Cassie stood on the top of the overpass scanning the desolation before her. Yellowed grass and dust and cracked asphalt—the same in every direction. The wind picked up, rustled her short-cropped hair. Dust blew in her face, making her clear blue eyes water. She squinted to see in the failing light. The intersection of highway and overpass created a crossroads, but from what she could see, there was nothing in either direction.
She heard her name called and looked back down at the highway to see her father. He stood in the car doorway with one foot out, beckoning her. She nodded and walked down the on-ramp, kicking at loose pebbles.
“C’mon!” her father said. “Git goin’!”
Cassie quickened her pace and climbed into the beat-up Chevy Nova. Her father started the engine, then manually cranked down the window to let air in. He pulled onto the empty two-lane highway and headed west, past a sign that read “El Paso 212 miles.”
Her father tuned the radio to the news and pulled his hat brim lower. She turned her face to the window.
“I hate the news,” Cassie said.
Her father spat out a wad of tobacco out the driver side window.
“Not your car, not your say.”
“But this ain’t even our c—“
“I don’t wanna hear it. I’m the one drivin’ so I git to choose what we listen to.”
He spat again.
“But that ain’t fair. I don’t got a license.”
“Well, tough. Life ain’t fair. About time you learned to deal with it.”
Cassie stared at the dead grass and passing gray clouds. She slumped in her seat.
“Where we goin’ now, anyway?”
Her father pointed down the road. “That-a way. Forward.”
“That’s not a place.”
“No,” he said. “But it’s a direction.”
Up ahead in the other lane and police cruiser came toward them.
“Put your seatbelt on,” he said, tapping her arm. “Don’t want no trouble.”
She clicked her belt in the buckle and then turned back the window. The police car passed. He watched it disappear in the rearview mirror. Sighing, he loosened his grip on the steering wheel.
After a while Cassie asked, “How much farther we got?”
“I don’t know.”
The dashboard clock was broken, but Cassie’s father estimated it was near midnight when they reached the town of Merkel and pulled into a motel parking lot. Cassie got out of the car and stretched her arms.
“I bin in that car for too long. Feels like my joints done welded together,” she said.
Her father killed the engine and climbed out.
“Wait here,” he said, and walked to the motel office.
Inside an overweight clerk leaned over the counter.
“Evenin’, ma’am. Room for the night, please.”
“One bed or two?”
“Jus’ one. How much?”
“Twelve-fifty,” she said.
He handed over a crumpled twenty. As she made change, she looked up and past him. The door opened and shut. He turned around to find Cassie standing there.
“Di’n’t I tell you to wait outside?”
“I was cold.”
The clerk smiled. “What’s your name, darlin’?”
“Maddie,” she replied.
“What a nice name. How old are you?”
“Twelve, ma’am.” She smiled politely back.
“Ain’t you sweet?”
Her father grunted. “The key, please?”
The woman lifted a key from a hook hanging on a board behind her.
“Room six,” she said, passing him the key. “Down toward the end.”
“Thank you,” he said.
He turned to leave.
The woman touched his shoulder. “Sir, you forgot to sign the register.”
“I’m sorry.” He passed the key to his daughter. “Go on ahead,” he said.
Cassie exited the office.
The woman handed him a pen and pointed to a blank line. She glanced down as he signed his name.
“Ben Walker,” she said.
“Not that special of a name,” he said. “Goodnight.”
“Night,” she said, and he walked out.
He entered room six. His daughter was brushing her teeth in the bathroom. She had already laid their suitcases at the foot of the bed. He sat down in a chair and proceeded to remove his boots.
“Dad?” she asked. She rinsed her mouth out and then lay down on the bed.
“I don’t feel good about not using my real name.”
“I told you, Cassie. It’s not safe right now to do so.”
“But that’s lyin’.”
“It’s not lyin’. It’s protectin’ yourself. And me.” He finished removing his boots and reached over to pull the window curtains shut. “Git some sleep, you hear? We got to wake up early.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
Cassie closed her eyes and soon her breathing grew shallow. He watched her as he sat. He removed a pistol from the back of his jeans, weighed it in his hand, and then laid it on his lap. He tilted his head forward, staring at the silvery glint the gun metal made in the dim light.
“Up and at ‘em,” he said, nudging Cassie’s arm. She moaned and opened her eyes.
“You can sleep in the car,” he continued.
She sat up and put on her shoes and walked outside. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she sunk into the front seat. Her father soon returned and climbed in. He slipped a wad of bills into his wallet.
“Where’d you git that?”
“The woman returned it. Said I overpaid.”
She nodded solemnly and left it at that. She knew what had really happened but she didn’t want to think about it. She closed her eyes and leaned against the headrest.
Her father turned the key in the ignition and the engine revved to life. He drove out of the parking lot.
They soon left the motel behind them. The morning passed by uneventfully. Cassie awoke a few hours later, confused to see they were traveling on a four-lane highway.
“About time you woke up,” her father said. “We’re on the interstate now.”
“Thought we was supposed to be headin’ south by now?”
“Change of plans,” he said. “Gotta see about somethin’ in the city. Won’t take long.”
“Won’t people be lookin’ for us there?”
Her father spat out the window and wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve.
They fell silent and remained that way for most of the afternoon. Around sundown, steam started spewing up from under the hood and he pulled over to the side of the road.
He got out and propped the hood up. “Damn.”
“What’s the matter?” Cassie yelled out the window.
“What we gonna do now?”
“Can’t do nothin’ for it now.” He glanced at her. “Reckon we jus’ have to wait until someone drives by. Don’t know why there’s not much traffic today. Must be nothin’ goin’ on, I guess.”
After a while a car appeared. Cassie’s father shaded his eyes with his arm.
“Looks like one of those new ’74 Fords,” her father said. “Saw it in one of those auto magazines.” His voice grew stern. “Stay in the car.”
He waved his arm and the Ford slowed down. Cassie’s father approached the car. An old couple was inside, the man driving.
“Howdy,” he said. “Name’s Ben.” He motioned to his car. “Car’s done overheated.”
“Name’s Herb. Lemme take a look,” the old man said. Cassie’s father took a step back and the man got out of the Ford.
“Herb used to be a mechanic,” his wife said.
“Well then, reckon we got lucky,” Cassie’s father said.
“I’ll be right back,” Herb told his wife.
They walked over to the car and Herb examined the engine.
“Herb, how’s it lookin’?”
“Ben, looks like you’re gonna need to git this here car towed. Good news is there’s a town a few miles up the road.” He lowered the hood.
“Thank you, sir. But I think we’ll be jus’ fine.” He smiled and let out a short chuckle.
“I beg your pardon?”
But he had already pulled the gun. Cassie ducked her head down. A shot rang out. She glanced up briefly. Blood spread on the old man’s shirt around his stomach. Herb’s wife screamed. Cassie’s father buffaloed Herb’s temple with the gun. He collapsed.
Cassie’s head snapped back down between her knees. Her body shook violently. Her eyes pressed shut. The door of the other car opened, followed by a scuffle and another shot. Then silence.
The back door of their car shot open and Cassie yelped in fright. The old man’s body was being shoved into the back seat.
Her father yelled, “Into the other car now. Move!”
Cassie fumbled with the door latch. Once the door was open, she ran toward the Ford. Her father pushed the other body into their old car then shut the door. Cassie reached the Ford and climbed in the front seat, cradling her legs in her arms and continuing to sob.
Her father slammed the back door of the car and pushed the car into a ditch. Then he hopped into the Ford and gunned the engine.
Night came. Her father stared attentively at the road in front of him.
“Looks blacker than midnight under a skillet,” he commented.
Cassie remained silent.
“Somethin’ botherin’ you?” he asked.
“You know what’s botherin’ me.”
“Why’d you kill ‘em, Dad?”
“We needed the car, Cassie.”
“We could of ridden to town with them and then you could of stolen another car.”
“You think that wasn’t dangerous enough?”
“Calm down. I had control of the situation.”
Cassie shook her head. Tears formed at her eyes.
“Dad, you di’n’t just shoot them. You beat him like a rented mule.”
“Well,” he said after a long pause. “Can’t do nothin’ about it now. What’s done is done.”
He turned on the radio and flipped to a country station. Cassie wept harder.
“Shit,” he muttered, spitting tobacco out the window.
Cassie’s next question surprised him. “Why don’t you talk about mama?”
His grip tightened on the steering wheel.
“Sorry, Cassie. That just couldn’t be helped.”
Cassie sighed and closed her eyes.
He drove for another hour listening to the sad sounds from the country station, then pulled off the road and rested his eyes. It was early morning but still dark when he awoke and continued driving. Cassie woke up later sore and stiff just as the sun was beginning to rise behind them.
“Mornin’,” she replied. “Can we eat soon? I’m starvin’.”
“A sign said twenty miles to El Paso.”
As they drove along a beat-up pickup truck came roaring up the road behind them. It crossed the double yellow line. Cassie and her father watched the truck as it passed. Hoots and hollers from beer-swigging teens emitted from the cab. The truck sped up and merged back into the lane and left them behind.
Cassie’s father said, “You ever encounter anyone as stupid?”
“No, sir,” Cassie replied.
He turned the radio to a comedy station. Soon he was laughing at everything the comic said. He looked over at Cassie and was surprised to see that she was laughing too. Her face was beet red and her body was doubled over from laughing so hard. He continued to laugh to hide his astonishment. It was the first time he had seen his daughter laugh since before they hightailed it out of Gainesville two days ago.
When he turned his attention back to the road, he noticed black clouds ahead and heard a faint boom of thunder.
“Looks like it’s gonna rain.”
He cringed. “Yep.”
“Dad, who we seein’ in El Paso?”
“Uncle Frank. Maybe he can help us.”
“But . . . he’s Momma’s brother. What if he knows?”
Her father bit his lower lip.
“That’s a chance we’ll have to take.”
He reached over and tousled her hair, but she pulled away from him.
Sean Woodard is a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University and Chapman University. A writer with Catholic guilt, he spends his day either analyzing Westerns and Horror films or listening to Ennio Morricone’s film scores. He aspires to be a college professor, but instead gets off the couch to devour another jumbo bag of cheese puffs. Focusing on a wide variety of interests, Sean’s fiction, film criticism, and other writing have been featured in Found Polaroids, Drunk Monkeys, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications. A native of Visalia, CA, he now resides in Orange County. You may follow him on Twitter @SeanWoodard7326 and Instagram @swoodard7326.