© 1999 Allie McCormack
Dust. Nothing but dust everywhere. It obscured the landscape, so that nothing except the tumbleweeds blowing across the highway were visible. The great silver bus, impervious to the howling winds and sand that battered it, plowed steadily forward. To the girl staring out the window it seemed that the bus and everyone in it were caught in a time warp--suspended, static--while only the wind and dust were alive, roaring about them. Just then a particularly vicious crosswind rocked the bus, and the whimsy vanished. She wondered if they would be overturned. Not that she cared. She was so tired. Hungry, too... she hadn't eaten since the day before, just a stale sandwich from a machine at the Greyhound station in the dash to catch this bus to nowhere. She hadn't been in the terminal long - a few minutes at most. With any luck, it hadn't been long enough for anyone to have noticed her, should she be traced far. She shivered, glancing instinctively out the window. Again the ferocious windstorm met her eyes. It was obscurely comforting.
"Are you warm enough, honey?"
It was the elderly gentleman across the aisle. She nodded, forcing a smile, but faint alarm registered. This wasn't the first time he'd spoken to her. She didn't want to be noticed, couldn't afford anyone to pay enough attention to her to be able to recognize her later. She hoped the baggy jacket and the knit cap pulled down around her face would help a bit. Wyoming was chilly even in early summer, raw air creeping into the bus from the windows, so being warmly bundled was unremarkable. Falling into conversation with strangers was dangerous. One ceased to be strangers; worse, one became recognizable. He was a nice old man, his thick silvery hair neatly brushed back, faded eyes behind thick glasses shining with concern. It hurt her to just smile and close her eyes in a pretense of sleep. Such kindness deserved better than that. And where were they, she wondered suddenly, bitterly. Those caring people with the helping hand, where were they when they were needed most? And now, when the last thing she needed was kind strangers taking notice of her, they were everywhere. First, there'd been that lady on the last bus, the one she'd left in Denver. She might as well have scattered bread crumbs, she thought drowsily, if her father thought to follow the trail marked by good Samaritans.
Teri awoke with a start. Glancing out the window, she saw they were at a small truck stop, the lights of the brick building beckoning cheerily some yards away through a haze of wind-blown sand. Passengers were already descending, running for the warmth and lights of the restaurant, clutching coats and hats and purses against the biting wind.
"Half an hour," the burly driver said to the remaining passengers like herself who were just waking up. "I know it's not a scheduled stop, but we're behind schedule with this wind. It'll be close on to midnight before we reach Salt Lake City. Stretch your legs, get warm, have a bite of supper before we go on."
Teri didn't have any fault to find with that. She rose, stretching with a grimace as her joints rebelled. Leaning down to drag her backpack from under the seat, she slung it over her shoulder with practiced ease and headed for the front of the bus. Even the hours of traveling through the windswept southern plains of Wyoming hadn't prepared her for the reality of the gale. It almost swept her off her feet as she stepped onto the pavement. Staggering, she gripped the straps of her backpack more tightly so it wouldn't be ripped out of her hands. Head bowed, she leaned forward against the wind, planting her feet with care as she made her way to the haven of the restaurant.
The abrupt change from the noise and frantic tempo of vehicle and wind, to gentle music and comforting warmth, was a shock. Teri paused, blinking as much to clear her mind as against the gritty sand from outside.
Mike looked up looked up just as the girl was propelled through the door, the wind at her back a live force, determined to have one last chance at her before she reached safety. His coffee cup stopped halfway to his mouth. God, a runaway. Poor kid. She probably thought the baggy clothes would give her anonymity, but in fact they created quite the opposite effect. Her slight figure was clad in faded black jeans and a large, bulky jacket hanging almost to her knees. Short, curling dark hair peeked from under a knit cap, and big blue eyes seemed overlarge in a slender, pale, pixie-like face. She presented the appearance of an appealing waif, lost and homeless.... guaranteed to bring out the nurturing instinct in every kind heart that crossed her path. Yeah, a runaway. He knew the signs. Hell, he'd been one himself. Well, he wished her luck. At least she'd have a good meal here, whether she could afford it or not. Marsha would know the signs, too, and feed the kid up good. If he knew Marsha, she'd probably slide a twenty into the kid's pocket, and Joe would have a fit. A reminiscent smile tugged at his lips.
Teri slid onto the nearest stool and looked around, taking stock of the place. It was small and unpretentious place, homey; not one of the enormous, gleaming, sterile truck stop establishments. The main part of the restaurant was one long room, with large picture windows overlooking the highway. Vinyl booths ran along the front by the windows. They were dark maroon, not the bright red that so many places used, and looked well cared for. Across from them, a counter ran the length of the room. The stools were of wood; light and highly polished, they were old and comfortably worn. To her left the foyer led to a Quik-Mart, and she could see some of her fellow passengers browsing amongst the rows of postcards, assorted packaged foods and travelers gear. Opposite the front door stood a signpost reading "Trucker's Section," and more booths and a counter stretched towards the back of the building, where a sign advertising "Showers" hung. Beyond, a glass door led into the back parking lot. Overall, the place looked..... friendly, Teri thought with a pang. She could picture a family tending this homey place over the decades, with generations of loving hands polishing the counter, dusting the booths, and smiling faces greeting customers new and old. Not that she would know much about family, she thought.
A tall, rail thin woman catapulted through the double doors leading from the kitchen, balancing half a dozen plates. Teri blinked in wonder. Masses of red hair were piled haphazardly onto the woman's head in defiance of any laws of gravity, and stray wisps had escaped here and there. Long earrings dangled, improbably pink against the red hair, and a dozen bracelets jingled on each thin wrist. Brilliant green eyes, unadorned with makeup, seemed to reflect both kindness and humor, with fine lines extending outward. Teri found herself instinctively drawn to her. The woman paused for a bare millisecond, scanning the room as she gathered herself for her next rush towards the other end of the room. Maneuvering her armload of plates through the opening in the counter, she gave Teri a friendly smile on her way past.
"Be with you in half a sec, honey," she called back over her shoulder. "We're a little under the gun, not expecting you lot, and with Betty down sick and my other gal just quit yesterday to go off to college in San Antonio, and the cook just plain didn't show and Joe in there doin' the cooking. Y'all will be here more than half an hour, surely you will, and so I'll tell Dave when he pokes his nose in here. A body's only got two hands, and I've only got one body."
"Now," the woman was back in front of Teri, having delivered her meals while talking nonstop the whole time. "You know what you want, honey?"
Teri looked around the crowded counter and booths. The restaurant was as full as it could hold, mostly with passengers from the bus, although the truckers' section opposite the front door was also full. She hesitated a moment, glancing back at the waitress. The friendly look in those brilliant emerald eyes decided her, and she smiled tentatively.
"I've done some waitressing. I can help you out until the bus is ready to go."
The woman's expression seemed suddenly dubious, and Teri raised her chin against the sharp assessment, a flush staining her cheeks. "I can pay for a meal. I just thought you could use the help."
A man appeared through the double doors to the kitchen, a white cap askew on his head. "Fer crissake, Marsha, let her help! I've a dozen more dinners waiting in here and the gal is offering to help out! Stop shuffling your feet and put her to work!"
Marsha threw an impatient glance over her shoulder. "Pooh, you don't know anything! I'll mind my business, and you go mind your cooking, Joe."
She turned back to Teri. "I could sure use the help, but you won't have time to eat, honey."
"A sandwich and fries?" Teri suggested. "That I can take with me?"
"Done!" The woman heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Come on and get an apron. I'll take the orders and you deliver the dinners, Joe can tell you who they go to. I'm Marsha, and there's Bob in back washing dishes."
Further down the counter, Mike hid a smile behind his coffee cup.
Marsha watched the bus passengers begin to file out of the restaurant, not 45 minutes but a full hour later, and the crowd in the restaurant finally started to thin out. Some of the travelers were lingering over the newspapers by the doorway or milling about the Quik-Mart, delaying until the last possible moment the mad dash to the bus through the furious, biting wind. Five minutes before, she had pressed Teri into a seat at the counter and stood over her as the girl worked her way through a steaming plate of roast beef and mashed potatoes. The bus driver, Dave, finished his coffee, glancing with reluctance out the window at the gale raging outside.
"Best get the old gal warmed up." He shoved his cap with its pull-down flaps of fur over his ears, and stomped outside.
Marsha hitched one hip onto the edge of the counter, watching the girl from the bus slip on that ridiculously oversized coat. She'd spent the last half hour turning a plan over in her mind, and made her final decision now, seeing how the girl's eyes slid wistfully over the homey cheer of the restaurant. She looked over her shoulder at Jim, and he dipped his chin in agreement, coming out of the kitchen to stand beside her.
Teri hefted her backpack to one shoulder, smiling at them both. It wasn't much of a smile, the first one Marsha had seen from her yet, but it brightened her eyes, and lifted some of the strain from her waif's face.
"I'm glad I could help. You have a nice place here. Thank you."
Marsha was nothing if not blunt. "You're a runaway, aren't you?"
The blood receded from Teri's face, and Joe punched Marsha in the shoulder.
"Way to go, old girl. Nice and tactful, as usual.
Marsha frowned at him. "You shut up. I got something to say, I say it. Not like some people, who beat around the bush for an hour. Besides, this doesn't have anything to do with you. Go gas up a truck or cook something. And you broke my shoulder."
"I did no such thing. You're scaring the child to death."
Marsha turned her attention back to Teri, who was indeed poised as if for flight, fear warring with bewilderment in the blue eyes as she looked back and forth between husband and wife, confused by their banter.
"It's like this. I'm short of help, and you're a good worker. You picked up real quick on our set-up here, and you fit in like you'd been here for a year. If you've got no place to go to, you could do worse than stop here. You'd have a job, with pay and tips, free meals, and we'll put you up in our spare room til you've got enough together to get yourself a little place in town."
Teri felt herself begin to tremble. Her knees shook, and she clutched the back of a stool for support. She looked again around the restaurant, a surge of hope flooding through her. It was a moment before she could trust her voice to speak.
"I could stay? I could stay.... here?"
Joe looked away, clearing his throat to smother the chuckle that threatened; the child made it sound like she'd been invited into the gates of Heaven. Marsha merely nodded, holding Teri's gaze with her own.
"We'll do fair by you, and all we ask is that you do the same in return. A fair day's work for a fair day's wage. "
Home. She would have a home. A place to stay... a chance to make a beginning. It was more than she had hoped to find anywhere.
"Thank you," she whispered, her voice quivering. "Thank you."
"Someone should tell Dave."
Teri jumped at the deep voice behind her, turning with a gasp, her fingers clutching the stool in alarm. She gasped again as she looked up.... and up.... to the most beautiful face she had ever seen.
A blond young giant stood before her. He was tall, with broad shoulders and lean hips. Perhaps in his early or mid 20s, he was all golden; skin burnished by the sun to a deep bronze, and his thick hair worn long to his neck and slightly shaggy, of a color that would rival the bullion in Fort Knox. His face was almost classic in its beauty, with high cheekbones, a patrician nose, and a generous, wide mouth with beautifully sculpted lips. His eyes were green; not the brilliant, gleaming emerald of Marsha's eyes, but a cool, sea green with bottomless depths. Teri had the sudden fancy that they were old eyes... old eyes that saw too much, knew too much. And he was tall. He stood several inches above six feet, and towered over her own five foot two. Tall and golden and confident..... so would Thor have looked, striding across the battlefield, she thought.
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