Monday, June 19, 2017

Traveling Strangers, part 1

Mae snuggled warmly into her seat, as the pace of long distances muffled the sparse conversation. She stared out the window watching the dense trees flit by. Thousands upon thousands packed tight enough to ensure you'd be lost in moments. They had traveled far enough North that the seasons were showing. Fall had broken through and the leaves dusted both the ground and road ahead.

She rolled down the window and let the potpourri that came with fall fill the cab of the weathered two-seater truck. She pulled a blanket around her as the cold crept in. Hank had complained about the heat, so she had turned it off, relying on the warmth bundled around her.

The highway that they traveled on seemed little more than a country road. The traffic coming the opposite way had been sparse and seemed to only be those packing campers and trailers. The implements of people who merely visited, but never stayed. She would watch as they passed, attempting to catch their eye, smiling her wholesome smile. This provoked sidelong looks from Hank telling her he didn't approve, but this was a new adventure. She would have to make friends where they were going. In this new place, she would not be hidden away along the winding dirt roads she grew up on.

Thoughts like this traced through her mind as the trees sped by the window. Often, moments came where she sighed softly at those thoughts, smiling.

"Roll up the window. It's gettin' cold." Hank said, the gravel in his throat grinding out his displeasure. Mae smiled at him leaning up to the window to scent the air while she cranked it shut.

She looked on him warmly. Hank was a gruff, but kindly man. Like her pa in many ways. He had his cantankerous moments, but that was just a man's way. It brought Mae to the realization that he needed her all the more. Softening his more sharp moments. Being the poetic David to his ill-tempered Saul.

The whiskers he wore were unkempt, wispy. Mae intended to do something about that once they had settled. It would take some effort to make him presentable. When he showed up at the work site, they'd all know that he was well taken care of. That someone loved him.

In Ohio, there were suburbs building up something fierce. And Hank specialized in plumbing as well as being a journeyman electrician. He had gotten tired of maintaining the rigged plumbing and old septic tanks. Plus, the money had run out of the area and things had ended up being pure bartering; eggs, chickens, greens, and loads of deer jerky. Sometimes the folks would offer up services, but they were hardly worth effort Hank had put into it.

With the chance he'd taken, their future looked brighter than ever. They were out of the deep woods and far from the dirt roads. Hank had been reluctant to change, but she would help. She would show him the way. His eyes were steely and straight ahead. A furrow dug straight down between his eyes, making him look thoughtful. He was gangly and strong, standing tall for his stock. The tallest of his brothers, even. None of them could look him straight in the eye. The youngest, Merle, who was twelve years his junior, about Mae's own age, could barely stand toe to toe with her Hank.

Her thoughts lulled again. They passed an intersection, and she could see miles down the road a brief second before the trees obscured her view again.

She turned forward, her slight smile warm and lazy. Her eyes traced the road ahead. She spotted a someone well in the distance, nearly blending into the trees if not for the bright orange that bulged from a tall backpack. The way it bobbled up and down, even at this distance, was mesmerizing. The man must have heard the rumble of the truck as he spun on a heel and put a hand out with his thumb up.

"Let's pick him, Hank. C'mon, it'll be fun." Mae said, her voice crooning softly as she drew out of her blanket to tug on his shirt.

He gave her a peeved sidelong glance, and shook his head slowly, his steely eyes on her with each wag. They were still at some distance, yet, and Mae felt that it was worth the risk of his fouler moods. This was a fellow traveler, after all, this would be their separate adventures mingling together. This was the Christian thing to do, sharing their blessings.

She hooked a leg around the shifter and, with a quick motion, popped it out of gear causing a brief fit of grinding. This sent the engine roaring in neutral. Hank's brow furrowed further as he shot her a dangerous look. The truck wagged from side to side. He worked the clutch and the shifter to get it back into gear. She reached over and killed the engine by turning the key backward while he was distracted.

"Whatever you're going to do comes later. But for now, you should give that boy a ride." She said as the truck wound down, coasting in neutral.

Hank pressed on the brake, pumping it to a stop in line with the wobbling backpack that had moved well off the road. The man's expression was priceless: wide-eyed and dumbfounded. It was hard to get a good look at him through the dirty windows. She cloud see his lips drawn taut, but as he spotted Mae, his body relaxed and he took a tentative step toward the truck. Hank hissed angrily, but bottled it up quickly. Mae wasn't looking forward to what would come of that anger. She intended to enjoy this precious time, while it lasted.

She reached behind her and unlocked the passenger side of the two-seater. The man had to pull twice on the door to get it to release. A flood of that autumn potpourri eddied into the truck as the man slung his backpack in, then again as he pulled himself into the seat.

"Much appreciated. I've been on that road for Lord knows how long." He spoke the words too easily. She flinched as he took the Lord's name and, at the same time, hoped it didn't show. Not many said His name in vain from where Mae came from. She hoped Hank wouldn't have heard, but she assumed he did. Hank grumbled as he struggled to turn the engine over.

"How do you do? I'm Mae. This is Hank." She said glancing back briefly. The man had moved to the middle of the back bench, his head bobbed out of sight as he pawed around for a seat belt that didn't exist.

"Say hello to the man, Hank." Mae said with a slight condescension. Hank let out a grumbled reply, his words lost as the engine caught hold. Mae wondered how on Earth he was going to find his way in this new job if he could barely put two words together.

The man gave up his search and put his hand on the seat toward Hank. Hank didn't look, but wiped his hand on his flannel button up shirt and gave the man a half-hearted shake.

"The name's Max. I appreciate the ride, Hank."

"And thank you, Ma'am." His attention turned to Mae.

"You are quite welcome." Mae said, turning to meet his gaze as he extended his hand to her.

There was a moment's reverie as she looked to him, her eyes seeking his. She trembled slightly as their eyes met. He was a handsome boy. No, well beyond handsome. Stunning. Penetrating blue eyes, light brown hair that feathered lightly to blond where it had been bleached by the sun. She broke eye contact, giving him a quick, aggressive shake, then turned toward the front of the truck.

She leaned forward twisting, hiding her face from Hank and Max. Pretending to arrange the blankets around her. Her mouth gaped for a moment as a flutter rose inside and swarmed her heart. She touched her face with the hand he'd shaken. She could smell autumn with subtle traces of sweat and the musk of his travels weaving through. She clenched her jaw, fighting down whatever seemed to be clawing to get out.

Mae cleared her throat, trying to find a comfortable position which there was no hope of finding.