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live your whole life on a might-have-been

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The ‘Low Fuel’ indicator lights up orange on the dashboard while Veth is asleep, slumped forward around her seatbelt. Caleb gets a good look at her when he looks to the right to try and spot signs for gas stations, flying down the I-70 a hundred miles east of Topeka. Strands of hair are coming out of her braid, like little uneven tufts of straw poking out of a haystack. 

Caleb has that thought, and then is struck by first, how much of a farmboy thought that is, the sort of thought he had been pretty sure he’d grown out of in the last fifteen years. Then he has a second image of Veth leaning against a haystack, Veth hopping the fence alongside the pasture, Veth at home . Caleb’s home, not Veth’s home.

Veth is not a farm girl. A small-town girl, sure; from somewhere in the desert outside Tempe, Arizona. One of those places where girls as pretty as Veth once was dream of moving to Vegas and dancing and getting rich and famous. Not that anyone gets rich and famous, Veth adds when she says it. And Veth never did that anyway, she got married and had a kid and she’d probably still be there in nowhere, Arizona with a high school diploma and a four-year-old and a husband who Veth doesn’t talk much about except for everything else.

Of course, if things had gone the way Caleb always thought they’d go, he’d have gotten a PhD five years ago and would have a position teaching physics somewhere and he would never have met Veth Brenatto in the library during midterms. Or rather met Nott in the library, because he’d asked for her name and whether the seat was taken at the same time and she’d said, “It’s not,” and he’d misinterpreted and she’d thought it was too funny to correct him and the whole rest of their friend group for eight months afterwards.

So pretty much they’re two people whose lives could have been entirely different, less scarred and derailed and Caleb wouldn’t have therapy every Thursday and Veth wouldn’t have a tattoo on her face over the top of the scarring and they wouldn’t be Caleb-and-Nott or Caleb-and-Veth and pulling over to get gas somewhere in western Missouri.

“Where are we?” she yawns when she opens her eyes as Caleb takes the off ramp.

“Getting gas,” Caleb says, because he’s pretty sure that’s what she’s asking.

She nods and fumbles for the braid, deftly removing the hair tie and unwinding the strands to comb out with her fingers. Caleb almost stops her, but he can’t think of a good reason—’it makes me think of a haystack’ is not going to come out as a compliment—so he just keeps an eye out for the promised Chevron while she rebraids it with a terrifying efficiency.

She’s wrapping the hair tie back around the end of the braid when he finds it, pulling up with the left side of the car up against the gas tanks, which he has to actively remember because the gas tank on Veth’s car is on the opposite side of the old truck that Caleb learned to drive on. She gets out and puts her card in the machine about the second that Caleb puts it in park, a terrifying skill. She hasn’t let Caleb pay for gas the whole way.

“I can get it,” he says, for the third or fourth time.

“I’d be driving this way with or without you,” she replies, for the third or fourth time.

Caleb lets it go. Veth is the most stubborn person he’s ever met. He takes the opportunity to take off his seatbelt and stretch his legs. There’s no one else around, except presumably a clerk in the little convenience store attached. The green tattoos around Veth’s eyes seem to glow in the light of the late afternoon. She catches his eye and winks.

He gets back in the car before he says something that he can’t take back.  

“I can drive,” she offers, when she reopens her door.

“No, it is alright,” he demurs. “The turnoff is a little hard to find, and it’s only another hour and forty-three minutes.”

She shrugs, throwing herself back into the passenger seat. “Whatever you want.”

So Caleb drives the last hour through the fields, mostly brown and dead in late December. Veth stays awake, peering out at the endless landscape. “It looks dead.”

“Everything was harvested,” Caleb answers. “They will replant in the spring. Usually there is snow by now.”

“Not yet,” Veth says. She glances up. It’s mostly clear, too, the clouds thin and the sky ice-blue.

“Not this year,” Caleb agrees. “Maybe soon. But better that it waits until you’ve driven out.”

She shrugs. “I have chains in the trunk.”

“Prepared for everything,” Caleb says, more impressed than teasing. But then, he doesn’t expect less from Veth.

“Of course,” she says. “Besides, I’ve gotta come back through here to pick you up.”

“There will be snow by then,” Caleb says. “You have driven in snow before?”

“Yep,” she says. “I’ve done everything, Lebby.”

It’s such a stupid nickname. It makes him smile every time she says it. “Of course.”

“Did you text your parents?”

“This morning,” Caleb answers. “They know we will be here this evening. We are making good time.”

“Good,” Veth says. “I can’t believe you weren’t going to go home and see them.”

“It is a long trip.” Caleb doesn’t say that he finds excuses every time, because Veth could guess that. It isn’t that they don’t want him home. His mother was almost painfully happy when he called to tell her he would be back for Christmas, probably the 21st or 22nd, no, he was driving with a friend and wouldn’t need a ride from the airport. 

But when he’s avoiding talking to his parents, it’s easy to mire himself in his guilt, convince himself that everyone is as angry at him for his failures as he is at himself.

“Mm,” says Veth doubtfully, who has at least another ten hours of driving ahead of her. “Hey, what do I call them?”

“My—oh,” Caleb hesitates. “My mother’s name is Uma—”

“I’m not calling your parents by their first names,” Veth says authoritatively. “Not unless they tell me to. I know what people in the midwest are like.”

“Ermendrud,” Caleb says.

“What?”

“Their last name. Is Ermendrud.”

She nods. “Got it.”

“They call me Caleb,” he adds. “Now.”

She gives him a sideways look. “I was going to call you Caleb whatever they called you.”

“And Veth is—alright?”

“Veth Brenatto,” she agrees. Then, apropos of nothing. “It was Smyth.”

“What?”

“My maiden name was Smyth.”

“Veth Smyth.”

“Brenatto sounds better, right?” she grins, then sighs. “I don’t...do you ever not regret something, but you wish you could do it over differently, just so you’d know for sure?”

“I regret many things,” Caleb says. “But I would also like to—try again.”

“Let’s do it,” Veth says. “Fuck it.”

“That is not possible.”

“Obviously we can’t undo everything.” Veth gestures at her own face. “I just meant—whatever you’re not happy about. Change it. We can do that.”

“Some things can’t be changed.”

“Not with that attitude,” Veth says blithely. “Lebby...are you happy?”

“I am tired,” Caleb answers.

“Not this second—if you’re tired, I can drive,” she says, momentarily derailed.

“Not that—we’re almost there. Yes.”

“Yes, you’re happy?”

“I am happier these days than I have been in many years,” Caleb says.

“Good,” Veth says.

“And what about you?”

“I’m—yes,” Veth admits. “But I do feel kind of bad about it.”

“You should not feel bad,” Caleb says. He’s surprised to hear it; Caleb is usually the one strangled by his own guilt. “Why would you feel bad?”

“Well, you know,” she says. “I haven’t seen Yeza and Luc since August. Shouldn’t that be horrible?”

“You FaceTime them,” Caleb says, even knowing that isn’t what she means.

“Yeah,” Veth says. “But that probably makes me a bad mom, right?”

“You’re a very good mother,” Caleb says. “You are driving all this way to be home at Christmas, and you are away because you are getting an education.”

“I could have gone to a school in Arizona.”

“A very good education,” he amends. “It is very prestigious.”

“Yeah,” Veth says. “But it’s far.”

“Do you wish you were closer?” Caleb asks. He doesn’t like the way his heart has climbed into his throat. Doesn’t like the paths that his thoughts are running down—Veth applying to transfer, helping her with it because he would have to, Veth gone.

“No,” Veth says. “I mean, yes, but I—wouldn’t trade this. I wish I was a good enough mom to want to be closer, more than I wanted to be in Boston.”

“You are allowed to be happy,” Caleb says. “You are allowed to do things for yourself.”

“So are you,” she says.

What Veth doesn’t know, of course, is that Caleb has always done things for himself. The guilt was never enough to stop him. Even when everything fell apart—he had done that for himself. He wonders if Astrid and Eodwulf still hate him for it.

They will not be at home this Christmas. His mother told him without Caleb having to ask, which he is pathetically grateful for.

The rest of the drive is quiet. In another half-hour, Caleb has to switch the headlights on; in another half-hour after that, he’s taking a right onto a dirt road, through the shadowy dead stalks. The field gives way to grass, and the little house where Caleb grew up. The porch light is on and a figure is standing beside it, silhouetted by the glow.

Caleb parks alongside the fence, pulling to the right so his father can get the truck by or Veth can do a u-turn to get out in the morning without running over too much of the grass. When he turns the key, there is a moment of darkness flooded around them, the headlights off, the interior cab lights fading. Then he throws open his door, illuminating the interior of the car again, and Veth hops out after him and goes for the trunk.

“Caleb!” the silhouette calls, and his mother is hurrying across the lawn. “You made it!”

“She has your accent!” Veth hisses, delighted.

Ja , I am home,” Caleb calls without thinking, the words strange and true in his mouth.

“Come in, it’s so cold out, do you need any help with your bags?” She shouts up the stairs for Caleb’s father even though they both shake their heads. “You must be Veth. Here, take your coats off.”

“That’s me,” Veth agrees, fumbling with her pink coat.. “It’s nice to meet you. Caleb talks about you a lot.”

His mother smiles. “I am very glad to meet one of Caleb’s friends.”

“I’m the best one,” Veth assures her, shrugging off the coat. When she looks up, her face is unobscured beneath scarf or hood for the first time.

Caleb tries to see Veth through his mother’s eyes. There’s the pink coat with the pink dress beneath, the necklace of buttons, leg warmers and scarf, all color-coordinated. Her braid is neat again. She would be the picture of a nice girl, if only the whole aesthetic were not belied by the scarring and tattoo across her face. Even with that, she’s a pretty girl. Young, but not very young. He didn’t warn her about the scars. Perhaps he should have.

To her credit, Caleb’s mother doesn’t react at all. “We have the guest room for you tonight. You’re sure you won’t stay longer?” she asks, even though Caleb has already explained that Veth has her own family and will be driving on to Arizona.

“She also has family she would like to see,” Caleb says.

“I appreciate it,” Veth says.

Caleb’s father arrives and takes Veth’s backpack from her. “You must be Veth. Here, I will show you the guest room.”

“Thanks,” she lets him, apparently letting small-town manners take precedence over her own stubbornness. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” It’s a little bit of a lie, but it makes Caleb’s father smile and gives Caleb a little extra bit of guilt. He could talk about his parents more. Should certainly talk to them more.

“Dinner is almost ready,” his mother says over her shoulder to them. Then she looks to Veth before she can disappear up the stairs. “You aren’t vegetarian, are you?” 

“Oh, no,” Veth assures her. “I’ll eat anything.”

“Good,” she says. Once Veth vanishes after his father, she turns back to Caleb and hugs him tightly. “I am so very glad to see you,” she says. “I was worried you would find some excuse to stay back in Boston.”

“Veth thought we could drive most of the way together,” Caleb says.

“She is good for you, yes?” she says. “Will she be using the guest room?”

Caleb reddens. “Yes. She—yes.”

To Caleb’s immense relief, she lets it go there. “She is a pretty girl.” The sentence is not a question, but there is an unspoken question rolled up in it.

“Yes,” Caleb says. “She was—her family was attacked, a few years ago. She fought them off with a kitchen knife.” Veth didn’t tell him that. The knife bit—she’s told him the rest, in pieces, quietly in the dark of the apartment when they’re sitting there with their books, when she swirls the acid around in the vial and glances at him sideways at the lab bench. But he looked up the newspaper articles about it and found the mention of the knife.

His mother nods. “Poor girl.”

“She’s very brave,” Caleb says, because he thinks Veth would hate to hear his mother say that.

“Yes,” she says. “A brave girl.”

Dinner is good. His mother’s cooking is excellent, as always. She and Veth have a very earnest conversation about the best seasoning for roasted brussel sprouts. It would perhaps be a mistake to say that Veth fits in—Veth stands out, anywhere. She’s sharp and remarkable and beautiful. But she fits, and Caleb can see it too clearly again, Veth in the field in the summer, leaning against the fence, in the kitchen with his mother.

He almost wishes dinner was less good. Dreams are always easier to let go when their luster fades on their own.

Three days of driving was sufficiently exhausting to make it an early night, especially when Veth has to be back on the road in the morning. Caleb stares at the familiar ceiling and lets the familiar creaks of the house lull him to sleep.

In the morning, his mother makes waffles and pushes extra sausages on them both. His father makes suggestions on the best highway to take west, which Veth nods and pretends to take seriously even though Caleb knows she’s just going to plug it into her phone. They both hug her goodbye.

Caleb walks her out to the car. The sky isn’t clear today, the ice-blue replaced by a layer of grey, a thicker wall of clouds to the north.

“It might snow after all,” Veth comments.

“Drive safely,” Caleb says. “Stop and put the chains on if it snows. Do you know how?”

“I know how,” she says. “It’s fine.”

“Alright,” Caleb acquiesces. “Have a good holiday.” He hugs her.

“You too. See you January 12th,” she says, and then tips her head up and kisses him on the mouth. It’s over so quick that Caleb half-thinks he imagined it. He certainly can’t parse her meaning, not before she squeezes him once and lets go.

“See you then,” he echoes. He stands back to give her room to turn the car around, waves back when she raises a hand goodbye into the rearview mirror, watches her vanish into the wheat.

She’s been gone less than an hour when the snow begins to fall.