by Patrick Chapman
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Now there was the road. Now there was the desert road flashing by, and Michio’s car, a Chevy Impala, which Oliver had borrowed without asking. Rufus the dog was present in the aftermath of her fur. She was a bitch collie but Michio had decided to give her a male name. He had thought it funny to do so. It was a political statement too. Oliver was not quite sure what he’d meant by that.
Rufus was dead. Her ashes were settled in an urn on top of the refrigerator in their enormous kitchen. Oliver missed her. He missed the way she’d land her chin on his lap when he was eating at the table. She would look up and emit a barely audible tone, her pleading eyes popping, her nose moist, her tongue out and trembling.
In the end, Michio had insisted on the needle. There was nothing left of her, nothing to be done. Even weeks later, he still said it.
By now he would be getting home from Montana State and would see the note on the kitchen table. He might call, but Oliver’s phone was turned off.
Now Oliver spotted an object up ahead and to his right. As he passed, he saw it was a solitary wooden shack, set only a few yards in from the road.
He caught it again in the rear-view mirror. Out on the porch, a fat man waited with his retriever. Man and dog stood still, staring out like they and the house itself were expecting some invisible signal to change and let them cross.
Why did that man have a dog?
Shortly Oliver saw something else, a broken-down pick-up truck on the hard shoulder. Michio would know how to repair it. Even though he was a professor, he worked in his father’s garage during his summer visits home. Michio would get that old jalopy going again. The driver stood by the truck with its open hood. He waved at Oliver, who waved back. Repairing mechanical objects was not Oliver’s strength. Maybe in Modesto he’d learn how to fix things.
He concentrated on the mirage floating in his windshield. This was new but he had not paid it any attention, the smudged horizon like a final layer on a blacktop of air. Power pylons and cables turned the sky into sheet music whipping past, crazy desert birds for notes.
Someone was out there. Oliver took his foot off the gas a little and slowed down. It was a woman, resolving out of the haze, floating in the middle of the interstate. The woman was wearing a summer dress, patterned with individual poppy flowers against white, like she’d been shot across her body by a very precise dressmaker-assassin who had nonetheless missed her head.
Oliver had plenty of time to take her in. Her hair was shoulder-length and black. It danced across her face even though the air out there was dead. He took the car slower again and decided he would drive past her.
The woman looked shattered. She was shaking her head and it was this that caused her hair to flip. Was she talking to herself? As she came into focus out of the horizon, Oliver saw that she was barefoot.
He thought about getting the hell out of there but he was intrigued. Where had she come from? There was nothing for miles except the car and the road and the woman.
Now she was upon him, still walking slowly. She didn’t stop, nor did she see him. He stopped the car then rolled down the window on the passenger side.
‘Need a ride?’
The woman kept walking. She passed the open window. Her poppy-patterned dress was dirty. Should he hit the gas? Behind his car, the woman stopped and turned. In the mirror he saw her staring in.
Oliver didn’t get out. He was curious now. He slammed hard on the horn for one sharp second. Then he slammed again and kept his hand on it for a good long moment. There was no reaction from the woman. She had stopped moving her head from side to side.
No way was he was getting out now. He started the engine and stepped gingerly on the pedal, intending to inch away from her before rocketing off down the road.
The woman bent forward and slapped both hands loudly on the back of the car. The bang shook him. Thunk. Thunk. Fuck. She might have dented the body.
She came around to the passenger door and opened it. Oliver gazed at her. He cleared the seat, sliding a couple of porno magazines, and Rufus’s old dog collar, into the footwell. He sniffed as she sat in and closed the door. The woman smelled of engine oil.
‘Sorry about the stench, lady,’ he said. Notes of wet fur clung to the interior. ‘Used to be a dog owned this car.’
Oliver drove off again. He kept the pace of the car slow and steady for now. In a moment he would ask what the trouble was.
Then something new went past. A pair of red court shoes, one with a broken heel, bled in the sunlight like roadkill couture. Now they were gone.
‘Those your shoes?’ Oliver asked.
The woman said nothing.
Oliver reckoned she was about twenty-five. Maybe she was a runaway bride or a groupie cut loose by a band. How long had she been wandering in the Mojave heat?
‘You could use some water,’ Oliver said.
He drummed his fingers on the wheel. He didn’t appreciate the silent treatment. It was impolite, for one thing, even if she was in trouble.
‘Where you going?’ Oliver glanced sideways at her.
The woman continued to stare. ‘Don’t look at me,’ she whispered. She put her hand to her forehead and her fingertips came away with blood from under her hair.
Why hadn’t he seen it? Oliver slammed on the brakes. The car skidded and stopped.
With one hand he found some Kleenex in the glove compartment. He dabbed at her blood. She breathed in sharply then closed her eyes and lost consciousness, her head lolling to one side away from his hand.
‘Shit.’ Oliver dropped the Kleenex on the floor.
He started up and drove on. There’d be an exit soon. He could take her to a doctor. She must have been in an accident. She must have amnesia.
He scanned the horizon for any sign of a town. He tried to think of something other than the woman but all that came to him was Rufus, with her cancer and arthritis and canine senility. Even dogs got old. Even Rufus had got old and died.
The woman stirred. Oliver caught her movement in the corner of his eye but didn’t speak. After a moment she managed to open her mouth.
‘Good morning.’ Her voice croaked like a transmission from some other source, an alien vocal fry, her body as mere amplifier.
Oliver watched her slow revival.
‘You knocked yourself out pretty good,’ he said after a minute.
'You were bleeding.’
‘Who is – OK. What am I doing in this car?’
‘You tell me.’ Oliver glanced at her reflection. There was an absence in her expression. ‘Picked you up about an hour back. You were pretty shook. A little bleeding. Were you in a crash? I didn’t see a crash.’
The woman leaned over and touched his arm then took her hand away instantly as if she’d burnt it. ‘What’s your name?’
‘What do you remember?’
She looked back at the interstate rolling behind them. ‘My shoes.’
‘What do you remember, Ella? You were walking in the middle of the road. No shoes. You seemed out of it. Were you on anything?’
‘Did you have an accident?’
‘I don’t remember.’ Looking perplexed, she sat up straight.
‘Tell me later. We gotta get you to a doctor now. Should be an exit coming up.’
Soon Oliver saw an intersection, comforting green signs over the lanes.
‘Are we going to a town?’ Ella asked.
‘Exit up ahead.’ Oliver slowed down and let the car cruise. ‘There’ll be a town.’
‘Who are you?’ Ella asked.
‘Told you, I’m Oliver.’
Now the exit was upon them and Oliver turned off the highway. With any luck he could drop her somewhere and not feel too bad about it.
Ella played with her hair. ‘I was on my way to see my father.’
‘You sound too sad for someone so young. Are you running away from home?’
She smiled bitterly.
It would soon be late afternoon. Michio might have called already; might even have reported him missing. ‘Where’s your father?’
‘That’s funny,’ Oliver said. ‘Bozeman?’
‘Why is that funny?’
Oliver didn’t trust her seeming fragility.
The sun was descending and there was still no town. The fuel gauge was getting low. Ella slumped back into silence for a minute. Then she bounced forward in her seat, sparking suddenly. ‘What about you, Oliver?’
‘Where are you going?
‘Modesto. My uncle’s place.’
‘Modesto. That armpit.’
‘That armpit. My uncle says it’s a good city. He might give me a job.’
‘What kind of job?’
‘Machine parts. I’m a salesman.’
‘What happened to your last job?’
‘I left it. Just this morning. Walked out.’
‘Are you stupid?’
‘Most of the time,’ Oliver said, ‘yeah.’
A Town Pump appeared. Oliver was glad to see the lights on in the diner and that it didn’t seem busy. He pulled in and stopped. A sign by the diner said: Next town 50 miles! Dont Wait! Eat here!
Oliver turned to Ella. ‘Why don’t I get you to a doctor? There’s a town.’
‘Damn.’ He got out and slammed the door.
Ella stepped out too and stretched. ‘I have to wash my face.’
She yawned then brought her arms down. She sauntered across the concrete apron to the restroom.
Oliver shook his head. He opened the tank, took a pump gun and inserted it. He watched the numbers roll. It was getting late and the ancient music of the desert had begun that horrendous symphony. Night creatures, night wind accompanied now by the heavy rattle from the machine. He had nearly filled the tank when he heard the rising grumble of a car in the distance. Now it was a roar. The car was heading in the direction they’d come from. Oliver drew the pump gun out and replaced it in its cradle. He put the cap back on his tank, and watched the other car speed past. It was an Impala with a woman at the wheel. The coincidence made him smile. Maybe the woman was heading to Great Falls.
Then déjà-vu. A split-second vision of Ella at the wheel of his Impala. Oliver shook the image off. The real Ella was returning from the restroom. She didn’t look different. He caught the smell of gas-station soap.
‘What’s up?’ Ella walked with an easier gait now, as if her visit had refreshed her.
‘I’ve been on the road too long,’ Oliver said.
They went in. Oliver paid for the gas at the counter. The sound of the jukebox hit him with melancholy at first. It was playing ‘Leader of the Pack’. That song always made him sad. It reminded him of a girlfriend he had in the days when he used to swing the other way.
The waitress led them to a booth. She placed two glasses of water on the table. ‘Be right back.’
Before she could leave, Oliver said, ‘Just coffee.’
The waitress smiled and walked away.
Ella picked up the menu. ‘I’m not hungry.’
The waitress brought two mugs and filled them from her coffee pot. ‘You guys see anything you like?’
‘We’ll let you know,’ Ella said.
The waitress smiled and departed.
The diner was caressed by a pleasant, soft light, which surprised Oliver. They appeared to be the only customers, which didn’t. He took one sip of coffee. It was a little burnt.
‘So, Ella, you remember anything more?’
‘You know I told you I was going to see my father? That I had to go see my father?’
‘We had a – My dad and I had a fight. I’m the black girl-sheep. And just the other day Mom called. He doesn’t have long to live.’
Oliver took this in. Now he understood the sadness in her eyes. ‘You want to get home and see him.’
‘No,’ Ella frowned as if explaining to an idiot. ‘I want to make that asshole apologise to me before he dies.’ She picked up her coffee and sipped a little then blew on it.
‘I’m sorry,’ Oliver said. ‘Sorry to hear that.’
‘You should never let the sun go down on a fight, Mom always said.’ Ella frowned. ‘But she’s an asshole. Always making excuses for him.’
Oliver didn’t mention Michio. He didn’t want to go into that now. One person’s problems at a time.
‘You want anything?’ he asked gently. ‘A sandwich?’
‘No, thank you.’
Oliver leaned in and took her hands. She didn’t resist. ‘What did you and your father argue about?’
‘You don’t want to know.’ She pulled her hands away, turned her head to the window and stared through her reflection.
‘When did you last speak with him?’
‘I don’t remember.’ She turned around again. ‘Subject closed, OK?’
Oliver relaxed in his seat. He caught the eye of the waitress.
‘Take out your phone,’ Oliver said. ‘Call your father.’
‘You see what I’m wearing. Where do you think I keep a phone? Can I use yours?’
‘The battery’s gone.’ Oliver wasn’t yet ready turn his on. ‘Use the one by the
Ella looked down. ‘I have no money.’
Oliver got some coins from his pocket and passed them across the table. ‘Do you remember the number?’
Ella took the money but didn’t get up. The waitress came with her pad.
‘I’ll have the club sandwich,’ Oliver said. The waitress wrote his order down and looked expectantly for more. ‘That’s it.’
He didn’t want the food but if he ordered it, Ella might have some.
Ella watched the waitress go. ‘Why didn’t you let me get something?’
‘You said you weren’t hungry.’
‘Oh. Fine. I’m going to call home.’ Ella slid from the booth.
When she turned away, Oliver got his phone out, made sure that it was still off, and pushed it back in his pocket. He finished his coffee, thought about home. Now it occurred to him that whereas he had wanted Rufus to live, even with cancer, Michio had been the sensible one, the kind one.
He would have to go back.
But there was this lost girl to take care of, this waif and stray. She dithered in front of the phone on the wall. Finally she picked it up and pushed quarters in the slot.
A new tune started on the jukebox. ‘I found my thrill …’
After a brief hesitation Ella spoke. ‘Dad?’
Oliver smiled and hoped that Michio would see through his stupid goodbye note.
‘Dad?’ Ella said. ‘It’s me. Dad, can you hear me? It’s Ella! Dad?’
Ella slammed the phone on its cradle. Oliver grabbed a menu and pretended to study it. When she flung herself back into the booth, he looked up.
‘He’s not answering,’ Ella whispered.
The waitress came with the club sandwich then left. Ella grabbed one half and bit most of it off in one mouthful.
‘How old are you, Ella, if you don’t mind my asking?’
‘Twenty-five,’ she mumbled. Her mouth was full and open, the food mashing around in it. The sight made Oliver want to strangle something but instead he averted his gaze.
‘What do you do for a living, Ella?’ he asked.
‘It’s OK, you can eat first then talk. Best close your mouth while eating.’
Ella offered the other half of the sandwich to Oliver. ‘It’s yours anyway.’
He shook his head and looked down.
The waitress brought refills.
‘I don’t know what just happened to me,’ Ella said a moment later.
‘There’s a town about an hour from here.’
‘Or you could take me to Bozeman.’
‘It’s not the way I’m headed.’
‘You could give me your phone and I could call my asshole father.’
Ella snorted. ‘Drive me to Barstow.’
‘I’ll give you a ride to Barstow. We’ll find a doctor.’
Ella slammed a fist on the table.
Ella stared again through the window so as not to look at Oliver. She brushed her hair from her forehead and didn’t seem to notice the fresh blood. A red line trickled down a couple of inches along her left temple.
Oliver saw the streak. ‘Ella!’
Ella turned back to him. ‘What?’
She must have felt the blood because she rubbed her forehead and when she took her hand away, Oliver saw that the blood had gone without a trace.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Ella asked. ‘You’re all, “are you OK” and “were you in a crash” and fucking stop it. I’m fine.’
Oliver smarted. ‘It’s just that you – ’
‘Fine.’ Oliver wanted to shake sense into her but she had been shaken enough.
The waitress came and left the check. Oliver covered it with a note.
Ella looked blank again. The light in her eyes kept glitching.
‘Are you ready, young lady?’
She got up and followed him out.
They were at the door when the waitress called out, ‘Hey, Cinderella! Next time, shoes!’
Ella laughed. ‘How did she know my name?’
‘Did she?’ Oliver opened the car and Ella sat in. He went around the other side and got in too.
She grinned at him.
‘What’s the smile for?’
‘Thanks for rescuing me.’
‘Some rescue,’ Oliver started the Impala, lights on, and they pulled away, heading for the interstate. There would be another exit, a useful one, soon.
Ella sang a childhood song. The tune irritated Oliver but he let her continue. It would keep her from talking. When she stopped her nursery rhyme they listened to the sound of the engine. Ticking and thrumming.
‘Back there,’ he said, ‘back in the diner, I really did think I saw you bleeding.’
‘My head must be having its period.’
He laughed sharply at that, surprising himself.
They had been on the interstate now for some time. Oliver pushed the gas harder, watched the needle head into the eighties.
Something flashed crimson in the car’s lights and was gone. The suddenness of it startled him.
Ella caught his look. ‘What’s up?’
Oliver blinked. ‘What side did we leave the exit? Left or right?’
‘Left, I think. Maybe right.’
‘Shit, Ella, I just saw your shoes in the road. I think we’re going back the way we came.’
‘We could always turn around.’
Oliver smiled. His decision had been made for him. Now that he wasn’t heading to Modesto anymore, he would drive through the night and make it back home before Michio left for work. Abject, apologetic – whatever it took, Oliver would be. Maybe he’d sneak into the house while Michio was still sleeping, and make him the best breakfast he had ever tasted. Later on, after work, they would talk. Michio would recognise grief as the agent of their estrangement. Oliver would tell him that he knew now, that he understood Michio’s kindness in having their beautiful Rufus put down.
In a while – as dog owners often did, and owners of humans did too – they would get a replacement and love it just as much. A rescue dog would be good. A little stray with damage. Something cute that needed working on.
‘It’s OK,’ Oliver said as power pylons tracked past. ‘There’ll be a town this way too.’
Then he saw the truck. It was the same pick-up truck that had been there hours earlier. The same driver was standing beside it, waving.
Oliver didn’t stop. ‘That guy is still there.’
As the car sped on, Oliver decided to call Michio. To hell with it. With one hand on the wheel he took his phone out and pressed the button. The glow illuminated his chin as the phone powered up.
‘I thought you said it was dead,’ Ella said.
‘So you lied,’ she said. ‘My father always lied to me.’
‘It’s what people do. They don’t mean harm by it. You, for instance. What do you remember about your accident?’
Ella laboured a sigh. ‘Something hit me. I mean, really hit me.’
‘Good,’ Oliver checked her face in the mirror to see if he could read it. ‘Let it out.’
‘Don’t look at me!’ Ella yelled.
‘Where did that come from? Ease down, young lady.’
Oliver saw a house up ahead. The headlights hit the edge of the interstate and there was a fat man on the porch, still waiting with his retriever.
‘What the hell – ?’
He had no time to process the vision of the fat man and the dog and the house.
Ella yelled again. ‘He wouldn’t stop!’
‘Who wouldn’t stop? Who wouldn’t stop?’
Lights. A car on the road speeding towards them. They hurtled on.
Ella began to rock in her seat, banging on the dashboard with both fists.
Oliver reached a hand out to calm her but the lights of the oncoming car blinded him for a second so he grabbed the wheel.
‘You wouldn’t stop!’
‘Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me!’
The other car hit.
It was morning and nothing visible was moving on the interstate. Oliver had been thrust out through the windshield then flung back in his seat. Glass had raked his body. There were craggy jewels of glass in his face, and a trickle of blood on his forehead painted some kind of boundary. Something had been bruised inside his skull. He couldn’t feel his legs. He craned his neck but it hurt too much, a band of pain below the skull.
The headlights of both cars were shot out but they would not be needed now. The sun in its robe of mirage was getting up. Perhaps Oliver had slept. He heard the morning concerto that had faded up like a sound-effects record as the desert creatures of the night settled back into their darkness and something new – he didn’t know what – waited to come in.
Oliver felt calm now. In a minute he would start the car and resume his journey home to Michio. What a fool he was, leaving his lovely professor over a stupid argument.
Looking around he saw, in the corner of his eye, an absence. There had been someone in the car with him but she was not here now. Had she climbed out when he was unconscious? She must be on the road.
Outside, something moved. Something pulled back from the wreckage with a screech, a shifting of metal. It was the other car, another Impala, its hood torn up, obscuring the windshield. When the two cars had separated, the other one pulled back and away and crashed down into the road. That car would never move again under its own power, Oliver knew. Nor would his own.
The other car had turned when it moved. He could make out a face.
It was Ella in the driver’s seat.
She tried the door. It wouldn’t give, so she pushed herself into the passenger side and she kicked with both legs. Again she kicked and the twisted door fell away and Ella collapsed out of view.
It took her several moments to sit up, then she got out of the car and steadied herself on the road. She did not appear to see Oliver at all. He thought she looked dazed.
Ella started to walk.
Oliver could not move. He could only watch in the mirror as she hobbled on down the interstate in the direction of Bozeman. He stared for a long time until he could no longer see her.
Now there was only him.
He saw his phone where it had fallen into the footwell under the crumpled dash. He didn’t care how much effort it took. He would call Michio and Michio would come and get him out of here and explain everything and it would all be fine and they would be good again and Rufus would still be alive, and Rufus had been only sleeping like a lazy dog.
Oliver found that he couldn’t move. He couldn’t reach for the phone.
But he could hear it – the voicemail came on all by itself. At first there were no words, only a hiss. Then it began. Piano. A drum. Fats Domino.
Oliver tried to block the music out, to concentrate on his heartbeat but his heartbeat merged into the signal when the message ended and now there was the road.
Now there was the road. Now there was Ella, walking back to meet her father.
Patrick Chapman’s books of stories are The Wow Signal (Bluechrome, 2007) and The Negative Cutter (Arlen House, 2014). His seven poetry collections include A Promiscuity of Spines: New & Selected Poems (Salmon, 2012) and Slow Clocks of Decay (Salmon, due 2016). He has also written an award-winning short film, a Doctor Who audio adventure, and lots of children’s television. In 2014 he produced an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles for BBC Radio 4, featuring Derek Jacobi and Hayley Atwell. This won Silver at the 2015 New York Festivals World’s Best Radio Programs. With Dimitra Xidous he edits The Pickled Body. http://thepickledbody.com/ He lives in Dublin.
Patrick Warner is a photographer from Montana, USA. More of his work can be viewed in his Flickr gallery.