- Length about 8000 words. Written in 2008. Rated M.
The B-52's: Love Shack
I'm headin' down the Atlanta highway,
lookin' for the love getaway
Heading for the love getaway, love getaway,
I got me a car, it's as big as a whale
and we're headin' on down
To the Love Shack...
The Love Shack is a little old place
where we can get together...
David was driving, as usual.
In the corner of his eye, Alex could see those long, elegant, manicured hands on the steering wheel. His own fingers itched to grab it; well, maybe at some point.
He was bored out of his head, as usual.
He stifled a sigh and slumped lower in his seat, listening to the hum of rubber on tarmac and to the breath of wind on the car's chassis. If only there'd been something to look at, anything at all, other than the steady stream of cars and the nondescript roadside that flew past and made it so damn hard to keep his eyes open.
Light reflected from the front panel of the car's hi-fi system, then died again. It was on standby, as usual. For David, driving was something akin to meditation and thus to be done in silence, and Alex couldn't help wondering if he didn't consider the whole top-notch music system just a nuisance, another one of those annoying features he tolerated merely because it was standard stuff in this price range and stripping it out would've been too much trouble. It was such a bloody waste, though, that David had zero interest in music because Alex had managed to try out the stereo once or twice and knew that it could blow his mind if given half a chance.
He swallowed another yawn and rubbed his forehead, grateful for the excuse it gave him to close his eyes for a moment. It would've been easier to stay alert while driving, but there was no switching now that the traffic was flowing with ease, for once, and the big sleek BMW kept swallowing mile after mile at a steady rate.
No, better to just relax now and not get visibly fidgety, for that'd be a big mistake. Probably he'd just have to wait that much longer for his turn behind the wheel; David wasn't above being mean that way.
So he folded bare arms more tightly across his chest and focused on willing away the fine sand that seemed to be lodged between his lids and eyeballs. Now that he was forced to stay in one place, all the double shifts and overtime he'd been pulling were coming back at him with a vengeance. It'd been a real pain to get so many days off ｨC he'd be damned if he was going to get into all that bartering and coaxing and shift-juggling any time soon.
"I'd appreciate it if you bothered to stay awake."
Alex sat up, startled by the stingy tone. David was looking straight ahead, lips pressed into a tight line, and a wave of irritation surged over Alex. David's car and David's rules, yes, but...
"I'd appreciate it if you sometimes even pretended that you give a damn."
That earned him a narrow glance.
The tone was incredulous. It'd probably been a while since anyone had talked back to David.
Alex bit his tongue, cursing the slip under his breath.
"Sorry," he forced out, ignoring how the word burned his mouth. "It's just that you're not the only one who's tired."
A quiet snort was the only reply, and Alex clenched his teeth together so hard that his temples hurt. What the hell was the matter? David being cranky and preoccupied was nothing new, he'd learned to take a couple steps back and wait until the man had had enough time to put the week behind and shake off that efficient businessman persona, but this oppressive silence had now stretched on too long to his liking.
Besides, first David had told him several times to be on time so they'd get an early start, then kept him waiting for nearly three quarters of an hour before picking him up ｨC without apology, of course ｨC and he hadn't said a cross word about that. Surely that should've earned him some slack?
Alex took a deep breath. Exhausted, yes he was, because he'd been working his ass off to get on this much needed mini-holiday, but now he just had to keep himself in check so he wouldn't ruin the whole thing before it even properly started. You've been looking forward to this weekend, he told himself, so just remember who asked you and who's paying. Shut the fuck up now, give him the time he needs, bend over backwards some more, and everything's going to be peachy once more. You know it will.
The first hint of dusk was creeping over them, his ears registered it before his eyes did. The sound of the engine had changed, very little but anyway, and he didn't need to glance at David to know that the long fingers were now gripping the wheel more tightly and the man was frowning now, hunched ever so slightly forward. David was wearing his new glasses, but Alex had noticed that he still didn't quite trust his eyesight when the light began to wane, and suspected that he would've really needed bifocals. Funny what a sore spot age had become for him ever since its first digit had turned from three to four. Alex couldn't understand such touchiness; he sure hadn't noticed any adverse effects.
Something red flashing ahead made him perk up. "Hey, what's that?"
The road all around them turned into a sea of red lights as traffic ground to a halt, forcing them to follow suit. David's fist slammed against the steering wheel.
"Brilliant. Bloody brilliant."
"Yeah." Alex sighed slumped deeper in his seat with a grunt and raked fingers through his hair. "Well, lucky we got at least this far."
Seconds ticked past, punctuated only by the irate rhythm of fingers drumming on the wheel. Alex would've gladly dug his own fingers into David's shoulders and massaged him until he was limp and woozy, but he knew better. The gesture wouldn't be welcomed, not here, not now. Even surrounded by tinted glass, they were too exposed.
"Hey, how about switching drivers now?"
"We're not going anywhere in a minute or two, so you'd have time to chill out. Sit back and relax, have a smoke..."
"Not in the car."
Alex resisted the temptation to roll his eyes. "Outside it, then. Just step to the roadside and stretch your legs a bit, and ｨC"
David opened his mouth for a retort, but the buzz of his mobile phone interrupted him. He pulled the thing from his inside pocket and gave it an angry stab.
"Yes, what is it?"
Not the secretary. David never used that tone of voice to Samantha.
"No, I'm not driving at the moment… Because we're not going anywhere right now, that's why!"
His grip around the phone tightened visibly.
"We, as in myself and a few hundred others! I'm ｨC what? No, no, not nearly as far as I'd like."
So it had to be the one they never spoke about. His wife. Did she know? Did she suspect something? Alex didn't know. Had she found out? Was that why they hadn't seen each other that much recently?
Maybe, but the fact remained that Alex was right now sitting in the front seat of David's BMW, on his way to an extended weekend in a luxury hotel with the man. Alex, not the wife. Surely that meant something.
"Yes. I'll be driving carefully, as soon as I can actually drive again." David pinched the bridge of his nose between the eyes. "Will be. Yes… right… no, of course not. Mmm-hmm. Yes. Love you too. Bye."
The phone disappeared back into the pocket. Alex reached towards the radio but David shot him a glare.
"Do you mind?"
This time Alex didn't even try not to roll his eyes as he sat back once more with a loud sigh.
The scenery outside the car window wasn't much of a distraction, but somehow he managed to grind his teeth together tight enough to stay quiet until the red lights faded at last and the car was moving again. He sure as hell didn't want to look at David.
They both needed a break, a few moments outside the car, a cup of coffee, a cigarette. Then he could grab the keys from the cafeteria table, walk to the driver's side and slide into that leathery embrace, hear the engine ｨC unlike its owner ｨC respond to his every request. He'd even make sure not to speed too much, so David could sit back and relax the ride.
Too bad, though, that a break didn't seem to be on the agenda. The car was picking up speed once more, and that small wrinkle between David's straight eyebrows showed no sign of disappearing.
Yet another cluster of inviting lights loomed ahead.
"Hey, let's stop over there for a coffee, shall we?"
The car just breezed past the junction, and something snapped inside his head.
"Fuck you, David, can you even hear me?"
"Can't help hearing," was the acidic response.
"Wow, you haven't gone deaf after all! So, how about a coffee?"
"Can't see any place to stop."
"Could that be because you're not even trying?" Alex was fuming. "Look, we could both use a break, we're tired and there's still a good bit of driving ahead. Wouldn't mind taking a leak, too."
"Didn't we lose enough time already?"
Alex squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath.
"It wouldn't take that long," he tried once more through the frustration and anger that made his voice tremble. "Five minutes in some nice place, that's all."
He had barely time to register how David glanced at the rearview mirror, then the car was already gliding out of the traffic flow and up a lane leading to a junction.
"Hey, what ｨC"
Seatbelts or not, he reflexively grabbed a hold of the dashboard when the car shot onto a much narrower road. The name on the signpost said nothing to him. "What're you doing?"
"Didn't you want to look for a place to stop?"
"Yeah, but…" He looked around, shook his head, then glanced at David’s stony face and swallowed. "Yeah."
There'd be a lay-by soon, he told himself. No coffee, but he could live with that, because this was exactly the kind of road where David would be indulgent and let Alex behind the wheel: a country road curving through fields and copses of trees, past a few houses here and there, with the setting sun above them. David was tired to the point of snapping, had probably had a hell of a day, and they were looking for a place to stop and switch.
The world outside the car was getting clearly darker but the speed didn't drop. Mile after mile slipped past quickly, far too quickly. Alex's knees hurt, and only when he looked down did he realize that it was because he'd dug his fingers into them. Now he was freaking out for real.
"David," he forced out through clenched teeth, "slow down."
The trees and bushes lining the road kept flying past.
"Look, I'm sorry." It felt like chewing glass. "Sorry I didn't shut up earlier. I didn't mean to make you mad, I know you're tired but, well, it's just that I'm real tired, too. Sorry. Just slow down now, will you?"
Narrow drives, probably leading to houses just out of sight or maybe to some fields behind the trees, blinked in the edges of his vision before vanishing.
"Please, David, let's stop for a cig." Alex hated the edge of hysteria creeping into his voice, but the world had spun out of control and he was plain afraid. "I'd like a smoke, too, maybe I could bum one from you? And I could drive, it's getting late and I know you hate driving when it's dark."
A signpost. More bushes. A car from behind a bend, headlights flashing as it swerved to avoid a collision.
Tires squealed as the BMW skidded to a halt. Alex fought for breath through the belt that bit into his chest, and it took him several blinks to grasp that they hadn't hit anything after all. He could see the empty road ahead, not a wall or a tree or the inside of another car.
A long arm reached across him to open the door. "Get out."
He turned slowly to gape at David.
"What?" It came out rough; breathing still hurt.
"I said, get out."
"What do you mean, get out?"
"Didn't you want a break?" David spat. "Out of this car, now!"
Alex fumbled to open the seatbelt and scrambled out in confusion. The slam of a door made him whirl around, and then his legs were already moving before his brain caught up with what he was seeing.
"David?" He ran in front of the car, too furious to be afraid, palms hitting on the hot bonnet. "Fuck you, man, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
The transmission grunted, he nearly fell on his face when the car abruptly reversed away from him and then shot onto the road once more. Just before the bend it braked sharply, a door swung open and something hit the tarmac with a bump. Then there was another scream of rubber before the tail lights disappeared from sight.
Alex took an uncertain step after the mirage still dancing in his eyes, then another. When he reached the dark lump that he could barely make out in the falling dusk, he realized that it was his weekend bag. Mechanically he picked it up and dusted it off.
What the hell had just happened?
The dusky silence around him offered no advice.
For a good while he just stood there, trying to gather his wits once more, then realized that the middle of an unlit road wasn't the safest place to be lost in thought, and walked to the roadside. There he stopped again to listen but heard nothing. Absolutely nothing.
"Fuck you, David!" He smashed his bag on the tarmac, kicked it, kicked again. "Fuck you!"
What was he going to do now? Stand here and wait until David came back to his senses and returned to pick him up? Or start walking?
Alex forced himself to breathe evenly. Turning around and walking back didn't seem like a good idea; he knew he was a long way from the motorway and couldn't remember seeing any promising lights or other signs of nearby life for several miles. Of course there was no knowing how far he'd have to walk before finding anything ahead, but on the other hand he might just as well find something right around the bend. At least he could hope.
Besides, that was the direction where David would be coming from ｨC because sure he would. Right?
A shiver ran down his spine. With a muffled curse Alex knelt down to dig into his tattered bag, suddenly very aware of the moist chill that was reaching its fingers inside his collar. It was really getting dark but he didn't need his eyes to find what he wanted: the dark green jumper he'd got for his birthday from that dickhead David. He pulled it on and felt immediately better, then squinted at his surroundings.
David had to come back, he decided. One unimaginable thing to happen in a day was enough, and if someone had suggested to him that David might be capable of something like this fucking stunt, he'd have pissed himself laughing. Not David, he'd have said, not in a million years, he's too damn controlled. I know how to get him to relax and that's why he's with me, because I know how to loosen him up.
He'd been wrong, though. Somehow he'd badly misread the situation, and the more he thought about it, the more sure he was that there had to be something at play he didn't know about. Whenever they met, David was always uptight and stressed at first, until Alex got him to unwind, but something was different this time. He'd never failed before, and he couldn't believe it was just because he himself had been more stressed than usual. No, there had to be something else.
"I swear I'm going to fucking kill you," he growled under his breath but the words lacked real heat. Anger was seeping out, too, leaving him merely tired and confused. All he wanted was to be in that hotel already, lounging on the bed and nibbling dinner with David after a fuck and a bath and a couple of drinks.
He wasn't going to get anywhere at all by just standing, though. With a sigh he hoisted the bag over his shoulder and started walking towards the bend where he'd last seen the car.
The sky was clear enough so that he could see the outlines of trees ahead, but to his disappointment they hid no house or inn or roadside bar, just another stretch of fence. In the distance he could see the glow of lights from some city, and a solitary star blinked faintly over the horizon.
A star? Alex snorted to himself. That was no star, it was the light of some mast or something, and he was an idiot! With a sigh he fished the phone from his pocket, hit the fast dial button and raised the thing to his ear, then stared at it mutely for a few seconds.
"What the fuck do you mean, 'no network'?"
He shook the phone, tried again, switched it off and on, reinstalled the battery, tried once more, all to no avail. The phone just blinked unapologetically at him and refused to connect.
No, this simply couldn't be happening. He looked around once more, wondering if a glitch in the phone service could get any more ill-timed. Why now? And why wasn't anybody driving by? There had to be houses around, people living in them, it wasn't that late in the day yet so why wasn't anyone up and about?
With quiet desperation he flung the bag over his shoulder and started walking. His eyes were getting used to the thickening blackness around, but it still was too dark for comfort and already staying on the tarmac was getting to be a challenge. More than once he strayed too close to the edge and nearly lost his footing on the sloping side, stumbled a little, went on. Just walk, he told himself.
Every now and then he checked his phone but it remained stubbornly useless. Worse, the road seemed to be totally deserted, the only sound he could hear was the steady slap of his shoes on the tarmac, and Alex was feeling more paranoid by the minute. Surely it couldn't be normal that it was so damn quiet?
"Get a grip," he said aloud. It didn't sound too convincing. "You're out in the country, and this just happens to be a quiet stretch of the road. Get a grip."
If only David would kindly get a grip as well and come back. Fingers curling around the unresponsive phone in his pocket, Alex swore that if David returned soon, he'd pretend this never even happened.
If? No, fuck it, 'when'! There was no question of anything else.
He slowed down a little to squint, and after a few more steps he was sure of it: at the slight bend ahead there was a hedge and a neat gate, and behind them he could make out the roof of a house. Encouraged, he walked faster. If there was a house here, where the phone network was this unreliable, there also had to be a landline phone, and it wasn't too late yet to knock on the door and ask if he could use it.
The house looked a little too dark and quiet to his liking, but he put his hand on the gate nevertheless and pushed tentatively. It opened with a faint squeal of hinges and he stepped through, then walked to the front door along the gravelly path that crunched under his shoes.
Lamps on both sides of the door lit up when he approached, sudden enough to give him a start, and he rolled his eyes at himself. As if he hadn't seen motion detectors before... There was no name on the door, nor did he spot a doorbell. That was a bit odd. He raised a hand and knocked on the door.
There was no reply at all, but Alex didn't want to give up quite yet. He knocked a second time, louder, and this time there was a sound on the other side. The lock let out a muted click, the door was flung open, and he opened his mouth to speak but had no time to utter a sound.
"Hello! Welcome!" The woman standing at the door granted him an enormous smile. "Do come in, please!"
Alex could only gape. He could swear that he'd never seen her before, but she was looking at him like a much expected old friend, and that was unsettling enough. Still more unsettling were her looks. Epithets such as 'hourglass figure' and 'blonde bombshell' could well have been coined exactly for her, Alex though numbly, trying to blink away the flashes of his Mum's beloved old Hollywood movies that had started to play before his eyes at the sight of her.
"Uh, hello," he managed. "Sorry to disturb, but ｨC"
"No, no, come in! Come in!" She grabbed him by the hand and pulled him in.
The hall was longish but narrow, there were some small pictures on the walls and a flight of stairs leading up from one end. That was all Alex had time to observe as the woman ushered him into a sitting room. Moments later he found himself in an armchair that was cozy in a slightly overwhelming way, just like the rest of the room.
"What would you like to have?" She beamed at him, sitting on the edge of another chair opposite to him. The toothpaste-commercial smile made him nervous.
"Well, uh, my phone isn't working and I was wondering if you'd have a landline that ｨC"
"Landline?" Huge, baby-blue eyes blinked at him over a cherry mouth rounded into a confused pout.
Alex opened and closed his mouth a couple of times before he got his voice back. Had he been wrong after all to dismiss all those 'stupid blonde' jokes as that much nonsense?
"Yeah, landline phone," he repeated. "You see, I can't get a signal and ｨC"
"A phone!" The smile made a comeback, as if someone had flipped a switch. "Oh, but why would you need a phone? You are very comfortable here, aren't you?"
His voice was really trying to hide somewhere. Probably it had already been swallowed by the extremely soft armchair that was also trying to swallow him in its suffocating embrace. "Well, yes, but…"
"My name is Lila," she twittered. "I'm so glad to have met you, umm..."
"Alex," he supplied as her voice trailed questioningly off. "I'm Alex, and ｨC look, I really need to get going. Sorry to have disturbed you, Lila."
"You're very attractive, Alex," Lila purred.
He had a terrible urge to pinch himself, but on the other hand he couldn't comprehend why he should be dreaming of a curvy female talking to him like that. She was undeniably gorgeous, and Alex could instantly think of a dozen guys he knew who'd already be creaming themselves if they'd been in his shoes now. However, he'd had enough experience of the opposite sex to know he wasn't interested, never mind how sexy and willing the potential partner, and Lila was no exception.
His thoughts strayed briefly to David, regretfully reminding him that he'd most probably have to find someone else to sleep with, but the current problem quickly took precedence once more. He had to get the hell out of this house, quickly, and away from this totally weird blonde!
Before he could act, though, she swayed across the space that'd so far separated them and settled her bottom on the armrest of his chair.
Alex swallowed. He'd never seen such an amazing female figure before, and this particular specimen was now far too close. He tried to pull away from her. What the hell was she on?
"Look, Miss Lila, you're very pretty and all that, but I honestly have to be going now," he said as firmly as he could.
Long fingernails raked his nape as the woman leaned closer and twined his hair around her fingers.
"But you're such an attractive man, Alex," she cooed in a husky voice. "There's no need for you to go anywhere yet."
"That's very flattering, but ｨC"
"Just call me Lila, will you?" She tilted still closer.
"Hey, get off me!"
He tried to turn around enough to push himself up or at least extricate the arms twining around his neck, but the softness of the armchair, and the weight of the woman who was about to slip over the armrest and into his lap, made it very difficult. Oh fuck, she was too close, bosom pressing against his shoulder, face so close that her lips were practically touching his cheek...
Alex's eyes flew wide open when something clicked in his brain. Something wasn't right. He'd felt it all along, but only now he realized that something very crucial was missing. Something ｨC
The train of thought was derailed by the sound of determined steps that were swiftly approaching the door to the room.
His heart stopped. There was someone else in the house, had probably been all the while. A homicidal maniac, a serial killer using Lila as a bait to lure people into the house so he could cut them to pieces? Or maybe it was Lila's big, brawny hubby, just come home to his crazy addict wife who'd been watching too many porn flicks while he's been away, and now he'd find some strange guy pawing Lila in his house?
Now you're done for, his brain jeered. He'll be in this room in two seconds flat and then you're dead meat.
Alex was still struggling to get up when the door opened, and then he yelped in panic when the woman suddenly went completely limp, sagging on top of him like a deflated doll. Somehow he managed to squirm out from underneath her, but settling the lifeless figure in the armchair was impossible. Like a plastic bag filled with water, she kept slipping to the floor, until he could no more bear to feel the gaze drilling into his back. He let go of her and turned around, bracing for a fight.
Two men were standing at the door and looking at him. They didn't appear in any way unusual or menacing, and yet for some reason their presence just a few feet away made Alex's mouth go dry. He groped for something to say, some explanation for the limpid woman sliding from the armchair and onto the floor at his feet, but couldn't think of anything. Then his heart skipped several beats when realization dawned.
The men were not unusually tall or short, not unusually slim or corpulent, but the eyes staring steadily at Alex were completely black. Quite the usual size, they showed no white and no iris, just the rounded surface of a black sphere filled with some sluggish liquid that slowly shifted and lapped against the glass containing it. Like black water stirred by an undercurrent.
Alex heard a faint whistling sound. It reminded him of the time years ago when he'd dislocated his shoulder and the doctor had pulled it back, fuck that'd hurt, and a moment before he'd fainted there'd been this distant whistle in his head. But he couldn't keel off now, because the two things that were eyeing him were between him and the door. Their faces were completely expressionless and yet they somehow managed to look very annoyed.
Belatedly his brain came up with what'd been so wrong with Lila: even with her nose barely an inch from his cheek, he hadn't felt her breathe. The notion failed to make him feel any better.
"Your droid is not working," the slightly taller of the two men stated in a deep, resonant voice.
"This is most vexing." The other one sounded agitated. "I have done so much research! And it has worked so well in earlier tests!"
"In any case it doesn't seem to be working now," sneered the first one.
Flip, Alex thought in a panicked leap, his name must be Flip. And the other one is called Flop. And is it okay to say 'his' because they look like men, or should I say 'it' instead?
"This man's response doesn't satisfy me at all," Flip continued. "It seems that you have introduced too many changes in the programming, without testing it thoroughly enough."
"I have been suspecting something like this, and now I am certain of it. You are just wasting our time and finances!"
"No, no, please let me make some changes and then we will try again!"
"No," Flip interrupted harshly.
Flop is indeed beginning to sound like quite a good name for that other guy.
"Please! I already have it adapted genetically so that it will be able to breed with humans!" Flop wailed. "You can be sure that it will work just perfectly if only I do some more tests, some more research…"
Alex swallowed with difficulty. Breeding with humans ｨC to what end? These two guys were aliens, and the limp doll in the chair was just that, and they'd expected him to…
He'd already managed to edge around the armchair but froze once more when Flop turned those horrible eyes at him, practically oozing desperation.
"You!" he said. "You must help me! Tell me what is wrong with Lila? Why don't you find her pleasing? I need to know it!"
"Leave him be," Flip barked in a bored tone, but Flop didn't listen. His fingers dug into Alex's shoulder, and Alex couldn't hold back a pained gasp.
"Tell me!" the alien insisted. "You must tell me, so that I can make her perfect!"
"That is enough!" Flip snapped. "I have been tolerant with you, but enough is enough. Your funding is off, and your precious Lila is useless. Just accept it."
"What ｨC NO!"
Flop let go of Alex at the metallic zing and leaped towards Flip who was pointing a large gun-like thing at the impassive droid. Flop was on him in a fraction of a second, but he was a fraction of a second too late. A blinding flash of greenish light illuminated the room, there was a zooming sound, and the air in front of the empty armchair shimmered.
Flop's scream sliced right through Alex's head. The next moment the two aliens were wrestling furiously for the possession of the gun, and while Alex's brain was still trying to catch on, his legs again decided that they weren't going to wait any longer.
He slipped out of the room, hit his shin nastily against something in the hall and fumbled his way to the front door through the star-studded darkness flashing before his eyes. When he felt the touch of night air on his face again, he ran ｨC to the gate, through it, and to the road once more. He couldn't see a fucking thing in the dark, didn't have a clue where he was, but he ran and ran until he had to stop because his entire chest was burning too badly to take another breath.
When his sides and throat and lungs began to ache a little less, he straightened his back and looked around. The road was quite as nondescript as it'd been before, and as quiet. There was just him, standing there alone and clutching the bag to his chest like some treasure. He had no memory of having snatched it with him when he'd fled the house, or maybe he'd held on to it all the while.
Or maybe he'd imagined the whole thing? Maybe he was suddenly going crazy, or maybe he was in fact dead. Maybe a car had hit him while he was still standing in the middle of the road, and these were just the last flickerings of his brain cells splashed all over the tarmac?
Alex shuddered. At least the cold felt real enough. He had to do something and get somewhere, anything and anyplace would do, and because he couldn't imagine a road that didn't go anywhere, he started walking.
He walked and walked, stumbled every now and then but doggedly kept putting one foot ahead of the other, and again, and again. Not a single car drove by. He saw a few houses but didn't as much as glance at them, just walked, eyes never wavering from the road ahead. He walked until a faint glow of morning appeared over the horizon and brightened into a dry, semi-cloudy morning and he could hear an incredible sound: an approaching car.
Alex tried to wave at it but it didn't as much as slow down, just breezed past him, and he glanced at himself with a grimace. He felt shaggy and damp and cold; if he looked even half as dubious as he felt, it'd be a far cry to hitch a ride in a passing car. But at least he had to try.
Before long he heard another car coming from behind, some minutes later another one, then a delivery van and a few more cars. They paid no attention to his pleas, but finally there was a silver-grey SUV that slowed down and pulled to the side. Its door opened and a stout man in his fifties peeked out of the window at Alex.
"Hello there," he said, "you need to get somewhere?"
Despite his aching legs Alex nearly ran closer, hardly believing his ears.
"Yeah," he said, "do you know if there's maybe a train station or, dunno, a coach station or something nearby?"
"There's both in town, a few miles ahead." The man gave Alex an assessing look. "I'm going there anyway, so hop on."
"Thank you. Oh man, thank you so much, you're a lifesaver."
Alex sank into the front seat and buckled up, fingers trembling with fatigue. In the corner of his eye he saw the suspicious glances that the man kept sending his way, but he was too tired to chat, barely up to keeping awake despite the lullaby sung by the SUV's engine. God, he was bone-tired and felt thoroughly filthy, but apparently he didn't smell altogether too nasty because the man hadn't opened the windows yet.
"You all right?"
"Uh, what?" Alex forced his eyes open. "Sorry. Yeah, just really tired. Actually, do you know if there's any hotel or motel? Close to the stations or something?"
"Well, there's this one little place not far from the train station, I'll drop you there."
"Great, I'd really appreciate that. Thank you."
Alex let his head loll once more against the neck support and succumbed to drowsiness.
He woke up with a start when the car glided to a stop, and his bleary eyes noticed that they were standing in front of a building that proudly announced itself as a hotel. He gathered his bag more tightly in his arms and fumbled for the door handle.
"Thank you," he said. "Really, thanks a lot."
"It's okay," the man said, and his eyes said junkie or something, thank goodness he didn't get violent or anything, I'm really far too helpful for my own good, going to get myself into some kind of trouble yet. Lucky it wasn't today.
Alex turned around and shuffled in.
Mercifully, the place had vacancies even though it was still morning, and he slammed his credit card on the counter before the receptionist had time to ask for it, just to wipe that suspicious leer from her face. She charged the room without comment, and one flight of stairs later he was at last where he wanted to be: in the same room with a bed.
He dropped the bag on the floor, shed his clothes on his way to the bathroom door, and less than two minutes after entering the room he was already standing under the shower, listening to the echo of fatigue in his ears. Water beat on his head and shoulders as he shampooed and rinsed and rubbed himself as squeaky clean as he could, trying to expel the lingering chill from his body.
When he realized that he'd been just leaning against the tiled wall for a while to keep himself from crumbling on the floor, he turned the water off and wandered back to his room. It was nothing special, just a cheap hotel room, but the bed looked oh so inviting. He crawled onto it, face down, and closed his eyes for a moment. He needed to dry himself and take a look at what clothes he had packed in the bag ｨC for fuck's sake, was it only yesterday? ｨC but first he'd take a nap.
Some moments later he was woken up by a slamming door and talking voices. Alex pushed himself up, disoriented, but the voices didn't disappear and after listening to them for a while he decided that they had to belong to hotel cleaners making their rounds in the rooms. Drowsily he flung his legs over the edge of the bed and scratched his neck, then realized that he'd obviously slept much longer than he'd intended, judging by his completely dry hair and the red welts left on his skin by the crinkled bedspread.
His head felt like it'd been filled with cotton, but he tried to put his thoughts back into order nevertheless. How the hell had he ended up here? His memory was perfectly lucid until the car and that goddamn congestion that'd stopped them for a good while about two hours into the journey. After that things got at first hazy, then downright insane, and Alex chuckled at himself. He'd sure had one hell of a crazy dream, but now he was ravenously hungry and his throat felt like sandpaper. Better get something to eat and then start figuring out what had really happened.
He stood up, combed fingers through his hair and glanced at his reflection in the dressing mirror. His hair didn't look too disheveled, so he turned around and was just about to go to the bathroom when something registered and he froze to the spot.
Slowly he turned around so that he could see his left shoulder properly from every angle. Yes, those definitely were bruises, small round dots. Just like fingerprints. There was another bruise, too, a long faint one over a shoulder and across his chest, pretty much where a seatbelt would be.
He lifted his left foot on the edge of a chair, bit his lip, then looked at it. There was no mistaking about the dark purple blotch on the shin, or the way it hurt when he prodded it with a finger.
Alex spun around, tore the first clean shirt he could find out of the bag, pulled the jeans on, toed into his shoes, and nearly ran into the corridor and past the surprised hotel cleaners.
He'd seen the little restaurant downstairs. The clock on the wall showed that the day had already progressed well into the afternoon, but the place was empty except for a shabby blonde of maybe thirty or thirty-five, nodding at her tall glass in a corner, and a dark, short-haired woman who tended the bar and handed Alex's drink over the counter with a nod. He murmured a thank you and sank into one of the small sofas by the wall to contemplate it, unsure of how his growling stomach would react to it unless he ate something first and still not feeling like eating anything.
Wobbly steps approached, and when he glanced up, he saw that the shabby blonde was headed his way, half-full glass in hand.
"Haven't seen you here before, darling."
Obviously she was feeling talkative. Oh fuck.
"Haven't been here before," Alex murmured. He could feel that the mother of all headaches was just waiting for the right moment to flare up, but then that was hardly any wonder when the world had gone haywire. He tossed back one third of the drink at one go and rubbed his forehead.
"Pity!" She sat down next to him and managed not to slosh more than a few drops of her beer on the table. Alex shifted a little away from her. "You look lonely. Got dumped by the girlfriend, huh?"
He wanted to groan. She was too drunk to be argued with, and he was too weary to just get up and walk away because his legs felt like lead and already the first gulp had made the world take a few extra spins. He needed an excuse.
The phone, of course. It was always a good one and, sure enough, the phone was still in his pocket, even though it was something of a miracle that it hadn't fallen somewhere along the way. He pulled it out, studiously ignoring the blinking woman, and swore at himself under his breath when he saw that it wasn't on. He remembered switching it off at some point, weary of the constant 'no signal', and had apparently forgotten to switch the bloody thing on again. How stupid was that?
He flipped it open and glared at it, ready to fling it to the wall if it didn't connect this time, then took a deep breath and pressed the button.
Within seconds the thing asked for the code and then blinked into life as if nothing had happened. He snorted quietly, not knowing whether to be dismayed or relieved that it was working after all, and was about to push the phone back into the pocket when it began to beep imperiously.
Alex's jaw clenched when he looked at the envelope symbol. There were several text messages, each one from David, as well as numerous voicemails, increasingly frantic in tone. Where are you? Why aren't you picking up? For God's sake please reply! Are you all right?
With a snort he erased the entire memory without even reading each message, did the same to the voicemail, and swallowed the rest of his drink with one angry swig. His stomach was screaming for food and the alcohol was rapidly making his head woozy, but he didn't care.
Just as he was again about to push the phone back into his pocket, it rang. That particular ringtone was reserved for just one person, and he considered it for a few seconds before answering.
"Alex!" David's voice cracked with something that sounded oddly like sob. "Good God, Alex, are you all right? What's happened to you? Where are you? Why haven't you answered, I've been trying to call you all night!"
Alex closed his eyes. His head was aching now for sure.
"Have you?" he ground out. "I can't see why you should, though."
There was a sharp intake of breath; David was trying to regain his self-control. God, he knew the man so well, or at least until some twenty-four hours ago he'd really thought so. Now he wasn't so sure any more, but then, he wasn't quite sure of what exactly had happened over those twenty-four hours.
Alex nursed the empty glass in his hand. "You still there?"
"Yes." David sounded rejected. "I'm here. Alex, please tell me at least if you're all right. I've been trying to call you a hundred times and just got this goddamn 'cannot reach' every time. I thought I'd go out of my mind."
"Why not call the police?"
"I ｨC I just couldn't." His voice was jerky. "I'd have had to explain what happened and, oh God I was so ashamed of myself. What I did to you. I did call a couple of hospitals in the end, though, but... you are all right, aren't you?"
Alex sighed. "Yeah," he said sourly.
"Thank God. I'd never forgive myself if..." David swallowed audibly. "Look, we need to talk. Where are you?"
"Oh, talk, right? What makes you so sure that I want to?"
"I mean, do we still have something to talk about?"
"Yes. We do. I want to at least explain to you. I mean, Alex, it's about Carol. I ｨC please tell me where you are. I'll come to pick you up, we'll go somewhere, just the two of us, and then we'll talk. After that I'll take you wherever you want me to. No strings attached, I swear. Your call."
Alex turned the glass slowly around, looking at the reflections it cast on the table.
"All right," he said. "I'm in ｨC uh..."
Where the hell was he? Had the guy who'd taken him here even said the name of the place? He wasn't sure, and he'd been so sleepy that he couldn't remember seeing any signs by the roadside, either. Luckily the woman blinking owlishly at him wasn't too drunk to supply the information when prompted for it.
"How the hell did you get there?" For a moment David's concern gave way to astonishment. "You're not pulling my leg, are you? I can understand that you're mad at me, but ｨC"
Alex laughed, a weary snort, then held the phone tighter.
"David. Listen very closely now. If you want to talk to me, you come here. If you don't... well, I guess it's sayonara then. Get it?"
"Yes. I'll be there, Alex. It's going to take a while but I'll be there, and I'll call you when I'm closer. All right?"
"Please make sure you won't switch off your phone this time. I really want to see you."
"I promise I won't. See you, David. Bye."
He rubbed his aching eyes and looked regretfully at the empty glass. Someone patted his arm, and when he glanced up, the blonde granted him a drunkenly sympathetic smile.
"Not a girlfriend, then," she said. "Or at least I've never heard of a girl called David."
Alex tried to smile back at her; at least she was being nice for the moment. "You're right, it's not a girl."
"Should've guessed, really." She shook her head and took a swig from her own glass, the nodded knowingly at him. "It really looks like it's true what some of my friends say, that all the good-looking ones are gay."
You're very attractive, Alex.
It was really lucky that she was more than a little tipsy, otherwise she might've noticed his shudder.
"It's all right. I've got nothing against gays."
She patted his arm again and leaned closer, voice dropping conspiratorially. He could smell alcohol in her breath. "In fact, there's this friend of mine who's been married four times, or was it five? Anyway, so this friend of mine, she says that the world would be a much better place if there were more gays around, you know? Because there's so much overpol-overpopulation, and wars, and intolerance, you know, and she says that if there were more gays who don't make kids, and make love not war, and…"
It will be able to breed with humans.
This man's response doesn't satisfy me at all.
He couldn't hold back the hysterical laughter that forced its way up and made his shoulders shake and tears run down his face. The woman giggled with him until the fit passed and he was leaning both elbows on the table and gasping for breath.
"You okay, darling?"
"Ye-yes," he sniffled, still hiccuping. "Sorry."
"Was it that funny, what I said?" she wanted to know. Alex wiped his face and gave her a slanted smile.
"No. I'm just so fucking tired, you know."
"You've been busy saving the world, huh?" She tried to wink at him and nearly succeeded. Alex drew a deep breath.