She stood on the side of the road as the headlights of passing cars swept over her. Long dark hair whipped her face, but she didn’t bother to swipe it away; instead, she stood immobile, clutching a spiral notebook with “NEED A LIFT” printed in purple Sharpie on the back cover. At her feet lay a small black duffle bag and a navy backpack.
When the tan Impala pulled to a stop a few yards beyond the girl, she twirled around and hesitated before swinging a bag over each shoulder and stumbling toward the waiting occupants. She nearly tripped as her flip-flops slid on the gravel and her jeans trailed in the dirt.
The passenger window rolled down as she approached.
“We’re heading north up I-17 to Flag and a bit beyond. Where you aiming to go?” a man said from the driver’s seat.
“North works,” the girl replied.
“Well, hop in back.”
As she threw her bags in ahead of her to the seat on the other side, she peered at two fluffy white heads until the driver turned around to reveal an aged face. He smiled at her reassuringly, and she replied in kind, biting her lip. For a moment, she hesitated, but she finally slid in the car and pulled the door closed. The man tapped the blinker and pulled out onto the road.
“You cold?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she replied, but he turned up the heater anyway.
“Don’t forget your seatbelt, dear,” a woman’s voice said from the passenger’s seat after a moment’s silence. The girl fumbled to comply.
“Thank you for picking me up and all.”
“We’re glad to do it. Molly here saw you standing there, and said to me, ‘Honey, it’s a mite too late for a pretty girl like that to be standing out there all alone—’ you can’t be much older than our oldest granddaughter, you see—so we thought we’d better stop.”
The girl nodded and tugged at the frayed edge of her jacket’s sleeve. “I appreciate it.”
“Name’s Peter, by the way, and my wife’s Molly here. We should probably tell you that we don’t intend to go on past Flagstaff tonight,” Peter said and shared a look with his wife, “but you’re welcome to stay with us at the Super 8 for the night if you want to continue north with us.”
“Oh, I couldn’t—“
“Dear, it wouldn’t be any trouble, and it’d be much more comforting for us than thinking of you out who-knows-where this late at night,” the woman said, swiveling around to reveal two large, birdlike eyes.
“That’s too kind. I really couldn’t take you up on that, but thank you,” the girl said firmly.
“Well, the offer stands,” the man said. “I didn’t catch your name…”
The girl stopped shoving her notebook in her backpack to look up in surprise.
“Oh… I’ve decided I don’t want one anymore.”
“Well, if that isn’t the craziest thing…” the man said.
“Dear, you must have something you’re called.”
“Are you running away from someone, dear?”
The girl sighed and leaned her head back against the seat. “Look, I’m not in any trouble; I just need a ride as far north as you can take me. And you can call me whatever you want.”
The nameless girl by now had pulled a small purse from her backpack that she clenched tightly in her hands. The couple didn’t know quite how to handle this turn of events.
“Well, suppose we call you Susan, and your name’s Sally,” Peter finally said.
“Or Mildred? Or something as awful as Bertha?”
“Peter, Bertha is a perfectly acceptable name—and the name of a cousin on my mother’s side!”
The girl couldn’t hide her smile.
“Well, we could call you Kitty or, what else would we call what the cat dragged in… Spots?”
“Peter, now you’re just being ridiculous.”
“Late for supper?”
“Oo, that one’s cruel.”
The girl laughed at his efforts and pondered the question before saying, “Anything but Atlas.”
“Well, you’ll have to choose for us, dear; really now, don’t you have something you’d like to be called?”
Relenting, the girl stared out at the bobbing headlights.
“If I have to pick… Call me Mara,” the girl said deliberately.
Peter began babbling on about the merits of the name, but Molly craned her neck to look the girl in her mascara-rimmed eyes. A look of understanding passed between the two before the girl glanced out the window and Molly settled forward in her seat once more.
Peter had long ago run out of things to say. As the girl drummed her fingers along the edges of her purse, she let the swaying of the car rock her body like a ship at sea. A red air freshener—the kind shaped like a tree—hung from the rearview mirror, and as the girl watched, it bobbed like a fish in the oncoming stream of traffic. She had expected them to throw her out as soon as she had refused to reveal her name but was glad they hadn’t—the desert is cold at night, and unsettling. The cold slips under one’s skin and seeps into bones like a liquid.
Shivering, she wrapped her jacket tighter around her too-thin shoulders and watched the light play across Peter’s face. His face was wide-set, wrinkled with time, though his large grin and hooked nose made him appear solid and as healthy as the ruddiness of his cheeks. Bushy white eyelashes overhung two small green eyes that continually squinted against the glare of approaching cars’ headlights, and the result was an appearance like that of a man in deep conversation. Conversing with light, the girl reflected. The idea was poetic in appeal.
The girl wondered how her own face looked in the shadows of the back seat—large brown eyes framed with dark lashes, thin lips pressed together on her narrow, pale face. Her chocolate hair (or so the bottle had said) hung like curtains around the sharp angles of her face. The darkness and lightness of her being and surroundings clashed in her analysis, so she gave up the attempt and returned to gazing out the window.
By now, signs claimed they had traveled about 70 miles outside of Phoenix, and the girl jumped when the old woman murmured that they should turn off at the gas station up ahead. As they pulled up, the blue and red lights of the Exon station glowed dully in the night, brightened by the yellow light from the Wendy’s sign next door.
“Think I could do with a Frosty right about now,” Peter said, winking at the girl in the backseat.
“You and your incurable sweet tooth.”
“I know, I know. Now let’s go get those Frostys—that means you, too, Mara. My treat.”
Peter pulled the keys from the ignition, and the girl felt empty without the comforting hum of the motor.
“Oh, I couldn’t impose on you—you’ve been kind enough as it is.”
“And you can repay us by accepting a treat. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, hon.”
The girl relented and slid out of the car with an apologetic smile and a firm grip on the small black purse she had slung over her right shoulder.
Once situated in a hard plastic booth that attempted to be homey in the way any fast food restaurant is on a long road trip (simply in being familiar), the girl turned on her best interviewee face and prepared herself for the inquisition—she had it coming, she knew.
“So, Mara, what would you like to tell us about yourself?” Peter began.
“What do you want to know? Social security, credit card numbers?”
The old woman disapproved of the girl’s sarcasm with a slight “hmph” and an icy stare at the cup of ice cream she was nursing. Her pastel sweater and the bright yellow seat seemed oddly cheerful compared to the old woman’s scowl. The old man tried again.
“We could start with where you’re from, I suppose, what you like to do in your free time.”
The girl snorted and licked the Frosty from the back of her spoon.
“What free time?”
Peter and Molly waited for the girl to start the conversation as she pleased.
“I’m in high school, and it’s fall break. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, other than a crapload of homework. So I thought I’d go on a little road trip.”
“You wanted to go on a road trip with whatever Tom, Dick, and Harry stopped to pick you up? What’d your mom and pop say about this?”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Did you tell them?”
“I can take care of myself,” she repeated, holding back anger and the impulse to walk away from these busybodies.
The old lady finally spoke up. “Where did you want to go, dear?”
The girl’s glare shifted into confusion. “Excuse me?”
“On this road trip? What did you want to see?”
“Oh, I don’t know… I guess I didn’t really think that far ahead.”
“We’re heading to the Grand Canyon. And Zion after that,” Peter said with gusto.
“I’ve never seen it,” the girl said. She absentmindedly watched a toddler wave his spoon around at nearby table as if she expected it to fly out of his hand at any given moment. The child’s mother stepped outside for a smoke.
“Never seen it? You are in for a real treat, young lady, believe you me, a real treat. Molly and I first saw it, oh, thirty odd years ago—“
“Thirty-two, dear,” Molly interrupted.
“On our anniversary. Can’t say I was too excited about going to see a big hole in the ground,” Peter grinned at his wife, “but Molly had her heart set on it. No stopping her when her mind’s made up. And as usual, she was right.”
“It’s so much more than a hole in the ground, dear… It’s a new perspective; when you see it, it’s like… it’s like the world shifts in a, a great glass snow globe and you remember that you’re as much… observed as an observer,” Molly said.
The girl noted how the excitement spread from the old woman’s wide blue eyes to her fluttering hands. She looked like a frail bit of skin covering toothpick bones that could snap at a moment’s notice, but her voice commanded attention by its sheer conviction. There was no room for error in such a voice.
“You really must come see it, dear, if you have the time. We’d love to have you.”
“Thank you, but no. I’ve been enough trouble,” the girl protested.
“It’s no trouble at all. We’re headed there anyway.”
“You’ve been kind enough. If you end up in Flag, I have a friend who can take me in.”
“That’s fair enough. You should be out enjoying your break with your friends, not old folks like Molls and me. These are the best years of your life, hon. Ought to get out and enjoy them, live a little,” Peter joked.
To his surprise, the girl’s countenance contorted with anger.
“I really wish people wouldn’t say that,” she said abruptly. A clatter from the nearby table distracted her for a moment; the toddler had thrown the spoon to the ground in childish fury and was passionately wailing his frustration.
“I really wish people wouldn’t say that. I mean, if these are the best years of my life, why bother? What if someone’s life is absolute hell these days? Go ahead, tell me that this is as good as it gets. And tell that kid over there that his mommy’s as high as a kite out there while you’re at it,” the girl said, gesturing to the figure outlined in red and blue light outside the window.
“I just meant…”
“I don’t care what you meant; it’s not true anymore. You don’t get it.” With that, the girl pushed her way out of the booth and stormed out the door, her flip-flops slapping the sticky ground.
The cold air jolted her to her senses. The girl glanced at the woman outside the door, calmly smoking something and… playing Angry Birds on her iPhone from the sound of it. Unlike the girl, the woman owned the space she stood on, daring anyone to invade her spot. The girl shrunk away toward the Exon station like a moth drawn to light.
She let the wind whip her hair against her face and tried not to panic. I am officially screwed, she thought to herself. She was at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere without a cell phone (she’d deliberately left it behind), not that she’d have anyone to call. Did anyone have payphones these days?
She knew starting out that this would happen, but somehow she’d imagined having more of a choice. Shivering, she clutched her purse to her side.
She nearly jumped when she heard a car roll up behind her, but her heart dropped back into place when she realized that it was the couple. My bags, she thought.
The driver’s side door cracked open, and a hearty voice said, “Well, you getting in, or are you planning on guarding the Wendy’s against a hold up all night?”
The girl peered at the two figures draped in shadow.
“But I was… I mean…”
“You owe us an apology, young lady, and we owe you a trip. Now get in here before you freeze to death out there. Damn cold.”
The girl slid into the backseat and let the action speak for itself.