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K idnapping. Out loud it seems more real. With the thoughts I have, I should be sitting rigid in a serious chair, or else running down a street shooting a gun at the sky. Yet what am I doing? Dabbing a bit of toothpaste drool that hangs from the corner of my lips. Checking the hair in my brush for split ends. I am tearing out my hair from the inside.
Bennett. You’re highlighting the day’s trip on a AAA map of Montana. Dog-eared tour books for the states between us and the Pacific are spread out on the motel bed. Home in Richmond, Virginia would be yards away on your map. Maybe outside the motel room, down the corridor, where the ice machine hums. Here, where we are now, the network of roads looks like a diagram of blood vessels. We could be in the brain, a leg muscle or the lining of a heart. This could have been a different summer if your sister hadn’t implored us to watch Ryan. Remember. This trip was your idea. You decided to take three straight weeks off from the radio station. And no small thing to get someone else to host the big band show, you had said, as if that were a reason. We were thinking of spending a week in Bermuda, remember? I could have gotten fifteen percent off before the travel office shut down. Then your sister calls with her dilemma. For the past three weeks, you’ve been thinking she’s still in Italy to bring back her husband. You think I’m still using the Visa, not the MasterCard, to pay for the rooms. Personally, I can see why he refused to come home. He’s a wine importer. I’ve always thought that sketches the outlines of an understanding.
I look at Ryan on the Murphy bed with the proud possession of a mother. Not his mother, but me. In crayon, he’s copying pictures from that art book you bought him. He’s going to be another Picasso.
“Why don’t you see if you can get through again?” you ask.
The last time I called your sister, from a pay phone in that Iowa rest stop, I could tell she’d been laughing right before she picked up the receiver. You know, I could hear that turn in her voice. I heard her husband in the background, and I think he was laughing, too. They were probably drunk.
I can picture her in Italy when she found him. She probably threw open a pair of louver doors and, spotting him on a veranda, pretended to fall apart until he broke down. The next morning, the two of them lay in bed together as though the world was theirs again. If I had spoken with her instead of hanging up, I know she would have described the villa where she met him—the pensione where she tracked him down—as gorgeous. In my ear she would have turned the entire experience into a vacation, promising to bring us a bottle of Chianti when she picks up Ryan. But I hung up before saying a word. I did. When we drove through Iowa and the trip meter turned digits in a new state, I didn’t feel bad. No offense to Iowa.
I swallow a few aspirins then hit the bathroom lights. In the dim mirror I scrutinize my long wet hair without any split ends and my unmade face and my eyes. My irises move like the lens of an uncertain photographer, my pupils bloom.
Unless your sister has talked with our neighbors, she can’t know where we are. Bennett, you told her we’d maybe take Ryan to the beach. Her ignorance is a feeling worth money. I think your sister has taken it all for granted. Lately, I’ve begun to think that life itself is the sum of taking things for granted, and that when we forget about our health, we are stricken, and when these things include happiness, joy, love, then we are lost. I only pretend to be an optimist. You would say there is a midpoint in life, some fulcrum of justice on which happiness strived for tips to happiness earned. Patience is the key—in your words. But do I expand more than you say? Do you know that I make you talk? Listen.
“What are you thinking?” I ask.
“Which way we should enter Yellowstone. Do you want to see the hot springs on the way in, or leaving?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, watching you fold up your map.
“Are you going to call tonight?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Give me a second.”
I reach for my purse and find the address book lying beside the postcard you wrote in Kentucky to your sister. We can always mail it on the way back, if you ask. The call takes a long time to fall into place.
“Hello?” Ryan’s father answers.
An instinctive response jumps to my throat, but I cut it silent and hold the air in my lungs, afraid that my breathing will somehow betray my identity. I put my hand over the receiver. What can I say or tell him? Or you? I shrug as though I am not getting through. I should be an actress.
“Hello? Who is this?” comes the voice again.
I hang up with my finger, hearing the rush of space fill the broken connection that was open for a moment, where I could have said what is on my mind. Hi. We’ve kidnapped your six-year-old son. Yes, that’s right. And one day he will thank me for it.
“No answer again?”
“Busy,” I disagree, as though complicating a lie will make it more convincing. You have the funniest frown, Bennett.
“At least we know they’re home,” you say. “Come on, let’s get some sleep. Turn off the lamp. Goodnight Ryan. We have Yellowstone tomorrow.”
“Which entrance?” I ask.
“We’ll decide on the way. Goodnight Ryan. Ryan?”
You turn onto your side to look at me, cutting off the moon. Have you been counting the days? I want you, and I don’t want you.
I close my eyes but feel as though I am still able to discern, faintly, the dark shapes of furniture, the gray of walls, the tightness of the room. It seems as though I’m still standing there in the darkness of the cavern we visited that afternoon. My thoughts spill from room to room, through cracks into the yet undiscovered passages, deep down in the breathing mountain. I see one of those fissures ahead and climb to it, stretching my arm inside. I can feel the open space within and try to wedge in a shoulder. Then a foot. I exhale to make myself thin. This could lead to a way out.
You kiss my shoulder, first.
We followed the ranger in a conga line through the dark. I kept one hand in front of me, feeling for head room. I didn’t like the cold damp odor that blew past, like breath. Ryan moved in front of me, his brown bowl-cut glossy under the infrequent lights.
“Did they have any initiations here?” the guy with the cap asked. You remember—the one with all those daughters.
“What do you mean?” The ranger’s voice seemed to come from so far away. You had your fingers down my back pockets, Bennett.
“The last cave me and the family saw, that’d be down in Oregon, they told us there had been a secret organization where they blindfolded you and lowered you down through one entrance with only a box of matches, and that if you found the exit, you were accepted.”
“Tell her what they found,” one of his daughters added.
Suddenly, his voice lost its echo and became tight in my ear.
“I understand that before the government opened the caves to the public, they had to take out some bodies.”
I stopped for a moment and you kissed my ear.
“No,” I heard the ranger answer. “Nothing like that here. We could start something like that for you if you’d like.”
Everyone laughed and you laughed—were you even listening? The laughter felt its way along the walls and past me. Finally, the passage opened into the next room where lights revealed more formations. The steps and railings felt waxy from minerals. I pulled the wind breaker tighter around me. Like all the other chambers, this one was called by an innocent sounding name. You’d remember, probably. The formations weren’t described after the grotesque forms they took, but after characters in fairy tales with whom they bore only the faintest of resemblances. Even explorers name their monsters.
“How come there are no animals here?” someone asked.
“What makes you think that?” The ranger stood close to a spotlight and the yellow light shot onto her face eerily. “There are the bats,” she said. “Only females, though. They come here to raise their young. And then there are wolf spiders. They cling to the walls and jump on their prey.” She looked at Ryan. “But they don’t like kids,” she added, smiling.
“Hear that, Ryan?” you said, as we began moving again. “Don’t lose sight of her. She’s the only one knows the way out.” He didn’t know whether to smile or panic.
“That’s right,” the ranger said. “And I take twenties.”
I would have laughed, you know. I didn’t feel bitchy, just woozy. On any other day, I would have been impressed by the stalactites and stalagmites, the straw formations and the bulbous organic shapes that stone, over time, can take. But my legs felt weak. Did you know I was wondering how the man in the hat would feel if he lost a daughter? He had five, maybe six. Did you know I began to feel claustrophobic and that I thought of me and you in bed later, only because it took me, for a moment, out of that passage? I held my stomach. I lost my sense of direction. I couldn’t tell whether I walked toward the east or fumbled down dark steps toward Canada or toward Idaho. Were we in the deepest room, or did only a shallow wall stand between us and the outside? There was a natural slide at the end of the passage and I watched the people in front of me slip away, running their hands against the low ceiling as they disappeared, one after the other, down the chute.
“Let’s go,” you said.
I sat down on the smooth descent of minerals and felt your legs enclosing my own, waiting for me to move. Ryan was laughing from somewhere far away. As I descended, I thought of other rooms.
In our apartment in Richmond, the rooms are small, but at least they are well lit. I thought of the room with your bench press, rowing machine and set of free weights. Your six sets of dumbbells lined up by size, like two disassembled babushka dolls, where the crib is to go. The crib sits in that long flat box against the other wall.
Remember when the agency paid us a visit for the home study? You wanted to assemble the crib beforehand, but I told you that might make us appear too eager. So you put it together without gluing the dowels or twisting in the screws with effort, just to see how it would look. You had arrived home from the radio station before dinner and had it ready to show me when I walked in.
“That’s how it’ll look,” you said. “Don’t touch it, though, or it’ll fall apart.”
We agreed to lean the box it came in conspicuously against the wall and to move the bench press and rowing machine out of the room. But we left the other exercise equipment. That way it appeared we were both setting aside a space in our lives, but that our lives were not empty. You said it would be too much work to haul the weights back and forth.
I told Ms. Aali, from the agency, that once the adoption went through, we would move. She wasn’t impressed by that room, I could tell. She thought that joke she cracked was pretty good—about how we perhaps had to wait until solstice for a shaft of sun to enter that room.
At that time we probably could have afforded moving to a place with fewer shadows. I still had the job at the travel agency, remember. We had looked at the place with the small park, the pool and the condominiums all painted white as the sun. Within the gated community, landscaping was done with huge granite boulders set in the ground, smooth and ringed with pansies—like a sandblasted Zen garden, you said. The grass was such a deep slick green that it looked artificial, like the color grass turns a day after being sprayed by pesticides. In the park hung a tire swing with a circumference that could sit an entire family on its rim and with tread wide enough to fit several fingers in the crevices as you swung back and forth.
This was after all the visits at the agency, and the questions. Remember those? A barrage. Do you know I read your autobiographical essay? When have you ever played tennis? They wanted to know about our professions and whether we enjoyed what we were doing and how much spare time we had to do the things we wanted to do. Little, I put. Where did we see ourselves in five years? Not here. Ten years? Happy. Happier. You wrote that you were brought up liberally in a conservative family. In questions about what we each saw in the other when we first met and how long we dated before getting married, you wrote: Eyes. Eleven months. It was nine, Bennett. Those first two didn’t count. For the question about what we do when we have contrary desires, you put down that we work them out. In telling how we deal with our disagreements, I lied. I wrote that your strength is eagerness, your weakness, not being able to relax. You wrote down the words optimism and impatience. We had to do explicitly what others avoid facing for years. Ever, if they’re lucky. The experience felt like a low budget This Is Your Life without guests or audience. Just me dissecting my past. It felt as though they had the child in the next room waiting for me to answer correctly.
You never complained about the money, but imagine what we could have done with it. Especially without my job. The day the travel agency shut down, all of us liberated things from the office. The manager joined in too, because he was being cut like the rest of us by people at corp. We took pens, pen holders, blotters and reams of copy machine paper. Someone even lugged out the mini fridge and microwave from the break room and two drums of bottled water, one which burst and turned the faded carpet dark brown, like it was new. The manager stood there handing things to everyone: calculators, staplers, and gummed note pads with the company’s logo printed to look like a watermark. She was like a relative who suddenly remembered my birthday. That’s the story behind my swivel chair, Bennett. And the thousand count box of coffee filters. I also took home the plants, which would have died. “Take care of them,” the manager said. We split petty cash like it was a bonus. We took the frames off the walls and left the prints of beautiful places that had hung over us for too many days. I don’t think much was left except for the heavy desks, those fading prints of the Swiss Alps, a rain forest, a sunset in Tahiti, and brochures. So many brochures. It wasn’t as though we were looting, because these things were a part of our working days, especially those of us who needed work. We had a right to these things. Can you understand that? A right.
I climb out of the motel bed. You’re asleep. Ryan’s asleep. It’s freezing. I run my hands over the air conditioner feeling for knobs. I turn, I push. Finally, the cold air stops blowing. I climb back into bed and try to get warm. The bathroom faucet drips. The lights of a passing car reflect along the wall. I look at my hands, then close my eyes.
“If you look at the end of the beam you’ll see two lumps on a mound,” the ranger said. “See? Now look at the shadows on the wall behind them. What do the shadows look like? Anyone?”
I couldn’t help but feel this was a psychological test. I thought I saw Australia.
The ranger shook her flashlight. “The first one there, nearest the edge, that’s the wife in a wheelchair and pushing her is her husband. See? They’ve come to watch the sunset, but the husband has something else on his mind. He’s been living with her for fifty years and she’s been driving him crazy the whole time. So today, he’s thinking about ending it all. For her.”
The ranger walked to one side, causing the wheelchair in which the old woman sat to roll slowly forward.
“What should he do?” the ranger asked. The stone shadow puppets pivoted to the cliff edge.
“Push her off,” your radio voice said.
The ranger told you you were terrible, but she and everyone else laughed. It seemed we could bring up our darkest longings and sharpest fears and all would seem a joke away from the sun.
The ranger lit a candle and held it until it tapered evenly, and then she flipped a switch, snapping off the lights in the chamber. On the nearest wall, our dim shadows jumped, shimmered and popped. She blew out the candle, and you put your arms loosely around my waist. The ground felt unsteady. I could hear the cave forming itself, drop by drop.
“Ironically,” the ranger’s voice said, “If you were in this darkness for a long time, you’d go blind.”
I waved my hand in front of my face, trying to see something. The darkness was the same whether I closed my eyes or opened them. I felt my face with my hands and ran them down until I pulled Ryan tight against me. And even though I was surrounded by you, and you were kissing my neck, whispering “tonight,” I felt fear creep out of the cold air, brush my cheek, and travel coldly down my throat.
Scream. High, foreign, tunneling. I felt Ryan’s voice against my stomach, and put my hands around it, around this cry, feeling the ears it attached to, the cheeks, the lips. I clamped my hand over its open mouth, and my hand vibrated.
“Shh,” I whispered, crouching low. I touched the ground with one hand to stop the roll. “Shh.”
The ranger clicked on the lights and Ryan looked down angrily.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “What is it?”
“I’m afraid of the dark,” he said, adamantly.
“I’m sorry, Sport,” the ranger said. “Would you like to hold my other flashlight?”
Ryan took the light and we continued, the flashlights playing off the walls, finding high inaccessible rooms, pools of invisible water. Ryan, recovered, followed the ranger at the front of the group. But the claustrophobia held onto me like a blind man. You, in the back, slowed me with a hug. I could still hear the faint echo of the scream pummeling far away. I hurried forward from you. I felt it would run out of space and return.
We did not leave the cave the same way we came in. We exited a manmade shaft that bored straight and narrow to a door.
Outside, you said, “Aren’t you glad we came? Wasn’t this trip worth it? Now, let’s go back to everyone and rub it in.”
At the cave exit, I let the warmth pump from the ground and into me. Yet I could not get rid of my shiver. The landscape seemed different from that cave exit, as though we weren’t just a few hundred feet from where we entered, but on the other side of the mountain itself, or something more than that. You and me, Bennett. We’re going back as we came, is that it? It’s as though we haven’t traveled at all. We’re not someplace new, but old and suddenly, regrettably, familiar.
I look at myself. My eyes haven’t slept. I splash my face with water that hisses from the faucet white, like milk. In the mirror, I see your face aglow from the morning exercises you’re improvising. A phone book and a Gideon Bible move alternately up and down in your hands like a deliberation between getting religion or calling a plumber. Easy decisions, really, in comparison. I tell myself that what I’m doing is taking a glimpse of a possible life.
“You sure you don’t want to brush, Ryan?” I ask.
On the bed, Ryan sits Indian-style in his tiny briefs, counting off your weight lifting. A fat ream of paper sits alongside a scattering of crayons he’s neglected during the course of your workout.
He shakes his head in spastic sweeps. “Two hundred and ninety-four,” he says.
“I got the toothpaste out,” I remind him.
“After breakfast,” Ryan says.
“Two-hundred and ninety-six,” you breathe out.
I shut off the water to make myself heard. “We’re going to be driving after breakfast.”
“Two-hundred and ninety-five,” Ryan corrects you. “Now it’s two-hundred and ninety six.”
“We’re not coming back here.” I speak sweetly, but realize I’m hopeless at making yet another motel departure seem any more a reason for brushing. Any more reason to act at all. These days could go on and on as they are without the need for change or confrontation beyond the hygienic. No phone calls necessary.
“Three hundred!” Ryan says, applauding.
I look up and see you now jogging in place. Then you stand with your arms straight at your sides and the arms rise away from your body on their own, not much, but a little bit, hovering there as though you’re at a loss.
Talk to me, Bennett. Tell me life is not as it should be. Tell me there’s more.
“Look at that,” you say. “I can’t help it.”
You shake your arms like they’re loose at the joints and make that wild and flabby watery noise with your mouth, the kind found in a cartoon’s repertoire of sound effects. I listen to Ryan’s imitation of you.
“You know what time it is?” you ask Ryan.
“What?” he asks.
I try to hear your whisper.
“No!” Ryan shouts.
“Yes,” you say, scooping him up under his shoulders. His adamant refusal falls apart, like his intertwined legs, halfway in the air, and there’s only the palest hint of rebellion in his giggling. I’ll say this. You have a way with kids.
“You gotta take a shower,” you tell him. “You’re beginning to smell.”
“Are too.” You take a whiff and feign a swoon that knocks over the hair spray and sends the brush clattering into the sink.
I see the three of us in the mirror, joking and jabbing like a family portrait moments before the shutter clicks. I would like to think we have been together forever, but the two of you look slightly different in reflection, your hair is parted on the opposite side, there is a different look to your features and a crooked strangeness to your smiles.
“Okay old lady. Get out,” you say to me. “The men are commandeering the facilities.”
I give you a slap on the rear, and not nicely, either. One to remember, later, when you sit down.
You stare at me, so I smile. You point at Ryan. “You get in there.”
“But I don’t take a shower every day at home,” he whines.
“You’ll take a shower,” you say. “And when I’m done shaving, I expect some hot water left over.”
The water shoots on and I move my things aside, picking the brush from the sink to give you room to shave. I brush my hair quickly.
I don’t think I’ve seen you look so happy for a long while. Ever since we’ve been traveling with Ryan you seem a different person, more energetic. How you’re meant to be. Unlike me. How’s that for justification?
“He’s in the shower,” you say.
“You’ll make a good father.”
Our reflections look at each other. Both your hands are white with lather. “I do what I do.”
You turn to kiss me, but it’s too late for that. I pull back, but your seriousness is frightening. I smell only lime.
You push me down on the covers and I feel crayons snapping against me. My shirt is bunched beneath my armpits.
“I need a towel,” Ryan shouts from the bathroom.
“That’s not long enough,” you answer back. “You can’t wash yourself that fast. Your hair, too?”
I can’t help but smile.
What’s left of the lather is spread wide and thin across the wrinkles below your chin, like the beard of an old man. Bennett. We’re not grinning for the same reason.
“I should have paid him to take a long shower,” you say, stretching out beside me and dropping your arms over your head like you’re surrendering.
You rub the side of your finger against my cheek, lifting off lather. You pull me up off the bed. I take a white folded towel and saddle it over the shower rod for Ryan, then take my own damp one and wipe the thin fade of shaving lather from my cheeks and nose. I grasp my hair into a pony tail and let it fall. When I was young, I wondered how my face would look when I was grown up. And yet, whenever I looked at myself, it would seem that was the way I had always appeared. It’s strange that even though I am removed twice, three times, a dozen from the girl I was as a child, I don’t remember those shifts. I don’t remember ever rubbing off the past, like an old skin, don’t recall when these changes—in my attitude, my thoughts and looks—occurred, or why. Now, though, seeing the look in my face, it scares me.
I move to stand in front of the air-conditioner vents, the air cold on my legs and blowing up my T-shirt. The air catches a damp spot in the small of my back and the skin there feels weightless. In the mirror, I see you feeling your jaw for roughness.
“Why don’t you see if you can get through again?” you ask.
Ryan staggers from the muggy bathroom with the towel over his head and down to his feet, like a Halloween ghost. He feels his way around with his hands, giggling as he bumps purposely into the walls.
My eyes scan all the numbers in my phone book, because I’m not trying that same combination again. There’s the woman at the adoption agency, Ms. Aali, there’s my mother, the station, friends and relatives, names without numbers and numbers without names. I dial our apartment.
For a moment, I hear nothing. Perhaps the fuses have finally gone bad, the building has been razed to the ground by fire, or maybe there has been flooding that, being on the road as much as we’ve been, we haven’t heard about. Maybe all we own is sinking off the continental shelf to the depths of the Atlantic. These are not tragedies. I wish them. I wish to lose the apartment, the yard of weed, childlessness and humidity. I wish we could continue as we have been these past two weeks: sleeping in beds we don’t have to make, eating meals we don’t prepare on our own, seeing what’s in this country of ours, stopping at state lines to take pictures, smiling as we wait for the camera on the car roof, to click. But this is a vacationer’s life I’m talking about.
“Hello?” I say, between the rings of the phone, hearing my foreign sounding voice echo from a front of disconnection. It rings. And rings.
“Hi. It’s us. How was Italy? Oh? Yes, fine. Montana. Yes.”
You tell me to say hello, and then I hear the shower door slide closed.
Ryan pulls his towel down off his head. “Are you talking to Mom?”
“Do you want to talk to her?” I ask.
He shrugs. “I guess.”
“Here,” I say, handing him the phone.
He pulls on his underwear, then reaches for the phone.
“There’s no one there.”
“She must have hung up already,” I say, listening to the ringing. “That must be what happened.”
I hear the water spraying anew against the shower walls. Now, I think.
“Come on, get dressed,” I say.
I gather my things together quickly. My heart is beating fast and I feel ready to pee. You ask for more soap and I run to hand it to you. I can barely see straight, my heart’s so strong. This must be the way people feel, leaving burning buildings.
You’re singing, Bennett. Did you know that? You’re singing in the shower when I put on Ryan’s shoes, you’re singing when I grab the keys off the nightstand, you’re singing when I shut the door behind us and rappel down the stairs to the car.
Ryan. You take the stairs too safely.
“Hurry Ryan,” I tell you.
“Where we going?”
“We have to gas up,” I say, and you believe. I start the car. I adjust the mirrors. I pull down my sunglasses, then push them back up. Am I selfish to say I need you, Ryan? Am I selfish when I say I can’t do this alone?
We went for gas, I tell myself. I could turn around and say we went for gas. We pass the gas station. We went for doughnuts. We pass the last building of the small town and reenter the expanse of flat tan land. At the highway ramp, we pass the mustard colored sign higher than the Rockies that reads COFFEE. We are going.
“I have a surprise,” I say.
“How would you feel about being kidnapped? By me.”
You laugh. I smile. Do you know, this is the first joke between us?
We stop for breakfast. I watch you shake salt into your little palm, pressing your fingers into the crystals until they stick, then tasting.
“Know what you want?”
Your curled finger slides out with a pop and you shrug, returning the salt shaker back to the sentry of condiments gathered around the syrup, the small bowl of single-serving jam and a label-stained bottle of tabasco sauce. I don’t want to look out the window at the parking lot. If I do, I imagine I’ll see Bennett. I should have picked a drive-through.
“You can have something from the adult menu, if you like,” I tell you.
“Really?” The effect is like a sugar rush.
“Sure.” I hand you my menu. “Anything.”
Were Bennett sitting here, he wouldn’t order anything that could add fat to his frame. He’d ask for cereal, certainly, and fruit if he could get it. And an orange juice and not in any tiny glass, either, no matter what they’re charging. Bennett would remain uncompromised by the temptation of sausage links, omeletes, and plate-sized buttermilk pancakes that have followed us here. That’s determination for you. I can’t stick to that sort of thing for very long. I’ve let myself go.
“What are you going to eat?” I ask you.
“What are you going to eat?”
“Don’t go by me.”
You scrutinize the menu as though this will be the last time you will ever order breakfast. As though there can be wrong decisions in such an act.
“Are we going to Yellowstone?” you ask me.
“Do you want to?”
You shrug. If Bennett were here, he’d tell us why not to miss the hot springs.
“Let’s skip it, okay?”
“Okay,” you say.
I see the waitress making her way back to our table. “Here she comes. Have you picked one?”
“Number four,” you tell the waitress, folding your menu for her.
“Thank you, hun,” she says.
I smile at your smoothness and also because you’ve picked what I myself have in mind: the three egg omelette with hash browns and toast. Orange juice add .60.
“We’re going to see caves,” a little girl in the next booth over tells us, her pearl white teeth taking a respite from soup crackers.
“I saw it yesterday,” you say.
“Did you get to wear helmets with lights on them?” she asks.
You shake your head.
“Yesterday we saw the geezers,” she says.
The little girl’s mother laughs. “They’re geysers, Becky. Geysers.”
The mother and I smile at one another, silent ourselves, but watching you and the girl. There is something in the woman’s smile that seems reserved for mothers, and it makes me feel rich. You’re my ambassador, Ryan.
“Where you going?” the girl asks.
You shrug. “I don’t know. I’m being kidnapped.”
I feel the mother’s stare explore the possibility. But I’m good. I catch her husband’s grin and smile it into a smile.
“How do you like being kidnapped?” he asks.
Play with it, Ryan.
“It’s okay,” you answer. “I can order whatever I want.”
Everyone laughs. I should have asked for something light, cereal and an orange juice. I look for the waitress.
After breakfast we’re driving again.
“How fast do you want to go?” I ask. “We can go as fast as you want on this highway, now. They’ve changed the laws.”
“Two hundred,” you say.
I accelerate and you chant, “Faster, faster, faster,” until the engine growls a rebuke. The car feels sluggish, and then I remember the weight in back, where our things are stowed. The sleeping bags, the tent, the rain cover, the Coleman stove and lantern and the tank of propane that hissed for the first day of this trip. Bennett was the optimist. He thought camping would provide the closeness you would need, being away from your parents. But after nearly two nights without sleep, Bennett insisted we switch to motels. He is a light sleeper, although thinking of him, large and fit, you wouldn’t imagine the whine of a single mosquito or the dry drone of a passing car could rouse him.
Personally, I think the only thing worse than lugging all of that equipment around and not using it, is using it.
I move the odometer. You sit up front on two pillows I took from the motel. You page through that art book Bennett bought you. I can see a group of people on one plate and a landscape on the other. Both pictures are cut by lines and shapes, as though skewered on the lead seams of a stained-glass window. In your lap are a pile of your own drawings.
“Look at this one,” you say.
I glance, then my eyes return to wade through the yellow expanse that rises toward another ridge of the Rockies, blue in the distance. Except for a Chevy in the right lane, the road is empty. The truck’s tailgate is missing and a worn love seat is butted up against the cab. A man sits on the left side of the couch, drinking something. He spots your wave and toasts. Even though he’s slouching, the top of his head is higher than the cab and catches the wind, his hair whipping toward us like ribbons in a wind tunnel. Maybe he’s helping someone move, or looted a store in some far away riot and hasn’t stopped since.
I slow down. You hold one of your own drawings against the window for the people in the truck’s cab, a man and two women, to see. They are tanned and dressed up. Do you know it is Sunday? Your window is cracked open and whistling and the wind snaps at the sheet as though it is wax paper. The people have their windows open and their hair, too, is flying. An air freshener spins and tilts wildly from where it hangs on the stem of their rear view mirror. The driver sees your drawing, puts his cigarette in his mouth and makes an okay sign with his free hand.
Then I accelerate past them, letting the engine growl until I can see the truck in the rear view mirror. I feel the restraining weight of the camping gear and think about where we can stop to unload it and leave it.
“Let me see that one,” I say.
You hold up your drawing to me. A man is waving next to a dog with three legs. They’re both on a beach where a wave, a tsunami really, nearly touches the sun and could overtake them at any moment.
“That’s good,” I say, looking at you, then back to the road. But I feel there is something I have to add to this. Words barely assembled, and that now, if I had to test them, would fall apart at the touch.
“That’s really really good.”