Annie and I — we scrape by on vapor and exhaust and a sweet tooth, stumbling into gas station after gas station on our way to California. When we walk in, Annie remarks that time is holding its breath. My hair is tucked into the collar of a flannel even though it’s so hot the asphalt is stuck to the heel of my shoe, my eyes shaded by a baseball cap. This gas station is governed by gridded lines, waist-high shelves, and the man in the plaid shirt taking a drag at the counter. The low ceilings, sixteen shades of off-white, hang themselves above our heads. Old cans shrug off paper labels like our fathers’ leather jackets, standing shoulder to shoulder.
The man in the plaid shirt glances at us and sighs. He knows as well as I do that this is nothing but a dream sequence - the moment before we wake up, before reality mugs us and flays fantasy from our skin. He looks like someone’s grandfather, as he fiddles with his wire-rimmed glasses and adjusts the button on his vest, right above where his heart would be. A Decade Of Service, it proclaims and I wonder the last time he entered a gas station and felt anything other than washed out.
Annie yanks open the freezer and feels its coolness on her sweat-slicked body. She acts as if every moment is a frame in a technicolor movie we will forget to look back upon, smears oil paints across her body, and isn’t afraid when people drag their eyes across it.
I already feel my bones hissing at me, dragging delusion to its knees. She looks me up and down, tells me it’s been two days since I've eaten, since she watched me crack an egg over the skillet and pick out the shells with shaky hands. Remember that? She leaned against the chair, her stomach disfiguring itself, watching as I choked down an omelet and stuffed tee shirts, all the same shade of weary enough to wash whites with burgundies, into a backpack. Annie knelt beside me and draped threadbare jeans over her arm, over the razor scabs and Sharpie and the mole on the side of her wrist. When she noticed me, kneeling on the bathroom tiles with an unfolded hoodie on my lap, she tugged the corner of my sleeve. I remember my body curling into itself, like the seashells sleeping next to the sink.
She knows I'm two kinds of empty, but tries to fix it anyways.
We crouch alongside the chips that expired years ago and empty our pockets. The metal beams are cold against my spine. She remarks that we have three hundred forty-four cents spilled across our palms - today’s lunch money. She says I’ll get more money from the car, but I tell her that everything is okay, that we’ll make this work.
I inventory aisles until my hands are holding zero-calorie gum and a Sprite. I hold the gum up to the glass window: skinny gum, oral fixation gum, satisfaction gum, what Annie calls starvation gum - but I slide the sprite back into the cooler. My stomach can’t handle bubbles, the way they pretend to fill a stomach. Annie forces a ham and cheese from the fridge into my palm. I tell her I can’t eat -- car sickness; annoying, right? -- but she scoffs and brings it up to the register.
As we walk towards her mother’s minivan, I let my mouth blow bubbles and tint the scorched parking lot blue. I can almost taste the way it dies. I taste the cavities - you know, the ones my mother told me that I never brushed away, no matter how many times my gums bled into the sink or the emptiness that told me to leave town for a few days after I realized I couldn’t look her in the eye.
I spit empty into the silver wrapper.
Annie tells me to eat my sandwich, as she swings the plastic bag branded with Have a nice day! back and forth.
When I cry, Annie holds me. I wonder when this reality will pop.
Miriam is an Indian-American writer from NH. She likes to tell stories and enjoys plunking out chords on her keyboard, humming along. Her work is forthcoming or published in The Heritage Review and The Rising Phoenix Review. She hopes you enjoy her work.