The car rumbled back to life. Liam exhaled as he cut a diagonal path through the parking lot. He didn’t seem to know which direction to turn when we finally found the road.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
He was silent for a moment, scratching his chin. “We’re still headed to Virginia, if I can find it. I think we crossed the state line a while back, but I don’t know where we landed. Not too familiar with this area, to be honest.”
“Use the damn map,” Chubs groused behind him.
“I can figure it out without it,” Liam insisted. He kept swiveling his head back and forth, like he expected someone to appear and guide him in the right direction with road flares and fanfare.
Five minutes later, the map was spread out over the steering wheel, and Chubs was gloating in the backseat. I leaned over the armrest, trying to make sense of the pastel colors and crisscrossing lines on the flimsy, ripped paper.
Liam pointed out the boundaries of West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina.
“I think we’re about…here?” He pointed to a tiny dot that was surrounded by a rainbow of crisscrossed lines.
“I don’t suppose Black Betty has GPS?” I said.
Liam blew out a sigh, patting the steering wheel. He had decided we were going right. “Black Betty may drive the straight and true path, but souped up, she is not.”
“I told you we should have taken that Ford SUV,” Chubs said.
“That piece of—” Liam caught himself. “That box on wheels was a death trap—not to mention its transmission was shot to hell.”
“So, naturally, the next choice was a minivan.”
“Yep, she called to me from the parking lot of abandoned cars. The sun was shining through her windows like a beacon of hope.”
Chubs groaned. “Why are you so weird?”
“Because my weird has to be able to cancel out your weird, Lady Cross-stitch.”
“At least what I do is considered an art form,” Chubs said.
“Yes, in ye olde medieval Europe you would’ve been quite the catch—”
“Anyway,” I cut in, now in full possession of the map, “we have to be close to Winchester.” I pointed to a dot on the western end of Virginia.
“What makes you say that?” Liam began. “Are you from this area? Because if—”
“I’m not. I just remember driving past Keyser and Romney while the two of you were out. And with all the Civil War Trails signs, we should be near one of the battlefields.”
“Those are some good detective skills, Nancy Drew, but, unfortunately, those signs pretty much mean nothing in this part of the country,” Liam said. “You can barely go fifty feet without hitting a historical marker for the place this army crossed, or that guy died, or where James Madison lived—”
“That’s in Orange,” I interrupted. “We’re nowhere near that.”
The soft blue light of evening gathered around his blond hair, stripping it of color. He studied me for a minute, scratching his chin again. “So you are from Virginia, then.”
He held up a hand. “Please. No one outside of this state gives a crap about where James Madison’s house is.”
I sat back. Walked right into that one.
It was my mom’s fault. As a high school history teacher, it had been her personal mission to cart Dad and me around to every major historical site in the area. So while my friends got to have pool parties and sleepovers, I got to walk around one battlefield after another, posing for pictures with cannons and Colonial reenactors. Fun times, made even more fun by the thousands of bug bites and peeling sunburns I always showed up with on the first day of school. I still had scars from Antietam.
Liam smiled at the dark road, keeping the minivan’s headlights off. I thought it was fairly brave—or stupid—considering the commonwealth of Virginia had never considered it a priority to install lights on its highways and roads.
“I think we should stop for the night,” Chubs said. “Are you going to find a park?”
“Relax, buddy; I got this,” Liam said.
“You keep saying that,” Chubs muttered, sitting back, “and then it’s, Oh, sorry team, let’s huddle together for warmth, while the bears try to break in and eat our food.”
“Yeah…sorry about that,” Liam said. “But hey, what’s life without a little adversity?”
That had to have been the fakest attempt at optimism since my fourth grade teacher tried reasoning that we were better off without the dead kids in our class because it’d mean more turns on the playground swings for the rest of us.
I lost track of their conversation after that. It wasn’t that I had no interest in hearing all about the bizarre traditions and habits they’d managed to form in the two weeks since escaping their camp; I was exhausted with trying to figure out why, exactly, those two were able to cling to the thin thread that bound their friendship together.
Eventually Liam found Highway 81, and Chubs found a shallow, restless sleep. The endless stream of old trees, only a few fully dressed for spring, passed by my window. We were going too fast, and we were too far into twilight, for me to make out the patchwork of leaves that had grown in. Wherever we were, there were still traces of the dead leaves from the fall before staining the highway’s cement. Almost as though we were the first car to drive the road in quite some time.
I leaned my forehead against the cool glass, reaching over to point the AC vent directly at my face. My headache was still there, pinching the space behind my eyes. The freezing air would help keep me awake, and, if nothing else, alert enough to catch my mind blindly groping for Liam’s.
He was trying to watch both the road and me. In the dark, I couldn’t do much else besides make out the curve of his nose and lips. A part of me was glad I couldn’t see the bruises and cuts there. It had only been a few days, a blink in my collective sixteen years of life, but I didn’t need to see his face to know soft concern would be there. Liam was a great many things, but mysterious and unpredictable weren’t included in that deck of cards.
“Are you okay?” I countered.
The car was quiet enough for me to hear his fingers drumming on the steering wheel. “Just need to sleep it off, I think.” Then, after a moment, he added, “Did they really use that on you at Thurmond? A lot?”