Our Story Begins...
EMBER JERKED the dirty porcelain lid off the toilet tank. A hollow scrape echoed in the cramped gas station ladies room like a pharaoh’s tomb had just been breached.
She froze, the lid held in clenched and reddened fingertips.
Right outside the graffiti-scrawled door—the jingle of keys and high-heel clicks fading. In the distance, the automated bird whistle of a crosswalk light going green. Then a loud diesel truck fired up with a rumble and murdered the whole soundscape.
Ember set the lid on the toilet seat and plunged her cupped hands into the water, raising them to her face. Cold liquid filled the pockets of her cheeks and she pivoted to spit into the sulfur-stained sink. A bloody spray washed up the rim and dotted the laminated Out Of Order sign hanging off the faucet.
Sloppy. Be more careful!
But she hadn’t even realized she was bleeding. Why couldn’t she taste anything? No, there was a bitter edge. Something bitter and burning. She wiped her fingers off on the hip of her blue jeans and dug inside her mouth. A flap pulled away from her upper cheek like tissue paper.
Ember held the tiny object up to the ceiling between thumb and forefinger, squinting—staring into the weak light bulb that glared from above in sickly illumination.
The drug hadn’t dissolved much.
She flicked it away.
She probed for another wafer, but only found the source of blood. A tear across the gums of her lower molars.
Now, a metallic wave of nausea washed up her nose. She swallowed down the stench of urine rising from the dirty, shoe-printed tile floor.
She had been out of breath. The raw scratch in the back of her throat told her so. She needed more time to think straight, to stop forgetting.
Turning back to the water source, she cupped her palms and drank greedily. Her throat worked in gulps. She eyed the rusted tank bolts that had cast off tiny brown flecks and the black spores that clung to the copper float arm, dangling like a mutated virus.
She avoided those.
The cold water ran freely down her throat, tasting fresh and pure and crisp as a river. Never underestimate a sealed toilet tank.
A child screamed outside.
Ember leapt toward the door and jammed the base with the outer edge of the sole of her Nikes. She lightly gripped the door handle, just in case they jiggled it against the lock, she would know they were standing right there—breathing. Inches away.
Calm down it wasn’t a scream just a normal sound just that little girl laughing.
A feverish exhale from her open mouth washed the slate gray metal door with an imprint of steam. Her inhale sucked it back.
The little girl laughed again, the high-pitched giggle aborted by the clap of a door shutting. Ember remembered the unblemished face of the sweet redhead in a saffron dress, smiling up from a car seat in the back of her parent’s Subaru as it ambled past to fill up with gas.
That’s right, a child had smiled at her.
She must still look okay—normal. Was that possible when she felt so confused?
Ember released the doorknob, turning and kneeling beside the toilet bowl. She angled her head to catch her reflection in the flush water. Nothing but a wicked shit smell came back up to her. A lock of her curly, shoulder length brown hair slipped out of her ponytail and trailed through a brown smear before she could yank her head back.
Not a refreshing river down here.
Ember stood up. Untied her hair band, gathered her hair. Retied it.
She had to go now.
The longer she took, the closer they would come.