Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP) – Chapter 9

Chapter Nine: Russ Jacobs

“You know I ain’t gonna be surprised,” Russ grumbles as Brandy drives.

“Can you at least pretend?” his sister asks.

Russ casts a glance in her direction.  Her wavy brown hair is pulled up in a high ponytail, and she’s dressed up for her, which means her nice jeans and a new sports jersey.  Brandy was a jock in high school and is the soccer mom who coaches her kids’ games.  She’s happiest in a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, and other than the light brown eyes Russ and she share, you wouldn’t know they were brother and sister.  Where Russ has a hard time finding enough leg room in Brandy’s Focus and his head grazes the ceiling, Brandy has the driver’s seat moved as close to the steering wheel as it can go.

“I’m no actor,” Russ says, smirking.

Brandy huffs.  “If I weren’t driving, I’d pop you one in the arm, bro.  You know Ed and the guys went through a lot to put this thing together.  And on New Year’s Eve of all nights!  You know places are booked months, years, in advance.  The reservation fee alone’s probably more than your monthly salary.”

Russ chuckles.  “You don’t know how much I make month.”

“Well, no, but you ain’t exactly living in high society if that hole you rent in Inwood’s anything to go by.  I still don’t know why you gotta live in Manhattan.  It’s like a betrayal, Russ.  What’s wrong with your home back in Queens?”

Russ grins.  “What’s it matter to you?  Besides, you got a point.  I hardly stay there.  Maybe it’s time to move, but getting back to the previous point of this stupid party, I never asked for any of you loons to do anything.”

Brandy pulls the car into a private lot and parks.  After turning off the ignition, she turns toward her brother.  “Ah, Rusty, we do it ‘cause we love ya.”

Russ cringes at his childhood name, hating that his closest family members still call him it just to get a reaction.  “Uh, don’t call me ‘Rusty.’  Okay, fine.  I’ll go in, act all surprised, and grab a beer.  Seeing my pals is reason enough to have a good time.”

“That’s the spirit!”

They step out of the car to frigid wind whipping their faces.  Russ puts a protective arm around his sister as they hustle toward the bar, a hopping new place called Jazzy Sue’s.  Once inside, they’re packed shoulder-to-shoulder with the patrons.  Brandy calls over the noise of the crowd and the music to the bartender that they’re there for a private party.

“Back room!” the bartender mouths and waves them on.

Russ and Brandy shuffle through the crowd, and upon arriving outside the door to the party room, Russ smirks at his sister, shaking his head.

“What’s so funny?” she asks.

“How would you convince me to get to this party without me suspecting anything?  You know, Ed kept teasing me about throwing an ‘Over the Hill’ party for months.  He doesn’t really think I’m gonna be shocked.”

Brandy smiles, amused.  “Okay, okay, point taken.  Let’s just get in there and outta this body heat.  Ugh, I can feel the sweat between my–”

“Don’t say it.”

Brandy laughs.  “C’mon.”

She opens the door, and the crowd beyond the threshold shouts in one voice, “Surprise!”

Russ smiles in spite of himself as he enters.  Hands are clapping him on the back, and someone passes a beer to him, which he takes and knocks back.

“How’s it feel to be an old man, buddy?”

“I’m amazed you’re still walking without a cane!”

“Hey, happy birthday, man!”

Russ can’t help but chuckle.  So many faces, so many voices, it’s dizzying but great.  It doesn’t take long before he’s swept up in the chaos of celebration.  Some people he hasn’t seen in years, both friends and family, are there.  After a few beers, Russ’s guard is down, and any previous thoughts about not wanting a party are gone.  He’s caught up in conversations he won’t remember in the morning, but he’s sure he’ll remember the feeling of being thought of by all these people for a long time to come.

After rounds of junk room and a large slice of cake, Russ is full.  Some of the crowd has thinned, even though it’s not midnight.  In a corner, Russ leans back in a chair, his best buddy Ed by his side.

“You sure you won’t have another beer?” Ed asks, smirking.

Russ shakes his head, chuckling. “And get a beer gut like you, man?  No thanks.  Looks like I’ll be working out extra hard at the gym this week whenever I can afford it.”

Ed pats his belly and smiles.  “You’d have to go a long way to beat me.  But anyway, tell me, Russ.  It’s been too damn long since we talked.  Is there a special girl in your life?  Time’s tickin’ away if you ever wanna settle down.”

Russ frowns.  “Who said anything about settling down?”

Ed straightens in the chair and regards his friend.  “Hey, that was years ago, man.”

Russ shakes his head.  “Nah, there’s no one.”  He’s sure to put a stop to Ed’s attempt at getting him to talk about something that has no bearing on his life at present.  Despite what he says, Russ’s mind goes to a place he’s surprised.  Maybe it’s the alcohol talking, but Russ half-smiles and says, “Well, there’s this one girl, but she doesn’t really count.”

“Do tell.”

“It’s nothing.  I shouldn’t even be thinkin’ about her.”

“Okay, now you have to tell me.”

“Well, her name’s Shelley, and beyond that, I don’t know much about her.”

“So, how’d you meet her?  Online dating?”

Russ laughs.  “Nope, not even gonna go there.  You know it’s next to impossible to meet someone with my schedule.”

“Well, how’d you meet?” Ed persists.

“You ain’t gonna believe this, but she was at one of the rest stops along my route.  Somewhere in Ohio, past Cleveland.”

“Sounds romantic.”  Ed chuckles and finishes his beer.  “Sure you don’t want another?  You only turn the big 4-0 once, man.”

“Oh, what the hell?  Why not?  Sure.”

Ed leaves and returns with two bottles of some brand of Christmas ale.  The foamy liquid gold slides down Russ’s throat with ease.

“I doubt I’ll see her again,” Russ says.  “I think she might be homeless or somethin’.”

“Dude, that’s messed up.  You’ve got a thing for a homeless chick?  What’s her best feature?  The lice in her hair or the trash bag she wears?”

Russ stops smiling.  “Don’t be a jerk, Ed.”

“Sorry, sorry.”  Ed sets down his beer and holds up both hands in mock-surrender.  “Just a bad joke, but c’mon, pal, you don’t really think you’re gonna score with a chick like that.”

“No.”  Russ smirks, but he can’t help the prickle of sadness that creeps into his heart.  He hasn’t had any feelings for a woman in years.  The long hours on the road, the time away from home–it keeps him busy and thinking about anything other than falling in love again.

Ed slaps Russ on the back, snapping him out of his thoughts.  “Look at the time!  It’s almost the New Year.  I gotta find Susan.  Find a girl somewhere in here to kiss, man.  At least give yourself that.”

Russ smiles and shakes his head.  “Go get your wife, you crazy son-of-a-bitch.”

The TV in the corner above the bar shows the ball getting ready to drop in Times Square.  For how close 42nd Street is for Russ, he’s never been there on New Year’s Eve, but as the seconds count down to 2018, everyone in the room chants the numbers backward.  Arms are around Russ, pulling him into the fray, and he finds himself counting down with them.

Then…

“Happy New Year!”

Someone grabs Russ and lays a wet smacker on his lips, and when he pulls back, he’s stunned to see a girl who’s barely legal.  

“Who are you?” he asks.

She only laughs and darts out of the room, leaving Russ bemused.

“Happy birthday, old man,” he mutters.

 

Don’t get scammed by companies like Reader’s Magnet

I got a call from these scammers today and left it go to voicemail because I didn’t recognize the number. I was skeptical and looked them up. I had every right to be! Read this warning, fellow writers/authors, and don’t be fooled!

Inside the Inkwell

Typesetter

As I’ve mentioned previously, everyone wants to rip you off as an author by taking advantage of your hopes and dreams. Scammers make me sick. I’ve had a few calls from them lately pretending to be huge media companies that offer promotion for authors. These scammers do their homework, and so I assume they work on commission. They reference your book by name and will give it praise when they call and might mention that it was found by a Literary Talent Scout (as if those exist—agents and publishers get so many queries every day that they don’t need to go looking for talent! Talent goes to them. It’s a system that has been long established.)

I listened to the first guy’s spiel so I was familiar with it; they wanted between hundreds and thousands of dollars to do worldwide promotion on a book of mine that was far from…

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP) – Chapters 7-8

Chapter Seven: Mike Popkins

“What are you doing here, Mike?” Janice asks as she fills the cappuccino machine with fresh espresso beans.

Mike steps up to the counter.  “Can I order something?”

“You know it’s on the house, Mike,” says Walt at the register.

The rest area is almost empty.  Somehow, the cheap decorations hanging from the ceiling around Brewing Up Some Happiness and the Christmas music in the background do little to bring any holiday cheer.

Mike waves Walt off.  “Nah, you know I can’t do that.  Just a cup of the black stuff.  Is it fresh?”

Brewed ten minutes ago,” Janice states.  “That fresh enough?”

“Works for me.”

A minute later, Janice places a cup of joe in front of Mike.  “You didn’t answer my question.”

“I’m working, darlin’, like always.”  Mike lifts the cup to his mouth and takes a careful sip.  He’s standing at the end of the counter where customers pick up their orders, but since no one is in sight, he stays.

“It’s still early,” Janice says.

Mike checks his watch, and Janice smirks.  “5:00 a.m.  Just another hour.”

“You’re one of the only people I know, Mike, who still wears a watch.”  Janice chuckles.

“Easier than pulling my phone outta my pocket to check the time, ain’t it?  So, the kiddos with your parents?”

“Like always.  Mommy starts too early.”  Janice yawns, then purses her lips at him.  “Mike, make the three hour trip and see your family.”

“Hmph.  Weather’s supposed to turn for the worst in a few hours.  Thanks for the coffee.”  Mike finishes the drink, crushes the cup in his hand, and tosses it in the trash.  “Merry Christmas, Janice.”

With that, he leaves to clean the bathrooms.  Just as he’s coming out of the men’s room and taking down the “closed for cleaning” sign, he sees her walking out of the ladies’ room.

“Oh, excuse me,” she says, startled by his presence.

“Ah, you’re inside again.”  Mike smiles at her.

“Well, I can’t very well, um…you know…out there.”  She blushes.

Mike steps aside to let her pass, but she holds up just outside of the bathrooms.  “What’s your name?” he asks, hoping his eyes speak the concern his voice doesn’t.

“Shelley.”

“Well, Shelley, are you like me and don’t have anyone to spend Christmas with?”

Shelley frowns and takes a step away.  Mike follows.  He has nowhere else to be.  The rest stop is clean, and time is winding down to the end of his shift.  

“You never asked me my name all these times you’ve talked to me before,” Shelley says.

“Well, I’m asking now, and since you told me, I’ll share mine.  It’s Mike.”

“I can see that by your nametag.”  Shelley smiles a little.

Mike chuckles.  “Good try, but let me ask you again–are you alone for Christmas?”

Shelley pulls a cigarette out of her pocket and jerks her head toward the doors.  “You want to take a break?”

“I’d rather not in this cold, but considerin’ what we’re about to talk about, maybe it’s a smart idea.  Just let me grab my coat.”

Shortly thereafter, Mike and Shelley are shivering as they try to find some protection from the wind by standing where two walls of the building meet.

“No, I don’t have anyone,” Shelley says, “at least not around here.”

“Same here, young lady.”

“What about…no wife, girlfriend?”

“Girlfriend, at my age?”  Mike tries to pass it off as a joke, but when Shelley frowns, he says, “I’m a widower.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”  Shelley’s voice barely carries over the wind.  She drops her gaze to the ground.

Mike watches as she taps the ashes from the end of her cigarette.  “Her name was Barb.  Died four years ago.  We were married thirty-five years.”

“That must have been really hard.”  

Mike nods, waiting for Shelley to meet his eyes.  When she does, he is left gaping at the emptiness in them.  They stare through him like two dark tunnels.  If he’s not careful, he might lose himself in their depths.

“It was, but you know, that’s part of life, ain’t it?  Death.”

“Yeah.”

Mike finishes his cigarette.  “I’m headed back inside.  You ain’t staying out here, are you?”

“No, I guess not.  It’s getting too cold for me to be outside for so many hours.”

When they arrive back in the warmth, Mike says, “Look, I know you’ve got something eatin’ at you.  I know sadness when I see it, but I also hate it when someone tries to get me to talk about what’s on my mind when I don’t want to.  Just know…if you wanna talk something, my ears are open.”

“Thanks.”  Shelley half-smiles.  “I guess you need to get back to work, huh?”

“Yeah, probably for the best.  Merry Christmas, Shelley.”

Mike walks away and doesn’t look back to see if Shelley sees the heaviness of every step he takes.

.

 

Chapter Eight: Sarah Wilcox

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-laaaa!”

Sarah joins in the raucous singing with the rest of her family.  Gathered in her aunt and uncle’s house, it’s never a boring moment with the Wilcox family is under one roof.  The talk and the drinks flow like a steady stream.  Four generations are crammed into a bungalow meant to hold about half the number of people, but even shoulder-to-shoulder, the Wilcoxes know how to have a good time.

“So, you had to work this morning?” asks Sarah’s aunt Anne, every syllable slurred together.

Sarah smiles at the glass of Merlot in her aunt’s hand and wonders how she doesn’t spill it on her Christmas sweater.  To be safe, Sarah scoots back a couple of inches from her dear aunt, who knows how to make merry with the bottom of a bottle of wine every holiday season.  “Yeah, but I got off at noon.  Hey, what number are you on?”

“What’s that, dear?”

Sarah chuckles.  “Never mind.  Did you have a good morning?”

“Oh, yeah… y’know, Reagen and Jayden made out like bandits.  O’course, what good is it not to spoil ‘em rotten, eh?  They’re grandkids for a reason.  Hey, what’re you gonna pop a baby out?”

“Um…”  Sarah struggles to find the words to answer such a blunt statement, but her cousin, Zelda, rescues her.

“Hey, I wanted to show you something, Sarah,” Zelda says.  “Mom, stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself and everyone around you,” she adds to Anne.

Anne hiccups.  “Don’t know what you mean, Z.”

Zelda rolls her eyes and clutches Sarah by the upper arm.  “C’mon.”

Once they’re in one of the back rooms, Sarah asks, “So, what’s so interesting?”

Zelda’s hands are resting on her midsection.  She smiles, gazing at her belly, and then lifts her eyes to Sarah.  “Well, along the lines of what my mom was saying…”

“You’re pregnant?  Congrats!”  Sarah squeals and hugs her cousin.

“Thanks.  Unlike my mom and about half the people here, I’m not drinking.  We’re still really early on, but if all goes well, it’ll be in the middle of July when this little one makes his or her debut in the world.”

“And Jake?  How are things between you?”

Zelda bites her lip, but then smiles.  To Sarah, it appears forced.  “Better than they were last summer.  He’s been clean for months now, but you know, it’s been something he’s struggled with off and on for years.”

“I can only imagine, Zelda.  Gosh, I’m so sorry.”

“Thanks.  What’s the worst of it is that I didn’t know for years.  What kind of wife and mother doesn’t know her husband and the father of her kids has an addiction?”

Sarah places a hand on Zelda’s upper arm.  “Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself.  We’ve always been more like sisters than cousins.  You can tell me anything.  You know that.”

Zelda sighs.  “I know, and thank you, Sarah.  I mean it.  Sometimes I wonder if he’s just looking for another guy to supply him with the stuff.”

“It’s pretty easy to come by, sadly.  If he wanted to, he could’ve gotten a new dealer months ago, Zelda.  I know a thing or two about it.  A couple of months in college filled with making stupid choices in friends who smoked weed almost made me flunk out.  That’s why I graduated a year later than planned.”

“Oh, Sarah, I had no idea.  You?  Really?  But you always seemed so, I don’t know…”

“The good girl?  Yeah, I was.  My parents don’t talk about it with anyone, but you get it.  I’m not proud of it, and I’d never go back to doing that again, but sometimes people get desperate, want to escape the pressures around them, or they’re just looking for a good time.”

Sarah watches Zelda as her cousin only five years her senior shakes her head, so much going unsaid.  

“Well, come on, let’s get back out there before we’re missed.  You know Grams has made her devil’s chocolate cake and won’t be too pleased if it’s not all eaten up before we leave.”

Sarah smiles in spite of the lingering heaviness.  “Sounds good to me.”

As she joins her family, although the jovial talk, singing, and laughter rings true, an undercurrent of concern for those who don’t have it so good hangs in the back of Sarah’s mind.  Jake, whose drug addiction has nearly broken his marriage; her aunt Anne who drinks too much; and a mysterious woman at the rest stop who has all the look of someone with her own sad history are the ghosts who haunt young Sarah.  Their songs aren’t about decking the halls.

As she partakes in her grandma’s cake, Sarah stares at the empty chair at the head of the table.  Grandpa haunts the space across the distance of time.  He picks up his cup of coffee and makes cheers toward Sarah.

Go knock ‘em dead, kiddo.

Sarah chokes down a mouthful of cake, washes it down with coffee.  Coffee.  A drink shared.  Pain shared.

Pay It Forward…A Reminder

‘Tis the season…

To be jolly?

To go into debt?

To give.

Because God first gave to us His son, Jesus.

In the midst of the craziness of shopping, stressing, overspending, and stressing some more, it’s easy to lose sight of what matters.  Whether you’re Christian or not, whatever reason you celebrate Christmas–whether religious, secular, or both–I believe that this season can bring out the very best in people.

Goodwill toward men, indeed.

I went into this holiday season trying to not overspend on gifts.  Having three young kids, it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying them things they just don’t need, especially when they’re inundated with commercials for the latest hot toys.  What five-year-old doesn’t tell their mom at least once an hour, “I want that, Mom?”

It’s a trap.

Seriously.

No joke.

I kid you not.

Kid.  Ha, I was talking about kids and wanting stuff.  Anyway, pardon my bad sense of humor.  I digress…

I fell into the same money pit this year by spending too much on my family, and I was torn between wanting to give, give, give and wanting to take some of the things back.  In the end, a mom’s desire to see her kids’ excitement on Christmas morning when it came time to open the gifts won out.

However, I am vowing to go about this insanity differently next year.  I want to donate or give to charity the same amount that I spend in gifts on my family.  That’s not an original idea, but I heard it somewhere, and it stuck with me.  I’m up for the challenge, and I’m not all talk. (Update: This was written in 2016. Now it’s 2017, and I am happy to say I lived up to this challenge of giving equally to charity what I spent on gifts.)

See, when I put my mind and heart to something, I can accomplish it.  Case in point: Almost two years ago, I sat down and said I was serious about writing an original story.  I would write at least fifteen minutes a day.  If I missed a day, okay, but I wouldn’t let more than two days pass without writing.  Ten months later, I had my first draft completed.  That was almost a year ago.  Now, I have the first draft of a second novel completed that’s currently being read and edited by a writers group at the library.  I have self-published my first novel after going through the arduous process of querying a hundred literary agents and getting many rejections, but I kept at it.  I am well into writing my third novel.  I have the first chapter written of my fourth and have an idea for a fifth. (2017 update: I have finished drafts of novels three and four.  I am well into my fifth.  I self-published novel number two.  I have ideas for six and seven.)

pablo (13)So, if I can write and be dedicated to it, I can be more generous next Christmas.  I can give more to those who really are in need and give less to my own family, who already has plenty of things.  We don’t need more stuff.

You might think, “Okay, that’s all well and good to make plans about what you’re going to do next year, but what are you doing about it right now?”

I do regularly give to charity.  I sponsor two children through Children International, but for me, that wasn’t enough this Christmas.  I became aware of a family in need.  The father had just lost his job, and having a kid to support, you can understand why I wanted to help out.  Also, this family is close to heart, so if there was something I could do to help them, it would be all the more important to me.

I didn’t have the means to personally give them much as far as money goes, so I organized a Go Fund Me campaign and rallied my friends and family for several days to give to this family.  It was a beautiful thing to see the response.  Many gave, and it’s not a matter of how much you give, but giving what you can.  In the end, I was so happy to be able to give them a sizable amount of money to help them pay their bills and put food on the table, and while I was a part of that, I cannot and do not take full credit.  So many people stepped up, and I love that.

Another friend told me about the local Elk’s Club wanting to give a large box of food and gifts to local families in need, and she thought of the family I was supporting.  Needless to say, I got in touch with the Elk’s Club, and they were so generous and kind to deliver such a box to this family. (2017 update: This family is doing well this Christmas, although her sister lost a child and doesn’t have the money to pay for much of a Christmas for her other kids because of funeral costs. Not only did the family I helped last year help this devastated family, but I was also moved to send them some gifts. There is always someone in need who you can bless.)

In the midst of all this, I have my own troubles, but to help others lifts the burden of my problems.  I firmly believe that reaching out and helping others is one of the best ways to help yourself.  Everyone benefits.  There is nothing lost, for, you see, love has no end.  It’s funny how the more love you give, the more love grows.  The more love you receive.

So, I did my little part in paying it forward.  I had no expectation of getting anything in return from those I helped, so you can imagine how moved I was to be on the receiving end of the generosity of others who felt they wished to help my family.  I never asked for it, nor expected it.

A Christmas card arrived from my church a couple of weeks ago with a hundred dollars in gift cards to a grocery store!  The card was simply signed “From your friends at church.”  I have recently expressed my heartache to some friends at church about the struggles my autistic son and my family are going through, so I can only guess that someone did this kind deed because of that.  I cannot be sure.

As if that weren’t enough, on Christmas Eve, my husband and I dressed to play Mary and Joseph and were waiting in a classroom for our entrance into the sanctuary when a friend approached me and handed me an envelope.  “It’s not really a Christmas gift,” she said, “but a couple of us from our ChristCare group (a Bible study group of sorts) wanted to help you out.”  I smiled, thanked her, and tucked the envelope in my purse.  Hours later, after the service was over, the kids were in bed, and the presents were under the tree, I opened the envelope to find three hundred dollars inside and a note that said, “For your son’s therapies.”  Tears streamed down my face for the second time this Christmas season because of the kindness of others.

So, as another year winds down, I am thankful.  It started around Thanksgiving with the extra intention of choosing kindness.  As Christmas came upon us, I made the extra effort to pay it forward in terms of generosity, just one form of kindness.  And it certainly came back around to touch me.

If you don’t believe that what goes around comes around, maybe you’ll think my story is just that–a nice little story.  To me and many others, it’s more.  Much more.  May we all go into the New Year with a sense of wanting to reach outside ourselves, and you’ll see.  It will come back to you.

Merry Christmas!

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Poetry Tuesday – Dayspring from Above

Softly, slowly the colors mix,

Sparking my soul alive

And bringing a bountiful harmony

Of peace from ages long since past.

Voices echo and fade

In a meadow of blissful dancing grasses,

Yet I cannot grasp the hidden wonders

Of this redeeming place.

The world happens over again,

And I fall yet fly,

Drifting into a transcending slumber,

Remembering why we loved in the beginning.

Time stands still in awe

At the purity of true happiness,

Invading the fragmented hearts

And yielding a wholeness of spirit.

Clear waterfalls gently slip

Over smooth stones,

Mingling waters from above with below,

Oneness.

Soaring high above the valley,

Music playing in majesty

Through my blessed ears,

My eyes seeing

Opportunity shining in each star.

Wavering winds hover

Around my body,

Daring to enter.

Dew rests on the blossoming rose,

Giving meaning to keep living.

Somehow, somewhere, someone is reaching

A higher understanding.

I am that one.

Like a rising sun,

A promise harbors

For a new day,

And I smile in reverence

At its beauty.

Dayspring has broken through.

06/06/02

Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP) – Chapter Six

Chapter Six: Russ Jacobs

It never fails.  The drive from New York City to Cleveland should take about nine hours at most, not counting breaks.  Russ doesn’t usually have a load to drop off in Cleveland, but with traffic delays that inevitably happen, he’s forced to stop for the night somewhere near the Midwest city.  While his weekly schedule varies a day or two, Russ tries to spend his weekends back home in the Big Apple.  He leaves New York first thing Monday mornings.  

With no need to stop off at Cleveland, he’s on the Ohio Turnpike, bypassing the traffic around the city.  He’s just passed several miles south of Cleveland now and is heading toward his destination for most major deliveries coming from New York: Chicago.  But he knows he’s got to stop soon.  As he approaches the rest area at mile marker 139, he remembers his encounter with Shelley from a few weeks earlier.

“What the hell,” he mutters.  “Might as well stop off here for the night.  They’ve got decent enough facilities.”

Russ makes a face, tired of his own stink.  A hot shower and some time to stretch his legs in the truckers’ lounge would be just the thing, so he pulls off the turnpike and parks his truck behind the rest stop facility.  It’s another unseasonably mild night for December as Russ steps out of his truck.  The snow from a few days ago has melted.  As he walks to the building, he half-expects to see Shelley.

Shaking his head, he thinks, Don’t be ridiculous.  Why would she be here?

Fifteen minutes later, Russ enters to the longue and drops into one of the comfy chairs.  That shower was great.  If he’s not careful, he just might fall asleep in that chair.  Instead, his stomach growls, so he leaves the lounge after a short while to grab something to eat.  He passes the janitor, an older man with a gut, as he mops the dining area.  Most of the chairs are up and a wet floor sign warns him to be careful.

Russ orders a burger and sits down at one of the tables with chairs on the floor.  Even though it’s the middle of the night, people still wander in and out.  While Russ chews his burger, his phone vibrates in his pocket.  He reaches for it and pulls it out.

“Hey bro, what’s up?”

It’s Brandy.

“Just stopped off for the night, sis.  Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

After he hits “send,” Russ sets the phone down and is about to take another bite when the phone starts to vibrate.  Damn it.  She’s calling.

“Bran, it’s almost three in the morning.”

“Oh, come on, Russ.  You know a mother never sleeps.”

“Jack’s still waking up a lot?”  

“He’s only two months old.  Maybe if you become a daddy one day, you’ll know what it’s like.  You could, you know, babysit–”

Russ chuckles.  “Not on your life, Bran.”

“What are you saying ‘no’ to?  Being a dad or watching my kids?”  Brandy’s accent grows thicker when she gets worked up.

Russ nearly laughs again.  “Both.  So, okay, what’s up?”

“You’ve got that big birthday coming up.”

“Yeah, don’t remind me.”  Russ groans and rubs at his face with his free head, the exhaustion from the day hitting him.

“Okay, I’ll lay off, but you are gonna be home for Christmas, right?”

“That’s the plan.  I don’t need my head on that Christmas platter with all of Mom’s cookies for not bein’ home in time.  Don’t worry, sis.  I’ll be there.”

“Great.  But hey, about that party–”

“Bran, enough.”  Russ stops talking as he spots her outside the building, walking across the sideway toward the picnic tables.  “Hey, I’ve gotta go.  Sorry.”

“All right.  Talk to ya later.”

“Yeah, bye.”

Russ ends the call and wraps the last bit of burger up, stuffing it in his coat pocket.  He stands and tries not to jog out the doors in his haste to find her.  When he catches up with her, he realizes how silly he must look running around out here at an hour like this.  Shelley has stopped walking and is seated at one of the picnic tables.

“Hey,” Russ says.

She startles and seems about to stand, but Russ raises his hands in surrender.  “It’s me, remember?  Russ, the trucker from a few weeks ago?”

Shelley releases a long breath through her nostrils.

As Russ joins her, he keeps some distance between them and remains standing.  “You sound like you’re either coming down with something or getting over something.”

“What?”

“Your breathing.  Are you stuffed up?”

“I’m fine.”

“What are you doin’ out here, then?”  Russ takes a step closer, hoping he doesn’t scare her away.  She shouldn’t be afraid of him, but as he watches her, he can’t help but wonder if she really is crazy.

“I, um, well… What are you doing back here?”

Russ laughs.  “I’m a trucker.  I drive pretty much the same route from New York to Dallas and back every week.  I pass through here a lot.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t have to stop at this rest area.”

Russ half-smiles.  “Okay, guilty as charged.  Maybe a part of me wondered if I’d see you again.  Something about you from last time — the way you were out there in that blizzard around the same time as right now, lookin’ for all the world like you were lost — I dunno.”

“Why would you come here to see if I was here?”  Shelley’s voice is guarded.  She’s got those weird sunglasses on again, and she’s picking at a hole in the thigh of her jeans.

“Can you at least go inside?  It’s damn chilly out here.”

“Well…okay.”

Russ moves to the side to let Shelley pass, but she halts and turns, lowering her glasses to survey him.

“Are you coming?”

“What?  Yeah, of course.  I just–”  I didn’t wanna walk too close.  Russ begins to follow, but Shelley keeps her pace slow until he’s next to her, albeit with several feet between them.  I guess she thinks I might try something if she can’t see me.  “It seemed rude to walk ahead of you,” he settles on.

Shelley shrugs.  Once they arrive inside, Shelley removes the sunglasses and stows them in her coat pocket.  

“Did you, uh, want something to eat or drink?” Russ offers.

“No, but thanks.”

“You sure?  I mean, not to assume anything, but you–”

“You must think I’m homeless.”

Russ’s face heats as he grimaces.  “Sorry, but yeah.  Why else would you be outside?  I thought you might live here or somethin’.”

Shelley walks toward the dining area.  While passing the janitor, the old guy stops in his tracks and stares at her with wide eyes.

“Hey, you finally came inside,” the janitor says, smiling slightly.

“Yeah,” Shelley says quietly, avoiding his gaze.

Russ raises his eyebrows, his eyes snapping from Shelley to the janitor.  “You two know each other?”

“Wouldn’t exactly say that,” the old man says in a scratchy voice, “but this young lady and I share a cigarette or two together sometimes.  Told her to come inside several nights ago.”

“So you’re here every night?” Russ asks Shelley.

Shelley is glaring at the janitor.  “Let’s not talk about that, okay?”

The janitor shakes his head and chuckles.  “Better luck to you with her,” he says to Russ and shuffles off, the wheels on his mop bucket squeaking.

Russ watches him go and then asks, “Can I at least get you a cup of coffee?”

“If you insist.”

“I do, actually.”  As Russ and Shelley approach the coffee place, he wonders why she’s so cold, and he isn’t thinking about the freezing temperature outside that must chill her to the bone.

After she orders a cup of regular coffee, they find seats.  Russ pulls the rest of his burger out of his pocket and says, “Hope you don’t mind.”

Shelley shrugs.

For a few minutes, they eat and drink in silence.  Every so often, Russ glances at her, but her eyes are on the table top.  

“My full name is Russell Daniel Jacobs, and I’m about to turn forty in a couple of weeks.  I ain’t lookin’ forward to it.  Now, Shelley, tell me something about yourself.”

“What?”  Shelley sets the cup down with such force that it nearly spills.

“I told you a bit about me.  Now it’s your turn.  It’s called gettin’ to know each other.”

“Is this what this is?”

“Do you have an objection?  Do I have a third eye growing outta my head I don’t know about?  C’mon.  I ain’t promising I’ll be back here anytime soon…if ever again.”

Shelley creases her forehead.  “It’s just been a long time since I have a conversation like this or any reason to have one, I guess.  Okay, my name is Michelle Parkinson, but no one calls me Michelle, at least when I had people to call me something.”

A dozen questions whirl through Russ’s head like the snow that’s starting to swirl outside.  He stares out the window at their reflections mirrored back against the darkness.  Shelley is back to looking at the table like it’s the most interesting thing in the world.  He knows if he pushes her too much, she will close up.

For now, it’s enough to know her real name.  Russ finishes the burger.  If he knew it wouldn’t scare her away, he’d place his large, warm hand over that boney, pale hand that rests on the table next to the coffee cup.  

Despite what he said, Russ knows he’ll be coming back here.