Lyla sat on the side of the highway, painting a daisy on her thumbnail when she heard a rumble. She squinted through the heat shimmer and spotted a dust cloud trailing a car in the distance, then looked heavenward and exhaled a prayer of thanks.
The wisp of a girl cocked her hip, thrust out her thumb and flashed beauty-queen teeth: a picture of 22-year old optimism daring anyone to pass her by without taking a second look. As she stared down the pockmarked stretch of road, the sun burned right into her eyes, so she closed them, and she waited.
Time moved at a different speed with her eyes closed. The not-knowing-what’s-out-there anxiety turned moments into minutes. The car should be there by now. Maybe she’d imagined the vehicle. She fought self-doubt as her cheeks ached from holding a pageant smile for so long. Lyla shifted her weight, adjusting her pose self-consciously. She thought about rearranging her boobs in her bra, but she didn’t want to take her thumb out of the air, so she settled for arching her back.
Worried that she might not be seen, she opened her eyes and angled out a little bit into the road.
She saw only a blur, but she heard a screech and felt a whoosh as a faded orange Chevy Corvair swerved, nearly smearing her into the asphalt as it passed. Lyla’s face turned away, but her thumb stayed out there, bravely trying to do its hitchhiking job.
If her thumb had eyes, it would’ve seen that piece of gravel flying through the air. And those thumb-eyes would’ve widened at the sight of a ragged-edged hunk of rock spiraling and twirling almost purposefully, its trajectory set on a collision course with her perfect pink, daisy-dotted thumbnail.
The gravel cracked the top off Lyla’s nail and ricocheted off into the desert.
“Shit, shit, shit.” Lyla flapped the hand, trying to shake off the pain.
A haze of dust settled on the young hitchhiker as the Corvair backed up slowly. Teased hair, tattoos and a plague of freckles slouched behind the wheel.
Lyla coughed and waved through the dust. “You cracked my nail.”
The driver popped her gum. “’Bout cracked your skull.”
Lyla shrugged, rubbed her damaged thumb.
The driver surveyed the area, wary. “You know, hitchhikin’s illegal.”
“I think it’s more of a ‘frowned upon’ kind of thing.”
“Where you headed?”
“The West ain’t a place.”
“You’re absolutely right. The West is more of a tradition…or an ideal. A place where ambitious souls travel seeking adventure.”
“Did you read that somewhere?”
“You think I’m stupid?”
“Of course not.”
“Cause it sounds like you’re tryin’ to shit me and we just hardly met. You don’t look like much.”
Lyla straightened up and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “Well, appearances can be deceiving, can’t they?”
“Not in my experience, no.”
“I’m wounded and out in the middle of nowhere making chit-chat with a crusty stranger about chasing fame and fortune. If that isn’t the start of an adventure, I don’t know what is.”
“You’re trying to get a ride offa me…and you’re calling me crusty.”
“I meant it affectionately.”
The driver snorted. “Well okay then, little miss affection, say I’m up for an adventure, you got a line on a fortune?”
“I believe a girl makes her own luck. I have some…prospects. Nothing exactly rock solid.”
“Don’t mean to sound like a broom-toting bitch rainin’ on your hopes and dreams, but that ain’t much of a plan.”
Lyla’s face flushed. “And this ain’t much of a car. You just gonna let me sit by the side of the road sweatin’ through the ass of my jeans while we talk about the feasibility of my so-called plan or are you gonna give me a ride?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
“Look, I haven’t hitchhiked much…”
“That I believe…”
“…but I really didn’t imagine it would take this long to get into a car once it had pulled over.”
“Easy there, sister-in-a-hurry. A female in this world can’t just let some stranger into her car without knowing a little somethin’ bout her travelin’ companion first. World’s a screwed up place. I only pulled over cause I thought I mighta hit you.”
“You’re a Samaritan.”
“No, my people are from Lubbock.”
“It means a doer of good deeds.” Lyla gigled.
“You got an uppity tone about you. You’re just making up words, now.”
“No, I’m not. It’s a compliment. You thought you’d hit me and you wanted to help.”
“I’d a probably just covered you with a little dirt and gone on my way.”
“Okaay. Maybe not a Samaritan.”
“Dark deeds can happen out on the road. Specially to folks who think they’re above everyone else.”
“Sometimes I come off a little snotty. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t like it when people talk to me like I’m stupid.”
The driver slid the car into gear and idled forward. Lyla put her hand inside the window and hop-step-skipped along side it.
“Hey, hey, hey. Look, I really could use a ride. Kinda desperate actually.”
The driver stopped. “You got any money?”
“Well, not any.”
“You really didn’t think this through, did you?”
“I left in kind of a hurry.”
“What’s his name?”
“Lotta girls got mixed up with him. Complicated gets around don’t he?”
Lyle shrugged in agreement. The driver studied her, assessing. Lyla found herself holding her breath, listening to the rumble of the engine idling.
“So…” Lyla exhaled.
“So…here’s how it’s gonna go. I’m gonna give you a ride…”
“Yes!” Lyla bounced and clapped.
“…but you annoy me, condescend to me, talk too much, get too quiet, fiddle with the radio, fart in your sleep, sneeze in my direction, etcetera…your bony behind will again be sweatin’ by the side of the road quickity quick. We good?”
Lyla extended her hand through the car window. “We’re good. I’m Lyla.”
“I’m Karla. Hop on in. Seat belts don’t work, but the AC does.”
Lyla slid into the front seat.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
“I’m heading to Okmulgee. It’s not an ideal. It’s not a tradition. It’s just Okmulgee. And there’s not much fame, fate or fortune to that town ‘cept for a truck stop that’s serves up cherry pie so good, it’ll melt your panties off.”
“Just so you know, saying shit like “yummy” will get your ass kicked to the curb, too.”
“Good to know.”
“Wake up, princess.”
“We stopped?” Lyla’s eyelashes flickered and she looked around to get her bearings. She stretched a kitteny stretch and breathed in the cool night air.
“Yeah. Gotta fill up.”
“Thank god. I’ve gotta pee soo bad.”
Karla scanned the parking lot. “I wanna be real clear now. You got any money?”
“I wasn’t lying. I really don’t have any.”
“Then we are in a situation. I figured you were holding out.”
“S’alright. We got a couple options, but I’m guessin’ they’re both gonna be firsts for you. Open the glove box.”
A .38 special sat nestled next to fast food napkins, inkless pens and a ratty owner’s manual for a 1974 Dodge Dart.
Lyla recoiled. She tried to close the glove compartment, but it kept falling back open.
“Stop that.” Karla took Lyla’s hand to settle her down. “It’s just a bad latch.”
“Shit. Is that thing loaded?”
“Not much point in having one if it ain’t.”
“Are you trying to scare me?” Lyla stammered.
“I’m tryin’ to educate you.”
“I think I may have just peed a little. I really have to go.”
“My god, girl. You are such a pain in the ass.”
“I’m really really sorry. Can we continue my education after I pee?”
“Nope, cause here’s the rub. We…are running on fumes.”
“Empty? Like past E empty?”
“Like halfway to G empty.”
“So we either go in with that gun and take what we need…”
“Shit. You’re serious. You’re, like, totally serious right now, aren’t you?”
Karla shook her head and sighed. “It’s not as serious as you think, so settle yourself. Some little redneck retard makin’ minimum wage is not gonna risk his neck over a tank a gas and some Funyuns.”
“Riiight…you said there were two choices. Is there a non-violent one?”
“There is.” Karla tapped the steering wheel with her fingernail, the beat matching the cadence of her words “One of us can blow the kid behind the counter…”
“Blow, like blow job?”
“You are a quick one.”
“Oh my god.”
“Makes you feel any better, we could toss a coin.”
“For the violent or the non-violent option? Or to find out who’s going to suck the retarded redneck kid’s dick. I’m saying this out loud ‘cause I can’t believe these are my choices.”
“Well the other option is pulling off the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and tryin’ to get some sleep with horny truckers hopped up on meth and god knows what else knocking on the windows hourly and askin’ ‘You all right in there little ladies?’ We’d fend them off until morning where we’d wake up…”
“…broke and out of gas.”
“Oh my god.” Lyla glanced down at her chipped thumbnail. There wasn’t much of the daisy left that she’d painted earlier that day.
Karla reached into the glove compartment and grabbed the gun. She cocked the hammer back on the .38.
“You wanted an adventure, sister. Heads or tails?”
TERRY RIETTA is a father, a filmmaker and a storyteller. He hits his free throws. He washes his hands before dinner. And he has always written to woo his wife.