Blind Squirrel Finds Nut

Cock

In spite of the warning bells going off inside his head, Josh decided to stop. He knew a woman, even one with a young girl with her, who was hitchhiking, could have a man somewhere near her; a man with a gun or ill intent. Still, it was cold and getting dark, and there was no way he wasn’t going to at least offer them a ride.

He pulled the F-250 that was towing a horse in the trailer hitched behind the truck over and put on his emergency blinkers. He rolled the window down and asked the woman, “Where are you headed?”

“Away from here?” she answered in the form of a question.

“I’m headed to Florida. Is that far enough away from here?” he asked her.

“Florida? Florida is warm so…sure. Sounds good to me.”

“All right. Climb on up,” he told her.

She helped the girl in first and Josh saw she was maybe eight or nine give or take a year or two.

“Hey there, young lady,” he said as she sat next to him in the large cab. The girl didn’t speak as her mom piled in behind her.

“Oh, it feels so good in here!” she said as the warmth enveloped her. “It’s freezing cold outside. Oh, and thank you very much.” She helped her daughter with the seat belt, fastened hers then said, “Okay. We’re good.”

Josh flipped off the emergency blinkers and hit the left turn signal to merge into traffic.

“I wanted to let you know, Florida is warm-er than Virginia, but it isn’t exactly warm this time of year. More like pleasantly chilly,” he told the woman.

“I’ll take it,” she said again expressing her gratitude.

Josh only looked at the girl once and her mom twice, but none of this made sense. The mother was a very attractive blonde and her daughter was as pretty as they come. Something was obviously wrong, but Josh had no intention of prying. It wasn’t his business and it was a free country. As long as the girl was with her mother by choice—and that appeared to be the case—it wasn’t his place to judge.

Moments later they turned off the backroad they’d been on in middle-Virginia horse country and headed toward I-95 where they headed south and drove along through the rest of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and finally into the Sunshine State.

“Do you have a horse in the trailer?” she said breaking the long spell of silence. The girl was sound asleep and leaning against her mom.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I just bought one at the ranch a few miles where I picked you up.”

“Ah, yes. I know it well,” she said. “I rode there for many years.”

“No kidding?” he said glancing over at her in the dim light of the truck’s cab. “What do you do now?”

“Well, I was teaching elementary school, but it’s time for a change of venue,” she told him.

Even in the dim light he saw the reflection off of a very large diamond ring on her left hand which only added to the mystery. The way she looked and the way she was dressed spoke of money and class, not the kind of poverty and problems one typically associated with a mother and her daughter out hitchhiking at dusk on a very cold night.

Curiosity welled up inside him, but he fought it back and kept driving.

“You hungry?” he asked her.

“No, I’m fine. Thank you, though.” In fact, she was hungry and she was sure her daughter was, too. But she also knew if she didn’t wake her up, she’d be fine until morning.

“How about a cup of coffee then?” he asked her.

“Well, I guess that would be okay,” she told him. “I have money so…”

“Forget it. I can afford a couple of bucks,” he said with a smile as he pulled off the freeway.

He went through a McDonalds which, at some time a few years back, had gone from having some of the world’s worst coffee to some very drinkable joe at an affordable price. He ordered two cups with cream and sugar, which neither he nor the woman next to him used.

He’d also ordered some pastry just in case then said, “You know what? I’m not as hungry as I thought. Why don’t you go ahead?”

“Are you sure?” she said hoping he meant it.

“Yep. Help yourself.”

The woman saved half for her daughter then enjoyed the rest with her coffee.

They’d been back on the freeway for a while when the woman said, “My name is Aspen and my daughter’s name is Jennifer. Well, everyone calls her Jenny. You know, like the girl in the Forrest Gump movie.”

The driver laughed and said, “I’m Josh. Nice to meet you, Aspen.” He extended his hand without looking at her and her very soft hand told him she most definitely didn’t work outside.

“May I ask what you do?” she said as she finished her coffee.

“I work at the Diamond D ranch which is just outside of Jacksonville. I do a little bit of everything which means pretty much whatever my mom, who owns the place, needs me to do. I took a four-year break to go to college and had big plans of doing some new and totally unrelated—and of course, very exciting—thing, but horses are in my blood and in then end, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”

“I understand. I really miss riding. Escort Bayan I rode until I was 17. I also went off to college and got a degree in elementary education but never got back to riding.” She sat quietly for a minute then when she spoke again, the enthusiasm in her voice was gone. “I ended up getting married right after graduation, and a year later Jenny came along so after just two years, I quit teaching, too.”

He was dying to ask what in the world she was doing out here late at night with her daughter whom she was willing to take to Florida with a total stranger but assumed at some point she’d tell him.

A few minutes later she offered a clue. “Things got pretty…tense recently. It wasn’t a sudden thing. Well, at least not until last night. It had been building for years. My husband is a lawyer…or he was, at least. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be disbarred but that’s totally separate from why we’re, you know, on the road.”

“I’m a pretty good listener if you ever feel like talking,” he said and left it at that. Yes, something was definitely very wrong in paradise.

Aspen had no idea what time it was when she woke up, but she quickly noticed they were on I-295 which looped around Jacksonville. A few miles later, she saw Josh turn West onto I-10. A few miles later he headed south on Route 301 then turned onto a an unmarked paved road that led out into a secluded area with houses here and there before ending up on a bumpy dirt road where a sign read: Diamond D Ranch straight ahead.

He pulled up to the barn and said, “Well, this is it. You have arrived. We’ve got a ranch house you can stay in overnight and when you get up, we’ll have breakfast. Once you decide exactly where you want to go, I’ll be glad to give you a lift. For now, this will be safe and warm and at least reasonably comfortable.”

Josh Sutherland was on the money. Aspen Crawford was indeed on the run. Her husband, Richard, had never hit her until the previous night when in a drunken rage, he lashed out and hit her so hard she nearly blacked out. He’d been drinking heavily for years and it had gotten progressively worse until he was let go at work four months ago. She’d adapted to his angry outbursts and the horrible things he called her, and she stayed for her daughter’s sake until it turned violent.

Being home all day and unemployed, Richard drank even more. This vicious circle began spinning out of control when they went through the last of their savings just to put food—and booze—on the table as their mortgage and bills went unpaid.

They were close to being evicted, the power had been turned off earlier in the day, and her cell phone had also been disconnected. She had about $150 in cash put away in a safe place and after he’d hit her, she waited upstairs alone until he passed out. While she waited, she packed as much as she could fit in two backpacks—a large one for her and a smaller one for her daughter.

She told her Jennifer to take a sponge bath and while she was bathing, Aspen took a cold shower and changed into a fresh set of warm clothes. Jenny began asking questions when her mom told her to get dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt instead of her nightie. “It’s gonna be cold tonight, honey,” she told her which was true. With the power off, it would probably get down to 60 inside the house, ten degrees colder than normal. Outside, it was already down to 55 degrees and was going to get even colder.

She forced her daughter to eat some nuts and granola cereal without milk, food they washed down with bottled water before brushing their teeth and heading out.

“It’s getting dark, Mom,” Jenny said. “Where are we going?”

“We have to leave,” she told her daughter. “We can’t stay here anymore.”

Jenny was almost nine and very intuitive. “It’s Dad, isn’t it?” she asked more as a statement than a question.

Aspen would have taken the car but it was out of gas and on the verge of being repossessed. She’d never hitchhiked in her life and while she was afraid for her daughter’s sake, she was more afraid to stay. If she didn’t leave tonight, there might not be another tomorrow. No, it was unlikely he’d kill her. But were he to hit their daughter or were she to see him hit her mother… Her parents had moved to California three years ago, and Richard had continually isolated her from her friends and the outside world. She had no one she could call, and now was the time to leave as it would only get colder and more dangerous with each passing day.

Aspen had married Richard right out of college. He was three years ahead of her and had just graduated from law school while she’d earned a teaching degree. They’d both grown up in Northern Virginia and she’d spent much of her early life working with and riding horses. She’d been an excellent rider and won several dressage competitions. Only her love of children exceeded her love of horses. But only the best riders in the world made enough money to live on so no matter how much she loved the equine world, practicality and the handsome new lawyer who’d proposed to her had won out.

Aspen had no trouble finding a job almost immediately, and she’d loved teaching school while her handsome new husband began working at a prestigious law firm in Fairfax County. The hours were long and brutal and began taking their toll on him personally and then on their marriage. He would come home after a 12-hour day and have a few drinks before falling asleep then get up and do it all again the next day, six or seven days a week.

She got pregnant with Jenny that first year and by the end of her second year of teaching, Richard wanted her to stay home full-time and raise their daughter. He made an adequate amount of money and as much as she loved teaching, she was happy to be with her daughter as a stay-at-home mom.

His drinking continued to get worse over time, but he’d never missed a day of work until about a year ago. He showed up two hours late the first time and a friend had covered for him. The next time however, he’d failed to be in court to assist a senior partner and he’d been formally counseled. By sheer force of will, he held it together for several more months and that’s when the numerous cracks in dam gave way. Within a week, he’d been let go without a severance package. Making matters worse, Jenny’s certification had lapsed so teaching, for the next few months at least, was out of the question.

As bad as it was having Richard home all day, it was nothing compared to the endless drinking. No, that wasn’t true. Living in fear of him as his angry outbursts grew louder and more frequent was much worse. For the first time, Aspen was afraid of her husband, but until he hit her, she’d managed to set her fears aside and keep hoping against hope things might somehow change.

Now, after having hitchhiked all the way south of Jacksonville, here she was with her daughter sitting in a stranger’s ranch house on a horse farm with $148.87 to her name. For now, they were both safe and warm, but she had no idea where to go or what to do.

The following morning, Aspen was startled out of a very deep sleep by some gawd-awful noise. She shook her head and sat up in bed and heard it again. “What in God’s name is that?” she said out loud. Jenny was still sound asleep as Aspen stood up and looked out the window. Standing on a woodpile and crowing at the top of its lungs was a rooster that was sporting a huge, red comb.

“Cock-a-doodle do to you, too,” she said as she realized how badly she needed to pee. The problem was, the bathroom was inside the house and she hadn’t been invited in yet. Mother nature drove her to act and after pulling on her coat and shoes, she walked over and knocked on the door.

“Oh, hello there. You must be the young woman my son picked up in Virginia.”

“Sorry to bother you. I…just need to use the restroom in the worst way,” she said managing a smile.

“Right down the hall, honey. Then go bring that girl of yours over and we’ll have breakfast. I take it Old Red woke you up bright and early?”

“Yes, he definitely let me know he was there,” she said as she slid on by.

After washing her hands and face and feeling much better, she went back and coaxed Jenny to life.

“Where are we, Mom?” she said through a yawn.

“We’re in Florida. On a horse ranch.” Old Red screamed and Aspen added, “With a real, live rooster. Come on. Get dressed. You can use the bathroom in the house and we’ll get something to eat.”

Aspen loved her daughter more than anything and she admired the way she accepted life as it came. Many kids would have been angry or lashed out. Jenny just rubbed her eyes, got dressed, and went next door with her mom.

“Well, aren’t you a pretty little thing,” the woman said as Jenny walked in. She looked at Aspen then said, “I’m Alma Sutherland. I own the Diamond D.”

Josh walked in and said good morning. “And as you already know, Josh is my son. He’s also my right hand here at the ranch. You go use the bathroom, young lady, and we’ll get pancakes on your plate.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jenny said quietly as she headed down the hall.

“She’s very pretty,” Alma said to Aspen.

“I told you she was, Mom,” Josh said.

His mother turned to him and said, “No, you told me her mother was pretty.” She turned back toward Aspen and said, “He was right—and so am I about your daughter. What’s her name?”

Aspen told her then saw Josh pouring himself a cup of coffee. She hadn’t really gotten a good look at him last night and she was surprised when he turned around. He was smiling at her, and she couldn’t believe how good looking he was. He was around six feet tall, had dark hair, bright blue eyes, and an amazing smile. He reminded her a bit of Richard when they’d first met although Josh was even more attractive than her husband had been.

“Mornin’,” he said to her. “How’d you sleep?”

“Very well, thank you. Like a baby, actually.”

“Can I pour you some coffee?” he asked as Alma turned the cakes on the griddle.

“Oh, yes, please!” she said. He poured her a cup, handed it to her, and offered her a seat.

Jenny came back and her mom patted the seat next to her. “Have a seat, honey.”

Josh smiled at her but didn’t get a smile back. “Would you like a glass of milk or maybe some orange juice?” he asked.

“Milk, please,” she said quietly.

“I’ll get it,” Alma said as she was right next to the refrigerator.

Jenny thanked her politely and took a sip. “I’m starving,” she whispered to her mom.

“We’ll be eating in just a couple of minutes, okay?” Jenny nodded and took a larger drink then laid her head on her mom’s arm.

Alma set some pancakes in front of Jenny then asked, “How old are you, sweetheart?”

“Eight,” she said quietly.

“She’s almost nine,” Aspen quickly added.

Alma set a stack in front of Aspen then said, “What in the world are the two of you doing hitchhiking? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?”

Aspen knew very well how dangerous it is. She started to reply when out of nowhere Jenny quietly and matter of factly said, “My dad drinks all the time and he gets really angry. We had to get away from him.”

Suddenly Alma’s countenance changed. “Can we talk?” she said to Aspen who followed her to the other side of the room. “Did your husband hurt you, hon?” she asked quietly.

“No. Well, not really. He only hit me once, and I’m fine so…”

“Once? Once is enough. If they do it once, they’ll do it again. I hate men who hit women. I don’t need to know anything more. Tell you what. You can stay here for a few days if you like. Josh’ll tell you what needs to be done. Between you and your daughter, there’s plenty to be done. But shouldn’t she be in school?”

“Well, yes, but this is only for a few days, right? I’m sure we can find someplace to live soon and we’ll be…”

Alma stopped her again. “Look, if this is gonna be more than a day or two, she needs to be in school. You can use my address and we can get her enrolled today then you can come back and start earning your keep.”

Aspen went to argue, but Alma was a force to be reckoned with. “Tell your little girl to go finish her breakfast then go and get a bath. I’m guessing you got clean clothes in your backpack, right?”

An hour later they were on their way to get Jenny enrolled in the local elementary school, and a wave of nostalgia swept over Aspen.

“I was an elementary school teacher,” she said. “Before Jenny was born and then when she was a baby.”

Alma grunted but didn’t reply. Inside, things were going well until the secretary said, “Okay, we just need proof of immunizations and we’re all set.”

Aspen had no documentation of any kind with her and no money to pay for an office visit. Alma whispered, “Are her shots up to date?”

“Yes, of course, but…”

“They’re Christian Scientists and they don’t believe in vaccinating their children,” she said to the school secretary.

Those words were like magic. “Oh…okay, in that case…she’s all set.”

Aspen walked her daughter to her new classroom and briefly said hello to her new teacher. She was maybe 25 and although she wasn’t showing too much, Aspen could see was pregnant.

“Hi, I’m Mrs. Corbin,” he said to Jenny. “This paper tells me your name is Jennifer Crawford. Is that what you like to be called?”

She had a warm, friendly smile and Aspen felt a wave of relief wash over as her daughter quietly said, “Jenny.”

“Jenny. Great.” She turned and said, “Class? This is Jenny. Please tell her hello.”

The entire class waved and several girls said, “Can she sit by me?”

Mrs. Corbin assigned her a seat then asked Aspen if there was anything she should know.

She turned her back to the class then said to the teacher, “We’re not Christian Scientists and I’ll get my daughter’s immunization records soon. If she needs medical care…”

“Ah, gotcha,” she told her. “No worries. I’ll make sure she’s taken care of in the extremely unlikely event something happens. Recess is our biggest threat around here so…”

Aspen smiled and said, “I remember.”

“When you were a little girl?” she offered.

“Well, that and I used to teach elementary school.”

“Get outta here!” she said. “What are you doing now?”

“I guess I’m working at the Diamond D ranch…for now anyway.”

“Oh, Alma’s place. Lucky you,” she said with a smile that told her he understood. “Good luck with that.”

“Is she really that bad?” Aspen asked.

“I don’t know. I have a brother who says he loved his Marine Corps drill instructor so…I guess anything’s possible.”

Aspen did her best not to laugh but couldn’t help it. “That felt so good. I haven’t laughed in…” She stopped talking then said, “I should let you go. Um…thank you and let me know if Jenny needs anything, okay?”

“I will,” she assured her. “It was nice meeting you, Mrs. Crawford.”

“Aspen. Please call me Aspen.”

“Okay. And I’m Melanie—to you.”

Aspen turned to wave goodbye to Jenny but several girls were already huddled around her.

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