It wasn’t the face of the typical hitchhiker and that decided him. It was a long trek back to the city and if he didn’t pick her up she might be strolling along the Colorado interstate at night, and be the next girl that vanished before dawn at the hands of some faceless John with a fetish for squeezing necks and tossing corpses in untraveled sections of woods. So Dennis took it upon himself to be the savior of both her and his own peace of mind, and pulled his Jeep into the breakdown lane and let the engine idle as the girl quickened her pace to catch up.
“My God,” she said, and he heard a backpack that sounded like it was holding a ton of bricks hit the rear seat like a bomb. “I thought no one would ever come!” She opened the passenger door and used the foot ledge to climb up into the seat, a tall, mocha-skinned black girl of perhaps twenty or twenty-one.
“Thank you,” she said, extending a gloved hand. “For not being among the darker side of nature.”
This choice of words made him smile, and he shook her hand, pulled the Jeep out of the breakdown lane and continued to Downtown Denver. The top of the Jeep was up and the soft windows in place.
“It’s cold out there,” Dennis said.
The girl nodded, adjusted the seat and leaned back. “Yes it is. Quite cold.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you crazy?”
“Why, because I’m a twenty two year old girl making myself vulnerable to the darkest side of the world?”
“Well than yeah, I guess I am kind of crazy.”
Mountains and a wide range of curving green landscape slid by in a blur on the right, and the wind made rapping sounds on the Jeep’s soft windows.
“You don’t ever get scared,” Dennis said, “being out here alone like this? You’re a pretty girl. There’s sickos out there that would—”
“Chop me up and make me disappear into the depths of the woods unknown. I know.”
Dennis looked at her, grinned. “What? Are you a poet or something?”
The girl shook her head. “No. But I like poetry. Read it all the time. I have one of those paper white Kindles in my luggage and I read that every night before I catch my zzz’s.”
“I’m Dennis,” he said.
“I like the name Dennis. Go on.”
“Where do you sleep at?”
“Pretty much any place where it’d be hard for someone to sneak up on me. Under bushes or in the backseats of unlocked cars.”
Dennis nodded, considering. “And you don’t ever worry that you’re going to get arrested living like that? For trespassing or breaking and entering? Whatever the laws are these days.”
Fiona looked at Dennis, a smirk on her dark face. “I’ve been arrested plenty. Has done nothing to dissuade me from living this life.”
“Wow,” Dennis said, staring straight ahead. “You have balls of steel, young lady.”
“Actually, ovaries of steel would be more appropriate, but I get where you’re coming from. Thank you.”
That was the first conversation they had. The second one was when the storm hit and up until the point when the rain gushed down, Dennis had no idea that there had been bad weather on the way.
“Wow, it’s really coming down, huh?” Fiona said, watching the gigantic rain drops torpedo the jeep. “Thank God you didn’t leave the top off, huh?”
“You have no idea.”
“But it’s coming down really hard. Do you think you’re going to be able to keep driving?”
The highway was full of rain water and Dennis had been forced to slow down to keep from being forced off the road when the wheels didn’t catch.
“I hope,” Dennis said. “I need to get back to the hotel. Work to do.”
“Hotel? Are you here visiting?”
Dennis shook his head. “No. I’m in my work season, actually.”
“What do you mean work season?”
“I’m an author, so when I’m actively writing a book I complete the first draft in a hotel. Kind of something I’ve been doing for years.” He chuckled a bit uneasily, not used to talking to anyone about this.
“Well, that’s cool. Maybe you’ll let me read something.”
“Nothing,” he said. “I doubt you really mean that though. A lot of people I run into—people that are not part of my fan base but learn that I’m an author—always like to claim that they want to read something of mine. They never do. I’ll give them a free hardcopy of the book and they’ll say a fake thank you and never speak of it again. One time I asked a guy how he was coming along on my book and he acted like he hadn’t seen the book since the night I gave it to him. Thank God for my hardcore fans, because we sure don’t live in a nation of readers.”
“Well I read,” Fiona said. “I really do. And if you give me a copy, hard or digital, I’m going to read it. I don’t care how long it is I’ll have it done within a month, period. Probably less. What do you write, anyway?”
Fiona nodded. “I figured that. What kind of fiction?”
“Mystery. The same kind of stuff I read.”
“Well that’s cool. I don’t read much mystery but I’ll still give your story a try if you want to throw a copy my way.”
“Well I could send one to your Kindle from my phone if you want, but don’t feel like you have to do it as a favor to me.”
She laughed. “You’re rich I’m assuming. I don’t need to do you any favors. I’m offering to read one of your books because I read. If I had money I might even pay for it.”
How much money would get you out of this situation, he came close to asking but resisted. She assumed he was rich and that was dangerous enough. The last thing he needed was to be throwing money at her.
“Well, despite those questionable readers it looks like you’re doing well Dennis,” Fiona said, shifting a bit in her seat. “Hopefully, you can keep it up.” At this point Dennis noticed exactly what she was wearing. A pair of dark sweats, some old black Timberland boots, and multiple sweatshirts. She had a very pretty face and Dennis was curious about her hair, but it was tied up in a scarf.
“So what made you decide to live this life,” Dennis asked. The rain was finally beginning to taper off.
“Parents on the dark side of nature, what about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What made you decide to be an author?” she asked, ignoring his question.
“Because I love to read and write stories. I started off reading, going through one book after another and when I was ten I picked up a pencil and a piece of notebook paper to write a story of my own and the rest is history. From that point I was hooked.”
“Yeah, if only my story was as nice to listen to as yours. But despite how I came to be here I live a good life. I go where I want when I want. There’s no one that I have to answer to. And I’m not going to lie to you. Being a girl makes it easier to get loose change from people.”
The rain had stopped, but the road was still wet. Dennis put his foot down on the gas and sped up.
“So what’s your money situation looking like right now, if you don’t mind me asking? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
Fiona shook her head, leaning back in her seat as she reached into the left pocket of her sweats. She pulled out a twenty with some one dollar bills folded inside of it.
“Like twenty three dollars,” she said. “That’s pretty good. That means I’ll definitely be able to have a decent dinner tonight.”
“Do you ever have to go nights without eating at all?” He was trying his best not to let it show, but he was concerned about this girl. And the idea of her sleeping outside by herself, partially hidden or not, made him sick to his stomach.
She nodded. “Yeah, all the time. One time I went for nearly two days without food. Part of it had to do with the weather being bad, it being so far from people’s paydays, and feeling too sick to persist. I spent a lot of time sleeping those days.”
“And it doesn’t make you sad, Fiona, that kind of stuff? Doesn’t make you feel sorry for yourself?”
She sighed. “When it gets sad…yeah, it’s harder to look at things from a positive angle. I’m not going to lie. But stuff like that rarely happens. I usually do get food.”
“But on the coldest nights. I mean when the temperature is below zero and you know that snow’s coming in, where do you sleep?”
“The shelter,” she said. “For the most part. Or I do something stupid on purpose just to get arrested. And just like that I have a free meal, bed, and security.” She pointed to the side of her head. “See, it’s all tactical. You just have to know how to play the game.”
Dennis estimated that he was twenty five minutes from his destination. Wondered how cold it’d be by the time he arrived.
“So where do you want me to let you off,” he asked Fiona.
“When you get to downtown it’ll be perfect, actually. I’m going to take a bus to the shelter. Tonight the temp’s actually going to be in the negative, just like we were talking about. Yeah, I want to get there early just to ensure I have a spot to stay. If you get there late you miss out. You’ve seen the movie The Pursuit of Happiness?
“Yeah. Love that movie.”
“Well, it’s just like that. You have all these people waiting outside to get in. And it could get pretty chaotic outside too, if you cut someone or if someone cuts you. It’s a mess. Just a bunch of down and out people needing a place to sleep. It’s not a place I go to unless I feel sick or it’s too cold to be out. I don’t want to die in my sleep which is very easy to do when you’re sleeping outside on a negative ten degree night.”
“Yeah, that sounds horrible.” Dennis drummed his hands on the steering wheel, thinking. “Fiona. I know you barely know me, but do you think you can do me a favor?”
“I don’t do tricks,” she said, suddenly stiffening in her seat.
Dennis glanced at her in alarm then looked back at the road. “No. No, I’m not trying to ask you to do that at all. No, I was just hoping you would let me treat you to a late lunch. Or an early dinner? Whatever the case, I want to take you out to eat and I want you to stuff yourself.”
Fiona looked uneasy. “You think you could give me a little bit to think about it?”
Dennis nodded. “Yeah, go ahead and think it over and tell me if you’re interested. You can choose where we eat. This isn’t me hitting on you either. I just want to feed you is all. So let me know.”
Fiona was smiling, her dark eyes firmly on his. “I will Dennis. Thank you.”
“So, are you married? Do you have kids?”
“No to both questions. Though I did get out of a marriage a year ago, and to be frank, it’s something I would never go back to. I don’t know how you feel about the institution of marriage, but I could trash it for days.”
“I’m an advocate of marriage so that’s probably a subject we don’t want to talk about. I’m pretty sensitive about that subject, don’t ask why.”
A couple of minutes later Fiona turned on her side, indicating that she was going to try to sleep. Dennis let her. For a girl that lived her kind of life she was going to need all the sleep she could get.