The middle of nowhere—that was my address, where I lived with my parents in a house surrounded by superabundant bouquets of festering weeds winding through ravines and meadows. Some days, they stood like cadets. Other times, the fiddlenecks and thickets collapsed in shame, tumbling across rock-strewn roads in the ghostly Santa Ana winds. Plentiful and yellow between winter and spring, the underbrush sagged, turning brown by summer. A few blocks away, through the dense mongrel shrubs lay Palm Avenue. Palm was the pothole-ridden road out of our neighborhood, winding downward toward the freeway.
One day in August, my friend James and I were packing the car for a Tae Kwon Do tournament in San Diego when Glen stopped by to see my father and show him his new Harley Davidson. James and I were scheduled to compete for the first time. I was fourteen—a yellow belt with butterflies in my stomach. Glen was my father’s client and friend. Wearing a leather vest, a Russian fur hat, glasses, and a long grey beard, Glen shook my father’s hand. Then he started his motorcycle parked at the curb. The engine roared, pistons chopping the air like helicopter blades. “I’ll race you to the freeway,” he shouted as we got into my father’s black Trans Am. Glen sped away toward the broken roads leading to Palm.
My father struggled to keep up as Glen accelerated. His black bike bore a tunnel through the air toward the freeway overpass. On the opposite side of the street, a white Trans Am approached. A moment before Glen passed it, the car turned in front of him.
The thunderous impact and kinetic image of Glen soaring above the telephone wires remained in my mind on a loop, forcing me to recall its ugliest details. I barely remember us pulling over. But I can recall seeing my father sprinting toward the white car—and then past it to where Glen lay. I remember seeing Glen’s boots in the road, a hundred feet down the road past the crash site. And I remember being unable to find the furry hat he wore—or his glasses.
Searching in vain, I looked over my shoulder toward my father’s house and the San Bernardino mountains looming behind it. I saw the iconic arrowhead etched into the face of the mountain, and I recalled the legend of the Cahuilla tribe using this arrowhead as an indicator, hundreds of years ago, traveling toward it to a secluded hot spring. Then I wondered what we must look like from all the way up there—a world unto itself, unburdened by car accidents.
Across the street from the crash site lay a small church—its pointed roof interrupting the brambly expanse. On the other side, a few whitish ranch-style houses stood amongst the yellow-flowered buttercup, bull thistle, and barnyardgrass, the last of which grew taller than me. I met some of the residents of our sparse neighborhood there when I used to go to that church. One day, I walked the nearby fields flanking Palm. I was rambling alone through a savannah of shintangle, traversing bursage and brome, picking prickly burrs and yellow foxtails from my socks when a group of frowning boys approached me. I knew the short one—Eric—but the others were strangers. The tallest, biggest boy spoke rapidly, breathing heavily through his mouth, bringing himself to within inches of my startled face. When I looked at Eric, the kid sucker punched me. Eric and the others laughed as I ran away. Going to bed that night with a fat lip, I swore I’d never return there by myself.
Roused from my thoughts by the sound of a train creeping by, steel wheels squealing, scraping rust. I looked at Glen, who stared at the sky, fingers curled, holding a black leather glove in one bare hand. He looked calm, lying on his back in faded blue jeans and fuzzy socks. The verdurous pastures on either side of the street were silent. No wind. Overhead, a red-tailed hawk surveyed the fields for food. We lived so far from civilization that the police took an hour to arrive.
We made it to the tournament that night, and I channeled my shock and anxiety into two first-place trophies. I told myself I was doing it for Glen. On the ride home, I learned Glen’s wife was nine months pregnant with their first child. Driving back up Palm from the freeway, we pulled over, gazing at the broken glass glittering in the road under my father’s headlights.
We dropped James off. Then we went home. Our house was silent when I slid into bed, my body still numb, those seconds on Palm coursing through me like ice water. My father stood in the doorway of my bedroom. I sensed him trying not to cry. Then he turned out the light and I heard him open the door to his bedroom. I heard my stepmother’s voice. Then he closed the door.
Jason M. Thornberry’s work appears in The Los Angeles Review of Books, North Dakota Quarterly, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Broadkill Review, and elsewhere. Jason overcame a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic epilepsy. Relearning to walk and speak, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. He lives in Seattle with his wife, where he’s hard at work on his first novel.