This wasn't 2012. She wasn't twenty-one anymore, wasn't even vaguely shocked to discover that Survival of the Fittest had bared its fangs once again. She hadn't hopped the first airplane from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport after firing off a scalding ramble to be lost and found in cyberspace. She knew full well now that there was nothing for her in these places. Walking the streets once populated by these now-dead teenagers would bring no closure and offer no clarity. Surrounding herself with the grief of a gutted community would in no way alleviate her own pain. There was no mourning by proxy to be had, no kinship to be felt; in Seattle she'd spent days stalking through the rain, talking to nobody, retreating nightly to her hotel room to stare at a wall and not write a fucking word. She had done nobody any good and she would do nobody any good in Kingman, least of all herself, but even though she told herself every stop on the way that the right choice was to turn around and go back home and maybe make nice enough with the Star Tribune to land an interview and at least spread her thoughts, she still finished her lunch in Denver or Vegas or rolled out of her motel bed in Lincoln or Grand Junction and got back into the car and continued her drive. Yeah, maybe if she could get one single person to not watch the feeds that'd be more worthwhile than anything she could possibly gain by fumbling her way through a bunch of states more flyover than her own, but something drew her on just the same, and maybe she followed it because that sort of impulse was familiar in a way she hadn't felt in a long time now.
With the windows down she had to crank the volume up really loud so she could hear Springsteen over the roar of highway air and whirring motor, and she had her hair tied back which she'd never really gotten used to but it beat having it in her face when she was trying to focus on the road. Kimberly didn't drive very much; there was this real horror about driving that crept up on her sometimes, because it meant sharing the road with hundreds of strangers who might or might not know what they were doing, and two hundred and forty-six of her classmates hadn't chopped each other to pieces so she could be crushed to pulp under the twisted wreck of someone's Hummer because they just had to check their texts while merging at sixty.
Kimberly's car was this really shitty black sedan from the late Nineties that she'd gotten cheap mostly because it was a manual and when she'd finally gotten around to learning how to drive she'd been dead set on driving a stick just to relish the fact that she could. Everything in it was operated by cranking or twisting something; it took a solid five seconds of working the handle to get the windows up or down, and she had to actually put the key in the lock to open the door. It was better that way, though. There was a feeling of connection that was comforting in its way.
She'd made her way past Santa Claus, Arizona (population: fucking nobody) and through the only marginally less depressing Golden Valley, and while the roads had been mostly empty she'd noticed that some of the same cars cropped up again and again, passing her when she pulled off to find a bathroom and slipping by in parking lots or gas stations only to later overtake her once more. They were variedthe three she'd recognized most consciously were a minivan plastered in bumper stickers, a sleek red sports car of a make she couldn't identify without closer inspection, and a green Subarubut they all seemed to be setting course for Kingman. Maybe she was reading too much into it. There wasn't much worth driving to out here, and there weren't many ways to go besides straight down US-93. It unsettled her nonetheless.
Minneapolis and Saint Paul were big enough that they could absorb even an unusual influx cleanly, without a trace to be found. She had this inkling Kingman wasn't the same.
Her first sight of the town did little to dispel that notion. It was distinct from the desert all around in that it was more green-brown than grey-brown, but that was about as far as it went towards welcoming visitors. A whitish-grey brick wall shielded the low buildings closest to the highway from traffic noise, but Kimberly couldn't guess if those buildings were dwellings, industrial structures, or abandoned shells.
It was getting dark when she pulled off the highway and into town, and over the next ten minutes night descended in full while she searched out a gas station. She'd let her tank run almost dry, mostly out of a desire to avoid extra stops in little nowheres. Now that she found herself in the moderately-sized nowhere that was her destination, there wasn't much to it but to settle in and see what she could do about finding a place to pass the night.
The gas station was small but a lot cleaner than she expected, most of the pad free of oil stains and the windows of the little shop crystal clear. There was nobody else around, so she pulled up at the first pump, hit the button to let the attendant know she'd be paying inside, and got the fuel flowing.
The door had one of those electronic bells that rang at a pitch nobody could find pleasant. The inside of the store was almost as empty as the outside; there were three employees, one seemingly here to start his shift, and another apparently at the end of hers. The guy who was neither leaving nor arriving slouched over the counter, reading a magazine. It looked like The National Enquirer.
It wasn't that different from any gas station she might've seen back homesame scratch lotto tickets under glass, same junky snacks and drinks, same stacks of cigarettes behind the counter that always made her feel a little bit uncomfortablebut an insubstantial pall hung over everything. It took a solid thirty seconds for the newly-arrived employee to tie his apron on, nod goodbye to his female coworker (who vanished through a backdoor), and run his hand through his hair three times, and only then did he let his gaze wander in Kimberly's direction. The guy reading didn't so much as move his head.
She'd meant to look through the store a little, maybe buy some food, but the atmosphere put her on guard, so instead she made a quick circuit, grabbed a newspaper titled The Daily Miner, and quickly returned to the counter.
"What can I do for you?" said the newly-arrived employee. He looked like he was a few years younger than Kimberly, and he had half a foot of height on her. He was white, heavyset but not fat, with close-cropped dirty blond hair, pale blue eyes, and oddly-thin lips. His nametag read "Lester," which was the sort of name that made Kimberly hope he'd given his parents some hell growing up.
He seemed to be sizing her up in turn, and that made her a little more conscious of her own appearance. She'd dressed to be inconspicuous: blue jeans fitted but not tight, white tank top under an unbuttoned black long-sleeved shirt, hiking boots, hair tied back. She had a straw cowboy hat in the back of her car, along with her other clothes, but hadn't gotten enough of a feel for whether she'd look like an idiot or not if she put it on.
"I need to pay for my gas," she said, putting the paper on the counter, "and I'd like to buy this."
Lester pursed his lips, which made them almost disappear. He glanced at the guy reading, who didn't response, then turned back to Kimberly.
"You're new in town."
He didn't seem totally ready for his impolitenessfor his tone made his statement anything but simple observationto be met in kind. He met her gaze with a little more focus now.
"You a reporter?"
"Fuck no," Kimberly said. That changed his expression to a stillborn smile.
"Good," he said. "Not much here for reporters right now. Not late arrivals, anyways."
"I'm not surprised," Kimberly said.
He'd still made no move towards ringing her up. The guy with the magazine was only pretending to read now; he flipped a page forwards and then backwards and then forwards again with only a few seconds between, like maybe Kimberly was dumb enough that she needed a sound effect for his feigned inattention to be conspicuous to her. But fuck that guy.
"So what brings you to Kingman, then?" Lester said.
"Personal trip," Kimberly replied.
"We've become a real hot spot in the past few days," Lester said. "Lots of tourists. I think you'll be disappointed."
"I'm not a tourist."
Flip, flip, went the magazine pages. The door chimed, and an older woman in a faded floral dress and flip flops walked in. She nodded at Lester, and he said, "Evening, Suzie," and then she wandered over to the snacks.
"A lot of people are here for a lot of reasons," Lester said, turning back to Kimberly and lowering his voice, "but I don't think most of them are good."
"I imagine I'd agree with that."
"People are hurting."
His lips hid again and he scrutinized her face, making no pretense of hiding it. Kimberly gave him a smile, not her happy smile but her long-ago smile, and he broke eye contact.
"So," she said, "can I pay?"
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, okay. Just a sec."
The woman he'd called Suzie was buying half a dozen Diet Cokes and two packs of Camels, because she had terrible taste. The guy ringing her up still held the Enquirer in his left hand, thumb holding his place while he punched buttons on his register one at a time using his right index. Kimberly waited, and soon Lester gave her a figure and she handed him cash. She'd made sure to keep most of the money she'd brought squirreled away throughout her bags and car, because having to flip through a few hundred worth of twenties wasn't particularly inconspicuous. Lester punched some more buttons and handed Kimberly her change, dropping one of the quarters so it bounced off her palm and rattled on the floor. All four in the store paused in silence for a second.
"Sorry," Lester said.
Kimberly shrugged. She did not bend to retrieve the coin. Lester did not offer her a replacement, just her receipt.
"Hey," Kimberly said, "is there anywhere around here someone might be able to get a room for a few days?"
"Not unless you're really lucky," Lester said. "Lots of tourists, lots of reporters. Maybe if you go to Flagstaff, or back to Vegas or Phoenix."
Suzie had finished her own purchase, but she and the guy who'd checked her out seemed united in their desire to spy on Kimberly's conversation. Whatever. She'd get out of here and manage. She'd been prepared to sleep in her car on the outskirts if she had to. It wouldn't be the worst place she'd passed the night.
"Thanks," she said, giving Lester a nod and the others no recognition as she turned back to the door.
She was on the threshold, door held open, electronic beep already sounded, when Lester called out, "Hey, wait."
Kimberly turned back, fixed him with her gaze again. It seemed he'd turn away again, but he rallied and held eye contact, searching her face for something at the same time. This wasn't common, but also wasn't all that unusual. After a three count, she raised an eyebrow.
"You sure you're not with the news?" he asked.
Kimberly slipped out the door, letting it swing shut behind her, and made her way back to her car as the desert night began to turn chill.