“Go ahead and leave! You selfish, fucking ungrateful, little bitch!” my mom’s voice screeches from the top of the stairs and I am abruptly awoken.
It’s the bus’s brakes that jar me from the bad dream. This is my stop, though I’ve already forgotten which town it is. Slumped uncomfortably against this foam bus seat for hours now, I straighten up, stretch my arms out, and glance outside. It’s dark, and only a dim reflection of my tired face is staring back at me in the large, square window.
I should’ve planned better; being a female travelling alone at night and ending up in an unfamiliar place—not brilliant. But then, neither is staying put in a home comprising an apathetic mother, who uses her depression to justify being a shitty parent ever since my dad died; and a violent, man-child of an older brother, who likes to beat up women.
I’ll take my chances out here.
My situation isn’t unique; dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen. What bothers me about my family’s particular brand of dysfunction, aside from physical and verbal abuse, was the rampant hatred that festered in that house and how it threatened to change me if I didn’t get out. “A person can only be emblazoned with abhorrence for so long before its toxicity becomes permanent.”—an excerpt from my high school journal, the only outlet I had at the time that kept my wrists intact. I considered it one of my most brilliant creations, but when it began running through my head at a near constant repetition, it started to feel more like an “unavoidable premonition” than an “inspiring mantra”.
The night that inspired such introspection happened over a year ago, on my nineteenth birthday. That’s when I’d first noted it. Trapped beneath the fervor of punches delivered to my chest and face by my deranged brother, the rage and panic he provoked began to germinate an idea. That idea quickly took root, burying itself in an unexplored chasm of my mind, shut out and hidden from my conscious, veiled even beneath my subconscious. I’d only managed a glimpse—and only while my vision bled with vitriolic fury—before this inspiration altogether faded. Gone, as swiftly as it had emerged.
But an instant was all it took.
I’d accidentally been exposed to a part of myself that I wasn’t prepared to know existed. That voice, while it was exposed, told me to do something to Richard for taking out his anger on me. I wasn’t ready to listen. I didn’t want to listen, and the ease with which I accepted such a notion had terrified me so badly that my own brain hid it from me. I knew better than to loiter in such vile hatred, but that this untilled idea could occur to me in the first place was what shocked me most.
The problem is, that while I managed to escape the dark influence that time, the idea still remains there. I can’t see it, or hear it, but I can feel it. A tiny little blip, weighing a ton. My hope, since I’ve untethered myself from the guilt that kept me anchored to that house, is that I’ll never descend into that hate-filled chasm again. I’m determined to put as much distance as possible between myself and the swinging fists in that household. As if Richard wasn’t bad enough, it was my mother’s actions he emulated.
I’ve had enough.
I thought it had been determination that pushed me out the door. It wasn’t. The lone motivator had been pure, built-up anger. While that distinction is obvious now that I’m not quite as angry, it is what carried me like a rogue wave across half the United States. Needless to say, my diminishing anger has made plenty of room for the uncertainty to creep in.
Now…here I am. Somewhere in Bumfuck, Louisiana. I had it in my head all along that I’d just hitchhike when the budget for bus tickets ran dry, but I didn’t take into account it being so late when I got here. Obviously I’m second-guessing that method.
CH 1 /Mr. Mysterious
I step down from the Greyhound bus and pause in front of a ragged wooden bench stippled with old gum and graffiti. I feel an obligatory urge to wave good-bye to the driver, like he’d done me a personal favor by driving me here, but one glance at his fatigued face tells me he doesn’t give a shit about my gratefulness.
Fair enough. I decide against waving and keep my eyes to the ground instead.
The doors fold shut behind me with an impersonal squeak as the engine staggers indignantly, pulling the bus away. I’m left standing here with an ominous, ‘point-of-no-return’ awareness.
The unusually warm air surprises me, since it’s nighttime. Not something I’m used to after living in Washington State for the last half of my life, but it is muggy, and damp air is second nature to me. The lone street lamp lays down a dismal circle of orange-tinted light from overhead, but, this offers no solace whatsoever.
This is my first time away from home and it’s pretty humiliating how unprepared I am to handle such freedom. Kind of terrifying actually; though, beneath the fear, rather invigorating. All the strings are clipped from my limbs and I feel appropriately limp and immovable now. Free and unattached. No one’s expecting me. No one’s dictating my decisions. The whole world and all its lame-ass possibilities lay before me. However, there’s no ‘gut feeling’ pulling me in a particular direction anymore. Up until now I’d simply bought tickets to destinations that ‘felt right’ and Louisiana had been the last destination that seemed to call to me. What’s that instinct telling me now?
You left home for a reason, I remind myself bitterly. My mom’s shrill voice echoes once more—that stupid dream has refreshed the sound in my head instead of allowing it to fade as I looked forward to it doing. I pull in a sharp breath and use it to push the memory of the last week out of my mind. Yeah, I don’t need her shit anymore. I’m out here to start over fresh.
It’s late. My best guess is sometime after ten. I don’t have a watch and my cell phone’s already been stolen, not that I have anyone to call. That gadget was the only way I knew what day it was, so it’s going to be interesting being without it. Pretty sure I left it on a table in a food court along the way, but when I called from a payphone, it was already disconnected.
My attention’s diverted when headlights sweep across the tree line up ahead as a car pulls onto the road. The subtle green glow emitted from the trees suggests a gas station.
It’s as good a start as any to find the next piece of the puzzle.
I readjust the only luggage I have—a ragged backpack I’d used throughout high school that’s filled with the minimalist of essentials—and make my way toward the light.
As I get closer, a small, mostly empty, gas station arbitrarily wedged between the abundance of craggy pine trees becomes visible.
And there he is.
Highlighted beneath the obnoxious glare of halogen bulbs is my new ‘mark’, standing next to a spectacular motorcycle. He’s also the only other person standing in the middle of nowhere with me, but whatever. I should’ve believed just then in fate but I’m smarter than that.
“Hey! Excuse me—” I call out. It’s fleeting, but a sense of purpose begins to fill my chest again.
The man turns his head in my direction but I’m pretty sure by the way his eyes dart around that he’s unable to determine where my voice had come from in the dark. He glances over his shoulder, double checking that there isn’t someone behind him being called to instead. When he turns back around, he looks right at me. His eyebrows rise slightly, surprised, but he doesn’t say anything. Instead he regards me with just the right amount of suspicion on his face.
And boy, does he have a good face.
“Where—” I stop myself from finishing that question. His destination is inconsequential. No more plans, just go. “..Er…that’s a really nice bike.”
He stubbornly remains quiet.
Silence makes me feel obliged to explain myself. I hate doing that. It’ll do nothing but fuel criticism, which I’m in no mood for.
I walk along the other side of the motorcycle to admire it closer, smiling up at the young stranger. Good face was an understatement… He’s effing gorgeous. And tall. The squareness of his jaw, the cheekbones, and the roundness of his mouth; they’re all way too pleasing to the eye. It’s an annoying, out-of-character, weakness of mine that I can’t hold it together around attractiveness of this magnitude. And his reticent stare is screwing with my confidence.
Finding myself on the verge of staring, I quickly divert my gaze. His calm and quiet demeanor implies maturity well beyond my own, I admit it. But he couldn’t possibly be older than twenty-five with that fine, tan skin…
“So,” I stall, “you have room for me on that thing?” then laugh nervously.
Ugh. This would be so much easier if he were ugly.
The man graciously ignores my flub, but he looks at his bike as though I’d just asked to hitch myself on the back of a tricycle. I hope he isn’t doing that to determine whether or not I’ll fit. I’m five-six and barely a hundred and thirty pounds—the muscular kind. I’ll fit.
My common sense chimes in with her own opinion: Nooo, he’s wondering why a complete stranger would ask to get on a bike in the middle of nowhere, you freak!
When he glances at his bike, I do too, and that’s when I notice a second helmet sitting there. I hadn’t even considered there might be a passenger with him already. I turn around and scan the inside of the convenience store behind me. The place is rather small and well lit, there couldn’t be more than two isles of shelves that come as high as my shoulders, easy to see over, but I don’t see anyone else in there. Maybe the missing passenger is in the bathroom…except Mr. Mysterious’s continued silence makes me doubt it. Why not just come out and say he has a passenger already?
The gas pump ‘clicks’, indicating the bike’s tank is full. Tall, Dark, and Handsome casually turns around and places the pump in its cradle then slides the credit card he’s been holding into his wallet, which went into the inside breast pocket of his plain, worn, black leather jacket. The way in which he does these things with precise tedium has me convinced he’s fucking with me on purpose.
He glances from the bike, down the dark road, then shifts his eyes toward me again and smiles, contemplating.
It’s messing up my game.
Usually I’m the one throwing people off, staying one step ahead; the direct result of growing up with people who expected me to fail at everything. I’m too distracted trying to figure him out to call him on it though. At least his leather jacket isn’t adorned with the name of some murderous biker gang across the back. Wouldn’t that be just my luck…
“Forget it. Stupid question.” I shake my head and turn to walk away. There’s nothing worse than letting a hot guy know he has the upper hand. It’s bad enough I have to ask for a ride to avoid being stuck here all night—and he knows it.
“No—I’m just giving you a hard time,” he blurts.
Well, well, he speaks. And his voice is unexpectedly deep. The surprisingly pleasant sound would’ve compounded the tension if I weren’t so annoyed by the smile he’s fighting back.
“I’m stuck at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. You think I need more of a hard time?” I ask, deadpan.
“Truce.” He wipes the smirk from his face and attempts to look earnest. “I’m going east. Where you headed?”
“Don’t care.” I cringe. I just said that? “Er…me too. I mean, east works for me,” I finally spit out.
For some reason, he doesn’t look surprised by my answer.
Scheiße, I’m a goddamn disaster when I’m intimidated. My uneasiness has a nasty habit of manifesting into a version of bravado with all the sturdiness of a foal.
He has every right to say no, I remind myself. Still though, I quickly become defensive. If he thinks he’s going to demand an explanation from me as if I were some lost, bratty child rebelling against mommy and daddy, then he’s got it wrong. I don’t have to justify my actions to him. I don’t give a shit what people think about me; goes double for strangers. People say that all the time, but I mean it. That’s why I’m standing here, soliciting a stranger for a ride for christ sake. I’m not about to explain myself to anyone! It’s none of his business! So what if it’s a ride on his bike, that doesn’t put me in his debt…per se... Ugh. I hate suspense. This asshole wants to play mind games with m—
“Alright,” the man’s deep voice interrupts my neurotic thoughts. It should alarm me how quickly my annoyance with him subsides once that velvety voice hits my ears. “One condition though...” he adds.
My stomach sinks. This is where he’s going to creep me out, demand some weird arrangement involving sex probably. I’ll be damned if I become some sex slave over a bike ride. Naturally my innate rebelliousness surfaces—
“I can tell you right now that I don’t have a lot of money. And you can kiss my ass if you think you’re going to get sexual favors, pal.”
He looks amused while I maintain an air of indifference. That smirk resting on his full lips after I’ve flexed my most authoritative tone grates me.
“Easy.” He frowns. “The condition is that you wear a helmet, that’s all.” God, even his stupid, condescending smile is devastatingly hot. His kind of beauty makes my stomach tense with the ruthless nerves I thought I’d long ago outgrown as a preteen. The insecure angst of pubescence sinks its teeth in, securing its old spot on my self-esteem.
“Oh. Wait—is that a ‘yes, I can get a ride’?”
“That’s a yes.”
He’s going to let me ride with him? Is he crazy? Am I crazy? …But wasn’t I just aggravated that he was going to tell me no? Intelligent people don’t take rides from strangers. Sensible females do not climb on the back of a bike with an extraordinarily handsome male stranger. At night. To unknown destinations. This could be the catalyst for a really lame ‘Lifetime Movie’…Bah! I’ll kill myself if I’m ever involved in circumstances that could inspire something as lame as a Lifetime movie.
I force these thoughts back into their cage. If I can walk out of my mom’s house, I can make it out here.
My sanctimonious subconscious begins shouting at me: Fabulous way to start your adventure into independent adulthood. Why don’t you go ahead and rob the gas station at gun point while you’re at it, just to keep it well-rounded in stupidity! I squeeze my eyes shut hoping to quell her haughty voice, but I feel her in there, tapping her metaphorical foot with impatience.
“Are you a fan of the Fatboy?” Mr. Mysterious Night Rider asks. Look at those perfect teeth…and dimples too? Damn it.
“The fat—a fan of what?”
He begins unbuckling the second helmet from the seat’s backrest. “You said ‘nice bike’. Are you a fan of Harley Davidson?”
“Oh.” Internal face-palm… “I just like what I like, I don’t know much about them specifically.”
His eyebrows jump and the smirk returns. “Couldn’t tell,” he says, holding up the second helmet for me to put on.
I admit the protective gesture is a bit of a relief. At least this guy is all responsible and worried about my cranium. I take it as a good sign that the only one with poor judgment here is me.
“You’re not ditching the last girl to ask you for a ride in that gas station right now are you?” I ask suspiciously.
“No,” he chuckles.
“That sounded sarcastic but I’m being dead serious.”
He shakes his head but a deviant smile remains. “Still no. You haven’t walked over here to distract me so your thug-boyfriend can sneak up from behind and mug me, have you?” He glances over his shoulder jokingly.
Oh, a dark sense of humor, is it? I may get along nicely with this guy after all…
“No, that’s ludic—actually that’s brilliant. But, no.”
The man laughs a charming, masculine sound and my stomach knots with another wave of fascination. Stupid stomach.
I glance at the windows of the convenience store one last time anyway, just to double check. I’m still clinging to the assumption that he would’ve simply said by now if he had a passenger. Of course that assumption encompasses the idea that he’s telling the truth to begin with.
“Why do you have two helmets then?” I ask.
That tells me nothing.
Suddenly, my refreshingly impulsive, inner-teen voice chimes in: ‘Go! For Christ Sake Get On That Bike! Don’t Be A Pussy!!’ –a voice that has apparently taken on the personality of a frat brother tonight.
I’m hesitant, but take the helmet.
Mr. Twisted Humor reads that as a go, taking my backpack from my shoulder all assertively, and stuffs it into one of the briefcase-like bags that hang from either side of the seat. Any skeptic looking on would’ve remarked that this is about the time he’d drive off with my purse while I, the dumb chick, just stand there helplessly. So far in my life, I’ve been miraculously spared from that kind of bullshit.
The man’s jacket rubs softly against itself, making that sound exclusive to soft leather, as he put his helmet on. With his Hollywood good-looks now hidden behind the high-gloss visor, he just became Exceedingly Mysterious Stranger right before my eyes. If it weren’t for having seen his remarkable and friendly face already, he’d have been terrifyingly unapproachable now.
Thank goodness for my impeccable timing. That urge to thank the bus driver seemed justifiable now.
Hot Guy swings a sturdy, tree-trunk of a leg over the bike and takes his seat, straightening the huge mass of metal beneath him so it sits upright. Man and machine both draped in black. Is it possible for someone to get that much hotter just because they’re straddling a bike?
Yessss, my libido hisses from within.
How did he go from ‘malleable mark’ to ‘intimidating carnivore’ in all of five minutes, anyway? He’s beaten me at my own game. He seems far more comfortable with this arrangement than I, and why the hell not? What threat am I to him?
Also, he out-cooled me. Damn him for that. Faking confidence is kinda the only superpower I’ve got, and his confidence easily outshines mine. Look at him sitting there, sexy as all get out.
My curiosity begs me to make a final decision. I glance down the dark road behind him, but there’re no answers for me there. Surely none in the opposite direction either.
I’m startled when the engine roars robustly as he pulls easily on the throttle. The exhaust smacks me in the shins through my jeans. I imagine that noise is what an angry lion would sound like in a small New York closet. The reverberation in my chest unexpectedly brings to mind a memory of the one and only live concert I’d ever attended.
This is way more exciting.
Despite the superficial infatuation clouding my mind, I’m no longer sure of the ‘logic’ supporting my impulsive plan. I feel like a phony now that I’m confronted with making a choice. What alternative do I have though? (I ask myself that rhetorically, of course, and cleverly ignore the obvious answers hurdling at me. Proof that my common sense is in there, banging on the door to my conscious but I’m not letting it in). You didn’t even get his name. He didn’t ask for yours. What kind of person doesn't ask for your name? Well, too late for formalities now. At this moment, my sole concern is not being stuck at this gas station all night.
So, this is it. I've officially reached a point where I can’t back out –in my head, anyway.
Tall & Brawny sits densely on top of the muscular metal, waiting rather patiently for me to take the spot behind him.
This time I glance around the gas station for the surveillance cameras. Hopefully something is recording my last known whereabouts before my body washes up in some river a week from now, raped and mugged.
This is stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Fuck it! –that impetuous teen voice cries out again—Go with him!
And like that, it’s decided. I’m definitely taking my chance to ‘do things completely different’ by the balls tonight.
I never claimed to be a rational gal.