It's been a week since my brother was arrested, and since then I've spoken on the phone more than I had over the past ten years. In theory, I don't mind speaking on the phone. People call for a reason and usually get to the point. Even if someone calls just to chat, at least they felt compelled enough to reach out to you, rather than turn to someone in earshot. They opt instead for a crackling phone line. I don't mind speaking on the phone, I just don't get called up a lot. Not until this past week, at least.
I keep Arthur on speaker as I lie in bed, staring into the side of my phone as if I was talking to the device itself.
"I miss ya, you know, and Mags too. I mean, there's lot of things I miss, obviously, but I can't help but feel I'd be a hella a lot happier if you guys were here with me." Arthur speaks quickly; anyone who isn't me or Maggie usually stops him mid-sentence with a raised hand, overwhelmed.
"Of course you would," I say when he finally pauses. With Arthur it's more listening on the phone than talking, but I don't mind. I like hearing what's on his mind. It's usually interesting and always distracting.
"A-and people here seem to be in packs, you know, or paired up or something, like everyone's got a partnership or an agreement or a place in line. I haven't been here long enough to get myself situated in one of those deals, you know, so I'm kinda on my own which sucks cuz I-I feel like like someone's gonna pluck me up and-I don't know I'm gonna settle into something sooner or later and I'm pretty fucking terrified of what that's gonna be."
I don't mind speaking on the phone, in theory, but things are hard to hear no matter how they're delivered. He waits a beat for my response. I search for words, wishing I could give him advice, but I don't know what to do, not with this, not with someone like Arthur. Arthur has trouble as it is.
"Anyway," he continues. "I-uh-oh. I gotta go. Bye!"
Our conversations usually end like this; abrupt, mid-sentence. I check the time. It's 1 a.m. We never speak about the time difference, about how calling right before night hours helps Arthur sleep, how I leave my ringer on loud, how I bought two extension cords so I can charge my phone next to my bed, how I sometimes never sleep at all anymore, wondering if that night would be the night the phone wouldn't ring because something had happened. Something that Arthur wouldn't want to talk about. Especially over the phone.
Maggie has been stirring her coffee for the past five minutes, squinting over at me across the table. I wait patiently for her to speak. It was her, after all, who had let herself into my apartment and refused to leave unless I got lunch with her. She's as stubborn as I am and twice as smart. This—and the fact that I owe her more than I can repay—is why she can wear me down. I reach for my coffee. Her eyes follow the mug's path to my lips and back to the table before returning to my own. I raise my eyebrows and gesture for her to speak, fighting her condescension with frivolity. "Is it Arthur, or is it other things," she finally asks.
"Both, I guess, I don't know."
"I don't wanna interrogate you, but you know I worry."
I still find myself humored by her accent. It's charming, how her voice is as flat and wide as the land out here. "Yeah, I know."
"And you need to shave."
"You've said that."
Maggie's my former step-sister, but she treats me like blood: no sugar-coating, no excuses. When Arthur and I found ourselves starving in the city, she insisted we move to Morris and stay with her. It had been a year since our father left, but that didn't make a difference to her. Even when Arthur and I had our own place, she kept an eye on us, mostly on me, ironically, deducing my serotonin levels like she does now. She leans back with her palms wrapped around her mug. "How is Arthur?"
"Come on, Scott. He talks to you."
"It's actually been a few days since he's called, so…" Again, I shrug.
"Is he doing okay?"
"I don't know. I'm not there."
"Well, Jesus, how does he sound?"
"Like himself, but...scared."
She looks out the window. "I still can't believe it."
"He shouldn't have gone to California."
Maggie, noting the disdain in my voice, tilts her head. "You know he's always wanted to. Remember how hard it was for him, going to school in New York instead of San Diego?"
"That was his decision."
She furrows her brow. "I never said-"
My phone buzzes, interrupting her. I don't bother excusing myself or apologizing. The deadpan operator greets me on the other line.
You are receiving a call from an inmate at the California Institution for Men. Press one if--Thank you, you will be redirected shortly.
"Arthur, I didn't think you'd call today. Especially at this hour."
"Yeah, well, I wanted to talk to you about something."
I wait for him to launch into a rant, but silence follows. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, fine, but you know how I was talking about finding my place here and all that? Well, I think I found something or it found me and I'm thinking maybe I'll get out of here sooner than I think if things go-uh-..."
"Arthur, what are you talking about?"
"I don't wanna say--" his voice drops and I plug my opposite ear. "I mean I'm pretty sure they don't record our calls here but maybe they just tell us that, you know?"
"Why would it matter if they're recording you? Did something happen?"
"No, no, something's gonna happen real soon by the looks of it."
"What's going to happen?" People have told me Arthur makes them nervous. They have no idea. "Okay well basically-you know-FUCK, I wanna ask you if-FUCK!"
I drum my fingers on the table and look over to Maggie, who's throwing her hands out, demanding an explanation. "Hold on, Arthur," I say as I lower the phone. "If a prison says they don't record calls, they don't, right?"
"How should I know? What's going on? Give me the phone."
"Talk to Maggie," I tell Arthur before handing her the phone, slightly relieved. "Arthur? What's...Okay but-Stop talking. Just-...Arthur if what I think is happening is happening, don't get involved. If you get caught, you'll spend decades in prison. It's not worth it—with good behavior you'll be out soon."
Oh. He's going to try to break out. "Give me the phone," I demand. She waves me off. "Maggie! He'll listen to me! He's MY brother, not yours!"
I think both of us forgot we were in public—my voice had silenced the restaurant and my drink had spilled from me standing up too suddenly. Maggie's frown deepens as she hands the phone over to me. I take it outside.
"Doesn't matter. Listen, I'm going to come see you. Don't do anything until I get there. It's going to take me until tomorrow night. Promise you'll wait."
"W-well, yeah maybe if-like-"
I lift up a hand as if he were in front of me. "Just, promise me, okay?"
"Okay. I'll see you then."
I hang up and look across the street to the Morris Family Center, dim and dusty during the day. An older couple sits outside the building on lawn chairs, as if taking shelter under the balcony. We meet eyes, and they wave. Morris rubbed Arthur the wrong way. It was small and he panicked.
What do I need? What do I need? Wallet, charger, keys.
My phone rings. Maggie.
"Yeah?" I ask, my phone tucked between my neck and shoulder, my arm halfway through a jacket.
"What the fuck, Scott‽ You ran out on me, leaving me with the check, by the way, and-"
"I'm going to see Arthur."
I tick my head away from the phone for the sake of my eardrum. "He's gonna try to break out." I glance at the mirror, looking as ill-prepared as I feel.
"I have to talk to him in person. I have to talk him out of it." I leave the apartment and head down to the ground floor.
Maggie's still on the phone with me when I get to my car, relaying her list of what could go wrong, asking what I'd do about work. I stand with a hand wrapped around the door handle, wanting to leave this conversation behind.
"Maggie," I say, interrupting her. "I'm going."
"At least let me come with you!"
"I don't want to drag you into this. Arthur's my responsibility." I hang up and get into the car.
As I near town lines, I find myself regretting not mustering some sort of an apology or at least a goodbye. When I pull onto the highway, the horizon spreads out around me, and I remember that I haven't left Illinois since last year. I have a long ride ahead—there'll be time to call Maggie.
Four hours into the drive, a sign appears along the side of the road. 'The People of Iowa Welcome You,' it reads. Long after it passes, my eyes remain in the spot where it had been, picking up the occasional shrub that flies by as an olive blur.
Exhaustion and boredom find their way into the car, crowding me, taking up leg room. I throw my head to the side, a ripple of cracks erupting from my neck. No one ahead, no one behind. I could drive with my eyes closed and be fine. I fiddle with the radio stations, searching for stimulation.
"Obie Trice! Real name, no gimmicks!"
The intro of Eminem's "Without Me" transports me back three months ago to when Arthur would ride shotgun. I can see him beside me, turning up the volume.
"No," I say flatly as I reach to turn the channel.
"Oh come on! I have to, when does this ever come on the radio?"
"What difference does it make if you play it hundreds of times through the aux?"
"It's more special! Shhh, here it comes. 'Guess who's back? Back again?'"
I slump back in my seat, ready to hear the rap I have now memorized just from hearing Arthur do it over and over.
"Shady's back." He points to me. "Tell a friend! Guess who's back, guess who's back-" his voice deepens past articulation and I withhold a chuckle. He straightens himself up and takes a breath, twiddling his fingers to the chime before launching into a high-speed performance.
"I've created a monster cuz nobody wants to see Marsha no more-"
"-They want Shady I'm chopped liver, well if you want Shady this is what I'll give ya, a little bit of WEED mixed with some hard-"
I turn off the radio and drive in silence.
I hadn't thought that the land could possibly get flatter until I drive through Kansas. How the hell did Dorthy not see the tornado coming from miles away? A small fast-food restaurant appears ahead, the only indication of life I've seen for hours. As it nears, my stomach collapses with hunger, as if my body has foreseen the death that would come with getting stranded out here. I pull over, calculating how much time I can spare.
The sign on the restaurant's door says, "Life's short, eat the bacon." When I open it, I'm immediately met with a customer's back. "Jesus," I mutter, taking in the massive line.
The young woman in front of me turns, her ponytail grazing the tip of my nose. She flashes a grin. "Why so surprised? This is Gus's on a good day."
"What the hell could be worth waiting this long for?"
She scoffs, shaping her mouth into a diamond. "How about the best fried chicken in the country? You're telling me you stumbled on Gus's by accident?"
"Well, be prepared to wait—you're not leaving here til' you try it."
"I really don't have time to-"
"Yeah you do. Just drive a little faster on your way outta here."
I feel the corner of my mouth tick up. It's refreshing, how she speaks to me like we know each other. "I'm not a big fan of fried chicken."
She crosses her arms. "I'm not a big fan of fried chicken," she imitates in a ridiculous accent that jumps between New York and Boston every other word.
"Are you kidding me?"
"Are you kidding me?"
"I barely have a New York accent. I don't really have an accent at all."
"Around here you do. Everyone has an accent." Her voice leans drunkenly on each word. "You're really going to make fun of how I talk when you sound like that?"
"Sound like what?"
"Sound like what?"
She snorts at my attempt. "Careful with that, you'll get your ass kicked out of here. Sit yourself down, get us a table. Bet you won't have the patience for a line like this." I start three different sentences with broken syllables before leaving to find a table.
Brittle skin the color of molasses crackles as I bite down, my teeth breaking through a crispy shell and sinking into meat so white it glows. The southerner across from me stares.
I smile as I chew. "It's good."
She slams a fist down, the silverware flinching. "Damn right it's good!"
I laugh. The tightening of my stomach warms me. We talk for a while. She asks about the city, about family, about plans for the future. She asks and asks.
Every answer I give is met with follow-ups. When I get the chance, I ask a question, and the spotlight immediately swivels onto her. She speaks with an energy that flickers in her eyes and materializes in hand gestures. I find myself gazing at her, relishing in her giddiness.
She cuts herself off and asks, "What?"
"Nothing, I just know someone who you would get along with."
"Oh?" She inquires, lifting an eyebrow. I can't tell if she's flirting with me or the idea of a compatible stranger. "Is this someone around?"
"He's in prison."
Her face drops. "Did I make that bad of an impression?"
"No, no, he's my brother and, uh, not a criminal."
"Why's he in jail then?"
"He-uh-..." I pause, giving her a chance to let me off the hook. She remains unmoved, listening intently. "...It was voluntary manslaughter. But he's not a bad person. It was a mistake. He doesn't deserve to be in prison."
"Does he not deserve it because he's your brother or because he doesn't deserve it?" There's jest in her tone, but it's a thin layer of paint on rotten wood.
"He doesn't deserve it," I growl, "and it's because he's my brother that I know that."
She stiffens as if her blood has coagulated. Her energy becomes smothered in this stillness, leaking out via her trembling voice. "I-I didn't mean to-"
I check my phone and bark three lines. "It's late. I should get going. It was nice meeting you." If she was trying to meet my eyes as I left it doesn't matter. When I glance back, hers are glued to the table.
Somewhere near the border of Kansas and Colorado, I lie dazed in a hotel room. "It's disgusting," I say into the phone. "The bed's damp with god knows what, and the light never fully turns off—it just flickers. And the sink doesn't work."
There's no sarcasm in Arthur's voice, but I backtrack, catching myself complaining about living conditions. "It's not that bad. Whatever. How are things going?"
"Fine I guess. I'm trying to keep to myself but people pick up that I'm nervous and I try to stick near the guards especially that one guy I told you about who's nice enough but then people pick up on that and it doesn't look great cuz-like-and-..." His voice is shaking.
"Hey, it's alright, slow down."
"Yeah sorry. Sorry. I just-...It's hard to talk about out loud sometimes cuz you're never really alone here and, you know."
"I know. You don't have to talk about it." Lately, our conversations are getting shorter and shorter. There's a pause. "Listen," I begin. "I know you're scared and-" I shouldn't have started that sentence with 'I know'. "Y-you won't be in there long. And we're still waiting to hear back about the appeal, right?"
"It's 4 years. You'll be out when you're 28. You won't even be 30 yet."
"And that's without good behavior and without the appeal, which could still work out for you."
I study his voice, searching for a tremor. "Why don't you call me during the day tomorrow? I can tell you about Colorado."
"Oh good! Okay I'll do that, I'll call you tomorrow!"
I've given him something to look forward to. Now both of us can sleep tonight.
How Colorado and Kansas are in the same country, let alone next to each other, is beyond me. I drive slow as the Rockies loom in the distance, keeping my head turned towards the window. Even when he's not with me, Arthur shows me things I never would see otherwise.
The car phone rings. Speak of the devil.
You are receiving a call from an inmate at the California Institution--Thank you, you will be redirected shortly.
"Hey, John Denver."
"John Denver? He sang Rocky Mountain High?"
"Oh. Good one," I mock. "H-" I cut myself off, having learned to avoid questions like 'how are things?' Distraction, not reflection. Another question lingers in my throat, but when I try to speak, my voice dwindles in hesitation.
Thankfully, Arthur has a knack for preventing silence. "How's Colorado?" he asks.
"It's-..." Again I cut myself off; at once I want to entertain him with its brilliance and spare him of envy. "It's not that great." I look out towards the mountains. The morning sun stains their peaks a warm orange. "I haven't reached the Rockies yet." His voice dips. "Oh. Well-"
"But I will soon," I add quickly. "And I can tell you about it when I see you in person, which should be soon."
I spend the next hour drawing amiable conversation from Arthur, baiting him with funny stories and weird dreams.
"If you make your bed every day you'll feel a sense of accomplishment that gets ya going!" Arthur imitates Maggie in an exaggerated Midwestern accent.
"Spot on," I say. My car slithers down a cozy road, cutting through pines.
As our laughter deflates, a brown mass double the height of my car steps into the road. "WHOA!" I slam on the breaks. When the screech of the tires cuts out, I hear Arthur barking through the phone.
"What? What happened?"
I lower my head to peer out the windshield. An elk, unmoved by my presence, takes a step, its legs nearly as long as the surrounding trees. Its profile disappears as it turns its head. From it spurts massive antlers.
"A-an elk! An elk just walked in front of my car! Holy fuck! I can't believe it!"
"Dude, it's just a deer."
"It's an elk, moron, they're different! And it's huge! It's, like, 15 feet tall! Oh my god, it's looking right at me."
He chuckles. "Better run, Scott. Deer take no prisoners."
"It's an elk, and you don't get it—this thing's-I-it's like from another world," my own voice begins to jingle with laughter. "You'd be freaked too!"
"Well, I don't know! I'm not there."
"I gotta go, but take a picture for me."
I watch the elk disappear into the woods. "I will." Arthur will forget about it by the time I arrive. And besides, I'd rather him see it in person.
"And remember to tell me Maggie's new number once she gets her phone fixed!"
After we hang up, I remain for a moment with my foot on the break, as if the elk were still in my way.
I guess it's better I saw Las Vegas during the day; daytime's never shown on the brochures. Its makeup from the previous night has been rubbed off lazily, leaving residue behind in the form of empty containers and grey, unlit neon lights.
My foot presses down the accelerator as the city begins to dwindle into desert. It's late. I've been wasting too much time. My face scrunches in regret, my foot convulses down to the floor of the car. A red hue flies overhead and I glance upwards. Was that a red light? Seconds later, the interior of my car is stained with hues of both red and blue, accompanied by a siren.
Fuck. I glance out my back windshield. I don't have time for this.
My foot hovers over the accelerator and I'm reminded of a time when Arthur was in the passenger seat, begging me to speed down an empty road like the one before me now. I can see him, propelling his palms towards the road like a coked-up Iron Man. "Come on, no one's on the road but us! We could never do this in the city! This is the one thing Morris has to offer."
I shake my head. "No. I just got this car."
"Perfect time to see what it can do! Come on, please! At least get it up to 80!" I feel a smile slip past and Arthur's ears perk up. "Yeah? Come-on-come-on-come-on-"
I slam on the accelerator if only to shut him up. The tires shriek, startled into a panic. Arthur's cry of happiness starts low in his throat and builds with the speedometer. I join him, hollering over the hum of the engine, our bodies tilted as I ungracefully turn a corner, our voices carrying throughout Morris.
In Nevada, my car slows and I turn my blinker on, pulling to the side of the road. As the cop writes my ticket, I drown in the overwhelming self-disappointment that came with this decision.
If I were parked outside his place in San Diego, not a prison in Chino, maybe I would understand Arthur's decision to move to California. I arrived five minutes ago yet I wait outside the gates, barb wire looming overhead like tree branches stretching out over the road. This morning I had convinced myself that I would feel better at this moment, that I would be excited to see Arthur, that the situation, like the distance between us, would've shrunk. But the speech I had prepared over the past 29 hours escapes me. I search for a phrase, a word, but my mind buzzes with nothing but static.
I wait in the visiting room, gazing into the steel table, listening to the incessant din of broken voices and metal clatter that hums from the belly of the building.
I look up to see a lanky frame walking towards me. I could recognize those awkward, stretched limbs anywhere. Yet, my brain does a double take, and I'm confused by the figure approaching me. Maybe it's his haircut; his locks used to dance on-top his head in different directions. Now there's a mere sheet of brown across his scalp. I stand up and he pulls me into a hug. I stiffen, as embraced by a stranger. He smells like copper.
"You changed your hair," I say when we break apart.
"Oh," he runs a hand over it. "Yeah, it was getting hard to take care of. Besides," he puts his fists up and grins. "Makes me look tougher, no?"
As we sit, I scan him for other changes, for enlarged muscles, for bruises. His orange jump suit is blinding, though, and covers him completely.
"You don't seem very happy to see me," he says, levity in his tone.
"I am." I don't like his haircut. It makes him look different, like a meaner, heavier version of himself. It's only been a week and he's changed. I can't let him stew in this place any longer, no matter how short his sentence ends up. I want him back as he is. And besides, I can't go back without him, to that empty apartment. Even if we do get caught, I'd rather spend decades in prison together than four years apart. Even if we put bullets in our heads as police kick down the door, it'd be worth it. Words rise from within my subconscious and escape through its cracks like spouts of steam. "I think you should do it."
"Break out. Is it your plan or someone else's?"
"Someone else's but Scott I thought-"
"How did you get involved?"
He shifts in his seat and turns his face away from me, igniting a familiar sense of frustration that has been dormant for weeks. I snap near his face.
"Pay attention!" His head pivots forward but he treats my gaze like an eclipse, anxiously scanning the surrounding skin, avoiding direct contact. "How did you get involved?" I ask again, my tone weighed by gravity.
"I-uh-I'm friendly with that guard I told you about so-w-what about the appeal?"
"Fuck the appeal. You did it, right? You're guilty, aren't you? You did kill that girl."
He finally sets his eyes on mine and I see they are broken with guilt. "Shouldn't I stay, then?"
"You don't deserve to be in prison."
"But I do, though, and-and sometimes the guilt is worse than the shitty food, you know? Maybe time in here will relieve it."
I lean in and point a finger at him. The guards on the other side of the room straighten, but I freeze like this, anger seething through my voice alone.
"I know you. You won't survive in here. You're not smart enough and you're not strong enough. Trust me, Arthur. This is the right move for you."
He licks his lips and swallows. "I-" There are tears waiting in the croak of his voice.
"Don't cry in front of them," I say, glancing at the surrounding inmates.
He nods in lavish strokes, trying to calm himself, avoiding speech. I ask a set of yes or no questions, deducing where and when I should meet him. In the few remaining minutes of the visit, I gather he'll be by the laundromat down the street from the back gates.
"So you're going to meet me there tonight, right?"
"You know what the car looks like?"
"I expect you to be there."
"Good. I'll see you later then."
He nods me a farewell and I leave feeling more sure than ever. The prison is small, the security is poor, and now he has a getaway. Now he has me.
My reason for traveling across the country has evolved. Fate has justified the hours I spent, answered the questions I had, gave me a purpose and a burden I am happy to take on. Of course Arthur's meant to break out, to join my side again. Things can't go back to the way they've been since he left.
My static converts into a steady current, one that will carry us where we need to be, away from where we were. We will ride it to Terrace, a small town in British Columbia, and there we will find the freedom we deserve.
"How'd you guys do it, anyway?" I ask. I'm met with silence and look over to see Arthur leaning his head against the window. "Arthur?"
"I'll tell you later."
"Are you alright?"
I take a loud breath and turn my attention ahead. Surrounded by uneven land blanketed with trees, the road north seems narrow. "Things will work out. It's always been just you and me. What difference does it make where we are?"
He doesn't answer. My fingers tighten around the steering wheel. The car phone rings. The ID reads Maggie. I look over to Arthur. His eyes remain locked on the passing terrain.
I press 'decline'.