Day One Hundred Nine
She was reeking and so obviously drunk that I was reluctant to fight her, even though I could’ve easily gotten away. Beating up a blind old woman didn’t seem fair, somehow, no matter what she chose to call me. So for the moment I held my peace. “He’s in his own room. He hasn’t been in here tonight.”
“Oh. So you used his bed, did you? Slut!”
She raised her hand to slap me, and that was more than I was going to tolerate. I grabbed her arm and wrestled it to her side, surprised at how strong she was. “Now listen to me—“
“I don’t have to listen to harlots and sinners! Coming around here corrupting my baby’s only child, you better not have given him some horrible disease!”
What she said next was even worse, but it doesn’t bear repeating. Luckily Craig heard the ruckus and came running. He took one look at me, trying to hold off his drunk and rabid grandmother, and took control of the situation. He grabbed her far more roughly than I would’ve dreamed of doing and dragged her down the hall while she kicked, screamed and cursed us both. He was gone a long time. I could hear their voices in the front room, but shut the door so I wouldn’t have to hear what they were saying.
When Craig tapped at my door half an hour later, I was leaning on the windowsill, taking deep breaths of the night air and wondering if I shouldn’t have taken my chances camping in a city park.
“I’m sorry, Diana. I had no idea she would do something like that—“
He was so embarrassed I couldn’t possibly be angry with him. “It’s okay. I know it’s not your fault. Or hers, either. Drinking does strange things to people’s minds.”
He shut the door behind him and sat on the edge of the bed. “I swear she didn’t use to be like this. She raised me, you know. Both of my parents were conscripted for the resource wars and never came back. We weren’t even given bodies to bury. Grandma tried to stay strong for me when I was small, but the older I got, the more she took to hitting the bottle. That’s where she lives any more. Just the bottle and her memories.”
I could think of nothing to say that wouldn’t sound trite. “Not everyone can be strong.”
“I guess not. But I told her how I felt about her saying those things about you. She won’t bother you again.”
“Thanks, but I don’t want to cause trouble. I should leave.”
He stood up and came over to me. “Don’t. I’m embarrassed enough already. I’d feel terrible knowing I let a pretty girl go off alone into a strange city in the middle of the night.”
I laughed. “I’m not pretty, and I can take care of myself. Really.”
He took a step closer and I could feel the heat of his body and sense the contours of his muscles under his sleeves. “Please stay.” He kissed me gently, and it was a warm and liquid thing. “Promise me you’ll stay.” His hand wandered toward the buttons on my shirt.
His skin smelled like freshly baked bread and his mouth tasted delicious. The heat of his touch went all the way through me, and I could’ve kissed him all night, and more. But I pushed him away. “Are you trying to prove your grandmother right?”
“If we’re going to be accused anyway. . .”
“That’s one of the dumbest excuses I’ve ever heard.”
He kissed me again and it was like slow fire. It was so tempting. . . But no, that wasn’t how I was raised. I had only just met this guy a few hours ago. I’m trying to become a better person, not give in to every passing instinct. So I pushed him away again. “You told me I could stay here for free. Was that the truth, or a lie? Because if there’s a hidden price, I really have to go.”
He stepped away, annoyed. “Fine. Have a good night’s sleep, Princess.”
After he left, I put a chair up against the door, but I didn’t sleep well. In the morning, Craig was polite but distant. His grandmother lay passed out and snoring in her chair. I cooked breakfast, just to show I had no hard feelings, and I think that helped a little, because when I asked Craig for advice about the quickest way to Kentucky, he gave me a map and offered some recommendations.
“The old interstate would be easiest. It’ll take you to St. Louis, and then you can cut across.”
I looked at where he was pointing. “But that’ll take me too far north, and I’ll just have to cut south again.”
“Yes. It will take you a little out of your way, but it’s a good road.”
“I hate cities. I don’t want to go to St. Louis.”
“You sure about that? Because there’s no easy roads east, and there’ll be some rough country. Hills, mountains, things like that.”
“I love mountains. I can do it.”
“Okay, then.” He helped me trace a route east. “I really wish you’d reconsider, though.”
Reconsider? No way. I was going east!
So after breakfast, I loaded my gear and went with Craig into town. He recommended a couple of stores where I could buy supplies for the road. When I made to leave, though, he stopped me. “I want to apologize about last night.”
“Don’t worry about it. I don’t blame you for what your grandmother does.”
“I mean my behavior. I was feeling lonely, but that wasn’t an excuse to harass you.”
“I can’t imagine why you’d be lonely with all the people you see every day. And with a good job, it must be easy to get girlfriends.”
“It would take too long to explain, but trust me that it’s not as easy as you think.” He shook my hand. “Have a safe trip.”
And then he went into the government building. I watched the door close behind him, then went in search of one of the stores he had told me about.
I found it poorly stocked, with long lines for anything worth having. The next store was the same way. Thinking Craig had tricked me because I hadn’t gone to bed with him, I tried a store that wasn’t on his list. It had no lines, but no goods, either. So I went back to the first store and got in line with everyone else. The line was for potatoes, and when I finally got mine, they were small and slightly soft, sprouting all over with eyes. The next line was for bread, and it was good, but they only allowed one loaf per person. This was no great hardship for me, since two loaves would likely get moldy before I could eat them both, but I could see where it would be hard on large families.
By the time I got through waiting in lines and buying the things I needed, it was noon and I was half-mad with frustration. I thought of Craig, who worked long hours and likely had to shop like this nearly every day, since his grandmother never left the apartment. No wonder he didn’t have a girlfriend. He didn't have time for one.
I headed out of town, taking a road northeast. My map calls for me to turn due east in about fifty miles, but with my late start, I knew there would be no hope of reaching that point today. The road was busy with wagons, travelers on foot or horseback, and the occasional diesel truck. I didn’t see anyone I felt like traveling with, so I kept to myself. Toward evening I left the main road for a smaller one, and found a place to camp at a store in an abandoned village.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when I should head into hillier country and even some mountains. I wonder if they’ll be like the mountains back home? Poor Flecha. She probably thought she was done with mountains forever, but once we’re in Kentucky, it will all be rolling hills and lush grass for her. If I could only make her understand that there’s a payoff at the end of all this, I’m sure she’d be as eager as I am.
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