It was the third day. Things had begun to unravel. We’d slept poorly, and both of us had missed our breakfasts and bowel movements. I watched Ripley feel his stubble as he drove, his unwashed hand brushing over the bristles that peppered the broken vessels on his round cheeks. At eleven a.m., the shimmer already rose two feet off the road. The car’s A/C was dying, blinking its green and orange lights and spewing air the temperature of a fever.
“Five more miles,” Ripley said, reading the sign. This was the first time either of us had spoken in seventy miles, since passing the sign that read No services next 75 miles.
“You can use the little girls’ room. Again.”
He was trying, but I was tired of jokes. This trip had been meant to repair us. Instead, the space between us had grown into a small, silent ghost.
“Ha ha,” I said anyway.
The day before, we’d driven past a length of highway on fire, the flames dancing through holes in the Jersey wall and sending black smoke up to blue-white heaven. We’d driven by mesas backlit by enormous moons. We’d driven on a road scraping out a mountain, revealing layers of sandstone the color of dust, bone, muscle, and blood.
This morning, there was only dry brush dotting a brown field that met the sky at an invisible distance. We passed a single dead jackrabbit on the side of the road. Finally, we bumped down the off-ramp to a run-down Chevron. I sat and waited for Ripley to say something, but he got out and started pumping gas.
“Want anything?” I asked, after a few minutes.
“Nah.” He stared at the display with one hand on the pump handle, waiting to pull the trigger on a number that ended in zero.
Inside it wasn’t much cooler. I made my way towards the ice freezer that always stood a sentinel to the bathroom. The ancient attendant tried to stop me.
“Running from the Chupacabra?” he asked. The thin brown skin stretched tight over his skull reminded me of a bog mummy.
He tried again. “Where you headed?”
I closed the bathroom door. I had a secret to nurse.
After I came out, I found the old man talking at Ripley, who had amassed a feast of chips, beef jerky, sunflower seeds, and soda on the counter.
“Rip here says you’re headed to Phoenix,” said the man, turning on me. There were dirty blue spots in the whites of his eyes.
“Rip sure is right about that.” I put my arm through Ripley’s and gave him a look.
He ignored the look. Asked if I liked the ranch ones.
“Sure, whatever,” I said, “Ranch, barbeque, pickle and ice cream.” I felt his arm stiffen, and I smiled.
The old man was talking. “Phoenix. Last man here from Phoenix killed himself.”
“What?” I pulled on Ripley’s arm. He pulled away.
“Ye-as,” he continued, “A young man. He stopped here to buy cigarettes. Said he was dying of lung cancer and was driving out here to kill himself. Arranged it all. Kids provided for. Showed me the gun he did it with.” The old man looked like the story was delicious in his mouth.
I made a noise. “He showed you his gun?”
The old man kept talking, not looking at either of us now but looking between us. “Planned it all out. Not twenty miles from here. Pulled over and got out and shot himself right through the head, right here.” He jabbed at a spot on his own head above the temple with a dry finger.
Ripley wasn’t moving, so I took out my wallet and put the money on the counter.
“Great,” I said,” Thanks.”
The old man went on. “And you know what was funny? He didn’t even smoke. Cancer came out of nowhere. Genetic vulnerability, he called it. Told me he wanted to try a smoke before the end though. Life’s a trip.”
“Let’s go,” I said, shoving the snacks into my purse and yanking Ripley through the door.
In the car, after we’d finished the Cokes and chips, I said, “What an old freak.”
Ripley cracked a sunflower seed and flicked the shell out of his window, where the vortex of wind whipped it away.
“Don’t you think he was a freak?” I asked again.
The roar of the highway ate his reply.
“How did he even know all that? It makes no sense.”
“Police scanner, maybe,” Ripley said, with one hand on the wheel and the other out the window, spearing the wind.
“You don’t know.”
“You’re right,” he said, with a kind of edge in it, “I don’t know.”
I felt hot. I had a headache. The sun, filtered through glass, choked me. I said finally, “I thought you weren’t hungry.”
Ripley made a sucking sound through his teeth, like he did when he’d had enough. So I turned on the radio.
“Turn that off,” he said.
I turned it up. Voices of the dead came through static. Oh baby, oh baby. Ripley smacked the dial so hard that I jumped, and the seat belt caught.
“I told you to turn that off,” he said, “Fuck’s sake. Fuck’s sake.”
We drove in silence to miles of brown earth under a sky turning white. I looked out at the highway lines that were always converging and never meeting. I looked in the side mirror and saw the face of a passenger.
After a while, I put my hand on Ripley’s thigh.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” he said, but I was thinking about a dead jackrabbit, blood in the mountain, and a man with a hole in his head where the wind whistled through, already hollow.
Lituo Huang lives and works in Los Angeles. This is her first publication.