It had become urgent. He had to see her. Now. The idea of driving out to her house had been steeping in his mind all day and now it was too strong to ignore. Although Royal had let several absurd fantasies play out in his imagination, he had no intention of trying to put moves on her, or trying to impress her (not that he could, he reminded himself) he just wanted to see her. Or, to put it more accurately, look at her. Her face and body were starting to deteriorate in his memory, and now he felt a kind of helpless, overwhelming urge to look at her. He wanted to study her. He wanted to stare at her while she slept. He wanted to wallpaper his bedroom with her image, psycho-style - thousands of candid snapshots showing her every mood and movement, from childhood to the present: The History of Loletta Winters in infinite detail, all around him.
Jesus, he thought, get a grip on yourself…
He crushed another beer can, dropkicked it into the woods, then slid into the Malibu.
And then another pull of doubt. Was it too soon? She’d said to drop by anytime, but the next day? Crazy, crazy…
Oh, what the hell, he thought again, she lived in a goddamn commune - a house full of inhabitants - people must be dropping in all the time.
He started the car, drove around a steep sand cliff, then back to the dirt road that led out of the sand pits - his old drinking spot. The perfect place for underage kids to get safely trashed. How many times had he come out here with his buddies? A hundred drinking parties blurred through his mind: crackling campfires filled with blackened, melting beer bottles, rambling, keg-induced debates and bent philosophies, endless bottles passed around. Drunken fights, laughter and the sound of rookie vomiting. Stumbling and crashing through the trees while police lights flashed blue and white spears into the dark woods…
Years and years, over and over.
It was getting near dusk and the humidity was finally pulling back. For a while it had looked like the sky was promising to let loose a thunderstorm, but it eventually cleared and now the moisture in the air was starting to evaporate. Thank god.
As he drove, Loletta’s face began to strengthen in his memory, urging him on and by the time he reached the highway he was speeding, anxiously gripping the wheel with locked fists. It felt good to have the Malibu back (though he did miss the AC in his mother’s Volvo) and he had spent most of the day tooling around Willowburne, enjoying the feel of the road, revisiting scenes of his childhood. All the sweat he had poured over the engine had been more than worth it.
At the border of Brightstone he spotted a hitch-hiker. A girl, just a kid. The alcohol in his head and the big fine car around him made him feel generous, brave. He pulled over.
He watched her in the rearview mirror as she ran toward the car, slipping out of a large canvas backpack. He turned when she reached the door. She tried the handle, and then knocked on the window. He unlocked the door and the first sting of doubt hit him. He fixed a friendly smile on his face anyway.
“Hi, thanks,” she said, stuffing the backpack into the backseat. She shut the door and sat straight in her seat. Now that she was close to him he saw how young she was. She looked twelve years old. She also looked sick. Her eyes were tired, underlined with dark smudges.
“No problem,” he said, sure now that picking her up had been a bad idea. “Where you going?”
“Edgewood,” she said. Her voice was tired, weak. She seemed strung out on something, barely awake.
“Coming up.” He pulled onto the road. He had to go through Edgewood to get to Loletta’s house anyway.
“Nice car,” said his passenger, looking across the dashboard.
“Thanks. I just got it running again.”
“You a mechanic?”
He shrugged. “Strictly amateur status.”
“Are you from around here?”
“Born and raised,” he said, relaxing his hands on the wheel, feeling a bit more confident now.
She fell silent and gazed lazily out the window for a few minutes. Then, in a stronger, more energized voice: “Um, excuse me…” She waited for him to give his name.
“Royal,” he said.
“That’s my name. Royal Dexter.”
She nodded and began pulling at a phantom thread at the hem of her shirt. “My name’s Maggy.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, um, thanks.” Another hesitation. She seemed nervous now. “Royal?”
“Yeah?” What was she trying to ask him?
“Do you know where the McDonald’s is? The one across from Burger King?”
“Yeah,” he said. After he’d left Loletta’s house, he’d stopped there for a Coke.
“Is that where you’re going?” he asked.
“Well, I guess it’s your lucky day. I have to drive right by there.”
“That’s cool,” she said, her voice tired again. “I’m just meeting a...” She stopped, canceling the sentence before it all came out.
He nodded and almost reflexively offered her a beer. Don't do that! It wouldn’t do to get pulled over with an underage girl, beer in her little hand, sitting beside him. Try explaining that…
They crossed the Edgewood border after another few minutes. Maggy was quiet, as if hypnotized by the motion of the car. She sat leaning into the window, letting the wind blow her face and hair.
Royal pulled over at the McDonald’s. He didn’t bother to park.
“Here you go,” he said.
She didn’t react. Didn’t move.
No response. Uh-oh. Maybe she was strung out on drugs. Maybe she’d slipped into an overdose while they drove. An image blossomed before him: driving to the end of Roc road, carrying her lifeless, stiffening body deep into the woods, covering her with leaves, leaving her for the animals and insects…
He reached out slowly, heart hammering, and tapped her on the shoulder. “Maggy,” he said in a loud, slightly distraught voice. “You’re here.”
She flinched, startled, and he withdrew his hand as if he’d touched a hot stove. His lungs released a huge, anxious breath. She looked at him with groggy eyes. “Oh, jeez, I’m sorry. I guess I fell asleep.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine. Just tired.” She looked out at the fast food restaurant “This is it, huh?”
Royal shrugged. “I guess.”
She didn’t move for another few seconds. She just sat and stared at the entrance. She seemed afraid of the place. She finally broke her trance with a shake of her head, reached into the backseat and yanked her backpack out. Then she opened the door.
“Thanks a lot, Royal. I really appreciate it.”
“Okay, Maggy. Take care.” She seemed impossibly small and frail and he found himself feeling a little afraid for her.
She gave him a weak smile and wave and then shut the door and lugged her backpack through the glass doors.
Royal pulled away and drove home. He didn’t want to see Loletta anymore. He wanted to go home.