“No, I’m fine,” I said. I wasn’t turning this wheel over to either of them. As long as I had it, I had some control over our destination.
I was so sure he’d fight me, make all the right arguments about how he’d rested and I was exhausted, but he simply nodded. Believing me.
“Why did you stop singing?” he asked.
“I was only doing it to keep myself…to keep my mind off other things,” I said. “And I haven’t recognized any of these last few songs.”
Roman looked almost relieved. “Me neither.”
All right. I’d bite. This was at least keeping me awake and alert. “What do you normally listen to? Or do you just not really listen to music?”
He pressed a fist to his mouth, considering. “It’s…Priyanka tells me I have the taste of an old man. I like the classics. Older music. There’s a word for it I can’t think of?”
“Classics like orchestra music, or standards?”
“Standards!” he said, his expression brightening. “Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone…Listening to them helped me learn English. They were the only records in the house where we grew up. I like them, too, because they’re simple.”
My brow creased. “In what way?”
“The voices, they’re deep and complex, right?” he said slowly. “But the songs are usually uncomplicated in what they’re saying—that they love someone, that they miss someone, that they don’t want to have to say good-bye. It makes me wish all of life could be that way.”
Roman suddenly sat up straighter, taking in a sharp breath. I turned back toward the road, searching for whatever he’d seen move in the darkness beyond the headlights.
“What?” I asked. “What is it?”
“I know this one!” he said, turning up the volume on the radio.
It took me a moment.
“You do not,” I said in disbelief.
He held up his finger, waiting for the chorus, wholly focused on the dashboard. Then he opened his mouth to sing.
Even with the rasp of his dry throat, it was a beautiful, rich voice—the sound was as pure and bold as a bell, and completely at odds with his usual quiet way of speaking. For a moment I was so stunned by it, I missed what he was actually singing.
“Come on, Eileen, I swear what it means,” he sang, trying to keep his voice down so as not to wake Priyanka. “In this moment you need everything / You are the best / Oh, I swear you’re the best / Stop your hurting / Come on, Eileen—see?”
I let out a shocked laugh. He was so pleased with himself, I almost couldn’t say it. “Those are not the lyrics. What do you think the song is about?”
Roman’s expression turned serious. “She’s discouraged and he’s trying to cheer her up. Bolster her courage.”
“He’s trying to convince her to hook up with him,” I explained. “He’s basically badgering her.”
“No.” He looked almost scandalized. “Really?”
“Really,” I confirmed.
Roman angled his head toward the radio, listening to the next verse. Then he leaned forward and turned the radio off.
After a minute, he explained, “I like my version better.”
“You know,” I said, “I think I like your version better, too.”
Roman shrugged and turned back to the road, and I did the same. Silence settled between us again, but as the miles faded in the rearview mirror, so did the easiness of that moment. A cold, creeping realization spread over me.
I’d just…slipped. The conversation had felt genuine, and I was so tired I’d lowered my defenses. I wanted to believe that I’d opened up as a way to convince him that I’d fallen for their game, but that would have been lying to myself.
There was only one thing I needed to remember.
All of this was impossible, and none of it would ever be real.
A FEW HOURS SHY OF morning, we spotted a motel sign in the distance, its VACANCY light on. For dozens of miles it had been nothing more than a faraway spark, and now the sign turned the sky violet with its glow. The sight of it tangled my thoughts, knotting them with unwelcome memories of other motels, in other empty places.
“Phone lines,” I said, pointing them out. A feeling of triumph bloomed in me as I added, “At least I’ll finally be able to make my call.”
The only questions were what they’d try to do to stop me, and what they’d do when they realized they couldn’t.
As if on cue, Roman asked, “Can you pull over here a second?”
I slowed the truck, but didn’t pull off onto the rough shoulder.
Roman stared out at the motel, brows lowering in thought. “I was just thinking…maybe we should approach on foot. And not check in with the employees.”
I translated that into the crime it was. “You mean break into a room and use it?”
“The hotel manager or staff would be able to identify us to anyone who came looking,” he explained. “The kidnappers could have beaten us here and bribed the workers to call in a sighting of us.”
“That terrifying thought aside,” Priyanka said, “we also look like we escaped a murder scene, so maybe it is best to approach with some caution, especially since a hotel manager out here is likely to have some kind of gun.”
I glanced down at my shirt, my stomach turning at the sight of the blood on it.
“That too,” Roman agreed.
“Let me go ahead, then,” Priyanka said. “I’ll scope the place out, see which rooms are open, avoid rushing any horses.”
“Why don’t you both go?” I suggested innocently. “Or I can go, and the two of you can stay here.”
“Or Roman could go,” Priyanka said. “Or you and Roman could go. Thank you for helpfully laying out all the possible solutions.”
“That’s not all of them,” Roman said absently. “None of us could go, or all three of us could go together.” Seeing the look Priyanka sent his way, he said, “What? That wasn’t all of them.”
“I should go,” I said, fighting my frustration. I needed to get into one of those rooms myself, not give them time to find an excuse for why we should move on. “I could go in, make the
call, and get out before anyone notices.”
“You’re the most recognizable one of us,” Priyanka said. “Someone is going to notice.”
“No one is going to notice,” I shot back, and that was the truth. I was used to moving unseen, even if I was slightly out of practice. “I have more experience with this kind of thing than you do.”
“Somehow,” Priyanka said, “I really doubt that.”
I slammed my foot down on the brake in anger, and it was the only opening she needed. Before I could get the truck moving again, she unbuckled her seat belt and jumped out, calling, “You two can enjoy coming up with all the possibilities of what could happen to me together.”
Priyanka took off at a limping run, her legs losing their stiffness as she wove through the tall grass and stray clusters of trees, making a wide arc across the field to approach the hotel from behind. Gritting my teeth, I guided the truck onto the shoulder and threw it into park.
I was shaking with frustration, and no matter how hard I gripped the wheel, I couldn’t stop.
“Tell me what that look means,” Roman said. “Are you all right?”
“No,” I said, and left it there for him to figure out.
Priyanka’s distant form reappeared at the edge of the motel’s lot twenty minutes later. As she neared, it quickly became apparent that the blood on the shoulder of her jean jacket and dress was bright, meaning fresh, and that she was holding a palm against the skin above her left eyebrow for a reason.
Roman let out a sigh and reached over to turn the engine off, taking the keys from the ignition. He slid across the seat to open the door for her. Priyanka didn’t bother climbing back in.
“Good news, bad news,” she said, way too brightly for someone with a gushing head wound. As she leaned in, I saw that her pupils were dilated again, and she had that look of almost feverish excitement. Her words seemed to chase one another out of her mouth.
Roman’s whole body tensed as he took in the sight of her. “Start with the bad.”
“Welllll, you see,” she began, “I happened to be trying to look into a room’s window to make sure it wasn’t occupied, and the manager—this little white dude—he just pops out of nowhere at me like a damn weasel. I didn’t really want to wake anyone sleeping nearby, so I followed him back to his office, playing the innocent, desperate ingenue. And, well, it turns out he’s got a little side business, this one of the narcotics variety. I basically had to knock him out, use his belt to chain him to the office’s toilet, and blockade the bathroom door.”