by Lysander Champion
On the afternoon I kidnapped Elaine, I left every window in my house wide open.
The air conditioner was broken. Its squat white body regarded the room with a blank stare; it had wheezed its last breath that morning. The Oklahoma summer barged its way inside. I had opened the windows in hopes of catching a cross-breeze, but I only succeeded in baking the house in stagnant heat.
It was the kind of weather that struck down anything upright. I could feel myself wilting with the grass outside, sprawled as I was on the kitchen floor. Zapped of all energy, I had stuck my shirtless back to the still-cool linoleum the second I walked in from my shift. My only occasional movement was to half-heartedly fan myself with the book I had been reading. Outside, a chorus of cicadas squalled their complaint at an unrelenting sun.
I was beginning to entertain the idea of sticking my head inside the fridge when I heard, from somewhere in the house, a thump. I let the book drop to the floor. Another thump. I hoisted myself up by the edge of a cabinet, peeling my skin from the linoleum with a moist ripping sound. Damn. All the windows were open.
The cicadas continued to scream as I stumbled out of the kitchen, searching for the source of the noise. I would have to shut up the house again. I suspected some lost thing from the woods had wandered inside, claiming sanctuary from the stubborn heat.
The living room was empty. So was the bathroom.
I nudged open the door to my bedroom, expecting a raccoon, a skunk, when I spotted a huge shape crouching under the window. It turned its face up at me and split into a broad grin.
I stood frozen at the door, uncomprehending. Elaine rose loose-limbed from the floor, still smiling as if she hadn’t broken into my house after months of no contact.
“Been a while, ain’t it? I’d give you a hug, but…” Elaine gestured widely, her skin damp and shining. “I stink.”
“You… yeah, you do.” She did stink: of sweat, of cut grass, of the heady funk of summer. Dark patches of moisture marked her clothes; fat curls of dark hair stuck to her forehead. There was nothing else I could think to say. Her smell, her unexpected presence, filled the room and choked out anything else. Elaine and I had been inseparable in high school, that breed of friendship which springs from mutual social isolation and teenage angst. We had sworn to stay in touch after high school, made grand promises to keep our weekly late-night calls and philosophical smokes behind the Waffle House. But we drifted, occupied by moving out of our childhood bedrooms, by the intoxicating mundanity of our new adulthood. Our weekly association had dwindled to bi-weekly, then monthly, then—almost a year after graduation—to nothing.
But now Elaine—Elaine, huge and loud as I remembered—had climbed back into my house. She was wearing the same stupid Looney Tunes shirt she had favored in high school. In faded ink, Wile E. Coyote chased the Road Runner across her chest.
“Elaine—” I started again, a dozen questions crowding and sticking in my throat. What are you doing here? Why didn’t you knock? What took you so long?
“Hang on.” Elaine stretched her body back through the window, scrabbling in the bush beneath it, and resurfaced with a backpack. “I’ll tell you what’s going on, but it’s hot as balls and I ain’t talking ’till I cool off—you got any coke in the fridge?”
I was very nearly angry with her, with all six feet and four inches of her, something I couldn’t have managed a few years ago. There had always been some demanding, overpowering quality about Elaine that I had appreciated in school. I was never without her, never refused her anything. I didn’t, couldn’t want to. But my near-anger at her intrusion did little more than sharpen my voice as I answered.
Christ. Elaine bumped my shoulder with hers as she ambled past me into the kitchen. I stood in the door for a while, struggling to direct my growing frustration at Elaine, for the intrusion, or at myself, for leaving the window open in the first place.
In the kitchen, Elaine dug through the fridge gracelessly, knocking things over, pushing aside boxes of stale lo mein. When she emerged with her prize—not the Seven-Up, but a bottle of beer—I had sufficiently braced myself for confrontation. “Alright, spill.”
Elaine pressed the cool bottle to her cheek and sucked her teeth with a sharp tchk. “Jesus, you’ve gotten skinny.”
“Tro-oy. Seriously, I can count your ribs.”
Crossing my arms over my—bare, admittedly scrawny—chest, I called up as much force into my voice as I could muster against her. “Listen. You can’t break into my house and drink my beer without telling me why you came.”
She sighed and shifted her eyes away, pushing the cap of the bottle against the counter in an attempt to open it. This was new. Elaine had always been nothing if not forthright. The force of her intrepid bluntness, her solidity, had anchored me to her. I remembered the feeling that always seized me when we skipped class to smoke behind the Waffle House of wanting to surround her, to take some part of her Elaine-ness inside of myself. The feeling that perhaps, if I did, it would kill something weak and despicable inside of me, that I would be able to defend, to preserve the pair of us forever. This—this new uncertainty of hers, was unnerving. It was in the way her eyes drifted, the way she carried herself. As if she were no longer fully moored in her body like I could give her a push, and her soul would rattle right out of her flesh.
“Yeah, alright. You remember King?”
Of course I remembered King. The only guy we knew who was taller and louder than Elaine. King, famed for the tattoo of the pin-up girl he got on his back in ninth grade, who dropped out to work full time at his brother’s auto repair place. I had liked King. He was huge, but stupid and unthreatening, and Elaine smiled when she talked about him. Now, in this context, the mention of him brought a degree of anxiety.
“Sure, you dated for a while in senior year and couldn’t shut up about him.”
Elaine’s face was carefully blank, but I could feel her eyes searching me as she held out the hand that was unoccupied with the beer. I didn’t know how I hadn’t noticed it before; there was a ring, about a size too small, stuck on her index finger.
“Got back with him, about a year ago. He’s sweet. We’re getting hitched.”
My mouth hung open. I had heard something a few months ago, of course, about King and Elaine dating again. Sparton, Oklahoma was a small place. But I had never been able to picture Elaine in any kind of long-term connection that didn’t involve me. It was selfish, and unreasonable. We had both drifted apart, and no longer had any kind of claim on each other. I tried to remember that I was angry with her.
“So you broke into my house to… what, ask me to be your best man?”
Elaine allowed the faintest twist of annoyance to color her expression. The clear stone on her finger—it had to be fake, it was huge—seemed to watch me with a beady glare as she shifted. “No, I came to borrow your car.”
She was speaking our old language. To borrow my car—Elaine had never had a car, or, for that matter, a license. If Elaine had somewhere to go, I took her. To borrow my car meant to borrow me, too.
“Where are we going?”
Another grin cracked across her face. “I’ll show you.”
She slid from the countertop to the ground, gesturing for me to join her. “Do you re-call—” Elaine asked, pulling out the final syllable as she rummaged through the contents of her backpack. “—junior year, those plans we made?”
“Yeah.” Junior year was our Romantic period. Elaine had found and quickly squashed a burgeoning attraction to a dark-eyed senior girl, and we had both been reading A Moveable Feast. “We were going to learn French. Run away to Paris.”
“And you found—ah—” She withdrew her hand from the backpack, holding a black and white photograph. “—you found this postcard, and you gave it to me.”
Elaine put the postcard on the floor between us, handling it gingerly, like some precious artifact. The Eiffel Tower rose behind a street of clustered old buildings, piercing a bright gray sky—in the foreground, a blonde woman sat at a café table, her dark lips pursed around a cup of coffee. It was the woman that had interested us the most. Elaine had remarked often on her eyes, the long legs that stuck out of her skirt. She’s what the French call oon bell fem…she’s hot, mon ami.
“I think I fell in love with her—with it, the picture, I mean. We would talk about running away after graduation, right? And sometimes, when we made our plans, I felt like we were so close to Paris—like I could take another step and walk right into it—but we never did, did we?”
I shook my head. The afternoon was beginning to slip into evening; the light mellowed, casting dirty gray shadows across the walls. The cicadas still sang their shrill lament at the lingering heat.
“Troy.” Elaine turned her eyes away from the blonde in the picture, fixing me with a steady look. She twisted the ring with her thumb. “I’m not marrying King. I ain’t staying in Sparton, Oklahoma, neither.”
I was silent. Elaine was bubbling over, frothing with three years of discarded plans. “I’ve been saving. You’ll drive us down to Dallas, I have enough for two international flights, and to gas up your car. We won’t have any money when we get to Paris, but we could pawn my ring; the stone isn’t real, but the band is, and—”
“El,” I said. She only continued to speak, our voices overlapping.
“—we’d work it out, I could get a job, I’ve been studying French again—”
“Elaine, if I’m taking you to Paris today, we have to head out right now.”
It was in the ensuing rush to pack my things into the car—clothes, books, a toothbrush with bristles smashed into an unflattering middle part—that I forgot to close the windows. I didn’t realize it until we were on the highway, well clear of Sparton. “Aw, shit. We gotta turn around.”
“What? Why?” Until now, Elaine had spent the drive in silence, intermittently fiddling with the radio and staring out of the window with an inscrutable expression.
I flipped the turn signal. “I left all the windows open in the house. It could rain, or an animal could get in and screw around—I’ll lose my security deposit.”
I did not see, but rather felt the pressure of Elaine’s glare. “Troy.” She said, slowly, scathingly, as if she were explaining something to a kid who should know better. “We have just left Sparton. To go to Paris, France. This is an impulsive and heroic move. The words security and deposit should not be occurring to you right now.”
“God, fine, it doesn’t matter.” I flipped the turn signal again, and we lapsed into another long silence. Behind us, an old Ford with a big patch of rust on the hood passed a gay little Volkswagen. I thought we would make it all the way to Dallas without speaking another word to each other when Elaine lifted her pinkie finger to point at something wedged between the windshield and the dash.
“We got a stowaway. Look.” It was a dead cicada, lost from the raucous chorus of my yard, it had gotten itself stuck and died in the suffocating heat. Its wings folded over the brown husk of its body, a transparent little coffin. Elaine reached for it.
“Don’t throw it at me, I’m driving.”
“I won’t!” Elaine turned it over in her hands. “Gross.”
“Just toss it out the window, it’ll start to stink.”
“Aw, I’d feel bad.” She turned it again, poking at its shriveled legs. “You know what the Greeks thought about cicadas?”
Elaine’s ancient Greece period had been the longest running of all our high-flown intellectual phases. She used to carry huge books of the stuff around school, read Ovid and Sappho aloud over the cafeteria roar.
“I didn’t think the Greeks had cicadas.”
That earned me a swat to the arm. “They’re everywhere, dipshit.”
“Sorry, sorry—sing, Muse, what the Greeks thought about cicadas.”
Elaine snorted in appreciation. “Okay, you know Eos, the goddess of dawn—” I did not know Eos, the goddess of dawn. But I didn’t interrupt. “—She had a human lover, right? Some prince, from uh… from Troy, I think. And she wanted to make him immortal, like her. So she asked Zeus to give him eternal life so they could be together forever, live happily ever after—”
I knew enough about the kinds of stories Elaine was interested in to know that I shouldn’t expect a happy ending. “And he said no?”
“Naw, he said he would. And he did. But she only asked for eternal life, right? She forgot to ask Zeus to give him eternal youth, too.” There it was. “So the prince lived forever, but he also grew old and miserable forever, and got so shriveled up that he turned into—” she positioned the bug between her index finger and thumb, and flung it at me. I squawked in protest. “—a cicada. The end.”
“I’m gonna run this car off the road.”
“Then how will we get to Paris?”
I spent the next long stretch of road mumbling under my breath about how simple it would be to not go the rest of the way to Dallas, to turn back around toward Sparton, until something occurred to me. “Who’s fault was it, do you reckon?”
“That prince turning into a cicada. Was it Eos’ fault, for not making her wish right, or was Zeus against her from the beginning?”
I saw Elaine shrug in my periphery. “I dunno. Doesn’t matter, does it? She didn’t get the thing she was hoping for. Or, she got it, but in a way that it was almost better if she didn’t get it at all.”
I frowned. “It should matter.”
“Why? Her boyfriend’s a bug. It’s cruel irony.”
“Because—” I struggled for a moment. “Because, if it was her fault, if she just said the wrong words, then she still has the power to make it right, you know? Try again, make different choices, get what she wants. But if Zeus just granted her wish that way on purpose, to be a bitch I guess, then it’s like—fate. She’s stuck, she’s… doomed to that irony and the cicada.”
Elaine made a contemplative sound, but I could tell she had stopped listening. I wrinkled my nose. “Throw that thing out the window, now. It’s stinking up the car.”
We were just an hour out of Sparton when I checked my rearview mirror for the twentieth time.
“There’s a car that’s been behind us for a while.”
Elaine barely looked up. “Yeah? We’re on the highway, it happens.”
I glanced in the mirror again. There it was, following at a reasonable distance. “Right, but there was some heavy traffic about twenty minutes ago, so I got off and took a side road for a while. It followed us off the highway, and then back on.”
“Is it an older Ford? Dark-ish blue, big patch of rust on the hood?”
I chanced a look to my right, at Elaine. She was chewing on her bottom lip, an old indication of discomfort for her. “Yeah, did you see it?”
“It’s been following us since Sparton. It’s King’s.”
I was suddenly seized by a violent, fluttering impulse to slam on the brakes, to turn to fully face her. “And you didn’t think to mention it, all this time?”
Now Elaine’s eyes couldn’t stop flickering to the mirror. “I didn’t want you to worry about it. We’ll be driving for another hour and a half. He’ll give up eventually.”
I cussed, long and colorful, craning my neck around the back of the seat. My mind filled with images of jealous partners, of shotguns, of cars rammed off the road. “Didn’t you tell him you were leaving?”
“I… yeah, I told him—texted him—that I was gonna visit with you.”
“Did you also tell him you planned to high-tail your ass to Dallas International Airport?”
Elaine’s face twisted sourly.
“You didn’t. Jesus. He probably thinks I have you hogtied in the trunk of my car.”
“Oh now that’s just dramatic, there’s no way you could have fit me in th—”
“No, but listen—listen, the point is, King definitely thinks I kidnapped you—when if anything, dammit, you kidnapped me—”
“Troy, I swear to god—”
“—So I’ll just pull over and tell him it was a misunderstanding—and either way, if he believes me or not, we’ll probably have to duke it out on the side of the highway, and I’ll lose, because you were right, I have gotten skinnier—”
I began to slow down. Elaine dug her nails into my forearm. “Do not pull over.”
I swiveled my head to look at her again, incredulous, but sped back up. “Why, what is it? Because I was joking about the fistfight, I don’t really—do you think he would hurt you? Is that why you—has he—”
Elaine still hadn’t let go of my arm. She cut me off by digging her nails in further. “No. It’s not… that.”
“Then what?” I found myself glancing back to the mirror, to the Ford. “Because if you don’t give me a good reason, I will pull over. I’m not getting into a car chase on highway-goddamn-124.”
Elaine let out a long hiss of air through her teeth. I could see her chest expand and deflate beneath her t-shirt, the faded image of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner rising and falling with it. “I just. Don’t. Want to see him.”
“I’m afraid I’ll lose my resolve!” She burst out, finally. “Alright? I don’t want to see King right now, because if I do, I’ll lose all the dreams of running off, of living with beauty and leggy belle femmes, of Paris—and King will drive me back to Sparton—I never learned how to drive, Troy, even after high school. I had him drive me everywhere, just like I’m having you drive me now—I’ll go back to Sparton, and I’ll never leave because I didn’t do it right now.”
I had known Elaine since the seventh grade. In all the years since then, I had never seen her cry. Now, I could see tears gathering at her eyes, tracking down her cheeks. It frightened me. “Don’t you see—” She started again, her voice breaking. “—how close we are to Paris? How if we stop now, we won’t ever get there?”
My eyes darted from Elaine back to the rearview mirror, to King steadily bearing down on us. A desperate, aching wish crept up from that weak part of myself, a wish that my car would begin to shoot smoke from its engine, break down in the middle of the highway, force me to pull over. I was beginning to sense just how directionless this plan had been, how directionless I had been, allowing Elaine to uproot me, to drag me out of Oklahoma towards some unpromised dream.
My car did not break down. I pulled off at the next exit, nearly shouting in an effort to make myself heard over Elaine’s protestations. She was saying my name over and over, chanting it like a prayer, like she could bend my will to match her own again. Troy. Troy. Troy. Troy.
“I’m pulling over—could you shut up for a fucking second? I’m pulling over, if you don’t like it you can take the wheel yourself, but I’m pulling over, and I’m getting out of this goddamn car.”
The wheels shuddered over uneven grass as I brought us off of the side road. Elaine, finally silent and white with rage, and me, my hands gripping the wheel as I kept a stranglehold on my own resolve. I left her there in the car, and began to walk along the side of the road, away from the highway. It did not occur to me that I still didn’t know where I was going.
I hadn’t been walking for very long when I felt a touch at my elbow. Elaine.
She had arranged her face into the careful deadpan, but with a delicate, ironic twist around her mouth. She seemed anchored again, but not in the self-assured way I remembered. The flighty, uncertain energy she had carried all day had been abandoned for the weight of resignation.
She pointed, and the dying light glanced off of that cheap stone on her finger. I followed the movement of her hand to its conclusion. A ways behind us, but undeniably approaching, was the old Ford. “Look Elaine, I’m sorry—”
“Don’t worry about it. Look the other way, turn around.”
Up ahead, the road turned into a town. Sad, beige-looking buildings sagged forward into the streets. A McDonald’s sign flickered. In the far distance, something tall and black rose above the squat buildings, pierced the bright gray sky.
“What’s that over there?”
“It’s a replica.” Elaine nudged me, pulling my gaze to the left, to a large sign where the town began. “See?”
It was white, with peeling black letters. I had to squint to make them out.
YOU ARE NOW ENTERING:
the town of
“Troy,” Elaine jostled my arm. “We were close. Didn’t I say we were close?”
I felt that same weight crash down on me all at once that once the car reached us, we would be turning back to Sparton. Elaine would go with King. I would go back to my house, look for internal damage, close all of the windows. We stood side by side, facing Paris, the peeling sign, the distant replica of the Eiffel Tower topped with a red cowboy hat. Behind us, the car—and Sparton—made its approach.
There was a great tragic pit in my stomach. “Whose fault was it, do you reckon?”
Elaine was silent.
“Elaine,” I said, desperate. “Whose fault was it?”
The cicadas sang their furious answer at the setting sun.