Two small suitcases and a 1960 Gibson Hummingbird; that's what best friends Bella Swan and Jasper Whitlock pack up into their '69 Mustang as they roam from town to town across this vast country. They are nomads. They are vagabonds. And they are running. But what happens when the past catches up to them?
A/N: This story was deeply inspired by the lyrics of Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd and I Run To You by Lady Antebellum. My life kind of revolves around music... well, you'll see ;)
And my ties are severed clean
The less I have, the more I gain
Off the beaten path I reign
Call me what you will
But I'll take my time anywhere
Free to speak my mind anywhere
And I'll redefine anywhere
Anywhere I roam
Where I lay my head is home
Anywhere I Roam - Metallica
The hotel room door flew open and slammed quickly, startling me. I faltered, my fingers slipping off the strings of the weathered Gibson Hummingbird in my lap.
Those two words.
They always changed everything.
"Already?" I sighed, setting the guitar down beside me on the filthy flowered-pattern bedspread on which I sat. It was straight out of seventies, just like everything else in this decrepit, grimy hotel. It was hard not to imagine what things this bedspread had seen over the years and not shudder.
Jasper barley glanced at me before nodded curtly and disappearing into the bathroom. I heard the door lock behind him with an echoing click. Then the shower was running.
I watched him, then shook my head slowly. I ran my hands through my long, tangled hair, exhaling a long breath of frustration.
It was days like today that I disliked – or not so much the days, but the moment - or the second - when unexpectedly, and for whatever reason, life changed yet again.
It was beyond my control, just out of reach. Always.
But that was life; it always changed. No matter what you did to stop it.
And Jasper and I… well, our entire way of life was based on change.
It was how we survived
And we really only had one rule: when one of us says we're leaving, we leave. We don't ask questions, just pack our bags and be ready by morning. But the time we spent in one town was becoming shorter and shorter - we hadn't even lasted here a month yet. It was like with every day that passed it was getting increasingly difficult to stand still. And normally I didn't mind much, in fact I often relished in the journey, but I actually beginning to like my boss. For once.
I lay back on the bed and lit a cigarette. I heard the shower turn on in the room next to us, and someone was banging around upstairs. My eyes drifted to the water stained ceiling. The brown stains in the off-white tiles curved and twisted out like the lines of a map. It could have easily been a map of our travels: sporadic, impulsive, and unpredictable.
I'd stayed in some pretty sketchy places in the past five years, but this hotel had to be one of the worst. The walls were paper thin, the toilet leaked, and the television didn't work. The walls were stained, the sheets never clean, and you ran out of hot water five minutes into a shower, every time. And the mattresses, oh the mattresses. You could feel every spring, and they dug into your bones no matter which way you lay. It was very likely my hipbones were permanently bruised from the pathetic excuse for a mattress. I hadn't had a full nights sleep in a month.
I exhaled a cloud of smoke and watch it swirl above me in the yellow lights. Maybe it'd be okay. Maybe it was time to move on.
When you live like we do, you learn to not get too attached to one place.
Because when you didn't care, it was so much easier to let go. I had to remind myself of that every day. Because we never stayed. I didn't know if we ever would stay. So the people I met, the friends I made… they were all temporary.
My blessing was that I knew that going into it. But I rarely made friends anymore.
Someone had once asked me why we lived the way we did, what were we looking for. I honestly didn't have an answer. The reasons for leaving were not the same reasons for not staying. If we were looking for something, I still had no idea what it was.
It's just what we did; how we lived.
I had left the place I called home when I was seventeen years old, and I'd never been back.
I didn't know any other way anymore.
I exhaled again, and let my hand hang off the side of the bed. I couldn't wait to find a place with a fucking decent mattress.
I ashed on the carpet, because I didn't care anymore and because honestly it probably made the carpet look better.
The more I thought about it, the more appealing the idea of leaving this place behind became. In fact, I was beginning to wonder why the hell we'd stayed so long in the first place.
I heard the shut off shower with a loud klunk and moments later Jasper emerged from the bathroom, with what was probably a once-white towel wrapped around his waist. "Fucking piece of shit," he muttered, shaking his head in anger. Water dripped from his blonde curls and hit the faded carpet as he rummaged though his small, worn-out suitcase.
"Where we going?" I asked, rolling onto my stomach and putting my cigarette out in the glass ashtray that sat on the wobbly nightstand separating our beds.
He didn't look up, just shook his head. "I don't know, Bella. We'll figure it out tomorrow."
I rolled my eyes as I flipped back over. We never had a plan. Jasper hated plans.
"I get paid on Friday," I realized out loud.
This time he stopped. "How much?"
"I don't know. Two weeks. I put in a lot of overtime, too. It'd be worth staying for."
He sighed in frustration. "Denyse won't let you have it early?"
I sat up. "Oh yeah, I'll just show up before my shift tomorrow, tell her I'm leaving with absolutely no notice, and ask if she'd please sign my check because the car needs gas. She'll love that."
"Yeah, well, it's your money," he grunted, going back to sifting through his bag.
"It's two days, Jasper!"
I saw him zipping up his jeans out of the corner of my eye. He turned to face me just before he pulled a t-shirt over his head. "You know how it works, Bella."
"Yeah, well, in order for it to work, I need my fucking money."
"Oh please. Like you haven't lied to a boss before. You know how to do this. This is what we do, Bella! Make up some bullshit story and get her to hand over your check tomorrow, because we're leaving."
I shook my head, but had already given in. "Fine."
"Okay," he nodded, pulling the grey shirt over his head. "And I'm not gonna apologize, Bells. You've made me leave at really inopportune times, too."
"I know," I muttered.
"Okay. So you gonna come grab a drink with me? We can say good-bye to Gerry together."
I rolled off the bed and got to my feet. Because if there was one thing that Jasper and I were good at, it was good-byes.
"Jasper, I cannot believe that you're gonna just take off with this beautiful lady of mine. Isabella, sweetheart, stay. I'm in love with you beautiful. I'll make you the happiest girl in the world."
I laughed at the bartender, wrapping my hand around my nearly empty glass I leaned forward in my seat. "Gerry, baby, what do you think your wife would think about that?"
He waved it off. "Oh, that old hag? Now don't you worry your pretty little face about her." He leaned in close, and lowered his voice, holding up his pudgy hand up to cover his mouth from Jazz. "I know how to make people disappear, if you know what I mean."
"I think you've been watching too much TV, old man," I laughed.
"Pshaw! I'm a bartender and my two best customers are leaving me. I think it calls for desperate measures. I'll even give you all the Jack and Coke you want, sweetheart. Just please don't leave me." Gerry had both of his thick hands clasped in front of him and I think if it hadn't of been so much work for him to get up and down, he would have been on his knees begging.
Though the bribe was tempting, I grinned and shook my head. "Sorry, Gerry. The world is calling me."
Jasper nudged me, glancing at me from the corner of his eye as he laughed. "Besides, she's mine."
I rolled my eyes.
"You wish, son!" The sweaty bartender laughed heartily, the sound echoing off the walls of the nearly vacant bar. His long grey hair was slicked back in a ponytail, his round, wrinkled face red and so shiny I could have used it as a mirror. He shook his head and mopped his face with a handkerchief he kept in his breast pocket. "So you kids are really leavin', huh?"
"Afraid so," Jasper nodded.
"You'll have to come back and visit."
"Of course." We wouldn't.
He nodded, satisfied. "Well, how about another round? This one's on the house."
"Sure thing, Gerry."
Lying's a funny thing. When you tell enough lies, you begin to believe them yourself.
But Gerry would forget about us soon enough.
He grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels from behind the bar and made the three of us drinks. He mopped his head again before passing them around, and we clinked our glasses together before taking a long sip. The whiskey warmed my throat on the way down, and I smiled to myself, sighing deeply. No matter where I was in the world, this was home: Jasper, Jack Daniels, and me. My family. When customer signaled Gerry for another round, he excused himself and waddled down the bar.
"I'm actually gonna miss the place," I said quietly to Jasper.
He nodded, his gaze fixed across the room as he lit a cigarette.
Sometimes the guy just wasn't the greatest company. But he was all I had. And something was bothering him; that I knew. But whatever had happened to make him decide we were moving on was his business. He'd tell me when he was ready. Because that was our rule. And we trusted each other enough to not ask questions.
I'd known Jasper since I was eight and he was ten. Some kids were picking on me at school and Jasper had stepped in for no good reason other than he was passing by and he heard the new girl getting teased because of the way her mom cut her hair. But that was how Jasper was; he was always saving people. And he'd saved me that day. He became one of my best friends, even though the kids in his grade made fun of him for hanging out with an awkward little tomboy in the third grade.
We had a strange bond. It was never romantic for us, not ever. He just protected me; like an older brother to his little sister. He ate his lunch with me when no one else would. He'd help me with my homework when I got stuck on a question. He'd take me to the nurse when I'd scrape my knee at recess. He was always there for me, watching over me. But soon his guardian duties developed into a friendship. He'd teach me how to ride a bike with no hands. We'd spin on the tire swings and see who could go the longest without getting sick. (He'd win). We would race to climb the jungle gym. We didn't live far from each other, and soon he was eating supper at my house every night. He'd stay until dusk, and then reluctantly walk himself home. My mom used to joke that we wouldn't be able to get rid of him if we tried.
It took me a long time to realize why that was.
I don't remember the exact day that I figured out that his dad beat him. But the signs were always there. The unexplained bruises, the absences from school, his aversion to going home. But I had a pretty good idea what was going on before he finally admitted it to me. And I would never forget the day he told me.
He'd come to school with a black eye; a bruise that hadn't been there when we'd parted ways the night before. He told the kids in his grade he'd fell over in my dad's little rowboat while we'd been out fishing and banged his head. I stood by and listened and played my part. But that was the end of the lies; he'd come clean that night while we were sitting out on my back porch, eating popsicles after supper. Because we always told each other in the end. There was nothing we could hide from each other – not for very long, at least.
So Jasper held my hand and looked me in the eye and told me that sometimes his dad liked to hit him. Sometimes it was for something small, like forgetting to close the cupboard door when he took out a bowl for cereal. Sometimes it was for forgetting to put his shoes away, or leaving his baseball mitt lying around. And sometimes it was for absolutely no reason at all.
Then he lifted his shirt and pointed out the scars his dad's belt had left on his back. The worst ones were on his back, but they were on his arms and legs too; they were everywhere. But to the untrained eye they just looked like scars a little boy had gotten from playing too hard. Nobody batted an eye at a boy with scars. That's why my mom said she was always so glad she had a girl. Little boys are too reckless, she laugh when she saw Jasper's cuts and bruises. But Jasper wasn't that reckless. Nobody was.
So we sat there and I cried for him, because it wasn't fair. Because Jasper was a good person, good people shouldn't be punished like that.
He was always saving people; but no one knew it was him that needed saving the most.
He held me as I cried, and when he finally released me, I looked up and realized it was the first time I'd seen him cry too.
I tried to get him to stay that night; I was terrified for him. But he told me it would be worse if he didn't go home. So I had to stand there and watch him walk away, knowing he was in danger and there was nothing I could do. I'd never felt so helpless in my entire life.
We never talked about that conversation after that night.
And I never said a word about it to anybody else. Because in some fucked up way, a way which I will never understand, Jasper still cared about his father. And Jasper promised me that the only way I could help protect him by keeping his secret. So I did - for about four years. But then that secret nearly ended his life.
When Jasper started his first day of high school, I thought my life was going to end. My guardian was gone – off to bigger and better things. I couldn't offer him what high school did. I was terrified a girl was going to come sweep him off his feet and I'd never see him again. A new family would set a plate for Jasper every night. He'd find a new friend to race around town with on his pedal bike. So when I got home from school that day and opened the door to find him sitting at our kitchen table, waiting for me with a wide grin on his handsome face, I threw myself at him and cried.
I was always crying.
He'd laughed as he held me, and promised me that no matter what happened, he'd always be there. Or, how I think he put it at the time was more like: "Bells, if I stop hanging around with you, then who do you expect to stop you from walking into stuff?" Funny thing is though, almost ten years later and he's still picking my ass up and bandaging scraped knees.
And shit, I don't know where I'd be without him.
But even with Jasper off attending high school, our rituals remained the same and every night Renee set a spot for him at the table. And he was there, no matter what. If he had baseball practice, I'd set our dinners aside and wait so we could eat together and exchange stories about our days.
High school fascinated me, and terrified me. I was two years behind him, and to me it seemed like an entirely strange new world. To me, Jasper may as well have been on a completely different planet.
He told me about how lenient the teachers were; they usually didn't check your homework so he didn't have to do it if he didn't feel like it. And he told me about the magic math books that had the answers left in the back. You could be late for class and most teachers didn't give detention. And sometimes, he skipped class altogether and hung out in the parking lot with the other kids, or went down the road and played a couple rounds of pool with his baseball buddies. He promised me the cafeteria made the best grilled-cheese sandwiches I'd ever taste. And he told me about the girls; the cheerleaders, that were always asking him for dates.
"How come you don't go out with those girls?" I'd asked him, a little afraid to hear the answer.
He'd shrugged, his grey eyes dancing as he teased, "Maybe if the right one asks me someday, I will."
I nodded and wondered what he meant by that. I didn't want him for myself that way, but I didn't want some other girl to have him either.
When he did start dating, I was crushed at first. But nothing between us really changed. He still promised me I was the number one girl in his life. He dated a cheerleader named Maria semi-seriously for about a year, but even she couldn't come between us. He broke it off with her when she started talking about marriage and babies the year they graduated. And when guys starting asking me out, he was always watching over me like a protective brother. He probably scared away quite a few guys; he rarely approved of any. For a long time I thought Jasper would be the only boy I would ever love; the only one he'd let me love. Then love took on an entirely new meaning the summer I was fifteen and he was seventeen. It was also one night that same summer that he missed a dinner at my house without any explanation – the first time in six years.
That was the summer his dad nearly killed his only son.
"Come on, Bella, let's go."
I looked up and saw Jasper's intense grey eyes watching me as he put his cigarette out on the ashtray between us on the bar. His face was pulled together, a crease stretching across his forehead that told me he'd been deep in thought as well.
I shrugged my leather jacket back on and pulled a bill out of the pocket of my jeans, tucking it under my empty glass for Gerry. He was still occupied further down the bar, talking to some old trucker that frequented the place. Jasper stood and waited for me to pass, then followed me out the door.
There was no hugs, no tears, no more empty promises. We were discrete; we had to be.
Jasper pulled up his hood and I put my head down and we were gone. The wind whipped my hair around my face as I paused and glanced back at the broken neon "Open" sign that flashed sporadically outside the weather-beaten door of the Gerry's Bar.
It was a beautiful moment, in a broken, bittersweet kind of way. We would never see Gerry the bartender again.
A/N: So... will shirtless Jasper make up for the lack of Edward in the first few chapters? I must placate the readers somehow... (Okay, that's a lie. It's utterly and completely for my own enjoyment. Selfish? Maybe.) There will always be a special place in my heart for that man. I think… maybe… we'll see a lot of him sans shirt, regardless.