by Andy Meyers
An hour after we cross into Kansas, the hills give way to miles of flat, green fields and skies uninterrupted by earth or building. This is when Heather tells me every man she ever loved turned into an animal.
What do you mean, I ask.
Like, the first boy I slept with grew a stinger and turned into a hornet.
She says after they had sex, he crawled out her window and didn’t come to school the next day. She tried calling his house, but no one answered. Eventually, the phone stopped ringing all together. His parents came to the door when she knocked, but said he was away visiting his grandparents, even though they knew that she knew his grandparents were dead. She snuck into the backyard and peeked through his bedroom window. Through a crack in the drapes she saw him lying on his bed, curled up and wrapped in sheets in his bed so the back of his neck, which had become black and shiny, was the only visible skin. Something long and thin that extended behind his body from his tail, twitched.
The next day she delivered a letter to his parents, asked them to send it to the boy’s grandparents.
What did it say, I ask.
I don’t think we should see each other anymore. Get well, soon.
Nobody ever saw him again, she says.
That’s not true, I say.
Sure it is, she says. That’s where all my trust and intimacy issues come from.
I tell her she doesn’t have trust or intimacy issues.
We still have seven and a half hours before we get to Denver, I say.
We’re not going to make it, she says before reclining her seat and falling asleep.
The wind is so strong on highways in Kansas that at dusk it bends light, blows sunset straight into the eyes of anyone traveling west.
We still have five hours before we reach Denver, but my eyes feel warm and my mouth feels dry. I drift onto the rumble strip when I yawn. This only stirs Heather to rearrange, get comfortable before sleeping again.
I’m getting tired, I say.
She says her depth perception gets bad night.
I say I don’t want to drive either, so I pull off at the next exit that has a motel.
The Peoria Inn is half a mile off the road. The neon vacancy sign is lit. The two cars in the parking lot, we figure, must belong to a maintenance person and whoever is working the desk.
I park the car in front of the door and Heather asks if I would mind if she stays in the car.
I say I wouldn’t and leave the car running so the AC will keep her cool while she sleeps.
Dust covers the lobby like a thin layer of snow. Even the sheen of the plastic plants is dulled by dust. Despite the grime, the lobby smells like bleach. The guy behind the counter is wearing overalls and cleaning his fingernails with a pocketknife.
I ask him about food as he copies my ID and runs my credit card. He tells me The Olive Garden down the road will close soon, but there’s an all night diner down the road.
Good greasy things, he says.
He gives me keys to Room Twelve and tells me to call if I see any bedbugs. Heather is still asleep when I get back to the car so, instead of waking her, I take the bags from the trunk and walk them to room myself.
The room smells dust and looks dim. No overhead lights, only a table lamp with a thick, yellow, plastic lampshade. The table is a card table with foldable legs. This is where I put the bags. I check the corners of the mattress for bedbugs. It’s clean.
Probably because no human being has been here for years, I think while I rest on the bed.
Just a second, I think. Then we’ll go to that diner.
The last people who slept here are probably dead, I think.
Then I fall asleep.
A knock at the door wakes me up. I wipe the crust from my eyes and the drool from my cheek. The red LCD alarm clock says it’s two in the morning.
Let me in, Heather says from the other side of the door.
She tells me the car ran out of gas, and the guy at the desk told her he’d leave some for us at the front desk.
I guess we’ll have to wait, I say.
She says she isn’t tired anymore, but she could go for some food.
I tell her about the greasy all night place.
She says that sounds fine, so we head down the road, which isn’t lit. The yellow headlamps of a passing pickup and a few glowing windows from a the occasional prairie house miles away are all we have to see by other than the stars and the moon, nearly harvest, which is still a meager offering. There’s nothing around for it to reflect off, just air for it to pass through.
It must be hard to live out here, Heather says. Everything is so far away.
She has only ever traveled by plane and never West, and only to big cities with little to no breathing room. What’s a street where you can’t bump into someone? she asks. Nothing, she answers. She tells me this is why she stays so close to me all night when we sleep, because space separates people. She needs contact, closeness. But this is not how we sleep anymore. We now have separate sides of the bed, even the sag in the middle of our mattress is not enough to bring us together. She has tried to roll over and cuddle, but I run away. Her words. The only time I remember doing this I fell off the bed and burnt my back on a space heater.
I point out that you can see so many more stars here. You can see the Milky Way, I say.
She shivers and says she wishes she had brought a coat.
A coyote howls in the distance and I ask if she ever dated any boys from Kansas.
The Diner is a modified doublewide trailer located a mile and half from the hotel, at an intersection with gravel road. It has a big bright sign that says ALL NIGHT and nothing else. The smell of warm grease coats everything in the immediate vicinity. It’s worse inside. Other than me and Heather, there is a kidney-shaped man sleeping at a table by himself with a dozen empty cans of Bud and a stack of three plates, all of which have chili dripping off the side and onto the linoleum floor.
A woman in gray sweats and a dirty apron pulls a cigarette from her mouth and tells us to sit wherever we like. There are only three tables. We sit as far away from the kidney-shaped man as we can. She brings us menus and tells us that the sewage is backing up into the well, so beer is all they have.
I ask if it’s too late to be serving beer and she says hell no and do we want one or not. We do. She pulls a couple cans from cooler in the kitchen and tells us chilidogs made with one-pound dogs are on special, two for three dollars and fifty cents. We split an order, and she calls us cheap asses and microwaves a couples of dogs. She ladles chili from a crock-pot, enough to cover the plate. We eat carefully, making sure never to touch our forks or steal a little bit of the other’s bun.
What a story to tell the kids, Heather says. The call of the wild. The kidney-shaped man.
On the way home, she tells me about a boy who turned into an opossum.
He only ever ate junk food anyway, she says. Bad hygiene, too.
Why did you love him, I ask.
She tells me they would write funny songs together. She would sing and he would play the ukulele.
We performed in a coffee shop once, she says. It was fun.
Back at the hotel, I feel sick.
All that chili and humidity, I say. No good.
I lay by the toilet while she changes into pajamas. Once she finishes dressing, she finds me in the bathroom and feels my forehead.
You’re clammy but not hot, she says. Whatever it is, it’ll come out when it’s ready, one way or another.
Do you want to sleep in here, she asks.
I tell her I don’t want to puke on her and she says she would love to be puked on.
I tell her I don’t believe her and she says I never have.
I tell her I’ll come to bed if I start feeling better. She kisses my forehead and says get well soon.
I writhe on the bathroom floor all night and think that it’s not so bad. The bug will pass, and we’ll hit the road and be in the mountains in no time. That the fresh air will revitalize what it is we lost, and when she asks me what I think about a movie or book or painting, I’ll be able to say something more than it is dumb or it isn’t. This has been our problem. Exhaustion. We used to go to the Art Walk every first Friday and look at everything in every gallery. Every painting was a discussion. And it was dumb. How do the colors balance the composition? What does it mean to paint a medusa head on an illustration of a schoolmarm from a 1960’s picture book? I cared more to hear her say, huh, that’s interesting, in her lilting voice, which only took an opinion. But we learned to navigate these opinions so well. We shared so often that we learned each other’s taste.
I didn’t like it, I would say.
I figured, she would say.
I bet you did. Because of the way the purple had a little green in it. That’s your favorite color combination.
It is, she would say.
Old hat. She seemed to think this was us knowing each other so well we didn’t even need to finish each other’s sentences. We didn’t need sentences. This is when she started getting whimsical. Making up stories about her cat that could write short words with its urine. The tree she had that grew backwards and she could climb it to China. It was whimsical until she got mad when I didn’t believe that her grandmother was killed by a boa constrictor that got loose and wandered into the old folks community. I thought she was taking the bit too far when she cried, and then felt really bad when the story showed up on a You Won’t Believe It “News!” I avoided her whimsy after that. I only told stories that were true. I told her then about the time my sister and I wandered away from out campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park. We walked for an hour, turning off the path when we wanted, and picking up rocks and throwing them at trees. My sister got mad at me for being wimpy and fat, and I cried because I was thirsty. So we walked more until we found a stream and drank from it and got sick.
Heather said that sounded awful.
I said it was, but the empty space was nice. It was nice to be away from other hikers. Some people find other people stifling.
And she said, This is a weird way to tell me I’m stifling, and left for a walk.
When she came back she suggested we go to Colorado in the summer. I went along with it because it was easier than not doing it and I thought it may be fun.
I wake up on the bathroom floor, my cheek against cool tile, which feels nice. Heather runs her fingers through my hair. I smell coffee on her breath when she asks how I’m doing.
I say I’m fine, but her breath isn’t helping.
She tells me it’s been a while since she’s seen me without my shirt on. Says I have more back hair than she remembers.
I must be turning into a buffalo, I say.
She tells me I’m too kind to be a buffalo. Too kind or too kinetic, she can’t decide. Buffalo are so still, she says.
I’ve felt very still for a long time, I say, an entire night even.
We dress ourselves and pack and agree to drive somewhere else to eat breakfast despite the Peoria Inn’s offer of a “SUPER FREE BREAKFAST.”
Heather asks how long we have before we get to Denver.
Five hours, I say.
She asks when we’ll be able to see the mountains.
I tell her we’ll see the mountains a lot sooner than that. That it’s the flatness in Kansas that gets to people. That you can see for miles, into oblivion, even, and it makes you think you’re closer to things than you are, makes you think you’re places you aren’t.
You’ll wake me up when we can see though, she asks. Even if we are still far away.
I tell her I will.
Andy Myers lives in Springfield, Missouri. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Paper Darts.