"Stupid piece of crap!" Fists clenched, I scream, and kick the flat Michelin so hard that pain shoots through my foot. Whimpering, I pull the cell phone from my pocket. No reception. My jaw clenches, but before I verbalize my colorful thoughts, my father's voice whispers in my ear: "You're stranded two hours on a deserted highway and you wonder why your cell phone still doesn't work. How stupid can you get?"
I whirl, breath caught in my throat. He's not there. Nothing is—just giant cactus, sand, and miles and miles of empty road. All I see in either direction are heat waves shimmering above the asphalt. My eyes dart to the trunk … closed. "Get a grip, girl," I tell myself then fold my hands to calm their shake.
Fear takes the form of a pounding heart and an acrid taste in my mouth when I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye. It's just a lizard skittering across the sand. I pick up a rock and throw it at the damned thing, but I miss. I hate things that skitter.
Wiping perspiration from my lip, I'm careful not to snag the fresh piercing. Wait. Do I hear a car?
Moments later an old, dust-covered station wagon pulls up beside me. The female who rides shotgun wears a bitter, down-in-the-mouth expression. It suits her. Dark eyes widen as they travel from my dyed black hair to the pierced eyebrows, over my nose ring, and across the three studs in my lips. No, lady, I'm NOT dressed for Halloween I think, but I keep quiet. The woman's mouth has fallen open. Her eyes continue downward to my white blouse and plaid-skirted uniform that I hate with a passion. They come to rest on my right leg – the one with the sacrilegious tattoo. The air she sucks in hisses over her teeth. She turns away, mutters something then stares straight ahead.
It's an interesting reaction, although tame compared to my father's. A glance down at my wrists reveals lingering bruises, reminders of Dad's response to the blasphemous artwork. The memory of his offended rage brings an inward smile.
The driver grunts then reaches over the woman to crank the window the rest of the way down. His blue eyes seem kind. He looks nothing like the person the Bible says I'm supposed to honor . . . yet something about the blonde man is unpleasantly paternal. Unseen fingers tap at the base of my neck and traipse down my spine.
When the man offers me a lift, I hesitate then refuse with a shake of my head. "Are you sure?" His expression is concerned, but his next words make me feel stupid—a thing dear old Dad accomplished daily. "It's a good thirty miles in either direction to the next town; it wouldn't be wise for you to stay out here all alone."
What business is it of his? There's no way I'm getting in a car with this jackass! I pull out my cell phone and wave it in the stifling air. "Thanks anyway, but I just talked to my father. He'll be here any minute."
Two hours later I'm startled out of a fitful sleep when a car horn blasts behind me. Damp hair matted to my forehead, I get out of the front seat wearing a scowl. Arms spread, I yell, "What?"
A stocky man with a poor excuse for a mustache exits the Escalade. The shape of his face reminds me of Casper the Friendly Ghost, only this guy has hair. His eyes are drawn to my flat tire. "Um, sorry," he says as he rubs sweat off his thick neck. "I just thought maybe you needed help."
He's got chubby cheeks, just like Dad's.
"I'm alone," the man says as he puts his hands in front of his chest, palms out. "But don't worry; you're completely safe. I stopped because I hate to see a lady in trouble, especially one so young. You don't even look old enough to drive."
I'm not; I turned fifteen last week, but that's none of his damned business. Staring at his odd face, I think If Dad were here, he'd ask this goofy-looking guy how stupid could he be for driving a big SUV when a sedan is so much smarter. My father used to tell anyone who'd listen that if he had his way, SUVs would be outlawed. Yeah, if he ruled the world, I wouldn't have been the only one who got screwed.
"If you want me to change that flat for you, you'd better let me know quick," Casper says, arms folded across his chest. He's tapping his foot. "I have to get back on the road soon; I still have a lot of driving ahead of me."
This time, I don't hesitate; I wave my cell and say my father is on his way.
It's late afternoon now and the lack of food and water is making me loopy. My throat's dry, and I'm quite possibly on the brink of dehydration. "How long am I going to be stuck in this particular hell," I say into the motionless air. My voice is gravelly which tells me I've been screaming again, although I don't remember. I hope I can dial it down.
A glance in the rearview mirror reveals a car in the distance. I get out of my father's sedan, open the hood then stand next to the driver's side door. A slight breeze comes from nowhere, and I catch the stench from the trunk, thanks to this ridiculous heat and my rotten father. A black sedan, empty except for the driver, slows as it passes. For an instant I think it's not going to stop, but the guy pulls over and backs up. He gets out of his car – tall, redheaded and covered in freckles. He looks to be in his early thirties, so why does he remind me of Dad?
"You're alone – on this stretch of road?" the man asks. "How stupid can you get?"
My fists clench. Hatred pulses through my veins. Something inside me shifts; and my mouth falls open, yet I can't breathe. Paralyzed, I watch as the man's red hair turns to a grayish brown, and I see his dark green eyes fade to blue. Then the freckles on his face disappear only to be replaced by creases and lines. He reaches into my car and removes the keys from the ignition then shuffles toward me just like my father's done every night since I hit puberty. My limbs unlock. Each step the man takes toward me, I'm propelled one back. The blood pumps through my ears so loud that his words are unintelligible. All I see is my hypocritical, bible-thumping father heading in my direction to force himself on me . . . again! He rounds the car toward the trunk, keys poised and ready for insertion. The lock sticks. Dad crouches and wiggles the key.
Sun glints off the knife as I pull it from the sheath on my thigh. The weapon feels good in my hand; its weight calms me. Head cocked, all my senses are alive as I once again quietly approach the man who's made my life a living hell. A sense of release washes over me at the sound of blood gurgling in his throat; the blade's made a clean slice through my tormentor's wrinkled skin. Eyes closed, I savor the blessed moment.
Then I look down.
What I see before me, crumpled in a heap, is the body of a tall, redheaded man covered in freckles. And blood. Oh God, there's so much blood! Voices reverberate in my skull. It takes all I have to fight the urge to scream again. Dazed, I blink until my father's license plate comes into focus.
But that can't be! We never lived in Nevada.
Stumbling back, I fall then scoot several feet away from the redhead's inert body. Questions tumble through my mind: Whose car is this … and who's that guy in the trunk? Or is there a guy in the trunk?
Lifeless faces of my father and six other men flash in front of my eyes. The voices in my head start again. Then, as if I'm looking at a movie screen, the blur in my mind sharpens, and I watch myself struggle to lift dead weight into the trunks of different colored sedans. The vision changes; it's like someone pressed the fast forward button, and I'm driving, driving, driving until the sedans run out of gas or break down alongside the road. Each time I'm stranded, my father appears and each time I rake the knife across his throat.
Am I insane?
The moment that question becomes a thought, a shaft of light flashes behind my eyes. Stark fear grips me, but I force myself to get the keys from the redhead's lifeless hand and open the trunk.
I don't recognize the man inside.
My father's laughter rings in my ear as he repeats his question about my intelligence. "You bastard," I scream. "How many times do I have to kill you before you stay dead?"