MASON WILD’S first stop after leaving New Jersey was a rest area west of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he met a truck driver in the men’s room who was headed down Interstate 81 toward Roanoke. It was the farthest away from home he’d ever been.
He had a little money on him but not much, and he had to stretch it pretty far because it was slow going finding rides after that until he’d passed through Knoxville and Nashville and landed in Jackson, Tennessee. By then he was a kind of hungry he’d never been in his whole life. He asked around, found some day work, and stayed there two days, keeping his head down and moving rocks around. It was shit money, but it was better than nothing, and nobody cared what his name was.
From Jackson he hitched a ride to Memphis. He was doing his best to be a good passenger, be polite like his mom taught him and just keep his stupid mouth shut. That was hard. He usually liked people and could talk about whatever when he wanted to, but right now he didn’t want to be too memorable.
Outside Memphis, he finally found a truck driver who was on a long haul. The guy was headed all the way to El Paso, and Mason figured what the hell, that was pretty damn far away, right? On the way, while the driver talked on and on for hours, he looked out the window as everything he understood disappeared in the rearview mirror and the world around him got flatter and drier. It felt like he spent weeks in that truck.
When he got to El Paso, he lucked into a stretch of work gutting some houses in town, but man, that was a long week. It was hot out and not only did the guys he was working with all seem to know each other, but they all knew what they were doing too. He knew some Spanish—you didn’t grow up in North Jersey and not know some Spanish—but apparently only enough local slang to figure out when he was being made fun of. Still, he was pretty much the biggest guy on the job, and he managed to hold his own even if they didn’t like his sneakers.
Mason hated them lately too. Everybody he knew wore sneakers at home, but out here, not only did he stand out as a city kid, but they were totally useless. He demolished a kitchen with a couple of guys one morning and stepped on a screw sticking up out of a cabinet door. It went right through his sole but luckily not into his foot. After that he spent half his time making sure he didn’t step on anything else or drop anything on his toes either. He couldn’t afford to do the hospital thing.
He was pretty sure he had enough money for some decent boots now, though, and he decided he’d buy some at his next stop—not that he knew where that was yet. But he was running out of real estate and he’d better figure something out soon. He couldn’t travel much farther away than he already had.
From El Paso the interstate only went north. He found a guy headed up 25 through Albuquerque, and hitched a ride, hoping he could bail somewhere near civilization.
It was an amazing drive—the grays and the tans and pinks seemed to be everywhere, the mountains and mesas like a whole foreign landscape.
“You know where you’re headed, kid?” The old cowboy didn’t look the slightest bit worried about picking him up. In fact, “Almon Ryder from right outside Dallas, pleased to meetcha, I do have my conceal carry permit,” looked like he might enjoy a bit of a fight.
“No.” Mason glanced over at him, wondering how polite the old guy expected him to be. He wasn’t planning on fighting anyone again. Ever. “Uh… no, sir. I’m just looking for work. You know.” Not too friendly, keep it to small talk. He’d gotten pretty good at riding in the passenger side of a semi and mostly pretending he wasn’t there, but a pickup was closer quarters.
“I do. There’s always work for guys that are willing. I’m going to see my son at UNM. He plays baseball there.”
Mason had no idea where that was. Baseball was awesome, though. “Yeah? That’s cool. Is he on a scholarship?”
“Yeah. He’s a good kid. My youngest. I have eight.”
“Children. Seven of them are girls.”
“Holy crap!” He winced. “Uh. I mean, wow. That’s great. You’re totally outnumbered. And lucky. You’re very lucky.” He rolled his eyes. He should be keeping his stupid mouth shut. “Sorry.”
“I am totally outnumbered, kid. I lost my wife to breast cancer five years ago, with three still in school. Thank God for the oldest girls or the youngest might have starved.” The huge laugh boomed out, filling the cab.
Whoa. Small world. “I’m sorry, man. I lost my mom two years ago, same thing.” What a horrible time that had been. His whole senior year. “What was your wife’s name?”
“Sueann. She was a good woman. I’m sorry about your momma. It ain’t right.”
“Sueann. That’s a pretty name.” Nope. It wasn’t right. He used to think there was a bigger plan, but he wasn’t so sure anymore. He was just glad he didn’t have to break Mom’s heart when he left home. “So your youngest is in college. Where’s your oldest?”
“Married with four babies in Dallas. She’s an ER nurse. Her husband does something on the computer for work. He’s good to her and loves those babies, so I suppose I won’t have to kill him.”
“Uh. Well, that’s good, I guess?” Jesus. Everything he’d ever heard about Texans was true. Other things were true too, like this guy was super friendly and kind, but the whole gun-toting, bigger-than-life, major-accent thing? Totally true. And awesome. He’d never met anyone from Texas before now. Or wait, one of the truck drivers? The guy who’d driven him from Harrisburg to Roanoke… no wait, he was from Georgia.
His stomach growled. Loud. He looked out the window and pretended like he didn’t notice.
Almon grinned over at him. “You too, huh? There’s a McD’s up here. I’ll buy you a burger. You ain’t a vegetabletarian, right?”
He cheeks got hot. He hated handouts, but he wasn’t exactly flush at the moment. “Not me. If it’s food, I’ll eat it. That’s really nice of you. Thanks.” Vegetabletarian. Awesome.
“I hate eating alone, and I been down on my luck once or twice.”
“I’ll figure it out. I can work. I don’t know how to do much, but I’m big enough and I learn fast.” He had no choice, right? Thank God he didn’t have eight kids to feed. Whoa.
“Then you’ll be fine.” Almon pulled off and parked. “Let’s go in. Christ, my ass is too old to make this drive for a ball game.”
He got out of the truck. Almon was paying; he’d eat wherever the guy wanted to. He stretched, still a little sore from the last day of work and all the heavy lifting the smaller, older guys seemed happy to let him do. “Did you drive all the way from Dallas?”
“No, sir. I had been in Austin, seeing my four girls there; then I headed this direction.” He loved the way Almon said, “die-rection.”
“That’s a long drive. Geez. For a baseball game? He must be really good.” He followed Almon inside, getting blasted by the cool air as he held the door. The smell of the burgers and fries made his stomach growl again and his mouth water.
“Well, I haven’t seen my boy in a few months. What’s your poison?”
“Uh. The Buttermilk Crispy Chicken thing. Sandwich. Please.” And a ton of fries and a vanilla milkshake, but he wasn’t going to get greedy. Son in college in New Mexico, daughter in Dallas, four girls in Austin… he was missing one.
“Where’s your other daughter?” he asked as they headed over to a table with their food. He knew he probably shouldn’t be so chatty, but it felt good to have a real conversation with someone after almost a month of mostly keeping to himself. No one back home would believe he managed to keep quiet for this long.
“Two others.” Almon laughed happily. “Missy is in nursing school in Arlington, and Bessa’s in a band on the road. Last time I talked to her, she was in Oklahoma City, but I think she’s heading to Kansas City next. She’s hard to keep track of, that girl.”
“Two! Geez, that’s right. I’m glad you can keep track of them all.” He laughed. He’d have left one somewhere by mistake.
They sat, and the table got quiet as Mason sucked down his chicken. God, he could eat four of these things, easy. His sister had just… well, before he left, Izzy had told him she thought maybe he was still growing. He figured he just had a big appetite.
“They gave me an extra set of fries by mistake, kid. You want?”
“You don’t want ’em? Sure. Thanks.” Almon slid them over his direction, and he snarfed those down too. He had a feeling they weren’t there by mistake. He’d lucked out big-time on his ride. Back East he’d be wondering what the guy wanted from him, but Almon seemed like the legit dad type. Mason liked him.
“No problem. Doc doesn’t want me having too many, you know? I ain’t getting any younger.”
He nodded and grinned at Almon. “Better listen to the doc. If you need help with the rest of those, just ask.”
“Fair enough. I tell you what, this getting old shit is for the birds.”
“You’re not old, man. You just did a ton of driving today. Gotta be eight or nine hours to Austin maybe?”
“Thirteen by the time we get to the Duke City. We’re right outside of T or C right now.”
What? “I have no idea what you just said.” He laughed pretty hard. “I don’t know if it was the words or the accent. Sometimes I feel like I’m on another planet out here.”
“Albuquerque is the Duke City. T or C? That’s the town out here. Good camping.” Almon winked. “You’ll figure it out. New Mexico is a lot like Texas light.”
Like that was helpful. The only thing he knew about Texas was that it was huge, took forever and ever to drive across, and he didn’t really want to go back to El Paso.
“So you know where to find work in the city? If not, you might try starting down near the farms in Corrales. My son and his roommates do some odd jobs for beer money, and they always talk about driving up the hill to Rio Rancho, Bernalillo, Corrales. That direction. I will holler at him and ask, if you want.”
“Yeah? That would be awesome. I figured I was going to have to ask around, you know? But if they could maybe hook me up with a place to start, that would rock so hard.” He repeated the names in his head. Rio Rancho, Bernalillo, Corrales. He didn’t need beer money, and he wasn’t old enough to buy it yet anyway. But beer money could buy him some real food instead. He had enough in his pocket from El Paso for a couple of nights in a cheap place and a pair of decent boots. That was a start. If he could find work fast, he’d be golden.
“Can’t hurt to ask. Troy knows a shit-ton of folks.” Obviously Troy got that from his father.
“I really appreciate it, man. Thanks.” He hopped up. “Not rushing you, I just need to stretch my legs.” They were long—they got tired of being folded up under a dashboard after a while.
“Stretch away.” Almon pulled out his phone and started typing.
Mason looked at Almon’s phone, feeling kind of jealous. He missed his phone. He missed texting his crew and his sister, and Snapchat and iTunes. He even missed that stupid foulmouthed weather app. Not that he needed a weather app out here. The weather was the same every day. Hot.
He shook his legs out and scanned the other booths. People even looked different out here. More relaxed maybe. Tan too. There was an awful lot of good-looking skin out here.
The wind was blowing when he went outside, the black clouds covering the mountains like a blanket. Did black clouds mean rain? Down here or just up there? He knew he’d have a lot to learn out here, but he hadn’t expected understanding the weather to be on that list.
Mason stuck his hands in his pockets and breathed in the air. It did seem a little cooler. Sticky. And it was definitely cleaner than the city. He didn’t recognize the scent on the breeze at first, but it finally hit him about a half second before the wall of water started moving across the parking lot.
Jesus. Jesus, look at that.
He stepped back under the awning by the door and watched it march toward him. Where the hell had that come from? He got a little spray as the rain hit the sidewalk and drenched the building, but not enough to drive him back inside. This was way too cool.
The rain came down in waves, the parking lot turning to standing water in seconds. This was a deluge, and it had hit so fast.
If he were home, he’d be snapping pictures. Instead he just tried to memorize the way the water dumped from the sky and how he could just barely make out Almon’s truck at the end of the parking lot, so maybe he could tell Izzy about it one day.
“Look at that, huh? I ain’t never seen rain come down so fast and hard like here.” Almon grinned from the open door. “It won’t last.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this at all. I looked up and it was just coming at me. Like this crazy wall just cruising across the parking lot.” He shook his head. “Insane.”
“Rain in the desert. Talked to Troy, and he says he’ll make up a list of places that have steady work.”
“No way, really? That’s… wow. Thank you so much. Tell Troy I owe him a solid.” Steady work. Maybe this could be his last stop for a while. He could handle that. It was beautiful out here even if was hot and poured buckets sometimes.
“He’s a good kid. I think I’ll….” Just like that, the rain stopped like someone turning off a faucet.
He stuck a hand out from under the awning, then stepped out as well and looked up at the sky. “Huh. That’s it?” The clouds just rolled away the way they’d rolled in.
“That’s it. You ready to go?”
“Yeah. Sure.” He stared at the sky as he headed over to the truck, though, like maybe it might change its mind and start pouring again. He hopped up into the passenger side and stretched his neck as he pulled on his seat belt, feeling a little stiff and headachey. Probably that storm rolling through so fast. His mom used to get weather headaches. Or maybe like a blood sugar thing. “Thanks again for the food, man.” He was going to have to buy some Advil or something wherever Almon dropped him off.
“No problem. Thanks for the company.”
He leaned his head back on the headrest and stretched his legs out as far as he could manage, which wasn’t really far enough. “What do you do for work?”
“I own a cattle ranch, raise cuttin’ horses, and I run futurity bulls. Little bit of everything, I guess.”
Language barrier again. Some days he felt dumber and dumber by the minute out here. “You lost me again. What’s a futurity bull?”
“It’s a baby bucking bull, for all intents and purposes. You know, for the rodeo?”
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of a rodeo. Guys have to ride crazy bulls and they win all kinds of money if they stay on long enough.” Why anybody would do that, he had no idea. He’d never seen anyone ride, but he kind of thought the guys were crazier than the bulls.
“If they’re on the big show, yeah. The steadier money is in the ropers.”
As they drove on, Mason had a bunch of questions, and Almon answered them patiently and told him about all the different rodeo events. It passed the time for one thing, but he kind of thought Almon enjoyed teaching him.
The mountains just kept getting bigger and closer. There weren’t any trees, really, just these huge rocky things. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to so much open space.
Things got quiet, and Almon turned on the radio. He closed his eyes after a while, not feeling all that great. Carsick maybe. It didn’t feel like a lot of time had passed, but when he opened his eyes again, it was almost dark out. He must have fallen asleep.
“Grab you some water, kid. You look green.” Almon pulled into the city, the trails of light flashing madly.
“Huh? I’m good.” He wasn’t good. The streetlights made him squint, and his brain was trying to escape out the top of his head. He’d sell his soul for some Advil. He reached over the seat and grabbed a bottle of water. “Is this Albuquerque? You can let me off anywhere, man. I really appreciate everything. I know you have people to see.”
“This is Albuquerque. Do you have somewhere to go?”
He shrugged. “I’ll find something.” All he needed was that list. He could find somewhere to crash for tonight, head right out in the morning to get work, and then—oh, shit. “You’re gonna want to pull over, man.” Seriously? He was gonna hurl.
Almon didn’t say a thing. The truck just swerved right off to the curb and Mason jumped out and brought up his lunch. After that, his head really started to pound. He rinsed his mouth and spat, then leaned back against the side of the truck with a groan. “Fuckin’ A.”
“Water, kid. Pound water. You got altitude sickness.” Almon handed him another bottle.
He took the bottle and swallowed back a huge gulp, but it didn’t sit right in his stomach. “I’ve got what?” He wasn’t sure that water wasn’t going to come back up too, but he kept drinking. Almon seemed to know what he was talking about. “There’s a little alien in my head, and the bastard is going to town with a jackhammer, I swear to God.”
“Water will fix it. Keep it down, and then we’ll try Tylenol. Do you have somewhere to go?”
“Not yet. I’ll find some… something. Shit.” He turned around and braced a hand on the truck, sure he was going to puke again, but he didn’t quite. His guts just felt punky.
“No. I’ll get you a room at the Motel 6. Just for a night until Troy can get you some information. Drink your water.”
He leaned on the truck again and finished off the bottle in his hand. “Thanks. It would be great if you could drop me at the Motel 6. I can get myself a room.” He felt like he was dying. He needed a room tonight; he’d figure it out. He could let his boots wait another week.
“I’ve got a room too. No stress.” Almon grinned, the look a little wry. “Troy’s got five roommates. Male ones. I’m not staying there.”
He snorted. He tried for some sort of grin but wasn’t sure he managed it. “Oh. Gross. I hear that. Can I get another water?”
“Absolutely. Keep drinking, have a nap and a shower. You’ll be okay.”
He climbed back into the truck and pulled out another bottle of water. “I guess you’re used to this altitude thing?” He sipped the water and sank back into the seat.
“Not everyone has a problem. I have a daughter that just has to fight it with all she is.” Almon gave him a half grin. “You ready for me to move again?”
“I guess I can relate to her, huh? Yeah, I’m good. Just gonna keep my eyes closed.” He’d like to look around, get his bearings, but that was going to have to wait for tomorrow.
“We ain’t got far.”
Almon was telling the truth—they pulled into a Motel 6 a minute later, and then Almon handed him a key card for a room, just like that. “I got to go grab my boy and take him to supper. You get some rest, and if you want, I’ll introduce y’all in the morning over breakfast.”
He looked at the key card and then back at Almon, trying hard to just accept help gracefully. It wasn’t easy. “Thanks. I owe you. Have a good dinner. I’d love to meet Troy tomorrow.” Hopefully he’d feel better by morning. Right now, he was going to fight back the frustration he was feeling and try to be grateful, crawl into bed, and die for a while.
“Drink your water. It will help, huh? Even if it makes you feel like your back teeth are floating.”
“Totally, man. I’m on it.” He stuck out his hand to shake, looking Almon right in the eye like Mom taught him to. She said nobody trusted a man that couldn’t look them in the eye. “Thanks again.”
“You’re welcome. Get some good rest, and I’ll knock in the morning, okay?”
“Will do. Night.” He gave Almon a nod, backed up a few steps, and then set off to find his room.
He sucked down the rest of his water as soon as he got inside. He wanted to shower. He knew he should. He probably smelled like a… huh. Like a homeless guy, which he pretty much was right now. But that bed was calling his name, and that’s as far as he got. He’d clean up in the morning.