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At seventeen, Melody’s life is already heading in the wrong direction. From good girl to rebel; from straight-A student to near dropout. It’s going to take a long run on the naked road to find her way home.
Running The Naked Road
By Valerie Brook
Copyright © 2014 Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.
Published by Kickit Press/kickitpress.com
Cover and Layout Copyright © 2014 by Kickit Press
Cover Art Copyright: Krivosheev Vitaly/Shutterstock.com
This is a work of fiction. Name, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form.
MELODY GRIPPED THE EDGE of the Ford truck’s chrome bumper, her fingers splayed like animal claws. She crouched, hiding. The truck’s tires filled the air in the Walmart parking lot with the odor of hot, toxic rubber and the angry Texas sun lashed her naked back.
Her heart thudded in her chest like an engine revving.
The tiny pebbles on the cement pinched her bare feet as she stole a secret view from under the truck’s muffler. Between two sets of strangers’ legs scissoring away from the weekend Walmart hordes, she watched the red corvette disappear down the row and out of sight.
That was the red corvette driven by the drunken frat boy asshole with no sense of humor who’d just made her strip naked a minute ago. The red corvette with all her clothes lying in the backseat. Even her panties.
The red corvette that wasn’t coming back.
Fucking goddamn it.
Melody swallowed the sour fear in her throat. Tears tried to well up but she fought them off.
She was miles from home, without identification or a phone or any money. What kind of questions would the police ask a seventeen-year-old found hiding naked in a parking lot? And when she wouldn’t tell them anything, they’d go to her dad.
That couldn’t happen.
The sound of flip-flops smacking heels grew louder. Three sets of legs approached, one adult and two kids. The group acquired a lopsided shopping cart, one rusted wheel rattling.
Melody’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Sandwiched between the truck and a Subaru three feet behind, there was no additional cover. She would be exposed to all passersby.
Wait. Under the truck. She could fit.
Melody felt hot air rush between her legs as she spidered on all fours. The cement scraped her tits. She banged her hipbone, sending a sharp reverberation of pain all the way into her teeth.
She froze, motionless, holding her breath as the group walked by. Then another group. Then a wheelchair rolling.
The tips of her long black hair brushed a smear of oil-stained ground.
Tears tried to sting her eyes and she fought them hard. Fought off the despair that pounded in her chest. Some little kid would see her under here, point and bend down low. Mama, look at the person under the truck.
A flash of green caught Melody’s eye. She turned her head. Along the inside of the rear bumper, the figure of swordsman was stamped onto a little black magnetic box, snugged up deep under the wheel well.
Melody’s jaw dropped.
She recognized the object. Grandpa had that same brand, a Green Knight magnetic key case, because he would lose his keys and Grandma would get pissed.
Melody reached for the case, her hands shaking, and slid it open. A key fell into her palm.
She stared at it like the key might reconsider its own solid existence and wink into nothing. But no, the serrated edge pinched her palm as she squeezed it hard in her fist.
Melody angled her head, listening. Noise carried from across the parking lot. A trunk slammed with a thump. A cross-walk bell chimed. Fragmented voices rose and fell.
For the moment, there were no legs passing by the muffler. No footfalls approaching. The coast was clear.
Melody crawled out from under the truck and crouched beside the driver’s door. She hugged one arm across her naked chest, and the other arm reached skyward with the key, aiming at the door handle. Sunlight flared into her eyes, blinding her.
The crunch of car tires approaching sent a spike of electricity into her fingertips. The key turned the lock, the door cracked open, and Melody’s legs sprang and launched her into the front seat.
She pulled the door closed and lay underneath the horizon of the windows. The outside world muted like the daytime soundtrack had been put on pause.
A hot seatbelt buckle stung her belly. Her nose pressed into a stack of coffee-stained newspapers. A box of cigarettes jabbed the side of her head. Reaching toward the steering wheel with the key trembling in her hand, she found the ignition—sliding the key into its housing without turning it.
The volume of a conversation turned loud outside, echoing through the barrier of the truck as two guys walked right by the passenger door, their voices violating her hiding space. There and gone again.
Melody’s chest rose and fell.
Lifting her head, she scanned the seat and the floor. Fast food wrappers lay crumpled with some scattered tools and odds and ends, but nothing approximating clothing. She rolled forward and plunged her hand under the seat, her fingers bumping into strange, unidentifiable shapes, grit jamming under her nails. She found nothing made of fabric.
Melody lifted her head off the newspapers, held up a section, and unfolded it into a long rectangle. The loose, glossy ads slid out onto the passenger floor with a hiss. The face of the president glared disapprovingly at her as she tucked him up under her armpits, snugging the paper down tight. It tore. She yanked out another section, doubling up. This would work. It had to work.
Sitting upright, the sunny world beamed in through the front windshield like theater lights on a Broadway stage. Melody clutched the wide steering wheel, her bare toes probing for the brake and gas pedals, just able to reach.
“I can do this,” she whispered. The newspaper crinkled as she leaned back into the cold plastic seat to help secure the paper ends. Her butt crack spread uncomfortably, like it might collect lint. Jesus, this could almost be funny.
Except it wasn’t.
The late-model truck fired up with an F150 roar. The air vents blasted her, smelling moldy, fluttering the papers. Melody fumbled with the controls, turning the A/C off. She clunked the gear shift into reverse and checked the mirrors. It was just like the simulator in Driver’s Ed.
So she’d never driven an actual truck before.
Right now was not the time to freak out about the details.
She backed up slowly and carefully, edging around the Subaru like it might explode if she dinged it. She clunked the gear shift back into drive and lurched down the parking row like this was actually something she did every day.
Her armpit stung where the newspaper had given her a paper cut. The springs in the bench seat squeaked as she rocked over a speed bump. As she drove by the first group of people, her spine shrank. No one bothered to look up at her. Nothing was amiss.
Melody let out a big breath of air.
Maybe the coffee-stained newspaper looked like a strapless blouse. Kinda funny. After all, Texas was smack in the middle of a sizzling summer—so skin was in.
Her mouth still tasted sour. A box of breath mints lay on the dash and she popped one into her mouth as she caught the trail of cars flowing in the green light, exiting the Walmart and merging onto Zaragoza Street.
The peppermint zinged her tongue, and a surge of relief flooded her body so overwhelmingly, she almost felt like she’d won the lottery.
She shifted up into third—a little more buoyant on the grimy plastic seat. She just needed to make it back home and get into her bedroom closet. That’s all she needed.
She glanced at the fuel gauge, relieved it was well above the empty mark—kept one eye on the speedometer, minded the posted speed limits. No one paid her any attention.
She put on her blinker and turned off Zaragoza, heading into the fading sun, toward home and the northern outskirts of the city where her dad had a rustic ranch house on three acres of land. Or weeds, however you wanted to look at it now. Problems in paradise, as they said—ever since mom took that vacation and never came back.
But Melody didn’t want to think about the way her life used to be. That normal life was dead. It was over.
Cars flowed around her on conveyor belts, traffic thickening as more people got off work for the day. The flare of the sun kept lowering in the sky.
Melody braked for an armored truck as it made a turn into a bank. A realization bloomed inside her—fanning slowly out from her stomach, into her chest, and down her arms—like her blood was icing inside her veins.
She’d just stolen a truck.
Like, stole it.
A line of cold sweat broke out on her forehead. Where was she going to park? Jesus. She couldn’t go home and park in the driveway, what was she thinking? What the fuck was she thinking? This was a crime. This was public nudity and grand theft auto, all wrapped up together.
From straight-A student to near high-school dropout, she was now adding in a felony to put a cherry on top the whole damn shit sundae.
A horn blared like a manic tuba.
Melody swerved, realizing she’d drifted into the right-hand lane and nearly hit a souped-up burgundy Cadillac with chromed hubcaps. Her newspaper blouse shifted, one side drooping and threatening to sail. She squeezed her armpits shut like puckered lips and stepped on the gas. The Ford burped, lumbering away from the Cadillac and what looked like the flash of a middle finger in the rearview.
Great. All she needed was to piss off the Los Aztecas, or some other cartel-type guys, getting all Friday-afternoon amped-up before their next—whatever.
New rule of thumb: Don’t piss off other people on the road when you’re secretly driving stark naked.
She needed to think. Figure this out.
A light turned red behind her and the Cadillac faded in the distance. Melody made a quick left-hand turn onto a side street, just to add another level of separation from the person she had almost run off the road.
In short order, she’d managed to multiply her naked problem into a theft problem. She didn’t need a road rage problem, too.
The Ford truck rolled to a stop at a stop sign. A mother in a sun hat laboriously pushed a stroller along the crosswalk like the soles of her sandals were made of molasses.
“Go ahead, take all day,” Melody mumbled.
The mother suddenly turned to look straight through the windshield, like she had perceived Melody’s rude words with an unnatural sixth sense and was affronted.
Melody stared back, immobilized. She forced a smile. A drop of sweat slipped down her spine, continuing down into her butt crack with creepy-crawling insect legs.
The mother turned back to her stroller pushing, disinterested.
All around, lackluster houses in this ramshackle neighborhood sat in shades of drab brown, surrounded by high-desert bushes, high-desert trees, and rocky front lawns. El Paso was a sunburnt city sprawled out like a squashed spider, legs ironed out into roads in all directions—south across the Rio Grande and into Mexico, north through hazy walls of heat that shimmered like microwaves on the historic streets. East and west into endless rattlesnake dust and shrub.
Melody just wanted a road home.
Her puckered armpits had dampened the newspaper with wet rings. She smelled like fear and stale onions. She cracked the window a little bit, which didn’t even help.
The sun sank lower on the horizon, bleaching the buildings into pastels. Just over the top of the Franklin Mountains, a pale moon floated impatiently, ready to throw a blue-black blanket of night over the city and watch the twinkling lights flicker on.
Melody pulled away from the stop sign, scowling for a quick second at the psychic mother’s back, and drove around the block. It would be best to loop around toward the Parkway. This route would give her twenty minutes to think of a plan in the shelter of the truck before she would cross Deerun Road—the flat, country lane that was the two minute mark to her house.
And a pair of panties.
Clean, butt-crack guarding panties, all folded nice and happy in the dresser.
Melody thought of the pack of cigarettes she’d hidden in that dresser last month when she tried to start smoking. Turned out smoking tastes like shit. How did anyone ever manage to do it without feeling like they were going to die? She couldn’t remember if she’d thrown that pack away.
Melody smacked the steering wheel with her palm, admonishing herself for allowing rambling, unfocused thoughts.
The stolen truck.
Where was she going to ditch the stolen truck, and how was she going to wipe her fingerprints? Her butt-print? Jesus. What if the CSI people found a pubic hair with a pair of tweezers?
Wait, no one was going to tweeze the truck if it was found, parked, totally intact. Not a new scratch on it. No one would care except that it was returned to its owner.
A new idea bloomed inside her.
Get home before her dad. Park close to the pinyon tree and run around to the back door and get dressed. Call Misty, don’t explain, just arrange to meet at The Holy Smoked Pepper. Get in the truck again, sans naked-ness, driving away with a bottle of ammonia and a roll of paper towels. She’d clean out her prints and sneak the truck back to the same WallMart. That way, the owner would magically transform from a victim of theft into a dude who’d forgotten where he’d parked.
Melody would walk to the Mexican food joint and ta-da!—Mr. Red Corvette could kiss her ass when she plotted her revenge.
“Hell yeah,” Melody announced. “Got a plan now.”
She was popping a celebratory breath-mint, charging through a green light, when she noticed the cop car idling at the opposite intersection. It was all haloed out with a crown of sun behind it, painted black-and-white like an evil, metallic wasp built to fly the streets in pursuit of offense.
Melody didn’t have a seatbelt on.
Click it or ticket.
Her right hand automatically launched up to grab the belt, which made the newspapers whoosh away, exposing her big, white tits like a whore in headlights. The truck’s wheels hit a pothole, bouncing her tits up in an arch—almost in some kind of cosmic, slow-motion comedy, as she glided through the intersection.
Melody realized in a flush of horror that her own wide-eyed stare was causing the cop’s face to turn upward toward her, like some kind of magnetic attraction—two polar opposites drawn together from across the universe of chance. She felt her lips form a perfect O.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
The truck shot through the intersection.
Had he seen her tits bounce?
This was so bad.
Flashing red-and-blue lights in her mirrors confirmed that yes, she had just titty-flashed a man of the law.
All her plans flew out the crack in the window.
Melody clicked the seatbelt tight and floored the gas pedal. The engine chugged like it drank beer, not gas. Her body locked onto the reflex to escape, adrenaline thumping a vein in her neck.
She spun the steering wheel, tires skidding, whipping the truck off the Parkway and careening into a Winn-Dixie parking lot. Oh crap, there were shoppers walking all over the place. Melody slammed on the brakes, clipping the edge of an empty shopping cart, which charged forward with a rocket thrust. A man froze in front of her, dropping his plastic sack of groceries, arms shocked out like a scarecrow.
Melody spun the wheel away from the scarecrow-man, accelerating across a vacant area of the parking lot, white lines streaking in her side mirrors. The newspapers fluttered across the seat, slipping between her knees and down to the floorboards.
Where was the driveway exit?
The angry cop siren blared behind her.
Forget the driveway.
Melody aimed for a lull in traffic and drove straight over a planted row of white Beebrush and onto the sidewalk, flying off the curb. Her butt cheeks peeled off the vinyl seat in a space-like, zero-gravity moment just before the seatbelt yanked her down as she ker-thunked into traffic. The steering wheel lurched. She fought to turn with white knuckled hands, nearly careening into a coffee shop. The drunken truck squealed, righting itself and roaring up the Parkway toward home again.
Thank God for the seatbelt. She’d have shot through the roof without it.
She studied the rearview mirror more than the road ahead—maybe she’d lost the cop? The steering wheel vibrated in her hands, kinda pulling to the side in a way it hadn’t before. The world raced by in the blurred colors of twilight: headlights like night-eyes winking, pastels fading into shadow.
Melody made a lefthand turn, then a right. Zoomed by gas stations and storefront buildings and fast-food chains. She charged through a yellow light. Turned left then right again.
No red-and-blue flashers reflected in her mirrors. She took a deep breath. She’d lost the cop, but he’d have called his buddies, put out an APB, or whatever.
Where the hell was she? She managed another deep breath. Eased her foot off the accelerator. Then, another breath.
Now she felt like crying again. Tears threatened and her lips quivered. She smelled like a dead fish and her hands were cramped up into claws. She slowed way down and followed a safe distance behind a dirty white delivery truck and kept her eyes out for a street sign.
Reaching down, she clutched a fistful of newspaper sheets and tried to bunch them under her armpits. They slid out. She slumped in the driver’s seat, trying to drop her tits below the horizon of the window.
It sucked being tall for her age. It wasn’t helping.
Her situation had just gotten so much worse. She’d pissed off a cop and by default all the cops in the entire city were now pissed. And something was going on with the engine wobble. Wait, maybe it was a tire? The steering wheel started vibrating a little more, making her fingers tingle.
The full moon dodged in and out of a sea of high clouds, its disappearance a gift of the most welcome cloak of darkness that Melody had ever worn.
Okay, calm down, she thought. Even though her dad was likely home by now, he was probably down in the basement office with his microwave dinner. She could still park near the house and sneak into her room, get dressed. Create a plan B to deal with the truck.
She just needed to get her bearings.
Low in the sky, a passenger plane descended toward the rising moon. The International Airport had to be to the east, so Fort Bliss had to be to the east too. If she drove north, she’d be going in the right direction. After driving just a few blocks up, she realized her big escape had only taken her in a gigantic circle.
That was okay, because a few minutes more of driving would bring her home. A sense of relief fluttered in her stomach. She was getting that feeling again, like she’d won the lottery.
The truck lurched for a moment, like she’d hit a rock.
Then, an intense shudder vibrated up from the floorboards underneath her.
“No.” Melody gripped the steering wheel. “No, no.” Her eyes flicked to the fuel gauge. The pointer had dropped significantly. How was that possible, the tank had been almost full.
She rattled over the train tracks by her house, the steering wheel suddenly yanking violently to the right, the whole truck pitching toward a ditch by a lonely field. The seatbelt locked as her body slid forward, the truck lurching like a rodeo bull in a gigantic cloud of dust.
The screech of barbwire digging into metal ended the wild ride. Tilted at a lopsided angle, the engine took one last gulp, then coughed and died. The right side wheel rolled unceremoniously down the center of the street all by itself, veering into the ditch.
Two dark patches of high desert yawned wide on either side of the road.
Oh hell no, she couldn’t stop here. Parked all caddywhompus like this, right next to the tracks, the stolen truck was just about as inconspicuous as a neon sign flashing the words: Something Is Wrong.
A single pair of headlights winked in the far darkness, approaching.
Melody just sat, her butt glued to the vinyl. On its own, the canister of breath mints slowly scooted along the dashboard with a pfft.
What was her plan now? How was she going to ammonia her prints off everything?
She thought about jail. She wasn’t ready for jail.
The approaching headlights grew bigger.
Melody detached her death grip on the steering wheel, flexed her fingers, and pushed herself across the seat to the passenger’s door. She plunked onto the ground outside, shadowed on the dark side of the truck.
The ground still held the heat of the day, and a fresh breeze swirled around her, cactus sweet and dusty. The breeze touched her naked skin with dark fingers, sliding up her back and fluttering her hair—the lock that had brushed Walmart oil smelled like chemical gummy bears and burnt cheese.
The approaching car swooshed by, a lightening strike pounding the air with the thud of rock music. When the party on wheels faded across the barrier of silence, Melody felt dead alone. A dislodged soda can crinkled across the cement, coming to rest beside the hub where the missing wheel had been.
Melody caught a whiff of gasoline. She bent her head down, peering under the truck. The moon pulled away from a cloud, bathing the street in soft light.
Must be a fuel leak. The whole airborne-off-the-sidewalk moment came to mind.
In the far distance, a new set of pinpoint headlights popped into view, growing larger. A shiver ran up Melody’s spine.
Scratch the ammonia plan, maybe she could just smear her prints off with a swatch of newspaper.
The approaching vehicle grew larger, two prying eyes peering down the long road.
Melody climbed halfway into the cab, the moonlight filtering through the dirty front windshield. She crumpled up a bunch of newspaper and started wiping the dash. She pulled out the key and wiped it, then started wiping the seat.
The approaching headlights loomed, bumped across the train tracks—and slowed. Was someone going to park? Tires crunched across gravel.
Melody ducked behind the seat just as a brilliant spotlight lasered the rear window of the cab, lighting it up like the Fourth of July. Light refracted off the rearview mirror in multicolored spires. Melody scooted backward, her legs stretching out, her toes making purchase on the warm ground as she collapsed into a hidden crouch.
The steering wheel.
Oh crap, she hadn’t wiped the steering wheel. Melody put her cheek to the gravel, angling her head to see through the rear tires.
A car door snapped opened, the El Paso police insignia painted on the side. An authoritative boot emerged. The officer’s gear gave off an electronic blip. That would be the radio. He’d probably been alerted to search for her license plate, had the whole naked teenager scenario in mind.
Melody was so busted.
She spidered sideways under the truck as the cop crunched around the tailgate, the sound of his steps relaying his caution. The moon slid behind a cloud, dimming the narrow world into darker shades of line and texture. His boots looked huge next to her nose.
His flashlight swept the ground, rocks leaping out in detailed illumination and vanishing just as quickly.
“Dispatch, looks like I have that 10-40 here,” he said. “No suspect at this time.”
A gasoline drip fell onto the newspapers still clutched in Melody’s hand. Drip. Drip.
The cop rummaged around in the cab, then leather-squeaked around to the front of the truck, inspecting it.
Drip. A plan formed in Melody’s mind.
She crept silently back toward the open passenger side door, her arms probing the seat for the loose pack of cigarettes, her body hidden from the officer’s line of sight. She slid the match book out of the plastic sleeve. Struck the head with a quiet snap. Lit the newspaper with a blue flame. Tossed it into the truck.
With all the dry paper and trash scattered about the cab, the fire was going to have a feast.
The cop didn’t notice anything until, whoosh—that oxygen-sucking sound that fire makes when it fans out. He ran to the driver’s side.
Melody’s heart pounded her ears. She was pretty sure she was about to blow up. The cop cursed, backed up, then ran to his car.
Melody sprinted across the center of the road like she had never sprinted before. The moon broke out of the clouds. Her naked arms and legs flashed like crazy ghost limbs in the Texas moonlight.
She had just added an arson problem to all her other problems.
Oh yeah, and evading arrest—if the cop managed to see her fleeing the scene.
She jumped into the ditch along the side of the road, skinning her knees. She whipped her head around. A majestic red-orange bonfire grew, fingering out of the open passenger door, fiery arms skyward. Her jaw dropped. The dark blue sky swooped down, feeding the dry newspapers, swirling with black smoke.
The cop had disappeared into his car, his driver’s door still ajar—now he backed up fast, parking a safe distance away. Melody didn’t hang around to watch what he did next. She ran along the ditch, hell bent on getting out of there.
The darkened outline of the roof of her dad’s house grew bigger and bigger as she approached. No car headlights swept the lone road. No cops chased her down with Tasers and cuffs.
Her lungs burned. Her knees bled. Her dry mouth hung open, unable to suck in enough air. She leapt up the front steps, clutched the doorknob in her hand, and turned. It resisted, locked.
She ran around the pinyon pine, to the unlocked back door, went through the quiet kitchen, hurried down the soft carpeted hall, and shut the door to her own bedroom with a soft click.
Unbelievable. She had made it.
Melody collapsed flat on her back on the softest carpet ever, her chest heaving, her ragged breath physically consuming all her attention for five whole minutes.
Finally, she went into her private bathroom and spit and drank water and turned on the lights and cringed at her own haggard face in the mirror. Then she took just about the longest hot shower of her life.
* * *
Late into the night, Melody sat by the corner of her bedroom window, the blinds all sealed dark, but for a little slit where her eyes peered outside.
She fingered the zipper of her pull-over sweatshirt, linking and unlinking the metal teeth near her neck with a soft clanking.
A huge firetruck had arrived on the scene, put out the hungry upholstery flames, then some people had walked around with flashlights. Then everybody packed up and left.
The moon traveled high over the sky. Flitting in and out of the clouds. In the distance, the stolen truck hunched, abandoned. Hollowed out—a corpse of blackened bones.
After a long time, Melody stood up and rummaged in her dresser for the pack of cigarettes. She crumpled the tobacco and flushed it down the toilet.
Maybe they didn’t get any prints out of the truck.
Maybe no one would ever know the bad thing she’d done.
Last month, the school counselor had called Melody’s behavior acting out. Told her that it was a normal response to feel angry after the loss of a parent. Melody distinctly remembered her own two-word response: Fuck you.
Swallowing back a lump in her throat, Melody now regretted that response. She lay down on her bed, fully clothed head-to-foot in layers, watching the moon and the clouds battle as they alternately brightened and darkened the arched pine ceiling.
She was tired of trying to figure out her problems. Tired of creating new ones. It was time to ask the counselor for help. First thing tomorrow morning, when the sun came up.
That was the new plan.
Copyright © 2014 Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.