Saying GoodbyebyHeathen Hemmingway©
The young woman was shivering in a dark corner, watching the traffic go by. Each time a big truck passed by she was buffeted with a blast of freezing wind. She was tucked away next to a rest area, not fifty feet from the shoulder of I-85 North. It had rained earlier that evening and the air still carried a chilly mist with it. Her damp clothes did little to shield her from the cold, ragged as they were. The thin blouse and denim jeans she was wearing were soaked. She had a raging headache and she was coughing every few seconds. She could feel a wet, heavy feeling in her lungs each time she coughed. The girl knew that she was sick, and if she didn't get out of the cold and put some antibiotics in her system, she was sure to come down with pneumonia, if she didn't have it already. Suddenly she winced and then gritted her teeth as a hard shudder ran over her entire body. She rubbed her arms frantically for a few moments, and then held them tight against her chest.
The cold wasn't the only reason she was shaking.
She had been trying all afternoon to work up the nerve to ask someone for money. Her stomach had been rumbling and growling for the past two hours. Across from where she was hidden stood a pair of vending machines, next to the entrance to the bathrooms. They had been mocking her, as if in response to the growling in her stomach. The girl was deathly afraid to ask someone for money, for fear of being raped. Worse than rape, she thought, was being seen at all. She could not believe the mess she had landed herself in. Every time someone looked at her she felt an indescribable ache. She wanted to hide her face away from the world. And as she stood there shivering, a small voice in the back of her head whispered to her.
'Maybe the risk of being raped isn't as bad as going hungry'
The young woman started crying, as she had countless times recently. She decided that she would ask the next person she saw for some money. Just a little, enough to get something from those damnable vending machines that had been staring her down since her ride dropped her off here hours ago. There was a time when her looks alone would command anything she wanted without having to ask. Slowly, as her life tilted into the downward spiral that brought her to where she was now, her looks had diminished along with everything else. Days before, while trying to catch a ride, she learned that her appearance didn't catch people's eye like they used to, and it was yet another harsh reality she had to face that left her crying and alone. She was still a pretty girl, but she no longer believed it. In her current state it was almost impossible to believe.
Suddenly harsh light bathed her small corner, and then it was gone. A car pulled into the rest area parking lot. She hoped she hadn't been seen. Secretly the young woman was hoping the car would leave so she could spare herself the agony of asking a stranger for money. Her stomach gurgled again, and she immediately resigned herself to the task. She heard a door slam and then footsteps approaching her. Moments later she saw a swift shadow pass by. The person was walking fast to get out of the cold. She heard the creak of a door opening and she peeked around the corner to see the men's room door closing. She looked around carefully and stepped out into the light. The fluorescent lights overhead cast an angry glare, making her cover her eyes momentarily. She felt dizzy and realized she was staggering a bit as she moved. The girl wasn't sure if it was from the cold she was nursing or from something else. She straightened her hair a bit and stood next the steps leading up to the rest area. She was afraid to look too obvious, but was unsure if she could look like anything else. Either way, she knew she had to try. She took a few steps back until she was standing at the top of the steps, barely in the light. The girl didn't want the man to see her face. The men's room door opened and a man dressed in black stepped out.
He was wearing a black suit with a white shirt and a solid black tie. Business like, but not flashy looking. Utilitarian, she thought. He was wearing black leather gloves and black boots. His hair was close cut with a bit of scalp shining through. His skin was well tanned. He saw the young woman standing there and nodded to her as he passed. The man looked like he could be a cop, or maybe a DEA agent. Something about the man said serious business to her. That made the girl nervous, but he hadn't hit on her or seemed to pay her much attention, so she decided it was worth the risk. The worse he could do was clap her in handcuffs and put her in the back seat of his car where it would be warm and dry. He would have the heater on, and she could warm up while her clothes dried. She might end up in jail for loitering, but then she would have a clean dry cot to sleep on with sheets, and suddenly she remembered that they would have to feed her, and…
Part of her was in disbelief that she was almost salivating at the thought of going to jail just so she could eat and get out of the cold. The man was halfway down the steps leading to the parking lot when she called out to him.
"Excuse me Sir." She said. Her voice sounded like a thin squeak.
The girl was wracked with a deep series of coughs. It took her moments to catch her breath. The man in black was staring at her intently. One look at her clothes and he knew this was a woman in trouble. She thought of a quick lie, one that she hoped sounded honest enough.
"The machine took my money. I was wondering if you might..."
The man held his right hand up, cutting her words short. He walked back up the steps to her, and then reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of bills.
"Say no more, young lady." The man said, and held his hand out to her. "My pleasure."
She was staring blankly at the bills in the man's hand. For some unknown reason she felt flushed. The girl couldn't put a name to the strange rush that ran over her. Maybe it was relief, or just plain old fashioned shock. In an instant it came to her, though. It was hope. Something she had never placed any value on, because for her entire life she never had to hope for anything. When she wanted something, she always got it, and now she was about to break down into a sobbing mess because a stranger was giving her money just so she could eat. The young woman had never even acknowledged hope before, and now it was all she ever did. She started crying again, and doubled over as another bout of coughs overtook her. The man waited for her coughing to pass, not moving. His eyes were set on her with obvious concern. As she stood back upright her eyes fixed on the money in his hand. He took a step closer to hand her the money, and their eyes met.
Her eyes were shot with streaks of red. Makeup hadn't touched her face in untold days and her hair was a damp matted mess. He could tell her hair was a deep coppery red, although now it was a greasy mat of dark brown. Behind the bleary red her eyes were a soft blue.
The man's eyes widened suddenly as a cold prick of memory stabbed at his heart like an icy finger. He knew those eyes.
"Holy Hell." He said to the young woman. "It's you."
She stood there for a moment, baffled. It took several seconds for his words to register. She was staring at the cash in a semi-daze when the words came back to her. 'It's you' they echoed, and suddenly she realized he knew her. Her eyes met his again and she felt overwhelmed. She felt a sudden urge to run away and hide, to cover her face and wait until he was gone. But he was standing there looking at her, not three feet away.
"Oh my God." She said without breath. "Nails."
She turned her back to him and started to walk away. It was the only thing she knew to do. She couldn't make herself face him. Her hunger was momentarily forgotten as she found herself awash with shame and humiliation. And damn it if she wasn't mad that he had seen her in such a mess.
"Thanks. But I can't." She mumbled, looking down at the ground as she spoke. "I'm sorry."
Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she took an uneasy step away.
"Don't." He said. "Please."
'Don't you dare turn around' she thought to herself, and then the voice in the back of her head chimed in. 'You'd be a fool not to girl'.
Over the past several weeks she had grown to hate that voice. In part because it reminded her of her mother's voice, but mostly because the voice was always right. She had yet to accept that her impetuous nature had grown out of a luxury she no longer had. Just another one of the many small privileges she had taken for granted. When you're beautiful, you're rarely ever wrong. Even when you're wrong you're right.
'And when you're not so beautiful any more, the world changes around you.' Echoed the voice in her head.
She stopped and turned around slowly with the firm intention of telling him thanks, but no thanks. She mustered the strength to look him in the eyes, for what she thought would be the last time. When their eyes met she felt what little strength she had drain away. Looking into his eyes was like bloodletting, as if all of the warmth in her body was violently wrenched away. She staggered a little as they stood there looking at one another.
"At least let me give you a ride. There's no sense in you being out in the rain." He said. "You're sick."
"I can't." was the only reply she could manage.
For several moments they stood there, simply staring at one another, neither one of them knowing what to do next.
"Well I'm not going to leave you here like this." He said with a tone of finality in his voice.
He put the money back in his jacket pocket, and her heart sank. For all the embarrassment she felt, she was suddenly afraid for him to leave. She would be alone and cold again. And hungry. She knew that moments later he would be gone.
Instead he took his jacket off and draped it over her shoulders. It felt warm and heavy and smelled faintly of cologne and leather. He wrapped it tightly around her and then gripped her shoulders firmly.
"Keep the money. I don't want to leave you like this, but I'm not going to force myself on you. Just be careful, please."
He looked into her eyes again, and she saw he was filled with anguish. She had seen that in his eyes before, on a hot June night long ago. He turned and walked away. A loud rumble of thunder echoed overhead, followed by a gentle hiss as rain began to fall. As he moved out of the light and into the rain she could see dark raindrops staining the shoulders of his white shirt. Moisture was clinging in his hair, catching in the lights. As he reached the foot of the steps he stopped and turned to her. He looked at her again, then hung his head and left.
She felt a sense of both giddy relief and intense pain, watching him leave. She knew that moments later she would be eating. Certainly it would be sugary junk food followed by sugary soda, but it was food. Her stomach instinctively clenched at the thought of eating. Her first thought was to dash back to the vending machines, when a chill ran through her followed by a round of deep, painful coughs. She pulled the collar of his jacket up around her neck to stave off the cold and she caught a faint scent. It took her a moment to place the smell, and once she recognized it, she felt another chill. It was him.
He sat there behind the wheel of his black Crown Vic, his eyes closed as he listened to the rain pattering on the roof of the car. He turned the ignition key and the big car came to life with a muscular purr. He opened his eyes and wiped away tears, then grabbed the gear shifter and put the car into reverse. With his foot on the brake he took one last look toward the rest area. It was storming now, almost obscuring it from his view. She was no longer standing at the stop of the steps. She was gone.
"It ain't the first time, Kid." He told himself.
There was a tap on the window, and by reflex his right hand reached into the crook of his left arm, just below the shoulder. He looked up and saw she was standing there in the pouring rain.
Moments later she was sitting in the car next to him. Without speaking he turned the heater on and she felt a glorious rush of warm air flow over her. At that moment she remembered how cold natured he was. Even in the cold of winter he would not use a heater. For some peculiar reason he enjoyed the cold. It was always a chore to convince him to wear winter clothing, unless he was going to work. When he worked he always wore the same thing, unless it was raining or bitter cold. A dark suit, white shirt, dark tie and black boots. And those two cannons he carried, one under each arm. It occurred to her that he was dressed for work but he wasn't carrying his guns with him. Maybe he wasn't doing the same work anymore, although she couldn't imagine him doing anything else. She remembered how she both loved his stolid nature but hated how predictable and staid he was. And how he loved the cold. Somehow it fit his quiet nature.
"You're not supposed to go outside barefoot in the cold." She always scolded him, to which he always gave the same reply. "You're not supposed to do a lot of things." He would say wryly, with a quick flick of his tongue and raised eyebrows.
All these memories were coming back to her, as if from some lost void in her life. That was, sadly enough, precisely how she felt. Lost.
The voice in her head made itself known again, much to her chagrin. 'Maybe you're not as lost now as you were a few minutes ago'
"Thank you." She said with a heavy sigh.
"You're welcome." He replied. "I'll take you home and you can get some rest. If you'll just tell me where you want to go."
"I don't really… have a place to go." She replied, and she found herself crying uncontrollably.
He sat there quietly as she sobbed. He wanted badly to pull her to him and hold her. He ached to hold her, but he would not. Secretly she wished he would, too. Not because it was him, but because it had been so long since she felt wanted by anyone. He backed the car out of its parking spot and guided it onto the interstate. He reached over and opened the dash and pulled out a few napkins, placing them in her lap.
"Thanks." She said, drying her eyes. "I'm sorry I'm such a wreck."
"Don't apologize. Sometimes crying is the only thing that helps."
His words tugged at her heart, bringing more tears. So many times he had been able to comfort her with the simplest of words, even if they brought her to tears with their honesty. It pained him to see her crying, and more so because he felt helpless to do anything. Years ago he came home from work to find her hidden under a pile of blankets crying like she was now. Her mother had called her to deliver terrible news. Her dog, an aged golden retriever that had been with their family for many years had died and she was dearly brokenhearted. He held her as she cried.
"I'm sorry." She cried from underneath her refuge of blankets.
"Don't apologize for crying baby." He told her. "Sometimes all you can do is cry it all out."
Those words echoed in her mind as they drove through the rain. He inhaled deeply then spoke, as if taking great care with his words.
"I'm not going to ask you what happened. If it was any of my business I would know. Just tell me what I can do to make it better."
There were several long awkward moments of silence between them.
"I can't ask you for anything else." She finally answered. "Just… I don't know. Take me anywhere. I'll figure it out."
"It's a long ride, but I'll be glad to take you back home to your mom's. I know she'll be glad to see you. There's no reason we can't be civil for a little trip. And I'm not trying to be preachy but you need some antibiotics in your system. I know pneumonia when I see it."
She felt a sting of anger. It always made her mad when he talked to her like that, even though she knew he had genuine intentions. Most of all it pissed her off when she knew he was right. She knew she didn't have the benefit of arguing, but she also knew she couldn't go home.
"My mom's not home right now."
He knew she was lying, but he decided to let it go.
"Ok. Tell me where you want to go. I'll take you there."
"I don't want to make you miss work. That's why you're out here, right?"
"Yes." He replied with resignation in his voice. "But I'm not on a set schedule. I have a few days at my disposal if I need them. I can take you to your sister's in Atlanta if you like."
She instantly felt a spike of resent. Her sister would welcome her with open arms, but she couldn't bear to be seen by her sister in such a condition. She would scold her smugly, in that prim and proper way that always drover her insane. That would open her up to explain and relive the past several months of her life and she wasn't ready for that yet. Not yet, if ever. Her sister would sit there smiling, agreeing at all the agreeable moments and disagreeing at all the expected times, and all the while she would revel in her failure because that was the way she was. Her sister always believed that her own shit did not stink, and she knew it.
'You're being awfully childish for someone in such great need' interrupted the voice in her head. She sat there in silence, not knowing what to say next.
"Well I know you're hungry." He said, breaking the silence. "So at the next stop I'll get something for you to eat."
She felt herself wither with shame, but had no defense to offer other than a quiet "Thank you."
For the next several minutes they sat quietly as the big black Crown Vic cut a path through the rainy night. Compared to the miserable conditions she found herself in at the rest stop, the inside of his car felt like a weekend at the Biltmore. Fatigue, stress and hunger were taking their toll on her, as she felt herself fading fast. She yawned, and moments later he did as well.
"That's highly contagious." He quipped.
"I know. Sorry."
"Don't apologize. There's a place to eat a few miles from here. You can get some food and then get some sleep."
He pushed a button on the stereo and soft music floated through the air. She closed her eyes and tried to relax, letting the music occupy her mind so she didn't have to listen to her grumbling stomach. She had never been so hungry in her entire life. Being in the warm car seemed to have increased her appetite tenfold. As the music played she felt her eyes grow heavy. For the first time in months, she felt safe. Uncertain to no end, but safe. The music sounded heavenly as she rested for the first time in days.
'I looked at the morning
After being up all night
I looked at my haggard face in the bathroom light
I looked out the window
And I saw that ragged soul take flight
I saw a black crow flying
In a blue sky
Oh I'm like a black crow flying
In a blue sky'
She woke with a gasp, not realizing she had dozed off. He was sitting next to her with a cardboard drink carrier in his lap, nestling two tall cups. Between them on the seat was a yellow to-go bag, and the delirious smell of food had filled the cabin of the car. He took a cup out of the carrier and held it out to her. The aroma of coffee quickly brought her out of her sleep, invigorating her senses. She took the coffee, and instantly the warm cup felt wonderful in her hands.
"Black, with three sugars." He said as he opened the bag, removing a large white container and placing it in her lap. "No need to be shy."
She opened the box, and for a brief moment she felt the urge to cry again. It was almost overflowing with scrambled eggs, two round sausage patties and two wedges of toast tucked into one corner. She would have never believed that something as simple as food could have brought her to tears, yet there it was in her lap. And it was beautiful.