Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Adult Honorable Mention

Half a Tank of Gas

by Winifred Campbell

Author Bio

Winifred Campbell is eighteen years old and was born and raised in Menlo Park California. She has just graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School and plans to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles as soon as it opens for the new academic term.


There's often very little death of the author in my writing as a large part of it functions therapeutically for me. Half a Tank of Gas for instance, was written in the thick of my college applications. It translates the restlessness I felt about my life and the fear and uncertainty I felt about my future. The character arcs of "V" and "X" in part represent those choices. X, although he does decide to run away with V, fundamentally changes very little throughout the story because he's okay with who he is. V on the other hand, decides that she needs to change and "grow up"—choosing to leave behind her childhood nickname to become "Victoria". It was important to me that these characters choose what they do because it's what they, not another character, want simply because I want that for myself too.

She watched fields of gold and great blue swaths of sky blur past the smudged car window. As he drove them home, X's soft humming buzzed through the car before landing in her ear. There wasn't anything musical about it. It wasn't inspired by any song she'd heard before. Or maybe it was, and she'd just heard it too often to associate it with anything but him.

Leaning her head against the window, she traced the streaky ghosts of smiley faces and rude words left on the windowpane. They were left over from the two of them laughing and drawing shapes in the early morning fog while driving a town over to the only diner with half decent coffee. She said half decent because it was only half the time that they could get a cup that didn't taste stale or burnt, and even that depended entirely on which day you went and which waitress's shift it was. Even so, she'd been excited to go when they'd left that morning. Now she wished they hadn't.

V watched flat empty land speed by. Every once and awhile, like wrinkles in a painting, they passed a ramshackle wooden fence crowned in rusted barbed wire. Or maybe it was a faraway barn with a matching sunken yellow house and once white trim. Either way, a faded baby blue pickup truck with saggy wheels always sat outside.

Within, just like the kitchen of her family home, she imagined wide windows fit into splintering wood, pink farmhouse sinks, and dirty ivy-covered dishes piled ten miles high. A bright rooster shaped pitcher would hold wilting bunches of lupine and calliopsis. And of course there'd be a rooster-shaped weather vane too; his mouth opened in perpetual scream. V closed her eyes and wondered what exactly it was about farmhouse decor and their insistence on chickens. But she supposed it fit here on the outskirts of town. Here they already had chickens, so what's a few more? V just didn't think it fit with her.

V turned her head away from the window to look at X. He'd named himself that when he was sixteen. The same year he had her pierce his left ear then wimped out before she could do the right. A week later, it had become infected, swollen bright red and inflamed. Now he no longer wore the cheap silver studs that V had sworn (rightfully so) would turn his skin green. Now he wore a tiny scar. It was also the same year she'd named herself V in solidarity. Even back then, the change had only caught on with the two of them. Everyone else only had the right to their given names.

X hummed as his eyes stayed fixed on dashed yellow lines and nonexistent traffic. Dissonant notes of a song he only half remembered buzzed around his cranial cavity and filled the spaces in between thoughts. Their day hadn't gone well, but maybe that's just the way it was with trips down memory lane. When all the pieces have changed it's not going to be the same story no matter how much you want it to be.

"How much gas do you have right now?" V asked, interrupting his humming.

X glanced over at V. She sat deep into her jacket, her hands shoved into the pockets. She had been smiling when they left that morning—excited to see old friends—but now her face was blank and her brows furrowed.

X sighed. Somewhere along the way, her boots had migrated up the dash. "Put your feet down."

"Nah," V said, an uneven smile growing on her face.

"You're getting mud on my dash. Move them." He glanced over again to see her legs twisted up on the seat in criss cross formation. A dusty tread was left half wiped away above the glove box.

X peered through the gaps in the steering wheel at the little red fuel needle. "We have about half a tank left. Why do you ask?"

"Wanna know how far we could run if it came to it."

X kept his eyes locked on the shimmering horizon line before them. This was an old game between them ever since they were little enough to play cops and robbers. V was always the robber. She was always on the run. And X, never willing to be anything but on V's side, was her getaway driver. In third grade their cop was their pinch-faced teacher Mrs. Atkinson who expressed her disapproval at a troublemaker like V being friends with "such a bright young man" like X. Then, in middle school it was V's gaggle of needy younger brothers and her mom hauling her away into the kitchen to play homemaker. By high school they were too old to play really, but it was Nathan Adams who always forced himself into a one-sided competition with X and had his hand up first and wouldn't shut up about Princeton and how much brighter his future was than theirs. And now, at 20 years old? Test scores and IQ points aside, X wasn't really sure what they were still pretending to run from.

"Where would we go?" he joked back.

"Well probably the farthest gas station from here before we run out," she said rolling her eyes.

V watched X throw back his head and laugh out loud. Soft light from the front cab's windows bounced off his blonde hair making it look lighter than usual, and the sun lit up his eyes gold. It was so different from the awkward smiles he'd been giving all day. Her chest started to bubble with anger.

That morning, all their friends from highschool had decided to meet up for a summer reunion at their old hangout at the diner a town over. Back then, their reasoning had been that if you made trouble far enough from home it didn't really count. When they arrived everyone was wearing sweatshirts with their school or sorority name plastered on the front. They had new stories of wild parties, early 8am classes, and almost burning down the dorm with hot plates. And when X and V had informed the rest of the group that no, neither of them had gone to a four- year school, and no they weren't on a gap year, the group had all given X and V sad awkward little smiles. One guy though, V thought his name was Dylan or something, had laughed loudly and declared that of course they'd stayed. Every generation needed their high school sweethearts and the day the town's matching set left was the day the world ended. Scattered snickers had permeated the room after that and X tried to join in, all of them sounding a little like strangled chickens.

"Where would we go from there?" X asked, breaking V out of her thoughts.

"Where's the closest big city from here?"

"Mmm...I think Des Moines."

V wrinkled her nose for a moment and X watched her gold nose ring wink in the late afternoon sun.

"No that's where my family goes to visit my Nani and Nana. We've gotta go somewhere new. Somewhere big and exciting."

"Okay," he said nodding. "I've never been to Chicago. We'd have to get used to wind though so if—"

"What about New York?" V interrupted.

"I think we're more likely to make a wrong turn and end up in Jersey." X laughed.

V twisted in her seat to look at X whose eyes were still on the road. He didn't get what she was saying she realized. He thought it was another joke or empty fantasy the way all her plans ever ended up. "I'm serious, X. New York is full of runaways. We'd fit right in."

X shook his head and started to laugh, "Runaways from what?"

"Don't act dumb." X could hear her rolling her eyes. "What we always run from. Though you're right. You'd have to be missed to be a runaway."

The edge of bitterness in her tone made X start a little and look over. V was looking forward outside the front windshield, her dark eyes quiet and her lips held tight like she was holding onto all the air in her lungs. She really was serious this time.

X shook his head and turned back to the road, his grip tightening on the steering wheel. "We can't go to New York. Our families would miss us. And...and you've got to go to school. Besides we're almost home." He wasn't lying, another ten minutes and they'd see the "Welcome to Creighton, Iowa" sign.

"It's community college. I've already got enough credits so I can transfer to somewhere in New York when school starts up again in the fall. Besides, just because our families live there doesn't mean it's home. Not for me and I know not for you. I blend right into the wall there. They'll only notice I'm gone when the laundry starts piling up. And I'm sure your parents would find New York big enough for you and your brain."

X thought about the Yale acceptance letter shoved into the back of a locked drawer in his desk and the first place awards on the walls and the look in his parent's eyes and dropped smiles when he told them he didn't get in. He thought about his dad commuting into the city and the way he chased promotion after promotion at the bank until he ran himself into the ground with none of it ever being enough. He thought of his sleepy little town and coming home everyday at five'oclock, putting his feet up, and taking the rest of the day as blissfully his. He thought of a life of extracurriculars taken with no ulterior motive. X shook his head. He didn't ever know what they were running from, he reminded himself. The reasons why—that part of the game was V's business; he was just the driver. But even as he held down the gas pedal and told himself that he knew he wouldn't have stuck with V so long if they weren't the same deep down.

He took a deep breath and pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. A great blue sky woven with big white clouds and tiny black specks of birds stretched over the earth. X looked up at it for a moment and wondered if it was possible to drown in air.

X turned to V, his broad face serious. His eyelashes cast long shadows down his face in the sun. "What'd we do when we get there?"

V shrugged. "Find somewhere to live. Stay in youth shelters and hostels. Crash on nice strangers' couches."

X scoffed. "I'm not quite sure we count as the youth anymore."

She ignored him.

"We can work odd jobs while I go to school. It's no different from what we're doing now." X furrowed his eyebrows. She had a point. "We'll buy each other one of those hoodies that says something like "college" on it. How about NYU? My grades are good enough now that the financial aid should come through and we both look good in purple. And eventually, once I graduate, I'll ditch the ripped jeans and black leather and go out and buy a nice pantsuit. I'll go work in a bank or a cubicle somewhere."

"You'd probably have to start calling yourself Victoria again if you do that."

"Victoria Patel, Head of Corporate Managing and Financial Numbers." She paused and cocked her head for a moment before continuing. "Also Communication."

"Victoria Patel, Head of Emails and Copies."

"Why not? At least it won't be Victoria Patel in charge of cooking saffron rice and doing laundry and avoiding playing catch up with people from high school home for the holidays."

He winced at the reference to the day's failed plans. "Cooking and laundry isn't so bad. And I like saffron rice."

"Maybe, but also maybe it'll taste better in New York when my Mom's recipes become a little less tired and a little more nostalgic."

"What if we get tired of it in New York?"

V shrugged and turned to look out the window again. "Then I put in for a transfer and you do too and we go somewhere else we've never been." She imagined grand silver skyscrapers rising out of golden midwestern fields and neon lights reflecting off wet asphalt at night and the smell of the ocean and the prick of cactus needles against her fingers. She imagined a Victoria Patel no one would look and shake their head at. A Victoria Patel who could go where she wanted, who nobody would need except for maybe X but that was fine because she needed him just as much.

X cut his eyes towards V. The car sat idling beneath them."Same old life just somewhere else?"

She leaned forward across the center console and grinned. "If you want it yeah."

X drummed her fingers over the steering wheel and hummed softly, thinking it over. "And I can still go by X?"

She rolled her eyes, "I can't imagine ever genuinely calling you Xavier so yeah I guess you'll have to."

X sighed and ran a hand through his hair before looking over at Victoria. She looked back at him. Her jaw was tilted up stubbornly and her dark eyes locked with his. He tried to imagine her in a pantsuit, holding a briefcase, walking up Wall Street. He didn't know what the dress code was there but she'd probably have to take out her nose ring. Though knowing her she'd probably bully them all into letting her keep it. Victoria Patel, Business Lady Supreme.

Then he tried to imagine himself there in New York. Maybe by day he'd get a job at one of the little retail shops in Times Square. He'd volunteer at the local animal shelter the way he did at the one down the street from his parent's house. At night he'd set about perfecting V's mom's old recipes. He'd collect quarters for the local laundromat. It wasn't any different from his usual life, but it would be his. And maybe something like that was worth running for.

"Alright. Pull out a map and find the farthest gas station for half a tank."

Victoria beamed at X and began to rummage through the glove compartment for a map. X pulled the car back onto the road and did a u-turn heading back for the way they came. When they passed the little yellow house she thought her face might split open. She rolled down the window and let the breeze ruffle her hair. Beside her, X began to tunelessly hum and Victoria thought for the first time that she liked the idea of having a destination.