The Last Hope truck stop on 80 splits the dry brown distance between Salt Lake City and Reno in half. 270 miles of asphalt in either direction, connecting two cities through a sea of dead scrub. The cramped diner at the Last Hope seats 16 at white linoleum four-tops gone gray. On any old day the seats might be filled with truckers sprawled out after long hours on the road, smiling families heading east for a Temple wedding, or bohemian hitchikers waiting to make eye contact with their next ride.
But today is no ordinary day. Today the tables are respectively occupied by a dead clown, two half-man-half-coyote creatures, The Prophet of Our Holy Keeper, and a 7’3’’ woman wearing a bleached cow skull.
The only sound is sizzling bacon, and, for a moment, the stale diner air lays still.
That stillness is broken by a jingling bell as the glass door to the diner swings open. A tall man wearing an unflattering polo shirt speeds incontinently past the strange collection of diners and into the single restroom tucked way in back. He leaves behind himself an air of desperation and a young boy who, unlike his father, does not overlook even one of the patrons. The Prophet of Our Holy Keeper slumps loomingly in their seat. A pinched growl resonates out of one of the coyotemen. The deceased vaudevillian smiles open mouthed.
Before leering can turn to violence, a towering figure leans out from the last booth, and beckons to the boy. He walks past the tables, face white as desert dust, feeling menace off the watchers like heat off a fire. By the time he slides into the plasticky seat of the farthest table, the giant woman has taken off her macabre helmet and replaced it with a faded green baseball cap reading ‘New Jericho Hauling’.
“Don’t worry kid, they won’t bother you as long as you’re with me. You sure as hell picked the wrong day to stop at the Last Hope,” the woman unafraid of monsters says with a husky drawl. She wraps her knuckles around a steaming mug and swigs deep. Her casual hunch-and-sip doesn’t betray the fact that she knows she is just as vulnerable as the boy. The liminal years have accustomed her to predators.
He squirms uncomfortably and squeaks out a whispered question without looking back, “Miss, what are they? Are those m-monsters?”
Sip, sip, sigh, “Not exactly, but close enough. Those are the locals out here in the in-between. Things like them wander from here to Timbuktu—we’re the ones creeping through their world. Most of them don’t go out of their way to hurt people, especially not at a place like this diner, but it’s best not to give them the chance.”
“What do they want? Are they—” his voice is cut off by the comical squeak of giant, floppy red shoes dragging across the tile floor. The clown is somehow standing now, limply shuffling towards them from the other side of the room. The trucker nearly knocks over her coffee as she drops it and lunges for the sun-seared mask she was wearing before. She slams the skull down on her head, forgetting about the baseball cap, and ends up with a lopsided look more reminiscent of a Quaker bonnet than a dead bovine.
The clown slows for a moment as it passes by the last booth, rolling empty eye sockets over its two occupants. Dead lips spread and crack in an even broader approximation of a smile. Then it passes, and steps into the occupied restroom.
The boy begins a shriek, way down deep in his chest, trying to warn his father of the approaching monster, when a hand claps over his mouth and cuts it off premature. The skull leans in closer, now properly adjusted to fit over a face, and the woman’s voice echoes out, “Child, when you’ve been on the road as long as I have, you know that there are only two things in all of The Great Expanse: the pinprick of light, heat, and sound that you control, and the rest of it. Space herself. You may think you own this place because people you don’t know carved a thirty foot wide highway between towering mountains and near infinite plains, but you don’t. All you have is the same recycled air blasted through freon coils, a 10 watt dime bulb overhead, and the roar of your engine pulling you forward. And that’s what you do, when you see things out here, you don’t scream, you don’t fight, you drive. We don’t have the upper hand here, so open your ears and get ready to run. If we hear a ruckus, we’re going to my truck and I’m driving you out of here.”
The boy and the woman sit, craning their necks toward the back of the diner, listening for a scream, or a bang, or perhaps a particularly loud squeak. Nothing happens for seconds. Then perhaps a minute. Somewhere in the kitchen bacon is pulled off the grill top and replaced with frozen hash browns. The Prophet of Our Holy Keeper pulls open a long red-hued scroll with small black writing. Then for another minute, nothing.
The two people in the last booth jump as the bathroom door swings open and smacks the wall. The boy’s father barrels out, unwashed hands tapping at something on his phone, still unaware of anything amiss. He beelines for the exit, calling behind him, “Noah let’s go.”
Noah locks eyes with the cow skull for a quick second, and the woman nods. He slides back out of the booth and nearly sprints after his father, riding on his heels out the diner door and into the well-known light of the sun. Within seconds they are back on the highway, hurtling along at 95 miles-per-hour, blasting a track by The Eagles. Within minutes the diner at the Last Hope truck stop has winked out on the horizon. The rest of the trip goes much the same as the first half, Noah silently staring out the window as his father alternates between trivia about whatever song comes on the radio, and trying to convince his son that the weekend in Reno was good fun, and he should ask his mother if he can visit more.
At least twice the boy thinks he sees coyotes standing two-legged in the distance, watching as the car flies by.