Where the Railroad Ends

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3

Staring down at the ace bandage wrapped around her palm, Adeline smiled. The door to the boxcar was open, and she was able to let her feet hang over the edge as they rode. They’d left her hometown a while ago, Rowan had told her. Now, she watched as green hills flew by, rivers ran below them and cotton fields waved in the summer sun. It was cathartic, in a way. Behind her, Rowan was rummaging through her bags, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.

“Jesus, were you packing for fashion week, or to go on the run?” He asked, making her turn. She moved back inside, walking over to him.

“I didn’t know I’d become a vagrant when I was packing it,” She told him, sitting down across from him. He shook his head, picking up one of her lacy bras, making her blush and lean forward, snatching it from him. “Hey!”

“Yeah, none of this is going to do you a lick of good out here. You’re going to need to get rid of it,” He told her, making her gasp.

“I’m not getting rid of my clothes! They’re all I have left,” She pulled her blue suitcase towards herself. “Literally.”

Rowan raised a brow at her and reached for his bag, setting it in his lap. “You see my bag, right?”

Adeline looked over it. It was green camo print and looked old, covered in sewn-on patches and dirty pins. A water bottle hung from the side, along with a few old keychains. Overall, it was something she would never want to touch her body.

“Yes,” She finally answered.

“Everything I own is in this,” He told her, unzipping one of the compartments. “My clothes, my tent; everything you could need out here can fit into one of these little pouches.”

“Well forgive me for thinking that a woman needs a little more than a dirty backpack,” She scoffed.

“You don’t, actually. Not out here. I mean, come on, what use are you going to have for stiletto heels or a Gucci purse?” He asked, crossing his arms. She opened her mouth, then closed it. He was… right, unfortunately, but she wasn’t going down without a fight.

“But this stuff all really means a lot to me,” She reasoned, looking down at the delicate fabrics and genuine leathers. “It’s my connection to home.”

“And I’m not saying you should completely forget about home. But if you wanna bring this stuff, you’re in charge of it,” He held his hands up. “I’m not helping you carry all of this junk around everywhere we go.”

Looking at her bags, Adeline knew he was right. She couldn’t keep up with him with all of this stuff, especially not with the clothing she’d brought. After digging through everything, she found she didn’t even have a pair of pants with her. None of this was useful. She couldn’t keep it. Sighing, she decided she’d only choose one item to keep.

It was a long process, going through everything, but eventually, she came to the gift her father had given her for her 18th birthday. It was a silver locket, with a rose in the center. Inside was a picture of her family when she was about 10. Silently, she looped it around her neck and packed everything else up.

“Okay,” She said softly. “I’ll give it up.”

“Good,” He smiled at her. “You’ll be better off without it. When this train reaches the end of its line, we’ll hop off and get you some new stuff.”

They came to a stop almost near state line, around midday. The train was at walking speed when they jumped off into the grass, heading across the tracks and into the little city.

“Now, you wanna find a boutique. They’re the most likely to give you a fair price for your stuff. Once everything is traded away, I’ll take you to a thrift store and get you set.” He told her.

“A thrift store?” Her skin crawled a little. “Can we at least stop at a laundromat before I put anything on my body?”

“If you have the money for it, cupcake.”

“I will.” She’d make sure of it.

The pair entered into the small town, Rowan training her on what to say and how to get what she wanted. Adeline was a bit amazed at how well versed and prepared he was, he knew so much about living on the road, she’d wondered if he had learned it all the easy way.

“There we go,” He pointed out a little boutique on the street, tucked between a little coffee shop and a bar. Walking her over to the door, Rowan took a look inside. “Alright, you know what to say. Get in there and play hardball, cupcake. Don’t take no for an answer.”

“You’re not comin’ with me?” She asked, confused. He shook his head, a soft smile on his face.

“My type isn’t really welcome in places like that,” He patted her shoulder. “You’ll be fine. You got this.”

Taking a deep breath, Adeline entered the little boutique. Quiet pop music played over the speakers, and racks of gorgeous clothing hung from the walls. Shoes were set out on pristine display tables and it made her sigh. She ached to shop there, buy nice clothes that would wear out in a week, then do it all over again. A clerk looked up from where she was folding little lace negligee, a smile on her face.

“Hiya, what can I do for you?” She asked, approaching Adeline. Putting on her best winning smile, she set her suitcase on two wheels.

“I’m new in town, and I was wonderin’ if you’d have any interest in buyin’ some clothes. I’m tryin’ to clear out my things, new summer wardrobe and all,” The clerk gave her a small giggle, and Adeline couldn’t help but feel like she was playing Grace’s role back home.

“Well, we usually don’t buy second hand,” The clerk looked at her expensive leather suitcase. “But I’ll go ahead and take a look at what you got.”

Leading Adeline back to a sofa, the clerk sat down and let her open her bag. High-quality satins and chiffons laid folded neatly inside, and the clerk leaned forward, looking over what she had. With dainty hands, she picked up one of her purses, a small white clutch Jackson had bought her for their wedding. She swallowed a little roughly.

One by one, dresses and blouses were removed and set aside after careful scrutiny. Memories followed and stuck her with every piece removed until both suitcases were unpacked and closed up once again. Five years laid out in front of her, about to be pawned off on the advice of a guy she’d known for all of three hours. Her fingers twitched and she wanted to snatch everything back, but she stayed strong, tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear.

“So? What’d’ya think?” She asked sweetly.

“You have some beautiful pieces here,” The clerk said, running her fingers over a pair of her heels. “I can tell you were some kind of fashion icon back home. Always setting trends, right?”

Thinking of home made her nod softly, voice quiet. “Right.”

“I think I can take this stuff off your hands. Come with me.”

Adeline walked out $2000 richer. Rowan was impressed, leaned against the wall of the bar, waiting on her.

“You did good, cupcake. There’s a thrift store a couple blocks down,” He told her, starting to walk off. She followed, a bit slower. Her hands felt empty without her suitcases, and she rubbed her ring finger, trying to distract herself by looking around the little town they’d stopped in. It was a sleepy Sunday, so not many people were out and about. Shops were closed, for the most part, but neon lights glowed in certain brick buildings. She could hear the trains now, loud and horns blowing as they passed through the suburban areas. Church bells rang in the distance, and she found herself wishing she could walk into one and take a seat.

They approached a large building, branded with blue letters reading ‘Finders Keepers Thrift Shop’. She couldn’t help but draw in on herself a little. Growing up, her father had kept her in beautiful clothing, not wanting his only daughter to be dressed down at any time. Thrift stores were avoided like the plague, her mother telling her that it would be a cold day in hell before she dressed in second-hand clothing.

It looked like hell hath frozen over, then.

Rowan opened the door for her and they entered, her shoes feeling out of place on the dingy yellow linoleum. Christian music played over loudspeakers and shopping carts squeaked as people made their way through the long, long aisles. Leaning over to him, Adeline spoke quietly.

“So, am I supposed to spend two grand here?”

He barked out a laugh, leading her towards what was labeled as the women’s section. “No, you really only need about… 8 things. Two t-shirts, two long sleeved, one pair of shorts, one pair of long pants, a jacket, and some form of coat. As well as your accessories, gloves, hats, socks, underwear; all that.” He told her, glancing over her body. “You’re a medium, right?”

“I’m buying underwear here?” She hissed, mortified.

“You wanna stop at a laundromat, don’t you?” He joked, holding out a shirt to her. It was bright red, and she instantly put it back. “Don’t like my choices, cupcake?”

“Just, let me pick clothes. You go, I don’t know, make yourself busy,” She muttered, beginning to flick through the rack. Shrugging, he walked off, leaving her alone. It was weird, looking at this clothing and knowing someone else had worn it. What had they gone through? And what could possess them to buy a ruched crop top? It made her click her tongue in disapproval.

Picking up a soft mint colored shirt, she surveyed the emblem, boasting fresh grown Florida oranges. She liked it. Tucking it under her arm, she went over what Rowan had said. She couldn’t spend too much here, they’d need the money for other things, she was sure. So, she picked out exactly what he said before going to find him, arms laden with everything he’d told her to get; including underwear and bras, much to her disgust.

“Feel good with your choices?” He asked, holding a white metal water bottle.

“Yeah. Is that for me?” She asked, sort of touched he’d thought of her. Nodding, he held it out to her, and she took it with a smile. “Thanks.”

“No problem. Now, you’re going to need two pairs of shoes. One pair of boots, one pair of tennis shoes. No more jumping off trains in heels.”

Thinking back to how she’d nearly rolled her ankle earlier, she grimaced and nodded. The heels needed to go. He led her to a wall of shoes, displayed in no particular way. Walking slowly, she scanned everything until she pointed out a pair of bright yellow boots, which Rowan added to her pile. Once she’d gotten her running shoes and socks, he led her to a register, helping her pile everything onto the counter.

“One last thing,” He produced a large, lavender colored backpack. “I figured camo isn’t for everyone and that you’d want something more… girly.”

“Thank you,” She said quietly, watching as it was rung up. “I love it.”

With only $50 down, they left carrying two plastic shopping bags. Thrift stores weren’t entirely terrible, she decided. Sure, it was weird to think of wearing someone else’s clothes, but if you looked hard enough, you could find some pretty cool stuff. After stopping to pick up some laundry detergent, they hit up a little laundromat.

Black and white mismatched tile and the heat of dryers hit her instantly. She coughed, the smell of cigarette smoke heavy in the air. Rowan laughed and led her to an open machine.

“Don’t breathe too deep, and you should be fine.”

She sorted out her clothes from her other things, packing away her water bottle and new sunglasses, throwing everything else into the wash. It would give her some time to get to know her travel partner. It was a little ignorant of her to not get to know him a little better.

“So… you’ve been on the road for three years?” She asked, making him look over at her. She stood next to the machine he was sitting on, one of his legs tucked underneath him.

“Yeah, I left when I was 22. I was working some, stupid office job. You know, doing the whole 9 to 5 thing, wearing a button-down shirt and tie every day. I even owned a car,” He told her, making her laugh a little. “I was a perfect product of middle America.”

“I couldn’t picture you in an office,” She told him, making him smile.

“I take that as a compliment,” He chuckled. “One day, I was getting dressed and I just looked at myself and said, ‘Am I happy with my life?’ And the answer was no. I was just in this cycle, doing the same thing every day, with the same people, in the same place. I was a little like you. I’d never left my hometown in New Hampshire. So, I went into work, walked up to my boss, and quit. No two weeks notice shit, I quit right then and there. Then I sold my car, told my landlord I wasn’t coming back, and starting pawning everything I owned. It took about a week but then, I was out on my own.”

“And you weren’t… scared?” She asked.

“I was, a little. I didn’t know where I was going, or if I’d even make it out here but, it was freeing. With nothing but the clothes on my back and my guitar, I left.” He shrugged. “And I had my hard times. The first winter out here was brutal, I almost got hypothermia. Fought my share of wildlife, got shot at, run out of towns, had to do some medical procedures on myself…”

“Gosh,” She whispered, now kind of terrified that he was the one leading her.

“But don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad,” He laughed, waving his hand at her worried face. “I had some awesome times, met some great people. I’d never been cliff diving before. Never had a tattoo or got pierced, never smoked weed or caught an animal with just my skill before. I worked on a farm for a while, met some people there who were something else. They were the ones who tattooed me for the first time.”

“They did that?” She asked, gesturing to his arm.

“Nah, my first one,” He lifted his shirt, showing off a tattoo shaped like a marijuana leaf. “It was pretty rushed, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

“I’ve never even been inside a tattoo parlor. I don’t think there was one back home,” She shrugged, making him grin.

“Well, you’ll collect them. I’ll make a vagrant of you yet,” He tossed the word back at her, making her blush.

“Next you’ll be tellin’ me I need dreadlocks.” He cackled a little, making her smile. “What? You don’t think I could rock dreads?”

“Not dreads,” He shook his head, looking at her long, chestnut colored hair. “Maybe dip dyed, though.”

“Oh yeah? What color?”

“Hm… pink,” He decided, making her shake her head. She couldn’t see that, herself with dip-dyed pink hair and tattoos. Maybe she was dressing like a drifter, but that didn’t mean she had to look the role of one. They were just traveling together until she figured out where she was going. “You hungry?”

“Huh?” She looked up at him from where he’d jumped off of the washing machine. “Oh, yeah.”

“I’ll go grab something. Wait here.”

He left her alone and she leaned on the washing machine, staring ahead at the wall of dryers, some whirring with clothes. She had to think now, she had some money, and she was out of town. Really, she didn’t need to stay with Rowan. He’d gotten her this far, and he was good company, but she had just wanted to get out of her hometown. Plus, she was a pretty Southern belle, she could find herself a job and a place to live out here. The town seemed nice enough.

But did she want to? She’d never had a job. Would she even like working, should she decide she wanted to? What if she was like Rowan, and she hated doing the rat race? And if she told him to go, and he left without her, how could she continue moving without him? If he’d had his troubles on the road, she would most certainly die without him.

Her washer beeped and she unloaded her things, moving them to a dryer with reservation. Beside her, a woman spoke.

“I haven’t seen you around,” The lady commented, making her look down. She was a middle-aged woman, reading a book on a bench. “New in town?”

“No, just passin’ through,” She said, hearing Rowan’s words come back to her. The woman nodded, flipping the page in her book.

“Is that your little boyfriend? He’s pretty cute.”

Blushing, Adeline set her timer on the dryer. “No, he isn’t my boyfriend. We’re just… friends. Travelin’ together.”

“Doing the young adult thing, huh? Seein’ the world while you have the time,” She commented. “I did that too when I was your age. Traveled from Seattle all the way out here. Had a guy like that too. His name was Leo.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“It was until he ditched me out here.” She turned the page again. “We’d been out there, bravin’ the wilderness and wild together for four months, then I told him I was pregnant. Suddenly, all those pretty words he told me, things whispered in a tent at night, with only the crickets to hear didn’t matter. Rollin’ stone men don’t want ties to nothin’, and one night, I went to bed next to him in a motel, and when I woke up, he was gone. Disappeared into the wind. Onto the next trip and the next woman.”

Her words sent a chill down Adeline’s spine. “Well, we aren’t… together or anythin’. Just friends.”

“That’s how we started out,” Her words were calm and reserved. “Just friends, like souls travelin’ what felt like the world together. Until things got serious. A friendly touch of the shoulder became a hand pullin’ me into a kiss. That sweet smile turned sensual, and innocent sharin’ a tent became a little nest, away from the rest of the world. I was his perfect gypsy queen, he told me. That we’d travel forever and see the whole world together. That no matter what, he wanted to see everythin’ with me. And then, things got serious again, too serious for his type. And he was gone.”

“What are you tryin’ to say?”

Finally, the woman looked up at her. “Don’t just hand your trust out to anyone. Those men are all the same. Keep your heart,” She tapped her own chest. “In here. And your head,” She tapped her temple. “Up there. Don’t let one confuse the other.”

The little bell over the door rung as it opened and Rowan entered, walking up to her. “I found a deli and didn’t know what you’d want, so I got you a ham and swiss. Basic and crowd pleasing.”

The woman stood up and unloaded her dryer into a laundry basket, tossing her book on top of her things. “Good talkin’ to you, sweetie.”

“You too,” She whispered. Rowan set her food down in front of her.

“What was that about?” He asked, cracking open a bottle of lemonade. Adeline looked over at him, a tiny smile on her face.

“It’s nothin’. Thanks for lunch,” She said, beginning to eat.

“No problem.”

They ate in silence for a while before Adeline spoke again.

“Hey… do you mind if I, stick around you for a while? I mean, I’m still a newbie at this and, well, you’ve got a lot you could teach me, I’m sure,” She asked.

“I don’t mind,” He told her honestly. “I’m thinking California is the next destination.”

“Cali? That’s almost 3000 miles from here.”

“What does that matter? Got a hot date you have to make it back for?” He joked, making her smile. “It’s barely even June. If we keep a good pace, we should make it out there just in time for autumn.”

“Autumn? It’s gonna take that long?” She asked.

“Well, accounting for the stops we make on the way,” He explained, making her shake her head. “What, chickening out on me now?”

“I don’t have much of a choice.”

When her clothes were finished, she changed in the cramped bathroom, looking at herself in the dirty mirror. The mint shirt looked nice on her, much more casual than she’d ever dressed. Her overall shorts were a little torn, but comfortable. And the yellow boots she’d bought fit perfectly, and would handle much better in the wilderness than her heels had. Pulling her hair up, she tied it into a high ponytail and looked at her face. Though she didn’t look different, she sure felt it. It felt like the sad divorcee, sitting on her childhood bed, was years away from her now. Swinging her backpack on, she walked out to meet Rowan, old clothes in hand.

“What should I do with this stuff?” She asked.

“Well, we could go back to the boutique, but I don’t think they’ll like you now that you look more-”

“Homeless?” She cut him off.

“Scruffy was what I was going to say,” He laughed, leading her outside. “So I think you’ve only got one choice.”

The trash can outside of the laundromat wasn’t the most fitting place for her $300 dress, but it felt pretty metaphoric as she walked away from it.

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