They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. This is only one of many foolish things people think are true, and this one had never fooled Alice. She was a young woman of peculiar tastes, with hair that she’d died twelve different shades of green and a tongue piercing she gave herself one late night after about twelve fingers of vodka. Once the infection healed she didn’t regret it.
That was one of Alice’s rules for life. Regrets were the enemy, because once you started regretting things where did it stop? Pretty soon you were just an angst ridded shell, guilty of everything and feeling guilty for everything.
Another of Alice’s rules had to do with how to get at a man’s heart. Obviously, going through his stomach had fairly revolting ramifications, if you consider the contents of a human stomach. Alice preferred not to consider them. She’d always found that breaking ribs was the way to go. Of course, she knew that the stomach thing was supposed to be metaphorical, but still. It seemed like it was spreading misinformation.
She was sitting on a cinderblock wall that had been painted an ugly orange color. It was outside a town she couldn’t remember the name of, not that it really mattered. She had no intention of making a long stay. Alice preferred cities. Easier to disappear among the crowds, to forget who she was and vanish. Just another fucked up girl in a world full of ‘em. Plus, more people meant that a few disappearances, a few disconnected grisly crime scenes could go unnoticed for a while. Long enough, at least. Like every other junkie she found her fix in the oily back allies, places where broken windows looked through rusted fire escapes, but no one saw anything.
She breathed in the night air. If there were trees their leaves would have been turning, but as it was the desert drifted on. The only thing affected by the chill was her.
The gas station was on the side of an interstate full of people going nowhere fast. The whooshing of semi-trucks was almost a physical push whenever one barreled past behind her. Ahead she stared out into the kind of empty that you cant remember once you’ve looked away from it. Like it’s too big for your mind to keep. She wondered what would happen if, instead of using her big, coal lined eyes and blood red lips to hitch a ride, she started walking and didn’t stop until she couldn’t walk anymore. Was there a place so far away that she could be safe from herself? But her mind slid away from that thought. The helplessness that lived there was like the desert. Too big for her to even think about unless she was faced with it head on.
When Alice was a little girl she hadn’t realized the rapture that sat, beating, just inside a person’s chest. Anyone who has ever had their hopes dashed, their love thrown back in their face, or their trust abused understands that the term ‘heart break’ is not just a metaphor. There are very intelligent people who will tell you that the sharp ache in your chest that goes along with the tears is all in your head, a reaction to growing up with the expectation of it. These are not the same people who tell you the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but they might as well be.
Her mother would break the necks of crows, and help Alice slice them open, retrieve their tiny hearts like perfect little rubies. Alice would pop them in her mouth and feel the rush of flight, and the need that she had only barely started to feel would be sated for a while. Until it wasn’t any more.
Behind her a car shot down the off ramp, going too fast. She felt a sense of resignation settle over her, as well as a building anticipation. The need wasn’t overwhelming yet, but it would be soon enough. The time between hits seemed to be getting shorter and shorter, but she hoped she was imagining that.
She knew without turning around that the vehicle behind her didn’t have a mother and her two little girls in it, or a new grandpa on the way to meet his first grandson. Only young people drove like that. Alice didn’t think that it was because they though they were immortal, that was just another silly thing said by silly people. She thought that it was because they loved the feeling of mortality, the risk of almost loosing it.
By the time she actually swiveled around two of the men, boys really, had gone into the convenience store, laughing too loud and pushing each other. The third boy was standing by the beat up Chevy, and when she turned around she caught him looking at her. He winced, apparently in self deprecation, then smiled at her with a slightly high pitched, “Hey.”
She smiled back, careful not to show the tips of her sharp teeth. “How’s it goin’?”
He shrugged loosely. Not as drunk as his friends, but not stone cold sober either. It made her smile more genuine. Drunk drivers were a favorite of hers. She figured they were likely to die soon anyway. They may as well do her a solid on the way out.
“It’s pretty good,” but as soon as he said it his whole body sagged. “Honestly, it’s been a long day.” Then he straightened and smiled again, this time full wattage. She was surprised by how an expression that was so totally faked could still light up his face. It made her notice that he was attractive.
“How come your day’s been long?” She asked, making the preliminary conversation necessary to wrangling a ride.
Instead of answering he walked over to her, so they didn’t have to do the half yelling thing anymore. The boy sat next to her on the cold wall and scuffed his unlaced sneakers in the sand that had accumulated on the blacktop along the wall.
He sat like that for a second, looking down, until he suddenly seemed to remember she was there. “I’m Dustin.”
That made him smile a tiny, real smile. It didn’t light up his face, but she liked it better anyway. “How was Wonderland?”
“Not as wonderful as advertised. But what is?”
They faced straight again. Alice starred at the halos around the halogen strip lights. Moths swarmed around them. She should turn on the charm, flirt a little. Maybe these guys were scum, and would attack her once she got in their car. She didn’t mind killing wannabe rapists, although she didn’t eat their hearts. Hearts like that weren’t worth the effort it took to get them. She wasn’t concerned for her safety. Her heritage and her mother made sure she didn’t have to be.
She was suddenly so tired she could barely move. Bizarrely, she felt her throat start to close with the beginning of tears. What she needed was the bright lights of the city. The beat of trance music. The feel of a stranger’s body against hers. Anything to make her remember a part of herself other than this.
“So, what are you doing out here?” He asked, like he had a right to.
“Sitting.” After a glance at his face she relented. “I hitched a ride with a trucker. He got friendly and took it badly when I said no. Pulled off at the next exit.”
Dustin listened intently, and for just a second she thought she saw something on his face that she recognized. Something she was used to seeing on people’s faces, once she’d shown her true colors. And then it was gone and he was just another kid with dirt brown hair and sleepy eyes.
“That sucks.” He sounded like he meant it.
“It’s okay. I’m fine… and a ride’s a ride.” She had been grateful, actually, when the trucker turned out to be sleazy and weak. It was easier that way, so long as they weren’t truly evil. She couldn’t choke down an evil heart. Which, she knew was pretty hypocritical of her. If she had a heart it wouldn’t taste very good, she figured.
“So,” she turned to face him for the first time, “Why has your night been long? You look beat.”
He winced and rubbed his hand over his face, like he could rub away the exhaustion. “I’m good. My buddies wanted to go on a mini road trip. Find some parties in a big city. Dragged me along. They figured it would cheer me up. It sorta worked, but now I just want to go home.”
She wasn’t sure what to say. She tried not to learn too much about a potential victim. She would learn enough from the rush of their life that would course through her as she ate. Sense based memories of places she had never been and things she hadn’t done. Feelings she’d never have on her own.
He answered her unspoken questions anyway. Starting with a quiet sigh he said, “A couple months ago a girl I knew disappeared. She was just gone. Everything left in her apartment, no reason to disappear. I guess we all know she’s dead. People don’t just do that, just take off on a perfectly good life. But the police haven’t found her. Her sister told me they pretty much stopped looking.”
Alice’s stomach clenched and she felt a rush of adrenaline that turned her fingers cold. She wanted to express her sympathies, but even she couldn’t choke out a lie like that. If it was a lie.
“Was she your girlfriend?” She asked, in a voiced she’d never used before.
He was back to staring at his shoes. “No. Not really. I’d known her for a while, and was hoping… but no. We were friends, is all.”
Alice bit her bottom lip hard, before remembering to hide her teeth. She tasted blood. Then, in that same gentle voice asked, “Where are you from? Where did she disappear from?”
“Phoenix. She was a student at ASU.”
The pressure behind her eyes was back, and Alice suddenly felt angry. Like he’d intentionally trapped her into this conversation, had known from the moment he met her what she had done and was torturing her with it.
Alice didn’t remember what the girl looked like. Brown hair, skin that bleed to paper white. She remembered her heart though. The feeling of inquisitiveness, the first time she got into a fist fight, the smell of homemade macaroni and cheese with bacon, the softness of the blond fuzz on her baby brother’s head. Those things were Alice’s now. Stolen moments from an ended life.
The convenience store door opened and poured out light and noise and two drunk young men. One of the two had long blond hair and his arms full of chip bags and candy. The other one was stocky, dark, with two six packs, one hanging from each hand. As Alice and Dustin watched they dumped their goodies into the truck cab, then trotted over to the two sitting on the wall.
Both boys eyed Alice with appreciation, especially her long legs wrapped tightly in jeans that were about 90% lycra.
Dustin introduced them, but Alice immediately forgot their names. They were sloppy and stupid. She smiled charmingly, and asked if they could maybe give her a ride. Dustin answered, despite the fact that she hadn’t looked at him since he mentioned his missing girl.
“Of course. We’re driving to L.A. Well, I’m driving, their boozing. But whatever. We can take you the whole way, if you want.” He seemed embarrassed, obviously feeling like he shouldn’t have told her so much when they were alone. She agreed.
Her mother had been a strong believer in only sharing what needed to be shared. It took a year of her mother’s increased hostility and extended absences before Alice begged her mom to tell her what was wrong between them. That was when her mother explained. Their kind were territorial, and Alice was no longer a child. She left that night, without telling her mom goodbye. She had been 14, and old enough to fend for herself.
Alice smiled mechanically, not quite meeting Dustin’s eyes. “That would be great. That’s where I was heading anyway.” That could have been true. It wasn’t untrue, at least.
An hour Later alice was sitting in the drivers side back seat, cheek pressed against the cool glass, leaving oil and makeup on it. Dustin had tried to give her shotgun but the shorter one of his friends took it. She didn’t care, this way Dustin couldn’t see her staring at him. Or, at what little of him she could see.
She closed her eyes. Dustin had shut off the radio, saying it was putting him to sleep. She could hear and feel the shaking of the truck. Hear the other cars, each swimming down a river of sound together. She tried to imagine that she could feel a heart beating inside her. Pictured it filling with blood, then sending it rushing back out to every tip of every toe, each finger tip. Wondered if people could hear their heart beats when they tried. A tempo, like music playing in the background. Like background music that always fit the scene. Never stopping, always moving. A miracle carried around in her chest, full of her ammo pack of life experience. Then she stopped imaging. She was too young to be this tired.
So she did it. She said, “Hey, I’ve gotta pee. Can we stop soon?”
“Sure, I’ll pull off at the next exit.”
She was hungry, was what she was. The boy with floppy blond hair was sleeping next to her and she could almost smell his dreams. She wanted to taste him. More than that, she wanted to devour Dustin. A boy with that much heart would fill her for days.
Later, once it was only her in the pickup truck she turned the music back on. When it was really loud it could drown out her own mind. Her happiness, her regret, everything in her was ugly.
She’d decided she lied to Dustin when she told him she was going to L.A. She was going to the ocean. The desert might not be big enough to consume her, but she was pretty sure the ocean was.
Just as Alice was making that decision Dustin was waking up. He hurt, everywhere. He felt bodies on either side of him and sat up in sudden panic. Tony and Bret were both out, with bruises forming on their foreheads. Dustin looked around, but didn’t recognize the gas station. The three of them were laid out side by side between the men’s room and the dumpsters. Each of them curled on their sides, with an elbow under their head. Like what you were supposed to do if a friend passed out, he realized. Had they been drinking? Maybe. But this was weird. Why were they here? And where was Alice?
Holy shit. Alice. He froze. Was Alice hurt? Or… and this though came creeping up, like a monster in a fairy tale. Or was she the one who had done this.
He tried to push him self up properly, but when he went to use his left hand coins flew out of it, landing all over Tony. Then Dustin sat up and looked around, and stared for a long moment at the pay phone about six feet away from him. Checked his pockets, found his cellphone was out of batteries. His wallet was intact except for the $43.00 he had had in cash. He leaned over Tony and picked up the quarters. His head hurt, and Tony and Bret were still out. He needed to call an ambulance, and the police. The thought, weirdly, made him feel guilty. Alice hadn’t seemed like a bad person, and she had left him quarters to call for help with after noticing his phone was dead. Which didn’t make up for the fact that she stole his truck and knocked them all out. Still. He wasn’t happy about sicking the cops on her. Before making the call he closed his eyes, thinking of all the things he now had to do. Thinking of Amanda, and how he missed her. He thought that she would have liked Alice, too.s