There’s a youtuber who is deeply into them and it started me thinking about who and where I was when I was reading about them the most.
“You going tonight, Mare?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on. It’ll be fun. You love it.”
She dumped the soggy coffee filter in the trash and started up a fresh pot. The smell of it mingled with grease from the fryer and oil from the garage and the stench of gas from the pumps outside. This fucking place. It sank into the skin.
“Bobby’ll be there.”
“Are you sure that’s not why you want to go?”
Charlene turned red, but shook her head, ringlets dancing. She looked like Shirley Temple. That was the first thing she said, all the way back in first grade. My name is Charlene. I look like Shirley Temple. And she’d had a picture to show.
“He’s all yours.”
“He’s a dumbass, you know.”
Marianne looked down at the end of the counter. The dark-haired woman had been camped out on the stool a good four hours, nursing a coffee mug. She never saw her drink. She barely saw her move. She sent an apologetic look to Charlene and went to check up.
“Fresh pot’ll be ready soon.”
“That will be grand.”
“Grand?” Marianne cocked her head. “You from England or something?”
“Not so far off. Lots of places. Started off in Ireland though. Long time ago.”
“Sorry. I know you guys have a thing.”
“So we do.” She smiled. Marianne found herself staring; the woman’s lips were red, dark against her pale skin. People said that Marianne was fish-belly white but the woman made her look like a California girl in comparison.
“Going up to Alaska?”
“I heard the northern lights are a thing of wonder.”
“You can see those here, even. In winter, though.”
She was aware of the need to shut up. The woman’s dark brown braid slid over her shoulder, gleaming in the sick florescent light.
“I should stay here, then, until winter?”
“God, no. There’s nothing to do here.”
“It sounds like you have plans.”
“Nothing good.” Charlene was getting fidgety. She’d need a ride out if she was going to go and Charlene could borrow her brother’s car. “I’ll get you some more coffee when it’s ready.”
“So you’ll come,” Charlene said.
“I guess. I don’t want to get stuck out there all night, though.”
“Someone will be coming back in.” Charlene grinned. “Awesome. I’ll come by and pick you up when your shift’s done.”
She followed her outside. The amber lights over the pumps filled the air with a low, buzzing hum. They weren’t far off the highway, and caught a lot of traffic from people who thought the little patch of town to the south was the last of it, when most of it was still ahead. There was a lull at the moment. The gas station was a small, amber puddle clinging to the highway, with nothing but unremarkable, endless marshy forests all around.
“I don’t know how you put up with the weirdos.”
“That woman. She’s freaky.”
“How is she freaky?”
“I don’t even think she moved the whole time I was in there.”
“She did! She talked to me and stuff.”
Charlene shrugged. “I just don’t think I could do it.”
She’d never have to, either. Her parents were made of money. The only reason she had to borrow a car was because her birthday present had been a trip to New York.
“I’m done at midnight.”
“Great! Be back then.”
Marianne watched her run off, curls bouncing. At least she was nice-rich, not asshole-rich. She pulled open the door.
“Sorry. I’ll get you that—”
The stool at the end of the counter was empty. She went around to the bathrooms. The doors stood open, vacant.
At least it was only coffee. Last week someone took off with a full tank. Marianne scooped up the cup and saucer then froze. Next to the unused napkin she found a hundred dollar bill.
The pit was a multipurpose wasteland. The flat stretch of rocky ground was fringed with scrawny pines, wide enough for guys to mess around with their cars. Part of the cliff face was the unofficially official target range; a line of broken glass at the base caught the firelight and bounced it back. Along the other side was the Snake River. It wasn’t deep enough for anything more than wading, but it was great for tubing as long as you got out before you hit the rapids.
By the time she and Charlene got there the fire was built up. The muffled sound of music from some busted out pickup was loud enough that she could hear it in the car. Country or metal? When Charlene turned off the car she picked out the boom of drums, not the slide of a steel guitar.
Nights were always cold, even in summer, and it was only May. She pulled her sleeves down over her hands to hold her beer and sat as close to the fire as she could. Charlene saw a group of girls from her neighbourhood, abandoning Marianne for the moment. She watched her from across the fire, and drained her beer too fast.
Bobby sat down beside her. The felt pen writing on his jeans was faded out. She couldn’t remember what she’d drawn on them, but he’d loved it at the time. They’d been in a lot of the same classes in the first year of high school, and she’d gotten the craziest crush on him. Everyone did. He was the guy with the car and the guitar, but he wasn’t a snob. She thought he’d lose interest after she tested into AP classes but he still seemed to like her.
Or it was habit. Other people had cigarettes. She had Bobby. They barely spoke. If she hadn’t come it probably wouldn’t have registered. She shifted on the hard ground; if she hadn’t come she probably wouldn’t have missed it either.
The weed went around the fire. She let the smoke fill her lungs. By the time it went around again it had wrapped around her brain. She thought of Bobby’s fumbling and took another hit.
“Wanna get out of here for awhile?”
His pickup was parked at the edge of the pit. He had plans for it. Big plans. She could feel the rust-pitted metal through the sleeping bag as he moved.
He was grunting faster. She reached down, hoping to get herself off before he finished. He grabbed her hands and pinned them above her head. His face appeared, blocking out the stars.
“You like that, don’t you? You can’t even help yourself. You fucking love it.”
She moaned. He grinned. She felt him go stiff. Was he wearing a condom? Sometimes he took it off mid way through.
He panted on top of her, then rolled off. “That was great, Mare.”
No condom. She sat up and used a corner of the sleeping bag to wipe herself off.
“What the fuck? Don’t do that!”
“Shit, now I’ll have to wash it.”
She looked at the sleeping bag and felt a bone-deep shudder. How far was it to the nearest shower?
He hopped down and pulled up his jeans.
“I’m gonna get a beer.”
She watched him shamble back to the bright noise of the pit
“Yeah, thanks. I’d love one.”
She dressed, then sat on the tailgate. Heavy bass bounced between the trees. The song had to be twenty years old. Someone’s dad’s music. She bobbed her head along for a few beats. The movement trailed off without her noticing.
The stars came out as her eyes adjusted. The black sky became blue. Wind rushed through the trees, bowing them briefly down, then it faded, taking the music away with it. She could only tell a couple of constellations. She liked Orion, but she couldn’t find it. Maybe it was the wrong time of year. She could see the dipper, though. She watched it for awhile, beer and weed making it blur and swirl like it was alive.
Ursa. Ursula. She looked down. If she got pregnant…if it was a girl…maybe she could call her that.
She shuddered. She didn’t want to get pregnant. A couple of girls in school had kids. People stared after them and whispered, even though they’d gotten married. At least they were married. That’s what her mom said.
The quiet thickened. A mist spread out from the trees. It was like the wet, icy cold mist that came in winter, and made water droplets form on her lashes. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, but everything stayed blurry. When she shifted her weight the creak of the truck sounded sharp.
I should go back.
She didn’t want to see Charlene and her friends, or listen to music that she was beginning to fear was as shitty as her mom said it was. She wanted to stay here, waiting.
“What a gentleman that one is.”
The woman from the station was standing at the edge of the trees. Marianne blinked rapidly; it was her and not her at the same time. Like when she got really drunk and straight edges didn’t line up. Her stomach twisted. She wasn’t that drunk. There was something wrong. There was something wrong.
“How did y…Did you follow us?”
“I was invited.” She waved her hand. It was graceful, not thoughtless, meaningful, not vague. It didn’t make sense to her that someone would invite a perfect stranger. Then again, she was hot, and guys would do anything if a girl was hot.
She looked down at herself. She still wanted a shower. She tried to move, commanding herself to slide down off the tailgate. Charlene and her brother’s car would take her home. Everything would be okay if she was behind her own door, in her swaybacked bed.
The woman sat beside her. Graceful. Like you saw in movies. She crossed her legs at the ankles and swung them slowly. Marianne watched. It was so weird; she could feel her heart pounding like a bird against the cage of her ribs, but she sat still, as though there was nothing wrong at all. She knew without knowing that she wouldn’t be able to move if she tried.
The woman smelled…cold. Like winter mist. Cold, and barely there.
“What’s your name?”
“You can call me Ash.”
“Is that your name?”
“Part of it.”
“Thank you. I like yours, too.”
“Just lucky. One grandmother was Mary. One was Anne.”
“You carry your family forward in your blood.”
She hoped not. Her father and his family had been riddled with heart problems. Her mother was three careful years sober.
“Forgive me. A painful topic.”
She shifted, not sure what to say. The apology was so gentle and sincere.
They were silent for awhile. Distantly, she thought she heard the song change. Some screaming thrash metal.
“It sounds like war.”
“I guess. It’s good when you’re angry, you know.”
“So is war.”
She smiled. She seemed to glow in the mist. Her lips were so red.
“I didn’t think there were any wars in Ireland.”
Maybe she was talking about some other place. It seemed like she moved around.
“The young are full of passion. It turns to rage so easily.”
Her voice was rich and deep, echoing in her head.
“What do you want, Marianne?”
She looked down. Her fingers had found a patch of rust, pulling at the flakes, fragmenting the truck, bit by bit.
“I want to go away. I wanted to go away to university. Somewhere else. Be somewhere else. Someone else. I don’t know who or what. I could figure it out, you know. Everyone who can leave here gets out when they can.”
“A fine ambition.”
“It was, I guess.”
“Your life isn’t over.”
“I needed a scholarship. Wasn’t quite good enough, though.”
Ash nodded. How old was she? Maybe twenty? Travelling the world.
She must be rich.
“Not rich. Not at first.”
“You read minds?”
“You spoke aloud.”
“Fuck. That pot must have been laced with something.”
Ash laughed. Marianne felt it in her spine. It was a quiver, like when you drove too fast, or climbed under the bridge to wait out a train.
“Do you want to know what I want?”
“Yes.” She did. She wondered about her.
Marianne thought she saw her move, then fire poured through her veins, and ice followed. She twisted. The woman’s arms were so strong, and the pain from her throat burned down her arms and legs.
Wait. No. I want. I want to see. Not yet.
The stars blurred and dimmed.
I haven’t seen anything, yet.