Heat expanded in Liza’s lungs, making it hard to breathe. She tilted her head toward the open passenger window. The warm breeze swept her black hair around her face, and she blinked at her reflection in the sideview mirror as the desert landscape sped by. Her lipstick and eyeliner were perfect. As it should be on her wedding day.
She turned to blink at Pete. He was in his favorite pair of jeans and the button-up shirt he wore for interviews. His hair was disheveled as it normally was, and a pair of aviators were perched on the bridge of his nose. He wasn’t exactly the man she’d imagined settling down with when she’d daydreamed about her future, but he’d asked and she was alone.
“Yeah?” she asked.
Pete pulled out a cigarette and pinched it between his lips. “Did you bring any cash? I want to go out tonight and try my hand at roulette. Tony told me the secret to making easy money.”
After twelve years of working every job she was qualified for and a few she wasn’t, Liza knew there was no such thing. Every dollar she’d made was from hard, sometimes dirty work. She sighed. “I have enough for the basic wedding package—a thousand. You said you had enough for the hotel, right?”
Pete pulled the unlit cigarette from between his lips and scowled at her. “How much to get married? I was thinking it would be like a hundred. What a rip off. They’re just preying on daydreamers who want to be sold a fairytale. We should take that money and put it to good use—double or triple it.”
Liza looked down at the layers of white mesh that covered her legs. She’d found a wedding dress at the Spend Thrift before they left town for Vegas. It had a stain on side of the bodice, so she’d thrown on her black leather jacket to cover it. She was sweating like crazy because the car’s air conditioning was broken. But whoever said looking good was easy.
She stared at Pete’s profile and couldn’t keep her annoyance from her voice. “I thought we were going to Vegas to get married, not to make money.”
He grabbed his lighter and lit the end of his awaiting cigarette. The acrid smoke filled the air before getting swept out the windows. Liza scrunched her nose and sighed.
“Only money will get me into the ground floor of Tony’s new business.” He held his cigarette near the open window, and bright ashes were carried into the backseat.
Liza frowned. “But, I thought…”
“Oh my God! You just don’t get it. This isn’t going to work.” Pete glanced to the side, put on his blinker and slowed onto the dusty shoulder of the empty highway. “Grab your crap and get out. I don’t need a wife or anyone else who questions all of my life decisions. I already have a mom.”
Liza stared at him in disbelief. She’d known he was impulsive and self-centered to a fault, but this was just crazy. “Can you at least take me into town?”
He reached across her lap and opened her door. “Show a little leg and someone should stop for you.”
Liza grabbed her purse and stepped out of the car. She was about to reach into the back to get her bag when Pete started driving away. The wind carried off the string of profanities she yelled at him, and within moments, she was standing alone on the desert highway in the hot sun.
Tears welled in her eyes, but she quickly wiped them away and collected herself. Her feet started getting warm in her combat boots. At least she hadn’t worn a pair of flats.
Liza looked up and down the highway and saw nothing but scrub brush, dirt and rocks. It seemed she would need to start walking, so she continued in the direction Pete had driven. Her boots scuffed against the gravel, sending up a wisp of dust in the wind.
Liza’s thoughts were consumed with anger toward Pete until movement caught her eye. Off the side of the highway beyond a dusty slope, a pair of eyes stared at her. She squinted beyond the scrub brush, recognizing the bird’s feathered mohawk. A roadrunner.
It began to scurry parallel to the highway before stopping to look back at her. She took a few quick steps to follow, and a smile crept onto her lips. Memories flooded her thoughts of her Grandpa, the man who’d raised her. How he’d sit on the deck of his Arizona home, watching wildlife and hand feeding the wild roadrunners raw meat as they passed through.
When she’d ask him why he did it, he’d answered, “Because, my desert flower, they are protectors. They have traveled far and wide and know every trail from here to the sea, and if you are ever lost, they may remember our kindness.”
The smudge of red feathers on the bird’s head was the only burst of color in the beige landscape. She ignored the heat, finding purpose in her steady pace. Her grandpa was with her. She felt him in the wind at her back, pushing her forward.
The roadrunner scurried from grassy hillock to sandy dune and stopped to look back at her. Without having noticed, she came upon a turnout. A large tan bus was parked in the sun and light reflected off its dusty windows. Liza rubbed the sweat from her brow.
The doors opened, revealing an elderly woman with a creased grin. She put her hand on her hip and tisked. “Honey, you look like you could use a drink.”
At the thought of water, Liza’s throat closed up, and she nodded, unable to speak.
The woman waved her over to the vehicle. “Are you alone, sweetheart?”
Liza glanced to the dunes, finding the roadrunner’s eyes blinking back at her. Then the wind swept around her in an embrace.
She swallowed and climbed into the bus with a smile on her lips. “No, I don’t think I am.”