(Excerpt from a WIP. Pregnant and heart broken, Merry has run away from everything she knows, packing into a truck and just driving, full of anger and betrayal and shame. She picked up a stowaway, a non-speaking little boy whom she named Caleb and now they travel together under the guise of mother and son.)
“You’ve got the be kidding me!” Merry muttered savagely, pulling over to the side of the road when her truck started to waft smoke from under the hood. She’d been driving in a half daze, lulled by the heat and unremarkable landscape. 6 months on the road and all the trees and mountains and desert looked the same. She hadn’t been paying attention to the temperature gauge and looked at it in alarm now as the needle was straight up on the “H”.
She berated herself internally then guided the vehicle onto a stretch of dirt and killed the engine, wincing at the hissing sounds. She made sure Caleb was sleeping soundly in the passenger seat before popping the hood and going to look at the damage. The front end was pouring out white smoke from the radiator. When she waved it away she noticed a large crack right on the top near the cap. She checked the overflow tank, which was still full.
“Oh perfect. Radiator and water pump. That’s fucking GREAT.”
Merry left the hood up to clear the smoke and cool the engine and returned to the shade of the truck. She pulled out her bank book and looked at the sadly diminished numbers. She could easily cover the cost if she took a portion out of her savings account but she had a feeling her accounts were still being watched. Bryce had resources everywhere. Last thing she wanted was for someone to swoop in and “rescue” her. If the repairs were less than $600 then she could travel for another month with minimal discomfort. Of course, she thought wryly, it’s getting damn hard to sleep in the truck these days. She looked down at her huge belly, feeling the kid roll around.
She had two months, more or less, before it came out. She wouldn’t be able to afford a hotel room for all three of them while she was recuperating from labor and the truck wasn’t big enough to travel with three. Merry ran a frustrated hand through her choppy dark brown hair and blew a slow breath outward. It was time to do some serious thinking. She might have to get a part-time job somewhere and live in the truck until she could get up enough money to afford a little place. But where? She couldn’t just put a pin on the map and say ‘THERE is good’. And who would watch Caleb that she could trust? NO ONE. Briefly she thought about contacting Kana and bunking with her in New York but she shuddered and quickly dismissed the idea. Too much impending drama there and Merry needed quiet. The image of long blonde hair and a regal, gentle smile brought a pang to Merry’s chest.
“NO,” she said aloud.
Aurelia wasn’t the answer either. That was like walking into the a she devil’s lair and serving herself up on a platter for crucification. The woman looked like an angel but her mouth cut like razors. With what Merry had put everyone through she would be fleshy ribbons in 5 seconds flat. But the pain of missing her burned like a brand in Merry’s heart. Aurelia was the mother she COULD of had if… certain things didn’t happen. And then of course, remembering Aurelia made Merry think of Aurelia’s son and she really was in no position to have a crying fit. There was time to miss him later, when her car wasn’t exploding. She needed to FOCUS.
She looked up when a loud truck rumbled by, slowing to ease into a parallel position beside her. Her muscles tensed and her hand twitched toward the pepper spray she carried in the door cubby. She hadn’t had any run-ins with the paparazzi since she left the last major city she made the mistake of rolling into but she never knew who would recognize her. Of course, there was nothing she could do with a busted car but she could protect herself and Caleb if she needed to.
The truck pulled up to her and the passenger’s side window was rolled down, the driver leaning over to shout at her.
“Y’all right there Miss?”
Merry struggled to be polite and gracious. She didn’t know where she was or where to call for a tow truck and that made her frustrated so she had to put on her best friendly Mask. Assume the best until there was proof otherwise. She pulled the small bottle of spray and put it into her pants pocket before wrenching open the door again.
“My radiator cracked,” she said, sliding down from the truck seat and waddling over to talk through the window, squinting in the sunlight.
The driver was a pleasant looking man with a short blonde hair cut and friendly light brown eyes that crinkled in the corners when he smiled at her. There were grease smudges on his clothes and hands.
“Aw hell. Sucks when that happens. Need some help?”
Nope, Merry though, the white smoke coming out of my car is dry ice. I’m totally fine. Idiot. She plastered on a smile and responded kindly.
“Yes, actually. I could use a tow to a mechanic’s shop. Do you have a number I can call?”
“You betcha. Happen to work for one. Lemme call the office.”
“Oh. That’s perfect!” and creepy, she added silently as the man pulled out a cell phone. Helluva coincidence.
From the corner of her eye she saw Caleb sit up and look around dazedly. She hurried over to reassure him everything was alright.
“Our truck broke,” she said. “A nice man is calling to have us towed to get it fixed.”
He blinked wide hazel eyes and gave one nod of understanding then started fishing around for a snack in the cooler by his feet. He pulled up the last string cheese and a half eaten baggie of Teddy Grahams. Merry bit her lip, admonishing herself for not stopping to resupply earlier. What was she thinking? How could she forget something that important? Is this what they called pregnant brain?
“We’ll get some real food in town, okay? Some burgers and fries or something.”
He shrugged and munched while Merry walked back over to the good Samaritan to await instructions. He was nodding and reading off the make and model of her truck into the phone.
“Your name, Miss?”
“Merry,” she said. “Neustrom.”
The lie made bile rise in her throat and brought tears to her eyes. It had been months since she’d had to use the name. She didn’t dare use her own; the fear of being discovered was that great. And her marriage certificate, although unsigned by a “real” judge, was proof enough for any ID needed. On paper at least, she was Neustrom. Wife of the man she would give the world to see again and never would. She hated having to use the name. It was a reminder of the life she could of had.
The baby kicked repeatedly, stretching her stomach awkwardly and making her gasp. It always did when she thought about Gaelyn. Goddamn hormones.
“About twenty minutes Miss Merry but I reckon we should get you into some shade and get some fluids in you instead of sticking round here. Is that a little one I see in the cab?”
“Yes. That’s Caleb, my son.”
That lie was not so hard to tell. She loved him like he’d always been hers and he was small enough in stature that people would believe she’d had him herself. It cast a somewhat promiscuis image on her, having a baby so young, but it was the easiest lie to reinforce.
“Y’all hungry then? We can grab something on the way to the office. I’m on my lunch break anyway.”
Getting into a car with a strange man sent every red flag off in Merry’s head and made her flesh crawl but what could she do? It was blazing hot and Caleb needed to eat some real food.
I can protect us, Merry decided. It would be easy to get away if I needed to.
“Food would be great um–” she paused, looking for a name tag.
“Will,” he said and grinned.
“Ah. Thanks Will. Sorry for all this.”
“Don’t you worry your pretty head about it. It’s my job and my moral duty.”
Merry grabbed her purse and made sure Caleb had his back pack before putting the keys in the ignition and writing a note for the tow truck driver, giving him her personal contact information if he had any questions. She slid Caleb into the man’s truck first and took the passenger’s seat, buckling them up tightly. I can’t believe I’m trusting a stranger this much, Merry thought, watching the landscape blur through the window. He could kidnap us and kill us and no one would know or suspect. A little bubble of panic started to rise up in her gut and she tried to breathe through it quietly. Slowly, Caleb’s hand covered hers and stoked her fingers soothingly.
“You don’t have to worry Miss,” Will said, noticing her hands clutching her purse and her protective lean toward Caleb.“We got nice folks round here.”
She glanced at him and he gave her a reassuring smile. Did her mistrust of him come off that obvious?
“They don’t judge or nuthin’ and we take care of each other. My wife and I are on our second. First one was when were were 16.”
“Oh,” was all she said. He completely misinterpreted her anxiety which put her slightly more at ease.
“Where are we anyway?” she asked, trying to be polite to mask her awkwardness. It had been a long time since she had a prolonged conversation with anyone.
“You mean you don’t know?” he asked, surprised.
“I just picked a direction and drove,” she said, glad she could tell the truth for once. “Camping mostly to save money.”
“That’s the best vacation I ever heard of. Warm fire and a blanket of stars is all ya need,” Will said jovially. “We’re in Tennessee Miss. Nicest little town you’d ever see.”
Jesus christ. I drove across the whole damn country in 6 months.
“Where’d you come from? I saw quite a haul in the back of your truck.”
There was an impressed whistle. Will pulled into a fast food restaurant and waited in line with the other cars.
“That is one helluva road trip. Wish I could pick up and leave for a cross country trip sometimes. Mama Beth would love it. She’s a country girl all the way. Love her some fishing and buck huntin’.”
“I don’t fish or hunt. I’m not that raw. I still prefer my meat packaged in Styrofoam and cellophane,” she replied and Will chuckled, flashing his handsome grin again.
He pulled forward and Merry quickly relayed her order so he could repeat it into the speaker. She started to reach into her purse for some cash but a quick rebuke made her stop in surprise.
“Nu-uh! My momma would knock me into the floor if she let me take money from a lady for a meal.”
“No really, it’s nothing–”
“It’s done. I got this one.”
Merry quietly took the bags of food when Will passed them over, trying not to dwell on it. It was the oddest form of chivalry she’d encountered to date. She might have just stumbled into a tried and true back woods country town. God help her.
Merry handed Caleb his kids meal and like every other kid who had ever gotten one, immediately ripped open the bag to see what kind of toy he got. He showed her the action figurine and she nodded and smiled, saying the name to him. When she looked away, there were tears in her eyes. Four months ago he would have been terrified to even open the bag without her express permission. His independence and confidence were growing steadily under her care. Her heart swelled so big it crowded her throat. Why the hell was she crying so much? When did she become such a damn baby?
“Uh, Miss? You alright?” Will asked around a mouthful of fries, handing her a napkin.
“Yeah. It’s the little things that get me,” she said.
“Mama Beth cries at the drop of a hat. It’s the damnest thing cuz she can shoot a buck between the eyes at point blank range without blinking but kittens make her bawl her eyes out.”
Merry laughed shortly.
“Yeah that’s kinda the way of it. Glad it’s not just me being an idiot.”
Will gave her a sideways glance, eyebrow raised.
“Beggin’ yer pardon Miss but you could never be an idiot. I think you’re brave coming all the way out here alone with a little one and one on the way. That’s a special kind of brave right there.”
“Ha. Well…there are different types of idiots. Glad I can claim to be a brave one though.”