Jude eased his car off the interstate somewhere between Camden and nowhere. He guided it far enough from the shoulder so that a driver drifting between autopilot and sleep wouldn’t hit it. Through grass chopped by government lawn mowers, he dragged his feet. Dew gathered on the strip of land that was a buffer between the road and a shallow wood. The laws of moon and clouds applied even here. The bottom of his jeans grew wet, sending a small chill from his ankles to his groin. He shook his right foot to wake his body. He was careful not to wave his hands around, as he always was, for fear that a passing car might think he was in distress and pull over. Caution was the rule.
Six months he’d been doing this, highway pacing he called it. His confusion had bred insomnia. He’d turned eighteen and thought that everything would be different, not only because he was a man by law, but because he no longer had a criminal record. It had been wiped clean on his birthday. He hadn’t received a letter or anything, but he knew it was. When he had filled out his college applications, he didn’t have to check the box denoting past transgressions. But when Jude had passed over that little box, he still thought about it, thought about the possibility that he might have had to if there had been just one slip, just one more stupid thing. Every time he saw that box, he felt like checking it anyway, putting ten checks in it, thought about not going to college at all even though he’d won a National Merit Scholarship and was third in his class.
Check. Check. Check. He walked on the edge of the wood, nudging rocks out of place with his shoe to keep the blood flowing. The spring had come, but tonight a bit of winter held over. Jude had left without socks, although he had his fleece jacket. His feet grew damp. He plunged his hands deep into his pockets, hoping to find warmth there that would stave off the icy feeling in his toes. Nothing. Well not enough. He quickened his pace, but then slowed again.
He always kept his car in sight. Not that he was jumpy. Not that he felt like he would ever need to escape. He knew there was actually no escape from anything. Death.No.There was no escape from death. Nor was there an escape from the mold that society had carved out for him. All those nights in, not drinking, not smoking weed, watching too many French films, letting his brain ruminate over things he wouldn’t have needed to worry about until he realized at thirty that his youth was actually gone, that responsibility was on him. Those nights avoiding the slip behind the doors of his parents’ house, the big trip that would have labeled him criminal permanently. A reckless endangerer and the four other counts that kept him chained to books, to films, to quiet nights with a girl he didn’t much care about. He stayed so far away from having to check that box.
If he could not escape, why the highway? Because it just went and kept going. The oceans stopped it yes, but then nothing stopped the oceans and then there was more land and it would all wrap back around to where he was, just like the globe spun in circles. The highway gave the illusion of freedom, but it was just part of the big picture, the loop.
In this loop though, the interstates went far enough away from Camden for Jude. The interstates never led to bigger cities before he needed to turn to go home. He’d calculated 793.1 miles of major interstate that would lead only to the oblivion of these little strips of buffer land, where nothing was planted, nothing grew but crab grass that needed government chopping.
Deep breaths, he reminded himself, his back against the tree. He sat, knees bent toward the stars. He was there for the noise, the sound that chased inevitability. That and the wind that rocked him, mussed his hair, rushed across his neck. At this time of night, the cars, the trucks were their own kind of animals. They didn’t travel in pairs or in packs the way they did during rush hour. They were solitary and stalked toward their destinations.
His eyes fastened on the road. He watched headlights for a while and then let his gaze lift upward. Each semi brought its engines, puffing diesel pipes, each car its own resistance to the wind. The air would never break just relax to let each machine push through it. Jude imagined the easing as waves. He flowed around the car in these waves. He was easing. He was ease. The least resistance. Just going, not slipping.
Carrie came in through the unlocked front door, saddled up to him and kissed him on the cheek. Jude felt that anxious boredom swelling in his throat. Here’s where the show’s at. Here was where he turned and kissed the girl with dramatic flair. Here his heart fluttered and music rose in pitch. Here was the knowledge of endless happiness, he and this girl forever. How could he forge those feelings into gesture? All he wanted was for her to go, but she wouldn’t. Not for three hours at least. She had a movie in her hands. Something they would both puzzle through and halfway get. Later each would look up a review online to see what it meant. He embraced her and pulled her in close to him hard, hoping she would interpret the strength as passion. His arms enveloped her.
Why didn’t he break up with her? He’d attempted it, but she had cried and said she didn’t want to be without him. His heart felt heavy and, after the third time, he’d stopped trying. College would severe the ties; she would meet someone else. When he pictured what this would look like he saw tables and long rows of books, sheets of papers spattered with words. It was night always. There would be no one else there.
“I brought you a surprise,” Carrie whispered into his ear. She gave him one final squeeze, signaling for him to let go. He sucked in a bit of air, enough to buoy a smile on his face. She pulled the DVD case from behind him and placed it on his groin.
“Fellini,” he said.
“Put it in. I’ve been waiting for this all week. Four hours of confusion with my boy.”
He winced at my. The word boy was too much. “Who said anything about being confused?”
“Oh right. Not you. How could I include your name in a sentence with the word confused?”
“Unless it had not in it?”
She took one of the down pillows from the couch and hit him over the head with it. At least she was witty. She could keep up. She was better than him at calculus.
He stood and moved toward the TV and opened the case. Something slipped to the floor. He bent down. A condom. He drew a breath in and jerked his hand away from it before recovering. The plastic wrapper slid between his index and middle finger.
“Not confused are you?” Carrie said from behind him. She turned him around. His mouth gaped. He barely recovered on the second kiss.
The word can’t kept calling from his stomach. It wouldn’t be right. I don’t love her. Was not loving someone a reason not to have sex with them? Maybe if they had sex he would love her. Maybe he would finally be able to mean it when he said it. She reached for his belt. He felt the leather loosen. Her fingers began pulling at the button.
“Stop,” he said, instructions to them both. He felt Carrie’s hand go limp, could intuit hurt feelings and crying coming on. His heart raced. He pulled her hand to his chest so she could feel it. “Hey,” he said. “It’s not because of you. Feel my heart.” The words came. “I want this. I want you.”
“What is it, Jude?” Carrie said. Her hand stayed pressed against his chest. The other wrapped around his waist. Her arm felt like a weight. She was dragging him down with her.
Why couldn’t this feel like she was holding him up? Jude tried to invert the feeling, the sinking. She was mooring him to her so he wouldn’t drift, but the current came and tugged at his legs. His face felt wet. Anxiety grew in his throat. He could not swallow the sour taste.
“Are you crying? Jude?” Her fingertips touched his cheeks. They tried to wipe the tears away, but he felt them press further into his skin. “Jude, do you want to talk?”
What he wanted was the cars, the trucks, the SUVs. He wanted to be out there on the border of going somewhere, but never having the chance to move. The grass, the trees close and the air itself breathing. He wanted to be where nobody tried to understand him. Nobody wanted explanations.
“Carrie.” He started to ask her to go home, but why? Why bring more unhappiness to someone else? What did both of them feeling awful accomplish? Her in her car, the music off because she couldn’t listen to music when she was upset. The water in her eyes blurring her vision. He cleared his throat. Dating two years and he’d never bothered to tell her. She didn’t want to drink and party. He didn’t have to say he couldn’t. But now, just to get her off his back. “I haven’t talked about this with anyone really.” He jammed his hand in his pocket to steady himself. “It happened before you moved here and started going to St. Dietrich’s. I mean people know about it, but it was a while ago so maybe they don’t talk about it.” He could feel her studying his face. His tongue licked his lips and he tasted salt.
“The Judas thing,” she said.
He looked at her, frowned.
“Jacquelyn and some of the other girls told me how you showed up in the middle of sixth grade. How everyone said you tried to kill your teacher at Camden. Everyone called you Judas.”
They sat on the sofa. The big screen TV stared him in the face. The blackness reminded him of a sky with no stars. Pictures of himself at different ages waited for his next move. His parents had hung them about the room. In most, he wore the St. Dietrich’s navy blue polo. In a few, he was in a basketball uniform, purple with gold letters.
“Yeah, they called me Judas until the sisters and fathers heard about it.” The tears had ceased, but Carrie’s fingers still rested upon his cheek. “They gave a long speech. Something about sins and forgiveness. They talked about Jesus. Talked about the real Judas. His bag of gold.”
“What else, Jude?” she said, pressing her cheek into his neck. It would be a story to her. One at the end where she would kiss him softly on the lips, on the forehead, sweep his bangs to the side. She would feel closer to him because it was something he had kept secret and locked away.
“I’m off the hook now. When I turned eighteen, it all went away.” He sighed and let the top of his head rest against the wall.
“But it didn’t,” she said to him before he could continue. He began nodding his head. They sat, both staring into the empty TV.
Midnight. He was one of few on the road. He’d bought a pack of cigarettes earlier in the night, though he’d never smoked. Tonight wouldn’t be the night either; he’d forgotten to ask for matches. Up ahead, a fluorescent orange emerged, cones, then triangles underscored by his headlights. As he passed, he saw a few men in reflective vests standing next to a speed limit sign. He could do that job, he thought, repairing interstate road signs in the middle of the night. He’d rather sleep during the day anyway.
Ten miles later, another line of traffic cones, triangles, men. Tonight wasn’t a night for pacing. Too many people out. He flicked his blinker and guided the car up the next exit ramp. The glow of a gas station drew him in. His tank was nearly full, but he remembered the matches and parked. Maybe he’d get a Coke or something, what his mom used to call a treat. He imagined lingering in the candy aisle, buying something exotic from his childhood, gum that came out in one long strip, or a lollipop shaped like a ring.
When he entered the store though, the lady at the counter asked if she could help him with something. She eyed him up and down. A shot of anger rang through him. Did he look like some little punk that was going to hold up her store? Him, in a t-shirt and jeans. Where would he put the gun?
He walked toward the counter. When he got there he leaned in as close as possible. She didn’t seem nervous, probably had a semi-automatic she could draw on him in two seconds. He thought about reaching around quickly for his wallet to startle her, but instead he fingered the packages of mints, picked one up, put it down. “I need some matches,” he said.
“We don’t sell matches,” she said, “just lighters.” She pointed at a display next to the register.
He looked at all the colors, the patterns. Scenes of deer in the woods, ducks taking flight from a pond. On the bottom row, there were lighters that looked like car hoods. Each had a number on it. He picked up a red one. It was heavy, made of some kind of metal. A white number three stood in its center.
“That one’s six bucks twenty nine cents.”
Jude pulled a ten from his wallet and laid it on the counter.
She never once took her eye off him. She extracted his change from the drawer still sizing him up. Instead of placing the change in his hand, she slapped it on the counter. It lay there between them. Jude opened the lighter, held the button down and the flame shot up. Five times the lighter flared.
“Pretty, huh?” he said to her. Then turned without looking back. As he walked through the door he held the lighter over his head, flicked it on again. “See you around.”
Carrie came over around six the next night, unexpected. She barged through the back door. Jude heard her and closed his calc book.
“Jude,” she said, racing into the study, hugging him before he’d had the chance to see her. “Jude, I got into Emory.”
“That’s great,” he said. “That’s really great. First choice. Do you have the letter?”
“What, you don’t believe me?” she said, but she pulled the envelope from her jacket pocket. He smiled as she opened it and showed it to him.
“Well, we should go celebrate.”
“I’ll celebrate when they send you yours,” she said.
“Let’s just celebrate you for tonight.” Jude hadn’t applied to Emory like he’d told Carrie. He hadn’t applied to anywhere in the South. He didn’t have a top choice, but knew he’d get into an Ivy, maybe go somewhere in California. He hadn’t bothered to tell anyone where he’d actually applied, though he listed off Emory, Furman, Rice, Duke, UVA, UNC. That’s what they expected.
He held Carrie’s hand on the way to his car and in the car while he was driving. He headed toward the interstate. “So future Emory Alum, what would you like?”
“You know, Jude.”
He headed in the direction of the drive-in he had taken her to on their first date, one built back in the ‘50s. The highway brimmed with the remains of rush hour traffic. Jude felt himself yearning for the night, its morning. He sat in traffic watching dusk drift below his windshield. Carrie’s hand held fast to his. He wished there was a fast forward button that would speed him, not just through the night, but to the day he was standing alone in a college dorm room. He couldn’t think of a conversation he wanted to have. The same questions popped into his head that always did. Everyday was really the same unless somebody died, was close to dying or got arrested.
“Huh, I wonder what’s going on?”
“What,” he said. Out the right window, he could see what she was looking at. New road signs hidden behind white sheets.
“Oh I remember. I read it in the paper a while ago. The speed limit’s going from seventy to eighty.”
“Really,” he said. “Well I guess we’ll get everywhere faster.” That’s what he wanted.
He hadn’t been out in two weeks. All hell had broken loose, but not for him, because he’d known it was coming; he had orchestrated it all. Now he listened to his parents’ questions and concerns. They didn’t know anything about California. How could he go to school there? It was so far away. He was their only kid. Why not Duke? Duke was their alma mater. It took his parents awhile to adjust. They seemed to be up as late as him, talking in low voices. He’d heard his father say he could make a phone call to the dean of admissions, after all he was his sophomore year roommate, but the next day when he’d mentioned it to Jude, Jude told him no, he’d made his choice.
So Jude sat in the dark on the stairs hoping they’d go to bed at a reasonable hour. The light from the kitchen crept toward him. After a while he’d give up, go into his room and pick up a book, or just flip on some music.
In the car, it took his eyes awhile to adjust to the dark. God, he’d missed it. He rolled down his window so he could taste the air. The only drivers out tonight were truck drivers in it for the long haul. That was fine. He sped up and around them. Eighty miles didn’t feel much different than seventy.
He noticed the first one twenty miles to the south. He’d seen them along the highway before, but this one was bigger, closer to the road. The white cross flew past him. He didn’t think much about it other than wondering who came along and cleared them off. They never lasted long. Posting stuff on government property was illegal.
But thirty miles later he saw another bigger than the last. Someone had used a sharpie marker to draw a heart and a name that Jude sped by too fast to read. By the time he reached Vasily, the town he usually turned around at, he’d seen five memorials. He still hadn’t paced. He wanted to, but there was something about the names of the dead etched into the wood.
He fought with himself. He wasn’t a little kid anymore, and this wasn’t a cemetery at midnight. It was an interstate and people had been murdered along it, raped, buried in secret. He’d known that before when he’d been pacing so why let it bother him now?
The crosses lurked in his mind. Flashes of white growing bigger. The white possessed a loudness, something that would detract from the ebb and flow of air. That night he decided to try a side road. Not as many cars would equal a hell of a lot less crosses.
As he got out of the car, goose bumps rose on his flesh. Even on the two-lane road that lead back to country farms the macabre thoughts followed him as he walked. He went back to his car and grabbed the lighter and the pack of cigarettes that had been sitting in the glove compartment. In the movies, the characters always seemed to steel themselves with nicotine. War movies, pass me the pack. Waiting on verdicts, light’em up. At a bar, looking at the chicks. Be cool. Smoke it like you own it.
No moon. Just the trees and their shadows. Leaves restless against each other, although the air barely moved. He walked trying to twist the plastic off the pack of cigarettes. By the time he placed one in his mouth, the wave of nerves he had felt had backed off. He was there alone like always. There was a little dew on the grass, but it was still warm, the last of the coolness being chased away a month ago. It’d hit a hundred the day before. At night, it hovered around eighty.
Jude walked. He was getting closer to letting go of the past and starting over again. A car passed and broke through the air. The gust confirmed that he would leave and there would be no more Judas. No one would hear it secondhand. No one from St. Diet’s was going to California. Carrie wouldn’t be coming to visit. She hadn’t talked to him since he told her he hadn’t applied to Emory. The lies had dismantled the Jude she’d made him up to be. At least he hadn’t fucked her.
He walked farther from his car than he normally did. As he roamed through his thoughts, he lost track of the time. Sure the world wove around in circles. He could be a circle man assembled of spheres.
He stumbled over something and fell flat. The dew slipped onto his skin. He felt metal scratch his neck. Then, he felt the wood. He felt the horizontal line and the vertical.
He’d knocked over a memorial, but it wasn’t simply a cross. Stuffed animals skimmed his cheeks. The smell of dying flowers reached his nose. As he scrambled up, he tripped on the damp bears and puppies. The metal tore at one of his kneecaps. The dew that had collected on his hands felt like blood. He wiped it on his t-shirt. He checked his pockets for the lighter, but he had dropped it when he had fallen.
His fingers rustled through the grass. He found the lighter resting on the body of one of the animals. Jude opened the lighter and flicked it on. He’d bumped into a display of flowers. White pedals scattered across the grass. He adjusted the lighter so that the flame doubled in size, stretching from his chin to nose. Now he could see everything. Now he could try to straighten it up.
Jude held a white flower in his hand. They were everywhere. Crushed into the animals’ heads, the cross’s wood. He saw that those remaining in the frame were set to make a heart. He could put them back, stack the stuff up the best he could.
He looked up from the mess of flowers and plush bodies. Ten feet away a No Trespassing sign stood. He stared at it hard. Trespassing. The cops. No, he would just leave it. No need to fix it. People would think it was the wind.
He remembered the way the hands wrapped around his arms at twelve. He hung between the two police officers while a little girl from his class kept screaming that they were going to hang him. No don’t take him, she yelled. Don’t kill him.
He held the lighter farther from his body to better illuminate the sign. Black letters. He began to creep backward.
Something heavy slammed into the back of his head. The lighter went out as he crumpled to the ground. A flicker, then a full beam and Jude realized he’d been hit with a metal flashlight. Liquid was pooling in the back of his skull.
“You little motherfucker,” the man said. “You gonna light this on fire? You’re real cute.”
Jude couldn’t see his face, only hear his voice. It strained in the air like an animal wail into nothing.
The man took Jude and flipped him over. “You want desecration?” He slammed Jude in his right ribs, knocking the air out of him.
Jude both heard and felt the crack. He lay on his back. The light glared at his face. He wasn’t sure if any cars were passing at all. There was a ringing in his ears. He could make out a black shadow, a shadow so certain Jude was destruction. The shadow reared back and kicked him hard in the hip. He limped away from Jude leaving him lying there.
Jude’s bruises swelled. He tried to force air into his lungs. The light flashed toward him, toward the road, then rested where the memorial had fallen. Metal scraped the dirt.
The man shuffled things around. He kept muttering, Where are you, girl? Where’d you go? Why’d you leave me? These lines strangled in his mouth and came out inhuman. Jude had never heard a man sound like that, like his vocal cords had been twisted and he was screaming in whispers.
The shuffling stopped. The man stood quiet for some time. Jude couldn’t speak, but he wanted to tell the man it was an accident. There was no use though because the broken ribs refused to release words.
The man came to Jude once more. He grabbed a fistful of Jude’s hair in his hand and with one punch sent Jude into a waking darkness.
Jude felt a wetness on his face that wasn’t dew. He wanted to sleep.
When he woke, he heard a roar. Air was not being pushed but torn into a million pieces by an engine. The steel tore the air molecule by molecule so it rent in his ears. It wouldn’t be long now before they would come for him. He would tell them how the teacher had called him stupid and how he’d put the cleaning fluid in her water bottle, but only to make her sick. He had wanted to make her sick. The lawyer had told him not to say anything except he was sorry and it was a joke. But it wasn’t a joke. He coughed. He’d wanted to hurt her.
Tires slid through gravel. An engine groaned as it turned off. No, maybe it was him that had groaned. He felt the dried blood.
“Hey buddy,” he heard. “Hey buddy.”