Central Valley School Bus, Model Unknown
This could be where they meet. Eighth row, left aisle, emergency escape. Gabe sits by the window, eyes dodging the other seats. The bus has barely started driving, but from where he’s sitting, the trees look smeared, and everything is in motion. If he was sitting on the other side of the aisle, he might see Milo sprinting towards the bus’s open doors, sweat soaked and shivering like a root with no rain. And maybe in some universes, Gabe does see him; but in most, he doesn’t. Instead, he pulls a gameboy out from pocket, flashing his glasses with sparks of neon, eyes trained closely on the screen.
Only minutes before, Milo stepped down an unlit staircase into the family room. His mother was sleeping outstretched on the couch, her feet stained red in a pile of broken glass. He pressed into the side of her arm, and at first she didn’t wake. He pressed once again, this time leaving a mark that vaguely resembled the shape of a peach.
“Go to school,” she said.
Now, walking through the center aisle of the bus, he surveys the open seats. One, speckled with sweat and gum. The other, an emergency exit. If he sits down next to Gabe, he might say something like, Hey. I’m Milo.
or: Hey, what’s your name?
And then, if this goes like most things do, Gabe will have a pair of headphones plugged into his gameboy. He won’t hear a thing.
2001 Chevy Impala
But this isn’t most things.
Most things are more than they’re supposed to be.
And here, this is where Gabe learns to save himself from dissolving. Where his father unexpectedly hits their pet terrier at 30 mph. Where he has a ringing smacked into his head. Where he cries for a sack of flesh and fur and canine bones.
His parents promise that when he turns sixteen, this car can be his. But by the time he gets his license, he realizes this was all wishful thinking.
The Back of Emmett Baldwin’s Truck, Circa 7th Grade
It’s more likely they will meet here, but the odds are still against it. On Saturday, Emmett Baldwin drives into the parking lot of the middle school well after hours, his car’s radio pulsing and his fingers covered in cheeto dust. Emmett, their elder by six years and eight months, stole the car from his grandfather, a man who they would later find out was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s.
Still, Gabe plays touch football on the field adjacent to the parking lot, and once he smells sufficiently like fresh grass and scabbed knees, he runs to see Emmett’s truck. He arrives, and rubs his fingers across the side of the vehicle. It’s more rust than paint. After a while, when the initial shock of the car has worn off, Emmett reaches in the back, and pulls out a small Ziploc of weed, and yes, even he knows that it’s probably basil. Nonetheless, he tries to smoke it, covering the parking lot with little pockets of ash.
Sometimes, Milo is picked up late from the library. He sits, watching the boys from a bench in front of the school, and wonders what it might be like over there. Sometimes he wonders what they’re laughing about. Sometimes he walks over and asks. There are a number of ways he could approach them, ways he could rest his hands in various pockets, speak at a spectrum of tones, start with different phrases of how, why, when. But before long, the forks and fractals start to overwhelm Milo, and that’s exactly why he stays sitting there.
1997 Acura Integra
This is what Milo and his mother drive to Santa Cruz. After his father’s body is found in the summer of 2004, and despite the divorce, she still retains his power of attorney.
“Yeah, he wasn’t really the type to keep an updated will,” she laughs, driving down highway 152. “There are some guys who will leave you with nothing more than a beat-up car and a few days off for vacation.”
So when they reach the pier, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they forget to bring towels. They spend the night at a pale-blue motel on Ocean St., and instead of getting dinner that night, they watch a man with dreadlocks accompany his drunken singing with a pair of castanets. Everything in the air smells impossibly like sea salt. His mother turns to him in bed that night, and says she wishes she could turn the whole town into a candle.
At Twin Peaks the next day, Milo is turned over to a group of boys on the beach, where they start to play football. First, it’s like any game, but they quickly move to tackle. In one boy’s shorts he feels a Swiss army knife like some kind of hard-on, and for a moment skin and metal begin to meld into the same viscous substance. For a moment, Milo feels the urge to cut the boy open. And in one, very distant variation, maybe he does. But most of the time, he, embarrassed, comes sprinting back to his mother. He asks to drive him home. The taste of salt has worn thin for her too. They leave the next morning.
Tractor Mounted Tiller
His first summer turning the soil, carving into the fields, Milo’s uncle explained to him how easy it is to kill a root. He waved his hand to the ground flat and sudden, signaling Milo to turn off the tiller. When he stepped out of the tractor, his uncle reached into the ground and pulled out a thick clump of soil. “If you do it right,” he said, “this should be fertile enough where the water and fertilizer can pass through and feed the plant.” He pulled out another clump, a newly planted tree. “See, how thin these veins are? How easy it is to snap off a branch? If the water can’t seep to the bottom, the base of the plant will start to harden and break away. And if branches aren’t fed, the whole system dies. You see what I mean?”
Milo nodded his head.
“You know, there’s a story. They say that hundreds of years ago, long before we came and cultivated these fields, the people who lived here used to take dead bodies and bury them in this same ground. They would leave their plants to grow here, and when they returned the vegetables were huge and bloody. They looked like the dead’s organs. So if you don’t till correctly and feed the plants water, I guess that’s fine. The plants will live, but you’ll have to be fine with it growing out blood red.”
Thankfully for Milo, his Uncle loves embellishment. The trees live, are tilled properly, and even if they weren’t, they will never grow red. High school begins, and Milo is able to leave his job on the farm, choosing instead to work at Wendy’s.
He likes the hurry. The time away from home. The pressure to keep moving even when your legs are tired and your mom is drunk, but it doesn’t matter because all you need right now is to get this salt into this bag.
He would like to work in the kitchen, but let’s say he doesn’t. Let’s say because he’s a nice enough boy, he is probably in the drive-through.
They could meet on a Saturday, they could meet on a busy morning, but let’s say this time, they meet at 11 pm.
Gabe drives in, orders one chocolate milkshake, and somehow in every permutation, Milo takes one look at him, sees he’s ordered chocolate, and deliberately hands him something else.
1996 Toyota Corrolla
“Some roots can grow as deep as their tree is high.”
“In rhizomic plants, they keep growing outward, keep dividing.”
“An infinite spread of—”
There is a pause and a nod, before the “yes” or “maybe” or “pass the chicken nuggets” or “we should do this again.”
Abandoned VW Bug
This is where, eight months after their first meeting, Milo takes off the blindfold and looks around at scorched earth. An empty field. Empty except for this beautiful car in the middle of nowhere, Gabe tells him. He found it over the summer when he snuck out of his house in the middle of the night, in need of a break. He shines a flashlight on his phone, and watches it quickly get swallowed by the darkness. Then, Gabe wrestles Milo into the backseat of the bug.
Here’s the thing Milo doesn’t like to mention: he likes being held down. He likes the way the metal and soggy leather dig into the lowest parts of his back. And here it is. Tongue and teeth and legs colliding, the two stop. They look up towards the top of the car, where the roof has been ripped away as if by some dark hand. Gabe says something about looking at the stars and Milo nearly vomits because it’s all so fucking saccharine.
That lurch in the chest he does not, cannot mention.
He pulls Gabe out of the backseat, rests a blanket on their shoulders, and they start walking back to their car. When they arrive, there’s a note scrawled in thick red print: I know what you’re doing out there. Gabe doesn’t need to ask who wrote it. Milo, who doesn’t see the note, hops into the passenger seat and asks “where’s next?”
Gabe tells the truth. He really doesn’t know.
The Back of Emmett Baldwin’s Truck Circa 11th Grade
Same truck. Years later. Gabe, with a note crumpled tight in his right hand, finds himself in the other half of town. Past the farms and the markets, but closer to the freeway, Emmett’s house (or the excuse of one) is starting to crumble on the right side. An old, bile-colored man stands on the house laying scaffolding. Emmett, like he’s been waiting, sits on the back of his truck. “What’re you doing here?” he says, sneering at the you a little. And for a bite of a second, Gabe doesn’t know entirely what to say. He imagines turning on the truck and backing over Emmett’s skull, or maybe kicking his neck back and stuffing something winged down the guy’s throat. The man on the scaffolding shouts at Gabe: “who the fuck err you?” and with a note in one universe, and a crowbar in the other, he thinks to himself how it’s not a bad question.
Newly Refurbished Central Valley Ambulance
This is the car on that starburned night where Milo finally crashes. Where the weight of it all compresses into a diamond and cracks him head-on like a pebble kissing window glass.
There are so many ways it goes, but it always starts with a phone call. A concerned static voice screaming into the receiver, while he remains silent on the other end of the line. From there, the stories fracture. Sometimes his mother had one too many. Sometimes they find Gabe thrown to the side of the highway, spitting up hot mouthfuls of blood.
When he reaches the ambulance in the hospital parking lot, it is almost midnight. The streetlights are licking light into puddles, a homeless man on a bicycle pedaling past, shadows, no one speaking, ambulance doors slammed open quick and furious, so little seams left between this universe and the next. There are select moments in time, he thinks he hears someone say, where we can feel the breath of the earth’s soil. When the sulfur starts to fill the air and everything around you is thick as night.
Three men in neon-yellow uniforms hop out with a body tied to the stretcher. They speak into a walkie-talkie, shouting words and codes Milo doesn’t understand. Total wasteland now, this empty parking lot. The men in the uniforms don’t stop for a second glance. No faces to be seen, they run for an open door, and Milo is moving, trying to take a second look at the covered-up body, but a group of people try to put his struggling arms away.
Lines of brilliant light.
This whole town a catacomb.
“They’ll do the best they can,” a lady in a white uniform says.
So now, whether it’s Gabe or the mother lying on that stretcher, whether it’s this fractal or another, Milo lets out a sound that blends in with the sirens.
After everything cracks, he walks a dirt road alone. Beads of sweat drip from his sideburns to his lips. It is the middle of the summer, and the sky is swelling. He doesn’t know where he is going.
Once, hidden behind a stucco wall downtown, Gabe talked about how he loved reading the dictionary. He held Milo’s hand and said he loved sitting in an air-conditioned room, trying to uncover the language where something we say began.
“Take the root of the word flower, for example. It’s flor. But at what point did it change? Wouldn’t it have made more sense if it branched off into floor or flop or flow or something?”
“I guess,” Milo said. Laughed.
Walking this road, Milo starts thinking about words himself. Cadaver and flower. How they sound almost the same. His arms are sweat-stained, and his eyes are tired. Every step, a reckoning.
1994 Ford Mustang
In a peeling, silver vehicle, he explodes out of the parking lot. It’s the car he worked two years for, and its engine is skipping a beat. It might only be enough to get him out of town, but it doesn’t matter. That’s all he needs. Driving between films of dust, it’s like he’s in one of those Super Bowl commercials where there are no other cars in sight. If they advertised used cars during the Super Bowl. If the ads were about the leaving.
Now, the clouds are starting to wither and the car is burning ozone. He’s about to reach 90 mph, and beside him, there is a mother or a love or a ghost in the passenger seat. Sometimes a cop pulls him over, and he throws away the ticket, and in some, he drives uninterrupted the entire way. There is a glare in his windshield. An abandoned tire on the side of the road. He follows the sight of the tire and nearly drives off the road, but before he gets the chance, a hand reaches out from the passenger seat, and grips the back of his knuckles. It steers him forward. He takes a moment, catches his breath, and then looking out on the highway, he sees the asphalt is new and black—smooth for miles. He knows somewhere he may have crashed, but it’s no matter. The hands remain steady. At night, he will stop at a motel in Utah, and the next day, he will continue moving east.