It goes to voicemail after four. Come on, four.
Please don’t answer.
Shrieking laughter broke the silence on the other end. My heart skipped a beat and sank into my chest. So close.
“Oh my God–what?”
“Honey, it’s Mom–“
“I know.” Of course, she did–who else did she use that tone of voice with?
I forced a smile and tried to envision my voice light and cheerful and engaging and–
“Okey-doke, sweetheart.” Okey-doke? I sounded like a pygmy goat choking on Lisa Frank stickers. No wonder she never wanted to talk to me. “How did your biology test go?”
“Fine.” There was cheering somewhere behind her.
“That’s great! Good job.”
“Yep. Thanks. Anything else?” Her school stories used to take up the entire conversation at dinner–now I got one-syllable answers and eye-rolls.
“Just making sure you were taking your brother to soccer tonight.”
“Why can’t Dad do it?”
“He’s busy. He has a meeting.”
“A meeting.” Did she snicker? “Yeah, well, I’m busy too.”
“I’ve gotta go, Mom.”
I closed my eyes and focused on my voice again; forget cheerful, I’d settle for calm.
“Did you put dinner in the crock-pot?”
“I left a week’s worth in the freezer, and the instructions on the–“
“Dad can manage. He’s a big boy now.” That was definitely a snicker this time. A whistle blasted in the distance. “It’s time to warm up. I gotta go.”
“Bye, mom.” The phone went dead. I leaned my head against the glass door of the cooler case; the only sound came from the humming of the overhead lights.
I took a deep breath and let it go, envisioning the tension in my head melting away with it. At least, I think that’s the way it worked; you breathed in the air and breathed out stress. And anxiety. And deeply-rooted demons with names you couldn’t pronounce that you’d picked up along the way–probably from uncovered toilet seats in public bathrooms. I might have that last part confused with something else. I only got halfway through that lesson on the meditation app. I probably should pay more attention next time.
My phone buzzed to life, but I didn’t look at it. There was no point; Ethan didn’t have a phone, Juliet had nothing to say, and I’d agreed to the GPS tracker so I wouldn’t have to talk to David at all. The only other person who would call me was the one I’d been avoiding for three days.
I pressed the heel of my hand into the corner of my eye because that pain was better than the knot growing at the base of my skull. My finger hovered over the green button. I’d been practicing my story for days, and I knew exactly what I was going to say. I even had an excuse to get off the phone fast–one that she couldn’t bully past. I was ready. But I stood there, unmoving, watching her name light up. It stopped after the sixth ring. I’d listen to the voicemail later. There was always a voicemail.
The man was watching from behind the counter, inconspicuous in his bright pink, Hawaiian print shirt. I smiled, but he didn’t smile back. He leaned against the counter, arms folded across his chest, peering at me from over his glasses, a little too intently. Maybe there’d been a rash of robberies recently, and I looked suspicious. Maybe there were entire packs of perimenopausal women cruising around demolishing gas-stations, she-wolves rageful at the poor selection of cheap wine and organic snacks.
I’m certain I oozed middle-aged desperation. I’d picked my sundress up from the floor of the hotel room that morning, and most of my hair had been shoved into a messy-bun somewhere near the top of my head. And I will admit that I still smelled like gas-station hand soap since I’d literally bathed in it an hour earlier–but it was better than smelling like cat puke, and that had been the alternative.
He uncrossed his arms, a little too stiffly, and I wondered if he had an alarm button beneath the counter–or worse. Maybe I had been loitering a little too long, making calls, ignoring calls, trying to remember how to do breathing exercises with my face plastered against a case of kombucha and cold brew coffee. I made a show of tucking my hair behind my ear so he wouldn’t see that my cheeks were nearly the same color as his shirt.
I picked out an iced-tea and a bottle of water and headed towards the front. There was a display of wine beside the register, and I grabbed the bottle closest to me and planted it on the counter. I’d need it later. For that voicemail, I was sure I got.
“All set?” He still wasn’t smiling. Maybe I smelled worse than I thought.
“Yes, thank you.”
I unzipped my purse and grabbed for my wallet. My stomach dropped to the floor. My glasses were there; my keys were there. Even the coupon Ethan’s reading teacher had given him for a free personal-sized pizza was there. But not my wallet. I plopped my purse on the counter and desperately rooted around the bottom of it. Maybe it was just buried under something. Please, just be buried under something.
“Problem?” If he wasn’t agitated with me before, he was going to be after this. At least his hands were still where I could see them.
“I–um,” I stopped. Good breath in. Plague of locust out. “I think I may have left my wallet on the sink while I was washing off cat puke–“
“You brought your cat on a roadtrip?”
“No.” I found a quarter stuck in the secret pocket of my purse and put it on the counter. It clinked hard against the glass. A little too hard.
He waved me away, which I’m sure was supposed to make me feel better, but only made my cheeks burn more. “Never mind. It’s not worth it.”
“Every sale is worth it.” I pulled out another quarter and a couple of dimes. “Isn’t that what they teach you in business school?”
“I meant for you.” He waved me away again, and my eye twitched. “You look like you’re having a rough day. You want a sandwich to go?”
“I do not want a sandwich to go.” My eyes began to burn as I fished the last few coins from the side pocket of my purse. “I want something to go right.” I slammed the change on the counter and straightened my shoulders. “Just the water, please.”
“Special of the day–buy a water, get an iced tea for free.” He pushed them across the counter, hesitated a moment, and slid the wine beside them. “This, too.”
I shook my head and shoved the wine back across. I’d been a lot of things; a charity case had never been one of them. “I can’t accept that.”
He put his hand up to silence me; it worked. “This place has an echo. On purpose–helps us hear the little shits trying to steal or get someone to buy them booze. Means we hear everything else, too.”
I stared at him, letting his words sink in. He put the bottle of wine in my empty purse.
I nodded and swallowed hard against the lump beginning to form in my throat. I turned to make a humble retreat to my car, but my purse caught on a display, and I pulled everything over in one fell swoop. Everything came crashing to the ground; the energy drinks, bottles of male-enhancement pills, and nicotine replacements scattered across the floor.
My cellphone bounced twice and landed beneath a display of corn chips. I dropped to my knees. I’d survived the past seventy-two hours, but a bottle of wine and some smashed Cheetos were threatening to take me out of the game.
The man practically leaped from behind the counter and gently tugged me up by my elbow.
“I got it,” he said.
“I can do it,” I said, the heat rising from my face. “I apologize. That was careless.”
“Bad place for those.” He handed me my phone. “Better check that. You knocked it a good one.”
“It’s fine. My son put his military-grade case on it for this trip.”
“But you never know about those–“
“–and then tested it by throwing it off our roof. I’m fine.”
I’m fine. I was going to keep saying it until I believed it. He was right; it wasn’t worth it. I plucked my stuff from the litter of aptly-paired bottles and pills and trudged outside.
The sunlight hadn’t warmed my skin before my phone started ringing again. I didn’t care who it was this time. The chirping alone sent a wave of dread over me.
I bounced the phone against my leg, that silicone-encased instrument of torture. The world’s shortest umbilical cord. The more it rang, the harder I bounced it. It started again. And then again. The tenth time it rang, I’d finally had enough, and I raised it to look at it. I swear I only meant to look at it–except I didn’t–I just kept raising it.
And then I let it go.
I stood there, watching it sail over my car, past the roofline of the gas station, past the barriers on the perimeter of the parking lot, until it finally fell out of sight. I put my hand over my mouth and tried not to laugh. So much for stress management.
I tried to find it because I’m not completely crazy. You don’t just throw away your only line of communication when you’re traveling. This is not the 1990s; I didn’t have a map, and payphones weren’t exactly commonplace anymore–not that I’d have any money to pay for those things even if I could find them. I had the address seared into my memory, but I didn’t know where I was going outside of the general location, which is west. And that way–I think.
My phone wasn’t under the only other car in the parking lot, or in the grass, or up against the parking barriers or the trash cans. I saw it land, I saw it bounce, and I am almost positive it went–
The chirping started again. Distant, and strangely echo-y. It rang again, and I followed it until I was on my hands and knees, staring several feet down a sewer drain. Candy’s name stared back at me, which I found somehow fitting. The screen went dark again, and I got up, brushed off my knees and went back to the car. Maybe I could find something to MacGyver my phone from the bottom of a sewer drain.
The car was warm. And smelled like cat puke. I turned the key and rolled down the windows, grateful for the breeze. Maybe I could go back in and ask the man to–what? Pry off the cover and fetch my phone? Call Roadside Assistance? Call David, or Juliet, or even Candy–since those were the only people whose numbers I could remember? I wasn’t admitting failure. And I wasn’t about to tell them where I was.
I couldn’t finish the rest of the trip without that phone. I had no idea where I was, no way of telling anyone I was stranded. Except I wasn’t stranded, I was just silent. But who was going to make sure Ethan got dinner before he went to soccer? What about Juliet’s test next week? Who was going to make sure David filled out the forms for the class trip? If anything, they were stranded.
I sat there, watching the traffic, the silence broken only by the chirping of birds. No more phone calls from Candy. No more silent treatment from Juliet. I ran my hand along the steering wheel. No more David-loaded playlists, full of music I only pretended to like.
I used to watch the shore when I went fishing with my dad when I was a kid. I mean–I had to. I was always worried that some razor-toothed fish would nibble at our anchor and we’d drift away while we weren’t looking and then we’d be lost. And he’d laugh and threaten to cut the line to calm me down because really, what was the worst that could happen? You could go from one edge of the Earth to the other, but it wasn’t like you were going to fall off, right?
There was food in the fridge–entire meals waiting for someone to heat them up. They had clean clothes and snacks and lists and emergency money. They were in better shape than I was, and none of us were in danger of falling off the planet because I wasn’t there to anchor us to it. They were going to be fine.
I was going to be fine.
I put the car in gear and headed for the road because I needed to go west, and west is this way.