Vacation Stories: Learning to Fly
This is the first story in my volume of short stories called The Carnival Papers, now available in paperback! (Also available in Kindle, but the paperback has an extra story and updated edits, so’s you know.)
This story features a teenage girl who decides to run away from her central Michigan home and seek out fun and adventure like her friends. But things go wrong almost immediately and what she discovers is that maybe she’s not as grown up as she wants to think.
The biggest problem with this story in my opinion is that at times I think I go a little overboard with the description. I was trying really hard to be “literary” so that probably explains. Still, it’s a good story to me. Just one of many good stories of The Carnival Papers. (Are you sold yet? If not there are two more days of shilling.)
Robin Beckman lay on top of the pink bedspread—strands of mocha hair splayed on the pillow and limbs cocked at extreme angles—and willed herself to disappear. She focused on Brad Pitt’s uncaring blue eyes hovering over her bed and tried to vanish into the poster with him to avoid slogging through another day of serving greasy food to equally greasy patrons at the Freepoint Café. When nothing happened, she sighed and hopped off the bed. She would have to rely on a less magical way to effect her escape.
“Robin, come get breakfast,” her mother said through the door.
“In a minute,” she said and unearthed her backpack from the mound of clothes that had accumulated over the first month of summer. She emptied it of papers, folders, and notebooks, none of which she would need again. The deflated pink backpack swelled again as Robin stuffed it with clothes, shoes, CDs, and her Walkman, all of which she would need for her summer on the road. After locating purloined library copies of The Catcher in the Rye and Bridget Jones’s Diary to wedge into the backpack’s front pockets, she turned to the mirror and began the metamorphosis from sleep-addled girl to confident young woman.
Through the first month of summer, she would take a minute to pull back her hair into a ponytail, throw on her uniform of a dingy T-shirt and blue jeans speckled with bits of cream paint from the renovation, and then shuffle out the door as though still asleep, but today’s adventure called for more effort. She winced as she coaxed the tangles from her hair, puckered as she applied a fresh coat of pink lipstick, and frowned as she slipped on a salmon-colored tank top over her boyish chest.
The stubborn refusal of her breasts to mature had prompted her to seek an unnatural solution. On a shelf over the mirror, opposite the porcelain dolls her mother continued to give Robin despite her insistence that she’d outgrown dolls, sat a grinning Hello Kitty cookie jar. She took the cookie jar from the shelf and inside found the pair of gel-filled bags her friend Ariel had bought from a website last winter. They had completed the transaction at Robin’s locker, looking over their shoulders as though exchanging secrets of national security. The silicon inserts had lain in the bottom of the cookie jar ever since, awaiting the call to action.
Robin settled the bags into the cups of her bra and adjusted each one until they looked natural. Her breasts, while enhanced, still didn’t have the volume of her friend Stacey’s, but at least they didn’t look prepubescent anymore. After a last glance at the mirror, she smiled and snatched a red hooded sweatshirt from the heap of discarded clothes on the floor. She zipped the sweatshirt all the way to eclipse the sudden growth spurt of her bosom.
“Robin, hurry up,” her mother called from the kitchen.
“I’m coming,” Robin said and struggled like a new recruit to shoulder her backpack.
“I thought school was over,” her mother said as Robin sat down at the Formica table salvaged from her father’s restaurant after its renovation. Her father had repainted the table white, but as Robin poured her cereal, she read the sea of nicks that comprised the initials of the table’s former occupants, whose spirits could not be obliterated by paint alone.
“I’ve got orientation today,” Robin said.
“I don’t remember you saying anything about that,” her father said from behind The Freepoint Daily News.
“I told you a couple weeks ago,” she said.
Her father put down the paper and raised one black, Neanderthal eyebrow. “You did?”
“Yes,” she said, looking him in the eye and praying nothing in her face betrayed her.
“Right, I remember now. Try not to get lost.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Are you sure you’re going to need that backpack for an orientation?” her mother asked.
“I might need to take some notes.”
“I don’t see why you don’t just take a notebook then.”
“Mom—” She stretched the single word into two syllables and rolled her eyes.
Her mother’s eyes focused on Robin’s chest and Robin hunched forward to shovel cereal into her mouth. “Are you stuffing your bra again, honey?” her mother asked.
“No,” Robin said, her voice shrinking to that of a child caught sneaking cookies before dinner.
“Come on, hand them over,” her mother said. Robin unzipped her sweatshirt and reached inside her bra to surrender the inserts. After tucking them into pockets of her apron, her mother stroked Robin’s hair. “You don’t need those, honey. You’re just a late bloomer.”
“I know, Mom,” Robin said and zipped the sweatshirt to conceal her now-flat chest. She forced a spoonful of cereal down her throat and then shoved the bowl away, still half-full of soggy oat pieces.
Her mother shook her head, turned to the stove, and dropped a pound of bacon—which Robin would never touch, let alone eat—onto a frying pan.
“How long you figure this orientation will take?” her father asked.
“I don’t know,” Robin said. “It might be awhile.”
“I could use another body for the dinner rush.”
She pushed away from the table and kissed the top of her father’s bald head. “I’ll try,” she said and then slung the backpack across her shoulders. She hoped her parents didn’t hear her muffled grunt as she staggered out the door. Stopping in the doorway, she saw her father still reading the paper while her mother continued to watch over the stove.
Once she emerged into the clammy morning and plodded out to the ancient Nova glittering like a new quarter in the sunlight—a graduation present from her parents. Her fingers crossed, she turned the key in the ignition and the Nova’s engine sputtered to life. While the car warmed up, she saw a pile of fast food napkins on the passenger seat and made sure no one was watching before she opened her sweatshirt. After stuffing a handful of paper into each cup of her bra, she adjusted them as best she could without a mirror until they looked real enough. After she made good her escape from the puritanical regime of her parents, she would have to find more durable replacements for the napkins.
As she pulled out of the driveway, she considered a destination for her adventure. She could track down Ariel at Columbia, where they could tour the sights in the company of bohemian artists or steely financiers. Or she could find Stacey at Miami, where they could stare at bronzed Latin bodies on the beach by day and sway to salsa music with those same bodies at night. Or she could visit Patty at UCLA, where they could shop on Rodeo Drive and scour trendy clubs for celebrities. Or she could go to a place where no one would know her, where she wouldn’t have to worry about a concerned friend telling her parents where she’d gone. A myriad of options presented themselves to her, but for now she followed the road.
As the cluster of manufactured homes—all as old and chipped as the kitchen table—called Ridgewood Manors faded from her rearview mirror, Robin entered the failing heart of downtown Freepoint. Turning onto Main Street, she entered a graveyard of capitalism with rows of boarded-up turn-of-the-century shops crouching behind litter-strewn sidewalks. A few businesses, like the comic book store Brett Jillson had insisted on taking her to during their brief courtship last summer, fought against the unrelenting tide pushing commerce across the river, but these weary stragglers only heightened the fetid stench of failure choking the air. Her sweatshirt could not prevent her from shivering and she kept her eyes fixed on the road until she climbed the onramp to I-775.
Only after she passed the provincial campus of Freepoint State University—the site of her false orientation—did Robin open the window. Out of range of Herbert Chemical’s smokestacks filling the sky with pollution, the air rushing through the Nova tasted like honey in her lungs. It tasted like victory, like freedom.
Past the trailer park with its dirt yards and gravel paths, I-775 merged with its parent I-75 that could take her north to the Upper Peninsula or as far south as Florida. As she dangled her left arm out the window, exposing her pasty flesh to the sun, she headed south. By now she imagined her friends were all tanned like southern Californians while a month trapped behind the near-opaque windows of the Freepoint Café had left her midwinter pallor intact. Before she visited any of them, she would need to lie on a beach for a few hours so she didn’t look like she’d just returned from a month at the bottom of a well.
As the Nova rumbled past fields and forests broken by clusters of fast food joints, gas stations, and motels, Robin bobbed her head to a Britney Spears song. She skirted the edge of Flint, where urban blight had yet to take root amongst the shopping plazas and approached a split in the highway. Without hesitation, she took the southern arm leading to Ann Arbor.
The endless gray sea of asphalt was so much better than the beer guts and butt cracks of the Herbert Chemical workers who patronized her father’s restaurant, none of whom ever noticed her until she gave them the check, if then. The roar of the wind pouring through the window was preferable to their sophomoric humor. The untainted scent of nature was superior to the acrid odor of chlorine and ammonia mixed with beer and sweat. Never again, she told herself. She had freed herself from that greasy prison forever.
Ann Arbor slid past her window with little more than a distant glimpse of a shopping center and the same restaurants and gas stations lining the rest of the highway before Robin found herself alone amongst tree-shrouded hills. The exits came farther apart as the Ohio border neared and Robin figured she would wait until she crossed into the Buckeye State before she stopped for lunch. By now the first Herbert Chemical slobs would have waddled into the Freepoint Café, ready to sink their black fingernails into artery-choking burgers while relating the newest limericks they’d read on the bathroom wall. She shivered at the thought and stomped on the accelerator.
The Nova shuddered and rattled as though it had run into a pocket of turbulence. The steering wheel took on the density of lead and when Robin tried to maneuver, it was as if the steering column had rusted in place. The highway began a sharp downward curve and a vision of the Nova smashing through the guardrail and careening down a hill before it immolated her in a thermonuclear explosion danced through her mind. As the car wandered into the left lane, a horn boomed and a tractor trailer thundered past on the right side, pelting the Nova’s windshield with rocks while the driver waved his middle finger. Robin screamed as she yanked the steering wheel to the right with her entire body and mashed the brake. The wheel turned by degrees while the car shrieked to a halt, the front bumper inches from the right guardrail overlooking a steep valley.
For a moment Robin stared into the void below, her breath coming out like Morse code and hair plastered across her face by the sweat cascading down her forehead. Then, as her mind caught up with the rest of her body, she pushed back her hair, took a deep breath, and slipped the Nova into park. She tugged the hood release and checked the mirror before opening the door and sleepwalking to the front of the car. Standing over the jumble of wires, hoses, and cylinders was like being stranded in a foreign country and brought the first tears to her eyes.
“Oh God, what do I do?” she said.
Currents of smoky air from the engine rose to her nostrils as she analyzed the situation. She had no telephone, she didn’t know where the nearest town was, and she wouldn’t know who to call anyway. Telling her parents would mean admitting that she’d run away from home and would force her to endure the humiliation of an interminable ride back to Freepoint with her father lecturing her about responsibility. After which, her parents would never let her leave home again without an armed escort. No, she thought, I can handle this.
As if it had read her mind, a red tow truck with ‘Lind’s Garage’ spelled in blue and gold lettering pulled over in front of the stricken Nova. The door opened and the man who emerged needed only a hook to complete the illustration of every murderous stranger whispered about over the fire at Girl Scout camp. In getting out of the truck, he had to unfold himself in stages, first bringing in his legs before swinging them out and then hunching his head and shoulders forward to clear the top of the doorframe. When his giant-sized work boots touched the pavement and he straightened to his full height, he stood a foot taller than the tow truck. Gray coveralls streaked with grease stretched across skin so dark it seemed to pull in the daylight around it like a black hole. Against the noonday sun, the sweat-encrusted Tigers cap over his shaved head cast a shadow over his eyes, though she guessed them to be the same vacuous color as his skin. The name stitched in blue on his coveralls read, ‘Del’. He flicked the stump of a cigar over the guardrail and when he took a step forward, Robin felt the vibration of the pavement through her entire body. She backed away at his approach and clutched the Nova’s door handle to seek refuge inside the car if necessary.
“Looks like you got a problem here,” the man said, his voice rumbling like a freight train. Robin nodded and tightened her grip on the door. “What happened?”
“I was just driving along and then it started shaking and the steering wheel wouldn’t turn and this trucker flipped me off and I pulled over to the side of the road and I opened the hood to see what was wrong, but I don’t know,” she said.
“Well, let me take a look here,” Del said and the upper half of his body disappeared under the hood. She heard him rattling things around, punctuated by occasional clucks and one grunt that made her flinch. When he resurfaced, his shoulders rolled like an ocean wave. “Don’t look too serious, but you need to get it into a shop.”
“Tell you what, I just finished a run, so why don’t I take you?”
Robin paused to consider the offer. How many of those stories told around the campfire began with something so innocent and well-meaning, only to end in tragedy? She beseeched the Almighty for another choice, one that didn’t involve climbing into the tow truck’s cab with this stranger, but after a moment, no better options presented themselves. “I guess,” she said at last.
“Just climb in the truck and I’ll have this hooked up in a flash.”
Robin nodded and went around the back of the Nova to retrieve her backpack. She grunted as she catapulted the backpack into the cab, between the driver and passenger’s sides of the bench, and saw the keys still in the ignition—a route of escape availing itself to her. Before she could reach over to turn the ignition, Del opened the driver’s side door and compacted himself to fit in the truck. “Got to line it up. Won’t take more than a minute.”
He backed up the tow truck, lining it up with the front of the Nova and after he stopped, he took the keys with him. She began to sweat as she stared into the valley below and heard the clanging of chains as he yoked the two vehicles together. Then a whirring noise sent tremors through the length of the truck and when she turned in her seat, she saw the Nova canted at a forty-five degree angle. After some final preparations, Del stomped back to the cab and slammed the door behind him with finality.
He turned to her and showed her teeth as bright as his skin was dark. “Well, let’s get going.” Putting the truck in gear, the two vehicles started down the hill. Robin pressed against her door and looked out the window. “So where you heading?”
“I had an, uh, orientation today,” she said. Over the roar of the truck’s engine, she had to shout for Del to hear her.
“College?” She nodded. “I got a daughter about your age, just started school last fall. What college you going to?”
With Freepoint State two hundred miles north and the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan back in Ann Arbor, Robin scrambled to recall the name of an Ohio college. She remembered her father standing behind the counter of the restaurant on Saturday afternoons in the fall, his neck craned to watch the 9-inch black-and-white TV screen as he rooted for the Wolverines, though he had never attended college. Who was it they played that always made him curse the loudest? “Ohio State,” she answered.
“The Buckeyes, huh? My daughter got a scholarship to Bowling Green.”
“Oh, that’s good.” Robin wondered where Bowling Green was and where Del was taking her. They reached flat terrain and a billboard promised a McDonald’s at the next exit. “Is it much farther?” she asked.
“Couple miles,” he said. His hand came towards her and she pressed farther against the door, but instead of groping her, he flicked on the radio. A man with a voice as deep as Del’s crooned to the squealing beat of an electric guitar. “You like blues?”
“I don’t know.”
“Blues always cheer me up. Hearing other people’s problems make mine not seem so bad.”
“I guess.” Robin watched the McDonald’s at the next exit slip past as the tow truck continued to plow along the highway.
“Everything’s going to be fine, I promise,” he said. She nodded and pressed her nose against the window. The stale air inside the truck was growing warmer by the minute, the situation compounded by the sweatshirt she didn’t want to remove in Del’s presence. Combined with the stench of old cigars and exhaust fumes, the world around her spun. “You can open the window if you want.”
Robin groped for the handle and stuck her head out the window. Hair lashed her face while she took a deep breath. When she pulled back, the stink of a freshly-lit cigar assailed her nostrils. The smoke provoked a barrage of coughing—she was always grateful her father did not allow smoking in his restaurant—that again made the scenery around her twirl like a carousel. Taking another breath of the outdoors, she turned back to Del, who snuffed out the cigar and clenched it in his teeth.
“Sorry about that. Nasty habit,” he said and she nodded in agreement. “I didn’t get your name.”
“It’s Robin, Robin Beckman.”
“That’s a pretty name,” he said. She zipped the sweatshirt halfway despite the broiling air inside the cab. “So where you from, Robin?”
She paused, considering another lie, but since he would see her driver’s license and insurance if they ever reached the garage, a lie would serve no purpose. “Freepoint.”
“I been up there once. Nice place.”
The truck slowed as another exit sign—complete with another McDonald’s—beckoned. When the tow truck slid over to the off ramp, Robin let out a sigh of relief. They wound their way past the restaurant, the tow truck’s engine straining to get its cargo over a hill.
At the crest of the hill, Robin was transported back to Freepoint’s Main Street when she was a little girl. Squat brick structures—many with flags fluttering in the breeze—lined the street, none of them boarded up. A matron in a while apron swept the front steps of the grocery store while two old men played checkers in front of the local pub. A pack of little boys with baseball gloves dangling from the handles of their bikes cruised up the sidewalks, oblivious to any danger. The tow truck ground to a stop at the only traffic light—it blinked red in all four directions—and waited for the boys to cross the street.
When Del turned his head away from Robin, she saw her chance for escape. She fumbled with the door handle, but nothing happened. While the last bike crossed to the opposite side of the street, Robin grunted as she yanked on the door handle with every ounce of strength she could muster. The door refused to budge and the tow truck continued on its way.
Robin’s eyes widened as they passed a diner identical to the Freepoint Café, only the windows were clear and the patrons looked worn yet clean, like old cars maintained by loving owners. A waitress in a rosy uniform, she looked about Robin’s age, maneuvered across the floor with a tray of orders and when she turned, Robin saw the bulge of her pregnant belly. Before she could witness more of the strange, alternate reality, the restaurant passed out of sight and the truck rumbled down the road until Robin could make out only the silhouettes of the buildings in the rearview mirror.
Ahead lurked a junkyard surrounded by a chain-link fence with fading ‘No Trespassing’ signs hanging from crazy angles and rusted hulks piled high into the crystalline sky. The junkyard receded to reveal a gray cinderblock structure with two bays and a sea of cars in various stages of disassembly spread out along a patch of gravel. Robin sucked in a breath as the tow truck pulled onto the gravel driveway and eased to a stop before one of the bays, occupied at the moment by an old Camaro. A hand-painted sign over the garage door proclaimed this was Lind’s Garage. “Well, here we are,” Del announced.
Robin gaped, unable to couch her dread in coherent syllables. Del unfurled from the cab while Robin gathered in her backpack and shivered. This was a graveyard for cars, each no doubt belonging to the other travelers Del had lured here. She scanned the area for any signs of life, but Lind’s Garage was deserted.
Robin zipped up her sweatshirt all the way and hugged her backpack even tighter. She imagined Del cajoling her from the cab and leading her into the wilds of the junkyard. Out of sight from any witnesses, he pressed her down onto the rough dirt and while she flailed against him, he tore open her shirt and came away with the napkins she’d stuffed in her bra. She tasted his smoky breath as his slimy lips touched her cheek and tears bubbled from her eyes. When she tried to scream, only a feeble wheeze came out and then Del clamped one paw over her mouth. “Won’t take more than a minute,” he hissed into her ear.
A slamming door brought her back to reality and she saw Del’s complete opposite—short, pale, and with hair the same shade and length as her own—emerge from the garage. “What you got here?” the man asked.
“Found this girl along the highway,” Del said. “We got to get her in right away.”
“Come on, Del, I ain’t got time—”
Del stepped forward and poked the smaller man in the chest. “You take care of her right away. Got it?”
While Del and the mechanic argued, Robin saw her last chance for escape. She again jerked the door handle upward with superhuman strength, but again nothing happened. As she unbuckled her seatbelt to slide out the driver’s side, her door opened and Del smiled. “Sorry, that door sticks sometimes,” he said. He indicated the mechanic with the cigar in his hand. “Mickey’ll get you fixed up and on your way.”
She nodded and dismounted from the tow truck’s cab to await her fate. She dragged her backpack behind her as Del led her around the side of the garage and into the office, where a metal desk was stacked with ancient manuals, invoices, and catalogs as though no one had occupied the room in years. He ushered her to a ragged leather chair behind the rusty desk and she left her backpack on the concrete floor. “Sorry about the mess. We don’t get a lot of folks from out of town,” he said.
“It’s all right,” she said.
“I’ve got another run to make, but I should get back by the time Mickey is done. Anything you need?” She shook her head and he flashed her another bright smile before closing the office door. As soon as it clicked shut, she scrambled to the door and searched for a lock, but it locked from the outside and Del had taken the key.
Robin scooped up the telephone on the desk and stifled a sob when she heard no dial tone. She pounded against the door and screamed until her throat burned, but no one answered her panicked cries for help. Tears came to her eyes and Robin sank down to the base of the door, burying her face in her hands. She had no way out and before long Del would return to fulfill his perverse fantasies.
As time drifted by without Del coming back, Robin wiped her tears and searched the office for some way of mounting a defense. She tried to push the desk across the room to block the door, but when it didn’t budge, she examined the legs and saw they were bolted to the floor. The office had no other furniture and she slapped the surface of the desk. Then she searched through the only drawer that would open—the others either locked or rusted shut—for a weapon, but found nothing deadlier than a sharpened pencil.
As she closed the drawer, she heard a click as the door unlocked. Robin backed up against the wall as Del eased into the room with a smile and held out her keys. “You’re all set,” he said.
She took a step forward and flinched as she snatched the keys from his calloused hand. Del stepped away from the door and held it open, a shaft of sunlight falling on the space between them. Then, with the ticket to freedom in her hand, her cheeks reddened and she said, “I don’t have a lot of money, but—”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I wouldn’t feel right taking money from a pretty girl like you. Now get on out of here.”
She shouldered her backpack and slunk past Del with her eyes on the floor. At the doorway, with escape only a few steps away, she paused. When she turned to face him, he had taken off his baseball cap and she found eyes as fluid and brown as iced tea looking back at her. After a moment’s hesitation, she took an awkward step forward. “Thank you for rescuing me,” she said.
He smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “I only did what any good father would’ve,” he said.
With a last nod, Robin spun around and bounded out to the waiting Nova. She mouthed a silent prayer as she turned the key in the ignition and rejoiced when the engine coughed to life. As she pulled out of the driveway, she caught a glimpse of Del standing by the corner of the garage, arms folded across his chest and the smile still fixed to his lips. She waved to him and thought she saw him return the gesture in her rearview mirror.
The sky was changing to twilight hues of red, pink, and orange when she reached the traffic light and looked inside the diner that so closely resembled the Freepoint Café. Seized by a sudden, unexplainable impulse, she wheeled the Nova into an open parking space and slung her backpack over one shoulder. She stood at the front door for a full minute before taking a deep breath and plunging inside.
She slipped by the pregnant waitress and into the sparkling white bathroom, where she locked herself in a graffiti-free stall. Once she removed her sweatshirt and tank top, she reached into her bra and flushed the tissues down the toilet. She stuffed the tank top into the backpack and found one of the oversized T-shirts she wore to the Freepoint Café. After donning the sweatshirt again, she stood in front of the mirror to wipe off the lipstick and pull her hair back into its traditional ponytail. The transformation complete, she smiled at her reflection and left the bathroom.
“Can I get you anything?” the pregnant waitress asked her.
“No, I’ve got to get home,” Robin said. Back on the road, she took the ramp that would lead her back to Freepoint without hesitation. The lights of Ann Arbor and Flint beckoned to her with promises of adventure and glory, but she focused instead on the pavement disappearing beneath the Nova. By the time she reached Main Street, all of the traffic lights were blinking red and yellow and the few stores remaining had closed for the night.
The sign on the door of the Freepoint Café read, ‘CLOSED,’ but after she unlocked the door, she found her father mopping the floor. He stopped his work and stared at her as though she was an evil spirit come to torment him. “Robin? Where have you been?”
She rushed into his arms the way she hadn’t since she was eight years old and skinned her knee after falling from her bike. Tears coursed down her flushed cheeks and her voice came out in gasps. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said. “I shouldn’t have left.”
“I know, honey. Everything’s fine now.”
“Are you mad at me?”
He held her out at arm’s length and wiped away her tears. “The important thing is that you’re safe,” he said and touched her hair with a tenderness he had not exhibited in years. “I’ll finish up here, you go call your mother. She’s worried sick.”
Robin nodded and skipped to the kitchen door. She paused in the doorway and watched her father glide the mop across the linoleum floor, wiping away the stains collected from the assorted mishaps of the day. Never had the Freepoint Café looked so much like home.
Wednesday’s Vacation Story: Sunset Limited