Some highways run for so long that they’ve gotta turn gradually to match the curvature of the earth; it’s a solid 200 miles along the I-94 from Bismarck to Fargo with barely a corner in sight, but the world turns quietly beneath your feet the whole way. In the early spring, the melting snow turns the dirt on either side into a sucking quagmire – your tire gets stuck in that and you could end up out there for days before you see another passing car.
“I want to go home,” said Jan. “Take the 52, dad! Can’t be more’n an hour.”
“52 don’t exist,” said Willem. It was true: North Dakota highway 52 existed on road signs and in memories, but nowhere else – not on state or federal paperwork, not on the highway patrol’s routes. It got buried under US Route 281 and forgotten, except by those who drove it; some slick n’ pretty man from Washington just rolled into Bismarck one day and said the 52 was now the 281, and everybody took him at his word.
The car’s heating system gave a brrrrrrrrr. Will wiped the windshield with a loose glove, clearing away the thin layer of condensation. He cracked the window. It was that awkward point in the spring when it was too hot to have the heater on, but too cold to have the heater off.
“Does so,” said Jan. He buried himself in his parka. He was turning eleven in less than a week, and suddenly he thought he had all the answers.
“Play your gameboy,” said Will. They passed a small lake, barely not-frozen; ducks and geese circled around in what little water they could find. Jan crossed his arms, and the thick padding of his jacket crunched against itself.
“Nah-uh,” he said. “I wanna go home. I wanna go to Minnewaukan. Mom’s there. I wanna see mom. I wanna see mom.”
She was there, it was true; no more’n an hour north along the highway that didn’t exist. They were coming up on Jamestown, where the road-that-wasn’t turned off the I-94, and then it was a straight run up to Minnewaukan and Devil’s Lake; Willem would sooner take the car into a ditch than take that detour home. He wasn’t sure whether Jan was still too young to understand, and he damnwell wasn’t yet ready to find out. He needed to believe his son had some innocence left.
“I’m gonna ask her what Minneapolis was like,” said Jan. He chewed his words for a moment. “I heard ummmmm it’s real big? It’s so big it’s gotta be two cities.”
Of course they hadn’t told the kid. It would have to happen some time, but nobody was ready to have that conversation.
We’re not going home,” said Will. “We’re going to Fargo, to stay with your Uncle Grant. We don’t own the house in Minnewaukan no more.”
He squeezed the wheel a little too hard, and felt the hot blood go to his fingertips. It hurt, but the pain gave him something else to think about.
“I hate Grant!” shouted Jan. He squirmed in the back seat. “He’s always talking about dumb hockey and his house smells weird. I wanna go watch Sliders with mom.”
Jeanette had loved that show. It was the only reason they’d held onto the old DVD player, though the discs were scratched to shit. Will didn’t get it, but he knew better than to interrupt while she was watching. It was their show: her’s and Jan’s. He’d never seen the appeal of jumping to another reality, but the idea was starting to grow on him. He didn’t have a wormhole, though: he had a shitty run-down ‘94 Corolla that he couldn’t afford to repair.
He pulled over. The car’s engine spluttered to a stop. The heater went brrrrrrrrrrrrrrtktktk, then died.
“We’re going to Fargo,” said Will, “and that’s the end of it.”
Jan started to cry. Will got out; closed the door behind him; took the cigarettes out from his jacket pocket; took the last one left (filter facing down, of course – gotta have a lucky); lit it; took a drag, sucked it down; didn’t quite cough.
Maybe there was another world where there was still a North Dakota Highway 52; where a slick man from Washington didn’t paper over it with the 281. A world where Jeanette didn’t spend her last six months in an oncology ward in Minneapolis because there weren’t the right kind of doctors in-state; where they hadn’t spent every cent keeping her alive, until the house went into receivership; where there was anything in Minnewaukan besides a closed casket and a foreclosed home.
Well, shit. He dropped the cigarette into the mud, then stomped on it for good measure. Jan stared at him through the foggy window. His eyes were red. Will got into the back seat beside him.
“I’m not stupid you know,” said Jan. He sniffed. “I’m not a little kid. Something happened to mom, didn’t it? Are you guys getting a divorce? She’s sick – you can’t leave her now.”
The words hung in the air. In another world, Will got back into the front seat and didn’t speak until he hit Fargo. In the world-that-was, he bit his tongue.
“She’s not sick any more,” he said. The words hung in the chill-muggy air.
“Oh,” said Jan. He frowned. Kid was getting too smart for his own damn good.
Jan drummed his fingers on the car-seat. “So that’s why she went back home?” he said.
Will took a deep breath.
“Yep,” he said.
In yet another world, he got back into the front seat and didn’t speak until he hit Fargo. In the world-that-was, he slumped down in the seat and barely held back tears.
“You wanna go see her?” he said. “Take the 52 at Jamestown and it won’t be more’n an hour.”
His throat hurt.
“Can’t,” muttered Jan. He was curled up inside his parka now: almost lost in the woolen collar.
“Why not?” said Will.
“52 don’t exist,” said Jan. He glared up from inside his little leather cocoon.
“Sure it does,” said Will. “In a whole buncha different worlds.”
Jan peered up, then squinted at Will.
“Like Quinn and Max?” he said.
“Yeah,” said Will, “like those guys. We ain’t got a wormhole though, so we gotta drive. You good for it?”
“Mmk,” said Jan.
Will got out, then walked around to the front seat of the car. His hand lingered on the handle for a moment. In another world, he couldn’t do it. In the world-that-was, he got in; turned the key; pumped the gas pedal a few times. The car roared to life. The heater came back on with a brrrrrrrrrr. The open road lay ahead of them: running for so long that it had to turn to match the curvature of the earth.
“Let’s go home,” said Will. He stepped on the gas, and the world turned quietly beneath them.
Jan was already asleep.