Things I lost:
a stick of Chapstick
a few quarters
one turquoise earring, a gift
my old college roommate’s new phone number
my left sandal
Mr. Rabbit, my favorite stuffie from my preschool years
For the first hundred miles, I see only the road and my knuckles, skin tight across the bones, like my mother’s hands, as I clutch the steering wheel. For the second hundred miles, I read the highway signs without allowing the letters to compute in my brain. Exit numbers. Names of towns. Places that people call home, or not. After three hundred miles, I start to wonder what the hell I’m doing.
In front of me, the highway lies straight, a thick rope of asphalt that stretches to a pinprick on the horizon. On either side of the highway are barbed-wire fences that hem in the few cows that wander through the scrub-brush desert. Cacti are clustered by the fence posts. Above, the sun has bleached the blue until the sky looks like fabric stretched so thin that it’s about to tear. There are zero clouds.
I should turn around.
Instead, I switch on the radio. Static. For a moment I let the empty crackle of noise spray over me, a match to my mood, but then it begins to feel like prickles inside my ears. Also, I begin to feel self-consciously melodramatic. Maybe asa sixteen-year-old, I’d have left the static on, but I’m twenty-seven. I change the station. Again, static. And again. Again.
First option: an apocalypse has wiped out all the radio transmitters.
Second, much more likely, option: my car radio is broken.
Switching the radio off, I drive to the steady thrum of the car engine and the hiss of wind through the cracked-open window. I wanted the radio so I wouldn’t have to think. I listen to the wind instead and try to keep my mind empty.
I won’t think.
I won’t worry.
I won’t scream.
The wind feels like a snake’s hot breath as it coils through the car. It smells of dust and exhaust. All in all, though, it’s not so bad. The palms of my hands feel slick and sweaty from the steering wheel, but otherwise, I feel like I could drive for hours…and hours and hours until the car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere and I slowly die of dehydration while the cows lick the remaining moisture from my limp body.
That would make for a humiliating obituary.
Half my funeral audience would consist of family and friends, a few aunts and uncles I’d never met, neighbors who had never spoken to me (except to complain about how I always parked my car askew), friends I’d meant to have lunch with… The other half would be heifers.
Great plan, Lauren, I tell myself. All of this…very well thought-out. Kudos. I have no reason to be out here on Route 10, three hundred miles east of home. No rational reason at all, except that I am sick to death of rational—of facts, of hospitals, of test results with predictions that feel as cold and impersonal as the expiration date on a gallon of milk.
I keep driving as the sun sears its way toward dusk. Sinking lower, it blazes in the rearview mirror until I blink over and over. Soon, the sun will set. Soon, Mom will return from her doctor’s appointment. She’ll try to pretend it’s a normal day: set the table, lay out extra napkins, switch on the TV for the PBS NewsHour, and wait for me to come home with our favorite burritos—our Tuesday-night tradition.
I haven’t eaten since breakfast. Burritos would be nice. Seeing Mom…I don’t know.
Glancing at my cell phone, I see it has zero bars. Next town, I promise myself. I’ll call Mom and ask about the new test results. Just ask. It might be fine. False alarm. Silly me for worrying so much. She’ll laugh; I’ll laugh. After that, I’ll call work and claim I was sick, perhaps toss in a colorful description of vomit. I’ll say that I’ve been glued to the toilet all day. No one ever questions a vomit excuse. Then I’ll fill up the tank, and I’ll drive back and celebrate the false alarm with Mom.
It’s a decent plan, except that I don’t see a next town.
I scan the highway for signs. Speed Limit 75. Watch for Deer. Littering $500. With the road so straight and flat, I should see at least the silhouette of an exit sign. But I don’t see any exits at all, either behind or before me.
It’s an endless highway. There will never be an exit. Or a turn. Or a hill or a valley or a bridge… I know I saw signs at some point in the past hour or so. I remember looking at them; I don’t remember what they said. I’m not even positive what state I’m in. Arizona, I’d guess. Possibly New Mexico. I don’t think Texas yet.
It is strange that there aren’t other vehicles on the road.
I watch the wind swirl over the highway as the sun stains the sky a rosy orange. The low light makes the desert earth look red, and the asphalt glistens like black jewels. It’s a wide highway, two lanes in either direction, and except for me, they are empty.
I should see some cars. A few tourists with kids in a minivan, off to see the Grand Canyon or visit Grandma in Albuquerque. A pickup truck with a bed full of rusted junk, shotgun rack in the back. Maybe a motorcyclist with bugs in his mustache.
Or maybe there really has been an apocalypse.
Dust blows across the highway, and dried weeds impale themselves on the barbed-wire fence. I’d feel better if at least one truck would barrel past me. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel faster, faster, and the needle on the odometer creeps higher like the needle of a blood pressure gauge on the arm of a stressed patient. I need to find a town soon.
As the sun dips lower, shadows stretch long from the setting sun. The fence post shadows cut stripes in the red dust. A man in a black coat perches on one of the fence posts.
Leaning forward, I stare over the steering wheel, as if those few extra inches will help me see the man clearer. He’s a quarter mile away, and his coat blows in the wind like a superhero cape. I can’t see his face.
Closer…it’s a mesquite tree with a cloth caught in its branches. I lean back as I pass the tree. It’s leafless and twisted, half-dead, with dried thorns that have captured a strip of black fabric. For an instant, it was something uneasy and beautiful.
Ahead, the highway is blotted out by dark dust, as if a dirty cloud drifted onto the road. “Real estate changing hands,” Mom said once of dust storms. “If I wait long enough, the wind will send me a swimming pool and a fully planted vegetable garden.”
“You have an ocean twenty minutes away. You never swim in it.”
“I could be mauled by a sea lion,” Mom said. “And when was the last time you swam in the ocean? I used to have to haul you out of the water kicking and screaming at the end of summer.”
I remember that, those summers when I’d be so waterlogged that I’d feel like driftwood when I washed into the start of the school year. I’d spend the year drying until I was light and brittle. “I blame the sea lions,” I told my mother. “Vicious things.”
This storm is more like a smear of dust than any sort of storm. It has no energy or power or movement. It looks as if a painter slapped bland reddish tan across the blue, black and red of the sky, highway and desert. I tell myself that dust storms like this are common out here. The few bushes and cacti can’t hold the parched dirt onto the cracked earth, and it rises up with the wind. But common or not, coming now, it only adds to the sense of surreal aloneness. I’d write a poem about it…
into the earth that gravity lost—
Except that I don’t write poetry. And besides, I’m driving to escape my feelings, not wallow in them. Unfortunately, I seem to have packed all my emotional baggage for this impromptu road trip.
Rolling up the window, I silence the hiss of wind. I only hear the whoosh and hum of the car itself. I fiddle with the radio again. Still static. And I drive into the cloud of dust.
It is as dark as if the sun has instantly plunged beneath the horizon. I switch on my headlights and illuminate the swath of reddish tan in front of me. It glows but remains opaque. I can see a few yards of pavement plus a few feet on the side of the highway. Ghostlike, a fence post appears in the dust and then disappears. Another and then another appear and then vanish at regular intervals, as if marking time in a timeless place.
It feels as if the rest of the world has disappeared.
It feels almost peaceful—and also as if I am in my own apocalypse.
I’d like to think if I were to invent my own apocalypse, it would be more colorful. Brilliant chartreuse horsemen of the apocalypse trampling the earth beneath their hooves, while the earth bleeds green into the sea… All the screams would rise up at once in a cacophony that sends the birds to blacken the sky with their wings, and the mythical snake (or dragon or whatever) that wraps its coils around the world would squeeze at the same time that the turtle that supports the earth would flip, and the resulting earthquakes would disgorge a thousand monsters to prey on the survivors… Yeah, that would be much cooler than dull tan. Also, messier.
Real apocalypses happen in clean, white rooms, delivered in long words by men and women with kind eyes and sterile scrubs. Or by a woman who is both your best friend and your mother over crab rangoon and spare ribs or a burrito.
It’s harder and harder to see the pavement. I peer through the windshield and hope I’m still in my lane. At least no one else is on the road. I don’t have to worry about crashing into an eighteen-wheeler or a motorcyclist who can’t see any better than I can. I slow to a crawl just in case.
My headlights catch the silhouette of a person.
I slam on the brakes.
The car jolts to a stop.
There is no person. I stare into the empty dust. Overactive imagination, I tell myself. I’ve been the victim of an overactive imagination for years, ever since I was a kid with my blanket tucked up to my chin, staring at the shadowed shapes in my bedroom, trying to convince myself that the shapes weren’t ten-armed monsters, men with axes, rabid rats or the kid from my junior high who liked to draw nightmarish cartoons of women’s parts in his math textbook.
There is no way a person would be wandering down this highway in the middle of a dust storm this far from the nearest town. I focus on the dotted white lines that divide the lanes and follow them as if they’re bread crumbs leading me through a forest.
Again, I see him.
This time, he is directly in front of me. Yanking on the steering wheel, I swerve right. I feel the tires run off the road and hit dirt. I yank the wheel left, and the car jumps back onto the road.
I look in my rearview mirror. Still standing in the road, the man is dressed in a black trench coat that falls to his ankles. Beneath the coat he wears black jeans and is bare-chested. His chest is decorated in a swirl of black feather tattoos, and he is almost unbearably beautiful. I slam on the brakes again.
When I look in the rearview mirror this time, he is gone.
That’s it, I tell myself. No more horror movies. Ever.
Concentrating on the road directly in front of me, I drive and drive and drive. By the time I emerge from the dust cloud, it is night. The car clock says 8:34. Stars speckle the sky, and a full moon has risen low and fat over the desert. I loosen my grip on the steering wheel and roll my shoulders back until my shoulder blades crackle. I look behind me again—and the dust cloud has vanished. The road stretches endlessly back, clear and empty.
I wish there were someone else with me to verify that the dust had existed, to confirm the man had existed. But if someone else were with me, I would have turned around before I’d even left Los Angeles. I would have taken that left at the light like I did every day and I’d have parked in the office parking lot and later returned home by the same snarl of highways. I wouldn’t have driven straight for no reason other than I was afraid of the possibility of bad news.
I glance again at my cell phone. Still no bars.
I check my gas gauge. Low but not empty. Stretching my neck, I try to relax.
New plan: find a town, stop for dinner, maybe check into a motel for the night, and drive back in daylight when I’m not so wrung out that I imagine bare-chested tattooed men inside dust storms. Mom will understand. She’ll probably understand better than I want her to. I’ll call from the motel room and explain that her daughter’s a coward with an overactive imagination, and she’ll tell me…
She’ll tell me how much time she has left.
In less than a mile, I spot an exit. It’s unmarked but paved. It must lead to a town. Taking it, I find myself on a one-lane highway. A few minutes later, I see a sign.
The sign is carved wood, like an old-fashioned New England town welcome sign. Faded blue paint peels around its curved edges. My headlights sweep over golden lettering that reads: Welcome to Lost.
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Beth Durst