Henry watched the bugs throw themselves to their deaths against the windshield.
It was like riding through a pitch-black tunnel while someone shot florescent paintballs at them. Everything that intersected the van’s headlights seemed like an explosion. He could barely see through the splatter.
A red light sparked in the back of the van. It was quickly followed by a heady cloud of sweet smoke. Alice appeared on her knees between the front seats and offered him up a joint. He looked at it, but waved it off.
“You sure?” she asked as she handed it to Frank.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Henry said. It already felt like hanging with the Addams Family. He didn’t think getting high would complement it much. Somewhere in the past few hours, his mood had veered off the highway and was tearing recklessly down an unmarked road. He figured it was the brandy: Cheap liquor equals shitty buzz.
A stop sign materialized in the darkness ahead. Frank slowed the van to a crawl. Henry leaned forward to look. They were at an intersection. A green governmental sign read: NM 180.
“What the hell, Frank?” he said, looking over at him.
“What?” Frank said, grinning like a busted schoolboy.
“This is one-eighty?”
“Well, let me see. Why yes, that’s exactly what the sign says there.”
“You told me one-eighty was nine miles out from camp.”
“I did?” Frank said, still grinning, “When did I say that?”
“Hm, let’s see. This morning, maybe? Over eggs?”
“It is nine miles. Isn’t it?”
Henry gripped the armrests keep from slapping him. “No, Frank. It’s like two miles, actually.”
Frank’s face grew absurdly serious. He rolled down his window and looked out into the inky night as if the answer might be waiting for him out there in the darkness. “Really?” he said after a moment’s contemplation, “Two? You’re sure?”
“Yeah. Quite sure.”
Frank looked over at Henry, and that shit-eating grin bounced across his face like an uncoiled spring. “Oops,” he said, “Must be the drugs. Sure seems longer. You’re really sure it’s not nine miles?”
Henry felt his face flush hot. “Frank, I swear to God I’m—”
“Move over, Superman.” Alice pushed her way up between the seats.
“Alice, I’m trying to have a conversation with Frank here.”
She wasn’t deterred. She scooted up over the compartment separating the front seats, then squeezed backward onto his lap. As she did, she threw an arm up over his shoulders and caught him in the temple with her elbow. He snapped away from her, hitting the side of his head against the passenger window.
“Ow!” he yelled, “Goddamn it, Alice!”
Sitting sidesaddle on his lap, she laughed and grabbed him by the face. “Oh Henry, are you all right?”
“Stop!” he snapped at her, “The seatbelt’s digging into my leg!”
She hoisted her butt up and unclicked the belt. When she released it, the belt abruptly recoiled, slapping his chin as it passed.
“Jesus Christ!” he yelled.
“Land sakes, Henry!” she said, snorting, “You are so accident prone.”
“Well, that bloody hurt!” Henry barked, “Maybe I should just throw myself from the van, and save you two the trouble.”
“Van’s not moving,” Frank said, “Worst you’ll get is a road burn.”
Henry glared at him.
“I’m just saying,” Frank said, throwing up his hands, “If you really want to get hurt, you’re much better off staying in the van. At least until we’re moving. Then you can throw yourself out. Why, it’s simple physics, you know.”
Alice cupped his face with her hands and said too sweetly, “Oh, poor Henry.”
He did a double take on her. Her perfectly blonde hair still startled him, even hours after she’d restored it. He couldn’t remember at what point today she’d gone from irresistibly cute to beautiful. It must’ve been sometime after she’d pushed him in the river.
The memory of that little moment in agony re-fueled his irritation. “All right, all right,” he said, pulling his face free from her, “You two make a hell of a pair. Larry and Curly! You’re like the stupider two-thirds of the stooges.”
Alice slid her arm around his shoulders. She laughed into his neck like a stoned tenth-grader “I’m sorry,” she said, struggling to compose herself, “Really. Forgive us.”
“Yeah, Henry,” Frank said, snickering, “Forgive us.”
Henry looked at Alice. Her eyes were wet with her humor. She was giggling so sincerely, he couldn’t resist laughing with her, which only annoyed him further.
“I’m serious as cancer,” he said, trying to smother his amusement, “You’re both a major pain in the ass.”
“Thank you, Henry,” Alice said, still snickering.
“Why are you up here, anyway?” he asked her, “Did Ed and Bridge get sick of you.”
“Yes!” came a chorus from the back.
“They’re boring,” she said, “All they do is kiss and grind. I’m sick of talking to myself.”
“Well, that perfectly summarizes what we’re doing up here, too,” Frank said, “Kissing and grinding. Isn’t that right, Henry?”
“Go to hell, Frank.”
“Henry is so stinking sweet,” Frank said, “Absolutely delicious, really. Why, I think I’m falling in love with him.”
Alice scooted further back on Henry’s lap and settled back against the passenger door. The move twisted her pelvic bone deep into his crotch. “Easy! Easy!” he yelled, “Mind the equipment already!”
She finally settled into position, her legs draped across his knees. The bones of her butt dug harshly into his thigh. He shoved her a bit higher on his hip.
“Comfy?” she asked him.
“Oh, yeah. Like a frog in a blender.”
She slid her arm around his neck and pulled the seatbelt over both of them, then clicked it in place.
He looked at the seatbelt, then he looked at her. “Yeah, that’s safe,” he said.
“I’m all about the safety,” she said, giggling.
“I was being sarcastic.”
“Of course, you were.” She pulled him tight and kissed him on the cheek. Between her grip and the seatbelt, he felt like he was in irons.
Henry again pulled free and looked over at Frank. Back to the task at hand. “You’re a real prick, Frank,” he said.
Frank sent him a look of shock. He had no pupils, just irises clamped tighter than a miser’s fist. He appeared to be thoroughly enjoying Henry’s contribution to the tribe.
“Whatever are you talking about?” Frank said, grinning innocently.
“I could’ve walked out of here today. You knew I could. You screwed me over.”
“This is true. This is quite, quite true. And as a matter of fact, I’m actually thankful you brought that up. I’ve been struggling with the burden of that lie all day.”
“You’ve no idea. I’ve been searching for a way to apologize, but… well, I just didn’t know how to politely broach it. My manners were awful this morning, deviant at best. I boldly lied straight into your boyish face, and that’s the sorry truth of it.”
Henry felt like he was choking. He adjusted Alice’s arm away from his neck and threw her a scowl. She smiled back amiably.
“I don’t get it,” he said, turning his attention back to Frank, “I thought you wanted me out of here.”
Frank shrugged and grinned. “Well… I may have wanted to watch you suffer just a wee bit more. It’s a little weakness of mine. I’m pathetic, really. But, ironically, it turned out I actually like you. Then I just couldn’t bear to see you to leave, so I opted not to set you straight.”
“Is that right?”
“That is as right as rain, Henry, dear.”
“You also told me you couldn’t move the van because of the awning.”
“No!” Frank said, looking perfectly aghast, “Did I?”
“Frank, the awning wasn’t even attached! It’s a freestanding awning. You just drove away from it when we left!”
“Oh, I am so bad!” Frank practically sang.
“I could’ve left for home today, Frank.”
“Yeah, really sorry about that, Henry.”
Henry studied him for a moment. “I think you’re a compulsive liar.”
“But you don’t lie to actually get away with anything, do you?”
“Of course, not. That would be dishonest.”
“You just lie to keep people interested in you, don’t you, Frank?”
“Well, I should probably listen to you, shouldn’t I? I mean, if anyone could identify aberrant behavior on sight, it’d be you. Isn’t that right? In fact, I’ll bet you were only walking around interstates at midnight covered in shit so you could learn about such behavior. I think maybe you’re writing a book, isn’t that right?”
“I wasn’t covered in…” Henry gave it up. He was tired of defending it.
Frank leaned closer across the space separating them. “Aberrant,” he said, giggling, “I just love that word. How often do you get to use it in casual conversation? I mean, never! Right? It’s sad, don’t you think.” His laughter erupted full bore.
Henry looked at Alice. “Your brother is one serious piece of work.”
Alice just shrugged and grinned. “I know. We all think he’s an ass, too. It’s probably a genetic issue, like hair loss.”
“Hair loss,” Henry said, sighing.
It felt like he was in a psychedelic dream, where he knew it was just a dream, but where still couldn’t manage to wake up from it. His irritation felt as physical as a rash.
He looked out the front window at the moths blistering through their headlight beams. They were still parked at the stop sign!
“Damn you, Frank! Are we going to sit here all night?”
“Yeah, damn you, Nancy!” Alice cried. Then she pressed her face into Henry’s neck and laughed ridiculously.
“Holy crap!” Frank practically shrieked, “I thought we were just driving really slow.” He released a goofy laugh and grabbed the shifter.
The van lurched forward. They blew violently across the street and into the rocky field beyond. Henry grabbed Alice just as the van heaved to the right and struck the bank of a hill. They all snapped forward on impact. The back end thumped with the sound of rolling bodies.
As he listened to Ed and Bridget yelling somewhere in the black pit that was the rear of the van, he made a mental note to thank Alice later for having the foresight to buckle them in.