Well, I must say, even though Megan’s going to bust me for saying it, that this has been a terribly intimidating experience. What was I thinking, attempting to write her fifth chapter? There’s no way that I can follow four of the most awesomest chapters in the universe…even less way that I can compete with her own most awesomest fifth chapter. But then I came up with an ingenious idea. You see, my blog theme is a vintage-y looking red and khaki. So, any inferiority of style I can simply attribute to the fact that of course it doesn’t look as cool on a vintage-y red blog as it does on Megan’s super-cool, super-modern black-and-red-and-white theme. That’s the difference. I’m sure of it. =)
Putting all that aside, it was great fun to try something wildly different from my usual style. Even better, I realized that the first part of the road trip – the only part I have to worry about – is the part that I have driven at least nine or ten times. So I decided to include some details of the road, like the obligatory stop at Harris Ranch, and the sign on the inside of the men’s bathroom door there that reads “ladies’ room” (I heard about that from my dad and brother…that bit isn’t first-hand experience =), the ear-popping pass called the Grapevine, and the long stretch of road between the Grapevine and civilization where it’s just wide and flat and bleak. Been there, done that. Ten times south, ten times north again. No problemo.
However, I did run into a problem with the chapter heading. I couldn’t decide which song quote fit the chapter the best, so I just picked one from a Bebo Norman song and went with it. However, I’ve also included a list of the others (the first one is Sara Groves, second is Jars of Clay and the rest are Bebo) that I really liked, and Megan, you can tell me which one you think goes better, once you’ve read the chapter. =)
~there are so many ways not to feel
~exposed beyond the shadows
~all that i ever wanted is broken
~so good the reasons i was hiding behind
~so good for nothing at the end of the day
~have i become a soul so numb
~words of gold have all grown cold
~blood red are the tears we cry
So, without further eloquence, here’s what I came up with. It’s not Megan. It’s me. But it was an insane amount of fun, and I’d do it again.
so much for keeping all i was feeling inside
Irritated, Scott kept his eyes shut for a moment longer before letting them roll open to confront his brother.
“What do you want?”
Mike shrugged defensively. “I asked if you were hungry.”
“No. I’m tired.” Scott leaned his head back into the crack where the window met the frame of the car door and closed his eyes again. Somehow it was easier to take on the accusations that waited in the darkness under the guise of sleep than to watch Aaron’s delighted eyes dancing above one of Mike’s white t-shirts. Easier to just sit and wait for the roller coaster to screech to a stop than to anticipate every sickening curve.
“Do you mind if me and Aaron stop to get something to eat?”
Aaron and I…why can’t you get it right? He didn’t dare to say it out loud.
“Why are you asking me? Aaron’s the one who planned the trip and you’re the one who’s driving. I’m just here for the ride,” Scott flung at him from the back seat.
The pickup swerved suddenly and came to a gravely halt. Something landed in Scott’s lap with a metallic clink, jerking him out of the corner again.
I guess we’re stopping.
Mike flicked his hand toward a series of cracked controls next to the steering wheel. “The air conditioning doesn’t work, but you can roll down the windows if it gets too hot in here. We won’t be long.”
The door banged shut and Scott exhaled slowly, savoring the freedom of aloneness. A moment later he heard a tap on the window and shifted his glance up to find Aaron’s concerned face about an inch from his own on the other side of the glass.
“I said I’m not hungry, Aaron! Just…” He slammed the rolled-up shirt he had been using as a pillow onto the seat next to him and unbuckled.
…leave me alone.
And then he stepped out of the truck onto the blazing pavement.
It was hot outside. Hot and thick and unbelievably stinky. Scott reached back inside the pickup and pulled out a pair of designer sunglasses to block the glare of white pavement and white sky and the ubiquitous white semi-trucks. He refused to admit to himself that he was blocking anything more.
“It smells awful out here. Where are we, anyway?” he asked, casually avoiding Mike’s raised eyebrows.
“Dunno. We got off the Grapevine about two hours ago. I think the sign said Harris Ranch. Hey, I thought you weren’t…”
“Thanks, I read that much for myself,” Scott interrupted crisply.
Aaron’s hands exploded suddenly in a flurry of movement, and Scott cringed from the heavy, expectant gaze that followed.
“What did he say?”
“That it smells like home,” Mike replied absently, signing something back to Aaron.
Like the farm, maybe…not home. Home smells like last night’s party and mothballs and Laura’s perfume. No, not even. Home… paper, fax machines, cleaning fluid. And leather briefcases.
This smell was different. It was pungent and alive and disgusting. It taunted him with vague, broken memories. It was the smell of sweat and fresh-turned dirt and hundreds of thousands of rusty brown cattle – the smell of a long-forgotten sensation called life.
And it made him sick.
The buildings stretched out in front of him, glowing an earthy pink color in the blistering sun. Waves of heat shimmered from the tile roofs. Suddenly it was just too much.
Scott pulled the door open with a jerk. “I’m going to the bathroom. Don’t wait for me.”
“Aaron’s going, too. I’ll get us a table.”
So much for a minute alone. He cursed, softly, and fled down the dimly-lit hall.
The fluorescent lights lining the broad expanse of mirror made every sharp angle of the bathroom stand out, cold and hard and glistening. Swallowing hard, Scott turned on the tap and watched the water spin in perfect concentric circles down the drain.
Let me pour you some water, Scott.
I’m not thirsty.
You will be.
Are you ready, Scott? This won’t hurt. I promise.
It sparkled and twisted gracefully in the glass like an inside-out tornado. The shining surface broke as the center dropped away and sucked down, down, down.
No. Please, no.
Scott backed away from the sink, panting heavily, hand twitching dangerously near his pocket. There was relief there and he wondered if he dared to stretch out his fingers and take it.
Surely…surely just one wouldn’t hurt. Surely…
He caught sight of his brother staring curiously back at his reflection in the glaring mirror. Scott shut off the water with a dry, shaking hand and fished in his pocket for a little container of hand sanitizer instead. A drop of the gel missed his hand and landed noiselessly on the glazed tile countertop.
He reached for a paper towel to wipe it up, but suddenly Aaron catapulted into his arms, white and shaking and gesturing wildly.
“What do you think you doing?” Scott heard himself ask, and then cursed under his breath when he remembered. Aaron couldn’t hear him. Rolling his eyes in disgust, Scott followed his brother to the bathroom door and read the words painted on it in a delicate, curling, flowery script.
What on earth…
Scott gazed around dumbly, trying to remember where and when and why and how. Running one hand nervously through his thin hair, he glanced over at his brother. Aaron’s expression was a question mark with nothing in front of it.
The door revolved on its hinges with a squeak and his heart began to pound wildly. But it was a man who entered.
Scott sighed with relief. Through the open door he read the sign on the opposite side of the hall.
Aaron saw it too. He turned toward Scott with a laugh shining on the horizon of his sky-blue eyes and suddenly he was a curly-haired baby of two again and Scott’s mouth warped into a weak smile at somebody’s idea of a joke. Across the deep, silent river that flowed between them flashed a moment of unspoken mental embrace and they knew each other for the first time in twenty-eight years.
Scott’s shirt pocket vibrated and instinctively he pulled out his phone. The voiceless laugh faded from his brother’s face. And the moment shattered into a million hollow pieces.
“Scott! Mark Webber, Aveline Corporation. Listen, I was hoping we could set up an appointment with…”
Scott snapped the phone closed and deliberately flipped it over to remove the battery. Stuffing the pieces into his pocket, he jerked the door open and stepped out into the hallway, painfully conscious of the skinny man who trailed him timidly.
The restaurant was nearly deserted. Aaron spotted the booth where Mike was sitting first and bolted from Scott’s side to slip in next to Mike. Scott observed their rapid, silent conversation for a jealous moment before he collapsed awkwardly onto the bench opposite his brothers and hid his face in trembling hands.
How did I get myself into this?
The memory of the morning rushed in on him, unwanted, like a distant roll of thunder. The sickening thud of flesh striking flesh…the blood that dripped mockingly from his fingers and from Aaron’s face…the defeat that echoed hollowly in his ears. His fingers separated involuntarily before his eyes and he watched Aaron’s face twist into a lopsided grin as he signed the story of their bathroom adventure to Mike. His slight form looked even bonier under Mike’s vast, clean shirt.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…don’t cry. Please don’t cry…I didn’t mean to…I’m sorry.
It’s rather too late for that, don’t you think, Scott?
The plastic bottle in Scott’s pocket felt strangely large and cold.
“And for you, sir?”
“Wha—what?” He glanced up, confused, and saw the waitress hovering over their table with a notepad. She was tall and blonde and somehow the full, golden sweep of her hair over her shoulder reminded him of Laura. “Oh. I’ll have…” He picked up the forgotten menu and flicked an expert eye over it listlessly. “A burger.”
“French fries or potato salad?”
“Anything to drink?”
Just go away. Just…
“Just water.” He licked his lips nervously and then he knew that he dared. “Please.”
It tasted thin and metallic when it came, but Scott shook a single, sterile white pill out of the Advil bottle and gulped both water and pill down greedily. Instantly he hated himself for it. When he lowered the rim of the glass he was assaulted by Aaron’s pale gaze.
He shrank from its intense, innocent inquiry. The gaze hung delicately poised in the air while Scott gathered together what scraps of courage had not already been exhausted. “I have a headache,” he offered finally and retreated to his cocoon, leaving it to Mike to translate his lame explanation or not. Mike didn’t.
Vaguely Scott became aware of a warm body next to him. A bony hand wrapped itself around his shoulder and dug in gently. Aaron’s rough brown head dropped confidentially onto Scott’s shoulder. And on the table in front of him lay a note.
Maybe you will feel better when you eat something?
“Maybe,” Scott breathed into his sweaty palms. “Maybe.”
The sun hung lower in the sky when they came out of the building but it was even hotter than before. Smellier than before.
“You still ok, Mike, or you want me to drive?” Scott wanted to curl up and sleep away the waves of nausea that rose in his throat, but he sensed the fuzzy blankness waiting in the shadows and knew that he could not face it alone in the back seat.
Mike shrugged nonchalantly. “Go ahead, if you want. You’ve got the keys.”
“No, I don’t. You were driving.”
“Yeah, but I gave you the keys when you said you weren’t hungry. So you could roll the windows down. Remember?”
Scott groped blindly through fading shreds of memory. “No.”
“Please tell me you’re joking, Scott.”
Mike rolled his eyes and peered through the window into the back seat. “There they are. On the floorboard.” He yanked on the door handle unsuccessfully. “And the doors are locked.”
“Well, what are we going to do now?” Sagging against the scorching side of the pickup, Scott knotted his fist into a hard ball and pushed it into his stomach and tried not to look as sick as he felt.
“How should I know? Man, are you ok? You don’t look so…”
“I’m fine,” snapped Scott, pulling himself upright. “What are we doing? And where the…” He bit down on the expletive before it left his mouth. Too hard. He could taste blood mingling with his saliva. “Where did Aaron go this time?”
“I don’t know!” Mike exploded without warning. “You expect me to keep him on a leash or something; well, Aaron is thirty years old. Or maybe you’ve forgotten that. You treat him like he’s a child.”
Scott winced painfully. Here we go again.
“He’s my older brother, you know,” lashed Mike, long years of carefully hoarded anger striking against each syllable like hail on hard-packed earth, “but then you never were around to—”
Stop, ok! Just…just stop. Please stop. Scott tried to curl back into his professional shell, to find some curt, clipped, calloused phrase that would stop the bleeding forever, but somehow he couldn’t find the door. Defeated, shell-shocked, and whimpering inside, Scott found himself sliding down the side of the truck until he slumped weakly on the ground. You weren’t there, Mike…you don’t know how it was. All you know is that Aaron is deaf. You don’t know that I’ve been dead for twenty-eight years.
“Scott? You ok?” The cold, hard, concentrated rage in Mike’s face turned to cold, hard, but genuine concern.
Do I look ok?
Scott shook his head slowly and then waited for the world to stop reeling. Waited for the nightmare to end, for the moment when he would wake up on the couch in the living room to Laura’s soft, perfumed kiss and tell her what a crazy dream he had. But the moment never came.
Instead, a set of keys landed in Scott’s lap and Aaron’s bright face appeared over Mike’s shoulder.
“Where did you get those?” Scott managed to whisper above the roaring in his head.
Aaron turned to Mike questioningly and a grin haloed his features when the question was translated.
“He says he picked the lock with a hairpin he got from the waitress,” Mike interpreted, calmly unscrewing the cap from a water bottle and shoving it into Scott’s trembling hand. “Here. Drink this.”
Water splashed down his chin in purifying rivulets, soaking his shirt front. The weakness passed and Scott stood up, pale and quivering and vaguely wondering whether Mike had ever been a kid. Sometimes he seemed so old.
Aaron picked the lock. Figures.
Scott swayed a little and made his way to the other side of the truck. “I’ll drive.”