Ben blows through a stop sign and I say You’re a goddamn jackass Ben. Two states from home and he’s already giving the cops excuses. Turn signals and speed limits I remind him. Stick to the back roads. I’d be driving if my legs worked the way they should and I looked old for my age like Ben does. After all I’m the one who spent those days under the hood with Pa learning about parts and fluids and how to tell when a mechanic’s trying to fuck you over. Back before Pa and his rules became too much and Ben and I did what needed doing. Now our plan is full speed ahead and we’re driving West until we hit ocean.
Almost the end of our first day out and no one’s looking for us, far as we know. If we ever went to school or went into town more than once a month or were allowed past The Fence, someone may have noticed. Keeping us anonymous might be the one gift Pa ever gave anyone. Nobody’s looking or wondering where we’ve gone. Instead we’re driving West until we hit ocean. From there we think of something.
I stare at flattened miles ahead down the unbending road. The distance between buildings out here makes our old neighbors seem like they were right on top of us, even though we barely saw them, not even when Pa was his drunken loudest. Or when our old dog Brownie jumped The Fence and got clipped by a truck that didn’t bother stopping, and Pa stood in the street over her body shouting at us See? You see what happens?
State troopers appear in the rearview mirror as we pass through a small farm town and my vision blurs around the edges I’m so nervous. Their lights stay off, and when we hit the highway again they pass us over double yellows, decelerate slightly to stare us down. No way anybody’s found Pa yet, but still my insides feel ready to jump out through my skin. A few minutes later Ben pulls into a gas station and I vomit in a garbage can between the pumps. The attendant asks if I’m alright when I walk inside for supplies, and I grumble something about motion sickness and grab sodas, warm two Hot Pockets in a boxy microwave. A spinning sunglass display sits nearby and I pick out a pair that feels the most like what people in California would wear.
We know what California looks like because we found a shoebox full of pictures in the hallway closet. Pa used to live out there and in the pictures he looks skinnier, less pale, like a smile could almost threaten to show up on his face. He stands with his arms around people and a beer in his hand on beaches, under palm trees. He sits on hoods of cars. He steps out of the water, long hair slicked. We tried for months to guess which woman in the photos, if any, might be our mother.
Moving again, we pass honor system roadside stands and steal carrots, eat them raw. I put my arm out the window so the cold keeps me awake. Unseasonable flurried snow blows in small snakish lines across the road. Ben forgets a turn signal and looks at me apologetic. He’s lagging. Exhausted. Sun gone on the other side of corn fields and nowhere to pull over and rest. I realize we packed sunscreen but forgot blankets.
For months Ben and I devised our plan in late-night whispers across our bedroom. Chanted the states we’d pass through to fall asleep. Now with the ocean still half a continent away but getting closer I wonder what we’ll talk about tonight. If when I wake up I’ll remember my dreams for once. If they’ll be of the ocean and what comes after.
Andrew Cothren is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in The Atlas Review, Bound Off, Drunken Boat, and Eleven Eleven. He received his MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Currently, he resides in Brooklyn, New York, where he is at work on a novel.