It was a struggle, but I kept my eyes open until the end of the movie. My friend and I were cramped in the back of a van we’d been driving across the United States for a month and it was starting to smell like shit. It made sense though, I mean if you’re partying every night in a new city, then waking up in your van wearing the same beer-stained clothes as the night before to drive anywhere between 6 and 12 hours something has to give. We were parked out the back of a Walmart in New Mexico, on our way to Las Vegas and trying to give our bodies a break from the drink. I was falling asleep sober for the first time in weeks so it must have been working. We’d discovered that supermarket parking lots are wonderful sources of free camping for those brave and/or poor enough to try, and as an added bonus you’ll often get to know the local law enforcement, although sadly it’s never anything more exciting than a gentle word and a move-on notice.
My friend closed his laptop and left us blind in the back of the van, so I tucked into my sleeping bag and did my best to ignore the weeks of accumulated dirt and sweat that mixed between the fabric and my skin. Showers were rare on the road and while at first we’d ignored the smell and just gone without, in the interest of personal hygiene we’d started sneaking into Starbucks bathrooms and using their serviettes to try and keep it at bay. The final straw was when my friend bought back a cute Texan girl after one of our nights out and she refused to get in; choosing instead to run screaming and dry retching from the parking lot.
My mind and body were exhausted from the weeks previous and the moment I closed my eyes I could feel them thanking me for not pushing it any further and I fell at once into a dreamless sleep.
Several hours later I woke to the sound of what I thought was somebody trying to open our passenger side door. It was locked, but my eyes still sprung open as I sat bolt upright in bed. My friend was still asleep next to me un-roused by the noise, and although my first instinct was to wake him I listened hard for another, after all I had been fast asleep and it could have been anything. All I got was silence. I propped back down on my elbow and tried for another few minutes, but other than my friend’s heavy breathing there was nothing. For a moment I thought I heard what sounded like heavy footfalls in the distance, but they faded fast and were muffled at best, so I passed them off as white noise and slipped off back to sleep.
The first rays of light were starting to creep through our windows when I woke again to a louder, more obvious tapping at our door. It seemed almost instantaneous after the first noise, but I sat up anyway and rubbed my eyes while my friend did the same next to me. We looked at each other without speaking while trying to figure out our next move. It’s a little nerve-racking to step out of your car and greet a strange knock in the small hours of the morning, but I relaxed a little as a voice rung out and allayed my fears.
“Albuquerque police department. Is anybody in there”
I breathed a sigh of relief. A police officer knocking on your door can often cause your heart to skip a beat and your hands palms start to sweat, but by this point we knew the drill, so I slipped on a shirt and stepped outside to try and smooth-talk us out of a move-on notice. The moment my feet hit bitumen I knew something wasn’t right. There were 4 police surrounding the back of our van with their guns drawn and pointed straight at my chest.
“Don’t move. Put your hands in the air”, shouted one.
My heart leapt from my chest and I threw my hands over my head, stopping dead in my tracks.
“What the fuck”, was all I could get out.
When you’re staring down the black holes of 4 different gun barrels it’s hard to keep a steady voice. The cop who seemed to be in charge asked me what I was doing, and in careful measured tones I explained our travels and why we’d come to be sleeping in a Walmart parking lot. Their shoulder seemed to relax a little 4, but the guns still didn’t come down.
“Do you have any identification?”
“Yeah, my passport is in the van”
“Can you bring it out for us? Move slowly”
I turned my shaking hands towards the van and fumbled through my backpack for the passport. The head cop looked it over for a moment, and then signalled to the others to lower their weapons and allow my balls to start their slow descent back down from my throat. The other officers called my friend from the car and checked over his passport too but there was no problem and the officers started talking amongst themselves about what to do next. It was only then that I noticed the blue and red lights spinning rampant behind our van. I was starting to think this was a little more than a vagrancy misdemeanour.
“What’s actually going on here?” I asked.
Their guns were down and my heart rate was back from the stratosphere, so I thought maybe I could push my luck a little.
“Last night somebody was beaten to death just over there, and since you were the only ones around, can you remember hearing or seeing anything?”
“I didn’t hear anything”, said my friend looking over at me “did you?”
The head cop regarded us for a moment with a raised eyebrow as if trying to decide whether to have us locked up or slapped on the back and sent on our way. My heart was beating outside my chest but my friend stood cool, picking at his nails and waiting for him to speak. I couldn’t understand it. Then I remembered the knocking from earlier in the night and my heart imploded from terror. Maybe it was the same hand that knocked on our door that took somebody’s life that night, or even worse, maybe it was the victim. Neither of us will ever know, but in that moment I kept my mouth glued shut, and the cop let us carry on our way.
“OK no problem. Well if you boys remember anything, we’ll be here all day so just let us know.
A part of me wanted to tell him about the late night knocking, but a larger part of me knows what happens when you admit to lying to a cop. It opens the door for a whole other line of questioning, and even if you started out innocent, by the end of the thing you’re questioning whether maybe it actually was you that pulled the trigger.
“Can we go back to sleep?” asked my friend.
“Sure, I guess. We’ll be over there if you need anything”.
My friend was blasé to the last, and I laughed quiet to myself until we were back inside the van. The sun was peaking over the horizon and starting to warm the dry, desert air, but the inside of the van still hung cold, so I tucked myself back into bed and once again fell to sleep the moment my head hit the pillow.
A few hours later the sun had warmed the inside of the van so much that sleeping was impossible, so my friend got into the driver’s seat and started us up, while I jumped out and lifted up the crime-scene tape now surrounding us to let the van pass. I took up my spot in the passenger seat with a head full of guilt and confused thoughts as we passed under the tape, but I didn’t object as he put his foot to the floor and sent us flying down the Highway-40 West toward Las Vegas, Nevada, leaving the whole weird experience behind us.