The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Part 2

Previously: Part 1, Pensacola, Florida [U]

The road between Pensacola and Alabama is long. And straight (only one real turn). And flat. And the most interesting thing is the huge white tunnel by which you enter Mobile. Oh, and the signs warning of gators crossing the freeway.

Rated: A.

* * * * *

Mobile, Alabama

I found her today, you’ll be glad to hear. Well, no, not the real her. Trust me, if I’d actually found her, I’d be speechless with joy. No, I found where she was six months ago. I am just six months behind her now. But, I have found her trail.

It was pretty much a dive of a bar. I figured it would be. My feet stuck to the floor when I walked in and you could smell the beer in the upholstery. I suppose I should have been glad that there was any upholstery and that I wasn’t walking across peanut shells. Someone had tried to sweep up the mess in the previous few hours. I’m surprised they weren’t still there, stuck to the floor.

There was a blonde at the bar. Not a blonde like me but, you know, one of the busty ones that can’t possibly be real. I’m talking about both the bust and the blonde hair, of course. Both very fake. She was shining up the glasses, though I don’t know why.

I did my usual fake P.I. move of flashing a photo of Ashley at her. It’s the last one I have of her and it’s two years old. She was at least smiling, almost a rarity in those days. I’ve cropped myself out of it and enlarged her using PhotoShop, so it’s just her. I’d like to say I carry it around just to flash at plasticine bar maids but you know different.

There was a squint in her surgically altered face before the barmaid nodded. She knew her. Ashley had worked there for a month around six months ago, then she’d moved on. No, she didn’t know where to, but she did know where my girl had lived. I thanked her and moved on.

Where she had lived wasn’t much better than where she had worked. Taking one look at her landlord, I had to swallow bile.

This is all sounding very stereotyped and movie-like, isn’t it? Oh well, it’s true. She worked in a dive, she lived in a dive, her landlord should be taken for a dive and left to sink.

At least he pointed me in the right direction: west.

* * *

The lights on the highway are fading as I drive. My car has kept me going so many times when I thought it would give out. I have come to love its faded vinyl interior and its fake pine smell. The pine smell is thanks to Glen, who put one of those stupid tree-shaped things in just before I left last time. It was him not being an ass. It was his way of saying he cared. He knew I’d be on the road more often than I wasn’t and that I hated bad smells.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that every trail I’ve followed of late has stank: of the angry, only-too-real stench of failure and loss; of my inability to find the woman I adore; and of my own stinking guilt at having driven her away in the first place.

I owe you more than this. I owe you more story than this. As you well know, you can’t lose someone before you have them in the first place, and I won’t pretend that I had her straight away.

I was completely besotted with her from day one, of course, from that moment when she told Samantha Perry where to get off. It wouldn’t be the last time and her directions got pithier by the episode.

How could she not be my heroine?

We never discussed it, but we became friends, best friends. We spent lunches together and she got me through the hell that was gym by making me giggle the whole time. Within a month, I was actually comfortable with her.

It basically went like this. I’ve never been terribly comfortable with other people. I tend to be fairly quiet until I finally open my mouth just wide enough to stick my great big foot into it. That usually ends any relationship pretty fast. But it didn’t work that way with Ashley. The first stupid thing I said, she just stared at me like I was crazy and then burst into peals of laughter. Then we got over it and I got comfortable. It was beautiful.

I got to know her pretty well, or so I thought. I got to know her well enough to know she’d hated moving away from LA, and hated her mother for dragging her to Ohio. I personally was eternally grateful to her mother, but I couldn’t say to that. I did hate her mother for the way she made Ashley look miserable. In my mind, she did that far too often and it broke my heart. God, how it broke my heart.

As her friendship protected me from the outside world, I wanted to protect her from her own but I couldn’t. Instead, I opened my house and my family to her. I certainly didn’t mind sharing. I knew, I just knew, that when she was in my house, she was pretending it was hers. She pretended that my mother was her mother and my father was her own. I think she even liked pretending Clay and Glen were her siblings, but that might be stretching things a little bit far. Glen certainly treated her exactly like me. I apologised for that, but I couldn’t make him stop.

My parents loved her and I know they didn’t exactly think much of Ashley’s parents. I suppose I should tell you a bit about them, to at least justify my bad mouthing. Christine, Ashley’s mom, was a bitch. Okay, she wasn’t very nice. I don’t think she ever really spoke to Ashley except to give her some cash to get her out of the house or to criticise something about her. She couldn’t remember my name for the first six months we were friends, despite the fact that I lived next door and was around at their house on a half-hourly basis. I think she called me Sarah half the time and Samantha the other half.

I remember the first time she called me Samantha because Ashley was drinking a glass of milk and she laughed so fast it came out her nose. I glared at her as she wiped it on her sleeve but she couldn’t help smiling. She said later it was because she couldn’t think of anyone less like Samantha than me, but I was still a little cut. Yeah, yeah, I got over it.

Ashley’s mother had divorced Ashley’s father, Raife Davies, who was a real, bona fide rock star. That was how she’d met Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder and everyone else cool of the day. Come to think of it, those guys are still cool, but she knew them when they were at their grunge peak.

Ashley missed her father like nothing else and whenever she spoke about him her voice was distant, hopeful. I wanted to wrap her in my arms and keep her safe whenever she sounded like that. You’ll pretty much figure out that lots of things made me want to wrap my arms around Ashley.

Her stepfather was almost a non-event in her life. She barely spoke to him, of him or, for that matter, near him. I suspected that they had simply agreed to avoid each other early on in the relationship. They were automatically a part of each other’s lives, but that didn’t mean they had to actually interact.

I can’t give you a day-by-day replay of those times. I wish I could, because every second of Ashley is a second I wish I could relive. But I can’t. I can just tell you that we made each other happy. We made each other laugh.

There were sleep-overs, actual innocent friendship sleep-overs. There were movie nights and milkshakes and all those things that make your early teenage years great.

Things were… Oh, fucking hell, how trite it sounds, but things were simpler then. And I can’t tell you when they really started to get complicated, at least for me. But they did.

I think that’s a story for another day, though. Tonight is getting a bit much and I’m headed to Mobile, headed west.

The road is long, yada yada. Maybe tomorrow I’ll find her. Maybe.

* * *

I hate this feeling, this gut-wrenching feeling of failure and fear. I have tracked her this far and every so often the world throws up a stumbling block so that I don’t get too confident. I mean, it wouldn’t want to throw me a bone now and then to make up for it, would it? No, that would be too easy.

Driving all night, that’s what I was doing. I’m tempted to add ‘over closed lines, but, Officer, I saw the sign’, only quoting Tori Amos is kind of cliché, even if I am a fan. The fact of the matter is I did drive all night and now I’m here on the outskirts of Mobile.

I don’t like Alabama. I’ve just decided this. I’ve never actually been in Alabama before. Wait, no, that’s a lie. I crossed in and out briefly on another chase, another day. But this is the first time I’ve stopped in Alabama. If only I’d known at the time that I was going to be back here, I could have saved myself two months of headache and just driven straight to Mobile. Of course, then I’d be in the same position I am now and I’d be just as upset, just as angry and I’d hate Alabama just as much.

Is it unnatural to hate Alabama this much?

I’m sitting in my car biting the index finger of my right hand. I’m biting that bit that’s just above the knuckle. There are teeth marks in the skin because I’ve been clamping down for five minutes now.

I can’t decide what to do. Should I get out of the car and try again or should I just move on and find my crappy, crappy motel for the night? That’s stupid. I should try again. I don’t even know if she stayed here. She might just have decided she hated Alabama as much as I do and moved right on. Sometimes, Ashley and I could have a meeting of the minds in the strangest things.

So, this is what happened, because you’re wondering, right? I got here, Mobile. The address I’d managed to get out of the barmaid turns out to be a post office box. If I’d checked the piece of paper she’d handed me closer, I would have noticed the clues but, no, I paid not enough attention. I’d just let my eyes latch on to the city name and then I’d dashed. If I’d let my eyes drag up just a bit, but, no. My lips could taste the sweet tang of some success and I overestimated it.

I hate it when that happens.

Fucking post offices. This has happened before. The last time it happened, I went home for a few weeks because I had no idea how to continue. Privacy laws prevent them from giving me any bloody information. It’s not like she’s in the witness protection program – I have her name and photo – but they still won’t tell me shit. I shouldn’t complain because, really, that’s how it should be but, still, it never helps me.

I tried briefly with the old man behind the counter but got my expected answer. The gut-wrenching feeling, that fear and clench, I got that before I even walked in the door. Just when I knew it was a post office and not an address. I hate this because I’m no detective and I have no idea what to do for my next step.

Still, sitting here in my beat up old bomb of a car is not going to get me anywhere, so I get back out. I’ve been sitting for too long anyway. Stretching, trying to limber up, I decide to wander back in.

There’s a girl behind the counter now and she looks about my age, but who knows. The old man is nowhere to be seen and that works in my favour.

I finger some postcards on the counter. Who’d want to send a postcard from Mobile?

Dear Mom,
Look, I made it to Alabama. They haven’t eaten me yet. Please send money so that I can make it further in to the actual city, am stuck in the middle of nowhere. Here’s a postcard of a large industrial plant. I thought you’d like it more than the one of the highway overpass,
Love, your daughter/son/person who buys postcards from Alabama

Okay, that’s harsh, right? Sorry. Did I mention I hate Alabama? Only because it’s a fucking POST OFFICE.

I get so angry sometimes but I push it down inside me. One day, it will give me an ulcer. Deep in the night, I’ll awake and it will have gnawed its way through my stomach lining. On that night, I will awaken to the pain that’s always lingering inside me, just under my skin, and I will bleed to death on the crusted, faded cheap sheets of a faded cheap motel. I think it will be fitting.

Who am I kidding? This search, this pain inside me, is no ulcer. This is me and my unending guilt. I don’t think the outcome will be any different.

The girl is eyeing me with some curiosity and some suspicion. I want to reach out and reassure her, pat her on the arm and say, “It’s okay, I won’t steal the postcards of the roadkill. No, really.” Instead, I flash her a weak smile.

And I get one back. Maybe I should take a chance on this. I encounter so few smiles these days.

“Hey,” I say.

“Howdy,” she replies.

Howdy? Seriously? I thought Texas was at least two states away but…

“Can I help you?”

Okay, at least she’s being helpful.

“Probably not,” I smile again, almost as though we’re sharing a private joke. “I’m looking for someone and they left this as their forwarding address. I guess I just want to know if you’ve seen her… or if she’s kept forwarding.”

“Oh.” The girl behind the counter looks crestfallen. She hooks a loose tendril of dirty blonde hair behind her ear. She’s not bad looking actually, but she’s also not what I’m looking for. “I… I’m sorry, I can’t really…”

Something must show on my face, because her sentence falters. I hurt from this. This sudden end to a chase I will not give up on. It will only cause tantrums and me trying everything to get a lead.

I take out her photo and stare at it. My heart jumps, lurching, just like always. I wonder if, when I actually find her, she’ll still look anything like this. Will she be forty, fat and with five kids? Will she be eighty, beating my hugs and affection off with a walking stick as the dementia prevents any hope of recognition? Will she make my heart lurch or will I just faint?

The girl eyes the photo sideways. “I… I think she used to come in here,” she says softly, and I still.

My heart’s not lurching now, it’s pounding. For real? You’re throwing me a bone here, for real?

The girl sidles over a bit and looks at me.

“Thanks,” I whisper.

“You… She owe you money?”

I look up sharply. “No,” I say, flatly and definitely.

“Oh.” More surprise. “Why’re you lookin’ for her?”

I open my mouth and then close it. I open it again. “Because I lost her. And she was the most important thing in my life and I was stupid enough to let it slip through my fingers. Because, if I find her, I’m going to make sure I never let her go again. Because I will never love anyone like I love her.”

The most passionate words ever spoken in a post office, and they came out of my mouth. I can’t believe it, she can’t believe it. Together, we are non-believers in my honesty but we have seen the miracle, the bleeding statue, together and there is no denying.

“What’s her name?” Curiosity and maybe more.

“Ashley,” I whisper, my chest hurting again. “Ashley Davies.”

There is tapping on the computer and I don’t move in case I break the magic spell that has wrapped itself around this little outpost of Mobile, Alabama.

“I’d try Shreveport if I were you,” the girl says as scrambling noises come from the back room. “Somewhere around the west side.” She names a street I have never heard of and then the man appears again. He stares at me and then at the girl. “I’m sorry, miss, I can’t help you. It’s just against the law.” Her voice is strained and angry. I look at her, straight into her eyes. Goddammit, she should be in Hollywood.

“Well, thanks for nothing,” I say. On my way out I turn my head briefly while the man is stacking a shelf. I flash her a grin and a small wave. She nods. It’s enough.

So, I’m back in the car. I need to find a motel. I don’t want to; I have to drive to Louisiana. Well, on the upside, I’ll be getting out of Alabama. And, yet, suddenly I don’t hate Alabama quite so much. Hell, I’m tempted to send Clay a postcard, any postcard.

I need sleep and I know it. Heading towards a motel, I breathe in the air from the vents and, for a second, I swear to God there’s a small whiff of the scent, the unmistakable scent, of my Ashley.

* * *

Things change, and you never know how.

For two years, Ashley Davies was the best friend I ever had and I like to think I returned the favour pretty well.

Things change, and I can’t tell you when things changed between us.

We met when we were thirteen, and there’s just a big difference between a thirteen-year-old and a fifteen-year-old. In those two years, we grew up together. Oh, I know at fifteen you’re not grown up, but you go from the cusp of childhood to the person just in arms’ reach of adulthood.

I never thought about it much, not for me. I made the transition fairly smoothly, I think. I watched my compatriots go from people obsessed with Barbies to people obsessed with clothes and boys! I kind of got the clothes thing, but not everything else. I guess I lost my obsession with Barbies and developed some taste in music, thanks to Ashley, but I never really got the whole boys thing.

You’d think I would have paid more attention to that.

I was happy, though. I had Ashley every single day. We were at school together and shared most of our classes. We saw each other after school and we did our homework together. I saw her on weekends and sometimes evenings. I think you already knew we were inseparable.

I don’t know when things changed for Ashley, but I know when they did for me. I don’t know that they ever did for Ashley because she never talked about it. The few times I ventured to ask her, she just said she always loved me. She never really made a different choice about how.

I did though, I guess.

His name was Aiden and he was the boy. When I say that, I mean he was the boy that everyone liked, was supposed to like or, at the very least, want to like.

I went to grade school with him and I still remember when he got a purple crayon stuck up his nose in the second grade. That always put a bit of a crimp in any lust I was likely to have for him. But, by tenth grade, well, we were at high school and he was hot property: tall, muscled, hunky and on the varsity basketball team. Madison and her cheerleader buddies were so hot for him, I swear sometimes they forgot to wear underwear. Okay, I don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t really want to, but I suspect it. Yes, Madison got her wish. She became a cheerleader, along with Samantha. They wandered around in those little uniforms like they were goddesses. Ashley used to say they were only three steps away from the brothel, but she was just mouthing off.

She never really gave much indication that she liked him, Ashley liking Aiden, that is. I figured that, if she’d really had a crush on anyone, I would have been the first person to know about it. I knew everything else about her and she knew everything about me. If I’d developed a crush on anyone, she definitely would have been the first person I’d have run to, if only because it would have scared the living hell out of me and at least she’d know what to do about it. Still the guru of cool, my best friend.

Anyway, as I was saying, she never showed it, I never suspected it. And if you’d told me that Aiden was aware of either of our presences, I would have been shocked out of my little white socks. I thought we were fairly well invisible. Well, I knew I was. Even with Ashley by my side, I could barely be seen. Ashley could never be invisible. Her beauty shone like a radiant star.

So, when Aiden asked me to go to Josh Harrigan’s party, I nearly vomited on him. Thank God I didn’t. I managed to choke out a “Huh?” though.

He repeated his query and this time I managed not to look quite so much like one of those clowns you find at county fairs, the ones where you put the ball thingy in their mouths. Ah hell, you know what I’m talking about.

I can’t believe I said yes. Actually, I have no idea why I said yes. I wasn’t interested in Aiden. I just couldn’t think of anything else to say.

All Ashley did was raise one quizzical eyebrow when I told her. I fluttered around her, panicking for days and days. She was a beacon of calm, an oasis of sense, and she didn’t help one iota. I made her come with me, of course. It was a party at a senior’s so no-one was going to notice if you were invited or not. Maybe she thought I was excited about my date with Aiden but all I really was, was petrified. I didn’t do social events, and definitely not without her.

I remember getting to the front steps. We didn’t come with Aiden. I think I arranged to meet him there so Dad wouldn’t interrogate him or ask what sort of party it was. My parents were fairly lax – I think Mom was just glad I was getting a social life – so they let me have a reasonably late curfew. I was staying at Ash’s anyway, because her parents wouldn’t be home, so we could sneak in without waking anyone up.

On the front steps, she grabbed my arm, stopping me. I turned to look at her and she looked back.

“Do you like him?” she asked.

“Aiden?”

“Yeah,” she nodded. “Do you like him.”

“He’s okay, I guess,” I replied, frowning. “Why?”

“Just wondering if you’re into him or what…”

“Probably not like that,” I confessed. “He’s nice and all, but a jock.”

I couldn’t imagine actually touching him, kissing him, or any of that, so I’d guessed that I wasn’t interested. I hadn’t given any of this stuff much thought, really.

“Oh,” was all she said.

Shrugging and a little bemused by her line of questioning, we went inside.

There was alcohol, beer from a keg. There were drunken people in the swimming pool. Three people were getting stoned on the balcony. It was a high school parentless party.

Aiden met us at the door, half-tanked already and shouting.

When he wrapped an arm around me and pressed his lips into mine, I shuddered. He smelt and tasted like stale beer and sweat. I wish I could say my first kiss was better than this but, there you go – the honest truth.

I pushed him off.

I don’t really remember how I made it clear I wasn’t interested like that but he got the message after not too long.

Ashley made a beeline for the kitchen and somehow found a bottle of rum. That surprised me. I hadn’t given much thought to Ashley’s private habits because they always happened around me, but alcohol hadn’t really featured much. She held her liquor, though, and now I realise she must have been drinking for years. At the time, I was just surprised. It was a night for that.

I hung off her for an hour. I know, what a shock. I didn’t know anyone else and I didn’t care to. She was all I needed. The noise and music were too loud to speak but we just hung. In all honesty, I would have been happy to leave but she made no moves towards the door. I never noticed how much she’d taken out of that bottle. I’d notice that later.

Eventually, the little drink I had consumed made its way through my system and I excused myself for a bathroom. It took me a while to find one that didn’t have a puking teenager or someone passed out in it. I snuck upstairs and used the ensuite to the parents’ bedroom. I spent some time, taking solace in the quiet and the lack of people. I guess I never was a people person en masse.

I decided, I remember distinctly, that we should leave. I made my way back downstairs so that I could grab Ashley. This, I remember in slow motion, like a horror film. There really should have been screaming and someone pointing out that only stupid people wander around alone when serial killers are clearly in the house. Why weren’t people yelling? Why didn’t the universe reach out and slap me in the face? Because some things you have to find out for yourself.

Ashley wasn’t where I left her and that confused me. I looked and eventually I found her. On the couch, with Aiden. It was hard to tell it was her at first, because he was on top of her. His tongue was in her mouth and his hand was up her top.

I think what hurt the most was that she didn’t seem to mind.

No, I lie. What hurt the most was that it was happening at all.

* * *

It’s funny how there actually isn’t a difference between one gut-clenching pain and another. Because the pain I felt this morning when I was so afraid I’d lost her again is the exact same pain I felt that day. But it’s gone for the moment and all that is left is that familiar ache that sits there, day after day.

Who knows? One day, it might be my friend.

* * * * *

Next up: Part 3, Shreveport, Louisiana [A]

3 Comments

  1. dev0347
    Posted 14 January 2011 at 11.10am | Permalink

    Useless trivia: what the rest of the world knows as a Mars bar is called a Milky Way in the USA. In the USA, a Mars bar is a putrid confection that includes almonds that they had mercifully stopped making. WikiP says that they’re back in production, but I’ve never seen one.

    On-topic, I’m almost starting to feel sorry for poor Aiden, the SON fanfic whipping boy of choice. In every reality, he’s a clueless tool.

  2. Lnkmstr10
    Posted 15 January 2011 at 5.06am | Permalink

    I think there’s something to this Aiden trend; I must admit I jumped on the clueless Aiden train for part of a story. But I can’t bash the guy too much.

    Great chapter! Cracked up reading about Alabama. Lived rght outside Birmingham for 2 years, so I know good and well about lovely Mobile. And the joys of Shreveport. I’ve passed there many many times going to football games with my college. Always stopped at the same gas station and filled up on unhealthy junk food and ice cream! Good times

  3. Ringo
    Posted 3 February 2011 at 4.42am | Permalink

    No, Spencer, hating Alabama is perfectly natural. -shudder- I’ll get out of here one day…

    On a story-related note: I have wandered far and wide into the depths of fanfiction, and no one can tug on my heartstrings quite the way you can, Sez.

    “Because I lost her. And she was the most important thing in my life and I was stupid enough to let it slip through my fingers. Because, if I find her, I’m going to make sure I never let her go again. Because I will never love anyone like I love her.”

    The most passionate words ever spoken in a post office, and they came out of my mouth. I can’t believe it, she can’t believe it. Together, we are non-believers in my honesty but we have seen the miracle, the bleeding statue, together and there is no denying.

    Goddammit, Clom, just rip my heart out while you’re at it. Beautiful.

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