I can hardly believe we’re at the airport already. I feel like I just picked Joshua up in D.C. yesterday, but a week has gone by. Portland airport I’ve decided is a terrible place to say goodbye to a friend, not that any other airport would make this any easier.
“Promise?” Joshua asks and I smile at the question.
“I promise you there is no trace of the sharpie moustache.” I assure him. Even though in some lights I swear I can still see it. We celebrated Thanksgiving with turkey sandwiches in a highway truck stop in Maine and we vowed to make more of an effort for the next one we are together for, with Ruby. I see his ticket,
His head drops to see his ticket as well,
“Yeah, sucks to be me right?”
I grab him in a fierce hug,
“You watch yourself there brother, and fuck protocol, even the slightest hint you’re compromised, get out. If you get to the point where you can only send out one communication then call me, I will torch that entire country to find you.” I tell him sternly.
“I’ll keep that in mind, I definitely know you wouldn’t give up looking for me.” He says with a smile patting my chest pocket on my jacket where Ruby’s photo is. The elderly couple did get back to us about the photo but they couldn’t remember where exactly is was taken. The man said his wife would consult her diary and let me know today.
“I wish I could stay an extra couple of days to go with you to see her,” Joshua says forlornly.
“Well this will just give you an incentive to finish your assignment faster. I’ve got your secure email address. I will let you know how everything works out.” I promise him.
“Just don’t expect a reply right away, you know how it is.” He says.
“Yeah, now get going or you’re going to miss your plane.” I instruct. After another fierce hug we part ways. I can hardly believe I have such a good friend in him and I will miss him, and pray every day for his safety while he’s on assignment. With the emotion of this parting I realise how lucky I was to never have anyone to worry about me while I was on assignments before, it also reaffirms my decision to leave the Bureau. I would never let Ruby suffer through worry for me like that.
As I pull out of the airport and back onto the highway I find myself still searching the faces of other car drivers and bus passengers looking for her. It’s the middle of the afternoon and my phone ringing snaps me out of my stupor and I pull over urgently nearly clipping another car. I pull the phone to my ear,
“Hello?” I answer.
“Yes hello Agent Harris?” Asks an elderly female voice on the other end.
“Speaking,” I answer more coaxingly to not scare the woman. Joshua and I had decided to sound more official we wouldn’t mention my no longer being an agent.
“I’m just calling to let you know that the photo you were inquiring about, well I found my notes of where that was taken.” She tells me seeming to await an applause.
“That’s fantastic Mrs Johnston, the FBI greatly appreciates your help in this matter.” I tell her trying to sound official.
“I just hope the girl isn’t in any trouble, she seemed like such a nice young girl.” The woman hesitates and I try to stop myself from reaching through the phone to strangle the information out of this old lady.
“No of course not Mrs Johnston we’re only trying to help her.” I try to sound gentle.
“Oh now where did I put that thing……” She says followed by the longest silence on her end of the phone. Every second of silence I’m imagining different torture techniques I’ve used on uncooperative prisoners before to obtain information.
“Here we are,” she says finally and I bite down on my fist to stop myself from screaming at her to hurry the fuck up. “Oh yes, Carl and I were driving through Wisconsin at the time this photo was taken. It was almost two months ago now, my how the colours were beautiful during the fall. Have you ever been there before Agent Harris?” She asks politely. I refuse to lose my temper with this old lady, I’ve had greater adversaries than her refuse to tell me information before, and she will not get to me.
“No I haven’t Mrs Johnston but I’m looking forward to it. Now can you recall where exactly in Wisconsin you were?” I ask calmly, my voice full of care and understanding.
Despite my mind mentally screaming abuse at this woman’s delay.
“Why yes, we had just left Bayfield and the diner was just outside out town on the highway. I don’t remember what highway it was or anything like that, my Carl does all the driving. We were visiting the Apostle Islands, have you ever seen them Agent Harris?” Her sweet voice asks. No of course I haven’t you senile old woman I just told you I’ve never been to Wisconsin.
“Thank you for your help Mrs Johnston please feel free to call me if you remember anything else that may help us.” I say politely and hang up the phone. She’s already been about as much help as she can be. I pull back onto the highway at lightning speed with new hope setting wind to my sails.
I pull into the next gas station and fill up, grab some food and plot the fastest course to North Wisconsin. I drive straight through Maine, into the state of New York, I even take a detour through Canada to bring me out in Michigan. Michigan flies by in a blur as I barely touch Indiana then start cutting through Illinois. After being awake for too long I barely register the fact that I cross the state line into Wisconsin. I’ve been driving non-stop since Maine and my body is starting to feel it badly. I manage to make it to Green Bay, Wisconsin before I pull into a motel on the side of the highway. After a good night’s sleep and a shower to freshen up I drop my room key back to the office and ask the attendant how long to Bayfield.
“Shoot, Bayfield is a good four hours form here. You want to take the State Trunk Highway 13, it’s the best way from south to north Wisconsin mister.” He tells me and I thank him and leave. Back on the road I can barely contain my excitement at the thought that she could be a mere four hours away from being in my arms.
As I drive I notice my excitement turns to an entirely different feeling. What if she didn’t want to see me again and that’s why she never got in touch? No, that’s not possible, not with the way we fell about each other. My nerves about seeing her start to sling shot questions of doubt through my mind and I shoot each one down like they’re clay pigeons. I can’t know anything for sure until I see her again, and that’s the extent of my plan so far. Just to find her, everything else can be talked about and figured out later.
The drive takes a little more than four hours but I finally reach Bayfield Wisconsin. Praying with every fibre of my being that old Mrs Johnston wasn’t wrong about the location of that photo. Apparently it was taken at a diner just outside of town on the highway. I didn’t pass any coming in from the south so it must be north of the town. As I turn into the small town streets I can see easily how we mistook the photo for having a New England back drop. Bayfield looks like a small New England town that was uprooted and put right beside a shimmering lake, with bustling harbour. Well bustling for a town this small.
I spy an old fashioned movie theatre, name ‘the bay’ as I drive through the town. I decide to find an inn to settle into and freshen up before I go to find Ruby. I check in and I pull out the photo of Ruby and ask the clerk,
“Have you seen this woman?” He looks at me warily, but the lack of recognition I’ve seen on thousands of other faces, it’s not there. This face is purely cautious and wary of a stranger seeking someone he does know. My stomach does a little flip as I soften my expression.
“Sorry, can’t say I have,” he tells me without making eye contact. I almost jump out of my skin with the thrill of being outright lied to. He lied to me, that much is sure, but why? I thank him and head to my room. I can feel the clerk’s eyes as they follow me to my room. I get into my room and take a flying leap onto the bed. Then I bounce off and head for the shower. After freshening up I take to the road again, I pull over on the side of the road to ask for directions to the highway diner. The very friendly small town people point me in the direction I need.
It’s helpful having my scars on the right side of my face so people aren’t so put off when I approach them in my car. A couple of miles up the highway I find the diner exit. My heart is pounding so fast that I’m sure it’s going to beat right out of my chest with anticipation. I open the door to the diner and hear the old cow bell jingle above the door. That must get annoying after a while. I scan every face in the diner and I don’t see her, but everyone else does and they are studying me just as curiously. I take a seat so I don’t draw any more attention than I already do.
The lunch rush must be dying down I note as a young blonde waitress makes her way over to me.
“What can I get you?” She asks, boredom soaking her words.
“Just coffee,” I reply. When returns with my coffee I decide to try a new tactic to get the small town protectiveness to work for me. I leave my photo of Ruby on the table next to the photo of the older couple in plain view. I take my coffee from the young girl, whose nosiness comes through right on target.
“Hey why do you have a picture of Sarah?” She asks curiously.
“Sorry?” I ask trying to sound confused by the question. The waitress points at the photo of Ruby and says,
“There, that’s Sarah she works here. Why do you have her picture?” She asks a little more intrigued. I mentally on my knees thanking whatever influences made this generation so naïve.
“Actually I’m looking for this couple,” I say pointing to the picture of the Johnston’s with Ruby in the background. “You see they’re my Aunt and Uncle,” I say trying to sound a little choked up. The girl looks at me concerned and still awaiting every detail she can get.
“They were travelling across the state on vacation. They were supposed to come to my place in Chicago for a visit but they never showed. Our family called the police, we’re all very worried but they’ve got no leads.” I tell her with an exaggerated sob.
She sits down at the table in the chair opposite me.
“Oh you poor thing, the police in this state are useless.” She snaps with lingering teenage rebelliousness. I look at her pleadingly.
“So I decided to come and search for them myself, retracing their trip. This was the last photo they sent me, I was hoping the girl in the background might remember seeing them.” I tell the young girl sadly. She stands back up and leans over to whisper so others can’t hear her.
“Well the girl in the background is Sarah, she’ll be on shift in a couple of hours if you want to talk to her. I’m not really supposed to talk about her, but she’s weird, and Leon treats her like she’s made of glass.” She spits jealously. Leon who the hell is Leon? Apparently jealousy is contagious. “She just showed up like a stray cat a couple of months back, and she doesn’t really talk to anyone except the customers, I hope she can help you find your Aunt and Uncle.” She says as she smiles slightly and walks away to get back to the counter.
I pocket the photographs and relocate to a booth by the window to wait and watch for her. I can’t believe I’ve found her, I realize that part of me was starting to believe I never would. I let my mind wonder to different versions of her reaction to seeing me. Every reaction I envision is in dull grey compared to the explosion of emotion and colour I’m sure it will be. A reunion worthy of the famous love poets of history. The moment my heart finds its home.
The darkening sky brings a cold chill with it and I can feel it on the window, even though the diner is toasty warm. The bottom of the windows has fogged up on the outside and I no longer have a clear view of the car park or the entry to the diner. I take a moment to take in this sanctuary that ruby has been hiding in for the past few months. Linoleum floors that look like fake wood panelling. Long counter in front of a long open window that looks into the kitchen. A dozen stools line the front of the counter, stainless steel stands that are secured to the floor, with red vinyl seat covers.
The dark brown and deep orange two tone painted walls give the place a warm feeling, the walls are decorated with photographs of trees in the fall. Splashes of golden and crimson leaves falling from solid earthy trees. The booths are along the front windows only breaking apart at the door entrance. The booths are done in the same red vinyl as the counter stools, and the tables have the same tacky covering to make them appear as though they’re made from marble, just like the booth tables. The chairs that are scattered around the tables have seat cushions or red, orange and dark brown. Someone definitely is trying to keep a warm friendly atmosphere in here.
I hear the doorbell again and I can’t help but hopefully look up every time. But it’s not her. How much longer, surely not long. Come on Mason, nearly three months apart another hour or so isn’t going to kill you. I now regret not bringing flowers or something, a gift maybe. No, I will be enough, just as seeing her will be enough for me. My coffee has gone cold so I order another.
“Did you want anything to eat?” The waitress asks me.
“Maybe some pie.” I answer.
“Oh you’re going to want a slice of the pecan pie, it’s today’s special.” She tells me.
“That’ll be fine,” I wave her away kindly.
“Order in Leon,” I her yell through the kitchen pass window and my attention snaps up to see the window. An elderly man with olive skin and grey hair rips the docket down from the hanger and turns to the waitress.
“That’s my last piece.” He calls to her and I can hear his Italian accent and I try to observe as much about him as possible. He must be a figurehead in this diner, after the way the young waitress resented the way her treats Ruby. Shit Sarah, here name is Sarah. The U.S. Marshalls won’t be happy if I come in here and blow her identity.
“Order up,” Leon calls over the pass and he gazes over in my direction. He looks at me with the same wariness that the clerk at the inn did and I wonder if he called to warn Leon about me. Or he could’ve called Sarah to warn her about me and she may have taken off thinking that someone might be after her. The young waitress takes the plate from the pass and walks towards me with the pie. I don’t look back at Leon again, if he questions my intentions I’ll give him the same story I gave the waitress. Even though he doesn’t look anywhere near as naïve as her.
I stare intently at my plate for a while until I feel Leon drop his gaze. I take a bite, then another, it’s good I’m sure but food has lost all taste to me lately and I’m just fuelling my body as far as I’m concerned now. The doorbell rings and I feel a chill travel down my spine at the sound, then I look up. It’s her. I almost leap out of my seat but I stay calm. She takes off her oversize coat and hangs it by the door with her scarf. She’s wearing the dark orange waitress uniform as the others. It stops about mid-thigh and on anyone else would be the most unflattering piece of clothing.
The other women look like traffic cones but not her. She pulls outs a small white apron from her coat pocket and gently ties it around her waist. As she does this graceful action I see it, just the smallest bump formed on her lower stomach. Anyone that didn’t know every inch of her would never be able to tell she’s pregnant but I know. I didn’t realize until I can see now that she isn’t that far along how happy I am knowing that. She whips her long milk chocolate hair up into a pony tail and takes a quick look around the diner. Her eyes look right through me and she starts to walk towards the counter.
“It’s getting colder out there Leon,” she calls through the kitchen pass window. The sound of her voice is the like a symphony written just for my ears. I don’t understand how she didn’t see me, she looked right at me. Maybe her eyes didn’t really process it or she thinks her eyes are lying to her. I lost count of the amount of poor young women I ran up to on the street thinking they were Ruby, just after she was taken from me. I see the young waitress I was talking to tell Ruby information as she points to each table. Then she takes off her apron and grabs her coat and walks out the front door.
Ruby is now walking towards me and I can no longer feel my heart beating, I think it’s stopped. I nervously run my hand through my hair and look back towards her. She isn’t looking at my face as she walks, she’s writing something on her order pad right up to the point she reaches my booth. She looks right at my face,
“Hey, my name is Sarah. I’m taking over for Charlotte, is there anything I can get for you?” Her voice is exactly the same, so is every feature of her face. So why is she looking at me like this.
My mind races, perhaps she’s just keeping up the pretence of her new identity, but no that’s not it. I know this look by heart after seeing it on so many over the past few months. My heart drops to the floor and starts to dig to get away from the hurt. My throat chokes my own voice beating it into submission. My eyes scan hers as desperate as someone lost at sea scans for safe harbor. I’m met with a look complete lack of recognition, not even a flicker in her eyes. I know it’s her, I know it with every part of me. My body is responding just to the nearness of her. My arms are fighting my brain telling them not to reach out for her. She takes a step back from me,
“Are you alright Mister?”
I sink my shaking head into my hands as I lean my elbows on the table,
“Ruby.” I whisper desperate for my voice to break through to her. She steps back towards the booth,
“No, sorry, my name is Sarah I’m your waitress.” She tells me calmly like I’m the crazy person here. For a moment I let that be the reality. I’m a crazy man, I made Ruby up in my mind, our story our love all of it.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper hoarsely barely able to speak. “I’m going to need another minute,” I say through a deep breath keep my head in my hands and elbows squarely on the table top.
If I let go my head is going to ram itself right through the table top to escape my own memories.
“Okay sure, I’ll come back in a bit.” She says as she walks away to another table. I take a deep breath and look up towards her without staring directly at her. It’s her, the way she smiles, the way she walks everything about her. She dances as she walks, I’ll admit her smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes the way it used too but it’s still her smile. I try to get a hold of myself, I need to figure this out. She’s not faking it, that’s for certain, so it has to be an amnesia of some kind.
That or the aliens wiped her memory when they abducted her. Stop it, I scold myself. This is serious and I have to do what I do best to figure it out. So amnesia, brain trauma or some injury. Of course the trauma from the take down night, I didn’t know what happened before I found her, or after she was shot she could’ve hit her head when she went into the water. In any case she was transferred here under medical care, so I need to find her doctor without tipping off the Marshalls that her identity is compromised.
I’m more composed now and I call on all my undercover training for what’s about to happen. Sarah makes her way back to me with a hesitant smile. I respond with a warm full smile meant only to put her at ease.
“I apologise miss,” I tell her, “I’ve been driving all day, I think I’m just over tired.” She smiles at me accepting my explanation. I hold my hand out to her politely, “I’m Mason Harris, I just moved here to Bayfield.” I offer.
“Well Mason Harris it’s nice to meet you, I’m Sarah Andrews. We don’t get too many newcomers here, I think I was the last one and I got here a couple of months ago.” She replies pleasantly, seeming convinced I’m not a crazy man.
“Well us new comers need to stick together,” I smile at her conspiratorially. She smiles back equally and leans closer to whisper,
“We probably shouldn’t talk too loud. The locals may run us out of town.” I laugh a little at her playfulness with a relative stranger and it fans the flame of belief I have that she is still in there somewhere. “So where did you move from?” She asks innocently.
“New Orleans.” I answer honestly. I don’t want my second introduction to this woman to be laced with the lies of the first one when I was an undercover agent.
“Oh that sounds a lot warmer than here, why would you come to the cold of this place?” For you. Her conversation has taken a more inquisitive tone. She showed no real recognition at the mention of New Orleans so her memory is affected quite severely if she can’t remember the place she lived for eight years.
“I move around a lot.” I respond vaguely not wanting to lie to her. “What about yourself, where did you move from?” I ask trying to make my tone sound as if I’m only asking out of politeness.
“I don’t know,” she laughs at a private joke.
“I’m sorry?” I ask curious at her response. She shakes her head.
“No I’m sorry I’m not being paid to stand around talking your ear off all night, what can I get you to eat?” She asks apologetically. I don’t push the subject.
“I’m going to have the steak, medium rare please.” I answer and she looks almost relieved at the normalcy of the task at hand. She writes down the order to the letter and I look at her curiously and she blushes from the attention.
“I have a terrible memory, if I don’t write it down you could end up with a Caesar salad.” She says jokingly but there is a touch of embarrassment in her expression and I wonder if maybe her short term memory is also suffering. She walks towards the kitchen pass and hands the order to Leon.
He looks at her adoringly and I feel a twinge of jealousy stings my chest. I don’t think their relationship is anything but platonic in nature, it’s just the way she trusts him. The fact that he’s been with her every day while I haven’t. My chest tightens as I think about our time apart again. Even now we are still apart even though she’s within physical reach. She delivers my steak with a smile that turns every bone in my body into liquid. I steady myself on the bench seat to stop myself from sliding onto the floor underneath the table.
I hurry through my steak, astonished at the reversal of my intentions. For months I’ve thought of nothing but being by her side again, now I can see her, all I want to do is run away from her. I have to get out of here I need to get myself far away from the torture that is being so close to her and nowhere near her at the same time. I finish and stand up leaving enough money for my cheque and a substantial tip, I wave a quick goodbye without actually talking to her. I practically run to my truck and jump into the cab. I pull away from the diner and head back towards the town, I pull over suddenly on the side of the highway.
Surrounded by pitch blackness of the woods I let out an ear splitting bellow, followed by the loudest string of curse words I’ve ever said out loud. I start thumping the steering wheel and dashboard. Some of the these curses I’ve never even said out loud before but here they are flying out of my mouth aimed at no one in particular. Maybe I’m directing them at God or fate or whoever else is behind this giant cosmic joke. Oncoming headlights bring me back to reality and I pull back onto the highway calmly trying to breathe deeply.
I get back to the inn and my room and I pull out the directory next to the phone. I find the number for the Memorial Medical Centre and dial. It’s the only hospital for miles that treats actual people, I’m slightly amazed at the number of animal hospitals in this county compared to actual hospitals. The general enquiries nurse answers the phone,
“How may I direct your call?” She asks.
“I need to speak with a doctor there who specializes in neurological disorders.” I say politely.
“Oh you need to speak with Doctor Lance Connors, he’s not here right now but he’s the only one who can help you with anything like that. He has clinic hours Monday to Thursday nine am til four pm and every second Saturday nine am til twelve pm.” She explains as I scribble down the information.
“Thank you very much.” I tell her as I hang up. Tomorrow is Wednesday, perfect, I can pay a visit to the hospital and try to learn what I can from the doctor and help myself to Sarah’s patient file if I find him less than helpful. I put the directory back down and turn out the bedside light before I roll over and try to fall into a dream about her.