Chapter 13


"Reckon he does," she answered as she took it from his palm.

"Fuck it, I'm goin'!" Joey shouted, and he stormed through the front door.

"He's got a mouth on him," Dan told the girl.

"Yeah, he does get a little profane now and again. Sorry for the trouble."

"No apology needed."

She followed Joey, taking long strides with her dusty brown boots, and Donna Lee said to her, "Honey, don't you suffer no shit, hear?"

After the girl was gone, Donna Lee brought the coffeepot over to Dan and refilled his cup. "I hate a bastard think he can stomp on a woman,"

she confided. "Remind me of my ex-husband. Didn't have a pot to pee in the way he laid 'round all day, and he had that mean mouth, too.

You travelin' far?"

"A distance," Dan said.

"Where [email protected]' Dan watched her set the coffeepot down on his table, a sure sign she wanted to stick around and talk. "South," he decided to say.

"Such a shame, huh?"

"What is?"

"That girl. You know. Her face. Never seen a birthmark so bad before. No tellin' what that do to a person."

Dan nodded and tasted his fresh cup.

"Listen," Donna Lee continued, "you don't mind me being' so personal, you don't look to be feelin'well. You up to drivin'?"

"I'm all right." He felt, however, as if he had the strength of a wrung-out dishrag.

"How 'bout a piece of strawberry pie? On the house?"

He was about to say that sounded fine, when Donna Lee's eyes suddenly flicked up from him and she stared out the window. "Uh-oh.

Looky there, he's at it again!"

Dan turned his head and saw Joey the punk and the girl named Arden arguing beside the red Camaro. She must've said something that made his hair-trigger flare, because he lifted his arm as if to strike her a backhanded blow and.she retreated a few steps. His face was contorted with anger, and now Dan and Donna Lee could hear his shouting through the glass.

"I swear to God Lee ai res ed!

gumbo, a s dip y, I,l knew when I stuck eye on him he was gonna be trouble.

Lemme go get my slugger." She went behind the counter, where she'd stashed the nail-studded baseball bat.

Outside, Joey had stopped short of attacking the girl. Dan watched him throw open the Camaro's trunk and toss a battered brown suitcase onto the pavement. Its latches popped, the suitcase spilling clothes in a multicolored spiral. A 'small pink drawstring bag fell out, and Joey attacked it with relish. He charged it and gave it a vicious kick, and Arden Scooped it up and backed away, holding it protectively against her chest, her mouth crimped bitterness.

"You get on outta here!" Donna Lee yelled from the door, her slugger ready for action. Two attendants from the gas station were coming over to see what the ruckus was about, and they looked like fellows who could chew joey up at least as well as the slugger could.

"Go on, 'fore I call the law!"

"Kiss my ass, YOU Old bitch!" Joey hollered back, but he'd seen the two men coming and he started moving faster. He banged the trunk shut and climbed into the car. "Arden, i,m quits with you! Hear me?

"Go on, then! Here, take it and go on!" She had some money in her fist, and she flung the bills at him through the Camaro's window.

The engine boomed. joey shouted something else at her, but it was drowned by the engine's noise.

Then he threw the Camaro into reverse, spun the car around in a half circle facing the way out, and laid on the horn at the same time as he hit the accelerator. The wide rear tires shrieked and smoked, and when they bit pavement they left black teethmarks- As the Camaro roared forward, the two gas station attendants had to jump for their lives.

Dan watched through the window as the studmobile tore off across the parking lot and in three eyeblinks it had dwindled to the size Of its red lights. The car headed for the I49 northbound ramp, and very soon it was lost from sight sao as ro gh Dan took a drink Of coffee and watched the girl.

She didn't cry, which is what he'd expected. Her expression was grim but resolute as she opened her purse and put the pink drawstring bag into it, and then she began to pick up her scattered items of clothing and return them to the suitcase. Donna Lee had a few words with the gas station boys, the nail-pierced slugger held at her side. Arden kept glancing in the direction the Camaro had gone as she retrieved her belongings. Donna Lee helped her round up the last few items, and then the girl snapped her suitcase shut and stood there with her birthmarked face aimed toward the northern dark.

The two attendants returned to their building, Donna Ize came back into the restaurant and put the slugger away behind the counter, but Arden stood alone in the parking lot.

"She okay?" Dan asked.

"Say he'll be back," Donna Lee told him. "Say he got a bad temper and sometime it make him get crazy, but after a few minute he come to his sense."

"Takes all kinds, I guess."

"Yes, it do. I swear I would've brained him if I'd got close enough to swing. Knocked some that meanness out his cars." Donna Lee walked over to Dan's booth and motioned with a lift of her chin. "Look at her out there. Hell, if a man treat me that way, I swanee I wouldn't stand 'round waitin' on him. Would you?"

"No, I sure wouldn't."

Donna Lee gave him a smile of approval. "I'm gonna get you that strawberry pie, on the house. That suit you?"

"Sounds fine."

"You got it, then!"

The pie was mostly sugary meringue, but the strawberries were fresh. Dan was about halfway through it when Arden came back into the restaurant, lugging her suitcase. "Awful warm out there," she said.

"Mind if I sit and wait?"

"'Course you can, bon! Sit down and rest you'seIP" Donna Lee had found a stray to mother, it seemed, and she hurriedly poured a glass of iced tea and took it to Arden, who chose a booth near the door. Donna Lee sat down across from her, willing to lend an ear to the girl's plight, and Dan couldn't help but overhear since they were sitting Traveling by Might just a couple of booths away. No, Joey wasn't her husband, Arden told Donna Lee. Wasn't even really her boyfriend, though they'd gone out together a few times. They lived in the same apartment complex in Fort worth, and they'd been on their way to Lafayette. joey played bass guitar in a band called the Hanoi lanes, and Arden had worked the sound board and lights for them on weekends. Mosay fraternity parties and such. Joey was so high-strung because he had an artistic temperament, Arden said. He threw a fit every once in a while, to let off steam, and this wasn't the first time he'd ditched her on the roadside. But he'd be back He always came back.

Dan looked out the window. just dark out there, and nothing else.

"HonI wouldn't wait for him, myself," Donna Lee said.

"I'd just as soon take the bus back home."

"He'll be here. He'll get about ten miles up the road, then he'll cool off."

"Ain't no ldnda man throw a girl out his car to take her chance.

I'd go on home and tell that sucker to kiss my Dixie cup. You got business in Lafayette?"

"Yeah, I do."

"Family live there?"

"No," Arden said. "I'm goin' to meet somebody."

"That's where I'd go, then. I wouldn't trust no fella threw me out the car. Next time he might throw you out where there's not a soul to help you."

"Joey'll be back." Arden kept watching through the window. "Any minute now."

"Damned if I'd be waitin' here for him. Hey, friend!" Dan turned his head.

"You goin' south, aren't you? Gotta go through Lafayette.

YOu want to give this young lady a ride?"

"Sorry," Dan answered. "I'm not carryin I passengers.tl "Thanks anyway," Arden said to Donna Lee, "but I wouldn't ride with a stranger."

"Well, I'll tell you something"bout Donna Lee Boudreax.

I've worked here goin' on nine year,. I've seen a lot of folk come and go, and I've got to where I can read em real good.

I knew your friend was trouble first sight, and if I say that [email protected] over there's a gentleman, you can write it in the book.

Friend, you wouldn't harm this young lady, would you?"

"No," Dan said, "but if I was her father I sure wouldn't want her ridin' with a stranger in the middle of the night."

"See there?" Donna Lee @ her penciled-on eyebrows.

'He's a gentleman. You, want to go to Lafayette, you'd be safe with him."

"I'd better stay here and wait," Arden insisted. "Joey'd really blow up if he came back and found me gone."

"Hell, girl, do he own you? I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of findin' me waitin'."

Dan took the last bite of his pie. It was time to get moving again, before this booth got too comfortable. He put his baseball cap back on and stood up. "How much do I owe Your, "Not a thing, if you'll help this young lady out." He looked out the window. Still no sign of a Camaro's headlights. "Listen, I'd like to, but I can't. I've got to get on down the road."

"Road goes south," Donna Lee said. "Both of you headin' that way.

Ain't no skin off your snout, is it?"

"I think she's old enough to make up her own mind." Dan saw that Arden was still mfing out at the dark highway. He felt a pang of sadness for her. If the right side of her face were as pretty as the left, she sure wouldn't have to be waiting for a punk who cursed her and left her to fend for herself. But he had enough problems without taking on another one. He put two dollars down on the table for the coffee, said "Thanks for the pie," and heed for the door. out."

"Speak up, bon," Donna lie urged. 'Train's pullin But Arden remained silent. Dan walked out of the restaurant into humidity that steamed the sweat from his pores before he'd even reached the station wagon. He drove over to the self-serve pumps, where he intended to top off the tank. He needed another roadmap as well, and when the gas stopped flowing he went into the office, bought a Louisiana map, and paid what he owed for the fill-up.

iso He was standing under the lights, searching the map south of Houma for a place called Vermilion, when he heard the sound Of bOOts coming up behind him. He looked around and there she stood, suitcase in hand, her birthmark dark purple in the fluorescent glow.

"I don't think he's comin'back this time," she said. I-you got room?"

"I thought you said you wouldn't ride with a [email protected] "EverYbody's a stranger when you're a long way from home. I don't want to wait around here anymore- If you give me a ride, I'll pay you ten dollars.

"Sorry." Dan folded the map and got behind the steering wheel.

"It's a birthmark, not leprosy, Arden said with some grit in her voice. "You won't catch it.

Dan paused with his hand on the ignition. "A southbound trucker ought to be along PrettY soon. You can hitch a ride with him."

"If I wait for a trucker, no tellin' what might turn up. you look too damn tired to try anythin', and even if believe I could outrun you. you did, He couldn't argue with her logic. Even with all that caffeine in his system, he still felt as weak as a whipped pup, his joints ached like bad teeth, and a glance into the rearview mirror had shown him a PastY-white face with what looked like dark bruism under his eyes. In truth, he ust used Thd-gir was i about up- I was waiting for his answer.

Lafayette was about twenty-five miles. Maybe it would be good to have somebody along to keep him awake, and then he could find a place to rest until nightfall.

"Climb in, he Wd.

Arden halted her suitcase into the rear seat. stgot a lot of glass back here.

eah "Y - Window was broken, I haven't had a chance to clean it outt She took the passenger seat. Dan started the engine and followed the ramp to I-49 southbound. The truck stop fell behind, and in a couple of minutes the glow of green neon was gone Arden looked back only once, then she straight ahead as if she'd decided that where she was going was more important than where she'd been.

Dan imagined that her birthmark would bleach white if she knew who she was riding with. Donna Lee would've taken the slugger to him rather than put this girl in his care.

Dan kept his speed at fifty-five, the engine laboring. State troopers were lurking somewhere on the interstate; maybe waiting around the next curve, looking for a stolen station wagon with a killer worth fifteen thousand dollars behind the wheel.

He never had put much faith in prayer.

Right now, with the dark pressing all around, his strength tattering away, and his future a question mark, a silent prayer seemed to be the only shield at hand.

Jupiter The first lights of LafaYette were ahead. Dan said, "We,re almost there. Where do you need to go?"

Arden had been quiet during the drive, her eyes closed and her head tilted to one side. Now she sat up straight and took her bearings. She opened her purse, unfolded a piece of paper, and started to read by the highway lights what was written there. "Turn off on Darcy Avenue. Then youln go two miles east and turn right on planters Road. "What are you lookin' for? Somebody's house?"

"The T%yin [email protected] nursin' home."

Dan glanced quickly at her. "A nursin'home? That's why YOu came all the way from Fort Worth?"

"Flint's right."

"You have a relative livin' there?"

..No, just somebody I have to see."

Must be somebody mighty important, Dan thought. Well, it wasn't his business. He took the turn onto Darcy Avenue and drove east along a wide thoroughfare lined with fast f joints, strip malls, a 00d nd restaurants with names like King Crawdaddy and Whistlin' Willie's Cajun Hut. Everything was closed but an Occasional gas station, and only a couple of other cars passed by. Dan turned right on planters Road, which ran Past apartment complexes and various small businesses. "How far is it from here?"

"Not far.

His curiosity about the nursing home was starting to get the best of him. If she hadn't come the distance from Fort Worth on account of a relative, then who was it she needed to see? He had his own problems, for sure, but the situation intrigued him. "Mind if I ask who you're goin' to visit?"

"Somebody I used to know, growin' up."

"This person know you're comin'?"

'No. V9 "You think quarter to four in the mornin' is a good time to visit somebody in a rest home?"

"Jupiter always liked early mornin'. If he's not up yet, I'll @t."

"Jupiter?" Dan asked.

"That's his name. Jupiter Krenshaw." Arden stared at him. "How come you've taken such an interest?"

"No special reason. I guess I just wanted to know."

"All right, I reckon that's only fair. I used to know Jupiter when I was fifteen, sixteen years old. He worked on the farm where I was livin'. Groomed the horses. He used to tell me stories. Thinp about his growin' up, down in the bayou.

Some of 'em made-up stories, some of 'em true. I haven't seen him for ten years, but I remember those stories. I tracked down his nearest relative, and I found out Jupiter was in the nursin'home." She watched Planters Road unreal in the headlights. "There's something' I need to talk to him about. Somethin' that's very, very important to me."

"Must be," Dan commented. "I mean, you came a long way to see him."

She was silent for a moment, the warm wind blowing in around them.

"You ever hear of somebody called the Bright girl?" Dan shook his head. "No, can't say I have. Who is she?"

"I think that might be it," Arden said, lifting her chin to indicate a low-dung brick building on the right. In another moment Dan could see the small, tastefully lit sign that announced it was indeed the Twin Oaks Retirement Home.

The pl= was across from a strip mall, but it didn't look too bad; it had a lot of windows, a long porch with white wicker furniture, and two huge oak trees stood on either side of the entrance. Dan pulled up to the front, where there w wheelchair ramp and steps carpeted with Astroturf. l,okay," he said. "This is your stop."

She didn't get out. "Can I ask a favor of you?"

"You can ask."

:'How much of a hurry are you in?"

'I'm not hurryin', but I'm not dawdlin', either."

"Do You have time to wait for me? It shouldn't take too long, and I sure would appreciate a lift to a motel."

He thought about it, his hands on the wheel. A motel room was what he needed, too; he was just too tired to make it the rest of the way to Vermilion. He'd found the fishing camp on the roadmap: a speck on Highway 57 about fifteen miles south of Houma, near where the pavement ended in the huge baYOU swamp of Terrebonne Parish. "I'll wait," he decided.

"Thanks." She leveled her gaze at him. "I'm gonna leave my suitcase. You won't run off soon as I walk in the door, will you?"

"NO, I'll stick." And maybe catch some sleep while he waited, he thought.

"Okay." She nodded; he seemed trustworthy, and she counted herself lucky that she'd met him. --i don-t even know your name."

'Dan," he said.

'I'm Arden Halliday." She offered her hand, and Dan shook it. "I appreciate you helpin' me like this. Hope I didn't take you too far out of your way."

He shrugged. "I'm headed down south of Houma any.

how." Instantly he regretted telling her that, because if she happened to find out who he was, that information would go straight to the police. He was so tired, he was forgetting a slip of the lip could lead him to prison.

"I won't be long," she promised, and she got out and walked up the steps, entering the building through a door with etchedi0ass panels.

It occurred to him that the smart thing to do might be to set her suitcase on the porch and hit the accelerator, but he dismissed the idea. Weariness was creeping through his bones, his eyes heavy-lidded. He was going to ask her to get behind the wheel when she was finished inside. He cut the engine and folded his arms across his chest. His eyes closed, and he listened to the soft humming of insects in the steamy night.

"Mister?"

Dan opened his eyes and sat bolt upright. A man was standing beside his window, peering in. Dan had an instant of cold terror because the man wore a cap and uniform with a badge at his breast pocket.

"Mister.?" the policeman said again. "You can't park here."

"Sir?" It was all Dan could get out.

"Can't park here, right in front of the door. It's against the fire code."

Dan blinked, his vision blurred. But he could make out that the face was young enough to have acne eruptions, and on the bw%e was stamped TWIN OAKS SECURITY.

"You can park 'round the side there," the security guard said.

"If you don't mind, I mean."

"No. No, I don't mind." He almost laughed; a lanky kid who was probably all of nineteen had just about scared his hair white. "I'll move it." He reached down -to restart the engine, and at that moment Arden came out of the building and down the steps.

"@y problem?" she asked when she saw the security guard, and the kid looked at her and started to answer, but then his eyes got fixed on the birthmark and his voice failed him.

"I was about to move the car," Dan exph-fined. "Fire code. You finished almdy?"

"No. Lady at the front desk says Jupiter usually wakes up around five. I told her he'd want to see me, but she won't get him up any earlier. That's about another hour."

Dan rubbed his eyes. An hour wasn't going to make much difference one way or another, he figured. "Okay. I'll park the car and try to get some sleep."

'Well, there's a waitin' area inside. Got a sofa you might stretch out on, and it's sure a lot cooler in there." Arden suddenly looked into the security guard's face. "You want to tell me what you're starin' at?"

"Uh ... uh . . ." the kid stammered.

Arden stepped toward him, her chin uplifted in defiance.

"It's called a port-wine stain," she said. "I was born wearin' it.

go on and take a good long look, just satisfy the hell out of yourself You want to touch it?"

"No ma'am," he answered, taking a quick backward step.

"I mean ... no thank you, ma'am."

Arden continued to lock his gaze with her own, but she'd decided he meant no disrespect. Her voice was calmer when she spoke again. "I guess I wouldn't want to touch it, either, if I didn't have to." She returned her attention to Dan, who could see the anger fading from her eyes like the last embers of a wind-whipped fire. "Probably be more comfortable inside."

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