June 18th, 2016
Four days ago, I started my little expedition to Presley. I knew it would take me hours to get there, so I got my tires pumped and I made sure I had stolen enough money for gas. It did hurt taking the money, but I had no choice at this point. I had to do it. It’s only a one-time thing, and once it’s done I’ll just return to my regular boring semi-affluent life. I’ll have to move on and settle eventually.
I got my sat-nav ready and packed my backpack, smuggling it into my car in the front yard. I left a note on the front door, telling my parents that I had gone on a trip for a while and they needn’t worry, that they could call or text me at any time and that they should only worry if I was unresponsive for over a week. I prayed to God that they wouldn’t start sounding alarm bells before my trip was over.
I got into the car in the early hours of the morning, hoping that the noise of the engine wouldn’t rouse my old parents and halt my escape. I made sure to call Abby and Miles on my way out of town, letting them know that I’d be gone for a week and that all would be explained when I came back - that is, if I had the balls to explain to them my insane plan, and if it went down well.
With the driver window ajar, the breeze invaded the small space in my car, sending my hair into frenzy. I was distracted watching the light particles from the illumination of the dawn, glinting transparent gold. Soon, the town streets and houses became lesser and lesser until I was just faced with a long stretch of highway and mountainous vistas. I was tired, because waking up early is definitely not my forte, and also because the dreams I had recently been having made it harder for me to rest easy.
Recently I’ve been attacked with dreams of Jennifer One. Most of the time they are benign, harmless, weird dreams. But every now and then, they are terrifying. I would have dreams about the way she died, and I will somehow be there watching. As if I’m waiting to take over. I’ll see the Angel of Death waiting beside me, waiting for One to walk off of the tennis court and into Death’s arms. Then I’d realise, the Angel of Life is holding onto my shoulders, and Her grip is loosening by the second. I’m trapped by Her, but as soon as One has gone, She will release Her hold. Jennifer Two will take her place.
Normally, I’d panic. I’d feel ready for the release. I’d feel like One has more to offer - more to give, and I couldn’t continue the game without her. I would feel like she’s as good as it will ever get. I’m something of a subordinate. And when the Angel of Life releases me, I stumble out, meekly, weakly.
In every dream, we don’t have names. We’re just numbers. It’s like we’re not human; just projects, or drafts. In my dreams, I’m never Anne, Annie or Jenny-Anne.
I’m just Two.
Halfway through my journey, I ended up in a small town called Wattson, two-hundred and seventy five miles East of Bluebeach. I had to top up my gas and go get something to eat; it was around two o’clock in the afternoon, and I had been driving for near five hours. I was starving, and I could do with a break from staring down at endless expanses of road. I stopped at a small shopping mall near the highway, parking my car hastily and slinging my backpack on my shoulder so I could stuff it with any other goodies I might feel to buy. I could cop a few new shirts whilst I was on my little trip. Taking my bag with me turned out to be the luckiest thing I did that day, along with meeting Kal for the first time.
With the summer sun burning into my skin like lasers, I headed into the mall for shelter and shade, and idly, I sauntered around shops wasting my own time and thinking of where to eat. I bought a pair of jeans at Forever 21, which I carefully squeezed into my bag, before heading off to Five Guys for a gnarly burger. On my way back to the car park, I stopped at a smoothie kiosk at the west entrance of the mall; I saw it on the way in, but I spent a bit too much time staring at the guy serving the drinks behind the bar, watching him effortlessly mix and blend fruits and serve them to customers. I made myself a mental note to try one out before I went on my way back to my journey. I also wanted to get a closer look at the respective smoothie-maker. He looked cute from afar.
I don’t think I’m as forward as Jennifer One was. Sometimes I think I could be. I probably carry around a lot more animosity now, which is only understandable. Two lives can weaken the soul, but maybe it hardens the heart too. All I’m trying to say is that falling into hearty conversations with people can sometimes be a struggle for me. I can be afraid of rejection or embarrassment, though I know I’m not particularly hard on the eyes. The only thing stopping me from my social qualms is my impulsiveness, and that’s what gave me a kick that day.
“What are you serving?” I strode up to the nearest stool once the last customer made their way out. The boy looked up, smiling. Eyes were an opulent rich brown. Smile was a murderer. Skin was a strong tan, clear that he was an islander at heart. Judging by the geometric patterned tattoo wrapped around his forearm, I made the swift assumption that he might be Hawaiian.
“What are you looking for?” He asked, with a slightly jarring accent. I guessed straight away that he wasn’t from the States – probably Australian.
“A little fruit blend,” I responded. “No alcohol.”
“We have a range of choices, as you can see,” He signalled to the board behind him. “Which one would you enjoy?”
I pretended to be scouring, searching the menu thoroughly. Truth was, I had already picked out the one I wanted in seconds. I just wanted to give him time to check me out. “Let’s go with the Banana Sunshine Blend.” I said a while after, handing over the cash.
“Sure thing.” He turned around after handing me the change, straight onto it. His hair, God, his hair. A stunning, dark brown curly mess.
“How long have you been working here?” I asked, impressed by the sheer lack of effort he had to put into whipping up the beverage. I’m sure a tonne of people visit the bar every day, especially during holidays, and he seemed to be handling it fine.
“About eight months. How come I’ve never seen you drop by before? You don’t look familiar at all.”
“You recognise your customers?”
“Well at this point, it’s rare to see someone completely new. After a while, the same old faces appear. You know, the teenagers after school. The workers after work. The weekenders. We get tourists of course, but not too many. We get travellers too, because we’re close to the highway.”
“Oh. Well, I’m one of them. I’m just passing by. Leaving soon.”
I saw him smirk, shaking his head, and I wondered why.
“It’s a shame you’re not a regular. You’re gonna miss these drinks. Trust me.” He handed me the smoothie in a tall, thin glass, accentuated with a cocktail umbrella. He was right; the taste was pure ambrosia. I felt like there must be a secret ingredient. Every good recipe has a secret ingredient.
“My Goodness. This is perfect.” I gushed, slurping slowly. “And you made it in, what, like 0.3 seconds? That’s talent.”
He shrugged bashfully. “I guess it becomes part of the daily grind. I mean, I was probably terrible to start off with.”
“Well, I have to applaud your craft.” I showcased my killer-dimple smile.
“You’re one of a few who’ve taken the time to compliment me. Thanks.”
“No problem.” I leaned forward, resting my elbows on the counter, cupping my chin in my hands. I probably looked like I was smitten or something. I guess that’s the look I was going for. “So, is this your bar? Family business?”
“God, no,” he shakes his head. “I’m just an employee. One of six. I work mainly weekends, but I do get the odd Saturday off. I need to save up some cash alongside college.”
“College? Hhm. Freshman or sophomore?”
“Fresher. Started last fall.”
“What are you studying?” I probed. He raised his eyebrow, causing me to retract a little. “I’m sorry. I’m acting like a private investigator.”
“No, it’s cool. I’ve just never known a stranger to be so interested in conversation for a long time. I hardly ever get a word out of most of these people, though I try my best. So this is a nice burst of fresh air.”
“That’s lovely to hear.” I beamed. “But I should probably leave, now. It’s getting late and I still have a few hours left on the road.”
He smiled again, and I frowned. What was so funny about me having to leave?
“You might find that a little difficult, he chuckled. “I saw you park your car a couple of hours ago. Not that I was eyeing you out, or anything. But yeah, look behind you.”
I whipped my head around, trying to look for my car. I realised that it was completely out of sight.
“What the fuck?” I huffed. “Did someone steal my car?” I almost dashed off, walking off to the car park in a strop.
“Towed. You parked it in the wrong place.”
My stomach sank. “No, no, no, God, no.” I had never felt more stupid in my life. Especially in front of a gorgeous guy. “How do I get it back?”
“Gotta go to the impound, which is a few miles out of town. Not sure how you could do that without a ride.”
“I don’t have enough money to get my car back out, Jesus Christ…” I rested my hands on my head in distress. “I’m supposed to be in Presley by the end of today. What am I going to do?”
I hung around the side of the bar as he served a couple more customers.
“Presley’s not too far from here. Just another hour and a half.”
“So? Should I walk there??” I snapped unexpectedly. “Shit, I’m sorry. I just have to get there soon.”
He looked at me sympathetically, as if he was thinking of something to do to help.
“Shop closes in half an hour. I’m heading to my sister’s place which is about an hour away, North East. It’s a little closer than Presley, but I don’t mind driving you all the way there if you don’t mind.”
“…To Presley?” I raised my eyebrow.
“Yeah. I’ve been there a couple of times. I can just drop you off at the bus station in town, or something. There are taxis everywhere. Unless you want me to take you to wherever you’re going-”
“No. I just need a hotel. Honestly, you don’t have to drive me all the way there.”
“It’s getting late. It’s just a favour. I’m in no rush. And it’s my form of an apology, for not letting you know about the demise of your car sooner.” He grinned.
“Why don’t you have names on your aprons?” I asked him when we got into his car.
“Shit. I can’t believe we got this far and I didn’t tell you my name. And we do have tags in the staff room, but they’re generic. Belong to former employees. The manager stopped making new ones; said we could just wear those. So people thought I was Derek for a long time,” he chuckled. “But I’m Kal. With a K, not a C.”
“That’s nice and simple.” I contemplated how I should refer to myself. Jennifer or Anne? Jennifer-Anne? A part of me itched to answer Rose, but there was no way I was going down that route. Yet. “Anne. That’s my name, in case you were wondering.”
“Simple too. I like it. There are no conditions when it comes to spelling it, right? It’s A - double N - E?”
“Yup,” I finished off the rest of the second (free) smoothie I got. “How do I know you’re not going to send me to a slaughter house?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I failed the online psychopath test. Is that enough reassurance?”
“That’s all I needed to hear.” I laughed.
After a few seconds of silence, he asked me why I was going to Presley. I found it hard to answer, because I didn’t think I would actually be faced with that question. At least I could lie to a stranger about it.
“I’m going to visit distant family.” I answered swiftly, watching the other cars go by on the road.
“Why do you need to stop at a hotel, then? Do they not have an address?”
I sighed. “Jesus, dude. Don’t worry about me. Please stop asking questions.”
“Alright, alright. I just want to make sure you’re safe. I’m not about to drive someone into some sort of human trafficking ring, or a drug cartel. Even in Presley, a fairly safe city.”
“I’ll be fine. I just have some business to sort out.”
“Ahh.” He nodded his head, knowing he had no clue what I was talking about. I could tell he was itching to know, but he didn’t push any further. Instead, he asked me where I was studying.
“ In California. I’m doing my senior year in the Fall.”
“Oh. OK. So you’re sixteen?”
“I’m seventeen in August.”
“Aah. Well, I’m nineteen in August.”
“Really?” I turned my head. “When’s your birthday?”
“Shut up, that’s my birthday.”
“Holy shit, that’s awesome,” he beamed. “Birthday twins. We should celebrate together.” I knew he was joking, but the way he said it made me excited for some reason. I hoped this wouldn’t be the last I saw of him. I still do.
He stopped the car outside of central Presley station at around six o’ clock in the evening, when the sky was turning pink and purple and the city lights were getting brighter. Nervousness filled in my stomach, realising how far away I was from home. And how much closer I was to seeing Bret Walker.
Kal asked for my number, stressing that he needed to know I was safe. My heart melted a little, seeing him sitting, still in his green apron from the smoothie bar. He didn’t have to take me here, but he did. And for that, he became a trillion times more attractive in my eyes. I hope that when I make it back home, we can keep in touch more often.
I’m sitting in the hotel room right now, at four in the morning, wide awake, and my thoughts fly back to Kal. I hope he’s thinking about me still.