by Megan Lokensgard
“Are we there yet?” whines Tommy for what is probably the eighteenth time. He’s sitting all slumped over in his navy blue booster seat and staring out the foggy window of his family’s white Honda Odyssey.
The ominous gray clouds blowing in from the west look as though they are about to burst, and the sun is slowly retreating behind them. Soon, the incoming rain will make it too hard to see all the scenery swooshing past outside. Not that there is anything particularly interesting to look at in the middle of Nebraska, just cornfield after cornfield for miles on end.
“Shut up, Tommy. You sound like a broken record,” I say as I try my best to pull my short brown hair into a ponytail. By this time, I’ve listened to every song on my iPod twice, and I’m already past the point of being annoyed with my kid stepbrother repeating that same stupid question. I should just start tallying how many times he asks “Are we there yet?” Probably would break some record.
“C’mon, Hails, can you please try to be somewhat decent to your brother? It’s getting long for all of us. I know this wasn’t your first choice of how to spend your spring break, but it’ll be a good way for all of us to bond as a family,” says my mom as she offers a bottle to baby Sally. “And it’ll be another hour or so, Tommy. Hang in there, okay, bud?”
She planned this trip with my stepdad months in advance; she booked all of the hotels in order to get the best deals and mapped out the route we’re going to take. I feel guilty for putting up such a stink about it all, but I wanted to spend my break with my friends back home in Nevada. Not going on some pointless, family road trip. Especially not one with Jerry.
My stepdad says it’ll be fun because we’ll be able to see where we’re going and where we’ve been. I disagree. We’re in Nebraska, which is also known as the land where nothing interesting happens. Maybe if it were just my mom and I, the trip would be fun. But I don’t like Jerry. He took my mom away from me.
“It’s about time for another dump and pump,” my stepdad says as he pulls the van off Highway 80. “Let’s all get out for a bit and stretch our legs. Get some fresh air.”
We roll into a Sinclair gas station with the windshield wipers whisking the droplets of rain off the front window. Tommy thinks the gas station’s green dinosaur logo is the best thing ever. He says his class is learning all about prehistoric times, and this dinosaur is called an Apatosaurus. How the heck did he even remember that name?
He helps Jerry clean off the smashed bugs stuck to the front of the car while my mom unbuckles Sally from her car seat to change her diaper.
I go into the gas station to look for snacks to munch on. Not because I’m really hungry or anything, but just because I’m completely bored out of my mind.
The door jingles as I walk in. I say hello to the middle-aged lady behind the counter, but she doesn’t even look up from her In Touch magazine. Reminds me of Jerry.
I begin browsing my snack options. Chili cheese Fritos, Ranch Doritos, Slim Jims. I grab a bag of each one. That should occupy me for a little while at least. I also pick out an Arizona Iced Tea to help wash down all of my nutritious munchies.
“Where are you and your family off to?” I’m startled by an unfamiliar voice behind me. Turning around, I take in what I’m looking at. An alarmingly thin girl around my age, maybe 15 or so, is waiting for me to reply to her question. She peeks through greasy strands of mousy brown hair that fall over her face like a veil.
I notice her skin is grossly pale, as though it hasn’t seen the sun for years. Her clothes are a little outdated and stained, too. I guess they’re probably some hand-me-downs from an older sibling or something. This girl reminds me of oatmeal: plain, boring, not someone’s first choice for breakfast.
“Uh, Michigan, to visit some of my stepdad’s side of the family. What about yourself?” I ask Oatmeal Girl. How did she know I’m with my family anyway?
She doesn’t answer me right away. It’s like she’s thinking about how to respond. “I’m actually just trying to find a way back home.”
A way back home? Weird. This girl is weird. She’s making me a little uncomfortable but seems nice enough, I guess. “Well, where’s home for you?”
Oatmeal Girl replies, “A little town right outside of Omaha. Are you and your family, by any chance, heading in that direction?”
“Um, well yeah, I think we’re actually staying in Omaha for the night.” Why is this girl so friendly and asking all these questions? She seems sort of shady.
“Really? Well see, I have no way of getting back home, and I was wondering if your family might be able to give me a lift.”
Bold. I would never just go up to a stranger and ask for a ride like that. Oatmeal Girl has guts. She also has a lot of bruises and marks on her arms and neck.
“Okay... Well, uh, I can ask my mom and stepdad and see if that would be okay with them, I guess...” I really hope my parents tell Oatmeal Girl no. She creeps me out.
“That would be terrific! Thanks so much. I’m Janie, by the way.” She extends her bony hand towards me. Her fingernails resemble small talons, and I notice there’s black dirt crusted underneath them.
“Nice to meet you, Janie. I’m Hailey.” I take her hand and shake it. For looking so fragile, she has quite the firm grip. She says she’ll be waiting outside for me. I make my way up to the counter to pay for my plethora of snacks.
“Weird girl, huh?” I ask the In Touch magazine lady.
“What was that?” the woman asks as she scans my Slim Jims.
“The girl I was just talking to over there. She’s super weird, right?”
“Sorry, hun, but I’ve been pretty caught up in this magazine story. Did you hear about Britney Spears shaving her head?” I give her a blank look. “No? Okay, well that’ll be $7.27 then.”
I dig around in my wallet and hand her a wrinkled ten. I look through the window of the store and see Janie making her way over to Jerry. By the time I exit, Janie has already struck up a conversation with my stepdad. Of course she has.
“Hey, Hailey, we just met your little friend, Janie, here,” says Jerry. “She told us you two had a nice conversation inside.”
My little friend? A nice conversation? I hate when Jerry infers things like that. Like when he thought I’d like a pink Barbie nightgown for my 14th birthday last year. Or a sparkly plastic tea set the year before.
“Um, yeah, we met. Did she tell you she’s looking for a ride to Omaha?”
“She did, yes. I think we can do that for you, Janie. What do you think, Stacy?” Jerry turns to my mom, seeking her consent.
My mother looks conflicted. She pauses before she answers, “Well, we do have extra room in the van, and Omaha is only an hour from here. I suppose giving you a ride shouldn’t be a problem, Janie.”
Really? Wow, Mom. She’s too kind for her own good sometimes. She trusts people too quickly. What if this girl is some crazy murderer, out to get us all? What if she takes my mom away from me just like Jerry did?
“Oh my, thank you all very much! I really appreciate your kindness.” Janie crawls into the van and gets settled in the backseat. Great. I have to sit next to her.
“Of course, Janie, it really isn’t a problem at all. Glad we can help you out,” my mom says with the same smile she gives me after I bring home a good report card.
I scowl, clamor into the van, and buckle up. I look sideways at Janie who has her hands folded neatly on her stained jeans. Who is this girl, and what planet did she come from?
“Everyone buckled up?” my stepdad calls to the back as he starts the van. We pull out of the Sinclair gas station and Tommy waves goodbye to his green Apatosaurus.
“So, Janie. What’s your story? Where are you coming from?” My mom fiddles with the radio. All the stations seem not to be tuning in quite right. “That’s odd, these stations were just working back when we stopped to get gas...”
Janie shifts uncomfortably in her seat before answering, “I was just visiting some relatives who were really sick. They weren’t able to take me back home, so I’ve been making my way on foot. Thankfully, I ran into you all. It really is so nice of you to give me a lift like this.”
Baby Sally bursts into tears at this comment. My mother tries to soothe her with a bright orange pacifier. “Shh, Sally, it’s alright, baby... Well, of course, Janie. We’re always willing to help those in need.” She glances back at me and gives me a puzzled look.
I just shrug and roll my eyes. My mom shoots me the “Be nice” look. I decide to give it a try.
“So, Janie... What kinds of things do you like to do in your free time?”
“I enjoy reading. It helps me escape the troubles of reality and enter a perfect world. What about you? Do you like reading too?”
“Um, not really. I’m more into sports and stuff. Soccer, hockey, lacrosse... I’m really involved in those year round. Do you have any siblings?”
“No, I’m an only child. I live with my dad. That’s why I like to read. Gets me away from him for a while...”
I raise my eyebrows at this. She doesn’t like her dad either. Even though her reply was a bit weird, Janie and I might have more in common than I think. No one responds to Janie’s strange comment. Jerry continues to look ahead at the road and my mom is still trying to calm down Sally.
“Where’s your mom?” I thought Tommy was off in his own little world playing his Nintendo DS, but I guess he was secretly listening in on our conversation.
“She’s dead,” replies Janie bluntly, without a trace of emotion on her face.
“Oh. That’s too bad,” Tommy seems saddened by this news and returns back to his Star Wars game.
The van becomes awkwardly silent after this. Sally finally quiets down. My mom turns off the radio because every channel is pure static. No one asks Janie any more questions and Janie never offers up any more information. We drive over the flat lands of Nebraska, hoping to see something interesting. A tree, a cow, anything besides nothing. It never happens.
The rain is finally beginning to let up. The sun struggles to find a way to shine through the residual gray clouds that have almost depleted their stocks. I see a green sign that reads: Omaha, 20 miles. Good. Only 20 more minutes next to Janie.
We arrive in the town of Omaha 20 minutes later, just as I predicted. It’s almost 7 o’clock now, and my parents decide to treat Janie to dinner before dropping her off at a local diner called “The Diner.” Original. We park and everyone gets out. I’m actually hungry now; those snacks only tided me over for so long. Janie leads the way.
“My dad used to bring me here every so often. Doesn’t bring me out so much anymore, though... I’m excited to get home and finish business. I need to make things right now.” What the heck is she talking about this time? “I’ll meet you all at the table. I need to use the restroom quick.”
We wait to be seated. Jerry grabs a couple coloring sheets and a pack of Crayola crayons for Tommy and me. Do I need to remind him that I’m 15?
An old man with a large belly and thick handlebar moustache comes over and greets us. “Hi, all! How many will we be servin’ tonight?” His mustache ripples when he talks.
“We have six,” my stepdad replies.
The man looks confused and laughs, “I only saw you five come in. You sure you counted right, son?”
“I’m sure. Our other guest is using the bathroom right now.”
He gives my dad a skeptical look. “Alrighty then, whatever you say there. Right this way.”
The round man leads us to a large corner booth near the counter seating. The televisions behind the counter are tuned into the local news channel. He scribbles down our drink orders and leaves us to look at our menus.
I already know what I want: a California burger with cheddar cheese and bacon. The bacon is an extra $1.29, but I deserve to treat myself after that horrible van ride with Janie. I’m getting that bacon on my burger.
Tommy is whining about how he can’t decide between chicken tenders or macaroni and cheese. Sally is starting to get antsy and my parents look like they’re about to pass out from exhaustion. I just want to get this meal over with so we can drop Janie off at her house and get to our hotel. Is she still in the bathroom?
I turn my attention to the television behind the diner’s aluminum counter. An attractive blonde newscaster starts in on a story.
“The body of Janie Westerham was finally discovered in a farmer’s field this evening right outside of Lincoln. Investigators presume she was beaten and strangled to death by the marks on her body and around her neck. Police plan on starting their investigation with her father, whom they believe may be responsible for her murder.”
A picture of Oatmeal Girl flashes across the screen. I stare with wide eyes and my mouth agape. A chill runs up my entire spine and I shudder. My brain is having a hard time piecing things together. Janie was murdered? But she was just with us...
“Mom, Jerry, did you just see that story on the news?” I’m in absolute shock. I look to my parents whose faces are as white as I’m sure mine is. My palms begin to sweat and I suddenly feel something drop in my stomach.
“Yeah... We caught that.” My stepdad’s expression is one of disbelief. It matches my mom’s who sits silently, holding baby Sally who suddenly bursts into tears again.
“Did you see that?? Janie’s famous!” cries Tommy. “She was on TV just now!”
“Excuse me.” I stop the big-bellied man that seated us, “that girl on the news... Do you know who she is?”
“Janie Westerham? ’Course I do! Been one of the top local stories ’round here for weeks. Went missing a while back. Guess they finally found her body tonight. She used to frequent this diner quite a bit with her old man. Poor child...”
“She was the girl we were just with. She walked in with us. We’ve been waiting for her to join us from the restroom.” I’m really scared now. “How could she be dead?”
The man awkwardly chuckles, “Like I told you and your family before, dear, I never saw any girl walk in with you this evenin’. ’Specially not Janie Westerham. Woulda recognized her in a heartbeat.” He walks away to take the orders of a couple sitting a few booths down from us, giving us a quizzical look as he leaves.
My mother suggests we go check to see if Janie is okay. She’s been gone for quite a while now and we need to question her about what we just saw on the news. Maybe it was a big hoax or something.
I slide out of the booth with my mom and we head towards the restrooms. Everything feels surreal at this moment. Why was our waiter not able to see Janie? Come to think of it, the In Touch lady at the gas station never noticed her either...
“Janie? Are you still in here?” My mother calls into the restroom, but there’s no response.
I walk in and look under the stalls for feet. What the heck? The restroom’s empty. There’s no one in here except for my mom and me. I realize my hands are shaking. My mother’s face is stricken with bewilderment and what looks like fright.
We return back to our booth. Jerry’s face is questioning.
“No Janie,” is all my mom says.
My family sits there in silence. No one knows how to react to the situation. Everyone is completely stunned. Is this some type of sick joke someone’s playing on all of us?
The big-bellied man brings our food by. For some reason, my California burger with cheddar cheese in all of its bacon glory just doesn’t seem appetizing to me anymore. I begin to think maybe Jerry’s not so bad after all...
I turn my head to look out the window behind me. Through the diner’s wooden blinds, I see the sun setting in the distance. I squint and make out a slender figure dragging something down along the pavement.
It’s Oatmeal Girl. She’s not quite opaque in the dimming sunlight, but I can still tell it’s her by that greasy hair and white skin. Behind her is the limp body of a man who is the spitting image of her. Behind her is the body of her father, who murdered her. She finished her business and made things right. Oatmeal Girl is finally on her way home.
Copyright © 2013 by Megan Lokensgard