“Escaping” by Tom Lakin

It was the middle of July and they were fleeing north from the city in a stolen Ford Explorer, the radio going full blast and the girl’s bare feet up on the dash, crossed on the fake leather, her toes painted green and shining like bits of glass in the glare slamming in through the open sunroof and the old rattletrap car doing seventy on the highway though it felt more like a hundred-and-seventy, the doors clattering each time Dave stomped the gas or jerked the gearshift and the body of the car heaving beneath them like a startled horse, the sticky seats rattling at their backs, empty cans rolling this way and that across the floor as on either side of them the road streamed past, trees and signs and glacier-carved cliffs with the solemn craggy faces of old men, exits blurring by and the numbers on the signs rapidly climbing as they accelerated north toward their new dealer, an opiate need already asserting itself in her blood and spreading across her shoulders like a thousand cruel spiders, her fists clenched and her mind on the cash in the glove box beside the pistol, Dave’s old service sidearm, a Beretta M9, heavy and black with a straight polished barrel and a hole at one end like an all-seeing eye, the cash and the gun sliding back and forth as Dave cut across lanes, pounding his palms on the steering wheel and screaming into the blasting wind, Wooooo, the long repeated vowel uncoiling from his lips like a ribbon, Wooooo babe, can you believe this shit? we’re doing it, we’re off, here we fucking coooooooome, the wind yanking his words up and out the open sunroof like smoke as another exit sign blew past and there in the seat she felt it, the first stirrings like an itch inside her skirt, a faint spreading pressure in her bladder that grew until suddenly, undeniably, it overtook her, and with the back of her left hand she whacked Dave on the shoulder and said, Look can you pull over, I’ve gotta pee, his head snapping toward her and his eyes wild beneath the curved brim of his cap and he shouted, No! no! are you fucking nuts? we can’t pull over, what about this don’t you understand? we’re fleeing for chrissake, did you forget? and her mind going once again to the cash in the glove box, the crumpled yellow envelope and inside it the fistful of fingered bills, and she saw as if the memory belonged to someone else the bills plucked frantically from the register drawer and stuffed in a bag, the cashier’s fingers trembling, grasping hysterically at the wadded bills and shoving them across the counter as if the money itself could hurt him and not the Beretta ticking steadily against the shelf, tick tick tick, the gun huge in her hand, impossibly heavy, it was the first time she’d held one, the barrel unaccountably loud as she struck it against the laminate countertop, and then they were gone, out the door and across the hot asphalt lot to the car, Dave whooping that high uncoiling call, and here in the passenger seat all these many miles later she found she could still hear the tiny ding of the bell above the gas station door and the tick-tick of the gun, the sounds pulsing in her mind alongside the steady throb of her bladder, torturing her with their steady beat, and she turned again to Dave and with rage-red eyes said Listen I really gotta go here, what am I supposed to do? and he bent and dug around at his feet and came up moments later with a can, an old beer can, shiny and half-crushed, and he stabbed a couple fingers into the top until he’d widened the opening some and then he handed the can to her, Here, he said, go in this, and she hesitated, staring at Dave then down at the can then back up at him, watching his eyes flick from her to the road and back, his voice raised now, shouting Look it’s your only choice, it’s the can or nothin, I ain’t fuckin pulling over, and so she took the can and brought it over to the seat and squatted above it in a kind of half-crouch, hiking her skirt and positioning the can directly under her crotch as she might a lover’s cock, her thin frame awkward on the seat, jolting and jerking with each swerve and acceleration of the car, her hand struggling to steady the can and her legs trembling and the can inches from her groin, she could feel it almost, the cold crumpled metal, as if at any moment it might enter her, the car juddering and her shaking hand tight on the can, and it was all too much, she felt, too goddamn much, she couldn’t bring herself to go: I can’t go! she screamed at Dave, I can’t make myself go! Could you please slow down? and in answer he stomped the gas and the car bucked under her and she fell back in the seat, the can clattering to the floor and rolling around on the mat, and she glared at Dave before reaching down for the can and bringing it back up beneath her and she steadied herself again into a squat, and this time she tried to focus her mind on the can and her bladder both, tried to bring them together in a kind of strange communion, willing herself to go, trancelike now, her eyes on the windshield and the gray rushing road, but it wasn’t working, still she couldn’t go, and she cursed and ground her teeth and was about to hoist the can up and fire it out the open sunroof window when she saw it—now, years later, she remembers it as a perfect vision, inexplicable and yet unassailably true—a horse, a huge honey-colored horse standing in a metal trailer carted behind a truck, the animal’s massive head nearly level with her own as the truck came up alongside them and matched their pace, the trailer’s small dark window filled completely by the head, an absurdly beautiful creature, the girl thought, watching it across the distance of a couple feet, the horse’s amber snout bearing at its center a broad white stripe that rose to the peak of its head before terminating in a brilliant diamond shape, a white arrowhead perched perfectly between the flickering upraised ears, a few strands of mane hanging down over the diamond like the tossed hair of a matinee idol and the animal’s nostrils faintly flared, and as she stared across the rushing road the huge creature turned ever so slightly toward her and seemed to gaze back, to see her, the whole bleak essence of her person, seemed in fact to be looking directly into the depths of her soul, all of a sudden she felt inexplicably certain of this, the horse’s soft honeyed eye reflecting back to her the sun, the road, the old tan Ford in which she crouched—the whole day, in fact, or maybe even her entire life mirrored there in the horse’s huge eye, the girl seeing in its gleaming softness long forgotten scenes from her childhood—her mother asleep in a shabby upholstered chair, a dogeared Bible open on her lap and on the end table beside her a brown bottle half full, her hair ragged as kelp, and in the other room, the ancient kitchen, her father shrugging on a beige coat, his drawn faced aimed at the front door—all this glimpsed in the horse’s glittering eye as though through the currentless surface of a still, tea-colored pond, and offering in its clear reflected truth a kind of benediction, an exhilarating release, immunity if only for a moment from all that had come before and would undoubtedly follow, and as she let her eyes drift from the great horse and fall closed she heard her piss striking the bottom of the can, the sound like a handful of pills dropped to a bathroom floor, its lush pizzicato drowning out all thought, all life, freeing her momentarily from the craving and the gun and the man sitting beside her in the car, from all other men too, she thought, and all women, every drunken mother and scared, fleeing father, all the vileness in all the world pouring from her in an instant and vanishing into the blasted can, gone, erased, and in her mind only this: the horse, the horse, the horse: and suddenly she was screaming in a language she couldn’t understand herself, no one could, not Dave who yelled at her from behind the wheel Shut up! Shut up! For the love of god will you please shut the fuck up!, his hand coming across the console and slamming down on her squatted thigh but she couldn’t feel the blow, she couldn’t feel anything as from somewhere deep inside her the non-words surged up and flew from her lips like steam from the hot core of the earth, the piss still coming and her bare legs spread and all around her the rapturous words, the wild voiced ecstasy of unticked time, a perfect minute chiseled somehow from the clock and slipped to her right there in the car, and the girl tasting it, cupping it on her tongue like a stolen gemstone, knowing even as the instant itself sailed past that never in her long life would she be able to forget it, this wild unfathomable song, that no matter where she ended up after today some small piece of her would remain forever in this car, pissing and screaming and lifting her face to the sky, the road blazing past and pure untrammeled language bursting from her throat, and when the woman looks back on it now, a lifetime later, when she sees again the perfect undimmed moment though not from the passenger seat but from a soiled cloth chair in the women’s shelter where she spends most of her time , the memory rushing down to her through the narrowing tunnel of so many bleak, tormented years, all she can do, over and over again, is wonder—ceaselessly, eternally—what on earth she’d said.

Tom Lakin is a writer from Boston. His work has appeared in Narrative, Pleiades, Ruminate, Pembroke Magazine, and The Adroit Journal, among others, and he is the recipient of a 2018 G.B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction. Tom attended Bowdoin College and received his MFA from Emerson College, where he was a full-tuition fellow.


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