“Good evening everyone! Doesn’t look like we’re quite out of the woods yet with that damnedable virus going around, but that’s okay!”
“Of course! We get to stay in and do more excursions and run more tests and experiments.”
“Don’t you miss being able to go places other than on short walks around the area and to the grocery store?”
“Yeah, I do. We’re playing it safe, so don’t worry. The great outdoors will still be there in a few weeks…or however long this takes. But it’s fine, we’ll have that much more time to work on our hypotheses.
“Now, speaking of excursions, on to tonight’s tale:
“A woman and her four children cramped in a 1994 Toyota Camry, driving like hell from the middle of Ohio. What are they heading to? What are they running from?”
START OF RECORDING
Subject: Nicole Weathers (ALIAS)
The Marathon gas station right off of I-65 was deserted at 9:00pm, I saw coming off the exit ramp. All the better then. I pulled the old Camry into the parking lot for a quick top-up; in and out and me n’ the girls would be on our way.
“Jaden,” I whispered to my eldest, who was co-piloting from shotgun, “keep an eye out, ya here?” I put on the dome light. “I’ll be in there just a minute after filling up. You’ll be in my sight at all times; you notice anything weird, flip this off and I’ll do what I can. M’kay?”
The younger three buckled up in the back, at varying stages of sleep. The previous two hours had been peaceful, what with them nodding off after the drive-thru dinner. The small cups with melted ice and remnants of soda were still resting in the cup holders hanging off the window bases and the Happy Meal boxes were stacked on the floor at their feet.
“Get you all some snacks and drinks inside, too.”
I took another look around the parking lot before undoing my belt and going to the pump. Not wanting to wake the kids–and make the fastest getaway possible–I shut the door most of the way, not letting it latch shut. Trying not to look suspicious, I stretched my arms and legs and did a some torso twists. This was able to give me a better look at the area. Before the counter jockey flipped the switch for number 87, I was able to gather that we were at the edge of town–traffic on the main drag into town was light; the main queues of headlights and taillights were rounding a McDonald’s and an Arby’s; a handful of semis were at the pumps (there were more parked further back, but I couldn’t see how many); there was one kid at the counter in the Marathon convenience store, and at that hour, presumably the only on shift; no sign of cops patrolling the visible surroundings. It was a good thing we stopped when we did, I remember thinking, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to see a quarter of everything going on.
Once the LED numbers hit $15.00, I stopped the pump (which of course rounded up to $15.02) and rehooked the nozzle. I flashed a quick thumbs-up to Jaden and stepped into the Marathon.
(You don’t have to go into that much detail.)
Fuck you. It’s my process. You want me to get absolutely every bit right, don’t you?
The automatic doors whooshed open and the doorbell chimed. At the far side of the store, off to my left, the guy behind the counter paid me no mind; he kept on thumbing through a copy of Lowrider magazine. I collected a hodgepodge of Gummi snacks and candy bars along with bottles of Pepsi and Mountain Dew. Healthier stuff would come later from a place with cheaper prices. Arms full, I carried everything up to the checkout.
“Just these and pump number three.”
The kid lackadaisically put his magazine aside and rang up the items. As he bagged all the snacks, I locked my eyes on the car–nothing was amiss, but it looked like the girls in the back were awake.
Well, it was nice while it lasted, I thought.
I turned back to the counter and noticed the papers in the stand about waist-level to me. Classifieds and a local newspaper. I took one of each and added that to the purchase.
“That’ll be $37.86.”
I rummaged through my back pocket and handed over two twenties.
The man handed over the bags and the change. “Have a good night.”
The door bell chimed behind me as I crossed the parking lot and noticed the girls were out of their seatbelts and looking out the rear windshield.
“I’m not two minutes and you’re all awake,” I feigned exasperation and handed over the bags to Jaden. “Smacks.” I turned to the younger kids, “What you all looking at?”
“They have games!” Annabelle exclaimed, bouncing on her knees.
“And showers!” Riley informed me, with the same level of enthusiasm.
I rolled my eyes. “We’ve hardly been on the road for a day, guys. Nobody’s smelling funky.”
“Funky, not fucky,” I clarified. “And we can’t afford games at the moment. Money is very tight until I can find some work.”
“We’ve got money, Mom,” Zelda said once her laughter subsided.
The other girls nodded.
“Our allowance.” The two words came out of Zelda’s mouth so matter-of-factly, and her expression was so dead serious I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Alright. You can play some games for a bit. We’ve still gotta be careful though. Cool?”
The girls all nodded again.
I put the car into gear and we made the short trek across the street to the Smiths Grove Travel Center. It and the attached BP had a lot of trucker activity still. No cops. All was well. The girls and I entered through the main doors of the Travel Center, passing by the (rather discreet compared to everything else) entrance to the adjoining Taco Bell. The neon lighting that the kids had latched on to promised Video Games, Showers, Food and Dining, Laundry Mat, and Liquor.
Oh what fun.
When we crossed he threshold, I fought back laughter. The place was a carbon copy of the convenience store I was just in, but the girl’s faces were bright and cheery. They were mostly glad to be out of the car.
The arcade was little more than a nook off to the side with six cabinets, two pinball machines, and a claw machine filled with small candies. The left side of the building was dedicated to the Taco Bell. In the back toward the middle of the building were the male and female restrooms and showers, with the laundromat snug between them. Off to the right was the same liquor store you’d see outside any Kroger or Meijer. I’d give the place one thing, it was better lit with freshly mopped floors.
“Alright, go and play–but please try not to use up all your money.”
The girls ran off with varying ‘okay’s and gathered around to two arcades in particular: Area 51 and Captain America and The Avengers. I moved in the opposite direction and sat myself down at a two-seater table in the Taco Bell that gave me the best view of everyone.
With both papers in front of me, I flipped to the rooms or homes for rent. Finding a job came second–there was enough stashed away for a deposit and two months of rent, maybe more depending on the place I found and how much tighter I could squeeze money for necessities. The rent prices actually looked a lot more affordable than I was imagining.
Holy shit…no, don’t get your hopes up to high, I had to keep telling myself.
Boarding rooms were out of the question–too small. Apartment blocks and full houses owned by corporations were also a big nope–they would need a few months of pay stubs and proof of local employment. Small rental cottages and cabins from individual listers–a better chance to get along there. I circled those. Trailer parks–oooh, even better!
Fuck, I hope it’s not too late, I muttered to myself.
I scanned the room for a payphone. Down the hall toward the liquor store, five in a row and all unoccupied. I crossed the room quickly. The kids were swarming the play-til-you-win claw machine and the KISS pinball unit. I waved at them as I passed, “Fingers crossed, girls.”
The first call kept on ringing. No luck.
The second number went to an answering machine. No good there either.
The third number also went to a machine. Dammit.
My heart started to pound in my chest and a weird, tight feeling formed in my gut.
Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Everything will be fine. There are still plenty of numbers to call.
The fourth call, thankfully, was picked up by an older-sounding woman that wasn’t terribly putt off by a call late in the evening regarding her rental property.
“Would tomorrow around noon be a good time to meet and work out the details?”
“Of course, Dearie. I live just a few houses over, so I can walk on down.”
“Great! Umm, we’re kinda new to the area–me and my girls, I mean–do you know of any decent places to stay for the night?”
There was a pause on the other end. “Tell you what, why don’t you head down now?”
“I mean, it’s awfully late. Are you sure?”
“Of course! I don’t have much going on, not these days. Where’re y’all at?”
“Uh…Smiths Grove. The Travel Center.”
“Oh good! Just follow the 101 south a little ways. Trailer park’ll be on your left. Won’t be able to miss us. Y’all leave now and I’ll start the kettle. Lights’ll be on when you get here.”
“Okay! Thank you so, so much.”
“Not at all Dearie. See you soon.”
“Thank you. Bye!”
I hung up the receiver and hustled over to the girls. All four were now at the claw machine, which was in the midst of dumping another handful of candy down the chute. “Alright girls, load up, we’ve got a place to go to tonight.
“We’ll have showers later,” I reassured Riley, who was shooting a concerned look my way, “Ones truckers haven’t visited first–”
(Why’d you stop?)
I want to see my kids now.
(They’re not yours.)
Fuck semantics. I wanna know that they’re okay.
(Turn on the monitor.)
How do I know this feed is live?
(You don’t. Rest assured, we’re not gonna piss away millions for nothing. We’re not the Department of Defense.)
I’m going to kill you.
END OF RECORDING
“Shit! Power’s down! What the hell’s happening?
“I dunno, Yuki. The switchboard just lit up like a Christmas tree and the dials just started sliding down!”
“Motherfucker…Umm…Quick! Grab the data sheets there and let’s see where this started.”
“Alright. Sorry guys, looks like we’re gonna have to cut it short here. To be continued.”