Bella finished off her tepid coffee and forced herself not to think about the green-eyed boy trudging out into the frigid night in his wholly inadequate clothing. She had enough troubles of her own and she was sure someone else would offer him a lift. She had just run away from one abusive situation; she surely didn’t want to put herself in even worse danger by offering a lift to some itinerant, possibly psychotic, Goth boy.
With her mind made up, she gathered her things and made her way to the bathroom, wincing at the sharp pain in her stiffening ribcage. Emerging from a cubicle, she washed her hands and then took a minute to examine the damage which Jake had wrought upon her face. The swelling across her cheek and around her eye was now clearly visible, highlighted as it was by the deep, purple bruising which had spread across almost half her face like a port-wine birthmark. The one saving grace was that, although her eyelid was a little puffy, the eye itself hadn’t closed up. Despite the fact that she looked like she was squinting, she still seemed to have full vision. As long as it didn’t swell any further, she would be okay to drive, which was the main thing. With this in mind, she delved into the pocket of the bag she’d brought in with her and pulled out the facecloth she had used earlier. It was drying out, so she wet it again under the cold tap and held it against her face for a few minutes, hoping to stop the swelling from getting any worse.
Sighing, she knew she needed to get back on the road before the freezing sleet—which she’d driven through from East London—turned to snow, as she made her way across the rural countryside.
Emerging from the warmth of the building, she was shocked at how much colder it had become in the relatively short time she’d been inside. She was grateful for her warm, fleece-lined boots and fur-lined coat, which she pulled around her as she ran for her car. Climbing quickly inside, she started the engine and cranked up the heat. Selecting her Jazz ‘n’ Blues playlist, she put the car in gear and drove towards the exit and petrol station, where she shivered in the cold, despite her warm, hooded coat, and then hurried inside to pay. Finally getting back into the car, she was on her way, heading towards the exit and the slip road back onto the motorway.
The sleety rain was definitely starting to turn to snow, as the wipers rhythmically swept the whitening, icy water from her windscreen. She kept her speed down to a steady thirty as she drove up the ramp towards the main carriageway and turned the wipers from intermittent to constant. As she did, something caught her eye, and she instinctively took her foot off the accelerator, her head whipping round to make sense of what she’d seen.
It was the boy.
He was stamping his feet, one trembling hand lifting a cigarette to his mouth, the other held out in the age-old gesture of the hitchhiker. His head was bowed, but as she slowed, he looked up and even through her rear-view mirror she could see him shaking.
Her first impulse was to stop, and her foot tapped the brake, causing her back lights to flair red in the darkness. She immediately castigated herself for being a fool and put her foot back on the accelerator. As she glanced once more in the mirror, she saw the boy’s head drop, his shoulders slump, and the arm that had been held out wrap tightly around himself, as he tossed the spent cigarette to the side. In those seconds, which took her further towards the end of the slip road and the point of no return, she realised that he might well die on this road tonight. The temperature was dropping alarmingly as the wind picked up and the snow continued to fall. With barely a car in sight, and none seeming to be coming out of the service station, he could well succumb to hypothermia within minutes, let alone hours.
It’s not my problem…
Telling herself she was insane, she again hit the brakes and stopped the car, barely yards from where she would be forced to join the inside lane of the motorway. She looked in the mirror, but he was just standing there, head down, shivering violently, and it occurred to her that she might already be too late. Quickly looking all around her, she put the car in reverse and carefully starting backing up, all the while keeping her eyes glued to her nearside wing mirror, where she could see the young man almost literally frozen to the spot.
She stopped just in front of him and leaned over to push the passenger door open, shivering as the icy air immediately slithered inside the car and chased the warmth away. Turning to look through the back window, she saw him, finally, lift his head and gaze at the car, seemingly bemused to see it there in front of him. Shaking her head, Bella climbed out of the car, and ran round the back. She couldn’t help being taken aback by just how cold it was, and wondered how he had survived out here for the last half an hour or more since he’d left the café.
“Just get in the damned car before we both freeze to death… and before I change my bloody mind!” she yelled.
And, at last, he seemed to be galvanised into action. He looked at her for a moment, surprise clearly written all over his pale, gaunt face, but then obviously decided he couldn’t afford to look a gift horse in the mouth as he moved himself towards the open door.
At the same time, Bella opened the tailgate and grabbed a large, thick blanket which was folded up in the corner. She then ran round to the driver’s side and opened the back door, pulling her coat from the seat, before slamming the door and climbing quickly into the car and settling herself behind the wheel.
The first thing that occurred to her was how stupid she was to let a hitchhiker sit alone inside her car with the engine running.
This thought was totally overridden by the sight of said hitchhiker curled up in the passenger seat, his teeth clattering loudly as his body was wracked with uncontrollable and violent spasms—clearly, he would have been incapable of doing anything, let alone getting behind the wheel and driving away.
Without further hesitation, Bella turned up the heating to maximum and opened the vents.
“Hey, kid… hey, can you hear me?” she asked. She put her hand on his arm and was appalled to find that his leather jacket was waterlogged and freezing. Lowering her hand to his leg, which shook and jerked like he was suffering from St Vitus’ Dance, she soon realised that all his clothes were soaked through and that if he was going to survive he needed to get out of them.
“Kid… shit, what’s your name? You need to change out of these clothes. Do you understand me?”
“M-m-m-my n-n-name iiiis Eh-eh-eh-Edward,” he whispered, his teeth chattering so hard he could barely get the words out.
“Edward… okay, good. Have you got anything dry you can change into… in your bag?”
Bella felt like she was talking to someone who was disabled in some way, and, to all intents and purposes, she supposed he was. Getting no reaction to her question, she put her hand on his arm again, the feel of the drenched leather making her cringe.
“Edward? Where’s your bag? Have you got any dry clothes?” She shook him slightly, but then reasoned that it was a pointless gesture, as he was still shivering so much anyway.
However, it seemed that she was finally getting through to him—the warmth of the car starting to raise his body temperature, she supposed.
“N-n-nothin’ c-c-clean,” he managed to say.
Bella seriously doubted that the clothes he had on were particularly clean, judging by the musty scent he was giving off, so she didn’t really want to give too much thought to what his dirty clothes might be like. Nevertheless, he needed to change, and quickly.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s clean, Edward, but you have to get this jacket off, plus your jeans and socks and shoes, otherwise you’re going to get hypothermia. Do you think you can climb into the back seat and get changed? I promise I won’t look!”
She smiled at him, and was rewarded with a small, crooked but tremulous smile which made her breath catch. In the glow cast by the dashboard and the motorway lights, she could see up close what she’d noted back at the café—that he was an extraordinarily beautiful young man; however, his unhealthy pallor and haunted eyes tugged at her heartstrings.
“I-I-I g-g-guess,” he finally said, in response to her question.
“Come on, then. The sooner you get out of those wet clothes, the sooner you’ll start warming up.”
With difficulty, he uncurled his body, trying to relax his cold, unresponsive muscles, and grabbed the bag which he’d set down on the floor between his legs. Turning, he pushed it between the front seats into the back and then awkwardly manoeuvred his long, gangly frame through the gap and onto the back seat.
Bella turned around to give him some privacy as he slid behind her seat and started undressing, pulling off his shoes and socks. His teeth continued to clatter alarmingly, and progress was slow, but at least he seemed to be getting there.
“S-s-sorry ab-b-out the smell,” he muttered, and Bella automatically looked up to catch a glimpse of his face in the rear-view mirror, full of shame and embarrassment.
“Forget it, it’s fine,” she told him, looking away so that he didn’t see her witness his discomfort.
He continued to struggle in the back, but she could tell that, divested of his wet clothing, he was already starting to warm up, and a few minutes later he was climbing back between the seats to settle himself back in the front. As he sat down, Bella held out the blanket and her coat.
“Here, wrap the blanket around yourself and put the coat over your legs.”
He looked at her for a moment and then took the proffered articles. Leaning forward, he pulled the blanket behind his back and wrapped it around his body, and then draped the three-quarter length parka over his knees so that it covered his legs and feet.
“Okay? How are you feeling?” Bella asked, noting that, although he was still shivering, it was far less violently than before.
“Yeah, I’m ok-kay, thank you,” he replied, his voice soft.
“Good. Let’s get going then, before this snow gets any worse.”
She put the car in gear and accelerated quickly up the ramp, pulling easily onto the almost empty motorway. As she did, it occurred to her that not a single vehicle had passed them in all the time she had been stopped on the slip road, which, by her reckoning, had been some fifteen or twenty minutes. She couldn’t help but wonder if this clearly undernourished young man would have survived even a few minutes longer, let alone twenty. She frowned at the thought, but was prevented from dwelling on it further when the man in question spoke beside her.
“Why did you change your mind?” He spoke quietly, but in the silence of the car, his voice rang clear.
“Change my mind?” Bella flicked a glance at him before returning her attention to the road.
“You slowed and then started to drive away. What made you decide to stop?” There was no recrimination in his voice, merely curiosity.
“Um, I don’t know. I guess you just looked so cold, and I thought… well, there didn’t seem to be much chance that anyone else would pick you up.”
“But you’re a woman on her own. Most men wouldn’t pick up someone like me, let alone a woman. That’s why I didn’t ask you back at the services… well, that and the fact that you look like you’ve already been on the business end of some guy’s fist.”
Bella couldn’t help but feel a little irritated at his assertion.
“If you’re trying to tell me that I’m stupid for picking you up, I already know that,” she snapped.
He sighed and transferred his gaze from the road in front of them to her bruised profile. It didn’t escape him that she had effectively ignored his comment about her face. “I don’t think you’re stupid. I think… I think you’re the kindest person I’ve ever met, and I’m pretty sure you just saved my life.”
His voice dropped to a whisper, and she glanced round to see him return his gaze to the road ahead. She didn’t miss the way his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, his hand coming up from under the blanket to rub his eye.
She transferred her attention back to the road, noting with some concern that the sleet had now definitely turned to snow, which was starting to come down quite hard. At the moment, there was just enough traffic to keep it from settling on the six-lane highway, but if it got heavier, it might well become a problem. She couldn’t help but be thankful that she was in a 4x4 rather than a rear or front-wheel drive vehicle.
To take their minds off the heavy subject matter of moments earlier, and distract herself from worrying about the weather, she racked her brain for something else to talk to Edward about.
“So, where are you heading?”
At first, he didn’t respond, and she glanced over at him to see if he’d fallen asleep, only to find his soulful green eyes regarding her intently.
“Edward? Where do you want me to drop you off?”
He shook his head and looked out the window. “Anywhere. Bristol, I guess… if you’re going that way.”
“Bristol? Um, no, I’m not actually. Have you got a place to stay tonight? I’m going to transfer onto the M5 and head up towards Cirencester tonight, so I need to know that if I drop you off, you have somewhere to stay. It’s going to be after three o’clock in the morning, so will someone be there to let you in?”
“Uh, well, I was heading for a friend’s place in Bristol…”
Bella sighed. “Okay, well I obviously can’t just turf you out at the interchange, but I guess I could take you into Bristol and then come back. It’s not that far out of my way, as long as the snow doesn’t get any worse. I can’t believe this weather in November. Whereabouts does your friend live?”
Again, he didn’t respond, and Bella was starting to get worried.
“You do have an address, don’t you?”
“Uh, well, not exactly. I just thought I’d give him a call when I get there…”
“Seriously? If you aren’t sure where you’re going, why didn’t you stay in London until the weather improved? Or at least stayed at the services until you could get a lift all the way to Bristol? Why on earth did you leave it so late?”
Edward sat up straight from the slouched position he had adopted, pulling Bella’s parka off his legs and tossing it onto the back seat behind him.
“Look, I thought I did have time, all right? But I’ve been stuck at those poxy services all fucking day trying to get a lift and Security were trying to throw me out, like I was some kind of filthy fucking tramp or something. They were watching me, and I was making one last punt to see if I could get a ride. Okay?”
He was angry, which made her feel bad. “Surely they can’t turn you out if you’re using the facilities?”
“What, you mean buying food and drink? Yeah, I managed to make two cups of overpriced coffee and a sandwich last most of the day before I had to knock that on the head,” he grumbled.
“Jesus, Edward, really? That was all the money you had?”
His voice dropped, obviously embarrassed. Bella understood being hard up, but she didn’t think she’d ever been so poor she couldn’t afford to feed herself.
“Yeah, well, it was over ten quid for the coffee and sandwich, which only leaves me with about another fifteen quid, which I thought I’d need, and I didn’t wanna spend it all on fucking shit in a service station… sorry, I… excuse my language.”
Bella shook her head. “I don’t care about that, Edward. I just… I mean, how the hell did you think you would manage with so little money? Why would you leave home and head off to some nebulous friend’s home, with no plan or the wherewithal to find a place to stay?”
“Fuck you, okay! You’ve got no fucking idea what it’s like to be poor, to have nothing. People like you swan about in your fancy fucking cars, living in million pound fucking houses—who the hell are you to look down on me…”
His voice broke and he covered his face with his hands, his shoulders shaking, although not from the cold this time.
Bella reached her left hand out and put it on his shoulder, but he jerked away from her.
“Edward, I’m sorry, really I am. I shouldn’t have been so judgemental. It’s only because I’m worried about you. I can’t possibly just drop you off somewhere, with no money and nowhere to go in this weather. You’ll freeze to death—literally. And having gone to so much trouble to keep you alive, that would seriously piss me off!”
She tried to lighten the moment with a small joke, reaching out again with her hand and rubbing his arm gently. This time he didn’t pull away.
He dropped his hands, but still didn’t look at her.
“Sorry, you’ve been really kind to me… more than kind. I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay.” She put her hand back on the steering wheel.
After a few minutes of silence, she reached over for her iPod and turned it on, flooding the car with soft jazz. She turned down the volume a little and glanced over at her companion.
“I do know what it’s like, you know… to be poor.”
In her peripheral vision, she saw him turn his head towards her, but he didn’t speak.
“My mum and dad never had two pennies to rub together, and when they died I had to go and live with my aunt and uncle, who had even less money. I managed to get a scholarship to art school, but I had to live at home and work two jobs just to survive, and for the last eight years I’ve worked as a waitress and a barmaid because there were no jobs when I graduated. So I do know what it’s like to live hand to mouth and wonder if there’ll be enough money to pay the gas bill in the winter.”
She could feel his stare, and wondered why she felt compelled to tell this stranger about her life.
“So, what? You won the lottery or something?”
She chuckled at his question. “In a manner of speaking. I met a guy, who introduced me to someone, who introduced me to someone else, who liked my work. She was a published children’s author and commissioned me to illustrate her stories. I got paid enough to be able to give up waitressing and bar work, and then I wrote a book, which got published.”
“You wrote a book?” His voice was full of awe. “Like a proper book that people buy?”
She laughed. “Yeah, a proper book that quite a lot of people bought, as it turned out.”
“What’s it called? Would I have heard of it?”
“I don’t know. I suppose it depends if you read a lot of books.”
“Hmm, is it chick-lit? I don’t read that shit.”
Bella laughed again. “Well, maybe. It was a kind of a ghost story cum love story—‘The Dark House’ by I M Swan.”
“Fuck, you’re I M Swan? I thought you were a man!”
“Ha, well that’s the idea. Apparently, men don’t like reading books by women, so publishers often suggest they use male pennames or their initials. So, does that mean you’ve read it—I thought you didn’t read that shit?”
“Uh, no, but I’ve seen it in bookshops and it was featured on ‘The Late Review’ show. The critics really liked it.”
She glanced over at him, a surprised look on her face.
“You watch ‘The Late Review’ show?”
He scowled indignantly. “Yeah, why would you find that so surprising?”
“No, you’re right, that was really condescending… sorry.”
“Yeah, well, I just caught it on the telly when I was round someone’s house, you know?”
Bella nodded, and they were quiet for a while.
“So, what does the I M stand for?”
Bella wondered, just for a second, if she had already given too much away, but then she decided it didn’t matter—she had already told him who she was, and it was only reasonable, having given her his name, that she should reciprocate.
“Isabella Marie… but my friends call me Bella.”
“Izz-a-belllla.” He drew the name out, rolling it around, and smiled. “It’s a beautiful name, either way you say it. Suits you… um, is it okay if I call you Bella?”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” she told him, a little nonplussed at how much she liked hearing him say her name.
They drove on, sticking to the middle lane of the almost empty motorway, as the increasingly heavy snowfall began to settle in thick drifts on either side.
“So, Edward, we need to talk about what’s going to happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for a start, I’m going to have to revise my offer to make a detour—this snow is just getting worse and worse, so Bristol’s out. But there’s no way I’m going to leave you to fend for yourself, because clearly you won’t make it. I could give you some cash and drop you off in Cirencester, but I don’t have more than about twenty pounds on me, and even if I stop at a cash point and get some more, you may well struggle to find somewhere to stay at this time of night. Only the big hotels will have 24-hour reception service and they will want a credit card to guarantee the room—especially with someone who looks like you. Sorry, no offense, but you don’t look like… well, you know what I mean.”
She looked at him and he just shrugged, knowing she was right.
“I don’t want to take your money, anyway. You’ve already done enough for me. I’m not a ponce.”
Bella sighed. “I don’t think you’re a ponce, Edward, but we’ve already established that, right at this moment, that’s not going to work in any case.”
“Look, I’m sorry, you don’t have to worry about me. I don’t want to be any bother. If you could let me out when we get to a decent town, I’m sure I can find somewhere. Maybe you could let me keep the blanket. If you give me your address, I could send you the money for it when I’ve managed to sort myself out.”
Bella was silent for a moment, thinking hard. If stopping to pick up a stranger was crazy, then what she was about to say next was pure madness. But what else could she do? There was no way he was going to survive if she left him at the side of the road tonight—a blanket would be next to useless in the current conditions, and she couldn’t bear the thought of abandoning him to the elements. He would surely die, and she refused to have that on her conscience. Which left only one option.
“I’m sorry, Edward, that’s just not going to happen. There’s only one thing that makes sense, and that’s for me to take you to my place. You can clean yourself up, get a good night’s sleep---”
“Wait, wait, hang on a minute—take me to your place? Are you insane? You can’t be serious!” He had turned bodily in his seat to stare at her, an incredulous expression on his face.
“A simple thank you would suffice, you know!”
“Bella, you’re crazy. I can’t come home with you. Do you have no sense of self-preservation at all?”
“Why, are you a psychopath?”
“For all you know, I could be.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, of course you’re not a psychopath. Now, have you any other objections?”
“Bella, I… Jesus!” He ran his fingers through his long hair, clearly frustrated.
“Look, like I say, it’s just for one night. A warm bed, a good night’s sleep, something hot to eat. We can do some laundry. Then tomorrow, we can see about getting you into Bristol to find your friend.”
He shook his head in disbelief, but underlying it was a spark of hope, something he hadn’t felt in a very long time. “I don’t know what to say. Are you sure, Bella?”
“Of course. There now, it’s all settled. All we have to worry about is that this snow doesn’t delay us too long.”
If she was honest, she had no idea why she trusted the young stranger, but she did. Maybe he was right… maybe she was crazy. But something told her this wasn’t a mistake.
She smiled at him and then looked back to the road, letting the big car take them… home.