Written By: Anthony Luciano
People love to reminisce about road trips. "Take me back!" They always say. "Let's take a day trip to the beach! It's only a few hours' drive!" I, on the other hand, am not one of those people. My last road trip wasn't ideal. I was stuck in a car with people I barely knew forever. We were on our way to a place I had no reason to go to. And it ended up being one of the worst, most haunting experiences of my life. But I feel like I'm getting ahead of myself. So I guess I should take you back a little bit.
For a long time, I was working a dead-end job. I was single. Not going to school. Just kind of coasting through life with no real plans on what to do next. My family hated it and I kind of fell out of contact with them because of it. I was in love with a girl I couldn't have. She was very happy with someone else for as long as I could remember. And I'm not an asshole. My best friend had recently just kind of... stopped talking to me out of nowhere and wasn't returning any of my calls or texts. So yeah. I was coasting. And Unhappy.
I made the decision that I was going to quit my job and hitchhike to the other side of the country. I thought, "What better way to make new friends and see new things?" And I had really nothing else going for me at home. What did I have to lose? So I did just that. The day after I made my decision, I put in my two-weeks notice at work. My boss didn't really seem to off-put by it. Which doesn't surprise me. I was really lacking in the 'work ethic' department as of late and spent my entire lunch break slurping cup of noodles while watching YouTube videos, usually surpassing the allotted 30 minutes we were given. I guess he could tell I just didn't give a duck any more. I guess he could tell for a while.
After a few more days in that shithole of a job, admittedly slacking more than usual, my boss decided it would be in everyone's best interest to let me go. They had already planned on hiring a replacement for me prior to my notice. And they offered to pay me out for the rest of the two weeks since I didn't just walk out or not show up for work anymore. As much as I hated that place, I really appreciated the sentiment. I was going to need the money to make it cross-country anyways. Although I didn't tell him that. I didn't really tell anyone, come to think of it. This was for me.
I spent the next week packing all of my important things up into my hiking pack. I also picked up a super portable tent and sleeping bag, just in case I couldn't find a room to stay in on my journey. I left a note for my roommate, apologizing for not letting him know about all of this and leaving him hanging. I also left him the info for one of the people I worked with who was looking for a room at the time. I figured the least I could do was at least fill my empty space with another body. Another source of income.
As the sun was peeking out from behind the mountains, I took the last step I would ever take out of my front door and headed towards a new life. Don't get me wrong. I loved being free from everything. I was, for the first time in my life, my own man. I really had nothing to worry about other than where I was going to sleep that night. And with the tent on my back, that was never so much a "worry" as it was a decision to make. I made it about halfway across the country by couch surfing and picking up work like doing dishes or cleaning up tables at bars for a drink and something to eat. Most people and places were actually very welcoming and helpful. Though there were the less-savory people along the way.
Antoinette was not one of those people. I was sitting at a local bar in the midwest somewhere... I honestly don't remember the name of the town. After being dropped in so many, they start to kind of blend together at some point. Anyways, I was enjoying my order of mozzarella sticks and washing them down with a beer when she approached me with a smile. She had on a long sleeve turtleneck sweater and a black pleated skirt. Told me the bartender said I was hitchhiking across the country and wanted to know what my end goal was. "I don't really have one..." I told her. "I'm just trying to get away. Start fresh, you know?"
She smiled at me. "I know. All too well, actually." She pointed to the extra chair at my table. "Mind if I join you?" I gestured toward the chair for her. "It's all yours." We chatted for a few hours after that. I'd like to say we really hit it off. She had just recently gotten out of a bad relationship that left her scarred. Physically and mentally scarred. She told me she wanted to start fresh too. Wanted to cover all of her scars in ink. "They're a part of me, but I don't want to be ashamed of them. I was planning on driving across state line to start a chest piece. Start to become someone new. Looking for a ride out of town?" She said that with a chuckle.
I wasn't going to deny a free ride. Especially not with someone I got along with so well. Most trips were spent in the back of someone's truck or the middle seat between people arguing over whether or not it was necessary to make another piss stop. It always was. Nobody could ever hold it as long as people would like. An open seat and good conversation was like a godsend. She and I walked back to her place and I crashed on her couch for the next couple of nights. She had a few days off of work coming up and we were planned to leave the night of her Friday at work.
When that night finally came, I had already been itching to move on to the next town. I didn't want to get attached to anyone anywhere. At least not until I was sure I was ready to stop moving. Losing someone is difficult. And I didn't want to add any more burden to myself or my journey. And I definitely didn't want to do that to Antoinette. We had become good friends over the last few days. And I didn't need to ruin that and cause her any more pain than she had already been through with her abusive ex. So we headed out of town that morning on a way to a new life for her. It felt good to be a part of someone else's new beginnings. I felt like I belonged again. Like I was lending a hand to someone who needed it. It was a nice change of pace.
We drove for 6 or 7 hours before we reached our destination. I'm not going to lie to you. She had chosen a pretty shady looking tattoo shop in a weird little town off the beaten path. But I wasn't going to judge her for it. I wouldn't want to show my scars to people I could potentially see on a daily basis. Somewhere away from home was a good plan. "Do you want to come in with me? I've never done this before. I wouldn't mind some company." She looked worried. "Of course! It's not like I have anywhere more important to be!" I joked. We shared a laugh for a second and she led me into the shop.
"Hi. I have an appointment with Charlie?" She said to the woman at the counter. "Uhh..." The woman looked annoyed. As though we had interrupted her super important magazine article or something. "Yeah. Hold on." She set her magazine down and spit out her gum in the garbage can to the side of the counter. "CHARLIE!" She screamed across the shop. "Your 3 o'clock is here!" I heard mumbling from behind the plaster wall as the girl came back around. "He's just finishing his lunch. Give him a few minutes." She sat back down and continued her magazine article. "Fill this out." Without looking away from the magazine, she handed Antoinette a clipboard with a consent form attached. Antoinette took it and we sat in the lobby while she filled it out.
"Not a great start, huh?" She said uncomfortably. "I'd be kinda bitchy if I had to sit there and read a 6-month old issue of Cosmo all day, too." I laughed. "She's probably just a little rough on the outside. Most tattooed and pierced people are teddy bears. They've just got an image to uphold." I flexed and pouted my lip trying to draw a smile from my new friend. She grinned and pushed my shoulder. "Whatever you say, freak. I'm going to be one of them soon. I guess I've already got the rough exterior to match the attitude. I'll just have to work on it." A man emerged from behind the counter drying his hands. "Antoinette? I assume? I'm Charlie. Let's get started!" He reached out for a hand shake.
I listened to them talk about the designs they had been emailing back and forth and watched Antoinette light up at the sketches Charlie showed her. "I love it!" She exclaimed. "I want to hug you! Let's do it! So ready!" Charlie snorted a little. "Save the hugs for after it heals, sweetheart. Let's hope you love it as much once it's on your skin." He spun around in his chair and started getting his things ready while slipping on a fresh pair of black latex gloves. "Why don't you go ahead and take off your shirt and lay down on the bench here?" He laid a roll of paper towels at the head of the bench.
"I... Like I said, I have a lot of scars... I'm kind of embarrassed I let them get so bad..." Antoinette hugged herself. "Can't be anything worse than what I've seen, darlin'. I make a living covering people's mistakes. Don't worry about it." Charlie did his best to comfort her. "Okay..." She said, grasping the bottom of her sweater. "But no peeking!" Antoinette shot me a look and winked. I turned around and enjoyed the flash on the wall. Charlie was a talented artist and he knew it. The walls were plastered with his work. And it was all amazing. I heard the leather squeak as Antoinette settled on the bench behind me. As I turned back around, I saw concern and fear on Charlie's face.
"What... Are those?" Charlie stumbled over his words. Antoinette's voice was quiet as a mouse, "I told you they were bad..." She sounded hurt and began to sit up, covering herself. "Those aren't scars... They look like fucking... Like.. Barnacles!" Charlie screamed as he shot off of his chair. "Please stop yelling." Antoinette reached for the artist to calm him down. "Get the fuck away from me you freak! Get the fuck out of my shop!" Charlie pushed past her and grabbed me by the arm, forcing me back towards the exit. "The fuck is your problem? You think this is some kind of fucking joke? I run a god damn BUSINE--" Charlie's words were cut off as he dropped me to the floor.
I looked up to see a blackened hand around his throat. "Please. Stop. Screaming." Three different voices spoke at once. I shuffled back to the window of the tattoo shop, grasping for anything to help me off of the ground. The girl behind the counter screamed and threw her magazine towards Charlie. The hand around his nick tightened until his neck popped. He let out a pained gurgle as blood seeped from his nose and eyes. The hand released him and he collapsed onto the checkerboard tile. Antoinette stood behind him with her sweater in one hand and a concerned look on her face.
"Please don't scream. I didn't want to hurt anyone. Please." She began to walk towards me. The receptionist screamed again and started throwing whatever she could get her hands on at Antoinette. "Please." Antoinette looked pained, raising the blackened hand to her ears and squeezing her eyes shut. "Please. Stop. I can't--" I blinked and she was across the room, in front of the now silent girl. "I can't stand the screaming. It hurts..." Antoinette backed away from the girl, slowly puling her hand from her now bloodied torso. As she slowly turned around, I saw what Charlie and the receptionist were so afraid of. Her chest and abdomen were speckled with these little dark green and black.. things. They were slimy looking around the base and looked almost like they were breathing... Like a fucking barnacle on the hull of a long-since-forgotten boat.
I struggled to my feet and started slowly towards the door. "Don't be scared. Please. Alex was scared. My mother was scared. And now Charlie and this poor girl. Please don't be scared of me..." I put my hand on the door handle. "I-I'm not scared. I'm just going to get the car started, okay? Go clean yourself up... We--we can't stay here. We have to go..." She smiled a toothy smile. Her teeth were covered in a black and green film. And something black and thick as oil began to run down the side of her mouth. "Thank you.. I'm going to do that. I'm going to go clean up." She turned around and made her way to the back of the shop.
I waited for her to disappear into the bathroom before I ran out to her car. The tattoo shop was in an empty shopping center in the middle of what looked to be an almost deserted town. The town didn't look so dead when we drove in. My head started to pound as though I had just woken up from a night of binge-drinking. I knew the feeling well. I staggered to the car and found the keys behind the vanity mirror of the driver's seat. I drove as fast as I could away from Antoinette and the hellscape that was that town. I stopped a couple hours East of where I left her and started walking. I ditched the car in a field off the road as to not get caught in a stolen vehicle.
I've been at this library in Georgia for hours now. I don't know what the fuck I just saw. I should have stayed home. I should have kept working my dead-end job. I should have just lived my shitty fucking life. I swear I can hear Antoinette whispering in my ear. She's angry with me for leaving her. For taking her car. She's asking me to come back. I need to find my way home. Or keep moving. I'm terrified she's going to find me. God only knows what she'll do if she does. I'm going to sign out of here and figure this out. Starting fresh wasn't worth this.