Morrow, between jobs, drove two lane blacktops in an old Ford Bronco. A busted marriage at his back, and high, weather worn cliffs and a spiny ridge of mountains to his right. The Wasatch Range, the map said. Southern Utah, Mormon country, a place he'd never been and had no connection to. He had the promise of work in Las Vegas, Vegas was booming they told him, so he drove on through a thousand miles of heat, the sky broad and a blue so fierce it made his eyes hurt. He was twenty-four. Sage brush and stunted piñon trees dotted the alkali flats. Divorce had left him hollow and noisy inside, and the harsh bare ground and the empty land soothed him. The towns he passed through were flat little affairs, sleepy and slack and suspicious of strangers all at the same time.
Coming into Muddy there was a green state sign that said No Services For 70 Miles. Muddy was a few dozen dusty looking houses and a row of cottonwoods for a windbreak. The highway crossed a trickle of a creek and made a hard right halfway through the town. There was a flat roofed store called Eldred's, and next to it a boarded up barber shop. Downtown Muddy and nobody was out in the middle of the day. A rusty sign marked a John Deere dealership, long since gone out of business. Telephone wires crossed over the street marking unpaved side roads, and at each one a pair of shoes was knotted and slung over the wire. Skater's shoes by the look of them. One, two, three, four pairs of shoes dangling, and at the fourth pair of shoes was a gas station. Two dusty pumps and no pavement, just an open expanse of hard packed dirt and gravel. The gas station was a squat, square building built of cinder blocks painted white. The paint peeled in hand-sized patches.
Morrow pulled in. Everything he owned was packed into two cardboard boxes and an old backpack in the back seat. He got out and pumped gas. It was late morning, almost noon. He hadn't seen another car on the road in the last hour. The hot air drove the metallic tang of gasoline deep into his sinuses. The smell kept his head clear and quiet. The loudest sound in there was his ex-wife spitting You're a loser into his face.
Someone watched him from the patch of shade next to the gas station. Beyond the edge of town the mountains rose in steep cliffs. The wind in his ears was the same wind that eroded those exposed cliffs particle by particle and left them creased and cracked. Morrow topped off his tank and pulled the money out of his wallet. He walked over to the patch of shade. It wasn't till he was six feet away that he decided she might be a girl. He handed her the money.
Exact change? she said.
Yes, he said, sure now that she was a she. She was flat chested and round shouldered, and she wore a faded black t-shirt that said Independent across the front. Dusty black pants and short hair with traces of green dye in streaks. A square pudge of a face. She held one hand behind her back. A wisp of smoke rose behind her head.
Where you headed? she said. Her voice was flat, beyond hope, barely a question in it. Behind her, farther back in the patch of shade, a longboard was leaned up against the wall. The deck was yellow. The wheels looked fresh.
Vegas, Morrow said.
The girl brought her cigarette to her mouth. The ash was long, and it fell onto her chest, bouncing off the 'p' in Independent before it dropped to the dirt.
You got a ticky little noise coming from your tranny, she said.
It's an old car, Morrow said, makes all kind of noises.
The girl dragged her foot through the dirt, drawing a line in the gravel.
It's all downhill from here, she said. She grabbed the longboard and stepped past him, over the line she'd drawn, and went into the gas station. Morrow walked back to the Bronco and got in. The girl put the money in the cash register, he could hear the drawer ding when she closed it. She came out with a backpack slung over one shoulder and the longboard cradled in one hand, nicely balanced. A street board was strapped to the outside of her backpack. She walked around to the passenger side of the Bronco and opened the door. She slung the backpack in and put one foot up on the door frame.
Take me with you, she said.
What? Morrow said.
She said Mister, I need a ride out of here real bad.
The windshield was dusty and bug-specked. The quiet space inside Morrow's head got smaller.
Why? Morrow said.
The girl's lip trembled. She bit down on it hard and stared out through the windshield. Then she pointed up at the shoes dangling from the telephone wire across the highway.
You see them shoes? she said. And those? she said, pointing back down the street. Those are my shoes, she said. The kids around here hate me. I don't belong here. I'm eighteen today, this is my goddamn birthday, and the only thing I want is to get out of here.
Morrow leaned his head against the steering wheel. He wasn't good at making decisions, something else his ex-wife had drilled into his brain. There was a particularly large splotch of bug goo on the windshield right in front of him. He should wash it off here, while he had the chance. Vegas was a day's drive ahead on the back roads. This girl, she could be any kind of trouble at all.
How do I know you're telling me the truth? he said.
The girl reached into her back pocket and pulled out a driver's license. She held it out to Morrow, pointing at the birth date. Morrow took the license. It looked real enough, and the birth date was right. She had stud earrings pierced all the way up the curve of her ear.
They don't want me here, the girl said. You take me out of here and everybody's better off.
Morrow looked at her shoe perched on the door frame. An old school Van, it was new, the toe not even scuffed yet. He hadn't skated since college. His ex-wife said only losers skated. He handed her driver's license back to her.
Get in, Morrow said.
She was in the seat and had the door shut before he could pull his hand back. Her face was flushed red, the green streaks in her hair bright in the sunlight as she turned to thank him. Morrow held up his hand to stop her.
One rule, he said.
Her mouth was open but she held her peace.
Don't talk too much, Morrow said.