Alright people, here we go again. This story is dedicated to two wonderful people that I had the pleasure of spending one crazy week with. To Maggie, honey, I'd get lost with you anytime, and to Fredo, mi popout es su popout, okay so I know it's spanish but French is frickin' hard. Enjoy ladies ;)
Author's Chapter Notes:
Hey a big thanks goes to Bullet for her quick beta and encouragment - ;)
Earl set the handbrake in place and eased back in his seat, grateful that the parking lot was pretty much deserted. All he wanted right now was some hot coffee, followed up by a good meal. Then he planned on getting back on the road. He had miles to go before he could allow himself an honest rest. For now he'd have to make do with a pit stop.
As he threw open the door of his Mack truck and climbed down out of the high cab, he breathed deep, enjoying the warm, fragrant spring night. The trip so far had been a pleasant one, no rain, mild weather, and minimal traffic. Well, minimal for the eastern corridor, he amended to himself.
Ready for a jolt of caffeine, he set off for the bright lights of the Panhandle Restaurant. The low sprawling building was actually a combination, eatery and store. It boasted gas pumps out front and a parking lot large enough to accommodate even the biggest of tractor trailers. Earl had been here many times and had always found the location to be handy, the service to be good, and the food to be some of the best in the area.
At the entrance of the mini-mart, he couldn't help but look back and swell with pride for the big machine he'd just left. He had owned the sleeper cab for over seven months now, but the sight of the gleaming blue paint twinkling in the moonlight still caused him to drool like a dog with a bone.
A familiar voice greeted him as he entered the brightly lit mini-mart that made up the larger half of the truck stop.
"Earl, it's been too damn long," The buxom redhead's grin was bright as she called out her greeting.
"Hey there Flo," he replied, his face creasing into his own genuine smile. "I've been out west a lot lately. I just began working the east coast again. I couldn't pass up stopping by for a bit of Carl's coconut crème pie."
The older woman tossed Earl a wink and gestured toward the large doorway that led to the restaurant. "He made a couple fresh this morning, there should be a piece or two left."
"Sounds good, Darlin', I'll catch up with you before I leave," Earl said tipping the black cap on his head toward the older woman.
"I'll hold you to it, honey," she replied before turning back to the magazine she held in her hand.
He'd been stopping at this rest stop for over fifteen years now, and Flo had been a fixture behind that low counter for most of that time. As anyone that made a living traveling the highways could tell you, when you came across a place with good food and even better people you made every effort to get back to it. There were simply too many roadside grab shacks that were little more than dumps to pass up on the few good places.
Anxious for a hot coffee, Earl crossed the open foyer, his gaze fixed on the opening of the restaurant. The diner was owned and operated by Carl and his wife Connie, the two of them were fixtures of the Panhandle. Despite the fact that they could probably retire in style at this point, they still worked the restaurant seven days a week.
Already anticipating the chicken fried steak he was planning on ordering, Earl never heard the step behind him. In fact, he had no clue anything was amiss until an arm slipped around his throat, drawing him back against a solid chest. Quicker than he could react, a sharp pain slipped across his throat. The last thing he registered, before he slipped into darkness with a last gurgling breath, was the slightly exotic smell of freshly baked coconut crème pie.
"How's your West Wing marathon going?" Karen called back as she glanced in her rear view mirror at the small glowing square that hung from the ceiling of her mini-van.
Frannie edged forward a big grin on her face as she replied, "I love this van. Joshua Lyman looks good even on a tiny screen."
From the passenger seat, Melanie leaned back, trying to see the screen that faced the back seat. It was only a moment before she sat back up, closing her eyes tight. "Ugh, I don't know how you can watch TV in the car."
Out of the corner of her eye, Karen watched as her long-time friend swallowed hard. Quickly she focused her gaze back on the dark, deserted road before her. "If you're gonna puke, you gotta tell me now, Mel. I'm a sympathy vomiter, I swear, if you throw-up in my car I'm gonna have to abandon it. I'd have to just leave it on the side of the road and walk away."
Frannie leaned forward from the back seat and added her opinion, "That's a smell that just doesn't come out. You can scrub all you want, but the first hot day it'll just—"
"I'm not gonna throw-up. At least I won't as long as you guys stop talking about it," Mel replied, exasperation tingeing her words as she glared at the grinning blond.
Confident that a change in subject was due, Karen gazed fondly at the small rectangular box that was perched upon the dashboard of her mini-van. Her GPS, nicknamed 'Lola' indicated that they would make their destination with plenty of time to spare. "We're doing good, girls, we should have no problem making it to Barb's for breakfast."
"So, who's betting Barb's ghost hunters have their own theme song?" Frannie asked with a laugh, referring to the house party they were on their way to.
Two weeks ago they'd all received e-mails from Barbara, a friend from college, inviting them to her house in upstate New York for a long weekend. According to the invite, a team of paranormal investigators was going to do a search on her place to see if there were any signs of ghosts in the hundred-year-old home.
"Oh, god, do you think they will. How funny would that be," Karen joked, unable to imagine just what would lead people to believe that ghosts really existed.
"Yuck it up, you two, but it's actually going to be really cool. Plus, these guys are going to try and prove there are no ghosts at Barb's," Melanie defended. Karen knew that unlike Frannie and herself, Melanie honestly believed in ghosts, or at least she was open to the possibility.
Though Karen was far from a believer in the supernatural, she'd been thrilled at the chance to hit the road with her friends. The six-hour road trip to Barbara's was well worth the effort in order to have an official 'girls' weekend.
In total there would be six women descending on Barb's place. They had all attended college together, and while in school, they'd formed a tight knit group that had survived long after the ink on their diplomas had dried. After graduation, each of them had gone their separate ways, spreading out across the country to pursue careers and family. Gwen and Laura, the other two ladies attending would be meeting up in Ohio and would drive on to Barb's place together.
Since they had graduated, the six of them had managed to meet up more often than not. Especially over the last couple years when there'd been a rash of marriages. The internet and e-mail had made it easy to keep up the long distance relationships, ensuring that they were even closer to each other than when they'd spent every day in each other's pockets.
Karen, Frannie and Mel had all settled within a couple of hours from each other, Karen being the center point for each of the other girls. Her location had made her the natural choice of driver for this little expedition, and really she couldn't say that she minded a bit. As a mother of three overly rambunctious kids, she had welcomed the chance for a break from the every day monotony of her life. Striking out with her girlfriends, on a trip guaranteed to be filled with laughter and fun, was something she wouldn't have missed for anything.
Content for the moment to just cruise, Karen upped her speed a bit confident that there was no one else on the highway but her. Even the threat of a ticket wasn't enough to back her speed down, after all, it'd been a good long while since she'd been pulled over, her record could withstand a couple points.
"Yeah," Karen asked glancing over at Melanie not liking the hesitation in her tone. She'd only been half-way kidding when she'd said she didn't do well with vomiting.
"I have to pee," the redhead blurted.
Karen rolled her eyes and ground out, "What happened to the 'we're not stopping every ten minutes' speech Mel. I warned you."
"I know," Melanie groused, "but I can't help it. Plus," she added in a weaker voice, "I think I'd better pick up some Dramamine. I don't feel so hot."
Frannie chimed up from the backseat, "Mel, this is the second stop since we got on the road. At the rate we're going, we're never gonna make it to Barb's on time."
"There's no one on the road but us and Karen's going super-sonic. I think we can spare five minutes so I can pee. I swear it'll be the last time."
"I'm telling ya, we keep stopping five minutes so Miss "I've got a bladder the size of walnut' can pee, we're going to end up hitting rush hour traffic just as we reach Barbara's place," Karen grumbled even as she began scouring the dark highway for some sign of civilization.
Despite her complaining, Karen really didn't mind the extra pit stops. After all, they were on an adventure and what good is exploring if you didn't stop to check things out every now and again. It was one of the reasons she'd insisted on getting such an early start on their trip.
She only wished that what she was exploring was something a little more interesting than the inside of a truck-stop bathroom. "Start looking for somewhere to stop, Mel, or else ask Lola."
Mel leaned back with a little sigh and said, "I saw a sign a few miles back, it was for someplace called the Panhandle. We can stop there."
"The Panhandle, huh, sounds like a happening place," Frannie said as she sat back to resume her show.
Karen pushed the accelerator down a bit more and concentrated on finding Mel her pit stop. She wanted to be in and out and back on the road again before the engine had a chance to cool.
"Huh, that's weird?" Karen said, as she eased off the accelerator and guided the van onto the off ramp.
"What's up?" Frannie asked as she leaned forward once more.
Just then they all heard a chime and Lola spoke, "Off route, recalculating."
"She's bound to re-calculate, as far as she's concerned we just made a wrong turn," Mel added as she gazed at the small screen.
Karen shook her dark head and frowned as she slowed even more, adjusting her speed for the sharp curve of the ramp. "It's not that, when I took the exit it looked as if we were driving through a field."
Again, Lola's smooth computer generated voice said, "Off route, re-calculating."
A glance toward the GPS, showed that it was indeed trying to pick up their current location. The arrow that indicated the van, was currently making its way through what looked like uncharted land, rather than the road they were on.
"Huh, that is weird. Maybe this roadway's new, Kar, you did say your software is a bit out of date."
Frannie's solid explanation helped to set Karen's mind at ease. Of course that was what was wrong, her mapping software wasn't aware that an exit had been added to the highway.
"Flip her off for now, Mel, we'll turn her back on when we leave."
Mel reached forward and flipped off the GPS, as Karen turned off the TV. They had made it to the end of the ramp and now had no choice but to go right.
"If you say that's weird, I'm gonna freak out. What now?" Frannie said with a laugh.
"Just that sign back there, it said we could go left and listed a bunch of hotels, or right to the Panhandle, only it looks to me as if we have no choice, it's the Panhandle or nothing."
"What's the difference, it's the truck stop we want anyway," Mel asked as she pointed toward the large neon sign they were now approaching.
The sight of the sign seemed to ease some of the tension that had gripped Karen. Standing at over a hundred feet high, it had to be clearly visible to the surrounding area. The sign featured a large iron skillet complete with two sunny-side up eggs and a couple of strips of bacon.
"This is it?" Melanie asked her question bringing Karen's attention back to the roadway.
Confident that they were the only one's around, Karen slowed to a near halt as the three girls stared up at the entrance to the truck stop. Two bright halogen lights lit up the night, making shadows out of the scrubby terrain and giant boulders. There was a steep, two-lane entrance that disappeared up and out of sight, the road that led to the Panhandle looked as if it had been carved through the side of a mountain.
"Up we go," Karen said as she nosed the car up the entrance.
As the car pulled up the hill, Karen's unease began to grow. They really seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. At last, as they neared the top, the glow of the parking lights began to welcome them, making her feel at least a little safer.
"We stick together, you got me," she said, in a tone that was not to be ignored. "Truck stops are usually okay, but, this one looks nearly deserted and we're in the middle of nowhere."
"Yes, Mom," Mel and Frannie answered in unison.
Karen didn't rise to the bait, she didn't care if they teased her about being overly protective, she only cared that one of them wasn't snatched by an ax murderer. "You can 'yes mom' me all you want just make sure you stick close."
As Karen parked, she noticed only a few vehicles in the lot. One of which was an eye-catching big-rig painted electric blue. "Shall we," she called to her friends as she climbed out of the van.
"…it seems to me…we're on the road to nowhere," Dean sang putting emphasis on the lines road to nowhere.
"Turn it down, Dean, I get the point," Sam snapped as he once again aimed his flashlight at the map on his lap.
Dean leaned forward, cutting off Ozzy just before the refrain and said, "I just figured it was appropriate given the fact that we're traveled the length of this road three times and have yet to find anything."
"It's here, I know it is."
One glance at his brother's pitiful expression had Dean regretting his harshness. The last few weeks had been hard ones, especially for Sam. His nightmares had reached epic proportions and ever since Dean's brush with death he had a feeling he was a nightly fixture in most of them.
"Okay, give it to me again. Why are we driving in circles?" Dean's actions fit his words as he took the exit that Sam indicated and then promptly got back on the roadway going north bound this time.
Sam flipped open the notepad in his hand and began reading, "Okay, fourteen people have disappeared on this stretch of road over the last ten years, always on the night of May 18th."
"How many each year?" Dean questioned as he kept his gaze on the road.
"It alters every year. Last year it was three, the year before it was only one. There's even been years when no one goes missing."
"So, what? You thinking something's grabbing them?"
Sam hesitated, his unease clear. "This stretch of highway came up clear. No major fatalities, well excluding the missing, and as you've seen there are no exits between mile markers 16 and 40."
Dean blew out a breath at his brother's lack of hard evidence. "So basically, we're trolling this highway hoping that whatever snatched the others'll give us a go."
Sam's shame-faced grin made it clear that Dean's assessment wasn't far off the mark.
"Alright, then, so long as we're clear," Dean muttered as he focused once more on the road ahead.
"It's nearly two a.m., Sam, any clue when your boogeyman's gonna strike?" Dean asked as he made his way north on route eighty-six once again.
"I'm thinking it's a bust," Sam said as he bit his fingernails, worrying the nails to the quick.
Uneasy with the idea of giving up, Dean made a decision. "We'll keep going. Not like we have anywhere else to be."
"Dean, stop!" Sam shouted the command sounding eerily like their dad.
Acting out of instinct, Dean slammed on the breaks, thankful that there was no one else on the deserted stretch of highway.
"Go back, Go back," Sam said as he twisted on his seat to see behind them.
"Crap, Sam, you wanna give me a bit more notice next time you decide you need me to stop," Dean snapped as he glanced out the rear window and backed the big, black car up.
"Sorry, but I saw…well, look," he said as he pointed out his window.
"Well, I'll be damned," Dean murmured as he stared at the sign lit up by the Impala's headlights.
"Panhandle Restaurant, gas and mini-mart, three miles," Sam read.
"We've been all over this road at least sixty times. That sign wasn't there before."
Sam glanced toward his brother with a slight grin and a shrug of his shoulders. "It's here now."
Dean put the car in gear and started forward. "I guess we're heading for the Panhandle, best truck stop in the tri-state."