This story contains sensitive content

*Please note that there are themes of parental abuse, mental health issues, abandonment, and implied sexual abuse present in this story.*

The rumbling snores from the backseat threatened to rival the bass from her playlist, creating a sense of amazement that such big sounds could come from something so small. The corner of her mouth rose ruefully; That’s not all that’s surprising tonight.

     Anna was no stranger to surpises. She was adaptable. That was part of her whole schtick. Adaptable, funny, intelligent, strong. Adaptable, funny, intelligent, strong, Adapta– rinse and repeat through life, the long, winding ribbon which mirrored this highway they traveled on. Nothing went as planned from the moment she tried to arrive on this earth two months early or the battle with the doctors trying to delay her arrival within two days of her actual appearance, which was by all accounts a small and ugly countenance accented by the innate desire to fight. 

     “Is the burger good?” she’d asked the squirrelish girl, Kaylie, sitting across from her on the deflated booth leather, her elbows planted smack dab on the laminated table, her birdlike hands grasping the greasy sandwich she took regular chomps from. Kaylie’s eyes darted up and met Anna’s eyes, and she slowed her chewing. “Mm,” she answered before dropping the burger, grabbing her soda, and wiping her free hand on the jeans hidden beneath the table. 

     “Yeah, thanks,” she muttered. Such a raspy voice from someone so elf-like, Anna thought. They finished their meal in silence until the last fry was devoured.

     “So where are you heading? You’re kinda young to be out here on your own.”

     Kaylie met her eyes again, and there was a flicker this time. Maybe adaptable was her schtick, too. “I’m heading to my grandmother’s house in Virginia. She lives by the ocean.”

     The car hit a pothole and jarred Anna back to the present. The snoring continued, the song changed, and the road faded somewhere in the distance as the darkness swallowed everything the light failed to touch. 

     Kaylie was a throw-away like her. Maybe that’s why she was drawn to her as she had pulled into the diner at mile marker 276. Perhaps that’s why Anna offered to buy her lunch. Maybe that’s why she was currently snoring in the backseat, her stomach full of diner food and the weight of the past three days, the time Kaylie had been on her own in this world. She’s been alone a lot longer than that.

     The desert wasn’t a place for a fifteen-year-old girl to be on her own, but Kaylie didn’t have much say in the matter. When her mother was handed the choice between her and her slimy boyfriend, she chose the guy, drove her daughter off under the blanket of night, and left her at a rest stop about an hour outside their town. She only took her that far to spend those minutes destroying her daughter one more time before driving back to her squalid little trailer in the middle of a gas station and an old, abandoned building. 

     Another snore made Anna smile again, and her thoughts descended a different ribbon. Once upon a time, in the mid-nineties, Anna gave her mother a similar choice. It was either her or her mother’s predatory husband, who had spent the prior seven years torturing Anna into a diagnosed case of PTSD and more than one autoimmune disease. Anna found herself driven away with a suitcase during a torrential downpour. Her mother had remained silent, unlike Kaylie’s. The fading red taillights said more than enough as she watched her mother drive away.

     She got to school the following day, where she bathed in the locker room before class and stowed her luggage in the music room near her first class. She went through the entire day without food or letting anyone know she was homeless. It’s funny how much shame there is when your mother fails to love you. 

     Ahead on the right, neon lights broke up the monotony of gloom the desert night enveloped them in. A motel with a concrete cowboy, a run-down diner attached to the side, and a couple of semis parked outside came into full focus as the car approached. Anna’s bones ached, and her stomach complained angrily as if suddenly reminded of their existence by the mere thought of a warm meal and an even warmer bed. She slowed her descent into darkness and pulled the car into a spot right in front of the motel office. Op-n, it flashed. She reached back to shake the snuffling teen in her backseat gently.

     “C’mon, let’s get some grub and a good night’s sleep, huh?”

     The two made their way to the diner as soon as Anna secured their rooms, Kaylie’s stomach joining the chorus that Anna’s tummy had been singing for fifteen minutes. The order was placed, the drinks had been brought, and the two made small talk about the ocean and sunburns and that time Anna was almost flung out to sea by a riptide she never saw coming. The two were far too tired to talk when the friendly server named Evie settled the pancakes and eggs in front of them, and all that remained to be heard were the sounds of chewing, swallowing, and the high-pitched calls of some old eighties country singer wailing about the woman who stole her husband.

     The walk back to the motel was sluggish, and the churning ice machine and the buzzing vending machine serenaded the pair as they sauntered past, stopping at the wooden door that still used a real key to open. 

     “Alright, our rooms are connected, but you get your own. You can head in here, and I’ll be right next door,” Anna slurred. “Hoo boy, I’m bone tired! I can’t even talk properly. Go on, get yourself into the shower, and then go to bed.”

     When her door clicked shut behind her, she checked all the bolts, dropped her backpack on the bed, and wondered what the hell that smell was. The rest of her movements were on autopilot and punctuated by the sounds of the girl next door. Anna sped through her shower and stretched out on her bed, her final thought for the night, “How can she snore so loudly?”

     It was nearly checkout when they both woke the following day, and they loaded everything into the car, returned the keys, and sat in the same booth as the night before. Anna studied Kaylie as she stared at the menu, a tiny furrow forming between her brows, her lower lip held firmly in her teeth.

     “What are you in the mood for, Kaylie? More pancakes?”

     “Naw, I think I want breakfast burritos.”

    “Two orders of breakfast burritos, it is. And maybe a pot of coffee.”

      To the little old lady with a club sandwich and the trucker at the counter guzzling coffee, they probably looked like a mother and daughter just passing through. Anna imagined what it might be like if they were on their way to a vacation instead of pushing onward from immense trauma. She still didn’t fully understand what made her hand her phone to Kaylie the day before to notify her grandmother they were on their way. But somewhere between ordering burgers and paying the check, Anna had decided the girl was hers to protect, and Kaylie decided Anna was hers to trust. 

     The road soon stretched out ahead of them again, with Kaylie slouched beside Anna and in total control of the playlist rather than noisily occupying the back seat. “Who’s Tori Amos?” Ouch, kid.

     Every new sentence from Kaylie’s mouth vigorously shot another wave of familiarity and tension straight down to Anna’s marrow. Her hands became clammy on the steering wheel and stayed that way until long after they crossed state lines. It was like listening to a ghost of herself reminding her of long-forgotten memories buried deep under a lifetime of mistakes. 

     “Yeah, and that was like the ninth or tenth time child services came in and made everything worse before disappearing.”

   I’m sure it was. 

     It was about that many times that a well-meaning neighbor or teacher or pew-occupying granny from Pine Grove Baptist Church would call children’s services who would show up long enough to stir up the hornets’ nest before disappearing and leaving Anna to take a punishment she never earned. There wasn’t a thing she could tell them to make them take her away. 

     You can’t sleep with a knife under your pillow. If you use it, it would be premeditated, and you’d go to jail.

    “Can we stop for lunch?”

     The road stretched on ahead. “Yeah, I have an idea.”

     An hour later, the two pushed a cart through a parched lot and crammed bags overloaded with swimsuits, sunscreen, snacks, and a couple of books into the hatched cargo space of the car before hopping into the front with subs and sodas and a bag of chips. 

     For four more days, Anna drove them down ribbons of asphalt until they’d reach the next dated motel with an artificially blue pool and dubious-looking lounge chairs. They’d pull in, make sandwiches, or head to the diner that was almost always next door, a little pocket oasis in the middle of nothing, before they would settle in beside the concrete puddle, sometimes swimming, sometimes reading, always avoiding the steamy pant of memories breathing heavily down their necks. 

     They’d drive for hours in comfortable silence, both understanding the need of the other to remain locked inside their minds, reliving the bad while reimagining the future they desperately needed to cling to to survive the day. It was a cheery future Anna saw for herself as she crossed the state line into Virginia; it was a more golden future she saw for Kaylie as she watched her grandmother embrace the girl. Yet, a carousel of recycled memories sat in her mind as she guided her car onto the hot pavement leading her north. Kaylie could be felt all the way to the next motel, where she drifted away in the lukewarm water that stank of chlorine.

August 04, 2023 21:40

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Ken Cartisano
23:28 Aug 13, 2023

The Existential Hitchhiker's Guide to Surviving Humanity. (Without any of the humor.) Or any humor, come to think of it. Except for: '...amazed at how much sound could come from anything so small.' (More or less.) All of the horror in this story, is in the minds and memories of the characters. I was so relieved when I reached the end of this story. You're an excellent writer.


01:14 Aug 14, 2023

Thank you, sir! If I can be the depressing mirror to Douglas Adams, I take that as a huge compliment. Coincidentally, there are 42 entries for the prompt detailing what happens right after aliens make their presence known, and I laughed inwardly before wondering where my towel is. Your comment seemed extra serendipitous when it was the next thing I read. Thank you, again. I appreciate your thoughts.


Ken Cartisano
16:30 Aug 14, 2023

Well, ma'am, I certainly intended to compliment you, and clearly, the '42 entries for the prompt' comment and towel reference prove that you have a sense of humor. It took a sec for me to get the number 42, but that's because it's been a couple of decades since I read me some vintage Adams. It also indicates how old and crusty I am. (The truth has consequences.) I wanted to add, LeeAnn, that the sensitivity warnings are detrimental to the stories that would seem to require them. Yours for instance, give away much of what the story is about...


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