“Shannon, an out-of-state plate is like a bullseye,” my boyfriend Billy warned me the day before I left. I was about to embark on a road trip from Tennessee to California for my job as a travel nurse. I had been a travel nurse for five years, that’s how I met Billy. And now Billy and I were going to be getting married, and trying to get pregnant right away, if Billy had it his way. But before I settled into a life of domesticity I wanted one last road trip, to celebrate my last bit of freedom.
Billy was worried about my trip, but he knew there was no changing my mind. He never liked that I traveled alone. He said "bad men" targeted cars with out-of-state plates.
"When you get back we will bury a time capsule to mark the end of this chapter, and mark a new one," he said happily. Almost like a silent agreement I wouldn't do another travel assignment.
I threw everything I owned in the backseat of my Jeep, which turned out to fit in only two duffel bags. I also took Brody, my weiner dog. He had been my dog since before I met Billy. Brody liked our road trips. It would be sort of a special trip for us also, the last time it would be just the two of us.
My Jeep was fairly new and in good shape, I had a full inspection and oil change before I left. I was driving from Knoxville, Tennessee to Austin, Texas, which was about a 15-hour drive. The next day I would drive from Austin to San Diego, which was about a 16-hour drive.
The next morning Brody and I left at four am. Billy saw us off, waving to us as we pulled out of the driveway.
After a few hours of driving Brody began to whine so we stopped at a gas station for breakfast and a pee break. I went to the backseat to find Brody’s dog food when I saw something shiny sticking out of my bag. It was a gift-wrapped present with a note on top. “Just in case. Love, Billy.” I ripped the paper open, it was a black case, and in the case was one of Billy’s guns. He must have snuck it in last night. Now what do I do with it?
We had gone shooting several times when we first started dating, taking aim at cans and targets he had set up in the woods. Guns weren’t a big deal to own in Tennessee, everyone had them. Billy had several. I was best with the pistol. I didn’t like shooting though, guns made me nervous. I was from Boston, we didn't own guns. He explained everyone should have a gun for protection. “The answer to violence is not more violence,” I would lecture. He said I was naïve. I pushed the case deeper under Brody’s dog food.
Nashville, Memphis, Texarkana. Brody and I were making good time, listening to audio books and only stopping for fast food and pee breaks. Brody slept most of the time in the passenger seat. He was a lazy dog, which makes for a good travel companion. Dallas, Waco, Austin. We made it. Everything was going so smoothly that I decided to keep going. I never liked Austin anyway. I’d rather just drive right through it. I never bought into the whole “Keep Austin Weird” bullshit. It was only seven p.m. so I decided we’d go a little further and try to make it to Fort Stockton, Texas, which would be about three more hours.
I was driving on pure adrenaline. I couldn’t wait to get to San Diego. Before Billy I was fearlessly independent. I would even go on vacations alone. Before meeting him I was in South Africa for three months, staying at hostels and backpackers. I spent Christmas day hiking Table Mountain and eating mac and cheese made with weed butter with a group of perfect strangers.
I had been to San Diego once on vacation. I looked at the key chain hanging from the ignition, an Emperor penguin from the San Diego Aquarium. I collected souvenirs from all the places I had been. Post cards, magnets, Christmas ornaments, pieces of jewelry, etc.,
I was about an hour past Austin when we hit Highway 290, a long, flat stretch of highway heading through West Texas. It was the first time of the drive that I lost cell service.
“Exxon- 15 miles” a sign said. Perfect. I’ll get a coffee and snacks and make this last leg to Fort Stockton. I was so tired I was starting to get dizzy. I pulled into the gas station and slowly crept up to the pump. I hadn’t seen another car in over an hour but there were two at the station. One of which belonged to the person working, I assumed. The other was a Dodge Avenger, black with fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. I sat in my car for a few minutes assessing the scene.
I saw a man sitting behind the register doing a crossword and drinking a Dr. Pepper, through a straw. Non- threatening. I watched the other man for a moment. He was actually pretty good looking for being all the way out here in Bumfuck, Texas. He had hair about chin length slicked back behind his ears. He wore dark denim jeans and a white button down shirt that was sort of silky with small flowers on it. Not in a feminine way but sort of trendy way. Keeping Austin Weird.
The place looked safe enough. Besides, I didn’t have many options. There probably wouldn’t be another stop for an hour or so. I pumped my gas first and then went inside. “Ping,” the door sounded, the clerk looked up and then back down. Good. I liked to go unnoticed.
In the back of the gas station there was a little room with 3 electronic slot machines and a small table with chairs. I’d never seen a casino in a gas station. I got some road snacks, Combo’s, Doritos, a candy bar and poured myself a big coffee. “Ping,” the door alerted again, flowered shirt guy left. Good. My coffee was lukewarm and smelled like weed. What did I expect all the way out here, there probably wouldn’t be another customer besides flowered shirt guy and myself all night. I poured one creamer after another in my coffee as I looked outside. Flowered shirt guy was walking around my jeep, or maybe he wasn’t. His Avenger was parked next to it, so it was hard to tell if he was. It probably only looked like he was. But it did look like he was looking in my back windows. I looked at my cellphone, still no service.
I paid for my snacks and walked cautiously to my Jeep. Flowered shirt guy was now pumping his gas, with one hand on the pump and the other hand on the hood facing me. He nodded with a slight smile as I walked by. I nodded back and looked down. Don’t be rude but don’t look interested.
As I climbed up into my Jeep I heard him say under his breath “long way from home aren’t cha?” I shut the door as if I didn’t hear him and pulled away onto the gravel road. I looked in my rearview mirror. He was watching me drive away. Brody was still sound asleep.
An hour later, after I had finished my coffee and my audio book, I saw headlights in my rearview mirror. Another night owl, I said as I reached down to stroke Brody’s long body. Within a few minutes the car had gotten really close, and then it would fall back again, as if they were hitting the breaks. They did this several times. What are they doing that for? I nervously asked Brody, holding onto him a little tighter. He looked up at me, concerned. Am I imagining it? I have been driving so long and I’m so tired I could be seeing things? Just ignore them they will go away. Then after a few minutes, the car disappeared as quickly as it showed up. I looked at my watch, two more hours.
An hour or so after that, my maintenance light went on. What the fuck! My heart banged against my ribs. The maintenance screen read low tire pressure on my back left tire.
I haven’t seen the headlights behind me in an hour or so. That’s good at least. I pulled over. “Stay here,” I told Brody as I rolled down his window. I got out into the pitch-black night. It was cool out but I could feel the heat coming off the pavement, still hot from the day. The sand absorbed all sound. There was no wind either, just sand and an occasional cactus. I hadn’t seen any animals besides an armadillo a few hours earlier.
I went to the tire to investigate, it had a nail sticking out of the side. How did you get there? I had two cans of compressed air for quick tire inflates in my bag. I went to the backseat and unzipped my duffel and dumped everything out; bras, underwear, pans, a shower curtain, all my essentials for living on the road. And of course, the case Billy gave me.
I knew how to change a tire but it wasn’t totally flat and I’d rather use a temporary fix instead of taking the time to change it, especially with the scary car earlier. I could blow it up, get to the hotel, and worry about fixing the tire in the morning. I suppose I was lucky that this was my first flat tire. With all the driving I’ve done it was bound to happen eventually. Right?
As I continued to search for the can I heard a noise, I turned around. The headlights. The road was so flat you could see they were still very far away. But they were there. What do I do? Do I continue to look for my can? Do I get in the car until they pass by? I don’t think I can keep driving or it will be totally flat and then I won’t be able to fix it with the can. God, please help me. I said a quick prayer as I opened the other duffel and dumped everything out. Brody began to whine watching his dog food spill all over the place. Got it! Just go quick before that car gets here.
I raced to the tire, my hands shaking, and read the instructions. Ugh I should have read this earlier. Finally I got it attached and steadied my hands enough to hold it still, I looked over my shoulder, the car was getting closer. You could now hear the roar of the engine. A couple minutes later, just as I was I finishing the can, I heard a car slowly pull onto the gravel behind me. I turned around and saw a pair of fuzzy dice.
“You okay?” he asked in a long drawl as he stepped out onto his boot heel, looking over his door at me, a smile forming on his lips.
“Oh… yeah just a bit of a flat. I used a tire inflator and I’ll be on my way now,” I said nervously, my hands fumbling to get the cap back on the tire. I could hear my voice cracking. I wondered if he heard it too.
He looked at my tire and then at me. “That tire ain’t gonna last ya. Why don’t you let me help ya change it?” he said shutting his door and coming towards me.
“No that’s ok. I got it thanks,” and I turned away, still fumbling with the cap for the tire, my hands shaking.
He walked towards me.
“You know you never answered my question,” he said raising his eyebrows, tilting his head to one side.
“What question?” I asked looking up at him.
“You’re a long way from home aren’t ‘cha?” he said motioning to my license plate.
A lump formed in my throat. I swallowed hard.
“Oh…Yeah. I, uh, travel a lot for work so I’m used to it. I’ve got people waiting for me at a hotel in Fort Stockton.”
“Girly you’re still an hour away from Fort Stockton. That tire ain’t gonna last you that long with that nail in it,” he told me, his voice getting more stern than questioning.
“How did you know it had a nail in it?” I asked.
“Wild guess” he said in his slow drawl. Brody began whining in the car, standing on the seat, poking his head out the window watching us.
“What’s that? You got a dog in there?” he asked, smiling as he walked past me to my car.
“Yeah he doesn’t like people though so I’d just…”
Brody excitedly licked his hand as he stuck it in the window to pet him. Traitor.
“Aww he’s a sweetheart. What you talkin’ ‘bout he don’t like people,” he said, petting him. Then he reached past Brody and pulled my key chain out of the ignition.
“Now… Why don’t you let me help you with that tire,” he said as he came back over to me. I turned to walk past him, towards my door. But he hooked his fingers in my belt loops as I attempted to walk by and pulled me towards him, chuckling.
“Hey, hey, c’mon it's alright. I’m not gonna hurt ya,” he said as he started swaying his hips left to right, as if we were dancing, holding onto my belt loops making my hips sway too.
“Please leave me alone,” I said, squeezing my eyes shut.
“Oh so it’s like that? You’re too hot shit to accept help from a stranger. Is that it? You one of them bitches who don’t need no ones help, huh?” He said becoming more agitated, his eyes widened. I began to cry. He pressed his hips against me, squishing me between him and the car. I could feel him getting aroused against my leg.
“Now… let me go get the jack out of my trunk and I’ll help you with that tire, and then you, and your dog, can be on your way,” he said brushing a piece of hair from my cheek and tucking it behind my ear, my whole body trembled.
I nodded. “Ok,” I whispered. He let go of me and walked to his car and opened the trunk, keeping one eye on me.
What do I do? I can’t run, he’ll just catch me. I can’t drive away, he has my keys now. Think Shannon. Brody began to whine again.
“I’m going to give the dog a bit of water. It’s been awhile,” I yelled out to him as Brody began to whine louder.
He looked around the trunk at me, but didn’t say anything. He wasn’t worried. I couldn't go anywhere. As I rifled through the backseat to get Brody’s dish I saw it. The Gun! Was it even loaded? I couldn’t load it without him hearing. Am I over reacting? I’m scared but maybe he IS just going to fix my tire, maybe he just enjoys scaring me but he won’t actually hurt me. If I pull a gun out that will elevate this whole situation and I wont be able to go back. I flipped the case open and got the gun out, cold and silver in my hand.
I got Brody’s water dish out and I put the gun in the back of my pants. I let Brody out of the car and poured him a cup of water and a cup of dog food. He chowed it down as I stood over him watching, trying to figure out what to do next. Flowered shirt guy kept looking around the trunk to make sure I wasn’t trying anything.
I heard the trunk close and I looked up. He was walking towards me now but he wasn’t holding a jack, he was holding zip ties and duct tape.
“What are you doing?” I asked my voice trembling.
“C’mon girly. It’s ‘bout time you and me start havin’ some fun. Now come here or do you want me to come over there and get ya?” He asked swaying his hips as if he was dancing again.
I gulped hard. I couldn't speak. He started coming towards me. Could I do this? Was it loaded? Could I kill this person? Did I remember how?
He reached for my arm. I pulled it away. He slapped me. I started crying. He laughed. Brody started barking. I took a step back. He unzipped his pants. I reached behind my back.
Two months later I returned to Tennessee after completing my California assignment. After dinner Billy and I dug the hole for our time capsule. In it we put a newspaper, a coin, a letter, a photo of us, and a list of our goals and dreams as a couple. He listed 'having children' as his number one goal. I wrote 'travel more' as mine. We kissed and toasted with champagne, putting the cork in the capsule also.
“Oh, I want to put something else in there! Don’t close it yet,” I ran into the house.
He opened the case and I threw it in.
“What was that?” He asked as I placed the fuzzy dice in the time capsule.
“Just a souvenir from my trip.” He closed the case. And we buried it. Deep down where no one would ever find it.