The man shakes his dark head, amusement adding lines to the side of his face I can see. "Really? Do tell."
I uncross my arms and sit up straighter, a spark of excitement entering my voice. "I'm an undercover agent on a top secret mission. That's all you can know."
"Does this mission include pink elephants and machetes?"
"How'd you know?" I swallow back laughter at the look he gives me. His eyes flicker my way and down. "What's in the bag?"
I protectively pull the bag tighter to my frame. "Machetes and mace. A few stuffed pink elephants. Necessities for my mission."
"What's your mission, to ruin some kid's day by massacring stuffed animals in front of them?"
I freeze, my breaths as immobile as me. Did I ruin her day, or her week, or maybe a couple months? Did I ruin her life?
He glances at me, a slice of dark eyes that can shred and rebuild with a single look. "It was a joke."
"Best joke I ever heard," I mutter. I relax against the hard seat, feigning calm that left me with his words.
The man's hands flex on the steering wheel. He expels a loud breath. "You had a shitty childhood."
It isn't a question, and I don't answer. He thinks this is about me, but it isn't.
He swears, loudly and viciously enough that I jump, and I quickly tell him, "Yes, okay? I had a shitty childhood. You don't have to get mad. I mean, it wasn't all bad."
"No—I left the bag at the gas station."
I instinctively look at my backpack on my lap and the black duffel bag on the floor near my feet I was tempted to scavenge through while he was in the store. Lucky for him, I haven't yet added theft to my list of crimes.
I turn to him. "What bag?"
"The bag with food in it. The whole reason I stopped at that store."
"But you picked up something better than food, didn't you?" I chirp.
He scowls. "I need a cigarette."
My stomach constricts and gurgles as if to commiserate with him over the lack of food. When did I last eat? I think back over the many hours since I started this impulsive road trip. This morning—I had a granola bar this morning. Talking and thinking about food reminds me of how hungry I am. I have a total of one apple and three granola bars to last me until I can find a way to come up with more money or let go of the sparse supply I carry.
"Cigarettes are bad for your health."
"So is mentioning that to people who smoke."
That effectively shuts me up.
He uses one hand to roughly rub his face, his aura fraught with agitation. His movements are jerky as he flips on a blinker and takes the next exit.
I brace myself with a hand on the door when the Ford abruptly decelerates and merges sharply to the right. "Where are we going?"
"Hell comes to mind as an eventual destination, but for now, there." He points a finger at a beat-up red sign that has a cartoon chef with a white hat and a wide grin that reads "Chucky's Diner: Open All Hours. Come hungry, leave happy."
"Sounds like sophisticated dining. I feel underdressed."
The truck rolls to a stop at the intersection and the dark-haired man turns to look at me. I can't see his eye color, but that isn't necessary to feel the heat of his gaze as it strips me bare. His eyes feel like they are directly on my skin, burning me, seeing into me, revealing everything I don't want him to see. I don't understand why he is scrutinizing me, or what he thinks he'll find.
The breath I take is shaky, and the sound of it ends whatever spell he has me under. He blinks and faces forward, his motions stiff as the truck accelerates. Silence alive with pinpricks of unnamed sensation travels with us as he drives to the diner. I don't notice my legs are weak until I almost fall as I hop from the truck, gravel spitting under the pressure of my boots as I fight for balance. I shoot upright and pat down my layered waves of hair that take much joy in their constant mutiny. I try to appear nonchalant, even as my pulse dips and sputters and veers in dizzying directions.
He meets me at the front of the old Ford, his head angled to the side as he watches me approach. I think I prefer sound of any kind to his quiet, so I hum to myself as we walk through the partially filled parking lot, the dark building's windows filled with light and people. I hug my backpack to my chest, unwilling to leave it out of sight. A metal sign on top of the roof hangs sideways, swaying and creaking as a cool breeze goes by. I hurry past it, not wanting to be beneath the sign should it decide it wants to come down.
This excerpt ends on page 15 of the paperback edition.