This week week we are highlighting the five stories that won prizes in this year’s short story contest. Today, we spotlight our third prize winner, Brianna Beck’s “A Long Way To Go.” Our lone senior prize winner’s story was described by our judges as a joyful and sentimental road trip, one that reads like a prose poem in places. This romantic, coming-of-age story is “a breath of fresh air from the tragic encounters that literary fiction is often filled with.”
Smoke billows from his lips as he pulls the sickly sweet bundle of tobacco from his mouth. Behind aviator sunglasses, he has his eyes set on the road that stretches out in front of him. Resting his hand outside the window, his fingers dance in the wind.
Home. The word teeters on his tongue, unfamiliar and unsure. It’s a foul word that has no place associating itself with Newark, New Jersey. At least… not anymore.
The check engine light blinks on, screaming for his attention. Just like in Ohio, and Iowa, and Nebraska, he ignores the car’s cries for help. “Just get me to California. Just get me to him.” He begs silently.
Okay, so maybe taking the car from his uncle without asking wasn’t the best idea; but it’s not like he’s thinking on good ideas. Nothing about this journey is a good idea. But what else does he have? He’s given up everything for an uncertain journey with an even more uncertain destination.
For the hundredth time in the past twenty four hours, his mind wanders as to why he left in the first place. He can’t think of any reason as to why he left that would make any sense to anyone other than him. However, he can’t think of any reason as to why he would have stayed. Just the thought of being in a place where his own family can’t love and accept him for who he is makes New Jersey feel unwelcome. Sure, there’s plenty of people there who wouldn’t think twice about his taste in music, or the way he dresses, or the (not so) tiny fact of the (not so societally accepting) gender he loves. There’s tons of people there who’d let him call their home his when he can’t even call his home his.
However, there’s only one person in the entire universe who he wants to accept him. All those other people don’t matter to him unless he has the validation from this one person. And by God he’ll do anything to get that validation from that one person.
He’d fight evil monsters, and slay dragons, and save a princess, and kill a king, and die a martyr to get to him. He’d even steal a car and make the journey from New Jersey to California to get to him.
That’s exactly what he plans to do. After his not-so-successful confrontation with his father, he packed his bags. He grabbed what he deemed necessary at the time – some clothes (band shirts included), aviators, deodorant, combat boots, $250 (wait, $198.61 after gas and some cheap food), and his cigarettes. He left without a word or a note. Judging by the lack of calls, he assumes his absence is either unnoticed or uncared about. Both sting in a way that he can’t put into words.
The only thing that he regrets about leaving (despite not finishing his senior year, and even that’s debatable), is leaving his brother. He isn’t close with his brother by any means, but he’s the only person who has ever showed him that he cares. He’s the only one who’s cared for this broken boy. Leaving without a word feels like he’s betraying his brother. However, the less his brother has to know, the better it’ll be for everyone. Since his brother is the only person who cares, he can’t risk him knowing where he’s going and trying to stop him.
His eyes begin to feel heavy again; only this time, he knows he won’t be able to fight it. Pulling over, he parks behind a diner. Rubbing his eyes, he tries to think. He doesn’t even know where he is. Reaching for his phone, he plugs it in. After a few seconds, the screen lights up, coming back to life since it’s disregarded death somewhere between Illinois and Iowa. Still no sign that his family has noticed or cared about his disappearance.
However, there is one text waiting for him. Just one tiny notification that sends his heart into flutters and makes his palms sweat.
Hey! Haven’t heard from u in a while. Just wanted to make sure ur ok.
From all the way in California – a whole sea of states away – someone cares. He cares. His eyes twinkle in that special way. It’s that special twinkle that he’s reserved for this one person in California – a whole sea of state’s away.
Suddenly, sleep doesn’t seem so important anymore. He starts his car again, but it won’t turn over. He tries over and over again helplessly. The aging auto gives out one final, pathetic wheeze before dying a dramatic death.
He leans over the steering wheel, crying – no, sobbing. His whole body fills with an undeniable hopelessness. He knows he should never have tried to make this journey. He’s seventeen, he doesn’t belong out here. But he doesn’t belong out here anymore than he belongs in New Jersey.
He feels like he’s slipping into a void, being sucked into the universe. Maybe, he thinks, it’s better this way. He tries to imagine it: Floating with the stars and galaxies for eternity. Sure, it’d be peaceful and quiet. He wouldn’t need to worry about being judged or harassed anymore. He’d dance with the stars and laugh with the galaxies, his eyes full of stardust. He’d be one with the sun and the moon.
But he’d never get to see his California boy… He’d never get to meet the California boy who makes his life worth living. Without his California boy, the stars would just be rocks of gas destined to burn out.
Wiping his nose on his shirt, he leaves the dead diesel. Grabbing his stuff, he marches into the diner. The diner is empty, apart from a few regulars who are unmoving, collecting dust. A singular woman stands behind the counter. She too, looks like she could be collecting dust.
“Do you know of any cheap bus stations?” He asks her.
“How old are you, honey?” She asks in a deep Southern drawl that makes him think of warm, sweet tea.
“Seventeen.” He should’ve lied.
“Oh, but you’re just a child!” Within minutes, she has him seated in a far booth with just about everything on the menu. She sits across from him as he devours the food without hesitation. Behind him, a regular shuffles, showing the first signs of life and sending dust into the air. She watches him eat with great curiosity.
“Where are you from?” She asks him.
“New Jersey.” He should’ve lied, he scolds himself.
“What’s got you so far from home?” Should he answer? Would it be safer for him to lie? “Tell me and I’ll get you a place to stay for the night and a ride for tomorrow.”
Her offer is tempting. He thinks it over, weighing the pros and cons. He figures she’s safe enough, she only means good.
“I need to get to California.” He says through a mouthful of pancakes.
“What’s there in California for you, baby?”
He swallows. He thinks. “Something important.”
She doesn’t press him any further. He thanks her for the free food and the help. She sets him up with a cheap motel room and a ride for the morning. Despite every cell in his body protesting against him, he agrees to stay the night. All he wants to do is get to California as soon as possible. Hell, he’s even willing to walk there if he has to. But he can’t deny how his body yearns for sleep.
Locking the motel door behind him, he sits on the bed, feeling it sink under him. The room has an undeniable odor and is littered with stains. The fear of catching a disease is quickly overpowered by the sleep that threatens to pull him from consciousness.
Not even bothering with undressing, he falls back on top of the blankets. Fully clothed, he falls into a deep sleep. Not even God shaking him awake to tell him he’d won the lottery would work.
The sleep is brief, and soon he is staring at his surroundings, confused. The pounding in his head is unbearable. Or is that the knocking at the door? Carefully peering through the peephole, the sweet Southern diner lady looks back with a distorted smile.
“Mornin’ sugar! Just thought I’d bring you some breakfast.” She shoves a to-go box full of a sweet smell that he can only recognize as pancakes. “You’re gonna ride with some friends of my son. They’re headed to California and said they wouldn’t mind having you ride with ‘em. They leave in an hour.”
“Thank you.” He mumbles, unable to find the words to express his gratitude. Shutting the door, he carefully places the styrofoam box on the bed.
Staring at himself in the mirror, his arms instinctively wrap around himself, yearning to squeeze his insecurities out. Instead, they bounce off his reflection in the floor length mirror. They find their way through his many cracks and shatter at his jagged core. His eyes dance over his imperfections. Hollow cheeks scream beneath tired eyes that sink into purple bags majesty. Freckles dance on the cliffs of his collarbones. Sharp shoulders point toward the sky. Shoulder blades extend like boney wings from a flightless boy towards the heavens that he can never reach. Pale skin hugs tightly onto a curious skeleton. Piercing hip bones pull his stomach inward, causing his boxer briefs to hang on for dear life, threatening to lose their grip. His long, thin fingers brush over his damaged soul.
Despite a lack of motivation, he pulls his aching body into the shower. The falling water feels like a sign of hope. The steam is like a warm hug. The towel holds him tight. He may be free of dirt, but he’ll never feel truly clean.
Wet hair clings to his head and dampens his shirt. He eats the delicious gift given to him by the sweet Southern diner lady. His belly protrudes, and for the first time in a very long time, he isn’t disgusted by it.
The hour comes and goes and before he knows it, he’s seated in a van with four other people. They had all introduced themselves, but he was too dissociated to remember. Despite their lack of names, he makes his own.
There’s Scrooge. He takes up the whole back seat. Angry music blasting from big headphones, he ignores the world.
There’s Budd. Long, greasy hair, clearly having not seen water in ages. He wears a Nirvana shirt and smells suspiciously “skunky”.
There’s Mary Jane. Other than everyone’s suspicious “skunky” smell, he calls her Mary Jane because she seems like a Mary Jane in the most ironic of ways. Truthfully, she’s nothing like a Mary Jane. Her purple hair shines vibrant against her dark skin. Her lip ring shines in the sun, reminding him of his California boy.
Then there’s Skipper. Named solely on the basis that he was manning this skunky crew – the S.S. Skunk, if you will.
When he admits his self-proclaimed nicknames to them, they don’t seem to mind. In fact, they give him his own nickname. They decide to call him ‘Alien’ because of his new and sudden presence in their ever-steady, unchanging band of skunky men (and woman). They name him ‘Alien’ for the way he looks at them, as if everything they do and say is from a foreign planet. They name him ‘Alien’ because of how hesitant he is of everything. He decides he likes the nickname. He feels it suits him more than his real name ever will.
“So Alien, what’s your poison?” Skipper asks, eyeing him in the rear-view mirror.
“He means to ask, what’s your deal? What’s there all the way in Cali? Mamma said you’re not from Cali.” Mary Jane speaks up, turning to face him.
“Just, somebody.” He answers shyly. If he’s being honest, he just wants to get through the next 800 miles as fast as possible.
“Cali is a long way from New Jersey. That’s gotta be a really important something to drag you this far. Or a someone…” Skipper taunts.
“Ohhhh!” Mary Jane squeals.
His cheeks burn bright red, blowing his cover. He tries to hide it with his sleeve, but everyone in a ten mile radius can see the glow.
“It’s nobody.” He tries, unconvincingly.
“Come on. Spill your poison.”
“Spill it! Spill it!” Mary and Budd chant.
He opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. How can he tell them? How can he find the words to express everything he wants to say, all his reasons?
“At least tell us her name?” Scrooge shouts from the back.
“Can I guess?” Mary Jane turns around to face him all too enthusiastically.
His cheeks burn a brighter red. “I doubt you’ll be able to guess it.” He mumbles.
“Fine. At least tell us about her then.” Mary Jane urges, giving him her full attention, not letting him back out.
“Alright. It’s just…” He can’t find the words. “I’ll spill when you tell me why you’re going to Cali.” Everyone groans.
“I told ya he wouldn’t talk.” Mary Jane protests to Skipper.
“He will. Besides, he deserves to hear our story.” Skipper looks back at him in the rear-view mirror. “We do it for Mamma.”
“The lady at the diner?” He asks, confused.
“Ya. Her son moved out to Cali a couple of years ago. He claimed he was gonna “make it big”, as they do. Said he’d fly her out, give her her own mansion.”
A heavy silence falls over the van. He waits for the end of their story. He waits for Skipper to smile and talk about their famous friend – a tale of fame and fortune. The longer the silences grows, the more he knows it isn’t going to happen.
“We go out every year and try to get him clean and convince him to come home. That’s what happens when a small town boy thinks he can rule in a foreign land.”
It makes him think of his California boy. He thinks about how he had gone to California to make it big. What if his California boy had ended up like this? What if it is all a lie? What if there is just some stranger posing as the California boy he thinks he knows so well. I mean sure, he’s never actually met his California boy in real life. Sure, they’ve only talked online. But his situation is different, right?
Swimming in his mind, the thought deprives him of oxygen and makes him dizzy. Resting his head against the window, he tries to regain his confidence in his California boy.
“Alien, what about…” Mary Jane cuts herself short, seeing that he isn’t in the mood to discuss his epic journey any longer.
No matter how he urges himself, Anxiety pulls him towards New Jersey. Anxiety is a cruel mistress who had won his soul years ago. She’s the master of the game of deceit. She seduces him with her cunning wit and remarkable skills in persuasion. She’s always there for him when the world isn’t. She’s honest, and he finds comfort in that.
However, she has another side. A side that plays Devil’s advocate. A side that can’t bear to see him happy. She’s jealous and abusive. She sees everything and everyone as a threat to their relationship and she does everything to remind him of that. She preys on him, getting satisfaction in seeing him suffer.
Hope is another story. She’s a quiet, but powerful force. She takes his hand and pulls him towards California. She’s Anxiety’s enemy and despises how she treats him. She’s always in Anxiety’s shadow, just out of reach. Hope is all good things. She urges him on when Anxiety pushes him down. Her intentions are pure. She knows the importance of his California boy and reminds him of that. Hope is the only thing that keeps him going. She’s the only thing that keeps him from running back to Anxiety’s arms.
Hope slips her hand into his, squeezing lightly. “Keep going. He needs you.” She whispers. She leans her head on his shoulder, reassuring him that she’ll never leave. She’ll never stop fighting for him.
. . . . . .
What should have been a day long car ride seemed to drag on for years. The hot summer heat made the air conditioned-lacking van feel like an oven. It made his insides boil and burnt the last of his patience.
Sweat pools on his upper lip and runs down his back. Closing his eyes, he tries to calm his nerves and settle his rolling stomach. He’s just about ready to tuck and roll out of the van. He figures, maybe than he’ll catch a cool breeze.
Despite the growing urge to bail, a sign that signals the ten miles left until Los Angeles sparks his hope. A growing excitement energizes the car. As the S.S. Skunk slows onto the off ramp, he feels as though he could burst through the roof. Maybe it’s his nerves, or having been in the van for the past twenty four hours, but his whole body sparks with electricity.
Los Angeles is a foreign land, so unlike New Jersey. He feels silly with his face pressed against the window. Everything here is so different. He doesn’t want to call it glamorous, but it’s the only word that comes to mind.
The palm trees stand high above him. Billboards litter the city, advertising for hopes and dreams. All the shops and cars look more impressive to him. He hates clichès, but he feels like he’s just stepped into a LA postcard.
“It’s amazing here.” He whispers, unaware that he’s thinking aloud.
“That’s subjective. Just stay in the tourist areas if you want to keep that impression.” Scrooge scoofs, headphones still on.
“Nonsense! I love it here!” Mary Jane squeals.
What he isn’t prepared for is the hours spent in LA traffic. He’d always heard about it, but experiencing it is a whole new story. What shocks him the most is when they take a detour out of the heart of LA. After what feels like an hour of backroads, the S.S. Skunk pulls up to a less than impressive apartment building.
This apartment building had left the LA glamour long ago. It sits off in one of LA’s many neighboring hillsides. This building is everything a clichè could hope to be.
He follows the captain’s orders as they walk in silence to apartment 7C. Thinking back to their earlier conversation about their yearly pilgrimage to save their friend, he can only assume that 7C contains their reason for this journey.
Mary Jane bravely knocks on the door. A solemn silence falls over the group as a shuffling begins inside 7C, slowly getting louder until the door finally opens.
“Oh, what a sad, sad sight”, he thinks to himself when they’re greeted by a disheveled creature. As they file into the apartment, he realizes how 7C is the perfect place for this disheveled creature. Both have rusted over a past of beauty filled with endless opportunities to a present of regret and failure.
He watches from the side as each member of the S.S. Skunk tries to talk to the disheveled creature. They try to get through to him, but he’s built himself a stone wall. He watches as each crew member is overcome with defeat.
“It’s always like this.” Mary Jane tells him as Skipper tries one last time. “We try to get him clean, to bring him home. But it never gets through to him. It’s almost like he isn’t even there anymore. It’s like talking to a shell with nobody inside.”
“Let’s just go.” Skipper storms past all of them. The crew follows him out of 7C; but he can’t leave. He feels tethered to 7C and this disheveled creature.
He sits next to the disheveled creature whose head is in his hands, barely there. He wraps his arms around him, pulling the disheveled creature into a hug. Suddenly, he feels him break, sobbing.
He is no longer a disheveled creature. He is a broken man. He is a human. He’s just a boy who had big dreams that he chased, and instead he got hurt. He made mistakes that he can’t get past.
Feeling defeated, he leaves without another word said. Climbing into the van, he’s met with silence. He can’t tell the crew about how he fixed the broken man, because even he doesn’t know yet.
The broken man has been given love, acceptance, forgiveness, and help. Without even realizing it, he’s just given the broken man what he’s needed most of all: Hope. It’s such a little thing. He doesn’t even understand the weight of his gift. How could he? How could he know the power of Hope? With Hope, the broken man will see purpose in his life again. With Hope, the broken man will go home to Mamma and his friends. With Hope, the broken man will live again.
. . . . . .
The drive back to LA is silent. The familiarity of the failure doesn’t phase the crew for long. Soon, they’re onto their next mission.
“Where are we bringing you?” The question makes him realize that he has no idea where his California boy is. It had never occurred to him to figure out where he was going to find him.
“You do know where you’re going, right?” Skipper questions him.
“Wait, wait, wait.” Mary Jane stops them. Unbeknownst to her, she buys him time. “Are you seriously expecting to arrive looking like…that.” She gestures towards him.
Looking down, he notices his horrifying appearance. He had failed to notice the stains and odor coming from his clothes. He hadn’t realized that being stuck in a van for over a day would make him look so tired. Besides, he figures that this little detour could buy him more time to figure out where he needs to go.
Reluctantly, he lets Mary Jane pull him into shop after shop, trying on outfits that he can’t imagine affording. Each outfit is worse than the last and his hope and confidence are starting to drain.
“It’s never going to work.” He scoffs, throwing yet another outfit back on the rack. “It all looks terrible.”
“Alright Grumpy, let’s talk.” She drags him out of the store and sits him on a bench. He waits for her to break the silence. “What did you say to him, back at the apartment?”
“Nothing, why?” He replies, figuring that she’s referring to 7C.
“Mamma called after we left, said he called. He hasn’t talked to her since he left.” She doesn’t meet his eyes. “We’ve been doing the same shtick for years now, and it never works. It wasn’t until you that something changed.”
“I swear, I really don’t know…” He begins.
“I guess you don’t.” She replies, almost defensively. “You gave him hope.” Her words hang in the air, heavy. “I don’t know how, but it’s something that even we couldn’t give him. We didn’t even know… Hope is a powerful thing.” She pauses. “Why did you leave New Jersey?”
“To be with him.” She waits for him to continue. “He’s the one person who I feel I would never have to change myself for. My whole life, my family has wanted me to be someone else. He never cared about that. He’s never judged me. Whenever I’m happy, or sad, or angry, he always wants to hear about it. He’s the only person who truly cares. I know it’s crazy to leave everything and go all the way across the country for someone I’ve only ever spoken to online; but I can’t imagine my life any other way. I can’t imagine my life without him. I just hope that he feels the same way.”
“Hope is a powerful thing. Maybe you don’t understand the weight of it. Maybe it’s your fatal flaw. But it’s also your most powerful gift.”
“I’m just so scared that this was all a mistake.” He whispers, afraid to say it any louder for fear that it’ll come true.
“Never lose your hope. When you lose it is when your fears come true.” She grabs his hand for a millisecond.
. . . . . .
After he finishes shopping with Mary Jane, the group treats him to dinner. He protests, already feeling guilty that they paid for the hotel room. However, they won’t hear of it. After dinner, they celebrate with a night of games on the tiny balcony off of their room.
“Before we all leave tomorrow, I want to say thank you.” Skipper toasts. “Thank you to my loyal crew, for a successful mission. It certainly won’t be the last.” They cheer, raising their glasses. “Thank you to Alien, for joining us. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed. While you leave us tomorrow to complete your own journey, we thank you for letting us be apart of it. I have no doubt that it’ll be a success tomorrow. To show our gratitude, we offer you a spot in our crew on the S.S. Skunk! Which is a great name, by the way.” Skipper comments.
Suddenly, a thought occurs to him. “I should be thanking you. Forty eight hours ago, I would have sworn that I didn’t have a family. Now, I can call you my family with certainty. You’ve shown me that family isn’t determined by blood or birth. You’ve taken this broken boy, and turned him into a confident, hopeful man. I can’t thank you enough for being the closest thing to a family I’ll ever know.”
Never had he thought he’d be able to call someone his family. His whole soul buzzes with love and acceptance. Something that he had been searching for his entire life, is now his.
“We’ll always be family.” Skipper agrees, pulling him into a hug.
Like all good things, the night of celebration comes to an end. While everyone else goes to bed, he stays back on the balcony, watching Los Angeles go to sleep and come alive again.
He can’t sleep, he has too many things on his mind. He thinks about his new family and how he’ll never be alone again. He also thinks about his California boy. Flipping between good and bad thoughts, he worries. It occurs to him that the best place to find his California boy is at the record store where he works.
After a final, joyous breakfast with the S.S. Skunk, he’s driven to the record shop. The whole way there, his stomach turns to knots. How can this be it? How’s it that he’s meeting his California boy today? As the van pulls up to the shop, he realizes that he can’t move.
“I can’t do it.” He hears himself say.
“You can and you will.” Scrooge speaks from the back. “You’re gonna get out of this van and you’re gonna go talk to him. After that, I don’t really care. All I know is that you’re either gonna get out and do something or start paying us back for gas.”
With the strangest pep-talk he’s ever had and a new-found confidence, he steps out of the van and into the shop. His eyes adjust to the dimly-lit shop. He stalls the inevitable by running his hands along the rows of old vinyl. This store is nothing like he’s seen in New Jersey. It fills him with a sense of calmness.
“Can I help you?” He spins around, hearing a voice come from behind him.
He feels his heart jump out of his body. It’s him, it’s his California boy. He’s real. From a whole sea of states away, he’s made it.
But he realizes that he wasn’t talking to him. He feels dizzy, steadying himself against a crate of records. Too scared to do anything, he watches his California boy. It all feels false, but everything about him is oh-so real.
For the first time, he truly takes him in. He notices that he’s much shorter than he imagined. He watches as his California boy hums along to a tune playing in the store, mindlessly sorting through vinyl. From a whole sea of vinyls away, he yearns to finally speak to the one person who’s responsible for his epic journey.
With a hope two years in the making… With a confidence two years in the making… With a love two years in the making, he leaps into the arms of faith.
“Excuse me.” He taps on his shoulder, lightly. It feels like eons before his California boy turns around. And when he does, his face lights up with recognition, and something else. His hazel eyes shine with flecks of gold and green.
“Gerard, it’s really you…”