Someone was knocking at the door. Although it was nearly midnight, Tom was still sitting with his feet up and his boots on, staring at the fire. He had half-way dozed off when the knock came. In his daze, the thought occurred to him: “That’s the sound of a woman who doesn’t wear sensible shoes.”
He opened the door half-way and leaned against the wall. The faint porch light pooled on the floor planks. The light made the woman look shockingly alone, but it also made her hair look like honey.
He said, “I thought you couldn’t wait to get back east and out of this godawful hell-hole of a desert.”
The woman looked away, squinting at the black night. “I need help,” she said, now looking Tom directly in the eye. “I need your help.”
He considered. Then he put on his hat and closed the door behind him. The woman was already hurrying to her car. Her keys rattled in her hand.
“Nope,” Tom called out. “The truck.”
She turned around and, almost reflexively, glared at him for a moment. It was a very dark night, but he could still see that she was glaring at him.
“You know,” he said sweetly, “that’s a real bad habit.”
She rolled her eyes a little and did that eyebrow thing he noted the first time he met her. Then her face, barely perceptible, softened, just around her mouth.
“Please,” he called, putting on his manners. “The truck.”
She got in. As he cranked the engine, he asked, “Mind telling me what the problem is?”
She stammered. “I got lost on Black Rabbit Road. I missed the turn, there was someone—“
“Hang on,” Tom yelled, interrupting her just as the engine seemed to explode and the truck was engulfed in hot smoke and dust. She quickly tried to close the window. It was broken.
“Not today,” Tom said, referring to the window as the truck reared up, then lurched forward. “Put your head down.”
The truck pawed the dirt driveway, for miles it seemed, until the porch light was a yellow dot far behind them. Tom stopped briefly when they hit the main road. It was swallowed by unending sheets of black in every direction. Then he flicked off the truck’s lights and gunned the vehicle without mercy.
“What are you doing?,” the woman screeched.
“Getting the hell away from the people who are following you.”
“How did —“
Then sounds stopped. Time blurred still for a moment as a lightning-white flash and a screaming hot round hit the bed of the pick-up and pinged off like a pinball. Then two, three.
Tom kept the truck barreling forward.
“They’re shooting at us!,” the woman screamed, almost as if she were angry rather than scared.
Tom was using everything he had to keep the old truck under control. Shots, now from up ahead and on the other side of the road, flew at them in the utter darkness. Even with the ear-bleeding rumble of the pick-up truck saturating the air, the high whistle of the bullets was distinct and weirdly mesmerizing. Tom hunkered down behind the wheel.
“Why did you turn the lights off?,” the woman screamed.
“How can you see where you’re going?,” she shouted as the truck careened along.
“This is crazy. If they don’t kill us, you will!”
There was a bend in the road, invisible except in Tom’s mind. He turned the wheel sharply. “I don’t mean to offend you, ” he yelled, as they bounced up and down over rocks and ditches, “but it would be helpful if you’d just — start crying or something like that. That I could handle right now.”
Molly didn’t start crying, but she did stay quiet. Somehow, after a long while, the roar of the truck and the wail of the struts became silence. Then, after more time, she and Tom began to hear the desert night birds again.
Tom spoke first.
“Are you okay?,” he asked.
“Yeah.” Molly’s voice was as quiet as he had ever heard it.
The coyotes were making their way among the Palo Verde trees in the distance. Tom was glad to hear them.
“Well,” he said, a quick brush to his jeans. “If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn that was my ex-girlfriend, expressing herself. But she doesn’t shoot a high-powered rifle. At least not that accurately.”
Molly only nodded.
After a while, he tried again. “With all due respect, ma’am, you do owe me—and my truck—an explanation.”
“Engineers,” she said.
Tom nodded. Then he rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb. “Sure. Just what I expected.”
“No, really,” she said, calmly and suddenly focused. “Nuclear engineers.”