The kid was quiet for the first several hours after he had picked her up. Obe glanced at her occasionally, particularly when he changed the radio station, looking for a sign that he had found the one she liked. She was quiet, but expressive, and she wrinkled her nose for the first five that he tried. When he found a classic rock channel, she smiled slightly and her shoulders relaxed. She was staring out the window at the endless dusty desert, but he caught her stealing glances back at him several times. Obe was patient, and waited for her to start the conversation.
“I don’t remember how I got out here,” she said finally.
“That’s okay. Most people don’t.”
“Yeah, but it seems weird that I don’t remember how I got in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yeah. How did you get here?”
Obe smiled. The girl, who had told him she wanted to be called Ida, had found her chatter. “Oh, I drove,” he replied.
“I knew that.” She gave him a narrow eyed look. “I meant where did you come from?”
He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “Back that way, and, to answer your next question, I’m going that way.” He pointed forward.
“That wasn’t my next question.” She folded her arms and flipped her hair out of her eyes with a toss of her head, trying to look like a teenager. He hadn’t asked, but he didn’t think she was quite there yet. Her face was too round, and she still had the body of a child. Her long blonde hair was pulled away from her face with a purple headband. She was regarding him closely with her wide blue eyes. “Why don’t you cut your beard?” she asked finally.
He looked at her, surprised. “Is that your next question?”
She nodded, still staring at him.
He stroked his facial hair, glancing at himself in the mirror. The blonde strands fell to his breastbone and was nearly as fine as the hair on his crown. They were beginning to silver at the ends, but it wasn’t too bad yet. He thought it went well with the spider webs of cracks and wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth and deepening creases in his forehead. It made him seem softer, less old and craggy. He told her so.
She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. He could see that she was re-evaluating her earlier opinion, whatever it was. Her mouth twisted, and she finally shrugged. “I don’t think you look old.”
Obe laughed. “Then it seems to be working.”
She smiled reluctantly and fell quiet again for a little while, staring ahead at the dusty road stretched out before them. “Do you mind if I turn up the radio a little bit?” she asked. She was already reaching for the dial.
Obe shrugged. “Whatever makes you happy.”
Ida turned up the music and eventually started rocking her head to the beat of an old Aerosmith song. Surreptitiously, she drummed her fingers on her knees, trying to keep up with the drumbeats coming from the old stereo system. “Did you ever play an instrument?” she asked.
“I played the guitar a little bit, and tried the piano, but I never got too into it. I just like to listen.”
“Oh. I always wanted to play the guitar. I thought it’d be cool to be in a band.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Her face wrinkled up, concentrating. “I don’t remember. I was going to, but something happened.” She thought about it a little more, and then her features smoothed out. “I don’t remember,” she said again.
Obe nodded understandingly.
The desert landscape, pretty in its own dead right, rolled past them. The scrub nearest the road zipped past in a blur, but the sandy fields and plateaus in the distance seemed in no hurry. The sun was still high in the sky, but it had started tipping to the west. Obe rolled down his window a little bit to get the air stirred up. It was cooler than it looked, a comfortable seventy degrees. Ida’s hair whipped around her face as if it was caught up in a hurricane. She tried to keep it pulled down and out of the way, but she soon gave it up.
“I always thought it’d be hotter in the desert,” she said. She had rolled down her own window to stick her hand out and let it drift in the air current.
“Well, this isn’t exactly a normal desert.”
Bored with using her hand as a tiny wing, Ida grew restless in her seat. She began to explore her side of the car, bending forward to peek under the seat, opening the glove box and finally slithering over the seat to find out what was in the back. She wouldn’t find much besides a little dirt and his toolbox. Obe took pride in the cleanliness of his vehicle. He had lived in it for long enough that any clutter or mess was depressing.
Obe glanced at her in the rearview mirror. The girl was lying on her stomach across the leather backseat. She had opened his toolbox and was looking at the tools, taking them out, one by one, and turning them over before replacing them.
“Are these for fixing the car?” She leaned into the front seat, holding up a ten millimeter wrench for him to see.
“Yes,” Obe replied. “Not a lot of shops around here, so I do my own work when she needs it.” He heard her drop the wrench back in the toolbox and shut the lid. With a grunt, she scrambled back into the front seat.
“Where are we going?” she asked, pushing her hair out of her face.
“I told you. That way.” He pointed through the windshield. The road stretched out ahead of them in a long straight line. A few mountains rose up beyond where the road shrank into obscurity, but they were a long way off.
Ida scowled. “Why are we going that way? When can I go home?”
Obe sighed. He had wondered when she was going to ask that question. He wasn’t sure he was ready to give her the answer. She was younger than anyone he had come across out here for a long time, and he had been surprised to find that he had grown attached to the girl already. The hair and beard were to keep him from looking as old as he was, but she made him start to feel younger, too. It was nice to have a companion who didn’t act forlorn and bewildered the entire time they were with him.
“Soon. I’ll take you home soon,” he replied quietly.
Satisfied with the answer, she settled into her seat again. She suddenly sat bolt upright and pointed. “Look!” she cried. “There’s somebody on the road!”
And there was. Obe slowed his old Charger and stopped when he pulled up next to a scared looking young woman. She peered worriedly into his car, folding her arms tightly around herself. Obe saw that she was reluctant to get in, but she relaxed when she noticed Ida. He wasn’t surprised that the kid’s presence was calming.
“Slide over to the middle, Ida,” he said. “Let’s let her in.”
She cranked the handle and pushed the door open before scooting across the leather. The woman staggered around the open door and nearly fell into the car. “Where-Where am I?” she asked in a small voice.
“You’re lost, too?” Ida asked brightly. Obe marveled at how little that seemed to bother her.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” he asked gently.
“Um, Ana, I think. How did I get here?” She looked around for a seatbelt, and folded her arms around herself again when she found none.
Obe didn’t answer the question. He never knew how until he finally took these people where they needed to go. Besides, he was a driver, not an explainer. She would figure it out for herself soon enough anyways. Obe was sympathetic, but they still tested his patience sometimes. Ida struck up a one sided conversation with the woman, asking questions or explaining what little she knew. She talked a little bit about the car. Obe listened to that bit, surprised at how much she knew. It wasn’t much, but a lot for an eleven year old girl.
“I always wanted one,” she explained when she saw him looking at her. Ida didn’t seem fazed by the blank look on the woman’s face nor the fact that Ana never answered any of her questions. Ana did start to relax though.
At a lull in Ida’s stream of chatter, Ana looked at Obe. “Where are we going?”
Ida’s arm shot out, pointing at the road. “That way!” she said, casting an impish look back at him.
Obe laughed. “Yep. Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’ll have you home soon enough.”
Ana’s brow furrowed. “Home soon?” she looked around. “I don’t remember living in a desert.”
“All the same,” he replied.
Ida looked back and forth between them but said nothing.
A gravel offshoot appeared in the road, and Obe turned to follow it. His old car bumped over the trail, and he took it slow to keep from shaking them to pieces. It wound a little ways before ending in a circular driveway in front of a weather beaten farmhouse. Ana shrank back into her seat while Ida leaned forward. The little girl behaved so differently than the others. Obe thought that must have been what endeared her to him.
“Come on, Ana,” he said, opening his door with a creak. He got out of the car, groaning slightly. Years in the army jumping out of planes had taken their toll, and some of his height. Time spent sitting in the car had done the rest. Sometimes, he felt nearly a foot shorter than the six feet he used to be. He put his hands up and stretched, ignoring the cracks and complaints his body gave him. It was too late to worry about damaging himself further now.
Ana, still jumpy, crept out of the passenger side. Ida started to follow. Obe leaned into the car. “Stay here, girl,” he said sternly.
She looked hurt. “But I wanna see inside,” she said.
Obe shook his head. “This isn’t your stop, and it’s none of your business. Stay here.” He shut her in the car and began walking Ana to the porch. Halfway there, he turned and wagged a warning finger at Ida, who stuck her tongue out at him. At first, he was shocked by the lack of maturity, but, when she smirked, he knew that she had only put on a show of defiance. He watched her clamber into the back seat to dig around in the toolbox again, and continued to the house, content that she would not follow.
It didn’t take him long to return to the car. It never did anymore. He didn’t know if people were taking things better nowadays, or if he was just getting better, but, in the end, he supposed it didn’t matter. The job got done.
Ida tried to jump out and startle him when he slid back behind the wheel. He glanced at her. “You can’t scare me,” he remarked, turning on the car and putting it in reverse.
She made a face. “Well, that’s no fun.”
He turned left when he reached the paved road again. The sun had made its way down the sky, and some low hanging clouds near the mountains nearly blotted it out. Obe wondered if they would reach the road. He rolled down his window. The air that rushed in had the sharp tang of coming rain, although that didn’t necessarily mean anything.
“Where are we going now?” Ida asked before answering her own question. “I know. I know. That way.” She pointed through the windshield.
Obe had never carried someone for this long and had never had more than one in his car at a time. He knew that he was going to have to take care of her soon, but he kept putting it off.
When Obe picked up and dropped off two more, Ida didn’t ask to go inside. He wasn’t sure what she did while he was gone, but she picked up talking right where she left off each time. He gave the appropriate ‘hmm’ or ‘oh, really?’ but he only really listened to half of what she said. It was nice to hear a human voice though, young and confident and perfectly content to sit in a car with an old man.
A run down garage appeared on the side of the road, and he pulled into it. He needed to change the oil. He pulled his toolbox from the back seat and took out the oil can and filter from the trunk. The jacks were already in the garage. Ida sat on an overturned bucket and watched him work. She asked questions until he offered to show her what he was doing.
Careful not to bump the car, she crept under the car next to him. She laughed, delighted when he offered her a wrench to finish undoing the nut he had started. He carefully showed her each step, and she repeated his instructions, as if committing it to memory. They crawled out, and he lowered the car.
“Now we wash off and keep going,” he said.
It was beginning to darken, partly due to the clouds and partly due to sunset. Obe sighed. He knew that he should drop Ida off. The driveway appeared at the crest of the hill, and he turned down it.
“Are we almost there?” she asked, looking out the window curiously.
“I’m afraid so,” Obe replied. He stopped in front of another large house, grayed with age. “You’re going inside this time.”
She looked excited at first, but hesitated. A strange look clouded her face as she looked at the house. Reluctantly, the girl left the car.
“We won’t be too long, will we?” She looked up at him as he walked her toward the house.
“Just a couple of minutes.”
Ida turned to gaze back at the car. She paused and backed up a step when they reached the door.
“What’s wrong, girl?” he asked. He opened the door and motioned for her to go inside.
She stared at the darkened opening. “I’m not coming back out, am I?” she asked. Her voice was hollow. She was beginning to have the same, fearful, distant look the others always wore.
“I’m afraid not.” Obe led her inside.
She looked around the rooms as she followed him to the back of the house and the basement door. “It looks like home,” she murmured. “Except I don’t live in a desert.” She paused several feet from the door.
Obe took out a ring of keys and began looking for the right one. In truth, he knew which one it was, but he didn’t want to open that door too quickly. He had never minded this part of the job before, but now it struck him as obscene. A shadow passed by them, and there was the click of a door shutting. It was a muffled sound, as if it came from far away. The stairs on the other side creaked.
Ida shook her head. “I don’t wanna go down there,” she whispered when he opened the door. She stared at the dark opening and took a step backwards. A soft, pained moan drifted up the stairs, followed by the ghostly echo of a man angrily shouting. Squeezing her eyes shut, Ida stuck her fingers in her ears. “I don’t wanna remember anything. I don’t wanna remember this. Don’t make me go down there.”
Obe put his hand gently on her shoulder and pushed her forward, closer to the darkened stairs. It seemed to get colder when a small, shrill cry blew past them. Ida screamed, trying to drown out the sound. Her voice melded with the echo of herself.
“Don’t hurt me. Please, stop!” she moaned. Her face became pale, and bruise-like shadows ringed her eyes.
He had to turn away, couldn’t stand to see this transformation in her. “Remembering is the only thing left for you.” He pushed her forward another step.
She looked at him with tear stained eyes. “This is dead, isn’t it?” she asked. “I’m dead?”
Obe nodded. “Sometimes, people come here, lost and scared, and I take them back where they need to go. This is your last stop.”
“But you must be dead, too. You’re not stopping.” She blinked at him hopefully.
Obe shook his head. “No, I never stop. That’s not my job.” He pushed her forward again, although more reluctantly this time.
Her head bowed. Sobbing softly, Ida walked through the doorway. She paused with her foot hanging above the first step. Obe watched her waver there and then start to go down. She was mostly in shadow and wouldn’t look back at him. He gritted his teeth, hating to see her go. The sounds drifting from the dark basement were louder now, and he couldn’t stand them. He knew that the kid must remember some of what had happened to her by now. Her shivering confirmed it.
With a sigh, he put his hand out and pulled her back out of the darkness. He might have to let her go someday, but he couldn’t right now. Ida hugged him fiercely, nearly knocking him backwards. She buried her face in his beard.
“I want to stay with you. Please, let me stay with you,” she sobbed over and over.
Obe stroked her hair with one hand and shut the door with the other. It locked on its own.
The moon was shining when they left the house. It painted everything bone white. Ida leaped off the porch and ran to the car while Obe walked more slowly.
The old Charger rattled to life, and Obe backed her slowly away from the house. By the time he had turned off the driveway and back onto the road, Ida had curled up against her door and fallen asleep. It would be nice to have the kid along for the ride, at least for a little while. She gave the dead road some life. He was already feeling young again.