The boy had never stolen a car until two days ago and now he is stalking a run-down neighborhood in search of his fourth. Here windows have bedsheet curtains and driveways host pyramids of half-destroyed appliances while one building is half-burned yet the lights are on. Briefly someone retches unseen as if undergoing an exorcism. But at this late hour this stretch of road is otherwise as still as a bay at neap tide. He doesn’t even know the name of this area, only that it is south of St. Louis.
The first car he and the girl had absconded with was almost a non-theft: it belonged to the girl’s demented elderly neighbor. A stop by to say hello, followed by a hug and an offer to fetch some groceries, and they were driving her station wagon. Then the tire blew. There was no spare. They walked.
The second one, a pickup—that was a mess. They’d spotted it in front of a convenience store on a lamplit country road. The driver emerged from the store as the boy and the girl were climbing in. She tried to smooth-talk him but she insisted on calling him Buzzo, a nickname she’d given him on the spot. That drove Buzzo mad; he made mistakes. But so did the girl. The boy had to intervene. He ended up taking Buzzo down with a semi-rotted log that detonated on the man’s skull. Later that night he found blood on the collar of his beloved denim jacket and convinced her to abandon the truck among two thousand cars in a mall parking lot.
The third, a jeep, was idling behind a hardware store, no driver. The lack of violence was such a relief the boy wept in silence. Little more than a sack of bolts, it’s now parked in the garage of a foreclosed house with no running water or electricity while the girl lies on the living room floor with only a coarse blanket to keep her warm, occasionally puking her guts out or kicking holes in the sheetrock with the heels of her boots.
Three streets later the tenor changes slightly and the boy spots it. Japanese manufacturer, black, rust-free, bland, common. The boy stands with his hands in his pockets, his chest rising and falling as the streetlight overhead flickers with a sickening strobelike regularity. His plan is benign this time: slip in the back door and slide the key off the hook, then flee. The house where it’s parked is middle-class, tended to but not celebrated. Grass grows or it does not. The paint flakes off every other year and it is covered over. But the boy is unsure. The silence is uncanny, a quietude broken up only by the occasional slamming of doors or hocking of a smoker. He skulks up the driveway, his head flanked by stiff shoulders, and is peering through the driver’s side window to check for an alarm system when from the yard beyond a dog howls plaintively. It’s not a warning or a threat though, more like a gesture, a greeting.
The boy turns back to the car. But the wailing grows louder.
The boy sighs.
The noise belongs to a small droopy-eared mongrel. Holding his right hind leg in the air, the dog is filthy and underfed, chained to a playground set with no swings. Nearby sits a hutch with an opening that looks more kicked-in than sawn. The dog’s wound is fresh: a gash, perhaps a break.
He wonders who could love a dog like this. And who could hate an animal like this.
“I’ll make some calls. I promise. But I can’t do this tonight.”
Something clatters; someone is awake in the house. As a light comes and a door opens the boy leaps behind the hutch.
“You shut up,” a disembodied voice says.
Something lands on the ground, a bone or chunk of meat that the dog ignores. The door shuts; the lights go off.
The boy crouches until the dog comes to him and perks his ears as if to say, Well?
The boy removes his jacket and wraps it around the dog and unclips the chain. The dog writhes but does not cry out. They slip down the driveway but as he scurries past the car the streetlight glints off a bit of silvery metal. The keys are tucked into the crease of the passenger seat.
There is no hesitation. He opens the door and flicks off the overhead light and swaps the keys for the dog, then releases the parking brake and pushes the car down the driveway. In the street he starts the engine. Once the boy is driving the dog settles back and dog looks out the window as if this were any other day.
He drives. This is what he does now. Only for once it is not the girl beside him.
He searches the main streets and side streets and asks around and learns that this town has no veterinarian. The fuel gauge’s needle drops the more his anxiety rises. His heart quickens as he thinks about what he has done but more so what will happen if he returns to the girl with a wounded animal and a car with no fuel.
The next two towns he passes through are lifeless and shuttered. After a diversion along the interstate he stops at an all-night copy center to use the internet. He locates a veterinarian a mile down the road and makes an appointment via telephone. It will cost one hundred dollars just to get in the door. He and the girl have seventy-eight dollars total to reach the coast.
He parks outside the veterinarian’s office and they wait on the curb. The dog, shivering, has no tag, no name. The boy will have to invent one. Florian. Adolf. Jocko. He laughs to himself and the dog licks his hand.
“You’ll love her,” he tells the dog. “Just don’t take anything she says seriously. She doesn’t mean half of it, good or bad. I think.” He shrugs.
The dog leans against him. The boy takes it for affection but the dog is merely shifting the weight away from the wound.
“We’re heading far away. Canada, Alaska, Mexico, I don’t know. Are you coming?”
The dog yawns, which transitions into panting. The boy scratches him beneath his collar.
“Of course the likelihood of us making it there is razor-thin. The police are probably looking and—fuck, I shouldn’t tell you.”
The boy shuts his eyes. He’s seeing it now, that which he spared the dog. He standing at the bottom of the stairs, standing over a male body arranged in an unbecoming interpretation of the human form, a child’s badly drawn idea, red cloud pooling frothily around the gaping mouth. He shakes it off at the sound of a vehicle approaching. The veterinarian arrives in a battered pickup truck. He is a small man with a languid demeanor. He motions with a sweep of the hand for the boy to follow him inside, saying, “Name?”
“Mine or the dog’s?”
The man doesn’t answer. He leaves the lobby dark and leads them to the exam room. The boy sets the dog on the table. The veterinarian slides back the boy’s coat and sees the issue. “Yup. The leg. Age?”
The boy peers into the dog’s eyes. “Six. And a half.”
“Doesn’t seem broke but I’ll check. He’ll at least need this cleaned and sutured up. You can wait in the lobby or help restrain him.”
“I need to get cash. I saw an ATM on the corner.”
“I take cards.”
“Oh. I, uh, have a limit.” The boy wants to extract his coat from beneath the dog but figures this for a giveaway. He pets him on the head. “Stay, Jocko.”
“ATM?” the man mutters as the boy exits through the lobby, the door jangling.
As he closes in on the car the boy sees a figure shining a flashlight through the driver’s side window. The boy presses his back to the wall and waits. But the person does not leave. A couple minutes later a patrol car arrives. The boy backs away. He rounds the corner toward the veterinarian’s office but does not stop.
He returns to the girl. They roll the jeep out of the garage and boy takes the wheel again, relearning the language of the jeep’s chassis and the poorly inflated tires. The seat bolts seem to be unscrewing themselves, becoming looser each mile, and with no roof above them and no doors and only two frayed belts holding them in at the waist, the spring air rushes through the boy and the girl like a curse.
A few hours before dawn they stop so the girl can vomit again and rinse her hands beneath a shuttered roadhouse’s spigot. The water is frigid and to bring warmth back to her flesh she scours her skin with fistfuls of sand and gravel. When her hands are cleared of puke and dirt and any lingering flakes of blood she at last shuts it off and staggers wordlessly toward the edge of the dark property where she hoists her skirt and drops her underwear and squats to relieve herself.
The boy takes her place, kneeling to drink from the twisted brass tap. To him the water tastes like steel. He spits it out and runs his sleeve across his mouth and though his hands are unblemished he washes them anyway.
The fuel is low and the axle is wobbling but the boy drives onward, the rising sun at their back. An hour passes before the girl finally stirs, her shoulders rolling as she releases a great sigh. She reaches out for a stalk of grain arching over the road and comes away with a stiff dry husk that she breaks apart in her small strong fingers, then blows the seeds all over the boy.
“Hey,” he says, all but calling out to her over the wind.
“Hey,” she echoes.
The girl turns away. “I’m still not here.”
As the jeep lists against the wind the hem of her skirt leaps up to expose the ornate tapestry of her tattooed thighs. He lays his hand there, on the face of some Eastern goddess, and for the first time in two days she doesn’t push him away. But when he reaches the scarifications circumscribing her upper leg the girl intercepts his hand and returns it to the wheel.
“Sorry,” he says.
“About the car, I mean.”
“You can only speak if you don’t use words.”
“What does that—”
“Hup-bup!” She raises a hand.
He stops talking.
Once the rain starts they pull into a run-down town just large enough to offer two competing motels. “That one,” the girl says, choosing the brighter more sterile one, then remains in the jeep, curled forward, using her damp carmine-red hair to shield her face like drapes as the boy goes in search of a room they cannot afford.
Inside the boy asks the rail-thin bird of a woman for a room at the far end. “Quieter there, right?”
“That puts you closer to the pond, actually,” she says. “Frogs’ll be barking come night.”
“A pond? That’s ok. I like amphibians.”
“You want some crickets to feed them?” she asks through a tooth-poor smile. “We got plenty.”
The boy declines and hands over forty-two dollars.
In their room the girl starts to strip out of her soaked clothes before the boy can even shut the door. She then climbs into bed and pulls the blankets to her neck and shuts her eyes.
The boy sets out her clothes to dry, then goes back to the jeep. After four attempts the engine catches; this will surely be the last time. He steers it down the narrow service road behind the motel and into the lush woods until he reaches a small pond slicked over with a coat of green scum.
The engine noise spooks a lone pair of ducks and they take to the air and the boy parks and sits listening to the engine ticking on its cool down while watching the pond’s surface roiling with various sickly green hues. The stillness is so rich it could be captured in a jar and sold.
He climbs out and hooks the keys on a branch but he doesn’t want to return to the motel. Perhaps these woods are dotted with abandoned cabins. He could hide here until the girl has moved on and her face is lost to the decay of time like everything else in the woods. But then he catches her scent on his jacket and his chest rises.
“You here?” he says as he steps into the room.
He spots her bare feet through the open door of the bathroom and finds her pressed against the bathtub, stringy vomit dripping from her jaw into the basin. He supports her with his hands against her stomach, just like his mother did when he was a child. Her back is revealed to him in full: a tiger covering every inch of skin, its tail disappearing around her front. She is a work of art, sculpted of archetypes and icons. Only the thrust of her belly against his fingers convinces him she is real.
The girl, head hung low, twists the tap open and sips warm water from her palm.
“We should see a doctor,” the boy says as the girl wraps herself in the comforter, sits on the edge of the mattress, and removes a deck of cards from her purse. “Maybe it’s food poisoning from that stuff we dumpstered.”
She practices a shuffle in which the deck is divided into sixths and reunited in thirds but because her hands are stiff and swollen she can’t move the cards through her fingers like the girl of old and they slip through her fingers in a cascade of suits and numbers.
“What can I do for you?” he asks, hovering. “Ice? Want me to find a hot water bottle? Something to drink?”
She mumbles something he doesn’t catch.
“I can’t hear you.”
“I said go away. I don’t want to see your fucking face right now.”
“Come on, you don’t mean that.”
She tosses the remaining cards onto the floor and lies on her side. “I do. How old are you anyway?”
“Twenty-nine. Two years older than you, right?”
“You look like a teenager who went through the washer on a long cycle.”
He tries not to laugh. “Hating me is like hating the weather.”
“What does that mean?”
He shrugs. “Nothing. I guess our—”
“Please be quiet. Your voice is making me nauseous.”
“I’m—I’m sorry.” He stands up. “I’ll get you a soda.”
After getting a ginger ale from the vending machine he returns to the room and sets the soda by the bed and slumps in the chair in the corner, dozing fitfully until the girl’s arm emerges from the blankets. She snaps her fingers. He shakes off his torpor and stumbles toward her.
All she’d had to do was ask and he ran with her. And drove. And walked. And drove some more.
“We’ll head for the coast,” she says. “My cousin has a boat.”
She nods. He sits.
“How do you feel?”
“I’ll live,” she says, rolling onto her back. “You see, here’s the thing. I’m not sick. I mean, I am but it’s not an illness. I’m knocked up. With your kid.”
“We can get rid of it but I’ve done that before and it’s kind of rough and we’d need money for that too.”
“I—wow. Well, it’s up to you. I mean, I’m a feminist, so it’s your body to decide.”
She groans and throws her arm over her face. “Idiot. Stand up for yourself.”
The boy rubs his jaw and thinks a moment. “Fine. I want to keep it.”
She peeks out from beneath her arm. “But why?”
He shrugs. “I like you. Despite—well, just despite everything.”
After a long interval of silence she says, “Tell me. Tell me what you like about me.”
Her answer is a stare.
“Ok.” He pivots on the edge of the mattress and lays his hands on either side of her. “I like how you throw your hips when you walk. Like you’re trying to stab the world with each step you take.”
He slides his hands to her ankles, grasping them through the blanket. “I like how your feet point in just a tiny bit. It’s cute and out of character with the rest of you.”
He brings his face close to hers.
“I like your smirk. You smile for reasons different from everyone else, something only you will ever understand.”
The girl writhes beneath the cover, though the boy’s not sure if it’s nausea or titillation. He flips the blanket aside and kisses the flaming heart tattooed between her breasts.
“If you die before me I’m going to make you into a book of flesh. And this face, this hair—”
“That’s just my body you’re talking about. Is there anything else?”
“Of course. I like how angry you are. If you could channel that rage it could power sails and we’d be in the middle of the ocean already.”
The girl writhes.
He continues: “You’re clever and witty. You’re—sharp.”
“Most of all I like how you hate me only because you know how much I love you, no matter what you say or what the world and all the psychos and angels it contains throw at me.”
The girl closes her eyes and moans softly. “Enough.”
“I see colors when we make love. I go places and see things.”
Her eyes open. “Like what?”
“Everything. I disappear into our bodies. I forget you, me. I feel your bones and guts as mine. I know it sounds ridiculous and gushy but it’s true.”
“Shut up. That’s disgusting.”
“Tell me more.”
“What do you feel?”
She forces herself to look at him. “I hurt.”
“I hurt inside and I hurt people and I will hurt you and I don’t want to. But here you are. I don’t know what else to say. But now I feel sick again I want to rest some more and you need to go get us some money.”
She flicks her fingers toward the door. “Go on.”
“I failed to get us a car and now you want me to go get money from—where? A bank? A lonely widower whom I have to woo over the course of months? Years? What’s your plan?”
“No plan. Just go do it while I rest. It’s your poisonous seed inside me, after all.”
“No fuck. You want to fuck you’ve got to get a hooker.”
He rises. “Will you pay?”
“Depends on what she looks like.”
“She’ll look like you but with less ink.”
The girl sits up and cracks open the soda and takes one sip before setting it back on the night stand. “It’s warm. Next time get me a cold one.”
The boy says nothing. He himself is cold. He needs a jacket but it’s Jocko’s now. He needs many things but all he has is her.
He takes his room key and leaves.
Late in the afternoon the girl climbs from the motel bed damp with her own sweat and calls out for the boy. Getting no answer she goes to the bathroom and showers, assuming he will be back by the time she has emerged. He’ll be standing there with that stupid overly eager grin on his face, some pathetic offering in his hands like a bag of salted nuts or crumbling cookies in a foil pouch.
She shuts off the water and steps dripping into the empty room. He was supposed to be back hours ago. He probably, finally, at long last, has abandoned her. He is too weak to love her.
“Thank god. You fucking coward.”
She goes to the mirror and studies her doppelgänger. She pokes at her stomach and lifts her sore breasts and lets them fall.
She flips back the curtains and stands nude before the window, peering out. Because her body is covered in tattoos a passerby might think she were a dressed in a strangely designed jumpsuit. She doesn’t care. Then she does. She closes the curtains only to snap them open them again, doing this over and over as if the correct combination of open-and-close will suddenly conjure up the boy. When she grows bored with this she wraps herself in the bedding and sits in the lumpy armchair and monitors the parking lot and the street beyond.
She feels better but doesn’t want to. She wants the thing inside her to kick as hard as it can though she also knows it’s no bigger than an atom or two. She tries to count the ceiling tiles but thinks the design resembles prison bars. That that seems fitting. Trapped here waiting for nothing. They will never reach the ocean. How does that poem go? Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Water, water everywhere and all you can do is think about how you are never going to make it through this alive.
She balls her hands into fists and taps them against her eyes, though no tears come. When she finds the boy she will kill him and make him promise to never leave her again.
She dresses and heads toward the center of town. The rain has burned off, leaving behind an oppressive cloak of humidity. She’s just starting to sweat when the grocery store doors welcome her with a pneumatic hiss and the arctic air assaults her. She gets a cart knowing full well it’ll remain empty; it’s just something to lean on as she wanders up and down the aisles, the hard heels of her boots rapping out a slow pensive rhythm. The few shoppers here stop to stare. In this place she is a flame among moths, a song among homilies. Beauty brings out the ugliness in humanity, she thinks while twisting a coin through her fingers and studying products she will not buy.
Only one person pays her no mind and this one interests her most—a man fiddling with a key fob as he approaches the meat department. He sports a dark greasy coif with long sideburns and is dressed in hideous brown pants and a white short-sleeve button-down. Two-toned aviator glasses, brown at the top before fading to yellow, obscure his eyes. She follows at a safe distance, studying his every move. The longer she stalks him the more she wants this. Not just the fob. Not just the car. Him.
He stops to peruse the meat, examining each package closely before tossing them haphazardly back into the case. She studies his crude gestures and jerky movements, his anachronistic fashion and pinkish sweaty pallor. She can tell he is the type of person to leave bad tips without shame, to swear at a priest, to strike a stranger’s child, to dance to the same song that was blaring on the radio that time in high school he raped a girl behind the bleachers.
She starts to tremble. He is terrifying, exquisite.
He chooses an assortment of pork products and pushes his cart along. The girl watches from afar as he selects three large bottles of generic cola. He buys chips and peanuts, pickles, eggs—bar food. Then expensive cheese and cheap toothpicks. A small bottle of water. She waits for him to strike up a conversation with someone, anyone, so she can overhear him divulging crucial facts such as his name, but no. He remains mute, merely nodding to the cashier.
The girl dubs him Brown.
After paying for a glass bottle of soda she hurries outside. Brown is setting his groceries in the back of his car. He starts the engine but doesn’t drive off just yet. He climbs out again to rinse bird shit off the hood with the bottle of water he just purchased that, when empty, he tosses onto the ground. She is stunned. Not at the littering but at the car. She would expect a man like Brown to drive a blue Cadillac Fleetwood or a gold Chevy Caprice, a car that uses actual keys, not a gleaming black Camaro with orange striping. The car’s throaty engine brings to mind a jet plane carving up a cloudless sky while Brown should be in a shitbox with fake testicles sagging from the rear bumper and cheap air fresheners flapping against the rear-view mirror.
Her heels warn him of her approach. “That this year’s model?” she asks. “It’s beautiful.”
“It does what I ask of it,” he says over his shoulder with nary a glance.
She laughs tenderly. “It do donuts?”
Now he looks at her, adjusting his sunglasses. “I like my tires grippy. Futzing around like that wears them down to the quick. What’s it to you?”
She is slow to answer, teasing out the moment like an unruly snarl of hair. “When the g-forces are high enough, my skirt tends to ride up,” she says, one of her tattooed fingers tracing the hem.
Brown tilts his head downward to see over the top of his sunglasses. “That so.”
She smirks and attempts to twist the cap off the soda. “Well, fuck.”
“You want me to pop that for you?”
“It depends. Does it come with donuts or not?”
His chest rises and falls a long moment. Then he circles the car and opens the passenger door.
The boy hitchhikes to a neighboring town and visits a thrift store where he shops for a denim jacket to replace the old one. He finds one in his size and to his liking but blighted with patches from Japanese pop bands; he gets it anyways. Toward the back of the shop sits a locked case containing chef knives and a few for hunting. They are the tools of a desperate psychopath and he knows that carrying blades of that size induces certain laws. He shakes off the idea and continues to shop, taking in all the wares. Things they will have to buy when they land wherever it is they will land. Lamps. Chairs. Photo frames for honoring all those they’ve left behind.
On a cardboard box near the receptions area he sees it: a retractable razor knife. The blade extends less than an inch yet hijackers have taken down planes with such implements. Surely it’s enough to compel someone into forfeiting some cash.
He pays for coat with his last few dollars and heads to one of the three banks and glances through the window. When a teller looks at the boy he pretends to be using his reflection to fix his hair, short as it is. He then moves to the ATM and takes out his card and flicks it in his fingers. He has two hundred dollars in there but to access the account would set off as many flags as a razor knife in one’s luggage. It’s the same reasoning for having ditched their phones a thousand miles back.
“You gonna shit or get off the pot?” a woman asks from behind while playing with her phone.
This woman will have money soon. But the bank—cameras everywhere. Despite the girl’s imploring ringing in his head he decides to wait until dark.
He sits in a park near the playground and sips the remains of some soda left on the bench. He considers eating the bread crust off the ground but refrains. No children frolic. This town is only slightly less morose than the last, an atmosphere that echoes his internal climate. He tries to picture the road that brought him here, to this moment in this town, but the road are manifold, the turns indistinguishable from one another.
As soon as the sun has clipped the horizon and the streaks of gold are gone from the streets the boy heads back to town. He strides past the thrift store toward the liquor store. He waits an hour but no one visits or exits. He tours the smaller neighborhoods until he reaches a business park of sorts where he spots a man heading toward a battered Mercedes, keys in hand. The boy slows down, cradling the razor knife in his palm.
The man turns. One glance at the boy’s cocked wrist tells him all he needs to know.
“Look, I need your money.”
The man is slow to react. Then his face breaks into a pained sardonic smile. “Fuck you.”
“My—my girl is sick. I’m sorry. I don’t want to do this.”
“You’re not doing this. You’re an idiot. What’s that in your hand?”
The boy dares not glance down at the three-quarters-inch blade jutting from between his fingers. “It’s sharp,” he says.
“You’re pathetic. Fuck you.”
The boy takes a step forward. The man looks larger now, though one arm hangs inert, perhaps the result of a longstanding injury. “You look like you can afford it,” the boys says, instantly regretting it.
The man’s smile drops. “You think you’re the only one with a sick girl? With a problem? I work. My advice, drop the shiv and pick up a job application.”
“I work. I did, I mean. I’m in a bind.”
“I don’t care. Leave me alone.”
The man steps toward his car, keys jangling—trembling. The boy, stepping into the lamplight, casts a blunt shadow that sends the man spinning. His forearm clocks the boy on the side of the face. The boy staggers only slightly, having expected this, and swipes blindly. The blade catches the man’s sleeve. The man repositions himself with his good arm forward and the boy takes this opening to throw his shoulder into the man’s body while cocking the blade backwards. But he doesn’t slice. Without the girl here to goad him, to berate him, to summon his most entombed demons, he can’t summon the gall to do such a thing. He clenches the knife so tightly the blade instead draws his own blood. He drops it and takes to punching the man in the torso and to his surprise a rib gives with a sickening snap that undermines the man’s vigor. He throws his arms around the boy as if to embrace a long-lost nephew, then falls against the car and slides to his knees. The boy works himself free and stumbles backwards, landing hard on his tailbone.
“Here,” the man says while digging in his pockets. “Nine bucks. Fuck you.” He throws the cash at the boy.
The boy grabs it and runs for one block but his legs start to fail and he walks at a hurried clip.
He has a long way to go.
Brown’s scent, the girl notices as she stoops beneath his outstretched arm, is exactly as she imagined: like turpentine and musk tempered with a splash of hand soap. The back of her thighs grip the leather as she slides into the car. He slams the door hard and circles to the driver’s side.
She belts herself in but he doesn’t. He caresses the gas pedal and the car bellows. They evade a wayward shopping cart, breach the roadway with nary a pause, and race down the town’s lifeless thoroughfare.
“High school’s empty,” he says. “The kids get bussed to Templeton now.”
“How far is it?”
He glances sidelong at her. “You in a rush?”
“No sir. I was just hoping you could open things up a little.”
He smirks, downshifts, and careers through a sharp bend at such a velocity that her stomach goes one direction and her appetite the other. When he straightens out she feels like she’s still in the corner.
“What kind of engine this baby got?” she asks, her warm thighs gripping the cold bottle of soda, her body tingling.
“Shit, doll. I’ll show you what’s under the hood. Just let me feed you the sweets first.”
A bend in the road breaks the horizon but Brown doesn’t let up. The girl presses against the window and Brown’s free hand lands on her thigh. The forces are too great for her to release her grip on the grab bar and prise Brown’s fingers out of her flesh. Deep into the bend his fingers dig in deeper, nearly parting the muscle, and she wants to call out but she stifles it until the road straightens.
Brown hoots. “Like a fuckin’ starglider, eh? Now watch this.”
Again the girl swallows her dread as Brown bears down on a four-way junction. The stop sign is their obligation but Brown merely leans forward and cranes his head left and then right before barreling through it and toward the school ahead. They almost catch air on the lip into the wide and badly rutted parking lot, grass rising up through the cracks. He slows slightly and takes the lot counterclockwise, his hand again landing on the girl’s leg, pressing just hard enough for the grease beneath his nails to transfer to her skin.
For five solid minutes he races around like a hoodlum, a few times coming within inches of striking parking stanchions. He does a few donuts but the stench of burning rubber gets to both of them. Finally he slows to a halt, his chest, rising and falling, his sideburns moist with effort. The girl, loosening his hand, shivers. Their heavy breathing lingers in lieu of music as Brown, eyes forward, traces lines up and down girl’s leg.
Plans have changed.
“I’ll show you what I got now,” Brown says and pulls the hood release.
They step out into the waning afternoon light. He mutters to himself as he lifts the hood with the aid of a handkerchief and sets up the support strut.
“V-8?” she says. “Six liter?”
“Of course, doll.”
“How many horses?”
“Aw, I dunno. At least 400, maybe 425. Enough.”
“But it’s not supercharged.”
“Nah. I don’t go in for that gimmicky shit.”
“What’s that thing there?” She points deep into the engine bay, indicating a corrugated tube snaking toward the steering wheel. Brown tilts at the waist to see it better.
“That’s the uh—shit. It’s the—”
“You don’t know?”
He glances at her. “Of course I know.” He leans in farther. “It’s the fuckin’—”
With a sweep of the soda bottle she strikes the support strut out of its notch and the hood hits Brown square on the skull. It’s not enough to knock him out or even wound him but instantly he’s hysterical, his arms lashing out. Before he can free himself the girl hops onto the hood and hooks her heels under the bumper and sandwiches him in the engine bay. As Brown continues to flail she removes a knife from the tiny pocket of her skirt and unfolds the blade and jams it into the back of Brown’s thigh. His bellowing takes on an octave of desperation and boyishness as his blood sprays warmly into her hands. She retracts the knife and punctures the back of his other thigh a half-dozen times in quick succession. His struggles cease a moment as his hands shift from striking her calves to grabbing up handfuls of bloody trousers. She gives his right wrist a quick vertical slash, then sinks the knife into his lower back. Brown goes limp.
She slides off the hood and his body pours liquidly from the engine bay. His glasses have been crushed and she sees now that his eyes are a pale gray, the lids inflamed and red.
“I knew you was a whore,” he says, pronouncing it hoo-uh.
She still has the soda bottle. When it meets his skull in a mess of shards and liquid, the scent of vanilla mingles with the other odors in the air: the iron of his blood and the greasy burn of the engine bay. He wails, writhing on the ground.
“Shut up, Brown.”
“Who the fuck is Brown?”
“I’m Jim Torrance, you cunt. You got the wrong guy.”
“No, it was always you.”
He spits a frothy red mess at her ankles but she dances away. Then he folds into the fetal position and clutches his weeping skull.
Finally she silences him.
He returns to the room. The bedding lays wadded in a pile beneath the armchair, the pillows stacked atop the adjacent table. In the bathroom he catches a whiff of stomach acid and greasy potatoes.
He waits an hour, then checks out of the room and takes to the dirt road leading from the motel to the forest. To the north the lights of a freight train break through the darkness. It’s not far off; he heads toward it and because it’s slow-moving he’s able to catch the last half-mile of cars trundling past. The breeze chills him and he regrets having lost his coat. And when the train has passed he steps onto the rail bed and presses his hand to the warm metal and again considers leaving the girl behind.
He thinks about the man he mugged and the dog he left. He wishes they could find one another the way he and the girl did.
When the train’s lights have fully faded into the dark the boy heads to the forest to retrieve the jeep, hoping it has one more go in it. They keys are still on the branch; he climbs in; the engine catches on the first try: he drives back and sits idling at the edge of the parking lot for a short while, then heads into town.
He prowls the side streets, looking for the girl, for signs of carnage in her wake. Finding none he pulls into the gas station and brings the nine dollars to the cashier and requests three dollars’ worth of fuel.
“Three. You sure?”
“Three. No—four. I’m feeling generous tonight.” The clerk shrugs and goes back to watching a baseball game on his phone. The boy swipes an energy bar on his way out. For the girl.
He circles the grocery store and heads back toward the center of town, stopping at the foot of Main Street where the bulk of the businesses sit, including a cafe. His hunger is so profound he considers pulling a classic dine-and-dash but as he idles at the intersection contemplating his options, he notices that one of cars in front of the cafe is a patrol vehicle marked up with sheriff’s insignias. He is about to pull a u-turn when a second car approaches from his right. Glossy black, with only the fog lights on, its driver is imperceptible until the car rolls to a halt and the interior lights come on.
What the boy notices first is the light catching the red of her hair. Then the smile, as cutting as any cold blade. The two of them stare at one another for a full minute before the boy undoes his seatbelt and steps out.
The girl meets him in the intersection.
“Where the hell did you get this?” he asks.
“I won it.”
“In a game, silly.”
The boy runs his hand along the hood until he sees the concavity where it failed to yield to Brown’s skull. “It needs some body work.”
“No worries. It runs like a dream.”
He shakes his head. “I failed. I got five dollars.”
The cafe door swings open; a waitress steps out. She looks to her left, then to the right, landing on the boy. Their eyes meet for a moment before she steps back inside.
“No worries,” the girl says and pulls something out of the waist of her skirt: a wallet, brown but mottled with a sticky red cloud and thick with cash.
The boy is too busy staring on her knuckles to respond.
“Just don’t,” she says, rubbing them as if the stain were mere dust or paint.
“We need to find a tap.”
“I’m fine for now,” she says,
More lights come on in the cafe, then lights in the apartments above it.
“I don’t mean you.” The boy raises his hands, smeared with blood—his own.
“Calm down,” she says.
“I should have stayed with Jocko.”
“Who the hell is Jocko?”
He sighs and stares into his palms as if a map were unfurled there.
The girl takes hold of his forearms. “Look, I am not the girls you dated in high school.”
His eyes bulge, his voice sharpening. “I didn’t date any girls in high school.”
“I can tell.” She says this with that wry smile but he doesn’t laugh.
Someone exits the cafe and goes to the street and stands watching them.
“You will never love me,” he says. “You will never love anything.”
“That’s not true. But—no, I don’t love you.”
Now his eyes meet hers. She continues.
“You deserve love for what you’ve done for me, saving me, running with me. But when I look in the mirror and I see something on my face and it isn’t love, no. I’m sorry. Who knows, maybe years from now it will happen, or tomorrow, or out in the ocean, but just know that I tried.”
“Thanks for the effort.”
The figure on the street is joined by others. The girl glances at them, then turns back to the boy. “Listen to me. I’ll stay with you our whole lives. I promise. We’ll fuck like athletes and raise the kid and never talk about what happened and be happy as we can be.”
“Don’t give up on me—not yet. This is bigger than love or hate. This is tidal.” She jerks his palms toward the dark sky. “This is evolution. Right?”
He shrugs. Then he nods.
“Good. Now get in the fucking car and get us out of here.”
“What about the jeep?”
“Leave that piece of shit.”
“My prints are all over it.”
“It’s ok. You’re blessed.”
She releases his hands and climbs into the passenger seat and turns on the radio to search for the right song to serve as the backdrop to this exodus. The boy remains standing in the intersection though. Bodies are moving toward him. He knows he should move but his legs will not respond. Nor will his mind. He’s distracted: on the ground, something shines. He leans over to pick it up.
His hand comes away with wetness, with nothing. It is a gob of spit.