(Prior Chapters in Chronological Order are here)
Leah watched the trees swooshing by rapidly outside the passenger window of the Chevy Malibu she was riding in. Regina Wallace had picked Leah up about an hour south of New York City and she had been riding with the tennis player and her son, nine-year-old Thomas ever since. Regina had won several titles before retiring from the spotlight to coach at a prestigious tennis academy in Florida.
The trees and houses in the distance wooshed by more slowly than the ones nearer to the highway, Leah noticed. She looked up, feeling the sun heating the hand she trailed out the window. Clouds drifted lazily, unaware and uncaring of what lay beneath them. Leah snapped a picture of the clouds with her digital camera and jotted a note in the brown, leather-bound diary she had bought in New York City the day before she left town.
Regina had offered to take Leah to Florida with her. “My sister owns a restaurant down there,” she’d explained after they’d been talking for a while. “It’s one of those beach front restaurants that tourists love to eat at. Apparently they tip well, too.”
Leah had declined the generous offer. “Thanks, but no. I am heading back to San Francisco. My parents are there, and my boyfriend.”
Regina had smiled at her, “You got a boy? That’s nice. After Tommy’s father died I just didn’t have it in me to remarry. He was my tennis coach you know? Only a few years older than me, but it was love at first sight.” Regina had fluffed up her curly black hair at the memory. She looked at Leah sideways.
“You know,” she began, “We’re going South, not West.”
“I know,” Leah laughed. “I was hoping to see the country while I hiked across it, so it’s okay if I end up a little out of the way.”
“Ah, are you recording your experiences?” Regina had noticed the notebook Leah was writing in from time to time.
“I am. I’m taking pictures, too, when we make stops. I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to the east coast, so I want to get as many mementos of my journey as possible.”
Thomas hadn’t spoken much to Leah, being a shy boy. He mainly played his Nintendo DS, only looking up from time to time to announce his need for food or a bathroom. Leah remembered being shy at that age. She tried to coax Thomas out of his shell a little bit now and then, but it didn’t take and finally she gave up. If he wanted to talk to her he would, she figured.
Thomas announced from the back seat that he was hungry.
“Alright, Baby,” his mother replied, flipping on her turn signal. “Let’s see what we can find. It’ll be an adventure.”
Thomas wrinkled his nose. “Don’t want adventure. Want Mack Donald’s.”
Leah though it was adorable, they way he pronounced the famous fast food restaurant’s name, as if it were two words. She herself was sick of fast food, but understood that she was a guest in the vehicle and wouldn’t put up a fuss. Regina had been nice enough to stop and pick her up after all, and wouldn’t even take gas money.
“I’m going that way anyway, what’s one more person?” She had said, brushing aside Leah’s mention of money.
Regina pulled the green Malibu off of Interstate 95 and headed for US Highway 521 which would take them into Kingstree.
“I’ve been through here a time or two,” Regina said as she made a left turn to head East. “There was a really good Mexican restaurant; we’ll see if it’s still there.”
“Don’t want Mexican,” Thomas said loudly from the back seat, adding a kick to the back of the passenger seat to punctuate his opinion.
Regina raised one eyebrow and look at her petulant son. “Is this how we act in front of strangers?”
Thomas immediately quieted down at the tone of her voice. Leah was impressed. Her own mother had just screamed and hollered until Leah gave in to shut her up.
“Besides,” Regina said after a moment, “I know you like tacos and refried beans. You asked for them a lot in Jersey.”
Thomas’ eyes brightened and he let out a whoop and a shout of glee, “Tacos! Yeah!”
Regina smiled and Leah and winked. Once on Main Street, they had no trouble finding parking and the three of them piled out of the car and looked around for the restaurant Regina had mentioned.
“There it is, on that corner,” Leah announced, pointing.
After settling in with their drinks and placing their orders Regina looked at Leah and said, “Since you’re heading West and I’m continuing South, do you want me to drop you at the Amtrak so you can take the train?”
Leah considered her options for a moment. Florida didn’t seem so bad, especially if she could get a job. But then there was her boyfriend in San Francisco, and he’d always had difficulty dealing with her spontaneity. Finally, after spending a few minutes in quiet contemplation, Leah shook her head.
“It sounds like fun, and it would certainly be an adventure, but my boyfriend would have a fit if I suddenly decided to change my plan. He already had a hard time accepting that I’m hitchhiking all the way across the country.”
“Understandable,” Regina replied. She took out a business card and slid it over to Leah, “If you’re ever in the area, look me up. This has been an adventure for me too. I normally don’t pick up hitchhikers.”
Leah tucked the card into her travel diary. “You can just drop me off at the next Interstate we cross. Surely someone traveling West will eventually pick me up.”
After they finished their meal, Leah insisted on paying for all three of them as a way of saying Thank You to Regina and Thomas for taking her this far. She snapped a self-portrait with the two of them and they continued South on the interstate until they reached Interstate 26 which was an East/West road.
Leah got out of the car and shook hands with both Regina and the formerly reluctant Thomas, and shut the Malibu’s door firmly behind herself. She stood at the interchange and got her bearings, figuring out which way she should start walking so a westbound vehicle would pick her up.