Sunny Skies

It was still dark when the fifteen-year-old arrived at the bus station, glad there weren’t many people there yet. She pulled her stepfather’s cap low over her forehead and hunched her shoulders just a little, trying to look older and a little off-putting. Moving quickly as she could, her life stuffed into her backpack, she reached the window and asked what a one-way ticket to Los Angeles costs.

Tired from the long night shift, the ticket clerk automatically gave her the information. But then she looked at Iris carefully. “How old are you, honey?”

Iris pulled herself straight and said, “I’m nineteen.”

“Yeah? Nineteen? Mmm, hmm. Me, I’m the Queen of Sheba.” The clerk shook her head slowly, sadly. “Honey, you gotta show me some ID to get a ticket.”

Grateful that Liz had warned her, Iris pulled her new, never-tested fake ID from her wallet. Please, please, please work. I know he’ll follow me. I hafta go.

The gray-haired woman looked carefully at the card, then at Iris’ face. “Um, well, this looks OK.” Her eyes swept the girl’s bruised wrist, cheek, and neck. She lowered her voice. “Isn’t there anyone here in Des Moines who can help you—family? friends? police? L.A. isn’t all sunny skies, you know. Nights there are mighty dark when you’re on your own. You’re awful young to be out there, honey.”

Why won’t anyone ever leave me alone? I know he won’t, an’ now she’s got all these questions. “Here’s my money. You saw my ID. Give me my ticket.”

The clerk sighed. She wrote a phone number on a blue sticky note and put it on the ticket, saying, “Keep this number. It’s a good place that helps kids in trouble. The folks there might be able to help you. When things turn bad, call it. They’re good people. They helped me once and prob’ly saved my life. And, honey, be so, so careful. There’s wicked people who watch incoming buses looking for new girls just like you. D’ya know what I mean? They’ll talk like they’re your friends, but they’ll lie to you, an’ they’ll use you. They’ll use drugs to handle you. Just know these things an’ be real careful. You know, you could call that number from here an’ I can cancel this ticket for you right now. You’d be a whole lot safer that way.”

The girl started trembling. “I can’t be here. I need to go as far away as I can. I must. Can, would, you just pretend you didn’t see me if someone asks?”

“Sure. But I’ll remember you in my prayers. Be careful and be safe, honey. God bless ya.”

Iris thought the clerk looked sad, so she smiled at her. “Thanks.”

She hurried to the departure bay and huddled into a corner. When the Los Angeles bus arrived, she waited until most of the other passengers had boarded, then got on. The driver didn’t even look at her. She sat far to the back, hidden. Between the tall headrests, she looked carefully at each person who boarded.

After what felt like a lifetime the door closed and the bus started moving. Alone on the seat, Iris heaved a sigh of relief. Her hand felt funny, and she saw she was tightly clutching the sky-blue sticky note the clerk had given her. She stared at it then smoothed it out carefully, folded it into a narrow strip and tucked it into her bra. She might be right. I might want this.

Feeling safe at least for a while, Iris fell asleep behind her knapsack and dreamed she was in a place with sunny skies—a safe place no one else could get into that she never had to leave.

The big westbound bus merged onto the highway as the sun rose behind it in a cloudless sky.

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