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[CW: This story contains references to eating disorders, which some readers may find upsetting.]
The only thing that stood out about the Mall of America was its indoor amusement park, but even this was unimpressive to Val and Joe. They’d grown up practically next door to Six Flags Great America, home to epic roller coasters that towered 200 feet high and whipped around twists and turns at 70 miles an hour. They’d terrified Val as a kid, but Joe would guilt her into riding with him. The beginning had always been the scariest part: slowly climbing toward the limitless sky, the unbearable anticipation of the impending drop, the threat of crashing to the cement below.
The mall stripped away all the terror she felt as a child. The domed ceiling felt like the top of a protective bubble; at the bottom, a soft cushion of AstroTurf mitigating the risk of death. As the train made its first big drop – a measly 60 feet – her fellow riders screamed, but all Val could think was, Really? Is this it?
It was 2005, the summer between Val’s junior and senior years of high school. She was seventeen, her brother Joe twenty-two. They’d taken to hanging out for the first time since they were kids, reunited by a shared listlessness – Val grappling with her first breakup, Joe with the mysterious onset of chronic diarrhea and nausea. In a matter of months, he’d shriveled down from 140 pounds to 104 – making Val all too aware that she weighed more than her big brother.
They spent most weekends driving aimlessly around town, occasionally stopping by thrift stores in search of the old Goosebumps books they’d collected as kids. One weekend, bored of their usual haunts, Joe declared they should drive to Canada. He insisted he could tackle the ten-hour drive from the Chicago suburbs in a day, easy. “You don’t have to drive at all if you don’t want to,” he told Val, still a nervous driver a year after getting her license.
When she told their parents about their spontaneous international road trip, all they said was, “Have fun.” It was mind boggling to Val. Her mother would’ve laughed in her face if she’d asked to drive to Canada with her old friends – even though they didn’t have sex, didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs. Now, Val frequently found herself at parties where drinking wasn’t a big deal because it wasn’t illegal. She tried cigarettes for the first time, surprised by the buzz they gave her, and discovered she enjoyed pot because it made her complacent instead of morose like alcohol did. And yet, she found herself enjoying more freedom than she ever had before. Her parents no longer seemed to care where she was, as long as she was with her big brother.
Val waited until their car was well out of view of their parents’ house to light the joint. She’d felt on edge all morning as she’d packed – her mind kept drifting to her ex-boyfriend Henry’s snide face. She inhaled long and deep before passing the joint to Joe. Finally, Val’s muscles started softening to jelly. She loaded the CD player with the Beatles’ Abbey Road and sang loudly along, not the least bit self-conscious, especially when Joe joined and was even more off-key than she was.
They binged on jalapeño chips, beef jerky, and Cheez-Its as they revisited their top five novels, top five shows, top five albums for a rainy day, for a party, for a desert island. They resurfaced the road games of their childhood – eye spy, punch buggy, twenty questions.
By the time Val opened the bag of Snickers, the joint had fully hit. The candy felt like sweet, syrupy clouds rolling around in her mouth, warming her tongue, floating up through her spine and into her skull until she could no longer hear. The only thing she could see was the steady stream of white lines rushing by, and she wondered for a long time whether the car was moving or if it was really the road.
Val felt so relaxed she hardly noticed when Joe pulled into the first highway rest area. Didn’t even think about locking herself in a stall to kneel in front of a toilet. Instead, she marveled at her brother as he calmly walked to the bathroom. If she didn’t know him, she’d never suspect he was about to hurl; she’d think he was just going to pee or blow his nose like a normal person.
By ten o’clock at night, tired of driving, tired of pulling over, Joe told Val to take the wheel. She leaned over and steered, holding her breath while he puked into a plastic bag. After, she released the knotted bag out her window, wondering but not worrying if it would come flying back and burst in her face. But it was sucked away, disappearing into the dark.
They arrived at the Canadian border in Minnesota near midnight. Val felt immense relief when she saw the port of entry, her high fading, legs cramping, stomach rumbling for real food.
A middle-aged, khaki-clad woman with frizzy hair peered into Joe’s window.
“What’s your reason for visiting Canada?” the border patrol officer said, looking a little confused and very suspicious.
“Just taking a little road trip,” Joe said.
“Where are you staying?”
“We’re going to find a hotel.”
“You haven’t made accommodations, yet?” she said, sounding, Val thought, truly aghast, as though he’d said they just killed someone and wanted to dump the body over the border.
“We wanted to be spontaneous,” Joe responded with a little shrug.
“Do you know anyone here?”
She peered at Val. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” Val said, her voice quivering despite herself.
“Do your parents know where you are?”
Val nodded nervously.
The officer looked doubtfully at Val for what felt like a long time, then left to consult a colleague outside the port office. They were far enough away that Val couldn’t hear their fervent whispers, but she was sure the woman was calling them lying degenerates.
“What’s up her butt?” Joe muttered.
“Maybe we should just go,” Val said.
When the officer came back, she asked if they’d submit to a vehicle search. Val panicked, picturing the joints in the center console. But Joe said, “Have at it,” and they headed to the port office to wait.
They settled into hard plastic chairs lined up against a white brick wall. Joe sat so still beside her, arms crossed, staring at the opposite wall with intense focus. Val wondered what he could possibly be thinking about that made him so calm. She couldn’t stop shifting in her seat, sitting first on one leg, then the other. She was too afraid to stand, to even talk to Joe. She felt as though they were being watched, and anything she did or said would be construed as incriminating. She imagined the patrol officers finding the weed, calling them morons, incredulous that they could be dumb enough to try to cross the Canadian border with drugs in their car.
“What happened to your friends?” Joe said after a while, startling Val from her reverie.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Jenny and Marissa, and all those other loud girls you used to hang with.”
“Nothing happened. We’re still friends.”
“Oh,” he said. “It seems like you don’t talk anymore.”
“They’ve just been busy. They do a lot of stuff at school. Plays and stuff.”
“That’s cool,” Joe said.
“It’s not like we have to hang out all the time.”
“Sure, that makes sense.”
“I mean anyway, they didn’t really like when I started dating Henry.”
“I don’t know. They just didn’t like him that much. He didn’t really like them either, I guess.”
“But you and Henry broke up. So that shouldn’t be an issue anymore, right?”
The last couple months before the breakup, Val felt like she couldn’t do or say anything without Henry ridiculing her like a child. Throwing a banana peel in the basement garbage – Are you dumb? That goes in the kitchen; affectionately referring to her friend’s car as “Toby” – It’s not even your car; even giving him a hug – dammit, Val, I told you I have a cyst! When Jenny and Marissa said it seemed intense, she said it was no big deal.
Val started twitching her leg. She desperately wanted to go to the bathroom, but she felt stuck to the uncomfortable plastic seat. She forced herself to smile at her brother. “Are you saying you’re sick of hanging out with me?”
“Obviously. That’s why I went on a road trip with you instead of my other friends.” Joe punched her playfully on the arm.
She breathed a sigh of relief.
It was already one in the morning by the time the frizzy-haired officer returned from searching their car. She asked for their parents’ number – “to make sure they know where you are,” she claimed.
How is that your job, Val wanted to say. Instead, she sank low in her chair and stared at the black and white floor tiles while Joe wrote down the number.
Val could just make out her mother’s voice on the other end of the line. She couldn’t hear what she was saying exactly, but she sounded annoyed. Val couldn’t hear what the officer was saying either. She spoke in low tones, obscuring her mouth with her hand. It made Val queasy, sure the officer was telling their mother about the weed.
When the officer finally approached them, she had the most disconcerted look on her face. Val was sure they were under arrest. Her whole body tensed, waiting for the blow.
“We can’t let you in,” the officer said. “We have no idea if you have money, if you have a place to stay. What if your car breaks down and you’re stuck here? If you come back tomorrow with a bank statement, we can reassess, but until then…” She shrugged, like this was all beyond her control.
They loaded up on gas station hot dogs, Hot Pockets, and Pop-Tarts before driving to the closest motel they could find – a long, stout brick building that loomed large on the desolate pitch-black road. They got a single room with two queens. Everything looked brown and grimy – the stucco walls, the shag carpet, the paisley bedspreads. It was all saturated with the smell of stale cigarettes.
The mattress springs squealed as they plopped down on one of the beds. They passed a joint back and forth – too tired, too defeated to worry about being caught – before tearing into their gas station dinner. After they’d gotten food in their stomachs, their agitation subsided enough to talk.
“I can’t believe they didn’t find the weed,” Val said.
“She thought I was kidnapping you,” Joe said.
“Are we going back tomorrow?”
“Screw that. They don’t want us there, we don’t want to be there. We’ll go somewhere else,” Joe said.
Val had already finished two hot dogs. Joe had barely eaten half of one. He pushed it aside and spread an atlas across the bed. Val looked longingly at her Pop-Tarts, trying to restrain herself. She set them on the nightstand, just out of arm’s reach, and forced herself to focus on the map.
Nothing from Minnesota back to the suburbs of Chicago seemed remotely worthwhile. They’d driven past it for a reason. Driven straight to the border without stopping for a reason. What could they possibly find in Minnesota or Wisconsin that was any different than what they saw every day in Illinois?
Joe traced his finger along I-94 from the Minnesota-Canadian border to South Dakota.
“Maybe we could go to Rushmore?”
“I’ve seen Rushmore,” Val said. She’d gone with their aunt and uncle when she was ten, and even then, she was unimpressed by the gargantuan faces of power-hungry men. “It’s not worth the twelve-hour drive.”
Joe sighed. “I guess we could go to the Mall of America. It’s on the way back.”
It seemed so meager to Val, nowhere near the exciting international road trip she’d hoped for, and nowhere near the proper eff you to Canada she now craved. But she had no other ideas.
Joe disappeared into the bathroom for a long time. Val looked toward the door at the sound of his retching, imagining him on the toilet with the wastebasket between his knees.
She lay back in bed and tried to ignore the rotten smell wafting from the bathroom as she buried her nose in her favorite Goosebumps book: How to Kill a Monster. A brother and sister spend the summer with their grandparents who, it turned out, had trapped a swamp monster in their labyrinthine house. The grandparents secretly flee and leave the kids behind, who unwittingly unleash the monster and have to battle it themselves. There was something about the oppressive humidity of the town, the swamp mud clinging to the girl’s white sneakers and dragging her down into the earth, that spoke to something deep inside Val.
As the high started to hit, the words became jumbled on the page. She couldn’t make sense of them. She tossed the book aside and reassessed the Pop-Tarts. She wasn’t remotely hungry, but she knew nothing in the world would ever taste better than those Pop-Tarts would right now.
She chewed slowly, savoring the sweet strawberry filling that coated the inside of her cheeks. She was completely consumed by the way the flavor seemed to explode from her mouth and spread through her whole body, turning her skin warm and tingly. When the Pop-Tarts were gone, she felt bereft. Wondered what food was left that might fill the hole the pastries had left behind. Joe was still in the bathroom, so she took out the bag of bite-sized Snickers and finished them off before falling asleep.
Val woke up sweating a few hours later. Her high had worn off. Between her clammy skin and the grimy sheets, she was reminded of the swamp from her book. She pictured the monster breaking down the door, tearing them limb from limb.
When she and Henry first started dating, he was always trying to reach down her pants. Every time, Val pushed his hand away. Every time, he’d retreat to the opposite end of the couch. He’d refuse to look at her, but his eyes were unmistakably teary. After months of this, she felt so guilty she finally let him reach her underwear.
Val suddenly felt restless and agitated under the weight of the grimy bedclothes. She could feel all the junk food congealing in her stomach.
She looked over at her brother’s shadowy figure in the opposite bed. He faced away from her, but he was so still, she was sure he was asleep. She got up slowly and tiptoed to the bathroom. She made sure to turn on the fan before she kneeled in front of the toilet. When she reached her fingers in her mouth, only a small pool of pink bile spilled into the toilet. She’d waited too long. She sighed as she flushed, feeling defeated.
Val climbed back into bed, but laid on top of the comforter this time.
“How long have you been doing that,” Joe said.
Val shrieked and clutched her chest. “Jesus, Joe, you scared me! I thought you were asleep.”
He turned on the light, temporarily blinding Val. “Well?” he said.
“Come on, Val.”
“I felt nauseous from all the shit we ate,” she said, defensive.
“I’ve heard you do it before.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve had to puke, Joe. God. You’re one to talk. You puke all the time.”
“I’m sick, Val.”
“Well maybe I am too. You don’t have a monopoly on being sick.”
Val turned away from him, her heart pounding. He didn’t speak or move for what felt like forever. Finally, he turned off the light.
She laid awake for a long time, staring at the bathroom door.
They got up at 7 a.m. and barely talked on the road, but Val hardly cared. That was one of the nice things about being with her brother. Even if they were annoyed with each other, even if it was silent, it didn’t feel like such a big deal – not like it used to with Jenny and Marissa.
They remained quiet for a while, just listening to Joe’s oldies mix. Eventually, Val didn’t hear the music anymore. The road took over, hypnotizing her, her thoughts moving as fast as the car, and she receded without realizing it, submerging below the level of consciousness.
When Henry yelled at her about the banana peel, she silently extracted it from the basement trash and carried it to the kitchen before retreating to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet, pressing her palms to her eyes. She couldn’t stop crying like a dumb girl. She felt so overwhelmed that it physically hurt. The only thing she could think was to get rid of every bad thing gnawing at her insides. So she kneeled in front of Henry’s toilet and puked. After, she felt relief. She calmed down enough that she could finally return to the basement. She told him she felt sick and wanted to go home, but he got that irritated look she’d come to know so well. “Why’d you come over then,” he said. “I won’t have anything to do if you leave. It’s too late to make other plans.” She ended up apologizing, settling back onto the couch with him for the rest of the night.
It made her furious to think of it now. She felt her face growing hot, like it was happening all over again. She did nothing wrong. She wished she could tell him. She wasn’t dumb. She wasn’t dumb. She wasn’t dumb.
Joe suddenly laid on the horn and slammed on the brakes, catapulting Val forward. “Watch where you’re going, asshole!” He threw up his middle finger at a truck driver who cut into their lane.
Whenever someone cut Val off, she fumed internally, her anger clogging her throat. She admired that Joe was never afraid to speak out when someone wronged him. After she gave away his collection of Goosebumps, he’d let her know exactly how furious he was. She’d felt a deep pang of guilt for not realizing how much he treasured the books, that he hadn’t meant to give them to her so much as bestow temporary guardianship. That’s why she’d made a mission out of searching thrift stores for used copies.
“Remember how mad you were when I gave away your Goosebumps?” she said now. “I was such a little asshole.”
“Yeah you were,” Joe said playfully, lightly jabbing her leg.
“I didn’t understand nostalgia.”
“You were just a little kid. I should’ve told you not to get rid of them. Or kept them in the first place. I’m sorry for being a jerk about it.”
“It’s okay,” she said, surprised by the apology. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might deserve one.
It was a five-and-a-half-hour drive to the Mall of America. When they arrived, they unenthusiastically explored what banal stores each level of the mall had to offer, most of them the same as Hawthorn Mall’s back home. Aside from having twice as many floors, the only difference was the theme park.
Val was surprised there was a line for the roller coaster. It only went 40 miles an hour. Then again, she thought, maybe all these people were just like her and Joe – they had nothing better to do to pass the time.
When she and Joe finally made it to the front of the line, he said, “I don’t think I can ride, Val.” He had that look on his face that she knew meant he had to puke: steely-eyed, tight-lipped, nostrils flaring. He stalked off without another word. She debated getting out of line too, but she didn’t want people to think she was afraid.
Val was the only person riding alone. The only person who didn’t scream at the first big drop. The only person not consumed by the thrill of the ride. She was more focused on the two teenage girls in front of her. They both had long dark hair, like Jenny and Marissa. They threw up their arms at every twist and turn, yelling and laughing the whole time. What were they feeling? Why couldn’t she feel it too?
She felt despondent when she got off the ride, feeling worse than she did before, worse even than when they got rejected from Canada.
Val searched the crowd for Joe. Instead, she saw a tall lanky teen, floppy blond hair, sun-freckled skin.
He was standing in line for the roller coaster. She froze, stunned and horrified at the absurd coincidence of running into him here and now. She couldn’t decide whether she should run, whether she should confront him, whether he would sneer at her sweatpants and messy ponytail or ignore her completely.
He was with some petite redheaded girl. He kept tickling the small of her back so she squealed. Val couldn’t quite see his face, but he seemed so carefree, laughing like he didn’t remember what happened or how he’d made Val feel or that she’d even been a part of his life.
She felt a sharp pain in her stomach. It was that feeling she got as a kid, riding slowly to the top of the roller coaster, consumed by dread, sure she was about to die. She felt like she was going to puke against her will, and she didn’t like it. She didn’t like it at all.
“What are you staring at,” Joe said, startling her.
Henry turned their way.
She started to gag and covered her mouth.
Henry looked right at her, but his expression was blank, like he didn’t even recognize her.
Then she realized: his nose was too small. His face was too round. She was in Bloomington, Minnesota, five-and-a-half hours from home.
Of course it wasn’t Henry. How dumb was she?
“What’s up Val?” Joe prodded again. “Do you want to go on another ride?”
She shook her head. “Let’s go home.”
Their mother was curled up on the living room couch, flipping through the TV Guide when they returned. “You’re back already?” she said.
“Canada rejected us,” Val said, throwing down her backpack.
“You’re kidding,” she said. “After calling us in the middle of the night? That’s ridiculous.”
“They thought our car was gonna break down and they’d never get rid of us,” Val explained.
As she told their mother about their stymied adventure, enjoying it more now that it was over, Joe quietly headed to the bathroom. He pulled off his sweatshirt, accidentally tugging his t-shirt along with it. His stomach was completely sunken in; his skin seemed to cling to his bulging rib cage for dear life. Val watched his skeletal figure walk down the hallway, imagining his organs shriveling up. There was no way for him to get better. She would be all alone.
“What’s wrong?” her mother asked.
Val shook her head, as though she could knock every bad thought loose. “I’m going to lie down,” she said. “I’m exhausted.”
She went upstairs and flopped onto her bed. She wished she could puke, but now she needed a better plan. She’d have to wait until she was home alone, or at least until her family was far from the bathroom and too distracted to notice her. She really was tired. But when she closed her eyes, all she could see was Henry’s snide face. She opened her eyes and stared at the wall, trying not to blink.
Melissa Brooks is a Chicago-based writer with an MFA in Fiction from the University of San Francisco. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Identity Theory, Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere. Her short story, “Closed Casket Calling Hours,” was included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions.