Part 1 – Highway


Charlotte pulled over, parked on the shoulder, and got out of her car. It was hot outside now, the air was tinder dry and redolent with sage. She took a deep breath and smiled. The highway was deserted. She checked her watch, shaded her eyes against the desert sun, and looked back at the car. Her passenger stared out the window at her, his face expressionless.


She looked at her watch again and thought about her choices. She mulled over the various options, but kept arriving at the same conclusion. It all came down to one thing – Charlotte had to be mean again. This made Charlotte sad. She hoped she could have left that particular trait behind in Los Angeles, along with her weekend coke usage and tendency towards promiscuity. Apparently the cruelty habit would be a lot more difficult to eliminate than she originally thought.


Charlotte took another deep breath and started counting to ten. She got to seven, walked over to the passenger side of the car and rapped on the tinted glass. Her passenger’s eyes widened in alarm. He pushed open the car door. Charlotte winced as he put his palm on the window to shove the door open wider. He squinted and blinked rapidly in the harsh afternoon sun. She thought this made him look like a white lab rat with pink eyes, and she wished he would stop.


“Hey,” she said, shaking his shoulder. “Are you freaked out still?” He stared at her silently with his pale blue eyes. It was unnerving. Charlotte lost her train of thought. She stared south at Mt. Kuchumaa, the sacred site of the Kumeyaay Indians. It was solid and imposing, covered in chaparral. The barbed wire fence at the base of the mountain glinted a hard ugly grey, reminding both New Age seekers and drug cartel members that in 2016 the Mexican government preferred the mountain be admired from afar.


She snapped herself out of her brief reverie. “So we’re getting near the border. You have to decide now. We’re almost in Tecate.” He kept staring at her. Charlotte crossed her arms and stared back at him. It took her a full minute to realize that he was going to win the staring game. She turned her back on him and walked along the side of the road. She reached out to touch an enormous saguaro cactus, the spines prickly on her soft fingertips. It was like touching fire.


Energized, she walked back to the car, and paced back in forth in a little figure eight, hoping he’d snap out of his fugue state so they could leave. She could feel the pavement burning her feet through the thin soles of her sandals. Her eyes followed the highway as it wound south through the desert, shimmering in the heat. She could hardly wait to get to Mexico.


“Hey,” she said, waving her arms and dancing in a little circle in front of him. “It’s time to stop this, this, whatever you’re doing, stop it. Do what you have to do, but do it quick. I want to cross the border before dark so I can get a decent hotel.” Charlotte peered down at him. He wasn’t looking at her anymore. He had that blank look on his face again, the one Charlotte by now could not stand.


She looked at her watch again, shifting back and forth from her right foot to her left. It was at least another hour to the border. Her feet were getting hotter.


“Time’s up, Danny,” she said. “I’m heading south now. You have to get out of my car.” She leaned in the car and tugged on his sleeve. “Out,” she said. “Get out now.” She grabbed his hand and kept pulling until he reluctantly got out and faced her.


“Jesus,” she said. “This was your idea. You asked to go with me.” Charlotte pushed him. “Are you listening to me?” she asked. “This was your idea. Remember? I’ve got everything packed up again, Mom’s house is rented, and if you’ll recall this was your idea. I’m not the one who wants to disappear from my mess of a life. That’s you. I’m happy.” She paused. “Seriously, this was your idea.”


Danny stared at Charlotte. She wasn’t as pretty when she was yelling at him. He cleared his throat and tried to respond, but she wasn’t finished.


“Do remember when I first moved back?” she asked. “All you wanted to do was talk to me. Help me around the house. Help me with Mom.” She paused, surprised that the thought of her mom could put a hard little lump in her throat so quickly. She blinked away tears and watched a scorpion dig a small round hole in the sand at her feet. She kicked the scorpion away.


“I didn’t want a damn thing to do you,” she continued. “But you wouldn’t leave me alone. And I felt sorry for you, and the mess you’re in. But you got there yourself. You made those choices, you were all grown up and it’s what you decided to do with your life. You’re a complete idiot.” Charlotte stopped suddenly. She was so sick of this argument. It was the same damn thing every time. She even knew what he was going to say next.


“Look,” he said. “I’ve told you, I don’t know how many times I’ve told you this, but we were happy at first. We really were. And then…”


“Let me stop you right now,” Charlotte said. “I know, all the sudden she changed. Things weren’t good anymore. This story, your story, her story – it’s really small town boring, Danny.” They both fell silent. Charlotte was being mean again. He would patiently explain to her why it was best not to be mean. The parent in him couldn’t resist. It drove Charlotte nuts.


Every time they had these discussions, she missed Los Angeles. It was big and anonymous. Everyone had some pointless drama, some stupid life story rife with bad decisions and roads not taken. In Los Angeles, you could easily disappear; all you had to do was move to another zip code and start making bad decisions all over again. It wasn’t as easy to reinvent yourself in Lancaster.


“So, isn’t that what Mexico is for?” Charlotte asked him. “You cross the border, you vanish. Wasn’t that your plan?” He nodded. “Then why are we even arguing about this? I can only have this conversation so many times. Actually I’m at my limit right now.”


Maybe it was the hot pavement. The soles of her sandals had somehow reached a critical heat threshold and were actually burning her feet. Maybe she wanted to be back in her car; silent, German, air-conditioned. Or maybe she was never going to have another conversation that both started and ended up in the same place. They both knew he was going to go.


Charlotte hopped in the car and rolled the window down. “Get in right now,” she said. “Or go home right now. It doesn’t matter to me either way.” They both knew she meant it. She genuinely did not care if he went or not. This lack of imperative was strangely freeing for both of them. Danny got into the car.


“Are we going to have trouble at the border?” he asked, thumbing through his new passport.


“Why would we have any trouble?” she asked, as she pulled back onto the highway. “We aren’t on the run. We aren’t Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen in ‘The Getaway.’ We’re escapees from suburbia.” He laughed. When she wasn’t yelling, she really was funny.


Charlotte looked over at Danny, relaxed and smiling in the passenger seat. One thing she was absolutely sure of – he was no Steve McQueen. At the very least Steve McQueen would be driving. She turned on the radio and headed south.

About bbcstudiowrites

This blog is me archiving the BBC Studio Writers Workshop.

Posted on October 4, 2016, in Fiction, Seattle, Short Stories. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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