Grace woke to the sound of thumping below her. The upstairs apartment was scarcely free of noise, courtesy of the surrounding units and the highway nearby. The constant drone of passing cars had unnerved her when she first moved in, but four years later, she hardly notices it anymore. The thumping sound, however, was not as easily managed. She opened her mouth to honor her morning tradition of cursing her first word upon waking. Nausea rises from her throat instead, causing her to scramble to sit up and lean over the adjacent toilet to cough and spit. Her new haunt, the tub, still full of water, had become her bed of late. There was no telling how many nights she'd spent chain smoking, drinking vodka and watching familiar shows on Netflix this summer. It all went downhill after she'd left her most recent job at the local tractor dealership - her budding transition had not been taken as kindly as she'd hoped. Then again, that's Carolina for you, backward as the day is long. Out of all the states she'd lived in, she always seemed to find herself pulled back to this one by circumstance. It's a wretched concept, in her mind, something wondrous and innocent turned sour with age and the conservative politics of the area. None of it agreed with her anymore; gone were the days of helping out on her now estranged relatives' farm, picking blueberries in her spare time, and staying up late playing Game Boy Color. This was far from a home to her - no place had ever felt like a home.
The cramped bathroom filled with the scent of post-vodka vomit. It's horrendous, and flushing the toilet hadn't solved the problem. A lazy hand grasped a broom handle resting against the wall and guided the implement to the switch for the exhaust fan. After wincing at the sound of the loud machine, Grace gave the door a poke to open it up. The crack of sunlight became a flood from the next room over. "Aagh," she protested at the burning feeling that now graced the back of her eyeballs. A whisky bottle refilled with water was her solace in rinsing her mouth out, and a few hearty gulps were taken to hydrate herself for the morning. Breakfast has to be made at some point... but not yet, not yet. Ow. A hungover Grace could hear birds chirping away from her lukewarm pit of defeat as they celebrated the bright morning light that now filled the apartment. She wondered what the birds had to celebrate, why they were so happy to make themselves known to the space around them. The opposite sentiment had driven her through her entire life - making as little impression as possible, taking up as little social space as possible, being quiet and light in movements. In this unorthodox haven, though, she was content to spend her nights making herself as numb to her own harrowing emotions as possible. At least until something better came along.
It was September 31st, 2019, and it was a terrible day. Some hours later, Grace had managed to complete her morning routine, complete with breakfast. She had been sitting on the edge of her bed for the past half hour with her hands steepled in front of her mouth, staring at the opposite wall. Memories of a more hopeful time returned to her in these moments. The beginning of her transition a few years ago had filled her with optimism for the possibilities of life, possibilities that were better than the ones she had always faced. After growing up impoverished without much in the way of parents in the rural south, being able to build her savings, buy an old, but functional car, and rent her own apartment was a life apart. How she wished she'd had parents. Then House Bill 2 happened, and her view of the world had dimmed to new depths. All she'd wanted to do was exist, and then she wasn't allowed to use the bathroom anymore. Scumbag Republicans. It felt like every happy feeling she'd ever held in her life had withered and liquefied to drip through her fingers. Only her handful of friends provided light now, but even they couldn't keep her savings from dwindling. Grace knew running out of money meant certain death on the streets as a trans person, and that time was growing nearer by the day. All she could do was drink the pain away until all came crashing down for one final time.
Her friends... Grace had turned that over in her head so many times over the years. In 30 years on this Earth, she'd found some of the most amazing people that a person could imagine. "God dammit," she muttered with a trembling voice as she reached for her bottle of vodka. Uncapped, the fumes of ethanol wafted into her nose, and her body reacted by tightening up. The bottle slammed against the bedside table, empty enough not to spill. "God dammit," she muttered again. Had she burned her life down, or had the multitude of others that had hurt her and people like her without discretion? The abusive partners, her so-called 'parents,' predatory employers, the way capitalism sucks the soul out of everyone and everything, they all contended with Grace's self-destruction. It was a hard-fought battle on both sides, but no matter the cause, the fighting had left her feeling despondent and shattered. Feeling that her friends would only know her difficulty and then her death without ever having asked for help, she wished she could do things differently. She wished she could fix things, but all the job applications she had sent out of desperation last week went unanswered. In this moment, the weight of everything had brought fiery anger out of her.
"Fuuuck!" The hard, wood paneled walls of the apartment echoed for a hair of a second in response to Grace's anguished exclamation. It was bold to make sound after a lifetime of trying to be quiet, but look where quiet had gotten her. No. This can't happen anymore. She didn't want to die, she wanted things to change for the better. Friends, parents, none of that matters if she doesn't try to do it herself. Attempts were made, sure, but her best had never been good enough. It wasn't good enough for most people, anyway. Friends had accepted her in person and online. A few of them even loved her and showed it in the ways in which they could. Now, with things coming down to the wire, Grace made a decision. A gulp of vodka was forced down her throat as she stood up; hair of the dog. If she was going to die, the least she could do was doing something worthwhile: making her friends happy. An idea was quickly hatched to use the money she had left to visit her friends. An idea to give them the best she has, all she has left to give, and come what may. At least everyone would have happy memories to live with after she was gone, and she could die with those same happy memories.
Grace had loaded her car with everything she needed for her trip. Packed bags, a spare tire, an oil pan, several quarts of oil and camping supplies filled the trunk. It was a blue 1979 Ford LTD Landau, her first car and the only one she'd owned thus far. It was a large enough car for even Grace's six foot frame to sleep in the back seat. Macon, Georgia was the first stop, followed by El Paso, Texas. Alamosa, Colorado, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and International Falls, Minnesota made the first leg of the journey. The latter would be comprised of stops through Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and then... back. Back to whatever she may find. She knows what she'll find; her things out on the road and eviction papers. None of that matters right now. Right now the only things that exist are a car and a road. Heat from the rumbling engine, heat from the friction of tires, heat from the unseasonably warm weather moving into October. One simultaneous chorus of motion, and for the first time in years, Grace felt optimistic about her course in life. As cold, as harsh, as lonely as the world is, there are sparks of peace waiting to be discovered if one looks hard enough.
Somewhere along her travels, in the middle of the night, Grace achieved some spiritual equilibrium with the road. All the miles she'd gone, all the miles she had left to go, it was all one grand motion from beginning to end. Tired, determined brown eyes stared ahead into the balmy yellow glow of halogen headlights. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, the massive car begins to slow. Gravel crunched under the tires as the vehicle moved off of the desolate country road somewhere along the journey. Grace pressed the dashboard lighter in and waited for it to pop out before she turned the car off. She fished a cigarette from her pocket and lit it before she stepped outside to look up at the endless sea of stars above. How close are they to Earth? How far? Why were they in their respective positions? Gravity is the obvious answer, but gravity doesn't explain the reason for gravity. The universe could have worked any old way, why is gravity the one that shaped this one? Moments were spent picking apart the different constellations; Grace was Eastbound. "Y'all got all the time in the world," she said to the countless bright lights in the void. Despite knowing she didn't have all the time in the world, her heart and her head were in a rare state of disagreement. A cerebral approach had defined much of Grace's life and it wasn't going to change now, or so she thought. "What do you know? What do you know about all this down here?"
The stars didn't answer. The stars are stars, they likely didn't understand any more about what they saw on Earth than Grace did. She felt uneasy about standing here on the side of the road like this, out in the middle of nowhere. It's not safe for a woman out here. A cool wind blew across the desolate road without the shroud of trees on either side that she was used to. Chuckling greets this gesture of hostility, and Grace hopped up to the massive hood of her car with the help of the front bumper. She lay down on it, her back propped up against the windshield. For an hour or so she stared up at the sky in defiance of the early morning wind. She wondered and awed and considered motion, connecting the road with life and travel with time. "It's all one long now," she whispered with a grin as she pointed up at the stars she'd been watching with a cigarette long burned out. That's it; she understood time now. People in dramatic say 'there's no such thing as the past or the future, only the now,' as if it's common sense, but she felt that the sentiment was cheap, just lines on paper. How many people understood the full picture? Day, night, weeks, months, years, all of history during and before humanity: it's all one long now. This trip is one long now as well. This moment in worrying her atrophied weight is going to dent the hood of this well-kept old car, it's one long now. Each moment spent in contemplation is one long now. Grace fell asleep on the hood of her car that night in fitting double denim, sleeping until a passing motorist stopped to ask if she was okay. The journey resumed from there.
Drinks and laughs were shared among friends, jokes and jubilations. Even a race between two cars along some seldom traveled road was held, and though Grace lost, she still had fun. Lysergic Acid Diethlyamide was shared afterward, and though her insecurities had gotten the better of her in the heat of the moment, she brought herself to apologize to her friend for calling herself useless. Her friend, as a friend, accepted without hesitation. This stoked her fire even further; Grace wanted to live. She had always been a fighter. A plan was made to take breaks from driving for lunch so that a few job applications could be sent every day. Maybe one of them could be answered in time, and she would have an outlet for her talents, few as she considered them to be. It's a spark, a hope. One of those little things that keeps a life from burning out. It's something that everyone needs to stay alive. No soul can survive without it: motion, fire, the transition of each now to the next. It's a question with an answer. However like any answer, it inevitably begs more questions. "That's some bullshit, ain't it though?"
Grace's conversation partner, the only waitress on staff at a Waffle House somewhere in South Dakota, felt it best to humor this anachronism of a person sitting at the counter in front of her. "I suppose it is, now that you mention it." It was 4:17am, and this woman was the first customer there had been since the third shift started. Small towns have nights like those sometimes.
"I'm so glad you get it," Grace laughed with a genuinely warm smile. "This is what happens when a person spends too much time thinking."
The weirdos always come out after dark. Nobody gets paid enough to do this, but these kinds of weirdos prevent things from getting to monotonous. "You make that sound like a bad thing."
"Well, isn't it? You spend uh, precious seconds rattling yourself apart instead of moving in the right direction."
A knowing smile crossed the waitress' face. "I think too much, too, and I think that different people think at a pace that works for them. Have you ever thought that maybe your way of thinking isn't so bad?"
"I, um..." Grace was caught off guard by this. Her eyes softened as she considered the older woman in front of her, expression disarmed with contemplation. "No, I never did."
"Then why don't you sit with that for a while. See how it suits you."
The tip that night was generous, and Grace departed with her focus renewed upon a new idea. Maybe everything that she is, was and will be, wasn't actually as bad as she'd always thought. 'Mom' might have been wrong; she was going to do better than her 'dad' after all. It's hard to tell where the line is between realism and self-affirmation, the line that crosses from objective truth to a coping mechanism. Like any other answer she wanted, however, Grace was determined to find it no matter how many times she slipped and fell along the way. She was used to it; her entire life had been a series of failed attempts to scale unknowable mountains in search of answers that everyone else seemed to have. It was already determined that she would change this, but thanks to the conversation last night, the resolve was only stronger. These were the thoughts that swirled through Grace's head as she'd waited for her friend in International Falls to answer the door, but they never did. An entire hour was spent waiting at the doorstep. Eventually, she had the idea to camp out at a nearby park with the plan to try again tomorrow.
It was a small park outside of the nearby town of Ranier. Grace set her tent up early - one can never be too diligent in setting up camp before dark - to make the most of her time in nature. After spending so much time on the road, it felt strange to be sitting on a fallen log in a silent forest. She hadn't done this in years, and she found it agreeable. The walk to the campsite wasn't that far, but with her years of inactivity it felt like quite a trek. Getting some exercise would be a great secondary goal. The creek across from the circular campsite reminded Grace of her revelation about motion. Tears had nearly fallen when her friend hadn't answered, but there would always be tomorrow, because it's now. She let go of the hurt she had felt during that hour. Neither the hurt or the blame for it should be transferred to the person she called friend; that wasn't what this trip was about, and so she does not have any hurt or blame to give. This is an opportunity to be out of the tub and in the only place she'd felt she belonged. It's an opportunity to let time pass more slowly. The opportunity of an elongated now would provide more opportunities to think, to learn. Grace spent the rest of the afternoon thinking while she warmed a can of beans in the small cooking setup she'd purchased at Cabela's, and then she thought some more. She went to bed no closer to answers.
Night came, again warmer than usual for the season. Wind blew gently over the thin canvas tent. Something kept waking Grace in the night. It wasn't quite electricity, and it wasn't quite a humming sound, but she felt like she could feel an odd presence of both in the ground below her. The first time she was unnerved. The second time she thought she'd overdone it with the LSD the other day and caused herself some kind of medical problem. The third time she was woken by something else: rolling thunder. "What the fuck," she asked the coming storm as she sat up in a huff. Sleep was often hard to achieve, but the weather forecast said it was going to be clear and calm all night. Whatever, the weather changes and meteorology is an imperfect science. The problem presented is the dropping temperature due to cool winds and rain. A crack of thunder, far louder than the first, sweeps across the wilderness Grace alone was camped in. Sleep wasn't in the cards after all. Instead, huddled deeply into her sleeping bag so its warmth and the insulation of her jacket would keep her warm. Another crack of thunder. The storm must have been moving extremely quickly for the thunder to be this frequent. Grace braced herself, but nothing could have prepared her for what came next.
A forceful wind blew across the campsite. Clanking metal of the cooking implements falling over itself was heard outside. Grace stiffened at the sound as it mixed with the flapping of the tent around her. It felt like it was going to blow away, and yet another crack of thunder only makes that hypothetical more likely. "Oh fuck this." The black work boots she'd removed earlier were hastily laced up. This tent had been pitched at the treeline, and if one of those trees were struck, it could end very badly. Just in case it's not safe to return to the tent, Grace grabbed her phone and vacated the flimsy shelter in favor of something away from potential shrapnel. Upon stepping outside, she's immediately pelted by wind and rain. A practiced hand reaches into the jacket pocket and activates the phone's flashlight. Thankfully its case is waterproof. She could hardly see anything, but having spent time in the clearing during the day, she knew the middle has a divot in it. Lower elevation compared to one's surroundings are always preferable in a lightning storm, and the middle would provide the furthest distance from the trees that rim the site. The going is tough as Grace stumbled toward the divot in the shaking, meager light of her flashlight. She groaned in protest of the weather, and the phone was slipped back into her pocket. "For shit's sake, jyeezus!" A storm of this magnitude was entirely new to her. Another thing was new to her was the way the clouds swirled around the halo of the moon above, like they were parted to funnel moonlight directly down onto her. The feeling of buzzing energy below the ground was known to her again for a split second as she watched the moon with squinted eyes, and with a tremendous crack, everything went white.