WHO: Kaden WHEN: Thursday night through to Sunday night WHERE: Across several states WHAT: Slow progress WARNINGS: None
Lil T seemed to like riding in the car. Kaden thought: it’s like a big metal womb, moving all the time and making noise. Thinking this way made spending so much time in the car a little easier; if Lil T liked it, then Kaden could learn to like it too.
He didn’t though. Like it. It was a terrible place to sleep, even with the seats tipped all the way back. It smelled of bagged nappies and dirty laundry and he was too worried about the baby getting cold to let the windows open for long to get some fresh air.
And Ronan wasn't there, and never would be again. Kaden couldn't escape the belief that he'd stolen Ronan's car and left him behind to die.
The car might be like a big metal womb but it was also a big black embodiment of all of Kaden's guilt. Guilt was stitched into the seats. Guilt turned the engine. Guilt shone out across the road through the headlights. It was inescapable. It was everywhere.
But at least the constant movement usually rocked the baby to sleep.
He’d left the motel in West Virginia at night and driven through, stopping after midnight, and at three, and (after only twenty minutes on the road) at five, for the usual long stops for feeding, stops when Kaden could do nothing but think of Ronan’s death and Marcie’s fear that Ares was going to catch him. His own fear about Ares waxed and waned, at times the thought of a war god - the war god – on his trail felt like a product of his overstressed mind. Other times, he knew it was real.
The second stop, Kaden shoved a pillow between his head and the door of the car and fell into a half doze, as exhaustion won over both fear and grief. If Ares was coming, then let him come, Kaden was too tired to fight.
During his third stop, he actually fell asleep with the bottle in his hand, and when he opened his eyes the baby was asleep in his arms, formula all over his face, the bottle mostly empty like he’d fallen asleep in the middle of eating too.
The sun was rising and everything was turning gray. Kaden’d head throbbed in protest to the lack of quality and quantity of sleep. It throbbed as a hangover from his crying. It probably throbbed from dehydration, but he couldn’t reach the bottle of energy drink (or his water, which would probably be better) which had been dropped somewhere in the footwell of the front seat.
One handed, as the baby slept, he groped around the back seat for anything that would help. A bruised banana, that was healthy. A can of chicken he had to use his teeth on the metal ring to help open, that had some liquid in it, and the chicken itself, tipped into his mouth, wasn’t bad, but tenders would have been better. He’d love a burger. Hot cakes. Pizza. All accompanied by more coke than a human should ever drink in one sitting. Oh hell yeah…
Kaden drained every last drop of energy drink once he climbed back into the front seat, and every bit of water, and he found the apple he’d pinched from the motel office, almost without meaning too, and devoured that so fast he choked on the sticker.
The soda he ordered at a diner on the outskirts of Columbus was the best thing he’d ever tasted, closely followed by the pancakes, the coffee, and the curly fries. There was a lady selling tamales in the parking lot too, and Kaden couldn’t help himself from buying a whole lot, even though they weren’t going to be as good when he microwaved them later. Tamales. “Who doesn’t love food that comes with its own plate?” he asked Lil T, who had been strapped to his chest for this whole breakfast adventure.
The baby looked up at him with eyes as gray as the morning and Kaden felt a sudden surge of love. “Can’t wait to make you your first tamale,” he said as he made his way back to the car. “Sometimes mom would make them when she was in a really good mood, said they were the best thing she inherited from her mom. Mom’s… mom’s another person who shoulda got away from her family, but she… married someone like her dad and then she was stuck. She had us and she was stuck, and it killed her. But not us, we’re not stuck. We’re five hundred miles away from any family, now.”
Five hundred miles and counting.
But it was slow, slow going. Kaden spent way too much time asleep at rest stops on the side of the highway.
He couldn’t drive for much longer than an hour without risking falling asleep. Even running circles around the car to stretch his legs didn't hold back the exhausted mind-fog for long. And even when he did get into the groove of driving, he still had to stop, all the time, for the baby. He was a little too scared to risk a motel again, but he mastered the knack of parking the car in the weak spring sunshine and napping, dead still, with the baby on his chest. Sleeping in the car at night was too cold, but driving at night felt a little safer anyway, a little less like he was being watched, and Kaden covered more miles that way.
In this way he wound his way - slowly - through Indiana, Illinois, Iowa.
It was in Iowa that Kaden stopped in the middle of the night to change a nappy, and found himself completely overcome by the stars.
He’d never seen so many before, not ever in his life. With the baby clean(ish) and warm against his chest, Kaden just stared for a while, leaning back against the car, stunned. Stunned out of exhaustion, out of fear, even stunned out of grief.
“I know you can’t see these,” he whispered softly, following the Milky Way – the actual Milky Way – across the sky. “But you gotta trust me, they’re... they're blowing my mind, little dude. There’s so many. That’s Sirius, I think. That’s the dog star, and that's his brother, Regulus. And then that’s Orion, their human friend.” He kept murmuring stories, as best as he could remember them but mostly made up, stories of Sirius knocking over the heavenly milk jug and spilling the stars all over the sky, his neck growing so sore from tipping back for so long.
He made up stories he thought Ronan might have made up, if he was leaning here at Kaden’s side. He told Lil T of an epic battle between a giant scorpion and a lion, the hero (the scorpion; Ronan thought scorpions were cool) eventually defeating his rival, earning a place in the sky forever.
And then Kaden’s eyes fell on a bright star that shone, clear and red, through the night. Kaden went silent, watching it. Mars.
He felt like Frodo, finally putting on the ring in the middle of Mount Doom, the Eye of Sauron snapping its attention straight toward him, all seeing, all knowing.
That… wasn’t how it worked, he told himself, feeling small, and afraid, and very, very seen.
Kaden silently pressed his lips against the baby’s hat, and slowly – keeping his eyes on Mars as though the planet would transmogrify into Ares himself and step down out of the sky – climbed quickly back into the car, and drove away.
He tried not to look at the stars, after that, and next time he had to stop while it was still dark, he made sure he parked well under a tree.