The Way Back Around: Chapter 2
After deciding upon the course of action, I turned on the TV once again to stave off the cold silence of the living room. After scanning past the game to get a quick glance at the score- my team a touchdown behind- I settled on a cooking show in hopes that it wouldn’t bore the girl too much. Hanna remained silent for the remainder of the night, or at least until she started to doze off against the back of the couch.
I took her gently snoring as a signal to turn back to the game, only to see more points lacking from my side of the scoreboard, and the last quarter counting down faster that I could finish the second of my beers. I flicked off the TV and stretched my legs. Hanna stirred as I wrapped my arms under her and pulled her up off the couch, holding her over my shoulder as we went back to my room. My sheets were luckily the cleanest part of my room, and most likely would not be completely off-putting for the girl. I left her in her clothes, not wanting to go through the trouble of finding whatever she wore to bed in her tightly-packed suitcase.
The remaining quarter of the pizza sat cold on top of the stove. I took the pan and all and shoved it into the fridge, trading it for the fourth beer in my pack of six. It must have been halfway through the bottle when I fell asleep. I awoke some time in the morning light hours, a crook in my neck from laying up against the armrest of the couch, and the aged taste of beer clinging to my taste buds. I jumped up as my eyes caught sight of the little girl, sitting on the floor, leaned against one leg while she looked at the phone upon the ground.
“Good… good morning.” I said, composing myself and rubbing the parallel marks upon my face from the material of the couch.
Hanna looked up to me with tired eyes. “Are you really… did you mean what you said last night?”
I pushed myself up and immediately felt my head go all wobbly, and my bladder rest against my waistband. “For now, yes.” I said, standing and stomping off to the bathroom.
When I came back out, Hanna was still in the same spot. “What time is it? How long have you been up?”
“Like… half an hour. It’s… eight.”
I cursed under my breath and confirmed the time on the clock on the oven. “Well, I need to pack and get cleaned up. You must be hungry, right?”
Hanna nodded and looked up from her phone momentarily. “Yeah…”
“There’s muffins in the fridge. Take one, and… well, we should bring them with. We’ll have to stop somewhere to get gas, too…” I spoke to myself out loud, scanning my place for any other things I would have to bring with.
After taking a shower and switching into fresh clothes, I pulled my old duffel bag out of the hall closet and paraded it to my bed in front of the dresser in my bedroom. As I tossed in several pairs of clothes haphazardly, Hanna wandered it, nibbling down the head of the blueberry muffin into the paper wrapper. “You don’t… have anything more comfortable than that to change into?” I asked, looking her up and down. “I mean, you were on the plane the whole time yesterday with those clothes, too?”
“You told me not to unpack.” Hanna said with her mouth half full.
I took a deep sigh and shrugged. “Well, not all the way. You must have something in there readily available? You might want to brush your teeth or something, too. I don’t think… you’ll have time for a shower.”
Hanna tugged at the muffin’s wrapper to get at the base of it. “Whatever.” She said, shrugging in a way that seemed to copy my own.
I turned back to my packing while Hanna wandered off again. On the way to drag my bag out before the door, I stopped at the bathroom to grab my toiletries and shove them in with the rest of my things. Hanna had laid down the muffin wrapper on the floor beside her as she turned back to her phone before her.
“Clean that up… please. I don’t want to come back to my place to find ants.”
“Okay…” Hanna said, standing up, her eyes locked to her phone still. I went to the fridge, hearing the call of the cold pizza from inside. Hanna passed me and shoved the trash into the bin as I took up the firm, cold, slice between my teeth. “Let’s go, then.” I said, my voice attempting to find its way out past the pizza.
By the time we had arrived at the office, we were already fifteen minutes late to the promised meeting. My coworker’s car was the only one inside the parking lot, and she was beside it, pacing back and forth. I pulled up beside her and stepped out.
“James, it’s about time,” She said, her breath heavy.
I forced a shamed smile. “I forgot to set an alarm, being the weekend and all.”
She turned back to her car and opened the passenger seat, from which she retrieved a flash drive, one of the industrial business types, upon a lanyard from one of the local office supply stores. “Here it is. Let’s hope nothing happens to it.”
I took it up and pulled it over my neck. “It’ll be there, no problem.”
My coworker nodded her head up and down in thanks. “Thank you again, James,” She said, grabbing at my hand. Her eyes suddenly shifted to the side, into the windows of my car. “Who… is that?”
“Long story.” I shook my head.
“What kind of a story?” She asked, her eyes turned down at me. “A good one, or a bad one?”
I turned back and tugged on the handle of my door. “I’ll tell you all about it once I’m back. Maybe… in a week or so.”
“A week?!” I heard the last words from her as I shut my door and started up my car.
“She seems…” Hanna began, her eyes following the view of the woman as I rounded back out to the street. “Peppy.”
“That’s one word for it,” I said with a shrug, my eyes focused on the empty roads of the business park. “I suppose… I should fill up. Well, this is definitely going to be a strain on my lease agreement.”
“Your what?” Hanna asked.
“The amount of miles I’m able to drive while leasing it. I get like… 12k a year.”
“A lease is like… I have an agreement pay each month for the duration I have the car.”
“So… like a rental?” Hanna asked, making eye contact with me for one of the rare instances.
“Not quite.” I said, shrugging. “I get to pick out the car, and I get to drive it as my own for a year or two, making those payments. Then I might trade in for a new one once my lease is up?”
“So, a rental.”
I hung my mouth open, trying to come up with a response. “Well, kind of, like a long-term one.”
“Why don’t you just buy one?”
“Well… with a lease, I don’t have to worry about repairs, new tires, this, that, you know.”
Hanna hummed loudly, her interest shifting to the view out the passenger window. “Oh, yeah, sure…”
As I pulled into the gas station, the one half way between my job and the ramp to the highway, Hanna finally looked up from her phone. I unbuckled and popped the lever to open the fuel door, her eyes looked up to the windows of the mini mart, plastered with the various advertisements. “Are you going inside?”
I hung my feet out of the door, half open. “No… just paying at the pump. Do you need to use the bathroom? They won’t give you any fuss about it.”
“Can you buy me a Red Bull?” Hanna asked without a hint of irony on her face.
I glanced back to make sure I wasn’t holding up any other desperate drivers, then back to Hanna. “What do you need one of those for?”
“Mom lets me drink them.”
“No way someone at your age needs all that caffeine. You’d just end up sitting there, bored and wired, for the next few hours.”
“Fine.” Hanna crossed her arms and sat back down in the seat. I pushed myself up and out of the car to work the pump and top of my tank. The heat of the day was already beginning to soak the asphalt, and the next few days would take us into the heat of the desert. The taste of beer from the night previous still lingered in my mouth. While the fuel pump drained my bank account into the tank, I glanced at the bills in my wallet. I thumbed at the creased $10 note before pulling it out and leaning into the car with it.
“Hanna.” I said, calling her up from her phone once again.
“Here.” I said, jutting out the money toward her. “Get me a Gatorade. As long as it’s not an energy drink, you can get something for yourself, too.”
Her eyes perked up, and she shoved her phone into her back pocket. “Okay!”
As Hanna slammed the door behind her, I returned to the side of my car, still guzzling up gas. Just as I had the fuel cap on, and the receipt in my hand- important for my work’s mileage report- she had returned. When I returned to the driver’s seat, I found the red sports drink in the front cup holder, and beside it, the curvy shape of one of those multi-function all-in-one revitalizing drinks with various scientific sounding adjectives over it. Before I could turn the key in the ignition, Hanna presented her fist by my side.
“Your change,” she said, her grip tight around the crinkled ones and the mass of change. I opened my palm for it and shoved it into the junk holder just before my shifter.
I tapped at my phone, held in the bracket to the side of the wheel, and told it my destination. “Phoenix, Arizona,” I said, directing the app to draw a route there.
As I panned my head about to begin pulling out, Hanna spoke up again. “Arizona is where the Grand Canyon is, isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” I said absentmindedly, looking for traffic as I pulled out into the street.
“You think… we’ll be able to see it from the road?”
“Probably not.” I answered again, pulling into the center lane, following the mumbling of my phone’s map.
The grace of leaving early on a weekend meant that the highway was mostly clear. I kept a watch on the gps on my phone’s screen as we exited the city and headed up into the higher parts of the valley. On a few occasions, I saw Hanna poking her head up from her phone and checking the surroundings, before inevitable returning to the screen in her lap.
The road flew by beneath us. By noon, we were through San Bernardino. I found myself mentioning the few landmarks and road stops I could remember, but I never got more than a few words from Hanna. I managed to sneak in a few bites of muffin through several patches of slow traffic, to sate my hunger. As we were crossing over the state border, I discovered Hanna asleep, apparently bored by the continuous expanse of dry desert we had arrived upon.
“I need to pee,” was the first call I heard some time later, surprised by Hanna’s sudden return to consciousness.
“Uh, well.” I said, looking up the road, then down to my phone’s screen, revealing nothing but blank map canvas. “Think you can hold it? This is basically the middle of nowhere still.”
Hanna sat up uncomfortably, pulling on the lap section of her seat belt. “I need to go.”
“Well, we can pull over basically anywhere and go. Nobody will even see.”
“No.” Hanna replied harshly.
I sighed and offered my gas peddle a gentle push. I glanced at my speedometer, upon which the needle began to drift over the speed limit. There was nobody behind nor in front of me, and only once in a while did a car appear, headed the opposite direction. With my speed gently increasing, I swiped on my phone, revealing a stop a few miles ahead. “Ok, I see a spot.”
Hanna shifted up farther and held her legs together tightly. I kept glancing in the mirror and farther up the road for any other cars. Slowly, the glint of other vehicles appeared, this time in the form of them sitting in a parking lot around a collection of minuscule buildings. I nearly skidded the car to a halt upon the sandy parking lot in front of the rest stop and gas station. Hanna immediately dashed out, while I rounded the car about into a proper parking spot. She returned a few minutes later, while I stood beside the car, soaking up the mid day heat. After letting out a long sigh, she returned to the passenger’s seat and slammed the door.
I leaned back inside of the car. “I’m going to go too.”
“Okay.” Hanna said, fanning herself with her hand.
Hanna remained awake for the rest of the trip, but my fixation on the road kept me from being able to bring up any conversation. The heat of the afternoon was at its strongest as the sprawl of Phoenix came into view in the distance. The computerized voice on my phone chimed back in to direct us to the city center, to whichever spot the gps considered ‘Phoenix’ itself. I kept my eyes out for the strips of hotels and restaurants along the highway, before finally pulling off.
The plain white stucco of the motels all appeared similar to one another, going by slowly on the side roads. “See any place you’d like to eat?” I asked Hanna. “We can choose a play to stay near by to make things easier.”
Hanna shrugged and ran her fingers across the inside of the window. “Dunno.”