The Last Stop

And now, a randomly generated scene …

Nouns:  cap, freighter, garage, mandolin, restaurant, wrinkle, writer

Adjectives:  reminiscent, tense, smelly, pricey, beneficial

Verbs:  judge, chart, coach

Adverb:  thoroughly

Truck

Winter cap pulled down to shadow her face, Alma jumped down to the bitumen and gave the freighter driver a wave. She waved back with one hand, the other sounding the horn in farewell. As deep as a foghorn, it boomed louder than the roar of the engine and twelve tyres as she revved and thundered back on route, merging onto the highway.

Slinging her pack over her shoulder and holding her mandolin protectively to her chest, Alma backtracked to what the freighter driver had warned was the Last Stop.  The last stop before what, she hadn’t said, but she’d spoken with such conviction, years of experience on the road when Alma had barely left a week ago and had no plan, no map to chart her way. The driver had breathed a sigh of relief when Alma asked to pull over only minutes after rumbling past.

Alma trotted down the side of the road, one foot crunching through loose gravel. The Last Stop, when it came back into view, didn’t resemble anything so romantic as its name. In fact, it was reminiscent of every other rest stop she’d found herself in. There were pumps for petrol, a little convenience store, a garage to have phantom clicks in engines checked and bald tyres changed, and a 24-hour restaurant. A bright orange payphone stood outside the convenience store. It shone there like a beacon. Everything else, the buildings and sparse forest that lined the road, faded into lost green and grey.

The phone beckoned. Alma ground her feet into the gravel and swung about, ignoring it.

Her jeans were smelly at the crotch from days without washing, so she bought a pair of trousers – pricey for her budget of zilch – in the convenience store and asked to use the bathroom.  There, she stripped and scrubbed as best she could with the sink and soap dispenser, and washed her jeans and underwear. Drying thoroughly with a wad of paper towels, she pulled the new pants straight onto her legs and carried her laundry outside, reaching high to hang it over a branch.

There had been a definite wrinkle in the attendant’s brow as she’d retrieved her mandolin, stored safely behind the counter, and exited, having clearly used the sink as a shower. Tugging her laundry so it hung straight, she tried to put it from her mind. But her shoulders remained tense. She’d made a choice. Why was that so judged?

Sighing, she dried out a little more in the afternoon sun before entering the restaurant, again avoiding the payphone as it called, compelling in its brightness while the faded environs grew more hostile. Alma spied the cheapest meal on the menu and ordered, eating in silence. There were no other customers and the quiet man who had warmed her soup and taken one of her last five-dollar notes sat in a dark corner with pen and paper. A writer who lived by toasting sandwiches and making coffee for travellers. Alma wondered if he’d been one himself, but had gotten stuck there, condemned to serve at the Last Stop.

The Last Stop. The freighter driver was so convinced of its significance. But the last stop before what? Before the highway, certainly, but there were many more along the way. The last chance to turn back, more likely. The driver had doubtless picked up dozens of girls and boys over the years, as silent with their stories as Alma, but, in the driver’s watchful wisdom, obvious enough.

Perhaps they’d all needed that last chance. Maybe they’d all made a mistake in leaving their lives. Maybe they’d been seduced by the payphone as the Last Stop threatened to close in on them, leaving them and their futures as washed-out and lifeless as the quiet writer’s.

Alma couldn’t number her mistakes, but she didn’t need a last chance. Leaving her life had been the easiest thing she’d ever done, so easy it frightened her if she wasted time thinking about it. No goodbyes, no paying the overdue rent, no taking time to pack; she’d collected her few odds and ends on the road. There’d been nothing to hold her back. Perhaps had she been a pianist it would’ve been harder, but a mandolin was no more burden than a baby and as infinitely precious.

Bowel licked clean, Alma wandered to check her laundry, considering further. If the freighter driver was as enlightened as she seemed, a seasoned wanderer who’d coached countless lonely souls, she’d know a chance to turn back was not what Alma needed. She’d have known what would be most beneficial to this particular soul from the moment Alma replied “anywhere” when asked where she was headed. And the Last Stop would service her fine.

It was her chance to prepare.

Wandering was fine. Wandering without direction, however …

It might be fine for some, the greatest freedom there was. But Alma … she would be swallowed. She knew herself as the freighter driver somehow knew her, intimately and honestly. She’d been lost already. She’d hated it. “Nowhere” would have been the more true answer for where she was headed.

She wouldn’t stumble further into chaos’s embrace. Being lost wasn’t being free. Not for her. She needed a plan.

Alma’s laundry wouldn’t dry for hours, if at all that day – night was creeping her way. She decided to spend it there. There was no motel, but if the writer objected to her huddling in the warmest corner of the restaurant, she had the old coat and cap the freighter driver had gifted her and the stars to listen as Alma plucked her mandolin’s strings and, for the first time, thought about the future.

The payphone no longer called to her as she ducked back into the convenience store, spending most of her remaining funds on sensible supplies. It was almost encouraging, now. The Last Stop was what it needed to be, orange payphones included. Alma smiled at it as she hefted her far-heavier pack. Still a beacon, a little lighthouse in the dark, it refused to let the grey of its surrounds engulf its brightness.

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