A semi engine turns over and the air brakes release. Dylan’s eyes open to see the shady underside of the tractor-trailer moving on either side of her. As the truck pulls away, she’s left lying in the middle of the asphalt parking slot between two slanted yellow lines with her head on her rucksack. She squints into the noon sun. She closes her eyes, turns her head, rolls her rucksack onto her shoulders and stands up in one fluid motion. She groggily makes her way inside the truck stop Quickie Mart. She buys a honey bun and three large bottles of water. She walks towards the highway. A car comes out of the rest area and slows down beside her, it’s driver’s side window rolling down. The driver is a middle-aged man and a young boy is in the front passenger side of the car.
“Howdy, there! It’s a scorcher today. You need a ride somewhere, hun?”
“How far are you going?” Dylan asks as she surveys the on-ramp to the highway, never meeting his eyes. Wavy lines of blurred heat already make their way above the highway asphalt.
“Damn near all the way across Texas. I’m taking my son to spend the summer with his mother. Where are you headed?”
“Woo-ee. You got a ways to go. I’ll take you as far as I’m goin’. I’m Gary and this big man over here is Robbie. Hop on in the backseat,” Gary says with more pep in his voice than Dylan can rationalize. She knows not to pass up on a free ride. She gets into the backseat of the old gold sedan and buckles her seatbelt. She mutters, “Thanks,” once she tosses her rucksack next to her on the worn cloth seat in the air-conditioned car.
“So what’s your name?” Robbie inquires.
“Dylan,” she says.
“That sounds like a boy’s name.”
Gary slaps Robbie hard on the back of the head. “Don’t be rude, boy. Mind your manners.”
Dylan interjects. “That’s alright. My parents didn’t want to know whether they were having a boy or a girl so they picked a name that would work for both,” Dylan replies.
“How the hell did they know what color to paint your nursery?”
“Green. They painted it green.”
“Huh,” Gary muffles.
“Daddy, can we please listen to the radio?” Robbie whines like a typical child.
“Sure. Hope you like country, Dylan, cuz that’s all they play ‘round here.”
“It’s your car. But if you don’t mind, I might take a nap for a bit.” Her disconnected depression is best suppressed by black, dreamless sleep. It’s addicting. No matter how much sleep she gets, she always wants more.
“Sure thing. Get comfy. It’s a long haul.”
Dylan leans her body against her rucksack and closes her eyes. The Moonlight Sonata playing in her head lulls her to sleep, drowning out the twang coming from the car speakers.
Dylan wakes to screeching tires as the car summersaults. Glass, blood, bodies and soda splash around the interior. As the car rocks to a standstill upside down, Dylan unlatches her seat belt, hits her disoriented head on the roof, and gathers her rucksack. She tosses her rucksack out of a shattered window and crawls her way out behind it. Gary and Robbie are in various states of injury and consciousness.
“Go get help,” Gary’s voice shivers.
“Someone will be here soon.”
Gary turns his attention to his son and his voice trails off as Dylan makes her way to the other car on the now scrap-metaled road.
“Robbie? Robbie? Robbie!” she hears in the increasing distance.
Dylan doesn’t feel a thing as she leaves Gary and Robbie to fend for themselves. Of course she has a phone, but she can’t risk putting a helpful call in to the police. She can already see that the driver in the other car didn’t survive. If she calls there will be two unanswered questions: where is the female voice that made the call and why did she flee the scene? She can’t afford to have any more people looking for her and she sure as hell can’t stick around. She can never stay put for long. It’s either her survival or theirs. She manages her own; they can wait for the next car to come by. They’ll make the call.
The other car has its front end smashed in from the head-on collision. A woman, contorted and mangled, is crushed in the driver’s seat, where the engine block now resides. Dylan slows a bit to look at her as she walks back in the direction of Mississippi. Picking up a side mirror that lies in the road, she evaluates her face, which is only slightly cut. She wipes the blood off with the long sleeve of her sopping black shirt, takes it off and ties it around her waist inside out. Underneath, she has on a blue tank top; her bra straps show. There are no cars in either direction. Dylan drops her rucksack and digs for something. She pulls out a black umbrella, opens it and walks down the road under its shade.
As Dylan walks, she wonders if the accident should encourage her to reevaluate what’s still important to her. Then, she wonders why she still wonders. The road has changed her, jaded her heart and drained it of all its compassion. She’s as hardened as the pavement beneath her feet. She figures that’s what a year on the run would do to anyone at her age, even as a sixteen-year-old. She could afford to buy a car of her own. She has plenty of cash, but she can’t afford risking a paper trail, regardless of the fact that it would end at her false identity, “Dylan”. She could switch or steal tags, but that would only open her up to more risk.
She’s stayed off the radar this long, living a hobo’s life, drifting from one highway to another. She feels no compulsion to change her ways. Besides, she’s not done mourning. She wonders if she ever will be. She doesn’t have to live like this, but she can’t seem to muster up enough care to care. She has no real destination. She just keeps moving.
When Dylan was eight, her parents died in car accident, too. Her father was drunk. Her mother let him drive anyway. When she was fifteen, the uncle that took her in died from his second stroke. Supposedly. She knows that she’s too smart for her own good. Savant they say. Genius they say. Brilliant they say. Elegant they say. But she underestimated them. She should have known better, too, but she was naive then. There is nothing they won’t do to get her back into their clutches.
Dylan hears a truck as it slows down behind her. It grinds its gears to a halt next her. Dylan closes her umbrella and steps up onto the shiny, silver platform on the passenger side of the cab. A man with blonde, straggly hair under a camouflage hunter’s cap sits in the driver’s seat. He spits tobacco juice out of his window. He has yellow stained teeth and a few days of stubble with juice stains down the corners of his mouth.
“You hitchin’ or trickin’?” is the only thing the man says, raising his voice to ask Dylan outside of the window.
“Too bad. Go on, now. Get off the truck.”
“I can pay you.”
“Is that right? How much?”
“How far are you going?” Even through the window Dylan is repulsed by the musty odor from the cab and the pit stains under the trucker’s armpits. But, then again, she probably doesn’t smell much better.
“Drop me off in Mississippi?”
“How much?” He asks again, looking at her with beady eyes.
“A hundred bucks.”
Dylan takes the rucksack off and uses her knee to stabilize it against the truck. She digs inside while the man perches up in his seat to watch her hands. She counts the bills and pulls out the cash.
“Well, hop on in. It seems like we have us a deal.”
Dylan opens the door and gets in, putting the rucksack between her knees as the man notices her spread her thin legs. She hands him the cash.
“What’s yer name, girl?”
“That doesn’t come with the cash.”
The trucker stashes the wad in his pocket as he thrusts his hips up toward the steering wheel while watching Dylan. “You know anything about that wreck back there that had me jammed up?”
“Neither does that,” Dylan states plainly. Someone made the call.
“Just awonderin’ how a hitcher has that kind of dough. You rifle through some wallets?”
“I wasn’t there. I’ve been walking for a while. Heard it behind me though.”
“And you didn’t check up on it?”
“Wrong direction.” Dylan surveys the inside of the cab. Greasy purple velvet curtains fall behind the seats, separating the sleeping quarters from her field of vision.
“Ya ain’t got much to say, huh? Hell, that’s alright. If ya ain’t suckin’ me off then there’s no reason fer yer mouth to be open anyhows.” The man twists off the cap of a Budweiser bottle he gets from a square cooler between the seats and tosses it onto his dashboard. He takes a long swig of beer. He doesn’t offer Dylan any even though she looks parched. She doesn’t ask.
“Are we going or what?” Dylan looks out the rearview mirror as the truck starts off. She thinks they can make it to Mississippi before sundown and she needs to get across that state border. The wind blows through her hair and she ties it back. He drives and they don’t speak. Country accents are heard over the CB. The man occasionally responds to ASS-SMASHER-101.
At the Mississippi state line sign, the grimy man pulls the truck off onto the shoulder of the road and turns on his hazard lights.
“A deals a deal,” he says with a smug grin.
“Pretty literal, huh?”
“I found ya on the road. You get out on the road. I need me a workin’ girl at the next stop.” As Dylan starts to gather her rucksack, the man puts his hand on her arm in a strong grip, “unless you got some more cash in der.”
“Not for you. Remove your hand.”
“Guess that answers my question. Too bad you’re such a dumb little bitch.” The man moves fast and pulls a sawed off shotgun with a pistol grip up from the side of his seat closest to his door and points it in Dylan’s face.
“You’re not going to shoot me. That’s a mess to explain to the next girl.”
“Damn sure, will. Don’t ya worry ‘bout that. Just leave the sack and get out.”
Dylan looks out of the corner of her eye at the barrel of the gun and up to the redneck that holds it while still leaning over her rucksack. In a flash, she leans back as far as she can in the seat and knocks the shotgun barrel forward toward the windshield with her forearm, which pulls the man over towards her. She head-butts him and rips the shot gun out of his oily hands. She twirls it back on him.
“I’d like a refund.”
The man smirks and his nasty, misaligned teeth show, while he ignores the blood that drips out of his broken nose. He spits a pool of bloody tobacco at Dylan, but misses. It drips down the dashboard.
“Go on then lil’ girl. Pull the trigger. It ain’t even loaded. Besides, ya ain’t got it in…”
Dylan pulls the trigger, but it only clicks. The man’s eyes open wide and a sinister laugh escapes him.
Dylan smiles back. “Too bad. That was the easy way.”
“Damn, bitch. Now yer gonna pay fer dat.”
The man lunges at Dylan and she flips the butt of the gun into the man’s chin which cracks his teeth as others fly out of his mouth. She twirls the shotgun like a baton into his temple. He groans as his head starts to fall in-between the seats. Dylan smashes the back of his head with the grip of the gun and he falls face first into the middle of the cab on top off his cooler. Dylan bashes the back of his head repeatedly with the butt of the gun. Every time she pulls back more blood splatters until squishy noises calm her. She gently lays the gun across her lap looking forward and falls back into her seat out of breath, but relaxed. She looks in the mirror and takes the shirt off her hips, turns it right side out and wipes the blood off her face. She washes her hands over the man’s corpse with a bottle of beer from the cup holder. He twitches. She puts the bottle back into the cup holder, picks up the shotgun, takes an annoyed breath and slams it one more time into the back of the man’s head. His body twitches one last time. Dylan drops the shotgun onto the floorboard.
The trucker’s body is wedged sideways between his seat and draped over the cooler. Dylan kicks the man’s body aside. Dylan pulls out two bottles of beer and washes off her hands again using one bottle. She takes her cash out of the trucker’s jean pocket. She quickly snatches a lighter out of the ashtray that has the image of a naked woman on it, with boobs used as a gauge for the lighter fluid level.
She digs in her rucksack and pulls out a spray-bottle of ammonia. She rolls up the windows. She splashes the man’s body and sprays the entire cab with the ammonia. The ammonia makes DNA unviable and the oil film of fingerprints run.
Dylan opens the door of the cab and gets out with the remaining bottle of beer. She knocks the door shut with her hip and then sprays it and the platform step with some more ammonia. She places the spray bottle back into her rucksack.
Dylan puts the lighter in her pocket. She turns her shirt inside out again and ties it back around her waist. She takes out her umbrella, the one she held at her uncle’s funeral, opens it and starts walking down the highway into Mississippi. She takes a swig of beer.
After the sun gives way to the night, Dylan closes her umbrella and walks. Eventually, she walks down a grassy slope next to a highway exit towards a Motel 6 with its VACANCY sign flashing.
Dylan rings a bell on the counter and a pale, freckled receptionist with red hair comes from behind a partition, leaving a cigarette to burn in the ashtray. Her false teeth whistle.
“You got a major credit card?” she asks, wasting no time.
“No credit card, no room.”
“Can’t I put down a deposit?” Dylan asks politely.
“Look, kid. We don’t do runaways here, nohow.”
“I’m not a runaway. I got left behind during a bathroom break on a greyhound ‘bout 10 hours ago. This is the first motel I’ve seen. I’ve just been walkin’. I didn’t want to get to hitchin’. You never know what kind of nuts are out there.”
“Ain’t dat da truf. Hell, a trucker got kilt by one jest today in broad daylight. I jest seen it on the night news.
“Damn. So can I use a deposit?”
“How many nights you stayin’?”
“Three. I have to wait for the next bus.”
“Welp, it’s $49 per night plus tax times double fer da deposit. That’s…” The receptionist reaches for a calculator. Dylan waits. The clerk punches in the numbers, has to start over a couple of times and exclaims, “Darn thang,” to herself several times.
“Ah, hell, I’ll just round it up. Three hundred all in. If you ain’t stole nothin’ or broke nothin’ before you go, you’ll get some of it back. You got that?”
“I think I so. Let me check.” Dylan digs in her rucksack for the money. “$275 is all I got,” which is a lie. She lies all the time.
The woman looks her up and down. “Dat’s close enough. Can’t have you sleepin’ out back for free. I need yer license,” Dylan reaches in her back pocket and hands over her forged I.D., “Dylan, huh. Sounds like a boy’s name.”
Dylan doesn’t respond. She waits for the receptionist to take down all of her information, gets the room key and directions, picks up her rucksack and goes to her room. Dylan heads directly into the bathroom and puts her rucksack behind the door and locks it. She relieves herself and takes a shower, using only the small rectangular stick of soap left by the sink. She gets out of the shower and feels only slightly cleaner than when she got in. She finishes off the bar of soap by washing all the clothes she has on with it.
It won’t be long before the cops start canvassing tonight. The motel is too close to the state border and too obvious. Fucking dumb-ass trucker. She gets dressed in her wet clothes, grabs her rucksack and heads for the door.
She’ll end up squeezing herself into a crack in the seam of an overpass somewhere for tonight. Between water erosion and the poorly maintained infrastructure of America’s highways, there are usually little caves behind those cracks. Most caves stay relatively cool during the day so she’ll sleep tomorrow away and head out during the night. Dylan hates walking at night. That’s when the real weirdos pull over.
She doesn’t have to wonder why she always gets in. Something will happen, something that will make her stop running. She won’t walk away, like she has from life, like she does on the highway. She’ll be ready to defend herself, not from perverts and petty thieves, but from an entire apparatus designed for her defeat. She’s doesn’t know how much farther she has to go, so she keeps hitchin’, searching.
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