Chris let loose what could only be called a mighty yawn, doing his best to keep his eyes on the road. The completely empty, flat, straight road that was utterly surrounded by cornfields.
The thing about trucking was that it could be boring as hell, especially when you were trucking lumber through the Midwest. Because apparently Iowa didn’t have its own trees. But that was okay—the pay was decent enough, and it gave him something to do. More importantly, it gave him a visa, and that was what he was really after. As long as he had a job he could stay in the US, given that he kept up on his paperwork, and really he just needed some space away from the outback. It didn’t have to last forever.
Through the heatwaves coming off the scorched pavement he could see a tiny outline. A person, obviously, probably a hitchhiker. Chris tried to ignore hitchhikers. He didn’t really fancy getting into any of the deep shit that some people carried with them everywhere—not that it would help him this time. The closer he got the more apparent it was that this hitchhiker needed his help.
Not that he could see how emaciated the boy was, not from high up in his rig. He couldn’t see that the boy needed a shower, or that his clothes hung off of him and his backpack seemed to be almost too heavy for his tall, skinny frame. What Chris could see was that this hitchhiker was stumbling, listing to one side then the other in a way that was almost drunk. Somehow, though, Chris knew this didn’t have anything to do with alcohol.
It takes a while to stop a big rig, but by the time he rolled to a stop with a screech the hitchhiker had clearly seen that Chris was stopping for him. He was headed straight for Chris, and Chris wondered how on earth this kid had gotten out here. They were on a long, long stretch of absolute nothingness, and if the hitchhiker had walked from the nearest town he would have been on the road for days. Chris put the truck in park just as the hitchhiker stepped up to the window. He stepped up the steps leading to the door like he’d done this a thousand times, offering Chris a smile, but he didn’t climb in.
“Hey,” the hitchhiker chirped, his blonde curls a matted mess about his head. His smile was bright, like he wasn’t clutching the rolled down window in white knuckles to keep from falling over. “How are you?”
Chris pulled a cold water bottle out of his cooler and handed it to the guy. “Here, you need this.”
“Oh, I don’t want to be a problem—“ the hitchhiker said quickly, looking almost frightened.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Chris said, holding the bottle out. “You’re bright red and sweating. You’re probably about to keel over. Look, it’s just like all the other bottles in my cooler, there’s nothing in it but water.”
“I don’t have any money,” the hitchhiker said, like it was supposed to mean something to Chris.
“That’s fine. Where you headed?”
That was how Chris ended up with a hitchhiker in his passenger seat. Tom was British, rather obviously, and seemed to turn to mush the moment he got in the cold air conditioning. Chris wondered how long he’d been out there.
“Thanks for picking me up,” the hitchhiker said as the big rig got moving again, offering Chris a genuine smile. “You really saved my skin.”
“No problem,” Chris said, turning back to the road as Tom downed the bottle. “The cooler’s by your feet, you should grab another one. I’ve got plenty.”
“Wow, you really do,” the hitchhiker said as he lifted the lid on the cooler. “You’re prepared.”
“Well, if there’s anything you learn living in the outback it’s to keep lots of water on you,” Chris said, cracking an easy smile. “What’s your name?”
“Tom,” the hitchhiker replied. “Yours?”
“Chris,” Chris said. “Nice to meet you, Tom.”
- - - - - - -
Tom was easy enough to get along with. He kept quiet, but not awkwardly so, willing and able to talk without making Chris feel like he had to keep up a conversation. Tom started nodding off about an hour later, but kept shaking himself awake.
“Hey, Tom,” Chris said, and Tom blinked his big blue eyes open. “You feeling okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” Tom said, “don’t worry about me. I’m more comfortable than I have been in a while.”
“Glad to hear that,” Chris said. It fell silent for a moment.
“So, Chris, how old are you?” Tom asked. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but you look younger than most truckers I’ve met.” Chris chuckled.
“I’m twenty-four,” Chris said. “I guess I am a little young for this lifestyle, but I just needed a bit of a change. It won’t last forever, and in the meanwhile I’ve got enough money to buy food. That’s about all I ask for. What about you?” Chris bit his tongue the moment the last question was off his lips. Shit, he really hoped that didn’t scare Tom off. As nice as Tom was, he hadn’t offered up any information about himself, and it was still really hot out there. If Tom asked to leave the truck Chris couldn’t stop him, but Tom was still a little flushed and Chris didn’t really want to drop him off in the middle of nowhere.
“I’m nineteen,” Tom answered easily, seemingly not put off by Chris’ questioning. “I just needed to get away, just like you. So why America? It seems a far cry from Australia.”
“Dunno,” Chris shrugged. “It seemed as good as any place, I guess. I had a buddy who visited a couple times and liked it, so I figured I could give it a shot.”
“How’s it working out?” Tom asked. He seemed genuinely curious.
“Well, I think you can see how well I’m faring in the job market,” Chris joked, and Tom laughed. He had a funny little laugh, this kind of ehehehe that showed off his perfectly straight teeth. His tongue peeked out a little, and Chris couldn’t help but chuckle himself. For somebody Chris had just picked up off the road, Tom seemed completely happy and carefree. “Seriously, though, this job’s not too bad. Some places the weather isn’t too far off from good ol’ Australia.”
“Yeah, I wish I could say the same,” Tom said. “I miss the rain and fog, but at least I’m on an adventure.”
“If that’s what you call it,” Chris joked, then quickly snapped his mouth shut. “Shit, I’m sorry—“
“It’s okay,” Tom said, shrugging with that smile still on his face. “I know my situation seems pretty shitty, and sometimes it is, but I like to keep a light heart about it.” Chris looked over at him as if he could see through the happy veneer, but honestly all he saw was a laughing, happy person. How did that even happen? “Technically I’m an American citizen, since my mum was American, so it made the most sense for me to come here. It’s a big place, lots of things to see.”
“Yeah, I’ll give you that,” Chris said. “Although you wouldn’t be able to tell looking out the window right now.” Tom let out another hearty laugh, and they settled back into easy silence.
That silence was broken a few hours later when, as the sun was just starting to dip under the horizon, Tom’s stomach made possibly the loudest noise Chris had ever heard. Chris spluttered on a surprised laugh and Tom turned almost as red as he had been when Chris had first seen him. “Sorry to laugh, mate,” Chris said, “but I really wasn’t expecting such a loud noise to come out of such a small person.”
“Hey!” Tom said, mock-offended. “I’m not that much shorter than you, Mr. Muscles.” Chris laughed again.
“No, I guess you’re not,” Chris teased, “but then again I don’t have a stomach that has a habit of imitating a lion.” Tom laughed. “Seriously, though, you should have told me you were hungry. It’s not much, but I’ve got some sandwiches in the back. There’ll be plenty for both of us.”
“Oh, I couldn’t!” Tom said, throwing his hands up. “I already owe you so much. I couldn’t possibly eat your food.”
“Hush,” Chris said. “You’re eating and that’s that. You don’t owe me jack. Speaking of, though, it’ll be dark soon and I doubt we’re going to run across anything. I’m getting tired and don’t want to be driving too much longer, but the bed back there isn’t particularly large. One of us can sleep on the floor, I guess, or we can squeeze together on the bed. Which do you prefer? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“That’s so kind of you, but I really couldn’t put you out—“
“Would you quiet with that nonsense and tell me which you’d rather?” Chris asked. He was sure to keep a smile on his face so Tom didn’t think he was angry. “Honestly, either’s fine with me.”
“Well…” Tom said. He looked uncomfortable, like he didn’t know what the right answer was and he didn’t want to find out what the wrong answer would get him. He settled on, “If it really wouldn’t bother you, maybe we could both fit on the bed?”
“Sure, no problem,” Chris said. “Now, reach on back and grab yourself a sandwich. No arguing.” Tom gave him a grateful smile and set to eating, and even with his eyes on the road it was obvious to Chris that it had been a long time since Tom had eaten much of anything. He wolfed it down so fast Chris was almost worried he’d choke, but the contented look on Tom’s thin face when he was done settled Chris’ fears. There was a warm kind of glow in his chest that made Chris certain he was doing the right thing.
If anybody looked like they needed a friendly hand, it was Tom. And Chris was determined to do his best.