Loxley, Alabama—it’s dark. I’ve been driving all night, listening to Nat King Cole sing about chestnuts. I pull over to use the little columnist’s room.
It’s cold. It snowed in Mobile last night—I could hardly believe it.
I’m jogging inside the gas station and I see her. She’s sitting on the curb, outside the truck stop. She’s fourteen, fifteen maybe. Woven hair, no coat.
I ask if everything’s okay. Her eyes get big. I know fear when I see it.
“I’m good,” she says.
Not buying it.
I hurry inside to Tinkle Tinkle Little Star. Then, I buy a hot cocoa and a coffee to the tune of four bucks. On my way out the door, she's still there.
“You want this hot cocoa?” I ask.
She’s terrified of me. I can tell. And I don’t blame her, this world is full of dangerous people carrying cocoa.
She takes the cup, but she's not drinking it. She tells me what happened:
She shopped all day in Pensacola, with friends. Her seventeen-year-old pal left her here. She was only supposed to be here five minutes, waiting for her mother
It's been two hours. Her phone battery is dead.
I offer her mine.
“Won’t do no good,” she explains. “Don’t know any phone numbers by memory.”
I ask if she needs a ride. Bad move. More terror in her eyes. So I sit on the curb—several feet away. She’s not touching her hot chocolate.
I keep talking.
Talking is a trait inherited from my mother. She can talk the paint off a fire hydrant.
"Did you see the snow last night?" I begin.
"Yeah," she says. "It was really cool."
My mother has always been the only soul who can make me feel less afraid by talking.
Once as a boy, in a North Carolina emergency room, with a five-inch gash in my leg, I was so scared…