A white sky opened up over a black stretch of road, mountains making a serrated blue line in the distance. Wind stirred the bare branches of trees and flattened pale winter grass. I could hear it growling outside my car. I wanted it. Wanted the sky, wanted the wind, the mountains, and the sere, frosty ground--but most of all I wanted the road. I can't explain it except to say that the road went somewhere, and it wasn't so much that I wanted to be there as it was I wanted to be going where it went.
I was coming up on my exit as the day before replayed in my head.
The office with its warm, recycled air and colorless cloth walls, the whirr of computers and the buzz of conversation, all closing in on me. It stuck to my skin. It stuck in my ears and in my throat. Sifting through the duplicate requests in my mail box, the memos and the reminder of the holiday party while I looked for fifteen minutes worth of real work. Finding it, but opening freecell instead; I sympathized too much to play Lemmings. By the end of the day I was back in high school, watching the clock and counting the minutes until I could leave without attracting attention.
I went home to my apartment, which was full of all the electronics a grown man could want. I didn't use half of them. The building, full of people I didn't know and didn't care to. I'd flipped through channels for a few hours, surfed around online, and made myself dinner before going to bed alone. Heard my neighbors through the walls as they'd talked and fucked and snored.
I clutched the steering wheel while I thought about it, mouth suddenly dry. The traffic hardly moved: standard morning gridlock. I was waiting for an opening to change lanes so I could make the turn. So far, no one would let me in. Despite the cold outside, I nearly rolled down the window and let in the fresh air I knew I wouldn't have at work. I turned off the heater instead.
Inching ahead, I watched for a gap between the cars in the right lane that I could take advantage of, but I didn't see any. They weren't leaving enough room to nose in. I glanced at the clock, and saw I wasn't running late yet. Ahead of me flashed a long red line of brakelights and blinkers.
All those people did the same as me. I could see the backs of their heads through their rear windows. They were talking on their cell phones, putting on their make up, or scowling at their mirrors. Many of them were waiting for the same break as me so they could push into the right lane and get to work.
I didn't want that, but I'd chosen it yesterday. At the time it had made sense. Now I couldn't understand why I did it. So I could keep my apartment, and my things? The only possession of mine I had any particular attachment to was my car; my hands smoothed over the wheel at the thought. So I could make more money, buy more things and move into another apartment, or a house, and get new neighbors who I wouldn't talk to? There were reasons why, I knew that there were. Lots of them, I supposed.
Right then I couldn't remember a damn one.
Tapping the steering wheel impatiently, I glanced back at the right lane, looking for the opening that would be there eventually. The row of cars was like a trail of insects, bodies shiny and dark in the winter light. A few weren't quite bumper to bumper. I could make a place, if I tried to.
I thought about opening the window again, but if I did, it would show when I got to work. It was hard enough getting my hair to conform to a professional appearance in the morning when it was still wet from the shower and willing to compromise. If I opened the window now, there'd be no way to get it back under control. I thought about pressing my face against the cool glass, but that would smudge it.
Swallowing hard, I turned on my blinker, intending to push into the right lane, intending to take my exit and negotiate the stop and go surfaces streets, and the grey cavern of the parking garage.
I couldn't do it. Maybe if there hadn't been traffic. Maybe if someone had let me in. But that wasn't worth fighting for. Suddenly the path of least resistance wasn't.
The left lane was moving. Not fast, but the cars there were leaving the city and kept a good pace. Flipping my blinker that way was almost frighteningly easy, and I think I may have sighed in relief when I did it. A moment later, I was able to switch over and get up to speed. My imagination made the purr of the BMW accelerating into an appreciative sound, as though it were pleased to be allowed some room after the press of commuters.
I stopped in the next town south to top off my gas tank, and pick up some coffee and a pecan roll. I found a Bank of America and gutted my accounts there while I was at it. With the resolution not to need either again, my phone and tie went in a trash can at the gas station. Then I was back in my car, the window opened an inch and air blowing across my face.
It was odd. I wouldn't say I was happy, because I wasn't. Not really. I'd been happy when the loan went through on my car. I wasn't scared, either, though I probably should have been. I had been scared to go to work and sit at a desk. This wasn't frightening.
I just was.
I'd chosen the hard white sky and the road.
For the moment, that was enough.
_____ _____ _____
Two days later found me pushing scrambled eggs around on my plate in a truckstop diner at four-thirty in the morning. I'd stopped because I hadn't eaten since sometime the afternoon before when I drove through a Taco Bell, but I couldn't seem to find the appetite to finish what I'd ordered. Dry toast and orange juice had cut the sausage grease in my mouth, but my stomach twisted uncomfortably. The only thing I could muster any enthusiasm for was the coffee. It tasted like battery acid, but I drank it anyway.
My eyes flicked around the diner constantly as I tried to work up the courage for a few more bites of egg. Mentally, I knew I needed food, but my body didn't seem to believe me. A sagging, middle-aged former bombshell of a waitress refilled my mug and gave me a waxy red smile that I didn't bother to return.
There was a long-haul trucker in one of the booths and a grizzly, grey bearded biker farther down the bar, both digging into their breakfasts with enviable vigor. Fluorescent lights had no mercy on them, nor the waitress and the flecked turquoise countertops. I gave up on the eggs and went for a corner of toast. That, at least, I could chew and swallow mechanically.
Outside, it was dark in a way I wasn't used to. I hadn't realized how much ambient light there was in cities. Here it was black and thick beyond the floodlights. I got the feeling it would have pressed against the windows if it could.
I sipped my coffee to clear away the taste of runny eggs and dry bread, giving up on eating any more. Not as hungry as I thought, I guessed, wanting to settle the bill and get back on the road.
While the waitress went to get my change, I scraped a hand through my hair and winced. I'd buy shampoo soon, and a toothbrush. I'd missed out on most of the niceties for the last forty-eight hours, and I felt it. I added a razor kit and a change of clothes to my mental shopping list. They probably had everything I needed at the convenience store by the pumps, but it might be cheaper to wait until I got to the next town. I weighed staying here a little longer versus getting back on the road only to stop again later.
The waitress came back with a few ones and some pennies. Looking at the small wad of cash, I wondered why I had waited. I left it all as a tip, not bothering to do the math, and walked outside.
Cold washed over me, the sort that makes the air feel very, very empty. I took a deep breath, stinging my nose and mouth. The wind blew across me and down the back of my coat, chilled my legs through my slacks. I could see into the store from where I stood. If I did my shopping here, I wouldn't have to stop later. The gas tank was full again. I didn't suspect I would want to eat again soon. But my car was more inviting than the bored man behind the counter.
It was the advertised showers that decided me. I'd get it done now and go back to driving as clean as a person could get at a truckstop.
I did my shopping in a matter of minutes: shampoo and conditioner in one, a black sweatshirt and jeans, a comb, other necessities I knew I'd need. The clerk watched at me by way of a mirror in one corner--I could feel his attention on my gritty skin and dirty hair. I didn't wonder what he saw; I just didn't like him looking. When I paid, his expression was incurious.
The shower was a shower. Soap, water--it's a pretty simple concept. This one was lukewarm, and I wished I had thought to buy flip-flops to wear in the stall. I was only too happy to keep it short. When I finished, I ripped the price tags off my new clothes and put them on. The fit wasn't perfect, but I hadn't expected it to be. I wasn't really clean when I got out, but at it was an improvement. I combed my hair, letting it fall where it wanted, shaved the patchy stubble that had grown on my chin and above my lips, then returned the shower key.
I breathed easier once I was behind the wheel of my car again. I put the key in the ignition, turned it over, and the BMW started with a comfortable thrum. Leaning back against the seat, I closed my eyes and listened to it for a long moment before turning on the lights and shifting into reverse.
Away from the lights of the truckstop, the stars were winter bright over a landscape vast, bare and gently rolling. Sagebrush made darker patches against the ground. I could smell it even without the window down. My stomach settled at the scent and with the vibration from the car. Beyond me and the car, the quiet was so complete it felt like I could hear it.
For the past two days I'd done very little but drive. I stopped for food occasionally, and to stretch my legs. I took a few naps. When I stopped, a part of me always wanted to be moving again. There was a feeling of potential when I was moving, like I might come across something worth finding over the next horizon. It was comforting, I suppose. I chose directions arbitrarily. The first day out I'd thought about buying a road map, but decided against it. Since I didn't have a particular destination, how I got there wasn't important.
Soothing is the word.
I drove the rest of the night.
When dawn was lightening the sky, I saw him. He was walking down the shoulder of the road, heading east. There was no mistaking him for a woman, despite the long braid that swayed gently in time with his steps. The shape of his shoulders under the leather jacket he wore was a man's, and the length of his strides. A duffel bag was slung over one of his arms. I wondered if he'd been walking all night, and where he'd come from if he hadn't. There hadn't been an exit for over an hour.
I got closer, and he pivoted around to walk backwards, sticking a thumb out. His head cocked, a smile flashing.
I met his smile, saw the challenge clearly in how it curved higher on one side, and passed by. Then the way was clear as far as I could see, with nothing but the road curving away toward a vanishing point.
An instant later he appeared in my rearview mirror, shaking his head resignedly and walking again. He was dusty, his face pink across the nose and cheeks from the temperature, pale otherwise.
Most people don't pick up hitchhikers. Why should they? Why should I? Good karma wasn't high on my priority lists.
Why the hell not?
The question hit me like shifting gears. I was used to justifying what I did, rather than the other way around.
But there were always reasons not to do a thing.
Well, why not?
I could think of reasons. Good reasons. It could be dangerous, for one. People got killed by hitchhikers, got their cars stolen. He could have a weapon. He could be a psychopath, or a paranoid schizophrenic, hearing voices in his head. Somehow, I doubted it. He would talk, and I enjoyed the silence. I would have to deal with another person in my space.
Were those really enough reason not to do it?
I didn't know.
So, why not?
I pulled over and waited for him to catch up. When he appeared by the passenger side window, I thumbed the button to roll it down. Studying him more closely, I asked, "How far are you going?"
"As far as you'll take me," he answered, his smile becoming a grin that creased the corners of his eyes. There was something about his face: you saw the expression first, before the lines, before the cheek bones and the tapered jaw. The grin was full and energetic, and it made him look young at the first glance. I might have said eighteen or twenty. The face, however, was older than that. Mid twenties. Possibly even older than me. His eyes were a vivid, dusky blue.
I hit another button and the lock sprang up. He opened the door and tossed his bag in the back seat, dropping into the car after it. "Thanks," he said while he put on his seatbelt.
After giving him a moment to settle, I put the car in drive and pulled back onto the deserted highway. The hitchhiker made an impressed noise as he peeled off his gloves and held his hands in front of a vent. The heat was low, the air coming out tepid, but he still winced while he flexed cold fingers. When he was done chafing the life back into his hands, he sat back, leaning into the leather with visible relish.
"I'm Duo Maxwell, by the way," he told me. His voice was rough with what might have been an accent, or grit in his throat, or just how he sounded. It made him come off just a little self-depreciating when he said his name. From the corner of my eye, I could see him studying my car's interior. "Very nice to meet you."
"Heero Yuy," I said, half-reflexively.
"Cigarette?" he offered, drawing a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes out of his pocket.
"Mind if I do?"
What did I care? Maybe I'm just not an addictive personality, because being around other people who smoke rarely makes me crave one. The BMW still smelled, anyway. I hardly noticed unless I thought about it. I popped the ashtray. "Burn the upholstery and I'll throw you in front of the next car we pass."
"Wouldn't dream of it." Glancing his way, I saw him stroke the seat cushion. His window cracked, lighter snicked twice, and he took a drag. I had to wince--Luckys weren't my brand. To put it mildly.
"Nice ride you have here," he commented after a moment of quiet. "I don't get picked up in cars like this often. Normally they see me and hit the gas. Didn't think you'd stop for minute there."
"I can imagine," I returned noncommittally.
"I think I'd have to take a loan against my soul to get a car like this." He flicked his ash out the window. "But man, it might be worth it."
I thought about saying something to that, something about the rates on souls versus signature or home equity loans and how hard it was to find someone willing to extend credit on a soul, but the words didn't pull together so I let them be, shrugging. His smile fell as he exhaled, collapsing into something older and less friendly, then his head turned away. Failing encouragement, he seemed willing to give up on conversation.
My attention drifted back to the highway. I didn't forget my passenger, but Duo was good at not being obtrusive, under the circumstances at least. When he finished his cigarette, he didn't light another. He did leave his window open, but my hair was long dry and the fresh air kept the smell of smoke from getting stale. The sun angled low over the mountain, and he put on a pair of sunglasses. I followed his lead, fishing mine out of the center console.
The broken yellow passing line sped by, keeping time. The engine hummed. Duo watched the landscape.
It wasn't what I'd call meditative, but I found myself thinking. Mostly thinking of the last two days, and wondering where they went. It didn't seem like I'd thought much while I drove. I did some of my best thinking behind the wheel, normally; whenever I was stumped on a project or relationship or anything, I'd go for a drive. Things seemed clearer then. In the past few months, it had become my cure for insomnia, too.
Since I left as I'd been moving and reacting without contemplating what I'd done.
The weight of it hit me then.
I'd left it all behind. My home, my job, my friends and family--those last probably wondering where I was, probably worrying. I could picture my mother calling yesterday evening, or my half-brother, maybe because someone from work had phoned them wondering about me. My brother had a key to my apartment. He'd go to check and find it empty, my car not in its spot.
If they hadn't called the police yet, they would soon. I'd been gone long enough already to file a missing person. They'd look for me.
I managed a little guilt for hurting them, but I didn't want to be found. I couldn't regret not taking my exit.
I'd miss things, though. I would miss my brother, even though we didn't see eye to eye on most things. He was still my brother, and he'd never cared that we had different fathers. I'd miss my mother, too. I don't think she liked me as much as she did her good son, but she did her best, and she kept her preference from showing most of the time. I respected her for that. I'd miss my friends. I wasn't as close to many of them as I had been once, but most of them weren't just the Christmas-card kind.
Other things I'd miss surprised me: happy hour at the Den, where you could get a restaurant burger with a side of sweet potato fries for less than three dollars; my bed, with the dip in the right spot; the tree outside my bedroom window; the drive through coffee stand I hit on the way to work where I didn't have to tell them what I wanted.
Could I live without those things?
Yeah, I realized. I could. Easily. But I wouldn't mind a coffee now, or my bed. My stomach rebelled at the thought of a hamburger.
"Where are you from?" I heard myself ask, saw Duo jump in his seat as he realized I was talking to him.
Speaking seemed like a cue to light up another cigarette. He pulled one out, and answered with it hanging from the corner of his lip. "Lots of places. Vegas, originally." He smiled again, but it was a different expression than before. "It's been a while since I was really from anywhere."
I nodded. It fit with him. "Do you miss it?"
"Sometimes," he allowed, flicking ash. "Not too often, though. I miss hitting the cheap buffets on the strip. There's not really much in Vegas to get attached to."
"Yeah," Duo said, laughing. The roughness really was his voice. Smoking unfiltered cigarette would do that. "The casinos make most of their money on gambling, so they can afford to sell food for cheap--not to mention, it keeps the bodies near the floor instead of wandering off to look for lunch. As long as you're careful of the shrimp, it's a good deal. A bunch of us used to go out Sundays and hit the brunch specials or the prime rib breakfasts. Sometimes we'd try to join big comp parties. Free food and liquor. It's the beauty of living there." He took a drag, blew it out through his smile. "That, and the lights."
"Think you'll go back?"
"I don't know." Then, slyly, "What about you? Will you go back?"
I thought about it, not wondering how he knew to ask.
"No," I said. "I don't plan on it."
Smiles are more mercurial than I gave them credit for. His changed again, becoming conspiratorial. We talked for a while after that. It didn't take much prompting to get Duo to carry most of the conversation--he chatted well, telling anecdotes about people he said he'd known, or things he'd heard. It was only later, after we'd fallen into a lighter silence, that I realized he never told me any more about himself.
_____ _____ _____
That afternoon, Duo dozed off. He snored softly, almost a rumble in his chest. I wished I could do the same, but even though I hadn't slept the night before, I was too wired to rest. I wondered, briefly, what I'd do about my passenger when I did stop to sleep. I didn't think I trusted him enough to nap with him there. In the end, I decided to worry about that when I really was going to sleep.
The sun turned the landscape brown where early morning had painted it grey, and the sky was a clear, biting winter blue. Both stung my eyes. Luckily, there wasn't much to see. My foot rested a little heavier on the accelerator, and the brown hills rolled by faster.
My mind wandered. After thinking about what to do about Duo while I slept, it slipped sideways into other things. Would that be me when I ran out of money? If my car broke down and I couldn't afford to fix it, would I be on the side of the road trying to hitch a ride? Or would I stay somewhere for awhile while I found the money to fix it? Would I sell the BMW and buy something that would take me that much farther?
I pictured myself walking. Just, walking. Or running. Going. How was immaterial.
An image of someplace warm flashed through my mind. Someplace lush and green, with shadows that the sun never penetrated. I was a long way from anywhere like that, which is probably why I thought of it. The cold, barren desert remained unrelieved throughout the afternoon. There were towns, but they were as interesting as road signs or names on a map. By the time the light started to fade, my aimless thoughts were hardly more than white noise in my head.
_____ _____ _____
Duo woke up in the small gap between an unspectacular sunset and full dark, and we pulled off at the next exit to pick up dinner and find a restroom. A McDonalds ended up providing both. Both restroom and food were pretty much the same as at every other McDonalds I've ever been to; the former clean, white tiled and smelling of disinfectant, and the latter, more or less edible. I ordered the same thing I always had. Duo paid, claiming it was his way of thanking me for the ride.
I told him he didn't have to, which was, he said, what made it so damn nice of him. I couldn't argue with that.
When I got to the little plastic booth and looked down at my little plastic tray, my stomach did a peculiar flip flop. The large fries alone looked like too much, Quarter Pounder aside. I had no idea how I was going to eat it all.
Duo set his tray across from mine, pulled off his leather jacket, and sat down. He shot me half a grin while he unwrapped his chicken sandwich. "You must be hungry if you drove all day," he said.
I grunted neutrally. I should be hungry; I wasn't. I pulled the paper off my burger with fingers that shook from fatigue, but I wasn't particularly sleepy, either.
"You're sure not digging in like someone who hasn't eaten in like twelve hours." I started to say something to that, but he overrode me, "It's okay. MikkyD's isn't exactly something that inspires a guy to eat with gusto."
"Something like that," I agreed, taking a drink of my cola. Then I arched an eyebrow. "Gusto?"
Duo rolled his eyes and ignored me for a moment in favor of his sandwich. Trying to eat a few fries, I let my eyes drift down to my food again. There was definitely too much. I shouldn't have bothered getting the meal. The fries tasted like salt and grease. Looking away in disgust, I caught sight of a brown line peaking between the Duo's cuff and his watchband.
He caught me looking and smirked. Setting aside his sandwich, Duo rolled up first one sleeve and then the other. I blinked. Both arms were tattooed. On the right, tribal patterns banded half his forearm, changing to a collage of random images that disappeared under his sleeve. I saw a cross, and what looked like a hand of playing cards. The other arm wasn't as full, the inked lines trailing off before his elbow, uncolored.
"They're still in progress," Duo explained. "I get more done when I have the money. I have to get this bastard finished next." He pointed to a snake on the inside of his left arm, tied in a knot and swallowing its own tail. "After that, I think I'm adding a crow. I have an idea, and if I can find a good artist to draw it up for me, then I think it might be pretty cool."
The longer I looked, to more components picked themselves out of the general chaos. There were faces. There were animals, and vines, and there were abstract shapes. Following the lines was dizzying, like looking at a tapestry without any sense of perspective. Foreground and back mingled in something that confused the eye. The cross on his right was actually a rosary, and the beads wove through a sweep of naked thorns that wound around his elbow.
"How long have you been working on it?" I heard myself ask. The cards weren't a poker deck; they were tarot. I only recognized the Fool because of an ex-girlfriend. She experimented with them for awhile, and it always amused her how often that card came up for me. I broke up with her not long after that.
"I don't know." He pointed at the knotted bands. "I got these three or four years ago, when I was dealing at the Luxor. It hasn't been a constant thing, just whenever I have money and inspiration."
"You worked at the Luxor?
"Yeah," Duo answered, and I wondered if I'd made a mistake pursuing that. His face closed in on itself, blue eyes opaque. "I dealt blackjack at a medium stakes table. It didn't feel like it was going anywhere though, so it was hard to work up much energy for it after a while. I guess it wasn't my calling."
"There are people who have a calling to deal blackjack?" I asked, having trouble picturing it. If someone dropped out of school to work in a casino, no one I knew would think of them as following a dream.
He picked up his chicken sandwich again. "You'd be surprised. Some people really get off on it. But, you have to really like working with people."
"You don't?" Probably another mistake, yet he had answered my other questions.
Shrugging, Duo said, "Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. Not all the time, everyday, everyone. I started getting a little crazy."
I inferred, "So you decided to get a tattoo?"
"Oh, I was thinking about that for a while. What decided me though was this friend of mine." His smile widened mischievously. "She asked me how I could do that to myself, my body is a temple and all that shit."
"I don't follow," I said, after thinking about it for a moment.
"Oh, I got all piqued and thought, so is the Sistine Chapel, and the Catholics hired someone to draw on it. That decided me."
"You got your first tattoo to annoy a friend of yours?"
"It sounds so childish when you say it that way," he replied wryly. "But I found out I liked it." His fingers moved over the patterns on his wrist.
I watched as he stretched his skin a little; then he pushed his sleeves back down and returned to his chicken sandwich. I realized I hadn't eaten since we started talking. Grabbing my burger, I forced myself to take a bite, chew, and swallow it. It went down in a thick, uncomfortable lump. I could feel the weight in my stomach.
Duo declined when I offered him some of my fries, and I shrugged.
"So what about you? You never thought about getting a tattoo or a piercing or something? Just for a change of pace."
His question surprised me, falling in what had felt like it would become an awkward silence while we finished our meal. I didn't mind the distraction, though. After a moment of thought, I answered honestly. "No. I never thought about that."
"Something, though?" He prompted, leaning back in his chair. His gaze was half-hooded, like he knew something I didn't.
"That's normal," I told him, and my eyes cut out the window pointedly at my sedan. It was black and shiny in parking lot.
Duo snickered. "The car?"
I didn't bother nodding when the answer should be obvious. "It was a compromise. I was thinking of getting something a little different originally."
"Sportier?" he suggested.
I shrugged. "Something like that, maybe."
He flashed me a harsh grin. "You should have gone for nipple rings. They're cheaper, and you don't have to insure them."
I blinked. There was a note in his voice that was half teasing, but bitter.
"That it?" He pressed after a moment.
Shrugging, I told him, "I thought about doing a lot of things: traveling, getting a fast car, finding a new girlfriend. I don't know exactly what you're asking."
"You answered it anyway, so don't worry," he said as he tossed aside the last bites of his sandwich and picked up his tray.
"I wasn't," I replied, following.
_____ _____ _____
In the end, what to do with Duo while I took a nap wasn't an issue. He suggested a solution before I even decided that the hours since I'd last slept had caught up with me. "You look about ready to pass out," he told me in the parking lot of the McDonalds, then suggested stopping at a rest area up the road a little way. If it was okay with me, he'd meet me there in a few hours. He had a couple things he wanted to get done while he was in a town, he said. If not, then thanks again for the ride.
It sounded reasonable enough to me; I shrugged and told him that it was fine as long as he made it to the rest area before I left. I wouldn't wait for him.
He agreed, smiling another of his strangely mutable smiles. "Perfect," he said, "I'll be there before you leave."
I nodded, got into my car, and left him in the parking lot.
The drive to the rest stop was one of those dangerous ones you don't remember afterwards. I remember pulling out of the parking lot and turning onto the street, I remember the headlights of on coming traffic, and waiting for a couple cars to pass. Then I remember splashing cold water on my face at the rest area sink. I think at the time, I could recall the short transit in between, but I don't now.
Running wet hands through my hair, I saw my face in the mirror and resolved to go get some sleep. Bloodshot and blurry, my eyes agreed with me. I brushed my teeth, glad to get the taste of McDonalds out of my mouth. The mint toothpaste left my tongue feeling rough.
I wondered if I was getting sick, but pushed the thought aside. I was too tired to even do the math and figure out how many hours of sleep I'd gotten in the last three days or so. Even before I drove off, my sleep had been suffering.
And I wasn't eating--probably because I was tired.
That made enough sense to shut up the small part of my mind that was worried, so I decided to believe it for the moment.
After cleaning up a bit, I went back to my car. The seat tilted back far enough to allow me to recline. I couldn't lay down, but it would work for tonight. It seemed like no sooner had I leaned back that I fell directly asleep.
And straight into a vague dream.
It started with heat. I was somewhere warm. For an interminable while, that was all. Then I became more aware--I felt my clothes sticking to me, a movement of air that wasn't cool and couldn't be called a breeze. I was on my back, ground hard underneath me, looking up. My eyes were open, but I couldn't see anything. Either it was dark, or I was blind.
I felt the heat clinging to the short hairs on my body, weighing them down so they stuck to my skin.
My lungs struggled with the humidity, and I panted raggedly.
I heard something. I'm not sure what. My own heartbeat. Rattling leaves. Birds. Water. I heard someone else, their breathing, their pulse, the murmurs of their body, close to mine.
The taste in my mouth was bitterly metallic.
I don't know what I smelled, but something. Too much to sort.
Then I was feeling again.
The sensations couldn't all come at once. They shuffled weirdly through my head, one or two, or three at a time.
When I finally got to see, I didn't know what I saw. Textured darkness over my head. Moonlight, maybe. I could still hear water.
Turning sideways, I arched my neck...
I was panting...
There was a hand braced beside my head, long, capable fingers digging into the ground.
And tattoos circled up the forearm in half-obscured tribal patterns.
I gasped, and the sensations grabbed me, poured over and through me, too much at once. A frisson circuited the length of my spine. Sweat beaded on my brow. A body over mine, pressing down on me. The air too wet to breath as I struggled not to hyperventilate.
My stomach clenched and rolled.
I came awake groping at the door, pushing out of my seat. The door opened jerkily when I finally found the handle. I spilled unceremoniously onto the asphalt on hands and knees. Shaking off the last jumbled fragments of my dream, I pushed upright and stumbled toward the toilets.
I got as far as the grass before I started retching. It felt like something vital was trying to work its way up my throat. Tears squeezed out of the corners of my eyes as I coughed. I didn't make it to the bathroom.
For some minutes I knelt there and brought up my dinner and more, dry heaving after there was nothing left in my stomach. Acid burned in my throat and my nose. Even when I was finished, I stayed on my knees in the grass for a long while, just shaking. It was cold, I realized. The winter air, nearly freezing, chilled the feverish sweat on my skin. It felt good, though. My dream was still with me under the skin, uncomfortably hot.
_____ _____ _____
"There's no nice way to tell you this, buddy," Duo said, when he found me sitting on the curb beside my car. "But you look like warm shit."
"Thanks," I said, rolling my eyes up to look at him. In the dark, he looked pale. "I feel like warm shit."
"You want to get going, or are you cool sitting on the ground a while longer?"
I sighed and hauled myself to my feet, frowning. I opened the car door, slid into the seat and brought it back upright. Then I unlocked the passenger door. I assumed that this answered his question.
It was still hours away from being light, and I actually felt a bit better. The heat had finally dispersed in the predawn cold, and my mind was clearer for being free of it. However it ended, the nap had done me some good. The sleepy weight was mostly gone, replaced by a more manageable sting behind my eyes and an ache in my temples. I was ready to go.
In fact, I'd been ready to go for awhile, that itch to move back between my shoulder blades and in the palms of my hands. Apparently, I had lied when I said I wouldn't wait for Duo, though.
And I thought about my dream, and seeing his tattoos marking the otherwise unidentifiable body above mine. I was tempted to look when he sat down and lit a cigarette. Instead, I started the car and got back on the road.
Duo's Lucky burnt down slowly. He played with it more than anything, and I remembered that kind of smoking--lighting a cigarette just so you could have something in your hands. Neither of us spoke while I found the quickest route back to the freeway. Once back on the wide, empty road, I felt some of the tension ease out of my shoulders.
I didn't find the silence between us awkward, which is rare. Normally when two people who don't know each other well are together in a confined environment other than an elevator, the lack of conversation makes a hole. The day before, Duo had talked. Today he didn't seem to feel the need. We were some miles down the road when he asked if I minded him turning on the radio.
I shrugged. "If you want."
He flicked the remains of his cigarette out the window, then turned on the radio. Static came out of the speakers. Duo turned the stereo down, wincing. The first station he found was country. The singer didn't get out two full words before the twang in his vocals made it clear what kind of music it was. Next was talk, then some nice, non-offensive oldies. Duo made dissatisfied noises at each before changing the station.
"Why is this always what you get outside of town?" he asked rhetorically, and changed the station again.
After searching up and down, Duo found something he seemed able to deal with. I didn't recognize the song; it was something darkly electronic and slinky. I shot a glance at him as he lit another cigarette. Leaning back in his seat, his attention was fixed outside the window. The sky was lightening to a deep, true blue, the flat ground greyer beneath it. Scrawny bushes made silhouettes against the vivid sky. The song played out and was replaced by another. I thought I knew the voice, but I couldn't place the track. Other than tapping his fingers in time against his jeans, there was no hint as to whether Duo enjoyed the music or not.
"So," he asked after another song or two, after his second cigarette had burnt out, "did you get any sleep at all?"
"Not as much as you'd like, though?"
Thinking of my dream, I wasn't sure. The heat of it flashed in my memory, and suddenly I felt like I might start sweating despite the car's cold interior. I opened the window, felt cool air and smelled sage. The sensation was very real by comparison, but also pale. I shrugged, realizing I hadn't answered, and he didn't press the issue.
At five in the morning, the obligatory morning show came of the radio. It started with a local disk jockey reading the news; Duo groaned at shut the stereo off, returning us to our almost-comfortable silence.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully.
Sometimes we talked, but for the most part, we both seemed willing to keep to our own thoughts. My mind wandered, and I thought my conscience was starting to get to me, because at one point I was attacked by the sense that there was something I ought to be thinking about, doing, maybe somewhere I should be going instead of drifting through saltflats and broken hills. I thought about calling my brother--I couldn't find the inclination to talk to anyone else--but dismissed the idea. Whatever was nagging at me, that wasn't it.
We only stopped once during the day, to fill up the gas tank and get lunch in a tiny town sprouting up on the side of the freeway. I apologized to Duo for not thinking about breakfast, but he shrugged it off. "It's not my favorite meal, anyway," he said, stirring his chili.
Learning from yesterday, I'd ordered ham on white and a bottle of water. It went down easier than the Quarter Pounder had, and I hoped it would stay down. I wasn't queasy, at least, which I took for a good sign. I still ate slowly.
Before long we were moving again, both happier for it. I relaxed behind the wheel. Duo smoked another cigarette. The car already smelled like I'd never quit, but I didn't particularly care. I didn't have a hard time ignoring it. When he finished, he pulled off his coat, and I watched, baffled, as he pushed up his left sleeve, revealing tattooed skin and a bandage. Fluid had seeped into the gauze, more yellow than red. The tape peeled off with a hiss.
"What do you think?" he asked while he fumbled one handed through his duffel bag.
The snake tattoo was no longer just a black outline. It was colored in red and grey and yellow. The skin around it was puffy and irritated. My attention traveled down his forearm and back up, and I wondered if the coiled images really matched those in my dream. Had I remembered them right? Was I sure it was his arm at all? It seemed likely that seeing his tattoos had inspired it, but the person above me in my dream could have been almost anyone. I hadn't seen a face or heard a voice.
"Ah-ha!" Duo noised triumphantly and pulled out a tube of lotion, which he opened and smoothed liberally over his newly inked arm. Then he turned back to me. "Well? You didn't say what you thought of it."
I could smell the lotion, faintly antiseptic. I recognized the hand, now that I looked, the square palm and long fingers. Shaking off my thoughts, I made myself hear what he said. "It looks good," I told him lamely. "It'll look better when it fades a little more, so it matches the rest of them."
He smiled, satisfied. "Yeah. It's not my best, I think, but it's up there. I'm pretty happy with it."
"I guess that's what's important."
Duo nodded his agreement. "It shows that you have good taste if you agree with me though."
I'd never seen a tattoo this fresh before, and I took my eyes away from the road to look a second time. Noting once again the angry red around the fresh ink, I found myself asking, "Does it hurt?"
"Could be worse," Duo said, shrugging. "It doesn't hurt as much as, say, half a blowjob."
Conversation petered out after that. The afternoon was a long, slow fading affair. I hardly noticed it was getting dark until someone flashed their headlights, reminding me to turn mine on. The grey sky turned blue, then purple, staining the ground with colors it didn't normally have. I was tired and sore from driving, and I contemplated finding somewhere to stop and stretch when I realized that what I really wanted was a bed. Every part of my body ached to lie down.
Realizing it seemed to make the weight of how tired I was all the more real. I itched with it. Things that weren't there crawled through the edges of my vision; I blinked and refused to look toward them.
It didn't take much consideration to decide that I needed to find a hotel and get a real night of sleep. I found a place with neon signs advertising a cable tv in every room and a pool. I only really cared about "vacancy."
When I parked, Duo gave me a questioning look. I turned off the car and took the key out of the ignition. The night before I'd wondered what I'd do with him while I slept, but today I didn't give a shit what he did as long as I got some rest.
"If you can't help pay for a double, you can sleep on the floor," I told him, and got out of the car. He grabbed his duffel and followed me. I did have enough presence of mind to set the car alarm, of which I am rather proud. Standing, the world tilted to the left instead of remaining flat.
There was a woman behind the front counter watching a small television. She looked at the two of us, and I glanced back at Duo.
"Single or double?" She asked indifferently.
"Double," Duo said, and his wallet appeared in his hand as though by magic.
The woman quoted a price which we split and paid, and gave us a pair of keys to room twenty-eight. I took the keys, tossed Duo his, and went to find the stairs. She yelled something after us about check out times. Maybe Duo caught what it was. I know I didn't, and didn't particularly care.
A moment later, I unlocked the door and stepped into a dingy, bleach yellow room. I looked it over, taking a cursory inventory. Two beds--the most important thing to me--with a nightstand in between them; dresser against the opposite wall, a television and phone on top; thick brown curtains covered the only window.
"Not quite the Belagio," Duo commented from behind me, and I heard his bag land on the floor. The door shut, and locked behind us.
I grunted. It was the most intelligent response I could muster just then.
Within minutes I was in bed, tucked between cool, impersonal sheets. I could hear Duo as he took a shower: water hissing out of the head and hitting skin, beating against the plastic curtain. The sound followed me into sleep.