There are two ‘Wanted’ posters up in the city’s police station, the grim faces of two men staring down defiantly at all who walked past. One is an older man, mid-40s, with scruffy hair and a 5 o’clock shadow on his jaw. There are lines between his eyebrows and across his forehead, giving him a permanent mean expression, and there’s a gold hoop earring in one ear. Brown eyes, brown hair, sideburns, a tattoo on his neck of a Chinese dragon disappearing under the collar off his shirt. He looks like he could hurt people, hurt them without even thinking about it. He’s holding a plaque with a series of numbers hovering above his own name: arrested 5 years ago and now on the run. The other man is younger, 20s, clean shaven and thin, with a doe-eyed concerned expression on his elfin features. Ears are slightly pointed at the top, and he has a stud in his nose. Dark hair also, but piercing blue eyes and pale skin making him seem ethereal. He looks harmless in comparison to his companion, and holds no plaque – until recently, his criminal record had been squeaky clean marked only by the odd speeding ticket or two. But now he was on the run with a convicted murderer, and the state police had been tracking them both for eighteen months. They had last been sighted in Atlantic City – over a thousand miles from the prison where the search had started.
Beneath their pictures there is another poster:
REWARD: The federal state police are offering a financial reward for information leading directly to the arrest of Adam Ocean and Neve McNamara. These men will likely be travelling together, and should not be approached. They are assumed to be armed and dangerous. Contact your local police force immediately.
Neve’s latest tattoo has almost healed, and it looks great. He’s driving with one hand on the wheel and the other on the gearstick with his wrist tilted up towards me, and I can see the swirled tribal letters of my name disappearing up his forearm. I have his inked onto my calf, and he wanted to follow suit. He didn’t have any tattoos when I met him last year, now both his arms are swathed in coloured ink at various stages of healing, and his stomach and thighs are a work in progress. He adjusts his shades, catches me staring at him, and smirks a little before turning back to the road. He likes driving on the open roads, and I’m more than happy to be a passenger for an hour or two.
We’d had a pretty hurried exit from the motel this morning after Neve overheard someone in the café say that they recognised us. In ten minutes we had packed up the few possessions we own and driven off without paying for the room – not an unusual start to the day for us. I had dozed off after a while but Neve, hyped on coffee, had been driving for six hours without stopping it seems. The sun is high in the sky, he has all the windows down, and ours is the only car on the road. We haven’t passed anyone in ages, and I know we both like it that way.
‘Pull over at the next rest stop.’
‘Because I need a piss, and you need a break.’
‘Mmm.’ He frowns, but nods. I know why he doesn’t want to stop. He wants to get as far away as possible from the people who knew our faces and I empathise with him. But six hours of driving later and I’m hot and uncomfortable and need to stretch my legs. He hits a particularly rough spot in the road and curses and the Jeep rocks about recklessly. The battered old vehicle has done us well: swiped from the backyard of a farmer in a small village in North Carolina a few months ago it’s given us no problems and has been a sturdy packhorse through thousands of miles of driving.
We’re somewhere in the desert. For miles, red and orange dirt stretches out in all directions but on the horizon I think I can see mountains. The dust from the open windows is in our hair, our mouths, and caked to our skin. Neve’s arms and face are caramel tanned from days of driving in the scorching sun. The air is dry to breathe and I’m gasping for some water. I fish the crumpled, scribbled-on map out of the backseat of the Jeep and try to find where we are.
‘There’s a town not too far from here. Maybe an hour? We can stop there and eat.’
I sling my arm around Neve’s shoulders and he leans his head on me for a minute. He’s tired, but he’ll never admit it. He never complains, never argues with me, he just continues on without ever saying a bad word. I know he must be feeling all sorts, thinking a million things that he'll never share with me. He left his entire life behind to join me on the run and I know he didn't take it as lightly as he has me believe. He's biting his lip now, staring ahead of him somewhat sightlessly, the straight open road sending him into a sort of daze, and I rub his shoulders. He's a good kid. I'm lucky to have him.
Neve is staring into his drink like it holds the answer to the meaning of life. His eyes are glazed, and I wonder what he's thinking about. I sip from my own glass - the beer tastes like nectar after such a long, scorching day - and turn on my bar stool to take a look around. Small place, quite dark, one wooden bar with a few dusty bottles of liquor behind it and an abundance of beer bottles stashed in the fridge. The light in the fridge is broken, I notice idly. The floor is scuffed wood and the walls chipboard, and the whole place smells of stale beer and cigar smoke. Two guys, about my age wearing checked shirts and blue jeans, are playing pool at the table near the door, and a few others are crowded around a dartboard making bets with each other. The bartender has vanished somewhere, and I consider reaching over to swipe a bottle or two for free. I fit right in here, shredded jeans and wifebeater vest while Neve, in skinny jeans and chipped nail varnish, has tied a bandana round his head to try and look less 'city boy' and less conspicuous. He's failing miserably. If his clothing don't give it away, his posture and expression certainly do.
I turn back to the bar and notice that an older man has taken the seat next to Neve on the corner. He's watching him calculatingly, and I can't read his expression at all. It's a mixture of predatory and distasteful. I think they've exchanged a few words already, because Neve is shrugging at him.
'What brings you to our humble town, then?' The man's voice is gruff, muffled by his greying moustache and the redness of his cheeks and eyes suggest he's been drinking for many, many years. His beer belly is stretching the buttons of his denim shirt to the point of ripping; he takes a deep gulp of beer and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. I get a whiff of cigarette smoke and know Neve will be cringing at being drawn into conversation with this stranger.
'Road trip,' I'm surprised he responded at all. Neve's lips barely moved, and he didn't look up from his drink when he answered. His tone very clearly says he wants no further conversation, but the man persists unfazed. He gulps down another mouthful of beer and slams the bottle back down on the bar; some of it spurts out landing on Neve's hands and he recoils in disgust.
'Where ya heading?'
'Where ya from?'
A pause. Then a lie: 'Chicago.'
'You don't look it.'
Neve finally looks up and glares at him. 'What is this, twenty questions?'
'Easy, kid.' The man's tone has lowered and his eyes have narrowed dangerously. 'Just being friendly,'
'Well I'm not in the mood to talk,' Neve snaps, and I put a hand on his leg in warning. He shakes me off and feels in his jeans pocket for cigarettes. He knocks back the rest of his vodka and stalks away without another word. The man is staring after him with a thoughtful, menacing look on his age-ravaged face. He sips from his bottle again, then gets up from the bar stool.
'You want to put a muzzle on your bitch,' he says to me and, before I can react, walks away towards the dartboard.
Fuming, I head outside to find Neve smoking a short distance away, kicking at the dirt with his boots. It's dark now, and beyond the dull glow of the town's streetlights the desert stretches away into darkness. I say town - a garage, a bar, a shop and a scattering of houses doesn't really qualify as a town in my opinion. Bolt hold in a storm, more like. The wind is warm, pushing the sand across my boots and ruffling my hair. I grab Neve roughly by the arm and, for just a second, he looks scared. Then he takes a final drag from the cigarette and throws it away, stepping aside coolly to sit down on a bench.
'What the hell are you doing?' I sit next to him, close enough to talk quietly but I can barely contain my anger. 'What part of "don't draw attention to ourselves" don't you understand?'
'Whatever,' Neve won't look at me. 'I'm not in the mood for your shit either Adam, so back off.'
'What's wrong with you?' I grab him again, twisting him roughly to look at me. The same frightened look crosses his face, he glares at me only inches away. Neaby, two people have stopped on their way in to the bar and are watching us. 'What's with the fucking attitude?'
'Just fuck off,' he hisses at me, trying to twist away. 'I can't be bothered tonight, I just want to go to sleep. You dragged me down to this shit hole, you knew I didn't want to come. I want to sleep for a few hours, then move on.' He looks around. 'Miserable as fuck, this place.'
'Like you, you mean?' I let him go, then give him a firm shove and he stumbles away from the bench and almost falling, only just keeping his balance. He gazes at me in silence, expression unreadable. 'We're staying the night here, whether you like it or not. You're drunk, and I can't be bothered to drive.' I give him the finger. 'Go to sleep, you dumb cunt. Fuck off.'
Neve's a fucking idiot sometimes. I'm grumbling under my breath. More hassle than he's worth. I get up and walk away, back into the bar, and when the door slams shut behind me I catch a glimpse of him in my peripheral vision, just standing staring after me.
I can't describe to you the sheer panic that floods my veins when Adam says those all-too-familiar three words: they've recognised us. My whole body goes cold, my heart pounds in my ears, and I lose the sensation in my limbs. I can't think straight for a minute, everything goes still and silent. Then, normally after a shove or a slap from Adam, the world goes into overdrive and I can't keep up with how fast we have to move. Life on the run is literally that, in every sense of the phrase: running. All the time. Even if you're not physically moving you're always on alert, wondering who recognises your face or if your cover stories are good enough. That's why we stick to the small towns, the villages, the open roads: people are more detached from the big news stories and our chances of getting caught are slimmer.
I'm back in our room, throwing everything I can find into the battered hold-all that we share, while Adam is round the back of the motel starting up the Jeep. The bathroom smells of my own vomit from moments ago, and there's dried blood all over the sheets and a handprint on the wall by the bed. Last night got out of hand, but I can't care about it now. No time.
I swipe a deodorant can off the side table and that's it, now I'm out of the room with the bag over my shoulder and taking the stairs two at a time. We're two floors up, and I can hear the revving of the Jeep's engine below, Adam's way of telling me to hurry the fuck up. As I pass the reception desk, the horrified owner doesn't even stop me for money. He's still clutching the phone in his hands, the cord wound tightly around his wrist in anxiety, and he's probably terrified that one of us is going to kill him and rob the place.
No danger of that.