by RON J. CRUZ
he blood shaded bluffs of Navajo sandstone sulked in sedimentary layers of reds, rust, and browns, framing the dusty highway through the barren portion of Nevada and Utah. Between the cracked road and the bluffs stretched a rolling sea of sand, cacti, and blossoming yucca; beyond that an expanse of dull hills and purple mountains. A dirty minivan rented in Des Moines rolled through the cracked artery of interstate, like the water and wind that formed the valley and tall fixtures millions of years before.
Hypnotized by the road, Mr. Matthews sped vacant miles away while his heavy-eyed wife reclined in the passenger seat, sultry novel propped against her breasts while she drifted between steamy dreams and lusty passages. In the backseat, ten-year-old Lindsey gazed out the dirty window with trance-wide eyes and mouth agape while nine-year-old Tyler clutched a small tin box with every souvenir acquired this trip. Though proud, and usually fixated on his collection of items, Tyler’s attention was focused on the angry red truck pacing behind them. The flaming eyes of the driver were framed with dark skin and hair blacker than midnight which rolled over his shoulders, over his denim jacket. Patiently, horizon to horizon, hour by hour, the truck remained behind them as if being towed.
Five hours prior, in a roadside diner with dirty plates and cracked laminate tables, the hellish figure had sat in the corner booth behind Tyler’s parents. His red eyes burned through the young boy while the family was oblivious; Lindsey colored a surfing dog on a placemat while his parents forked over-buttered bites of pancakes into their mouths while dotting their roadmap with thick drops syrup. All the while, the man glared, his nostrils flared, and Tyler nervously cowered and ate. With long yellow fingernails, the dark man ripped toast apart, jammed it into his open mouth, and tore it apart with chipped, discolored teeth. A large talon, perhaps an eagle’s, hung from the man’s silver necklace like a dreadful talisman; it floated in the frame of his open flannel collar, seemingly clawing about.
Tyler was no stranger to attention. His long thick rolls of blonde hair made his mother and sister envious. His porcelain white skin was smooth and magnificent while his cheeks were red as ripe tomatoes, and if he sat perfectly still, he was doll-like. While his family, minus his father, shared the same color of deep blue icy eyes, Tyler was the one who could get what he wanted with a smile and giggle. But there were no smiles or giggles as he returned the gaze of the beast across from him.
The check was paid, a calculated seven percent tip was left, and the Matthews family slid out of the booth and headed to the door. The man titled his head to admire Mrs. Matthews as she passed and then turned his attention to Tyler as he trailed by. It was a slow motion stroll in which a long moment passed where it seemed the man could have pulled the young boy under his table and the family would have walked out unaware. But they paraded by unmolested.
Before retaking the road, Lindsey and her mom took the beagles out of their crates to an oasis of grass by the road to allow them to sniff, dig, and roll. Although the intention was for the dogs to quickly complete their duties and return to the car, they were more interested in sniffing everything while leaving scents to be sniffed. The mother and daughter sighed and jerked the leashes as if it would induce the dogs to hurry.
Like many men on long road trips, Tyler’s dad fulfilled his fatherly obligation by opening the back of the minivan and shuffling things around, rearranging them though they were fine as they were. As if fueled by some neurotic urge, he made busy by pulling objects out, adjusting their position, and putting them back, packing them in vaguely superior positions.
Free from threat, released from the car and breakfast table, Tyler stretched his legs out racing to the top of a small hill, kicking up dirt as he ran. After several laps around the small mound, he plopped down and pushed his hands down into the fine grains of warm sand. Streams of granules poured between his fingers and he would scoop more handfuls up as they emptied. The sweet, foreign smell of desert excited his senses.
“Don’t get dirty,” his mother called out over her shoulder as the dog yanked her towards a small leafless tree. “Okay, Tyler?”
No reply. The sun warmed his thick blonde hair and neck as he closed his eyes, fell back into the soft sand, and briefly snuggled into the earth. Red brightness was visible through his eyelids as he imagined being sucked into place by something magnetic and hugging. It could have swallowed him there and he would dive into the depths of it, holding his breath and swimming down, through layers of earth and strata. But instead he rolled over twice and looked above; his vision adjusted as he gazed overhead to scavenging birds that had begun to circle above him, hopefully. Amused by their flight he smiled, unaware their stomach rumbled.
“We ready?” His father called out, breaking the moment as he shut the back hatch. “Let’s go!”
The brief moment of calm leading them back into the car was shattered by the dogs erupting into wild barks and snarls. Tyler shuddered as he turned to see the dark man standing next to the van. The dogs were biting and lunging towards him. His mother and sister struggled to contain them.
“Nice dogs,” he smiled, turned a toothpick between his teeth. In the next brief moments, sixty minutes of hot sand seemed to pass through Tyler’s hour glass hands as the dreadful man seemed to calculate the family like some sort of mathematical equation: a brief smile factoring the dogs, an instant computing the strength and manliness of his father, adding the deeper dimensions of his mother’s curves, quickly subtracting the kids, all the while solving for x. Satisfied with the solution, he spit, turned, and walked back towards the large red truck which pulled a big white trailer.
Tyler’s mother shot a glance to Mr. Matthews, but he was turned, stretching and staring down the road like a weightlifter might size up a challenging stack of weight before giving it a press.
“Round ‘em up,” he twirled a finger over his head, adjusted his sunglasses, and moved to driver’s seat. The dogs were corralled and crated, kids piled into the back, settled in, and his wife resumed her copilot positions. They rolled back onto the interstate delve further into their vacation to forge memories while collecting pictures and souvenirs.
The beautiful possibility of a memorable future opened up before them beyond the dash. The Matthews clan nestled into their respective seats as the heat vapor and water mirages welled upon the distant asphalt, flirting with the horizon. The radio dealt soul-tickling melodies that could potentially trigger memories of this long, hot trip years later. But as they rolled ahead, the dark man in the big red rig flowed consistently, contently behind them.
Tyler could see the man’s greasy skin and large, square jaw sunlit beneath the shadow of the truck’s visor. Large, brown hands manned the truck’s wheel, back and forth, keeping the rig and lumbering load aligned with the road. The black leather cord that secured the outstretched talon around his neck was visible, although the talon itself was not. Tyler had studied it while his parents had swam in oblivion and the man devoured runny eggs and limp toast. The scaly eagle’s claw was a swollen, swinging outstretched yellow bit of ferocity clutching at air.
Then there was the question of the contents the man towed with those eighteen wheels. Stiff bodies wrapped in plastic, respective mouths agape, stacked like firewood against the wall? Was it a swinging party of corpses on meat hooks, frozen and dancing with every lurch and sway of the large vehicle? Perhaps it was stacks of cages with terrified, naked people captured on the highway, all wishing they had reacted differently to being followed and hunted by this soul sucking demon obviously bent on human suffering and pain.
“So, Tyler,” his mother turned to him. “What have you collected so far?”
His father peered through the rearview mirror with a raised eyebrow.
Tyler fumbled around in his box for a bit before producing the first item. “The fossil rock,” he held up a glossy stone with a plastic dinosaur glued to the top of it. “Fossil rock with a stegosaurus on the top.”
“It’s a petrified rock,” his father corrected. “Remember, we were at the petrified forest?”
“Ok, petrified rock,” Tyler adjusted and then went on, “a harmonica, a little bus, an arrowhead, a coin with weird writing on it, pilot’s wings-”
“Pilot’s wings?” his father interrupted, turned to his wife. “Where did he get that?”
“At the airport,” Tyler fidgeted. “The pilot gave it to me when we were getting off the plane.”
“I didn’t think pilots did that anymore. I don’t think that’s allowed anymore,” he replied, glancing between the road and mirror. “Security and all. Is it real, honey?”
“They look real. They’re heavy. I think these may be silver,” his mother examined, and then moved on to Tyler’s other trinkets. “Oh, a Russian coin! I think that’s Russian. Is that Russian?”
“Russian coin?” His father shifted in his seat. “Where did he get all that?”
“Same place he gets most of his stuff; people just give it to him,” his mother beamed. “People love our little blonde man.”
She smiled at Tyler as he shuffled the items around in the box. There were other things she didn’t recognize, but she quickly sensed Lindsey tightening up. She turned her attention there before the little girl’s jealousy could swell.
“And how’s the novel, Linz?”
As the mother slowly drew literary details from her daughter about her book, Tyler looked back at the truck to see the violent villain make his move. With a quick flash of the turn signal, the behemoth semi pulled into the left lane, picked up speed, pulled even, and then passed the small family. Tyler tried to catch a glimpse of the driver, obscured by the size disparity between the vehicles, but saw nothing.
The large trailer rumbled ahead and started to put a length of road between them. The dirty double doors with the words “Mohican” on the back blurred into distant haze. There was no looking back as the open road swallowed the treacherous truck from his view.
Tyler relaxed and closed his eyes as his mother, satisfied that she had engaged both of her children in conversation, put her own chair back and rested. The threat of the denim-clad man had pulled ahead of them, apparently content to leave them behind.
The pale sands of desert stretched out eternally on each side. The bluffs and plateaus were replaced by a carpet sand, tall cacti which grew in spite barren landscape, and yucca plants that seemed to cheer them on. Aside from that, there was nothing but a smear of purple hills on the distant horizons. This might have been the end of the earth, an alien plane covered with ground bone and sand, baked and bleached in the unforgiving sun. It was a wasteland where reptiles crawled and vultures picked bones dry.
Soundly Tyler slept. Hours turned and his eyes burned as he dozed. The music of the stereo gave rhythm to his dreams and he suddenly flew inches above the pavement, half the speed of sound. The cracks and pebbles blurred at over three hundred miles per hour. Hot air whipped over him as he turned slightly over and saw the bright sun above and felt the warm wind flow through his hair. He split the traffic, his heart pulsed as he flew between the lanes, saw an old Volkswagen bus ahead and sped up to flow by the windows.
Filled with long haired men and women, there was a flower painted on the side. The windows were down and smoke trailed behind. Tyler circled it four times around to the astonished faces of all those on board. He paused by the windshield and smashed his face against the surface, distorting his face. They slammed on the brakes and skidded to the side of the road and Tyler speedily flew around and then back down the road.
He threaded the oncoming traffic to a beat he found inside his head, and he rocked back and forth to the rhythm. To the left side of a wagon, around the right side of a delivery van, above a jeep – he was flawless in flight and twisted with flair as he jetted by. After a space with no cars, he suddenly saw the dreadful red truck bearing down on him.
He shifted to one side and the truck did the same. He moved back and the truck moved with him. He got low to try to go under and the truck, but the chrome grill extended down to the pavement and kicked up sparks as it scraped along. His feet tumbled over his head and he went horizontal and suddenly— woke up to his mother yelling at his father.
“Why the hell are you following so close?” Her chair jerked upright, the book fell off her chest, and she turned the radio down. “There’s no reason to have the radio so loud. You’re going to wake the kids.”
“You’re going to wake the kids,” Mr. Matthews replied, turning the radio up.
“Why are you so close?” She turned the radio back down. “You know I don’t like when you get that close to trucks.”
“I was trying to save gas,” he replied. “Thought I’d draft right behind him. Why do you care? You were asleep!”
“It doesn’t matter if I’m asleep. I still don’t like it.” She fished the book from beneath her feet, turned her back to the driver and began to read. “Besides, this isn’t NASCAR. You can’t draft!”
“Trucks draft off each other all the time,” he replied quietly.
The parental argument froze into icy silence and sideways glances. In compliance to her complaint, his father reduced speed, but then Tyler shuddered as he read, “Mohican” on the back of the truck his father had attempted drafting behind. “Mohican”. It was him, the danger-taloned man! He lingered, hunting them still, except he was craftily doing it from the front.
Tyler panicked and looked to his sister who was in deep sleep, head back and neck craned. His father maintained a steady pace behind the hunter while his mother’s only concern seemed to be volume of the radio, the pages of her book, and the proximity of other vehicles.
“Anyone need to stop?” his father asked rhetorically as he signaled and pulled off to a rest stop, “planning to stop anyways. Need to stretch my legs.”
Tyler hoped the rig rolled on, but it didn’t. It changed direction at the last second, violently, without signaling, turning off the freeway. The truck’s bright brake lights cast the family in red as they both continued to the small island of grass and amenities. The vehicles separated at a split in the road where trucks rolled to the left and everyone else flowed to the right. They came to a stop by a small patch of shade and grass beneath leafy trees near stone benches and tables. Shared restrooms met in the middle of it all.
“Tyler, you walk the dogs. I’ll get some water,” his father instructed and then turned to his wife, “restroom honey?” But she was still angry and didn’t reply.
“Where are we?” Lindsey sat up, rubbed her eyes and looked around. “Are we there yet?”
“Just a rest stop, sweetie,” Mrs. Matthew’s replied. “Get up, let’s go to restroom.”
As soon as the engine was off and the key pulled out, the mom and daughter duo were out and across the lawn towards the configurations of bathrooms. There were several buildings with various doors jetting out on every side: several separate restrooms for men, several separate for women.
Tyler pulled the dogs from the crates and guided them to an open stretch of grass. Their tails wagged and they happily panted as they shot out. They twisted their leashes around every tree, post, or possible item leashes could get tangled around – including Tyler’s legs. He did his best to step over or twist out of them, but the two dogs worked together to overwhelm him. He felt the urge to violently put his foot to the side of their furry sides, but his father appeared with bowls of water and relieved him.
“I’ll take them,” he set the water down. The dogs immediately calmed and behaved. “Hit the restroom and hurry back, Tyler. We need to get back on the road.”
Tyler’s sister and mother came out of the women’s restroom. They walked slowly and rubbed lotion on their hands. He crossed the small field of grass, walked to the opposite side, the men’s side, and felt the bite of several thorns and grass stickers on his legs, clinging to his socks. The entire field was bristling with sharp greens and now his socks collected them. His face flushed with frustration. The afternoon had become fear, idiot dogs, and spiky socks.
Tyler stopped outside the furthest restroom door, knelt and picked prickly bits from the fabric around his ankles. Finished, and muttering to himself, he stood and looked up in time to see the tall, dark man in denim walking towards him.
The man pulled off his denim jacket and dropped it in the grass between his truck and the bathroom, perhaps to pick it up on the way back. Tattoos stretched across massive arms and thick shoulders; he was a tapestry dedicated to screaming eagles, brilliant feathers, an arched back Indian woman, and tribal symbols that paid tribute to something long ago. He gave a crooked smile to Tyler as he pushed ahead of him into the bathroom. The young boy paused as there were no more stickers to pull from his socks.
He walked into the restroom which had three stalls, two urinals, and a flimsy metal chair. A thin flow of water leaked from the back stall, rolled over a clogged drain and under the restroom door. In that back stall was a small chest of tools, a pipe wrench and plumbers tape laying on the wet floor, but there was no plumber.
The air was a putrid mixture of mold, urine, and crap. With a guttural sound, the dark man snorked up a heavy load of mucous, and spit it into the toilet water which he towered above. The entire stall was a closeted confessional of graffiti carnality, jokes, and gang signs penned, etched, and carved into the walls and seat.
Tyler suddenly saw the man standing there in his most base form – a human. He was simply attending to his business, just like every other living creature, simply urinating. It was natural, just like any other animal had to do. The man had to eat, had to drink, had to piss; he was born and he would die. There was nothing supernatural or frightening about him. He had a mother, he felt pain, he had loved, and there were times when he was sad. There something out there that made this man very happy, and the thought of that made Tyler smile.
The only other occupant in the bathroom washed his hands and wandered out. Realizing he was alone with him, Tyler smiled wistfully, and found the pipe wrench on the ground was far heavier than he anticipated. He scaled the small chair, held the heavy instrument with both hands, and with all the force his nine-year-old body could muster, brought it down on the base of the man’s neck.
The man dropped, his face catching the edge of the toilet as he collapsed. The young man’s second blow crushed his skull, causing his entire body to jolt and then go limp. Tyler reached down and snatched the eagle claw from around his neck. He lay the wrench down on top of his body, pulled the stall door shut, and walked calmly out of the bathroom.
Blood started to flow out on the top of the water, slowly streaming towards the door. Tyler walked back towards the minivan, but his smile melted as he saw his father walking towards him.
“You about ready,” Mr. Matthews called out.
“Yeah,” Tyler palmed the claw, held it slightly behind him to obscure the sight of it. “You can’t go in there.” He motioned towards the restroom from which he had just come. “It’s got a broken pipe. A guy in there is fixing it. He closed it down.”
His father crooked his neck and looked. Seeing the slow stream of water pooling under the closed door, he changed course to a restroom on the other side of the concourse.
Tyler got back into his seat and suffered anxiety ridden seconds, waiting for his family to get back on the road. People drifted by the dead man door, the suicide stall, but no one walked in. Tortuous time clicked by. In the distance, he could see the big red truck and the man’s jacket planted on the grass. He had sin stained that tile, but no one walked in and no one knew, and the blood filled and yet no one walked in.
Communication had been restored between his parents, they kissed as his father got back into the car, backed the vehicle up, and started them back down the road.
“Are you hungry, sweetie?” his mom asked Lindsey, but then her attention turned suddenly to Tyler, “where did you get that thing?”
“This?” he smiled and held up the eagle claw.
“Yes, that!” she replied.
“Oh, a nice Indian man gave it to me,” he smiled wistfully. “Another souvenir.”
“I don’t know if he should have that.” She turned to her husband.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s okay,” he laughed. “He’s just a boy.”
“Seems lots of people just give him things,” his mom said slowly. “Kind of strange.”
“Cute kid like him,” his father beamed. “Why wouldn’t they?”
The sun sank into the horizon and shadows stretched out and mixed into darkness as headlights along the road sparked to life. Stars overhead slowly became visible and an animal shift change occurred on the desert floor as scavengers of night began to crawl and fly beneath the moonlit sky. The Matthews family, like all other vacationing clans, grew closer each mile and filled continued to fill their family’s history with memories and souvenirs.
Ron J. Cruz breathes and pens fiction in a hovel located in one of the seedier parts of Sacramento, California. He teaches English Composition at a couple of community colleges, takes pictures of things that amuse him, competitively throws darts erratically at a board, and snootily sips wine while doing two of the aforementioned three activities. While not writing short stories, Ron continues to craft his novel, composes completely mediocre poetry, and enumerates lists of things that will hopefully remain forever unseen (and undone). For more information on Ron J. Cruz, check out www.ronjcruz.com.
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