We drove past the topless bars and the abandoned diners, last signs of the civilisation we were being taken away from. There were six of us in a camper van, driven by feathery looking hippies with the implacable cruelty of prison guards.
They insisted on being called by their ‘spirit names’. Singing Crow and Laughing Elk.
Singing Crow was a heavyset woman with doughy, sad features and thick black hair. She viewed us all with careful, testing looks and already sweating beneath her white long-sleeved t-shirt and a beaded skirt.
Laughing Elk was a blunt stick with leathery skin and tattoos faded to grey shadows that snaked down his arms. He twitched behind the wheel like a sleeping animal that dreamed of being prey.
I sat at the back of the van, watched the desert envelop us and tried to think of nothing. I was being sentenced to walk until my feet bled, eating nothing but fucking trail mix and jerky washed down with bullshit homilies about finding inner peace.
Ashley had hard, pretty features, aerobicized limbs lined with scar tissue. She had long, honey-blond hair on top and the sides shaved. She was one of those girls that you fell equal parts in terror and love with. She was the girl who would break your heart without ever knowing your name.
Cho was soft and chubby, his faux hawk had dehydrated from a lack of products. His fingers twitched in the inactivity of not having a device to interact with.
Tony was tall and stocky, leaning forward and making fists of his hands over and over. His head was shaved and he had a perfect fringe of beard along his jawline. His muscles bunched up as he huffed through his nose. When he looked around at me, his eyes were golden-brown and damp with something that would never be resolved.
‘It’s like a different planet out here.’ Cho said.
Laughing Elk slapped the steering wheel and gave a loud, chesty laugh.
‘Sure is. It’s all liminal space for the journey, bra. Out here, you get your soul cleansed.’
I had seen the cheque my parents had written for this. The only thing getting cleansed was my fund for college.
‘I know a bunch of guys who could get me stuff that does that and all from the comfort of my couch.’
Crow’s eyebrows looked like two furry caterpillars having angry sex over her bleak, glittering eyes. She gave Ashley a hard stare.
Ashley snorted and slammed back into her seat. Tony glanced at her and gave a short tight nod.
These little stabs of bravado reminded us that we were still human.
We were the children of narcissists, condemned to bear their mistakes and being blamed for not being stronger than they were. They would rather hand us over to strangers than talk to us about anything other than themselves.
We stopped and got out, shouldering our packs and not making eye contact. Tony helped Ashley with her pack and she slipped him a smile as potent as a back alley hand job.
Singing Crow waddled over to us and pointed out towards the desert.
‘It’s like Laughing Elk said, out here it is liminal space. You are going to be alone with yourselves and challenged on every aspect of who you are.
Cho mumbled something and Crow’s light manner disappeared completely.
‘Care to repeat that?’
Cho blushed and looked away.
‘I heard they faked the moon landing out here.’ he said.
I rolled my eyes and gave a mocking laugh. Ashley looked at me like I had just appeared.
‘What’s so funny, Rebecca?’
Singing Crow’s upper lip curled back. I saw the dark hairs on the corners of her mouth.
‘Faking the moon landings, seriously?’ I said.
Laughing Elk occupied himself rolling a cigarette before he chuckled.
‘Hey, it’s a legitimate theory.’ he said.
I bristled and sucked in a lungful of the dry, hot air.
‘No it isn’t.’ I said.
Laughing Elk smirked and raised his eyebrows.
‘Hey, you live a little longer, you’ll learn how the world works.’
Cho gave a damp, flabby nod of agreement. Elk had tattoos older than him, but they were siblings in ignorance.
‘Bullshit.’ I said.
The collective attention had settled on the pair of us, A cub challenging an alpha. A patient transferring hostility to a therapist.
Elk and Crow exchanged uneasy looks. Crow pushed her shoulders back and suggested that we should spend more time walking than arguing.
A gentle blast of indignant superiority broke warmly across my chest like an egg on a skillet. My bag felt lighter than it had before.
Elk gave a sidelong glance as we started to walk.
My knees and back throbbed like rotten teeth and my lips were already dry and cracked, no matter how much water I drank.
Not so quick to argue now, are you?’ Crow said.
She was a perspiration water feature, breathing hard and her ample bosom jiggled beneath her t-shirt as she powered forward.
‘I am when I know I’m right.’ I said.
She looked away from me. The triumph lit up my pleasure centres like the drugs were supposed to.
Then the flat of her hand slapped against my cheek.
My eyes filled with tears and I stood there, fighting the urge to cry.
‘My mom hits harder than you and she weighs as much as one of your ankles.’
‘You really should mind your mouth out here.’ she said.
Laughing Elk grimaced at me, standing alongside his colleague and waiting for me to act.
Arguing with them would have been like wrestling a pig. I’d have just gotten dirty and they would have enjoyed it.
I also knew that I could hurt her if I needed to. It would validate the pair of them if I just acted out violently.
‘You’re right. I really should.’ I said.
I held their gaze until Singing Crow suggested in a small voice that we should keep walking.
Tony frowned and adjusted the straps on his pack. Cho strode forward to keep up with Laughing Elk and Ashley smiled at me, pushing her small chest forward.
She matched my pace and winked at me.
I looked around, tried to find the beauty in my surroundings and never felt so detached as I did in that moment. It could have passed for the moon, I thought, no atmosphere and aliens everywhere.
Ashley touched the back of my arm and ran her fingertips down my tricep. I glanced up, hopeful and wary at the same time.
Her eyes glistened with fascination and she bit her lower lip. She leaned forward and whispered, the tickle of her breath made my thighs flutter.
‘I totally agree with you on the moon thing.’ she said.
We really must be on a different planet. When Ashley touched me, I realised that it was not such a bad place to be.