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Across the Desert
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Writer Ellis Langhorne
  • G: General Audiences
  • PG: Parental Guidance Suggested
  • PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned
  • R: Restricted
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Across the Desert
A - A - A
Ellis Langhorne
Mar 12, 2018
14 Mins Read
No Plagiarism!RhZ1O98qPUrKFXoroJ3hposted on PENANA

My mother named me Christina because she was a Christian at the time, and it seemed like the right thing to do.  I’m just glad she wasn’t Buddhist, because you can’t make any reasonable-sounding names that I’m aware of out of the demonyms of that.copyright protection27PENANAimoorukIwn

It’s not a bad name.  It sounds respectable enough that someday, if I ever get a real job, I can expect that they’ll at least consider me for it.  And in the meantime, it’s flexible enough that I can have a nickname for any occasion.  Still, I can wish that Deirdre wasn’t yelling any of them across the store.copyright protection27PENANAnnEnptwyTm

“Kit!”  She’s getting shrill, which is completely unnecessary in this cramped gas station convenience store, and she knows full well that I’m busy.  After all, she broke the coffee machine and doesn’t know how to fix it.  “Christina!”copyright protection27PENANAsk78ivzGfD

“Yeah?”  I know she’s not going to take my leisurely response well, but there’s really not terribly much she can do about it.  Even if our manager came in to work half as much as he was supposed to, this is one hundred percent her fault.copyright protection27PENANAXxZlWqQg9m

“There’s some guy over here trying to pay with Bitcoins.”  She sounds more frazzled than usual at this point, and it takes a few seconds to mold what she’s saying into something my brain can recognize.copyright protection27PENANADxKhU9LrIE

I pull my phone out of my apron pocket and glance at the clock icon before responding.  Four minutes left in my shift, and I’ve spent about twenty trying to get this machine working.  Any minute now Jose will show up and this won’t be my problem anymore.  “We don’t take Bitcoins, Deirdre.”copyright protection27PENANANbZUjhqTYF

She shoots me a scowl- she can tell that I only used her name in front of the customer because she used mine.  The customer himself is a bit hard to see, long-haired and dressed in a stiff leather jacket that could fit both Deirdre and me in it, if either of us would tolerate being squeezed together like that.  He’s still facing Deirdre, but the sound of my voice causes his head to tip up a bit.copyright protection27PENANAwVcvh8W8p6

Deirdre’s annoyance turns to triumph as quickly as ever, her face switching gears as only Deirdre can.  “You heard her.  No Bitcoins.  Cash, Visa, Mastercard, Discover, no Amex, no anything else.  Sound good?”copyright protection27PENANAv3Dflyp6Z7

The guy sighs, lets his shoulders sag just enough that I can tell they don’t really fill out his jacket.  Not terribly surprising, since he doesn’t look all that tall and his legs are pretty thin.  “I wasn’t really expecting it.”  There’s something pleasant and melodic in his voice, but I still can’t see him.  “I have Visa.  Can I fill it up?”  He points out the plate-glass window in the front and I see a tan pickup at the nearest pump, the boring dusty color fairly glowing against the mostly-black strip of desert between here and Interstate 40.copyright protection27PENANALMiKHC27v1

“Sure, leave the card here.”  Deirdre sounds disappointed.  She was probably hoping for something more out of the ordinary, and I can’t really blame her.  Nobody wants to be stuck working at a gas station in Laguna, New Mexico for their entire life, and Deirdre’s just trying to keep herself entertained to take her mind off the odds that she will be.  We joined up within a few days of each other, back in high school, but that was almost three years ago now and college doesn’t look like an option for either of us.copyright protection27PENANAM1WZxe8tmx

The guy saunters out, still mostly keeping his back to me, and Jose passes him on the way in.  Jose is sixteen, nearly four years younger than Deirdre and me, and he’s still excited by the prospect of having a real job.  Not that he doesn’t know how to work already, but his family thinks this is more respectable than herding cattle and selling crafts for a living.  It’s more air-conditioned regardless.copyright protection27PENANAARAe7VMx2L

“What’s happening, Deirdre?”  Jose always seems to be smiling, and I can’t help but find the juxtaposition of that grin, brighter than the fluorescent lamps in the ceiling, with Deirdre’s sourpuss amusing.copyright protection27PENANAENyXxfzAm5

“What’s ever happening,” Deirdre mutters, tapping the guy’s credit card against the counter.copyright protection27PENANAB96y8ENh8a

Jose wanders over to the personal items cubicles and retrieves his green-and-white apron, throws it on faster than should be humanly possible.  I give the machine one last glare, wondering if I can just will it to work properly.  Nope; the front panel is still on the ground and I doubt anything is getting through that nozzle while it’s at that angle. copyright protection27PENANAOI2pX9lJGn

Meanwhile, my replacement is thus far undeterred by Deirdre’s lack of enthusiasm.  “That one old guy who lives up past New Laguna bought another cow skull.  I don’t know what he’s doing with them all.”  Jose’s ideas on this particular subject have, in the past, ranged from black magic to Native American traditions to murderous aliens with strange fetishes.copyright protection27PENANAvla3jIjTjG

I’d rather not hear today’s.  “Jose?”copyright protection27PENANAYVP5uYJhfR

He looks over to me, still grinning.  “Hi Kit!  How’s your week going?”copyright protection27PENANAr3AutxDOgk

“Same old,” I sigh, leaving just enough of a gap to change the subject politely before he jumps in on it.  “Could you take a look at this?  You’re better with machines than I am.”copyright protection27PENANAcMGmQZ59So

It’s a questionable statement, but nothing makes people want to do a job quite like flattery.  He’s fiddling before he’s finished agreeing.  As I make my way back to the cubicles to drop off my apron, I can see a brief flash of amusement across Deirdre’s face.  It’ll last until he finds out that she broke it.copyright protection27PENANAPRjFWNDF5S

I almost miss the vibration of my phone as I’m pulling the apron off.  It’s Mom, and she’s still at the hospital.  WILL BE LATE GET A RIDE IF U CAN.  Mom’s been a nurse for the last year or so, and she’s had the phone for about five.  She figured out nursing in a few weeks with pretty much no background, but she still doesn’t know how to send text messages that aren’t exclusively in capital letters.copyright protection27PENANAxxW71qEEeV

The groan escapes my lips primarily because its captor had forgotten that she had company who wouldn’t simply ignore it.  “What’s wrong?”  Deirdre is hovering over me within a second or two, straining to make herself taller so she can read over my shoulder.  I have five inches on her, though, so she’ll have to put herself at my mercy if she wants to know.copyright protection27PENANAZqIFNyFSIx

And lo, I am merciful.  “My mom’s still at work, so I think I’m stuck here for a while.”  I slump against the counter, slipping the phone back into my pocket.  It’s not the worst thing in the world, but I spend enough of the day working that I’d rather not spend more time here, not getting paid.copyright protection27PENANAgyoAdloR1t

“I’ll give you a ride if it gets my credit card back.”  I didn’t hear our customer come back in.  Now my interest is definitely piqued, though, so I pivot my hips until I’m resting against the counter at the opposite angle.copyright protection27PENANAKy0GG16lGl

He’s actually fairly good-looking if you ignore the hair, which needed a trim about six months ago.  More importantly, despite how weird the proposition he just made is, he doesn’t look like a serial killer.copyright protection27PENANAhFMZlzy0rg

Deirdre has suddenly become a wall between us, arms folded across her chest and what I’m sure is her most menacing stare fixed on the customer.  “If you do that, I want to hear from her in ten minutes!”  That’s cutting it a bit close for the trip to my house, but I appreciate the sentiment. copyright protection27PENANAyIPXj3iHUj

Our customer rolls his eyes at her.  “I’m on pump two.”  He spreads a remarkably battered receipt on the counter.  Deirdre takes it and begins ringing him up, releasing a steady stream of mutters which are supposed to sound menacing without containing any actual words.copyright protection27PENANAbESblydsUT

“You mean it about the ride?”  I’m no stranger to hitchhiking short distances.  My family’s person-to-vehicle ratio is high enough that my stepfather taught me how to hitchhike at age eight.  Mom wasn’t too happy about that incident because she considers ten the appropriate age for that sort of thing.copyright protection27PENANANbzzbU9JVB

He glances down at the card reader, confirms that Deirdre is actually putting his information in.  “Well, if you’re going somewhere that isn’t too far from I-40 and west of here, I’ll be happy to.” copyright protection27PENANA0tkPqDSJlN

There’s enough uncertainty coloring his voice that I almost decide against it, but that is the general direction of my home.  “I’m just over in New Laguna.”  Blank stare- he must not be from around here.  “It’s the next town along this road.”copyright protection27PENANA2wrVINtVfo

“Oh, sure.”  He takes his card from Deirdre, scribbles on the receipt, and then watches me with a tense neutral expression as I extricate myself from behind the counter.  I’m not sure if he’s not used to hitchhikers or just doesn’t want me in his truck because I’m taking up his time, not exactly pretty, and/or have a crazy friend.copyright protection27PENANAP2zpCKkLuf

“I’m serious.  Call me.”  Deirdre isn’t as used to this as I am.  She’s looking at me as if I were her daughter, all the way to the truck.copyright protection27PENANAnuJHk9kdSG

It’s that pleasantly cool time of evening when the world has just finished forgetting about how it was baked a few hours before.  The lights overhead, as ever, are producing their faint electrical hum, a dull insulation against the echo of my deliverer’s loping steps.  His strides are long despite his size, and he’s already in the truck by the time I’ve reached the passenger door.copyright protection27PENANA0VcsQVfkQu

“So where am I taking you?”  The engine grumbles a bit louder than I’m used to, and there are receipts scattered on the floor, but it’s a cleaner truck than I’d expected.copyright protection27PENANAIGxi5a2pWw

I muster as much poise as one can while strapping oneself in.  “Basically, keep following this road and I’ll show you where you can drop me.  The road joins Route 40 a little past there, so it won’t really be out of your way.”copyright protection27PENANAFj1o0lylzr

“That’s good.  I’m late.” copyright protection27PENANA1zne2d9iy0

There’s a hint of irony in his voice, but I can’t place it.  Regardless, my focus has jumped to that he would point this out at all.  “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to give me a ride,” I offer.  Does he really want to get rid of me that badly?copyright protection27PENANANhGkAMuDbr

He sighs, and somehow even that has the same whisper of irony in it.  “I’d rather talk to someone for a few minutes than sing to myself for the next god-knows-how-many hours.”  He pulls out from the pump, not bothering to check the deserted road as the truck creaks out into the lane.  “So what road are we on, just in case I get lost anyway?”copyright protection27PENANA9RKbfKxN66

“Route 66.”  I point out a rusted Historic Route 66 sign as we pass.  He makes a little surprised grunting noise, as guys seem inexplicably prone to doing.  “This is a little spur that survived the interstate.  It connects to the interstate again in a bit less than ten miles.  Just don’t get off the road and you’ll be fine.”copyright protection27PENANAf7GCmIQv1p

“Thanks.”  He lapses into silence, and so do I.  Despite claiming he wants to talk, he seems to be more interested in looking straight ahead at the road.copyright protection27PENANAvOGc8gYDT9

I suppose I’ll have to take matters into my own hands.  “Where are you going?”  He glances over at me briefly, just long enough for me to feel silly and stammer out an “If you don’t mind me asking.”copyright protection27PENANA430OfgzM4G

“All the way to LA.”  He doesn’t exactly sound happy about this, and I can already see another silence coming.  Something seems to change his mind, though.  “Do you mind the music?”copyright protection27PENANATjOzWaiMFj

“Huh?”  I hadn’t even noticed it.  I’m usually half-addicted to music, and I hadn’t heard it.  I explain this, and he turns the volume dial over two ticks.copyright protection27PENANAbb7Sng9lU3

The band is one I don’t recognize- something like very sleepy heavy metal or blues with a bad cold.  Even with the volume up, it’s barely more than ambiance.  “I didn’t hear it,” I repeat, “and I don’t know this song.”copyright protection27PENANAuY7vNmMn9Q

“It’s by Kyuss,” he offers.  The name doesn’t ring any bells.  “Oh well, I can turn it off if you want.”copyright protection27PENANA32aRC62VTH

“Leave it on, I don’t want to impose.”  I feel like I’ve said this quite a bit lately.  I’d rather not have to again.copyright protection27PENANAf4SnXfD6Ay

He leans his elbow out the open window, makes a show of looking over at the ruin that is Laguna as we pass through.  “Do you enjoy living here?”copyright protection27PENANAa5xhBlEnIN

Now that was not a question I was expecting.  He seems to realize this and follows up in almost a babble.  “I mean, some people like living in these little out-of-the-way towns.  I meet people in them who want to get out to the cities, too, and then there’s people like me who pretty much live on the road…”copyright protection27PENANAeMQpEswGop

Now that he’s trailed off, I guess I should still answer.  “I’ve only ever lived here.  I don’t have much to compare it to.”  Almost as soon as the words have left my mouth, I regret them.  I can feel him judging me.  “I mean, I’ve been to other places, and enough of them, but I live in the house I was born in and there’s not much chance of getting out.”copyright protection27PENANAnDug0rwEy6

“You’re close enough to Albuquerque,” he ventures.  I raise an eyebrow at him, and when he still doesn’t get it, point out that I am currently hitching a ride from him.  That shuts him up.copyright protection27PENANAcIcK0O5EbN

“I’m sorry.”  Laguna has passed, and now we’re traversing the emptiness between there and New Laguna in silence, other than the guttural sounds of Kyuss.  I turn to watch him, defensively, but he actually looks remorseful.  “I didn’t mean that.  But there are jobs like mine in the cities, you know.”copyright protection27PENANArqAhPeKmV9

He drops it long enough that I can’t help but follow the bait.  “What do you mean?” I deadpan, making sure he knows I don’t appreciate him stringing me along like that.copyright protection27PENANALjMgzNH6sg

“There are jobs which involve getting a company car.  I’ve seen a few ads for them in cities.  And there are things like courier and chauffeur which are basically just driving.”copyright protection27PENANAcEZppZduDp

“Is that what you do?”  People love to try to convince you that what they’re doing with their lives is a great idea.  Even if it’s one of those crazy pyramid sales scheme things- my mom got caught up in the Cutco craze a while back and probably convinced more people to join the scheme than to sell knives.  But I really am interested in the idea of a company car.copyright protection27PENANAi5QSnG7722

A grin tugs at the edge of his mouth.  “You could say that.”copyright protection27PENANAgNm33VQL2i

“If it’s illegal, I don’t want to know.”  I’m suddenly a bit more worried about this ride.copyright protection27PENANA2eX1Em1SRE

“No, no,” he insists, still grinning.  “Perfectly legal.  Feels kinda pointless sometimes, but I don’t break any laws.  And yes, I’m more or less a courier.”copyright protection27PENANAh9K817O9fQ

“I didn’t know jobs like that were real,” I admit.  I’ve heard of legal couriers, sure, but if you’re breaking the law around here it’s a deputy who’ll be bringing you the warrant.copyright protection27PENANAbvDyzHuqtw

“Look for ads from Albuquerque- or Phoenix or Santa Fe, I suppose.  You’ll probably find one.”  The song dies with a whimper, and the familiar chords of the Eagles’ Peaceful Easy Feeling replace it.  Quite the change, I must admit, and it makes me reconsider my host again.  This was one of the first songs I learned when I started my half-baked attempt to play guitar.copyright protection27PENANAJvLHxp4yhV

But my corner is now looming up out of the blackness, the bent street sign jutting out into the road.  “Drop me here,” I direct him.  “I won’t make you go farther in.”copyright protection27PENANAdz4XH64vfj

“Gotcha.”  He pulls over smoothly.  “Good luck finding something to compare this to…”copyright protection27PENANAmrP0ZoHtPb

He’s fishing for my name.  “Christina,” I inform him, already climbing out.  I flash him a smile, hoping not to seem too ungrateful.  “And I hope your trip to LA feels less pointless…”  I try to drag the last syllable out the way he did, hoping he’ll catch my drift.copyright protection27PENANAZyHKfeajMs

“Alex.  Oh, it’s already been more interesting than usual.”  I’ve shut the door, but he gives me a perplexed smile through the open window.  “Good night!”copyright protection27PENANAf01jXJq1fF

“And thank you!”  I call.  I can’t bring myself to completely turn away for some reason- my head keeps getting drawn to the side as I make my way down the dusty margin of the road.  I hear him pull away shortly, but as he goes, he’s singing along with the car stereo.  I can’t help grinning.copyright protection27PENANAlB7aB6zjAo

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