I never thought that I’d come back to this place.
I pulled over to the side of the road, the gravel on the shoulder crunching beneath the old motorcycle’s tires.
I took off my helmet and felt my hair spill around my face, the breeze tugging at it.
The bike shuddered between my thighs and I gave the throttle a twist. The old beast growled and smoothed out.
Not far in front of me stood the welcome sign for Pleasant, Kansas. It hadn’t changed much since I’d been here as a boy.
Just over 4,000 people lived there. 4,000 people who didn’t know who I was, where I came from.
No one from back then would recognize me now, and that was exactly what I wanted.
No one could know who I was. Not yet. Not until I found what I was looking for.
If only I knew what that was, I thought, resting my gloved hands on the top of my helmet, which rested on my lap.
I closed my eyes and breathed the clean air of the heartland for a moment, letting it wash over my face.
It was so different from the air I’d been breathing these last few years. City air. Industrial air. The smells of success, some might say.
Then I pulled my helmet back on, the smoked visor immediately darkening the world.
I toed the bike into gear and twisted the throttle.
“You’re never hitting me again, Bobby,” I said. I held the plastic laundry hamper against my stomach like a shield.
My body started those hot-cold shivers of fear and anger I’d become so used to
The cause of those shivers leaned against one of the battered washing machines in Abby’s Laundromat, the only place in town you could come get your things washed if your own machines broke.
Like mine had been. For two months now.
Bobby shook his head, his mouth grinning around a toothpick. He always chewed a toothpick. He thought it made him look cool, he’d told me once when we first started dating.
I’d told him it made him look ridiculous.
Of course, that had been back in high school, back when we both thought we’d be a thing together after school. Back before he’d shown his true colors.
The vibrations of the machine he leaned against made the little pull tabs on the zipper of his jacket jangle.
“I told you to call me Robert,” he said, “Bobby is a boy’s name.”
I would just leave, but the machine he leaned against held almost all my clothes in the world. I wore an old pair of faded blue jeans mostly worn through in both knees and my old Pleasant High hoodie, the stylized block letters almost worn away.
“Well maybe if you ever turn into a man, I’ll use a man’s name for you,” I said, my blood boiling.
I knew it wasn’t the right thing to say even before his self-possessed grin turned to a snarl. My mouth had been a constant source of trouble ever since I was little.
“You take that back, Ellie Granger,” Bobby said, pushing himself away from the machine.
Behind him I could see the street through the big plate glass windows. As usual, downtown Pleasant was pretty quiet. In fact, my old Ranger pickup and Bobby’s Trans Am were the only cars parked anywhere nearby.
Somewhere down the way an engine rumbled. A motorcycle, maybe. Too far away in any case.
“Or else you’ll what?” I said.
“You know I only do what needs doing. A woman isn’t supposed to talk to her man this way,” Bobby said. He had a sharp, handsome face. Pale eyes made paler by his fair hair. A wicked face cut from stone with no empathy behind it.
“Then I guess it’s a good thing I’m not your woman,” I said. I glanced around, looking for an escape. But Bobby’s broad shouldered-frame took up the narrow alley between the washing machines on one side and the dryers on the other.
One of his black work boots squeaked against the scuffed tile floor as he came closer.
“But this is what your daddy wanted, Ellie,” he said.
“That was before he died, and he didn’t know you like to do your talking with your fists,” I retorted. I stepped back. What have I gotten myself into this time? I thought. I knew that as soon as I’d seen his sports car pull up to the curb I should have grabbed my wet laundry from the wash, tossed it into my truck, and driven away.
But he’d left his two buddies since preschool, John and Dave, in the car. I’d made the mistake of thinking that because he didn’t bring his goons in with him he might just leave well enough alone.
But only hindsight’s 20/20, I guess.
Bobby smiled again, shifting the toothpick to the other side of his mouth as he did. “Nowhere to go, Ellie. What’s say you and me work through a few things while we’re all alone here?”
He walked forward. I moved back. We kept going that way until my shoulders hit the wall. Bobby stopped in front of me, a few feet away, just out of reach.
My knuckles went white around the plastic rim of the hamper.
I shifted my hips and something dug into the small of my back.
It was the latch to the back door. But was it locked? I didn’t know.
“We have some catching up to do, you know,” Bobby said. He ran his fingers through his hair, always kept cropped short, and looked me up and down.
I reached back with one hand, hoping he couldn’t see. I tested the latch. It moved. Not locked. I can get out.
But I’d have to leave my clothes. It wasn’t a decision long or hard in the making.
“I think this is about as much catching up as I can stand for the moment,” I said. I realized then that I didn’t know what was behind the door. What if Abby kept stuff out back there, blocking it?
“Not much of a choice, as I see it,” Bobby said. He shrugged, relaxed and inattentive in apparent victory.
We were both quiet for a moment. That rumble of a motorcycle engine drew closer.
Here goes nothing, I thought. I unlatched the door and pushed my shoulders back against it, praying it would open and not hit some unknown block on the other side.
It opened. In fact, I almost fell it opened so quickly.
“Hey!” Bobby yelled.
I regained my balance. Then I threw the hamper at him. Instinctively, he reached out and caught it. It gave me just enough time to slip out into the back alley and slam the door shut.
Then I saw the pile of empty wood pallets tossed by the brick wall of the alley. I grabbed one and shoved it under the handle just as Bobby slammed against the door from the other side.