Oak was, once again, not listening. Instead, he had been looking out the window at the bluing peaks of Mount Mitchell, searching in vain for some collection of words to string together. Cloude didn’t care that these words did not come easily, and stared with such focus that Oak felt his forehead burning. He wished they would take a shower and leave him alone for just five minutes, but their eyes were burrowing under his skin.
“Yes?” Oak finally gave in; Cloude was too stubborn to move before they were acknowledged.
“I think I’m done.”
Oak put his pen in his notebook and closed it, sliding it to the edge of their tiny dinner table. He swung his legs to the side so Cloude could scoot into the booth opposite him. Instead of sliding in, they sat at the edge, and let their leg press into the uncomfortable notch the table laid into when they made the bed every night.
Cloude picked at the edge of the cooktop, avoiding his eyes.
“I’m just ready,” they said and motioned to Juanita, the van the two of them had lived in for three years as they clattered from mountain to mountain through the Americas. Oak leaned back in the booth and looked around. Juanita was covered in mud; they had encountered a muddy patch during the climb and Juanita’s size made dirt hard to hide.
Living on the road was losing its shimmer. The two of them had been out of touch recently, their funds teetering on the edge of livable. They had been stuck in North Carolina for three weeks, waiting for the local mechanic to get his next shipment of parts. Now that Juanita’s engine wasn’t rattling and puffing smoke up at them like a baby dragon, they were planning to head west again, climbing Mount Mitchell was their farewell to the state. Now they sat in the mechanic’s parking lot for a final night, resting before heading westward.
“Well then let’s get out of here. You can choose our next destination.” Oak knew he was missing their point, but he hoped that Cloude would retract their statement.
“I need you to listen,” they said, and he could hear their caution, their attempt to prevent the coming conflict, but he was already bristling.
“I’m not going to want to if you accuse me of ignoring you before you even start talking. Just say what you’re going to say.”
“I want an apartment and a job, and I want to stop having to choose between washing the dishes and taking a shower. And I would like it if you came with me.”
Oak turned back to the window, where the mountain’s perfection mocked his writer’s block.
“What if I don’t want to come with you?”
That’s all there was to say for now but the silence hung low and stung. Oak picked up his notebook and put it in the drawer where their valuables lived. His notebook and laptop, Cloude’s camera and carving knife. He walked out of Juanita and stood by the back doors, looking at the mountain and the tall thin trees.
As if to punctuate Cloude’s point, the empty water tank gurgled and the pipes screamed as they tried to take the shower Oak wished they had taken earlier, but he breathed through his annoyance and rapped his knuckles on the side of Juanita.
“I’ll fill it.”
Oak filled the tank with the mechanic’s hose. He didn’t want to enter Juanita again until Cloude was dressed, so he waited and stared up at the peak until the clouds shone purple and he could hear the creak and snap of the table being pressed into place. He joined Cloude in making the bed, and took his own cold shower while listening to the buzzing of crickets and cicadas.
He stepped out naked, as they had to in such a small living space, but didn’t face Cloude. This was the first time their shower situation felt awkward, and he knew he made it that way because, as he was about to mutter an apology, Cloude remarked quietly,
“I don’t mind the view.”
And the two of them were able to shed a bit of that discomfort they created. They laid next to each other in the dark.
“Now what,” Oak asked. He’d never broken up this way before, unable to go to a different room and reconsider, and with no backup plan. He’d always dated people who had a home to go back to, a place where the boxes of their stuff could be dropped on the front porch with no contact.
“I don’t suppose you’ll change your mind about settling down with me?”
He wouldn’t. Settling meant a house. A house meant a family. Family meant problems. Juanita made settling deliciously unattainable. He never had to think about being home for dinner or tucking children in or paying the mortgage. Cloude knew that. “Then I’ll go stay with Janelle until I get on my feet.”
“I can drop you,” he offered but dreaded it. As much as a family in a house with a fence and a golden retriever felt like a nightmare, so did living in Juanita alone, without Cloude’s bony hips leading him up mountains. He loved them, though he hardly ever said so, and it would be manipulative to say it now. They were ending, fracturing from two inches apart on a tiny uncomfortable bed in the back of a periwinkle Ford van, and what could he do but sleep?
“I’ll start,” Oak said, referring to the drive ahead, and reached across Cloude who woke groggily. As Oak leaned across the bed, his shirt sagged down toward Cloude, and they brought their hand up and pushed a thumb gently into his ribs. Oak took the keys from the hook over Cloude’s head and retreated to the other side of the bed.
“Can we just…” Cloude started, and Oak knew what they wanted. To pretend, from Mount Mitchell to Fayetteville, that this was just another day in Juanita, and not the last.
They drove in silence for hours, but it wasn’t awkward. They were both more comfortable in the quiet. Their silence was interrupted by the gurgling of their stomachs.
“Where do you want to eat?” Oak asked. The growing volume of their stomachs told him that this hunger was more than a Nature Valley Bar could satiate. Juanita’s gas needle was tipping toward empty, so they would have to stop soon anyway. Cloude hopped up into the front seat, looking out the windshield.
“Oh, there’s a Waffle House.”
Oak’s first time eating at a Waffle House had been with Cloude, years ago, when Juanita didn’t turn corners quite as loudly. “Never been there,” he’d said, pointing from the passenger seat at the yellow scrabble letter sign. “Is it any good?” Cloude laughed at him.
“No. But it’s hot.”
“Is my only requirement for food now that it be hot?”
“No, it’s that it be reliable. Imagine this,” to tell their hypothetical, Cloude climbed into Oak’s lap and bowed their head close. “We come down from a hike and we’ve eaten all of our apples, our KIND bars taste like sandpaper, our pits are smelly and our boots are wet, and there it is,” they pointed, “shining in all of its fluorescent, syrupy glory, the Waffle House, with a bathroom and ice water and all you can eat tiny Welch’s jelly packets.”
He had laughed at it then, but years later he quite liked the comfort of building his own hashbrown bowl, even if it was greasy and heavy and sat in his stomach like a rock. He chuckled inwardly at the memory and pulled into the Waffle House parking lot.
“Do they have tornadoes in Arkansas?” Cloude was starting meaningless conversation to keep normalcy intact in public, but Oak was more worried about his building discomfort. They sat at a booth and struggled to see through the cloudy yellow plastic covering the menus. Oak looked up from the menu, once across the booth, in Cloude’s direction, once more to his right, and then, as discreetly as possible, back over his shoulder, toward the nearest exit. Each of his glances had been filled with eyes. They had been seated between the only three occupied booths in the entire Waffle House, and the people at each of those tables stared hard, unembarrassed by Oak’s returned glances.
“Oak,” Cloude said, and looked pointedly toward the waitress at their side, taking their orders.
“Sorry… Just a coffee and wheat toast, please.”
The waitress murmured and walked away.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
Oak wasn’t listening again, and he knew that it was, in part, his lack of focus that made their breaking up seem so sudden to him, but he was mapping the distance between them and the door. He put Juanita’s keys on the table between their cups of water, where he could see them.
“Hon’,” Cloude sounded concerned. He reached out and took their hand.
“When the food gets here, ask for a takeout container.”
“Is everything okay?”
The bear spray, their only real weapon against assailants, was tucked safely in the camping gear in Juanita’s floor storage. The staring eyes still bore into them, and Oak began committing faces to memory. Male, blue eyes, bald head, broken nose. Gun. He looked at the rest of the staring people, and each of them had one visible gun holstered at their side. Guns were like rats. When there’s one there’s an infestation. He slid to the edge of the booth and put money on the table.
“We should go.”
“We haven’t gotten our food yet!” Cloude adopted an annoying whine and their lack of awareness made Oak want to yell, but he grit his teeth and stood, pulling them up with him and out of the door.
The eyes followed, he watched them stare holes through the glass window as he all but lifted Cloude into Juanita’s passenger seat and walked around the front, in full view of Cloude, and the eyes, the whole time.
Gravel crunched under Juanita and Oak steered out onto the darkening highway. The sun was setting, orange and fiery. In Juanita’s mirrors he could see the inky blue promise of night spilling across the sky behind them, it crept, and cold sweat kept his shirt clinging to his back as he sped up.
“I don’t like it here,” he said. “ Is the iPhone dead?” Cloude rooted around the glove box for their little iPhone 4. They used a prepaid flip phone for phone calls and texting, but kept the outdated technology for internet access. They hadn’t used it since Maine, two weeks ago, and it flashed an empty battery at them. “Try the atlas.”
Cloude retrieved the U.S. Highways Atlas from the glovebox and began flipping through it, locating them much slower than the internet would have.
Juanita’s gas gauge dipped, and Oak groaned. They should have bought a newer version of this van with better gas mileage and less miles. He stopped at a dim gas station.
“Can you get a trail mix? I’m hungry.”
Oak shifted uncomfortably in the driver’s seat and looked through the rear view mirror at a car that pulled into the station behind them.
“Yeah, you pump the gas and then get back in the car. I’ll grab some snacks.”
A camera aimed at the gas pumps eased some of Oak’s anxiety. He paid for the gas before grabbing the trail mix, and watched on the tiny blurry monitor as Cloude picked up the nozzle. He hovered at the trail mix section looking for the one with the M&Ms and the raisins and grabbed more of them than they needed. He opened the refrigerator and heard the gas station door ring as a group of people walked in. They chatted amongst themselves, but quieted when they saw him, and watched him take a cherry Coke from behind the frosty glass doors and gathered behind him in line. Oak glanced at Juanita on the monitor. Cloude was in the front seat, flipping through the atlas again. He breathed in, trying to keep his hands from shaking while he paid.
“Boy,” the cashier said with a drawl and a hint of something Oak hadn’t heard in years. “The sun’s gone down. You best be on your way out of here.”
Oak took the receipt and the cryptic warning, and trotted back to Juanita, handing Cloude the snacks and listening to the clatter and rumble of the engine protesting, chugging to a start. He turned left out of the gas station. He didn’t care if they were headed back east again, as long as they weren’t sitting ducks. Beneath the windshield wiper, a paper fluttered in the wind.
“What’s that?” His voice betrayed his panic.
“I don’t know.”
“When did it get there?”
“I don’t know!”
Oak opened the window and tugged the folded paper from where it was wedged. Behind them the road lit up with headlights.
“They’re following us,” he said.
“They’re everywhere!” Cloude’s voice shook. They pointed at cars idling at the entrance to every private road they passed. Perched on their hoods were people holding flags and machine guns. “Drive faster.”
“I don’t want to get pulled over.” He reached across and rested a hand on their knee, sharing what little remained of his comfort. “Let’s just get out of here.” He thought back to the gas station cashier, and removed the receipt for the trail mix from the pocket of his jeans, letting his change fall and roll off his lap and around his feet. He searched the long, crumpled piece of paper for an address. “The city is called Paragould, can you find it?” Oak looked over at the atlas, trying to help Cloude find their location and the quickest route to the town limits.
“Here it is!” They pointed with a bit of pride. “What does this little ‘X’ mean?”
Oak’s sister gave him that atlas years ago. She said that she marked it with good places she’d found to sleep and eat and hike. Cloude flicked through the atlas for a key. Oak looked down at the paper in his hands and unfolded it. He brought it up over the steering wheel so he could read it. It was a postcard for Paragould, and it read: “Cool Summers, Mild Winters, No Blizzards, No Negroes!” he squeezed Cloude’s knee with a cold, trembling hand.
“It says here X means ‘sundown town’.”
Alexis Dinkins grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. She received her bachelor’s degree from Clark University and is earning her MFA in Creative Writing from New England College. Her favorite book is Beloved by Toni Morrison and she has a pet chicken named Blanche! You can find one of her short stories, “Emmett” in Pigeon Review‘s October issue!