idol prize fight | week 20 | 1800 words
Nostos (a Greek literary theme in which an epic hero finally returns home after a long journey)
The Greyhound bus slowly approached the downtown depot that that was the last stop on Darryl Adams' long, tiring journey home. Darryl was sick of the whole thing—weird passengers, weird drivers, broken seats, broken air-conditioning, and the smell… God, that smell. Maybe he should have considered hitchhiking part of the way after all?
The trip sure hadn't been like that Simon & Garfunkel song he'd loved so much as a kid. More hellhound than greyhound, definitely. He'd seen casino buses at a couple of stops that had practically been gold-plated compared to what he'd been riding in. Casino buses! What was that all about?
If only he hadn't spent almost everything he had on plane tickets to get back into the country. Buses were all he could afford after that.
Darryl's parents wouldn't even be there to pick him up at the bus station. He'd been calling for weeks, but he hadn't been able to get a hold of them. They didn't believe in cell phones, and their answering machine didn't seem to be working. Typical.
There was probably a dead car sitting in their driveway right now…
He had expected more enthusiasm for his return, after being gone for six years. But it was possible they didn't even know he was coming.
When the bus stopped, Darryl grabbed his duffel bag and backpack, and hurried off toward the bathroom.
Ugh. It was better than the bus, but still disgusting. When he was finished, he washed his hands and face. Then he stripped off his shirt and stuffed it in the trash. He pulled a clean T-shirt out of his duffel bag, and put it on. Then he started walking.
The Diggity Dog Diner was two blocks from the bus station. Darryl had been dreaming about their Bacon Bonanza Burger for days, ever since his plane had landed at JFK.
A wino lurched out of a doorway as he left the bus station. "Spare some—"
"Joey?" Darryl said.
"Uh, yeah." The wino squinted at him. "Do I know ya?"
"Only since eighth grade! It's Darryl."
"Oh, yeah, Darryl. Huh." Joey scratched the back of his neck. "What're you doin' down here?"
"I came in on the bus. I just got back," Darryl said.
"Whoa. Were ya like, in jail or somethin'?"
Did he look that bad? "No," Darryl said. "I was volunteering overseas. In Colombia."
"Huh." Joey thought about that for a minute. "Why?"
Darryl blinked. "To see the world. Help make a difference. You know."
"Uh huh. So, ya got any—"
"Sure, sure." Darryl fished in his pocket and found some coins.
"Thanks, man." Joey shuffled off down the street.
Well, that was depressing…
Darryl walked over to the Diggity Dog, which looked a little more run-down than he remembered. He went inside and sat at a table next to the window.
A gum-chewing waitress came over and took out her order pad. "What do you want?" she asked.
"I'd like the Bacon Bonanza Burger, with fries and a chocolate shake."
"We don't make that no more. We got these." She slapped a menu down on the table and pointed at it.
"But that was the best burger in town!"
"Hey, it wasn't me. The owner's on some weird food kick now. No pigs."
Darryl looked at her more closely. "It's Gina, isn't it? We went to school together. Darryl Adams."
"Huh. Yeah. So, you gonna order something or what?"
Darryl settled on the mushroom cheeseburger, and waited. He noticed there was only one other customer there. Pretty slow for a weekend.
The burger was ready in about ten minutes. It was okay, but it was a huge letdown after looking forward to that bacon blowout for so many months.
Darryl paid and left a tip on the table. "See you around, Gina," he called out.
"Yeah sure, uh, Dave."
Darryl rolled his eyes and stepped outside. A group of women stood near the door, talking. One of them was his sophomore-year English teacher, Mrs. Baker.
"Can you believe who that Sally Arden is running around with these days?" she was saying.
"Oh, I know," a woman in blue sweats sighed. "What a weasel."
The third lady had some kind of little rat-dog in her purse. "Plus, I hear he's still married."
"No!" said Mrs. Baker. "Oh, hi Darryl."
"Hi, Mrs. Baker."
"So, anyway." She turned back to the other two women. "The two of them were at the movies last week, giggling like teenagers. I give it two or three week, tops, before he latches onto someone else...."
Darryl turned the corner at the end of the block, and headed out toward the west side of town. It was a nice day, not too hot. He'd spent the last couple of years at the outskirts of a rundown cartel town, where armed guards dotted the landscape, and mosquitos looked for food even in the daytime.
It had made walking more of a hazard than a hobby.
At the corner of the old Sears store, he saw a dark-haired young woman he thought he recognized. "Lindsay?" he asked.
"Huh?" she answered. "Oh—hi."
Am I the invisible man or something? he thought. "It's Darryl," he said. "We used to go out, senior year."
"Yeah, I know," Lindsay sniffed. She glanced down at his duffel bag and beaten-up shoes. "Why're you dragging all that stuff around? Are you homeless?"
"No, I just got back from overseas. I'm heading home from the bus station."
Lindsay stepped back as if he were contagious. "You dressed like that to go to Europe?"
"I didn't go to Europe, I went to South America. I've been there for years," Darryl said.
Lindsay examined her nails. "What, lying in the sun and drinking Dos Equis?"
"No, volunteering. Teaching kids to read, teaching English," Darryl said. "One year, I helped build houses."
"Huh. Sounds boring," Lindsay said.
"Boring?!?" Something rose up in Darryl then, something that was not good. "Helping people isn't boring, and Colombia wasn't boring. It's a war zone!"
"Well, what isn't?" Lindsay said. "Shopping at the mall is total hell these days."
Darry suddenly remembered why he had stopped dating Lindsay all those years ago. "Well, I'd better be going," he said. "It was good seeing you."
"Okay, whatever," Lindsay said, already scrolling through her phone.
Darryl walked on, soon reaching the edge of the residential area. You'd think someone would have offered me a ride by now, he thought. Oh, well.
A young blond woman approached from the opposite direction. "Hi!" Her face lit up with a smile. "When did you get back?"
"Just now," Darryl said. "Well, a couple of hours ago. You're…"
"Cindy Jansen," she said. "We were in homeroom a few times in grade school."
"Oh!" Darry said. He had a sudden mental picture of a skinny little girl in pigtails, hiding behind her glasses. "I'm sorry, I didn’t recognize you," he said. "You look different."
"Contact lenses," she said.
Hmm, Darry thought. It was more than that. Cindy had definitely filled out over the years, and she'd grown really pretty. But she was also much more outgoing, and she had an easy confidence she'd lacked before. It completely changed her appearance. "You look great," he said.
"Oh. Thank you," she blushed. "You too! Where've you been all this time? I don't think I've seen you since high school."
"I moved to the city with a couple of friends and worked for a while. Nothing big, but I wasn't sure about college, and I wanted to get out on my own. Then I started volunteering overseas—seeing the world a little, finding out what I was good at."
"What fun!" Cindy said. "Whereabouts?"
"Oh, Argentina at first, then Colombia. I've been thinking about trying Asia next, or maybe Africa."
"It sounds like you enjoyed it," Cindy said.
"I did—it was great! Well, not the drug cartels or the malaria, but the people were wonderful. And Machu Picchu was amazing!"
"Gosh, I would love to hear more about it! But I'm meeting a friend for coffee right now. Can I give you my number, so we can catch up later?" Cindy asked. "I mean, if you'd like to..."
"That would be great!" Darryl said. "And then you can tell me how things have been for you."
Cindy pulled a notepad and a pen out of her purse, and jotted down her phone number.
"Thanks," Darry said. "I'm looking forward to it."
Cindy waved, and quickly set off in the direction of the strip mall Darryl had passed earlier. He picked up his duffel bag and started walking again, a smile on his face.
A few blocks later, he saw one of his parents' neighbors standing next to her car.
"Hi, Mrs. Smith," he said.
"Darryl!" she said. "Were your parents expecting you?"
"I'm not sure," he said. "I haven't been able to reach them."
"Oh, well, they've been on vacation the last couple of weeks. I've been looking after the house." She glanced at his luggage. "You just decided to drop in all of a sudden?"
"No," Darry said. "I'm back from South America. My volunteer assignment ended."
"Oh. That's nice, dear. Well, I'm off to the beauty parlor." She opened her car door. "Enjoy your visit."
"Thanks," said Darryl.
He could see his house as soon as he went around the corner. It was yellow now. Huh, he thought. He walked up to it and just stood there, looking.
There were no cars in the driveway. Mrs. Smith must have been right—his parents' lives had moved on without him, just like the rest of the town.
"Some welcoming committee," he said out loud.
Suddenly, an orange streak rocketed around the side of the house, heading right for him. It ran up his legs and chest—claws and all—and launched itself across his shoulder.
"Mrrrrrf!" it said loudly.
"Penny!" Darryl said, dropping the duffel bag. He hadn't even been sure she was still alive after all this time. He hugged the little cat close, burying his nose in the sunshine-smell of her warm fur and listening to the storm of purrs that rattled through her body.
He felt the world shift and settle around him as he stood there. His homecoming hadn't been what he'd expected, but it was all right now. His little childhood friend was still here and she still loved him as desperately as ever, as if she'd been waiting faithfully for his return all these years and couldn't wait one second longer.
Darryl had changed so much while he'd been gone, grown up in so many ways he'd never imagined. But Penny still knew exactly who he was. And more importantly, so did he.
"Oh, Penny," he whispered. "I've missed you too…"
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