She left her letter on the kitchen counter, said goodbye to the cat; washed the dishes, made up her bed, cleaned her bathroom, folded clothes…there was nothing else she could do, yet, she stands there, still, at her parents’ bedroom door. Steady breath, empty thoughts. The pulsing of her heartbeats make her temples jump, almost in time with her wristwatch. She’s miles to go, but can’t move from this spot. Suddenly, everything she wants to say comes flooding to the forefront. Tumbling, racing, tripping, climbing – not enough time to say them all. Add them to the letter! Not enough time. Send them a text? May as well call. Why is there never enough time for words like these?! Tulip stumbles back and leans heavily against the wall, their cat mews and purrs, but her hands are too busy stifling her sobs. Quick, and with barely a sound, she flies down the stairs and shoulders her large duffle. One last pet, one more purr; she punches in the code and opens the front door, whispering, “I’m sorry.”
“All Night Long” by Lionel Richie crackles through the unseen speakers of a backwoods gas station. Rayn taps his foot and hums along. The pump handle clicks as he watches another car pull up to the pump in front of him. A girl, either an older-looking teen or a baby-faced twenty-something, slowly steps out. Her hair shines brilliantly, honey wheat, and whips about in the cold breeze. Her body is rail thin, huddling with itself, and wrapped in acid wash flared jeans, an old, bright green sweater, and a long, dull, orange scarf. She rattles, teeth clacking, nose running as she crawls back into her car, then crawls back out, a gray beanie pulled snug to her ears. “You warm enough?” He calls to her, startling them both. He hadn’t meant to get her attention so abruptly, especially without the excuse of filling his already full tank. “Excuse me?” She calls back, eyes sharp, body rigid and waiting for an attack.
His nerves warm his face and neck, “S-sorry. I just meant -“
“I’m fine. Thanks.” She blows on her fists and pulls out her credit card.
He swallows and thinks, great. She thinks I’m some kind of weirdo. He swallows again, “They have some pretty decent coats in the strip mall couple miles back. Some gloves and wool socks too.”
She nods and presses buttons, unhooks the gas pump, and turns the other way. He sighs and nods, checks his gas tank door is closed, and steps into his car.
Loser. Weirdo. Creep.
His face scrunches, hands grip the steering wheel; he jolts out of the station and speeds away.
With a steady hand, she glides the glossy black nail polish onto her second left toenail. Three slow strokes. She dips the brush and finishes the set with her big toe. She kicks her leg out in front of her and admires her careful work. She caps the bottle as her mother gently knocks on her door and peeks her head in, “knock, knock, Joe-Bird.” Joe-Bird glances at her as she puts her polish back in its container on top her vanity table, “Who’s there?” They smile.
“You’ve a gentleman caller awaiting you at the front door.”
Joe-Bird looks at her, “He say who he is?”
Her mother grins, “You know who it is.”
Joe-Bird thinks, then rolls her eyes, “Let ‘m know I’ll be down in a minute then.”
“Yes ma’am,” she coos as she moves from the door.
Joe-Bird stands at the top of the stairs, “Speak friend and enter, ye nameless man!” Her mother guffaws from the den.
Danny skips up to the first landing, “Mellon! And is that not a hint of sage I smell, smudging in thine quarters?!” They laugh as he takes the remaining steps, two at a time.
Her mother settles into the couch and ruffles her magazine pages at the shutting of Joe-Bird’s bedroom door.
“So you think you’re gonna go?”
Danny leans back on the burgundy beanbag chair, tossing one of Joe-Bird’s black quartz bookends between his hands, “You know where.”
Joe-Bird shifts and lays on her stomach on top of her bed, “Mhm, shippin out tomorrow as a matter a fact. You comin?”
“Yeah girl! I go where you go, remember?”
“Stop, you know I’m kiddin. I still don’t know what this place is you’ve been talkin about.”
“I’m tellin you JB, I’ve been hearin some pretty nice things about it.”
She pulls up Pinterest, “S’that right?”
“Seriously Joe,” he sets her bookends in their rightful place and crawls toward her, “Giant statues half buried in the sand…”
She pins a zucchini recipe, “Mm…”
“An entire village built beneath sheets of ice and snow…”
He taps his nose against her hand, “Dense forests where the wind whispers your name and good fortune comes to you…”
“You know the Wendigo does pretty much the same thing? Cept instead a spreadin good fortune or what have you, it changes you n’a one a ’em. Makes you eat people.”
Danny sighs and collapses against the bed, “You an’ your horror stories.”
She snorts a laugh and goes back to Pinterest, he climbs up beside her and kisses her shoulder.
“My Momma’s right down them stairs bruh.”
He whispers in her ear, “Wanna play Galaga?”
They immediately start laughing.
He tries to shush them, his efforts are futile.
“Boy!” A thick, pinkish hand smacks Mica on the back of his head. The noise echoes and files and saves itself in his memory. He throws himself against the passenger door, eyes bulging, “What?!…S-sir? I’m sorry!” His father’s sharp brown eyes sprint between the watery hazel in Mica’s and the dark road. He jabs at all of him with a tightly closed fist, “Listen! When I’m! Talking! To you!” Each blow is a dull thud, followed by slow-rising, purple-brown bruises. He swerves and stops punching, flexing his hands and wiping the sweat from his brow and upper lip. “As I said, when we get there, you keep your mouth shut and stay hid in the bathroom, got it?!” Mica sniffs and nods.
They arrive at a Motel after a silent thirty minute drive. His father checks-in, and they enter the room. It is small and dingy, musty and cold. Mica immediately goes to the bathroom and locks the door. He stands on his tip toes and looks at himself in the mirror, wishing he’d stolen his father’s cellphone to take pictures and show to the first cop he finds, soon as his father’s asleep. For now, he runs the hot water until it turns lukewarm and splashes his face. He gently dabs the water away with his t-shirt, flips the lid on the toilet and takes a piss. His stomach growls, he tsks and places his ear against the door. The TV is on, shouts and cheers erupt with every punch and every kick. His father and the commentators are eating it up. Hendricks vs. Magny, he thinks as he unlocks and peels open the door.
He takes a breath, “D-dad?”
His father grunts.
“C-can I go to the lobby and get something to eat?”
His father sighs and takes his wallet from the night stand and Mica rushes to him, “Here. And get me a burger and fries while you’re at it. Some Root Beer, Dr. Pepper, something, I don’t know.”
Mica nods vigorously as he takes the money, “Ok.”
“Hey,” he grabs him roughly by the collar, “keep your head down in there. Don’t speak less it’s the waitress you’re speaking to, then come right back. You hear me?”
He lets go and Mica walks calmly out of the room, but runs to the lobby.
He is bombarded by smoke and the stale breath of late-night alcoholics. He immediately scrunches his nose but continues on to the bar and climbs onto an empty stool.
The bartender smiles at him, “What can I get started for you young man?”
He grins sheepishly and looks down at the money, crumpled in his hands. His grin slowly fades as he thinks.
The bartender wrinkles his brow, “You ok kid?”
Mica blinks and whips his head up, “S-sorry! I’m s-sorry. C..can I have a, a R-root Beer w…with a burger and f-fries t…t…to go, please?” He takes a breath, “And a um,” another breath, “another burger w…with fries and a w…w…” he swallows hard.
Mica nods and hands him the money.
“How do you want those cooked? Medium well?”
Mica looks at the bar, confused and curious, then looks down.
“Do you want to see red when you bite into your burger, or just juices?”
Mica chuckles softly.
The bartender smiles, “Just the juices then?”
Mica nods vigorously, grinning.
“Comin right up kid.”
The bartender steps away and enters Mica’s order into the computer, then services the other guests.
Mica spins around on his stool and scans the room: a couple of weathered tables and chairs centered in the lobby, a corner mounted TV just barely touching the ceiling plays a football game on low-volume, and three equal-distance, grimy booths line the back wall – the last of which is occupied by a rail-thin girl in a bright green sweater and a dull orange scarf.