Blacktop Magic

Chapter 3: A Bit Earlier

by Lothar Tuppan

Cafe Saguaro was the second-best truck stop diner in Arizona, right behind the Hi-Way Chef restaurant in the Triple-T. Families on road trips especially liked it for the stuffed saguaro cacti cartoon characters and kids loved coming back to try and get the whole set. They weren’t as nationally famous as Bob’s Big Boy, or Hardee’s Gilbert Giddyup, or that tiger from Sambo’s, but Sally and Sammy Saguaro (and their collection of friends: Jaime Javelina, Corky Cottontail, and Harry Gila Monster) were beloved by Arizona natives.

A waitress walked towards a booth near the front windows carrying a stuffed javelina. As she neared the booth, a white-haired woman who looked to be in her mid-twenties started bouncing in her seat while her two male companions looked embarrassed.

“Here you go hon. It’s our last Jaime from the new run.”

“Yay!” said the white-haired woman.

“Now,” said the waitress. “What can I get for all y’all?”

The young man to the left of the woman, who gently tucked the stuffed javelina next to her on the booth, motioned with his menu to her and asked, “Babs?”

Babs pet the head of the stuffed toy, picked up her menu again and said, “I just don’t… know. You go first Dustin.”

Dustin pulled at the too-tight collar of his white t-shirt and said, “I’ll have…”

“Oooh!” Babs interrupted. “Eggs Benedict. I’ll have Eggs Benedict, please.”

“I’m sorry hon. We stop serving breakfast at noon.”

“Darn it.” Babs continued to study her menu.

Dustin said calmly, “I’ll have a club sandwich with fries and some more coffee.”

“You got it,” the waitress said before motioning to the other man at the table. “What about you hon?”

“I’ll have a bowl of the chicken soup, a double-cheeseburger with fries, a chocolate shake, and could I get a side of coleslaw?”

Dustin stared incredulously and said, “What the hell Mickey?”

“I’m hungry!”

“We have malts too,” said the waitress with a laugh. “You want a shake or a malt?”

Mickey smiled widely, “I’ll have a malt, thanks.”

“Could I have a patty melt please?” Babs said softly.

“Sure hon. You want fries, coleslaw, or potato salad?”

Babs looked pointedly at the ketchup bottle on the table for a few seconds before replying, “I’ll have fries please. And more water. And more coffee.”

“Allright. Thanks. Be back in a ‘jiff.”

As she walked away to put their order into the kitchen Dustin said, “You pig out when you’re upset. What’s the story?”

Mickey shrugged, “I’m just hungry.”

“You had pancakes this morning Mickey,” Babs whispered conspiratorially. “And bacon.”

“That’s not a lot of…”

“And two eggs over easy.”

Mickey sighed and sat back, defeated.

“Come on Mick,” said Dustin leaning forward, “talk to me. It’s cool.”

Mickey looked pained, “You always do this to me. Why do you do this to me? I swear Dustin… I miss Wanda alright? I can’t let it go.”

Dustin shook his head pityingly and considered just dropping it but couldn’t. “We’ve been over this. That stripper was no good for you Mickey.”

Mickey tried to look indignant but he just ended up looking a bit gassy. “Just because you say that doesn’t make it—”

Dustin held up his hand to stop his friend’s defense, “How many other guys was she seeing?”

Mickey paused and held his breath before exhaling loudly, “Five. She was cheating on me with five guys.”

Dustin pointed at Mickey, “That you know of.”

“Yeah. That I know of.”

Dustin rapped his fingertips on the table and continued, “She didn’t ‘cheat’ on you either. You told me that she’d never told you she stopped seeing other guys. In fact, she told you that she wasn’t interested in going steady with any one guy and she couldn’t help it if you couldn’t get that through your thick skull.”

“But,” Mickey said pathetically. “I love her.”

“She doesn’t care about that.” Dustin said firmly, but not unkindly. “I’m sorry Mickey but she doesn’t.”

The table was silent for a few moments, except for Babs whispering to Jaime the javelina, before reaching for the salt shaker. The waitress returned with more coffee and the chocolate malt saying, “Food will be up shortly.”

“Or maybe she did care,” Dustin said watching the waitress walk away. “Maybe she broke it off because you were in love with her. Maybe that was more than she wanted.”

Babs opened up the salt shaker and poured some salt into a tiny mound before replacing the lid. “Or maybe she just didn’t want to hurt you.”

Babs attempted to balance the salt shaker by its corner on the salt. “Maybe she did care about your love and just couldn’t return it. Maybe she loved the fact that you loved her and knew that she could never love you the way that you loved her so she let you go so that you could find the true love who would love you the way you loved the stripper who would never love you the way that you love Love.” Babs sighed romantically as she succeeded in balancing the shaker.

Dustin looked at Babs, then looked at Mickey and just chuckled under his breath.

“Shit,” Mickey said rubbing his face. “I’m not even fucked up enough to believe that. But I am fucked up. Aren’t I Dustin? I’m pretty fucked up?”

Dustin smiled at his friend, “You’ve just never had real good taste in girls is all. But this is the perfect time for that to change.”

“What do you mean?”

Dustin said, with more than a bit of pride, “Now that we’ve completed our training with Reverend Armitage’s World Salvation Ministries—”

“Lord bless Reverend Armitage for his good works” exclaimed Babs as she focused now on balancing a spoon so it would stand straight up in her coffee mug.

“Yeah,” said Dustin. “We’re going to be meeting a higher class of people from now on and that includes a higher class of women. You won’t be only seeing low-life floozies anymore.”

Mickey looked at Babs who was still intent on balancing her spoon, thumbed his thumb in her direction and silently mouthed to Dustin, Like her! Babs’ mouth quirked a bit but if she noticed Mickey’s crassness she didn’t let on.

Dustin reached over the table and smacked Mickey on the head, almost knocking his baseball cap off his head. “You know what I mean! Take this opportunity to try something new in your life.”

Babs looked neutrally at both of her colleagues for a few moments before saying, “I’ve got to go to the little girls’ room.”

Mickey slid out of the booth to let her out, the look on his face was almost one of regret. “We’ll be here Babs.”

As she walked away Dustin looked coldly at Mickey.

“You can be a real jerk man.”

“I know,” Mickey said. “I didn’t mean to be a dick. And you’re right about everything. Just like usual.”

“Give me a break Mick. We’re a couple of gangbangers in a weird-ass situation here—”

“Really shitty gangbangers.” Quipped Mickey.

“Yeah,” said Dustin, feeling the old fear come back. “We were living on borrowed time in that life. We were lucky to get out when we could.”

He took a breath and regained his calm before continuing. “Anyway, Now it’s you and me against a world of weird-ass shit. Don’t freak on me man, this is probably our only way out. And don’t be a dick to Babs, something tells me Armitage let her down a number of times for her to be as shell-shocked as she is.”

“She’s a ‘canary’, they’re supposed to be a bit off.”

Dustin looked down with a tight grimace. “But not like that. She’d walk into traffic if someone wasn’t around to watch her. I know we were told that the psychics who would detect all that weird cult shit were ‘sensitive’ and ‘touched’ but I’ve met a few and none were as damaged as Babs.”

“Ok Dustin, Point taken.”

Mickey took a long sip of his malt, then belched. “How long do you think we’re going to have to be assigned to Arizona? And what the hell are we looking for anyway?” He took another long sip of his drink. “I hate these fucking ‘zonies. I just wanna get back to LA.”

“I don’t know man.” Dustin sighed. “I was hoping we’d be trusted now that we’ve been ‘baptized’ in the Ministries. When I checked in this morning I asked, again, what our mission was and Chapman got pissed. He said that it was still need to know and we wouldn’t have a need to know until Bab’s sensed something.”

“So we keep driving across the state, in weird fucking patterns, looking for something we don’t have any idea of?”

“Or someone. Yeah. Chapman said that the Reverend knows that there is major cult activity going on here but can’t pinpoint it so we’re one of a number of teams doing patterned recon sweeps.”

Mickey looked over as he saw the waitress coming with their food. “Yeah, I think we still got the shit job. It’s like they’re just giving us busy work.” Mickey signaled for them to shut up about their mission. “Here comes the food.”

Dustin sat back as the waitress said, “Here you go. Patty Melt for the lady, Club Sandwich for you, and everything from the rest of our menu for you hon.”

Dustin laughed at that and Mickey looked a bit sheepish.

“I’m just joshin’ ya hon.”

“It’s cool. Thanks.”

“Can I get all y’all anything else?”

Mickey looked at Bab’s cups. “Could you get our friend some more coffee?”

“Sure thing.”

As she walked away Dustin said, “Don’t start eating until Babs comes back. She probably thinks we hate her.”

Babs stared at her reflection in the mirror, trying to keep the tsunami within her mind from overwhelming her.

“Fuckers… fuckers… everyone are fuckers!” She whispered to herself. Her eyes, normally a dark shade of blue, like the pacific on a calm winter’s day, were now flecked with red. Babs closed her eyes, took a deep breath, “Dustin’s a fucker waiting to happen, Mickey’s a loser-fucker, Chapman is a fucker in a cheap suit, Armitage is the fuckiest fucker that ever fuc—”

Pain shot through her head as something woke up in it, something responding to Armitage’s name. She couldn’t think her thoughts any more, could barely stand up even. She steadied herself with her left hand on the sink counter and turned on the water with her right. After breathing deeply to calm herself and regain her equilibrium, Babs put her hands under the cold water to let the water becalm her and her mind went back.

She remembered being on a sail boat of some type. She remembered a man she loved hurting her and then she was in the water. She remembered sinking to the bottom of the sea, and feeling that it was soft, so soft, almost like a comfy bed.

“I drowned.” She whispered.

In her mind, things swam around her and Babs remembered she was surprised that she could still dream while she was dead. She had known it was a dream, but a real one, not like those stupid ones where you can’t ever make sense of things like who is who and what time it is and where your keys are and who has the patty melt and who has the club sandwich and she dreamt of beautiful fish people taking her somewhere where she would be able to sing her laments and plague all the fuckers with the sweetest pain and retribution.

Babs remembered going through a gate of sorts, made of seaweed and shells and coral, and becoming something beautiful, singing beautiful, sad songs. The cold water on her hands slowed her trembling but the memories shattered as she next remembered being in a church with Reverend Jason Armitage giving the sermon. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure what was the dream and what were the true memories.

She turned off the water, feeling sad and lost, until she realized there was something in the palm of her left hand—a white pearl (and her mind felt the shadow of another dream, one that walked like a mountain). She looked at it with wonder on her face and quickly swallowed it.

Babs then peed, just for good measure, washed her hands again, and went back to join her teammates. Under her breath, while she felt the pearl being digested, she said, “I understand… I understand… I understand. And so do I.”

“Oh, goody!” Babs said returning to the booth. “The food’s here!”

“Yeah,” said Mickey still looking a bit sheepish as he slid out of the booth to let her in. “We waited for you. Didn’t want to be rude.”

Babs slid in and picked up the stuffed Jaime the Javelina, “What was that Jaime?”

Mickey looked a bit weirded out as he sat down again.

“Really?” Babs looked happy and pet the toy’s head again as she tucked it back next to her. “Jaime says you two aren’t really the fuckers I thought you were.”

Mickey almost choked on his malt while Dustin just tried to, calmly, smile at Babs.

“I’m glad Jaime likes us,” he said, trying to be upbeat. “He’s a pretty cool Javelina.”

“I know.” Babs said happily.

“Why don’t we just eat our lunch now?” Dustin said, as he and Mickey exchanged a look of “what the fuck have we gotten ourselves into?”

Babs poured a good helping of ketchup on her plate and just said, “Ok!”

Dustin watched his teammates as he ate his club sandwich. Mickey was obviously still stressed—whether due to his angst over Wanda or due to Babs he wasn’t sure—as he was eating his food at a rate that kept pace with Dustin and Babs. Babs kept dipping her patty melt in her mound of ketchup, would eat a bite, then she would grab three fries (not two, and not four, but exactly three) dip them in the ketchup and eat them while humming softly.

Why do I suddenly feel that all of this is going to end in a whole lot of pain? Dustin thought as he swallowed the last bite of his food.

Maybe Dustin’s right, Mickey thought as he picked up the small bowl of coleslaw and began to eat it. Maybe everything is going to be better now and I just need to lean in to it.

Babs, who was almost finished with her meal, turned around in the booth and looked out the window of the restaurant and saw a tall, gorgeous, black man get out of an equally gorgeous Lincoln Town Car before popping his hood and checking something. Oh my god! That is a real man, she thought. Babs turned around again, looked at her teammates, and sighed before turning around again and watching this dreamboat. After a few minutes her view was blocked by a red Mach 1 that pulled into a parking space right outside the window. She turned back around, and ate her last two fries (she was disappointed that they hadn’t come in complete multiples of three). She watched as the two people from the red Ford walked into the restaurant. The older, dumpy, man walked toward the bathrooms while the younger blond man went to the register at the front counter. Something about them made Babs’ hair start to itch.

Mickey put his empty bowl of coleslaw on his main plate, pushed it back from him a bit and belched loudly, prompting a disapproving look from Dustin.

“Excuse me,” Mickey added. “You two ready to blow this pop stand?”

“Yeah, let’s pay and get out of here.” Dustin said, wiping his mouth one last time with his napkin. “Bab’s you ready to g—“

Babs was shaking quietly but uncontrollably while she looked toward the register.

“Shit Dustin,” Mickey whispered loudly. “She’s got a hit on something.”

“Quick Mickey,” Dustin gently took one of Babs’ hands while Mickey did the same. “Let’s keep her anchored.”

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his might and power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Recited Dustin from memory.

“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Mickey added.

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have the divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Dustin spoke closely to Babs’ ear.

“But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.” Mickey finished, as Babs’ shaking started to slow down.

“The men at the register,” Babs whispered and Dustin and Mickey turned to look at the two men (the younger one just handed a small white paper bag to the older one as they walked toward the exit). “They’re touched by the Evil that Reverend Armitage is looking for. They’re who we’ve been looking for.”

Mickey and Dustin looked at each other with wide eyes for a minute, neither actually thought they would find anything with all the pointless searching they’ve been doing. “Shit!” Mickey said.

Dustin saw the two men sitting in the red Mach 1, the driver blowing on his coffee to cool it enough to drink, and then quickly slid out of the booth. “Come on!”

As Mickey and Babs exited the booth (Babs making sure that Jaime was securely tucked under her arm, Dustin walked to their waitress and said, “Sorry, but we really have to go. Here’s a fifty, keep the change!”

As three of the weirdest people she had ever waited on almost ran out of the restaurant, she thought to herself, I never would have guessed that they were good tippers.

“Mickey,” Dustin said. “stay here and watch where they go while Babs and I get the car. And be cool about it!”

“Sure thing Dustin.”

Mickey pretended to be looking at a line of ants crawling on the sidewalk as the Mach 1 started up and pulled out of the parking space. He watched it and memorized its license plate as it turned right toward the highway.

No more than twenty seconds later, a brown Dodge Dart pulled up—Dustin driving with Babs in the backseat. Mickey quickly got into the passenger side and Dustin accelerated toward the exit of the parking lot.

“They turned right,” Mickey said.

“Cool.” Dustin pointed to the glove box. “Pull out our pistols.”

“They’re going west… into the shadow of California.” Said Babs.

“Alright.” Dustin took a few deep breaths. “I’m gonna hold back for a bit, let’s figure out what our plan is and then lets get these cultist motherfuckers!”