Friday
Dec062013

Gateway to Paradise

Matthew Vollmer


 

"I thought he wasn't supposed to be home," Jaybird said. He squeezed the steering wheel with both hands and eyeballed the minivan parked in front of a faded pink singlewide. If Gene Holcomb had blown any of his winnings, he'd surely not spent a dime updating his mode of transportation. The van's hubcaps were gone. The busted passenger side window had been replaced with a garbage bag. The plastic bulged like a damaged lung taking in air. 

"He claimed he had prayer meeting at seven," Riley said. 

It was half past seven now.

Jaybird directed a dark string of drool into a ribbed bottle. He stomped a pedal to engage the parking brake, killed the engine.

"Guess a man like him can't be trusted," he said.

"He ain't all bad," Riley replied. She rubbed her palms on her jeans, fanned air through her shirt. A frigid stream blew through the truck's vents. Still, she was sweating.

"The hell he ain't," Jaybird muttered.

Rain splatted briefly against the windshield, as though something high above had spat on them. With a thumb and forefinger, Jaybird squeezed his nostrils shut, then attempted to suck air through his nose, forcing the holes closed. It was something he did now and again. Said it helped him clear his head.

"We could come back later," Riley suggested.   

"I don't know," Jaybird said. "We've already gone to all this trouble." He tossed a pair of gardening gloves—the undersides dotted with tiny rubber circles, to help the wearer better grip their chosen tool—onto Riley's lap, then stretched a ski mask over his head.

 

 

Uncle Gene wasn't Riley's uncle; he was her second cousin once removed, thirty-eight years her senior. Years before, Riley's mother had been hospitalized for a kidney ailment, and Riley had spent a week under the care of Aunt Wanda and Uncle Gene. They'd let Riley skip her bath and use real scissors to cut up the funny pages. They'd let her dip Twinkies in chocolate milk and eat baloney sandwiches on white bread. One night, after Aunt Wanda fell asleep in her La-Z-Boy, Uncle Gene rattled a box of Nilla wafers and asked if Riley didn't want to come sit on his lap. While she stuffed wafers into her mouth, Uncle Gene used his knee, and later a hand, to give her what she'd come to think of—for whatever reasons—as a "massage." It'd made Riley feel funny, but not bad—at least not until years later, when she'd confessed what had happened and been told that it should. By that point, Aunt Wanda had left Uncle Gene for a retarded boy from Hanging Dog and Uncle Gene had fallen off everybody's radar. That is, until he'd gotten lucky, and his numbers won the Georgia Powerball.

 

 

The handle refused to turn. Jaybird kicked the door twice with the heel of his boot. The aluminum dented and the door swung open. A walleyed Chihuahua mix ran in circles, yapping. It resembled a toy in the throes of malfunction.

Uncle Gene, wearing skivvies and an unsnapped cowboy shirt, gripped the arms of his recliner as if preparing for liftoff. He'd aged since Riley'd last seen him. His nose was threaded with broken blood vessels. Grayish splotches appeared on his forehead. He'd dyed his beard black. His bare legs looked pathetically skinny, sprigs of hair appearing around his kneecaps like little strings of plant life.

"Don't get up," Jaybird said. He pointed a .38 at Gene. "In fact, don't move."

Uncle Gene obeyed. On his lap rested a silver mixing bowl that contained a fresh hot fudge sundae, complete with a mountain of Reddi-wip and a maraschino cherry. The whipped cream shivered. The room flickered with light. A TV displayed a white-haired woman smiling serenely while riding a bicycle. A voiceover listed the side effects of a mood-altering pharmaceutical, the majority of which were drowned out by Uncle Gene's dog.

Jaybird's job was to point the gun at Uncle Gene. Riley's? To locate the money. If she couldn't find it within ten minutes, they'd split. In situations like this, Jaybird had said, one shouldn't linger. At least, that was his sense of it, and Riley had deferred to his intuition. Aside from snitching the occasional grape in the grocery store, she'd never stolen anything, though she'd inadvertently served as an accessory on several occasions, having accompanied Tyra Needles—a girl who'd since been saved at Grace Baptist—when she'd exited Walmart with an armful of CDs, and had been rolling in the same girl's Maxima when she'd peeled rubber out of an Amoco station without paying for gas. 

Riley and Jaybird had agreed there was no need to tear the place apart. With this in mind, she removed—then replaced—Uncle Gene's couch cushions one at a time. She found popcorn shards, a few pennies, a pencil worn down to its nub, and a miniature plastic steak that wheezed when she squeezed it. She tossed the steak in the general direction of the dog, who yelped, jumped backwards, then cautiously approached it, sniffing.

"If y'all tell me what you're looking for," Gene said, his voice rasping.

"Are you fucking crazy!" Jaybird cocked the gun, stepped toward his target. "Flinch and I'll blast your lungs out!"

"Jesus," Riley whispered.

"Shut up!" Jaybird yelled. He pointed a finger at Riley.

"Can you like, chill?"

"Can you not tell me how to do my job?"

"If you don't freak out I can."

"I'm not freaking out."

"Whatever," Riley said.

 

 

Nothing in the wood stove but ashes, a charred log, and a pile of cigarette butts. Nothing in the bookcase but crossword puzzle workbooks and a framed photograph of Dolly Parton signed, "To Gene, with Love, Dolly." Nothing in the closet but a push vacuum, half a dozen flannel shirts, and a forlorn-looking Falcons parka.

In Uncle Gene's bedroom, Riley slid the mask onto her forehead, desperate for fresh air. Only the air wasn't fresh. It smelled like dog piss and old shoes. She breathed through her mouth as she opened drawers, dug through piles of yellowed tube socks and Fruit of the Looms and T-shirts bearing Atlanta Braves insignias. She spotted a thick Bible sitting on a bedside table, next to a lamp in the shape of a deer. Imagining that the middle of the book might've been cut out so its user could stow treasure inside, she opened it. The book was intact. Pages had been marked up, passages highlighted. On page 778, she read a sentence a shaky hand had blazed yellow: "A sword, a sword, drawn for the slaughter, polished to consume and to flash like lightning!" She dropped to the floor, flipped open her phone and aimed its light under the bed. Half crushed soda cans, dust bunnies, a crumpled tissue, and a little pamphlet that asked, "Are Roman Catholics Christians?"

She donned her mask. She hadn't known that Uncle Gene was religious. She wondered what prayers he might, even now, be lifting to heaven.

 

 

In the freezer, nestled between a box of fish sticks and a tub of Rocky Road, Riley found a plastic bag, upon which the words True Value had been printed. Inside, there were three stacks of bills in a vacuum-sealed pouch. She opened her phone, checked the time. Seven minutes and 31 seconds had elapsed. She unzipped her hoodie, stuffed the bag inside. It was cold there, against her stomach, which, as soon as she re-zipped, began to growl. She glanced around the kitchen. An outdated wall calendar showed a photo of a hound dog wearing sunglasses. Above the sink, gnats pulsed in the air. An open carton of eggs sweated beneath the stove light. She stuck a finger inside a jar of marshmallow fluff, swiped a glob into her mouth.

From the living room, Jaybird yelled a single word: "Motherfucker!"

A pop sounded.

Riley froze. "What was that?"

"He moved," Jaybird called out.

"And then what?" she said. She stood perfectly still, as if Uncle Gene's welfare depended on it.

"I pulled the trigger."

"But you didn't shoot him, though. Right?"

"Well," Jaybird said, "he didn't shoot himself."

Riley dropped the jar. It rolled across the linoleum.

Jaybird met her at the doorway. "You might not wanna go in there," he said. His eyes bulged inside the ski mask.

"Let go," Riley said, twisting her arm from his grasp.

"Suit yourself."

Riley slid her mask back on. She walked toward Uncle Gene's chair. The dog was going bananas. Streams of blood—thick and arterial—trickled from Uncle's Gene's mouth and nose. A hand twitched near the wound in his chest. His lips made an O-shape, as if attempting to pronounce a word that started with the letter W. His eyes did not blink. The dog sniffed the man's foot, lifted a trembling leg and discharged a squirt of urine. Smoke-tendrils dispersed through the air. On the wall, the second hand on a slab of wood continued its rotations.

"He ain't suffering," Jaybird said.

"He's bleeding from his fucking mouth!"

"That's just the lungs filling with blood, then sending it up and out."

"Just?"

"Side effect of getting shot in the heart."

"This is so fucked," Riley said. She patted the legs of her jeans, trying to locate her phone. "I'm calling 911."

"Be my guest," Jaybird said. "While you're at it, call the cops, too. And the humane society. This little piece of shit's gonna need a new home."

 

 

Jaybird had never robbed anybody before. In the case of Gene Holcomb, though, it seemed pretty straightforward. If it was true what people said—that the man cashed a good portion of his lottery checks and hid the money somewhere in his trailer—they'd just figure out when he wasn't around, break in, and take a little bit for themselves. He had more than he knew what to do with already, and he had more checks coming. So it wouldn't be like they'd be putting any kind of actual hurt on him. Plus, from Jaybird's perspective, Uncle Gene owed Riley reparations for the undue psychological stress he had inflicted upon her at a young age.

"That's not how I'd put it," Riley had said.

"Of course not," Jaybird had replied. "Who wants to think of themselves as a victim? You've probably spent your whole life repressing that stuff. Now you've got a chance to reclaim some power."

Though Riley hadn't been completely sold on the idea, she had no doubts that Jaybird could engineer a successful heist. In the six months that she'd been going with him, she'd seen him replace a carburetor, brew his own beer, cook French fries on a stovetop, and make a goatskin drum. He grew his own marijuana—he showed her a single sparkling stalk he'd planted on a bank of weedy plants behind the cabinet shop where he worked—and cured it in his attic. He could predict the intensity of thunderstorms by observing leaves in wind. He'd conceived—simply by thinking about it—a recipe for apple butter. He'd convinced Riley that contraception was a conspiracy concocted by capitalist society, as evidenced by its insistence on selling you rubbers that'd numb your dick and pills that'd give you titty cancer. Furthermore, he'd promised that if they avoided each other on the days she ovulated, they'd be good to go. And they had been.

 

 

Riley lifted a vinyl-covered toilet seat with her foot then vomited into the bowl. She studied the cloudy liquid as if it might deliver a message. Her forehead was sweaty; she dabbed it with a square of toilet paper. Uncle Gene had picked out this paper from all the others, had taken care to place it on the roller. Surely, he had not thought it'd be the last time he ever did.

The truth was this: Uncle Gene had always been nice. He'd always chatted at the grocery store or post office, and his answer to "what've you been up to" had always been "not a whole lot." Riley had harbored no ill will, and whenever she thought back to that night when she'd sat on his knee in front of Love Boat, she thought maybe she'd just been mixed up. If anything, she'd felt sorry for him. After all, Aunt Wanda had left Gene for a retarded boy, one—according to Gene—who'd refused to speak to him or answer his calls. Gene had been so grief-stricken that, in order to get her attention, he'd run the front of his van through a plate glass window at the State Farm building where she worked. For that, he'd served six months in the county jail.   

"What are we gonna do now?" she asked Jaybird. He'd fixed himself a sandwich—Hershey's syrup and marshmallow fluff between two slabs of Sunbeam bread—and was now eating it, though somewhat awkwardly, as he was still wearing his gloves. Riley noted a constellation of tiny red blotches on his shirt, as if the fabric had broken out into hives.

"I thought we'd hang out here a while," he said, wiping his mouth with a paper towel. "You know. Sorta get away from it all."

"Seriously."

"Seriously? We're gonna stick with the plan."

"But what about . . . him?"

"What about him?"

"I dunno, Jay. It's not like I've ever been in this situation before."

Jaybird stuffed the rest of the sandwich into his mouth and chewed, cheeks bulging. Then he retrieved a cup—a plastic goblet embossed with five interlocking rings commemorating the 1996 Olympics—and poured himself some milk, which he guzzled loudly. Then he rinsed the cup in the sink, set it on the drying rack, and said, "I say we just leave him the way he is."

 

 

It'd been Jaybird's idea to tell people they were leaving town the day before—that way they'd have an alibi. They'd driven to Waynesville, rented a Ford Escort, checked into a Knight's Inn, gotten up the next morning and drove the rental (to ensure they wouldn't be recognized) to Uncle Gene's. Now, they were headed back to exchange vehicles. After that, they were headed north, to Maine, where Jaybird's cousin's girlfriend's dad owned a seaside restaurant, and had promised them work. If they liked it there, who knows? Maybe they would stay. 

The problem with departures, Riley thought, was that somebody got left behind. In this case, it was her mom. The woman was almost blind, even with her glasses. Her disability check came and she tended to the plastic flowers in the gravel orbiting the duplex and smoked Mistys and waited for the mail and waved to passersby. In the evenings, she sat in front of the TV with a magnifying glass and shouted letters at Wheel of Fortune. Why oh why would anyone ever buy a vowel? She—Riley's mother—was sure there was some sort of vowel-buying conspiracy afoot. She supposed that Pat Sajak—who she did not deem trustworthy—supplied backstage instructions, informed each contestant that they had to buy at least one vowel or they—the show's producers, that is—would rig the wheel to deliver a bankrupt. Pat Sajak, it was well known, was short in real life. Riley's mother did not deal well with short men.

"Please tell me you're going somewhere warm," Riley's mother had said, when Riley'd told her about the trip. The woman had her feet in an Aqua Jet Foot Spa and was flipping through a three-week old issue of People, which featured a retrospective about the demise of a once-beloved R&B singer. "You could use some sun."

"We're going to Maine," Riley said.

"Huh." Her mother licked a finger and flipped a page. "Never been to Maine myself," she added. As if—Riley'd thought—her mother had been anywhere.

"We'll bring you back something nice," Jaybird said. He bent to kiss Riley's mom's forehead. In return, the woman made a smooching sound. She was not a person who kissed back.

"How long y'all expect to be gone?"

"Depends," Riley said.

"Well, make sure you come back before Thanksgiving. Do you have any idea how much snow they get up there?"

Until recently, Riley had known nothing about Maine. The state had simply been the head of the fat dragon shape of America. A puzzle piece bearing the image of a lobster and a moose, a library book with a rotten spine, whose pages told the story of a blueberry-eating bear. A vacationland that nobody she knew had ever visited. Maine's name seemed to betray itself. It was not central. As the country's northernmost state on its eastern side, it could be said to stand at something of a remove. Maybe, Riley had thought, Maine was the place to be.

 

 

"I lied," Jaybird said. They were in the rental, headed to the motel. A bug hit the windshield, left an incandescent smudge. Jaybird—ever fastidious—flicked the turn signal forward and back. A stream of fluid spurted against the glass. The wipers half-erased the smear.

"About what?" Riley said.

"Uncle Gene," Jaybird replied. "He didn't move. Sat there still as a snake."

"Then why the hell'd you shoot him?!"

"I didn't like the way he looked."

"How'd he look?"

"Like somebody who'd diddle his own blood relative and thought he could live to tell about it." 

Riley felt like it was her job to be astounded or disappointed or depressed. But she didn't feel any of these things. She felt sleepy and itchy. Before they'd left the house, she'd re-visited the bathroom and chugged half a bottle of prescription cough syrup from Gene's medicine cabinet. Now, she couldn't feel her head, but her underarms were prickling like she'd walked through a field of chiggers.

"So," she said, "you shot him for nothing?"

"Putting him out of somebody else's misery's not nothing."

"That makes us murderers," Riley said.

"I wouldn't put it that way."

"What way would you put it?"

"Not everything needs a name," Jaybird said. He lifted a bottle to his mouth and spat.

Riley leaned her head against the window. She didn't notice that four lanes had melted to two. Didn't read the sign across from the First Baptist Church that asked viewers where they would spend eternity. Didn't see the row of brick ranch houses or the trout pond or the self-storage facility or the cinderblock building that claimed to sell all manner of lawn ornaments. Did not read the sign with two speech bubbles, one saying, "Dear God please send us someone to cure cancer, AIDS, etc." and the other replying, "I did but you aborted them."

"You could've at least given me more time to find the money," she said.

"I bet that old screwball buried it," Jaybird said. "If we'd stayed a week we probably wouldn'ta found it."

Riley's eyes were closed. The moneybag had made her hoodie damp, but it'd absorbed enough warmth from her body so that it was no longer cold. She pressed it hard against her stomach. Hugged it tight as she could, until her arms began to vibrate and her face shook. Until Jaybird said that he didn't know what the fuck she was doing, but she'd better cut it out.

 

 

Riley hadn't always liked Jaybird. When she'd cashiered at McDonald's, he'd come in and order a number nine, minus tartar sauce, with a Diet Coke and fries without salt, which would mean she'd have to start a new batch, even if there was a pile sitting right there, hot as a heap of coals. It'd been annoying at first, a superfluous ritual she'd performed for a guy who didn't even say thank you. One day, right after he'd received his unsalted fries, she'd ventured into the dining room to wipe down tables, and discovered him at a booth by himself. He had little pleated paper cups into which he'd squirted mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup. He picked up a single fry, salted it, then dunked it into each one. There was a maddening order to this approach. Riley could barely stand to watch it.

"I don't get it," she'd said. "You ask for fries without salt, then you salt them."

He aimed a heavy-lidded gaze directly at her. "I like 'em fresh."

"Seriously?"

He shrugged. "No. I just get a kick out of watching you make them."

"Kiss my ass."

"You'd like that."

She slung her rag at him. It slapped him in the face. "I wouldn't touch you to save my life," she said.

He peeled the rag from his forehead, dropped it on the floor, and resumed eating. "Then I hope it never comes to that," he said, grinning.

He'd subsequently pestered her until she agreed to a Thursday night movie at the Valleytown Twin Cinema. He'd showed up incognito: his usual bandana replaced by an Orioles cap, a pair of glasses, a hooded camouflage sweatshirt. They watched a movie whose premise seemed ridiculous, then terrifying: anybody who viewed a haunted videotape would be visited seven days later by a girl whose long wet hair was drawn over her face. It'd happen like this: TVs came to life of their own accord and the resultant static would resolve itself into a shuddering image of an old well in a forest clearing. The ghost girl would crawl out of the well, then out of the TV.

They'd watched the movie the week before OMC—the Outboard Marine Company—had laid off half their workers, which meant that Riley's mother still had her job working the graveyard shift, which meant that, had Riley gone home, she would've had to sit by herself in the duplex all night. And she hadn't wanted to be alone.

Jaybird had recently purchased a house on Grape Creek at a foreclosure auction. The previous owners had started an addition they'd never finished—a room whose windows billowed with crinkly blue tarps. There, Jaybird had placed a sparkling bud-chunk into a bowl of aluminum foil at the top of a plastic, three-liter Pepsi bottle sitting in a Dutch oven filled to the brim with creek water. He lit the weed and slowly lifted the bottle, drawing the thick and curdling smoke into its belly, and discarded the foil. Riley wrapped her lips around the top, pushed the bottle down, and drank up the smoke. She was so high after one hit she thought her eyeballs were gonna burst. Jaybird gave her a clementine and she peeled it, observing with fascination the poofs of fragrant mist when she stripped off a shred of peel. Jaybird plugged in his homemade guitar, punched play on a boom box. A cassette spooled a recording of a live song—"A Saucerful of Secrets," Pink Floyd, at Pompeii—into which he threaded a bluesy solo. This addition sounded speculative, as if the string of notes were composing a question that demanded attention but which could never be answered. Later, he swung a lantern through a rhododendron thicket just beyond his backyard, followed a trail walk to a springhouse, where, before he kissed her, he'd ladled water as sweet as any she'd ever tasted into her mouth.

 

 

At Party Time—a combination grocery store, gas station, and videotape rental facility that sat across the street from the Knight's Inn—Riley glanced at the security camera bolted to the one of the upper corners of the ceiling and wondered if they—if she, in particular—looked guilty, and if guilty people were more aware of security cameras than non-guilty people. The cashier didn't seem to give much of a shit either way. She was a big woman whose bra-less breasts formed oblongs beneath her T-shirt—a vast, dress-like garment whose sleeves fell past her elbows and whose front said, "Deal with It." One of the woman's arms was lacerated with scratches. 

Half a pizza—topped with desiccated-looking pepperoni—rotated inside a grease-smeared plastic case. Riley reached for a slice. It was flat and dry and stiff. She slid it into a paper bag and stood in line with Jaybird, who bought a case of imported beer, three sacks of beef jerky, and five candy bars.

"Y'uns got me in trouble," the cashier said.

"Oh yeah?"

"That movie ya'll rented? My granddad saw that one slide it through the slot this morning," the cashier said, nodding at Riley.

Riley glanced at the "Adults Only" sign above a green curtain. Last night, she and Jaybird had slipped behind the curtain and browsed the porn. She'd never seen one, which, Jaybird argued, merited an occasion to do so. The film featured beautiful women and ugly, angry-faced men with shaved bodies. They weren't as muscular as she'd thought, though they were quite definitely endowed. Maybe that was the only thing that mattered. She didn't know. The sex they had looked mean. The women gritted their teeth and snarled and frowned and yelled out the names of their genitalia, called each other baby. One woman slapped the tits of another woman then sat on her face. Riley didn't know there was gonna be that kind of thing in the movie. She wanted to turn it off, but Jaybird had said, "Hold on a minute. I wanna see how this ends." It'd ended like this: all the ladies had jizz in their hair.

"So?" Jaybird said.

"So," the cashier said, "he didn't think she was eighteen."

"She ain't," Jaybird said. "She's twenty-one."

"She ain't no twenty-one."

"Show her," Jaybird said.

"I don't have to show her shit," Riley said. She pretended to read the door leading out, which was a regular door of solid wood, not glass. This pretend reading led to actual reading. Here, on the door, people had tacked notices of one kind or another. One was: "Good guard dog, free, seriously only." One was a prayer list and included the line, "Susie May, Cancer." One of the names—Bo Bryson—on the list had been crossed out. She would've written "Gene Holcomb" in the last empty space but there was no pen, only a length of frayed string taped to the door.

 

 

At the Knight's Inn, while Jaybird unleashed a voluminous piss-stream into the toilet, Riley crammed the sack of money in the bottom of her backpack: a secret stash she wasn't ready to share. Then she aimed the remote at the TV. A gray-haired man—one eyebrow raised—ambled through a shadowy parking garage. Preparing for the unthinkable, he claimed, was the greatest gift anyone could give oneself. Therefore, he continued, everyone—young and old, tall and small, woman and man—should carry a Taser.

Jaybird popped the top on a can of Bud, drank it down in five gulps, crushed the can, tossed it onto the floor, belched, and said, "Hey."

"Yeah?" Riley replied.

"I want you to do something for me."

Riley glanced his direction. "What," she said, flatly. She had a pretty good idea what the something was gonna be, and she was prepared—out of spite—to deny it.

"I want you to pretend like you're somebody who ain't heard about you know who."

"You mean Gene?"

Jaybird nodded. He cleared his throat. His eyes widened. He was, it seemed, getting into character. "Holy shit," he said. "You hear about ole Gene Holcomb?"

"No," Riley said. "What?"

"Somebody shot him."

She frowned. Raised herself onto her elbows. "What?" she said.

Jaybird nodded slowly. Gravely. "Some cold-blooded motherfucker shot him. Right in the heart."

"You're kidding."

"'Fraid not."

"Who did it?"

"Nobody knows."

"Is he okay?"

Jaybird frowned disdainfully. "Hell no, he's not okay! He's fucking dead!"

"Oh my god," Riley said. She placed a hand on her chest. "Why would anybody shoot Gene?"

"You tell me."

"I wouldn't know."

"Didn't he stick his finger up your cooch?"

"Jesus."

"No. Seriously. I mean, did he or did he not take indecent liberties with you. At the age of nine."

"I can't remember."

She was pretending she couldn't remember for a reason: the more she thought about what'd happened, the more unsure she'd become. Like, what if she'd made it all up? What if she'd only thought he'd touched her, but she'd been the one grinding herself against his knee? She remembered—or thought she remembered—a hand being involved, and that Uncle Gene had said something like, "It's okay, sugar, it's okay, don't that feel fine?" But she couldn't bet her life on it. And who knew? Maybe Uncle Gene was an actual pervert. Maybe what'd happened on his knee was only the tip of the iceberg. Maybe he'd brutalized or butt-raped other little kids, but somehow, maybe because she didn't like to think he would, she refused to think that he had. In a fucked-up way—and she'd never admitted this to anyone—Uncle Gene had taught her how to take care of business down there. It hadn't occurred to her to rub herself like that before—not that she wouldn't have figured it out for herself eventually—but still, he'd sort of helped her along, and for years that's how she let herself think of it. Uncle Gene, a man who had not been all that smart, and certainly hadn't been ambitious or even productive, had helped her learn how to scratch an itch she hadn't even known she'd had.

And now, thanks to her, he was dead.

"You ain't playing right," Jaybird said.

"Well," Riley replied. "You said to pretend."

On the television, a woman wearing a spandex bodysuit used a Taser to paralyze a professional cage fighter. The man in the suit said that anyone could own one of these for a price that claimed to be low but, in Riley's opinion, was not.

 

 

"What the fuck," Jaybird said. He was nudging Riley awake. It was morning. Riley was in a motel room, staring at an amoeba-shaped stain on the popcorn ceiling. Thank God, she thought. In the dream she'd just had, Uncle Gene was sitting at a booth in a diner, eating pancakes. On several occasions, he'd mistaken Riley for his waitress. "Could I have some more of these?" he said, and before she could explain, blood erupted from a hole in his chest. "Ho no," he mumbled. "Not again." He'd fumbled with the napkin dispenser, couldn't get any out. Riley had handed him a rag, which he'd stuffed into the hole, but the hole spat the rag out. The hole appeared to have teeth. It was eating Uncle Gene's shirt, sucking the fabric tight against his flabby chest.

"You need to call your mom," Jaybird said. He'd already showered and shaved. A dollop of shaving cream dangled from his left earlobe, then disappeared after he slid a white V-neck T-shirt over his head. As a rule, Jaybird did not wear clothing with words. Words, he'd explained, betrayed one's affiliations, and thus one's identity, whereas he preferred—as much as possible—to stay anonymous. "Tell her we're in Gettysburg. And that we're checking out of the General Lee Manor."

Riley's mom was the kind of woman who appreciated updates, and had requested that they call her every so often. In preparation for Riley and Jaybird's trip, she'd magneted a map of the United States to her fridge; she intended to trace their progress with an orange highlighter.

"You know she's gonna look that up," Riley said. That was another thing. Riley's mom looked up everything. How many calories were in a banana? Who was the supreme leader of Iran? How much would somebody pay for an ounce of rubies? Why did people yawn? When was the best time of year to go on a cruise? Any question that occurred to her, whether the answer would ever prove helpful or not, she typed it into a search engine. It was a quality that Jaybird—who nursed his own streak of curiosity—admired.

"Let her," Jaybird said. "It's an actual place. We'll be there tomorrow for real if you can get your ass outta that bed."

"But what do I say?"

"Whatever you want."

"At least tell me something we're supposed to've seen."

"Shit. I don't know. Some civil war type shit. A band of re-enactors pretending to get ready for battle. Tents and muskets. Or whatever the fuck they used."

Riley dialed her mother's number.

"Hello?"

"Mama?"

"'Bout time you called."

"We drove all night."

"That was a stupid thing to do."

"We weren't tired."

"Well, bodies need rest. A good eight hours, at least."

"We're in Gettysburg," Riley said.

"Huh," her mother replied.

"We saw some re-enactors." 

"What were they re-enacting?"

Riley moved the mouthpiece from her mouth to her neck. "What were they re-enacting," she whispered.

Jaybird studied his left hand carefully. With a pair of scissors from a Swiss Army Knife, he clipped a flap of dead skin from an index finger and said, "Pearl Harbor."

"They never said," Riley mumbled.

"Don't let Jason drive the whole way," her mother instructed. "Driver fatigue is a real thing, you know. Give that man a break once in a while."

Riley promised she would. She said goodbye and hung up. They haven't found him, she thought. It would've been the first thing out of her mother's mouth. Which meant that Uncle Gene was probably still sitting there—dead—in his chair. Flies—fat and green, the kind that looked metallic, like tiny robots—were probably buzzing around his wound, exiting his noseholes, laying eggs in his eyes. And what about the little dog? How many times had it relieved itself in the house? Did it keep returning to Uncle Gene's dead leg? Would it die before it tried to bite off a chunk? Or would it too expire, right on the dead man's lap?

No, Riley thought. Uncle Gene was not in his trailer. That is, his body might still be, but his soul, or whatever, was elsewhere—or soon would be. It was possible, she thought. Jaybird would've said it wouldn't matter, that what humans feared wasn't death but suffering, and the truth was, no man remembered coming into the world, and neither would any man remember his exit.

 

 

Before they left the motel, Jaybird had relieved the lobby's continental breakfast of a dozen pre-packaged Danishes (stowing them giddily in the inside pockets of a green army jacket), and instructed Riley to take a couple extra boxes of Frosted Flakes and an orange. An alert-looking man in glasses and a plaid button-up, sitting beneath a TV where a black CNN anchor discussed the seriousness of identity theft, had eyed them with caution. "What?" Jaybird said. "We paid for this shit, did we not?"

Now, Jaybird held a joint between his fingers and steered the wheel with the underside of his wrist. The calm manner in which he piloted the truck—the way he casually tapped ash out the cracked window—seemed counterfeit. He glanced every so often into the rear view mirror, as if expecting something there to appear.

"No thanks," Riley said, when he offered her a hit. She felt paranoid enough as it was. She couldn't stop wondering what they'd left behind, what mistakes they'd made. Tire tracks in Gene's driveway. Shoe prints on the kitchen linoleum. Fingerprints on the rental car agreement. In her mind's eye, she saw an officer lift a strand of hair and place it in a Ziploc. The hair would travel to a lab. Scientists would study it under microscopes, determine its DNA. An all-points bulletin would go out. She and Jaybird would be hunted down, shackled, suited, and jailed. Their pictures would appear in that ugly newspaper they sold for a dollar at gas stations, the one that featured the mug shots of criminals. Everybody they knew, including Riley's mom, would think they were trash. That they would deserve whatever they had coming to them.

"What's on your mind," Jaybird said.

"Nothing."

"Don't lie."

"I'm just thinking."

"About what?"

"Oh, I don't know. The police. Jail. What I might eat before my lethal injection."

With a fist, Jaybird pushed his chin one way then the other, effectively cracking his neck. "We've been over this," he said. He flicked the roach out the window. "There's only one person that warrants an investigation."

Aunt Wanda, Riley thought. Wanda was a tall, frail woman with big round glasses and a slight overbite. Last Christmas, Wanda had called all her relatives and left drunken carols on their answering machines. Riley's mother was convinced that she, Wanda, had a prescription drug problem. She hadn't worked in years and whenever she talked to you for more than five minutes, she found something to cry about. Riley felt bad for her. If she thought hard enough, she could understand how somebody could fall in love with a retarded boy. He wasn't the worst thing in the world to look at. And it wasn't like he wasn't retarded retarded. Just slow. For instance, he could drive. He had a job at the Home Depot in Blairsville, in receiving. He was probably sweet and had an insane sex drive. She'd heard that about mongoloids. That wasn't what he was, but still.

If Wanda got convicted for killing Gene, she'd surely be sentenced to life in prison, if not death row. For the rest of her days, she'd eat fish sticks and creamed corn from segmented cafeteria trays. She might get shanked. She'd feel most of the time as if she were dying of boredom. She'd want to blame someone, but she wouldn't know who, wouldn't ever have any idea that it all came down to one thing: if Riley'd kept her big trap shut, none of this would've happened.

 

 

Highway 441—the road winding through the Great Smokies—was clotted with traffic. Riley hadn't visited the park since last Halloween, when Jaybird had taken her to the Mysterious Mansion in Gatlinburg, a city whose name he always followed ironically with "Gateway to Paradise." Unlike their previous trip, Jaybird made no remarks about the moss-smothered trunks of trees, didn't discuss how park rangers had injected hemlocks with an antidote to inoculate them from the ravages of the woody adelgid. He didn't say "chipmunk" whenever a chipmunk scurried across the road. Didn't say that they shouldn't even be allowed to drive through this place, and that the burning of fossil fuels produced tiny airborne particles that dispersed light and erased scenic views. Didn't say that he should be ashamed, but he wasn't, and how sad he guessed that probably was.

Instead, Jaybird cursed the Escalade they'd gotten stuck behind—the one that was failing to reach the park's 45 m.p.h. speed limit and whose ruby taillights brightened whenever it approached anything resembling a curve. That its back window had been plastered with stickers—two stick figure adults and two stick figure kids, an OBX decal, a cartoon of a praying boy, and an Ichthys symbol—only increased his ire. What they needed to make, in his opinion, was a sticker of this exact truck, with all its bullshit symbols, and then have one of those Calvin cartoons taking a piss on it. Riley forced out a chuckle. She told herself that she, too, could pretend everything was normal. It was like a superpower she hadn't known she had. She let her arm dangle out the open window and practiced not flinching when flying insects pelleted her skin. She waved lazily to a pair of Harley riders who'd parked at a roadside table, saluted when—at the crest of the mountain, at Newfound Gap—the Escalade turned, without signaling, into a parking lot.

"You gotta be kidding me," Jaybird said. Riley thought he was rerouting his indignation, beaming it at the convertible that'd swerved in front of them, but then that car sped away, and Jaybird wasn't accelerating. He was frowning at the dash.

"What's wrong?" she said.

"Truck's running hot."

Riley craned her neck. The gauge's arrow pointed directly at the H.

Jaybird coasted into a small lot with a retaining wall overlooking a creek whose dark water was streaked with whitecaps. He popped the hood, went to take a look. White smoke poured out. Riley couldn't see what he was doing.

Jaybird climbed back into the truck and slammed the door. "There ain't a goddam drop of coolant in this motherfucker," he said. He ran his hand over his face. He punched the steering wheel. The truck honked pitifully. Smoke continued to cascade upwards. Like a signal, Riley thought. Alerting anybody who cared to know about their whereabouts.

"What're we gonna do?"

Jaybird shook his head. "Start walking."

"Seriously?"

"It ain't but ten miles."

"Ten?"

"At least."

Riley laughed.

"Don't worry. I wouldn't ask you to come."

"And what would you ask me to do?"

"Set here. Hard enough for one person to hitch a ride, much less two."

"Mm," Riley said. "Sounds good. Maybe on your way you could get chopped up by a psychopath."

"You got a better plan?"

"I don't know," she said. And she didn't.

Jaybird said to lock the doors and sit tight. He hoisted his backpack onto his shoulders, climbed out, and started walking. Or, rather, sauntering: hands gripping his pack-straps, his head swiveled to and fro, as if taking in the view. Riley, who thought she could hear him whistling as he disappeared around a bend in the road, thought about yelling, "Wait!" but reconsidered. She shut her eyes, dug fingernails into her forearms. The storm she'd been suppressing rose like hot bullion inside her. She covered her face with her hands and wept.

 

 

Rain fell. Riley counted the splats. At first, it was easy. One. Two. Three four. Five six. Then it morphed into estimates. For a few minutes, the world outside was a wash of white light—the sun was out but it was pouring so hard she couldn't see two feet beyond the windshield. She imagined Jaybird trying to flag down vehicles and none of them stopping, because who wanted to pick up a skinny dude in a sopping T-shirt, through which his nipples were showing? Then—suddenly—the downpour relented. The asphalt shimmered, as if it'd been formed by the liquefaction and subsequent solidification of pulverized jewels.

To pass the time, Riley ate four hunks of beef jerky from a plastic pouch, nibbling them slowly, as if she were in a slow-eating contest. She unwrapped a peppermint and let it dissolve into a wafer before chomping it to smithereens. She unfolded a map of Tennessee and failed to locate her current position. She made a mental list of some of the things she would like to purchase, were she to blow a ridiculous amount of money. A brown suede jacket. A piano. An entire collection of vintage, embroidered cowboy shirts. An El Camino. A steak and a baked potato. A blender. A Taser.

In the ashtray, she located a roach and lit it. She held hot smoke inside her lungs and inventoried the glove box: a folder in which Jaybird kept the records of the truck's oil changes and tune-ups; a piece of junk mail that'd been printed with the word "Confidential" in a red font that suggested it'd been hand-stamped; a DVD case for a movie called Final Events, which, she knew, had been sent to Jaybird by a church his mother had taken him to when he was a kid. According to the movie, Jesus would return to earth in a city slash spaceship whose buildings resembled golden capitol buildings. He would call the wicked to rise up. Then, Satan would gather them into an army, which would attempt an attack on the Holy City. The wicked would be no match for Jesus, however, whose heavenly fire would consume them.

It didn't sound half bad to Riley, as long as Jesus saved her a place on the spaceship. Then again, she probably didn't deserve to be rescued. Or did she? Blessed are the meek, she thought. Jesus had said that. Was she meek? She wasn't sure. Poor in spirit? That was more like it.

She took another pull on the roach, inhaled a mouthful of charred weed. Picking bits from her tongue, she wondered if maybe flames from heaven would be different than earthly ones: if maybe the ones from heaven would be kinder, wouldn't hurt as bad.

She opened her phone. It was 12:15. Over two hours had passed. No new messages. She had one bar left on her battery icon—a lonely stripe that would soon fade into oblivion. She dug through her backpack for a cord, connected the phone to Jaybird's cigarette lighter. That's when it hit her: Jaybird had taken the keys.

 

 

Another hour passed. Every car that rounded the corner symbolized the vehicle that might save Riley from the agony of waiting. But none were. Which meant she had to come to grips with a problem she'd been trying to avoid: for a while now, longer than she'd cared to admit, she'd needed to pee. She opened the driver's side door, slid on her backpack, buckled the straps. Inside, she carried a change of clothes, a miniature flashlight, a toothbrush and paste, a clear zippered bag containing mascara and lip gloss, a wallet, a .38 special with five rounds remaining. And, in her hoodie: Uncle Gene's lottery winnings.

She crossed the road. There, the woods were dense and steaming. She parted limbs, stomped briars out of her way. Wet leaves licked her arms and face like tongues. Sunlight filtered through branches. The forest canopy fluttered with golden light, and every once in a while she was showered by still-dripping trees. A hornet—swerving drunkenly—smacked into her forehead and though it hadn't stung her she now worried what would happen if one did, remembering a show on Animal Planet where a woman had suffered dozens of stings, ballooned, suffocated, and survived long enough to become a vegetable. Standing on a slope that veered toward a creek, she unbuttoned her jeans, slid them to her ankles, held onto a sapling, and peed downhill. As she finished, she spotted a Happy Meal box nestled like a little gaudy temple among a bed of ferns. She opened and immediately dropped it. There was something black and rotten inside and it took a second for her to realize it was somebody's turd. She half expected someone to laugh. She scanned the woods and saw nobody. She didn't believe in ghosts but she'd never been a fan of the woods, which were, she imagined, chock full of creatures hiding in secret places. She told herself she would not run, so as not to give anything that might be watching the impression that she might be afraid. And then, because she wasn't watching where she put her feet, she tripped on a root, and tumbled toward the stream.

Typical, she thought. She'd skinned the underside of her forearm. She'd gotten dirt in her mouth. Leaves in her hair. She washed off in the stream, wondered if the water had been contaminated by boar piss. She guessed she'd find out.

 

 

She had not locked the doors of the truck. At least she hadn't thought so. But when she tried both door handles—each one multiple times—they wouldn't open.

The black Escalade—the same one they'd been following earlier that day—rolled into the lot. A couple—a man wearing sunglasses, Croakies, and a shirt that said "World's Greatest Dad," and a bleached blonde whose roots were showing and whose shirt declared that she was "Property of Jesus"—emerged.   

"Everything okay?" the man asked.

"I'm good," Riley said. 

"You're bleeding," the man noted, pointing at her leg. And indeed she was. Through a hole she could see a rivulet of dark blood trickling from her knee.

The woman snapped her fingers. "Don't move," she said. She opened then rooted around in the trunk of the Escalade, located a first aid kit, tore open a wipe soaked in disinfectant and dabbed it against Riley's leg. It felt cool. It stung.

"What happened?" the man asked.

"I fell," Riley said. "In the woods."

"You by yourself?" the woman asked.

Riley explained: she and her boyfriend were headed north when their truck overheated. Now he had gone, on foot, to retrieve coolant. The man's brow furrowed. The woman chewed her gum earnestly. Riley worried that they'd think she was making it all up, that they'd assume this wasn't her truck and that she was some sort of vagabond to distrust.

"How long's he been gone?" the woman said.

"I dunno. A while."

"He have a phone?" the man said.

"Yeah. But he's not answering it."

A window in the Escalade descended. An arm hung out the side and knocked impatiently against the door. A voice from inside said, "Cut it out!"

"Is there anything we can do? Give you a ride? I mean, we're headed that way."

Riley glanced at the grille of Jaybird's truck. At the headlights. Together, they composed a snout-like face on a head that looked as if it couldn't care less. As if maybe it'd planned this all along, and was now settling in for some quiet time.

"You sure you have room?" she asked.

"Tons," the man said. 

"It's simple," the woman said. She dug around in a silver purse excessively bedecked with buckles and straps. It was clearly much fancier than what, presumably, the occasion called for. "We'll drive you to town. We'll keep an eye out for your boyfriend, and you'll leave him a note, so if we cross paths somehow, he'll know where you went."

She handed Riley a pad and a chubby pink pen whose shell housed a universe of glitter suspended in clear fluid.

"Take all the time you need," the man said.

Riley leaned on the hood of Jaybird's truck, trying to think of what to say. In the air above the paper, she scribbled indecipherable letters. Finally, she forced herself to write: I went to pee, and your dumb truck locked me out. And you have the keys. Didn't feel like standing here looking shady for the next six hours, so I'm hitching a ride to Gatlinburg with some random people. Don't worry. They don't seem totally insane. Whatever. Will call, assuming they don't sacrifice me and that I'm able to charge my phone. R.

She slid the sloppily folded page beneath a windshield wiper. Kicked the tire before she left. Acted like it didn't hurt.

 

 

There were two kids in the Escalade: a boy and a girl. Riley sat between them. The girl wore a shirt emblazoned with the words My Chemical Romance and the image of a group of sullen-looking teenagers with white skin and dyed hair. The girl wore her hair short and had a silver stud in her nose. Her brother was chubby. He wore a yellow and purple tank top—big as a dress—that had the name Nash on the back. Everyone introduced themselves. Riley said her name and forgot all the others. The man flicked the turn signal.  A tick-tock sounded. In her head, Riley imagined a bomb exploding. She buckled herself in, and the Escalade lunged onto the road.

Riley had spent many an hour in the Walmart snack bar with Jaybird, drinking Monster energy drinks and eating brownies made with THC-infused butter and watching people come and go and making stuff up about where they'd come from and where they were going, which meant that when the woman said that they lived outside Charlotte, in a place called the Chimneys of Marvin, Riley could see, in her mind's eye, this family's house. It was made of gray brick and had multiple rooflines, all of them steep. Its living room boasted sectional couches and a giant fireplace and a high-def TV. The man had an office with lots of bookshelves but very few books, maybe a taxidermied wood duck or an assembly of Little League trophies. There was a playroom with boxed up toys nobody ever played with now that the kids were into Xbox. The master bedroom had a king-size canopy bed, heaped with pillows, many of them bearing tassels. Even the black lab has its own room with a bed and a dog shower and doggy wallpaper.

The woman explained that it had been her son's turn to choose the family vacation, and he'd chosen the Smokies. The boy nodded. They'd spent the previous night in Cherokee, where they'd toured an Indian Village and learned about the Trail of Tears.

"So sad," the woman said.

"My dad won money at the casino!" the boy declared.

"For the record," the woman said, "we do not condone gambling or games of chance."

"A thousand dollars," Riley said.

"What?" the boy replied. "Not that much."

"Eighty-two."

"Huh."

The announcer on the radio thanked them for listening to CCM, the world's best contemporary Christian station.

"Can you turn this up?" the girl requested.

A singer sang: "I am chosen. I am holy. I am new."

"So," the woman said. "What's your boyfriend's name?"

"Jason," Riley said. The name felt false on her tongue, despite the fact that it was the one he'd been given.

"Hey mom," the boy said, "did you know that Jason's in the Bible?"

"I don't know about that." 

"He's one of the seventy disciples."

"Good to know," the girl muttered. 

"I'm just saying," said the boy. He glanced up from a handheld video game, where his avatar used a sniper rifle to blast holes in the heads of kaffiyeh-wearing enemies. Little clouds of digitized mist appeared every time he got one.

The woman asked Riley where she lived and she told them. She asked where she went to school and she said she didn't, that she had recently quit a job as a cashier at McDonald's. The man said that his daughter knew a thing or two about fast food, she'd been working at Chik-Fil-A, came home reeking of grease. Wasn't that right? The girl rolled her eyes.

Riley watched the green blur of trees outside the window, hugged her backpack tight, and tried not to envision Jaybird's demise.  The thought of anything happening to him—if, say, he was walking down this road, which was narrow and basically shoulder-less, and a big truck like this, with rear view mirrors that hung way out, whizzed by, and one of those mirrors banged him in the head and sent him tumbling into a ravine where his body would rot and take weeks to be found, like that girl back home who'd blacked out at the wheel while doing hits of computer dust spray and swerved off an embankment and into a kudzu-choked gully, and had basically decomposed by the time anybody discovered her—made her heart ache, and the more she imagined that something bad had happened, the more certain she became that something had.

Riley had never told Jaybird that she loved him, even though he said it to her all the time. She liked to hear it, but was afraid what it might mean if she started saying it back. Now, she wondered if she'd ever have the chance to find out.

Riley's leg buzzed. She flipped open her phone. She frowned at the screen. One new voicemail. How had she not felt the vibration of the previous call? She braced herself for the sound of her mother's voice, and thus disappointment.

Hey baby, a voice said. It wasn't her mother. It was Jaybird. Got your text. Just wanted to call and make sure you're okay. I know it's taking forever.

There was a pause. She wondered why he was talking like that, as if he were putting on a show. Then she heard laughter in the background and understood. Somebody else was listening.

But you'll never—hey, stop bogarting that thing—you'll never guess (he paused, an inhalation) who I fucking ran into.

A storm of static: the phone being handed from one person to another. Then: another voice on the line.

Hey there Riley! Sorry to make you wait, baby. I kidnapped your boyfriend! Just kidding. I can't believe this jerk left you in the truck. If I were you I would dump—

Riley waited for more, but that was it. Her phone had gone dark. She mashed a series of buttons. It was dead.

There had to be an explanation, but she couldn't think of one. The voice at the other end sounded like Krystal Lovingood. The older woman Jaybird had dated years ago. The one who'd left her husband and kid for a reason she hadn't been afraid to broadcast to anyone who'd listen: they'd bored her to death. The one who'd friended Riley on Facebook. The one Riley'd had to hide, because she didn't like to read her dumb, self-centered posts, because they made her picture her and Jaybird in her mind, where they were always up to no good. Krystal's photo albums—of which there were many—showcased low-res self-portraits of a glassy-eyed woman in blue eye shadow and lip-gloss, making duck faces or thrusting out a tongue stained with whatever well drink she'd just guzzled, as though she were advertising parts of her body she didn't mind indiscriminately employing. Her captions said things like "Country gone to town!" and "Remove toxic people out of your life!" She wore tight shirts that showed off her fake boobs. She'd fried her hair. Her skin had died long ago in a tanning bed. Her fat had been sucked through a straw in an operating room. Either she thought she was hot shit or she was terrified that she might not be. One thing was for sure: she'd proved difficult to satisfy. For instance, she'd confessed to Jaybird that she preferred, when making love, to be tied up and choked. He hadn't liked that, but he'd gone along with it once or twice. That was, he'd claimed, part of his problem with Krystal. He'd gone along with a lot of things he should've put a stop to.

 

 

The man pulled into the first restaurant he saw once they pulled into town: the Burning Bush. Was Riley hungry? Because they'd be glad to buy her a meal. Riley said thanks but she should get going—she needed to buy a power cord for her phone. Would she mind if they prayed for her first? She guessed she wouldn't. The man orchestrated a family huddle—one into which Riley was subsumed—and bowed his head. "Please watch over Jason," he began. "Keep him under your watch and care." Riley wondered if God would pause whatever He'd been doing to mash Krystal Lovingood into oblivion. The prayer went on. As it continued, she observed everybody's faces. The boy squinched up his nose, as if he had an itch. The girl's eyelids fluttered. The woman nodded, whispered, "Yes" whenever she agreed with something that the man was thankful for. Riley felt as though the family had retreated momentarily inside a secret communal place—one to which she would never gain access. At the end, everybody said "Amen" but Riley, the realization of which caused her to worry that maybe she'd canceled the whole thing out.

 

 

Gatlinburg's sidewalks were glutted with waddlers. Fat dads wore hats endorsing NASCAR drivers and brands of firearm manufacturers and sports teams whose mascots were ferocious animals or the heads of Native Americans. Fat moms had dressed themselves in jean shorts and T-shirts featuring airbrushed beachscapes. Riley's feet were killing her. Her knee burned where she'd scraped it—maybe, she thought, some kind of flesh-eating bacteria getting to work. Her body was shellacked in a sweat-sheen. The backpack seemed to be growing heavier with each step. A bank sign claimed it was 100 degrees. Also, she was starving, and everywhere she looked, there was a pancake house. A pancake house with a Conestoga wagon parked on its roof. A pancake house whose awning displayed a cast iron skillet and a stack of flapjacks. A pancake house that resembled a log cabin, a teepee, a dome. But she wasn't about to stop; the hunger fueled her indignation, which would need to remain full-bodied and electric for any future confrontations.

So she kept going. She found a fake cobblestone path that wound through a series of shops that, collectively, were engaged in a half-hearted impersonation of a Renaissance village. Through a massive window, she watched a complicated machine pull taffy—a lurid process that resembled the stretching of greased flesh. She passed disgruntled-looking seniors piloting mobile scooters, a pair of Amish boys with bowl cuts fervently tonguing cones of soft serve. In the distance, an unreliable-looking chairlift lifted people—old and young, fat and thin—to the top of a ridge overlooking the city. Every so often, she sought periods of reprieve from the heat inside arcades blinking with red and orange lights, stores selling candied apples, pizza, and popcorn dyed blue.

Meanwhile, her phone remained uncharged. It wasn't for the lack of souvenir shops that happened to sell—along with airsoft pistols, knives, t-shirts, and henna tattoos—electronics. The stores that had agreed to offer these wares were, apparently, all owned by Indians. Not American Indians. Indians from India. Riley had visited half a dozen of these places, eyed mugs with Confederate flags and camouflage purses embroidered with buck heads and shirts that spelled "Jesus Christ" using the Coca-Cola font. But she hadn't found a charger for her phone. The kind of phone Riley had, the shop owners explained, was very, very old. Maybe she wanted to buy a new phone? She'd think about it, she'd said, but she hadn't. Not really. She could've bought a thousand phones. But even the thought of buying one, she felt, made her seem desperate. And that was the last thing she wanted to feel. In one of these shops, a samurai sword had reflected blue neon light. It'd seemed like as good a tool as any if you were giving serious thought to going bananas.

She located a pay phone, held the earpiece to her head. She had no coins. She needed to calm down. Be patient. There could be any number of reasons why Jaybird was nowhere to be found, the number one being: he wasn't here. He might've passed them in another car on their way down the mountain. He might never have gotten her note. He might've run into a police roadblock. He might've asked to drive Krystal's car; she might've taken a hold of his crotch; he might've fought her off or not, might've lost his train of thought; might've swerved too late; might've ended up in a ditch.

She considered calling her mom. She could pretend to be checking in. Except she actually would be. Her mom would say how is everything and Riley would say, "Oh, everything's hunky-dory," which long ago had been a code word they'd promised to use any time one of them was being held hostage and told by their kidnappers when the phone rang to play it cool.

"We're in Maine," she said, to the phone. "It's a strange place. Everything's backwards. They drive on the other side of the road. They go inside when the sun shines. They stay out in the rain. They eat eggs for supper and roast beef for breakfast. They say goodbye instead of hello."

"Please deposit fifty-five cents," the phone said.

She hung up the receiver.

 

 

She found the World's Greatest Dad standing in front of Ripley's Haunted Adventure. He was waving and calling her name.

"Oh," she said. "Hi again."

"Ever find your boyfriend?" the boy asked.

Riley, tried to think of a lie but couldn't. "No," she said.

"Get that phone charged?" the man inquired.

"I'm working on it."

The woman, clearly the family documentarian, wanted everybody to come this way, because she wanted to get a picture of everyone—"You, too Riley!"—beside Stumpy. Stumpy was a legless torso in white makeup and a top hat and fingerless gloves that appeared to hover inside a wooden box. His spinal column appeared to dangle beyond the tips of his vest like a tail. His job was to shout randomly at people who didn't notice him. According to the boy, he'd made the man scream like a little girl.

 

 

Riley couldn't figure out how to use the man's smartphone so she told him the number and he punched it in then handed it back. She excused herself, stood next to an illuminated sign advertising a mountain of assorted candies. Jaybird's phone rang once then went straight to voicemail, which meant one of several things: a. he was calling her; b. he was calling someone else; or c. his phone had gone dead. "Jaybird, it's me," Riley said, after the beep. "Call me on this number. My phone's dead."

"Guess you're stuck with us for a while," the man said, when she handed him the phone. This observation seemed to please him. He fanned himself with a brochure promoting gospel singers in sequined suits and unitards.

"I appreciate it," Riley said. She was forming an alliance with these innocent people. They had no idea she was armed and therefore, theoretically, dangerous. She felt bad about imagining what it might be like if she were forced to threaten them with the .38. But she figured she couldn't help it. That's just who she was. She was, she figured, a terrible person. And that's what terrible people did.

 

 

The boy wanted a penny to throw into a fountain. He wanted another penny to put into the souvenir machine and also two quarters to power the machine. The woman wanted to stop and look at a snow globe store; the man inquired about paintball pellets. The girl wanted to board "Earthquake: The Ride," the tagline of which was: "Come experience the thrill of a real catastrophe!" Thankfully, she was outvoted. Everyone agreed that eating elephant ears was the right thing to do. On a number of occasions, Riley thought she saw Jaybird. Up ahead. Back behind. Above. Below. Each time it turned out not to be him.

 

 

At the family's hotel—a string of two-story, orange-roofed buildings, whose balconies all faced a roaring creek—the woman wouldn't let anyone walk barefoot on the carpet. From her unzipped suitcase, she provided flip-flops. "You don't know whose feet have been there."

"Feet are the tip of the iceberg," the man said.

"Mom," the girl said. "They have maids."

"Yeah, but you don't know what sorts of corners they cut."

Riley requested the use of the bathroom. She felt as if her body was teeming with microorganisms. At the sink, she unwrapped a slender rectangle of soap, washed her arms, her face. An hour before, they'd been strapped into in a 4D Motion Ride that had been constructed to make it appear as if the audience was riding a runaway mining car. At one point, the car launched itself off the rails, through a wall, and onto the side of a mountain. Actual fake snow snowed down on them. The lights came up. A place on Riley's leg, where the fake snow had landed, looked like it'd been jizzed on. Soon, it turned into a kind of crystallized powder. Now, she scrubbed vigorously.

 

 

Back at the hotel, the boy wanted to show Riley the pool. The man said she probably didn't want to see the pool, but Riley said it was okay. The woman told everybody to go ahead, she'd catch up, but first she wanted to unpack a few things.

"Don't you wanna leave that backpack here?" she asked Riley. "That thing looks heavy."

 "Um," Riley said. "Okay." She didn't want to be weird about it. So she slid it off. Set it against the wall. Stretched.

 "See?" the woman said.

Riley rubbed her shoulders. It was true. She felt unburdened. Setting out with the boy and girl and their father, she felt light on her feet.

 

 

The pool was inside a tall outbuilding. Inside, a little bridge arched over the water. A Jacuzzi worked itself into a lather. A foamy stream, presumably pumped from the pool, cascaded over a fake rock wall. "This is the coolest!" the boy said. "Hey Riley, watch me do a cannonball!" The girl took off her boots and a pair of socks upon which skulls and crossbones had been knitted, stuck her feet in. The man sat at a glass table, tapping the screen of his phone. The air was unbearably humid, the windows opaque with steam.

"Bet you didn't think you'd be spending your Wednesday night like this," the dad said.

"Nope," Riley said.

"Who wants a snack?" he bellowed.

Riley said she was good. The girl failed to respond. The boy yelled "Doritos!" The man hoisted himself out of his chair.

The mom, Riley knew, would look. There was no doubt about it. If Riley were a mom, she'd look. She'd poke her head out the door and see if the coast was clear, then chain the door. She'd unzip and dig, relishing and fearing the rare sensation of doing something she shouldn't. She'd find the money and the gun. She'd gasp. Cover her mouth. She might not put two and two together, but she'd know something was up. Or off. Definitely wrong. The woman claimed to be—and thus was—the property of Jesus. But she wouldn't call the police. Surely not. After all, it wasn't a crime to carry a gun. Wasn't a crime—Riley didn't think—to travel with large sums of cash. But the woman would have to do something. At least write down the name and address that appeared on Riley's driver's license. She wouldn't know what to do with it now, but she'd hold onto it. At some point, she'd enter the information into a search engine. Not much would come up. A listing for some high school basketball statistics. An old honors list. A listing on a "people search" site. But she wouldn't be able to let it go. She'd have a feeling. And, being the property of Jesus, she'd feel compelled to do something. She'd keep checking. At some point, she'd go back to the basketball page, maybe because it had the most information. She'd click "Home" on that page. Headlines would appear. Riley's hometown paper. Something about a man getting shot. A robbery. Then she'd know.

The World's Greatest Dad returned with snacks. From somewhere on his person, the beginning notes of a Steve Miller song began to play. He unclipped his phone from his belt.

"Hello?" he said. "Sure. Hold on just a second." He raised the phone. Looked at Riley. "It's for you," he said, smiling.

Riley took the phone outside. She stood in a bed of mulch. Across the street, there was another outdoor pool. A big woman holding a pigtailed toddler waded in the shallow end, tapped the ash of her cigarette into a beer can.

"Hello?" Riley said.

"Thank you Lord," Jaybird said.

"Excuse me?"

"You're alive."

"Yeah," Riley replied.

"I didn't know what had happened to you."

"Tell me about it."

"You still in Gatlinburg?"

"Standing outside a motel pool. You?"

"In front of some place called . . . World of Illusions."

"Where's Krystal?"

"Oh my god," Jaybird said. His voice sounded shaky. "That girl is insane."

"What happened?"

Jaybird inhaled deeply. "Okay, so she stopped when she saw me, right? I told her what the problem was, she said she'd give me a ride. Only she don't want to go to Gatlinburg. She's headed to Cherokee. Fine, I say. Either way, I've got to buy some coolant. So she starts driving like a bat out of hell. I mean, we must've hit 85 on some of the stretches. I swear, she was passing on double yellows. Laughing the whole time."

"Huh."

"I'm telling you. She's insane."

"But that's what you like, right?"

"Excuse me?"

"I'm talking about you. And Krystal."

Silence.

"What about me and Krystal."

"Nothing."

"Don't tell me you're insinuating that we—"

"That you what."

"Jesus, Riley. She's got a boyfriend."

"And what about you?"

"What about me?"

"What have you got?"

"Do you need to be told?"

"Maybe I do."

"Listen. Can we just pick somewhere to meet?"

Riley didn't answer. She wanted him to think she was thinking about it.

"Hello?"

"You left me," she said.

"I know, I know. And I'm sorry, baby. I really am. It was stupid. We should've stayed together. I wasn't thinking."

"Stay where you are," Riley said. "I'll find you."

 

 

The door to the motel room was cracked. Riley knocked and, as she waited, studied the business card the man had given her after she'd returned his phone. "Global Solutions," the card said. It had a toll-free number and a picture of a globe with a face and a mortarboard hat. The globe appeared to be in the middle of solving a quadratic equation.

A voice said, "Come in?" and Riley entered. The woman had drawn the comforter of one of the beds back and was sitting Indian-style upon the sheets. She'd tied her hair in a ponytail. Her pajama pants were imprinted with flowers. On the TV, a group of prisoners were tarring a roof.

"Hey," she said. "I'm just back to get my stuff."

"Oh?"

"Yeah," Riley said. The backpack sat where she'd left it. It appeared to be untouched. Riley shouldered it. "My boyfriend finally called."

"Oh my god!" the woman said. "That's great, right?"

Riley nodded. "Yeah. So I guess I'll get out of your hair."

"It was so nice to meet you," she said. She jumped off the bed and gave Riley a hug, squeezing her long and hard. Her neck smelled fruity. It made Riley feel bad for misjudging her, and she fought the urge to hang on. 

 

 

The plan had formed gradually in her mind, as she walked up the main drag. The sidewalks were packed. Fat people. Old people. Kids. People eating caramel apples. People with soul patches and ponytails. People with American flags on their shirts. With bears. With the names of the brand of shirt they were wearing. With the names of famous fashion designers. With "My God Is an Awesome God." These were people who had just played Hillbilly Golf or swam in a hotel pool or disembarked from a shuttle bus. People who had visited the aquarium and whose phones had blurry pictures of jellyfish and eels and hammerhead sharks. People whose guts were full of cheeseburgers and fries and doughnuts and pancakes. People she would never see again, who entered her head for a moment, only to tumbled down a chute into the oblivion that was forgetfulness.

At an ATM—a machine that charged her two dollars, in addition to the three-dollar fee her own bank charged—Riley withdrew twenty dollars from her checking account. She also received a paper receipt, upon which her balance—$138.50—had been printed. She closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. Uncle Gene's face appeared in her mind. It wasn't saying anything because it was dead. But the sight of it reminded her that now she knew what to do.

 

 

She found Jaybird where he said he'd be, in front of a building that had been built to look as if a small plane had crashed into the side and had a sign outside that read WORLD OF ILLUSIONS. In the doorway to the museum, a mannequin that resembled Christopher Lloyd's character from Back to the Future, and the dude who replaced James T. Kirk on Star Trek. Jaybird was flanked by two old women. One had a map. The other was tonguing lavender ice cream from a waffle cone. Jaybird pointed to something on the map, elbowed the woman like they were old pals. The woman laughed, patted Jason's shoulder and led her friend away.

"What a nice boy," Riley said.

"Hey," he said, as she approached. "Listen, baby, I'm really—"

She grabbed one of his hands and tugged. "Com'ere, she said.

"What is it?"

"I have something to show you."

"So show me."

"Not here," she said. She scanned parking lot next to the museum. "Over here." She headed for the shadow cast by a dumpster.

"Why all the secrecy?" Jaybird said.

Riley glanced this way and that. Slid off her pack, opened it. Shoved her hand inside, handed him the plastic bag.

He frowned. "What's this?"

"Open it," she said.

He slid the bag from the vacuum-packed sack. He blinked. "No way," he said.

Riley rummaged around in her pack.

"Is there more?"

"Yes and no."

Jaybird hooted.

"Sh," she said.

"Sorry," he whispered. He looked gleeful, like he had a couple of weeks ago, when, on a night when she'd taken a gravity bong hit and stationed herself in front of Storage Wars, he'd yelled at her to come look. She'd found him standing on his back porch, holding a possum by its tail. A garbage can had toppled. Trash was spread everywhere. The greasy mammal squirmed and hissed in the light. The porch had become a kind of stage, upon which Jaybird was performing, the animal a creature that served at his leisure, until he swung it into the yard, and it wobbled away.

"Holy shit," he said now, shaking his head. "Why in the world didn't you—"

She cocked the gun. It was a fluid motion. One to which she was accustomed. Her hands didn't even shake as she pointed it. She knew how the thing worked. Knew that Jaybird knew this. He's seen her hit a milk jug hanging from a tree at fifty yards, hit it twice more while it swayed. What he didn't know: it was empty, the bullets tapped out and tossed into the trash can inside the bathroom of the Donut Friar.

"What the fuck?" Jaybird said. He squinted, as if she were shining a light on him. "Don't point that thing at—"

"It's all yours," she said.

"Excuse me?"

"The money," she said.

Jaybird shook his head. "You ain't making a lick of sense."

She swallowed. Her palms were sweaty. She feared the gun might slide ride out of her hands. "You earned it. You keep it."

"This is crazy. You don't know what you're doing."

"No," she said. "I do."

She extended her arm. The gun was close enough for Jaybird to whack it out of her hand. She prayed he would. It'd be a sign. If he whacked the gun away, she'd say it was some kind of test that he'd aced. In half an hour, they could be high and romping on a hotel bed, their bodies sticky with the champagne they'd showered themselves in. But she could see now that he wouldn't. He could shoot a man in the heart for next to nothing but he couldn't reach out and disarm the woman he claimed to love.

"Riley," Jaybird said. "Baby. Sweetheart."

"Zip it," she said. She clenched her jaw shut tight. She needed not to talk. If she talked, she'd cry. She'd crumble. She backed up.

"Wait," Jaybird says. "Where are you going?"

"Home."

"What about Maine?"

"What about it?"

"You and me, remember? Vacationland. All that. And now this." He held up the money.

She shook her head. Shoved the gun down the front of her jeans. She knew Maine didn't care. Maine didn't give a fuck. It hadn't even known she was coming.

 

 

She would've bet every one of those bills that Jaybird would follow her. She even gave him a chance. She didn't run through the crowds. She moseyed. Not that she had a choice. She had a gun down the front of her pants.

All around her, other people were going on with their lives. A boy wearing a Batman mask sat in a mechanical orange car with a Confederate flag painted on its trunk. A group of teenage girls, frocked in vintage dresses, danced as they sang a fifty-year-old song beneath the lights of a restaurant specializing in steaks. The HOGS N HONEYS sign glowed. A toddler, seemingly parentless, stood outside Adventure Golf, pointing at a mannequin dressed like a quintessential explorer. At Aunt Mahalia's Candies, Riley bought a piece of fudge from a boy wearing mascara. She didn't know which one she wanted, so she asked the boy, who said he preferred the regular plain kind, so that's what she took.

She went as far as she could—past the shooting gallery; past the giant marble ball spinning in front of Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, where delighted children shrieked as they petted it; past Bubba Gump's Seafood Co.; past Flapjack's Pancake Cabin; past Fabulous Chalet Inn; past Gateway Market; past the Pancake House; past the Texaco station—until she came to the last intersection, the last traffic light. The little town didn't go on forever, and neither did its lights. A national park—an entire wilderness, just waiting to swallow her up—stood between where she was now and where she wanted to go. Of course, getting there was only part of it. She'd have to explain things to her mother, spin some lies, suffer the indignity of an early return, and bury the real secret of what she'd done so deep down in herself that she'd come to believe it had happened to somebody else. Whatever, she thought. One thing at a time. She swallowed the lump in her throat, told herself not to cry. She'd pretended before. She could do it again. The light above her turned green. The headlights of passing cars burned her eyes. She stepped to the edge of the street, and stuck out a thumb.