The hill grew further and further into the shallow sky, speckled with wisps of clouds that cascaded against a canvas of uninteresting grey. The markings on the road were faded and uneven, and leaves stuck with the wetness of a past rain. Daniel looked to Hoster as he turned a quarter over with his fingers, slipping the coin between and over and around. He felt his head pull back as the car increased speed and the sweet sensation of weightlessness as they sped over the arc and began to descend.
Daniel's chest hurt and his hands shook, but he watched the quarter and watched the fingers. Hoster did not notice him, but continued to roll the coin with a lazy enthusiasm of a bored child. The left hand rested upon the top of the wheel, his fingers dangling like bruised worms despite the speed. His nails were cracked and bleeding, and his ring finger twitched and curled and tightened. Daniel could see that he was crying, but said nothing, only watched. Hoster sniffed, then swallowed, and drove on.
It had been 4 days that they had driven, switching off at sunrise and sunset, or when they had to steal another car. Daniel slept fitfully, and mostly just watched the passing landscape of unfamiliar back roads and trees and fields growing nothing in particular. He drove during the day, while Hoster drove at night. Every now and then, they would stop briefly to consult over a map, or fill up with gas, or just to walk and stretch and breath air that didn't circulate from a filter. The roads were barren, just as Hoster had said. Sick place doesn't attract much, he said, except us and cops. Daniel once asked if he could drive at night, and Hoster told him he couldn't, and when Daniel asked why, Hoster grinned and chuckled and said he was a vampire.
He thought of the day they met, the brisk morning wind that prodded at his neck and face as he stood beneath the canopy of the hotel lobby door. Pern stood next to him and lazily swayed back and forth on his heels. Daniel dug his hands into his jacket pockets in the futile attempt of locating some form of warmth, and only found bits of lint and a few cold coins. He removed them and stuck his hands under each armpit, remembered he hadn't showered in days, and instead replaced them and dealt with the breeze. Look your best, Pern had told him. It was easy for him to say that, Daniel thought.
They stopped a small restaurant in a strip mall, and sat for several minutes. Hoster looked back and forth at the few cars that passed on the main road, glancing in the rear view and peeking over at parked vehicles. When Daniel sighed, Hoster held a finger up and looked at him. Holding the gaze for several seconds, Hoster sighed as well and unbuckled himself. Exiting the car, Daniel stretched his legs and yawned and ruffled his pants in an attempted to unwrinkle them. He began walking towards the diner, felt the pins stab in his half awake feet, and rubbed his lower back. Hoster passed him and made his way to the door. Swinging it open, he stepped through and wasted no time forgetting to hold it. Daniel caught it before it shut and sighed under his breath.
As he walked in, his eyes needed to adjust to the dark of the diner, and lost sight of his companion. The diner was comprised of several tables formed in rows of three, each with two chairs and a small picnic style cloth strewn across. An American flag had been taped to each napkin holder, and a few had ketchup stains, bleeding the red into the white. Daniel walked through the rows towards the back of the room. Deciding on a table, he sat and waited for Hoster to return. He grabbed the menu from the table and began thumbing through the items. He heard a toilet flush and footsteps approaching. Turning, he came face to stomach with the largest waitress he had ever seen. Her belly curved over and sloped into her pants, and her wrists were almost inexistent, if not for the line of folded skin between the hand and the forearm. Hair grew in black spines down her arms and her face drew the same coarse fuzz. But her eyes were a deep, oceanic blue, and starred down at Daniel with an unenthusiastic nature that was almost comical.
"Morning baby, you ready?" she droned out as her lipstick brushed against her teeth.
"Yeah, uh..." he glanced quickly over the menu again and saw nothing of real interest, "Just 2 pieces of toast, a scrambled egg, and water. That'll be it." He handed up the menu as she finished writing out his order. She took it, brushing her sausage link of a finger against the back of his hand. The contact surprised him, and he looked up and found her gaze. Starring into the deep blue of her eyes wasn't so bad, he thought, but the rest made his stomach hurt.
The waitress wobbled off, somehow gliding between the tables and doorway of the kitchen. Daniel sat and watched the outside surroundings through the window to his right. He did not know the name of the town they were in, but it was cold, and snowy, and dirty. The sky was a frigid sky blue, and small trails of clouds darted across the horizon. He could see hunters, farmers, good ol' boys, and bible thumpers walking in and out of the gas station across the street. The road was a glossy black and brown, and reflected sunlight towards him so he had to shift to see. Fumes wriggled their way up and dispersed from the exhaust of idling cars, a mirage of warmth in this cold and wet place. An old man with red sunglasses walked on the sidewalk in front of the gas station, pulling a three-legged dog behind him. The dog stopped frequently, attempting to mark territory, but stumbling from the missing limb.
Hoster appeared and sat across from him at the table. Pulling a handkerchief from his breast pocket, he dabbed at his forehead and wiped behind his ears, and finally coughed into his hand. Hoster was a thin bald thing, wretched to look upon. His clothes stunk of sweat and stains buried themselves into the fabric around his neck. He wore a blue shirt beneath a gray sweater, which frayed slightly at the left elbow. He wore thick horn rimmed glasses, which constantly slid from his face due to his persistent perspiration. The handkerchief was usually out every few minutes, and with it came a smell, putrid and blasphemous. Hoster's coin sat in his right pants pocket, Daniel knew, and every now and then Hoster would pull it out and twirl it through his fingers, starring out and breathing ever so lightly. Daniel knew not to look at him when he did this, but sometimes he couldn't help but watch.
"You alright?" Daniel asked. He twisted a straw around and around until the paper ripped and crumpled.
"Nope. Waitress come by yet?" Hoster leaned over to survey the dining room, spotted the waitress, and grimaced.
"Yep, didn't order for you though," Daniel said. "You sure you're alright?" He looked as Hoster continued to frown across his shoulder.
"I said I wasn't. What's her name?" Hoster asked, his eyes not leaving the waitress as she leaned against the front counter and wrote on a napkin. She paid no mind to the two sitting at the end of the room.
"Don't know. So look, I've been thinking, we finish up here, I think we can take it straight from here. There were a few houses a ways back, and everyone looks to be out and about for church today. I say we drive back a couple miles and see what's around, hop onto the mainway, and floor it to Armel. We got 3 days left, but Pern said he'd make it good for us if we get back early. Hoster. Hey, Hos-" Daniel stopped speaking as Hoster cut his eyes quickly back to him. His glasses now dangled at the end of his nose. Hoster sniffed, pulled his handkerchief out, performed the ritual, and swallowed, wincing as he did so. Somewhere a car blared it's horn and someone yelled.
"Go on out, Dan. Just come back, will ya?" Hoster broke the stare and closed his eyes.
"My food though, I just ordered," Daniel said as he glanced back behind himself. He hated when Hoster did this. It was the same as back in Yarton, and Manderas, and everywhere else. Hoster would look at somebody, or he'd look at something, or some sign or door or pothole or whatever it was that Hoster looked at when he got this way. But every time, he'd ask Daniel to go, not to be around. He'd never speak of what he did when he was alone, but it was not for Daniel to ask either. They were being paid to get back to Armel, Nebraska in seven days, and drop off the money to Pern and his associate Nackle. That was all he was told to worry about, and Pern had told him never to get in Hoster's way, just do as told and worry about the deadline.
"I'll get it boxed up for ya, Dan. Please just go. Walk back a mile or two, get us a good car. I know you'll get us a good one," Hoster said as he opened his eyes and starred towards the kitchen. Daniel sighed and got up, turned, and nearly knocked over the waitress as she brought his water to the table.
"Sorry, be back in a minute," Daniel said as he side stepped the girl. She leaned forward, forcing his arm to brush against her breast as he left. The waitress turned and looked down at Hoster, who know smiled up like a happy little child.
"What'll you have, baby?" she asked as she eyed him up and down, and removed her pad from her armpit. Placing the pencil on paper, she waited, and glanced back down when he didn't speak. She looked down into Hosters eyes, and held the gaze for only a few seconds before she looked back at her pad. Her mouth scrunched up and her cheeks inflated and her brow furled slightly.
"Sorry sugar, can't help myself sometimes. Ah, let's take a look here. I think I'll have...country ham and biscuits and gravy. And a big glass of milk," his left arm brushed her knee as he spoke. He felt her shudder, then relax. He continued to gaze into her face, which had slowly loosened. A half smile of confidence appeared on her mouth, and she made her best attempt at a sultry gaze. "But before you run that back to the cooks, I gotta get to the bathroom, and my knees are hurtin' me something fierce. I do construction work, you see, and they make me crawl for miles and miles under old buildings, checking for this and that, and by the end of the day I can barely move much less walk. Can you help me walk, just to the door?" Hoster made sad eyes up towards the girl. He no longer sweat, nor did he seem as wretched. Hoster had a way about him. Charm could find it's way from beneath the grit under his nails and clean the dirt from his face. He often told Daniel that he could talk a man out of living.
"I don't know, darlin'," she said. Give it to her, boy, Hoster said in his head.
He looked into her eyes and saw the tenseness, the brain saying back away, but the groin fluttering at the thought of some attention. He knew the look, it was such a close edge, the cliff was steep and if the buffalo tipped a hoof over it would fall. This buffalo seemed a few inches away from the edge, though, so he had some wiggle room.
Hoster swam into her deep serene eyes. Almost beautiful, he thought, and he remember all of their eyes. Once beautiful, if even some had already seen what would damage the soul and forget the innocence of ignorance. Some would keep their eyes open, and watch. Most would keep them shut, crying and sniffling, but some saw him. Saw what he did and did not look away. He remembered those eyes the most, how scared and sorry they looked. Hoster the Monster, they are sorry for you, he thought. They have no reason to be.
"Look, I ain't tryin' to be too forward with ya, but you see, most men only want what they can pick up with one arm. Something skinny to throw a rag on and strut about town with. I ain't that kinda man. No sir, I'm a man that enjoys a woman to know what makes her the happiest in life and to take it when she sees it, no matter what the effect may be. You look like that kinda girl. You got looks, girl, but me, no I ain't a looks man. No, a woman's confidence is simply one of the greatest gifts God ever gave. Little women ain't no challenge, I know what they want. A little money, a little flash...well it all comes down to a little, and I know I don't look it, but I'm a big man at heart and soul. You got that confidence, I could see it the second I walked in. You got it, and you don't mind showin' it. Well I say show it. How about that?"
"Well thank you, baby," she flushed and he knew then there wasn't a nice thing ever said to her in her entire life. The cliff was now miles away. It hurt worse when he felt sorry for them.
"There's no thankin' to be givin', sweetheart. Like I said, I don't want to make you uncomfortable. It's just that, these days are lonely, ain't they? You ever just look out the window and see that there's just nothin' there? It's hard being on the rock, and don't I know it. Been tryin' to leave for years. I'll tell ya, I'm surprised a place like this still stands, what with all the blood cults roamin' around and the so-called Badge Men that don't do a damn thing. I was havin' a dream one night, and in it I got up out of my bed and walked outside to my lawn, and looked and saw a wall of fire eatin' everything I could see. All the poor little people I knew, their dogs, their kids, everything. I woke up that morning and knew I had to get outta this place. What about you, you ever wanna leave sometimes?" He fiddled with the coin in his pocket now, rubbing the small outline of letters, reciting them in his head.
"Oh yeah, always. I got nothin' I really care about here anyways. My daddy's dead, momma done gone with my brother when the shuttle came, but they told me to wait with daddy. Well, here I am waitin', and he ain't nothin' but a lump in the ground now. Momma and Gus didn't write, and they didn't come back. Ain't that some bullshit? Oh, I'm sorry baby, excuse me," she said, looking down and pretending to see her feet.
"No no, don't be sorry. You've had it hard, harder than me, and I'm sorry for that. I know how it is, have people leave and run off and don't never come back. I had a little girl once, and well, she grew to be a big girl. We got to fightin' one night and she left and said she wasn't comin' back. And she didn't, and I wish and pray and hope that she will one day. That's why I stay here, I guess." That was the first time you didn't lie to her, he thought. Well, partially. Hoster always liked to sprinkle truths in with his lies, made them slide all the better, but it was a connection, and it made them special. To know something of him even when he lied. Never know the name though, and if they give it, forget it.
"But anyways, I'm sorry to ramble on and on. I'm gonna try and get to the bathroom now, bladder's fit to bust," he said as he faked a spasm in his legs and back, and grunted and hummed and tried to force some pain into his face. He could feel his face getting redder and redder, so he pushed the blood even harder until he knew he was getting purple.
"No baby, here I'll help" she lifted Hoster's arm and slung it around her tree trunk neck, and pulled so he slid from his chair. They walked slowly to the bathroom door, Hoster thanking her all the way. He exchanged his gratefulness close to her ear, so his breath danced down her neck. Glancing about the room, he settled his stare again on the line cook, who watched from behind his work. A small Chinese man, his eyes never left Hoster as they shambled across the dining room floor. He felt her grow warmer and her breaths grew quicker and the pitch of her voice grew higher. They finally reached the door. Something moved to his immediate left and he saw the glimmer of an eye and the tall hard face of the Badge Man as he stepped through the main door of the restaurant.
"Damn," he said.