The car sputters when I maneuver it into a space, but it doesn’t die. Not yet, anyway. The small orange light screams at me from the dashboard—check engine. Ten hours, that’s how long I’ve been on the road. I didn’t really believe this piece of shit would make it all the way to California, but I’d hoped it would at least get me halfway there.
I squeeze my eyes shut and rest my forehead on the steering wheel, right between my clenched fists. The orange words dance across the back of my eyelids. Even with my eyes closed I can’t escape them. They taunt me. Check engine. They may as well be you failed. That’s what it feels like.
I jerk the keys out of the ignition and grab my travel papers off the dashboard, shoving them both in my purse. Leaving the papers behind would get my car broken into for sure, plus I’ll need them if I run into a cop. If my papers get stolen, I’ll be stranded.
The diner is the type of place I would normally avoid. It’s nothing more than a truck stop really, probably fifty years old or more. I’m sure the walls are coated in grease, and the bathrooms most likely haven’t been cleaned well since the late eighties. It’s full of truckers and white trash. People who remind me of the life I ran from. But I don’t have a choice. I have to pee, and this is the only route open that leads to California.
The inside is exactly the way I imagined it. Old booths with cracked seats covered in duct tape, the walls brown and grimy. The grease invades my pores and nostrils the second I step in. It goes down into my lungs and coats them in a thick, oily film. I want to get in and out of this place as fast as possible.
I’ve only taken two steps when a man stops me. He’s big and round, and his face is red and sweaty. The pits of his shirt are stained an ugly yellow-brown color that smells as bad as it looks. Even over the grease and cigarettes his pungent odor burns my nostrils. He also has a gun strapped to his chest.
“Papers.” He holds his hand out expectantly. His face is hard.
My heart pounds as I pull the papers out of my purse and hesitantly hand them to the man. Hopefully, he actually works here and he’s not robbing me. I hold my breath while he slowly unfolds them, then exhale when his eyes narrow on the fine print. His mouth is pulled into a tight line when he nods.
He folds the papers in half, snapping his fingers across the crease before handing them back. “Welcome.” It sounds more like a death sentence than a welcome.
I return his tense smile and shove the papers back in my purse. “Where’s the bathroom?”
He tilts his head to the right, but doesn’t say a word. I nod and head in the direction he indicated, keeping my eyes down, trying not to meet anyone’s gaze. I don’t need to look at the people to know what expressions they wear. It’s the same everywhere. Fear, frustration, hopelessness, and loss. It’s how things have been since martial law was declared six weeks ago. And I’m tired of it. I have my own worries. I don’t want to see the despair in other people’s eyes, don’t want to focus on anyone else’s problems.
The bathroom is empty, thankfully, and just as dirty as I imagined it would be. I squat over the toilet, trying my best not to touch the seat. The pressure in my bladder is agonizing. I’d started to think I was going to have to pee on the side of the road.
A sigh of relief whooshes out of me when I’ve finally relieved myself. I pull up my skinny jeans and head out to wash my hands. The mirror hanging above the sink is cracked and filmy. I can’t make anything out other than my tangled blonde hair. I work my fingers through the knots and look away from the mirror. Doesn’t matter how I look. There won’t be anyone to impress on this trip.
I wash my hands and shake them dry before heading back out into the diner. No way am I eating here. It would be a waste of time. Plus, I have no desire to sit and breathe in this grease-filled air. But coffee is a must. I want to make it at least another four hours before pulling over for the night.
A woman in her fifties stands behind the register. She wears the same uniform as the other waitresses: orange dress with short sleeves and an apron that probably used to be white. The entire thing is now splattered with food and grease, old and worn just like she is. Her hair is short and jet black, the kind of color that only comes from a bottle, and the creases on her face are so deep they’re probably just as full of grease as the walls of the diner. Her arms cross over her chest and she shakes her head, frowning at the man in front of her.
“Please, I’m begging you. I was on a business trip when this all started. I’ve been stranded for weeks trying to get home to my family. I’ve spent every last penny I had on my physical and a car. I’m starving.” His voice is desperate, begging. Same story, different person.
“No credit,” the woman says. She won’t budge. Why would she? People like her are making a killing off travelers. A few weeks ago, she probably barely made enough money to live on. And now…well, if this all blows over, she’ll be comfortable.
The man pleads for a bit longer and I shift from foot to foot, waiting for him to get the point. I should have some sympathy for him. I should. But if I felt bad for every person I passed who was desperate and running out of time…if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to keep going. I’d sit down on the floor right here in the middle of this diner and never move again.
The television mounted on the wall catches my eye, and I tune the man out. It’s an old tube TV and the reception is awful, but the news is on. Maybe there will be an update on the virus.
“…travelers are advised to display their papers at all times and to keep to approved routes. Anyone who is found traveling on closed highways or without papers will be arrested immediately and held until martial law has been lifted.
In local news, police are still on the lookout for two men responsible for robbing several convenience stores in the St. Louis area. They are described as two white males in their mid- to late-twenties and were last seen traveling in a dark blue SUV. They are considered armed and dangerous…”
“That’s it,” the woman at the counter says, making me jump. She nods to the armed man at the door, then turns to me. I guess she finally got tired of listening to the desperate man. “What can I get you?”
Her gaze holds mine. Both of us avoid looking at the man as he’s dragged from the diner. Neither one of us bats an eye when he screams for mercy. Begs for help. My throat constricts, burning a little at his cries. But I can’t give in.
“Coffee,” I say. “To go.”
She nods and turns away, not even bothering to ask me if I have cash. She shouldn’t have to. Not with the giant sign over the register that says Cash Only, and not after the screaming man was ripped from the building.
I lean against the counter and close my eyes for a second. My shoulders slump and my limbs feel weighed down, like they’re made of lead. I feel a hundred years old, not twenty.
When I open my eyes, my gaze locks with a man a few booths away. Everything about him screams redneck. From his flannel shirt, unbuttoned to reveal his wifebeater and beer belly, to the bulge in his lower lip. His upper lip curls and his eyes go over my pin-up body. He nods in approval and raises an eyebrow. He’s in his thirties, probably getting close to forty, and he’s hard. Like he’s been dealt a rough life and didn’t have an issue giving some back. I’ve known men like him. Hell, I’ve dated men like him.
There’s another man sitting at the table with him, but his back is to me so I can’t tell what he looks like. Probably more of the same. The first man grins and picks up a soda can, spitting into it. My stomach churns. He gives me the creeps.
I turn away when the waitress comes back carrying a cup of coffee. “That’ll be five bucks.”
I dig my nails into my palms. “Five dollars? What do you think this is, Starbucks?”
She purses her lips and both her penciled-on eyebrows pull together. “I know this ain’t Starbucks, but I also know there ain’t another place to get a cup of coffee for ‘bout fifty miles. And that’s if you’re goin’ east. If you’re headin’ west, it’s further.”
I’m going west, of course.
I rip the cup out of her hand as violently as I can without spilling it and slam a five-dollar bill on the counter. “Don’t expect a tip.”
I turn on my heel and walk out of the diner, keeping my eyes straight ahead so I don’t have to look at the redneck again. His eyes bore into me as I go.
* * *
I make it three more hours before the car sputters and starts to slow. That’s all. My foot slams on the gas pedal, but nothing happens. The wheel is stiff as I turn it hard to the right and pull to the shoulder. A car blares its horn when it flies by. I probably got the finger, but my vision is too clouded by tears to know for sure. It’s over. This is it.
The entire car jerks when the engine sputters, then dies completely. I don’t even bother putting it in park. There’s no point. It’s never moving again. I stare straight ahead. What do I do now? There’s a sign about fifteen feet in front of me, announcing that the next check point is twenty miles away. I can walk or I can try to hitch a ride. Both are a risk. But then again, so is sitting here.
I grab my purse and pull out the photo, clutching it so tight the paper crinkles. Her blue eyes stare up at me, big and round. Innocent. Squeezing my heart and making my throat constrict. I just wanted to see her one time before it all ended. Just once.
A horn honks and I jump, almost dropping the picture. A car has pulled to the side of the road less than six feet behind me. My heart pounds and every muscle in my body tightens. Good or bad? I don’t know. No one gets out of the car, and I can’t see in.
My purse is still in my lap.
I put the picture back and pull out my gun.
Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath, then open the door and step out. It’s a dark blue Nissan Armada. A monster of a vehicle. The windows are tinted so dark there’s no way it can be legal. The outline of two men is barely visible through the dark windows, but I can’t tell who they are or what they look like. And I have no idea what they’re doing.
I take two small steps toward the car and the driver’s side door opens. The redneck from the diner steps out.
“Well, hello there!” he drawls. His accent isn’t southern exactly, more low-class than anything else. He keeps the door open as he steps away from the car, his own gun clutched in his right hand. “What a surprise. Thought I’d never see you again.” He winks.
I tighten my grip on the gun and raise it to chest level. Steadying it with both hands. Aiming at the center of his chest. I’m a good shot.
He puts his hands up, but doesn’t release the gun. “Hold on now, no need to point that thing at me. I just stopped to see if you was havin’ car trouble.”
The passenger door opens, and the other man steps out. He stays behind the open door but points another gun at me through the gap between the door and the car.
“I think you should put that down,” he calls. He sounds younger than the first man, but their voices are similar. Same low-class accent.
“Just a precaution.” I keep my gun up and my arm steady. “I’ve had lots of target practice, so don’t think I don’t know what I’m doing.”
The first man nods and slowly bends down, lowering the hand with the gun toward the ground. “I’m just gonna put this down, and my brother is gonna put his down, and we’re gonna have a nice chat. That sound good?”
His tone is condescending. Warm and fuzzy, but in a fake way. It puts me on edge. I shouldn’t trust this man. I know it.
“Lower your gun, Axl. Come on out where she can see ya.”
The man behind the door pulls his gun back and walks forward. He is younger than his brother, and taller. Where the first man is stocky with a beer belly, Axl is broad. His muscles strain against his flannel shirt. He’s average-looking. Not unattractive and hard like his brother, more unassuming. Probably why his brother called him out. So I’d let my guard down.
I’m silent as the two men put their guns on the ground and take a step back. My eyes flit between them while I try to decide what to do. Axl’s face is blank and he’s silent, his hands casually at his side. His brother, on the other hand, grins at me with his hands still in the air. His smile is fake as my boobs.
“We ain’t gonna hurt you,” Axl spits out. His voice drips with irritation. Guess he isn’t thrilled they stopped to help me.
“Why did you stop then?”
“I told you, darlin’,” the first man says. “We was just checking to see if you needed help. That’s all. I’m Angus, and this here is my brother, Axl. We’re travelin’, just like you. Thought we’d help out.”
“Nothing’s that simple these days.” I flex my fingers around the grip of my gun.
Axl rolls his eyes and turns toward his brother. “I told you this was stupid. Let’s go.”
“No, no. She needs help. It’s obvious.” Angus turns back to me and smiles in what I’m sure he thinks is a charming way. It’s not. “We just wanted to help ya out. That’s all.”
I study them for a minute longer with the gun still aimed at Angus’s chest. My knuckles start to ache. These two rednecks may be my only option. “Where are you headed?”
“California.” Angus flashes me a big grin.
Sighing, I lower the gun. Shit. “Me too.”
This makes Angus smile even bigger, and I have the urge to shoot him anyway. There is definitely something creepy about this guy.
“Well then, we’ll just travel on up there together,” Angus says. Another smile.
“You’d give me a ride?”
“Sure would. Can’t leave a young lady out here all by herself. It’s a dangerous world.” Angus winks and his eyes sweep over my body, just like they did in the diner. I shudder. He’s dangerous.
“I’d pitch in for gas and anything else we needed.” I cringe at the pleading in my voice. Not sure if there’s any sense in hiding it, though. Angus knows I’m desperate, like everyone else on the road.
He smiles again. “Sure you will.”
Angus picks up both guns on his way to the Nissan. “Help her with her bags, Axl.” He doesn’t even glance at his brother. It’s an order. He is definitely at the top of the food chain here.
Axl doesn’t blink. Not that I thought he would. He heads toward my car. Axl doesn’t frighten me or put me on edge like his brother, but maybe he should.
I open the back door and give him a strained smile. “Sorry about the gun.”
He nods, but barely looks at me. “Understandable.”
Axl grabs both my bags without so much as a grunt and heads back to the Nissan. I gather my meager belongings as fast as possible since I don’t want them to drive off with my stuff. I jog to catch up with him. Angus catches my eye. He gives me another one of his smiles and I do my best to return it. I’m sure mine is even less convincing than his.
“You’re in the back,” Angus says, but he isn’t talking to me. He’s talking to Axl.
My stomach twists into knots, but I climb in the passenger seat anyway. I should argue, say I’d rather be in the back so I can get some sleep. But I don’t want to cause problems. I have to get to California. Emily is there.
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