In less than ten minutes, they were there. They ran into the drearily lit station and over to the bus bays. There were only two buses there, closed down, with their lights turned off.
“Damnit!” Granger exclaimed.
“Let’s speak to the clerk,” Noelle yelled, running to the ticket office.
“We’re looking for two friends of ours,” she blurted out. The clerk scowled, looking at her dully, as if that was the last thing she wanted to deal with.
“There’s a young guy, who looks a lot like me, a couple of years younger, with longer hair, and he’s with a small blonde girl,” Granger said, coming up behind Noelle. “We think they just boarded a bus here.” The clerk sighed.
“I can’t give out information about other passengers. It’s against the law.” She began to turn away from them.
“Please, it’s important!” Noelle exclaimed. The woman glared at her over the top of her glasses.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you.” Granger sighed, a sound of total despondency.
“Could you at least tell us if any buses have left recently?” Noelle urged. The woman groaned, hauled her body around on a swivel chair and squinted at a computer screen.
“Three buses have left around 20 minutes ago. The destinations were New York, Seattle, and San Antonio.” Granger and Noelle shot each other worried glances. That left a lot of potential destinations.
“If I told you how much their tickets cost, could you tell me all the places they could’ve gone?” Noelle said, in her sweetest voice.
“I haven’t got all day to deal with you folks. I’m here to sell tickets. That’s all.” Noelle threw a glance over her shoulder. Apart from the two of them, the station was deserted. It was hardly like they had an impatient line of people waiting behind them. Some people were just born mean.
Granger stepped forward. He’d opened his coat and he put his hands on his hips, allowing the military badge on his shirt to come into view.
“Ma’am, this is official United States Army business,” he said. “And we’d be very grateful if you could help us on our way.” He flashed the woman a charming smile and she immediately transformed, her dull skin pinking and her eyes blinking fast. She gave a sharp, nervous nod. “Do you remember if two people matching the description we’ve just given you bought tickets here?”
“I do, vaguely, but I didn’t get their names, I’m sorry.”
“That’s ok. Can you recall what bus they left on?”
“No. Everything’s the same here. After a while you do your job on autopilot, hardly taking notice of anything that’s going on.” Noelle began to feel a twinge of pity for the woman. Her job wasn’t any fun. There was a sad, plastic Christmas tree sitting behind her in the booth, a string of tinsel hanging off it limply.
“Do you charge a booking fee here?”
“Not at the counter.”
“So if I told you that the tickets cost either $26.70 each, or $53.40 each, can you look through your recent transactions and let us know the destinations?” The woman shook her head. “We don’t have access to that information. Once the transaction’s complete, that’s it. They like to keep it real simple for us here.”
“Can you tell me all the possible destinations with those ticket prices?”
“Let me see. It might take a while.”
“That’s ok, ma’am,” Granger said, flashing that smile again, and Noelle could swear she saw the woman’s pupils dilate. She didn’t blame her. Just being in Granger’s presence was making her a little weak at the knees.
“This is positive,” Noelle whispered to him. “It’s safe to say that your brother is definitely on a bus to somewhere right now, so it looks like he’s got a plan in mind, and he’s not aimlessly hitchhiking.”
“You’re right,” Granger said, the muscles in his face relaxing. “It is good news.”
“Ok,” the woman cut in. “So there’s no fare of exactly $53.40. There are three possible destinations with a fare of $26.70 originating from this station though. There’s Coleman, Nolan, and New York.”
“New York?” they repeated.
“How can you get all the way to New York for $26?” Granger exclaimed. The woman shrugged.
“It’s a seasonal promotion. Blame Christmas.” Granger put his hands on his head, rubbing at his buzz-cut.
“And you honestly can’t recall which of those buses they took?”
“I can’t, sir. I am sorry.” Her face had lost its bitter expression now, and Noelle knew that she was telling the truth.
“That’s ok, thanks for all your help.”
“Merry Christmas to you, sir, ma’am.” They wished her the same, and stepped away from the counter.
“Would your brother go to New York?” Noelle asked. Granger groaned.
“He might. He’s never been before, and I know he’s always had this really idealized impression of it.” He pressed his lips together. “If he’s gone there, there’s no way we’re – no way I’m – going to be able to find him. It’s been hard enough in small-town USA, never mind one of the biggest metropolises in the world.”
“How about the other destinations – how far away are they?” They pulled their phones out and looked up Coleman and Nolan.
“Three and four hours, respectively. Probably an extra hour on the bus at least,” he said.
“Is there any reason why they’d be going there?”
“None that I can think of. I’d never even heard of those places until five minutes ago.”
“So, I guess your options include picking one of the directions and following the bus.” Granger shook his head.
“And go off on a wild-goose chase in the middle of a blizzard? No, I think I’ll leave my idiot brother for a few hours, and wait to see if he checks in anywhere.”
They stood side by side and looked out at the worsening weather. The snow was coming even faster now, in sheets of gray sleet. Noelle’s mind was racing. What now? She’d loved being in Granger’s company, despite the stressful circumstances, but now there was no reason for her to be there. She hated the thought of walking away from him. Not because she was lonely, but because she had a powerful urge to stay in his company; to keep looking at and talking to this incredible man.
Granger turned his head towards her and she felt his eyes on her face.
“Are you ok?” he said, his voice tense. “I’m sorry, I should’ve left you in the café where it’s warm, instead of dragging you out in this blizzard. I was just so stressed about my brother that I wasn’t thinking.” Noelle bit her lip, a little stung.
“Don’t be silly, I wanted to come with you and try to help you find him,” she replied. She met his eyes, and he smiled at her, his expression full of warmth.
“And you’ve helped me a lot. I wouldn’t have been able to get the answers out of that mean-spirited woman without your quick thinking!” he said. “So, from a purely selfish point of view, I’m really glad you were here.” She stared at him wordlessly. There seemed to be something more to what he was saying, but she couldn’t figure out what it was.
“I’m thinking that we should find ourselves someplace to sleep tonight,” he said with a laugh, indicating the fast-falling snow. Her heart skipped a beat. Is he saying we should stay at the same place? He began tapping an app on his phone.
“Oh. Apparently there’s nowhere to stay, in the entire town. Not even this really crummy motel that I passed earlier. Looks like we may have to battle the elements and stay a little further afield.” He returned to the app, frowning very cutely as he scrolled up and down.
“This is the one,” he said at last, and held the phone out to her triumphantly. The screen showed a photo of a wood-cabin style hotel, little orange lights glowing from the windows. He swiped on the photo, revealing a series of cute bedrooms. “It’s a 30-minute drive away.”
“It looks lovely,” she said, which was an understatement. If she was going to design her own hotel, that’s exactly how it would look. It also looked like it might be very expensive. He scrolled down the page.
“Oh. Apparently it only has one double room left. Damn. Let me call them real fast and see if that’s actually true.”
Noelle waited while he spoke on the phone.
“So, they do only have one room left, but it’s a big double, with a pullout couch.” His expression was a little anxious. “Shall we keep looking?”
“No, I’m happy to share,” she said. Although he was a virtual stranger, she found herself trusting him, as if they’d known each other for a long time.
“Are you sure? I mean, I’ve spent the last five years sharing some pretty close quarters with other guys, so it’s normal for me, but I appreciate that you may not be used to it.” He regarded her intensely, as if he was trying to read her thoughts. He’s thinking of me as one of the guys? Inexplicably, she felt a little offended. Then she mentally shook herself. This is a good thing, she reminded herself. It’s far more reassuring than if he’d made some creepy comment about him being a man and her being a vulnerable woman.
“It’s totally fine by me,” she said. “I never had my own room when I was growing up, so it’s pretty normal for me as well.”
“Great!” he said with a grin. “Apparently I snore a little, but it’s not too bad.”
“That’s ok, I’ve been known to snore on occasion myself.” she said, and, to her amazement, he looked quite impressed.
“So, I have more good news – the hotel has its own restaurant, and it’s supposed to be really good, which means that we don’t need to battle the snow twice, looking for a separate place to eat.”
“Isn’t it! Ok, wait right here, and I’ll be back with the car in about ten minutes,” he said.
“It’s fine, I’ll come too. I don’t want to make you drive back here –” she started to say, but Granger was already running out into the storm.
She sat down on one of the chipped metal benches lining the walls and waited.
After a few minutes, a mean little voice in her head piped up: he’s not coming back. That was his plan all along: to trick you and run away.
“No, he wouldn’t be that cruel,” she murmured to herself. Ok, it wasn’t his plan, but he changed his mind when he got in the car and realized what an effort it would be to have you around, the voice persisted.
“Nice boyfriend you’ve got,” a voice called out of the silence. She turned her head. It was the woman in the ticket booth. Noelle stood up to reply to her.
“Oh, he’s not my boyfriend,” she said. “We’re just acquaintances.”
“Not from where I’m standing,” the woman said, with a tight little laugh. “If you ask me, he’s got a real thing for you.”
“I don’t think so,” she said, moved out of the woman’s view. There was something unsettling about her; she was the sour old woman that Noelle could see herself becoming only too easily. She stamped up and down in a small circle. The hall was cold and her feet were going numb again. She sat down and looked at a big clock high on the wall, the second hand ticking around dismally. More than fifteen minutes had gone already. How long should she wait before realizing that he definitely wasn’t going to come back?