There is a white billboard on the left side of Highway 65. The road runs between Idaho and Wyoming, right on the border, though no one can tell the states apart. Fields of grains and potatoes surround the pavement on either side. Usually the sun is out, and when it’s dark, it looks like cars just up and disappear straight into the horizon line.
A man drives a Jeep on the right side of Highway 65. He’s not used to driving; he didn’t get his license until he was twenty, actually, because it never felt natural. Whenever he sat behind the wheel he imagined a man much like himself in the early twentieth century, pulling on levers that let steam loose, and he thought about how driving would always feel like that: clunky and old. So he took the train to work and cabs to town, though he didn’t go to town too much. Only for drinks at night when he needed alcohol and white noise to occupy his mind.
He drove today, though. He drove from Idaho to Wyoming, although at this moment he was driving in no-man’s-land straight between them. He wondered where he was, technically, right then: the land of potatoes, or the Wild West? If a plane crashes between New York and Pennsylvania, where do you bury the survivors? His father used to tell him that one when he was young, but he never really found it funny.
In Idaho there was an empty cottage with photos of him as a child. He drank black coffee in the mornings and English Breakfast before bed. He read the paper once a day, in the same chair his father used to use, and sometimes he got so lonely his hands fiddled with knives in the kitchen. In the pearly gray of dusk he’d often remember how his mother used to stand on the front porch in a robe, and he’d have to blink a few times to get rid of her ghost. Then the silence would sink in, and he’d call a cab to take him to the bar. It was always like that.
But in Wyoming there was a girl with a name like honey. He kept a picture of her in his wallet: a day at the lakeside beach, the only full day they had spent together, with her back to the camera and her toes in the sand and her ankles under fresh water. They met at the diner, the same one he’d been going to all those years, though she was only there once. It had been three months since she left. He was beginning to forget the color of her eyes. He had tried to get her out of his head, but lately her memory was all he could think of. She had told him not to wait for her that day at the beach, but he wouldn’t listen anymore. To him, she was full. Everything else was a little bit empty.
He had been driving for five hours, imagining her silky hair, or silky hair that he thought was hers, when he saw the white billboard on the left side of Highway 65. It looked like a blank piece of paper against a blue desk. Something was familiar about that billboard, he realized. It felt like it came straight out of his dreamscape, like the endless road was reading his mind.
He squinted at the sign, which was dangerous considering his disdain for driving. There were little black words on the white billboard, dead set in the center. They said something funny, he thought. They said who are you, but instead of who it was why. Why Are You? That was it. Why Are You, George? He wondered that last part out loud and his skin pricked up when he spoke.
It was as if he crashed his car, that was the impact he felt. Suddenly he was floating above his body, looking down at his hands on the wheels and his long-gone parents’ cottage in Idaho and the cup of black coffee and knives pulled from drawers and faceless girls with names like honey. He saw the circular brown glasses on his nose and the borrowed car on the road to Wyoming and his own loneliness as if they were a memory or as if they belonged to someone else. For that split second, he was a separate sentient being. Why Are You, George? Why don’t your heartbeats feel like your own?
It was just a second, a millisecond even, and then he was back. But in that momentary lapse his hands had fallen from the steering wheel, and it had turned to the right, and his car had careened off the side of the road and into one of the endless fields. There was wheat all around him, or millet or potatoes. His foot found the break and the car lurched to a halt. He looked out the back windshield. More grains. He sighed.
George glanced at the car’s clock. Five-oh-two. Six more hours to Wyoming. Or maybe he was there already, technically, since he had lurched to the right and fallen right off the border. Or did he fall into Idaho? Everything looked the same. How could he know?
George pulled his wallet from his pocket and took out the photo. There she was, the girl and the sun and the shore. He squinted at her frame and tried to remember her voice, but all he heard was his own. He squinted harder and tried to remember the color of her eyes, but his memory couldn’t form a coherent face. Blue, maybe. Or light brown. Or hazel. Or green.
KALEY MAMO is a writer and high school senior who currently resides in Westchester, New York, though she will soon leave her small-town roots behind when she moves to the Big City as a Columbia University freshman next year. She has received six National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, including three National Gold Medals and a Best-in-Grade Award, and is a 2016 alumni of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program. In addition to writing, Kaley enjoys watching movies, drinking coffee, reading about the lives of her favorite authors, and exploring new cities.
"I've included an audio message in which I talk about my three primary sources of inspiration – geography, a personal fear, and a film I love – and how these sources helped me write the piece. I also talk briefly about my writerly aesthetic and how this piece matches the things I love." –Kaley Mamo