The smell of grease clung to my hair, sweat coating my forehead. Derek always said he was going to get the air conditioning in the back fixed, but he never did. All he cared about was the customers, didn’t matter if his employees were passing out from the Arizona heat while we served greasy food.
The sun was setting on the horizon, which meant the temperature would drop soon, but not soon enough. My messy brown hair was clinging to my forehead, bangs flying out wildly no matter what I tried to do with them.
“Order up,” Gunner, our cook, called.
I moved as quickly as my tired feet would let me, grabbing the order for the two truck drivers sitting in the corner booth.
“Thanks, Gun,” I said, as I grabbed them, sliding between the coffee station and counter, out the opposite end of the station, and towards the table.
“Two bacon burgers with fries,” I said, setting the plates down.
I was used to these types of men. They were crude, sometimes rude, but other times overly sweet, trying to convince me to go back to their trucks with them.
It was the grabby hands that really irritated me.
“Thanks, Suga’” one of them said. “Why don’t ya sit yer pretty little butt right here,” he said, patting the booth next to him. “And ol’ Blitz here and I’ll tell ya all ’bout da road.”
“No thanks,” I replied, trying to keep my voice sweet.
I was sure he was going to protest, and when his hand reached out to drag me to him, I knew I was right. Thankfully, the chime above the door sounded, distracting him enough to let me get away.
This time, the customers weren’t truckers or bikers or any of our usual clientele. It was a family. Picture perfect American family. A father, a mother, and two kids. They looked overdressed for the area, completely out of place. They must be driving through on their way to California.
“Welcome to Gordon’s,” I said with a smile. “Sit anywhere you like.”
Derek changed the name of the diner Gordon’s because he thought it sounded more sophisticated and would attract more people, making them think of Gordon Ramsey.
Hopefully, they were better tippers than the regulars.
I could do this job with my eyes closed. It wasn’t worth the money, but it was the only thing close enough for me to get to without having to spend more money on the commute than I made.
Where are you Denver?
I hadn’t heard from my brother in more than a year. His letters used to come once a month, filled with cash. I wasn’t sure how I was able to sneak that past my parents for so long, but I did. It wasn’t like they were abusive or money-hungry. It was the opposite in fact.
What was the opposite of a helicopter mom?
A granola mom? But my mom was even worse than that. She was a free-love hippie without the compound. I couldn’t remember her ever really raising me, just letting me do whatever I wanted, consequences be damned.
Denver didn’t leave because they were abusive.
Denver left because he was tired of the constant moving. We were never settled. Sure we didn’t ever leave the state, but we switched houses or apartments every couple months, from one to the other, never feeling settled.
He wanted a home.
He wanted a family.
Our parents didn’t object at all when he left, didn’t try to stop him at all. Sure, most parents let their kids leave, encourage it, but they still hope they stay, not ours.
Flower–not her real name–and Bud–also not his real name, were meant for the sixties, maybe the seventies.
The only reason I still lived with them was to save as much money as possible. If Denver had kept up his envelopes full of money, I would have had enough to leave by now. But they stopped. I didn’t know why. I also didn’t know where he was, not exactly.
I traced the numbers on the last envelope back to a town in California. That was my only lead and the place I had to start. I didn’t have enough money to hire a private investigator to find him. Hopefully, someone in the town he sent the letter from knew him, where I could find him.
The rest of my shift was slow. Thankfully the happy picture perfect family tipped me fifty percent on their check. It made up for the other customers.
I always worked doubles. I didn’t have any friends. Flower and Bud homeschooled us. And by that I mean, they took us to museums and on trips. Sure, I got some type of education, and I was decently smart. The problem was without any of the formal stuff, I couldn’t do anything, wasn’t qualified to even get into a community college because I never took the necessary tests.
I looked into taking the GED, but that costs money I wasn’t willing to spend yet, not when I was so close to hitting my goal and ditching this town.
Once my shift ended, I said my goodbyes to Gunner.
“Take this, kiddo,” he said, handing me a to-go container like he did every night. He wasn’t supposed to feed me. Anything we didn’t use had to get thrown away. It was a ridiculous rule. We didn’t follow it, and because Derek was too cheap to install security cameras, he didn’t know.
“Thanks, Gun,” I said, taking it gratefully.
Flower and Bud, who I wasn’t allowed to call Mom and Dad because it didn’t fit with their ideals, were not the greatest at buying anything, let alone groceries.
Denver was ten years older than I was, and he was the only reason I didn’t starve as a baby. Once he left, I had to fend for myself. I didn’t blame him for not taking him with me, even if I always wanted him to, always hoped he’d come back and rescue me.
My worry that something happened to increase with every day I didn’t hear from him. Something must be wrong. Maybe he was in trouble? Even jail? Denver was always a little rough around the edges, a misfit, getting into fights. Always for the right reasons, defending his girlfriend or some poor kid who was being bullied.
Cops didn’t care about any of that though.
He was the best man I knew, and sure, I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, but he would always be my hero, my best friend.
I climbed into my car, the smell of bacon invading my senses. It was a beat-up 2005 Toyota. She had almost 200,000 miles on her, but she ran. I had enough money to get the oil changed before I took off to look for my brother. It was about a fourteen-hour drive. I calculated the exact amount of money I would need for gas, food, and one hotel on the way, adding in an extra twenty percent for just in case.
The desert air never cooled in the summer. It was still dry, but close to ninety when I left the diner.
I was far away from the city enough to see the mass of stars lighting up the sky. The moon was full and already high in the sky, lighting up the darkness that surrounded me. I used to be afraid of the dark. Denver was the reason I wasn’t anymore. He made me feel safe.
There was a picture of us together on the dash, the last one he and I ever took. I was probably eleven, and he was twenty-one. He could have left when he was eighteen, but he didn’t think I was able to fend for myself at that little, so he stayed until I was almost twelve.
The night he left is burned into my brain forever. The way he cried as he hugged me, promising to take care of me as best he could even from far away.
I never resented him for leaving. Even now.
Once I pulled into the driveway, I wasn’t surprised by what I saw. Half a dozen cars.
Flower and Bud had company. I’d been seeing orgies since I was a kid, having no idea what they were or why I shouldn’t be walking around while it was happening.
Nothing bad ever happened to me. The participants were all strictly attracted to people of an appropriate age, but someone still should have cared I was seeing that at such a young age.
I stayed in the car and pulled my tips for the night out, counting them out and adding the tally in my head.
One thousand more dollars. Barring any hiccups or unexpected expenses and in one thousand more dollars I’d be ready to quit my job and hit the road.
Please don’t let anything get in the way of this.
I was so ready to get out of this town, to not have to hide in my car three nights a week when my parents hosted the local event.
I smelled like grease, and so did my car. It felt permanent, not just from the bacon burger sitting in my passenger seat.
I let the radio play softly while I dig into my burger.
By the time I’m done, the music in the trailer has turned up. It’s going to be an all-night event, so I lean the seat back, leaving the car running because I can’t open the windows because of the desert creatures, and I can’t let myself overheat with the warmth outside.
I add another fifty to the tally because this is going to take a tank of gas.
I sigh, and lean the seat back, closing my eyes, hoping a thousand bucks can be made in two weeks. Maybe sooner if we get more tourists rolling through on their way to the coast or back to wherever they came from.
My dreams are filled with hope for a better life. For a family of my own, even a found family as long as I find Denver too. A big group of friends like I’ve never had, people I can trust and lean on, to help me when I’ve only ever been helped by myself and Denver.
Those happy thoughts lull me to sleep.
Twelve days. That was how long it took me to finally have the amount of money I needed to leave Phoenix for Northern California.
The minute my shift at the diner ended, I texted Derek, telling him I was done, effective immediately, and then I blocked his number. He would berate me. I didn’t care. I was doing this for me.
“I’m gonna miss you, kiddo,” Gunner said, wrapping me in a giant bear hug. He smelled like grease, just like he always did. While he hugged me, I wondered if the smell would always be comforting. Gunner was the one person I could always count on. He protected me from the handy customers, from Derek, and anything that walked through the diner doors that didn’t have pure intentions.
“When you find your brother, tell him I did what he asked.”
“What do you mean?”
“I took care of his baby sister best I could.” Tears filled my eyes as I absorbed the words. Denver did his best, even when he couldn’t be there, and had someone else looking out for me. And it worked. I was safe, for the most part.
“I’ll be sure to,” I replied.
“Made you some food for the road,” he said. “Feeding my girl one last time.”
“Thank you,” I said gratefully, taking the bag.
“Drive safe and let me know when you’re somewhere safe.”
“I will,” I promised.
Taking the food, I didn’t look back as I left the diner and walked into the night. I didn’t cry as I drove to the most recent home my parents had for us. We’d been in this one for three months, which meant by the time I got to California, they might already have another one.
I left a note on the door. I wasn’t sure they’d even see it. I wasn’t sure they’d even care. But I did it because it was the right thing to do. Even if they weren’t good parents, I wanted to be a good daughter.
That first night, I drove until about four in the morning before checking into a hotel for some shut-eye. Thanks to Gunner’s food, I saved some money on food and was already ahead of budget.
I had no plan. No place to live other than my car. I’d need a job almost as soon as I got there.
But if I found Denver it would be worth it.
By the second leg of my drive, I’m trying to figure out where to start. One thing I did inherit from my parents is doing things without a plan. I go through the letters he sent me in my head, trying to think of anything he mentioned that may lead me to where he was.
He mentioned brothers.
He would never join the military, that wasn’t his style even though I knew they thought of that as a brotherhood.
Fraternities were the same, but that was even less likely than the military.
Some type of club?
That seemed like a good place to start.
I was getting closer when I saw Rodeo City on the highway sign. I didn’t have to go quite that far. The postage was from a city called Riverville. From what I could look up on the computers in the library it was small. I didn’t see anything about any clubs, but I hadn’t been looking for them.
Once I pulled off the highway, the first thing I did was find a cheap motel. Thanks to saving money on food, I could afford one for a night or two while I looked.
I paid in cash and wrote my name on some old-school ledger.
“Can I ask you something?” I asked the attendant.
“Sure,” she said as she slid me the keys.
“I’m looking for someone. My brother. Last I knew he was here. His name is Denver Fuchs.”
“Never heard of him,” she replied. “But if you need help looking for someone your best bet is down at the clubhouse.”
“The Rebel Souls. The motorcycle club.”
“Where is that?” I asked.
“Straight down that road. Compound is on the left. You can’t miss it.”
“Thank you,” I said, swiping the key.
I didn’t go to my room before climbing back into the car and doing as she said, driving down the road.
I saw the compound she must be talking about. It looked…terrifying. The metal gates were wide open, but there were two guys in leather jackets standing there.
I thought about turning around, but I’d come this far. Denver loved motorcycles. My intuition told me I was in the right spot.
Driving slowly, I pulled up next to the guys in leather. It was probably because I was a woman that they just waved me in, hardly taking a second glance.
There was a line of bikes outside, and a bunch of nice-looking SUVs.
My insides twisted while I gathered my courage.
It was fine. The woman wouldn’t have sent me here if it was dangerous.
Gathering my courage, I climbed out of my car, tucking my phone and keys into my cross-body bag.
I wasn’t afraid when I stepped inside.
The fear came when dozens of heads snapped towards me, huge men in bikers and their old ladies, all staring right at me–the intruder.
And my brother was nowhere to be seen.