Long is the Road that Leads You

         They had been on the run for a full twenty-four hours before they pulled the stolen red Escort hatchback into the parking lot of a

rundown motel in the middle of backwoods Pennsylvania. Their plan was to go all the way to the Canyonlands in Utah where the authorities could chase them into the wilderness, but leave them to get lost and die in the mighty canyon maze. No one in their right mind would track through that sandstone slotted labyrinth to chase down a couple of out of their mind teenage boys wearing Mennonite dresses and cowboy hats and who took the names of their dead mothers, Rita and Sue, as their outlaw identities.

         They cleaned automobiles in a car dealership in Northern New York and had all the keys to all the used cars that sat on the outskirts of the lot where the pavement ended and the gravel began. The day before heading out west they cleaned up the Escort to perfection, as close at it could be anyway, and took off with their hearts pumping with blood and two pistols they bought off an old Vietnam vet they worked with. Tom was his name and he would tell them all the stories of the war, not like most Vietnam vets, he never stopped talking about the gooks and guns and smell of napalm. And yes, he’d quote Apocalypse Now on a regular basis, but his own stories were much more authentic.

         He told them the time he was shot in the chest, he said it must have come from far away, a gook deep in the jungle. Tom was out in a field sitting up and feeling an endless rain that he swore was making his insides turn to mold. He was sitting up and saw a shining spark coming towards him like a fire fly might look if its light never went out and its line never wavered like it was at the end of an arrow that was shot from the stars and slowly made its way towards your chest, and you are watching it coming at you the whole time, knowing that it will kill you if it even brushes the side of your face. Like a kiss on the cheek, a small plutonic peck.

         "I was mesmerized," he said, "I couldn’t take my eyes from it. And soon enough it hit me directly in my sternum." Tom would stop and point and look down at his sternum.

         "Right here it hit me. I fell back and lay in the tall grass and waited to die alone with all the heads of the weeds staring down at me in cold indifference, their blond skulls bowing to the moon again and again. I felt the rain on my face and the ground underneath me was pulling me closer to my grave slowly dragging me below the dirt. After a while I noticed I was breathing and feeling everything as if I was still alive: the rain hitting my face, the weeds silently swaying, and there was a patch of stars I noticed out of the corner of my eye. I tried to sit up, and guess what? I could sit. I was afraid to look down to see the mess of my chest, but there was nothing. I ripped open my jacket and looked at my bare chest and do you know what was there? How could you know? It was a shallow dent like a beebe hitting the side of this car. I stood up and shouted and then heard an explosion and the sky lit up like on the fourth of July and do you know what I did? I danced to the band that was playing in my psychotic head, The Grand Old Flag. It’s a high flying flag and forever in peace may you wave / you’re the emblem of the land I love / the home of the free and the brave … I was dancing and singing as loud as I could, I would live another day, in the beautiful bush under a sky scattered with the flecks of bones and flesh and blood of every sort of man that exists."

         The next day they headed west in the red Escort hatchback.

         Their first destination: Treasure Lake, PA. They got off the exit and drove north a little ways. They came to a major Texaco and parked the car in the rear of the parking lot. They threw their Mennonite dresses over their wifebeaters and jeans, the dresses were so long no one could tell they had jeans on underneath. They threw their cowboy hats on and headed towards the door with their pistols perfectly visible, gripped firmly in their right hands, and Sue’s burlap bag in the other hand. They opened the door and went after the cashier like they were lions and she was a lost caribou. She was startled and put her hands to the fluorescent lights above. Rita said everything they rehearsed and they took off with a bag full of cash. They drove back south to the highway and drove west through the night on adrenaline and carrots they brought with them from Sue’s neighbor’s garden. Sue believed in nutrition. The week prior he stole peppers, carrots, tomatoes, onions, and a head of broccoli the size of a small bicycle helmet.

         Their second destination: White Pigeon, IN. They got off the highway and drove north to White Pigeon. They came to a Shell and ripped it off with grace and style. A pretty girl watched them in fright but Rita saw in her eyes, lust. He tipped his hat to her as they ran out the door and into their stolen vehicle. In Indiana they needed a new car, the cops would have their license plate by now. So they went directly to Goshen and while a man with a beard and thick rimmed glasses was filling up his Benz, Rita and Sue pulled up next to him and started shelling all their gear into his back seat. They asked him to open his trunk and since he saw that they were crazy and had guns he did as they said. There were other customers around but none of them said anything or made a move, no one pulled out a cellular device. Who were these two cowboys in Mennonite dresses? They made the man drive back on the highway until they hit Illinois. He was an editor of a major magazine. On the highway they discussed all sorts of matters including professions. The boys didn’t give two shits about his magazine, even though he offered them the latest issue that was folded up in the center console. He said it was a revolution in literature. Sue took the journal and threw it out the window and shot at it three times. They both laughed and watched the man’s face sink in disbelief. But what could he expect from two young outlaws?

         They dropped him off in Wheaton, IL. The man was dejected and seemed to be consumed with the image of Sue shooting his life’s work, and then laughing at it like it was nothing, trash, an addition to the already ridiculous littered shoulder. His journal with his name on it and his essay The Artist as Prophet now left lying among fast food wreckage and the ants that patrol up and down and all over will be in its every crevice before it is a waste even to them.

         The black Benz was nice but it would have to be replaced in Illinois, they were outlaws not faggots from Beverley Hills or Intellectual Seattle. They decided to rob the Amoco in Wheaton, since they were already there. The strange thing about the cashier in Wheaton was that she seemed almost delighted to get robbed. She even said: well, this is a first. They drove out and up to Moline. They stopped in at the John Deer store and swapped vehicles with a lady who drove a fine looking GM pick-up. The lady was confused but in the rearview mirror Rita thought he saw a smile on her face as she opened the door and turned the key to start it. She’s seen commercials of beautiful woman driving cars like this but never dreamed of living out as seen in advertisements. Rita thought that he should have shot her as she was pulling away. Why? said Sue. She just had that look, like she was ready to die. It was the first conversation they had about actually shooting someone and Sue had an irreplaceable feeling that they would.

         Rita must have thought Lambs Grove Iowa was a good place to shoot someone. After they robbed the Teller a man holding a bag of Doritos and a Big Gulp laughed at their dresses, he said: what’s with the fuckin dresses, you two fags or something? Rita shot him in his stomach and watched the blood recede around the hole, it grew, and Rita later told Sue he couldn’t stop looking at it because it was one red eye that burned through his soul and now his soul is forever gone. Sue didn’t respond. He didn’t have to worry about losing his soul until he shot and killed a man himself.

         In Pleasant Dale, NE they swapped a car and robbed a Chevron. They’re new wheels was an old Beretta they pulled off from a kid their own age. The stereo system inside probably was worth more than the car itself. They used it and played old country music: Webb Pierce, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and some Johnny Cash. They played it as loud as their ears could handle. They sang them all and once Rita pulled out his gun and shot up to the moon.

         In Laramie, Wyoming they stopped at another Chevron but kept the car running and Hank Williams playing loud through the speakers as they walked into the gas station. Their dresses were worn in and dirty and they cut the sleeves off of them to show off their muscular biceps. Their cowboy hats looked dirty and gray as if they were really worn by cowboys on horse back working the cattle ranches in Wyoming. There were five Hispanics, one behind the register and 4 customers at the soda machine, and they were all carrying guns. As soon as Rita started speaking they drew their guns and Sue and Rita lit them all up. The four lay in a pond of blood under the soda machine and the one who was hanging on for his life asked them for help. The woman behind the cash register disappeared and when Sue looked down at her she was crumpled up under a blanket of Mars bars, Snickers, Skittles, Lays, and M&M’s. Rita pulled out the register and took the whole thing outside to a scene they were not expecting. The Beretta was smoking under the hood. Hank Williams still sang out: Are you building a home in heaven / To live in when this life is o’er / Will you move to that / beautiful city / And live with christ ever more? / Long is the road that leads you / To that beautiful home up there / Is work on your home completed / Death may be lingering near… and as they approached the car it made a belch and blew a puff of black smoke to the stars above. They stopped and waited and what they waited for came: an explosion from the bowels of the car, and the sky lit up and their faces turned red. Old oil on the parking lot floor caught on fire and tracked the fire to four other cars. The old trucks and a beat up Honda went up in flames. The heat became unbearable and as Rita and Sue stood still listening to Hank Williams they became completely engulfed in a thick cloud of smoke. Sirens rang and the town heard the sounds of disaster and each and every one of them brought to mind the stories they’d heard all their lives about the warfare that burdened that region. The blood and Indians, the old world. In the new world two young boys carry hell with them through gunfire and dead mothers – their fringes caught a flame and made a path ever widening to their throats, but by that time they were already gone.

JP Vallieres is a teacher. He lives with his wife and two sons in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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