By Debbie Taylor
Ashley reached Rehoboth Beach Campground at sunset. She was looking for Dewey, who would provide a North Carolina license plate in exchange for one night’s rent and $5,000 cash.
The front office was empty, so she walked toward the cabins. A man wearing camouflage pants and a woman with Goth-black hair sat on rusty lawn chairs drinking beer.
“You must be Trenton,” camo man said. “I’m Dewey.” He did not shake hands. It wasn’t done anymore.
“Uh, yeah.” Ashley had almost forgotten these modern-day pirates identified themselves with their hometown names, like in that zombie movie with Woody Harrelson.
Goth woman rose.
“Early day, tomorrow. Me and Dover plan to make the most of our last night indoors.”
Dewey cough-laughed. “Enjoy.”
Ashley hoped her business with Dewey was brief. She had worked a twelve-hour shift before driving from New Jersey and craved sleep.
Dewey leaned across the grimy plastic table. “Before you hand over five grand, are you up for this? North Carolina’s going to eat you alive with that accent.”
“Why do you care? My money is good as anyone else’s.”
“Because if you don’t make it, my guys won’t get their cut. Could cause issues.”
Ashley leaned toward Dewey and stared. “Seriously? I’m an ER nurse from Jersey. My Dad is dying alone in the Outer Banks, and no one wants to help because my parents moved there five fucking minutes before the coronavirus hit. I’m going with or without you.”
“Alrighty then. Ladies first. Hand over the cash.”
“I need to see that plate first, Dewey.”
“We’ll slap down both on the count of three. One-two-three!”
Then Dewey told her how things would go. The plate was off a dead man’s truck, but if she didn’t get pulled over, she’d be okay. Dewey figured it was authentic enough to get her past the anti-Yankee vigilantes roaming south of Delaware. Next, she would meet a woman called Grandy at the Virginia Border Station and give her another $5,000 and her SUV with license and registration before meeting the bridge runner (Grandy’s husband). Giving up her beloved SUV was the hardest part of the deal to stomach. She may as well be a refugee in that part of the country without her wheels.
Dewey swigged some beer and puffed on a plastic straw before continuing.
He must be trying to quit smoking. Whatever works.
Dewey continued his orientation. “You’ll ride through the entry checkpoint at the Wright Memorial Bridge in back of E.C.’s landscaping truck under smelly sacks of mulch. If you survive that, it’s a fifty-minute ride from E.C.’s to Kitty Hawk, assuming no backups.”
“Elizabeth City, ma’am.”
He’s right. North Carolina will eat me alive.
Ashley went to her cabin and collapsed on a lumpy mattress atop saggy metal springs. She was dead asleep when her phone buzzed. Jesus, four a.m.
“Time to get going, Trenton. I put the tags on your car. Your old ones are on the running board.”
“Don’t go back to sleep. I’ll knock your door down if you’re not out in fifteen.”
Ashley’s first priority on the road was caffeine. She stopped at an all-night convenience store on Route 1 and poured a large black coffee. No grandes or ventis here. Her drive through the Eastern Shore was quiet except for the wind, which buffeted her SUV. As she approached the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, she kept her distance from a wobbly delivery truck ahead of her. Wind limits must not matter during a pandemic. The wobbler soon lurched and lost control, stopping with its front end dangling over the guardrail. Ashley swallowed and sped past the accident. She had to escape before first responders swarmed the bridge.
Heartsick, she drove the remaining forty-five minutes to Moyock. As she approached the Virginia line, Grandy texted her: Trenton, change of plan. Meet at Weeping Radish.
While E.C. sat in his idling truck, Grandy explained how they had noticed several county sheriffs congregating in the Border Station parking lot. To be safe, they kept driving.
“Climb in back,” Grandy said after receiving payment. The sturdy woman loaded bags of mulch on top of her as she lay in the truck bed. “Can you breathe?”
Ashley grunted “yes” and settled in for a hot, smelly drive, which turned into a slimy drive. Something was slithering against her arm. Ugghhh! She shifted to get away. Her t-shirt was drenched from sweating under the mulch and tarp covering the truck bed. If she didn’t get out soon, she’d faint. Thank God it was spring and not summer.
The truck slowed down. They must be approaching the bridge checkpoint. She felt a slither over her ankle and suppressed a scream. The creature must be trying to escape and cannot find its way out.
She heard voices above her. The tarp rustled as it was being pulled off. A new voice spoke.
“That’s enough, Bud. Looks like you have a passenger.”
“Black snake hitching a ride. Must have been bored with the quarantine.”
“Ain’t we all, sheriff,” came the reply.
The truck moved forward. She supposed the snake was still in the truck bed, but now it was only gross, not life threatening. She had fifteen, maybe twenty minutes now before they reached her Dad’s.
Then the truck stopped. And started. And stopped again. After a small forever passed, the truck continued on its journey and stopped for good. Ashley heard the truck door open. She felt fresh air seeping through the gaps between the mulch bags. She then heard E.C. say, “Stay down, Trenton, until I give the all clear.”
He helped her out of the truck bed. “Sorry about the snake and all that stopping. Traffic was backed up behind an accident at the Walmart light.”
“Thanks for the lift, E.C. Be safe.”
Ashley brushed off the remaining mulch and ran up the porch steps. Her Dad, pale and wrapped in a blanket, sagged against the inside of the glass storm door and smiled.