Jack and Emily had been on the road a week and a half, heading West, away from New York, into the summer and something like a honeymoon. They felt close, maybe the closest they’d come.
They’d made it to Texas.
They were heading Further West, sooner than expected, past Austin which’d bored them but been good for a laugh, like, this is Austin?
Further West, they could now clearly feel, lay the beginning of all that lay beyond the last of something they’d wanted to get beyond since the beginning.
State Highway 71 cut straight through the heart of it, as Jim at Jim’s Tire & Engine had told them earlier in the day, while working out their first-ever engine trouble with an oily rag stretching like a tail out of his jeans and down to the dust. They’d bought the car off a Tarrytown widow a week before the trip, their first-ever car – first for either of them, and definitely their first together. She’d used it for groceries and buzzing around town, had been her phrase, and left them with an endearing don’t-tell-me smile when they told her how far they planned to take it. They’d had it inspected, gotten new plates.
Jim, along with fixing their engine, had convinced them to buy a gun, and shown them where.
In retrospect, now, driving away, they saw that maybe they’d been convinced already, long before, or hadn’t been convinced but had been more than ready to be as soon as Texas turned real all around them, Louisiana swallowed whole by a played-out East.
East Texas, they’d informed each other like experts a few hundred miles back, is still basically the South, but now, getting out in Jim’s garage’s town, we’re someplace else, and we’re gonna start to see things.
Jim’s buddy at the gun store told them what kind it was but they’d forgotten. They’d listened secure in the knowledge that they’d soon forget and so had in essence both heard and forgotten at the same time.
He’d put a clip in there so it’d be all ready for them, and shown them how to take the safety on and off, making sure they left with it on, and said when driving dark roads in this state they should keep it loaded in its holster in the glove compartment, for easy access but not so easy that the other guy might see and get to it first.
And then he’d said, don’t draw unless you intend to fire, quoting a few hundred antique sheriffs for their amusement in a sheriff voice that, of course, they couldn’t tell if it was put on or natural.
There’s mainly good people in this state, he continued, but there’s bad too. Like everywhere, but also somehow a little extra.
They’d signed a sheet on a clipboard with a pen that had the name and number of Jim’s garage on it, even though the gun store was down the street, and then they’d walked out with their gun and put it in the glove compartment like the guy had said. Then they went back and paid Jim for the engine work and he invited them to his place outside of town for a couple of cold ones and they good-naturedly said no, and he laughed and said, smart kids, better to trust no one.
As they were getting into their seats, he wished them luck and fun and said they were welcome back any time, he for one would sure be glad to see them and hear what they’d been up to.
And then he said, pointing, I wouldn’t go down that road at night. He said it with a smile, affecting, it seemed to Jack and Emily, a kind of mock rural portentousness, cousin to the gun guy’s sheriff voice.
They felt, if anything, relief at leaving that town, where they hadn’t seen anyone but Jim and the gun guy, and heading out on 71, into the drainage of the afternoon.
They’d driven by now into the beginning of the sunset, feeling the strength and bounce in their repaired engine, listening to some classic macho guitarwork on the mix they’d prepared for the trip, the kind of hearty, no-bullshit rock and blues they’d hoped and been right would hold up to the immensity of the sky and landscape all the way out here.
Mid-twenties, in good shape physically and psychologically, making reasonable money for people their age who were determined to live in the City without going the 9-5 route and sidelining their actual ambitions, falling increasingly in love, neither Jack nor Emily had been to the West before, except a brief family trip, for Jack, to Santa Fe once, and, for Emily, of course, California, but that was something else, its own country more or less, and didn’t count, as they were coming more and more to see as they pushed on down the road, where they’d so far counted three cars passing from the other direction, and not one behind or in front.
It was an unofficial anniversary for them, the anniversary, a year ago probably not today but sometime this week, of their getting back together after some bad, lost months apart.
They would celebrate, once they’d bombed through the corridor of tonight, in a classic frontier hotel whose restaurant had been praised far and wide across the review sites they visited as having Still The Best Steak Dinner In Texas.
If we make it a year, they’d said last year, upon getting back together, let’s buy a car and spend a whole summer on the road, camping every night and barely seeing anyone but each other, spending like no money except on gas and stuff. Things had been going so well, despite whatever minor hiccups were unavoidable, that, by this past winter, they’d started devoting portions of every date to browsing car listings and talking about the West – Texas, West Texas.
Dates with maps, they liked to call them.
Their Brooklyn nights became Western festivals, as they’d watch one Riding Into The Sunset and Showdown On Main Street movie after another, on either Jack’s or Emily’s laptop, depending on whose apartment they’d settled into.
Even on a 15-inch screen, the width of the unpaved streets and the marquees of the frontier theaters and the shadows cast by horses and cacti looked gigantic in their darkened bedrooms. The hoofbeats and gunshots sounded tremendous, trails of smoke and dust tickling their nostrils, making them laugh and cough.
This is the best sunset yet, said Emily, and Jack, who was driving, turned down the music and asked her to repeat what she’d just said, and she did, and he agreed, and they felt close to one another and far from everything else.
He floored the accelerator, as if to test the theory that there really wasn’t anyone on the road, and they heard Jim’s engine roar and she laughed and told him to slow down. He knew she didn’t entirely want him to, that she might have preferred him to drive faster still and ignore her no matter how loud she said it, but he did slow down, and, though she didn’t say anything, he could feel her disappointment at getting what she’d asked for and wished it wasn’t too late to still be going too fast.
They both stared straight ahead as the sun kept setting, nearly finished now. At no point had it ceased to be the most dramatic and resonant and stirring thing they’d ever seen.
They decided to pull over and sit on the hood and watch it without the windshield in between, but by then it really had set so there was nothing to see except an all-encompassing glow. They kept driving, maybe a little saddened in a lovely sort of way.
Our whole trip was worth it just to have seen that, Jack said, and Emily agreed but said, wouldn’t our trip have been worth it no matter what, just to be out here together? And Jack agreed, missing the sunset.
There was a good hour of murk before the advent of actual Texas night. Emily had been counting telephone poles out the passenger’s side window, watching them whoosh past getting further apart, adjusting her rhythm as they became a spindly creeping infrequent feature on the landscape, but now it was too dark. As she imagined it, the poles had vanished into space, the line cut off. She felt her cell phone on the seat between her legs, its plastic losing hold of the day’s heat.
Jack sped up again, and this time Emily didn’t say anything, but then he realized he hadn’t turned on the headlights and, shaken, slowed way down and turned them on, and stayed slow thereafter, looking at the insects whipping up into the windshield through all that new light.
She scrolled through their music mix and found something slower and leaned over and kissed Jack’s shoulder, found it tense, changed the song, watched him drive.
The signs for the road were getting fewer and farther between, like it was losing its name. Each privately started to doubt that, or at least wonder if, they were still going the right way. Emily took out her phone and tried to locate their dot on the map, but nothing came up. She turned it off and put it in the glove compartment, where it nestled near the gun.
No service? asked Jack.
His voice startled her and she realized how long it’d been since either of them had spoken.
No, she said, startled also, a little, by her own voice.
He slowed to a stop, either by instinct or because they’d agreed to stop and get their bearings, and she unclipped her seatbelt and put her hand on the door handle, and then they looked at each other, could barely read one another’s expressions. She clipped her seatbelt back in and they drove on.
They got gas somewhere in the night.
Then a long period of driving, maybe as much as a hundred or two hundred miles. They laughed quietly to think how little difference the scale of hundreds made out here. Maybe even a thousand miles wouldn’t have gotten them far.
Then they saw them.
Two of them, standing next to one another by the roadside, apparently about teenage, waving glowsticks or glowing wands like the kinds used on runways to coax planes, standing next to a parked, maybe broken-down, station wagon that looked, as Jack and Emily slowed to take it in, a lot like how they imagined a hearse from the ’70s or ’80s would look.
The two of them appeared only in the green glow of the sticks, as they waved by, receding before and after. They wore dark tops and pants, were bareheaded but their features were obscure. Their sneakers gave off some light.
The open plains and nearby brush and star-dotted sky and low, distant hills, pocked by the shadows of the telephone poles that hadn’t really vanished, all seemed to slow along with them as Jack and Emily glided to a stop about a hundred feet up the road from the parked vehicle and the two teenagers or whatever they were.
It looked to Emily, who was trying not to look at Jack as he parked the car, like the two figures back there were waving them to a stop, directing their landing into this exact spot from far away, right on time.
Silence now in the parked car, glow trails painting the whole rearview field. No one in particular of the four of them appeared to be in a hurry, but, still, time was racing past. They couldn’t just sit here all night and into the morning, and through the coming day as well.
I guess we need to go back and see if they’re okay, right? Jack said, or asked.
Right, said Emily. And then said, no, actually, let’s just drive on.
Jack put the car in gear, then out, killed the engine, which he hadn’t done before.
Again they were stopped, thinking, about themselves, each other, humans, and animals.
There was a low sound in the air, a lowing from far back, between insectoid and mammalian, or a combination thereof, the insects nearby, the cows or goats farther off. And something else mixed in, something Emily couldn’t stop listening to.
She remembered about the gun before Jack did.
Hey, she said, grabbing his shoulder, putting the gun farther back in her mind, hoping it’d stay there. Hey, she said, raising her voice over the sound that she didn’t know if Jack could hear, look, it’s not like they knew we’d pass by. If we drive on, it’ll be the same as if we hadn’t ever come this way. Let’s just get to a town or something, and maybe we can call the police or at least tell someone.
Think how few people take this road at this hour, she added, and wished she hadn’t, aware that it made just as strong a case for their obligation to help as for their right not to.
Jack didn’t say anything.
They looked at the couple, if that’s what they were, in the driver’s side mirror, still waving their sticks, dragging their heads in and out of view.
Emily wondered if Jack was thinking about the gun as well, and could almost see him hoping she wouldn’t see him thinking about it.
And besides, Emily continued, what could we really do for them anyway? We don’t have any reception so we can’t call from here, we don’t know anything about cars, we don’t have much food or water or first aid stuff, though they don’t look hurt … if they want help, we have nothing to offer. If, on the other hand, they want to, like, do something to us, we’ll be implicitly telling them to go right ahead, if we get out.
It’s the adult thing to do, thought Jack, to help people if you can. Then, no, he thought. It’s the childish thing, the need to find out if the world’s promise of danger is real. And he knew, as he sat there, that he didn’t know if it was real or not, if terrible things happen at night in Texas or if they don’t, and he both wanted and didn’t want to find out, as he always had.
A skin was sealing around the car, like one of those tarps billionaires stretch over their Bentleys. The windows were turning tarp-colored, with only the blotted trail of the glowsticks shining through.
Jack and Emily were still parked there, the engine off so they had no way of reading the time on the dashboard display. Already the question of help was fading, becoming not the primary question.
Why did we come here? they were starting to ask themselves. What did we want if not this?
What would it mean to not get out now? asked Jack aloud. What would we be passing up? If we didn’t want to be in Texas why did we come, and if we do want to be here, then here we are.
Emily wasn’t listening anymore. She knew that things were about to start happening fast, slow as they’d been until now. She didn’t like it, or maybe she did. Either way, she knew it.
Don’t get out, she said, resignedly to Jack, as he was taking a breath, as if about to plunge underwater, filling his chest, and opening the door. He’d found a flashlight amidst the debris around the gas pedal and turned it on, shrugging off Emily behind him, and his seatbelt, which he’d still been wearing.
Seriously, don’t! she yelled, feeling her own seatbelt tighten around her. Jack, seriously, something …
He’d left his door open and she could feel the tear in the skin that’d formed around the car like a tear somewhere in her body, a hernia, and knew it’d hurt worse when she stood up, and then she stood up and it did.
Jack was already ten or twelve paces away.
She’d taken the gun from the glove compartment, left the holster behind, switched off the safety like the guy at the store had shown them, and followed, not knowing if Jack knew that she was behind him.
In a few minutes, maybe one minute, something will have happened to us, she thought, giddy, part of her hoping she wasn’t wrong.
The lowing she’d heard when she and he were still thinking in the car was loud now, and nothing sounded very far in the background. It made for a pressure headache. She blew out through her nose like a diver, but forgot to squeeze it with her thumb and forefinger. When she went to wipe what’d been blown out, she hit the butt of the gun against her teeth.
The glowsticks waved back and forth, mixing now with the beam from Jack’s flashlight, and Emily saw that her shoes, from hours in the car, were loose and untied, and realized they would remain that way, as if even this was out of her hands.
Jack was inside their circle.
He started to say something but it barely came out, and the teenagers seemed not to notice, and then a great dizziness came up on Jack and Emily, a swooning headsick vertigo, and took them either into the air or down to the ground, somehow the two were equivalent, and the lowing pressed in close around them, making it all, what they were about to do, private, and Emily did it, the two cracks of the gun echoing like they’d been shot into a box from which the sound couldn’t escape, and then Jack and Emily were sitting on the ground, the grass sharp on their skin where their socks ended and their pants had been hiked up by the fall, and the teenagers were lying side by side nearby, smoking and steaming, and the lowing had stopped.
It took a long time for Jack and Emily to start screaming, or for their screaming to reach them. When it did, they got hyper-alert, like maybe there were others around, more like these two, coming out of hiding.
At the sight of the two bodies they’d made, each forgot the other and bore immensity and aloneness to such an extent that the entirety of their previous lives shrunk to the size of a single day spent in some altogether forgotten place.
Then they saw each other again, sitting up above the bodies, the gun on its side in the dust, night insects crawling up on it in the light of Jack’s dropped flashlight.
They swallowed their voices and sat there very quietly near one another, heaving in the way that sometimes precedes tears but not about to cry or scream again, aware that they’d passed into a world that did not contain those sounds.
This world was taking shape fast. Soon they’d be entirely unable to think, maybe even to move in the ways they once had.
Emily wondered if Jack knew for sure what had happened. She wondered if he’d turn hostile, if everything about him, and her, would change or was changed, and she eyed the gun, wondered if she’d do it if it came to that.
Then she looked again at the bodies. The holes she’d made in them seemed too small, like the gun must have done something bigger and more jagged nearby, maybe so big it couldn’t be seen and so had to be represented by those two holes, small as points on a map.
Jack yawned in a way that made his eyes water and his forehead glisten, and spat into the weeds and got up, headed toward the car wobbling like he hadn’t walked in a very long time.
Emily stayed sitting where she was, looking at her feet, the flashlight and the gun. Then she got up and moved away from the bodies, backing up as if wary of turning on them, and then she did turn and ran with her head down and arms pumping toward the car, where Jack had the trunk open and was tearing through dirty camping pots and pans and scattered shoes and bathing suits and towels and beef jerky packets, until he found their two sheets, which they’d brought for nights when it’d be too hot to share a sleeping bag.
We have to cover them, he said quietly, before the sun rises, and started back.
Jack tried to drop the sheets over the bodies but the wind blew them crumpled.
He reached down, without touching either body, and picked the sheets back up. The bodies had rolled over onto their backs, and were now facing skyward, like children waiting to be tucked in, eyes open, jaws clenched. He saw that they were exactly the same height as one another, or, he thought, length.
Picking up the gun, Emily had an impulse to tuck it into her jeans, but instead brought it back to the car and put it back in the glove compartment with the safety on, very much hoping that, by the time she got back, Jack would have the sheets in place and they’d be on to the next step.
But, when she did, he didn’t.
He was still trying to throw the sheets over them without touching them.
She watched a little longer, then grabbed the two sheets out of his hands and, swallowing, bent down and touched their faces and shoulders as she securely covered their forms, looking away only when her eyes slipped from their foreheads into their eyes.
Blood soaked through in a few places, sucking the sheets taut.
No next step presented itself.
They stood there.
Jack hummed one of the songs they’d been listening to in the car, then stopped humming.
They turned their backs on one another and walked in opposite directions until the whole scene was out of sight, and almost kept walking, willing either the fullness or the emptiness of Texas to eat them alive or leave them alone. Eventually they each turned back, returning to the center marked by the two forms, almost as if discovering them, and each other, gathered there for the first time.
What happened here? they each thought, tasting how easy it’d be to ask in earnest, and to earnestly not know.
Instead, they talked logistics.
If they see our car here in the morning, but the hearse and the bodies are gone … said Emily, but she couldn’t complete the thought.
Maybe they’ll think we’re the ones who died, ventured Jack.
Who will? No one knows we’re here. People back home?
How do you think it’d look if we pushed our car off the road, like it got totaled, then we load them both into the hearse and drive on like we’re the undertakers, bringing the bodies that died in the car accident, you know?
Doesn’t an ambulance or something do that, and then the hearse comes later, to pick them up from the morgue?
They were both fairly certain this was true, but, as they watched their car fly off the road with the engine running and a stick jammed onto the gas pedal, it hardly mattered, for they had entered a new order, one in which only deliberate configurations of objects held sway, a kind of shuffling things around in order to survive.
It crashed hard through the brush and squat trees, full of their money, music, and all the bookings and reservations they’d printed out, overturning and beginning to smoke when it hit a stump.
Our gun’s in there, said Emily. I wonder if, when they find it, that’ll incriminate us.
That seems alright, said Jack, trying hard to divine the rules. The gun seemed almost irrelevant now, like something that hadn’t worked. And our phones, he said, but.
They went back to the hearse, opening the back, or the trunk if that’s what it was called, which was unlocked.
They sat on the edge, just above the Texas license plate, looking at the sheet-covered forms, watching the beginning of the sun.
What do you think’s under there? asked Emily.
Jack looked at her, lingered on her, and then got up, and she was terrified he was about to pull back the sheets. But he went past them, into the brush and partial obscurity, and then came back, zipping his fly and squinting upwards.
They sat some more, watching more of the sunrise, a little amazed that a day was still coming, and knew they’d never peel back the sheets no matter what not knowing, over the years, started to cost them. Each promised this privately, and thus it was as though they’d promised it to one another.
The idea of loading those two forms into the trunk and driving them anywhere had already come to seem proverbial, archaic.
After a while, Emily got up and took a lap around the hearse, and then got down by the front right tire, belly to the ground. She looked behind the wheel and saw the two glowsticks, nestled up against it, at rest. The sun leaned down hard on her back and the back of her neck and the backs of her legs as she looked into the shadows by the wheel and under the axle, where the glowsticks were fading. The further in she pushed, the cooler her neck and shoulders started to feel, the hotter her lower back under her shirt, and her legs.
When the glowsticks had finally gone out completely, reverting to dull plastic, she rolled back to her knees and stood up, feeling a kind of heat in the whole back of herself that meant she’d bubble and peel.
The lowing she’d heard last night had started again, but clarified and simplified now, just that of nearby insects and more distant livestock, no longer a sound demanding any attention.
She opened the passenger-side door and found Jack in the driver’s seat, engine running, air-conditioning blazing, tinted windows sealing out the light except for her open door. He must have found the keys in the ignition, or somewhere else, unhidden.
She sat down and felt the cool of the leather seat behind and beneath her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d ridden in a car with leather seats. Maybe she never had.
Just before closing her door, bracing for the crunch of the glowsticks when Jack pulled out, she looked back at what they were leaving, flattening like the ground was letting them in, their wet spots drying, turning brittle and starchy, on their way toward smelling like sunshine.