“Goddammit,” I cried, slamming an angry fist on the steering wheel, “Every fucking time!”
“Hm?” Adria looked at me inquisitively. She had been staring out the window for most of the trip. Four hours so far, and I doubt she had said more than ten words the entire time. Most of my early conversational gambits were met with the same sort of monosyllabic noncommittal responses. After a while, I turned on the radio and resolved to leave her in peace.
I suspected she was uncomfortable with the sudden one on one time. We weren’t what you could exactly call friends. Our friends were friends, and so we often found ourselves in each other’s company. We had even conversed a few times, easy light conversation that at times felt like the early seeds of friendship. Once or twice I bought weed from her boyfriend, a large and rather intimidating Hispanic gentleman named Carlos. We were acquaintances, you could say, not friends.
Now, I should admit, I had a bit of a crush on her. I hate that term, so high schoolish, but it fit the bill and so I’ll deign to use it here. If I had a type, and I suspect I do, she fit neatly within the criteria. She was petite, 5’5 or thereabouts, roughly six inches shorter than myself. Her heart-shaped face was framed by straight black hair, slightly too long to be considered a pixie cut. She kept the bangs out of her bold green eyes with the sort of barrette you would normally find on a much younger girl. I thought it gave an endearing counterpoint to the rest of her style.
She normally favored a vaguely punky look, favoring bare shoulders so as to display her tattoos, a pair of ornate spirals situated in the hollow between her shoulders and breasts. As I venture boldly into my late twenties, I must shamefully admit that I still loved that pseudo-edgy hot topic fashion sense and found myself wondering what other ink she may have been hiding.
Here in the passenger seat of my aging Ford Escort, she dressed more comfortably for travel in tattered jeans and a loose-fitting t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a death metal band. I couldn’t tell you which one, the band’s logo was an indecipherable mass of jagged spikes that could only be considered words by a vast stretch of the imagination. To attempt interpretation meant staring at the swell of her chest for longer than the nature of our relationship deemed appropriate. Besides, there were other matters which demanded my immediate attention.
“Jacob. Did anyone ever teach him how to lead someone?” I explained, “He’s been going fifteen over the speed limit this whole time, running yellow lights. Its all I can do to keep him in sight. See, this is exactly why I didn’t want to do this. I have no idea where we are.”
“We’re close though, right?” she asked, “We’ll be there soon enough and you can bitch at him about it.”
She went back to staring out the window, leaving me feeling like an asshole. Obviously, she didn’t want to listen to me complain the whole trip. I wondered why she even agreed to ride with me at all. Maybe she didn’t. Jacob’s truck had no back seat, and his passenger seat was claimed by his large and allegedly asexual girlfriend, Sarah. Riding bitch between the two of them with the shifting knob between your legs would have been unpleasant for a trip across town, let alone a five hour trip across state lines. I guess it was my responsibility to keep that option as unappealing as possible.
“Sorry,” I said. “Don’t mean to be a bitch. I’m just nervous, that’s all. I don’t usually drive long distances. Looking forward to the reception so I get myself outside some drinks.”
She smiled faintly at this, and said:
Maybe it sounded more like familiar ground to her, as most of our interactions had been at similar functions. Something like hope began to rise up within me. The reception, I suspected, was my best bet at sealing some sort of deal with her. If I didn’t fuck it up on the ride down to the wilds of Arkansas, that is. It was time to sweeten the pot, if you’ll forgive the pun, ease the tension.
I stepped down on the gas, hoping to reach a more comfortable following distance and played my gambit.
“You want to have a smoke? I have a few joints rolled in a pack under your seat.”
She quickly nodded and I thought maybe I saw the smile widen somewhat before she ducked forward to access my stash.
“You want greens?” She asked, drawing a tightly rolled spliff from the pack. I had Michael roll them for me before I left, not that I would admit such a thing to her. I was a pipe man, myself, and never quite got the knack of joint craft.
I waved her off with an indulgent if somewhat flippant gesture, my eyes still trained on Jacob’s scarcely visible truck. I thought I had bridged the gap somewhat, as his truck was very nearly identifiable as such. This feat was achieved by forcing myself to accelerate to twenty miles per hour over the posted speed limit. We were entering the boondocks, having left the major highways shortly after forming this convoy, and I hadn’t seen a police vehicle in a comfortingly long stretch of time.
“All yours,” I said. “I pride myself on being a good host, and will happily take deuces.”
“You’re too kind,” she said and I could tell her mood was lifting. “Oh, can I trouble you for a light? I can’t reach my pockets.”
“There’s one in the center console, I think.”
“Gracias,” Adria replied. There was indeed a lighter in the center console, and miracle of miracles, it even worked. She lit the joint and took a couple of puffs. Smoke, pungent and acrid, filled the cabin. She coughed once, into her fist.
“Pretty dank, Chuck,” she appraised, “not bad.”
She was the only person I knew who called me Chuck. It always made me think of Peppermint Patty from the Charlie Brown comics and I allowed it mostly because I wanted to fuck her. To everyone else, I was Charlie.
“Not as good as Carlos’,” I admitted, accepting the joint as she waved it in the periphery of my vision, “But not bad”
I was always careful to be respectful of Carlos, even when not in his company, because the man terrified me. I drew smoke into my lungs, held it until my chest burned, and exhaled slowly. My head swam, but the sensation was followed by a pleasant buzz and an overall feeling of calm. Jacob’s truck was now perhaps no more than a hundred, maybe hundred and fifty yards in front of me and I was closing fast.
She grunted in response, leaving me wondering if I somehow miss-spoke, and took the joint back from me. She ashed it carefully into an empty coke can, and took another hit. A long one this time, and slow. Like me, she held the smoke and let it out in a thick white plume. The air was starting to get a bit murky, and I cracked a window to let the smoke out.
We smoked the rest in silence that was only somewhat awkward. The pot worked its magic and I felt the stress of driving melt away. Jacob’s truck cruised a short distance in front of me and so I slowed to a more comfortable pace and took in the scenery.
Since entering Arkansas we had passed through a series of dingy little towns that may have boasted as many as two stop lights. What passed for civilization sat out on their front doorstep shirtless and smoking cigarettes, watching us pass with stark suspicion in their eyes. Children played in the yards, most of them filthy and shoeless. In contrast with their parents, they paid us no mind.
Between these one-horse oases after the outlying houses with the ever-present litter of children’s toys and rusty vehicles began to die away were vast stretches of dense wood. The terrain was hilly, almost mountainous in places, and the road wound around steep inclines and sometimes dizzying drops into the valleys below.
Traffic was sparse, even in town, and most of the time Jacob and I seemed to possess the only two cars on the road. Not surprising considering the number of rusted hulks I saw along the way, most of them resting on cinder blocks and shrouded in weeds up to the headlights. The entire state, or at least as much of it as I had seen so far, looked like the land reclaiming man’s creation after some long gone apocalypse.
And this was where Liz intended to live the rest of her life, or at least until she figured out this guy Randy wasn’t worth her time. Before setting off for this wedding we all expressed bafflement mixed with a heavy dose of disappointment. We had hoped the wedding would be called off before it came to this.
Mere weeks ago, when she announced her pending nuptials to this man who none of us had met prior to that day, we scoffed and took it as a joke. Randy had spent the visit acting like a sullen five-year-old, long periods of morose silence interspersed with cutting sarcasm at any opinion any of us had the gall to put forth in his presence. In turn, he managed to offend every single one of us.
We were drinking that night and some of us, myself included, grew a bit belligerent despite all efforts at politeness for our friend’s sake. It never came to blows, but perhaps only because Liz was there to keep the peace. So we scoffed at her claim of engagement. Marry? This asshole? It was inconceivable, or so we thought. But here we were, driving hundreds of miles into the heart of darkness to see her wed. It felt like saying goodbye.
“At least the scenery is nice,” I said. not realizing I had spoken aloud until Adria looked up at me, almost startled at the broken silence. She had the joint, now a rapidly dwindling roach, pinched with the barrette from her hair so she could finish it without burning her lips and fingers. Her eyes were wide and red-rimmed from the smoke.
“Hm?” she said again, her token response.
I shook my head, an action that was met with a brief spell of dizziness. I was quite honestly feeling pretty high and reminded myself that I needed to be paying attention. I noticed then that Jacob had pulled ahead again. Not as much as before, the winding roads saw to that, but farther than I liked. I stepped on the gas.
“Just thinking out loud,” I said. There was a moment of silence as Adria turned back to her window.
“It is,” She eventually said. I looked at her.
“What?” I asked, having lost the thread of the conversation I inadvertently started.
“The scenery, it’s nice. I haven’t been out of the city in a long time. I think I’d almost forgotten what the countryside looked like. It’s nice, but it’s kind of eerie too. So dead, so quiet, so… I don’t know. Still. It’s almost like the world has come to an end.”
It was my turn to be startled. I was just about to tell her I was just thinking the same thing, but she changed the subject before I could.
“I’m sorry,” She said. “I know I haven’t been the best company on this trip. I’ve just been… I have a lot on my mind, that’s all.”
“Liz?” I asked, wondering how much our trains of thought coincided.
Another bout of silence from Adria. She appeared to be considering my question though, not ignoring it.
“Yeah,” She said. “No. Not really. Well partially. I don’t know if you know this, being a guy, but a friend’s wedding is always kind of hard for a girl. Especially if they ask you to be a bridesmaid.”
She made a face, I caught it just before turning back to the road. It was my understanding that the ladies enjoyed the whole wedding thing. Getting together, going over wedding plans, bachelorette parties, all that business. Guess that showed how much I knew about it.
“Anyways,” She went on, “That’s not really what’s bothering me, but uh- if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not talk about it. Let’s change the subject, OK?”
“Hey,” I said agreeably, “None of my business, right? Hey, let me ask you, I haven’t done too many of these weddings. What’s an usher supposed to do, anyway? Do I get to kick people out if they’re not on the list or whatever? Like a wedding bouncer?”
“Nah,” she said, staring out the window again, “nothing cool like that. I think you just show people to their seats. ‘Are you on the bride’s side or the groom’s side? Right this way,’ you’d say.”
“Ah, well I guess that sounds hard to fuck up at least. I can-” I broke off. Faintly, I could see the turn signal blinking on Jacob’s truck. “-handle that. They’re turning, I better catch up before we lose them.”
The road they turned into was as densely wooded as the one on which we currently traveled, and so I lost sight of them as soon as they rounded the corner. There was no light or stop sign marking the intersection, but at least it was paved. The green street sign read Old Ozarks Rd., and I vaguely recalled the plan to cut through some country road to reach the highway that lead directly to Randy’s shithole hometown. Actually, it was the reason I agreed to follow Jacob in the first place, and now I was glad I did. I can’t imagine how I would have spotted the turnoff on my own.
Jacob, of course, was already out of sight, but I was heartened by this landmark and assumed if I kept my pace I would catch up with him somewhere around the bend. Also, my head was still buzzing nicely from the smoke, and the radio was playing my song. I had no idea what the song was called, but I was at that moment quite certain that it was my song.
“Guess this means we’re in the home stretch,” I said while tapping my fingers against the steering wheel in some rough approximation of the beat.
“Thank God,” Adria said, stretching her arms as best she could in the confines of my Escort. I noticed, as she did, the way her nipples stood out against the fabric of her shirt and pretended I didn’t. If I managed not to blush, I figured my chances of getting away with taking this liberty were pretty good. I’ve been told I blush easily. It’s pretty goddamned embarrassing, to tell the truth.
“Are you OK?” she asked, her eyes scanning my face. God dammit. “Your face is red.”
“Yeah,” I said, racking my brain for a quick excuse, “I, uh, just a dizzy spell.”
“Oh.” She said while looking back at her window. I figured that was it, but the wry smile I saw reflected in the glass told me it wasn’t.
“I figured your face was red because I caught you sneaking a peek at my tits.”
I stammered something in response, a clumsy apology, maybe. She waved me off.
“Don’t worry about it, Chuck. They’re just tits. If I was concerned about people sneaking a peek, I would have worn a bra.”
I was about to say something else, I have no idea what, but she evidently wasn’t finished making her point. In one fluid motion, she moved the shoulder strap of her seat belt aside with one hand, and pulled up her shirt with the other, revealing her breasts. Her left nipple was pierced, a small blue gem set in a silver loop, and I wondered how it would feel resting against my tongue. She waggled them at me mockingly, as my face turned ever deepening shades of crimson. I was starting to get hard, and hoped that wasn’t quite so obvious.
“See?” She made no move to cover herself back up. “Nothing you haven’t seen before, I-“
I’m fairly certain her last words were I’m sure, but they were drowned out by the horn of the oncoming truck neither of us had yet noticed. We exchanged a startled look and laughed. She unbuckled her seat belt, rolled down the window, and leaned out, waving her free hand.
“Enjoy the show, boys?” She cried. The inhabitants of the truck, which was very nearly the same shade of yellow as Jacob’s, blared their horn again as if to say indeed we did, ma’am, thank you!
I was laughing so hard tears were rolling down my cheeks. Adria’s face was flushed with excitement, and she seemed more alive at that moment than she had the entire trip. She sat back in her seat and buckled herself in, pulling down her shirt almost as an afterthought.
“Well, I see your point,” I said and flashing her a wry smile of my own, “Both of them, actually.”
She laughed and punched me in the shoulder.
“Oh wait,” I added, “Does this mean I owe you a peek at my junk?”
“Obviously!” She cackled, sending a couple more arm punches my way. It’s only fair!”
“Tit for tat?” I said. even though my arm was getting sore. I was on a roll and I wasn’t quite ready to get off just yet.
“All right, all right!” She cried, still laughing. From her bag, she produced a pack of cigarettes. American Natives, the choice of all fine and discriminating hipsters. She drew a cig with her teeth and lit it, holding the pack in offering to me. I hate American Natives, they’re the only cigarette I know of that make me genuinely nauseous, but I was in no position to decline. I took the offered cig and patted my pockets in search of my lighter. Before I could find it, Adria lit it for me.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I light all my bitches’ cigarettes,” She replied matter-of-factly. This set me off laughing again, and I coughed, choking on the acrid smoke.
The next few moments passed in silence, but it wasn’t awkward silence for once. The country road we traveled on was all twists and turns, hills and valleys. The woods pressed on us in oppressive beauty. It was impossible to see more than one hundred yards ahead at any given time, often less.
Of Jacob’s elusive truck, there was no sign. Not surprising, of course, although the anxiety I thought I had suppressed seeped like blood through a canvas sack. I told myself, in an effort to sustain the hard-won cheer, that with no turnoffs in sight and our destination being the next highway we found, there was no chance of getting lost. Even if we never caught up with Jacob, we could find our way to Liz and her dreadful wedding. It worked, at least to some degree.
My ruminations were interrupted by the sharp unpleasant flavor of burning filter. So distracted was I that I managed to smoke the cig down to nothingness. I grimaced at the unpleasant taste in my mouth and pitched the butt out the window, having forgotten about the soda can ashtray. Not my state, what do I care about littering?
This time it was Adria who broke the silence. “Can I tell you something, Chuck?”
“Sure,” I said. and because it seemed appropriate to say something else, I added, “What’s up?”
For a while, she said nothing, apparently woolgathering. I let her gather her wool. The silence seemed long enough that for a moment I thought she had changed her mind.
“I almost didn’t go to this thing. Liz’s wedding. I mean, I like Liz okay. Just not take time off work and travel several hundred miles out of town to see her married to some dickhead level liking.”
This was kind of funny because I was initially going to skip the wedding for more or less the same reasons, until Jacob called me and said. “Hey, you’re going to Liz’s wedding, right? Can you give Adria a ride?” Somehow this didn’t seem to be the right time to say so, and so instead I said:
“So what made you change your mind?”
“Carlos,” she said. My heart sank a little at the mention of his name. With all these miles and the distractions marijuana and exposed genitals provide, I had nearly forgotten he existed. Her next words, however, lifted my heart right back to its lofty position.
“We broke up. Or, I broke up with him. He, uh, didn’t take it well.”
“What happened?” I said. masking my excitement with my most concerned tone.
“Well, you know how he is, his temper.”
“He can be pretty intimidating,” I agreed.
“He can be pretty fucking terrifying, is what he can be. You know that I see the way you are when you buy pot from him. He scares the shit out of you.” There was no point in denying it, and I nodded instead. “He scares me too. That’s why I broke up with him. He never hit me before, you know. But I always felt like… like one wrong move and he was going to put me in the hospital.”
“Jesus,” I said. “So what happened when you told him?”
“I didn’t exactly intend to tell him,” She said. studying the debris on the floorboard. “Not to his face, I mean. My plan was to pack my bags and leave him a note. I know that’s cowardly, but with Los, bravery, and stupidity are pretty close to the same fucking thing.”
“Sound plan,” I said. “but it sounds like things didn’t go like you hoped.”
“Nope!” She said. emphatically. “I had my bags packed and ready by the door. I was in the middle of writing the letter, somewhere between ‘I’m sorry it couldn’t work out between us’ and ‘I hope we can still be friends.’ You know, breakup lies.”
I knew of them. Heard plenty of them, as a matter of fact.
“And that’s when he…”
“Yeah,” she said. just above a murmur. “That’s when he busts in, home early for the first time I can remember. First thing he sees is the luggage by the door and that sets him off. He snatches the letter out of my hand and reads enough of it to get good and pissed off. Then, like an asshole, I pop off at him, he pops me a good one in the eye. I’m not sure he meant it.”
“Hey now, hold on,” I began.
“No, no,” she said. waving her hands in a gesture of negation, “I’m not defending him. All I’m saying is, if he really meant to hurt me if he wasn’t just acting out of surprise that I’d speak to him that way, I’m pretty sure that punch would have taken the top of my head off. Carlos is even stronger than he looks, if you can believe it.”
“I can believe it,” I said. softly. I’ve heard some things. I heard someone gave him lip at Andy’s and he punched them so hard they got organ failure. I doubt that’s true, just the sort of campfire bullshit you hear from time to time, but I believe it just the same.
“So what did you do?”
“I got lucky. He tried to grab at me and I started fighting back. Not that I could do any real damage, or at least that’s what I thought. I guess I just wanted to go down swinging. Only, I managed to kick him in the balls. Hard. He went down, curled into an ass ball.”
“Yeah,” she said. in such a way that she almost seemed to be talking to herself. She lit another cigarette, and this time I declined her offer. “I didn’t really feel great about it, seems like kind of a cheap shot. I know that sounds stupid when I was going up against someone probably three times my size, but still. Anyways, I took my shot, grabbed my bags and got out of there. Did a bit of couch surfing with friends until he started asking around, knocking on doors, grilling people I had stayed with. I decided to play it safe and stay at hotels. Didn’t feel safe there either, every time I heard someone outside, I knew it was him. Every time I opened the door, I knew he would be waiting. Couldn’t stay anywhere for longer than a night.”
“Did you call the police?” I asked. It seemed like the thing to ask. She looked almost horrified.
“Fuck no!” she cried. “Bad idea. They show up at the house, maybe they just arrest him for the assault. Maybe. Best case scenario. Worst case scenario: They find the dope, then both of us are busted for dealing. Fuck that. Fuck that! Either way, the second he gets out of lockup he’ll find me and fucking kill me. No, the best thing to do is get as far away from him as I can and hope he finds something else to keep him busy.”
“And that’s why you went to the wedding,” I said. making the obvious connection.
“Exactly. As far as I know, the only three people who know I’m going to be at this thing are you, Jacob, and that girlfriend of his. I just need a few days, time to breathe and think about what I’m going to do. Anyways, I’m sorry for dumping all that on your lap.”
“Nah, man,” I said, instantly regretting using the word ‘man,’ “I’m glad you could get it off your chest.”
“Now don’t start in on my chest again!” She said, laughing.
Just like that, all the storm clouds evaporated. Adria leaned over and switched the radio back on. Static. She fiddled with the tuner, but apart from a few nearly inaudible stations that sounded like they may possibly have been evangelical programs, nothing. She switched it off again.
“Shit,” I said. “I guess we must be out of-“
Just then came the familiar double honk of our friends in the yellow truck, making the two of us just about jump out of our skins. They were coming up on us at an inadvisable speed, and I instinctively braced myself for impact.
I was, for a brief moment, certain the encounter would end with one of us upside down in a ditch or wrapped around one of the Ozark region’s many trees. Lucky for me, we were on a rare straight stretch of road and they whipped around us deftly, shouting something I couldn’t make out as they passed.
I emitted a sound that was one part nervous laughter and one part sigh of relief and turned to Adria. She was sitting forward, watching the yellow truck whip around the next bend, scarcely decelerating for the procedure. A thick spume of exhaust and kicked-up road dust heralded their departure, and once again we had the road to ourselves.
“I guess they forgot something.” I ventured. “A beer coozie, maybe, or their favorite hunting rifle.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Adria allowed, “Or maybe they’re following us. I don’t like it, I…”
She went on talking, but I didn’t catch the rest. A terrible thought occurred to me at that very moment, and it demanded the fullness of my attention. Following. What if the truck we followed down this road was theirs, and not Jacob’s? His truck was a different shade of yellow, true enough, but would I have realized that at a distance, or just followed the only yellow truck I saw? If that were so, we were most definitely and devastatingly lost. Compared to that, a couple of joyriding rednecks was the least of our concerns.
I had gotten the impression from Jacob that we would be on this country road for a relatively short time, but if my admittedly shaky grasp on the passage of time was correct, we had been there for something like thirty minutes already. I didn’t like it, not one bit. Still, this road had to let out somewhere, and maybe it would be better to stay the course and regain our bearings once we returned to something resembling civilization. I resolved to keep my megrims to myself until then. At about the time of this resolution, Adria fell silent again. Armed with the vague bullet points of her own megrims, I made an attempt at reassurance.
“They’re probably just some bored rednecks with nothing better to do,” I theorized. I felt this was probably true. “I’m sure they’re harmless.”
This was most likely true, or at least I hoped.
“They’ll get bored of their little game if they don’t get a rise out of us. Before long they’ll get back to oppressing minorities or whatever it is that passes for fun around here.”
“Torturing small animals,” She submitted with a ghost of a smile, “Or drinking themselves to death.”
“Likely some combination of the three,” I replied.
“What?” she asked, the smile evolving into a chuckle, “Do they enslave Mexican squirrels and make them work in moonshine factories?”
“That seems to be the most likely case,” I said. with false gravity. The seriousness of my tone set her into a fully fledged laugh, and I joined her. She squeezed my leg, just for a moment, a friendly gesture. Somehow I managed not to yelp in surprise.
“I think I’m about ready for another joint,” I declared, “I prefer to smoke trees over just looking at them all day.”
“I’m with you,” Adria concurred. “If we don’t get out of the boonies soon I’m afraid I’m going to spontaneously learn to play the banjo.”
“I hope not,” I said as she drew the next j from the pack, “I’d have to put you down. From that point, I fear the condition is terminal!”
She laughed and passed me the joint, saying, “It would be a mercy killing for sure. Here, your turn for greens, Mr. Gracious Host.”
I accepted the joint, once again fumbling for the lighter.
“I got it, my bitch,” she said. “hold still.”
Only before she could get the Bic lined up for torching, the yellow truck gang came around the corner and I had to swerve nearly off the road to avoid a collision. They blared their horn, helpfully. The guy in the passenger seat yelled something else at us I couldn’t make out. He was a skinny little guy, with a trash stash, a sharp pointed nose, and a shock of red hair. He looked exactly like a rooster would if a rooster suddenly became a person. The driver was a fat guy in a trucker hat and aviator sunglasses. His attention was on the road, not us, and he shouted nothing.
Somewhere in the midst of all this ruckus, Adria dropped the lighter, and it fell into whatever wormhole dropped items enter when you’re driving.
“Dammit!” Adria cried, “What the fuck! Those assholes could have killed us!”
Before I could agree with her, and maybe sprinkle in some profanity of my own, the car started lurching and sputtering. A glance at my dashboard showed the clear culprit.
“What’s happening?” Adria asked, dismayed, “What’s going on?”
“Shit,” I said. and in case that wasn’t explanation enough, I added, “We are out of gas. Like, all out.”
“Shit,” She agreed. “Great. Awesome. Now what?”
“Uh, well I find somewhere to pull over and we call someone. Jacob, for starters.”
The car lurched and chugged along for another thirty yards or so, where I managed to find a wider spot in the road that was somewhat more shoulder than it was ditch. Good enough, or at least it had to be. I turned off the car before it could die on its own, and rested my forehead on the steering wheel. If Jacob turned a different way, it could be hours before he figured out where we were. If he answered his phone.
Somewhere to my right came a sharp rasping sound. A lighter. I looked over at Adria inquisitively, and she looked back with an arched eyebrow. The joint. I had already forgotten it was still resting between my lips.
“Come on,” she urged, “The day has obviously taken a serious turn for the worse. I have no intention of approaching it sober.”
“Fair point,” I allowed. She lit the joint for me and I took a long drag while pondering my life choices. I was feeling pretty good about forgetting about the whole wedding thing and going directly back home. My dick objected, citing the still present possibility of sex. I passed the joint her way.
“I’m not mad, by the way,” she said before taking a drag of her own. “Not at you anyways. Shit happens. I’m guessing you were planning on getting gas after we got back on the highway.”
“Exactly. I wasn’t expecting to be on this road so long,” I replied, taking the jay back. “Jacob made it sound like a hop, skip, and a jump to the next highway.”
“Yeah,” She said. “Well, I hope we’ve hopped and skipped as much as we’re going to have to. There’s something about this whole thing; these woods, those asshole rednecks, I don’t know.”
I gave her the jay and she took another hit. She attempted a French exhale, wound up choking, and passed it back. “I’m starting to get a bad case of the creeps, honestly. The sooner we get out of here, the happier I’m going to be.”
“Most definitely,” I agreed and inspected the joint. It was getting pretty short, and Adria passed me her barrette. It made a pretty decent roach clip. I wondered idly, as I took my drag if that was the entire reason she wore it. “Feel free to cache it, I think I’m good. I need to find my phone, get us out of this mess.”
“Cool, man,” she said, accepting the clip. She reclined back in her chair, closed her eyes, and took a long drag; maybe hoping to cache it in one hit. Maybe it was the strong buzz I was feeling, or maybe the way the light hit her face, but I was starting to suspect I was feeling something more than a crush for her. I only allowed myself a quick glance, though. Didn’t want her to feel my eyes on her. I’d had enough embarrassing moments for one day.
I slipped out the door to check for my phone. It was in a bag in the back seat, as I had stopped carrying my phone in my pocket after the third consecutive screen cracked. The bag in question was one of those canvas grocery bags with a big green recycling symbol on the front. It had most of my necessities for the trip, as well as my sketchbook and a small pouch of pencils.
As I searched, I considered asking Adria to pose for a sketch. Something about the idea was exciting. Later, I promised myself, after this mess is sorted out. Eventually, after searching through the bag two or three times, I found my phone buried deep at the bottom.
Upon unlocking my phone, I saw that I had missed three text messages. All of them were from Sarah’s phone, all of them in that obnoxious text message shorthand I can’t stand in the least. They were as follows:
(5:17 PM)Dude where r u?
(5:33 PM)R U lost?? and simply,
I checked the time. It was just short of six. I composed a response, which went as follows:
I paused there. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the name of the road. “Hey Adria,” I asked, “What’s the name of this road, do you remember?”
“Hmm,” she reflected, “It was Old something… Fuck. I can’t remember, but for some reason, I think of bottled water.”
“Ozarks!” I exclaimed, maybe a bit more excited than the situation required, “Old Ozarks Road.”
“Boom,” she said. dryly, “Nailed it.”
-Old Ozarks Rd. We are also out of gas and stranded. I don’t suppose you could circle back and save us? I thought for a moment and added Bring snacks.
There. Nothing left to do but press send and await salvation. I watched my phone’s bar of progress. It reached about 80 percent and stopped there.
“Come on,” I muttered, under my breath, “send, you bastard.”
I glanced over at Adria. She had just lit another cigarette and was gazing off into the woods with some intensity. It was almost as if she had seen something out there that demanded her interest, but if so it did not appear worth mentioning to me. Curious.
My phone emitted an angry electronic bleep, demanding my attention. A pop-up appeared, telling me I was currently at 20 percent battery life. I cleared it and found another piece of bad news: A red Message could not be sent message following my text. An E replaced the signal strength indicator. It’s true what they say, bad luck comes in threes. Only here, I guess the expression should be bad luck comes in fours or fives.
“Crap,” I declared, “I’m getting no signal. What about you?”
“About that,” she answered, sounding slightly embarrassed, “I kind of got rid of my phone.” Make that fives or sixes.
“Because of the Carlos situation?” I asked, regretting bringing him up even as the words left my mouth.
“Yeah. It wasn’t the angry text messages and threatening voicemails so much as it was the fear that he could, I don’t know, track me somehow. I know that sounds crazy, but it was under his name.”
“So he could report it stolen, right?” An educated guess, “And then the police can track it by the GPS signal or whatever?”
“Yeah.” She said softly. “I don’t know if he would do that, but I had a lot of time alone to think paranoid thoughts, you know? So I ditched it. Made me feel a little better. Safer.”
“I don’t blame you, I’d have probably done the same thing.” I didn’t know if that was true, but it sounded good.
“So what do we do?” She asked. I’m sure she knew we only had one option at that point. Her asking could only have been wishful thinking, that maybe I had some more appealing idea. I did, but screwing in my back seat wasn’t going to get us rescued any faster.
“We’ll have to walk,” I said. “We can’t be that far from a gas station, or at least I hope. Unless you want to flag down that yellow truck next time they pass by. Maybe they’ll give us a ride on the way to the lynching.”
Adria pulled a face that I suspected was partly mock horror, partly genuine horror and said. “I’d rather ride Sasquatch’s dick back to town!”
I laughed my ass off for a minute and replied, “If I spot him I’ll ask. I’m sure he’ll be amenable.”
“Thanks,” She said, smiling. “Well until then, I guess we’re walking. Do you want another smoke?”
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Oh!” she said. snapping her fingers, “One sec, before we go.”
She reached into the back seat, fished out a black hoodie, hopped out of the car, and threw it on. Next, she drew two cigarettes from the pack, put them both in her mouth, lit them, and passed me one. I could taste her Chapstick on the filter and was immediate, uncomfortably aroused. It made the sharp flavor of the American Native more bearable, although I did feel like kind of a creep.
We walked down the road smoking in companionable silence, taking in our surroundings. It was early autumn and the air was crisp, but not cold. I only spotted a few leaves on the trees in fall colors. The rest displayed varying shades of lively green.
The woods were too thick to be weedy, but they were damned dark. I could only see perhaps a dozen yards in at the best of times, at others the growth was so thick I could do no better than ten feet. This with the narrow, twisty road we walked combined to give me a terrible claustrophobic feeling. I hoped we would find civilization, or what passed for it soon. I didn’t relish the idea of being here after dark.
Of course, I kept these feelings to myself. Adria seemed paranoid enough as it was. She was looking out into the woods the same as me, but she had a more watchful look about her as if she detected some movement in the trees. Bigfoot, maybe, looking to offer some dick rides. God, even that thought seemed erotic. What was wrong with me?
It was quiet, too. As loathe as I am to use the phrase, it was eerily quiet. I could hear birds, but they seemed impossibly distant. They could have been calling from Texas or Missouri for all I could tell. Not so much as a breeze was present to rustle the leaves. I felt like we were lost in time, and not just space.
I told myself nothing was amiss. Sure, there was no breeze, but there was no menace in that, not really. If it seemed quiet and still, it was probably only because the thick press of vegetation dampened the sound. Really, any sound would be more menacing, I decided. I didn’t know if there were bears or wolves in this part of the country, but I couldn’t discount it either.
My cig was almost gone and I had no desire to taste filter again, so I pitched the butt into the middle of the road. It bounced off the pavement and spun off toward the opposite shoulder, spitting sparks like some half-assed fourth of July firework. At about the same time, Adria dropped hers and stomped it out in a graceful, fluid motion. She turned to me and smiled.
Maybe we were about to have a moment, but I guess I’ll never know because that’s when the yellow truck decided to make another appearance. This time we could hear them coming, so the sound of their blaring horn didn’t provide a scare on its own, but I still wasn’t happy for the interruption.
Rooster Boy leaned out the window and shouted something once again. It might have been “Get outta here!” or “Coupla queers!” or something else entirely. I could neither tell nor care less.
“Fucking redneck pieces of shit!” Adria yelled after them, hoisting a middle finger, “Fuck off!” Only by then they were already gone. Good riddance. Overall, I preferred the stifling silence.
“What?” she asked, but her tone didn’t suggest that I was thinking something I didn’t say, rather that I said something she didn’t understand.
“Hm? I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t?” She asked, incredulous, “I could have sworn I heard someone say… Never mind. We need to get out of here, this place is making me crazy. All that noise, I can’t take it.”
“Yeah, I’m with you,” I replied. “Every time we turn a corner I’m sure we’ll find a gas station. Every time I get my hopes up. We’ll get there, though. If this road didn’t lead out somewhere, it would be a private drive or something.”
By all that noise, I assumed she meant the horn-happy hicks. Still, it struck me funny, considering how quiet and still it was for most of the time we had been walking. That last pass was the first noise apart from the echo of our footsteps I had heard since setting out on foot.
“Chuck?” Adria asked after a while.
“Do you think…” She paused, possibly wondering if she should continue, eventually deciding for it. “Do you think maybe those guys are following us because of Carlos? Like, he sent them maybe to take me back? That’s crazy, right? Tell me that’s crazy.”
I looked at her, those green eyes bright and pleading. Crazy or not, she believed it. Weed makes everyone paranoid, but this was something else.
“You didn’t tell him where you were going?” I asked. She shook her head. “Did you tell anyone else?”
“Jacob and Sarah know, of course, I told you that. I guess I also told Tia I was going to a wedding,” She responded after some deliberation. “I didn’t say where or whose, but maybe he found out. I don’t have that many friends having weddings right now.”
“Okay, maybe,” I said. “But even if so, he couldn’t have known the route we were taking, and that yellow truck was ahead of us when we took this turn. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, really. Anyways, don’t you think they would have tried something already if that was the-“
Perhaps it was just a fuck you from the universe that it occurred just as I was trying to be reassuring and reduce paranoia, but it was at that moment that the rednecks came back for yet another pass. They honked, as per usual, but without the unintelligible shouting this time. They did manage to scare the living shit out of us, of course.
“Okay, so maybe Los didn’t send them,” Adria said after they had once again departed, “But that’s, what, the sixth time they’ve done this?”
“Yeah,” I agreed, scowling, “Something like that. Did you happen to catch what they shouted at us the time before?”
“Not really,” she said. “I think it was something like ‘Stand clear!’ like maybe they wanted us to get off the road and stop interfering with their joyriding. Who cares? They’re assholes.”
“No argument there,” I concurred.
Another silence followed, and I placed my attention on putting one foot in front of another for a while. I tried to think back to the last time I was in a pickle of this magnitude. The closest I could come up with happened when I was maybe ten, eleven years old.
The incident occurred during a school field trip to the Gage Park Zoo. We took the zoo train to the playground area to have a picnic lunch. Afterward, the kids were allowed to play on the playground equipment for half an hour or so and the adults were allowed to get off their feet and have a smoke over by the rose garden.
In the center of the park was an enormous slide, or so it seemed in comparison to my ten-year-old stature. Instead of being a flat sheet of metal, it consisted of a line of roller bars. This made for a lightning fast, nearly frictionless sliding experience that would never be allowed to exist today. That’s not where I got into trouble, however.
Underneath the hill where the aforementioned slide was situated were a system of kid-sized tunnels that ran maze-like underground. After the slide and the big cement kangaroos with the pouch you could crawl into started to lose its charm, I eventually had to try them.
Through word of mouth, I heard big kids would hide in the dead ends with flashlights, making kids think they found the exit. When this happened the light would go off and the big kid would beat the crap out of the poor little kid who fell for it. Naturally, I believed these tales as gospel, and this combined with my natural fear of dark enclosed spaces conspired to create a remarkably terrifying environment.
I didn’t encounter any flashlight wielding thugs, but my fear of them made me suspicious of anything that looked like an exit, and thus I was trapped and disoriented for some time. When I finally found my way out of there, my class was gone. Apparently, I didn’t hear the summoning whistle and the chaperones fucked up the headcount because when I emerged into the Kansas sun, I was alone.
The school had just finished a huge campaign on stranger danger, and I guess it worked. Instead of asking anyone for help, as they were all strangers, I just wandered around the rose garden for over an hour, weeping and fleeing from anyone who tried to approach me.
All in all, though, this was worse. That nightmare ended when a chaperone managed to notice I was missing, backtracked, and found me maybe a dozen yards from where they left me. If my phone died before I could get the message out, I had no idea how Jacob was going to figure out where I was.
I checked my phone again, tried re-sending the message despite the still-present E, and tried calling with equal lack of success. I sighed and tucked my phone back into my pocket. The battery power was at seventeen percent.
“No luck yet,” I said. trying not to sound as desperate as I was beginning to feel. “I’ll keep trying.”
Adria started slightly at the sound of my voice, as though she had forgotten I was there. She shrugged at my comment.
“Do you get the feeling we’re being watched?” She asked.
“What?” I answered, “Besides by the rednecks?”
She shrugged, “I don’t know. Not really. Guess I’m just being paranoid again.”
“Honestly, apart from them, I feel like we’re the only living souls for miles around.” I glanced up, hearing the tell-tale sound of an engine. “Speak of the devil, here they come again.”
On this approach, they changed their pattern somewhat. Instead of speeding by and honking, they slowed down to a crawl, watching us as they passed. Their faces were stony, impassive. Perhaps unfriendly, but the driver’s eyes were still hidden by sunglasses and so it was difficult to tell for sure. We returned their watchful looks, our own expressions distinctly unfriendly and hidden by nothing.
“Jesus, that was scary,” Adria commented after they once again disappeared around the bend. “The way they slowed down, I thought they were going to jump out and drag us to their rape shack or whatever. What do they want from us?”
They want to get a rise out of us,” I answered at once. “They want us to freak out so tonight they can drink their beer and laugh about the stupid, scaredy cat city folk. That’s all. If we ignore them, they’ll get bored.”
She sighed, “You’re probably right. It’s going to get dark soon, I think. I’ll try to save my being freaked out until then.”
“Good idea.” I replied, “We need to talk about something. Something good and distracting.”
“Like what?” She asked, tilting her head inquisitively. I probably don’t have to tell you how much I liked her looking at me that way. Disastrous as our trip was thus far, I still found myself happy just to be around her.
“Let me see,” I answered, and selected a classic. “Okay, I got one. What’s the worst you fucked up during sex?”
“Fucking Casey Hamric,” She said at once.
I laughed, “No, not like bad choices or whatever. Like, what’s your most embarrassing sex story?”
“So I guess I can’t keep that as my answer?” She asked, “Okay, but you go first.”
“No way,” I said. “That’s against the rules. I’ve got one for you, but it’s really goddamn embarrassing. I can guarantee you, whatever you’ve got, mine is worse.”
“Ooh,” She said.
“How exciting. All right, let me think.”
While thinking of a story, I noticed she snapped her head to the right, toward the woods, shook her head slightly, and stared down at the road. After a moment her face lit up with an idea.
“Okay, how’s this?” She ventured, “So I was maybe sixteen the first time I went down on somebody. He was my boyfriend, it was his birthday, and he took me out to eat at… fuck, I don’t even remember. What’s the name of that shitty Italian restaurant over by Fry Street?”
I thought for a second. It’s been a while since I had been over there, but I had eaten at the restaurant before and it was indeed shitty. I’ve had better spaghetti out of a can.
“Barrie’s,” I said at last. “It’s called something else now, but I’m pretty sure it was called Barrie’s at that point.”
“Yeah,” She said. “That sounds right. Anyways, so he paid for dinner, right? And it was his birthday so, I dunno, I felt like I kind of owed him something.”
“Sure,” I said. I wish someone ever felt like they owed me a blowjob, but this was no time for bitterness.
“So we’re in his car, just kind of hanging out, you know. There was a bit of a lull in the conversation, so I start getting sort of handsy. We made out for a bit, and I sort of unbuttoned his pants and yanked it out.”
“That’s hot,” I interjected.
“Just wait,” she said. smiling in a sort of embarrassed way, “This story takes a major turn for the heinous. So yeah, I start going down on him. I didn’t know what I was doing, really, but I was trying my best not to show it. I wanted to try to, you know, take it all in like they do in the pornos and all… God, this is so bad…”
“Okay, so imagine me kind of still in my seat and bent over him kind of awkwardly, right?”
“Yeah, I gotcha,” I said wondering where this was going.
“So, long story short, I sort of threw up on his dick.”
“Oh god,” I cried.
“And I don’t mean like a little spit up or something. Remember, I had just been at Barrie’s, I had I think some lasagna, some bread sticks, a bit of salad. I threw up a lot. It was all over his lap, all over his seat. Everywhere. So naturally, he throws up all over the back of my head. I run out of the car screaming and dripping; he chases after me, his puke covered dick still out and flopping around. Oh, Jesus. This is the worst story ever. He slipped on the dick puke I think and got a concussion.”
“So what did he do for your birthday?” I asked fatuously, laughing. She laughed with me, although her face was bright red.
“Okay, laughing boy,” she said. a challenge in her eyes, Top that.”
“I think I can, actually,” I said. “This was, I don’t know, maybe five years ago. I was seeing this girl for a while, and for various health reasons she couldn’t take birth control and she couldn’t risk getting pregnant. She had gotten hit by a car and it destroyed some of her organs, so yeah. So I always had to wear a condom when we had sex. This was before I figured out I needed to be wearing larger than standard sized condoms.”
“Ohhh?” She said, teasing. Her eyes seemed to say a little something else, but maybe that was just wishful thinking.
“I know it sounds like I just threw that in to brag or something,” I said somewhat defensively, “But I swear, it’s relevant to the story.”
“I believe you,” she said in a voice that suggested that this remained to be seen.
“Honestly,” I said. “It is! Well, it kind of is. So anyway she invites me to come with her to this New Years party at some friend’s house out of town. It turned out to be a pretty lame party, more of a gathering really. It was just us and a few other people. We had both been drinking a bit, so her friend lets us sleep on their couch. So after they go to bed, we start making out a bit, and it becomes pretty clear she wants to fuck on her friend’s couch.”
“How adventurous,” Adria said with the return of her wry smile.
“Yeah, so you know, it’s getting hot and heavy. I had a condom with me for just such an occasion, and so I slip it on. So as per usual, it’s too tight, and so it’s sort of difficult to stay fully hard. That combined with being sort of drunk made the sex sort of difficult, so I was basically working to just kind of get off. It was taking forever, and I was pretty worried about getting caught. Finally, I think the magic is going to happen. Turns out I just had to piss, so instead of coming I just sort of…”
“No!” Adria cried.
“Yeah… I just sort of… pissed in the condom. I couldn’t make myself stop so basically I just sort of made a water balloon. Of piss. She looks down and says ‘uh… what’s that?’”
“Hahaha, what did you tell her?” she asked.
“Well,” I replied, “I didn’t tell her anything, because it was about that time that the condom, uh, fell off. So I wound up giving her like, the Splash Mountain of golden showers. We’re talking drenched. The couch was ruined. We didn’t want to stay there for the aftermath, so we just sort of slipped off in the night. After she kind of washed off the piss as best she could. She didn’t talk to me the entire ride home, and we broke up shortly thereafter. There was a lot of talk about incompatibility and all that, but I know it was because of the piss.”
Between mad peals of laughter, Adria said, “Oh, oh Jesus!”
“Pretty bad, huh?”
“No,” she replied, her face at least as red as mine, “Well, yeah, but it’s not that. Now I have to pee!”
“So go then,” I said. “I probably won’t look.”
“What? Right here on the side of the road? Forget it. Maybe you won’t look, but the second I squat down, that’s when those fucking rednecks are gonna drive by, I know it.”
“Yeah, probably. Well, what about the woods?” I offered, “I’m sure you can duck behind a tree and get some privacy. Unless it’s hunting season.”
Adria bit her lip and peered out into the rapidly darkening woods, troubled. I couldn’t blame her. Nobody wants to get bit on the taint by a rattlesnake while they’re trying to take a whiz. At least I think nobody wants that. There’s a lot of weird kinks out there.
“I guess,” she said, at last, turning toward the embankment. “For lack of a better option. Damn, I wish I knew how close to a gas station we were, or at least somewhere I won’t have to wipe my hoo-ha with a leaf.”
“I’ll wait here,” I promised, “Good luck, and remember: Leaflets three, let it be. Don’t want to get poison ivy on your hoo-ha.”
“Okay,” she said making her way down to the tree line, “I’ll bear that in mind.”
With this, she disappeared into the woods. For a while, I could hear her shuffling through the bed of old leaves, but soon these sounds faded to nothingness, and all was quiet and still. I scanned up and down the road as far as I could see, but gave up on this activity, as neither direction offered much of a view. Would it have killed them to just cut straight through the goddamn woods and not zigzag for thirty or forty miles up hills and down valleys? I was sure as the crow flew there couldn’t have been more than ten miles between the highways.
Well actually, truth be told, I was certain of exactly nothing at that point. For all I knew, one hundred miles from here this road would end in a sign that said Fuck you, Charlie. Could be that’s just what those joyriding hicks were doing out here. Sign maintenance.
Expecting this line of thinking would summon those bastards, I kept a watchful eye open and listened for the sound of their engine, as familiar to me at that point as was the beating of my own heart. Or, damn near. Something told me if they saw me hear alone, the encounter would go very differently. Could be dangerous. So far, though, nothing.
I glanced out at the woods where Adria had departed. What’s taking her so long? I wondered. Probably nothing, I decided. She’s probably just looking for the right spot, somewhere level where she was somewhat less lik