“If I Just Lay Here”
The Middle of the Night
I-70W Near Dayton, Ohio
Harriet Tubman lived through hardships that a vast majority of the world’s population could not accurately fathom. While she appreciated that historians adopted her into the lexicon of America’s obsession with the word “freedom,” it was rare they could accurately capture the emotions behind the dryly-depicted events. The memories were always vivid, still very much alive. Nothing would ever eclipse the frozen terror of hiding, unmoving, for hours in the dense brush of America’s southern woodlands. Every day was a courageous acknowledgement of certain death. Survival was in the hands of luck, only after the fear was choked back in whole.
That was all before she drove a Prius and listened to the Dixie Chicks.
As she sang along to “Travelin’ Soldier” in whichever key of the three part harmony felt most comfortable, she felt her eyes begin to float heavily. Harriet was driving alone down the long and empty stretch of highway as the rhythmic pounding of the tires against the damaged pavement played like an unwelcome lullaby.
Harriet was accustomed on long trips to playing digital music from her phone until it ran out of battery. Given the amount of time she spent on the road that day, she was about an hour past “10% of battery remaining.”
A casual glance up to her rearview mirror gave her pause.
How long had that van been driving behind her? The headlights were distinctive in that she remembered a few companies experiment with a uni-light spread between the two headlights in the early nineties. Were those Mercuries that did that? The brand did not seem as relevant as the fact that vehicles that supported such a feature haven’t been on the road in well over ten years.
As she traveled back and forth across the country trying to gather as much information about the returners as possible, she made a habit of doubling back at every tenth exit—which added fifteen percent of additional travel time, but gave Harriet an added sense of security in such unsure times.
Her glance darted to the unoccupied passenger seat; again filling with disappointment that Quincy had refused so heartily to have any contact with the returners. There was a significant history between them, in this lifetime, and she knew all too well what a stubborn curmudgeon he could be. She knew that he was aware of the dangers they were facing, but would not be party to facing them together—or in the open.
Harriet pulled off the highway and turned into a gas station to see what the car trailing her would do in response. While a second traveler in the car would make for better protection, she would plant a rusty pair of house keys into the skull of anyone that dared attempt something.
The gas station was unfortunately quite dark, save for a few lights to allow people to use the pumps in the middle of the night should the need arise. She left the car running but removed her car key from the ring and slid the remaining keys between her fingers. Harriet looked into the driver’s side mirror as the mysterious hunter green Mercury pulled in behind her to an adjacent pump.
Harriet’s fumbling arm patted around on the seat, trying to grab her phone without breaking eye contact with the car across the station. As she lifted it to her periphery, she already knew that gluttonous sing-along with the Dixie Chicks was going to mean a phone with no remaining battery.
“Call Alex Heton,” she spoke aloud, never breaking sightline with the green Mercury.
“Calling Al-ex He-ton,” it proudly spoke aloud in a broken robotic female voice and began to connect with what precious few bars the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio had to offer.
It rang once and died; its death rattle a spinning circle of white against black.
Harriet threw the phone into the passenger side door and gruffed a choice expletive. She heard the car door open and spun to look as a man got out of the car behind her and bolted out of the grasp of the station’s neon lighting. His steel-plated Beretta glistened twice when he loaded a round into the chamber and ran off into the darkness.
With one hand she popped the cigarette lighter down to prep and the other simultaneously slid the sunroof open and let in the cool night air. She pulled herself halfway out of the roof and into the chilly breeze, hoping to provide spatial awareness in all directions.
The first shot screamed past and sent up sparks as it skidded across the roof. She discerned from the flash that the attacker was just under a hundred feet away. With that pistol, he would need a few shots to drop a target unless tonight was to be a very unlucky night for Harriet Tubman.
A second shot ripped through the fabric of her leather jacket and made just enough contact with her bicep to get the adrenaline pumping through the body.
The dashboard made a popping noise and she slid back into the vehicle before grabbing the cigarette lighter from the console. She grappled for the door and rushed out into the night, knowing that she would have to be quick, carefully concealing the lighter in the palm of her hand. There was little question her assailant was watching from close proximity for any strange movements she would be attempting.
Harriet cleared the distance between the cars and ripped the door to the gas tank open on the aging Mercury. She pushed the thin piece of metal that separates the fuel line from the outside air inward and lodged the cherry-red lighter into the opening—she knew that any movement would send it tumbling down into the tank.
She turned and ran back to her car, hearing the footsteps approaching from behind her. The door to her vehicle smacked her in the chin as she ripped it open and jumped inside. The cool blood dripping from her chin felt strange, as the pain was yet to register.
Wiping the blood on her shirt, she popped the transmission into drive and the Prius’s tires chirped as they spun against the cold asphalt. Harriet floored it and was soon moving back up the access road toward the highway onramp. A glance into the rearview showed the man jumping into his car from the opposite side of the gas tank. He didn’t see it; she exhaled at the realization.
Her gunman’s Mercury peeled out and took a sharp turn onto the access road, sending the tail end of the vehicle sliding out across the blackened pavement.
The fireball was enormous and eclipsed all three of Harriet’s mirrors in a blinding light show that was more than likely heard for miles in all directions.
Harriet drove for another hour before she pulled over into an empty parking lot at a fast food joint to take triage of the her wounds. She pulled her jacket off and saw her white blouse caked in blood from both the bullet wound to her arm and a busted chin that was going to need more than a few stitches. “That’s going to need more than a dry clean,” she quietly joked to herself before realizing it hurt to move her jaw. The driver’s side door popped open and she walked around the exterior of the car to the trunk.
The key jiggled in just the right way to open the trunk. A rustling was heard beyond the door. Harriet popped the trunk and held up her hands in a defensive posture, not wanting to have that argument right now.
John Quincy Adams’ eyes swelled to the size of quarters as he struggled and tried to speak all matter of curses through the duct tape wrapped tightly around his mouth.
“Now, I know what you’re going to say!” She argued to the man who could not argue back.
His brow furrowed, enraged. Quincy sniffled in the cold and realized that Harriet was covered in blood. As he relaxed, she took the tape from his mouth. “Mother in Heaven, what in God’s name happened to you, Harry?”
She smiled and wiped half a pint of blood onto the back of her hand. “One came after us, friend. We have to find the other returners lest we allow ourselves to be picked off one by one.”
His anger returned as he struggled with the tape binding his legs and arms, “This is of no consequence to me. Did I not make this clear to you, Harry? I’ve as much use for this second life as—”
“Is this going to be another condescending metaphor? Tell me, Quincy, how little use do you have of this life? Like a toad for a tractor? Like an ant for a magnifying glass? Oh yes, shower me in your simile, friend.”
Quincy was taken a back. “I was—I was going to say like a wallet has for a credit card.”
“That does not even make sense.”
“Well, think of it from the perspective that a country run on credit is an unstable fit of bother.”
Harriet punched him in the arm with playful annoyance. “So while I was taking bullets out here, you’ve been in here thinking of ways to voice your displeasure with the nation?”
“When phrased like that—”
She cut him off. “Look, John, I understand that you want nothing more than to shove off and ignore this life ever happened, but you know there’s more value to it than that.”
“What value would that be, Harry?”
“You’re a dummy.”
“You stifle me with your transcendent vocabulary.”
Harriet pursed her mouth, “I’ll punch you again, old bat.”
“So tell me, what value have I on this ancillary plane?”
“To me, John. I value your company and your companionship. You are a friend, and I would be most upset if you died. I did this to save you — and because you’re valuable to the returners,” she quickly spilled out when she realized she might be overstepping her bounds.
She reached for the tape binding his hands behind his back. “If I let you out, can you drive for a while? I need to dress these wounds.”
Harriet helped Quincy out of the hatch of the Prius and put the keys in his hand. They stood for a moment as their breath danced in the cold before walking past each other and hopped back into the car.
He put the car into drive and she piped up immediately. “Oh, do you have a phone charger on you? I really wanted to listen to Snow Patrol for the last leg of this trip.”