by Meredith Sullivan
It started out as a joke.
They’d all been in Paulie’s basement, smoking and half-watching Nightmare on Elm Street. Nathan was talking about his brother’s friend in Richmond, the cool one in a punk band. The one who travelled all over the coast and got free drinks at every bar and met girls in each city. Hell, that’s the fucking life, they all agreed. Live in a real city, do real shit. Shit that matters. Not like growing old and miserable in this backwoods place.
“Then let’s do it. Let’s leave.”
Lane wasn’t sure who said it. It could have been him, with Greg’s face burning in his mind as he thought the words over. Fear building in his chest that this might be his only chance, before this town beat everything out of him the same way it had done to his brother. Or maybe it was Paulie, red eyes and dopey grin, telling them he could be in a band too, he just needed to learn how to sing. Or Nathan, who had the connection in the first place, who wanted to prove he was just as cool. Maybe all three of them had the same thought at the same time, a hive mind born of equal parts desire for the rest of the world and hatred of their hometown.
And now here Lane was, laying paralyzed in bed, staring at the Mickey Mouse clock on the wall as it counted down the minutes til the rest of his life with the slow tick of its black and white hands. He tried to remember when he had gotten it; some Christmas, probably, from Grandma, or Aunt Ellen, or even Mom. God, it was loud. He didn’t think he’d ever noticed that before. The ticking filled the whole room, the noise pressing at the back of his brain. Even if he’d wanted to sleep, he didn’t think he’d be able to block out that sound. It felt like his whole body was on alert, waiting to pick up the slightest disturbance.
2 AM now. Paulie swore they would be there right at 2:15, but Lane knew his friends, and he knew the odds were fairly high that Paulie was only just now waking up.
Lane himself hadn’t slept. He’d tried, said goodnight to Greg at 11 and tucked himself beneath the covers, but sleep had never come. He could only think of the butterflies in his stomach and stare across at the clock, wishing time moved faster.
He rolled over to face the windows. The gauzy curtains never blocked much light, and the big tree in the front yard left a huge shadow across his bed and on the wall. When he was little, Lane used to imagine he lived inside the tree. He would lay on his bed and grab at the shadow branches and leaves. He almost reached out to do the same now, but just as he stretched his arm, there was a banging thud at the window.
Lane jumped up and rushed over before Paulie could throw another rock. What a dumbass, he could have cracked the whole thing. Lane hoped that alone hadn’t been enough to wake anyone; it had sounded like a gunshot in the eerie quiet of the house.
Paulie stood on the lawn, cigarette in one hand and a stone from the driveway in the other. He waved up when he saw Lane in the window, then made like he was going to throw the rock anyway. Lane flipped him off, turning away from the glass before he could see Paulie’s response.
He hurried back to his bed, grabbing the backpack he’d stuffed underneath yesterday morning. It felt too light in his arms, as if there was nothing at all inside. Lane almost unzipped it to check, but reminded himself he’d already done that too many times last night. He knew its contents by heart. Two changes of clothes and a faded track sweatshirt. His graduation money rolled up in one of the spare socks, the rest of his weed stashed in the other. Greg’s old walkman, complete with the new headphones he’d bought after working at the hardware store all summer. A drawing his little cousin Livvy gave him for his birthday last month.
Putting aside the weed, the drawing was probably his favorite item. It was three of them, her, Lane, and Greg, in front of Grandpa’s old orange couch. He thought the colored squares on the ground were the board games Greg loved, the ones he brought when they babysat. He pictured a pristine fridge at their place in Richmond where he could pin the drawing up, show it off to anyone who came by.
There was another clink on the window, and he figured Paulie must be chucking pebbles again. In the clutches of the shadow branches, Lane slipped the bag on his back and crept out the bedroom door. He tried to remember which floorboards were the creakiest as he crept down the hall, pausing at the top of the stairs.
The basketball portrait was still hung on Greg’s bedroom door. Lane eyed his brother’s smiling face, the gleam in his eye, the perfect curl that fell across his forehead. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw Greg that happy. The portrait was from his senior year, which meant he was Lane’s age here. 18, with his whole life ahead of him.
What had happened in four years? Enough to make the Greg sleeping in that room into an entirely different man. The boy in the picture was lost. Lane thought it seemed cruel that this version of Greg greeted his brother every night, that he had to come face to face with the person he’d so badly wanted to be. He wondered why Greg had never taken the poster down.
Against his better judgement, Lane reached for the door knob. He pushed it open as slowly as possible, just cracking the door enough to be able to see the figure sleeping inside.
Greg was curled up under his blanket, knees tucked to his chest. He looked young like that, younger than Lane himself. Like a little kid, napping in his parents bed.
Lane watched for a moment, just to ensure he wasn’t faking. But his brother’s form was still, save for the soft exhale of breath. Steady, rhythmic. Lane thought again of the Mickey Mouse clock on his wall. He imagined the ticking timed to Greg’s breathing, the way his brother was entwined with the house itself. The way he couldn’t leave.
He shut the door. The picture loomed over him once more, but Lane turned away from it and tip-toed down the steps.
Paulie was smoking a cigarette as he opened the front door. He tossed it on the ground after only one more drag, leaving it to extinguish on the sidewalk.
“Hey, man,” he gave Lane a crooked smile, nodding towards the truck. “Load up.”
Lane had drawn the short straw last night, forcing him in the back of the truck. He didn’t mind, really. The drive was maybe two hours, and all that really mattered at this point was that they got there. Lane would have stuffed himself in the trunk to be rid of this place.
“Here,” Paulie opened the back of the pickup, holding out his hand to give Lane a boost. He was almost glad to feel Paulie’s palm was sweaty; it meant he wasn’t the only one with butterflies.
His bag landed on the truck bed, and Lane swung himself up to sit on Paulie’s old mattress, which he’d half-heartedly tied down with rope. It looked liable to slide off the back and land on the highway, taking Lane with it.
“Try to keep down, it’ll be easier once we’re on the road.” Paulie said as he closed up the truck bed. “You’re good, right?”
Lane forced himself to nod. It was just like when Grandpa used to drive him and Greg into town; just sit low and hold on tight, and you’ll be fine.
“Great,” Paulie gave him another big smile. “See you when we get there.” He tapped his hand on the outside of the truck, like a jockey telling his horse to start.
Lane thought maybe he should say something else, but any words felt stuck so deep in his throat, so he only watched Paulie circle back around to the passenger door.
The car rumbled to life, and Lane eased himself back down on the mattress. He spread out his arms and legs, thinking of all the nights he laid awake in his own bed imagining this exact moment. It didn’t feel quite the same as he expected. It was less climatic, less bold. Lonelier, he thought.
Lane could hear Paulie and Nathan talking in the car. He wished he had someone back here to talk to, just to calm the butterflies growing in his stomach. For a moment, he pictured what Greg would say if he were here, before shutting that thought down quickly. There wasn’t any use in imagining that; he knew Greg would only tell him to stop being a selfish dumbass and get back home.
The truck sped up as they headed down Main Street, the bed rattling beneath him. Lane rolled over onto his side. He could just about see over the edge of the truck, enough to recognize the signs, read the names of the stores they were passing. Uncle Tim’s Sandwiches. Brightside Bakery. The tuxedo rental Greg had taken him to before prom.
They rolled to a stop in front of a pink and green striped awning. The familiar neon sign in the window was dark, but Lane already knew what it read: Professor’s Creamery. He’d loved the swirling red lettering since he was old enough to read, because it meant carefree afternoons and a banana split with extra nuts.
Dad used to take him and Greg there after basketball games. He’d hated playing, but he’d loved going out after. Sunday afternoons, the only time Dad was free. They used to be the first ones in when the store opened at noon, and Dad would even let him try five different flavors before he went with strawberry, like always.
He had brought Livvy there after her first soccer game, last month. The featured flavor was Grapenuts, and she’d ordered that before Lane had been able to tell her it didn’t actually taste like grapes or nuts.
She’d hated it after two bites, and they’d thrown the whole cone out in the trash right out front. He gave her the rest of his mint chocolate cone. That was Greg’s favorite, anyway.
He wondered if he could call Livvy when he got there, if Aunt Ellen would even let her talk to him once he was gone. For a second, Lane wished he had told her he was leaving, if only so she wouldn’t worry when he didn’t come to her soccer game this weekend.
At least Greg was still there to take her for ice cream and pick her up after school. She wouldn’t be alone, he figured.
The truck bed rumbled over a pothole, and Lane gripped at the sides of the mattress. In his dreams, the journey to Richmond had been significantly more secure; he hadn’t thought it would involve so much of his bones vibrating.
They drove past the elementary school playground, and he thought fleetingly of Greg teaching him the monkey bars, how to jump off the top like he wasn’t scared at all. He had broken his right elbow swinging from the highest rung, but it was almost worth it for how impressed Greg had been.
A loud bang on the side of the shook the image from his mind, and Nathan’s voice rang out.
“Keep down, okay? We’re getting on the highway soon.” He caught a glimpse of Nathan’s red hair before his head disappeared back into the truck.
Lane nodded, before remembering his friends couldn’t see him anyway. He rolled onto his back again, one hand reaching out to grab the strap of his bag, just in case. They were almost at the end of Main Street; he could see the branches of the cherry blossom trees stretched out over him. As the car picked up speed, they blurred like one of those paintings he’d seen on school trips, where you had to step way back to see anything at all. Up close everything ran together, nothing was unique. Nothing stood out.
Lane craned his head back into the mattress and closed his eyes as the truck rumbled onto the highway.