I was waiting at the bus stop just after one in the afternoon, on my way to the car rental place a couple of miles from my house. My own car was at home in the driveway, where it was going to be sitting for over a week. The rental cost would be outrageous, certainly, but my old and weathered '93 Saturn perhaps wouldn't respond well to the addition of a few thousand miles to the odometer. I'd hate to get somewhere in the middle of Georgia and find myself broken down, fluid leaking from under the car, and from somewhere off in the distance, the faint finger-picking of Dueling Banjos drifting through the sticky southern air.
I rooted in my pocket, pulled out a dollar and two quarters, and handed them to her. "You caught me on a lucky day. I pulled some extra cash from my change dish."
"Oh, great, thanks," she said and smiled. She had a very faint accent, somewhere in Eastern Europe, I thought, but she looked oddly to me as if she were from the Pacific Coast somewhere, maybe California, maybe Australia. She was golden and blonde and vibrant. "I thought I was going to have to walk the whole way," she said. "I wouldn't mind normally, but it's wicked hot out." She pointed at her sandled feet. "And I don't really have the shoes for it today anyway."
"Long night?" I asked.
"Croy," she said with a touch of exhausted exasperation. "Croy, yeah. We started downtown at the bars, and caught a ride up here, and then we drank some more. I haven't slept all night."
"Where'd your friends go?" I looked up the street. There was no bus yet in sight.
"Home. They all live 'round here, but I'm down in Allentown." She nodded off toward the south. "Like I said, too hot to walk."
"Yeah, that's where I'm heading, too. Got a rental car waiting for me, and I'm supposed to be there in twenty minutes. If the bus ever gets here."
"I walked three blocks here, didn't see a one of 'em. They're running late today, I think." She gestured to a small patch of shade against the corner cigarette shop. "Let's wait over there. At least we'll be out of the sun."
We moved into the shade, and I stood leaning against the brick wall. She slid her back down the wall and sat cross-legged on the sidewalk. "So you're going on a trip, are you?"
I looked down at her. "How'd you know? Is there a look of some kind or something that I've got?"
"Nah. You said you were going for a rental. Figured you were taking it someplace." She put her purse--at least at first I'd thought it was a purse, but I saw now that it was a small satchel--in her lap and opened the flap.
"Going south," I said. "Doing a vision quest sort of thing."
She took a packet of rolling paper and a bag of tobacco from the satchel and began putting a cigarette together as she talked. I watched the process, fascinated. "Something in the air, isn't there? Lot of people getting the traveling bug up their asses right now. Croy. Maybe it's summer, maybe it's sunspots." She shrugged, glanced up the street for the bus, then returned her attention to her cigarette. She shook a small measure of tobacco leaf into the curl of paper, then pulled the bag shut by tugging the string of the bag with her teeth ("With her teeth?" the Muse would ask me later, when I told her about the woman. "What was she, a freakin' cowboy?" ). A small trace of leaf fell onto her bare leg as she rolled the paper into a cylinder, which she then popped in her mouth. She put the tobacco bag back into her satchel, switching it out for a silver lighter, which she used to get her cigarette going. She inhaled deeply, then blew the smoke out through her nose, not taking the cigarette from her mouth. She pointed at the tobacco leaves on her leg. "I can read those for you," she said. "Tell you your future."
I squatted next to her. "Didn't I have to spill them or touch them or something?"
She shook her head. "No, that's not important. I was talking to you when I spilled them, so that's good enough. I'm Sophia, by the way." I told her my name, and she said, "Nice to meet you. My lucky day, it is. Would have been a long walk without you."
"Could be my lucky day, too, as long as you aren't going to tell me that I'm going to die on my trip."
She took the cigarette from her mouth and held it between the tip of her thumb and index finger. She gestured to the tobacco leaves. "You're not going to die," she said. "That much is obvious."
I studied the leaves. "Well, yeah. It's pretty clear, really."
"Let me do the reading, thank you. I'm an expert." She used her cigarette as a pointer. "That little bit there? The curl of the leaf and the overlap. You're going to meet three people while you're gone."
"I'm planning on meeting four," I said.
She shrugged. "Doesn't matter. This says you're going to meet three. Best laid plans, and all that." She pointed at a fleck of leaf, separated from the rest of the pile. "That could be the fourth. Could be nothing. Isn't always what's in the leaves that's the important part anyway. Sometimes it's what's left out."
"What's left out?" I asked.
She took another drag off her cigarette, blew out the smoke as she said, "There's no indication here of when you'll be back. Usually you can tell if it's going to be a short trip or a long trip or somewhere in the middle. This one, though, you don't have anything."
"So I am going to die."
"No, you're not going to die. I'd say it means you're going to leave something behind. A piece of you. It doesn't seem like a bad thing, though. Looks like this is going to be a good thing. You'll be lighter from it."
I patted my stomach. "I could stand to drop a few pounds as it is. I like where this fortune is going."
"Someone is going with you, of course." She looked up the street again. Still no bus.
"Yes," I said. "A friend."
"A woman," Sophiasaid.
"You can see that in the leaves?"
She shook her head. "Of course not. It's just the way you said it. I can't read anything for her, obviously, since she didn't have anything to do with these leaves, but I can tell you that something is going to happen while you're away that will have a major influence on both your lives."
"What's going to happen?"
She shrugged. "I have no idea. I'm not Miss Cleo."
"They had Miss Cleo commercials where you're from?"
"In Florida?" she asked. "Of course they did."
"You're not from Florida."
"Well, not originally. I moved there for a guy. A little while later, he moved to Texas, and I went north. So here I am."
"Where are you from originally?" I asked.
"Somewhere else," she said, vaguely gesturing with her hand. She studied the tobacco leaves again. "That's about all that's there, really."
"I didn't spill very much of it."
"There must be more. I'm on a quest. Aren't I going to learn something important?"
"Everything you learn is important," she said. "If you're paying attention."
I grinned. "You reminded me of someone when you said that."
"Pay attention to her on the trip, maybe you'll learn a few things that are more important than others."
"How did you know who you reminded me of?"
Sophia shrugged. "I'm a woman. We're smart like that." She looked up the street again. "Bus is coming." She brushed the tobacco leaves from her leg and got to her feet. "Want the last bit of this?" she asked, offering me her cigarette.
"I don't smoke," I said, but then changed my mind. "Yeah. Yeah, I'll take it." She passed me the cigarette and I put it between my lips, pulling the smoke into my lungs. The flavor was sweeter than I had remembered, smoother as well, but then again I'd never had a hand-rolled cigarette.
"In my country," she said with a wide smile, "we are now married."
"Shit," I said, coughing out the smoke in a great cloud. I offered her the cigarette back.
"Joke," she said, laughing. "Just a joke. Maybe you'll learn to take one while you're on your quest."
The bus stopped beside us, its brakes hissing like a dozen steaming teapots. The doors opened inward and passengers spilled out. "It's like an epic Greek poem," I said as we waited to board. "I've already met my seer. You could have been a little more specific on the details of my destiny, however."
"Destiny is what you make of it," Sofia said. "The only thing writ in stone is that nothing is writ in stone." She stepped onto the bus.
"Ah, Sophia," I said to her back as she fed the money I had given her into the cash box. "You definitely remind me of someone."
"She's obviously a smart woman."
"Every once in a while," I said. I paid my fare and followed her back to the rear of the bus.