West on 40 by Lisa Attanasio

The door opened and they introduced themselves.

“How far you going?” Al said, glancing over at his passenger, a kid, no more than twenty-five.

“Trying to get to Los Angeles,” Jimmy said.

“I can take you as far as Albuquerque.”

“Every little bit helps.”

“Where you from?”

“Tucumcari,” Jimmy said.

The word made Al tingle. “Never been there,” he said.

“Hot. All the time hot.”

“Like now?”

“Worse.”

“Jiggle the lever for the air conditioner.”

“I’m okay.” Jimmy smelled like gasoline.

“You in some kind of trouble?”

No answer. They rode in silence. Not much to look at. Once in a while, they passed a group of low-lying structures.  A standout that looked like a silo was actually a church.

“I’m from Clayton originally,” Al offered. “Got out of there soon as I was old enough. Place is full of idiots.”

“Why do you say that?”

“No one there ever expects you to leave.”

Jimmy considered that. He moved around a lot. He found no pleasure in it. But when the alternative was standing still. . .

“That’s the same in most places.”

“Sure, but do they nail your feet to the floor when you try to go?”

“I guess not,” Jimmy said. “I don’t know.”

Al fiddled with the radio knob.

They covered ground. At one point Jimmy fell asleep, his body stiff from the waist up lurching forward in the seat.

Out of nowhere, red and blue lights coming up fast behind them. Al glanced at the instrument panel: within limits. He pulled over.

Crisp blue shirt, bronze tag. Hernandez. “Please step out of the vehicle.”

Al obeyed. Jimmy was still and silent.

“Come take a look at this,” said Hernandez, leading Al to the back of the car.

One tail light was extinguished. Hernandez pointed to the other, glowing red. Al’s arms hung loosely at his sides. The officer motioned behind him to the road. Al pointed at the car, then he pointed to the sky.

Suddenly, the passenger door flew open and Jimmy bolted from the car.

Hernandez took a step. “Where’s he going?”

He’d left his knapsack behind. Reaching for it, Al noticed a rust-colored smear across the back of the passenger seat. Blood?

Hernandez took off after Jimmy, who was already a hundred yards from the road, racing across the patchy terrain. He was a good runner, but Hernandez was better. When Jimmy stumbled, Hernandez forced him to the ground.

Al was glad to be far from the action. He walked quickly around to the driver’s side and got in. The car accelerated, and everything receded to a point in his mirror.

He sailed into Albuquerque. The Coyote was close by and it was always open. Maybe he’d run into Frank’s brother, or that girl from the barber shop. It was worth a shot anyway.

He ordered the burger plate and sat back.

No one he knew was there, but after a while the owner appeared and shook his hand. Al smiled at the familiar face.

“Long time no see, George.”

Al shrugged. “Ah, you know,” he said.

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