by Colleen Kearney Rich
They never should’ve left the interstate. Deirdre sees that now.
This place hasn’t been a gas station in a long time. Shaggy-looking weeds grow knee-high from the cracks in the grey asphalt, and the gas pumps, what’s left of them, are not from this decade. Still the place is tidy, locked up tight. Sun-damaged Virginia Slims cigarette ads hang near the door, and yellowed tape spackles a crack that runs diagonally across one of the windows.
‘Well, that’s a bust,’ says Meg as she pulls her iPhone out of its holder on the dash. ‘We are still ok on gas, but we need a bathroom bad.’
Deirdre pulls out her phone too and tries to call up a map. It won’t load.
‘Mom,’ a voice whines from the back.
‘I got you, girlfriend. We are going to find a restroom,’ Meg says to the rearview mirror. ‘I don’t have any bars.’
‘I can’t get a signal either,’ Deirdre says. ‘Sorry about this. The gas station I was remembering was bigger and…open. This must be the wrong exit. It’s been a while.’
Deirdre looks over her shoulder and gives her daughter a smile. Kyra smiles back. There are four other Girl Scouts in the SUV, including Meg’s daughter, all playing on various digital devices. They are all expecting to earn their cooking badges this weekend. Just an overnight, Meg promised. A piece of cake, she said.
Kyra has asked if there would be bears, could they please buy some bear spray.
‘Don’t be silly,’ Deirdre had told her. ‘No bear would be crazy enough to get that close to almost 100 girls.’
They joked about it even as they picked up pepper spray as an impulse buy on a trip to Lowe’s. The serious-looking canister was tucked inside Deidre’s backpack, but she was expecting spiders on this trip not bears.
‘I think I see something down there,’ Meg says, shifting the SUV into drive.
Deirdre pushes her sunglasses up. She doesn’t see anything down the two lanes, but she isn’t driving. Before she can respond, Meg pulls back on to the road and accelerates, taking them even farther from the interstate.
This morning, this trip seemed like it was going to be an adventure, fun even. Now an SUV full of Girl Scouts seems like a target to Deirdre, a mistake. She feels vulnerable and unprepared. She never wanted to be responsible for other people’s children. Deirdre tries to pull up the map again, hitting the screen harder.
‘We should’ve stayed together,’ she says.
‘What?’ asks Meg.
‘We should’ve stayed with the group.’
There is something down the road—it is a small motel. They pull into its tiny parking lot.
‘We should ask to use their bathroom,’ Meg says. ‘Maybe they’ll take pity on us.’
‘Can we get out now?’ Meg’s daughter calls from the back seat.
‘Soon, baby,’ Meg says. ‘Kyra’s mom is going to go check.’
The motel is a strip of maybe 10 rooms in all, and it is painted a moldy shade of pink. The doors are open on two of the rooms and a maid’s cart sits outside on the sidewalk, a plastic bag tied to the side of it swaying gently in a breeze Deirdre can’t feel. She leaves the car door ajar and walks toward the cart.
‘Hello,’ she calls.
The only sound is the plastic bag shushing as it moves against the cart. Deirdre walks a little closer to Room 3 with its door standing open. She can see a partially made bed and a really old TV. If someone is changing the sheets, that must mean people have stayed here recently, Deirdre figures. She turns and gives Meg an exaggerated shrug.
‘Hello,’ she calls again.
She takes another step closer and peers in. She can’t stop looking at the TV. How would one that old even work now? She can see the vacuum standing by the side of the bed. The bedspread is askew and partly on the floor.
‘Maybe try the office?’ Meg calls from the car.
Deirdre nods and rubs her sweaty palms on her jeans. Meg turned off the radio when they pulled into the parking lot, and the silence is making Deirdre’s hair stand on end. She doesn’t hear a bird or bug or car or even the freaking interstate, just the plastic bag sliding against the cart. As she looks at the bag, it catches air and puffs up slightly, as if acknowledging that she is thinking of it. Deirdre controls a shiver and walks toward the office.
Deirdre turns and looks at Meg through the windshield. She can’t really see her because of the glare but still gives her a thumbs up before trying the office door. It is unlocked.
The office is dark and cramped with a counter and a rack of brochures. A door in the back is ajar, and Deirdre can finally hear something: a tinny radio playing what she thinks is Jim Croce. The music is so faint she strains to hear, but it sounds like ‘‘Time in a Bottle,’’ which is almost as old as the TV in the room.
‘Hello,’ she calls. The office smells like carpet deodorizer and something she can’t place, something burned. She reaches over and taps a bell on the counter.
Deirdre is struggling with how much effort to put into this. She wants to bolt. She is ready to be back on the interstate, looking for a Sheetz or Chick Fil-a. The short hallway to the side of the counter leads to some back office or living space. She stares at the partly open door but hears no movement, just the radio.
‘dreams that had never come true’
She can’t seem to shake the dread. In the darkness of the hallway, she sees something on the floor. It looks like a Keds sneaker, a dirty one, lying on its side.
Fuck this, she says under breath, and then she’s sees it: the cash drawer behind the counter is wide open. It is empty, and scraps of paper litter the carpet behind the counter. A small framed photo of a man and a woman sits cracked at the base of the wall. Deidre can see the hook it fell from.
Everything inside her is telling her to go now. She rushes toward the door and hits the rack with her elbow knocking some brochures to the floor. When she reaches for the door handle, she notices a dark smear on the door frame.
Deirdre bursts into the sunlight. Meg is out of the car now.
‘Well?’ she says.
Deirdre shakes her head. ‘There’s no one.’ She realizes her heart is racing and holds her breath for a moment to slow it. ‘No one is in there,’ she exhales.
Meg looks annoyed, hand on her hip. ‘What the hell? It’s like everyone was beamed up to the mother ship or something.’
Meg walks toward Room 3 and peeks in. ‘You know, the door is open, and there is a bathroom….’
‘No,’ Deirdre says, louder than she meant to.
‘We could leave them a tip?’
‘Absolutely not. We need to go now.’ The idea of letting those girls go into one of those motel room makes her shudder.
‘You’re probably right,’ Meg says, ‘We should’ve had boys. They can pee anywhere. You ok?’
Deirdre turns her back to the SUV. ‘Something’s wrong,’ she says.
‘What’s wrong?’ Meg pushes up her sunglasses and squints at her.
‘I think they’ve been robbed,’ she says and realizes she is still out of breath.
‘The motel. The drawer is empty. There are papers everywhere. We should call the police.’
‘Call the…I’m going in,’ Meg says and pulls open the door to the office.
Deirdre stares at the motel and Room 3’s open door. She doesn’t know where the maid is, but hopes she is ok.
Meg comes out and walks quickly to the driver’s side. Deirdre gets in and locks her door.
The girls start complaining as soon as Meg pulls back onto the road. Someone is near tears. Deirdre fishes a bag of Twizzlers out of her backpack and passes them behind her.
Meg drives into the parking lot of the abandoned gas station and throws the SUV into park. ‘Ok, ladies, now’s your chance. Pee behind gas station. I have tissues.’
She pulls a packet of tissue out of her handbag and waves them behind her.
‘Are the tissues biodegradable?’ Meg’s daughter asks as the girls start getting out.
‘You bet,’ Meg says, standing in the open door.
‘We need to call someone,’ Deirdre says, talking low. ‘Someone could be hurt.’
‘Who? The police?’ Meg says, lowering her voice. ‘And say what? We don’t even know where we are.’
Deirdre can feel Meg’s eyes on her. She is glad for the sunglasses and the buffer they provide.
‘Look,’ Meg says in her regular voice. ‘I’m going to check behind the gas station. I’ll leave the car running. Turn the AC up if you need to. There are waters in the cooler. Seriously. Get a water.’
Deirdre sits for a moment in the air conditioning before reaching behind her for a water. She holds the cold bottle against her cheek, closes her eyes, and tries to will herself into feeling better. When she opens them, she can see movement in the distance. There is someone shuffling down the side of the road.
Meg gets back into the driver’s seat. ‘OK. Crisis averted. We are good to….’ She turns to see what Deirdre is looking at. They watch the figure creep toward them. He, it looks like a he, is hunched over, and his clothes appear to be filthy and torn. He focuses on the ground before him.
‘Ladies,’ Meg calls. ‘Let’s get a move on.’
The girls are chattering as they Purell their hands and help themselves to Twizzlers.
‘Where’s Zoe?’ Meg asks her daughter. The girl shrugs with two red licorice strips hanging from her mouth.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Meg mutters, eyeing the man on the road. She practically runs back to the gas station.
Deirdre watches the man make his way down the shoulder of the road. He is still looking at the ground and taking tiny steps down. The white plastic bag he is carrying swings wildly with his rocking steps. Something is clearly wrong with him. Deirdre thinks about the ridiculous pepper spray in her backpack and wonders what other car things you can protect yourself with. A tire iron? Deirdre suspects the SUV has one, but where would it be—in the back under the camping gear? She looks at the phone again. The small single bar flickers
When the last girl is in, Meg locks the doors. ‘Buckle up,’ she calls out. The tires squeal a tiny bit as she pulls on to the two-lane road.
Deirdre reaches back and pats Kyra on her leg. She glances over at Meg and can’t see her eyes because of the sunglasses. Meg’s mouth is a tight frown.
Deirdre can feel that they are accelerating, and Meg is quickly putting distance between them and whatever this place is. She watches the shuffling figure get smaller and smaller in the sideview mirror. Deirdre listens to the engine whine and the flump, flump, flump of tires hitting the seams in the road. Both women stare ahead unblinking, waiting, waiting, waiting for the arrow that will take them back to the interstate.
Colleen Kearney Rich is the author of the chapbook Things You Won’t Tell Your Therapist (Finishing Line Press, 2019). Her writing has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, matchbook, and Pithead Chapel, among others. She lives in Virginia, and you can find her on Twitter at @colleenrich.