Luke Grayson woke up to the steady chirp of crickets and a tapping on the sole of his boot. He sat up and blinked in the weak glow of two lights: one a streetlamp twenty feet from the bench where he’d been sleeping and one a full moon hanging in the sky to the south.
“You can’t sleep here,” a voice said. “Private property.”
He saw two young men about his age standing over him, one with a scraggly beard and the other holding a hunting knife by its blade. Beard Man wore an oversized, flat-billed baseball cap that made him look like an idiot, and Knife Man had an earring the size of a half dollar. Luke realized it was the knife’s handle that had tapped the bottom of his boot.
“It’s a bench in a grocery store parking lot,” Luke said, wiping his eyes.
“Don’t matter.” Knife Man flipped the weapon over and gripped its handle. “You’re trespassing. Fine’s a hundred dollars.”
“I don’t have a hundred dollars. And you don’t look like a cop.” Luke glanced at the end of the bench. “Where’s my bag?”
“Right here,” Beard Man said, pointing to the pavement behind him. “You don’t got the fine, we’re taking it with us. Whatever you got in your wallet too. Stand up.”
Luke let out a sigh. This wasn’t the first time for this kind of thing, and wouldn’t be the last—but it still made him tired. He rose from the bench, clenched both fists, planted his feet …
The would-be thieves whirled around, and Luke looked also. Standing there was a short, middle-aged woman holding a shopping bag and looking past the two young thugs, staring straight into Luke’s eyes. “Billy,” she said again, almost whispering this time. “Is that you?”
“Get outta here, lady,” Knife Man growled.
“He’s right, ma’am,” Luke said, watching him. “Go on to your car.”
The woman turned away then, and Knife Man turned also, focusing on Luke. When he did, she whirled back again, a heavy skillet in her hand now, still in its store wrapper, and smashed it into the side of Knife Man’s head, so hard it made a BONGing noise and spun him completely around. He swayed on his feet a moment and fell nose-first onto the pavement, pausing only to bash his forehead against the bumper of a parked car on the way to the ground.
She looked at Beard Man. “When your friend wakes up, you tell him I’m gonna check this frying pan later, in better light, and if it’s dented he owes me thirty dollars. Understand?”
He swallowed. “Yes, ma’am.”
He leaped over his partner and sprinted off across the parking lot and into the trees on the far side, holding the stupid-looking cap on his head as he ran. Luke and the woman watched him leave, then she tucked her new skillet back into her shopping bag.
“Much obliged,” Luke said. “I was in sort of a pickle there.”
She smiled. “Didn’t take me long to figure that out.” She glanced at the young man sprawled at their feet, then looked Luke in the eye. “You ain’t from around here, are you.”
“No ma’am. Passing through, is all. I plan to hitch another ride tomorrow.”
“Where you headed?”
“West. It’s a long story.” He picked the fallen knife up off the pavement and tossed it into the weeds at the edge of the lot. “Who’s Billy?”
Her smile faded. “He’s my son. That’s a long story too.” She added, unnecessarily, “You look like him.”
A silence passed as they studied each other under the streetlight. Finally she said, “You also look hungry. Get your bag and follow me.”
As it turned out, Luke’s rescuer was an employee at a place she called Halleran’s Station, three miles down the road. She didn’t explain the name, or even what it was, but on the bumpy five-minute ride in her old clunker, Luke saw nothing but flat, endless fields of cotton in almost every direction, glowing white in the August moonlight. They finally arrived at a cluster of wooden houses and sheds and farm equipment and crisscrossing dirt roads, and after a strange “check-in” call by the driver on her cell phone they stopped in front of a small building set off from the others by a picket fence and a line of flowery bushes. The rows of cotton, Luke noticed, came all the way up to the road, the fence, even the side of the building. Not a foot of space was wasted. In the distance, rising like a ship above a whitecapped sea, was a long, lighted house with tall columns lining the front.