Dorthea's eyes fluttered open when her closed lids could no longer block out the bright rays of the morning sun. She was delighted to find she was still in the same position she had fallen asleep the night before— snuggled up against Kim's side with her arm draped over her waist.
“Morning,” Kim greeted in a voice heavy with sleep, smiling when Dorthea's eyes rose to meet her own.
“Good morning. What time is it?”
“Not sure. What time zone are we in?”
“Good question.” Dorthea squirmed in search of a position that would block the sun. Unsuccessful, she squinted against the harsh light. “Judging by how high the sun is, it must be late in all of them.” She turned to roll away from Kim only to find her attempt stopped by Kim's hold on her. “Shouldn't we be getting up?”
“I refuse to move without a morning kiss.” Kim puckered her lips then waited for them to be claimed.
After they separated several moments later, Dorthea ran her tongue over her lips, enjoying the lingering tingle of their recent contact. “I think I'm getting better at that,” she stated proudly.
Kim grinned. “If I get a vote, I would definitely agree. Want to practice some more?”
Dorthea gently pulled out of Kim's embrace. “Oh no, you don't. If I let you get away with that, we'll never get to California.”
“Party poop.” Kim laughed, pushing herself into a sitting position. “Boy, do I feel better this morning than I did yesterday.”
Dorthea was also sitting up and twisted around to push open the passenger door. “The pad did help a lot,” she agreed.
“Actually, I think last night's activities helped more.”
“Stop that! Someone could see us.” Dorthea squawked when a hand slipped under her shirt and tickled the bare skin underneath.
Kim's head swiveled about as she looked out all the windows. “Who? We're the only ones here and we're shielded from any cars on the road by those trees. Besides, I thought you enjoyed last night.” Before sleep claimed them, the women had spent some time snuggled together, timidly exploring each other with their hands and lips.
Dorthea twisted around. “I did,” she said, a slight blush coloring her cheeks. “But it was dark then.”
“We can kiss in the daylight, hon.”
“I know. It's just that the more we kiss, the less I want to let you go.”
Kim grinned. “And that's a problem why?”
“Oh, stop smirking like a rooster in a hen house,” Dorthea chided.
“Can roosters smirk?”
Dorthea shook her head in mock frustration. “Come on,” she tugged Kim toward the door. “Let's get moving.”
Kim scooted across the back of the makeshift bed, climbing out of the car behind Dorthea. “Just one thing before we do,” she whispered into a tanned ear as she wrapped her arms around Dorthea. “I love you.”
Sighing happily, Dorthea leaned back against Kim and placed her arms on top of the ones that encircled her. “I love you, too.”
Kim abruptly pulled her arms free. “Okay, enough of this sappy love stuff. Let's get in gear,” she ordered playfully slapping Dorthea on her rump then giggled when she yelped in surprise. “Come on, girl, the day's half over. At this rate, we'll never get through Utah and Nevada by tonight.”
After a quick stop in New Castle to replenish their ice supply, Kim guided the station wagon back onto the freeway while Dorthea pulled the stack of maps out from under the Kleenex box.
“Do you really think we can get all the way through Utah and Nevada today?” Dorthea asked, spreading the maps open.
“It's about the same distance we drove yesterday.”
“But we got an earlier start.”
“I know. What are you looking for on those maps?”
“I'd like to stop someplace that has a motel.”
“Tired of camping out already?”
“No. But I could use a good scrubbing. I must smell like an old wool blanket left out in the rain.”
Kim laughed. “I can't say I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing such a thing. Didn't you wash behind your ears last night?”
“The water from that river was freezing. I'd like a nice long soak in hot water, if you don't mind.”
“Picky, picky. Where do you suggest we try and spend the night?”
Dorthea spread her fingers measuring a distance on the map. “Las Vegas is about seven, maybe eight, hours from here.”
“I was hoping to get further than that.”
“It doesn't look like there will be many places to stop after Las Vegas.”
“What's after Vegas?”
“A lot of nothing until Barstow.”
“That's in Nevada?”
“No, California. It's about another two hours.”
“Seven hours is too short and ten too long.”
Dorthea giggled. “You sound like Goldilocks.”
“Then we'll have to find someplace that is juuuuuust right for you, my little bear.”
“What on earth are you thinking?” Kim asked after she had heard nothing but deep sighing from her traveling companion for several miles.
“You've been staring out that window since we stopped for gas.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Dorthea took another look at the passing landscape before turning toward Kim. “I was just wondering what it must have been like for the people on the wagon trains.”
“What do you mean?”
“What it must have been like leaving their families behind to seek out a new life in a country none of them had ever seen. Now we can travel to all parts of the world by books or the television. They had nothing to go on but what others told them; and half the time that was made up or exaggerated. It's a wonder more of them didn't just turn around and go back.”
“I know I would have if I saw this desert stretched out in front of me.” After the rolling plains of Iowa and the mountains of Colorado, the deserts of Utah were a shock of contrast. “Is this the way the wagon trains came?”
“If I remember my history, most traveled further north through Wyoming and Idaho to Oregon and California. Any way they did it, it still had to take a lot of determination to make the trip to the west. I suppose it would have been easier for the ones that had nothing to leave behind.”
“Don't you think they all left behind something— homes, family, and friends?”
“Most probably did. But I'm sure there must have been some who didn't have anything… or anybody.”
Kim heard a hint of sadness in Dorthea's voice. She reached for her hand and felt Dorthea entwined their fingers. “What's it like?” she asked softly. “Not knowing?” When it didn't appear Dorthea would respond, she quickly added, “I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked.”
“It's okay.” Dorthea lightly rubbed her thumb over the skin of Kim's hand. “It's nice that you want to know.”
“I've thought of asking before but I didn't want to upset you. I have thought about it.”
Kim nodded. “I tried. But I don't think I was too successful.”
“I suppose that would be hard since you do have a family.”
“They aren't the best but at least I know who and what they are.”
“Sometimes, I think I remembered having a family. It happened a lot when I was little, six or seven.”
“I remembered a woman. Not really a whole person, mostly just a face. Actually, a smile.”
Dorthea shrugged. “I wondered if she was. I would sit for hours in front of a mirror trying to get my mouth to form that same smile. Even at that age, I was searching for some connection. I had already started to have doubts about Aunt Faye.”
Dorthea nodded. “I was so convinced she wasn't my aunt that I couldn't wait for each day to end. I would stand at my bedroom window waiting for the first stars of the night to appear. Then I would wish on the first one for my real family to come rescue me. But after no one came to claim me, I finally gave up on the wishes. Just like I let the memory of that smile fade until I could no longer recall it.”
“So I wouldn't hurt so much.”
Several miles slipped by as the women sat silently; Dorthea lost in her thoughts and Kim trying to think of a way to diminish the pain of the years of uncertainty her friend had endured.
Kim saw a sign announcing a rest area and she steered onto the ramp leading to it. She guided the station wagon to a section of the parking area that was vacant of other cars and shut off the engine. Then she turned to face Dorthea, her heart breaking when she saw the forlorn look on her face. “This may sound stupid but I don't know any other way to say it,” she declared earnestly. “I don't care where you came from. I don't care if Paul Bingham is your father, or isn't. I don't care if you survived a tornado only to be kidnapped by a thug or if you fell out of the sky. I don't care that you were raised by a woman you know next to nothing about.” She paused to breathe. “What I do care about is you—not Dorthea Sanborn or Esther Bingham or whomever, but you,” she pointed at Dorthea, “the woman sitting here. You are my best friend, my confident, my pal. You are sweet and honest and someone I really enjoy being around.” She blinked back the tears threatening to fill her eyes. “We may have just figured out the depth of our feelings for one another but we've had a friendship for almost forty years that is worth more to me than all of my family put together. You are the love of my life,” she said, reaching out to tenderly cup her hand against Dorthea's cheek. “I can't replace all the memories you lost, but I can be all the family you'll ever need,” she declared confidently.
Dorthea unbuckled her seat belt then slid across to sit next to Kim, shoving Kleenex box and the road maps onto the floor. She melted into Kim's waiting arms and felt them wrap around her in a crushing embrace. “I love you,” she sobbed as a lifetime of tears tumbled down her cheeks.
Kim found it difficult to see through her own tears as she watched Dorthea wipe her face with a handful of tissues. “Let me go get a washcloth out of the suitcase,” she offered.
“No. I'm okay.”
“No you're not. Your eyes are red and your face is all wet. You'll feel better if you have a damp cloth to wipe it with.”
Dorthea looked at Kim and grinned. “You look as bad as I must. Give me a minute then we can walk over to the rest room and wash our faces.”
“Are you sure? They are quite a few people over there.”
“I doubt if we know any of them so does it matter what they think about two tearful women walking into the bathroom?”
Kim shook her head.
Dabbing at her wet eyes, Dorthea laid her head on Kim's shoulder. “Thank you.”
“For being you.” Dorthea pulled the last of the tissues out of the box and blew her nose. “I hope we packed more of these.”
“We'll look for a store in the next town we see. Can I ask you a question?”
“What will you do if we do find Paul Bingham and it turns out he isn't your father?”
“I don't think I've ever considered that possibility. Dorthea blew out a long, shaky breath. “And I'm not sure I have the energy to do it right now.”
“Fair enough,” Kim said willing to let the subject drop for the time being. The last several minutes had drained her emotionally as she was sure they had drained Dorthea. “What say we go get cleaned up and then go find a coffee shop? I could sure use a cup.”
“I'll take a pot… and one for the road,” Dorthea said as she judged the distance across the parking lot to the rest room. “I don't suppose you'd be willing to drive an old lady over there, would you?”
Kim chuckled. “Find me an old lady and I'll think about it.” She bent forward, twisted the key in the ignition and released the parking brake. She slowly drove across the parking lot and re-parked in an empty slot next to the building housing the rest rooms. “Close enough?”
“It would be better if you would drive right up to the door.”
“That would require me driving up and over the curb then across the grass. I doubt that would be considered acceptable behavior.”
“Probably not,” Dorthea moaned unhappily then scooted over to the passenger door and opened it. She waited for Kim to get out and lock the car then they walked together across the grass.
“I feel much better now,” Kim exclaimed as she dried her face after splashing cold water on it. “What are you doing?”
Dorthea was intently studying the reflection in the cracked mirror. “I just cried my eyes out and my skin is still so dry I think it can split open with the touch of a feather. I can't remember it ever being this dry,” she said as she gingerly poked herself.
“We have been driving through a desert most of the day.”
“And you point is?”
“The desert is really, really dry.”
“And it makes our skin… ucky.”
Dorthea laughed and turned away from the mirror to face Kim. “For an intelligent woman, you sometimes have a very limited vocabulary.”
“Ah, so you only love me for my brains?”
“Tell me why you love me.”
“Oh, that.” Dorthea made Kim wait as she bent over the sink to splash water on her face. After several moments, she straightened and reached for a paper towel. “Let's see, you're smart,” she said as she patted her face dry.
“That we've already established.”
Dorthea rolled her eyes. “You're extremely modest,” she said sarcastically then giggled when Kim glared at her with what she thought was her most intimidating grimace. She crumbled up the paper towel and tossed it at Kim. “Ready to go back to the car?”
Kim snatched the ball of paper out of the air. “After you.” She followed Dorthea to the door, dropping the towel into the trash can as they passed it on their way outside. “What else?”
“You have a good paying job.”
“So it be me gold yer after, lassie.”
Dorthea laughed. “You do really bad pirate impressions.”
“Be serious,” Kim implored.
Kim groaned. “Oh, that's not good.”
Dorthea stepped off the curb and walked to the passenger door of the station wagon. “Yes, it is,” she said to Kim standing on the other side of the car and looking at her over the top of it. “You're funny and you make me laugh. I like that.”
Kim smiled. “Anything else?”
“Let me think… Oh, yes, there is one more thing.”
“You have a really cute butt.”
Kim had bent down to unlock the door but bolted upright upon hearing the comment. “All these years,” she exclaimed as she locked eyes with Dorthea over the top of the car, “you've been checking out my butt?”
Dorthea felt the blush crawling up her neck to her cheeks and dropped her head in embarrassment.
Kim unlocked the car and slid behind the steering wheel. She patiently waited until Dorthea joined her before starting the engine and backing out of the parking slot. She steered for the ramp that would take them back onto the interstate and skillfully merged the car into the traffic.
Still dismayed by her impulsive admission, Dorthea couldn't help but smile as Kim, eyes focused on the road ahead, whistled a merry tune while tapping her fingers on the steering wheel.
“You are not going to believe this,” Dorthea said excitedly when she returned to the car after using the gas station's rest room.
Kim looked up from the back of the station wagon where she was rummaging through the ice box. “What?”
“There are slot machines in the bathroom. Can you believe that?”
“This is Las Vegas. There are slot machines everywhere. Apple?”
“Are there any oranges left?” Kim retrieved the requested item and handed it to Dorthea. “How about the Oreos?”
Kim pulled the bag of cookies out of the box holding the food items that didn't need to be kept cold. “Anything else?”
Dorthea shook her head and stepped away from the tailgate so Kim could shut it. “Do you think we should look for a room here?” she asked noting the sun sinking in the west.
“Let me pay for our gas then we can talk about it.”
As she waited for Kim to return, Dorthea peeled the orange, tossing the discarded rind into a trash can. She had just settled onto the car's seat when Kim came back.
“I asked the guy inside about motels. He said if we don't mind driving another hour, there's a nice place just off the highway. Nothing fancy but it has clean rooms for a reasonable price.”
“It's getting late. Do you think they'll still have a room?”
“Not a problem. He was nice enough to call them. They're holding one for us.”
Dorthea waved to the station attendant as he walked past the car to attend to another customer. “That was nice of him.”
“Sure was. Do you have everything you need for another hour?” Kim asked as she started the engine.
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