The pair spent two more days in Nashville before moving on, hopping a train and riding it into southern Illinois. After stopping off in a small city, they followed the highway until they reached a huge wooden sign, telling them they were entering into a wildlife and camping area.
“Let’s make camp here, we’ve spent enough time on the road for today,” Rowan told her, hiking down a well-worn trail. Adeline followed him, looking up at the huge trees that surrounded them. It was stunning, with birds chirping overhead at the setting sun.
“So, how far west have you been, exactly?” She asked, ducking under a low hanging branch.
“About Ohio, before now. I guess every day I get farther,” He shrugged, climbing on top of a huge fallen tree. He held his hand down to her and helped her up, the two of them standing side by side. “Call me a hippie, but I’d take this over a city any day.”
The view was beautiful, trees stretching as far as the eye could see, with huge cliffs and bluffs overlooking sparkling water. It was untouched, unbothered by people. She could see why some people were such environmentalists. This was… something special. Rowan hopped down from the tree and lifted her down, both of them continuing down the path.
They walked down a narrow pathway to the waterfront, Adeline watching her steps as closely as she could. The last thing she needed was to break an ankle or something. Landing on a sandy lakefront, Rowan looked around with a smile, nodding contently.
“This looks perfect,” He said, heading over to an overhanging ledge, plopping his bags down. “And this can be our shelter.”
“Besides the tent, you mean,” She set her own bag down, sitting down in the sand as he dug out their tent.
As he pitched the tent, she was tasked with finding firewood and large enough stones to encase their firepit. She made multiple trips up and down the pathway, so frequent with it now that she walked briskly down. On her third or fourth trip, she wandered a bit deeper into the woods, walking up a few trails that were growing over with plants again. Pushing through the foliage with her free arm, she found a rock ledge, hanging out over the water. Slowly, she walked out to the peak, looking down. The pristine teal water sparkled below her, and far down, she could see their camp on the beach. But it was a long way down.
“Thinking of jumping?”
Adeline yelped, dropping her firewood as she whirled around to look at Rowan, who laughed a bit. Angrily, she tossed a small hunk of wood at him.
“Don’t do that!”
“I’m sorry cupcake, I couldn’t resist,” He caught the wood, dropping it back on the ground. “But really, did you want to try jumping?”
“Off of that?” She looked back over the edge. “Won’t that like, kill us?”
“Nah, I’ve made deadlier drops than that,” He looked over with her. “Nope, perfectly safe water down there. You’ve probably jumped from diving boards higher than this.”
“Yeah, but that’s a different circumstance.” She crossed her arms.
“Because, that’s controlled water, and metal supports, and there’s, you know, a lifeguard!” She shouted, making him laugh again. “Oh, don’t laugh at me! You know I haven’t taken very many risks in my life.”
“So here,” He turned her to face the edge. “I’ll jump first. If I don’t think you can handle it, I’ll tell you. Sound good?”
Pursing her lips, she looked down again. He was right, she’d done high dives taller than this, but still… oh, if he could do it, so could she. Nothing said that he had to test it for her. She was her own woman. Stepping back, she unbuckled her overalls.
“No, I’m goin’ with you,” She told him, stepping out of her shorts. He raised his brows. “What? I got my nose pierced and went into a honky-tonk, I can do this. It’s just a little water.”
“Alright,” He took his shirt off. “Let’s see if you can.”
Stripped to her underwear, Adeline stood on the edge of the cliff, her chipping pink toenail polish glaring up at her, stark against the grey rock. Rowan patted her head.
“If you can’t do it, I’m not gonna say anything.” He promised, before turning around. As she turned to ask what he was doing, he rushed forward, jumping off the ledge and rocketing downward. She watched as he disappeared below the water’s surface, the splash rippling out for what looked like miles. His head appeared again and she could hear him laughing, looking up at her.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped back and threw herself off the ledge.
There was something so familiar about how she flew through the air, weightless and free. She hit the water and sunk downward before she swam back up to the surface, laughing herself.
“Holy shit!” She shouted, looking to Rowan. “I did it!”
“And you said shit,” He laughed. “This has been a big day for you!”
“Shut up!” She splashed him, making him chuckle, tongue running along his bottom lip.
“Oh, you want to fight, cupcake? Let’s fight!”
He splashed her back and soon they were tossing water on one another, Adeline swimming away from him when he wrapped his arms around her waist and tossed her over his shoulder, dunking her under the water. She shoved him back, popping her head above the surface with a laugh. He grabbed her thighs and lifted her, tossing her a few feet away. Crying out in shock, she held her hands up in surrender.
“Okay, okay, you win!” Her ribs hurt from laughing so much, and Rowan looked at her smugly.
“You’re damn right I do,” He grinned, making her shake her head. “I am proud of you, though. I didn’t know if you could do it.”
“I didn’t either,” She said honestly, flicking wet hair from her face. “But I’m glad I did. This has been amazin'.”
“I told you; there’s something freeing about life on the road. Makes you into the person you always wished you be,” He told her, making her nod.
“I definitely feel… more like myself,” She shrugged. “We should probably get our clothes. And our firewood.”
Adeline got a fire going while Rowan retrieved their clothes, getting dressed when he plopped her things down in front of her. They’d picked up food in the last city they passed through, so they dined on canned soup and bread slices, accompanied by baby carrots. Rowan presented her plate with fanfare.
“A meal fit for a debutante,” He said in a posh accent, making her giggle.
“Thank you, good sir,” She joked back, digging in. “My mama would be pissed if she saw me out here.”
“Yeah? Not a fan of steak and roasted russet potato soup?” He asked, making her smile.
“Not that,” She waved her hand at him. “This whole… lifestyle. Livin’ out of a backpack and sleepin’ a different place every night… she’d hate it out here. I remember, one week, our house was gettin’ fumigated, and we had to stay in a hotel. Man, she was mad as hell. Even though my daddy picked one of the nicest hotels in the city, she thought it was way too lower class to stay in a place that wasn’t your home. And don’t get me started on campin’. My daddy used to go campin’ for two weeks, every summer until my mama complained his ear off about how dirty it was, and how unstable and unsafe, then he just stopped. And she didn’t even go with him! Just complained so much that he decided to stop goin’.”
“So she wouldn’t be a very big fan of me?” He asked, making her look up at him.
“No,” She said quietly. “She wouldn’t be.”
They ate in silence for a while, before he cleared his throat.
“Do you, uh, miss them? Your family,” He asked, a bit awkwardly.
“Sometimes. When I see ice cream, I think of them. It’s weird, I know, but the mind of an heiress works that way, I guess. And, when we were in Nashville, and saw that family at the zoo, with that little girl on her daddy’s shoulders… I missed them a lot then,” She told him, looking out across the water. The sun had dipped below the horizon then, but the fire cast enough light for her to see. “But… I think about what happened back there. How my mama treated me… and I remember that I chose to leave. Then, I don’t miss ’em so much anymore.”
“I, I’m sorry for asking,” He stammered, making her smile sweetly.
“You were curious. No secrets,” She reminded him, making him smile.
“No secrets.” He agreed, a yellow light glowing near his head. Her heart jumped into her throat as the light faded out, then came about again.
“I… don’t mean to alarm you… but there is something yellow and glowin’ near your head.” She tried to keep her voice even as he turned his head, smiling when he saw the light.
“Oh, this? That’s a lightning bug,” He caught the light in his hand and held it out to her. “Look.”
Opening his hand, she saw a black bug crawling around on his palm, with a red stripe on its back. Its wings opened and it flew away, lighting up again as it moved. She gasped as more light up, glowing across the water beautifully as they flew.
“Did you not have these in Georgia?” He asked her, making her shake her head. “They’re completely safe. Go ahead, catch one.”
Standing up, she walked carefully across the sand, throwing her hand out. She didn’t catch one, however, and she narrowed her eyes. A dozen missed attempts had Rowan laughing, standing up to join her. He crossed behind her and put a hand on her waist.
“You’re trying too hard,” He told her, taking her other hand. “Just wait, they fly slow enough that you can catch it without really trying.” They stood there together for a minute before he helped her catch one, the yellow glow illuminating her palm. “See? That easy.”
Adeline brought their joined hands to her face and looked at the bug in awe. “It’s beautiful.” She whispered, watching the bug fly away. Looking over her shoulder at him, she grinned. He gave her a little smile.
“Yeah… they are,” He whispered, stepping away from her, letting her catch more bugs. As a little girl, she hated bugs, hated touching them or looking at them. Now, she giggled as three of them walked across her skin, light soft and beautiful. Behind her, she heard Rowan strum his guitar, picking up a slow song that fit the night beautifully. Humming, she went and sat down on the sand across from him, wanting to listen to his lyrics.
“We found our place, on the branch of an old gum tree. Our feet would sway, to a voice in the breeze. And birds would sing, on the banks of a narrow stream… these memories will stay with me,” He sung, looking across the fire at her. She smiled softly, wondering when he’d written this one. “We make our way, to a hill beside the sea. With salt in the air and sand on our feet. We felt the sun, as it burn upon our skin… these memories will stay with me.”
Adeline couldn’t help but think… did he write this about her? But that was stupid, right? He’d been on the road three years, he’d met so many amazing people, why would he write a song about a girl he’s known for a week? Shaking her head, she swayed along with the music, not wanting to read more into it than surface level; it was a pretty song.
“Now I am far away, these memories still remain. Now I’m far away, you stay with me the same. Now I’m far away, these memories still remain. Now I’m far away, you stay with me the same…” The song came to a beautiful finish and she chuckled quietly.
“You write beautiful music, you know that?” She said, making him smile.
“I try,” He shrugged.
“Play another?” She asked softly.
He nodded, starting up again, a song that seemed to be more about himself. “The highway is a lonely place when you can’t get back home. And it goes on… to no one. Lights move at a steady pace, moment here and gone. And they go on… forever. They go on…”
She looked up at the sky, lit with stars and lightning bugs. She wondered if anyone back home was thinking of her. To her surprise, she found she was thinking of them less and less. It felt like she’d made the right choice, leaving with Rowan.
“And you can’t see much in front of you, further down the road. Leaving is the only way to know. Leaving is the only way to know. Lights shine on a solid line, they keep it straight and true. ’Cuz it goes on, without you. I pass by your exit sign, oh, a time or two. And I go on like you asked me to. But I can’t see much in front of me, further down the road. Leaving is the only way to know. Leaving is the only way to know.”
Adeline watched him, so intense in his music, so caring about the words he said and what they meant. He cared, very deeply about it. His journal was scribbled with letters to his brother and drawings of things he’d experienced but also poured forth with songs. She could spend a whole day reading his songs and wouldn’t be done. She’d bought a journal herself, but so far, the pages sat blank. A part of her was jealous of Rowan, for having so much to say.
“Yeah, I see you, in the highways of my mind. Yeah, I feel you, sitting by my side. Singing, ‘Leaving is the only way to know. Leaving is the only way to know. Leaving is the only way we’ll know. Leaving is the only way to know.’ ’Cuz it goes on.” He finished, looking over at her. She smiled.
“Beautiful,” She told him honestly, making him blush.
“Thanks.” He said softly. “You ready for bed?”
Laying out her sleeping bag next to him was weird. He’d told her they didn’t need two tents, because his could fit two people, and part of her was glad for it. She didn’t know how she’d handle sleeping in a tent by herself in an unknown area. But now, it was a little awkward, sleeping next to him. She placed her sleeping bag by the back wall, a little extra protection for her sake of mind, but she was still scared.
He could sense it.
“Cupcake, I’m not gonna let anything happen to you,” He promised, rolling out his own bag. “I haven’t yet.”
“I know,” She said honestly, looking out the open flap of the tent. “But, how are you supposed to protect us if somethin’, or someone, comes out of those woods?”
He sighed, reaching for his bag. “Alright, I don’t want you to get freaked out, okay?”
“Not a good way to start a sentence,” She told him, crossing her arms. “But alright.”
Unzipping his bag, he pulled out a small, black handgun. Adeline sat up straighter; holy shit, was he carrying that the whole time?
“Holy shit, have you been carrying that the whole time?” She repeated out loud.
“Yeah, I keep it on me all the time,” He put it back in his bag and zipped it up. “It’s good to have protection out here, I told you, sometimes unexpected things happen. But I’ve never had to use it, on wildlife or otherwise.”
She nodded, looking at the pocket where he kept it stashed. Her gaze must have worried him.
“Look, I’m not some dangerous felon who’s out to get you, okay? I’m not going to use it unless I absolutely have to, and even then, I would never want to use it on another person-”
“Show me,” She cut him off, making him look confused.
“Show me how to use it,” She said seriously. “If somethin’ happens and I need to use it, I want to know how.”
“You’re serious?” He asked, looking her up and down.
“Yeah, what’s the matter? Don’t think I can handle it?” She furrowed her brows.
“No,” He laughed. “It’s just hard to believe you were the same girl sitting at an abandoned train station in a designer dress a week ago.”
“So you’ll teach me?” She asked, making him nod.
“In the morning, I’ll teach you.”
Rowan had out the can they’d eaten their soup from the night before and stood behind Adeline. Holding out the gun, he let her take it from his hand.
“Okay, the first rule, don’t ever point it at another person,” He told her, aiming her arms down. “Here’s the safety, when you need to shoot, make sure that’s turned off. Okay, now, hold the gun with your dominant hand, and wrap your other hand around it. Stand with your legs apart, good. Rest the pad of your finger on the trigger, and look down the barrel. Now, take aim, and pull.”
Closing her eyes, she pulled the trigger and laughed with she heard metallic ringing. When her eyes opened, she saw she’d shot a hole in the can.
“I did it!” She said excitedly.
“Yeah, well, keep your eyes open next time, but you did it,” He agreed. “Now we’re both ready to use it if we need to. Crossing our fingers that we’ll never need to.”
She handed the gun back to him, smiling. “Thanks. Jackson never let me touch his guns.”
“Hey, we share everything,” He shrugged, clicking the safety back on. “Why not share the burden of gun ownership?”
Shoving him, she laughed. “Whatever. Now come on, you promised to take me rock climbin' today.”