The sun was long gone when Bess idled along a thin strip of highway leading up to a cluster of gas stations and fast food restaurants at an entry ramp for the freeway. She knew the gas in her tank was low and she couldn’t wait any longer to fill it back up.
Unlike the isolated stores close to the border, these were close to a well-travelled interstate that was just a quarter mile down the road with a large green sign that read EXIT 339. Cars pulled in and out of their well-lit parking lots at regular intervals. It was also a good place to find state troopers taking a break from their patrols. These were all things Bess would rather have avoided, especially since she knew the small license plate hanging on the back of the motorcycle was probably now entered into the system as a stolen vehicle.
But she had no choice. She picked the gas station furthest from the exit. It was simply a matter of odds. Being farther away from the freeway, it saw less business. Still, it had the emblem of a national chain and was probably monitored by cameras.
Bess stopped and heaved the motorcycle from side to side, listening to the thin slosh of fuel still left in the tank. Eyeing the gas station, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
She eased the motorcycle up to the main road leading to the freeway and stopped. She checked for traffic and idled onto the road, trying to ride casually towards the gas station. There was a single car at one of the islands where a tired-looking woman gazed into emptiness as she pumped gas. The interior of the store shone brightly and glistened with rows of snacks and a huge counter along the back wall with coffee and soda. The cashier stood behind her counter, wearing a cap matching her corporate issued uniform shirt.
Bess pursed her lips and fought to calm her breathing as she rode into the parking lot and circled around so the motorcycle’s license plate faced away from the road. She sidled up to one of the pumps, eased down the kickstand and turned off the engine.
After hours of riding, she winced at the aching in her muscles as she dismounted. She shook her leg, trying to limber up her muscles as she glanced around her the parking lot. She ran her thumbs along the straps of her pack and walked towards the store, still trying to ease her breathing.
Bess padded quietly past the cashier who was busy texting something in her smartphone and made her way towards the restroom door in the back of the store.
Locking the door behind her, Bess took off her pack and set it on one of the sinks bolted to a glistening white cinder block wall. She unzipped the pack and rummaged through it for the bottles of juice she had stolen, setting all four on the floor next to the sink.
Next, she unslung her bolsa, which was still half full and took out the cork. She held it over the other sink as she tried to pour juice from the wide mouth of one of the bottles. She couldn’t help spilling some of it down the side of the bolsa as she filled it the rest of the way.
Shaking her head, Bess poured the rest of the juice into the sink. Each bottle was easily worth a day of walking in the desert and she winced as she watched the juice curl down the drain.
After draining the rest, she set the empty bottles in the top of her pack, making sure they would be easy to get to and put the lids in her pocket.
Ignoring the rows of brightly packaged food that beckoned, Bess strode as casually as she could towards the cashier. She fished out the eighteen dollars she had left and placed the crumpled bills on the counter. She pulled a paper map from a rack next to the register and set it next to the bills.
The cashier glanced up from her texting and waited.
“For the pump with the motorcycle,” Bess said, wincing at the squeaky strain of her own voice. The cashier took the money and punched buttons on the register.
Turning back to her smartphone, the cashier said, “Come back for your change when you’re done.” Bess nodded, thankful for once that nobody was really paying attention to her as she picked up the map and headed back into the parking lot.
Bess stared at the chrome cap of the gas tank and the thin key slot embedded in its center. Holding her breath, she eyed the key still in the ignition and stared at the second key dangling from the thin metal loop. She slowly pulled out the ignition key and pressed the smaller key into the cap lock. She let out a long sigh when she was able to twist it easily and unlock the gas cap.
Bess uncradled the gas pump and froze as the lights on top of a police car rolling up to the gas station flashed to life. Without moving, she watched as a tired looking compact pulled into the parking lot and stopped at the far edge. The police cruiser rolled up behind it and stopped.
Forcing herself to breathe before she passed out, Bess’s hand trembled as she fumbled with the nozzle and started to pump gas into the motorcycle’s tank. She flinched when the pump clicked off and felt a soft surge of delight at the amber liquid glistening just under the lip of the gas tank. She glanced at the pump, seeing she had two gallons left.
She craned around to see the cashier still texting. Across the parking lot, the police officer hunched over as he talked to the driver through the car window.
Bess slowly took off her pack and set it next to the pump. Keeping her back to the cashier, she slipped back to make sure the pump was between her and the police car. Cradling the pump against her body, she took out the first empty bottle and set it on the ground. The officer was walking back to his cruiser and she waited until he sat down and closed his door before she quietly pumped a thin stream into the bottle. When it was full, she fished out one of the lids and screwed it on tight, then nestled the bottle in with the extra shirts she had bought.
Watching the police car, she filled up each of the remaining bottles, thankful that cops always took forever to do whatever they did to make motorists wait for them to get a ticket. As she finished filling the last bottle, the officer stepped out of his car and started walking back to the compact. Bess waited until he hunched over again and quietly slipped the pump back in its cradle. Strapping on her pack, she swung back onto the motorcycle and eyed the officer as she kicked over the engine.
There were a few dollars to be had if she wanted to go back for change, but all she wanted to do was open the throttle wide and flee. Instead, she forced herself to ease across the parking lot and stop at the road as a few cars drifted by. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the officer stand up and started walking towards his cruiser.
Bess felt a chill rush through her body when the cop turned and looked at her. Their eyes locked for a moment and then he smiled and tapped the brim of his hat with a casual salute before getting back into his car.
Bess swallowed hard and it seemed like an eternity as the last car drifted past the gas station. Her hand shaking, she forced herself to gently twist the throttle back and turn onto the road, heading away from the freeway and into the darkness. Behind her, the compact was rolling towards the driveway. The police cruiser’s lights went off but did not move. She tried not to think of the trooper talking to dispatch or tapping her license plate into a computer as she rode away from the gas station. No, they always waited a while after giving somebody a ticket. If he was suspicious, he would have done more than wave at her and walk away.
Bess forced the thoughts from her mind and focused on the wind streaming through her hair and the full tank of gas that could take her as far as she needed to go. Still, once the road ahead was clear of traffic, she flipped off her lights and opened up the throttle to put as much distance between her and the freeway as fast as she could.
After a half hour of riding only by the thin light of the moon, Bess still hadn’t seen any other traffic. She pulled onto a rutted dirt road, rode another mile and stopped.
Flipping out the kickstand, she stood up and turned a full circle to inspect the land around her. Except for a few houses scattered along the main road, she didn’t see any signs of human presence. She leaned over and flipped on the headlight.
Crouching down in its pool of white light, she pulled out the map and unfolded it on the ground. She ran her finger up the only major interstate that ran north through the state until she found the exit where she had filled up – 339.
Bess closed her eyes and thought back to the night that Rickie had driven her to Los Rojos. Fear had a way of burning details into memory and her blood surged as she thought of sitting in the passenger seat of Rickie’s car while the world outside flashed by. The first thing she remembered was the white signs and the one she was finally able to read.
She opened her eyes and scanned the map. She remembered the sun drifting to their left at first, so she focused on the area north of her school until she saw the thin black ribbon of highway 62 stretching between the interstate and the mountains to the west.
They had never gone into the mountains, instead remaining in mostly flat lands with occasional bouts of rolling foothills. She closed her eyes again, remembering the night sky hanging outside the windshield. The summer triangle of the constellations Aquila, Cygnus and Lyra had hung more or less in front of her for a good part of the journey. That meant they had travelled east for a while. But she had never seen the interstate. They had pulled off onto the dirt road before getting that far.
Looking at the map, Bess traced her finger along highway 62 between the mountains and the interstate, a stretch of about 60 miles. She had more than enough gas to get up that far and run the entire stretch if she had to.
Bess folded the map, tucked it back in her pack and settled into the seat of the motorcycle. Flicking the light off, she turned back onto the road and headed west until she found the junction to a small state road heading north towards highway 62.
When she reached the junction an hour later, it was marked only with a dented stop sign and a white pockmarked sign that read JCT 62. She looked both ways, seeing blank ribbons of highway in either direction. She decided to sweep the area between the junction and the interstate first. She would double back if she had to sweep the rest.
The third thing she remembered was the dirt road. Unlike most of the dirt roads that weaved across the endless miles of nowhere, it had been wide enough for two cars. It was graded and treated with gravel. This made sense, considering the kind of men who went to Los Rojos. They couldn’t be expected to drive their expensive sedans on rutted dirt roads that looked like they had been cut by covered wagons.
She felt her muscles twinge with anticipation as she saw the same white markers pop up with the simple adornment of 62 painted onto them. The summer triangle hung in front of her, just as it had that first night. She had to force herself to ease off the throttle because the headlight didn’t shine very far and she didn’t want to miss any signs of dirt roads branching out from the sides of the highway.
As expected, most of them were rutted tracks winding through the weeds to destinations unknown.
Then she saw it. The smooth curve of the hard packed turnout brushed away from the pavement into the gravel of the side road. Bess eased back on the throttle and absently shifted down to slow the motorcycle as she stared at the road. She felt a shiver run through her neck as a sense of familiarity wrapped itself around her.
She turned onto the road and winced at the sound of gravel crackling underneath the motorcycle’s wheels.
She had to stop. The world started to tilt and shudder as her memory of that night snapped into place like a picture overlaid on top of another. She swooned and let out a low groan as the shudder rose up like a wave and swept through her entire body. There were places like that – places she didn’t remember until she saw them again and then she had that feeling of rediscovering some hidden secret she had forgotten.
But this was no forgotten secret. The land reached out to her and she felt suffocated as she remembered the van approaching. Something seemed to hold her in an invisible grip as it squeezed the air out of her and she had to strain just to breathe.
A torrent of questions flooded her mind. What if this had just been a drop off point nowhere near Los Rojos? What if they had driven her another thousand miles? But then, hauling an unconscious girl around the countryside in a black van might be too risky, wouldn’t it?
Screaming out from behind them was the one question that made the most sense, that demanded to be heard, and that she had to wrestle to the ground and kill outright before it was too late.
What girl in her right mind would come back?
Wherever Los Rojos was, she wasn’t going to find it by sitting in the middle of the road wondering if she was right. If she was wrong, she would have to figure out something else. If she was right, she may not live long enough to tell anybody about it.
Bess found herself staring at the gravel under the illumination of the headlight and gasped when she realized she had left it on. She flipped the switch off and killed the engine while she held her breath and listened for signs of anybody that might have seen her. She closed her eyes and shook her head. If she was going to do this, she was going to have to focus on what she was doing. She clenched her fist, forcing the thoughts running rampant through her mind to subside into the whisper of the desert night. Enough.
After several minutes, she still didn’t hear anything and kicked the engine back to life. Easing the shift lever into the lowest gear, she opened the throttle just enough to nudge the motorcycle down the road, guiding herself once again by moonlight.
After a mile, the road curved around between two shallow cliffs of red sandstone. As she rounded the corner, she eased off the throttle and pressed down on the brake pedal. Not more than 100 feet in front of her, she saw a gate and several late model sedans parked in a gravel parking lot on the other side. Men had driven out in them to drink champagne and ravage girls half their age. Then they would leave them behind, get in their cars and drive away. She could ride up to them, right then, right there, and bash out their windows, slash their tires and even set them all on fire.
But they would just buy new cars and find some other place where men like Jefe sold that which they had no right to. Bess felt small as she realized how easy it was to find such men. No matter what happened next, she couldn’t stop them. They would always exist and there would always be places like Los Rojos for them to find.
Bess eased the motorcycle off the road and into the weeds next to the sloping backside of the nearest outcropping of sandstone. She let down the kickstand and leaned it into what looked like a patch of hard packed dirt that she hoped was firm enough to keep the motorcycle from tipping over. As she eased off the motorcycle, the kickstand sunk into the ground an inch and then stopped. She held out her hands for a few moments, ready to catch the bike if it started to tip over. When it remained standing, she let out a low breath and unstrapped her pack.
She sat down and rummaged through the pack, pulling out a bag of chips she had stolen from the first convenience store and opened it as quietly as she could. She chomped down the chips quickly, uncorking her bolsa to chase down the salty after taste with the dull mixture of water and juice.
Next, she checked the bottles nestled deeper down in the pack, making sure the lids were still on tight. Reaching down further, she pulled out one of the halter tops and held it up in the moonlight. She licked her lips and glanced over her shoulder at the road. Everything she had done had been a step bridging the gap between what she planned to do and what would actually happen. There were a few more steps left where she had a choice, where she could decide to stop, turn around and run.
Some things would never change and would haunt her for the rest of her days – she knew that. But one thing could change, if she just kept going. Otherwise, how many nights would she lie awake, waiting for somebody to storm through her door? How long until he found her and made sure she stopped breathing for good? Waiting for that – it was just another way of dying.
This was what it was like to fight back then, wasn’t it? It was the choice to do things you could never be ready to do.
Bess’s lip trembled as she thought of her limp body lying in the courtyard, just as Teresita Lago’s had. She started to pant and her chest tightened because she knew that was exactly what could happen before the sun came up again. She could run away from Los Rojos, only to die later, or she could run back to it and die right there, right then. She pressed her lips into a thin line, cursing Jefe for reducing her life to nothing more than a choice between how he would kill her.
Her hands trembling, Bess clutched at the shirt and eased her knife from its sheath. She gently cut into the shirt and ripped it slowly from the hem to the neckline. As Jefe’s eyes seemed to appear in the face of the moon itself, she cut the shirt along the neckline and then back down to the hem to form a long strip. She held the strip up to the moon, inspecting the smudge of light splashing against the thin cloth and then rolled it up and stuffed it in her pack next to the bottles.
Bess tugged at the shirt, gritting her teeth as anger boiled up inside her. She tore into the cloth, grimly satisfied by the sound of it ripping apart. She imagined her knife ripping through Jefe’s gut as she ravaged the shirt until she had three more strips clutched in her quivering hand.
She took deep breaths through her nose and let out long hard breaths through her mouth as she rolled the strips and stuffed them next to the bottles in her pack.
She zipped the pack closed and stared at the moon, still panting as the world seemed to close in on her. There was no way out, but there was something else. She had found Los Rojos. She had found him. And he wasn’t expecting that.
She turned back towards the gate and scanned the road leading away from the gravel parking lot to a dim frost of light hovering over the foothills beyond. She knew it was the light spewing up from the courtyard at Los Rojos to infect the night sky.
Bess stepped out, once again, into the brush and sand of the night desert. Staring at the light, she thought of Leche and the endless sad emptiness in her eyes. Everything became clear when she imagined asking her friend what she should do.
Bess pushed the cacophony of musings from her mind as she marched toward the lights of Los Rojos. Her father’s voice emerged from the darkness with his last words and wrapped around her mind like a shield. There was no choice. There never had been. What she understood in that moment was that he had given his own life because there was no other choice to be made.
You and me.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence