It’s night again. It’s always night.
They emerge from the desert like seekers returning from a pilgrimage, which is to say, they return blinking the shine from their eyes when every lit-up neon sign is too much, much too gaudy and much too foreign. Alexis slips her sunglasses back on her face, and Moriah only takes a look at her and sighs.
“I swear, it’s like I can’t take you anywhere.”
“You love me,” Alexis says, and Moriah only shakes her head. She doesn’t dignify it with an answer.
The two-tone digital bell chimes as they push their way into a deserted diner. The fact of prerecording sends a shiver down the back of Alexis’ spine. She thinks of the ghosts of long-dead fish in the desert and puts it out of her mind. The metal push bar is sticky beneath her fingers, and she makes a mental note not to touch anything.
The host that greets them is tired and ragged, worn around the edges just like the menus she hands them. Everything is sticky, including the tacky vinyl booths. It sticks to the back of Alexis’ legs. There are knife wounds in the upholstery from someone’s temper. Alexis can see into the foamy guts of the seat.
Their waitress is pretty in a way that’s gone on too long, a record left to play after the DJ fell asleep, spinning around and around until the grooves wear smooth to the point of distortion and beyond. Makeup gathers in the creases that bracket her mouth, in the fine little lines beneath her eyes. She offers them a tired smile and two glasses of water and asks, “What can I get you?”
“Pancakes and bacon,” Moriah says.
“Coffee.” Alexis’ stomach gurgles.
“She’ll have the pancakes too.”
The waitress doesn’t even pause. Just nods and walks away over checkerboard tile. Alexis leans her head on her hands. “I hate it when you do that.”
“And I hate when you don’t eat. Tough.”
“We don’t have the money.”
They both shut their mouths when the waitress comes back with Alexis’ coffee through force of long habit.
“Yeah, well. On the list of things I’m willing to sacrifice, meals don’t make the cut. Not yours and not mine.”
Alexis worries her bottom lip between her teeth. “Yeah, okay.” It isn’t the last time they’ll have this conversation, but she likes when Moriah talks like this. She likes the lit-coal feeling it sparks somewhere in her chest, low down next to her growling belly.
She snags the glass sugar canister off the edge of the table and dumps an ungodly amount in her coffee, then she drowns it in creamer. It’s tepid by the time she raises it to her lips, sweet enough to choke her. The sugar container and handle are both sticky. Everything is sticky.
“I don’t know how you can drink it like that,” Moriah says with undisguised disgust worn smooth through use. It’s an old saw, familiar land.
Alexis just shrugs like she’s supposed to. “Calories are calories. Caffeine is caffeine.”
She pushes her cup across the table and Moriah stares at it like it’s poison. She sighs, scrubbing a hand over her tired face and lifting the cup to her mouth. “Only because I’m driving,” she says. She takes a deep gulp and thumps the mug back down, setting it rattling in its saucer. “God, that’s foul.”
They shut up again when the waitress comes back with their food. She eyes the cup sitting on Moriah’s side of the table but says nothing. She looks them over once and refills it from a steaming carafe that smells bitter and burnt, too tired to care if two urchins stiff them out of three bucks.
Alexis dresses the second cup just as nasty as the first. She’s still thinking about the bruises under the waitress’ eyes after she’s gone. They remind her of the yawning maw of the canyon.
Moriah drowns her pancakes in syrup and crunches on her bacon, dragging it through the sticky sweet mess on her plate. She makes happy noises as she eats, and Alexis just watches her for a while. There’s a bead of syrup sitting perfect on the dimple on her lip. It’s there only for a second before Moriah licks it back off.
Moriah glances up from her food (wonder of wonders) and catches Alexis looking. She quirks a brow in her direction, you gonna eat or what?
Alexis shakes her head and twists her hair off her face and away from her food, letting it unravel down the slope of her back like a tawny rope. She pours a river of syrup onto her own pancakes and wonders if diabetes runs in their family. The bacon is burnt and the pancakes taste like chemicals, and Alexis once again has that feeling of being home.
* * *
They hit a gas station on their way out of town. It’s nonnegotiable, so that it isn’t even a conversation. The needle to the gas meter is dipping too near the E for comfort, and no matter what Moriah says, they’d skip meals for this if they had to.
Keep the car gassed: it’s the inviolate rule.
Alexis leans her arm against the open window and taps her fingers along its lip, little aimless songs that remind her of the prairie. She tips her head back and rests her head while she waits for Moriah to finish filling ‘er up. The tumbleweeds in this town give her the creeps. Everything is too quiet. The flat, empty fields of dirt stretch on for miles, yawning into the dark.
It’s disturbing here in a way it wasn’t in the desert. An empty place that’s supposed to be empty is peaceful. One that’s supposed to be full is a horror.
Alexis looks at herself in the passenger side mirror, assessing her looks. She’s pretty, she guesses. Sometimes she thinks so. Tonight is lucky; it’s one of those nights. The bleary lights from the awning overhead shine down on her just right, blurring imperfections and picking out the shadows beneath her cheekbones, the tired hollows beneath her eyes. Consumption chic. She’s got Moriah’s nose in miniature with thin, stubborn lips and tilted black eyes. There’s more to tell them apart than to keep them together. People can’t often tell, she doesn’t think, that they’re a matched set. Sometimes she likes that and sometimes she doesn’t.
The slam of a car door jerks her out of her reverie.
“Alright,” Moriah says. “Let’s rock and roll.”
* * *
Alexis picks at the edges of her cellphone. It’s silvered with paint, the false chrome already flaking off to reveal the plastic white underneath. It’s a cheap thing, picked up at a drugstore in a town miles back. Alexis gets her thumbnail under the crumbling paint. She pries at its weakness and flakes it off to silver powder into her lap.
She sticks the edge of her thumb into her mouth to taste it, and it tastes like nothing. Like dirt and dust and the slight salt of her own skin.
She flips the phone open. The screen blinks white for only a second before winking back into grey, flat nothingness. Dead again. Nothing holds a charge anymore.
She opens the glovebox all the same, pulling out a kinked old power cord. She plugs one end into the cigarette lighter and the other into her phone, waiting for the screen to blink back to life. She flips the lid of the phone shut and tosses it in the cupholder.
“You know we’re going to have to talk about it sometime.”
Now it’s Alexis’ turn to reach out and crank up the radio. She flips to a talk station and turns it up obnoxiously loud. It’s a dirty trick, but someone’s got to do it.