Back on the road I follow the highway to my next destinations. My mind is still swimming with Joshua’s new theories, apparently talking with him did nothing to eliminate any of mine, except perhaps the alien abduction one, but I’m not dismissing it all together. Great I am insane, I can’t wait to pick up Joshua and have a sane person to talk to in the truck as these crazy ideas pop into my head. Okay so maybe I can eliminate some before I see him, the same way I eliminate possible towns she’s in.
The sun is high in the sky and despite it being November the air is still warm in the South. Thanksgiving is next week and I pray that I have Ruby in my arms again but even if I don’t I know I’ll be thankful to be in the company of—a friend—Joshua. I’ve covered nine small towns already today which means just a couple more and I’m finished with South Carolina. This place really is beautiful, I just wish that the beauty I’m truly seeking was not distracting me from really seeing it.
I mark a few more crosses on my map and let my thoughts wonder into a happier place as I drive slowly along the highway. I think about finding Ruby, safe and happy, with an amazing reason for not calling me. I think about winding my arms around her tiny waist, or her slightly protruding waist now. I can almost feel the warmth of her embracing me, the feel of her silky soft skin underneath my caress. Even the firm bump of a small belly pushing against my lower hip the baby begs to be recognised.
I pull her up closer to me and cover her lips with mine, I can feel her smile on her lips as they receive mine with enthusiasm. One hand glides down to her lower back while the other weaves gently through her long brunette hair. A horn blaring loudly shocks me from my day dream and I swerve suddenly back to my side of the road. Fuck me that was close. I shake the last trace of blissful dreaminess from my mind and focus on the road.
Tonight I’m going to need to stop for rest somewhere, I can’t remember the last time I slept a full night’s sleep. During every waking daylight hour I’m scouring through towns and cities talking to people, showing them my only photograph of her. During the night hours I drive between the towns and cities until I find that no one is awake any longer to answer the question I’ve asked day in and day out for nearly three months. ’Have you seen this woman?’
I’ve been sleeping on a couple of hours a night and only when absolutely necessary. I have to sustain my body better, I’m sure apart from looking completely haggard I’ve lost a few pounds from the lack of a substantial diet. I need my strength, I argue with myself, what good is finding her going to be if you look like a warmed up corpse? I need energy to keep searching which means I need proper food and rest.
The sun is beginning it’s decent over the western horizon and I begin to search for somewhere to stop for dinner. I find a small diner just outside the last town I just visited, and I pull into the car park. I walk into the diner that looks like so many I’ve seen during this search and even over the years as I’ve travelled for work. I take a seat in a booth and a young waitress comes over to see me. Her gaze is focussed intently on her order pad and away from my face, not an unusual response to my face.
I reach inside my jacket pocket and pull out the photo,
“Have you seen this woman?” I ask her without any hope left in me to put into the words. She pauses then looks into my eyes, her gaze seems to soften as she reads the longing and searching in them. She looks at the photo and studies it hard, she seems to be almost trying to force a memory of someone. She looks back towards me,
“No, I’m sorry, I’ve never seen her before.” She seems genuinely sorry about not being able to help me. I sigh and try to give her a half-smile but fail,
“Thanks anyway Susan.” I tell her appreciatively reading her name tag.
“Can I get you anything?” She’s asks pleasantly.
“Some iced tea, and a burger, rare please.” I answer her tonelessly. I’ve now use up every bit of pleasantness I had for today, and all I want to do is eat and find a place to sleep. When Susan returns with my iced tea I ask her, “Is there a motel or something nearby you could direct me to?”
“Sure, there’s a motel just a few miles north of here on the left side of the highway, you can’t miss the exit it has one of those giant gaudy billboards advertising it.” She tells me kindly. After I’ve finished eating I leave the money for the cheque and a tip on the table and leave without saying goodbye. I can’t leave a number for anyone to call in case Ruby shows up. I can’t even go to the police because of witness protection, as soon as her picture hit the missing person’s database the U.S. Marshall’s would have it removed.
It’s hard to find one person in this country, especially when you can’t go to the law. At least that’s a plus side, she has to be in this country at least. The U.S. Marshalls have no jurisdiction outside the States. Take that mister negative personality, I taunt my own mind. I find the motel as easily as the waitress had said. I pull around to park outside my room and I unload a few things from the truck. I also take the opportunity of stoping to clean out the truck a little, food wrappers and empty drink bottles are everywhere.
I open the glove compartment and add any paperwork that is important to the collection. I remove all the rubbish and I pleased with the result, it looks like a truck again, not a rubbish bin on wheels with a bum for a driver. I take to the shower in the bathroom immediately, I can’t help but think my hair looks almost black instead of its usual dark brown. It must be because my skin is paler, it’s making my hair look darker. I can visibly see the lines of worry and stress permanently etched into my face around my green eyes. Even more evident than my scars.
The bathroom fills with steam as I try to remember what my face looks like when it sees her. I search for the memory and I can’t find it, then I remember I don’t have to. I pull my phone out of my pants pocket on the floor and scroll to the photos menu. I flick through one after the other of surveillance photos, photos of the truck, the house and finally her. I see her smiling face and my heart lifts up towards the ceiling. Most of the photos are of Ruby but I know there is a couple. Here, one she took as I tried to wrestle my phone from her, she was holding the phone out to take the photo while we were kissing.
I remember fighting feebly for the phone but being distracted by kissing her. I scroll through to another she took as I cooked dinner, hugged me from behind and took the photo as I looked over my shoulder at her. It’s take from the side of face with my scars but even through those I can see the look of pure love and elation written on my face. I scroll further to the perfect photo, we were at a Saints game, she’s sitting on my lap and my arms are around her waist.
She’s not even looking at the camera, her eyes are closed and her head is leaning back towards mine as I turn my face to plant a kiss on her cheek. Her smile is one of pure contentment and happiness. The photo doesn’t show my scars, just a beautiful woman, so happy to be in my arms she doesn’t notice the rest of the world. It’s my favourite picture of us, and I make a note to take more pictures when I find her again. Though photos really don’t do her exquisite beauty any justice, her very soul is a thing of beauty and it radiates from within her.
I step into the shower and let the hot water cascade over my body as I release the dam holding the memory of that football game allowing it to flood my memory. I can feel the sun on my skin, her hand in mine, the smell wafting from the food stands. I remember her song coming on the radio during the tailgate party and her jumping up on the truck bed to dance. She loves that song, then it finished and she leapt of the truck into my arms, complete trust that I would catch her. When the memory takes a sharp turn of emotion, it sucks the happiness right out of me and replaces it with the fear that I’ll never feel that happy again.
I turn the shower to cold only, to banish any thought at all from my mind. My body freezes and goose bumps rise over every inch of my flesh. I shudder not knowing if the shudder is from the cold shower or the emptiness I felt as that memory drifted away from me into a vast ocean of lost possibilities. I wrap the towel around me and I walk out to the bed, I collapse, heavy and cold on top of the covers. I fight my drooping eyelids as long as possible until finally sleep takes over.
The cruel morning sun, lashes at me from the motel room window. It’ beginning to fill the room, I notice that it only seems to be spread over the empty side of the bed, which only highlights the shadow I’m in. I don’t know what’s crueller the sun itself taunting me with my lack of companionship in the bed or it tearing me from the dream I was having where I was with her.
I pack my things and plot my map course for the day. I load my truck and take to the highway allowing myself the smallest amount of hope that today might be the day I find her. After another unsuccessful week I finally arrive in Washington D.C. It came about so fast and now I’m here to pick up Joshua to join me for a week on my seemingly endless search. I park in the visitor’s lot of the FBI Headquarters and park my truck. I sign in at the desk as a visitor and ask for the directions to Agent Joshua Denton.
After walking through a maze of offices and bull pen desks I finally find him, sitting at a desk scribbling something furiously down on a notepad. All the while he stares at the computer screen in front of him while trying to maintain a conversation with the phone pinned awkwardly between his shoulder and ear. I smile at his multitasking abilities and make my way to his side. I’m greeted with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on a person and he nods his head towards the computer screen and I immediately see why hi smile is so big.
I steady both of my hands on his desk trying hard not to get ahead of myself as I stare at the image on the screen in front of me. I look towards Joshua who holds his hand up towards me as he continues his negotiations on the phone. I blink and do a double take of the computer screen again just to make sure I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing.
It’s an image of a middle aged couple sitting in a diner taking photos of their food and themselves, and in the background of the image is a waitress. She’s not in focus, and the photo isn’t great quality, but it’s her. Ruby, I would know her face from any angle, and in any light or focus. Joshua hangs up the phone and slaps my back hard as I continue to stare at the photo.
“It’s a retired couple food blogging their way across the state, I had facial recognition working on any social media hits. Obviously the US Marshalls haven’t got this one yet.” He gloats as he hits the print button. I’m still speechless and I stare at Joshua with what I’m pretty sure is an expression of disbelief. He smiles, “I was just on the phone with the website provider, and they gave me—after a little convincing—the details of the blogger couple. I’m just going to call them now and ask them where they took this photo.” I close my eyes and try to absorb this information.
I take a seat in Joshua’s chair as he gets up from his desk and pulls out his cell phone and starts dialling. In just a few minutes I could finally know where she is. I can’t even hear the words he’s saying into the phone over the racing heartbeat in my chest. He rolls his eyes at me and gives contact details.
“Oh and if I’m unreachable, my partner’s number is…..” I look at him sharply as he give my number to the person on the other end of the line. He hangs up and shrugs at me, “I spoke to their son, he said his parents are still on a cruise and won’t be back for a few days.” He explains.
“So why did you give him my number?”
“Because I start my next assignment in a week, I won’t be reachable after that and it would be better if they called you anyway and give you the details directly. Now the son said he’s not sure what picture I was talking about and we don’t have anywhere near the pull we’d need to get onto that cruise ship, so.” Joshua looks at the printed picture in his hand and says, “I think we should stick to the original plan for this week, look here.” He points at the window behind the couple in the picture.
“What about it?” I ask unsure of his point. I know I have to wait a few days to hear from the couple who are in the photo, the ones who’ve seen her.
“Doesn’t that look like a New England kind of fall scene?” He asks me hopefully. I raise an eyebrow at him incredulously and shake my head.
“It looks like the window scene from any one of thousands of diners across the U.S.” I reply. He looks slightly stung so I quickly add, “you know what, I think you might be right. It’s definitely not a southern scene anyway, and I’ll go crazy just sitting around waiting to hear from that couple.” He smiles in response and pulls out a black duffle bag from under his desk.
“Well let’s get going then, North up through Pennsylvania and New York, then onto Massachusetts, and Maine. Plan?” He asks and I nod and follow as he leads us back through the maze of offices. Some faces recognize me and nod politely in my direction. I nod back as well out of respect for my once colleagues. Joshua turns to look at me in the car park and shakes his head as he throughs his duffle bag in the bed of the truck.
“What?” I ask him as I open my door.
“I was hoping it was the bad fluorescent lighting in the building, but it wasn’t, you really look like crap.” He tells me honestly. I snort out a forced short laugh.
“Only a real friend would be that honest,” I say thankfully, “I feel like I’m missing the part of myself that makes me real, alive.”
“I understand, I’ve never seen a love like the one you two share. All I’m saying is that if you show up after months apart looking like that, you’re going to scare her.” He explains gently.
“What would you suggest?” I ask cautiously.
“Well, there is an amazing salon I love in Boston. We could make a quick stop, get you looking like less of a corpse, and thanks to all the diners we’ll be stopping at we can fatten you up a bit too.” He tells me hopefully.
“Yes to the food, no to the salon.” I answer firmly.
“Oh come on, it doesn’t lessen your masculinity going to a salon.” He pleads as we pull out of the car park.
“Not a chance in hell.” I say finally.
How I wish I had a stronger resolve, but I’d seen myself in every mirror since Joshua made his observations about my appearance the other day. Now as I sit in the stylist’s chair he can barely contain his excitement. “I’m not a doll for you to play with.” I scold at him in a futile effort to display any sort of contempt for my current situation. Three days of sitting in a car with someone who resembles a Greek God is bound to make anyone a bit self-conscious.
“I actually like the longer hair Mason,” Joshua says as he ruffles my hair, “it just needs to have a bit of life injected into it.” I squint my eyes at him in the reflection of the mirror as I get his attention I send him my most withering don’t-think-I-won’t-shoot-you glare. He bursts out laughing at me as he begins to discuss my hair with the stylist.
After and eternity of scissors and groomers, face masks, and even wax, I’m finally free back on the sidewalk. I’m so relieved to be out of that place I want to kiss the pavement on the sidewalk.
“We’re not done yet,” Joshua warns me, “I have to teach you how to shop before I’m sent away again.” My face drops at the mention of his next assignment, four days until I take him to the airport.
I wrap my jacket a little closer to my body as we walk along the chilly Massachusetts Avenue. The store windows are chocked full of thanksgiving decorations and sale signs. It’s hard to believe that it’s thanksgiving in just two days. I don’t know where the year has gone. Joshua’s face seems a little sad.
“Why didn’t you want to spend thanksgiving with your family before you go on assignment?” I ask gently realising I’ve never really asked him about his family before.
He looks at me puzzled.
“My family don’t really invite me around for Thanksgiving anymore.” He tells me exhaustedly like the thought of it alone was tiring him. I stay quiet not wanting to push the subject. Joshua slips his hands into his pockets as we walk along, his face reads like he is having an internal battle about revealing something. He finally lets out a deep breath and it sends a fog cloud out in front of his face.
“I was at college, my first year. My mom called and begged me to come home for Thanksgiving, she even told me to bring someone with me. I never really liked Thanksgiving at my house, my dad and brothers watch football and drink beer until their inner rednecks come out. When I showed up at my house with my boyfriend in tow, it was an explosive show down. The night we took down the Nolikovs at ‘The Red Fox’ had nothing on the scene that unfolded that day in the front yard of my parent’s home in Fort Collins, Colorado.” He laughs a little to himself but I can see the pain of the memory in his eyes.
“Your family didn’t know?” I ask him curiously.
“Oh they knew, they were just in denial until I through it in their faces. I felt so bad for my boyfriend at the time, gosh I can’t even remember his name. My dad threatened to shoot me if I showed my face around their again, my mom cried, my brothers laughed. But I am who I am. I finished college, got recruited by the FBI, and the rest as they say is history.” He concludes. I look at him hardly knowing what to say. I don’t pity him at all, I pity that family that threw away this amazing man.
“I’m sorry I brought it up,” I apologise. He waves me off.
“Don’t be, it made me the man I am, even the agent I am. I don’t think I would take as many deep cover assignments if I was still close with my family. I had a sister when I was younger but she died in a car accident when she was sixteen, she’s really the only one I miss.” I try to smile at him as he leads me into a boutique store.
“The truth is that Ruby reminds me of my sister, that’s probably why I love her so much. I did hope to spend thanksgiving with my family, but we haven’t found her yet.” He confesses sadly and I can’t help but put my hand on his shoulder reassuringly. I smile at him,
“Don’t worry, we’ll do a family get together when you get back from your assignment.” I tell him reassuringly. “So are you going to help me figure out what my colour palette is?” I ask sarcastically as I change the subject. He laughs a little as he runs his hands over the racks of clothes. When we finally finish shopping and get back to the truck, I find myself grateful for the afternoon’s distraction. I’ve been in this truck for so long just driving and searching that it felt good to walk along the streets, and soak up the sunlight even though it was accompanied by ice cold winds.
We make to Maine before nightfall and we find a diner to eat dinner and also ask about Ruby. As we eat I can see worry on Joshua’s face and I can relate completely, it’s the same look I used to get before going undercover.
“Here’s to a speedy take down,” I say as I raise my iced tea to him. Clink, he taps my glass with his. “Amen to that brother.” I look at him for another minute watching him barely touch his food, I know it’s classified but maybe he needs to talk about it.’
“So are you going to tell me where they’re sending you?” I ask as if it doesn’t really matter if he answers me or not. He raises an eyebrow at me accompanied by an are-you-serious look.
“You know I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you I need to dust off my Spanish.” He breathes out heavily.
“Out of the States, I always hated those. I never felt like a trapeze artist without a safety net during overseas operations.” I try to appease him.
“Yeah well apparently the Cartel leader I’m after has a thing for blonde boys.” He huffs, he sounds almost disgusted. “I wonder if the Bureau will ever send me on an assignment that doesn’t cost me my ass.” He blurts out. I choke on the water I’m drinking as I try to stop the shocked laughter from escaping my lips. The stinging of water making its way out of my nose brings tears to my eyes. Joshua begins to laugh out loud at the sight sitting opposite him in the booth.
I finally compose myself and finish wiping my face off and I look at him seriously.
“We are all just pieces of ass to them.” I tell him with a smile. After dinner we decide to go to a local bar to drink for some much needed ‘liquor therapy’ as Joshua calls it.
“It’s cheaper than a shrink and it doesn’t judge,” he slurs as we clink shot glasses. Joshua is completely written off and I’m impressed with how much alcohol it took to get him to this point.
I drape his arm over my shoulder and drag him from the bar and back down the road to our motel. I struggle to open his room with him trying to waltz with me across the car park. I finally open the door and haul him into the room. I drop him onto his bed and I turn the heater in his room on. He’s snoring already and I just shake my head at him affectionately like I would a little brother if I had one.
I put a handful of aspirin and a bottle of water down on the nightstand and I turn to leave the room. We have adjoining rooms but as I reach the door I see his laptop bag open revealing her photo. I bend down to pull the photo out of the bag and a wicked thought crosses my mind and I grab the sharpie I can see as well. I get back to my room and after a long hot shower I take a couple of aspirin myself and drink a full bottle of water before turning in.
‘Boom, boom boom.’ I hear the violent knocking on the door between the rooms and ignore it the same way I do the harsh morning light.
“You bastard.” Joshua calls through the door. It takes me a minute in my sleepy hangover haze to recall any event that would warrant such an insult. Then I remember the sharpie and I muffle my face with my pillow and burst into a fit of laughter.
“Yeah keep laughing buddy, but it’s not coming off and you have to be seen in public with me.” He yells through the door again. My laughter only increases, as I roll over to the nightstand and scroll to the photo I took of a passed out Joshua with a newly drawn moustache on his upper lip.
I get out of my bed and make my way to the door and prepare myself for a fight as I fling it open. Joshua stands there bare chested, arms crossed in front of him, wearing a towel around his waist and still dripping from his shower. His upper lip and face are red raw from apparent unsuccessful scrubbing and I fall to my knees laughing again. He storms away from me back to his bathroom and picks up a cloth and tries to scrub off the Wyatt Earp style moustache I drew on him last night.
“You’re an infant, do you know that?” He yells at me from the bathroom. I try to supress my laughter as I get to my feet and walk towards the bathroom.
“Stop scrubbing, I think you’re making it worse. The hotel soap probably isn’t strong enough we’ll pick up something after breakfast.” I try to pacify him.
“After breakfast?” He screams in a high shrill and I start laughing again.
“This is a small town, it’s too early for stores to be open.” I tell him.
“You’re a bastard.” I scowls then slams the bathroom door in my face. I go back to my room and take a quick shower and pack up. I wait for him out by the truck and he eventually storms out with his nose high in the air. I take our keys back to the office and then we set off. We find a small diner not far away, and I ask my usual question while Joshua buries his head in a plastic menu.
I don’t know what he’s so worried about, a drawn on moustache will wash off. My scars will never come off and I will always have to deal with people never really looking at me. We’re about half way through breakfast when Joshua seems to forget he has a drawn on moustache and winks at a trucker that sits at the counter. The trucker seems frightened and gets up to leave. Joshua looks at like he wants an explanation and I lose all composure and start laughing in his face.
“You look so ridiculous,” I snort.
Joshua picks up the stainless steel napkin dispenser and studies his upper lip to see if it magically faded away somehow.
“I hope you’re pleased with yourself. That could’ve been the love of my life, but thanks to your childishness he was scared off. Now I’ll be alone forever.” He pouts and I pull myself together.
“If it’s real love he’d love all of you, even the moustache.” I say comfortingly.
“You’re are still a bastard” He says with less conviction than his earlier shots.
“I know, I’m sorry, especially if my prank cost you the love of your life.” I say heartfelt as I look at him pleadingly.
“Love of my life, who that guy?” He thumbs towards the truck parking, “oh God no. He’s far too woodsy for my taste.”
“What in the hell is ‘woodsy’? I ask not sure I really want to know.
“You know, cabins, camping, hunting…….deliverance.” He explains. I start laughing again.
“Well we better get going,” I say standing up. He takes his last sip of coffee and gets to his feet and stumbles a little. “Whoa, are you right?” I ask.
“My God I’m hungover,” He confesses.