hey your glass is empty
it's a hell of a long way home
why don't you let me take you
it's no good to go alone

The rain shushes against the windshield just a little too heavily for the wipers to keep up with the downpour. The blades haven't been replaced in too long, and they leave streaks and tracks against the glass, blurring the road.

But no, the kids are asleep; I don't have to try to fool them anymore. The wipers are fine; it's my eyes that are blurred.

If Kelly was awake, she'd see the tears running down my cheeks, the ones I just can't hold back anymore. She wouldn't say anything about them, though; she's gotten too good at not seeing things. Jack wouldn't understand the tears at all, but he'd probably start crying in sympathy. Maybe he's too young, maybe he won't remember this at all. I can only hope.

The radio is playing softly, more to keep me awake than anything. It's a soft rock station, broadcasting from somewhere out of Denver, broken up occasionally by the mountains. It's soothing music, maybe too soothing. I can't fall asleep at the wheel, not now.

I don't know where we're headed, but I know it's far away, as far away as I can get on $352.42. I wonder if anything will ever really be far enough away... But I can't think like that. It was too hard to start this; if I give up, I don't think I'll ever find the strength again.

I slow down as we pass through one of the tiny towns that abound on midwestern highways, blinking in the bright lights from the gas stations and hotels that cover the main drag. None of them are open, not at 4 a.m., but neither of the kids are awake, so I don't have to search for a bathroom. I brake for a red light, even though there isn't another car in sight.

I look over my shoulder into the backseat, to check on the kids while the light changes. Kelly is sprawled out, taking up all of her side and most of Jack's. Her dark hair is slipping out of the braid I did at a rest stop this afternoon, and a heavy lock of it falls into her eyes. Jack is curled up in a corner, his thumb planted firmly in his mouth. Doug always had a fit when Jack sucked his thumb; I fight the urge to lean back and yank it out of his mouth, for his own protection.

But no, no more. My baby can suck his thumb all he wants now. He's had little enough comfort.

The tapping at the window scares me half to death. I whirl around in my seat, feeling my heart stop as I see the big shadow outside my window. *Doug,* is all I can think for a terrified moment. Then the figure bends a little further down, and a streetlight catches his face.

*Not Doug,* I tell myself, and my heart starts to calm; this man is much darker and taller. He's wearing sort of a half-smile and his eyes are kind, unthreatening.

I lock the door automatically, then crack the window. "Yes?" I hate myself for the quaver in my voice.

If anything, his eyes grow softer. "Excuse me," he says, in a deep voice that reminds me of a television anchor, "I didn't mean to frighten you. I was wondering if you were heading towards Denver."

He's crouched down now, his eyes on a level with mine. His smile is gentle and calm. "Yes," I find myself answering. "We're going to Denver."

His smile broadens. "That's wonderful. Would you be able to give me a lift? In exchange for gas, maybe?"

My eyes automatically flicker to the fuel gauge. It's down to a quarter tank, and I don't dare use the gas card. Even a little thing like a free tank of gas could make the difference between pulling this off and getting caught.

Even so, I normally wouldn't consider picking up a hitchhiker, not with the kids in the car. But as I open my mouth to politely turn him down, I find myself looking into his eyes again. Deep, teddy bear brown, full of kindness and a sorrow that goes deeper than pain, deeper than tears. I know that kind of sorrow, although I've seen precious little kindness in the last ten years.

I lean over and unlock the passenger side door.

He slides in easily, settling a heavy metal briefcase on the floor at his feet and arranging his long legs on top of it as he puts on his seatbelt. "I really appreciate this," he says quietly, too softly to wake the kids. "It's kind of wet out to be walking around."

The car feels much smaller with him in it. I nod and put the car back in gear as the light changes from green to yellow. "It's about four hour's drive," I tell him, without looking away from the road. "We'll have to stop for gas at the next open station."

He nods agreeably and settles back into the seat, getting comfortable. "Your children?" he asks, with a quick gesture over his shoulder.

"Yes." It comes out more abruptly than I'd intended; I'm already starting to regret this. He could be a psychotic murderer for all I know.

"I'm not a psycho," he assures me, as if he was reading my mind. I look nervously at him; he's still got that calm smile in place, as if he doesn't have a care in the world. "I promise, I'm not going to do anything, except maybe go to sleep. Scout's honor."

All of my instincts tell me he's trustworthy, that no one with a face that open could mean me any harm, but I stopped trusting my instincts a long time ago. They're the same ones that told me marrying Doug was a good idea. My judgement is completely useless, especially when it comes to men.

Maybe he senses that I don't trust him, maybe he's just the quiet type. Whichever, he stops talking and stares out the window, crossing his arms across his chest and staying in his own space. After several minutes, I realize I didn't ask his name, but I can't quite work up the nerve to do it. It's easier just to stay silent, and try to pretend he's not there.

We stop after another ten miles at an all-night gas station; there's a small restaurant attached, with a few truckers inside. Two of them are leaving as I start to open my door and one looks my way. Instinctively, I slam the door shut again.

My passenger has been dozing, but he opens his eyes at the noise. Kelly turns and mumbles in her sleep. "I'm sorry," I apologize automatically, hating myself for it.

He just smiles, looking from me to the truckers, then he opens his door. "Why don't you let me pump the gas?" he suggests. I shouldn't, but I let him, grateful for the safety of the car.

The kids still haven't budged; they must be totally worn out. We've driven better than 700 miles in a day and a half, and I'm getting pretty worn out myself. Maybe we'll stop for a while in Denver, find a cheap motel with beds, just for a little while. I reach back to pull Kelly's jacket closed around her neck, and try to adjust Jack's blanket, but it's just a little too far away.

I jump at the gentle knock on the window, but it's only the stranger. I try to make my heart slow down as I unlock the door, then go back to trying to fix Jack up.

"Let me." I flinch back as the stranger leans in, reaching over the seat with one long arm and tucking Jack in. He does it tentatively, but not awkwardly, as if he was touching something very precious. If Doug had ever touched Jack like that, maybe I would have stayed.

"Thank you," I mumble, as he finishes and sits back down, closing the door behind him.

"My pleasure," he says, as if it really was. I pull out of the station and back onto the highway, and he closes his eyes again, after giving me another one of those boyish smiles.

I never would have opened up
but you seemed so real to me
and after all the bullshit I've heard
it's refreshing not to see
I don't have to pretend
she doesn't expect it from me

I study him surreptitiously, as the radio begins a slow ballad that I vaguely recognize. He seems to be a little older than I am, in his late thirties, although his eyes seemed both younger and older than that. His hair comes over his forehead in short bangs and his hands are big and look strong, capable. I wonder what he does for a living, why he's in the mountains of Colorado on foot, in the middle of the night. But I still can't find a way to ask.

*Coward,* I berate myself silently. *He's in your car, you have a right to ask some questions. For the children, if nothing else.

"What's your name?" I finally ask, too loudly. My voice seems to echo in the car.

He doesn't even flinch. "Jarod," he answers easily, opening his eyes. "And you are?"

He didn't give a last name; neither will I. Fair's fair. "Sarah. Do you live in Denver?"

He tilts his head slightly to the side. "Actually, I don't really live anywhere. I'm just stopping in Denver for a few days."

"Business or pleasure?" I sound like an idiot, like one of those little twits at the cocktails parties Doug and I used to go to. Asking an obviously homeless man if he's traveling for business or pleasure -- next I'll be trying to get a business card.

But Jarod doesn't look homeless; he's a little too clean, a little too neat, and his eyes don't have the emptiness I'm accustomed to seeing in the ragged faces that sit on every street corner in L.A. Maybe he's a mid-life crisis type, chucking it all to backpack through the wilds in search of himself.

His expression never changes. "A little of both," he answers smoothly, as if he's not sitting next to a babbling moron. "I understand the city's beautiful at this time of year. Do you live in Denver?"

I start to close up, but he asked in such a friendly, curious voice, it seems rude not to answer. "No, we're just passing through."

His eyes are relaxed, but not stupid; I see them take in my wedding ring, and curse myself for not taking it off. But it seemed so... final. "Are you meeting your husband there?"

"No!" I answer, so abruptly he flinches back a little. I feel as if I've kicked a puppy. "I'm sorry," I apologize again, rubbing at the back of my neck, where a permanent knot of tension is settled.

"No problem." He's studying me again, his eyes concerned. "I can be too curious sometimes. I didn't mean to pry."

He's shifted in his seat just enough that he can look at me without turning his head. His eyes are odd, as if he's looking straight into me, seeing everything. It doesn't scare me, not really, but it's not comfortable, either.

"It's just.... We're getting divorced," I blurt. It's the first time I've said it out loud, admitted even to myself what I'm doing. I repeat it, for my benefit, not his. "I'm divorcing him."

It sounds good, solid. I've made a decision and I'm standing by it. I'm divorcing Doug.

Jarod nods understandingly. I get the feeling I could have said I'd robbed a bank and the kids were my accomplices, and I would have gotten the same reaction. "Does it have anything to do with your black eye? And the bruise on your son's cheek?"

My hands are gripping the steering wheel a little too tightly; my fingers shake anyway. I'd hoped the car was dark enough to hide us, since I couldn't wear sunglasses at night. I open my mouth to spout off one of the endless excuses I've used over the years -- walking into a door, falling down the steps, all of the trite, cliched ways to pretend it's not happening.

Maybe it's the way he's sitting, infinitely patient, or the gentle way his hands touched Jack. Maybe it's that he's a stranger and the night is so dark, as if nothing exists outside of the car. Maybe it's just his damn eyes.

Whatever the reason, I open my mouth to lie, and the truth comes out instead. "He tried to make Jack stop sucking his thumb and Jack started crying. Doug hit him. He'd never done that before, but he lifted his hand and almost sent Jack across the room. I tried to stop him, and he...." My voice breaks.

"He's hit you before." It's not a question; Jarod's eyes are still warm, but there's an edge to them now, a restrained fury. It doesn't frighten me; I know it's not aimed at me.

No one has ever gotten angry for me before.

I nod. Funny; it took years to admit to myself that Doug was abusing me, but it's almost easy to admit it to Jarod. "Yes. He's hit me before. Whenever I did something wrong, or made him angry. He's got a short temper, and I forget sometimes...."

"He hurts you and you're to blame?" His voice is gently, firmly disbelieving. "That doesn't sound right."

I know it's not right; I've seen the movies, read the books. Intellectually, I know it's not my fault. But the coward deep inside me keeps insisting that it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't messed up. If I'd been prettier, smarter, a better wife, Doug wouldn't have started to hate me, to hate his children.

I'd like to explain that to Jarod, to see what he'd say, but I can't. Instead, I just shake my head, and stare out the windshield. I can still feel his young/old eyes on me.

so don't tell me I have never been good to you
don't tell me I have never been there for you
don't tell me why nothing is good enough

After a long, silent half hour, Kelly stirs and rolls over, kicking her brother in the leg. Jack whimpers and opens his eyes, stretching.

"Hi, baby," I tell him, smiling over my shoulder at him. It feels like my face will crack with the effort it takes to make the smile natural. He blinks solemnly back at me, a wide-eyed little owl, and clutches his blanket closer. "Did you have a good sleep?"

He nods, then pulls his thumb out of his mouth long enough to point it at Jarod, who is twisted around in his chair, looking at Jack with fascination. "I'm Jarod," he introduces himself, answering Jack's silent question. "Your mom's letting me travel with you for a little while."

Jack studies him for a long moment, then abruptly makes up his mind, and holds his arms out towards Jarod.

"No, sweetheart," I tell him, trying to turn in my seat without taking my eyes from the road. "Leave Jarod alone, honey, go back to sleep."

Jarod has a silly grin on his face. "No, it's all right," he says, with such delight in his voice that I blink at him, bearing more than a passing resemblance to my son, I suspect. "If you don't mind?"

What am I supposed to do, faced with the enthusiasm in those puppy dog eyes? "Just for a few minutes," I give in with a sigh. "He needs some more sleep, and he's safer in back."

Jarod unfastens his seatbelt, and gently manuevers Jack out of the back seat and onto his lap, before rebuckling the seatbelt carefully around both of them. Jack stares into Jarod's eyes and Jarod returns the gaze with equal solemnity. They look like they're communicating telepathically and, for a moment, it's hard to tell which one is the adult, which one the child.

Then Jack puts his thumb back in his mouth and snuggles up against Jarod, slipping back off to sleep.

I gape at the entire proceedings. Jack has never even cuddled up to his father like that -- although that's actually not surprising. Kids sense things that adults miss, or would rather ignore.

Jarod cradles Jack like he's done it a million times, although his eyes are still delighted. With his free hand, he gently probes at the bruise on Jack's cheek. Jack whimpers, but doesn't wake up again.

"It's just a bruise, the cheekbone isn't fractured," Jarod says, with the professional air of an expert. "You should probably let me look at your eye."

"Are you a doctor?" I ask.

His smile goes peculiar again. "Sometimes."

It seems like an odd thing to say, but he doesn't add anything else. My eye is throbbing slightly, though I took two aspirin a couple of hours ago. It feels tender and swollen under my fingertips, but that will fade in a couple of days. They always do.

Jarod adjusts Jack's weight on his lap. I know how much a toddler can weigh, and I tell him, "I'll stop and you can put him back into his seat."

Jarod shakes his head. "He's fine, really." He smooths a bit of baby-fine hair off of Jack's forehead, fingering it like he's never touched a child's hair before. "How could anyone hurt you?" he asks Jack, so softly I can barely hear.

I can't help it; I laugh a little, bitterly. "Happens every day."

Jarod looks up at me, disturbed. "Parents are supposed to protect their children." He says it like he's a child himself, who believes that the universe still plays fair, by the rules.

"I wish it was that simple," I sigh, "but parents aren't perfect. Some of us are very far from perfect."

"I wonder..." His voice trails off before he completes the thought, his hands still absently smoothing Jack's hair.

I wait, then ask, "What?"

He blinks, as if he'd been far away in his thoughts. "I wonder what my parents were like," he says. "If they were good parents."

"You don't remember them?" We're still almost whispering, trying not to wake the kids.

He shakes his head. "We were separated when I was very young."

Separated. It seems like an odd word to use. "Did they put you up for adoption?"

His face grows more solemn as he answers, "I don't know. I wish I did."

I think about that for a while, staring out at the wet road as it vanishes beneath my tires. The mountains rise to either side of the car, dark and rugged against the slightly lighter sky. I shouldn't ask any more questions, I don't have any right. "Who raised you?"

He looks as if he's debating whether or not to answer; I keep my eyes focused on the road. "Many people," he answers after a while. "Mostly Sydney. I guess... he's the closest I have to a father."

"What's he like?" I shouldn't be pushing, but it's a long drive, and I'm curious about this man. And thinking about him distracts me from dwelling on Doug, and the future.

"Sydney?" He looks startled at the question, then thoughtful. "He's... firm."

"Firm?" Again, it's an odd word.

"He told me what I had to do and I did it." Jarod stops, stares moodily out the window. One hand caresses Jack's hair. "But he never told me why."

"Did you ask?"

His eyes grow sad, sorrowful. "No. Not after a while."

The rain is getting heavier, tapping against the roof of the car in an interrupted stacatto. Some instinct leads me to my next question. Maybe it's the way he and Jack looked at each other, with such understanding. Or maybe it's the kind of empathy that survivors find in each other.

"Was Sydney a good parent?" I ask gently, as I would talk to Kelly or Jack. "Did he hurt you?"

"He never hit me," Jarod answers instantly, defensively.

I take my eyes from the road long enough to look directly at him; he's cradling Jack like a teddy bear. "There's all kinds of ways to hurt someone."

He doesn't answer, but his arms tighten around Jack; he rests his chin on top of my son's head and stares out into the darkness, brooding. There's nothing particularly child-like about him now.

hey little girl would you like some candy
your momma said it's okay
the door is open come on outside
no I can't come out today

The sky starts to get lighter at the same time that the rain eases up. The sunrise promises to be pretty spectacular, all those low clouds at the horizon. About fifty miles outside of Colorado Springs, I pull over at a rest stop with a small convenience store.

Kelly stirs and finally wakes as the car stops moving. Yawning and stretching, her eyelids heavy, she straightens in her seat. "Good morning, sweetheart," I say, smiling at her in the rearview mirror as I fumble on the floor for my purse.

"Hi, Mommy," she says, rubbing her eyes, then blinking at me. When she sees Jarod, she freezes, and cringes back into her seat. I've never been so angry at Doug as I am in that moment.

I've never hated myself so much.

Jarod doesn't seem to notice; he turns around without budging Jack, and gives Kelly one of those sweet, boyish smiles. "Hello, Kelly, I'm glad to finally get to meet you."

It's a pretty potent smile; Kelly relaxes a little. "Hello," she says warily. "Who are you?"

"I'm Jarod," he answers simply. "Your mom's letting me ride with you."

She looks at me with accusing eyes, fear lost in righteous indignation. "You picked up a hitchhiker, mom? They said we should never do that in school."

"You're right, sweetie," I say humbly, surprising myself by having to hide a smile. No one can scold like an eight-year-old who *knows* she's right.

Jarod does a better job of hiding his amusement, but I can see the twinkle in his eyes. "Are you hungry, Kelly?" he asks politely. "I was going to find something to eat."

She considers, weighing his words for hidden catches, and checking my reaction. I consider as well, and finally give her permission with a small nod. "Yes, please," she says politely.

He nods solemnly and opens his door. "What do you like?" he asks over his shoulder as he manuvers his long legs out the door. Jack makes a silly face and wakes up as Jarod stands, swinging him easily up to his shoulder.

Kelly opens her door and climbs out with my help. "I like Twinkies and Cracker Jack," she proclaims. "And milk, cause that's good for you."

"What's Cracker Jack?" Jarod asks. He must be kidding, but he seems completely sincere. Kelly instantly starts enlightening him on the topic of her favorite snack; he looks intrigued and I resign myself to a car covered in popcorn.

I take Jack back as we go inside to the restrooms; Kelly and I trade off using the facilities. By the time we're finished, Jarod is at the front counter with an impressive pile of junk food. Cracker Jack, Twinkies, Pez, chips, three small cartons of milk and a cup of coffee. He hands the coffee to me as I take the children to the front.

I accept it automatically, feeling the heat soak through the paper cup into my cold hands, and look at the pile of food with amusement. "Not exactly a balanced diet."

He looks guilty, and both the kids look disappointed; I smile and shake my head. It's only once, after all. "It's all right, guys. Just make sure you drink the milk."

The kids instantly cheer up and I reach for my wallet. Jarod stops me before I can bring it out of my purse. "Please, it's on me."

I shouldn't let him; this is no way to start an independent life. But he's already paying, and when he turns to hand a box of Cracker Jack to Kelly, carefully opening a carton of milk for Jack, I just sigh and give in. Again.

The bells over the door tinkle as a woman in a suit and heels comes in. Jarod freezes for a split-second as he looks her way, then he relaxes. We divy the food up and carry it out to the car; I open the door and get Jack and Kelly buckled in again. Jack fusses for a minute, reaching for Jarod, but I have to be firm this time. He is safer in the back, in all kinds of ways.

I straighten and close the door, almost bumping into Jarod as I turn around. He's a little too close; I step back against the car automatically, and he looks startled, then backs up. "I was going to take a look at your eye," he says carefully.

I nod, trying to get control of my breathing, which has suddenly speeded up. I wonder how long it will be before a man can stand close to me without triggering the panic reaction.

Jarod waits for me to relax before he steps closer, probing carefully at the swollen area around my eye. I looked at it in the bathroom mirror briefly; it's already black and blue and yellow around the edges, ugly.

"You should put some ice on it when you get where you're going," he says, stepping back, "but it'll be all right."

I breathe out shakily as he moves away and gets into the front seat. It takes three tries to get my keys out of my purse and slip them into the ignition once I'm back in the car.

Jarod and Kelly have both ripped into their boxes of Cracker Jack before I even get back on the highway. I watch them with amusement over the rim of my coffee cup, crunching away.

"This is very good," Jarod says after the first handful, as if he's surprised.

Kelly grins smugly around a mouthful. Her lips and cheeks are already sticky with toffee. "Told you," she mumbles. "There's a prize, too."

"Really?" Jarod's eyes go wide and he grins in anticipation. "What kind of prize?"

"Depends," Kelly tells him, starting to root around in the narrow box. Sure enough, popcorn starts landing on the cushions around her. Jarod watches her for a moment, then imitates her, although he somehow manages to keep from spilling any.

Kelly finally emerges with a small paper-covered packet. She strips the paper off, then makes a face of disappointment. "Just a hologram."

Jarod has also found his prize, but he seems to be enjoying it; moving the flat cardboard back and forth so that the cheap imprint catches the streetlights, shifting the colors. "A hologram?" he asks curiously, as if he's never seen one. "This is interesting. How do they make these?"

Kelly shrugs in complete disinterest, and the lights catch her hologram just right. Jack starts reaching for it, she holds it away from him (just because she doesn't want it, doesn't mean she's going to give it up), Jack starts crying, and and I twist around in my seat to referee. Just another happy road trip... Jarod winces slightly at the noise level, then offers his prize to Jack, who accepts it happily.

Peace is restored.

it's not the wind that cracked your shoulder
and threw you to the ground
who's there that makes you so afraid
you're shaken to the bone
and I don't understand
you deserve so much more than this

Despite the amount of sugar my kids have just put away, they doze back off after only a little time awake. I rub my pounding temples and wish for aspirin; two children in a small car for any period of time is a recipe for a headache.

Jarod looks at me sympathetically, as well he should. He's just as bad as the other two; worse than Jack, actually, since Jack isn't big on talking. They'd taught him some of their favorite car games -- License Plate Bingo, Cow Counting and Twenty Questions, none of which he'd been familiar with -- and he and Kelly had gotten into a very competitive game of bingo, calling out state license plates as soon as they saw them, trying to beat each other in volume as well as speed. Fortunately, there isn't much traffic at this time of the morning.

"We got a little carried away, didn't we?" he asks ruefully. "Sorry about that."

I smile, and mean it. "It's all right. They were having fun."

"So was I," he grins, as if I couldn't guess that. He takes another mouthful of Cracker Jack, the crunching loud in the now-quiet car, then brushes his hands off against his jeans, and reaches for my arm. He catches himself just before I pull away.

"Sorry," he apologizes. "I was going to try to help your headache."

I study his face, then let him take my arms. His hands are big and warm, gentle. He probes my forearm and up near my elbow, then puts on pressure. My headache fades, then dies.

"Amazing," I breathe. "Acupressure?"

He grins in a smug kind of way and leans back in his seat, retrieving his candy box from the door pocket. "Just something I picked up."

"So where are you from that you learn acupressure, but you've never had Cracker Jack?" I ask him curiously, holding out my hand. "Or played Twenty Questions?"

He takes the hint and shakes a handful of popcorn out for me. "I was on a very strictly nutritious diet when I was a child," he answers, as I crunch into the handful. Sweet toffee spreads itself over my mouth. "Junk food wasn't allowed."

"So you're trying to make up for it now," I conclude out loud, brushing my hands off against my blue jeans. "What about soda, popcorn? What did you eat at the movies?"

"I didn't go to the movies, or eat popcorn." I thought he was joking, but his face was perfectly serious, if distant.

"So what did you do?" I ask. "Go to school all the time?"

"In a way," he answers, after a barely noticable pause, as if he has to think about the answer. "I spent most of my time studying alone."

"Real fun childhood," I mutter. "Your fa -- Sydney must have been really strict." Actually, he sounds scarily like Doug.

"He was actually more like a keeper," Jarod says, after some more thought. "And it wasn't much of a childhood."

He looks uncomfortable talking about it; I suspect I wear a similar expression when talking about Doug. I start to ask him something else, but realize with a bit of surprise that I already know the answers.

I don't know any of the specifics, but I don't need to. I can see the subtle marks on him, in his eyes; the scars of childhood stolen away. I see them, because I carry my own. The black eyes fade, but the scars inside take their own damn time healing.

Odd, to suddenly feel so connected to a stranger. Ridiculous, that I suddenly feel less alone in the world.

I know without asking that Jarod didn't deserve what happened to him, whatever it was, any more than my children deserved what Doug did. And maybe, just maybe, if they didn't deserve it -- maybe I didn't, either.

It's a scary thought, one that almost flickers and dies from sheer shock. I'm not sure if I quite believe it yet, but... It takes root, and won't let go. I wish I could figure out a way to share it with Jarod, but I don't have the words to tell a stranger that it wasn't his fault.

"It wasn't your fault." The words come out without thought or planning.

He shakes his head as if he knows exactly what I'm talking about. But how can he, when even I'm not sure?

"I let them use me," he says slowly, heavily. There's nothing of the child about him now. "I let them."

"They hurt you and you're to blame?" My voice is gently, firmly disbelieving, as I echo him. "That doesn't sound right."

He blinks, caught in his own words. "They hurt others, using me. My fault."

"They hurt *you*," I repeat, without the faintest idea of who 'they' are. Doug's face flashes in front of my eyes. "Their fault."

He's not buying it, but there's something about his expression... Maybe the concept has taken roots for him, as well. I hope so.

The road winds on, the first street signs for Denver appear, and the traffic gets heavier. The sun is up now, shining on both of us. His hair gleams in the sunlight, which catches the lines around his mouth and eyes. If I didn't know him, I would have assumed they were laugh lines; he has that kind of face. But I do know him.

He catches me looking at him and makes a concious effort to smile. An old, tired, little-boy's smile.

I smile back, and Kelly wakes up again. "Are we there, Mom?' she asks through a yawn.

"Not yet, baby," I tell her over my shoulder, without looking away from Jarod. "But I think we're getting there."

His smile widens, relaxes, and he starts to chuckle. So do I, and the tension of the night seems to flow away from us. Kelly's eyes go from my face to Jarod's and back, then she starts giggling, clearly unsure what's so funny, but willing to go along with the joke. It's just as well; I couldn't explain it to her if I tried.

We cross the city limits into Denver.

so don't tell me why he's never been good to you
don't tell me why he's never been there for you
don't you know that why is simply not good enough

We find a hotel that morning, and Jarod stays with us, helping us find an apartment, unpack what little we'd brought, and go food shopping. He delights in the grocery store almost as much as the kids, discovering live lobsters and going green at the thought of eating them, and tossing more junk food than real food into the cart. Just as I do with my kids, I seperate out the good stuff, leave in enough junk to make everyone happy, and firmly make him put the rest of it back.

He sleeps on the couch and watches TV with the kids. He helps me cook (which makes everything take twice as long until he gets the hang of it in about two days), gets very good at ordering pizza, and I stop flinching every time we bumped into each other in the small kitchen. He watches Jack when I take Kelly to her first day at school and go on job interviews, and he takes us all out to dinner when I get hired as a waitress at a small cafe near the apartment. I don't think he's ever been to Chuck E. Cheese before, either.

He goes with me to the lawyer's office to start the divorce proceedings, and to court to get the restraining order against Doug. When I sign the first papers, his hand is on my shoulder, and I discover I don't need to lean on him. He can tell, because he smiles down at me as I sign, my hand steady and firm.

We never talk again about that first night. And when I wake up the morning after the lawyer, he's gone.

oh so just let me try and I will be good to you
just let me try and I will be there for you
I'll show you why you're so much more than good enough

Only a week later, during my morning shift at the cafe, a couple comes in and seats themselves in my section without waiting for the hostess. I look at the manager; he only shrugs, so I grab the coffee pot and head for their table.

The older man smiles amiably up at me, steadying his cup as I pour. The woman, much younger and dressed in high heels and a short skirt, just continues to smoke, scowling.

"Can I get you menus?" I ask cheerfully, despite the woman's ugly mood.

"No, thank you," the man says.

The woman stubs out her cigarette. "We don't want menus," she tells me irritably, reaching into her briefcase and bringing out a picture, which she slaps down on the table. "Have you seen this man?"

For some reason, I'm not really surprised to see Jarod's face looking at me grimly. It's a photo from a newspaper; Jarod is dressed in a fireman's uniform, smoke-covered and grimy. That's not a surprise, either. I knew he was much more than a doctor.

"Well?' the woman asks impatiently, as I continue to stare at the picture. "Have you seen him?"

The older man -- Sydney, some part of my mind supplies, although I know it's a wild assumption -- is looking at me with eyes frighteningly like Jarod's. He knows I recognize Jarod... but he doesn't say anything.

I remember the daffodil Jarod laid on the kitchen table when he left, and the envelope of money he knew I'd never accept, but desperately needed. I remember the note with it, signed simply, "It's not your fault, either. Love, Jarod."

I remember his brown eyes and his little-boy-lost smile, and I shake my head.

"Sorry," I shrug, turning away with the still-full coffee pot. "I've never seen him before."

I know Sydney doesn't believe me, but he still doesn't say anything. They leave a few minutes later, after talking to the other waitresses, and the car kicks up gravel as it roars out of the parking lot.

I remember the name of the newspaper, though; after I get off work, I'll go to the library and find the article.

I'd like to have a picture of Jarod. To remind me.



"Long Way Home" came to me one night as I was driving to a friend's house in the rain, listening to Sarah McLachlan's "The Freedom Sessions". It's an interesting experience to have a story come full-blown into your head, complete with a strange woman telling you how and why. Sarah and her children lucked out finding Jarod just when they needed him most, but she'd already proven she could do what she had to -- find the courage to get away from a bad situation in the first place. I admire the hell out of her for that, and so did Jarod, I think. < g >