“Hey, man, are you awake?”
I stirred as a hand grabbed my shirt at the shoulder and shook me. The movement sent pain shooting through my right arm, and I groaned and tried to roll away from the hand.
“Okay, take it easy. You’ve had the shit beaten out of you.” The voice was higher and more melodic than those of the teen hoodlums who’d attacked me. I opened my eyes and found that I was looking at a graffiti-decorated concrete block wall from a foot away.
“Can you sit up?”
“I...” I coughed twice, sending waves of pain all over my body. “I think so,” I managed.
“Come on, then. We have to get out of here before the cops show up.”
“Why?” I blinked a couple of times and straightened my spine to sit upright on my backside. Two feet away, a person knelt in front of me. It was late fall, so the evenings were chilly. The person had no coat, and was dressed in a much-too-large plaid shirt, jeans so filthy I couldn’t tell if their original color, and battered sneakers. An open hoodie with the hood pulled up covered the person’s head and shoulders, and framed a face smeared with grime, so that I couldn’t tell what their gender was.
“They don’t like vagrants around here, not even in this area. Come on, I found your keys, and they didn’t mess with your truck.”
With a little help, I climbed to my feet, only to see that my truck was sitting a few feet away. “Why is it here?” I remembered parking at the side of the convenience store, and not in the back. My new friend stood at the right front door, holding it open and looking at me.
“I found your keys where you tossed them, and I got the truck. Now, come on!”
I shuffled to the door, grabbed the interior handle on the windshield post, and pulled myself into the passenger seat. On the other side, the person did the same.
“Where were you headed?” They reached for the ignition and started my truck.
“Northeast. I was just driving.”
“Sounds good.” The person pulled the hood back and down, and long hair spilled out down to their shoulders. They half turned, backed the truck into the side parking lot, and drove forward toward the street. “I had a few things about a block from here, but I don’t want to hang around. Do you have money for gas or anything?”
“I have some money.” I reached for my wallet and found it was gone, as was my phone. I’d taken the precaution of not carrying all my debit cards at once, and I had a spare ID, money and another phone in a lock box under my passenger seat. “Let’s get down the road, if that’s what you think we should do.”
The person – she, I could tell now that I could see her head in profile, was a shade darker than my Hispanic heritage made me, and she appeared to be a good bit younger than my forty years. She glanced at me and smiled. “What?”
“It’s getting late. We need to stop somewhere, and I don’t feel like sleeping on the ground or in the truck.”
“There’s a motel up the road about ten miles. We can stay there.”
“Do you have to pay by the hour?”
I laughed, and then groaned as my ribs protested. “No, it’s a decent place. I stayed there last week.”
“I don’t have any money,” she said. “I’m not a whore, either, so maybe you can let me out in town somewhere.”
“I can get you your own room, or one with two beds. That way, you can clean up, I can patch myself up, and we can have a meal.”
“And what do you want from me for all of that?”
“Conversation. I owe you that much for helping me back there.”
She snorted and shook her head. “We will see.”
“I’m too tired and sore to be even slightly dangerous. Sorry to disappoint you.”
“I could use a shower, and I haven’t eaten today, so I suppose I can take the chance. Just this once.” She shrugged.
“I’m Jesse Ruiz, from east Texas.”
“Lily Harris, from somewhere west of here.”
“Good to meet you, Lily.”
“Good to meet you, Jesse.”
I leaned my head back and closed my eyes for a moment. My body ached in a dozen places where I’d been hit or kicked. I was lucky to have survived the mugging and subsequent beating. They’d taken my wallet and my phone, for I’d tossed the truck keys behind the store’s dumpster when they demanded them. I sighed, and settled deeper into my seat.
“This the place?”
I opened my eyes and looked at the motel. “This is it. Park and give me the keys.”
Lily did as I asked, and I gingerly stepped out of the truck, and turned to extract a lock box from under the passenger seat. Opening it, I took out my spare phone, my wallet, and my handgun. I opened the glove box and took out a paddle holster, and put the rig on my right hip, covering it with my shirttail.
“Sit tight, I will be right back.” I stepped out of the office a few minutes later, key in hand. “Go around back. The room is at the far end on the second floor. 203.” I handed Lily the keys.
It took us a few minutes to unload our gear and find our room. Lily had placed her backpack in the truck bed, and she pulled it out and brought it with her.
“You don’t have anything in there I should worry about, right?” I asked her.
Lily shook her head. “No. My phone and ID was stolen weeks ago, and I don’t do drugs or drink.” She unzipped a pocket and removed a battered travel case. “I still have my toothbrush, though.”
I pointed to the bathroom. “Ladies first. Do you have clean clothes?”
“I have a change of clothes I’d managed to launder in a bucket and hang them over a tree branch to dry. I found a nearly full box of detergent in a dumpster.”
“When needs be, you do what you have to do to survive.”
I nodded. “I’m next. Don’t use all the towels.”
Thirty minutes later, we sat down to dinner at the all-night diner attached to the motel. Lily had cleaned up nicely; her nearly black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, making a contrast with her light brown complexion. She was tall and slim, and cut a nice figure in her T-shirt and pleasantly tight jeans. Her face was pleasant, with a largish nose and a strong chin; while no fashion model, she was still pretty in an everywoman way.
I had examined my injuries while I showered, and I found that, while I was bruised and scraped up, I had no serious injuries. I supposed that my heavy jacket had helped cushion the blows just enough. I was sore, but I could still function.
We ordered our food, and Lily sat back and regarded me over her tea glass. “So, tell me about Jesse Ruiz. Axe murder on the run, or just a guy on the run?”
I smiled. “I’m not wanted for anything, and I’m not a criminal. This is a big country, and I wanted to see it. And, here I am. You?”
Lily took a drink of tea, and set the glass precisely on the table. “I am here because I was stupid.”
“That’s harsh,” I said quietly.
“The truth sometimes is harsh.” She sighed. “Ten months ago, I was engaged to be married. The week before my wedding, my so-called friends took me out for a bachelorette party. I had too much to drink, and then they brought out the dancer.” She looked down at her hands.
“My friends started blowing him as he danced by them, and eventually, they talked me into doing it, too. I’d only ever done that for my fiancé, and I really didn’t want to touch another guy. They kept after me, and I finally did it. One of them made a show of pushing my head down on him. The guy backed away and stopped them after he saw I was uncomfortable.”
“And then?” I had an idea, but I waited for her to tell the story.
“The next day, I was hung over and sick about the party. My phone woke me up, and I saw that one of the women had taken pictures. What they didn’t know was that my phone was set to share pictures with my fiancé and my sister.”
“Oh,” I said with a grimace.
“My parents are well known in their community, and they were very angry. My fiancé canceled the wedding, and my parents suggested that I go visit my aunt in Milwaukee for a few months. I just grabbed a few things and left. My car broke down a month later, and I used up my money just trying to live. I’ve been robbed four times, and I was nearly raped once. So, here I am, twenty-five and homeless.”
“Why did you help me?”
“I was hiding from those bastards, when I saw them jump you. You tossed the keys literally into my lap, and I got to your truck and drove it at them until they ran off.”
“Thank you again for doing that.”
“You’re welcome. How about you? What brings you here this fine night?”
I looked around to see that we were alone in this section of the restaurant, and then I faced her and took a breath. “Two years ago, I killed my wife.” Lily’s eyes widened in shock. “Everyone said it was an accident, but I killed her.”
She lifted her tea glass with both hands, took a long drink, and set it down. “What happened?”
“We both belonged to our little rural volunteer fire brigade. Renee and I were both certified firefighters, and I was also one of the incident commanders. One night, we responded to a house fire. There were only four of us available, and so we took both our trucks. We needed all the water we could get, and our backup from neighboring departments was a half hour away.”
“When we got there, the house was showing smoke and flames out of the upstairs windows, and the ground floor was pouring heavy smoke from the front door. We found out later that an electrical short in the attic started the fire. I took one of the hoses and began spraying into the second floor, while Renee put her air pack on. About that time, the man of the house ran up to us and said that his toddler daughter was missing, and that she was still in the house.”
“Renee looked to me, and I told her that we would support her while she did a quick search downstairs. She went in the house, and...” my voice broke.
“It’s okay, Lily said.
I nodded and took another breath. “We did what we said; Renee went in, and the rest of us put water into the house to knock the flames down. The problem was, we couldn’t reach the center of the fire. When she opened the back bedroom door, the fire there flashed over. It just obliterated the first floor, and bowled the rest of us over when it blew out the front.”
“When the investigation was done, the state fire marshal’s office said that Renee was killed almost instantly when she opened the door. They cited my lack of training and inexperience for allowing a firefighter to enter the structure. The little girl had run to hide in the family car, where they found her asleep in her car seat about an hour later. In the end, they called it an accident, and no one pressed charges.”
I held onto my self-control with both hands and smiled grimly through my unshed tears. “So you see, I killed my Renee, and I did it for nothing.”
Lily reached across the table and grasped my hand. “Jesse, you didn’t kill her.”
“I did. I was stupid, and she died because of me.” I registered that she was holding my hand, and I focused on the feeling. No one had touched me since my wife’s closed casket funeral. “I killed her.”
“What did you do after the funeral?”
“We never had kids due to a car accident Renee had when she was a teen, and we are, were, both only children with no close relatives. So, I took the insurance money, sold everything I had except the truck and what is in it, invested the money, and went on the road.”
Our food arrived, and we ate in silence. When we were done, I paid the bill and waited for Lily to precede me out of the restaurant. We walked up to our room, and went inside. Lily stepped into the bathroom to change for bed, and I stripped down to my briefs and climbed into the bed furthest from the bathroom.
When Lily came out, she wore only the T-shirt he’d had on earlier. It came down just far enough to cover her crotch, and it was obvious that she wasn’t wearing a bra. Her breasts moved under the think cotton, and her nipples made dents in the material. Then, she walked to the far side of my bed, drew back the covers, and climbed into bed next to me.
“Lily...” I began.
“Hush. Turn off the lights, will you?”
I did as I was told, and lay back down on my back. A moment later, Lily was on her side, leaning against me with her head on my shoulder.
“You don’t have to do this,” I said. “I didn’t expect anything from you.”
“Good. This isn’t sex, Jesse. This is intimate, non-sexual contact between two people who really need it. I need it, badly. Do you need it, Jesse?” She put her leg over mine, and laid her arm across my chest.
I lay quietly for a few minutes, trying to parse what I was feeling. All I knew for sure was that there was a woman in my bed for the first time in two years. Everything else was a jumbled and painful mess. I felt wetness on my shoulder, and I heard Lily sob softly. A dam of emotion burst somewhere inside me, and I rolled toward her, took her into my arms, and cried harder than I ever had in my life.
How long we clung to each other and wept, I didn’t know. Minutes, hours? At some point, we fell asleep, because when I opened my eyes again, the morning sun was shining through the window. We’d not closed the curtains the night before, and the light was dazzling. I was on my side, and Lily was curled up with her back to me. I had my arm wrapped around her, holding her close. “Lily?”
“Oh, that’s bright,” she mumbled sleepily. “Bathroom first, but don’t go anywhere.” She wiggled to the edge of the bed, stood, and rushed off to the bathroom. I was waiting for her when she came out. “Come back to bed when you’re done.”
I did my business in the bathroom, and walked back to the bed. Lily was still in her T-shirt and sitting cross legged on her side of the bed, looking at her hands. I sat on my side, mimicking her posture. “Are you okay?” I asked gently.
“I’m better than I’ve been since my party.” She looked up at me with a crooked smile. “You?”
“I’m better, too. I can think about it, and it hurts, but not as bad.”
“I’m sorry if I seem to want something else. I’m not good with guys; I’ve ever only touched two, and I’ve never had real sex at all.”
“It’s okay; I don’t expect that from you.” Change the subject, Jesse. “Are you hungry?”
She patted her stomach. “I am. Neither of us ate that much last night, I remember.”
“Let’s go, then.”
We dressed and went back to the same restaurant for breakfast. It was early, and the diner was busy with patrons. When our food came, we made up for the sparse evening meal by cleaning our plates.
“So,” Lily sighed in repletion and leaned back, “what will you do now?”
I shrugged. “I have no idea. Usually, I open a map on the bed, close my eyes, and toss a penny on it. Then, I go there.”
Lily thought for a moment. “Will you take me with you, at least for a little while?”
Two days later, Lily and I were crossing the Kansas plains, on our way to Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was her fault, she threw the penny, and that’s where it fell on the large US map I’d spread out on the bed.
We’d washed all our clothes, my tent, and our sleeping bags. A trip to a shopping center yielded new shoes and boots for us, and a winter coat for Lily. After several assurances that I had the money to spend, she allowed me to buy her a pay as you go phone, with a couple of extra cards for more minutes and data.
We talked about our past lives, and Lily argued with me until I finally admitted that my wife’s death really wasn’t my fault. I was inexperienced, but there was no one else to even try to save the child we thought was lost. In the end, I did feel better about myself, but it wasn’t something I could truly get over. Lily accepted that answer, saying that she would talk to me as often as I needed.
Lily accepted that she was not ultimately responsible for her fiancé calling off the wedding, although she had culpability, drunk or not. She had been victimized by her friends. I suspected that she had been set up, but I didn’t voice that opinion to Lily.
We’d shared a bed every night, but it was just that. Neither of us made any sexual advances, we just held each other and slept. I slept better than I’d had since Renee died, and Lily seemed to be well rested, too.
The Colorado border sign passed the window, and Lily looked at me across the cab. “I’ve never been here before. It’s nice in a sort of desolate way.”
“Wait until you see Wyoming. That is really desolate in places.”
“What will you do now, Jesse?”
“What do you mean?” I glanced at her.
“I’m twenty-five, and I have no idea what I want.” She shifted in her seat, turning more toward me. “What do you want?”
I thought for a moment. “I’m forty, and I have no idea what I want.”
“Okay, that’s a starting place for us both.” Lily chewed her lip as she thought. “I can’t afford to travel on my own, and I need to find a job. I mean, I have nothing. No insurance, no savings plan for retirement. No home; nothing.”
“I have enough money to live, if I’m careful. I can’t afford things like new cars and new homes, not if I want the money to last.”
We rode and talked along the same lines for the next hour, when we decided to stop for lunch. I refueled the truck, and we got back on the road and drove west toward Denver.