Henry heard a voice speaking to him from somewhere in the distance. It was deep and insistent, though strangely indistinct, like distant thunder that has all the menace of a threatening storm but none of the imminence.
He couldn’t make out the words. Who would be talking to him? No one here knew him. Couldn’t they see he was—
“…feeling any better, son?”
He opened his eyes. It was dark, nighttime. He was in a car. He’d been asleep.
Henry rolled his head to the side. A huge man sat in the driver’s seat, glowing eerily in the unnatural green radiance of the dashboard lights.
The news wasn’t anything like good. He was still on the road. The preacher man was still wedged behind the steering wheel, still as big as mountain.
“Alcohol won’t put out a fire,” the man said. He looked back at the road as he passed another car, then returned his attention to Henry. “Alcohol only makes a fire burn faster.”
“Yeah, I know,” Henry said. He hoped agreeing would pour water on this particular fire. His drinking was about the last thing he wanted to discuss, especially with a bible-thumper. Then he remembered Zoe and corrected that to read, the second to last thing he wanted to discuss.
“You’ve looked pretty miserable since I picked you up. I can’t imagine how it could possibly be worth it. You’re killing yourself, it’s as obvious as the nose on your face.”
“Forget about it,” Henry said, “It’s not how it looks.”
It was exactly how it looked. The alcohol was indeed killing him. Everything was proceeding according to plan.
He dropped his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. Every set of headlights zipping past felt like hot wires in his eyes.
“Nothing worse than a headache,” the man said, “Think I’d rather have a toothache.”
Henry pressed his palm against his forehead. “My friend, that is hands down the screwiest thing you’ve said yet. No sane person prefers a toothache over anything.”
“Call me Josho, son.”
“Whatever. And stop calling me son.”
“I’m going to have to veer north on fifteen. It’s coming up in another twenty miles.”
Henry rolled his head toward him. He couldn’t make sense of the words.
“Where do you have to go?” Josho said.
“Where are you heading? What’s your destination?”
“Oh. That. Uh… you can just drop me off at the next rest area, I guess. I have someone I can call.”
“You sure? It’s getting late. I don’t mind taking you somewhere closer. Have you got family around here?”
That joke never got old. Family? Hilarious.
“I’m glad to help you out, son.”
Henry hitched himself up higher in the seat and leaned his head against the window. It felt deliciously cool. “It’s okay,” he said into the night, “I appreciate the offer, but I’ll just make a call. You got me this far, I can’t ask for more.”
Besides, it was time to run. The man was violating the number one step in his project plan: No one gets in.
“All right,” the man said. Then he flipped on the overhead light, lifted the hatch to the compartment separating their seats, and began fishing around in it. As he dug through the gas receipts and candy bar wrappers, the car lurched over onto the shoulder at eighty miles per hour.
Henry grabbed the dashboard and shouted, “Josho! The road!”
They careened back, all the way over into the left lane before quickly finding their correction. The sound of an irate horn Doppler-shifted into silence behind them as they settled back into their lane.
“Sorry about that,” the man said with a girlish laugh.
“Dude!” Henry snapped, “My underwear’s dirty enough as it is.”
“Yeah, sorry,” the man said, still giggling.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“My wife got headaches. She took a lot of these. They seemed to help.” The man shook a plastic container. It was the universal brown of a prescription bottle and sounded like a baby rattle.
“What’s this?” Henry said as he accepted the container.
“Headache medicine, I guess.”
Henry held it up into the beams from the car behind them. He caught the words Acetaminophen and Hydrocodone on the label. “Vicodin?” he said, unable to believe what he read, “Are you serious? You’ve got Vicodin?”
“I told you, the wife got headaches,” the man said, glancing over at the bottle, “Bad ones. She said she only got them when she was with me. I never had reason to disbelieve her. I guess she didn’t need these anymore. Leaving me apparently cured her ills. Makes me think I should become a healer. All I have to do to cure the sinners is leave them.”
Henry looked down at the glorious bottle and searched for a word bigger than Epic. He pried the top off and held the bottle back up to the light streaming through the rear window. Hunkering down in a tactical position at the bottom of the bottle were plenty of little commandoes.
His luck just grew twenty times stronger.
“There’s a rest stop up here. Last one before my exit.”
“That’s fine,” Henry said as he popped two of the tablets in his mouth, “I appreciate what you’ve done for me.” He quickly chewed them, then washed the greasy powder down with the last of his thick poison.
“Call me Josho,” the man said, “And the feeling’s mutual. I know it probably sounds crazy to say so, but you helped me see my plight with greater clarity. It’s about the last thing I expected from a heathen.” He laughed at that.
“You’re welcome,” Henry said without laughing back.
“I think I may finally have my dots lined up again.”
“Well, I hope you can work it out,” Henry said carefully, “You seem like a decent guy. You probably deserve to be happy.”
He mentally kicked himself. What the hell was that? Did he actually mean that? Where along this long and winding road to hell had he started giving a shit about people he didn’t know? He sure as hell hoped it wasn’t habit forming.
A few minutes later, Josho pulled into a rest area and sidled up to the curb outside a large gray stucco restroom building squatting atop a low hill above them. Just outside the glass doors leading into the restrooms stood the obligatory flagpole with the obligatory floodlight washing up over it. The effect was grander than the building deserved.
Henry cocked back the door handle to leave, but a hand landed on his forearm before he could make his escape.
“Hold up,” Josho said, “I want to give you something.” He threw an arm back behind the passenger seat and began rummaging around.
The man’s moon-sized head was practically in Henry’s face again, yet for some reason, he didn’t mind so much this time. “I’m serious, Josh,” he said, “You don’t need to do anything for me. You’ve already done—”
“Josho,” Henry said with a nod, “Right. Look, you’ve been better to me than I deserve. I want you to know I appreciate it.”
“Not to worry,” Josho grunted as he continued digging behind the seat, “I’m glad I could help. You have any money?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a twenty.”
Josho finally used the steering wheel to heave himself upright, dragging a small brown satchel around to his lap. He was short of breath. As he dug through it he said, “I think our meeting was destined, Henry.”
“Maybe so,” Henry said, “I don’t know.” Then he surprised himself by laughing. “I will say, though, you’ve been a person of interest on this misadventure. Hope it all works out with Jesus and the wife.”
“Yeah, thanks, Henry. I hope you make it right with your girl.”
Zoe’s face started to swell in Henry’s mind, but he wrestled her back.
“I’ll be praying for you, Henry.”
“Thanks, Josho,” Henry said, “I appreciate it.” To his surprise, he realized he actually did.
Then Josho leaned over and dumped a fistful of containers into Henry’s lap. “I think you’ll find these useful,” he said, grinning.
Henry looked down at the pile. “What’s this?”
“Stuff I’ve taken from the hotels I’ve stayed in. Soap, shampoo, toothbrush, things like that.”
Henry looked at him.
“Use them, Henry. You smell like shit.”