He Started It



Felix doesn’t know a lot about the first road trip. He knows it happened, yes, but not everything about it. I know, it’s terrible of me to keep such big things from my husband, but I stand by my decision, even now. Couples who think they need to tell each other every little thing they do or did are destined to fail. All those details build up to a heaping pile of crap and you can’t stay married to that.

But I’m in no condition to go on a walk, so I don’t hide my late night with Portia.

‘Good for you,’ he says. ‘I’m glad you spent some time with your sister.’

I want to hit him. It’s probably the hangover.

Even when I get to the diner for breakfast, the rum is still seeping out of my pores. Portia is young, so she still looks good without makeup, and her hair is tied up in a knot on top of her head. Just looking at it makes mine hurt more.

‘You guys went out last night?’ Eddie says. He looks crisp and ironed, even in a T-shirt and khakis.

Krista is beside him and she’s pouting. I bet she didn’t realize what kind of motels we’d be staying in.

‘We didn’t go out,’ I say. ‘We just drank.’

‘Yeah, we didn’t go anywhere,’ Portia says.

Eddie’s eyes narrow, like he’s about to say something fatherly: We should be careful. We’re not here to party. We have no business drinking alone in a strange town.

But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he smiles. It lights up his eyes and shows off his dimples. Eddie morphs from asshole to loveable asshole just like that.

‘You should have asked me to join,’ he says. ‘We need to have some fun on this trip.’

Portia nods. ‘You need to have some fun. You’re starting to be a boring old man.’

‘Thanks.’

‘If I don’t tell you, who will?’ Portia asks.

‘That’s what little sisters are for,’ I say.

Eddie is still smiling as he looks over at Felix. ‘They’re ganging up on me.’

‘Looks like it,’ Felix says.

‘Any advice?’

‘Head down, mouth shut?’

‘Solid.’

They bump fists.

We return to the motel to get our things. On the first trip, I took an ashtray from every motel room. Twenty years ago, motels like this had ashtrays and matchbooks. All the rooms were smoking rooms. Every ashtray was the same, too, like they were all bought from the same company: square, with indents at each corner for the cigarettes. Made of glass, I think. They felt heavy and solid and I liked that, so I took them.

I wrapped them up in my T-shirts so they didn’t clink together. When I had five, Grandpa noticed how heavy my bag was.

‘Books,’ I said.

He gave me a funny look, like it was weird that I’d have books.

A few nights later, my bag was even heavier. Grandpa emptied it that time. He unwrapped ashtray after ashtray, eight in total. ‘But Beth,’ he said, ‘why?’

I shrugged. ‘Because I can.’

Grandpa hemmed and hawed, saying what we should do is take them back. If we were honest people, that is. Grandpa wasn’t.

‘Keep one,’ he finally said. ‘We’ll drop the rest off at a Salvation Army or something.’

I kept two. Never settle. Even at the age of twelve, I knew better.

Today, there are no ashtrays in the motel room. There’s nothing solid or heavy at all. The room has nothing except some threadbare towels and scratchy linens. No Bibles. The TV is bolted down and the remote is attached to a wire.

This is an unexpected letdown. I leave the motel with nothing other than a drunken night of sleep. As we drive away, I look back at the Stardust sign and think about taking a picture. I don’t, because I don’t want to remember that rat hole.

My husband is one of those picture people. If anything interesting happens, Felix takes out his phone. He’s that guy in the middle of a parade who also records the parade. He recorded us loading our luggage into the SUV, driving away from the car rental place in Atlanta, and he took pictures of the Roundabout. Probably of the Stardust, too. I didn’t ask.

Sometimes he posts the videos on social media, other times he reviews and deletes. Doesn’t bother me. I never watch them. Does anyone? Bet not. Bet you don’t, at least not more than once. Not until someone dies, and then you watch and replay every little thing they did because it’s all you have. I’ve done that.

One day, those pictures and videos may be all that’s left of someone. Pick and choose with care.

But if Felix wants to spend his time recording life, that’s his choice.

As soon as we’re on the highway, I curl up on my side of the seat and lean against the window. Sleep. It’s the only real way out of a hangover. Time and sleep and a lot of wishing I was Portia’s age.

I drift off with ease, and wake up to the sound of laughter. Above it all, I hear Felix.

‘… and then they had a baby named Pop Tart,’ he says.

‘Strawberry Pop Tart!’ Krista yells.

‘And then they went back into space,’ Eddie says. ‘To find their lost loves.’

‘Wait,’ Portia says from the back seat. ‘Did that hedgehog have sex with the alien?’

‘And the mutant!’ Felix yells.

The story game. We played it as kids, in the car, but not like this. I pretend to still be asleep as I listen to the sexual exploits of a hedgehog named Bonnie. She’s an equal opportunity fornicator, Portia says.

On the first trip, we had an ongoing story about another hedgehog. His name was Chester and he did not fornicate with anyone. Not once. He did, however, like a girl hedgehog named Paulina and he used to give her worms and crickets to eat. Mostly, he hung out with his friends and they went on quests like the kind in video games.

Grandpa loved the stories. He compared the adventures to the comics he used to read as a kid. I always knew when he was giggling because his whole body would shake. I used to watch from the back seat.

I listen to the Bonnie story until I can’t anymore, then I sit up.

‘Well, if it isn’t sleeping beauty,’ Eddie says.

‘Are you guys seriously talking about hedgehog sex?’ I say.

Krista wags her finger at me. ‘Not strictly hedgehog sex. Hedgehogs with other animals, too.’

‘But not exactly animals,’ Portia says.

Felix shakes his head at me. ‘More like creatures?’

‘Alien creatures!’

‘Mutant creatures!’

‘Mythological creatures!’

‘Gods, even. The Greek ones. And the Norse gods.’

‘Bestiality,’ I say. ‘This is bestiality of the worst kind.’

‘Look out!’

Krista’s voice is drowned out by the squeal of tires, followed by a bang.





We are halfway off the two-lane road and facing the wrong direction.

‘Is everyone okay? Is everyone okay?’ Eddie keeps saying this the same way, like a recording.

‘Yes,’ Felix says.

‘I’m alive,’ Portia says.

I’m fine, too. No broken bones, just a pain in my arm where I slammed it against the door. Krista is crying. Well, she’s sniffling. She has a bright red spot on her forehead where she hit her head. Eddie grabs her and looks at the wound.

‘It’s fine,’ he says. ‘No broken skin.’

I take a look too, because you never can tell with head wounds, but he’s right. It doesn’t look bad at all, not even swollen.

Felix stares out the window. ‘What happened?’ he says.

‘A truck came right toward us. You didn’t see it?’ Eddie says.

‘Did we hit it?’

No one answers.

I open my door and get out. There are no other cars around, although down the road I see a pickup truck driving away from us. ‘It’s gone,’ I say. ‘They just left us here.’

‘Asshole,’ Eddie says.

Felix gets out as well, and he walks around the car. ‘We’ve got a flat,’ he says.

‘For the love of God,’ Portia says, climbing out of the back. ‘Please tell me someone knows how to fix it.’

We all stare at the flat. The back tire looks like it went full speed into a rock that was sharp enough to cut glass.

Eddie maneuvers the car off the road, just in case another comes along. Not likely. The road is empty, lined with cornfields on both sides and farmhouses behind them. That’s it. Nowhere to go, nothing to see.

‘I can change it,’ Felix says.

Eddie gets out of the car. ‘So can I.’

I’m watching Portia, who’s leaning against the car and standing on one foot. ‘What’s wrong?’ I say.

‘It’s my ankle. I had my feet up when we crashed.’

‘Let me look.’

She brushes me off. ‘I’m fine, Mom. It’s nothing.’

At the back of the car, Felix and Eddie unload the luggage to get to the spare tire. Felix is really good with cars. No one expects that, because he’s the kind of guy who’s always staring at his laptop, but he knows cars. He claims it’s because engines are interesting.

Lie.

It’s because he grew up poor and his family always had old rundown cars.

I overhear Felix say, ‘We’re going to need to stop and get a real tire. Can’t drive across the country on this.’

‘Of course we can’t,’ Eddie says.

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