I’ve been driving a long time before the road starts to climb. The sky has developed its own topography; impossible mountains hang inverted above their reflections as I wind up the road to meet them. Lightning strike feels like a real threat up here. I’d love a glimpse of a forked white tongue darting out to lap at some distant cliff face, but the clouds stay close-mouthed and mute. I drive on, with that solid weight pressing down on my head and shoulders, the pressure behind my eyes mounting to a scream. Eventually I realize it’s the engine. The storm refuses to break, and eventually I leave it behind.
I’m learning things fast the farther I am from home. After so much distance, each motel begins to look like the next. The colors change. The composition of the paintings and the textures of the bed. Often the water pressure leaves much to be desired. What stays the same is the sense of transience, the promise that soon all of this will be behind me. It’s why I’m out here.
Jobs wander into my life at odd intervals, and never stay for long. There’s almost always a local diner willing to give a girl a few bucks. My hands become cracked and dry from the harsh soap; the callouses on my feet harden as I spend day after day waiting tables. The smell of disinfectant sticks with me long into the night shift, which I spend offering meaningless smiles to strangers who look right through me.
After work, I’m too tired to do anything but sleep. It’s the daytimes that hold all the terrors for me, my hands numbly shuttling the plates and leaving my thoughts free to wander where they always do, where I least want them to. There is a place I can stuff my consciousness which is immune to thought and memory, but I waver from that path like a drunk trying to stay on the road.
You follow me everywhere. I feel your breath down the back of my neck, but when I turn around there’s nothing. I live in that moment, the act of turning, the point right before I remember you’re gone.
A series of caricatures begins to crop up again and again. The indifferent motel clerk. The penny-pinching restaurant owner. The maternal waitress. The lecherous businessman is a popular favorite, his arm slung around the bowed neck of a woman whose smile I don’t believe. Every time I leave one town it seems I bring the same people with me, the same actors changing sets. Every other car on the road filled with people I know and try to get away from. After a while I stop seeing them at all. I keep moving.
The mountains give way to flatlands. I am fighting backwards through manifest destiny, struggling against the current. The air is parched. The sun and moon are merciless. I am scalded and then frozen, the cracks in my hands expand into chasms, there is blood on the wheel of my car and the pages of the maps I paw through. Clumps of tumbleweed toss and turn out of a western and cross my path, transients heading for a different place than me. Always, the road.
Eventually and inevitably I reach the point where I cannot go on.
The money runs out; the gas shortly afterwards. I make it to a town whose name doesn’t stick and live in my car, working my way through stacks of backpacker’s meals shoved under the seats. My breath fogs the windows every morning. It’s getting colder outside. I wander the roads on foot, slip into libraries for their running water, feel cold. Possibilities march off into the distance like blazes on the center line. In the end they pass me by. I’m too tired to run, let alone to chase. The memories catch up with me, but I let them come and go without trying to hold on. They move around me: the contours of your eyelids, the wavelength of your laugh.
The time comes when I need a shower, a decent meal, a place to stay that isn’t the back of my car. I don’t want to wipe down tables anymore. The particles of food lodged under my nails turn to rot, and the greasy reek of cooking never quite washes out of my hair. There’s a drugstore with a tattered “help wanted” sign leaning in the corner of the front window. I get a job. I get a motel room. I stay there longer than ever before.
Over time, even the generic things are transformed. The seam of the wallpaper that’s coming unpeeled. The specific combination of turns and pressures to perfect the temperature of the shower. It strikes me that this room is different from all of the others, and gains more character the longer I spend in it. I wonder about all the previous motel rooms I’ve drifted through without touching or feeling anything, and whether I could have come to know them as intimately as this.
Technicolor bottles beam at me from the shelves as I push my Sisyphean cart up and down the aisles. My thoughts rattle with the wheels; a different sort of rotting overtakes me. I have never been good at staying still.
There’s a girl who comes into the shop. She buys cheap packets of makeup, candy bars, nail polish. She picks them based on the names, not the colors—Film Noir, Beets Me, Lemon Squeezy. She says that she works the next block down and needs something to make it through the day. A splash of color or taste. I notice her smile.
It’s most painful because it’s unavoidable. Like watching the swelling of a boil and knowing it has to burst, I wake up one morning to find that your teeth have been replaced by hers, your lips curve at a slightly different angle. I call in sick to work and spend the day clicking through photo albums, absurdly similar to cramming for a test, trying to remember how badly it hurt. I stare at our pictures until they burn on my eyes like the sun.
The next day at work I help her pick out a bottle of nail polish. It’s jewel-blue, with a name that makes me think of some faraway place, a sea so clear you could fall through it. I always insist on betraying myself.
For a while I’m happy, in a fragmented way. When the first snow settles in mid-September, scattering like powdered sugar over the flat roofs of the valley, I know it’s time to move on. The gravel crunches with frost under the tires of my car as I leave the motel, leave behind the wallpaper and desk clerk and girl I’ve come to know. I ache like a fever’s got me. I’m full of her colors like a chest full of seeds, but I need somewhere for them to grow.
The sky rolls into a glossy pink, strewn with clouds, darkening into violent reds and oranges, maturing into purple wine before solidifying into blackness. The air turns warmer as I get out from the shadow of the mountains, but every morning I wake with frost on my windshield.
Home is full of faces I had hoped I wouldn’t recognize. Tucked under hats and peeking over scarves, they walk through the streets outside my car like ghosts, full of memories and futures that are outside of my reach. I drive slowly down the streets I know so well, and see the same people who followed me through every town. I should have known I had brought them with me. I’ve carried worse.
The flower shop I used to frequent is still there. I don’t know what I would have done if it weren’t. The sweet candy smell of flowers hangs over the entire street, though the carts outside have been packed up in favor of heated climates.
Inside is a burst of reds and yellows and greens, like stepping into a color photograph. This close the smell is of birthdays, valentines, weddings, funerals. I select a handful of white roses—as many as my money will buy—and settle them gently on the counter. The man has whiskers growing out like roots and eyebrows as tangled as branches, and the look he gives me lets me know he remembers who I am. For a minute I’m afraid he’s going to try and give me the flowers for free, but he punches in the price and doesn’t say a word.
The lot is overgrown, yet it still looks barren. The blinds are all drawn, the windows boarded up, and in the dirt by the steps I see the chipped cap of a garden gnome poking up out of the ground where it’s always been. No one has lived here in a while, and somehow that’s appropriate; as soon as you left, it stopped being a home. The thorns prick my palms through the waxed paper they’re wrapped in.
I lay the flowers down on my doormat. There’s no one here to pick them up, and in a few days they will wither and blacken. Maybe they’ll stay here until the house is torn down, swept away with the chunks of foundation and plaster like a part of the structure itself. Somehow it’s comforting to know that I can mark the place that marked me.
It’s easier to leave than I thought it would be. I don’t even try the door. The smell of paint and grass seed follows me down the driveway, but for the first time I feel like I’m leaving it behind. For once, that doesn’t scare me.
I know where I’m going now. I start driving west, the same miles rolling back over me like waves on a beach. Going back is easier than it’s ever been before. The sky pulls me forward, that perfect shade of blue.
Amelia Fisher lives in Vienna, Virginia. She writes mainly SFF/horror, but dabbles in almost everything. In 2015 she received her BA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Find her on Twitter at @leemfish.