A hot wind smacks my face as he takes off across the high desert, leaving me in motor exhaust and sand. Wouldn’t let me have my Gucci purse, my Louis V. suitcase, or my handle of vodka. Now I’m worried about my sandals, Jimmy Choos, the sun already burning stripes across my insteps.
I spy willows in the distance. If I find water, maybe I’ll be okay. It’s not like I was born to money anyway. Not me.
I don’t get a half a mile before I hear a clatter from somewhere behind me, bumping and bouncing over rock and sand and scrub. An old pick up truck, rust eating its way across the hood, catches up to me.
At first I feel relief, but when I can’t see anyone in the front seat, my heart jolts, me wondering if this is one of those Stephen King moments when the surreal bumps into some poor sucker’s reality. I don’t believe in ghost El Caminos, but my eyes aren’t deceiving me.
The truck shivers to a stop, dust swirling. The door opens as a small figure slides off the driver’s seat. A boy, just a boy, dark skin and hair, wearing a faded plaid shirt and jeans. Barefoot.
Puts his hands on hips and says, “I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
“I guess not.” I’m feeling better now knowing I’ve got 50 pounds on him. “What are you, ten?”
“Twelve. You lost?” he asks.
“My boyfriend kicked me out of the car. He’s probably in Utah by now.”
“What’d you do?”
“I didn’t do anything. He got mad because they’ve got that Four Corners place all torn up. They wouldn’t let him sprawl across all four states at once.”
“Seems like a lot of you people think that’s important.”
“Not me. I’m heading to L.A.”
I smile at this because, of course, that’s why I’m going to L.A. Best place to get your face on the cover of the Enquirer. I look him up and down. “You’re a good driver. Not just anyone could make it across rocky ground.”
“I do okay.”
“You give me a ride?”
“Can’t let you die out here. Name’s Ruben.”
We rattle into Shiprock, Ruben telling me we’re on the “Rez.” He’s Navajo, everyone’s Navajo. Then I see Gilbert’s car. Holler, “Stop the truck!”
Ruben, cool as he seems, isn’t immune to a woman’s screams and slams the brake. I stumble out before the El Camino comes to a stop and race over to the dusty Mercedes in front of a diner. Peer in the driver’s side window. Yep, there’s my Gucci bag. I yank on the door handle, but it’s locked. Smack my palm on the glass and shout, “Gilbert!”
I’m hot and sweaty and more angry than I’ve ever been. “Gilllllll-BERT!”
I head for the diner. The cold blast from an overactive air conditioner takes my breath right out of my mouth. Gilbert, in his Tommy Bahama shirt, swivels on his stool. He looks so calm and collected, I almost feel like I’ve misunderstood what’s happened to me.
He says, “You ready to apologize?”
“I could’ve died out there.”
“Looks like you didn’t. You might need a shower though.”
“That’s what you say after dumping me?”
Gilbert slaps a twenty onto the counter and slips off his stool. Strolls over and takes my upper arm. “You’ll feel better once we’re on the road.”
“Let me go.” I set my feet, stiffen my body, resist.
He drags me toward the door, but boy Ruben puts himself between Gil and the exit. He may be twelve but he’s got a man’s confidence. Everyone in the diner is watching, and it takes me a second to realize part of Ruben’s confidence comes from knowing all the customers halfway through their mac-and-cheese have his back. So this is what loyalty looks like.
Gilbert, still gripping my arm, weighs his chances. Though he doesn’t give a shit about me, he’d rather die than let me go, but outnumbered, he does. My arm stings.
Still, Ruben won’t let him out. He stands there facing down Gilbert who looms above him.
“She needs her stuff,” says Ruben. “All of it.”
Gilbert’s face goes red as chili peppers, but the diners, even the cook from behind the counter, crowd around us. Gilbert glares at me. “Bitch.”
Outside again, the air is broiling. Beads of sweat the size of dimes pop along Gilbert’s forehead. The Benz chirps twice and the trunk pops open. One of the diner customers reaches in and removes my Louis V. suitcase and my handle of vodka while another swings open the front passenger door and takes my purse.
Gilbert jumps in the car, gone with the trunk lid flapping behind him. Everyone laughs and pats Ruben on the shoulder. Suddenly I feel lost, seeing what it’s like to belong.
The men filter back into the diner, leaving my purse and vodka on the suitcase. Ruben strolls over.
“Guess I gotta thank you,” I say.
“Might be nice since I saved your ass.”
“You did, didn’t you? Thank you. You’re mama must be proud.”
The boy shrugs, looking at the ground, kicking dust with his big toe.
“Can I ask another favor,” I say. “Can you find me a ride to Farmington?”
Ruben turns his back and heads for his truck. I watch, biting my lip, wondering where I’m gonna find a bus out here.
He opens the driver’s side door and bows. “Get in.”
“Thought you wouldn’t take me to Farmington.”
“That’s right. I won’t.” Then he ticks through his fingers. “I can sing, I can dance, and I don't have no folks and you—someone’s gotta watch your back—so guess what? We're going to L.A.”
Dang. This kid’s got balls.
Gay Degani’s stories can be read at Smokelong Quarterly, Night Train, 10 Flash, Emprise Review. She is the editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles and blogs at Words in Place.