In his gut Joe Curtis knew when he first heard the sounds. A certain arrhythmic thrum deep in his Pontiac's engine, a nauseating whack of hot metal on metal, that he had a big problem. He knew cars well, and so he knew this. But for the same reason, and others (he was both optimistic and, in some measure, desperate), he let himself believe it was a thing he could fix if he needed, that in any case he could nurse the thirteen-year-old J2000--an '82 showing 125,000 miles--to the west coast, his destination, and deal with the problem there. And as if his faith were enough, the thrumming stopped then, after a minute or two.
He was on I-94 a hundred miles west of Fargo, North Dakota, halfway between there and Bismarck. He had three hundred dollars in his pocket, and was hoping the car, a beater he'd bought for four hundred and fifty dollars and refurbished economically but very nicely, including even new paint, could be sold on the coast for maybe fifteen hundred, at least a thousand--more than enough to fly himself and his brother, Terry, back home to Detroit. Even if he couldn't sell it, the two of them together could make the drive back in a few days.
This was the fourth time Terry Curtis had tried to leave home, and the fourth time his younger brother had come after him. But on this run, Terry had gone a long, long way, clear to Seattle, 2400 odd miles, in the belief, perhaps, that with that much distance he had to stay away, that whatever happened, he couldn't call for help, because even if he did, no one could come.
Near a town called New Salem, fifty miles past Bismarck, the thrumming came back, louder, angrier this time. Whack, whack, whack,
so strong it vibrated the steering wheel. Joe pulled over and stopped to listen. He felt sick in his stomach at the thought of what this might be, here in the true middle of nowhere, as far from home as he was from Terry, over a thousand miles either way. He needed this car to get him there, and either the car or the money from it to get them both back. So he'd have to have someone take a look. He accelerated gingerly, not pushing it above forty, and rode on the berm with his hazard lights flashing.
The farthest Terry had gone before was Nashville, eighteen months ago, where, he'd said, he was going to break into the country music business. Then he just went broke, got evicted from his weekly-rate motel room, and lived on the street for two weeks with a scabby woman named Edie until he was arrested for vagrancy and held in jail while the cops rifled his wallet and called his family. Joe drove the nearly six hundred miles in one long shot, bailed his brother and signed an agreement to sacrifice that money as a fine, and made Terry drive all the way home the same night, straight through. In all, the trip hadn't taken much over twenty-four hours, and prodigal Terry was back in his rent-free room in the attic of their parents' home, where he'd lived, except for these failed trips, for most of the twenty-seven years of his life.
Joe had seen Terry tell people himself, with a kind of simpering smirk that was supposed to be cocky but came across more as pathetic, that he was a fuck-up of the highest order. No one had ever disagreed.
Just past the sign saying NEW SALEM NEXT RIGHT as Joe pulled onto the exit ramp and slowed to thirty miles an hour, he heard a gunshot crack, felt a shudder run through the car's frame and then the power beneath him just quit. In the rearview mirror, during the silent coast down the ramp, he watched a long slick of oil and grease and gas spreading out on the hot, white pavement behind him, as the car bled quickly to death.
He kicked at the Dakota dirt and watched the grease-bellied mechanic chew an unlit cigar. "I was going to sell the damn thing," Joe said. "Cleaned it all up, ran new wires, put in a stereo, rebuilt the carb, tuned it. Even replaced a body panel and a rocker arm. Shit, man, you know?" What killed him was that he had another car sitting at home in front of his apartment building, an '86 Ford Taurus.
The mechanic nodded. "Done a good job, looks like. You want it fixed?" Eight hundred the man had estimated.
"Can't afford it,", Joe said. "Not worth it anyway. I'd've taken a grand for the car."
"Grand," the mechanic said, and smiled a little.
Joe took off his sunglasses now, looked around at the small, closed-up town and the open prairie beyond and shook his head. When he looked back at the mechanic he could see the reaction in the man's eyes to his own eyes, which were so pale as to surprise people. They were a shade of gray, but not slate or gray-blue. Their color approached silver, the color of polished metal, almost. And they had that kind of shine, of new steel, say.
"I'll tell you," the mechanic said. "You get west to Billings, 94 merges back into 90, lot of trucks run west there, coast-bound. I was you, a young guy out for a trip, know what I'd do?" He waited, then said, "I'd dump this puppy for what I could get and hitch it the rest of the way. Go out and get yourself a ride. Hell, you could luck into a rig that'd take you all the way in one shot. Single guy, strong built like you, you ain't in any danger. And that way you save your cash."
"And what could I sell this for?"
"Give you hundred and fifty for it right now, as is."
"One fifty?" Joe laughed again. He turned and looked up the access road he was on to the on-ramp a half mile away. He thought about thumbing. He'd thumbed before, short hops when he was in basic at Fort Benning, Georgia. In the South it wasn't an easy thing to do, either, but he'd done it. He'd liked the sensation, strange people, some weird, some interesting, some closed-mouthed, some generous with talk and, sometimes, even with their wallets, stopping to buy a soldier lunch or a beer. He wore no uniform now. And the road-side prairie in August would be scorched. But these weren't really considerations.
He thought of other options: spending his money to get back home, then starting the drive again with the Taurus or maybe scrounging around and borrowing enough cash somewhere to buy round-trip air tickets. Or he could call the old man from here and beg for some kind of help. But he hated the thought of going back, and worse would be asking the old man for anything. So he decided.
To the mechanic he said, "Make it two fifty." They agreed on two hundred.
When he finally came off the plains and rode into the foothills of the Rockies near Bozeman, Montana, Joe was hungry. It had turned out to be a bad series of rides across that endless, dusty expanse. Short hops, people with sour attitudes, no generosity other than a perfunctory "Get in," drive in silence fifty miles or so, then "This is it" or "Get out now." And always in the wrong place to grab a bite. It had taken thirty hours and a cold night spent shivering alongside the road just to cross the rest of North Dakota and half of Montana, with only a couple fast dinners and some stale rolls he carried for emergency in his bag. He'd have died of thirst, too, if he hadn't laid down by a runoff under an overpass near Billings and drank from that. He had no way of knowing what kind of poison was in that water, and had thought about it inside him, eating away, but he'd had no choice.
Outside Bozeman that night, he sprang for a thirty dollar room. The next morning, now two days since his car had died, he waited an hour on the berm of the northbound on-ramp, and when he looked out ahead at the rest of Montana, which he knew was still something like three hundred miles to the border, and the low mountain foothills rolling and fading into haze off in the far, far unimaginably distant west, a kind of panic found him: he had such a strong premonition of failure, of knowledge that he'd made a mistake, that he wouldn't be able to raise the cash to get Terry home, it was physical; his stomach turned and his knees went weak and he felt dizzy. The bright red sores which he'd carried on his ankles since he came back from the war burned, too. Sweat wetted his forehead and the air seemed to grow thicker. So he sat and picked at some stones in the dirt.
It turned out, though, to be only a few more minutes before an old Chevy Nova, jacked up with wide tires on the rear and badly painted with gray primer, slowed and stopped up the on-ramp. So maybe the mountains would be luckier. Joe slung his bag over his shoulder and ran.
"Hey, thanks--" he said into the passenger window. A woman looked out at him. She wore an over-sized white T-shirt with a pink bandanna around her throat. He thought at first she was young, until he looked in her eyes, which were heavy with mascara and bordered at the outside edges by the beginnings of age lines that grew more pronounced when she squinted. They were sharply pretty, green and slanted slightly upward. She smiled. She was about thirty, he guessed.
"You hitching? Didn't have your thumb out."
"Got tired," he said. "Yeah. West. Seattle."
She looked over at the driver, a skinny guy dressed only in cut-off shorts and sunglasses, who leaned across and looked up at Joe, too. "We're goin' there," he said in a throaty, Vaseline voice. "Eventually."
"I got to get there soon," Joe said. "But I'll ride as far as you'll take me."
The driver looked him over for a few more weird seconds, then said "I'm Rick. Get on in."
Joe opened the back door and sat on the edge of the seat, his feet still on the ground. Rick adjusted the rearview mirror so he could watch Joe without turning around.
The woman said, "My name's Kari, so it rhymes with Atari."
"Joe," she said. "A regular old Joe."
Joe nodded. He took off his dark sunglasses. He could see Rick watching him in the mirror. Kari turned sideways and leaned back against the door, so she could see him, too.
"Wild eyes," she said.
"You gonna close the door?" said Rick.
Joe hesitated another moment, deciding. They were off somehow, these two, the pale, edgy guy and a woman who acted tough but didn't look that way. Her teeth were flawless for one thing, Joe had noticed. He was conscious of teeth, having himself a slightly snaggled right front incisor that was twisted and jutted out a little, pressing on his lip. He'd learned a long time ago not to smile with his lips open. Most people never knew about the tooth. The folks hadn't ever been able to afford to get it fixed, and it had always bothered him.
Her skin was perfect, too, and her hair, wavy, hanging past her shoulders, was a most amazing color of dark red. It almost had a black cast to it, a color you could look into for days. He'd never seen hair quite like this.
He tossed his canvas shoulder bag onto the back seat and closed the door.
The two didn't talk much, which suited Joe. He preferred riding in silence, watching as the land outside the window grew from foothills to mountains, until before long they were crawling up the long steep grade toward the continental divide, on the other side of which all water flowed west, to the Pacific.
As they began the descent toward the valley floor that held Butte, there appeared out in the distance an anvil-headed thunder cloud that was probably still a hundred miles away but which they could see clearly in all its glory, rising up thousands of feet from the high plain. A part of Joe felt less angry at having to make this trip. He liked to travel. He had always loved cars, always worked on them, and it felt as if he'd always been riding somewhere, although that was not true. He was only twenty-five, two years younger than Terry, but had his own apartment and a job, and could even, if he chose, drink at the local VFW hall because he was one, a veteran of a foreign war. Sometimes, though, he wondered if he was missing life, if driving like this cross country was the kind of thing he should be doing instead of fighting every day just to pay the bills, which up to two months ago had meant punching in at the Monarch Cabinet Shop every morning at eight, until somebody waved the cutback wand and started laying guys off. They hadn't let Joe go completely, because they knew how good he was, but he was also low on the pole, so it had meant a slash to only twenty hours a week, loss of benefits, all that crap. That had wiped out most of whatever cash he'd been able to build up. Still, he made a little side money doing freelance car repairs, and buying beaters and fixing them up to sell for some profit, enough anyway to keep getting by.
So a part of him thrilled at this chance to be able to skip out for a week or two, begging some vacation time he hadn't quite earned yet, to pull his last cash out of the bank and to just tool. But the greater part of him sustained the anger, at losing the vacation time, maybe five, maybe ten days, depending, at losing what little extra money he had, at being forced--even though it was a thing he could enjoy doing --to make this trip because Terry, again, again, again, couldn't make it work, couldn't keep himself picked up off the ground.
The first time with Terry, almost seven years ago, Joe had only been eighteen, hadn't served in the army yet, hadn't seen anything of the world, or gotten in his own trouble, which he was destined to do later that year. One of Terry's roommates called from Indianapolis, where Terry had been for four months, and said someone better come down, Terry was going nuts, trashing the place, cutting himself up, just wacked out.
The old man, as the boys called their father, the man who had adopted them, swore in the gruff, muscle-headed way he always had and said he'd be goddamned if he was lifting a finger to help that drug-addict bastard. The old lady just shook her head and fretted. "He's got to grow up sometime," she said. "You can't run after 'em."
Joe talked the old man into letting him borrow his car, promising he'd cover the gas himself. The old man finally gave in. Terry was a mess when Joe got there, strung out on coke and hung over, chain smoking with hands that shook so badly he could barely light one butt from the other. Joe offered to send some money to the roommates for the damage but they shook their heads and said, "Man, just get him the fuck outta here." So they drove north, and along the way took a motel room where Joe stood Terry in the shower and held him there for an hour, until the water had gone cold and Terry was shivering and blue-lipped. Joe lay with him in the bed then, Terry under the blankets, Joe on top with his clothes still on, and wrapped an arm and a leg over Terry and held him like that until the shivering stopped, until Terry fell asleep. He slept for twelve straight hours.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Last Sanctuary by Craig Holden. . Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.