Where the Railroad Ends

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2

Adeline ended up in a motel. Sitting on the sheets, she stared straight ahead at the wall. She knew she was on the outskirts of town and had been for three days now. Her phone had been ringing non-stop, her parents trying to get ahold of her to convince her to come home. But she’d told herself when she’d checked into this motel, she wouldn’t go home. No matter how bad things got, no matter how much she wanted the luxury mattress and the imported coffee, she would not go back to her parent’s house. She could survive out here, people survived with much less than she had.

The annoying chiming of her phone went off again and she rolled over, looking at her purse. It sat open, things overflowing out of it. All of the money she’d taken from the bank was strewn haphazardly, her phone and charger laid near the zipper, some gum and lip balm next to it. There was also a small coin purse, with her wedding ring, and some jewelry. It was messy and sad. Kind of like her now.

What was she going to do? That had been the question on her mind for the past three days. She knew she had to get out of town, but she couldn’t make it to an airport, and with no car, driving was a bust. She’d considered hitchhiking, but after watching old crime show reruns on the motel’s TV, she figured that was absolutely the last thing she would do. Only under the direst of circumstances would she enter a car with a stranger.

Outside, a train blew its whistle and she sat up. Did her town even have a train station? She had never heard a train before. Pulling out her phone, she checked and sure enough, a five-minute walk would take her to a train station. How had she not seen that before? More importantly, what was she still doing sitting here?

Packing up her things, Adeline bounded out the door and down to the office, checking out and heading where her GPS told her. She must have been a sight to see, Chanel sunglasses on her nose, dragging two suitcases and a carry on, Versace purse over her shoulder. Especially on the outskirts of town, or, as her mother used to call it, “Hickville.” The houses were dingy, with unkempt lawns and discarded bikes in driveways. People wore overalls and sat on their porches with guitars, next to homes completely boarded up and spray painted. She walked a little faster.

Soon, the houses became less lived in and more abandoned. People were scarce. No wonder she didn’t know about this station, she doubted anyone would want their welcome to a town to be this.

As she rounded a corner, she felt off. The whole area was silent, but she swore someone was watching her. Pushing her sunglasses up, she could see someone seated on a porch a ways off. Nodding politely, she continued her path, a bit warier now. Those eyes never left her, and the figure stood when she approached, crossing out in front of her.

It was a man, with a dirty looking beard, and even dirtier clothes. His eyes were wide and nearly black, pupils covering up almost all of the color. He spoke with breath that smelled like a liquor store.

“Got any change?” He rasped. Adeline fought to keep a good-natured smile on her face.

“Sorry, I don’t.”

“With all them pretty things, you ain’t got nothing?” He didn’t believe her lie, and she knew it. She swallowed hard.

“No, sorry.”

She saw a glint of silver and looked down. The man had pulled out a knife and all she could think was that she was going to be the next victim on those stupid murder reruns. Taking a step back, she considered running, but the man had a hand on her wrist before she could.

“I want the purse,” He growled, looking at her leather bag. “Hand it over.”

“B-But-”

“Now!” He barked, and she let go of her bags, taking her purse off and handing it to him. He rummaged through it and grinned, showing off yellow teeth. “And your glasses. And that little bag right there.”

She gave him what he asked for and he took off in the direction of town. Letting out a shaking breath, she collected her other two bags, only filled with clothes. Everything, everything was gone. Her phone, her money, her jewelry; how was she supposed to survive? Her legs shook as she walked, hoping someone at the train station could be kind enough to take pity on her.

The station had a chipping green sign and seemed desolate. No one waited, no suitcases in sight. She was alone. Plopping down on a bench, she put her head in her hands. She couldn’t do this. It had been ten minutes since she’d left city limits, and she’d been robbed at knifepoint. Who was she to think she could do this? All she had was a 20 she’d stuffed into her bra this morning, two bags of clothes and shoes, and the clothes on her back. She should have turned around when she had the chance.

Someone cleared their throat next to her. She didn’t look up.

“I don’t have any change, just take the bags.” She would have to walk back into town, with her tail between her legs at this point. The humiliation was enough to want to make her throw herself onto the train tracks in front of her.

“Nice guess, not what I’m here for,” A man chuckled, and it definitely wasn’t the man who’d robbed her. Looking up, Adeline saw a younger, cleaner man with nicely tanned skin. Long, dark brown dreadlocks were held back from his face in a bun and were decorated with metal clips. Kind green eyes stared at her from under thick eyebrows, one of which was pierced. Definitely not a thug come to rob her, though his five o’clock shadow and triple pierced ears were not a comfort to her. “You think everyone with dreadlocks is out to rob you?”

“I’ve never met anyone with dreadlocks,” She said honestly, looking over his beat up t-shirt and ripped jeans.

“Well, now you have. I’m Rowan,” He introduced himself. Letting her eyes leave his worn combat boots, she looked back to his face.

“Adeline.”

“Oh, I know,” He chuckled. “You were the one at that carnival, right? The one everyone was kinda, laughing at?”

Anger bristled off of her and she stood up. “Yeah, that’s me. So, what, are you some kinda reporter? Come to laugh at the dumb heiress who divorced Jackson Lawson and ran away into Hicktown?”

“Whoa, whoa, I’m no journalist,” He held his hands up in surrender, showing off an arm of intricate, tribal-looking tattoos. “I’m not even a part of this town, really. Just passing through.”

“Oh,” She deflated a little, sitting back down on the bench. “Tourist?”

“More of a drifter,” He explained, gesturing to the space next to her. “Can I sit?”

After looking at him for a minute, she made space for him. He took a seat next to her and swung his bag into his lap, sighing and stretching out his long legs. She hadn’t even noticed the guitar case next to him until he set his bag on top of it.

“Long day?” He asked her, making her laugh sadly.

“You have no idea. I left my motel room for the first time in three days, walked out here, and got robbed. All my money, my phone, driver’s license, poof. Out there somewhere with some hobo,” She pouted.

“Well, strutting around like a peacock wasn’t doing you any favors. If I was a shittier person, I’d rob you too,” He joked, making her shoot him a withering gaze. “I’m just saying, parts like this and you, not a very good match.”

“You’re out here.”

“That’s cause I thrive in places like this,” He explained, making her snort.

“Like this? Run down houses and thieving homeless people?” She asked.

“Hell yeah. This is where the best memories come from, breaking into an abandoned house to sit out a storm and just, staying. Going through old boxes, finding work, making friends.”

“You can make friends out here?”

Now it was his turn to look at her. “The homeless are not all out to get you. Everyone’s been misplaced at one point or another, if you would sit down and talk to one of them, I’m sure you’d figure that out.”

“Yeah, the guy who pulled a knife on me seems like a swell fella.”

He laughed, shaking his head. Adeline couldn’t help but feel a little better around him. Even though he was a little dirty, and could still rob her at the drop of a hat, he didn’t seem too bad… for a vagrant.

“I guess it’s an acquired type of life,” He shrugged.

“The life I have to live now.” She grumbled, making him click his tongue.

“Oh come on, I bet you have a big house up in the hills waiting on you. Why not get back to it? I bet some big, fluffy cat is waiting on you.”

“I had dogs, actually,” She corrected him, making him smile.

“Woman after my own heart.” The warmth from his gaze made her cheeks heat up, and she looked away. “But really. What’s a socialite like you doing all the way out here in, what’d you call it, Hickville? Isn’t some pageant missing their queen?”

“I was never a pageant girl!” She defended herself, making him laugh. “I wasn’t! I’m a debutante.”

“Sure you are. I bet you have a perfect pageant wave.” He mimicked doing one, making her laugh at his clumsiness. “What do you think, your highness, could I be a pageant king?”

“Chop the dreads off and lose the metal in your face, then maybe you’d have a shot.”

“Then no go.”

Adeline laughed and sighed, watching as he got into his bag, pulling out a package of cigarettes and an old, beat up lighter. Everything he had looked beat up like it had been worn out for a while. His ratty green bag was covered in patches and buttons, and his guitar case had stickers bearing Spanish words and state names.

“You mind if I smoke?” He asked, taking out a cigarette. She shook her head and he lit it, taking a slow drag and blowing it out in a stream. He then offered it to her. “Want a hit?”

She stared at the cigarette, clasped between his ring-covered fingers. Now, she wasn’t some blushing virgin, she’d been married for five years, but she’d never done anything like this. Never drank too much, never smoked, never done anything undesirable of a debutante. It was why she’d thought Jackson had chosen her. Maybe she was wrong though.

“It won’t hurt you. Go ahead.”

She took the cigarette and brought it to her lips, inhaling a little, then coughing. Moving the cigarette away from her mouth, she coughed. God, that was awful! Why did anyone do that? Rowan took the cig from her, chuckling a little.

“Damn, how old are you? Are you even of age?” He teased, making her glare at him.

“I’ve never had one before,” She wheezed. “Back off.”

“I can see that. Maybe you are a debutante after all,” He said with finality, taking another long drag of his cigarette, even holding the smoke in for a minute.

“Show off,” She spat.

He shrugged and let the smoke out, resting his elbow on his knee. “You really have no life experience, do you?”

“What makes you say that?” She asked defensively.

“Well, for starters, you’re sitting at a train station that hasn’t been in service for 15 years,” He told her. Adeline was speechless. Sitting forward, she put her head back in her hands, just staring down at the pavement below her wedges.

“What am I goin’ to do?” She whispered.

“Pardon?”

“What am I goin’ to do?” She repeated, louder. “I mean, it’s only been three days and I’m out of money, I have no food or phone or any clue where I’m goin’. I can’t, I can’t buy a plane ticket or find a ride or a workin’ train station! I’ve been robbed, and, and I can’t go home and ask for help because then everyone would know I failed. I got married so young that, I don’t know who I am without him. I never got time to even, become a person. I just, I don’t know who I am, or what I’m doin’, or where to go. I just feel so, so lost.”

She cried into her hands for a while, so tired and humiliated and trying to tell herself she had to go home, that she couldn’t do this. A gentle hand touched her back, and Rowan spoke quietly.

“Well… if you’re lost then, why not stay that way?”

Confused, she looked up at him. “What?”

“Why not stay lost?” He asked, butting out his cigarette. “Look, I’ve been on the road for three years, and it was the best decision of my life. Being a drifter, it’s better. No ties, no roots keeping you where you are. You can be whoever you wanna be, go where you wanna go and do what you wanna do. All you need is some street smarts and the drive to keep going when things get tough. And you don’t strike me for the giving up type.”

Adeline wiped her eyes. “I, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

Rowan looked like he was contemplating something. “Jesus,” He muttered, before standing up. He picked up his bag and put it on, also grabbing his guitar and one of her suitcases. “Come on, follow me. I’ll give you a crash course in being a drifter.”

“Wait, what?” She stood, grabbing her other bag.

“I’m not the type to leave a crying woman at an abandoned train station. So, come with me, I’ll get you out of city limits and teach you a few things,” He started walking away, and she had no choice but to follow. He cut through a few yards, leading her into a wooded area near the station.

“Hold on-” She said, stumbling to keep up with his brisk pace. She had no clue where he was taking her, but right now, he was her only hope.

They tramped through the underbrush, the Georgia sun already heating the Earth. Climbing over a fallen log, Rowan helped her down onto the other side, sidestepping a hole she would have fallen in without his help. The forest was a deep green, and Adeline wondered if it always been that way, and she’d just never noticed. The trees provided some shade, but not enough that she wasn’t uncomfortable. Sweat stuck her dress to her skin and she wished she’d had the foresight to wear shorts. Of course, she didn’t think she’d be walking through wildlife, but either way, she wasn’t comfortable.

Rowan led her up an incline and she panted when they reached the top, looking out into more forest, with train tracks below. When she’d caught her breath, she spoke up.

“What are we doin’ up here?”

“Listen,” He told her simply. A bit irritated, she shut her mouth. All she could hear was bugs buzzing, animals chirping and- a train horn, in the distance. Okay, she could give that to him, he had a pretty good idea of what he was doing. “That’s our ride.”

“Great,” She said, looking down the tracks. “When is it comin’?”

Rowan stayed quiet and bent down, pressing a hand to the ground before answering. “We have three minutes.”

“Three minutes? How do you know that?”

“Are you going to question me the whole time?” He asked, hefting his guitar onto his back, her suitcase under one arm. “Get your bag up and keep a good hold on it.”

“Why?”

“You don’t want it to fly open when we jump.”

Her brain short-circuited. They were jumping onto a moving train? How were they going to do that? Could they even do that? Wouldn’t they die, or at the very least break a bone? She gave Rowan a wild gaze, which he met with a smile.

“I knew that would get your attention. Relax, cupcake, I’ve done this dozens of times, never walked away with more than a scraped knee,” He assured her as the train’s engine came into view.

“You’re jokin’. We aren’t actually about to jump on a movin’ train,” Her voice edged on pleading, and Rowan looked at her, that same lazy, cool expression unchanging. “I can’t do this!”

“You’re going to have to because here comes our ride,” He pointed as the train began passing under them, moving not too fast, but definitely fast enough to do some damage to a human body.

“This is crazy!” Adeline shouted over the noise. “I can’t do this!”

The coal cars were coming, and Rowan was prepping himself. “You either jump with me or by yourself, because this is your way out.”

His hand was outstretched to her, and she looked at it, breath in her throat. Part of her said she could just turn around, head on home and live out her days with her parents. Nothing wrong with that, just the crushing weight of knowing she can’t do anything on her own and she’d die being Jackson Lawson’s ex-wife, and nothing more. Nothing more than a title she’d worn for five years. She’d go back to the snickers and the whispers and the life she’d sworn she was done with.

“God, if you’re listenin’, don’t let me die,” She whispered taking his hand.

“You ready?” He shouted, and she nodded. “When you land, bend your knees! Here we go cupcake, on my count!” The coal cars were approaching and the train was definitely gaining speed. What if she jerked her hand away at the last second? She’d be down another suitcase, but she’d be alive.

“Three!”

Why was she even trusting Rowan? What was to say he wouldn’t let her jump by herself and die, then take her things and be on his merry way?

“Two!”

She was afraid. She’d been afraid ever since she left her mother’s house, ever since her divorce even. But she couldn’t let that fear ruin her. Something had to change, something had to give, and when it broke, she’d made her choice. No turning back.

“One!”

Forcing herself forward, she jumped off the ledge, clenching Rowan’s hand for dear life. The pair hit the coal and a shock ran up her body, hands colliding with the sharp rocks. One cut into her palm and she hissed, her body finally landing. Looking over, she saw Rowan sitting up, rubbing his knee. But he was fine. And, on a second mental checkup, she was too.

“I can’t believe we did that!” Euphoria ran through her body, she’d done it! That was it, she was getting out of this town for real!

Rowan smiled over at her. “Welcome to the life of a drifter, cupcake. You survived your first test. Come on, let’s get to a boxcar and I’ll bandage up that hand. Then, your lessons begin.”

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