Soon as he saw me, I could tell he knew who I was. He did a double take, his ears got red. And when he thought no one noticed, he looked again, and sure enough it was me, Penelope Payne, 10K followers on Instagram and Pornhub, voted Top Amateur Model by the AVN three years running, so he smiled like he knew a secret.
“Marlboro Lights,” I said to the girl behind the counter, who was like 19, bottle blonde, and wore a gold cross, but maybe she recognized me, too. Hell, I’d been Christian once. Christians looked at more porn than anyone. I was wearing those same Day of the Dead yoga pants in a lot of my videos, especially the mommy-themed ones, which is a thing, only my name was Christine Lopez, I wasn’t anybody’s mother, not yet, and I was on the run from my ex-husband, who’d taken my money and threatened to kill me if I went to the law. And we weren’t in my bedroom or the hiking trails where I liked to film but a Time Saver outside Tallahassee at 2:34 am, or so said the Budweiser clock over the dairy case.
She bagged my Slim Jim, my Blazin’ Buffalo Doritos, my Red Bull, I paid, she handed me my butts, my change, and all the time this guy’s eyes were crawling up my ass, so sure, he was going to talk to me. You learn to recognize those things.
When he grabbed my arm, I was halfway across the lot, that girl watching through the windows, like reality television was unfolding in front of her on the graveyard shift. Above the pumps, bugs hit the security lights, the swamp stretching away into darkness, interstate hum.
“What do you want?” I didn’t have time for bullshit, and the fucker had touched me. I needed to hit the road, so Christine, not Penelope was talking. And Christine was scared. My ex worked for the Leon County Sheriff’s Department, and I wanted out of his jurisdiction if not the goddamn state of Florida by dawn.
“Don’t I know you?” The guy was sweating, breathing hard, like he’d been running.
No, I thought. But I knew him, or guys like him.
“You want an autograph?” I flashed him a smile, cocked my hips. I was four-eleven, ninety-five pounds, a “spinner,” which guys liked, but it put me at a disadvantage. He was a foot taller, tattoos snaking up his biceps under the sleeves of a white Tommy Gear tee. “Give me fifty bucks. I’ll sign whatever you want.”
I was only Internet Famous, but fans had my name tattooed on their bodies. I had seventy-five bucks, so it was going to be Waffle Houses and sleeping in the car the whole way to my aunt’s place in Texas. My piece of shit ex had stolen my passwords, locked down our bank account, and anyway, I didn’t want to leave a trail.
“I need—” the smile widened under his mustache, a gap between his teeth— “a lift.”
Sirens sounded in the distance, lights flashing on the interstate. Blood was on his shirt, not a lot, not so you’d notice at first.
“Everything okay out there?” That girl was leaning out the door, holding a phone. “I can call someone.”
“We’re fine,” I said, “aren’t we?”
A storm had blown through, and debris scattered the roadway. The guy’s knuckles were scraped, and he smelled like air conditioning, body spray. Down the street, Waylon Jennings was pouring from a bar, guys standing out front like they were looking for someone.
He nodded. “We’re okay.”
Those sirens and lights exited, coming closer. A meteor shower had started, white light streaking the sky.
Make that call, Honey. Who’s gonna come?
“I’m pregnant.” It felt real for the first time since I’d pissed on that stick two hours ago and known I had to get the hell out of Dodge, that I couldn’t bring a kid into the world anywhere near that man. “I’m leaving my ex-husband. Well, leaving him again. I guess it was a short reunion.”
He jerked a thumb at the road. He was grinning, and it gave me a little thrill. “That’s on account of me.”
“No shit.” I shrugged, bit my thumbnail. I never did make good choices when it came to men. “Get in. We’ll wait for them to pass.”
We parked under a stray carport made of driftwood and watched the sky in all its strangeness.
Tom Andes' writing has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2012, Santa Monica Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and many other places. He won the 2019 Gold Medal for Best Novel-in-Progress from the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society. He works as a freelance editor, book coach, manuscript consultant, teaches, moonlights as a country singer, and released his debut EP, Static on Every Station on Bandcamp in 2022. He also plays guitar with Emily Neustrom and the Fried Honeys. He lives in New Orleans and can be found at www.tomandes.com.