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Come Monday, Jay took his first day off since starting at the diner. He had made no plans for the day, nor could he go far in any case. The Buick was still at Mixon’s, held till he could pay for all the work. Still, he was restless. Jay was not the kind to spend hours haunting a motel, much less a seedy one like the Loblolly.
There was someplace outside that was calling him, and once he was there he would have to go somewhere else. That was how things were.
He supposed he could take an Uber to the city…but that was an hour drive, the next county over. Not a cheap fare — and that just for the trip alone.
But there was a bike shop on Bell Drive he had noticed on his trip to the market. A good hour’s walk, probably. But if he could get a bike, even a dinged-up used on, it’d be worth the price. Set him back a little, sure — but it would make the months in this place more bearable.
The air was a damp, warm blanket outside the motel. From a palmetto at the lot’s edge a wren sputtered out challenges to the grey fringing in the clouds, portents of rain.
About halfway to Bell Drive, the rain began to fall, light and scattered. Sheltered by the trees, Jay felt few of the drops, but he heard them: a soughing, sighing sound, both tired and fresh.
There were fewer oaks here than where he had crashed, and they were younger, not grand oaks by any means. Their branches were thinner, less winding. The roadside was covered by their dried, disintegrating leaves. He passed first one wooden cross, then another, staked into the road’s shoulder, each laden with ribbons and long-dead flowers. Sad sights. Memorials to lost lives, tragic accidents; drunk drivers, maybe, or sheer recklessness — like him, he realized.
That sobered him. He ambled on, colder now, arms clutched to his chest.
The rain worsened as he came to the town’s major roads. He took a detour down River, where there was more shade and shelter, wondering if he could cut over to Bell further down. He swore there was a road that crossed the two, but he hadn’t drawn it on his sketch of a map. A chance worth taking, as he had no umbrella.
The town drew nearer. The traffic thickened and the tired buildings huddled closer, and as he came to the first of them Jay spotted a figure across the four narrow lanes of River Road, walking toward him. He glanced away, but something about it made him look again. That wasn’t — he only wanted it to be — no, it really was. It was really Rumor.
She halted, seeing him, and Jay slowed his pace. “Didn’t expect to see you,” he called across the asphalt.
She smiled. “I’ve been around.”
“And whose fault is that?”
“Oh,” Jay smirked, laughing drily. “None but my own.”
She said something else, but Jay couldn’t hear. The rain had strengthened, and he could feel it begin to penetrate the live oak crown above him at last. He hesitated a moment before he ran across to her side, where they were sheltered, thankfully, beneath a massive oak. Old and solitary and moss-clad. A few drops spiraled down the tangled grey tresses and fell between them, but no more than that. A thick haze was clinging to the air.
“Where are you going?” Jay asked.
“Nowhere. Anywhere. I just like to walk. You?”
“To the bike shop. Walk with me?”
She nodded. They went on slow and silent. Jay snuck a glance when he could, looking for some impression, some clue toward this person he’d discovered. There was something autumnal about her, he thought, that suggested the spice of cider, the crisp, ecstatic sound of leaves scraping on pavement. A strand of strawberry hair caught on her shirt collar, made an elegant curve across her shoulder.
He offered her his jacket but she waved him off. “You ever make it to that diner?” she asked.
Jay couldn’t tell if she was making fun of him. “Yeah, I work there now. Trying to pay off the damage to my car. From when I crashed it.”
Her green eyes widened. “That was you? You’re the one who hit one of the grand oaks on Sixty-one?”
“You know about that?”
Her eyes creaked shut a little. “I’ve heard something.”
“Well, you’ve heard right. That was the start of my troubles in this town. It’ll take forever to make it outta here, and little to show for the time.”
“And whose fault is that?” Rumor repeated.
A slow smile spread over his lips.
By the time she pointed out the cut to Bell Drive, the rain had started to thin out and the day to grow warmer. Jay wiped his brow, more misted than wet. River Road had been a good idea.
* * *
The rain had long ceased by the time they left the bike shop, but the roads were still flooded. “It’s so flat all along the coastline,” Rumor explained. “There’s nowhere for the water to go, till it seeps down into the water table.”
Jay noted a sharp delight in the way she spoke, in how she carried herself. In the way her freckles gathered in constellations on her nose, below her lips, when she half-smiled. He couldn’t account for it. Not in the sum of what they’d done or how they’d spent the time together so far.
“Where now?” he asked her. “You have somewhere to be?”
“No, I’ll go where you want.”
He chuckled. “I don’t know this town at all. Shouldn’t I be the one to follow you?”
She stopped and faced him. Her eyes reached into his and grasped something there, held it and made it her own. He felt breathless before her vibrant stare. A fiddler cornered by the rising tide.
“I’ll show you a place,” she said, then turned and left him to follow.
They walked in the middle of the road when there was no traffic, avoiding the ankle-deep water. Jay pushed along the Spaceliner he’d just bought. It was a bit more money than he’d planned to spend, and a bit dinged-up, its jade color a little faded. But still a steal, considering.
They didn’t take the cut to River this time, but continued up to Sixty-one, then past it, further north on Bell than Jay had ever been. The road narrowed as the traffic and buildings grew scarce. Instead, pines predominated here, their thick crowns admitting little light to the ground. Jay could smell the river now, the ripened breath of mud.
Another turn. They were parallel the river now, Jay thought, beginning to guess where she was taking them. It was brighter now. An open field spread out to the left, bathed in sunlight as if the light had parted the forest to make room for it. Jay noted how sandy the soil was.
“I’m almost sad it’s fall now,” he murmured. “The fields look so empty.”
“Not empty,” she countered. “They still grow crops here this late in the year,. Collards and onions. Radish, squash, kale. Butterbeans and wax beans, red cabbage, peas.” The names were like a song in her silvery voice.
Jay had guessed wrong. They came to the road Jay had expected, but she took the turn he had not, toward the river. The pines thinned and gave way to smaller, thicker stands of bare-armed trees.
And then he saw it. Slate blue, swollen so only the tips of the tall grasses could still breathe. A sheet of shining glass, nearly infinite. It was the river. Yellowed bands of marsh skirted the edges, here and away near the farther shore. Just to the left a live oak knelt so that its bent and reaching arms nearly touched the water.
“Oh,” he could only say.
“This is the highest I’ve seen it in a while,” said Rumor. “But it shouldn’t rise any more.”
“So long as the rain doesn’t start again.”
“It won’t. It’s the driest time of the year now. We’re not like to get more for a few weeks at least, I’d guess.”
Jay turned to her. “You really know this town well, don’t you? I get that feeling. Like you belong here. Rooted. It must be nice.”
He scanned the marshes again. “I used to have that,” he went on. “Not now. I can’t feel comfortable in the same place for more than a day or so…I don’t belong anywhere anymore.”
Her eyes bored into him again. Searching for something. She didn’t smile, only nodded to herself after a moment.
Jay shivered. What did the nod mean? That she could read him so easily? Could she see in him, somehow, the thing he’d been running from all these months? No — that was silly.
On the way back they halted by the road Jay had thought she would take. He wanted to go on with her, all the way down Coffin toward her hidden home, but something held him back. He felt a need to say something, but didn’t know what it needed to be.
Rumor waited. She seemed to understand.
“Your hair,” he finally managed, the words tasting dry in his mouth as he spoke. “It seems longer than before.”
She frowned, seeming to know it was not what he’d meant to say. She shook her head.
“I had it tied up then,” she said, and left him alone at the crossroads.