Shore Lunch

She shrieked.  Blood washed out of her mouth.

He shot to his feet yelling her name.

She convulsed.  She might have collapsed had not the steel cable, now taut, held her erect, twitching and gasping.  The capillaries in her eyes burst and her gaze was blood-laced and empty, evacuated by horror.  Her arms flailed, her fingers scrabbled along the black shank of the hook.

Pressure on the line wrenched her neck back and a moment later she was gone amidst a shower of pumping blood and falling money, reeled up into the low gray sky.

He reached after her even after she’d vanished behind the cloud cover, his body arching up, his arms trembling, his fingers stretched white.

He screamed her name over and over until his voice was raw and hoarse.

Without a clear plan he ran toward the rest stop building and went inside.  In the corner of the lobby beside a vending machine that sold ice cream bars was a payphone and he ran to it.  He snatched up the receiver and dialed 9-1-1 and pressed the phone to his ear.

Static on the line.

He hung up and tried again.  Static.

He smashed the receiver against the keypad and the casing of the receiver cracked and he smashed it against the brick wall beside the phone and it fell apart in his hand.  Plastic fragments clattered to the floor.  He sobbed once.  Then he headed back outside.

The sodium vapor lamps encircling the parking lot flickered like Indian campfires.  He took his keys out of his pocket and went to the car.  He unlocked the driver’s side door and climbed inside and started the engine.  Back the way they’d come it was thirty miles to the nearest oasis; ahead, he didn’t know.

Her purse was on the passenger side floor.

He began to cry.

He twisted the keys in the ignition to kill the engine and pulled them out and leaned his arm on the steering wheel and his head on his forearm and just sat, lost and frightened.

Then he got out of the car.

The wind had picked up.  It ruffled the money on the ground, a sound like wings, like rain.  There was lightning above the clouds, a spring storm building in the troposphere though the air was chilly and he heard no thunder.

“Help!”

His voice echoed across the parking lot but it was weak and badly used and he doubted it reached as far as the highway.  Little good it would have done, with the ribbon of distant road deserted and a dark night new fallen.

He didn’t bother closing the car door.  He ran back toward the playground, past the bench where they’d sat, the woodchips where the squirrel had been digging, and around the back of the building.

There was a pick-up truck parked there, white and battered, with a bar of yellow lights on top and a blue seal on the door that said Missouri Department of Transportation.

Sweat soaked the front of his t-shirt.  His heartbeat was wild and arrhythmic.  Nonsense noises tumbled from his lips and when he reached the truck he slapped the hood and called out.  There was no one in sight.

A mercury lamp affixed high on the wall of the rest stop building cast a net of light over the truck and across the lawn.  The light faded at the edge of a blasted cornfield.

“Hello!  Help!  Hello!”

Lightning flickered deep in the heart of the clouds.

He blinked at the flickering lamp as though it might offer him an answer.

Then he noticed the shoe dangling over the edge of the roof.

His heart leapt.

“Hey!  Help!”

He waved his arms.

“Hey!  I need help!”

The shoe didn’t move.

He ran back around the building the direction he’d come searching for a way onto the roof.

The opposite side of the building was very dark.  He squinted at the brick wall, working to separate layer from layer of darkness.  The wind, gusting frozen off the sheer fields, bit his face.  In a blue-white flash of lightning, he saw what he was looking for–a ladder leading to the roof.

He ran to it.  Its rungs were icy cold as though the day had never warmed them.  He started up.

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