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You left town two months before graduation. It was just before the week of spring break when Kim got the bright idea to go on a road trip. “Everyone else is going to Cabo or Malibu or something! Let’s do something cool!” he had said, vibrating with excitement. “Something we’ll remember when we’re thirty!”
Kim was always having bright ideas. In sophomore year, he’d bought an honest to God stink bomb from the Internet and set it off in the math class hallway. A girl had an asthma attack, and Mr. Allen had to call an ambulance. You brought this up when Kim suggested driving up to Canada from San Diego and back in the span of a week. Kim laughed, and kissed your cheek. He told you that you didn’t need to worry so much about stuff that had happened so long ago. Besides, Evelyn had come back from the hospital with a brand new rescue inhaler.
Of course, once Simon got wind of it a couple days later, he invited himself along. He’d suggested he’d be the “designated driver”, as the only legal adult among you. Secretly, you had been relieved. Simon was a real adult now—he lived in his own dorm and paid his own car payments. He would keep Kim on rails. And it would be nice to see him again. He was always online, but you hadn’t seen him since he graduated. No one had.
You told your mother you were going to drive up to Lake Tahoe that Saturday. You didn’t like lying to your mother; but she always asked so many questions. It was easier to tell her something that wouldn’t make her worry. You’d be back before the week was up, anyway—that was how Kim had put it.
“I wish you wouldn’t spend so much time with him, Natasha,” she had said when you told her where you were going. She had been cleaning the oven grates, and her hand had frozen on the rag with a weary sigh. “He’s going to get you in trouble one of these days.”
You expected that from her. At least she used the right pronouns for Kim and never forgot his name. Kim’s dad wasn’t like that—it was all shes and hers, all cruel comments about his height and his high voice. Your mother hadn’t tried to stop you from leaving, but she cared that you were going. Kim’s dad barely noticed if he didn’t go to school.
The day you left was one of the very last nice days of spring. It had rained the day before, and hazy gray clouds still blanketed the sky. Rain stayed stuck in the air, despite the whipping sea breeze. This was the weather you were born to be in, and you smiled when you got out of bed that morning and packed your backpack with the essentials—kale chips, chickpea puffs, medication, and a week’s worth of clothes. You cracked open the window to get a good whiff of petrichor, only to smell something like distant fireworks and barbecue. It was a little early in the year for that. And there was Simon’s tan Cutlass, creeping up the street.
You tried to channel Kim’s boundless optimism as you swept out of your room, kissing your mother on the cheek as you passed. Your mother was worrying a thumbnail, tearing a pale crescent from it as she watched you. “You’ll call me if you get in trouble. Okay, Natasha?”
“I promise, mom. But I’m not going to get in trouble.” You opened the front door. Kim poked his whole torso out the passenger’s side window and waved to you from the sidewalk. You could see Simon’s profile; his dark hair reaching his shoulders. Up until this moment, you hadn’t been sure. Now, though, so close to them – your heart swells. Just a few feet from freedom!
“Okay. But just in case. I won’t be mad. I promise.”
You didn’t know about that. She usually did get mad. “Okay.”
She leaned forward, awkwardly raising her arms around you before you could turn to leave. “I love you, bubalah. You know that, don’t you?”
You patted her back, nonplussed. “I love you too, mom. Don’t worry, okay?”
Then, she let you go.
“This is gonna be so great, Nat—we’re never gonna forget this as long as we live!” Kim was spilling out of the car, waving to you like a little kid who saw his teacher at the supermarket. He always got like this before a caper.
You never came back to that house.
By Sunday, you know that you should have turned back.
The three of you spend the night in Simon’s ancient Cutlass. None of you have enough money for a hotel. You hadn’t realized when you’d agreed to go with them. Simon rolls down the seats so that you all have room to lay down, but it’s still a cramped midsize shared by three people. Kim and Simon sleep—or seem to sleep—through the night. You lay between them, your arms pinned awkwardly to your sides, staring up at the car’s ceiling. A thick, meaty smell lingers that you can’t place; like some long forgotten ancient school lunch. You don’t sleep. You stare at the cabin light, your legs numb.
You’re a bad sleeper even at home. Everything has to be exactly right, or you won’t sleep. It isn’t optional. On your nightstand you’ve got a desk fan always blowing on you, even in winter. You surround yourself with pillows. You love Kim and Simon—but pillows they’re not.
So you stare at the cabin light, and you wait for the sun to rise.
Why are you there? What are you trying to prove? Why don’t you call your mother?
When Kim finally stirs beside you, you bite your tongue. You have the urge to pour all your questions out on him, make him give you answers. What are we trying to prove?
Kim yawns and rubs his eyes. “Mm. Nat?”
“I dreamed about you.”
He can always fluster you, without even trying. “Oh. Y-yeah? Was it nice?”
“Weird… déjà vu kinda dream. I dreamed you were upset with me. You’re not upset, right? Everything’s okay?”
Your stomach lurches. “Yeah. Everything’s okay, baby. I love you.”
His eyes are still closed, but his face splits into a wide, sleepy smile. “That’s good. I love you too. It was just a dream. S’not real.” He says it like a command.
You leave two little crescents on your bottom lip. “Let’s wake up Simon and get breakfast.”
Kim’s eyes opened. “About that?”
“I’m sorta… short on money for food.”
You sit up. Simon mutters a protest beside you, and rolls over onto his side. “How much money do you have?” you ask, slowly. What you’ve got might stretch, but not far. Not for a whole other person.
Kim ducks down, smiling. You’ve seen him make that smile at teachers hundreds of times. It’d been cute then. “Twenty bucks?”
Twenty dollars to feed him between there and Canada. You stare at him. “We have to go back.”
“No!” He lunged forward, grabbing your arms. “No! We’re not going back. Not until we’ve had a good time. Okay? It’s gonna be fine, okay? I’ve got snacks in my bag. You’ve got snacks in your bag. It’ll all work itself out.”
His grip on your arms hurts.
“It’s just gonna… work itself out?” you repeat.
“It always does!” Like an afterthought, he notices you wincing, and his grip loosens. “You trust me, right? This is what we gotta do.”
Turn back. Turn back.
“We can’t turn back.”
You were never good at saying no to Kim.
You’re at a gas station on Route 66 when it happens the next day.
Simon is gassing up the car. Kim is up front getting the three of you a discount. It isn’t going well. He’s already arguing with the cashier. You’re trying to be careful what you buy. Everything on the shelves looks repellent to you. Plastic within plastic. Neon orange powders. Ancient frosting like a cracked, dry riverbed.
Unbidden, you remember that thing you saw on TikTok that suggested that every human on earth consumes a tablespoon of microplastics in a year. That they don’t just pass through you, but lodge within. They sink into your tissue. They pass the blood-brain barrier. How much plastic is stuck in the meat of your braincase?
Your hand snaps back from the Nature Valley display. You don’t want to even touch these. You’d rather chew off your own leg. You take a deep, deep breath. There’s an acrid stink that makes you think of a rat in a trap, its leg gnawed off and blood oozing from the stump. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. You hold it for four seconds. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Repeat. Repeat. Staying alive will kill you. Repea—
There’s a shattering sound. Glass explodes out, shredding the air, everywhere, shredding you like the microplastics shredding your brain. You’re exploding. One, two, three, four—you register the yells, the man keening in pain. You’re going to die. This is when it happens. You hit the ground; your breath staccato. You knew it was coming. You’ve fucked up this time. You see the gun flash in your mind.
It’s only seconds later that someone has grasped your wrist. At first you push them away, rat brain engaged. But they grab you again, and pull you down the aisle. It’s Kim—Kim is getting you out. Your frazzled senses register, dimly, the missing glass window of the convenience store. All that’s left is ragged glass edges, and a pile of shards on the floor. It looks like it exploded.
The dead rat smell follows you all the way to the car. When you reach it he tosses you inside, then bundles and bundles of bright colors from the crook of his left arm. It’s all things from the convenience store; mountains and mountains of junk food.
“Whoa, whoa! What the hell’s going on?” You can hear Simon’s voice outside.
“Drive! Fucking drive!”
They both hop in, and you’re speeding off down Route 66.
You push the Cheetos off you, and they tumble to the floor. “What just happened?”
Kim slumps forward. “I grabbed some stuff. He wasn’t gonna let me have it all. ‘Cause I didn’t have enough money. He wasn’t listening to me.”
“So— what, you— you shattered the window?” Simon asks.
“NO!” Kim shouts, and you recoil. “I didn’t fucking do anything! It broke on its own! I just— took advantage, okay? Just fucking focus on the road. We needed the food, and he wasn’t gonna give it to us. We’ll never come back here again. It doesn’t matter.”
Nothing Kim says puts you at ease. If anything, your stomach lurches. You wonder if you’re going to throw up. “What if they called the cops?”
“And tell them what? Their window randomly exploded, and some teenagers ran off with a bunch of Pop Tarts? Don’t act stupid, Nat. That’s not a crime. That’s an opportunity. It’s their fault. Shouldn’t have let their window explode!” He barks with laughter, suddenly. “And now we have food!”
And now, you have food. The car goes silent. All that you can hear is the engine. The dead rat smell clings.
Out loud, you begin to speak. “Before it exploded… I thought I smelled this…”
“God, can you just drop it already? Nothing even happened,” Kim snaps.
You sink backwards, falling silent.
He’s angry. But not just that—he’s scared. He’s sick with fear that maybe he made a mistake. But he can’t go back. There’s no “back” to go back to. They have to drive, and never, ever stop. There’s a whole world out there, and he won’t ever see it if they ever go south again.
It feels so normal, to know what Kim knows.
After you’ve driven to the next town over, the three of you make the executive decision to spend money on a hotel room for the night. Simon is exhausted, and all three of you are tense and raw from your flight from the gas station. You’re forced to use the credit card your mother gave you—the one she told you, over and over, was for emergencies only. You think of the line that will pop up on her bill in a month, telling her where you’ve been.
Kim quietly munches on a bag of Cheetos while Simon checks in. You don’t want to touch the food; it’s disgusting, and it’s stolen. So you just sit there, and you wait.
Half an hour slips by. Should this be taking so long?
Kim seems to know what you’re thinking. “Um. Maybe go check on him?”
“Yeah.” You have a feeling you know what happened.
You’re proven right when you see him in the vestibule, standing in the corner, his hands vibrating with anxiety he can’t shake off. You touch your hand to his shoulder, and you feel the anxiety melt off in rivulets. You shouldn’t have made him do this alone.
The price the concierge gives makes your eyes water, but you’d rather sleep in a bed tonight. The next day, you’ll convince Kim the three of you need to turn around. After all, he hasn’t factored in how long it’s going to drive back. That’s what you’ll tell him. If you turn back now, you’ll get home without much fuss. You’ll be able to laugh it all off.
Kim, uncharacteristically, banishes the two of you to the pool after you’ve unloaded what little belongings you have. Arguing seems pointless—and you’d rather leave him be. So that leaves you with Simon, at the pool.
You aren’t usually alone with Simon. He draws his index finger through the water, spawning ripples in the disgusting water.
You remember freshman year, when Simon was a sophomore and when the two of you had pre-calc together. There had been a substitute one day. Simon had a panic attack, and had to stand in the corner of the classroom to get his breathing under control.
The substitute got mad; the other kids laughed. Only you had tried to bring him back to Earth.
Your first panic attack happened when you were seven years old. It had been just a few months after your dad’s funeral, you think. You convinced yourself that you really did need to avoid every crack in the sidewalk; that if you didn’t, your mother’s spine would snap like a piece of balsa wood.
Inevitably, you failed. You didn’t like to think about it. What followed was months of therapy, years of medication and IEPs and daily affirmations that everything was going to be okay that day. When you saw Simon go to pieces, you had wanted to put him back together again—if only to prove to yourself it was possible.
Kim hadn’t been in the same class. He wasn’t especially good at math.
“I wish…” Simon starts.
“… they understood?” you finish, as if his thought was your own. And maybe it is.
“… Yeah. But they never will. It’s why I left school,” he murmurs. “My parents don’t know yet. I just… I can’t. I can’t do it. I feel so alone there.”
“You’re not alone. You have me. And Kim, too. And we’ve got you. And that’s all we need, right?” You don’t know. You don’t know what to say. You want it to be true. Your hands clench into fists. Your nails dig into your palms. It’s all you need.
You imagine kissing him, just then—not just imagine, but vividly conjure it in your mind. You don’t do it, of course. But despite that, Simon spins around and stares at you, like a slapped puppy.
Does he know?
The silence stretches on, filling the space between you and expanding like ballast. Simon stares ahead at the surface of the pool. Minutes drag on. He gets to his feet, and looks away from you. “I’m gonna go back. Check on Kim.”
“I’ll be up in a minute,” you hear yourself saying. “Leave the door unlocked, okay?”
“Okay.” And he’s gone. You stare at the water.
God, how are you going to face him again? How are you going to face Kim, after imagining that? What’s wrong with you? Did you lose your mind?
You take a deep, deep breath—seven in, hold for four, ten out, repeat. Simon wouldn’t say anything to Kim. He’s not like that. You and he will forget it ever happened, and the three of you will continue on. It’ll be okay.
The anxiety leaves your body, inch by inch. Warmth builds inside you—hope? You shift your weight back on your hand, and get to your feet. You can’t forget that tomorrow, you have to explain to Kim that it’s time to go home.
The night is getting hotter as you approach the hotel room. It’s a good thing you’re going inside—you’re ready to strip off your clothes and take an ice-cold shower, and then crawl into bed and forget this whole horrible trip ever happened.
You open the door, and you see it before you see it. You stare at Kim and Simon, their limbs tangled together. You take a step back.
You turn, and you walk away.
All the blood in your body is rushing in your ears, in your throat, in your eyes. You stagger down the wrought iron stairs. Far away, you can hear Kim crying out for you to stop, slow down. You don’t.
You keep walking, toward the road. You stick your thumb out. This time of night, the road is quiet. What few cars are on the road zoom past without noticing you. You can barely make them out through the tears. They’re just blurry red spots, trailing into the night without you.
You scream, and you stomp your feet. You’ve never screamed this loud and this long before. You scream and you scream until the sound shreds your throat on the way out. You scream at every car that passes you by without picking you up. You scream at the empty road ahead of you. You scream at Kim and Simon for putting you on this roadside. You scream until the scream is out of you.
You sink down into the dirt. Seven in, hold for four, ten out. You can’t do it. You keep hiccupping.
You don’t know how long you sit there, in the dirt. Eventually, you hear footsteps behind you, and feel the body flop down behind you. You don’t turn to look. You would know Kim’s steps anywhere.
“Get away from me,” you croak, wiping your nose on your sleeve.
He doesn’t. He sinks down behind you, encircling your waist with his arms. He used to always do that during lunch—tethering you to him, his buoy in the waves.
“I thought you wanted that,” Kim murmurs into your shoulder. “I thought… I felt you wanting it. I don’t know. It was like this… urge that came over me. Like you climbed inside me and started workin’ the controls. Does that make sense?”
Oh, you want so badly to be angry. But it does. You sniff, hard. “I… w-wanted to kiss him. But I’m with you. You’re with me.”
“He’s with us too, Nat. We’re all together. You feel it too, don’t you?”
You stare at the hard dirt. You turn around. “Tell me why we can’t go home. Now.”
Before he can, you see it.
You see Kim standing in his bedroom—your bedroom? You feel the heavy, cool metal in your hand. Is that smell here, too? It’s like fireworks and a fog machine, sickly sweet mixed with ozone. You walk down the hall, backpack on your back. It doesn’t matter. You’re leaving. You’ll never smell this smell again. It’s someone else’s problem, now. The sweet smell overwhelms the kitchen. You approach the lump of meat on the floor, and tuck the pistol into its left hand. You give its side a good, sharp kick. You turn your back, open the front door. You slip outside, making sure to lock it behind you. By the time they find him, you’ll be long gone. They’ll never see you again.
You reel back as you come back to yourself. Your stomach heaves, and suddenly you throw up on the ground ahead of you. Nothing but bile comes up, bitter and burning, the consequences of not eating for two days in a row. Even after, you keep retching. Kim shakes, his shoulders slumping. He lets out a sob. You’re back to now—back to the sand and the heat and the dim stars above. You take him into your arms, and he melts into you.
You know what you have to do. “We’re gonna keep driving.”
The three of you keep driving.
Money disappears fast. Gas isn’t cheap. You have to do things you aren’t proud of.
But together, you can accomplish anything.
This turns out to be more than you thought “anything” could be.
Weeks stretch into months. You start to forget what your childhood bedroom looked like—if it was really yours, or if it was Kim’s, or perhaps Simon’s old dorm. Simon brings you a newspaper one day at some shithole diner with bad coffee and worse eggs. Your faces are in it. The three of you laugh and laugh.
You can see through each other’s eyes sometimes, when you really focus. Finally, you have room to put all those awful feelings that always seemed to be spilling out of you.
At night, the three of you sleep in one bed, limbs tangled together. It’s as close as you can come. This is how the police find you, when they finally catch up to you.
You look up at the police’s flashlight, your six eyes shining in the darkness.
© 2023 by Jenova Edenson
Jenova Edenson is a speculative fiction writer and video game designer in Phoenix, Arizona. She once knew a girl in high school who wanted to go on a road trip across the country during spring break, and she was once a girl in high school with high school friends. She has two cats and zero husbands.
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