We went as far as his car would take us, driving past the smoking blue mountains of north Georgia and Tennessee, the hickory sweetness invading the cracked leather of our 1995 Chevrolet Cavalier, which was an indistinguishable red-brown-orange depending on which angle you looked at it from. We sped through the once-treasured nightmare of Detroit, the neglected chaotic sunset of Dallas. Yellowstone, freshly scorched and withered from its latest cleansing.
When we passed through the Rocky Mountains, I could hear the voice of James Buchanan reverberating in my head: “Prevent the American people from crossing the Rocky Mountains? You might as well command Niagara not to flow. We must fulfill our destiny.”
We must fulfill our destiny.
I studied Luke as he glared into the cramped traffic, wondering at the story of him. I wanted to ask so many things, but all phrased together in one simple question: What are you running from? And maybe, why am I running with you? I didn’t love him; I was simply intrigued by the vanity that masqueraded as spirit, his laugh that could not altogether be classified as laughter at all–more like a bark of reproach.
I had always been so pale, so alabaster-thin, that no one had ever taken notice of me before. I worked in the swirling dust of a used bookshop in a misplaced little town, dyeing my hair dark brown, purple-red, pale-pink, sobbing in the aisles of empty old cinemas. None of the outrageousness of it mattered, because no one could see me. Until Luke. He was taller than you would believe him to be when sitting, with eyes the color of a first dance. I noticed his cocky sway immediately when he slouched into the depressingly-named Ye Olde Bookshop searching for first or second editions of any Sherlock Holmes. Everything about him spoke to me in cautious whispers, like a terrible secret everyone in the world had once tried to hide but got lazy and forgot. He asked me for my help, dismissing with a snort my very valid suggestion that it was a foolhardy task. The rarest and most expensive book in the entire shop was a used copy of Twilight allegedly signed by Stephenie Meyer.
It ended up not mattering, because Luke–for reasons I didn’t fully believe–could not keep his eyes off of me. Or, for that matter, his hands, during our first “date” in the backseat of his dinghy, nondescript old car. I was so tired of being a virgin, untouched, unsavored, unremembered. I wanted to be craved, to be so nearly extinct to someone that they felt the need to hold me tighter, harder. It lasted all of four minutes. Then Luke pulled out, casually rebuckled his jeans, told me that he had to move on that very night, he needed to keep going and going and going . . . He could never stop.
I begged him to take me with him. The thought of going back to that beige apartment with only a raggedy armchair, a shredded mattress, and a lamp shaped like a duck that I had fished out of three different dumpsters was unbearable. There wasn’t even a calendar to keep track of wasted time. Luke wasn’t much, I knew that, but he was better than beige. I had to try my luck.
He agreed, a twisted smile blooming on his face like a black flower. I suppose he was tired of the lack of an avid audience, but at the time I convinced myself that it was because we had just been bonded in such a way that he wouldn’t live without me now.
Now we were somewhere in California, and all that mattered was that I now felt like a part of the world in the most infinitesimal way. I was somewhere, I was someone, I was nowhere, I was no one. I wanted nothing; I wanted everything in the world that I could never have.
Luke pontificated about politics (he was a cross between a Republican, a Libertarian, and a socialist, though he hated each party individually); religion (there was no God, but he hated the God he knew for a fact did not exist; Satan was an incompetent buffoon who couldn’t even fuck up the world correctly, except Satan couldn’t exist without God, so who was busy fucking up Earth?); movies (classic movies were boring and trite, new movies had no merit or heart, independent films were all pretentious shit parading as art); and his favorite subject: sex (he had fucked every one of his female science teachers since sixth grade, because the immovable truth of science turned him on; he had never touched a history teacher because history was a bunch of fairy tales written by victorious villains).
It was cathartic, listening to his stream-of-consciousness rambling, because it was all so contrary, so unrepentantly idiotic, that I felt I could finally form a cohesive thought in opposition to his burbling. And in some jacked-up way, Luke’s bullshit turned me on, gave me a newfound appreciation for myself. At least I wasn’t filled in with some kindergartner’s stubby crayon.
Luke refused to stop for anything but cigarettes until Sacramento, and only because he had smoked all of the butts down to their skivvies. He handed me a ten, glanced nervously around the empty parking lot, focused in on me hard. “Get the cigarettes, I don’t give a shit what kind as long as they’re not fucking menthol, then get the hell out of there,” he snapped. I gave him a sideways glance, as if pretending to slowly absorb his words, and his eyes narrowed even further. “Goddammit, what?” he screamed in my face. I merely blinked in response, coy as a cat hoarding cream, then opened my door, slid out, and wandered into the store.
The guy behind the counter was at least sixty, gray to the bone, his face entrenched in spite. “What can I get you?” he sighed, eyeing me up and down and apparently finding me lacking because his shriveled expression didn’t flicker for an instant.
“A pack of Newport menthols,” I spit back, agitated by his instant attitude, making sure to meet his foggy eyes threateningly, unflinching. His gaze wobbled, surprise sparking it to momentary life.
“Shorts or one hundreds?” he conceded, already turning to the one hundreds.
“Shorts,” I trilled, smiling broadly. He sighed again, turned a few centimeters to the left, and snatched a pack off the wall. He slammed them down on the counter, and I tossed the ten at him with relish. I was enjoying the smart-ass armor; it protected and satisfied me in a way no mere book or boy ever could.
“Keep the change,” I called giddily over my shoulder as I started out the door. The cigarettes had only cost six-fifty, but Luke could fuck himself. I now hated him the same way I loved him: all the way and not at all. I couldn’t care less what he wanted, or about giving it to him. He would take only what I deigned to dole out, or end up all alone again, with no one to spew his venom-soaked bullshit at but the mirror.
“Thanks for shit, you little skank,” the guy growled wearily at my back, but I was already gone, the door slamming hard behind me, back to Luke and the ugly car and the numbing stretch of road.
“Sorry, they only had menthols. And God, are cigarettes expensive here,” I announced as I slid into my seat, tossing the pack of Newports into his lap.
Luke’s face turned a fascinating shade of red, and his frozen eyes seemed to darken and boil for just a moment. Then it was gone, just like everything else about him. “You should have waited, you bitch. I would have gone somewhere else. This is not the kind of twisted little fucked-up game you think it is! I should just kick your boring, bony ass out here and let you hitch back to Barely There, Nowhere. Not that anyone would stop for a nothing like you for anything less than a few blow jobs.”
I shrugged. “If it comes to that, then I have already accepted my fate. The ball is in your court, Lucas.”
He stared me down through narrowed eyes, unsure of what to make of me, what box to put me in, how much room to leave me. In that moment, I didn’t care if he did decide to throw me out. By that point, everything about us was as useless as a lamp shaped like a duck inside an abandoned beige apartment.
Scowling, Luke at last started the engine, spinning the wheels angrily to emphasize the reluctance of his forgiveness, and squealed out of the parking lot like he was terrified of being lit on fire. He had grudgingly decided that twisted, fucked-up sex was better than none at all.
Oh, the bitter, bitter irony. I would love to teach him the meaning.
We stopped again three hours later, when Luke had once again run out of cigarettes and complaints about the lack of cigarettes. He discovered a peeling green motel off the side of the interstate to hole up in for the remainder of the night. He wanted to sleep in and take advantage of the coffee bar and complimentary breakfast. A shower wouldn’t hurt his feelings, either.
He paid in cash, flashed a fake ID. The teenage receptionist with a black and peroxide ponytail flirted shamelessly with Luke in front of me, telling him he resembled her ex-boyfriend. “You’re just my type,” in other words. I wanted to either gag or giggle but continued to stand there like an immovable oak, arms folded tightly across my small bosom. The other girl had much larger breasts, on full display through her standard-issue white collared button-down. She also had a much prettier face, though her bruise-purple eyeshadow and garish hot-pink lipstick did her no favors. Besides, I knew that beauty alone didn’t have a whole lot to do with what Luke was ultimately seeking in his Bonnie. He wanted desperation, despair, boredom, weakness, fragility, even prostration when called upon. The vast, pummeling, paralyzing need to please someone, hurt someone, be someone–those were the traits Luke was sniffing for.
Luke, for his part, leered back at the lusty receptionist, appraising every inch of her pale skin and thoughtful tattoos, attempting to discern if she would make a better hostage than me. I watched with morbid, unraveling fascination. “Working pretty late, Stacey,” he observed lately, taking her name from the badge attached to her tight top. “Don’t you ever get tired of this monotonous bullshit?”
I could see Stacey physically recoil like a defensive snake, her large brown eyes flashing with self-righteous indignation. Apparently, this was not her first rodeo defending her dead-end job. “I like this place,” she said haughtily, high girlish voice rising. “It pays a lot more than you’d think. More than baby-sitting and mowing lawns, that’s for damn sure. Besides, I’ll be going off to college next year so I can–”
“Can we have our room key, Stacey?” Luke cut in, his own voice flat with dismissal. An aspiring college girl who didn’t mind working for a living; I could see him slapping Stacey away in his mind.
Stacey pouted, glared at Luke, then me, as if it were my fault, before grudgingly handing over a plastic card. “Three-oh-three,” she grumbled. “Breakfast is from seven to nine. I hope the suite is to your liking. Enjoy your stay.” If words were bullets, Luke and I would be Swiss cheese.
“Snotty little whore,” Luke growled under his breath as we walked away. The elevator was out of order, naturally, so we were forced to take the foul-smelling stairs, encountering empty needles, bloodstains, cat shit, dead roaches, armies of discontented ants.
On the third floor, we passed by three brightly bewigged hookers with varying shades of neon lipstick bitching wildly in the hallway about some asshole’s jacked-up prices on blow. I wanted to stand and listen to their mesmerizing plight, but they glared at me with such disdain that I slid my eyes away and scurried sheepishly after Luke.
The two of us entered the decaying, bedraggled, moth-eaten suite, taking in the nicotine-tarnished walls, fermented green carpet, and rabbit-eared TV. A dog-eared, decomposing Bible sat atop the chipped pine nightstand. A macabre, dusty painting of Little Red Riding Hood in bed with the Big Bad Wolf dressed in the innocent lace garments of the girl’s recently-devoured grandmother littered the wall beside us. Sighing, we threw down our cumbersome packs and settled wearily on top of the stiff purple comforter.
Luke pounced on me like a ravenous bear. I allowed him to have his way with me, but refused to give him any sort of validation. I laid there like a dull corpse until he finally finished and wordlessly rolled over on his side to pass out. Only moments later, he was snoring loudly like the obnoxious pig I now knew him to be.
Now I would teach him.
I knew why he was running so fast and so far, racing the globe and back again. He had never summoned the guts to come out and say it, but I wasn’t a complete idiot, not anymore. He was either fleeing from the law or the lawless. He had screwed up royally somewhere, pissed off the wrong people, and now he could never be safe or comfortable or content. The thought brought a tiny grin to my face. No one would miss him. Especially not me. He was such a loser, maybe the biggest one in my life–and there had been far too many.
I wanted to show this one how badly he had let me down.
His hunting knife was in one of the back pockets of his knapsack, waiting, waiting. Luke had shown it to me once, the night I had first allowed him to touch me, bragging that he had killed a wounded, stalking wolf with it.
As would I.
I unzipped the pocket slowly, inch by inch, so I wouldn’t wake him and spoil the surprise. I realized with an intense jolt of satisfaction and shock that for the first time ever in my short, dull, dusty life that I felt truly alive, buzzing and zinging with . . . something. Something illustrious, full of frenzied vivid blossoms. No more beige numb. No more.
I began with Luke’s back, holding the gleaming blade up high, bringing it down with a manic passion, relishing his startled pig-like shrieks. Stabbing down and down and down, into his broken black hole of a soul, laughing with childlike wonder, I worked my way to his heart.
I would take it with me as far as my red-orange-brown 1995 Chevrolet Cavalier would go.
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