“You know, a bucket list. Like that movie.” I was in the kitchen making yet another cup of useless ginger tea. “So let me get this straight — in this scenario you’re an eccentric billionaire and I’m the voice of God?” Tommy dropped the pen and pad he’d been holding out to me on the kitchen counter and turned to go. “Sorry. Forget I said anything. It was a stupid idea.” I knew I’d hurt his feelings and should call after him, but I didn’t. I imagined picking up the pad and writing the only thing I really wanted five hundred times: live longer live longer live longer. I’d inscribe it over and over again like a kid in trouble at school and hope for the punishment to be lifted. But I knew it wouldn’t be. The blank pad stayed in the same spot on the kitchen counter for a week before Tommy gave it to me again, this time with three pages pre-filled. “Just for inspiration,” he said. A number of his entries — skydiving, mountain climbing, bull riding — were obviously lifted from a hit country song. But the sweet, dumb kid was trying so hard. I had to pick something. See the Pacific Ocean was buried toward the end of the list. I figured it would buy me some time. It took less than fifteen minutes to throw socks and toothbrushes into bags, gas up the car, point it west, and go.
We stopped correcting people who thought we were a couple somewhere in Ohio. A 5’1 white blonde and a 6’2 olive-skinned giant, nobody would ever mistake us for biological siblings, much less guess the ridiculous truth. About six months before my eighteenth birthday, Tommy was assigned to my final foster placement. He was thirteen and already a foot taller than me. I’d treated him with an old dog’s contempt for a roly-poly puppy and more or less avoided him until I aged out. But I recognized him when we were matched on a dating app a couple of years ago. We met up for coffee and both tried to play it cool. But in the space of a few cups of coffee we started calling each other little bro and big sis. It turned out that neither one of us was in contact with our biological or foster families. The person across the cafe table was the only echo of a family either one of us had. We practically imprinted on each other like baby ducks. A few months later, my roommate moved out just when Tommy was looking to avoid another year in the crappy UMASS dorms. So he moved in. And now the poor bastard is driving me across the country. See the Pacific Ocean. I’d been thinking about it the whole drive: going past the soft sand onto the wet, into the water up to my ankles, knees, waist, chin. Better Sylvia Plath than some shriveled up cancer patient. But I can’t. If only I’d ignored the dating app, blown off coffee. Because family doesn’t just mean people who can hurt you; it means people you hurt yourself to protect.
“I’m starving. Do we have any snacks left?” “Seriously?” Even on chemo off weeks, Tommy usually has to beg me to eat. I dig through empty wrappers on the dash, pop open the glove box. It’s a mausoleum of gas station receipts and used up air fresheners, but I spot something in the back. It’s a Magic 8 Ball. “What the hell?” “Maybe Ava’s?” He names an ex-girlfriend I heard about but never met. “Or it’s in here from when I bought the thing.” “Is there an all-night diner within ten miles of here?” I shake it and click on the overhead light so I can see the little round window. “Without a doubt.” “You could actually look it up on your phone instead of asking a half-assed Ouija-wannabe toy.” “Is Tommy a dumb ass?” I shake. “As I see it, yes.” He doesn’t know I left my phone behind on purpose. A couple of no-call-no-shows at the boutique and the studio and I won’t even have to explain. Not now, and not six to eighteen months from now. Within a few minutes, we see a highway sign for Denny’s and pull off an exit to Rapids City, South Dakota. Inside, we seat ourselves. A waitress drops off plastic-encased menus without so much as a “hello” on the way to top up someone else’s coffee. Still thinking about how my weight will translate into that leap or that lift, I open the menu and automatically scan for the “lighter fare” section. I find a box on page four labelled “selections under 700 calories.” Two whole grain pancakes and one measly egg. A cheese-less egg white omelet with a side of high fiber toast. A melon and cottage cheese plate. But it’s not like I’m ever going back to the studio. No more leaps. No more lifts. No more form-hugging leotards. No more of madame’s shouts: “Ballon, Samantha, ballon!” The next time I’m lighter than air, I won’t be floating across a stage en pointe. I’ll be ash scattered in the breeze. So fuck it. I flip back to the hero shots of sizzling sausage patties, stacks of syrup-drenched pancakes, centerfold omelets oozing melted cheddar. Our waitress brings coffee, takes our orders without writing them down, and doesn’t smile even once. Her name is Gladys according to the tag on her brown uniform, but she seems a couple of decades too young to be a Gladys. Maybe that’s why she’s so grouchy. As soon as it arrives, I dig into the not-so-short stack that accompanies the Lumberjack Slam. I am determined to enjoy every fluffy, maple-drenched bite. And the bacon on the side is greasy-crispy-salty perfect. “Maybe I’ll put eat bacon every day on my bucket list.” Tommy nods his approval. “We’ll eat bacon and eggs, bacon and pancakes, bacon cheeseburgers, BLTs…” “Okay, Bubba Gump.” “Loaded baked potatoes with bacon bits, bacon-wrapped scallops, bacon and waffles…” I pull the Magic 8 Ball from my purse: “Will Tommy ever stop reciting bacon-based foods?” I show him the reply: Very doubtful. He grins and continues: “Bacon and brussels sprouts, Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza—” “Does Canadian bacon even count?” I shake and query. “My sources say no!” Gladys arrives to refill our coffees, nods toward the 8 ball. “Careful, that’s how I ended up with my first piece-of-shit ex-husband.” “First piece-of-shit ex-husband?” I repeat. “Picked the next two myself. Not that it made a damn bit of difference.”
When we leave, I offer to drive so Tommy can get some sleep. But it doesn't last long. Less than forty minutes later we’re pulled over so I can yak up everything I ate and everything I drank and then add half a dozen dry heaves for good measure. There’s nothing like turning your guts inside out at 1:00 AM on the side of an empty highway to remind you why you’re on this damn dumb road trip in the first place. At least the bacon basically tastes the same on the way back up. I wipe my mouth with the edge of my shirt. Tommy hands me a bottle of water and switches back to the driver’s seat. “I’m changing. Don’t look,” I tell Tommy as I pop the trunk. I try not to think about the not-too-distant future when Tommy will probably have to look. When I’ll need help getting to the toilet, bathing. Will he be able to count my ribs? Or the ridged vertebrae all down my spine? Maybe I should let him look now after all, while there’s still something worth seeing. I take off my shirt and toss it into the trunk. It’s freezing out here on the damn prairie and I’m moving fast, but I can still see how different my body already is. My once-flat stomach is carved concave, hip bones sharp. My push-up bra has nothing at all left to push up. I yank on a tee and then a hoodie. I’m glad now Tommy is a good boy, staring at his phone and not at me. “Am I done throwing up?” I ask the 8 ball as we pull back into the westbound lanes. “Ask again later, it says. Piece of shit.” “Gladys did warn you,” he jokes. “I know, I know. This stupid thing reminds me of my oncologist: too chickenshit to give it to me straight.” Tommy goes quiet. He doesn’t like it when I badmouth Dr. Kaminsky. He’d like it if I trusted my doctor. Too bad. I’ve only had twenty-six years to learn it, but I’ve learned it down to my bones: you can’t trust anybody, not even yourself. One mutant cell, and then another, and it turns out the only thing you ever got from your deadbeat parents is a time bomb built into your DNA. For a couple of hours I’m not nauseous and not hungry and not awake and not asleep. Somewhere in Montana we drive a stretch of highway dotted with orange pylons. A sign warns of uneven lanes just before the smooth, brand-new blacktop ends. The old pavement looks like something chewed it up. The tires hum on the striated surface — an eerie, metallic reverberation. It sounds like auto-tuned whale song and it goes on and on. I can feel it in my teeth, and it sounds exactly like I feel. An echo of that ululating wail builds in the back of my own throat.
At 2:00 pm, we pull into a tiny beach access parking lot in Coos Bay, Oregon, three thousand miles from where we started. Tommy rolls the windows down, and we can hear the clamor and crash of the waves. “You ready?” he asks. “Yeah,” I lie. Really, I just want to sit here and stare at the back of the sand dune, watch the sea grass moving with the wind, pretend I have all the time in the world. We walk over the wooden beach access stairs and there it is. The Pacific Ocean: big and blue, breakers roiling in from the horizon. And it hasn’t bought me any damn time at all. It’s cold, and we both have our hands jammed deep in our pockets and our chins tucked to our chests. “You couldn’t have picked this one in July?” Tommy teases. I do the mental math: eight months. I might not be alive in July. “Want to walk?” Tommy asks before I can respond. He did the math too. “You go on.” He walks down the beach. I go down to the water and sit on the cold, damp sand. From here, the horizon is barely perceptible, the blue of the sky welded tight to the blue of the sea. I feel it like an undertow: the urge to go out past the breakers, beyond that imaginary line to nowhere. But are you really suicidal if it reminds you this much of an Everclear song? And anyway, there’s Tommy. He’s probably expecting me to do something here. Not walk into the surf with rocks in my pockets, but scream at the indifferent sea or pirouette at the surf line. Something. But that’s the whole point, isn't it? There’s nothing I can do. I get the bucket list out of my bag, tear and tear the three inked pages until they’re confetti and let the wind take them. I pull the 8-ball out too, and like an idiot I ask: “Will I survive this?” It tells me what I already know, no sugar coating this time. Tommy is walking back toward me now. “Will he?” I shake it for a long time before I look. Better not tell you now. Before he can get to me, I stand up and walk down to the water and wind up and chuck the stupid thing as hard as I can. “Gladys would approve,” Tommy says. “You ready to go?” “Not yet. I want to stay a while.”
Jenna B. Morgan’s prose is forthcoming or has appeared in Menacing Hedge, Barren Magazine, HeartWood Lit Mag, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in Fiction from George Mason University and currently teaches at a community college outside Nashville, Tennessee. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @byjennabmorgan.