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Oct/Nov 2019 Fiction

The Wheel

by Brad Gottschalk

Image courtesy of The British Library photostream


A tire's pneumatic failure, normally a trivial event, even far from home as we were that day, was this time the prelude to an extended sequence of troubles. We were on a serpentine county highway that skirted a large lake, the name of which I do not know, and Katrina was driving. There was no sound to indicate the puncture, only the car lurching unexpectedly. Katrina swore quietly as she pulled to the side of the road. To our left was a small forest of denuded trees, having shuffled off their leaves for the season, and to our right was a fallow field bearing a barn with ragged holes in its roof and walls. Katrina leaned against the car and crossed her arms as I went to the trunk to retrieve the spare from its well. I pulled it out. It too was flat. I set it on the ground, walked over to Katrina, who was frowning and peering down the deserted highway, brows drawn down with a deep furrow between. We hadn't seen another car since turning off the interstate an hour before, the farm next to us had no house, only the aforementioned barn, and the nearest town was ten miles away. Katrina produced her phone, at first I assumed to search for a tow, but after some moments of thumbing words, she turned towards the lake, squinted, then turned back to me.

"I know someone who can help us. Let's go."

She placed her phone in her purse and set off into the woods. I picked up the tire and followed. The weather was quite pleasant. Though it was November first, the last several days had been unseasonably warm, and the sky was clear but for a smattering of cirrostratus clouds. I might mention here, as it'll become important later, that I was wearing one of my favorite summer shirts, a light blue Hawaiian of imitation silk decorated with prints of dragons. I was also wearing dark blue cotton trousers, pleated at the waist, flared out to the knees, and tapered down to the cuffs in an imitation of an old fashioned style. And though it's not particularly important, I'll mention that Katrina was wearing a light blue sleeveless summer dress with a vertical row of many, tiny buttons down the front. Walking while carrying the tire was awkward, but after I thought to put it on top of my head it became easy to manage. Forty-five minutes later, tired and perspiring, we arrived at the shore of the lake.

A hundred feet from where we stood, a pier stretched out to a sailboat. At its stern the name WANDA was stenciled in red and black. Katrina motioned me to follow her, and as we stepped onto the pier, a face appeared from the cabin. This was the "captain," Bela, whom Katrina apparently knew. He was tall and thin with gray curly hair, a closely cropped beard, and a bicep tattoo of a parrot. He smiled genially as he helped me lift the tire onto the boat. Soon we were comfortably seated near the captain's wheel, sipping gin and tonics as the boat's motor gurgled quietly, and we pulled away from the dock. Ahead of us we could see nothing but lake and air and the sun floating slowly down, throwing orange sparks across the wavecrests. I stared out across the water, forgetting for a moment that this respite was a but brief interruption of trouble.

"We'll be under sail soon," Bela said.

Katrina drained her glass and pitched it overboard, still glittering with tiny pieces of ice. "Tradition," she said, so I followed suit. Bela ran up the mainsail, unfurled the jib, and we heard the crack of the sail now fat with wind and felt the tilt of the boat as it leaned to port. Adjusting the course at the captain's wheel, Bela turned the boat and tacked northwest.

"So," Bela asked, "Have you ever been to Australia?" As Bela's eyes held fast to the horizon, I couldn't be sure to whom the question was directed, so I stayed silent. His head then swiveled, his eyes on me, the captain's wheel tilting portside, the boat's course shifting slightly.

"Well?" he said, loudly.

"No. I haven't," I said.

"They've got a jellyfish there. The box jellyfish. Tentacles ten feet long, each with thousands of stingers. Venom so toxic, if you get stung by one, the muscles around your heart and lungs stop working, and you die of cardiac arrest before you can drown."

I detected beneath the conveyance of such seemingly arbitrary information, a subtly threatening tone. I gave no verbal response, but nodded solemnly.

"You have nothing to say about that?" Bela said.

"I guess," I said hesitantly, "I am not really sure why you're telling me this."

"It's knowledge of the world around you!" Bela yelled. Katrina's expression was unreadable. After fastening the captain's wheel into place with ropes, Bela climbed up to the deck and leaned against the railing.

"This is a big world. Don't you have any intellectual curiosity? Or is that spare tire the only thing you care about?"

I thought this accusation unfair, after all, the tire was my responsibility, and when one faces trouble, however small, it's hard to ruminate on larger questions of an existential nature. Bela's frame of mind, however, was not sympathetic.

"You must leave the Wanda at once!" he yelled.

"Excuse me?" I said, looking around at the wind-scalloped but ultimately flat, even expanse.

Bela pointed to the stern, where a small rowboat was attached to the Wanda by a bewildering array of pulleys and ropes. Bela crossed his arms over his chest. Katrina sat, a still sphinx. I looked from Bela to Katrina, Katrina to Bela. Katrina shrugged.

"He is the captain," she said at length.

Picking up the tire, I trudged to the stern and climbed into the rowboat where I stood, steeped in resentment. Suddenly, the ropes gave way, and the rowboat plunged into the lake. As it descended, it knocked against the Wanda and was inconveniently cracked, and I fell backwards onto the bottom boards, ripping in the process the outer seam of my right trouserleg, nearly from ankle to waist. Katrina appeared at Bela's side, laughing loudly as though she were watching a Chaplin film. I stood, waving desperately, motioning her to join me in the boat, but she simply stood, covering in turn her chest and her mouth, still laughing, with her hands. In a few moments, the Wanda was too far from me to allow her to disembark with ease.

The western horizon was a straight line that swallowed whole both sun and indian summer. Even before the red bled out of the sky, the cold came. I sat on the thwart, watching water slowly puddle into the boat's bottom, shivering and staring at the long, weighty oars. I was hesitant to pick them up because I'd read somewhere without compass or landmass one would travel in circles, owing to our favoring of the left or right hand. The thought of spending an entire night drawing wide circles in the middle of a lake, was not a happy one. But finally, as much to keep warm as anything else, I picked up the oars and began to row. I did keep warm as long as I was awake, but I drifted from that state several times; however, my worry as I watched the water trickle in through the boat's crack kept me from sleeping fully through the night.

By dawn's dim light, I saw land. I was cold and sore, but the shore wasn't far. The sun had left its warmth on the bottom of the lake, and the familiar November chill crept over both lake and land. With stiff paddling, I got close enough to shore to see a pier decorated with boats of the recreational kind. There was a road up to it and a few old houses scattered across a gentle hill that rose up from the shore. The sun was high by the time I grabbed the lakemost plank, but no warmer than it had been at dawn. The boat was half full of water. I kicked the cracked board, grabbed my tire, stepped up to the dock, and watched the Wanda's tadpole sink. At the road, I set the tire down and sat upon it, resting my chin in my palm, ruminating over my gloomy state. I had no money. My wallet and phone had both been stored in the glovebox of my car, and I didn't think to pull them out before Katrina led me through the scraggly forest. At length, I picked up my tire and walked down the road. After about a hundred yards, it crossed a commercial street with, among other things a coffee shop, a Cajun restaurant, a bar, and a shop in a bungalow selling t-shirts and little wooden statuettes of bears and birds. Twenty or so people walked around in small groups of three or five, and one young couple held hands while breathing mist onto the window of a rather run down vintage clothing store. I walked toward the coffee shop, listing in my head names of people I could call collect, if, in fact, I found a phone.

Katrina waved me to her table. She was wearing a turtleneck sweater, a long wool skirt, gray tights and low-heeled ankle boots.

"I'd offer to buy you a cup of coffee, but my wallet's in the car," I said.

"Have a cup on me," she said, not stirring from her seat.

I got up, plucked a paper cup from the counter stack, and filled it with a swarthy roast called Kauai Shade. Sitting down across from Katrina, I held the seam of my pantleg together and sipped my coffee with my left hand.

"I don't want to rush you," said Katrina, "but we're supposed to be there in twenty minutes."

"Where?"

"The B and B. I'm assuming you're staying there."

"My wallet is in the car."

"That's no problem. I know the owner."

"Are you staying there, too?"

"Not yet. I have a friend in town who's asked me to visit."

We stepped outside. The coffee shop had been warm, and the day was bright and sunny, so the chill that gripped the air had slipped my mind. I was cold immediately.

Katrina had a car, a large sedan from the seventies with red leather upholstery and seats like a sofa. She opened the trunk, I stored my tire, and climbed into the car's surprisingly warm interior. The town disappeared fast behind us. It was quite small—the street I'd been on was a hub around which were scattered tiny houses with narrow lawns ringed with chain link fences. For twenty minutes, we drove fast over flat, dry, brown ground. Ahead, I saw the bed and breakfast, a hoary, old Victorian house, a solitary structure in the field, festooned with scrollwork and painted an unfortunate pale pink around the porch, doors, windows and gables. An imposing turret with a curved roof and tall thin archer's windows bulged from the side of the house, pushing out a wraparound porch with delicate wood carvings crawling across the railings. My spirits were rising from my previous, grave mood (that's a pun). The front door led to a foyer with two more doors, one before us, and one to the right, and a steep staircase, broken in half by a landing, leading up. A bell, door-struck, rang, and Katrina's friend, a tall imposing woman in her early fifties, came in through the door to the right.

"This is Margareta Kyosck," said Katrina, introducing us, and I held out my hand and shook hers. She did not smile, but her look did soften a bit.

"I'll show you to your room," said Margareta, "then perhaps you'll like a bit of lunch."

"That would be wonderful," I said.

"I'll come back this afternoon," said Katrina, "and we'll talk about what we'll do tomorrow." She kissed my cheek, patted my hand and hair, then left.

Margareta led me upstairs, opened the door to the room, and handed me a key, an old fashioned iron key for an old fashioned iron bolt. I lay down on the bed and let exhaustion and hunger battle within me. Hunger won. I stood, went out of the room, closed but didn't lock the door, and went downstairs.

The door that faced the entryway stood open to the dining room. I went in and sat at a large wooden table. From the wall a portrait of a man glowered down at me, his eyes little pinpoints of blue, his hand on the head of a hunting dog also gazing at me predaceously.

I shuddered once, hopefully out of Margareta's notice, who was, as I stared at the malevolently limned painting, serving me an omelette. I ate quickly then climbed the stairs to my room, showered and lay down to nap. Exhausted as I was, I couldn't sleep, but spent at least an hour drifting off then starting suddenly awake. Then a knock sounded on the door, followed by Katrina's voice and then her presence. She sat on the side of the bed and kissed my cheek. Underneath the blanket, I was naked, which embarrassed me a little, as I didn't, at that point, know how much intimacy I could expect from her. She seemed indifferent to my undress, though.

"Feeling better?" she asked.

"I'm having trouble sleeping," I said.

"That's understandable," said Katrina. "You've had a difficult night. You know, you'd be very attractive if you weren't so hapless."

"These are unusual circumstances for me," I said, not without being able to keep a defensive tone out of my voice.

"I'm sure they are," she said.

"Shall we do something tomorrow?" I asked. She frowned.

"I think we should put off any romantic dalliances until you've become more self-sufficient," she said.

I opened my mouth to reply, but truly, could think of nothing to say to that that wouldn't sound like childish mewling.

She kissed me on the cheek again and left. At the window I watched her as she smoothely slipped into her car. Along the straight, flat road, she drove, until she vanished to a point on the horizon. Again I tried to sleep but still was unsuccessful. I had lost all sense of time, and the day had gotten cloudy, so I couldn't see the sun's position. I sat on the bed, thinking, but could think of nothing useful. I dressed and left the room, searching for my hostess or a phone, but I found neither. The house was still and empty. I put my hand on the door through which Margareta had first appeared, thinking it might lead to an office with a phone, but it was locked. The dining room's only occupants were the man and dog. The dining room's second door, that I assumed led to the kitchen, was also locked. I went back to the room.

Replaying my conversation with Katrina in my head, I suddenly got rather angry. She knew full well I had no phone, no money, no car, and yet she felt free to come and go like a hummingbird, making pronouncements about my condition. Was I supposed to simply sit and wait till she decided it was time to... what? I didn't know. Obeying an irresistible impulse, I stripped the blanket from the bed, wrapped it around myself, picked up the wheel and left the house. A light snow was dusting the countryside as I set out on the road in the direction of the town. Despite that, and the wheel's weight, I was not uncomfortable. The blanket and the exercise of walking kept me warm, and again by balancing the wheel atop my head, I carried it with ease. But for an hour I walked without seeing any signs of civilization—no cars, no farm houses or barns, not even a telephone pole. Finally, struck by the idiocy of my actions, I turned around and headed back.

Half an inch of snow accumulated during my walk, and though the rest of me stayed warm, my feet in summer canvas shoes were suffering a bit. The front door struck the bell again as I entered through the foyer, but Margareta didn't appear. The place still seemed deserted. I climbed the stairs to enter my room, but the door was locked. Back downstairs, I tried the door I assumed led to the office. Though it, too, was locked, I thought I heard some noises, maybe footsteps or a chair scraping along the floor, so I knocked. Margareta's head popped out and looked at me with dismay.

"You checked out," she said. It was almost, but not quite a question.

"I went for a walk," I said, trying to keep a tone of petulance from creeping into my voice.

"I'm afraid I rented your room," she said.

"Could I have another then?"

"We're full."

"Two hours ago, I was the only one here," I said, my voice now fully petulant, unable to avoid it.

"It must be the snow," said Margareta. "Makes people afraid to drive."

"Could I use your phone?" I asked.

"Sorry, I don't have one," she said.

"No phone?"

"I do everything by email and IM."

"Is there a place here maybe where I can rent a car? Or do you have one I can borrow for maybe a few hours?"

"Sorry," she said. "My car is in the garage. And the nearest rental place is forty miles away."

"I see."

"I do have a bicycle."

I pictured the straight, flat road, dusted with snow. I realized that my mistake had been to turn towards the town where I had first landed. This time I would go the other way. Forty miles was of course too far to bicycle, but I didn't have to cover the entire distance, I just had to get to a phone, or a place with other people.

"I'll take it," I said.

At first the bicycle was difficult to control with the snow, blanket and tire, but I conjured an ingenious solution. Using my shoe laces, I bound the blanket around myself, leaving enough cloth to create a knapsack of sorts for the tire. After that, I had both hands free, and I only lost my left shoe twice. The snow was slippery, but I went slowly, and soon arrived at a comfortable cadence. Unfortunately, my progress was short lived. Something on the ground stopped short the front wheel, and I tumbled onto the shoulder of the road. Owing to my slow pace, I was unharmed, but when I stood and looked at the bicycle, I marked the front wheel was bent beyond function. Luckily, it was not too heavy, and I could easily carry it over my shoulder.

By this time, the sun had set, and the road and surrounding flat field had turned a gun metal gray. I made slow progress as the darkness deepened. No cars passed me, and around me was nothing but empty fields. The road, a ruled line, led straight ahead with no variation, no curve, no rise, no fall. After an hour or so of walking, I saw to my left an old barn, set back from the highway about fifty yards. I was still fairly comfortable at that point, though I was getting quite tired, and as I had not yet seen any sign of civilization, I thought maybe I would stop there and wait until daylight. I looked around carefully, making sure there was no one to witness my trespass and that there were no other options. Then I approached. Two doors faced the road—a large sliding door that was chained and padlocked, and small door next to it, not only unlocked by standing open. Inside, a few electric lights hung from the ceiling casting a dim yellow light that barely reached the floor. The barn's interior was surprisingly clean, and the floor was not dirt and straw, but rough boards. Around the walls were shelves, empty except for a few odd tools and knick-knacks. As I looked for a place where I could wait out the night, I was approached by an older woman sharply dressed in a wool skirt and fashionable sweater. Her face bore a cross expression, and I was expecting her to order me out of the barn immediately. Then she spoke and tossed confusion over me.

"It's six o'clock," she said.

"Well... I don't really have any way of telling time at the moment."

"Katrina said you'd be here at four."

"She didn't say anything about this place to me."

"She said you would be evasive."

She handed me five large metal signs on pointed, u-channel posts. Each sign had a few words written on it, large white letters on a background of red. They seemed to me to be utter nonsense.

"I need these out on the road," she said. "Walk out on the left hand side, and place them five hundred paces apart. The last one should be just outside the barn."

"What are they for?" I asked. I thought this a reasonable question, but the woman looked impatient.

"It's advertising. Clearly."

"For a barn?"

"This isn't a barn, it's an antique shop."

"It seems to be empty, though."

"Antiques aren't like grocery stores. You can't just order inventory from any vendor when you run out."

"Okay... And why me particularly, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Margareta owes me a favor. You owe Margareta a favor. Slate clean after this."

"I'm not sure I do."

"It'll take you thirty minutes at most."

"Do you have a car?"

"Of course I do. We're a long way from anything."

"Could I get a ride to the east side of the lake?"

She seemed to contemplate my request for a very long time. Then she shrugged.

"I suppose."

There were five signs, and at five hundred paces apart, with the last one outside the barn, I'd need to go two thousand paces before I could start planting them. I left the bicycle and wheel in the barn and went back out to the road, counted out the paces down the left hand side as she instructed, and began putting up the signs. They were fairly heavy, and the work proceeded slowly, but the ground was still unfrozen, and pushing them in was not too hard. I set up the last sign right outside the barn, then returned and told the woman I had finished. Her expression was pleasant for the first time since I'd arrived.

"I'll just check them out," she said.

She left, and a moment later, I heard a car start. I went to the door, opened it, and saw her drive out to the highway. Ten minutes later she returned, but her pleasant expression had not come with her.

"They're not in the right order," she said.

"You didn't give me any instructions on that," I said.

"I thought it would be obvious," she said. "Right now they read:

'YOUR HEAD

YOUR BRAINS ARE IN IT

YOU NEED YOUR HEAD

TO GAIN A MINUTE

DON'T LOSE'

That makes absolutely no sense. You'll need to go out and do it again."

"Maybe you could tell me what order they should be in," I said.

"I can't believe I have to tell you this," she said. "Like this:

'DON'T LOSE

YOUR HEAD

TO GAIN A MINUTE

YOU NEED YOUR HEAD

YOUR BRAINS ARE IN IT'"

That arrangement made no more sense than the arrangement I had made, I thought, but I didn't tell her that. I did as I was told. I went out to the highway, gathered up the signs, and replaced them in the order she had given me.

When I got back to the barn, though, she was gone. I looked through the entire building, even going up to the loft, but I was alone. I went outside. Two sets of tire tracks led out to the highway. I considered staying the night in the barn as I had originally intended, but it was not well heated, and in the end I thought it would be better to keep moving. I secured the blanket around me, tightened up the shoe laces, replaced the tire in the makeshift knapsack at my back, picked up the bicycle and went out to the road.

The snow was piling up in lumpy heaps. I made fast progress for half an hour or so. No cars passed. The darkness closed, a thick curtain, and I could see no further ahead than each step. Then I saw, flickering, floating as if on a buoy, a light. Though it appeared to be quite close, it took me more than an hour to reach it—an orange neon sign reading KOTT'S Garage & Towing above a little gas station and garage. Near the highway stood a fully enclosed telephone booth. Inside, behind a glass opaque with light gray grime, I dialed zero, but, followed by a quiet click, a piercing whine came through the line. I dropped the receiver and let it hang. Leaving the phone booth, I approached the cashier's station. Behind thick glass a girl sat, face bent over a glowing screen. A steady breath of warm air drifted out from a slot at the bottom of the glass. I stood and waited to be noticed, and eventually the girl looked up, then gave me that look flatly lacking in sympathy that only young people can give.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

"I hope so. I need to get to the other side of the lake. My car's there."

"What lake?"

"I guess I don't know the name of it. It's over there, to the east, I'm not sure how far."

"You're not expecting me to drive you, are you? Cause, like, I gotta work, you know?"

"No. But if I could use a phone."

"There's a pay phone out there."

"I tried. It's not working."

"Sorry, can't help you."

"You don't know anybody who could give me a ride? I could pay them a little."

"You can't even make a phone call."

"I know."

"Marve, the day guy, gets her in a few hours. You can wait in the garage."

"Thanks."

"It's through there."

I entered the garage through a glass door to the right of the cashier's station. The walls were lined with a plethora of tools and empty metal clipboards. It was heated, but only to an economically austere degree. One large overhead door led out to the road. My car seemed completely untouched. I walked around it twice, checking the windows and doors, and all seemed in order, with even the flat repaired. Reflexively, I put my hand on the door handle, even before considering that the car keys were not in my possession, and even if they were, an imposing steel and glass overhead door stood between me and the snowy road. Anyway, the door was locked. I went back to the cashier who seemed ready to rescind her already reluctant hospitality.

"Now what?" she said, very quietly. Maybe she was talking to herself. Certainly, communication with me wasn't a priority.

"Do you have the keys to that car?" I asked.

"Why?" she said. Her tone conveyed the impression that I had asked the most idiotic question possible.

"It's mine," I said.

"Yeah, right."

"My wallet is in the glove compartment. Take out the driver's license, and I'll tell you my name and address. The picture's not great."

She gave me a level gaze that almost made me doubt the verity of my assertions then rolled her eyes, withdrew a ring of keys (mine, familiar) from a drawer in the desk at which she was sitting, and motioned at me to once again enter the garage, which she also did through a windowless steel door that divided the garage from the cashier's station. As I walked in I saw her rummaging around in the glovebox, which seemed unnecessary, was she trying to make a show of effort? I don't know, but she finally came out with something in her hand that might have been my wallet, and from it she retrieved a driver's license. I told her my name and address.

"According to this, your name is Katrina Moritat, and you live at 1329 Division Street," she said.

"She was traveling with me," I said.

"Yeah, right."

"Isn't there another wallet in the glovebox?"

"Nope."

"What about a phone?"

She rolled her eyes at me again, then vanished through the steel door, taking the wallet with her. This development raised some questions. I'll only list the most important. Did Katrina have my wallet? Did she pay Margareta with my credit card? Did she have my phone? Was the coffee she treated me to that morning paid for by me? (That one may not be so important, but it's a matter of ethics.)

I tried to open the door between the garage and the cashier's station, but it was locked, so I went outside, the rip in my trousers now causing a high level of discomfort, and again approached the counter, shredding the last of this girl's patience. Did I look threatening? I hold myself to be a benevolent person, but apparently this was not the impression I relayed at the moment.

"Look, you need to just stay in the garage till Marve comes. You're creeping me out right now, and I'll call the cops."

"I actually don't need a ride, anymore" I said, "since my car is right here." I smiled.

"You need to stop yelling," she said. Clearly, her perceptions were awry. She gave me a stern look, picked up the receiver from the phone on the desk, and waved it at me like a club. I turned to go back into the garage. It was only then that the obvious solution spilled into my head. I turned back to the girl, held up my hands, palms out, in the customary manner to convey I was surrendering and did not pose a threat.

"We can call Katrina Moritat," I said. "I know her number. She can come here and clear things up."

The girl looked at me with an expressionless face for a very long time, then she picked up the phone.

"Number," she said. I gave her Katrina's phone number.

She turned her back to me and talked quietly, a low grade murmur that I couldn't understand. Then she turned around to face me.

"She'll be here in twenty minutes," the girl said. "Now will you please go wait in the garage?"

I did.

It had stopped snowing, and stars were peeking out from behind the cloud cover, but beyond the penumbra of light from the station, the fields were completely invisible. I had no way of checking the time, but after what seemed a much longer interval than twenty minutes, a car pulled up to one of the pumps. Katrina emerged in a nutria coat, a wool sweater and jeans. She waved to the person behind the wheel, and the car drove away, its taillights visible for a long distance down the road.

I opened the door to the garage and motioned at Katrina to come inside.

"My car is here, but they don't believe that it's mine. Somehow, my wallet is not in the glovebox."

"Why didn't you just stay at Margareta's" she said. She seemed a little sad, but I'm sure that had little to do with me.

"She told me I checked out," I said.

"I'm sure that was a misunderstanding," said Katrina.

Carrying the wallet which at that point I still had not gotten a good look at, the girl entered the garage. She pulled out the driver's license and looked with impossibly focused attention from it to Katrina.

"Could be you," she said. "What's your name and address?"

"Katrina Moritat, 1329 Division Street," said Katrina.

The girl looked skeptical. She looked from the license to Katrina and back to me again. Then she shrugged.

"One of you owes us a hundred and seventy five dollars for the tire repair," she said.

"All right," said Katrina.

She took a card out of her purse and handed it to the girl. I tried to see if it was mine, but I couldn't tell. At the cashier's station, the girl ran the card, and a moment later, a low rumble vibrated through the entire garage as the overhead door rolled slowly up, letting in a blast of frigid air. I crossed my arms over my chest against the cold. A minute later, the girl returned and handed Katrina the car keys, card, and receipt. Katrina got in on the driver's side and started the car. I pulled the passenger side handle, but it was locked. I knocked on the window, but Katrina was looking straight ahead, focused on the road (well, that's an assumption) and took no more notice of me than you would take of a squirrel in a tree. A moment later, and for the second time that day, I was watching her drive away from me.

Reluctantly, I approached the glass behind which the girl sat, once more phone enrapt. A soft knock on the glass brought up her vacant eyes which then quickly took on an alert, malicious cast.

"You're still here." she said flatly, unwarmly. I shrugged. She opened one of the desk drawers then lifted her hand into my view—and not just her hand, but what it held, a 38 caliber pistol. I thought at first this display was meant to encourage me to vacate the premises at once, but then she said, "I'm good with this, just so you know."

I held up my hands in the customary gesture of surrender. Again.

"Come in through the garage," she said.

She unlocked the steel door between the garage and the cashier's station, and I entered. The girl did not say another word to me, but she did slide the phone across the desk, and, finally able to connect with the outside world, I called a friend, name unimportant, and arranged a ride back to my apartment. I put my now useless wheel on the floor, sat upon it (well, maybe it was not entirely useless), and fell asleep. The rest of the night was uneventful. I never saw Katrina or my car again.

 

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