A couple of years ago, I was embarking on the manic torture of National Novel Writing Month for the second year in a row. Tired Pony’s album The Place We Ran From had just been released, and I liked the fact that there was some narrative quality infused in the record from start to finish. Some people say, “Write what you know,” but I don’t know anything until I’ve written it. To that end, I decided to glean inspiration from those songs and then build my own story. A heavy debt is owed to that music, though I’ve tried to be as inventive as possible with the outcome. I’ll be posting as I edit. Hope you enjoy!
She can barely conceal her energy as she tucks her legs up beneath her in the half-broken velveteen seats of the old movie theater. Nearly half of this God forsaken town is made up of “old” places: the old post office, the old school, the old coal mine. There’s nothing new and nothing young but us.
She holds the flashlight for me as I fumble around in my pocket for the gun. It’s just heavy and clunky enough to come across as real, made of metal rather than being some cheap plastic Halloween prop, and I’m almost surprised by how comfortable it feels in my hand. I’ve never shot a gun that wasn’t part of a video game, but when I hold this one up towards the peeling paint of the ceiling, I feel like I would fire every last one of my hypothetical bullets just for to show off to her.
“Just like we’re Bonnie and Clyde,” I boast, and even though I don’t like giving up the control, I let her hold the replica for a moment. She’s lived on a farm her entire life and has actually killed before, just rabbits and squirrels and the little things that intrude upon the garden when they’re feeling desperate enough to tangle with people. She went after a coyote once, but her brother wouldn’t let her have the satisfaction of being the one to take it out. It would have been too emasculating for him.
“Yeah, but we haven’t broken any laws together,” she points out. The chamber doesn’t open up since it’s a fake, but she likes spinning it regardless, turning it into more of a musical instrument than a weapon. I know there’s no reason to treat it like some kind of sacred object, but it bothers me enough to snatch the gun back.
“This is probably private property. We’re trespassing.”
“Whatever. Nobody cares. Besides, you already know what you did.” Her eyes are wide in the dark theater, as though she’s waiting for the film to start after the projector hasn’t flickered to life in more than twenty years. Not once in either of our lifetimes has one of us actually sat here as part of an audience. Instead it’s our place to meet as a couple, somewhere only we know. “Tell me again.”
I’m not usually one to brag, but everything’s completely different when it comes to her. Neither one of us is all that realistic, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. When you’re in love, the rules change. All that matters is getting caught. Or in our case, getting away.
“Okay.” I straight up, just trying to piss her off by taking my time with the whole story. I know that we have to go soon. There’s no way that they’ll let us stay. Just the way we planned it.
Working at her father’s garage for the past year is the only thing that’s kept me out of trouble. That’s not to say that I’ve always been a bad kid. I’ve just always been drawn to being on my own, and when you live in a small town, not going with the pack means that there’s something wrong with you. People turn their backs like you might be contagious, and then there’s no way for you to worm your way back into their hearts unless you have some kind of a redeeming value. For me, that’s fixing cars. I’ve always been able to visualize the way things work, so it’s easy to tear down parts and then put them back together. It might not be done by the gospel, but things tend to function after I’m done with them. In a place with only three bus lines, that’s the difference between being shunned and getting a polite smile while waiting in line at the grocery store for the one open register.
She and I had been planning to run away for months, but that’s the problem with a place this size—people talk. You can’t so much as buy a suitcase without people starting to gossip about how you’re obviously going to elope in the near future. That wasn’t our plan, at least not initially, but as soon as her father found out that his only daughter was buying supplies for a trip that he wasn’t arranging, he was furious. He demanded that she leave me and told her that I didn’t deserve her. He said some really hurtful stuff, from calling my father a drunk and my mother a whore to speculating on whether there was some brain damage because I wasn’t like the other boys in town, the ones who had ushered her to homecoming and prom and weddings because I hadn’t been in the picture yet (and never would have been polished enough for the camera regardless).
He fired me the next day, which was a bit inconvenient for my Juliet and me. We were going to get out of town anyway, that made things all the more apparent to us then, but without an income, it was difficult for me to gather supplies. We didn’t know what to shop for as neither of us had run away from home before, but we figured that it would be good to keep some savings on us as we went north. Nowhere in particular, just North with a capital N, follow the compass and figure it out when we get there. She had money though, savings bonds that she cashed the day she turned eighteen even though they hadn’t reached their full value yet. Some things were more important.
This morning I went over to her daddy’s garage. Only her brother was there, but that was fine. The point was getting the gun’s barrel in any family member’s mouth the moment I got into the garage. Her brother’s a sturdy guy with more muscles than brains, but I have a few inches on him. If it had come down to a fight, I might have been able to best him, but I think that even his dim eyes could tell that I was in the mood to commit a crime of passion. When I asked him to sit down and stay still while I tied him to a chair, he did nothing more but tell me what he was going to do with my testicles when he finally caught up with me. Maybe I shouldn’t have hit him over the head then, but he needed to learn a lesson.
By all means, she shouldn’t be enthralled by this story, but as I tell it, she leans her head against my shoulder and lets out a sigh. Relief is in her features and carried through her voice. “We’re finally free now?” she asks rather than says, and I realize it’s because she needs to hear it from me more than anything else.
“We can go anywhere and do anything. This is all us now.”
I’d like nothing more than to hide out in this theater forever, waiting for some sort of divine instruction to appear on the screen. Try looking up tips for running away from your previous life. You won’t find too many of them. The library isn’t a great resource, and if you try to ask around, all you’re going to find out is that there are a lot of young teenagers who are ready to get out of dodge because they hate their parents, hate their teachers, hate their friends, hate their lives. Most of the time the impulse comes from just wanting to get away from it all because there’s so much negativity. But what about love? Nobody seems to run away for love anymore. They’re not so happy that they want to settle down somewhere else to be happy forever. It’s a shame though. I wish other people could feel what this is like, waiting for my pulse to slow while her touch is doing everything in its power to set my heart racing again.
“We should get going. My dad probably went straight to work to get Andy to track me down. We have to get out of here before they know where to look.”
I take one last look around this place, trying to memorize it because I know it could be the last time I ever sit here. So many nights have been spent trying to sit in every row, stretching out in the aisles to get a bit more room, glancing up on the screen and narrating our story before it can even unfold. This place was grand once, all golden paint and red velvet curtains pulled aside around the screen even though they’ve probably never once been allowed to draw shut. This used to be the place where people would go to escape their pathetic lives for a little while, to forget what it was like to be human.
Now it’s just a ripped screen and looted rooms, a broken popcorn machine and reels of film that have been dropped out of their canisters like some pathetic imitation of streamers. This is the monument of our childhood, but it’s also a souvenir of the future we’re never going to live. We won’t have to waste away like the wallpaper that’s managed to fade even in the darkness.
The back of my car is already packed up with boxes and our two suitcases. It’s funny how you can take a lifetime and reduce it to just enough to fit inside one vehicle. I feel like there ought to be more that we’re taking with us, but I suppose the point is to leave all this behind. We only need each other, and if we need other things along the way, then we’ll acquire them because we’re hardly the first people in the world to go down this path. Nothing’s going to get in our way.
“Can I drive first?” she asks, and I’m too anxious to say no. It’s probably for the best, just in case someone who knows her family happens to catch up with us. I know I would probably hesitate, but she’s ready to take care of me too. We’re both doing this for each other, not just some selfish act for ourselves.
The engine coughs more than purrs as it comes to life, but it’s just further proof of the sickness of this place. I squeeze her knee as she turns onto the highway and checks the mirror behind us. There’s nobody else on the road but us.
“Happy birthday, baby,” she says as she turns on the radio.
“We should get married.”
At first I think that she’s made the suggestion, but with the way she stares at me even though she’s behind the wheel, I know that that’s wrong. I’ve spoken, and now I’m going to have to take responsibility for the thought now that I’ve released it into the universe.
“I mean it. I think we ought to settle down properly and look after each other. What’s the point in running away together if we’re just going to split up somewhere down the line? It’s not that secure. It’s just a big, dramatic exit and for what? To piss off our families? We did this because we love each other. People who love each other also get married.”
I can see her resolve fading as she glances in the rear-view mirror, clearly trying to figure out if we’ve gotten away with this. “You have to get a job first,” she tells me hesitantly.
“Does that mean that you’ll marry me? Is that a yes?”
“Ask me properly.”
I don’t care how dangerous it is, I unbuckle my seat belt and twist so one knee is on the floor. If she were to hit the brakes now, I’d go flying, but I trust her too much. This is too important. “Karen Mae, will you do me the honor of being my lawfully wedded wife?” I ask, putting on the best Southern accent that one year in Mrs. French’s Introduction to Drama class can afford.
“If that’s what it’s going to take to get my very own set of car keys, then yes. Yes, I will marry you.”
There’s no audience, so I have to roll down the window and lean out to cheer properly. She grabs me by the belt and nearly smacks my head off the car’s frame while trying to pull me back in. If anyone else were on the road, we’d look like we were crazy. Maybe we are. All I know is that the trees, the sky, the signs for tourist traps we’ll never see are now all aware of just how much I love this woman.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,” she huffs when she gets me back inside and I buckle back up. We’re in this together, and I’ve never felt secure as in this moment.
“You’re going to marry me,” I remind her, and even though she hardly needs to be told as much, I can see the dimples dig deeper into her cheeks when I say so. They’re one of her best features, and I’m always happy when I can induce them. “I just wish that I had a ring to give you to do this properly.”
“Dustin, we just ran away from home together. My daddy will have your hide if anyone finds us, and you’re worried about giving me an engagement ring?”
“Basically.” She gives my leg a playful smack, but she knows me well enough to realize that I’ll have some plan up my sleeve, even if I don’t know if myself until we pass another one of those signs. It’s for a cave where you can also buy a sack of stones and dirt, then sift it through a pan like you’re looking for gold. It’s complete nonsense, but it gives me an idea. “We should stop there,” I tell her, trying to make my voice seem as light and curious as possible.
She gives the old wooden sign a skeptical glance, but she knows that I’ll just keep irritating her. We have ten miles until the appropriate road is going to come up, and that means I have more than enough time to frustrate her on this stretch of highway. “You think that you’re going to strike gold and solve all our problems?” she asks slowly.
“Look, is this really going to be the most impulsive thing that you’ve done today? Getting out to stretch our legs won’t be a bad thing. We can finally just hold hands and just be together without looking over our shoulders. Nobody would ever think of look at us one of these places.”
She doesn’t say anything, but that’s how I know that I’ve won. I switch the radio to country just to show her that I’m flexible.
In the middle of a fall afternoon, there are very few people who are on this stretch or road and decide that such a sight is worth their time. The main draw is a cavern that yawns its way through the ground, each twist looking like an ancient mouth that has forgotten its teeth long ago. Everything’s covered in water you’re not allowed to touch lest you keep the stone from growing in. I’ve only gone a couple of times and never past the age of ten, but I’ve always wondered what would happen if you left the caves to their own devices. Would the tunnels all eventually close off, the damage finally repaired and the curse lifted?
I’m not interested in taking some tour with an illuminated hardhat today though, and Karen couldn’t look more relieved when I pass by the stand where tickets are sold. I don’t even want to go sifting through their manufactured bags of gold that usually just turn up a few flecks of crystal and hematite.
Instead I go to the gift shop that’s made to look like a log cabin, as though a bit of the frontier can be purchased if you close your eyes and have no concept of history. I’ve always considered it corny, and maybe I still do, but there feels like there’s something genuine about it today. Maybe it’s because the place is as isolated and abandoned as we are, or maybe it’s just because I’m seeing a bit more romance in the everyday and what we can afford. If this place isn’t special, then we can make it that way.
Most of the inventory is about as exploitative as you can get. When people come to these sorts of places, they want the experience no matter how inauthentic. If that means that they have to buy powder blue headdresses for their children and moccasins made of soft pink leather, then that’s what they’re going to do. Up front you have most of the cheap toys, nice and exposed to draw in the families that stick their heads in even to inquire about what goes on at this place or to get directions to the next rest stop. Between the rock candy and the rubber balls, they must make half their sales every day. Beyond that you get your tourist stuff, the postcards and the wall hangings and the scenic stationery, all the things that you buy so you can look at them and remember what your vacation could have been rather than what it was.
Then there’s the real attempt at replicating Native American culture. Leather jackets with fringes on the chest and sleeves, arrowheads that look like they’ve been chipped down to their fine points rather than stamped out of a mold, and drums that are actually made with real animal parts. There’s a smell of leather that I usually find stifling, but anymore it’s just reassuring to know that something’s authentic. I push in further yet, looking for the jewelry case I trust is still lurking in the back.
We won’t find any diamond rings here. I know this from the start, and at any rate, we couldn’t afford to blow a month or two of hypothetical rent on something like that. Instead there’s opaque turquoise and buffed, carved silver that looks fragile as tin foil when it’s beneath the protective glass. Belt buckles seem to be the priority here, and I wonder who would go so far out of his way to get something with a garish lasso on it.
“Dustin, what’s gotten into you?” Karen’s voice comes at me from behind, and I know that if I wait long enough, her arms will slip around my middle. I’m wrong though. She just touches my shoulder and waits for me to stop pressing my nose down like one of the children trying to figure out if the blue rock candy is going to taste like blueberry, blue raspberry, or maybe the much-fabled cotton candy.
“Pick something out,” I tell her, and I know immediately that she’s going to get frustrated with me for it. It doesn’t matter though. Either she’ll do it or I’ll pick something for her, and the latter option probably isn’t the best one.
“We can’t afford this. Even spending a dollar…we could just have lunch instead. Why should we waste money on this?”
“Consider it a down payment on our future. If we spend the money now, then we’ll have to make money soon. There’s no way that we can afford to lose. So we just won’t.” It’s not the best logic, but I make it work, giving her a look that could either be charming or pathetic. Chances are it’s probably more the latter, but she’s always seen something in me that others haven’t.
Sighing, she points to a simple chain. There’s a silver bead in the end that looks like a starburst or some cell diagram from chemistry rather than something meant to symbolize a life together. Maybe that’s why she chooses it. Maybe it’s just because she likes it and doesn’t want it to be like an engagement ring just yet. “If you want to get me something, get me that,” she says. So I do. We only have cash on us since we had to close out our bank accounts, and when I pull out the roll of bills that I’ve had tucked deep into my pocket, I feel like I’m showing everyone that I can take care of my wife. Maybe one day I will