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Gia pulled in front of the gas pump and parked. Resting one hand on the door lever, she turned to face her passengers.

“Okay, you guys, this is our first stop,” she said. “Am I good to open this door, or do we need to review the rules one more time before we get out?” 

“Couldn’t hurt to have a refresher!” Adam said cheerfully from the back seat. 

From two rows up, Whitney rolled her eyes and reached for a phone she no longer had to distract herself. When she realized she was reaching for nothing, she folded her arms and pouted.

Gia looked over the rest of the group and gave them the short version of her speech. “You have the time it takes to fill up the tank, plus five minutes, to do your browsing and make your purchase. If you’re feeling homesick and want to go home, simply walk off the gas station property and you will be immediately escorted home with no chance of returning. If you’re out, you’re out. Any questions?”

“We get it,” Bella called out like a grouch. “Can I please go buy an overpriced Pepsi now with my five whole dollars now?”

Gia opened the main door and brought up a tiny stack of fives. “Yes.”

Chad was the first to pop out of his seat and head for the door, followed by a carefully composed Whitney, and an annoyed Bella. 

Adam and Kei seemed less inclined to move so Gia waved the last two bills at them.

“This is a required exit,” she said. “You must step off the vehicle, even if you just stand outside. I can’t have anyone on board without me.”

Both teens stood without a word, took a five as they passed, and started toward the store. 

A few steps away from the vehicle, Gia heard Adam’s voice in her earpiece.

“I follow you on Instagram,” he was saying to Kei. “I’m a big fan. I would seriously love to chat if you are feeling up to it at some point, but obviously have no desire to bother you if you don’t want to be talked to.”

Oof, was all Gia could think as she removed the gas cap. The kid really didn't spend a lot of time with people his own age and it showed.

“Thank you. I'll let you know,” Kei’s alto voice replied and Gia was wondering where the conversation could possibly go from there when she heard Adam croon, “Oh, look! Stickers!” and start running toward the store.

Resisting the urge to facilitate in some way, Gia pulled the nozzle from the gas pump, turned her back to the store, and started filling the tank.

~ o ~

“Oh, my gosh, you guys,” Whitney said to no one in particular as they entered. “It is seriously so gross in here.”

The cashier’s eyes narrowed like a bouncer’s in reply.

Oh. The guy was a local? Not some undercover security agent who had taken over while they passed by to keep a close eye on them?

Well, that was awkward.

“I wonder if they have Sun Chips,” Chad said before slipping down an aisle.

“I’m not with them,” Bella told the cashier before heading to the fountain drinks and grabbing the biggest cup she could find.

Whitney stood where she was for a moment and let the fluorescent lights and the un-mopped tile floor sink in. 

If a corner store and a dumpster had a baby, Whitney was pretty sure it would look a lot like the gas station she was standing in. So gross. But also kind of a perfect place to quietly experience a total emotional breakdown with a straight face.

Because it was turning out to be that kind of day. Whitney was currently questioning the entirety of the past two years of her life—things she’d believed as recently as that morning when she’d boarded the Short Bus to Nowhere with high hopes and butterflies in her stomach.

Well, her morning butterflies had since fled for their lives after realizing exactly how delusional Whitney had been when she’d signed on to this little misadventure.

And now, to top it all off, she’d just insulted a local business owner and had to find a way not to freak out about it.

The only way out is through, she told herself before adding her therapist’s mantra for her: One foot. Then the other foot. Then repeat and keep moving.

Whitney repeated the mantra again and again, until she had walked from the entrance to the aisle farthest from Chad. It felt like progress until she looked around and found herself on the aisle with tampons and adult diapers. 

Because, of course, she was. That’s just how the day was going.

She quickly moved to the next aisle, growing keenly aware of the security cameras around her.

What if the cashier posted the footage online? That would be bad. So bad. Her brain hurt imagining even the best-case scenarios of how it would impact her follower count and blue-check possibilities, so she focused on being a good citizen as she browsed the local selection of refreshments.

Hostess. Nestle. Hershey’s. Grandma’s cookies. Pepsi. Coke.

“Happy” food. 

Whitney knew it was bad for her, but a self-loathing part of her still wanted it. It made no sense, yet she was halfway to believing she needed Zingers in her life when the store bell rang again and Adam entered alone. Their eyes caught for half-a-blink before he veered off in Bella’s direction like he hadn’t even seen her.

But he had. 

Guys always saw Whitney. It was pretty much her superpower: Men noticed her. Always. Male attention was as certain as a sunrise in the morning.

With the exception of Adam, apparently.

Whitney hadn’t quite figured out what his deal was yet, but she would. Soon. 

For the moment, she was more interested in Chad and Bella as they skulked around the store with forbidden romance vibes. They had a really deep simmer to them that felt like they had a been building for a while.

Whitney wasn’t sure who they were yet, but they had endgame written all over them, and seemed to have come to a silent consensus that Whitney might be someone they could triangulate over.

So that might be a super-fun side adventure at some point in all this, Whitney thought as she sized the two of them up.

Oh, yeah. Their icks and their ews were totally going to squish. Like ... soon. And she gave them five days—tops—before they were locking lips and talking business.

Did she want to be the "other woman" in all that?


It kind of seemed like an upgrade to her own story, in all honesty. And it was certainly entertaining to watch Bella and Chad dance around each other. Whitney felt like she was watching a National Geographic documentary as they pretended not to pose for each other across the white-washed room—Bella using Adam as a buffer on one side of the store while Chad conspicuously looked at nothing in particular as he drifted into Whitney's personal space. 

Everyone was watching each other, but no one was talking. So Whitney decided to make the first move.

“Hey,” she said to Chad. Not her best pick-up line, but he didn’t look picky.

“Hey,” came Chad’s inspired reply.

Ugh. There was absolutely no chemistry to work with. Chad was too fixated on posturing for Bella, and it was kind of a lot for her to pretend not to notice. 

But she gave it another try anyway.

Putting a little more into it, Whitney locked eyes with Chad and pretended she didn’t know who he was. “So … what are you going to buy with your five dollars?” 

His baby blue eyes narrowed in like a gleeful sniper’s and Whitney had to fight the urge to back away.

“Whatever I want!” he said, grabbing multiple bags of chips in each hand like trophies.

Ew. Guys like Chad were the actual hardest to flirt with when they started pretending the world had no rules to hold them. So gross.

Whitney didn’t mind over-confident men, but a guy who handled bags of chips like a toddler in public was her cue to leave before she started having an anxiety attack.

“Yeah, good luck with that,” she said, swiping left with her expression as she detoured away to find something to buy. 

Whitney was on a non-GMO, vegan diet so gas stations were pretty much a wasteland for her when it came to food. That said, she was fascinated by the pure randomness that could only be found in the gas stations of America. 

Bug suckers. 3-cent coins. Keychains and keepsakes that seemed funny or necessary after hours on the road. 

Maybe she’d be boring and get a coffee—black—and see if it could put a dent into her blooming headache. Or she could get a Route-66 mug…. Wait, nope, that was $12.99. No mug for her. But there was some Big League Chew that reminded her of her childhood and a small hematite worry stone with a smooth groove that seemed underpriced at $3.49.

She picked it up and tested the feel of it on her thumb and found it to have a near-perfect contour … maybe even perfect. 

For $3.49?

Sold, she thought as she gave a quick look around the room to find Adam and Bella pretending not to notice each other as Chad stashed bags of chips in random hiding spots around the store like he was leaving breadcrumbs for Taylor Swift fans.

Bella was seriously in love with this dude? 

Poor girl. 

Whitney’s head literally shook “NO!” in pure instinct at the thought of joining the Super-fun Journeys of Chad in the role of his girlfriend. 

Hard pass. No regrets.

Yet Bella was clearly courting the role like a crazy person. And that’s when you knew it was love, Whitney had decided a while ago. Falling in love was basically just a nice way to say “go full-crazy” for someone in a way that created a BEFORE and AFTER that never let you see the world the same way again.

Love changed a person. Or, at least, it had always changed Whitney. Each of her loves had left her changed … just not usually for the better. Which was why she’d sworn off relationships altogether two years ago and focused on how to discover one’s-self outside of a codependent relationship. 

That was her brand—not that anyone here cared since she didn't have a Blue Check mark next to it yet. Whitney wasn't "official" yet, which meant most people took one look at her and assumed her brand.

But, whatever. There was really nothing to be done about that except try to make it to her advantage. Which brought her back to the Chad-and-Bella situation.

Did she want to play ball?

Undecided, Whitney moved to the coffee area and poured herself a small as she watched Chad do his hide-the-chips thing. It was like watching a kid clean his room in reverse and Whitney could only imagine that his mastermind strategy was to make anyone who tried to put all the chips back miss at least one.

What a weirdo.

Man, if she'd known he would be here, Whitney would have totally watched more of Chad’s videos before coming on this trip. But she hadn't known until she stepped onto the shuttle this morning. 

She'd recognized Chad right away, of course. The guy wasn't nobody, and had trended more than once in the past year. Unfortunately. 

Chad’s brand was all about being the worst kind of dude-bro, so his videos were super hard for her to watch. Whitney had literally never stopped scrolling once to click on something of his, but most of his trends seemed to involve Chad being chased by security. And, if she remembered correctly, he was never caught even though he was always filming his side of it.

Whitney didn’t get how Chad could literally film himself breaking laws and never get prosecuted for it. But whatever. It was probably all staged anyway. All she really knew was that he was some trust fund lifestyle influencer from the Insta-verse she wouldn't @ for anything.

Guys like him were the reason feminism would always have a leg to stand on. He was that gross. And yet, somehow, a definite upgrade to her current experience.

Sad, Whitney wallowed as she made her way to the cashier.

She was reaching for her money when she felt someone bump into her.

“Oh, sorry. My bad,” Bella said in an over-sweet tone as she appeared out of nowhere. “Please. Go first.”

Oh, yeah. Miss Caliente was totally jealous, but she didn’t need to be. Bella’s man would always be safe around Whitney.

Seriously. Always.

“Thanks,” Whitney said, returning the saccharine tone before placing the money on the counter while saying, “Keep the change.”

And cringing.

Oh, man. She hadn’t realized how douchey she sounded until the words were already out of her mouth.

Whitney was seriously off her game today.

“Thanks,” the cashier said, taking the five and looking over to Bella. “You ready?”

“Er, yeah,” Bella said, caught off guard for some reason. Whitney didn't know, and she wasn't ready to care why. She just wanted out—and she was nearly there when her eyes landed on Adam one last time as she exited. 

He was watching her this time ... his expression scrunched up as if he were trying to explain the movie Inception in one sentence and, suddenly, Whitney found she couldn’t exit the store quick enough. But she made it out. And when she did, and was finally able to take a breath of relief, Whitney nearly choked on her inhale.

So. Many. Fumes.

There seriously must have been an oil spill on the asphalt at some point, Whitney decided as she finished coughing. The place had to be a biohazard, yet she couldn’t leave the property for some proper air without getting kicked off the proverbial island. And when she felt herself tempted to quit, she distracted herself and watched Kei trade $5 for 10 stickers from a little girl raising money for a camping trip. 

Crap. She probably should have given the kid her money, too.

Oh, well. What was done, was done, so when Kei went inside and the girl looked her way hopefully, Whitney cut right to the chase.

“Sorry, kid. I bought a rock and a coffee with my five bucks. I've got nothing.”

“Oh, okay,” the little girl said. “Do you want to see my stickers anyway?”

Whitney shook her head, watching their driver replace the gas cap and head their way. “Sorry. Not today.”

“Okay.” The girl’s voice sounded shy and distant as Whitney watched Gia strut to the store like she was used to the world paving a way for her. 

Total BDE. Like, if her swagger wasn't so legitimate, Gia would have looked ridiculous. But the woman was legit and it was a lot to process.

“Five minutes,” Gia said as she breezed past and walked into the store. Both Whitney and the little girl watched her go.

“She’s scary,” the little girl said.

“Yeah,” Whitney agreed.

Gia was an ex-military ninja, Whitney had decided. Or maybe a battle medic ... or some type of person whose hands stayed steady when the world was blowing up around her. She was one of those people who stayed silent and made crisp, smart moves while everyone around her was screaming and fleeing.

Basically, Gia was everything Whitney dreamed of being when she turned on the TV at night or went to the movies: A badass of few words, who made lists and executed them.

Whitney wanted to be more like that, which was why she kept her thoughts to herself as she worked her thumb into her new worry stone and mulled her situation over.

Part of her just wanted to walk to the business next door and take the promised ride home. Call it quits. She was totally over this trip in more ways than one. 

But then there were parts of her that definitely weren’t done. There were parts of her that were pissed and needed answers. Big answers, small answers. Just … answers!

Like, why had no one recognized her? 

Had she stepped into the Twilight Zone this morning? Because she could think of no other rational explanation for anything she'd experienced so far.

Whitney stared at nothing—pondering that until Gia came back out. Then Whitney tossed her cup in the trash and fell in step with the super-soldier on the way back to their vehicle.

“I think coming was a mistake for me,” Whitney confessed when they were about halfway to the van.

They took a few more steps in silence before Gia replied. “Remember, you can opt out at any moment, but you can never come back.”

“I know.”

“Well, then,” Gia said, unlocking the main door and pushing it open. “Welcome aboard. Unless, of course," she gestured toward the sidewalk, "you’d like to exit stage left and go back to where you came from.”

Whitney's head seriously hurt as she gave a searching look to the pokerfaced woman who was the closest thing she had to an ally in this whole mess.

“You’re a funny one, aren’t you?" Whitney mused. "Not here, I mean. But at parties.” She tried to imagine Gia in the formal attire she must have been wearing when she’d met with her parents. “I’ll bet you’ve got stories. Lots of 'em.”

“If I do, you’re standing right in the middle of one,” the woman replied with a covert smile before climbing aboard and taking her place in the driver’s seat without further comment.


Whitney definitely wouldn't be up all night imagining the ways this day could be turned into a punchline. So that would be super restful and leave her bright and refreshed tomorrow!

So great.

But that said ... it might all be worth it because the lippy comment had definitely served its purpose as a coded tip.

Whitney’s bubble of a headache popped as a resolve to stay and find out all she could washed over her. 

So her dreams were dashed and her heart was broken. So what? Literally, no one cared. The best thing for her to do now was be a badass. Like Gia. Stay until she was swimming in answers and receipts of the real story here. Then catch a ride home on her own terms.

It was like Whitney's dad always said: “Just because life sucks, doesn’t mean you can’t put points on the board. Find the opportunity in the problem, and full speed ahead!” 

With that determination, Whitney became the first to reclaim her seat to continue on their journey.


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