Salinas was the type of town hardly anyone had heard of, and if they did, it was because of some $400 question on Jeopardy.
“Oh yeah,” they’d say, wincing, “Didn’t John Steinbeck live there?” As if this poverty-stricken patch of California farmland was relegated exclusively to the residence of an author who’d been alive a century ago. As if that’s all it was worth.
Truthfully, Rory agreed. He loved Steinbeck, but he hated this place. That resentment had only grown over time, because it always felt like he wasn’t here by choice, but of an unfulfilled obligation he’d abandoned some years back. Salinas was like a silhouette of some long-faded glory, whose sentient ashes had been gathered by an apathetic God and sown here as a joke. Only the joke was never fully in on itself, nor was it brought to conclusion. So in lieu of a punchline, this joke-of-a-town was allowed to limp along like a beaten dog, forever wandering in a wasteland of withering prospects.
Here, the sun never shone. It was blotted out by an eternal fog, a white-grey sheet pulled over a town which had long ago flatlined, but whose body remained here, somehow forgotten and forever awaiting an autopsy.
Here, memories were warped. When time stands still, recollections become skewed, and with no sun to mark the beginnings and ends of days, this town’s recollections were purgatorial. Days didn’t turn as much as devolve, eventually drowning in darkness before lurching ahead to the next. Progress was anathema to Salinas.
That thought made Rory chuckle. He’d grown up here. Time must have moved forward at some point. Right? It sounded logical, but as his rusted pickup truck puttered to a red light at the intersection of Fuck and This Place, he felt that lack of progress in his bones. What did it feel like, he wondered? Forward momentum? Not just for the town, but for him? Walking—no, gliding—toward something? A promotion? A marriage? The prosperous American Dream he’d grown up hearing so much about had surrendered to the doldrums of the American Reality. Family and picket fences seemed as fabled as the Lost City of Atlantis, another locale swallowed whole by the crushing weight of time. But even Atlantis conjured up dreams of long-lost resplendence. Salinas simply existed, then slouched into oblivion. There was nothing to look back on or forward to. Nothing to anticipate.
He’d always heard anticipation was the worst part of waiting, but he clearly remembered embracing anticipation in those innocent, early days. When he’d told Nicole how pretty her hair was on the playground in 3rd grade. When he’d marched into his father’s room on his 18th birthday and told him, point blank, he was "pullin’ out of here to win." Anticipation had given him energy, then. It’d given him courage and purpose.
But courage was the currency of the naïve, and as for purpose? What was it, really? Something you thought you were meant for? That other people placed on you? Disappointment masquerading as a dream? It was all bullshit. He knew that well, because while he left home that day, he hadn’t left town. His mailing address still ended with Salinas, CA 93091, and if that wasn’t all the proof he needed that purpose was an assignment rather than a choice, he didn’t know what was.
He’d tried to tell his brother Vic that years back, before he watched him impulsively join the Air Force and fuck up both his knees jumping out of a malfunctioning helicopter. All in the name of some patriotic purpose that was as jingoistic as it was pointless. The world used words like purpose to prey on the malleable, then mocked the poor saps who fell for it. It was a sin. It should’ve been a crime.
Vic had always been the spontaneous one, to the point of recklessness. Once when they were kids, they’d arrived at a campground for a family getaway, and not five minutes later, Vic had scurried up the nearest tree, then subsequently fallen 15 feet onto the edge of a picnic table, slicing his side open almost armpit to asshole. Sixty-eight stitches and a non-refundable cabin deposit later, Rory listened to their dad blame him for not taking better care of Vic. “He looks up to you!” he’d screamed. “And you let him fall!”
Maybe that’s why this job in Salinas felt at once so dreadful and yet so consequential. Here, where the sky was mute and the homeless encampments stretched over the horizon like a never-ending scar, was where his brother had called him begging for help. Here, where the line between the free and the fucked was merely fractional, was where he was meeting Vic to help him score one last win.
Here, in godforsaken Salinas, was where Rory could maybe—just maybe—do what his father had told him all those years ago: not let Vic fall.
In all the ways that mattered, Vic had already fallen. The military fixed his knees, but the pain killers he’d become hooked on underscored a truth for Vic, one Rory had already found—there can be no reparations without repercussions. Fixing one thing inevitably breaks another. What was it Rory had learned in physics class? Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be transferred.
And so Vic, whose own Devil May Care energy granted him an elasticity envied by his brother, fell in with a clan of criminals and societal detritus, all of them discarded by the ones they’d loved. He’d eventually ended up back here in Salinas, destined to never age, never prosper, never progress. He fell. Gravity had done its thing. His energy had transferred.
So be it, Rory thought. Falling hurt, but falling didn’t have to be forever. If this town smothered everything good, maybe it could do the same to the bad. Maybe Rory and Vic could set it all right, brimming with the same optimism they had on that camping trip, before Vic fell from the heavens back down to earth and tore his body asunder. Maybe the two Smith & Wesson 9MMs Rory had procured could conjure enough firepower to propel them up and out of this time-fucked town for good.
The light flipped green, and black smoke plumed from Rory’s exhaust pipe, darkening the air all around and inching him ever closer to fulfilling his Biblical duty of finally becoming his brother’s keeper.
When he stepped into Waffle House, the first thing he noticed was the sticky, unclean floors that latched on to the soles of your shoes. He loved the honesty of this place, the down-to-earth feeling it evoked. The grills were always grimy, the tables stained with red rings of stale Hi-C Fruit Punch. It was the perfect love child of bad cuisine and cheap city charm. It didn’t pretend. Nor did it dream of being something it wasn’t. It was shitty and it fuckin’ accepted it.
And you could leave when you wanted. That was the most important part. Nothing was keeping you here against your will.
God bless the Waffle House.
Which is why it was the perfect place for Rory to meet Vic, whose own battles with acceptance weren’t yet won, but whose presence always swayed the uninitiated. Christ, people just took to the guy. Rory used to joke his brother seemingly coasted through life downhill, something that reaped a whole host of benefits when he was younger. His effortless momentum led him to be the first brother to get engaged, and the first brother to find full-time employment. But when the terrain shifted, coasting turned to stalling. His fiancée left. Three long years later, he was in a hospital bed unsure if he’d walk again.
What was that other law Rory learned in physics? An object in motion tends to stay in motion? That helicopter sure as hell followed the rules, plummeting unsympathetically, and as a result, everything else came to a bone-crunching halt.
“Shit, man! I was starting to think you bailed!” Vic said as he stood from his booth.
“And let you hobble in there all alone?” Rory shot back.
He had to give it to Vic. They’d fixed his knees up real good, and if he didn’t know to look for the little hints that something had happened—momentary stiffness, an errant craaack! every now and then—he might have been none the wiser.
The same couldn’t be said for Vic himself. Here, even in this dimmed fluorescent greasy spoon of hole-in-the-wall Americana, Rory could see Vic was at his nadir. Most depressing of all, he could tell he’d actually tried to hide it. The clothes were clean but still had tags on them, probably donated to some shelter. His nails and face were well-kept. But his eyes. God, his eyes. They carried the total tonnage of a decade’s worth of resentment, not just at the world but at himself. Something in those eyes seemed dead, and when combined with his new-but-not-new clothes, it gave the feeling of a storefront mannequin long past its prime. Pale and pointless.
Sure, this town didn’t have memories, but Vic’s eyes confirmed his mechanism for remembering was depressingly intact. He knew where he’d started, where he’d been, and where he was now. If the measure of a man could be told in three acts, anyone could see all you had to do was draw a 45º line right through Vic’s beginning, middle and end, until it hit rock bottom. That was his actual story. Stripped of these new clothes and his clean face and his semi-presentable hair, this veneer that Rory wanted no part of. He wanted Vic to accept what he was, much like this Waffle House. Much like Salinas.
“Well, you smell a lot better,” Rory said, and as they sat, Vic laughed. Full-throated, genuine laughter. It caught Rory off-guard, because he hadn’t heard that sound since they were teens, when they’d filled their racist neighbor’s mailbox with rotten eggs one Saturday night, only to have him open it up Monday afternoon and projectile vomit into his own yard. Their father beat them both that day, but Rory never forgot Vic’s laugh. It was the sort of magical moment that can only occur when the anticipation of a thing is trumped by something truly unexpected. And it was perhaps the last, great, unexpected thing that had happened in their lives.
They ordered food. Hash browns drenched in some sort of goop that passed as gravy. The thinnest waffles in the world smothered in liquid sugar. Then Vic forged ahead. Talked about the job, their role in everything. Meeting up with some guy named Rich.
“It’s an easy 25k,” he said. “We make sure it goes down quiet, no funny business. All we gotta do is look tough, don’t even have to talk. Protect the exchange. If I do this, and do it right? I’m moving up.”
Yeah, okay. That 45-degree slope isn’t getting inverted that easily. An object doesn’t just shift skyward all of a sudden, unless the force driving it downward is overcome by something more powerful. A hell of an ask. Might as well introduce Newton’s fourth law of motion:
An object that’s fucked tends to stay fucked. Them’s the facts, Jack.
But Rory wanted to help his brother, and while their dad was long dead, in a grave he’d never visited, his words still echoed like a poisonous earworm in the cavern of his brain.
“He looks up to you! And you let him fall!”
A part of him knew that wasn’t his fault. Just like the incident with the helicopter wasn’t his fault. Objects fall. When you’re young, your parents are supposed to catch you, not your brother. But blame and shame always went hand-in-hand, and Rory knew his father was ashamed of his own shortcomings. He had inherited that same flaw, he figured, which is why he never married or made kids. When you come from a line of emotionally languid men, the most noble thing you can do is end the line. Not all legacies were worth protecting.
They laughed, ate, paid and left, and the last thing Rory thought about as he stepped out of his favorite childhood restaurant was that the floor really was that same level of stickiness, holding fast to the heel of his shoe as if the establishment itself was pleading with him to stay here and stay safe.
If you’re in here, you can’t get hurt, it said.
This is where you belong.
Nonsense. Rory knew no one belonged anywhere. You were where you were, but that didn’t mean you belonged. Comfortable, sure. Maybe even complacent.
Belonging? That was sentiment. Like purpose and courage.
And more than anything, Rory knew this: sentiment and Salinas were mortal enemies.
Rory cruised along countless homeless camps, Vic in the passenger seat, tent after tent blurring past. He imagined a story for every person there: a barber down on his luck, a former prom queen-turned-alcoholic, a gambling addict whose final windfall never materialized. Lives were stories, after all, and each story had its natural low point, a trough where people found out who they truly were.
If Vic had already planted a flag in his own trough, Rory was still waiting for his. He’d be the first to admit he led anything but a charmed life, languishing in some new dead-end job every 18 months. Somehow, though, he made it work. Saving money was never his forte, but a roof was always over his head, and food was always a slog to the fridge away. He’d never experienced what these people had.
Christ, was that the definition of success? Not being homeless? Not worrying about your next meal? Was this what his American Dream had been whittled down to, the barest of minimums? He remembered learning about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and everything he had—food, shelter, a bed—was at the bottom of that stupid pyramid, so much so that he didn’t even recall what else the pyramid had to offer. He’d never had a reason to look beyond the bottom.
At least you’re IN the pyramid, he’d told himself. At least you’re IN the hierarchy.
“This is it,” Vic said, perking up. “Pull over here. Kill the lights.”
They got out and approached a row of monstrous, abandoned factories, all their windows broken by kids who hurled rocks during walks home from school. Rory knew that was a true story because he’d lived that story. For years, it was their afternoon ritual. As they threw stones at these squares of glass, they pictured a giant, ancient monster whose teeth they were knocking out one by one.
Monsters can’t eat without teeth! 12-year-old Vic had said, smiling.
Yeah, 17-year-old Rory had responded, but they can still kill you. That’s their job.
And Vic’s young face had dropped so suddenly that Rory felt a stinging pang of guilt. He’d taken their game and made it ugly and mean and cruel. He’d made it real life. After that, they never walked home that way again. That pathway was ruined, the earth salted.
The monster building, though, had remained. This part of Salinas had once housed businesses birthed from the Gold Rush, run by oil and railroad barons eager to put their stamp on a still-expanding country. Now that the country had fully expanded and the gold was gone, all that remained was a graveyard of ambitions, their previous owners swept away by the sands of time, leaving skeletal structures that served as nothing more than enormous urns for long lost memories. As if bulldozing them would be tantamount to admitting defeat.
Established in 1909 read one sun-bleached sign.
The future is now! proclaimed another.
And the truth lay somewhere in between, sandwiched in a concrete past and a never-arrived future.
Salinas was noncommittal like that.
“This way,” Vic said, taking his gun from Rory and checking the chamber. He squirreled the gun away inside his large coat and then zipped it up, protecting himself from the chilly, unforgiving night air. As they crossed some train tracks and passed by the crumbling bricks and decaying signs, Rory was enveloped with unease. Not just because they were doing something dim-witted—he knew guns and crime and money and desperation were a combustible equation—but because this place just felt frightening. A fingernail moon hung high above, and its faint, white light shone through the clouds just enough to illuminate decomposing tires and rusted dumpsters. They were all engulfed by several inches of dirt, and it gave the impression of makeshift graves, which Rory found fitting.
Here lies Vic’s lost innocence, suspended in time forever.
When they pushed open the doors to the factory, the hinges screeched in pain.
“Hey, Rich!” Vic screamed. It echoed inside the bowels of the building, a hollowed-out shell of dormancy and neglect. No one answered back. That frightening feeling only grew inside Rory, and he realized this floor was the opposite of Waffle House—dirt and glass shards didn’t hold your feet down. If anything, they were a repellent, preventing you from making any meaningful contact to the floor, but leaving ghostly footprints behind as the only evidence that someone had ever traversed this building in the first place.
He was so busy looking down that when he bumped into Vic, he nearly bowled him over. Then he realized why he’d stopped. Fifty feet ahead, bathed in moonlight, were at least a dozen bodies. Pools of blood branched outward like invading tentacles. Rory’s insides twisted into a jagged knot. His heart exploded into overdrive. When he took his own gun out and removed the safety, he noticed his hands were already trembling, as adrenaline flowed freely and betrayed his attempt at seeming collected.
“Vic. What the fuck is this?” he heard himself ask.
Vic didn’t respond. He didn’t have to. Rory knew what it was.
This was a goddamn massacre.
Someone got nervous, someone else overreacted, and it snowballed into something unsalvageable, until everyone was dead and no one was left to explain it to the living.
Vic perused the bodies, then kneeled over one and turned it over.
“Rich,” he said, minus any emotion. God, what Vic must’ve been feeling right now. If this crew was his final shot at some semblance of normalcy and family, of upward mobility, what did that say about his place in the world? If he’d been here twenty minutes earlier, Vic would be kissing the killing floor. Yet the slouch of his shoulders conveyed the obvious, that some part of him wished he’d been here. Maybe he’d have made a difference. Caught his crew from falling, do what Rory couldn’t years before. Or maybe he’d be just as dead as these soulless husks.
“Wait here,” Vic said, meandering toward a backroom of the factory.
“We need to go,” Rory responded, but Vic didn’t acknowledge him. Simply entered that backroom silently, leaving his brother behind with bodies of people he’d never known. What a fucked-up Russian doll this all was, Rory thought. Here were dead people, in a dead building, in a dead town. All destined to be left here to rot in the open for eternity. Because when no one knows you’re dead, coffins and burials are superfluous. They’re sentiment.
“Vic,” Rory said once more. “We need to go now!”
And no sooner had the final word escaped his mouth than a powerful twin set of headlights burst through the shattered windows as two jet-black SUVs parked right outside. The sounds of voices, people, guns. Rory sprinted over to the room Vic had disappeared in, only to see him come flying out.
“Who the hell is that?” Rory asked, pointing toward the lot.
“Run,” was Vic’s response, and Rory only had to be told once. They fled to the other side of the factory, passing window after window of dimly streaming moonlight. It felt like a strobe from the heavens judging them with cold, sardonic wit, shining down and saying, “Welcome back, boys. We missed you!”
The feeling was most assuredly not mutual. As Rory busted through the door on the other end of the factory and exited out into a railroad yard, he knew he’d finally found his trough. The flag had been planted. It was hard to get much lower than this. The two hopped down onto the railroad tracks and doubled back behind the SUVs, watching in earnest as flashlights inside the factory scoured the floor. Rory couldn’t just hear his deafening heartbeat, he could see it, imagining that fist-sized organ pumping 200 beats per minute as its owner tried to pretend he couldn’t hear it.
I know you can hear me! it might have said. But don’t worry, I won’t let you fall like you let Vic fall. Because our survival is intertwined, buddy. I’m here to bail you out of the mess you got us into.
What a mess it was. Rory could also hear Vic’s breathing, and when he put a finger up to his mouth to signal for him to be quiet, Vic shot back with a middle finger. That little gesture gave him a second wind and instantly dispelled so much of his fear. Even here, in an abandoned factory railroad yard with imminent death just feet away, that brotherly connection persisted.
Fuck you for telling me to be quiet. Unless you can breathe for me, worry about your own fuckin’ self. Without a doubt, he knew that’s what Vic was thinking. Before all this, he hadn’t spoken with him for months, hadn’t seen him in years, but once you knew somebody, really knew them, their reactions became predictable. There was a comfort in that. A familiarity borne from prolonged exposure to how someone speaks, lives, moves. Vic’s impulsiveness had made it a little more difficult to predict his behavior in those earlier years, but Rory got there eventually.
They scurried down a bit further, hopped up off the tracks, and found their vehicle unharmed. Once they were in, they waited until the flashlights were on the far end of the factory, then Rory started the engine and peeled away, kicking up dust all around. His eyes drifted to the rearview mirror, where he caught a final glimpse of the fading factory, a terrifying, decaying monster house whose missing teeth and aged walls had failed to prevent it from being formidable all these years later. And as it disappeared from view entirely, all Rory could think about was how every Salinas resident who stepped foot in there seemingly perished soon after.
Rory drove around town for two hours, because Vic was convinced they had a tail. Circling Salinas for that long was like running laps on the world’s worst race track: Rory couldn’t decide if he was bored or infuriated. He also couldn’t understand Vic’s paranoia. Adrenaline was one thing, but that’d worn off after 20 minutes. It was 2 a.m., and Vic was still on edge. Now, with Rory driving them back to his motel, he observed Vic every second he got.
“I’m sorry that fell through,” Rory said, seeing what he could get out of him.
After a long silence, Vic responded, while staring straight out his window.
“You ever think you’re cursed? Like, we’re born into this life paying for something? Like maybe last go ‘round we weren’t so good?”
What a haunting idea. Rory fuckin’ hoped not. Because if the past truly was prologue, what had Vic done to deserve such a miserable existence? What had any of them? And what if his dad had been right all along, and he really was supposed to protect Vic from … everything? What kind of debt did that incur? He pulled up into the Motel 8’s empty, rear parking lot and shut off his truck.
“We just get the one life. One chance,” Rory responded, with more confidence than he actually felt. “Isn’t that long enough?”
As they climbed the steps to Rory’s motel room on the second floor, he noticed Vic giving sideways glances yet again. The only time he’d seen him this wired was when he was using, and he could tell this wasn’t that. This had an urgency to it, a truth, that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. When they got inside, he watched Vic close the curtains to the room’s only windows, then go straight into the bathroom and shut the door. The sound of vomiting escaped from the other side. When he came out a few minutes later, he climbed into one of the room’s unremarkable full beds, turned away from Rory and curled up into a ball. Rory couldn’t take it anymore.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I just need to think,” Vic responded, and closed his eyes.
Rory jolted awake an hour later to the sight of Vic standing over him with desperation in his eyes.
“I did something stupid,” Vic said. A faint smile formed on Rory’s face as he sat up in bed. He chuckled. He knew this would happen in due time, that Vic would tell him why he’d been acting so strange when he was good and ready. If that’s what this was about, he’d have to be a little more specific. But as soon as Rory was done wiping his eyes, he caught a glimpse of Vic’s bed, and his smile vanished. There, on the bed, was the answer he’d been searching for. The reason Vic had been so jumpy. Why he’d been convinced someone was following them the whole time.
Because over on Vic’s bed was at least $200,000 in cash. He must’ve taken it when Rory was with the bodies. More than a dozen stacks of $100 bills, placed neatly on top of the comforter like it was about to be photographed and uploaded onto Instagram.
Don’t scroll! 1 like = 1 blessing!
“I couldn’t help it,” Vic said, close to tears. “It was right there, on the table, all alone. I just shoved as much as I could into my coat. We can go somewhere, anywhere. Leave Salinas behind for good!”
The more Vic talked, the less Rory heard. All he could think about was his brother’s penchant for impulsivity, and how it inexorably put them on the path to this very moment, in this very room. How this town had doomed them from the start, the instant they were conceived. He believed towns had personalities, and more than that, they had souls. And if ever there was an example of a toxic, codependent entangling of lost souls, it was Salinas, Rory, and Vic. An organism standing alone had free will, but an organism attached to another organism was just along for the ride. Rory and Vic had been latched on to this place all their lives, against their wishes. They weren’t people any longer, just unwitting parasites whose host had never given them a fuckin’ thing, and here they were being dragged through time on the belly of a beast that had gotten so hungry and desperate it was starting to eat itself. Now, they’d taken from this organism. They’d taken from Salinas. Nothing good could come from that. They’d be eaten next.
Rory’s heart raced again. He stood, eyed the money, picked up a stack. Like he had to confirm it was real.
“Goddamn. What were you thinking?”
Vic didn’t answer.
Rory put the money down, paced. “Oh, fuck me. Fuck me! How could you be so stupid?”
He went into the bathroom, didn’t bother turning on the light. Instead, he sat on the covered toilet seat in the dark, placed his head in his hands.
Vic just stood there in a stupor.
“Rory,” he said weakly.
“Rory, are you mad at me?”
That question was a time machine. It slingshotted Rory past the previous 24 hours, past all the years he’d ignored Vic’s plight, past Vic’s injuries and their dad’s death, past his unintentionally cruel comment at the factory and the incident with the mailbox and the eggs. It landed him squarely in his old childhood bedroom, when he’d walked in to find a shattered Lego set, all 1,200 pieces of it, spread throughout his room like birdfeed in a local park. In the middle of it was Vic, only 5, playing with those little blocks and creating something of his own. He’d broken Rory’s perfectly built spaceship, the thing he’d spent hours meticulously putting together by following the instructions, just to craft some monstrosity that was in his head. Some improvised thing. When he’d seen Rory’s face, and listened to Rory scream, and stood up frightened beyond belief, he’d asked the exact same question he was posing now.
“Rory, are you mad at me?”
That was the Vic that Rory saw right in this moment. And that was the Vic that Rory watched get blasted from behind by a shotgun, its buckshot bursting from outside, through the window, through the curtain and into their motel room like a temporal intrusion, returning him back to the present. Vic’s body arched backward for half a second, before straightening and finally collapsing to the motel room carpet. He was dead before he landed.
Rory rose and planted his back against the bathroom wall, and right then a sickening thought occurred to him: Of course this is how Vic dies, falling right in front of me, unable to catch him. One last failure.
His shaking hands grabbed the gun out of his pocket, prepping for the inevitable.
This must be what fear-driven anticipation feels like. No wonder people hate it. It’s awful.
Then a sound from outside. Voices.
“I got ‘em! Hah, I got the stupid motherfucker!” one voice said.
“Get up in there and get the money before someone calls the cops,” came another.
Here it comes, Rory thought.
Here comes Salinas.
He heard the hurried sound of crinkling footsteps on the glass, now scattered around the room like the Lego pieces back home. Though he couldn’t see his body, Rory knew Vic was there, too, among the pieces. Just like before. That was his life. His death. His forever.
Time stood still in Salinas. Nothing progressed.
He waited, on edge, ready to pull the trigger if the man approached the bathroom—but he never did. Rory heard him stopping at the bed and tossing the money into a bag. That’s when he realized: the men didn’t know he was there. They must’ve seen Vic through a slit in the curtain, but not Rory, sitting in the dark in the bathroom. By stealing that money, his brother had signed his own death warrant, but by pulling the curtains, he’d given Rory a chance. Vic had stopped him from falling, and now Rory could never return the favor.
“Hurry the fuck up!” repeated the voice outside.
“I think I gotta take a piss,” the man inside shot back.
And Rory almost busted out laughing.
There it is, he thought. There’s that Salinas charm. No matter how good your luck was in this place, it was always bound to be overtaken by a counteracting force. Salinas was a black hole like that. It defied the laws of physics. Make sense of it, you’d make millions.
‘The Laws of Physics, According to Salinas.’ The town’s best-selling autobiography.
The outside man’s voice brought Rory back to Earth. “Don’t you dare, you small-bladdered piece of shit,” he whispered into the room. “Zip up that bag and let’s go!”
The inside man stomped his foot on the motel room floor in anger, making Rory flinch in the bathroom.
“Don’t talk to me like that! You ain’t family!”
“Are you fucking serious right now? You know what, fine. I’m waiting in the car for exactly three minutes. Take a shit for all I care. Rub your ass on carpet, get your fingerprints all over the goddamn room, too. After three minutes, I’m gone. Fuckin’ piss-takin’ amateur …” His voice faded through the motel hall and down the stairs.
Rory heard the last of the money get placed into the bag and zipped up. Footsteps approached the bathroom. He readied himself.
Then silence. Rory furrowed his brow. Tried listening extra hard – whatever the hell that meant. But nothing. Finally, the man’s voice returned.
“You really are a dumb fuck, aren’t you?”
Rory held his breath. Gripped the gun tightly. As his heart pounded, it spoke to him once more.
He probably heard me beaten so fast, buddy. Sorry about that. But, like, it’s my job. Bummer, dude.
“You really thought you could steal from us? I mean holy shit, look at your clothes! You’ve still got the tags on!”
Unbelievable. The son of a bitch was berating Vic. He was standing over the corpse of the man he’d killed and shitting on his unmarked grave.
“Maybe that’s for the best. You weren’t going anywhere, anyhow. They’d’ve used you up. Just like they’re using me.”
He continued his approach to the bathroom.
“Can’t even let me pee when I want. Next chance I get, I’m out of this no-good town and on the next train to—”
Pop! Rory fired a shot straight into the man’s head as he stepped into the bathroom, and blood splattered against the dingy tile as he collapsed into the tub. Rory waited for what felt like an eternity to hear whether the other man was sprinting back up to the second floor, but no footsteps ever came, and when he left the bathroom, he was instead confronted with his brother’s limp, lifeless face, pressed sideways against the floor like a beached fish. It was surreal and scarring. His sad eyes carried the faintest glimpse of those final words he’d spoken to Rory before he died. Like a ghost of a memory.
He’d always be here, Rory thought.
He’d always be dead, in this room, in this town, wondering whether I’m mad at him.
He’d always belong to Salinas.
Eight hours later, Rory was boarding a train to Tulsa with a single bag slung over his shoulder. He knew no one in Oklahoma, making it the perfect spot to lay low until he could survey what, if any, blowback came from the incident at the motel. He wasn’t overly concerned. He’d paid cash for the room, and Salinas PD wasn’t exactly a crack team—he remembered one year where only eight percent of the murders were solved. Before he’d grabbed the bag of money and left from the back stairs of the motel complex, he’d called the police and dropped an anonymous tip that there were two dead men in the room and a suspicious man with a shotgun in the parking lot. He took Vic’s gun, rubbed the prints from his own, and placed it in Vic’s hands. Next thing he knew, he was buying a one-way ticket out of this perpetual in-between, searching for some semblance of momentum.
There it was. That yearning for progression. More than that, the thing he’d briefly felt in the motel room was creeping back. It filled him with anxiety and dread and all the other feelings that’d laid dormant while wasting away in Salinas. He’d smothered it after leaving the blood and death behind, too. But here, hours later, it reared its ugly head again.
Anticipation. What lay ahead for him in Oklahoma? More stagnation? While waiting for the train, he’d looked up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Safety. Belonging. Esteem. Self-actualization. He wasn’t impressed. Maybe that was the point, though. Needs weren’t impressive, they were simply facts. If he and Vic had fulfilled those needs, maybe they’d be sitting on this train together, escaping Salinas as brothers once and for all. Instead, Vic would join their father in the realm of the forgotten, just like everything else in this city.
The doors closed and the train started moving, and Rory felt anticipation swell even more. What if it wasn’t Salinas, he thought. What if there was just something wrong with me? With us? With our family? That town held sway, sure, but people were still people. Free will was a fact, like those needs.
What if I fail in Tulsa like I failed in Salinas? What if the only momentum I ever feel is the kind made by this train, carrying me across the country just to face failure once more?
He guessed that was possible. But as the train gained speed and Salinas faded further and further away, Rory opened the curtain at his seat and saw something that put him at peace for the first time in a long while. A dark sky gave way to an emerging sun, the horizon steadily melting into a light blue as time finally, mercifully moved forward. He spotted a winding stream and a massive, rocky cliff beyond, and gasped as a hawk took flight from its tree and dove straight down, over the cliff, out of Rory’s line of sight, chasing some unseen prey.
Rory rested his head against the window and closed his eyes, and the last thing he thought before succumbing to sleep was hoping that hawk had found what he was hunting for. He’d hoped he was able to pull up before crashing against the ocean rocks, that all its momentum wasn’t simply a waste of energy, fated to be transferred straight into the ground and lost forever, like Vic’s.
If it could stop itself from falling here, outside the boundaries of Salinas, where sunlight, time, hopes and dreams existed, well then … maybe Rory could, too.
*Feature image by William Joshua Davenport