Earl pondered, and then Jim said, “My wife. My daughters.”
Alyson said to him, “We don’t know anything about them.”
“They should be at least alive, right? Right?”
Alyson and Earl said nothing to that. They approached the truck. “Ok, let’s see if we can get out of this town before they lock it down.”
They unfortunately didn’t get far, except on the outskirts of Washington into Arlington. There they nonchalantly stopped at a Chile’s to have something to eat and reassess.
The news was full of the shooting on the mall, and that a man had been taken into custody after being found with a rifle. He had made no effort to escape and was cooperating.
Was that meant for us? was the unsaid question between them as they scoffed down Monteray Jack chicken and nachos. Nearby was a Wal-Mart, and Earl bought two more phones. He also bought a change of clothes for each of them.
“We’re going to a motel tonight,” he said. “I’m calling Steph.”
“Can I try to call my wife?”
Earl waved a hand. “I don’t care.”
Jim tried to call her. “Julie? Julie! Is that - oh, thank God, it’s you. I’ve been trying to call you for days. - I have been trying to call you. Your phone was tapped. It was. I know.”
“Ask her where she’s living?”
“Honey, listen, where are you living? What town, what street--of course this is secure. Well, I don’t know if they tapped - honey, I...I’ve been trying, but - yes, I know about that. I don’t know where I’m supposed to go. Who’s there with you? There’s someone there with you - who - I can see him!”
Earl and Alyson turned around to listen to the one-sided conversation.
“Where are you? You’re not in Washington. You’re not here...Hello? Hello! You’re breaking up -” He looked at the phone, then up at Alyson. “She’s not around here, but I could see the other man there, in the same room.”
Earl said, “Maybe it was a guard.”
“He didn’t have a shirt on.”
“Oh. Oh, man, I’m sorry.”
Said Alyson, “How did you know she’s not in Washington?”
“Too much light in the room. I saw trees past the windows.” He shook his head. “How could she? How could she!”
“But how did you see her?”
Jim was beside himself, clenching the phone tightly. “How could she do that to me?”
“How long were you in the University?”
“Only two months. I told her I was going to join her as soon as they finished testing me there, as soon as I sold the condo - What do my daughters think?” He got up. “I need to go for a walk.”
Earl got up with him, but Jim gave him a look. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re not protecting me anymore.”
“No, we’re not. We just lost our money.” He motioned to the TV screen.
“I don’t need any friends right now,” Jim said, and headed to the door. Earl thought twice, then sat down.
“Well, that’s not good,” Alyson said.
“I say cut our losses and go home.”
“We can’t leave him like this.”
“He’s been fucked over. You don’t want to be around a guy who’s been fucked over by his wife.”
“How do you know this?”
“Happened to one of the guys in my squad. He did a lot of practice shooting. Named all his targets after the guy and his wife.”
“So that just means we shouldn’t give Jim guns.”
The waitress came over and asked if they wanted dessert, which they said no to. Alyson got up and went outside while Earl stayed inside and paid.
Jim was sitting on a bench, staring out at the sunset. Alyson sat next to him. “Hey,” she said.
“Trying to console me.”
“I wasn’t. I was going to say see you later.”
He turned to her. “What?”
“We’re going to head back north.”
“That depends. Do you want to come?”
“What do I have left for me here?”
“You could try to work it out with your wife.”
“Work what out? The fact that there’s a half-naked man in her kitchen?”
“What I want to know is how you saw that?”
“I don’t know. It just came into my head. I could see the kitchen, and she was in a blue shirt and blue pants, and he was in a chair at a kitchen table.”
“Think more about what you saw.”
“I don’t want to,” he said, pouting like a child.
“All right,” said Alyson, leaning back. “You’re just going to dump her?”
“She obviously dumped me.”
“What about your children?”
He snorted. “She’s probably got them wrapped around his little finger. Especially if he gives them presents. They’re fickle like that.”
“I don’t think it’s that easy,” said Alyson.
“How do you know?”
“Because my father used to come home with presents after he beat us, but that never stopped the beatings.”
He stared. “Your brother too?”
“I’d let him talk about that.”
“Did he...your father. What was he like?”
“My father,” said Alyson, “was a drunk and a beater.”
The door to Chile’s opened and Earl came out. “Are we ready?”
“Mind if Jim comes along?”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Earl.
The truck finally died on 95 in New Jersey at around 7 pm.
It had overheated, and Earl scrambled around in the back in the hidden compartments. “Got plenty of moonshine,” he said, pulling out four five-gallon jugs of the stuff. “And a shotgun that looks rusted.”
Earl put the moonshine back into place and put the shotgun on top. “No water.”
“Should we walk and get some?”
“Next exit is about two miles down the road,” said Jim. “And there’s no gas station off of it.”
“There was a gas station off the prior exit,” said Alyson.
Earl huffed, “Let’s start walking.”
They started walking in the ditch, heading back to the last exit. Because the two of them were in the Armed Forces, they walked a lot faster and for a lot longer than Jim could. Jim was soon far behind.
The two of them paused and let him catch up. As they got to within sight of the exit, and it started to rain, first sprinkle, then pour by the time they got to the gas station. It was a gas station with a small repair area and an even smaller convenience and lottery store. The dark-skinned, Indian or Pakistani man, behind the counter studied them as they walked in.
Earl found the anti-freeze and brought it to the counter. “Twelve dollar,” said the man.
“Are you crazy?”
“Twelve dollar,” he said again, his hand reaching out, the other hand on the cash register.
“Jesus Christ, highway fucking robbery,” Earl handed him a twenty, and the man gave him change. “Eight dollars, mother fucker,” said Earl, counting out the money. “Not seven.”
“Fuck you, tax.”
Alyson said quietly, “Earl, let’s go.”
Earl snarled at the man, grabbing his antifreeze and stormed out the door into the rain. Jim stood there, shocked, and Alyson took Jim by the arm, guiding him outside. Earl was already heading up the ramp to get back onto the highway.
“What was that all about?”
“Earl spent a tour of duty in Afghanistan.”
“There’s no water in Afghanistan.”
“He was a SEAL. They go where there’s no water.”
“He - he was?”
Alyson continued, “He doesn’t care much for anyone from that neck of the woods.”
“Did something happen to him there?”
“He’d have to tell you. He hasn’t told me.” She started to walk, and Jim jogged to catch up.
“There’s a police car near the truck,” called Jim to Alyson.
“Earl, Earl, wait!”
Earl was a good ways down the road but heard Alyson’s voice. He stopped, doubled back. “What?” he called.
“There’s cops near the truck.”
“State troopers,” called Jim.
Earl looked like he said, “Shit,” and turned his walk into a loping jog. Alyson was tempted to jog after him, but Jim would be left behind, so she stayed with him.