First published in With Words We Weave: Hope, THPW 2022 Anthology
I was tired. That is to say, if I’d caught my bootstrap on a mud flap at the Flying J in Oklahoma City and was dragged over the potholed paving of I-40 for four hours just to be shaken free and thrown clear into a bar ditch where I landed on top of a sun-ripened skunk pelt and showered with gravel by a convoy of cattle rigs—well, that’s a more adequate description of my situation.
The sign ahead read I-40 Business Route. The alternating flashes of the fuel gauge and check-engine lights of my 1989 Sunbird begged me to take the exit. The old girl was four different colors, depending on which side of her you stood and if you counted primer gray as a color, and she’d seen me through some powerful-tough times. She’d reminded me all day that driving nineteen hours from Albuquerque to Nashville in one dash was a lot easier at the tender age of 21 than the reverse trek at the age of 31. We’d been two girls on a mission back then, and now we were almost home.
I suppressed the crowding thoughts of failure to consider my immediate condition. Nearly out of cash. Dead tired. Hungry. Chasing tears with the static-crackled voice of Roseanne Cash on the radio. Ninety-four-point-nine—the country you remember.
The Economy Inn looked clean. Maybe a little too clean for my wallet. I cruised through the parking lot, past car after car with veteran tags. The VA hospital sat directly across the four-lane divided highway, and I whispered a prayer of thanks for the vets and their families, my heart saluting while I rolled up to the manager’s office.
As I pushed my fussy gear shift into park, though, the little girl inside the window reached up and flipped the neon red sign to No Vacancy in a fancy retro glow. I probably couldn’t afford it, anyway.
I put my car into reverse, and the sign for the Astro Motel rose before my pocked windshield like a beacon in the night. A decrepit sign, with dying bulbs fluttering off and on behind the letters S, R, and L. Still, it was beacon enough. From the looks of the peeling orange stucco and the handful of taped windows, I could probably squeeze this unplanned stop into my rail-thin budget.
Five minutes later, I had the key—an actual metal key on a cracked plastic fob—to room one, right next to the vending machines. This would solve my dining arrangements, too, so long as I could scrounge a handful of quarters from the seats and floorboards of Birdy.
My legs were both stiff and rubbery from too long behind the wheel. Through bleary eyes, I poked the key at the doorknob like a drunkard. Once I got the door opened, I decided the room needed airing out. I let the door stand wide while I popped Birdy’s trunk to pull out a change of clothes and my toothbrush. Of course, I couldn’t forget Dolly, my granddaddy’s 1955 Gibson sunburst guitar.
I tossed everything on the double bed, kicked the door closed with my foot, and Watusi’d my way in the dark into the tiny bathroom. That light sputtered on in seizure-inducing fluorescent blue, but the American Standard toilet was clean and cold, and that was all I cared about.
When I was done, I splashed my face with tap water and tried to catch my second wind. I snapped the overhead light on in the room. I had half a mind to snap it right back off.
Like the Bate’s Motel, but without all the homey taxidermy touches. I decided they had named the place the Astro because it was built about the same time Neal Armstrong was walking on the moon—if you believe in that stuff. By the looks of things, the owners had wanted to commemorate that event by never updating a single thing.
My stomach grumbled. Snatching my purse, I retrieved my wallet and unzipped the cash compartment. I still had a twenty-dollar bill, but that had to get my gasoline for the trip home. I counted out my change: thirty-three cents, and not a quarter to be found. That wouldn’t get me anything. I’d have to search the nooks and crannies of Birdy.
I crammed my room key into my pocket and headed back out.
“Whatcha got for me, girl?” I asked and tugged at the driver’s side door.
She replied with a squealing hinge that made me grimace. Folks at the Astro might not notice the nails-on-a-chalkboard screech, but the good people at the Economy were surely awakened by the din.
As if to save me from embarrassment, a loud pop split the night, and I ducked. I only drew a calming breath when I heard the weary flapping sound of a blown-out tire.
A boxy green food truck rolled to a stop between the motel office and Birdy a few seconds later. A bright red chili pepper in a chef’s hat danced beside the words Pedro’s Tacos. Pedro, I guessed, hopped out in a huff, and the aroma of grilled meats wafted to my greedy nostrils.
I dove back into Birdy in my search for change with renewed vigor. My stomach growled louder with every stretch, and I was sure anyone in the parking lot could hear it. I found a button, a fossilized Cheeto, and a busted earring. No change. How could there be no change in the car?
I sat back in my seat, and the next growl I heard came from my throat, not my stomach. Ten years of open mics, auditions, rejections, waiting tables, wedding receptions, smoky bars, going to bed hungry, and failure after failure finally spilled out in a flood of furious tears.
My head swiveled to face the graveled voice of Pedro. “I’m fine.” The words came out automatically as I scrubbed my eyes with the heel of my palm.
The man frowned. “You don’t seem fine.”
I climbed out of Birdy and closed the door, hoping he hadn’t noticed the missing inside door panel. Birdy doesn’t like to expose herself to strangers like that.
“It’s just been a really bad day,” I said. “Kinda piled up all of a sudden.”
A smirk twisted at his lip. “I hear that.” He pitched his thumb toward the shredded truck tire. “Been driving for two hours trying to find the block party I got hired for. The guy texted the wrong address and wouldn’t answer my calls, but somehow, it’s my fault. The tire shop is closed, I don’t have a spare, and I’m upside-down,” he twitched his mouth while he ran the numbers, “food, gas, tire, and now a room.” His voice was quiet as his thumb touched one fingertip and then the next. “Three hundred seventy-two bucks for the day.”
“Are you from here in Amarillo?” I shoved my hands into my pockets, hoping he wasn’t going to ask for money.
“No. I drove in from Dalhart.” He raked his hands through his shiny black hair, looking at me like I was supposed to know where Dalhart was. “How ‘bout you?” He laughed before I could answer. “Of course not. You wouldn’t be here if you actually lived in Amarillo.”
I started to laugh, too, but a blinding flash of lightning lit the sky, and thunder cracked in a shock wave that rattled the asphalt underfoot and stopped our hearts.
We were frozen, blinking into the black night. There was no rain or even wind—just a palpable vacuum of air coming from the grassy patch beside the VA parking lot.
“Stay here,” Pedro muttered. He pointed to the hotel manager’s office. “Call the police or something.”
“I’m coming with you.” I was never very good at minding.
Pedro reached into his truck and drew out a long black flashlight. He clicked on its bright white beam and held it at arm’s length, the light leading the way.
“Looks like the lightning started a fire,” he said, heading to an orange glow a few yards off the road.
“I’ll call 9-1-1.” I pulled out my phone and tapped the face, but nothing happened. The screen was as black as the sky. I tried to power it up, but it was no use. “The battery’s dead.”
We crossed the first two highway lanes and waited on the median for two cars to pass. When they were closer, both cars’ headlights blinked out, and the car engines stalled. At the same time. A third car approached and went dark and silent. All three vehicles rolled to a stop beside us.
Pedro turned wide eyes to meet mine seconds after his flashlight went dark. “What is this?”
I shrugged. I wasn’t from here.
Pedro pounded the head of the flashlight against his palm. “It’s dead. These are new batteries. Something’s going on.”
“You think?” I shot a glance over my shoulder. Every living soul from the Astro and the Economy stood outside, staring in our direction. Their lights were still on. “Well, somebody’s gotta see what this is about.”
We’d taken a few steps into the grass when we saw him—or her. It was kinda hard to tell at first. I decided it was a female. A tall, slim woman in gray-green coveralls stomped our way. Her eyes flashed gold like a cat, and by her attitude, she was swearing like a sailor in a language I’d never heard.
“Can we help you?” I took the tiniest baby step toward her.
She held up a hand clawed like a witch about to shoot electricity from her fingertips. Pedro and I cringed through our shoulders, ready to get smited.
Her other handheld a cell phone thingy, which she played with for a second. I noticed something else, too. The longer she stared at us, the more she looked like us. Her hair and eyes darkened like Pedro’s, and her face and figure rounded to match mine. I figured she was either an angel or an alien—maybe both.
“Are you in trouble?” Pedro asked in a whisper, willing to help the stranger.
“I have a big problem.” Her voice purred. “I was supposed to pave the way for my galaxy, but my craft’s engine failed.”
“I’m so sorry.” I started to take another baby step, but she held up the claw again, and I shut up.
She continued, “Because I have no escape, I will be destroyed with all of you.” Her hands dropped to her side, and the swearing started again.
Pedro shook his head. “Hold up now. What? Who’s going to be destroyed?” Instead of moving forward, he took a step back.
“Ugh.” She rocked her head back to stare at the stars.
I knew that feeling. I was smack dab in the middle of it ten minutes ago. I shrugged and took a few steps toward her. This time she didn’t raise her hand. “We want to help you, but we have a problem with you destroying us.”
“That’s not my choice. In three days, our galaxy will expand over yours. Your whole system will be obliterated. The planets in my system that collide with yours will be erased as well. For the greater beneficence, I must clear you from our path.”
“Three days?” Pedro and I said together.
I pointed to myself. “I am Carli. Why don’t you come sit with us for a little while, and we can talk, okay?”
She made a sighing sound. “My name is Nu.”
Pedro nodded toward me. “I’m Pedro. Are you hungry? I have food.”
Ten minutes later, Pedro served street tacos to everyone in the parking lots of the Astro, the Economy, and anyone else who rolled up. Tacos al pastor were the big hit, and Nu enjoyed the pineapple chunks especially.
She and I sat on the trunk of Birdy, eating and talking like new old friends.
“I know you have a job to do. And I suppose three days won’t make that much difference whether you explode us, or your galaxy does, and I think it’s brave to try to save your own people.” I dabbed at the juice on my chin. “But I was on my way home to see my mama. I haven’t seen her in ten years. It would be grand to hug her one more time—if you could spare one day for that.”
“You have been gone from your mother for ten years? Why?” Nu looked as though she couldn’t believe my words.
I finished my taco and sighed. “I wanted to be a country singer. But it turns out you need more than a guitar and a pretty face in Nashville. That city is overrun with guitars and pretty faces.” I knew she probably didn’t understand anything I said. Even if she did, she probably thought singing was a silly aspiration anyway. “You need more than a brain, more than talent, and more than ambition.”
Nu nodded as though she did understand. Like she felt it in her soul—if she had one.
I kept on. “I gave that city ten years of my life, and it didn’t give me so much as a ring on my finger. So, I’m going back home. Probably to work in my dad’s little grocery. Well, I guess I would have.”
“Can you sing for us now?” she asked.
It was my turn to look astonished. “I guess.” I slid off the trunk and went into my room, thinking this would be my last gig, singing for the end of the world concert. I cradled Dolly in my arms and rolled the rickety desk chair into the parking lot next to Birdy. Plugging in my cheap eBay amp, I was ready.
I started my set with “Time in a Bottle,” and that went over well. People sang along, and a few danced. I missed Mama. I watched as Nu and Pedro talked and smiled. They were new old friends now, too, and I was glad.
As I wrapped up “Walking After Midnight,” Nu and Pedro joined me, smiling big.
“Guess what?” Pedro’s voice chirped.
Nu’s smile looked extra broad and a little anxious, like she was trying out a new thing. “Pedro discovered something good for all of us. He made a calculation.”
“I did a little math.” He beamed. “Figured out how three of her days worked out in Earth time.”
They both grinned at me with raised brows.
Pedro glanced at Nu and back to me. “It’s around 17,800 years, give or take. Right?”
Nu added, “Eight hundred twenty-three and a half.” She almost laughed. “And I don’t have to destroy your planet for two more days.” She nodded toward Dolly. “You should sing more. You have a gift.”
A gift indeed, from my new old friend.
Kim Black is a not-quite-cozy genre-mixologist and award-winning author.
Texas-born and raised, Kim believes all stories are love stories but enjoys blowing things up, tearing things apart, and fleshing things out on the way to happily ever after. For more about Kim, visit www.kimblackink.com and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.