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Run

An Accidental Murderer

By E.N. GusslerPublished 2 years ago 32 min read
2

The sun was just coming up over the mountains as the low fuel light came on and Penelope dug through her black bag for her last cigarette. She was going to need to pull over soon. Her ass went numb three hundred miles ago and she needed to pee. Leaving her cigarette dangling from her lips, she rummaged through the center console for a lighter and looked in her rearview mirror at her smeared eyeliner and messy hair. She took a long drag of her cigarette as she lit it and tossed the lighter onto the passenger seat. She exhaled, watching the smoke swirl around her eyes and into her ears in a comforting cloud before reaching for the hand crank to roll down her window. The air was crisp and blowing snowflakes huddled together on the side of the lonely road. Ahead she could see the dull glow of the faded neon lights of a service station. As she drew closer, her 1984 Ford Fairmont began to shudder, begging for fuel.

In the middle of nowhere, stood a singular gas station, and she pulled up to a pump harkening back to the early days of full service stations. She tried the latch on the trunk as she walked around the car on her way to find the restroom. Securely locked.

Penelope pushed open the door to the office and the electric bell made a warped ring announcing her arrival. The fluorescent lights flickered overhead as she looked around for the attendant. A sliver of a man with three-day stubble coated with axle grease in ill-fitting jeans and a torn t-shirt greeted her with a nod as he wiped his slick fingers on a dirty towel.

“Filling up” she said, keeping a watchful eye on her car “ and a box of Marlboro reds” she added and dropped a crumpled handful of bills on the worn counter-top. “You got a bathroom?”

“In the back” the man said with a nod to the hall between the dimly lit drink cases.

Penelope locked the door behind her and took a glance in the mirror at her sweaty clothes, dirty with the grime of the last eight hundred miles. The restroom was surprisingly clean. She washed her hands and splashed water on her tired eyes. The water ran over her shaking fingers and she dug under a tattered fingernail to wash away the brownish red underneath it. She noticed dark splattering on the front of her tank top. Shit. Her heart pounded and she ripped her over-shirt off, shoving the tank top in the trash can, she buried it under crumpled paper towels before pulling the flannel on and buttoning it.

Resting her weight on her hands, she gripped the cold dingy porcelain and took a deep breath before pushing open the bathroom door. She grabbed the box of smokes off the counter and looked around for the attendant. She quickly spotted him outside, filling her tank, his hand resting on the trunk. Her heart pounded in her throat as she rushed out and dug a threadbare five out of her pocket.

“I-I’ll get that.” Penelope rushed to grab the nozzle from him.

“All set” the attendant said with a slight smile, sending a chill up her spine. “Fluids are good” he added and patted the roof.

Penelope handed him the crumpled five dollar bill, avoiding any extended eye contact while she ducked into her car, hitting her head on the sun visor hinged precariously in the tattered liner, speckled with the circular remnants of half smoked cigarettes, carelessly extinguished.

Heading down the road, the sun threw blinding rainbow colored lights into her eyes off of something wedged between the passenger seat and the console. Annoyed, she shoved her tar-stained fingers into the crevice and pulled out the leather threaded Rose Quartz pendant. The small charm felt immensely heavy. Rolling it over in her hand, its silver talons speckled with dried red flakes gripping the stone, tears of rage welled up in her eyes.

“I’m sorry” Jeff said as he stroked her hair, “I didn’t mean to Baby”

Penelope stayed curled in a ball, shielding herself from his pitiful, insincere apology.

“Penny...” His stiff hand gripped her chin, and tried to lift her head. But she refused to look at his deceitful face and shook her head. He was pissed off already and she had enough of his inconsistent moods. “Fine… be that way.” His voice was calm but the rage was a storm she couldn’t fend off.

She heard her hair rip from her tender scalp as he dragged her off the bed by a handful right behind her right ear. Her hip hit hard on the cold floor, she wasn’t sure if it was her hip that popped or if the floor board cracked. Her shirt hiked up her body as she slid across the floor, meeting the doorframe with the back of her head, she fell on her side against the wall. She knew better than to try to stand up, he’d only hit her harder. So she waited until he went into the living room and slumped down into the recliner, flipping on the TV.

Penelope’s ears were hot and tears stung her face as they trickled down the puffy remnants of a blackened eye. She pulled on the steering wheel hard, gravel and snow crunching under the tires. She flung herself out of the car, the cracked ball of broken promises tightly gripped in her hand and threw it as far as she could out into the empty roadside, and slumped back behind the wheel. She dried her eyes and slowed her breathing, she had to keep moving. She needed to create more space between her and Seattle. She turned on the radio, trying to find anything but gurgling white noise.

Her hands were soaked and shaking, the shiny blade of the kitchen knife dulled by sticky red dripping off the tip onto the heap on the floor.

She turned the music up, drowning out the memory and picked up speed.

#

Penny positioned her weak legs under her battered body, wincing under the layers of bruises. She straightened up, throwing a flannel over her tank top to cover the yellowed bruises on her arm. Her tangled hair gathered into a mess on her head, she tiptoed, glassy eyed, through the living room towards the kitchen.

Jeff sat in the recliner, TV flickering with changing camera angles, empty beer cans piled on the side table.

“Hey, make me a sandwich?” he called to her as the floorboards creaked under her feet on the way to the kitchen, betraying her attempt to go unnoticed.

Penny stood there, staring at the back of Jeff’s head, the pit in her stomach quickly turning into a flame.

“Did you hear me?” Jeff turned to find her just standing at the counter with the bread and sandwich meat on a plate and a knife in hand.

Penny flinched as Jeff put his arm around her, pressing against her broken rib and her stomach began to churn.

“You just know how to push those buttons you know?” Jeff squeezed her arm, pressing against the bruises and crouched to look her in the eye and took a sudden step towards her, whipping her around. Jeff’s mouth dropped open as he gasped for breath and stumbled back before lunging at her again, hitting her hard in the mouth with one hand and across the face with the other.

The knife went flying across the kitchen and slid under the table.

The setting sun reflected off the rearview mirror, stinging Penelope’s eyes. She reached up to adjust it and touched the split in her lip from Jeff’s strong left jab. The bruise on her cheek was beginning to yellow around the edges. She reached for the box of smokes and fished out her last one and lit it. Her ribs ached with the long drag she took. Ahead she could see the faded paint of a local billboard beckoning weary road warriors Stop-n-Eat. As she neared the exit she counted two semi-trucks and one family minivan in the parking lot, so she pulled off and took a spot near the side door under a nearly burned out light.

She was greeted by the sign that read Please Seat Yourself and spotted a seat at a low counter away from other diners and sat down.

“What can I get you hun?” said the blonde waitress with ample bosom and “DeeDee” scrawled across her name tag as she handed her a menu. “Chicken fried steak is the special”

“Coffee, black.” Penelope glanced up and eyed the girl’s sweet face, unmarked by the unkind touch of a false love.

“You ok hun?” The girl eyed Penny’s face and the cut on her hand, blood staining the gauze.

Penelope broke her gaze and handed her the menu, attempting a smile, “Special’s fine. Thanks” She inspected the silverware. The steak knife felt light in her hand, the scratched blade dulled by use.

Penny scrambled on the floor for the knife, trying to dodge Jeff’s blows to her ribs with his heavy boots. She spotted it under the table and as she lunged for it, Jeff’s boot landed square on her backside. She caught her hand on the bottom corner of the blade near the handle when Jeff gripped her hair and pulled her from under the table. Penny sprang to her feet and pushed him off of her, knocking him against the table. He grabbed her by the neck, pulling her on top of him as he fell backwards, hitting his head on the way down. His hands wrapped tighter around her neck as he dug his thumbs into the soft spot between her clavicles, choking off her airway. Penelope reached for the knife just beyond her right hand. Things began to go gray and she started to see stars as she stretched her fingers out and felt the edge of the handle, inching it closer until she gripped it. Just as she felt her eyes would roll back in her head, she gripped the large handle of the knife in both hands and sunk it deep into his chest and Jeff’s grip loosened. Tears streaming down her face, she raised it and plunged it down again and again, cracking the bones in his chest with every thrust.

“What kind of pie hun?” DeeDee’s lilting voice sang through as she gathered Penelope’s empty plate.

“Huh?”

“It comes with pie. What d’ya like? Apple? Cherry?”

Penelope shook her head. “Nah. Have a good day.”

Penelope set a twenty on the counter and headed towards the door and paused to put a few bills into a vending machine, then pulled the glass knob under the Marlboro box.

Partially hidden by the dimming light, Penelope looked around before she unlatched the trunk and peered in. She looked beyond the stained rug, rolled and shoved against the back wall of the deep trunk. She pulled her black sweatshirt from under the heavy lump of black hair sticking out of the end and checked for blood before she slipped it over her head, slammed the trunk and locked it.

The mountains loomed behind her and stars floated in milky dust overhead. Penelope fished out a cigarette from the fresh pack and took a long hard drag as she lit it. Exhaling, she let the ribbons of smoke swirl around her eyes and into her ears, muffling the sound of the gurgling radio.

#

There hadn’t been another vehicle on the road for the last 200 miles, and spotting a dirt road, Penelope turned off the highway. Dust swirling in the red glow of her taillights, she pulled up along the base of a large rock formation. This spot should do. She thought in a whisper.

Penelope leaned against the trunk as she finished off a cigarette and extinguished it on the bumper before tucking the spent filter into her pocket. She opened the back door and removed the shovel from under a heavy blanket. In a valley between two large rocks, she found a flattened area, and began to dig.

Sweat glistening, she stood over a large hole and pulled on two layers of latex gloves. Penelope unlatched the trunk and grabbed the heavy boots hanging out of the end of the rug. She pulled at an angle to work against the stiffness, and pulled the edge of the blue tarp down over the bumper to the ground and struggled to lower the rug onto the tarp. With gloved hands she dragged the rug by the edge of the tarp beneath it, over to the hole and pushed it all over the edge. She imagined Jeff would sit up and yell at her, climbing up the side and land a steel-toed boot to her teeth. But all she heard was the muffled thud of the carpet landing in the bottom. Shovel after shovel of dirt crunched against the tarp, filling the space around each boot and lock of hair until Penelope couldn’t see them anymore.

A soft drizzle began to fall and she ducked back into the car, grabbing a paper bag, she shoved the gloves and added her clothes and shoes in too. She tucked the bag under the passenger and pulled on some clean clothes and new shoes. Penelope watched the rain pool in her footprints and wash them away before pulling back down the dirt road towards the highway.

Penelope dug through her bag, pulled out a pack of smokes and fished out a fresh cigarette. She flicked her lighter unsuccessfully several times before searching the console for another. She found Jeff’s red zippo with the topless pin up on the front. She stared at it a moment, then lit the cigarette dangling from her split lip, ribs aching with the deep breath. Penelope turned the music up, set the lighter on the dash and took the ramp South. Aiming to leave her past far behind her.

#

Penelope took a sharp left onto a lonely stretch of two-lane highway just as the sun was coming up from behind the hills, still cloaked in heavy morning mist. The sky painted pink, she dug through the glove box for dark sunglasses and caught her finger on the sharp tip of the kitchen knife. Her finger suddenly bathed in intense warmth, she held it out in front of her, studying the ribbons of red wrapped around it and her hand shook.

Penny felt the weight of Jeff underneath her go limp on the ornate rug they bought on that trip to India last year. Still she continued to raise and lower the knife, crushing the bones in his chest with each blow, soaking her hands to the wrist in passionate explosion. “Never again!” she screamed at him “Never again!”

Her bruised knees pressed hard against the floor, and her hip ached. Her eyes strained to see his face, stinging and blinded by a mix of blood and tears from her swollen black eye. Her throat felt like sandpaper as she choked back tears and swallowed the blood that pooled in her mouth from the split lip.

“I didn’t mean to baby” his words sat heavy in her mind and her stomach churned. He always said it was her fault.

Red. All she saw was red. The ornate gold and cream rug began to turn a deep wine. She positioned her weak and shaking legs under her battered body again, leaned down close to Jeff’s face, and stared into his eyes.

Her breath rapid and heavy, she echoed his half-assed, insincere apology, “I didn’t mean to baby” as Jeff gurgled once more and went silent. Her heart threatened to beat out of her chest.

“Jeff?” She touched his face with shaking fingertips but his eyes stayed fixed on the ceiling.

“Oh my God. Shit. Oh my God” Penelope felt sick and lightheaded as she stood over Jeff’s lifeless body. Her heart raced, tears streaked her face and she slumped on the floor next to him.

Penelope reached under the seat and retrieved the paper sack. She pulled out her bloody shirt caked in the mud of the desert, and used it to stop the bleeding. On the horizon behind her, the rising sun glinted off a windshield, fast approaching. Heart pounding in her ears, Penelope tried to slow her breathing. Keep calm, Pen. She hid her hand from view as she heard a siren start and flashing lights sped past. Holy shit. And breathed a sigh of relief.

Jeff buried three hundred miles and six feet behind her, it was time to ditch the rest of this shit. Penelope scanned the highway for any sign of a rest area, she vaguely remembered seeing some when Jeff dragged her on that trip to all those “world biggest” roadside attractions. He broke my jaw on that trip. She rubbed the right side where the pins remained.

Picnic Area No Facilities appeared a few miles later and she pulled off the road and into the parking area marked Cars Only. She looked around for any sign of other drivers before pulling the paper sack out from under the seat and the lighter off the dash. Penelope opened the glovebox and stared at the knife, wondering if she should dispose of it here too but closed it, deciding to leave the knife there for now. She wasn’t sure how hot the fire would need to be to melt the metal anyways.

She found a small grill standing on one leg which was sunk into the cracked concrete and waited anxiously as another car sped past on the highway before she peeked inside to be sure everything she needed to burn was there. She placed the bag underneath the slatted top and took out the lighter. The nude pin-up on it staring back at her, she ran her fingers over the enamel paint, chipped down by the girl’s heel and closed her eyes. She took a deep but shaky breath and lit the corner of the rolled bag top and watched the flame begin to eat away at the bag, spreading slowly at first, and then more quickly as the fabric inside began to singe and melt. Penelope suddenly felt sick. He’s dead. It’s over. She vomited in the trash can, hot from the baking summer sun and the stench overwhelmed her. She felt dizzy and sat down on the picnic table until the fire died down and the remnants of her clothes were nothing more than ash and melted rubber, completely unrecognizable.

Penelope made her way back to her car, catching a view of herself in the reflection on the windows. I look like hell. The bruise on her eye was purple and yellow, her lip was starting to heal and the gash on her hand didn’t need a bandage anymore, but she still looked more haggard than a simple traveler should. Penelope sat in the car, staring at the grill for a while before heading back down the road. 40 East a large sign overhead read, with an arrow pointing her towards a new destination.

The highway was littered with happy families packed into minivans and SUVs, traveling the historic highway, making memories they will recall with fondness later, sitting around lovely holiday tables. Penelope thought about the trip they took, stopping at Cadillac Ranch, Largest Ball of Twine and the Largest Van Gogh. She tried to recall happy moments but the all too familiar sting of healing bruises and cracked ribs were all that flooded back.

In Texas, Penelope pulled off the road at a rest stop with a giant Lone Star cut out of the building. The sun baked sidewalk burned through the soles of her shoes as she dug through the back seat for a pair of scissors and a change of clothes, tucking them into a duffel bag. She walked past a road-weary mother, swollen with advanced pregnancy, holding the hands of two young boys, twirling, skipping and jumping as they exited the automated glass doors and she avoided their gaze from behind large dark sunglasses. Penelope approached the glass doors under a sign that read Welcome Center and felt the rush of the air-conditioned breeze as she stepped inside.

A young girl with long brown hair pulled into a neat ponytail stood at an information desk, greeting visitors, leaned over the desk to talk to a young child as a flat screen television chattered overhead with recent news.

Penelope made a beeline for the restroom, paying close attention to the weight and speed of her steps, looking down as she walked, and nearly collided with a middle aged woman. She ducked into the single Family Restroom, which had a mirror and sink across from the toilet. As people passed outside the door, Penelope changed her clothes as quickly as she could and fished the scissors out of the duffle bag, setting them on the counter top. She stared at her slowly healing face and attempted to cover the faded multi-colored bruises with concealer before applying fresh make-up.

Releasing a long, slow breath, she let down her mess of tangled blonde hair and began to cut large sections, tucking each chunk into a paper bag, careful to not miss a single strand. She had not had her highlights refreshed in far too long, which had been an act of defiance since Jeff preferred her hair blonde. Penelope stood back and took one last look at the stranger in the mirror.

A knock on the door startled her. “Hello? Is anyone in here?” the male voice stung her ears “Need to close for cleaning.”

“Um, yeah, Out in a sec” Penelope shoved the paper sack into the middle of the already full trash can and washed her hands, adding her paper towel to the top and exited the stall. Avoiding eye contact, she stepped past an older man wearing a shirt with Janitor on the breast and into the welcome center lobby.

“Police are searching for a missing Washington couple, Penelope and Jeffery Winters, who disappeared last week. Foul play is suspected.” Panicked, Penelope turned to the television over the information desk as a photo of a happy couple at a friend’s wedding flashed on the screen. Nothing but lies. She thought to herself.

“Please contact the Seattle Police Department with any information.” Penelope’s mouth went dry and she stood, frozen in place. She felt as if every eye in the lobby was fixed on her, though she didn’t see a single face turn in her direction.

Penelope ducked out of the welcome center and fumbled with the keys as she tried to unlock the car, dropping them twice before she managed to unlock the door. Did they post a photo of my car? She hadn’t stuck around to find out. Thank God I ditched the plates in California. She’d decided to toss them out the window on her way through the Sierra Nevadas, and stopped at a junkyard in Bishop to get a new one. They’re looking for Washington plates. So she assumed they wouldn’t bother running California ones.

Penelope couldn’t help but check her rearview mirror every couple seconds. Her hands shook, her heart raced. Did someone recognize me? They couldn’t have, right? I’ve got to ditch this car. She pulled off the road when she saw a sign Historic Route 66 and followed the signs for several miles along rough roads that hadn’t seen enough travelers to justify any upkeep. Somewhere between Amarillo and the Oklahoma border, she pulled into an abandoned service station and paced outside the car. Pull yourself together Penny! Don’t crack up now! She took a deep breath and popped the hood and peered in at a mess of tubes and wires. Penelope slid under the car and began to drain some of the oil from the engine, watching a thick black puddle begin to pool in the dust before hopping back into the car and starting back down the highway.

Just outside of Elk City, Oklahoma Penelope felt the old Ford knock and smoke billowed out of the hood. Engine failure. Stepping out of the car, she gathered some clothes and the lighter off the dash, then closed the door and began walking towards the exit when a tow truck pulled over.

“You need some help, miss?” A rough looking young man with tattoos trailing up his arms and sharp blue eyes leaned out the window, calling to her. “I’m headed back to the yard, can I give you a lift?”

Mike’s Junkyard and Towing was printed on the side of the red truck with a phone number underneath. Penelope wondered if anyone would recognize her or her car. It was a sweltering day and on the horizon she could see the kind of summer storms Oklahoma is notorious for brewing. I’m more noticeable walking alone on the highway.

“Sure. Thanks.”

The tow truck driver hooked up her car and opened the passenger door of the truck so she could climb into the cab before taking his seat behind the wheel. They exchanged pleasantries, or rather he tried to; Penelope didn’t say much. She used her Grandmother’s name, Annie, and told him that she was just taking some time off to see the country. He said his name was Matthew and he worked at his uncle’s junkyard. He’d grown up just outside of Elk City and had never been outside of Oklahoma. He seemed to be your typical small town America, Midwest country boy, immediately making her nervous and at ease all in the same moment.

After a couple miles, Matthew pulled off the highway and onto a service road along old Route 66 where the junkyard sat between two fields of wheat, blowing heavily in the wind of the oncoming storm. In the middle of the field on the left stood an old farmhouse with a rusted mailbox at the road that said Taylor in chipping white paint. Matthew pulled through the gate into the yard and hopped out of the truck, walked around the front and opened Penelope’s door, offering her a rough hand with grease pressed into the cracks and led her to the office just as it started to rain lightly.

“So Annie, what did you want to do?” Matthew offered her a bottle of water and motioned her to sit in a chair along the windows. “Your car, did you want to junk it or fix it?”

Penelope didn’t want to seem too eager, so she looked down and thought for a minute, “The engine is shot, I guess I’ll just junk it.” She had done her best to not travel in a straight line, and took as many precautions as possible not to be recognized but she wanted to just be rid of the car completely now. The stress was beginning to weigh heavily on her mind. There was no hope if she kept anything that tied her to him, that place, or that life and she wanted to get far away. “Do you have a Greyhound station?”

Matthew laughed and handed her a handful of bills. “No ma’am. Canute’s only got about six hundred people. You’d have to go back to Elk City or on to Oklahoma City for one of them.”

Six hundred people. Penelope wondered which would be better for disappearing, a big city or a small town in the middle of nowhere. A clap of thunder shook the windows and made her jump from her chair and stare at the sky outside. The wind began to pick up and the sky turned black as the rain began to soak the ground.

“I guess I can’t walk to the nearest town now.”

“I certainly wouldn’t” Matthew’s smile was kind and his laugh genuine. “There is a motel in town, near the highway, I can take you there.”

“Thank you” Penelope felt the corners of her mouth turn up into a slight smile and pain shot through her lip as the split started to open back up.

They pulled up to the single story, pastel blue and white motel on the side of the road with a flickering Vacancy sign and a small diner attached to the office.

“They make a great Turkey club.” Matthew offered, “I eat lunch there a lot.”

Penelope’s stomach called out and she realized she hadn’t eaten anything all day. “Sounds good.”

She pushed open the door to the dark little office and rang the bell next to the rotary phone on the counter. A thirteen inch TV sat on a desk, a man with gray hair and wiry eyebrows leaned back on a chair, softly snoring. A short round woman with peppered hair came through a doorway in the back of the room, drying her hands on a kitchen towel.

“Hello my dear. How can I help you?” The sweet weathered face and velvet voice reminded her of her grandmother. It was a comfort and a sadness for Penelope.

“Yes, thank you. I need a room for the night.” Penelope tried to smile and be as ordinary as possible.

The woman placed a sign-in book on the counter. “I just need your name and how many guests will be staying?”

Penelope looked at the pages, filled with sign-ins from varying years, only one was fairly recent. She thought for a moment and wrote down her Grandmother’s first name, which she had given as her own to Matthew. Knowing she needed to provide a last name she wrote down her mother’s maiden name Foster before marking a “1” in the space labeled Occupants.

The woman placed a key on the counter and apologized for the cable being out, due to the storm, and Penelope was relieved. Hopefully no one watches the national news here. After checking in, Matthew saw her to her room and she handed him a crumpled ten from her pocket, thanking him for the ride and locked the door behind her.

Penelope showered and threw on a clean tank top and jeans before dumping the contents of her bag out onto the bed and fishing out the rest of the cash from her pocket. Three hundred dollars isn’t going to get me much farther. And I can’t use my bank card, They’d track that. Penelope was going to have to stay in Canute a bit and make some cash. When the rain slowed down, she slipped on her shoes and ran her fingers through her short brownish pixie before walking over to the diner.

Waitress Wanted written in hot pink on a black chalkboard sign was leaning up against the window. Penelope thought about the waitress in the diner back in New Mexico, with her blonde hair and big boobs, bustling about tending to the truckers as she found a seat at the counter.

“Hey Shug, what can I get ya?” A sweet woman with white hair and Lois on her name tag suddenly appeared from the kitchen.

“Turkey Club and a Coke please”

Penelope looked around at the diner’s patrons. In the booth by the door sat a young family, kids climbing all over the seats while mom and dad tried to tempt them with promises of a sundae. A couple truckers sat at the counter, sipping coffee and enjoying mile high stacks of pancakes drenched in syrup.

Lois returned with Penelope’s sandwich and set it down in front of her before she brought her a Coke.

“So you’re looking for a waitress?”

“Yes we are. You lookin’ for a job, honey?”

“I was thinking about it.” Penelope took a bite of the sandwich and felt like she hadn’t eaten in days. “I’m a bit stranded since my car broke down.”

“What’s your name, sugar?” Lois handed her a stack of napkins and a bottle of ketchup for her fries.

“Pe—Annie. Annie Foster” Penelope caught herself and stuck a couple fries in her mouth.

“Well Annie, you ever been a waitress?”

“Oh yeah, I used to be a server…”she took a big sip of her Coke and thought for a minute. “Back in Denver.” She added with a smile.

“My feet are killing me, when can you start?” Lois’ laugh danced in Penelope’s ear, accompanied by the clanking of dishes in the back.

Ding “Order up!” a heavy set man, probably in his early fifties, hollered at Lois through the window to the kitchen before disappearing. Lois grabbed the plate of chicken fingers and walked them over to the family in the booth, setting it down in the middle of the table and taking a moment to talk to the little ones with the ease of a grandmother.

“How about tonight?” Penelope said with a smile as Lois appeared back behind the counter.

#

Penelope woke from her nap just as the heat of the day was waning. She peeked out the window overlooking the parking lot and highway, glancing at the blue sky littered with dark summer clouds. She glanced at the clock, 5:00. It was time to head to the diner. She pulled on some clean clothes and splashed water on her face and opened the door, stepping out into the sunlight. It felt warm on her face and she closed her eyes and breathed in the moist air, letting it fill her lungs and relax her nerves. I can do this.

Lois greeted Penelope from a stool at the counter where she was filling salt and pepper shakers, when Penelope entered the diner.

“Hi Shug! You ready for your first shift?” Lois seemed relieved and excited to have a little help.

Penelope smiled, “Sure am.” It felt strange to attempt to be outgoing when for so long she had been meek and tried to be invisible.

Lois showed her where the dishwasher was and the clean plates stacked in crates next to the large machine. They walked around the kitchen, Lois pointing out the things Penelope would need to serve customers. The walk-in fridge and freezer, the condiments, the glasses and demonstrated how she likes to roll the silverware. Lois told her that the best way to do things right was to do them with a smile.

“A smile makes the customers comfortable and they tip better, honey.” Lois said with a wink.

Lois had this way about her, she made every customer feel like family. Penelope felt comfortable with her, and that made her a little nervous, letting down her guard could expose her secret. Lois promised to stick around and help Penelope with her first couple shifts. Penelope quickly remembered how tiring it was to be on her feet all day, but was thankful not to be sitting in the car with a numb ass for days on end.

Matthew came in for lunch every day at two. Each time, he sat on the second stool from the end of the counter and always ordered a turkey club on sourdough, lightly toasted, with fries, a pickle and a coke. Every now and then Lois would talk him into a piece of pie, which he wouldn’t finish but would rave about anyways.

Penelope quickly got to know the regulars in the small town. Joe and Marty, the truckers who made deliveries between Elk City and Oklahoma City every day, stopped in for huge stacks of Angus’ flapjacks with half a cup of butter and twice as much syrup running down the sides, over the edge of the plate and pooling on the counter. Joe preferred the blackberry syrup while Marty stuck to the standard maple. Jenny, the soft-spoken but outgoing brunette daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Conway who owned the attached motel, brought her five year old son, Lyle in for an ice cream sundae after t-ball practice. Then there were the occasional road-weary travelers, limping their way to Oklahoma City and realizing they were too exhausted to make it. They pulled over at the little motel for the night, grabbing dinner and then breakfast the next morning. The travelers always made Penelope nervous. Always trying to balance kindness and the avoidance of enough contact for them to recognize her. They all seemed too wrapped up in their own travels to bother any more than a glance.

Each day when Matthew came in, he would exchange pleasantries with Penelope. He asked where she grew up and what she did there. He wanted to know about her family and why she traveled alone. Penelope stuck to what she had told Lois. She was from Denver and she had been a culinary student working as a server in a restaurant. Her family was easier to talk about, since they were all gone it didn’t matter if she told the truth, no one would be coming to find her anyways.

“Tell me about your family, Annie?” Matthew looked up from his club and stuffed a French fry in his mouth. “Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“No, I’m an only child.” She thought it might have been nice to have them, but of course she never had to share anything or fight over the bathroom either. “You?”

“Oh yeah, I’ve got three brothers, two older and one younger, and my sister is the baby.”

“And your parents?”

“Yup. They’re across town, living with Sadie, my sister, and John. They have two little ones and another on the way so mom helps out with them and dad helps John on the farm.”

“Do they all live in town?”

“No. William and his wife, Shannon, live in Oklahoma City. Carl lives there too with his family. Austin is in the service, so right now he is in California.” Matthew pushed his plate away and eyed Penelope as she wiped out a couple glasses and stacked them next to the pop machine on a towel. “What about you Annie? Where are you headed?”

“Well, like I said before, I grew up in Denver and I’m headed with no real destination in mind.” A perfectly well-rehearsed response. Penelope felt Matthew inspecting her and worried that he saw through her weak story.

“And your parents? Don’t they miss you?”

“My parents divorced when I was three. He was a drinker and I never really knew him.” Penelope’s mom had a string of men, none of them much better than her father. The only reprieve was when her mom got sick and Penelope was left to take care of her. “I was seventeen when mom died.” She paused and looked at her hands. She had her mother’s hands. “Cancer” she added with a wave and picked up the towel, throwing it over her shoulder, and shrugging. “Been on my own ever since.” Except that I met Jeffery and moved in with him within a week.

“But you were married once, weren’t you?” Matthew had been looking at her hands too. The light ring around her finger gave that away easily.

“Uh, yeah I was. He met some whore in Oregon online. So I let her have him.”

A year after he started the affair, Penelope had confronted him and told him she was pregnant, foolishly hoping he would end it. Instead, he broke her rib, kicking her with his steel-toed boots, and caused a miscarriage, before storming out to meet his mistress for their weekend tryst. She had hemorrhaged and drove herself to the hospital, delirious and weak. It was impossible not to tell the nurse what really happened this time; she had a cluster of red marks and one clear boot shaped bruise on her side. Exhausted, she had filed the police report and had gone home to pack her bag and leave him for good. But Jeff came home to a police report on the dresser and flipped out. After that it was all a blur to Penelope.

“So you just headed down the road? Looking for a new place to fit, huh?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

#

Penelope had been working at the diner for nearly two weeks when the past came round to haunt her. The pay wasn’t great and the tips were small, but they let her stay in the motel for a reduced rate and she ate free at the Diner. The regulars were quick to welcome her and she was beginning to relax into a routine.

Penelope stepped out of the kitchen with her hands full when she heard it.

“Hello Ma’am, we’re looking for this woman. Have you seen her?” Two state troopers were standing at the register, showing a photo to Lois. “Her name is Penelope Winters. She was last seen headed East on I-40 near a Texas rest stop.”

Penelope set the plates on a table, missing the edge with one, sending it crashing to the floor. The troopers glanced in her direction for a second and Penelope kept her head down.

“No sir, can’t say I have.” Lois answered with a smile, redirecting the officer’s attention.

“She was driving a Black 1984 Ford Fairmont. She may have changed her appearance or changed vehicles.”

Matthew looked over at Penelope. The terror in her eyes darted back and forth between Matthew and the Troopers. She saw kindness wash over his face, followed by suspicion. Matthew turned towards the Troopers and approached them. He took the photo, and looked at it closely for a minute. “A black ’84 Fairmont you say?”

Penelope gathered the broken pieces of the plate and rushed back into the kitchen, her stomach starting to turn.

“And what is she wanted for?” Matthew held the officer’s attention. Penelope thought that maybe he recognized her, but if he did, would he turn her in?

“She is wanted in connection to the disappearance of her husband.”

Penelope steadied her hands and grabbed a new plate of food and walked out, setting it on the counter in front of a large trucker, desperately trying to go unnoticed.

“Please come with us, miss.” The officers blocked her path back to the kitchen. “Turn around and put your hands behind your back.”

“I’m sorry Annie.” Matthew’s face had gone pale, and his voice a little shaky. He had recognized the woman in the photo, he picked her up on the side of the road when her car broke down nearly 2 weeks ago. Her car was still in the junkyard.

“Wait, please, I can explain” Penelope broke down. She sobbed as the officers handcuffed her and dragged her outside, her shirt lifting around her middle to expose the evidence of broken ribs and the boot print on her side. “Please, you don’t understand.” Her tears began to wash away the make-up and reveal the yellowing remnants of bruises on her face.

Matthew and Lois stood outside the door of the diner, worry in their eyes for their young new friend. Penelope looked back at them and watched the regret flood over their faces as they became aware of what Jeff had done to her, as the officers lowered her into the car.

The officers sat in silence on the way to the station. Only the sound of the damp road and Penelope’s sobbing could be heard.

At the station, they took her picture, fingerprinted her, and put her in a dim room with a table and two chairs. A tall officer came in and sat in the chair opposite her.

“Please state your name” he said gruffly.

She was just so tired of running. “Penelope Winters”

“Mrs. Winters, I’m detective Parker.” His green eyes pierced through her. “Where is your husband, Jeff Winters?”

Penelope didn’t know how to answer. “Gone.” She managed through the tears.

“Mrs. Winters, Seattle police found blood in your apartment.” Penelope sat, silent tears streaming down her face. He paused a moment before trying another approach, flipping through a large file folder. “Penelope, is it true you filed a police report on July 2nd against your husband for domestic abuse?”

Penelope nodded. “Yes”. She wanted to scream out. They made me! The hospital made me!

“Is it true that he broke your ribs that morning?” he demanded.

Penelope swallowed hard “yes”

“Is it true that your husband has beaten you several times before that day?”

Again, Penelope nodded.

“Did you kill your husband Mrs. Winters?”

Penelope felt sick. The room began to spin and close in on her. Her hands were sweaty and shaking, her mouth dry like chalk, and began to water with a putrefying metallic flavor.

“Penny, we know you killed Jeff.” The detective was standing, leaning his hands on the table. “Where is he?”

Penelope sat silent, afraid to open her mouth for fear that she would vomit right there on the table.

“Your downstairs neighbor called the police. She heard you screaming and a lot of commotion.”

Penny hadn’t considered that Mrs. Grady might have heard. She thought that no one noticed or just didn’t care that he beat her. No one ever bothered to call before.

“What happened Penny? Where’s Jeff?”

She wanted to explain. To tell him it was an accident, that Jeff had lunged at her and fell on the knife. That he choked her and she blacked out, but when everything was clear again, he was dead and she was covered in his blood. She wanted to scream, He tried to kill me, I don’t know how it happened. I panicked and ran.

Penelope took a deep breath before looking up at detective Parker, tears streaming down her face.

“New Mexico.”

HorrorMysteryShort Story
2

About the Creator

E.N. Gussler

Writer. Photographer. World-traveler. Adventurer. Ohio State Alum.

A California native living in Ohio, I pull inspiration from my travels & life around me.

Co-creator: VoyagersPen.com

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  • Amber Mercado5 months ago

    Wow!! Love it!!!

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