Wandering Wild - Jessica Taylor


I’m in love with the sound of turning wheels. My brother, Wen, says I’m crazy. He hears only the gravel kicking up on the battered doors of our Chevy. Nothing else. He doesn’t hear what I do. To me, wheels sound like new places, unknown riches.

They sound like possibility.

I didn’t realize that not all people wandered until I was five or six years old. The idea of some people staying put seemed silly, what with all the world to see.

Wen gives me a little grin as he steers the Chevy. He’s still a year shy of his license, but the age of fifteen hasn’t stopped Boss from putting my brother behind the wheel. Not that a real state-issued driver’s license is something I earned on my sixteenth birthday—or something we’d care to earn at all.

The foot tucked under my hip tingles and throbs from being cramped for hours. I uncoil my limbs, unstick my skin from the vinyl seat, and let my toes wiggle the AC vents up and down.

Wen cuts his eyes at me over the top of his sunglasses. “How ladylike.”

“Ladylike?” I glare across the truck, winning a smile. “How boring.”

My feet aren’t like other girls’, I know. They’re browned from sun and dirt, toenails painted the brightest shade of drugstore red I could steal.

His smile fades as he turns his attention back to the road. He hates this part of our life. Says these trips create an aching inside his chest, like he’s always leaving part of himself somewhere else. He told me once that he imagines little pieces of our hearts scattered all over the South, and he wonders if those pieces can ever grow back or if our broken-up hearts find a way to compensate, pumping a little harder.

He doesn’t dare share those foolish, heartsick thoughts with anyone but me. And my dreams—those are secrets I don’t voice at all.

I rest my head against the seat, careful not to catch my hair in the sticky spots where the duct tape is peeling away from the cracked vinyl. Wen thinks I’m drifting off to sleep, I’m sure.

With my eyes closed, I pretend we’re not driving through the South Carolina wild. I’m somewhere I’ve only seen in our encyclopedias, riding through the Sahara in a safari Jeep with the top off, sand stinging my skin.

Wen soon cranks down the manual window, inviting the heat and humidity inside, swallowing my daydreams of arid climates.

He cracks his knuckles and groans. “My new shirt.”

Blood trickles from a gash that’s opened on his knuckle, and a crimson spot blooms under the paisley cotton sleeve of his shirt. A few drops are nothing. He’s lost too much good clothing to stains we scrubbed and scrubbed and couldn’t remove.

I shimmy lower in my seat and squeeze my eyes shut again. “Better than spilling your blood in the dirt.”

“Thanks for the input, Talia.”

To anyone who knows me at all, I’m Tal. Wen calls me Talia, the way our mother does—did—only when I’ve gotten under his skin. We haven’t seen Mom since parole confined her to the state of Ohio.

I’d rather not argue with my brother, so I listen to the hum of tires carrying us far away from places we’re ready to leave behind. The names of the towns all melt together, their flavor the same. Every one of them tastes like an orange we’ve sucked dry.

We pull into a little town called Pike, sharing nothing more than twenty-two dollars and the hunger for a mark. Through the thin Chevy windows, I catch the sounds of civilized life: the purrs of lawn mowers and the voices of trusting people who haven’t learned better yet.

We have almost an hour to use to our advantage before we’ll meet up with the rest of the caravan and hit the road again. For now, it’s just my brother and me adrift, checking out our prospects, the best place to hook a mark.

There’s a Denny’s by the gas station at the edge of town. Wen flicks his eyes toward me, and I can practically see the possibilities turning in his head.

“You’re thinking toureys?”

“Read my mind,” he says.

Something about scamming tourists makes me queasy. A quick gas-up and a belly full of greasy pancakes, and those families are on their way to the beach or an amusement park or wherever the hell tourists take their kids for their end-of-summer getaways.

“Let’s explore first,” I say.

Cruising down the main drag, Wen slows the truck and points to a run-down local joint with