That evening ended uneventfully. Everyone was rather tired so they parked in a Walmart parking lot and bought a few inflatable air mattresses to sleep on instead of the uncomfortable bus seats. Antwon slept in the far back of the bus, Rachel slept in the middle section, and Anthony took the front of the bus. It seemed appropriate. Anthony slept a whole lot better than the previous night and the next morning, over some food they bought at Walmart, they all agreed they had slept rather peacefully. And so, high spirits endured through the night and into the next day.
They hadn’t been driving but an hour or two when Anthony struck up conversation with Rachel. He wanted to learn about the newest member of their little gang. They were, after all, stuck in a bus with a long journey ahead of them.
“So Rachel, tell me about yourself. Where did you come from? Where did you go? Where did you come from, cotton eyed Joe?”
Anthony chuckled at his joke, but nobody else thought it was funny.
“Well,” Rachel began, “I grew up in Virginia in a small town on the coast—“
She hadn’t gotten a sentence into her story before the bus coughed loudly and lurched forward once, twice, three times, and then came to a sudden stop in the shoulder of the highway. A cloud of smoke emerged from under the hood of the bus.
“Oh great, something blew,” Anthony said.
The three of them sat there for a while. What’s protocol here? Does anybody know how to fix engines? Should we even get out of the bus while sitting on the side of the highway with cars zipping by at a hundred miles an hour? Should we call roadside assistance? Since I’m a man, shouldn’t I be able to fix it myself… or at least pretend like I can?
“I’ll take a look at it,” Antwon said, “I can probably fix it.”
While Antwon exited the bus and lifted the hood, Anthony and Rachel remained inside. There was nothing else to do, so Anthony struck up a conversation.
“I hope Antwon knows what he’s doing out there. I certainly don’t know how to fix things.”
“Neither do I. I can’t even change my own engine oil… wish my dad would’ve taught me when I was younger.”
“It seemed like a pretty bad problem. I hope we can salvage some stuff and keep the bus running.”
Just then, Rachel’s phone rang. She looked down to see the caller ID, looked up at Anthony quickly, then excused herself. She seemed a little nervous to Anthony. Something was going on, but he didn’t know what. She spoke in hushed tones in the back of the bus. It was a quick conversation. When she returned to the front where Anthony was sitting, she seemed a little fidgety.
“Who was that?” Anthony asked.
“Uh.. my sister. She’s kind of in some trouble. Do you think we can make a pit stop in Nashville? She needs my help.”
“I thought you said that you didn’t have any family or friends?”
“Oh, uh.. well we’re not really close. But she’s blood.. I gotta help her out, right?
Before Anthony could respond, Antwon re-entered the bus with some news.
“I figured out what caused the problem. We’re going to need to get to an auto parts store so I can pick up another radiator hose. There’s a leak in the line and that’s what caused the lurching. I should be able to put it in myself, I just need a tool or two. I saw a sign for an auto parts store back a few miles. It’ll be a hike, but it’s not like we’re really in much of a hurry anyway, right?”
“Rachel’s sister is in trouble and needs our help. Once we fix this baby, we’re gonna make a pit stop in Nashville. Is that okay?” Anthony asked Antwon. He just shrugged. He was on a mission. After a short silence, he said, “I’m gonna go,” and started hiking along the shoulder of the highway.
“Hang on, wait up, we’re gonna come with!” Anthony shouted and beckoned for Rachel to follow. “Let’s go with him, maybe we can help. Plus, we’ll be bored here on the bus for a couple hours.”
It made sense to Rachel, so the three amigos set off toward the auto parts store. Once they got off the highway and away from the noise of cars speeding past them, Anthony asked, “so what’s the story with you and your sister, Rachel?”
“Coral, my sister, was always the troublemaker of the family. It was just me and her growing up and since she was older than me by a year, she received harsher discipline than I. I was the spoiled kid and she had it rough. At least that’s what she’d tell you. I guess I’d have to agree. But she always butted heads with my parents and high school was real rough for her. The first chance she got, she ran away from home and started doing her own thing. I would see her from time to time, mostly when she needed a place to stay or some money. My parents never denied her a roof over her head. But she never stayed long.
I remember there was a long period where I didn’t see her for a couple years. Then one day she came back and I barely recognized her. She had cut and dyed her hair, she was all tatted up, she had piercings everywhere… she was a different person. She stayed for a while, just long enough for her to decide for the hundredth time that she hated all of us. And then she was gone again. It was always like that; she always came back for one reason or another, but was never around long enough for me to grow attached. It was like that until I moved out.
Once I was out of my parents’ house, Coral called me and asked me if I wanted to join some sort of gang she was apart of. I told her I wanted to live a good life. I wanted to live up to my parents’ expectations. Someone has to make up for all of my sister’s bad choices. She called me a name or two and then hung up and I hadn’t heard from her until today. It’s been four years… she didn’t even call when my parents died. Of course she would call now, when she needs help.”
Rachel’s story was told in her typical monotone, although it was slightly more fluctuated than when she was in the restaurant. If they hadn’t been walking, Antwon would’ve fallen asleep because of how bored she sounded.
They finished their trek to the auto parts store in silence, got the parts they needed, and hiked all the way back to the bus. By early afternoon, Antwon had fixed the bus and they were back on the road.
When they arrived in Nashville, they went to a food place to wait for Coral, Rachel’s sister. They were supposed to meet up there and Coral would explain why she needed Rachel’s help and then they would do their best to help her. Anthony couldn’t help but be suspicious. Rachel was acting strange.. but Anthony didn’t really know her well enough to know that for sure. But just to be safe, he kept his eye on the door and mentally planned his exit if it came to that.
This is life on the edge, Anthony decided. This is what comes with living spontaneously. If you want to live a little, you have to embrace the potential dangers as well. Never before had he lived this kind of life, so it was unnerving and uncomfortable, but who said life had to be comfortable?
A couple big men walked in and took a seat at a table near them. They were wearing dark clothing and Anthony couldn’t help but think the worst of them. He hated that he was so cynical all the time but it was in his blood.
Two other darkly-clothed fellows entered and took a seat near the other two. Now this was getting a little creepy. Who were all these people? Were they some sort of gang? Were they planning something? Then Anthony noticed that every time he secretly glanced over at one of them, they were discretely watching them. He would make eye contact for a brief moment before one of them would turn back and pretend like everything was normal. Anthony was getting really nervous and was ready to tell his friends that they need to move, but before he could, a girl walked in and headed straight for their table.
“I think Coral is here,” Anthony said quietly to Antwon and Rachel. Both of them turned to look and Rachel stood to greet her sister. When Coral reached the table, they awkwardly embraced, exchanged a knowing look, and sat down.
“Coral, this is Antwon and Anthony. They’re cool.”
“So they’re in?” Coral asked.
“What do you mean, ‘in’?” Asked Anthony, brow wrinkled in concern.
“You didn’t tell them?” Coral said to Rachel, her eyes throwing invisible darts at her.
“I thought I’d let you explain,” Rachel responded.
“You always did let me do the heavy lifting… welcome back little sister.”
“I thought you needed our help? What is this? What’s going on?” Anthony was ready to spring for the emergency exit, as it was near him. He looked around at all the dark-clothed thugs at tables near him and they were all focused intently on him. They seemed ready to stop him if he tried to run for it. He wondered if he could make it to the exit in time, and even if he did would he have enough time to make it to the bus and escape? And maybe he made it, but what about Antwon? He couldn’t just abandon his new friend like that! Antwon had been through enough hardship in his life, how could he cause that kind of pain to an already burdened man?
“Calm down, jumpy. I do need your help… we need your help,” for the first time, Coral addressed the other members of her party, tilting her head in their direction as if to indicate that they were with her.
Then it clicked in Anthony’s mind. Rachel had lied about her story. Rachel had joined Coral’s gang and was apparently still working with them! He darted his gaze to Rachel to see if her expression would betray her feelings, but he learned nothing. He exchanged a knowing look with Antwon, who had remained silent up until this point. Anthony wondered if Antwon was aware of what was happening.
“Look, all of us are good people,” Coral continued, “We’ve all been dealt a bad hand in life and we’re trying to turn the cards in our favor, that’s all. Jimmy over there has a daughter with type 1 diabetes. You know how much it costs to keep her alive? D’vonne over there is saving up to buy his girl a house. Look, we’ve all made a mistake or two and the world refused to give us a second chance. You know how hard it is to get a job as an ex-con? All we’re doing is giving ourselves a second chance. And we need your help. Do you believe in second chances, Anthony?”
Anthony saw straight through her sob story. She was pulling on his heart strings, but he knew better. Who knew if she was telling the truth, but even if she was, they put themselves there and it wasn’t on him to get them out. What was he supposed to do now though?
“What do you need us for? You have a lot of people in your crew already. What more could two untalented men add to your group?”
“Well, for starters we need your bus. But I’d be willing to bet that you aren’t as untalented as you assume. We need two unassuming guys like yourselves to front our mission. We’ll pay you generously, I might add.”
Anthony looked at Antwon. His expression was unchanging, expressionless. Ugh! Give me something, Antwon! Help me out!
“Look, me and Antwon are on a journey of self-discovery. We’re not looking for trouble and we aren’t hurting for cash either. We’re just taking a mulligan in life and trying to reconnect with our true selves. Obviously Rachel was never sincerely looking for positive change, either. I think it’d be best if you found two other guys to help you out. We’re just gonna go—“
Before Anthony could finish his monologue and bolt for the exit, he heard a distinct click from under the table. It was obviously the sound of the hammer of a revolver being pulled into place, ready to fire. Anthony’s heart skipped a beat or two and his brain was rushed with screaming cells of information, intent on sacking the quarterback. It was successful apparently because he couldn’t think of a way he and Antwon got out of this scenario alive.
Just then the waiter walked up to the table and asked if they were ready to order. If the moment weren’t so intense, it would have been comical. Coral abruptly told the waiter they needed more time and he walked away slowly. The tension was tense.
“Sit down and nobody gets hurt,” Coral said slowly, quietly. She said it as if she were the villain of a movie, delivering an iconic line. “Here’s the deal,” she continued, “You lend us your bus and take the fall for our crimes, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll come out of this alive. Or, if you prefer, I can kill you both right now and steal your bus anyway. You choose.”
Anthony slowly lowered himself back into his chair and glanced at Antwon again. His face was still expressionless. How could he remain so resolute in a moment like this? Anthony looked over at Rachel, but she showed no sympathy. He felt betrayed. Why did he ever trust her? Was everything she had said a lie? Did she not want a restart in life? Why would she quit her job and go with them if she didn’t at least partially want an above-board life? Maybe she was being coerced into this gang. Coral was the real devil, she was just a victim! Maybe. Time will tell.
“Tell us what we need to do,” Anthony said with resolve. This was his only option. Either they go along with Coral’s schemes, or they die… it wasn’t much of a choice! Maybe they could find an escape during the middle of this mess, but it didn’t look good.
Anthony swore under his breath. He never should have left his easy life. He left a stable job and a comfortable daily routine for this? What was he thinking? This is why people settle down and stay in the suburbs and retire early. This life is for millennials and crazies!
It was the first time Anthony second guessed his decisions, but he didn’t have time to dwell on his misfortune.
“Let’s go, we’ll fill you in on details on the way.”