Highway

She had a painful past, one that made her put up barriers against everyone. When she is alone, she feels an odd connection to nature, as if there was something she is missing out in the wild. She brushes it off, but it never leaves. But when a mysterious man who knows more about her than he should wanders into her town and offers her a better life, she decides she has nothing to lose. As her life starts to look up however, she begins to have strange dreams. Suddenly, she is faced with questions about her life. What do the dreams mean? Who is this man? Could she really open up to someone, or would she get hurt again? As her past begins to haunt her, she must decide who she’s willing to trust. Will she shut out another person to protect herself? Or will she finally let her guard down and learn to love again? Only time will tell.

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11. Thankful For Stuffed Animals

Highway Chapter 11

 

            This was going to be a learning experience, for both of us. Veronica clearly wasn’t very well versed in the art of wilderness survival. We were walking alongside the road, the sun’s fiery rays increasing the temperature by several degrees in the already hot climate.

I had a full water bottle, and I knew it would last me until we got to a resting point outside of the town. Veronica had told me she had a water bottle as well, but I thought it strange, for she wasn’t drinking any of the liquid inside. Did she really not know that she needed to stay hydrated? Judging from her slow decrease in speed and look of exhaustion, I could easily answer that. Apparently not.

Sighing inwardly, I reminded myself how much this was going to benefit her. I am who I am today because of this journey. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened to me without it. I might not even still be alive. She needed this, and there were just things she needed to learn on the way. Nobody is perfect.

I cleared my throat just loud enough to catch her attention, and then took an exaggerated drink from my bottle. Her face flushed with color, and she immediately retrieved her bottle from her pack. Purposely ignoring me, she proceeded to gulp down about half of her water bottle. Another mistake, but she was a novice after all. The map showed there was a stream a little ways away, so if she ran out of water she could refill her bottle there.

She had caught up to me now, and we walked in silence. It was comfortable to me, for a majority of the time I spent on the road was by myself, accompanied only by my shadow and the nature around me. My conversations were limited to listening to the chatter of the animals, the babbling of the brook, the whispers of the wind. But for her, I knew that she was becoming more uncomfortable by the second. She kept fidgeting, and looked back and forth between me and the ground below us. Just as I had begun to think I should engage in some kind of conversation, opened her mouth.

“So,” she said, awkward and quiet.

“So,” I replied, not quite sure what she wanted me to say.

She paused, and then said, “I didn’t quite catch your name back there. I’m Veronica, as you know, and you are?”

Caught off guard, I looked at her surprised. Then, I shrugged. I suppose I should have seen this coming. I didn’t remember much before my awakening, and that included my name. I never found a use for a new one, so I just left it alone. I didn’t need a name when I was a part of something so big. Bugs didn’t have names, plants and animals were not called John, or Nancy, or Dave. We were all a part of nature. I didn’t blame anyone for wanting a name, I just didn’t feel as if it was important to me.

“What am I supposed to call you then? Hey, you? You there? Hey guy that I’m traveling with?”

I shrugged again, not sure what to respond with. It didn’t really matter what she called me, and I thought it a bit odd that my name was such a pressing issue to her. But better to be worried over a name than a past. I would prefer not to talk about my past if the need not arise.

“You can call me whatever you want I guess.” I said in non committal tones.

She told me that if I didn’t care, she would give me a name. Giving up on reasonable conversation, I resigned my fate. She pondered the name for a long time, making me awkwardly uncomfortable due to her intense scrutiny and continuous looks. She murmured something about having the wrong hair. How does a name describe someone’s hair? She suddenly proclaimed that my new name was Matthew, but that she was shortening it to Matt. It was an odd choice of name, I thought.

“Matt? Why Matt? I mean, it’s a fine name, but I never thought of myself as a Matt.”

She gave me the trademark glare that I was becoming accustomed to, and said tartly,

“Because I think of you as a matt and you ‘didn’t care’ as you said so I gave it to you and now it’s your name.”

She seemed offended at my lack of glee for my name, and crossed her arms, looking stern. I laughed inwardly, but kept it inside for I feared she would punch me if I laughed at her out loud. I didn’t know something so trivial would be important. But I thought I would give her a chance.

“Matt huh?”

I rolled the name off of my tongue several times, trying to get a feel for it. I guess Matt was as good a name as any other. I should be thankful she didn’t go down a spiteful path and start calling my Kelly. Or something worse.

“I kind of like it,” I announced to her.

She still looked cross, and turned her head away, mumbling a harsh whatever, but I could tell she wasn’t really truly mad at me. After a minute or two, she turned to me. She asked me if I really liked it, or if I was lying. I replied, honest yet polite.

“Yeah, I do. It’s as good a name as any other. I think I could be a Matt in real life. I have the Matt hair too.”

I added this last comment to make her smile. She hid it from me, but not before I could see the corners of her lips tilt up in the beginnings of a smirk.

We began to have a steady stream of conversation, most of the talking coming from her end. I didn’t mind this, for even though I was quiet, I enjoyed the company. It was lonely, and at least for now, I had a companion. We started talking about common things, and I repeated back her questions. Her favorite color, blue. Cats or dogs? Dogs. Right handed or left handed? Right. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you want with you? Large branches and fire. Why? So she could signal for help.

We walked amongst the nature, often slowing down so Veronica could watch the world go on around her. I would explain things to her, why that turtle was going there, what that structure was. This species of flower bloom at night, this lake is home to 25 kinds of fish. She was enamored and awed by everything here, as were all drifters including myself. It was good she already had such a connection to it, for that connection would make the awakening much easier.

After a pause to fill up her bottle with water from the stream, we resumed our journey. As we passed a large anthill, home to a colony of millions, Veronica purposely passed to the other side of me, avoiding it. I laughed, but quieted when she gave me that look. She was a very interesting girl. As we reached our camp site, a few miles out from the next town, Veronica collapsed onto the ground.

She murmured about never leaving the grass again. I snickered and then told her there was an anthill by her head. She jolted away, and then gave me a nasty look as she scolded me for scaring her, saying she would one day not believe me and then get eaten by ants. She said something about being okay with that as long as she didn’t have to move. I rolled my eyes, mumbling about her being so melodramatic.

Later, she walked up to the fire I had made, and rolled out her sleeping bag. It seemed she had the most basic supplies she needed, and I was impressed she had remembered to bring most of it. She then promptly began to complain about her feet.

“You said five miles” she commented accusingly, “we walked, like 25!”

Although it must have seemed long to her, it was not the longest I had ever walked.

“Please,” I scoffed at her, “Try 10.”

It had been longer than 5, but I wasn’t letting that melodrama go unaddressed.

“It was still more than 5” I heard her mumble.

I threw her a meal ready to eat from my pack and we ate hungrily, for it had been a while since our last meal. Understanding it had been a long day, I suggested she dip her feet in the cool river and few meters away. I used to do this before my feet had toughened enough, or just when I needed relief.

When she was gone, I reflected on just how different she was from anyone I had ever met before. The other person I had helped find the truth had been a young girl, around Veronica’s age, a year older. But she had been nothing like her, small with black hair and brown eyes. She was quiet and reserved, her voice barely every rising above a murmur. She had also been a girl who had been adopted but then had reached the age of majority and had moved out. The whole journey I received no conversations aside from about The Way. She wasn’t cruel or spiteful, she just was a very quiet girl.

Veronica was spunky down to her every molecule, and she was tough as well. She was loud and not afraid to say what was on her mind. Although harder to understand, I found Veronica to be special, a one of a kind among the drifters and ones that will be.

I heard her returning and asked, “Did you have fun?”

She snarkily replied that she had, with no thanks to me. She walked over to me and punched me in the arm without warning, catching me by surprise.

“What was that for?” I asked, feeling like I was being “abused.”

She told me it was for scaring her earlier, but it think it was also for making her walk 10 miles. We settled in, and I took up my usual evenings stargazing route. I traced the shapes with my eyes, silently telling the stories.

I heard Veronica softly call, “Hey.”

I twisted my torso so that I was leaning on my arm and facing her.

“What’s up?” I had asked her.

With a great deal of hesitation, she started apologizing to me. I sat up even further, to get a clearer view of her face. Mine must have been completely bewildered, for I did not know why she was apologizing until she spoke of the bar today. Finally understanding why she had been acting weird a majority of the day, I set out to calm her.

I explained to her that I appreciated her gesture, but that it was unnecessary. Everyone had a hard time at first, and rejected the idea. But she had come, and that was all that mattered. I’m pretty sure I cursed out the first person to tell me about the way. She looked at me, fiercely searching my face for signs of dishonesty. This was when I could tell just how vulnerable she really was.

Although she knew how to take care of herself, it mattered to her that I wasn’t lying. She was so unused to truth, it had to be checked over and over again for any signs of false elements.

“Do you want a hug?” I asked playfully, trying to make her laugh.

She gave me a no in the form of a grumble. I threatened to hug her again before she replied that she was going to punch me again if I hit her. I laughed, for this seemed exactly like something she would say. The laughter became contagious, and she too was soon laughing. We settled in again, and I began to feel sleepy. Just as my eyes became heavy, I heard Veronica’s voice.

Hushed and muted, she called my name, asking if I was awake. I could barely hear her when I was awake, and was only capable of doing so through years of fine tuning my listening skills to hear creatures far away. I replied with an affirmative noise, to let her know I was listening. She was silent, so I turned in the bag to face her if everything was okay. I was concerned by her lack of response.

She took me by surprise again, asking me if it was worth it. After a moment of confusion, I realized she meant the voyage. I told her, beaming, that it was worth every second, and that was the truth. It was the best thing to have ever happened to my life.

She turned away, giving the allusion of sleep. Softly, but loud enough she could hear, I bid her goodnight. She paused, and then with that quiet voice answered my goodnight with her own.

When morning broke, I woke up. I watched the sun rise over the horizon, slowly beginning its trek across the sky. I watched as it turned from ebony, to navy, to cerulean, and light blue. Just as the yellow had begun to peer over the horizon like a child peering at the dessert on the table, I decided to get ready to leave.

Stretching leisurely, I got up, changed, and put out the fire. I glanced over to where Veronica was sleeping, and couldn’t help but smile at the sight. Her hair was splayed out, her mouth slightly open, and her nose twitching at some dream. She looked rather peaceful when she was asleep, and I couldn’t tell that she was a girl with such a pained and angry past. Her face was relaxed, and it made her look like an entirely different person. I would have liked to have let her dream a bit longer, but we needed to head out pretty soon. It was six right now, and I wanted to be out of the town around twelve-thirty  in the afternoon. Dreading the confrontation that was sure to come, I went to wake her up.

“Veronica,” I called softly. “Veronica, wake up.”

She stirred, but didn’t prove more responsive. Sighing, I bent down and shook her shoulder.

“Veronica,” I said, a bit louder and forceful this time.

She jumped, now open eyes bleary with sleep filled with confusion. As she woke up a little bit more, she realized it was just me. It was obvious nobody slept around her often, which made me believe she lived alone.

“What?” she asked drowsily, her voice taking on a child like tone.

“It’s time to get up, we need to head to the town up ahead. Get your stuff packed. We’ll eat breakfast and go.” I said, yawning.

She repeated the action and sat for a moment. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as I had thought. Then from behind me I heard her say,

“What do you mean let’s go? What time is it?”

She looked at the thin digital watch on her wrist, and moaned.

“It’s six in the morning! What the hell is wrong with you? I am not going anywhere at six in the morning except back to bed!”

So it was going to be difficult. I thought I should try a more reasonable approach first, tell her why it’s important.

“Come on, Veronica. We need to go into town today to get you supplies. If we don’t go now, we won’t make it out in time to get to the hotel outside of it in time.”

I had told her that if we got all of our errands done tomorrow, we would have time to make it to the small motel and stay there for the night, instead of outside. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but I thought some extra motivation would be good for her.

She stirred again, but then continued to ignore me.

“Besides, if you want to do this, you’re going to have to cooperate with me here. I wake with the sun and sleep with the sun. It’s just the way it is. Help me out.” I pleaded to her. 

She swatted me away snapping, “And I will work with you when it’s not so god forsaken early. But right now I will do no negotiating with you. Now leave me alone.”

She buried her head underneath her pillow.

Sighing, I realized I would have to resort to more desperate measures. I tried to be reasonable, so now I would be unreasonable.

“If you don’t get up, something not so good is going to happen. Are you sure?”

She lifted her pillow off her head, giving me a glare.

“You don’t have the guts.”

I raised my eyebrows, but shrugged.

“Alright, Veronica, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

I picked up my empty water bottle, and watched her snuggle back into her sleeping bag. Making my way down the hill to the creek nearby, I filled my bottle to the brim with the clear water. It was freezing, especially since it was morning, and I consoled myself with the fact that I had tried being the good guy.

Creeping silently up the hill, I approached her still form. Her sleeping bag was already unzipped most of the way, so I didn’t have to worry about it getting wet. Then, with a flick of my wrist, I opened the bottle right over Veronica.

She bolted out of that bag faster than a jackrabbit, screeching like a banshee. Her clothes were stuck to her skin, and her hair was matted to her forehead and clinging to her back. It was dripping over all that had been missed by the stream before.  It took her a moment of flailing around to see me standing there, a now empty bottle in hand.

“You!” she cried accusingly, “Did you just pour water on me?”

She was fuming.

“Well I warned you a few times,” I said casually, “if you had listened to me in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this problem, don’t you agree?”  

She just stood there puffing angrily, looking as if she were thinking on how to plan my untimely demise. I strolled to the side of the camp her stuff was on, and I threw her bag to her feet.

“Come on, we’re running late.” 

I finished gathering the rest of the camp into bags. Ignoring her presence as she grew increasingly irate, I zipped up my backpack, shouldering it in one fluid motion. Freed from her strange moment of silent fury, she sprang back with a force.

“Do you expect me to just stand here and take that? You just poured water all over me because you suck, and now you want me to be all hunkey dorey with that? Oh yeah it’s fine, I love to be doused with water in the mornings. Is that was you expect I’ll say?”

She was growing more upset, and this wouldn’t end well if we continued on.

“What I expect,” I replied with authority, “is that we get things done when they need to be done, and that we do it together. If you don’t want to do this anymore then be my guest, I’ll take you to town and you can get directions to where you’re going.”

She faltered in her no doubt nasty reply, and seemed at a loss for words. I didn’t want her to leave, and it was highly doubtful she would, but she needed to know that she chose this and therefore needed to be committed to it. Faced with this ultimatum, she would take being doused in water any day.

Deciding not to say anything that might kindle the embers of her anger, I merely told her that she should change for she could get sick if she kept on wet clothes. As she went off to change, still looking slightly murderous, I hoped fervently this wasn’t how all of our mornings were. I remember being stubborn enough to  keep arguing. I also made a note to myself to keep an eye out for a revenge prank from Veronica.

She slowly trailed back, mumbling a string of curses the entire way, all about me. I caught quite a few words I couldn’t even believe someone her age would know. She marched past me, grumbling, before she realized she didn’t know which way to go.

As I walked past her, she called my attention back.

“Just so you know, Matthew,” she said menacingly, “I’m not coming because I forgive you. I’m only here because I have nothing better to do, so don’t think it’s because I like you. I don’t. And I’m still mad at you. Are we clear?”

She was mad now, but I was sure she would come around. But to avoid another fight, I just agreed. She lagged behind me, still complaining under her breath. I pondered if my “full name” had some significance of being in trouble, but decided it didn’t really matter.  She would get over it, in time.

The town was only a few miles away, and we were making good time. The sun had just come up all the way, and it was bringing the animals that weren’t already awake to life.

As with the day before, Veronica was entranced with the nature around her. She spotted some colorful flowers by the side of the road a myriad of buds and blooms attached to long rods, and slowed significantly to look at them. She turned, as if to ask me, but then stopped and crossed her arms.

“Those are Baby Snapdragons. Beautiful, aren’t they?”

She didn’t look at me, but she didn’t look away. I was getting the silent treatment, but it wasn’t necessarily the cold shoulder either. I would make her less mad with me before we got in the town.

I explained to her how a beaver built a dam, how a woodpecker got its food. I explained everything we passed. And though she wouldn’t respond or take a pause from “ignoring” me, I certainly had her ear. The way to her heart was through nature. She also seemed to have a strong love for stories and tales.

As we reached the town, I was finishing telling her about the time I saw a beaver bring down an entire tree. She had resumed walking next to me, not hanging back. I had, at the very least, lessened her anger to the point she wasn’t thinking of horrible things to do to me while I am sleeping. Or perhaps just not right now.

This town was at least twice the size of Veronica’s, so there wouldn’t be as many people sensing us and becoming uncomfortable. It was also located right on the highway, so a lot of “strange” people came to the town.

Veronica looked around the town with a smile on her face. Had she been here before? If she had been, it was a good trip. I could see it in her eyes.

We had left around seven, and it had taken us an hour to get here. That left us with 4 hours before we headed out. Getting everything we needed for a good price would take anywhere from 2-3 hours, especially if they were in a bad mood.

Now done looking back at her memories, Veronica looked bored senseless.

Hoping to cheer her up, I turned to her and said, “You know, this is going to take a while. You can come if you want, but I think you would have more fun if you explored the town. I’ll tell you what, do whatever is fun in this town, but don’t draw any attention to yourself. The last thing we need are people staring at us the whole way through town.  I’ll meet you here at 11:30, I would say. Does that work for you?”

Her eyes lit up with excitement, and I wondered if maybe I was going to regret this decision. I couldn’t see much harm in it, and it would put her in a better mood, that was great.

“Okay! I got it!” she practically snag, the first words since this morning.

  I didn’t know if she heard me correctly, so I made her repeat back what I said. With no other reason to hold her back, I set her loose on the unsuspecting townspeople.

“Be nice!” I shouted to her as she was trotting down the aisle.

She raised her hand to show that she heard me, and I felt the littlest bit reassured. I went into the little shop to get Veronica’s basic supplies.

After a conversation where I convinced the man to give it to me on sale, I spotted something to the side. It was just sitting there, lonely but hopeful someone would pick it up. I didn’t know if Veronica would like the item, but to me it just seemed like it would be a great present for her. I thought of it as a “welcome to the club” present. It wasn’t very expensive, so I snatched it off of the shelf.

“I’ll take this as well, please,” I said to the cashier.

The whole key of keeping incognito was to stay distant from people, but be polite to everyone. Keeping an easy going demeanor and having proper manners are critical to making yourself seem normal. I should have told Veronica that, I told myself, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I trusted her enough to know she wouldn’t do anything really stupid, and she seemed plenty capable of getting herself out of most situations. She was quick on her feet, which was a quality that drifters needed to have to avoid detection as being “different”.

I spend the next few hours browsing through stores, making sure there wasn’t anything we needed.

When it came close to 11:30, I looped back and returned to our rendezvous spot. I began to grow concerned as time passed from 11:30, until it was 11:35, and 11:40. When she was half an hour late, I grew seriously  worried. Had something happened to her? What was holding her up? Where was Veronica?

Just as I prepared to search the town, she showed up from behind me.

“Hi. Sorry I’m late,” She said.

What had she been doing? Forcing back my frustration, I took a deep breath to calm myself and my voice.

“What took you so long? I was worried," I asked.

I made it sound as casual as possible. She looked sheepish, but responded softly and calmly.

“They are having this weird event over there and I ended up on the other side of the people. I had to work my way through very slowly to not call attention to myself. I didn’t mean to make you worry.”

She seemed concerned I was upset. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding. It would be absolutely horrible if I lost my young charge on only the second day. Pleased she was at least trying to listen to me, I gave her a grateful smile.

“Are you ready to go?” I asked her.

She nodded, looking just as relieved as I was to have found me again.

“Oh wait,” she called as I started to walk to the general direction the motel was in, “Here, catch this.”

She threw me something from her bag, and I narrowly avoided being smacked in the head with it. Examining it, I realized it was a walkie talkie. I looked to her with question in my eyes.

“I had them sitting around the house, and I thought they might be useful. Now we can communicate when we are away from each other.”

I gave her another smile, and stowed away the walkie in the side packet of my backpack. We had to go back to where Veronica had been a few minutes ago to get out of the correct gates.

As she had said, the people seemed to be having some sort of parade. The origin was unknown, for it was a bunch of paper kites flying by in the sky, confetti raining down upon us. Dragon kites swooped through the air as if they had the actual wings, and colorful lizards soared across the clouds. Whatever this was, it had drawn quite the crowd, and they were blocking the exit. We were going to have to weave right through the middle of the throng.

Veronica had instinctively drawn closer to me, our shoulders brushing against each other. I turned to her, almost having to shout over the noise.

“We’re going to have to go straight through them!”

She seemed hesitant, and I wondered what was causing her trepidation. I held out my hand for her to take, something to keep us together.

“Come on!,” I yelled to her.

She looked at my hand and back at me before shouting, “I’m not a baby! I can take care of myself! You just worry about your own well being!"

Deciding it didn’t matter as long as she didn’t get lost, I nodded, only replying to stay close. I hadn’t even known this town had housed so many people.

It appeared the finale had come, for the crowd’s voices had become more frenzied and manic. A gigantic kite, twice my size, rose up from the horizon, swooping down on the people. Passing only an inch above my head, the kite began a flight pattern similar to a dance, diving down and then careening upward. The people were all cheering at the kite show, and they swayed like an ocean wave, threatening to wash us away.

The space in between people was non-existent, and it was so hot it was sickening. Mob mentality was a very powerful thing indeed.

I felt emptiness by my side, or at least a gap where I thought it would be occupied by a certain girl. I looked for Veronica in the crowd, but couldn’t find her. I searched the waves of people for her vibrant hair, and began to panic again when I couldn’t spot her. Was she lost? Should I try to push through and hope she’s at the other end? I pushed through the people, searching high and low.

Forcing myself into a calmer state, I set about searching more methodically. I scanned the crowd, staying in the same place, a solid rock in the middle of a stream.

Suddenly I felt a body slam into mine. I stumbled, but didn’t fall. When I saw who it was, my relief was evident. There was Veronica, looking a little frazzled, but otherwise unharmed. She mimicked my relieved look, and closed the minimal space in between us.

Taking my hand like a lifeline, she looked at me and nodded. We weaved in and out of the people, sticking to the edge once we got there. She held on to my hand, as if for dear life itself. As we finally cleared the masses, I saw our exit. Picking up speed but still maintaining a firm grip on Veronica’s hand, I dashed to the other side.

We stopped to catch our breath, her legs shaking a little bit. Perhaps she was claustrophobic? But even if she wasn’t, being around a lot of people was always uncomfortable for people like us. We felt too confined, used to the vast expanses of nature when you might as well have a grain of sand in relative to your size. She seemed suddenly aware we were linked together, and pulled her hand away like she was about to be burned.

“All right then,” I remarked after we had calmed down, “I think it’s about time we left. Don’t you agree?”

She agreed entirely. The walk to the motel was about an hour and a half, but it had been infinitely more pleasant this time around, for I didn’t have a teenager brooding at my side, constantly insulting me. She asked me about the plant life, and what was their role in the environment. I have never met a girl who can ask as many questions as Veronica did, but it was okay. The more she learned, the more connected she would feel.

She already seemed a less pained girl than before. Something about the outside made her smiles come more frequently, and made her laughter easier. She asked me more silly questions. Did I like scrambled eggs? Who was my favorite singer? Which was my favorite sport? It went on and on, and I answered. I would often repeat them to her, for the sake of learning.

We arrived a bit later than I was expecting, but still came early enough to get a reservation. We headed up to our rooms, and set most of our stuff down. It was about two in the afternoon, and we didn’t quite know what to do.

I was lying in bed, sorting supplies and counting everything. Veronica was watching an old movie in here, for my room had a bigger television. She would occasionally mumble something to the television, absorbed in what was happening on the screen. Suddenly, she was leaning over the edge of the bed, folding her arms.

“So, are you like that?” she asked, looking up at me from her position.

“Like what?” I asked.

She pointed to the television, and I twisted my legs to the side to see the screen more clearly. It appeared to be an old western movie. Okay, I thought, I need to straighten this out right now.

“Not at all,” I scoffed at the movie, “I couldn’t be more different if I tried.”

When she gazed at me curiously, I decided to elaborate.

“We don’t wander around and become ‘heroes’, we help people who need to help themselves. Think of it this way, I have in common with the Lone Ranger as much as you have in common, with, let’s say that boy yesterday.”

She snorted in discontentment, and plainly stated, “Well I guess you are pretty different. The only thing I have in common with him is that I breathe. And sometimes he even needs to be reminded of that.”

This comment made me smirk, and then I snickered lightly. With nothing else to do, I watched the rest of the movie with her, getting her to join me in making fun of the acting and plot.

When we got hungry, we went down to the lobby, where right outside a man was selling delicious looking hot dogs. Veronica and I ate them under the fading sunset, leaning against the bench and watching the sun say its farewells. Veronica said she was going to head up, for her feet were “going to just wear away.” I watched the sun for a moment as she walked through the doors, and then caught up with her.

We settled in for the night. I took a shower before she got the idea, for I wanted the water temperature to be in the positive ranges. Not to say I knew she would take a long one, I thought it highly likely.

As the warm water cascaded across my face, I began to think. Veronica still was rough and tough, and she would likely even be a mild version of this when she had her awakening. But still, I was glad to see that she had already become happier. She was going through a process, I knew, and I was happy to be there for her. She was rather endearing actually, even when she looked like she was planning to kill you for waking her up. I hoped she wasn’t too mad at me for that. I felt like I would miss her when she found The Way.

Drifters rarely ever stay together, and if they do, it’s only for a short time. We were just made to be lonely when it came to human contact. The whole world was connected to us, and it wasn’t necessary to have a companion besides the wild.

Even so, I would miss her spunkiness and attitude. I would never tell her this, of course, and I would be there to wish her good luck and to say farewells with the utmost empathy and happiness when she found her way. I found it odd that I was even wondering about this. Since when did I feel like I wanted a companion? I shrugged, figuring there were mysteries in the world, and I would never figure them out by worrying over them. It’s like trying to solve algebra by chewing bubble gum. You can try, but it won’t do you any good.

Turning off the stream of water, I stepped out onto the plush rug beneath my feet. Even though I preferred to sleep at night, it was good to “freshen up” at different places in towns so that I didn’t look like a ragamuffin. Putting on a white t-shirt and some plain black basketball shorts, and towel drying my hair, I entered my room only to hear a fervent knocking.

Opening the conjoining door between our rooms, I came face to face with an irked Veronica.

“What’s up?” I asked her nonchalantly, leaning in the door frame.

She gave me an irritated look.

“If you are quite finished stealing all of the hot water, I would appreciate being able to take my shower now.”

I suppressed a smile at her impatience.

“Go ahead, it’s all yours, princess.”

She gave me that glare I had come to know so well, and scowled, replying “Don’t call me stupid nicknames. No Vee, no Ronny, none of these. And especially not princess. All right?”

I put my hands up in a defensive matter, holding back a smirk.

“What happened to ladies first, anyway? Have you no chivalry? Chivalry, art thou dead? Actually, you know what, it’s okay that you went. I would want to let the ladies go first, so that definitely applies to you.”

Ouch. She was certainly sassy tonight.

“Oi, watch it,” I grumbled.

She laughed, basking in her victory.

“ I am the master of the universe!” she sang as she bounced away.

What a strange girl, I thought, but I couldn’t keep from smiling. She took her shower, long as I had expected, and then again came knocking on my door.

“Who is it?” I asked innocently, making my voice a high and feminine as possible “I wasn’t expecting company. Golly, who could it be at this late hour?”

I heard her muffle a laugh from the other side. Then all of a sudden, the door swung inward, smacking me head on.

“Oh!” I heard Veronica exclaim, “I didn't know you were in front of the door. Oops.”

I held my nose, for she had smacked me in the face. It stung, but I wasn’t bleeding at least. She had been unusually kind enough to get me an ice pack from the fridge.

Although it was obvious she hadn’t meant to hit me in the face, Veronica sure found it amusing.

“Oh me, oh my!” she mocked, her voice higher and exaggerated as well, “I apologize for your nose darlin’ I was always clumsy. Never could dance at the square dances back home. Poor Billy from out back never did recover from that broken toe.”

We both chortled at that one, and Veronica confiscated my television for her own use. When  I got up to get a glass of water, she was on the ground, and when I came back, she was laying on my bed stomach first, her feet swaying back and forth.

“Shoo,” I said, attempting to reclaim my spot.

She wouldn’t budge and I thought about pushing her off, but I wasn’t that mean. I had already poured water on her. But then she had smacked me in the nose with a door. I figured we were pretty even. I took a spot on the ground, and watched a talent show with her. This arrangement didn’t last very long, because I had a “big head.”

The beds were surprisingly large for how small the building was, and so she separated it with an imaginary line and cleared room for me to sit.

I had found a book on the table earlier, a mystery thriller. With nothing better to do, I lay against the headboard and started to read. Veronica had flipped the channels and come across a documentary on Meerkats, and was now watching them with fascination. I wondered how she was comfortable, for she had her feet crossed and leaned up against the headboard, and she was watching upside down. We continued this until it was around 10, and Veronica began to yawn. She tucked her legs under her and stretched, preparing herself for bed time.

“I’m still mad at you, you know,” she said drowsily, taking me by surprise.

Remembering the gift in my bag, I smiled.

Stretching as well, I simply replied, “Is that so? Well I suppose if you are mad at me, you don’t want the present I got you today. Such a shame.”

She exclaimed something about secrets, and asked me what it was.

“I can’t tell you. But you obviously don’t want it because you are mad at me, so I’ll just have to take it back.”

She told me I was being a jerk, and to stop it. After a little bit more prompting, she finally conceded that she was not mad at me, and did, in fact, want the present. Glowing in my victory, I reached across her for my backpack and pulled out the little toy.

A stuffed octopus, it was vibrant red with yellow tentacles that had blue suckers. On its face was a content smile, his little eyes cole black. The bottom side of one of his tentacles read happiness. At first, Veronica didn’t say anything. I thought she might have disliked it, and was about to yell at me for thinking her childish enough to want stuffed animals. Then, after a long moment, she took him from me.

As she looked at me, I saw the smallest smile of happiness there. A genuine smile, one free of attitude or sarcasm.

“Thank you, Matt. Really. He’s so adorable.”

She looked at me, and then looked away, fearing I would see her little smile.

I was happy she liked the octopus. I couldn’t be sure what she liked. And then, she could have just as easily told me it was too infantile for her. She got up to leave, the octopus snuggled in the crook of her arm. We bid each other goodnight, and just as she was about to leave, she peeked back in.

“Hey Matt?” she asked.

When I looked up, making an affirmative sound, she said, “If you ever tell anyone that I like him or other stuffed animals, waking up to being soaked is going to be the least of your problems.”

With an unusually cheery smile to follow such a statement, she popped her head back out. Despite the fact I had just been threatened, I was happy. I felt victorious and accomplished, for I had found the indestructible Veronica’s weakness.

Sometimes something so simple could be the answer to a solution. I wouldn’t have ever thought I would have gotten that smile over something like the little octopus. I had found the secret, and as I went to bed I smiled at the unexpectedness of it.

The toughest girl I had ever met, one full of snarkiness and attitudes, was in love with such a soft, plushy thing.

They say to be grateful for the little things. And tonight, I will agree with that. Tonight, I was thankful for all the good things in the world. I was thankful for my life, in this moment, and thankful I had been chosen to be a part of it. But most of all, I was thankful for stuffed animals.

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