Disclaimer: Not mine, not profiting, etc.

From the Wreckage 1/3

She restlessly paced behind the front desk, trying to decide which was the lesser of two evils: reading the paper for the third time that day or the tourist brochures for the third time that week. She checked her watch and irritation flared sharply when she saw that only twenty-one minutes had passed since she had last checked, barely any closer to the end of her ten-hour shift. For a moment, sharp headlights filtered through the dusty off-white blinds that hung, carelessly crooked, on the nearby window. She wished that tourist season wasn't still three months away, and then caught herself with a cross between a sigh and a groan. There was no tourist season in this town. Right. The quaint little town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the biggest attraction that filled the hotels was probably college graduation. At that thought she hastily reined in her irritation and glanced left and right, foolishly feeling that someone had caught her in the act of being a horrible mother. College. It was why she, they, had moved 5,000 miles to a place that sounded too quiet and felt too nice. Her 18-year-old son had the ambition and she had the determination. He wanted to study aerospace engineering and she wanted to make it happen, even if she had no idea what it meant. He talked about it with the glassy eyes and breathless words of someone who had a dream, one big enough that both of them felt its weight. She knew the best thing she could do as a mother was try to make it real and life-sized.

The small copper bell on the door rang out its usual artificially cheery sound and she brought out her usual smile of warmth and detachment in just the right proportions. Six years of practice made perfect.

"Hello, sir. How are you this evening?" Out of habit, she tugged the bottom of the sweater that had become slightly faded by the fifth wash.

"Fine, thank you… Noreen. I have a reservation under Hale, Jasper."

She normally slipped into a sort of programmed existence during work, not bothering to look closely at faces because no one bothered with hers. But the realization that guest number twenty-two had called her by her name, and the voice with which it had been said, made her narrow her eyes and curve her lips at the same time, an expression which she later wondered probably looked unsettling or senile. He looked to be in his early twenties, only a few years older than her son, with pale, unlined skin and a soft, honest mouth. With his tousled blond hair and lovingly worn leather jacket he stood apart from the austere hotel lobby that was even less pleasing against the night, under the sickly wash of fluorescent lights. But something in his eyes spoke of hardness and damage that she felt extended to a heart that'd had enough of innocence and idealism. Or maybe had just decided that there were no such things in one unexpectedly short and terrible moment.

"Ma'am?" She wondered how she had missed the endearing trace of a Southern accent. "Are you okay?"

"Oh! I'm sorry." She felt her cheeks warm slightly as she quickly abandoned her thoughts, afraid that he had somehow heard her intimate assessment. "May I, ah, see your ID and credit card, Mr. Hale? It's policy. You know how it is." She didn't know why she sounded apologetic; she asked it of all the guests.

"Of course." He pulled out his wallet and his ID with a practiced, indifferent flick of his wrist.

Her eye caught the flash of a gold band on his ring finger and she pushed down a surge of surprise. Somehow she hadn't imagined him settled down. As she checked him into Room 215 on the second floor, left wing, she couldn't help stealing glances at the stranger who, for some reason, piqued an almost embarrassing curiosity in her. Three and a half minutes later when she returned his cards with his room key, she decided that it was the eyes. A bright, rich amber that looked for all the world to be a color incapable of hiding secrets, but was somehow perfectly adequate for hiding his.

When she started her second early shift of the week the next morning, she caught Jasper Hale leaving, a half-hearted smile barely hanging onto his lips, looking like he needed to escape and forget something. For some reason she found herself thinking that that something was himself, alone in a dark, cold hotel room. Minutes later, she heard the unmistakable roar of a motorcycle and the squeal of impatient tires, and hoped, as much as she could hope for a man she didn't know, that he would find his distraction.

That was how it happened every morning for the next three days and she let her imagination run wild as she guessed at his story. One minute he was a rebellious, free-spirited son, running as far as he could from his neurotic, mismatched family. The next he was a jilted lover, wandering from place to place as he struggled to move on from heartache and everything that reminded him of her. At the end of the day, she knew nothing real was so romantic and so storybook, and some part of her realized that she kept to these guesses because they comforted her. She wanted to know that he would be all right.

By the fifth day, it had become habit for her to tilt her head towards him in the morning, no more than an acknowledgement because she felt that was as much as he could stand. She imagined that he had put up with enough of the relentless curiosity and coy concern from old women and young women dreaming of repairing a man who was beautiful and hurt. She had a mind to advise him to lose the leather jacket and motorcycle; no doubt they encouraged the storybook notions of girl saves boy, boy falls in love with girl, boy and girl ride off into sunset.

"Noreen, could I ask you something?" His voice disrupted the usually silent weekday morning. No one ever spoke to her unless it was necessary. She didn't quite expect that he would be the one to break that rule.

She looked up from the Style section of the paper and saw him standing slightly rigidly with one hand tucked in his front pocket, as if he was trying to be normal for her when he wasn't sure what normal was. "Shoot."

A smile, small but honest, sprung to his lips, making him look pleasantly surprised. "Do you think two years is a long time?"

Currents of emotion tumbled over and under violently in the amber of his eyes for a short moment and then they were still. But for that single moment, she was sure she had felt them succeed at sweeping her away.

"I suppose it depends." She wanted him to believe that she took him seriously. "Two years of what?"

Suddenly, he looked as if he regretted ever asking, regretted upsetting the polite balance between them. He had made them step beyond quiet acknowledgement, into a space where they owed each other something. Something like truth or sincerity, and even if she could oblige, he wasn't sure he could.

"Two years of long shifts behind the front desk of a Best Western so my son can get his degree in aerospace engineering? Piece of cake. Two more years of this war that's killing thousands of Americans, some of them boys not a day older than my son? Too long."

She didn't know exactly what she had said that convinced him.

"Of being alone," he blurted out messily through a swift inhale and exhale.

The three words descended to the grayish, age-old carpet, heavy and aching to tell their secrets yet keeping quiet, because that's what he'd done for so long and for so many different reasons even he couldn't admit to all of them. The second hand on the clock, a stark black IKEA brand hanging on a single screw behind her, moved more forcefully than usual. She felt her mouth open and close on a reply that just wasn't good enough because what could she say that he would want to hear? For one terrifying moment, she couldn't help but feel that he had just put her in charge of his happiness. That he was stopped at a crossroad and a single word from her would jerk him right or left like a living, breathing puppet on strings.

He bit his lower lip and, even in her deliriousness, she imagined that sinister feeling of hopelessness welling in his mouth and sliding down his throat, stifling his excuses as his eyes darted to the door and back. He wasn't expecting an answer, or maybe he didn't dare wait for one. She wanted so much to protect him from disappointment, and for that fragile instant, he became as dear to her as her son.

"No one should ever be alone. Not if I can help it."

A smile meant to comfort, to reassure, felt brittle against her teeth. Then he nodded slightly, the left corner of his mouth tilting in something like gratitude, and a thick pressure lifted from her bones. He left with a last glance in her direction, leaving her with an image of clear, precious amber and the feeling that he would be all right.

TBC