Katie liked to take her showers in the evening. There was something about climbing into bed with the day’s funk still permeating on her skin that just didn’t sit well with her. She couldn’t understand why people would want to scrub themselves before they went about their day, coming across countless forms of bacteria, gunk, and grime that would coat the finger tips and crawl under the nails. The only way to truly get a goodnight’s sleep was to approach it with cleanliness, which, after all, is next to Godliness.
Showering before bed also cut the time it took for her to get ready in the morning by half. She still had to style her hair and apply make-up, but blow drying took nearly twenty minutes to complete and shaving, well, don’t get her started on that.
She had to share the bathroom with her two older brothers, Nathan and Todd. Nathan was big, not fat big, but big as in broad. He, along with Katie, were the athletes of the family. Nathan was low maintenance, meaning he didn’t take that long in the bathroom. All he needed was a towel and a bar of soap. Todd, on the other hand, was different. He seemed to use up all the hot water in one trip so you really had to beat Todd to the tub if you wanted to have a decent shower at the McCoy residence. Nobody knew what he did in there either. Yes, he did cut his own hair, but he used a number two attachment on his entire head. So it wasn’t like he had to wash it, condition it, and apply various amounts of product just to make it behave. He didn’t sleep with anyone, as far as Katie knew, and he didn’t go on many dates. Maybe Todd just liked the comforting solitude that a small lavatory provides. Either way, Nathan and Todd showered in the morning, so Katie could care less what they did in there, just as long as she could get her fifteen minutes in.
After dad loaded the station wagon and Aunt Patty came over to take the dogs to her house while they were away, Katie called dibs on the front seat by shouting “Shotgun!” as she hurried past Nathan and Todd. She got comfortable in the passenger seat, bare feet on the dashboard, teen magazine opened in her lap. The album ‘Kick’ by INXS played through her ear buds and she popped pink bubbles of gum as she caught herself up on the latest celebrity gossip and fashion.
Nathan brought along a sports magazine and listened to a podcast on his ear buds, probably boring sports talk radio, and Todd did what he usually does on road trips: he read. Todd read everything from Salman Rushdie to Haruki Murakami. He didn’t especially like to read the main stream authors that so many others admired, like Stephanie Meyer or James Patterson. He didn’t like the way the writing felt. It felt very, well, mainstream to him. Like their books were written using some sort of formula that they invented. Todd felt the same way about the bands Weezer and Nirvana. To him, one formula, different chords, still equaled the same song.
Katie removed an earbud and brushed her brunette hair back behind her left ear so she could see her father’s face as he spoke of his late wife. Greg removed a blister packet from his left shirt pocket and peeled back the plastic bottom. He did this carefully, like he had done hundreds of times, and pushed the nicotine gum through the thin foil. He placed it in his mouth, chewed for a moment, and then tucked it between his cheek and gum.
“God she loved to travel,” Greg continued. “We hiked the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. We fished the running streams in Pennsylvania. We even had breakfast in a small cottage in the Maine wilderness. She was an adventurer alright. That’s what attracted me to her the most you know, her adventure.” Greg began chomping on his gum again like a starving squirrel.
“What? No, not like that. I mean her thrill for the unknown, the…”
“You need to stop reading those magazines. My lord, I can’t even speak candid around you anymore without it being taken as some sort of sexual expletive or something.”
Todd looked up from his book and smiled. Greg met his son’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Nothing dad, just keep driving.”
Greg kept his eyes on the road and continued steering the station wagon through the canyons and valleys. He wondered if this would be the last trip he would take with his three children. Katie was a junior, Nathan a senior, and Todd, well, Todd graduated high school two years ago and was in that post-grad limbo. Todd hung in the delicate balance between dead beat and could go to college and probably make a great living doing something that nobody can pronounce because he’s that smart. Greg didn’t want his son Todd to waste his talents entertaining himself with books on fiction through his twenties, but he was confident that Todd would find his way. Eventually we all do.
Chilly from the conditioned air inside the station wagon, Katie rolled her window down to let a little bit of Arizona inside. She rested her head between where the open window started and the seat belt met, allowing her hair to flow wildly about her face. She concentrated on the two solid yellow lines that separated the lanes on the road. She wanted to see a turtle or a gecko, coated with grit and dirt, like how the movies will show a reptile hanging out in the middle of the road just as a red muscle car screams by it, almost running it over and leaving it in a cloud of tan dust. But she never saw any.
What Katie did see was the front of a motorcycle rumbling in the side view mirror. Above the chrome handle bars she saw a helmet. The face plate was tinted. Small white teeth were decaled across it, making it appear as if it were actually a mouth, smiling. It was the type of smile where you weren’t sure if it was meant to be taken as an insult or as flirtatious. Either way, Katie didn’t like it. As the motorcycle caught up closer to the family station wagon, she noticed the outer shell of the helmet was dark. It was so dark she thought the color could run forever, like the helmet was a black hole, a portal to another dimension.
She hung her arm out of the window as the motorists kept pace next to them. The man was dressed in all leather. His gloves, pants, jacket, and boots all matched the color of his helmet, that mysterious dark abyss. His motorcycle was immaculate. Its creamy surface reminded her of a bowling ball in the way it reflected against the sun. Katie ran her eyes over every twist and bend of metal that formed it, losing herself where the piping began and ended. The wheels were glossy, as if the motorists were to tap the breaks, the tires would just slide forward, unable to stop. She thought if she would ever own a motorcycle, it would be a motorcycle as clean and beautiful as this one.
Katie ignored her father and continued to stare at her blurred reflection in the chrome. She wondered what kind of man would own a motorcycle so clean, so pure. She wondered if he was as clean as she was, removing unnecessary body hair once a week, keeping toe and fingernails cropped close. She wondered what time of day he bathed. She assumed for today it would be at night. Riding around on a bike all day was bound to create moisture in unwanted places.
She glanced between the seat belt and interior paneling. Todd was asleep. His head slumped on his shoulder like he had been hanging from the gallows since sunrise. She turned to her right and, as she figured, Nathan was asleep too, sitting upright with his eyes closed. The way he slept was the freakiest thing Katie had ever seen. When she was little, she used to pretend that she was going to poke him in the eye, to see if he was fake sleeping or not. Turns out he wasn’t because one time she stuck him with a cold hot dog. It was just the way he slept. And when he woke up, he would just raise his eyelids, like someone turned on a switch, “click, I’m awake”. The way Nathan slept was the only robotic thing about him. Everything else he wanted to do, he just did and would be naturally good at it. There’s one in every family.
When Katie looked back out of her window, the motorist was gone.
“Did you see where he went, Dad?”
“Where who went dear?”
“That guy on the motorcycle.”
Greg shook his head.
“No, I wasn’t paying attention really.”
Greg placed his arm behind Katie’s headrest.
“Boys, ready for some rest and relaxation? Hotel is just up ahead!”
Nathan’s eyes popped open. Todd didn’t budge.
“Nathan, wake your brother up, will ya?”
Nathan shook Todd’s shoulder, causing his open book to collapse on the floor. Todd removed his spectacles and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“We here?” Todd said.
“Almost. Everybody remembered their bathing suits right?”
“Bathing suits? C’mon dad,” Katie said.
Todd put his knee into the back of Katie’s seat, reminding her to ease up on the old man. She placed her right hand upside down next to her door and erected her middle finger so Todd could see it. He grabbed her hand and leaned in between her seat and window.
Katie knew things were serious when any of her brothers called her Kate. She hated it when they did that. It made her feel young and immature, like her two brothers were in on a secret with their dad and she was left on the outside, uninformed. She jerked her hand away from Todd and put her ear buds back in so she could listen to Michael Hutchinson ask her if she was ready for a new sensation.
The McCoy’s arrived at the Sunset Inn a few hours before dusk. After getting their key cards from the front desk, they went to their respected rooms to change. To save on expenses, Greg reserved two rooms. He didn’t care how the kids divvied them up, just as long as there were two queen beds in each room so someone wouldn’t accidentally spoon their next of kin. After an epic battle of ‘Paper, Rock, Scissors’, Katie lost and was told to take the room with her father.
“Paper covers rock?” Greg asked his daughter as he removed his orthopedic shoes. He pulled the straps back slowly, enjoying the crunching sound as the Velcro separated.
“Every time dad,” Katie said. She had her bathing suit underneath her gym shorts and tank top. A pile of white towels were stacked in the bathroom. She grabbed one for herself and tossed the other one on the bed for her dad.
“You know, your mother loved hotels.” Greg said. “Especially the complimentary soaps and shampoos. She always used them, didn’t want to see them go to waste. That was your mother you know. Making sure nothing went to waste.”
Katie had her hand on the door handle, ready to exit. She didn’t want to be rude so she let her dad finish talking. He pulled a sock off and rubbed his wrinkled foot, aching from keeping it angled against the gas pedal all afternoon.
“You know, she used to always leave a five dollar bill on the night stand, even though the maids were paid to clean up after us. After all, it was their job. But she said they never made that much and it was good just to do.”
Greg stood up and stretched his arms over his head, interlocked his fingers, and tilted his body from left to right to work out the knots in his back.
“So now, every time I travel…”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a five dollar bill. It was as if he went to the bank and asked for a bill that had never been used before. The paper was crisp, sharp, and untainted by greedy hands, quite possibly the most impressive bill Katie had ever seen.
“I make sure that I have one of these.”
Greg smiled and placed the bill underneath the alarm clock. Then he inspected the hotel stationary to make sure the pen worked. He scribbled a doodle across a small pad that had the Sunset Inn logo in the upper right hand corner. The doodle looked like smooth barbed wire as his strokes looped over and over again in one continuous motion. Finally, he made sure that the Holy Bible was available. It was placed on a shelf inside the night stand. Greg never read the bible, it just made him safe knowing it was there. He supposed if the sky started to rain locust, having a bible available would be the least of his worries. But it brought him comfort just the same.
“Okay dad,” Katie said. “I’ll be at the pool.”
Katie found her two brothers sipping imported beer next to the deep end of the pool. The shallow end was filled with children doggie paddling in circles with red floaties on their arms. Katie dug her hand into the complimentary hotel ice bucket and removed a beer for herself. Nathan held his hand up. Katie handed Nathan the bottle and he removed the cap with his teeth. Katie turned her head in disgust.
“I don’t know how you do that. You’re going to chip a tooth Nate.”
Nathan shrugged his massive shoulders and placed his hands behind his head. He had an impressive tan considering it was still early summer. Rumors floated around the household that he was going to a tanning bed. A rumor like that would destroy his street cred with his locker room teammates so Katie never teased him about it at school. She would threaten to of course, if Nathan ever got out of line. But he never did. He was her protector.
Todd was more of her sage. He often gave her unrequested advice. He drank the same brand of beer his sister and brother were drinking. But, instead of laying back and enjoying the warmth of the sun, he was relaxing in a tee shirt and palm tree patterned swimming trunks with no intention of getting into the pool. He read from a thick book and licked his fingertips before turning a page.
Katie removed her gym shorts and tank top, revealing the athletic body that a cross-country runner has. She tightened her spaghetti strap bikini top and stretched out on a long beach chair. The beer she drank was cold, ice cold, and it felt good when the random pieces of ice would fall on her soft, tanned skin. She let them slide down her sculpted abdomen and melt away in her tiny naval. She giggled when this happened. It tickled her.
Katie forgot her magazine upstairs in the hotel room. She didn’t feel like getting back up to get it since there was only an hour or so of sun left in the day so she decided to people watch. She propped her head underneath the white towel that she brought with her and scanned poolside, looking for interesting people to study.
The herd was pretty boring, except for the guy who sat alone. He was reading the newspaper, his face hidden from the way he held it. His legs were crossed. It was odd because he wasn’t dressed to be poolside. He had on dark leather pants and boots. Could it be the motorists from earlier? She waited to see if he would leave the table and was surprised by how slow of a reader he must’ve been because he hadn’t turned any pages since she started watching him.
“Hey Katie, you coming?”
Nathan stood over his sister, blocking her view of the man. He had the same style of towel that she had, only his hung over his shoulder since it was too tight to fit around his muscled waist. The drops of water that covered his arms and shoulders would soon dissolve from the last moments of sun that were still present. Katie looked around her stout brother. The man was gone.
“Dad texted me, he ordered pizza.”
Todd was already upstairs when Katie and Nathan took the elevator back to their floor. They ate pizza in Katie and Greg’s room because they had an extended dining area. The family watched a prime-time criminal television show from a major network and commented on the predictability of it. All four had Professor Plum in the library with the candle stick figured out before the second commercial break. This is what they did together.
Greg’s snoring didn’t affect Katie’s sleep that night. The next morning she felt rejuvenated from the long car ride the previous day. Her father left the room already. He was probably sipping black roasted coffee and working the impossible crossword puzzle from a newspaper.
Katie tossed a bagel on a paper plate, grabbed a single serving box of cereal, and a small carton of orange juice. She met Todd and Nathan in the corner of the dining area. They had just finished eating their breakfast. She tore a piece of bagel off with her teeth.
“Checking out,” Todd said behind a National Geographic Magazine. “We’re leaving as soon as you’re done eating.”
“Did you guys pack yet?”
Nathan and Todd nodded their heads in unison.
“Not too talkative lately, huh?”
Back on the road, the McCoy’s headed further west across the highway. Destination: Joshua Tree National Park in California. Every time Greg had to say California, he pronounced it Cal-if-orn-eye-aye. Since The Joshua Tree by U2 was their mother’s favorite record and Californ-i-a was the only place they didn’t visit but always wanted to, that’s where they were going. It was only a matter of time before her dad would slide the cassette tape into the radio of the station wagon and sing along to ‘With or Without You’. Katie was hoping she would be asleep when that moment came. Maybe he would save face and not play it, but that was unlikely considering Greg kept two copies, one for the car, and one for the house.
“What do you say we stop and get some sodas, huh?” Greg said, looking in the rearview mirror at Nathan and Todd. They looked at each other and slowly started shaking their head in agreement.
He turned to Katie. “How about you sport?”
“Sure,” she said. Katie had to use the restroom anyway. It took all she had to use a public toilet, but she had a plan: Lift the toilet seat with the toe of the shoe, wrap a roll of toilet paper around the hand, and hover. Never touch the flush handle.
Greg parked the station wagon away from the other cars so his family had the proper amount of room to stretch their limbs. After arching her back and touching her toes, Katie walked towards the women’s restroom. Standing at the payphone, in a dark leather jacket, was a man. On top of the payphone was a motorcycle helmet. The face plate was tinted and had rows of teeth decaled into a twisted smile. Just past the shrubbery and picnic tables, Katie saw the cream motorcycle. She wasn’t sure if it was possible, but it looked cleaner than it did the previous day, more pristine, more waxed. It sat parked at an angle, showcased from the bright mid-day sun.
The man at the pay phone had his back to Katie. She watched him for a moment, then decided to pee. If he was still there when she got back, she would ask him something. What exactly, she wasn’t sure. Maybe something like: “Hey, my uncles a cop and he has a bike just like that,” or “my uncles a cop, he can trace your plates, contact local law enforcement, and find out why you may or may not be following us.” And if he got tough, she had Nathan to protect her.
After hovering over the toilet bowl for what seemed like an eternity, Katie left the restroom and looked through the tinted windows of the service center. The bike was gone and so was the man. So much for that.
She grabbed some free maps of Arizona that were on display, knowing she would never look at them, and placed them in her purse. She joined the remaining members of her family on the sidewalk.
“You know, your mother…”
“Loved rest stops?” Katie said.
Todd flicked her ear lobe. His nail scraped against her diamond stud earring. He scrunched his eyebrows together and mouthed the words, “stop it”, to Katie. Greg chuckled to himself.
“No, she actually hated rest stops. Couldn’t stand the toilets.”
Greg shielded his vision with the palm of his hand and stuck it just above his brow, surveying the highway.
“We have a ways to go before we get to California,” he said.
“Then we better get moving dad,” Katie said, encouraging him.
“Maybe we can rest here a minute.” Greg handed Katie two, one dollar bills. These were unlike the five dollar bill he left for the maid back at the Sunset Inn. These bills were worn almost to a cloth-like texture. They reminded Katie of a wanted poster from the old west.
“Grab us those sodas, dear. Please?”
Greg took a seat at a nearby bench, Nathan and Todd followed. Katie went back inside the service center to get the sodas. She placed the first bill in the machine. A hum came from the slot and the rejected bill slowly slid out towards Katie. She stretched it out over the front of the machine, smoothed it out with her elbow, and tried again. This time the machine took it. She pressed the cola button. Nothing happened.
Katie turned around to find someone to help her. When she did, she found herself face to face with the man on the motorcycle. She stared into the hypnotic face plate. The man raised his leather gloved hand and brushed the side of her face with his finger. Katie was thankful that she had just gone to the restroom because she’s pretty sure she would’ve wet herself is she hadn’t.
“Why are you following us?” Katie said.
The man reached his arm over her shoulder and pressed the cola button. Four cans of soda came rolling down through the machine. They made a soft thud as they collided into each other. Then the man grabbed Katie by her hands and gently squeezed her fingers, cocking his head to the side. Katie jerked her hands back and backed up to the soda machine. She looked around the service center. She and the man on the motorcycle were the only people inside.
She looked at her family through the dark glass. Nathan was approaching the entrance, probably to see what was taking her so long.
“That’s my brother. He’s big and he’s strong.”
The man on the motorcycle turned around and walked inside of the men’s room just as Nathan opened the entrance door.
“You have the sodas?” Nathan said. “Dad’s really thirsty.”
Katie turned around. The four colas were still in the vending dispenser.
“Yeah, they’re right here. Would you do me a favor?”
Nathan raised his eyebrows.
“Will you go into the men’s room and tell me what the guy in there is doing?”
“Please? I’ll explain later.”
Nathan snickered and went into the men’s room. Katie gathered the soda and waited for him by the water fountain. Her brother returned moments later.
“C’mon, we have a lot of road ahead of us.”
Nathan took three of the sodas and carried them to the bench where his brother and father were still resting. Katie drank the entire can of cola in two attempts, released a loud belch that awarded her a thumbs up from Nathan, and sat down next to her dad.
“Why did you think there was someone in the guy’s room, Katie?” Nathan said.
“Because there was, that’s why.”
“There was a man in the men’s room?” Todd said, with obvious sarcasm.
Katie gave him a dirty look and took her seat in the station wagon. The rest of her family did the same. Roger buckled his safety belt and checked his mirrors. He reversed the station wagon out of the parking space, put the engine in drive, and steered the vehicle to the on-ramp. The semi-trucks were backed up and rolled along at a very slow pace.
“Rest your eyes kids,” their father said. “It’ll be a while before we’re back on the highway.”
Katie, Nathan, and Todd didn’t have to be told twice. They closed their eyes and eased their heads back. Nathan thought about the upcoming football season, Todd thought about fucking his friend’s neighbor from her balcony, and Katie thought about the man on the motorcycle.
Twenty minutes had gone by when Greg was finally able to merge onto the highway. He checked his blind spots and signaled that he was about to pass a row of semi-trailers when a loud horn was followed by the wail of screeching tires. The smell of burnt rubber and smoke filled the air. There was a loud crash as a large SUV smashed the McCoy station wagon into the rear of an eighteen wheeler. Pieces of slivered glass scattered across the highway. Colorful balls of cereal ricocheted off the ceiling, a comical scene given the severity of the accident.
Todd blinked his eyes awake, Nathan’s popped open, as they always did. Greg and Katie’s eyes didn’t do anything. They were dead.
Greg and Katie found themselves all alone in the damaged station wagon. They removed themselves from the wreckage, void of any physical harm, and followed the pulsing light up ahead.
Katie noticed the cream colored motorcycle was parked by what would be considered the entrance of eternity, a small, swirling gray vortex. Emerging from the fog behind the motorcycle was the man that Katie was convinced had been following her. He was still wearing the same leather boots, pants, jacket, and gloves. And although the face plate was open and resting on the top of the outer shell of the helmet, the man’s face could not be seen.
“It’s time. Are you ready?” The man said.
Greg shifted his weight into his daughter and put his arm around her shoulders. He wasn’t sure what the man was referring to. A skeletal mouth from inside the helmet emerged from the shadow that masked the man’s face. It appeared to be smiling, like the decal on his helmet.
“People can’t see me until a few days before they die and that’s only if they’re really paying attention. Katie saw me immediately and never took her curious eyes off of me.”
The man extended his hands, as if he was inviting them to dance.
“Take my hands, both of you. Please, don’t be afraid.”
The man’s voice was laced with an English accent which made his words a little more comforting to Katie and Greg.
“Right this way, shall we?”
The man on the motorcycle led Greg and Katie through the beautiful bright mist. It felt like Christmas morning to Katie, she was warm and excited. To Greg, he felt the way he did when Katie, his only daughter, was born; jubilant and scared at the same time. The man on the motorcycle said the last words he would ever say to them.
“There is somebody here who would like to see you.”
She descended through the mist in a lemon yellow aura. She wore a beautiful white robe with a golden sash that stretched across her chest. A single tear hung from the corner of each eye.
The man on the motorcycle, known as the pale rider, left them alone. They had a lot to catch up on. It was moments like these that he enjoyed the most. Being the last tie between life and death wasn’t always this pleasant. Sometimes it’s the exhausted junkie, tired of starting over and over again, who opens his veins in the bathtub or the compulsive gambler who leaps from the fourteenth floor window because the team he bet the house on didn’t make it to the World Series. And sometimes, it’s a family like the McCoy’s, a family built on love that he gets to bring together. Because death is based on love and without death, why would we care enough to love anything?