“You’re bringing your dog?
Apen tightened his grip on Melly as if his arms could protect her from Noah’s glare. “I can’t just leave her!”
“At least he’s not trying to bring his horse.” Berlyne scoffed, loading another duffel bag into the back of Noah’s van.
“I think that’s the last of the stuff from the house,” Chara said as she, Idony, and Joe deposited a few more bags near the trunk. “Hey Dad,” she tugged at Joe’s elbow and pointed across the street. “Do you see that white truck? It’s been there all morning. I feel like the guy inside is watching us.”
A silhouette was just visible in the driver’s seat of the white SUV.
“I see him.” said Joe. “I doubt he’s watching us, but I’ll keep my eye on him.”

“WAIT!” came a shout from someone tall, lanky, and orange up at the house. “DON’T LEAVE WITHOUT ME.”
Enel rushed down the driveway, threw a backpack in the van, and slammed the door. “I’M COMING TOO.”
“That is out of the question.” Apen snapped.
“This is my trip and you’re absolutely forbidden to come.“
“Apen.” Noah interrupted. “Just let him come.”
“How can you say that?”
Noah dragged Apen away by the hood of his sweatshirt. “It’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be. Do you expect him to stay home by himself when his only family is crossing the country?”

“That is… an ungodly amount of candy canes.” Berlyne peered at the sack in Enel’s arms as Noah and Apen argued in muted tones on the other side of the van. “They’ll have to go on the roof. Everything else is already packed.”
“Don’t break them!” Enel gasped when Berlyne lifted the sack onto the roof of the van.
“No promises. We have to cross an entire country.”
“I’m very glad you decided to come with us, Enel.” Marcus put his free hand – the one that wasn’t loaded with books – on his son’s shoulder.
Enel noticed the books in Marcus’s arms. “Oooh! What books did you bring? Can I read them?”
“I have A History of Coast-to-Coast Transportation, The Everlasting Man, A Practical Guide to—

“Everybody load up!” Noah called as he and Apen returned to the van. Apen looked disgruntled.
“Do I get to come?” Enel asked.
“Yes.” Noah said curtly.
“You stood up for me! Thank youuuuu!”
Noah ignored Enel, gave one last tug on the roof straps, and shooed a pigeon out of the roof rack. “Let’s get going. We’ve already wasted enough time.“
“Shotgun!” Enel barreled toward the front seat.
“Nope.” Noah put out an arm to bar Enel from the passenger-side door.
“But I’m too tall to fit—“
“Joe’s on navigation, so he sits up front. You sit somewhere else.”
“…Fine.” Enel’s look of disappointment disappeared as he waved his arms to get Chara’s attention. “Hey Chara! Can I sit with you?”

“Noah,” Idony spoke quietly to her brother. “Marcus should sit in the front.”
“You know he gets carsick!”
“And he’s not man enough to tell me himself. My answer is still no.”
“Well, do you want him sick in your van?”
“I don’t want him in my van at all.”
Noah.” Idony crossed her arms.
“Ugh.” Noah rolled his eyes. “I suppose Joe can navigate just fine from the second row.”
“Is that a yes?”
“No. Yes. Whatever.”

“Hey!” Enel yelled from the back once the square red van had started on its way. “Pass the aux cord!”
Apen turned in his seat. “Does this van look like it has an aux cord?”
“It only plays cassette tapes,” Noah said.
“Aw, Dad, you should have brought some of your cassettes,” Berlyne teased.
“I should have,” Joe agreed in good nature.
“I brought a speaker,” said Chara.
Berlyne whipped out her phone. “Give it to me. We are not listening to Enel’s music.”
“Why should I let you—“ Chara began, but was cut short when Noah slammed the brakes.
“What the—“ Noah barely avoided the white SUV that cut him off. He scowled, changed lanes, and sped ahead of the reckless driver.
“Hey!” said Chara, “It’s that same guy who was watching us before we left!”
Noah glared daggers at the eagle-nosed man in the truck, hit the gas, and left him in the dust.
“His license plate says… MCTRUCKY.” Berlyne snickered.
Noah scoffed. Enel and Chara practically fell over each other in laughter.

“Does the scenery ever change?” Enel complained after hours of driving on the barren highway. The sun was on its way down, turning the sky dull shade that almost matched the landscape. “Everything just looks like….. a potato.” He perked up at his own mention of food. “Oh my gosh, I’m staaarving!”
“We have plenty of snacks,” Idony offered.
“Plenty of candy canes,” Noah grumbled under his breath.
“But I want real food. We’ve been driving for hours.”
“I’m hungry too.” Chara piped up.
“Let’s get tacos!” Enel said.
“Not tacos. Fried chicken.” Berlyne countered.
“I want fries!” Chara put in.
“What about sandwiches?” suggested Apen.
Melly barked, not wanting her input overlooked.
“I second sandwiches,” said Marcus, “as long as there’s coffee.”
“I’m good with anything,” said Joe.
Noah ignored everyone except his sister. “Idony, are you hungry?”
“I could eat.”
“Okay. We’ll stop. Can anyone tell me what’s nearby?”
“Look,” Marcus read a dilapidated sign on the side of the road. “ETHELINDA’S DINER: NEXT EXIT. That’s surprisingly convenient.”
“I’m not stopping there.” Noah said. Marcus started at the forcefulness of Noah’s tone.
“I think you have to if you want to stay on schedule,” Apen said, looking at a map on his phone. “There’s nothing else around for a while.”
Noah hesitated, but reluctantly took the exit.

The diner looked significantly less seedy than the road sign had made it seem; its pink neon bright against the deepening sky and the dusty brown road. A single gas pump stood outside the building.
Everyone piled out of the van, and Noah addressed his passengers. “Okay. This needs to be a fast stop. You all can get food. I’ll refill the van. Idony, Enel, I need you to—“
“~Oh Noah!~” A singsong voice rang out from the diner.
Noah froze.
An old woman wearing alarming shades of pink descended the steps of the diner’s porch.
“~You’re not avoiding me, are you?~”