Chapter 1: Show Me What I'm Looking For
With a click of her lighter, Santana brought a fresh cigarette to her lips and ignited the end. She took in a deep drag, looking up from the worn book in her hand and pushing her aviators to the top of her head. She could see the heat lines coming off the dry asphalt in the distance, obscuring the oncoming traffic.
Every car and truck that passed her kicked up a cloud of dust and dirt, blowing it across her face. With a sigh she slipped her sunglasses back on her nose, and began flipping through the novel that lay open in her hand. She hadn't the faintest idea of why she came into possession of it. She knew the how and the when, but the why escaped her.
With her still burning cigarette between her fingers, she flipped to the back cover of the thin book, reading the excerpt as another truck came and went. "All endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time."
Santana shook her head, trying to decipher something, anything. But she just felt like she was going around in circles. All logical thought escaped her. Which wasn't anything new. She'd been lost for a while now, ever since she found out.
She flipped to the middle of the book, a small folded note in the centre. She pulled it out, before shutting the cover and tossing it on top of her knapsack that lay discarded in the dirt beside her. Even though she had read its contents a hundred times over the past few days, her hands still shook when she opened it, hoping that it had changed from the last time she saw those haunting words.
I'll be waiting for you when you do.
Not even I love you or I'll miss you. Just find yourself.
Santana shouldn't have been surprised; her grandmother was never one to show affection, or anything that could be construed as weakness for that matter. She was a hard woman right to the very end. But she was also strong, and wise, and caring. And Santana loved her. She was her best friend.
The use of past tense hit her like a ton of bricks, knocking the wind from her lungs. It made her clench her jaw tighter and scrunch the tiny slip of paper that was in her hand. She let out a strangled breath and released her fist, flattening out any creases in the note, before folding it back up and placing it in the book once more. Taking another drag of her dying cigarette, she began to kick the dirt beneath her worn, untied boots, doing her best to compose herself.
It wasn't a shock when it happened, she'd known about the cancer for a year before she'd taken a turn. It was then that her father sent her grandmother to Los Angeles from Lima for treatment. But by then it was too late. Santana knew it; they all knew it. Yet they tried anyway. So she'd had a year to prepare for the inevitable end, but when the moment came to say goodbye it was like she was finding out all over again.
She went through the clichéd stages of grieving that they say you go through. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. But now a month later she was still finding it hard to move from the fourth to the fifth, a part of her refusing to accept this fate when all she had was an inheritance and a worn copy of The Five People You Meet In Heaven as the reminders her Abuela decided to leave behind.
When she sat in the hard leather chair opposite the somewhat pompous lawyer last week, she just felt numb. Here was a man that was just going to divide up her grandmother's life like it was mere inventory with a price tag. Even as he read out the will, the words ten thousand dollars and inheritance barely registered above the ringing in her ears. It wasn't until her mother gently rubbed her hand with her fingertips that she noticed the suit holding out a brown paper package for her with an expectant set to his brow. She snatched it off him and left it sitting on the armrest next to her as she continued to stare dejectedly at the mahogany bookcase behind his oversized desk.
The man had told her that she needed to open it so he could confirm that Santana had received its contents. She just snapped that she'd received it, swore and stormed out, the small package clutched in her left hand.
Her parents were worried, any caring parents would be. They didn't know how to handle their daughter anymore. She had gone from their loving, straight A student to an emotionally closed off girl that just seemed to be drifting through life. But when the cab arrived to take them to LAX, Santana, with as much strength as she could, asked them to let her go; to let her find her own way home. It was probably the greatest kindness she'd ever received from them when they simply nodded sadly and closed the car door.
Santana knew that they didn't understand her; though they tried. They weren't bad parents, they were actually pretty decent. Her father was the local GP back in Lima, and her mother taught science at the community college.
They were normal.
And they didn't get her at all.
Santana brought the last of her cigarette up to her lips, taking in a dissatisfying drag. Her body no longer welcomed the taste, or the relaxing hit. She flicked the butt onto the heated bitumen and watched as the embers scattered across the road. She stared at them, as they turned from glowing orange to black, thinking back over her Abuela's words.
I'll be waiting for you.
She reached over to her bag and picked up the book again, reading over the back cover, searching for something that made at the least a shard of logical sense.
With his final breath, he feels two small hands in his – and then nothing. He awakens in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a lush Garden of Eden but a place where your earthly life is explained to you by five people who were in it. These people may have been loved ones or distant strangers. Yet each of them changed your path forever.
Is she trying to tell me she's one of them, or am I yet to meet any?
The ground vibrated beneath her thick-soled boots, the sound of airbrakes and exhaust rumbling and churning the air around her. Santana looked up to see a large red eighteen-wheeler pull up beside her on the lip of the road. Shoving the book into the top of her bag, Santana got to her feet and dusted off the back of her denim shorts. Her black boots crunched against the gravel as she made her way up to the side of the semi.
An old bloodhound had its head sticking out of the lowered window, its droopy eyes looking down at her in curiosity. She shifted her bag higher on her shoulder as a gruff voice came from inside the cab. "Do you need a ride?"
A man in his early sixties appeared beside the dog, a wide smile appearing on his face. His skin was cracked and aged by the sun, his short beard almost completely grey and whiskery. He seemed friendly enough, his thick southern drawl somewhat comforting to her even though they were complete strangers.
Are you one of my five?
"I can take you as far as Phoenix, if you like?" he continued when he received no response from her.
Santana simply shrugged her shoulders and smiled politely at the man, before stepping onto the ledge of the truck and heaving herself up through the now open door. She swung her pack behind the chair where the hound was now happily lazing on the small backseat, and closed the heavy door. She settled herself into the worn leather, smooth country music playing low on the radio.
The old man threw the semi into gear, and pulled back out onto the long stretch of road. The cab had the faint smell of sweat with a hint of chewing tobacco, the engine even louder from the inside as it echoed around the enclosed space. The man kept his eyes on the road, changing the shift every so often and humming along to the music.
"Bill's my name," he rasped, glancing in her direction. "And what might your name be, young lady?"
"Santana," she replied.
"Well Santana, I'll be stopping just up the road for a minute or two. There is a diner just a few miles from here, so you can grab a cup of coffee if you want while I do my business, and then we'll be on our way."
Santana just nodded as she glanced at her watch, the hour hand just hitting eleven. It didn't take long before they were pulling into the car park, Bill driving up the back entrance and parking the semi in an available spot. Santana popped the door open and hopped down after grabbing her bag from behind her. She didn't wait to see what Bill was doing or whether he got out, letting him go about his business in peace.
Walking around the side of the diner she could see in through the window at the small crowd that occupied the red vinyl booths, and the waitresses that rushed by serving coffee and the lunchtime specials to the customers. Coming up to the glass door, Santana passed an old VW Kombi van parked out front near the entrance. It was a faded light blue and had a yellow smiley face air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror, with an array of pealing bumper stickers scattered across the back window. She lazily ran her finger along the side as she passed, the metal hot to the touch.
A small bell sounded as she walked through the entryway and took a seat at the counter. A redheaded woman in her forties came over with a notepad and pen, her hair in a tight bun under her waitressing hat. "What can I get for you?" she chirped as she brought pen to paper.
"Just a coffee to go."
The woman nodded and turned away to get the glass pot from behind her, Santana reaching into the front zipper of her black canvas bag and pulling out her purse. She walked back over with the coffee in hand, placing a takeaway cup down on the counter and pouring the dark liquid until it reached the top. Santana had just handed her a ten-dollar note when the sound of childish laughter reached her ears and drew her attention away from the waitress.
As the woman left to go to the till, Santana swivelled on her stool to see two girls in a booth across the diner. The shorthaired blonde was currently making a house out of her waffles, while a brunette was looking at a road map that was spread across half the table. The taller of the two had just grabbed the sugar and was sprinkling it over her waffles, a wide smile spreading across her lips.
"Rach, it's snowing," Santana heard her say, followed by an infectious laugh that made her insides tighten.
Her friend looked up from the map with a smile, reaching over and dislodging the sugar-coated door, before popping it into her mouth. Her grinning continued even when the other girl had begun to playfully scowl, though it came off as adorable rather than intimidating. The blonde leant over, forking a portion of the girl's pancakes and brought it to her mouth, chewing in silent satisfaction. The other just shook her head and went back to looking over the map, pulling it up off the bench top in an attempt to shield herself from her friend's childish pout.
With a slight empty feeling, Santana swung around as the waitress came back with her change and a plastic lid for her coffee. She thanked her, giving her a generous tip, before taking the lid and popping it securely on the top of her cup. She shouldered her bag and stood up, Santana turning back to the two girls just as she reached the glass door, not wanting to leave without one last glimpse of them.
The girl that was eating waffles was now throwing toothpicks into the house like miniature spears, the small pieces getting lodged in the roof. Her next one missed entirely, putting a tiny hole in the map her friend, Rach, was holding. As soon as it pierced the delicate paper, she dropped it to the table and threw the toothpick right back at her, the girl ducking out of the way. Santana could see her apologize with her hands up in surrender, though she laughed all the way through it, only making Rach throw more of the small wooden sticks.
With one last look at the two friends, Santana pushed the door open and began walking back to the semi around the back of the diner. Bill was already leaning up against the nudge bar, his white button up shirt fluttering in the warm breeze. When he saw Santana approaching, he let out a high-pitched whistle, his dog bounding over from a nearby tree.
They climbed in and settled back into the comfortable silence from before. Bill wasn't a hard man to be around. He didn't feel the need to fill the time with small talk or invasive questions. He just left her to stare out over the passing scenery as it went from dry shrubs and flat fields, to crops and green pastures. Bill would occasionally sing along to the music, or answer his radio when it squawked underneath the dash, but he mostly concentrated on the road ahead.
But with silence came thoughts, and with thoughts came her Abuela. But rather than thinking about what they'd had, her thoughts wandered to all the memories she'd no longer be able to make with her. All the things she no longer had the opportunity to tell her. So much was stolen from her, from them.
There was one thing that she wished she had told her before the end. She'd been hiding it from her for so long that by the time she'd gotten cancer it felt like she couldn't hurt her further by telling her. She knew what her reaction would be, and she hated disappointing her. She didn't want to see that look of disgust cross her face when she was already in so much pain.
Santana turned to Bill, the man whistling along to a Kenny Rogers song on the radio. She thought about her Abuela's words as she looked at his aging face, his white hair covered by his worn trucker cap. She wanted to tell him, even though it would achieve nothing. It wouldn't bring her grandmother back. It wouldn't make her hear the words. It wouldn't change a thing. But as Bill tore his gaze from the road and looked at her in curiosity, she could just feel the words on the tip of her tongue.
His face scrunched in confusion, Santana holding her breath as she worried her bottom lip against her teeth. After a moment his expression levelled out, that smile never leaving his face. He turned his eyes back to the road, placing a comforting hand on her knee and gently squeezing, before bringing it back to the wheel. They went back to their silence, Santana returning her gaze to the outside world.
Yep, that didn't make me feel better.
Twenty minutes later, Bill pulled into an old gas station, parking the semi in the large vehicle bay closer to the road. He unbuckled his seatbelt and adjusted his hat, before he climbed down from the truck, his dog following him out. Santana grabbed her bag and hopped down as well, slinging it over her back as she made her way over to an old and flaking bench on the side of the road. She reached into the pocket of her denim shorts and grabbed her last cigarette from the small packet.
Discarding the box, she flicked her metal lighter and inhaled the smoke into her lungs. It burnt on the way down, Santana cringing as she slowly released the white smoke. With a frustrated sigh, she tossed the full cigarette onto the road, it rolling across the asphalt, the tip slowly dying.
The sound of distance music met her ears as she kicked at the gravel with her now dust covered boots. Santana looked up just in time to see the blue Kombi from the diner speed past in a flurry of Joan Jett and laughter. She watched it go, only for the van to slow fifty feet down the road, the red brake lights flashing dimly in the early afternoon sun. Santana cocked an eyebrow when it began to reverse back up, only stopping when it reached the bench where she was standing.
A girl popped her head out of the driver side window, Santana surprised when she recognized her as the one making the waffle house from the diner. She bit her lip and pushed her pink-tinted sunglasses to the top of her head, looking Santana up and down. It was then that she saw the girl's eyes; these perfect almond eyes that had Santana losing her train of thought as they flicked up to met hers. "Want a ride?"
Santana shook herself out of her momentary daze to see her friend lean forward into view, a warm half smile on her face. Her brown hair was in two half braids that just touched her shoulders, and there was a certain air of innocence about her that came through in her smile.
"Oh, that's okay," Santana mumbled. "I'm with Big Red." She jabbed her thumb over her shoulder at the large eighteen-wheeler, both girls looking over to the truck than back to each other.
Rach seemed to shrug, nonchalant, the other girl glancing back at Santana with the hint of a smirk. "You're seriously choosing some guy over the two of us?" she queried, gesturing between the two of them. She shot her that smile again. It caused Santana's heart to thud a little faster in her chest, her words getting stuck behind her tongue. Misconstruing her silence for refusal, she continued to try and convince her. "We have bean bags."
"And a lava lamp," Rach piped up.
"And Joan Jett."
Santana was unable to wipe her elation from her face. It had been months since she genuinely smiled, or felt anything akin to happiness. It was an odd feeling, especially coming from two people she had only known for two minutes.
The girl flicked off the music and leant her elbow on the ledge of the open window, regarding her seriously for a moment. "Come on," she coaxed. "Where are you headed?"
"Anywhere but here," Santana said wistful, looking back up the expanse of road that stretched either side of her.
"Well you're in luck," she chuckled. "Cause we're going to Disney World."
"And you're driving?" Santana asked, sceptical. "Wouldn't it be quicker to just fly?"
"Of course, but where's the fun in that?"
Santana turned her head and looked back at the red semi behind her, mulling the offer over. She felt bad for Bill since he seemed genuinely like a nice man, and he was very generous for picking up a total stranger in the first place. But here were two girls that within a few minutes had made her forget about why she was even stranded.
"Okay," she digressed, "Sure." Turning back to them, she rounded the other side of the van where Rach had already opened the sliding door.
She slid into the back, tossing her bag to the floor and settling into the long off-white vinyl seat. There were empty Slushie cups and Coke bottles lying on the carpeted floor at her feet, Santana clipping her seatbelt loosely across her lap. She turned to look behind her, and sure enough there were two red beanbags with a yellow lava lamp going in the corner. There was also a stack of magazines and the girls' duffle bags lying just behind her seat.
Turning back around she saw the blonde girl scribbling something with a sharpie on the dash while the other held out her hand in greeting. "I'm Rachel, and this is Quinn."
"Santana." She leaned forward, taking the offered hand. All of a sudden Quinn jumped out of the van and began to jog over to Bill's semi trailer. She leapt up onto the metal step and hauled herself into the cab, disappearing inside.
"What's she doing?" Santana asked, slightly shocked.
"Oh, she's just leaving a note for your friend," Rachel told her. "We don't want him thinking we kidnapped you."
Santana nodded in understanding, a little saddened that she didn't think to do so herself. Quinn reappeared after a moment, running back over and sitting behind the wheel again, slamming the heavy door behind her.
"Welcome aboard the Elmo express," she announced, trying to suppress the giggle bubbling behind her lips. "I will be your driver for the duration of your stay-"
"Elmo?" Santana questioned. "But it's blue."
"My point exactly," Rachel jumped in, before Quinn could respond. She shot a playful glare at her, before turning her attention to the backseat.
"Sant-Ana?" she began, eyeing her suggestively. "Are you a saint?"
The way she was looking at her sent a chill down Santana's back and had her swallowing heavily. She dropped her eyes to her lap, unable to hold her gaze. This girl was definitely going to get her in trouble. She took a breath and looked back at Quinn who now had a teasing grin on her lips.
The smirk didn't leave Quinn's face as she hummed in smug agreement and turned back to the road. Flicking the stereo back on, she settled into her seat, the guitar riff to I Love Rock 'n' Roll filling the van again. She started the engine, the vibrations rattling through the seats. Santana watched as Quinn pulled the van back onto the road, the wind whipping her short hair around her face as she placed her sunglasses back on her nose.
Santana could feel a set of dark brown eyes on her, shifting her gaze to Rachel who was leaning her chin on the back of her seat and watching her careful. She looked away bashfully, a slight flush colouring her cheeks as she turned her eyes to the back window and to the gas station they were slowly leaving behind.
Santana bit her lip, turning to her bag and fishing out the book from on top of her clothes. She flipped to the first page, bending it back and began to read.
All endings are beginnings. We just don't know it at the time…
I know I'll get asked, so unlike AIWNSG, I've never been to the places they are going. But what kind of writer would I be if I let that stop me.
Until next time…