The man's food came and he scooted the girl off of his lap and dug in. She reached for a triangle of toast and he slapped her hand.
"Ask first," he said, but she didn't ask and he didn't give it to her. I imagined a scenario in which the girl had been kidnapped years ago. She'd been with him so long that she had forgotten any other life ever existed.
My mother reached over me to get a packet of Sweet'n Low and I leaned back in an exaggerated manner. She smelled bad, like a wounded animal. She had gotten her period as soon as we'd left Montgomery, and it reminded me that I hadn't showered in days. I'd gone swimming last night, though, had stayed in the pool for hours listening to Elise talk to a boy who was selling magazines across the country. Every morning, the boy woke up early and drove to a different town. He didn't have time to see anything or do anything and he ate fast food off dollar menus to save money. He wanted to go home, but he had barely made anything after his expenseshe might even end up owing them. It was modern-day indentured servitude, he'd said. I'd been waiting for Elise to one-up him with her pregnancy, or to tell him that our father was driving us twenty-five hundred miles so that we would be among the last people in the Continental U.S. to witness the coming of Our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, but she didn't say anything except that we were going to see the Pacific Ocean.
Elise sat back down and poured two creamers into her coffee, stirred it with a fork. She drank coffee every morning now; she'd drink cup after cup and hold up her hand so I could watch it shake.
When the waitress returned, my father ordered a T-bone and my sister ordered a waffle and my mother ordered a Fiesta Omelet and I ordered a hamburger. Elise had stopped eating meat six months ago, but I'd catch her stealing glances at our pulled pork sandwiches, our sausage-filled side of the pizza. She had a whole spiel about animal rights and the environment and the nutritional requirements of the human body and our father had his own spielhe said if people stopped eating meat, animals would overrun our cities and wreak havoc and the economy would crash. He said if meat weren't available, people would turn to cannibalism.
My father searched his pockets and went outside, came back and divvied up a thin newspaper. He handed me the entertainment section, and I read my horoscope and checked to see what was coming on TV later. I hoped my sister and I would have our own room again so we could watch whatever we wanted.
"Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is on at eight," I said, leaning over my mother to show Elise. We loved movies from the 1980s, the ridiculous clothes and graphics, the clunky phones and boom boxes. We liked The Last Starfighter, Sixteen Candles, The Goonies. We liked anything with Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson, who were so old now. If they were raptured, they'd be restored to their former beauty. I liked Andrew McCarthy best in Less Than Zero, Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. Molly Ringwald was never pretty enough to be a leading lady, but the eighties were a dream world in which the captain of the football team would leave the homecoming queen for an awkward red-haired girl who made her own clothes.
I watched the cook break my patty off a stack and place it on the grill. He seasoned the steak and cracked eggs into a bowl, moving so fast he seemed to be doing all of these things at once. He wore a little paper hat to distinguish himself. It was a nice touch, old-timey. I picked up the entertainment section again and read Elise's horoscope. I wanted to tell her what it said, but our parents thought horoscopes were evil because the only one who knew what was going to happen was God. Elise's advised against extended travel, which she would have found amusing. Mine said I was on an information-gathering mission of sortsI was to keep my questions unstructured and people were going to tell me the most unusual facts about themselves and the world. I liked the sound of this, particularly the "of sorts" part. My mission could be whatever I wanted.
Excerpted from The Last Days of California: A Novel by Mary Miller. Copyright © 2014 by Mary Miller. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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