The phone rang once and Grace hung up. What will I say if Ed answers? How can I explain my behavior when I don't understand it myself? What am I going to do about Arletta's car? Gasoline fumes from the corner station engulfed the pay phone and made it difficult to breathe. Heat weighted her limbs. She struggled to stay focused. Finding the house keys after believing she had locked them inside shook her. Is my forgetfulness getting worse?
Too many questions rattled in her head.
"Were you able to get a hold of anybody?"
Grace jerked at the sound of Ray's voice from behind her. "No." She dropped her hand from the phone's receiver and stared at the moist print it left. "Nobody's home."
Lord Jesus, now she could add lying to her list of sins. Maybe. Probably. How could she know for sure if she didn't let the phone ring long enough for anybody to pick up?
"You're welcome to ride with us awhile longer, try calling again in the next town."
Hope laced with suspicion shivered through Grace. She turned and looked up at Ray, her brows drawn low. "Why would you do that?"
She followed his gaze to the car parked a few feet away. Benny sat in the back seat, his chin resting on the sill of the open window, and watched them over the sunglasses perched low on his nose. When he saw her look at him, his face broke into an open smile.
"My son says you need help and it's up to me and him to give it."
Grace wondered if the sudden dance across her skin was a warning or a sign from God. "What about you?" she asked. She used to be better at reading people, when it made the difference between winning or folding. But that was a lot of years ago, and all she got now from looking at the man in front of her was bone-deep tired. "I'll lay odds having a crazy ol' woman ride along wasn't part of your plan."
The corner of his mouth ticked, like it wanted to lift in amusement but couldn't quite muster the energy. "Wasn't much of a plan in the first place." He shrugged and glanced over at his son. "Benny sees things in people I don't. I trust his judgment."
"Your child has a compassionate soul."
"It's more than that. Be damned if I can figure it out though." Ray met her gaze. This time his mouth managed a half smile. "He'll let you have the front seat again."
Grace wanted to say yes. The temptation to believe herself fated to meet these two travelers strained against the burden of guilt and responsibility pressing on her shoulders. How would it look, her going with them?
She got no answer, felt like a fool for even considering the notion. "Thank you," she forced the words past the tightness in her throat, "but you don't need to be taking on my troubles along with your own. I'll stay here and keep trying."
"Suit yourself. Benny'll be disappointed." Ray hesitated, as though considering more, then settled for, "Good luck."
She nodded. "Same to you."
Grace watched him walk away and felt hope die.
It didn't set right with Ray, leaving the woman standing at the pay phone enclosure alone, suitcase at her feet, but he had to respect her decision. He wasn't as convinced as his son that it fell on them to help her. At least they got her off the Interstate and to a phone.
He climbed behind the wheel of the Olds and glanced in the rearview mirror. "She said no. You wanna ride up front?"
Benny huffed. "Dad, she comes with us."
"I can't force her." Ray made to look back at the pay phone, but the afternoon sun through the windshield caught the corner of his eye, blinding him for a second. When his vision adjusted and he could make out the enclosure, Grace was already gone.
The passenger-side door flew open and a suitcase squeezed between the seat back and frame, thumping on the floor at Benny's feet. Grace plopped into the bucket seat, her purple skirt with its flowers billowing in after her. "I changed my mind," she said, and heaved the wide door closed. "Drive 'fore it can change again."
Benny patted her shoulder. "Hi, honey."
She gave his hand a squeeze. "Hi, sugar." Her too-large brown eyes met Ray's. "You sure you don't mind?"
Ray glanced in the rearview mirror at the joy on his son's face. "No, ma'am." He shot Grace a smile and turned the key in the ignition. "Buckle up and hang on."
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