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He’s spent the last twenty miles explaining how it was really all my fault. Patient and serene now, he wants me to understand why he was justified, obligated even, to deliver his backhanded smack in the jaw. The rant of a conspiracy-spouting lunatic spews from the radio. The two voices converge, twist and entwine and then spin off on equally deranged tangents. I’m huddled against the passenger door as far from his as possible. The tears have dried. My left cheek is beginning to swell. It’s two-thirty in the morning.
I press my face to the window and stare numbly into the darkness. I can sense more than see the endless rows of corn in the passing fields. Their rustling leaves stirred by the wind like waves on an inland sea. I imagine myself plunging in, the towering stalks closing protectively behind me as I make my way down a long narrow row, the path straight and certain and true, to emerge at last into a luminous clearing, a place of divine sanctuary where I’m welcomed into a—
“I got to take a dump.”
He pulls off the interstate into a rest stop. Jerks to a stop in a handicapped space and kills the engine. He climbs out and examines his right knuckles. Makes a tentative fist. “You need to go?” he asks, looking in at me. “I ain’t stopping again.” When I don’t answer he slams the door and stomps off to the restrooms.
There’s one other vehicle in the lot, a battered pickup down at the far end whose driver is sleeping or decomposing. Trash is strewn about. Weeds grow tall around the picnic tables. Across the fields an orange glow mushrooms above the horizon. Some sort of industrial hog farm judging from the overpowering smell.
It occurs to me, sitting here in this place at this time under these circumstances, that at this precise moment I am the furthest from home, the furthest from friends, the furthest from hope that I have ever at any point in my life yet strayed. Not the proverbial rock bottom they’re always blathering about in my support groups. Rather an immense distance, an unbridgeable chasm backward or forward to anything to which I might cling. I see this now with such absolute clarity that I pull out my phone to document the exact hour and position of my abandonment. Location Not Found.
I gaze heavenward through the sunroof in search of a GPS satellite or a benevolent God. A swarm of gigantic bugs swirl about a sickly overhead light. They build up a head of steam and hurtle headlong into the dome, careen off into the darkness only to come buzzing back around to do it again.
I’m torn from this spectacle by the sharp hiss of air brakes from across the way. To the rest stop on the opposite side. A mirror image of where I now sit. Seemingly identical in every god-forsaken detail to this hellhole. And yet—there’s a row of semi-trucks parked in a neat row out front with their running lights as alluring as a casino. Through the lobby doors the logos of the vending machines glow with a welcoming cheeriness. A full moon hanging directly overhead imparts a shimmering luster to the scene as if to a looming oasis. Or a cruel mirage.
It’s not a decision I consciously make, but once made, the wheels set in motion, I can feel the unstoppable momentum behind it. The toxic months of darkness and despair that have led to this moment. I grab my duffel bag from the back seat. Gingerly open the passenger door and step out. He’s left the keys in the ignition. I reach back in for them. Hurl them as far as I can into the weeds. One last glance towards the lobby doors before I turn and run.
The interstate is deserted in either direction as I stumble out of the ditch onto the shoulder. Never have I felt so naked and exposed as I scramble across this no man’s land of blacktop. Down into the median and then across the westbound lanes. A swell of elation builds in my chest as if I’m a refugee crossing to a promised land. The semi-trucks greet me with their idling rumble as I gain the parking lot and duck behind the nearest one. I peek back across to the opposite side but there’s no sign of him.
In the bathroom I lock myself in a stall and flop down. I’m gasping for breath. My heart is thumping as if I’d run for miles. And the momentary giddiness is already giving way to a surge of panic. To the realization that I have no plan and no clue what to do now. For one dark moment I consider making my way back to the other side to suffer the consequences. But when I step from the stall and view my swollen red cheek in the mirror, I vow there will be no going back.
In the lobby a trucker is studying the candy bars in a vending machine. He’s an older man with a bushy beard and suspenders who looks, as I approach him, like a kindly uncle. But when he turns my way, I see the predatory look come into his eyes. The leaps his mind makes. The familiar open-faced craving of a different kind of uncle. I hustle out the door into the parking lot. To hear, above the low rumble of trucks, the sound of my name shouted in rage from across the interstate.
From behind a rig, I look across to where he’s stalking the parking lot. Screaming curses and threats as he searches for me in a demonic game of hide and seek. Even from this distance I can see the tensed fury. I watch the glow of his phone rise to his ear. A second later my own buzzes angrily, making me jump. As if he’s packaged his rage and sent it hurtling across the way to explode in my pocket.
In mounting panic, I turn and survey the parking lot. A small Toyota comes chugging up the ramp and parks. An enormous woman struggles out of the driver’s seat, followed by a tiny dog on a leash. She leans on a picnic table and lights a cigarette while the dog sniffs around in the grass. The woman is gigantic, solid and firm and seeming to offer the safety of a sheltering mountain. She watches me impassively as I approach. I stop at a non-threatening distance and speak in my most non-threatening voice. “Excuse me, ma’am. Do you think you could give me a ride?”
“You in some kind of trouble, boy?” Her voice is blunt but not unkind.
“No, ma’am. I just really need to get to Denver.” I dig in my pocket for my last twenty dollars. “I can help pay for gas.”
“I ain’t no Uber driver.”
My shouted name comes across on the breeze. Sounding closer now. Followed by an enraged “mother fucker.” I tense and freeze. The dog looks up and growls. The woman seems to intuitively grasp the whole of the situation in an instant. She nods towards the car. “Go on. Get in. Tuffy here got to do her business first.”
I toss my bag in the back and hunker down in the passenger seat. Two agonizing minutes later the woman climbs in and the car shudders on its suspension. She reaches Tuffy over and plops her in my lap. “You in her seat.”
The woman struggles to get the seatbelt stretched across her girth, so I reach over and help her get buckled in. As she starts up the car a wailing horn blast sounds from out on the road. In the blazing high beams of a passing semi, I see him striding across the median of the interstate. Carrying what looks like a tire iron.
“Sure looks like trouble to me,” she says, following my gaze.
“Can we please just go?” I plead, ducking down behind her.
She puts the car in gear and it sputters and coughs. For one awful second I’m afraid we’ll stall out, but then the engine catches and we lurch forward. We ease down the ramp and merge onto the highway. Slowly my chest begins to untighten. My fists to unclench. I pet Tuffy fawningly to ingratiate myself with them both. She’s just settled down to sleep in my lap when the phone buzzes again in my pocket. She bolts awake and snarls. I pull out the phone and cut off the call.
“That your friend from back there?”
“I need to be checking my rearview mirror?”
“Nah. I threw his keys away.”
“No wonder he pissed.”
I scroll through my outdated list of contacts. Send a text to Jacob. Who I pray to God still lives in Denver. Two minutes later he miraculously texts back his address.
“Boy, you keep using that phone you might as well leave breadcrumbs behind you.”
I stare at the ancient phone in my hand. Its cracked screen and battered case. A digital diary containing the whole of my life’s flawed history. Every wrong turn and bad decision. I power it off. The screen flickers beseechingly and goes black. I put down the window and fling it off into the ditch. Tuffy leaps to the windowsill and stares after it as if for a tossed bone. The stench of pigs floods the car.
The woman makes a face and powers up the window. “Don’t know how folks live out here with that stink.”
“I guess they get used to it. Hope the wind blows the other way.”
“I guess they must.”
Tuffy settles down in my lap again with a contented sigh. The woman reaches over and scratches the little dog behind the ears. “She likes you.” A sudden sob wracks my body. Sad and pitiful in the darkness of the car. Tears begin to trickle down my cheeks. The woman puts her hand on my shoulder. Lets it rest there for a mile until they’ve stopped. “Okay?”
“Okay,” I say and wipe my nose on my sleeve.
She takes a cigarette from the pack on the dashboard. Lights it and takes a long drag. “Then why don’t you find us something on the radio? None of that country shit.”
Phil Andersen is a pharmacist and writer in Illinois. His previous work has appeared in/at McSweeney's Internet, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Chicago Reader, Drunk Monkeys and elsewhere.