March 26, 2021
I Contain Multitudes - Second Place Winner of the 2020 First Chapter Contest
By Christopher Hawkins
They slowed the car down just enough that she didn’t break anything when she hit the pavement. Lights flared red as the car screeched to a halt, and Trina dusted herself off, wondering if they might throw the thing in reverse and come back at her. They didn’t. They only sat with the passenger door open, revving the engine, daring her to follow them until they were sure that she wouldn’t. Tires spun dirt at her and she kicked it back as the car lurched forward and the door swung closed. She shouldered her backpack and watched them go until the lights were gone, leaving her dirty and sore at the edge of the cracked blacktop.
The road stretched out ahead and behind without a break or a bend in sight, like a string pulled taut across the sandy earth. They couldn’t have picked a worse place to leave her if they’d tried, with the sky growing dark and the low hills of the desert surrounding her on all sides. If she was caught out here, there’d be nowhere to hide, no water to cross. None to drink either, though she figured she’d be able to make it to the next turning. If she was going to get caught, chances were it would have happened by now. Either way, she wasn’t going back until she had to, and that left her no choice but forward.
She imagined it was possible she’d run across the kids in the car at some stop somewhere up the road. There’d been three of them, two girls and a guy whose names she hadn’t bothered to remember, and she’d been desperate enough to say yes when they offered her a ride. They’d seemed okay at first, but they hadn’t gone more than three miles before the blonde one started eyeing her up like they wanted to rob her or worse. Trina had told them to stop, and after another mile they almost did, which was good enough. They wouldn’t last, but the ache in her shoulder would, and it would keep her from taking any more reckless chances.
She walked for more than an hour before she saw the light of the sign bleeding up into the starry sky, and almost an hour more before she stood beneath it. It was one of those old-fashioned neon jobs with the letters spelled out in loops of glowing glass tubes. Next to it sat a single-story building with a flat roof and a handful of doors that opened directly onto the parking lot. The kids’ car wasn’t in that parking lot, but it wouldn’t have made a difference if it had been. She was tired enough that it didn’t matter that the place made her itch just looking at it. There was nowhere else for miles, and the word VACANCY still meant what it always had. It blinked at her in blue, the electric buzz of the thing drawing her in like a bug zapper drew in flies.
The manager’s office was a grim cubicle lined with peeling wallpaper and cloudy windows. A ceiling fan turned lazily, stirring the musty air, and a bug trap in the corner of the floor turned the itch into something more like crawling. Still, it was better than going back to the road. She leaned against the chipped Formica countertop and was just about to ring the bell when a door opened and a squat man lumbered in, leaving the sound of a flushing toilet behind him.
“Forty-five,” he said, not bothering to wait for her to ask, not bothering to meet her eye. She pulled a wad of brightly-colored bills out of her pocket, and it took her a while to find the right ones. The man counted them against the curve of his stomach and let out a little grunt to let her know she’d gotten it right. He wore a faded short-sleeve shirt, its buttons straining, and he had a tattoo on one forearm in the shape of a lightning bolt. He slid the guest book toward her and slapped a key down on top of it. She took the key and signed the book with a name that wasn’t her own.
“Ice machine’s busted,” he said. “Checkout’s at noon or I charge you for another night. No guests, no funny business, yeah?”
She nodded, but the man had already turned away.
- - -
The room was no worse than the front office had led her to expect, with wood-paneled walls and shag carpet and a lamp with a bulb she had to fiddle with before it would light up. The sheets were old and had cigarette burns on their edges, but they smelled like they’d been washed recently, and after the road even a lumpy mattress seemed like a luxury.
She washed her face in the slow trickle of water from the bathroom faucet. The mirror was cracked, but she had no use for it anyway, and the shower looked like it was held together with sloppy ropes of caulk that had long since crusted over with mildew. She could smell herself through her clothes, but getting clean could wait until morning. In the morning, there might even be soap.
She kept her jacket on, afraid that she might lose it, and flopped down on top of the bedspread. Ancient springs groaned beneath her, and she took comfort from the sound, from the squeaky insistence of it, the very realness of it. She pulled her backpack close and curled herself around it, as if it were an egg, just ready to hatch. As the sound of the springs gave way to the rhythm of her breathing, her last thoughts were of flowers, and of wrinkled hands wrapped over her own. She smiled, because she could see the flowers in her mind as clear as if they were right in front of her, fat peonies, each one with petals like a burst of fireworks. She smiled, because in her mind the flowers were blue.
- - -
When she awoke, the angle of the sun through the window blinds let her know that she had slept through most of the morning. She remembered the manager’s warning about checkout time, but she knew at once that the manager wasn’t there anymore. The mattress didn’t groan as she stood up. She pushed down to test it and found that the lumps were gone, the sheets no longer thin and full of holes. In the sunlight, the room was bright, with white-painted walls and an abstract painting in a silvery frame hanging across from the bed. Better, it was clean, and she wasted no time taking off her shoes to feel the carpet beneath her bare feet.
When she turned the bathroom tap, the water came out strong and cold. She cupped her hands beneath it and drank until her stomach hurt. This time there were towels that looked fluffy and unused, and there were soaps--little squares wrapped in paper--sitting on top of them. She pulled some cleanish clothes from her backpack and kept them perched on top of the toilet lid, watching them warily as the grime and weeks of road dust spiraled down the drain between her feet. As she scrubbed, she thought of the teenagers in the car. She wondered if she had ever been that young. Surely, she couldn’t be that much older, but if time still had any meaning, she’d lost it long ago. Her fingertips found the raised ridges on her skin, little scars on her arm, on her stomach, but she had long since stopped wondering how she had gotten them.
There was a diner across the road from the motel that hadn’t been there when she’d checked in. It sat in the middle of a row of aging brick buildings that crowded the wide sidewalks. Shining cars with high tailfins wrapped in chrome crept by in the street as sharp-suited men wound their way between them. On the far side of the street, a woman in sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat was being pulled along by a terrier on a leash. It was all so bright that Trina had to squint to look at them, but her eyes kept returning to that diner, to the white and orange striped awnings over its windows. Her stomach gave a little turn as the smell of frying bacon came to her on the breeze, and she decided that she could afford to linger here, if only for a little while.
The place had hand-lettered signs in the windows and a little bell that tinkled as she opened the door. She found a booth away from the windows where she could see the entrance and tried to lose herself in the cushions as she checked her pockets to see if she still had anything in them that might pass for money. The waitress poured her coffee without asking. She wore a white apron over a lime-green uniform that should have gone out of style forty years ago, but seemed perfectly in place among the vinyl-backed seats and metal barstools.
“Is there a bus stop, or a train station somewhere around here?”
“I suppose that depends on which way you’re headed,” the waitress said.
“I don’t know yet. Anywhere.”
“Well, it’s like they say, if you don’t know which way you’re going, any road’ll get you there. But if you go south on Main Street here, there’s a bus depot that’ll give you some options. If you’ve got a mind to stay though, we’ve got a mean pot pie on the dinner menu tonight. Fresh mushrooms. Cook brings ‘em in special.”
The waitress took her order, punching holes into a strip of paper with a metal stylus, and walked away, red ponytail swaying against her back. Trina wondered if the waitress had gone to bed the same way she had last night. Was this just another day to her? Just one in a series of days, each one so much like the last that they blurred together in her memory, familiar but indistinguishable? Would her tomorrow be the same?
A little girl peeked at her over the back of the next booth, dark ringlets of unruly hair hanging down over eyes that were gone as quickly as they’d appeared. Trina scanned the other tables, trying to see what they used here for money. There was a crumpled collection of paper strips in her jacket pocket, probably what was left over after she’d paid for the room last night. None of them had denominations on them, but she knew it wouldn’t be enough.
When her food finally came, she pulled the plate close and hunched over it with her fork in her fist. There were potatoes and bacon, with a whole plate of pancakes and eggs that still tasted like eggs. They made a dense little ball in her stomach, but she kept going anyway. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten, and didn’t know when she’d be able to again. She caught a man looking down his glasses at her from two tables over, but she paid him no mind. In a few hours he’d be gone anyway, gone with all the rest of it.
When she reached for the water glass she saw that the little girl was there again. Her eyes were a dark brown and her face was smeared with jelly. She smiled down at Trina, and it was as if someone had turned on a light in a darkened room. Trina put her hands over her eyes and the girl ducked back down, giggling. When she took her hands away, the girl was back, bouncing with excitement, the tight curls of her hair dancing around her face. Trina smiled back, watching until she disappeared again, tugged down by her shirt by a mother who didn’t even bother to turn around.
Trina tugged the paper placemat out from under her plate, and found a map on the other side. It was made for kids to color in crayon, with big block lettering and a cartoon truck driver smiling out of the window of his cab. But apart from the kiddie trappings, it was almost exactly like a map she had seen three weeks ago on the wall of a train terminal. Some of the roads were different, but the basic layout was the same. She found the familiar spot near the north edge where two of the larger roads merged into one and rubbed an X into it with the edge of her fingernail.
The little girl rose up again, moving slow with mischief in her eyes, making the two of them co-conspirators. Trina laid a finger across her lips, and the little girl bit back a giggle as her whole body started to tremble. Trina tried to smile back, but couldn’t quite manage it this time, not before the little girl’s mother spun her around and sat her back down again.
Should she tell them, she wondered? Should she take the mother aside and whisper the truth into her ear, that she should grab onto her daughter and old her tight while she still could? Would it make one difference either way, when the change came, when this diner and the waitress in her uniform and the curls in the little girl’s hair blew away on the wind as if they’d never been there at all?
She turned back to the map, and kept her head down as she tried to work out the distances. There was a wide arrow in the center of the paper with a drawing of the diner sitting beside it. The road she needed to take wasn’t the same one as the night before, but the miles seemed mostly the same. If she started out now, if she could get to the bus depot and find one going that way without any stops, she might just make it this time.
She looked up, hoping the little girl would come back, but the little girl wasn’t there. She and her mother were gone, and they had left a little stack of the paper strips on the table in among the dirty plates. Trina thrust them into her pocket when no one was looking, and hurried out the door.
- - -
Across the street there was a little bookshop with fading hardcovers in the window and green peeling paint around the door. Wind chimes hung from the awning, tinkling and dancing in the breeze. A little cart with a taped-on sign advertised the books it held as One for a Tad, Three for a Shred. She felt the wad of papers in her pocket, and thought for a moment about buying one. She didn’t have time to waste, though, and needed all she had for the road ahead. Still, something kept her lingering in that doorway, a nagging at the base of her skull, an insistent tingle that she had learned to trust.
She saw it a moment later, a tall silhouette with long, spindly limbs. It stood beneath a tree at the edge of the town square, a figure not clad in black, but made of black. It seemed not so much a man, but a dark hole in the shape of a man, empty, as if someone had cut a paper doll out of the world.
Trina ducked back in the doorway, and watched it as it looked out at the crowded street, its head tracking from side to side, searching for her. It hadn’t seen her yet, but it was only a matter of time. It was the tall one, the one she had named The Thin Man. It was standing alone, but where there was one of them, she knew too well that the others weren’t far behind.
She waited for a group of people to pass and began to walk away, taking care not to go too fast, taking care to keep pace with the crowd, to use them to shield her from view. The thing seemed to sense her movement and set off towards her, moving with slow, deliberate strides. When she looked back, she could see its borders shifting and shimmering like heat rising from a desert road. No one reacted to its presence, but still they altered their paths to stay out of its way, passing it by inches and never seeming to notice.
Trina turned the corner, and when she was sure it couldn’t see her, she started to run. There was no one to hide behind here, but she could see an alleyway up ahead. If she could make it there without being seen, she figured she might just have a chance. A pickup truck trundled out from that alleyway and paused before turning onto the street. She hopped into the back and flattened herself down against the tailgate. By the time The Thin Man reached the corner, she was already halfway down the road.
- - -
The back of the truck had been stacked with boxes, so the driver didn’t notice her until they were the better part of a mile out of town and past all signs of civilization. She muttered an apology when he pulled the truck over, but he waved it away and asked her which way she was headed. When she pointed east, he smiled and said that he could take her as far as Midlington. She checked the map and told him that would be okay.
The guy looked older than she was by more than a few years, but he was handsome behind the black stubble on his chin and he seemed harmless enough. He had a nice smile and when he asked her where she had come from, he listened, even though she could tell that he knew she was making it all up. There was something in the way he looked at her, not just looking but really seeing. She hadn’t been seen like that in a long time.
When she left him later that night, snoring softly on the narrow bed in his one-room apartment, she dressed in the dark without looking back. She couldn’t risk seeing that his face wasn’t the one that had smiled at her from the driver’s seat of that pickup truck. She couldn’t risk finding out that the man in the bed didn’t remember her at all.
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