• Kelly Collins

True North

Sweat drips from my forehead. I swipe at my wet hair trying to get it off my face. Without the humidity in the air, your lungs want to shrivel and die with each breath, add in the heat and you have a recipe for disaster.

Disaster, that’s exactly what I’m facing. Sitting outside of my broken down car on a lonely stretch of highway between Los Angeles and freedom was not my plan. I paid a mere nine hundred dollars for an old Toyota Camry, but I had hoped it would get me more than a few hundred miles outside of L.A. I knew I was in trouble when the oil light came on. I was screwed the minute the check engine light blinked rapidly, and the engine began to sputter. I pushed the green beast as far as it would go and pulled over to the side of the road as it died a slow death. I managed to choke out another mile before it coughed and collapsed, leaving me sitting here on the open highway with the sun high in the sky.

Sweat drips from my chin and lands on my chest. A constant bead of perspiration pools between my breasts. With the car door open, I sit on the torn leather-like upholstery of the driver’s seat, trying to protect myself from the sun. I don’t know what’s worse: the heat, or the feeling of despair.

Only two cars have passed in the same amount of hours. One cruised by while I was peeing behind my car, and one floated by without giving me a second glance. Who does that? Who leaves a woman alone on a deserted highway in 120-degree heat?

I sip on the Gatorade I purchased seventy miles ago. The last town I passed was very small; a gas station was all that it had. I filled up my tank, bought a drink and a Twinkie, and headed north.

Holding my head in my hands, I reflect on the last few weeks. His voice still echoes in my ears.

You fucking bitch, you know that you will never get away with it. How could you ever think you could outsmart me? I am the master planner, not you, not your father. I found you, and I seduced you with promises and sweet words of affection. You were fucking pathetic. Your father was worse. He was so intent on getting a son––any son, that he basically gave me a partnership to marry you.

I shake my head trying to forget it all. That was my past; I have no plans for the future. I’m free now, free of Tyler, free of my treacherous family, and finally free of pain. My immediate plan is to get a ride to the nearest town, get my heap of junk towed, and find a place with air conditioning.

The heat rising from the asphalt gives the road a wavy, wet look. I glance in both directions. Although, I would rather head north, I am willing to go in any direction if it takes me away from here.

In the distance, I see the sun reflecting off something. I have no idea what it is. The last hour, I’ve been like a nomad in the desert, seeing mirages of every type. I stand and stare, hoping beyond hope the reflection morphs into a vehicle of some sort. I’m ready to throw myself into the center of the road to stop anyone.

I watch the glimmer of light in the distance and feel a sense of relief when the distinctive outline of a vehicle becomes clear. I begin to wave my arms wildly, hoping that whoever is driving will see me and stop. The heat is unbearable, and I’m beginning to feel sick to my stomach. I won’t last out here much longer. I’m sweating more than I’m drinking, it won’t be long before I’m past the point of dehydration.

As the vehicle gets closer, I realize by the grill that it is a truck. I jump up and down trying to grab the driver’s attention. The truck whizzes by. I fall to the ground in a heap and cry. With my head hidden in my hands, I shed the tears that have been building up for the last year. I sob uncontrollably. My hope fades as fast as a pair of jeans soaked in bleach. I’m in such a state that I don’t hear the truck approach, or the man driving it walk over to me.

A tap on my shoulder sends me scurrying backward in a spider crawl. My eyes shoot up to a large imposing figure looming in front of me. His shadow gives me much needed respite from the sun, but his presence alarms me. Fear squeezes my chest, forcing my pounding heart to pump harder. Where did he come from?

“Hey, are you okay? I saw you as I passed, but I didn’t react fast enough to stop. I came back.”

In a stupor, I stare up at the man. I have no words. My only reaction is to bury my head in my hands and cry. The stranger kneels beside me and talks softly.

“How long have you been out in this heat? Let’s grab your stuff and get you in my air-conditioned truck. I can take you to the edge of town; there’s a motel there, it’s a dump, but it’s clean. I own the bar across the street. We have cold drinks and hot food.”

I feel his hand wrap around my upper arm and pull me into a standing position. I’m dwarfed by his size. He towers over me in the most terrifying way, and yet I’m relieved that someone has finally stopped to lend a hand. I take my free hand and wipe the snot from my dripping nose. I must look a mess.

“Grab your stuff, we can get Todd to tow your car tomorrow.”

I still haven’t uttered a word; I reach into the car to pick up my purse, and take the keys out of the ignition. It strikes me as funny when I lock up my vehicle. It’s not like someone can hotwire it and drive away. I’m pretty sure the engine has seized up. I have a feeling that this car is on its way to an early burial. I walk to the trunk and open it to retrieve my suitcase. I don’t have much, just the essentials. I left my life behind, and that meant everything I owned stayed there as well. What I do have was purchased at a second-hand store. What I couldn’t find there, I purchased at Walmart. I swing my bag from the trunk and walk to his truck. He sees me struggling to get my bag into the back of the truck and comes over to help me.

“Here, let me get that. You have to be spent. How long have you been out here?” This is the second time that he’s asked me that question. I suppose I owe him an answer. I look at my watch to see the time.

“I’ve been stranded for nearly three hours. No one would stop.” I almost begin to cry again. I catch the sob that is forming in my throat and swallow it down. I’m not sure if I’m swallowing my pride or my sorrow, but either way I could sure use a chaser right now. He puts his hand behind my back and ushers me toward the cab. I feel the air rush out as he opens the door. The frigid air is heavenly. I clamber into the cab and push my face toward the vent. I sit there until he enters the driver’s side.

“Thanks for stopping.”

“No problem. Let’s get you into town. Don’t you have a phone?”

Feeling better, I lean back into the seat and relax. I turn to my left to get a better look at my rescuer. He’s a large man, tall and muscular, with biceps that stretch the cotton of his T-shirt to its limit. His hair is sandy-blond, and his eyes are almost slate blue, maybe gunmetal-grey. If he didn’t have such a gruff look on his face, I would say that he has a kind face. His look is a stark contrast to his demeanor. He seemed pleasant as he was kneeling next to me, but now his questions are coming at me as more of an accusation than an actual inquiry.

“I asked why you didn’t call someone? There is cell service in the area,” he says gruffly.

I stare at him and notice his frown. I’m wondering if stopping for me has put a glitch in his day.

“No, I don’t have a cell phone. My service was canceled, and I didn’t want to set up a new service until I got to where I’m going.” Saying that out loud makes me realize how poorly I planned this trip. There was no planning at all. I grabbed my stuff and ran.

“Where are you going?” He glances toward me and then back at the road.

“I’m not sure at this point, I’m just going. I’ll know when I get there.” It’s the most honest answer I can give. I walked out of the courthouse this morning and over to the used-car lot. I handed over nine, crisp, one hundred dollar bills, and an hour later I drove off the lot and onto Interstate 5. I wound my way around and turned when I felt like turning. I decided to head north, and that’s how I ended up on this patch of highway.

“Are you running from something? Who jumps in the car in the middle of summer with no destination in mind and no phone? Are you out of your mind?” The rough timber of his voice makes me feel like a small child being scolded by an angry parent.

I stare at him with my mouth agape. This man doesn’t know me. How dare he make assumptions about me. I don’t answer him. I look forward and gaze into the distance.

“How far until the next town? What is it called?” I see nothing in the distance and feel grateful that I’m sitting in his cold, comfortable truck.

“We have about ten miles to go. It would have been a very long walk for you – seventy miles back or twenty miles forward. The town is called Sugar Glen, but don’t let the name fool you, it’s anything but sweet.”

Silence fills the truck’s cab for the rest of the trip. I sneak a glance at my rescuer and realize we haven’t even exchanged names. I suppose if he were interested in knowing mine, he would have asked.

I relax for the next few minutes and make up names for him in my mind. If he were a god, I would call him Thor. If he were a superhero, I would say Captain America with his boyish face and manly body. In reality, I bet his name is something simple like Jack, or Tom.

Up in the distance I see another mirage, or maybe it’s the town. I’m not sure at this point. We arrive at the edge of town and true to his word, the first thing we reach is a shabby motel with a bar across the street. The sign above the bar says Last Resort. The motel is called Shady Lane. I would say that is an accurate description for a place on the outskirts of town.

He pulls his truck into the dirt parking lot of the motel and exits. I dread opening the door, knowing that I’m going to get smacked in the face with sweltering heat as soon as I leave the truck. I brace myself and push forward, my body slides from the cab, and my feet hit the dusty dirt lane with a thud. He pulls my bag from the truck bed and sets it on the ground in front of me.

“I’ll send Todd over to get your car, he is the most reasonably priced in town when it comes to towing services. Do you have enough money to get a room for the night?” His behavior is confusing. He totters between hostile and civil. One moment he’s gruff and the next he’s nurturing.

“Of course, I have enough money, how much can it be? It’s not the Hilton for God’s sake.” My nerves are on edge from the heat. I reach down and pick up my bag. “I’m sorry, I should have thanked you. Instead, I was rude. Thank you for picking me up.”

“Okay, well, gook luck.” He turns on his heel and walks around his truck. He climbs in and puts the vehicle in gear. Spinning tires stir up a cloud of dust as he drives away. I was certain he would drive directly across the street to his bar, but he didn’t, he headed deeper into town.”

I watch as he drives away and realize that I still don’t know his name. Picking up my bag, I march myself into the lobby and ask for a room. The woman at the counter is friendly and cheerful. She seems like she could be someone’s grandmother. I have this thing with guessing names. I imagine her name to be something like May or Mavis. She tells me about the facilities, which are limited to a vending machine, the refrigerator filled with strawberry Quik and cheap beer, and the coin-operated washers and dryers. I tell her thanks, but before I leave I ask her name.

“Trudy is my name. Let me know if ya’ need anythin’ else,” she says.

The name Trudy is so far off my radar, but I think I nailed her name as far as similarity. If there were a genre for names, Mavis and Trudy would be in the same category.

I slide my key into the lock of door number three. It’s an actual key, not a keycard, but an honest to goodness key with a plastic, green keychain attached with a big gold 3 etched on the front. The back of the keychain says ‘Shady Lane, where real people come to relax.’ Well, I guess until this moment, I was living a disingenuous life. I thought I was a real person, but when I went somewhere to relax it usually housed a spa, and didn’t sell Mickey Big Mouth beer in a refrigerator of the lobby.

I slowly open the door and walk into my twenty-eight-dollar-a-night dwelling. In all honesty, the place isn’t bad. It smells clean, and it’s air-conditioned. There is a microwave and a small refrigerator. A hotplate sits on the counter.

Priority number one is to take a shower and remove the layers of sweat and dirt that one gets from sitting on the side of the road waiting for a rescuer. Once I’m clean, I collapse on the king-sized bed, glad to be somewhere safe and cool. I pick up the remote and scroll through the channels. I’m tickled that the property has cable. Sitting comfortably against the headboard, I watch two episodes of Chopped. Why the combination of squid, black beans, grape jelly and pork rinds would be appealing, I have no idea. I hear the rumble of my stomach and acquiesce to its need to feed.

I shove all but twenty dollars cash into a spare shoe that I place in the microwave. No one is going to look there if I’m robbed. Shady Lane seems rather shady, and I’m not in the most trusting of moods these days. The jerk at the car dealership told me he would sell the car I bought to his grandmother, that’s how solid performing it would be. Well, he must hate his grandma, or she’s dead. The sleazy dealer should have had a sleazy name like Vinnie, at least that would put people on guard. Nope, his name was Ben. It’s an innocuous name. I would feel safe around guys named Ben.

I stumble into the heat, rush across the street and into Last Resort. I walk into the bar and grill and notice I may be the only female in the place. Adjusting to the dark room after entering from the bright light of day, I find an empty table in the corner. I climb up onto a stool, take a seat, and look around at my surroundings. I would say this is probably what I would have described if you asked me to tell you what my idea of a biker bar looked like. I could have a field day in here making up names for people all day. I can already see the names flash in front of me. Names like Weasel, Frog, and Moose come to mind. The big guy in the corner probably goes by Tiny or Little Al.

Neon signs advertising every type of beer imaginable hang from the walls. The wooden bar seats twelve. Mounted above it is a classic Harley Davidson painted black with shiny chrome accents. The well-worn booths are placed around the perimeter and bar tables with stools are littered throughout the space. Off to the right is a small stage that looks ready for either Karaoke or live music. Directly in front of the stage is a small empty section of worn flooring that would be perfect for three or four couples to dance.

It’s nicer inside than the outside would lead you to believe. I look around at the people occupying the seats. I see mostly middle-aged men with beer bellies and beards. Biker bandanas are tied around nearly half of the balding heads. A younger crowd is seated to my left. Tougher looking men with tattoos and women who look rode hard and put away wet are playing darts and pool. It’s difficult to discern some of the men from the women. All in all, they seem harmless and engrossed in each other.

I lean against the wall and wait for someone to come and take my order. After ten minutes or so I walk to the bar to see if I can get some service. I lean against the wood counter and wait.

“Ring the bell,” says the man to my right. “He’s probably upstairs.” I pick up the bell at the end of the bar and shake it back and forth. Every eye in the room looks toward the sound. I blush under their stares. I hear the thunder of boots coming down the wooden stairs directly in front of me. I watch as the boots turn into a full-grown man.

“Hi, I was waiting for service, but it never appeared. Can I order something from you? I’m starving.” I wait for recognition from him, but he gives me none. He looks at his watch and cusses.

“Damn her, this is it. She was supposed to be here thirty minutes ago. Do you know how to wait tables?” He glowers at me as he waits for my response.

“What? I want to eat, not work. I haven’t eaten since breakfast.” I look at him as he looks around the room.

“I’m thinking you owe me. I need a hand. It’s Friday night, and things are going to get busy here fast.” He tosses me an apron and a wet towel and looks toward the empty table that needs cleaning.

This man once again leaves me speechless. I look at him and then back to the tables. I don’t know what drives me to put the apron on and clean off the tables. Maybe he frightens me, or deep down inside some part of me knows I owe him. Who knows what would have happened to me if he hadn’t stopped. I clean off the tables and make my way back to the bar.

I pile the dirty dishes into the grey plastic bin at the end of the bar and look around for anything else that I can do. My stomach roars so loudly that several people sitting at the bar stare at me. The gruff man, who demanded I work to return his favor, looks down to my stomach and shakes his head.

“You really should take better care of yourself,” he says gruffly. He hands me a menu and says, “Order what you want. I’ll pay you minimum wage and you keep all the tips you earn. It’s going to be busy tonight because we have live music. The band gets here at seven.”

“Okay,” I say meekly. I have no idea what to do. I’ve never waited a table in my life. I’m a software engineer, schooled at USC. “I don’t know how to bartend. Will I need to do that?” I ask.

“Can you draw a beer?” He walks over to the taps and grabs a glass.

“I can draw a beer with a pencil and paper, but to actually pour a beer, no, I haven’t done that.” I raise my hands and shrug. This isn’t my life.

He shows me how to slowly open the tap so the foam doesn’t get too big. Lord knows a man wouldn’t want too much head. I laugh at my errant thought. In what life would a man not want a lot of head? All right, obviously my hunger is making me delirious. I tell him I want a burger and fries and proceed to follow him around the bar. He shows me a list of the most popular drinks and how to make them.

The door opens and we both look up. A sleek-looking, young blonde walks in. She can’t be more than eighteen. She makes a direct line to the bar and looks up at the man standing next to me. She’s all doe-eyed and smiles as she beams at him. He says nothing but nods toward the stairs. She obediently walks up them. She reminds me of a Hannah and so in my mind that’s what I’ll call her.

“I’ll be back in a bit.” He trots up after the young miss “Hannah”.

I stare after them. What the hell is going on here? He’s short-handed, but seems to find the time for a quickie upstairs with a girl who probably just learned to tie her own shoes.

I hear the clicking of a glass on the counter and look in that direction. Standing at the end of the bar is my first customer.

“What can I get you?” I ask as I nervously wipe the counter in front of me. The man sits his beer mug down and tells me to fill it up with Bud. He then orders ten hot wings with blue cheese instead of ranch. I pour his beer and look around to find an order pad. I write the entire order out long hand and ask the man his name. He tells me people call him “Bug”. That’s one I wouldn’t have guessed.

I search around for a window to pass my order thru. The only access to the kitchen is through the swinging door to the right of the bar. A grey-haired cook stands in front of the grill looking at me as I enter his domain.

“Bathrooms are at the other end of the bar, darlin’.” He winks and points to the door.

“I’m temporary help. My name is Alexa Cross, and I have a food order. He looks at the scrap of paper I hand him and begins to laugh. “What? It says exactly what I need.”

“Darlin’, I need you to be less wordy. In an hour, you will be writing one of these every two or three minutes, and I don’t want you to get carpal tunnel your first day on the job.” He pulls me to the prep counter and writes CW 10 BC. “Something like this will do. If I have questions, I’ll ask. Welcome aboard, my name’s Bud, just like the beer, only I am fuller bodied and get better with age.” He chuckles as he opens the freezer to pull out a bag of wings. “Listen for the cowbell. It means you have an order up.”

I walk out the door and into chaos. In the few minutes I was gone, nearly every table has filled up. I reach for the order pad and make my way around the room. I have mentally numbered the tables so that I know what will go where. I begin to pour beer after beer and make my deliveries. In the distance, I hear the sound of a bell and rush to the kitchen to pick up my wings and drop off three more food orders. Bud looks at the tickets and smiles.

“You’re a quick learner. Audrey was a dumbass, and even after six months, she was still tryin’ to figure it out. You should consider stayin’.” He slaps my orders up on the board in front of him and begins to cook.

“Did you get my order of a burger and fries? I will collapse if I don’t eat something soon.”

“Nope, but I’ll whip yours up right away. We can’t have you sprawled out on the floor, the clientele might just use you as a carpet.”

The next hour breezes past me. My pockets are chock full of dollar bills. I now see why so many people turn to waiting tables. You get cash every day, and your checks are just a bonus. Most servers don’t make minimum wage though, they typically get a substandard hourly rate that when added to their tips makes for something just above the poverty level. I wonder if Mr. Bar Owner always pays minimum wage, or if he is paying me more because he shanghaied me into helping him out tonight.

I hear the clomp of heavy shoes on the stairs, and my eyes go directly to the place where little miss prom queen “Hannah”, and the nameless man disappeared. As he descends the steps, I see him buttoning up his shirt. Of course he is, he doesn’t even have the courtesy to fully dress himself upstairs. I bet he left her naked and wanting while he got what he wanted––what he needed. You can’t punish all men because Tyler was an ass, my inner voice reminds me.

“How are things going?” He adjusts his belt as he takes his place behind the bar.

I narrow my eyes at him. I have no idea how things are going. I’ve done the best I can. I inhale deeply, catching a whiff of him as he passes by me. He smells fresh and clean, like soap and leather. I inhale his scent and let it cleanse my senses.

“I’ve broken two glasses and dropped one order of wings, but I’m getting the hang of it. I need to eat or I won’t be able to continue. Bud made me a burger that’s getting cold in the back. Can you watch things out here for a minute while I swallow it whole?”

“Yes, and take your time. I’m sorry I forgot to put your order in.” He looks genuinely unhappy with himself.

“No problem, I can see that your mind was elsewhere.” I look toward the stairs before I dash into the kitchen.

Nearly seven hours later, he locks up the front doors as the last patron departs. I wipe the tables and sweep the floor before I walk up front to leave.

“I’m out of here, you’ll have to re-lock the door behind me,” I call out to him.

“Wait up. I’ll walk you across the street. You don’t want to exit a bar alone this late at night.” He shuts the cash register drawer he was counting and walks me outside. He pulls three twenties out of his pocket and puts them in my palm. His hand is warm, almost hot. I feel him shift his palm and place it on the small of my back as he ushers me across the street.

“Thanks,” I say. I suppose I can use this to pay for my car to be towed. I meant to put towing on my insurance, but it slipped my mind.

“Listen, today was a crazy day for me. I had a lot of things going on, and I wasn’t the most pleasant of people. I apologize. I don’t think I even asked your name. I’m Zane.”

“I’m Alexa. It’s nice to meet you, Zane. Thanks for the ride, a meal and the job.” I offer my hand for him to shake. He looks at my hand and then back at me. He doesn’t offer me his hand in return. What a strange guy. Who names their kid Zane? I’m not doing well in the name game these days. I would have never come up with that one.

“Since you are going to be here for a few days, why don’t you fill in at the bar? I could use the help, and you can probably use the money. It doesn’t look like Audrey is coming back, so I have an open position. If I recall, you are going wherever the wind blows you, so it’s not like you have any commitments. Why don’t you let the wind settle here for a few days?” He gives me a questioning look. I almost see a bit of pleading in his eyes. Oh, those blue-grey eyes. I can see why the little blonde got all doe-eyed in his presence. He’s the perfect mix of boy-next-door and bad-boy with a dash of mystery thrown in.

“Why don’t you use the other girl that came in tonight? She appears to be happy to help you out in whatever way she can.”

“I need her for other things. Besides, she’s not old enough to serve liquor. Just give me a few days. I can really use the help.”

I bet he needs her for other things I think to myself, as I remember the young blonde who walked upstairs and never returned. Curiosity gets the better of me and I find myself saying yes before I can think things through.

“All right, what time do I need to be there tomorrow night?” I have nothing better to do so, why not?

“How about six to close; same pay, same deal. See you tomorrow, Alexa.”

“See you tomorrow, Zane.” I put my key into the lock and turn the knob. He waits until I’m safely inside before he walks across the street. I peel back the curtain and watch as he walks away. I watch as his long legs stride across the street and disappear into the bar. The man is a mystery.

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