The windshield wipers whimpered across the rain-spattered glass. Had the sun been shining, perhaps she would have propped her legs on the wheel well and wished on each cloud as it sailed past. Instead she huddled with her back to the cabin of the green GMC Sierra, legs clenched tightly to her chest by clasped fingers, six nails painted a faded blue. They were the same secluded shade as her eyes, but despite their hoary hue, her eyes and nails provided the full extent of her vibrancy.
She had left in a fury of emotion, red in the cheeks, wet behind the ears, and with lavender oil and recently lit gasoline coursing through her veins. As she sat in the back of the green truck, however, everything about her was brown. She wasn't dirty, even living in the bed of a truck wouldn't stain a girl as brown as she was. No, sun and sweat and time had taken their respective tolls and left her monochrome and falling away from home as a moribund autumn leaf. Besides an occasional wiggle or spreading of her toes, she gave no indication of being alive.
He had made a face at her when she told him she didn't want to sit up front with him. She couldn't decide whether it conveyed disappointment, disapproval, or confusion, but she was more comfortable when eyes were not trying to shovel away her skin to find her skeletons underneath.
His name was Jim, and as far as she could tell, he had no shovels and only one skeleton. Jim was older, perhaps fifty or fifty-five, but his eyes had not decayed into cynicism as most of the men's eyes she had seen.
"You looking to eat anytime soon? It's starting to get late," Jim scraped the window panel to the side without taking his eyes from the road and pointed to a sign up ahead. "They got a bunch of places up at Salina. Want to stop?"
She waited to blink once or twice before responding, "Sure."
He knew the conversation was over, but he savored the times he got to hear her voice. It reminded him of a piano whose keys had fallen flat, peaceful, but fragile in its discordance.
Pulling off the highway, Jim saw a Spangles restaurant to the right of the exit ramp and pulled into the parking lot. Between the red and white signs burning against the dusk sky and the disorienting blend of smells, she wondered how anyone could taste the food when the place commanded every other sense so strongly.
“I know you like staying out here, but you’re more than welcome to come on in with me if you want,” Jim lowered himself from the driver’s door. “I don’t want you to have to stay out in the rain, but I guess that’s just the father in me coming out.”
“I think I’m just going to go to the bathroom. I don’t really feel like going inside, I’m sorry. Besides I wouldn’t want to make all them people look at me all wet and gross anyway,” she managed a half-hearted laugh.
“Of course,” he considered refuting the statement, but second-guessed himself. “If you know what you want, I’m happy to bring it out to you. You might want to let me keep it up front so it don’t get too wet though.”
“I don’t really mind. I’ll be happy with whatever you get. Thank you.”
“Ok. I think I saw the bathroom ‘round back, over there,” he gestured with an extended arm as she swung her brown legs over the wall of the truck bed. The key scraped in the lock as Jim twisted it and pulled it free. As he turned toward the building, Jim listened intently as the rain softened the snap of her sandals meeting the pavement and then shuffled to the back of the building. Truth be told, she’s as beautiful “wet and gross” as most anybody, Jim thought to himself as he pulled the door open and walked inside.
Behind the building, she sat down on the curb next to the bathroom door and slid each of her sandals off with the opposite big toe. Maybe I should tell him my name, she thought as she arched her back to fit her hand into her pocket and pull out a crumpled cigarette box. After all, he’s only been nice. And he told me his anyway. The box was damp, but it had kept her three remaining cigarettes dry. With a quick flick of her thumb, her lighter singed the cigarette and she returned both the box and the lighter to the pocket of her frayed blue jean shorts. Without the wind swirling around her, she realized how damp her hair was and pulled it over her shoulders so it hung down in front of her. Even when wet, she could tell that the sun had painted her hair brighter than when she left. She inhaled quickly; she didn’t want to be away from the car for too long. When she was done, she watched as the last of the cigarette’s flame smoldered away, fizzling into the wet pavement. She emerged from behind the building and walked back toward the truck. I’m going to tell him my name.
With a small jump, she hoisted herself up and sat on the tailgate. She could see Jim through the window with his back to the near wall with food for both of them. She thought he looked lonely, but then again, how could she expect a man who picks up hitchhikers not to be? She didn’t want to go inside, but she wanted him to come back. As she watched, she saw Jim glance over his shoulder and, seeing that she was back in the truck, gather the food and make his way outside.
“You don’t have to eat it now if you’re not hungry,” Jim said, as he got close enough for her to hear. “I’m sure there’ll be a microwave wherever we stop and I can always reheat it for you. I got you a milkshake here, too. Might melt if you don’t drink it, but you don't have to.”
“Thanks,” she could only manage the one word, suddenly unsure of her new resolution. She extended her hands and took the milkshake from him.
“I’ll keep the rest up front for you.” I don’t know how much more you want to drive today, but I’m starting to get pretty tired. How would you feel about stopping here in town and getting out early tomorrow?”
“That’s fine. I’m pretty tired, too.”
“There’s a Super 8 just down the road. Looks nice and safe. Does that work for you?” He knew she wouldn’t say no, but he felt the need to ask her.
Between the milkshake and the wind, her skin rippled with goose bumps by the time they made it the half-mile to the motel. He was right; the parking lot was well lit. The rain had stopped momentarily, too, leaving only it's lingering, earthy scent behind as it left.
"I'll be in room 117," Jim said after he checked in and got his key. "I'm going to leave you a key just in case you want to come in during the night. I'll bring you out a blanket and some pillows so you're comfortable." The word sounded funny leaving his lips. Comfortable. He wanted to insist that she come inside, but he knew it would upset her. After ten minutes he returned, a comforter and two pillows under his arm and a bag of food clutched in his other hand. He left all three with her in the truck and reminded her that she could always wake him up if she needed anything.
Waiting until he had turned back toward the room to let his face sink in sympathy and confusion, Jim tried to keep his mind from racing. Everything about the situation tormented his fatherly instinct despite the girl being someone else's child.
"My name's Elizabeth," her words fell like anvils on his feet.
"Goodnight, Elizabeth," he smiled and continued walking.