Coldness took over Asia Knight’s long, toned, bare legs. She shook them violently calling warmth to grace her with its presence. Really, it was her fault. She did wear thigh-high white shorts and a peach halter-top to a mid-term. Bad idea but she wasn’t planning on staying long. It was Friday, the Friday before spring break. She could feel the freedom, the sun on her face, the peace on her mind; ecstasy was a minute away.
She jotted down the last two words human nature on her Philosophy 322 essay and finalized it with a hard, miniscule dot. She flung her head up causing her long onyx curls to fly back in waves. She grabbed the completely filled sheet of college-rule notebook paper and blue scantron covered with pencil shadings resembling a slithering snake. She scanned the bright room with doubtful eyes as she made her way down her empty aisle. She was the last woman, last person, remaining on her row. Her study group was gone, finished. Her eyes shot over to the desk in the corner by the light switch and laminated poster of Immanuel Kant. Her eyes dimmed, he was long gone. Of course, Thomas, know-it-all Tom Tom was gone. He knew philosophy; he could preach it on top of Mount Olympus. If you took a knife and sliced his skin he would bleed Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. She passed by the second row and two chairs down, keg-stand Kara was still there bumbling over the multiple-choice questions. An assuring smile grew on Asia’s round face. Cruel maybe, self-soothing, yes; she may not have an A but she wasn’t getting a lowly D.
Asia sat her papers on top of the brown faux wood desk at the front of the room. Her professor a sleepy man with half opened eyes behind red bifocals with gray hair, and a burgundy Mister Rodger’s sweater looked up from his book of American short stories with a blank face.
“Enjoy the break and stay safe,” He whispered in a repetitive tone.
“I will and always!” Asia backed up with the smile of a two-year old in a candy shop.
As Asia walked out the door the sun shone brightly on her melting away all the tedious studying, practicing, and important exams that have made up her life ever since January rolled around. She took off like a jet running down the sidewalk. She pounded her black and yellow Nike’s on the pale gray concrete. Running was her way of life. It was the very thing that got her to college, paid for her tuition. It was the only thing she did better than anyone else. She was Allyson Felix, Sanya Richards-Ross, and Carmelita Jeter rolled up together to make the absolute runner.
She almost broke a sweat as she passed by the brick and mortar buildings in the sweltering summer heat. There was no spring here, a trace of fall, and a memory of winter. It felt like summer three hundred and twenty-six days a year. Three hundred and twenty-six days of where’s the shade, I feel my lungs overworking, blistering heat. As she entered the quad the emptiness was unsettling. It was as if the apocalypse hit leaving a few poor, lonely, lost souls alone to fight for survival. Nearing the end of the quad her gait slowed down to fast paced steps. Two cars, one a green Challenger with a black racing stripe and a silver Yukon sat around a cul-de-sac pumping, rambunctious, fast-paced rhythmic beats.
“Pump it track star!” Jordan Harris hung out the window of the challenger.
“Get in.” Taylor opened the door and pushed back the enthused boy and the seat.
Asia stepped off the curb, walking behind the hand-me down SUV. The car she received after her mother upgraded and downsized to a Lexus coupe, awarding herself for getting four kids in college while her husband pulled double shifts to fund all their extra-curricular activities.
Leslee Reid with her straight black hair rolled up in a teal clamp matching her loose fitted tank hopped out the driver’s seat.
“Les, you can drive” Asia pushed her back.
“Your car, you drive. I loaded it. Your baby’s in the back.” She jumped in the back seat nudging Asia with the fiberglass door.
Asia quickly pushed the door slightly catching Leslee’s hanging flip-flop.
Leslee yanked her foot to safety, “Watch it heifer!”
Sure Asia was wrong but she didn’t want to drive. Right, it was her car but then again it was the chosen car by default. It was the only one big enough for four girls and her baby to trek in. She pulled her long body into the driver’s seat and held-down the small button on the bottom side of the seat adjusting it back to human specs and not hobbits. She slanted the rearview mirror slightly up to see the road and her baby. She tossed him a quick wave as he stood up wagging his long fluffy tail, his pointy wolf ears open wide waiting for her to acknowledge his presence.
Asia contoured around the seat like a gymnast, “Hey, Shaka!”
He snorted, shaking his muscular body full of black fur, wagging his tail enthusiastically.
“Thirty minutes flat, right. More like seventy-three.” Ashlyn Green was folded up in the passenger seat watching the time tick on the digital dashboard clock.
“That test was nothing like the one Ethan gave me and there was an essay. I had to really think.” Asia pulled the tan safety strap across her body.
“Who’da thunk, thinking on a test.” Ashlyn stroked her olive skin trying to do away with the goose bumps taking over her body.
Leslee looked up from her phone, “Thou shall not cheat.”
Yasmin Bloom frowned staring down the eager, social wolf hybrid. He opened his triangular snout letting out a sirloin rich yawn. She waved it away with orange nails like it contain particles of the black plague.
“Why are you bringing this damn dog?” Yasmin pushed the dog’s wet snout away with a rolled up magazine.
“He’s my dog, in my car. He’s not going to a kennel. But I tell you this, whoever has a problem with it can walk.” Asia’s hand gripped the gearshift.
“Yeah Yas walk.” Leslee kicked off her flip-flops.
“She’s not walking. Let’s go before the boys leave us.” Ashlyn turned the A/C down from Alaskan artic to California cool.
“I’m sorry. My germaphobic tendencies are getting the best of me. Your dog, your car; let’s go.” Yasmin stuffed her body in the crease between the seat and the door getting as far as possible from the living, breathing germ factory.
The challenger’s backlights popped red then disappeared as the newly constructed muscle car took off. Leslee copied and shifted the gear and applied ample force to the gas pedal. The SUV followed the car edging out the cul-de-sac; pass the empty buildings filled with the residue of drawn-out, zestless lectures. Their cars rolled down vacant streets that weren’t bustling with over-scheduled, over-worked, weary-eyed vehicle wielding drivers but by a flock of empty-bellied vultures looking for cankered rotting meat to devour. Their cars swerved around the death-defying beasts onto the freeway.
A high-pitch beat stroked through the trapped air of the truck followed by three beats of a bass drum. The backseat rumbled like an ocean current. Yasmin looked at her phone. She picked it up rolling her eyes, and then looked out the side window at the sea of gas stations with just a mere cent between them.
“Robert.” Yasmin spoke under her breath. She placed the phone back on the seat.
“Don’t answer it.” Leslee ordered.
“He cheated on you” Asia reminded glancing at Yasmin in the mirror, and then darting her eyes back to the road.
“With your roommate.” Ashlyn clarified turning around looking into Yasmin’s bister eyes to remove any thought of reconciliation.
Yasmin pushed the phone toward Leslee, “I know. He can go to hell for all I care.”
Full on last nights, rewarmed hamburger pizza and high off his racing speed down the open road Ethan Mitchell navigated down the interstate like Magellan.
“We just left and you’re already text macking.” Eric Sandoval peeked at Jordan’s wide phone to see what lonely, love-deprived soul he was hustling.
“I have to make sure my women don’t miss me.” Jordan tapped the send button catapulting his words in the atmosphere. “You handle your situation.”
Eric frowned. “What? What situation?”
Denver Perkins stopped scrolling down the playlist of his iPod; “You’ve been drooling over Yasmin like a fat kid over the last cupcake ever made for two years now.”
“I’m waiting for the right time.” Eric responded.
“Like the time you waited in the pretzel line at the homecoming carnival” Jordan stuffed his phone down the pocket of his loose blue jeans.
“Okay, that was my bad.” Eric loosen his seat belt. “I should have actually called it a date.”
“Instead she walked off with Robert eating your pretzel leaving you with salt and butter in your hand.” Jordan erupted with a hearty laugh.
Eric punched Jordan on the shoulder fuming like Mt. Erebus.
“Ah, Sandoval that hurt!” Jordan held his throbbing shoulder. “I’m not Robert, remember.” Jordan’s laugh roared through the car, echoed by Denver’s.
Ethan tapped the steering wheel along with the throbbing music, “Don’t get mad at him. You got played. Shake it off. Catch what he dropped. Cause Yas dropped his two-timing ass like a day-old tuna fish sandwich.”
Denver gagged from the imaginary in his vivid mind.
Ethan continued, “Yas is single now, stop waiting and get about doing” He slowed down letting a red Mazda skip.
“They just broke up a week ago.” Eric added.
“And?” Keith glanced in the rearview mirror.
“Stop acting like a female.” Jordan harked.
“Keep it up, another smooth, slick son of a banshee is going slide right in.” Denver hinted.
“Like me.” Jordan popped the non-existent collar of his lime collegiate t-shirt with the words Texas State University in blue letters.
Eric waved him off, “Please, you don’t have a chance.”
“Shit, I’m a player.” Jordan brushed his shoulder.
“That’s the problem.” Denver chirped.
Ethan peeked at review mirror again assuring the girl’s were still behind him, “It’s your week man. You better take it.”
Eric dropped his head back on the seat, looking out the window as rows of trees rushed passed the car. The interstate died out giving way to a two-lane highway; engulfed by a sea a low-growing, burnt brown grass they were the only cars on the road. Ethan’s thick black tires reel on the clumpy, tarred road.
“Tay, where is this place?” Ethan scoped around his car speeding along. His eyes viewed a flock of crows perched on the branches of a dead oak tree. “Do you know where we’re going?”
“Tranquility, Texas. Of course, I know; it’s my parent’s cabin.” Denver kept his eyes closed, his head pressed against the headrest.
“We’re in the middle of fucking nowhere.” Jordan kicked the back of Denver’s seat.
“You have to be nowhere to be tranquil. Just trust me.” Denver harked.
Eric looked at Jordan. Jordan shook his head, Eric followed suit shaking his head.
“I don’t want this to become one of those cable news investigation specials.” Eric looked back out the window.
The tar road dropped them in the middle of an austere town. Ethan’s wheels spun on the dirt road kicking up a cloud of dust in front of Asia’s truck painting Asia’s windshield with a coat of the gritty, sable soil obstructing her view. She clicked the windshield wipers on; they swiped side-to-side peeling back the layer of land off the glass. Her eyes refocused on the meagerness ahead. Her stomach knotted like a 1970’s princess phone cord at the sight of the old Tranquility General Store sign. Those words, General Store, wroth her with eeriness. What town still had those, a Walgreens yes, maybe a CVS but not a general store. What was this; 1935.
By the unstained, raw oak, simply nailed and arranged general store was the courthouse and across the street was the gas station. The cheaply made town was thrown up like a paint by numbers setting designed by a second grade arts teacher. This was a far cry away from the magnificently, modern architecture city they vacated.
Leslee fixed her eyes on the maple wooden sign planted in the hard, dead earth. The words Tranquility, TX sprawled across the wood plank like a Swiss Army knife carved it. The lack of the traditional green metal sign with the nice, even white letters showing all who crossed into its boundary the name of the town they had entered and the population size they must deal with irked her. It sent her mind an instant hurdle. Maybe, that’s how they do it in the country she concurred to herself excusing their less than touristic approach. She always stayed in the big, charted cities of Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. She removed Waco from her list after hearing about David Koresh and his doomsday cult. Here all they got was Tranquility, TX. The population was a complete unknown.
Asia stuck close to Ethan as he steered a hard right past the gas station. Ashlyn’s eyes stayed focused on her book. Lifeless like a dummy, Yasmin’s sleeping body moved along with the motions of the car. Her hand slid under Shaka’s warm mouth perched over the seat. Their tires pulled up more dirt as they raced down a street enveloped by altitudinous, mystifying, green pine trees as if Paul Bunyan himself planted them greatly in need of something taller than him.
They left the sun at their backs shining just enough light to brighten their journey. The massive, limitless trees planted a seed of nervousness in Asia’s mind. Her psyche quivered with flutters of angst as she watched them drifting further away from the coruscating planet. It was the pure personification of her mother’s tale of her first day of school; riding away in the big yellow bus leaving her alone on the side walk. The sun was her mother and her Yukon was the bus.
Asia feared being out of its sight. Out of sight meant out of mind, easy to get lost, easy to be forgotten, it all flashed through her mind like an old school nursery rhyme. You may call it fear but to her it was chilling, shrilling up her spine.