The day I met Bryce I could’ve given everything to him, let him take me over completely.
Kentucky greenery flashed in my windows, a tint of blue as I cruised the Western Kentucky Parkway, a four-hour slot. I was in between: school and another life, the small town where I had spent four years getting a degree and whatever Louisville promised. A cousin named Debbie had moved to Louisville a few years ago, guaranteed me a couch while I found a job and saved money to find my own place. The Saturday night of graduation weekend, a friend, Andrea, had a going-away slash end-of-semester house party. I was leaving for Louisville the next morning. We’ll miss you, but at least you’re getting the fuck out of here. I usually avoid these parties, but Andrea said, You have to come. It’s your party. When I arrived I barely knew anyone. The vacancy deadline on my financial aid housing had passed. Crash on the couch, she offered. By the end of the night three people layered on top of each other, passed out from cheap vodka. I took a good look at myself, where I was: my life here had long been over. I revved my sixteen-year-old Corolla and left, then saw how late it was, thought about how much I had to drink. I couldn’t afford the cheapest of motels, so the highway rest stop was the best option.
My neck had wrenched from sleeping in the backseat the previous night, curled in a spine-mangled ball on the lumpy, upholstery-shredded cushioning. I was hungover, too. When I got on the road, I didn’t make it far before I realized I needed gas and food, so I took the next exit, Calvert City. I pulled into the Love’s, bought a sandwich from the chain inside and ate slowly in a booth, savoring the food, which was all I expected to eat for most of the day.
It was then that I saw him. Through the window, in the parking lot. He was by himself. He looked late twenties, wearing black shorts cut off at the knee, a sweaty t-shirt, a pack hoisted on his back like he planned on camping for days. The image of his body lithe against the morning sun. He was talking to a woman who shook her head, shooing him away, and he caught another woman. He walked backwards as she walked forward. He talked to her fast, but she didn’t acknowledge him until he gave up. He put his hands on his hips, his beautiful body, an ease in how he carried himself. I turned away to take another bite of the sandwich and when I looked back he was gone.
When I finished I refilled my water bottle at the fountain–no need to pay for water—and splurged on some chips for later. I had just enough money for gas to Louisville. As I fueled the car, I watched the people coming and going from the travel store, families and truckers, and I wondered where they were headed. A mom yelled at a screaming child who, if I overheard correctly, had been refused some kind of candy. A group of truckers, do-ragged heads, some so scrawny their shirts flapped in the wind, others with large bellies, carrying on with one another.
I exited the Love’s and, caught up in thought, where I was going, Debbie’s couch, I missed the turn for the highway and didn’t realize until I hit the point where the backroads heading into town started. I was waiting for the next offshoot road to roundabout, and then, in my side mirror, a figure in my periphery. I turned over my shoulder, and there he was, treading along the road as he lugged his pack, his frame so thin and the bag so monstrous.
He noticed me driving and stuck out his arm, thumb upturned as he paced along. I hadn’t seen anyone hitch in years, dangerous I was always told, you never know who you’re picking up or who would give a ride. But those incidents were likely the exception, the chances low. And me, I was a wreck myself.
I turned-about into a side road and headed toward his direction, pulled off the street, and hit the flashers to signal him. He clapped his hands together and jogged toward my car. He came into fuller view as he stood in front of the passenger door. His shirt hung loose, stains and rips at the shoulder and sides. I rolled down the window, and he peered in, his face striking, apple shaped, tanned with faded freckles at his nose, jaw thick, cheeks thin, eyes intense. He said, Hey, thanks man. He assessed, rolling his eyes over me as I said, Sure. No problem. I was struck with this pleasure. A man like him: beautiful. He said, Which way you going? I had to remember all over again, searching for the answer. Louisville, I said. Headed toward the Western Kentucky Parkway. He said, That’s perfect. He spoke with a drawl similar to the kind I grew up around. He was from the state, I could tell, or close to it. There was a time I was ashamed of my accent, tried to phase it out of my speech, but hearing it on him, it became endearing, made desirable a quality I once didn’t desire. He said, You going to let me in or what? I had forgotten this was required, opened his door.
Where can I put this? he asked, motioning toward his bag. All I packed were three duffels of clothes and one box with personal items, so there was still room for his pack. I said, The back seat is fine if it’ll fit. I unlocked the back door, and he unloaded the clunky pack. He opened the passenger door, smiling as he said, It does. He slid into the front seat. He had ropey braids in his hair, twisted and ragged, his body emitting a sun-sweat smell. He likely hadn’t had a proper bath or shower in a number of days, and I breathed him in deeply, his natural scent powerful. So, where are you going? I asked. He drummed his knee up-down in my lower periphery. I sensed that thigh. He said, Meeting some friends of mine. A campsite at Red River Gorge. You ever been? I told him I hadn’t. Well you should, he said. I don’t get outdoors too much, I said. That knee drumming. Sounds like you need to get out, he said. We go rock climbing. The thought of climbing a mountain, so far from anything I would ever consider. He pulled his leg up, propping it against the dash, in my side eye-line. I looked, the inside of his leg, hair speckling the meaty flesh something gorgeous. But I took care to not look too long, the right amount to catch a glimpse but not too much so it’s obvious you’re admiring, because if anyone noticed you would be caught, exposed.
I’m Bryce, he said. He lent his hand to me, and I cupped it, warm palm. And you are? I had forgotten myself again. I told him my name. Thanks for stopping for me, he said. Just drop me off in Louisville and I can make it to the gorge from there. That feeling of pleasure in providing for him came back to me. No problem, I said. He said, So, are we gonna get going? I was so caught up in taking all of him in – his scent, voice, body, face, lips, throat, hands, his thighs and legs – I forgot this was the next step, actually driving us. I turned onto the road and veered to the ramp.
Hey, you got anything to eat? he said. I remembered the chips. I said, Yeah, in the bag there. He ruffled into it and pulled them out, ripping the top and munching a handful. So I told you where I’m going, he said between crunches. What’s taking you to Louisville, mister? This title struck me as odd. I was clearly younger than he was by a few years, and it suggested respect, like I had authority, but I didn’t. I said, I’m meeting up with my cousin. He said, Oh yeah? Louisville’s nice, man. Real nice. Lots to do. You live there? He tilted the bag to slide crumbs into his mouth. I said, No, then realized that wasn’t true so I said, Well, sort of. I’m moving there. A lapping sound as he inserted each finger into his mouth to suck the chip dust. He said, Where you moving from? I told him. He said, You go to that university, don’t you? Yeah, I said. I just graduated. He turned to me, wagging his index. I thought so, he said. You look like the school type. I was flattered he had given thought to the kind of person I was, but what did that mean exactly? He said, I always wanted to do that, go to school and all. I couldn’t though, ya know? He continued pacing his leg up and down, and I continued to not glance at it, the skin leading to underneath his clothes. He said, But I had to take care of my grandma. She raised me, ya know. I nodded along. He was generous in what he was offering about himself, endearing me to him. He continued, Mom and Dad were no good dead beats. I don’t even know where they are now, if they’re alive or not, and I don’t give a shit. Passion in his voice but matter-of-fact. He said, My grandma, she got that cancer. I said, I’m sorry to hear. He shrugged. It is what it is, he said. I took care of her best I could. This story made me feel bad for him. I wanted to say, I’m so sorry, but a sorry wouldn’t change anything, so I said nothing.
Does this go back any? he said, motioning to his seat. I told him how to adjust it, and he pushed back. He tried settling but had a difficult time sitting still. He fiddled with the radio, not pleased with the pre-sets so he scanned each station, listening intently, even the static, before deciding to move to the next. He gave up and closed his eyes, so I could give a quick glance to see his face again, supple and stubbled skin, some acne, red splotches making him even more attractive, imperfections, flaking sun burn, serene face. He sat upright and sighed. He didn’t seem to have noticed me looking, and I was relieved. He grabbed a pile of CDs from the side pocket, fanning them out. Got any Hendrix? I said I didn’t. Damn, I could go for some Hendrix right now, he said. He examined each disc, displeased with the selection, until he picked one at random and pushed it into the slot, a mix of bluegrass an ex-boyfriend made for me even though I didn’t care for bluegrass. Bryce said, This is nice. But he kept switching the tracks.
I’m so fucking starving, he said. You got anything else? I’m sorry, I said. I was disappointing him again. Could we…, he said, hesitating. Could we stop somewhere? Like he was ashamed at the question, his hunger, the circumstances that lead to his state of hunger, which were still vague. I assumed he was a camper, meeting his friends like he said. But that hunger, his unwashed clothes, that story about his grandma and neglectful parents. Yeah, we can stop somewhere, I said. I left home when I was a teenager with no support from my own parents. I hadn’t seen or talked to them since. If it wasn’t for the scholarship to school, which a high school teacher clued me in on and helped me with, I could be like Bryce. I asked him, Where do you want to go? He considered for a moment. There had been signs for fast food at upcoming exits. You know what? he said. Did you see there’s a Cracker Barrel coming up?
I tried to remember how far. We had passed Dawson Springs, and I figured it was about fifteen minutes out of the way. Also, he said, and he kept rubbing the back of his head because he didn’t want to say the next words. Could you lend me a few bucks for it? I considered my money. I thought Bryce might have picked from the assortment of drive thru chains, which would be cheaper. I forgot how much Cracker Barrel meals cost. No more than ten dollars, right? I could buy Bryce’s meal, and I didn’t need to eat. Next time I stopped for gas I wouldn’t fill the whole tank. There was Bryce waiting for my reply. Shaving off ten dollars would be okay. Don’t worry, I said. I can get it for you. The relief in his Thanks man gave me satisfaction.
After turning onto the Pennyrile, I followed signs to Cracker Barrel. Bryce and I walked in, passing the row of rockers out front. I hadn’t been to one of these in years. When I grew up in Leitchfield the closest one was in Elizabethtown, and going there was a treat for birthdays and Easter and the rare Sunday when my dad would declare after church, How about we go to the Barrel? My mom usually cooked Sunday meals, and this was a gesture my dad offered so she could take that Sunday off. He said it with pride, giving his family a luxury, the whole trip treated as an extravagance.
I gave them my name. The place was packed with a considerable wait, but that was the point if you wanted to peruse the store, which I was awed by as a kid, endless. Now as an adult, it seemed excessive. I stood with my arms folded, the lively crowd making me uncomfortable, children running, parents telling them to be careful. Bryce loved everything. In the time we waited for our table he riffled through all he could: clothes, movies, Fourth of July decorations, toys and games, stuffed animals, dishware, figurines, candy. He would hold something up. You want this? How about this? Look how cool this is.
They finally called my name and seated us. I got the sense that other tables, locals, eyed us like a threat, wondering what we were doing in their town. I grew up with the type. They were probably suspicious of Bryce, rough looking. Bryce ended up ordering a classic breakfast. You’re not eating, he said to me when I ordered my coffee. I told him I just ate. You can have some of my biscuits, he said. He played that peg game while we waited for our food, and when it arrived he told me stories of his mountain climbing, animated with hand gestures. Once he got up from his seat to simulate what he described, and I didn’t care what onlookers thought. He claimed he almost died a few times. I like the rush, he said, scarfing hash browns soaked in egg yolk and ketchup. This was a treat for Bryce like it had once been a treat for me as a kid, maybe the most substantial meal he had in a few days.
When we left, as I pulled out of the parking lot, Bryce said, Hey look what I got. He emptied his loot onto the floor. A snow globe, a cat stuffed animal, a mug, sacks of candy, a mini figurine, a small jar of jam, pouring out from under his shirt, pants, pockets, shoes. Holy shit, I said. How did you? I was amazed at how much he could fit on himself. When did you get all this? He opened the jar of jam, stuck his finger in and licked. It must’ve been when I was in the bathroom and he waited for me in the shop. I had only shoplifted once. As a teenager one of my only friends convinced me to take a cheap bracelet, the kind popular in the late 90’s made of puka shells, from the mall, a typical dumb teenage act, pretending at rebellion.
You can’t just, I said. You can’t just do that. He tilted the snow globe and watched the glitter fall. Yes I can, he said. I just did. I considered telling him to take it all back, but what was done was done. He said, I wanted to get some souvenirs. He held up the stuffed animal. You want the cat? Or the globe? I don’t know, I said. Taking one of them would make me part of the crime. He said, Well I have to get you something for driving me, and for the food. How about the globe. I gave in and said that was okay. And I found I took pleasure in feeling complicit, a feeling I resisted but then settled into.
As I followed signs to get back on the Western Kentucky, Bryce said, Wait, I gotta use the bathroom. He drummed his leg like he was waiting for something. I pulled into the nearest gas station, and before the car came to a full stop he flung out the door and hurried into the food mart, leaving me to wait. I shut off the car to save gas despite the heat. I thought more about Bryce’s shoplifting. He had been kind to me, non-threatening, but his unpredictability was unsettling. But then my next feeling: That was exciting. I didn’t think Bryce was dangerous, but a part of me, dark and deep, wanted him to be, and his stealing heightened this want.
He had been taking a long time in the food mart. I wondered if he got distracted and was checking out the items in the store, and I thought that maybe he was shoplifting again. I debated whether I should check on him. I was already behind schedule for when Debbie expected me in Louisville, so I was partially annoyed with how long he was taking. Right when I was about to get out of the car, I saw him on the side of the building. How long had he been out here? He looked around, aimless like he didn’t know where he was. I approached him, and he walked toward me with big steps. His eyes different, glazed over like jewels, and as I got closer he squinted at me like I was a stranger. Hey, he said. It’s you. I knew you would come. I said, Yeah, it is me. He tugged my arm, and I was surprised at this sudden touch, and he pulled me into him, wrapping himself around me in a hug, his scent permeating into me. I considered what others around us thought, some truckers to our left, and decided I wouldn’t let that bother me. I lead him to the car, and he nestled into the passenger seat.
When I got back on the expressway, Bryce fidgeted in his seat. His leg thumps were bigger, and now he alternated between both legs. He held his arms, generating friction as he rubbed them, but the car wasn’t cold. He had been somewhat erratic before, but there was a change in him now. I wondered what he did in that bathroom. Are you okay? I asked. He said, I thought you would never ask. I’m fucking great, man. Can’t you drive faster? I was going almost ten above the speed limit, cautious about getting pulled over. I told him this. He said, No one’s gonna pull us over. Come on. I bet you can’t go twenty over. He was testing me. Ordinarily I would brush this off as immature, but I came back to that feeling, complicit with him. I pressed my foot against the acceleration, watched the speedometer climb. Bryce delighted, laughing, clapped his hands. I was fifteen above now, at eighty-five. Bryce draped himself over me, checking to see how fast I was going, his shoulder and upper body across me. Come on, he commanded. He grabbed my shoulder, his clench rippling into my whole frame. I said twenty over. You’re not there yet. I bet you’ve never gone twenty over in your life. It was true I hadn’t. My older car couldn’t handle it, and I avoided getting a ticket because of their cost. Bryce’s hand clawed around me was my safety. We were speeding together. I went even faster, past twenty, twenty-five, the engine revving, thirty, riding the rhythms of speed and the road with him, a rush. We kept climbing. Momentum and force, his hand guiding me. He bobbed up and down, like a child thrilled at the prospect of ice cream or new toy. Fuck yeah, Bryce shouted.
I came to my senses. I imagined how it would play out if we got pulled over, what Bryce would do if confronted by an officer, if he would be combative or if the cop would be able to tell that Bryce was fucked up and associate me with him. And I had already given Bryce a thrill. I slowed down. What are you doing? Bryce said. Slowing down, I said. He said, Come on. We were just having some fun. I brought the car back to the speed limit. Bryce slouched in disappointment. You fucking fucker, he said, looking at me like I betrayed him. I can’t believe you, he said. Then he shoved me hard, which made me swerve the car. I held my breath, scared, then gained control. If there had been a car in the other lane I would’ve rammed them. Hey, I said. Are you trying to get us killed? He laughed an uncontrollable laugh, hysterical, hunched over, and he kept going on like that, laughing. Then he sat back up. Hey, you’re going to listen to me, you hear, pointing his pointer. He reached in his pocket, and I saw it in the corner of my eye, glinting. He replaced his pointer with the point of a blade aimed at me. Hey, he said. I asked if you heard me. You hear me? I nodded my head. What was that? I want to hear you say it. He brought the knife closer, an inch away from my lower right abdomen. All of my breath felt lodged in my throat. Yes. I’ll do what you said, I stammered.
He was satisfied with my response. Danger, I thought. This is dangerous, what I had asked for, but not like this. I didn’t think Bryce had a weapon, and I felt stupid, that I had gotten myself in this situation. But there he was next to me. I was still so attracted to him. He held my life in his hands at the end of a knife. Good, he said. That’s real good. I was relieved. I would go along with whatever he told me. Look, I said. I don’t want any trouble. I’ll do what you say. I’ll take you to wherever you need to go. Red River Gorge, right? I saw that we had passed the city of Graham, heading toward Central City. He said, What the fuck you talking about? I’m not going there. I said, But, didn’t you say you were going mountain climbing? He threw his head back and laughed that same laugh. Fuck no, he said. I got a load to sell back here, and he took the knife off me to motion to his pack in the back seat. Meeting up with some friends of mine, and we’re going to make fucking bank off it, he said. The drugs, whatever kind he had taken in the gas station bathroom. He put the knife back on me. Okay, I said. I’ll take you wherever you need to go. He brought the knife closer and said, Damn right you will. I wanted him to tell me where that was exactly, but I didn’t want to press him, afraid it might make him angry.
You wanna come with me, don’t you, mister? he said, shifting, startling me. He gave me that title again, though I still wasn’t sure what it meant. He was holding me hostage, and this title insinuated I was in a role of authority. Or was it an affectionate term? What if I did go with him, wherever he was going? I could ditch Louisville and Debbie, the shit job I likely needed to take to get on my feet. This idea, leaving everything and following Bryce, lifted up and burrowed into my skin, heart, throat, shoulders, body, an alternate possibility. His knife on me was a thrill, my life his, for him and no one else. He said, I can tell you do. I can feel it. Come with me, he said. What do you say? That story about his parents and grandma. I could’ve been like him if things had gone differently. When I left home, my parents and family, if I hadn’t been able to go school, I might have been homeless, drifting like him. I was already on the brink of homelessness. That story about his grandma, what had endeared me to him initially, I realized now was probably a lie. He said, Are you going to answer me?, brandishing the knife closer. I don’t know, I said. My answer surprised me. It was closer to the truth. I didn’t know.
What do you mean you don’t know? Bryce said. His eyes widened to bright bulbs. I had set him off, should have told him I would go regardless of my uncertainty. He said, You’ve looked down on me ever since you saw me, and that’s a goddamn fact. You rich bitch school boy. His assessment of me was wrong: I had no money, no job. At school I had sat in dark lecture halls, the slides in my art history courses clicking away, each instructor providing details, context, analysis. I took notes dutifully, memorized everything with mnemonic devices for the tests, retained them for the finals, and when the semester was over they emptied from my mind. This is what I did for four years, and now it was over.
How much money you got? I was shaky, my hand wobbly on the steering wheel, as he pushed the end of the knife against my lower right abdomen, the thin fabric of my shirt the barrier between my flesh and the tip. I said, Only about twenty-five. He said, Bullshit, with a scoff. I wasn’t lying: that was all the money I had. Tell the goddamn truth, he said. The pinch of the blade against me. Would he really cut me? As I was driving? His face was slack and stern. My wallet, I said. You can look in my wallet. He said, All right then. I said, It’s in my back pocket. I need to reach in my back pocket. This suggested he needed to get the knife off me if I was going to use my free hand to reach around. His eyes narrowed, skeptical. Okay, he said. But you better not try anything. He slowly removed the knife, and I retrieved my wallet and handed it to him. He opened it and pulled out the twenty and five. He said, And this is it? Yes, I said. That’s all I have. This is bullshit, he said. This. He held up my debit card. He said, You fucking liar. There’s gotta be more on this. I had withdrawn all of my money, fearing that if I used my card I might accidentally overdraw. No, I said. My account is empty. He said, Give me a fucking break. Now you’re a goddamn liar. I want you to show me. I said, What do you mean? He thumped his leg up and down more, stuck the knife at me again. Are you questioning me? He was so serious, but then he broke out in laughter, that hysterical laughter from before, like he had been putting on an act, and was so surprised at himself it was funny. No, I said. I’m not questioning you. Like I said, there’s no money in my account. I withdrew all of it for this trip. He said, after composing himself, We’ll see about that. Next exit. Stop off.
I thought about which exits were next. Caneyville, then Leitchfield, which is where I grew up. I hadn’t gone back since I left, five years before. This one? I said, as we were two miles from Caneyville. Bryce had taken the knife off me, I noticed, maybe when he was laughing, and that alleviated my fear. No, Bryce said. Are you kidding? Not some podunk place. We need a place with an ATM. We’ll stop at the next one. He was right. Caneyville was scarce in the way of options for gas and shops and restaurants. This meant driving into Leitchfield, which lodged a pit in my stomach, my fear all over again, but a different fear, the fear of my past. I told myself it would be fine. We would go to a gas station ATM. I would show Bryce the twenty-five cash was all I had. And then what? A vague idea of trying to escape entered my mind, but what would I do? I didn’t have any ideas. If I tried something and it failed, I worried how Bryce would react. But I was also scared of what he would do to me the longer this continued. He was telling some story about how he and some friends wanted to start a band, mimicking an air guitar, singing some song he wrote without a melody. Silences unsettled him. He always had to fill the emptiness with something.
When we came to the Leitchfield exit, he put the knife on me again. Get off here, he said. I never thought I would take this exit. I took solace knowing we weren’t going into town itself, just the strip of the gas stations next to the highway. He directed me to some Chevron or Shell, and we didn’t see the lit-up letters advertising an ATM. He told me to go to the next one, and I was grateful when I saw this station had an ATM, that we wouldn’t need to go into town to find a bank. I pulled up to the front. Bryce leaned over me, the green-red hawk of his neck tattoo swooping, his skin so delicate. I still noticed him, that desire for him present underneath the fear. He had leaned to take my keys from the ignition, cutting off the engine, and he dropped them on the ground, fumbling, the drugs in his head, and after he picked the keys up, he said, Stay here. He got out of the car and looped around to my driver’s side, opened my door for me like it was a courtesy. I got out, and from behind he tugged me into him, my back against his front. I could feel his hips securing me to him, and into my ear he said, We’re going in here. I still have the knife on you if you try anything. Act normal. Got it? His breath hot on my neck, like he was touching me without touching. He was holding me at knife point to rob me, and I was aroused. You’re going to open your account and withdraw all of your money.
In the shop I came to the ATM and pulled up my account. He told me to check the balance, and I showed him the zero on the screen. Goddamn. Fuck, he said. I didn’t know what came next. He forced me back to the car, shoving me into the driver’s seat. He sat back in the passengers, slamming the door. He punched the dash, huffing. Then he breathed deeply and settled, placing his face in his cupped hands. His body next to me, that desire again I couldn’t help. Then it came out of me, surprising myself so much I didn’t know if I really said it or not. But here I was, saying it. I said, I could… hesitating briefly. But then. I could still come with you, I said. He turned to me suspiciously. What do you mean? Like he had forgotten when he asked me to come along with him. We still have the twenty-five, I said. We can still go wherever you’re going. I can still come with you, I said. My life was nothing, I had nothing holding me back. Following Bryce wherever he was going. I wanted someone to take me anywhere else from where I had been headed, and here he was.
He squinted at me, examining me, and I felt exposed. You, he said, the knife waving at me, accusatory. I’ve seen you. The air conditioning was on full blast, blowing onto our bodies, and my face went hot. What? I said. What do you mean? Barely choking out the words. I’ve seen you, he said again. I’ve seen you looking at me. Watching me, he said. He un-squinted his eyes, opening them. I was caught, always my fear, looking at a man and desiring him, a man I shouldn’t. It was happening here with Bryce. My whole body was hot now, weak, heart pumping into my throat, not knowing how to respond. Yeah, I finally said. What else could I say?
You’re like, Bryce said. You’re like, into me. He said this like he was trying it on, seeing how it felt, having to come to the realization by saying it aloud. He kept eyeing me, yet he seemed softened and still, his tear drop tattoo at the corner of his eye. Suddenly he put his arm around me, startling me at first, and he brought me into him closer, gradually like slow motion until our faces were so close I could feel his breath. He turned, exposing his neck, and what came naturally to me was to kiss, that neck. I placed my lips, seeing how he would react. He shuddered. He hadn’t been touched in a very long time. Then he settled, and I kissed more, his neck, the skin. He tasted briny and sweet, and he sighed with a quiet moan. I touched his stomach, emaciated, my hand riding his breaths. I stopped, pulled back to see what he was feeling, what he would do. I wanted his body, on me and in me.
No, he said, changing his tone. No. Get the fuck off me. He switched from relaxed and calm at my touch to anger within a second. He gazed at the ground like he was confused. Get the fuck off me, he said again, even though I wasn’t touching him anymore. You, he said, pointing the knife. Don’t touch me. I can’t be touched. He slammed my face into the steering wheel, the horn going off, my nose bashed. I grabbed it in pain, my forehead aching. I had to comprehend what happened, couldn’t think. He punched me in the gut, winded me so I had a hard time breathing. Get out, he said. Get away from me. He opened my door and shoved me out. I was so disoriented. My body slumped to the ground of the parking lot. He walked around to my door, and he kicked me in the stomach. Get away, he shouted. Then he kicked my head. An echo in my ears, like the sensation of laying back into bathtub water. I heard a voice above us, an outsider. He was saying something like, That’s enough. Leave him alone. I could barely hear. Bryce said something, I couldn’t make out what it was. The other voice, louder, said something else, barking commands. I stood, hobbling. A ringing in my ears.
I turned to my right, the car door opened. Where was Bryce? Sound came back, gradually, then I could hear fully again. I heard that same voice. Hey, are you okay? My head had been spinning and it stopped, and I could focus. Next to me was an older man, baggy jeans, thick set and stocky, an American flag t-shirt, gray beard on a rounded face. Looked like he clocked you pretty hard, he said. Why don’t you sit? He led me to the driver’s seat. I hunched over with my feet out the side. Here, he said. A water bottle appeared, and I drank. What? What happened? I asked. Where is he? This man, looking at me with worry and pity. Don’t know, he said. I pulled him off you. He was about to beat you more, so I pulled him off, told him to cool it, leave you alone. He yelled at me. Nonsense mostly. He was on some shit. You, he said. You fucked up, too? I shook my head. No, I’m not, I said. Okay, this man said, believing me. Anyway, I told him I would call the cops. Then he ran off. That way. This man was probably pointing in a direction, but I continued looking to the ground. My whole face hurt. Who was that guy? he asked me. Bryce, his body, his neck, skin, his smile when he talked, his leg bouncing. He was, I began. No one. He was no one. Okay, the man said. This man could’ve been my dad. My dad was here in town, only a few roads away. You want to call the cops? he asked. I pictured this scenario, and it would only add to how embarrassed I already felt. No, I said. I’ll be okay. All right then, the man said. If he comes back and gives you trouble. Or if you need anything, you let me know. I’m on a rest stop with some buddies, and we’re right over here. I said, Thanks, and sipped the water. I must’ve looked horrible. Take care now, he said, and he was gone.
When I rested my head in my hands, my face felt enormous and swollen. I needed to clean up. I made my way into the store, tried not to streak any blood on the door handle, but some wiped off anyway. Onlookers waiting in the cash register line stared at me, some of them whispering to each other. I hurried to the restroom, luckily a private single I could lock. In the mirror, the image of my face, fissured, blood streaming out of my nose, which looked broken, my eye sockets lined with bruising. I hadn’t cried from physical pain since I was younger, but I was almost there at this point. I splashed water on my face carefully, because touching my face hurt badly, even worse when I tried to clean it with paper towels. My stomach felt like I needed to vomit, and I dry heaved. I went back to the car. I couldn’t find the keys, panicked that Bryce ran off with them, until I finally found them after searching for a good fifteen minutes, under the passenger’s. I sat back in the driver’s seat. I would call Debbie and tell her I was late. I would think of an excuse the rest of my way there. In my side view, sitting on the ground, the globe. I picked it up, upturned it, and through the hurt of my face I examined the snowy glitter falling down. Bryce. I had ignited something in him he was so scared of, that he saw in me. I half expected him to show back up, but no, he was gone. Drifting. And I was drifting, too, maybe not quite in the same way as he was, but drifting all the same. I would get on the road and drive to wherever I was headed next.