Brian woke from a brief nap an hour or two later, feeling warm and sleepy still. Something about sitting in the passenger seat on long trips usually knocked him out cold. Up until he had fallen asleep he had been smiling in wonder at the many capabilities his new phone offered. He had even sucked up his pride enough to call his mother and let her know it was alright.
“I even found a job.” He said to her after they had exchanged less than warm greetings.
“A real job?” She responded, her voice dripping with suspicion. Brian was slightly annoyed by her question but he supposed he had been in enough scrapes in his lifetime that he couldn’t expect much less.
“Yes a real job.” He said exasperated.
“What kind of job?” She asked, still with that edge of disbelief. Brian looked over at Sharice, who smiled at him. Like him, she was wondering exactly how to describe this job.
“Security work.” He decided on finally. “I follow some brat around and keep her from getting killed.”
He laughed when he felt Sharice’s admonitory punch on his arm. He stopped laughing, however, when numbness spread from the point of impact. Pulling the phone away from his mouth he hissed:
“A dead arm…really?!”
She gave him nothing but a side long glance and smile in response.
“You’re alright though?” His mother’s voice came back over the speaker. She sounded more anxious now, like she had legitimately been worried.
“I’m better than I’ve been in a long while.” Brian had replied sincerely and she had seemed very pleased. She didn’t say anything about the curse, maybe she didn’t want another fight. No matter the reason, they managed to have civil conversation for the first time in years, it had been worth the trip just for that really.
He had fallen asleep not long after that and had awoken to a bass thunder clap that was Bentley’s bark.
“Bentley, cut that out.” Sharice called back to him. “Those squirrels are outside. You ain’t getting at them.”
They were flying down a highway blanketed on all sides by trees and wilderness. The radio was emitting a low volume version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Sharice was even singing a few bars before she notice Brian wake. She had a good voice deep and smokey for a woman, it made him want to hear her sing some blues. But she stopped once she saw his eyes open.
“Finally with us again, huh?” She said.
“How long was I out?” Brian yawned, stretching as best he could in the confined space.
“An hour or so. You didn’t miss much.” She sighed grabbing a piece of beef jerky from the bag in the glove compartment and ripping off a large piece of the tough meat. The rest of her sentence came through as a garble of chewing and speaking simultaneously. “Not unless you’re really into construction.”
“Can’t say that I am.” Brian rubbed his eyes for a minute, sighing as his body returned all functions to awakened state. He could feel his body cramping, begging him to get out and move for a little while, but he didn’t want to be the first one to call for a pit stop, especially so early in the trip.
“So I’m guessing you’ve got a screwed up home life too?” Sharice pondered, looking at him briefly out of the corner of her eye.
“I guess that’s a good way to put it.” Brain sighed, not really wanting to discuss his past.
“Your dad died too, didn’t he?” It seemed that no matter how much Brian wanted to avoid the subject, Sharice would not be deterred.
“Yes.” He said reluctantly. “I never knew him though. I was only a couple years old when it happened. I wouldn’t even remember his face if my grandma didn’t have pictures.”
“You’re mom didn’t keep any?” Sharice almost gasped shocked.
“Mom got remarried about a year or so after Dad died. The asshole she married wasn’t very happy about her keeping her first husbands pictures so he made her throw them all away.” The memory of it still rankled. When he strained his memory he could come up with the vague memory of a male face in a picture frame hanging in their living room. It had been gone within a year and the last vestige of Brian’s father had been gone.
“At least your Grandmother got to tell you about him.” Sharice said awkwardly. It was as if she couldn’t imagine anyone just throwing away the picture of a deceased loved one and given her own hardships in the last year, it wasn’t hard to see why. Her eyes were distant and sad as they watched the road.
“I had to find her first.” Brian chuckled bitterly.
“New step-daddy wasn’t to keen on raising another man’s child. He had some big stupid macho complex about it. So if he was going to be a father to me, not that he ever really was, we were all to pretend like I was his kid.”
“He said that?”
“Not out loud, oh never out loud.” Brian scowled bitterly at the dashboard. “No, admitting you have a problem is a sign of weakness…hell to him breathing was a sign of fucking weakness.”
The sound of a leather belt snapping as it hit flesh seemed to echo through the intervening years, along with the screams of a frightened child. He could here the pain and anger in his own voice, and feel both emotions boiling in his heart. He decided to press on.
“Anyway, he didn’t want me or my mother to have anything to do with my father’s family.” He continued in a much more calm voice. “He kept turning them away and telling my mother not to take their calls and eventually they just stopped trying.”
Sharice was silent, she looked ashamed for some odd reason. Bentley let out a cautious whine from the backseat and Brian put a hand on his head to comfort him.
“But I was fifteen and getting more rebellious by the day, and I wanted to know where I came from. I had already learned some tricks from my stepbrother and it was far to easy to slip into my mom’s filing cabinet take a good long look at what information she still for dad so she could still get his insurance and it lead me to my grandma.” He paused to retrieve a piece of jerky from the plastic bag, at which point Sharice’s hand shot out and smacked the back of his. The gesture was so very similar to her mother that Brian couldn’t help but smile. Sharice pointed to the second bag of jerky unopened behind the first and her rummaged to fish it out. “Grandma was the one who told me about Dad, and the curse.”
He fiddled with the claddagh ring on his finger for a moment, remembering his grandmother’s face when she was talking about the curse.
“Did you believe her?” Sharice asked.
“Not at first,” He replied, eyes fixed on the tarnished silver heart. “But she seemed to believe in it so much and…it seemed like too much of a coincidence them more I found out about it all.”
They lapsed into silence for a few minutes while Brian fidgeted absentmindedly with the ring on his finger.
“Did she give you that?” Sharice asked nodding at it.
“How could you tell?” Brian said in surprise.
“It’s older than you, I’d say.” She said smiling at the road before her. “Looks like something that would get passed down.”
She held up her hand wiggling the finger bearing the U.S. Navy ring. Brian understood suddenly.
“Yeah, she passed it on. She said it had been getting passed down from father to son for the longest time.” He had loved this ring from the instant he’d received it. The band ending in a pair of upraised hands lifting a crowned heart. It felt like…seeing his father again when he slipped it about his finger. He had always felt better with it securely around his finger.
“I’m sorry about your dad.” Brian said suddenly. An old ache was inside him again, the old longing for home and happiness. He couldn’t really tell why but the recentness of Sharice’s tragedy might have been pushing it out onto the surface. Or maybe, he just was used to being miserable and didn’t know how to cope with the fairly decent situation in which he found himself.
“I am too.” Sharice almost whispered after a long sad sigh. But to her credit, she smiled sadly at the road and said no more. No tears, no crying, just the passive sadness that comes with a loss never quite forgotten.
And so, they sat. The silence never felt awkward, never hostile, it was companionable. It was as if both of them had learned to find peace in the silence by themselves, and now it could be just as friendly as a conversation. Brian wasn’t sure just what it said about his mental state that he had so much rapport with a seventeen year old girl. Maybe living the life he’d lived had kept him a little emotionally stagnated. Maybe the life she’d lived had caused Sharice to grow up a little faster than most her age. Whatever the reason, they both sat in relaxed silence, listening to the oldies station, feeling no need what so ever to break the silence. Except when they would sing a few bars of a good song, before lapsing again into thoughtful silence.
A few hours later, both Brian’s and Bentley’s bladders were crying for relief and Sharice had no choice but to pull of at a rest stop to accommodate them, though she had no qualms about insulting their manhood’s as she did so. She got out and stretched, watching Bentley sniffing at trees, as Brian sprinted to one of the public bathrooms. He had to stop his headlong rush however and dodge off to one side, avoiding a particularly burly pack of what looked like bikers but Brian could tell better. When you spent a decent portion of your adult life sleeping in rest stops and visiting roadside bars, earning a living through picking people’s pockets, you learned to spot real bikers and the guys who bought themselves a Harley and took it for a Sunday drive. These three were the latter. They had no tattoos or rings, no insignia’s on their jean jackets (except for the fairly recognizable one of a TV biker gang), he could see the didn’t have much in the way of beards either. Not all bikers had one, as a rule, but most did. As they nudged past Brian, one of the men knocked into him as hard as they could. He caught the whiff of alcohol coming from the pack, strong as if they’d had opened a beer under his nose. He didn’t much care as it made his revenge all the easier.
“Watch it, fucker!” The slightly slurred words came.
“Sorry,” Brian called, apologetically over his shoulder. He could hear the three drunks making disparaging remarks about him as they walked away. No doubt they trusted the menacing visages they seemed to think they had to protect them from any rebukes he might levy. It was a shame as it made it that much easier for Brian to conceal the black leather wallet he’d snatched from the man when they made contact. There wasn’t much in the way of cash, maybe only fifty or sixty dollars in it’s folds, but it was the principle of the thing really. So he pocketed the paper money, before throwing the wallet (complete with ID and credit cards) off into a nearby bush.
When he had finished his business and washed his hands, Brian emerged back into the sunlight to the sounds of drunken yelling. Feeling somewhat apprehensive, Brian rounded the corner of the building that housed the bathrooms to find the three drunks he’d passed earlier. They had formed a threatening looking circle around a girl. It was Sharice. She was several yards away and he couldn’t hear more than the tone of their voices. He heard one of the drunks make, what sounded from this distance, like a clumsy come on. He grabbed his crotch with one hand while a chorus of laughter went up from the two men on either side of Sharice. He could hear her answer cooly, and the instant angry uproar that followed. Brian began running forward. He combed the parking lot for Bentley and to his chagrin saw the wolfhound locked in the car, barking his head off silently through the glass of the back window, his fangs bared. Another cool toned response from Sharice prompted Brian to run just as fast as he could. What was she doing? Pissing off three drunks, each of whom weighed about two of her, was a very bad idea. He knew she was tough but tough and stupid were two separate things. Finally he saw one of the men fix a vice-tight grip on her upper arm, a gesture surely meaning her no good will. Brian was still too far away, he was about to open his mouth to distract the drunks, but then Sharice moved.
She seized the hand that held hear, using a pressure point in the webbing between the man’s thumb and the rest of his hand. The man screamed in pain as his hand released against his will and was wrenched in a direction it was never intended to go. Sharice let his arm and punched him full in the face, putting all her weight behind the blow. The man took the blow just below the right eye, several gashes opening in his face from the rings Sharice had not taken off, finally he toppled backwards onto the ground ans lay still.
Brian watched in awe as he ran. Sharice was facing him looking down at the man before her. A scuffling of boots on gravel told her the man to her left had recovered from the shock quickest. She dropped to her hands, spinning as she did so. She swept the man’s legs out from under him with one sweep of her long leg. He hit the gravel hard and didn’t move. The last of the drunks was moving to her unprotected rear, but she spun, rising from the ground in an elegant corkscrew and upper cut the man with, what looked like, the force of mack truck. He too, fell backwards onto the ground, moaning and prone.
“What took you?” She said smiling wickedly at Brian. He had no words, he simply stared, skidding to a halt, his boots digging into the gravel. She turned her back on his panting and went back to the car, stepping on her would be assailant as she went. Brain, panting and wheezing, had no choice but to follow her.