* * * * *
* * * * *
“Who was the scary man, mommy?” Michael asked from the back seat.
Karen had hardly spoken since they left the pub. They had driven through Reno through the evening, the kids oohing and aahing at the flashing lights and wildly decorated hotels and casinos, and crossed the California state line an hour later. By then the rain had stopped, and the air was moist and sticky. They were stopped at a gas station just off the highway in northern California; mountains rose and fell behind them. Karen wished they’d stopped and spent the night, but John was insistent they drive through; they’d reach San Francisco late in the evening. The sun was low in the cloudless blue sky; it was still warm, and the evenings were long this time of year.
John returned from inside, a handful of snacks and beverages in his arms. Karen replaced the handle from the gas pump, and smiled at her children.
“No one, sweetie,” she said. “Don’t worry about him.”
“You haven’t said a word about him since we left that bar,” said John, placing the provisions in the back of the Econovan and slamming shut the hatch. He now had two bottles of water in his hand, one he kept and one he handed top Karen. “What happened in there? Who was he?”
“No one,” said Karen, and then she paused, thinking about the man at the bar, the man who had treated her with such familiarity before shouting nonsensical warnings. “He was no one. He was very sick, that’s all.”
“Your mother just likes picking up strays,” John made a silly face at Michael, and both Michael and Gabriel laughed. “Remember when we had all those cats?”
“Kitties!” said Gabriel, and proceeded to mew, wiggle his nose and make what he must have thought were perfect imitations of cat faces while pawing at the air.
“All right, gentlemen,” said John, tapping the window. “Ready for San Francisco?”
“Santa Frisco?” said Gabriel, and continued mewing.
“Can we have an Ice Cream, Mommy?” asked Michael.
The cat act instantly forgotten, Gabriel chimed in, “I wanna nice cream!”
“We’ll get one with Auntie Pearl, okay?” said Karen. She was distracted by something in the distance. Barely visible on the highway was a green road sign illustrating the distances to various major cities. She squinted; the letters were blurry at that distance. She could make out Sacramento near the middle of the sign; it must be 100 miles. Above it, somewhere closer to them was– if she shaded her eyes against the setting sun she could barely make out the letters: Paradise, CA, 130 miles.
Her stomach twisted in a knot, and a feeling of dread swept through her. She felt dizzy and anxious, and clutched the open door for support. John paid her no mind, or if he noticed he said nothing. Karen swallowed a mouthful of water, peering into the empty highway.
Suddenly and with surprising decisiveness she turned to her husband, reaching for the keys in his hand.
“Why don’t you let me drive a while, hon’?” she said.
John looked a little startled, then a little amused. “You sure, sweetheart? You still look a little shaken.”
“I’m fine,” she reassured him. “I just need something to keep my mind occupied. We’ll be fine, I promise.”
* * * * *
* * * * *
William “Bill” Houston was tired, cranky and desperately needed to urinate. He fidgeted in his seat; the cab seemed smaller and smaller the farther they drove. The music was too loud; the radio blared country music, and Charlie Madson sat in the driver’s seat, crooning along tunelessly with the stereo, bobbing his head to the throbbing bass and the twang of the tinny guitars. It wasn’t the music that bothered Bill – he liked a good, old-fashioned country song – it was the unreasonable volume at which it played. He leaned his head against the window, but the vibration of the cab only made his head hurt more. He was tired, his stomach hurt, and the caffeine in his system seemed to be doing little to wake him up.
Bill could see a gas station in the distance as they approached the Interstate.
“Think we should stop, boss?” Bill asked.
“What?” shouted Charlie over the music.
“I said, think we should stop?”
Annoyed, Charlie finally turned down the music. “Dammit, Bill, you wanna stop every time we see one o’ those.”
“Well, they call them truck stops for a reason,” said Bill. “Besides, I could use a chance to piss, myself.”
“We jus stopped tah piss half an hour ago,” said Charlie, wiping the sweat in his moustache on a greasy flannel sleeve.
“And drunk up a whole pot’ ah coffee in the meantime,” said Bill.
Charlie stared dead ahead at the windshield, glaring at the evening sun, “Look, we got a long haul ahead of us, Bill. Like it or lump it, we can’t stop every time a drop of water hits yo’ tiny dick.”
Bill stared listlessly out the window, sad and miserable. He pulled the brim of his baseball cap low over his eyes in an unsuccessful attempt to shade against the setting sun. “You’re the boss, boss.”