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.
Anybody wanna tell me how to put pictures into a document? I tried copy/pasting but they won't show up. I have pictures of how I'm imagining Tom and Chris, as well as what the inside of a big rig sleeper looks like. I'd like to share those with you, if anyone can teach me how to do stuff. Thanks!
Anyway, I hope you like this chapter. It's starting to get into the drama now. Please let me know what you think! Thanks.
Chris woke up slowly, and even more slowly became confused as to why there was a warm weight on his torso that felt oddly like it was breathing.
Oh yeah. Tom.
Chris hadn’t been kidding when he’d said his bed was small, and apparently at some point in the night Tom had decided that it would just be easiest to sleep one on top of the other. Maybe Chris kept rolling around and squishing him, so Tom moved—the kid was just so fragile looking.
It should have felt more strange to wake up with a virtual stranger on his chest, Chris thought as he opened his eyes. In fact, it probably should have felt more strange simply to have another person in his truck at all. But, well, Tom was a good guy, and they got along yesterday with an easiness that was unusual. Chris was an outgoing guy, but even he didn’t usually feel so comfortable around someone he’d just met. Especially when that someone was dead asleep on top of him.
Eh. Chris didn’t care. He was an easygoing guy, and it was too early in the morning to bother with overthinking. Moving, on the other hand, was something he desperately needed to do—more accurately, he needed to attend to his full bladder. He tried to get out from under Tom without jostling his guest too much, but that inevitably failed.
“Oh, sorry,” Tom mumbled, barely coherent as he got off of Chris.
“S’okay,” Chris said, heaving his considerable bulk out of the bed. “I’m taking a leak—I’ll be right outside.”
They hadn’t managed to make it to human habitation before the need for sleep set in, so Chris had just pulled the rig over in a little offshoot of a road and put it in park. They were in the middle of absolutely nowhere, in the part of Iowa that was boring as hell. Chris feasted his eyes on corn, corn, and more corn as he emptied his bladder, yawning himself awake. He shook himself off and zipped up, rolling his shoulders as he prepared for another day on the road.
Tom, he found, was not as ready for the day. The poor kid had rolled back over and fallen asleep, so Chris tried to be quiet as he brushed his teeth with a travel toothbrush and a bottle of water, spitting out the window before turning the truck back on. It awoke with a roar, and Tom jolted up.
“Woah, you okay?” Chris asked, looking in his rearview mirror. For a split second he had seen some serious fear on Tom’s face, but it smoothed off almost immediately. Tom gave a little self-deprecating laugh.
“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” he said. “Just a little jumpy early in the morning.”
“I don’t blame you,” Chris said. “Waking up in a new place with some weird guy isn’t usually great for the nerves.” Tom chuckled again.
“You think I’d be used to it by now,” he said. “Thanks for understanding.”
“Yeah, no problem,” Chris said. He worried his lip as he got his truck back onto the highway—if it could be called that, it was just a long, straight, two-lane road—wondering if it would be alright to ask Tom how long he’d been doing…this. Tom seemed pretty chill, but Chris didn’t want to make him uncomfortable and especially didn’t want to get himself too involved. He could be kind of a sucker for sad stories.
In the end he decided to let it rest as Tom sat up and stretched. Tom’s too-big, stained t-shirt rode up a little, showing a sliver of skin that was painfully white in comparison to his sunburnt arms and neck. “You hungry?” Chris asked. “We’re gonna be in Spencer in about an hour, if you can hold out that long.”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Tom said. “Whatever works for you.”
“I think we’ll just keep going then,” Chris said. “Won’t be long.”
They settled into an easy silence as Tom moved to sit in the passenger seat. He walked around the rig like someone who had been frequenting trucks for a while, completely at ease with the moving vehicle, and Chris couldn’t help but wonder again how much time Tom had spent on the road.
Spencer, Iowa, was the Clay County seat, but wasn’t by any means a big town. It had a quaint kind of charm nonetheless, and it was obvious they were setting up for the county fair. There were bright colors everywhere, and people running around getting ready. Chris wished, not for the first time, that he didn’t have such a strict schedule. He passed by so many fun-looking things that he never got to stop and look at.
The trucker’s rest stop was just past Spencer, and Chris had hardly parked the rig before he and Tom were clambering out. It was funny to watch Tom jump from the steps. He was probably only an inch or two shorter than Chris, but he seemed so much smaller—it was just a difference in bulk. Chris had spent his years helping his family out on the farm, surfing, and wrestling with his brothers, so he had a decent amount of muscle where Tom had spent his days…well, Chris had no idea where Tom had been or what he’d done, but it was pretty obviously not anything that had built him up to something like Chris’ kind of size.
“You wanna use some of my shampoo and stuff?” Chris asked as he checked his canvas shower bag for all the necessary bottles. Tom flushed a little. He probably thought Chris was telling him he smelled or something, but in fairness Tom did look a little grungy. “I’m just thinking you might feel better after a good shower,” Chris explained.
“I don’t want to be a burden,” Tom said quickly.
“No, it’s fine,” Chris said. “We can take turns so we can both get good and clean. I know I need a good scrub-down.” Tom chuckled with him.
“If you’re certain,” Tom said, “I would really like a chance to get this dirt off of me.”
“Of course,” Chris said. “I don’t offer things I’m not comfortable with giving.” Tom’s grateful smile was almost frightening. Chris had never seen someone so touched just because of some soap, and as much as he didn’t want to think about it he had to wonder what Tom’s life had been like for him to be so grateful for the smallest kindnesses.
Tom refused to shower until Chris had, so Chris grabbed them some grub from the attached Subway—another thing Tom insisted he didn’t need to do, but Chris couldn’t help but feel like Tom needed some real food in his stomach—and scarfed it down before heading to the showers. This rest stop wasn’t that crowded, so there wasn’t a wait.
Chris had always loved a good shower. He felt like the warm water’s gentle cascade washed away as much worry as it did dirt, and today was no exception. He let himself enjoy it idly for a moment before scrubbing himself pink and washing out his hair. He’d always preferred to keep it kind of short, so he needed another haircut when he got the chance. It wasn’t long, just longer than he liked.
As much as he wanted to savor the feeling of being in the shower, he didn’t have time to dawdle. He was a little ahead of schedule today, but Tom still had to get clean and Chris figured that would take a little while. The poor guy was pretty much caked in a fine layer of dirt. So Chris said a fond adieu to the small but glorious shower stall, dried himself off, and threw on his clothes, then went to get Tom.
Tom spotted him as he was walking up, and smiled at him. Geez, talk about a megawatt smile. “All clean?” Tom asked.
“Yeah,” Chris said. “The showers are pretty decent here—better than some places. Here’s the shower bag, feel free to use whatever you need. Oh, and the Lysol spray is for the shower stall. Make sure you spray it down real good before you get in. These places are usually pretty clean, but better safe than sorry.”
“Great,” Tom said, taking the bag. “Thank you so much.”
“Yeah, you’ve said that a couple of times,” Chris joked. “Go on in there, I’ll be waiting for you.” Tom shot him another smile and took off towards the bathrooms.
Chris spent a few minutes sipping his drink and fiddling with his phone before he realized that Tom didn’t have any clean clothes. He had a backpack, but when he’d opened it earlier Chris had seen inside. He hadn’t seen any clothes. Well, shit, he thought, sighing as he stood. There was a little store with some basics here, and he grabbed his paper drink cup and headed straight for the meager clothing section.
He knew he was getting in too deep here. He made a living wage, but he wasn’t exactly rolling in the dough. He had money for food and stuff, and could stretch that to include Tom for a while, but buying Tom clothes wasn’t exactly what he needed to be doing. Still, he couldn’t help wanting to help the kid. Though he should probably stop calling Tom a kid—they were really only a few years apart.
While trying to figure out which clothes would fit best, Chris found himself pondering Tom’s body a lot more than he was comfortable with. Problem was that with Tom’s overly baggy clothing Chris really couldn’t tell how scrawny Tom actually was. Could be he wasn’t as skinny as he looked, and the clothes he was wearing just made him seem like a stick figure. Chris gave up and just got an adult medium shirt and some sweatpants—it might be a little big, but better that than too small. Besides, the sweatpants could be tied up if they were falling off.
“Hey, Tom?” Chris called, leaning into the bathroom. There were a few shower stalls with steam rising from them now, as opposed to when Chris had showered. He’d been the only one in here.
“Yes?” Tom called. “I’m sorry, am I taking too long? I can—“
“No, no, it’s no problem,” Chris said. “Take your time, we’re a little ahead of schedule.” Well, maybe not so much anymore, but that was alright. He could make up the time on the road. “I got you some clean clothes. Are you in the third stall?”
Tom’s head and one shoulder popped out from behind a curtain, his face looking extremely surprised and maybe a little apprehensive. The way his hair plastered to his head was absolutely hilarious. “Chris, that’s so kind, you didn’t have to—“
“Oh, shush,” Chris said, rolling his eyes good-naturedly. “You looked like you needed them. Here, hang these on the hooks there so they don’t get wet.”
Tom’s wide eyes darted down to the bundle of cloth in Chris’ hands, then back up to Chris. He looked completely flabbergasted, like Chris had just said he’d singlehandedly ended world hunger, but he didn’t say anything. “Uh, Tom? You okay mate?”
“Yeah! Yeah, I’m sorry,” Tom said, drying his hands on the cloth curtain and reaching for the clothes. “I just—I don’t know how you want me to repay you. I mean, I’ll do whatever you want, you’ve been so kind…” Tom bit his lip like he’d said something very dangerous, then fell back behind the curtain. “Really though, thank you so very, very much, Chris. You’ve done more for me than I could have imagined,” he said.
Chris was glad Tom had gone back behind the curtain to hang the clothes, because he found a very stubborn frown fixed on his face all of a sudden. “Tom, you don’t have to repay me, it’s okay,” Chris said. He heard Tom pause before he heard the creak of the glass shower door opening as Tom stepped back into the shower. “I mean it, Tom, you don’t.”
“Well, thank you either way,” Tom said. He sounded like he absolutely did not believe a word Chris had just said. “I’ll be out in just a moment. Thank you.”
“Stop thanking me,” Chris said, but he muttered it under his breath and Tom couldn’t hear. He couldn’t explain why, but suddenly his mood was a little darker. He tried to shake it off as he left Tom to his shower, telling himself that Tom had probably just gotten used to a more checks-and-balances kind of world. Chris wasn’t that kind of person, though, and the thought that Tom automatically assumed that of him stung a little. Still, it wasn’t like he and Tom knew each other too well, and Tom’s life had probably conditioned him to think that way, so Chris tried to just shrug it off. After all, it wasn’t like he was going to take anything Tom offered anyway. Maybe, by the time they made it to Iowa City, Tom would have a little more faith in him.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
Tom was a totally different person when he was clean. He came bouncing out of the showers, clearly feeling a lot better, and he looked better too. Aside from the light sunburn on his high cheekbones his skin looked healthy, ruddy even, and his hilarious curls looked several shades lighter. Even mostly wet they were curly as hell, and Chris couldn’t wait to see when they were fully dry. They were probably even funnier then.
The clothes fit pretty well too. The shirt was form-fitting, but not too small, even though the stark white made his arms and neck seem even redder than before. Chris thought about the aloe vera gel he had somewhere in his truck and was glad he’d thought ahead—especially the back of Tom’s neck looked like it hurt like a bitch. Chris had gotten the longest sweatpants he could find, figuring that Tom’s tall frame meant normal pants would be too short on him, and it was good he did. Honestly, Tom looked a thousand times better, and happier. Chris smiled up at him.
“Better?” he asked.
“A thousand fold,” Tom answered, shoving his hands in the sweatpants pockets. Chris quickly found that Tom’s good mood was lightening his own gloomy disposition, and smiled a little more genuinely. “Thank you again.”
“Hey, no problem,” Chris said. “You know, you’re a little more built than I took you for in that bag of a shirt you had on earlier.”
“Hey now!” Tom said, recognizing Chris’ gentle prod as the joke it was meant to be. “I know I seem pretty scrawny, but I do have some muscle.”
“Yeah, I can see that now,” Chris said. And he could—Tom’s arms, exposed in the short-sleeved shirt, were much more wirey than Chris was expecting, and his torso was more lithely built. He wasn’t the skeleton he had looked like before, even if he did still look like he could use a few decent meals. Well, Chris was on his way to fixing that. “You ready to go?” Chris asked, standing up.
“Yeah,” Tom said. “Let me just top off my drink. You want me to grab yours too?”
“Yeah, that’d be great,” Chris said, handing him the empty cup. “I don’t need any more ice, but some Pepsi would be super.”
“Sure thing,” Tom said, beaming again before bounding off. Chris shook his head as he watched him. This guy was just full of energy, like a small child or a puppy. Yeah, a puppy, Chris decided. Like one of those golden retriever pups they’d had at their house when he was thirteen—they grew up to be decent sized dogs, but as babies they were just small and cute and really funny to watch. Until they peed on everything, but Tom didn’t seem like he was about to do that. Chris chuckled at the thought.
His laughter died in his throat as he saw a guy—older than Chris, maybe thirty-five—saunter up to Tom in that way that guys had when they were trying to get something very particular. Chris saw Tom’s shoulder’s tense a little, though the smile on his face was still as easy as ever, but the trucker leaned in closer and got into Tom’s space. Chris felt his jaw clench and started hotfooting it over.
“—I’m just sayin’, a sweet little piece like you shouldn’t be out here all on your lonesome. You never know what kind of unsavory souls you’ll meet. I could keep ya safe, in my truck. Take ya wherever ya wanted ta be,” Chris heard the older guy saying as he got closer.
“Thank you for the kind offer,” Tom said, as if he was completely missing what the trucker was trying to insinuate—even though Chris could see in his body language that he knew damn well. “Really though, I’m here with someone. This is his drink, see?”
The trucker took another step in, flanking Tom with his legs. Tom was now effectively trapped against the drink dispenser. “Now, sweetie, I think we both know I’m offerin’ you somethin’ better than whatever this guy’s got on you. Whaddaya say we jus’ mosey on into my rig and I’ll show ya myself, yeah?” Chris almost growled, his fists clenching. He was almost on them now. God, why were there so many people getting in his way? Could they not see what was going on?
“No, thank you, sir,” Tom said politely, but much more curtly than he had before. “I’m really quite happy with the trucker I’m with. Please step back.”
The whole tone shifted right then. Chris could feel it from a few yards away, and every muscle tensed. Now that he’d been denied in no uncertain terms, the trucker wasn’t about to keep playing nice. “You little whore,” the trucker spat, grabbing Tom by the arm and jostling him, making him spill the drinks. “I’ll have ya whether ya want it or not—“
That was as far as he got. Chris, who was still a few feet away, saw it all. Tom moved fast, like a rattlesnake that got stepped on one too many times. Tom threw the drink in his right hand in the trucker’s face, dropping the other in favor of jabbing the man in the side. The trucker, surprised by the shock of pain and cold, reflexively let go of Tom’s arm, but Tom wasn’t done. A swift kick to the groin doubled the trucker over, and from there it was easy enough to knee the bastard in his ugly face. The trucker fell back onto his ass, and Tom darted away to the left.
A passerby caught Tom and held him fast, but Chris wasn’t about to let that happen. “Let him go!” he bellowed. “He was defending himself. He didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Nothing wrong?” a woman said. “That kind of force was totally unnecessary!”
“He was going to hurt me,” Tom said, voice much calmer than Chris’ in an attempt to appeal to the woman’s logic. “Trust me, I know the signs.”
“You little shit!” the trucker squealed, stumbling up and clutching his bloody nose. “I’m a reputable trucker! I didn’t do anything, this is just slander—“
Chris got between the trucker and Tom, his considerable size and palpable anger making the trucker step back. “Really now?” Chris asked, voice deadly. “So grabbing someone’s arm and saying ‘I’m going to have you whether you want it or not’ is a reputable action in your world? Funny, but I don’t think the police would agree. And the rest of you—get off your high horses. This guy was going to do my friend some serious damage, and none of you even bothered to look. You won’t help someone in need, but you’ll stand up for the person who would have hurt him? I was under the impression that people were better than that. I guess you’ve proved me wrong.”
Chris turned to Tom, and the man who was still holding him. “I thought I told you to let him go,” Chris said, glaring into the man until he released his hold. Tom stepped away, towards Chris, and laid a gentle hand on Chris’ arm.
“Let’s just go,” he pleaded. “It’s not worth it.”
“You should press charges,” Chris said. Tom shook his head.
“Really, I’m okay,” Tom said. “I don’t want to get you too far behind schedule. Please, can we just go?”
Chris looked down at those big blue eyes and felt his anger drain out of him. Tom had a point. They were officially behind schedule now, which Chris’ employers would not appreciate, and if Chris got involved with this then the company would find out he’d picked up a hitchhiker and he’d get fired. “Alright, fine,” he said. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, I promise,” Tom said. Chris hesitated, but he knew Tom was right. He spared another glare for the group that had clustered around them, then looked straight at the trucker who had started all of this.
“You should probably get that looked at,” was all he said. Then he motioned for Tom to go ahead of him, because he’d be damned if he let Tom walk behind him and risk getting him hurt, then stalked out, ignoring the terrified hush that surrounded them. Chris didn’t use intimidation often, but when he did people rarely forgot it.
They got back into Chris’ rig in silence, Chris still glaring at nothing and Tom with his head meekly down. Only the roar of the engine starting up broke the ominous quiet, but neither of them said anything as Chris steered them out of the parking lot.
The silence continued for what felt like a very long time. They had sat in quiet together before, but with Chris’ teeth grinding together and his knuckles white on the steering wheel this silence felt different.
Chris was so caught up in his own anger, trying not to push himself over the speed limit even though he just wanted to gas it, that he didn’t see Tom’s discomfort. All he saw was the road ahead of them until Tom finally spoke.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His voice sounded so small, and frightened, and suddenly Chris was aware of the way Tom was cowering into the chair. “I got you in trouble.”
“No, no, that’s—“ Chris shook his head like he was trying to shake off his anger. “I’m not angry at you, okay? You didn’t do anything wrong. That jackass—“ he stopped himself there, flexing his hands on the wheel and breathing out heavily. He couldn’t vent his frustration in here, not with Tom so clearly frightened. Chris tried to soften his tone.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m freaking you out, and I’m not trying to. I’m not gonna hurt you or anything, I just—I’m a little on edge. Don’t be worried, okay? You did everything right.”
“Okay,” Tom said.
“You don’t sound convinced,” Chris sighed. “Listen, I’m really not mad at you, and even if I was I wouldn’t hurt you. I’m not that kind of guy. Besides, you kicked some serious ass in there, so I’m not sure I’d mess with you anyway.” Tom cracked a little smile, but the mood didn’t lighten much. “Where’d you learn to fight like that?” Chris asked. Maybe if they just talked about random things they could move past this whole debacle.
“There was a self-defense club at my high school,” Tom said. “My mum told me I should join it, so I did. Made a lot of good friends there.”
“I bet,” Chris said, smiling a little for the first time in an hour. He could just imagine little freshman Tom awkwardly learning how to throw a punch. “I remember when I was in wrestling and the guys would always come over unannounced, because they could, I guess. Stuff like that makes for good friendships.”
“You were in wrestling?” Tom asked, sounding actually interested.
“Yeah,” Chris said. “We were the only co-ed team in the district, but we only had the one girl. She was kickass, though, nobody on the team wanted to get on her bad side. Real sweet girl, but man did she know her holds.”
“That’s awesome,” Tom said. “I didn’t know there were co-ed wrestling teams.”
“Yeah, they’re not too common,” Chris said. “People generally think girls shouldn’t wrestle, but our whole team thought that was bullshit. Jenny—that was the girl’s name, Jenny—she was one of the toughest on our team. And people were always heckling her, especially rival wrestlers, but she always showed them what was what.” Chris laughed, remembering the time that a guy had antagonized Jenny right before their match and she had him on the ground in seconds. His face had been hilarious. Tom smiled another small smile, but this one looked more genuine. He was still tense, but he was slowly relaxing—and so was Chris.
“That’s great,” Tom said. “The wrestling explains why your biceps are the size of my head.” Chris laughed heartily.
“Yeah, well, spending your life on a little farm doesn’t hurt either,” he said. “I may be big, but I’m harmless.”
“You could have fooled me,” Tom said, and Chris immediately felt his shoulders tense back up. What did that mean? Was Tom actually frightened for his safety around Chris? “Oh, no, I didn’t mean it like that!” Tom rushed. “It’s just, when you got angry in there you really looked frightening. You didn’t even have to lift a finger and everyone did what you wanted. You’ve been very gentle the rest of the time.”
“But I scared you?” Chris asked.
“Well, yes,” Tom said reluctantly. “I really appreciate it, though, I mean—I don’t know how I would have gotten out of that situation without—“
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Chris cut off Tom’s rambling. “Just, please know that I’m not dangerous. I won’t hurt you, and I know you might not believe that right now, but I hope I can convince you. You’re safe here.”
It was a moment of silence, with Chris looking out on the open highway, before Tom said, “Thank you.” Chris smiled.
- - - - - - - - - - -
They made great time to Iowa City, where Chris was meant to drop off his cargo—and Tom. The last hour before they hit the city was spent in a melancholy silence.
Chris had woken up that morning, once again, with Tom on top of him. It was weirdly nice, actually, and it had been so long since Chris could spend time with another human being. He was reluctant to say goodbye, not just because he didn’t know what would happen to Tom once he hopped out of Chris’ rig but because he had become so used to Tom in such a short space of time. Sharing the small sleeper should have been so much more uncomfortable than it was, but it was as easy with Tom as Chris could imagine it being with anyone. The rig would feel empty without him.
Tom, too, seemed to be dreading pulling up to the final destination. He seemed almost forlorn, which was something Chris hadn’t seen out of him. Chris wondered how likely it was that Tom was worried about his future too, if he was questioning the next time he’d get along with one of his rides the way he got along with Chris. Chris didn’t want to presume—after all, Tom was a professional hitchhiker, so he was probably really good at making nice—but there was an amiable kind of air whenever Tom was around. They just got along.
Chris knew it was silly to be so upset. They had just met a few days ago, and after all, they had agreed that he would take Tom as far as Iowa City and then let him off. Tom said he was trying to find a job, and Iowa City was well-known for being a cheap place to live. Chris had done a little internet research (he was just interested, seriously) and there was a university in Iowa City, so there would probably be plenty of opportunities for people Tom’s age. Those opportunities might mean bussing tables, but it was a start. And it was a cheap area to live in, too. All around a great place to be starting a life.
The rig groaned and squealed as Chris put on the brakes. Here it was. They were officially here.
They sat there for a moment, neither saying anything. Tom held his backpack in his lap, ready to go, but he looked dismally down at the carpet like the last thing he wanted was to leave. Chris just looked at him, drinking in the sight of him. Now that he was clean and better clothed, he seemed like an entirely different person. Chris thought about the gentle touches Tom had placed on his arm, or his knee, the familiar way they joked together, the simple balance they had struck from the moment Tom had hopped in the passenger’s side.
“My next stop is gonna take me to North Dakota,” Chris said. Tom looked up at him with wide, hopeful eyes.
“I’ve never been there,” he said. Chris smiled.
“Well, let me unload my cargo and then we can strike back out,” he said. Tom looked at him like he was some kind of angel.
“Yeah,” he breathed. “Want my help?”
“Sure,” Chris said, opening his door. “Then we can grab some lunch.” Tom nodded like his head was about to fall off, putting his backpack back in its place on the floor and jumping up to help Chris with the unloading. Chris didn’t try to hide his smile.
After two weeks of being on the road together, things get hairy.
Ooooops. Been a while :/ Sorry guys, I hope this chapter at least kind of makes up for the long wait? Maybe? No?
Tom yawned, and Chris tried not to laugh at how much he looked like a lion roaring. It was the curly hair, probably, which was always just a little more ridiculous first thing in the morning. He stretched, upsetting the balance Tom had mostly on top of him and getting an indignant murmur in retaliation.
“Waking up never gets easier,” Tom lamented, rolling off of Chris into the sliver of space between Chris and the wall.
“I wouldn’t have to wake you up if you didn’t sleep halfway on top of me” Chris said, shivering as he threw off the sheet. It was always easier to wake up when he shocked himself out of comfort.
“M’sorry,” Tom mumbled, wrapping himself in the sheets Chris had just thrown off.
“I don’t forgive you,” Chris said, poking Tom’s side. Tom squealed.
“Hey!” Tom said, popping his head out of his cocoon to glare rather unthreateningly. Chris laughed. “Don’t laugh at me, I could take you,” Tom said.
“Yeah, sure you could,” Chris said, patting Tom’s head while Tom’s arms were still wrapped firmly in the blankets. “Go back to sleep, you angry little caterpillar.” Tom pouted, his head falling back onto the mattress. The pillow fell off the side of the bed at some point during the night.
“Too late,” Tom grumbled, though he didn’t move. “You’ve awoken my ire, you can’t get off that easy.” Chris just chuckled and got up, stretching his arms as far over his head as he could. He’d learned to appreciate Tom’s more unguarded moments, since once he was fully awake he’d go back to reading a little too far into what Chris said. Chris grabbed a pair of jeans and a t-shirt from the built in shelves above the closet and headed into the tiny ‘bathroom’ area.
It wasn’t really a bathroom; Chris had been forced to make the choice between an APU unit, which provided him with electricity, and a portable toilet and, well, he hadn’t picked the toilet. There wasn’t really enough room in his small sleeper for it. But there was a little curtain in one corner, and even though he hadn’t used it until Tom showed up he felt a little better not parading around naked so he changed in some pretence of privacy.
He probably didn’t need to, he knew, but he didn’t want to...intimidate? Yeah, maybe that was the word. He didn’t want to intimidate Tom. They’d only spent two weeks together, and Chris didn’t exactly know much about Tom’s life before Chris picked him up. He wanted to know, but…
Tom hadn’t emerged from his nest when Chris was dressed, so Chris tried to be as quiet as he could getting into the driver’s seat. He checked to see if anything had changed, then logged into the E-log (damn he hated that thing, he really did) and started the truck. Right on time.
“Okay, coast clear,” Tom called, and Chris carefully backed out of his parking spot. Reversing was one of the most nerve-wracking parts of driving a truck--it wasn’t like he could see behind him. Luckily, Tom was willing to stand outside and help direct him.
Once Chris was safely out of his spot Tom jumped into the passenger seat with an exaggerated bounce. “Thanks for the food, Chris. I don’t think I’ve been this full in a while.”
“You said the same thing at dinner last night,” Chris grinned. “I hope you’re not getting tired of eating fast food and sandwiches.”
“Oh, not at all!” Tom said, eyes wide. “I’m just grateful that you’re sharing with me. I know it’s not easy, since I’m not making any money…” Chris pursed his lips.
“Hey, it’s alright,” he said, patting Tom’s knee. “It’s not like there’s anything we can do about this situation. I don’t blame you.” Tom nodded, frowning, and went silent. He was worried, and the truth was Chris was worried too. He made decent money with this company, but life on the road was expensive. When eating almost always meant buying overpriced meals it could really put a strain on your wallet, and now that Chris was buying for two…He shook it off. He would find a way. He had to.
“You know, I--I’m pretty used to skipping meals,” Tom said suddenly. “I could just...not eat lunch or something.”
“No,” Chris said firmly. “Tom, you already don’t eat breakfast. You need to be healthy. I’m not gonna let you starve yourself.”
“I have to be healthy for what?” Tom asked, a hint of panic in his voice. Chris looked at him. Tom looked away.
“For--what do you mean what for?” Chris asked. “You need to be healthy because you need to be healthy. How is that a question? Tom?”
“It--it’s nothing,” Tom said, uncharacteristically quiet.
“It’s obviously not,” Chris said. “Tom, look, I--I’m trying not to pry into your life, it’s not my place, but if you think I’m gonna do something to you--”
“I don’t,” Tom said, too quickly. He winced as soon as he said it. Chris gripped the steering wheel. “That didn’t sound convincing.”
“No,” Chris said tersely.
“I’m sorry,” Tom said. Quiet, so quiet.
It was a few moments where the whirring of the AC was the only noise in the cab, then Chris sighed. “I’m not going to do anything to you.”
“I can’t repay you,” Tom said.
“What does that mean?” Chris asked, frustrated and a little scared. “You keep saying that like it’s supposed to mean something to me but it doesn’t. What are you trying to say?” Tom hunched into himself. How did such a tall man manage to look so small?
“I...can’t talk about it,” he said, avoiding Chris’ eyes. He was shaking, holding himself like a frightened child. It hurt to see him like that.
“Okay,” Chris said. “Okay.”
Chris gets a call from home and the tenseness abates just enough for there to be a glimmer of hope.
Tom slept on the floor that night. Chris tried to convince him to sleep in the bed, told him that Chris could sleep on the floor, but Tom shook his head. Said he needed to sleep there tonight. That was the first thing he’d said since lunch, so Chris gave in.
Chris tossed and turned most of the night, only really getting catnaps in. He felt like he’d done something unforgivable but he didn’t know what it was. He hadn’t spoken with the best tone of voice but, he was worried. And scared. And frustrated. He just wanted Tom to know that he was safe. Was that so hard to believe? Was Chris really that frightening? Chris knew that wasn’t really the problem, that Tom had something in his past that made him question everyone, but Chris’ heart couldn’t seem to agree with his head.
The morning wasn’t any better. Chris was woken up by the shrill alarm on his phone just after he’d finally fallen asleep, and it was so hard to get his heavy limbs out of bed. He wished he’d found a job where he could call in sick. He didn’t bother changing out of his pajama pants, just throwing on the first shirt he saw and trying not to kick Tom in the process. Chris had heard Tom rustling around all night too, but now Tom looked like he was finally really asleep. Chris hoped that the engine starting wouldn’t wake him.
Tom was really pretty...cute, when he was sleeping. He was pretty cute all the time but, there was something about the way he balled himself up with his hands by his face that made him look like a little boy. Safe, unguarded. Chris shook off the thought as he stepped over Tom’s prone form to get to the driver’s seat. He pulled the curtain between the living area and the driver’s section closed as quietly as he could.
Tom still wasn’t up by the time Chris stopped to pee (which wasn’t that long with how much of his soda stock Chris had to drink to keep himself awake behind the wheel), and Tom wasn’t up by the time Chris grabbed lunch from the cooler. Chris found himself asking whether to wake him up or not. He’d slept enough by now, right? And he’d be hungry when he woke up if he didn’t get up now. But Chris didn’t disturb him.
Chris didn’t know what to do. The rational answer was to talk to Tom like adults, but he honestly didn’t know where to start. There were obviously things Tom wasn’t about to divulge, and Chris knew anything he’d say would come out too accusing. How did he say ‘You need to stop treating me like a threat’ without sounding like a threat?
And the worst part was that he knew it wasn’t Tom’s fault. He knew it. He just--it’s just--he hadn’t gotten along with somebody like this in a long time, and he knew it would be so much better if he didn’t constantly feel like Tom was scared of him. And Tom was scared, at least a little. Chris could tell. And yeah, Chris was a big guy, and Tom had clearly been through some shit, and obviously they needed to clear the air, but Chris didn’t know how. How do you prove yourself to someone that thinks everything you do has to be repaid?
For the first time since he started trucking, Chris wished he had the cab to himself for a while.
It wasn’t until almost 3 in the afternoon that Tom peeked his head out from behind the curtain. He didn’t have bedhead--he must have been awake for a while. Chris felt hurt. “If there’s time to pull over at the next rest stop I would appreciate it.”
“There won’t be another rest stop for almost an hour,” Chris said. “Do you need the restroom?” Tom chewed his lip.
“I can hold it,” he said. Chris turned his head back to the road to hide his frown, hearing the clinking of the curtain’s metal rings as Tom retreated back into the back. He could tell Tom wasn’t sure he could wait that long. Why wouldn’t he just say something? They had pulled over for next-to-the-road whizzes plenty of times. Chris’ mind went into overdrive. Had that conversation yesterday made Tom think Chris had a short fuse? Or that Chris was tired of him already? That he should have gotten off at Iowa City and let Chris leave him in the dust?
Chris should just pull over so Tom could relieve himself. He should just say ‘fuck it’ and make sure Tom knew that all he had to do was ask. But it seemed like Tom saw every kind gesture as another favor he owed, and Chris didn’t know how to drive home that it wasn’t like that, and it would probably just make things more tense…
Chris rubbed a hand over his face. He just wanted to go back to the way things were a few days ago, when they were both a little guarded but not--not--...not whatever this was.
A dead deer offered the perfect opportunity. The roadkill had been moved to the side of the road, but not quite far enough so if Chris was careful he could get his front tire juuuuust over it without going off the road. Maybe it was stupid, risking that when he was so tired, but he felt like he had to do something. Something other than sit like this. So he ran over the deer.
“Oh, gross!” he said, just loudly enough. “Hey Tom, I just ran over some roadkill. I’m gonna get out and take a look, just make sure there isn’t a bunch of blood or anything stuck to the grill. If you wanna get out and use the bathroom since we’re stopped go ahead.”
When the rig rolled to its eventual stop Chris hopped out, pleased that Tom followed just a few moments later. Chris didn’t bug him, just went around and took a look at what he’d been afraid would be a gory mess. Apparently that deer wasn’t too fresh, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as Chris had originally feared. He jumped back inside to grab the small collection of cleaning supplies he kept above the bed, feeling oddly relieved to be able to move around without Tom under his feet. There wasn’t much space in here for one person, let alone two.
His phone rang in his pocket just as he started the cleanup. Liam. Definitely enough to perk up his spirits. “Hey!” he said into the phone, spraying the blood splatter with the cleaner. “Haven’t heard from you in forever! Finally decided to call me, eh?” Liam laughed.
“Well, it’s not easy to get ahold of you when you insist on staying off the phone when you drive,” he said.
“You’d try to limit distractions too if you had to constantly think about which side of the road you’re driving on. You got lucky though, I just hit some roadkill so I stopped to clean off the front of the rig.”
“Nah, you should leave it, keep people from trying to steal anything from you. ‘This is what happened to the last guy that broke into my truck, and it’ll happen to you too.’” Chris laughed, remembering the time he ended up chasing after their neighbor who was chasing after Liam because Liam said something like that to him. Liam had cackled the entire time. “Anyway, what’s new in your world? Any fascinating sights? Romps with cuties from bars?” Chris scoffed.
“Where, exactly, would I take a ‘cutie from a bar’?” he asked, realizing a moment too late that Tom could probably hear him. For some reason that made him uncomfortable, but he tried to shake it off. “It’s not like I’m living in the lap of luxury. Besides, I...I’m travelling with someone.”
“Wait wait wait, what?” Liam asked. “Oh bro, there’s a story here and I know it. Come on, you can trust me!”
“Yeah right,” Chris rolled his eyes, scrubbing at a particularly stubborn spot. He saw Tom out of the corner of his eye and looked over to find that Tom had taken a seat cushion and was bringing it over, a cautious look on his face. When Chris met his eyes he pointed between the cushion and Chris’ knees, which were starting to protest being knelt on. Chris’ eyebrows went up and he stood, letting Tom put the cushion down before kneeling again. It was so much more comfortable.
“Hey, come on,” Liam pressed, “I want details man!”
“Oh! Oh, sorry,” Chris said, nodding gratefully at Tom, who silently went back into the truck. “Just, uh...well, he was a hitchhiker, basically. Name’s Tom. He looked like he was gonna pass out from heat exhaustion when I found him so I picked him up. Turns out he’s a great guy, so he’s travelling with me for the moment.”
“Wow, that must be rough, sharing such a tiny space,” Liam whistled.
“Well, yeah,” Chris said, nervously glancing up like he thought Tom was watching him through the windshield. He wasn’t. “I miss the privacy, it kind of makes things harder. But he really is a wonderful person, and I enjoy being around him most of the time. I wouldn’t have offered for him to stay if I didn’t.”
“But sometimes?” Liam prompted. Chris sighed, acutely aware that Tom could probably hear him.
“Sometimes it’s rough. That’s just how things go. But I...really do want to make it better.”
“Better? Are things sour right now?”
“Look, now isn’t the best time to talk about it,” Chris said. “Besides, I gotta get back on the road. I’ll call you later, okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” Liam said, clearly dubious. Chris was too. When the hell was he going to get the time to call Liam when Tom wasn’t around? Unless Tom decided to leave. Chris didn’t like that idea, but maybe they were getting there? Maybe this arrangement never could have lasted? He practically lived in a sardine can, of course things would get tense after a while. Chris thought about how nice it was to wake up with Tom on top of him. He could feel this situation slipping through his fingers.
“Hey, before you hang up--do you have the money for a cheap motel room tonight? If you can swing it maybe it would help just to have some more room to move around.”
“I’ll think about it,” Chris said. “Thanks man.”
“Any time big brother. Talk later.”
Chris hung up and sighed, already missing the familiar accent of home. He only ever felt like a stranger here after talking to his family. He gave himself a moment to prepare, then stuffed the now unsalvageable rag into a plastic bag to dispose of wherever they stopped next. The one corner of the grill was unnaturally shiny, but Chris knew the road dust would fix that soon enough. He dusted off the cushion and headed back in.
“Hey Tom, sorry about that,” he said, seeing Tom sitting on the bed. “That was my younger brother. I mentioned you, I hope you don’t mind?”
“No, it’s fine,” Tom said, still reserved but not as quiet. “I don’t know that you mentioned a brother to me.”
“Yeah, I have two of them,” Chris said, jumping at the chance to just talk again. “Luke and Liam. That was Liam, the younger one. Thanks for bringing this out for me, by the way. It was a huge help.”
“Of course,” Tom said, trying for a tight smile as Chris put the cushion back on the passenger seat. It wasn’t lost on Chris that Tom had chosen to bring out his own seat cushion instead of Chris’. “The mess didn’t look to bad when I saw it. Was it terribly difficult to clean?”
“Not at all,” Chris said, leaning against the driver’s seat instead of starting the truck. He wanted to make the most of this awkward re-breaking of the ice. “You’re right, it wasn’t as bad as I was afraid it was. Liam said I should have left the blood there so nobody would try to mess with us.” Tom snorted a little.
“He sounds like a charmer.”
“Something like that,” Chris said, rolling his eyes. “He was always the one that got in the most trouble. Anyway, are you hungry? There’s one ham sandwich left in the cooler if you think that’ll hold you until dinner. We’re going to get to Omaha about 6 o’clock.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Tom said. “But thank you.” Chris didn’t believe him.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get back on the road, shall we? I don’t know about you but I’m ready to stretch my legs a bit more.”
“Yeah, sounds good,” Tom said. Chris made his best attempt at a grin and got back behind the wheel. Tom didn’t join him up front.
Baby steps, Chris told himself as the engine roared back to life. Baby steps.
The best way to get people to come together is to give them a common enemy.
Omaha motels cost more than Chris could really swing for, but he called ahead to the next town he was scheduled to hit and made a reservation at a Motel 6. Tom had slept on the floor again, so Chris went outside to call in the wee hours of the morning. Tom needed a bed. Luckily Niobrara, Nebraska was a fair bit more cost-effective, its biggest draw being the river it sat on. Unfortunately now Chris had to spend the whole day trying to figure out how to tell Tom without making Tom feel bad.
At lunch he finally decided to get it over with. Tom had been a little less reserved today, almost back to normal, so maybe it would be fine. They stopped at a Wendy’s and Chris said over their burgers, “Hey, by the way, I got us a motel room for tonight.” Tom’s head snapped up. Chris tried to stay casual. “Hey, don’t give me that look, we could both really use it. I would give up a year of my life to be able to have a bathroom right next to my bed.”
“Of, of course,” Tom said, swallowing his bite heavily. “Where are we stopping again?”
By the time they got to Niobrara it was raining pretty steadily, and Tom had seemed to get more and more tense the closer they got. Chris figured it was probably a matter of Tom’s sense of owing Chris so he didn’t bring it up. “Here, use this jacket,” Chris said, handing Tom one of his out of the closet. “No use in getting soaked trying to get inside.”
“Oh, no, you should use it!” Tom said, eyes wide. For a split second it felt just like it always did--Tom so shocked that Chris would worry about him, all fluffy hair and big baby blues and sweetness--and then Tom’s brows knit just a little too much and Chris remembered.
“It’s fine, really,” he said. “I’ve got another one, see?” Tom hesitated. “Tom I really--you don’t have to pay me back. Seriously. Please just--take the jacket?” Tom looked down, a guilty expression on his face, and reached out for the jacket. Chris sighed. “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad,” he said gently.
“It’s not--” Tom started. He stopped. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Chris said, because he had to. He put his other jacket on and they got ready for the dash--not very many places had semi parking and when they did it was as far away from the main lot as they could get it. Chris jerked open the door and they started sprinting, coats held over their heads as they tried to avoid potholes-turned-puddles. At least there wasn’t any lightning.
One good thing was that the cold seemed to reset something, or at least cover it up for the moment. Running in the rain always made Chris feel like a little kid--maybe that was why. Chris bent over and rubbed the water out of his hair as the doors closed behind them. “Man, I need a haircut,” he said. “I feel like the little mermaid every time I have to stand up from a position like this. Look!” He straightened up, his hair flipping over his head. Tom giggled. “It’s ridiculous. I’m ridiculous.”
“It could be worse,” Tom said, smiling but still cautiously gauging Chris’ reaction. “At least you’re a pretty mermaid.” Chris threw his head back and guffawed, drawing the eyes of the only other two people in the lobby. Chris didn’t care; Tom was joking with him again.
“Aw, I’m blushing,” Chris said. “C’mon mate, I’m yearning for a hot shower and some dry clothes.”
“That does sound like magic right about now,” Tom said, following Chris to the desk. “I hope they have a laundry room here.”
“We do, sir,” the concierge said. “It’s on this first floor at the end of the hallway on your left.”
“Oh, good,” Tom sighed. “Thank you so much.”
“Of course! Do you two have a reservation or are you stopping in without one?”
“We do, it’s under Hemsworth,” Chris said, fishing his wallet out of his pocket.
“Great, you’ll be in room 214. We don’t have a working elevator unfortunately, so if you need a room on this floor I can try to switch you.”
“No, it’s fine,” Chris said. “Just checking, the room has two beds, right?”
“I bet he thinks he needs to ask that so people don’t see that they’re fucking,” one of the men in the lobby said, seemingly to himself. Chris frowned but ignored it. No use getting in a fight.
“Yes sir,” the concierge said, recovering from what the whole room clearly heard. “It’s got two queen beds.”
“And a nice big shower?” the man asked from behind them. Chris felt his shoulders tense, and a quick glance proved that Tom’s had as well. In fact, Tom had straightened up a bit, just like he had right before that guy grabbed him at the truck stop. He was ready, and Chris felt a little proud.
“It has a regular sized shower,” the concierge said, clearly uncomfortable. She was maybe 17 years old, probably working this job to save up for a car or something, and she clearly didn’t know what to do.
“Well, that won’t be enough,” the man said, “these are two tall guys, how are they supposed to get in there together?”
“It’s okay Charlotte,” Tom said, glancing at her name tag. “You don’t have to say anything to him.”
“The hell she doesn’t, I’m a paying customer,” the man said, standing up. Chris put himself between the man and Tom, keeping his back to him but ready to spin around just in case.
“Hey man, don’t escalate this,” the other patron said. “You’re embarrassing yourself.” The man simmered.
“Should--should I call--” Charlotte asked meekly from behind the counter. She looked terrified.
“I don’t know yet,” Chris said, keeping his eye on the man as he picked his cowboy hat off the table and slammed it on his head. “Hopefully this is the end of it and we can all go our separate ways in peace.”
“You wish, faggot,” the man said, spitting. It didn’t quite land on Chris but it certainly seemed like he was aiming for him. The other patron finally stood up.
“That was uncalled for,” he said. “We don’t put up with that around here.” The man with the cowboy hat looked around, realizing he was one against three, and that the other patron would be at his back if he attempted to fight Chris and Tom. And Chris and Tom didn’t look like they’d have a problem taking him down if they had to, even without any extra help. Mr. Homophobic Cowboy Hat certainly started looking a little less certain.
“But you’ll take in a couple of fags?” he asked anyway, clearly not willing to back down yet. “You must not’ve listened to your preachers, boy.”
“My daddy was a preacher, and if you think God is an excuse for your hatred I can tell you for a fact that I’m not the deaf one.” Cowboy Hat’s lip curled up, a picture of pure hatred coming onto his face. Chris turned around and set his feet, ready to jump in if he had to--apparently questioning this man’s “Christian” beliefs was a big no-no.
“So your daddy taught you to love the fags, huh? Did he tell you to love ‘em so much you’d sleep with ‘em? Ignore the word of God for ‘em?”
“My daddy taught me to listen to the word of God,” the customer said. “And God taught me to love my neighbors. What’d He tell you that was so different?”
“I knew it, you are a fag!” Cowboy Hat accused.
“Is that the only insult you’ve got?” Tom asked coolly from behind Chris, tense and ready. “You couldn’t think of something worse than being gay?”
“There is nothing worse!” Cowboy Hat growled.
“Really?” Tom asked. “Because I’m looking at it right now.” Cowboy Hat made a quick move towards Tom, and everyone in the room burst into action. The other customer ran forward, Charlotte grabbed for the phone, and Chris put all his imposing mass in between this jackass and Tom, hands raised. The only one who didn’t move was Tom. But Cowboy Hat stopped short, barely before Chris swung at him, throwing them into a tense stalemate. If he was half an inch closer Chris could make strong contact, instead of just grazing him. Chris glared, daring him to take a step closer.
“Mrs. Peterson, there’s a problem at the lobby,” Charlotte said, voice shaking. “We need security. Yes, please. Quickly.” Cowboy Hat ground his teeth.
“Fine!” he said, stepping back and throwing his hands in the air. Chris started a jab but pulled it back when he realized that quick arm movement wasn’t an attack. “You got what you wanted, I’m out of here. I don’t want to sleep under the same roof as you sinners anyway. Enjoy roasting in Hell.” And with that, he stormed out into the rain.
That doesn’t mean the tension immediately dissipated though. They all watched silently as Cowboy Hat kept walking, not turning back. He wasn’t a trucker, he wasn’t headed toward semi parking, but the rain masked him before Chris could watch him get in his car and drive off. Chris slowly forced himself to lower his fists. It wasn’t often that he really wanted to punch someone into the ground, but....It was probably just an extension of his frustration at everything else, and his protectiveness towards Tom, he told himself.
“Are you okay?” the other customer asked, and Chris rolled his shoulders to try to force his muscles to relax. The danger had passed, everyone was safe. He stamped down on his anger.
“All good here. Tom?”
“I’m fine,” Tom said, jaw muscle twitching. “Thank you for not standing by, we appreciate it.”
“Of course,” the customer said. “And you, young lady? You’re okay?”
“I--yeah,” Charlotte said, realizing that the phone she held to her ear had gone dead and putting it back on the receiver. “The security will be here soon, like really soon, they’re only up a few floors.”
“Thank you Charlotte,” Tom said. “I’m sorry you had to be part of that.”
“Yeah, no young lady should have to bear witness to that kind of hatred,” the other customer said.
“Oh no, no, I--I’m fine,” Charlotte said, waving them off nervously. “Shaken, not stirred.” She giggled. Chris cracked a smile.
“Well, if you can laugh at it then I think it’s safe to say you’ll be alright,” he said. There were fast footfalls coming from down the corridor, and someone shouted, “Security!” before rounding the corner.
“What’s going on here?” the second security guard asked, hand on his taser. “We were called?”
“Um, yes, I called you,” Charlotte said, and explained the situation. Chris and Tom both gave their statements, and the other customer did too--turns out his name was Miles--and one of the security guards went outside in the rain to check that the guy wasn’t sitting in his car waiting for them to come outside. He wasn’t.
By the time it was over Chris was exhausted, and Tom looked like he was too. It wasn’t like either of them had been sleeping well. But they were given the night’s stay for free, and Miles insisted on walking them to their room. He was a kind, older gentleman from the reservation nearby, and still did physical labor at his home. He might have been the most badass person Chris had ever met.
Tom collapsed onto one of the beds, throwing his backpack by the foot of the bed and groaning. Chris had to agree with that wordless statement.
“Think we’ll be able to wake up early enough to get on the road on time?” Tom asked. Chris sat on the end of the other bed heavily.
“I’m going with no. I’ll call Mark and tell him what happened, we might be able to get a bit of a break. You want to shower first?” Tom groaned again.
“I just want to sleep.”
“Same here. I’m gonna--” Chris yawned-- “Gonna step into the hallway to call Mark, I’m pretty sure he’ll give us some leniency so we can just take showers in the morning.”
“Yeah, okay,” Tom said, eyes already closed. “Oh wait, Chris?” he said, sitting up on his elbows. “I just... I wanted to thank you. I mean, for protecting me, specifically. You put yourself between me and him without a second thought, even though I’ve made things really difficult the last few days. So. Thank you.” Chris looked at Tom, and Tom held his gaze.
“I know this... this isn’t your fault, Tom,” Chris said. “And yeah, you can be annoying, but so can I. And I mean, I know you can take care of yourself, but you shouldn’t have to. I’m always going to protect you, as long as you’re with me. Hitting a rough spot doesn’t change that.”
For a moment they just looked at each other, and then Tom smiled a little smile. There was a weight behind it, but this time Chris had a better idea of why. “Well go on then,” Tom said, “call your boss. I’ll be in here sacrificing a small child to Satan to grant us the morning off.” Chris scoffed, smiling.
“Just as long as you don’t get blood on the carpet,” he said, standing up.
“Hey! I’m too experienced for beginner mistakes like that!” Tom said at Chris’ back. Chris just waved at him without looking back.
“Yeah, yeah,” Chris said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Well then keep your eyes open!” Tom said as the door closed between them. Chris stood in the hallway for a moment, grinning to himself and feeling lighter on his feet. Okay. They were fixing this. He pulled out his phone and got ready to go through the whole thing again.