Midnight; that’s when I started my shift every single day. It was the only way I could earn enough money to pay off my college loans and save up to move out of my parents’ basement. I worked nine to five, five days a week as a law clerk, and seven days a week, midnight to six, I worked at the toll booth. I never had to deal with too many irate drivers, although by six in the morning I did get people who hadn’t had their morning coffee yet. I was used to people handing me change, not even looking at me before I pushed the button to let them through.
I stared up at the highway. It was quiet tonight. I started to reach for my book when headlights came slowly towards the toll. I shook my head; one of two people drove slowly on the highway at this time of night: drunks and people tired of getting off at midnight. The beat up red Chevy pulled in beside my booth. I readied to call my supervisor and the cops if it was a drunk.
The driver just stared at the bar in front of them in a daze. I waited patiently as the tinted window rolled down. She looked at me; make-up attempted to cover the bags under her brown eyes. She had just finished a shift then. I noticed writing on her too tight t-shirt that made her breasts pop out. I didn’t want to stare and make her nervous. She probably had men staring at her all the time. I realized then that the t-shirt said Hooters. She definitely had men staring at her all the time, probably undressing her with their eyes. I felt bad for her. Waitresses worked hard for their money and if she was anything like me, she probably didn’t have much downtime. After all, we looked about the same age.
“Oh sorry, uh, how much is it?” she asked. She started reaching for her purse, beside her on the passenger seat, without looking away from me. She blinked cutely in confusion and turned away.
Had she forgotten her purse at work? Soft brown waves moved as she turned to reach in her backseat. I shook my head; I wasn’t going to let her deal with one more thing tonight. It wasn’t fair to her.
“You know what, miss, it’s late, it’s on me tonight.”
She turned back around, ready to refute, I’m sure. I gave her a reassuring smile as I moved my hand towards the button that would let her through and back home. My hand hit my flashlight on the counter, it rolled away and onto the floor on my booth. I would pick it up afterward.
“I can’t let you do that,” she said, opening her purse.
“Yes, you can.”
I pushed the button and the bar rose in front of her car. She looked up at me, but not quite to my face.
“Is your name Jaime?” she asked.
I blinked; that wasn’t exactly what I was expecting her to say. “Most people call me James,” I replied. “But you can call me Jaime.”
She smiled; it was one of those smiles that make people’s eyes light up. Her brown eyes danced for me in that moment.
“Well, thank you, Jaime.”
“Good night, miss,” I said and smiled.
The window rolled up and she drove away into the night. I reached down picking up the flashlight I had dropped. I sighed, digging into my pocket for the proper change and deposited it into my cash register.
I figured I would never see her again but there she was again the next night and the night after that. Every night, 20 minutes after midnight, she arrived.
I began to feel something for this woman but I wasn’t sure what. I never knew her name but she would pull up in that beat up Chevy and I would feel a smile break out on my face as she rolled down her window. We would joke around for a few minutes while she purposely gave me the wrong amount, forcing me to count change or to give her the right change from her tips. Her eyes would sparkle and dance for me. The way she said Jaime made me grin like an idiot.
Then one night, I waited for her to come. 12:20 AM passed and she never arrived. Sirens on the opposite side of the highway made me turn and my stomach dropped. Soon the ambulance roared past my booth. I wanted to ask if it was her. I wanted to climb in the back of that ambulance, abandon my post if it was her but I couldn’t ask. I simply made sure the bar was up as the vehicle barrelled by.
Several hours later, there was the beat up red Chevy, now a twisted metal death box. I gulped as I looked at the tow truck driver.
“Have you heard any word about the driver of the car?” I asked. He started to grunt a reply as he reached out the window to hand me the change. Something in my face must have changed his response.
“Some drunk driver ran her off the road.” He cleared his throat. “Ambulance drivers weren’t sure she was going to make it. She lost a lot of blood.”
I nodded. “Oh.”
He drove off. I stared at the road as the sun came up; I took people’s change on automatic. I would never see that Chevy coming down the highway again a little after midnight or see her eyes dance. The worst part was I would never know her name or what would’ve happened if I had decided to ask her for her number.
I couldn’t bear the “what ifs” that went through my mind about the brown-eyed girl in the beat up red Chevy. I quit the tollbooth that night and raced to find her.