Henry was still parked on the guardrail.
He sat doubled forward with his face in his hands, nearly at the cusp of sleep, when the dirty yellow conversion van roared past. It barreled another fifty yards down the on-ramp before the brake lights flared. It stopped like the driver wasn’t in on the plan. Then the reverse lights popped on, and it was suddenly weaving back at him.
He rolled backward off the guardrail just in time to avoid losing a leg. He landed on his back in the gravel on the other side. The fender of the van screeched along the railing before jerking to a stop just a few yards past him.
Henry scrambled to his knees and hunkered down behind the thick post supporting the heavy metal rail. For just an instant, he envisioned himself enslaved as a meth lab tech somewhere in deepest, darkest New Mexico. It wouldn’t exactly be undeserved.
For several beats, the van only sat there, engine running, music thumping, a small orange spot glowing behind the dark windshield. Then the orange dot flared, and the gears shifted, and the van eased slowly forward. The fender and side door screeched mournfully as they slid free of the guardrail.
It stopped directly in front of him, so close he could’ve reached out and touched the fresh scar running along the side panel. The vibrations of the stereo pumped against his chest even through the closed door. His panic was just cresting when the van abruptly fell silent.
He was planning his retreat as the side door slid open. A girl squatted just inside, hand locked on the roof of the open hatch like she was ushering skydivers out into wild blue yonder. She was dressed in Desert Storm camo pants, a tight wifebeater that glowed neon white in the streetlight, and a twisted mess of shoulder-length hair that was the color of a paint store accident.
“Hey,” she said, grinning around a cigarette.
“Hey,” he said back.
“How’s it going?” She pulled the cigarette from her mouth.
“Well, you know… pretty good. Just sitting here enjoying the evening.”
“Did you lose something back there?” she said, “Or are you just hiding?”
He realized he was still hunkered down behind the guardrail. He stood up and slipped his hands in his pockets. “No,” he said, “Not hiding so much as taking cover.”
She laughed. “Yeah, sorry about that. Nancy has balance issues.”
“He favors the accelerator at the expense of the brake. No balance. Get it?”
“Oh, sure. I get it.” He didn’t.
Still gripping the inside top of the door with one hand, she leaned a bit further out of the van and half-cupped her mouth toward him, saying in apparent confidence, “Truth is, he’s just a lousy driver when he’s stoned. But he’s sensitive about it, so...” She raised a finger to her lips.
“Wait,” Henry said, “You said the driver’s name was Nancy.”
“Yeah, I did,” she said back, “Because, coincidentally, that’s what it is.”
Henry thought about that. “But you just said ‘he’.”
“Look, Superman,” she said, smiling wider, “You want to discuss gender identity at one in the morning, or do you want a ride? Because it’s late, and we really need to hit the road.”
She had the greenest eyes he’d ever seen. They simmered against a pleasant face that looked like someone actually lived there. And if that weren’t incentive enough, he figured just about anyplace else on earth had to be better than this goddamned on-ramp.
“Hold on,” he said, “Let me get my gear.”
He grabbed his paper bag and stepped over the guardrail. The girl held a hand out to him. For an instant, he only looked at it, not exactly sure what to do. The company of females was about the last item on his dark agenda.
“The clock’s ticking, Superman,” she said seriously, “You coming or not?”
With that, he accepted her offer. He landed in the back of the van amid a tangled pile of sleeping bags.
She flipped her cigarette butt out into the night, then grabbed the door handle. As the door hammered shut, she folded back into the darkness until all he could see was the gleam of her smile.
“Hit it, Nancy,” she called to the front.
“I hear and obey,” someone responded from the front. The voice was disturbingly deep. Henry envisioned breasts and a hairy back.
He readjusted his position in the sleeping bags and found a bare foot among the folds. It slipped out from the covers and glided to rest across his lap. It was too far away to be the girl’s.
“Say hello to Bridget,” the girl said, laughing, “She won’t bite, I promise.”
Someone groaned beneath the sleeping bags. A moment later, the bare foot disappeared into the matting of sleeping bags like a snake slipping away into the grass.
“Hello, Bridget,” he said dutifully.
“And my name’s Alice,” the girl said.
He looked over at her white smile simmering against the shadows on the other side of the van. “Hello Alice,” he said, “My name’s Henry.”
“Henery,” she repeated, pronouncing it like it had three syllables. “You know you smell like shit, right, Henery?”
Once again, he felt himself blush. “Yeah, I tried to wash up at the rest area,” he said, hoping the embarrassment didn’t show, “But the faucets don’t stay on in there. Have to keep hitting them, you know? Conserving water, I guess. It’s a real pain in the…” He stopped without know why.
“I know,” Alice said, “It’s despairingly frustrating. Whoever designed them should be publicly beaten.”
He could practically feel the heat of her smile.
“Guess all I can do is apologize up front,” he said, “I mean… for my appearance and all. This isn’t normal for me or anything. Didn’t expect to be in the company of others. I’m actually in the process of killing myself, but the plan’s just not going that well.”
“Lands sakes, Henery. Life happens.”
“I need a serious bath and a change of clothes,” he said anyway.
“In that case, you definitely chose the right van.” He heard more than saw her settle back into the sleeping bags.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“I really need to get some sleep now.”
“Sorry about the smell,” he said, “I’m not—”
“Don’t beat it to death, Henery. We’ll have you fixed up soon enough.”
“Right. I mean… thanks.”
“Try to sleep now. Looks like you could use it.”
“Did you just call me ‘ma’am’?”
Henry tensed at that, though he wasn’t sure why. Then he said, “Well, I sure as hell hope not.”
“Screw hope, Superman. Just pray it never happens again. Not ever again.”
As the van accelerated onto the highway, Henry began to harbor doubts. Who picked up shit-smelling strangers at rest areas in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? He thought about all the B-rated horror films he’d seen in his life, about all the victims he’d seen walk stupidly into the villain’s design despite the screamed warnings of the audience. And as he did, he had a feeling he should be a lot more worried than he was.