Authors: Dahlia West
She jerked awake as a hand squeezed her knee. A hand that was a little too friendly. She opened her eyes to see a pair of brown ones looking down on her. Brown eyes set into a round face topped by a receding hairline. The bus driver had a look that was a little too friendly, also. She immediately moved her knee away from his grip.
"Well, hey there, darlin' " he said, amused. "This is your stop."
She blinked and looked out the window that was covered with road dust. The bus was old and seats were starting to show their wear, but outside the window was a bright, sunny April morning. She gathered her duffel from the overhead compartment, having been unwilling to stow it underneath the bus. Everything she owned was in that bag and not having it within arm's reach was unthinkable. Several other passengers were getting up, gathering their own belongings and she was grateful when the handsy bus driver was forced to head back up to the front to begin letting people off.
Compared to the interior of the bus, the crisp spring air was welcoming even if it was only in the 50's right now. The city was always at the mercy of the wind. It could turn a hot day bearable, a mild day chilly, and rip the breath from your lungs in winter, so said her guidebook. She pulled her hoodie a little tighter around her against the chill and headed toward Main Street. Her travel guide was stowed securely in her duffel and she was confident that she could navigate the streets now without it. She'd picked up the book on the shelf at the bookstore two days ago.
The photo of the Black Hills National Forest on the cover had caught her eye and she thumbed through it, settling on Rapid City as the closest she could get and still feel anonymous. Rapid City boasted 67,000 people. Considerably smaller than Denver, which was more than ten times larger. But the bustling downtown area made her feel comfortable. Safe. She wanted to be around people, just not be overwhelmed by them.
She slung the black bag over her shoulder and out of habit fingered the bills in her jeans pocket. The rest of her money was stored in several different locations both on her person and in her bag so if the bag was lost or stolen she wouldn't be completely broke. And if she had the unfortunate luck to be robbed on the bus, as she had four years ago, she had a chance of convincing him the fifty some odd dollars in her front pocket really was all she had. She was clearly traveling by bus, wearing cheap canvas shoes, and, as was her usual, a pair of nearly worn out jeans. So any potential mugger might actually believe her.
She could afford better shoes and clothes, but she lived in perpetual fear of being broke again, as she had when she'd finally gotten off the bus in Dallas with only the clothes in her bag. Going to the police was certainly not an option so she'd avoided her mugger as best she could, darting into the bus station and locking herself in a bathroom stall for an entire night until she could be sure he would have moved on.
Those had been terrifying days. Days when she hadn't yet gotten used to being on the road, without a past, totally cut off from everything and everyone. Earning money had seemed an impossible task. Those first few days were spent searching for employment by day and returning to the familiar bus station at night. Even though she wasn't a ticketed passenger, no one seemed to give her shit for sleeping in the terminal.
She'd almost lost it and called her Mom and Dad, but that fifth day the clouds parted and she finally had a clear path again. She'd walked into a diner. Not shabby, but not trendy, either. She’d been worn out and hungry from eating out of the vending machine with the few coins she'd found in a jacket pocket in her duffel. The owner turned out to be an older, no nonsense woman, who took one look at her and had probably immediately decided she was a junkie. Sensing the interview was going badly, she'd gotten up to leave when the sleeve of her shirt had hiked up and the slightly purple, now yellowing bruise left by the mugger on the bus had become visible.
The woman, Shirley, had snagged her wrist, gently but firmly and frowned down at marks. "He gonna come looking for you?" Shirley had asked quietly.
For a moment, that horrible night, not the night of the mugging, but that other, more awful, more terrifying night, the night that had seemed to stretch out forever until she was convinced she was in Hell and that every moment was an eternity of pain and fear flashed in her mind and her breath caught.
"He- I can't- I can't let him find me," she'd whispered.
Shirley had nodded. "Well, as long as he don't show up here, talking sweet with flowers and sorries, and you decide to take him back leaving me high and dry."
It had taken a moment to process Shirley's words and finally it clicked into place that Shirley thought she was running from an abusive man. Sensing an opportunity, but far too tired and hungry and scared to feel much guilt over it, she'd latched onto that story and held on tightly.
"What's your name, hon?" Shirley had asked.
"Elizabeth," she'd replied quickly and Shirley had pulled the sleeve back down, covering the bruises, patting her arm gently.
It had been Shirley's idea to dole out cash for her wages under the table to keep her whereabouts a secret from the phantom lover with the bad temper. Since waitressing was mostly a cash business anyway, it wasn't much of a leap to keep all the money rather than just the tips, a secret. That arrangement had worked for six months until she decided it was time to move on. For safety's sake. For Shirley's sake. She had wandered into a convenience store, plucked a map of Arizona out of the rack, gave Shirley ample notice, and bought a bus ticket for Phoenix the same day.
That story had worked with Shirley and so she kept using it. Through Phoenix, and then backtracking to Albuquerque. After that a blur of medium sized cities, sometimes two or three a year. Denver had been beautiful and she had been loathe to leave it, but it was time. Even if sometimes she got tired. Even if, every so often, she thought about what it would be like to just go home and let whatever happened, happen. But she might not be the only one to suffer if she pointed her feet toward home again.
So she kept moving. Different cities, different states. Friendly, but not too friendly, which was important in earning tips. And she'd done a variety of jobs that paid in cash. Waitressing in small restaurants and diners was often the obvious choice, but sometimes it had been too difficult to find employment with someone willing to overlook her lack of a driver's license and social security card and she'd turned to bars and once in Utah had washed hair at a tiny salon.
The salon work hadn't been as demanding as waiting tables, but the environment was a disastrous fit. Too many women asking too many questions, making it nearly impossible to be anonymous. Since then, she'd stuck to bars and diners, which normally had a pretty steady turnover rate for employees. No one thought twice about a girl who only worked for four, sometimes six months and then headed off to greener pastures.
Nowhere longer than six months, that was the rule. It kept everyone safer. Made everything easier.
She adjusted her bag and spied a metal newspaper dispenser on the corner. Depositing a few quarters and plucking out a paper, she found herself a chain coffee house, bought a latte with extra whipped cream, and settled down at a table by the window to look through the classifieds.
By mid afternoon, the chill had subsided and it was now in the low 60's. She'd shed her jacket, stuffing it inside the duffel and smoothed out her hair while she was standing in front of Maria’s. It was a small little bar just off the main drag. Not shabby, not dirty, not too clean, though either, since from the few motorcycles parked in the lot she'd figured out it was rougher trade than a diner.
She'd been to two diners and a restaurant already but none looked too promising. Most people who worked hard to build up their small businesses were not too keen on jeopardizing it by hiring an undocumented worker. One man was willing to hire her. Judging by the sheer number of Hispanics working in the back he seemed no stranger to illegal labor, but she'd gotten a bad vibe from him. His eyes had continually made their way to her breasts during the interview and she could practically hear him asking himself how much she'd be willing to do to keep her existence in Rapid City under the radar.
She'd politely told him she'd consider it but that the base wage was too low (lie) and quickly got out of there.
Bars were interesting. Especially bars that catered to bikers, cowboys, and various and sundry blue collar type people. They sometimes had their fair share of skirting the law, either with fire codes, or liquor permits, and certainly a good portion of their clientele had been on the wrong side of the law on more than one occasion. They didn't ask too many questions if you made it clear you weren't keen on telling. And as long as you were friendly and worked your ass off, management was generally fine with their employees keeping to themselves in the personal details department. After all, you weren't really there to socialize anyway. You were there to work, and these people understood the value and necessity of work.
She opened the door, stepped into the relative dark compared to the bright blue sky outside, and prayed silently that a woman had some position of power at a place named Maria’s. She had a momentary pang of longing for her well manicured college campus with it's brick facades and brilliant white columns, then she shook the memory away. That had been a lifetime ago. No. A
lifetimes ago, at least. She squared her shoulders and surged forward.
When her eyes adjusted to the low light, she was satisfied with what she saw. The place was medium sized, bigger on the inside than the small entry way suggested. It was clean with tables and chairs that didn't show any obvious signs of wear and tear. The bar was a work of wooden art, gleaming and polished to within an inch of it’s life and made out of some kind of light, honey colored wood that made that part of the bar better lit. A mirror hung on the wall behind it, also helping with the lighting, it ran from the top of the waist high storage cabinets to the ceiling and was lined with glass shelving and sparkling liquor bottles. A jukebox sat in the corner, near the short hallway that led to the restrooms, according to the signs, and above that were framed insignias for every branch of the military.
This bar clearly catered to biker and military types. Maybe or maybe not cowboys as well, but hearing Waylon on the jukebox, she figured it probably did, even if there weren't giant pairs of longhorns hanging on the walls like they were in Texas or Colorado bars.
There were a few patrons that she supposed were more than likely regulars, nursing bottles at the bar. Booth and round tables further back were empty. There were four pool tables, but no one was playing. A tall, platinum blond looked up from washing glasses and narrowed her eyes.
There was no mistaking the once over she was taking her time performing.
After the diners had been a bust, she'd changed out of her chocolate brown knee length skirt and into a pair of low slung jeans. As a rule she didn't really enjoy calling attention to her body in any way if she could help it. Diners were more lax in their expectations, instead preferring sensible shoes and comfortable clothing and as such were the kinds of places she preferred to work.
Bikers preferred women to look like women, with tighter clothes, higher heels and far more cleavage than she would be able to show. She did have the requisite jeans, but she drew the line at short skirts and high heels. She’d have preferred a looser fitting shirt, but personal preference had to be put on the back burner. Looking the part was far more important. She needed a steady course of income and a place to stay and preferred these be secured sooner rather than later.