Holly should have been done with it already. By now she should have a fist full of cash and be back with Jimmy, looking to score a bag of entertainment for later. Instead, she was halfway to Florida and was wrestling with an unusual bout of conscience.
She’d meant to take this guy’s leather satchel before they’d gone ten miles. Usually she pulled her trusty little Springfield 9mm out of her purse as soon as the guy she’d hitched a ride with started giving her looks that said her little skirt and red boots were doing their job. She’d never felt so much as a twinge of guilt for taking every last dime she could find on an asshole like that. In fact, she delighted in seeing the lustful gleam in their eyes replaced with first shock, and then shame. Admittedly, every now and then the shame turned to anger, but that never led to any trouble because Jimmy was always standing at the driver’s side window with his big, ugly .45 before anyone got worked up enough to start swinging.
This guy, though, wasn’t showing signs of getting worked up at all, even in ways she could take advantage of. In fact, he hadn’t given her so much as a second look. It ought to be irritating, but wasn’t for some reason.
She thought his name was Phillip, but details like that rarely stuck with her. When she slid up next to him at the counter of that backwoods diner outside of Bowling Green and ordered coffee with a fake tear in her eye, he was “the Satchel Guy.” Yesterday it’d been the “Blonde Guy with the Cadillac”, and last week they’d taken well over a grand from “the Tan Raincoat Man”.
Guys usually took their time, bought her a little lunch, and played twenty questions while trying to decide if she was a psychopath or a sexy little raven-haired gift to open later. This guy, though, Phillip or the Satchel Guy or whatever, seemed to be different. Instead of all the standard questions, he just offered her a ride, before she even finished the well-rehearsed heart-wrenching yarn about being a penniless college girl with a blown engine trying to get home to see her sick grandmother in Panama City.
After she accepted the ride, he surprised her again by how much he liked to talk.
He started by talking about salt.
“Salt has thousands of uses,” he claimed. “I never leave home without carrying a little extra, just in case. It’s one of the most common and useful items in the modern world. It’s good for cleaning, laundry, personal hygiene, and of course food preservation, just to name a few. You can’t have too much salt with you.”
Holly hid a grin with the back of hand while she watched him pick up the nearest salt shaker and slip it into his jacket pocket as he spoke.
He offered to buy her lunch, as long as she promised to pay him back when they reached Panama City. She ordered an egg white omelet and wheat toast, and somehow he talked the waitress into bringing her a whole carrot cut into narrow sticks as well.
He explained. “If I’m going to buy your lunch it’s going to be a nutritious one. Carrots are very good for one’s vision and are full of vitamins.”
The guy was obviously little bit off center, but not off-putting. Charmingly unusual. He even stole a salt shaker for her as they left the diner.
He didn’t stop talking after they hit the road. He explained the marvel of how his skin tingled after base-jumping Angel’s Falls in Venezuela. He said he wanted to watch a colt born one day because until he did, he’d just have imagine how it would make him feel happy all over, inside and out, to see a miracle like that.
She turned to him somewhere near the Alabama border. “Phillip,” she began, unable to pretend any more that he didn’t have a name, “if there was one thing you had to do with your life, what would it be?”
He didn’t even pause to consider before replying. “I’m going to swim from Panama City, Florida to New Orleans. I don’t know if I can do it, but I had a dream where God told me I could, and to take a bunch of salt with me. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Don’t you think that’s crazy?” she replied. “How far even is that? Hundreds of miles? There’s no way.”
He shrugged. “I’ve always wanted to swim in the Gulf of Mexico. I think people should use their lives doing what they want. It’s a gift, they should use it. I’m just glad I have a reason to try.”
The further they traveled the more certain she became that he was different for more reasons than just because he wasn’t looking to take advantage of some helpless twenty year-old girl on a road trip through Alabama. He was different in another way; innocent, considerate, almost child-like. Maybe a little defenseless.
Holly had never taken anything from someone that seemed so completely without guile. So she rode along with him down I-65, hoping that sooner or later he would prove to be as selfish, ugly, and broken as every other man she’d ever met. The tops of her ears burned, though, because she knew it was a futile hope.
So she kept waiting, trying to figure out how she was going to pull that Springfield on this poor sap, or how she’d rationalize it later. Somehow, that got her all the way from the little country diner outside Bowling Green, Kentucky to somewhere just north of Montgomery, Alabama.
Jimmy, who was never more than half a mile behind them, had to pissed enough to start kicking teeth out.
They stopped at a cheap motel outside of Montgomery as the sun was just starting to creep beneath the horizon. She said they could just get one room and she’d sleep on the floor, but he insisted that she have her own. Of course, she could pay him back when they got her home.
Phillip went out to get something for dinner and Holly took a shower, hoping that would settle her mind.
It didn’t help.
Her cell phone was ringing when she stepped out of the bathroom. When she retrieved it from the bottom of her purse, the tiny screen told her she’d had four other missed calls. All from the same number.
“Jimmy,” she said, opening the phone, “everything’s fine.”
“Fine, my ass, Holly,” a gruff voice replied. “I’ve been driving for nearly six hours and here it is sundown and still we ain’t got paid. I’m going to be sleeping in the damned truck while you’re all tucked in and snuggly with that asshole. What the hell is your problem? Is he too much for you? Did you finally find one that scares you? Do you want me to come in there? I noticed he drove off for something; I could be just waitin’ for him when he gets back. We’d be out of here in ten minutes.”
“No, no, Jimmy. I got it. This guy’s nothing. I’ll take care of it. No problem.”
“You better, princess. I’m tired of waitin’. If you don’t got it done by eleven tonight, I’m coming in and takin’ care of it.”
The line clicked dead as she heard someone enter the room on the other side of the wall separating her room and Phillip’s. She dressed quickly and was just pulling a shirt over her head when she heard a knock at the door connecting the two.
“Yes?” she said through the door.
“I got us something to eat.”
Holly glanced at her purse and briefly considered pulling the gun out and greeting him with it when she unlocked the door, but still wasn’t sure how she would live with herself afterwards.
She flipped the bolt instead. “What have you got?”
He was smiling broadly as the door opened. “Peanut butter, jelly, wheat bread, celery and milk. Just like grade school. Hard to get more wholesome.”
Of course, she thought guiltily. “Sounds great.”
After dinner, they talked a little longer, and she surprised herself by telling him, honestly, how intrigued she was by the way he’d described jumping from that cliff in Venezuela. If she did nothing else with her life, she hoped to be able to feel that tingle.
Phillip just smiled and said it was time to go to bed.
Two hours later, she lay in her room wondering how she was going to get out of this mess. He was a genuinely kind, considerate person, and if she didn’t do something, Jimmy was probably going break his head open just for the inconvenience.
When she couldn’t stand lying there uselessly any longer, she picked up her purse and knocked on the door between the rooms. “Phillip?”
“Are you alright?” he asked through the door.
“Yeah, I just,” she said, “um, I’ve never itched this bad before. I think my bed has bedbugs or something. Do you mind if sleep over there?”
“No, no, that’s fine,” he replied, opening the door. Walking back to his bed, he grabbed his pillow and the comforter and said, “I’ll just sleep on the floor.”
“No, there’s no need…”
“I insist. You’re nearly half my age, I wouldn’t feel right.”
With a sigh, she climbed into bed with her purse beside her and waited. Before long, Phillip’s breathing became slow and regular. When certain he was asleep, Holly sat up in the dark and drew the gun from her bag.
Holly checked the clock by the bed: 10:50. Ten minutes to eleven, and Jimmy would not be late.
“God help me,” she whispered.
Exactly nine minutes later, she heard the handle on the room’s front door twist. She wondered if he’d paid for the key or beaten it out of the night clerk. She raised her gun. And then Jimmy burst in, the door banging against the interior wall.
She flicked on the lights, and Jimmy, seeing that he was pointing his gun at her, gave her a look of confusion. She gestured with her own gun towards the foot of the bed and he followed suit just as Phillip rose from the floor.
“What’s going…oh!” he exclaimed.
“Give me your money, all of it, NOW!” Jimmy bellowed.
Phillip raised his hands calmly. “My wallet is one the table. That’s all I have.”
Jimmy grabbed the wallet and removed everything inside. “Sixty bucks? Bullshit. What else have you got? Don’t mess with me!”
“That’s all I have, I swear it. You can shoot me or knock me around all you want, it won’t matter. That’s all the money I’ve got.”
“Don’t lie to me, asshole. Where’s the satchel? I know you’ve got a satchel. Hurry up or your head is gonna go splat against that wall!”
“Splat,” Phillip said, smiling to himself. “That’s onomatopoeia. I always thought those were funny. The satchel is there on the floor, but there’s no money in it.”
Innocent. Defenseless. In the middle of being robbed, and struck with the notion to point out unusual language. Holly’s heart was lead in her chest.
She turned her gun on her boyfriend as he pulled a thick bundle of papers from the bag on the floor. “What is this? Sunny Hills Mental Rehabilitation…Order for Release?”
“Jimmy, let it go.” It was nearly a whisper.
His face flushed crimson in anger. “You dumb bitch! We followed him all day for nothing. I’m not gonna let it go! Now I’m gonna shoot him out of spite!”
He pointed that ugly .45 at Phillip, still standing in his sleep pants at the foot of the bed.
Three loud cracks echoed through the room, two slightly higher pitched than the third.
Phillip collapsed in a heap on the floor instantly. Jimmy looked down at two red splotches growing on the left side of his chest. She’d fired twice and hit him squarely both times, right on target.
His left arm fell to his side, useless, dropping the big gun. His eyes widened in surprise. “Bitch,” he muttered and dropped to the floor.
She got out of the bed and walked over to him by the doorway. Already, he was staring at the ceiling with dead, lifeless eyes. Relief washed over her.
Phillip coughed noisily from the floor by the bed. It was a wet, gurgling, awful sound.
She knelt down beside him. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. We have to get your help.” She reached for her bag to grab her phone, but he caught her arm by the wrist.
“No. Too late,” he said weakly. “Holly, I wasn’t supposed to swim in the Gulf. I was sent to you. The dream I had…about you. I’ve been sick all my life. Got hit too hard playing football in high school. My head has been messed up ever since. I wasn’t going to live a long life. You can. You will. I know it.”
His voice began to shake and slow. “Had to…get rid…of him. He was…poison…heavy. Now, you…can fly.”
Tears rolled down her face and she fought the urge to sob.
“No…tears. Fly. Look…bag.” He reached up slowly and wiped a tear from her cheek.
She clasped his hand and held it to her chest as he struggled through a few last breaths. He’d been the only man who’d ever done something beside take from her, and he was gone.
When she finished sobbing, Holly looked through his bag. It was stuffed with his medical and mental health records. But at the very bottom, in a little pocket to the side, she found five hundred dollars and a plane ticket to Venezuela.
She picked up her bag, surprised at its lightness without the weight of her handgun, and pushed the cash and ticket inside. Slinging it over her shoulder, she stepped over the body of her former boyfriend and opened the motel room door.
Without hesitating, she walked out the autumn night, into a world that suddenly seemed brand new.
She had a plane to catch, but first, she had to find some salt.