New Voices: “Rest Stop 99” by Michelle Kicherer

June 24, 2024

Stopping at Rest Stop 99 with Harrison Ford, her truck, on her way out of town, away from the wildfires—away from her abusive ex—Emily meets another family fleeing the fires. Anxiety mounts as Emily comes to find that Harrison Ford won’t start back up. Michelle Kicherer’s “Rest Stop 99” expertly balances these external and internal pressures as Emily must decide: forward or back?


“Did you know that Rest Stop 99 has 4.7 out of 5 stars?” a young voice next to her asks.

She doesn’t look up from where she’s crouching by her truck, holding out a collapsible rubber bowl for the dogs. They lap from the passenger seat as she pours water from a metal bottle with a bright green sticker on the side that proclaims: HEALTH IS WEALTH. Her ex had slapped it on there. She covered it with a Bigfoot sticker once she moved to Oregon but that melted off in the heat one day, leaving a Bigfoot-shaped sticky spot over words that felt condescending. She kept the bottle in the truck for emergencies.

“I did not know that.”

“You can rate anything.” The boy steps closer. He is perhaps middle school aged and is wearing a too-small Blazers jersey over a sweaty white t-shirt. He’s twiddling a black and red lanyard that hangs from his neck. He wears no mask but his hair is dusted in ash like sad snow and every few seconds he rubs his eyes, which are probably also stinging and dry. He adds, “This is Rest Stop 99. Rest Stop 100 is in 52 miles.”

This is when Emily recognizes something familiar in his tone. She offers the politeness of looking in his direction but she doesn’t lower her mask, which is grayed from soot because the air at Rest Stop 99 is so thick and brownish gray that you can’t see anything beyond the parking lot. Not even the sun, which until that day at least offered a dark red circle like a devil’s eye.

Beyond him, the parking lot looks like a horror movie set. The street lamps glow muted white above people who march bewildered as zombies toward the bathrooms then back to their cars, where they’ll continue the slog East, toward towns where you can see the sun and breath without coughing.

She’s clipping the dogs to their leashes but the boy has taken her eye contact as a cue to read a few reviews from his phone. “The most recent reviewer is AnonAnon. ‘I often drive a little out of the way, even when I’m struggling to hold it, to come to Rest Stop 99.’ 5 stars.”

“Interesting,” she offers.

“‘Drinking faucet had three pieces of gum in the bowl, so the water smelled like bubblegum. Good grass for dogs, though.’ 4 stars, SusanG. ‘Stellar bathrooms!’ 5 stars, ZZstop.”

Emily surprises herself by laughing. The kid does not laugh so she stops.

“The AQI in Portland is 642,” he continues on a new kick, starts listing the Air Quality Index from memory. “Seattle: 342. Salem: 397. Astoria: 287. The AQI scale only goes to 500.”

“Is that from today?”

“One hour ago. Good air quality is under 50.”

“You should be wearing a mask.”

“Anything over 300 is hazardous,” he says, watching the dogs jump down from the truck and shake themselves off. Emily wishes she had tiny dog masks. She points toward the grass as if to say: I need to hurry them back inside. “My mom is a custodian,” he adds.

Seeing no connection, she says, “This is Harrison Ford,” and pats the door of the Ranger after she locks it. It was junky by that point: the tailgate would fall down at random, the clutch made you really reach for it and the Door Ajar light would flicker like an old motel sign no matter how tightly the doors were closed. But Emily loved Harrison Ford. He and the dogs were all she took when she left and she was proud of that. I don’t need no man, she’d joke to make it seem like funniness indicated fineness.

“My dad was a mechanic,” the boy says, watching the dogs sniff the grass in front of their vehicles.

She peers into the word was and tries to think of what to say but the dogs are inching away and Emily is inching with them. From a few feet off she says, “I used to be a teacher.” It comes out sadder than she expected it to. A special ed teacher, she doesn’t add. When he points at her dogs she says, “Beagle mixes,” because the boy’s expression indicates he’s trying to determine their breed.

“We have two mastiffs but they didn’t fit in the car.”

This gives Emily a terrible lurch in her throat. She doesn’t want to know where the kid lives and what is happening to his dogs while the wildfires take over the West. The urgency comes back then, and she simply waves as she wanders her dogs through the grass, hoping they’ll pee quickly so they can get back on the road.

She feels guilty that the dogs are breathing in such dangerous air and offers them some encouraging words, congratulates the piddles here and there. Of course, she’d said when he wiped his tears, said: please take good care of these dogs. I will, she’d said, but not for you, she’d thought, the dark seeds of loathing already sprouting, roots spreading through her veins.

Over the years the dogs had become protective of her, their worried eyes watching when she left a room, their tails wagging in unison when she returned. On nights after a fight, she would lie frozen in the dark, the dogs yin-yanged between her legs or between the two of them, a barrier. On the nights he lied supine and snoring, she would be angry that he could sleep after such a thing and would repeat to herself over and over to get up, to tell someone, to leave in the night. She would try her best not to cry because that would cause the dogs’ eyes to flick open and they’d crawl up her body, lean against her chest to calm her heart, lick her face to take away the tears. Sometimes this would wake him and he’d cry audibly and blubber: why am I like this? Then he’d declare: Never! Never again! And she’d go, Yeah, and: okay.

Some nights, the ones in which she’d been driven to some form of shameful craze—a shout, a slap—she would imagine things she might do to the sleeping man. Cram a chemical-soaked wad of paper towels into his mouth. Break into his phone and send confessional texts to his friends, his colleagues. But mostly her fantasies were simple. She’d whisper-call a friend and tell them everything, she’d wait by the door until they picked her up.

When she finally did tell someone, the relief was more overwhelming than she’d anticipated. At first she almost felt giddy realizing what she wouldn’t have to deal with anymore. But the aftermath of it all soon came: the finding of housing, the telling of more people. Her parents were certain they could make it work. Couples fight, honey. They loved that he was a homeowner, a person with some brand of security. I’m not saying the lifestyle wasn’t nice, Emily told her mother, never admitting how much easier that made it to stay. He’s just immature, her mother insisted, along with: we thought he was The One. That reaction made Emily want to shove a chemical-soaked paper towel into her own mouth.

Then there were the friends who’d said, Get out of there! As if it’d be simple to change your life after it’d been so changed. In the weeks that followed they’d forget to ask how she was doing, if she’d gotten her Oregon teaching credential, if she was okay and et cetera. But like any form of mourning, people forget how long the darkness of sorrow keeps you up at night, how often it peeks from unexpected corners. How you’ve been changed, you’re not who they knew.

Worst of all were the nightmares that would shout from her twisting cotton sheets. She’d wake tangled and sweating, wander toward the kitchen in a haze. She’d sit in the armchair by the window, stare into the lightening sky through the fragile, jagged branches of unfamiliar trees in an unfamiliar yard. The dogs would get up with her and reposition their warm, sleepy bodies at her feet, their loyalty almost painful.

She wonders if the smoke is burning the dogs’ eyes, if it’s giving them a headache. She peers into the grayness they’re trodding through, can’t see Harrison Ford until he’s a few yards away. As she unlocks the doors the kid is holding his phone out for her to see. Emily looks at the picture: a woman standing in front of the Rest Stop 99 bathrooms, which resemble a concrete log cabin. Her smile shows off her narrow, yellowed teeth, which are clenched together as if she’s biting down on something bitter and hard. The boy recites the review from memory: “‘If you can handle the occasional riff-raff, Rest Stop 99 is worth the stop. Lots of picnic tables.’”

Emily laughs at that one then says, “My review would be: Didn’t live up to the hype but it’s a fine establishment. 4 stars.” She puts the dogs back in the truck, shuts the door. They watch out the window, tails pointing up, heads tilting, listening for indicators that she is joining them.

The kid takes his phone back and leans on his family sedan, one hand on the phone, the other fiddling with the keys around his neck.

“Where is your adult?”

“Mom’s in the bathroom. So is my brother.”

Emily looks in the direction of the bathrooms, which she cannot see through the smoke. It seems like Mom and Brother have been gone quite a while. The teacher in her feels responsible for leaving that kid standing by himself in the dark haze of the parking lot. But she says, “Nice talking to you,” as she gets in the truck. The kid waves.

Emily takes a sip of tepid coffee, pulls up her map. Six hours til Boise. It seems like an impossibly long drive to make in her exhaustion but she puts her foot on the clutch, starts the truck and pulls toward Reverse. Pulls toward Reverse. Pulls toward Reverse. But the gear stick won’t budge. Weird. She pushes and pulls and tries to force Reverse but the gear stick will not shift.

“That’s weird,” she says aloud. The dogs sit up, tilt their heads. She tells them she’s okay and tries the things her ex would do: pump the clutch, turn it off, count to five. She tries again: pump pump, count to five. Nothing. When she sighs the dogs stand on the passenger seat. Nervous tail wags. “I’m okay,” she lies. And they know she’s lying. She pops the hood and gets out, crouches at the front of the truck to see if there are any obvious leaks underneath. There might be some, but it also seems like they’re always there.

“What’s wrong with Harrison?” the boy asks.

“I don’t know.” Emily props the hood up and scans the dull gray parts, looking for anything obvious. She feels like a stereotype for not knowing what to look for. The kid is talking about the mastiffs again.

“But they’re really bad,” he’s saying. He’s talking about how they try to run out the door, how they knock people over. “And they’re not really mean,” he’s saying as Emily checks the oil, as she looks for anything that seems off. “But. They’re really big.”

Normally she might ask him their names but she can’t think of anything besides: no no no.

“Harrison Ford is broken,” the kid is saying to a hunching woman, who hunches toward Emily with crossed arms, cigarette dangling from her mouth.

In the kind of voice only years of smoking could produce, the woman says, “You all right, honey?” as she leans into the hood with a familiarity that is surprising. Satisfying. Before Emily can answer, the woman shouts, “Luke! Drop your smoke in here!” as she shakes a plastic bottle that’s half full of water and cigarette butts. “Luke!” the mom shouts very close to Emily’s face. She holds the plastic bottle out toward her son, rattling it so the orange butts hit the sides with a sound like moths hitting light. No one in the family seems concerned enough about AQI to wear a mask and Emily thinks of a thing a newscaster said, about how one hour of that air is like smoking a pack of cigarettes.

Luke leans on the hood of the family sedan, smoking with a tired expression that doesn’t match his age. He’s wearing a white tank top that’s really low on the sides, exposing a snake tattoo that slithers up his ribcage, constricts one of his skinny biceps. As he takes a final drag his mother walks backward bottle-first toward the dying glow. Leathered arm extended, she waggles the bottle toward her son until he drops the butt into its murky charcoal water. Mother screws the top on and gives the bottle a rapid shake. She seems to take pride in the task, as if she’s doing her civic duty.

Emily watches this ritual from under the hood. When the family starts watching her back she takes her eyes off the floating orange butts and leans over the engine as if she’s really thinking about all those car parts and for the whatever-th time in the last few months she finds herself thinking: what the hell am I doing? Then a thought that happens too fast to catch and too fast to prevent. I wish he was here, it says.

She’s scrunching her eyes as if she’s thinking of how to put something, mouthing in secrecy You’ll be fine, as if by saying so, it shall be so. Her eyes are stinging in the smoke and she knows it’s been over a year since she left but still, sometimes, she gets this pain in her throat when she remembers he’s not around. And there are times where she relives things vividly and it happens when she’s doing something as unrelated as looking at a dull gray engine.

She’s careful when she ducks her head from under Harrison’s hood, sees the sharp edges pass her eyesight and she’s running down the hallway, trips and hits her forehead on the bench by the door and for days she stays home to hide the bruise. She keeps picturing the part where the corner of the bench passed her eyes and wonders if she’d have been blinded if she fell only half an inch differently. She feels insane for all the times she’s seen that bench passing her eyes and she’s glad she doesn’t have to explain to anyone where her thoughts went in that package of a second as she stands with a family that’s asking, “What’s wrong?”

She tells them she doesn’t know. She hates herself for thinking that she could just call him and ask what to do. Just call him, Devil on one shoulder says. “It won’t shift,” Emily says as she starts coughing for what feels like a really long time.

“My sister knows cars,” says the boy, talking over Emily’s cough. He’s pacing, fidgeting with the keys hanging from his lanyard. He holds one key as if he’s ready to insert it into a lock.

“That’s for sure,” the mom chimes in, nodding wisely as she picks at something on her cheek. The woman’s dark tongue peeks out from a gap on the side of her mouth where two or three teeth are missing, then it retreats, pacing as if held captive there, waiting to be fed another cigarette. “That girl’s dadda taught her everything about cars. Hannah! Get on under there n see what you can do!”

“Lemme see,” cheeps a voice from the sedan. A teenager with hair like Rod Stewart pops up from the back seat and maneuvers her lanky frame off a pile of duffels and sleeping bags she’d been sitting on. Emily waves at the girl—had she been there the whole time?—who is wearing a long white t-shirt that covers her shorts aside from a ratty layer of fringe that peeks from under the hem. So What is written on the front of the shirt in bleeding permanent marker. Without looking at Emily or asking permission, the girl says with astounding confidence: “Lemme get under there.”

“Is she going to fix it?” the kid asks.

“I don’t know, Gary,” says Luke, who is smoking again. Emily looks at the kid and wonders: Gary?

“Sorry for the smoke,” the mom says because she’s lit another one, too.

Emily waves a hand like, oh who cares! hoping it seems genuine. Hannah scurries under Harrison Ford, asking that Emily hop back in and press the clutch. Emily does as she’s instructed and from under the truck Hannah’s shouting: “Huh! Press it again!” Then she’s just listing parts. “Oil pan. Transmission. Spark plugs.”

“You can’t see the spark plugs from under there,” Luke says matter-of-factly, twirling his blond goatee. Despite his tone, Luke looks concerned.

Emily gets out of the truck again and lowers her mask, rubs her face. She has a weird taste in her mouth and she’s imagining all she is inhaling. The remnants of couches and dining room tables, dolls and puzzles and pillows, shoes, basketballs. Plates. Books. Livestock. Hair and bones and teeth and it’s getting darker and her eyes are watering and she thinks: I am not going to be rescued.

Reading her mind the mom says, “You ain’t gonna get a tow in this firestorm, honey.”

Emily nods and looks around Rest Stop 99 for anyone else that can help, but people seem to be coming and going even quicker all of a sudden. The air is so smoky that you can’t see more than a few car lengths across the parking lot.

“It’s okay,” Emily says as Hannah crawls from under Harrison Ford. “It’s okay,” she repeats as she shrugs. She slams the hood shut. The dogs watch from the passenger seat, heads tilting.

“Good work, Han,” the mom is saying, unscrewing the bottle, dropping in another butt with a gesture like she’s tapping her watch. “You gon’ be okay, baby?”

“Oh sure,” Emily is saying, trying to scrunch away a welling from her chest that’s about to spill out her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” the child named Gary is asking.

Emily blinks harder, waves a hand like oh, we’ll be fine. She’s playing it off like she’s not scared, like this type of thing happens all the time. “I’ll just call a friend,” she says, and the relief on their faces at this lie feels tangible, like Emily can lift some of it up and drape it around her shoulders.

The family loiters next to their sedan like they don’t know how else to help but they don’t know when to leave her. Emily thanks them for their help and offers the courtesy of walking away, but she turns back, watches them through the shroud of smoke. Hannah climbs on top of the luggage in her family’s back seat. Luke lights another cigarette from the front and hangs his skinny arm out the passenger window. Gary is standing at Harrison’s passenger side. His head is tilting back and forth, his mouth is moving, and Emily imagines that whatever he’s saying to her dogs is very soothing and sweet and this is when she starts to cry. She turns around so she doesn’t have to watch them leave.

Then she’s standing on a patch of grass next to a blue sign with an arrow that says 84 East. She rubs her neck, wipes this tear and that tear. She wants to dab her dripping nose but she doesn’t want to take off her mask again. She hears someone run in her direction and thinks he’s coming to save her but he’s just running from the bathroom to his car. She still thinks he’s going to help but then he starts his engine. The lights cast weak orange beams like two struggling flashlights through the smoke and off he goes in his fucking Corolla.

Emily’s mask comes down. It’s hanging around her neck and she’s sobbing, standing at the edge of Rest Stop 99 with her hands over her face, shaking her head and hating herself. She wonders how many cigarettes she’s sucking in with each heave.

An 18-wheeler pulls into Rest Stop 99 and idles. The side says Mississippi Pride in sparkly purple cursive. The truck rumbles like a helicopter. Emily walks over and jumps to get his attention. She waves a hand. She jumps again. He doesn’t see her from down on the asphalt and appears to be focused on eating a gyro, which he bites with an intensity that scares her and she backs away so he won’t see that she is alone and small and crying.

She leans on a drinking fountain, sees no bubblegum. She takes out her phone and scrolls to his name because she knows that there’s a chance he’d have the solution. Despite everything, he was a problem solver. Just call, she reasons. Call. Call. Call. Instead she clicks the button that says Voicemail. She chooses a message from his name and listens to one from almost two years ago. It goes, “Hey, Emily. I’m so sorry about last night. Let’s get a nice dinner tonight and talk, baby…” She stops listening. It’s not working so she tries her other tactic: listening to a voice memo she secretly recorded from a night where he’s yelling. At one point you can hear glass breaking. Dogs barking. Yelping. She puts her phone in her pocket again.

She returns to Harrison Ford to find a black bottle and a red plastic funnel sitting on the hood. There’s a note written on the back of a Burgerville receipt: We had this clutch fluid. Try putting that in there and pumping the clutch. Good luck, baby.

The dogs must sense the welling because they’re barking, whimpering, clawing at the windows to reach her and she’s wiping her eyes because she’s finally let the release out like a steam valve. “It’s okay,” she tells them, thinking it this time.

Emily takes out her phone again, this time to watch a video called Where is My Clutch Fluid? Her hand is shaking so much that she almost drops her phone in the engine. She finds the clutch fluid thing and sees that it is, in fact, empty. She wishes Hannah was there for the moment. Good job, kid, Emily wants to tell her with a pat on the back. Maybe a group hug with her mom and Luke and her autistic brother, Gary.

The ex would always talk about pumping the clutch. Before starting up, she goes pump pump. Then she revs and revs, it’s purring like a kitten. The dogs are standing on the passenger seat, tails wagging, heads tilting. “Sit.” They sit. Emily pushes the stick toward Reverse but it doesn’t move. She smiles, knowing it just needs a moment. Pump pump. A push toward first. Nothing. She gives it a longer moment, pictures diagrams from gasoline commercials where fluids are flowing through all the engine parts and tubes. Once she’s imagined the fluid has made its way through the intricacies of Harrison’s system, Emily wraps her hand around the gear stick. Pushes. Pulls. Nothing. Minutes tick by, the engine roaring like, c’mon, but she pushes and pulls and there is no moving out of neutrality.

Finally, she turns off Harrison Ford.

By then there are only two other vehicles at Rest Stop 99: a young couple in a brimming topless jeep and a guy on a motorcycle. It’s almost dark out and it feels like they’re all in the middle of one big, iron-colored cloud. Emily has been at Rest Stop 99 for over two hours. She wonders how many cigarettes that is.

She unscrews her emergency water bottle, feels the stickiness as she takes a sip and offers some to the dogs, who lap gratefully from their collapsible bowl. HEALTH IS WEALTH. Emily sits in Harrison Ford as other vehicles pull into nearby spots. Each one contains the same thing: masked drivers hunching over wheels, passengers with wild, tired eyes. Backseated kids with soot on their faces and pets in their laps. Car hoods loaded with bags and suitcases strapped haphazardly on top with ropes and ratchets. Pickup trucks filled with heaps of things held down by tarps or held down by nothing, they didn’t have time. Every vehicle is thickened with layers of ash, like they’ve all gone off roading, skidding through fire.

There’s this secret, he’d say, where you have to        . Emily tries to relive the words, to remember this secret of Harrison’s. Then she’s seeing her face on the hood, his hand holding her there and she’s hearing his voice mocking her for something something something. The phone is in her hand now and she’s deleting the voice memo. Deleting the voicemail. An RV bounds off the highway exit and into the Rest Stop 99 parking lot. She’s wiping her eyes again and the dogs are alert and she’s doing it, she’s deleting his number. She wants to smudge those seven digits from her memory and the dogs lick her cheeks as if they agree.

You got room for three more in there? she practices saying. She’s clipping their leashes, they’re jumping down, shaking off, walking forward. The side of the RV says California Dreamin. Ash is spinning and twirling around them and she knows those flecks of darkness are the opposite of light, they are the remnants of destruction. But she’s imagining they are fireflies, thousands of little fireflies blasting through the sky and they’re walking through them, they’re moving through them unharmed.

Michelle Kicherer covers books for the
San Francisco Chronicle, Willamette Week and Portland Monthly. Her fiction has been published in The Berkeley Fiction Review, Rougarou, 8142 Review, and others. Michelle teaches writing classes at Portland Community College, Literary Arts and online, and often encourages her students to get a little weirder. Her debut novella, Sexy Life, Hello, will be published in Fall ‘24 on Banana Pitch Press.

Photo credit: Roderick Allen


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved