It wasn’t much longer before she sensed the universal movement of parking vehicle, and John Bain shifted into park, turned off the engine, and unadjusted the mirror, again. “Oh yeah,” he said with the smile that was fast becoming his signature quality, “We are here.” He unbuckled and opened his door then slid out. Emmaline stood and propped herself up on the sink counter as it became apparent that she had some form of sea legs. She individually lifted each of her feet a few inches above the green floor and wiggled its respective leg for a bit, unsure why she thought this would help. After a few seconds passed the side door opened and John Bain poked his head in and asked for the second time, “You comin,?”
She forced a light chuckle and said “Trying to.”
“You got the wobbles?”
That sounded right. “I do got the wobbles.”
“Well, only time’s gonna right those,” he said, “and maybe a little chili.”
She made her way to the steps, whereupon John Bain offered a hand to help her down and she politely waved him a no thanks. When her feet met the asphalt of a parking lot, she saw immediately that they were in a town. At one end of the lot was a Walmart, and it also enclosed a gas station/restaurant called Eats, in front of which was parked the RV.
The sky was orange, the setting sun painting a dull light onto the clouds. Her eyes lingered on them.
“Ah, nuts,” said John Bain, “Guess I was wrong on the time. I can never keep track of time when I’m not on the job. Hope they’re still open.” He looked over to the restaurant. The entrance was a glass door with the place’s name painted on in yellow.
“Where are we?” asked Emmaline.
“Iowa,” John Bain turned his head to her. “Northeast Iowa. This where you were headed?”
Shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” He nodded.
“Welp, best go see if we can’t rustle up some chili,” and when he said that it was her opinion that he was explicitly trying to sound as cowboy as possible, a job which he really didn’t do all too poorly. She looked at his feet, but he was only wearing Sketchers, and not cowboy boots. She followed him to the door. From here she could see a sheet listing hours posted to the inside, but the type was small and she couldn’t read it.
When John Bain got close enough he said, “Nuts, they closed about ten minutes ago.” Emmaline felt a pang in her empty stomach and she looked to the Walmart. “Hold on, I know the kitchen folks.” He put his hand on the door handle and said, “See if I can’t convince them to cut us a deal.”
Emmaline spoke before he could turn the handle. “I wouldn’t mind just a Lunchable or something,” and she gestured to the Walmart with her head. John Bain furled his eyebrow and looked at her like she’d rather said I wouldn’t mind just lying on the ground with an open mouth and waiting for a bird to just shit right in there.
“Darlin’, he said, “I am gettin’ you some chili.”
Very well then. He twisted the handle, raised his eyebrows at her excitedly because it wasn’t locked, and went in. She sighed and leaned her back against the brick wall of the building. She cast a longing gaze at the Walmart, where she expected to end up because what kitchen staff would stay open on a post-close request? She looked to it’s lot, the cars huddled in a few different patches, to the RV, her grandmother in the passenger seat, to the gas station pumps at her left, a couple cars filling up. She wished Saphal were here, or rather she wished she were somewhere else, with Saphal. She sighed again.
She saw who in the passenger seat? Her heart thumped a big thump and she snapped her eyes back to the RV. In the passenger seat, sitting calm and kind, was the giant stuffed frog. Looking straight at her. She knew what she’d seen. She pushed off of the wall, walked a few paces closer to the RV, eyes on the frog, whose eyes were on her. She knew what she’d seen.
Exactly how hungry was she? Hallucination was a biproduct of starvation, right? Or of mourning? She did still miss her grandmother greatly. They’d left not even a week after her funeral service. She decided, or tried to, that her hunger and her sorrow were only colluding to play tricks on her, and she successfully avoided hyperventilation.
Then John Bain burst out of the door and said, “Chili. Is.” He stood, knees bent in what could nearly be described as an athletic stance, vibrating with glee, and just nodded for a second before he finished with, “ON,” and rushed back into the place. And Emmaline stood alone again. She looked back to the frog, which now seemed less like it was looking at her and more like it was simply facing her. Yes, chili would most probably do her some good. She walked to the door, gripped it, and walked in.
Inside was much tile. Floors and wall, tiles alternating black, white, and yellow. Booths with black padded seats lined the walls to her left and right, and down the middle were tables, though the chairs had been stacked upside down on top of them. In the first booth on the left was a portly woman counting dollar bills, a cash register drawer on the table next to her. She smiled sweetly at Emmaline, who tried to smile sweetly back. And about midway down the right wall sat John Bain, already enjoying a bowl of chili. Across from him was another. She walked past a podium with the cash register and joined him.
“Gooood night, I love me some good chili.” He seemed to be saying this directly to his bowl. Emmaline took up a spoon and gave a look to her own. Goodness gracious, it did look good. Meat and beans, tomatoes and peppers. Yessir, she was nearly motivated to begin some cowboy talk herself. The first bite elevated her mood so greatly that she was inclined to be courteous and make conversation with the man who was helping her.
“So, why do you call it Ferrule, your RV?”
John Bain looked up from his bowl and smiled his smile, which now was accompanied by a few streaks of chili juice running down his scruffy chin. He chewed, swallowed, and said,
“A ferrule is that little metal piece on a number two pencil.” He gestured with his hands as if he were holding a number two pencil. “It holds the eraser on.”
That was more an explanation of what the word meant than of why he’d decided to name his vehicle home after it. But he looked very satisfied with his answer as he went back to vigorously chowing down. She took a few more bights herself, and asked, “Are . . . are you traveling or do you live in it?” It was a question that she only realized may offend after she’d begun to ask.
But John Bain chuckled and said, “Ferrule is my home, oh yes.” This time he didn’t look up at her, but she nodded in response anyway. And then, trying to think of the frog as just a stuffed frog, she said,
“And your frog friend. What’s his deal?”
This time John Bain finished the bight he’d taken, grabbed a napkin from the holder, wiped his mouth, took another spoonful, didn’t smile, and said, “Listen, it’s probably prudent I tell you now that I kill people for a living.” He put the spoon in his mouth.
An empty moment, and then Emmaline cried. A good, full, some might say ugly cry. It wasn’t only because of what she’d just been told; that was simply the camel-breaking straw. Losing her grandmother, losing Saphal, losing her memory. It was a lot of loss, and then there was the strange man and his mysterious and downright loony vessel with a frog inside that she couldn’t forget was for half a moment a visage of one of the aforementioned lost loved ones. And she’d walked on a stupidly empty road for nearly ever and she’d imagined murdering a fox with her bare hands, which had never come close to happening before, and now she was here eating this damn delicious chili at a place in Iowa called Eats, which was also a Conoco, where John Bain had actually just said what he’d just said. It was a plumb large helping of sensory input, and despite what a boyfriend she’d had in high school once told her, she was not a sociopath. So she cried and cried, and snot dripped into her chili, and John Bain offered her the napkin holder and said softly,
“Do you want me to ask for another bowl?”
She didn’t answer. Honestly she wished he wasn’t being so kind, so that it was easier for her to lash at something, because she wasn’t normally much of a lasher and right now she wanted to do it but recognized even in this moment that she needed more of an instigation. So she just continued sobbing while John Bain watched on with what she was sure were very understanding eyes.
When she was finally dry, she wiped her entire face with a sleeve and looked to her table partner, who was scooping the last of his bowl into his mouth. “You alright?” he asked.
She just kept looking. She was exhausted now, and she could feel how swollen her eyes were. She said, “what?”
John Bain held up a hand, palm out. “I know. I know just how it sounds. Believe me, I’ve been in your shoes, sorta.” He put the hand back down, swallowed the rest of the chili in his mouth, wiped it. “Look, I can keep taking you wherever you feel you need to go, or I can drop you here, or set you up in a motel in town. But uh, but I just thought that whatever you decided it was right and fair you knew first.”
Emmaline kept looking on, either processing it all or thinking nothing at all, she couldn’t quite tell. He met her eyes, and so she looked at his nose, which had a few little white hairs poking out at the tip. He was patient, giving her plenty of time to answer. She said,
“I need to use the bathroom.”
In the bathroom, she walked into a stall, latched the door behind her, and sat on top of the toilet lid. She was, without a doubt, upset. She wiped her face again, this time with the thin toilet paper in the dispenser to the left of her knee. And then she took a very deep breath and became suddenly aware of the smell of the bathroom, which was so much a bleached and hyper-clean smell that she couldn’t imagine the mess that must have proceeded such a heavy cleansing.
A decision lay before her. And she had no input from those that had been her primary inputters. She imagined both Saphal and her grandmother hearing the words I kill people from John Bain. Both of them wouldn’ve immediately thrown their heads back and laughed. Though when Saphal did it, it was because he had instantly become nervous and was trying to thrust the feeling away, but her grandmother only ever laughed when she thought something was genuinely funny.
Emmaline, almost against her own will, tried to picture John Bain committing murder. For a living, he’d said. A traveling hitman? Did she really live in a world where people paid other people to take the lives of other other people? That was how John Bain said it, like it was simply his vocation. Her father installed security systems, she was a quality control analyst for AstraZeneca, and John Bain killed people.
She imagined him in a suit, shaking hands with a client, accepting payment in the form of a check, then pulling out a pistol and . . . killing people? It seemed so ridiculous. She almost understood why it hypothetically made her grandmother laugh.
Of course, there was also some indication that John Bain was simply crazy. The frog, the pictures on the walls, the shag carpet. But if he was bonkers, did that mean she shouldn’t trust what he claimed, or that it was even more grave than previously assessed? Well, if he was bonkers, he was also very kind. That she couldn’t ignore. She surely didn’t feel her life was threatened, even after he’d given her the news, and in fact this honesty only served to make him less threatening. No, she didn’t expect he meant to kill her. After all, what reason would anyone have to spend actual money on having her life ended?
Well, the decision. What was she to do now? Go back? Call home? Those both involved interfacing with her father, and she didn’t even have the energy to imagine how that would play out. Perhaps she should put out a missing person’s report on Saphal, though she, for an unidentifiable reason, felt deeply that he was truly and permanently gone, a thought which should have nearly boiled her over in that moment. But she had so much else to think about.
She didn’t see how a phone could help her. She took another deep breath and pushed her curly hair out of her eyes. She saw in front of her that scratched into the stall door were the words F uck U Bich!!!, which were specifically unhelpful, but they did remind her of the words she’d seen on the inside of the RV door. we’re all chasing something out here.
Huh. That was the only thing she’d felt she could make any sense of since she’d woken up after the crash, and she wasn’t even sure what sense she was making. But at least it felt like some sort of small agreement between her and the new world she’d found herself in. And then she thought of her grandmother, sitting in the passenger seat of the RV cab. She knew it hadn’t been real, couldn’t have been, but neither did anything else in the past day seem to be. Perhaps she was the one who was bonkers. Well then, at least in her new loony, nonsense world she could stay close to what made her feel most comfortable, familiar. Besides, she had nowhere to go, no car of her own, no desire to ask her father for help, and she surely didn’t want to stay in Iowa.
She stood, feeling very very tired, and went to unlatch the stall door when she heard the bathroom door open. The voice of a man that wasn’t John Bain’s said, “Miss this is the Men’s room.” And quietly from farther away she heard John Bain call,
“Oh hell, Roger, you’re not even open.” Then Roger sighed and the door closed. Emmaline waited for a few seconds, then left the stall and left the bathroom. John Bain was standing by the door out with another larger, hairier man that must’ve been Roger. They were talking lowly, and Roger’s arms were crossed. They both turned and looked at Emmaline as she approached.
“I’m sorry I cried into your chili,” she said to Roger. “It was actually very good.”
Roger closed his eyes and nodded, with no smile but a convincing look of appreciation.
“They have a phone,” said John Bain, “if you wanted to make a call or – “
”I’ll go with you,” said Emmaline. “For a little while, if that’s alright.” He smiled to her, smiled to Roger and said,
“That is alright.” He patted Roger on the shoulder, said “Thanks for the grub,” and pushed open the door.
It was getting dark when they stepped outside. John Bain opened the side door to the RV and Emmaline said “thanks” as she stepped up. She closed the doors, screen and main, and glanced at the back shoulder of the frog before reclaiming the recliner.
The cab dipped a little as John Bain slipped into the driver’s seat. He adjusted the mirror, clicked his seat belt, then just sat and looked forward for a bit. Emmaline could sense a slight shift in the mood, and he said, “I suppose you probably have some questions.”
Emmaline swiveled in the chair. “I will,” she said. “I will have questions. But right now, I’m tired.”
John Bain nodded. “Well, that chair there is a damn good sleeper. Hope you can snooze on the road.
“I can,” she said as she closed her eyes. “Please don’t kill me in my sleep.” She’d meant to think that one to herself but it fumbled right out of her mouth any way. She felt like she could hear the smile in John Bain’s voice when he responded,
“I most definitely will not.”
When she opened her eyes, she was still in John Bain’s red recliner, and the room she was in was still the same little size as the interior of the RV. She could still feel the hum of wheels beneath her. But behind her was just a solid wall instead of the cab. And the floor was no longer shag carpet, but rather the dark hardwood of the living room in her father’s home, complete with the condensed version of the blue and grey rug that had a patterned bear, moose, and goose design. The room was lit by a familiar glass chandelier, and there were no windows on the walls, just a few picture frames with no pictures inside. There was no furniture save for one item in the far opposite corner from her, which was her grandmother’s favorite chair. And sitting in it was John Bain’s giant stuffed frog, looking directly at her.
She, as might be expected of just about anyone, had no idea what to do in this situation. The frog sat there, elbow on each puffy arm of her grandmother’s chair, legs bent over the seat and big goofy webbed feet resting on the ground. Before Emmaline could think much at all, the frog moved. It raised its hands, which really weren’t much more than bulbous nubs with black lines sewed in to suggest fingers, to its bloated head. She felt just a little tense.
It somehow gripped its head, and began to slowly pull it off. And she saw, as the head lifted up and away from the body, her grandmother’s face appear. The arms dropped the head, and it bounced onto the floor and rolled a little way toward her. And then she was sitting in this familiar unfamiliar room, in John Bain’s recliner, face to face with what appeared to be her dead grandmother in a large frog costume.
The old woman gave her a knowing look, which included a subtle smirk and slightly raised eyebrows. Her grey hair fell about her shoulders, covering the brown spots that Emmaline knew were on her neck. Oh, she had hair. She hadn’t seen her grandmother’s hair in years, since before the cancer. And yet.
“Tell me,” her grandmother said, “who is Emmaline?”