It was Maggie’s idea to leave. I don’t know if I would’ve had the balls to do it myself. Maybe there was something going on in her life she hadn’t told me about. Maybe she just wanted it more—a chance to get away from a small Pennsylvania town where our parents lived in houses their parents had paid for, where most of the stores had “Space Available” signs in the windows, where a job at Walmart made you a success story.
I knew about Maggie long before I ever knew her. She was one of the first girls in our class to get tits, one of the first to smoke cigarettes and talk about “doing it.” She had the attention of every guy in school for a long time, but I never had hers until junior-year English. That’s when she noticed I was the only person in the room to get an A on a paper, besides her.
She introduced herself later that day by passing me a cigarette and saying, “This town is full of fucking idiots.” I didn’t smoke, but I took the cigarette, coughed my way through it, and realized for the first time that being smart could get me something else besides straight As and ass-kickings.
We started to date, which in our town meant that we’d drink in the woods during the warm months and drink in basements during the cold ones. Sometimes, just for variety, we’d hang around outside the ice cream place or the McDonald’s on the highway.
I had to be careful to never call her my girlfriend. She hated that, said that if I thought she was mine it was over. But it seemed like a fair trade off for a one-way ticket out of the land of the virgins.
The night we decided to leave, the basement of choice was her dad’s. We sat on a brown couch that was so old it felt like frayed rope. I was staring at Maggie, and she was staring at a TV on top of a milk crate. We were surrounded by cardboard boxes and some tools I knew her dad hadn’t touched in years.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
“There’s nothing else to do,” I said. “Let’s just hang here.”
“I don’t mean this house, idiot. I mean this fucking town. Let’s go on the run. Let’s just drive every day. We could live just like outlaws.”
It sounded good in the way that it sounds good when you hear an 18-year-old say, “One day I’m going to start my own business.” You want to applaud the ability to dream, but you know it will never happen; you know that kid has no idea what it takes.
“Yeah, that’d be awesome,” I said. I started to kiss her neck before adding, “You know I’d love to get the fuck out of this place.”
She pulled away from me and stood up.
“Well, let’s fucking do it,” she said. “You have a car. We’re both eighteen. No one has any reason to stop us.”
I wondered what it would take to get her mind off the topic, to get her to say I know. It’s just that this place gets to me sometimes. The problem was, what she was saying made a lot of sense.
Neither of us had siblings. All we had was a single, alcoholic parent. Both of them would probably be happy in some way that we were gone. And our friends, our friends were a bunch of assholes. They were going to die in our town. The question was just whether it’d be from an overdose, a lengthy prison sentence, or some cancer they couldn’t afford to treat.
So I said okay, and a few days later we packed my 1998 Ford Taurus with a few bags, sold off some shit at a pawn shop, and left. We drove west.
Within a day, somewhere in Ohio, where the big state roads looked just like the big state roads in PA, I already started to wonder what people on the run did.
We spent the afternoon in a park tripping on ’shrooms that Maggie had brought along. It helped to crush the boredom and turned the world into a Willy Wonka version of itself.
I wandered down a trail, mesmerized by the color of the leaves on the trees. I stopped to focus on the sound of my sneakers as they dragged across the dirt and small stones. It was all amazing.
I found Maggie in an open field where some families were having picnics. She smiled more widely than I had ever seen. She spun in circles through the field, rolled down a small hill, and just kept telling me that she had forgotten about how important the sun was. It felt good to see her free. It made me remember what it was like to be a little kid, when the future was never close, never tangible and threatening, when you could spend hours just having fun, not feeling bored or angry or disappointed.
I got depressed as the drugs waned, though. I realized how short my childhood had actually been. I remembered how quickly I had gone from action figures and cartoons to stealing liquor from my mom and smoking shitty weed out of soda cans.
When we got back in the car, I tried to ignore the idea. I just thought about Maggie instead.
By the next day we had reached the western edge of Ohio. We got off the main highway and drove north a bit to see Maggie’s cousin Troy—the only thing we had on our agenda.
He had a small house that looked a lot like the ones in our town, complete with the Christmas lights that were still up in March and the cars that had been parked so long weeds had grown around them.
Troy was in his thirties and when he wasn’t delivering office supplies, he sold weed. He was excited to see Maggie and we smoked a few bowls with him and his friends in a cluttered living room.
It felt good for a while. We laughed at bad jokes, ate chips and gummy worms, made observations that seemed deep, but would soon be forgotten. It felt better than being at home.
But then Troy turned to me from the other side of the snack-littered coffee table.
“So what,” he said, “are you fucking my cousin?”
I laughed, but it was clipped and nervous.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I started to rub my hands on my knees.
“What, that’s funny? Fucking my cousin is funny?” he asked.
His eyes looked rabid. I stopped moving my hands and realized he reminded me of the guy we sometimes bought weed from at home. This guy would suddenly get all intense and ask if you believed in Jesus when all you wanted was an ounce of weed and maybe some Xanax. But Troy’s intensity looked more violent.
“I don’t think it’s funny,” he said. “She’s a beautiful young woman, and I want to know if you’re fucking her or not. This is a serious fucking conversation here.”
My mouth was dry. The music—some Led Zeppelin song—seemed to suddenly lose all of its volume. I could see Maggie taking a bite from a pretzel. She stopped chewing and sighed.
“Yes! Alright,” she said. “He’s fucking me. Christ.”
I swear Troy stared at me for another five minutes before he spoke again.
“My little cousin rolls up with some guy and I’m not supposed to find out if he’s fucking her?” he said. “Shit, it’s not a fucking hard question to answer. I mean, Dave, you fucking your old lady?”
“Not right now, I’m not,” Dave said.
There was some laughter.
“Everybody see that?” Troy said. “See, it’s a simple question to answer.”
Maggie reached forward and picked up a bag of Fritos from the table.
The night didn’t get much better. I had been looking forward to sleeping on the pull-out couch in Troy’s living room. It had been a few days since I had had sex with Maggie—she said the car was too cramped for it—but once we had the extra space, I couldn’t even touch her. I could hardly even sleep. Whenever I started to doze, I’d swear I saw Troy standing in the corner staring at me, waiting for an answer.
It didn’t feel like any road trip novel I had ever read.
Two days later in Indiana I came back to the car after taking a piss to find the backseat littered with candy.
“What’s all that?” I asked. “We got to start being tight with money. I thought we agreed, no more bullshit stuff.”
“It’s fine. Get in,” Maggie said.
“How much did it cost?”
“Nothing. Get in.”
I got into the passenger seat. Maggie started the car.
“I swiped it,” she said. “Just like an outlaw.”
“All of that?”
“Yeah, the guy behind the counter was helping some old lady carry bags of ice to her car, so I went wild.”
I had to smile.
“This trip was getting boring anyway,” she said. “How can we feel like we’re on the run, when there’s nothing to run from?”
The stealing escalated. Some of it I supported. We got hungry and rather than spend money, we could just eat the bread and pre-packaged cheese that Maggie snuck out under her coat from a convenience store.
But she was also taking junk. When we crossed into Illinois my rearview mirror had sixteen air fresheners hanging from it. In the backseat, we had silverware from diners, a souvenir snow globe, four road atlases, a package of D-batteries, and a handwritten sign advertising live bait.
There was only one close call. Maggie had grabbed a napkin dispenser from a wooden picnic table outside of a hotdog stand, and the owner was out of a side door in a hurry. He chased her towards the car with his stained apron flapping. Luckily I already had the engine running, and we were able to drive away.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked as we pulled back onto the highway.
“Living on the edge,” she said as she tried to catch her breath.
“What the fuck. We don’t even need that. What do we need that for?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“Then why did you take it? You know that if that guy got my license plate number, we are fucked. Every cop on this highway is going to be looking for my car.”
“Because of a napkin dispenser? Come on.”
She was right, but I was angry.
Eventually she fell asleep, and I just stayed angry. Even the sight of her sleeping—her hard exterior finally softened—couldn’t calm me down. It felt too much like we had just taken all the bullshit with us on the road.
By the time we got to Iowa we were broke. I had insisted on holding all of our cash, and there was only fifteen dollars in my wallet. Maggie said it didn’t matter. She said she had a friend in Minnesota that could help us out with money. When I asked her what she meant, she just smiled.
“You worry too much,” she said. “You think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid worried so much?”
She was so confident that she insisted we stop in Dubuque and eat in a diner that faced the Mississippi River. I told her we could only spend ten dollars on food; we needed the rest for tolls we might hit.
In the booth I ran down the price column of the menu, making my selection. I ordered a plain hamburger with chips, instead of fries, and a glass of water.
“I’ll have the open-faced roast beef meal with the mashed potatoes,” Maggie said, “and a chocolate milk shake.”
As the waitress walked away I stared at the menu and did some calculations.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“What?” she asked as she took one of the mini-creamers from a bowl on our table.
“What you ordered costs thirteen dollars. We don’t have enough money for that.”
Maggie opened the creamer and downed it like a shot.
“Stop fucking worrying,” she said.
“I need to go cancel our order,” I said.
“Sit down. We don’t need to cancel anything. After we finish I’ll tell her my stomach doesn’t feel good. I’ll ask her to check the expiration date on the ice cream and while she’s in the back we’ll run out of here.”
“That’s stupid,” I said. “Why are you doing this?”
“Stealing all this shit, putting us in situations we don’t need to be in.”
“Don’t be such a pussy.”
“I’m trying to make sure we can keep living like this. I’m trying to make sure we don’t have to go back. I’m trying to make sure we can at least get to Minnesota.”
“We are not going back. Don’t you worry about that. We are never going back.”
“Well every time we do something like this it means we have a better chance of going back.”
“How? I’m saving us money.”
The waitress came back with our drinks. I took a sip of water and tried to calm down. Maggie drank another creamer, then opened a packet of sugar and dumped it into her mouth.
While we were eating, a large man in the booth attached to ours stood up. He was well over six foot, with a slab-like chest that seemed like it would be impossible to dent. He had slicked-back black hair and thick, black-framed gasses. He was wearing a black t-shirt and cuffed jeans that looked brand new. He approached our table with a slow, swaying gait.
“Listen,” he said. “I don’t want to make you two uncomfortable or nothing, but me and the wife overheard your conversation, and well, we’ve been there. So I was thinking maybe this dinner could be on us, and then, if you got nowhere else to go tonight, you could stay at our place.”
“This isn’t like some weird swinger thing, is it?” Maggie asked.
The man laughed. It sounded too deep, like it hurt.
“My wife told me I’d sound like some kind of creep if I came over, but like I said, I’ve just been there before. I spent too much time hitchhiking, broke, hungry, no options. Now I’m all good with my job, so I figure, what the hell, why not help somebody out that’s going through what I went through.”
I looked at Maggie, waiting for her to look at me. I thought we’d have some sort of exchange. Instead she took a sip of her milkshake and then turned back to the man.
“Okay,” she said. “As long as you’re not some creep.”
He laughed again.
“Well, I’ll let you eat in peace,” he said. “Afterwards you can follow us back to our place.”
After he had returned to his booth, Maggie smiled at me.
“See,” she said as she scooped up some mashed potatoes, “Nothing to worry about.”
After we finished eating the man introduced himself as Greg and his wife as Grace. Grace was a small, plump woman. She looked like she’d break if Greg hugged her. Like her husband, she was wearing thick, black-framed glasses. Her right arm was completely covered in tattoos, a mixture of koi, Asian-looking waves, and pagodas.
Greg and Grace drove an old pickup truck, and we followed them through the streets of Dubuque and then out onto a highway. Greg had warned us that their house was “off the beaten path,” and that we would have to be careful on the back roads.
Maggie seemed in high spirits. She sang along with the radio and occasionally poked me in the ribs as we drove.
“We got this criminal thing down!” she said.
“Should we come up with an escape plan?” I asked.
“An escape plan for what?”
“What if they’re psychos? What if they’re going to kill us? Or what if like they are just going to call the cops or try and convert us to be Jehovah’s witnesses or something?”
“How many Jehovah’s witnesses do you know with tattoos like that?” Maggie asked. “I think you’re looking at this the wrong way. It’s not what they can do to us; it’s what we can do to them.”
I didn’t answer. We had pulled onto a bumpy, dirt road. There were no street lights, no visible cities in the distance. Occasionally there was light from the window of a trailer. But then the trailers faded and small ranch homes appeared. Greg and Grace pulled over in front of one of these.
When we got out of the car Greg turned towards us.
“I hope them roads didn’t fuck up your suspension none,” he said. “They’re putting in blacktop in a couple of months, but believe me, a house is a hell of a lot cheaper when it only has dirt roads leading towards it.”
Inside, we all took seats in the living room on some large, comfy sofas. Things were awkward at first. It was clear Greg and Grace didn’t want to pry, and that made it hard to start a conversation.
“You guys really like movies, huh?” Maggie asked after a short silence.
The rest of us followed her gaze. There were two bookshelves full of DVDs next to a large, flat-screen TV.
“Yeah,” Greg said. “And with that TV and the surround sound, it’s just as good as going to the theater in here.”
“We’re sort of homebodies,” Grace added.
The room grew quiet again. Maggie got up and started to read the spines of the DVD cases.
“Anybody want a beer?” Greg asked.
I saw Grace give him a look—a look that told him to consider our age—but Greg simply responded, “Come on, like you waited until you were twenty-one.”
“That would be great,” Maggie said.
The beer seemed to do the trick. With each can we killed off, more of the awkward silence fell away. I tried to keep up with Greg, but the guy was able to down two beers before I could even finish one.
Maggie and I talked a bit about home, but we did it in a way that made it sound like it was simply a place we had grown up in, a place we wouldn’t recognize upon return.
Greg told us about his job. He was a blackjack dealer on a riverboat casino that floated on the Mississippi near Dubuque.
“Tell them about the jumper,” Grace said. She giggled a bit, a giggle that hadn’t existed before the beer.
“Oh man,” Greg said. “So we get plenty of tourists, plenty of old folks—the people you expect in a casino—but we also just get some gambling junkies.
“This guy a couple weeks ago, I could see him sort of shaking while he was at my table, but he wasn’t even drinking. He lost a few hands, and he looked like someone had just called from a hospital to tell him his wife had died.”
Greg paused to take a drink. The loose smile on his face reminded me of my uncle Jim, six beers deep at a barbecue, bragging about some fish he had caught.
“He leaves my table,” Greg said, “but I kind of see him at some of the other tables. He’s playing craps, he’s watching some roulette. I sort of lost track of him, but then I heard someone start yelling.
“ ‘That was it! That was my last fucking dollar!’
“And it’s the guy! He’s all worked up and screaming, ‘Never a fucking break for Kevin Sanders! Never a fucking break!’
“Security shows up, and he just makes a break for it. He runs out onto the deck, and he’s still yelling. ‘My last dollar! How can a man live without a dollar!’ And security is trying to calm him down a bit. And then he screams, ‘No, it’s over. I’m ending it! My blood is on your hands! You took my last fucking dollar! It’s rigged! You rigged it and you killed me!’
“And he just leaps over the railing! But the thing is we’re probably only like ten feet above the water. It’s like jumping off a high dive. So the guy smacks into the water, but then he bobs back up and just starts screaming for help. They throw him one of those rings, and a few minutes later, he’s out of the water.”
We all laughed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the fifteen dollars in my wallet.
“Have you checked on the kids since we’ve been home?” Grace asked.
Maggie and I exchanged a look and Grace laughed.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “That’s just what we call our pets. We have a—”
“Let me show them Zilla!” Greg suddenly blurted as he stood up from the couch and sloshed a bit of beer from his can.
“No,” Grace said. “You’re drunk. You are not taking him out.” She turned to us. “Zilla is a Gila monster; they’re poisonous.”
“I’ll be careful,” Greg said.
“No! Just make sure they have food and come right back.”
Greg huffed out of the room.
While he was gone Grace grabbed some blankets and pillows and helped us make beds out of the two couches in the living room.
When Greg came back he look disappointed.
“I thought we were going to have a few more beers,” he said.
“You’re already drunk,” Grace responded, “and you’re working tomorrow. I think we all need some sleep.”
After things had settled down, after Greg’s heavy footsteps could no longer be heard in the back bedroom, I walked from my couch to Maggie’s. She looked up at me as I slowly lowered myself on top of her.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
I started to kiss her neck. My right hand fumbled to find its way under her shirt while my left hand tried to keep me balanced on the narrow couch.
“Stop,” she whispered.
“I’m trying to think.”
“Think about what? You know we haven’t had sex in like a week.”
“I’m coming up with a plan. And that’s more important.”
“Maybe to you.”
“Seriously, stop thinking with your dick for five minutes.”
I sat up, frustrated. I wanted to raise my voice, but the fact that she was actually considering our future, that she was thinking about how we would survive with no money, was something.
“Okay,” she said. “So we wait about an hour. That will guarantee they are asleep. Then we definitely take the DVDs. The TV will be too big, but I saw an iPod in one of those docking things out in the kitchen, so we can grab that too. There might be some—”
“No way,” I said, “We are not going to rob these people.”
“Oh my god, stop being a pussy. You said earlier that we need money, well here’s how we can get it.”
“You’re nuts. They bought our dinner. They are letting us stay here. I am not taking anything from them.”
Things were quiet for a bit. I saw a car drive by outside the front window.
“Fine,” Maggie said. “Just go to sleep then. I’ll think of something else.”
A loud, guttural sound woke me up. Then I heard Greg’s voice murmuring, “Oh, shit. Fuck,” and I realized he was puking. Because of his size, it sounded monstrous.
I turned towards Maggie’s couch; I knew the sound would have woken her too, and I wanted to smile, to share the joke.
But she wasn’t there.
I got up and walked into the kitchen. She wasn’t there either. I came back into the living room thinking I needed to check the other rooms, the ones I hadn’t seen last night. Maybe she had gone to see the pets, or was taking a piss, or talking to Grace. But then I noticed the empty bookshelves. All of the DVDs were gone.
I went to the front window and looked out. My car was gone too. I stared at the marks it had left behind in the gravel. Maggie was gone.
I heard Greg opening the bathroom door, and I knew he’d be in the living room soon enough.
I looked out the window again. I imagined her pulling the car up in front of the house with a screech. She would push the passenger-side door open and tell me to hurry. I’d jump in, she’d speed off, and then I would yell at her while she laughed that crazy, life-affirming laugh.
But the car didn’t show. The undeveloped roads and dirt plots surrounding the house looked like a wasteland. I could run for miles and find nothing out there.
I heard a door open, and I felt a single drop of sweat draw a cold line down my back.
“I’ll be fine,” Greg was saying. “I just need to start some coffee.”
He was walking towards me like a swaying bear. I struggled to think of the first thing I would say to him. I could offer to pay him back. I could explain that she had robbed me too. I could just say sorry, and then say it again and again and again. I could tell him I was just a fucking kid.
But I knew no one was going to throw me a life preserver. And for the first time in a long time, I just wanted to go home.
Matt Whelihan is an assistant professor of English at Wilmington University. His fiction and journalism have appeared in publications such as Slice, Cleveland Scene, and Punk Planet, and he has stories forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic and Good Works Review. He also recently received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers contest.