The Internet would make this about two thousand times easier, I think, turning onto the highway. My gas light is blinking, has been for days. I’ve worked out a system, though. I think I can stretch the tank at least another two outings.
I call it a system to make myself feel better about the fact that I’m hunting for clues in the most ass-backwards way imaginable. I drive to one of the nearby small towns, like Wickenburg or Sedona or Payson, and get out, leaving the truck somewhere I think people won’t be tempted to try to steal it or jack the gas from my tank. I walk through the neighborhoods, making sure to swing by the local schools. People always seem to leave the MISSING posters there, tacked up along the rattling metal fences. Maybe they think the kids are hanging around the places they used to haunt and they’ll see the flyers and think, Man, I really should go home—Mom must really miss me. I take them down one by one, collecting them so I can check them against the skip tracer system later. Once I have access to the network. Once I actually find a kid and bring it in.
One more day, I think, finish out the week. Then I’ll suck it up and use whatever money I have left to buy gas and drive down to Phoenix. More neighborhoods, more abandoned buildings, millions of families—I should have better luck there. It just stings a little, you know? I don’t like that I’m already having to compromise on my plan.
The only thing that ever seems to come easy these days is my shit luck.
I decide to take the I-17 south to Camp Verde today, for no other reason than I haven’t hit it in a week. One of the gas stations there is still in business, though the place’s real value is the steady stream of truck drivers flowing in and out of there, bringing gossip with them.
I switch off the AC to try to preserve gas, rolling down the window to let in some fresh air and sunshine. Dad used to say that it took effort to think good, positive thoughts, but it was easy to let your mind spiral to all the terrible outcomes, to worry about things that hadn’t even come to pass yet. I see it now more than ever, because all I need to do is think about him, and I feel myself slipping. I start heading down that road of understanding why he did it. He was humiliated by losing the restaurant, I know he was, but it was more than that—it was that he knew that restaurant was the only life for him. And when the world took it from him, suddenly Dad was out of choices. He had us, and he couldn’t afford to move himself somewhere else, let alone the three of us. We trapped him there, and he took the only out he thought was left for him.
I’ve taught myself the trick that when it starts to feel that way for me, too, I need to go outside and walk it off. I need to roll down a window and let the green, earthy scent come wash out the warm stink of blood that seems to be seared into my nose forever.
A red SUV flashes in my rearview mirror, pulling me off that black, ugly road and back onto the one in front of me. I do a double take, because the bastard behind the wheel is really, truly gunning it, almost like he’s trying to escape the shadowed mountains behind him. A second later, it’s flying by me, swerving to cut in front of me. The whole truck rocks as a beige sedan blows past me, following the first car at a speed that makes me instinctively pull my car onto the shoulder, even after both other cars have long since passed. My heart is slamming against my ribs, and I’m so pissed off about the ass**le drivers, I’m still so stuck on that last image of Dad facedown in the old trailer, it takes me a second to recover.
Lame. I rub a hand across my forehead. Lame, lame, lame. If those ass**les wanted to race, they could have picked a side road, where there was no chance of hitting anyone. Granted, the three of us are the only cars I’ve seen since I left Cottonwood, but still. Dying as collateral damage in a high-speed car accident is definitely not part of the plan.
“Move your ass,” I muttered. “Jesus, you pansy…”
I turn on my blinker to merge back over before realizing how stupid that precaution is. I could drive down the center of the highway if I wanted to—so I do. Just to see what it feels like. And you know what? It actually feels pretty damn awesome, like I own the whole open stretch of valley in front of me, like I could—
I slam on my brakes, and my truck stops about five feet later.
The red SUV is flipped over, literally upside down, in the grassy median that separates the northbound and southbound lanes. It’s smoking and two of the wheels are still treading against the air. Parked diagonally across the lanes is the beige sedan. Two men jump out, both of them wearing those tacky-looking hunter camo jackets, rifles out in front of them. One is the taller version of the other. Both have long, stringy dark hair that’s gathered in clouds of frizz under their hats. They’re fully bearded, and full bellied, and for a second I want to laugh. But that’s when the girl appears.
She has a head of dark curls and is wearing a tank top and jeans. To her right is a short blonde, bundled up in an oversized black hoodie. Cowering behind them is an even younger girl, Asian, with long, flowing black hair. That one keeps trying to turn back to the SUV, but the blonde keeps grabbing her and pulling her in close to her side.
The guns are suddenly up and level with the men’s, and one of them fires at the SUV’s back window, shattering the glass. I can hear the girls scream and suddenly I’m out of the car, and all five of them are staring at me.
“Get the hell out of here!” one of the men shouts, his gun turned back toward me. I throw up my hands, because what the hell else am I supposed to do? None of this feels real. I’m seeing a kid and a teenager for the first time in six years, and it’s like my brain can’t understand it.
The girls bolt. Out of the corner of my eye, I see them go, cutting across the highway. The older one touches the hood of one of the cars that has been abandoned there, and its headlights flare to life—its engine roars. She makes this motion like she’s sweeping the dust off it, and without any other warning, the car is shooting across the median toward the men—the skip tracers.
You hear about the things these freaks can do, but you sort of figure that some of it has to be exaggerated. There’s no way someone can blink and set a house on fire, right? And that girl, she just…she just…
The skip tracers have to dive out of the way to avoid getting hit, but whatever crazy power resuscitated the car suddenly blinks out, and it rolls to a slow stop on the opposite shoulder. I don’t think it was ever meant to hit them, only pack enough of a punch to serve as a distraction. I’m half horrified, half amazed that it works.