The Kansas Flint Hills stretched out, the miles of yellow prairie broken only by the miles of highway. Johnson thought calling them “hills” was generous since you could walk up them without breaking a sweat. Here, the earth wanted to be flat and was willing to do violence to stay that way. Small swells of earth had been hacked away, ugly brown gashes amid the grass; the prairie floor grabbing the hill, pulling it back down. On a distant rise, there was a tree, bent by the pounding wind, the only other living thing out here. Johnson looked out his window and thought he could see himself wandering those distant hills, alone and reckless. He stared, feeling the wind, seeing the miles of brown prairie in every direction. He tried to shake off the image, tried thinking of the cattle he had bought in McAlester, Oklahoma or the price of gas or any other damn thing. But, that image kept coming back to him like a scab that had to be picked or the drink he always wanted. He laid his right foot against the floor of the truck.
Night was coming soon and all that vast openness would disappear. Johnson heard himself sigh. The trade-off would be that the sun that warmed his old truck would be gone too. The wind found every crack in the cab and his heater could not keep up. There was an old quilt on the floor of the passenger side in case the cold got to be too much.
Maybe it was time to give up on the old Ford. He could see himself behind the wheel of a new heavy-duty truck with the seat warmer and cruise control on, but he just kept finding himself where he’d been for the last 19 years. The truck had molded itself to him and he guessed that maybe he had molded himself to it too. On nights like this, the seat fitting the shape of his ass didn’t mean as much when it was so cold that he couldn’t feel it or his feet anymore.
Johnson saw a man in the distance; he blinked a couple of times but could still see him. The hitchhiker had on a backpack and his thumb up to the sky. There was a car about a mile ahead that whizzed past him. Folks were probably afraid, and he figured they had a right to be. A guy traveling out in this country with nothing but the open land and bitter wind was most likely desperate, and desperate usually meant a problem knowing right from wrong. But, with night coming on, the guy could die of exposure. Johnson pulled his .38 from under his seat and set it next to his right hip, covering it with his coat. He pulled over.
The hitcher stood there for a moment, studying Johnson in the cab. He took in the rifle rack in the window, the graying beard and weathered hands on the wheel. When he finally opened the door, the wind brought in his sour smell. Johnson’s eyes watered a little and he almost took off again.
“Where you headed?”
“Wherever you’re willing to take me.” He started to throw his backpack onto the floor of the truck.
“Why don’t you stow your gear in the back?” said Johnson. The hitchhiker paused, eyes darting around the truck’s cab, Johnson’s face. After a long moment, he put his bag in the truck’s bed and started to get in.
“In fact, go ahead and put your coat back there too.”
The young man paused, his arms by his side, right hand curled into a fist. “Man, it’s pretty cold. Do I have to?” the hitcher said. Johnson held his gaze.
“I got a nice warm quilt for you. It’s either the coat in the back or you can grab your pack and I’ll be on my way,” said Johnson.
The hitcher sighed and put his coat under the pack in the bed of the truck. He grabbed the quilt from the truck’s floor, wrapped himself up and got in, bringing the road smell with him. Johnson was glad for the drafty cab now; he might be stiff from the cold, but he probably wouldn’t pass out.
“What’s your name?” Johnson asked.
“Nico,” the boy said, picking at his scalp through his Broncos cap. Dark, dirty hair hung down his shoulders. Johnson shuddered a little, wondering what was causing Nico to pick at his head.
“Nico? That short for something?”
“Yeah. It’s short for Nicolas.”
“What’s wrong with Nick?”
Nico just shrugged. “What do people call you?”
“Everybody calls me Johnson.”
A grin broke out on Nico’s face. At least Johnson thought it was a grin, the beard on Nico’s face moved slightly.
“I’ve heard them all before, boy,” Johnson said. Yep, it was a smile. Nico’s yellow teeth could be seen behind the wall of unruly hair.
“Well Nico, what the hell you doing out here?”
“Just where I am.” Nico picked at his head again.
“Where you from?”
“I was out West. I’ve been moving east for a long time.”
“Looks like it. Running from something?”
Nico let the question hang there. His dirty hair and beard said it had been years since hygiene was a thought. There was a dark patch around Nico’s left eye. It could be a bruise or just more dirt—hard to tell with his dark skin. Nico had the air of the lost, that hard and unclean look the wind and road give in exchange for youth. With the setting sun resting on Nico’s face, Johnson wondered for a minute if he might just be a ghost. There was nothing on his face but the fading light–no sadness, no curiosity, no expectation.
“You got some place in particular that you’re trying to get to?”
“No man. Can’t go back so I just keep moving forward.”
It was silent save the tires turning on the highway and that damned wind whistling through every crack. Having people around usually meant conversation; it’s what they do to pass the time, to show each other a little respect. But with Nico in the car, the miles slowed, got longer. Nico was only an outline now, reclining in the bench seat, head resting on the back window. Johnson shifted in his seat.
“Got a family, Nico?”
“Had one. Not no more.”
“Don’t your folks wonder where you are?”
“Got no idea. Haven’t talked to them since I was fifteen.”
“That’s pretty young to be out on your own.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Nico sat up a little. “Hey man, do you mind if we listen to the radio?”
“No, but it’s slim pickings around here. You’ve got Bible preaching or country music.”
“Country’s good. I haven’t heard any music in a while. It gets kinda lonely if you don’t hear nothing but your own thoughts for too long.”
Well, music was better than the silence, so Johnson hit the button. Conway Twitty came on and Nico looked out his window. He was thin, maybe strung out, but Johnson didn’t think so. Nico was too still to be craving anything. No, he just looked like he hadn’t eaten well for a long time. Fifteen was pretty young to be turned out of the house. Did he do something to make them kick him out? Were his parents just assholes? God knows there are plenty of those.
Johnson thought his parents did a good job. They worked hard, raised two boys and managed to pay off the farm Johnson now lived on. They taught both their boys how to make it in the world. They could hunt, fix things around the farm, and lend a helping hand when someone had need. There was right and wrong, and the boys generally went the right way and followed the rules, but when they didn’t, they saw the other use for Daddy’s belt. Mike, his brother, would always try to get out of his spankings, either by looking to strike a deal or just plain running. Seemed to Johnson that it was just easier to get it over with. The pain of the belt was long forgotten, but he could still hear how the leather sounded when it hit his back side. Thinking about it, Johnson shifted again in his seat.
Mike, being the oldest, should have been the one to take over the farm, but he said he couldn’t smell cow shit for the rest of his life and left Johnson to it. Mike moved to Kansas City, got a job in a car factory and married Sally. It seemed to Johnson that Mike had settled into some kind of decent life, so he was surprised to hear of the beatings. Sally told Johnson they’d been in a fight about money and she pushed him. He slapped her. There was a silence where the sound of the slap just vibrated, like the sting in her face. She said that they looked at each other and she watched his eyes light up, almost like joy. He balled up his fist and punched her in the jaw. She fell back onto the floor and just lay there, a bloody smell coming from her mouth. She heard him sigh, deep and long. All the tension drained from his body. He looked more satisfied and relaxed than he ever had after sex. She closed her eyes and let the tears roll to the carpet.
The next beating came a few weeks later. Long enough for the bruise on her face to fade some. She couldn’t remember what caused it, but it was worse. He punched her in the stomach a couple of times and again she went down.
For a while, he would stop once she hit the floor. Down she’d go, and his shoulders would relax and he’d leave. There’d be several weeks between beatings. Sex had dried up. He’d never been that into sex, but he’d want it a couple of times a month. Now his hands lusted for violence instead of love.
It kept going like that for a while. Mike would find a reason to beat her and then his whole body would loosen. Dakota, their older boy, would watch him as if studying for an exam, while the younger, Caleb, would hide and comfort his mother when Mike wasn’t looking. Not that they mattered to Mike.
It all ended one afternoon when Mike kicked Sally so hard that she couldn’t get up. Mike and Dakota watched TV while Sally lay there. Caleb sat under the kitchen table, glancing over his shoulder at Mike, as he rubbed his mother’s hand. When it got dark and Sally still wasn’t up, Caleb finally went into a back bedroom and called 911. Mike went to prison, the boys to Social Services, Sally to the hospital.
Mike was the first to call, asking for bail money. He told Johnson that Sally was making too much of an argument, hadn’t laid a hand on her, and if she was hurt, it was her fault. Johnson hung up. He hadn’t heard from the guy in ten years. Mike had left Johnson alone to feed the cows, pay the taxes and pass each birthday and Christmas alone. Johnson thought of the whippings Mike had gotten out of; a little time in lock-up would do him good.
Then Sally called, Johnson had no difficulty believing that Mike had hit her. She told him that she had gotten the boys out of foster care but needed a place to hide—somewhere in the state but no place that Mike would think to look. Her family had all died or moved away. She wanted her and the boys to come stay on Johnson’s farm. He said he’d have to think about it.
He kept his word. He thought about having help around the farm and someone to cook. Might be good for the boys to see some real work. Maybe he could raise them up right—especially Dakota who just watched his mom lay on the ground. But, what did he know about kids? Dakota sounded just like his daddy and Johnson’s parents hadn’t been able to steer him so what did he think he could do. He thought about it for about a week and called Sally. But there was no answer that day or any other. Seems Sally grabbed her boys and ran. Johnson thought of them from time to time, wondered where they all were.
He glanced over at Nico and found him staring. When their eyes met, Johnson thought of his gun.
“Why are you staring at me?”
“I don’t know. You just got … weird.”
Johnson’s eyes narrowed and the wrinkles between his eyebrows deepened. “Weird? How?”
“Your breathing got a little deeper and you seemed tight. I was just watching you.”
“Watching me? You’re the one needs watching. You’re the stranger.”
Nico pulled the quilt tighter around his shoulders. “We’re strangers to each other.”
Johnson huffed a little. “You know, I didn’t have to pick you up, boy. I could’ve left you on the side of the road to freeze.” Nico turned his head and looked out the window again. He sighed and Blake Shelton sang about not having to be lonely tonight.
“Can we turn up the heat? I’m really cold with my coat in the back.” Nico said, an edge and a whine wrapped together in the question.
“Sorry, that’s all the heat there is.” Johnson adjusted his sheepskin coat.
“Maybe you ought to think about getting a new truck.” Johnson thought he could hear Nico’s unspoken words, “You old fool.” Johnson said nothing in reply. He wasn’t going to take the bait.
“I didn’t know it got so cold here in Oklahoma.” Nico said.
“First of all, we’re not in Oklahoma. We’re in Kansas—almost to Emporia.” This boy doesn’t have a clue where he is, Johnson thought. Maybe he was strung out. Or maybe he was still trying to bait him.
“We’re in Kansas? Where’s Emporia?”
“It’s a little more than halfway through the state as you head north to Kansas City. Why?
Nico shrugged. “Just wondering.”
“Emporia might be a good place to leave you.”
“Sure, I told you I’d go as far as you’d take me.” That edge again.
Their voices were silent, but the truck, the wind and the unspoken words filled the cab. Johnson’s shoulders hurt, not just from the cold but the boy’s silence and the aggravation pulled at his muscles. When you were given something, wasn’t it just common courtesy to say thank you? Every child knew that. Johnson heard the snap his father’s belt then and thought maybe Dad had a point.
“You know you’re kind of an asshole,” Johnson said. “You haven’t thanked me; you’ve ducked every question I’ve asked you. Hell, boy, you don’t even really talk. Maybe I should pull over and let you out right here.”
Nico turned to stare at him, his face as impassive as the Flint Hills. But, as an oncoming car passed, Johnson thought he saw tears in the corners of his eyes. Johnson laid on the gas a bit more.
“If you need me to say thank you to stay in the truck, then thank you.” Nico said. Johnson glared at him. “I do appreciate it, but if you need to hear it, there it is.”
“Boy, you have been on the road a long time if you think that thank you is such a hardship. Or don’t they show appreciation where you’re from?”
Nico turned away. The radio was giving only static now. Johnson could see the faint, white glow of Emporia ahead. He could let Nico off at the toll booth. Truckers had to slow down to pay the toll and they’d see him. He could catch a ride without waiting too long.
But it was damn cold. Johnson could feel the wind in the truck moving along his neck, piercing his face through his beard. It was always there even though he could forget about it most times. Then a gust would strike him, and he’d feel almost surprised by it, like it was a new thing instead of something that he’d just tuned out. Maybe the kid was right, it was time for that new truck. He reached out and punched the radio knob to turn it off.
Johnson’s stomach grumbled a little. He was hungry. Probably Nico was too. He acted like a punk, but then so did most boys. Dakota, the nephew that he no longer knew, was in his mind, but Johnson turned his thoughts away. Sighing, he pulled into the toll booth. He grabbed his wallet from his back pocket and withdrew a couple of dollar bills.
“Nico, get me a quarter out of that ashtray.”
Nico reached for the ashtray. Change rustled. He handed a frozen quarter to Johnson.
“Thanks.” Johnson turned to the attendant, made nice and pulled forward. Nico started to unwrap himself from the quilt. Johnson exited the highway and pulled into a fast food parking lot.
Nico turned toward him and nodded.
“Let’s go in. I want something to eat and I need to attend to some business.” Nico got out of the truck and grabbed his stuff. Johnson put the gun back under his seat while Nico was busy in the back. They walked in. Under the warm smell of baking bread was the tang of overused grease.
“What do you want?” Johnson asked.
In the florescent lights, Johnson could really see Nico. His face was dirty and thin. There was bruise on his left cheek. He stood still, licking his cracked lips and, for a moment, Johnson could see the little boy he once was. He got out his wallet again and handed Nico a twenty.
“Get me a number three with a coffee and whatever you want. I’ll be right back.” Nico nodded and Johnson turned to go to the restroom. If Nico was gone when he got back, maybe that would be best. He would have a little money and Johnson could get on, knowing that he’d done enough. But Nico was sitting at a table with a bunch of food in front of him and Johnson saw the change on the table.
They ate in silence. Johnson watched Nico put one of his two cheeseburgers into his pack.
“You want the rest of my fries?” Johnson asked. Nico nodded and put them with the burgers. Johnson noticed bruises and scrapes on his right hand.
“You look pretty banged up. Were you in a fight?”
Nico’s dark eyes looked at him, but he said nothing. Johnson sighed and shook his head. A ride and a meal, the boy could at least talk to him. Nico crushed the sack that held the fries, dropped it on the table and put a half-full bottle of water in his pack. He stood up and put his hand out.
“Thanks for everything.”
Johnson looked up at Nico and leaned back into his chair. “You’re leaving?”
“Yeah, I’ll catch another ride.”
“You’ll catch another ride? Why?”
“You’ve done enough.”
Johnson sat up straighter and gripped the table with his right hand. “No, it’s okay. I can take you farther. I’m still a couple of hours from home.”
“No.” Nico’s voice was harsh and loud enough that the people in the next booth looked over. Nico stared coldly and the couple both looked away. He looked back at Johnson and saw the confusion in his eyes. Leaning over, Nico whispered, “I’m not comfortable with the gun. I think it’s better if I just got a ride with someone else.”
Johnson flushed. “You saw that?” Nico stood up straight and took a step back.
“Yeah, I thought you might have one, but I saw it on the seat when you were paying the toll. I get why you have it, but I don’t think I’ll get back into the car with you.”
“You’d rather take a chance with someone else?” Nico didn’t respond. “Look, you’ve been in the car with me for an hour and you were fine. I bought you food and trusted you with my money. And now you don’t think you’re safe?”
“Man, you don’t get it, do you?” The force of Nico’s voice made the folks in the next booth look up again. “You’ve got all the cards. You told me I was a stranger, but you’re a stranger too. You’re just some guy who pulled over, invited me into his truck, but only if I put my shit into the back.”
Nico took a breath and flexed his hand. He could still feel the bruise and thought about how he got it. It still hurt. Nico could see the look of entitlement in Johnson’s eyes. He thought he was owed something; that he was some sort of hero. The anger of years, of miles and relentless cold and wind come to the top.
“Look asshole, you thought I was the dangerous one, the one who was going to hurt you, but you never thought for a second that you’re the one to watch out for. See these bruises?” Nico, made his right hand into a fist and held it close to Johnson’s face. “You want to know how I got these? Yesterday I hitched a ride with a trucker. He had a Jesus fish on the doors and a cross on the dash next to bunch of pictures of his family. I thought he’d be okay and besides it was pretty fucking cold. We talked for a while and then I just couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. He said I could stretch out in the back. It was really good to lie down.”
“I woke up when the truck stopped. He came back there and asked me if I was saved. I thought it was a weird time for him to do his salvation thing, but it was his rig so what the hell, right? I told him I wasn’t, that I appreciated the ride, but I didn’t believe in God. You know what he said? He said, ‘Then this won’t matter.’ And then the dude unzipped his fly and told me to pay for the ride. I had to fight my way out.” Nico paused. When he spoke again, his voice was lowered, but sharp, penetrating.
“So, you think you’re a safe guy? Think you’d only do what’s right with that gun? Well, maybe you’re right, but I can’t take the chance.”
Nico stared at him, but Johnson couldn’t return the gaze. His shoulders slumped and he sighed. “Here, at least take the change.”
Nico hesitated and then grabbed the money as he went past and then he was gone.
Johnson sat for several moments, looking across the table at the empty space. People ordered food at the counter, the traffic rolled by on the streets outside. Home was a few hours away. There would be chores and bills, beers at the tavern, and a comfortable bed. All of them familiar, none of them unknown. He finished his coffee.
When he opened the door to the truck, the smell of loneliness cut through him. Like the wind on the open prairie, its sourness and fear smacked his face, stinging his eyes. Johnson then looked around for Nico, thought he might still be in the parking lot or the street waiting for another ride. He was gone.
Johnson sank into his truck, feeling the molded seat and the hard steering wheel he had held for so many years.
When he hit the highway, his foot became lead. And the wind rolled on.
Holly Ann Shaw has lived most of her life in Kansas City except for a brief hiatus in Portland, Oregon. She once served a life sentence in Minot, North Dakota (okay it was really just two years, but felt like a lifetime). So, the facts are wife, mother, former marketer, decorator, mixed-media tinkerer and writer. This is her first fiction publication.