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Pilgrimage

By Joshua Allen

 

   The sun rose, a big eye, and they were driving south on I-65. The father, the mother, the son, and the daughter thought of themselves as a family. The highway each way was a long black band, a gleaming snake. They hadn’t seen another car for days. They’d think they’d see a car. Their hopes would rise. The daughter would run a brush through her hair, and the son would button his shirt up to his neck. The father would let himself go one mile per hour over the speed limit. The mother would apply red lipstick. They’d drive halfway across the state, but there’d be no car. They began to take it personally. 
    After Lafayette, it became too much for the father to bear. He let the car roll to a stop. He put on the emergency brake and got out.
He walked into the field. Wind turbines grew out of the ground around him. The sky was flat and gray like slate. The soil was hard and littered with wilted corn husks. He looked at them and saw all the condoms he had ever used. He had thrown them away, flushed them down the toilet, left them in strange beds, and this was where they ended up. He walking among his younger self’s gunk.
    The mother joined the father. They stood side by side.
    “Should we have stayed home?” he asked.
    “Isn’t that where we’re going?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “Does anyone know?”
    “Don’t ask me,” he said. 


____

 

    They continued south. The son asked where they were going.
    “It’s a surprise,” said the father.
    The son had turned eleven some time ago, and the daughter was somewhat older than sixteen. The father had thought he knew who the son was, but then he caught him trying on one of the mother’s bras in front of the bathroom mirror. The father had never known who the daughter was. This was the problem with having children, the father thought. 
    The mother shuffled through a stack of her Christian CDs. She was going through a trying time, so she had been praying more. Before they left, the mother made the father kneel with her on the rug every night. They put their hands together, and the mother, her eyes closed, would mumble. By the third night, the father had run out of things to say. Eyes closed, he began to test himself on sports trivia. Who hit the most home runs in 1977?
    The mother put a disc in the CD player. Music came out of the speakers. The father closed his eyes and drove like this for five minutes. 


____

 

    The son and daughter were hungry, so they took an exit toward a town that they had never heard of. The road was riddled with potholes and the car trembled as they drove over them. The mother had her hand on her forehead. The son was kicking the father’s seat. The daughter was texting her twenty-year-old boyfriend, a man who had dropped out of technical school and played electric guitar in a band named The Crazy Eights. 
    The father knew that the daughter had had sex with the boyfriend. He had been trying to forget about it. Every time he came close to replacing it with another sports statistic, the memory would rear its ugly head—the Crazy Eights van rocking outside the bowling alley as he and his friends were leaving leagues. One of them made a joke about the van’s good suspension. They hadn’t known.
    They came up to a fast food restaurant. It was bright yellow and vaguely amused by itself. The father had pulled in before he noticed that the parking lot was empty.
    He idled in the drive-thru and spoke into the clown’s mouth. “I’d like two egg sandwiches please.” Then he repeated himself. 

 

____

 

    Twenty miles from Lebanon, they found everybody. A long line of gleaming cars stretched for miles and miles in front of them. The cars were scooting forward, stopping, scooting forward, stopping. The air was gray from all the exhaust.
    “Where are they going?” the son asked.
    “Where we’re going,” the father answered. 
    “Where’s that?”
    “Can’t we just be a happy family for once?” the mother asked. “Can’t we?”
    The daughter was still texting her twenty-year-old boyfriend.


____

 

    They listened to the Christian music, then the father changed it. He scanned the radio and found a talk show that he enjoyed listening to when he came down here to sell hydrochloric acid. The male voice boomed about teenage pregnancy and the loose morals of the younger generation. The father found himself nodding.
    The mother was looking at the father.
    “What?” he asked. “What?”


____

 

    Hours later, they still hadn’t moved. A murder of crows crowded on a billboard overhead. The crows were playing a game. Together, they would force the crow in the center of the billboard by pecking at it until it flew away. The deposed crow would rejoin the murder on the edges. Then it would help depose the next crow in the center.
    The son watched the crows. He had wet the bed last week and ever since then he had been feeling particularly watery. When he was in public, he often had the urge to stick his hand down his pants. He wanted to ask the father about this, but he could never get the father alone. When he wandered into the den where the father was watching television, the father would stand up, say he needed a drink, and go into the kitchen. The son would follow him and the father would yell for the mother, then wander off to find her.
    The male voice on the radio was still talking about teenage pregnancy and loose morals. 
    “I want to be pregnant,” the son said without thinking. 
    “You can’t,” the mother said.
    “Why not?”
    “Tell him, George,” the mother said. “Tell him.”
    The father turned up the volume on the radio. 


____

 

    An indefinite amount of time had passed before the exodus began. It started miles ahead of them—a mass of vague body shapes trundling off the highway into the fields like westward-heading settlers. Then the message reached them. Men, women, and children emerged from the cars in front of them and set off.
    “Should we go?” the mother asked. “I don’t know what to do.”
    “Let me think.”
    “We’re going to miss it.”
    “Miss what?”
    “I don’t know,” she said. “But it seems obvious.”


____
    

    They emerged from the car, blinking in the sunlight. A father was shepherding his family from the car in front of them. The fathers acknowledged each other.
    “Where do we go?” the father asked.
    The other father pointed. “That way, I think.”
    They set off.


____
    

    The other family also had a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. The fathers went to the same college in southern Mississippi. The mothers grew up in the same town in eastern Indiana. The sons hated sports. The daughters had twenty-year-old boyfriends.
    The other daughter was tall and thin with long ginger hair and a freckled face. When she spoke, the daughter could see braces with pink rubber bands.
    “My boyfriend’s in a band,” the other daughter said. 
    “My boyfriend’s in a band,” the daughter said.


____
    

    The sons walked far behind the daughters and searched the ground for bugs. The other son found a huge beetle and picked it up. The beetle ran around his palm until he flipped it over on its back. Its legs waggled in the air. 
    “What does this remind you of?” the other son asked.
    “I don’t know.”
    The other son lets the beetle fall from his hand. It disappeared under the bluegrass. 
    “I’ve been having dreams lately,” the other son said. 


____
  

    Far ahead, the fathers walked together.
    “Did you ever go to the Three Dogs Pub?” the other father asked.
    “I did. Did you ever go to the Pinhead Bowling Alley?”
    “I did. Did you ever go to Jack’s Trivia Night?”
    “I did. Did you ever go to the Udderback Cinema?”
    “I did. Did you ever…”


____
    

    The mothers walked behind them.
    “Do you remember Cynthia Gray?” the other mother asked.
    “I do. Do you remember Emily Dean?”
    “I do. Do you remember Ashley Coontz?”
    “I do. Do you remember…”


____
    

    The daughters began screaming. They had shown each other pictures of their boyfriends and discovered that they had the same boyfriend. 
    “That bastard,” the daughter said. 
    “I’m gonna kill him,” the other daughter said.
    They called him at the same time and yelled into their phones. 
    The fathers wouldn’t say it but they were relieved. The mothers waited for the fathers to say something.


____


    The son said to the other son, “I’ve been having those dreams, too.”
    A hawk circled above them. It plunged toward the earth and caught something in its talons. Then it flew off.

____
  

    Night fell. Under the moonlight, they stumbled across fields, across roads, down the Main Streets of deserted towns. They were ravenous, and when they came across a 7-Eleven, they rushed inside, pushing each other aside. But the shelves were bare and the drink coolers empty. The other son found a pouch of almonds by the magazine stand and slid it into his pocket without anyone noticing.
    The other father smashed the glass partition of the scratch-off lottery ticket machine with a fire extinguisher. He grabbed handfuls of tickets and sat on the counter, placing them on his lap. He asked if anyone had a quarter. The mother gave him one from her purse. He began scratching off the tickets.
    “I won one thousand dollars,” he said. “I won five hundred dollars. I won fifty dollars. I won fifteen hundred dollars.”
    “I’m so happy,” the other mother said. “Great day. Glorious day.”
    “Why can’t we be more like them?” the mother asked the father.
    The father went outside. The son followed him out, but the father was not alone. There was a man in a cowboy hat with him.
    “We have a camp right over there,” said the man in the cowboy hat. “We have food, fire, some music.” 
    “Thank you,” the father said. “Thank you.”


____

 

    The camp had more than one hundred tents, the old military kind with green canvas. There were campfires in metal fire pits every few dozen feet. Families crowded around them like homeless people, even though it wasn’t cold.
    The mothers sat with the man in the cowboy hat by his campfire. He was telling them a story about how he had tracked down a cow that escaped his ranch out in Nebraska.
    “She went. She went and went and went with no idea where she was going,” he said. “I found her four hundred miles away in the next state. She was grazing in somebody’s backyard, as happy as can be.”
    “How did you find her so far away?” the mother asked. She fingered the lace on her shoe. 
    “Tracks,” he said. “But I was lucky. Very lucky. Never underestimate how lucky you have to be to do anything around here.”

 

____

 

    The fathers were smoking cigarettes near the edges of the camp. They were surrounded by fields hairy with stunted grasses. They leaned against a wooden fence, but then they noticed that the beams were rotted out and crawling with maggots. The father picked off pieces of damp wood and flicked them away. He crushed a few of the maggots beneath his thumb.
    “You think they have coyotes out here?” the other father asked.
    “Probably.”
    “I’ve actually never seen a coyote,” the other father said. “But if I did, I think I’d shoot it no problem.”
    The father pretended that he was holding a gun. “Bang bang.”
    “Yes,” the other father said. “Just like that.” He dropped his cigarette on the ground.

 

____

 

    The sons were digging for insects, but they found only white worms, lots and lots of white worms. They threw the worms into the fire and watched them sizzle. Some of them popped, sounding like the bang snaps they threw on the driveway on the Fourth of July. 
    “I discovered something the other day,” the other son said.
    “Yeah? What?”
    “I’ll show you.”
    They went into one of the tents. 


____

 

    By one of the other campfires, a bluegrass band played dancing music. The daughters wore plastic Mardi Gras beads around their necks and danced around the fire with strangers, beating tambourines. Their faces were flushed from the heat and their hair looked like wings. They sang the words to a song they didn’t know. 

 

____

 

    The sons emerged from the tent. The moon was out, white and round. Everybody was smiling, leaning against their knees, telling stories. The air was smoky and warm. The worms were still popping. 
    “That felt really good,” the son said.
    “I told you.”
    “I want to do it again.”
    They went back into the tent.


____

 

    After the song ended, the daughters sat on the ground. Their shirts had continents of sweat. The daughter watched the other daughter, who was still watching the bluegrass band. Then the daughter touched the other daughter’s hair. It was soft and bent easily in her fingers, not like her own. The other daughter looked at her and touched the daughter’s hair.
    “I’m pregnant,” the other daughter said. “Now I’m not the only one who knows.”

 

____

 

    The mothers sat on each side of the man with the cowboy hat. They were hot and dehydrated from sitting too close to the fire, but they didn’t move away.
    “How many stories do you have?” the other mother asked.
    “Many more. Years’ worth.”
    “Tell me,” the mother said.

 

____

 

    The fathers looked out into the night. A feral creature barked somewhere out there.
    “Bang bang,” one said.

 

____

 

    The next morning, the family woke up in a deserted field. Everyone had left, including the other family. The tents had been taken right from over them. Insects were flying all around. They were itchy from hot red bites. 
    They wandered around in a daze. The night before felt like a dream, but there were circles of blackened grass where the fire pits had been. The sky was blue and cloudless. 
    “I’m thirsty,” the daughter said.
    “Let’s go,” the father said, taking charge.

 

____

 

    They found tracks. People had walked here, and now so did the family.

 

____

 

    They walked and walked. 
    “Who do I talk to now?” the son asked.
    A crow dropped out of the sky—a black object, suddenly there, neck sideways.
    “That seems ominous,” the son said.

 

____

 

    They stopped by a creek. A sign said it was Harlow’s Creek. The water oozed over muted orange and gray pebbles. They drank from the creek with their hands. 
    “Who’s Harlow?” the mother asked.
    “I’m sad,” the daughter said. “I’ve never been so sad. I don’t think I can go on living. It’s just too much. You’ll forgive me eventually, right? Eventually?”
    “You’ll find a new guy,” the father said.
    “No,” the daughter said. “Not him.”
    The son found a plaque beneath the sign.
    “It says Harlow liked this creek,” the son said. “He fished in it as a boy.”
    “I did things, too, as a boy,” the father said.
    “Not like Harlow,” the son said. “Harlow has a creek named after him.”

 

____

 

    “Really,” the daughter said. “All evidence suggests that it only gets worse from here.”
    “What am I?” the mother asked. “Chopped liver?”

 

____

 

    “Dad,” the son said. “Can we talk?”
    “Keep walking, son.”

____

 

    “Really,” the mother said. “Am I chopped liver?”

 

____

 

    “Dad.”
    “Not now.”

____

 

    “I can’t help but think you sacrificed every good thing about yourself by giving birth to us.”
    “How would you know?” the mother asked. “How would you know?”

____

 

    Night fell. They took shelter in a farmhouse. There was a rocking chair with a floral-patterned cushion in the living room. The mother sat in it, looking out the window. The father was standing in the doorway. 
“How would you know?” the mother asked. “How would you know?”

____

 

    The son and daughter lay together in the bed upstairs. They listened to each other breathe, as they had done when they shared a room.
    “Are you still there?” one asked.
    “Uh-huh.”

____

 

    The father left the mother in the living room. He found a shotgun in the corner of the kitchen. He leaned it against his shoulder and went outside. He saw a bony feral shape by the flowers. He pointed the gun at it. 
    “Bang bang,” he said.

____

 

    A tornado swept through while they were asleep. When they woke up, they found that the earth had been torn apart. Long and deep gouges were cut into the ground. The silo was split in half, spilling golden grain onto the black dirt. The tornado had missed the house. The house was the only thing the tornado had missed.
    “Dad,” the son said.
    “Not now.”
    They set off.

 

 

***

Joshua Allen is a somewhat wayward soul who is soon to be mercilessly ejected from Indiana University Bloomington into the larger world. He has been published in Gravel, Origami Journal, Lime Hawk, and Tributaries (forthcoming). 

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