Midnight Highway (What I’ve got so far…)


“It isn’t what you think,” he said.

“No? What is it then?” she said. He looked over at her but she kept her eyes on the highway. Beyond the glow of the headlights she could see the curve of the road line with trees, mostly pines. Trees were everywhere, flying past the truck in great sweeping hordes. They hadn’t seen another car since they had driven through some little place called Greensmith half an hour ago.

“There’s no point trying to convince you when you get like this,” he said.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said. She still did not look at him.

The truck was cruising at seventy-five miles per hour and she felt as if the soft whirring of wind alongside the windows and beneath the chassis would put her to sleep before too long. She wondered if falling asleep wouldn’t be some spell of his.

“You put up your wall and that’s the end of it,” he said. “Like you’re doing now. There’s nothing I can say that will make you understand.”

“I understand perfectly,” she said. “Why does anything else need to be said?” She moved a strand of hair from her face and then studied her fingernails.

“I suppose you’re right,” he said.

She laughed softly. “About what?”

“There’s nothing more to talk about.”

She looked through the window, watching the movement of space-time and wondering whether she moved through it or if it moved in spite of her. She was in awe of the swift blur of dark trees beneath a moon that neither wavered nor changed pace.

“Space and time move through us,” she said under her breath. “They move and we wake up in another place far from home. But when the point arrives at us, will we ask, ‘How came we here?’”

She felt him looking at her but she didn’t turn around. As long as she didn’t look at him, she felt alone. The feeling soothed her anger.

“You write your best poetry when you’re angry with me,” he said.

She smiled but didn’t let him see it. “Don’t flatter yourself,” she said.

He laughed and she found herself both hating and loving him for it—for the sound of his laughter alone.

 

* * *

 

An hour later they stopped for gas at a little station just off the main highway. She looked about the place as soon as they pulled up, taking a quick assessment of everything from the gas-pumps to the rusted dumpster behind the building. She found herself wanting to believe that the place might be closed, but the lights were on everywhere and the sign in the window buzzed a neon OPEN. She wanted to suggest finding some other place to stop—she kept quiet because she knew what he would say.

An old Volvo was parked on the side of the building and a newer-looking Jeep idled in front of the convenient store with its lights on. There were two people inside the store, the cashier and a customer shuffling around the area where they kept the cold drinks. Their truck pulled up alongside the pump and the engine faded as Martin turned the key. When the headlights went out, she noticed the nauseating flicker of a dying fluorescent bulb in the awning overhead. God, what a place.

“I’ll wait here,” she said, shielding her eyes.

“All right,” he said. “I’m going in while the tank fills up. Do you want anything?”

“Just water I guess,” she said.

“No snacks or anything. Just water?”

She nodded. “Just water. Thank you.”

He got out of the truck and shut the door. She watched him place the nozzle into the tank, and then watched the numbers climb beside the digital dollar sign. She followed him with her eyes as he went inside and walked back toward the men’s room. The cashier glanced up at him as he entered, nodded. He nodded back. She saw him go into the men’s room and close the door behind him.

She wondered if it would be over by the time he got back. Yes, she knew it would be. He would get back in the truck and then she would tell him what he must already know and what only she was brave enough to speak. The night’s drive home would be long enough without either of them saying what they felt—so she must say it for both of them.

The fluorescent bulb sputtered, popped and hissed. Darkness spread over the truck like a thin but more than welcome blanket. She exhaled a deep breath, relieved at the absence of artificial light. She heard the nozzle click, wondered if she should get out and finish it. No, she thought. It was his truck after all. She didn’t owe him any favors. She sank into her seat and stared vacantly through the passenger window.

Two men wearing dark, heavy coats emerged from the black highway and strode toward the convenient store. They were tall, broadly built, and moved with a sense of purpose unfitting for both the time and the place—but then, people always looked suspicious at these kinds of places after dark. She looked around to see where they may have parked a car, and by then the first of them had swung open the glass door and stepped inside.

She sat frozen to her seatback as he drew a pistol and leveled it at the cashier—a burst of bright red spattered the multicolored canvas of cigarette cartons and lotto tickets. The cashier’s head kicked back, chin skyward, as he collapsed. She watched the second man level a shotgun toward the far corner aisle where the lonely shopper had ducked in terror. Her heart skipped at the sudden explosion of canned goods, cardboard and glass. A second blast followed. The man with the shotgun moved toward the refrigerated section and then peered over the debris, looking first with the barrel of his instrument. She saw him turn to the other gunman and nod—like it was that simple.

Then, the man with the pistol turned and moved toward the restrooms.

What had happened was now part of the unchangeable, she knew. But the little that remained—what might yet be done—struck her into a sudden burst of mobility like spurs in a horse’s rear.

That they hadn’t noticed her in the truck she attributed to grace or luck or a mingling of both. She opened the glove compartment and found the Ruger LCP compact pistol; it was supposed to be loaded but she double-checked to be sure. Sliding the clip into her palm, she felt the familiar weight: a column of hollow-points stacked and ready.

She reinserted the clip, racking the slide. She slipped off her sandals and then shoved open the passenger door. Planting her feet, she raised the pistol with both hands and aimed at the man carrying the shotgun. His back was to her. She squeezed the trigger.

To her relief, the glass wasn’t bulletproof. A needle of a hole marked the bullet’s entry and she saw her target reel from the shock, tumbling into a shelf lined with bags of potato chips.

That was all she needed to see.

Wheeling on her toes, she sprinted barefoot toward the dark highway. Crossing, a glance both ways told her the road was desolate. She knew they were coming for her; she hoped they would. They might forget about checking the bathrooms long enough for Martin to escape. She ran without stopping for a straight thirty seconds, blindly into the dark, toward a black wall of towering pines.

 

* * *