Caroline walked through the heat in the last embers of sunset, down the freeway off-ramp hoping against Hope that a cop wouldn’t catch her now that she was almost out of the illegal hitch-hiking zone. The hot wind stirred dust onto her back as she headed into Truck Town, stuck for another night.
Caroline washed her hands and dabbed the sweat from her face. The image in the mirror looked morose. She was worn from nursing and grieving her aunt’s cancer. Things were never going to get better there. It wasn’t her problem. She had to go. Despair hung in the shadows surrounded by her long dark hair—full of dirt and tired dreams. She thought going to Vegas would be exciting. Maybe if she had some money things would be different. She considered what she might have to sell.
Maybe she could get a ride if she offered one of the truckers some companionship. It didn’t have to lead to anything extreme. She could just smile and laugh and flatter him. She tried a fetching smile and gave a flirtatious giggle to the mirror. Okay, just a regular smirk would do.
Ben watched for the girl as she came out of the restroom, and he was pleased with the transformation. Seems she was looking for more than a quick pit stop.
“Mind if I sit?” she tried the guy on the end stool.
“I’m Ben. And you’re very welcome. I always welcome the company of a gal as pretty as you.”
She giggled her ridiculous chortle and didn’t even notice. He warmed to it like the sound of a pouring cup of coffee. He gave out an obvious leer.
She was flustered by his reaction and tried to diffuse the situation without losing a potential ride.“I might be willing to keep you company for awhile if you’re going my way. I’m gonna get a job in Vegas, and I’m a good friend to talk to.”
Desperation, he surmised. He would take her—real slow. “I like some good conversation.” Ben gave her a crooked grin and signaled the waitress to bring another coffee and slice of pie.
Though the words suggested she might get to her destination, she felt Despair’s chill finger run down her spine. She went silent and let him ramble on until a pause made her scramble for a topic to hold up her end of the bargain. “Uh, what’s the craziest thing that ever happened on a load?”
His mind flashed images of Greta, the wildest woman west of the continental divide, but he tamed the story to female-friendly crazy. “One night when I was running out near Duluth, in the dead of winter, a huge white wolf was sitting in the middle of the highway. I couldn’t hit the brakes on a downhill in the snow, so I moved across the lanes and prayed to Jeezuz not to jack-knife. I maintained the rig and continued down the highway, and within another mile, there was another white wolf in the same lane—just standing there. They didn’t even flinch when my rig rumbled by. They just shimmered in the moonlight like ghostly apparitions. But I know they were there. Made me shiver to the bone.”
She shivered too. “I saw a wolf once at my aunt’s place—my home.”
He noted the perky shape of her nose and her pursed lips as she focused on her memory. Her eyes looked far away. When her guard dropped, a flicker of pain showed and was gone.
“He came out from the rocks as I was walking at night under the stars. There was a full moon, and the shadows were stark on the landscape. I used to wander when the moon was full. My uncle—well, my aunt’s significant other, if you could call him significant—used to get drunk every night. If I was too handy he’d come to my room, so I took to being as far away from him as I could.” She paused, and cleared her throat lightly.
“So the wolf’s shape rose out of the shadows. He seemed to be larger than the world when my heart beat with fear. He was all alone, and it seemed like his spirit spoke to mine. I was so tired of helping my aunt with her cancer treatment, and my uncle was no help at all.” She went distant again, then continued. “The wolf all alone out there inspired me to think of myself for a change…”
She shoveled in the last three bits of cinnamon-apple goodness and smiled at the change still safe within her pack. She wondered if she would keep herself equally secure. She looked at Ben’s face as he paid the bill. He resembled their neighbor in town by Aunt Eva’s. Jacob McLaren was a good man. Why shouldn’t Ben be the same? Her experience with loony humans and normal looking men took the comfort out of reason.
As she approached Ben’s truck, she felt the drag of Despair hitching a ride with them. She pushed down the sensation. She couldn’t stop now. Not just because of some weird feeling. She had to fight that to start this trip in the first place. It was probably just guilt about leaving her aunt and fear of the unknown. But she couldn’t cure her aunt, and she wasn’t going to let fear get in her way.
Ben broke into her dazed view of the road stripes flashing by,“What if you can’t get a job?”
A stab of fear passed through her gut as he voiced what haunted her most. “I’ll be fine.”
He was silent.
She looked out at the black landscape sliding by without definition. It reminded her of the land around her aunt’s place. A dark hole opened in her soul.
“Where will you be staying?”
That was a question for sure. Was he offering her a place to stay—with him? Hope cautiously approached her, and Despair licked his lips.
Caroline gave Ben a pressed lip grin, and he returned it with a hungry smile. She felt trapped and relieved. A dangerous roof was better than no roof. The streets would be worse than a room with Ben. Her stomach flip-flopped. Apparently it didn’t believe that any more than her heart did.
Caroline’s exhaustion trumped her anxiety as she sped toward Vegas taking the gamble of her life. She dropped into an uneasy dream where she lay embedded in the roadway as semi-trucks kept barreling on by—tires missing her imprisoned body by half a tread. She tried to cry out but couldn’t find her voice. She knew it was just a matter of time before she was ground into the highway, where her dust would be blown away by the desert wind to be lost among the billion grains of dirt and sand.
Her fevered form eased into more soothing dreams. A spirit wolf, formed of light from the stars, bounded over to her with Hope riding in its wake. She became a being of light as well and rode the wolf down from the heights across the desert to the sea. The wolf continued into the surf. Caroline was engulfed in cool water and moonlight. She clung to the wolf, believing the beautiful beast would set her free. Her mind and spirit swam in the reflection of the heavens until she knew no more. The spirit wolf nudged her to consciousness as they came ashore to a land as familiar as her own face. It was her aunt’s land in California. The place she had left on the far shore—but it was transformed with light, and Hope smiled upon her. Her aunt stood in the doorway of their home and welcomed her with a strong embrace.
Caroline blinked awake and heaved a rich sigh. She looked at Ben from the side of her eye. She was sure she had him sized up right. He’d never let her stay with him unscathed. He’d expect fringe for his offered benefits. But maybe things would be different if she confronted him head on—one lone wolf to another.
“Ben. I hate to do this when we’ve come such a long way. But I’ve come a long way myself, and I’ve come to a decision. I don’t want to stay with you in Vegas—or anywhere else for that matter. I’m not gonna sell myself to get anywhere, and I’m not gonna run away. I left my aunt, sick and on her own, partly because I was afraid of my uncle. But things are no different on the road. You’ve been good to me, and I know you want something in return. But what I want is to be left free on the highway. I want to find my way back home.”
Ben boiled inside for a moment as he looked out over the last of the open desert under the moonlight. His desire for the girl was at a fever-pitch, but he could see she wasn’t the despairing waif he had started out with from Truck Town. She reminded him of that ghost-wolf on the road.
They were both silent as they came to the edge of The Strip. Day was breaking and the desert sky was aglow with color. Glorious morning, outshining the neon.
by Sheri J. Kennedy from Essence Churning short story collection. Published with Permission
Image by Sheri J. Kennedy from THE Companion BOOK sketchbook project