There was something lumpy under her pillow. Santana shifted her head a little bit, not wanting to come up out of her sleep, but it was still there. She opened her eyes and saw, to her confusion, not her soothingly black bedroom wall, but the vintage shag upholstery on the back of the van seat in front of her. The vehicle was parked, and there didn't seem to be anyone else in it. She raised her head up, suddenly remembering where she was, and found Brittany's face just inches away.
"Hi," Brittany told her, smiling a little. Now Santana realized the lump she'd been sleeping on was her shoulder.
"Brit," Santana remonstrated, squinting as she got her bearings. "Why didn't you wake me up?"
"I didn't want to," she said simply. "It felt nice."
"I'm just not used to getting up at the butt crack of dawn," she said in explanation. She raised her hand to the corner of her mouth, embarrassed, noticing the wet spot on Brittany's shoulder. "God, I drooled on you."
"I don't care," she said, unfazed. "It's not the first time."
But she didn't elaborate, so Santana glanced around the empty van and asked, "Where is everyone?"
"They went to get breakfast. Do you want to go in?"
She peered out the window and realized they were at a McDonald's, just off the interstate. "No, I'm good."
Now Brittany raised her hand to Santana's face, looking a little amused. "You're all wrinkled. Like a really cute elephant."
She raised her own hand up and felt a deep crease across her left cheek, and laughed a little. "It's from your shirt." Then, because Brittany's hand was still lingering there, she took it in her own and pressed it, tracing lightly around the lines of her palm with her fingertips.
They gazed at each other, smiles fading a bit, both seeming to realize at the same time how long it had been. The van was already warm with the air conditioning shut off, but suddenly it felt about ten degrees warmer.
She knew Brittany's rules were still in place, the ones that were supposed to give her an incentive to come out of the closet by denying her nooky until she worked up the courage. But making out didn't really count, did it? Everybody made out. A person could go insane if they never got their mack on at all, and that could be dangerous for innocent bystanders. Just look at Ms. Pillsbury. Certifiably cuckoo.
She glanced toward the restaurant again, wondering how long they'd all been in there, and if there might possibly be time for a little...
But Brittany seemed to have other ideas, because all of a sudden she sprang up onto her knees. "Wait here," she said as she turned around and leaned her upper body over the back of the seat, digging through some luggage near the bottom of the storage area.
Santana watched, bemused, as Brit's ass began to slip further over the edge. "What are you doing?"
"Can you pull me back up?" she called.
Gripping her around the waist, she tugged her gently backwards until her center of gravity was restored. Brittany turned around and slid down into the seat, her tank top riding up to reveal her bare midriff. To Santana's disappointment, she distractedly yanked it back down.
"Here," she said, handing her a package wrapped in bright purple and green paper. "It's what I got you in Cleveland."
"Oh right," she said, remembering that they hadn't exchanged their gifts yet. "Yours is in my purse." She leaned over and dug through her oversize handbag, fishing out a small brown paper sack. She passed it to Brittany, saying apologetically, "Sorry it's not wrapped. I couldn't find any paper."
Brittany smiled. "You don't know how to wrap presents, Santana."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, that too." It was so hard to lie to someone who knew everything about you. She looked down at the gift in her lap, which was so pretty she almost didn't want to open it. "You first," she told Brittany.
"Okay." She pulled the bag open and dumped the contents into her lap, gasping in delight. Lifting up the funky shell necklace into the sun, she examined the delicately varied turquoise beads and dark red bamboo bone accents. "It's gorgeous," she breathed. "It's so me."
"Yeah, that's what I thought when I saw it." Santana smiled. "These tribal people make 'em, they sell them right on the beach. At first I thought it was just touristy crap, but this woman tried to put a curse on me one day, so I figured she was the real deal." She touched the etching on the middle bead, the one that would hang right over Brittany's heart, and said in a slightly awkward way, "This is a Taíno symbol." She hesitated. "It means love."
Wordlessly, Brittany handed her the necklace and lifted up her braids. Santana leaned forward and fastened it for her, blowing very softly on the delicate hair at the base of her skull, presumably because she didn't want it to get caught in the clasp but really because she wanted to see the chills that rose up on her neck as a result. "There."
Brittany looked down at it and fingered the middle bead, obviously touched. "It's perfect. I love it."
"Oh, and before I forget," Santana said, lifting the smaller piece of jewelry from where it still lay in Brittany's lap. "This is technically a bracelet, but I thought... maybe it would fit your cat." She shrugged a little. "I mean, I know he doesn't like me, but..."
"It's not that he doesn't like you. It's just that he knows your parents are Republicans, and he's going through such a political phase right now."
Santana bit the inside of her cheek to hold her laughter in check. "Well, give it to him anyway. And tell him, for what it's worth, I probably would have voted for Obama."
"I will," Brittany said, nodding. She glanced down at the package resting on Santana's knees. "Your turn."
She pulled the paper off, trying not to rip it, since it looked like it had been wrapped with such care. It was upside down, and she turned it over to reveal a framed photograph. She stared down at it and swallowed hard, feeling ridiculous, but momentarily unable to speak.
"It's an antique," Brittany said, referring to the frame. "I got it at a real antique store and everything, all by myself, like a grownup. The guy said it's from, like, the Middle Ages, or Middle Earth... or something." She trailed off, waiting.
The frame actually appeared to be no older than the 1950s; it was black and vintage-looking. But it was the photograph in the frame that Santana couldn't tear her gaze from, and which was making her throat close up in a way that she found absurd.
In the picture, she and Brittany were about eight years old, the same age Ariel and her friend were now, as a matter of fact. They both wore white dresses, facing each other in front of a rose bush in Brittany's back yard. Santana clutched a handful of flowers to her chest, and they grinned at each other, oblivious to the camera's presence.
"I remember this," she said quietly. "We were playing wedding."
Brittany nodded, seeming happy and a little surprised that Santana recalled the details. "You tried to make me be the boy because you wanted to hold the flowers. I thought we should just both be girls, but you said we couldn't because girls can't marry each other."
"And you said..." Santana stopped and smiled, thinking of the exact words. "You said let's just pretend that they can."
They looked at each other, moved by the recollection and by the sudden realization of just how long they'd been on this path. Santana looked back down at her lap again. "It's beautiful, Brit. The frame, and everything."
"You can put a different picture in it if you want to."
"Why would I want to do that?"
"Because you said one time that you hated old pictures, and keepsakes, and sappy stuff like that. You said only people with extreme narcolepsy kept crap like that around."
Santana smiled a little. "I think it was narcissism."
"But when I said that..." she stopped, not knowing how to express what she really wanted to say. When I said that I was a different person. When I said that I'd never been in love. When I said that I didn't know you would do things to my heart that I didn't even think were possible. "I didn't mean us," she finally said. "I didn't mean pictures of us."
Brittany looked satisfied by this, and Santana stared at her lips and then took a deep breath, wanting more than anything in the world to kiss her. She had just about made up her mind to do it when the van door swung open. Covertly, she ducked her head and brushed away a tear, praying that no one would notice.
The two younger girls climbed back in, a high-pitched argument already in progress.
"No, it's not! An Egg McMuffin is not kosher, Ariel. You don't even know what that means."
"I thought it meant things that goats eat. And goats eat everything," Ariel said, buckling her seat belt. Bianca didn't bother to reply. She seemed to have already learned the cardinal rule that there was no use arguing with a Pierce about the definitions of words.
Santana looked at Brittany one more time, mouthing Thank you. Brittany's expression clearly said You're welcome. They didn't even need to speak aloud. She put the photograph in her purse before anyone could notice and ask to look at it.
Bunny leaned in the back door with a styrofoam cup. "I got you a coffee and a pie, sweetheart."
"Really?" Santana said with bewilderment, reaching out to take them. It always surprised her when someone did something for her without being manipulated into it. "That's so nice."
"And a Happy Meal for Brittany."
"Yesss," Brittany said, taking the box from her mom and immediately searching for the toy inside.
Santana took a sip from the coffee, closing her eyes in gratitude for the strong, bitter taste. She liked it black. Then she noticed Bianca hanging over the back of her seat like a monkey, staring at her. At some point in the last hour the girl had acquired a floppy hat, and seemed to be wearing lipstick. Even when Gerald pulled the van back out onto the exit ramp, she stayed where she was, facing backward.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked Santana, with the air of a psychiatrist prepared to take extensive notes.
"Nothing," Santana said, wondering if her mascara had run. She looked at the kid pointedly, willing her to turn around. "Oh, and Blossom called, she wants her hat back."
Santana rolled her eyes. This was why it was impossible to banter with children.
"You were talking in your sleep," Bianca now told her.
"I highly doubt that. See, this is what happens when you don't get your pork-based protein. Your mind starts playing tricks on you."
"What's scissoring?" she asked, all innocence.
"What?" Santana shot a glance at Brittany, alarmed. Thankfully, her parents were absorbed in flipping through radio stations in the front and were paying no attention to the girls.
"You said it in your sleep." Bianca continued to stare at her, as if she knew she had the upper hand now.
Brittany was fiddling with her plastic robot, and now spoke in a calm and untroubled voice. "It's when you draw pictures on construction paper and cut them out, with scissors. Like hearts and rainbows and stuff." She looked up at Bianca, gauging whether she'd bought it.
"I do that all the time," Ariel said. "Remember?" she asked her friend. "We just scissored yesterday."
Brittany nodded, satisfied with the cover-up.
Santana was still freaking out a little. "Ariel, it's kind of a secret word, though," she said in the lowest voice she could manage. "For secret art projects. So... don't repeat that to anyone else. Okay?"
"Okay," she said blithely, dragging her straw around the bottom of her milkshake to get the last of it out.
The other little girl continued to stare at Santana over the back of her seat, suspicious. Holy hell, this kid was annoying. "You might want to sit down now," she told her.
She still didn't move.
"Turn around," Santana said loudly, leaning forward and making an exaggerated circular gesture with her index finger. "Before Auntie Tana decides to see if these child safety locks are just for show."
Finally looking intimidated, much to her satisfaction, Bianca faced forward.
Santana leaned back in the seat and glanced at Brittany, who also looked grateful. If someone managed to get on Brittany's nerves, you knew they were obnoxious beyond belief.
The next few hours of traveling passed relatively quickly, to Santana's immense relief. First she listened in amusement while Brittany and her sister played what they called "the license plate game."
"There's another one from Ohio!" Ariel exclaimed.
"Woo!" Brittany whooped, giving her a high five over the back of the seat.
"How many now, Mom?"
Bunny called from the front, "That makes 12!"
After a few more minutes of this, Santana felt compelled to say, "Brittany, I think you're supposed to count the license plates from the other states. Isn't that how the game works?"
Brittany looked at her like she was crazy. "But that would take forever."
"There's another Ohio!" Ariel shouted at the top of her lungs. "That's 16!"
Santana exchanged a glance with her mortal foe Bianca, who shrugged. They were in the Pierces' world now. The only thing to do was join in. Turning to look out the rear glass, Santana offered, "The semi behind us has Ohio plates."
"Awesome," Brittany said, smiling at her. "You're so good at this."
And as ridiculous as it was, the compliment actually felt nice.
Then, when they'd counted to one hundred Ohio license plates and everyone felt the game had reached its natural conclusion, Gerald discovered a radio station that seemed to play nothing but power ballads and rock anthems from the late seventies and early eighties, and they belted out verses to cheesy songs like Come Sail Away by Styx and Jefferson Starship's Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now. Santana was a little embarrassed to reveal that she knew all the words, but then again, so did Brittany, so it didn't seem to matter.
"How come you can't sing as good as she can?" Ariel asked her older sister after the two of them had done a particularly over the top rendition of Somewhere Out There.
"Shut up," Brittany said.
"I wish I could dance as good as Brittany," Santana told her.
Ariel thought about this for a second. "Nah, I'd rather have a good voice."
Brit kicked the back of her seat, hard. "Brittany!" her mother called warningly from the front.
After a few hours of driving, the landscape began to change in a noticeable way. They were leaving behind the obvious aspects of the Midwest and entering what looked very close to the South, capital S. As they left the interstate and headed into the country, the land began to dip and roll, and the greenery closed in around them as fields turned into woods, and then heavy forests. In addition to the physical terrain, the human element also transitioned into something not entirely familiar. Clapboard houses peeked out of partially obscured valleys, and they passed by rustic general stores and through covered wooden bridges.
In a way, this extreme southern part of the state resembled its close neighbors Kentucky and West Virginia more than the rest of Ohio. And that, to Santana, had always been one of the reasons she was reluctant to come on the trip. It wasn't just the unrelenting outdoorsy-ness of it all, though she had plenty of issues with that, obviously. It was the fact that in all the times she'd been here, she'd never once seen anybody with skin as dark as hers. It was the way people looked at her as if she'd just swum across the Rio Grande in order to steal their kickass jobs at the local Wal-Mart.
And this time, more than ever before, it was the church signs. The sanctimonious, offensive, irritatingly smug messages on every single church message board they passed. After the first few, she stopped reading them. She didn't want to see something that hit too close to home, something that would sour this trip before it even began. For Brittany's sake, she wanted to try to have a good time. For just a few days, she wanted to leave behind all her emotional baggage from these past six months and feel like a normal person again. So every time they neared another church, and there was one every mile or so, she resolutely looked away.
At an old-fashioned gas station a few miles from the park, they stopped to get last minute supplies. Santana volunteered to fill up the tank while everyone else went inside to use the bathrooms and buy more food. She needed a break from their noise and their overbearing enthusiasm. Leaning against the side of the van, she took a deep breath and realized she could already smell the damn lake. But to her surprise, the memories that the scent called up from her unconscious weren't all bad ones. Maybe she'd had more fun here than she'd thought, raccoons notwithstanding.
Brittany was the first one back out of the store, clutching an armful of pop cans and a sack of ice. She pulled the rear doors open and began shoving bags out of the way, trying to get to the cooler without dropping anything. Santana wanted to help, but there was no lever lock on the gas nozzle and so she couldn't leave it in place. She watched, amazed as always by Brittany's physical grace, the way she could make anything seem easy. Even when she held a bag of potato chips with her teeth, it looked like part of a dance.
But then Santana noticed she wasn't the only one watching. The man at the ostentatious SUV behind them, one of those guys who wore a gold chain and so much cologne she could smell it from fifteen feet away, had just finished filling up his own tank. Now he was pretending to dust off his windshield while openly leering at Brittany. Santana raised her sunglasses up to make sure she wasn't just imagining it and traced his line of sight directly to Brit's ass. Oh yeah, he was definitely leering. And now, without seeming to notice her at all, he approached the back of the van and said, "Let me help you out there, hon."
Brittany, who never knew a stranger, turned her head a little and said, "Cool, thanks," as he pried the lid off the ice chest for her. But then she froze uncomfortably as he rested one hand on the small of her back even while he leaned forward and casually arranged pop cans with the other one.
Santana's face registered shock of the Are you fucking kidding me? variety. She glanced around the parking lot to see if anyone shared her outrage, but there didn't seem to be another soul on the premises. The place was deserted.
Now Brittany caught her eye and, seeing the look on her face, gave a slight warning shake of her head which couldn't have been clearer if she'd spoken aloud. Do not go all Lima Heights, Santana. Whatever you're thinking about doing, don't do it.
But she wasn't thinking about anything at all, because now the douchebag's hand was creeping lower. What was she supposed to do, stand here and let this Jersey Shore reject feel Brittany up right in front of her? So she did what she felt anybody would do in the same situation. She yanked the nozzle out of the tank and sent an arc of gasoline streaming across his pressed khaki trousers.
"Jesus!" the guy cried, jumping back and staring down at his pants in horror. "What the hell is wrong with you?" He looked at her as if wondering where'd she'd come from, even though she'd been standing here the entire time.
"Oh, shit!" she exclaimed, in an exaggeratedly innocent voice. "I'm so sorry! I've never done this before." Turning the nozzle back in the other direction, she pushed the lever again and sprayed another jet across his shoes. "Is it supposed to keep coming out like that?"
Enraged, but clearly trying not to show it, he leaned across her and punched the button to turn the gas off, giving her a clear parting shot at his crotch. "Whoops," she said, delighted. The gas slowed to a trickle and then stopped.
Jerking the nozzle out of her hands as if afraid she would turn it back on again, he replaced it in the slot so hard the clang echoed around the parking lot.
"Well, you have just been super helpful, to both of us," Santana said, not even bothering to hide her sarcastic smile. "And they say strangers don't look out for each other anymore."
Still without saying anything, the man yanked a handful of paper towels from the outdoor dispenser, gritting his teeth and apparently trying his hardest not to erupt. With his face red and a vein pulsing in his beefy neck, he swiped ineffectually at himself before giving up and striding back to his SUV, cursing under his breath. She noticed his license plates were from Massachusetts, which for some reason amused her. Must have thought the local girls would be easier to pick up. And they weren't even technically local.
Santana called after him, "I hope those weren't new pants! They looked damn fine on you too." He shot her a glare that said he'd like nothing more than to put his hands around her neck and squeeze, but was too much of a gentleman to do so.
Cocking her head to the side, she gave him her most charming smirk and waggled her fingers goodbye as he slammed his car door and reversed so fast the tires squealed.
Brittany was shaking her head over the top of the cooler, mortified, but at the same time trying not to laugh. She didn't look up as the SUV peeled out of the lot.
Circling around behind her and looking immensely pleased with herself, Santana gave her a very discreet pat on the ass and took the bag of ice to help out.
"That was bad, Santana," Brittany muttered with affectionate disapproval. "Really, really bad."
She shrugged. "He'll live. As long as he doesn't try to light a cigarette. At that point, it's out of my hands."
Brittany bit her lip, giving up the pretense of judgment. "You're so hot when you're evil."
"I know, right?"
They smiled at each other and felt something like electricity coursing between them, but then Brittany's dad came back out of the store and they were forced to look away. It felt like turning off a current. For the first time Santana found herself looking forward to being in a tent. With the window flaps closed and the door zipped up tightly. Screw Brittany's rules. She had to get something out of this trip.
"Uh-oh!" Mr. Pierce said with concern as he reached them, noticing the puddles of gasoline on the pavement. "Did we have a little accident?"
Finally, when it was approaching noon, they reached the gates of the state park and began rolling slowly down dirt tracks, searching for the campsite. Ariel stood between her parents' seats, practically jumping up and down, searching for a first glimpse of the water.
"Is that it?" Gerald kept teasing her. "I think I see it."
"No, maybe not."
Brittany was leaning forward eagerly, too, still infected by the excitement of the tradition. Santana saw her mother glance back at her and smile a little sadly, as if realizing this would probably be the last year. Lindsey was already gone. Next time maybe they would be down to one daughter. Santana looked out the window, knowing that she wasn't really part of it.
They passed other campsites, other family groups. She saw a pickup truck with a Confederate flag in the back window, and shook her head. Then another car with a bumper sticker reading "Protect Marriage." Protect it from what? she wondered. But she knew. Of course she knew.
And now she was getting that uneasy feeling, the one she'd tried to avoid by not looking at the church signs earlier. The one that told her she was right to refuse Brittany's offer the first time, and she shouldn't have caved. Her Lima Heights high from the gas station encounter had already faded, feeling like something that happened a week ago. That guy hadn't been from around here, anyway. He most certainly wasn't the camping type.
Don't be such a drama queen, she told herself sternly as she saw yet another bumper sticker lamenting the contagion of gay. This shit is everywhere. But she couldn't help it. It made her feel sick. It made her want to hit someone. It made her wish she really had razorblades in her hair.
"There it is! I see it, I see it!" Ariel shouted, pointing out the window to the left. Through gaps in the heavily forested bank, the lake glinted in the bright sun.
Brittany reached over and shook Santana's leg excitedly. "We're here! Aren't you glad you came with me?"
She took a deep breath, forcing herself to smile. "Of course I am."