In “Flat Earth” by Erin Sherry, two girls, Joey and Haley, become obsessed with an internet forum, where they learn the truth about the world: it’s flat. This discovery leads them to a kind of teenage nihilism and self-destruction, a mask for something else, much deeper than Haley’s willing to admit.
Joey would jump off a bridge if I asked her to. I know because I did once. I just asked her.
We were chasing swigs of her mother’s vodka with the baby’s apple juice and beginning to sway. My belly was warm and I kept lifting up my shirt to rub it in slow, sleepy circles. I wanted to roll myself up like a dog beside the basement radiator and dream about chasing rabbits through tall grass, crunching their necks between my pointy canines. I wanted to dance. But then I got mean and started in on Joey, instead.
“Mix your juice with buttermilk,” I dared her.
She downed a whole cup. She barely winced.
“Tell me your deepest, darkest secret.”
She played dumb.
“You already know it,” she said. “I peed the bed at McKenzie’s party. It was me all along.”
“Not that one,” I said. “The real one.”
We had discovered, not long ago, that the world was flat. With this knowledge came the understanding that there was really no point to anything, not anything. Really no point at all. This freed us up for all sorts of things, like shoving off sleep until we could no longer stand and skipping school and being terrible and doing whatever we wanted. There were no rules anymore. There was no reason.
I told Joey to swallow a spoonful of vinegar, a wedge of raw onion, hold three ice cubes in her mouth until her teeth went numb. She did it all. She loved it. She cracked an egg over the top of her head and let me smear the yolk down the yellow length of her hair, laughing the whole time. She crept upstairs and returned with the expensive tube of lipstick her mother only wore once a year on Easter, wound the stick all the way up, and bit it clean off. She held the cakey cylinder very still on her tongue.
“Swallow it,” I said. “Come on, do it.”
She shook her head.
Her eyebrows scrunched together and her cheeks went fiery. I watched her throat bob.
“There,” she gasped when it was all the way down. She wiped her teeth with the palm of her hand and shook her head back and forth. “No more,” she said. “No more.”
Her mother and the baby were sound asleep and they didn’t hear a thing, not how we laughed, our stumbling missions back and forth from the fridge, not the vodka bottle slipping out of my hands and not breaking but sending booms, still, through the basement, not even the snow white Saturn inching down the driveway when suddenly we wanted milkshakes from the drive-thru. We were fourteen. Joey drove. We were both pretty rosy by then, but she was the better driver, always had been. She steered straight and steady.
We waited until we were clear of the house to flip the headlights on and then the flat Earth had ugly colors again, extinguished like candle flames the second we clapped them out beneath the car tires. I paid for the shakes with cash from the shoebox I keep hidden in my closet, spare tens and twenties I started swiping from my mother’s wallet before I even grew boobs, tips lifted from empty restaurant tables. I’ve got Christmas cash stowed away from distant uncles, tooth fairy fives and spare bills for which I started scavenging back when Joey and I still hung out with the McKenzies and Mikaylas, girls I’d loved once but who had begun to morph, in my mind, into a benign mass best left forgotten. I rooted around in their leopard print duffel bags at their slumber parties all those times I was the last one awake.
On the way home, we stopped in the center of the only bridge in our town, river water below us rushing east towards the sagging center of the dinner plate planet. I told Joey to stop the car. The stars appeared to be out, but they were only sick projections on the walls of the dome that held the flat Earth in place. We lived in a town with more pigs than people and it was late. We had the roads, the whole deflating world, to ourselves.
We got out of the Saturn and peered down at the river.
“Would you jump?” I said. “If I asked you to. You know, if I dared you.”
“I don’t feel so good,” she said. She really did sound pretty ruined.
“What if I jumped first?” I said. “Would you come jumping after me?”
“But why would you want that? God, my stomach hurts.”
“It’s just the vodka.”
“Or the lipstick. Or the fucking milk.”
“Jump,” I said. “Jump right now.”
“Fine,” she said. She shook the nausea away. “How deep could it be?”
I pictured Joey standing on the water’s surface, stable as Jesus in her sneakers, holding me on her shoulders as I reached up. I guessed, in this vision, that I could have scratched the bridge’s iron belly with my fingers. It wasn’t very tall.
We poised ourselves on the rail’s edge, ready to climb. “I’m king of the world,” Joey joked, arms outstretched. But before we could do it she was spewing up strawberry milkshake, currents of what must have been a miserable pink. It kept coming and coming, lipstick chunks hitting the water like hailstorm. I rubbed her back.
“It’s okay,” I said, so sweetly. “Let it all out.”
When she was done, I cradled her flushed face on the side of the road. I dug around in the glove compartment until I found a warm, half-crushed water bottle and nursed her like a baby. I held her long hair in my hands. I really loved Joey. She was my best friend. I rocked her gently back and forth.
A truck crossed the bridge and slowed to swerve around the Saturn but didn’t stop. Its headlights were brighter than any moon, real or imagined, and when they flit over her eyes, I told her, “Don’t worry. I don’t really want you to jump.”
* * *
We know this about the world:
It wasn’t always flat, but has been headed that way for a long time. Maybe the dinosaurs roamed something rounder, but our friends on the forum tell us heaven and hell are the buttered plates of a panini press and they’ve been slowly closing in on us since the very beginning. We live, now, atop a bedsheet stretched thin, drooping dangerously in the center where gravity is getting greedy and soon we’ll all be living under water. Alaska and Russia will be the first to go, they say, then Japan and the westernmost edges of Canada, then even me and Joey in Ohio will be swirled around the mouth of the great toilet bowl opening wide in the ocean and sucked down along with everything else.
We don’t know what happens next, exactly. No one in the forum can agree on a single answer. Maybe we all just disappear then, tumble forever through the vacuum. But it’s only a matter of time, we know, until the whole mess gives.
We first discovered the flat Earth when we were thirteen. We were halfway down a rabbit hole in Joey’s parent’s basement. We hadn’t touched her mother’s basement bar yet, but then a meme became a YouTube video, became a playlist of twelve more, became a channel, became so many more channels we mined all the way down, became the forum, the void that spoke back. I asked questions, one right after another, to the chorus of faceless usernames who responded with answers well into the night while Joey slept and I grew more and more awake every hour.
Finally, I poured a cup of something strong and crystal clear and knew everything inside me had shifted forever. I’d never get my old self back.
What about the moon? I wrote.
tr00thfairy: A projection
galile_no: Real, but orbits us, not the other way around.
girldieswolf: What about eclipses?
OPTICAL ILLUSION, the chorus answered.
girldieswolf: What about the sun?
galile_no: It’s not the center. We’re the center. We’re the pizza pie center, baby.
girldieswolf: What about Antarctica?
tr00thfairy: Doesn’t exist
girldieswolf: What’s out there, then?
fl_atstanley_69: The ice wall, sweetheart. The Great Edge.
tr00thfairy: Nothing. Nothing at all.
Not everyone believes us yet, people like Joey and me who have figured it out. Our mothers still want us to learn Latin roots and trigonometry, spend the summers saving for good colleges by selling ice cream, tabloid subscriptions, door-to-door knife sets sharp enough to cut through bone. They want us to take regular baths and be sweet to our baby brothers, help out with the dishes and hum along like little idiots to the theme music of the TV shows we loved before we learned we’d been lied to. But we can’t. We used to dream of growing up, becoming beautiful, restoring the world our parents ruined. We have these useless young bodies and all sorts of great ideas, but our days are numbered and there isn’t enough time left to inherit all we’ve been promised.
This is what we know most: how unfair it all is. How horrible.
* * *
Sometimes, I fake my own death. Joey slaps my face until I come to, but really I’ll be in there all along, hiding out in my own body yet floating, somehow, above it. I haunt myself like a ghost.
Each time, I stay dead for longer than the last. I listen for Joey’s voice to change. It begins joking, half amused. “Come on, bitch,” she’ll say. “Not this again.” Then she shakes me all over before pretending to ignore me while I lie there with my eyes rolled all the way back in my skull, so still. I run cold, naturally. I’m like stone. When she can’t stand it anymore, she’ll stretch my eyelids open wide with her fingers but with practice I’ve learned to show her only the whites. I barely even breathe.
I do it, sometimes, when everything feels like too much and I want to imagine what it will be like when the flat earth finally buckles. There’s a sort of relief I picture at the end of the world, this delicious satisfaction that, in my mind, is what apocalypse is all about: everyone’s hearts stopping with mine. Other times, I just feel sort of lonely and what helps is when I hear the worry in Joey’s voice, the real fear. I know it’s evil but this is when I feel most loved: when I’ve sold it so well that Joey thinks she’s really lost me.
Joey feels my wrist for a pulse. She puts her head to my heart. She calls me bitch, cunt, asshole, devil, sicko, bitch again. She says, over and over and over, “This isn’t funny, this isn’t funny, this isn’t funny.” She hits me. Hard. Sometimes, I hear her start to cry. I’ve been playing dead for years, since we were ballet pink babies rolling around in the dirt together. But lately I’m dying more and more.
Once, a few days after we learned the Earth was flat, it was almost dawn, and we’d been mourning the weak world in the deep dark of her mother’s basement. I got sadder than I’d ever been, sad for it all, sadness like a leveled city in my gut. I could have just fallen asleep, but I didn’t want to miss a thing. I preferred the in-between, the half death. The kind where I could disappear but still feel Joey in the room somewhere, waiting for me. I laid still as a corpse.
Joey tried so hard to bring me back, but I wouldn’t budge. I even started to believe it, myself. I was basically gone. I went rotten in the casket of old blankets and sofa cushions we’d piled high on the basement floor, listened to the muffled sounds of the movie we’d put on in the background of our big suffering. Joey mourned me gorgeously. When she got tired, she coiled herself up like a sleeping fox in a storybook, so close to my side. Joey runs hot, naturally. Her warmth seeped through me.
I opened my eyes and let myself be exorcised back into my life. I did the opposite of die, which is exhale so hard I imagined I was tripling in size. “Finally,” she whispered. In the morning, there were pancakes and bacon. We played kitchen with the baby, sipped air tea out of tiny cups.
We never talk about my dying. Joey resuscitates me, I fake it again. She saves me again. I die and die and die, but Joey makes me unkillable, even when she thinks she’s stopped trying.
I can’t do it without her, I know. Not for real. I’d miss her too much.
* * *
We hatch the plan during dodgeball, smooshed to our stomachs on the gym floor. We are under attack, but Joey’s never cared about gym class, and I’ve stopped caring about pretty much everything by now. I used to have excellent aim, a strong arm, scary fire in my belly. After Connor broke Joey’s heart last year, I slammed a baseball straight into his eye socket. He needed six stitches, walked around half blind under a pirate patch for weeks. I was benched until we moved on from baseball to tennis but Joey finally stopped crying.
“We should just go,” I tell Joey.
“Go where?” Dodgeballs whip over us like warships but we stay low.
“The edge,” I say. “Don’t you want to see it?”
She pulls herself onto her knees and ducks as a ball speeds past her face. When she stands and makes a sincere effort to catch and throw, I know that getting her to come with me will take some convincing. Joey does this sometimes, tries to pussy herself out of what’s best for her. I shake her skinny shoulders and tell her she’s brave and badass and brilliant and, eventually, she comes around to what I want: bellybutton rings, stick and poke butterflies on our hip bones, any shiny new bottle behind her mother’s basement bar that I ask for. When she was still scorching mad at Connor, I gave her my hot pink pocketknife and told her to slash his bike tires. “It’ll make you feel better,” I said. I meant it.
“You do it, then,” she whimpered. “I can’t.”
But I’d already half-blinded the boy, and she was the scorned one. I popped the blade out and folded her fingers around the handle. “Just one cut,” I said. “It’ll feel good. Promise.”
When she was done, she smiled big and told me I was right. We watched the wheels go flat. She’s mostly moved on from Connor these days, but I watch her aim a dodgeball straight for his crotch. She lights up when he doubles over.
They’re all so stupid, I think as I army crawl my way through their squeaking sneakers, fighting for cover by the bleachers. All of them except Joey. Brainwashed sheep, faces beet red and blood rushed, 2% and chicken nuggets sloshing around in their baby fat stomachs. They don’t even want to know what we know.
I play dead for a full minute. I press my nose into the gym floor and feel them quake above me, these sad animals who still believe in school and sports and a solar system that revolves around a single sun. When I lift my head again, no one’s noticed I’ve been gone.
In the locker room, I ask her again. I don’t like doing things alone, and traveling to the edge of the Earth will be no exception. I need Joey. I don’t even bother changing out of my gym shorts and hoodie, but Joey dabs concealer under her eyes, smooths her hair down her back with a purple paddle brush, sucks her stomach back into her jeans, and sprays something sparkly on the hollow of her neck that smells like cake batter and campfires. She offers me a spritz, but I just say it again: “Come to the edge with me.”
I used to care, too, what I looked and smelled like. I used to care even more than Joey.
“Why?” she says. “What will we even do there?”
I have an idea, but I can’t tell her. She’d never agree if she knew. Not yet, anyway. Instead I say, “We’ll gather proof. We’ll bring it back and get famous and then maybe some of these morons will believe us.”
“But they never will,” she says. “They don’t want to. That’s the whole point.”
“Whatever, then. But I want to see it. Don’t you?”
I tell her we could take turns driving, sleep in the car or cheap motels, make playlists and sing loud with the windows down like in a movie. We could take only scenic routes, pull over for sunsets, whatever she wants. We could even be back before homecoming, if the world doesn’t end first. Joey believes in the flat Earth as much as I do, she swears, but secretly I think she’s still hoping Connor will take her back.
We talk about it quietly at the lunch table. We still sit with our old, dumb friends, the McKenzies and Mikaylas. They’ve stopped inviting us to their shopping trips and sleepovers, huddle on one hemisphere of the table while Joey and I are isolated to the other. But I don’t miss them, their matching lunchboxes, their involved mothers, their ratty puppies and reality shows. We live in different worlds now. Both are ending, but Joey’s and mine is realer.
I sip the Sunny D that I topped off this morning with Joey’s mother’s vodka and though she pretends not to smell it, Joey agrees to the trip as soon as I unscrew the cap.
* * *
The quickest way to get to the edge of the earth from Ohio is to sail from Argentina. They call the port town at the southernmost coast the city at the end of the world. We watch a pair of Canadian vloggers who don’t seem to know what we know take us on a tour of the village, slate gray seawater swallowed by snowcapped mountains. They are corny in their ski-lodge sweaters, laughing at goofball penguins and toasting tankards of beer with other tourists in dimly lit taverns. We could steal the Saturn and drive all the way to Miami. Joey drives so smooth no one will suspect she doesn’t have a license yet and we’ll fly, then, to the port city for $1,300 a ticket.
I’ve got $800 in my shoebox. I haven’t been saving for anything in particular, but I’ve always had this feeling I’ll need to flee someday, this sense that at any moment I’ll want to pull my life right out from under myself.
Joey acts like she has no money, but really she’s much richer than me. She lives in a house with two floors and a finished basement, a game room, an old timey popcorn machine and a second fridge in the garage just for cokes and Coors Lights. The minute she turns sixteen, she’ll get the keys to the Saturn, and her mother will get a brand-new red thing with heated seats and a rear-view camera. Joey gets whatever she wants, but she’s too sweet. She doesn’t ask for enough.
“Can’t you use your mom’s card?” I ask. “Just buy the tickets right before we go. By the time she notices, we’ll be in Miami.”
“But the minute we’re back,” Joey says, “she’ll lose her shit. No homecoming, no school, no nothing. Life over.”
I don’t plan on coming back, but I can’t tell her that yet.
“Who cares?” I say. “We’ll rob a gas station or something. We’ll tell her we were held at gunpoint by child sex-slavers and forced to hand over the numbers.” I go digging around behind the basement bar for cherries. I’m in the mood for sugar. “We’ll tell her we’ve been kidnapped and held for ransom. Then she’ll hand over even more money and be so happy we’re safe.” Cherry blood drips down my chin. “My own mother won’t even notice I’m gone.”
“Of course she will,” she says. “I hate when you talk like that.”
Joey hasn’t been to my house in months. She doesn’t remember what it’s like there, everyone aloof in separate rooms, the freezer-burned Lean Cuisines, stale Cheerios. The quiet. We like her basement better. The baby’s noise upstairs. Soft voices through the ceiling.
“Whatever. Maybe yours won’t either.” I hand her the cherries and point to the ransacked bar. “She hasn’t noticed all that yet.”
“Three thousand dollars is a little different than a few empty bottles,” she says. “They’ve just been too busy with the baby to drink.”
She spins back and forth on her barstool. There’s an English quiz tomorrow, but we don’t care. We’re already making potions out of the strong brown stuff at the back of the shelf, teddy bear honey, the sickly sweet cherries and Sprite. We’re getting warm and fuzzy.
I let her close the airline browser. She’ll come around soon, I know, and I won’t die tonight. I choose, for now, to stay loudly, luminously alive. I remind her of the fun we have together when both of us are happy, when it’s just us against the world and we’re fighting off the junk the fucked-up galaxy keeps shooting our way. We take turns roleplaying as McKenzie and Mikayla and have the worst, most boring conversation ever. We drink until we’re dizzy. We dance to all her favorite songs, even the syrupy ones I can’t stand, and we laugh until our stomachs ache.
We wait for her parents and the screaming baby upstairs to silence themselves for the night, and then, when we’re even more alone than we already were, we smoke skunky little lumps of her dad’s weed in the yard, all the way back by the woods, so deep and dark that when the eyes of the racoons and fawns begin to blink against the trees they look almost like stars. We gaze into their glow, embedded in the same snow globe firmament within which the two of us and everything else are spinning on a broken record, so fast we’re soon to fly right off the surface. We hold on so tight.
Later, cocooned on the cold basement carpet, Joey spills her drink all over herself and cries that she’s a mess, pathetic, a loser. “Connor could probably smell it on me all along,” she weeps. “That’s why he broke up with me. He can see right through me.”
I towel the smelly liquor and cherry juice off her chest, help her change her pajamas. “Fuck Connor,” I tell her. “Fuck them all.”
She cries and cries, red and ruddy as the baby. I make her another drink and hold her still while she shakes. “You’re so much better than him,” I tell her. “You’re so much better than everyone.”
When we set out for the edge of the Earth, this will be the feeling that buckles us into our seatbelts, this understanding, deep down inside, that all that matters is the two of us, how we love each other. How we take care of each other.
“You’re my best friend,” Joey mumbles into her pillow. “What would I do without you?” The sun on its path around the planet hurdles towards us.
* * *
When I was four, I held my breath at the dinner table until my face turned purple. My parents were fighting and I wanted something I couldn’t reach from my booster seat. When my mother saw the color I became, storm clouds and bruises, she went quiet and told my father to refill my cup. They held me close.
“We’re so sorry,” they said. “We’re right here.”
My father stirred a thick glob of chocolate syrup into my milk. I fell asleep that night between them in their bed, the TV light soft and blue on their faces. In the morning, I woke up in my own room and my father was gone.
By my next birthday, he had a house across town and I split my weeks between him and my mother. When they fought over the phone, about money or my grades or the other’s new partners, I’d lie down on the floor beside whichever one I was with and make my whole body go statue still. The first few times, they’d just tell me to get up, to stop messing around. Then they ignored my death altogether. Once, I made myself so cold and rigid my mother even swore when she stubbed her foot on my calf, but I didn’t budge. She stepped right over me.
My father called me the girl who died wolf.
“Someday,” he said, while I moldered on his kitchen tile, “you’ll really need some help and no one will believe you.”
I waited for him to leave the room before I shook my limbs back to life and walked straight out of the house. I biked all the way to Joey’s. I stayed all night. My father never texted to ask where I was, and when I died again in Joey’s arms, she repeated my name until the sound lost its shape. She called me back to her.
Joey made me feel better, even when she was obsessing over Connor or her hair or how her parents loved the new baby more than her, or which one of the Mikaylas we hated most that week. We reminded each other that we were the best people we knew, smarter, cooler, more fun. We told each other the world was a stupid place, a dying place, a pointless place. And when we first saw the flat Earth for what it was, side by side on our laptops in her basement, it felt like proof that we’d been right all along. We were prophets no one believed in, alone in our apocalypse. But we had each other. If I jumped, she’d jump.
Each time I die, I picture this: everyone who loves me lining up single file in the sea, arms outstretched, swimming straight for the edge. What I want is to be the first to fall. What I want is to be missed so hard they all come diving after me. What I want is this forever, this floating. I want the rest of eternity to feel like they’re all reaching out to me as I go, closing the distance between us.
* * *
We load the Saturn the night before we leave, her parents and the baby oblivious in their beds. We’re gone well before breakfast. We’ve got Joey’s mom’s credit card numbers on a Post-it on the dashboard, a full tank of gas, my shoebox of cash, and a few hours before Joey’s family wakes up to discover we’ve taken the car. We’ll have crossed into West Virginia by then, headed south towards Florida. I’ll use the cash for everything along the way, and she’ll only use her mother’s numbers for the plane tickets. We’ll wait until we’re already close to Miami, when we can ensure we’ll already be halfway across the ocean before her mother notices the charge, has the flight canceled, and sends someone chasing after us. But by then we’ll be good as gone.
The first few hours are giggly and golden. We can’t believe we’re really doing it. We play our music loud, roll the windows all the way down, let our hair get tangled up in the wind. Joey’s never driven this far or for this long, and her knuckles are white on the wheel. She goes too slow, scared of losing control, and after several cars pass us with their horns blaring I tell her, gently, to pick up the pace. I feed her peanut M&M’s and shot-sized energy drinks every hour, let her play any songs she wants, keep her laughing, looking only ahead.
Her parents call her, one right after the other, again and again. I silence her phone and hide it in the glove compartment. They start calling me, too, and I block both their numbers so she won’t see their names interrupt the map she’s following on my screen. We pretend we’re the last two people alive.
We stop at a Motel 6 off the interstate when she’s too tired to keep driving, but are turned away at the desk when neither of us can prove we’re eighteen. I try to bargain with the concierge, a boy who can’t be much older than we are, but I can already feel Joey going hollow beside me, needle-popped and nearly gone.
“Please,” I say. “We were mugged. They took our IDs, these dudes at a truck stop. We’re so tired. It’ll only be one night.”
He won’t meet my eyes through the plexiglass divider and Joey’s halfway out the door already, yellow hair matted up in her backpack straps. I chase her out to the parking lot and reach for her shoulder, but she whips around before I can touch her.
“So what now?” she says. She’s angry. Angry at me.
“We’ll sleep in the car,” I say. “Like those camping trips we used to take with your dad. It’ll be fun. We’ll—”
“This is stupid.” She presses her hands to her eyes, paces in a tiny circle. She won’t look at me. “Let’s just go,” she says. “Let’s go home.”
“Don’t be a baby,” I say, and regret it.
She stops pacing, looks at me dead-on. “I’m not a fucking baby.”
“So what if we sleep in the car? It’s a better adventure, anyway. We’ll save some cash, get a pizza or something. What’s the difference between the car and the basement floor?”
She sits down on the concrete curb of the parking lot, rests her forehead on the Saturn’s hot hood. “Fine,” she says, eventually, in a voice so small. “Whatever.”
She doesn’t turn the radio back on, but drives silently to a Walmart up the street, parks beneath a lamppost that lights up the car like another illusion of an impossible moon. I pay for a box of popcorn chicken from the deli counter, a bag of pretzels. Joey’s favorite. We eat with our feet on the dash, seats pushed all the way back, the sunroof open to a smattering of stars I allow myself to pretend, just for now, are really there. Not puncture wounds in the dome surface, lies we tell ourselves to feel less alone. Signs of life, round and burning.
We crack two of the beers we brought to clink at the world’s edge and I’m my terrible self again.
“Truth or dare,” I say.
“I don’t want to play right now. Where’d you put my phone?”
“I’ll go first, then. Dare.”
“I dare you to give me my phone.”
I pull it out of the glove compartment and tell her not to read the messages. They’ll only make her sad. I watch her face crumple as she scrolls, her shoulders sink.
“They’re just worried,” I tell her. “Who cares?”
She turns her back to me in her car seat. I watch her screen over her shoulder, follow her finger as it opens a message from Connor.
miss u, it says. where were u 2day?
“Christ,” I tell the back of her head. “Why even bother replying? Fuck him.”
“Shut up.” Her painted pink thumbs type back: miss u 2.
The grey bubble that means Connor’s with us in the Saturn now thinks and thinks, disappears, thinks some more.
“Come on,” I say. “He’s nothing. Nothing.”
She’s quiet for the longest time. If I died, right now, I can’t be sure she’d save me.
“Truth or dare,” she whispers, finally.
“Tell me what’s gonna happen at the edge.”
“That’s a truth,” I say. “You can’t disguise a truth as a dare.”
She turns around. “Just tell me.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know. But we’ll see it together.”
“What if I don’t want to see it? What if I don’t care as much as you do?”
I’m the one to turn away this time.
I play dead until it almost works, until I’m asleep and dreaming only of darkness, black waves warm on my skin. In the morning, she puts the music back on. We watch the ugly earth wake up while we drive, the dry colors. Hot, circling sun.
* * *
We need gas again by mid-morning. I keep my eyes peeled to the trees, the white and yellow traffic lines, but no signs appear to lead us back into the world. My phone’s GPS says it’ll be another forty miles before the next exit.
Joey seems better today, but still quiet. I try not to worry too much about her cold feet. I expected this, that it’d be the small stuff to scare her, but that once we were there, swimming out together towards our point of no return, she’d understand. She’d be all in. She’d follow me. We’ve already passed into South Carolina, could reach Florida just before dark if we stay focused. My parents haven’t tried to call yet.
The console begins to beep as the tank empties.
“Fuck,” Joey says. She starts to swerve.
“It’s okay,” I say. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Just pull over. Just—” I try to grab the wheel, but she slaps my hands away.
“Don’t touch anything!”
“Where?” She slams her foot hard on the gas, but the Saturn’s already slowing down, engine burping. “Fuck,” she screams again. She starts to cry.
I punch the hazard button and the minivan behind us releases a riot of honks as it speeds past, but the few other cars on the highway begin to slow. They let us veer into the farthest lane, Joey a mess at the jerking wheel, console lights blinking out like lost satellites. We careen into a patch of grass off the road’s shoulder. The radio sputters to a stop. We don’t say anything. A forever passes, thick and treacherous.
And then: “So what now?” I can’t tell if she’s laughing or crying. She punches the wheel with her palms, hair stuck and sweaty on her face. “What’s the plan now?”
I try to reach for her, but she sinks away from my hand.
“Don’t blame this all on me,” I say. “You were the one driving.”
She looks at me and her face changes. She shakes her head. She looks sad, sad for me. Like I’m the stupid one, late to a party she’s already danced herself through. Like she feels sorry for me. She unlocks her phone.
“What are you doing? Don’t—”
“Shut up.” Her fingers find us on her map, zoom into the red pin-drop of the Saturn stalled in the middle of nowhere, so far from home. And then she hides her screen from me and is dialing a number.
“Joey,” I say, but it’s sticky in my throat, something I can’t swallow lodged in the deepest, darkest part of me. “Come on, Jo, don’t—”
“Mommy,” she cries. “It’s me. I’m okay, I’m okay. I’m so sorry. I’m sharing my pin,” she says. “We need help. I don’t know. South Carolina. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m okay. I’m—”
I wrestle the phone from her hands, her mother yelling the whole time. Joey is scary then, a beast on fire, stronger than I ever assumed she knew how to become. I wrench open my car door, fall into the grass as she pulls on my shirt, my hair, her mother screaming through the speaker. I throw the phone as hard as I can into the trees and Joey tackles me to my belly, pounding my back, the terrible Earth. I don’t stop her. I bury my face in my arms and let her kill me. Uncaring cars race past. I die a million times.
If I asked Joey, right now, her deepest, darkest secret, she’d tell me she hates me, has hated me all along. I see it so clearly: the way she’d stand right before me on the side of the road and laugh, laugh, laugh. She’d say it gleefully, like it was never a secret at all. She’d confirm what I’ve always feared most, and then somebody’d appear on the highway to save her, take her home, back to the way she was before all this, before me. She’d play with the baby. She’d grow up, become beautiful. The world, when it finally ended, would spare her.
“I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” she’d say.
I cover my ears to my own brain in the grass.
“I wish we’d never met,” nightmare Joey sings. I imagine her dancing straight into the street, sashaying through traffic. “I wish you’d never been born.”
When she’s exhausted herself, the real Joey curls her knees to her chest in the grass. She digs her hands deep into the dirt, flings fistfuls out into the trees.
“Sometimes I think you just like hurting me,” she says. “Or that you want me to hurt more than you hurt.”
It’s never pain I want from Joey. It’s something else. A testament to our friendship, maybe. A shivering promise, as we sink together, that I will never be left all by myself in the cold. I don’t know how to explain it. I’d hoped she’d already known.
* * *
The forum has an answer for everything.
What about gravity? I asked it once.
tr00thfairy: Centered in the middle of the disc and sucking us towards it.
girldieswolf: What happens then?
galile_no: Kaputnik! Sayonara! Flush!
girldieswolf: Can we save ourselves?
fl_atstanley_69: Sometimes I pray
girldieswolf: I don’t know how to pray
galile_no: It’s not about knowing how, honey. BTW, how old are you?
fl_atstanley_69: Leave her alone
tr00thfairy: In answer to your first question @girldieswolf: no. there’s no saving anybody.
girldieswolf: What about waves?
galile_no: Just wind
girldieswolf: What about weather?
tr00thfairy: Jury’s still out
girldieswolf: What happens at the end of the world?
fl_atstanley_69: We meet our maker!
girldieswolf: What happens if I don’t believe in a maker
galile_no: Get believing baby
What happens, I wrote in the forum one night in Joey’s basement after she’d fallen asleep and I’d had too much to drink and couldn’t stop picturing the jump, when we die?
cr8ercunt: Is this a joke?
QLUVR6: Wrong thread
What happens, I type now, waiting for something to happen, if no one believes you?
tr00thfairy: It’s lonely being one of us
fl_atstanley_69: It’s lonely being alive
My father texts, for the first time since we left. U okay? it says.
I make my screen go dark.
* * *
When we hear the sirens coming, Joey lifts her head from her arms. I close my eyes. I hear the sirens stop, tires slow, a door open. A man’s voice.
“Joanna Harris?” it calls. “Haley Reed?”
I cover my ears. I play dead. I don’t move.
“Your parents are real worried,” the voice says. “Let’s get you girls home.”
I hear Joey scramble to her feet, her voice growing farther and farther away from me. “We’re okay,” she tells the cop. She’s crying again. “It’s me, I’m Joey. Joanna. I’m sorry. We ran out of gas. I—”
“Come on, Haley,” the cop says. “It’s time to go.”
But then the ground trembles, I swear. I feel it quake beneath me, deep below the grass, the highway, something angry winding up for the whole, horrible end. I open my eyes and the cop is coming towards me, but Joey’s already buckled into the backseat of his car. She doesn’t look at me. I feel rain hit my skin hot as lava. I see all the trees uproot, tsunamis swoop on the horizon, see it all engulfed in flames, the cop, the trucks and cars, see the highway splinter apart between us and carry Joey far, far away from me. I feel the bites of a billion bugs and fall feverish with plague.
“Come on, honey,” the cop says. He’s getting closer. “It’s okay. Let’s go.”
Help, I beg the forum in my head. Help I’m so scared
What’s wrong, baby, it answers.
It’s the end of the world, I tell it. Someone tell me what to do
But no one speaks back, no one’s thought this far ahead, and I’m running. I’m running and the flat Earth is sick, sick of me. It falls apart beneath my feet. I’m running, down into the burning forest, straight into the storm’s eye, and the cop is reaching out for me, calling my name, but Joey isn’t, Joey isn’t. I roll my body into a ball in the smoldering dirt and pretend it’s the basement floor, dream I’m drunk, dream I’m so, so sleepy, dream a Joey that understands I was only practicing, all those times I was terrible, rehearsing ways to make this hurt less, easier for both of us. I’m not really so evil. So come with me, Joey, dream a different end than this one, dark and edgeless, you and me. You jump first, this time. I’ll follow you.
Erin Sherry’s work can be found in The Adroit Journal, Always Crashing, the Emerson Review, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently teaches at the University of Iowa’s Magid Center for Writing.