The street signs down south are bigger. Bolder. They’re strung out like Christmas lights in the middle of the road, rather than nailed to a lamppost on the corner, and she doesn’t have to squint at them. She tells Jon, take a right here, bear left here, stay on the freeway for 12.4 miles. When it gets dark she clutches the map in her hand and presses her nose to the window, not wanting to miss the exit that means bed and food and shower. It’s her job to navigate, even if he doesn’t really need her to. Jon has perfect vision. Jon could have flown jets, if he wanted.
The car smells like fast food and potato chips and melted chocolate bars, and the inside of the glove compartment is still sticky from the one can of Pepsi that exploded, which Arya only discovers when she goes rooting around for the registration.
“What’s the point?” she asks him. She’s thinking about licking the Pepsi off her fingers. It’s just sugar, after all. “I mean, if we get pulled over we’re already done for, why do I need to know where the registration is?”
“Because,” Jon explains patiently, “one day it won’t be like this. One day we’ll be driving a vehicle that’s legally registered to us, and I’ll have to teach you how to do it without killing anybody. Might as well start now.”
Arya is chewing her lip. “You didn’t teach Sansa to drive.”
“No, me and Robb drew straws. He got the short one."
Sansa would have known how to prepare something edible from five cans of kidney beans and a brick of Ramen and no stove. Sansa would have bought an air freshener at one of the gas stations where they stopped to refuel, and hung it on the rearview mirror. Sansa always smells nice.
Arya and Jon, on the other hand, are increasingly beginning to smell like a couple of teenagers with only one change of clothes, no reliable means of getting laundry done and not enough funds to buy new ones, not if they’re going to make it to California. Sometimes she steps into the shower after he’s done, steps into his warm wet footprint on the cold tiles, and breathes in the scent of hotel shampoo. She eyes the towels on the rack, the heavy white crisply folded ones and the discarded one on the floor, and then she goes up to the mirror and rubs circles on it with the inside of her wrist to clear the steam. She examines her too-prominent collarbones, and when she looks down she still expects to see strands of auburn hair clogging the drain, like at home. Instead she sees the sink littered with short brown stubble the same color as her own.
He cuts himself shaving, sometimes. Often. He told her once that you aren’t supposed to shave with soap and water – nor with cheap disposable razors if you can help it – but in the morning she is woken by the sound of the tap running, and she pads across the room and stands in the pool of light cast by the row of fluorescent bulbs above the mirror.
Jon’s head is tilted back at an angle, his throat smothered in slippery white foam. The hand holding the razor is level with his ear, and he knits his brows when he meets Arya’s eyes in the mirror. “You’re not wearing any pants.”
“You didn’t give me any.” She wears his shirtsleeves for pajamas, the cuffs rolled up and the top three buttons open at the collar. It occurs to her that although she’s not particularly well endowed, anyone looking down her shirt would have an ample view of her chest. (Not that there’s anything to see, or anyone to look.)
When Jon swallows, his Adam’s apple bobs in his throat. He makes no move to use the razor, so she takes it from him.
She rests one hand on his shoulder to steady herself and scrapes the razor across his jaw with the other. She is efficient. She’s good with her hands, he’s always said so. She’s done within five minutes and there are no red scratches on his chin today.
They have to avoid freeways on occasion, because toll booths with their cameras make Jon nervous, but that’s okay because Google Maps has an “avoid highways” toggle button. The first few days on the road she wishes, wistfully, for the bright purple arrows and flat vowels of Robb’s GPS unit, but Jon has tossed it in a dumpster along with both their cell phones and all of Dad’s credit cards.
“Do you think I’m paranoid, Arya?” He’s gripping the steering wheel with both hands.
“I think you want to keep me safe.”
The corner of his mouth quirks. “What about me? What about saving my own hide?”
“I think you’d be a lot more reckless if it was Robb here instead of me.”
He draws a sharp breath.
“You don’t, do you? Wish it was Robb? Or – or, I don’t know, Bran or Sansa?”
“Do I wish,” he repeats slowly, “that you were Sansa instead of you. Do I … do I what?”
And she is laughing because he’s right, it’s an absurd notion. And it’s not that she does not miss Sansa’s soft tinkling ladylike laughter, but Jon’s laughter is the counterpoint to her own; when they laugh together she feels full even when she hasn’t eaten for hours.
Some nights she stays awake to listen to him breathe. She’ll doze off the next day in the car, and she doesn’t like to do that – doesn’t like to leave him alone with his thoughts and the road and the radio – and yet.
She wonders if she could inhale the breath from his lungs, if she could dig her fingers underneath his skin and lay her beating heart alongside his, would she stop wanting him then?
This is memory: The musty smell of leftover pizza boxes and dirty socks. The way Jon’s mattress dips in the moonlight when she climbs on it. His voice, scratchy from sleep, “Oof,” which could mean anything from “mind your pointy elbows” to “come here.” Robb, on the other side of the room, pretending not to hear. Thunder crashing outside. (Or maybe there was no thunder. Maybe she likes Jon’s bed better than her own. Maybe she’s always liked where Jon is better than wherever she is.)
This is truth: Arya is lost. Jon is the way home and the memory of laughter and the promise of warmth.
He eats the crusts off her sandwiches, and gives her the yolks of his eggs.
“You’re a growing girl,” he used to tell her over cereal and yogurt and Belgian waffles. Somehow he seemed more real when he was standing in her mother’s sunny kitchen than when he is sitting across from her now. He doesn’t need to make her finish her milk, now that breakfast is their only free meal of the day.
“You should let me drive.”
“You should drink your juice.”
“Jon, I’m serious. It’s been four days. You’re tired. You fall asleep in your clothes every night.”
“I don’t have any other clothes and you don’t even have a permit.”
“I own your ass at Grand Theft Auto,” she replies indignantly, but he isn’t paying attention.
His fingers close around her wrist in a grip tighter than a vise, and she drops her fork. “Arya, we have to go.”
They leave. She throws one quick, startled glance over her shoulder at the mess of napkins and cream littering the table, and she catches sight of the widescreen TV. Her father’s face is leaner and greyer than she remembers, and there is swelling over one eye. Then Bran’s yearbook picture flashes across the screen – it’s the one from last year, he’s wearing the green vest that Mom bought at Macy’s – and Arya stumbles after Jon. They collect their things from their room and he doesn’t release her wrist until they’re in the car.
When she hears the ringtone, she stiffens in her seat, her spine tingling the way it does when the radar detector goes off. The way Jon slams on the brakes, for a moment she thinks it is the radar detector after all. They’re in the breakdown lane and Jon is patting down his pockets. He draws the cell phone out of his coat.
She says, “I thought –” but stops, because she can see it’s not his BlackBerry, it’s a cumbersome brick of a thing, not even the kind with the flip case; the keypad and the tiny display are welded to the same metallic blue surface.
He mouths “prepaid” at her.
He doesn’t waste time with niceties. He says, “We’re fine” and “We’re safe” and “We’ll be there by next week” and “Don’t let him out of your sight.” Then he looks up at her, at the way she’s biting her tongue so hard she can taste blood, and adds, “I’m putting Arya on.”
“Is it Sansa?” she whispers. Then she hears the wailing. There’s a baby on the other end. No, not a baby. A toddler with a healthy set of lungs on him. “Rickon,” she breathes. “Oh Rickon, Rickon, can you hear me, Rickon? Rickon, it’s Arya. Rickon listen to me, talk to me, are you – can you – .”
She’s having trouble seeing because there are tears in her eyes. Jon pries the phone out of her hand and shoves it back in his pocket, and without waiting for directions he gets off at the next exit and finds a motel.
He brings her dinner: chicken soup out of a can and tea out of a bag. She lies on her bed and hugs her knees to her chest. She doesn’t have the energy to pull the covers up. He walks out of the bathroom, toweling his hair dry, and pauses when he sees the untouched soup on her nightstand, but doesn’t say anything. He sits on the edge of his bed, facing her.
“Arya,” he begins.
“Who was she?”
Jon rubs his chin. “Osha. She’s the daughter of a friend.”
“And the rest of them? Are they all okay? Are they with … friends, too?”
“The Reeds have Bran, and Robb says Sansa is with an old friend of your mom’s. He wanted to stay with her, but me and Robb, we’re old enough to do something. We’re not going to let them have Dad. They’ll be watching for us. We’re more useful to everybody else if we split up.”
“You’re with me, though,” she points out unnecessarily.
“Are you going to leave me when we get to the safe place?”
“I keep telling you, there is no safe place.”
“Stay with me then.”
She expects him to protest, but all he says is, “Okay.”
“And don’t,” she rises and closes the space between the twin beds, punches him in the shoulder, “for Chrissakes don’t keep me in the dark.”
“Ary – ”
“I said don’t.” She punches him in the kidney, and it feels so good that she punches him again, and again and again and again, she doesn’t care if she hurts him because isn’t he the one who started it? She rains blows on his bare chest, on all the places that he taught her to hit when he taught her to protect herself from men who would hurt her. (He never taught her to protect her from himself.)
He stops her by catching her fists with both hands. Then instead of pushing her away he pulls her close, so that she’s straddling his lap. At once she’s dizzy from the scent of him, shampoo and sweat and Jon, all Jon. Disoriented, she runs her fingers through his damp hair.
“Arya,” he breathes against her ear.
“Say that again.”
“Arya.” His fingers are brushing her rib cage and with his other hand he’s rubbing circles under her shoulder blade with his thumb, and Arya is suddenly aware that he’s not wearing a shirt and she’s not wearing a bra and her nipples are hard.
She is sitting in her brother’s lap. She feels his insistent hardness pressing against her, and part of her marvels at the fact that she did this, she is responsible for his hardness. She covers his mouth with hers, nudges his lips open with her tongue, and it’s not like kissing her brother at all – it’s like putting on an oxygen mask when you’re running out of air; it’s like coming home.
“Arya,” he whispers into her hair. “Arya,” he exhales against her collarbone, into the hollow where shoulder joins neck. Arya is a litany that means I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere and I’ve got you and I want you and I’m not leaving you, ever and Arya thinks she could spend the rest of her life listening to him say her name.