“This is so chill,” said the younger sister.
You already know;
I’m in the fast lane,
From L.A. to Tokyo
And honest, the truth is
My flow retarded, they speak it depart it;
Swagger on super, I can’t shop at no department.
The siblings climbed down from their peak, and ambling past the shore and the bridge and the ringneck snake still dead, they came again to their camp. While the middle sister boiled water for rice and the younger sister changed into dry clothes and the brother organized wood for that evening’s fire, they found their space had been overrun by small bees.
“Goddammit!” the middle sister said, swatting at the back of her own head.
“Goddammit!” the younger sister said, chasing a swarm from the tent.
With the drugs now passed, they found themselves again needing to rely only on their own resources in reconciling each passing moment with the fantasy that had bought them there. The sun, once so remarkable, was now merely bright, and perhaps a few degrees too warm. The colors of the sky and grass and dirt resigned themselves again to more muted, definable tones. The breeze died. And though they were loath to admit it—to each other or even themselves—they were bored.
It was discouraging. Having to acknowledge that deep-felt need to be distracted, recalling that no pleasure was pleasure enough, feeling haunted by the presence of other places, other doings, every other possible thing that was not this thing, here. And though they did their best to busy themselves with the small tasks of camping in the woods, it all added up to the long-gnawing suspicion that although they’d made a worthy effort, they had failed. They had driven four hours in the wrong direction.
“Why didn’t we bring any pretzels?” the older brother asked.
“I asked you what you wanted and all you said was ‘Apples and beer,’” the middle sister reminded him.
“That was last week though. We need pretzels, and the whiskey’s almost gone.”
“Yeah, look,” he said, and swirled the few remaining ounces of drink around the base of the bottle.
“Damn. Do you want to go to the store?”
“Not really, do you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care.”
“A—, do you want to go to the store for whiskey and snacks?” the older brother asked the younger sister still
in the tent.
“I don’t care. Do you want me to?”
“Only if you want to.”
“Where is the store?” the middle sister asked.
“It’s back in the town we passed. It’s like ten miles,” the older brother said.
“Do they have a grocery store?”
“Probably a gas station.”
With the corner of a t-shirt, the middle sister scrubbed the stubborn rice baked into the bottom of her aluminum pot. The older brother drank from the bottle of now very nearly empty whiskey. The younger sister emerged from the tent in clean clothes.
“Well, should we go to the store?” the middle sister again asked the younger.
“If you want.”
“I would eat some pretzels,” the middle sister assented.
“I would drink some whiskey,” the younger sister confirmed.
“I would do both,” the older brother agreed.
This went on for quite a while, actually, until finally the sisters took to the car and turned toward the town while the brother opened a book to read, stretched in the shade and grass, falling promptly asleep.
When the sisters returned and woke the brother, unwrapping the much-debated pretzels and whiskey, it was only moments before they again wondered what to do with themselves. To swim again? To walk through the woods? To stay with the whiskey? It was past 5:00 now, and with only three hours of light left to the day, they found themselves torn between the sunset and their dinner. They could make a meal, but risk missing the sun, or they could walk the few miles to see it, returning in the dark, having only pretzels and liquor before bed.
Eventually they agreed on the sun, and so gathered their things—the cameras, the cigarettes, the marijuana and blankets—and followed the path they had followed earlier: the bridge, the snake, the family-stained shoreline. As the air had cooled, most of the other people had returned home for the day. In their absence were the trash cans overflowing, the bones of roasted chickens tossed in the leaves, the glass bottles of Corona here and there, quietly returned to the earth that had made them.
The siblings found a place, a steep climb in the rock, and facing west, perched themselves again above the water, waiting for the white heat of the sun to dismantle itself as it drew from the world the entire range of color and shadow it had so casually dolled out over the course of its long day.
They were quiet. As the sun moved on to other places, the siblings enjoyed that now-rare pleasure to be had in the company of blood—an easiness so assured as to allow for this kind of prolonged emptiness. Because they spent so much of their lives among strangers—people they knew but did not understand—it was rare when silence did not have to feel like some failure, or a distance, or a running out of things to share.
Maybe in the ages when people lived more closely together, this wasn’t so uncommon. Maybe in the face of so many shared experiences it was easy to be quiet then. Because when they moved, they moved together. And when they slept, they slept together. When they worked and played and dug in the earth, they did it all together. Maybe then, we were even all once a little less believing of our own pretenses, thinking it no great thing to occasionally give up our selves—the whole elaborate ordeal—because really who was there to fool when everyone you knew was your sister?
“Pretend you’re looking at the sunset,” the middle sister called to the younger. Looking up from the world of her phone, the younger sister donned an expression of mock-rapture, and in the smallest fraction of a second became a glowing image inside her older sister’s camera.
Every minute was born a new stranger—someone, somewhere—unknowable. And unfortunately, even the ones worth knowing, worth loving were so easily swallowed by the vacuums of other lives and other places to which—for those left behind—no access was permitted. It made some sense then, that in the shadow of so much loneliness all anyone could do was talk and talk and talk at each other, never once acknowledging what they really wanted, which was a family.
“I have to pee,” the older brother said finally, climbing down the rock. Around the corner, behind the cover of trees, he came across the endless parallel lines of a railroad’s track cutting through the ground. Opening his shorts, he began to relieve himself there. And though there was no other person around to validate his impression, to second his motion, he felt compelled to proclaim, in fullest of voice: “For Thoreau!” while his water wasted itself in the soil, crashing against the steel and iron—each droplet containing the light of all the sun’s indifferent color.
After the sunset, and the pretzels for dinner, the older brother lit the fire, which was no small effort. Everything around them that wasn’t rock was instead some damp form of green life, and it had been very difficult to find wood even close to suitably dry for burning. Still, it was lit. It wasn’t large or especially warm, and it did produce a lot of smoke, but it was lit, which was good because it was now rather dark.
“Can I see your phone?” the younger sister asked the middle. Barely moving, digging beneath her head, the middle sister emerged a telephone from her bag. On the drive up the day before she had paid 99¢ for the download of an app which, when pointed in the rough direction of the sky, would translate the once-inscrutable stars into constellations—the variously named shapes and figures identified in some of the oldest human myths. Phone in hand, the younger sister leaned back, and pointing her face and arms upward, looked through the screen.
There were Bears there—one small and one large. Fish, Fox, and Scorpion. A Bull, several Dogs, and a Whale—a whole family of finned and legged beasts, escaped from the messy world below.
Other people had put them there—so many years before. With the help of the stars they had left across oceans for new places too far and wild to be guided solely by the delirium of their own longing. On nights quite similar to this one, they had looked up and found faces and stories and meaning in what they had seen. It was, of course, only fitting that they should find, in heaven, earth.
“Cool,” the younger sister said, and returned the phone to the middle.
“What time should we leave tomorrow?” the middle sister asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t care,” the older brother answered.
The fire dimmed, unmoved in the still air. Crawling to the flame on his hands and knees, the older brother blew into the dull embers. Completely emptying his lungs, he re-inflated them in one slow breath, and blew again. Finally satisfied with the flame he settled back between his sisters on the ground.
By now it was somewhere between one day and another. They had almost made it. In some other place were any number of other people, busying themselves with whatever came to mind, dealing with the consequences as best as they could manage. Some of it would be remembered, almost all of it forgotten.
In lower South Dakota though, all that happened next was one brown-haired girl turning to her brown-haired sister, and asking: “Read us a poem?”
Patrick Mainelli lives, etc. in Omaha, Nebraska. His nonfiction has appeared in the journals Fourth Genre, Sport Literate, and Isthmus, as well as on the Public Radio program Living on Earth.