I was changing into my shirt (and matching boxers! Wasn’t I lucky?) in the tourist shop bathroom when a voice said, “You look retarded.”
I looked up at the mirror. My reflection looked ridiculous.
“Yeah. Well. You don’t look so hot yourself,” I said back.
And so it was that the three of us, dressed like tourists, started hoofing it along the highway, getting whiplash every time a car passed us, which was a lot. Between the scorching heat and the insect-thick air, I thought it couldn’t get worse, but then it began to rain.
The sky opened, and we were instantly drenched; the water was warm enough that it felt like the clouds were sweating on us. Our faces mirrored expressions of misery as we ducked off to the side of the highway under a large tree that was still not quite large enough.
“My biscuits are burning,” Jamie said, taking off his shoes. The skin over his toes was cracked and bleeding. “Does anyone know how to start a fire?”
“So we can’t start a fire,” he said. “We can’t fly. We can’t create a force field. We are the most bullshit superheroes.”
I pushed my limp, sodden hair back from my face. “Faulty premise.” I knew what he meant, but still. “Though, Stella’s not so bad.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “That means a lot, coming from you.”
I pouted. “That hurts my feelings.”
“Jamie’s right, though,” she said. “And the list of stuff we can’t do is even longer—we can’t use credit cards, we can’t call our parents, we can’t rent a car—”
“We might be able to steal a car, though,” Jamie said.
The two of us turned to him at once. “I mean, not like with hot-wiring or anything. I have no idea how to do that shit. I just meant—I might be able to talk someone into giving us their car?”
“Lending it,” I added helpfully.
Jamie nodded with enthusiasm. “Lending it. Exactly. If someone comes along.”
“Do you even have your license, Jamie?” Stella asked.
He feigned surprise. “Was that a short joke, Stella? Have our dire circumstances caused you to develop a sense of humor?”
“It was an age joke, actually. And an appearance joke. You have a baby face.”
Our circumstances were dire, though. We had no car, no money, no food, and no dry clothes. The hours passed, and the rain continued its assault, and we grew wetter and hungrier and colder but had no choice but to keep walking, me in plastic flip-flops that were murdering my feet.
The rain finally stopped as daylight dwindled into dusk. The sun bled into the clouds, coloring them pink and orange and red. We trudged up the road, which was framed on the shoulders by dense trees and creepers. After an eternity we came upon a gas station, if you could call it that. There was one pump, and the tiny clapboard building behind it listed precariously to one side; a small junkyard squatted in shadow beside it. A plastic doll head with only one eye was impaled on the broken wooden fence.
Jamie huddled closer to me. “This is serial killer territory.” He linked arms with me and Stella. “United front,” he whispered. “They can smell our fear.”
I would have liked to pretend that I wasn’t as nervous as he was, but . . .
I dipped my hand into the waistband of the boxers to make sure my scalpel was still resting against my skin. It was. The warm steel under my fingertips made me feel better.
Finally, the three of us walked inside. It was dimly lit, naturally. We glimpsed a bar composed of ridged metal sheeting, and three rather large men sitting at it. One of them wore a black wife-beater with black sunglasses perched on his balding forehead. Another wore an improbably long-sleeved flannel shirt and a cowboy hat, of all things. The third had white hair and a tobacco-stained white beard. He had only one eye.
Someone else appeared out of the shadows, cleaning a glass with a dirty rag.
“You look a little lost,” he said to us.
I expected Jamie to speak first, but Stella surprised me. She offered up our fake sob story to the men, told them about being abandoned on a camping trip, blah blah, and then said we needed a ride. I was incredibly impressed. Jamie looked like he was ready to wet himself.
“Where’re you headed?” asked Cowboy.
“Miami,” Stella offered.
“You’re heading north. I’m heading south.” He crossed his arms in opposite directions, as if we needed him to explain what that meant. The other men were silent.
Jamie nodded just once and cleared his throat. “Well. Thank you anyway, gentlemen. For your time.”
Dejected, we left the gas station or bar or serial killer meet-up, whatever it was, and headed back outside. It was nearly night now. Insects buzzed around us, and on us. The air was loud with their noise as we walked down the road.
And then we heard something else—a truck spitting gravel and groaning as it left the station. It pulled up beside us.
“I felt bad for ya,” Cowboy said. “Come on. Hop in.”
My legs ached with relief as I sat in the front of the cab. Jamie had discreetly shaken his head when he’d been offered shotgun, and Stella had already climbed into the back.
The cowboy was doing us a favor, and a long one, so I decided to make conversation, be polite. “So where are you from?” His name, we had learned, was Mr. Ernst.
“Born and raised in Canton, Ohio. You three?”
“New York,” Jamie and Stella and I said all at once, sticking to our script. Not suspicious at all.
“And your friends just abandoned you like that?” he said, shaking his head with disbelief.
Stella changed the subject. “So, what brings you to the Keys?”
“Oh, just driving the old girl here,” he said, patting the dashboard with a toothy grin. “Just me and her and the road.”
But as he leaned forward, I caught a glimpse of a gun in a holster on his hip. I stiffened.
Jamie had seen it too. He pretended to be interested in it, and asked Mr. Ernst about it, who happily obliged with the make and model and whatever it is people talk about when they talk about guns. I wasn’t really listening. I felt wrong, off, and the feeling made me nervous.
“Never know who you might meet on the road,” Mr. Ernst said. “Gotta be careful. God bless the Second Amendment.” He patted the holster and winked at me.
The road stretched on into infinity, and we didn’t see a single pair of headlights pass in our direction. Suddenly, after who knew how long, I felt the truck slow down.