Story by
Cole Webber
Image by
Carlos Macias

Golden Arches — they always lingered a few miles off of you in any direction, glittering hazy toasty light with a promise of savoury treats. And here too they lay, tucked in the mountain-valley the highway ran through, surrounded by cut rate gas stations, motels with flickering deep green neon signs, and small outhouses, wooden benches and park plaques demarcating railroad events and passages of explorers and times long gone by.The door to this one still rung with the customary chime of the mom and pop shops since forgotten. Since swallowed by the big Ronald. The cashier’s face brightened up beyond what minimum wage could buy. I scrunched my brow, and nonsensically checked behind me for an instant, for someone else in that cramped door.“Hey!” she said, with a depth of familiarity never reserved for customers. I shrugged it off, glancing up to the pock-marked asbestos knock-off ceilings. The rounded fluorescents flickered, giving off a buzz — but maybe it was the flies. Distant ads for hamburgers played on the arcade machines sticky covered with finger ketchup, chicken nugget grease, and lying without their fifty cents slotted in — or with the slots stuck up with chewed bubblegum. A toilet flushed behind the counter, and the powerful vacuum seal of rushing water sprayed its noise all the way here. Quaint, I thought. And clean, I rolled my eyes.“You seem grumpier today?” She looked at me like she knew me. Black bangs. A short Philippino face, like my mom’s side of the family. A bit unusual in the mountains. I looked behind her short shoulders. No bustling in the kitchen. She looked eagerly up at my stubbled neck through thin rimmed glasses.“Anything wrong? You know can talk to me?”“Nobody’s on staff?”“Just me today,” I finally looked back at her. She expected me to say something, to make a joke or quip. Her eyes were waiting to curl up, her lips waiting to flash a smile. “Because they all went on the camping trip?” She finally finished.“You’re weird today,” she giggled, darting her fingers down to the touch screen cash register, “The usual?”“You don’t know me,” I said it with confusion and a brewing pain of anger: shot out from my cramped legs after a long trip, and a long straining of the ankles on the grimy gas pedal. But she laughed. She rolled her eyes. “Or do you want the sausage today?”“No, no — Quarter Pounder. And a coffee, large,”“Two cream and sugar — “ she said it, not asked it, and continued her parted lips up to a ‘coming right up’ until I stopped her.“No… black —“ The awkward silence hung in the air and mixed with the bubbles of deep fryer fat lofting out of the cramped kitchen. I looked down and past her to break it. Those gaudy orange red tiles. All the old fast food places had them. What for? They made it harder to spot a stain. For cleaning up — no, concealing — blood? She nervously traced my eyes there.“Switching it up a bit, I gotcha,” she said knowingly, darting back to fulfill my order.“How long can I expect to wait?”“Five,” she said. Not minutes — she still thought she knew me.I wandered back to the eating area — behind plastic shell cases proudly displaying the latest blockbuster happy meal tie in. I dusted off a stray chair (that was bolted to the table) and sat on it. I could still feel some of the grease from the batter crumbs eat away at my jeans. The bell rung again.Two burley men hulked in. The had to squeeze into each other to make it through the small right angled vestibule. They were dressed in lumberjack halloween costumes (it seemed to me), beards flowing and holding remnants of tinned sardines and coffee from a can. They had a distinct musk not just of the forest, but of some trailer park outside of it.“Oh, he’s over there,” the girl called around her shoulder. My heart sank. I watched their beady eyes under hairy faces glide over the toys, over the menus, under the dull hum of shoddy temperature controls and finally sit across from me. They both broke into massive teddy bear smiles, reaching their hands out to mine to shake, but sort of smacking it on the table. “Graham!”“Haven’t seen you buddy in a good long while! And Fred and Stacy sure took off to the woods?”I smiled to try to go along for a minute, but it faded with theirs. Our eyes cut apart from each other. Fryer fat grizzled elsewhere.“I’m Rob — I, I don’t think I’m who you guys seem to think I am,” with all my tattoos and my gritty punk hoody, I still smiled sheepishly at these men.The left one slapped the table. It rumbled the washers on the bolts underneath, until they spun to a stop like a loose toonie. He smiled widely, “Always the joker! Now, do you got what we came here for?”“See: I, I don’t know what that is.” I stroked my long fingers on the table.Their faces retracted from bright curves into a tangled shrub of dark, stained hairs.“Now that ain’t fair, Graham…” the other mumbled, “We already paid ya,”“I’m Rob, and I don’t have your money. I never had it.”I had been sucked into their eyes but the counter girl interrupted by setting down a grey plastic tray in between us. Steam poured out of the vacuformed plastic lid. The cardboard package had grease stains on it. Fries spilled out onto the printed paper advertisement, “You didn’t say, so I threw ‘em in.”She winked at me, patted the boys on the back with even more familiarity, and then left.I writhed farther back into my seat like a slug. They smiled again, but now they barred their teeth at me like dogs; their lips, their eyes did not match any happiness, “See Graham, our lady woulda known. What are you trying to pull here? If you ain’t got what we came for, this ain’t no laughing matter.”The other reached for my coffee, pulled it from me theatrically, and guzzled down a long sip. He winced it back from his lips, “Black?” He waved his hand for the girl, “Two cream and two sugars please!”“You got it Rick,” she shot finger guns.“I’m not Graham,” I stared at him when his eyes returned from her, “I’m Rob.”“Robbin’ us more like it!” The other fellow snickered, then once again brought his face close to mine, small and hushed. The mountains peaked distantly out the back windows of the store, and from my view bore over him like a hunchback.“Graham, you’re a buddy, but we got bosses too ya know? And this one is a real picker! He won’t be too pleased if we’re late with his chickie. Now you got anything? Anyone? We’re gonna have to find em. I know, I know, this is a real rush job. But we’re gonna have to make something work.” I aimlessly glanced around me, back to the kitchen and back to the small cute girl with the rounded features now walking our way. I stared a little too long:“No way we takin’ Justine! She’s a pal! How could any woman get into our line of business if they weren’t no trust?”“Now, you know a girlie in town? One down at the supermarket? You gotta help us buddy. We all gotta work this out.” She dropped the cream and sugars on the table. “Thanks,” he winked, hungrily mixing them in. He closed the lid and took another sip, leaning back: “That’s the stuff.”“Look: I don’t know what you’re talking about. My name is Rob. I’m on my way up to Hinton to see a girl I’ve been chatting with online. I don’t know who this Graham guy is or what you’re —““Well, we got a nice long night-ride road-trip ahead of us, partner!” They slapped me on the shoulder. The other man took a big bite out of my burger. “You like her?” He said. “While I —“ I stammered, grabbing with my open mouth at empty air, “I never met her?”“We’ll get ya another one.” He smiled warmly. “Let’s get some snacks for the road?” They looked brightly at each other.“Want anything Graham?” They encircled me with their bodies like redwoods. I sighed. “A Quarter Pounder would be nice.”“You get that to go Justine.”“Hey you wanna join us? We’re headed up to..” They looked at me blankly.“Hinton,” I reminded, “Hinton!” They repeated with enthusiasm. “Sort of a to-go order!” One added, snorting in a low rumbling laugh like a lawnmower.“My shifts done in fifteen?”“We can wait till then! Just grab a few coffees, and whatever you want,” He slapped a stack of misshapen bills on the table, rolled in a rubber band. It must have been thousands. Justine hardly glanced. This was getting shady. I sat awkwardly between the two men as she packed the brown paper bags. “I love the night road trips,” one said distantly. They never did introduce themselves. They thought I knew who they were.
I was crammed in the small backseat of my own truck. Justine sat beside me, flipping through a raggedy paperback. The two men were in the front. I pointed up and over the console. “There! You’ll miss the turnoff,” they swerved the vehicle, threatening to topple it over its far wheels and into the metal exit sign. Only our dirty headlights graced the highway, shining dusty haze onto the fog, the squirrels, the fading pine trees. “Almost there?” They asked. “I think so,” I said. “I haven’t been here much myself.”“What are you reading,” I glanced over into the yellow spot of Justine’s book light, trying to make out some of the jumbled symbols. “Sci fi,” she said. “Is it good?” She shrugged her shoulders, eyes peering intensely down that shallow nose and those big glasses. The clock on the dash read 2:30 am. Where the hell was I?We pulled under the neon sign and into the parking lot as the distant four o’clock sun was rising. Lights were switching on and off at the twilight hour. The mountain peaks, in a haze of distance, obscured most of it.“When were you meeting her?”“The morning,” I said, shrugging, worrying what I was signing this poor girl up for. But I was more worried for myself. I had glanced a gun tucked into one of the burley men’s back pocket when he shifted his butt on the heated seat. Looped in between the jeans and the belt. “We were going to spend the day together,” I sighed. “This is my first time seeing her,” I reminded them.“You ever settle on a time?”“We said Denny’s around eleven. I’ll text her to see if she’s awake.”“Real romantic,” one giggled. “Call her,” said the other one.“Nah, we haven’t talked on the phone too much yet,” they glanced at each other.“Oh, here she is — she’s awake and texting back,” the three dots glowed. She must have never slept. I asked her if she knew of weird characters that hung out around the rest stop she told me about when she helped me plan the route. She said no, but then was there on the other end for hours after that. She seemed nervous. “She still wanna meet? And you didn’t tell her about us.” They stared.“No,” I gulped.“That a pal,” the other chimed, croaking open the passenger door and stepping out with a sigh.“Phew: breathe in that cold mountain air,” he said. “How you doing Justine, good on the coffee?”“I could use a top up,” she tucked away her book, rubbing her eyes under her glasses. “Tell her the Denny’s,” we started walking in that direction.“Will it be open?” my eyes were on the phone as my thumb twitched. I could hear them roll their eyes in their voice: “Twenty four hours. Free refills on the coffee too,” he finished the rest distantly, to himself, “We gotta have it down there for him tomorrow… we’re gonna have some good long driving after this.”“Oh wait, she messaged back. She says meet her at her room. She said ‘what if those guys followed you?’”“Eh, works for us,” they skated their boots in the gravel parking lot and switched direction to lumber to the lobby. Justine brightly stepped behind, “Smart one this one. Too bad… she woulda been a real keeper.” She patted me on the back.“Eh, well, works better for us. Not too public,” the man rubbed his leathery face, “But, who knows, ya know, 4 AM? Probably nobody else there anyways.”“Waitress,” the other one reminded him.“Eh,” the first one shooed him off like he was batting at a fly.The hallways were outside, an odd choice for a place that could get so cold. The mountain air tickled all our arm hairs to stand up — Justine especially, who shivered a bit still in her thin uniform. We climbed the the stairs to the second floor. The air was bluer, the sun higher, and the wind somehow colder. Pine needles chirped like crickets as they got brushed off the trees and into each other. They scuttled on the cracked concrete floors like bugs. I watched them, sympathizing. They could just step on me at any moment.They banged on the door, leaning their heavy bodies against their thick arms and onto the frame, rubbing their drooping faces. I saw the gun flash again, poking out from his checkered flannel shirt. They were still alert enough, though, to stay out of frame of the viewport in the door. Or maybe it was instinct. They didn’t seem like real thinkers, but they seemed like they had been doing this a long time. I shuddered.God, a hot, unfussy blonde bombshell, and they’d do god knows what with her before I even got to meet her? And how was I getting out of this? I looked behind me, figuring the distance it was to jump over the railing and try to run back to my car. But, I didn’t have the keys. Justine smiled at me still. “You watch that show I told you about yet? You’d really like it?” she said cheerfully, to diminish the waiting silence. I rolled my eyes. The door opened. My heart didn’t sink, but exploded. I didn’t know why first — was I really that stupid, or were they?It was like looking in a damn mirror!
“Graham!” They shouted. A version of myself was standing at the door, only more mountain man. It was like I was dressing up for halloween, to make fun of these two lumbering bumpkins. “Oh shit,” Graham said. The two men pushed him back inside violently. The damp bed with the grandma designed motel bedspread buckled, its springs screamed against the force. He fell over it to the other side, and scrambled to his feet. The mattress now lay off of its frame. Justine knew the drill, and primly closed and locked the door behind us.“Guys, I can explain,” they were both seething with anger — nothing like I’d seen over the cartons of fast food. Just a few hours ago, I thought to myself.“What is all this!” They boomed, “You, what? You were trying to fuck us over!”“I, I just didn’t have enough time,” he even whimpered in a voice similar to my own. I stood in the corner, unsure I wasn’t having an out of body experience — from a body I didn’t know I had.“I didn’t have enough time, and — I know it was a big one. I thought, you would take me out for it? But I’ll get one! I’ll get one! I can do it by tomorrow? You know, you know, why not use him!”He pointed at me. I was just as confused as everyone. They dismissed it harshly, “The boss wants a girl!” But then they finally clued in, “So you are Rob?”“That’s what I’ve been saying,” I slumped into the stained chair with exasperation. If this was the end, let it come, “I met this,” I threw my hand over to him, “girl online. I thought we hit it off.” I surprised myself with the unintentional forlorn pout. Did I really think she was into me? She was so out of my league. How could I have been so stupid?Justine burst out laughing, still clutching her rattled paperback, “You mean… you got catfished!” She giggled ferociously, leaning over to me for some reason and drawing out a circle on my back with soft fingers, “It’s ok buddy,” she was friendly, I’ll give her that, “I can set you up.” She turned to my look alike, “Where did you find this guy?”“I thought, you know, I thought,” Graham backed further and further towards the bathroom.One of the large men bellowed, boomed: “You thought you’d get this kid up here, and let him take the fall? Jesus Graham we were buds! We went fishing together! We gave you a second chance, that’s why we brought, Rick?” He looked over to me, “Rob,” I corrected, “Up here! We woulda given you a chance. But you, you… you’re a fucking liar! And you tried to through Rick” “Rob” “into the middle of all this! Well you ain’t getting no more chances. Fool me once,” the man reached behind him. My lookalike knew what it meant too. I winced, but he scrambled up, tripping over his feet to the bathtub and scratching at the small cracked window above it. But it was too late. A shot rumbled from the man’s gun. Blood sprayed on the shower curtain. I traced my feet over the moulding carpet to steal a look through the door frame. He was laying, crumpled, spewing, twitching, draped over the side of the tub and his long mountain man hair dipping into the toilet bowl with dingy water. The large man put the gun back and wiped his brow.“While, sorry Rick!”“Rob.”“Looks like this has been quite a misunderstanding! Sure was fun spendin’ the evening with you though, ya know?” He smiled with customary Canadian charm.The other one chimed up, “What a fuckin’ idiot that Graham was! And cruel too,” he shrugged, “But, ya know, just stupid! I mean, he finds his perfect doppleganger, and he tries usin’ it to get out of one job? Think of all the jobs we coulda pulled if…” he looked longingly to the shower curtain, “If he just woulda been smarter.”“Honest,” the other one corrected. Justine was already lying on her stomach on the bed, flipping through the book once more as if nothing had happened. How is the story in there better than this? I thought. I gulped: she must have read this one before. And now I was caught in the middle of it.“I don’t wanna be that guy,” she chimed, not drawing her eyes up from the page, “But we still gotta make a delivery, no?”One of the larger men snapped his fingers at me, “Yeah! Rob, you’re a stand up guy, you want in? You’re cut could be 150?” He smiled, then added, “There’s gotta be a girl at the restaurant or something, maybe the front desk?”“Let’s check the restaurant first,” the other said, “I need another cup of coffee.” The rumbles of the body shooting its last spasms agains the fibreglass tub faded, and then altogether ceased.He started walking to the door, then turned back and stuck out his hand, “Oh buddy! I almost forgot! You don’t know us then! I’m Rick,” the other walked over with a warm outstretched hand, too, “And I’m Bob.” I simply stared. I finally managed, pointing to the bathroom, “What about the… the…”“Oh yeah Justine, make sure you got his key, right? We’ll get it after breakfast.”She darted in to poke around the husk like a vulture, and removed the keycard, a little stained, from some pocket. “So who’s gonna woo the girl? What’s the plan? Rob, you seem like a pretty charming fella? And more fun driving tonight! Let the good times roll, eh?” He slapped my back. I surprised myself: I smiled.We walked out of the room and down to the Denny’s.

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