She leaves in the middle of the day. The cat is fed. There are enough biscuits in the cupboard. Her housemates only have to put a scoop into his bowl when he meows loud enough that they come out of their rooms. She pays the rent the day before she leaves, enough for the next two months. She makes a huge lasagna that night. Her favourite part of making it is the bechamel sauce, melting the butter and cooking the flour into a roux, whisking the milk in, slowly, slowly. She adds more than the recommended amount of nutmeg, grating the little stone against the microplane, breathing in the fumes. Lots of salt and cracked pepper. When she looks back at her neat room, the bed made for once, there are already footprints in the taut sheets, the cat on the woven blanket. He’s twisted his head upside down, the underside of his jaw stretched and waiting. She runs the back of her finger along the bone there. His claws come out and then go back in again.
She eats the lasagna with her fingers because she forgot to pack cutlery. That’s the way it always is, always something left behind, no matter how hard she tries to remember everything and makes lists. She heats a portion up when the times she’s feeling hungry coincide with the times she’s passing a service station. They usually let her use their microwave if she buys a Twix or a packet of gum. She tried it cold when she got hungry and there was nothing out the window but dry grass and fence posts, but it was gross and sweaty. She throws out what’s left after two days, when the ice packs are fully melted and she judges that she wouldn’t trust the mince if she’d been at home and left it out on the bench. She moves the chilly bin to the boot of the car so she can’t hear whatever is inside the ice packs sloshing around.
At first the driving gives her headaches. She buys a packet of Nurofen at the same time as she buys a mince and cheese pie and a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice that still has sugar added to it, she reads on the back. That’s why it tastes so good. The Nurofen costs three times as much as the pie, and there’s only twelve pills inside the little silver box. She goes through it in two days, following the instructions. Do not take more than six tablets in twenty-four hours. It should be fucking illegal to sell a twelve pack of Nurofen. She eats the pie holding it in one hand while driving with the other, and occasionally using no hands while she squirts a bit of sauce out of the squeezy packet directly into the gaping mouth of the mince. It doesn’t taste like she remembers gas station pies used to, different brand maybe. Worse mince. The tomato sauce is still the best bit. In time she gets used to it, the constant blur in her periphery, how the sun sometimes bounces off the shiny cars in front of her and then she is blind for a while.
Her phone dies on the morning of the second day. She drives in silence before she remembers the CDs in the centre console. Her father’s, after he put everything onto an iPod that connects to his speakers via Bluetooth when he opens the car door. They automatically start playing Celine Dion’s ‘All By Myself’ because it’s at the top of the list alphabetically. The stack of CDs is small, a couple of Robbie Williams, Bic Runga, Norah Jones, Creedence Clearwater Revival. She puts on the James Blunt album she wasn’t allowed to listen to while her mother was dying. It made Dad do things like pretend he wasn’t crying by wearing this pair of pitch-black wraparound sunglasses, and also talk about how proud he was of her for shouldering so much responsibility. Thinking of her dad makes her feel guilty enough that she buys a shitty car phone charger the next time she stops for petrol. It only works if she holds it upside down at a certain angle so she does that, long enough that she can send a single text. Generic haven’t heard from u in a while love you with a picture of her pretending to be Robbie Williams on the cover of Intensive Care, emoji devil and angel on her shoulders, and lets it die again in the cup holder.
There is a woman with slicked grey hair sitting at the gnarled bar, a half-drunk beer with too much head in front of her. The woman is dressed all in denim that looks like it’s never been washed, soft and filthy at the same time, small triangle of white wife beater at the neck. It’s wet at the collar. She can imagine what the woman smells like, her hands huge on the pint glass. She doesn’t want to talk to the woman, so she just looks. From the other side of the room, as she chews on the ice from a glass of cranberry and vodka that is maybe just cranberry.
They kiss outside under a street lamp, in between one puff and the next of the same menthol cigarette. The light is caricaturish, like the triangular beam from UFO. She doesn’t smoke often and it does feel a bit like she’s being abducted, the way her head spins and she goes out of herself, pulling up and over to look at the two of them standing slightly apart, only touching in two places. The woman holds the lit cigarette out and away from them easily, glowing at the end of the bend of her arm. The other hand is in her hair, fisting a clump at the base of her skull. The woman has done this before. Maybe this is her move, kissing city girls under street lamps. She pulls the woman’s hair harder, gets her tongue into the small gasp she makes, opening her up a little.
When she gets back in her car she can smell the smoke still somewhere between her skin and her clothes. Her mouth is throbbing from where the woman bit her, a row of teeth on either side of her bottom lip. She checks the ashtray for small change. She gets to the next town over when it’s still dark, but the laundromat light is always on, attracting moths inside. She buys a donut while she’s watching the clothes go round, eats it in segments that she pulls off with her thumb and forefinger. The glaze slicks up her lips, and she slides them against each other for a while before licking it all off.
She plugs her phone in to see if her father has replied. She gets the bathroom key from the counter and when she wipes between her legs the toilet paper comes back covered in blood-coloured mucus, stretchy and dark. She reads his text while she waits for the coffee machine to spit out a watery hot chocolate into the plastic cup she’s put under it. There are three pictures of the table on his balcony, slab of black granite. The water on the top has frozen into a huge sheet. The text says icy. She responds, looks fresh.
When she bleeds through the seat of her pants she rents a motel room for the night. She has an actual shower, uses the shitty three-in-one that’s provided to scrub all over until her skin is so pink it’s red. At least it’s something other than wet-wiping her armpits at a rest stop or shivering under the trickle at a community centre. The towel doesn’t go all the way around her so she dries everything individually. The person in the mirror doesn’t look like her but is, or does look like her but isn’t. Either way there are parts of her face that she doesn’t recognise. If she keeps driving for seven years she’ll be a whole new person. She uses the last of her toothpaste, brushes hard, spits out blood. She touches herself on the bed, lying face down and not thinking of anything or anyone in particular. It always takes longer like this but also she feels extra sensitive, maybe because she’s gone so long without or maybe because she’s on her period. She sleeps on top of the sheets in only a T-shirt. In the morning she has Weetbix with long life milk and heaping tablespoons of sugar. She can feel her teeth revolting as she crunches through it.
She’s developed an innate sense for where everything is in a service station. She likes the sense of order, that no matter where she pulls over there will always be a row of confectionery by the counter, and small packets of condoms and razors facing the fridges. A stand full of bruised bananas for a dollar that she buys when she gets leg cramps and needs potassium. She can even tell which cashiers will let you use the bathroom that’s only for employees. She’s stopped talking to them, to anyone really. She knows how to get across what she wants without speech and only a few gestures. She buys a roll of musk Lifesavers and mumbles something they both understand is thank you.
The cubicle door opens and the person behind it pulls her in and locks it behind her. They pull her hand into their pants where it’s hot and wet. She crooks her fingers, trying to warm up the ends. Bad circulation maybe. She’s hungry, so she’s the one to push the person up against the door, her other hand against a tendon in their neck. They taste and smell overwhelmingly of sweat. The lock rattles as they move. She winces and pulls off for a second when she feels the coat hook make contact with their skull, a kind of sick throb. They let out a moan that sounds like pleasure, so when she leans back in she sets her teeth over a lip and bites.
There are days and nights when she drives and only stops when she sees the signs for power naps. DRIVING TIRED KILLS. NOT DRUNK, NOT SPEEDING, JUST TIRED. WAKE UP, DRIVE ALERT, ARRIVE ALIVE. THERE’S NO ONE SOMEONE WON’T MISS. Right at the bottom of the centre console is the twenty-fifth anniversary recording of Les Miserables. She puts in the first disc and drives. She starts drinking Red Bull to keep awake, and then decides to go through the full range of energy drinks in the fridge, aggressive names and aggressive colours. Coke with extra caffeine, extra double shot espresso iced coffee with added guarana, and so on. It makes her mouth feel dry all the time, putrefying, but the buzzing in her head keeps her company. She bites her nails so far down that sometimes there is blood.
All that’s going past the window is flat or softly crested fields, occasionally deep green and full of rain. The sky is too wide and open, not obstructed enough by buildings or ceilings. She feels scrutinised. Every couple of kilometres there is a flat house, tall straight trees lining the driveway and the perimeter of the property in a gappy, looming hedge. There is always a goat or a cow in the sparse paddock in front, close to nibbling at the washing on the line. She eats another handful of peanut M&Ms, fills her mouth enough that her cheeks bulge out chubby bunnies and she’s almost choking around all the chocolate and saliva. She presses next on the CD player, knows all the words.
And there, in the distance, a sign that says PICK YOUR OWN. She likes picking her own because it always seems fresher that way, if she’s the one to tug gently on the branch; if it’s definitely ripe but a little stubborn. She picks a persimmon out of the ice cream container on the passenger’s seat, warm and tender. She bites into it with the skin still on. The flesh oozes. It tastes a bit like perfume, not anything she can compare to another fruit. The seeds inside are hard and smooth. She bites through the thick outer skin of one seed to see what it’s like on the inside. It’s clear, bathroom silicone, but extremely hard. She finishes the first fruit, tosses the leaves at the top and the seed pieces out the window. The second one is even juicier, drips down her hand onto her shirt. She holds the mangled fruit aloft while she follows the trail of juice down her wrist, licking it all off, then transfers it to the other hand that’s still holding the wheel while she wipes the spit onto her jeans.
She spends two whole days doing nothing but lying on the lukewarm beach in most of her clothing, only her shoes and socks off so she can scrunch her toes down under the sand. It saps all the energy out of her like an appliance so she can sleep better in the car later. She eats the rest of the fruit, even softer than before, and buries the seeds in small holes that she digs with her fingers. They won’t grow here but at least they get to die out of sight. A family of four leave behind a half-finished newspaper of takeaway, so she fights off the seagulls to eat the last of the stodgy chips. She pulls the batter off the cold fish and eats the two parts separately, holding it over her mouth before she drops it straight down her throat. She didn’t bring togs so she strips down to her underwear and wades in. The sandbar drops off fast, the water so cold it’s like being shot.
The path leads around the headland to a place that is signposted as FLAT ROCK. The rock is less flat than she’d expect, deep scores carved into the surface as if from a colossal hand; a dinosaur or Godzilla. The ocean crashes in in huge surges that rush up and into the cracks, then get sucked back out just as fast. On the other side of FLAT ROCK is a small cave in the face of the cliff. Someone has made a precarious seat out of a whitened log and two concave boulders. It groans when she sits on it but doesn’t break. She pulls a rubbery heart-shaped leaf off a plant growing out of the soft clay of the ceiling and crushes it in her hand. It smells so distinctly of pepper that she tries a bit, but it tastes like she guesses most leaves do. From here she can see tiny smudges of people across the bay. No one is swimming. They run along the beach, the colours of dogs in front of or behind them.
When the light dies, early, she sits in the mouth of the cave and builds a fire. Little teepee made of sticks that she sets alight. Her own hands silhouetted against the last of the sun. She turns on her phone to send her dad a picture of the water beyond the rocks – eerily flat, the moon doubled – and asks him to put some money into her bank account. There are no other notifications. One of her housemates has posted a picture of the cat wearing a tiny cowboy hat. She opens the packet of marshmallows and puts two onto a stick, both pink because they taste better. She melts them until they’re black and lumpy as tumours on the outside. She pulls the charred skin off and eats it, then puts the stick back over the tiny fire she has made. Burning and pulling off the skin methodically, again and again, until the marshmallow loses all its shape. There are places on her tongue where the molten sugar swells her taste buds, sore and huge. She teethes one lump, pushing it to the edge with her incisors before she bites down. The lump comes off into her mouth, a piece of nerveless flesh, and she chews on it for a few moments before she swallows it.
The fire illuminates the inside of the cave, showing soft walls made of clay. The contrast makes the graffiti on the walls readable. It’s generic bathroom stuff. SUCK MY DICK. CALL 021499849 FOR A GOOD TIME. BE KIND ALWAYS. TOM’S MUM IS A FAT BITCH. Near the apex of the roof, high and distinct enough that the writer must have stood on this wobbly seat to chip it out with a knife: SOMEBODY PLEASE TOUCH ME.
Right at the back of the cave, almost out of the ring of available light, is a pile of bones assembled into a skeleton that looks vaguely monstrous. A collection of small things that make up something bigger. They are picked nearly clean but a few pieces of dried tissue cling to one of the biggest bones. It’s probably a thigh bone, she thinks, while she chews the bits off. Tastes like chicken.
It’s harder to walk the trail at night but not impossible. The moon is fat and puts out a lot of light. She dusts the sand off her feet. It comes off easily now that it is dry. She puts her shoes back on so she will be able to drive, and then she puts Norah Jones into the CD player. She sits sideways in the driver’s seat as she tries to lick the caramel out of a Mars bar. The tricky part is not fracturing the chocolate around it. Hollowing it out while keeping the shell intact.
Sophie Tegan Gardiner is a writer and Angelina Jolie devotee originally from Aotearoa. Their work has previously been published in Going Down Swinging, Starling, Voiceworks and the Bowen Street Press Review among others, and online at Meanjin. They started as editorial intern at GDS in 2021, and are currently working on their debut novel: a horny, queer coming-of-age set on a cruise ship.