Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Short Fiction
On a lazy Sunday afternoon, after the church doors closed and the pews filed empty, Robyn and I were side by side in my Honda Accord’s brown interior. I was going through the motions listlessly, but on the inside my restless heart was stirring, weary of driving the same streets every day.
The sun was showing off. Finally breaking through the murky greys and browns of winter and lighting up the snowdrifts in blinding white. I pulled the visor down to shield my burning eyes and felt that old familiar twitch in my right foot, resting on the gas pedal.
“Class tomorrow,” I said lamely. Not that class was bad. I enjoyed class most times. Other times, like now, I felt indifferent.
Instead of answering, Robyn turns up Taking Back Sunday and belts out the lyrics. We’re cruising the outskirts of Edmonton on the freeway, waiting for our exit ramp. To the right the city beckons, to the left more highway, a straight line of pavement that punctures the horizon.
I glance over at Robyn, with her blonde curls and freckled cheeks. I’ve only known her for a couple years, but it doesn’t matter. While some friendships are temporary, filling a need in a specific time until two paths diverge; others are lifelong. Grafted into your soul. As much a part of you as the blood cells coursing through your veins. Robyn was that friend for me. A part of my soul. When I met her, she grabbed me out of the hole I had sunk into and pulled me back into the light. Back into life.
“You got plans later?” I turn the music back down, so I don’t have to shout over it. “Wanna have a Joseph Gordon Levitt marathon? We could watch Brick and 10 Things I Hate About You.”
Robyn shifts in her seat. “Ethan mentioned maybe doing something tonight.”
My foot slips slightly off the gas pedal before I recover. I’m immediately snapped out of my doldrums, but not in a good way. “He asked you in class on Friday?”
“No, he called me.” Her blue eyes meet mine for a second before I turn back to the road. I feel suddenly uncomfortable.
“Is this the first time he’s called you?” I try to keep my voice indifferent. The question casual, even though I’m certain Robyn can see through it.
“We’ve been talking a lot actually, and he’s asked me to hang out a few times.” Typical Ethan. He would use a vague term like “hang out” leaving it up to Robyn to interpret whatever intention was behind it.
“And I think he likes me.” Again, a vague term. Robyn’s never had a poker face. If she’s feeling something you know, and written across her face are clear signs that she wants more than “like” with Ethan.
The car’s hood crests a hill, and before the slow descent a green sign widens into view. Jasper, next exit. I have the sudden impulse to get away. To get Robyn away. I watch her out of the corner of my eye, so she doesn’t notice. Straight ahead I see the familiar streets leading home. The way I should go.
I crank the wheel left. We cut across two lanes and are bouncing down the off ramp, tires squealing, carving black tread marks into the pavement behind us.
Robyn gives a jerk and looks at me. “I can’t believe you just did that,” she says, her eyes turning back to the open highway that is greeting us. She sits up straighter. “Where are you taking me?”
“Out of our routine. Someplace new. We’ll go to Jasper,” I say it like I knew it all along. “We’ll miss one day of class, tops. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Robyn’s lips press tight. I can read the internal struggle across her face as easily as my psychology textbook. She wants to be with Ethan, but another part of her, and I hope it’s the stronger part, loves spontaneity. We both long for adventure.
The wild part of her wins out. As if giving consent to my burst of insanity, she reclines her seat as far back as it can go, puts her feet on the dash and sings the next lines in the song. She has a strident indie voice. A grin breaks across my face and I relax in my seat. In the rearview mirror, all signs of the city fade away.
Robyn and I are alike in every way but our looks. In that regard we’re as opposite as salt and pepper. Robyn has as mop of curls like spun gold, where mine is like horsehair. Robyn sports a pear shaped body, while mine is bean pole straight. While she feels she’s overweight, I’m jealous of her curves. “No guy wants to cuddle a skeleton,” I told her once when she asked how a girl as skinny as me could still be self-conscious. She had been shocked when I told her I had never kissed a boy. Nineteen years old, and I’m still just as awkward as I was when I started puberty. But Robyn, with her wild, untamed beauty, taught me confidence couldn’t come from a boyfriend. She taught me to find out who I really was without a guy on my arm.
“Ethan and I have been talking about our goals for life. Our dreams.” I hate that she’s bringing him up, and there’s a faraway look in her eyes that I’ve never seen before. I try to make the best of the opportunity. I know she wants to talk about him and this spontaneous jerk of the wheel, combined with her being locked in a car with me, might open some doors to change her mind.
“Okay, I’ll bite. What are Ethan’s life goals?” I ask.
“He wants to build skateboard parks for high risk youth. What?” she adds seeing the disdain I’m unable to hide, clearly spelled across my face.
“That’s your dream.”
“I know! Isn’t it great he wants to do the same thing?”
I doubt Ethan has any desire to care for inner city teenagers, but I have no doubt he knows it’s what Robyn wants to hear.
“He wants all the same things as me, Maggie.” Her eyes are shining.
“Is that a good thing?” I mutter. “Parroting whatever you want doesn’t make him a catch, Robyn. It makes him a liar.”
She shakes her head, curls striking her cheeks. “That’s not what I meant, and why do you always have to do that anyway?” Her tone has turned angry, her blue eyes frosty.
“Be critical of everything. Especially whenever it has to do with Ethan.”
“Because he’s a snake.”
“That’s too harsh and you know it.” I disagree. I’m not sure snake is harsh enough. I like snakes, I think they’re beautiful and mysterious. Ethan is more like a parasite; he needs a host to survive.
“Everything is about him and what he wants. He always needs something from you.” Robyn ignores me, staring silently out the window, so I press on. “You haven’t known him very long, maybe just take it slow and get to know him better. I mean, when you met him, hadn’t he just gotten out of a serious relationship?”
“Yes, but that wasn’t his fault. His fiancé ended it and broke his heart.”
“They were engaged?” The words come shouting out of me. Ethan is a year older than us, but twenty is still young to propose. Young, impulsive, and foolish. “You don’t think that’s just him placing blame on her?” I ask more gently. “It takes two to make something like that work.”
She plays the clasp on her watch. “It wasn’t like that. They just grew apart. Ethan was innocent.” That leaves a bad taste in my mouth that has nothing to do with the car’s dry air.
“No one is innocent,” I think, but my courage fails to speak the words aloud.
In psych class Ethan gave a presentation on bipolar disorder. The whole presentation wasn’t really about BPD, but instead Ethan talking about himself. About how his dad had it and his mom left a couple years back when she couldn’t take it anymore. Poor Ethan. You could practically hear the swoons. But none of those struggles were the reason I was wary of Ethan. My distaste for him came when I saw the way he acted around those swooning girls. Pulling one along only to switch into cold disinterest when he wanted something from another. He used girls to fill his own needs. Happy to drag other people down until he figured himself out.
Robyn is also figuring herself out. I guess we all are. She’s a dreamer, and her dreams are fluid. But she’s also passionate. She wants to change the world once she gets her degree. She plays with her watch again, tightening and loosening the clasp over and over, and I am reminded of the reoccurring dream I keep having. A nightmare where Robyn is swimming in the ocean, while Ethan, screaming at her to save him, drags her under the liquid surface. Every time Robyn says his name, all I can see are bubbles in the inky blackness.
The road drags on with every sign marking the distance until Jasper. They come painfully frequent, and each one makes my left turn seem more foolish. The asphalt begins to curve in a tight S. The hills break ground into mountains capped with blue stone and frosted peaks. The sun sets in a splash of rose gold and violet and we are guided by the glow of headlights across yellow road lines. My fingers tighten on the steering wheel as the wind picks up and white streaks of snow slice across the windshield. Drivers pass at whistling speeds, but being a prairie girl, I’m used to straight, flat roads and I struggle to keep up with their breakneck cornering.
“How much farther?” I ask, trying to keep the raw edges out of my voice.
“Just over halfway,” Robyn answers. She still has her feet on the dash and the dirt marks from her shoes are rubbing on my already exposed nerves. I’ll have to clean that later.
She hasn’t said much the entire drive. The drive that was supposed to confirm the truth and change her mind. The fun of the road trip has started to fade. We skipped lunch with my impulsive decision, and the car’s constant vents blowing heat have dried my mouth out. The album completes and begins its loop again at track one.
“Ugh!” I punch the off button and Robyn’s head whips in my direction.
“What was that for?”
“Don’t we have anything else? We’ve been listening to Taking Back Sunday for two hours straight!”
Robyn rolls her eyes in such a way it ends giving me side eye. “The radio fuzzed out an hour ago, and you only have one CD in your car.” She makes a tsking sound. “I’m disappointed in you, especially after everything I taught you about music.”
I grunt in response. I’m starting to feel sick, and its not from so many hours in a car without eating.
An uncomfortable silence falls between us until city lights come into view. White and yellow flickering stars. The road eases into a more relaxed pattern, losing its similarity to death road. I brake slightly as we weave through streets lined with quaint tourist shops. They’re all dark now. We’ve come in the off season, not quite winter, and not quite spring. Means the place is quieter than usual, the shops taking advantage of the pre-peak season to close early.
I find us a nice place to eat and get out, thankful to stretch my legs. Thankful to relinquish the wheel. We feast on greasy pub food, licking juice from our fingers and washing it down with cold Heineken. Robyn runs her finger up and down the label on her drink, making perspiration beads pool on the tabletop. She does it so long I gain suspicion.
“There’s something you want to say.” Her eyes pop up to meet mine. “Tell me.” I’m not asking. I’m forcing it because I know she needs to say it out loud.
“It’s just, when we were talking about the future, and plans-”
“You mean you and Ethan?” The name leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
“Marriage may have also been put on the table.”
“Was that his term or yours?”
“He says he loves me.”
“He also loves Fight Club and Johnny Cash. What will he love next month?”
“He calls me every day Maggie. We talk for hours.”
“I bet every other girl in psych talks to him on the phone too. He probably has all their numbers on a neat list on his refrigerator and he just scrolls through them whenever he feels lonely.”
“Well, he met my mom, and she loves him.”
“Your mom thinks getting married will keep you safe. She’s wanted you to marry every guy you dated!”
Robyn rolls her eyes again. “Well, I felt I should tell you. Since you’re my best friend and all. Besides Maggie, it’s not like you have any experience on this topic. I don’t really think you’re qualified to be giving advice.” Her words have an extra bite. She’s never mocked my singleness before.
She stands up beside the table, purse slung across her chest. “Anyway, should we get the bill?” I’m losing her I realize. We’re less than two feet away but its spread into a chasm. I can’t read what’s buried in her blue eyes. “I heard there’s good weed in Jasper,” she says off topic. “Should we try and score some?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I start to say but Robyn has already left her cash on the table and made her way to the parking lot.
We leave the car and go on foot. We need to breathe non-recycled air for a while. A man heads the opposite direction on the far side of the street and Robyn, in her typical shameless manner, cups her hands around her mouth and shouts at him, loud enough the cops at the station could hear.
“HEY! You got any pot for sale?” The man just laughs and waves her away. Two girls playing at rebellion. “Oh well, I tried,” she says lightheartedly and loops her arm through mine. I pull her closer and for that moment everything feels as it used to be. I silently forgive her harsh stab for being single and breathe deep, soaking it in. Wanting it to last forever. To stay this way forever.
We reach the edge of town, and an icy river beckons us, its edges shored by polished rocks. We toss pebbles beneath its moonlit ridges until the partially flapping Band-Aid of the past conversation bothers me enough, I know I have to rip it off.
“I don’t think you should marry Ethan.”
“I know,” she says, trying to get her rock to skip.
“I don’t trust him.” She sighs deeply and I know I’ve hurt her, but some wounds can heal. Wrapping her entire future around Ethan will not.
“You’re sure this isn’t just jealousy talking?” she asks me.
I toss the stone I’m holding back and forth in my palms. I know how it looks. I’m the one who gets the side hug at weddings and asked: “So when are you getting hitched?” But I would step aside and celebrate with Robyn on her wedding day as happily as her own blood relatives. Just not to Ethan. Not when he’s pulling her down into the black water.
“It’s not jealousy.” I’m telling the truth but I’m not sure she believes me. “You’ve only known Ethan what? Six months? How do you know he won’t get bored of you like he does everything else? What will he be like in five years, or ten?” I swear there are tears shimmering in her eyes, but Robyn never cries. Not unless she’s talking about how much she loves Jesus or listening to Jimmi Hendrix.
“Sometimes when you meet someone you just know.”
Her words make me want to scream. They make me want to throw all the rocks I can into the river until it swells with them. I don’t believe in love at first sight. It’s a myth, built under the lie that there are perfect matches in the world who will fill your every crack and flaw with their endless love.
“We should head back,” she says brushing her hands off. I can feel the chasm between us widening again.
“If that’s what you want.”
“I’m flat broke and so are you. Besides, that’s your parents’ car you’re driving.”
I hate when she’s right. I chuck my last rock into the rushing river. It plunks with a splash, its ripples swallowed into current, leaving no trace of it behind.
Bracing my stiff legs for the drive home, I follow her back to the car. Back to Edmonton. Back to classes and side glances and restless feet. The road that inevitably leads to a destination I cannot avoid. I watch Robyn’s curls dance ahead of me. Her heart that has been grafted onto my soul. I know her mind is made up.
On the drive home she turns the music back on and I can see her, stepping out into the icy water.
Heather Knutson worked as primary care paramedic for seven years before becoming a full time stay at home mom. While she was born and raised in Canada, she recently packed up everything she owned in a truck and moved to Minnesota with her husband and four kids. When she’s not outside soaking up the warmer weather, or chasing her children around, you can find her typing madly in her laptop or watching competitive cooking shows with her husband.