Barbie started feeling better as soon as he passed Food City and left downtown behind. When he saw the sign reading YOU ARE LEAVING THE VILLAGE OF CHESTER’S MILL COME BACK REAL SOON!, he felt better still. He was glad to be on his way, and not just because he had taken a pretty good beating in The Mill. It was plain old moving on that had lightened him up. He had been walking around under his own little gray cloud for at least two weeks before getting his shit handed to him in the parking lot of Dipper’s.
“Basically, I’m just a ramblin guy,” he said, and laughed. “A ramblin guy on his way to the Big Sky.” And hell, why not? Montana! Or Wyoming. Fucking Rapid City, South Dakota. Anyplace but here.
He heard an approaching engine, turned around—walking backward now—and stuck out his thumb. What he saw was a lovely combination: a dirty old Ford pickemup with a fresh young blonde behind the wheel. Ash blonde, his favorite blonde of all. Barbie offered his most engaging smile. The girl driving the pickemup responded with one of her own, and oh my Lord if she was a ticktock over nineteen, he’d eat his last paycheck from Sweetbriar Rose. Too young for a gentleman of thirty summers, no doubt, but perfectly street-legal, as they’d said back in the days of his cornfed Iowa youth.
The truck slowed, he started toward it… and then it sped up again. She gave him one more brief look as she went past. The smile was still on her face, but it had turned regretful. I had a brain-cramp there for a minute, the smile said, but now sanity has reasserted itself.
And Barbie thought he recognized her a little, although it was impossible to say with certainty; Sunday mornings in Sweetbriar were always a madhouse. But he thought he’d seen her with an older man, probably her dad, both of them with their faces mostly buried in sections of the Sunday Times. If he could have spoken to her as she rolled past, Barbie would have said: If you trusted me to cook your sausage and eggs, surely you can trust me for a few miles in the shotgun seat.
But of course he didn’t get the chance, so he simply raised his hand in a little no-offense-taken salute. The truck’s taillights flickered, as if she were reconsidering. Then they went out and the truck sped up.
During the following days, as things in The Mill started going from bad to worse, he would replay this little moment in the warm October sun again and again. It was that second reconsidering flicker of the taillights he thought of… as if she had recognized him, after all. That’s the cook from Sweetbriar Rose, I’m almost sure. Maybe I ought to—
But maybe was a gulf better men than him had fallen into. If she had reconsidered, everything in his life thereafter would have changed. Because she must have made it out; he never saw the fresh-faced blonde or the dirty old Ford F-150 again. She must have crossed over the Chester’s Mill town line minutes (or even seconds) before the border slammed shut. If he’d been with her, he would have been out and safe.
Unless, of course, he’d think later, when sleep wouldn’t come, the stop to pick me up was just long enough to be too long. In that case, I probably still wouldn’t be here. And neither would she. Because the speed limit out that way on 119 is fifty miles an hour. And at fifty miles an hour…
At this point he would always think of the plane.