Rainbow Hair Clip
Evan Smoak steered his Ford pickup into a Flying J truck stop. The tank had held until Barstow, a Mojave Desert town renowned for a drive-in movie theater and little else. As he gassed up, he leaned against the pickup and took a few deep inhales redolent of chaparral and diesel. He was in his mid-thirties, quite fit, not too handsome.
Her walk was hesitant, as if she were being pulled by an invisible leash.
The battered-flat land stretching to the horizon held nothing but shades of sepia, and dusk was coming on rapidly as it did out here, all that empty air to fill with gloom. At the far edge of the parking lot, eighteen wheelers slumbered in an elephant-grave cluster.
A hefty, bearded trucker exited the adjoining Denny’s and passed close by, smelling of Skoal and Old Spice, a girl trailing in his wake. Her head was lowered, hands dug into the pockets of a ragged denim jacket. Pinning her dirty-blonde hair in the back was a clip with rainbow lettering. It spelled JEANNIE, or at least it used to, but one of the Ns and the I had gone missing. Her walk was hesitant, as if she were being pulled by an invisible leash. She could have been eighteen or fifteen.
‘You pay me up front,’ she said, and the trucker replied, without turning, ‘I’ll pay you when you’re in the cab.’
Evan watched them disappear into the maze of semis, then retrieved his cell from the glovebox. The phone was a RoamZone make, constructed of hardened black rubber, fiberglass casing, and Gorilla Glass. He kept it within earshot.
He headed into the loftily titled Travel Plaza and bought two bottles of water. When he came back out, his tank was full, so he slotted the gas nozzle home and turned to leave. He’d just swung one leg into his truck when he heard a commotion over by the big rigs. A door flew wide, flashing in the reflected light of the Denny’s, and he saw the girl’s form tumble from the cab, landing unevenly but upright in the narrow space between trailers. The trucker was out after her in a flash. Snatches of their raised voices carried across the parking lot. They were silhouetted in the partial light, facing off, the man’s baseball cap and beard wagging with the movement of his mouth. Still arguing, they edged into the shadows.
Evan paused, half into his pickup. But also half out.
This wasn’t the place. Wasn’t his method of operating. Wasn’t his business.
He hoisted himself into the driver’s seat, turned over the engine, and dropped the gear stick into drive. The headlights illuminated the scene across the way. The girl was now backed up to the side of a trailer with the man leaning over her, stabbing a finger in her face. Another trucker, drawn by the commotion, sidled over from a neighboring cab. The second man stood casually, arms folded, there for the show. But he was also blocking the girl’s route back to the parking lot.
Evan glanced over at the freeway entrance, a stone’s throw away. If he left now, he could make Los Angeles in two hours. In the last day, he’d handled a week’s worth of business, including validating a new set of pistol magazines on a makeshift range and picking up a couple of suppressors from a nine-fingered armorer in off-the-strip Vegas. He thought about the ice-crusted vodka bottle in the freezer of his Sub-Zero. He thought about a change of clothes and his waiting bed. He thought about a girl’s rainbow hair clip missing an N and an I, and how it had once been polished and new.
Shoved the gear shift back into park. Climbed out.
He looked from her bared pocket knife to the slash in the sleeve of his shirt, the fabric already spotting.
The voices were louder now. The winter air sharp in his lungs, Evan walked across the parking lot, coming up behind the first man, who was still blocking the alley between the trailers.
Evan said, ‘Move.’
The man looked at Evan’s expression and stepped aside.
Evan walked into the narrow space. The bearded trucker had the girl by the wrist and she was tugging away, her other hand digging in her pocket. He flung her to the ground. Evan stepped forward to help her up and she snarled, ‘Get off of me!’ As she wrenched away, metal flashed in her hand and Evan felt a coolness at his forearm. He looked from her bared pocket knife to the slash in the sleeve of his shirt, the fabric already spotting.
The bearded trucker laughed. ‘There’s your payback, Lancelot. Now what say you move your ass along?’
Jeannie stood between them, breathing hard, her fist trembling around the pocket knife. She seemed only now to realize what she had done and to whom. A tattered skirt dropped to mid thigh and her knees were knobby and girl-like. She had grime at her hairline.
Evan said, ‘She’s a kid.’
‘Screw you,’ Jeannie said. ‘I’m not a kid.’
‘See?’ the bearded trucker said. ‘This ain’t your business. It’s a private arrangement.’
Evan shoved up his sleeve. The slice on his forearm was a few inches long and bleeding freely, but the damage was superficial, not into the muscle. A six-suture cut, maybe seven. He shifted his gaze to the trucker. ‘Arrangement?’ he repeated.
‘She said I could have her mouth for twenty, now she won’t go through with it.’
Evan listened for a scuff of shoes against asphalt to gauge the other man’s position behind him. ‘How old are you?’ he asked the girl.
And then the beams passed and they were once again just four ordinary souls trying to settle their differences.
‘None of your business.’
Evan heard a chuckle from the man behind him, but he held his focus on the girl. ‘Do you want me to stay?’
She glared at him but didn’t say anything.
He reworked the phrasing so she’d find it easier to answer: ‘Would you like me to leave?’
She bit her lip. Finally she jerked her head back and forth once, her tangled bangs swaying.
Over by the gas pumps, a car wheeled around, the sweeping headlights elongating their shadows, casting them high and spook-like against the walls of the trailer. And then the beams passed and they were once again just four ordinary souls trying to settle their differences.
Evan said, ‘Looks like she changed her mind about your arrangement.’
‘I paid,’ the man said.
‘Is that true?’ Evan asked Jeannie. She nodded.
He said, ‘Pay him back.’
‘I need the money.’
‘Pay him back.’
She scowled, then dug in the pocket of her jacket and threw a balled-up bill at the trucker. The man caught it against his barrel chest. Smirking, he uncrumpled the twenty. He leaned back on the blocky heels of his cowboy boots, weighing some inner choice. Then he tore the bill in half and let the pieces flutter to the asphalt.
‘Nah,’ he said, reaching through the open door of his cab. ‘I’d rather stick to the deal.’
His hand came back into view, gripping a billy club. It was a lean, angry instrument – leather-wrapped metal, probably lead, with a bulb at the end. He tapped it in one palm and his beard shifted into a confident grin. His chest was rising and falling more quickly than before and beneath the scruff, his throat was flushed.
Jeannie dropped to the ground, pressing against one of the tires as if she could will herself straight through it and pop out the other side. Evan bladed sideways so he’d be ready if the man behind him made a move. But he kept his focus on the bearded man.
The trucker stared at Evan as if his head had done an Exorcist spin.
‘Piranhas,’ Evan said.
The motion of the billy club stopped.
‘They bite anything that moves,’ he continued. ‘But when they fight each other? They don’t use their mouths at all. They slap each other with their tails. Bizarre, right?’ The trucker stared at Evan as if his head had done an Exorcist spin.
‘That’s because they’re gauging each other,’ Evan said. ‘Posturing. Seeing if the other will submit. It’s a non-lethal confrontation. It’s wise because it allows the weaker one to live. He doesn’t have to die if he loses. Understand?’
Down by the wheel, Jeannie made a strained sound of fear. The trucker’s mouth clenched, and even through the bristle of reddish beard, Evan could see the points of his jaw standing at attention. Behind him, the other man had not moved a step.
‘That’s what you’re doing now,’ Evan continued, his tone still conversational. ‘You’ve got your boots with big heels to make you taller. The tough-guy beard. Waving around a billy club. You’re posturing, throwing up your displays. You want to see if I’ll submit. If I’ll scare.’ He eased forward another step so his face caught a band of illumination from the freeway light beyond. ‘But before you decide to raise that club, I want you to look in my eyes. And tell me: do I look scared?’
The man held Evan’s stare for several long moments. Then his lips bunched and he spat once on the ground between them, turned, and hoisted himself up into his cab. The door slammed.
Evan offered a hand to the girl. After a beat, she took it and rose to her feet. They walked back toward the other trucker, still watching at the mouth of the makeshift alley.
Evan said, ‘Excuse me.’ The man stepped aside.
He and the girl continued on their way.
Jeannie sat in the passenger seat of Evan’s pickup, staring gloomily out the window at the frontage road. A Junebug pinged off the dusty windshield.
She tilted back her head so her tears wouldn’t spill.
Evan had his hands on the steering wheel but the truck was in park and they had not spoken since the near fight between the trailers. He’d tied off the cut on his forearm with one of his socks, using his teeth to cinch the knot. The pressure would be sufficient to stop the bleeding until he got home to deal with it properly. She made a wet noise and he understood her to be holding in sobs. When she spoke, her voice was perfectly level. ‘I wanted to be a singer-songwriter like every other idiot.’ She wiped angrily at her nose. ‘This f***ing city.’
‘I know,’ Evan said. ‘I was kidding.’
She didn’t smile but her mouth gave a preview of what her smile might look like. ‘Nothing works out, does it?’
‘Not like we think.’
‘I just want to get out of here now,’ she said. ‘I’m just trying to get home.’
‘Where is that?’
‘Wichita. That’s why I was . . . I can’t afford a bus ticket. Someone stole my backpack, all my stuff. And hitchhiking’s too dangerous.’ She held up her hand even though Evan had given no reaction. ‘I know, okay. Don’t say it. I thought I could . . . just once or twice. I’ve done it before, obviously – I mean, not for money. But I thought why not. And then I was there in the truck with him and I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. And I can’t call my parents for money, not after how I left, and I just want to get home.’
‘How old are you?’
She studied her chipped nails. ‘Nineteen.’
He asked again, just as softly, ‘How old are you?’ She tilted back her head so her tears wouldn’t spill.
Her face was unguarded, pure, and for a moment, she looked precisely like what she was: a fifteen-year- old kid.
He turned the pickup around and they drove for a time in silence as she gazed out at the dark, flat landscape. She clicked the button to lower the window a few times and nothing happened.
He turned at a Greyhound bus station and parked in a spot up front, the lit office right there through the front windshield.
She cast a sideways glance at him, annoyed. ‘Like I said, I can’t afford it.’
‘Open the glove box.’
She did. Resting atop the papers inside was an envelope holding the remainder from the cash transaction in Vegas.
‘The envelope,’ he said.
She took it and thumbed up the flap and her thin eyebrows lifted.
She swallowed nervously, her throat seeming to hitch, and when she spoke, her voice was thin. ‘What do you want me to do for it?’
‘Get on the bus.’
‘What is this sh*t? I mean you show up out of nowhere and stare down two truckers and then you take me here and give me money. I didn’t ask to be rescued by you. I didn’t.’ With the cuff of her jacket, she scratched at her hairline, her eyes wet but angry. ‘I didn’t need you.’
She climbed out and slammed the door. She took two steps and stopped, her narrow shoulders curled downward. Then she turned around and opened the door again.
Her face was unguarded, pure, and for a moment, she looked precisely like what she was: a fifteen-year- old kid. ‘Sorry I cut you,’ she said.
She wiped at one cheek with the heel of her hand and jogged into the bus station.
He turned up the ringer, slung the black phone into the still-open glove box, and knuckled the little door shut. Pulling out, he made a cautious U-turn and pointed the grille for Los Angeles, keeping the needle tidily pegged at the speed limit.