It's somewhere in the neighborhood of 5AM, and the only sounds at the moment are the fizzle of suds in the sink – which mingled with the muffled underwater clatter of dishes – and the lazy hum of the jukebox out on the diner floor. I tried to keep the clattering to a minimum, as anything louder than a tink was sure to rouse the leer of Murphy, the owner of this place. He was appreciative of my help and was quick to accept it, but would just as quickly take over duties himself if he it wasn't getting done right.
Murphy was probably going on fifty-some years, and he had probably been running this diner for most of them, judging by the giddy look in his eye while he prepared the bread and polished the counter and scrubbed the grill. I almost felt like I was intruding, offering to work dishes. But what else am I supposed to do at this ungodly hour?
I finished my last stack of plates, drained the sink, and left everything to dry. My hands were prunes, long-since numb to the scalding water. I leaned on the doorway that led from the kitchen to behind the counter, watching the sun start to peek in through the glass.
"Here kid," I heard Murphy say behind me. I turned to see him with a milkshake in hand, which looked hastily prepared but was nonetheless graciously accepted, "I fixed ya a 'shake, thanks for the work."
"You're a lifesaver," I said, and set to earnestly drinking it down. Murphy walked past me and started getting the register in order and turning on the lights. I looked past him at the amber glow that was now heartily cresting over the trees.
I need to turn myself into more of a morning person. Sleeping in and losing half the day, which has been my MO most of my life, is starting to get to me for some reason. It's not like I have any responsibilities that I'm shirking and now that school's out and I'm moving to a new place, you'd think all a guy my age would want to do is sleep. But no, the act has lost almost all of its groggy luster.
Sunrises like this were a good incentive to get the blood moving early. Plus, if I made it a regular habit, I could look down on other people who do still sleep in.
"Gonna have to prop the door open," Murphy mumbled, "Sun's gonna cook this whole place…"
"I'll do it," I offered. I walked over to the entrance, nearly slipping on the tile floor when I forgot my shoes were wet, and knelt to grab the doorstop. The welcoming bell chimed as I opened the door.
But something funny happened when I tried to drink my milkshake (funnier than me slipping at least): It wasn't there. Well, the glass and straw were there, but nothing else. Bewildered, I looked over my shoulder. I saw a little orange monkey whose butt was on fire, and if a face could look innocent but also incredibly smug, it had that going on too. And it was still holding my cherry.
"Hey, you little jerk–" I said softly but firmly as I reached for him but got rebuffed hard. It spit out a little plume of flame that startled me and knocked me backward. The monkey tossed the cherry up and swallowed it whole, then scampered off to Murphy. He chuckled, "Gotta keep your head on a swivel, kid. Just be happy he doesn't like money. 'Knew an Aipom a few years back that could rifle through a dozen pockets in less than two minutes." The thing hopped on the bar and began running back and forth on the counter, sliding on its smooth surface.
I stood and brushed myself off, "What is that thing?" I was not well-versed with Pokemon. I was probably the only loser in my class back home who didn't know what Charmander evolved into before it turned into a Charizard.
"Infernape? Oh, thank god, no," Murphy answered, chuckling again, "This little scamp is a Chimchar. I call him Scoville. And nah, he'd have to be good for somethin' in order to evolve." Murphy suddenly snatched the monkey up with a practiced ease and got right in its face, "And he is sorry, isn't he?"
The monkey nodded. Murphy set him down and it looked at me with the closest thing to babydoll eyes that a baby monkey could manage. "Friends?" it seemed to ask. I groaned internally and stepped towards it, which ended up being a mistake because it jumped on my chest and wrapped me in a tight, warm hug. I was off-put at first, like someone just gave me a newborn to hold, but I decided to go through the motions. I gave it a stilted pat on the back and mumbled something like "Yeah, yeah, we're cool…"
I let him down and it ran off into the kitchen. Murphy called after it "Yeah, off you go. Go get the charcoal ready!" I heard a confirmation "Eep!" in return.
"Well, I'd better get things started here. What would you and your mother like for breakfast? Got eggs, bacon, plenty of juice and toast. Could whip up some pancakes if you feel like it." Murphy offered.
That wasn't even a question for me. "I'll go ask. I know I want some pancakes."
I nearly tripped over another Pokemon on my way out, a very old Snubbull. It didn't seem to notice me/care and it just kept waddling along, finding a food bowl near the door.
Behind the diner were several RVs and a few shipping trucks without their boxes, most likely drivers stopping over on the way to a job or on the way back from one. The RVs all had a few lawn chairs and grills strewn around them, along with various children's toys and empty soda cans. I kicked a ball lightly on my way through the yard. Everyone was just parked on the dirt in the least obstructive way manageable. I could hear the murmurs of people inside their mobile homes as everyone collectively woke.
Several Zigzagoons knocked over a small pile of trash bags nearby, spilling its contents and startling most of them. All but one ran away, the loner staying behind to munch on an old hotdog without a care.
One RV opened and a young kid hopped out with a Munchlax hot his heels. "Dad I told you to let Muchie go potty before we locked the RV!" The aforementioned father appeared a moment later, waving his hand in front of his face, "Soak up the 'I told you so's while you can, junior…" His wife exited hastily next, and asked a Roserade to "freshen the place up as best she could."
"Yeesh…" I muttered with a grimace as I approached the rental me and Mom were using for the move. It was a small truck, just a four-wheeler with room to sleep behind the front seats. Me and Mom had been taking shifts driving; she gets some shut-eye, and I get some practice behind the wheel. Although most of the time, she's so busy micromanaging my driving or fretting over every bump that she barely gets any winks at all.
Something butted my leg and I looked down to see the hotdog-hungry Zigzagoon had brought that ball back, and was trying to lay on it in an uncoordinated fashion while looking up at me hopefully. It pulled at my jeans with its mouth when I tried to ignore it. The message was obvious: "Ball! Play!"
"So you're a dog now, huh?" I asked rhetorically. This couldn't have anything to do with the possibility of having food in our truck. The Zigzagoon continued to hold my look with its big, brown eyes.
I played along, and picked up the ball. It was mostly flat, but still kickable. I hope this thing was ready to run.
"Alright buddy, go long!" I punted the thing into the stratosphere and it rolled off into the brush at the end of the lot, with one energetic Pokemon tailing it. "Takes care of that…" I mumbled, clapping my hands off.
Inside my mom was rinsing with mouthwash and made a surprised gargle when I opened the passenger door. She spit it out the other window and put on her glasses, "Grayson! There you are, early birdie! What got you up at the crack of dawn?" She had the same fire engine-red hair as my older sister, tied back in a sloppy bun. She was wearing the same jeans and hoodie she had slept in; things got chilly pretty quick around here.
"I went for a walk by the shore. There's a beach about a mile that way," I said, nodding across the road. "Murph wants to know what you would like for breakfast," I informed with much ceremony.
"Oh, what a great guy. Tell him I will have three eggs over-easy–" she started with some strain in her voice as she pulled her socks on, "and a nice cup of coffee with lots of sugar."
I pursed my lips, slightly worried, "'Lots of sugar' or, like...lots of sugar?"
Mom hopped over the armrest with a giggle and started rummaging through the glove box for her makeup, "Lots of sugar!" I don't think she was in love the idea of me driving the truck for any period of time so she had, over the last three days, entered into a steamy affair with any/every caffeinated beverage she came across, hoping to stay wired enough to man the helm for most of the trip. This of course meant I had to sleep through several nights of her singing to herself or tapping the wheel in some improv squirrely drumbeat.
I wasn't looking forward to when this affair would hit its moody falling out and the withdrawal turns her into a passive aggressive werewolf. But at the rate she was going, she would win this one by pure attrition.
"I'll need all the energy I can get; we're on the closing stretch, honey! Only another day or so in this outhouse-on-wheels. Wooh!" Mom was already chipper enough without the energy drinks. This was like pure, unfiltered mom-ness.
"Uh-huh," I nodded flatly, "I'll let the man know." I turned to leave and she verbally lassoed me back, "Gray, I was thinking; since there's so little time left in this trip, we should make the most of what we have left!" She began unfolding a tourist map while simultaneously flossing her teeth, "There's this hidden grotto-type place...where you can see this whole underwater waterfall. They say the lights reflect off the ceiling and back from the water and it's just incredible! It might be a little too late in the year for swimming but now that we're here we can make a whole trip of it whenever we like! What do you think, Gray?"
I hesitated, probably longer than would have been polite, but I doubt Mom would have noticed considering time as she was currently perceiving it was like three times as slow. But even with that in mind, there was an earnestness in her wide, slightly-twitching eyes that told me her heart was in this.
"That sounds pretty cool," I said, internally cringing at the half-heartedness, "I'm gonna go grab a booth."
I walked back across the yard. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Zigzagoon returning, bunting the ball ahead of itself and back to me.
"Oh-ho no, nonono–" I refused before kicking the ball back into the woods, the Zigzagoon turning tail immediately and waddling after it with gusto.
The diner filled up pretty quick, just as we got our food. My pancakes were stacked five-high and glistening with the amber good stuff, and Mom's over-easy eggs were sizzling.
The other patrons consisted of a handful of truckers and their Pokemon and one family. They all created a nice morning bustle.
A little girl was sharing a milkshake with her Buneary at the bar, and curiously a monkey never showed up to steal it. One truck driver was arm wrestling with another's Machoke, its owner cheering it on while he ate a donut. An older trucker was in the corner booth, enjoying a peaceful cup of coffee. That guy I had actually spoken to when we were pulling in last night; he helped me and Mom navigate the lot in the dark and got us situated. He also had a Pokemon, a Chimecho, he'd said it was. He said he was working out of Sinnoh but had run into the little guy while vacationing through Hoenn, and the two had become close companions over the next eight years on the road together.
They looked happy. All those years of wind, heat, sunlight and pavement had to have become tiresome, but thankfully he could split it with someone now. The thought of the freedom of the road was enticing, but sharing it with someone seemed even better.
A Poochyena bumped my leg, most likely begging. Murphy shouted at it from the kitchen and it ran off. I shrugged and kept eating, not noticing Mom had said something.
"...you know, the Rangers academy in here is supposed to be one of the best. Most of Phoebe's commanders graduated from there." Mom said. She devoured a whole egg and wiped the yoke away from her mouth, "She's going to be on a big assignment soon! All of her letters have been forwarded to our new address, you can read all about it once we're settled in."
"Awesome!" I said "Is she gonna have any, like, vacation time at some point? I haven't seen her in almost two years."
"Well Grayson, you know how dedicated Phoeb's always been," she remarked with a kind of proud regret, obviously wishing that her successful daughter had kept her successes closer to home, "This was before you came along, but whenever she was told to mow the lawn, she would mow our lawn, and the neighbor's lawn, and lawn of the fire station and the Pokemon Center...She nearly caught frostbite when it came time to shovel snow."
"She is pretty awesome..." I said with a grin.
I always looked at my sister more like a rockstar than a sibling. Even in my earliest memories of her she had one foot out the door already, a trooper from Day One. I actually think I've read more words of hers in letters than I've heard from her in person. But those few occasions when it was the two of us together, it was like we'd never been apart. Presently I don't even know what region she's in, but I hope this move gets us closer to her.
That monkey - Scoville - hopped from table to table collecting the tip money of the people who had left. When he ran it back to Murphy, the man counted it very closely.
"So how about checking out that cave?" Mom asked, rousing my attention again.
I didn't meet her look and instead focused on my food, picking at the sticky mush my pancakes were becoming. I knew this conversation was spiraling towards this, so I wasn't completely flat-footed. "Yeah...that does sound really cool..."
Me and Mom, we don't really hide things from each other. With dad not being around and Phoebe off saving the world, a lot of what I can remember is just us. I've talked to her about a lot of things – a lot of it while on this very trip – but what I haven't brought up to her is how...suffocated I feel.
I didn't really feel a connection to our old place. It was rural, not a lot of people or things to do, and once again, without half the family to grow up with, I've always felt like "home," for me, was in people and not in places. So this move didn't faze me because I knew I'd still be with Mom, and eventually I'd see Phoebe again too.
But I've spent the last few weeks on the road with Mom, and even though I love her to death, it gets to a point where, no matter who you're journeying with, you're just waiting for the journey to be over. But this journey ends in the same place that it began, in another potential backwater that I couldn't bring myself to settle in no matter how hard I tried.
What's surprised me about this move is how much I've loved the in-between. It's like, for at least a little while, nothing is tying me down, and I'm just another part of this big, wide world. It's wanderlust, plain and simple.
But I don't think I can get that if I keep tagging along with Mom. It was selfish and immature, but it was the truth.
I sat up and faced her. She was chewing on some toast and watching me intently. "I was actually thinking I might want to take this last leg on my own."
Her expression didn't change, "What do you mean?"
"Well, I have my bike. I can pack some food and stuff in my backpack. I wanted to bike the rest of the way there." I explained as neutrally as I could. I didn't want to sound excited, but I didn't want to sound apprehensive, either. The idea was not to make a big deal of it.
"Grayson...that's almost a hundred and fifty miles," she said with concern, "We'll be in town before noon today with the truck. If you bike, you'll be on the road for ten hours at least."
I can't help but wonder if she'd have given Pheobe the same speech had this been her idea, but I squashed that thought; Phoebe had proven herself at a much younger age than I, and this kind of behavior would have been expected from her by age sixteen.
I built my case by correcting my mother's math, because that was such a good idea, "I did check the GPS, it's really only about one hundred and forty two…"
"'Only a hundred and forty two,' he says…" she mocked. Her tone was playful and she was still grinning slightly, but I could still see the worry, "Sorry Gray, but a buck-forty is the threshold for a mother to abandon her child on the side of the road."
"Okay, so drop me off half an hour down the way."
I slouched in the booth, "It's not like you'd be abandoning me. I'll still have my phone, I'll pack plenty of wood and water, and I'll stick to the same route we were following. Heck, if you knock out the transmission again I might even get there before you."
"Grayson, I'm serious."
"So am I."
I was trying to get my point across as best I could without sounding like an ass. I didn't hate my Mom, and it's not even that I can't stand being around her for another minute. Riding with her for the rest of the trip doesn't even sound that bad, all things considered; she has all the music CDs, the truck has AC, and she always manages to come up with some kind of game to play. But taking this last stretch on by myself feels like something I need to do, and I don't want to pass it up.
There's an absoluteness to being on your own. It turns a trip into a journey. It wouldn't be the same as just taking a ride around the new neighborhood, because in the end I'd have to loop back to where I started. If I was to set out now, there's a good chance I'll never retreat the dirt I leave behind me, and an all-new destination awaits me up ahead. That space between Point A and Point B is what freedom feels like.
Mom was looking out the window now. I hope I didn't hurt her feelings with all this.
"Mom…" I reached out verbally, "This doesn't have anything to do with you. And I'll be okay."
"I know you will, Gray, I know you will," she said, verbally waving me away. She was a tough woman, but unsurprisingly she didn't want to let her son go. Even if I'd be eating dinner with her later today, there would be a stretch of time when she wouldn't know exactly where I was or what I was doing. And it's not that she didn't trust me, it's that she didn't trust everything else around me. No dad, no Phoebe, she still can hang on to me.
"Even though I don't really understand why," Mom started with a sigh, "I know you'll be just fine, probably. I just…" Her eyes scanned the space above us, like she was rummaging through her words, "I just feel like if I let you go this time, it'll keep happening."
"I promise it won't. Like I said, I'm not trying to split or anything. I just want some time for myself, to kinda...y'know, absorb everything. This is a whole other region we're in, and I think the best way for me to introduce myself to it is to really get in it, by myself. I can't do that inside a truck."
She claimed she didn't understand my reasoning, but I could tell by her face that this wasn't true. Mom was a terrible liar, and Dad never let her forget it when they still played cards after dinner back in the day. Come to think of it, I've never met a kind person who didn't have that same weakness.
"Did you and dad have this same conversation with Phoebe once?" I asked. I wasn't trying to bargain here, wasn't trying to use Phoebe as an excuse to run off myself. But I was curious. Had she run into the same resistance I'd run into, despite being an individualist basically from birth?
Mom actually chuckled a little at this, and said "No, we didn't. But I wish we had."
We said our goodbyes to Murph and his little friend, who just made faces at me from his shoulder. The big man gave me a vice-like handshake and a few neatly-packed sandwiches for my little journey. I didn't know if the food was a sign of his concern for my wellbeing or if he was hoping it was an acceptable substitute for money.
I loaded up a backpack with as many practical items as it could hold while still feeling comfortable against my back. Mom probably asked me if my phone was charged at least thirty times.
She also dragged out the process of leaving much longer than it needed to be; checking to make sure the boxes in the back were situated, making sure all her things were within reach in the cab, rechecking the boxes, inspecting the front left ball joint that had given us trouble the other day, adjusting her mirrors, double-checking the GPS, re-rechecking the boxes, rechecking my stuff… I could tell she wanted to give me time to think this through. My mind was made up.
Once she couldn't believably drag it out any longer, she just stood and looked me over, like a draftee shipping out to battle. I tried to look the part as best I could; I had some streamlined sweatpants made for biking, a comfortable polyester T-shirt, a good pair of running shoes, my sunglasses, and my backpack slung tight behind me. I had also bought a handy mount for my phone last year, so I could clip it right to my handlebars. A water bottle would go right under the seat.
If I had a bell, I'd have wrung it just to lighten the mood a little. Mom finally grinned and gave me a quick hug before we said our goodbyes and separated. She gave me another glance as she stepped up into the cab.
I mounted my bike and waited for her to pull out of the lot. She did so very slowly, and once she was on the road I set out after her.
For those first few meters she drove along at a Shelmet's pace while I steadily followed. She slowly picked up the pace, but I was still keeping up, no more than a car's length between us.
She stuck her head out the driver's side window and locked eyes with me. I met her look while I peddled at the same pace as her vehicle, then gave her a look that said "It's alright, you can go now. I'll be okay."
She seemed to nod, and soon the truck got up to speed and was far ahead in seconds. I smiled before stepping on the gas myself and zooming down the country road, the wind building tempo in my ears.
I took one last look behind me, and saw the faint shape of a Zigzagoon in the road in front of the diner, meagerly batting around a ball and gazing down the road at me.