Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Traveling Strangers, part 2

Max settled in, leaning back and stretching with a yawn and Hank continued with his forward looking gaze. It appeared that neither man had sensed Mae's panic.

"I didn't know if anyone would stop. Hitchhiking isn't what it used to be." Max mused, his voice just barely rising above the roar of the engine, "All this fear and worry. Seems unhealthy that we look on others as dangerous as we do."

Mae nodded absently. While her eyes were forward, all of her senses were focused behind her. The sense that she could feel his body heat. The pricking of her ears as she consumed every sound that he made. Every word that he spoke.

The quiet pressed in and it made Mae nervous, it was desperate to be filled. She cleared her throat, but her mouth was full of cotton. She leaned forward and pulled her glass jug of water, from next to her feet. She could taste the sweetness from the mineral springs from what used to be her home. She felt the cool waters and let it calm whatever fires had erupted at the sight of him.

"I don't think I'd seen a hitchhiker in years until you, just now." Mae said, her voice resuming it's light airy pitch.

She'd never seen a hitchhiker before. She'd never even been this far from home before. But he didn't know that. Max shifted in his seat in response, and the hair on Mae's neck stood, a slight chill wandered up her spine with the sensation.

"It's not so much that people don't, these days, you just have to find the way to do it. Begging for rides at truck stops isn't a romantic way to travel. You end up bartering whatever you have away and the conversation isn't all that great when you're a paying passenger." His voice held a smile as he spoke.

Mae smiled, too. Her heart fluttered again.

"Then, you aren't just out of money? Trying to get where ever you're going to get?"

"Nope. Just finding my way where ever I might end up. I started this with no real destination in mind." The seat creaked as he made stretching noises and his voice had a yawn in it, "I am pretty sure it'll end with a decision to move on with my life."

There was a twitch at Hank's mouth. He had something to say and it nearly had escaped, but he held it and continued his stony, forward facing gaze.

"Then where are you from?" Mae asked.

"Arizona. Land of both hot and dry." Max said with a chuckle.

"Hmmm, I don't know much about that." Mae mused, her voice almost lost in the engine noise, "I haven't been West of the Mississippi. Probably for the best, thought, it sounds downright miserable."

"Oh. Well, the stories of how hot it gets out that way are pretty dramatic. I find summers out here much, much worse. Take a hot shower here and you'll never dry off."

"Amen." Mae said with a smile. The thought of a shower caught her off guard and she suddenly blushed. The blankets she'd had bundled around her were suddenly too warm and she let them loosen and breathe.

"Well, where I come from, the place can feel like an oven, but the shade helps. As long as you drink plenty of water, it's not all that bad," he paused for a moment and smacked his lips, "Speaking of water. Would you mind? I was serious about being afraid no one would pick me up. I had expected some services on that road, but I didn't plan as well as I'd hoped."

Mae wasn't sure what to say. She trembled again, she could feel a drop of sweat roll down the right side of her face and she loosened the blankets further, thankful that the heater wasn't on.

"I'm not sick or anything. My germs are pretty safe." Max tested again.

Mae shrugged, "Sure. Uh, germs?"

He dipped his hand over the seat and Hank's eye flicked to the bottle as the man pulled it over the back of the seat. His eyes flicked back to the road and his expression didn't change. He shifted slightly in his seat, showing his discomfort.

Mae chanced a glance while Max leaned back, his mouth on the bottle. There was a wheezing sound as the air hissed around his lips while he drank. He stopped suddenly, his blue eyes thankful. His face wearing a warm smile. He capped it and slid the bottle back over the seat.

"Sorry, Didn't mean to get greedy." He said, coughing slightly.

"What will you do when you decide to go back?" Mae asked.

"I don't know." Max said with a sigh, another creak as he settled back in his seat, "Probably go to a bus station and buy my way back. When I'm done I think I'll know I'm done."

There was a quiver of loss that ran through Mae's belly at the mention of his leaving. He had just gotten here, after all.

"I thought of doing a tour of Europe. Maybe even someplace like Indonesia or even Nepal. But, honestly, how many people live in the United States and barely know what wonders are right in their backyards?" Max said.

"I haven't traveled much." Mae said, her voice bordering on wistful.

"What are you doing now?" Max asked.

Mae looked back and the man shrugged, but he continued to wait for an answer.

"We're moving North. There's work that way and Hank here can do it." Mae said, a touch of pride edged into her voice.

"See, that sounds like adventure," Max said bumping the back of the seat with the fleshy part of his fist, "What do you do, Hank?"

Mae cringed. She didn't know how Hank would manage. He was such a solitary sort, but it was suddenly apparent that it wasn't just his manly way. It was a raw, paralyzing fear.

Hank seemed to catch his breath then release it for a moment, readying himself to speak. It had been a direct challenge and the discomfort was obvious. Max still smiled pleasantly, acting as if he hadn't a care in the world, but he also wasn't going to let Hank not speak.

"Plumber." Hank said, his gravely voice louder than expected, "And an electrician."

Mae breathed out slowly at his finally putting the words together.

"That's honest, essential work. No doubt you'll find jobs in need of those skills." Max said, his head nodding in approval.

Mae was bewildered. This man seemed cultured and traveled to be so young. He also let Hank express himself and then spent the time to build him up. She shivered again and began to pay very close attention.

"How did you get into that business?" Max asked, his voice aimed at Hank.

Hank thought for a moment.

"Tinkering, mostly. I was good at figurin' what stuff goes where. Went to the applied college and got certified." Hank said, "I reckoned that electricity moved a lot like water through pipes. So, I studied that, too."

Hank had never, ever spoken like that to a complete stranger. Mae hoped her shock didn't reach her face, she turned to look out the window to hide it.

"It sounds like you have a knack for it." Max was, again, nodding with the words.

Mae looked to Hank. He'd taken the man's words in, sitting a little straighter, and the furrow creasing his brow had smoothed. It was difficult to mask her bewildered wonder as she looked back to Max. The man''s boyish smile widened just slightly, a few perfectly straight teeth shown through his narrowly parted lips.

His eyes fixed to hers then he spoke. A strange, knowing look shown in his eyes and she was suddenly worried.

"What's your plan when you get there?"

The question was to her, but his voice remained the same appreciative tone.

She faced forward and licked her lips as she thought.

"I'm going to take care of Hank?" She tried a smile, but it faded. The words felt wrong as soon as they left her mouth.

The silence stretched. Max had shrugged, but continued to look at her with gentle eyes, waiting. He was doing the same thing to her as he'd done to Hank and it brought up an anger she didn't expect.

There was more beyond that anger. His words made her think; made her reach down deep to pull at whatever notion had gotten her this far. What did she want? Children were in the plan, but it was unlikely that Hank would tolerate them. She didn't want to offer the same childhood she'd had. The thought brought an ache do the surface she hadn't known lingered there. She felt suddenly powerless.

"I don't know?" She finally said. The words felt like giving up.

"What would you want to do, then?" Max pressed.

This seemed to make Hank nervous and the furrow returned.

"Help other people?" She said, tentatively. The words felt better, but there was more. She knew there was more.

"C'mon, Mae. You help me all the time." Hank said, the gravel lifting from his voice. His eyes strangely nervous.

"But that's not enough, is it?" She looked to Hank, then looked to Max.

She sat forward, one hand laid in the other, and remained utterly still.

Max seemed to understand her silence and began to talk to Hank, who continued to open up, as this man easily unraveled his insecurities and protections.

Mae shook as her thoughts raced. She was feeling feverish; feeling utterly exposed. She was numb to the world around her. She looked to Hank, with consternation. His face was open and he glanced often in the rear view mirror, now actively engaging with Max. Their words were lost to Mae, though. The hours had passed like moments and the tunnels of trees gave way to towns, supermarkets, and gas stations while the sun sunk lower to their right.

She grit her teeth.

"I want to go to Arizona!" She hissed.

Their conversation froze in mid-air.

At that moment, all of that bubbling sweetness, that persevering wholesomeness, had evaporated from her. She could draw a line from where she sat right now all the way back when she was just a little girl. Her purpose was then as it is now; sating the rampant egos of these fragile men.

Why hadn't she seen it before? The placating, stroking, tolerating, and peacemaking. From violent moods to feeling outright worthless. She had given them all the control. Her father, her boyfriends, her husband, and his brothers. It was perpetuated by their wives, daughters, and sisters. Each falling into these same patterns. And she was there among them, but she was not them. She could never be them. It was obvious, now.

Obvious and absolutely enraging.

Mae furiously shed the bundle of blankets and tossed them to the floor. She cranked up the heat and looked for something else she'd had to just sit back deal with. She couldn't settle on anything, so she sneered. The trucked bobbed to and from on the road because of a startled Hank.

"I'm deadly serious." She said, pointing her finger like a knife, looking at both men menacingly.

"Mae? What's gotten into you?" He said, the words wore a tone of anger, but it came out weak. He was off balance and there was no way she'd let him find that ground again.

"What do I want to do?" She asked loudly to no one in particular.

Hank's look was nonplussed, the typical furrow forming whenever he felt vulnerable and was mad because of it. It was like a tell at a poker game. Max's boyish face retreated into his shoulders and he pulled back into the deepening darkness of the cab.

"How about whatever I God-damned please?" She had even said it without cringing, she even emphasized it.

"Mae. You need to get a hold of yourself." Hank's voice became dangerous.

She knew this tone and, before, it had struck fear in her. The same fear she'd carried for so long. But this was the fear of a child. And, while it would always be there, she was a woman now. And she needed more than this pallid excuse of a reason to live.

"I am done, Hank. What kind of man hits a woman because he can't control her?" Her eyes locked on his, the steely gray bent with anger, but also terror. "What kind of man are you, Hank?"

"This man poisoned you! You're only saying that because..." Hank's anger swept back to the cowering Max, who wore a terrified expression.

"Perhaps it's just a man being gentlemanly. But I don't need him either. I need me and I'm taking me back." Mae thumbed her chest, the anger she felt was giving way to a bone deep sorrow, but she wasn't going to let him see that. He didn't deserve to see her weak anymore.

Hank shut down, turning forward, and gripping the steering wheel. The engine began to roar. Max's eyes widened in panic as the engine roared.

"Oh, Hank. I truly do hope you find your way, because I'm not gonna be there to make it easier for you." Mae said loud enough to hear over the roar of the engine, her words dripping with a divisive sweetness.

She looped her leg around the shifter and pulled back again, but this time, Hank held fast. He pushed the gas further revving the engine higher. The needle inched up to 75 MPH. The lights of another town sped past.

Mae grimaced, tugging again, but he didn't let up. His knuckles were white on the shifting knob, holding it in place.

"If that's how it's gonna be." She said with a sigh, the words lost in the high-pitched rumble.

The glass bottle rested at her side. Mae, picked it up and brought it down on Hank's hand. The trucked swayed as Hank let out a howl of pain and released the knob. Mae wrenched the shifter out of gear the sound of ragged popping accompanied it. The engine revved dangerously. Someone flashed their high beams ahead and Hank jerked the decelerating truck back to his side of the road.

She yanked on the keys, as she had before, but then held on to them.

Hank shook as the now quiet truck trundled along the edge of the road.

"Oh, thanks, Sugar. Right here is just fine." She said, casually, as the truck wound down to a stop.

Hank thrashed impotently for a moment and then coddled his right hand, she wasn't sure if she saw his tears in the darkness of the cab. It made her heart ache, but they both had to move past this.

"Probably should get some ice on it. You'll need it for your job." She said, opening the door and sliding out of the cab.

Her blankets covered her right shoulder and it draped over the half full bottle of water in her hand. She tossed the truck's keys back in the cab next to Hank's leg.

"I may come back. I may not. I'll think about it." She said absently.

She pushed the door just enough for it to firmly latch and moved to the bed of the truck. She tugged an old satchel free. It held her clothes and her keepsakes. Mae then looked on the rest of the belongings tied in place with some disgust. She had never wanted any of it.

She looped the satchel over her other shoulder and began to walk back to the town they'd passed.

The rear door burst open and there was a jangling of buckles as Max moved up behind her. He slowed before reaching her, but she didn't look back.

"Mind if I join you? I think this is my stop, too." He said it loudly enough for her to hear over the passing traffic.

She lifted her head.

"Keep yourself to yourself, and we'll be fine." She said, still facing forward.

He moved along side her as she set the pace. Even though she was small, she had always been fierce. She was suddenly determined the find that again, and never let it go.

"I was thinking," Max said, "Maybe it is time to go home. I might have found what I was looking for."

"How's that?" Mae said with some salt, her voice sporting an edge that she'd never thought possible, "I get rid of one man, and you're obliging me by offerin' another?"

"Oh, no. It's nothing like that." He said.

She gave him a skeptical look and continued to push the pace.

"I've been looking for a partner. Someone friendly. Someone with good instincts."

Mae chuckled then looked sidelong at him.

"I'm not sure I'm buying what you're selling." She said.

Max went silent and then spoke carefully.

"Ever heard of a con artist?"