At 3:18 the small black car pulled into the parking lot of a good old fashioned diner. This particular establishment demonstrated that “good” is a relative term and “old fashioned” sometimes just means old. The smell of stale onions and grease hit them as they walked through the door. The floor was black and white linoleum that had turned black and gray. They slid into a booth across from each other, the cracked vinyl protesting with a piteous squeak.
An impossibly short woman with bags under her eyes walked up to the table. “What can I get for you?” she asked, brushing a stringy brown hair from her face. Standing next to where Xander was sitting, her head was barely higher than his.
Xander smiled at her. “I’ll have a cheeseburger and fries. Abby?”
Abby shook her head. It had been a long day. The thought of food made her nauseous.
The smile disappeared. A worry line appeared on his forehead and he studied her for a moment, his eyes looking into hers and reflecting the exhaustion they found there.
The waitress cleared her throat. “Come on, honey, they ain’t payin’ me to stand here.”
“She wants a bowl of chicken soup if you have it. Also, could you bring us a pot of coffee?”
The waitress nodded and wandered away in the general direction of the kitchen, looking like she could use some coffee herself.
“I really don’t want anything,” Abby said.
“You need to eat. We’ve still got a long drive.” He was analyzing her face again and she looked away. “Are you okay?”
She shot him an incredulous look. “No,” she said. “I’ve been kidnapped, kidnapped again, threatened with a gun and now I’m on a road trip with a stranger going who-knows-where. You could be some kind of serial killer for all I know, and I—I just want to go home.” Tears filled her eyes and she leaned her face on her arm. Xander was silent. She fought a small battle with her emotions and decided against sobbing aloud in public. The fabric of her jacket smelled like gasoline fumes from earlier.
“I’m sorry,” Xander said, his voice cracking.
Abby believed him.
She sat up and wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
“Here,” Xander said quickly, “use this.” He pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and handed it to her, then had the manners to look at anything but her while she wiped her eyes and nose.
Their food arrived and Abby found that she could eat after all. Despite the atmosphere of the diner, the food was delicious. The salty smell of the soup made Abby think of Saturdays when it rained. Elaine always made chicken soup for lunch.
Abby watched Xander eat his hamburger and tried to guess his age. He looked like any college-aged person when eating. Maybe twenty-one.
Having an outburst like that had made her feel better, but she didn’t mean it as much as she thought she did. She felt safe with this man. She found herself to have an illogical amount of trust for him.
Xander held the last part of his cheeseburger and pushed the basket of fries over to her. The paper liner had the name of the diner printed all over it, grease making opaque blotches which clung to the wicker basket.
She popped a fry in her mouth. “So,” she said, “where are we going?”
He finished chewing the last bite before answering. “It’s, um,” He rubbed his ear. “It’s a military base next to Groom Lake, Nevada.”
There was an awkward pause.
“You mean-- Area 51?”
Fifty-one is only a number. A number that is divisible by three. When you divide fifty-one by three you get seventeen, the age Abby had been when she wrote her first novel-length manuscript. Her writing had improved so much since then. You can change a lot in three years.
“Just to be sure I’m following,” Abby said. “You’re saying that our destination is a secret military base rumored to hold extraterrestrial remains.”
“That’s only a rumor,” he said. “I wish that were all that was down there.” He poured two cups of coffee from the dull metal carafe and handed one to her.
She took the steaming mug and sipped, the warmth and bitterness sliding down her throat and soothing her. “Whatisdown there?”
“The Tesla Project,” he said. “Nikola Tesla was ignored by the public for most of his life, but the government was very interested in his inventions. The Tesla Project is just the continuation of his research.”
Abby poured cream into her mug and watched the cloud of white swirl through the rich brown coffee. “You said The Tesla Project was using the missing students. What for? What are they doing to them?”
Xander had his fingers interlocked around the warm ceramic mug but he wasn’t drinking. “That school legend got one thing right.” He said, voice taut. “Tesla was fascinated with the human brain in the years before he died. His experiments were… intense.” His grip on the mug tightened, fingers white. “Too intense for the average person. If The Tesla Project is continuing that research, theyshouldbe snatching people with genius-level IQs.”
“I’m hardly a genius,” Abby said. “My IQ is just above average.”
“Exactly,” he said. “The Tesla Project is getting desperate.”
When they left the diner, the evening sun slanted golden over the fields of grass. They were leaving the last town for miles, and the small black car was alone on the highway. The only sound was the humming of the car and Abby felt her eyelids closing against her will. She thought it was odd that she was so tired. Her life felt more and more like a movie, and in movies people never slept.
When she woke it was dark. They were still driving. She was curled on the seat, and Xander’s jacket was keeping her warm. He didn’t notice yet that she was awake, and she studied his profile, outlined against the moonlit sky.
She shifted in her seat to glance at the clock. 2:18. “Don’t you ever sleep?” she mumbled, pushing the hair out of her face.
He glanced at her. “We can stop if you would rather sleep in a hotel,” he said.
Abby adjusted her seat and tried to get comfortable again. “I’m fine,” she murmured, and they kept driving.