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Jay woke to a pale world. His eyes couldn’t focus, his face pressed by the shapeless form, the coarse white thing again. The airbag…no, not the airbag. Just a pillow.
He lifted his head, slammed the buzzing alarm, and sat up in bed, pulse pounding.
The Loblolly wasn’t a pleasant place. The room was small and spare, comprising a bathroom, a clunky television set, and a single bed. No more. The carpet was old, discolored — Jay didn’t like to think by what. Smoke, certainly. The smell filled the room. That and the musty odor of water-damaged drywall. Mildew, he hoped, and not mold.
But the motel was cheap, as Ed had said it would be. It was a haven, Jay could see, for people like him. Those with little money or other recourse…and for palmetto bugs as well. He’d seen one zip across the wall last night and slip under the closet door in the corner. He could hear it again now, still scritching around in there.
It wasn’t much, but it was all he would need. He could get meals from Ed’s, after all, for as long as he was in town.
Which would probably be a while. He wouldn’t know exactly how deep a hole he was in till he got the car to the body shop. For the moment, though, he wished he could stay buried in the tangle of sheet and comforter. Then the thought of bedbugs crossed his mind, and he leapt up and strode swiftly to the shower.
“It’s fine,” he said aloud as the water stabbed his skin in hot torrents. “I can deal with this. It won’t be long, just get it fixed. Then I’m out. It’s fine.”
It might even be a good thing. To see the same faces for more than an hour or so, a day at most. If he had to slow down, stay put for a bit, this was a good place to do it. A no-name backcountry town where no one would look for him. He’d been on the move too long, longer than he liked to think. Maybe wrecking the Buick wasn’t such a tragedy.
Jay walked all the way back to the wreck again to catch a ride when the tow truck came. It was good he’d had coffee in the motel lobby before he left. His body still ached, but he was wired now, and the walk did him good. Made him feel he was doing something, getting somewhere; though so far he’d accomplished nothing. The high undergrowth grasped for his legs, but he ignored it, spirits soaring. Jay felt free, out walking in the open air, with nothing — for the moment — to run from.
His mood had soured by the time he got the quote for the Buick. He’d waited a full hour and a half in the body shop before they even started looking at it, and the longer they took with it the more nervous it made him. When one of the men finally strolled into the lobby, offering an oily hand, Jay’s own palms were sweaty and throbbing. He regretted the coffee now — rued the whole thing.
“Jim Holt,” the mechanic greeted him. “You did a number on that thing, son.”
“Right. Yeah.” Jay couldn’t think of anything else worth saying. He didn’t like Holt’s squinting smile, nor his droll tone.
“Well, you’re gonna need a new bumper, hood, radiator, transmission cooler, and windshield. To start with. You’re lookin’ at three thousand easy, parts and labor all told. And four days out of commission. Maybe five. Can you handle that?”
He didn’t realy have much choice. Jay signed the work order and left the shop, legs dragging like lead. Three thousand. It was about what he’d expected, truth told, though he’d hoped for less. He should feel lucky, he guessed, to have no more damage than that; but luck was the last thing he felt. There was only a few hundred in cash stowed away in his trunk, for emergencies. He guessed this was as big an emergency as he was likely to see in a while.
As for the rest… Well, assuming the shop offered payment plans, then — he tried to do the math in his head — it would take him almost four months to pay off the difference. Damn. To be tied down to one place for that long… If he worked a couple extra hours a day, though, he might could cut it down to three months.
Might as well. Jay sighed. It wasn’t as if he had much to do, here or anywhere else. Not anymore.
He surveyed the line of the road ahead, taking in the town, its shops and businesses, as if his sight had been blurred until now by his worries. A humble, unassuming place, a bit busier than he’d imagined last night, but a bit more rundown as well. Many buildings were tinted a grimy green in places, some worse than others, and a few had rotting sideboards. The damn humidity, Jay guessed. It only worsened as the day broadened.
Jay glanced at his phone, quickened his pace. Ed would be looking for him soon, was already more than likely put out by his absence. They hadn’t agreed on a time for him to start, but Ed didn’t seem the type to test on technicalities.
How far away was Sixty-one? He’d been walking quite a while now…had he passed it already and not noticed? There was a sign, wasn’t there? He hadn’t paid attention on the ride to Mixon’s. The tow driver had chattered along the whole way, making it hard to focus. Jay sighed. It was going to be a long day.
He studied the next crossroad he came to. An arc of live oaks shaded it, though not grand oaks like the one he’d crashed into last night. The only sign marked River Road — which of course he knew, as he was already on it. A lone red light squinted down at him. There didn’t seem enough traffic to warrant one on a road like this, but there it was. Yet he couldn’t remember seeing a light this morning…
Could this be Sixty-one? If he took the wrong road now it could mean hours lost before he found it; but if it was, he risked the same outcome by passing it.
Well. Only one way to find out.
A quarter hour later, it was clear he had chosen wrong. No telling if he’d turned too soon, or not soon enough. The farther he walked the more open and rural it looked. Overgrown fallow fields. Old farm buildings here and there, an ancient barn, many of which were a century old or more by their look. The asphalt was near bleached white and softened by layered dust. There were driveways, but only narrow tracks that vanished beyond a line of trees. If there were homes at their ends, Jay could not see them.
He halted. No point in going on.
He couldn’t turn back, though. Something held him in place. It felt familiar here, though he knew there was no way he’d ever been in this place before.
Through a gap in the trees just ahead, something drew his eye. The word “house” was too generous — it was a ruin, its clapboard panels badly warped, some nearly falling off, the seafoam-green paint all but worn away. Its metal roof was red, though from paint or rust wasn’t clear.
And beside the ruin, a tree. Tall and narrow. Tawny bark, smooth as paper. A scent that was faint yet lovely.
“Like what you see?”
Jay turned. A slender figure stood across the road, shaded, her arms hidden behind her back. He swallowed. His eyes narrowed. Where had she come from?
“Sorry,” he gulped, masking his wariness. “I, uh…didn’t mean to encroach. I made a wrong turn, and I’m — kind of — lost.”
The young woman drew nearer. Fearless, he thought, in the face of a stranger who might be anyone, do anything. It felt strange and refreshing at once, not to be suspected. He found himself smiling.
“I can help you,” she said. “Where are you going?”
“Ed’s Diner. On Sixty-one.”
“Oh, that!” she laughed. “You’re well past Sixty-one. Turn around, make a left onto River. Then take the second right. You can’t miss it.”
And yet he had. Jay wanted to kick himself, but something about her presence stilled and calmed him.
“Is this place yours?” he asked, looking at the little house again.
She smiled as if he had made a joke. “I don’t own it, if that’s what you mean.” She gazed all around her, side to side, then up at the tree’s solid limbs. “But this is home. It’s where I’ve always lived.”
Jay thought of the driveways he’d passed and wondered which one was hers. How far off the road her house lay. A farm, or maybe what used to be one in this case, was a big place, and you could never tell what might be hiding on it. Especially an old plantation. Even subdivided, as they often were now, Jay knew older tracts like these could still be vast.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.
Now she blushed. “Thank you.”
Again he felt an urge to linger, though he knew where to go now. He peered at the ruined house, at the tree, which wavered in a slight breeze, and at her.
“What is this road called?” he muttered. “I never did see a sign.”
“Coffin Road,” she answered. She waved a hand further down, past the ruined house. “There’s a graveyard a ways back, down by the river. An old slave cemetery.”
Jay shivered at the thought. A place like this never would escape its history. Never could. He imagined the house at night filled with ghosts, men wailing for their children that were gone, women with eyes alight with vengeance. He took an unwilled step backward.
“I’m Jay,” he said, facing her again.
“I’m called Rumor.”
“Can’t say I’ve heard that name before.”
“Not many have.”
“I like it, though.”
He could think of little else to say. Jay started off, striding slower than he really should down Coffin Road, toward the intersection. Then he paused and turned, half expecting her to be gone. But she stood there still, beneath the Spanish moss, and watched him.
“Will I see you again?” he called. “Maybe at the diner…?”
She gave him a look that was hard to fathom. “Yes,” she said. It was nearly a whisper, but somehow her voice rang in his ears.