It’s one in the morning when we stop at the gas station. She climbs out of the truck and cracks every vertebra in her back, one noisy pop after the other like artillery fire.
I nod ‘no.’
“Well, don’t change your mind.” She looks out over the front of the truck, eyes narrowing at the pitch dark night pressing at the edge of the station’s light. “I ain’t stopping again tonight.”
I don’t intend to change my mind. I don’t really want to stop tonight, either. As soon as she turns her back, as soon as she starts to walk to the store to pay for the gas, already counting out the cash, I lock the doors.
Someone pulls into the pump in front of us. I close my eyes as they get out, the sound of their door shaking me. Loud and abrupt. I rest my head against the window, the coolness a comfort, its unyielding, smooth surface a promise of protection. Nothing can get through this glass.
Bulletproof glass is expensive, but she and I spared no expense making sure this truck could stand up to anything.
Someone taps on the window. I squeeze my eyes shut tighter, but they keep tapping. Tappity tappity tap. It vibrates through the glass.
“Hey! Unlock the doors, girl!”
Relief turns me cold from my heart on out, my stomach flopping. It was just her. I unlock the door and she swings it open, plops a plastic bag overloaded with sodas and snacks into my lap.
“I know you said you didn’t want any, but here you go. Just in case you change your mind.”
Her smile is crooked and warm, perfect despite the missing teeth and chapped lips. I lean forward, kiss her cheek, and keep my eyes on her as she fuels up.
The electric drone of the lights fills up the night, a blanket of sound. Bugs buzz around, clacking into the lights, falling to the ground. All these things are comforting in their liveliness, their mundanity. The gurgling of gas through the hose promises that soon, we’ll be leaving, leaving the light and plunging back into darkness. It’s fine, though. The truck is a moving fortress, a bulwark against anything the night can throw at us.
We only stop when we’re near empty. She has to fill the main tank, then the auxiliary tank in the bed of the truck. Forty gallons in the main, seventy in the back. I don’t know how much it costs, I don’t want to look at the sign and feel guilty.
She never complains. She never argues. We spared no expense on this truck. Our beautiful, invincible, unstoppable baby.
I’m watching her, and movement catches my eye. I try so hard not to look, I try, I know that this happens every time, but instinct pulls the gaze to movement. It’s a survival thing.
The car that parked in front of us is getting back on the highway. Don’t turn our way, I think, don’t turn the way we’re going. The blinker goes on, and of course they are.
There’s an adult in the front and a little girl in the back. The little girl catches me looking and waves, turning in her seat. I wave back, praying the adult doesn’t look back too.
As they make the turn, I catch sight of their face, even as I try to tear my gaze away. It’s an exhausted-looking woman, hair all messy around her face. That’s all I manage to see before they’re speeding away into the night.
She catches my attention.
“Hey. Hey, c’mon. You know…”
I nod. Yeah, I do. Sometimes it’s just so hard, though. Animal instinct will almost always win over intellect. New habits take a long time to form. I just have to check. I was never afraid before.
She rests her head against my thighs for a moment, one arm loose around my waist. Her hair is getting long. Soon, I’ll have to buzz it again. Both of us have buzzed our heads, to minimize our grooming needs. Grooming means stopping, and stopping for too long just begs for trouble.
We only stop for more than a moment, for longer than it takes to refuel, during the day, sleeping while the sun is high. Sometimes we use motels but more often than not, we’re sleeping in this truck, using convenience store bathrooms to clean ourselves.
It’s not much, but we’ve got each other, and we’ve got this truck.
We go onward toward nowhere. On the side of the road, I see something squirming. As we get closer, it resolves into a man, pushing his motorcycle, head down, shoulders hunching with effort.
We blast past him. Our engine must be deafening in the night quiet.
I look back in the rearview mirror, and the squirming thing is back. But we go down a hill, and it disappears from sight. That’s all anyone can really ask for.
When we’re driving, I feel safer looking. Nothing can catch us, nothing can hurt this truck.
Our entire lives are in here. After we finished the truck, we sold everything that wouldn’t fit, or that we didn’t need. Everything. Then, we pulled the money out of the bank in cash. Both of us, as fast as we could.
Our net worth, every cent we have to our names, sits in lockboxes in the back. It’ll keep us going for a long time. Not indefinitely, but for a while. Aside from fuel, we live pretty thriftily.
My mother didn’t want me to go. Her parents thought she was crazy. They never liked me anyway. But she and I didn’t listen to anyone else, and now we’re on the road, never stopping for too long.
I stare at her face, lit up from the dashboard lights, the console display. We’re both young, but much older than when we started this, in appearance and spirit. Lines under her eyes, alongside her mouth, her cheeks hollow and getting gaunt.
She was so much more vibrant before we started driving. But her face is still the dearest sight I know.
She catches me looking and flashes me another perfect grin.
“What’s cookin’, good-lookin’?”
When we were kids, it was her sense of humor, the way she was always smiling, that made me want to be friends with her. When I was with her, I was happy, too.
How she can keep so cheerful, how she can still look at me so fondly, after all this, is a mystery.
I turn back to the road, and my eyes close. I’m exhausted. Today, I drove the truck while she slept, took it to a grocery store. I refilled our reserves of water, got us new food. New wet wipes. All the things we need to stay alive and moderately comfortable on this never ending road trip.
During the day, it’s easier to look people in the face. I glanced up, smiled at the cashier, at old people, at the children. I try to be friendly, I really do, I want to try and stay as normal as I can. I know I look a sight. Buzzed hair, worn-out clothing, bags under my eyes and trembling hands. Other things, too.
The cashier could barely tear her eyes away from my throat long enough to return my smile. When she did, it was shaky, plastic, and her eyes were full of wonder and sympathy. It’s nothing I’m not used to.
It used to really bother me, the way people stared at the scar. I didn’t like being reminded it was there, I didn’t like being reminded of what had been taken from me. But she’s taught me a lot of things. How to change a tire, how to whistle, how to find the positive in something so thoroughly terrible.
I’m still here. I have a chance. A second chance that most never get. I don’t want to waste it..
There’s another car, going a bit too slow for our tastes. She floors it, and we start to pass them. I look at the driver.
Its face twists into something closer to human as we draw level with its window. It makes eye-contact with me. It smiles, and nods, and lets us around it. When we look in the rearview mirror, there are no headlights. Gone, vanished into the blackness.
“That was one of them?”
I nod, shivering despite my safety. Nothing can get us in the truck.
“Jesus!” She slams her hands on the wheel, momentarily furious. “Where can we go where they aren’t?!”
I don’t think there’s a single place on earth without them. I’ve told her that before, when I could still speak. I told her that my whole life. But she wants to hope. I don’t blame her. It’s human to hope.
At night, they see us, they get closer. During the day, they can’t get us. But we also can’t tell who, among the crowd, is one of them.
For an hour, she remains silent. I can tell she’s frustrated. I’d be frustrated, too. Sometimes, I wish when they tore my throat out, I’d died. She could have had a normal life, then. But she threw her lot in with me, and now, neither of us will ever be able to rest.
This is not a permanent solution. One day, she will be too old. But as long as she is able, she’s promised to drive. To flee, forever, with me.
Tears are rolling down my face before I know it. I try so hard not to cry these days. The drops glitter in the scant light, and she hears me sniffle.
“Oh, no, no, don’t!” she exclaims. “I, I’m sorry. I got upset…”
I shake my head, and reach across the console to her free hand. I grip it tight. Not as tight as I could, but tight enough that she knows how deeply I feel this. How deeply I wish she could have a better life.
“I don’t regret this. Not even a little bit,” she promises.
Sometimes, she does. But she hates herself for it. I wish she didn’t, I wish she would forgive herself. Who wouldn’t regret this?
Everything we have is in the truck. This moving fortress that can never stop, or they’ll catch us.
“It’s my fault anyway. My fault they’re mad at you.”
The fury with which I shake my head no, no, no, ten thousand times no, pulls on the scar, making it stretch and ache. How could she have known? How could either of us have known? How could it be her fault? All she did was be my friend.
All she did was be human.
We stop in the morning at a truck stop, the first one that makes itself available. We clean ourselves off, enjoy a hot meal in the attached diner. Truckers, some weary and some jovial, talk on their phones, mumble amongst themselves. In the day, when there’s a whole world of light and sound, I can pretend we aren’t on the run. That we’re part of this world.
I wonder if she does too. I wonder if she misses being in their world, instead of mine.
She reaches across the table and holds my hand tight. I can tell it’s with all of her strength. Her eyes are bright. My bones creak together, but I don’t flinch.
“You’re my best friend. I love you so much,” she says, voice thick. “I won’t ever regret this. I just–I have to know that you know that.”
I nod. I know that she believes it. I know that emotions are as mutable as their faces, and that one day, all that might change. But for now, it’s she and I, she and I forever, in her mind. That she feels it now is enough for me.
We leave the convenience store to sleep in our truck. As we approach, someone’s hand claps down on my shoulder, hard.
One of the truckers. I smile at him, and he at me, but there is no kindness there. My heart lurches into my ravaged throat, and I stop breathing. Its eyes are as cold and dark as the night. There is nothing human inside that human face. It’s only a mask.
“You can’t run forever,” the trucker says.
“Hey!” She storms up and shoves at the trucker. It has about as much effect as shoving our truck would. “You get your hands off my girl!”
“No one can run forever. Not even in that thing.” The trucker jerks its head toward our truck. “There’s no place you can go that you’ll be free.”
It releases me, and goes back to its truck. We watch it climb in, and drive away, down the road. Off to continue its human masquerade. During the day, they have to keep their masks up.
They’ve never approached me during the day before. I collapse to the asphalt next to my driver, trembling so hard the world before me shakes.
She spits after the retreating semi, and helps me back up.
“They can’t hurt us during the day. Before the sun sets, we’ll be out of here. Okay?”
I can’t nod. I can’t do anything but shake. I climb into the backseat, and pull the blanket over my face to block out the sun.
I awake some hours later from a dreamless black sleep. At this point, I can’t remember if I’ve ever dreamed. I think I remember dreaming, but I know very well that things aren’t always as real as they seem. I touch my face, feel where I’ve drooled and where the vinyl has pressed its seam into a red welt, the only proof I ever slept at all.
The sun is dangerously low. I awake her urgently. I can’t bear the thought of being stopped here when night finally comes. The semis around us seem like the walls of a trap.
She and I drive away again. The night presses on us from every side. Every car I look in, I see normal humans, just trying to lead their lives, blissfully unaware of the monsters around them. In the shadows alongside the road, I see shapes that only appear normal when the light, and my gaze, falls upon them.
I wonder why some of them bother, why some of them don’t. Why some of them are squirming, unnamable shapes, and others are sinister and humanoid. It doesn’t matter, but my mind has to go somewhere.
I can’t stop thinking about the trucker, either. I keep expecting to see its semi, looming in the dark, its true face revealed to us. But the road is empty, the shadows dark and formless. At any time, it could attack us. Maybe our baby isn’t as invincible as I like to think…
My mouth is the first to start twitching.
She notices, and makes a sympathetic sound.
“It’s all the stress,” she says. “From that thing threatening you. Just let it happen. Don’t worry, there’s no one. No one’s here…”
Even if there were, I can’t control it. I can’t stop it, I was never able to stop it. My face melts away. I lose my grip on my human features, the ones I stole from my mother’s real daughter.
When I was a child, I saw creatures like me everywhere. I never thought I would see one of them in the mirror, not until they started staring back. Not until they started smiling at me, knowing, expectantly.
I can’t look at myself, my reflection. I squeeze my two dark eyes shut, tight as I can. When I sob, there’s not a sound, not so much as a whisper, but the air around me grows colder.
She reaches across and puts her hand on my shoulder. My insubstantial shoulder molds under her palm, barely corporeal flesh wisping through her fingers and settling around them. She is warm and solid.
“It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Glittering mercury tear drops slip through my eyelids and plop heavily onto my thighs. I cover my face, but they spill through my fingers nonetheless.
I don’t want them to catch me. I don’t want to stop being a person. Even if it is just pretend. She loves me, and I love her. My human mother loves me, and I love her.
I love being human. Even if it is just pretend.
“I’m not ever going to let them hurt you again.”
When my real parents came back for me, the thing they replaced my mother’s real daughter with, I panicked, I fled, I was terrified of them and the truth. That infuriated them. When I ran to her, and she tried to protect me from them, they stole my human face, and showed her what I really was.
And still, she stood between me and them. Still, I begged them not to take me. Just two children, staring those creatures in the face and having the foolish gall to beg.
I wonder how hard they laughed at us afterwards.
They took my voice away as punishment, ripped it glowing and shrieking right out of my misty throat, and said they would be back. Back when I was a grown woman, by human reckoning since I liked being a human so damn much. Then, they would take me back home, where I belonged. And they would not be merciful this time if there was any interference.
They twisted their faces back into something resembling human, and disappeared, masked as they were in the endless throngs of humanity. I did too, and found that human flesh responded much more poorly to having its throat torn out. But I survived. And I prepared.
Now we are driving. An endless road trip. This truck, our beautiful, invincible, unstoppable baby. She will not let them take me. Even knowing what I am.
I rest my head against the glass. Another car is approaching. I force myself to become human, and keep my eyes squeezed tight. But I can still feel its prickling gaze upon me. They’re everywhere, and when the sun isn’t up, forcing us to maintain our disguises, they’re free to taunt me. To stare. To let me know that I can’t run forever. They know exactly where I am, and they’re just toying with us.
This is not a permanent solution. But it’s the only one we had.
The night presses in around us, heavy and cold as stone. We continue to drive, waiting for sunrise.