The truck horn reverberated through the car, through her skin, through her bones. Without conscious thought, she knew what it was and knew that the impact was imminent. She squeezed the steering wheel and her body stiffened as she looked in her rearview mirror and saw nothing but the ever-growing front grill of a massive truck. The impact never came and for a moment she thought that he must have already hit and was pushing her down the highway. Then the horn blasted again and the truck backed off.
She looked ahead. All was clear. A car blew by her on the left, the horn blaring. She looked at speedometer. She was only going forty-five. She passed a speed limit sign. Seventy. Another blast from the truck behind her and she pulled onto the shoulder.
Her hands were shaking.
She didn’t remember getting on the interstate. Didn’t remember pulling out of Robert’s driveway. Didn’t remember getting in the car. The last thing she remembered was his hand on hers.
She put the windows down and turned off the engine. She sat for fifteen minutes, the cool air swirling her hair every time a car went by. Her hand shook. She told herself it was just nerves, but she knew that was a lie.
She took the next exit that promised lodging. In the distance she saw MOTEL in white, glowing letters and drove past the national chains to the two-story block building with rooms that opened onto a parking lot that was shared by a waffle house. She had seen worse. She asked for a room on the second floor, even though it meant carrying her bags up the flight of stairs. On her second trip, she noticed a man and a woman sitting in a pickup a few cars down from hers. She was halfway up the stairs when her left leg buckled and had she not been able to steady herself with the bag she was carrying, she would have gone down. She glanced back at the pickup. They were still watching. The woman had those eyes. Too big, too wide, too alert, too something. Too long on meth, more than likely. Haunting eyes. Predator eyes. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t leave the room until the next day.
Inside, she turned on the television for some white noise. She lay on the bed fully clothed, covered only with a blanket from the car. Even so, she fell asleep almost immediately and slept until dawn.
Because it was a Sunday morning she knew traffic would be light in Charlotte and make for a less stressful drive until she got back on a long stretch of interstate. She looked out the window and was relieved to see the pickup truck gone. She checked out and walked across the parking lot to the waffle house. There were only a few people in the restaurant so she took a table by the window and while she waited on her order, she mapped out her day’s travel on her phone.
Breakfast smells. Bacon, coffee, toast, sweet syrups. There was a constant clatter of plates and clinking silverware, muffled conversations. A man and a woman two tables away shared an easy laugh, probably over an inane comment, Heather guessed, that if made four hours later, would be annoying, but because their sensibilities were rested, anything said would benefit from an extra measure of forgiveness. She understood. Morning grace, as it were.
It had been a long time since Heather had shared such a morning. She thought back to her life with Robert and remembered the early days before the boys, where even after a hard night she would fry some eggs and bacon in the closet of a kitchen in their tiny apartment. They drank a lot of tomato juice back then to help ease the headaches. Then her mother died. She changed, and Robert didn’t. So she threw him out and the house immediately became more serene. Breakfast alone can be relaxing, but a peace shared is a gift. So she sat at her table in the waffle house, enjoying the ambiance of a loving home, even if it was a store-bought substitute.
“No, no, no, no, no, no.”
A little boy, maybe up too early. It had been going on for a few minutes, but she hadn’t noticed until the persistence of his cries demanded attention from everyone in the restaurant.
“Jacob.” His mother’s voice, from the table beside her. “Jacob, eat your waffles.”
“No, no, no, no, no, no.”
She turned without thinking. The boy, maybe five years old, stood across from his mother, fidgeting.
She turned to the mother and offered a smile of encouragement, before she saw the eyes. Those same eyes, not quite as baneful as last night, but their essence remained unchanged. She was thin, which served to intensify her eyes, and her hair was pulled back from her face and accentuated her hollow cheeks. Her plate was clean, even the yolk from her eggs had been sopped up.
“Eat, Jacob.” She turned to Heather. “He’s a handful.”
“They can be.”
“You have kids?”
“Two? I don’t know how you do it. They’re holy terrors.”
She spoke in quick, hurried clips. She was a smoker. At least Heather imagined that she was. She could see her taking puffs in between sentences, dropping the cigarette to the ground before she was through, grinding it with the sole of her shoe. Or maybe carefully snuff out the burning end with a few quick pinches of her fingers to save it for later.
“They can be. Especially at that age.”
Jacob was staring at her, his fidgeting had stopped for the moment.
He was quiet, studying.
“How old are your boys?”
“Mine? They’re grown.”
The woman reached across the table and stabbed Jacob’s waffle with her fork.
“If you’re not going to eat it.”
She gave Heather a shrug, but didn’t bother with a smile. Jacob had moved to the end of the table, standing at the side of Heather’s booth, still staring. His eyes were brown and gentle, and though his blonde hair was uncombed and his shirt stained with food from days past, he had the innocent softness that all children have, despite whatever hell they’re living in.
“It’s your hair. He likes your hair.”
“Do you like my red hair?”
The boy nodded. She patted his head. “I like yours, too.”
He giggled. Then he reached out, took a handful and pulled it toward him. Heather leaned in his direction.
“Geez, Jacob, don’t pull the woman’s hair out. Get your ass back over here and eat your food.”
Her words, her tone, though familiar, surprised Heather. She had been that way with Robbie, no doubt. For the most part, Micah had had a sober mother.
Jacob didn’t move. He ran his fingers through her hair.
“I give up.” She finished his waffles.
“It will get better.” Heather didn’t know if that was true, but she felt like she had to say it. The odds were greatly against anything getting better. It had taken her own mother’s death to turn things around for her, and even then, it was tenuous for a while. This woman looked to be deep in the abyss, beyond alcohol, probably beyond meth. There were likely needles in the floor of the pickup truck. Jacob’s future wasn’t promising.
“I’ve got to run out to the car. Can you watch him for a minute?”
Before Heather could answer, the woman stood and gulped the last of her coffee. She pulled her sweater up over her shoulders and leaned over and kissed Jacob on top of his head.
“I’ll be right back.”
Heather knew she wouldn’t be. She knew she was leaving.
It happened too quickly for her to respond. She was out the door. Heather watched as she walked across the parking lot toward the motel. She got in a car. She drove away.
“Oh my God.”
Her heart raced. She looked around the restaurant. Nothing had changed. People were still eating. A waiter stood beside a table, one hand on his hip, one on the back of a chair as he chatted with another man, a trucker, judging from his appearance. Another poured coffee for an old man and his wife. The sounds were the same, the smells were the same. Nothing had changed.
“Where’s my mommy?”
The boy had wandered back to his table, to his mother’s chair, pulled out from the table.
“She’ll be back in a minute. She had to run out to the car.”
He turned and looked at her. His expression was hard to read. She half expected that he would realize that his mother had driven off, and in a child’s comprehension of reality, know that she was never coming back. Then the uncontrollable crying would start. Any second now. Except that it didn’t. His expression didn’t change. This had happened before. Which gave Heather hope that his mother would indeed return.
The waiter who had been talking to the trucker brought her breakfast and filled her coffee cup. He looked at the table where Jacob stood and then looked around for his mother. Then he smiled at the boy.
“She had to run out for something. She’s coming back.”
He looked out the window to the parking lot, then set the coffee carafe on the table and started gathering their plates.
Heather looked at the boy.
“Do you like donuts, Jacob?”
“Can you bring us a couple of jelly filled donuts?”
“Sure. We have lemon and berry.”
Jacob smiled for the first time. “Lemon.”
“Why don’t you sit over here while we wait for your mother?”
He slid into the booth and looked up at Heather, his hands in his lap. The waiter returned with two donuts, each one on its own plate. Jacob picked it up without waiting and took a big bite. He giggled.
Heather glanced out the window without turning her head, hoping to see the car pull back into the parking lot. She had probably just gone for cigarettes. Rude and irresponsible, but for a mother on drugs, forgivable.
The two ate without talking, their thoughts undoubtedly on different tracks.
Jacob poked the jelly filling with his finger, then stuck it in his mouth. She would have admonished Robbie or Micah, but she let it go. Anything to keep his mind off his mother.
“Do you go to school?”
He shook his head.
She thought of other things to ask, but she was sure she would get the same response. No brothers or sisters. No pets. No friends. Left for hours in front of the television. Just as she had done with Robbie.
“What’s your favorite show?”
He shrugged. He seemed tired.
“Are you sleepy?”
She glanced out the window again. Nothing.
“What’s your mommy’s name?”
It was a risk, but she had judged correctly that his sleepiness would overrule any worry about his mother.
“No, I mean what does your daddy call her?”
“I don’t have a daddy.”
“It’s ok. My boys didn’t have a daddy, either.” Not exactly the truth, but close enough to serve the purpose.
“What do your mommy’s friends call her?”
“What’s her last name?”
“Is that your last name, too?”
“Yes. I’m sleepy.”
He yawned, and then lay down on the bench of the booth.
Heather looked out at the parking lot again, and then back at the restaurant. The elderly couple had left. Her waiter was standing by the cashier counter, his arms crossed, a towel slung over his shoulder.
Ten minutes passed.
Heather walked to the cashier, an older woman with gray, wiry hair. She wore no makeup. Her waiter met her there.
“I’ll pay for both.”
“Do you know her?”
She looked back at the booth, Jacob still asleep on the bench.
“I know her name, that’s all. She asked me to watch him while she ran out to the car.”
“What if she doesn’t come back?”
“Let’s give her until ten o’clock.” Another twenty five minutes.
She went back to the booth. The waiter followed, refilled her coffee cup and gave her a look and a shake of his head that said this whole thing wasn’t going to end well. He was probably right. She was already thinking of what her next move would be. She could call the police, who would probably take Jacob, then call CPS. She could do an internet search for Amanda Brown. She looked over at the motel. Maybe they stayed there last night. She was about to get up and explain to the waiter what she was going to do when her phone rang. It was her brother.
“Well, he’s here.” Her father. Their father. Finally out of prison.
“In your apartment?”
“Still asleep in the back room.”
“What would they have done if you hadn’t agreed to take him?”
“He’d still be in there.”
“It’s where he should be.”
“He’s not well. He’s not who he was when he went in.”
“Having second thoughts?”
“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to take care of him.”
“Send him back.”
“I can’t do that.”
“I’m not taking him, Wayne. I don’t know why you agreed to it in the first place, but there’s no way I’m taking him.”
“It was the right thing to do. He’s our father.”
“He murdered our mother.”
There was a long pause.
“It wasn’t like that. She wouldn’t have wanted the life that was ahead of her.”
“Not his call. He’s a murderer and he should have stayed locked up until he died.”
Another long pause.
“I just wanted you to know.” His voice softened to a whisper. “He’s not well and I don’t know how long he’s got. A year, maybe a couple.”
“Can’t be soon enough.”
“Come on, Pip.”
Jacob rolled a little on the bench and for a second she thought he was going to roll off onto the floor, but he settled against the back rest.
She didn’t want to tell her brother that she was on her way down. That might give him some relief and she needed him to figure things out on his own. She didn’t want him thinking that she was going to be any part of their father’s post-prison life. It was his problem, not hers. It was his father, not hers.
“We’ll talk about it later. I’m kind of in the middle of something here. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
She looked out at the parking lot again and saw more cars, none of them Amanda’s.
The waiter was talking to the cashier. They glanced toward her between words. Where before they had looked at her with sympathetic smiles, their looks had changed, their eyes danced nervously as they tried not to look her way, but they couldn’t help themselves. The cashier shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
He must have overheard her conversation. What had she said?
The word murder came to mind. Yeah, that might trigger suspicion.
She walked toward them and they stood straight and stiffened as she did.
“That was my brother I was talking to. My father’s been paroled in Texas. That’s where I’m going. It’s a bad situation.”
They relaxed a little, but only a little. In their eyes, she was no longer the good Samaritan. Maybe closer to the woman at the well. But they weren’t Jesus. More like Pharisees. A woman with a murderous father couldn’t have much good in her.
“Can you watch Jacob? I think they stayed at the motel last night and I thought I’d check to see if they had any contact information on her.”
The waiter didn’t speak, deferring judgment to the cashier. Heather looked at her, waiting for a response.
“Do you know the woman’s name?”
“I’ll call.” She picked up the phone and found the number in a spiral notebook beside the register. It was a quick conversation.
“The manager wasn’t working last night. He checked the records from yesterday and the only woman registered was a Heather Roth.”
“That’s me. No Browns registered?”
She shook her head.
“I guess we need to call the police.”
The cashier picked up the phone and dialed.
When the cruiser pulled into the parking lot twenty minutes later, Amanda had been gone for nearly an hour and a half. Heather met the two officers outside the waffle house. One was older and had to be near retirement, the other was a young African-American so fresh-faced that he looked like a boy playing cops. The younger officer stood with his arms crossed while his partner spoke with Heather in even tones, showing no shock or surprise at the situation, as if he had encountered child abandonment before, as if he were numb or calloused or simply resigned to the heartless condition of some people. She found his manner comforting.
They ran Amanda Brown through the system. Shoplifting. Petit larceny. Possession. Marital Status: Single.
They said they could put out a BOLO, but she wouldn’t be a high priority. They would take Jacob back to the precinct and call in Child Protective Services. Even if they found his mother, he would likely end up in a group home for a while. She would have a hard time getting him back after abandonment. Eventually, Jacob would end up in a foster home, if he was lucky.
“Can I ride down with him?”
They looked at each other. She sensed she had asked for something that was a breach of protocol.
“Sure. He’s inside, I guess.”
“He’s asleep. Let me go wake him and I’ll bring him out.”
“Get in the car, Wilson.” He gave his cap to the young cop.
Heather went inside.
“Jacob.” She shook his leg. He opened his eyes, looked at her, and sat up. He looked over her shoulder, then back at her.
“Your mother’s not back yet.”
His expression didn’t change.
“We’re going to go down to the police station to wait on her, ok?”
“Is she in jail?”
She took him by the hand and started walking toward the door.
“Where do you live?”
He shrugged and kept walking. “Different places.”
At the station, the officer suggested using the front door so they wouldn’t have to walk past the holding cells. They went through the lobby to another room with a sofa and two upholstered chairs. A television sat on a table across from the sofa.
“You two can wait here. CPS should be here before too long.”
The clock on the wall said 11:55. She was way behind schedule, not that she had a real schedule. Still, she would just as soon get the business with her father over with and get back home. They were in the room ten minutes when the young officer opened the door.
“May I see you, ma’am?”
She followed him down a corridor to a large room full of cubicles where the older officer sat at a desk.
“Ms. Roth.” He wasn’t smiling.
She’d seen that look before. A cop with bad news.
“The boy’s mother is dead. Found her in her car about a mile from the waffle house.” There wasn’t much more to say.
“What’s going to happen to him?”
“It’s still a CPS matter. They’ll try to locate a father. A relative. Maybe his grandparents are around, but in cases like this, it’s not unusual for them to be as messed up as his mother. More than likely, he’ll be put in the foster care system.”
“Can I stay with him until CPS gets here?”
It was another hour before they arrived. She had tried to talk to Jacob, but he was more interested in the cartoon he was watching than talking to her.
“Your mother isn’t coming back.” She hadn’t even thought about saying that, it just came out, and when she said it, she knew she had probably made a mistake. But Jacob didn’t react. Didn’t turn to her. Didn’t cry. Didn’t do anything.
“Did you hear me?”
“Is she dead?”
His eyes were still on the anime characters bouncing around in an unrealistic television world. Then she saw his eyes weren’t moving, weren’t following the action. He was just staring.
She moved close to him and wrapped her arms around him. They sat like that, with her rocking slowly while tears ran down the boy’s face. Soon he was asleep. She held him until CPS arrived and took him away.
The two officers were gone by then. She asked the dispatcher if someone could take her back to the waffle house. She sat alone in the back of the squad car.
copyright 2018, joseph e bird, from the novel, Heather Girl