“Be back before eleven!”
“Jesus, Mom, I’m not a kid.”
“Alright already,” she said, slamming the door. God, she was such a worrywart, always nagging, always wanting to know where she was going, who she was meeting, what she was doing. Would the woman not get a life for herself and stop living through her? She walked down the drive and around the corner, wondering if he was going to be there. Toby was older by two years, a senior already while she was still a freshman. When she caught sight of the ten year old dodge idling at the kerb her heart beat a little faster. She skipped along to the car and threw herself into the passenger seat.
"Any trouble getting away?" he asked, checking his mirror and pulling out. He looked good, and the car rumbled sexily. The diamond stud he wore in his ear flashed in the dwindling sunlight, and his teeth were so white they could be diamond too. She had been bowled over when he approached her in the mall and asked her to a party. She knew him from school of course, but he'd never spoken to her before. He was, like, so cool.
"OMG, she's like, unbelievable," she huffed, staring out the window in what she hoped passed for a wistful pout.
"You're here, that's all that matters. Did you tell her you were meeting me?"
"Nope said I was going to Shanna's, but they're away so if she calls, the phone will ring out. Clever huh?"
"Sure was, babe. Tonight's going to be wild!" he said, throwing his chin to the roof of the car and howling like a wolf. It was primal sound, one which plucked her animalistic strings. They drove into the evening laughing like loons.
They drove right out of Littlerock and onto the interstate. It hadn't dawned on her to ask where the party was, she just assumed it was going to be at someone’s house from school. Could he actually be taking her to a college party? Oh wow, imagine that. She smiled over at him but he kept his eyes on the road. She wondered how she never noticed him looking at her before, she sure spent enough time watching him. It was getting dark as they turned off the turnpike and started climbing up into the mountains. She didn't exactly know this area but she sure knew there were no colleges all the way out here.
"Where is this party?" she asked, looking across at Toby for reassurance. Surely he would see how unsettling this was to her? He grinned as he guided the car through the twisting bends with one hand on the wheel and one resting on the back of her seat. He began stroking her hair, and his fingers played down the back of her neck sending tiny electric shocks running down her back. "Not much further, the rest should be there already."
That was something at least. She'd heard stories about these secret gatherings, where everyone would meet at a deserted barn or something, hundreds of people with a DJ and beer and well... everything. A pop-up festival, that must be where he was taking her. He drove on, the road getting narrower and higher with every passing minuet. A thrill ran through her, this was living, exciting friends, exciting adventures, living on the edge. This was what she always knew she was destined for and this was what her mother seemed determined she wouldn't have. The road ended in a small turnaround. They parked and Toby took a tent and a rucksack from the boot. They walked into the gloom with her dancing on his arm, setting out on an adventure of a lifetime. Fallen pine needles crunched underfoot, singing softly as they welcomed her into the darkness. Deeper and deeper they ventured, leaving light and normality behind. She strained her ears for the distant sounds of music or voices but all she got was the whisper of the wind through the branches. Her mind became giddy as she toyed with the notion they were becoming extraordinary, one of the chosen few, those that lived above the world and beyond the pale. Life wasn't for living, it was for devouring, and she was starving.
A clearing appeared before them and light flickered, illuminating the lowest branches of the trees. There was no DJ with pulsing light shows, there were no throngs of joyous kids, all that lay before her were three tatty looking tents and four boys lounging on a log before a fire pit. Toby called out and they grinned when they saw him. One held out a bottle of bourbon to him and he chugged from it greedily. None of them seemed interested in talking to her, it was as if she were invisible. In that moment every exalted feeling inside of her died. A shudder ran up along her body and goose bumps sprang up on her skin.
"Where are the others?" she whispered in Toby's ear.
"What others, this is it," he said, with a dismissive smirk as he dropped his ass on the log and passed the bottle along the line of boys. After a moment he introduced her, but to her ear, it nearly sounded resentful, as if she were an uninvited guest at a gathering of friends. The others nodded and said hi, one moved over a little so she would have a spot on the log. She sat down, and he moved in against her, his jeans pressed against the bare flesh of her leg protruding under the dress she wore. She gathered the fabric in her hand and pulled it as low as it would go, which was not so low at all. They passed her the bottle, and she took a hit, the liquor burned her throat.
Night fell fully before Toby had the tent up and she couldn't help noticing he only unpacked one sleeping bag. Where was hers? Or was that meant to be theirs? She was no prude but she hardly knew the guy. Beer and whisky flowed and hours passed. The boy's voices grew harsher and louder, the jokes got filthier. She tried telling them she had enough to drink but they kept insisting she take some, to get the party started they said. She felt alone in this gathering, crushed together on a fallen tree. One of the boys kept touching her, rubbing against her, and all Toby did was grin when it happened. When Toby went for a pee she followed.
"I think we should go," she said, seriously.
"Go where?" he said lasciviously and wrapped his arms around her planting them firmly on the cheeks of her ass.
"Home," she said, pushing him off her.
"Home?" he said, his face turning ugly. "I thought you knew how to party?"
"Of course I do, but this isn't much of a party, is it?" she asked, waving back at the drunken teens spitting into the fire.
"Not yet, but things are going to get much better. You'll love it, they all do," he said, spanking her behind as he walked back to the camp. They all do? What's that meant to mean? She followed him back to the fireside, watching him guffaw to his mates like a pack of hyenas. She had no choice but to sit back down and hope. As the level of whisky in the bottle diminished, the lust-laden looks began to multiply, and not just from Toby. When the guy beside her slipped his hand between her thighs, she knew she'd been a fool to come all the way out here with a bunch of guys she barely knew.
She jumped to her feet, slapping the hand away, and demanded, "Take me home!"
Toby just grinned.
"Fine, I'll make my own way," she said, storming off in the direction she thought the car lay. As she left they boys broke out laughing and cat calling after her.
"Where do you think you're going?" Toby called. She didn't answer, and fear made her lengthen her stride. She knew there was danger in those skinny boys, danger she didn't want to see before. That was when she heard them coming. Behind her, they crashed through the bushes and howled like animals. She ran for her life, but she had no idea where she was headed. Every direction looked the same. All she knew was she had to get away from them.
The path she was following soon vanished and she forced her way through the undergrowth, ignoring the sharp branches as they scraped her naked legs. No matter how hard she ran, they kept gaining ground on her. In desperation she leapt over a thicket and was shocked to find no ground on the other side. She crashed down a slope in a brain rattling roll until she was spit out onto a narrow strip of tarmac. She raised her spinning eyes and was shocked to see a huge truck barrelling toward her. Breaks screamed, smoke rose from the locked up wheels as the huge cab shimmied first left, then right but always bearing down on her. She closed her eyes and knew she would never again open them. She felt nothing crush her or rip into her flesh, or was she already dead? She opened her eyes and stared at her distorted refection on the chrome bumper of the truck. She let out a breath and the image before her fogged up. A pair of boots hit the ground and came running toward her.
"Are you ok miss?" he said, reaching down to help her up.
"Yea," she said shakily, but she wasn't one bit sure she was.
"You came out of nowhere, you could have gotten yourself killed," he said, the shock making him a bit sharp. She took a proper look at him and was surprised how young the trucker was, he was little older than Toby. He had kind eyes and she could feel his work-hardened skin as he gently held her elbow. She couldn't think, so much had happened, her mind felt drunk, as if she'd downed the whole bottle of whisky not just a few sips. High above them on the slope she heard Toby's voice call her name. It was like being slapped in the face by an invisible hand. She grabbed the trucker by the arm and pleaded. "Mister, could you give me a lift to the next town?" there was a quiver in her voice.
He looked at her and frowned, "You don't live up here?"
"No, Littlerock," she said and watched him push his baseball cap.
"You're a long way from home."
"I know," she said and felt her throat tighten up as tears threatened to come. She heard bushes rustle as the boys closed in on her. She had to get away from here, this man was her only hope.
"Gosh, I don't know," he said as if she were the dangerous one, but then something changed in his features as he came to a decision. "I guess I can't leave you out here. Hop on." As she opened the passenger door she heard the bushes up on the ridge shake, they were right on top of her. In that second, climbing into a truck with a complete stranger seemed like the safest thing in the world. Air hissed out as he engaged gears and the big rig started to move. As the wheels gathered pace the driver reached out and stroked a white rabbit’s foot which dangled from his sun-visor. Was this man saving her, or had she just made things a whole lot worse. She felt like she should say something.
"Thanks so much for this," she said, but she had one hand resting on the door handle, ready to bail out if necessary. Only a few hours ago she could see nothing but good in the world, and now she could see nothing but danger.
"It's alright. How the blazes did you end up all the way up here?"
Something about the young trucker was comforting, and for some unknown reason she spilt out every detail of the story. She told about being invited to the party and sneaking out with Toby and the things that happened. She could see the young man's jaw clenching in anger she described them chasing her through the forest.
"You should have told your Mom where you were going? Do you know how dangerous that was?"
"I guess I do now, but I knew she wouldn't have let me go. She never lets me do anything. She treats me like a kid all the time."
"I guess to her you are, and more important, you’re her kid. She only wants to keep you safe."
"I guess, but she can't keep me locked away forever."
"And what about you’re Dad?"
"Don't have one," she said, looking down at her scuffed and bloodied knees.
"Course you do, everyone has a Dad."
"Well, not me. Mom never talks about him so what kind of a Dad is that?"
"A bad one I guess," he said, and she saw the look on his face, it was filled with pain as if the words she'd used hurt him.
"Have you any kids?" she asked, trying to take the spotlight off her. The young trucker changed in a second. It was as if someone turned on a million watt bulb in his soul.
"One, kind of," he said, grinning ear to ear.
"How can you, kind of, have a kid?"
"Well, that's why I'm in such a rush. My girl has gone into labour."
"Oh my GOD! That's amazing," she squealed, and she saw him reach out and touch the rabbit’s foot again.
"It is, it sure is," he said and sounded flabbergasted by the enormity of it.
"Do you want a boy or a girl?" she asked.
"Oh, I don't care as long as they are healthy. I've never been so scared in my life. I still feel like a kid myself." he said, letting her see a little of his own insecurity.
"You're not married?"
"No, my girl's parents won't stand for it. They won't even let me see her, but I'm not missing this no matter what they say." There was determination in the guy, she could see it. He was little older than she was but this was a man, a real man.
"Your baby is lucky to have you," she said, and she meant it. The young trucker looked over at her and gave her the happiest, saddest, smile she had ever seen. In the reflected glow of the dash, she was sure she saw a tear.
They rolled further down the mountain, and she realised not one other car passed them. It dawned on her how lucky she had been to fall out on the road at the moment she did. A minute earlier, or later, and she would have been trapped with those animals. She shuddered at the thought of all the things that might have happened. She let out a shuddering sigh as if trying to get rid of the thought and as if reading her mind the young trucker reached out and stroked the rabbit’s foot one more time.
Soon the road levelled out, and the trees vanished. In the distance, a small cluster of houses appeared, and a half dozen street lights lit up the dark.
"You can leave me here," she said, sure the man would want to be rid of her.
"I'm passing Littlerock, I can drop you home," he said.
"You sure you don't mind?"
"Don't be silly," he said and drove through the sleepy cluster of buildings as they pushed north. The interstate was empty at this hour of the night and as the miles passed the trucker seemed to lapse into thought. Out of the blue he reached out and stroked his furry charm, and she asked, "Why do you do that?"
"What?" he asked, a little confused.
"Rub that?" she said, pointing at the talisman swinging from sun-visor.
"Oh, it's my luck. I rub it for luck or sometimes to remind myself how lucky I already am."
"So why did you touch it that time?"
"I was thinking of my baby, and I got scared."
"Yea, and my girl. It’s a big thing, and I'm not there to help. Even if I was, what could I do?"
"Just be there, I guess. Do you best," she said and wondered where those words came from.
"Ha! That's true. You're a bit of a genius," he said, teasing her.
"A genius who nearly got herself raped or killed by being stupid."
"Well there is that," he said, trying to be funny to take the sting out of the truth.
She could see in this man, what she saw every day in her mother, but wouldn't acknowledge. Like him, her Mom was just doing her best, trying to make sure her baby was safe. She looked back on the way she acted, how spiteful she was, and all the harsh words that she threw. She felt more stupid than ever for making an already difficult job impossible. When she got home, she was going to make all that right, she promised it to herself. She looked over at the young trucker and for some reason she felt safe, safer than she had felt in a long time. It might have been the rocking of the cab, or the shock, or the warm air coming from the vents but she couldn't stop herself drifting into sleep. A second passed or possibly two before she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"You're home," he said, smiling at her. Through her sleepy eyes, she thought he looked like a young Johnny Cash. Outside the window was her house with all its lights burning. It was late, must be at least four in the morning.
"How did you know where I live?" she asked and yawned.
"You told me, then went back to sleep, don't you remember," he said with a grin. She didn't, but she must have done it.
"Thanks so much for everything," she said and pulled back on the handle. Before she got out, he leaned over and handed her the little rabbit’s foot.
"What's that for?" she asked.
"Luck, and to remind you of me," he said, as she climbed down from the truck.
As she looked up at him, she knew he was someone she'd carry in her heart for the rest of her life. "I'll always remember what you did for me," she said and closed the door. Air whooshed from the breaks, and the tuck glided away from the pavement. She watched it go and felt terribly sad, it was like losing a friend she'd known her whole life even though she had only known the trucker a couple of hours.
She began walking up the path when the front door leapt open, and her mother came rushing toward her. She braced herself for a telling off, but her mother grabbed her in a huge bear hug. She kept saying, "I was so worried," and crying.
"I'm sorry Mom," she said and hugged her back. She hadn't felt this close to her mother in years.
"Where have you been? What happened?" she asked looking down at her grazed knees and scraped skin.
"It's a long story, I'll tell you inside, but I'm ok. Nothing happened, well nothing too bad." Her mother raised a hand to her mouth and all the colour drained from her skin. Together they went inside and closed the door on a dangerous and spiteful world.
She sat on the couch and started to tell her mother about Toby and how he asked her to the party. Her Mom looked so frightened she reached out and took her hand, forgetting she still held the truckers lucky charm. Her Mom looked down at the little white piece of fluff and seemed shocked.
"Where did you get that?" she asked, taking the key ring and examining it very closely, her eyes growing wide.
"I was going to tell you, this young trucker came along and kind of rescued me. He dropped me home and gave me..."
"His luck," said her mother, finishing the sentence for her.
"Yes, how did you know that was what he said?" Her mother didn't answer but instead asked, "What did he look like?" and her words trembled.
"Nice, good looking really. He was young only twenty, tall, skinny, jet black hair and a nice smile. I thought he looked like Johnny Cash."
The words were no sooner out than her mother began to sob and rushed off toward her bedroom. She was shocked and chased after her trying to explain that the trucker had been the one to save her, it was Toby and his mates that tried to hurt her. She arrived in the bedroom to find her mother scattering old photos on the bed and searching through them frantically.
"What is it Mom?" she asked, but her mother wouldn't, or couldn't, get an explanation out. Then she found what she was looking for and handed over a black and white photo with trembling fingers. It was the trucker.
"I don't understand," she said. What was her mother doing with this?
"I should have told you, I should have told you years ago," she sobbed.
"Told me what?"
"I was so young, so very young," she cried. "I loved him so much, he was good, a real good boy. Then I found out I was pregnant and my family went crazy. I needed him so much, and he just vanished. It was the hardest time in my life."
"You're saying this guy I met was my Dad, that's impossible. He's only a few years older than me," she said, thinking the shock of everything had knocked her mother off-kilter, making her see things that weren't there at all.
"No there's more. You see the night I went into labour I was terrified, and even though he had abandoned me, I needed him to be with me. I got a nurse to get a message to his family but he still never showed up. He broke my heart. That day, when you were only minutes old, I held you in my arms and vowed you'd never need anyone but me. I was going to be mother and father to you, seeing as your real father didn't want to be there."
"And you were, you are, I'm sorry I made things so hard for you, I really am," she said, seeing how much her mother had sacrificed for her, but the story wasn't finished yet.
"It was all a lie," said her mother.
"He never left me, he was driven away, by your grandfather. I only found out years later. My father threatened him, told him he'd move me away to a place he'd never find me, unless he left me alone. I don't know why he did it, but he did. That night, the night you were born, my message got through and he was coming, threats or no threat. He drove across two states like a maniac trying to make it on time but he never made it at all. He wrecked on the interstate, died instantly. I should have told you but you were already six and I had told so many lies I didn't know how to tell the truth. I'm sorry, I should have told you about your Dad, he was a good man, and he always reminded me of Johnny Cash too."
"It couldn't have been him, he's dead," she said, struggling with all she had learned.
Her mom held up the rabbit foot, "This was his, I knew it the moment I saw it. He called it his luck."
"It took him fifteen years, but he made it." her Mom said and wrapped her arms around her. As they hugged, she reached out and lifted the rabbit’s foot from the bed and stroked it. Deep in her soul she always had a feeling, it was like she was never really alone and now she knew why. He'd been there, he'd always been there, watching over her and when she needed him most, he appeared, her hero, her Dad.