The early morning fog matched her mood, clinging thick to the trees on Highway 21. The radio showed 6:33, the blinking colon in the middle counting time to a rhythm different from the beat of the pop song playing over the flat screechy rear speakers. Four more hours to go. The overnight energy drinks were wearing off, and she knew she’d need to stop soon. A sausage biscuit and a quick catnap would be good. But she knew sleep wouldn’t come. Not right now. A bathroom break would help. But honestly, just getting home would be it’s own reward right now, for what it’s worth…
Driving home, quite honestly, was something she thought she would never do. Never have to do. Never want to do. She had been gone too long, made too much of herself, to consider the possibility. When she’d left, she’d meant it for good. But now on this souped in stretch of highway, she gave herself permission to consider the implications of going back home, of pulling into the driveway, of knocking on the door after crossing the wide wooden porch filled with lazy summertime memories and rainy damp sadness.
She pulled into a Hardee’s parking lot. Out of the car, quick restroom break to clear her body of the dregs of her sugared and caffeinated buzz, washing the crust off from the drive so far. She splashed in the sink, water going up her nose a little, making her reflex a messy sneeze. She wiped her face and the mirror. The person staring back wasn’t the same one who’d made the drive away from home before. This was a different person, someone who’d been through it and still needed to wipe the yuck off. She noticed it mostly in the eyes, always self-considered her best feature, now with a little less lustre, a little more depth, a little murkiness mixed into the deep blue around her dialated pupils.
She ordered a sausage biscuit and a sweet tea, less than five dollars, not a huge bite out of the twenty-seven and change she’d been able to scrounge from the sofa cushions, the floorboards and Eddie’s wallet before leaving. She was thankful at least to be in a land where “sweet tea” still meant something. Leaving the South to make her own way, she’d just never developed the taste for unsweetened tea. The thought had never occurred to her: that drastically uprooting life might take away sweet tea. You just don’t factor the little things into the equation. As she sipped the sweet Ambrosia of the Gods, she felt a prayer of thanksgiving rise up in her blessed little heart…
“Bless her little heart” – she knew how most conversations in her absence would have been going. She sat in a corner booth with her sweet glorious nectar and her sausage biscuit, thinking of the times she had called home to just let someone know she was okay. Those “conversations” rarely went as planned. When it was her Dad answering the phone, that was a conversation. Anyone else, like her brother, or his wife, or… anyone else and “checking in” quickly detiorated into Let’s Interrogate Alex, the game she had left town to escape in the first place. “Bless her little heart” was the euphemism of choice, standing in for the less polite “she’s such a damned fool” in the deep sweet tea loving South.
She missed her Dad. It was the only reason she was coming back, even if, in too many ways, it was the only reason she’d left in the first place. Momma had passed away when Alex was in seventh grade, a difficult enough time in a girl’s life. But Daddy had done the best he could, and she deeply loved and respected her father for that. It hurt to say goodbye, knowing she was driving a stake in his heart through her own tears, his tears, their last hug before getting in her car, driving off, not looking back. He would never get into the “bless her little heart” talk that backstabbed the one being “blessed”. He would only wish her well, remind her if she needed a bed, they’d have one handy and ready, and that he loved her very much, always will.
She knew it had been love. She knew it had been devotion, affection, fatherly warmth and protection. At the time, though, she felt caged, enclosed, and she needed space, her space, adventurous space to stretch and run and grow the way she felt was right. She still needed space, but now… she sighed and hoped some of the other was still there, too.
She took the last bite of her biscuit, realizing she needed to go to the restroom to wipe her face again, telling herself not to forget a refill on the sweet tea before hitting the road again. Before driving home again. Before seeing Daddy again and trying to set things right.
SEVEN YEARS AGO
He was pretty sure there was nothing he could do to stop what was transpiring before him. His baby girl had packed her Honda CRV with all her earthly possessions, ready to head out on her own adventure.
The black car matched her dark wardrobe, matched her lightless eyes. She was rebelling, and he was going to let her. Everything in his heart screamed to wake up, to ditch the nightmare playing out in the driveway. It seemed like the breeze was alive, whisking her away. The birds were quiet, transfixed with the scene. Or they were conspiring, beady bird eyes watching every move to make sure all went according to…
The timing was bad. This should not be happening. Not now, not like this. But there she is, looking older and more mature than he realized, beautiful and headstrong like her mother. At least that part of this felt right. Her Mom would’ve done the same thing. Heck, for all he knew, she HAD done the same thing in leaving home and marrying him. But not like this.