rigid, fixed to the ground, hoping that my absolute stillness would bore the owl out of staring at me.
After a minute, maybe two, or even an hour, I had no way of telling, I turned around the stack to see if the owl was still looking. And it was. It hadn’t moved. I twitched at it and it didn’t even flinch. I threw my varsity jacket to scare it, but it couldn’t reach that high and the owl remained motionless. I felt dumb. The owl was disgusted.
But as I dusted off my fallen jacket, and looked up at the owl a realization dawned on me. I had feared that the owl would learn too much for its own good, that it would rat me out to the barn owner, or worse, the authorities, but it was just an owl. The bird was just studying me, a foreign object to its home, but it wasn’t conducting any judgments. At least it would continue to do so as long as I didn’t give it much to judge. It was kind of a curious stare, an observing gaze when I looked closer.
The barn doors flung open and I whirled to find a shotgun pointed at my chest. It’s wielder was a stout woman in her slippers and a hard look struck across her face. My body wanted to leap, duck or bolt anywhere, but I knew her finger was feathering the trigger and she would blast me to bits if I stepped out of line in any way.
“What you doing here?” She asked with a tone that commanded honesty.
I found a lump in my throat and fought it back with tremendous effort. Only the truth would do.
“I’m running, ma’am. I didn’t mean to be a bother, I just thought I could sleep here until the sun rises.” I said.
She cocked her head at me and blinked. Once I saw it, I couldn’t get it out of my head. She had the same eyes as the owl: all seeing, studious, knowing but not judging.
“You’re no thief?” She asked.
I shook my head. She did a once over of the barn, nodded slowly and took her finger off of the trigger, but didn’t lower her guard. The woman sniffled and my skin froze. I fought another lump, and swallowed hard.
“Go on then. Get on your way.” She said.
She gestured to my bag and then the door, but I couldn’t move.
“Ma’am, I’d like to stay here, if that’s not a hassle. I’ll sleep here and won’t make a sound. And… and I’ll work the fields. I’ll do everything that you want me to and I’ll cook my own meals as long as I can sleep under a roof, for now. Please, will you let me stay?” I asked.
And I was stunned more than the woman was by words. I hadn’t meant to ask her that, but when I thought about it, it was my only option. She considered it for a while, in silence, and my knees were on the verge of melting before she answered. She frowned at me.
“So, you’re some type of desperate to be asking me to work, eh?”
“Something like that.”
“You driven a tractor before?”
“I have my driving license.”
“You held a shovel before?”
“Worked with animals before?”
“I got a dog.”
“You ever worked a farm in your life?”
My shoulders sagged and the woman clicked her tongue. I was extremely unqualified for any type of job, but I also had no choice. Finally, she lowered the barrel of her shotgun and I felt the weight of the world lift off my shoulders. She picked up my pack with one arm and threw it at me. I caught it and was winded.
“You’re lucky I’m in need of a fresh pair of hands around here, but you better learn quick.” She said. “Come along, this isn’t no place for you to sleep. The watcher sleeps here.”
Stunned, I hurried after her out of the barn.
“I watched you come onto the field.” She said rather bluntly.
“You did? Why didn’t you stop me?”
“I follow the watcher’s lead. She observed and so did I. Now, I’ll make this dead clear to you now and I won’t say it again. If you do me wrong in any which way I’ll blow a hole in your chest, back or side, I don’t care. Don’t give me no reason to do anything terrible.”
I nodded and trailed behind her under the dim moonlight. And for the first time since I left home I didn’t feel anyone’s eyes on me. The woman hadn’t asked why I ran from home, my name or where I had come from. She didn’t care, and she wouldn’t rat me out. She could be trusted. Finally, freedom.
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