Vinnie's Diner

CHAPTER 1

 

Interstate 15, somewhere between Baker, CA and the Nevada state line

 

It’s a little known fact that flying tire rubber can kill you. But I’m a master of little known facts, and the road I’m on is littered with the stuff.

I grab my water bottle and take a swig while still keeping my eye on the road. Right now, it’s pretty much deserted. I can make out a semi-truck in the distance, but other than that it’s just me and an assortment of highway litter: Roadside scrub adorned with pieces of paper, plastic bags, and empty snack food wrappers; Crooked signs marking off the miles or announcing how far it is to the next rest stop; A beat up loveseat with one slashed cushion and covered in questionable stains tipped sideways in the ditch between the north and southbound traffic lanes; And a whole heck of a lot of tire rubber.

 

The theme from Rocky starts playing, triggering an automatic smile. That’s my aunt’s ring tone. I shoot a quick look at my purse out of the corner of my eye. A moment of hesitation, and then I reach over and dig the phone out of the outside pocket. It’s illegal in California to talk on your cell and drive at the same time, but who’s going to know out here on a nearly empty highway?

 

My dog, Grimm, sits up in the back seat and barks, chiding me for my reckless behavior.

 

“Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.” I call back to him, then tap the front of my phone screen. “Hey.”

 

“Hey, sweetie. Have you made it to the hotel yet?”

 

Aunt Bobbie has attended all my matches. She loves trivia just as much as I do, so it’s no hardship for her, and I think she lives vicariously through my victories. Whether it’s local matches in bars, regional competitions in VFW halls, or the semi-finals at the Long Beach University auditorium, she’s been at all of them. The only reason she’s not joining me this time is because she couldn’t get away from work. She’s my biggest supporter. Actually, she’s my only supporter. But she’s enough.

 

“I’m still in California.” I look around for a mile marker, but don’t see one. “I passed the big thermometer about half an hour ago.”

 

Her affirmative “ahhhh” makes it sound like she knows exactly where I am. “That’s in Baker, so you’re out in the middle of nothin’ right now. It’s a good thing I made you those tapes. They’ll help pass the time.”

I take in a guilty breath at the mention of the tapes. I haven’t played any of them yet, but I don’t want to hurt her feelings. “Yeah. They’re great.”

 

“They’ll keep your mind sharp. Okay, honey, I’ll let you concentrate on driving. I just wanted to make sure you were doing all right.”

 

We exchange our mutual goodbyes and I turn off the phone, then toss it on the passenger’s seat where it hits an open cardboard box full of cassette tapes. Aunt Bobbie gave them to me the last time I was at her apartment. “To help you keep the gears moving while you drive” she’d said.

 

Cassette tapes. She must have hunted all over to find those. But if she wanted to record something for me, cassette tapes are the only way. My car is so old, the cassette player is considered an upgrade.

I reach over, grab a random tape, and pop it into the player. After a few scratchy seconds, Aunt Bobbie’s animated voice emanates from the one working speaker in the driver’s side door.

 

“What was Whoopi Goldberg’s birth name?” There’s a pause to give me time to answer.

 

“Caryn Johnson,” I say out loud.

 

“Caryn Johnson.” Her voice confirms that I did indeed answer correctly.

“How old was Stockard Channing when she played 17-year-old Rizzo in the movie version of Grease?”

 

“Thirty-two,” I say.

 

“Thirty-two,” Aunt Bobbie says.

 

“Who was originally cast in the role of Marty McFly in the 1985 movie Back to the Future?”

 

“Eric Stoltz.”

 

“Eric Stoltz.”

 

This goes on for a while, her recorded voice coaching me through overly easy trivia facts that we both know I already know. It’s doubtful the drill is helping at all, but it was a sweet gesture, and at least now I can honestly say I used her study aids. Besides, it’s a long, boring drive to the city of neon lights, and Grimm is not what I’d call a sparkling conversationalist. At least this provides a distraction.

 

“Tire rubber.”

 

Aunt Bobbie’s voice pulls me back to the moment. I’d zoned out so I don’t know what the question was, but the answer sends a chill skittering across my shoulders. It reminds me of the episode of CSI, the one where the go-cart driver – who had no business driving that thing on a highway, let alone behind a semi – has his head ripped off by a piece of flying tire rubber. It takes on even greater significance now because, in my desire to hurry up and get where I’m going, I’ve turned into quite a lead foot and I’m coming up entirely too fast on the semi-truck which is now right in front of me.

 

Two staccato barks sound in my ear. A quick look in the rearview mirror gives me a glimpse of the ugliest beast in all of California, and most likely the entire West Coast, who is now pacing back and forth across the threadbare backseat.

 

“Cool it, Grimm.”

 

He whines, definitely not pleased at my indifference to whatever he’s trying to communicate. Grimm, so named because he bears more of a resemblance to a creature from a fairytale than a dog, doesn’t give a very good first impression. In fact, he looks like he’d be happy to rip a hole in your throat just for the fun of it, which is why he’d been at the shelter so long that he’d ended up on doggie death row. But the minute I saw him, I knew he was the dog for me. You have to really look, but there’s a beauty beneath the beast.

 

If only my excellent judgment of character extended to humans.

 

“The next rest stop I see, we’ll get out and walk. Promise.”

 

The word walk should have gotten a reaction out of him somewhere on the scale between happy and spastic, but instead, he just keeps pacing, a low growl rumbling in his throat.

 

“Crazy dog.” Time to pay attention to what I’m doing.

 

I lift my foot from the gas pedal and back away from the truck a few feet. Up to now, the traffic has fluctuated from heavy (when in a populated city) to almost non-existent (when driving through miles of nothing). At the moment, I happen to be in a pocket of emptiness. There’s no one else on the desert road between Baker and the Nevada state line. Just me and the pokey truck. This would be a good time to go around the guy.

I’m thinking about the CSI episode, when I hear a pop. A puff of smoke shoots out from behind the truck and it shimmies like Grimm does after a bath.

 

“Oh no.”

 

A moment later, something big and black crashes against the windshield and an explosion rocks the car.

Instinctively, I push my body back, yanking the steering wheel hard to the left. At the same time, fifty pounds of Grimm barrels through the front bucket seats and jams himself between me and the wheel. The wind is knocked out of me and I turn my head away, trying to escape even though there’s nowhere to go. The whole world looks like some bizarre mosaic through the spider web of cracks spreading across the windshield. The car veers toward the side of the road. Through my window, it looks like a good five foot drop into the wide expanse of dirt and desert scrub between the north and southbound lanes. I’ve got to stay away from the edge.

 

Turn into the skid.

 

The memory of half-listened-to advice plays in my head. You better believe I listen to it now, turning the wheel in the opposite direction, despite the growling mutt in my lap. The car starts to straighten itself. It’s working.

 

But then I see a flash of something in front of me.

 

Something tall with black material flapping around it like the tail ends of an old-fashioned duster. Long, straw-colored hair. A scraggily goatee.

 

A man?

 

What’s a man doing by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere? And why’s he just standing there? Why doesn’t he get out of the way? Not that any of it matters. There’s no way I can run into him. I yank the wheel back the other way and the car swerves around him.

 

And heads straight off the road.

 

For a split second I have the impression of being weightless. Then the front end tips forward and rams into the ground. The glass loses what little cohesion it had left, raining down in silvery shards. The roar of the impact fills my ears as my body tilts sideways. All sense of equilibrium vanishes as the car rolls once, twice…I don’t know how many times. Grimm’s growling has turned to high-pitched whines. My head jerks violently from side to side, then lurches forward, hitting something soft. At the same time I’m pelted with loose objects – CDs, my purse, a water bottle – as if they’re all as frantic to get out of the car as I am.

 

Finally, the world stops bouncing and metal groans as the car settles.

 

Am I up? Down? I don’t have a clue. A weight presses against my chest, and when I reach up to move it, my hand hits stiff hair and a strip of leather. I realize it’s Grimm. One of the water bottles must have opened, because his coat is wet. An eerie quiet closes in on me, only to be replaced by a sound like the waves of the ocean amplified a thousand times. I squint, and through the empty place where the windshield should be, I make out the foothills.

 

But they’re all wrong. They’re lying on their sides.

 

The waves pound harder against the walls of my head until the noise is deafening. I try to keep my eyes focused, but everything blurs around the edges. The waves ebb, and I hear a crunching sound, like boots on gravel. Straining to see, I barely make out… What is that? A flag? No, it’s that flapping black material. I think it’s the man I swerved to miss.

 

A sweet, melodious voice makes its way through the undulating roar in my ears. “Let me help you.”

 

I strain to see. Help. Yes, I need help. I lift my hand toward the sound. Then a crash, like the sound of two enormous cymbals slamming together, explodes right above my head. A flash of bright, blinding white light commands my eyelids to slam down against its assault and my hand jerks back to my chest.

 

The white light is replaced by black silence.

 

Then nothing.

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