And then Death turned to her and said, “The only reason I didn’t take you that day, Casey, was—”
“—it wasn’t my time to go. I know. I know.” Casey shook her head. Looked at the pebbles under her sneakers.
Death gave a warm, throaty chuckle. “No. No, Casey, that wasn’t it. Not at all.”
Casey closed her eyes. Opened them again. “Then why?”
Death smiled. “I didn’t take you then, love, because it’s so much more interesting this way.” Death looked down the highway. “Someone’s coming.”
Headlights approached, and Casey watched as the two bikes—big Harley-Davidsons—roared beneath the overpass, stopping in the small dry patch at the side of the road. The silence when they hit their kill switches was complete, except for the drumming of the rain on the concrete above them.
The first man eased a leg over his bike and shook his head, beard and braid splattering rain, like a tattooed dog after a bath. He rubbed his eyes, hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, and looked ahead on the road, into the driving rain.
The second man, larger than the first, his bald head and shaven face speckled with raindrops, laughed loudly. “Hoo- eee! That’s some dumpin’. Thought they was gonna poke right through my face!”
The first one grunted, turned, and stopped, looking up the stony embankment. “Well, I never. You okay up there, darlin’?”
The bald one jerked around, his eyes finding Casey in the midst of the stones and stumpy weeds. He squinted into the grayness, as if expecting more creatures to pop out from the shadows. “You all alone?”
Casey saw nothing beside her anymore but a sense of something lingering, like the air hadn’t quite closed itself behind Death.
“I’m okay,” she said.
The first guy gestured at the rain. “Little wet, maybe?”
She glanced at her sleeping bag, dry except for the corner, where drips from a tile in the overpass had created a sodden triangle. Her clothes were dry, as was her backpack. She’d found shelter just in time, as the wayward sprinkles had started falling, blurring the afternoon into a misty smear.
The hairless biker reached into his saddlebags and pulled out a rag to wipe his face, leaving a greasy slash across his cheek. He tossed the cloth onto the bike’s seat and used his tongue to work at something in one of his back teeth while he studied Casey, glancing behind him only when a truck roared past in the opposite lane, spraying water as far as the shoulder, just short of the men.
“Where you headed, sweetheart?” the other one said. “Don’t see no wheels here.”
Tires screeching, the world spinning, metal rending—
Casey pulled her knees up to her chin and rested her arms on them, her head at an angle to avoid hitting the road above her. “Nope. No wheels.”
She shrugged. “Walking. I just follow the road as I feel like it.”
He nodded. Looked at the rain. Looked at her. “Well, you want a ride when this rain stops, you got one.” He jerked his chin up the highway. “We’re headed east. Toward Pittsburgh.”
She turned her head. “I guess I could be going that way.”
The bald guy studied her a moment longer before shaking his head once, hard, like she was nuts. That was okay.
Casey watched as the two wiped down their bikes. Checked the tires. Pulled the straps on the leather saddlebags tighter, keeping out the rain. Sat on their bikes, their backs to her, heavy boots crossed in front of them at the ankles.
This was not one of those moments she’d considered. Alone by a sleepy highway with two very large, very tattooed men. No idea who they were. No idea what they were like, except they were dressed all in black, one with a skull embroidered on the back of his jacket. She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. The bikers were still there when she stopped.
Gradually the downpour diminished, the thunderous pounding easing to individual splatters, and then to nothing. The sun didn’t come out, but the day lightened, the clouds a thin veil across the sun. Casey considered the bikers, and their offer. She felt no animosity from the men. No sense of threat. Was she ready to move on?
Not much here, on the rocky ground along a highway.
She swallowed. Looked at the motorcycles. They weren’t cars.
Or even vans. Didn’t have four tires, or air bags.
And she was really, desperately tired.
“I’ll take that ride, if you’re still offering.”
The bearded biker pushed himself off of his bike. “Sure thing, hon. You can ride with one of us, strap your stuff to the other.”
“Thanks.” She gathered up her possessions. There weren’t many of them. She hadn’t even bothered to take out anything but her sleeping bag and a bottle of water. She folded up the damp bedroll and tied it to the top of her backpack, scooting the whole lot behind her down the rocky embankment. When she reached the bottom she eased upward, stretching her sore muscles. A sleeping bag hadn’t been enough to protect her bones and body from the hard, uneven surface. She rolled her neck, but stayed aware of where each man stood, primed for self-defense should her sense of their intentions prove wrong.
“I’ll take that.” The larger man held a hand out for her backpack.
Casey hesitated, then lifted it into his arms.
“We ain’t got no helmets,” the other guy said. He sat astride his hog, fingers on the key.
Casey laughed under her breath. No helmets and a motorcycle on a rainy day. Not the smartest method of travel. But then, it probably wasn’t interesting enough for Death to take her that way.
On the other hand, maybe it was.
She stepped up to the bike, and got on.
“Not a good day for ridin’, huh?” The trucker at the counter laughed, slapping his knee.
The bikers walked past him and the other truckers sitting along the counter, ignoring the obvious comment.
“Order what you want, darlin’,” the bearded biker said when they were seated. “S’on us.” He yanked a sticky menu from behind the napkin dispenser and slipped a pair of glasses from inside his leather vest.
“No,” Casey said. “I’ll pay.”
He peered at her over his lenses. “You don’t look much like you should be turning down gifts.”
“Oh, but I should be.” She pulled a couple of crumpled twenties from her pocket and laid them on the table. “It’s my treat.”
Her two new friends looked at each other until the bearded one shrugged and turned back to his menu. “Your call, sweetheart. You want to pay, we’ll be sure to let you.”
The bald one grunted a laugh, his eyes on the list of daily specials.
After they’d ordered Casey sighed, letting her head fall back. She was damp, cold, and tired. The patty melt and fries would help. She hoped.
“So,” the hairy one said. “Where you headed, exactly?” Casey brought her head back up, avoiding his eyes. “Somewhere. Anywhere.”
“Oh. So it’s like that?” “Yeah.”
A voice from the intercom announced a name, garbled with static, and said the shower was available. One of the truckers at the counter stood and tossed some bills by his empty plate before loping toward the back of the truckstop. Casey watched him with longing. A shower. Oh, to be clean, and warm.
The bald biker leaned back in his chair, balancing on two of its legs. “We’re going to State College. Harley rally. Welcome to join us.”
Casey outlined a design on the tablecloth with a finger. “Thanks. That’s…kind of you.”
Their food came then, steaming and fragrant. Casey tucked into her meal, forgetting all but the taste on her tongue, and the warmth in her belly. She came back to the present gradually, her eyes meeting those of her companions, their eyes sparkling as they regarded her across the table.
“Um. Hungry,” she said.
The bearded one laughed. “Guess so.”
She smiled briefly before finishing the rest of her food and downing the large glass of milk.
“I suppose you’ll want dessert now,” the hairy one said. “Oh. No. No dessert for me. But you guys…if you want it, you go ahead.”
Baldy grinned. “Don’t mind if I do.” He ordered and devoured an extremely large banana split.
When they’d finished Casey felt full, warm, and even dry.
“You ready to get goin’, sweetheart?” Her bearded friend stood beside his chair, a hand on its back.
“Oh. Sorry.” She got up and followed them outside, where the men put away their tarps and swung their legs over their bikes, balancing their rides, their feet on the ground. Casey hesitated.
“Everything okay?” Her driver was waiting. “Sure. I…it’s just, I think this is where I get off.” He looked around. “Here?”