Authors: Jasinda Wilder
In good news, Eden is eating normally again, finally, after spending most of the year eating no carbs and counting calories and drinking shakes and exercising. She went kind of nuts, honestly. Hours every week with Michael, the personal trainer Dad had hired after Eden pestered him about it for a month last spring. Thank God for that. It’s not a weight thing. I’ve told you about this before, I know, but it’s a big issue between Eden and me. It’s the only thing we actually fight about. We’re sisters and we bicker like you’d expect, but we never really actually fight-fight about things, except Eden and her insecurity. I want her to be happy, you know? But I think she feels like she’s not as good as me or something. I hate that SO MUCH. I can’t even tell you. I’m just me, nothing special. I’ve got friends at school and I guess I’m kind of popular or whatever, but it’s not like I’m trying. And I always make sure Eden is part of everything.
I’ll miss not seeing you at camp this year, but maybe now that we both are sixteen we can meet somewhere? Maybe not. I don’t know.
Anyway, write back soon, and remember, you can always tell me anything.
Always your friend,
I felt shitty that I hadn’t even thought of her birthday. I pulled out a sheet of blank paper and started sketching a birthday cake. I colored it pink and white, drew in the candles so they looked like they’d just been blown out, and wrote “Happy Birthday”
above it and “Make a wish!” beneath it.
I’m sorry I didn’t know about your birthday. Mine was a few weeks ago. June 3
. Yours is June 12
? Happy birthday! I drew you a picture of a birthday cake. Kind of stupid, I guess, but happy birthday anyway. Mine was pretty lame. Dad gave me Mom’s car, but I didn’t even see him. He just put the keys on a birthday card, and that was it. I’m used to it, though. Nothing strange. I actually taught myself to drive. Although I think I mentioned that I drive on Gramps’s farm a lot, but it’s different when I could get pulled over. No one cares on the farm. Gramps has like several thousand acres, and I can’t really get arrested or get in a wreck out there, you know?
I’m glad to hear about your sister. Is it okay if I just leave that topic there? I think as a guy anything I say would be either wrong or stupid, so I just won’t say anything. Except, you ARE something special. You really are.
I’m going to Gramps’s farm this summer. I need it. I need to get away from Michigan, away from Dad, away from the house where Mom should be but isn’t. I need to be exhausted and sore and out in the open. I don’t know if you get that, but I just need it. So I’ll miss you, too. Maybe we can meet before school starts. I’ll still write you from Wyoming, and after you get that letter you can write me there. I don’t know the address off the top of my head. I know Dad has it written down somewhere, but I stay out of his study. I’m not sure how I’m getting to Wyoming, honestly. Usually Dad flies out there with me and stays a few days, then goes back home, but somehow I don’t think he’s going this year. Maybe I’ll just drive myself out there. I have Gramps’s phone number, so I could call him and get directions. I think Dad has a GPS system in his truck I could borrow.
Driving all the way to Wyoming by myself sounds scary, but I’m not sure how else to do it. I don’t think I can get a plane ticket on my own. I guess I could ask Dad for help, but I just don’t want to. I’d rather do it myself. He’s checked out of my life, basically, and I don’t see the point of even trying to involve him. So I get what you said at the beginning of your last letter about being mad at your dad. If I was to spend time with Dad, I’d be mad, too. Now, I’m just…trying to make it one day at a time on my own.
Would you draw me a picture? It doesn’t have to be paint, ’cause it takes forever for paint to dry. Just anything. So I have something of yours with me in Wyoming.
I mailed the letter, then sat down to plan. I found Gramps’s phone number and address. I would need a detailed map with directions, plus some food and water and some money for gas. I had no idea how long it would take to drive from Michigan to Wyoming, or how much gas I would use, or how much money it would take. The more I thought about everything involved in this crazy road trip, the more scared I got. I wasn’t even supposed to drive between ten at night and five in the morning, but I knew I’d end up doing so anyway.
Maybe I should just ask Dad to buy me a plane ticket.
I packed my clothes, everything I could think of needing except money. And then I waited for Dad to get home. It was after nine, and I was waiting for him in the kitchen. He looked…old, frail, and tired. His skin sagged around his eyes, under his chin. He’d always been huge and strong and vital, and suddenly he’d aged a century. He shuffled through the side door, letting the screen slam behind him. He dropped his briefcase onto the kitchen counter and sagged back against the sink, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose.
I don’t think he’d seen me yet. I was sitting at the table sketching an abstract map of the U.S., no state or country borders shown, only the interstates and U.S. highways; the idea had been inspired by having studied a road atlas to get an idea of how to get from home to Gramps’s Wyoming ranch.
He visibly started. “Oh, hey, bud. Didn’t see you there.” He tried to straighten from his hunched, defeated posture, but couldn’t quite manage it. “What’s up?”
“I’m going to the ranch this summer.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. “I’m not sure I can make the trip this year, son. I’m—”
“I know, Dad. I was gonna drive. I just need some money for gas and food. I’ve got the route all mapped out and written down turn by turn.”
He stared at me, perplexed. “You’re going to drive from Michigan to Wyoming by yourself?” He rubbed the side of his face. “That’s a fifteen-hundred-mile trip, Cade. You’re sixteen.”
Some hot, insistent emotion in me bubbled up and out. Anger, maybe? “I’m not a kid anymore, Dad. I taught myself to drive. I grocery shop on my own. I saved for, studied for, and took the road test by myself. I went to school and got all A’s and B’s, and did the laundry and cleaned the house by myself all year long. I don’t—I’m not blaming you. I’m just telling you, I’m not a kid. I’m going to the ranch. I just need a couple hundred bucks for gas and food.”
Dad seemed to crumple even further. “Cade, god…I’ve been a real shitty father, haven’t I? You’ve—”
“Jesus, Dad. I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you. I swear I’m not.” I stood up and circled around the table, stopped three feet from him. My father, who had once seemed almost super-human to me, looked afraid and empty. “I can do this, Dad. I
doing this. I need to.”
He waved a hand. “Fine. I think I’ve got some cash in the safe. Hang on.” He left the kitchen, heading toward his study. Each step clearly required effort. When he came back five minutes later, he had an envelope thick with cash and a cell phone still in the box. “This is over a grand. Should hold you for the summer. Plus, Gramps’ll spot you if you need it.” He handed me the cell phone, a brand-new iPhone. “This was going to be Mom’s gift to you for good grades at the end of the school year. I guess you earned it, and you’ll need it regardless. Download a GPS app. I’ll write down all the phone numbers you’ll need: mine, Gramps’s, Gram’s, and Uncle Gerry’s.”
“Is the phone connected?” I asked.
He nodded twice, slowly. “Yeah. Your own line. You know how to use it, I imagine?”
I shrugged. “Sure. I can figure it out.” A long, awkward silence extended between us. Finally, I stepped forward and gave him a one-armed hug. “Thanks, Dad.”
He was stone-still for a beat, and then he wrapped me up in both arms, held on to me so tight I lost my breath. “I’m sorry, Cade. I’m sorry. Jesus, I’m so sorry, I just—I can’t…”
He sniffed, and I couldn’t bear to pull away to see if he was crying. “She was all I had. All I’ve ever known. I’ve been with her my entire life. She was the first friend I ever made in Detroit. She was…everything. I—I—” He stuttered to a stop, and his shoulders shook. “I’m just sorry I’m not—I can’t…”
“Dad, stop. Please. It’s fine.”
“It’s not. You lost your mom, and all I can think of is my own—”
I jerked away. “Stop! Fuck! Just stop! I don’t want to have this conversation with you. She’s gone, and we both just have to deal with that as best we can. I’m not holding anything against you. I promise. Just…don’t you go and die on me too, okay?” I tried to make it sound like a joke, but it wasn’t.
He laughed, but it was mostly devoid of humor. “I’m doing my best, kiddo.” I don’t think he was exaggerating any more than I was.
Another tense silence rose up, and the moment became too much. I stuck the envelope in my back pocket and left the kitchen, holding up the cell phone box in a gesture of thanks or farewell or both. “I’ll probably leave first thing tomorrow, so…’bye.”
“’Bye, Cade. Drive safe. Call if you need to.”
I nodded, but I wouldn’t call him unless it was an emergency.
He left. I sat at my desk in my room, trying not to think as I put some of the cash into my wallet and the rest into my backpack, which held my sketchbooks and pencil cases, toiletries, maps, directions, and some snacks. I fell asleep wondering what it meant that Dad so easily let a sixteen-year-old kid—his only child—drive by himself to Wyoming.
was the only conclusion that I could come to.
~ ~ ~ ~
I was halfway to Chicago before I realized I’d never talked to Gramps about the fact that I was coming to spend the summer with him. The problem was, I knew Gramps would lose his shit if he knew I was driving there alone. I had to tell him, though. Gramps hated nothing more than surprises.
I pulled off onto the shoulder of I-94 and scrolled through my short list of contacts until I found the entry for Gramps’s cell phone. Taking a deep breath, I hit the “CALL” button.
It rang four times, and then Gramps’s deep, gruff, solid voice answered. “Hello? Who is this?”
“Hi, Gramps. It’s Caden.”
“Caden? Your Pops finally give you a cell phone, did he?”
I laughed nervously. “Yeah. Good grades this year, you know.” I cleared my throat. “So, I’m coming to the ranch this summer.”
“Oh, yeah? Had enough of that artsy-fartsy camper bullshit, did you?”
“Gramps. It was an exclusive program for the most talented kids my age in the country. It was an honor to go last year.”
“But you ain’t goin’ back, though.” I could almost see his eyes narrowing as he said this.
“Yeah, you’re right. I had enough artsy-fartsy bullshit. I’m still an artist, though. So don’t get your hopes up.” He liked to joke that someday I’d come to my senses and decide to move to Wyoming and let him groom me to take over the ranch.
“Well, shit. Got me all excited there for a minute, grandson.”
He cleared his throat, a signal that jokes were over. “So, when’s your flight get into Cheyenne?”
I hesitated. “Well, that’s the thing, Gramps. I—I’m driving myself this year.”
For once, Gramps was speechless. It took several moments for him to respond. “Bullshit,” he grunted. “You’re barely sixteen. Ain’t no way your Pops will allow that.”
“I left already. I’m halfway to Chicago.”
“The fuck is your dad thinking?” Gramps tried not to curse around me too much when I was younger, but like Dad, the older I got, the less he censored himself.
I wasn’t sure what to say, since I didn’t know what Dad was thinking. “He’s…he’s been working a lot.”
“You didn’t run away, did you?”
“No!” I winced as a semi roared past, rocking the car as it went. “Dad knows.”
Gramps was silent for a long time, but I knew him well enough to know he was thinking it over. “Guess I can’t do much from here. I want you to call me every four hours, Caden. You got it? Every four hours, precise. Means you have to stop and pull over to call me, you got it? No texting or talking while you drive. Keep the music down. Watch your blind spots. You hear me?”
“This is the dumbest goddamn thing I’ve ever heard of. Sixteen years old and driving damn near thirty hours by your own damn self. I should call Aidan and have a word with him is what I should do.”
“Don’t, Gramps. He’s…just don’t call him. I’ll be fine. I swear.”
“He ain’t dealin’ well with losin’ your mom, is he?”
“No sir, he ain’t.” I felt a pang of loss hit me. I always came back from the ranch talking like Gramps, with a twang and saying “ain’t.” Mom would have a fit every year, whacking my shoulder whenever I said “ain’t” or “don’t got” or anything like that. There’d be no one to care this year.
“It’s a damn shame, Caden. She was a good woman, too good for him, I always said. I know losin’ her is the hardest thing that could happen, but it ain’t no excuse for lettin’ a kid your age go off on a road trip alone.”
“I know, Gramps. But I’m not a kid anymore. Okay? I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time now.”
“You’re a good kid, Cade. You’ll be one hell of a man, too. But you’re still a kid. You need your Pops to be a father to you.” He grunted. “Four hours. I better hear from you on the dot. You stop anytime you’re tired, you hear? There ain’t no rush. Just get here safe.”
“’Kay, then. Love you, boy.”
“Love you too, Gramps.” I hung up and set the phone in the cup holder, wiping my face with both hands.
For a moment I was struck by disorientation, doubt, fear. What was I doing? I couldn’t do this. I wasn’t ready. Another semi rushed past, buffeting the Jeep. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Another. I pushed away the emotions, the doubts. I recited the route to Wyoming instead.