The Founding of Rome
by winter baby

She never makes it to New York. She never even makes it past the state border. When Carly goes back to school, Nick checks into the motel near campus and doesn't leave. She wonders where he gets the money to pay for the room, but knows better than to ask. She'd rather not know. She'd rather he just be there, unchanging and steadfast, the picture of permanence. Like he'd been grown from that motel room: his hair made from the carpet, his wifebeaters from the bed sheets, his straight spine from the back of the chairs.

But she knows that's not true, because she was grown with him - like him - in a place far from here, and when she places her hand on his back, in that space between his shoulders, she remembers.


She dreams even when she's awake. They're back at the campsite, the truck's light flooding the field. There's nobody there, not even the driver; it's just her and Nick standing in the open space. He turns to her to say something but the words never get out; his mouth cakes, then crumbles, and she's scrambling with her fingers to mold him back again. That's when she feels it, the blood coursing under the surface, his heart beating too quickly. She peels away layer after layer, thinking that he has to be inside somewhere. But her fingernails ache, he gets smaller in her hands, and when she reaches the end, she's left with nothing. What she felt was her own heart, her own blood. He's gone. He was never there.

She's crying in class. Her lit professor says her name gently while the other students stare at her silently, afraid to even whisper to each other. This happens enough times that she gets called in by the school's therapist. Carly answers his questions as tersely as possible, but most of their time is spent staring at each other. When he concludes at the end of the hour that she has post-traumatic stress disorder, Carly scoffs. I could have told you that.

She grabs her bag and leaves, and doesn't come back.


She hears what they say about her. They all saw her face on the news that summer but didn't bother with the details, and now they think she's some kind of Satan worshipper. Every night when she slips out of her dorm room, she can hear them whispering about goat sacrifices, about her fake finger. Her roommate is more practical, though; she thinks Carly has a secret boyfriend stashed away somewhere. But what Carly really does is walk the ten minutes to her brother's motel room and crawl into the bed where he's sometimes sleeping, sometimes still up watching Conan.

He sleeps on his stomach, like she remembers from when they were younger. It surprises her now because it's been so long since she's seen him do that - like he never really grew up, inside. But they both did, drifted apart, became strangers for reasons she can't remember now. He has a tattoo of a wolf on the back of his left shoulder that she's never seen before. That more than anything makes her cry.

She can see it now because he always sleeps shirtless, a force of habit he doesn't bother to correct even though she's here now. If anyone saw them together like this, they'd say things. There'd be more whispers. Once, in the library, she overheard her name. Some frat guys standing on the other side of the anthropology books, talking about that night at the house. "You don't come out of something like that without it fucking with your head." They laughed, and then disappeared deeper into the stacks.

She left her books on the shelves, walked all the way to Nick's motel room, and that was the first night she slept in his bed. Him on his stomach, her on her back, staring at each other and reaching across the expanse of the bed to find each other's hands.

He said her name once, Carly, and she closed her eyes.


There are places you don't come back from, places of darkness. All you can do is find a space for yourself, learn to live there, and in your blindness, memorize the terrain with your hands. Build a city on top of uneven ground - ground shaped like shoulders and pulsing with a heartbeat. His, or her own, she could never tell.

Entire empires could rise and fall outside, but they'd never notice. Carly closes her eyes and listens to his breathing. Here, in this room, they are unmoving.


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