Volume 30, Number 1

Day’s End

Nancy E. Polin

Tess squinted up at the darkening sky and then down at the large dog sitting on her left. She’d taken him for a long hike; a necessity, given the confinement of the week. Guilt settled inside, a large burning ember she worried would never dissipate. Her own internal assurances did little to ease the discomfort. With a sigh, she walked back to the truck, the dog following in step.

It would soon be time to make a decision for tonight.

She opened the passenger-side rear door, and the big dog jumped in with ease. When they’d purchased the truck, they’d bought it with Bokken in mind. They hadn’t wanted him to ride in the bed.


Tess tried not to think about the word, but it always crept in, especially in those vulnerable moments between closing time and dawn. She’d nestle deep within her blankets and try to shut out the memories. Sometimes she woke up with her eyes and face drenched, the dreams flitting on the edge of her consciousness but never quite catching hold. She supposed that was good. Maybe.

Putting the truck into gear, she left the trailhead and guided the vehicle back down toward wider roads. She concentrated on her driving, aware of the gradual accumulation of traffic around her as she neared the suburbs and the rolling expanse of the city beyond. Proximity of wilderness to town convenience had always been something they’d loved. One world on one side, the antithesis on the other. It was a good place.

It was also a pricey place.

She glanced at her dashboard clock. 6:38 glowed back at her. Her destination would be open another two or so hours. After that, there would be one of three choices. More likely, two.

No one expects the bad stuff to happen. At least not to them. It’s always, always the other guy.

Until it’s not.

Shaking her head, Tess merged onto the freeway, hitting the brakes when a Prius cut her off. No quick flare of rage speared her. That was her temperament before. Now she observed and reacted with a numb kind of distraction, as if her anger floated beyond her and she couldn’t summon the energy to pull it back within. Since going through the five stages of grief, anger had gone missing.

There was no point. It changed nothing.

Changing freeways, she headed north, then east, before taking the familiar off ramp and winding her way over surface streets. The building she sought rose up on her left, tall, narrow windows mirroring the coming night in degrees of orange, red and deep blue.

It wouldn’t be long before winter settled in and that would present a new set of problems, but she didn’t want to think about that now.

The library always welcomed, and she received a familiar smile from the old lady behind the front desk. They’d even converse occasionally, but Tess remained careful to keep everything superficial and safe. She knew she came across as aloof, but that was the perception she presented everywhere, especially at work.

The next couple of hours were spent on the Internet, but just before leaving, she checked out a couple of books that struck her from the employee picks on the front display. It was almost 9:00.

Bokken flopped his tail and smiled his doggie smile at her when she climbed into the cab. Tess scratched his ear, and he grunted in ecstasy.

“So, what’s tonight’s destination?”

The dog rolled his eyes up at her, still basking in her attention, unfazed by her dilemma.

She could go back to work tonight. It wasn’t a great job, but the company offered a gym, shower, limited servery and three levels of underground parking. She chose the sub-basement lot most of the time because most of her co-workers didn’t. It also made her nervous to be there too often during her time off, just in case. She had no idea how the management would react if they found out, expecting it wouldn’t be good.

It was a familiar dance. Nights were difficult, but the weekends proved worse as she decided where the hours would take her. 48 were a lot to fill. Some distant part of her debated leaving it all behind, the city, the state, the struggle and constant indecision. But where anger had disappeared, fear remained a constant companion. It lurked on the periphery, slipped into shadow or sometimes coated her in a clinging sweat. She wasn’t an old lady, but she was slipping down the other side of her mid-thirties. The idea of walking away from steady employment made her wake in the middle of the night unable to catch her breath.

When her husband had been alive, they’d done okay. They’d been a team. On her own, not so much. Insurance only lasts so long when you’re struggling to keep a roof over your head. She’d told friends in other states she was renting a house with a couple other women.

She’d lied.

Even split three ways, renting in this city, while trying to cover the truck’s payment, insurance, maintenance, partial utilities, food, cell phone, the two credit cards she carried, student loans, storage facility, attempting some semblance of savings and keeping up with any incidentals was close to impossible.

And then there was Bokken.

A dog his size was often not accepted into a roommate situation, and there was no way Tess was going to lose him too. She and Brad had adopted the pooch as a puppy. Brad had named him, but the dog had chosen Tess to be his person.

No, she wouldn’t go back to work. Nor would she park in a residential area for the night.

“Screw it. We’ll go see if some of the others are around. But first things first.”

The ‘others’ consisted of folks who lived out of their RVs, choosing the 24-hour Walmart on Main to spend some of their nights. Unless there was a prickly new guard on staff, store security ignored their back-parking-lot guests.

She wasn’t sure when she started thinking of them as the ‘others.’ It just kind of snuck up on her when she realized her situation wasn’t unusual. Four months in, she’d stopped by the store to pick up a few things to fill her cooler. She noticed four recreational vehicles parked at the very back of the lot, two old Minnie Winnies, a battered class A motorhome and one truck and travel trailer. A few folks had a BBQ grill fired up, and the aroma of mesquite reached her on the breeze.

Going against her nature, she’d slipped back into the store to purchase a couple of 12-packs of soda and a bag of ice. She figured she should at least bring an offering if she was going to inquire about their choice of campgrounds.

The folks there that night were pleasant and talkative, telling her about their lives and decisions. As the months passed, some of the faces stayed the same, but many changed. Tess found that some of them did what they did by choice; others, like herself, by necessity. An old couple had lost their home after a prolonged illness, but held fast to their little camper; one middle-aged man made some bad investments leading to huge debts and no way to pay them off; a couple of twenty-somethings wanted to see the country before settling into careers; an elderly man traveled around by himself just to piss off his kids; a divorced woman had lost her job and was unable to find another because she was bumping up against 60.

Some of them were less pleasant, keeping to themselves, watching with suspicion. They parked away from the rest, and Tess figured some were just antisocial, but others felt off, like they were running from a past questionable deed or situation. The thought brought cold gooseflesh marching up her arms. Even with the dog at her side, she avoided them.

Tess backed out of the parking space, made a left onto the street and took it west.

11 minutes later, she pulled into another parking lot, noting the handful of cars already there. Sometimes she’d bring the dog inside, but decided against it tonight. Some people were prone to loud displays over dogs in public places, and she didn’t want to garner attention. Besides, at 9:27, it was still early. The place would probably clear out in an hour. If she was lucky.

The door jingled as she stepped inside, her linen laundry bag clasped in both hands. Two loads were all she had. Part of her wanted to hurry, but the other part wondered what the point was. It’s not like she had somewhere to be.

That, in itself, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was sometimes a freeing thing, at least until her pragmatic thoughts caught up with her fanciful meanderings. At least until it was time to sleep.

Nights were tough, but some were worse than others. During the first few weeks, every noise brought her up from the depths of unconsciousness before she could get a firm hold. Her imagination had always been vibrant, but living without a traditional roof had honed it into something alive with sharpened teeth. A woman on her own was always a target; a homeless woman increased her chances of attack exponentially.

Of course, the dog helped. At 80-some pounds, he could be intimidating. She took him everywhere a well-behaved dog was allowed and once in a while, places he wasn’t. Bokken was her personal security officer, and although she took much comfort from it, she continued to worry. He may be a deterrent, but he wasn’t indestructible.

Even with some semblance of routine, she had to remain vigilant, knowing her life could depend on it. Sure, the odds might be long, but she wasn’t willing to press them.

She’d finished the fourth chapter of one of her library books when the two men pushed through the glass front door. They brought the acrid stench of cigarettes in a whoosh behind them.

Tess studied them from the corner of her eye, like she did with everyone before them. One old lady fluffed her towels in the back corner, two college-aged kids zoned out with their phones as their clothes tumbled, and a fifty-something old fought with a fitted sheet. They were all very involved with their own inner worlds.

These two set up near her, and her skin prickled when one eyed her. A chill seeped through her flesh, sinking through her muscles and deep into her marrow.

They chatted among themselves, words lost in low tones.

It wasn’t the first time she’d felt male eyes upon her. The occasional RV traveler spooked her, or sometimes it was the guy at the post office or at the coffee shop or the library or the drug store. Or just passing her at the park while she was walking the dog.

Paranoia skirted between crazy and wise. Like sweets, measured amounts could prove essential to a person’s well-being, whether it be physical or psychological. Too much of either could lead to debilitation.

She wondered where she landed on that spectrum now.

The other man looked her way, a crooked tweak to the corner of his mouth. Something about his eyes bothered her.

Tess glanced down at her watch. 10:02.

She left her seat to pull her clothes from the washer and toss them into the dryer, giving both men a wide berth by pretending her attention to fixed elsewhere. Her muscles felt locked, despite the ease of her strides.

Making a quick decision, she left.

She’d go back in the morning. With any luck, her clothes wouldn’t be sprawled all over the parking lot by a ticked-off patron.

The Walmart was only a few miles away, and her heart still rammed itself against her ribcage when she reached it. She crossed the large lot.

And she kept going. No RVs, just a couple of police cars parked at the front entrance.

Mind slipping into a disconnected kind of static, she just drove. Tess wondered how one of her friends back east would react if she just showed up in a couple of weeks.

There’d be surprise, pleasant at first, and then there’d be compassion, followed by pity and then the shame and awkwardness would bleed in when they found out the truth. Or maybe that would be her own reflection.

She seemed destined to have one of those nights tonight.

Stopping at a gas station, she went inside to use the ladies' room, pausing on the way out to purchase two hot dogs for $2 and a small bag of chips to share with the dog. She grabbed a Hershey bar to keep for herself.

The dashboard clock glowed 11:17 at her, but her own fatigue proved much more indicative of her waking hours than the orange numerals ever could. She’d been conscious almost 20 hours and needed to find a safe place soon.

For a fleeting moment, she considered a Motel 6 for the night, but in this area, even a bare-bones piece of lodging like that could set her back a hundred bucks.

Tess decided to park in one of the upper-middle-class neighborhoods a few blocks from work, moving twice when curtains shook or lights flickered on. The truck wasn’t an eyesore, but could still be reported as a suspicious vehicle.

Her eyes felt gummy and irritated when she decided to go back to the parking garage at work. Exhaustion slowed her reflexes, hazing her vision and dimming her senses. Scanning her badge, the security gate rolled up.

Within a few moments, she’d bunked down on the mattress in the bed of the truck, her dog curling up beside her. Uneasy sleep pulled her down into a shadowed, worried dream world.

* * *

Her supervisor rang her extension at 10:32 Monday morning.

Pushing aside her pile of work, Tess stretched, joints popping, muscles loosening. She wove through the sea of cubicles, with their mélange of occupants’ attempts to distinguish one from the other. She reached the side office and grazed the door with her knuckles, pushing in when beckoned from the other side.

Settling into one of the two chairs facing the desk with the bespectacled woman opposite, she smiled her best smile before it leaked out around the edges.

“Tess, I didn’t know how to answer this, but security has noticed something about your badge usage. Is there any good reason why you leave your vehicle here overnight on a regular basis?”