Home > Undeserving (Undeniable #5)(4)

Undeserving (Undeniable #5)(4)
Author: Madeline Sheehan

He was free.

Chapter 2

Her gaze flickered from the old man behind the wheel to the world outside the window, a blur of bright greens, blues, and grays. The rickety old truck smelled like stale cigars and feet, thanks to the many cigar stubs overflowing in the ashtray and the well-worn work boots lying on the truck’s floor.

Turning back to the man, who’d muttered somewhere around fifteen miles ago that his name was Dave, she clutched her pocket knife a little tighter. He seemed kind—kind enough—and he was hardly in peak physical condition, but you could never be too careful. She’d learned the hard way exactly what sort of evil could lie simmering inside a well-dressed man with a kind smile.

Dave, in his torn denim coveralls, could hardly be considered well-dressed, and he hadn’t smiled at all, not once. In fact, every so often when the radio station would break from the steady stream of country music, Dave would glance her way, his body hunched over the steering wheel, his thin lips pressed in a firm, disapproving line. Having lived like this for some time now—on her own, on the road—this was nothing new. She was well versed in the judgment of strangers. More than likely he guessed she was rebelling against her parents, or society, or something else equally frivolous. But whatever it was he was guessing, she didn’t see any malice lurking in his faded blue eyes. Still, she’d strategically placed her large canvas army pack between them while keeping her knife clutched tightly at her side, ready to strike if need be. Nobody got to take from her anymore… at least not without a fight.

Her careful stare meandered back to the window. Large, cultivated farms, looming barns, and the occasional tractor hard at work were all there was to see. In fact, this was exactly what most of America looked like when you watched it fly by from the highway.

Eventually a mile marker came into view, boasting in big white lettering that they were now four miles from the New York border. A rush of excited air escaped her. This was the closest she’d ever been. Briefly closing her eyes, she envisioned all those crowded sidewalks, could almost hear the constant rumble of traffic and the unending blare of car horns.

Her goal was New York City, and maybe she could have made it there much sooner if she hadn’t had an entire country to traverse, coupled with the daily worries of food and shelter and bad weather. Not that time mattered in her world; she didn’t live by a clock anymore, and no one was waiting on her.

And New York City, from what she’d gleaned from television and books and word of mouth, was the ideal place to disappear. It was a city teeming with people—enough people to panhandle from and pickpocket without having to worry about going to sleep hungry ever again. It was somewhere she could live in plain sight while still hiding. It was somewhere she could become someone new—anyone she wanted to be. She could start over, maybe have a real life again. In New York City, the possibilities would be endless.

The radio clicked off abruptly and her daydreams evaporated. Finding the old man watching her, the fingers curled around her blade twitched.

“This is as far as I go,” he muttered, jerking his chin toward the truck stop seated on the approaching horizon. As they drew closer, she leaned forward in her seat and looked around, noting with disappointment that it was a smaller truck stop with only a handful of rigs in the lot.

Dave pulled to a stop a short ways away from the diner and turned to face her. He said nothing. Grasping the door handle, she pushed the heavy slab open and slid across the seat, dragging her bag with her.

“Girl,” he called out, and she paused. “Get yourself a hot meal.” He tossed a handful of dollar bills across the bench seat, sending them fluttering in all directions. Lunging for the money, she caught the bills before any could be lost to the breeze. Wadding them into a ball, she shoved them quickly into her jeans pocket.

“Thank you,” she said, lifting her eyes to his, resenting the pity she found there.

She had enough pride left that being forced to rely on the pity of strangers still stung. At the same time, she realized that without that pity, she wouldn’t have survived nearly as long as she had. It was a double-edged sword, this life.

Dave opened his mouth, then closed it. His ancient eyes scanned the parking lot behind her. He appeared to want to say something else. She’d come across this type before—the individual who thought a few kind words or a good stern talking-to would send her back in the right direction, back to her home where all good girls belonged. If only they knew what home had been like for her.

Rubbing a hand over his bald head, Dave clicked his tongue once, then gestured at the door. She slammed it shut and quickly stepped back, watching as the truck rumbled slowly back toward the highway.

Alone now, she glanced up at the sky, more gray than blue, and inhaled deeply, tasting the thickening moisture in the air. The mild summer day was quickly growing dark and humid, which meant only one thing—rain was headed her way.

Readjusting her heavy pack, she turned in a circle, taking in her new surroundings. As far as truck stops went, it was disappointingly small and sparse. This one offered no bathhouse, no general store, nothing save a small diner and a refueling station.

There were other truck stops, bigger and always busy, running like small cities, so lucrative that most had their own set of working girls and a constant presence of panhandlers and thieves. But there were no hookers here, and there was no one begging for money. Only two men could be seen seated inside the diner, as well as an older woman standing behind the counter. Near the fuel island, a young man puttered around with a box of tools. The few rigs scattered around the lot were still and quiet. Farther back beyond the truck stop, was a tree line.

She sighed heavily, absentmindedly twisting the ring on her index finger—a small band of silver with a tiny butterfly in the center. No people meant no money to be made, and no money to be made meant that this place was a waste of her time.

Heading for the side of the building, she eyed the garbage bins as she passed them, the sickly smell of spoiled meat tingeing the breeze. She was hungry—she was always hungry or tired or both—but she wasn’t that hungry. She’d been that desperate before, but not today. Today she had some stale chips in her pack and a few dollars in her pocket.

Approaching the trees, she headed into what looked to be a fairly dense forest. It was considerably cooler beneath the heavy canopy of towering oak trees, the humidity of the open air not quite as thick. The ground was soft beneath her worn sneakers, thick with weeds and the rotted remnants of fall saplings.

She paused beside a dried up creek bed and set her bag down. Settling herself on the edge, her legs dangling among the weeds below, she began rummaging through her belongings—everything she owned in this world. She pulled a flannel shirt free, a men’s size large that she’d come across draped over the back of a bench at a bus station. Rolling it into a ball, she set it aside. The rest of her clothing, all filthy and in need of a good washing, was wrapped tightly inside her coat. Everything else wasn’t much at all. A few cans of tuna fish she’d swiped from a market a couple of days ago, a half-eaten bag of chips, an old army canteen three-quarters of the way filled with water, a ragged coin purse filled with loose change, mostly dirty pennies, and a tattered composition notebook, a stub of a pencil shoved between its pages.

She flipped open her notebook, briefly skimming the hand-drawn faces of the people she’d met in her travels. An elderly woman in Oregon who’d given her fresh vegetables from her garden. A young couple, newly married, who’d offered her a ride through Utah. The good-natured truck driver who’d picked her up on the side of the highway in Kentucky.

A small photograph fluttered free from between the pages and she quickly straightened, snatching it before it could blow away. Gazing down at the picture, she rubbed the pad of her thumb over its smooth surface. Her father had been such a handsome man, with dark hair and eyes, and a smile nearly a mile wide.

She gave herself a moment longer than usual to lose herself inside what few happy memories she had before carefully tucking her photograph away.

Leaning forward, elbow on her thigh, chin in her hand, she closed her eyes and pictured Dave.

Opening her eyes, she pressed the dull tip of her pencil to a fresh page and began to draw.

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