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There is blood seeping through my white shoes. They started as small blisters from my pinkie toes rubbing at the insides of my shoes, but they got bigger. The stiff backs of my shoes are cutting into my heel, right at the thinnest part of my skin stretched over my Achilles' tendon. I drag my feet up a set of stairs built from tiny pebbles all stuck together. Chunks of the steps are missing and only small pieces of black shimmering tread remain stuck to the edges of each stair. There are cockroaches crawling up and down the walls, fast and slow and aimless to my eyes. My pack is starting to dig at my shoulders after all this time. Finally I'm able to sit and inspect my feet while I wait for the train. My sneakers gave out about 100 miles ago and I was forced to switch to my white Vans, which I had brought for the sole purpose of wearing when I arrived in New Orleans. But it's too late now and they're bloody. A train passes on the other side and wind whips at the pages of a forgotten newspaper as if they're hair in a gale wind; wild, useless, unmanageable. I bury my face in my hands for a moment, trying to make sense of the last six months. Somehow I’d made it this far without taking a train but my busted up feet got the best of me. I’m so close to my destination now, I wonder how I’ll react by getting there. It’s hotter with my face in my hands but it feels good to close my eyes, feel the blood trickling slowly to my head.
“The. Last. And final train. Set to arrive on platform. Two. At. One. Fifty-five. AM. Going to. New Orleans. Louisiana. Has been. Cancelled. Next train leaves at. Six. Twenty. AM.”
“F*** me,” I say aloud. The platforms are empty on both sides. “F***, f***. S***. F***! Goddammit!” I pick up my pack and wander up and down the platform. There’s no vending machines, no covered place to sleep. I take my map from the side pocket of my pack and study it for a moment, wondering if this is a sign to keep walking. There’s a highway not far from where I am and I decide my best option is to hitchhike. Before leaving the station I splash some water on my face, there’s a fine layer of dirt on my skin. When I rub at my face little pieces of skin and dirt roll off into little rods and fall onto the ground. My usually thick, brown curls are now sort of matted onto my head. I shake them around a little, but my hair has gotten long and unruly. I make a mental note to get my hair cut in New Orleans.
Cars are zooming past me at great speeds, their engines rumble low, their headlights come slow and disappear fast. I have my hand stuck out with one foot on the road and the other in the dirt. Cars zoom by, showing no chance of slowing. Sometimes I’ll catch a sympathetic nod from a driver but nothing more. My arm begins to feel sore after 20 minutes and I decide to take a break. Just as I sit my sorry a** down into the dirt on the side of the highway, a white 1999 Honda CR-V stops in front of me. A girl reaches over and turns the crank slowly causing the passenger side window to roll down.
“Need a ride?” She asks.
My pack sits in the back seat, buckled in like a child. She insisted on me buckling it in.
“New Orleans, eh?” She says, her voice muffled beneath a surgical mask.
“Yeah, is it out of your way? If it is just drop me wherever is closest on your route.”
“Not outta my way,” she shrugs. “I’m headed somewhere but I’ve got time.”
“Why are you wearing a surgical mask?” I ask her, letting my head knock back against the seat. She looks at me a moment and even beneath the mask I can tell she is smiling.
“Sick,” she says. “Don’t wanna get anyone else sick.” She then hits cruise control before pulling her knees up and placing them against the steering wheel; she moves her knees back and forth precisely to stay in her lane.
“What are you doing?” I ask her, watching her carefully, nervously. I’m ready to grab the wheel from this girl who is seeming more and more like a lunatic. She doesn’t respond to my question, instead she reaches up and pulls her deep auburn hair into a pile, twisting and knotting at her straight brown hair. It looks like and feathery and beautiful and I want to reach out and touch it, but I don’t. She holds her hair with one hand and latches a giant clip into the pile with another. Miraculously, when she lets go her hair stays in it’s knot. She’s beautiful, her soft brown hair falling in wisps around her face.
“Hot as hell,” she remarks, fiddling with one of her dangly gold earrings. “What’s your name again?” I hadn’t yet told her my name, but I decide against bringing up the fact.
“Colin,” I say. “Colin Morgan. Sorry if I smell, I’ve been hiking for the past seven months or so and didn’t have a lot of shower access.”
“Hiking?” The girl asks, the first time showing interest in something I have to say. “Yeah, I did my first year of college and felt sort of out of place and lost. So I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. And about halfway through I decided I’d keep going to New Orleans.”
“You do kind of smell,” the girl says, wrinkling her nose. She keeps a straight face but her olive green eyes seem to laugh. “I’ve got a spare shirt in the glove box, why don’t you take it?”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that. As much as I need a clean shirt,” I admit.
“I insist,” she replies. So I open the glove box. Inside sits a purple t-shirt with black writing, and on top of it sits a handgun.
“Oh my God,” I spit. My stomach drops and flips as my hands fly to the door handle, thinking about jumping out. I am instantly nauseous and it paralyzes me, the sight of the gray-black gun just sitting there nonchalantly. I am speechless. I’ve never seen a gun up close, and it takes me by far more surprise than I would care to admit. “Uh, maybe let me out up here,” I manage to say.
“I’m not going to hurt you with that gun,” the girls says without looking away from the road.
“P-p-pl-please, uh,” I stammer.
“Charlotte,” she says licking her lips, “My name is Charlotte. And that gun isn’t for you, don’t worry. It’s for protection. Now take that purple shirt. Like I said, I insist. Wait, you’ve walked all the way from Springer Mountain here? To Jackson?”
“Yeah, took me about two weeks. Where are you driving to that you can just go out of your way to drop me in New Orleans?” I want to change the subject. I want to forget about the gun in the glovebox. I almost want to get out, but I also want to continue being intrigued by the girl in the surgical mask.
“Does it matter?” She asks, tucking her feet in to sit cross-legged. I shrug and we drive in silence for almost two hours. I watch Charlotte adjust her surgical mask a few times, retie her hair once, and turn cruise control off and on at least four or five times. She seems to be a petite girl, but she’s got some curve to her. And she’s beautiful, she radiates an undeniable ambience of wildness and unrestraint. At one point she turns off the air conditioning and opens her window; she take the clip from her hair and drops it into the ashtray as her brown tresses fly freely about in the wind.
“Christ, it’s hot,” she says, taking the hem of her shirt and fanning it. I can see her stomach, and from her shirt I get a whiff of what smells like coconut perfume and sweet sweat from her body. Something in my center pulses and I quickly cross one leg over the other in embarrassment. Charlotte must notice my breach in composure because she smiles a little to herself before fanning her stomach once more. Oh, wow. The only two words that come to mind. “Where do you want to be dropped in New Orleans?”
“Got any recommendations?”
“Have you been before?” Charlotte asks, looking at me with intensity.
“No,” I begin, “But I’ve heard great things.”
“I’ll drop you at Bourbon Street. Good for a first time tourist like you and good for… you.” I don’t know what she means by this but I feel another pulse. This one a little more intense. I cross my hands in my lap.
“Don’t you want to join me for a drink?” I ask Charlotte who is idling as close as she can to Bourbon Street.
“Can’t,” she says. “Gotta be somewhere. Take care, Colin.”
I quickly decide Bourbon Street is too much when what I believe is a prostitute approaches me. Now I know what Charlotte meant, and that she was far more perceptive than I made her out to be. I find myself in a small but loud bar with an oak counter. I order a beer and drink it promptly, even spilling a bit on the pack at my feet. I can’t hear s***, but the news is playing on the television mounted above the bar. A man in a suit is speaking nodding solemnly before the screen flashes to a new headline. It reads: MISSING: IF SEEN, CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY in red letters, under a picture of Charlotte and her unmistakeable olive eyes.