I got lucky. Tricky Dick shut the war down before I had to cross the pond, and I finished my time out in California. I finally got out, not a moment too soon, and hung around a while, looking for work. Looking for something to do that I enjoyed, but didn’t have much luck. The weather was great, at least. I really liked California, but I finally decided it was time to go back home. It was spring and I was ready to be back in the mountains. I closed my room out, counted my cash, and bought a cross-country bus ticket, from San Francisco to Hickory, North Carolina.
I was a little shocked to find out it would take five days for the trip. Damn ... the bus stopped at every little goddam town from here to there, almost. I could hitch in two if I had good luck ... what the hell, I decided ... it was cheap and I got tired of walking beside the road with my thumb out. Plus, I had a fair amount of shit to carry.
I had almost twelve hours before the bus left so went and got something to eat, and camped out in the bus station, trying to keep an eye on my stuff. The place alternated from crowded to empty on a minute-by-minute basis. There were a few people there for the long haul and I kinda got to know a few of them by sight. It wasn’t my nature to talk much, though, and I kept to myself.
I noticed the girl at once. She was young, a kid, but so what, so was I, almost, I was just a little over twenty, then. I guessed she was thirteen, fourteen or so. She was cute, hell, she was more than cute, she was beautiful. She had long, silky dark brown hair, almost black. Two big brown eyes. A cute little pixie face with an upturned pug nose. Her lips were full and just damn sexy, I thought. I’d do that, I thought, glancing at her and trying not to stare. I’d do that. But, hell ... I’d do anything, almost. She was special, though.
She just had a small suitcase that she held onto it for dear life. She was wearing a ragged pair of jeans and an old yellow t-shirt shirt that was a few sizes too big. Her shoes were just sandals. I wondered where she was going and which bus she’d be on. I hoped, of course, that she was going to be on mine.
I slept, and awoke with a start, looking around to see if my stuff had been stolen while I slept. Nope, it hadn’t. I looked around. The girl was right across from me now, she’d moved while I slept. She was asleep now, her head back, her mouth open, and her arms carelessly thrown down on the two seats next to her. Her feet were on the suitcase. I just sat there and stared at her, falling in love. That didn’t mean anything, I’d already fallen in love with the lady at the ticket counter, and the gal at the restaurant I ate at. I liked this little girl, though, I liked her a lot.
Somebody announced something on the intercom and the girl jumped and woke up. She looked around and when she looked at me I smiled at her. She gave me a what-the-hell-are-you-looking-at look and settled back into her seat. I looked at my watch. Two more fucking hours. Jeezus.
On impulse, I leaned across the aisle towards her. I was kinda shy, but the urge to talk to this one was strong, stronger than my shyness. I would be happy just to talk to her even if she said no, I thought. She saw my movement out of the corner of her eye and looked at me.
“Wanna go get something to eat?” I said. “I got some money ... and it might be a while before the bus stops tonight.”
She just looked at me like I was a retard or something. I got ready for her rejection. The station was fairly deserted at the moment and in the silence I distinctly heard her stomach growl from across the aisle. I knew it would probably piss her off for me to laugh, but it struck me as funny, for some reason, I guess because I’d just mentioned food to her. I smiled and only laughed a little, my body shaking. She did look pissed, then, but only for a moment ... she giggled, too, and I was pleased.
“I...” she said, “I guess so ... if you don’t mind...”
“No, I’d be delighted,” I said, pleased. I could immediately tell from her accent that she was a mountain girl. I could almost place her within a hundred miles of where I’d grown up. I smiled and stood. I gathered up my suitcases and she stood, picking up her small one. On impulse I stuck my hand out, and said, “I’m Robert, by the way.”
“I’m Willow,” she said. “Willow Ambrighton.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, and she nodded. We shook hands. Her hand felt small in mine. It was almost exciting to just touch her. I’m gettin’ desperate, I thought. That was nothing new. I was pretty much desperate all the time. We left the station and went up the street where the eating places were. I led her to a little hamburger place and we sat and ordered.
“Where you goin’?” I asked, and she grimaced.
“All the way across the country,” she said. “A little town named Hiddenite.”
“Hiddenite? North Carolina?” I was shocked. That was barely twenty miles from where I’d grown up, where my people were. Shit. She was a neighbor.
“Yes,” she said soberly, looking at me.
“I grew up in Hickory,” I explained, and she nodded.
“Yeah, I got an uncle lives there,” she said. I nodded. Small world.
“Gonna take five days to get there,” I said, and she nodded again.
“How’d you come to be out here?” I asked.
“I spent the summer with my aunt and uncle,” she explained. “My ma died last winter, and my pa sent me out here. He’s a trucker and he was supposed to come get me but they changed his route so he had to send me money for the bus.”
“I see,” I said. Interesting. This girl was gonna be on my bus for the next five days. I hoped, now that we were acquainted, that she’d sit with me. That would help pass the time, having a pretty girl with me, even if she was just a kid. Maybe this won’t be that bad, I thought.
She wolfed her burger down, and an order of fries. She ate enough ketchup to float a battleship. I think she was hungry.
“How long you been at the station?” I asked.
“Two days,” she said. “My uncle had to bring me up Tuesday, then go back to work.”
Shit. That was a long time, for a little kid.
“You eat anything since then?” I asked, half joking. I mean, damn, the way she’d eaten that burger, not to mention her stomach growling.
“No ... I don’t got no money...” she said, shyly.
“Shit,” I said. “You mean, they put you on a five day bus ride, without any money? What was you gonna do, eat from trash cans?”
“Well, I thought I’d have some, but the ticket was more than my pa thought, I guess ... it used up almost all of it...”
“Well, shit,” I said. “Stick with me, I’ll buy you lunch and dinner. A kid shouldn’t have to go hungry.”
“You don’t have to...” she started, but I interrupted her.
“Yes, I do, you can’t go hungry,” I had over two hundred bucks and it wasn’t that big a deal. I couldn’t stand the idea of a pretty girl like her starving or eating from trash cans. Or having to beg for her dinner.
“Thank you ... Robert...” she said, looking embarrassed.
“Don’t think nothin’ of it,” I said. “Forget it, let’s just get on with the trip.”
I put a quarter on the table and we dragged all our crap back to the station. She sat next to me, then, right next to me, and that pleased me greatly. I realized that now it was virtually certain that she’d sit next to me on the bus. How cool, I thought.
Finally, just a few minutes before the bus was supposed to leave they called for us to board. We took our stuff out and let them throw it in the belly of the bus and got onboard. I chose a row a not quite in the middle, although the bus didn’t have a bathroom. I knew better than to sit over the wheels.
I went past the seat and let her sit by the window. We sat and waited and finally the driver got onboard. Most everybody was on by then and he pulled out, into traffic.
I was right. We were gonna stop at every goddam little town we came to. We barely got out of the city before we stopped and two more people got onboard. Shit, I thought. This was gonna take forever. I laughed. Five days, that were gonna seem like forever. I looked at the girl next to me. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad.
Willow was glued to the window until we made it out of town. She finally turned to me and spoke.
“What’d you do, out here...” she asked. I spent a few minutes giving her the Reader’s Digest condensed version of my life, my time in the Air Force out here in California. She nodded, seeming to be interested in my dull life.
“What you gonna do now, when you get home?” she asked.
“I dunno,” I said, “I guess just look for a job and live at home for a while, if they’ll let me.”
“Think they will?” she asked.
“Yeah ... my mom will be okay with it ... my dad will, if I get a job and act like I’m trying to make it on my own...”
“Good,” she said. She sighed, and sat back. “My dad don’t act like he likes me any more. I think he couldn’t wait for me to get out here and out of his hair.”
“I’m sorry...” I said, not really knowing what to say.
“S’okay,” she said. “I’m thinkin’ ‘bout asking one of my aunts if I can live with her. She understands me she likes me.”
“I hope it works out for you,” I said, and I really did. She seemed like a good kid. I was sorry she’d lost her mother.
.... There is more of this story ...