"Grace, wake up," my father says. I know I am dreaming because my father is dead. Confirming this only hurts, but I push the pain away. At any rate, I never want to wake up.
"I don't want to," I say. He laughs quietly, but it's not right. It's not his laugh.
Reluctantly, I peel open my eyes. I am looking at a counter and a dark figure suddenly blocks my view. I don't remember where I'm at. I am now looking into piercing blue eyes. My head jerks up and connects with his in a sudden burst of pain.
"Ow!" exclaims Tommy, and he laughs. "Grace, that's no way to treat the people kind enough to let you hitch-hike."
I scowl and lay back down. My head is throbbing. "Did you at least sleep well?" he asks me.
"Yeah, I guess," I lie. The one time I remember my dream, and I wish that I don't.
"Good. We're making a pit stop, and then we'll find a hotel. The others went inside already. Do you want to go in? I'll wait out here with you if you don't."
I shake my head and stand, a little wobbly. Tommy grips my elbow to steady me, laughing again. Together, we enter the gas station. The air conditioning is on too high, and I pull my arms around me, shivering.
Deep in my pocket is a lonely five dollar bill; it's all that I have. I pick out a water bottle and some pretzels. I head for the register, but Derek takes them from me before I get up to the counter. The items are paid for and returned to me before I have time to protest. I want to be angry and say that I could have covered it, but my words fail me. I am stricken by how kind these strangers are.
I am not sure what I expected from these guys, but it wasn't this.
"So, I think I want to dye my hair blue. Just the tips anyway," Derek announces when we're all on the bus again.
I nibble on a pretzel.
"Blue, really?" says Tommy.
"I say go for it," Adam grins. His mop of curly blond hair falls in his eyes, and he flicks it away casually.
"What do you think, Grace?"
I look up and meet Derek's brown eyes. He has a reddish brown mohawk, and his shaved sides are blond. The mohawk isn't spiked right now, so it looks more like a mullet gone wrong. For Derek, it works.
"What if you did yellow and orange?" I suggest. Derek grins at me.
"I like that. Tommy, can we keep her?"
He shrugs and pulls out his guitar. "You guys I think we should put on a show." The three of them nod start singing a song I've never heard before. Adam holds the rhythm, tapping and pounding on the table. When they finish, the three of them stare at me.
"Have you heard that one before?" Adam asks. I shake my head.
"Okay, Tom, I believe you now."
"So, what, you guys are in a band? That's the big secret?"
Adam grins. "You really haven't heard of us?"
"No. I, uh... My step dad believes music is... unnecessary. So aside from what I hear on the radio in chance places, I never listen to it." I explained, a little self-consciously. Derek and Adam openly gaped at me, while Tommy just looked incredulous.
"Wow. No offense, but your step dad sounds like a--"
"No, I agree. He's definitely not a nice guy."
The bus turns and comes to a stop. I look out the window to see where we are. There before me is a large, luxurious-looking hotel. The sun is only just getting low in the sky, and Tommy hands my duffle bag to me.
"Start sorting through it for your dirty clothes." Easy enough, I think to myself. Everything in it is already dirty.
"Hey, this hotel has a pool, right?" asks Derek.
"Yeah, that's what it said online. Do you like to swim, Grace?" Adam says to me.
I shrug. "Yeah, I guess. It's been a while, though, and I don't have a swim suit with me."
"No matter. Listen, Adam and Derek, why don't you go check us in. Your dirty clothes are sorted out, right? Grace, it's my turn to find a laundry mat tonight, so if you come with me, we can stop at the mall and see if they don't have any suits left. Maybe you'll even get your own pair of sweat pants." Tommy winks.
Derek and Adam nod their agreement. Slinging some bags over their shoulders, they turn and head for the hotel.
"Hey, Sully, you heard all that, right?" Tommy says to a man I've only just noticed. It never occurred to me that they had a bus driver, though it seems silly to think that the bus would drive itself.
"Sure thing, Tom. I think Castleton is just a couple of minutes away."
"Great. Thanks Sully." I listen to the transmission turn over and the engine start up as Sully starts the bus again. The noise is comforting and reminds me of the evenings I would spend with my dad in the shop.
Tommy sorts through his own bag in silence. A few minutes later, we pull into a very large parking lot. Half a dozen cars fill the place, and Sully seems to have a hard time finding a suitable place to park the bus. Eventually he settles for taking up two spaces front and back in the middle of the parking lot.
"So you still have no idea who we are, then?" Tommy asks after we pass a group of girls that stare at us on our way inside the lobby.
"I've decided I don't care." I answer truthfully.
"Really. I figure that as long as I get a ride and you guys aren't endangering my well being, I don't care if you're transformers. Although it is uncomfortable when people stare." I add as we pass another guy who stares at us.
I get the feeling that he's staring more at me this time, though. Nervously, I corss my arms; I feel strangely exposed.
I point to a store with some bathing suits in the window. Tommy nods and we go in. I have to try one on first, because I don't remember my size. It fits, but I wouldn't ever be seen by another living soul in it. Dressed again, I exit the dressing room.
A woman with a name tag reading "Becky" smiles at me. "You know, I have a feeling this one will look great on you." She turns to Tommy. "What do you think?"
She holds up a bright pink bikini. I stare at it, wondering if there's enough material there to cover up the important stuff. "I don't think so," I say before Tommy can answer. He shrugs.
"No? Okay. Well, I'll leave you to look around then. Let me know if you need anything, though." I nod, and smile because I feel rude if I don't.
Tommy turns around and looks at some other choices. I look around on a different rack. At one point, he holds up a floral one piece. I snort. "Not a chance." I am seriously questioning why anyone would think that's attractive.
I pick out a pale lavender one that I think is cute. It's mostly plain, with a white lily on one corner of the bottoms. Tommy holds up a white bikini with yellow polka-dots. I stare at him. "No."
"Come on. It's my money, I just want to see it."
I could've refused him all night long if he hadn't played the money card. I sigh. "Fine."
I try on the yellow polka-dotted one first. Tommy grins as I glare at him. "It looks fabulous," says Becky.
"Really?" I look in the mirror. As much as I hate to admit it, the polka-dots are growing on me. I study myself for a second longer. My dark hair cascades over my shoulders, a tangled mess because a hair brush is the other thing I didn't think to bring. The bruise on my ribs stands out more, and I cross my arms feeling more self-conscious, the fear from that night overwhelmingly resilient in my mind. I'm gracious that they don't say anything about it.
I take a deep breath and try to calm myself. Tonight, I'm safe, I remind myself. My blue eyes return to their normal, pale state, and I smile.
"Really," Tommy replies. "But if you don't like it, you don't have to get it."
"No, I like it."
I don't bother trying on the lavender bathing suit. I want to put my shirt back on, so I get dressed again and exit the dressing room.
"That's the one then?"
I nod. After Tommy pays for it, we go back out into the wide corridor. There aren't very many people left, because it's close to closing time. I see a Claire's store and tap Tommy on the shoulder. "Can we?" He grimaces but follows me in.
"I just want a hair brush." I grab one with a gel handle and hand it to Tommy so he can pay for it. I put the hair brush in the bag with my new swim suit. "Thanks."
He smiles at me. It's weird to think that we met only last night. Already, it feels like Tommy is a close friend--like I've known him for years. He's an open book with a kind heart, and I realize that I owe this man more than I am able to repay him for. Guilt sinks like a rock in the pit of my stomach.
"This store is always good for sweat pants," Tommy explains as we come up on a window display bearing athletic shoes and a few other "fitness" items. I shrug, thinking it can't hurt to look.
In the back of the store, I find a pair of plain, black sweat pants. They look like they'll fit, and I hold them up for Tommy to see, but he's not where I left him. I look around, hoping he didn't decide to leave me at the mall. I could manage, if he did. But I would be more than a little disappointed.
"Tommy?" I call out.
A middle-aged woman with graying hair smiles at me. "Your boyfriend is over there." She points to a music store on the opposite side of this store.
"Oh, he's not my boyf--" I stop because she's clearly not listening to me. "Thanks." I mumble.
I put the sweat pants back on the rack and follow Tommy. He's looking at the new releases. I peer over his shoulder at the CD he's holding. The title reads Letters of Endearment, The Sun Won't Shine Much Longer. On the cover is a picture of three men silhouetted by a setting sun. They are surrounded by a golden wheat field lit up like fire. One of them has a guitar slung over his shoulder. One is in mid jump, his legs tucked up under him. The third is holding his arms straight out, his head upturned.
I look from the album up to the sign. This store just got these today. "Do you like Letters of Endearment?" I ask him. He is startled to hear my voice. He nods.
"I know them pretty well." He smirks and puts the CD down. "I've actually already got that album. It's in the bus. Sully likes to listen to it sometimes." I nod.
"Well, I found a pair of sweat pants."
"Good." He follows me into the athletic store again, and I wait quietly by the counter watching him.
"You know I can't pay you back for any of this, right?" I say, still feeling weird about letting this familiar stranger buy me things.
"I told you before. Don't worry about it." He smiles at me. "You helped me out last night, and now I'm returning the favor."
We are about to leave the mall, but suddenly I am being pulled into a store blaring loud music. I catch a quick glance at the sign. Hot Topic.
"I haven't been in here in ages. Derek is going to be so jealous."
A girl about our age scowls like she can't believe we have the audacity of coming into her store as she's trying to close up. She's ready to tell us as much until she looks up, and the words die unspoken on her tongue.
"You're Tom, aren't you? From that band? I never thought I'd see the day. My name is Kat. It's great to meet you. If there's anything you need, just let me know. We've got some stellar deals going on right now. Most of the store is fifty percent off, just so you know."
"Uh, thanks." Tom shrugs and she gives him her most stunning smile. "Oh, man, Grace check this out!" He says, something on the wall catching his eye. As I turn to join him, I catch Kat scowling at me from the corner of my eye. My skin prickles, and I'm discovering that I don't like the attention Tom's popularity seems to invite.
"That's, uh, really something isn't it," I say turning my attention to the item Tom is holding up. "What is it?"
"I have no idea, but the pattern is cool."