by Isaac Van B., 18
He took a deep breath in as he walked past the old man exhaling a toxic haze into the warm August night. He hoped the secondhand smoke would calm him down and knew it wouldn’t, yet the eye-watering sharp stench made Eddie want to turn back into the convenience store he just left and pick up the American Spirits he was eyeing. But he didn’t. He knew that would make it a pack a day all the way from this little Nebraskan town to St. Louis, and he couldn’t afford to eat up his savings like that.
His coffee—large, black, and filled to the brim—leaked onto his hand as he opened the door of his beat-up Toyota Corolla. He tightened his grip as it burned him, tossing his bag of overpriced snacks onto the passenger’s seat.
He watched the old man, avoiding the commitment he would make by starting the car. Mr. Lewis, Eddie remembered his name, was finishing his cigarette. His head was speckled with those dark spots people get as they age, some covered by the few strands of wispy white hair he still tried to comb every morning. He snuffed out the last of his Lucky Strike on the lid of a garbage can and turned with small steps, hobbling back inside, leaning on a cane his spine was growing to mirror the shape of. Mr. Lewis had been the cashier at this corner store for as long as anyone could remember. He was born here, he had lived here all his life, and without any plans to move, he would die here, too.
The door shut behind him and Eddie took a sip of his coffee, cringing at the taste. He hated black coffee, but he refused to let milk or sugar or anything not caffeinated take up space in his cup. He wanted to drive until shapes and shadows moved in the corners of his vision, until he’d pass out and wake up too far from home to turn back. He knew if he didn’t leave now, he’d never leave, and he’d end up just like everyone else.
He would start the car, turn on the radio, roll down the windows, drive past the spot that always held a cop car nestled among the trees, and floor it to the interstate. But he didn’t do anything. He just sat there, in the thick, still silence, watching that spider, the one he didn’t have the heart to kill or evict, as it crept across his dashboard. He didn’t know why he’d kept it around for so long, but it gave him a heavy, hollow feeling whenever he thought about it too much.
The sound of laughter slipped through the passenger window that couldn’t fully close anymore. Eddie looked up from his spider. A couple was leaving the store, tipsy as they giggled and stumbled into each other, plastic bags tangling. He remembered them—Logan and Aubrey—from high school.
He watched as they dumped their bags in the backseat and paused. Logan put an arm around Aubrey, and she reciprocated, resting her head against his chest as they stared up at the sky. It was a clear night, and the moon, a sliver away from full, glowed like the floodlights over the old baseball field. They stayed like that: Logan and Aubrey in each other’s arms, Eddie in his silent car. All he could think of as he looked up at the moon were the millions of stars beyond, blocked out by the blinding convenience store lights. He knew Logan and Aubrey weren’t thinking of anything like that, just appreciating what was, and he envied them for it. He wondered if it would be easier for him to be happy if he was like that. He wondered if they were happy.
Eddie had been friends with Logan back in elementary school. He remembered Logan’s father, some businessman who liked to “rough it” on his days off, would take them camping every few weekends. There was one time Logan didn’t properly seal away the fish they caught, and a raccoon got into the cooler. Eddie had stayed in the tent, listening wordless and passive, as Logan’s father yelled and cursed at his son, and he pretended not to notice when his friend cried in his sleeping bag until he couldn’t stay awake. Their friendship dissolved on its own, without any disagreement, fight, or fanfare, and the two, now young men, were so far removed from each other that they’d barely give a nod in greeting if they passed each other on the sidewalk. The thought filled Eddie with a feeling he could never put into words, somewhere between nostalgia and emptiness, a sort of melancholy as he rewatched scenes in his head of their relationship forming, fraying, and fading away.
He looked at Logan again. He had nice clothes and a big house and a shiny truck and a beautiful girlfriend. He was popular in school, and he never had any problem fitting in, things Eddie was always quietly jealous of. He had everything he needed and enough money for just about anything he wanted. But still, Eddie couldn’t say if he was happy or not.
It made him feel cold as he thought about his plans to leave. Maybe it wasn’t his environment, his circumstances that were making him unhappy. Maybe that was just how life was, and there was nothing he could do to escape it. At least if he stayed, he could be miserable in the comfort of familiarity.
Logan and Aubrey were kissing now, and he looked away, resting his head against the steering wheel and watching the spider again. Even it was moving slowly, eight legs dragging its body feebly along. It reminded him of Mr. Lewis.
Country music blared out of open windows as Logan drove out of the parking lot, swerving to avoid a car coming in. They pulled in two spaces away from Eddie, and he sank in his seat a little, preferring to avoid interaction. He remembered most of the people that got out from high school—he remembered anyone close to his age from school, really—but when he saw Ang, he sat up again. They had dated a few years back, splitting on amicable terms. It had been a while since they last spoke, but Eddie still thought of her sometimes.
He could tell she recognized the dent in his driver’s side door, warping the moonlight off the chipping silver paint and into her eyes, and as she tapped her friend on the shoulder and gestured with a tilt of her chin in his direction, he knew she was coming over. He rolled down the window.
She leaned her arm against the roof of the car and stooped down. “Hey, Eddie.”
He gave a tight-lipped smile. “Hello.”
“Uh. Just sitting here.” He hadn’t told anyone he was leaving yet, in case he couldn’t make himself go through with it.
“Just sittin’ here?” She leaned down a little further. “Are you high or something? ‘Cause if you are, we oughta drive you home. I know Logan can drive drunk and talk and smile his way out of every DUI, but you for sure can’t.”
He couldn’t help but smile a little when she said that. Ang would choose honesty over politeness any day of the week, and that was one of the things he loved about her. “I’m not drunk or high or anything, I’m just…” He felt like he should tell her.
“You mind if I get in? Just so we can talk while my friends are inside.”
He nodded, and as she walked around the car, he took the moment to compose himself. He was going to tell her as soon as she opened the door. But they sat in silence for a few long seconds until Ang remarked on the quiet and hit the radio button. The song that came on started halfway through, off an illegally downloaded CD Eddie made in his junior year of high school. He listened to it, tuning out Ang’s words in his ear, giving stunted replies on autopilot. He loved the singer’s voice. He loved when he could hear the emotion dripping off voices, when just the sound could make you feel something.
Ang turned down the music. “Eddie, seriously, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” He was missing his favorite part of the song.
She swatted his hand away when he reached for the volume dial. “Don’t give me that. There’s something on your mind. You’re avoiding doing something. What is it?”
“Why do you think I’m avoiding anything?” His neck twitched. He was an awful liar, and he knew it.
She pointed at him. “Because you’re not really answering. And you have a huge coffee, which I know you hate. Your gas tank is actually full for once.” She was pointing all around the car. “You got all those bags in the backseat. And I know we haven’t talked in a while, but I know you well enough to know how you get when there’s something you’re nervous about doing. Just tell—”
“I think I’m leaving.”
Between tracks, even the band hesitated to fill the silence.
“Where are you going?” She watched him avoiding eye contact.
He sniffled. “St. Louis.”
“Wow,” she said after a moment. “That’s great. I re—”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?” She turned in her seat to get a better look at him. He always looked sad, even those times she was able to get him to laugh. “I remember you talking about leaving. And I’m… I’m glad you’re finally doing it. I think you could be happier in the city.”
His shoulders tightened at the word happier, but he didn’t say anything. He was fine sitting in silence. He could let Ang keep trying to fill in the gaps in their conversation until she got bored and left. He didn’t have to say anything. He wished he could see the stars.
“I just… I just feel so trapped here,” he blurted, “like I’ll be forever stuck in this cycle of sameness and sadness, and I don’t want that. I don’t want to live and die here like everyone else does. I want to leave and feel free and alive and happy.” He ran out of breath. “But what if… what if it’s nothing about this place that’s making me feel like this all the time? What if that’s just…” He trailed off. He kept thinking of Mr. Lewis and Logan. “What if that’s just how life is?”
She took a second too long to respond, and Eddie was already going on.
“And what if I roll myself halfway across the Midwest just to realize that? What if I get there and nothing’s different and then I’ve just made this huge move for nothing? What if I’m doing all of this trying to escape something I never can?”
She blinked, and he looked away. It was a lot to put on her, a lot to expect her to have a response for. He’d hate this conversation even more if he was in her position.
“I still think you should go,” she said finally.
It was what he wanted to hear, but he still felt like he had to argue. “But what if—”
“Stop with the what ifs,” she cut him off. “Stop catastrophizing it. So what if you leave and nothing changes? Then you either deal with it, or you come back and think of the whole trip as a weird vacation and you can go back to being miserable and sitting alone in parking lots in the dark. I don’t see why you shouldn’t at least try.” She noted his silence and continued. “I know you’re scared, and honestly? There’s nothing I can say to you that’ll make it any less scary. That’s just something you’re going to have to manage, but I don’t want you to let it hold you back.” She waited until he looked up at her. “And I know you’re only arguing so you can put off making a decision I think you’ve already made.”
He couldn’t speak as he looked out the window. She kept her eyes on him. He didn’t know if he hated or loved how well she still knew him. She was always right about everything, even when he wished she wasn’t.
Shadows passed over their faces. Ang’s friends were leaving the store, backlit by the streetlights, silhouettes moving towards them.
“I gotta go,” she said, gently.
She opened the door and looked back at him. They smiled at each other with sad eyes.
Eddie watched as she got into her friend’s car and pulled away. He watched Mr. Lewis scanning the barcode on a bag of chips, people passing through the doors, others speeding by on the road, moths fluttering around the store’s sign, the moon rising higher and higher into the sky, and the few stars he could make out if he looked long enough to let his eyes adjust. He sat there for a moment, music playing softly and a warm breeze blowing through the car.
He put the keys in the ignition.
New Jersey, USA
Notes from our interns on selecting this piece: This piece leaned into the inner conflict that comes with having to say goodbye to a place that you’ve outgrown and the discomfort that comes with leaving something familiar, even if you are feeling suffocated by it. The writer wrote backstories for side characters that only provided more depth to the plot and didn’t deter from Eddie’s decision; it added to the sameness and sadness he was feeling. I believe that many readers can relate to the themes portrayed in this piece and what it often feels like living in a small town. The pace did not feel too slow or rushed—I think all of the elements in the story combined together to create a thoughtful, deep, and beautiful piece!