The prompt I used for this piece was the phrase “Welcome to Hell,” which has personal meaning to me. I wrote this to be purposely short, vague, and open to interpretation. Feel free to let me know if it speaks to you, and if so, what it says.
Over an unfamiliar landscape we sped in an unfamiliar car. Two days ago we’d picked up a little sports car, and since then mile after mile had churned beneath its tires, eating up the highways and state routes. Big cities, small towns, places that claimed no more than a single stop sign, we drove through so many I’d already lost count. In my lap rested a road atlas, opened to the third state we’d crossed into since I bought it at a truck stop. Across the oversized pages was a scrawl of red Sharpie, where I’d marked our progress as we went. Every time we turned down a new road I would go back over our route with the marker, tracing the previous road.
“Why are you doing that?” Mom had asked, the first time she saw me open the atlas and start drawing. At least, it sounded like my mother when she asked. When I looked at her I saw the same face I’d been looking at my entire life, but I got the feeling I was looking at an entirely different person than the one I thought I knew.
“I like maps,” I answered. In my head I added, so I can remember how to get home.
“People use maps because they want to be told where to go and how to get there.”
“Maybe they just don’t like being lost?” I suggested.
“We’re all lost,” she said quickly. “I never go anywhere using the same route twice, but it’s not because I’m lost, I just don’t want to miss out on anything. If you bury your head in a map, you get caught up in the details and miss what’s happening around you.”
Details. Mom hated details. She didn’t want to think about gas mileage, travel time, the distance between rest stops; all that mattered was covering the next mile. I envied her that, because I was constantly torn apart thinking about details.
“I just want something I can hold onto that will remind me of our trip,” I said, looking out my window. I could feel Mom looking at me, but I didn’t look back. Suddenly I felt her hand, small and cool, slipping around my fingers and squeezing them gently. I turned my head from the window and stared down at them, amazed that in the heat of sun-bathed car her hands could be cold. We didn’t say anything else for the next few miles.
She broke the silence first.
“Are you sorry you came?”
“Of course not,” I answered, and meant it. “I’m only sorry that…well, everything. I’m sorry about everything.”
A few weeks later it’s me behind the wheel. The passenger seat is empty except for the atlas. Its pages are dog-eared and tattered, but closed, and it’s gone untouched for days. Wind and sunlight are streaming through the open windows, and for the first time in months I allow myself to revel in both.
Signs flash by on either side of the highway, and they pass largely ignored. One, however, catches my eye as it grew closer.
“Welcome to ‘hell,” reads the sign. Well, technically it says, “Welcome to Shelley,” but some creative soul had used spray paint to cover the S and ey in the town’s name. My eyes flick over the sign and I grin, thinking, Bring it on.