They walked through a screen door into the Gutshot General Store. From behind the counter, a girl with a long, straight nose and brown eyes the size of some lesser planets looked up from an issue of Celebrity Living magazine and said, “How y’all doing?”
“We’re okay. Yourself?” Hassan asked while Colin was trying to think whether a worthwhile soul in all of human history had ever read a single copy of Celebrity Living. 18
“Just fine,” said the girl.
For a while, they walked around the store, pacing the dusty, varnished two-by-fours that comprised a floor, pretending to consider various snacks, drinks, and minnows swimming in bait tanks. Half-crouched behind a chest-high rack of potato chips, Colin tugged on Hassan’s T-shirt, cupped his hand over Hassan’s ear, and whispered, “Talk to her. ” Except in point of fact Colin did not whisper, because he had never quite mastered the art of whispering—he just sort of talked in a slightly softer voice directly into Hassan’s eardrum.
Hassan winced and shook his head. “What’s the total area, in square miles, of the state of Kansas?” he whispered.
“Um, around 82,200; why?”
“I just find it amusing that you know that but can’t figure out a way to speak without using your vocal cords. ” Colin started to explain that even whispering involves the use of the vocal cords, but Hassan just rolled his eyes. So Colin brought his hand to his face and nibbled on the inside of his thumb while staring at Hassan hopefully, but Hass had turned his attention to the potato chips and so finally it fell to Colin. He walked to the desk and said, “Hi, we’re wondering about the Archduke. ”
The Celebrity Living reader smiled at him. Her puffy cheeks and too-long nose disappeared. She had the sort of broad and guileful smile in which you couldn’t help but believe—you just wanted to make her happy so you could keep seeing it. But it passed in a flash. “Tours start every hour on the hour, cost eleven dollars, and frankly aren’t worth it,” she answered in a monotone.
“We’ll pay,” Hassan said, suddenly behind him. “The kid needs to see the Archduke. ” And then Hassan leaned forward and stage-whispered, “He’s having a nervous breakdown. ” Hassan placed twenty-two dollars on the counter, which the girl promptly slid into a pocket of her shorts, flagrantly disregarding the cash register before her.
The girl blew a lock of mahogany hair from her face and sighed. “Sure is hot out,” she noted.
“Is this, like, a guided tour?” Colin asked.
“Yeah. And much to my ever-loving chagrin, I am your tour guide. ” She stepped out from behind the counter. Short. Skinny. Her face not pretty so much as interesting-looking.
“I’m Colin Singleton,” he said to the tour guide/grocery store clerk.
“Lindsey Lee Wells,” she answered, reaching out a small hand, the fingernails a chipped metallic pink. He shook, and then Lindsey turned to Hassan.
“Hassan Harbish. Sunni Muslim. Not a terrorist. ”
“Lindsey Lee Wells. Methodist. Me, neither. ” The girl smiled again. Colin wasn’t thinking about anything but himself and K-19 and the piece of his gut he’d misplaced—but there was no denying her smile. That smile could end wars and cure cancer.
For a long time, they walked silently through knee-high grass behind the store, which irritated the sensitive skin of Colin’s exposed calves, and he thought to mention it and ask whether maybe there was some kind of recently mowed patch through which they might walk, but he knew Hassan would think that “sitzpinklery,” so he stayed quiet as the grass tickled at his skin. He thought of Chicago, where you can go days without ever once stepping on a single patch of actual earth. That well-paved world appealed to him, and he missed it as his feet fell on uneven clumps of hardened dirt that threatened to twist his ankles.
As Lindsey Lee Wells walked ahead of them (typical Celebrity Living- reader crap; avoiding talking to them), Hassan just padded along next to Colin, and even though he hadn’t technically called Colin a sitzpinkler for being allergic to grass, Colin knew that he would have, which annoyed him. And so Colin again brought up Hassan’s least favorite subject.
“Have I mentioned today that you should go to college?” Colin asked.
Hassan rolled his eyes. “Right, I know. I mean, just look where academic excellence got you. ”
Colin couldn’t think of a comeback. “Well, but you should this year. You can’t just not go forever. You don’t even have to register until July fifteenth. ” (Colin had looked this up. )
“I actually can not go forever. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I like sitting around on my ass, watching TV, and getting fatter. It’s my life’s work, Singleton. That’s why I love road trips, dude. It’s like doing something without actually doing anything. Anyway, my dad didn’t go to college, and he’s rich as balls. ”
Colin wondered just how rich balls were, but only said, “Right, but your dad doesn’t sit on his ass, either. He works, like, a hundred hours a week. ”
“True. True. And it’s all thanks to him that I don’t have to go to work or college. ”
Colin had no response to that. But he just didn’t get Hassan’s apathy. What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable? How very odd, to believe God gave you life, and yet not think that life asks more of you than watching TV.
Although then again, when you have just gone on a road trip to escape the memory of your nineteenth Katherine and are traipsing through south-central Tennessee on your way to see the grave of a dead Austro-Hungarian Archduke, maybe you don’t have a right to go and think anything odd.
And he was busy anagramming anything odd—any odd night, handy dog tin, doing thy DNA—when Colin did his DNA proud: he stumbled on a molehill and fell. He became so disoriented by the fast-approaching ground that he didn’t even reach his hands out to break the fall. He just fell forward like he’d been shot in the back. The very first thing to hit the ground were his glasses. They were closely followed by his forehead, which hit a small jagged rock.
Colin rolled over onto his back. “I fell,” he noted quite loudly.
“Shit!” Hassan shouted, and when Colin opened his eyes, he saw fuzzily that Hassan and Lindsey Lee Wells were kneeling, peering down at him. She smelled strongly of a fruity perfume, which Colin believed to be called Curve. He’d purchased it once, for Katherine XVII, but she hadn’t liked it. 19
“I’m bleeding, aren’t I?” Colin asked.