The Four Friends are Tara, a witch/ghost who’s a bit more alive than most people realize; Buffybot, a robot copy of Buffy Summers; Dana, a psychologically scarred Slayer from an episode of “Angel”; and Kara, an original character from my first fanfic.
Title: A Wrong Turn At Albuquerque
Summary: Ian thinks he’s still headed toward Indiana, in a misguided--figuratively and in this case literally--attempt to get back in his family's good graces. Along the way he meets a very different, mystical sort of family.
Length: 2,500 words
A WRONG TURN AT ALBUQUERQUE
“I think I made a wrong turn at Albuquerque.”
It seemed funny when Ian said it, although it might have seemed funnier if he’d had an audience. Now, an hour later, on a two lane blacktop somewhere between the desert and more the desert, it didn’t seem that funny at all.
Although Ian Grant considered himself a pretty good driver (He’d once guested on an episode of Top Gear—the British version), he had to admit responsibility for almost hitting the girl who stood in the middle of the highway. He’d been steering with one hand and trying to unfold a map with the other, after his GPS took him onto a “shortcut” that turned out to be a secret government installation. Well, he didn’t know about it. The soldiers at the gate were surprisingly understanding, as they pointed back the way he’d come. With their guns.
“Area 52, that’s probably what it—yikes!”
He jammed on the brakes and swerved. The Mustang skidded to a stop, just feet from a young woman dressed in jeans, boots, and a long sleeved work shirt with a vest over it. In the desert. In July.
Ian’s evasive maneuver left the girl, who hadn’t moved an inch, standing right by the driver’s side window. He rolled it down, letting in a blast of hot, dry air. “Are you okay?”
She leaned down and gave him a hard, unsettling stare. Her dark hair draped across her face, but didn’t hide her critical, somewhat wild eyes. “You’re Ian Grant.”
“Yes, and you’re in a desert by yourself, with no car around. Which is more remarkable?”
If he’d hoped for a smile … actually, he was just playing for time as his heartbeat settled. She just continued to stare, then gave a little shrug. “This is how your sister met her fiancé. Well, she was on the side of the road. And there was a tornado.”
“Okay, how do you know about my sister?”
“I read your mind. By the way, I’m not underage. I just look young, like your sister does. Do you have any water?”
Without another word, she walked around the car and, before Ian could think of what to do, opened the passenger door and climbed in. She took his half empty bottle of water from the cup holder and gulped the rest down. “I’m Dana.”
“This is nice. Do you have a last name?”
Well … why not? “Any particular direction?”
“Did you see anyone back that way?”
“Just a cactus and the desiccated remains of Wiley E. Coyote.”
“Then go the other way.” She pulled on her seat belt. “Wiley E. Coyote isn’t real. He’s a cartoon character.”
“Uh-huh.” Ian drove. Why not? Even if she was underage, he wasn’t about to leave the girl standing by herself in the middle of nowhere. “Next you’ll be telling me there’s no Santa Claus.”
She gave him a serious look. “You wouldn’t want to meet him.”
They drove on in silence for a while. He kept to the speed limit, expecting to see a disabled vehicle or a pile of bodies at any moment, but the desert just kept flashing by. The whole thing made him think he’d been dropped into a crazy mash-up of Smoky and The Bandit and The Twilight Zone.
“There.” Dana pointed.
Another girl stood there, this time perched exactly on the white line. She was a short blonde, wearing black leather pants and a fringed jacket. When she spotted Dana, she grinned and waved wildly.
As soon as Ian stopped, Dana opened the door, then scooted her seat forward. “Hi, Bottie. You have to sit in the back—I get claustrophobic.”
“Wait a minute—“
The blond climbed in. “Hello!” She glanced at Ian. “Oh, I’ve met your future brother-in-law. He pulled me over once. But I didn’t know at the time …”
“Okay, how do you know—wait. ‘Bottie’?”
Bottie shrugged. “Bottina Summers—Bottie for short.”
“Why not Tina?”
She gave him a baffled look. “Tina’s are all over. How many Bottie’s do you know?”
“You have a point, or something.” He looked her up and down. Why wasn’t she half-dead, lying prostrate on the baked ground? “There’s water in that cooler beside you.”
“No thanks! I’m on three quarters of a tank.”
Was he being pranked? Were they carrying hidden cameras? That would account for the extra clothes. It had to be Seth Green, that little weasel, getting him back for the time Ian jumped out of the closet wearing zombie makeup. “So … what now? Do you need to borrow my cell phone?”
“Oh, no thanks,” Bottie said. “Just drive about five miles or so, please. Also, why are you heading toward Mexico? You’re not running from the police again, are you?”
“Not yet.” I’m heading south? Doggone GPS.
Ian drove on. To say this was putting a crimp in his schedule put it mildly, but they seemed to know what they were doing … besides, he was curious. “Am I an accessory to a crime here, or something? Not that I have a problem with that, but it depends on the crime.”
“Not to worry,” Bottie told him, in an unfailingly cheerful voice. “We hid all the bodies.”
“Heh. Very funny. Isn’t it?”
After a few miles, the Mustang’s GPS called out. “Turn right here. The turnoff to Seattle will be on your left.”
Ian looked to the right. Cactus. Sand. Some bluffs in the distance.
A voice in the back said, “I wouldn’t turn here.” It wasn’t Bottie’s voice, although Bottie responded with a little shriek of joy.
He glanced in the rear-view mirror. Bottie was hugging a taller woman, who extricated herself to reveal long, reddish-blonde hair and inquisitive eyes. She was wearing a sweatshirt that said “Love Alaska” … and a fur hat.
Although Ian was aware of his mouth hanging open, he couldn’t seem to close it until he saw the new arrival point forward. “You’re going off the road.”
So he was. He jerked the wheel, then rethought it and let the Mustang drift to a stop on the berm. “Where did you come from?”
“I got in when Bottie did. Didn’t you see me?”
“I—“ He replayed everything in his mind. “No you didn’t! I’d have noticed a second woman standing by the first woman standing in a desert in summer dressed like a Canadian centerfold.”
“A Canadian centerfold?” The third woman looked at Bottie. “Bottina, wasn’t I standing right beside you?”
“Well, you were kind of behind me.”
Dana turned to look back at them. “The desert can cause mirages, and make things disappear, and stuff. And you were behind her. So—there. Tara was standing behind Bottie. Although Bottie’s short.”
Tara nodded. “Also, I am not dressed like a Canadian centerfold.”
Beside her, Bottie punched her arm. “How do you know what a Canadian centerfold looks like?”
I’ve gone crazy. The GPS took over my mind, and it’s driving me on the freeway to Loonyville. There was, Ian decided, nothing to do but go along with it. “How many more women are we expected to pick up?”
“Oh, we just have to find one more!” Bottie told him.
“She is underage,” Dana added. “If you touch her, I’ll have to rip out your heart and eat it for breakfast.”
Ian got the feeling she wasn’t kidding, but Bottie scoffed. “That’s just silly, Dana. You couldn’t eat Ian’s heart for breakfast: That’s sixteen hours away. It would spoil by then.”
“Well, maybe just a snack.”
Didn’t Charles Manson have a crew of homicidal females? But this bunch would be way too young for that, right? Right? “Okay, look. You know who I am, right?”
Tara shook her head. The other two nodded.
“Have either of you heard of anything, anywhere, that suggests I’ve ever taken up with an underage girl?”
Bottie immediately shook her head. After a moment’s thought, so did Dana.
“Okay, then. No one in this car is going to do anything illegal or immoral while we’re all together, including the consumption of perfectly good organs that could be donated to needy children—got it?”
“That seems fair,” Tara told him. “And, who are you?”
“He’s Ian Grant,” Bottie said. “Remember that state trooper who pulled us over in Indiana? Ian is his future brother-in-law.”
“I’ll bet he’s on his way to Indiana to crash the wedding.” Dana gave Ian a hard stare. “Are you?”
“No. I’m on my way to help plan the wedding.”
The women went silent. Then Bottie asked, “Does your sister know you’re coming?”
“Does anyone know you’re coming?”
“Doesn’t your sister hate you?”
“That’s all just a big misunderstanding, based on the fact that I’ve embarrassed her and the rest of our family for all our adult lives. I’m going to make up for it by taking on all the work of planning her wedding, which according to these audiobooks I picked up on the way out of L.A. is a lot. Then she’ll forgive me, and her fiancé won’t punch me out, and my father even might decide to talk to me at other weddings, and funerals, and such.”
Silence fell again. They drove on a few miles before Ian glanced in the mirror, to make sure all three were still there. “So, what do you think, Dana? You can read my mind.”
“Actually, I read your sister’s blog.”
Oh, duh. “Does she, um, mention me?”
“No.” She patted his shoulder, in a way that made it clear she didn’t pat many shoulders. “But I’ve only read back for a few months.”
Far ahead, Ian saw a speck along the roadway. As they approached it resolved itself into a low building, with an awning out front and a sign that said: First Stop Gas and Groceries.
“Shouldn’t that be last stop?” Tara asked. “In Texas, they always seemed to say last stop.”
Ian shook his head. “I passed Last Stop about a hundred miles back. That was the last stop, and apparently this is the first stop after the last stop, so …” I’m handing this so well. “Something tells me that’s your girl.”
A teenager stood near the store’s front door, sipping on a Dr. Pepper. She wore jeans and a heaven woolen sweater, and held a jacket in the crook of her arm.
“It’s Kara!” Bottie cried, and Ian pulled up to the gas pumps.
“Kara? Is that some kind of thing with your group, having your last names end with an “a”? Should your nickname be Bota?”
Bottie paused for a moment. “Ooh, I like that idea.”
They all piled out. Ian still had two thirds of a tank of gas, but he had no idea how much longer he’d have to drive before he left the Twilight Zone, or passed through a stargate, or got sucked up by a UFO. He pulled out the pump nozzle to top off the tank.
The four females gathered in a circle, exchanged hugs, and compared notes. “That was so weird,” Kara said. “Where are we, anyway?”
“Southern New Mexico.” Bottie hooked a thumb toward Ian. “Mr. Grant is so lost.”
In more ways than one. The pump clicked, so he hung up the handle and finished paying.
Kara glanced his way, then did a double take. “Ian Grant?”
Plastic surgery. Totally valid lifestyle choice. “Hello. Your friends know more about me than I do, except for Tara.”
Tara’s hands fluttered. “I’m sorry, I don’t—“
“No, it wasn’t a complaint. Any knowledge about me pretty much qualifies as Hollywood trivia, which pretty much qualifies as pointless.” He walked over to the group, ignoring the heat that beat down on them all. “But I was wondering, since young Bottina and Dana know so much, can you get me back on the right path?”
Smiling, Bottie pointed back the way they’d come. “Go back that way, and take a right at Albuquerque.”
“I knew Albuquerque would figure in, somehow. So, where do you need me to take you?”
Dana pointed north. “Alaska.”
“Our work’s done there. Can we be in the wedding?” Bottie asked.
“No, a ride’s not necessary,” Tara told him. “We’ve made arrangements.”
Arrangements? The only vehicle in sight was an old tow truck, either parked against the service station’s side wall or holding it up. The only other person, a clerk who looked like a strange mix of Gomer Pyle and undertaker, leaned over his counter to stare at them. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely.” Kara continued to stare at Ian with an air of fascination.
“Well … guess I’ve got some doubling back to do.” He started toward the Mustang, but Tara called to him and he turned back around.
“Mr. Grant, I don’t want to pry into your personal affairs.”
“Oh, it’s okay. I get that a lot.”
“From what I’ve heard … well, may I suggest that you don’t surprise your sister? Her fiancé made quite an impression on us—I gathered he can be a hard man when he’s … not amused.”
“Please. If I ran from every cop I pis—upset, I’d have ended up in Albuquerque as a teenager.”
“Well … maybe you should look your sister up first, and … reconnect with her. Maybe you should even get the lay of the land up there first, before you contact anyone. It’s just a thought.”
Tara, for all the strangeness going on, was a nice lady. “I’ll consider it, thanks.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Grant.” Tara stepped back, and Kara waved.
“Please don’t get drunk anymore,” Dana said.
“Gave it up.”
“Try not to make inappropriate jokes at the wrong time,” Bottie added.
“Okay, I’m still working on that one.”
Shaking his head, Ian climbed into the Mustang and started the engine. He looked back to give the quartet one last wave.
They were gone.
After a moment Ian climbed out of the car and walked into the service station, where the attendant stood scratching his head. “What happened to those four girls?”
“Don’t know, mister. I was standing here admiring your car when I saw a flash, out the corner of my eye … and when I looked, they’d just vanished.”
“Huh.” Ian walked out again, to one side of the building, then the other. No tracks in the dust. Returning to the front door, he called in. “But you did see them, right?”
The man frowned. “Well … strange things happen sometimes, out here.”
Ian got back into the Mustang, turned around, and drove on, for the same reason he had after Dana appeared: What else was there to do? For a long time he thought about those four friends, and the advice they’d given him. They were all right, of course. By the time he reached Albuquerque, he decided they were very right indeed, and he was happy the giving up drinking part had already happened.
Now the hard part would be avoiding inappropriate jokes.