She stuck out her thumb, putting on her biggest smile. Her mother would not approve. Janeen got the semi-truck to stop for her.
“Where you headed?” Asked the driver.
“Where you headed?” She asked him back.
“Memphis.” He responded.
“Perfect!” Janeen climbed into the passenger seat. Soon they were flying down Highway 55, south for Memphis. The trucker wanted to make conversation.
“Did you know that most interstates that end in a five are cross country?” Janeen shook her head, “no.” She didn’t want to converse with the guy. She was looking for a ride. The driver continued. “Cross country meaning north to south or east to west. This highway connects the Great Lakes to the Gulf.” She looked out the window. She would not give him the satisfaction of a conversation. She didn’t want to know him, nor did she care what he had to say. An hour later, he was still telling her about his wife and kids and where he lived and what his hobbies were. Janeen kept her face averted grunting in response. She could feel the frustration of the driver. He had picked her up for a conversation or companionship and realized that wasn’t going to happen. He pulled into the truck stop. He reached over to the passenger seat, Janeen pulled away.
“Look, Mr., I don’t want anything but a ride. If you don’t feel that way, we end here.” She hopped out of the truck. At least she was out of Illinois, but a long way to where she would settle. She was headed anywhere south. The guy grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
“Leave me alone!” She shouted at him. People surrounding the truck stopped walking and looked in their direction. “I want to go! You have no claim on me. You gave me a ride for Christ’s sake!” From nowhere, a middle-aged man stepped in. He looked like a boxer. His nose had been broken at some time, and he sported a cauliflower ear. He pushed between Janeen and the trucker.
“The lady says she wants to be left alone.” He glared at the trucker who decided it wasn’t worth the fight. He got back into the truck and drove off. Janeen felt a little deflated. She’d lost her ride to Memphis. Picking up her duffle bag, Janeen turned to thank the man who helped her but he was gone. She headed for the restaurant to find a new ride and to eat. She had some money and she hoped it was enough to support her until she could get a new job. After her father died, her mother turned to the bottle. Orange juice with a splash of vodka for breakfast, some Irish coffee after that, it never quit. Janeen left with a few days of clothing after her mother brought home a new man. He was overly friendly that morning it creeped her out. She immediately went up to her room packed as much as she could into a duffle bag, walking out the door. Her mother wouldn’t notice for a few days, now that she had a new man in her life.
Janeen used the washroom to clean up. She was going to have to find someone to take her south and hoped they weren’t letches. The world was a dangerous thing for a woman traveling alone. Exiting the bathroom, she scanned the diner. Her rescuer was there with lunch in front of him. She walked up to his table.
“I wanted to thank you for your help.” The guy looked at her, smiling. She could tell he didn’t want to talk to her. The wrinkles around his eyes gave away his age. His bulky arms covered in tattoos. They weren’t the beautiful tattoos, they were the rough prison kind of marks. “May I sit with you?” She asked.
“It’s a free country.” He swept his hand to the seat opposite him. “Do you want a sandwich?” He offered.
“You don’t need to buy my lunch. I can pay my way.” She ordered a sandwich and asked about his tattoos.
“Prison. They use whatever they can find, melted down checkers and what not. And a friend who experimented on me wanted to open a tattoo parlor when he got out. He’s much better now, but he had to start somewhere.” Janeen looked at the array of art on his arms, no rhyme or reason to them. The man didn’t ask her anything back, which she appreciated. They sat there in comfortable silence. The waitress bought two checks, but he grabbed them both.
“Thank you for your company, always appreciate dining with a beautiful woman.” He stood up, walked to the checkout counter paying the bill. He waved goodbye as he hit-the-door. Something drew Janeen out into the parking lot. She felt safe with the guy and knew despite prison tattoos he came off as a good guy. The man had a story she wanted to find out what it was. She heard a car start in the parking lot. She walked in that direction carrying her duffle bag. She stood next to the driver's side window. He looked up and caught her lifting her thumb to hitchhike. He sighed and put his head back on the headrest. He sat thinking it over, nodding his head waving her into the passenger seat. She threw her bag in the back seat and jumped into the car.
“Do your parents know where you are?” Janeen laughed.
“I’m twenty. They don’t need to know where I am anymore.”
“Where you headed?” For the second time today, she was asked that question.
“Where you headed?” she responded. The man shrugged his shoulders. “South.” nothing more was said. Janeen relaxed. She watched the scenery roll by the window, thinking about her father. What a great guy he was, retired from the Navy. They traveled around the world. Their home was where they lay their heads. Janeen was used to uprooting. She had done that all her life. She could be comfortable in almost any social situation. Heading south and not talking was fine with her. She didn’t need to know anything about him. He pulled into the gas station three hours later to fill up, Janeen headed for the bathroom. Part of her wanted to bring her duffle bag to the toilet. She scurried out of the car, grateful for the pit stop. Coming out of the station Janeen noticed the rear license plate of the Nova smeared with mud. On purpose? Or was it, coincidence? She wondered. She climbed back into the passenger seat, relieved when she saw her duffle bag still in the back. He came out from the gas station putting some things in the trunk of the car and off they went. She felt shy. She didn’t know his name or anything about him. As they drove down the road, she offered her hand.
“I’m Janeen Farrell.” She extended her hand to shake his. He chuckled, looking at her.
“I wondered how long it would take for you to ask.” He offered his hand back. “I’m Jeffrey Wayne.” Janeen thought about that name. She would have never pictured him as a Jeffrey, maybe a Bruno or some other tough name. Janeen leaned back into the seat and closed her eyes. She had been on the road now for over seven hours. It was exhausting. Waking up as he pulled into a patch of woods.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Tired, going to get some sleep.” He opened the trunk. "You can sleep in the car. I have a tent." Janeen snuck out into the woods and relieved herself. Jeffrey pulled out a pop-up tent from the trunk, but also a couple of subway sandwiches. He must have purchased them at the gas station. He took them out of a cooler.
“What if I’m allergic?” She asked.
“Then you don’t eat tonight.” The sandwich filled her up. Crawling into the back seat was a tight fit until she folded down the passenger seat and she stretched her legs. It was quite comfortable. Janeen was casting her fate into the winds, and Jeffrey was the breeze.
Jeffrey pulled into a gas station the next morning. Janeen headed for the bathroom to make herself presentable. She was starving. They hadn’t eaten since the subway sandwiches the night before. Jeffrey handed her a breakfast wrap. She didn’t care for wraps, but she was hungry, so she ate it. The coffee was good though, it was black. She would have preferred hers with sugar, but since she hadn’t paid anything she wouldn’t complain.
“Next meal is my treat.” She said, tipping the coffee to him. Janeen found herself talking about her father and his death from cancer. She then moved onto her mothers’ inability to deal with it, how her mothers' umpteenth boyfriend had spent the night at her house. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. Jeffrey stayed quiet throughout the whole story.
“I have a daughter who is about five years younger than you.” He said.
“What is her name, and where is she?”
“Her name is Nadia, and she is with her mother. I don’t know where they are. I am on my way to Florida. I heard she was living in Pensacola. Her mother and I were never married. She didn’t tell me I was a father until after Nadia was born and then took off before I could file any paperwork. We had a fight, I lost my cool, ended up in jail for a couple of years for a domestic disturbance with a loaded weapon. I was drinking back then. It’s why I don’t drink now.”
“How many years?”
“Six years. I had a juvenile record the DA factored in, and I used a gun to intimidate her. Not real smart.” Janeen let that sink in.
“How long have you been out?”
“Nine years. I’ve been searching for nine years. I get a lead, and I go. I do odd jobs for people to make money. He nodded to the guitar in the back seat. I’ll play a set with a band when they offer. Or walk into a bar and play for tips. I usually make enough for gas and food. I survive.” When they reached Mobile, Alabama, Jeffrey pulled off Interstate 65 onto a dirt road leading down to the Fowl River. Janeen looked at the lowered sun on the brackish water of the river. It was beautiful. Birds sang to the sun going down. The mosquitos were out in force. Jeffrey set up the tent on a higher area and sprayed it down with insecticide. Janeen had no qualms sleeping in the tent. It beat the heat of the car. They sprayed themselves down with mosquito spray. Jeffrey had already started a pot of water to boil. They headed for the river. He overturned rocks in the water near the bank.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Crawdads. They’re delicious!” He said, staring into the water. He netted a few and put them in a bucket.
“You mean like the song?” She asked him. “You get a line, and I’ll get a pole?”
“Yep, I’ll take these, back, boil them up. Good as having a lobster!” Janeen joined in the fun, screaming as she watched them scurry away from their hiding places. Jeffrey dumped the bucket of crawdads into the boiling water. They turned the lantern off because of the mosquitos. It was a good thing, she cringed thinking about what they were going to eat. Jeffrey picked up the guitar and started to sing a song that eventually became the Crawdad Song.
“I never heard it sung like that before. It’s a whole different song,” Janeen remarked.
“That’s a prelude I wrote for it.” Jeffrey offered.
“Prelude?” she asked.
“Yes, sort of a start to something. It comes before to set up the song.” Janeen tried not to think as Jeffrey pulled off the head of a cooked crawdad handing the body to her. The meat was sweet with a little muddy taste. It was quite good.
“Where did you learn this?” she asked
“Eagle Scout.” He answered. She looked at him in interest. He didn’t seem to be the eagle scout type. He was sharing so she asked him about the cauliflower ear. “Boxing. I was on the Army Boxing team for a few years. Broke my nose, screwed up my ear, but I stayed stateside.” Janeen laughed at his ease in pointing out his faults. He was so comfortable with being human. She wondered why she couldn’t be the same with her mother. Her mother had lost the love of her life. She married at eighteen. Until her father died, her mother had never been on her own. Janeen told Jeffrey that tomorrow was her twenty-first birthday. Jeffrey wished her a happy birthday.
“I’m going to look for my kid in Pensacola,” Jeffrey told her. I can drop you off back in Mobile, or if you want to come further, I can take you with.” Janeen nodded her head. She wasn’t ready to end the adventure, and she was dying to find out if Jeffrey found his daughter. She told him as much.
They were only an hour out of Pensacola when they started in the morning. The gas station provided them with a place to wash up. Janeen walked next door from the gas station to the state liquor store and bought a bottle of Jack Daniels to celebrate her birthday tucking it into her bag, excited when she produced her driver’s license legitimately. The guy wished her happy birthday. As they crossed Mobile Bay on Highway 10, they drove into Escambia County, Florida. Janeen was transformed back to her childhood when she saw the Corry Naval Base, one of many places she had lived as a child.
“I remember this area!” she exclaimed. Jeffrey looked at her.
“Ah yes, Navy brat, I remember now.”
“How are you going to find her?” Janeen asked him.
“Her mother is a teacher, I am assuming she still teaches. That’s how I will start. How many schools can there be in Pensacola?” He questioned.
“Jeffrey, there are over four hundred thousand people living in Pensacola! You are looking at a needle in the haystack. We need to get to a library and do some research.” Miraculously a library appeared. Jeffrey was not computer savvy. Janeen started to ask him questions.
“What’s her name?”
“Sally Maruca.” He answered.
“Well, at least it’s not Smith.” She typed in Sally Maruca, several names with variants came up. Janeen also pulled up a list of all the school names and phone numbers in Pensacola. There were several schools. Jeffrey was discouraged. He had no idea there would be so many. The first thing Janeen did was to charge her phone up when they got to the library. Her first call was to her mother. She’d been gone four days. She didn’t want her mother to worry.
“Janeen! Where in hell are you?” her mother shouted into the phone.
“Hi mom, nice talking to you too! I wanted to let you know I am fine, and I am in Pensacola, Florida. I went with a friend. I remembered when Daddy worked here. It’s a beautiful area. A beach and plenty to do here. I’m considering finding a job and living here.” Her mother settled down.
“Happy Birthday. I guess I didn’t expect you to live with me forever, but a phone call would have been nice.”
“Mom, I left a letter for you on my bed.”
“You did? I hadn’t thought of that! I’ve called all your friends, and when I called your work, they said you had quit your job! You scared me to death. Is everything alright?” Janeen assured her she was happy. Jeffrey and Janeen left the library sitting outside on the front steps. Janeen started making phone calls.
“Hello, I am Serena from Dr. Melman’s office. I want to leave a message for your employee Sally Maruca. It is not urgent. She needs to call us back.” Janeen was on her ninth school when the secretary said she would take the message. She gave the thumbs up to Jeffrey. Sally was working at a private Catholic school. Jeffrey high fived her. They drove to the school and waited for the faculty to leave. Jeffrey seemed very stressed.
“I wouldn’t even recognize my daughter if she stood in front of me. I haven’t seen her since she was a couple of weeks old!” he lamented.
“Right now, let’s see if this Sally Maruca, is your Sally Maruca,” Janeen said reassuringly. Jeff inhaled sharply.
“That’s her!” he whispered. Janeen watched the woman walk across the parking lot. Janeen got out of the car and walked to where the vehicle was parked discreetly, writing down the make, model and license plate of Sally’s car.
“Ok, let's follow her,” Janeen said as she jumped into the car. They were in a long line of cars leaving the school at the same time. Janeen saw Sally take a left at the stoplight.
“Left," Janeen said as they hit the red light. “If we don’t find her today, we will be out here tomorrow and follow her when she drives past. Don’t worry.” Jeff looked at his partner in crime. He didn’t know how resourceful Janeen was, until now. Sally turned into the local high school a few miles later. Janeen told him to take the next right and turn around. Jeff did as she asked. She jumped out of the car, opening the hood.
“Put your emergency blinkers on.” Jeffrey turned on the emergency lights. “Now we wait for her car to come out and follow.”
“It’s like you’ve done this before.” Jeff looked at her sideways. A few minutes later they could see Sally’s car in the line up to exit from the school. Janeen jumped out of the car and shut the hood. Sally turned left, so did Jeff. He followed her from a safe distance to the Highcliffe Residencies. He pulled in following Sally’s car until she parked in front of building four, on Meadowlark Lane. Janeen wrote down the address.
“Since there are only four apartments to each building, it shouldn’t be too hard to narrow it down.” Jeff drove past the building. Nadia was tall and striking as she got out of the car.
“My God, she looks like my mother!” Jeff whispered to himself.
“Keep going. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself.” Jeffrey then stepped on the accelerator, slowly leaving the complex.
“Hotel? My treat, for my twenty-first birthday today.” Jeff nodded yes. He needed to take a shower and clean up before he approached his daughter and her mother. He was still stunned at how old she was. Fifteen, Nadia was almost an adult.
“Two beds,” Janeen stated as she put her money on the counter. The host asked for a credit card which she had. “Would there be any laundry facilities on-site?” Janeen asked. The woman gave her a small map of the motel complex, including a laundry center on the odd-numbered floors. Janeen took her duffle bag on to the elevator. Jeff had put a few things in a backpack. The third floor had a laundry facility. Giving a room key to Jeff, Janeen went to the room and threw the duffle on her bed, taking the one closest to the bathroom.
“You get the rape bed.” She said as she started to pull dirty clothes out of the bag. “Give me your dirty stuff.” Jeff fished through his backpack, handing her an armload of dirty clothes and a few dollars.
“The rape bed?” He questioned.
“Yes, if someone were to break in, you’re the first person they will attack. While they are raping you, I escape. It’s a theory I have.” Jeff laughed, shaking his head.
“I’m going to take a shower. Thanks for this, for everything today.” He added. “I’ll take you out for your birthday.” Janine took the dirty clothes down to the laundry. Putting them all into one machine, she turned on the television in the corner of the room.
“On the National News, no one has identified the Roaming Robber. A string of robberies from Illinois to Alabama at local gas stations has left police without a clue. A 1970 blue and white Chevy Nova has been captured on video at two of the robbery locations. The owner of the car is wanted for questioning only, at this time. Please do not approach the vehicle. The owner may be armed and dangerous.” Janeen’s mouth fell open. Was Jeffrey an armed robber? She was always back in the car when he came out. It didn’t sound like he had killed anyone. She put the clothes in the dryer, trying to think her way out of this problem. If she called the police what kept Jeffrey from indicating her as an accomplice? Hadn’t she gone along willingly the entire trip? How could she know he was robbing the places? She watched the clothes go around in the dryer. She thought of a plan, tomorrow morning, they would go their separate ways. She could tell Jeff she had decided to stay in Pensacola, get a job waitressing or something. She found the local newspaper on the folding table in the laundry mat. There were plenty of want ads for all kinds of work. She ripped out that section of the paper. She would take that with her tomorrow after she told Jeffrey it was time to go their separate ways. She carried the laundry back to the room. Jeff was watching a western on television. Thank goodness, he hadn’t seen the news. Janeen put Jeffrey's clothes on the bed, packing her clothes back into the duffle bag.
“Tomorrow, I am going to find myself a job and we will part company.” She suggested. Jeffrey’s brow furrowed.
“Is there somewhere I can drop you off?” Janeen waved the newspaper job ads in front of him.
“There is plenty of work. I love the area. I remember when we lived here. You will find your daughter, I will find a job, and we both will live happily ever after.” Jeffrey nodded his head in agreement. It made sense. They had been good partners, but she was almost half his age. He had no business carrying on with a twenty-one-year-old woman. He was thirty-nine, and he was grateful that she had helped him find Nadia. Janeen could feel the heat trickle down her body as she continued to look at the want ads.
“Oh look, here’s an ad for a receptionist at a doctor’s office, I have experience.” she laughed. Jeffrey got the irony of it. “I’ll find decent work here and a place to live. This scenario is more than I thought I’d get. Plus, the weather here? Is wonderful! Thank you for taking me along. I’m going to take a shower.” Janeen grabbed her duffle bag and walked into the bathroom, locking the door behind her. She showered, then changed into clean clothes. Coming out of the bathroom, she asked Jeffrey.
“Do you want to order Chinese?” He looked at her with a curious facial expression.
“I told you I’d take you out. It’s your birthday. You are twenty-one, you should get stinking drunk tonight.” Janeen laughed.
“I am tired from being in a car for three days. I’d rather order Chinese, and I got a bottle of whiskey from the liquor store near the last gas station. I’m getting some ice and some mix. Why don’t you order Chinese food, delivered here at the room? I’d love garlic shrimp.” Janeen left the room hurrying down to the ice room, she bought a couple of cans of soda and filled the ice bucket. She came back to the room and unwrapped the plastic cups, putting ice in them, pouring the mix in both. She gave Jeffrey plain soda and poured a splash of whiskey in hers. Jeff watched her.
“You know, don’t you?” He said.
“Know?” Tingles went throughout Janeen’s body.
“Don’t play stupid, you know about the robberies. I saw it on television.” Jeffrey told her. Janeen knew not to continue with the charade.
“I saw it in the laundry room. I am leaving. Tomorrow it will be like we never met.”
“You think I did it?” Jeffrey looked so shocked. Janeen didn’t know how to respond to that.
“I don’t know what to think. I don’t know you that well.” Jeff grabbed the bottle of whiskey and drank straight from the bottle. Coughing as he swallowed the bitterness.
“I didn’t do anything. Could it be the robber stopped where we were, by pure coincidence? He could have been low on gas and stopped when we did. And why wouldn’t anyone come running out of the store and come after us?” He took a few more swigs off the bottle. He was angry now. He treated her nothing but decent, and she was afraid of him. He could see it in her eyes. There was a knock at the door. Jeff took the bag of food and paid the man giving him a good tip. He threw the bag on the bed.
“Happy Birthday Janeen.” He grabbed the bottle and poured himself a glass with no mix. Janeen felt bad. She was still touched with a little bit of doubt. It could have been a coincidence.
“Are you going to the police tomorrow?” She asked him. He looked at her with a sour look.
“If that will make you happy.” Relieved, Janeen sat on the bed, opening her food, handing Jeffrey his.
“I am relieved. It’s better to go into the station than a take the chance on the cops stopping you and getting yourself arrested.” Jeffrey agreed.
In the middle of the night, Janeen heard shouting in the hallway. She got out of bed, looked through the peephole. Jeffrey moaned in his sleep. He drank a lot tonight. The door burst open. Janeen screamed.
“I was going to let you in!” She shouted as one policeman cuffed her behind her back. “What is going on?"
“Jeffrey Wayne, you are a suspect in the robbery of several gas stations.” The officer cuffed Jeffrey who was still half asleep
Janeen watched as they shoved Jeffrey into one squad and pulled away, she sat in the other car. The whole scene was surreal. She spent the night in jail. With her one phone call she called her mother, the latest guy answered.
“Blake, I need to speak to my mother, this is Janeen.”
“Sorry she’s not here, how can I help you” It turned out Blake was an attorney with connections! Who knew? Less than an hour later, Blake’s attorney friend came to the station. He talked with Janeen first and then spoke with the officer.
“I need to speak to my other client.” The officer allowed John P. Tomlin, Esq. into Jeffrey’s holding area. He stood on the outside of the cell. After speaking with his client, he asked to talk to the officer in charge. They caught the actual Rambling Robber that morning. All charges were dropped. The attorney took them back to the hotel, handing Janeen an airline ticket for that afternoon.
“I get to meet my daughter, and you get to go home.” Jeffrey smiled.
“Friends?” She offered her hand.
“You bet! Next time you want to go on an adventure? Give me a call.” Janeen caught a ride to the airport with the attorney.
“I don’t have much money, but I’m happy to pay you.” The attorney shook his head.
“I have a son. Blake helped me get him straight. I told him I owed him one. Blake and I are now even. He’s a great guy. You will like him. He and your mother go way back.”
“What?” said Janeen.
“I’ve said too much already. Give Blake a chance.”
Janeen landed in Chicago, her mother was there with Blake. Her mother was sober! She thanked Blake for his help, asking him why he would help her. He didn’t know her. Blake hemmed and hawed until her mother jumped in to save him. She revealed to Janeen that she was pregnant by her ex-boyfriend when she met Janeen’s father, who offered to marry her. She accepted.
Janeen was shocked. Was Blake her father? How could her mother have kept that from her for so long? When they reached home, Janeen got out of the car, leaving her mother and Blake behind. She sat in the family room trying to make sense of the realization that the man she loved was not her father. Janeen couldn’t think anymore it hurt too much, she turned on the television needing a distraction. The National News was on.
“A woman and her fifteen-year-old daughter were shot to death on Meadowlark Lane in the Highcliffe Residencies complex in Pensacola, Florida, this afternoon. The man police are holding in connection with the shooting of Sally Maruca and her daughter Nadia, was the former boyfriend of the mother, and the father of the fifteen-year-old, Jeffrey Alan Wayne. Wayne previously served six years in jail for a domestic violence charge against Maruca and her daughter. He was released from custody nine years ago. The police took Jeffrey Wayne into custody at the scene. He did not resist his arrest.”
Janeen’s mouth fell open. Her throat was tight. She couldn’t swallow, she couldn’t breathe. Two women were dead because she was tired of her life and decided to go on an adventure. She had been a prelude to murder.
Dawn DeBraal lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband Red, two rat terriers, and a cat. After she retired, she discovered her love of telling a good story, can be written. Her stories are published in several online magazines and anthologies.