The bus station was gritty, grimy in both dirt and the obscene glow of the fluorescent lights that burned or flickered in the night. The hitchhiker got off the truck wearily, black plastic garbage bag slung over her shoulder, and wandered into the bus depot’s waiting room. Looking around warily, the girl headed to the benches least in sight of the ticket agent and sat down. In minutes, her head was drooping and her chin hit her chest. She jerked upright and shook her head, staring groggily into the dark night outdoors. Her battle against sleep was almost over again when the station security guard poked her gently with his nightstick.
“Hey, kid. Can’t sleep here,” he said.
The girl started up and stammered that she was just waiting for the morning bus, to no avail; the guard just shook his head and pointed to the door with his stick.
“You got a couple of dollars?” he asked gently, and the girl nodded. “Then you might get on the train for a few hours,” the guard said sympathetically. “They don’t bother you none there at night, usually. Two blocks down on your left.”
The girl nodded and stumbled out of the station, turning left on the street. She hadn’t gone but a block when a car slowed down next to her. The window slid down and a deep voice said “Hey, kid. Need a place to stay?”
The girl looked at the man, then up and down the darkened street, and finally nodded slowly.
“Get in.” She opened the back door.
“No, the front,” the man ordered, and she slowly walked around the car to the front passenger door. She tossed her bag in the back seat and buckled her seat belt. As the car drove off, she saw the station guard looking after them, head shaking.
“What’s your name?” the man asked, glancing at her.
“Madeline,” she answered, stifling a yawn.
“Well, Madeline, we’re both travelers tonight. I’m going to treat you to a nice comfortable bed. Sound good?”
“Yeah,” Madeline said warily.
“Yes,” the man said with satisfaction. “I like being nice to people. You be nice to me, and I’ll be nice to you. It’s a win-win, right?”
“Yeah, guess so,” Madeline said, staring out the window.
They pulled into a motel downtown and the man led her to a room. Unlocking the door, he said, “You use the bathroom first.” Madeline gratefully complied, since her bladder felt like it was ready to burst. Her stomach was growling, too, since she hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours.
When she came out, she asked “Hey, man. You got a candy bar or something?”
The man paused taking off his tie. “You can call me Bob. When was the last time you ate?”
“Yesterday afternoon,” Madeline replied, eyes downcast.
Bob hesitated, then removed his tie and patted the wallet in his back pocket. “Come with me.”
Madeline followed him as he walked a couple of blocks down the deserted streets to a bar. “Get what you want,” Bob said, and downed a few Black Jacks while Madeline devoured a cheeseburger plate. She declined a beer or cocktail and instead ordered a large Coke.
“Where you from, Madeline?”
“South Georgia,” she said, mouth full, then took a long drink of Coke.
“So how’d you end up here?”
Madeline looked at him for the first time and burped loudly. Bob laughed and she did, too, blushing.
“Sorry,” she said, ducking her head. “It’s a long story.”
“Well, I’ve got all night,” Bob said. “What’s the short form?”
“My dad threw me out because I’m gay,” Madeline said bluntly. “Said he didn’t want the shame of everyone knowing he’d sired a fucking dyke. I told him I didn’t want the shame of everyone knowing my father was a bigot.”
Bob was silent. “And your mother?” he finally said, gently.
Madeline paused for a long time, and her voice was ragged when she answered. “She has no say. She cried, but it didn’t do any good. I tried to stay with some friends back home, but their families weren’t having that, either. Finally hopped a ride with the first trucker that’d pick me up. So here I am.” She finished the last of her Coke. “Don’t mind tellin’ you, I’m pretty tired.”
“Yes, I imagine so,” Bob said thoughtfully. “You done?”
“Yeah. Thanks. I feel better.”
“I’ll bet. Bartender?” He paid the bill and they walked in silence back to the motel.
Back in the room, Madeline sat awkwardly on the bed as Bob unbuttoned his pants and walked over to stand in front of her.
“Have enough energy left? You know what to do,” he said in a low voice.
Madeline sighed. “Sure,” she said, and leaned forward to receive. It’s not so bad, she thought to herself. Just giving a service, right? Even trade. She closed her eyes and began to perform as desired.
But after it was over and Bob had collapsed, sated, on the bed, Madeline wrapped her arms around herself and burrowed into the pillow of the other bed. She stared long into the dark, mind blank, aware only of feeling ungodly cold and shaky. And something else. She puzzled over it and finally decided she felt, well, lost, she guessed. Yeah, that was it. Lost. Her mind had separated from her body and she studied that idea almost clinically, until exhaustion reclaimed her into some kind of peace.
She awoke to the knocking on the door as a woman called, “Housekeeping.” She hastily gathered the sheet around her naked body and turned as the door opened. Bob was gone and a couple of twenties lay on the night table. The maid looked in and, startled, shouted a scrim of disgusted invective in Spanish, making it clear that Madeline was to get out pronto or la policia would be called. She slammed the door and Maddie scrambled to her feet.
She pulled aside the drape and winced at the light, then made her way over to the sink and blearily eyed herself. “Fuck it,” she said to her image. “Let her call the cops. I need a shower.” She stepped under the shower, lifting her face to the water sluicing over her, and soaped up. She washed her hair and then stood under the water for some time after rinsing off. Stepping out, she scrubbed herself dry with the thin towel, pulled out a clean T-shirt from her garbage bag, and eased into her jeans. Returning to the mirror, she looked at herself again.
She saw a stranger, a harder kid, flinty of eye. No, actually, not a kid, not anymore. A woman. She stared for another minute or two, getting familiar with this stranger. Then she shrugged, tossed the bag over her shoulder, pocketed the money, and walked out the door.