She told herself that she should wait at least another two exits before stopping to use the bathroom. A two hour drive isn’t too long when you really think about it. That’s less than first hour through lunch. Maybe she should just look at it like that; she’ll be there before geometry class.
Except she’s not at school. Not today. But that doesn’t stop her from feeling the familiar nervousness of a test day when she elected to spend her time fully submerged in the internet instead of studying. She’d never been much of a gamer or a jock or a good dancer but she knew how to find stuff on the internet. It was usually kept to things like embarrassing pictures of celebrities or security footage of foolish burglars. Sometimes, as was the case two weeks prior, she was able to find something that didn’t want to be found. Something that made a decision to keep itself hidden for the 17 years she had been on earth. Something that she didn’t think she would need to find, didn’t want to find, ignored the fact that it could be found: Her parents.
To clarify: Her biological parents. She had people she’s referred to as her parents from the time she could speak. They never kept secrets. That was their thing. They believed that to be the foundation of their home.
Her phone, sitting in the cup holder in-between the front seats of the car, started ringing.
“Gretch, where are ya?” It was her dad. Her foster dad. Bill.
She hated it when he called her Gretch, but there wasn’t really a cute way to shorten her name. No matter what, she thought it sounded like a person throwing up.
“I’m still on 75. Somewhere near Cartersville, I think.”
The phone was silent for a minute.
“The car running okay? Sometimes it starts to shimmy a bit if you drive it for a while.” Practicality. Always a good default for Bill.
“Yeah, it’s fine dad.” She shifted in her seat. Her back was getting sore. “You sure you’re okay with this?”
He sighed into the phone. “Yes, honey of course. If this is what you need to do then, well, you need to do it. We just hope, y’know, well never mind.”
She glanced at a passing Waffle House sign off the side of the highway and smiled. “Do you remember the first time you tried to get me to eat biscuits and gravy?”
Gretchen shifted the phone to her other hand. “I was about six. I refused to order from the waitress some reason. So you just pointed to the menu and said, ‘She’ll have this.’”
“And it was biscuits and gravy?”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t eat it because it looked like boogers so you grabbed my plate, tipped it towards you, and slurped it like soup.”
“Oh.” His voice swung high as the memory must have finally landed. “That’s right. You threw up into your hands and we forgot to pay.”
Gretchen laughed. “Yup. That was the first time we ever stole anything together.”
“That was the last time we stole anything,” he corrected her.
“Yeah. Well. I think I’m going to pull off the highway. Stop at this gas station. I’ll call you guys later, okay?”
“Well, we’re going to a movie in a little while so if we don’t answer, y’know, that’s what we’re doing.”
They said their goodbyes and hung up. She pulled off at the next exit and swung into the near-empty gas station after the first stoplight.
The car wasn’t hers. It was a 1996 Honda Civic and it was the only car she’s ever driven. Technically, it belonged to Susan, originally bought for her to use to commute to work. Once Gretchen turned 16, it slowly started being used more for errands and less for commuting. The power locks didn’t work but the power windows did, which always confused Gretchen. It seemed to her like if the electronics in the doors work for one thing they might as well go all out and work for everything. But, as she’s coming to learn, just because things make sense doesn’t mean that’s the way it actually goes. The gas tank is on the passenger side and she, no matter how many times she fills up the tank, can never remember that. This time, however, she got lucky and pulled up to the pump on her right.
She’s avoided, as best she could, imagining what her biological parents are like. Even so, the questions were always there: Why did they give me up? What’s wrong with me? Was I not good enough for them? Soon, she would be able to ask the only people who would know the answer so what was the use of dwelling on these useless questions? Again, this is what made sense to her but it’s not the way it actually went.
Gretchen thought she was hungry but realized it for what it actually was: She was nervous. School tests and speeches were nothing compared to this. She was just off of the highway in a town she had never visited on her way to meet people she had been thinking about ever since she understood her situation. She began to question Bill and Susan. How could they let a high school girl take a trip like this without a chaperone? Do they really know what’s best for me or are they just guessing? Is everybody in charge just guessing? She had to sit down so she opened the car door and sat with her back to the inside of the car and her feet on the concrete. She was just about to start telling herself affirmations she frequently found in cute fonts on the internet when the gas pump clicked and she reflexively stood up.
Still thinking about the drive ahead of her, still trying to avoid a panic attack, she mindlessly replaced the gas pump, closed the little door to the gas tank, climbed back into the driver’s seat, and drove out of the parking lot. It wasn’t until she had rejoined the highway that she realized she neglected to pee. She also neglected to pay.
A wave of excitement flew through her. Her heart was already racing and her hands were already sweating so the change wasn’t overwhelming, but the realization of her inadvertent theft pulsed through her as if an extra heart had given one forceful push of new blood through her veins. What sounded like a short laugh erupted from deep within her, but nothing was funny. It felt more like a forced chuckle someone might give to a stranger for a bad joke. Once again, she was too wrapped up in her head to pay attention to her driving. It went on like this for a few minutes until the police car pulled up behind her and flipped on the lights.
She swore to herself but was too nervous to navigate to the shoulder of the highway. Her arms felt like suggestions. Detached. She had to look down at the wheel before she could start to pull over. Was it the gas? Was she speeding? She finally pulled to the right and stopped her car on the other side of the white line on the shoulder of the road.
She watched through the rearview mirror as the cop sat in his car for another minute before climbing out. He walked between their cars and approached on her right side. She rolled down the window.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “License and registration, please.” The cop reached for a notebook in his pocket, hesitated for a moment, and dropped his empty hands to his sides. He didn’t look much older than Gretchen.
She pulled her wallet and license from her purse and looked around herself in the car. “Here’s my license,” she said while handing it to him. “And the registration…” She opened the compartment between the seats but only found a package of tissues that looked like it could have been from the 80s. She then reached into the glove box and a half-folded map fell onto the floor.
“Is this your car, ma’am?”
“Yes. Well, no. It’s my mom’s.” She prided herself on the fact that she had her license for over a year and hadn’t been pulled over.
The officer nodded his head and studied her license. “This says you’re from Marietta.”
“What are you doing way out here?”
“I’m going to visit my parents. Well, meet.”
“I’m going to meet my parents.” Her voice came out shaky and she couldn’t be sure, but his seemed to waver as well.
“I thought this was your mom’s car.”
“It is. I mean, my other dad.” She wasn’t even making sense to herself. “It’s complicated.”
The radio attached to the officer’s uniform started making noise but Gretchen couldn’t hear what it said. Cars and trucks continued to pass on her left and it made their conversation seem like it was coming through a stereo with faulty wiring. The officer nodded to his radio, paused, and rolled his eyes before saying something back into it.
“Could you step out of the car, please?” He switched his weight from foot to foot and wiped his forehead. It wasn’t hot.
“Um, okay.” She stepped out and walked to the back of the car.
“Did you just fill up on some gas not too long ago?”
“Yes sir.” She bit the inside of her cheek. Her arms went numb again.
“I just got a radio call about a gas-and-go back at the Citgo off exit 27. The plates match yours.”
He stayed quiet for a moment as if he didn’t know what to say next. “And this is your mom’s car?”
He nodded and reached for his notebook again but he didn’t grab it.
“I’m going to have to take you in. For a couple questions.”
“Okay.” She shut down. No excuses, no explanations, no obfuscations could be made. If he were to ask her name, she’d probably get it wrong. He didn’t put handcuffs on her but he opened the back door of his cruiser and she climbed right in.
He drove her to the police station where he told her he was going to book her for theft. He continued speaking but the words didn’t register with Gretchen. Her thoughts started to wander to what her life would be like now that she was a criminal. The officer recited whatever he was saying quickly and he peppered his speech with sighs. Once he neared the end, he gave up on resting in-between sentences and simply got it over with.
She used the restroom and sat in a room with wooden benches lining the walls and a few desks in the middle. Whatever town she had been arrested in couldn’t have been too big. If it was, the police must not have been too effective. She didn’t get her fingerprints taken. The officer didn’t really do anything besides have her sit off to the side while he spoke with a few of the other officers milling around the room.
“Can I call my dad? Please?” She had been sitting still for probably around a half hour before she worked up the nerve to speak. The officer glanced over as if he were afraid to talk to her.
“Do you have any cash on you?” he asked after hanging up the phone.
“The owner of the gas station won’t press charges if you have the $38 to cover the gas. He says he has better things to deal with.”
Gretchen shook her head. She only had the debit card she got when she opened her bank account six months before. The question of a PIN number kept her hitting the credit button at the grocery store because if she had one, she didn’t know it.
“I’m not going to charge you, but I can’t let you leave until that fee is paid.”
“What about the car?”
“It’s been towed. There’s a $200 lot fee to get it out.”
$238 might as well have been six million. Gretchen had a job but one shift a week at the restaurant didn’t allow her to build much of a savings.
“Can I call my dad?” she repeated. The officer nodded and Gretchen dug her phone out of her purse. She was about to hit the recall button when she remembered Bill said he and Susan would be at a movie. With their phones turned off. Even if she were to get a hold of them, she was almost two hours from home. Her finger hovered for a minute before she made her decision. She flipped through her contacts and pressed call. Three rings later, Scott answered.
“Are you here?” His voice came through energetic.
“Hey Scott. It’s Gretchen.”
“Yes, yes of course. We’ve been waiting all day.”
“Right, well, I have a favor to ask. And believe me, I wouldn’t be asking if I had any other choice. I mean, I don’t want you to think I’m some crazy delinquent that smashes windows and steals from convenience stores all the time. Honestly, I’ve known a lot of people like that and I am not one of them. No way. But it’s just that—”
“Hey, hey settle down. It’s okay. Is something wrong?”
“I don’t want you to think I’m some scam artist or something.”
He paused. “What is it?”
She told him about the gas station, her absent-minded nerves, the impound fee, and her location through a string of apologies. Her eyes were watering but it all seemed so unreal that she was able to keep from sobbing.
“Okay, okay. Hold on a second.” Gretchen could hear muffled talking. The officer stayed at his desk and glanced at her every few seconds as if he didn’t want her to catch him staring. “What’s the address?”
Gretchen asked the officer and relayed the message to Scott.
“Okay, that’s not far. Linda and I are on our way.”
“Thank you. So much.”
“You sure know how to make a first impression, eh?”
Gretchen didn’t know how to respond so she just said, “Okay.”
It didn’t take more than an hour for a tall man and a short woman to walk through the door. Gretchen knew who they were as soon as she saw them. Not because there was some cosmic energy that pointed her towards her blood parents but because only people wearing police uniforms had walked through the front doors since her arrival. She watched as the man spoke with the officer at the front desk. His hair was combed to the side like a substitute teacher but his clothes fit loose. The longer she watched him, the younger he seemed to look. At first she thought he was pushing fifty, then he looked to be almost forty, but as he turned towards her and started walking she realized he couldn’t be much more than thirty. The short woman walking next to him looked to be in her thirties from the moment she walked through the door. Her sensible skirt cut off just above her knee would have been suitable for a business dinner or a simple night out to the movies. Her hair was cut just above her shoulders and was obviously dyed just a few notches past brown and into red. Once the woman spotted Gretchen on the bench along the wall her eyes were fixed. She seemed to follow in the wake of the man in an effort to avoid walking into a chair.
The officer stood up and walked over to them. They spoke for a couple minutes before the man reached into his pocket. He pulled out a check book and started writing. The woman kept her eyes on Gretchen, who was starting to feel uncomfortable. It was like the woman was initiating a staring contest and refusing to back down when Gretchen didn’t participate. There was no smile. No warmness whatsoever. Gretchen felt like a spider that the woman didn’t want to let out of her sight until she could find something to swat it with. Finally, the man handed two checks to the officer and turned towards Gretchen.
“He said he’ll take care of it,” he said when he approached Gretchen. He stuck out his hand. “I’m Scott.”
Gretchen stood up and took his hand. “I’ll pay you back every penny. I promise.”
“Don’t worry about that.” He turned around and lightly grabbed the woman by the elbow. “This is Linda.”
Gretchen and Linda stared at each other for a minute in silence. Gretchen was trying to find pieces of herself in the short woman standing before her. Any sort of a reflection. Finally, Gretchen was the one to break the silence.
She nodded. “Linda.”
Scott lightly squeezed Linda’s arm and released a deep breath. “Who’s hungry?”
“Okay,” said Gretchen. She grabbed her purse and her phone started ringing. It was Bill. Gretchen decided to call him back later.
“There’s a Waffle House across the street,” said Scott.
“There always is,” replied Gretchen.
They walked through the parking lot and into the restaurant. They sat in a booth by the window and looked at their laminated menus.
“We were hoping to make you dinner at our house,” said Scott. He and Linda sat next to each other on one side of the booth; Gretchen sat in the center of the other side.
“That’s okay. The food’s not really what I drove up here for anyway.”
“I don’t know why we didn’t just drive down by you,” said Scott. “We could have avoided this whole thing.”
“I wanted to get out of town. It would have felt weird if we did this there.” She glanced toward Linda, who sat mute next to the window.
“Right. Because this doesn’t feel the slightest bit weird out here in,” he glanced around the restaurant as if there would be a sign, “where the hell are we again?”
“Ready?” The waitress had appeared out of nowhere.
“I think we’ll need another minute,” said Scott. He glanced at the menu as the waitress retreated. “Oh man, biscuits and gravy I just might—”
“Why did you give me up?” Gretchen had hoped for a more tactful manner of approaching the issue but for some reason it just came out. She glanced back and forth between the two adults in front of her as if one of them had said it. She started to panic. “I mean, Bill and Susan have been great. I guess I should be happy that I didn’t have to bounce around like a lot of kids but y’know there’s just always that question and I’ve thought about it for, like, ever I guess. I think everybody does. Well, everybody with foster parents, I guess.”
Scott opened his mouth but Linda sat forward and spoke:
A full ten seconds of silence. She continued:
“As you can see, we’re not much older than you. You’re about old enough to be Scott’s little sister, not to mention daughter.”
The waitress stopped at the side of the table but Scott just waved her past.
“We were in high school. What were our choices? Drop out? What kind of life could we provide for you?” Her voice cracked and she put her fist to her mouth. She spoke into the fist, “It’s such a cliché, but it’s true.”
The sobs Gretchen had avoided all night finally bubbled to the surface. She had so many more questions but there just wasn’t time to put them into words between the crying and stuttered breaths.
“We could apologize all day long but I doubt that would do anything to fix a childhood of questions and anger,” said Scott. “But you found us. We thought about finding you but decided it would be best not to disturb you. Hell, who’s to say you wouldn’t hate us from the first word? We can’t go back on that but you have to know we were only doing what we thought was best. There wasn’t a master plan. We were just guessing our way through it.”
The waitress came back. “So, anything on the menu look good?” Her voice was stern. Her arms were crossed.
Scott stood up, in-between the waitress and the table. “Come on. We can get biscuits and gravy down the road.” He smiled and held a hand out to Gretchen. He turned his head to the waitress, “Maybe somewhere that is a little more sympathetic.”
Gretchen was still crying and didn’t know what to do. She instinctively looked towards Linda but it wasn’t for instruction. Curiosity, maybe? But Linda wasn’t moving, looking right back at Gretchen as if she were waiting for a signal. Gretchen looked to Scott and took his hand. Through the tears, she forced a smile even though she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to forgive them, but she didn’t want to hate them either. She didn’t want a nice explanation because it would be easier, for some reason, to deal with her abandonment if she could hate them. But is that why she reached out to them in the first place? To start a fight? That couldn’t have been it. And now that she had these two people in front of her that for some reason were still together after all these years, she realized they couldn’t be bad people. First of all, who stays with someone all the way through high school and into adulthood? Was it the experience of childbirth that solidified them as a unit? Who knows? Gretchen couldn’t guess at anything like that until she took the time to get to know them, and there was only one way to do that.
She took Scott’s hand and stood up from the booth.
“I love biscuits and gravy,” she lied.
Josh Rank graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and has had stories published in The Missing Slate, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine, The Oddville Press, and elsewhere. More ramblings can be found at joshrank.com.
© 2015, Josh Rank