|3000 Miles, Plus Squirrels
Author: Guede Mazaka
“No. The last time I let you drive, you rammed a fire hydrant.”
“Because people were shooting at us!” Throwing up his hands, Galahad spun around to stare at their car. “Besides, I’m not sure you can even dent this thing.”
It was brown. It was big. It was old, and it had aged about as well as an African dictator. The bumper sagged in a way that said it wanted to chew up all the cute little compacts and get right to headbanging with the semis. The headlights sat way back in their sockets and glowered unlit at the world. When the lights were on, it probably looked like the automotive version of a Horseman of the Apocalypse. The stuff beneath the hood was brand-new, worked up to L. A. speed standards and therefore guaranteed to stretch out every drop of gas plus floor it to over a hundred in less than five seconds.
“Hey, don’t be trying nothing.” K backed up against the dumpster, put his hands on the lid and hoisted himself to the perch. His dreads rattled a scold before he flipped them out of the way. “It’s my cousin’s car. You two only get to drive it cross-country. He’ll have my ass like a biker pansy if anything happens to it.”
The only reason Galahad heard Gawain’s sigh was because he was listening for it. Normally Gawain wouldn’t care—swearing like that was standard for the streets—but ever since he’d dumped his on-off uptown boyfriend two months back, he’d been a little touchy.
“Yeah, we know. Thanks again, by the way…your cousin’s got a beer cooler where the glovebox should be.” Gawain backed out of the front passenger entrance and went around back to pop the trunk. His eyebrow shot up another inch. “Rifle racks. I thought you said he was a Music major.”
“Uh, well, no, the beer cooler’s mine. Thought I’d leave it in for you two—couple minutes with a screwdriver and it comes right out. Rifle racks are Bed’s, though. Music don’t mean peaceful, y’know. Haven’t you been keeping up with the rap beefs?” It was an unusually warm day with plenty of sun and K being K, he’d stripped down to everything except his ratty jeans. The dumpster lid had to be scorching, but he laid back on it easy as anything and kicked his bare feet up in the air. Wriggled his shoulders and arched his back. “Hell, that’s it. Char me a little more, baby.”
Galahad rolled his eyes and looked at Gawain to share the joke, only to find the other man belatedly giving himself a stiff shake. Which made Galahad nearly puke, since aside from K being like another brother, he was a very, very straight conceited lazy-ass who didn’t always shower enough and who tended to vomit his hangover all over other people’s hair. If Gawain was to the point where he was even considering…yeah, it was about time he left for greener pastures. As for Galahad, he had been starting to strike out more than he hit with the neighborhood chicas, so he had a feeling the number that had heard of him had finally overtaken the number that hadn’t.
“We don’t need them, and they’re taking up so much space in the trunk. Think we could just strap them to the roof?” Various thuds and groaning sounds ensued as Gawain messed around in the trunk. Above him, the trunk lid hung wobbling like a gigantic jaw.
Some girls across the road had most of K’s attention. “Yeah, and call them deformed bike racks. I thought you two were taking souvenirs with you.”
Yeah, they were, but those weren’t exactly legally licensed and un-implicated in any recent crimes, so it’d be damn stupid to rack the guns where any cop doing a search would find them. They were dissembled and carefully hidden throughout Galahad and Gawain’s…meager luggage, with the two pistols they really needed to get rid of wrapped up separately for easier disposal. Nice thing about having fuck all was how simpler it was to move, Galahad supposed. Of course, sometimes it turned into moving because there wasn’t much, and that was a complete bitch of a life.
“No, wait…they’re collapsible.” On the tail end of Gawain’s comment came a ferocious clattering that scared the living shit out of everything. The girls shrieked and dove for doorways. K flipped right off the dumpster and slapped a hand down on the semiautomatic beneath his puddled-up shirt at the same time his feet hit the ground. Galahad nearly slammed his face on the concrete.
Someone banged open a window. “The hell is going on down there?”
“Sorry!” Gawain emerged from the trunk with a sheepish expression and hands nicked all over with grease and blood. He smiled apologetically up at the woman hanging out of the fifth-story room and she unconsciously started to finger-comb her hair before she remembered she was pissed off. The window whacked shut and Gawain looked around at everyone else. “Sorry. Really.”
“Fucking reflexes,” Galahad muttered. He pushed himself up on his hands and knees, then figured he might as well stay down on the ground. The rear wheel made a nice prop for his back. “Christ, grad school’s going to be fun. Somebody drops a book and we’ll go nuts.”
A sneaker came at him. Shitty thing reeked so bad Galahad was actually putting up his hand to wave away the smell and only batted it away by accident. “Hey, fuck you, K. What was that for?”
“Stop your bitching, man. You getting out. And paid to do it, too.” The other man was suddenly all seriousness, squatting on the cracked pavement before Galahad and swinging his gun between his legs. He tapped the muzzle tip against the ground. “Wish I had half your brains, you know. Hell, maybe then I could get that nice grocery store and…a big fat wife and a bunch of brats. Fuck—nah. But still—”
“Yeah, yeah, I get you. Put that away. We aren’t that far into the neighborhood; cops actually cruise out here.” Galahad reached over and batted the gun out of sight. Behind him, Gawain had gone back to straightening out the trunk and had apparently missed the entire conversation.
Good thing, since Gawain was already edgy as hell about their little delay. He pulled extra shifts as a janitor in a local community college just so he could get to the computers and fret even more about textbooks, cheapass laptops, their apartment, their course of study…and then there were the bodies. Which weren’t actually around, but they might as well have been handholding Gawain. They worried Galahad, too, but not nearly that badly. He’d done all he could do to take care of that, and if he thought about the mess anymore he was bound to fuck up.
The trunk lid slammed down, but this time, everyone was ready for it—people adapted quick around here. As Gawain turned around, he swiped the sweat off his forehead. A kind of crazy, childish grin was bouncing around his eyes. “Okay. Let’s load up.”
“All right. Goin’ to Nooo Yaaark,” K crowed, dragging both himself and Galahad to their feet. He slapped Galahad’s shoulder, then grabbed Galahad and tried to wring his wrist before Galahad could return the favor. It ended up a draw. “Don’t you be forgetting the—fuck, who am I kidding? Hell, forget about us. But remember to get rid of those two…things.”
The damn guns, he meant. And the neighborhood, in a way.
They were all flashing teeth, but for a moment everything went a little cool and sober. The neighborhood hadn’t been exactly heaven, but still, Galahad owed it a few seconds.
Then he nodded and sucker-punched K on the arm. “Yeah, we know. Drop a bit in Nevada, toss another bit in the Mississippi.”
Gawain came around to join in the leave-taking. He didn’t play it quite so casual and it made both him and K uncomfortable, but the set of his jaw said he was going to do it this way and that was that. When his hand went out, so did K’s, and the two of them made a fist together. “It’s been good,” Gawain said, years echoing in his voice.
“Yeah, it been.” Dreads barred K’s face from view as he briefly bowed his head. Then he and Gawain nonchalantly parted, as if the air hadn’t just been weighty as a judge’s gavel. “Hey, so we packing the guns first or the beer?”
It looked like Gawain needed a bottle of aspirin poured down his throat. “How about the clothes? And all the useful shit you stripped out, like the spare tire?”
“Yeah, yeah, we can do those too,” K hastily said, holding up his hands.
Now Gawain looked like he needed something illegal shot into him. But he didn’t say a word—just walked inside to get the first box.
“Fuck! He’s still got the keys!” Galahad ran in after him.
* * *
After having it pointed out to him that it took some complicated road changes to get on the I-10 from where they’d started, plus the fact that they were going to hit rush hour traffic, Galahad stopped whining about not getting to drive. Gawain breathed a sigh of relief and slouched behind the wheel, which he smacked around with one hand whenever a space opened up. They were starting a little later than he’d wanted to, but they should be able to make up time once they’d hit the desert. So the only problem was that they’d be driving that during the hottest part of the day, and all the A/C had been rerouted to cool the beer.
Something squealed—Galahad trying to roll down the window a bit more without letting in too much dust and car exhaust. He inched it till they started coughing, then stopped. “How much longer till we hit I-15?”
“You are not going to start that. We’ve got three thousand miles.” A long stretch of highway suddenly jolted to life and Gawain with it. He zipped for as far as he could before the traffic settled into its smelly, cursing state of impatient stillness once more.
“Hey, it was a simple question! Christ, do I look like I’m a five-year-old?” Pause. “You son of a bitch. I’m turning on the radio.”
Thank God they liked the same kind of music, so Galahad couldn’t piss him off too much. The other man fiddled around with the radio till he found their favorite station, then popped a beer from the glove compartment. When he flipped the cap off and out the crack of open window, the hiss the bottle made whispered of cool sweet relaxation. Gawain told it to fuck off and spent the next two minutes working clutch and accelerator and shift lever to get them into a lane that was at least moving. Though he’d seen wounded men crawl faster.
“Want some?” Galahad waved the foamy rim at Gawain, who jerked away his head.
“No.” A little further and they’d be at the changeover for I-15, and according to the DJ, I-15 was as clear as a crackhead’s dreams were nasty.
Loud slurping sounds, which Gawain determinedly ignored. “Why the fuck are you so tense? We’ve got three thousand miles to go.”
“Because—” The spot Gawain had been aiming for suddenly closed up as he was turning to answer. He cursed and threw the car into gear, only to screech to a halt a second later. Goddamn it.
Great. He’d just had to maul the car and he hadn’t even gotten to squeeze through. No, instead they were trapped back here for another five minutes, and his skin was sticky-squirmy with the hot, and Galahad was just sucking on that stupid beer. Sucking. Bad word, since it reminded Gawain of one possible but completely humiliating reason why he was tense. Better to concentrate on the fact that he had a schedule, and that they had to keep it, come hell or high water. And they were already behind.
He blinked and looked at his hands, which were locked around the wheel by white knuckles. That hurt.
Galahad was also looking, as if Gawain had suddenly turned into that six-foot-two bastard that had used to live down the street and had lorded it over the whole place till some deal gone wrong had left two slugs in his skull. “Jesus. Calm down. If you get a heart attack, the only way you’re getting to a hospital is if I play leapfrog with the damn cars. You sure you don’t want a beer?”
“I’m sure.” But only about not wanting the beer. When it came to everything else…Jesus Christ. Two weeks ago they’d been one shot from a morgue statistic and now they were going across the U. S. to be philosophy majors. Was it even going to work?
“Are not. And okay, now I’m being a five-year-old. But you’re being a two-year-old.” Outside, someone honked and yelled obscenities in vaguely their direction—must’ve been another fellow Los Angeleno. After flicking a finger back, Galahad took another long draw of beer. “Look, would you stop worrying? We can’t do shit till we get there, and we’re never going to get there if you don’t—move! Move! Move!”
He bounced up and down, flailing about like an excited drunk. The sight so mesmerized Gawain that he almost missed Galahad’s point: a gap that was actually big enough for the car. They got through at the last second, and a few minutes later, they were cruising calmly out of San Bernardino. The buildings began to dwindle away, the traffic to space out and the breeze to pick up. Soon the back windows were half-down, the front all the way, and the drive was almost tolerable.
They’d lost the radio signal somewhere along the way and Gawain hadn’t even noticed. He stared out at the faded gray road, remembering the time Galahad’s mother had been together enough to send a birthday message by way of the station and how happy Galahad had been. The time Gawain had gotten drunk enough to call up the DJ and argue basketball. At least, that’d been what he thought he’d been doing, but Galahad had never managed to stop laughing long enough to tell him what he’d really said…
“’nother thing to do when we get to New York,” Galahad said. He finished off the beer and started to throw it out the window, but when Gawain began to protest, he shoved it between his feet. Making faces all the while. “Got to find a radio station that’ll play good rap at noon and old-school blues in the morning.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard. New York’s supposed to have everything.”
Leather groaned as Galahad let down the back of his seat. He kicked out of his sneakers and put up his feet on the dash, which he really shouldn’t do because that meant more cleaning once they got to NYC, but…well, the dash was already pitted and marked all over. And Gawain was worrying too early. He just wanted so badly for everything to go right for once.
“Think here’s good?” Galahad had dug out a few bits of metal from somewhere and was holding them near the top of the window. He looked at Gawain, then twisted around and scanned the road.
There were still other cars around, so no. “Wait a moment…” Gawain pulled up beside a semi, which effectively hid them from everyone else. “Okay.”
The pistol parts whooshed away in a haze of dust. “And there goes that piece of hell,” Galahad muttered. He flopped backwards and threw an arm over his face for shade. “Wake me when we get to Vegas.”
* * *
When Galahad finally got tired of napping and woke up, the first thing he did, naturally enough, was look outside.
The landscape was exactly the same. Scrubby little bushes dotting the dirt, spiky things in between them, and purplish bulges in the distance. “Are you sure we’ve moved?”
“Try looking out the windshield.” Gawain waved a hand at it. The skin around his eyes had that tight look it got whenever he was getting tired and didn’t want to admit it.
Well, he couldn’t drive the whole way. Sooner or later he’d have to…and there was Las Vegas, sculpting itself from the dusty heat shimmers like some dying drunk’s fantasy. Or some gambler’s roach hotel. Galahad’s stomach suddenly lurched, hard. His eyes stung and he switched to staring at the surrounding countryside, which if boring at least didn’t bring up shitty should-be-dead memories.
They flashed by it pretty quick, but he glimpsed something grinning and panting and dog-like. He knew it’d be pointless, but he still jumped around and hung over the backseat, trying to spot it again. “I think I saw a coyote.”
“You should’ve stayed awake—I saw a hawk sitting on a power line, and something that looked like a deer. Plus a lot of circling vultures.” The radio was tuned to some country station, which was only tolerable because it was turned down real low. Whenever Gawain needed to force himself to concentrate, he switched to country because he hated it so much that anything else was interesting by comparison. “Hey. Galahad?”
“I’m fine. Fine.” As long as the world didn’t pull a fast one and make him run into his mom, anyway. She was long gone with that bastard garage-priest, who was welcome to her. Fuck the business about nine months in the womb; Galahad had long since made up that and then some, what with raising his mom from one bankruptcy so she could dive right into another. First thing he’d ever asked Gawain for was a place to hide his jar of coins from her. That was when he was ten.
“We could’ve done I-10 all the way, but I didn’t feel like swinging that far south. Too far out of the way.” It sounded like Gawain was apologizing.
Galahad turned around and slouched in his seat. By now they were starting to come up on the first signs of civilization—thankfully, they were regular houses. “I’m fine. Going south means even more of Texas, and I’d end up killing every single DJ down there.”
“I don’t think they only play country.” Now it sounded like Gawain was relieved.
He really worried too much. Then again, he didn’t have much to distract him since his grandmother died. She’d raised him, half-raised Galahad, and somewhere along the way had accumulated enough money to give them a shot at making it through a local college. Galahad had kissed her gravestone and then worked a bunch of little jobs to make up the difference, but Gawain had taken it as some kind of personal crusade, or vow, or whatever. He’d started a year later than Galahad and had finished at the same time, then had made Galahad apply to a whole shitload of grad schools even though they didn’t have enough money for a car, let alone to move cross-country.
And it figured that that’d be exactly what ended up happening. Which reminded Galahad…he dug around in the back till he found another tiny bundle of pistol pieces. They promptly got sprinkled out the window, and then he leaned back and watched them cruise into town.
Being the considerate, overprotective moron that he was, Gawain took a long way around that circumvented most of the casinos. They stopped at a tiny motel on the other side of Vegas, which had suspicious stains on most of the sheets. But the bathroom looked clean and the shower gave clear water, which was about all Galahad cared about. He bounced in first and scrubbed himself off, much to Gawain’s annoyance.
“If you’re so eager, then I’m going to set the clock for 6 a. m.” Sometime during Galahad’s shower, Gawain had gone out and gotten food in the form of delicious-smelling, grease-soaked paper bags. Those he set down on the table before fiddling with the clock. “You can take us through Arizona.”
“Bastard.” Galahad didn’t trust the towels so he mopped himself off with his dirty t-shirt and let his hair air-dry, occasionally ruffling it up to shake off the droplets. He sat down on a clean spot on the bed and checked out the food.
Fried chicken. Two legs and a breast were gone in about five minutes, and he would’ve gotten another leg if Gawain hadn’t snatched it away. “Bastard yourself. You always hog the damn legs.”
“Mah do fookah nah.” But Galahad was happily chomping away on the last wing, so he didn’t care too much. He wiped his hands off on one of the bags, since it didn’t look like Gawain had managed to get napkins, and clicked on the TV. “Porn.”
“No.” Gawain plucked a pillow from the bed and raised it. “Bad enough I have to put up with your bed-hogging; I’m not listening to you jack off, too.”
Click. “Discovery Channel—no. HBO?”
It was some flick where everyone dressed nicely and shot daggers into each other with their eyes and spoke with British accents. A hasty gulp of the last bit of chicken, and then Gawain nodded. “Gosford Park.”
“Our advisor’s British, isn’t he? Maybe we should take notes.” Galahad stretched out on the bed and propped his head on his arms.
Something whopped him in the head with a poof sound. But when he looked back, he only saw Gawain leaning back against the bedstead and looking at him with a disgusted face. “This movie’s about snobby nobles and snobbier servants from something like fifty years ago.”
“Isn’t Professor Pendragon that old?” Galahad asked. And he was genuinely curious, so he didn’t think he merited the extra buffet with the pillow.
“You didn’t even read the damn brochures, did you—you are such a little prick—” The pillow mercilessly came down.
Of course, Galahad wasn’t completely defenseless. They beat at each other till they lost grip of the pillows, and then they wrestled till they wore themselves out and fell asleep on the floor. Which was probably cleaner.
* * *
They did get up at 6 in the morning, much to Galahad’s vocal dismay. But he’d wanted to drive, and Gawain gleefully let him. Then Gawain stretched himself out on the passenger seat and went to sleep.
A loud hiss and a string of cursing woke him up just in time for him to see Galahad glide the car onto the side. The windshield was completely white.
Just then, the breeze kicked up and blew away the smoke, which in turn blew away the confusion from Gawain’s mind to leave him cursing as well. “Goddamn it.”
“It’s not my fault! I was going at exactly the fucking speed limit the whole time, and it was fine up until a second ago. I didn’t—” Galahad was flailing and thumping his heels on the car floor and generally having a fit. His expression was defensive and angry, but his eyes were the tiniest bit terrified.
He used to get the same way any time he tried to talk his mother out of hopping into the nearest gambling joint. She’d always leave, and then Galahad would spend the rest of the night staring out the window.
Gawain’s own anger squashed itself. He grabbed Galahad’s hands and made the other man calm down, then let go and got out. The other man followed him as he popped the trunk. “Just overheated.” Poking about a bit more. “Damn it, I knew we should’ve popped out the beer fridge. It’s probably been sucking up way too much of the coolant. Go dig out the tools…I think I can reroute it…”
“And then it’s fixed?” Galahad sounded so hopeful.
It made Gawain wince, but he wasn’t going to lie. Even though the sun was already baking his arms and stuffing his hair with heat so it’d melt his brain. He bundled it all up into a ponytail and tied it back with a rubber band before he started messing with the engine. “Uh…no. We have to wait for the whole engine to cool down. Actually, it’d be better to wait till…what time is it? Where are we?”
Pebbles rattled and clacked as Galahad scuffed about at the side of the road. He got computers and anything which workings were smaller than a man’s hand, but for some reason, he was lousy at anything bigger. It shouldn’t have been that different…then again, Gawain never could make sense of computer error messages, so he wasn’t in a position to talk. The number of times he’d been working late at college and had had to call Galahad and wake him at some obscenely early time to talk him through a computer fuck-up was embarrassing.
“About two hundred miles from New Mexico. I…ah...have no idea where that is on the map. Doesn’t look like we’re anywhere important.” Quickly bored with the rock-kicking, Galahad wandered back to hand tools to Gawain. He did that for a few seconds before ducking back in the car.
Huh. No wonder Gawain was hungry. “You’ve been driving for…what, six hours?”
“Christ, I’m tired.” Galahad sat himself down beside the toolbox with several beers and some squishy-looking sandwiches. He opened up a bottle and sucked it down, then started on the food. After a moment, he remembered to offer some to Gawain. “Got in a nice groove. Plus there’s nobody out here. You just kinda…space out. I didn’t even think…”
“I’ll eat after I finish this.” Thank God, because Gawain had almost been ready to keel over from shock— Galahad willingly taking on more work?
They’d agreed on three- to four-hour shifts, with Galahad pulling more of the long straight stretches and Gawain taking all the tricky bits going through major cities and hitting the right change-overs. Yesterday had left Gawain way more wrung-out than he’d ever expected, considering what else he’d survived. So he’d fully expected Galahad to ask for two-hour shifts.
“All right, that should keep this from happening again. Though the beer’s going to be kinda warmish from now on.” Gawain swiped the grease off his hands with a rag and put away all the tools. Then he stood and stared at the land around them.
Red, orange, yellows, browns and purples. Even some green, though it was the lifeless shade of tarnished copper. The colors looked as if they’d been ripped from an acid dream and the great wideness of the sky made Gawain wonder if maybe they were still in a dream and it was he and Galahad who’d accidentally wandered into it. And it was hot. The air wasn’t too bad, but the sun was way too bright.
Something tugged at the cuff of his jeans. “Get down here and help me finish the damn booze and sandwiches,” Galahad said. “You’re gonna get heatstroke.”
It was a lot cooler in the shadow of the car. First Gawain squatted down, intending to stand up again after he’d eaten, but then his arms said they wanted to rest a little, and his knees agreed, and finally his ass met tar. He caught himself picking at a rip in his jeans, made himself stop, and caught himself again a few moments later.
“Where were we staying tonight?” Galahad had a bottle smushed against his forehead, eyes closed as if to not miss a single moment of coolness.
“Um. I have no idea…I didn’t know how long it’d take us. Was aiming for somewhere in New Mexico.” The sandwiches were pretty crappy, but they filled up the stomach. After a short debate, Gawain opened up a beer. There were only four bottles, Galahad had claimed two, and so there wouldn’t be any problem about getting drunk. “Why?”
The bottle came down and Galahad shot an annoyed look after it, so Gawain guessed it’d warmed up too fast. “I was thinking…if you’re that worried about making it on time, we could just drive at night, too. Two of us, and it’s so boring out there’s nothing to do but sleep when we’re not driving.”
“Boring? Really?” Gawain gazed around him. In the distance, some animal kicked up a whirl of dust.
“You’d be surprised how fast you get used to it. Yeah, it’s pretty, but it’s pretty the same way.” Galahad started playing with the bottle-caps. “So?”
So Gawain had spent nights and nights worrying about what could go wrong, about how he’d fix it and make up the lost time…and now that it’d actually happened, he felt surprisingly calm. Overheated engine. He’d brought along the right things to take care of that. If they got thirsty, and they were going to because of the beer, there was water in the trunk. Shit had happened, and he’d been able to scrape it off his shoe.
That was a nice feeling. He wanted to sit in it for a bit. “Let’s see how tired we are once we hit New Mexico. It’s okay if we’re up to a day behind, but we can’t be any later than that.”
“Now you tell me. Man, sometimes I think you need downers to calm your nerves. Gawain, the world will not end if we’re one day later than we already are. I mean, look.” With one arm, Galahad encompassed Arizona. With the other, he lifted the last swallow of beer to his mouth. “You think anything out there gives a shit?”
“Anything out there’s not exactly relevant and…I was just…well, I was panicky and came up with a really weird excuse. I don’t think Arthur bought it…but he said it was okay anyway.” In a very weird way that Gawain could tell had been meant to reassure, but which mostly made him worry about whether Arthur had done some independent background-checking on his incoming grad students. On the other hand, the man had gone as far as to help them find housing and extra grants to cover what his wouldn’t, so…
Two beady little eyes stared at Gawain. He stared back.
“God, that thing’s fat,” Galahad muttered.
The…ground squirrel?...flicked its tail at him and scampered off. “Reminds me a lot of Berk,” Gawain said. Then he winced. Berk was well and dumped and needed to stay that way.
Galahad gave him a funny look, but didn’t come out with the usual plea to not talk about the guy-fucking. Actually, he hadn’t done that for nearly a year, but then, Gawain had been pretty careful to keep that crap as far from the neighborhood as possible, so Galahad hadn’t really had to face it.
“I always thought he was a bastard.” For some reason, Gawain’s shock made Galahad laugh. He flicked a bottle-cap high in the air, then caught it on his tongue. Spat it out and grinned back at Gawain’s slow-growing smile. “I only met him that one time, whatever—he still came off like a prick. Why the hell’d you two ever even—”
“Because he was a prick.” It was a little bit of a stretch, making that kind of joke, but now Gawain was too curious to not crack it.
For a moment, it looked as if he’d fucked up: Galahad’s shoulders rose a little and went tense, and his fingers curled around the bottle-caps. But then the man shrugged and made a face. “Ew. And they say I’m the shallow one.”
“Ew?” The word came out a bit strangled because Gawain was so relieved, but he regained control of himself soon enough. “Ew? You sound like a little girl.”
“Oh, fuck you. I mean—not like—goddamn it, now I’m seeing it in my head. I hate you.”
When they finally got back in the car, they were laughing.
* * *
The next time Galahad took over, they were barely over the New Mexico border. When he switched with Gawain again, they were about halfway through and the landscape was finally starting to change. Plus Galahad had found their CDs, and K’s cousin had at least had the decency to install a CD player. That kept him going all the way to the Texas border, which was when the player crapped out. Goddamn shitty stolen goods.
They checked out one motel, but the guy at the counter had an eye that literally wandered—it would roll around by itself, like it was a parasite squatting in the guy’s skull—and referred to himself as ‘Shotgun,’ so that was a definite no. Crazies Galahad had seen before, but he still wasn’t in the habit of trusting them with where he slept. Even during the couple months he’d technically been on the street, he’d spent most nights safely locked in abandoned cars.
Unfortunately, that was the only motel within sight, and neither of them had the energy to drive around till they found another one that fit their budget. A bit of flirting with a diner waitress got them a shower, but as for beds…
Gawain was pulling into a Wal-Mart parking lot. Gawain was looking at the steering wheel as if it were a king-size pillow.
“What are y--you doing?” Galahad asked, yawning.
“Open 24 hours. Good thing this car’s got bench seats front and back.” And with that, Gawain parked. Next thing Galahad knew, he was having bags and boxes shoved at him as Gawain cleared off the back seat.
Flashbacks were a killer. They were also stupid and not helpful, so Galahad was ignoring them. By now, it wasn’t that hard—Gawain was around, and Gawain meant life…still sucked, but with company to help out. “Great.”
When Galahad had had to sleep in cars, he’d been years younger and a hell of a lot smaller, which was probably why he didn’t remember car seats being so fucking uncomfortable. Either a belt buckle was digging into his back, or the door was making his leg bend and cramp, or Gawain was muttering about not making so much damned noise.
They didn’t have an alarm clock, so they woke up when one of the morning-shift Wal-Mart workers tapped on their window. “Excuse me—sirs? You can’t—”
Galahad squinted. Rubbed the crusts out of his eyes. A female voice…he sat up and smiled while he tried to wake up his mind. It wasn’t till she gasped that he remembered he’d taken off his shirt.
Oh, well. It got them free coffee and donuts, so it worked out. Probably would’ve gotten more, since she had one damn good figure, but Gawain dragged Galahad out before he could tease her into the staff bathroom.
“One thing we definitely don’t have time for is your fucking around,” he scolded, pulling back onto the highway.
“8 in the morning. A whole two hours late. Whoop-de—okay, okay.” Galahad left grumpy Gawain to the driving and went back to sleep.
He took over after they’d eaten lunch, which they did at a truck-stop. Truckers weren’t exactly the scary mutants they were in the movies, but neither were they all that…well, they weren’t company that meshed well with Galahad. He just hung back and let Gawain do the double-checking of directions; Gawain’s long hair made him look more like one of them, so they were bound to be nicer.
“Okay, here’s where you go. Don’t fuck up.” When Gawain handed over the paper, he nearly shoved it up Galahad’s nose in his hurry to get back in the car.
Galahad rolled his eyes and started the car. “Not going to.”
* * *
Gawain rubbed his temples and stared at the map. Then he stared from the gas station where they were currently sitting to the highway sign a couple hundred yards down. After that, he stared at the license plate hanging in the window of the station.
Beside him, Galahad was very quietly inserting the beer they’d just bought into the glove-compartment-cooler. His cheeks were red and he kept his head down, as if he were hiding from someone outside. The only thing outside, aside from a few dilapidated buildings and the highway, were endless fields of wheat.
“Look, I’m not going to yell, but—”
“I don’t know! I don’t know how it—”
With a hand over his mouth, Galahad still put up a spirited attempt to interrupt, but Gawain wasn’t having it. If he wasn’t going to get upset—not helpful, he reminded himself—then he was at least going to have the last word. He pressed down on Galahad’s mouth till he didn’t feel lips moving, then took away his hand. “Kansas?”
“We’re supposed to be in Missouri, I know. I took a wrong turn. Somewhere.” The other man folded his arms across his chest and hunched over, embarrassed and sorry and pretty annoyed about it. He glanced out at the setting sun, which threw a smeary red light over everything. The wheat fields turned into an abstract painting. “So…um…how bad is it?”
“Well, since you let me sleep instead of asking right away how to fix it…” Okay, Gawain couldn’t help but show a little temper. But almost immediately he felt bad about it, because it was obvious how sorry Galahad was. Even though he was, as usual, being really jackassy about it. “Not that bad. We’re almost parallel with St. Louis, and I’m really rested, so if we drive through the night, we’ll be okay.”
Which was what they did, and God, wheat- and cornfields were creepy at night. There were miles and miles and miles of them, and they were flatter than a ruler so it seemed like there’d never be an end to them. Sometimes the radio went out so Gawain didn’t even have that to distract him.
He looked over at Galahad at one point and caught the other man with hand curled up against his cheek, just like when they were boys. Grandma Yvie had always cooed when she had seen that, right before her eyes went stern and piercing on Gawain and before she delivered her warning to take care of things so he didn’t end up like his parents. She’d been real bitter about her daughter, Gawain’s mother, and for the longest time he’d figured it was because of how his mother had gotten married to a man Grandma didn’t like. But she’d never held it against Gawain…
…maybe it wasn’t that after all. Because both his mom and dad had gotten killed in a car accident…way off in San Diego, when he was three. But he’d been at his grandma’s when that had happened, Gawain remembered. In fact, all he could ever remember was his grandma’s—Mom was a vague laugh and bright gold hair, and Dad was a gruff pat on the head.
“So I got dumped, too,” Gawain muttered. Beyond the windshield, the wheatfields waved ceaselessly at the night, as if saying a constant farewell. Creepy.
“What?” Galahad stirred, then blinked drowsily at him. “Whatsit?”
Gawain shrugged; this far after the fact, it wasn’t really important. Even though it kind of stung a little. Not much. Just enough for him to know it was there. “Nothing. I just…I was thinking, and my parents…probably just dumped me on Grandma whenever they could. Mom was only twenty when she died.”
He was expecting Galahad to just grunt and go back to sleep, or to say something about joining the club, but instead the other man looked almost sad. Then he rolled over and gazed at the ceiling. Licked his lips, thinking on something. “Um…yeah. They did. It’s sort of why Grandma Yvie let me stay.”
The car shuddered a little as Gawain’s foot jerked on the pedal. “What?”
“I thought you knew. Seriously. She was always telling you to…okay, you didn’t. Um. Well. You know it’s nothing about you, right?” For some reason, the longer Gawain didn’t say anything, the more nervous Galahad got. “Your parents were just bas—”
“Okay. Stop there. I’m fine. I just—” Needed a second, Gawain thought. It wasn’t really a big deal now, but once upon a time it would’ve been, and so the echo was taking a while to go away. But he really was fine: he was alive, so was Galahad, and they had jobs and educations waiting for them just like Grandma had wanted. And she was the one he really cared about remembering properly. “Hey. Why are you suddenly so okay with the…well, with me liking men?”
Galahad snorted and laid back down. He flipped around a few times before he finally settled in place. “Now you’re just changing the subject.”
“Yeah, but I’m interested in this one. Come on, you used to make retching sounds whenever I even mentioned some guy was looking better.” They finally passed a road sign and Gawain saw that they were almost out of Kansas. At St. Louis they’d stop for what was left of the night, Gawain decided.
He’d just about decided Galahad wasn’t going to answer when a low, thoughtful whisper reached his ears. “Well…hell, you’re anal, but I can still hang around you without having a problem. Fags are supposed to be disgusting, you’re not but you like what they like…doesn’t make sense. So whatever. You fuck guys, you’re still somebody I hide bodies for, so you’re not disgusting. Just…don’t turn all—” miming a limp wave “—on me.”
Gawain laughed into Missouri. “Wasn’t planning on it. Oh, hey, speaking of—get up a sec and toss out another piece.”
“Why didn’t we pitch these in a sewer?” Galahad complained.
“Because grapevine says the police didn’t quite believe our story that we wouldn’t bother fighting over turf because we’ve got jobs in NYC—people in our neighborhood aren’t supposed to make it past the eighth grade, let alone grad school. They were keeping tabs on us till we left, just to make sure. Sewer might’ve been noticed.” Another road sign passed by, showing that they were probably going to make St. Louis a little early. Good thing, because Gawain was just beginning to feel the edges of fatigue. But he could go a little longer.
After throwing out the gun part, Galahad went back to sleep. It amused Gawain for a good ten minutes to see how Galahad’s hand returned to curl by his face. That was one thing he hoped would never change.
* * *
St. Louis-Indianapolis was singularly boring except for the fact that now it was fucking freezing. Galahad kept the windows up and the heat on, huddling in one of the sweatshirts he was suddenly glad Gawain had made him bring.
“So…what is this Arthur guy like?” They were chowing down at a burger place—at least, Galahad was chowing down. Gawain would take a bite, start to doze off, catch himself by choking and hastily swallow. At St. Louis, they’d found a place with decent beds and they had gotten some sleep, but it looked as if Gawain could use another week. All that worrying was probably coming home to pass out.
Pickles squirted from Gawain’s mouth when he tried to answer. Red-faced, he slapped at his face with a napkin. “Well…very polite. And helpful. Nice, I guess—we got sidetracked for a half-hour when I said I’d done a paper on early British theologist-philosophers. He got really excited about that.”
“Bet he’s seventy-something and white-haired and nothing but wrinkles,” Galahad mumbled, stuffing the last of his burger in his mouth.
Something pointy and hard rammed his shin and he yelped, much to the amusement of the other people in the restaurant. Not to mention Gawain, who was grinning the way street-corner toughs did at little kids copying them. “You really, really didn’t read the brochure, did you?”
“Hey, I saw the financial stuff and the benefits package, and it was way better by a long shot than any other place. How useful is the brochure gonna be after that?” That kick had really hurt; Galahad surreptitiously rubbed at his leg with his other foot. His fingers were covered in juice, so he ignored Gawain’s grimace and sucked it off. Moved on to his drink. “So?”
“So you’re a complete id—never mind.” Quick look around. Then Gawain tilted forward, face dead serious, and whispered: “I’d fuck him in a heartbeat.”
Goddamn it, but snorting soda up the nose was incredibly painful. For the next several minutes, Galahad was sneezing and sputtering and trying really hard to hide from the laughing people. Including Gawain. Unfortunately, just then Gawain finished and they had to get back in the car, which meant Galahad couldn’t get too far from him.
“I told you I didn’t want to hear that shit,” Galahad muttered as he started the car.
Gawain was still laughing. “I know, I know, I’m sorry, but your face! Oh, God…”
At least now they had their pick of radio stations. Of course, most played the same crap over and over, but any noise was better than Gawain’s cackling.
Now they were passing trees instead of fields, but it wasn’t too much better since the forests were still leafless. Grey-brown sticks, looking like an army of dead about to rise and march on the castle.
Either that was Galahad’s Shakespeare class lifting its ugly head, or some zombie flick. Possibly both.
When he looked over, Gawain had something black and dully gleaming between his fingers. The other man flipped it around a little, then held it up to the light and stared at it as if it held all the secrets of the universe.
Or maybe just the secret to not ending up a crime statistic. “Is that the last one?”
Gawain nodded. The half of his mouth that was visible was grim and hard and remembering just a few weeks ago. “This, I’m going to have no problem saying fuck off forever to.”
“Yeah.” Though it was such a…it was like having a scar that messed with moving around. Thing was fucking irritating as hell, but after a while, it got hard to remember what it was like getting around without it. And then if a chance at surgery came up, then afterward there was this hole. Moving fine felt wrong, even though that was stupid.
Galahad suddenly thought of K, who’d dropped out of ninth grade and who hadn’t ever gone back to school. Or gone legit—he was a fence so he wasn’t quite as likely to get killed as other people, but still…wasn’t exactly eighty-plus material. But he’d gotten Galahad’s back a few times, and if it hadn’t been for him cutting a deal with his cousin, they wouldn’t even have a way to get to New York. He’d be part of the fuck-off, too.
“When we get to Pennsylvania,” Gawain suddenly said. He stopped, chewing on the side of his finger, and thought. The trigger got slipped into his pocket. “We’ll stop at the border, a little early. If we’re going to say goodbye, might as well do it right.”
That sounded good. That felt right.
* * *
The sun was coming over the horizon, the wind was chilly, and the gunshot scar on Gawain’s left arm was itching like crazy. It was all in his head, but knowing that didn’t make it stop any faster.
He and Galahad were standing by the side of the road in some empty, godforsaken patch of Pennsylvania, with him holding the last piece of the guns and Galahad scuffing a hole in the dirt with the heel of his shoe. It didn’t have to be a really nice hole, but nevertheless Galahad was taking his time about making it. Gawain wasn’t going to protest.
It’d been so…stupid. He and Galahad had run with gangs during the last two years of high school because that was what all the teenagers in the neighborhood did. Hell, kids got beaten up if they weren’t part of one. But then he’d dropped out when Grandma Yvie had had her stroke, and a little after that Galahad had done the same, though he’d said it was because it had gotten boring. They’d gotten into college late and by the skin of their teeth, and once they were in, they hadn’t planned to come back out.
“A fucking birthday party,” Galahad sighed. He finally stopped kicking dirt. “I bring a cake to a fucking little party for K’s pretty girl-cousin, and a goddamned gang war starts right there because some fuckhead didn’t get the piece of cake he wanted.”
“Is that how it started?” Because honestly, Gawain hadn’t ever had time to find out. All he’d known was Galahad staggering home with a bloody shoulder, and a firebomb getting thrown at their window an hour later. It’d gone into the wrong apartment, killed a good friend of theirs, and from there…it’d just slid to its knees in hell. Three weeks of nothing but shooting and countershooting, living with one eye always looking over the shoulder, till finally there were enough bodies to bring everyone around to the idea of a truce. Plus the cops had begun to take an interest.
Shrugging, Galahad shoved his hands in his pockets and stared down at the hole. “Started, yeah. The whole mess went back further than that…some drug deal fucked up and people were carrying grudges. But…God, a stupid piece of—”
“—well, it’s got nothing to do with us now.” Gawain dropped the trigger in the pit. He lifted his foot, hesitated, and then shoveled in dirt with the side of his sneaker.
After a second, Galahad started helping. They stomped down the dirt and then roughed up the surface so it matched the rest of the ground. Simple as that, the last piece of evidence was gone and the road ahead was cleared of any shadows.
It was really that simple.
The two of them stood there for a little longer, heads bowed in silence. Not out of reverence, or out of wistfulness, but…respect was probably closest. Respect and just needing a second to get used to the relief.
“Okay, let’s go. I keep thinking one of those sneaky cops is going to come around the bend and ask what the fuck we’re doing.” Galahad grabbed Gawain’s arm and pulled him back to the car.
“You tell him you just took a leak,” Gawain snorted. “All right, I’m driving. I think you need to go back to sleep.”
* * *
“Hurry up, hurry up! I need another quarter!”
Feet kicked nearly in Galahad’s face. “I’m looking,” drifted Gawain’s voice from the backseat.
“Well, look harder. We’re one car away from the toll and I want to get going,” Galahad snapped. He bounced his fingers on the wheel, off-beat to the honking and occasional yell.
“Now you’re excited. Figures.” Gawain yanked himself back over the front seat and slapped a quarter in Galahad’s hand. Then he continued twisting to retrieve his sheets of directions and maps from the footspace where they’d fallen. By now, the papers were crumpled and stained, and it was a wonder Gawain could still read them.
They paid their toll and zipped across the bridge…only to get snarled in traffic. Just like home.
The driving was just like home, too, only in New York everyone seemed to take the insult-throwing…seriously. Like it wasn’t only part of the driving experience. Jesus Christ. Galahad wondered how many heart attacks and strokes there were every day during rush hour.
“Shit, we should’ve switched seats before coming into the city…okay, listen really carefully. Bed gave me some shortcuts to his place, but they won’t work if you don’t follow them exactly.” Papers shuffled like mad. Then Gawain’s glare peeked over the top of them. “Also, do not--”
“—mess up the car any because we spent so damn long cleaning it at the last stop. Yeah, yeah, I know. Just tell me where to go already. We’re holding up traffic.” And in a moment, it looked as if the cabbies of New York were going to gang up on them if they didn’t move. It was probably the shitty weather they had up here; in L. A. there was sun nearly all the time and so when you called somebody a motherfucker, they flipped you the finger back and you both cruised on. Really not like that here.
Much to Gawain’s surprise, Galahad followed his sometimes distracted, sometimes frantic instructions to the letter and they arrived in front of Bed’s house in due time. Honestly, it was like Gawain thought Galahad had never cut off anyone before, and doing that in New York City wasn’t any different from doing it in Los Angeles.
“Hey, pale brothers!” Bed was a tall, burly guy with a slight Latino accent—Puerto Rican, maybe? New York seemed kind of far for Mexico—and dreads even longer than K’s. He had been sitting on the stoop, but had jumped up the moment Galahad had pulled it with wide-open arms.
The prospect of getting his ribs crushed had Galahad terrified for a second, but then Bed went past the doors to lie down on the hood and hug it. He kissed the fucking car.
“Ganja?” Gawain asked, whispering.
“Oh, yeah.” Galahad slowly slid himself out the door and edged around to Bed. “Uh. Hey. You want the keys now, or…”
The other man waved them off. “Nah. You got to move in first, don’t you? Oh, speaking of—K was telling me all about how you been covering his lazy ass, and so I’ve got a family thank-you for you. Sweetest car deal you’re ever get…”
He rattled on and on while Galahad and Gawain exchanged looks. They were probably going to need one, but…
Except now Bed had thrown his arms over Gawain’s shoulder and was dragging him down the road to have a look. Resisting obviously wasn’t an option, so Gawain just let it happen. But he did look over his shoulder to mouth watch the car at Galahad, as if Galahad was some kind of idiot.
So. They were in New York.
Yeah, there should’ve been something witty or meaningful in Galahad’s head, but he was coming up empty. Mostly he was leaning back against the car and just thinking about how fucking tired he was and how they still had to shift all their shit and buy the stuff they hadn’t been able to take with them. And then the paperwork for Avalon College, and setting up stuff like bank accounts because it was really, really annoying to be carrying around a box of cash…oh, yeah, they were going to have to come up with a good excuse for that.
“Chik-chik-chik?” Something small and furry was sitting on the steps and eyeballing Galahad. A squirrel. When he looked at it, the squirrel chittered like crazy and scampered around to dart behind some garbage cans.
“Weird.” Maybe they were the equivalent of L. A.’s street coyotes. Resident kooky animal nutballs.
Well, they’d better get used to seeing him and Gawain around, because he didn’t come this far to get run around by little rodent-things.
They were here. Okay. New York. Three thousand miles.
“Damn,” Galahad softly said. He stared at his feet for a few seconds before realizing how stupid that was. And he must’ve been really tired, because what he did was laugh a little. Laugh and lean back, and wait for Gawain to get back so they could move in to New-fucking-York-fucking-City. Yeah. They’d done it.