Ben drove for most of the day and tried to avoid making any more stops. I rested my head against the window and stayed quiet. The sunglasses hid my eyes, so Ben had assumed that I had spent most of the day asleep. We pulled into the parking lot of another small motel. He put his hand on my shoulder and gave my body a slight shake.
“Sweetheart, we’re stopping for the night,” he told me.
I sat straight and stretched out my shoulders. I followed Ben as he got out of the car. He threw his arm over my shoulders as we walked into the lobby.
An aging man who spoke broken English was working behind the desk. Ben asked for room sixteen, paid with cash again, and the man passed us a key.
We grabbed our bags out of the trunk of the car and climbed the rusted metal staircase to our room. I set my bag down on the foot of the bed. I grabbed the remote off of the top of the television. I sat down next to my bag and flipped through the channels. Ben passed me and went into the bathroom. I landed on the news channel. They were discussing the weather, and my knee bounced as I waited for the topic to change.
My graduation photo came up on the screen again. I leaned in closer to listen to them talk and set my sunglasses on the top of my head.
“The search is still on for Diana Slater and Benjamin Beltran,” the news anchor said. “Diana went missing six weeks ago and was pronounced dead five weeks ago after a car accident. Benjamin was the prime suspect in the murder of his mother and sister three years ago. Benjamin was also pronounced dead shortly after a car accident.
“Benjamin’s fingerprints were found at Bethany Phillips’ murder scene Wednesday morning. The fingerprints of Diana were found at the scene of the murder of Bethany’s fiance Oliver Sweeney. It is assumed that Ben and Diana are together.”
The bathroom door opened and I looked over my shoulder. Ben walked out and stopped when he saw the news channel. He ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head. The bed dipped as he sat down next to me. He slipped one arm around my waist and grabbed the remote from my hands. He turned off the television and then tucked a piece of hair behind my ear.
“Don’t watch that,” he said. “You don’t need to worry about that.”
“Why do they say that we’re dead?” I asked.
“That’s what the doctors do,” Ben said. “They stop the search for us by saying that we died in a car accident. Something so brutal that our bodies are no longer recognizable. They usually say that our bodies were completely charred. That way they wouldn’t need to send them a corpse for the funeral.”
“But they know we’re alive now.”
Ben pressed his lips into a line. He twirled a piece of my hair around his finger.
“It’ll be just the two of us soon,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re going to have to disguise ourselves.”
He kissed my cheek before getting off of the bed. He laced his fingers through mine and pulled me up with him. He dug through one of the suitcases and pulled out a wad of cash. He shoved it into the back pocket of his jeans. I could see a flash of metal and I knew it was the gun poking out from his waistband. His jacket was soon covering it again.
“Let’s go get some things,” he said. “I saw a gas station down the road.”
I nodded. Ben’s grip tightened on my hand. He lowered the sunglasses so that they were back onto my face. Ben kept a tight hold on me as we left the hotel room. The street was filled with fast-food restaurants and little hotels. There were quite a few cars pulling in and out of the gas station.
Ben didn’t let go of me as he gathered up snacks, a pair of sunglasses, and a box of hair dye. He went up and down the aisles and grabbed items like a package of scissors, a hoodie, and more food. Ben paid for the things, and then dragged me back to the hotel room.
“I’m sorry but dinner is going to be mostly crackers and peanuts,” Ben said as he pulled out all the items from the bag and laid them on the bed.
“Can’t we stop somewhere and get something?” I asked.
“No, we have other things we have to do tonight.”
He handed me the pack of scissors. I looked down at them and then back at Ben.
“You need to change your hair,” he said.
“I’m not cutting my hair,” I said.
“I love your long hair too, Diana,” he said. “You have to do this. It will grow back.”
“Ben we -”
“Di, it’s either you cut your hair or you dye it.”
I looked back down at the scissors. He was right. If I cut my hair it would grow back. If I dyed my hair blonde it would grow out awful. I picked the lesser of two evils and brought the scissors into the bathroom.
I set my glasses down on the counter. I struggled to tear open the package. Once I did, I gathered up a handful of hair in my hand. I started chopping through the thick patch of hair. My hand kept slipping and it was hard to keep the scissors straight. I started cutting so that my hair would end at my shoulders. My inability to keep the scissors straight made me have to cut my hair shorter and shorter in order to try and get it even. By the time I was finished, my hair ended just below my ears. The sink was full of clumps of my dark hair.
I looked in the mirror at myself. I already could barely recognize myself with these eyes. My hair made me turn into a complete stranger. My ears and nose burned. I took in a sharp breath to try and stop myself from crying, but a few tears escaped. I covered my mouth to try and hide my sobs.
It wasn’t effective. I could hear Ben moving around the motel room. He knocked lightly before opening the door. I buried my face in my hands.
I jumped when Ben’s arms slipped around my waist. Ben rested his head on my shoulder. I wiped my cheeks off with the heel of my hand. Ben pulled me harder against his chest.
“You still look beautiful,” he said.
“I don’t look like myself,” I said.
“That’s what we need right now.”
He pressed his lips against the base of my neck and a shiver ran up my spine. A few more tears slipped down my cheeks. I grabbed his hands and tried to pull him off of me. His fingers curled into my waist. I wanted to keep fighting against his grip, but I imagined the gun in his waistband.
People were looking for me. I definitely couldn’t die now.
I spun around in Ben’s arms. I put my hands on his chest and pushed him away another to have a little bit of distance between us. Ben cupped the side of my face with his hand. He dragged his thumb across my cheek to wipe away the tears. My lip quivered before I forced myself to give him a smile.
“I’m really tired,” I said. “I just want to go to bed.”
“Okay,” he said before leaning in and kissing me. “Your stuff is in my bag. I’ll clean the bathroom.”
I nodded. The tension in my chest eased when Ben let go of me. I changed into the shirt Ben gave me last night and crawled into bed. I tangled my fingers into the soft ends of my new short hair and fell asleep.
My eyes opened when I heard a curse. I dug the heel of my hands into my eyes as I yawned. I pushed myself up with one hand. I squinted to see Ben standing in front of the mirror that was hanging beside the television. The one lamp was on and providing a faint glow to the room. His shirt was off and he was poking at the scaly patch of skin across his ribs. I reached over to the nightstand for my glasses.
“Ben, what are you doing?” I asked.
“Go back to sleep, Diana,” he said.
I threw the blankets off of my legs, slid out of the bed, and walked over to Ben. He was running his finger along the top of one of his patchy scales. The skin around the patch was red and inflamed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I told you to go back to bed,” he said.
“It’s infected,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
The nursing textbook Oliver made me read had plenty of graphic photos of infections. They all started by looking swollen and red, much like Ben’s skin.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You need to go see a doctor,” I said.
“You know that can’t happen,” he said. “Get back in bed.”
“You know that it will only get worse.”
Ben snapped his fingers and pointed at the bed.
“Go to sleep, Diana,” he said.
I bit my lip and went back to bed. If Ben didn’t treat the infection I knew it would weaken him and potentially kill him. If that happened, I would be able to successfully get away.
Ben flicked off the light and climbed back into the bed. He rolled me over so that I would be lying on his chest. He groaned, and I knew I was lying on top of his area of bright red skin. He shifted us so that we were lying on our side.
I fell back asleep wondering how long it would take for that infection to spread.