Caroline had stayed around long enough for the funeral. She even stayed a week after that. People had been telling her that she was young, that she’d bounce back, that it was better to have loved and lost. The encouragements had ceased the day after Jared’s funeral, and then came the awkward tension, the air tight with the expectation that she’d have forgotten him already. They were only seventeen and eighteen, after all, Caroline imagined they’d say. What was the big deal? It was his parents and his brothers who had right to mourn, not some girl he’d been dating for two years.
Gav decided to stop just outside of Hartford, the first gas station they could find when they passed it. He didn’t want to risk actually stopping in the center of Hartford because he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to find his way back to the highway. But the large soda he’d gotten from the 7-11 before they left Queens was finally starting to catch up with him. Plus he didn’t have the benefit of thinking this all ahead like Caroline had time to, so he didn’t bring anything to eat with him. Caroline waited in the car, keeping watch of sorts to make sure that the thing didn’t get stolen.
For Caroline, the decision hadn’t come out of the blue. She’d spend the hours between waking up and brushing her teeth on the weekends staring at the marked-up map of America on her wall, dreaming of every city and little town that she might visit. She and Jared had been planning on taking off after graduation anyway, seeing the whole country—or as much as they could in the couple of months before college would start. They’d been only halfway through high school and they’d still planned it. Caroline had always secretly hoped that, one day, Jared would just get so swept up in the idea of it that they’d leave on the spot, and so when she’d decided a week after his funeral to leave town she already had a bag packed with the essentials: a jar of peanuts, a metal water bottle, the three books she couldn’t live without, and some clothing staples. Granted, most of the underwear she’d kept packed was the lacy kind, something that she intended to use when she was alone with Jared. She’d also grabbed the map and taken it with her, afraid her parents might use it to eventually track her down. Caroline took the time to leave a note for them, hoping that was enough to keep them from calling the police and reporting her as a missing person.
For as much preparation as she had managed in two years, without Jared Caroline found herself with no means of transportation. And, as much as the pity and the expectation to just forget Jared made her insides hurt, she couldn’t stand the alternative of being alone on the road. She called and hung up on Gavin three times before finally deciding to let the call go through. She whispered into her phone, fully anticipating him to say no, to convince her to stay because it was the right thing to do. Caroline expected him to be rational, to explain that they still had the rest of finals week that they should stick around for and that they might fail all of their classes if they did something this reckless.
Gav walked back to the car, his shaggy fair hair in his eyes. He had this way of always slouching and shuffling along, so very different from Jared’s rigidly straight back and confident stride that she thought this was part of what made travelling with Gav feel so safe—there was no danger of him reminding her of Jared. Gav slipped into the car, a crappy old station wagon that his mother had given him the second he’d turned sixteen.
“Miss me?” Gav asked, grinning dopily as he turned the key in the ignition. Another point in Gavin’s favor: Caroline hadn’t been reduced to dead Jared’s mopey girlfriend.
“Self-involved much?” Caroline shot back in her best Valley Girl impression before breaking out laughing.
“Oh, here,” Gavin said, handing Caroline her metal water bottle. She popped it open and took a sip, choking as Gavin pulled out of the parking lot.
“Gav, what the hell?” She unscrewed the cap and saw what looked like thick, mushy ice inside. One sniff of it and she could tell it was lime-flavored.
“You know, a guy tries to surprise you with a slushie instead of just water and you act like it’s poison.”
Caroline might have taken him more seriously if he weren’t smirking as he stared out toward the highway. “You coulda warned me.”
“I’ll keep that in mind next time.”
Caroline smiled. “So I’m guessing by the lack of plastic cup that you stole this?”
“Hey, I didn’t want to blow our limited funds on pampering you, princess.”
“Classy,” Caroline said.
“Well, I mean, if you don’t want it…” Gav reached for the bottle.
“Oy! Who said I didn’t want it?” Caroline chugged two gulpfuls before Gavin stopped reaching for it. “You were probably better off not wasting the money on it. We’re gonna need that to last us a couple of months after all.”
Gavin merged into the middle lane. His mouth tightened. “Let’s just worry about getting to Boston, huh?”
Caroline slouched in her seat, staring at the window crank on the passenger’s side door. When they were done in Boston they were going to follow the map down to DC, another one of Jared’s picks. They’d pass right by Yonkers. This’d probably be the easiest opportunity for them to just go home and call it a couple of crazy days brought on by grief. But Caroline didn’t want to settle for that. She’d planned to travel the country with Jared, and she didn’t want to give up after travelling one day to one city. That didn’t stop Gav if he decided he wanted to go home, though. Caroline’s lungs felt tight with the thought that she might have to face whatever lockdown her parents would put her under without even getting what she wanted out of the whole thing.
“So how much longer is it to Boston anyway?” Caroline asked, clearing her throat as she tried to sound natural.
“Just a couple of hours,” Gav said. “We shouldn’t hit a lot of traffic again until we get pretty close.”
By noon they were in a shop in Quincy Market. Gav stood over by the door to the place with his hands shoved into his pockets while Caroline examined two headbands, each with a long piece of glossy ribbon glued to it. It was almost impossible to decide between the lime green and the eggplant purple, so she spun around to Gavin, offering one up in each hand.
“Pick,” Caroline said, half smiling.
Gav shrugged, keeping his hands in his pockets. “I dunno. The purple one’d bring out my eyes, but that bright green one’d do a lot for my complexion.”
“Smartass,” Caroline said.
She hung both of the headbands on her forearm, reaching into her pocket for her phone. It lit up when she touched it, and she opened up her text messages. Instinct told her that there was someone who would offer an opinion on the matter, even if it wasn’t a very helpful one. There were now fourteen unread texts from her mother and six from her father, but she scrolled right past those to Jared.
it’ll be about 20.
Caroline fumbled with her phone, finally forcing it back into the pocket of her jeans. She tossed both of the headbands toward the rack she’d picked them up from, fairly certain that both of them actually landed on the floor. “I can’t… I need some air,” she mumbled, running past Gavin and the crowds of people she met past the door, fighting to get to somewhere bright with plenty of air and space where she didn’t have to think about the fact that other people still got the opportunity to exist. She found a bench somewhere where the noise had died down, but rather than sitting on its wooden planks, she curled herself up on the laid bricks next to it, hugging her legs to her chest as her spine pressed against the metal on the side of the bench.
She tried to breathe, but her vision was blurring and the tightness in her lungs was returning. No number of deep breaths was going to change the fact that her first instinct was to text Jared and ask what he thought, even though he just would’ve told her to pick a completely random one that she hadn’t mentioned. No number of deep breaths would tell her when those instincts would stop, and no number of deep breaths would assuage her guilt when those became secondary thoughts instead of instincts.
A hand on her shoulder. Caroline looked up, the awareness that other people might have been watching her suddenly seeping in. But it wasn’t some stranger: It was Gavin carrying a brown paper bag.
“You all right?”
Caroline nodded, pressing her hand to her forehead as she tried to concentrate. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. I think I just need to sit in the car for a bit.”
Gavin took her hands in his and lifted her off the ground. They walked to the car together, though Caroline couldn’t remember most of that walk aside from the occasional twisted up, confused face looking at her, or her lungs slowly allowing more and more air inside again. She didn’t talk again until they were both sitting in the car with the air conditioner on.
“I’m sorry about that, Gav. I just—I thought—”
Gavin shook his head. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me.” Caroline could see him tilting his head out of the corner of her eye, the way that people do when they’re trying to get someone to look at them. She finally gave in and turned toward the driver’s side. “Is there anything I can do?”
Caroline shook her head. She tried to count her inhales and exhales, to stare at the ridges in the bark on the tree whose branches hung over Gavin’s car, to dig one of her thumbnails into the skin on the palm of the opposite hand, to listen to whatever CD Gavin had thrown in most recently. Anything to keep her from thinking about what her mind wanted to obsess over.
“Well, here,” Gavin said, handing Caroline the brown paper bag.
She just barely held it, but he kept staring at her. Caroline finally opened the thing up, pulling out the purple headband that she’d been looking at. “Did you steal this, too?” She managed a small laugh, rubbing at her temple.
“Caroline, please.” Gavin smirked. “If I were going to steal it, I would’ve gotten you both.”
“Ever the gentleman.”
Caroline tossed the paper bag onto the floor of the car by her feet and unclipped her hair. As Gavin shifted gear, foot on the brake, Caroline slid the headband on. Grabbing the excess ribbon underneath her tight brown curls, she tied it up with numb fingers. Her whole body felt suddenly too tired, as though it had somehow just noticed that she’d been up for fifteen hours.
“Knew that’d look better on you than that crap green one.”
“Oh yeah?” Caroline said, examining her palm where she’d dug her thumb nail into it. It looked like the skin there would never regain its shape.
Gavin turned off the CD player.
“Huh?” Caroline shook herself.
“I mean, we could go check out somewhere else. We could grab a hotel. We could…” Gavin looked through his windshield. “We could go back down south. Down to DC, or…”
Caroline thought back to sitting at the dinner table with her parents, pushing food around on her plate as they exchanged concerned glances that they seemed to think she never noticed. She thought back to the boys on Jared’s basketball team who had sung—badly—at his funeral. Would she see them in the halls when she went back to school? Would any of them even recognize her?
Caroline smiled when she thought of the slushie Gavin had stolen for her, and the headband that he allegedly hadn’t. She even smiled thinking of the day that she and Jared had put all the marks on the map—Xs over the cities she wanted to visit, Os for all of his like some massive, sloppy, incomprehensible game of tic-tac-toe.
“Let’s grab a bite to eat, then maybe find somewhere to hole up for the night?” Caroline suggested.
Gav nodded, backing out of the parking spot. “You got it,” he said.
And with that they drove.
They knew they couldn’t afford a hotel room in Boston proper, so they started driving around the place, the car wheezing with relief when it hit pavement instead of the old cobblestone roads. They had been trying to find a place called Danvers and had to stop for directions from a man who spoke about a town whose name sounded like Puberty until he spelled it out for them. Finally, after checking the three hotels that looked the least safe—the ones that were most likely candidates for drug deals and hour-long hook-ups—they settled on somewhere called the Knights Inn, where it was just over fifty bucks to spend the night. When Caroline followed Gav into the room, she found one king sized bed smack in the middle.
Caroline’s head snapped around to Gavin. “Really?”
“Hey, were you coughing up the extra thirty for two beds?”
“Mm.” Caroline dropped her bag on the foot of the bed as she walked in. “You’re gonna be awfully uncomfortable sleeping on the floor, though, aren’t you?”
“Very funny,” Gav said, dropping his duffel bag next to hers. “If you wanna drive all eight hours to DC tomorrow, then sure, I’ll take the floor.”
Caroline popped off her earrings, nesting them in the palm of one hand as she unhooked her watch from her wrist. “I could sleep in the car if it’s that much trouble.” She slipped the ring with the peridot stone off her right hand, looping it onto the watch and then clasping the watch shut.
“Caroline, we’ve been friends for over a decade and you really can’t trust me enough to share a bed for one night?”
“Sure, Gav. It’s fine.” Caroline’s temple was throbbing as it was, and the more she spoke the more hollowed out her head felt. She moved over to the air conditioner, blasting it as high as it’d go, and then sunk into the bed, pressing her face into one of the too-long pillows in front of her.
“Alright, I’m gonna hop in the shower. You need anything first?”
“Sleeping pills,” Caroline groaned into the pillow.
“I’m good,” she said. “Take your shower.”
The longer the air was on, the weirder the place smelled. At first it was mustiness, but this was soon covered by a nauseating chemical smell, the kind cleaning supply companies might try to pass off as “lilac” or “spring breeze.” She listened to the water as Gav turned it on in the bathroom, got lost in that sound as she let her mind turn off for a while, or at least turn off as much as was possible. Caroline flopped onto her back, doing anything monotonous to keep herself occupied. Counting the ceiling tiles. Tracing the maroon and gold paisley wallpaper’s design like a maze down to the TV and up again. Finding every light in the room and trying to figure out which switch it belonged to.
When Gav came out of the bathroom in only shorts with his shaggy hair sopping wet, he was talking again immediately (if he’d even stopped while in the shower in the first place), but Caroline wasn’t paying attention. Instead she pulled one of the books out of her duffel bag at random: The Princess Bride. She flipped open to the third page, which was as far as she’d gotten in the past week. Gav threw on a shirt and tossed himself down on the bed next to her, folding his arms behind his head.
“You know, if you’re going to read that you might as well share with the class.”
“You could watch TV,” Caroline replied, flipping to page four.
“There’s never anything good on,” Gav said. When he paused, Caroline noticed him smirking out of the corner of her eye.
“Fine,” she sighed. “But I’m not doing voices.”
“Well, damn it, Caroline.” Gav stretched his limbs, rearranging his arms so his hands were folded over his stomach. “That’s always the best part.” He shut his eyes.
Caroline flipped back to the first page and cleared her throat. “This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.”
And so she read on like this. She didn’t know for how many minutes, but it had been twenty-seven pages before her throat was dry and she took the time to notice that Gav was starting to either breathe heavily or snore lightly. Caroline had been stumbling over her words for pages now and found herself relieved that Gav hadn’t been awake to hear any of it. She knew that they wouldn’t be spending very many nights in hotels. With Jared, they’d saved up enough together, but she didn’t even know if Gavin had five hundred dollars to his name.
Closing her copy of The Princess Bride, Caroline reached over Gav to toss it onto the nightstand next to him. It landed with a soft thump that sent up a musty puff of dust. She froze, holding her breath for seven rapid little heartbeats before lowering herself back down on her side of the bed. If she ignored every bit of him above his waist, just glancing quickly at his red sneakers and his jeans and the very bottom of his sweatshirt, she could almost pretend it wasn’t Gavin lying next to her. In a moment—or maybe many moments—Caroline found herself questioning, mind muddled on what was real and what wasn’t, what mattered and what didn’t. She knew that no amount of confusion or make-believe on her part would set things right again, but in those moments she let herself enjoy the thought of it.
Audrey T. Carroll
Audrey Carroll is a MFA candidate with the Arkansas Writer’s Program and graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University. Her work has previously been published in The Legendary, The Blue Route, The Cynic Online Magazine, the Red Fez Review, and others.