Never Tell a Woman Yes
Michelle Perry

Zephyr Helene Evenstar set the last cooler in the back of the blue and white minibus. She took one more look at her packing job and gave a slight nod. Everything was in it's place, and looked like it wouldn't jostle too much. There wasn't much - her sleeping bag, a few changes of clothes, her wet weather boots, and a few boxes filled with the belongings she had gathered over the years. Books, records, seashells, stones - all the trinkets that seem to follow even a nomad around after a while.

Zephyr shut the door and adjusted the heavy white coat on her shoulders. It was not a heavy material - just a strong blend of linen and silk, with white embroidery in the front, and a long train in the back. The coat was something of a hybrid between a Nehru jacket and a tuxedo. The line of cloth buttons came right up to the high collar, and the waist came in just a bit, to fit her form. The back of the jacket extended all the way down to her ankles.

The weight of the garment came from the design on the back. The coat was decorated - shoulders to knees - with gems and other precious stones. Sapphires, emeralds, polished amber beads, turquoise stones, rubies and diamonds were arranged in the shape of peacock feathers, sunbursts, flowers, geometric designs, and flowing art-deco style motifs. The heirloom had been passed to Zephyr with the admonition that she always wear it (except while bathing, or hand-washing the coat), until the time came for her to add her own design to the bottom of the coat’s tail. Zephyr had already decided on a design, and had collected most of the stones and gems she would need to create it. All that remained was to find a companion to share her life and help bring forth an heir to pass the jacket to. She hadn’t fond anyone in all her travels thus far, but there was plenty of time to look. For now, all Zephyr wanted was to get back onto the open road after her extended stay in the Western states.

Soon, Zephyr was humming along with her radio, feeling the wind in her long, sandy hair again, and smelling the hot, pungent air that she associated with summer traveling. She drove Eastward, determined to make her way toward the opposite coast - perhaps to Florida. She drove along the familiar road, taking a detour now and the when it felt right. The trip was comfortable, and serene, despite the heat. The chugging of her little van, the bumps on the road, ad the occasional sit-down she had with nature when she grew tired of driving, were all part of a kid of disorganized routine that she’d grown accustomed to over the years. It wasn’t until Texas that the road trip took an unusual turn. It was in Texas that Zephyr first caught sight of The One.

She didn’t know he was The One at first. He just looked like a weary traveler. He was tall and thin (almost too thin), and his dark brown hair grew long and shaggy under his broad-brimmed cowboy hat. His unshaven face showed about three days’ worth of stubble, and he looked as if he might have been on the road several days more than that. His boots were completely covered with dust, and his ragged jeans, and sweat-soaked t-shirt seemed much the worse for wear. He stood on the side of the road, wiping the sweat from his brow with a once-white handkerchief, an army-style duffel bag leaning against his leg, and a guitar case resting in the dust beside him. He looked utterly exhausted, but despite the grime, and the world-weary face, Zephyr felt that she could see a beauty in the man, and it fascinated her.

Zephyr parked the minibus a few yards from where the man rested. She grabbed three water bottles, and two of her bags of cheese and bread before stepping out of the van. The man looked at her inquisitively, and Zephyr smiled. His features were soft and kind looking, even though he seemed to regard her with confusion and a little bit of suspicion. “Are you headed east?” Zephyr asked. “I have plenty of room.”

He gazed at her for a few moments, summing her up, perhaps. Finally, he shook his head. “Thank you kindly, miss,” he said, in a soothing Texan tenor. “But I’m headed the other way.”

Zephyr’s smile faltered just a little, but she bypassed her feelings of disappointment, and took a step closer. She held out the water and the bags of food. “Please, take these,” she said.

The man licked his lips at the sight of the water, but he restrained himself. He waved a hand, and shook his head. “I couldn’t take your food,” he said. “You need it.”

“Please,” she said. “Take it. You never know when you’ll find more around here.”

He smiled warmly at her and took the offered stores. “Thanks a lot. I won’t forget this.”

Zephyr smiled back. “I won’t forget you, either,” she said. She looked at him for a few more seconds, memorizing his face. Zephyr turned away when he began to seem uncomfortable. She heard him gasp, and looked back to see him gazing at her, open mouthed - no doubt shocked by the sight of her heirloom coat. He closed his mouth when he saw her turn and lifted a hand in farewell. Zephyr waved back, climbed into the bus and drove on. She glanced at him several times, noting that he stood rooted to the spot until she couldn’t see him anymore.

Mike shook his head as the VW bus passed out of sight. He took a swig of the cool water, smiling slightly at the memory of the strange girl with the bejeweled coat. She was like some kind of sprite, fluttering in from nowhere, then disappearing into the waves of heat coming up off the pavement. He was grateful for the food and water, but he wondered if he should have gone with her. Sure, it would have been backtracking, but the girl had been wearing God only knew how many thousands of dollars on her back. How much money must she have had in her pockets? And to top it all off, the little sprite was kind of pretty.

Mike sighed and shrugged his shoulders. Nothing he could do about it now. The girl had gone off to who knew where, and it was time he moved on to make his own fortune, and stop making a target for the vultures. He shouldered his bag, picked up the guitar that was to make him rich, and headed west.

Three weeks after she met The One, Zephyr came across another man standing on the side of the road. This time, she was in Oklahoma, nearing the eastern edge. She’d made several stops along the way. Part of her wondered if she was stalling from her east-bound destination, wondering if she should turn back and try to find that Texas Traveler. She kept on her way, though, sticking to her original plan. She found the second traveler walking to eastward, with his thumb held out. He, too, was rough and weather worn, looking as if he had been traveling for days.

Zephyr stopped for the man. She didn’t find him as beautiful as the Texas Traveler, but he was tired, and he needed help. “Are you headed east?” she asked.

“Sure am, miss,” he said, his rough features lightening with his smile. “I can pay you gas money if you’ll give me a lift.”

“Come on in,” Zephyr said. She turned and headed toward the bus.

“Whoa, mercy!” the man cried. “Where’d you get that coat?”

“It was a gift from my mother,” Zephyr said simply. The man nodded and climbed into the bus beside her.

The Oklahoma traveler, who was as tall as the Texas man had been, but at least twice as broad, was a talkative individual. Zephyr listened to his boisterous chatter for several hours, nodding politely at various intervals and pauses in his speech. He didn’t seem very interested in knowing anything about Zephyr, but she soon knew much about his childhood, his old job, his ex-wife, and his reason for leaving town. Eventually, Sean, the Oklahoma man, took his boots off (”hope you don’t mind”), lay back in his seat and fell asleep.

Zephyr drove on, enjoying the precious quiet again, until she decided she was ready for a rest herself. The day had grown hot, and Zephyr was ready for a few minutes of cool shade and a bottle of water. She stopped the bus and climbed into the back, careful not to disturb her guest. She ate a square of cheese and a slice of bread, then took a few sips of water. She heard movement behind her, and turned to offer her guest some food. She gasped and shrank away. Sean held a hunting knife in one hand, and his already hard features were twisted into a grimace. “All right, girl. Gimme that jacket.”

Zephyr shook her head, not sure what she was doing. “I can’t do that,” she said softly. “It belonged to my-”

“I don’t give a damn who it belonged to! Give it here, and you won’t get hurt.” He came closer to her, brandishing the knife.

It was a lie, and she knew it. This man was evil, and whatever happened, she was going to get hurt. Zephyr began to tremble, and she tried desperately to think of something to do. Sean edged toward her, and suddenly, Zephyr grabbed the nearest thing to her - one of the meteorite rocks she’d collected - and threw it as hard as she could at Sean’s head. He cried out just as she heard the rock connect. Zephyr sprang across the cabin and reached for the door. Before she could get out, Sean grabbed her arm and jerked her back away from the door. He hit her in the temple with the handle of his knife, and started undoing the buttons of her coat.

Zephyr was dazed from the blow for a moment, but she struggled against him all the same, and her struggling grew more fierce as she felt the jacket being pulled away from her. She scratched at him, and kicked him as hard as she could. Sean growled and grew angrier. He beat her badly, hitting her across the face several times, and punching her shoulders and chest. Zephyr tried to defend herself and hold onto the jacket, but she was no match for the large man. He finally yanked the jacket away from her and raised his knife. Zephyr held up her shaking hands, certain now that he would stab her to death.

“You’re lucky I don’t want to risk a murder charge,” he said, breathing hard. “But that don’t mean I can’t have a little fun with ya.” He grinned and cut her shirt open and ripping her bra away from her. Zephyr screamed and started to claw at Sean’s eyes, heedless of the damage she was risking from the knife. She knew she was getting cut, but she couldn’t feel anything. All she knew was fight. He tried to force her to stay down, but Zephyr continued to scratch like a mad cat, screaming, grabbing at things around her and striking at his face with them. The Oklahoma man was swearing and growing more and more angry. He sliced at her skirt, cutting it and her underwear off, and cutting her leg in the process. He had to back away from her so that he could try to get his pants undone, and he took his attention away from Zephyr for a split-second to do so.

That second was enough. Zephyr reached for the heaviest thing she could find - her piece of white granite from the rest stop before last. She heaved it directly at Sean’s exposed erection, eliciting a deafening scream. He bent double, still screaming in agony, and Zephyr searched for some kind of clothing. Before she could find anything, Zephyr heard Sean moving again. She turned in time to see the knife coming down. She jerked away, and he caught her in the shoulder instead of the chest. Zephyr screamed at the white-hot pain in her arm. Sean had lost his grip on the knife, and it protruded from her arm, causing her panic level to rise even higher. Sean didn’t bother to try to recover the knife. He punched her again and again, his fury pushing him to hit her harder with each new strike. Zephyr resisted as best she could, but she was already exhausted, and now her right arm was useless. Eventually, her good arm fell to her side, and she lost consciousness.

When Zephyr awoke, she was lying in a ditch by the side of the highway, half covered by a clump of bushes. The air was hot and heavy, and the sun beat down on her uncovered face. Her head, arms and chest ached, and she could barely move. The knife was gone from her arm, but thinking about the wound made it scream out even louder than the bruises on her face and the rest of her upper body.

Zephyr did a mental examination of the rest of her body, almost afraid of what she would find. Her right leg hurt badly from the cut he’d given her, and parts of her legs were scratched by the bushes. She didn’t feel any unusual pain between her legs, and she thanked all powers that apparently Sean had decided to ditch her without raping her while she was unconscious. The relief was almost immediately drowned out by shock and fear. Her body began to shake, and tears came to her eyes. What now? She knew her vehicle was gone, all her belongings had been stolen, and she didn’t even have the clothes on her back. Worse than all that was the knowledge that her heirloom coat was also gone. It had been passed down over seven generations, and now it was probably in shreds, while the gems were being pawned off at some corner shop along the road.

Zephyr choked back a sob at the image, and forced herself to remember that she had at least managed to survive. How long that would last, when she had no food, water or shelter, and the temperature must be nearing 110 degrees, she didn’t know. The thought of getting up and trying to find help from some random person on the highway made her shudder. What if she found someone as bad as Sean had been. She would be worse off than before. At least in her minibus, she’d had makeshift weapons. Now, she was utterly defenseless.

She spent the next several minutes trying to convince herself that she should really do something besides lay in the dirt and cry. When it seemed that she had exhausted any further tears, Zephyr attempted to sit up, wincing with the effort. She had managed to roll to one side when she heard a car door slam, and the sound of footsteps approaching. Zephyr froze in terror, her heart pounding. Was it Sean, come back to finish the job? Some other maniac ready to take advantage of her and leave her to die, again?

Despite her panic, Zephyr was too weak and sore to try to take cover somewhere farther away from the road. She lay on her side, forcing herself to stay perfectly still, as the footsteps grew nearer. Finally, a blonde man wearing moccasin boots, tight brown pants and a cream-colored tunic trotted down the embankment and took a brief look around. He did a double take when he saw Zephyr, and his expression changed from one of pleased curiosity to one of complete horror.

“Oh my God,” he exclaimed, his voice sounding slightly airy. He approached her slowly, cautiously, and Zephyr found it hard to stay still. The blonde knelt down beside her and tentatively reached a hand toward her. Zephyr couldn’t take it any longer. She drew back sharply, and the man jumped and cried out in surprise. “Oh, thank God you’re alive,” he said.

Zephyr tried to sit up again, her body shaking from the exertion, and from fear of the new stranger. “Please,” she said in a low, tremulous voice. “Don’t-”

“It’s okay,” the blonde man said in a deep, soft voice. “I’m not going to hurt you, miss.” He gently reached out and put an arm around her and helped her to sit up. He made sure she could stay up on her own for a moment, then took off his own tunic and helped her into it. “Is that better?” he asked, his voice still soothing and soft.

Zephyr nodded slowly. “Th-thank you very m-much, sir,” she said. He had given her the very shirt off his back. Perhaps things were going to be okay now. Or maybe he was just being sweet at the beginning, and he planned to show his true colors later. Zephyr shuddered, and the man held her just a little more tightly.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Zephyr,” she replied.

“Wow, that’s beautiful. My name’s Peter. I’m going to carry you over to my car, okay Zephyr?”

“Okay,” she said, her voice still shaking. Carefully, and very gently, Peter eased Zephyr away from the bushes. He pulled the tunic down to cover her nakedness, then lifted her up. He carried her out of the ditch, and toward a brown and white conversion van, somewhat dusty from the road. He set her on her feet long enough to open the side doors, then helped her to climb inside. He gestured for her to lay down on the small mattress against the far wall of the cabin, then pulled a soft flannel cloth over her to serve as a blanket.

“Okay, sweetheart,” he said with a warm smile. “I have some first aid stuff in here, but I have to take care of one thing first, okay? Just sit tight.”

Zephyr nodded, and Peter hopped back out of the van and trotted down the embankment. He spent a few moments down there, probably taking his interrupted bathroom break. While he was gone, Zephyr took a look around. It seemed clear that Peter lived in this van. The cabin was decorated with a few pictures, some beaded hangings and a crystal chime. There were a couple of boxes on the floor, several gallons of water, and a few cloth grocery bags filled with stores, as well as a guitar case, tied to the wall for security. It all reminded Zephyr of her minibus, and she felt tears forming at the realization of all she’d lost.

Peter came back in the middle of her breakdown. He sat beside her on the floor, looking very much as if he might cry, too. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he said soothingly. “But you’re safe now. Whoever did this to you… well, he’s gone now. I’m here, and if you tell me where you live, I’ll get you home.”

Zephyr began to cry harder, and Peter gave her a confused frown. “I d-don’t have a home anymore,” she sobbed. “I lived in m-my van, like you.”

Peter groaned and looked around at his home, as if trying to imagine what it would be like to lose it all. When he looked back down at her, his eyes were shining. “I’m so sorry,” he said. Zephyr nodded, struggling to control her tears. Peter drew her close, so that her head rested in his lap, and Zephyr gave up all pretense of trying to calm down. She buried her face in the bare abdomen of the kind stranger and let herself cry. He held her tightly ad gently stroked her hair until she finally grew still.

Peter produced a handful of tissues and rooted around under the passenger seat while Zephyr dried her tears. He brought out a large metal lunchbox. He washed his hands with soap and some of his bottled water, then opened the tin box and started pulling out gauze, cotton and alcohol. Apologetically, he took the tunic back off of her, and started to clean and bandage all her wounds. Her arms were the worse off, thanks to the many cuts she’d received while trying to defend herself against Sean. Her forearms ended up completely wrapped in gauze.

He shook his head at the deep wound in her shoulder. “You might need to go to the hospital for this one,” he said. “I could stitch it for you, but… I don’t have any anesthetics.”

“I’d rather not go,” she said. “I don’t have money and I don’t have health care.”

“They’ll still treat you in an emergency, I think,” he said. “Besides, you… you should probably see a nurse about…” He looked uncomfortable, and seemed to be trying to figure out how to say what he wanted to say. “If… if he raped you, you should get checked out.”

“Oh, no. He… he almost did, but I hurt it before he could do it.”

“Ah,” Peter said, looking relieved. “Good for you.” Zephyr was pleased by his praise, and by his obvious discomfort with the idea of someone raping her. It made it seem all the less likely that he was hiding some inner maniac, waiting to spring on her when she got comfortable. “Well, if you’d rather I do it, I’ll go ahead and work on your shoulder for you.”

Zephyr nodded, and Peter cleaned the deep wound and stitched it for her, giving her a heavy cloth to bite on while he worked. When the wounds on her upper body were done, Peter gave her back the tunic, and tended to the scratches on her legs. He made sure that the blanket covered her waist, bandaged the gash on her thigh, and cleaned all the little scrapes and scratches she’d gotten from the bushes.

When he was finished, Peter searched some of his boxes, and found a pair of drawstring pants for her to wear. He sat in the front seat and refused to look at her while she put the pants on, even though he’d already seen her completely naked. The gesture endeared him to her even more. The waist of the pants fit a little too large, but with the drawstring, it was perfect. The legs, however, were made for a man about seven inches taller than her, and she had to fold them over several times so that they wouldn’t drag under her feet. She giggled at herself and joined Peter in the front, taking the passenger seat.

He smiled at her, looking slightly amused. “Feeling better?”

“Much better, thank you,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done,” she said.

He blushed. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m just glad I pulled over where I did.” Zephyr nodded, and Peter cleared his throat. “Listen, um… me and the heat don’t get along too well. But I’ll take you to the nearest station so you can report this. They might be able to help you get your van back.”

“Thank you,” she said, filled with gratitude. Peter drove eastward, the direction Zephyr guessed Sean would be heading, and took her to the nearest police station. He even came in with her, braving the snickers and frowns he received for having hair well past his collar. He averted a minor panic attack when the reporting officer asked for contact information, by providing the name and number of a friend living in Oklahoma. He’d just come from there, and he knew that the friend would be available to help them if the officers found the car. They seemed doubtful about the existence of Zephyr’s coat, but they added it to the list of stolen goods just the same.

When the report had been filed, Zephyr followed Peter to his van. She hesitated when he opened the door for her, and he looked questioningly at her. “What’s the matter?”

“You’ve been so kind, Peter,” she said. “But… I can’t impose on you like this anymore.”

“You’re not imposing,” he said.

“But I have nothing to give you! I can’t just eat your food, drink your water, and… live in your space and give you nothing in return. I… I’m sure there’s some kind of shelter around here, and…”

Peter shook his head and put his hands on her shoulders. “You’re giving me someone to talk to,” he said. “And how could I just leave you here, with nowhere to go, and no one to help you? I can’t do that, Zephyr. I can’t.” Zephyr’s lip trembled, and she feared that she might start to cry again. “Come on,” Peter said. “If you want me to, I’ll give you a job, and you can get paid room and board. Such as it is.”

“Okay,” Zephyr said, smiling at him through watery eyes. “I’d like that.”

“Perfect! Now stop your fretting and hop in.”

Zephyr climbed into the van, and they started on their way. They found a general store, and Peter bought a few more food items. He also found two long skirts, and two tank tops for Zephyr. She protested, but he insisted on buying them, telling her that she couldn’t wear his pants forever, and he was going to want his shirt back eventually. He also found some underwear and a bra for her, for a decent price. Zephyr was embarrassed by the money he was spending on her, when he obviously didn’t have a job, but he refused to let her mention it. He set her to work at her first “job”, organizing the stores, and finding a place for her new belongings. Zephyr put everything neatly in its place, feeling a warmth swell inside when she put her new clothes on, and stored the rest in one of Peter’s cardboard boxes. She owned something, and she had a place - however minuscule. It was heartwarming that this gallant young bohemian had made room for her in his life.

They tooled along in the general direction of Arkansas for a while, stopping for the night at a rest area along the border. Zephyr made their dinner of peanut butter sandwiches, a few pieces of fruit and two cups of Peter’s bottled water. She set it on Peter’s tin camping dish set, and they sat on the floor of the van, a cardboard box for a table between them. Peter set his flashlight down so that the light hit the roof of the car, and created a warm glow in the little room, and asked her to tell him how she ended up in a ditch alongside the I-40.

Zephyr told him about the hitchhiker, and the coat, and her narrow escape from rape and death. Peter expressed varying degrees of horror, outrage and sympathy throughout the story. When she finished her story, she asked Peter where he was headed. “I’m making my way East, in general,” he said. “But I have no particular destination. See, I’m looking for a friend of mine. I thought sure he’d be somewhere in Texas, but I didn’t find him there. I haven’t found him in Oklahoma either. I’m going to try Arkansas next, and maybe then head north for a bit.”

“You must really miss him, to search the whole country for him.”

Peter blushed deeply, and shrugged ever so slightly. “He was… we… well… we were very close,” he said softly. He cleared his throat and looked up from his plate. “We were in the same army regimen,” he said. “We… we defected together. That’s why I tend to stay away from cops. We split up so it would be harder for them to catch us. But now, I think it’s been long enough. I’d like to find him again, and… you know. Catch up, I guess.”

Zephyr smiled. There was a light in Peter’s eyes, and love in his voice when he spoke about his friend. Zephyr wasn’t quite sure it was all platonic, either, but it didn’t make any difference to her. Peter was the kindest soul she’d ever met, and if it would make him happy to find his friend, then it was what she wanted for him most in all the world. “What does he look like,” Zephyr asked.

Peter smiled. “He’s tall - maybe two inches taller than me. Very slim, with dark wavy hair, smooth, gentle hands, a beautiful voice, and…” Peter blushed again, and stopped his description. Now Zephyr was certain that the love was not of a brotherly nature. She smiled encouragingly at him, and he seemed to relax a bit. “Hey, would you like to see a picture?”

“Yes, I would,” she said eagerly. Peter unfurled himself and crawled over to the area where he had his small pictures hanging and picked up a short, wide box. He opened it and pulled out a fairly large picture of two men in army uniforms, one with his head on the shoulder of the other. Zephyr gasped when she realized that she recognized both men. The shorter one, with his head against the other man’s shoulder, was Peter, looking a little strange with his hair in a buzz cut. The taller man was also close cut, but his face was unmistakable. “Texas Traveler!” Zephyr exclaimed.

“Huh? You… you know Mike?”

“I didn’t know his name before, but yes, I’ve met him once.”

“Really? When?”

“It was just three weeks ago. I was in the Texas panhandle, and he was resting on the side of the road.” Zephyr beamed. “He was something beautiful standing there,” she said wistfully. “I gave him some food and water.”

“Did he look well,” Peter asked eagerly. “Was he okay? Did he tell you where he was going?”

“He looked very good,” Zephyr said. “He seemed very well, when I saw him. He didn’t tell me where he was going, but he did say he was headed west.”

Peter laughed and held a hand to his head. “Of course! I should have known. He always did say the east coast was too crowded for him. He’s a bit of a loner.”

Zephyr smiled. “Like us?”

“Yeah,” he said warmly. “Kind of like us.”

Her smile widened. He’s the One, she thought. The one to share my life. She grew sad for a moment, when she thought that she wouldn’t be able to pass on the heirloom jacket to her child. She quickly pushed the thought away, and focused on Mike. “I wish I could see him again,” she said. “Will you take me to meet him, Peter?” Peter looked slightly hesitant, and Zephyr thought she could see a hint of jealousy in his eyes. “Oh. I…” Zephyr could feel herself blushing. She didn’t want to offend Peter by saying the wrong thing, but she didn’t want him to be jealous of her either. Besides the fact that he was the only thing standing between her and utter destitution, she liked him. She didn’t want anything to come between them. “I… I know you two must be very close,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “And I just want you to know that I would never interfere with that, Peter.”

Peter smiled at her, his expression bright again. Impulsively, he leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. “You’re the best, Zephyr. The absolute best.”

Zephyr smiled, relieved that the cloud between them had passed. “You’re the one taking in the homeless waif and letting her freeload off of you.”

“Hey! You’re not freeloading, you’re working. What would I do without a Head Chef, and Mistress of Organization?” Zephyr giggled at the official sounding title, and set to work clearing away the dinner things. When she finished, Peter brought out his guitar and played a few folk tunes for her. She began to feel the weight of the day’s adventures heavily on her, and she started to doze off. She was vaguely aware of Peter’s playing growing softer and more mellow, and later, of warm hands, guiding her to the mattress. She forced her eyes open long enough to see Peter lay down on the floor of the van next to the mattress, but before she could tell him to take the bed instead, she had fallen fast asleep.

Mike tipped his hat to the truck driver and turned away to keep from swallowing a mouthful of dust as the big rig rolled away. He had been dropped just outside Los Angeles County, and had only to make it a few more miles (all things considered) before he reached the heart of movietown. He wasn’t interested in becoming a film giant in the least. It was the music scene he was after. He planned on trying to get into a club somewhere, and slowly integrating some of his new music in between standards and requests. Hopefully, someone with influence would hear him, and he would move up from there.

Mike walked along the road, holding his thumb out to any car that passed him by. It was hours before he found another ride, and he had to give the man his last five dollars for gas money. Still, the ride got him right into town, and he applied to a local YMCA to get cleaned up and presentable. He shaved, clipped his hair back to his comfortable length (just above the collar), and stayed under the steaming shower water for a good 45 minutes, scalding away the grit and grime of too many weeks on the road.

Mike took in his own reflection, taking in the lean, drawn face, and tired eyes. “You wanted to be a musician,” he said to himself. “Now’s your chance to starve for your art.” He gathered his belongings and crashed on a free cot for the next 14 hours.

When he awoke, Mike began to make the club circuit. He was rejected by every place he tried, most of them before they’d even given him a chance to play. He took it in his stride, moving on to the next without so much as a backward glance. After two weeks’ worth of rejection, Mike was beginning to feel a little discouraged. He tried different parts of the city, and he managed to get an odd job here and there, playing one night stands for country-western clubs. But his attempts to add a little rock to his country were usually met with the proverbial pink slip, and he began to grow restless with the monotonous gigs.

Mike tried to tell himself that a paying gig was a paying gig, but he wanted to work on his own music, and making ends meet was getting in the way of that. After he’d exhausted his stay at the third YMCA he’d found, he’d bee forced to find a day job to help pay for his hotel rent. He found a job as a stocker at a large supermarket, working early morning hours, and spent the afternoon and evening trying to catch a break.

After six months of struggling, Mike finally caught the break he was looking for. A music producer heard him performing at one of the myriad night clubs he’d found to play. He was pulled aside by the producer on his way off stage, and offered a chance to play for two other producers at a recording studio. Mike tried, but he couldn’t contain his excitement. He pumped the producer’s hand up and down vigorously, and thanked him profusely for the opportunity.

“Of course, of course, Mr. Mesnith.”

“Nesmith, sir,” Mike corrected happily.

“Sure. Just bring your guitar, and that catchy style of yours down to the studio in two days, all right?”

“Yes sir, Mr. Crane.”

Mike played hookie from work for the next two days so that he could focus on his playing. He practiced until his fingers cramped, shook them out for a few minutes, then practiced some more. Finally, the big day came. Mike wore the nicest clothes he owned, black slacks and a white dress shirt. He went to the address Mr. Crane had given him, and put his name in with the secretary. After fifteen stress-filled minutes, Mr. Crane’s secretary called him in.

Mike was show into a large office, a table at one end, behind which were seated three men in business suits. One of them stood up and shook Mike’s hand. “Hello Mike.”

“Mr. Crane,” Mike said nervously.

“This is Mr. Davis and Mr. Thornworth.” Mike shook hands with the other two men, and Crane asked him to sit in the single chair in front of the desk. “Well, gentlemen, this is the young man I told you about. He’s got quite a nice sound, and I think you’re going to like him. Go on, Nesmuth. Play for us.”

“That’s…” Mike shook his head and decided to let it go. He was more nervous than he’d ever been, and he didn’t want them to think he was a smartass. He played one of his own songs for them - choosing something that showed off his vocal range, and had a somewhat difficult guitar riff at the bridge. He kept his eyes off of the men at the table, not wanting to make himself any more nervous.

Mike was greeted with thunderous applause from the three businessmen. He looked up with wonder in his eyes, and a smile growing broader and broader as they showered him with praise. “Magnificent! Wonderful! You were right Perry, this kid’s got something.” Mike shook hands with the men again after they’d calmed down, and Crane showed him to the door. “Listen up, son,” he said. “We’re going to put our heads together, and see what we think. We have a couple of other people to listen to, but you heard the others. They like you a lot, and I think you’ve really got a chance. If you don’t hear from us by tomorrow morning, call in to Regina there, and have her pull me out of whatever I’m doing, understand?”

“Yessir,” Mike said. “Thank you, Mr. Crane.”

Mike wasn’t sure how he got home that afternoon. His head was in the clouds, and he couldn’t stop smiling. Finally things were looking up. Not one, but three producers had listened to him, and what’s more, they’d LIKED his music. What if it led to a record contract? Mike tried to calm down. There was no reason to go getting his hopes up so high. What if they didn’t even call him back? The thought made his stomach hurt, and he shoved it aside in favor of the high hopes.

Mike didn’t sleep all that night. He lay down in the bed for a few hours, tossing and turning, vacillating between hope and sheer panic. When, at 8:00 AM sharp, the phone rang, Mike had already been sitting beside it for two and a half hours. He snatched up the receiver, breathed, and said in a calm voice, “Mike Nesmith speaking.”

“Hello, sir. This is Regina Ward from Mr. Crane’s office.”

“Oh, hello Miss Ward,” he said calmly. “How can I help you?”

“Mr. Crane would like to see you, sir. Can you be at the office in an hour?”

“I’m on my way, thank you, ma’am.” Mike disconnected the call and let out a triumphant whoop. He grabbed his guitar and ran down to the bus stop. He made it to the office twenty minutes early. He was shown directly into the room with Mr. Crane and the other producers. They sat him down in front of the desk for a serious talk.

“I want you to know, Nismath, that you have faced some extremely strenuous competition.” Mike raised a hand, then gave up when Crane just pressed right on with his speech. “We auditioned over three hundred musicians, many of which were very talented.” Mike nodded, trying not to show his impatience. What did all this mean? Was he trying to let him down easy, or boost his ego? “We’ve decided,” Mr. Crane said, with a dramatic glance at Mr. Davis and Mr. Thornworth, “that we would like you to record an album for us.”

Mike’s jaw dropped, and he stared at them in disbelief. “A whole album? Me?

“Certainly, son,” Crane said, smiling.

“That’s right, Mike,” Thornworth said. “We’ve already had the papers drawn up. All you have to do is sign, and we’ll get you set up.”

Mr. Davis set a briefcase on the table and pulled out a stack of papers in a blue folder. “We’ll have you in a prime location, Nesbit,” Davis said.

“Nesmith, sir,” Mike said automatically. He was dazed by the prospect of recording his own album.

“The best studio equipment in the industry,” Crane boasted. “Session musicians if you want them, new instruments -”

“And don’t forget the photo shoots,” Thornworth chimed in, handing Mike a pen. “We’ll have to have a photo of you on the cover of the album, and of course, publicity shots for the marketing department.”

Davis slid the contract toward Mike. “Yes, of course, the head shots,” he said loudly. Mike looked at the contract with wide eyes. It was a dream to see it - a real live dream come true. He tried to look over the terms of the contract, but the producers all began talking at once about what he would do when he started rehearsal, what he would wear to interviews, and how he would like working with professional session musicians. There was so much noise that Mike couldn’t fully concentrate on what he was reading. He scanned the pages, making sure nothing jumped out at him that said, “all your original songs belong to us”, but beyond that, he didn’t get to focus on much else. After a few more seconds of confusion, Mike was directed to the signature page, and asked to sign on the dotted line. Mike signed the paper, and received the warmest congratulations, with hand shakes all around.

The next several weeks were spent in a whirlwind of activity. Mike was in the recording studio almost every day for the first three weeks. He was given a song list by Crane, and told to spice it up with a couple of his own songs. When Mike asked why more of the songs couldn’t be ones he had written to show of his writing talents, Crane told him that it was just how the first album worked. They wanted to get the public used to his face and voice first, before bombarding them with an album entirely made up of new material.

Mike accepted the explanation and continued to record. When the taping was done, Mike was taken out of the studio and given a new wardrobe to begin his photo sets. He was powdered, plucked and coiffed like he imagined a movie star might be, and professional photographers took pictures of Mike from every conceivable angle. They gave him the proofs to approve or disapprove, with the help of his enthusiastic producer.

After a total of three months, it was time for the album’s release. Mike was given a progress report on all the things that were being done to promote the album. They were going to start promoting in Tennessee, just to test the waters in a state that was more accepting, on the whole, of country music. As the day approached, Mike grew more and more excited. He found himself wishing that he could call his friends and family, and tell them what was happening. It had been strongly suggested, however, that Mike not tell anyone yet, since the album was not going to be advertised nationally at first.

Mike had managed to keep himself from calling anyone, but he found himself thinking about all the people he should be telling about his success. He thought about his mother most, but he found himself thinking about Peter far more than usual. Peter was never very far from his mind, but now, more than ever, he wished he could talk to the sweet young man and see the bright, dimpled smile that he knew Peter would give him if he knew that Mike was about to win the success they’d both dreamed about back in their army days.

Finally, the day of Mike’s album debut arrived. Mike waited by the phone for a progress report from Mr. Crane, or his staff. He was surprised when, by noon, he still hadn’t heard anything. This was the first day in three months that Mike didn’t receive a call from the studio.

Mike paced in front of the phone for the next hour or so. When he couldn’t take it anymore, Mike headed for the studio. He was made to wait much longer than usual, and he began to feel nervous and edgy. When he was finally shown into Mr. Crane’s office, the warm smiles he was accustomed to were gone. Crane was alone, sitting at his desk with what looked like Mike’s contract on the desk in front of him. He looked up when Mike entered and frowned slightly.

“Sit down, Nasmet.”

“Nesmith, sir,” Mike said, taking a seat. “Is somethin’ wrong, Mr. Crane?”

“Yes, in fact, there is. You’re washed up, kid.”

Mike gripped the arms of the chair tightly, feeling the blood drain from his face. “H-how can I be when I just started?” he whispered.

“The album’s a flop,” Crane said harshly. “And if Tennessee wouldn’t have it, we’re not going to be able to keep you on. You’re out, Nasmet.”

You’re out. You’re out. Washed up. Album’s a flop. Mike drove the echoes out of his mind and looked up at Crane’s smug face. That wasn’t a look that should be on the face of someone who had “big hopes” for his pet project. Mike Nesmith smelled a rat.

“Let me see the newspaper ad,” Mike said.

“What?” “The ADS, Crane. They were supposed to be running for 8 days before the album release? Lemme see ‘em.”

Crane scowled and tapped a button on his intercom. “Yes, Mr. Crane?” Came Miss Ward’s tinny voice.

“Get me the mock-ups of the Nismath ads.”

“It’s Nesmith,” Mike snapped. “And I don’t wanna see the mock-up, I wanna see the AD. The REAL thing!”

“We don’t have that here, boy,” Crane cried.

“Well, turn on the radio! Lemme hear one of the ten radio ads you were supposed to be putting out for me.”

Crane glared. “Look, kid,” he said in a low voice. “I don’t like what you’re insinuating. Don’t blame ME if you couldn’t cut it in the real world! What you need to be thinking about right now is how you’re going to pay me for all my services.”

“Whadda ya mean, PAY you! You screwed me over, Crane! I busted my ass for this album, and you can’t prove you even tried to promote it.”

“You made use of our studio for months, session musicians, song-writers, photographers, catering service-”

“Catering! Y’all buying me a sandwich and a Coke once a day ain’t catering,” Mike shouted.

“New clothes, hair stylists, marketing strategists, technical personnel, a three-week ad campaign” Crane bellowed. “Not to mention the cost of making 10,000 copies of your album. You owe me over $6,000, Nismuth!”

“SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS???” Mike jumped to his feet. “Are you out of your MIND? Hell, I haven’t even seen proof that you made that many copies of my record. I’ve seen a total of four and stacks of almbum covers that coulda had anything inside! And your so-called ad campaign’s made outta hot air, too!”

Crane stood up and stepped around his desk, moving in on Mike’s personal space. “You don’t have a leg to stand on, hick,” he snapped. “You have no proof, no defense, and no talent. Now you’d better stop being a jerk and tell me how you expect to pay!” He accented his last word with a poke to Mike’s chest.

Mike grabbed Crane’s hand tight enough to hurt and shoved it away, blood boiling. “You better keep your god damned hands off me, unless you want a broken finger,” he growled. “I know what you think, you slimy son of a bitch. You think you caught yourself a rube. Pluck a dumb kid off the street and make a joke out of him, then charge him for it! Well, I ain’t buyin’ it. You can take your phony record label, and your ads, and your photo shoots, and your six thousand dollars, and you can shove them all up your tight ass!”

Mike turned and stormed toward the door. “Stop.” The word was spoken calmly, but with such authority that, pissed as he was, Mike stopped and turned to look at Crane. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” He stepped aside and tapped the contract sitting on his desk. Mike swallowed, an icy, sour feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. “You might want to take a look at page 43.”

Mike gritted his teeth and walked slowly back to the desk. He took the document and turned to the indicated page. The icy sourness in his stomach grew, threatening to take over his whole body. “The Undersigned assumes full financial responsibility for services rendered, up to and including utilization of equipment, printing costs, personnel assistance, and any and all ancillary materials or services, the nature of which will be determined by the Lead Producer of aforementioned project. The Undersigned assumes full financial responsibility for the aforementioned products and services, regardless of the success of aforementioned project.”

Mike stared at the statement, reading it over again, and again, staring at his own signature at the bottom. After a few moments, he noticed that for some reason, the paper seemed to be vibrating. It took a moment for him to register the fact that it was his own hands trembling that were causing the contract to rattle. He licked his trembling lips, and struggled not to panic.

“Sit down, Nesmith.” Mike stepped back and slowly sat back down, too shell shocked to even register that Crane had actually said his name right. “You're a nice kid,” Crane said, his friendly tone and expression back. “You were upset. You lost your temper. No big deal,” he said with a broad, expansive gesture. “In fact, you’re such a good kid that I think I want to give you a break.” Mike looked attentively at him, feeling very much as if the black hood of the executioner was about to be pulled over his head. “I’m going to let you play for me at my club down on the strip. If you play six nights a week, you should be done paying me back in about a year and a half.”

Mike did some mental calculations, and looked at Crane like he’d gone crazy. “That only works out to about twelve bucks a night,” he said.

“Very good, kid, you can add,” Crane said sarcastically. “Do you want the job or not?”

Mike was already shaking his head. He had no idea what he was going to do, but he couldn’t let himself be tied to a snake for the next eighteen months. He could already see how it would work. Six nights a week would turn into seven nights, the odd afternoon performance, session work for the next poor sap he yanked in off the street, all for the same pitiful wage. Then there would be some confusion at the end of his indentured servitude. Did he really work that week? Had he been sick for a few days in January? Let’s just tack on another two months to be sure we’re even. “I can’t make that, man,” he said. “I won’t do it.”

Crane jumped from his seat, his face bright red with his fury. “It’s not as if you have a CHOICE, you little punk!” he shouted. “You signed a contract, and-”

“And I’ll honor it,” Mike said, standing up himself. “You’re real good, Crane. You got over on me once, and now I owe you. There’s nothing I can do about that. But I won’t let you turn me into your personal slave.” Crane sputtered, but Mike cut him off before he could form a sentence. “Eight months from now, I’ll bring you $3,000, and that will settle us.”

“No deal! What the hell do you take me for, a sap? You owe me-”

Mike held up his hand, and Crane stopped speaking. “You didn’t advertise my album. I may not have any evidence, but you don’t have any proof that you did it, so I don’t owe you for that. I have one copy of my album, and unless you produce the other nine thousand ninety-nine copies, I don’t owe you for that either.” Mike paused, but Crane didn’t argue. Mike stood just a bit taller, having gained at least one point in this hideous game. “Three thousand,” he said firmly. “That’s it. And I want it in writing, Crane. This time with your signature on it.”

“Make it four thousand, and I’ll sign it,” Crane said. “I can provide evidence in court of the studio time, and the wardrobe expenses, if it comes to that.”

Mike studied him for a moment. “Three thousand five hundred,” he said at last. “You won’t get a cent more than that. And you can’t sue someone you can’t find.”

Crane looked disgusted. He looked down at the contract, and back up at Mike, much like he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to strike him or not. After a few more seconds, he called in his secretary and told her to draw up an agreement according to Mike’s specifications. In thirty minutes, a simple contract was set before the two men, stating the debt Mike owed to the company, and when the debt would be paid. Mike waited for Crane to sign it, before affixing his own signature. He then asked Miss Ward to sign at the bottom as a witness. She looked questioningly at Mr. Crane, and he nodded. She signed her name at the bottom, and Mike picked up the contract.

“Thank you, Miss Ward,” he said. “Now, will you please make a copy of this for Mr. Crane here?” With a hesitant glance at her boss, the secretary left the room and made a copy of the contract. She handed them both to Mike, and he set the copy on Crane’s desk. Without a word, he turned and walked away.

“I’m warning you, Nasmuth,” Crane said sharply. “You’d better be back here with my money in eight months, or I’ll have the law on you.”

Mike turned back, recognizing Crane’s words as an effort to save face, but unable to let it go. “It’s Nesmith, fella. N E S M I T H. Get it straight. And don’t worry. I’ll be back with your money. I actually know what honor is.” Mike took in the irate but dumbfounded look on Mr. Crane’s face for a moment, before leaving the room. He didn’t bother to slam the door. He tipped his hat to Regina on his way out. “Pleasure knowing you, Miss Ward.”

“Best of luck to you, sir,” she said fervently, before lowering her eyes, shamefaced, back to her desk.

If he’d had the strength, he would have told her it wasn’t her fault and she shouldn’t be ashamed, but he needed all his concentration to make it out of the building with what little dignity he had left. He made it down the elevator, out the door, and walked away. When he was out of sight of the building, Mike felt a violent shudder course through his body. He stopped walking and bent forward, resting his hands on his knees, fighting waves of vertigo and nausea. Suddenly, his stomach heaved, and he lost that morning’s breakfast to the pavement. He was vaguely aware of a few shocked cries, and feet skittering away from him. He stood staring at the former contents of his stomach, wondering if he had the strength to stand.

Mike forced himself to straighten up, and walked to the nearest bus stop. He managed to make it back to his hotel room without any further mishaps. He shut the door behind him and sat down heavily on the bed. He looked around the room, trying to get a grip on what had just happened to him. He’d gone from the top of the world to the absolute bottom in a matter of hours. No job, only about $100 dollars saved against a debt of several thousand, and worst of all, no more music career. The sweet victory of having finally made it had turned harsh and bitter in his mouth. Even though he knew that no one had even heard his work, the insults Crane had thrown at him still rung in his ears, beating him down long after he’d left the man’s presence. Washed up. Flop. Loser. No talent.

Mike could feel a tightening in his chest, and a lump developing in his throat. He collapsed back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, watching the white stucco grow blurry as tears filled his eyes. “How could you be so STUPID?” he asked himself. Now, the thought of his family and friends seeing his fall made his stomach churn, and he was glad he’d refrained from calling anyone to tell them the great news.

After a few long, miserable hours, Mike forced himself to sit up and get hold of himself. He brushed the tears from his eyes, looked around the room, and got to work. First, he gathered all the clothes that he’d bought on Crane's payroll and took them back to the department store, along with all of the other unnecessary items he’d bought over the last few months. His decorations, the picture frame he’d used to display his picture of Peter from back at the barracks, his radio and tape recorder - all went back to the store.

Next, Mike went back to speak to his old manager about getting his job back at the supermarket. He’d been so excited about the job at the studio, that he’d only given two day’s notice before leaving, and he was afraid that the manager would hold it against him. Fortunately, his fears were unfounded. The manager had been happy with his work and impressed with his dedication before, and he was re-instated at the same salary, no questions asked. Mike’s relief and gratitude were so great that the manager asked him if he had fallen on hard times. Mike answered truthfully, without giving too many details, and his manager offered to let him pull double shifts whenever they were available.

Even with the extra hours, Mike knew that he wouldn’t have enough to pay Crane by the deadline and eat, too. Mike took a second job busing tables at a restaurant a few miles from the hotel. In addition to his two full time jobs, Mike found other work to do in his few off hours. His manager let him cut grass and pull weeds twice a month, and even spoke to a few of his neighbors and got him similar work with them. He delivered the odd package here and there, and even babysat for several of the waitresses at the restaurant so they could spend time alone with friends or husbands.

After two months of working countless jobs and only being able to save a few hundred dollars, Mike was forced to face the fact that he still wouldn’t be able to pay off his debt on time. He packed his duffel, the contract, and his guitar and gave up the key to his hotel room. He sought out another YMCA, hoping they would let him stay as long as he needed. He was only there a few hours a day to sleep anyway. He stopped buying food, surviving off the two meals he got free with his employment at the restaurant. He never bought anything except soap and razors to make sure he stayed presentable at his jobs.

At long last, with three days to spare, Mike counted out exactly $3,674.26. He separated Crane’s $3,500, put the rest away, and headed once again for the producer’s office. He nodded at Regina, who seemed shocked to see him. Crane was in a meeting when Mike arrived, and he waited outside the office, gripping the heavy envelope tightly.

After a few minutes, Mike heard the sound of a strong voice, singing a playful folk tune to the sound of some extremely agile banjo picking. Mike found himself bobbing his head to the music. When it stopped, he heard thunderous applause, and the sounds of loud praise and congratulations. He frowned, and glanced at Regina, who blushed and averted her eyes. Mike watched with mounting fury while a smartly dressed colored man of about fifty-five came out of the office, shaking hands with Mr. Davis and smiling broadly. Mike scowled at Davis, who seemed startled to see him sitting there.

The banjo player walked out of the office, high as a kite. Mike glared toward Davis and hopped up, trotting out after the other musician. “Excuse me, sir.”

The man turned and looked at him inquisitively. “Help you, mister?”

"Um… you didn’t happen to sign a contract back there, did you?”

“No, not yet. Why?”

Don’t,” Mike said. The man frowned. “Just… please trust me. He’s a con artist.”

The banjo player’s frown deepened. “How do you know that?” he asked sharply.

“Experience, sir,” Mike answered. He sighed, hating to be the one to have to burst this man’s hopes. But he would hate it more if he just stood by and let someone else get stuck in Crane’s web. “They told you you had a lot of promise, right? Lots of talent? Maybe even record an album?” The man nodded slowly, suddenly looking crestfallen and deflated. “I’m sorry, sir,” Mike said. “But it’s a sham. They’re takin’ me for everything I’ve got, and I… well I just wouldn’t want to see you get stuck. I heard you in there, and you’ve got a lot goin’. Don’t waste it on them.”

The man sighed, and straightened, already recovering from the blow. He held out a hand, but before Mike could take it, the office door burst open, and Mr. Davis stepped out. “Hey, you!” he snapped. “Stop bothering my client, you hear? Don’t mind anything he says, Johnny. No talent kid’s got a chip on his shoulder.”

Johnny smiled at Mr. Davis. “Yes, sir, Mr. Davis. I know the type.” Davis sneered at Mike and went back inside. When he was gone, Johnny touched Mike’s shoulder and extended his hand. “What’s your name, son?” he asked, shaking Mike’s hand firmly.

“Mike Nesmith.”

“Well, Mr. Nesmith, you can add John Benson to your list of people who owe you one. I won’t forget what you did for me today.”

Mike smiled. “Glad I could help, Mr. Benson. Good luck to you.”

“Same to you, son.”

Mike watched Mr. Benson walk away, feeling good about himself for having saved one person from the utter heartbreak he’d had to endure. He strode back into the foyer and walked directly into Crane’s office. Crane looked up and his lip curled in distaste. “I heard you were-”

“Save it, Crane,” Mike snapped. He slammed the envelope onto Crane’s desk, moving it back slightly when the man reached for it. “Gimme my contract.” Crane glared and rifled through a file cabinet, finally pulling out the hated contract. He tossed it to Mike across the table. Mike looked it over, making sure it was the original, then released the envelope. He waited while Crane counted out the small change, then presented their second agreement to him. He wrote “PAID” in large letters on the bottom of the contract, and handed the pen to Crane. “Sign it.”

Crane sighed and scribbled his signature on the contract. Mike snatched it up, and glared down at the so-called producer. “Now, you’re done with me. And I’m almost done with you.”

Crane narrowed his eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Mike ignored him, taking his documents and striding out of the office, allowing himself a slight smile at the sound of Crane sputtering for him to wait. Mike found a pay phone and made a call to the musicians union, then to the Better Business Bureau, giving them a few details about Mr. Crane’s business practices. He spent a little over an hour drafting letters to both institutions, as well as to as many record labels and newspaper offices he could find the addresses for. He spent a portion of his precious $174.26 on stamps, and shipped everything off to the post office.

That done, Mike went back to the Y and collapsed onto his cot. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his chest, now that the cloud of his debt was gone, but he was still exhausted. He closed his eyes for a few moments, only to wake up hours later, having missed his evening shift at the restaurant. Mike sighed and got up, knowing that he wasn’t really supposed to be sleeping there during the day. He took his duffel bag and his guitar, and rode the bus down to the ocean. He sat on the beach, watching the sun set, taking stock of his situation.

He wasn’t happy here, that was certain. The whole city just seemed to remind him of his failure, and of the fact that he’d been duped by a smooth talking swindler. The thought of leaving pained him deeply. It felt like giving in - letting Them win. But he wasn’t going to get anywhere until some of the dust settled. He could imagine how hard it would be to get work, with Crane whispering here and there that he was trouble. Even if his letters somehow put Crane out of business, it would still leave a shadow over him. Besides that, he was just tired. Tired of working nineteen hours a day. Tired of coming home to a cold room, in a dirty, bustling city. Tired of the race to the top, which had only landed him flat on his face.

Mike left the beach as the sun finally sank below the horizon. He found a pay phone and called his manager at the restaurant. Family emergency, very sorry, thanks for everything. He called the manager of his store, but didn’t get away so easily. He told Adam the truth about his plans, and the manager insisted on coming down to pick him up. He came bearing gifts - a sleeping bag, some water, a sac of food that would keep well on the road, and his pay for the last week, along with a bonus that Mike couldn’t make him take back. He insisted on giving Mike a ride in any direction. Mike thought about it, and suddenly remembered the strange little sprite he’d met on the road so many ages ago. “East,” he said.

Mike’s former boss took him all the way to the eastern edge of the county, even though Mike kept trying to get him not to spend so much gas on him. Adam gave him a card with his name and number, and told him if he ever needed work or help of any kind, to call him. Mike thanked him fervently, and started walking. He felt better being back on the road, in the flat, beautiful desert. He hitched his way back to Arizona. He’d liked the state when he’d been there before, and he thought about settling down there for a while. He knew he wanted to be on his own, not stuck in a city scrounging for a living, but close enough to civilization to be able to make a little money and buy food.

Eventually, Mike settled on a little patch of land in a valley just outside Lake Havasu City. He stopped in town and bought a large, sturdy tent, big enough to stand inside, with an extra partition that would act as a divider for his bedroom. He purchased a few other items that he would need - a lamp, a wireless radio, a fishing pole, plenty of matches and spare batteries, and several varieties of canned goods. Mike put up his tent, and spent the day making a home of it. Finally, when everything was set to his satisfaction, Mike opened his guitar case for the first time since his ordeal. He tuned up, and played a few chords, smiling at the sound. He cursed the underlying fear that had kept him from playing all this time. He picked out a few strains of a melody that had been poking at the back of his brain for a while. When he hit on something he liked, he began singing softly. “Goodbye, goodbye, you cruel town. You’ve been a fair weather friend. Now I will go to some place that I know, where things don’t start just to end.”

Peter and Zephyr became close friends in their months of traveling together. Zephyr liked the leisurely way Peter traveled. They rode along in the slow lane, taking in the sights, and making frequent stops whenever either of them needed a rest. The two travelers provided excellent company for one another, as well. They were always interested in one another’s stories about their adventures on the road, odd jobs they’d had, and stories about their childhood. More often than not, the conversation would turn to Mike, and Zephyr would learn more about him through Peter’s stories.

The more Peter told her, the more she wanted to meet him, and come to know him in her own way. After Zephyr’s first assurance that she didn’t want to come between Peter, and Mike, Peter had grown perfectly at ease when talking to her about Mike. He seemed pleased that Zephyr never judged him because he was in love with a man, and he showed no jealousy when Zephyr admitted how close she wanted to be to Mike. In time, they seemed to come to a unspoken agreement that, when the time came, they would ask Mike if he would object to sharing his heart with both of them.

Whenever the pair got low on cash, Peter would park the van in town and play his guitar on street corners, with his guitar case open to accept donations. Peter taught her some of his songs, and when she felt comfortable, she began to sing harmony with him when he performed. After a month or so in town, they made enough money to buy stores, fill up the gas tank and make it to the next town.

On their third such foray into town, they stopped just on past the Oklahoma/Texas border in Wheeler, Texas. Peter decided that it might be a nice idea for Zephyr to have an instrument to play. That way, they could make their performances more interesting, and perhaps pull in more donations. Zephyr had already learned some guitar from Peter, but he wasn’t sure they could afford to buy another guitar. Zephyr suggested a percussion instrument, like a tambourine or maracas. They rode around town until they found a pawn shop that had instruments hanging in the window.

The two friends entered the shop, and began to look around. Zephyr saw a few pretty looking maracas, and some that seemed dusty and worn. The shop was large, and soon, Zephyr found herself wandering around, looking at the other items. She looked at the jewelry and the gemstones, but what really caught her eye were the clothes. The shop had several shirts, skirts and jackets, some of which had sequins and fake gemstones attached to the back. She gazed wistfully at these, holding them up and wishing that she could buy one. It wouldn’t be The jacket, but it would still be nice.

The shopkeeper came over to her a few moments after she started looking at the jackets. “You like to try one on, miss?”

Zephyr smiled shyly. “Oh, no thank you, sir. I couldn’t.”

“Why not? I’m sure if your boyfriend there knew how much you wanted it, he’d buy you one.”

She blushed. “He’s not- I… I don’t think we could afford it.”

The shopkeeper tilted his head, and studied her for a moment. “I know what you’d like, little miss,” he said. “I have a nice coat in the back. It’s got a little wear around the edges, and a few of the buttons are missing, but it would be no trouble to mend. I’m sure you would like it anyway, and if he lets you take it, I’ll even discount it for you.” Before Zephyr could protest, the man had already walked to the back. Peter came over, holding a tambourine and two shiny blue maracas.

“What do you think of these?” he asked.

“Those are beautiful, Peter,” she said. “I hope we can afford them.”

“Oh, we’ll-”

“Now then, miss. Here’s the-”

Zephyr gasped, and let out an excited yelp. She gripped Peter’s sleeve and pointed to the white nehru coat with the long tail. “That’s it! Oh, Peter, that’s it, that’s IT!”

The shopkeeper smiled, slightly surprised by her excitement. “My goodness! I thought you’d like it, but I didn’t think-”

That’s the one?” Peter asked.

Zephyr nodded vigorously. “I’d know it anywhere.”

The shopkeeper frowned at that. “Now wait a minute,” he said. “You’re saying this jacket already belonged to you?”

“Yes, sir,” Zephyr said. “It was stolen from me a few months ago. I thought I would never see it again, but now…” She drew closer to the counter, trembling with excitement. “Can I see it?” She reached out, but the shopkeeper drew back.

“Now listen here, girl,” he said. “I paid good money for this jacket, and I’m not just going to give it away, stolen or not.”

Zephyr clenched her teeth and tried to keep from sobbing aloud. To be so close to her precious jacket, and not to be able to touch it was maddening. She was on the verge of vaulting over the counter when Peter put a hand on her shoulder, steadying her. “We’d never think of asking for it without paying, sir,” he said calmly. “But it does belong to her, and it was included in an official police report. We’d be grateful if you’d give us a good price for it.”

The shopkeeper seemed crestfallen at the mention of the police report. “I might have known, the way that fella was running on at the mouth about how much he wanted for it,” he muttered. “A thousand dollars, he wanted,” he said, outraged. “Claimed all the stones were real. Well, I knew he was full of hot air. Nobody would put so many real jewels on a jacket! I offered him $400, take it or leave it. I might have known he was trying to unload something hot when he took the offer right away.” The man sighed heavily and looked at the young couple. “All right,” he said. “I can’t seem to get anyone to buy the thing anyway. Too flashy for most people in this town. I’ll let you have it for $200.”

Zephyr gasped and shook her head. “We don’t have that kind of money,” she said in a shaky voice.

“Honey, that’s half what I paid for it,” the man exclaimed. “I just can’t let it go for less than that.”

Zephyr looked at the heirloom that now seemed just as far out of reach as it had been the day it was stolen, and burst into tears. Peter pulled her into his arms and held her tight. “Come on, sweetheart,” he said softly. “We’ll get the money together somehow.”

“But what if somebody buys it?” she sobbed.

“Don’t fret, miss,” the shopkeeper said, looking more than a little embarrassed. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s already sold to you. I won’t show it to anyone else.”

Zephyr dried her eyes and tried to calm down. “Thank you,” she said at last. “Thank you for holding it for me.”

“We’ll be back for it as soon as we can,” Peter said. He paid for the maracas and the tambourine, and led Zephyr out of the store. She was still weepy, and she wanted to know how Peter thought they were going to be able to raise $200 any time soon. “I never said it would be soon,” Peter said. “We’ll just stay here until we save enough, and then you’ll have your coat again.”

Zephyr gaped at him. “What about Mike?” she asked. “Don’t you-”

“We’ll keep looking once we get your jacket back,” Peter said.

Zephyr felt fresh tears forming, and she leaped into Peter’s arms, and squeezed him tight. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Oh, thank you so much!”

Peter just smiled and gave her a kiss. “Come on. Grab your tambourine. We’d better start practicing.”

Peter taught Zephyr some technique’s with her tambourine, and with the maracas. She picked them up quickly, and Peter praised her grasp of rhythm, and her style when accompanying him. As she became more comfortable with her instruments, Zephyr added dancing to their performances, twirling about with her skirts, and her long hair flowing behind her. They performed throughout the small city, and any neighboring towns that would allow them to open their little guitar case without chasing them off as vagrants.

After a few months, Peter and Zephyr had become well known throughout the area. Their audiences grew larger, and they began to hold small concerts in parks around the town. Peter was careful to make it clear that all their activities were free, and he minimized any political content in his songs. He had no desire to attract any notice from “the heat”, and he seemed almost fearful that if the crowds got too big, they might be interpreted as “demonstrations”, and shut down. They moved frequently, and Peter was careful to park their van well outside of town limits, so as to minimize the risk of being accused of trespassing, or transience.

Finally, after almost seven months of daily performances, they had collected enough donation money to buy back Zephyr’s jacket, and keep them fueled and fed for several weeks on the road. Zephyr was in a pitiable state by the time they returned to the pawn shop. She had been awake all night, worrying about what might have happened to the jacket while they were working. Perhaps the shopkeeper had sold it after all. What if there had been a fire or a robbery? What if he’d had the gems on the coat appraised, and he decided he wanted more money for the jacket after all, and they were forced to wait another year or more to buy it back? Peter tried to assuage her fears, but she knew she would not be satisfied until she saw her heirloom coat again with her own eyes, and had it in her possession at last.

The next morning, Zephyr and Peter showed up right when the pawn shopped opened. The shopkeeper greeted them warmly, and asked them to wait a moment. “I knew you two would be back!” He hurried to the back room, and came back with Zephyr’s coat. Zephyr was shocked to see that the coat was covered by a dry-cleaner’s bag. “Come ‘ere,” the shopkeeper said, beckoning them to the counter. “Take a look.” He unzipped the bag, and Zephyr saw that the coat had been cleaned, the tears on the collar and front had been repaired, and the missing buttons had been replaced.

Zephyr grinned from ear to ear. “You’re wonderful!” she exclaimed.

“And there’s no extra charge for it,” he said. “I just thought I’d patch her up for you, because I could see how important it was to you.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” Zephyr said. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” the man said. Peter handed over the $200, and the shopkeeper handed the coat over to Zephyr. They left the store, but only after Zephyr had given the shopkeeper a breath-taking hug. She couldn’t wait to put it on, but she didn’t want to do so while they were still in the busy part of town. She was unwilling to put it on where too many people could see and run the risk of having the coat stolen again, or (worse) getting Peter or herself hurt. They drove out to the local park, and took a few of their stores out for a picnic in the grass. Zephyr put her jacket on and sighed contentedly, feeling almost as if part of her had been missing all this time, and it had finally been returned to her.

Peter smiled at her, and motioned for her to turn for him. She twirled, and he laughed and clapped his hands. “You look beautiful. Absolutely dazzling!

Zephyr beamed. She squeezed Peter into a tight hug, and kissed him. “I can’t thank you enough for all your help,” she said. “I hope I’ll be able to pay you back someday.”

“What do you mean pay me back?” Peter asked. “You worked hard for that money, too, Zephyr.”

“But this wasn’t your jacket to have to buy back,” she said. “And I couldn’t have done it without you. I wouldn’t even be alive if-”

Peter put a hand gently over her mouth. “You would have done all that for me,” he said. “Now no more of this. We’re like family now, Zephyr. You never have to worry about paying me back for the things I do for you. And I know you wouldn’t ask me to pay you back for all the performances you helped me with when we had to buy new guitar strings, or new shoes for me, or razors, or anything that I needed that you couldn’t use.” Zephyr shook her head. “See? Now stop being silly, and let’s eat.” After lunch, they packed up their belongings and headed back out in search of Mike.

They made their way out of Texas, and spent some time in New Mexico, playing their informal concerts, and asking after the tall Texan. Zephyr kept her coat packed away when they were in town, just to be on the safe side, and they brought Mike’s picture with them when they raised money so that they could ask after him. They didn’t find anyone who had seen or heard of Mike Nesmith until they reached the western edge of Arizona. The owner of a small general store said he knew someone who fit their description and answered to the name of Mike. He came to the store twice a month to buy supplies. “Doesn’t have a house in town, though,” the man said. “Comes in from that-a-way.”

Peter and Zephyr rode off in the direction the store owner had indicated. They made their way slowly, searching out all the streets that seemed to be within walking distance of the general store. Eventually, after knocking on many wrong doors, they decided to give it a rest for the night and begin again in the morning. Peter drove the van to the outskirts of town to park. Just as they were about to settle in, Zephyr caught sight of a light shining a little farther down the dark road.

“Look there,” she said, pointing it out. “Do you think that could be another house?”

“Could be,” Peter said. “But it would be an odd place for it - so far from everyone else. Still, let’s check it out.”

He drove down the dusty road a few yards, before coming to a gravel turn-about. Peter parked the van, and they walked the rest of the way to the large tent they could see down the road. The light came from a window-like opening in the side of the tent, covered by a fine mesh to keep out insects. The soft strumming of a guitar met their ears, and both of the weary travelers smiled and looked at one another with hope shining in their eyes. They walked around to the front of the tent and Zephyr hesitantly tapped on one of the tent posts.

The music stopped abruptly, and Zephyr could hear shuffling inside the tent. After a few moments, a man - The man - peered out at them from a slit in the tent door. His eyes widened when he saw her, and he unzipped the door and came out. Zephyr noticed that he held a long knife in one hand. He smiled at her, and seemed to be about to say something, when Peter made a slight motion, and Mike turned to look at him. Mike jumped and took a step back, completely shocked. “Peter!

“How are you, Mike?” Zephyr thought she could hear a slight tremor in Peter’s voice.

Mike laughed and shook his head. “Peter,” he said again. Then, suddenly, he grabbed the blond man and yanked him into a crushing embrace. They didn’t let go for a long time, and when they finally let go, Peter held Mike’s face and gave him a tender kiss. Mike let the kiss linger for a moment, then abruptly pulled away, looking nervously at Zephyr.

“Don’t worry, Mike,” Peter said. “She’s cool.”

“Oh,” he said, still looking uncomfortable. “Well, why don’t y’all come on in,” he said, holding the flap open. “I’ll open up a tin of beans, and you can tell me how in the world you two found each other.”

Zephyr entered the spacious tent, took a seat on a cushion on the floor at Mike’s invitation. She watched him while he pulled out two more pillows from another area of the tent, and made dinner for them, drinking in his every movement with a slightly hungry expression on her face. They’d found him. Finally, after so many months of searching. It was almost too good to be true, and she feared that if she took her eyes off of him, he might disappear.

Peter began the story, giving Mike an account of everything that had happened from the time they’d split up to the moment he pulled over on the side of the road to take an emergency bathroom stop. When Peter nodded at her to continue, Zephyr took a deep breath, and picked up her tale from the day she’d ridden away, leaving her Texas Traveler behind in the heat.

Mike listened to the entire tale without interrupting. When the sprite - Zephyr - had finished, she and Peter both explained what they hoped for now. To make a home with Mike - all of them together. They’d been traveling for a long time, and they were happy to just stay with Mike in his tent above the stream, doing their best to make him happy.

Mike stared at them in silence for a long while. Finally, he scratched his head and chuckled a little. “Well, I… I just…” He chuckled again. “I think you two are totally crazy,” he exclaimed. “I can’t believe you’ve been cruisin’ round the whole damn country looking for me! I’m nothin’ so special that I deserved all that effort.” Both sandy-headed nutcases protested loudly. Mike only shook his head again. He was truly touched. He’d lived like a hermit after his utter defeat at the hands of Crane and his associates, and even though he saw a few people on his trips into town, he spent a large percentage of his time completely alone. The solitude had begun to wear him down, but he didn’t have the heart to go back to Texas with nothing to show for all his pains, and he didn’t have any way of contacting his old companion, or even of knowing if he was alive. It amazed him to think that these two people had spent months searching him out.

Mike shook his head again. “Strange. Very strange. But I tell you what. I don’t care how strange it is. Y’all spent a lot of time and money trying to find me, and I… well, I’m…” He looked into their bright, eager, happy eyes, and he could feel his own eyes starting to grow misty. “I don’t even know what to say. You’re too much. Both of you. I…”

Mike was saved from having to find any more words when Peter sprang over the emptied dinner plates and embraced him, kissing him fervently. When Peter let up, Mike glanced over to see Zephyr staring at her hands, looking lonesome. He beckoned to her, and she looked up, fixing him with shiny, eager eyes. He had no idea what he’d done to earn her affection, but he liked the girl, and he wasn’t in the mood to analyze any damn thing. He beckoned her over, hugged her tight, and kissed her, surprised by the passion he could feel vibrating from her small frame. He sat back, breathless, and looked at his two semi-stalkers. “I think this is going to work out just fine.”


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