“Since We Were Four”
I-40E near Santa Fe, New Mexico
Alex glowered at the fuel gauge as he surrendered the afternoon, and the road trip, to an unwelcome detour in the key of ‘E.’ Being a federal fugitive made it difficult enough to find wheels to get halfway across the country, but every stop he made increased the chances that someone would recognize him from the news. He got lucky at a Grandy’s; a restaurant he believed no one would eat at if they owned a television. He was taken aback when a man wearing two flat-brimmed baseball caps walked up to him and exclaimed, “Yo! You’re that dude with the dude that did that thing!” before running off with a plastic sack full of biscuits.
It was actually fairly correct. He was, in fact, the “dude” that did “that thing,” if you were referring to killing a few assailants while being held on suspicion of a double homicide—and then escaping.
He pulled over to the least technology-savvy gas station he could find—one that advertised cash-only pumps—and parked the car he had procured from a rental facility he used to work at. He knew from experience that the economy sedan row would be lined with keys already in the ignition. It would be days before any of the morons he used to work for would even notice it missing.
After he hooked up the pump and walked inside, he had a careful look around to ensure he wouldn’t need to make a hasty exit. The station was vacant except for the woman behind the counter reading some novel called “The Ending” with what looked like horses on the cover. Alex dropped sixty dollars in wrinkled bills onto the counter and walked off to grab a drink and some variety of high-fructose corn syrup candy pretending to be made of fruit.
He held them up to the lady at the counter, knowing he was overpaying by about seventeen dollars, and walked back outside without getting close enough for the lady’s suspicions to be raised.
It was a nice day outside. He raised both arms to stretch and screeched before doubling over from the pain in his recently shot and shoddily repaired shoulder. Surgery at gunpoint is just so damned unreliable, he laughed to himself.
His backpack vibrated.
Alex remembered tossing his phone into a parked convertible somewhere around Reno, so it was unlikely he would be getting a phone call without his original phone. He rifled through the pack and came across an old flip phone he kept around for emergencies—a phone that four people on the planet had the number to. One of which he strongly believed was now murdering his friends, so it was unlikely he would be returning Chloe’s phone calls.
The text read: CALL ME. NOW. –JNY PS. NOW MEANS FKN NOW!
Janey? What could she possibly consider an emergency when he was on the run for first-degree murder among a laundry list of significant felonies? He momentarily considered not returning the phone call, but Janey was one of his oldest and dearest friends in the entire world. She could lend sanity to his unstable situation. Alex typed her cell number from memory and ducked behind the gas station to gain concealment from the highway.
It rang once and she picked up instantly.
“Alex! I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for a day. Where the hell are you?” She did not sound pleased.
He looked around at the barren desert surrounding the hidden gas station. “I’d say I’m about thirty miles outside of Santa Fe. Give or take.” He continued sarcastically, “also, hello, Janey. It’s so nice to hear the sound of your voice. I hope the world finds you well.”
“Oh, stuff it, Lex. I had a long chat with a friend of yours.”
Every hair on his body stood to attention. “Janey. Which friend?”
“Who are you?” she replied coldly, ignoring his question.
“What do you mean who am I?” He was aware he this conversation was about to make him feel incredibly strange.
“I mean, why didn’t you tell me you were a damn returner?”
Alex could feel the blood sound the retreat from his head. He sighed heavily before speaking, “Do you know what that means?”
“Of course I know what it is you moron. I am one.”
He did not intend to scream the word “what” so loudly back into the phone but he was unable to control his volume. “Who are you?”
“Alex. I asked you first.”
In that moment, Alex felt about as lost as when he realized he was a returner in the first place. He spent his entire life around Janey and never shared his deepest secret. How was it even possible that she had done the same? “Alexander the Great. Who are you?” He replied flatly, as if he was disappointed this was how she was finding out.
There was a long pause and the faint sounds of crying on the other end of the phone. “Sacagawea,” somehow managed to escape her lips on the back of a whisper.
He dropped the phone to his leg and felt like he could lie down and weep behind the gas station that time had forgotten. Alex took a bite of a powdered donut and brought the phone back to his ear. He replied, “Janey, how could you never tell me?”
“That street goes two ways you clueless Greek bastard.”
“Fine, equal fault. Janey, we got a hell of a problem,” he blurted, smiling and trying to prevent this from turning into an argument.
She blew her nose on the other end of the line. “Would this problem be a five-foot-seven dusty redhead with a gun control issue?”
He closed his eyes. “What happe—”
“I shot her.”
Alex’s eyes flew open. “You did what?” he screamed back into the phone.
“Calm down, Colin Ferrell. I only shot her in the leg. She pulled first and I put her down.”
Alex thought he must be in an episode of The Twilight Zone as he struggled with everything being volleyed around.
She continued on the other line, “Who else is out there? Why can’t we meet them?”
“Wait. Who told you that we couldn’t meet them?”
“Your girlfriend was saying —”
“Wait, how did you know she was my girlfriend?”
“Oh my god, Alex! She was really your girlfriend?” she screamed back in disbelief.
He needed to take a moment and make sense of the conversation they were having. Like any conversation with Janey, it could get out of control a little too quickly. “Okay, let’s hit the pause button. Can we slow down for a second?”
“What are you doing in New Mexico?”
“I am on my way to Kansas to pick up Albert.”
“Einstein, actually,” he said with a laugh.
“Both German. But, wow, Einstein. Is he really a kooky old man in person?” He could hear her excitement brimming through the receiver of the phone.
“To be honest, I have no idea. He’s about to turn thirteen and he’s never met any of the returners.”
“Who are the other returners?”
Alex gave genuine thought to smashing his phone on the ground if she did not stop answering ever reply with another question. It had been like that between them their entire lives. “You should meet me in Kansas, Janey. I have to keep moving. I’ll text you the address.”
“What if I decline?”
Was she serious? He kicked a plastic jug across the sandy nothing that spread out for miles behind the gas station. “Then I’ll come get you. I need you to be safe.”
“Oh, are you worried about Ms. Of Arc?”
Alex rolled his eyes. “No! Clearly you can handle yourself in that department—I must say though, I am quite worried about the group of men carrying assault rifles.”
“Stop asking questions, Janey!”
She started laughing on the other end of the line. “I was wondering when you would freak out.”
“I will freak out right now. Will I see you in Kansas? You’re closer than I am, so I wouldn’t leave for a few hours from—what does everyone call Oklahoma again? The Sooner state?”
He laughed. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s it.”
She smiled on the other end of the line—he could always hear her smile. “I’ll see you Kansas, Lex.”
He hung up the phone and suddenly felt alone—standing in the middle of a desert hoping he could avoid getting shot for longer than a week.
Alex sat down against the cinder block wall and slid to the ground. God, my shoulder hurts, he thought to himself as he pulled out the pistol he had tucked into the back of his pants. His bottle of stolen prescription pills fell from his loose jacket pocket and rolled across the ground. He pulled a couple of Vicodin and an assortment of antibiotics he did not recognize and knocked them back. Turning back to the gun, he counted eight bullets and knew that was not going to be enough for whatever came next. Even as he tried to clear it away, his mind was wandering with so many questions.
Why did Joan of Arc say that the returners couldn’t meet?
How had Janey not told him the truth? How had he not told her the truth?
He picked himself off the ground and casually strolled to his stolen rental car. He hopped back into the front seat. Alex turned the ignition and winced as he carefully placed his wounded shoulder onto the leather seats.
The temporary phone buzzed again. He opened it expecting to see Janey’s number but found himself disappointed.
The message was from Chloe and it read: You don’t want to go to Kansas. <3
Alex tossed the phone onto the floor and put the car in drive. It was only a few more hours to Kansas and he wasn’t going to stop for anything.