Bursts of California poppies lined the campground’s entrance. Children left charred marshmallows to melt into the damp earth. The RV was old and dwarfed under a colonnade of towering redwoods. Most days, we passed time inside on the two benches that lined the walls, each covered in birds-of-paradise patterned cushions, a circular rusted table between them. When we first arrived, someone lobbed a rock through the window and we covered the wound with a black trash bag. At night, the bag would catch the moon’s reflection and glisten.
Maybe this isn’t the best place to start. But it’s the place I always come back to.
“Get up,” Lisa said. “We’re moving.”
I was half-asleep in the passenger’s seat. I had taken to sleeping there, even though the RV had a mattress in the back. According to Lisa, it was too small for us both. I missed the closeness of those first days on the road, when we slept on that misshapen lump together, the cool edges of an orange sleeping bag shared. Me on top of Lisa, Lisa on top of me, our legs tangled like two necklaces. Lisa was twenty-four. I was eighteen. We’d been traveling for nine weeks.
“Get up,” she said again. She pinched my earlobe. I pulled my shirt over my head to cover my face, exposing my too-big bra, which gaped at the cups whenever I leaned forward. She tugged the shirt back down. “It’s so early,” I said, curling my knees against my chest, bare feet on the seat’s split leather. I could hear the warblers sing above us. I smelled a morning campfire, hot grass. My stomach groaned.
Lisa tapped my foot and said, “Got everything?”
“What would I be missing?”
She searched the greasy console for keys. Her hands moved around some crumpled cash: our last fifty dollars, give or take, a stolen watch we had yet to pawn, a few empty bags of sour gummies. She took one such bag, turned it upside down, and shook. The sugar cascaded over my thighs. “Stop,” I said. “They’re not in there.”
I heard something behind my seat, so I looked. That’s when I saw the boy. He was sitting on one of the benches, his body facing forward, hands neat in his lap, head turned toward me like an owl. Lisa grabbed my wrist and said, “Don’t.”
“Don’t freak out.”
The boy was wearing crisp, clean clothes: a grass-green shirt and khaki pants and thickly padded sneakers, laces tied into rabbit ears. When he exhaled, his nostrils flared. He had big cheeks, dirt on his chin, a glistening scratch on his forehead.
“Hi,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Wolfe,” he said. “Have you seen my parents? Ingrid and Joe Henders. They’re getting divorced.”
Jittering, Lisa ran a hand through her mushroom-colored hair, which had been dyed blue at the ends with Kool-Aid. Sweat darkened the armpits of her grey University of Nevada t-shirt. Her jeans were rolled up mid-calf. She smelled like leaves and honey. I was wearing a red tank top that said USA and a pair of tight denim shorts, frayed at the hem. All of these items we had taken from others.
“I haven’t seen Ingrid and Joe,” I said. “But we can help you find them. Are you staying at this campsite?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He got up and walked toward me, his legs wobbly. He sat on the ground behind my seat and started pulling at the rotten carpet. His pupils were huge. He said, “I’m hurt.” Then he patted his head.
I said, “Do you know where you are?”
“Do you know who the president is?”
“Do you know what grade you’re in?”
“The first one.”
Lisa crawled over me and opened the glovebox. The red whistle she’d taken from the park ranger clanked softly against the RV key.
“What’re you doing?”
She smiled at me, but the corners of her lips wouldn’t hold up.
“We’re leaving,” she said, starting the camper.
Lisa turned the wipers on. They squeaked across the glass, removing a skin of dirt. She looked into the rearview mirror as she reversed out of the muddy grooves our tires had made. A red solo cup sat on the dashboard, a half-dead spray of milkweed peeking out. As we moved, the milkweed trembled, and the sun crept across the dashboard, onto my legs and my denim shorts, onto my chest and face.
I heard the boy walk around. He started going through our drawers and cupboards. Cutlery and pens, nothing that belonged to us, rattled against wood. I got up from the seat as Lisa merged onto the freeway, trying to balance as I moved toward him. He found a napkin from the place Lisa and I used to work: a diner on the outskirts of Las Vegas. He also found a red pen. He sat down and put both items on the table. The pen rolled and his feet kicked at the table’s stem, which was flaking off like black bark. He picked up the napkin and read the name out loud: “Benny’s. Like Denny’s?”
“No,” I said. “Just Benny’s.” We hadn’t said his name in weeks. I felt it come back in a rush. Ben. Knee. My current reality punctured. The smell of watery coffee, and burnt over-easy eggs, scraping sun-dried ketchup off the table with a butter knife. The rough texture of those yellow dresses, knot of the apron tied behind my waist.
Benny was a rugged type of handsome. Mid-forties. He had a permanent five o’clock shadow and long, dark eyelashes. He always wore a pair of black and red motorcycle gloves. Lisa said he’d come into the bathroom on her second day and cornered her for a kiss. She turned her head and he licked her face, jaw to ear. He was known for doing things like that. Most of all, he liked to stick his fingers in girls’ mouths. But he paid well: a few dollars over minimum wage.
I never knew if he had a family. I knew he had a lot of time. I knew he wouldn’t leave me alone. He’d come in during my shifts and stay at the same table, ordering coffee after coffee, putting his feet up on the gleaming, burgundy seats, hollering for me to sit next to him. Often, he watched me from across the room while he shoved thick potato slices into his mouth, gloves still on, oil pooling on the sides of his lips. I was the youngest waitress, and the newest too. He could smell weakness on you, Lisa told me when I first got there. It was easy to see why he liked me. I arrived at that diner like a lump of terracotta clay.
The boy handed me the napkin. He looked out the window and said, “Where are we going?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Do you want to play tic tac toe?”
I clicked the pen, then drew a large pound sign on the napkin. “You go first,” I said. He took the pen and clicked it too. He drew a heart on his hand. He told me he was thirsty.
I opened our mini fridge. The corners were caulked with something brown and sticky. It smelled like raw meat. All we had was a half-carton of expired orange juice and a few hard-boiled eggs. I handed him the juice and he took a sip, then another. There was a bump in the road, which caused him to spill on his chin and neck. He smiled. An orange pulp lodged between his two front teeth, he wiggled it loose with his tongue. He told me he was from Oregon and his family had come down to California for a vacation.
“I’m not from here either,” I said.
He paused for a long while, seemed lost in thought. I studied his tiny features, the bulbosity of his minute nose, the transparent, moth-like skin of his pink ears.
He said, “Where you from?”
He opened his eyelids tall and turned his mouth into an o. “Whoa,” he said. “Is that far?”
“Not far enough.”
I told him I’d be right back and then I crawled into the passenger seat. The prismatic daylight beamed on my face. I flipped the sun visor down and turned on the radio; something country dipped in and out. Lisa yawned.
I said, “Tell me what’s going on.”
She lowered her voice. “I found him this morning. I went outside to pee. And he was just there. He hit his head or something. I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you take him to his parents?”
“That’s the thing,” she said. “I asked around before I woke you. Nobody knew anything about a Joe or Ingrid Henders. He’s obviously got a concussion.”
“So let’s take him to the hospital.”
“No, we can’t do that.”
“It looks bad.”
“We haven’t done anything. We can just pull up and I’ll walk him inside and we’ll leave.”
She said, “We can’t do that. Sorry. We can’t.”
“Someone will stop us. They’ll ask questions.”
“So we’ll tell them the truth.”
She laughed and shook her head. “Oh, now you want to start telling the truth, do you?”
I shut up and watched the road in front of us. California was nothing like Nevada. It was softer, alive with green. We passed tumid redwood trunks, so tall they made the whole highway dark, poison ivy twining up their bark. Beside them, bright green ferns sprouted like fountains.
I came back to the boy and sat next to him on one of the benches. He took off his shoes—musty stink of second-day socks—and turned around, standing on his knees, belly flattened against the cracked plywood walls, head in front of the window. He smooshed his nose to the glass. “It’s a pretty day today,” he said. “That’s what Ingrid says every morning, it’s a pretty day today. Have you seen her? She has cancer.”
Benny once told me and Lisa that chem-trails cause cancer. He said pharma companies were hiding the cure to make a profit. He said most doctors don’t even have degrees and make money if you die. Lisa’s dead mother was a nurse. To get revenge, she rubbed Benny’s chicken tenders on the toilet seats and then served them with a close-lipped smile. She did the best she could with what she had. Like me, Lisa needed the money. Which meant she needed Benny. Which meant she needed to keep her mouth shut. He knew that. We all did.
“Cancer,” I said to Wolfe. “That sucks.”
“You ever had it before?”
I told him I hadn’t.
We had a regular come into the diner all the time who used to read palms for a living on the strip. Her name was Tilly. One day, she asked to read mine. I watched her focus on the lines of my hand, her face hollow in the cheeks, her eyebrows white-blonde. She was tiny, her Disneyland t-shirt drooped down to her knees; her head came up to my collarbone. A few seconds in, she gasped.
She told me I’d die of cancer. She got closer. Sniffed me and said, “Baby, you got something rotten in your blood.”
But that isn’t what Benny said, or some of the other men I’d known in my life. Ex boyfriends, bar strangers, distant cousins. They’d glance at my chest, then back up to my face, ask me for a hug. They’d pull my head toward them, hands heavy with my hair, and inhale the scent of my neck.
“Baby, you’re something sweet.”
“Baby, give me some of that sugar.”
“Baby, I could just eat you.”
* * *
Around lunch time, we stopped for fast food and Wolfe got a hamburger without tomato, and chicken nuggets, which he dunked in Sprite, making a sticky mess on the kitchen table. He chewed with his mouth closed, but breathed heavily between bites, as though he were walking up a big hill. Lisa and I got two burgers, and I drank his leftover soda, trying to dodge the chunks of fallen food at the bottom.
We stopped for gas at a truck stop and Lisa tried to buy some potato chips, some sour candy, and Lysol wipes. She used a stolen credit card, but it was declined. I waited twenty minutes and then went in and thieved the items she wanted. Thanks to her, I’d gotten good at taking what I—what we—needed. The key is to convince yourself you’re not doing anything wrong. If you believe you’re innocent, she said, your body reads guiltless.
I handed the items to her and watched as she roamed around the RV, cleaning the spots where the boy had been sitting, wiping the robin-egg blue floors so that everything reeked of a just-cleaned public restroom. Her expression was sleep-walker blank. Bent over, I could see the knobs of her spine through her cotton shirt, like hackles on a dog. “Stop looking at me,” she said under her breath, polishing the table, “I’m just tidying up.”
“You’re welcome for the stuff,” I said.
“Uh huh,” she said.
Before the boy, Lisa and I slept during the day. At night, we stole. We’d dress in black and walk around, salvaging the grounds for goods—daisy-patterned sandals left out by the bathroom, a half-full bottle of vodka from the unlocked ranger’s office, packs of uncooked hot dogs. We made it a game, a hunt. Who could get the most. One night, almost one a.m., Lisa walked inside carrying the neighboring RV’s beloved tabby cat. “Who travels in an RV with a cat?” she said, holding it close to her chest as it struggled to get loose. She told it to stay still, growing more agitated by the second. I watched the anger in her grow.
“You win, OK? Now go give it back.” She left and when she returned, I pretended not to notice the new crosshatch of pink scratches on her chin, the marks radiating up her sun-kissed arm. Her curdled mood. My own fear. “You and the cat get in a fight?” I could have asked, but didn’t. Sometimes it’s better to not know what people are capable of.
* * *
When we returned to the road, Lisa drove fast and kept swerving, cutting people off. I pressed the back of my head against the passenger seat fabric, not looking at her. My blood vibrated, my mouth grew dry. I felt a film forming on my teeth.
She said, “He’s seen our faces. He knows our names.”
“He’s got a head injury. No one’s going to believe him.”
I crossed my arms and put my feet on the dashboard, wondering if anyone would believe me. The sun began to set. The guts of different sized bugs splattered our windshield.
Lisa sighed and gripped the wheel, then she let go and started steering with her knees. Her face turned to me. “Let’s make a deal,” she said.
“Watch the road.”
I reached for the wheel and she swatted my hand away. “Relax,” she said. “I’ve got it. Now, if we don’t hear anything by morning, if no one’s put out a reward for us to claim, we’ll drop him off somewhere and call the police, OK? No harm, no foul.”
A reward. Of course. She put her hand on top of my head, looked at me, and continued, “You think we’ve done bad things together, Aly, or maybe you think this makes us bad people, I don’t know.”
She kept looking at me, waiting for me to say something. To confirm or deny her cruelty.
“Watch the road, Lisa.”
“But you have to trust me. I—we—we’re doing what needs to be done to survive.”
“Like we did with Benny?”
She put her knee down, gripped the wheel with both hands, turned her head back, and I remembered something Tilly once told me, when a group of teenagers ran out of the diner without paying. “There’s no such thing as a bad person, Baby. Only a desperate one.”
* * *
An hour passed, maybe more. The landscape began to change.
We had moved away from lushness and into drought: dry grass, leafless trees, flat purple sky, the crushed body of a deer. I leaned my head against the cold window and fell asleep. When I woke, the sky had lost all color. I rolled the window down. The air smelled like herbs and rust.
I heard Wolfe get up and try to open the camper’s bathroom door. Our toilet had never worked properly. I told him to hold on. We were in the middle of nowhere. I hadn’t seen life for miles and there wasn’t a safe spot to stop. Wolfe jumped up and down and crossed his legs. “I have to pee, I have to pee,” he said.
“We’ll stop soon,” I promised.
Twenty minutes later, we came upon a beaten down bar, a lone and brittle building. I begged Lisa to pull in. Our tires crunched over the gravel lot. Two cars were parked on either side of the bar and a motorcycle, bright red and shiny like Benny’s, was parked out front. Lisa put a black baseball cap on Wolfe. It said Benny’s in orange writing.
She said, “You take him. I’ll wait here.”
Wolfe and I went inside. He tried to grab my hand, but I was afraid to let him. I didn’t want him to get the wrong impression. There were two other people in the bar: the female bartender, and an older man by the jukebox. When we got to the bathroom, it was locked. “Let’s give it a minute,” I told Wolfe.
The hallway’s wooden walls were spackled with gum and carved with various initials and a swastika. There was a bulletin board with Polaroids of the staff and some stickers of rifles and shotguns and caricatures of naked women peeling off from the wall like fat flensed from a carcass. Wolfe touched a sticker of a woman on all fours. A black, cartoon silhouette: nipples spherical as pearls, waist the size of her neck.
“That’s not what most woman looked like,” I told Wolfe. “Maybe some. But I haven’t met them.”
He looked at it closer. “I’ve met them,” he said.
Just then, a man came out of the bathroom, followed by a rush of smoke, and the thick smell of urine. He finished zipping up the fly of his paint-stained jeans. “You two old enough to be in this joint?”
“We’re just using the bathroom,” I said.
He looked behind us and said, “Where’s your daddy?”
“In the parking lot.”
“Well,” he yawned, fishing around his flannel pocket for something. “I wouldn’t stick around long if I were you.” Into his crooked mouth, he popped a piece of pink cinnamon gum and chewed it like cattle. I felt his spicy breath on my face. “Have a good one now.”
When the man walked off, I grabbed Wolfe’s hand, but he resisted. “What’s wrong?”
“Uh oh,” he said.
I looked at his khakis, at the wetness snaking down his thigh. I told him I wasn’t mad as I pushed him into the bathroom. I cleaned him up as best I could with water and paper towels, as we both held our breaths off and on. “Get me out of here,” he kept saying. “Yuck, yuck, yuck.” I didn’t know how I was going to hide his accident from Lisa. I didn’t want it to upset her.
On the way out of the bar, I told him there was something I needed to do. We stopped at the red motorcycle and I touched its slick coating, watching myself in the distorted reflection. I mustered all the saliva in my mouth, and then I spit on the seat. “The guys who drive these,” I said, “fuck them all.” Wolfe laughed. “Fuck,” he said. He spit on it too.
“Come on,” I said, and we ran back to the RV.
Lisa was still in the driver’s seat. “What took you so long?” she said. Her anger seemed rehearsed.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Did you talk to anyone?”
“No, of course not.”
She looked at Wolfe’s pants. “What happened?” She shook her head. “There’s an extra pair of swim trunks under the sink.”
They were a man’s—probably the ranger’s, but who really knew. Lisa had befriended a lot of men—and women—at the park. Or, they befriended her. I watched crowds part for Lisa. She had an other-worldly presence: big, white teeth and long arms.
I put the shorts on Wolfe and bunched them into a knot at the back, which I then secured with a hair elastic. He said he liked them. They were bright yellow with baby-pink fish, and the fish were wearing goggles. Meanwhile, Lisa tried to start the camper, but it wouldn’t budge. Click, click, nothing. She slammed her fist on the dashboard. Click, click—come on—nothing.
“We need a jump,” I said.
She went into the bar and I took Wolfe to the rear of the RV, where the mattress was. I told him to get low. My heart rate quickened. We waited for a while, both peeping out the window. It was quiet, except for the faint thrum of the bar’s neon sign and the sound of cars whooshing by on the freeway beside us. A few minutes later, Lisa came back with the bartender, a woman with silver bracelets halfway up her forearm and cables in her hands. I heard her mumble all sorts of questions. Where are you from? Where are you headed? Nobody this pretty ever comes ‘round here, you know that? You traveling alone?
The RV still wouldn’t start. Wolfe told me he was hungry again. “Did you know what they eat on the moon? Freezer-dried ice cream.” Then he started naming non-existent flavors, “Peanut pecan, mint butter chip, rockie dough, red and blue,” and I had to say,
“Shh Wolfe, please lower your voice.”
“Did you know I scream for ice cream?” he said. He had a far off-look in his eyes, a secretive, curled smile.
“Don’t. Don’t scream.”
He jaw popped open.
“Don’t, please. Please. I promise,” I said slowly, “I promise I will get you whatever ice cream you want if you don’t scream.”
He clicked his mouth shut, then turned around, slid his back down the window and crossed his arms.
I heard the lady’s questions start again. Who’s in there? You going somewhere fun? I could hear Lisa’s vague answers, her cunning smile. Finally, the RV started. I looked out and watched as the woman gave Lisa a long hug, moving her palm up and down between Lisa’s shoulder blades.
As we were driving out, a policeman turned into the gravel parking lot. Wolfe waved.
Once we started moving again, my heart rate slowed down and I went back up to the passenger’s seat. I zoned out. Fell asleep with my eyes open. Everything on the road started to look the same. We passed In N’ Outs: long lines wrapped around white buildings, misplaced palm trees out front. Lisa kept changing radio channels. Wolfe started asking more questions, as though he had caught curiosity from the lady at the bar. Where are Ingrid and Joe? he yelled at us. How come my head hurts? How come I don’t ‘member?
If I don’t answer, I thought, maybe he’ll stop asking. He banged his little fists against the floor. Lisa turned up the radio. Then he banged his fists on his thighs and then on his stomach, and I told him to stop. I got out of my seat and sat next to him. I said, “Hit me instead.”
He considered. “No,” he said.
After a few more punches to his legs, I grabbed his hands. He struggled, then lost his will to fight. He pouted and yawned, then he ambled over to one of the benches and lay down and closed his eyes. His chest rose and fell. His nose whistled. I knew you weren’t supposed to let someone with a concussion fall asleep, but I was too tired to fight him. I rolled our sleeping bag up and propped it under his head. A tendril of his soft hair fell onto my hand, and I jerked away from it, as though I’d touched a flame.
I fell asleep on the other bench. For how long, I don’t know. I know that I dreamed all sorts of things: Benny walking through the diner with a mop for a head; Benny finding us in Wyoming and buying us a litter of hairless kittens; Benny as a baby with no hands, wriggling on the diner’s flat-top stove, skin burned to a crisp.
I woke because I felt the RV slow down. Lisa veered off the freeway and stopped at a dusty shoulder, tight against a metal fence. I shot up and trudged to her. I squeezed myself onto the console and sat.
“Out of gas.” Lisa cursed. The sun began to rise; the sky a chalky blue.
I heard Wolfe wake.
“Aly,” he said. “Aly, Aly.”
“Just a minute,” I said.
“Just a minute, kid,” Lisa snapped.
“Look what I found!”
He ran toward us and that’s when I saw it: the back-end of a black gun. It was a Ruger SR22 Semi-Auto pistol, and he was waving it around, inspecting it, looking the barrel in the eye, his face placid. Everything went quiet. The whole world. Just like in the movies.
“Wolfe,” I said, as calmly as I could. “Please put that down.”
All this time, I thought Lisa had tossed the gun.
“Wolfe,” I said, again. I got up and walked closer, carefully and slowly, trying not to spook him. “Please. Put. That. Down.”
Lisa said nothing.
“Uh-oh,” he said. “I don’t.” He swallowed.
“I don’t feel so good.” He puked all over the ground: bubbly, watery puke with whole pieces of fries. Some of it got on my chest. I was close enough. Then he dropped to his knees and landed in the fluid and started to cry, and a huge truck passed us and made the RV shake. He let go of the gun, an anticlimactic thunk on the RV’s carpet. There it laid, a few feet from my hand. Lisa got out of her seat and grabbed it. Quickly, she cleaned it with a Lysol wipe then tucked it in the waistband of her jeans. I caught a glimpse of her pale, thin stomach.
Wolfe wouldn’t stop crying. I grabbed a towel and started collecting the vomit and then I opened the door and chucked it off into the side of the road, which was a big, barren cliff into nothing. I didn’t know how to calm Wolfe down. He was losing it, rolling on the ground and thrashing, his chin dimpled, his cheeks red. He was screaming for his mother, a dribble of snot glistening over his philtrum. I tried to get him a cup of water from the sink, but it came out rusty. I went to the shower for more and it wouldn’t turn on. “We need to get him something,” I said to Lisa. “He’s probably dehydrated.”
Lisa told us to get out, pointing her finger toward the door, her voice shaking.
The hair elastic had popped off the back of Wolfe’s trunks, so when he stood up, they fell down. I couldn’t find the elastic so I wrapped an old t-shirt around his hips like a skirt, which seemed to cheer him up for a moment. I put the black baseball cap on him and took his hand, but he pulled away, and said, “Stranger danger.” A tear slipped down his fat, freckled cheek.
I said, “I’m not a stranger. I’m Aly. You know me.”
I took his hand again, and this time, squeezed tighter. He squeezed back.
“Aly?” he said.
“Yes, I’m Aly.”
We piled out of the car as I lied to him once more. I told him we were going to meet Ingrid and Joe.
I said, “Tell me about your mom. Tell me more about Ingrid.”
He took a big inhale. “She’s my best friend.” He wiped his nose with his palm, then wiped his palm on the front of the tee swaddled around his hips, and said, “Oh no. My skirt.”
I laughed, so he laughed too.
The three of us walked across the highway. When we saw a decapitated rattlesnake in our path, Wolfe screamed so loud I thought he’d shatter the asphalt.
We saw another police car. Wolfe waved again. I wondered what we looked like to other people on the road. A strange little family. Two moms and a son. Two sisters and a cousin. Three siblings. Dirt filtered up my nose. Wolfe asked me if I knew what they ate on the moon.
“No,” he said. “Trick question. Nobody lives on the moon.”
Soon enough, Lisa noticed a motel sign in the distance.
Once we arrived at the building, I took inventory: Single-story, stucco. An orange tiled roof. A kidney-shaped pool with caution tape tied around it’s iron gate. A blinking soda machine. A pit bull tied to a post, gnashing his teeth at a banana peel on the ground.
“Can we stay here?” Wolfe said. “Please please please. Can I get a soda?”
Nobody else was in the parking lot. A paper grocery bag tumbled toward us. We’d have the whole place to ourselves.
I wanted a soda too. I wanted to shower with hot water, sleep in a real bed, watch infomercials with the sound on full blast. I pictured me and Wolfe sneaking into the pool at midnight, playing Marco Polo, cocooning ourselves in motel towels, legs wet and glistening. Skin sanitized by chlorine.
But the motel’s sign said sixty dollars a night, and I knew it was out of our budget. I was surprised to hear Lisa say, “Yeah. Yeah, we can stay here,” and more surprised when she said, “I’m going to find a payphone. I’ll call a friend for some money.” I couldn’t remember if she had any friends. Especially any who were willing to give us sixty dollars. I said I’d stay here with Wolfe, and she said, “Don’t move. Be back in five minutes or less.”
I said, “We’ll be right here.”
Her demeanor was just like it had been during our last day in Nevada, when she said she wasn’t going to hurt Benny. She was only going to scare him, put him in his place. Instead, she hid behind the dumpster, near where he parked his motorcycle and waited for him after her shift. It turned to night. When Benny came out, she walked up to him and pressed that Ruger SR22 into his jaw and said something-something give me all you’ve got and he gave her all he had. And then she shot him in the gloved hand.
Later, she told me the pieces of that glove exploded like red and black confetti. I said, “How could you see? It was dark.”
“I could see,” she said.
I was closing up when I heard the shot. I watched her through the window coming toward me in her yellow dress and dingy apron, her sneakers untied; hair covering her face, swept up by the dusty wind. She opened the door, grabbed all the cash she could from the register and stuffed it in her bra, then she took my hand. We bolted. Pink-cheeked, lungs dry, we rode the bus to her reclusive grandmother’s place outside of town and stole her RV. Lisa said it would take her grandmother months to realize the camper was gone, maybe even years, and if she found out sooner, we’d find another way. Lisa only cared about going forward. That night, we didn’t stop driving until we found a river at the edge of Reno. We stripped off our yellow dresses and dove into the dark water, the moon burning a pit in the sky. A slope of desert behind us, a chain of lavender mountains. When Lisa stood up near the shore, her white stomach reflected the brights from our RV like a blank projector screen and I wondered why, out of all people, she had chosen me, and because she had, I felt special, and seen. She twisted water out of her hair and told me I was safe, that we were safe. We had no Benny, nearly a thousand dollars, a whole life ahead of us. I felt my chest break open. I thought it was happiness then, but now, I’m not as sure.
* * *
At the motel, I didn’t know if Lisa was going to come back for us or not, but I knew I didn’t want her anywhere near Wolfe. Once she was out of sight, I told him what to do.
“Do you trust me?”
He stood still for a moment. He kicked at the ground and shrugged. “No.”
“That’s good,” I said. “I wouldn’t either. Now, tell me what you’re going to say to the man in there.”
“I’m going to say I am lost and call the police. And I will say please. Ingrid always says you have to say please.”
“Good,” I said. “Now, go.”
I stayed back and watched him walk across the lot and up to the motel office. The bells on the door jangled and the dog stopped gnashing the peel and lifted his head, his eyes following Wolfe inside. Through the window, I could see the motel manager pick up the phone. I knew I couldn’t go far, so I walked to the pool and hopped over the gate. The sun pulsed onto my forehead, nose, and chest. I sat down and dipped my fingers in the water and wondered about Benny. I wondered if he’d bled out and died in that parking lot. I wondered if that made me sad, and if it didn’t, what did that mean?
I wondered which hand Lisa blasted: right or left.
I couldn’t remember which one he used on me, when he came into the kitchen after closing. When he pulled me toward him and stuck his gloved fingers in my mouth. First the pointer, then the middle. This was a day before Lisa shot him. I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t found us. Even after all this time, I still believe she saved me. Because right before Lisa had come through that door, Benny’s gaze went vacant. He added his ring finger, then pinky, then thumb, until all his fingers were stretching my mouth open, until I was choking, couldn’t breathe.
“Don’t move,” he’d said.
As if I had somewhere to go.
C.M. Lindley is a writer from California. Currently, she’s pursuing her MFA at Cornell. Her work can be found in The Georgia Review, Meridian, and elsewhere.