Chapter 23

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Bess didn’t have anything other than her poncho, bolsa and knife and she knew they weren’t enough. She needed more. And she had learned that there were times when there was only one way to get what you wanted, as long as you had the will. The notion of propriety scuttled through her mind and she scoffed at the line between right and wrong, something the desert wind had already swept away.

She sidled up to the side of the building around the corner from the main entrance and scanned her surroundings. The roads were empty. A stray dust devil whipped through the gas pumps and swirled away.

She peeked around the corner. The sterile light of the store spilled through the windows and onto the crushed cups and empty bags littering the parking lot next to the cracked curb in front of the door.

She flexed her fingers and clutched the knife beneath her poncho before stepping around the corner. She took a quick breath trying to calm the swelling in her chest and the throbbing pulse in her neck.

She swung the door open and stole a glance at the cashier, a young lanky white kid who was probably working his first job just out of high school. He gave her a passing smirk, probably relieved at some company to interrupt the monotony of standing in an empty store for most of the night.

Bess strolled down the aisles of steel wire shelves, running her hands over bags of chips, overpriced loaves of bread and boxes of crackers. It was a veritable feast and she picked up a sample of each. She caught the glint in the boy’s eye when she lifted up her poncho to make a pouch to hold her loot.

Her mouth watered when she saw what she really needed: small plastic containers of microwave stew. This was the sort of thing that could keep her going for days. She eyed a row of plastic water bottles, but chose fruit juices in glass bottles instead. The glass was thick and she wasn’t sure if it would work, but it was the best she could do. The last thing she picked up was a box of kitchen matches.

She waddled up to the cashier, smiling sheepishly at him as a grin crept onto his face. She recognized the look and had to remind herself that it was different when it was just a boy smiling at a pretty girl.

She set her haul on the counter and asked, “Can you put these in bags for me?” She blinked coyly as he stripped a plastic bag from a chrome loop next to the register, allowing his eyes to glaze over as he tried to peek down her poncho. He finished bagging her loot and blinked at her, waiting while she scanned the assortment of candy bars, pep pills and aspirin packets hanging on hooks along the counter. Her eyes stopped on a pre-paid cell phone encased in plastic. She reached out and brushed it with her fingers, gingerly removed it from its hook and turned it over in her hands. She set it next to the rest of her loot.

Her eyes drifted to the register. “Is that a real cash register?” she asked. “I thought everything was computerized these days.”

“Oh, we have a card reader,” he said, pulling a black plastic terminal from underneath the counter.

“Let me see,” she said, tilting her head and letting her eyelids droop with a bedroom allure.

“Oh, I can’t open the register until you give me the money. It’s like a rule.” He sounded almost apologetic.

 She held the knife still hidden under her poncho and used her thumb to unsnap the leather strap around the handle. She eyed his hand still cradling the terminal and reached under with her other hand to whip out the knife and slash a small cut on his thumb.

He snatched his hand back and sucked on the wound, glaring at her like a wounded puppy. He tried to reach under the counter and she slammed her palm into his chest, knocking him back.

She smiled coyly as she brandished the blade and said, “It wasn’t a request.”

His eyes wide, the boy scrambled out from behind the counter and ran out of the door on the other side of the cashier station.

Bess let out a grumbling sigh. Her shoulders slumped and she let her head droop as she looked at the register, shaking her head.

Eyeing the round key still inserted in its side, she uncradled the scanner attached to it and ran it over the barcode of one of the bags. Rewarded with a faint beep, she pressed a green button that said CASH and the drawer popped open.

She scanned the thin layers of bills under their metal clasps and quickly stripped them out, stuffing them into one of the bags.

She wanted to check for a video camera but knew it would be better to just leave. If they had seen her face, there wasn’t much she could do about it and there was no point in giving them a chance to see more of it.

She grabbed the bags and scurried out the door. She scanned her surroundings and saw the boy running down the road towards town, still terrified by a girl with a knife.

Bess walked casually into the dirt scrub, the same way she had come. She knew the police would be along at some point, asking him questions and taking notes. They would put out some kind of bulletin and keep an eye out for her, but she didn’t imagine they would bother to scour the area on foot over a handful of snacks and fistful of small bills. It just wasn’t that much. No, they would look along the roads, ask a few questions around town and file a report. She was a girl in a poncho that nobody had ever seen before and she would make damn sure they never saw her again.

After walking for a good half hour into the darkness, she stopped and sat down. She dug into one of the bags and pulled out the scant bills of cash, counting out forty two dollars. She hung her head and scoffed. In her world, she was a rich woman.

She cradled the cell phone package in her hand, trying to imagine who she could possibly call. She put the phone back in the bag and tore open a plastic cup of microwave stew. Snorting because she had forgotten to steal a plastic fork, she dug in with her fingers and ate the contents clean. She tucked the empty container back in one of the plastic bags, saving it for when she could find a trash can.

She pulled out the box of matches and slid it open. She fished out one of the matches and turned it between her thumb and forefinger, musing over how much power could come from such a little thing. She struck it against the side of the box and stared at the flame as it leapt out from the match head and curled away in a thin stream of black smoke. She held it in front of her so it looked like the flame was nestled over the horizon and watched it burn down until it almost touched her finger. She blew it out with a gentle puff and smiled.

She stood up and eyed the ribbons of traffic running along the highway outside of town, then started walking towards it, stretching out the distance between her and the town as she slipped further into the barren dark of the desert, the only place she truly felt safe. She pawed at her poncho, smiling at the rough sincerity of its cloth, but knowing that she needed something different now. She would take care of that in the next town.

***

 

The next morning, Bess slept in the passenger seat of a semi as it idled at a traffic light in a town she didn’t even know the name of. She jerked awake, thrashing her hands over her body and clutching at her bags. She vaguely remembered the endless stretch of road and swaying of the truck before nodding off, but had no idea how long she had been asleep.

She blinked and rubbed her eyes, surveying her surroundings. A fading sign in big red letters that read THRIFT caught her eye.

“I’ll get out here,” she said, gathering up her bags and opening the door.

He craned his neck and gave her a casual smile. “Alright darlin’. Good luck.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry I don’t have any money for the gas.”

He waved his hand at her. “No sweat, honey. Just find your way home.” She could see in his eyes that he thought he knew her – just another runaway who had changed her mind. If he knew the truth, would it change his?

“Well, thanks,” she said. She wanted to pay him something, but she knew she had nothing he wanted. Pure kindness was still a debt she wasn’t used to carrying.

She closed the door. The light turned green and the truck’s engine growled to life, spewing black smoke from the chrome stacks at the rear of the tractor.

The trailer rattled by to reveal the nearly empty parking lot of the thrift store with weeds poking up through cracks in the asphalt and litter scattered along white stucco walls.

She traipsed across the parking lot and pulled open a glass door smudged with dirt and fingerprints. Inside, the place looked like a warehouse, with pipes running along the ceiling and humming fluorescent lights hanging over tired looking racks of clothes.

Self conscious at her nightgown and poncho now visible to the few strangers perusing the racks, she ducked her head and wandered into the maze made up by rows of worn but clean shirts and pants. She ran her fingers over the garments, savoring the simple feeling of having a choice about what she might wear.

She turned over the tag on a pair of faded black denim jeans and felt her heart thump at the hand scribbled number: 5. She draped the jeans and a worn black belt over her arm. Her pace quickened as she ran her hands along the forest of pants hanging from the racks until she came to a treasure trove of shirts and blouses in every color imaginable. She turned over the tag on a plain white cotton halter top: 3. She snatched two more like it and draped them over the jeans.

The open door to a small dressing room beckoned, but she wanted to have a complete outfit first, making sure she could buy everything she tried on if she wanted to.

She turned into the next row and fished out a black denim jacket. This was more expensive, the tag reading 10. Something told her she would need to save her remaining eighteen dollars for something besides clothes.

She stepped into the dressing room and pulled off the poncho, folding it in a neat square and dropping it on the warped plastic bench bolted against the wall. She slipped the jeans on underneath her nightgown, surprised at how loosely they slipped over the curve of her hips.

She slipped off the nightgown and picked up a halter top. She stood motionless when she saw herself in the mirror. Her ribs were clearly visible and her breasts had shrunk from an already modest B cup. The skin on her neck was loose and dark circles dipped down from her eyes to cheekbones protruding from her gaunt face.

She pulled on the halter top. With the jeans hanging off her bony hips, the shirt didn’t go down far enough and left a narrow strip of her midriff peeking out. She snorted and shifted her gaze back to her face.

Bess narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brow. She tightened her lips and clenched her jaw just enough to see the muscles in her face harden. She pulled on the jacket as she studied every facet of her face, setting the image in her mind. It should have felt like a mask. It should have been something she had thought up to show the world to make them think she was something more than what they saw. Instead, Bess saw the ragged grimace of what she truly felt inside because the only thing left to show the world was who she had become.

She said the names – quietly, with the reverence that came from knowing she was the only one who knew them. She paused before she came to the last name on the list, tuning her look in a final attempt to show the world somebody to reckon with. She whispered slowly, deliberately. “Bess Kincaid.”

She gathered up her bags and the poncho and left the dressing room. She plucked a worn student backpack from a pile on her way to the register, stuffing her bags into it.

She pulled the tags of the clothes she was wearing and laid them on the counter in front of the cashier. She set the poncho next to them and ran her hand over its rough texture one last time.

“Can I trade this for the backpack?”

The old woman sitting behind the register scowled through her glasses and then peered down at the poncho and brushed her fingers across it.

“That’s a hand-woven wool poncho. Where’d you get it?”

Bess stared at the angled contours of its pattern and frowned. “A friend.”

“I’ll give you ten on top of the pack.” She punched down plastic keys on the curved surface of an old steel register and hit a black handle with the side of her hand. A bell rang and the drawer popped open.

“Fourteen even sweetie.”

Bess eyed the cash tray. There was quite a bit more than her forty two dollars. Staring at the money, she fished one of the bags out of her new pack and dug for the money inside, handing the cashier a twenty. The old woman licked her fingers and flipped up the black steel hoops to fish out change, handing it to Bess as she slipped the twenty into the tray and closed the drawer.

“Thanks,” she said, peering into the old woman’s eyes. Bess blinked at the register a moment longer. There weren’t many people in the store. It would be a simple matter of toppling the woman off her stool and smashing the black handle to open the drawer. It would take her all of ten seconds to grab all the cash and another five to get out the door, once again just a girl that nobody knew and would never see again. But now she had food, clothing and even a little money. Whatever happened next was up to her. She had a choice.

Bess ran her thumb under the strap of her new pack and turned for the door.

***

 

An hour later, Bess walked along the edge of the main road heading north out of town. There was enough pavement on the edge of the road that she could have walked on the smooth gradient of asphalt. Instead, she strode through the sand and scrub, the feeling of her sandals shuffling through the grit now a familiar comfort. This was her world now – just on the edge of all the places that ordinary people lived.

The last building standing next to the road before it spilled into the emptiness of the desert was a lone convenience store. She knew she could walk to the ends of the earth if that’s what it took, but as she drew closer to the store, she saw a better way.

Her heart skipped a beat as she studied the man filling the tank of his motorcycle from one of two gas pumps that stood under a crumbling cement awning in the middle of the parking lot. He wore blue jeans and a white t-shirt covered with a black leather jacket. His hair fell to his shoulders in straight lines. For a moment, she thought he really was Tony Halk, but his hair was a sandy blonde and he stood a little taller. His mouth curled in a bemused smirk as he eyed two girls milling in front of the store.

The girls were thin, with just a hint of curves at the hips, tattered denim shorts hugging them tightly. They each wore a halter top and would have said they were appropriately dressed for the summer heat, but Bess knew better.

The man looked just young enough to still need a fake ID to buy beer – which Bess was sure he would eagerly give to the fawns waiting for him. She clenched her fist as she watched him set the pump back in its cradle and swing his leg over the back of his motorcycle as if he were settling into the saddle of a horse. She rolled her eyes and let out a thin breath through tight lips.

He heaved his weight down on the kick starter and the motorcycle rumbled to life. He twisted the throttle, gunning the engine twice before tucking his boot under the shift lever. The motorcycle clunked into gear and he casually idled over to the girls, his feet pawing at the pavement as he sidled up next to them. He stopped and planted both feet without putting down the kickstand.

Bess couldn’t hear what he said, but the girls looked at him with eyes wide, enchanted by attention from an older man.

Bess picked up her pace, checking her knife now tucked in the sheath hanging from her belt. She twisted her neck and felt blood surging through her body as her muscles tightened. She stared at the man, waiting for him to react as she marched straight towards him and the girls.

When she got within ten feet, she could hear the girls giggling and watched them bobbing their heads as the man beamed at them, as if he should somehow be proud of accomplishing little more than occupying space. Eyeing the girls, Bess figured them both to be fifteen – if that. She clenched her teeth when the man turned his head, his eyes quickly sweeping the length of her body and settling on her chest for just a moment before he looked up and smiled at her.

His expression changed in a way that most people would never notice – certainly not the girls fawning over him. But Bess saw it. That’s right. I know exactly who you are.

“Well, hello there,” he said. Bess stopped next to the motorcycle and glared at him, waiting for his cool gaze to crack as the ember inside flared. When he swallowed hard and his eyes widened just enough to tell her what she needed to know, she let a smirk creep onto her face and then slowly turned towards the girls.

They each gave her the once over and peered back at her with furrowed brows, annoyed at the arrival of superior competition. Their clothes were worn and tired-looking. They didn’t wear makeup and their hair was stringy and dried out. They were clearly from poor backgrounds, but the allure of youth easily overcame these things. In their minds, Bess knew that a nice looking older man on a motorcycle represented the path to a whole new world they had to imagine was better than their own. But he was just a boy eager to take what they weren’t ready to give. They just didn’t know any better.

“You need to go home,” Bess said.

The girl who looked to be older than the other by a matter of months stepped forward and shook her head. “Who are you?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Bess could see the man’s eyes glimmer with amusement at the confrontation, which she knew he assumed was about him. But this battle was over before it even started. If it was about who left with him, Bess knew with as much certainty as the sun setting that she would be the one riding on the back of his motorcycle as he pulled out of the parking lot and left the other two standing to watch their hopes and dreams ride away. Unlike them, though, she knew better.

Bess took a step towards the girl, watching the girl’s jaw clench as she strained against the urge to take a step back and concede ground. “I said you need to go home.”

“Why?”

Bess eyed the man and shook her head. Leaning in close to the girl, she said, “Because you can.”

The girl narrowed her eyes and her chest heaved as she started breathing faster. Bess saw bruises and tears and harried trips in the middle of the night in the girl’s future. But unlike the girls Bess had left behind at Los Rojos, she would find these things by her own choosing.

Bess grunted and let out a sigh before turning her attention back to the man on the motorcycle. She smiled and tilted her head to the side. His face lit up and his body eased into the slump of a man hypnotized by promises that now flickered in Bess’s eyes. It was like turning on a light switch.

“Hey, do you want to go to a party?” he asked.

Staring into his eyes to stoke his craving and keep him off guard, Bess casually tucked her chin down and his head eased down as his eyes drifted to her chest.

“You bet,” she said. The man smiled, his eyes still fixed on her chest as he wallowed in the drunken stupor of her spell.

Bess placed the knife between her teeth and flicked her brow. As his smile faded and his eyes widened in confusion, she pulled her arm back and put one foot forward, bending slightly at the knees. Uncoiling her body like a spring, she slammed the flat of her palm into his chest.

Instinctively, he flailed his arms, struggling to regain his balance as his hands came off the grips. The girls gasped and covered their mouths as they watched their champion of lost dreams lose his balance and fall off the back of the motorcycle.

Bess grabbed both grips and twisted the throttle to get the motorcycle moving. She ran along side of it for several steps and then hopped onto the seat, wrestling with the handlebar to keep her balance while she brought the motorcycle under control. Once she had her feet set on the pegs, she twisted the throttle hard. The motorcycle roared out of the parking lot and thumped onto the road.

She tucked her toes under the gear lever, squeezed the clutch in her left hand and pulled the lever up, reveling at the gratifying thump of the gear box shifting into a higher gear. She let out the clutch and twisted the throttle hard, relishing the wind sweeping back through her hair and the growl of its engine as the motorcycle surged forward.

She shifted into the next higher gear and let a wild peal of laughter erupt from her chest as she sped down the road. She didn’t look at the speedometer and shifted again, twisting the throttle to its limit until the pavement ran under the wheels in a blur.

Bess squinted hard against the air rushing into her face and leaned forward to improve the air flow as she hurtled into the twilight of the empty road. She pulled the clutch and found one more gear, then twisted the throttle back until she felt a thin vibration from the sheer speed of the wheels spinning against the pavement.

Time stopped and the universe seemed to pause as it gazed quietly on her flight along a forgotten road in the middle of nowhere. Long shadows from sagebrush and rocks bled out across the road and the crimson beige of the desert floor as the sun settled into the horizon.

After everything she had been through and never knowing where home really was, Bess realized that streaking down the highway with her face rippling against a wall of wind as forever unfolded along the road in front of her was the best home of all.

It would have been perfect except for Jefe’s eyes, which seemed to peer at her from behind the horizon, telling her the one thing that would never change. There is nowhere you can run, Teresita Fuego. There is nowhere you can hide.

Bess gritted her teeth and screamed into the wind. My name is Bess Kincaid! And there is nowhere you can hide Jefe. There is nowhere you can run!”

Peals of laughter gushed up from her chest, whipped around her and flew into the wind behind her. It didn’t matter if it was true or not. It didn’t matter if she was right or wrong. Bess let the ember flare to its full fury and she glared back at the eyes peering down at her. It that moment, Bess felt nothing less than invincible.

NEXT


©2017 Michael J Lawrence