2. Murphy's Law
The sun was beginning to disappear beneath the horizon in Rochelle's rearview mirror, and the needle on the dash was beginning to dip into the red. Bracing the wheel with her knee as she barreled down the good ol' Route 6 toward the east coast, she scrolled through her maps app to find a gas station nearby. If it was abandoned enough, she might even be lucky enough to crash in her car until morning. Then again, with as few cars as were on the highway, she might be just as lucky pulling off on the shoulder for a good night's rest.
There was a promising gas station just a short jaunt and a couple exits away, if she hopped on I-95. She turned the volume up on her phone and rested it on her thigh, the wind from the open window rushing through the cabin.
By the time she finally pulled into town, the sun was down and the moon was up, an off-white crescent hung low in the sky. Her phone led her down an old brick road and into the parking lot of a gas station that she was pretty sure she saw in the last zombie flick she watched. She rifled through the glovebox for the pepper spray she kept on hand for situations very much like this one. The yellow overhead light flickered to the beat of her heart as she climbed out of the car, squinting at the sign on the front door.
"We'll be back," the sign read. Beneath the curly white words was a clock with plastic hands pointing to 8 and 12.
"Fucking perfect," she muttered. Leaning against the dusty car, she picked through her wallet, lingering on the card under Madison's name. It was the only thing that had a chance of having any money on it, and the car was so low on gas she wasn't sure it would start, much less get her anywhere. Five bucks wasn't going to make or break Madison at this point, she reasoned, and slid it out. She'd finish filling up in the morning. Until then, she just wanted to find somewhere secluded to hit the hay. Her head kept drooping, and her eyes stung from squinting at the long stretch of high away.
The final bill read $5.03, so Rochelle pulled a fiver and a nickel from the main pocket of her wallet and tucked it behind the card.
She turned the key in the ignition, and the car sputtered. It didn't faze Rochelle; she just tried it again. And again. By the fourth time, panic was starting to settle into the pit of her stomach.
"Don't do this to me," she pleaded, turning the key again in vain. It was sputtering the same way it always did, but it wasn't turning over. "Fuck!" She smacked her steering wheel with the meat of her palm. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she weighed her options. She could call someone, but she had been driving for a few hours now, and she didn't think anyone would be willing to drive that far to rescue her from her own mistakes. This place looked like a ghost town, so she couldn't imagine there were many 24-hour services around she could petition for help. That left hunkering down somewhere and trying to get some sleep until morning, when she could find someone to help her. She didn't know anything about cars, so she was going to need a mechanic's expertise.
According to her phone, there was an auto shop a couple blocks away. For once, Rochelle was grateful she didn't have a whole lot of things to tote around.
Car in neutral, Rochelle did the only thing she could think of to do: one hand on the steering wheel, she put her back into pushing the beast out of the parking lot and down the dimly lit road. Every rustle of leaves made her skin prickle with goosebumps. She wasn't afraid of the dark, but something about this town gave her the creeps. It was silly, she knew—place like this, anybody around would've been tucked safely in bed—but she could've sworn something was following her.
"Turn right on New Hope Lane," the tinny, automated voice reminded from her phone.
"That is so not fucking funny," Rochelle said, stopping in her tracks.
"New Hope Lane" was a short brick road without streetlights. The sign next to it had read "DEAD END" at one point, but now the "END" was spray-painted over sloppily, and a period had been added next to the second D: it simply read "DEAD."
"I fucking hate kids these days," she muttered, yanking the steering wheel to the right and giving the beast a hard push.
Her arms felt like gelatin when she collapsed into the driver's seat, car "parked" haphazardly across an empty portion of the parking lot of E&V GARAGE. She took a minute to compose herself, catch her breath, and slick her damp bangs back from her forehead. She was pretty sure she could sleep right there if she wanted, but she was also pretty sure she would regret it by morning.
Sighing, she dragged herself around to the side of the van. The door slid open with a groan, and she climbed inside, allowing herself one last glance at her surroundings. Her skin was still peppered with goosebumps despite the warmth and humidity. The unnerving feeling that she was being watched kept creeping along the back of her neck; no matter how many times she turned around, she swore it was behind her.
She dumped the contents of one of the soft trash bags onto the floor of the car, rummaging through the layers of fabric for a few of the larger things—a few towels, a shawl, and a blanket. The towels she laid across the floor, rubbing them flat. She bundled the rest of bag's contents into relatively round pile, laying the shawl across them to form a pillow, then she settled down on top of her makeshift bedroll, covering up with the blanket. It wasn't comfortable by any means, but she still fell asleep in a matter of minutes.
A dull knocking interrupted her sleep an indefinite number of hours later. Squinting against the sunlight, Rochelle peered through the window at another woman, maybe a little older than her, with hair bleached platinum blonde and a pair of oversized aviators resting on a broad nose.
Rochelle pushed herself sitting and swung herself onto her knees, ready to bolt if necessary. The woman didn't look particularly friendly, but she didn't look like a cop, either, despite the sunglasses. Rochelle's hand rested on the mace still in her pocket as she reached forward to pop up the lock on the door, pushing it open.
"Hey, kiddo, whatcha doin' sleeping out here?" the woman said.
Rochelle could feel warmth coming to her cheeks. She had a soft spot for attractive women that talked down to her; she supposed that was probably why she was with Madison. That, and the fact Madison was the only other girl who was "out" back in high school.
"I, uh, had some car trouble late last night. I was just stopping by for a fill-up and the beast quit on me."
The woman gave the car a solid pat. "She's an old one," she commented, "What is she, mid-70's?"
"Yeah," Rochelle breathed, allowing herself a smile as she climbed out of the bus, "1977. I know it needs a lot of work done, but I'd just be happy with it running."
"You got it, kiddo. Follow me, we'll fill out some paperwork and get Val lookin' at her. If we don't need parts, you should be back on the road by night."
"No probs. Ephedra, by the way—I'm the E."
"I'm Rochelle; everyone back home calls me Ro."
Rochelle followed Ephedra to the garage proper. It wasn't much of a sight, with peeling paint and rust forming in patches around the metalwork, but with any luck, that meant they weren't the expensive brand of mechanic looking to make money off whatever they could.
There was no "inside," just a roof that covered a wooden workbench and a patch of concrete big enough to fit a car or two. Ephedra pulled an old clipboard out of the cabinet built into the wall, handing it over. Rochelle began filling it out as Ephedra started making small talk.
"Where is 'back home,' anyway?"
"Uh, Pennsylvania, just a couple hours out of Philly."
Ephedra whistled. "Must've been a drive. Road trip?"
"Yeah, something like that. Seeing the sights." Rochelle handed the clipboard back over, keys resting on top.
Ephedra looked it over briefly before giving a grin. "Awesome." She turned toward the only other car in the shop, which Ro only now noticed had two legs poking out from underneath. "Hey, Val!" she called.
The Val in question slid out from beneath the car, a man who must have been younger than Rochelle. He looked like a legit mechanic, in a white undershirt smeared with brown-black grease, the same color as his hair. Wordlessly, he stood, wiping at his hands with the towel tucked into the waistband of his jeans.
"Incoming," Ephedra warned before tossing the keys. He didn't look to grab them, instead staring off at nothing with glassy eyes. Now that he was closer, Rochelle could see scars across his forehead, nose, and cheekbones, but they must have been old, because they were no longer defined. It wasn't until the pair started walking toward the car, Ephedra touching one hand to his elbow lightly, that it hit Rochelle that he was probably blind. Befuddled, she watched as he climbed into the driver's seat and turned the key in the ignition. Brow furrowed with concentration, he turned it again.
"It doesn't turn on," Rochelle shouted from a distance.
Val tapped his ear with a finger, and then pressed it to his mouth, and Rochelle kicked the gravel absently.
Rochelle jumped at the voice next to her, then gave a nervous laugh. "What?"
"He's completely blind," Ephedra said. "It's our dad's shop, and he always wanted us to take over when he retired. The accident happened when we were kids, but Val still kept planning on this shop. Wanted to prove people wrong, I guess. He's pretty handy, actually. I know it sounds weird, but I guess he can tell from how it feels and sounds. Always knows what's wrong with our car before I even know there's a problem."
"Wow," was all Rochelle could think to say. It was pretty impressive, actually, if what Ephedra was saying was true.
"E," Valerian said, now standing with the hood propped up.
"My turn," Ephedra said, winking, and headed toward the car.
The pair murmured quietly between themselves, alternately pointing at varying spots beneath the hood. Rochelle didn't think it was a good sign that it looked like they were concerned with more than one thing.
"Alright, good news and bad news, kiddo," Ephedra said, crossing her arms. "Good news is we can get you running by the end of the night. Bad news is we don't think you'll make it very far. Your serpentine belt is on its last leg… among other things. The final call is yours, of course, but Val's personal recommendation is 'get a new car.'"
"Fuck," Rochelle breathed. "How far do you think it'll make it?"
Val strolled over, sliding on knockoff Ray Bans. "My best guess is an hour, if you're gentle with her."
"Fuck," Rochelle repeated, crossing her arms. "Alright, hit me with the pricing."
"We'll have to look up the parts—if we can find them. Sometimes these old cars are hard to get replacement parts for. But we're lookin' at probably a grand, at least."
Rochelle pinched the bridge of her nose. "Fuck," she said again.
"Tell you what," Ephedra said. "We'll let her sit here on the good faith that when you have the money—or another vehicle— you can come back and get your car."
"What am I supposed to do until then?"
Val shrugged, and Ephedra hit him with the back of her hand.
"The bookstore is hiring," she offered helpfully.
Rochelle rubbed at her temple, and then pushed her bangs back out of her face. Working at a bookstore… if Madison and Casey and Desiree could all see her now. She hadn't read a book since high school, and Sparknotes didn't really count.
"Okay, uh… where's this bookstore?"
With a wry smile, Ephedra scribbled a quick, crude map on a bit of scrap paper, explaining it as she went. They let Rochelle change and rinse off her face in the cramped bathroom, gave her a bottle of water from the mini-fridge, and sent her on her way.
Rochelle followed the map down Main Street. It might have been a sight once, some time ago, but now it looked like many of the buildings were empty and showing signs of deterioration. Windows set into the brick façades had been boarded over with plywood, doors covered with two-by-four's nailed into plae. Signs had been left to fade in the sunlight until the words were barely legible. Even the shops lit with neon OPEN signs had fallen into a state of disrepair: pieces of signage missing or broken, doors propped open with bricks, even a couple of windows covered with tarp. It was difficult to tell what was still running from what was no longer.
The bookstore was a little thing on the corner, a one-story cube that looked stunted in comparison to the two-story brick buildings lining the rest of the street. The sign read "NovelTea"—no space— in hand-drawn calligraphy. Rochelle rolled her eyes, straightened her shoulders out, and entered the shop.
The bell above the door tinkled softly. Rochelle took a quick look around the tiny store filled to the brim with too-tall shelves, cramped café-style two-seat tables, and the register at the front which was being managed by a girl who looked to be approximately Rochelle's age. She glanced between the scrap paper and the nametag pinned to the front of the girl's button-up blouse.
"Arabella," Rochelle greeted, putting on her best people-pleasing smile. "Hi, I'm Rochelle. Rochelle Adams. Ephedra and Val, down at the auto shop, said you were looking for help?"
The girl blinked at her with owlish eyes set behind glasses. "Uh… yeah. Yeah, sorry, I just haven't seen you around before. Do you live nearby?"
"Not really, it's a bit of a long story…"
"Well, stories are what we do here." She paused, waited, and then said, "Got it, not funny. But yeah, I run this shop all by myself. The hours are pretty long, so I was looking for someone to watch the front part-time, just three or four hours in the evening."
"Are you open that late?"
Arabella smiled wide, teeth bright white. "The shop opens bright and early at seven. There isn't a Starbucks nearby so people come by for their morning coffee, newspaper… I don't have a full kitchen, but on Mondays I bring donuts for the regulars. After the morning rush, it's a pretty steady trickle until we close at six."
"That's… a lot of time to be on your feet."
"Yeah," Arabella said, neatening up a stack of brochures on the counter. "That's why I'm looking for some outside assistance. I used to help my aunt out, but… she signed the place over to me, so it's been just me for the last few months." She brushed her wavy brown hair back from the edge of her glasses. "So, when you can start?"
The hair on the back of Rochelle's neck stood up again, and she looked over her shoulder, but no one was there. Looking back, she rubbed the side of her arm and said, "Um… sorry, yeah, as soon as you want me."
Anxiety continued to turn in the pit of her stomach, and she pressed her hands against her thighs before they had a chance to start shaking. "Yeah yeah, tomorrow sounds swell."
"How does three o'clock sound?"
"Awesome." Rochelle couldn't help but glance back over her shoulder a second time.
"Are you okay?" Arabella asked. Her brow was furrowed, the corners of her lips turned down. Rochelle lingered on the sight—it had been a while since she had seen genuine concern for her—before clearing her throat.
"Yeah, I just… keep getting this feeling, like, I don't know, like I'm being watched. I know it sounds…" She blew out a puff of air, unwilling to say the word, because it felt all too fitting in the moment.
"Oh, right." Then Arabella said the single most terrifying sentence Rochelle had ever heard. "You get used to it."