Department of First Stories
Two Thousand Miles From Vegas
by J.D. Frain
First time it happened I was driving east through Topeka, twenty hours out of Las Vegas and ten hours shy of my aunt’s house the other side of Indianapolis. I needed to put more miles behind me.
Keep moving forward, Mom always said.
Anyway, Johnny Cash finished singing about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, when I heard my name.
Wait, sorry, first time it happened was somewhere past Denver before the Kansas state line. I was flying at eighty and saw my name on a billboard as I raced past.
You’ve probably seen billboards with Quentin or Maria? You know, a name that matches yours, like maybe a personal-injury lawyer advertising their firm, and they got the same first name as you. That’s not what I mean. My driver’s license says Ezra, and I’ve never run into another Ezra in all my nineteen years. I don’t know if I was named for the poet or the priest, and I don’t imagine my mother ever heard of either, but I was pushing eighty on Interstate 70, and I caught my full name in lights up on the billboard. Letters three feet tall. EZRA SANTERESA, MAKE THE CALL NOW.
By the time I hit Topeka, I’d convinced myself that the billboard said something similar to my name, like ELIJAH ASHER PLUMBING. Followed by CALL NOW. There was likely a phone number I missed because I was driving so fast, and my mind was distracted after—
Well, after what had transpired in Vegas. Not in some casino, mind you. This was in the home I share with my mother and her boyfriend.
What happened in Topeka was different. And harder to ignore. Soon as Johnny Cash finished singing “Folsom Prison Blues,” the deejay, he came on and called out to me.
Figured I was nodding off until I heard him repeat himself. Called to me a second time. By my name, which you already know ’cause I told you, and who could forget a name like Ezra Santeresa? He called to me like we were on the phone together.
“You listening to me right now, Ezra Santeresa? I know where you are. I know where you’ve been. This song’s for you, Ezra. Because I also know where you’re going.”
The speakers belted out the distinctive first three chords from AC/DC and I was smothered with “Highway to Hell.”
When the song ended, the deejay came back on.
“Ezra? Still with me?”
I punched a button. But it wasn’t enough. Different station, same voice.
“Ezra, you gotta quit running.”
Click, new station.
“Pull over and call the police, Ezra.”
“It’s time to turn yourself in.”
“Your mother would forgive you if she could.”
OFF. He shouldn’t have brought my mother into this. Say what you will about me, Mr. Deejay, but I’ll defend my mother until a judge condemns me with lethal injection.
Radio silence. I drove that way into the wee hours of the morning. Through Kansas City. More than halfway across Missouri. Until I saw the blue-and-reds flashing in my rearview.
My eyes darted from the mirror to the speedometer. A hair over seventy, which seemed reasonable for I-70 with no traffic. I waited for him to pass, but he pulled in behind me, so I steered to the shoulder. I remembered once Mom told me to get out when you get pulled over, show a friendly face.
My palms moistened as I clutched the door handle.
“Remain in your vehicle.” The trooper’s voice broke through the darkness. A moment later he was at my window, which I brought down. Cold air smacked my face.
“License and registration,” he said. He was a towering man, probably a tight end for some football team until he entered the police academy. Wore a hat like a Canadian Mountie. His breath came out white swirls, like a rodeo bull in Carson City.
“My wallet is in the console,” I said, chastising myself for not removing it earlier. What else was inside the console that this cop might see? His height put him at a terrible angle, so I took the risk to open the latch, pull out my wallet, and close the lid before anything was visible for more than a second. As I dug out my license, the trooper tried to rattle me.
“Nice night for driving,” he said. “Where you headed?”
My nerves sparked like frayed wires causing my mind to stutter. I nodded to agree with him, but mostly to buy time. “Yeah, nice night. Um, I’m driving to my aunt’s house. She stays just outside Indianapolis.” A beat. “Indiana.”
He nodded, looking down at me from what seemed ten feet up. “Thanks for the geography lesson there . . . Ezra?”
“Yes, sir. My mom was a big fan of the poet.” As the words tumbled out, I realized I’d driven from Sin City to the edge of the Bible Belt in one night.
“That right?” He flicked my license against the palm of his hand. “Never understood poetry too good. Or the point of it.”
“Well, mostly she named me for the Ezra in the Bible. You remember, Cain and Ezra, the two sons of Adam and Eve?” I was overplaying it, and I might’ve confused Ezra with Abel, but the trooper seemed as interested in the Bible as he was in poetry. Which meant something else held his interest. Like my backseat. I swallowed hard, desperate to turn around. What was back there? I should have taken a hotel for the night. Driving straight through was a stupid move. Only drunks and cops were out, and I didn’t want to run into either one.
“That registration,” the trooper said. “Any luck putting your hands on it?”
Was I supposed to be looking for that?
“Oh, it’s my car, sir. Promise. But my mom has the registration.”
He bent, made a show of looking beyond me into the passenger seat. “I don’t see Mom.”
“No, sir. Sorry. She’s still home. Las Vegas. I’m driving alone to visit my aunt. My mom, she keeps the car registration in a safe-deposit box at our bank. Am I supposed to keep that in my car? I didn’t know.”
He straightened. All the time in the world. “Know why I pulled you over?”
How to answer?
“Your trunk, Ezra. The light keeps flashing like it’s sending out Morse code every time you hit a bump. Any reason it might be open?”
My muscles tightened. My mouth dried. “The latch is broke?”
“Why don’t you step outside for me.”
I did. “It’s an old car, you know? Sometimes I gotta use a screwdriver.” I tried to laugh but didn’t have enough breath in the tank to make the sound.
“Let’s take a look. See what’s keeping your trunk from closing.”
I was sure my forehead was sweating profusely now, and equally sure he saw it. He could probably hear my heart pounding. I held up my key as if that were necessary. Who needed a key to unlock an open trunk?
“I’m sure it was my mistake forgetting to close it. I’ll just—”
“Don’t slam the lid.” It was an order, not helpful advice. “Go ahead and raise it. No sense having the same thing happen twice. I don’t want to pull you over twenty miles down the road and do this all again, right?” A cop smile.
My turn to nod. “Right.” Was my bloody shirt in the trunk or on the floor of the backseat? The trooper stood at the back of the car staring down at me. I lifted the trunk lid. My breath caught. A shiver broke through me. When I spotted my blood-soaked shirt, I was unable to breathe. When it turned out to be a rust-stained rag, my held breath burst out.
“Doesn’t seem to be anything blocking the mechanism,” the trooper pointed out.
“Okay to close her up?” I asked.
He nodded into the open space. “Anything missing?”
I moved my head back and forth between the trooper and the trunk. Shook my head. “No, sir. Nothing missing.”
“Odd,” he said.
This time only my eyes darted back and forth. “What’s that, sir?”
“You’re driving from Vegas to Indianapolis—the one in Indiana—to visit your aunt, and you didn’t even pack a suitcase?”
I shook my head slowly. “Last-minute plans. No time to pack. My cousin lives with my aunt and we’re about the same size.” You’d like him, my cousin, lives here in my imagination.
“Well, Ezra, your trunk looks clean enough. Go ahead and latch it this time, and I’ll let you get on the road. Don’t want to keep her waiting, your Aunt . . .”
“Stacy,” I filled in quickly.
He smiled at last. “Right. Aunt Stacy.” With that, he returned to his car, and I slid into mine, careful not to glance into the backseat. I moved off the shoulder into the empty lane.
It was an hour or so later, the lights of St. Louis visible through the windshield, when I hit something in the road. A pothole, maybe? Spare car part? Regardless, I was fortunate because it jolted me awake.
“Ezra, are you back?” The radio again. The bump in the road must have kicked the power back on for the radio too. “That state trooper is still out patrolling.”
“I’m not talking to a radio,” I said. To the radio.
“Before you leave Missouri, you can flag him down.”
I shook my head silently. Gazed forward. Pretended not to hear.
“You can tell your side of the story, what happened in Vegas.”
I changed the station, a casual reach like I was stretching my arms.
“Your mom deserves it that way, Ezra.” The disembodied voice was undeterred.
I turned the volume dial to OFF. Drove interruption free for more than two hours.
The sun rose as I crossed the Indiana state line from Illinois. I required gas and caffeine in equal parts, so I pulled off I-70 at an exit that offered plenty of both. I hit my turn signal, and the radio resumed. Same deejay, which would’ve been plausible with satellite radio, but that hadn’t been invented when they built this car.
“Ezra, buddy, where ya been?” the voice begged.
I refused to respond. He couldn’t know if I was listening. Didn’t even bother to change the station or shut it off this time. Just rolled up the exit toward one of the stations ahead.
“Ezra, you know what your mother would’ve done in your shoes? Well, she would have spoken to that cop back along the interstate, of course. But she would never have come upon that trooper. She would have called the Las Vegas PD instead of running away.”
I turned at the top of the exit ramp. Two choices in front of me, either side of the road. Gas was identical as far as I knew, so I chose the more crowded convenience store, figuring they’d have more choices for caffeine and breakfast. The voice rattled on, like it knew where I was driving.
“Real easy, now, Ezra. After you pump gas, ask someone else to call the cops. You won’t have to talk, and you’ll accomplish what your mother would expect of you.”
I shut off the engine and simultaneously shut off the voice. On the way inside to pay for my gas I saw a grizzled guy with a green duffel at the edge of the building. He held a sign with INDIANAPOLIS written in black marker on a torn piece of cardboard.
Inside, I picked up a breakfast burrito and a burner phone. Turned out I was in Terre Haute, according to the newspaper near the door.
Copyright © 2023 Two Thousand Miles From Vegas by J.D. Frain