With Brent’s wedding behind her, and Mike out of her life, Ashley’s days became a cruelty of monotony, the nights a sleepless torture of stagnant air and twisted sheets. Not an hour went by without a harassing text from her sister, a plaintive voice mail from her mother, both on a mission to control her life, protect her from Mike, and save her from herself. She ignored it all, drowned a stack of microwave pancakes in syrup, and binge watched Dexter until the sun came up in the morning.
The long nights caught up to her during her drive into work. Her eyes hot, her arms heavy, she’d catch herself drifting. She’d smack her cheeks, crank the air, blast the radio, and still she’d slip, only to startle awake when her tires coasted over the rumble bars. The highway between Allman Falls and Juliette was too smooth, too quiet, too new. She needed the old highway, the one ridged and cracked, riddled with potholes and patches, to help keep her awake. Damn Mike and his grandfather and the whole stupid road crew for fixing it too good. And damn Mike even more for making her miss him.
She missed talking to him, teasing him, torturing him with her stupid stories and endless questions. She missed having someone else in the car or the kitchen, a body taking up space and breathing her air, making noise. She missed having someone she could be herself around, someone who didn’t nag or criticize or try to fix her because he’d been too broken to ever pass judgement on another. She missed sex. Mostly, she missed not being alone.
The new tattoo on her wrist was still a little red, a bit tender to the touch as she shifted her grip on the steering wheel and traced the letters with her fingertip – no màs. She whispered it aloud, a verbal kick in the ass to stop longing for what she didn’t have, what would never be. No more.
At the edge of Juliette, she pulled into a gas station for coffee with an extra boost of caffeine. A snack cake delivery van had stopped to unload right in the middle of the busy parking lot, blocking two of the pumps. Morning commuters in skirts and ties tangoed with construction trucks pulling heavy trailers. Kids on summer vacation, dressed in swim trunks and flip flops, darted in and out of the store, grabbing snacks to sneak into the community pool down the street. A dog yipped at the boys from the passenger seat of a dented minivan, while a jackass in a Nova stopped at a red light revved his engine in impatience for green.
It was more than Ashley could handle on zero sleep. She turned up the radio to drown out the world and sat in her car, waiting for the rush to clear. Struggling to keep her eyes open, she checked her phone. Kylie had started early that morning, sending her first text just past 5 am. “Call me.” Ten minutes later she added, “Please.” Ignoring those and the string of others that followed, Ashley tossed her phone into her purse and looked out the window.
The weedy field alongside the gas station had been recently mowed. Shredded trash shifted in the breeze. The sun reflected off foil wrappers and tattered aluminum cans. A mangled tennis ball and chipped bits of small branches had been thrown onto the sidewalk. Chopped blades of grass stuck to the side of the building and air conditioning unit, their deep green hue quickly fading to brown. A few feet out into the yard, a ring of weeds stood untouched by the mower. In the center lay a worn leather work boot, misshapen and scarred, bleached by the hot summer sun, abandoned and forgotten, but left to lie in peace, enshrined by nature, spared by the laziness of man.
“It’s seen more action than me,” Ashley muttered to herself, then huffed out a laugh as she felt a flush of jealousy. Over a boot. A beat up, worn out, tattered boot that probably spent its entire existence around the sweaty foot of a truck driver, or ankle deep in the muck of a feed lot. Jimmy’s boots had seen a thing or two; rain and mud, sun and snow, drywall, paint, concrete and sawdust, rivers and lakes, a few dozen campfires. They’d seen a few dozen bedroom floors, as well. His boots had miles on them. Ashley had barely even been out of Nebraska the past seven years.
Frustrated and exhausted, she decided to skip the coffee and just grab a Mountain Dew from the vending machines at work. She pulled out of the parking lot, onto the highway, and rolled down her windows to catch some fresh air. Her hair fluttered about her face, tickled her neck, as the Black Crows sang about angels. Ashley sang along, throwing every bit of her passion and pain, her anger and frustration into the lyrics.
She rocked with the Crows, jammed with Alanis Morissette, and let it all hang out with the Alabama Shakes. When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers started singing about wildflowers, Ashley realized she’d missed her turn five miles back. With a curse, she flashed her blinker and merged left to flip a u-turn.
But Tom was telling her she belonged out at sea, that she deserved to be free. And she agreed. Letting her heart be her guide, she merged back to the right, set the cruise at sixty-five, and headed west.
She got as far as Broken Bow. Her eyes were gritty, her stomach acidic. Her head throbbed with her heartbeat, and her mouth tasted like death. She found a cheap motel, slept until nightfall. When she woke, she check her phone, and found it blown up with texts from her sister, voicemail from her mother, and a message from her boss telling her she was on probation. Nothing from Trevor, or Jill, or Mike, or any of her other so-called friends. The only people who ever reached out Ashley were the ones who wanted to control her. It was the story of her life.
She needed a shower, and a toothbrush. Instead, she washed her face, ran a hand through her tangled hair, and headed out in search of sustenance. She found a bar where she blended in with her wrinkled scrubs and sallow complexion, ordered a burger with fries and a beer, and sat mesmerized by a sun-weathered man, ‘Edward’ stitched on his work shirt, who slowly peeled the label off his empty bottle.
Ten hours of following her heart, not even one full day of freedom, and she was bored out of her goddamn mind. West had apparently been the wrong direction. North sounded even less appealing. South was a possibility. East would take her to Trevor, or at least to his friends until his tour ended. She slipped her phone from her purse and checked her bank account. If she slept in her car, she had enough to get to North Carolina. Once she was there, she’d have to be creative. She’d done it before, found herself excited to try it again. For the first time in what felt like years, she smiled. And then, from deep inside her soul, she laughed.
Edward glanced over in her direction. She tipped her bottle toward him, debated taking him back to her motel, but it felt like too much work. From now on, she was all about free and easy. No more worries, no more obsessions, no more making herself feel inadequate by constantly comparing herself to others. No more negativity, no more toxic people, no more social media and its trappings. She deleted her accounts from her phone, cleaned out her contacts, erased half of her photos, most of her videos. She changed her wallpaper to the picture of the boot she’d snapped from the parking lot earlier that day, and downloaded some fresh music to kick off the soundtrack of her new life.
As she finished the last of her beer and pushed her plate aside, her phone chimed in text. Expecting her sister, she was surprised to see Mike’s, “Where you at?”
She replied with a picture of the remains of her dinner.
He texted back a picture of himself rattling her front door, backpack on his shoulder, his clothes wrinkled, his eyes ringed in dark circles and his hair a greasy mess. At his feet sat a beautiful black lab, all teeth and tongue, panting from the heat and long day. He had gone to Kansas, after all, but only to steal back his heart, Bella.
She smiled at his bravery, his stupidity. The dumb dog was most likely chipped, already reported stolen. But, at least he was willing to fight for what was his, even if it could get him arrested.
“Pretty girl,” she typed, then added, “Key’s in the light.”
When he asked when she’d be home, she didn’t know how to answer, so she didn’t, which was fine with him. Once he had what he needed, he left her to do as she pleased; gifting to her what she wanted most in life – respect.