Road to nowhere, p.1
ROAD TO NOWHERE
A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
Teresa Chafey was running away from home. Driving north along the California coast, she picks up two mysterious hitchhikers: Poppy Corn and Freedom Jack. Together, the three of them tell stories: Teresa, of her devastating relationship with her boyfriend; Poppy, of a sad young woman she once knew; and Freedom, of a talented young man with a violent temper.
Yet as they talk, a darker story unfolds around them. A story of life and death, of redemption and damnation.
It will be the longest night of Teresa’s life.
Maybe the last night of her life.
Lightning flashed in Teresa Chafey’s eyes as she slammed the apartment door shut. The night air was cold. Thick clouds and thunder rolled in from the west. Rain began to fall. Teresa paused for a moment. Maybe she should go back inside, she thought, get her raincoat, her umbrella. Or maybe she should go back inside and stay inside. It was kind of late to run away from home.
But she didn’t want to go back into the apartment.
She had her reasons.
Teresa hurried towards the carport. The rain splashed her light brown hair, plastering the fine strands to her cheeks. But her face had been wet long before the rain touched it. She had been crying, and still was.
So many reasons to cry.
Her parents were away for the weekend. She stood in their empty parking place as she fumbled in her pockets for her car keys. Her mom and dad were in San Diego visiting her older brother, his wife and their new baby – her niece, Kathy. They had wanted Teresa to go with them, but she had said she was too busy. They never called when they were away. She’d be long gone before they came home.
Her car was a red Mazda 626 – four years old, in excellent shape. She opened the door and tossed an overnight bag on to the back seat. She had packed little: stuff from her bathroom; an extra sweater; a change of underwear; her cheque-book. She didn’t have much cash, maybe ninety bucks. She’d get a job – it would do until then. She climbed into the car and started the engine and pulled out of the carport. She wouldn’t be coming back, not for anything.
Teresa headed for the exit at the opposite end of the apartment complex. Turning on to the road, she aimed for the freeway, six miles away. She had no clear idea where she wanted to end up, except that her general direction was north. Maybe up the coast – it would be nice to have the ocean as a companion along the way. She lived in Los Angeles and thought she might not stop driving until she got to Canada. No one would find her there. Bill would think she'd died. She smiled at the thought. The bastard – let him sweat.
Bill was one of the reasons she was running away.
But not her only one, nor her biggest.
Teresa rolled down the window as she drove. She should have been cold with the rain rushing in, but she felt warm. She was actually sweating, as if she had a fever. The cold rain and air felt good against her skin, and it would keep her awake as she drove. She glanced at the clock on the dashboard – 11:06. The sun would be coming up by the time she passed San Francisco. She knew she’d have to stop to rest eventually.
Teresa was within a couple hundred yards of the freeway on-ramp when she spotted the two hitch-hikers. They were an interesting couple, even at a quick glance. The guy was dressed entirely in white, and had a head of dazzling blond hair. The girl was thin, pale; her long black hair hung straight to her waist. They stood in the pouring rain without umbrellas. Later, Teresa was to decide that was the reason she had picked them up; ordinarily she didn’t stop for hitch-hikers. In fact, she’d never stopped before.
Teresa slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road about thirty feet beyond them. The guy hurried up to the car, a long green garment bag in his hands. Teresa leaned over and rolled down the passenger-side window. He poked his head inside.
“Can we have a ride?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said.
“Where are you heading?”
“Good.” The guy stood back and called to his partner. “Let's go!”
The girl walked slowly towards the car. She had on white pants and a smart black leather coat, which the rain had to be destroying. Her black boots went almost to her knees. She was cute, the guy was, too. Teresa was surprised such a handsome couple would be so down on their luck that they’d have to hitch in the middle of a rainy night. They looked a couple of years older than Teresa, who was eighteen.
“Hurry,” the guy called.
“I’m coming,” the girl answered.
The guy stuck his head inside the car window again. “Can I put this bag in the back?” he asked.
“Sure,” Teresa said, glancing in the rear-view mirror. She didn't want to get rear-ended while doing her good deed for the night. Fortunately, traffic was light. The rain had kept everyone indoors. “Do you want to throw it in the trunk?” she asked as the guy opened the back door.
“No,” he said. The girl had reached the car, and the guy looked at her. “Do you want to sit in the back with the bag?” he asked.
“Do I have a choice?” the girl asked.
The guy grinned. “You always have a choice.”
The girl glanced at Teresa, what she could see of her with the rain blowing through the open passenger window. “I'll sit in back,” the girl said flatly.
The two got in. The guy rolled up his window as Teresa pulled away from the curb and then drove on to the freeway. The speed limit was fifty-five; she always did ten miles over and never got a ticket. She glanced over at the guy. He was watching her.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Teresa.”
He offered his hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Freedom Jack.”
She shook his hand. It was as cold and wet as the night. “Is that your real name?” she asked.
“It's what my mother calls me. But you can call me Free if you'd like.” He gestured over his shoulder. The girl had chosen to sit directly behind Teresa, which made Teresa uneasy. “This is my pal, Poppy Corn.”
Teresa frowned. “Pardon?”
“Poppy Corn,” the girl said.
“That's your real name?” Teresa asked.
“It’s what my father calls me,” the girl said.
“But you can call her Poppy,” Free said cheerfully. “You can call her anything you like, Poppy doesn’t care. She doesn’t care about anything. Ain’t that right, Poppy?”
“I suppose,” Poppy said. She tapped Teresa on the shoulder. “Can I smoke?”
“Yeah,” Teresa said reluctantly. She hated cigarette smoke. “Do you mind if I keep my window down partway?”
“It’s your car, you can do what you want,” Free said.
“The cold doesn’t bother me,” Poppy said.
“But the smoke bugs me,” Free said easily.
“That's your problem,” Poppy said.
“But you want to make it Teresa’s problem, too,” Free said.
“I don’t care, really,” Teresa said.
In the back seat Poppy lit her cigarette and blew the smoke at the back of Teresa’s head. She turned and looked out the window. “Where are we heading?” she asked.
“North,” Free said quickly. “Just the way we wanted to go.”
“What’s your final destination?” Teresa asked. She wondered what their relationship was – they didn’t seem to like each other.
“We have a gig in the Bay Area,” Free said. “We have to be there tomorrow. We’d be there now if Poppy hadn't driven our car into a telephone pole. Ain’t that right, Poppy?”
Poppy took another drag on her cigarette. “I don’t remember a telephone pole.”
Free laughed. “T
“What’s your gig?” Teresa asked.
“I’m a magician,” Free said. “We’re booked into the Bardo's Club. Ever heard of it?”
“It sounds familiar,” Teresa said, lying. “Are you a magician, too, Poppy?”
Free laughed. “She’s my prop. I saw her in two, make her float in the air. Tomorrow I’m going to make her disappear. You should see our show. I can get you free tickets.”
“It sounds like fun,” Teresa said. Maybe San Francisco would be far enough north to make Bill feel she’d vanished from the face of the earth. There might be advantages to staying in the country.
“We’re also hoping to visit our parents on the way up,” Free said. “I’m going to see my mom and Poppy wants to see her father – why, I don’t know. The guy never has anything interesting to say.”
“Where does your father live, Poppy?” Teresa asked.
“On the other side of the redwoods,” Poppy replied.
Teresa assumed she meant her dad lived just north of Big Sur. “What does he do for a living?”Teresa asked.
Poppy coughed on her smoke. “He’s a priest.”
“Oh,” Teresa muttered. The girl was weird.
“Hey, would you like to see some magic?” Free asked.
“Now?” Teresa asked. “While I’m driving?”
“Sure,” Free said. “You can drive and be amazed at the same time.”
“Maybe later would be better,” she said.
“Now is always the best time,” he disagreed, and reached into the pocket of his white coat to pull out a pack of playing cards. He handed it to her. “This is an ordinary deck.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Teresa said, fumbling with the deck as she tried to keep her eye on the road. Free was kind of pushy, but she was enjoying his company. He took her mind off all the garbage she had gone through lately. She wished Poppy would quit blowing smoke on the back of her head. She would have to take a shower to get the smell out of her hair. “Do you want me to take a card?” she asked Free.
“I want you to take four cards,” he said. “Pluck them randomly from the deck. Don’t look at the four you’ve taken. Put the cards on your lap – face down – and give the deck back to me. You really should check that you are holding a regular deck first.”
It was hard to do what he was asking with just one hand. “I’ll be lucky to get four cards out,” she muttered, straining in the dark car. She took a couple from near the top and a couple from close to the bottom. She set them between her legs and gave the deck back to Free, who immediately stuffed it into his pocket without looking at it. “Now what?” she asked.
“I’m going to tell you what cards you have between your legs,” Free said.
“Sounds suggestive,” Poppy said, bored.
Free turned round. “Do you know what the cards are?” he asked.
“They’re all jokers,” Poppy said.
“You’re wrong,” Free said pleasantly enough. “You’re always wrong.” He turned back round. “Do you know what the cards are, Teresa?”
“You told me not to look at them,” Teresa said.
Free smiled. He was handsome in a boyish sort of way. She believed his eyes were blue, but couldn’t be sure in the gloom. “I was wondering if you had any intuitive feeling as to what you are holding,” Free said.
“I’m not the psychic type,” Teresa said.
“I am,” Free said. “I’m super psychic.” He put his hand to his forehead and closed his eyes. “Hmmm. I see aces. I see an ace of hearts. Hmmm. I see an ace of diamonds. I see more. I see the ace of clubs and the ace of spades.” He opened his eyes and peered at her. “This is amazing – you drew four aces from a perfectly normal deck of cards.”
Teresa laughed. “I don’t believe it.” She picked up the cards and fingered through them. Aces, one and all. “I don’t believe it! How did you do that?”
Free took back his cards. “Magic,” he said.
“No, really? Can’t you tell me?”
Free shook his head. “If I tell you all my secrets I’ll lose my aura of mystery. Ain’t that true, Poppy?”
“You lost it long ago, Jack,” Poppy said.
“Don’t call me that,” Free said.
“Free,” Teresa said. “Can I examine that deck now?”
“Sure,” Free said. He took the deck out of his pocket and handed it to her. Teresa gave him a sly look.
“How do I know this is the same deck?” she asked.
“You don’t,” Free said. “I have deep pockets. But I told you to study the deck before I did my trick.”
Teresa gave a quick glance at the cards. They looked perfectly normal. She gave them back to Free. “Where did you learn your trade?” she asked.
“In the school of hard knocks,” Free said. “Hey, are you hungry? I’m hungry. Can we stop? Nothing fancy, you understand. I wouldn't mind a box of doughnuts and a carton of milk from a mini-mart. Would that be all right, Teresa?”
“I don’t mind. We’ll have to get off the freeway.”
“We can always get back on,” Free said.
They stopped at a Stop ‘N’ Go just off the freeway. Two rows of gasoline pumps stood outside. They were the only customers. Teresa and Free got out, but Poppy was comfortable in the back seat. Free paused to ask if she wanted anything. The rain was still coming down, but not so hard. It hadn’t rained long enough, though. The air still tasted dirty.
“A packet of cigarettes,” Poppy said.
Free snorted. “Those things will kill you.”
“The world is filled with things that can kill you,” Poppy said. “Get me Marlboros.”
“Do you want anything to eat?” Free asked.
“No,” Poppy said.
Teresa and Free entered the store and she got her first really good look at him. He was six foot, maybe six one. His white coat sported shoulder pads, but underneath the coat he was strong enough, more wiry than muscle-bound probably. She wondered if she had been off on his age. His skin wasn’t so smooth in the light of the store; he was older than she had first guessed. His eyes were definitely blue, piercing in their almost white paleness. She suspected his blond hair had been bleached; the roots were darker than the ends. He did have a cool walk, and she could see him on stage as a magician. He almost floated as he moved. Right now he was headed straight for the beer.
“What do you want?” he asked. “My treat.”
“I was just going to get a candy bar or something.” She was a sugar freak, more specifically a Junior Mints addict. She ate several boxes a day and her body was none the worse for them, except for an occasional pimple, which, fortunately, she didn’t happen to have at the moment. She was five six, thin with great legs and clear skin. Her breasts were on the small side, but fitted her well. Her brown hair was light enough that she passed as a blonde in the summer. Overall her face was pretty enough, in a natural California fashion. Yet the bruise-like circles under her eyes betrayed her recent traumas.
Her lips were lush. She smiled a lot, too much; the smile was more a nervous reflex than an expression of joy. Her blue eyes were clear skies; her dark eyebrows clouds on the horizon. Her nose was a shade too big for her face, and it kept her from being truly beautiful. She had considered having it fixed, but then decided she didn’t need to be beautiful. Of course, that was a lie. She occasionally told them to herself, just small ones, white lies that didn't do anybody any harm. The truth was she would have given a great deal to have been irresistible. Then Bill would have still wanted her.
But who cares? I don't care. I wouldn’t take him back if he came begging on his knees.
Tiny white lies.
“Do you drink beer?” Free asked. He opened the cooler door and pulled out a six-pack of Budweiser.
“Not when I’m driving,” Teresa said.
“I appreciate you stopping and giving us a ride.”
“Nah, not too long,” Free said.
“Did Poppy really crash your car into a telephone pole?”
“It might have been a tree. All I know is it was tall and hard and the car looked like hell after hitting it.”
Teresa giggled. “You’re crazy. Do you know that?”
Free reached for another six-pack. “The later it gets, the crazier I get. Are we going to drive all night?”
Teresa paused. She had never actually invited them to stay with her all the way up the coast. Yet she couldn't see dropping them off in the middle of nowhere, especially if they were all still headed in the same direction.
“I planned on it,” she said finally, rubbing her left wrist with her right hand. A dull ache throbbed through it – she must have banged it on something just before she left the apartment.
“Are you all right?” Free asked.
“Good.” Free carried a six-pack in each hand. “Good.”
Teresa picked up two boxes of Junior Mints and a bottle of Coke and brought them to the counter. Free was having trouble buying his beer – the man behind the counter, a short Hispanic fellow of about forty, wanted I.D. Free felt around in his pockets but couldn’t find his licence.
“What’s the matter?” Free asked the guy. “You don’t think I’m twenty-one?”
“I need to see I.D.,” the guy said.
“Give me a packet of Marlboros,” Free said as he pulled a wad of mangled bills from his pocket. The cashier reached behind him for the cigarettes and set the carton down beside the beer and Free’s other goodies: a box of chocolate doughnuts, a half gallon of milk, and a bag of potato chips. “How much is it?” Free asked.
“I can tell you how much it is without the beer,” the guy said.
Free was annoyed. “I lost my licence. Does that make me a criminal? Look at me. Do I look like a kid? Ring up the beer, man, now. We've got a long way to go tonight.”
“I need to see I.D.,” the man repeated.
“You can’t see what I don’t have,” Free said, defiant.
“Free,” Teresa said timidly. “This isn’t worth the hassle.”