It's a long way there. After what feels like traveling half the country we need to fill up, women and machine. I stay inside our truck whilst Mom enters the shop to get us something to drink.
Three other cars are waiting at the gas station. A small van of Oriental descent is parked aside the building, an unreadable logo on its rusty flanks. Next to the other pump stands a dark blue Volkswagen, its interior once white, a pair of bison-horns mounted on its grille. My attention is drawn to the third car, a sleek Mustang convertible, half a century old and looking brand new. This symbol of sixties' sexiness is painted in a glossy red color which I believe is called 'Candy-apple-red'. I love it.
A pretty brunette sits in the passenger's seat. Though I've never been good at estimating ages I'm sure she's a little younger than me. She's wearing a provocative, skimpy outfit, basically two long sleeves with little in between. She'll have a serious case of sunburn with nowhere to hide. I guess she considers it worth it.
The girl stares at the door to the men's room. I watched her driver, a fat guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt above dark trousers and patent leather shoes go inside. He was wearing a shoulder holster in plain sight. Well, it's too hot to hide it under a jacket, I have to give him that.
The girl's sunglasses are fashionably big, but they can't hide all the bruises on her face.
I can't help myself. I have a soft spot for damsels in distress so I hop out and walk over.
She looks at me, startled. There are traces of tears on her cheeks. "Can I help you?" she asks.
She flinches when I reach for her glasses. When she pulls back the sunglasses come off. Her bruises are… extensive. They sit dark and uneasy on the girl's pallor skin. Her eyes are strange. For a moment I wonder if she's an albino, but her hair's too brown, her skin the pale white from being too much indoors. And her eyes… It's the surrounding eye-white that's red, not the iris. Bloodshot isn't the right word, there are no blotches, no visible veins. All the white simply has turned red, a red which does nothing to hide the fear in her eyes.
She used a bit of makeup but left the shiner around her right eye untouched. My gaze travels down and settles on her hands. I swallow when I recognize the marks. Someone used a cigarette on her. More scars disappear under the cuffs of her long sleeves.
"Who did this?" I whisper. When she doesn't respond I ask again. "Who?"
She glances at the door, and I sigh. Mother keeps telling me to leave things alone, just let them be. I'm no good at that. Sometimes I listen, and sometimes I just don't. Today is one of tho -
"Don't kill him," she says.
She must have recognized some of my murderous intent, so I try a light, "Can I at least hurt him?"
She hesitates, then nods. I take that as a 'yes' though I think 'yes, please' would be more accurate, and 'yes, please, a lot' is what she really wants to say, but doesn't dare to.
And so I leave the girl and the car behind to check out the men's room. Before I enter I pull the dagger out of my boot and hide it behind my back. There's another man inside, a wannabe cowboy who looks at my reflection in the stained mirror before turning around and offering me his crooked smile. The cowboy's wearing a Stetson and high-heeled, cow-print boots with actual spurs, and his cheeks sport a deliberate two-days stubble. I bet the Volkswagen outside is his.
I smile back. He's a hundred pounds and twenty years short on the fat bloke I was expecting. The groaning and moaning from one of the stalls tell me where my real target is getting reacquainted with yesterday's dinner.
I look him over, appreciatively. He'd be my type if he wouldn't have bought his Clint Eastwood cosplay on Wish, and if he wasn't plain ugly. A dental job or two wouldn't have hurt his prospects either. The young man's eyes travel over my body. Yeah, I'm a girl, dude, you've seen that right. I'm also way too young for you.
"Well," I say, trying my best, sultry voice, and pushing my chest forward. "I'm sorry, I guess I took the wrong turn. Or did I?" I wink, then close the door behind me, rather loud. I place a finger against my lips. His eyes widen, then his smile changes into a smirk when I slowly walk towards him, swinging my hips a little, keeping both hands behind my back.
He throws a glance at the middle of the three stalls. As if the smell and the noise weren't sufficient clues... When I get close enough to smell the cheap aftershave the cowboy reaches for me. That's all I need. The second his hand touches my shoulder I lay my dagger against his skin. I'm short, but even the tallest guy thinks twice when there's a blade against his throat. The cowboy swallows, and I have to pull my weapon a little to make sure I won't kill him inadvertently. I'm pretty sure he carefully selected his aftershave to match his outfit, but now it mingles with the scent of sweat and fear.
I stand on the tip of my toes, and whisper, "You better leave."
He nods, which draws a little blood. Not my fault. A new odor joins the smell of fear and aftershave. I step back and eye the dark, growing stain on his pants. I shake my head and point at the door. "Leave."
He doesn't run, but it's a close call. His hat falls onto the tiled floor but he doesn't halt to pick it up. Just before he leaves the men's room he glances back at me. I give him my sweetest smile, and act as if I'm licking my blade. He's gone in an instant, leaving his hat behind. Moments later a compact engine coughs to life, then roars away, I bet it's the Rabbit. Good. I never liked rabbits much, cars and especially otherwise.
Just to be sure I bend and check the stalls, peeking underneath the doors. The first and third are empty, the middle one shows a pair of swollen ankles rising above dark pants and shiny leather shoes. It's him.
I put away my knife, then count to three before I kick in the door. The fat guy's inside. He gets up, dropping his phone. He tries to catch it before it falls into the toilet. He doesn't reach for his shoulder holster, his bad. My second kick knocks him backward. The back of his head strikes the wall, and then he topples forward. I grab the edge of the door and bash it against his head. Once. Twice. He almost slides off the toilet seat and onto the ground, like the bag of shit he is. I manage to hold him in place, just in time. Asshole. Even out cold he causes me trouble. It takes me three tries before I've properly positioned him on the seat in such a way that he won't fall down any time soon. He's still breathing. That's a bummer.
I unlock his holster and take his gun, a small black Beretta, then search his pockets. A keychain with two chrome-plated dice, his wallet, a pack of cigarettes, and a little sealed bag with suspicious-looking red powder. That makes him a dealer or a pimp, or both. A quick inspection of the wallet shows two credit cards, a driver's license, some plastic tokens picturing a medieval tower, and way too much cash. I put the gun and the wallet in my right pocket, the cash and the keys in my left. A good thing I didn't put on skinny trousers and sneakers this morning.
The fat guy's phone fell into the toilet. I am so not going to fish it out. Instead, I give it the red powder and the cigarettes as company before I flush. I close the door of the stall and use my dagger to turn the lock from the outside. Now if people don't pay close attention it simply looks like he's taking a long dump. And suffers from a serious case of hemorrhoids.
Outside, the girl's still waiting in the car, wearing her sunglasses again. I try to hand her the money and the car keys, but she refuses. Instead, she asks, "Is he alive? Is your mother a witch?"
I'm taken aback by the second question, but it doesn't seem to be intended as an insult. She's serious, but she can't be.
"More like a wizard in hiding," I tell her, and laugh at my own joke. Which isn't that funny, because it's true.
Mom is a wizard.
Or a mage, or a witch, or a sorceress, or whatever you want to call the profession. And she's in hiding, just like all the other magic users and magical beings. The world at large doesn't know about magic. Those few that do - and are able to use it - like to keep it that way. They play their little tricks and games on the mundanes, who never suspect and have no defenses. Or so those few assume.
Sometimes it's up to Mom and me to adjust their worldview.
"My mother is a witch," the girl says and looks away. "She is. She does magic but… you wouldn't understand. She would track me down. She would track you down for - for whatever you did. Thank you, anyway."
It's true, I don't understand magic. The arcane exists all around us, but it takes talent, a certain mindset, and an overdose of madness to use it properly. Don't ask me for any details, I'm simply not mad enough. I shrug and rub my knuckles. "There was nothing to it."
"Do they have mirrors inside? I don't like mirrors."
"I - What? What mirrors?"
"The restrooms," she explains.
What restroom wouldn't have mirrors, I wonder. "Do you want any help? Should I call someone?"
"No, it's fine, you've done enough. I will be fine. I'm Blaise, by the way," she says.
I shake my head, I'll never understand people. On impulse, I take the front bill from the stack of cash in the wallet. "I'm Ellen. You got a pen?"
She hesitates before digging up a pen from the door side pocket. I take it and write my phone number all over Benjamin-Franklin's face. A hundred-dollar bill makes a great business card. "Don't wait too long because the number might change," I tell her.
"I won't call," she says.
"I know. Just in case."
We stare at one another with nothing left to say. After a sigh, I throw the now empty wallet onto the roof of the gas station and bid the girl farewell before returning to our truck.
I'm back in my seat before Mom returns, the Beretta hidden in the passenger door's pocket under candy wraps and crumpled empty water bottles.
Mom's carrying two bottles of water and hands me one. "Ready?" she asks.
I nod and roll the window down, then drop the keys to the Mustang without Mom noticing anything. That car didn't choose its owner. "Yeah, I guess," I say, then take a swig as she pulls away from the gas station. The water is cold and my knuckles hurt.
In the mirror, getting smaller and smaller, sits a red convertible with a red-eyed girl in the passenger's seat.