Stella did too. She wiped her red-rimmed eyes. Jamie kept running his hand over his scalp. They were worried too.
“Where are we?” Stella asked chirpily.
“Mmm, pretty deep in the Keys,” he said evasively. “Still got a couple of hours ahead of us till we reach Miami.” We passed a sign that announced a rest stop in a quarter mile. “It’ll be a while till we hit another bathroom,” Mr. Ernst said. “Nothing around here for miles, so I thought we’d all stop and take a leak.”
Jamie exhaled just a little too loudly. I glared at him.
“I should go,” Stella said.
“Me too,” Jamie admitted.
“Do you have a map?” I asked Mr. Ernst.
He raised his eyebrows. “Girly, I’ve been driving since before you were even a twinkle in your mother’s eye. The only map I need is up here,” he said, pointing to his temple.
“Right,” Stella said, looking back at the road. But we could all feel it: Something was wrong.
MR. ERNST CHATTERED AWAY UNTIL HE pulled into a parking spot at the rest stop, if you could even call it that. The squat building was tucked off to the side of the road, almost completely obscured by a tangle of weeds that clung to the faded, rust-stained walls. There was a small unpaved clearing around it. And no other cars or trucks.
Mr. Ernst turned off the truck and pocketed the keys. “I’m gonna go take a leak myself,” he said. “You coming?” he asked Jamie.
Jamie raised an eyebrow at Stella. “Yeah . . . ” He didn’t want to go alone, and he didn’t want Stella to have to either.
Mr. Ernst winked at me. “Don’t get into any trouble now,” he said, then walked off toward the building.
Stella and Jamie hopped out of the cab, Stella nearly running. She must’ve really had to go. I felt bad for Jamie, trailing behind, so I jumped out of the truck too. As I approached the building, the unmistakable smell of raw sewage assaulted my nostrils. Stella had already gone inside, but I caught up with Jamie quickly, and we stood there just staring at it. A thick layer of grime covered the once blue stenciled sign for the ladies’ room, and flies choked the entrance. Jamie swatted the air in front of his face. The men’s room was on the other side of the building.
“Tough break,” Jamie said to me.
“Not having a penis.”
“God, I know.”
“I don’t know, Mara. I’m not sure I can do it. I don’t want to walk in there and see our not so illustrious truck driver at the urinal. It could get weird. I think I’m just going to go in the bushes.”
“I feel like I’m going to catch hepatitis just standing here.”
“If you want to go in the bushes or something, I can watch to make sure no one’s coming?”
I rubbed my nose. “I’m going to go in, I think. For Stella. Solidarity, you know?”
“You’re a better man than I.” Jamie held his fist out. I bumped it. His footsteps crunched on the gravel and then faded as he walked off into the bushes.
I took a few seconds to psych myself up, then held my nose and kicked the door open.
It wasn’t as bad as I’d been expecting. It was worse. There were a few stalls. One of them was open, and the toilet was so backed up that it was all I could do not to gag. The mirror behind the sink was cracked and dingy. The tile floor that had probably once been white was stained in shades of brown and yellow.
No. There was no way.
I turned to leave, but as I did, I heard a noise behind me.
Stella was pressed against the wall, her body almost completely obscured by Mr. Ernst, who was covering her mouth with one hand. He saw me see him, and pointed his gun at me.
“Go on back now,” he said. “Or you’re next.”
My veins filled with lead. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was already imagining Mr. Ernst dead on the floor, his throat ripped open, his mouth a bloody hole.
“He’s done this before,” Stella whimpered when he uncovered her mouth. “He’s going to kill us.” The words barely escaped from her mouth. She could hear what he was thinking.
He shook his head. “Not the colored boy. Not my type.”
Part of me was still standing there, rooted to the spot. The other part was tearing out his throat. But only in my mind. In reality nothing was happening. In the seconds that followed I imagined a hundred different ways for him to die. None of them worked.
What was wrong with me? It had been a long time since the drugs had worn off. Why couldn’t I do it?
And what would happen to me and Stella if I couldn’t?
“Let her go,” I said with frightening calm. I don’t know where it came from.
“If you don’t go, I’ll shoot the both of you right this minute.”
I took a step closer. “You’re making me jealous,” I said in that same chilly voice that was and was not my own.
I didn’t. I stepped closer. “This whole time I thought you were coming on to me. That’s why I chose to sit in front.”
He looked me up and down. “You’ll get your turn.”
“Me first,” I said. “She can’t do the things I can.”
Those were the first words I said to him that seemed to sink in. He looked back and forth between me and Stella, then finally stepped away from her. He trained his gun on me.
“You,” he said to Stella. “You stand there and watch.”
Stella scooted down the wall till she was backed up against the sink. My feet carried me toward Mr. Ernst without me even having to tell them to.
“Don’t scream,” Mr. Ernst said. He pressed his gun into my side, spun me around, and pushed me against the wall, pinning my hands behind me in one well-practiced move. His cowboy hat fell to the ground.
I expected my heart to race, my skin to sweat. I expected to cry and scream.
“Don’t touch me,” I said instead.
He laughed. It was a little boy’s laugh, a giggle really. “Don’t touch you? If you didn’t want to be touched, you wouldn’t be wearing those shorts! Why, they’re an invitation! You’re advertising. Open for business.”
He did something lewd with his tongue. I imagined cutting it off.
“Take them off,” he said, nodding at my stupid boxers.
“I can’t,” I said plainly. “Not without my hands.” I wriggled my arm behind me. I reached my hand into the waistband of the boxers and felt the scalpel, warm from my skin. My shoulder ached, wrenched behind my back and forced into the wall by the pressure of Mr. Ernst’s body. His breath roared in my ears, rotten tobacco mingling with the stench of human waste.