STRANDED - KM ROCKWOOD
Carl had always considered himself a lucky guy, until now. He lived by his luck and his wits.
Now he stood next to the car, hood up and steam hissing from a cracked radiator. The sun was rapidly dropping to the horizon. Soon it would be dark. Dark like it got only in the desert, miles from civilization. And cold.
He inhaled deeply from the cigarette in his hand. A Virginia Slim. Why did women waste their money on such vapid smokes?
He couldn’t believe this dumb broad. What was her name? Caroline, Carolyn, Kerry, something like that. She had to be pretty stupid to take a car with a leaky radiator out across the desert. And she didn’t carry any jugs of water; he’d looked in the trunk and the back seat.
Right now, she was so out of it she hadn’t even woken up when he pulled over and popped the hood. Her head lolled back against the seat, her jaw slack and a faint line of drool oozing down her chin. She wasn’t very appealing like this—Carl was glad they’d gotten it off in the motel room before they’d left. After seeing her like this, her thigh muscles lax below the cutoffs and her flabby boobs squashed against her shocking pink tank top, he might not be able to muster enough interest to please her even if he wanted to.
It had been good earlier, he remembered with relish. She was a little uptight, but the beer and the drug cocktail he’d given her had relaxed her. She’d even let him inject her with his special mix of drugs. A much more efficient use of his supplies than letting her snort it, like she’d wanted to. He’d made sure she enjoyed herself. That was the key to getting women to cooperate. Make sure they enjoy themselves. Then they don’t mind handing over money, car keys, food. In fact, they were eager to give him whatever he wanted.
The baby was beginning to stir in its carseat in the back. He pretty much made it a rule not to become involved with women who had children. Too messy. But he hadn’t realized she had a baby asleep in the motel room when he’d run into her at the ice machine, and the baby had slept through the late morning activities, waking only after he was smoking his post coital cigarette. They’d already agreed to drive west together; she wanted to make it to California, and Carl wanted to put some distance between himself and the woman who was asleep in the room he’d rented. Before she woke up and found her cash and credit cards missing.
Caroline, or whoever, didn’t wake up as the baby began fussing. She was really out of it. Carl went to the passenger side of the car and opened the door. He shook the woman’s shoulder.
She flopped over toward the driver’s seat. Alarmed, he reached in and grabbed her by the arm.
The arm was cold.
Frantic, Carl pulled her upright and cupped her slack cheeks in his hand. He put his other hand under her nose. Nothing. She wasn’t breathing.
The baby’s fussing became a full fledged wail. Carl opened the insulated bag on the back seat. She’d called it a “diaper bag.” Maybe it had some baby food or something in it.
He pulled out a bottle, all filled with formula and ready to go. Awkwardly, he popped off the top and examined the rubber arrangement underneath. Probably the baby drank from it. He stuck it into the baby’s mouth. Eagerly, the baby sucked. It pawed at the bottle with its hands, but made no attempt to hold it.
Pleased with himself for having figured that out, Carl sat next to the carseat and held the bottle so the baby could drink it.
When the formula was almost gone, the baby moved its head sideways, letting the milky white liquid dribble down its chin. It burped loudly. A sour milk smell came from its mouth. A faint but worse smell came from its other end.
No way was Carl changing a diaper.
He wasn’t sure what to do about the baby. He certainly couldn’t take it with him. It would slow him down, make people ask questions, and was probably kidnapping.
So he’d have to leave the baby. He rolled down the car windows. It might be cold, but if he left them up and no one found the baby before the sun came up tomorrow morning, the heat in the car would kill it quick. He found a blanket and a little knit hat in the diaper bag. He put the hat on the baby’s head and tucked the blanket into the car seat on either side, covering the baby. The baby was looking drowsy again. Maybe it would go to sleep again now that it had been fed.
He couldn’t stay here, that was for sure. Who knew what charges they’d get him for if they found out he’d injected illegal drugs into this woman and she died.
Carl looked through the diaper bag, but saw nothing else that interested him. He then opened the woman’s purse. She had a few dollars. Not much. He shoved them in his pocket. He looked in her wallet. A gasoline credit card and not much else useful. He took the credit card, leaving the rest. A cell phone. He turned it on. No signal.
He shoved that in his pocket with the money. When he got off this God-forsaken road and figured out where he was going, he could find someplace with a signal and call 911. Emergency dispatch would send someone out to look for the car and the baby. Then he could toss the phone down a ravine or something and forget this little misadventure. If he had to, he’d also ditch the credit cards from both women. But not until he was sure he needed to. They might come in handy.
Grabbing his leather jacket from the back seat, Carl slammed the car doors and turned toward the setting sun. They hadn’t passed anything in the last hour or two driving, so there had to be something up ahead. A highway or a truck stop or something. Didn’t there? This was the good old US of A. It would be un-American to have no one taking advantage of this long stretch of countryside without building something.
He couldn’t make up his mind about whether he should try to hitch a ride, assuming some sort of vehicle happened along. He couldn’t afford to be associated with the disabled car down the road by anyone who might have an opportunity to report him.
If something came by with just the driver, he could maybe overpower one person and drive it off himself. If there seemed to be a few people, maybe he’d have to go hide so they wouldn’t see him.
His cowboy boots were tight and not designed for walking long distances. But he walked.
The gathering desert darkness made it hard to see more than a few feet away. Maybe the moon would come up and he would be able to see better.
Carl lost track of time. He wanted to put maximum distance between himself and the car, so he kept going. Night was the time to travel in the desert; walking kept him warm, and if he was still out here alone in the morning, he’d have to seek shade through the worst of the day’s heat.
The wind picked up. He heard scurrying sounds all around him. What kind of vile creatures inhabited the desert at night? Carl hoped they weren’t dangerous.
Headlights! They were going east, not west, but Carl didn’t care anymore. He was tired and sore and thirsty. He debated moving back off the road so the headlights wouldn’t pick him up, but then the car would be past before he had a chance to see if he wanted to try to stop it. He’d have to take a chance. He moved toward the travel lane.
The headlights swept over Carl. The car lurched to a halt. A blinding spotlight shown on him, making him cover his face with his hands.
Not good. Police cars had lights like that.
So did illegal hunters trying to spotlight game. Probably there were all sorts of things, like mule deer, out here. Maybe it was someone like that.
But it was the police. Carl wondered briefly about trying to ditch the cell phone, credit cards and what was left of his stash. Any effort to do so, however, would arouse immediate suspicion. He slipped his hands into his pockets, put on his charming, crooked smile and thought wildly of a quick story to tell.
“Take your hands out of your pockets. Keep them where I can see them,” a voice said from beyond the circle of light.
Carl could see nothing. “Sure,” he said, keeping the smile plastered on his face and pulling his hands out of his pockets.
“Kind of late to be out here, isn’t it? Where’s your vehicle?”
Carl shook his head sadly. “Long story,” he said. “I was having a fight with the girlfriend. Asked her to pull over so I could take a leak. When I got out, she just up and left. Thought for sure she’d be back, but she hasn’t shown. She must be really pissed.”
“Where were you coming from?”
“How about just now?”
“From that little town—what’s it name?—a ways back there.” He pointed west.
“Looked to me like you were headed in this direction,” the disembodied voice said. “If you came from there, you’d know you hadn’t passed anything in over a hundred miles.”
“I turned when I heard your car,” Carl said. Geez, over a hundred miles. He would never have made it.
With the light in his eyes, he couldn’t see. Probably a one man car, though. Carl wondered if he could surprise this cop, knock him over the head or something. He could pull the cop off the road a ways, take the car and get out of here. No one would stop a patrol car. Especially if he snagged the cop’s hat and wore it.
Neither one said anything for a minute. Carl was trying to decide whether he should see what happened if he stepped toward the car when another set of headlights came into view. Have to wait for that vehicle to pass.
But it pulled in behind the patrol car. Carl squinted. It was a patrol car, too. Now he was outnumbered. He should have made his move.
More headlights appeared, moving rapidly. This set screamed past them, siren wailing. It was an ambulance.
One of the cops came around the car to where Carl could see him. He had a taser in his hand. Carl watched him out of the corner of his eye, but wasn’t about to take a chance on getting tased.
“Put your hands on the hood of the car,” the cop said.
This was not good. They would search him and find the credit cards, the cell phone, the drugs.
What could he do? Carl has a feeling that his luck had truly run out.
BIO: KM Rockwood enjoys reading, especially flash fiction, and sometimes turns a hand to writing stories about the people who have inhabited a life of varied jobs and experiences, some of the outside the law-abiding community. Previous stories have appeared in several publications,including Nautilus Engine, Thema, and Every Day Fiction.