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Eastern Road

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EST. READING TIME

12 minutes
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Emmy was barefoot as she walked along the side of the road. She walked like a ballerina, toes placed on the grass to keep the bottom of her pants out of the mud. They were her only pair that hadn’t yet shrunk in the wash and she couldn’t afford another. Her ankles grew tired as she trekked further and further away from her neighborhood and she was forced to walk flat-footed with as much delicacy as a wingless bird.

Sara walked ahead. Emmy saw her pause at one of the hay stalks that had survived the fire and pluck a piece off with her long fingernails—painted sunset red—and tuck it behind her ear. As they walked down the road, it was looped in her hair like it was a feather and not streaked with the dirt she’d pulled it from. Emmy followed her footsteps and waited for the hay to fall out so she could catch it, present it to her, a hero on the road.

The sky darkened the further they got from home. Emmy stopped looking at where she was placing her feet to avoid the mud, and lifted her eyes to the clouds on the horizon. “It’s getting dark,” she said, slowing her pace. Sara didn’t notice. The space between them grew.

“Do you want to win the lottery or not?” Sara said. Her voice sounded far away, echoing on the road. “This store has rows and rows of tickets.”Emmy parted her dry lips. She could buy enough water to drown the town if she bought a winning ticket. Her first ticket. Legally bought, at least. She’d turned eighteen somewhere in the middle of the previous night, an indistinguishable hour that her parents couldn’t remember. They told her it was early, when she should be sleeping, so it shouldn’t matter, anyways. She went to sleep seventeen and woke up eighteen.

“It might rain,” Emmy said.

“Then we’ll buy an umbrella, but it won’t rain,” Sara snapped. She stopped as a car rushed by them for the first time on their walk, a white minivan covered in mud like blood splatter. The rush of its speed blew Sara’s hair in every direction as she turned to look at Emmy, and almost blew the piece of hay out of her hair, but she reached up and kept it there. She tucked it back safely. “Riley says we’re coming up on a dry spell. Shouldn’t be any rain for weeks. He saw it on the weather channel.”

Emmy bit back what she thought about Riley and his scholarship and what he must look like, watching the weather channel like it mattered. Her TV at home only played local news stations, not the weather channel. And it didn’t matter, anyways. She hated watching the weather like it would change anything. The summers meant they lived in heavy heat until the sky decided to let loose. No one knew in advance what the sky would or wouldn’t do.

“Did Riley tell you how far this general store is?” Emmy asked. Even when she squinted, all she saw was black asphalt and burning tar.

Sara didn’t turn around to look at her. She kept walking. “I told you, mile up the road, on the right.”

Emmy knew what a mile felt like. She knew how fast her heart should beat after six laps around her dad’s farm. How raw the soles of her feet should be, her ankles chafed from her shoes, a size too small. The amount of sweat on her neck and dripping down to the small of her back. They’d walked a mile and a half by now. Her jeans were tight on her calves in the heat.

“Is that it?” Emmy pointed to a shape in the distance, but then squinted and saw it was a pick-up truck. It was Riley’s truck—Emmy knew it anywhere. Definitely not a general store.

“I don’t know,” Sara said. She fell back in line with Emmy. Their shoulders bumped together, walking barefoot in the wheat.

Half of the truck’s body leaned heavily against the rows of wheat on the side of the road. She thought it might be red, but as they crept closer, she realized that the red was orange and brown, rust and decay. Emmy could smell the exhaust leaking onto the road. She knew the shape of the truck bed and the width of the wheels, even in the encroaching darkness. That truck was always parked on the hill by the high school at every track meet; always in the driveway next door when she went out for her runs before the sun was up.

She wanted to turn and walk the other direction, but she was walking in line with Sara, following her down the road.

#

Riley had spent the last summer before he went to college painting over the rusted parts of the truck he’d inherited from his uncle. Emmy came in from a run, rounding the field that stretched behind both their houses, and slowed when she saw Riley in his driveway, working underneath the back end of the truck bed. He always folded his ankles when he was working underneath a car, and his tennis shoes were untied. She ran her hand over her forehead to stop the sweat from dripping down into her eyes. Her legs ached as she considered turning and escaping to the air conditioner in her upstairs window.

Instead, she crawled underneath the truck on her elbows even though the tar burned. When she saddled up next to Riley, she parted her cracked lips and asked, “Tired?”

Riley lifted his arm from over his eyes and looked at her. Even in the shade underneath a crumbling truck, she could see the chip in his front tooth. It formed a small gap when he smirked at her. “The sun’s too much,” he said, shaking rust out of his hair. “The sun, the paint, the truck.”

“You been under here all day, then?” Emmy looked at his arms, thick with muscle from his two-week stint at training camp—before he’d hitchhiked home under the cover of darkness talking about some miraculous, last minute scholarship. The red paint on his shirt looked like blood in the darkness. “Cause this truck still looks like shit.”

The gap in his teeth disappeared, covered by his lips, pursed closed. “You try to paint a truck in the middle of August. Not a walk in the park.”

“Never said it was.”

“You sure sound like you wanted to try.”

Emmy grabbed the paintbrush from out of his hands, tracing the grain of the handle. It fit inside her closed fist. “I did take art in tenth grade,” she said, running a finger through the brush and watching paint bloom on her fingertips like popped blood vessels.

When they rolled out from under the truck bed, Emmy tied her hair back with her paint-soaked hand. The red streaked through her ponytail. “A poor man’s dye job,” she said when Riley bit back a laugh from the other side of the truck. “Always wanted red highlights.”

They circled the truck and breathed the paint fumes in and out. Emmy scratched the rust off the side with her fingertips until she had a snowfall of orange on the driveway. She swept the brush overtop the smooth, unblemished metal skin.

Riley watched from his own side, painting, until he slipped closer to her, his paintbrush abandoned on the driveway. He sat on the hood of the truck while she painted the passenger side door. Then, as her arms grew tired, he moved to crouch next to her on the asphalt, explaining how he’d salvaged the tires for a steal and how the truck would make it all the way to Boston, just like this.

Emmy listened to him and wondered if the girls at Boston College would mix paint with their hair or if they spent their days running laps, like her. And then she stood to apply a second coat but Riley’s hands had found her hip and she was leaning against the door of the truck, Riley just paint strokes away and then the two of them blending together, paint in her hair and on her back, on her clothes, and then on her bare skin, arms the color of sunset.

*

Riley never asked her to finish the second coat. He drove it to Boston and Emmy had watched it pull out of his driveway from her bedroom window, paint still chipping off her skin. She had stayed. Now he stood by that truck. He was looking down at the tires and at the way the truck leaned to the right, unsupported. Any of the paintwork she’d done had chipped off, replaced by rust and cracking metal.

Sara cupped her hands to her lips and reached her voice across the road between them and the truck. “Riley!”

He looked up, squinting against the setting sun. With the light behind them, Emmy thought they must look like strangers cloaked in shadow, ambling towards him.

Riley cracked a smile when they were closer, close enough for Emmy to see that the chip in his tooth was gone, and now he sported a row of even, white teeth. “Just who I need to see,” he said.

Sara broke her stride with Emmy and trotted up to the truck bed, taking care to avoid the rust when she grabbed hold of the side. “Finally broke down on you, huh?”

Riley looked anywhere but at Emmy. She watched his eyes float over the spare tire in the road, the wilting grass in the shade, and the tie on Sara’s dress, a lopsided bow on her chest.

“Just a flat tire,” he said. “All I need is a jack.”

“You don’t carry one of those?” It was out of Emmy’s mouth before she thought about it. Riley turned to look at her for the first time, his eyes meeting hers like he was staring at the damaged tire.

He still had small lines around his eyes, his lips. But when he spoke, they didn’t move—like he was trying his best to keep his face neutral. “Bad luck to assume I’ll break down, don’t you think?”

“Bad luck to assume you won’t.”

Sara leaned against the back of the truck, blowing stray hair out of her eyes. She readjusted the hay behind her ear like a treasured accessory. “We’re going to that general store on the town line. Betcha they have a jack there.”

“Or a tow truck,” Emmy added. She wished she were wearing shoes. That she could stand taller in the dirt road. She wished she were running, taking laps around the school track or the dirt paths around her backyard, rather than standing in the stale air with nowhere to go.

Riley kicked at the bad tire. “It should be okay to make it up the road.” He hopped up onto the side and threw the door open. “You girls want to tag along?” he asked Sara.

Sara moved as if through water to the passenger side of the truck. She could always move, float, glide, whether she was walking in the linoleum school halls or an uneven maze of asphalt and mud. She would walk that way in the fall, too, once she got to her first year of school across the state. The school Emmy had decided not to go to; one of the letters she’d received from the track coach and thrown away. Riley had already promised to drive Sara with her suitcases safe in his truck bed; Sara had told Emmy over the phone late one night, tone hushed.

Emmy stood frozen in the dirt, listening to the familiar whine of Riley’s truck roaring to life. She remembered lying in bed, listening for it on hot, July nights. How her stomach would lurch with the rumbling of the truck, how she would go to the window and watch him drive off, rolling over the grass on his way out the driveway. All she wanted was to spend every night waiting for that sound.

After a moment, Riley leaned out the window and looked back at her, standing barefoot in the dirt. “It’s a long walk,” he said. His eyes were softer than they had been when Sara stood between them.  

She imagined she was walking towards her own window, just to watch Riley drive off, when she pushed her feet forward.

His front bench seat was not built for three people. Emmy sat against the window with her knees to her chest, feeling every bump in the road as it pressed her harder against the metal door handle. The truck drove slow and lopsided. Sara pressed stray buttons on the radio, trying to escape the static that filled the cabin. Eventually Riley reached over her, his hand brushing her breast as they fell over a bump and the truck lurched. He flipped the radio off and replaced the static with silence.

Emmy turned her eyes to the side mirror so she didn’t have to watch Sara brushing against Riley. Behind them, the sky was still darkening. She watched the sunset fade in favor of smoky clouds.

The general store rose into view on the side of the road, painted freshly white and not yet dulled by sand or dirt. “We were so close, Em,” Sara said, a lilt in her voice.

Emmy nodded. But she knew by watching the fields pass by them that they had travelled another half mile.

While Riley went to the back of the store to use the bathroom and then find a jack, Emmy hovered by the counter, staring up at the wall of lottery tickets suspended behind glass. She felt in the back of her pocket for the crumpled five-dollar bill she’d pulled out of the jar on her bedside table. Riley had donated all of the change from the bottom of his truck, once, to her fund.

“To get you to St. Louis,” he said when he let the coins fall like rain out of his hands. He was holding her scholarship letter, a personal one from the track coach, in his other hand. Emmy could still hear the way they had settled against the glass when she closed her eyes.  

She didn’t want out. She had no intention of leaving their town, not like Riley. Not like Sara. Eastridge was the place where she knew every pothole and field. She would never be able to run as fast as she could through its streets, but saving pennies was a habit she hadn’t been able to break.

Now she stood before a gallery of bright, neon scratch tickets. The middle-aged teller looked bored, flipping through a newspaper dated several days beforehand. He turned the pages too fast to be reading anything and sat hunched over on a stool, leaning one elbow on the cash register. Emmy glanced at him to make sure he didn’t look angry at her for staring at the wall of lottery tickets. Or for looking too young to buy them. Maybe he thought she was looking at the black and white cigarette boxes just below the bright tickets. Either way, he kept staring at the newspaper, thumbing through the pages.

She heard Sara giggling behind her, somewhere on the other side of the store, her laugh muffled by rows of canned goods and candy. She tried to ignore the low hum of Riley’s voice in the spaces between Sara’s laugh.

Lottery tickets. She needed to choose.

There was one at the very top, bright green, with a yellow Happy Birthday! printed across the top in an obnoxious, ballooned font. She knew when she returned home, her parents would have a cake waiting, a few candles, a few gifts wrapped. But she wanted to skim her fingertips overtop the print, use one of the quarters from her glass jar to find out if she’d won.

“How much for that one?” She pointed to the top row.

The teller glanced up from his newspaper and followed her line of sight. “Ten.”

“Dollars?” she asked.

He turned back to his newspaper with a roll of his eyes. Emmy looked down at the five in her hand, wishing she had carried her jar of change down the road.

“You short?” Riley came up next to her at the counter, put his hands down on the linoleum like he was leaning over a railing. He peered up at the rows of lottery tickets and cigarettes and condoms with as much tenderness as if he were surveying art. Riley made anything seem important—when he was paying attention, at least. He used to look at her like that.

“No,” Emmy said, balling the five up into her hand to keep it from view. “Just don’t want to spend ten dollars on a lottery ticket, is all.”

“I’ll spot you.” He was reaching into his back pocket, pulling out a wallet that was not the old brown one he used to carry. This one was newer, wider, so that he had trouble pulling it out of his pocket.

“No,” Emmy said. She looked up at the birthday lottery ticket. “Spend that on a new paintjob.”

She shoved the five at the teller, pushing it into his field of vision above the newspaper. “I want whatever scratch ticket is five dollars.”

The teller took the money and then looked at her, surveying her freckled face and the faded t-shirt she wore that was too loose on her shoulders stretched through generations of hand-me-downs. “I.D.,” he said.

After she’d proven she was eighteen and received a five-dollar lottery ticket—a black and gold Scratch to Win Big one—she turned to find Riley gone. She looked out at the parking lot to find him bent over a jack, Sara sitting on the concrete next to him, watching with the piece of hay still behind her ear. She watched Riley turn to her and take the hay from her hair and put it in his own.

She pushed the door open to sound of rain hitting the asphalt, sizzling against the heat of early August. The lottery ticket in her hand, shining and glossy, collected raindrops as she walked towards the truck.  

Shannon Pender is a native of Easton, Massachusetts, but is currently pursuing her BA in Fiction Writing at The University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in Cadaverine MagazineHot Metal Bridge, and Pittsburgh Magazine

Published on November 8, 2016.