I sit in the driver’s seat of my car, flipping through a thick manual. My car is just new enough that it baffles me. I have to release a catch for the gas cap, a catch inside for the hood– this confuses me and when getting gas I routinely have to go back and reach inside after standing, perplexed, with the pump in my hand. At least the gas cap has a symbol. There is nothing that shows an open hood, and every segment in the maintenance section starts with “open the hood” without telling me how. Finally I go back to the start and see the page I missed with an interior diagram. #28, hood release. I pull the latch and I can hear the hood unlock. I grab the can of compressed air conditioner recharge stuff and head to the front. After a little fuss I find the catch and prop the hood up, letting the weight rest in my hand for a moment before I see the metal prop. It ends in a circle and I look up and try it in a few spots before it seems to hold. In 15 minutes I have successfully raised the hood of my own car and gotten no further. Recharging the air conditioner is supposed to take fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. At this rate I will be here all night. There is a diagram on the bottle and a jaunty “no tools required” and I am hopeful until I look down. There is a large flat piece of plastic covering the engine and everything looks completely sealed and impossible to access. I stand, looking down, and laugh out loud. I know the task before me isn’t difficult, but it’s equally impossible.
“Excuse me? Excuse me? Do you have a rubber band or a hair tie?” I look up and there is a young girl wandering halfway across the street. She has a large bunch of flowers in one hand and a large rolling suitcase pulled behind her with the other. A little ways back there is a man who could be 25 or 45. There is something twitchy about both of them, and there is an air of dirtiness caught around them. “Do you have a rubber band?” she asks again, and I see that blossoms and stems trailing behind her, a street urchin flower girl without a wedding.
“No, I’m sorry” I say, feeling at my wrist. There’s a tie in my hair. I want them to keep walking but she has teeters closer and the man behind her is dancing towards my car.
“Do you need help?” she asks.
“No, I’m ok- just figuring out my air conditioner” and the man is already at my car, peering under the hood.
“We can help, here, let us help!” she says. She’s pulled her suitcase in front of me and she stands close, clutching her flowers. “He picked them for me, isn’t that sweet?” She is younger than she looks—her lip pierced but infected. Red spots near her mouth, her skin pale, her motions jittery. The man has my can of air conditioner recharge in his hands, his water bottle placed on my engine block. His hands are filthy.
“Do you have a manual? I can do this for you,” he says. I hand it to him, because I’m not sure what to do. He is dancing back and forth, paging through the manual. “I’ll find a diagram.”
“It isn’t in there,” I say, because it isn’t—I’ve already looked. The girl holds her flowers up to her face and inhales deeply.
“He picked them for me, no one has ever picked me flowers before.” There’s a frantic energy to the way she talks, words chasing each other out of her mouth quickly, as if they are running out of time to be heard.
“They’re lovely,” I say, and she hands me a few from her bunch. I hold them awkwardly, looking between the girl and the man. Finally, the suitcase. “Where are you going?”
“Here. Well, I’m here. I wasn’t. I ran away. I was living in a motel for a while and yesterday I said I just had to leave so I left. I don’t know where I’m going. But then I met him,” she looks at the man, still flipping through my manual. “He picked me flowers. No one has ever picked me flowers. Isn’t that so nice? He’s really nice. He’s in charge of where we’re going today. I met him last night. He’s really good at cars, he’ll help you fix this.”
“We’re going to the Skagit Valley,” he says, looking up.
“I hear it’s nice over there,” I say. “There’s a poetry festival.” It is an insane comment to make, but it’s the first thing my brain finds. “I haven’t been,” I qualify. “But I hear it’s pretty.”
He nods. “There’s a motorcycle rally there this weekend, we’re going there. If we make it.” He bends back to the book, flipping through each page again.
“That sounds fun,” I say. I don’t want to ask how they met, and I don’t think they’ll make it to Skagit Valley, but I am at a loss.
“What are you doing tonight?” the girl asks me.
“My friend has a sailboat, I’m racing with him,” I say. I don’t know why I’m telling this girl what I’m doing, or why I’m still standing here, holding the flowers she gave me. “I should actually probably get going, I have to meet him on his dock,” I say. I look over to the man, but he doesn’t seem to have heard. It sounds ludicrous. A boat race. “It’s on Lake Union,” I add. As if I need to prove to them that I’m not making something up, they can look later and see the boats tacking across the water.
“What size shoe are you?” she asks me.
“Six and a half,” I respond.
She folds over, dropping more flowers, and starts taking off a sandal. “It’s too big for me, I really don’t like them, do you want them?” Before I can even respond she’s standing with one sandal on and the other is held out to me. The straps have fake shells attached and the soles are made of fake wood. “They’re uncomfortable and…”
“No, it’s ok. I have a pair of sandals,” I cut in. “I’d never wear those, but thank you.” She stands there with a shoe outstretched. I feel like I’ve insulted her. “I really should go,” I say.
“Oh, if we’re bothering you… “ she trails off. “If we’re scaring you….”
“No, no, I just—I have to meet my friend at the dock,” I say, and it’s a lie. I’m scared. I’m scared for the girl and her willingness to give me the shoes off of her feet and I’m scared for the way she wanders in the street as if it’s a field. I’m scared because the man is dirty and jittery and larger than me. I don’t know why I keep telling them the truth, and I’m scared they’re going to ask for a ride or a place to sleep and I won’t know what to say. She’s so young, and so earnest and she’s only tried to give me things, to help, and I’m scared of her, of whatever drugs are coursing through her veins and of what is going to happen to her if she makes it all the way to Skagit.
“Ah ha!” the man says, and he dances a little as he points to a small blue cap. “I found it!” and he unscrews it and holds it in the air like a trophy. I have to stop this, I cannot let this man try to fix my car—I have no idea of knowing if he’s right or wrong and I want to help but more, I want these two away from me.
“I really have to get going,” I say. “I have to meet my friend at the dock.”
“I haven’t been on a boat in… oh… ten years,” he says, twirling the blue cap in his hand. “This only takes a minute, we can do it right now.”
“Oh that’s ok, thanks for finding it. I really have to go though, the boat’s going to leave. I’ll deal with this later,” I say. My words are starting to rush, as if what the way the girl speaks is infectious.
“Okay,” he says and the girl starts gathering the flowers that have fallen. He hands me the manual back, and he grabs his water bottle, but he hasn’t put the cap on again. I’m watching, and I take a step forward. He leans in and screws it on. “Just screw the bottle on right there, you’re good as new,” he says.
“Thanks so much,” I say. The hood of my car is closed with a bang, I am still holding my car manual. He walks over to the girl and she looks up at him. “Good luck,” I say, “thanks for your help.”
“Good luck to you too!” the girl smiles.
“I hope you get wherever you’re going,” I say and she nods. “You will, you know,” I say.
“I know,” she says as she grabs her suitcase. She tugs it down the street and I stand there for a minute. I feel like I should go after her, but I don’t. She grins at the man and they turn the corner and move out of view.
It’s unsatisfying. There should be a better ending, but that’s it. They left and I went inside and I there is no way for me to know what happens next. I think that I should check listings for runaways, but I don’t know where to start. She was too old for an amber alert and besides, I’m not sure anyone is looking for her. Is there a library of lost children, the milk carton drawings and telephone pole posters? Is she there? I want her to have a good life, but who am I to choose what is good? She seemed happy. She grinned. She waved. She walked away.