In my dreams, I tried to remember her smile. Did she ever smile? I wasn't sure, couldn't quite recall. Too many a time had she just looked at me with that blank expression plastered to her beautifully sullen face, eyes cast downward; as if she stared long enough she could leave her misery buried beneath the ground.
Wait, wait—I'm wrong. She did smile, only rarely, and not because of happiness, but because of something she personally found amusing or ironic.
Death, she smiled whenever I mentioned the absurdity of it. How could I possibly forget.
We slept in the car at night, with the seats pulled somewhat back and whoever we were giving a lift to at the time spread out in the backseat. Sure my neck would be a little stiffer in the mornings, legs slightly cramped, but other than that I didn't mind. Comfort was far from being a priority—if I had any priorities left at all.
Whether Harley cared or not, I didn't know. She never complained, though, so I figured she didn't give a shit either.
After one hundred miles of driving with her, I stopped wondering when she was going to leave. I stopped debating whether I should wait to see if she actually returns to the truck after using the restroom and if I should start charging for gas money. After that one hundredth mile mark, it was pretty clear that she wasn't going anywhere on her own, and that she'd always come back to the passenger seat.
And that was that.
I woke up one night with a cold sweat; ephemeral images from leftover nightmares swimming across my retinas, trying to formulate a reality before they upped and disappeared altogether. The night was too dark for that, though. I wouldn't have seen anything, anyway, and maybe that was for the best.
It only took a minute until I was entirely awake and realized that I needed to take a piss. I took a quick glance around to see that Harley and that guy who needed to get to the airport were still fast asleep. I wondered what time it was, but decided it ultimately didn't matter. Funny how after all I've done to forget such things, I still had to remind myself sometimes that society's mold was no longer the life I was living. They weren't moments of weakness or anything of the sort, but rather moments of dissociation from the present that delved into the past.
There are some patterns so deeply embedded in my mind that they'd practically require a psychic lobotomy to abolish them. But if that's what it takes to become a clean slate—hell, to become a cleaner slate—then so be it.
I'd find a way to make it happen.
I got out of the car and walked a few feet away into a cluster of some nearby evergreen trees. The air was cold and the sky was blank. We were in a suburb near the last gas station we stopped at, and other than that I had no desire to know anything more about our current whereabouts. Towns, cities, suburbs—they were all the same lost and lonely people praying for a savior. Waiting on a miracle that was never going to come. I only know this, though, because I used to be one of them.
I finished my business but instead of going back to the car I sat down near the trunk of one of the trees. My hands felt shaky and my eyelids wouldn't stop blinking. I tried to calm myself down with a cigarette, but it didn't do much. I remembered too many things that I didn't want to remember.
So there I was, out in the middle of nowhere, two strangers sleeping in my truck, and a head full of memories that just wouldn't fade away. And I thought to myself, where's your fucking distraction now?
That was when I heard it: a muffled scream coming from the direction of where I had parked my truck.
I was on my feet quicker than lightning, running back to the present moment that I had tried so hard to abandon, not knowing exactly why I cared to get there. Soon as I saw it, though, I stopped questioning myself.
He was on top of her squirming body, one hand stashed over her mouth and the other trying to undo his belt—I snapped. Without another thought I ran to open the side door, pulled the bastard out, and began beating the shit out of him. Punch, punch, kick: blood washing over his face and staining my knuckles. By the way his nose was starting to bend, you'd think I was creating a bloody masterpiece. Picasso meets Saw. Because we all know that when beauty meets destruction, that's when you have reality.
Once a pool of blood began to form around his head, I stopped cold. The imagery before my eyes was all too familiar. I let him go. He scrambled away, coughing up something awful, shouting obscenities at me.
That bitch: he didn't even try to fight back.
"Are you alright?" I asked, turning back to face Harley still lying in the passenger seat.
She didn't say anything.
I closed her door and got back into the truck, put my keys in the ignition and just let the engine idle for a bit. Harley was just sitting there, mute as hell, staring blankly forward with her hands folded uneasily across her stomach. Five or ten minutes had passed before she said anything.
"I feel sick."
I rolled down the windows and pulled out another cigarette. Smoking was more comfortable than talking.
"I…" she trailed off, and when I tilted my head to glance over at her, I could see her eyes glistening.
I took a rather deep drag and blew it out the window, letting the wind take it wherever it wanted to.
"I…want to thank you…if you hadn't gotten here at the time you did…"
"I did, though," I reminded her.
"I know, but—"
"But nothing, "I cut her off, "it was nothing. The guy's a fucking bastard."
She stopped staring out the windshield and finally looked at me. She looked at me for a long time, actually. She was doing that thing everyone eventually tried to do—figure me out. I guess I didn't blame her, I had no reason to help save for "common decency", which was clearly a diminishing quality of mine. Truth is I don't know why I reacted the way I did. Not entirely.
I knew things were going to be okay when she meekly attempted to smile.
Whatever it was she realized in that moment, I couldn't have cared less for. I was just glad she wasn't going to be a nutcase over the matter.
That was when something interesting happened.
I was just about to throw out my half-smoked cigarette when Harley leaned over and snatched it from between my fingertips.
"What're you doing?" I asked, eyebrows raised.
She merely gave me a sly look, and then took the Marlboro to her lips. She started coughing immediately. This did not deter her, however; she patted her chest, took a regular breath, and tried again. The second time was much smoother, although I could tell it still got caught in her throat a little.
"Surprisingly not as repulsive as I thought," she suddenly said. "In fact, it's got a nice feel to it."
It was a strange sight to see her with a cigarette at hand, smoke swirling about. I think I often forgot how young she appeared to be; I forgot that she had a life once, a time before her torn and stained jacket and short haircut. My own past alone was such a foreign concept that anyone else's baggage was just beyond comprehension.
"Are you even old enough to be smoking?" I asked aloud, my thoughts betraying me.
She gave me an incredulous look before taking another deliberately forced drag.
"Does it matter?" she said.
"On second thought, it doesn't," I told her.
She flicked the remainder of the cigarette butt to the pavement, her fingers lingering just a little longer than need be outside of the window. I switched the truck from park to drive upon realizing I felt a very distinctive urge to get the hell away from there.
An hour later while we were back on the freeway headed to the west coast was when Harley decided to respond to my question.
"I am old enough to smoke. I ran away on my eighteenth birthday about a month back. Funny how that feels like forever ago, doesn't it?"
I nodded my head. It was true.
From then on I knew I wouldn't bother with any hitchhikers anymore, it would just be me and Harley: the only hitchhiker who refused to leave.
Ever since that night Harley would talk to me a lot more, spewing out facts about herself and her life as if she were on Jeopardy or something. She said she was an orphan, that her parents weren't biologically her own. She said all they did was work and pay bills and avoid taxes and that their way of living made them look older and gray. It scared her, so she left.
She told me a plethora of others things, such as her favorite color, her hobbies, and worst memories, but hardly anything she said stuck with me. I still couldn't really bring myself to care.
Dr. Thompson would call it interpersonal detachment, and how I utilized it as a coping mechanism in order to prevent myself from the pain of ever losing another significant relationship again. I always understood what Dr. Thompson said to me, but I could never quite stop myself from doing whatever it was she said I should stop doing.
I couldn't stop anything, really.
One weekend while heading toward the nearest gas station we passed a swap meet at this stadium. Harley jumped up in her seat and asked if we could stop by and take a look around. She hadn't really asked for anything before then, and I didn't really see a reason why not to, so I made a U-turn and went into the parking lot for it.
There were all sorts of random booths and stands set up—clothing, souvenirs, books, bootlegged DVDs, food. And people, tons of people roaming about: people as varying and diverse as the booths surrounding them. It was strange to think I was in the same crowd as them, for some reason. But seeing as that most people tend to be invisible on an individual level while amongst so many other people, I didn't mind being there.
Harley led the way up and down the rows, stopping for a brief moment at every stand to examine what they were selling. She seemed so genuinely interested in everything. She'd frequently pick something up just to look at it from multiple angles and to feel the weight of that item in her hand. It almost made me wonder if she was actually looking for something in particular; if we were far more different than she'd let on. Not that anything she'd said made us particularly similar, but I'd just assumed that since she wanted to go along with my road trip to nowhere that she was as lost as myself.
It wasn't until we came across a stand full of different colored bandanas that I saw a flicker of inspiration illuminate her face.
"Which color do you think I should get?" she asked me.
I didn't care.
"Your favorite color," I said.
"My favorite color doesn't look good on me, that's why it's my favorite: it's the one color that I wish I could pull off."
I wanted to ask her why it mattered, but I didn't think that would have been wise of me. Harley had been more attentive to her appearances as of late; she even trashed that ragged jacket of hers.
And so I caved.
"Alright, you should get the blue one then."
I was about to ask if she had any money or not since I hadn't seen her buy anything since I picked her up off the street, but to my surprise she took a five dollar bill out of that backpack of hers and handed it over to the man behind the table. The man proceeded to bag her blue bandana and hand her back her change.
"Thank you," she said, stuffing the change into her jean pockets. Then she took the bandana out of the bag and immediately tied it around her head so the flap fell over the back of her short hair.
She smiled at me when she was done.
"I think I'm done here, let's get going, yeah?"
"…Yeah," I said after a moment or two, wondering why the hell just then when Harley had smiled, I had seen Leandra, instead.