The sun was setting over the town as they left it, trekking back out into the great expanse of forest. They walked along the road, side by side, as Rowan told her about his many adventures on the road. He’d been in and out of Canada for a while before making his way down the coast. When they’d run into one another, he was just finishing up his week in Georgia. He hadn’t been alone the whole time either, sometimes traveling with one other person, and other times, there are been upwards of 8 of them. They’d all separated in Virginia, and he’d continued South by himself.
“Do you miss them?” She asked, looking up at his face.
“Sometimes,” He said honestly. “But I’ll probably run into them again. Drifters have a way of being drawn back to one another. I’ve run into one girl and her group about 4 times now.”
“Who was that?”
“Her name was Luna, and she was the real hippie type. I mean, you think I’m bad, you should have met this girl,” He chuckled, shaking his head at the memory. “Ratty braids, too much jewelry and always sporting a weed high. Made her money by reading tarot cards in seedy bars, and had so much metal pierced into her, she’d never make it onto a plane. She was... something else, really.”
The way he talked about her was familiar, reverent. Almost in awe, but not quite. It made Adeline a little uncomfortable. She must have been a past lover, and maybe one he wasn’t really done with. Her gaze dropped to the ground.
“But enough about me. Tell me about Georgia.” He prompted her, making her sigh.
“There really isn’t much to tell,” She tried, which made him talk over her.
“No, no, you don’t get to pry into my life then not tell me about yourself. We’re a no secrets pair now, you and I, so spill. What exactly happened back there that would drive a Southern Belle into the arms of a wandering hippie?” He asked, making her laugh. It was so easy to laugh around him.
“Well… I had my debutante ball at 18, right out of high school. My dad was so proud to show me off, let all the men of my town know I was now on the market. And my mama told me, growin’ up, that I’d have a lot of suitors since I was such a pretty girl,” She explained. “And I did, but only one of them mattered to my parents. Jackson Lawson III, our town’s richest and most influential man. He started coming around the house, about once a week I’d say. He was nice, a smart man, good looking. For about a year, he courted me and pretty soon, he proposed. I was… just 19, but my mama was so proud, and my daddy was so glad I wouldn’t be some hag that I just, said yes. Dove into a marriage because they wanted it.”
“Doesn’t sound much like love, there,” He commented.
“I don’t know if I ever did… fall in love with him. I mean, I knew I cared for him because he was my husband. I knew I liked living in his house and liked the gifts he brought for me but, I don’t know if I could ever look at him and say I loved him. Maybe that’s why he cheated on me.”
“Don’t blame yourself for that. It isn’t your fault he was an ass who cheated on you,” Rowan told her, making her look at him, a bit in shock. “What?”
“No one’s… ever told me that before.” She whispered.
“That it wasn’t your fault?” He looked confused, and she nodded. “Well, here I am to tell you, it wasn’t your fault he cheated on you, cupcake. He was a horny asshole who wanted to stick his dick into any warm place he could find.”
“Gross!” She laughed, shoving him a little. “Thanks though.”
Next to them, a truck came to a stop, the window rolling down. Inside, an older man leaned over, calling out to them.
“Where you headed?” He asked, and Rowan answered.
“West, sir. Headed up to Tennessee right now, though.”
The man gestured for them to get in the bed of the truck, and Rowan walked around to the back, popping open the tailgate. He was about to climb up when Adeline grabbed his arm.
“What are you doing?” She whispered anxiously.
“Getting a ride. Come on, he’ll probably drop us at a city and keep going,” He explained, looking at the driver, who gave them an expectant look. “You can’t be too scared. Most people just want to help you. Not everyone is out to get you.”
He held his hands out to her, and she looked at the driver, then back at him.
“If we get murdered, I’m goin’ to come back to life to kill you again.” She said. He lifted her into the bed of the truck and climbed up next to her, closing the tailgate and slapping the side of the vehicle, letting the driver know he could keep going. The truck lurched and started up again, continuing down the stretch of road.
Leaning her arm on the side of the truck’s bed, Adeline watched the trees fly by. It was a quiet evening, with not many cars on the road. The driver had his windows closed and was listening to music, leaving them alone to themselves. Rowan set his guitar case down and popped it open, pulling out a light wood guitar, covered in stickers. She snorted.
“Do you own anything that doesn’t have bumper stickers on it?” She asked, making him smile.
“Nah. I want to personalize everything. Makes it mine.” He strummed a chord softly, making her watch him with curious eyes. “Any requests?”
She shrugged, making him nod. He looked back to his guitar, plucking a few strings before picking up a song, slow but upbeat. After a brief intro, he began singing, his voice husky and soothing. Crossing her legs, she faced him, just listening. It wasn’t a song she’d ever heard before; he’d probably wrote it, she realized. He was good, deft with his fingers and rich sounding with his singing. It made the ride calmer, soothing her fear. He always found a way to do that, calm her down when she was freaking out.
When the song faded away, he just started a new one, slower than the first, but in no way worse. The chords were stronger, most resonating almost. He sang about someone, a person who he hadn’t wanted to be with, but just experience things with. For a split second, she wondered if it was about Luna. But then the music continued, and she let herself get lost again.
Night had fallen and they’d long past the Welcome to Tennessee sign when they pulled up to a small motel. The driver pulled into a parking space and Rowan opened the back, slipping down and lifting Adeline onto the ground. They crossed to the driver’s side, where the window was rolled down.
“Thank you, sir,” Rowan said, making the driver shrug.
“This is as far as I can take ya, but I’m glad to be of some help,” He tipped his cowboy hat to them. “You two stay safe out here. Crazy world we live in.”
“We will. Drive safely.”
They waved as he drove off, and Adeline was left wondering how many people like him were in the world. So willing to help a stranger for nothing in return. As his red pickup disappeared down the highway, she couldn’t help but watch. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad out here as she’d thought it would be.
Thunder rolled overhead, and a hand rested on her shoulder. “Let’s get checked in before the sky opens up.”
They got a room and were inside when the rain finally started tapping on the windows. The motel was weird, with patterned carpet and blue walls, but after their day, a bed of any kind was welcome. Tossing her backpack onto one of the beds, she flopped down and sighed. They had only been walking an hour at most when they’d been picked up, but her thighs burned and her calves ached.
“Lucky us, he dropped us someplace cheap,” Rowan said, claiming the other bed in the room. “You alright, cupcake?”
“My legs hurt,” She said honestly, making him chuckle knowingly.
“You’ll get used to it eventually. Plus, spending half the day in heels doesn’t help.” She rolled over to look at him as he dug around in his bag. “I’ve got some pain killers, but don’t take too many. We’ve gotta converse what we have, you know.”
He handed her two pills and she thanked him, walking into the restroom to take them. Letting the sink run, she used a little paper cup to take the medicine, then looked at herself. It had been one day on the road, and she’d found solace in a vagrant from New Hampshire. She was hundreds of miles from home. Had anyone noticed? Were her parents worried sick, still calling and texting like crazy to find her?
Or had they given up hope?
Tears filled her eyes. She felt weird, displaced and abnormal. She’d never felt like this before, so thoroughly like she didn’t belong. Rowan was so skilled and prepared for everything life threw at him, then there was her. Lost, adrift and so, so scared.
Wiping her eyes, and turned off the sink and headed back out to her bed. Sitting down, she looked down at her shoes, trying to will the sadness in her voice away. Lucky for her, Rowan spoke before she did.
“I ordered a pizza. Not the most healthy option, but it’s food.”
She smiled at him as a thank you.
They ate on their separate beds, the TV playing some rerun of a show from the 90s. It was mind-numbing enough to keep her brain busy. She showered after eating and just wore her underwear to bed, seeing as Rowan sat on his bed in just his boxers. Flicking off her bedside lamp, she got under the covers, facing away from him. The TV stayed on, casting the room in blue light.
“Let me know if the TV bothers you,” He told her.
Staring at the paneled wall, she was left with her thoughts as her eyes slowly slid shut.
A loud crack of thunder woke her up, making her shoot upright in bed. Panting, she held her chest, looking around as the events of the day came back to her. She was in a motel, with Rowan, her guide to all things life on the road. Looking over at his bed, she expected to see him asleep. Instead, his bed was empty, making her panic. Did he leave her?
Slowly, she stepped out of bed, grabbing a blanket and wrapping it around her. She walked to the bathroom and knocked on the door.
After receiving no response, she pushed the door open and looked inside the dark room. Nothing. Her heart was hammering as she shut the door, fighting back tears. Just as she was about to call the front desk, a soft red glow from the porch caught her eye. Walking over, she opened the sliding door and stepped out onto the covered balcony.
He sat in a lounge chair, smoking a cigarette. When she walked out next to him, he looked over at her.
“Hey,” He said, voice soft under the sound of the rain. An open notebook sat in his lap, along with his lighter.
“What’re you doin’?” She asked. He sighed, rolling his neck.
“I was writing a letter. But nothing’s coming to me.”
Taking the other chair, she sat next to him, glancing at the notebook. “To who?”
“My little brother,” He told her, taking a drag. “It’s his birthday next week. Turns 12.”
“Oh,” She said, not really understanding. “Is he… back home?”
He didn’t answer for a while, and for a second, she thought he didn’t hear her. Then, he shook his head.
“No. He’s with our grandparents, in Chile,” He told her, making her nod slowly. “He’s been down there since he was 2. I haven’t seen him in ten years now.”
“What… happened? If you don’t mind me asking.”
He popped his neck, rubbing the back of it. “My parents… they met while my mom, Hannah, was on vacation in Puerto Varas, and fell in love. My dad, Vicente, asked Hannah if they could get married so he could get a green card to America, and they did. She was 20 and he was 42, but they swore they were in love, and moved back to her home in New Hampshire. When she was 21, I was born and… Vicente got pretty into drinking and gambling. But more drinking.
He would get… violent with Hannah. Scream in her face and smack her around. I was around 5 when I started to stick up for her, which caused him to get that way with me. 8 years of that, then he decides he wants to turn a new leaf, start over. So they have another baby, my brother. I was so goddamn happy, he was like a little angel. I told myself I’d protect him with my life, no matter what happened, Andres was mine.
Well… that new leaf lasted about six months. Then he was back to gambling, back to drinking, back to violence. I took so many goddamn hits so Andres wouldn’t get any. Two years of double the abuse, double the violence, so he’d be okay. Some teacher caught sight of me one day and basically forced it out of me. Immigration got called in, and Vicente was taken to trial and… when Hannah got up on the stand, she defended him. She fucking defended that, that monster who hurt both of us for almost two decades! She told them that I was the violent one and that he was acting in self-defense. He never served any fucking jail time for that, for beating the shit out of me daily!
But his DUIs didn’t lie, and they were both deemed unfit parents. I was put in a group home and Andres was sent to the next available family. Hannah’s parents didn’t want some, some wetback baby, so my grandparents down south took him in. The last time I saw him was in court, he was crying and reaching out for me, just calling for me… I should have fought harder. Should have said something to keep him with me but… he’s gone. Now he probably thinks his big brother abandoned him, and I’m never coming back. So I write him letters whenever I can.”
Rowan wiped away a few stray tears, and Adeline swallowed hard. Reaching out, she carefully took his hand.
“It’s not… your fault.” His eyes met hers, and she squeezed his hand. “Your parents, they treated you so bad. You’ve been through hell and back, multiple times. And yeah, your baby brother was a victim, but don’t forget, you were one too. You were only 15… you did all you could for him. I don’t think he hates you. He has to know you’re tryin’ as best you can. You’re a good big brother, Rowan.”
His hand clasped hers, and he gave her a smile, one that didn’t reach his eyes like the rest did. Slowly, he nodded.
“Thanks, cupcake,” He whispered.
“You’re welcome.” Standing up, she headed back for the sliding door. “Don’t stay out here too long, okay? You’ll catch your death.”
He laughed at that, and she realized how much she liked that over his crying. “I won’t.”
Walking together the next day felt different. Instead of telling her about his time on the road, Rowan told her about his brother and the memories they shared. He let Spanish slip into his sentences and blushed every time she pointed it out. It was nice, getting to know that he trusted her that much.
Part of her wondered how many people knew about him, though. Had there been other girls like her, young and unassuming, swept up by the pretty, bilingual guitar player with a great smile? Was she just another notch in his belt, another experience he’d share with another girl, 3000 miles from them? It made her uneasy, but she didn’t mention it.
Adeline instead focused on how much easier it was to walk through the woods in boots than it was in heels.
They followed the road as it curved around a huge lake, stretching so far into the distance that she swore it was the ocean. People sat at a camping area, grilling and laughing while kids jumped off the dock, screaming in happiness as they hit the water. It made her smile.
“Want to stop?” Rowan asked, noticing her gaze. “I haven’t been swimming in a long time.”
“Do we have time?” She asked, looking up at him. He fixed her a warm gaze, patting the top of her head.
“One thing you’ll learn about life on the road, cupcake, is that time is just an illusion. If you want to do something bad enough, you have time,” He led her down the gravel path to the sitting area, plopping his things down on a bench. One of the campers greeted them.
“Howdy! You campin’ out here too?” He asked, making Rowan shake his head.
“Just a couple of drifters, my friend. Got room for two more?”
“Sure! The more the merrier, pull up a chair and grab a beer!” He said with a friendly, booming laugh. It made Adeline smile, he reminded her of the men back home. Doing so, Rowan handed her a can of beer and cracked his open.
“Thank you,” He told the group. “I’m Rowan, and this little mouse is Adeline.”
“Pleasure to meet you both! I’m Reece, and that there’s my wife, Joyce. My daughters, Fiona and Bailey, and those rascals out there are my grandkids. My son in law just went up the road for more lighter fluid; can’t have a bonfire without lighter fluid!” He cackled as if it were some hilarious joke. Adeline found herself laughing as well. “Where’d you two come from?”
“Georgia. Heading on out to California next,” Rowan told him.
“Shoot, that’s a long way! Gonna be walking for a few months, ain’t ya?” He clapped Rowan on the back. “I couldn’t do it. Collectin’ firewood is enough exercise for me!”
“I like it, really. Being out on the road, that is.”
One of the daughters, Bailey, leaned over to Adeline. “Wanna let the men talk, and we go swimmin’?”
“Oh, uh, I don’t have a swimsuit,” She told her, which made the teen scoff and wave her hand.
“You can borrow one of mine. Come on!”
She drug Adeline off to her tent, helping her inside and loaning her a pink bikini. Thanking her, the older girl began changing, keeping her back to the literal stranger changing two feet from her.
“So, Rowan,” She started. “He your boyfriend?”
“No,” Adeline laughed, tying up her bottoms. “Just friends, travelin’ together.”
“I wish I had a friend like that! He’s cute!” She said, laughing. “Mind if I take a swing?”
Something bristled in her, something ugly, but she tried to ignore it. “Sure, knock yourself out.”
They spent the day with the family, swimming and riding inner tubes, Adeline enjoying her time in the water. She’d never swam in a lake before, she decided she liked it. They shared their food and the pair were treated to some amazing barbecue, as well as some pretty funny family stories. They stayed well into the evening, helping the family set up their bonfire for the night. As Reece cooked dinner, they settled around the fire. Bailey sat next to Rowan.
“You play anythin’ on that guitar?” She asked, making him smile.
“Yeah, I do. Anyone object?” Everyone around the fire said no, and he got out his instrument, strumming a few times before looking around the circle. “Got a request?”
“Play any country?” Reece asked, making Rowan chuckle.
“Some… let’s see…”
He started up a song that made Joyce gasp. “Oh, Reece and I danced to this song at our weddin’. Remember honey?”
“Course I do. As a matter of fact,” He held his hand down to her and she took it, standing up. As Rowan began singing, they danced around the circle, looking so in love it made Adeline smile. She sat across from Rowan but could only see the couple, dancing so romantically against the beautiful sunset.
Fiona and her husband stood as well, dancing sweetly, him mouthing the words to her as they moved. It brought a pang of sadness to her. Her wedding had been nothing more than a transaction, nothing like she’d wished she could have had. No dancing, no party, no declaration of love. It was impersonal, like her marriage.
The song came to a close and she wiped her eyes as the couples clapped for Rowan.
“Thank you, thank you,” He said as they all took their seats.
“That was some mighty fine singing,” Bailey said, making him shrug. “I mean it, you’re really talented. You oughta have your own record.”
“Well, I’m glad you think so.”
Dinner was steak and vegetables and was eaten over light conversation and music from Rowan. When the sun finally set, Adeline couldn’t help staring at the sky. It was huge, so bright with stars. It looked nothing like this back home, and Reece couldn’t help but notice her gaping mouth.
“See somethin’ interestin’?” He asked.
“I’ve never seen the stars so bright.” She spoke in awe. “It looks nothing like this back home.”
“Same sky,” He promised, making her shake her head.
“It has to be different.”
The kids were put to sleep and Fiona and her husband went to bed, Rowan approaching Adeline by the water’s edge. He stood next to her, his hand on top of her head while he spoke.
“Hey, so, Bailey invited me to her tent. And I told her I’d come once I helped you pitch the tent,” He explained. That same feeling rose in her and she shook her head, shrugging.
“It’s fine, I’ll handle it. Go ahead.”
“Cupcake, I know you’ve never done it before, let me help you-”
“I can figure it out on my own,” She stepped away from his touch. “Go on, I’ll be fine.”
Turning on her heel, she went and got his tent from his bag, confused as to why there were so many poles and why none of them fit together. They were supposed to, right? Groaning, she sat down and fumbled with the stupid metal for a while.
“Need some help?”
Looking up, she saw Reece and his kind smile. She nodded and he sat down next to her, mumbling under his breath as he began putting the tent together. Glancing over, she saw Bailey talking to Rowan by the fire, her hand on his chest. Leaning in, she kissed him. Adeline looked away just as quickly.
“There you go, little lady. All ready,” The tent was upright and staked down, which made Adeline smile.
“Thank you. For everythin’, really. For letting us hang around today.”
“Ah, it’s no trouble at all. You’re fun people,” He looked over to where Rowan was entering Bailey’s tent. “Ah, that looks like trouble. Boyfriend?”
“Friend,” She said, grabbing her backpack. He nodded in understanding.
“Well, don’t stay up stressin’ about him. Men are slow with these things,” He put his hands on his hips. “Women’s emotions that is. And if you ain’t boyfriend/girlfriend, he could at least be a good friend and not flaunt it in your face.”
Adeline rolled her eyes, that was very true. Reece laughed.
“Have a good night, then. See you in the mornin’.” He headed to put out the fire and Adeline watched for a minute, seeing the light in Bailey’s tent flick off.
She crawled into her own tent and zipped up the flap, shutting out everything and everyone.