The tyres rolled back slightly on the sandy gravel as the car came to a stop. Ben looked around the close-to-derelict petrol station. Sweat was already beginning to pool on the bare skin where his arms rested on the steering wheel. He calculated the odds of finding anything cold in the tiny store that was nestled next to the open garage. Judging by the ripe-red face of the squat-looking sales attendant peering out at him through the dusty window, he’d say the chances were slim.
He got out of the car and stretched. The mechanic looked up from the engine of a smoking car and gave him a small humourless wave, before returning to his tinkering.
“Fill up for you mister?” A bundle of energy flapped at his side. He nodded at the young girl under her cap and oversized dungarees. No doubt the progeny of the mechanic and the sasquatch in the store. He popped the cap and left her to the task she was tackling so enthusiastically. His memories drifted back to another time and another tomboy just like her.
Roberta to those who didn’t really know her. He’d been thinking about her a lot lately. That’s why he was here. Driving aimlessly across the country during the full heat of summer. He was living out that silly childhood dream they’d had.
Just drive, she’d say.
There was freedom in unpredictability. She’d be proud of him. He couldn’t be more unpredictable than this. He hadn’t been following his schedule the day this had all begun either. He’d come home early, needing to get away from the numbers that had always seemed so important to him. Bob had never understood his love for money. When he’d caught his fiancé rocking back and forth on top of her boss, he hadn’t either.
He missed Bob. He’d lost touch with her in his high rise to the top. She’d moved away from their home town too. It would have been his next stop, but he’d taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. He had always been better at finding the airport than home.
“Have you been listening to a word I’ve said?” a voice barked into the phone at the sales counter. “That piece of junk you hired to me broke down. I’m getting married tomorrow morning and we’re still thirty miles away from the church.”
Ben shrugged and retrieved some bottled water from the luke-warm refrigerator. That marriage should turn out to be a barrel of fun, he thought, if this was the precursor to it. Ben was now a great believer in signs and omens. Sheryl had always made him go out for groceries.
“All filled up mister,” the young girl beamed before running back out the store door. Ben chuckled as he paid for the petrol and water.
“Sorry, do you have a rest room?”
The woman nodded and pointed out back. That bit of business done, he was ready to move on. He left the rest room and collided with a feathery body.
“Sorry, I guess I really should look where I’m… Bob! Oh man, Bob,” his arms clumsily folded around her. She was much thinner than he remembered. The water bottles clunked together against her back.
He stepped back and drank her in. She seemed uncomfortable in the flowery yellow sun-dress. Her great green eyes were hidden behind too large sunglasses. His elation faded. Her smile once so bright and eager, was now faded and timid. He wondered if it was possible, that after so many years, life could wear a diamond down.
“So, how have you been?” he asked awkwardly.
“Fine. Fine,” she quickly looked around towards the store. Ben saw a bruise peeking out from the side of her glasses. The skin was red and swollen.
“What the hell happened to you?” He pulled the glasses off and cupped her face. She pulled back and replaced her shades.
“You know me. Always getting into trouble. How many times have you seen me with a shiner like this?”
He shrugged. Admitting to himself that she’d had a fair share back in the day. It took nerves and bones of steel to tackle a group of bullies on behalf of the little boy who stuttered.
“So what are you up to now? You a rich corporate type person?”
“No, well yeah, I was. Now I’m not. I’m living the vagabond life,” he waved over at his car. “Out on the open road. In dire need of a car wash.”
“Sounds fun,” her smile mimicked the one he remembered. “I did that once. Ran out of money and ended up working at a dumpy roadside diner for six months. That’s where I met Nestor. We’re getting married tomorrow. Back home,” she looked down at her hands. “You should come, you know, if you’re… if you’re in the neighbourhood.”
“I might just do that.”
“Roberta!” the shouting man emerged from the store. His angry boots squeaked on the white gravel. “The car’s fixed.” The man stopped in front of them. He glared at Ben and put his arm possessively around Bob’s waist. Ben noticed that a nerve in the man’s jaw was ticking dangerously fast, and Bob seemed to be shrinking beside him with every tick.
The fabric of Bob’s dress bunched tightly under Nestor’s hand on her side.
“I’m going for a poop. Get in the car.”
He released her and she immediately stumbled away. Ben stared at her, his mouth open. He waited until Nestor was safely in the men’s room, before running after her. A million and one words ran through his mind. He had two maybe three minutes to come up with something poignant and life changing. Right. Life was never that simple.
“Bob. Bob wait!” he caught her arm and squeezed his eyes shut when she winced. She stared at the ground, breathing deeply, then she turned and he was lost. Her lip was quivering. A solitary tear ran down her cheek. She made him think of a deer waiting for a hunter to come and finish off the job. What could he say? He’d seen the after-school specials. He was unqualified and the last person in the world who had the right to say anything.
But he had to try.
Why else would they have met up on this empty road in the middle of nowhere?
“Look, I don’t know who he is. I don’t know why you want to be with someone who hurts you. And don’t pretend that he doesn’t,” he cut her off. “You and I are both too smart to tell each other lies. Please don’t tell me you can’t see. Just look what he’s doing to you? You’re cowering. The Bob I knew would never do that. Could never be bullied.”
He ran his fingers through his hair. “You were the girl that put magnesium filings in a choirboy’s candle because he stole a buck from the collection. You were the girl that chased down Duncan Mallory when he took Morris Farling’s lunch money. You were… you were Bob.”
He waited. Waited for the angry verbal thrashing she normally would have given him. Waited for her to tell him he was wrong. Something. Anything.
She turned and walked away.
He couldn’t watch her as she opened her car door, instead he went back to his own car and climbed inside. He rested his arms on the steering wheel and stared downwards. He’d been absent too long to be of any help. He felt like a hypocrite for trying. He didn’t want to remember her as weak.
His head jerked up as his door was flung open. A yellow sun-dress slid into the passenger seat. A carpet bag was tossed into the back. She removed her sunglasses and smiled.
“Just drive,” she said.