Outside and through the passenger window Theresa noticed the last remnants of neighborhoods, places where an occasional garage light disappeared behind a satellite dish, or a vine- covered fence protected houses from the sight of the highway. The tires chirped at sixty-five and the five-liter put distance between them and the on-ramp within seconds.
Theresa said to the window, “But I don’t know anyone in Chicago, Ricky.”
Ricky put the cigarette to his lips like an instrument and it hung there. “But you will,” he said. The dash glowed pale. Ricky noticed the gauges, the oil pressure and tachometer doing what they were supposed to. “And really, honey,” he said. “Friends like that aren’t going to save you from the world. You can’t put people in your pocket forever and ever.” They traveled under Hundredth Avenue, its overpass, and a green sign for Dorr Township while Ricky ran his fingers through his curled hair.
“I know,” Theresa said.
“You should,” he said, and straightened his legs to the seat. “Because those kinds of friends have expiration dates, sweetheart. Especially when you have to move around. And actually be a strong person in your life.”
Next to her the reflectors on the guardrail flashed. “I’m wondering if you do,” Ricky said. He had his hand over his mouth and sucked in on the cigarette. He moved his hand to the wheel and said, “When people get older, you’re lucky if you can find a partner or two that can hang in there. That’s just how it is. We’re partners, right?” He reached over and rubbed Theresa’s leg. “We don’t have a choice in this, babe. We’re on the move. It’s just you and me now.”
“We really don’t,” Theresa said. “But can I hold your hand? Until we get out of here.”
“I’d love that,” Ricky said.
Raindrops peeled from the windshield and onto the roof. He clicked off the wipers and took her hand. The tires rolled perfect and she could feel the cool skin of Ricky’s hand moving upward on her leg.
“Hey,” she said.
“What? You don’t like it? I’m a crazy man with you here.” Theresa wiggled and pushed his hand toward her knees. “But you’re driving.”
“I can do both.”
He moved his hand toward the inside of her thigh and the left rear rattled over a bump while Ricky changed lanes from left to right. “It’s not a bad thing,” he said. “Plus, there’s no one out here to look.”
“Not yet,” she said. “Let’s just wait a little bit. Please. Here, take your hand back so you can drive good. It’s still wet out.”
In the road ahead Theresa noticed a bag, or maybe an animal lying dead, but before she could say anything, Ricky veered easily around the shredded rubber from an eighteen-wheeler. He took his lane again. Theresa lifted his hand away from her legs and set it gently on the wheel next to the other. She said, “You’re like the best driver I know.”
Ricky sighed deeply; he clucked his tongue between his teeth while silos fell over the countryside.
“I am getting kind of thirsty, though. Aren’t you?” she asked.
He drove and sat quiet for a few moments. Signs passed and the grumble of the engine pulled off at Exit 48. The car idled through the mist, turned left, and pulled underneath the lights of a Pilot station. Wooden apple crates were stacked in the grass. A J.B. Hunt, a Grabell, and a Roadway semitrailer were parked in the long weeds, spray-painted with black graffiti. The car stopped long enough for Theresa to get out. Ricky squealed a U-turn and stopped next to a pay phone. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, reached out the window, and took the phone. He looked blankly into the rearview mirror while he talked. Inside the station, at the counter, Theresa swiveled her hips and paid for two soda pops. She came back with the change from a broken hundred-dollar bill scooped in her shirt. She opened the door and hopped in. Ricky hung up, thumped into drive and headed south away from the lights of the Pilot station.
"Perfect,” Ricky said. The car doors locked.
“Look.” Theresa said. She danced the soda cans together on the console and the condensation imprinted the leather. “I got two for us.”
Ricky batted them away and dried the console with his sleeve.
“What do you want?” she asked. “Orange or grape.”
“You know what I want,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. The change in the ashtray rattled. Her eyes set in her lap. She compared the cans to each other. “Here. You can have the grape.”
She handed it to him and Ricky tossed the unopened can between his legs. He leaned his elbow into the door and pressed a hand hard to his lips, thinking of the future.
Theresa opened her can. Some orange liquid spilled down her chin. She looked to see if Ricky saw and wiped her lips. “Oh,” Theresa said, jumping in her seat. “There was this guy in there. Holy crapola.”
“A guy?” Ricky said. “Is this a joke? Why am I not laughing?”
“No. It’s no joke. He was the tallest person I’ve ever seen,” she said. “He was a monster.”
“A monster, huh? How much money we have left?”
“This much.” Theresa plucked the bills from her lap and dug deep underneath her legs for the coin. “But that guy,” Theresa said. “He was soooo tall. There was one of those hanging signs for donuts and he hit his head on it. I tried to say ‘hi,’ just to be nice like I didn’t care, but I don’t even think he saw me.”
From under his shirt Ricky took up his gold chain and ran his thumb underneath it. He said, “You didn’t happen to say anything else did you? Maybe about us? Maybe about where we’re going?”
Theresa’s eyes drew larger at the yellow lines of the highway flipping underneath the car. “No,” she said. “He didn’t even see me. He was really that tall. He was buying work gloves. The ones you use but bigger.”
“Pretty tall, huh?” Ricky said. He let loose his chain.
“Real tall.” Theresa said, lifting the can and drinking. “Tall people have it made,” she said. “You never see a super tall homeless person. I just thought of that. I’ve never seen one. Have you?” “What?”
“A homeless person that’s really tall. Have you ever seen one?”
Theresa turned back, took another drink and swallowed. “That’s one of my biggest fears. Being homeless.” She shivered. “You’d be so cold. And hungry. And lonely because you’d have nowhere to go but the sidewalk. Maybe under a bridge or something. But nowhere else.”
“There’s places,” Ricky said. “Sleep in a car if you have to.” “What if you don’t have a car?”
Along the fogged window, with the side beams of the headlights behind it, the heart and arrow Theresa had rubbed into it the day before were growing more visible. She made the arrow longer. “I’m just saying it’s the worst thing that could ever happen to a person,” she said. “Can you imagine that Ricky? Being like crazy hungry, and lonely all the time? You could die any day from loneliness. It would almost be nice to die. Like a relief.”
“Don’t talk like that. But really, how much money did you say we had left?” he asked. “Let me see it a sec. I have to figure out some things.”
“It’s right here—gosh.”
She slapped the money into Ricky’s hand. He steered with his knee, straightened and then shuffled through the bills one by one. He flicked on the dome light above him. Theresa watched his hands, the small black hairs on the bottom of his thumb knuckle, how the bills moved, and how he pressed his thigh against the wheel and set his eyes from the money to the road. He folded the wad, stuffed it into his back pocket, and snapped off the light.
“Ricky?” Theresa asked.
“How long before we eat? I’m feeling a kind of empty all the sudden.”
“Don’t,” he said. “We’ll eat. We just can’t right now. Don’t you feel like getting there? We just got on the road.” “Right. In a minute,” she said.
Ricky pressed his shoulder further against the driver door. Theresa leaned over the center console, reached over and put her arm around his waist. She lifted his shirt with her arm until the two of them were skin on skin. She set her cheek against him and nuzzled. “I can wait for you,” she said.
Next to the road, and at the bottom of a hill, a red billboard stood high on wooden support beams. The lights that shined toward the advertisement, a Christmas in July sale, were shadowed by pine branches. It disappeared and the road lay flat again as the clumps of trees grew darker and closer to the shoulders. Theresa’s arms grew warm against his stomach.
“You’re the love of my life,” Ricky said.
Theresa gripped at his side, still skin on skin as she squeezed him warm and dug her nails into his hip.
“Oh my God,” Theresa said, and gave a small moan. “Thank you.”
The mile markers flashed steady. There were ten or more between each exit where they could have either turned back or rested for the night. Ricky kept the speedometer where it was, tickling the eighty, and across a grassy median, a single set of headlights moved silently north. Ricky finished another cigarette, flicked it and blew out the remnants. Theresa rested her head along the leather interior. She pressed her lips together and watched a blur of tree trunks, farm clearings, and dented guardrails over the occasional river.
Without moving or rustling the leather Theresa said, “This is the boonies. I didn’t think there were so many boonies in this state.”
Ricky picked his teeth with his pinky nail and nodded slow. “Wouldn’t you say this is the boonies?” she asked.
He looked in the rearview and no longer saw the purple glow from the city. He said, “We’re definitely out there.”
“Is that Indiana in front of us? Way up there? See those antenna things?” Above the power lines Theresa pointed toward a set of red flashing lights as tiny as flea babies.
“We’re not even to Kalamazoo yet. What town did we just leave?”
“Easy. Grand Rapids.”
“No. The one we just left,” he stabbed his thumb toward the rear window. “Thirty miles ago.”
“That was a town? Where those semitrucks were?”
“Yes. There was a town, darling. It was called Allegan. There was a gas station in it, too. Remember?”
She crossed her arms, squeezing tight her breasts, and sneered her lip toward the window. “Duh. Fine. Allegan, then.” Ricky looked at her neck, the loose curls over freckled skin. “But you didn’t know that,” he said.
“So, I haven’t been to Allegan. Big deal.” Theresa huffed. “I don’t even care,” she said. “It’s not like I give a shit about it. There wasn’t anything there worth a shit, anyway.”
“Watch that. I’m not your father. I don’t let people talk to me like that.”
On the floorboards, Theresa’s butterfly flip flops rested next to her ankles. She sat on her hands and curled her toes. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Sure. You sound it.”
“I don’t want to fight. I don’t. Let’s not, okay?”
The rearview was empty of everything but the glow of their taillights. “This isn’t a fight,” Ricky said. “You always think that we are when we’re not. I’ve told you about this.”
“Then I guess it’s not a big deal,” she said.
“But it is.”
“Because I didn’t believe you. That’s why.”
“I don’t think it’s a fight. I didn’t say it was.”
“It’s not that,” Ricky said. “I didn’t believe you when you said you knew where we were. That’s what I mean.”
Theresa wiped her feet over each other and pulled taut her big toe with the other big toe. “So? Maybe I didn’t.”
Three gray strands curled over Ricky’s ear and he furled them back. He puckered. “I want you to make me believe it. You need to be able to. Where were we just now?”
“Allegan, I guess?”
“No. You know that. It’s the truth. Tell me we were in Grand Rapids. Lie. Like you did before.” He crouched slightly as if speaking to the air between them. “And make me believe it.”
“Fine,” Theresa said. “We were just in Grand Rapids.” “What were we doing there?"
The sides of the highway steepened to long grasses. Theresa watched her feet and spoke. “We were driving through,” she said. “Because you’re my boyfriend.—And I’m getting away from my hellhole life. And we’re moving to Chicago to be rich because my dad puts his hands on me and sends me to the hospital and I have the stitches in my leg to show. Fuck him. Like Holly-my- friend-that-you-hate says, fuck him.—And we’re getting on with our lives because we’re pretty much the bravest people ever.”
“That’s right. Never forget that. But it’s the truth, babe.” Ricky reached over, rubbed her thigh and said, “You gotta be careful of telling the wrong person the truth. They won’t understand. That’s why I was so worried when you mentioned the gas station guy.”
He turned his hand into a fist and lightly touched at her knee with the side of it. “A lot of people wouldn’t think of us as doing right. Even though we’re doing what’s best. So let’s try that again.” He popped her knee with his hand and rubbed. “What were we doing in Grand Rapids?”
“We were shopping.”
“No. That won’t work, Theresa.”
“Because the mall isn’t giving out trash bags full of shit. Not with curlers and holier than holey sweatpants. Maybe if we had receipts. But we don’t. So, what were we doing? And it doesn’t hurt to put a little truth into it, either. It helps you remember if you put some truth into it.”
Alongside the highway there was a rumble strip and another semi tire that had ripped and hurled itself away from the lane.
She laid her head back and spoke to the ceiling. “But I don’t like doing it, Ricky.”
“I’ll only ask you to do it this one more time. Ever. We have to, babe.”
Her head fell down and she looked at her hands as she tied her fingers together and spread them apart. “And then can we get something to eat?”
“Yes,” Ricky said. “—In Indiana.”
Ricky clucked his tongue again. The road curved west. Theresa curled her toes on the red and silver Z28 logo embedded within the floor mat. Without touching her Ricky said, “You love me, right?”
“Yes, I love you! Of course. Tell me you believe that? Please, tell me you do!”
“I believe you. Yes, that’s what I mean. Maybe that’s what you need to do. Lie like that. Like you tell someone you love them because I completely believed it. It’s that kind of honesty you need in the lie. Because you’re so sure about it. Think of it like that. Now, what were we doing in Grand Rapids.”
“Okay,” Theresa said. She put her hands out in front of her as if clearing her mind. “We were visiting one of your friends, then. A friend of yours you haven’t seen in a long time.”
“Sure. But what was his name?”
“Jeff was his name.”
Ricky tilted his head back and forth. “All right, Jeff what?”
“I don’t remember. He had black hair. He liked toothpicks.
And he was super tall. He was like a monster he was so tall. He had a feather in his cowboy hat, too—your friend, not mine.”
Ricky’s eyes moved from the road to the rearview. He thought he’d seen headlights. “Perfect,” he said. “What were we doing at my buddy Jeff’s?”
Theresa played with the chrome button on the glove box, pressed in her thumbprint and wiped it away. “He wanted to make us dinner,” she said. “You hadn’t seen him in ten years or something, and he wanted to have an entire feast with us.”
“Okay. But say three years. It sounds better.”
“Okay. Three years.”
“Keep going,” he said. “Think about it like it really happened.
And you believe it. What did we have to eat? What was his house like? What were we doing over there because we’re not supposed to be from Michigan anymore. We’re from Chicago, remember.”
Along the ceiling of the Camaro a small rip in the headliner hung down. She poked it and held her finger to it. Let it go, and then poked at it again.
“Theresa? Are you listening?”
She put her hands in her lap. “Fine. We’re from Chicago.” “And?”
“And he liked breakfast food.”
“Why? It’s the details that count on this thing. If you know every detail, every little piece, no one will be able to tell you you’re wrong.”
“I don’t know everything,” she said. She pulled her knees toward her chest and rocked. With her chin now resting there she said it. With her eyes watching how the country moved over her fingerprints on the widow.
“Maybe, when he was scared or something, or felt kind of alone, breakfast made him feel better. Like it does me,” she said. “And whenever he saw people he hadn’t seen in a long time, he always made breakfast food for them. Scrambled eggs with ham. That’s what he made for us.”
Ricky looked in the rearview again and he was certain a pair of headlights were there like shining pinpoints. “Keep talking,” Ricky said. “I like it.” He pressed the gas and the orange needle crept toward the eighty-five.
“His house was a big place, too. All wood. It was like someone had hollowed it out with a jackknife. I didn’t want to leave because he had a fireplace. I love fireplaces.” She nodded at that. “And when I was sitting there it was like I’d never be cold again in my life.”
“Sure. Fireplaces,” he said.
Theresa sat Indian style on the seat. The leather sighed and she laid her head back so her face pointed toward the window. The lights grew brighter behind them.
“And he missed you,” she said. “Because his dad died, or he just wasn’t there anymore. All of his friends, all the ones he’d ever had that mattered—they were gone, too.”
“And for a long time, he said if he had food, and a house, and a place to go back to every night, he was okay. He could live and be happy.”
“Sounds like Jeff,” Ricky said. He kept the pedal where it was.
“He said it wasn’t like that anymore, though,” Theresa said. “But we could come back anytime we wanted. We could stay forever, and never have to worry.”
Theresa wiped her face as a blue rest area sign grew visible in their high beams. The car Ricky had been watching in the rearview closed in and lit the interior just enough for Ricky to see Theresa playing with her toes. Ricky let go of the accelerator. The engine growled low as the Camaro’s turn signal blinked over the rumble strip. Ricky watched behind them and saw the orange flash of a blinker from the car following them. “I want you to remember that,” he said. “Jeff was his name. And that we’re from Chicago.”
The cars exited and coasted up the ramp. There was a fork and two paths, one for trucks with trailers and the other for passenger vehicles. Ricky took one, turned slow and parked. He cut the engine.
“Ricky?” Theresa asked.
The car behind them, a blue minivan, pulled up and parked near a set of stone wastebaskets.
“What is it?” Ricky said. He watched the van from the side mirror, its brake lights turning off and its door clunking and sliding open. Two children stepped out in matching red sweatpants. They rubbed their eyes. A woman in a baseball cap took their hands and trotted them up the lighted path toward the building.
“I don’t want to lie no more,” Theresa said. “I just don’t. Please don’t make me.”
Ricky put his hand on her leg and squeezed it. Theresa touched the hairs on his wrist and watched them bristle.
“You’ll never have to again, sweetheart. I promise.”
William Derks has published both fiction and nonfiction in journals such as Tinge Magazine, Lumina, and Midwestern Gothic. Currently he resides in Metro Detroit.