The next morning, we were woken up by the most heinous, despicable method possible. As we lay sleeping, Lena crept in holding two tops to pots as if they were cymbals. She clanged them together at the early hour of eight, and the only one of us who did not leap up from their chair howling as if the devil were approaching was The Traveler.
“Wake up!” Lena shouted. “It’s shopping day!”
My brain raced. Blood rushed through my veins. The Student, The Drunkard, and I looked at each other, wide-eyed and terrified as Lena and Dee—standing in the doorway—laughed uproariously and The Traveler slowly sat up and yawned.
“What the hell?” shouted The Drunkard
“Uncalled for!” shouted The Student.
“That shit just ain’t kosher,” I said.
The Traveler continued to yawn.
Lena, after finally ceasing her laughter, said, “I just wanted to make sure you guys woke up early enough. Seriously, if you think this is bad, then you don’t have loud enough alarm clocks.”
“Amen,” said The Traveler, unzipping his sleeping bag as he sat up and then rubbing his hair. “You’d think y’all don’t have jet engines waking you up in the morning.”
“No,” said The Student. “What kind of person would have that?”
The Traveler raised his hand and grinned. “I’m a deep sleeper.”
We decided who would go first in terms of showering and, luckily, it was me.
I showered, walked out, and promptly went back to sleep. When I woke up (again), The Traveler sat at the dining room table and stared at a spread-out map of Oxfordshire with two Post-It Notes on it. The Drunkard sat next to Lena, who sat next to Dee, who sat next to The Traveler. The Traveler said, “Kay, we’re good.”
“Really?” asked The Drunkard. “Cause that’s what we thought about coming up here, and you managed to get us pretty damn lost.”
“It was an off day,” said The Traveler.
The Drunkard, in a green flannel shirt and jeans, shrugged and said, “Whatever.”
The Traveler shot him a look that would have escalated the situation, had The Student not been there to interfere with a hearty, “You know, the thing I like about these sorts of journeys is that—”
“Dear God,” said The Drunkard. “Please, do not equate going to a retail mall—village, sorry—with some literary trope.”
The Traveler cleared his throat. “Okay everyone ready to go?”
“Please,” said The Drunkard, leaning back in his chair, “can we bicker some more?”
We packed in the car. The Drunkard, flattened himself against the window. Dee sat next to him, relatively comfortable (at the heart of each of us was a gentleman perfectly willing to make life miserable for himself so that a woman could be better off). The Student angled himself so that he wasn’t quite making complete contact with the seat. And I, like the Drunkard, was doing my best to collapse my skeleton so I could become a thin layer of fabric against the window.
“You cannot be comfortable,” said Dee, looking at each of us. “Here, let me—”
“Nope,” I said. “We’re fine. Kosher. Hunky-dory.” The left side of my body went numb.
“But—” she said.
“Nope,” said The Traveler, moving the front seat back and getting in. “If they say they’re fine, then they’re fine. These guys wouldn’t lie, would ya?”
“Nope,” we said in chorus.
The car started up and started on the road. We rode in silence for a little ways—mostly because those of us in the back tried, in very small stages, to make the journey bearable for ourselves by making tiny, tiny movements. Eventually, I got in such a position that feeling returned in my left side. The Student was now sitting partially on me, but, damn it, I could feel my whole body again. “This doesn’t change our relationship, Narrator,” he said.
“Dee,” said The Drunkard, shifting slightly. “Does this change ours?”
Dee laughed. “We’ll see.”
“A black year on your head!” I thought to The Drunkard. “May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground!” I thought to The Drunkard again. Outwardly, I grumbled. “Traveler,” I said. “Music. None of The Drunkard’s trash. Actual, good music.”
“Trash? Trash?” asked The Drunkard. “I’m sorry, but you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. Bands like Occam’s Razor and I’ll Razor Your Occam are brilliant examples of the indie-backlash going on in the punk scene. But, hey, maybe we should just go raid the local Goodwill, throw on some thick glasses, and not move at concerts. Does that fit your Goddamn perception of music better, you schmuck?”
“Drunkard,” Dee said, “please. You’re flailing on me.”
I thought about how many traffic and motoring laws we were breaking by riding in the back like this, and I hoped that The Traveler wouldn’t give a cop any reason to notice us. We passed the ring road out of town, hit one of the spindly two-lane highways that led out of Oxford and parallel to the M2—or 5, or whatever number it was—and to my great joy, the opening notes of Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” streamed out of the speakers.
I closed my eyes and started bobbing my head in time with the music.
“Narrator,” said The Student. “Please stop moving. This is making me very, very uncomfortable.”
I stopped moving, leaned my head back, and thought, “This is what Hell must be like: not being able to even bob your head to ‘Mustang Sally.’”
“Mustaaaaaaang Sally-oh-oh-oh, now,” said a whispering, almost mute voice.
I looked around. Whoever was singing had just the right amount of chutzpah to pull off a good soul vibe.
“You better turn your Mustang round, now,” sang the voice again. I looked over and, sure enough, it was The Student.
“Holy shit,” I said.
He turned and said, “What?”
“You’re fuckin good, man. Belt it! Belt that shit!”
“Don’t belt it,” said the Traveler.
“Ignore him! He’s trying to keep the brother down! He’s The Man! Belt it!”
And, sure enough, The Student belted it. Then The Drunkard joined in. Soon, the whole car, even the Traveler, was singing along to some good soul music
We were so wrapped up in it all that we must have missed the sign welcoming us to Wales.
The soul music completely negated any conception of time we had. Someone finally noticed something was wrong when the green signs started showing a language that seemed to have fallen in love with the letters l and f. “Dear sweet God,” said The Drunkard. “Traveler, what have you done?”
“What?” asked The Traveler, turning down “I’m So Tired of Being Alone.”
“Did you see that road sign?”
“Look,” said The Student, “here’s another one.” The one he was talking about didn’t look official. It was big, white with red lettering, and looked like it had been painted in a hurry.
“What the hell?” I asked. “Are we in C’thulu territory? ‘Cymru am byth?’”
“Hell,” said The Traveler. “Jesus fuck shit,” he pounded the wheel. “We’re in Wales.”
“What?” asked Lena.
“You’re kidding,” said Dee. “There’s no retail in Wales until you get to Cardiff!”
“Good going, putz,” said The Drunkard.
“See? This is why you shouldn’t belt things around me. I lose concentration.”
“I thought you were supposed to be Mr. Internal-GPS-Traveler-Man,” said The Drunkard.
“I never said anything about having an internal GPS. I know where train stations and bus depots are. I fucking hate driving.”
“Then how come you’re driving?” I asked.
“Cause none of you idiots ever learned how to drive stick. Fuck,” he said. We continued on the way, The Traveler drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Okay. Okay, easy way out. We ask someone where we need to go in order to get to this place. We can’t be that far off, right? Look, here’s a petrol station. Narrator, you’re coming with me.”
I looked at my current seating arrangement and laughed. “You’re kidding. How?”
“Dee, Student,” said The Traveler, “Lena, you mind moving for him?”
The three people grumbled. The Traveler pulled into the station’s car park, turned off the car, and we began the nearly impossible maneuver of getting me out of the back seat. Lena got out of the car and moved the seat. The Student, apologizing constantly, hoisted himself up by using Dee’s leg and the back of the seat as a base. I slipped out, tripped over the bottom of the door, and faceplanted on the pavement. “Ow,” I said.
“You’re fine,” said The Traveler. “Come on.”
I didn’t want to leave the pavement. The pavement wouldn’t scream at me an alien language. Lena helped me up. I nodded and said thanks. I looked up at the sky and saw the clouds had turned a dark, threatening color. The birds were quiet, and it all pointed to a massive rainstorm. The Traveler, though, was undeterred by such a minor concern as weather and soldiered on into the petrol station.
Convenience stores are one of the unchanging constants in the first world, along with airports. They will all look the same, and, if ever one finds oneself in dire need of remembering that there is a spark of home, one only needs to look for a convenience store and, hark!, there shall be Mountain Dew. Do the Dew, indeed.
Inside, a man stood behind a white-and-red counter with a cash register with a green display. Cigarette packets were arranged in rows behind him. Candies in front of him, on the customer’s side. To the side, there was a microwave with pre-programmed options for heating up pasties, paninis, and other things. The small aisles were filled with electronics and nick-nacks supposedly designed to increase miles per gallon, fool-proof rain-repellant to be sprayed onto the windshield of a car, radar detectors, all sorts of other things.
The Traveler and I went up to the man behind the counter. “Hello,” he said. He spoke in an accent nearly unfathomable to my ears. Try as I might, I don’t think I could replicate it, and, as such, I will not even make the attempt. “Help you?”
“Well,” said The Traveler, scratching the back of his neck and smiling bashfully. “We’re lost. Meant to be going to this retail village ou—”
The man sneered and he spat something out in a language that sounded similar to God-Knows-What.
“Er,” I said.
He repeated his statement and laughed.
The Traveler turned to look at me. I shrugged. It didn’t sound like the man was angry, more like he was testing waters.
He picked up the phone on the counter, dialed a number, and spat some more words into it. He waited, did it again, and hung up. He looked at us with a grin, muttered something Welsh under his breath and said, in a Southern accent—I shit you not—that could have passed in Georgia, “Y’all ain’t from around here, is ya?” He then burst into laughter again.
I poked The Traveler in his arm and said, “We should go.”
“Nonsense. It’s just the, er, Welsh sense of humor,” he attempted one of his confidence-inspiring grins, but failed. “Look,” he said to the cashier, “we just want to know how to get back into England.”
“Oh, I bet you do. Where you’re safe.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I can hear the banjo. Traveler,” I said, taking him by his shoulders and shaking him, “I can hear the banjo!”
The cashier laughed again as the door to the store burst open and The Student, wide-eyed, panting, and sweating profusely, stumbled in. He said, “We have to get out of here. Now. This is turning into a scene from Easy Rider.”
I forced The Traveler away, pushed him past The Student, and back outside. The skies had opened up and rain poured down. Three other cars—an old and green Peugeot, a black Toyota pickup, and a blue Opel with peeling paint—were parked around the lot. Their drivers—tall, lanky, and grinning wolfishly—leaned against the vehicles and stared at us. “Yeah,” I said, “we’re out of here.”
“Nonsense,” said The Traveler, still desperately clinging onto the hope that he could get us directions even as he was being forced to the Fiesta. “They’re just locals. Locals are friendly.”
The man leaning against the Toyota bent down, picked up a small rock, and hurled it at the hood of our car. It made a good-sized dent and chipped off some paint, leaving a large white spot. “Nope, fight or flight’s out of the question,” I said. “The only option is flight, now. Flee, flee like the wind!”
The passenger’s side door opened and Lena, wisely using the door as cover in a crouch, stood aside as I shoved The Traveler towards the driver’s side. I dashed into the back, nearly crushing Dee. The Drunkard had his eyes closed and was shaking his head. Dee sat still, drumming her fingers on her thigh. The Student barreled in, Lena moved the passenger’s seat again, dashed in, closed the door, and The Traveler started the car just as a cascade of rocks hit the frame. Outside, I heard the men chanting, “Cymru am byth.”
We peeled out of the lot, spewing gravel. “Well, well,” said The Drunkard. “Maybe we should change your name to something else.”
“Fuck off, Drunkard,” said The Traveler.
“Something a bit more reflective of your inability to find—”
“Drunkard,” I said. “Stop. Now isn’t the time. We nearly escaped getting attacked, so let’s not exacerbate the situation by turning it into a pissing match.”
The Drunkard shot me a look. “Growing some balls, eh?”
“Drunkard,” said The Student, still sweating and bug-eyed from the encounter, “shut it.”
“We’re fine,” said The Traveler. “Back on the road, heading back towards Oxford.”
I snapped my fingers. “Got it,” I said. I pulled out my phone and called Giggles, who was, generally, always near his computer. My instincts didn’t fail me, and I got him to give us a rough estimate of how to get to the retail village from the Welsh border.
“What the hell are you doing in Wales?” asked Giggles. I could almost see him in his room, an eyebrow arched up nearly to his hairline.
“Almost getting killed by Welsh nationalists. What else?”
Anyway, we got the directions and, thankfully, we were on the right path. All we had done was missed a turnoff at a roundabout (big surprise there). So, The Drunkard cowed—I expected him to sulk, but he shrugged it off and just stared out the window—we continued on the way to the retail village.