Authors: Alyson Noel
I shrug, try for a bite of my hamburger, but I don’t have it in me, so I return it to my plate, while Jennika frowns into her coffee. And though it may look tense and awful on the surface, the truth is, I’m grateful for the silence.
That’s how we eat—Jennika alternately frowning and sipping, me toying with my pile of fries, as Chay scrapes his spoon hard against his plate, making sure to get every last trace.
After dabbing the paper napkin over his lips, he leans back against the shiny red banquette, and says, “The food absorbs the energy it’s prepared with, as well as the energy it’s met with. Bad energy, bad meal.” He nods at my uneaten burger, but his eyes flash in kindness.
Then, without another word, he plucks a small pile of bills from his wallet, covers the tab with what looks to be a sizable tip, and ushers us all outside where my entire life changes in the amount of time it takes to transfer a single black duffle bag from a generic rental car to an ancient pickup truck with New Mexico plates.
Just that one simple act, and it’s done. Leaving Jennika to come at me, her face distorted by grief, her shaky arms enveloping me. The two of us clinging in a soggy, incoherent heap of whispered promises and apologies—until I force myself to be the first to withdraw.
Force myself to be strong.
To smile like I mean it, and to not look back no matter how much I long to.
Climbing into Chay’s truck, its engine already idling, getting myself settled beside him as he pulls out of the lot and onto the road, heading toward the place that offers my only real hope.
Since Chay gave me permission not to talk, I spend most of the trip napping, reading, and occasionally window gazing. It’s only when we cross state lines into New Mexico that I crack open the red leather journal Jennika gave me, figuring I may as well jot down my impressions while my expectations are few.
You can only see a place objectively once. And even then, every other place you’ve ever visited manages to come into play. Once you’ve settled, spent a little time, and gotten to know a few people—forget it. From that point on, your opinions will be tainted by all kinds of bias, based purely on the negative and/or positive charge of your experiences.
It’s only at first sight, when the mind’s a blank slate, that you get the purest look.
So I fold the flap back, and write:
Watching as an entire family of brush traipses across the highway as Chay expertly maneuvers around them without losing speed.
The word soon chased with:
BIG, dark blue skies
Even the sun looks bigger than normal—like a huge, blazing fireball, falling out of the sky and plummeting toward earth!
The transition from day to night making the horizon appear infinite—endless!
Then just below that, I add:
I don’t remember ever seeing a sky quite so
so when I go over it later, I’ll know that I meant it.
My pencil clocking the page, keeping time with the thoughts in my head as I continue to window gaze—seeing what was at first a dry, barren landscape consisting of grays, and browns, and dull faded green shrubs suddenly give way to a rich palette of red earth, swaying yellow grasses, and towering, rugged, flat-topped mesas rising from deeply rutted canyons.
“Wow,” I whisper, but what I’m really thinking is:
Small. Tiny. Woefully insignificant
—and I’m referring to me.
This place is too big. Too immense. Too
. Appearing almost
in the way it seems to meander for eternity.
Even though I’d decided to give it a chance, I’ve no doubt in my mind this place will dwarf me.
The sudden realization causing a deep pang of longing for my old life—a physical ache that only the bustling pace of a movie set with its well-defined borders, and small-town environment where everyone has a name, a title, and a purpose, can remedy.
“Welcome to the Land of Enchantment.” Chay smiles.
“Are we here? Is this where she lives?” I squint into the distance, unable to see any houses, just miles and miles of uninterrupted land that seems to sprawl with no end. The sight of it making me wish he’d just stop, turn the car around, and take me back to where I came from.
Chay laughs, the sound pleasant and deep. “New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment. The town of Enchantment, where your grandmother lives, is still a ways away. There’s a gas station on the other side of this pass. I figure we’ll fill up and take a few moments to stretch our legs before we move on. Sound okay?”
I nod. Slip my pencil back into my notebook. Too agitated to write, too agitated to do much of anything other than gaze out the window, anticipating the moment when the landscape will be completely blotted out by the absence of sun.
Chay pulls into the station and stops at the first vacant pump, and the moment I exit the truck, I’m amazed at how good it feels to finally stand and walk around for a bit after so many hours of being pent up.
I throw my head back, stretch my mouth into a yawn, and take a long deep drag of New Mexico air. Surprised to find it even drier here than it was in Los Angeles, Phoenix too—must be the altitude. Stretching from side to side before bending down toward the earth—my fingertips brush across pebbly grains of asphalt, forcing myself well past the pain of my cramped and sore muscles now screaming in protest.
“Why don’t you go inside and grab us some Cokes.” Chay reaches for his wallet, but I’m quick to wave it away, already crossing the lot to the Circle K to check out the offerings.
The moment I push through the door, my stomach emits a loud, embarrassing rumble. And when I take in the array of prepackaged, processed foods on display, I can’t help but regret having left my uneaten cheeseburger and fries back in Phoenix.
I drift along the aisles, piling my arms high with supersized bags full of candy, doughnuts, and chips, along with two quart-sized bottles of Coke—one for me, one for Chay. And after adding a roll of mints to the stack, I dump it all on the counter, exchange a pleasant, if not generic greeting with the cashier, and busy myself with tabloid gazing while she busies herself with ringing me up.
Jennika hates when I do this—always quick to remind me that the majority of stories they print are either completely fabricated or carefully orchestrated by the subjects themselves. Still, it’s a guilty pleasure I cannot resist. The fun lies in determining which is crap and which isn’t.
Besides, it’s the only way I have to keep up with old friends. Some people have yearbooks and Facebook—I have the gossip rags.
As always, I start with the cheapest, most outrageous one of all. The one that boasts an enduring fascination of alleged space alien abductions and sightings of Elvis’s ghost. Smiling for the first time in hours when I see this week’s cover does not disappoint—claiming that a very famous, Oscar-winning actress is being haunted by the specter of a long-dead director hell-bent on revenge for the abysmal remake she’s producing.
Passing over the one that accuses every peasant top–wearing starlet of hiding a baby bump, I reach for the most respectable rag in the bunch—the one whose glossy covers are not-so-secretly coveted by most if not all of the up-and-coming stars.
This week’s cover boasting a seemingly candid photo of—
“That’ll be twenty-one sixteen,” the cashier says, but her voice is just noise in my head.
I barely tune in. Barely make out the words. The counter, my pile of junk food, the clerk—it all just fades into the background, until there’s nothing left but the cover of this magazine and myself.
It requires both hands to steady it—that’s how shaky they’ve become. My cheeks heating, my breath trapped in my chest—unable to lift my gaze from those piercing blue eyes, golden skin, tousled mop of blond hair, lazy half-smile, and the bandaged arm he raises in greeting.
a greeting. Of that I’ve no doubt.
Despite his trying to act as though it’s a gesture of protest—as though it’s some failed attempt to fend off the camera’s intrusive telephoto lens—I know better.
Vane’s never met a photo vulture he didn’t secretly adore.
He’s new at the game—still craves the attention. His entire life spent vying for this kind of coverage, and now, thanks to me, he’s clinched it.
“Hello? Anyone home? Your total is twenty-one sixteen,” the cashier barks, adding, “with the magazine, it’s another three fifty.”
I don’t respond. I just grip the rag in my trembling hands, the dampness from my fingers causing the paper to grow crumbly, soggy, causing the ink to seep into my skin. Unable to peel my eyes from the bold-faced headline that screams:
Collision on the Vane Wick Expressway!
That’s what they call him—the Vane Wick Expressway. Nicknamed after the most miserable, most traffic-choked highway that leads to that filthy den of chaos otherwise known as Kennedy Airport.
Having hailed from Podunk, Vane loves his oh-so-clever moniker. Loves every single part of his fame.
In the picture, his face is a mess of raw jagged scratches and dull purple bruises, while his left brow—the one he likes to quirk—appears to be slashed right in half. But damn if it doesn’t leave him looking even hotter. Making him appear vulnerable but tough—like a guy who’s seen some stuff, and then some.
Thanks to me, he’s gone from
—though I doubt I’ll get so much as a thank-you note.
And speaking of me—I’m featured too.
Represented in the form of a small blurry photo set in the bottom right corner.
A photo I recognize as being lifted straight from Vane’s cell phone.
A photo he insisted on taking, even though I tried to discourage him. Seeing no point in documenting what I knew to be a brief and fleeting hookup. And so, because I wasn’t what you’d call a willing participant, when he raised his phone to shoot, I scowled in return.
He laughed when he saw it, even promised to delete it, and I guess it never occurred to me to check.
And I certainly never thought he’d use it against me—that it would end up providing fodder for my own, unfortunate nickname: “Fan from hell.”
Fan from hell goes berserk on Vane Wick!
And just below that:
Nice guy Vane decides not to sue, says: “It’s the price of fame—I can only hope she gets the kind of help she so clearly needs.” Full story on page 34!
I don’t turn to page 34.
I don’t need to see any more than I already have.
And while I never thought Vane was a particularly nice guy like they claim, I did think he was nice enough—but I guess I was wrong.
It also looks like his publicist wasn’t trying quite so hard to bury the story like Jennika claimed. She probably waited for the bruises to bloom before she hid in the bushes and took the photo herself.
It’s not like I don’t know the drill. Hollywood thrives on this stuff—it’s the grease in their wheels. And now, because of my freak-out, Vane’s own personal star meter shines even brighter.
“Listen—you want that or not? I don’t got all day!” The cashier glares, even though from what I can see, the exact opposite is true. I’m the only one in here, and before I appeared, she was reading a book.
I’m tempted to drop the magazine on the rack. Wipe the image clean from my mind and act as though I never saw it in the first place. But there’s no going back. No way to un-see what’s now seared on my brain.
I waver. Wanting nothing more than to be rid of the thing, yet all too aware that it was my sweaty hands that caused the cover to run until it’s all smeary and drippy.
“Add it,” I say, hating to have to pay for it but unwilling to leave her with damaged goods.
I dig through my wallet, fingers trembling as I hand over a crumpled wad of cash and reject the change she tries to give back. Running smack into Chay as I push through the door, my eyes so unfocused, everything appears before me in big, wavering splotches.
Chay steadies me, placing a hand on each arm when he says, “Everything okay? Do you need to take your herbs?” He looks at me in a way that can only be described as tempered alarm.
I shake my head. Slip out of his grip. Unwilling to confide the truth—unwilling to tell him that the vision that haunts me is not just confined to my head—that it’s out there for the whole world to see. Probably already gone viral—smeared across the Internet—awaiting its own extended segment on some cheesy gossip show on network TV.
My fingernails slash at the cover, shredding it to tiny, unrecognizable bits. Then after dumping the mess in the trash, I find my way to Chay’s truck where he waits with a look of grave concern on his face.
“I’m fine,” I tell him, handing over one of the Cokes and settling in for the ride. “Just eager to get there, that’s all,” I add, realizing it’s true the moment the words are out.
When Chay first mentioned that Paloma lived in a small adobe home, I guess it was one of those details I chose not to focus on. But after traveling the paved highway for over an hour of seriously bumpy dirt roads that offer little to no light other than that supplied by the moon, my eyes start to burn from all the squinting I’ve been doing in an effort to guess which adobe is hers.
I mean, there are other types of homes too, and plenty of trailer homes as well, but this particular area features mostly adobes, making pueblo style the overriding look of the place.
New York City has high-rises and brownstones; the Pacific Northwest has clapboard façades; Southern California has, well, a little bit of everything, but Mediterranean seems to reign supreme. And from what I can see, this part of New Mexico boasts a proliferation of rectangular homes with flat roofs and smooth rounded walls that look like baked earth.