By: Bink Cummings
Coming November 17, 2015
“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Viola.”
I firmly grip the steering wheel of my restored ‘69 z28 Camaro—Viola. She’s my pride and joy. Leaning forward in my seat like an old lady, I try to gain visibility through the torrential downpour. My windshield wipers swish maddeningly back and forth, doing little good. Brilliant streaks of light flash through the murky sky, quickly followed by a heart-stopping boom. A knot forms in my throat and I swallow hard, trying to dislodge it.
This storm’s the worst I’ve driven through and it’s right above me, creeping at a snail’s pace, looming overhead. It’s like the darkness that is my life. It’s lurking around every corner, between every nook and cranny, waiting to swoop in and sip the happiness from my marrow like a fine wine. I won’t let this storm win, though; not this time, not again. Tenth time’s the charm, right? Or maybe it’s the eleventh? Crap, I dunno. But for my sake and sanity, I hope so.
Strong wind wickedly batters the sides of my car. It swerves to the left. I hold on tighter to the wheel, keeping the tires on the road. I can do this. I know I can. I can find a place, any place, along this never-ending country road to get gas and suitable shelter. My body needs a break and a place to rest my tired head from this hellacious storm.
After eight hours of straight through driving except for two pit stops, which were the only breaks I had, my patience is wearing thin. But the further I go, the more pavement that rolls under my tires, the faster I get away from Jonathan and his sick, addictive behavior. Why I’d spent the past six months hoping he might be the one to cure me, I can’t be sure. Loneliness, maybe? Stupidity? This inherent need to help people? I have no clue. I just know that yesterday was the last straw.
At thirty-two, I’m too gosh damn old to put up with men’s bull-honky. Guess that’s what I get for dating younger men. This time, it was only by four years. But in women’s years, it might as well have been ten. When they say women mature faster than men, no truer words have ever been spoken. I’m just glad I didn’t waste another six months trying to help him cure his alcohol addiction, which regrettably transposed his dependency to me and everything I do. I became his need. His drug of choice. For a woman like me, that doesn’t mix. I can’t fill that tall-order, no matter who the man is. I don’t have it in me. My soul’s too damaged, my heart too broken.
Through my water-logged vision, I watch a broken sign swing from a pole on the side of the road—Miller’s Gas Station, one mile. I pray this gas station is still in operation. I’m pushing less than a quarter tank in an engine that devours gas. I need to fill up.
Quickly, I steal a glance at my passenger side floorboard. The box holding my potted garlic bulbs is still keeping them safe; no soil has been spilled. I blow out a relieved breath and focus my eyes back on the road.
Those garlic bulbs are the only thing I have left from my grams’ garden. They’re my most prized possession, aside from the two rings I wear on my left hand and my beloved car. Who knew so much love could be wrapped in these otherwise insignificant possessions? Not me. Not until everything was stripped away, and all I was left with were these objects, the clothes on my back, and a dirty box of old photographs.
Red lights flash up ahead in a store window—OPEN. A single uncovered pump sits in the middle of a gravel drive. The price for unleaded fuel is written in white on the store's window. Unable to pump gas in these conditions without drenching myself in the process, I idle to the front of the rundown gas station. There are no marked parking spots, so I make my own. Through the rain, I see a short, older woman curiously peer out of a window with a shotgun in her hand. I can tell she wants me to see it when she raises it above her head and shakes it a few times to get her point across. I’m not going to mess with her, but I suppose she can never be too careful out here.
A gust of wind jostles my car as the storm boisterously ensues from above. I lean over my shifter and grab my purse from the floor. Inside the front pocket, I fist the crinkled wad of cash before I turn my car off and toss my keys on the passenger seat.
Leaning back in my seat, I try to relieve the tension in my back and numb butt. A tired groan escapes my lips as my eyes scan the lot, waiting for the rain to slow so I can go inside. At the back of the rural property sits an older and heavily rusted mobile home. Parked beside it sets a flashy motorcycle with a blue tank and a red pickup truck. Must be where the owners live. Though I’m pretty sure the woman in the window, who’s still staring at me, won’t be riding that bike anytime soon. Although I could be wrong—wouldn’t be the first time or the last.
Shoving the money between my legs, I absentmindedly pick at my nails and wait for the storm to slow. It has to let up sometime; it can’t last all dang day. Figures, I’d get caught up in a storm on my drive to the East Coast. I don’t really care, though. I just have to get away from small towns and, more importantly, away from lazy, crazy, or drug addicted small town men. Men who are pros at bullshitting their way into your pants right before they try to stake claim over your heart. Not like I’d ever give them that, though. You can’t give them something you don’t have.
Which is the main reason why I’m sitting here in this gravel lot right now, staring out my window, daydreaming, and talking to you. You’re the only real person who I’ve got to listen to me, anyhow. Men surely don’t care what comes out of my mouth if they’re not getting the candy in my pants, and usually not even after that. Trust me, us girls, we gotta stick together. Chicks before dicks, all for one and one for all—you know, all that female power bull-honky. If that really exists. Does it? I dunno. Probably not.
Not like I think you’d like me anyhow if you got to know me. Nobody does. I’m easily forgettable. I mean, what can you do when you're the person that nobody sees? The tomboy, the girl with grease on her face and dirt under her nails? How do you cope with boys seeing you as one of them, not a person with XX chromosomes? How do you handle all the women being jealous of you because you're one of the guys? Like that’s something to strive for. It’s not. I’m the living, breathing proof.
I’ve spent too much time wishing I could tell people, and make them understand, that I’ve only ever had two people mold me into the person I am. Two people to really care. Two people who were just as odd and backward as I am. And that those two amazing people are dead, buried, and never coming back. Ever. It’s a harsh reality I am faced with, day in and day out. Something that wrecks me on a daily basis, leaving me only a tiny sliver of my former self—a hollow shell.
Both of my people tragically died four months from each other to the day. Both of them ripped from my soul, leaving me to painfully wander the world alone. That was ten years ago. And I've been adrift, floating haplessly through a meaningless life ever since. Living a shoddy existence, where I roll into a town just as quickly as I roll out of it, never staying more than a year or two at most.
Ten small farming communities in ten years. Places where you're guaranteed to be an outsider since you weren’t born and raised there. Places where you become the dull gray stone in the vast sea of pearly white. Or more specifically, the sloppy, introverted, vertically challenged, backward tomboy, who could always understand cars and vegetables better than she could ever understand a living person. Especially females, who are notoriously focused on the glitz, the glamour, the 'something better'—the end game. Rings, weddings, babies, dresses, being sickly thin, and wearing gobs of makeup. All of those things I've never understood. Or maybe I did once, but not anymore. That part of me withered away and died long ago.
Well, I suppose I should stop being a Debbie Downer and make a run for it. The storm has settled for a moment and the clouds have parted in the sky. Beams of vibrant sun are casting down on Mother Earth, breaking through the dreary for but a moment.
I grab the cash between my legs, throw open my weighted car door and make a break for the entrance. The door chimes as I dash inside and shake off like a dog. My hand runs through my long wavy hair, damp from the rain.
“Can I help ya?” the older woman asks with a smoker’s rasp, standing behind the counter, her shotgun left lying in front of her next to the register.
The noise of the weather forecast is broadcasted over the surround sound speakers, as heavy winds shake the windows. Air whistles through poorly sealed seams. Water drips from the leaky roof into buckets on the cracked linoleum floor. On a deep inhale, I’m assaulted with the cheap tang of lemon cleaner and, worse, the unmistakable scent of mildew. I try not to judge or crinkle my nose in disgust, because I’ve smelled worse. Lived in worse. Survived worse.
Meeting the woman’s eyes, I flash her a friendly, closed mouth smile. “I need to fill up,” I point to my car outside. “And I could use a little break from riding so long.”
She leans against the wall behind her, covering a beer poster, and crosses her arms over her chest. “You been drivin’ long?” She jerks her chubby chin my way.
“Eight hours.” I wade further into the store. The shelves are minimally stocked and the prices, as I figured, are outrageous. Beggars can’t be choosers, though, so I snatch a handful of candy bars and a few bags of chips, paying special attention to the expiration dates. There is no way I’m paying almost two dollars for a bag of candy if it’s expired. All of them except the Baby Ruth are fresh, so I put that one back and continue my inspection of snacks for the long ride ahead.
“Where ya headed?” she snoops, just as a siren broadcasts over the speakers, immediately followed by a tornado warning.
“Is that a local station?” I ask, choosing to ignore her question. I’m not a sharer, especially with strangers.
“Yeah,” is as much as I get out of her.
“Should we be taking cover?” From my experience, most warnings are more of a safety precaution. However, this woman appears unfazed by the whole thing. Doesn’t seem to care that the rain is beating the windows like they owe it money. Or that that I can see huge branches flying like feathers through the front lot.
I wince, sucking in a sharp breath when a broken branch barely misses my beloved Viola. At my sides, I fist my hands still full of candy and clench my teeth. My car shouldn’t be out in this weather. It’s not letting up, it’s only getting worse. If she gets the slightest scratch, I’m going to lose it. I’ve kept her pristine for almost fourteen years. I can’t allow a storm like this ruin her custom paint job. It’ll wreck me.
The sky is black now, matching my heart. Can you see the low hanging clouds and the steaks of lightning slash through the sky? It’s beautiful, in an Ends of Days morbidity, don’t you think?
A deafening boom and sizzling crackle of thunder shakes the windows. I move closer to the back of the store, just in case one of those flying branches decides to do the swan dive and impale the glass.
I spare a brief sideways glance at the woman. Her bushy brows are pinched and her aged lips pursed as her eyes fix on the storm brewing in Mother Nature’s caldron. She makes a disgruntled noise in her throat.
My eyes fly wide when I catch sight of an iron gate tumbling like a weed down the country highway. “Holy crap,” I mutter to myself, following the gate’s path until it’s out of sight.
“It’s gettin’ nasty out there,” she comments. “Owned this place for thirty-five years and she’s still standin’.” Her hand proudly slaps the counter and it startles me. I fidget, dropping my unpurchased candy to the floor and my heart leaps into my throat.
Bending down between two shelves to pick up my mess, I hear the first crack.
“Dammit!” she curses.
I forget the candy and shoot upright just in time to catch another branch collide with one of the stores windows, cracking the pane like a spider web. The rain hardens and the roof groans under pressure. I warily watch the paneled ceiling as I send a silent prayer to my grams, God, and Brian, to keep me safe and the roof from buckling. If anything goes, my fear is that’ll be the first to collapse.
The older woman leaves her post and scurries past me to the back wall of the store. She presses herself against it, between stacks of unpacked goods. I follow right on her tail and slide up beside her, my back flush against the wall. “Is this the safest place?”
“The store room has too much glass, so yes,” her voice wavers.
Uh-oh, that’s not a good sign.