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Road Stay

               When Chester and his family got home from his high school graduation, he informed his parents that he, Amal, and Lex had planned a road trip to the west coast, and that they would be leaving on Monday morning.

               “That’s not happening,” said Chester’s dad. He sat at the desk in his study tilted as far back as his wheeled brown-leather office chair would allow. His eyes were closed, light-lidded against a headache brought on by the inane conversation of a family sitting near him at the ceremony. Chester’s mom was in the study too, leaned against the tall book shelf, exuding simple sympathy for her husband’s aching head.

               “I’m 18,” said Chester. “I’m graduated now. I’m an adult. You can’t tell me what to do anymore.”

               “OK, then go,” said Chester’s dad. “But the second you leave, you’ll forfeit your room in this house. I’ll pile all your stuff on the street. If you take your car, I’ll report it stolen since it’s in my name. If you don’t take it, I’ll sell it and keep the money. We won’t pay a cent for your college. You’ll never get another birthday gift from us, never another Christmas gift. You’ll never be invited to another family gathering. I can’t speak for your mother, but I won’t attend your wedding, if you ever have one.”

               Chester sputtered. “What? Why? That’s such an overreaction!”

               His dad shrugged. “Then don’t go.”

               “What if we go to the east coast instead?” asked Chester.

               “The consequences will be the same.”

               “Lots of guys our age go on road trips after they graduate,” said Chester.

               “And they get in trouble,” said Chester’s mom. “They get hurt and sometimes die. Because they’re too far away from home for their parents to help them.”

               “Is that why you won’t let me go, Dad?”

               “I’ll never say,” said Chester’s dad. “Because I don’t have to. You’re too scared of the consequences to defy me whether I explain myself or not.”

               “What am I going to tell Amal and Lex?” asked Chester. “We had the whole trip planned. The route we were gonna take, where we were gonna stop, everything. We’ve been working on the road trip playlist for months.”

               “Tell them,” said Chester’s dad, “that your dad wouldn’t let you.”


               Chester drove while Amal rode shotgun. Lex had the back of Chester’s car to himself, and he took advantage by sitting un-seatbelted and sideways, leaning back against the rear driver’s side door with his elbows propped jutting through the open window as the wind whipped his nape-of-neck-length hair around his face. One of Chester’s song picks blared through the car’s speakers, negating conversation. Amal was in charge of the stereo, but loosely. All he had to do was play the road trip playlist, pausing or adjusting volume as needed. Pains had been taken to ensure that each guy contributed the exact same number of songs to the playlist so that it wouldn’t be skewed toward one particular taste. The playlist was a major reason the boys had decided on the road trip compromise: they didn’t want it to go to waste.

               When the current song concluded, Amal lowered the volume and asked, “When are we gonna stop?”

               “Lunch, I figured,” said Chester.

               “I wanna eat at Grand Beede’s,” said Lex. “Spicy tenders.”

               “We should eat somewhere we’ve never eaten before,” said Amal.

               “Why?” asked Lex. “We wouldn’t have eaten at any chains with locations in Multioak if we’d gone on a normal road trip?”

               “We probably would have,” said Amal. “But we would have been seeing lots of new stuff, so familiar food here and there would have been fine. Since most of what we’re gonna see on this trip is going to be familiar, we should try have new experiences whenever we can.”

               “That’s a good point,” said Chester.

               “Or maybe, since most of this trip is going to be boring, we should at least eat food we know we like,” said Lex.

               “There’ll be plenty of meals,” said Chester, refusing to even glance at Lex’s bait. “We can eat at places we know we like and places we’ve never eaten before.” He felt responsible for maintaining morale since it was his fault that the real road trip had fallen apart. Well, not his fault. His parents’ fault. If not for their unreasonable strictness, Chester, Amal, and Lex would be headed coastward right now with the morning sun at their backs, hundreds of miles of open road compelling them forward across plains, over mountains, into forests, through deserts. Instead, they were circling Multioak, and would continue to do so for the next ten days, which had been the planned duration of the canceled trip.

The replacement trip – if it was a “trip” – was an attempt to capture as much of the feeling of a post-graduation summer road trip to the coast as possible without leaving town, thereby avoiding the harsh punishment threatened by Chester’s dad. Chester and his friends would spend most of each day in the car: driving, listening to music, reminiscing, speculating about their futures, making each other laugh, bonding. They would stop for gas, snacks, meals, stretch breaks, maybe the occasional entertaining diversion. But they would be on the road, even if much of it was the same road over and over. At night, they would stay in cheap motels on the Multioak outskirts. There had been some debate about whether or not crashing on acquaintance’s floors would be allowed. The issue had never been resolved. Questions also remained about the acceptable range of their driving. Did they have to stay within the Multioak City Limits? Could they drive around out in the country as long as they stayed inside the county? Could they go to Dalcette? Amal was interested in nailing down the specifics. He liked to know rules. Lex, however, was impatient with all such questions. He thought they should do what they felt like when they felt like it. If boundaries were necessary, he preferred not to spend time discussing them. Better to address them only as needed, only to prevent colliding with them. Chester was fine with whatever as long as he didn’t get in trouble with his parents and his friends weren’t mad at him.

               “Let’s at least stop and get some drinks,” said Lex. “The odds of me sticking this out longer than a couple hours are going to be a lot better if I have something to sip on.”

               “We’ve only been on the road an hour,” said Amal. “There’s water in the cooler on the floor behind my seat.”

               “I see the cooler,” said Lex. “I know there’s water in it. I want something good to sip on.”

               “We’ll stop,” said Chester. “I want something too.” He guided the car into a Shipshape Gas Station parking lot and pulled into one of the spots farthest from the convenience store door. “The farther we have to walk, the better for our legs,” he said. “We’re gonna be doing enough sitting the next week and a half.”

               “I’ve never been in this gas station before,” said Amal, as if his permission were necessary when they were already here.

               Inside, a middle-aged woman with limp, crimped hair sat on a stool behind the counter. When the boys walked in, she said, “Let me guess!”

               “Guess what?” asked Chester. Lex pushed between him and Amal, heading for the drink coolers along the back of the store.

               The cashier pointed at Chester and Amal with the index and pinky fingers of her right hand and pointed toward Lex at the back of the store with the index finger of her left hand. “You three are on a road trip!”

               “Yeah, we are,” said Chester. He turned and walked toward the fountain drink machine.

               “Where are you going on a road trip to?” asked the cashier.

               “It’s actually pretty interesting,” said Amal. “It’s more of an experimental road trip. Like, what are the fundamental elements of a road trip? Do you have to go somewhere? Do you have to go anywhere? That’s something we’re exploring.”

               Chester cringed at Amal’s pretentiousness and tried to fix his attention on getting the exact right amount of ice in his 32-ounce cup.

               “So where are you going?” the cashier asked again, undeterred by Amal’s smoke screen.

               “Just around Multioak,” said Amal. “It’s a 10-day road trip, but we aren’t going to leave the area.”

               “Like a staycation,” said the cashier. “Our family did that one year. Kids hated it.”

               “I don’t blame them,” said Lex, approaching the counter with a cold can of Spasm energy drink.

               “It’s not like a ‘staycation,’” said Amal.

               The cashier shrugged as she rang up Lex’s drink. “Sounds like one to me.”

               To Chester’s relief, Amal let the subject drop and turned to peruse trail mixes.

               As the boys left the convenience store with their purchases, the cashier said, “Have fun, be safe. I guess I might be seeing you again pretty soon.”

               “Probably not,” said Amal. “We’re trying to avoid repeat stops in order to maintain a sense of progress.”

               “Well, maybe I’ll see you on the way ‘back,’” said the cashier.

               In the parking lot, the boys encountered Suzette Tischell and her mom. They knew Suzette from school. She was a grade behind the boys, but she had dated their friend Stuart for almost a year.

               “What’re you guys doing?” asked Suzette. She wore shorts and a baggy hoodie that looked like it was eating her. Suzette’s mom stood next to the car repeatedly pressing a button on her key fob and trying the driver’s side door handle, finding it unlocked every time.

               “Road trip,” said Lex, holding up his beverage as proof.

               “That’s cool,” said Suzette. “Where to?”

               Lex shot a warning look at Amal, then a slightly less intense warning look at Chester. “Just, you know, wherever the road takes us,” he said.

               “That sounds so fun,” said Suzette. “I hope my mom lets me do something like that after I graduate.”

               Suzette’s mom looked up upon hearing herself mentioned. “Do you boys think it would be safe to leave our car unlocked in this parking lot for a few minutes?”

               “Yes,” said Chester.

               “But we can’t guarantee anything,” said Amal.

               “How long will you be gone?” asked Suzette. A lock of dark hair slipped from behind her ear and draped itself over one eye.

               “Uh, we’ll be on the road for ten days,” said Lex.

               Suzette did not appear to notice his evasion. “Will you send me a post card?” she asked. “I like post cards. They’re old-fashioned. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I like old-fashioned stuff.”

               “I’ll try to send you one,” said Lex. “But I don’t know your address.”

               “I think I have your number,” said Suzette. “I’ll text it to you.”

               The boys returned to the car, and to their previous spots in the car.

               As Amal buckled his seatbelt, he asked, “Do you have a thing for her, Lex?”

               “I didn’t think I did,” said Lex. “I wouldn’t have said I did, like, 10 minutes ago. But I guess I do.”

               “What post card are you gonna send her?” asked Chester. “I’m guessing she’s not hoping for a Multioak post card.”

               Lex pondered the problem with uncharacteristic stoicism. “I don’t know,” he finally said.

As Chester pulled out of the parking lot, Amal fired up the playlist again.

               “What is this?” asked Lex from the back seat. “Is this another Chester song?”

               “Yeah,” said Chester. “It’s one of mine.”

               “We haven’t heard one of mine for, like, 5 songs in a row,” said Lex. “Skip this one.”

               “The playlist is on random,” said Amal. “We all have the same number of songs on there. It’ll even out.”

               “It’s OK,” said Chester. “Go ahead and skip this one. I don’t even know why I put it on here.”

               “No,” said Amal. “It sets a bad precedent.”


               After spending the night at The Sand Palace Motel, the boys dragged themselves back to the car at 11:15, which was 15 minutes after the required checkout time. They were tired. Amal had advocated getting “a good start,” but had not been able to convince the other two boys of its importance. Instead, they had all stayed up late swimming in the motel’s gross pool and flipping between multiple movies on the TV in their room, occasionally trooping out to the parking lot so Lex could smoke cigarettes, which he had promised to not do in the car. Then they had slept until after 10:30.

               In the car, Chester again took the wheel. There had been some talk of alternating drivers, but Chester was not ready to surrender his post. Lex returned to the back seat without comment, so Amal happily accepted the front passenger’s seat, relieved that Lex would not yet be in charge of the playlist.

               For the first few hours, Chester guided the car through residential neighborhoods and housing developments. The boys shared memories of childhood swimming lessons, which led naturally to tales of boating mishaps, both those they had experienced and those of which they’d merely heard tell. The playlist tended toward nostalgia. They went by Lex’s house; his mom, sweeping tree seeds off of the front walk with a push broom, did not notice her son and his friends puttering past, her son’s bare feet dangling out a back window, dirty-soled and disaffected. When Chester turned around in the cul-de-sac at the end of the street and drove past Lex’s house for a second time, the sidewalk was seed-free, Lex’s mother was gone, the push broom was gone, and Lex, sitting upright now, looked at his house and said, “Slow down, wait a second.”

               “What is it?” asked Amal.

               “Does my front yard look bigger?” asked Lex. “Does my driveway look longer? Does my house look smaller?”

               “As opposed to when?” asked Chester.

               “As opposed to every other time you’ve seen my house,” said Lex. He inflected this clarification like an answer to his own question, and the other boys were willing to let it serve as such.

               The boys ate lunch at a diner they’d each seen before, but at which none of them had ever eaten. It was called For They Who Dine, and it had a faint medieval theme. The boys sat in a booth and ate three versions of the same burger, varied in toppings, condiments, and inner pinkness.

               “If I had known this place serves burgers, I would have come here a long time ago,” said Chester. Amal and Lex looked at him as if they couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. He tried to make it seem like he had intended his statement to have that effect, but failed.

               “All diners have burgers,” said Amal. “The ‘o’ in the word ‘Who’ on the sign is painted to look like a burger.”

               Lex cackled, then hooted.

               “Chester?” The man approaching the table looked familiar, but vaguely. He had gray hair that hung to his jawline. Much of that hair was trapped inside the temples of his glasses. His shirt declared his fandom of something called “Big Band.” Chester did not get the impression it meant the genre of music. “I’m a friend of your uncle Tommy’s,” said the man. “I used to be his plus-one at your family events before he was married ‘cause I liked your family’s desserts so much.”

               “Oh yeah,” said Chester. “I remember you. Wally, right? You used to, well…”

               “Go on and on about the desserts, yeah,” said Wally, finishing Chester’s sentence correctly.

               “How come you didn’t just eat them?” asked Chester. It was a question for which he had long wanted an answer.

               “I prefer savory treats for eating,” said Wally. “And desserts for discussion. Gosh, I haven’t seen you in years, I’m surprised I recognized you. I haven’t seen anyone from your family in years, not even Tommy. I check social media after holidays for dessert pictures, but it’s not the same.”

               “Uncle Tommy told us you moved away,” said Chester.

               “Not really away,” said Wally. “Still in town. Odd that none of us cross paths.”

               “Yeah,” said Chester. “It is kind of odd.”

               “I wonder why it happened today,” said Wally.

               “Why it happened?” asked Chester. “Just coincidence, I guess. We came into this diner because we’ve never eaten here before.”

               “I eat here all the time,” said Wally. He leaned over the table and whispered, “Order the hamburger.”

               “We did,” said Lex, gesturing at his, Amal’s, and Chester’s plates in sequence.

               “Right,” said Wally. “But do it again. Next time, I mean.”

               As he walked away, Chester said, “See you around, Wally.”

               “Maybe,” said Wally. “If you come out this way again.”

               “We’re ten minutes from my house,” said Chester.

               Wally shrugged.

               After lunch, the boys spent an hour searching out alleys, then driving down them. At the end of that hour, they emerged from one particularly disordered alley to find themselves across the street from a small event hall with a sagging roof that appeared to be cowering from the massive tree branches poised to snap, fall, and crush it during the next big wind storm.

               “Pull into that parking lot,” said Amal.

               Chester complied.

“My cousin got married here,” said Amal. “No, the reception was here. I was probably seven or eight. I remember it felt like we drove forever to get here, like it was in another town, but it’s right here.”

               “Are you sure this is the same one?” asked Lex.

               “I’m positive,” said Amal. “I kept complaining I was too hot in my suit, so my dad made me stand outside on that front lawn. It was winter. Snowing. When he let me come back inside, I told my mom I had frostbite.”

               “Did you?” asked Chester.

               “I didn’t,” said Amal.

               “What’s going on?” asked Lex.

               “What do you mean?” asked Chester, but not because he didn’t feel like something was happening.

               That night, the boys stayed at The Crescent Moon Motel. The moon depicted on the sign was a waning gibbous. Chester took a shower, then Amal, then Lex. They fell asleep early, surprised at their own tiredness after a day that did not seem taxing in retrospect.

               As he nodded off, Chester thought about how, if he wanted, he could be in his own bed in his own house inside 30 minutes, maybe less. But he also noted that it did not feel possible. Was this a sign that the road trip was working, that the illusion of distance was convincing? Chester tried to estimate where he would be right now if the road trip had gone as initially planned. What state, what town, what kind of bed? He couldn’t.


               In the morning, Lex and Chester switched spots in the car. Amal maintained his control of the playlist. Chester worried that Lex would try to push the limits of the road trip, that he might try to drive to Heavenburg or something, but without saying so, Lex now seemed to be fully on board with their collective project.

The bad parts of town held some kind of magnetic power for Lex, but Chester didn’t mind. Witnessing a certain amount of squalor and decrepitude felt like a common, if not crucial, element of a standard road trip. Chester wondered if it was snobbishness that had kept him from venturing through bad parts of town while he drove. But what was Lex’s motive? Did he want to gawk? Was it just novelty, a desire to see something different?

               Chester tried to remember times when he’d come to the bad parts of Multioak on purpose. Hadn’t there been some kind of hobby store where he’d spent birthday money on comic books? It had been in a strip mall with a cracked parking lot, weeds growing in the cracks. Sandwiched between a liquor store and a paycheck advance place. The hobby store was probably long gone now, but liquor stores and paycheck advance places seemed to have proliferated. If the hobby store did still exist, the combination of shifting surroundings and Chester’s faulty memory had rendered it unfindable.

               “My family used to get specialty foods around here somewhere,” said Amal. “I think.”

               Lex drove the car past a closed-down factory. It felt strange to Chester to see it up close. The factory was most known to him as smoke stacks in the distance, prodding bluntly at gray skies. Why only gray skies? Maybe his eye didn’t catch on them when the day was clear. Maybe he found their silhouettes intrusive against sunsets.

               Eventually, Lex’s meandering route led back to familiar territory. But Chester’s awakened sense for the previously unnoticed proved to have come with a side effect. The places he knew, his regular landmarks, were fading. They were being swallowed by unremarkable houses, businesses catering to the interests of people nothing like him, churches meeting in non-traditional locations, offices for professionals in fields Chester did not understand, humorless billboards targeted at the elderly, parked trucks with trailers full of who-knows-what, schools of dance, government buildings Chester prayed he’d never see the insides of…

               “Grand Beede’s sounds good for lunch today,” said Lex. He sounded desperate.

               “I agree,” said Amal, a surprise ally.

               “Um,” said Lex. “How do I get there from here?”

               The three boys looked around, heads swiveling, eyes narrowing.

               “Aren’t we right by it?” asked Chester.

               “I thought so too,” said Amal.

               “I’m just a little turned around,” said Lex.

               “Where’s Departmart?” asked Chester. “It’s in the same shopping center.”

               “It’s along here somewhere,” said Lex. “Should I U-turn?”

               “I’m not sure,” said Amal, a touch of panic in his voice.

               It took the boys another thirty minutes to find Grand Beede’s Chicken, and they succeeded mostly by accident.

               “This is our usual location,” said Amal. “Isn’t it?”

               “Multioak only has one location that I know of,” said Chester.

               In the restaurant, the boys stood side by side blinking up at the menu screens displaying value meals and cycling specials above the counter.

               The girl at the cash register said, “Welcome to Grand Beede’s. Have you been here before?”

               “Yes,” said Chester, too forcefully. “Many times.”

               “Have you worked here long?” asked Lex. He squinted at the girl’s face, then peered beyond her into the kitchen, scrutinizing the other employees.

               “It’ll be a year tomorrow,” said the girl, grinning. “Assuming I don’t get fired.”

               None of the boys laughed, and the girl seemed disappointed.

               “Do you live here?” asked Lex.

               “In Grand Beede’s?” asked the girl. “No.” When this didn’t get a laugh either, annoyance replaced disappointment.

               “No, here in town,” said Lex.

               “In Multioak?” asked the girl. “Yeah, I grew up here.”

               Lex seemed soothed enough by this response to order his food.

               Sitting at their table and waiting for their names to be called, Lex said, “I don’t recognize anyone working here. Do you? Either of you?”

               “No,” said Chester. “But you come here more than both of us combined.”

               “Right,” said Lex. “Sometimes they start making my regular order as soon as I come in the door. By the time I get to the register, it’s already assembled and ready to go.”

               “But not this time,” said Amal.

               Lex got up from the table. “I’ll be right back.” He left the restaurant. Chester and Amal watched him through the tinted windows as he walked around the side of the building and disappeared. When he returned, he took his seat and said, “Has the Departmart always had a computer repair store next to it? Like, right next to it?”

               Chester and Amal pondered his question in silence.

               “Lex,” called the girl at the counter. He retrieved his food, then sat looking down at it, poking it with a black spork. He picked up one of his spicy tenders, dipped it in ranch sauce, and took a bite. “They taste different here.”

               “Here?” asked Chester.

               “This location,” said Lex.

               “This is the location,” said Chester. “The one we always come to.”

               “I know how this is going to sound,” said Amal. “But I’m getting homesick.”

               “What are you saying?” asked Chester.

               “I’m saying I wish I could sleep in my own bed at my house tonight,” said Amal.

               “Chester,” called the girl at the counter.

               When Chester returned to the table with his food, Amal said, “Lex and I were just talking…and…well, after we eat, do you want to start heading back?”

               “Heading back?” asked Chester.

               “Toward home,” said Lex.

               “Yes,” said Chester. “I do. If that’s what you guys want, then sure.” He didn’t know if he should take this as a sign that it was a good thing they hadn’t gone on a real road trip, or if whatever they were feeling stemmed directly from the unique nature of their road trip substitute.

               Chester ate his mild tenders. They did taste different here.


               Lex’s time at the wheel was over. After lunch, he resumed his post in the back seat. Amal, as always, rode playlist. That’s what the boys had started calling it instead of “shotgun.” Chester would drive. The responsibility of heading back home would be his responsibility most of all. But how to start heading back home?

               Chester posed this question to the car. “How do we head back home?” An attempt to abdicate responsibility, or share it.

               Amal looked at the digital time-and-temperature display on a bank across the street, then at his phone, then at the time shown on the car stereo. “Look,” he said. “The car clock’s an hour slow.”

               “Meaning?” asked Lex.

               “We’re in a different time zone,” said Amal.

               “Just drive to your house,” said Lex, grabbing Chester by the shoulder.

               “I’ll try,” said Chester.

               But the attempt was a failure. The boys saw many things they recognized, but these things were surrounded by so much clutter, so many extraneous locations. So many smaller streets seemed to have interposed themselves between the streets that the boys knew. They tried using GPS on their phones, but the map wouldn’t load, kept timing out, overburdened by the compressed distance it was being asked to render. Multioak had become impossibly dense, overgrown with ever more of itself. It was as if each mile of road trip traveled had been a zooming-in, a revelation of greater detail, expanding intricacy. Traversing their hometown was now, to Chester and Amal and Lex, like hacking through a swamp with a machete, and none of them were practiced wielders of machetes. And as they drove around not finding Chester’s house (nor Amal’s, nor Lex’s), the boys felt themselves moving ever farther from home as they knew it.

               As the sun began to set, Chester called his father. “You have to come get us, Dad. We can’t find our way home.”

               Chester’s dad sighed. “Tell me where you are.”

               “We’re in the parking lot of a store called, uh, Multioak Western Outfitters.”

               “Never heard of it,” said Chester’s dad. “What are the cross streets?”

               “Cornish and Lime,” said Chester.

               “How do I get there?” asked Chester’s dad. “You told me you wouldn’t leave the area, Chester!”

               “We didn’t,” said Chester. “We’re somewhere in Multioak. But we’re…we’re…very, very deep.”

               “I knew this road trip was a bad idea,” said Chester’s dad.

               “This is your fault!” shouted Chester. He had never shouted at his father before. “If you had let us go on a regular road trip, this wouldn’t have happened!”

               The conversation circled and died without arriving at a solution. Lex called his dad next, who quickly became hysterical. “We’ll figure it out,” said Lex, and he hung up. Calls to Amal’s parents went unanswered.

               That night, the boys stayed at The Half-Spruce Inn. The woman working the counter had an unidentifiable accent. “Where are you from?” asked Amal. He seemed afraid of the answer.

               “Multioak,” said the woman.

               Amal made a sound like a stifled whimper. Maybe that’s exactly what it was.

               In the motel room, Chester said, “It’s a 10-day trip, right? So maybe after Day 5, that’s when we’ll start heading back.”

               “Or we’ll keep spiraling inward forever,” said Amal.

               “What if we leave Multioak?” asked Chester. “What if we drive to Dalcette or Riveryard or Heavenburg, and then turn around and come back?”

               Amal shook his head. “There will always be more Multioak.”

               Lex flopped his body onto one of the room’s queen-sized beds. “Can you believe people live here? What does it mean that the farther we go in our hometown, the less I feel like I belong in it? Like it’s not for me?”

               “Your nervousness about getting home is affecting your perspective,” said Amal. “It’s making everything that isn’t home seem like the enemy.”

               “Maybe,” said Lex. “Or maybe it means that it’s possible to be too observant.”

               “You think we’re losing our subjectivity about Multioak?” asked Amal. He sat down on the motel room table, which creaked. “So maybe we really can’t go back.”

               Chester shook his head. “We meddled where we shouldn’t have. We should have either gone on a road trip or stayed home. One or the other.”


               The next morning, the boys had only been on the road for 45 minutes when Lex said, “That’s the gas station! Shipshape Gas Station! That’s where we stopped on the first day!”

               Chester whipped the car into the parking lot. “Are you sure, Lex? I don’t remember that fruit stand on the corner. Or that bus stop. Or that empty lot next door. Or the construction across the street.”

               “Maybe she’s working,” said Lex. “That same lady. It’s around the same time of day as when we were here before. This is probably her shift.” He sprang from the car and jogged across the lot to the convenience store door.

               Chester and Amal followed. Inside, the layout was not correct. Not the same. This Shipshape Gas Station convenience store didn’t even have a fountain drink machine.

               The man behind the counter had an underbite that made him look pugnacious and sad eyebrows that countered the effect of the underbite. “Let me guess,” he said, indicating the boys with a sweep of his hand. “You guys are on a road trip.”

               Lex was too dispirited to answer. Amal too frightened.

               “Yes,” said Chester. “Kind of.”

               “Kind of?” asked the man.

               “We’re headed home,” said Chester. “We hope so, anyway.”

               “And where’s home?” asked the man.

               “Multioak,” said Chester.

               “Well, then I’ve got good news for you,” said the man. “‘Cause this store? Right here where you’re standing now? This is in Multioak.”

               “That’s great,” said Chester. Forcing a smile onto his face felt like peeling a scab that was not ready to be peeled.

               “What are we going to do?” asked Amal.

               “Get an apartment,” said Chester. “Get jobs. Wait and see if everything starts to simplify again at some point.”

               “Excuse me,” said Lex, stepping up to the counter. “Do you sell postcards here?”

               “Yeah,” said the man. “There’s some on that wire rack over there. We don’t sell many, but that’s where they are. Not many people want to send Multioak post cards, I guess. Who do you want to send it to?”

               “This girl I like,” said Lex. “Suzette.”

               “Where does she live?” asked the man.

               “Multioak,” said Lex. “But she’s a long, long way from here. She’s never been on a road trip. She hasn’t even graduated.”


Discussion Questions

  • Is feeling a sense of creeping dread as you realize how fast Dave must have been driving the van while you were asleep in order for you to already be this far through Oklahoma a crucial component of a summer road trip?

  • Is misremembering a filthy latrine filled with flies as a national park visitors center a crucial component of a summer road trip?

  • Is offending strangers with unconventional, obscene utterances upon seeing bears in the wild a crucial component of a summer road trip?

  • Is two friends making a throne out of their arms in order to present a third friend as a potential fiancé to two girls dining in a pizza shop window a crucial component of a summer road trip?

  • Is finding a bar of soap fused to the towel in your cheap motel bathroom a crucial component of a summer road trip?

  • Is encountering a man on a bicycle at a gas station who warns you of the approach of the planet Nibiru and tells you about the time God told him to crash his car into people standing around in front of a store but he defied this order a crucial component of a summer road trip?