Ruben skipped past another channel of static. Rice flipped through his CD book. Terry had nodded off in the backseat, with his cheek pressed against the cool window.
“I still have two more Sonic Youth albums,” Rice offered.
“Shoot me,” Ruben said.
“I thought you stopped swearing.”
Ruben drove ten miles over the speed limit. It was Wisconsin tradition—he would be more likely to get pulled over for doing ten under. He kept one hand on the wheel, and the other on the radio, trying to find some relief from Rice’s CD collection. Most of the CDs were good, but after sixteen hours in the car, ‘most’ had run dry.
Rice flipped back to the first disk in his book: Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits, Live. It had been recorded for cassette in 1982. Why Rice had cared enough to have it converted to CD was a mystery; he still hadn’t listened to it. It was his own band, but they split just three years after the recording. Rice hit the road and met his buddy Ruben. Joey became a pharmacist, or something along those lines. Johnny Hick sprinted off the face of the earth. It was only the bassist, Yote, who got roped into another punk act.
Rice looked at Ruben, from the corner of his eye. He still couldn’t get used to the scar. When he thought of Ruben, he always pictured the Ruben he had first met: all ten fingers; full, youthful cheeks; a devilish smile; and no disfiguring scar gouged down his face. Rice sighed, and looked out the window.
Just then, Ruben’s hand froze on the dial. “No shit,” he murmured.
Waylon Jennings sang through the static. All these years, and 108.4 remained the only station in the county. On every trip home, their enduring taste in music continued to astound Ruben.
Shaking his head, he shut the radio off. “The man's dead. Give him a rest already.”
Ruben and Rice entered the Kipper Lake city limits in silence. They passed by a brick silo, which stood apart from the woods in a small field, shared by cows. The silo used to be red. It used to be like a lighthouse, signaling Ruben home. But it wasn’t anymore. It was pale, and tilted.
Soon, Ruben was negotiating the backroads of backroads. The hills grew even more pronounced, and the gravel became narrower between the trees. Then the road became a driveway. One final turn, and the trees gave way to a forest-green house. Ruben parked on a tan patch of dirt beside the garage.
“So this is where you’re from?” Rice asked, looking up at the house in the woods.
“Huh,” Rice said. “That explains some things.”
The three travelers stepped out of the car, and took a moment to stretch.
“Ruben!” a woman called. The three turned to see her step around the garage, holding a garden trowel and a dirt-caked pair of gloves. She had short, black, curly hair, and was smiling at her visitors. “How the hell have you been this year?”
“Not too good,” Ruben said. He didn’t have to elaborate. She could see for herself the scar, and the way he no longer tried to smile. “But how are you holding up, Peg?”
She didn’t hear a word of his question.
“Hey, don’t worry about me,” Ruben said. He stepped forward and hugged her—very slowly, so that he could watch that her trowel didn’t come near his chest.
She put her arms around him, and when he let go, she stepped back.
“So,” Ruben said, “how’s my favorite sister?”
“You know, for the life of me, I couldn't tell you,” Peggy said. She looked up at the house. “It doesn't feel like it should now that she's gone—it doesn't feel any different. But then I walk around the house looking for her until I remember that she's not here anymore, and I miss her. I miss her in the most helpless way.”
Ruben nodded. “I’m sorry to hear that, Peg. How's Pat?”
“Hasn't said much today, but come on in. He'll be glad you drove over.”
That night, as Ruben laid in his childhood bed, he considered disappearing. He considered walking off into the woods and just being… gone. It wouldn’t matter where he ended up, because he really wasn’t thinking of himself in the matter. He was thinking of Pat, and of Peggy. Of Susan and Malcolm. Of Rice, and, he supposed, of Terrence. It would make things easier for them. They wouldn’t have to wonder when Ruben had stopped existing—was it the day Katie left him? The night his face was cut into like a block of clay? Maybe it was when he started taking pills—that was the one Ruben liked to think. Zombie pills, he called them. Turn you into a walking, talking husk.
If he disappeared that night, he could give them a date. They would know, within the black line between two squares of a calendar, when Ruben Craig had up and… gone.
He stood out of bed and opened his duffel bag. He pushed aside his loose clothing, until he found an orange pharmaceutical container. He gave the bottle a shake, and the zombie pills rattled inside.
He opened his window.
The pills landed in the garden all the way across the yard, safely away from Ruben. And already, Ruben could hear the beautiful voice of Tracy Chapman, singing in the room across the hall. He could hear Mercury and Cash down on the ground floor, composing. And he could see Bob Dylan, sitting on the foot of his bed in the moonlight, wearing a devilish grin and a guitar.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 2015