The sun was still the ancient enemy here in Arizona in more ways than one, he thought as he stood looking up and down the street, squinting in the glare of a brilliant noonday sun. He was two doorways down from the entrance of the bus station. Stripped of its former glory, the station stood bled white by the sun, all vestiges of pride long since left behind by progress, or what passed for progress in this forgotten stretch of the famed Route 66. He shielded his eyes and peered up and down 3rd St, not sure what he was looking for, but positive he wasn't seeing it.
Letting the duffel slip from surprisingly broad shoulders on such a lanky frame, he began to think about what was next. He wanted to call Ellie, but that would only lead to trouble, mostly for her, but for him as well. She wouldn't let him just dance around what was happening, and he wasn't sure how to answer her questions. He hadn't seen "the big guy" in a couple of days, but that didn't mean he was gone. Hopefully the last switchback in New Mexico had shaken him, but it didn't pay to assume. Much more of "cop-face" and he would be seeing that square jaw and pissed off look in his dreams.
Squatting on his heels, the dusty black All-Stars he wore on his feet seemed oddly out of place in this anachronistic old mining town. Glancing at the well-thumbed bus schedule he had picked up a few days ago, he saw today was only the second day in the three day cycle that the bus kept. He had to decide whether to wait until tomorrow for the bus, or come up with plan B. Plan B probably meant using the monster that had been dropped into his head. He still wasn't sure what it was, or exactly how it worked and he hated relying on it, but at times…
He leaned back against the duffle, watching the unusually calm (for a native Angelino anyway) midday street. Digging a bottle of water out of the bag, he swallowed greedily, realizing he hadn't eaten since the chocolate croissant he had picked up this morning. Casting his mind back to figuring out a plan, he decided to try to catch a ride. There was plenty of traffic over near the interstate, but it just flowed on by this forgotten corner of nowhere. Besides, he wanted (no, needed) to stay away from the main east-west routes where they would probably be looking for him. There were a few cars scattered along the several blocks he could see, and one old truck backed up to the feed store loading dock at the end of the main drag.
Standing up and hoisting up the duffel, he simply started walking. His mind thought back to a road sign he had seen earlier, Arizona 87, heading north toward the high country. Where it took him was anyone's guess, but as he was lacking any better ideas, north it was, for the moment at least. Moving always seemed to work better than sitting still. Sitting made his brain start wandering, and that wasn't always a good thing.
Wandering thoughts inevitably led to why Bryce had done what he had done. He hadn't even seen Bryce in five years. And why had Jill left him for Bryce? For that matter, why had he bailed on Hannah? She had been everything he thought he had wanted, cute, very smart, and very into him. Looking back, it seemed to be going too far too fast, and maybe he had panicked a bit. But then why had he sabotaged what he had going on with Lou? Other than an insane height difference (which was kind of sexy in a very weird way), she had had it all. I mean, she was hot, owned not only her own business, but a DELI, and she was seriously into him too.
There had been too many mistakes in too few years. Sometimes it felt like everything was spiraling away from him entirely too quickly…
"Ahhh, too much thinking gets you in trouble Chuck," he muttered to himself. "Just put one foot in front of the other…"
His long legs ate up the distance quickly, and soon he saw where 3rd St continued on toward the east into the desert, and Hwy 87 turned left, headed north. He had never been to northern Arizona, but the state highway marker triggered a series of images (an old test pattern, an Indian blanket, an abandoned pueblo-style house, a field of flowers) that flashed across his consciousness, and he knew exactly where he was headed. Realizing he had staggered and was leaning against a light pole, he dug in his bag for his water and a bottle of Ibuprofen. Taking a handful of the pain-killers with the last gulp of lukewarm water, he glanced around again, to see if anyone had noticed his "episode". The heavy thud behind his eyes reminded him again of the price of using whatever it was that was parked in his brain.
The feed store and its large dusty parking lot sat almost directly across from the junction he was aiming for. It was the only place in town that seemed to hold any signs of life in the mid-afternoon heat. He glanced over from across the street as he passed, noting several older men, mostly wearing overalls or jeans, with boots and cowboy hats, sitting in the shade of the loading dock overhang. The bell on the door tinkled as another local got out of a faded blue truck and walked into the dark, cool-looking interior of the store. Chuck reached the corner and made his left onto 87 just as the bell over the door tinkled again. He glanced back just in time to see the door of an old black Ford truck chunk shut, bed stacked high with feed sacks, and then heard the dry roar as the healthy sounding V-8 fired to life.
As he walked along, duffel bouncing easily against his side, he wondered again how he knew without a doubt where he was headed. The data upload he had gotten stated that there was a clean safe-house, ready to use, deep in the Navajo reservation. It was a place he knew no one would be looking for him, because only 3 other people in the world knew about it. How did he know that? So many questions, maybe he just wasn't asking the right ones…
He slowed down as he reached a cross street just at the northern edge of town. Glancing to his left to check for any oncoming traffic, he heard the truck from the feed store moving up behind him on his right. Noticing a slight change in the roar of the battered old muffler as the truck approached, he glanced over. The truck slowed as it passed him, and suddenly all he could see was a tangle of wind-swept blond curls, and a dazzling white smile that seemed to be aimed at him. Time seemed to stop for an instant, an instant that could have been an eternity, for Chuck anyway. The spell was broken as the truck accelerated with a roar and a cloud of grayish brown exhaust. Realizing that he was standing slack-jawed, bag hanging askew, he slowly shook the cobwebs from his head and laughed quietly to himself. "That's all you need Chuck, another distraction." In the distance, he watched as the truck turned right and disappeared from sight.
Sighing, he shouldered his bag and set off again. Glancing back for any traffic, he crossed the street, thinking about how much success he would have trying to thumb a ride. It had been quite a few years since Ellie had caught him and Morgan trying to hitchhike down to the beach. That had been a very memorable afternoon, and until the last few days, Chuck hadn't even thought about hitching. Now, it was becoming second nature and he wasn't really sure how he thought about that.
Taking another glance around, looking again for "Cop-Face" (who he was half expecting to be right behind him almost every time he turned around), he began to listen for a car heading north that he could maybe catch a ride with. Still thinking about how mad Ellie had been that afternoon, he almost didn't hear the roar of a truck slowing down as it drove up behind him. Setting a big grin on his face, Chuck turned and started to extend his thumb, intent on charming a farmer into a ride. The grin froze on his face however, and his hand stopped involuntarily, as he recognized the mane of blond hair through the cracked windshield of the truck. He stood there with a goofy look on his face as she rolled to a squeaky stop on the dusty shoulder right beside him.
"Where you headed?" she asked, talking around a hair-tie clenched in her teeth, as she pulled her hair into a quick pony tail, tying it off with a quick flip of a wrist. She stared at him intently, blue eyes under long lashes, a hint of a smile around her generous mouth. ""Hello?" she said, "I asked where you were headed". Her grin widened as he glanced around, not sure that she was talking to him, then managed to stammer, "N-N-North, I'm heading north".
"Well I'm headed north too, need a ride?" she asked, noting the wayward brown curls peeking out from under the blue baseball cap.
He stood, peered around again, then with a quick smile, he reached for the truck door, "Sure, I mean that would be great! Thanks!" Wedging the duffel on the back between some feed sacks, he swung his long legs up into the cab, then turned to her again, his hand out, "Hi, Charles Carmichael, but most people just call me Chuck," he said, managing to sound both confident, and a bit awkward at the same time.
She stared at his hand for an instant, and then meeting his grip with her own, she looked back into what she noticed were very warm, brown eyes with nice smile lines, and replied, "I'm Sarah, it's nice to meet you Chuck."
Sarah said, "There's a couple of bottles of water under your seat there, would you hand me one before we get going?" as she glanced into her side mirror to check traffic before merging back onto the road. "You're more than welcome to one yourself if you're thirsty."
"Thanks, that would be great," he said as he ducked down and felt beneath the seat for the elusive water bottles. Snagging two he started to sit back up just as she pulled back onto the highway. As his eyes came level with the dashboard, he caught a glimpse of a dark blue Crown Victoria, piloted by a large, square-jawed man in a dark suit, blasting into the edge of town. Quickly, he glanced through the back window of the truck, watching for any sign that the Vic was turning around. He watched the brake lights come on momentarily, but then go off again as the driver was just acknowledging the city limits sign he had just passed. Chuck read the name of the town again just as he turned to settle on his half of the truck seat.
"Winslow, Arizona," he thought to himself as he handed Sarah her bottle, "If I never get back here, it'll be too soon."