Him, in a gray coat and red scarf.
Him, one hand on the gas pump, the other in his pocket.
Him, winking at me while whistling a tune.
Me, in the same blue hoodie and jeans I’ve been wearing for the past two days.
Me, fumbling to light a cigarette I bought with a fake ID.
Me, eyeing him cautiously.
“Hey,” he says, walking over after hanging up the gas pump. “Are you heading somewhere?”
Because he smells like pine needles, I answer. “North,” I say, and blow out a gray cloud of smoke. “I’m a bird.”
“Do you want a ride?”
Because his eyes are the blue of the patterns on my late grandmother’s china plates, I answer. “Okay.”
It is still slightly warm inside his red Chevy—warmer than the winter tundra outside at least. A golden medal bearing the image of the Blessed Mother hangs from his rearview mirror. He turns the key in the ignition and the car roars to life. I place my palms against the vents blowing hot air.
His buckle clicks into place. “Now don’t take this the wrong way,” he says, “but didn’t your parents ever warn you about accepting rides from strangers?”
Raised by a single mother, I have always been wary of men.
Men, with their large mouths and whiskey breaths.
Men, with their braying laughs and flying spittle.
Men, with their grabbing hands and stomping feet.
But he barely left footprints in the snow and I am tired of buses, so I answer, “I’ll take my chances.”
“I can’t say that’s the best attitude to have, but on the other hand, I’m glad you trust me.” He glances over at me and smiles. “My name’s Rob, by the way.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Naomi,” he says as we pull out of the gas station and onto the highway. I shove my hands into my jacket pocket and slouch down in my seat.
The car smells like cinnamon, and loose change fills the cup holders. A plastic supermarket bag lies crumpled on the floor, the smiley-face logo staring blankly through the ceiling.
“Feel free to turn on the radio or pop in a CD, Naomi,” he says, gesturing towards the CD holder between the two front seats. I browse through his collection; most of the CDs are rock albums from the 1970s through 2000s, but several are homemade mixes with titles such as “Summer 2003,” “Melancholy Tunes,” and “Night Drives.”
My fingers linger on one homemade mix. I take the cd out of its plastic shell and feed it to the car stereo. A soft melody starts playing.
My heart leaps in my chest, and I turn the volume up. The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” My mother used to sing it to me as a lullaby.
“I love this song!” I say, turning to Rob, still grasping the case in my hand, leaving fingerprints on the clear plastic. His smile grows a little larger and he bobs his head along with the music. He begins lip-syncing along with George Harrison, drumming his fingers upon the steering wheel.
I laugh and hold up the CD case. “‘For Her?’” I ask, reading the title scrawled across the cover in marker. “Who’s her?”
“My daughter.” He grins, squinting into the fading sunlight. “She’s my everything. When she was a baby, I would play this CD when I drove around the neighborhood at night, trying to get her to fall asleep.” He chuckled. “She was very colicky. Still acts that way sometimes, when her mother and I try to feed her veggies. Hardly out of diapers, and she’s already giving me gray hairs.”
“You sound like a good dad.”
He flips on the turning signal, switching lanes and entering the turnpike. “I’d like to think so,” he says. “I’d do anything for my daughter.” He glances over at me. “I’m sure all parents feel the same.”
I bite my lip and turn away. Snow falls outside like cherry blossoms in April.
“Aren’t your folks going to be worried about you?” he asks. “What are you running from, Naomi?”
My stomach threatens to erupt from my throat. I swallow it down and watch the snow from my shoes melt into brown slush on the car’s rubber mats.
I can’t tell him about dark nights when I cradled her fevered head to my chest.
I can’t tell him about scrubbing the putrid sour scent of vomit from carpets.
I can’t tell him about how I left my mother in her bed, empty eyes staring past the ceiling.
So when he pauses at the tollbooth, I push open the passenger door and run into the snowy evening. The cold rattles in my chest and snowflakes blind me, but I need to keep moving forward.
I hear his voice carried by the winter wind. “Naomi!” He calls. I hesitate, looking back over my shoulder. He is leaning out of his car, his red scarf flapping around his face. “Naomi!” I keep running.
The snow blankets all. I can’t tell if I’m running on grass or concrete. I can’t tell if I’m running backwards or forwards, left or right. I am as directionless as a compass without a magnet.
A hand grabs my shoulder. “Naomi!” A choking sob breaks from my lips. I am clutching onto his coat as he wraps his arms around me, hot tears thawing my frozen cheeks. “If you want to run, I won’t stop you,” he says, “but know that nearby is a warm house with a homemade meal waiting on the table, with a wonderful woman and sweet little girl ready to love anyone who walks through their front door.” He holds me so close that I hear his heartbeat as if I were an infant in the womb, and he gently rocks my shuddering body back and forth. Melting like a snowflake caught upon a child’s tongue, I close my eyes and surrender into the whiteness that surrounds us.
Regina Solomond is a writer from Western PA. She is inspired by the oddities of the world, and the wonderfully strange people living in it. Her works have been published by Eunoia Review, Eye Contact, and The Camel Saloon.