I met Maryanne when the sun was still no more’n a shy, coppery flush in the distance. The Texas highway barrelled out before me like a cat stretching its limbs halfway through a midday snooze.
“To the hospital,” said Maryanne.
I turned up the air conditioner before putting the car in drive. “Y’all got an emergency?”
“Just visiting an old friend.”
I glanced at her. She had looked harmless enough. Even so: “Y’all oughta know I have ways of defending myself, should the need arise.”
“Lucky you. You try to rough me up, I ain’t got anything to fight you with.”
“Reckon you don’t got much to worry about, in that case.”
Maryanne had red hair tied into a rough braid. Her features were angular and freckly, and she had keen blue eyes.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Nobody needs to know. What’s your name? I done told you mine already.”
I hesitated, although I wasn’t sure why. “They call me Justine.”
I half-expected her to make a comment about how I’d evaded the question, but she only replied, “Where you headed, then?”
“Dunno.” I hadn’t meant to sound terse, but I heard myself - and it came off as kind of bitchy. “Sorry, I just - I asked your age on account of I ain’t eighteen myself and I was wondering if you might be up the same shit river as me.”
“Could be.” She stared out the window, gaze trained on the rolling fields that had always reminded me of worms as a child: don’t know the noggin from the ass. “Who you run away from?”
My hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Oh, you know.”
“Ma and pa?”
“Well, they just - I mean, why provide them the time of day when they could give a damn whether their daughter lives or dies? Probably rather have me dead, if I’m being honest. In fact - ” I paused. “Well, they weren’t exactly above trying.”
Maryanne considered. “Yeah, it might be that you done got yourself in as salty a pickle as I did. My folks, they don’t want no daughter of theirs kickin’ Jesus straight in the mouth. Done said that’s exactly what I did, takin’ a good girl to prom. Daughter of the mayor, she was. You know how them small towns are; everybody knows everyone else and if the mayor’s daughter turns out queer, it’s gotta be someone else’s fault. Ruinin’ our whole county’s reputation, they said. So I’ve gone off to find me a different county.” She flashed a smile. “What you say are the odds of snatchin’ me up another sweet peach who just happens to be town royalty?”
I looked at her more closely. That smile wasn’t none too bright; I could see the stars in her eyes were cloudy with pollution.
“Don’t reckon I could say,” I offered.
She sat back. “So you, then, Justine - is that why you run away?”
“Something like that.”
A milk truck sped by. I waited for its rumbling to fade before I answered.
“Yeah. Pretty thing she was, too.”
“Prom, or something else?”
I remembered Louellen’s bare shoulder against mine in the lake, cool and hot at the same time. I remembered Daddy kicking her in the face with them boots, and then teachin’ me - while she watched - exactly what it took to make a lustful sinner into a good girl.
“Somethin’ else, I reckon,” I told Maryanne.
There was silence for a while, and then she spoke up again. “I’m sixteen, in the interest of transparency. Seventeen in two weeks’ time.”
Something about her finally telling the truth relaxed me. “I still got six months before my seventeenth.”
“And y’all have yourself a car?”
“Friend let me borrow it.”
I could tell she knew that wasn’t true, but she let it slide.
“So,” I asked, “Who you goin’ to see in the hospital?”
“Like I said, old friend.”
“Got sick, is all. Figured I might as well head on over to say my goodbyes so long’s I’m on the road.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right. We all gotta go sometime. Maybe sooner’s better for some of us. She don’t pay death no mind; we always figured one of us’d go before age twenty.”
“Still probably best not to, wouldn’t y’all say?”
“Depends, don’t it?”
“I guess.” I drove without speaking for a good five minutes or so. When I glanced over at her, I saw she was dozing off, and I marveled at the level of trust it must take to give into sleep when you’re out on route 130 with a stranger before the sun is all the way up.
“What you gonna do after?” I asked finally.
She blinked, all bleary-eyed like. “Huh?”
“You gonna find somewhere to stay or y’all just gonna cross your fingers that everyone’s as nice as I am?”
“Aw, hell, I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”
“Don’t want nobody hurtin’ you, is all. Figure you can drive out to LA with me, so long as you chip in for Doritos and coffee now and again. Me, I like to be alone, and that’s dangerous because sometimes I trick myself into thinkin’ it’s better to be alone all the time.”
“Naw. I start driving myself crazy. I get lonely, and then I hate myself for bein’ lonely, and then I hate myself for not having friends, and then I hate myself all the more for needin’ friends in the first place.”
“I don’t need friends,” said Maryanne, “But I’ll travel with you a ways, if you wanna wait while I says goodbye to my friend.”
Something came over me then, a warmth I can only describe as relief. See, that there meant I’d been lonely already, and hadn’t even realized it. Maryanne glanced at me, and when our eyes met we both smiled: she had been lonely too, or at least secretly afraid of the loneliness that had to come whether she believed in it or not.
Some two hours later, I escorted Maryanne up to room 4019 in Saint Genevieve’s. Maryanne seemed nervous all of a sudden: I saw her sweat, though she hadn’t been damp at all in the Texas heat; and when she took my hand to enter her friend’s room, I didn’t argue none.
There was one bed in the room. No light, smelling of antiseptic and a garish dime-store bouquet.
The girl on the bed looked up at me, teeth shattered, both eyes blackened from a lusty fist. Don’t think she recognized me, but I sure as hell knew who she was, and Lordy knows why I wasn’t even one bit surprised.
“Howdy, Louellen,” I said. “I done come to say my goodbyes.”