Rain hit the window, and my eyes traced the lines of water traveling down the glass. Long streaks trailed behind each one, telling the story of where it had been. Every splatter would leave its own reminder behind, letting the person seated know it had existed and where it had gone.
I let my finger rest against the cool surface and traced one of those paths wistfully. In truth, I was the tiniest bit jealous. This rain could leave a history to be seen and followed, but I couldn’t. My past was fading into the distance with each mile the bus drove. It was for the best, honestly. It did nothing to change my fear of no longer having a me, however. I’d left it all behind in the sleepy little Virginia town in the middle of the night.
With a sigh, I shook my head and sat back in my seat. This was the choice I’d made, and now it was time to live with it. There was no way I could stay in the town any longer. Not after everything that’d happened, the pain of bitter betrayal following me everywhere I went.
My chest tightened at the thought of the words and whispers I’d endured, and I took a deep breath. Determined to avoid going down the road of dark memories, I reached down and rummaged through the duffle at my feet. The need to distract myself was strong, but when I looked, there was nothing adequate enough to do so in the bag.
I threw myself back into the seat with a huff and closed my eyes briefly, but quickly opened them. I wouldn’t lie; I was afraid. A young, teenage girl obviously traveling alone on a cross-country bus screamed easy prey. I’d watched enough murder, and true crime shows to know what could easily happen to me out here.
A quick glance around did nothing to ease my fears. The bus was fairly full. It was late, and a good many of the passengers had dozed off. The few still up did little to settle my nerves. One man, sitting a row up and across from me, kept scratching at himself and mumbling down into a box.
Visions of every horror movie I’d ever watched kept me from being too curious.
Two women who had boarded the bus at the last stop together appeared to be caught in the midst of major withdrawals. Their hair was plastered to their heads and faces were flushed as they sweated profusely. They sat huddled next to each other in their seats, wrapped in their dirty stained hoodies, rocking and scratching. When they’d occasionally look up, I’d catch a glimpse of red, bloodshot eyes surrounded by dark circles. Their haggard appearances made them look older than they probably actually were. At first glance, I’d thought they were in their late-thirties or early- forties. But as I watched them, I realized they were only perhaps a bit older than I was. Talk about your ‘Just Say No’ moment.
“You okay, kid?”
I jumped at the unexpected voice in my ear. I tried to twist so quickly to see who it was; I caused a sharp cramp in my side. My face contorted and I grabbed the spasming muscle as I winced in pain.
“Easy there, kid! Didn’t mean to startle you,” the gravelly voice from behind me soothed.
I was finally able to get myself twisted around in the seat to address the person speaking…and stopped. I wasn’t sure what I’d expected, but the burly, bald, heavily tattooed man I saw wasn’t it. I swallowed hard and offered a timid smile as visions of the possible horrors he could do to me flashed through my mind.
He must have been able to tell because he gave me a crooked smile in return and shook his head. “Relax, kid. I’m probably the only one here you don’t have to worry about.” He chuckled as he smoothed a hand over his head. “I may like ‘em young sometimes, but I don’t do jailbait.”
I stiffened in my seat and opened and closed my mouth several times, trying to come up with a response. Not sure what to say, I settled for a mumbled, “I’m not jailbait.”
The look he shot me spoke loud and clear. He knew I was lying through my teeth. “Don’t matter to me none,” he said. “I don’t know you; it’s none of my business.” He studied me a for a second before he continued. “But you don’t look like you belong on a dirty bus in the middle of the night.”
I dropped my gaze from his. He had no idea how on the money his observation was. I never thought I’d be on a bus in the middle of nowhere. My life had taken a dramatic turn not planned and felt so off course now.
“You don’t even know where you’re going, do you?” he asked me.
My eyes shot back to his as fear lanced through me. I shifted in my seat as I considered what his words could mean. He might be feeling out my situation, trying to see how vulnerable I was.
I was pretty damn vulnerable. I had no phone because it was a way to track me. No one knew where I was. No one was on the other end of this trip expecting me. At that moment, I felt a bone-deep terror and a cold sweat began to break out.
He heaved a sigh and leaned to the side, reached back and pulled out a thick wallet. Lips thinned, he opened it. “Least you’re smart enough to be scared,” he muttered. He plucked something from inside and shoved it toward me. “Here. Take a look. This is me. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Cautiously, my eyes dropped down to what he held out. They flew back up to his in surprise when I saw what it was. He impatiently waved the small piece of plastic, and I took it from him with a trembling hand. With a deep breath, I stared down at the Arizona license he’d given me.
Jackson Turner. Born May 25, 1983. Brown hair–I snorted at that one–and brown eyes. Six foot, two hundred and eight pounds.
I noted the address on it but figured it didn’t apply anymore. We were on a bus bound for Florida, after all. I handed him back the license with a half smile.
“You got a name, kid?” he slid the license back into his wallet and shoved it back into his pocket, then glanced at me. “You know mine now.”
I stared at him for a long moment, taking in his tattoos and the piercings I hadn’t noticed before. Despite his appearance, I was rather surprised I didn’t get a bad vibe off him. Not that I thought he was a ‘good’ guy, just a genuine sense he wouldn’t hurt me. I took a deep breath and said a silent prayer I wasn’t making a mistake and said, “Danny. My name is Danny.”
“So, what’s your plan, kid?” Jackson asked from his seat beside me. He’d moved next to me after we’d started talking earlier in the night.
I looked up from where I’d been picking at the cuticles of my fingers. Jackson and I had been talking most of the night since we were both taking the bus to Florida. However, I was getting off at Tallahassee, and he was going down to a place outside Miami. My stop was soon–we’d just passed the ‘Welcome to Florida’ sign–and panic was trying to set in. A plan? I had no plan. My ‘plan’ had been to get as far from Virginia as I could. I couldn’t use my credit cards, and cash ran out fast. I had no clue what I was going to do when I hit the capital city.
It was obvious I needed a new plan.
“Well, I…” I trailed off and gave a shrug.
“You don’t have one,” he stated flatly. He scratched the scruff on his chin, eyes distant while obviously in thought. “How old are you, Danny? And no bullshit.”
My eyes widened in alarm. “Why do you need to know?” A thought crossed my mind that maybe he was going to turn me into the police. They’d send me back home. I couldn’t go back. I wouldn’t go back.
“Because I might be able to help you.” He leveled a look at me. “But only if you tell me the truth.” He cocked his head and raised his eyebrows. “You into drugs?”
“What?” I glared at him, indignant. “No!”
He held up a hand. “Calm down. You can never be sure these days.”
I sniffed, still feeling offended.
“Anyone looking for you, kid?” he asked me softly.
I opened my mouth to snap out a retort, but to my horror felt the burn of tears behind my eyes instead. I quickly swallowed back the lump trying to form in my throat and shook my head. Even if someone had been searching for me, which was doubtful, they wouldn’t try very hard. “No,” I whispered.
“You sure about that?” His tone conveyed his doubt. “Cuz I know I’d be out looking for you.”
I snorted. “Well, good for you then.”
He looked away for a moment and stared out the window at the passing scenery. Several beats of silence passed before he turned back to me. “Look,” he said with a sigh. “I get it, I’ve been there. I left home when I was fifteen.” He searched my eyes for something and must have found it because he nodded to himself. “How old are you, Danny?”
“I’m sixteen,” I admitted, my voice low. I cleared my throat. “But I won’t go back,” I told him firmly, my eyes locked with his.
He quirked his lips and waved a hand. “You have a hard road ahead; you know that?” He huffed a laugh. “But I think you already know.” He leaned down and dug through the bag at his feet until he found a piece of paper and a pen. He scribbled something down on it then sat back and looked at me again. “Us meeting? I don’t think it was a coincidence,” he said with a sad smile.
I started to respond but was interrupted by the jolting of the bus as it stopped. I glanced up and saw we were at the Tallahassee depot. My gaze returned to his, and a sadness swept over me. “I guess this is my stop.”
“Yeah, I guess it is.” He held out the folded paper between his fingers. “Take this, Danny.”
My brow furrowed and I look at him in confusion. “What’s this?”
“My sister and her husband run a diner off I-10. Tell her I sent you; she’ll help you,” he explained, thrusting the paper toward me. “My number is on there too. Call me, kid. Let me know how you’re doing, okay?”
I took the paper from him with a shaking hand. The unexpected kindness had my eyes filling with tears. After the pain I’d endured the past year, it was almost too much. “Thank you,” I croaked. “I really appreciate this.”
He gave me that half smile I’d learned was his signature. “It’ll be all right eventually. You’re a fighter, I can tell.” He nodded his chin toward to the front of the bus. “You better get going.”
I nodded, barely able to see through the tears. The irony didn’t escape me how a complete stranger had been kinder than my own family. I turned and made my way down the aisle, duffle slung over my shoulder. The paper was clutched tight in my hand, and a small amount of hope bloomed.
Maybe, just maybe, there was a life after a door closed after all.