I'm taking more short fiction this semester, and so far it's fantastic. We do these incredible close-reading workshops that are absolutely spoiling me for getting edited in the future: I ask for betas of fic and I get proofreading, which is great, but I need to be reminded that not everyone will read my stories as carefully and with such scrutiny as these other students. Anyway. My first story was due two weeks ago and I have another due in a week, but I'm going for my first conference today so I wanted to put this down for posterity. This is a first draft.
Desert Rain by elinorgray (draft 1) Key words: Contemporary, UST, high school, college, road trip, triangle 3,650 words
Michael doesn't like anyone else to drive his car, but there's only so long he can drive without getting an embolism of some kind. Between bouts of staring out the window at the endless stretch of desert and the blue dome sky, Jake watches him get more and more restless: shifting in his seat, stretching his legs, flexing his hands on the heat-sticky faux-leather steering wheel. He wants to offer to drive, help Michael out, but Jake can't drive stick shift anyway and the few times Michael tried to teach him he stalled out so suddenly and embarrassingly that he's given up hope of ever learning.
The noon sun is no longer coming right in the car windows but it's heating up the top of the car as they drive, and Jake can feel his thin t-shirt sticking to the small of his back. The car's air conditioning does little to alleviate the feeling of slow suffocation, and just makes Jake's eyes water and his arms prickle uncomfortably. Jake wants to open the windows, let the dry, clear air tug his hair in every direction and blister his face, but Lydia, sleeping now in the backseat, says it hurts her throat.
Jake doesn't know why she agreed to come on a road trip through the desert if she was going to complain about all the nature.
The road is a thin black ribbon that divides the desert into two equal halves that stretch out to touch the sky a thousand miles away. Jake rests his forehead against the glass and gazes at the horizon, looking for deviation from the clean lines. He wonders how flat a pancake actually is.
"Hey," Michael says, reaching for him, tapping him on the thigh with two fingers, "we're losing the radio."
Air rushes into Jake's lungs, and he lifts himself from the slump of the front passenger seat. His hair is plastered to his forehead. Michael looks effortlessly cool, elbows loose, fingers hooked gently around the steering wheel. He doesn't have an opinion on open windows versus air conditioning. His cheeks are pink from the hiking they've done in the last two days and not enough sunscreen, but his arms are browning quickly. The silver cuff of his watch sits snug around his left wrist, and the ring on his right little finger gleams.
Jake reaches for the radio. It's all static, from 88.1 to 105 FM, so he turns it off.
Michael shrugs. "Okay," he says. "Road game?"
Jake tries to hide a smile in what he knows is a strange, twisted expression. "I don't think we can play a road game without other cars around."
"I'm not playing I Spy with you."
"Why not?" Lydia asks, awake now, propping herself between the two front seats. Her shining, straw-colored braid is coming loose, and strands fall around her face. Her smile is soft around the edges.
"Fine," Jake says, "I spy with my little eye, something that begins with R."
"Rocks," Michael says.
Michael lets out a sharp, bright bark of laughter, the sound he makes when he's been surprised into it. "Point taken," he says.
"What time is it?" Lydia is peering over his shoulder at the dashboard.
"Almost two," Jake says.
"Should we stop for lunch?"
Lydia takes an exaggerated look around them at the scrub brush and dry, red ground. "Think we can find a Denny's?"
Michael turns to glare at her over his shoulder, taking his eyes off the road, and Jake reaches for the wheel automatically. There may not be very far they can go in the desert, but he doesn't really want to find out what the off-road capacity of Michael's little 2-door hatchback is. He's ridden with Michael in this car for four years now, since they started carpooling in freshman year and Michael's mother would pick him up from his driveway at a quarter to eight. In the winter, the car smelled like the oatmeal that Michael was eating out of a mug, too late out of bed to finish his breakfast in the house. When Michael finally got his license at the end of sophomore year, he and Jake went for a joyride thirty miles out of town to a podunk strip mall parking lot. They sat on the hood of the car, leaning against the windshield and staring up at the clouds, and Michael named the shapes like they were kids. Jake didn't see anything Michael saw in the stratosphere, but he remembers watching Michael's face more than the sky, trying to catch every nuance of the way Michael's mouth moved as he talked, the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, the line of his nose in profile. He didn't talk much on the ride back, letting Michael fill up the space with his music and his re-narration of the driving test.
Michael slaps Jake's hand off the steering wheel, and Jake lets go. He rolls his eyes and looks back out ahead of them. His imaginings of the desert were all sand when he was younger, but this southwest expanse is a scattered mix of grasses and bushes, rolling rock hills and the occasional cactus. The cacti are particularly satisfying, few and far between, and they look just the way they're supposed to. Jake wonders if he could ever count all the needles on a cactus, if he took the time.
"Yeah, I want to stop," Jake says. He's antsy too, legs cramped under the dashboard.
They find a scenic point a few miles later, but when Jake has climbed out of the car and unlatched the back for Lydia, stood up and stretched his back until his vertebrae pop, he isn't sure what's interesting here as opposed to the last fifty miles of road. A white SUV zooms past, making the little hatchback sway on its shocks, and Michael's bending over at the driver door with his fingers locked above his head and his shirt riding up his back. Jake looks away to catch Lydia watching him, her hands tucked into her pockets, her forehead furrowed slightly.
"Lunch?" she says, raising both eyebrows.
She takes her hands out of her pockets and rubs her bare upper arms, flashing him her teeth briefly in something that's not quite a smile. Michael pops the trunk open from the inside of the car, and Jake helps Lydia pull the cooler out from underneath their suitcases. It's heavy with melted ice and tupperwares of food, and it thumps in the dirt behind the car, sending up a little puff of dust. Jake's shoes are tinged orange with this dust already from a few days of minor hiking and exploring historic sites, trekking parking lots to see roadside attractions and setting up the campsite each night. He wishes he'd brought his old sneakers instead of the new ones he bought with the money from his job at the pool, but he can't take it back now.
"There's the turkey left," Lydia is saying, crouching in front of the cooler and digging through the contents. "And the bread's a little squashed, but it's not soggy like yesterday."
"I'm sorry," Michael says, not sounding very sorry anymore. It was his fault the bread bag was open and the ice melted inside. He kicks the cooler with the toe of his shoe. "Are there apples still?"
"Two," Jake says, reaching past Lydia to pull them out. He rolls one into Michael's outstretched palm, and leans with him against the sun-hot metal of the car, looking across the road at bluffs that rise in the distance. Their sides are sheer but each one is surrounded with an apron of fallen rocks and rubble, like they've pushed their way right out of the earth and could keep on going. Jake wonders if they would be any good at hiking them, and decides not.
"We're not that fit," he says aloud.
"To hike the buttes."
Michael follows his gaze and takes another bite of his apple. His teeth are sharply white against the shining red skin, and juice runs down his chin. He thumbs it away and talks with his mouth full. "I don't know, we might be able to."
"If we camped at the top, maybe," Jake says.
"Think about lugging all our stuff, though," Lydia says, holding a granola bar and nodding at the cooler, the four-man tent, the suitcases. "I'm with Jake; we'd never make it."
Michael huffs his disapproval and takes it out on the apple. He's the athlete of the three of them, and it's easy to tell by his physique and his easy, constant energy. Jake doesn't have the patience for organized sports, prefers riding his bike and working in the theater, but Michael convinced him to try out for the soccer team freshman year. Jake muddled through the first couple of practices while Michael impressed the varsity coach with his footwork and speed, and ended up quitting out of sheer frustration by the middle of October. He still went to the home games, though, sitting alone among the parents and never taking his eyes off his friend. He's been to more soccer games than Michael's own mother, who liked to arrive with her camp chair and sit right on the sideline, the better to show her support with a school flag and a six pack of tiny bottles of cheap white wine.
Lydia is eating the turkey right out of the package, not even bothering to put it on the not-soggy bread. Her long fingers hold the slices of meat delicately, as if she were eating canapes at a brunch instead of standing on the side of the road in Arizona, and she winks at Jake over the roof of the car. Lydia was friends with Michael before Jake knew him, but she and Jake went to Hebrew school together when they were kids. It wasn't until freshman year that they really became friends, after Lydia spilled a soda in Jake's lap at the high school's Fall Fling. Michael was there too, helping Jake with a wad of paper towels, and Jake can remember the first time he saw the two of them together, both red-faced and trying not to laugh at themselves and at him. Lydia's hair was short then, bouncing around her face in soft ringlets, always getting in her eyes and frizzing in the humidity. She likes the dry heat of the southwest because it makes all her edges smooth and under control. Her brown eyes are deep and warm, and she knows about Jake's problem. They've never talked about it, and Jake's sure she'd never say anything to Michael about it, but Jake could tell when she'd figured it out. She started looking at Jake differently, a little sadly, and trying to give him and Michael a little space. Jake doesn't want his issues to come between the three of them, but he'd be lying if he said he didn't like the extra time with Michael before they all go their separate ways.
Michael jostles him, throws his apple core away into the desert, and wipes his hands on his jeans. Jake's starting to sweat again, can feel it at his temples and under his arms, and he plucks at the neck of his shirt. The sky is too big now. Jake would kill for a single cloud, even in the distance, just to take away some of the feeling of being trapped inside a giant inverted bowl. He imagines a door in the sky that would just open into the real world, if he could only reach the edge of the sound stage. He wants trees back.
"Okay," Michael says, "you guys want anything else? We shouldn't stay too long-- there's some kind of monument to the Army camel trainer coming up soon, but I want to get to the campsite before five so we can set up and make dinner."
Five is always the cutoff. Sunset isn't until eight or later, but Michael has a lot of rules about how to do camping right, and Jake and Lydia have learned in the last three days not to give him any trouble. He likes to be settled in the campsite before dark, and if they can have eaten by then he's even happier. Then they can sit by the fire and watch what sunset they can see, eating burnt marshmallows and basking in each other's company.
Lydia rounds the car again to close the cooler, and Jake helps her lift it back into the trunk. He goes for one last dig inside, fingers cold, and finds a package of dried fruit and an open bag of cookies. Michael is already back in the driver seat, and Lydia is waiting by the door to let him clamber over the seat into the back. Jake settles in among her things– pillow, backpack, paperbacks– and moves his knees out of the way so she can click the front seat into place and climb in. Michael pulls off the shoulder and back onto the road, and Lydia rolls down the window.
"Oh, now we can have fresh air," Jake says, raising his voice over the sound of the wind and throwing the dried fruit into her lap.
"It's not right in my face," Lydia calls back, sliding her sunglasses up her nose and grinning. Michael rolls down his own window and eases his hands apart on the steering wheel.
Jake props Lydia's pillow against the driver's side of the car and stretches out as much as he can, his knees touching the other side and one foot in the well. Michael turns on the radio again, hoping, and finds a gospel station among all the static. He leaves it on. Jake stares up at the car ceiling, already drifting. The music fills him, bright and steady, until he's imagining clouds and all-day thunderstorms and deciduous trees: all the things back home that haven't followed him out here.
He wakes up when the car makes a sharp right-hand turn, and sits up. They're pulling into the KOA campground, and Jake wants to duck again when they park beside the camp headquarters. It's always obvious as hell when he's been napping: he wakes up slow-eyed, with his hair going every direction, feeling groggy and embarrassed. Michael is looking at him, a little smile at the corner of his mouth, and Jake sticks his tongue out and rubs his eyes with both hands. He can't deal with Michael right now, not when his defenses are low and Michael's face is all fond and familiar.
"I thought there was a camel," he says.
"Camel trainer," Lydia corrects, as Michael gets out to check in and collect their hang-tag for the rear view mirror. "Army memorial. It was like, fifty miles out of the way."
"What time is it now?"
"Are we even still in Arizona?"
Lydia cranes her neck to look back at the campground entrance. "I think so. I would have seen a state line sign, right?"
"Probably." Jake lies back down. Her pillow smells faintly of floral shampoo, of femininity, and it's softer than he likes. Michael opens the door with a creak and climbs back in behind the wheel.
"Good timing, guys," he says, "I think we got one of the last sites."
Driving up the road towards the campsites, it sure looks like it. They're all full of people, parents with their kids, older couples with RVs, dogs on leashes, party tents erected. Their site is tucked between a family reunion and a parcel of serious backpackers. The family reunion is at least fifteen people, all of them eating hotdogs, and the backpackers look out of place with their compact gear and their tiny tent and camp stove.
Michael backs into the site and turns the car off, and Jake climbs out on his side. He watches Michael walk the perimeter of their site, part of his evening ritual, and Lydia calls, "Hey," from the other side of the car.
They unload it together, and leave the pile for Michael to sort through. It's another level of his neurosis that he needs to be the one to decide where the tent goes, because he knows best, of course.
"Firewood?" Jake offers, and Lydia wipes her hands on her jeans and nods.
Gathering firewood is fun until his arms are full, and then suddenly it's a hassle to carry the whole unwieldy load back to the site. He shouldn't be so greedy, he thinks, balancing a stick as big around as his arm on the top of the pile. His t-shirt is covered in bits of bark and smears of dirt, and there's a bug crawling towards him on the end of a little piece of kindling. He's torn between encouraging it to escape, or ignoring it until it meets a fiery doom.
Michael is ready for them. He has the tent set up and the fire pit cleared out, sloppy joe meat in the one pot they brought, and sitting by the wheel of the car, shielded from view from the road, a couple of cans of cheap beer that his brother bought them before they left. Jake crouches by the pit to lay down his armful, and starts setting up the little triangle of sticks. This is the one thing Michael lets him do, because Michael has managed to ruin the last three fires he tried to start on his own, and it always ends up being Jake who has to fix it. Jake got a boy scout badge for fire building; he knows what's up. He likes arranging the pieces and coaxing the little flame to build, and then he loves the part where he gets to throw things in it and watch them flare up and disintegrate.
The meat cooks quickly in the little tin pot, and by five thirty they're sitting at the picnic table, as far from the fire as they can get without leaving the camp site, eating it out of leftover hotdog buns. Lydia was a vegetarian for a while, across the summer between sophomore and junior year, but it was because of a boy. When she and the boy broke up just before Christmas, Jake and Michael took her out for babyback ribs, and the meat was so unfamiliar in her stomach that she vomited up a thirty dollar meal.
They drink the beers surruptitiously, self-consciously underage, even though Michael says they have to look like it doesn't matter so that no one will question them. Jake kind of hates the way it tastes, all watery and sour. Still, Michael's brother Allen was nice enough to buy the case for them, gave them a lecture on not drinking too much all at once and never driving afterwards, and helping them secret it into the car, that he'll drink whatever Michael puts in front of him.
Lydia finds the pack of cards in her backpack and brings it out. Michael's determined to learn all the games he might need to know at a casino, so they've been playing blackjack for pennies, and Lydia is trying to teach both of them how to play five card stud without much success. She's three dollars richer by the time the sun is going down, and Jake can feel the mosquitos starting to gather. He was sure that in this dry heat they wouldn't be a problem but he's never had so many bites in his life. Lydia and Michael agree to move to sit beside the fire, even though it's still too hot, in order for the smoke to keep the mosquitos at bay.
Finally, Michael gets fed up with the game and declares the evening over. They'll be up again with the sun in the morning for a full day of sight-seeing and low-grade hiking. Jake is still sore from hike yesterday in Texas and then six hours in the car today, but he doesn't want this to have to end. He wants to be sore from it forever.
"I'm going to brush my teeth," Lydia says, pushing herself to her feet. She puts the cards away, rummages around in her suitcase for a minute, and then salutes them with her toothbrush and heads for the bathhouse. Jake can see her bobbing down the road, white shirt visible in the growing dark. Beside him, Michael sighs and takes another sip of his beer.
"I'm glad we could do this," he says quietly, almost inaudible under the crackling of the fire.
"Yeah," Jake agrees. Graduation already feels like half an eon ago, and another freshman year is rushing towards them.
"You're okay, right?" Michael asks, and suddenly his arm is sliding around Jake's shoulders, and he's too close, too comfortable, smells too much like desert sweat and bodywash and home.
Jake turns his head to look at him. His face is so close, and he looks concerned and a little nervous. His lips are wet from the condensation on the can, and at this distance Jake can see the freckle on his cheek clearly. The fire is reflected in his eyes.
"Yeah," Jake says again, nodding firmly.
"I just mean," Michael says, "you've been kind of quiet, and I wanted to make sure you like– you knew we were going to be cool. We'll stay in touch, right?"
"Of course," Jake says. He's not sure if he means it. They're going to schools three hundred miles apart, but he wants to mean it.
Michael's face relaxes into a smile. "Yeah," he says. "Okay. Cool." He leans back, away from Jake, and gives him a little shake, his palm warm on Jake's shoulder. "I love you, man."
"I know," Jake says. It's enough.