a The O.C. story
by dirty diana
mad beta love to serial karma, for helping me beat this into submission. Because it needed it.
"You know," Ryan says, one rainy morning outside of El Paso, "when you suggested a pancake tour of America, I didn't realise that you actually meant a pancake tour of America."
Summer pushes the last bite of her waffles in circles on her plate. They have eaten at the International House of Pancakes five of the last seven mornings.
"Dude," Seth says, as if he's offended. "Pancakes are an integral part of the road trip experience. Pancakes are an important American tradition. Like baseball. Like apple pie."
"You don't like baseball," Marissa points out.
"Or apple pie," Summer adds.
Seth looks sadly at her, sitting across from him in the corner booth. Her feet in pink sandals swing back and forth, kicking him underneath the table. "Et tu, Brute?" he asks.
"Huh?" Summer says.
Seth just scowls at her, because she sat next to him in Honors English all year, and he knows they covered "Julius Caesar". "Pass the blueberry syrup," he tells Ryan.
They drive with The Clash playing on the stereo. Everything looks the same outside the window, for long stretches of road, red and dull and flat. Marissa keeps adjusting the air conditioning, holding her hand in front of the vent to feel the icy cold breeze.
The music plays, but mostly they talk. Seth talks the most. He talks about school in the fall. He talks about going to NYU, on the whole other side of the country.
"And you all have to come visit me. We could do, you know, New York stuff."
"Yeah," Marissa says. She taps her painted fingernails on the steering wheel, and glances in the rearview mirror, to watch Seth slouching in the backseat with one arm around Summer's shoulder. "Like shopping on Fifth Avenue."
"Or something on Broadway," Ryan says.
Seth frowns. "That's not exactly the kind of New York stuff that I meant."
Summer leans against him, with her head on his chest. They're going to Berkeley in the fall, Summer and Marissa together. "I'll come to visit you," she promises.
He smiles at her, and kisses the top of her head.
Marissa rolls her eyes.
"But not in the winter," Summer adds.
Summer doesn't really want to go hiking in the Grand Canyon. She wanted to go straight to Phoenix, but she got outvoted.
"It's just a big hole in the ground," she says, coral pink nails scratching at yesterday's mosquito bites. "What's the big deal?"
"Scared?" Ryan teases her.
"I'm not the one who refused to go on Magic Mountain on grad night," she points out. She squints her eyes, with the hint of a challenge in her voice. "We could go up in the hot air balloon instead."
Ryan turns a vague shade of white, and shakes his head. In the end, Ryan and Seth go on the trail, while Summer and Marissa take the balloon. Summer leans over the edge, watching the shadows of clouds drift across the sun-baked ground. Everyone and everything is tiny, disappearing into dust down below them.
"I guess this isn't so bad," Summer says, taking endless pictures with her new digital camera.
"Yeah," Marissa says, brushing her hair from her face, as it whips against the edges of her mouth. "I guess so."
Out of all of them, Ryan probably likes driving the most. He likes the straight, predictable lines of the road, and the hum of the carís engine, barely distinguishable underneath the chatter of voices around him.
"Are you going to come visit me in Berkeley?" Marissa asks, out of the blue. She's asked him that three times already, and Ryan still doesn't know the answer. He wishes that he did, but he doesn't.
He wishes that Seth wasn't going so far away.
Marissa turns her head to talk to Summer, pressed up against Seth in the back. Ryan concentrates on driving.
Marissa and Ryan broke up right before graduation.
"Again?" Seth asked, before he could stop himself.
Ryan shrugged. He looked sad, like he knew that he had tried the best he could. "I don't know, man," he said. "Maybe I should skip the trip."
Seth nearly stumbled on the hallway steps. "No way. You're my roadtrip buddy. You're, like, the Cassady to my Kerouac. You have to go."
"I don't know," Ryan said again.
"Besides," Seth continued, unfazed, "how else are you going to get over Marissa? You have to get out there, dude. Experience all that the lower forty-eight states have to offer. Take pictures of giant fruit. Have random encounters with diner waitresses."
Ryan's expression narrowed. "Does Summer know about this part of the plan?"
It was only later, in the library stacks, between medieval history and modern European history, that Seth found out that Summer had just had the exact same conversation with Marissa.
"We can't just leave Coop at home," Summer insisted. "She's my roadtrip buddy. She's the Thelma to my Louise."
She should have thought of that before she broke Ryan's heart, Seth thought, but he didn't say it.
As if she could read his mind, Summer kissed him gently on the mouth. "It'll be fun," she promised him. "You'll see. It will be perfect."
Now the four of them have been on the road for almost two weeks, and Marissa and Ryan don't talk to each other unless they have to. "Pass the sugar," Marissa will say, or, "can I see the map for a moment?"
They forget sometimes, though, to be mad. And they will both smile absently at the same stupid things, at Seth's highlighted passages in their copy of Rough Guide to the USA. Then they catch themselves, and everything is the same again. Seth worries about both of them.
"Hey, Cohen," Summer calls out, two hundred miles east of Phoenix, "Can we pull over? I really need to go."
"Yeah, me too," Marissa adds.
Seth rolls his eyes, his fingers loose around the steering wheel. "I just asked you that, when we stopped for gas. You told me you didn't need to."
"Because I didn't, then."
Seth rolls his eyes again, but pulls into the right lane anyway. Marissa and Summer bring cones of frozen yoghurt back from the rest stop. It drips all over their fingers as they eat, squished together in the back seat.
"Careful," Seth warns them. "I promised my parents I would bring this car back in exactly the condition that I got it."
Both girls ignore him, Summer whispering as Marissa laughs. He is fighting a losing battle anyway, because there are candy bar wrappers all over the floor in the back seat, and Ryan still hasn't thrown away yesterday's empty coffee cup.
Marissa eats her frozen yoghurt, carelessly kicking the back of Seth's seat.
"Stop that," Seth says.
"Make me," Marissa answers, with a giggle. The yoghurt is cold on her skin, and too sweet in her mouth, her fingers sticking together.
Ryan turns up the radio.
It's a longer drive to Austin than it appears on the map. But Seth says they have to be there tomorrow night, to see some band that Summer has never heard of.
So Ryan just shrugs, and trades places with Seth, who crawls into the back seat, falling asleep almost immediately, next to Marissa. Ryan climbs behind the steering wheel, and they pull out of the McDonald's parking lot.
Ryan ejects the CD that's playing, whatever whiny emo band Seth has been listening to, and gives Summer a wry look. Summer just shrugs, and opens the glove compartment, so that Ryan can shove the disc inside. Then Ryan flips through the radio stations, until he finds one with a latenight dj playing eighties rock, bouncy enough to keep him awake.
"Hit me with your best shot," Pat Benatar sings, as the interstate slips by underneath the wheels. Summer sips her giant Diet Coke, and puts bare feet up on the dashboard.
She stays awake with Ryan until two a.m., when they pull into the Holiday Inn. They don't talk much, but it's comfortable anyway, Summer's hand brushing Ryan's arm whenever she reaches for her drink.
Ryan leans against the side of Seth's car, listening to Seth on the phone. Seth calls home every day, under strict orders from Sandy and Kirsten. He talks for long stretches, talking too fast, trying to reassure Kirsten that yes, the car is still okay. Yes, the GPS is working fine. No, he hasn't been skipping any meals.
Marissa stands next to him. She's still not quite awake yet, eyes slanted and half-closed. "Coffee," she mumbles, tugging on his shirt, pressing her cheek against his arm.
"Yeah," Ryan promises her. "We're going. Seth found out there's a Denny's four blocks down."
"Coffee," Marissa says again, in a satisfied tone. She leans her head against his shoulder, and closes her eyes.
Ryan stands perfectly still, waiting for Seth to hand him the telephone.
Summer is the last to exit the motel room, slamming the door behind her. Her head is still wet from the shower, and she's complaining about the bad light in the bathroom. "Are we leaving soon?" she asks, as she puts her makeup case in the trunk. "I'm starving."
"Yeah," Ryan tells her. "In a minute."