Sheila stopped at the local gas station to fill up her car. The town was as far away as it could be from the civilized world in the middle of the hills. It hugged the mountain range and there was nothing but forest all around. Even the weather kept as far from everything by bunching up into dark clouds until it erupted in a thunderstorm once in a while.
The rain drummed hard on the steel overhang. Thunder struck in sharp blows overhead, pounding her chest and raising her heartbeat in fear.
‘It’s just thunder.’ she told herself. ‘Just thunder.’ She hated the loud noises.
The metallic clack from the pump handle startled her. The tank was full.
She went inside the old station, heading for the large snack section first, then the liquor section because her gut told her that she’d need it tonight at the hotel.
‘Thirty-seven thirty.’ the middle aged man behind the counter said.
He looked like he’d never been anywhere else but behind that counter in all his life. If the plaid shirt had grown with him he would have worn it since he was born.
She laid down forty. ‘Keep the change.’ she said, a polite little smile on her face.
He took the money without acknowledging her tip.
She walked out the door suppressing the urge to say something about being polite to people in general when she almost bumped into a tall man in police uniform.
‘Whoa there missy!’ he said in what sounded to her much too stereotypical mountain folk dialect.
She looked up into the officer’s face, which seemed honest enough at his thirty something years of age. ‘Sorry.’ she said.
She was about to continue to her car when he spoke again.
‘You’re not from around here.’ he said. A statement, not a question.
‘No.’ she said.
Thunder cracked the sky overhead again.
‘Mind if I ask where you’re from?’
She took a slow, deep breath and turned around to face him. ‘Houston.’ she said.
Rain kept drumming its beat on the overhang.
‘Long way from here.’
She knew someone would ask her. Or ask her in a roundabout way. ‘I’m looking for someone who left the public view a long time ago.’
The sound of rain falling on the ground surrounded her. She could hear him think.
‘Some folk like to find a place where they can be undisturbed.’ he said.
‘Some folk really want to know why.’ she said.
The silence lasted on longer than comfortable to her and she expected trouble any second.
‘Good luck.’ the officer said and went inside the gas station.
‘Thanks.’ she mumbled even though he couldn’t hear it anymore and stepped briskly to her car.
She threw the bottle and snacks on the passenger seat and started the car, driving off with more gusto than she had meant.
According to the directions and map she had printed out she took a right turn at the centre crossing in town, then drove several hundred metres until she saw the hotel sign on the right side of the road.
She took her bag after stuffing what she’d bought in it and headed for the front door. It was a rather modern glass door compared to the wooden structure of the building. It also didn’t really match the dark wooden interior. The weather did though.
The air inside felt stuffy despite plenty of fresh air outside. Or maybe because. A young man behind the front desk was busy with paperwork when she walked up to it.
‘Good afternoon.’ he said with the polite smile reserved for honoured guests at the hotel. She could imagine him being the nephew of the owner and given the job because his mother arranged it.
‘Sheila Branson.’ she said, putting down her bag. ‘I called earlier to reserve a room.’
With a few keystrokes he confirmed her reservation. ‘Yes.’ he said. ‘A double bed room.’ He typed a bit more, then looked at her. ‘Will the gentleman be joining you later?’
She wanted to lecture him about modern society and women but thought better of it. ‘I like to sleep with lots of space around me.’ she said.
It took a moment to register but he nodded and typed a bit more, then reached back and grabbed a key from the board. ‘Room 314.’ he said as he laid the key on top of the desk. ‘If you want to have dinner the chef can make a light meal, but for something stronger we suggest the steak house near the centre of town.’
She took the key and pondered about dinner for a moment. ‘Thanks, I think I’ll head for the steakhouse.’ she said.
‘I recommend the T-bone for when you’re really hungry.’ he said with a little grin.
She chuckled. ‘Thanks.’ she said and headed for the stairs.
The room was spacious enough. The double bed would suffice for her sleeping habits and she tossed her bag on the chair at the end of the bed. Tonight, she planned, eat well, drink well, and sleep long.
The steakhouse was actually a combined restaurant and bar near the centre crossing of the town and she was glad she didn’t have to leave to get a few drinks after eating.
She leaned back in the corner of one of the booths in the back, satisfied with the amount of meat filling her stomach. She couldn’t deny being a carnivore, and it showed in her figure which wasn’t fat, but wasn’t idealistically thin or slim either. She disliked women who tried to discard every hint of fat from their bodies.
She sighed. Physically she felt satisfied, but her mind wouldn’t rest. There was still a job to do. She had to go through great lengths to convince the people close to her that she had found a lead to the whereabouts of Shadow Walker and she wasn’t about to give up. She would find him.
She had barely finished her first drink after her dinner when she noticed the presence of someone in the back corner.
The area she sat in was pretty lit up and there were even a few people in some of the booths enjoying dinner or some private space to drink and talk or flirt. But the one corner that caught her attention was darker than the rest.
She could still see someone sat there and she was fairly sure she had seen the waitress stop at the table during her dinner once. A shiver shot through her when she though she might have been examined during dinner.
She didn’t like it. It made her angry like it did when some cocky guy tried to pick her up at a bar when she just wanted a few drinks and enjoy the atmosphere.
But something was different. She could only feel his stare and it wasn’t that he ordered her a drink as an excuse to get near her. She could only feel that she was being watched. Intensely.
Her eyes went wide at the thought shooting through her mind. Had she found him!?
She frowned. It could just as easily been a creep. It wasn’t the first time she had encountered one. She didn’t want to waste time on a stalker, she had a specific goal in mind and any distraction irritated her.
She took a deep breath. This was a public place. There were enough people around. She could confront whoever it was without getting into a lot of trouble.
The best way to deal with unwanted attention was to turn their attention back to them, something she had learned over the years of clubbing in the city.
She stood up from her booth and walked up to the booth in the corner. ‘So, are you looking at me or am I imagining too much this evening.’ she said.
The hearty chuckle from the dark corner was unexpected. ‘I don’t know about your imagination, but you did catch my attention.’
The voice she heard was grated like a rusty piece of iron, and the face leaning forward into the light shocked her.
‘You look like someone whose curiosity gets her into trouble, but also gives her life.’ the aged face of the once revered hero said to her.
Sheila examined the face of the man who sat at the other side of the table before her. Time hadn’t been nice to him since he looked older than he was. There was more to it than just the years.
He took the bottle of vodka in front of him and held it up in an offer to her.
She had her share of drinking bets and wouldn’t be intimidated by alcohol. Without a word she emptied the glass she had taken with her and shoved it forward.
He smiled and poured her a drink before filling his own glass.
Grey hairs had appeared in his black scalp. Wrinkles around his grey eyes.
His eyes. She was drawn to them. They hadn’t lost the air of intelligence but had grown in wisdom. Wisdom from a hard life.
He smiled ever so slightly. ‘You’re a hunter.’
She downed half her glass, ignoring the burn going down her throat and focused on the way it would help digest her earlier steak. ‘Maybe.’
He finished his glass and sat it down. ‘I can only imagine one reason to hunt in this place. And only one type of hunter to do so.’
She twirled her glass on the table. ‘And what type is that?’
He poured himself another drink and downed it. ‘Ruthless.’
She laughed out loud. She was sure some people had thought it but this was the first time someone had honestly told her.
She rubbed her eyes after regaining control of herself. ‘Sorry.’ she said. ‘But you might be right.’
He just grinned at her and refilled her glass.
They just sat there in the booth for a while, drinking and ignoring the dampened conversations from the other booths and the music coming from the bar.
‘You want to know.’ he said.
She gave him a nod.
He watched the glass in his hand, twirled the contents slowly.
‘I just had had it one day.’ he said. ‘Fed up completely.’
She sipped her drink patiently waiting for him to continue.
‘Every day.’ he said, emptying his glass and filling it again. ‘Help me, save them, stop the fire, rescue the cat.. So fed up with them..’ He took a drink and sighed. ‘They weren’t my problems, but they all made it mine when they knew I could solve their troubles. For the most part though.’ He leaned back in the corner of the bench and wall. ‘There are some things I just cannot solve but they still expected me to without any effort on their part. Refused to think for themselves and change their own behaviour or accept limitations on what they could do.’
Sheila nodded gravely. ‘I think I get it.’ she said and finished her drink. ‘They stubbornly keep doing the same thing over and over again thinking it’ll be different each time.’
‘Exactly.’ he said, filled her glass and topped his off. ‘They became lax since I was always there to save the day, and got impatient if they had to wait even a minute for me to show up.’ He frowned and took another drink. ‘And this any time of day or night as if I was there twenty-four hours a day just waiting for them to call for me.’
‘So then you just up and left.’ she said.
He scoffed. ‘Tried to tell them I wouldn’t be there all the time, told them to think before doing anything. They just forgot it the next moment.’ he said with a groan. ‘And then one day I just couldn’t anymore.’ He emptied and filled his glass once more, staring at the bottom of the now empty bottle for a moment. ‘I was completely blocked. Stared at the wall while the phone rang. Nothing could make me response to anyone.’
Sheila knew the feeling. She had wanted to get away from all the stress from work and what happened in the world often enough. But she wasn’t expected to save lives so it was easy enough for her to take a vacation. Now people were blaming him for any death from accidents or natural disasters. Not all, but enough for the media to use it to crank up their viewer count.
‘When they kept on calling out to me constantly I just grabbed the few things I wanted to keep and left for the remotest town I could think of.’ He chuckled. ‘Contrary to what everyone believes, I’m no farmer so I can’t grow my own food and I need a place to do my groceries.’
She chuckled. ‘Right.’
‘I grew this ragged half beard,’ he said and rubbed the short scruffy hair on his chin. ‘and hitch-hiked my way up here. Found a job being a Jack of all trades without making them think I can do everything.’ A slight smile appeared on his face. ‘I make a little money, but I still have a few secret accounts that I could retire on to fill the shortage. I like the simple life though and it helps to keep everyone thinking I don’t have much.’
Sheila nodded. ‘Who would suspect the poor man surviving day by day to be the great hero they once knew.’ she said. ‘Even if he does bear a resemblance.’
‘Exactly.’ he said and lifted his glass. ‘To being a poor schlub.’
‘Poor schlubs everywhere.’ she said, clinked his glass and they finished their drinks.
Sheila had ordered another bottle while they talked further about what had happened and his new undercover life. By the time that one was emptied, mostly by keeping his glass full, the bar was about to close.
‘We’re the last.’ Sheila said as she stood up, keeping herself steady by holding onto the booth wall until she regained her balance. ‘Ah damn.. Forgot I have to walk to the hotel.’
A snort made her look back at her table companion who pushed himself up to his feet with some effort. ‘And no Superman to fly you there.’ he chuckled.
‘I don’t need to be flown.’ she said. ‘It’s not the first time I’ve walked home in a drunken stupor.’
He grinned at her. ‘That’s good then.’ he said and swayed on his feet. ‘Then I don’t have to escort you.’ He took a step forward and nearly fell over.
She quickly put her shoulder under his and put her arm around his back. Despite his current state he was still a big man and from the feel of his weight resting on her, he hadn’t become any weaker or lighter.
‘Let’s get you some fresh air first.’ she said and walked with him to the bar.
The barman looked back from the bottle shelves behind him. ‘Ah, will you be okay with Tom?’ he asked. ‘I’d drop him off at his home but my car’s in the shop today.’
‘Yeah.’ Sheila said and gave him a reassuring grin. ‘Not the first time I deal with a half dead weight.’ She looked back at the man leaning on her shoulder. “So it’s Tom now.”
He held up his hand and let it fall again. ‘I just need a few minutes.’ he muttered. ‘Then I’ll be fine to get home myself.’
‘All right then.’ the barman said. ‘Have a good night.’
Sheila half dragged Tom outside and into the drizzle coming down from the black sky.
‘Oh goodie.’ she said. ‘That’ll help.’
A bench under a cover to the side of the bar gave them a place to sit and she could clear her head more in the cool night air.
‘Are you going to be all right?’ she asked Tom.
‘I’ll be fine..’ he said, leaning his head back against the wall. ‘Feeling better already..’
‘Okay.’ she said, looked at her car, then back at him. ‘I’m going back to the hotel. See you later maybe?’
He gave her a nod. ‘Maybe.’
‘Bye then.’ she said and walked to her car, made sure it was locked and looked back at Tom again. ‘Ah crap.’ she said when she saw him lying on the bench.
She looked up the road estimating how far the hotel was, sighed and went back to Tom.
‘You’re not going to be fine.’ she said to him.
‘M fine..’ he muttered and waved her off.
She grabbed his upper arm and pulled him up. ‘Come on.’ she groaned from the effort. ‘You’re coming with me.’
She pulled him up with little assistance from him, then walked once more with him resting on her shoulder up the road to her hotel.
The drizzle had made her wet enough, but just before they reached the hotel it began to rain for real. ‘Oh great!’ she said and nudged Tom. ‘Come on, move it, big boy!’
‘Don’t want to anymore..’ he muttered but did move a little quicker when she nudged him again.
Sheila let out a sigh of relief when they stepped soaking wet into the hall of the hotel. A sign at the desk let her know the night porter was away for a family matter but could be called at the number given.
‘Looks like you have no choice but to sleep in my room.’ she said.
‘I’ll be fine..’ Tom muttered again.
‘I’ll bet you will be.’ she said and walked him to her room.
Inside she sat him down on the single chair in the room and grabbed a towel to dry her face and hair. She watched him sit seemingly asleep in the chair. He looked old, all wet and hunched and quiet like that. No one would believe this man was once the most cherished person on the planet.
A shiver reminded her of her own wet state. She preferred not to, but she had little choice but to undress completely while he was there. She hung her wet clothes on the shower curtain rod and went back into the room. He was still out. He’d not be able to undress himself.
With another sigh she pulled him forward and took off his lumber shirt. Despite his state she thought his upper body looked good. If he wanted to he could be back in his great shape in no time. She dried him off with another towel, then patted his cheek.
‘Hey, sleeping beauty.’ she said. ‘You can’t sleep in the chair, so you gotta move to the bed.’
He mumbled something and she pulled at him under his arms. ‘Give me a break and help out, will you?’ she groaned.
He leaned forward with another mumble and gave enough effort for her to pull him on his feet and hold him tight in her embrace. His body was warm against hers and it made her heart race. If he was sober or awake enough to realise their situation, she thought she might just do something stupid.
With some effort she guided him to the bed where he dropped down. She took off his boots and socks, swung his legs up on the bed and took a deep breath to prepare for the next thing. He couldn’t sleep in his wet jeans.
She loosened his belt, unzipped his fly and pulled at the jeans to take them off. She hung them with his shirt over the curtain rod and prepared for the final thing before looking at him on the bed.
When she did she gasped. His briefs had come down partially with the jeans and didn’t cover what she was both curious about and wasn’t supposed to look at. Since they were down already it didn’t matter anymore and she pulled them down further to hang them on the wash basin.
Back at the bed she quickly pulled the sheet over him, turned off the light and lied down on the other side of the bed.
“At least he doesn’t snore.” she thought and drifted away.
Sheila woke up the next morning from movement behind her. She turned around to see what was going on, watched Tom sit up and remembered last night’s events.
He groaned and rubbed his face, then blinked to get the sleep out of his vision and stared at the room. She could imagine his confusion.
He looked left, then right and his eyes went wide when he saw her. ‘What..?’ he muttered.
‘Morning.’ she said, thinking about teasing him.
‘Hey..’ he said, then froze.
He slid one hand under the sheet and a slight panic appeared in his face. Sheila held back a grin while stretching and not quite accidentally showed off the top of her chest.
‘Ehmm..’ he said softly. ‘What happened after the bar?’
She looked at him with a little pout. ‘What? You don’t remember that?’
‘Oh shit.’ he said and held his head in his hands. ‘I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to.. I mean, I must have meant to because you’re a beautiful woman but I didn’t mean to do it while I was drunk or take advantage of you and-‘
She put her fingers on his mouth and laughed.
‘I’m just messing with you.’ she said while chuckling. ‘You were in no shape to get home despite claiming you were, so I brought you here to sleep. We got caught in the rain and I had no choice but to get you out of your wet clothes.
He let out a deep sigh of relief, then turned red in embarrassment.
‘Yes.’ she grinned. ‘I saw it.’
He looked away with a groan.
‘Not bad either.’ she said and he groaned even harder.
She got up from the bed, pulling the sheet with her to cover herself enough and grinned at him covering himself with his hands. ‘I’m going to take a shower, then you can.’
When they left the room he was less nervous after her reassurance nothing had happened and she barely saw a glimpse before covering him.
‘So, what are you going to do now?’ he asked when they stood outside at the front of the hotel. He looked up at the cloudy but dry sky. ‘You found your answer.’
She pondered for a moment. ‘I thought I could get a big scoop about finding the lost hero.’ she said, putting her hands in her jean’s pockets.
He nodded solemnly.
‘But,’ she said. ‘Seems it’s kinda impossible to find that man. She smiled softly at him as he looked at her. ‘The world will have to do without him.’
‘Thanks.’ he said, returning a grateful smile.
She took his hand and squeezed it gently. ‘I guess he found a better life and is happier now.’ she said and kissed his cheek. ‘And I wish him all the best as thanks for all he had done for us.’ She let go of his hand and took a step back to the hotel. ‘I’m going back home now to see if I can find regular people doing heroic deeds instead.’
He smiled softly while watching her go back into the hotel, then looked down the road. He’d go home too to change clothes, then there was the broken bit of fence at old man Harrison’s place. He had promised to help him fix it in exchange for dinner made by his wife.