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Now or Never or Later.

We drove straight on. The temperature in Lincoln, Maine was so cold that the dirt from the backhoe came out onto the icy snow in broken brown sheets like ceramics fired in freeze. We left that behind along with our responsibilities, the color black, and face nets. We fled down I-95 with such velocity it may have seemed we were a confused bird making a too-late retreat to the South. We were headed to Oceanside, California to stare at the Pacific until, thirteen miles out, our gaze would be swallowed by the sea.

The shoulder was the dirty white of nearly perpetual snow, the highway the color of melting and drying salt mixed with miniscule flakes of rubber. The trees were dead and the cities we passed seemed in an eternal Depression, still-inhabited ghost towns. We wished for warmth.

By the time we merged onto I-90 West, the temperature had risen to a balmy negative two and the heavens opened for a medley of rain, hail, and sleet the purview of Chicken Little. The only sound in the car was the sonorous hum of rubber and cement meeting, sending sound and vibration like texture through the car, and the roar of the Impreza WRX'S boxer engine. The radio had died months before and conversation was not on our mind. Drivers changed when the monotony of being a passenger became too much. Some find driving to be the tiresome activity, but we dreaded the listless window watching and intermittent napping of the unoccupied passenger. Sometimes, when the drone of engine and friction grew unbearable, we rolled down the windows and let winter rip through the car, snow and all, with a roar that eased our minds and sent our long hair into convulsions like Medusa's snakes ready to strike.

Outside of Syracuse, after filling up on gas, we spotted a hitchhiker huddled over his duffle bag near the ramp onto the highway. We exchanged looks and in our glazed eyes there was consensus. When he yanked open the back door, our dollar coffees in jumbo Styrofoam cups steamed the suddenly frigid interior. Whorls of snow entered and were annihilated upon touching anything, as if everything with us was antimatter. He gave his thanks and tossed the green canvas duffle across the seat like a corpse and crawled in. He asked us where we were heading and we told him west. The question was how far, but when we answered that we were going as far as John Soul would have approved of, our passenger disappeared into the quiet of personal reflection. We didn't mind.

After a few minutes of empty, purgatorial silence, the hitchhiker told us he was heading to Seattle to start a grunge band, though we could drop him in Pennsylvania, at his aunt's, if we grew tired of him. He laughed at his sensible humor. He told us he knew what we were thinking, that he was twenty years late for a grunge band, but wasn't that the glory of the plan? He wanted no big label, no Nirvana sell-out, he would hock his audio wares via the Internet, a song at a time, and who would take him seriously in that cyberspace if his IP was located in bumfuck, New York? He leaned forward from the backseat when he talked, alternating his voice between us, like we were a rapt audience and he was wont to neglect either of us of his gaze. We nodded as if we understood and he smiled and leaned back.

We passed an hour in relative quiet, the loquacious hitchhiker trying now and then to engage us in small talk, but we were disinclined. Each time the conversation keeled, though, he attempted to resuscitate it. He told us his name was Clark Araxie but that he goes by Kent, the reasons being two: his hatred of his given name and his love of a pun. When he paused to allow us the frame of time to introduce ourselves, we said nothing, and then when he opened his mouth and let it hang, unsure of whether to prod for more, we said it was a pleasure to meet you, Clark, and left it at that.

Outside, the snow, modulating in size and frequency like the emotional states of an indecisive romantic before a suicide pact, began to fall more heavily and surely, the cold solidified into cotton white tufts. We lost speed as the dimming day's cloud harvest caught the beams of light from the car, illuminating each separate piece, cutting visibility to shreds and guestimations. Clark pontificated about the beauty of nature, of snow, and of gravity. He explained his conception of string theory as gleaned from mass market paperbacks and the necessity for good grunge bands. He told us how they were connected, or how they should be. He spoke until his logic was a tightly wound ball of thread entirely unwound, then stuffed into a small bag and shaken. He segued into a mild rebuke, flirtatiously cautioning us on the danger of driving in such weather, we should have known better; even though he was thankful for the ride. We told him to shut up, both craning our necks to stare at him until he nervously suggested we might, maybe, watch the road? We drove the car faster into the Ganzfeld until we could hear our passengers knuckles turning bloodless.

Within an hour, Clark decided that he should pay respects to kin and drop by his aunt's house after all. Through the rearview mirror, in the gloaming before dark fell in earnest, we watched him hike down the offramp towards Erie. We laughed at Clark/Kent and the shedding of our unplanned visitor lightened the evening. We must have been scary to send him into the cold like that, we said, and we proposed ways in which we were terrifying. We were women without a man, without lipstick and mascara; we were women who'd left the house, unafraid of hitchhikers; we were women who didn't know to be thankful of musicians and small talk; we were women and not girls or chicks or babes or girlfriends or wives. Perhaps it was our driving. It was a shame, we said, that we never even got to show him our hair whipped up in the wind, and wouldn't that have been something to really give him a fright, maybe he would have been frozen into lifeless stone, for hadn't we also been beautiful once?

It snowed through Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana and Illinois as we flew across I-8o with the swiftness of a horror movie's almost-victim. The one who wouldn't go until much later. We held the steering wheel at ten and two and the passenger helped guide the driver as we made headway through the reckless visibility. As we came into Iowa, the sun was glowing on the horizon, the light a cracked egg yolk yellow, spreading across a skillet. The snow relented to a frozen aspersion. The ground was too warm, the winter too mild for the snow to stick and so we ignored the speed limit signs entirely and let the car hurtle across the flat landscape.

The snow never quit and we talked of falling. We remembered plane crashes, parachute incidents, building implosions, and the Bermuda triangle. We recalled the woman who had leapt from the Space Needle, parachute in hand, to prove that base jumping was safe. She plunged over five hundred feet. Onlookers recalled with horror how they watched her struggle, kicking and squirming in vain to straighten the lines of her chute. When she landed in the wet grass, she bounced. Didn't she? We didn't remember, but what we did remember was that she lived. She broke her back, but only a little bit. Maybe she only bounced back, maybe the word didn't mean that her body had compressed and released to such a degree that she was flung, ever so briefly, back into the air before falling again,-maybe it was just a metaphor. We hadn't known before then that you could break your back just a little bit.

The cop flipped his lights on as we passed, but at our velocity they quickly winked out of sight behind us. We pretended we had not seen the patriot strobe and it took five minutes for the momentum to be built to overtake us. We pulled over and prepared license, registration, and proof of insurance, handing them over as we rolled down the window. The trooper took the papers and examined them, peering into the car at our faces and he asked us what we were doing. Instead of answering the question we told him our parents had died. In the moment of quiet, the tiny flecks of snow that landed and melted on the trooper's hat were fairy tale sparkles in the morning's light. The badge on his chest read Conway and was the color of smoked gold. He asked us if were heading to the hospital, but no, we told him we had left the funeral. We were going to a better place. He left us then, and went to his car, while we sat in silence and contemplated our fate, our actions; our status in life as we knew it--as orphans. When he returned, the policeman handed us back our information and gave us a look that belied an understanding of sorrow and despair and he implored us to get inside, get something to eat, and to obey the speed limit. Freed from punishment, we were unwise enough to ask if that was his advice to all young women, to stay inside and do what they were told. He stared at us for a long time and then turned, returned to his vehicle. He sat there for some time and then whipped around through a median, back where he had come from.

It seemed fitting to arrive in Lincoln, Nebraska almost exactly one day into our journey and almost exactly halfway through: from the edge of nowhere to the middle of nowhere. By then the air had warmed to a relatively pleasant thirty-four degrees and the puffs of snow had turned instead to a drizzle. The rain steadily increased as we ploughed into Colorado, growing heavier with each small, dark town we passed until each drop was like a spurt from a turkey baster. We navigated the inclines and declines of the mountains. We could only open our windows for moments at a time before we were beaten and soaked by the rain, our hair not so much Gorgon as drowned rat.

At Battlement Mesa we pulled over at a rest area to grab snacks and switch drivers. The rain came down like a nightmare and even though it was only five in the evening it seemed midnight dark. An old trucker named Shannon hovered near the vending machines lamenting the precipitation. We told him it could be worse, it could be snow coming down this hard and then we'd be stuck in a blizzard. We told him that the storm had been following us all the way from Maine but that we would outrun it. He implored us to stay for a little bit, to let the rain subside, like he assumed we were family, all seeking shelter from the fat tears of heaven, and we could keep each other company. He told us that you can't outrun a storm, it is nature and even if you think you're ahead of it, it can sweep forward suddenly and then where would you be? He tried to convince us that storms didn't even run westward. We ran into the rain and the trucker tried once again to detain us, yelling at our backs that ignoring something wasn't the same as bravery and seeking shelter wasn't domesticity, but by then we were to the car and soaked. Also, we have learned enough in life to distrust anything like folksy wisdom, especially from characters whose hearts may be made of gold. We hopped in and slammed the doors behind us, killing the roar of the rain and turning it into a patter.

Lightning flared in the mountains, despite the cold, and rumbled eternally through the valleys. It wasn't possible of course, except that it was happening. A refrain we understood completely. Aside from the cacophonous illumination we could barely see. The road, dark and wet, took the glare from our headlights and sent it hurtling off the asphalt in a way that made the lonely white dashes nigh invisible. The rain fell so hard it became obvious there were no clouds above, only the grey, leaking bottom of a secret ocean in an expired universe. When the drops hit the ground they did it with so much force that they shattered into particles. It was the type of mist that surrounds a waterfall, the long heavy fall of even water's oblivion. The sound of wetness was a dragon, triumphed over in sound only by the explosions of ionized air--their bright flashes and artillery booms. We were still damp. We were low on gas.

We talked of survivors. We talked of those who had faced the maw of death and had lived to see the cornucopia of life and who had recoiled at it. Holocaust survivors whose lesson learned was that the world is composed of evil persons with evil motives waiting to enact their evil deeds--those lucky few who lived, who committed suicide. We discussed those children raised by wolves who were unable to communicate in the human world even as they picked up snatches of language and a barebones of comprehension, but whose native life was gone. We talked of orphans: from Oliver Twist to Dave Eggers. We did not speak of ourselves.

Among the rain and the storm and the night, came again the sounds and sights of a policeman's siren. This time, however, it was not in pursuit of us, our reckless speed was still ten miles under the limit. The cop car flew past, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared into the dark and the wet. Not five minutes later, as we passed the town of Hurricane, Utah, the lights passed again, from where it had come. Forward, we continued in the night, the rain falling even harder.

We saw it simultaneously: a river across the road, black and shimmering, the light of our headlights reflecting even more brightly, the marbles of rain sending shimmering waves, a million times a million of them, rippling across its expansive surface. To the right of the flat road was a river gone unnoticed in the weather and ahead was its impromptu tributary, recently sprung from an excess of precipitation and a dip in the road. While the brakes shuddered their mechanical dance of not-locking, the car slid slightly to the right in those two seconds before impact--one Mississippi, two Mississippi.

The Subaru's front end plunged downward, sending a wall of water straight up that landed on our windshield, further blinding us; the wheels sent plumes of spray out each side of the car. Momentum carried us into the middle of the new river before the tires rested on solid ground and motion ceased, finally. But the water pushed from the passenger side, swelling to the level of the window and seeping through the cracks. It was on our feet. It was cold and hostile, murky, smelling of earth and death. A muddy ablution. We punched the gas and the tires spun, moving us a foot forward, but skidding as the stream pushed us three feet to the left. We rocked back and forth, urging the car forward as the tragic diagonal continued, three feet to our loss for every foot to safety. We felt the soft touch of dirt and grass beneath the car as we were pushed off of the road and across the median and the touch of cement again as we drifted past the remaining lanes. The river could only have been twenty feet across but our progress made it seem the Euphrates. Denial is not just a river in Egypt, the joke goes. We bumped over the last lane and the shoulder and onto the grass again where the river actual waited. We rocked back and forth and gunned the gas and urged the car forward and for no reason the car ceased its crabwise motion with a thump, its wheels gripping onto a wrinkle of the landscape and lurching those last ten feet out of the water, coming to rest on the side of the road. We had been holding our breath.

I breathed.
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Author:Daniels, J.I.
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2014
Previous Article:As We Sink.
Next Article:Sentenced.

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