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18

FINALIST
Jury Selection

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With my arms held high, and my hands reaching up towards the sky, I could feel the air whipping my face and my hair, where a few strands had escaped from my hastily done chignon and kept tangling together in front of my eyes. We were outside the town, on a pot-holed road that was more like a track, and I was enjoying the feeling of invincibility I got from the excessive speed of the old open-top Mustang I found myself in. The bumps in the road, the leather of the seatbelt against my chest, the sun occasionally dazzling me, the specks of dust in my eyes, everything, absolutely everything, gave me the impression I could feel the very essence of life itself coursing through my veins.
Looking over to the driver’s side, I had to repress a smile when I thought of how my mother – and my friends – would react if they could see me at that moment. In the company of a perfect stranger, whose name I hardly knew. I think it was Nathan. As I was just starting to walk along the road, he had pulled up next to me, making the tyres squeal, and greeted me with a simple “Hey, pretty blonde, you look a bit too tired to be spending the whole day walking.” My reply had been immediate, “Well, you might not look tired but you could really scare someone.” He had smiled—and it was at that moment I had noticed the unusual color of his eyes: azure blue mixed with gray—and opened the door for me. And, as if an external force had taken possession of my body, I had got in.
I had been lying, anyway. He was not at all frightening, in fact he was rather cute. Very cute, even. Longish hair, a suntanned complexion, spellbinding eyes, and quite muscly as far as I could see. We might even end up kissing – you could hardly miss the repeated glances he had been giving me since this morning. Or perhaps not. But that was not the most important thing. 
As we passed the sign announcing the presence of a vet’s surgery in under three miles, the image of my old life rose up before me. A loving family, caring friends, good school results. And then it had all been shattered. My father’s death had destroyed what I had thought was indestructible. My school results had gone from being good to average then poor, my friends had been so sorry for me that they no longer dared talk to me about happy, cheerful things – all the while sounding awkward and unnatural – and my mother had gradually sunken into a dark, bitter existence. 
And that was how, after the umpteenth day spent in my bedroom avoiding any social contact, a completely mad idea had come into my mind. Then it had come back again until in the end it forced itself upon me. Going on a road trip across the United States with the grand sum of two hundred dollars in my pocket, hitch-hiking – when possible – or spending whole days walking with my backpack on my back, sleeping in the open air, making friends with strangers. I needed to get away – I felt I was losing control. And I didn’t want to do that.
So far, my journey had gone fairly well, except for the three days spent walking in torrential rain or that night in the company of a couple who had been everything but discreet. But it didn’t matter what might happen, I had no regrets.
The sudden braking of the Mustang brought me back to reality, and I shot a killer look at Nathan, who responded with an arrogant smile. I raised my eyes to the heavens, but abandoned my irritation when I saw the village we were driving through, this time at a reasonable speed. The wood cabins stood out against the orange sunset, the green of the vegetation mixed with the dark earth, the aromas of all sorts of spices – cinnamon, saffron, turmeric, Cajun and many others – reached my nostrils just as my eyes were struck by the huge fresco painted on the wall of one of the few stone houses. It simply represented scenes from the everyday life of the Indians living in that region, but they were depicted with dazzling precision. The combination of all these perceptions imbued the village with an unreal, hypnotic quality. It was wonderful. 
I frowned as I felt the Mustang stopping gently on the roadside.
“Do you want to get out?”
I turned to Nathan and looked at him long and slow. He still seemed just as sure of himself, but I sensed that his arrogance had disappeared, at least for the moment. 
“Why not?” 
He let a wide smile spread over his face and walked round the car to open the door for me, finally slipping his hand around my waist and guiding me gently through the alleyways of the town. He probably imagined he had scored.
But he was wrong.
I had nothing against him, but I was incapable of loving and becoming attached to anyone at the moment. It was beyond me. 
I was not replete.
The scanty breakfasts as I watched the sun rise.
The noise of the engine starting.
The music inside the car.
 
The smell of gas and oil at every service station.
The old badly stuffed seats that give you backache.
The sunsets with just a blanket over your shoulders.
The nights in the open air in a sleeping bag.
The waking up with the song of the birds.
The heat of the sun against my skin.
The drops of sweat down the back of my neck.
The biting cold.
The numbness after too long a journey.
The sensation of speed.
The rush of adrenalin with each acceleration. 
The excitement. 
The insecurity. 
The freedom.
That was what I needed. These are the only things keeping me going. So, tomorrow morning, at the first light of dawn, I will be off.
And everything will start all over again.

Translated by Wendy Cross

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