The clock ticked in time to the pulsating ache in Phil's chest. The time read nine thirty, and he'd been awake for a good two and a half hours, but he was still in bed. Lying on his side to stare at the sparsely decorated wall. The scattered pictures were almost years old at this point, taken when Ned got his hands on an instant camera and pulled him out to go take photos around the campus.
He finally swung his legs out of bed and dug his toes into the fluffy carpet. It was about time he took a shower, but…
Phil sighed. Not in the morning. He was too tired in the morning to do something like that. He’d eat something, watch some Netflix and then take that shower.
All the lights were off as Phil wandered through the all-too-quiet apartment. Larry had gone out a couple days and hadn’t returned. Hm. Maybe that was something to be worried about. Oh well, he’d check his phone for missed texts
He shivered and glanced out the nearest window. Snow had piled up outside, the chill permeating into the apartment thanks to Phil forgetting to turn on the heater. He hated the seasons in Pennsylvania. Especially winter. He turned to the thermostat and turned it up to an actually reasonable heat.
“Phil!” A muffled voice called through the walls. “Phil, I know you’re in there!” Jesus.
He drifted to the front door, tearing it open to stare at Larry. “Where the fuck have you been?”
“Geez, Phil, would a little kindness kill you?” Larry sighed. “I forgot my keys so I’ve been locked out for the past few days.”
“Why didn’t you stop by earlier?”
“I did. Several times.”
“Oh.” It must have been when Phil was asleep. Which would have been the whole time.
Larry looked him up and down. “Are you… okay? You haven’t been outside for days.”
“You don’t know that.”
The shared silence spoke volumes for both of them. Larry sighed. “I came by to pick up my keys, then I’m leaving to go see my parents for winter break.”
Right, that started a day or so ago. Unlike Larry, Phil was not on good enough terms with his family for a good old Hanukkah dinner, so he was probably going to be spending the time doing exactly what he had been doing for the past few days.
“Well, have fun with that.” Phil turned around to walk back inside. “Tell your mom and dad hi from me.”
“Yea. No problem, Phil.”
On the way back to his room, Phil grabbed an apple he didn't particularly feel like eating but might want later. He disappeared down the hall, closed the bedroom door and…
God dammit. He pressed his back against the door, sliding down. God dammit, this wasn't like him. Phil was the confident one. The one who everyone was supposed to look at and think “He’s got all of his shit together.” But now he was this pathetic, powerless, piece of-
He finally breathed out. The torrent of negative thoughts seemed to be pushed away by that simple breath, exhaustion rushing to replace the oxygen that had been in his lungs. Jesus, he was tired. Maybe he should just go back to bed.
He glanced at the clock as he collapsed back into bed. Ten o’clock. Phil sighed. Seemed like he'd have to take that shower another day.
It was four o’clock when Phil finally got out of bed again. Most likely because he was so fucking hungry. That was probably his punishment for eating an apple for breakfast and nothing for lunch.
On his way to the kitchen, he stopped at the window facing the parking lot. A layer of snow had settled over most everything. He could see the beaten up car he’d inherited from his older sister when she left the state a few years ago.
Phil stared at it. He shivered, rubbing his arms. It was too fucking cold here. He just wanted to get in that car and drive so fast the world outside was just a blur.
He blinked. Hey. That wasn’t a bad idea.
In the next few minutes he was sitting at his desk and staring at his cell phone’s black screen. As independent he wanted to be, he wasn’t a complete idiot. If he did this alone he’d just end up worse off than before or dead.
Phil hesitated. Maybe he shouldn't. No, he definitely shouldn't. He could hear his mother berating him in the back of his mind, his sister saying that he was probably going to have another episode and crash into a tree on the side of the road. Finally, he started moving again.
phil: hey, do you want to go on a road trip?
Nothing. Phil sighed, partially in relief. Ned probably wouldn’t check his phone until tomorrow and then when he brought it up during lunch or something Phil could just back out and said he had something come up.
His phone buzzed.
Reaching for it slowly as though it would hurt him to touch it, Phil opened the lock screen. One new text from Ned.
Ned: I have a whole closet full of snack foods I want to get rid of anyways!
phil: oh, cool
Ned: Where do you want to go? Upstate? Oh, I have a cousin in New York City that might hook us up with tickets to some shows ;)
phil: i was thinking somewhere warm, all this snow is driving me crazy
Ned: Uh, okay? Like?
phil: i want to see the ocean
He types the last part without really thinking about it. It just sort of appeared in his mind. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. Yea, Phil had never seen the west coast before. Bucket list item, right? He just needed a bit of sun and he'd feel better.
The speaking bubble appeared and disappeared several times before Ned finally sent anything.
Ned: Do you think we'll be able to make it back in time for the end of winter break?
phil: i dunno. maybe.
Ned: I guess. It'd have to not have all that many stops.
phil: i’m fine with that. see you in a bit
phil: i’m going to head over and pick you up rn, i just really need to get moving
Ned: Oh, geez, okay, if you say so!
Phil put down his phone and threw his head back. He was going to regret this.
Ned’s house was a ten minute drive away (thirteen if you followed traffic laws), and Phil had been waiting outside the door for five now. He hadn’t knocked or anything, but he still felt a little bit slighted that Ned had not yet answered him yet.
He looked down to check the time on his phone and the door swung open. Ned came barreling out, arms full of grocery bags.
“Okay so!” Ned wheezed. “I got all the snacks and a week’s worth of clothes which is probably too much but! You can never be too prepared!” He pushed up the glasses on his nose and winced. “Ow!”
Phil raised an eyebrow. “What was that about?”
“The frames on these glasses have a little sharp bit on it and I was supposed to be getting new ones to replace them soon, but now I’m doing this with you.” He grinned. “And it’s gonna be fun! We haven’t done a big bonding thing like this in a while.”
“Yea, gotta do it again sometime, let’s go.” Phil, ever the personification of chivalry, took one of the grocery bags from Ned and spun around to head back to the car.
“Don't forget to buckle up,” Ned said cheerfully as they dropped into their seats. Phil rolled his eyes and followed his directions. The last time he tried to drive without a seat belt Ned had basically glared holes into his skull and then gave him a thirty minute lecture when they stopped. The guy was practically built to be a father.
“So you're not visiting family either, huh?” Phil asked, twisting to check his blind spots and pull out.
“Oh, no. We don't do holidays together all that much since…” He paused. “Y’know, Wes? Grandma isn't too keen on me after that.”
“The evangelical Christian one?”
“Does that sound like something my Grandma Rachel would do? Of course the evangelical Christian one.”
“I was just wondering if I needed to shun Rachel, she's been knitting me blankets.”
“What!? She hasn't been doing that for me!”
“That's because she sends you baked goods every week.” Phil smiled. Okay, maybe this was pretty nice.
“Hold on, there was something I was going to ask you, uh…. Uh…” Ned snapped his fingers a few times. “Right! Did you bring your meds?”
And it was no longer nice. “No.”
“Hey, isn't that your friend from biology?”
“You cannot change the subject like this!”
“No, I'm serious!” He pointed to the side of the road at the woman sitting with her face in her hands and a suitcase at her side. “Whatsername!”
Ned cursed softly under his breath. “Yea, pull over for a sec.” He rolled down his window as Phil slowed down. “Hey, Rita, are you doing okay?”
She didn't lift her head. “I'm doing great.” She did not sound like she was doing great. She sounded like Phil on the night he threw out most of his stuff in a manic episode and then had to pretend like he was okay.
“Are you sure?” Ned called softly.
Rita shuddered. “I got kicked out.”
“Oh, no,” Ned got out of the car despite Phil’s hiss. “Come on, I’ve got you. You can stay at my place for now.”
Phil grimanced as he started to help Rita to her feet. “Uh, I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to be driving right now.”
“She can just ride with us until we come back! The more the merrier.”
Ned stared him down, not breaking eye contact as he picked up Rita’s nearby small suitcase. It was that look that said ”I’m not leaving room for discussion here.”. Most of the time he was a big old pushover but every now and then…
Phil growled. “There might be room.”
“That’s what I was thinking!” Ned beamed. He opened the back door for Rita. “That is, if you don’t mind.”
“No, it’s fine. Thanks, Ned.” She closed the door, leaving her and Phil alone with each other while Ned loaded up the suitcase. “So, uh, you’re-”
“I know, we met after class one time when I dropped off some homework to give to Ned.”
A period of awkward stillness passed. Rita was the first to speak up. “So where were you two heading?”
She blinked. That looked of judgement people always got when Phil revealed his latest plan flashed through her eyes. “Oh.”
Ned dropped back into the passenger seat, saving them from anymore stiff conversation. “Alrighty, let’s get this show on the road!”
“Yup, let’s go,” Phil said a little bit louder than necessary. He switched the car into gear and checked the mirror. As he pulled fully back into the road, he almost could have sworn that for just a second he saw a pinprick of light following them in the distance
Rita fell asleep pretty quick after they started the drive. It was fair, Phil usually passed the fuck out after crying and he didn’t even cry all that much. As they started to reach further and further into the night, Ned began to drift off too.
“Shouldn’t we take a pitstop so you don’t fall asleep at the wheel and kill us?” Ned yawned.
“It’s fine. I’ve been sleeping during the day recently so I’m basically nocturnal.”
“Ah. Hey, Phil, you’re… okay, right?”
He adjusted his grip on the wheel. “Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”
“I mean you just text me in the evening asking me to go on a roadtrip all the way across the country on what I assume was a whim.”
“It wasn’t a whim, okay? I just never do anything for winter break and I wanted to change that.”
A pause so long passed that Phil thought that Ned had fallen asleep. “You’re going to be fine without your medicine?”
“I don’t-!” Phil took a breath and flexed his fingers. “I don’t need pills anyways. They’re just, like, a precaution. I haven’t needed to take them for months now.”
“If you say so.”
Ned didn’t say anything else. At first, Phil was glad that he dropped it, but the longer they went without talking, the more anxiety started to build up.
He hates you. Phil didn’t care.
If he hates you, then nobody likes you. So be it.
More worries kept surfacing, and Phil kept shutting each one down in turn. The silence itself was starting to become grating. Phil ground his teeth and started to press harder on the accelerator pedal.
"You're speeding there, bud," Ned said, blinking to clear away the nap he was about to take.
"Yea, I know." The pointer slid further and further right. Phil felt Ned grip his bicep and saw him grab the handle on the ceiling with his other hand out of the corner of his eye.
"Phil, there might be police!"
"What are they going to do, arrest me?"
At this point they were starting to push ninety miles an hour. Phil couldn't breath, but in the good way. The way that your chest tightened from excitement and gripped your spine. He laughed. It was a choked sound at first, but then transformed into something unhindered. It sounded nearly hysterical to his own ears.
Ned was now holding onto Phil's right arm with both hands. He was laughing too, but that was just what Ned did when he was scared. Copy the closest person.
"Roll down a window!" Phil shouted.
"I'm only doing this because I want you to keep both hands on the wheel!"
Air rushed into the car, into Phil's lungs. His laughter turned breathless. The only things he could feel was the wheel under his hands, Ned clinging for dear life to his arm and the wind whipping through his hair.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Rita yelled over the roar.
“Oh good, you're awake!”
“Yea, I'm awake!”
“Please slow down,” Ned begged in between the strained laughter.
“Fuck no!” Be it genuine happiness or a chemical equivalent from all of the adrenaline, Phil felt alive again. Trees bathed in grey moonlight rushed past them, all one big blur. The stars themselves seemed to move around them.
“Phil!” Ned was shrieking now, holding Phil’s arm so tight it almost hurt but he welcomed the sensation.
“You’re going to get us killed!” Rita shouted.
Phil was suddenly sitting just a little bit too far left from the rest of the world. There was two of himself, intangible enough that they overlapped. Then he snapped back into one.
“Just a little bit longer. There isn’t any curves in this road for a while.”
He did end up slowing down, but for just a bit he could just laugh with the wind. Plus, Ned was pretty hilariously scared.
Ned started shuffling through his bag and pulled out his phone. “I’m putting on some good music, I hate this.”
“I’m putting on the playlist I threw together for this!” He grabbed the aux cord.
“Is that why you took so long to answer the door?!”
Rita cheered, kicking Phil’s seat from the back. “Go Ned!”
“No, do not! Everytime you choose the music you put on something like-!” Phil heard a familiar intro and nearly slammed his head into the steering wheel. “Taylor Swift.”
“Oh my god, I hate this song!” Rita laughed with the joy of someone taking glee out of someone else’s suffering. Specifically Phil’s.
Ned punched his shoulder playfully and started singing with the track. ”I remember when we broke up the first time, saying, ‘this is it, I've had enough,’ 'cause like, we hadn't seen each other in a month, when you said you needed ‘space’.”
“What!” Rita yelled.
“I hate both of you!” Phil shouted over the music. Ned and Rita just laughed at him.
“Come on, I know you know the lyrics!” Ned bubbled, poking his face. Phil slapped his hand away.
“Yea, because I had no choice to after how much that shit was played!”
“Let it be known that Phil Connors was too much of a coward to sing Taylor Swift!” Rita crowed.
“God dammit,” Phil muttered right before the chorus hit. “We are never, ever, ever getting back together!”
“Get it Phil!”
”You go talk to you friends-” Ned sang.
Rita quickly swooped in for the next part of the lyric. ”-Talk to my friends-”
“-Talk to me!” Phil finished.
”But we are never, ever, ever, ever getting back together!” The three chorused all together, almost devolving into laughter.
“Please tell me that this whole playlist is not Taylor Swift,” Phil sighed.
Ned’s smile was so wide he could see it in his peripheral vision. “Just that one because I know you’d hate it.”
“Truly, you are the best man on the planet,” he said sarcastically.
“Don’t worry, I’ll skip it now.”
The song was cut off by the piano intro to some ABBA song which. Okay. Phil wasn’t exactly a big ABBA fan but anything was better than Taylor Swift. His giddy mood suddenly plummeted as he looked in the mirror and saw lights in the road following them.
He sped up just a little bit more.
Rita leaned forward in between the seats. “Hey, can you pull over at that convenience store up there? I want to get a slushie.”
Phil checked the rearview. No lights. “I guess so. Be fast about it though, we’ve got places to be.”
He pulled into the parking lot, Rita kicking open the door as soon as it shifted into park. Ned and Phil sat together, no sound except the next song from the playlist going over the stereos.
”I think we're alone now
There doesn't seem to be anyone around
I think we're alone now
The beating of our hearts is the only sound”
“Y’know what I actually have to go to the bathroom,” Phil said loudly. He turned away before Ned could answer, quickly getting out and stalking into the store. Once in the bathroom, he locked the door and threw water into his face. The sleep deprivation was really starting to set in, but this was the first time in a very long while that he had wanted to stay awake.
He had to ride this wave to the end.
Phil didn’t realize that he was staring into the mirror and dissociating until someone knocked at the bathroom door. He pulled it open, coming face to face with Ned.
“How long was I in there?”
“Uh. Ten minutes?”
“Good. I mean, bad. Ugh, I’m sorry, I’m just getting a little bit worn down but I can keep going now.”
Rita appeared from behind one of the aisles. “Actually about that…”
“Rita and I think that we should spend the night at the motel down the road,” Ned grimaced.
“You’ve been driving for a whole day. Like, twenty four hours, almost. And you’ve been doing good and all but we’d prefer to not crash or something.”
“No, no, we have to keep moving.” Breathe, in and out. “I can’t go to sleep.”
“Hey, it’s just for one night.” Ned smiled comfortingly but he could see Rita staring at him over her slushie.
“Fine.” They kept staring. “Fine, let’s go.”
Phil held his face in his hands. Right now would have been a nice time for some pills, but again, Phil did not need pills. He was just having a rough patch.
He was not his mother.
The drive to the motel was a numb experience. Now that his body was looking towards sleeping, his systems felt like they were shutting down one by one. He felt like Ned noticed, or at least Rita. They hadn’t been around each other too much but he could tell he had an eye for bullshit.
He started experiencing things as brief snap shots and images, with no idea where the gaps in between went. Parking the car, walking to the counter, Ned paying, almost tripping on the way up the stairs. Things started playing in real time again when he was staring at a small motel room with two beds almost pressed up against each other. Rita and Ned closed the door behind them.
“You’re kidding me,” he deadpanned.
“You were at the front desk, you knew this was going to happen,” Rita said.
Ned nodded, setting his bag down. “Motel rates are expensive.”
“Well, you two can fight over what you’re doing because I’m not sleeping on the floor or with either of you.” She threw her stuff onto one of the beds. “It’s not personal.”
“Nope, not doing this.” Phil turned around. “I’m going to go sleep in the car.”
Rita stepped between him and the door. “Oh, man the fuck up, I’ve slept with other women tons of times before.”
Phil raised an eyebrow.
“...That didn’t come out right.” She huffed angrily. “Fuck it! I’m going to go take a shower. You guys do. Whatever, I don’t know.” Rita stormed off, leaving the two of them alone with the sound of a slammed bathroom door.
Phil sighed, making his way to a wall and sliding down. Ned watched him hesitantly for a few seconds. “Can I sit next to you?”
“Sure,” Phil threw up his arms. “We’re going to be sharing a bed later so what’s the harm in sitting?”
Ned moved slowly, like Phil was a deer that could be spooked away. He couldn’t particularly bring himself to be insulted by it.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he sighed. “I just really want to keep moving.”
“I get it. You seemed really opposed to the idea of sleep back there.”
“...I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Ned cleared his throat and performed a not-half-bad Phil Connors impression. “I can’t go to sleep.”
“Oh, yea. That.” He shrugged. He was going to let it go unanswered, but the way Ned kept staring at him… "I don't think I've slept in years," Phil murmured.
Ned put his hand down next to his. Their pinky fingers overlapped, but Phil didn't say anything.
"I don't know what you mean."
"It's just an escape. Where I don't have to exist, you know?" He sighed. "Just nothing. I don’t really rest."
"Ah." Ned shifted his weight, almost completely covering Phil's hands with his. He swallowed, but still said nothing. "I'm sorry."
“It’s whatever, I guess. This was just the first time I didn’t want to escape from reality, but now…” he chuckled. “I’m kind of feeling like it, man.”
With all of the combined confidence and awkwardness of a sixth grade boy taking his date to the school dance’s slow dance, Ned wrapped one arm around his shoulders. They leaned against each other as if that’s all they needed for support.
Phil was in a weird place of mind. Half of his consciousness was doing its best to float as far as it could from his body with nothing but a thin tether to connect him, and the other half was so grounded that everything around him was just a little too much. He didn’t particularly like the feeling.
“She takes really long showers,” Phil mumbled.
“It’s only been a few minutes.”
“Has it?” He let his head fall to rest on Ned’s shoulder. “This doesn’t mean anything. I’m just tired.”
Phil didn’t know when he fell asleep, but he woke up early in the morning tucked into one of the beds. Head stuffed full of feelings from a nightmare he couldn’t remember, he dazedly scanned the room. The only visible sign that Rita hadn’t disappeared in the shower last night was a puff of curly brown hair poking about the covers. Ned was dozing in the single seat next to the bed. Phil couldn’t help but notice how much colder the world had become. He leaned back and closed his eyes.
He threw himself out of bed upon his sudden remembrance. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.”
“Wha…?” Rita’s face slowly rose from the sheets. “What the hell‘re you doing?”
“We have to go.” Phil grabbed his jacket from the car. “I’m going to be in the car, you just just… hurry up!”
He kicked the door closed behind him without waiting for a response. He scrambled down the stairs, this time actually tripping right at the bottom and skinning his hands on the concrete. It stung. Phil’s head was swimming, twisting vision. As it turned out, running less than thirty seconds after waking up did not do well for a head rush.
His heart was pounding against his ribcage when he dropped back into the driver’s seat. What was taking them so long? The only brought one bag each and it’s not like they really removed anything from them. Phil kept glancing at the clock every ten seconds as if that would speed things up. Eventually, he saw Rita walking down the stairs. He didn’t move as she returned to her place in the back.
“You’re really stressing him out, you know?” She said. “He just wants everyone to be okay.”
“I am okay.”
“Then what are you running from?”
Instead of answering, he switched on the ignition.
After several more hours of driving, Ned’s playlist had run dry. He apologized, saying that someone hadn’t given him enough time to make a proper one. They’d gone back to listening to whatever random radio station happened to have service. Rita had gone to playing on her phone. Every now and then, Ned would point out some weird shaped cloud, or read a sign on the side of the road.
He didn’t mean to do it, honestly. It just kind of… happened. One second he was driving, and the next he was split in two like that time he had been speeding down the road outside of Pittsburgh. But this time it didn’t last for a second. They were just driving, and driving and then there was a deer and the other Phil didn’t stop.
He snapped back to his body as the force from hitting the deer knocked him forward.
“What did you do?!” Rita gasped.
“He ran over a deer,” Ned reached for his wrist. “Phil-” He was out of the car before he could grab on.
Phil saw the deer breathe once, twice, then not at all. Oh, god.
He could feel himself starting to panic as he dropped to his knees on the asphalt. This was a metaphor. A sign from the universe. The deer was Rita and Ned's lives being uprooted by Phil's own selfishness. Or maybe it was his sister and his careless neglect of her? Maybe it was even himself. Someone was the god damn deer. Who was the fucking deer?
“I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but you need to stop.” Ned started to walk to his side, the stopped. “Oh, geez, that’s… that’s not good at all.”
“Jesus,” Rita coughed.
“I’m sorry, I-I don’t know what happened.” He held a hand over his mouth. “We have to do something.”
“I think it’s already dead, Phil,” Rita said gently.
“I know!” he snapped. “I’m not a fucking idiot!”
“You don’t need to yell at me!”
“Both of you stop it!” Ned shouted.
Phil dug his fingers into the road, ignoring the feeling of his fingernails being torn off. “Don’t tell me what to do!” He shot to his feet, striding robotically to the side of the road and kneeling down to dig in the snow with his bare hands.
“What are you doing?” Rita sighed in exasperation.
“I’m digging a grave.”
”Either shut the fuck up or help me!”
After a moment, Ned and Rita silently joined him. For a while, they helped him clear snow and dirt. They were just coddling him. He could tell because when it became clear that he wasn’t just going to give up, they returned to the car. Phil was there for hours, shoveling aside frozen soil until his hands were numb.
He felt their eyes on him as he pulled the doe’s corpse into the pit and did his best to cover it back up. It wasn’t very good. Even if the conditions weren’t so bad and he wasn’t doing this without tools, he was shaking so bad he could barely stand. It was no thing of beauty. The bits of tawny fur poking up from the ground left no room for moments of closure or reverence. The judgement, or worse, pity from the eyes inside the car just confirmed that this was a show of insanity, a man coming loose at the seams.
When he joined them again, no one said anything. Phil let his mudstained hands rest in his lap. His fingers were frozen into claws, and Ned and Rita knew that one wrong move meant he would lash out with them. But the lights were coming back. So, rather than let his body have the time it needed to defrost, Phil turned the key and started back on the road.
No one had spoken for hours. It was long past the time where Phil had turned down the volume knob to zero, so now there wasn’t even any music playing. The only sound was the tires rolling on the pavement. Phil didn’t even know what state they were in right now.
The tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Usually Rita and Ned would be asleep by now, but they hadn’t. They were looking out the windows, but Phil knew they were watching him.
“We should find another pitstop for the night,” Ned said quietly.
“I can keep going.” Phil set his jaw. “We’re over halfway now.”
“Where are we even going anymore? It’s been forever since you even checked a map.”
Phil didn’t know, but he wasn’t about to admit that. “If we just keep going west we’re bound to get there eventually.”
“Please, Phil, this isn’t healthy!”
“Oh, healthy? You want to talk to me about healthy!” Phil laugh sounded unhinged to his own ears. “Rita is on this trip because she got kicked out of her place! Doesn’t that sound, like, oh I don’t know, we should address the reasons that happened?”
“Don’t use me as an excuse.” Rita’s eyes smoldered in the rearview mirror.
“Okay, let’s move on! How about you, Ned? A guy just randomly texts you one night about a roadtrip to California on a school break and you just up and go with him? Sounds like dependency or something to me.”
Ned drew in a shaky breath. "Pull the car over."
"Pull the car over right now or I'm opening the door and jumping out!"
Phil felt the tight feeling in his ribs that usually meant that he was about to have an attack. "You're bluffing!"
The seat shook as Rita grabbed it and leaned forward. "Phil, please!"
"I have to keep going, okay?! Stop yelling at me!" It was setting in now. He was starting to regret not bringing his pills.
He checked the rearview mirror to check for the lights but instead caught eyes with Rita. She had a look that he could only call recognition. They locked eyes for just a second, Phil silently begging her not to say anything.
She turned away. "Ned, we're all tired, there's a much better way to deal with this, Phil's about to have a panic attack."
"Don't talk about me like I'm not sitting right here!"
"Pull over!" Ned was moving, but Phil kept his eyes on the road. If he looked anywhere else right now he was going to drive them off the side of the road.
"No, no, no, wait, Ned-!" Rita yelped. Phil heard the click of a car door handle and a seat belt.
"Okay, okay, I'm pulling over, don't jump out!" He practically slammed his foot on the brake, throwing Rita and himself forward and Ned directly into the dashboard. Shit, his seat belt.
When they came to a full stop at the side of the road, Phil was fully gasping, staring out the front window with arms as stiff as a board and fingers locked around the wheel. Ned got out of the car. He registered him walking around the car and knocking on the driver side window. Phil opened the door, slowly stepped out like he might break. When he finally made eye contact with Ned he noticed there was a cut above his right eye.
Ned took a deep breath. "What is wrong with you?!"
"What's wrong with you!? You've never acted like this before!"
"Because you're my friend and you keep acting weird and I care about you!"
Phil looked down the road, scanning. "We could be having this conversation in the car."
"No! You're in literally no condition to drive and the more you do the more you fall apart! Why are you doing this to yourself?"
Something flashed in the distance. It could have just been a white bird, or snow falling from one of the trees, but there was that slim possibility of the lights. "We need to keep driving."
He tried to turn back to the door but Ned inserted himself between them. "You're not even listening to me!"
"Why do you care about how I am? I've been carrying on just fine for twenty three years!"
"You're my best friend, it's in the job description!"
"Well, you're not my best friend!" He took a step closer to him, channeling any bit of intimidation he could from his panicking body. "We aren't in high school anymore! This is the last hurrah, so you don't need to worry about being responsible for me!"
Ned wasn't backing down. He just drew himself up a bit further to match the inch or so of height difference between them. "I know you're not in a good space of mind right now, so I'll elect to ignore that until later."
Phil made a noise between growling and screaming. "Just get in the car, Ned!"
"I just…!" Phil took a second to wheeze for breath. "They're getting closer, I have to go-"
He tries to lunge past Ned. In most other circumstances, Phil could have overtaken Ned. Maybe not as easily as high school when Phil was actually engaged in sports, but Ned had never been one for physical activity anyways. Now, with hours of sleep deprivation piled on his plate along with the strange fatigue of sitting still for hours of driving and a completely fractured mental state, he shoved Phil back with enough force to send him reeling back.
They both gasped as the back of his head struck the ground. The snow wasn't deep enough to provide any real padding, so whatever was holding all his thoughts together shattered and sent them all into the white powder.
"Phil?" Ned. "Phil?!"
He was less thinking now and more feeling without processing what the meaning could be. He couldn't see the sky anymore, his entire view obscured by Ned's face as he leaned over him. One hand held the side of his face and the other laced its fingers with his.
And his head hurt. Bad. The snow burned against the back of his head where it felt like his consciousness was leaking out.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!"
His chest was shaking with sobs. This was probably the hardest he'd cried since he was a kid, but then again he was having a hard time remembering a lot of things. The tears left freezing tracks in their wake. Blood smeared across his knuckles as Ned held his hand to his forehead. It started to feel like the last five seconds were looping over and over again. Phil sobbed, Ned apologized, Rita scrubbed at the tears on his face.
Phil sobbed, Ned apologized, Rita checked his pulse.
Phil sobbed, Ned apologized, Rita asked him the date.
Phil sobbed, Ned apologized, Rita told him to stay awake.
Ned apologized, Rita tried to lift his head.
Apologized, told him to stay awake.
He woke up in the backseat of the car, in the seat Rita normally sat in. “Wh…”
“You’re awake!” Ned grabbed his hand. “Oh, thank god.”
“You got knocked the fuck out,” Rita called back.
“...Are you driving my car?”
“Oh, like you can do anything about it.” She waved a hand. “We’ve been waiting here for you to wake up for a while.”
“Well, we’re heading back to Pennsylvania, and-”
”What?” He shot forward in his seat. “No, we can’t go back yet!”
Ned smiled nervously. “We thought you’d be upset about not making it to the coast. So…” He gestured out the window to Phil’s side.
Outside, he could see a lake cast in the colors of the rising sun. He blinked.
“It’s not really the west coast, per se, but…” She hummed. “It’s better than nothing.”
Phil opened the car door, stepped out onto the gravel covered ground. Rita and Ned followed at a short distance. Wherever they were, the snow was spotty. It was nice to see something besides asphalt or blank white.
At the edge of the shore he hesitated, then kicked off his shoes, rolled his pants up to his knees and stepped in. If he left this trip without a case of hypothermia, he’d be surprised.
Ned and Rita took either of his hands. He could tell which one was which because Rita’s fingertips were colder than Ned’s. Light started glaring against the surface of the water from behind him. Phil’s breath hitched. There was no escape this time, unless he wanted to pitch himself headfirst into the lake. Closer and closer, bright as the headlights catching a deer until…
“I need help.” Phil’s voice cracked and the lights switched off. “I’m fucked up, and I just…”
Ned tugged on his arm, drawing him out of the water. “Let’s go home.”
“Did you really mean that stuff you said?”
“You're not my best friend. We aren’t in high school anymore.”
“...Damn, you’re getting really good at that impression.”
“So did you?”
“No. Well, I did at the time but I was just angry that you were trying to help me.”
“So I am your best friend?”
“Yea, Ned. You’re my best friend.”
“Hah, uh, well then, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yea, see you tomorrow. Wait, wait, one more thing.”
“It’s okay, and I’m sorry.”
“... Thanks, Phil.”
A few weeks later, Phil had recovered enough from the massive toll that trip had taken on his body to do more than lay around his apartment. Ned had stopped by a few times, mostly to drop off his latest baking experiment. To be fair, it was nice to have something other than instant ramen.
He didn’t hear from Rita for weeks, which was fair. She pretty much only saw him in the middle of a neurotic episode with the highlight of it all culminating in one big breakdown that almost pushed Phil off the brink. That usually set people a little bit off.
He honestly never expected to hear from her again until he checked his email. He almost didn't open it because he didn't recognize the handle, but the subject line thought you might want these was too intriguing. He opened it. In the body there was nothing but a link leading to a google drive folder followed by "From, Rita"
Clicking it revealed pictures taken by a cell phone camera. Some were grainier and blurrier than other, each at a different lightning level. An image of the time Phil had fallen asleep on Ned, a selfie of Rita with Phil and Ned fighting over a map in the background, another selfie of Rita and Ned in the convenience store posing in front of Shrek Forever After tissues on the display.
There were two videos. The first was a recording of everyone singing the chorus of that fucking Taylor Swift song. Yes, Phil got a chill down his spine at the fact that Rita now had this video to leverage against him at a later date, but mostly he just smiled.
As soon as he opened the second his bedroom was filled with wild laughter. The camera was shaking heavily, Ned leaning over the center console to hold onto Phil's arm. He looked… happier than Phil remembered him being. Like he was actually enjoying their break neck speed, albeit with the same tentativeness of a first time cliff diver.
The last file was a document titled Note
Hey, Phil. I know this probably seems really weird, but I thought you might need to see this.
I got your email from Ned, so you don't need to worry about me hacking your information or something. It's probably dumb to write this in a doc rather than the email, but I just want the ability to change this later in case I ramble or say something stupid.
There were good moments on that trip. It wasn't one big disaster like you probably think it was. I mean, you've got some real shit to work out but I don't think less of you for it. We all have that.
I just hope that when you look back on this you don't remember the deer or the fight, but all the moments like these
Phil looked from his laptop to the wall with the instant pictures. Breathing deeply, he picked up his phone.
phil: hey, do you want to go do something?
Ned: Sure! There's a movie I wanted to check out at the theater. Just give me a bit to get my stuff together.
phil: no problem
phil: i'll meet you in an hour
It was about time he started adding more memories.