Gaelin woke in the first blush of dawn. There was a slight mist among the trees, and his blanket was dampened with dew. He shivered as he went back to the road and started back down it toward the town, which was hidden for the moment in the fog below him. He tried not to worry about what he would do once he got there, how he would avoid notice but still find some way to get food and supplies. He had a couple dollars still in his pocket, but that wouldn’t get him very far, even if he just managed to work up the nerve to walk into a store.
Could I get a job somehow? Maybe, maybe if you can talk to someone without bolting. Maybe if they are willing to hire a homeless vagrant like me. For all they know, I’m on the run from something. Well, they’d be right, but I didn’t do anything wrong did I? Actually, an image of Trista and Dion came into his mind. Yes, he had done something wrong there. I shouldn’t have left them like that. I was right about leaving, but I should have asked them to come with me.
But he remembered the real motivation for his leaving so quickly. He hadn’t been handling his isolation with Trista very well. He was intimidated by her on some level. He wondered what he owed her, what she expected from him. Surely, she didn’t even like him at all. He felt bad about walking out on them like that, but then, Trista was totally crazy. She would live out there like a good little abandoned girl until winter caught her and Dion, because she believed in this stuff. She was the selfish one, staying there because it made her feel righteous, while Dion lost more because of it. I have to get him and take him out of there, at least. He shouldn’t grow up in ignorance in the backwoods, even if he survives there. Trista could stay if she wanted to.
With these new plans forming in his head, Gaelin traveled the rest of the way to the town. He was passed by cars several times. For the first part of the morning the road continued to move through hills and around curves, so he could hear a car and hide before it appeared. However, after a few hours, the road leveled and straightened, and the woods disappeared. The road was a two lane highway, and there was simply no way to avoid the cars. Gaelin forced him self just to stand off the side of the road, facing a little away, until the car passed by. He no longer had the idea of getting a ride to the town. He could get there just fine, thank-you. This worked for a while, until one person stopped and asked if he needed a ride.
Gaelin shook with nerves, like the worst stage fright he had ever had. The car, a battered, red coupe, slowed and stopped beside him, and the window rolled down. A middle-aged black man leaned across the seat and asked him if he needed a lift into town. Gaelin gulped, trying to moisten his mouth, and stuttered,
“H-How far is it?”
“Well, I don’t think it’s more than another six miles.” replied the other, “but that is a hefty hike on foot.”
“I’m o-ok s-sir. I… like walking.” Gaelin sweated in the cool morning, though his flesh felt clammy and cold.
The man peered at him. “Are you sure you’re ok, boy? You sound a little shaky.”
“Honest, I’m ok. Thanks for the offer.” Gaelin bobbed his head to the man to thank him and then turned and began walking off. He started when the engine of the coupe hummed behind him, but managed not to run for it. The man pulled alongside him and spoke over the rumble of the engine.
“Well, take care of yourself then, ok? Look me up when you get to Granite, I’m Bartimaeus Smith, and I own the feed store. God bless ya.”
The man finally drove off. Gaelin plunked down on the side of the road until his legs stopped wobbling and he could keep going. The encounter hadn’t been as bad as he had thought, but still ridiculously hard for such a simple thing as talking to a friendly stranger. This fear was irrational, totally irrational. What happened to me?
Two hours later, a weary Gaelin passed the first farmhouse. He eyed it nervously and kept going. At the second house, a garden hose hooked to the side of the house caught his eye. After a moment of indecision, he stole up to the house and got a drink from hose. The familiarly unpleasant taste wasn’t as pleasantly nostalgic as usual, and he actually felt that he preferred the muddy-weed flavor of the ditch water to the metal tang of the hose water.
Half an hour later, the sparse farmhouses thickened and Gaelin was confronted with an honest-to-goodness main street. The two-lane highway ran right through the middle of the little town. Traffic increased until Gaelin just couldn’t stay on the road, but followed along several yards from it, walking parallel along the edge of the fields and fences. When he came to a slightly faded red and white sign which said, “Welcome to the city of Granite,” he stopped and leaned against the sign while he surveyed the town. He did not want to go in, but the smell of food floating out from that town pulled him like a hook on his stomach. He walked a little closer to the town, then actually decided to circle around it. He couldn’t make himself walk down that street, but he needed to find some opportunity for food.
It was one of the smallest towns he had seen. The main street and another street running parallel to it were intersected by four different side streets that extended to either side with some houses, then stretched further out as the neighborhood gave way to farms. From the glimpses he caught, he saw mostly old stores, half of them closed with empty windows. A couple gas stations and a couple food stores were in there. He saw a bar and a café and a McDonalds. (He decided that the most tempting smells came from the McDonalds.)
He paused at one of the grocery stores when he saw a lady drop her bag of groceries. Gaelin lurked in the dark, morning shadow of the store. One part of him told him to go help her. Another part of him said, “Absolutely not.” When she picked up most of her groceries, muttering to herself, she inspected the apples that had dropped, tsked, and tossed them aside. Gaelin waited on his toes until she made it to her car and drove off before edging out to retrieve his first food since that bite of bread, over a day before. There were four apples, bruised, but good. He stuffed three of them securely in his blanket roll and ate the other as he hurried back behind the store.
It was nearing noon, and the town was silent and sleepy. A few flies buzzed and the occasional car passed, but otherwise, Gaelin found relative peace in the shade of the store, eating his scavenged meal and planning his next move. He was dog-tired but determined to finish circling the town. It wasn’t like he knew exactly what he hoped to find. All he had was a goal, and that was all he needed for the moment. He finished the apples, cores and all, then climbed to his feet and kept going.
On the far side of Granite he came on a warehouse and grain tower. The hand-painted sign above the door said, “Bart’s Feed Store.” As Gaelin walked around it, he saw the old, red car parked at the back. There was also a white truck with a horse trailer. A sound from the trailer drew him to it. It contained a smallish mare, splotched brown and white. She lifted her head and Gaelin put his hand through the bars to touch it. He scratched behind its ears and felt the soft cheek. The paint sidled closer to his side, so he ran his hand down the neck, under the coarse, warm mane. A grin tugged at his cheeks. The horse lifted her head and rested on the bars beside him, so he carefully touched the velvet muzzle. He noticed that his new friend had one blue eye and one brown eye. It felt fantastic to not be afraid of a living thing.
Gaelin’s spell was broken when he heard the door of the store open. A man in a cowboy hat stood in the door with Bart. Each had a large grainsack tossed over his shoulders. Gaelin quickly took his hands out of the trailer and jumped to the ground. Gotta be cool, gotta act normal now. C’mon, just relax. He leaned against the trailer and waited for the men to come. The two approached on his side of the truck, Bart smiled and called to him.
“Well hello again, look who made it to town just fine after all! What’s your name, boy, and what can I do for you?”
“Um… Um, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have touched the horse without asking.”
“Well, that’s true enough.” The other man said. He stepped onto the rim of the trailer and reached in to stroke the horse. “But no harm done, Blue must’ve taken a shine to ya.” The man looked like an old rancher, with his hat and boots and large, square hands. Gaelin felt…better…about him. Perhaps it was the way Blue whickered happily when her master greeted her, but he didn’t feel as afraid of this one. The man turned his attention back to him.
“So you have met Bart already?”
Bart answered for him, “Yeah, but you wouldn’t believe where I last saw this kid, nearly six miles out of town, only this morning. He didn’t want a ride into town, but walked instead.”
The rancher scratched his head. “But, where did he come from then? There isn’t anything out there, not for fifty miles.” Gaelin swallowed, he had been afraid of this.
“Well, I’m just on a bit of ad-adventure.” Inspiration struck him. “My uncle has some land out there, and my family lets me camp out there. My name is R-Ross.”
The rancher smiled broadly “Well then, Ross, I be called Julius Drake.” Beside him, Bart snickered. Julius elbowed him. “Oh shut-up Bar-timaeus, your parents weren’t any better.” He held out his hand to Gaelin. “You can call me Drake.”
Gaelin slid further back along the trailer, away from the out-stretched hand. Bart and Drake stared at him. Drake lowered his hand. Bart finally spoke.
“Well, I thought he seemed a little shaky this morning. I guess he is a little timid.”
“S-Sorry” Gaelin managed to say. “It is nice to meet you, Drake.”
“That’s ok, boy. Now, what can we do for you? Do you need a bus ticket, or at least a hot meal?”
“I need some supplies to take back with me to the camp, but I don’t have much money.” He showed them the two crumpled bills from his pocket. “If I could work for you for a day or two, do you think you could give me what I need?” I need better tools, water-proof containers, flour, salt, and more clothing. I need a peace offering for Trista, and we need to survive until I can convince her to leave with me.
Drake slowly took his hat off, wiped his forehead, and replaced it while he thought. “Well, I think Penny and I could use an extra hand. If you can stay on your feet tomorrow after traveling God-knows how far on foot, then you certainly have some endurance.”
Gaelin nodded and Drake nodded back. “Ok, Ross. You see that street a block back, that’s Lincoln. Follow it east about four miles and you’ll find my place, a blue house. I don’t suppose you will come with me now?”
Gaelin shook his head.
“Well, if you turn up tonight you are welcome to some food. Just make sure you are there by breakfast tomorrow, an’ then we will put you to work.”
Drake slapped Bart on the shoulder and climbed into the cab of the truck. Gaelin backed up with Bart and watched until the truck disappeared down Lincoln Road. Gaelin nodded again to Bart, who replied,
“You are an odd one, Ross, but you’ll be ok. Let me know if you need more help. Do you even have a place to stay tonight?”
“Yeah, I do, thanks.” Gaelin turned and jogged away, toward the other side of the town. As soon as a slight hill hid him from Bart’s view, he broke into a sprint.