McKenna’s head bumped across the cool window. How had she managed to fall asleep after everything she’d just heard?
She sat up and wiped the corner of her mouth, assuring herself that she wouldn’t have zombie-drool face, as Greg called it.
Greg. McKenna wondered when she’d see him next. She repressed the urge to text him to see what he was up to. He probably would just want to hang out tonight anyway and she really wouldn’t be able, seeing as she was three hours away from home.
She had told her mom that a last-minute trip to a zombie convention was going on so she and Greg had to get to the city to stay the night with the zombie club to get there on time the next day. After some convincing and assurances that she wouldn’t spend all of her weekends participating in zombie-related activities, her mother allowed her to take the trip. That had bought her a couple of days.
Lying to her mother wasn’t common behavior for McKenna. The truth generally came easier for her. Why not tell the truth when lies always ended up hurting people?
Signs for the University of Minnesota kept cropping up, reminding McKenna of the night’s purpose. She didn’t want to know all the lies her father had told or see the wake that his path of destruction had left. Why did it have to be like this? She had once been part of such a tight-knit family.
McKenna’s mind suddenly jumped to her mother. Did her mom have any knowledge about her dad’s secret life?
This thought gave her an instant headache. She couldn't stand it any longer.
“Hey, guys? Can we stop at the next gas station?” McKenna thought the occupants of the car might be asleep, but obviously Alfonzo wasn’t since the car didn’t seem to be veering off the road.
“Very well,” he answered quietly.
Luke stirred on his side of the car and stretched. “Not a bad idea. I could use a snack anyway.”
McKenna rolled her eyes, not thinking of snacks at a time when she had to focus on how she was about to see her estranged father for the first time in years.
Okay, it’d been about a year and a half. But still. She hadn’t seen him for all that time. It wasn’t like she was the exact same person she was before the divorce. And obviously he wasn’t the person she thought he was.
When Alfonzo pulled up to a 7-Eleven, she immediately bolted to the bathroom. After splashing a bit of water on her face, she stared at herself in the mirror.
At least I haven’t changed through all of this, she thought. I’m still the same person. She stared. Right? Then she had no choice left but to step back out into the fluorescent lights of the gas station store to meet up with her kidnapper posse.
Luke startled her from behind. “Please tell me you like cherry licorice bites. Those are pretty much the only candy Alfonzo, Jewel and I agree on.”
Her immediate answer was to say she hated that candy. She whipped around to face Luke with a scowl ready at her lips. But she turned and saw Luke standing there holding out cherry licorice bites and trying to juggle way too many packages of mini donuts. He seemed totally earnest and innocent, like he was just as thrown into this as she was.
And why was it such a good thing to always be disagreeing with her captors? They were just as confused as she was. She could handle being civil, at least toward Luke. He was a likable fellow, after all. Under the circumstance, he seemed to be doing the best he could to make her feel comfortable. Maybe in a different context the two of them could have been good friends.
Luke sensed her oncoming scowl and backed up a bit, turning toward a shelf of Corn Nuts. But then McKenna released her desire to be rude with a pent-up sigh. “Sure, I love those.”
Luke beamed and grabbed an extra package off the shelf and headed toward the front of the store. “We probably need Slurpees too then,” he announced.
McKenna mumbled facetiously, “Now that’s just pushing it.”
Luke turned and eyed her, gauging her humor. “If you mean it’s pushing our limits to consume cherry Slurpees and cherry licorice in the same sitting, then you’re right,” he said slowly. “We really can’t ignore an opportunity like this.”
With that, Luke turned to get started on filling four tall cups with the sloshy, red drink. McKenna shook her head and chuckled to herself that Luke had managed to make her smile at a time when she felt like that wasn’t a possibility. As Luke searched for a cardboard drink holder, he turned to find McKenna holding one out for him.
And with the peace offering exchange of cherry licorice and a cup holder, the two seemed to be on better footing. They cracked a few jokes about Alfonzo’s stoicism and Jewel’s snoring as they walked out to the car digging into the licorice bites.
Now, off to see The Professor. AKA her dad.
The drive to the school seemed to last only a moment. Suddenly McKenna couldn't get down any more licorice bites. The university loomed before them.
“Wait, how do you guys even know my dad will be working here tonight?” McKenna suddenly asked. “He might be taking a night off, or something.”
Alfonzo pulled the car next to a red Honda Civic. “The Professor is always here,” he said.
McKenna crinkled her brow. Was this all her dad did with his time now that he didn’t have a family? Spend time late at school?
She was beginning to feel guilty for not calling him back all those times. She had just been so angry.
No. She shouldn’t feel guilty. This trip to see her dad was about something bigger. It was a quest for answers from him.
Biting her lip, she surveyed the campus and leaned against the car door. “Do you know where to go?” she asked the group.
“Probably where the signs tell us,” Jewel responded with a sarcastic edge in her voice.
“And the signs will say, ‘The Professor with the paper bag assassination assignment this way’?” McKenna spat back. Her nerves put her on edge and she wasn’t going to let some redhead with an attitude make a fool of her.
“Let’s just focus here. I say we head to the biology department. That would make the most sense, eh?” Luke tried to diffuse the tension with calming words and a gesture toward a sign indicating the different departments of the university.
After wandering the campus up a grassy pathway, they arrived at a building with a few lights still gleaming, even though it was past midnight.
This is it, McKenna thought. I’m about to see my dad.
After a deep breath, they pushed open the doors to the biology building. Quietly, the four made their way toward a light at the end of the hallway. Their footsteps clacked louder as they got closer. Or maybe that was McKenna’s heart pounding harder.
Finally, they reached the door to the office of Ron Olson. McKenna gently pushed the door ajar.
What she saw startled her beyond measure.
The office was destroyed with books strewn everywhere, a broken microscope shattered across the floor. Shelves and trinkets littered the carpet.
And her dad sat bruised, beaten and tied up to his office chair.
“Dad!” McKenna ran to him and put a hand to his cheek. His eyes weakly opened and he turned to look at her.
“I’m sorry, McKenna. So sorry,” he whispered. “I never meant for this to happen.” McKenna struggled to keep a tear from leaking down her cheek. “And Sweetie… I’ve missed you so much.”
The tear skimmed her cheek and she quickly wiped it away, giving her dad a hug while starting to untie him.
She noticed that Luke, Jewel and Alfonzo all stood together by the door with attention on something else. A note that sat on her father’s desk.
McKenna gulped back more tears, and then walked to stand by Luke to read the note.
Stop trying to play detective and you’ll live. If not, you’ll all end up deader than a redhead in a train station.
After exchanging a frightened glance with Luke, McKenna looked over at her father.
He caught her gaze, then promptly looked away.
He caught her gaze, then promptly looked away.
Another tear slid down McKenna's cheek, this one out of frustration and confusion, as silence overtook the room.