"Hey," she said.
She noticed that the boy was wearing mascara, big gobs of it. Some grayish eye shadow, too, and a ruby lipstick that Nancy had an urge to sample.
"Where you headed?" Nancy asked.
"Anywhere," he said.
The boy slid into the front seat, gathering his excess cape in his lap. They traded names. His was Ned.
He said, "Nancy. I get called that."
"Your friends call you Nancy," Nancy said.
"Friends," Ned said and puffed. "Yeah, it's a Left Hand compliment."
Nancy followed signs for the interstate.
"Shouldn't you be in school?" she asked.
Ned didn't answer. He turned on the radio and searched for a station.
Nancy noticed a smear of blood on his left hand. "Ouch," she said.
"Oh," Ned said. "It's not mine."
Then Nancy noticed three long scratches running down Ned's cheek, faint but recent wounds. She wanted to ask him if he was okay but decided to wait. Tears were welling up in his eyes. And it was starting to rain.
"You're going the wrong way," he said.
"This is the way I'm going," she said. "Are you in or out?"
He fiddled with the dial of the radio, picking up Denver, some old-timey two-step, Spanish language, lounge, unseen talking heads. "Fuck this," Ned said, switching it off in disgust. "I hate my life." He was crying, mascara streaks like Alice Cooper, Love It to Death. Nancy handed him the box of tapes. The kid riffled through the cassettes she had packed in the car before she left Nevada. Neville Brothers. Laura Nyro. Harry Nilsson. Nico. He chose the only one he recognized, Nirvana, and stuck it in the tape deck. Kurt Cobain's sad whine filled the car. Rape me, the dead rocker begged, and the windshield wipers kept time.
"My mother's dead," Nancy said.
He lifted his fuchsia-crowned head, wiped his nose on the back of his hand. His nails were painted black, and he had a chain wrapped around his wrist.
"She said I was going nowhere. What do you think?"
"I don't know," Ned said. "Where are you going?"
"Nebraska," she said.
"Close enough," he said, putting his boots on the dashboard.
His skin was very bad. He was picking at his face. He didn't follow a thorough regime of cleansing, she thought. Pancake makeup's a bitch to get off. Outside the windows of her Civic -- an old kind of Civic, the tiny ones that look like a lunch box lacking only the handle and the picture of the Power Rangers on the side -- the plains stretched on forever, without the slightest indication of the passage of buffalo or bareback riders on wild mustangs. Bury me on the lone prairie. An enormous RV passed them on the left, and the shock of the concussion about knocked them off the road. Bikes and lawn chairs hung off the back. Nancy stared at it as it grew smaller and smaller on the two-lane, wondering what kind of people left home only to take every goddamn thing with them.
"It wasn't my fault," the boy said.
"Sure," she said.
"We weren't doing anything."
"She thought she saw us kissing, but she didn't see shit."
"You and who?"
He didn't reply.
"I'm never going back there," he said after a while.
The rain was coming down heavier, and her wipers could barely keep up with it. It was a landscape all horizontal, without detail but the road. Dark land, paler sky, two halves of a desolation. There was no sunset, just fade to black.
"Do you believe in true love?" the boy asked. "Do you believe it's possible?"
She considered true love. If anything in the world could be true, it would be too much to expect it to be love. It would more likely be something from the mineral kingdom, true lead, or true quartz. Anything made out of flesh and blood was too squirmy and pliable. True was something the compass pointed. True maybe was a direction and not a place or a person at all. But, she figured, turning up the radio, anything that talked had no chance at all. The only time people stopped lying was when they stopped talking.
"Sure," she said. "Why not."
When a few moments passed and he still hadn't responded, she glanced at him. No sign he'd caught the sarcasm, but he was awfully quiet all of a sudden.
"How do you feel about the letter N?"
"What?" he said.
Then it was quiet again. For a hundred miles.
For a hundred miles, the both of them just sat there and said nothing. Once in a while, Ned would sniff, wipe at his nose, doze off. This is the sound of honesty, Nancy thought. This is the sound of truth. Two people just sitting there, silent, honest. Then she thought, No. This is the sound of two people just sitting there not talking. Nothing else.
They drove on through the rain, and after a while she couldn't help feeling something was supposed to happen. Flat tires. Lightning. A head-on collision. She pictured a woman in a torn wedding gown appearing suddenly in the middle of the road, arms waving, soaked bouquet hanging limp from one bloody mangled hand. Pink roses.