You’re going to a new place, by car. It’s your car but Brady is driving because his is in the shop, as usual, and you like being able to sit in the passenger seat and watch his face travel through its full range of ‘concentrating’ expressions. You are on your way to the party of a mutual friend that neither of you know very well. She brags a lot about her house, which is in a tiny desert town. You both are curious and bored enough to travel an hour to see it. There are two balconies, is something she loves to tell people. The redundant luxury of this has become a thing between you and Brady, who both live in dingy apartments with many roommates. Sometimes you will be hanging out quietly, in his apartment or yours, and he will say Two Balconies! in an old rich lady voice. This sets you off laughing for minutes. Tonight at the party, your plan is to stand on the top balcony and toss a small object down for him to catch; although the mutual friend is roughly your age, you feel very strongly that her bathroom will be full of decorative soaps shaped like shells and animals, perfect ammunition for throwing.
At the last gas station before the turn-off, you are sitting in your own passenger seat. The shift in perspective makes your body seem alien to itself. You’re eating cherry Pop Rocks and watching the sun sink behind a 7-11 across the street. It is the same nasty pink as the candy moving on your tongue. You wonder what kind of chemicals go into making a sky look like that. If you made a joke about Red Dye #40 chemtrails, Brady might laugh, but in the lesser way where sound comes from the front of his mouth only. You consider making it anyway, when he gets back from the bathroom. He is taking a long time, as usual. Things you can do while waiting are: pick at the persistent scab on your knee, start filling up the tank even though it is not your turn to pay for gas, lick the inside of the paper Pop Rocks pouch clean. Warm stillness is settling over everything and making you sleepy, so you get out of the car and crack all of your joints. You dislike the soft, self-righteous voice nagging about money in the back of your head. As you walk, the pavement under your feet is slightly spongy. Orange light pours in like sap between the cars and buildings. You think about tar pits and amber globes, feeling like a large prehistoric bug or tiny prehistoric mammal. When you slide your debit card into the slot at the pump, the graphic for ‘waiting’ is the face of an analog watch. Fossils of the future, today, you whisper. This joke is just for yourself and you don’t even smile about it.
The day is scaling back around the edges of the small lot. In a minute, the stuporous heat will fall out of the air. This close to the desert, there is no real evening: just the yellow afternoon and then night rolling down like a garage door, swift and final. You almost get your sweater out of the backseat, but you’re sort of paralyzed every time you fill up your tank. Once your mother said something about women being statistically more likely to start fires at the gas pump because they keep getting in and out of their cars, building up static electricity. According to her, this is because they, we, don’t want to smell like gasoline. This seems like the provenance of bad chain emails, but it has leeched onto you at some base superstitious level, which, if you’re being honest, is the only level you live on. Something about the suggestion that your own implied frivolity could kill you makes it extra terrible, beyond the dying in a fire part. You resist the urge to shudder and kick a rock across the pavement instead. It skids off in the direction of the 7-11 and the sky full of freaky pink smears. In the parking lot over there—this whole part of the world seems to be one large parking lot, punctuated by road—there is something hunched and four-legged circling around a cement planter. You have a hard time telling exactly what it is from so far away, but assume it is a dog; no feral things would come so close to people, you think, or at least you hope. Briefly you imagine that it’s lost. Maybe it’s one of those archetypal mutts, with the best traits of all its ancestors and one ear cocked at an angle that makes it look fully carefree. You could call it something like Rowdy or Meatloaf or Macho Man Randy Savage, a chill name for a chill dog that would somehow transfer its laidback and slobbery attitude to you by osmosis. Nevermind that your lease explicitly forbids pets and you couldn’t afford to take care of a whole other living thing, really, anyway. Plus who would walk it during the day. Plus what if it didn’t love you, like it would tolerate you but deep down you’d both know it would rather be living with anyone else. You are beginning to consider walking closer anyway, just to get a better look, when Brady appears at your side and startles you. You scream, embarrassingly enough, a little.
‘Whoa, sorry!’ He takes a step back, nearly tripping over concrete but righting himself quickly. Despite his snaky limbs, he has a great sense of balance. He is grinning and wearing a straw safari hat slung around his neck. ‘It was on sale!’ he tells you gleefully. He is carrying a two-gallon jug of water because he does not trust the desert. Earlier he tried to convince you to put a knife in your glove compartment, just in case.
You say, ‘You look like Crocodile Dundee,’ and he laughs, the real way
that comes bubbling up from somewhere deep.
‘How far is the house from here?’ he asks.
‘Not very. Maybe an hour.’
‘Yeah, but not in the grand scheme of things. We can speed, we’ll be in the middle of nowhere.’
The gas pump shuts off; you hang the nozzle back on its hook and wipe your hands on your shirt. You squint across the street, trying to find the outline of dog in the purple dark, but you can’t see anything. You climb back into the car and Brady pulls out of the lot, away to where the bruisy sky is rapidly dimming. Because you are not driving, you can afford to be distracted. You open up the browser on your phone. Lately you have been into reading online how-to guides with dumb names. How to Be Goth: it is helpful to choose a theme and to cultivate an ‘attitude.’ How to Be Okay with Having a Communist Friend: don’t talk about capitalism, don’t take it personally. Before you went to Brady’s place, you were reading How to Become a Ghost. It’s funny to you that the only step isn’t ‘die.’ There is a lot of pre-planning involved, like throwing a dinner party or booking a vacation. The amount of thought experiments required seems daunting. Astral projection is discussed at length. You try to project the idea of offering gas money into Brady’s head but he is busy fiddling with the sound system. You concentrate very hard on touching his arm with your phantom hands but he doesn’t even flinch.
Brady can sing with his lips almost closed. If it was anyone else, this would creep you out, like people who never smile all the way or who breathe wetly on public transit; since it is part of him, you feel the same surge of protective affection as you do for all the other parts. You’re listening to Patsy Cline through a tape deck adapter plugged into your phone. Every time the car hits a bump, which is often, some electronic hiccup makes Patsy slur verses together. The landscape jumps and starts like this too; there are streets of low, identical houses studded with shopping plazas and trails of neon, and then you make a sharp right into a gulf of nothing. The road dips below the horizon of visible lights and you start smelling horse pee through the open windows. This is when Brady starts singing along to all the words he knows. Half silence, half have you ever been lonely. You grow attuned to his fear by degrees. Does he have context for this kind of darkness? You think he’s mostly lived in cities but there are large gaps between things that he tells you. You want to ask him something but have no idea how to phrase it, which is how most of your car rides together end up. Neither do you know how to tell him something, unsolicited. For the first couple miles, there is a lot of silence and Patsy. What you want to say is that where you grew up, there were almost no streetlights; you remember an anxiety setting in around seven or eight, on long drives, that something could reach out from the black space under the car seat and grab your ankles. You had no image of the hands or claws, but a very real idea of what they could feel like. This makes you itchy even in the present and you have to fight the urge to pull your knees up to your chest.
There are a surprising number of passing cars. Each one seems to flick its high beams at you as it passes. ‘Are they doing that on purpose?’ you ask.
He says, ‘I think it’s just them hitting the bumps. It sets the lights off.’
‘You know what my worst thing about driving alone at night is? It’s really dumb—’
‘How dumb? Like werewolf dumb?’
‘No, that’s my mom’s! She says she won’t drive cloth top cars cause she’s afraid of something ripping the fabric open. Mine is that story where the girl is driving alone and there’s a truck flashing its lights at her, and she’s afraid that the driver is one of those serial killer truckers, do you know this one?’
‘Yeah, but tell me anyway.’
‘She pulls over into a gas station or something so she can get help, and the trucker pulls in behind her and climbs out of the cab, and she’s freaking out and he tells her to step out of the car and it turns out that there’s been a guy in her backseat with a knife this whole time.’
‘I feel like the way I heard it, there was a midget in the backseat. An escaped mental patient midget, actually. I don’t know why that makes it worse but it does.’
‘That’s fucked up. Like in an essentialist way.’
‘But it’s terrifying.’
‘I know.’ You think about telling him that you have to check the backseat and the trunk with the tiny flashlight on your key ring, every time you get in the car. You also, when driving alone at night, make sure to sing extra loudly, with extra feeling; you hope that this would make you human and relatable to a captive audience of potential backseat murderers. This is more sad than charming and you don’t say anything more. The road keeps bending on around abutments of rock that carry white tubes through the mountains, draped at rubbery angles.
‘That’s where the water comes from,’ he says.
‘Or through, I guess. It comes from Colorado, right?’
‘I think so.’
‘Imagine pipes stretching all the way back there. You could ride them here like slides.’
He nods, but his eyes are on the yellow lines spooling out ahead of you. When he hits the brakes to ease around the curves, the taillights bathe the bushes and blacktop in soft reds. You are privately waiting to see the glow reflected back from animal eyes; this is your other thing about night driving, what you refuse to name aloud in case it is true. The thing you always imagine is like a person-sized dog, with shaggy fur and almost fingers where there should be stubby paws. It would start running alongside the car on all fours and then give up all pretense and just run, two-legged, impossibly tall. You never know what happens after it stands up because your imagination won’t go there. You have made fun of your mother for her werewolf fears because they come strictly from movies; your personal night monster is close to hers, but different enough to matter. Famous werewolves are generally sad about their condition, or at least minimally conflicted. This thing is all intentional: dog enough to love the act of biting, human enough to know better and just not care. In your scenario, it can see all the inadequacies of your heart and that’s why it chooses you to chase; it knows that you would rather be a dog in an open field than anything else.
I go out walking, after midnight, out in the moonlight, Brady sings through his teeth. You can’t see them but you know what they look like, small and straight like baby fenceposts. He says he’s never had braces; you have no reason to think he would lie, but it is hard for you to believe teeth could work themselves out so effortlessly.
You ask, ‘You know what the actual worst legend is, though?’
‘The dangling boyfriend?’
‘No! That one is the worst worst, like the least scary.’
‘Dude, sewer alligators are the least scary.’
‘Yeah, but that kind of thing isn’t supposed to be unless you’re five, right? The worst one is this one my neighbor told me in middle school and it legitimately kept me up for like a week.’
‘Babysitter clown statue?’
‘NO. Ok. There’s this girl, and she’s, what, twelve, and she doesn’t have a lot of friends, but she has this dog—imagine it’s a golden retriever or something, like standard movie dog—and it’s her favorite thing in the entire world. And she also has a lot of trouble sleeping—’
‘Wow, they really laid this backstory on thick.’
‘No it’s better this way, trust me. She has a lot of trouble sleeping, so the dog stays in her room with her. And she’ll wake up in the middle of the night from bad dreams, and she has this ritual where she sticks her hand down where the dog is, under the bed, and he licks her hand until she falls back asleep. This is how it goes for practically their whole lives, ok?’
‘So there’s this one particular night where it’s storming outside—‘
‘Wait, what’s the dog’s name?’
‘Shut up, I don’t know.’
‘I mean I just figured, with all the rest of the detail—’
‘Anyway, it’s really noisy and scary outside, and it takes the girl forever to get to bed. She’s just lying there for a while, and the dog—‘
‘Pepper is licking her hand, and she finally relaxes enough to fall asleep. Then she wakes up like, two hours later, maybe a branch is scratching at the window or something. She hears the faucet in the bathroom down the hall dripping and it’s kind of irritating but she’s comfortable and she’s like, I’ll deal with it. So she reaches down and lets Pepper lick her hand, and eventually she falls back asleep. And this whole deal happens one more time, and now it’s really late, and the dripping is just getting louder. She tries to go back to sleep and she can’t, so she decides to get up and turn the sink off, and she lets Pepper lick her hand again before she goes, for comfort. And she’s walking to the bathroom, and she pushes open the door, and there’s the dog, with its throat slit, hanging from the shower curtain rod. And in the dog’s blood, on the mirror, it says HUMANS CAN LICK TOO.’
Brady makes a puke face as he pulls the car around a tight corner. ‘Thaaat’s disgusting!’
‘I told you it was the worst one.’ You lean back in your seat, feeling smug. You are generally a bad storyteller, one of those people who is always going back halfway through to clarify things. This is the only story you can tell in proper order, with maximum effectiveness, to the point where you genuinely freak yourself out like you are ten all over again. You rub your sweaty palms on your jeans.
Brady’s nose is still wrinkled up in disgust. ‘Why would anyone make that up?’
‘Because people are profoundly gross.’
‘Ahhh, but the guy would’ve had to be watching her for so long to know—‘
‘I told you!’
The mile markers jump up in white flashes as you pass. You are climbing far up in the mountains now; the air coming through the windows turns sound into a tunnel that you have to half-shout over if you want to be heard. Your ears pop, one at a time, and you watch Brady crack his jaw, so you know his are popping too. It feels good to be held together in a shape, moving fast and feeling roughly the same sensations. How to Be in a Car with Someone you Maybe Love: pay attention to their small movements, tell them stories. You wait for him to trade you one of his personal fears, but he is just alternating between making gross-out grimaces and squinting beyond the pools of your headlights. His safari guy hat is hanging off the back of the seat and his hair is messed, swept crazily up at a right angle towards the front.
By now you have made it through two and a half Patsy Cline albums, more than you thought the drive would last for. You wish you knew about anything as much as Patsy knows about loneliness. Her whole voice sounds like an empty bed. ‘How much further is it?’ Brady asks. You check the GPS but there’s no reception; on the display, your car is a small blue pin stuck in a wide swath of green.
‘We can’t have missed any turns, this is the only road.’
‘It feels like we’ve been on it for an hour already.’ According to the clock it’s been half an hour, but he’s not wrong either. In the desert, time is draggy and elastic. There is no one else on the road now and it’s easy to pretend that your car is calling the world around it into focus, like in video games where you can wander freely. Each hill looks like every other hill, scrubby and covered with half-burnt trees. Your faces and hands are greenish in the dashboard light. Anytime you’re thinkin’ bout me, Brady sings. This song might have happened already. The beat is an easy two-step, plodding like horse hooves, but you feel sped up and crawly in your skin. Up ahead, there’s a spot where one of the water pipes hangs low over the road, creating a kind of gate between the steep cliffs. You think about the weight of all that liquid coursing overhead, how you can’t hear it echoing through the thick white plastic. You lean against the window and the speed rattles the bones in your head.
‘Did she say anything about landmarks?’
‘Not really. She said there would be an, um, shooting range? And then a gas station right by her street.’
‘I don’t think we’ve passed any buildings yet, though.’
‘No, nothing. Ugh. I hope there’s still food when we get there.’
‘Maybe there’s different courses. On the different balconies.’
‘Appetizers at the top—‘
‘Wait, do you see that?’
There is something moving up on the pipe, but you are still too far away for it to be more than a slightly darker smudge on the landscape.
You point up and to the right. ‘Over there.’
‘Oh!! I think so?’
You are both craning your necks to see and Brady hits a deep groove in the pavement; as the car lurches forward, the brights switch on and catch a pair ofneon pupils suspended in the hurtling dark. A coyote or dog, using the pipe as a bridge. Brady flings his arm across your chest reflexively. You’re skidding across the bumps in the median and into the rocks on the other side of the road; he elbows you hard in the chin, trying to get both hands on the wheel in time to steer away. You spit a mist of warm, sour blood, ridiculously pink.
You have anticipated moments like this a lot, nearly every time you are driving or trying to cross the street: what happens to the body when it is thrown free from its own command. It is almost nothing like you expected. Your thoughts go something like: wanting to call your mother, wanting to be outside yourself watching the moment of impact, remembering you did not eat dinner, remembering that you did not take off your chipped nail polish before you left, like you had planned. Then they go flat and condense into a quiet oh!, which you may or may not say aloud. You are surprised that the speed at which things are happening feels exactly accurate, and that you can still hear music, and that it is your least favorite song, the one about foolin’ around.