I liked to steal free trial discs of America Online. Every Wednesday — that’s when our block got the big delivery of junk mail — I’d grab my backpack, hop on my bike, and I’d flip open each mailbox in my neighborhood, rifling through bills and flyers and credit card offers until I found that little disc that would buy me a few more minutes online with him.
Today, I wasn’t sure I’d find one. I tore through the next-to-last mailbox on the street. Maybe AOL had given up on their marketing efforts for my neighborhood. The last few times I’d gone out, I found some of the weaker trials — the ones that were hardly worth my time. Twenty-five free hours. Fifteen free hours. I’d burn through those in a couple of days.
My index finger bounced, clicking a mouse that wasn’t there as I slammed shut the mailbox. One more to go. No, fuck it. I’d skip dinner with Mom and Dad. I’d ride to the next neighborhood, clear them out. Wouldn’t make a difference. Mom would still ask how my day was, never looking up from her plate of food to see that I wasn’t there. Dad, he’d pat the empty chair, thinking he was patting my shoulder. He’d tell me what he told me every night.
“Rus, you take that ASVAB test yet?”
Jesus, the ASVAB. From the second I stepped foot into the linoleum-lined halls of high school, my father wanted to know what I’d do in the Air Force.
“This is a military town, Rus,” he’d say. “We’re a military family.”
I wiped away the sweat on my forehead, moved on to the last mailbox. When I was seven, I ran straight into that same mailbox while trying to catch a duck of a pass from my older brother. Denny thought he could play football, but we learned later he was more of a coke and meth kind of guy.
I imagined that football sailing through the blue sky, cutting through the heat waves, and landing perfectly in my arms. Denny smiling. Me smiling. Us hugging. But what really happened was I didn’t see the mailbox, turned my face just as I ran into it, lost two teeth, and Denny stopped playing with me.
The mailbox, lid half-open, still stood a little crooked in the gravel set off from the sidewalk. I pulled the lid down, stuck my hand in without looking. I knew the feeling. You’d think it would be round, but it was square. All that packaging. They had to fit the words some battle-tested marketer had come up with.
“Try it now, then only $9.95 per month!”
Mom might have gone for that, but not Dad. Freshman year, I had asked if we could get AOL.
“What would you even do on the internet?” Dad had asked. “You need a job. Take that test, figure out what you’re good at, then we can start talking with the recruiters soon. Remember Jurry? He’s working the recruiting office here in town now, maybe I can talk to him.”
Thoughts of the recruiting office and my father shrunk toward the horizon as I felt it. That square packaging, cellophane-wrapped and smooth in my palm.
“Don’t be shit,” I whispered. “Don’t be shit.”
I pulled the disc out, closed my eyes, shut the lid to the mailbox. When I opened them, I saw it. One thousand hours. Dad could dream of military aptitude tests, Mom could read the paper and send her love through the repetitive words of a family that had given up. And Denny, he could stay in his fucking room, sleeping off another high.
Me, I’d be chatting with FrancisFordMustang.
Before I found him, I had Gina and Bobby. After school, after we’d spent all day talking to each other, we’d chat all night. At least until I started talking to Bobby more than I talked to Gina.
When I got home, I let my bike ghost-ride into the garage, watched it bang off the quarter panel of Dad’s Buick, then went in through the front door, zipping my bag as I stepped into the foyer.
The house was absent the smell of black tea and coconut-scented candles. Mom and Dad must have car-pooled to work. He might have been retired, but he went straight back to the Air Force in a civilian role while Mom worked at the bank downtown. I stood, listening. Denny’s snores bumped along the walls and crawled across the floor before dying at my feet. I smiled. My brother’s low rumble may have provided a different comfort for me when I was small, but now, it let the tension slip from my neck.
I passed through the kitchen, went into my room, and turned on my stereo. Might have just been Denny in the house, and he might have been sleeping, but if he heard the modem, he’d tell Mom and Dad.
As Michael Jackson’s Black or White pulsed from the speakers of my stereo, I ripped the packaging away from the AOL trial disc. I opened the CD tray on my Intel 386 and slid the disc in.
AOL booted up, and I checked the phone line. I had it buried under sheets along my wall. Still plugged in. The modem kicked on and carried AOL’s electrical signal across the line. It provided a weird beat as MJ sang to me about how he was tired of this devil. Once I was connected and signed on as SandDevil83, I turned the music down.
Then, I searched for him. The one time I’d found him online in the middle of the day, he didn’t respond to me. Every other time, he had his away message on. Today, it was a quote from the movie Patton:
God, how I hate the twentieth century.
He and I had joked about that quote a few months back. He, wanting something simpler, something less authoritarian than the current world in which we lived, thought we should go back to an earlier time. Me, reminding him that we were pretty damn close to the twenty-first century anyway, suggested he create a new world for himself.
I’d almost forgotten what drew me to him originally. His screen name in the chatroom. When I was eight, I saw Patton for the first time. Last year, two days after my fifteenth birthday, I’d seen The Godfather. After that, I watched every old movie Francis Ford Coppola made. For Mr. Littleton’s history class, I wrote an essay about Coppola and his relationship with the Ford family. So, when I found this person online who had played on both Coppola and Ford, I had to know him.
And he wanted to know me too.
I smiled at the quote, but there would be no chatting now. I signed off before I could waste any more minutes of my one-thousand-hour score.
Mom and Dad didn’t bother waking me when they got home. They didn’t wake me when Denny threw up and choked on his own vomit. The smell of sizzling ground beef woke me up.
Before I went to the kitchen, before we settled into routine, I looked at my computer. I’d chatted with Lorraine a few times at first. Chatted with Bobby, who lived six houses down. Kids from school. Friends. Reminders that no one can see me no matter how often I see them. I haven’t chatted with anyone but FrancisFordMustang for three months.
At dinner, Mom kissed the top of my head without peeling her eyes away from the day’s issue of Investor’s Business Daily. Becoming a manager at the bank meant she had to care more about the rolling tides of the market.
I sat next to Dad, and he asked me about school.
“It’s summer, Dad.”
“Right,” he said. “No test then, I suppose.”
“Oh, that poor baby is just too sick to eat,” Mom said, finger running along the black printed stock symbols representing money we’d never have.
“Rus, he’s sick. Okay?”
“Sure,” I said to her. “The last time he got sick, he kicked me in the ribs until I gave up my wallet. So, you know.”
“Russell James Young,” my father said, taking a bite of his taco. “That’s your brother, you’re talking about. He needs our help in getting better, so we’ll help him. I expect you to do the same.”
“You want me to help him? How about I go buy his next score, make sure he smokes so much he doesn’t wake up? That’s the kind of help you’re looking for right?”
“God damnit, Russell,” my father yelled. “I’m sick of this. That summer prep school? They’re still taking applications. Why don’t I get you in there. That’ll get you ready for the Air Force.” He looked back at his food and started eating again. “That’ll teach you to talk about your brother that way.”
The fucking prep school wasn’t a prep school at all. It was a daycare for kids who had too much time on their hands during the summer. I looked away from my dad to my mom.
She wouldn’t meet my eyes and didn’t say a word. She didn’t have to. She’d be mopping up Denny’s puke, wiping his face later tonight. That spoke loud enough for her.
I looked at them not looking at me, then I shoveled my dinner into my mouth.
The tacos taste like shit, Mom. Oh, and Dad, Denny scores from Mr. Roberts just down the road, the guy you think is so smart, such a good influence on the neighborhood. I swallowed it all, just like I swallowed that overcooked meat.
I didn’t see them after dinner. Dad liked to drink his tea and watch Tom Brokaw tell him how other people’s lives were so much worse. Mom would take a bath and fall asleep in the tub with her candles lit around her.
I went back to my room and waited.
An hour after I heard Mom check on Denny then head back into her room, I crept out into the hall. I moved toward their door, and I held my breath. They had a television in there, but it wasn’t on. I waited. I listened. Then it came. Dad’s snore.
If Dad was asleep, Mom was asleep.
We used to live by the train tracks. Back then, I could count on the evening train running straight to Mexico at about 11. That horn, that’d be a wonderful thing. Time it with the sound of the modem’s whirs and beeps. But we moved after Denny’s first overdose. Better neighborhood, a new chance, my Dad tried to convince us. But our last neighborhood wasn’t broken. Denny was. Mom was. Dad was.
Fuck, I was.
In the living room, I grabbed two of the thick microfiber throw pillows from the couch. I was about to bring them back to my room, but Denny was standing in the hall, watching me. He’d once been twice my weight, but now I was a solid fifteen pounds heavier than him. But he was still taller. He was still quick. And he blocked my path when I tried to get by to my room.
“What do you want?”
“Heard you were bitching about me,” he said, wiping sweat from his lip and forehead. “The fuck did I do to you?”
“Nothing, just let me by.”
“You want to bitch about something, I’ll give you a reason.”
He shoved me back into the living room. I tripped and fell. He stood over me, eyes drooped but hard. He flared his nostrils, clenched his fists, then he stepped past me, sat on the couch, and held his knees to his chest.
I watched him for a minute, but I knew what came next. He’d tear open the kitchen drawers, looking for the foil, looking for a spoon. He’d have something stashed in his room. He always did, no matter what our mother thought.
I turned away from him and brought the pillows into my room. I locked the door behind me and stuffed a pillow on either side of the 386’s tower. When I booted up and launched AOL, the muffled sound of the 56k modem connecting sounded more like an odd snoring than a kid with a stolen trial of AOL trying to find his friend.
My Buddy List greeted me. And there he was. The green dot next to his name, pulling me in like a bug to the lamps we’d put out when we went camping in Sedona before Denny graduated.
Before I could click on his name, a message window popped up. From him.
I wrote back and told him I’d tried to find him earlier in the day. I laughed when he asked if I saw the away message.
“Best character from the The Outsiders?” I asked him.
“C. Thomas Howell, hands down.”
I’d once asked my father what he thought of Coppola. My dad laughed and said fiction and film were the things of dreamers. Irrational wastes of time. He would stick to the news, non-fiction, and his own family.
His own family. I didn’t laugh then, and I didn’t laugh now, remembering it.
“You’re watching it all wrong,” FracisFordMustang wrote.
“What do you mean?”
“Hard to explain. Wish I could show you. But you’re watching that movie wrong. Otherwise, you’d know C. Thomas Howell is the best.”
“I’d watch it with you,” I typed.
He didn’t reply for a long time, and my fingers danced across the keys of my keyboard, not typing but searching for something I could say.
“We could meet in the middle somewhere,” he finally typed, quickly followed by, “LOL just kidding.”
We’d talked about his house in El Paso and my school here in Arizona. We’d talked about the distance, about the differences of the desert there versus the desert here. We had even talked about how long MapQuest said it would take to make the drive.
But we’d never talked about this.
I almost typed “no,” but then I remembered my dad, remembered the prep school.
“Where’s the middle?” I asked.
“Somewhere in New Mexico.”
“I’ve never heard of that.”
“What movie would we watch first?”
He didn’t say anything for a while again. Then, “What?”
“If I came out there.”
I’d asked him once how old he was, and he told me he was forty-three. Same age as my dad. But he wasn’t my father. He was different.
I sat back in my chair, listened to the house stretch its bones, creaking and popping. I didn’t know his name. That mattered. But it didn’t, really. I could talk to him about school, about the fucking ASVAB test that didn’t mean shit, about how the Air Force was a cop out. I could talk to him about how Gina was cool with me until she asked me to winter formal. How when I said no, she laughed in my face, said she knew what I was. How Bobby started seeing Gina and stopped talking to me. How Bobby turning his back on me hurt the most.
Hell, I could even talk to him about Denny. Fucking Denny.
“I think we’d start with Peggy Sue Got Married,” he wrote. “It’s funny enough.”
“Nicholas Cage and Jim Carey.”
“But how?” I asked.
“How do I get there?”
After a minute, he sent me a link through the messenger window. I clicked it and the Greyhound Bus website popped up. I saw the address for the station downtown.
“It’ll only be a few bucks to get to Lordsburg,” he wrote.
“And from there?”
“I’ll drive you to El Paso.”
It’d be a quick drive with the things we would discuss. A conversation about the mechanisms of time travel in Peggy Sue Got Married. A discussion on the merits of military service or blue-collar work or white-collar work. Arts, challenges.
The coma my soul had been in for what felt like years wore off. Like waking up in a stark white hospital room marking the start of something new, I could move again. Breathe again. Live again.
“I’ve got enough for the ticket,” I wrote.
“When would you do it?”
“The schedule says there’s a midnight bus. I can make that.”
“If you want to, I can make it to Lordsburg in time to get you.”
Just for the summer, I thought. Give my parents time to think. Maybe Denny would get his shit together too. Just for the summer. Just for a couple months.
“Let’s do it.”
“Great,” he typed. “I’ll meet you at the Lordsburg station tomorrow morning.
“We’re doing this?”
“If you really want to.”
“I do,” I typed.
I had shoved as many clothes as I could fit into my backpack and walked the half-hour to the bus station. The clerk took my money, didn’t ask my age, didn’t give a shit.
On the bus, I watched the silhouettes of cactuses and trees wave their goodbyes. I saw the mountains fall away, replaced by jagged, beautiful hills of New Mexico. I saw a world open, spreading its arms and stepping out of the shadows.
My parents would be awake soon. They’d go and check on Denny, make sure he hadn’t swallowed his tongue or died with a piece of foil in his hands. Then, they’d go to work. Disappearing was only momentus when discovered. But it might be days before my parents knew I was gone.
“He’s probably studying up for his test,” my dad might say.
“Maybe he’s just thinking about how he can be nicer to Denny,” my mom would chime in.
All the while, it would be Denny who discovered that I was gone. He’d be looking for another quick score. Looking for money. And he would find my room empty.
The bus stopped too many times, the seats felt like they were made of rock, and every time a semi’s Jake brake woke the person up next to me he’d just stare at the side of my face. But we made it to Lordsburg.
The sun had been up for an hour or so, but the cool night air of the evening had not been burned away. I shivered on the bench outside the station, waiting. The people getting off in Lordsburg cleared out. The people getting on were carried away. And soon, the station was empty.
But I waited. He’d come. He’d show up.
Peggy Sue Got Married then Rumble Fish then The Outsiders. We’d leave The Godfather for last. Had to. In between, we’d have meals and talks, and we would be people. Real people who cared what the other had to say.
Just as the sun had begun warming the day, a rusted Ford Mustang with a dented passenger door choked and coughed its way into the parking lot. The Mustang stopped in the lot right in front of me. I couldn’t see the driver clearly, but I saw him lean across the seat and pop open the passenger side door.
Just for the summer, I reminded myself as I stood and walked to the car.
Justin Hunter is currently working on his MFA at Arcadia University. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Typehouse Magazine, Corvus Review, and Centum Press, among others. You can connect with Justin through http://justin-hunter.com or on Twitter @jehunter5811