Denise closed the door and welcomed its returning push as she leaned back against it. Her heart hammered under the hand that was clasping the towel close. His vivid, blue eyes had caught her off-guard. They had taken her in, and she wasn’t so sure she had gotten everything back. She took a breath, knowing she was stuck, but, she thought, as she looked at her pile of grungy clothes, it didn’t mean she’d have to show up smelling pretty. She yanked up her dirty jeans, pulled on her heavy flannel.
He was leaning on the hotel desk counter, carrying on with Sven when she walked up.
She stopped in front of him long enough for him to turn and recognize her presence then, just as quickly, turned to the front door, stepped out into the cool night.
“It’s open,” he declared as he stepped to his side of the truck and climbed in.
She raised an eyebrow at its unlocked state.
When she pulled herself up, he explained, “There’s not much worth stealing in here and besides this town’s a night-watch community because we all know each other anyways.”
She shrugged as a reply and then added, “I’m hungry.”
“Alright,” he said as he turned the key over, and the truck quivered with a struggling idle before stabilizing to a low rumble.
They didn’t pass more than four blocks before they reached the end of main street and a bar and grill.
He squeezed his truck between two others matching in age and well-used condition to his.
The raucous overtook her three steps before the front door. Times was, she would have avoided an overcrowded eating facility, but now she welcomed it. She wanted to lose herself in the mess of it.
He directed her past the crowded bar complete with sweating, half-finished mugs of cool amber. Most were focused on the game playing on the televisions located at each end of the bar, but she was herself being offered a seat at one of the two wooden booths in the corner. Given the choice, she went for the side with a touch more illumination, leaving him to sit in the shadows.
When a man walked up, black t-shirt and jeans, a white towel hanging from his belt, Denise decided he was their waiter, and he reaffirmed her assumption by pulling out a notepad, holding it in one massive hand. “Hey, Rich. Welcome to Benbow Bar, ma’am. ‘Know what you guys want?”
Denise picked the first thing that came into focus on the menu along with an iced tea.
“I’ll have the same,” Richard said. “Thanks, Bill.”
After Bill headed off with their orders, rounding up empty beer mugs on his way to the kitchen, Richard had his attention focused directly on her, and she knew he was about to start friendly banter.
Anxious about what he’d try to pry out of her, she reacted, asked first, “So what is it that you do around here?”
“I own and operate the auto repair shop a few blocks from here.”
She nodded, then he was readying with his own question. She fired, “Besides gathering at the bar for baseball season, what other recreational activities do the locals participate in?”
“Well, a lot of us fish, four-wheel, or hunt. Others go whitewater rafting. Then when things turn cold, they turn to their skis. We get a lot of tourists here for that and run longer winter hours seeing as how they boost this town’s economy. Now what about you?”
She shrugged. “I’m afraid there’s only so much fun you can find at a rest area.”
A corner of his mouth lifted and her breathing did some strange things, her chest getting airy, lighter. “How about back in the big city?” he pushed. “Denver, I’m guessing.”
He’d guessed right. Was she that easy to read as being out of place? She was no city girl, more of a suburbanite—there was a difference–but she also liked the feeling of being out of place. She went for a half-shrug, seemed to be her crutch response for the night. “It was just a job plus some things on the side.” She wanted to drop the topic and hoped he would. Looking back on her recent life, the view wasn’t enjoyable.
“Care to be a little more specific?”
“No, I don’t. Since when does taking a man up for dinner require sharing information about one’s self?” she demanded.
The curve to his lips turned a little higher as his dark blue eyes narrowed their focus to her. “Well, I thought that was the usual format.”
Ignoring her fluttering heart, she pressed on, “Not for someone who is just passing through. There’s no sense in getting to know them.” Her tone turned defensive even as she tried to cover for it with a flip of her hand.
“Alright,” he surrendered. “How about you run some more of those stories by me? Maybe I could fix them up for you so they might pass for believable.”
She crossed her arms and rested them on the table; more for a shield as she readied her offensive.
He raised an eyebrow and attached a smile to it, “Yes?” goading her.
“My stories were doing just fine before you came along. And they will continue to do so afterward.”
The arrival of food interrupted their conversation. She picked up the squashed pieces of bread containing a thick-sliced beef patty and kept her mouth full until her plate was devoid of burger and fries.
He’d surveyed her eating habits, and she did her best to ignore him especially since he seemed more interested in her than his dinner, though he did manage to finish it off soon after she did hers. “Well, I guess that’s that,” he said as she took up her glass of iced tea.
“I’d say so.”
The check had been deposited halfway through her meal and his watching her eat. He reached for his wallet, and she excused herself.
Her decision to seek out time alone proved a mistake; thoughts had voice again. Taking a look around the wood-paneled bathroom stalls and rust-stained sink, all were kept clean but gratefully appeared nothing like familiar ground. Thank goodness this place and he are so different from–
She had made it almost the whole night, but it came up on her, a subtle attack, and the sights swirled, blurred to take on a new form. Looking at the scratched mirror, it cleared. She was sitting back in that house they had shared, yawning farther and farther from her idea of home. She’d been piling her hair up, sticking it with bobby pins, when he walked up and kissed her cheek. “You look beautiful,” he said.
“Thank you,” she replied as she shied away from his attentions to insert another pin into her hair.
He laid down an envelope in front of her.
She smiled. “What’s this?”
“Well, since your hands are busy, I’ll tell you. Tickets.”
He’d rattled off some play name she wasn’t even interested in trying to spell. “It’s the one you’ve been wanting to see.”
“It is? If it means I’ll have you all to myself for the whole evening, then of course I would love to see it.” The arts were great, but the distant stage could come up lacking in something she truly desired.
He smiled. “I hope you’re about ready. We’ll lose our reservation if we don’t leave within the next half hour.”
“You should wear those pearls I bought you.”
She closed her eyes against the view in the mirror, pulled her hair out of its ponytail and ran her fingers through its looseness. Rubbing a hand against her flannel, she turned her head against the memories. They hurt, that was all she knew anymore. Any of them that included him. Why couldn’t she think of her job, her neighbors? Because they hadn’t become her focus in life. And then her focus betrayed her and turned every memory bitter.
Almost tasting it, she felt a need to drown and splashed water on her face and neck. Slowly she dabbed it off, gathering herself, knowing Richard was waiting for her. He didn’t deserve to be strung out, just wanted to give her dinner. She had complied, and it was time to pack up.
When she stepped out from the restroom, he was leaning against the nearby wall, hands tucked in his jeans pockets, waist trim, shoulders solid, and she glanced up at his face, hoping hers was well-masked.
His firm lips parted and it fascinated her for a moment but then realized he had something to say. That was her cue. She dove into the crowd, cutting through it for the exit.
Outside, the evening air was quiet, thin, so that she heard his step following hers.
She climbed up onto the truck seat and heard him do the same on the driver side. From the corner of her eye, she watched, expecting him to start the truck right up and head out, but he paused and held the key a space away from the ignition as he looked to her.
Although she was looking out the windshield, she felt his eyes on her. Her heart quickened, breath shortened, but she kept her face closed. Then the engine turned over. She sighed with relief, and regret. He’d been so careful and non-pressuring, merely wanting company with dinner. She’d proved barely capable, and he deserved for her to get out of his life.
Back at her motel, she breezed a thank you for dinner before stepping out of his truck except she found herself pausing.
She glanced back, met the vivid blue in his gaze and offered, “Good night, Richard,” in a half-whisper. Then, firmly focused on her feet, she watched her steps as she crossed the parking lot, passed through the motel’s double doors, and headed up the stairs.
Stepping into her darkened room, she reached for the light switch but paused. There was nothing in the room she needed to see. She discarded her clothes except for her long t-shirt and socks, and then climbed into the bed.
The bed was too big. Why would they put such a big bed in a one-person room? It was only a queen, but she remembered how they could make it big enough. Stretching out could fill it, but she only curled up tighter. She tossed a pillow against her back. It offered no warmth or pressure.
It started to hurt. It was physical, she told herself, just a cramp from the truck’s bench seat. But when she tried to work out the pain’s location, her focus blurred. She shook, shivering under the weighty comforter as the memories poured. A drop would take form and start to pull her focus but would never break beyond her fuzzy field of vision; she would cast it deep into the formless flood. One drop could erode more of her strength than the great river of memories.
His legs would match up to hers and his arm would come around her for their fingers to knit together—Stop it! she screamed at herself.
She tore off her blankets and fairly tripped out of bed. Through watery vision she pulled up pants and found random button holes to close up her flannel. She grabbed her pack and slammed the door behind her.
She paced the parking lot where she stumbled on her decision, a shadowy dip catching her step. She had wandered into the foliage behind the hotel and the dip would even hold the top arch of the tent from sight. The site might be closed off from human eyes, but the broad beams from the streetlights gave her just the right touch of light to set her tent.