You're sitting in the backseat with your headphones on, trying to tune out your family. The landscape out the window is flat. Brown. There’s too much sky and not nearly enough clouds to fill it all. The view hasn't changed in hours. How is it possible that the horizon hasn't gotten closer?
You're bored. You want to sit on your feet, flop on your side, stretch your arms above your head and arch your back until your spine pops, but the seatbelt won't even let you fidget properly.
You wish you had more than the one mixtape. This one’s alright, but it’s far from your best work. The rest are buried in your duffel which is in the trunk and there's no way Mom’s going to pull over so you can dig it out, we just stopped so your sister could pee because she forgot to go at the truckstop.
Now you're thinking about that weird old lady that ran the diner and you wonder how the hell she ended up out here, alone and hours from any town. But she seemed so happy in spite of that, and that seriously was the best plum jam you’ve ever had in your life, and the wall behind the register was plastered in crayon drawings, so that's at least two things she's doing right, and... did... did she wink at you on your way out the door? Or is boredom starting to color in the grey spots in your memory.
The tape ends. You eject it, flip it over, catch a few snatches of whatever weird more-static-than-music local radio station your mom’s tuned into— then side B starts and you tune them out again.
Your sister passes you a bag of trail mix. You accept it without looking at her and are halfway through it before you realize she picked out all the M&M's before handing it to you. You don’t give her the satisfaction of a reaction, you just keep munching down peanuts and raisins and sunflower seeds and think of ways to get back at her at the motel later. Maybe you’ll short-sheet her bed. Or offer to make a trip to the vending machine so you can shake up her can of Coke. Shaving cream on the alarm clock? That one might make Mom too mad to be worth it.
You cross your arms and slouch down in your seat. It’s stuffy. The AC in this car’s never worked, so you crack your window. Your sister punches you in the arm, sticks a finger in her ear and mouths ‘wub-wub’ at you. She scowls and opens her window too. You point at your headphones and mouth ‘can’t hear you,’ then toss the empty trail mix bag at her. You shut your eyes.
Side B is calmer. Silly and happy and almost shoe-gazey as it nears the end, comes in for a soft landing. You realize it’s the perfect continuation of side A. You don’t think you did that on purpose. Your subconscious must be smarter than you give it credit for. Maybe you are a genius. A real musical savant.
The tape ends. You eject it, flip it over—
“Hey,” your sister says. You open your eyes. She’s staring at you, the wind making a mess of her hair. There’s a comic book open in her lap, some obscure sci-fi title you’ve never heard of. She reads the weirdest shit.
You push one headphone speaker away, hook it behind your ear. Mom is fiddling with the radio dial again. She’s stuck in static.
“What,” you grunt.
“Did Nellie ask you about the bugs too?”
“The bugs. Behind the diner.”
“Who the hell is Nellie?”
“The lady at the diner,” she says. You say nothing, your brain searching for any recent mention of bugs. Your sister clicks her tongue in annoyance and plucks at the collar of her T-shirt. “Nametag. She didn’t ask you about bug hunting?”
“Huh. She said if I was bored I could take a jar out back and look for crickets. Kinda wish I had.”
You try to recall the last time you ran around in a field looking for bugs. Third grade, maybe. “I don’t remember hearing crickets,” you say.
“You didn’t remember her name either,” she says with a shrug.
You scoff and roll your eyes, snap the cassette deck of your walkman shut.
“What are you listening to?” she asks.
“Mm. Can’t be worse than…” she nods at the front seat.
Your older sibling is in the front passenger seat, grappling with an enormous paper map and grumbling something you can’t quite hear over the wind. Mom is still turning the radio dial, and for a second, she lands in an eerie space between two stations; a tinny commercial overlaps with the twang of a song you almost recognize, then both fade back into the static. You look past them, out the windshield at the blur of the highway. The landscape changed during side B. Nothing drastic — some scrubby trees and grasses, a few splashes of silvery green and dusty yellow, the suggestion of hills on the horizon. It’s not exciting, but it is decidedly different.
“Do you have your headphones?” you say. Your sister frowns in confusion. You hold up the walkman and tap the second headphone jack. “You can plug in if you want.”
“Oh. Yeah, one sec.” She rummages in her backpack, resurfaces with a tangled mass of cord. You watch her work to free the headphones from the knots and decide you’ll just short-sheet her bed later. The shaving cream thing is too much work.
She slips on the headphones, hands you the cord, and picks her comic book back up. You plug in and turn to stare out the window again.
You press play.