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This Car is Going Straight to Hell
Five years gone, and now 20 straight hours with him alone. 20 straight hours, unless the Chevy breaks down again or he bails before we get to Kansas. 20 hours after a five years absence, for me five years of pencils, lockers and late bells. For him, five years of bibles, born-again fervor, and lots of other things I probably wouldn’t understand. The only thing I know about “The Resurrection”, where he’s lived since he left home, is that it’s a self described “community for true believers,” and that it’s in the middle of nowhere. And that after my brother had lived there for a few months, he stopped responding to my letters.
After too many unanswered pleas and the endless ringing of his telephone, I gave up and decided that maybe my brother had never existed after all. My mother eventually turned his old bedroom into the â€˜sewing room,’ which is a misnomer because no one in my family could sew on a button. It was just an excuse to tear down his posters and create another room for her to show off when relatives visit. “Look,” she could irritably explain to confused cousins and great-uncles, “my only son has disappeared and joined a cult, and so I’ve turned his bedroom into a cozy quilting corner. What more do you want me to explain?”
After Michael had been gone for two years and we moved across the state, my parents began introducing me as an only child and I never corrected them. It was getting harder to remember his face, especially since photographs of him had long since been discarded, or maybe put into a box somewhere in the attic. I quietly succeeded in school while my parents continued the dismal pattern of their lives: invest in the clothing industries of burgeoning third world countries, golf, invest in the oil industries of bankrupt African nations, golf. As my parents paid the high mortgage of our McMansion via third world child labor and tribal warfare, I made the honor roll and prayed for graduation. After years holed up in my bedroom, emancipation came through early admission to a prestigious university that was a six hour plane ride from my parent’s gated community.
It was a week before graduation, and my subsequent escape to college, when he called. “Hey Jen,” Michael said casually, as if he had just left for the weekend and was simply calling to remind me feed his pet lizard or walk the dog. “I was wondering, do you have your license yet? Because I kinda need a ride to Kansas.”
And that’s how I ended up spending a lifetime of babysitting money on a rusty used car, missing graduation, and driving way over the speed limit in hopes of reaching my brother before I lost him again. I could have just asked my parents if I could borrow the Benz, but I knew they would never believe me if I lied and told them I’d decided at the last minute to go to beach week with the rest of the senior class. Even they knew that I wouldn’t be caught dead on a cheesy boardwalk wearing some kind of beer hat. So instead I just left them a note on the dining room table that read, “Found brother, went to rescue him from cult. Be back in a few weeks.” Admittedly, it was a little vague and ridiculously melodramatic. But so was the situation.
I didn’t know what to expect when Michael told me to meet him at an Exxon station five miles away from his commune. I had always pictured him smiling manically with a bible under his arm, wearing khakis and a button down shirt (buttoned all the way up, of course.) So when I rolled up to the station I was surprised to see him slouching against the station wall wearing that faded Lynrd Skynrd tee, baggy jeans, and carrying a duffel bag. He looked pretty much the same as the day he left, except more tanner and with a short, scratchy-looking beard and a few faint lines across his forehead.
Michael climbed into the passenger seat as soon as I pulled up, so we didn’t have to do one of those mandatory awkward hugs. As the car filled with his unfamiliar smell, a cross between B.O. and suntan lotion, he looked over at me with a grin. “Hey,” he said. “How’ve you been?” I smiled hesitantly, and said fine. Michael told me he was transferring to the new commune because he needed expand his spirituality and find a new setting to connect with God. And because Arizona was too damn hot.
His charming manner was the same as I remembered; he still had that small, guilty smile when he talked, as if his every word was a secret he wasn’t supposed to tell. He was more of the brother I remembered than the young Pat Robertson I expected. Despite all of the angry and impressive statements I had planned on my long drive, I yielded to his charisma after about ten minutes.
We talked all the way through Arizona and into New Mexico. Michael told me about his life at the “Resurrection,” and how he found a simple peace in Christ that he never knew in our parent’s frenzied home. He told me about his girlfriend, and how beautiful she was. He told me about how much he loved the desert in the early morning, and how he wished he could show me the little blue flowers that grew in his backyard. I confided in him how much I hated high school, my parents, and most of my classmates. I even admitted that I was an uptight, honor roll atheist who wouldn’t know Jesus if he rang my doorbell and handed me a cheese pizza.
“Well,” Michael whispered conspiratorially, “There’s really just one good way to connect with God.” He reached into his duffel and pulled out a small bag of dry, green leaves and waved it around in the air with a grin. I immediately looked in the review mirror, as my paranoid instincts told me that a state trooper would be peering in the back windshield and ready to arrest Michael for his little display. We were the only people on the thin desert road. Glancing at the unzipped duffel in Michael’s lap, I saw at least 100 other little green baggies.
Seeing my expression, Michael cajoled me for my prudishness. “The community has to make a profit somehow, right? How else do you think we could afford to own so much land out there, with all those developers scrambling for a plot to build condos?”
I smiled weakly and nodded, but apparently my display of approval was unconvincing because he shook his head and turned his irritated face towards the window. We drove in silence for the next hour, and as night crept across the big sky my frustration grew. How could I have been prudish? Why, even after all my efforts to grow up his absence, did I still disappoint my brother?
Finally, a sign indicating a rest stop appeared. I looked over at Michael, and apologetically said, “I’m going to stop, do you want to get something to eat?” He shook his head, so I walked up to the 24 hour diner alone. As I waited for my food, I planned out what I would tell Michael when I got back in the car. “I’m sorry,” I rehearsed in my head, “I didn’t mean to offend you by freaking out about the bags. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with how you chose to make a living.” That’s a lie, I thought, but whatever.
Walking back to the car, I noticed the interior lights had gone out; Michael must be sleeping, I thought. Stepping closer, I saw that the hood was lifted, and wires were sticking out everywhere. The car battery was missing, and the passenger seat was empty. “Michael?” I whispered tentatively as I opened the car door. “Are you in here?” His duffel bag was gone, and his strange smell had been replaced by the sour stench of weed. On the back windshield, a message was scrawled with dripping blue paint in a familiar chicken scratch. “THIS CAR IS GOING STRAIGHT TO HELL.” In the nighttime desert, with forty dollars and a useless Chevy, I was alone again.