This story is by M. J. Patrick and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The smell of diesel permeates my clothes, hair, and nostrils. If I can get a ride, it will be worth inhaling these obnoxious fumes and exhaust for hours. So far, my numerous attempts to hitch a ride on an eighteen-wheeler has ended in failure. I can’t give up.
I meander toward a rig pulling alongside the fuel pump. The red cab gleams in the morning sun, almost blinding me. The driver side door pops open to reveal a portly man with a snow-white beard. The warm air shimmers as it mixes with the cold. I move closer to enjoy the heat before it dissipates. As the man descends, I catch the scent of coffee and cinnamon rolls. My stomach growls. The door shuts, and my predicament returns front and center.
With patience I don’t have, I wait for Saint Nick to get the fueling operation underway before pleading my case. I’d messed up earlier efforts by starting my spiel too soon. I only have the time it takes to fuel up his truck, about fifteen minutes or so to persuade him to take me on as a passenger.
Pulling the knit cap tight over my recent crude haircut I approach him with a false bravado. Stepping off the refueling island, I extend my arm to initiate a handshake. “You must be Santa to drive a red sleigh like that.”
“I get mistaken for him a lot. Can’t say I mind the compliment. However, I’m not him, and I’m not handing out presents.” Behind the wire-framed glasses, his eyes are full of mirth. He takes the time to put on his gloves before shaking my hand.
“I’d be happy with a lump of coal in my stocking. See the blue car parked at the restaurant? It broke down just after dawn. I noticed you exited off the westbound highway, that’s the direction I need to go. Can you give me a ride?” I raise my eyebrows and give him a hope-filled smile. “My mom is in a California hospice. I don’t have much time.”
“See, that’s just it. I’m not Santa. I don’t have a list to know who’s been naughty or nice. How do I know the car is yours or your mom is dying?”
This is where the earlier conversations bogged down. This time I had an answer. I take out the car key and press the lock button, the car beeps, and its headlights flash. “A mechanic is going to look at it today, but can’t say when. I can’t wait around knowing my mom needs me.” Glancing at the number of gallons pumped I have ten minutes or so to close the deal.
Santa tugs at his whiskers and purses his lips. Every fiber in my body wants to grab him by the collar and tell him my life depends on it. I broke down in front of the first trucker raving like a mad woman about my ex-husband who wants to kill me because I know too much. The driver grabbed a tire iron and threatened to use it on me. Will the story of a sick mom strike a chord of compassion?
“I’ll tell you what. I’m in a bit of a quandary. I want to reach Phoenix in four hours. For every thirty minutes, I’m late, I lose part of my commission. I can’t leave the pump while I’m refueling, company rules.” He tilts his head and peers over the rim of his glasses at me. “This is where you come in. I ran out of diet soda last night. If you can get me a cold one before I’m ready to go, you can come with me.” He digs his hand into his pocket presumably to give me money.
“I’ll buy.” I dash past three refueling islands for commercial vehicles and cause a car to screech to a stop as I cross the gas station’s multiple lanes. A major traveling hub it’s a busy place. I chose it months ago as part of my escape plan. As my ex is so fond of saying, he can stand in the middle of the street, shoot someone and get away with it. With his connections, I don’t have any reason to doubt him.
Inside the convenience store, I head straight to the refrigerated section.
I whip around. It’s the cashier. “Yes, it is.” Darn, she’s a talker. At least no one’s in line. The digital clock above her head reads 09:56.
Instead of finding soda, all I see is beer, fancy teas, and water of all sorts of shapes and sizes, some flavored and others not. Where’s the diet soda? Taking a deep breath, I slow down and examine every item. On the bottom shelf, in the center case, I spot it. Grabbing the prize, I double time it to the front.
Before I can set the drink on the counter, a guy in hunter camo’s steps in front of the register.
The cashier shrugs as I throw up my arms in frustration. She focuses on the new arrival. “Morning. Are you paying for gas?”
The man who’s hammering a nail in my coffin says, “Pump nine.”
I pull out dollar bills from a wad of cash I’ve kept rolled up in my thick gray winter socks thrown in the back of a drawer. I knew one day he’d find me. Yesterday, one of his goons came rolling into the quiet little town I’ve called home for a year. A black SUV with tinted windows sticks out in a rural area with beater cars.
“Do you want to purchase anything else?” The helpful clerk asks camo pants.
“Yeah, two cartons of menthol cigarettes, and a couple of lottery tickets.”
Upset I put two dollars on the counter and show the cashier the soda. “I’m buying this. Keep the change.” I head to the door.
“Ma’am you can’t do that. I have to ring you up first. I’ll call security if you leave.”
“Is there anyone in the back? Honestly, I have to go.” I peer out the window for any sign of the red rig. The view is blocked by grey behemoths also in need of diesel. Sighing loudly, I return.
The clerk’s mouth forms a straight line. Her eyes narrow as she takes a mental picture of me. The last thing I need is for her to give my description to the authorities. Even though I was the eye candy, not the celebrity, people recognize me.
Back in line, I remove the car keys from my pocket and lay them on the magazine rack. I hope the lady I borrowed them from will get them back. One shouldn’t leave their keys lying around for someone to find.
“Next,” the cashier cuts through my thoughts.
Camo tucks the cigarettes under his arm and leaves. I take his place and hand the cashier my money as the clock displays 9:58. About five more minutes and the shiny red truck rolls away.
“Is this all?”
“We have a sale on soda, two for the price of one. I’ll wait while you get the second one.” The cashier smiles at me expectedly.
Her eyes land somewhere behind me. “There’s a sale on Lil’ Miss Cupcakes. They’re half price with the purchase of soda.”
“I guess if you’re buying a diet drink you don’t want calories. Silly me.” She zaps the barcode on the bottle. The cash drawer opens.
As much as I’d like to leave the ten cents behind, I don’t. A long receipt rolls out. The cashier takes it and holds it out for me to see. “We’re doing a survey. Go to this URL and answer the questions. You could win a thousand dollars.”
Handing me my change and the receipt she asks, “Do you want a bag?”
I grab the bottle and run. Too busy avoiding cars I can’t tell if my ride is still there.
Weaving between trucks, I burst through to the opposite side. Santa is opening the truck door.
“Here’s your soda.”
“Right on time. I like that.” Santa helps me up into the truck. I swear I hear sleigh bells.
Leaning against the passenger seat, I relax for the first time since yesterday. Phoenix is a great place to start a new life.
An unmarked police car patrols the parking lot. I sit up and look out from my high perch. A security guard stops a couple and shows them a picture. They shake their heads and continue on their way. Are they looking for me?
The truck door shuts, and Santa brings the sleigh to life. “Friends of yours, I presume. Don’t worry, you’re safe. I wasn’t sure it was you at first, had to look you up on the Internet. Those rags you’re wearing don’t hide your beauty. Let’s just say I wasn’t expecting you to smell like diesel.”