She was waiting for someone like him. She stood by her blue Civic on the I-70 roadside, somewhere in central Ohio. He pulled over, and the breeze lifted the gauzy hem of her gypsy top just enough to suggest exposure. He walked toward her, and she pulled it back down.
"Car started acting weird and now it won't start," she said as she fingered the edge of her shirt.
He nodded. "Mind if I try?" He slipped into the unmarked, gray interior. She handed him the key. A quick sputter from the cylinders, and then nothing. He nodded, "looks like you're just out of gas."
"Oh," she said. "How stupid of me."
"You probably have a floating needle," he said tenderly. "Sometimes it's hard to tell just how much is in the tank. You go up a hill and it looks empty, but then you start going down and . . ."
"That's it exactly," she interrupted, opening up to him like a flower.
She extended her arm. "My name's Melody," she said.
He cradled her hand in his. "John," he said. "John Bridges."
His fingers were stronger than she expected. She let her hand rest there.
"You from Pennsylvania?" John asked.
"Yeah," John said, "the license plate."
"Oh," she laughed, "Yeah, but I'm going to college in Maryland."
"That's great. I'm going to college this fall."
"When I graduate," she offered, "I'm going to travel through other countries."
"Cool. I've never been outside the US."
"We have that in common too," she smiled.
The noon sun was straight above them and there was no trace of a cool shadow anywhere. Not even her sunglasses blocked the shine. She felt a pearl of sweat beading at the top of her cleavage. She could tell John was watching as it slid down her olive skin.
If she took his Ford she would have to play country girl. It was like a Marlboro Man truck, all boxy straight angles and aluminum bumper. She would have to develop a twang and learn something about horses. She would have to pretend the world was something to lasso. Guys expect their girls to match their cars.
She was a little sad to quit playing college girl. She liked the Honda Civic and the things it made her think when she drove. No matter how hot it got, no matter how many back roads she took before she felt safe enough to get back on the highway, she never once worried that the car would break down or fail her. And even if it did, she imagined there was some dad somewhere she could call—day or night—and that he would come and fix whatever was broken. That he would smell like soap and Dentyne and offer to bring her back to some happy, porch swinging home.
She hadn't seen her real dad in years. After her mom died he spent his time in one car bay after another always promising the same thing, One of these days, he'd say, I'll start my own business. I'm better than any car mechanic around. The best. We'll make your mother proud. She waited and believed through a decade of crappy moves to crappy places. Then she couldn't wait anymore. One night he fell asleep and she kissed him goodbye.
"Do you have a gas can?" John asked.
"What?" she snapped, forgetting.
"A gas can. No problem if you don't. I can give you a lift to the nearest station."
The forgetting was unlike her. She pushed her glasses back in place immediately and refocused. "Oh yeah, thanks so much. I do have a gas can. Do you mind filling it up for me while I stay here? I'm sure you're a nice guy, but Dad always warned me about getting in cars with boys I didn't know."
John nodded as if he understood.
"No problem, Melody," he almost sang as she pulled the gas can from the trunk. "The next exit's right up the road. I'll be back in no time."
"Thanks," she said, "Thanks so much." She stretched her long arms up to the sky. Several small silver bracelets jangled prettily down her forearms. She leaned against the side of the blue Civic and let her long, dark hair sway over the hood.
As soon as he left, she peeled herself off the hot hood and slid into the front seat. She opened her toolbox, took out a crow bar, and popped off the dash by the glove compartment. There were a number of ways to temporarily disable a car. She had loosened battery cables and bled transmission lines many times. But this time she was going for the main relay. She turned a socket wrench around the nut holding the bracket and then pulled out the little box of wires. One cut, box back in, screw in place, plastic dash pushed until it popped back, and she was done. She turned the key in the ignition just to check. Then she slid the key onto one of her bracelets. She knew it was best to keep keys close and hidden in plain sight. The key dangled from the bracelet like a little metal charm. She opened the passenger side door and sat down on the cool shadow it made on the pavement.
She rehearsed the events to come in her mind like she always did: he would come back, add the gas, try to start the car, and find that something else was wrong. He would offer more help. He would pop the hood and pretend to know something. She would wait patiently. She would thank him for his help and tell him he had done more than enough, that she would be fine. She didn't have enough money to get a tow and she didn't want her dad to know she was having trouble, but she would be fine. She could just walk to the next exit and wait there until her friend got home from work. It might not be for some time, but eventually, she would get a ride back where she needed to go and somehow get together the money she needed to fix the car.
No, he would protest, I can fix it for you. Just give me some time.
And she would hang over his shoulder and lightly breathe against his neck as they stared into the depths of the car together. It's so hot, she would say.
You've been out here too long, he would agree. Take my truck up to the gas station. Get yourself a cold drink. Enjoy the air conditioning for a little while. By the time you get back I'll have your car running good as new.
I couldn't do that, she would say.
You can, he would insist.
OK, maybe you're right, she would agree. Then she would drive the brown Ford down the road.
She knew it wouldn't go exactly like that. Unexpected things always happened. She stretched and tried to relax. The key jangled up and down her arm with the other bracelets and hid the fact that her skin was rougher and drier than it used to be.
She was now the same age as her mother when she died. Once, they picked daises together in the park and braided them into a crown. "Someday you will marry like me," her mother had said, "Someday you will have your own family." Her mother placed the daisy crown on her head and kissed her cheek. "So beautiful," she said as the sun illuminated. Then her mother got TB and refused to go to the hospital. She wanted to make sure her daughter stayed in America. "This is the best country," she said before she walked away to die alone, "It is yours. You were born here."
Maybe her mother was right. An old Ford like his had a twenty-gallon tank. She could make it to St. Louis, marry a citizen, and raise a family. She could make daisy chains with her own children and smile in the sun. Her father had taken her to live in St. Louis right after her mother died. She'd been in third grade. He said they were going to stay there and make a life for themselves that would make her mother proud.
She'd taken a school field trip there. She stood by the Arch with her classmates as the teacher explained they were standing at what once was the edge of America. That it was known as the Gateway. That they could travel to the top of the Arch and see for miles on both sides. She said, follow me, because to get to the top they needed to go underground.
Underground was where they caught the trams to take them to the top. Underground was the Lewis and Clark museum with giant murals of sky and river and trees and clouds. She remembered she wanted to stay there, underground, because the real view couldn't be better than the murals. The murals were unspoiled by animals or people. No Lewis or Clark or the dog that made it all the way back. The murals were unending sky and trees and water where the air was fresh and free.
She stayed there instead of following her classmates who chattered on the way up and chattered on their way back down. No one noticed she didn't take the ride. When her dad said they were moving to Atlanta the month after, she told him about the murals. He stopped his packing for a moment and hugged her tight. He said they'd find a new life in Atlanta, that they would make her mother proud there, God rest her soul.
Even in the shadow of the car door, the heat was oppressive. She found an elastic band in the passenger door and pulled her hair back into a ponytail. The sweat from the back of her neck just started to dry when a large vehicle jerked to a stop behind her. "Hey there, little Miss," a man yelled. She wished she could see the side mirror from where she was so she could get a look at him. Then she could better decide whether to stay where she was or whether to turn around and face him.
She thought go away and ignored him. Most men, if ignored for long enough, just cursed and went on their way, spinning out their big tires as they left. She had learned this long ago, sitting in the car bays with her dad.
"Are you deaf?," another guy yelled, "He said hey there Missy."
Her breath tightened as she heard the second voice. When there were two, the rules were different.
She stood up and brushed off her backside. Then, she walked straight for them and the black Escalade. Her wedge heels clapped over the blacktop. They were about three car lengths away. Both the driver and the passenger were moving to the culvert on the side of the road, away from the passing traffic. She waited until they were only inches apart.
"You must have me confused with someone else," she said steadily, "I'm no missy. I never miss."
The men laughed. The driver reached out and clapped her bare shoulder. "Looks like we found ourselves a little firecracker," he said, "a little firecracker on a hot day."
She waited for him to remove his hand. A car went by, closer to the edge than the others. The hem of her top began to lift.
Then both his hand and her top lowered again.
"I'm Nathan," the other one said, "and the one you first ignored is Charles."
"Hi boys," she said.
"Looks like this little firecracker's got a bum fuse," Charles said, nodding to her vehicle.
"I've got help on the way," she said.
The men made no sign of leaving. She pulled a crumpled cigarette pack from her pocket and tapped one out. She didn't smoke anymore, but she kept them around for show.
The men stared as she slid the cigarette between her lips. "Which one of you is gonna light me?"
Nathan pulled a lighter out of the front pocket of his jeans and moved forward. He was pretty small. Thin. His shirt was unbuttoned to his navel and advertised his hairless chest.
She grabbed his hand and held it steady between her own. The flame flickered. Then the smoke began to curl.
"Firecracker, this is your lucky day," Charles said as he gestured back to the Escalade. He was big. Heavy. Older. He was wearing khaki-colored shorts and a loose blue t-shirt embossed with the American flag. "Get in and we'll take you where you need to go."
"Like I told you boys," she said, "I already got someone coming."
Charles plucked the cigarette from between her fingers and took a drag. The ash turned red. Then he exhaled and handed it back. "You're not afraid of us are you? Not a little firecracker like you?"
She looked to the other side of the highway, hoping to see John's brown truck. He would be coming back from the west. There was a turnaround just behind them. It still was not too late for him to interlope.
But there was no sign of John or his Ford. She finished her cigarette as slowly as she could. As soon as she dropped the butt, Nathan grabbed her hand and pulled her towards the car. "Get in," Charles said, lifting his t-shirt to flash the butt of a gun pressed against his flabby stomach. "It rides real nice."
She knew she would probably die if they got her into a moving car. She pulled a small knife from her pocket. Nathan pulled open the Escalade door. As Charles got in she thrust the knife into the tire and sprinted forward towards the Civic. One car length, two car length, three.
"You stupid bitch," Nathan yelled.
She put enough distance between them that she had a second to concentrate on the highway. She waved her arms wildly and weaved back and forth across the edge line. There needed to be enough slow down for her to take a chance and commit to the lane.
A woman in a red Prism tapped on her brakes. But she was alone and didn't pull over.
Charles grabbed the back of her neck. "You can't get away," he said. He opened the door of her Civic. "Get in," he said as he pushed her through the driver's seat and into the passenger one.
Nathan appeared at the passenger window and grabbed her ponytail through the window. "This little bitch really fucked us. We don't got a spare."
Charles laughed. "We'll just get off in this one here, then," he said.
"The motor's shot," she said.
"Let's see," Charles held out his hand for the key.
She pretended to look for it, slipping her fingers into one pocket and then another.
"Let's have it now," he said, and so she slid off her bracelet and handed it to him. "You think you're a funny firecracker," he said. "I know some good jokes too."
He turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. He stared at the gauges and then turned the key again. The bracelet clinked against the dash. "Probably just the battery," he said. "Nathan, check it out."
Nathan walked to the front of the car, still cursing under his breath. Charles popped the hood and Nathan lifted it and then that blue was all they could see in front of them.
"Where you from firecracker?" Charles said. He reached for her hair, but gently, like a snake. He undid her ponytail and shook it out so that it fell over her shoulders. "Such pretty dark hair."
"In some countries," he continued, "women can't drive. In some countries, they can't even swim in the same water as men. Or touch them while they're bleeding or fucking. So think about it. You are lucky. You are lucky to be where you are."
Nathan yelled to start the car. Charles turned the key. Nothing still.
"Drive the Escalade over here. We'll jump her."
"We'll fuck up our tire rim," Nathan said.
"Just do it," Charles said. He returned his attention to her. His eyes traveled down her gypsy top and stayed on her sweaty thighs. "We'll fix this car and take her as far as she will go."
He continued talking and she kept quiet. She blinked the sweat out of her eyes and wished the hood was down so she could watch the other side of the highway. Finally she caught a glimpse of something in the rearview. She thought it must be the Ford.
It might not be too late she thought as the vehicle pulled behind the Escalade. Charles hadn't noticed yet. If she distracted him John could emerge and take Nathan out. Then it would just be the three of them.
She scooted closer to him and whispered in his ear, "I have another key," she said slowly, "but it's harder to find."
Charles laughed. "I don't need but this key here, Firecracker."
She slapped her sweaty thigh with her palm and pulled her hand back up so that it made a sucking sound, "If you want to get anywhere down here," she said, "you'll need to find that other key."
"Firecracker, I don't know the first thing about what you're saying."
She lifted the edge of her gypsy top to reveal a thin metal belt encircling her waist.
"I'm locked," she said. "You can't get anything without a key."
Charles stared at her midriff. He touched the metal lightly with his finger as if it was molten.
"I don't believe you," he said, though his voice had died down to a whisper. "Take off your shorts."
She quickly glanced in the rearview mirror. All she could see was the empty Escalade. There was no sign of Nathan or John. There was no sound of them, only the whoosh whoosh of traffic passing by. Charles reached into his pants and pulled out his gun. He pushed the barrel against her sweaty chest. "Take them off," he repeated.
She stared straight at the flag on his t-shirt and refused to flinch. She thought about what her life might be like if John got there in time. She would be his country girl. She would smile and twang and learn something about horses. She would rope in a house, steer in a family, change her gypsy top for a halter. Their daughter would arrive in the fresh air. Their daughter would be free.
They just needed to drive out of this other place together.
Charles ripped open the button on her shorts. He started to unzip, when something clanked against the back of the car.
"What the hell are you doing back there?" Charles yelled. He sat up and stuck his head out the window.
If it was John, then this was her moment. If John was back there, ready and alive, all she needed to do was move the gun. She tucked her legs toward her chest and kicked Charles with all her might.
"Shit," Charles yowled. He turned to slam the gun hard against her cheek.
In that same split second, someone flung open his door.
It was difficult for her to see past the blood and the stars. Her hands fumbled for the door handle. She remembered Missouri. She remembered that to get to the top she had to go underground.
She opened the door and fell out. It was difficult to understand her senses. The dark and light came together until she could make out the underbelly of the car. She crawled under. Her fingers in the cool gravel. Her head against the exhaust pipe.
She could hear voices—soft at first, and then louder. Something thumped against the Civic once, and then again. The gun went off.
She smiled. She had made the right choice. It was John. It might still be John. Any minute now John might reach for her under the car. She would take his hand and they would go. Keep going until they were free. The view only sky and river, tree and cool cloud.
The metal band around her waist had snapped. That was ok. It wasn't real anyway. There had never been more than one key. The last ten years of her, all illusion until now. Now she was warm and tired and lulled by the vibrations of the highway. Tires were rolling. Tires were moving. Tires were going to Missouri.
There was the shine of her in their hubcaps. Small fragments of her in the smooth, flashing metal. The rims. The tread grooves.
So easy to see.
This museum underground.