By Olivia Parkes
Art always filled up at the same Valero station before heading to the depot in Lucerne, to change into the semi and load up his delivery for the day. He always stopped for breakfast at Ted’s off the I-15 near Victorville, where the waitresses knew him, and brought round the coffee pot when it was still piping hot. He had his routines—a regular guy with regular places. Art knew well enough that it was no bad thing to know where you’d been when and have a record to back it up. He liked signing on and off the log at the depot and relaxing with Edie in the evenings, the day closed behind him and his movements linked in a neat, continuous alibi.
Not that he needed one—Art was all straightened out now. A working married man with a deep trucker’s tan on his left arm and a wedding band on the hand of the same to prove it. But he didn’t like surprises, and he’d been sharp with Edie when she told him halfway through their creamed corn and chops that a man had called for him three times that day and refused to leave his name.
“What do you mean he didn’t want to spoil the surprise? You two planning a birthday party?”
“I told you, he said he was at school with you. Seemed to know your schedule, said he’d catch you at Ted’s tomorrow morning,” Edie said. Art turned up the volume on the TV, a scaremongering news program that neither of them liked. His eyes flicked to the bookshelf, the top three rows packed with albums—his old yearbook was probably there somewhere. Edie kept everything. The albums gave Art a feeling like a headache coming on, and he told her so. He was disturbed by the unceasing pattern of the seasons—Christmas photos giving way to the Fourth of July weekend spent sweating in Reno, his belly getting looser over the years till it caught up with him. Winters and summers: the months snapping back unfailingly into shape and the years flip-flopping after one another like a thrown Slinky moving down stairs.
Art would be forty-nine that year, Edie as well. They were the same age—the same height too—though he knew she thought a woman should be younger than her man, or at least smaller. He’d liked the slightly mannish figure of her when they’d met, her solidity countered by fine tapered hands and hair that curled softly at her temples. “A woman I won’t lose track of. Someone with the strength to support me in my old age,” he’d joked.
And she had supported him, at least at the beginning. Art had found it difficult to get stable employment with jail time on his record, and when they’d married eight years ago Edie had brought with her a modest inheritance from a maiden aunt. He’d used the money to buy shares in a real estate investment trust instead of paying off the mortgage on their new house, and for a few years they’d used the small biannual profits to make their monthly payments—buying property with other people’s faith in property—he’d said triumphantly, but the checks stopped coming after the crash while the bills continued to arrive, the numbers in bold red text, or highlighted pink, like a rash.
Art rubbed a hand over his eyes. He’d be good tomorrow—no more of that monkey business with the invoices. Yes he’d be good, and he hoped the morning would be good to him. Art hadn’t had many friends at school. He viewed that time like an old battleground, mine-studded, carefully tamped down and fallow: a plain stretch of brown earth that you could nevertheless lose a limb walking over. He was grateful for one thing. The boy he’d really run around with in those years—they’d just been boys after all—wasn’t in a position to get in touch.
He was sitting there just like a picture. Everett Dobbs, unmistakable, though Art hadn’t laid eyes on him since the trial when they were both nineteen. The same rattlesnake head, curiously flat on top, high cheekbones tapering to a narrow chin.
Art slid into the booth and sat with his palms down on the table. The formica felt sticky with old lunches or the spray used to wipe it down. “Artie Mills,” Everett said, “the lucky man himself.” Art blinked. His eyes felt dry. Everett signaled the waitress, who approached lazily and stood with a cocked hip. Everett looked her up and down and smiled.
“Well thank you,” he said, “two coffees, black, and you can blow on them for us if they look too hot.” She walked off with a lift in her hips and Art remembered the way Everett had always had with women, exuding a mix of charm and restrained cruelty, a cold flattering glow that worked on them like jewelry.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Art said at last. “Everett. What are you doing back in Twentynine Palms?”
“Visiting old friends.” His voice was the same, a touch high, the permanent edge of a laugh ironed into it. Art noticed that he was chewing gum.
They had been friends, it was true. Or at least they’d gotten up to an awful lot together when they were young. Wise boys. Drinking and driving, shoplifting for the hell of it. I dare you. Funny that a child’s taunt should have retained its power through adolescence but it had, and they’d pushed each other from daring to reckless until one day Everett stole his daddy’s pistol. I dare you. The robbery went wrong. They’d guessed the old man likely kept a shotgun behind the counter, but no one knew he had a Glock strapped to his shin or that he’d be dumb enough to fire it for eighty-three bucks and the rest of the shrapnel in the register. He shot Everett in the leg just below the knee and Everett killed him, his brains scattering over the map of California on the back wall like the weather forecast.
“When did you get out?” Art asked.
“About eight months ago. Early release for the redeemed. A young boy barely a man clapped in irons, found Jesus, found education, even set up a lending library between California prisons. Simple pimple. Everybody likes a story about good and evil. But you know all about that, don’t you?”
They’d both gone to prison, but Art had served a reduced sentence: eighteen months in the bucket and the same again in community service, scrubbing graffiti off municipal buildings. He’d cooperated. When it came to light that Everett had also been responsible for a string of crimes in the neighboring towns, including the vivid murder of a house cat during a break-in, Art had filled in details where he could and looked into the gulf deepening between their lives with relief so strong it felt like vertigo. Lawyers liked a solid drama and the story that played in court was that Art had been a good kid hauled in on a prank—hadn’t even known the gun was loaded—and that Everett was a corrupter, a bad seed.
“It’s a long time ago now, Everett,” he said.
The coffee arrived. Everett spat his gum into the palm of his hand and studied it, a little pink brain, before pressing it deliberately to the underside of the table.
“Time,” he said, “is a funny thing. I figure you’ve had more of it than me. But mine’s felt a hell of a lot longer. And I just don’t seem to have enough now for small talk.”
“Well talk big then,” Art snapped. He wanted to leave. He was a free man, that had been the deal, fair or not, and he didn’t owe Everett a thing.
“I know you’ve been stinging your boss,” Everett said.
Art felt the coffee burning a trail in his empty gut. He usually took his with milk. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied after a pause.
“Your little trick with the numbers.”
Art had taken—only occasionally, toward the end of the month—to fudging the invoices he handled at drops, overcharging and processing “refunds” on his portable till so that the books showed even, and the difference, which had started as the odd hundred, had racked into thousands.
“How in the hell did you come up with an idea like that?” Art asked.
“You mean how did I find out? It’s like everything you’ve ever done, Art: half-hearted, one foot in the ring. If you’re going to steal, steal. If you’re going to lie, lie. If you’re going to kill—”
Art broke in, “I never—” but Everett wasn’t finished.
“Anyone can phone up pretending to be a client and ask for a faxed copy of the receipt.” He paused, and smiled at Art’s whitening face. “There you go, like an idiot kid, pushing things just a little and getting out of the way quick, hoping they won’t fall down and crush you.”
“I’m going to pay it all back.”
“I’d venture that it won’t look like a loan to your lender, but I’m sure the cops will be able to straighten it out between the two of you,” Everett replied. The diner was nearly empty. A woman at the next table dismantled her burger, removing the lettuce and tomato before clapping the ketchuped bun back around the meat.
“And?” Art said.
“You’re looking worried, Artie. It doesn’t suit you. A soft face like that, turning to pudding. Don’t get too tied up—I just want to spend a little time together.” Art looked blank. Everett laughed suddenly, a shock in the cool air-conditioned room.
“Games, Artie, games. I’ve been locked up. I want to play again.”
Art only made it a couple of stoplights before pulling over in the empty lot of the nearest strip mall. He bought a Dr. Pepper from the vending machine and drank it down without collecting his change. He sat back in the car. His hands were shaking. He put them on the wheel and eyed himself in the rearview mirror. He’d lost weight when he quit drinking and gained it again in different places: the paunch of a man with sedentary work and a wife who didn’t like leftovers. Everett had looked spare, concentrated, as if the unspent vigor of his years had been melted down and forged into a hard pellet, like a gun loaded with a single bullet.
Edie was on the phone when Art let himself in. He raised a palm in greeting before slipping into the kitchen. They didn’t keep much liquor in the house, but he managed to pour a couple of fingers of bourbon into a glass of sweet tea before Edie came in.
She nodded as if he’d asked a question. “Just Cheryl calling for gossip. Mike’s been off with the boys in Big Bear. How was your reunion?”
“Oh, we barely recognized each other. Walked right by him to get a soda at the counter. He sells insurance now, just passing through. One of those divorced types taken to looking people up.” The lie reassured him, repainting the encounter in broad white strokes. He always had been a good liar. Edie didn’t know—had never known—that he’d even been in prison. He looked hard at his wife. The roots of her hair needed doing and she was wearing an apron around her neck, the strings at the back undone. Suddenly he loved her very much.
Art went to work as usual, signing his name on the log like his own confession. He drove the familiar route with his hands at ten and two on the wheel, back straight as a schoolboy’s in church, and handed in his time sheet promptly at six. He was meeting Everett at the abandoned railway car up by Edom Pass, one of their old haunts, just off an unmaintained stretch of the highway. Art hadn’t been there in years, and was surprised to see the rusted compartment just as it had been, stripped down to siding and signage, halted at an arbitrary angle against the rosy desert backdrop like a toy abandoned by a child. Everett walked out of the empty doorframe and Art pulled up abruptly, parking right there with his front wheel slumped in a rut.
“Home sweet home,” Everett said, slapping the side of the carriage when Art got out. Art ducked his head into the wreck but didn’t enter. The only sign of Everett’s stay was a single mattress on the floor made up with military precision.
“What are we doing, Everett?”
“You’re not pleased to be back? We had a good old time up here.” Everett laughed. His face looked smooth and greenish in the twilight. He had the complexion of a boy, unlined apart from a pair of firm parentheses around his mouth. “Our paths diverged so suddenly,” Everett continued, “that I thought it’d do us good, to spend a little time going over common ground.”
Art shifted his weight, tapping his empty pocket for a cigarette. He didn’t smoke anymore. “Let’s just get on with whatever it is you have in mind. I don’t want to be home late.”
“All right,” Everett said. He produced a flat bottle of whiskey from the front pocket of his flannel jacket, sipped and offered it. Art took a tight-lipped swig and passed it back wordlessly. Everett slapped him on the back. “We’re going for a ride. You’re driving.”
“Do you remember playing Taxi?” Everett asked when they were in the car.
“Kids get up to a lot of stupid shit, Everett.”
“But you remember how it goes?”
“Sure,” Art said, keeping his voice flat. “A dumb prank—pick up some kid hitching and give him a hard time, drop him somewhere he didn’t want to be.”
“A hard time,” Everett repeated. “You always did have that way with words, Artie—saying things halfway, and so nice it seems you halfway believe them.” Art said nothing and Everett nodded. “Start her up.”
As he drove, at a steady fifty, Art read the numbers on the odometer dial backwards to slow his thinking: one-hundred twenty, one-hundred ten, one-hundred. ‘Taxi’ was a game they’d played if they chanced upon a likely victim: a kid who’d missed his ride, a bum making his way lamely to the shelter in Morongo. Ninety, eighty, seventy. They’d ask him where he was going, tell him to hop in and take a lift. They took turns driving, but Art was always the hook. He’d been especially good at affecting a kind of home-grown pleasantness, equally placid and attentive, turning down the radio and repeating the stranger’s destination back to them. It nearly always worked. Then they’d child-lock the doors and turn up the music and make the first turn off the main road—racing and yee-hawing like lunatics, saying things like we hope you’re wearing your best shoes we’re going to meet the devil himself or have you ever seen the backyard of the meat packing plant at night have you ever seen a crucifixion?—the distances between traffic lights getting wider and wider until they disappeared entirely and they were alone in the empty hellish world of their own making. Sixty fifty fifty-five.
“You pick,” Everett said. “Slow down when you see one you like.”
Forty. Forty. Like so many things with Everett, the game started out one way and grew into something other. Mostly they’d just ride the guy around and scare him a little, leaving him by the road disoriented and without his shoes, maybe, but soon they were driving them further out, dropping the terrified passengers in the middle of the scrub, making them strip.
Once, one of the younger ones—he couldn’t have been more than fourteen—got to bawling, and Everett turned around and slapped him, hard. Then he did it again. After they dropped him, flame cheeked and running with snot, Art saw the boy had pissed himself. He spent the next hour frantically scrubbing the backseat of his dad’s Chevy with Woolite.
Sitting there now next to Everett, Art remembered the acrid, spreading scent of urine. Just before the road converged with the main drag of town, they came up behind a grey-headed man walking, a half-empty plastic gallon jug of water in one hand.
“That feller there looks like he could use a lift. You want to let’s ask?” Art slowed the car and Everett said, “Where you headed old man?” Art’s eyes glanced off the bum’s sunburnt face and caught on his feet, nut brown and swelling out from a pair of filthy sneakers tramped down in the heel like bedroom slippers. “We could drop you by the First Christian Church,” Everett was saying, “Get you fixed up with a shower and a hot meal.” The man looked half mad with sun and drink and lucklessness. His eyes moved from one to the other of them, and then he nodded at Art. He turned and opened the back door. Art felt a sick flutter in his chest and pressed down on the accelerator, flooring it, his mind empty and bright. The car tore into the left lane, the open door flapping like a flightless bird and the bum receding behind them, stunned, then beginning to holler, the water from the spilled gallon jug blackening the dirt around his feet.
Everett cackled. “Well that’s a new kind of laugh. Too easy though. You need to loosen up.”
When he got home Edie was at the kitchen table, clipping coupons with her sewing scissors. He sat down across from her and she looked at him with alarm.
“Art,” she said, her voice sharpening. “Have you been drinking?” He had.
“Oh lay off me, Edie. Ed Mulligan bought me a scotch when I beat him at Around the Clock and I drank it. So sue me. I don’t need to come home to this shit.” Her face blanched and fell, like dough that hadn’t risen properly. He could feel his ugliness, and it made her ugly too.
“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, meaning it. “Bad day on the road. Traffic like taffy.”
“There’s cold chicken in the fridge,” she said. “I’m going to soak my feet.” Edie had bunions from her years standing as a mail sorter at the post office, but she only mentioned them when she felt bullied. She turned in the doorway.
“That man called again, about half an hour before you came in. Dobson, is that his name?” Art’s eyes tore up at her. “What?”
“Dobson, Dobs—the friend who looked you up—sells insurance, you said?” He nodded mutely and the hurt crept back into her voice. “Well he said he was looking forward to supper on Sunday. What’s this, we’re entertaining, you don’t even ask?”
The rest of the week passed in a senseless sequence, the hours rolling and flashing like numbers in a slot machine. Art had heard nothing more from Everett. He’d hassled Edie about the call—what was the voice like, you’re sure he said Dobbs, with a D, you’re sure it wasn’t just some clam selling insurance—until she’d wept and asked, halfway in earnest, if he thought she was crazy.
Art drove up to Edom Pass to find him but there was no sign that anyone had ever been there. Everett’s disappearance, as jolting as the sight of him in the diner—now you see him, now you don’t—hit Art like whiplash and jumpstarted a reel of memory, Everett present in every frame, smooth-faced and timeless as a conjurer.
The two of them up late, prank calling the old widow on Dumosa until she disconnected her phone. Blocking the sinks and flooding the bathrooms in the high school until the janitor had a fit at one of the freshman and got his ass fired. And there it was, a horror to recall: the time they’d caught Laurie Abrams screwing her brother’s best friend and made her cut off her hair—the price of keeping mum—and Everett had nailed the mousy braid above his bed like a fetish.
Little boys had been known to pull the wings off of flies or feed Alka-Seltzer to pigeons. They were grown though, targeting people, and experiments in petty cruelty had evolved into a campaign of real wickedness. His misdeeds with Everett twisted into an ugly rope and bound them together. Art knew now what he’d been ashamed to know then: that he’d wanted that, to tie himself to Everett, Everett who was free from doubt or fear or coercion. He’d been spellbound by the purity of his poison, a boy untouched by the things he did or the things people said about him, emerging unscathed from the rubble, as beautiful and empty-eyed as an old statue.
They’d spent the night before the hold-up drinking and setting off flares in a disused field. Art’s memory of the evening was lit only by flashes: Everett spinning his arm round and round like a pinwheel and letting go with a squawk, the flare catching in the top of the Pinyon pine and the fire rising like something holy. He remembered Everett’s face, illuminated by the blaze, his features cast sharply in black and white like an actor in an old movie, like he was exactly that: a flickering show of surface and shadow, something you could watch but never enter. Everett caught his stare and laughed. Then he kissed him, full on the mouth, and Art had been so surprised he’d bitten down, hard, their two mouths singing briefly with blood.
Edie had made too much food: beef and macaroni casserole, chicken salad, deviled eggs and biscuits. A bright wheel of cut veggies was laid out with the other dishes on the low sideboard. Art swiped a carrot through the ranch dip. He felt like a hired clown waiting for the kids to arrive.
The bell rang at six. Everett stepped forward as soon as Art opened the door, his shoulder meeting Art’s outstretched arm. Everett was wearing the same clothes that Art had last seen him in, dirty jeans and a matted flannel shirt, the outfit spruced up by a conspicuous red necktie. Art stood blocking the doorway until Edie nudged up behind him crossly to let the guest in. Everett shook her hand in both of his and introduced himself: Everett Leonard Dobbs, proud graduate of Arroyo Valley High and nothing much since. Art stared dumbly at the necktie.
“Festive, isn’t it?” Everett said, twiddling the bright cloth between his fingers. “Lifted it this afternoon from the Western Outfitters on El Serena. Five finger discount.” After an awful pause he bowed his head slightly at Edie. “Just a joke ma’am—I’m in the insurance business—we have to make jokes about being crooked or you’d never think we were straight.” He winked at her. She flushed and asked if she could bring him a drink—juice, wine, iced tea?—before disappearing into the kitchen.
“Everett,” Art whispered harshly when she was gone, “I swear if you pull any kind of stunt—”
“Relax, amigo. This is just what quality time looks like.” Everett walked up to the sideboard and dug two fingers into the corner of the casserole, scooped it up and sucked. Edie stood staring at him on the kitchen threshold, holding out the glass of milk he’d wanted. He grinned and wiped his fingers on the seat of his jeans. “Sorry ma’am, feels like decades since I’ve been treated to a home-cooked meal.”
“Let’s eat it then,” Art said, pressing a plate into Everett’s hands and loading it haphazardly from all the dishes before serving himself. Edie was looking at him now. She was still frozen in the doorway. “Of course,” he said, too loudly, as if surprised to see her there. “Of course—ladies first. A little of everything?”
Everett ate with exaggerated gusto, exclaiming especially over the biscuits, which were underdone and gummy. Art worked at his plate and ignored him. Edie fluttered from one topic to another—the particular dryness that year, the luxury of having had proper air-conditioning installed, and did either of them know how far north the new express lanes ran? Several times she excused herself to check the progress of the pie.
“So tell me,” she said to Everett after a brief stay in the kitchen. “What was this one here like in high school?” She nodded at Art. “Chasing after all the girls?”
Everett laughed. “Well I don’t know if he chased them but they sure knew to run.”
“Look,” Art said firmly, “Let’s not talk about back when. It’s all half make-believe by now anyway.”
“Half this, half that,” Everett said. He turned to Edie. “I’m surprised you got him more than halfway to the altar.” He wiped his mouth on his napkin. “It’s a pleasure ma’am, to meet the wife of Arthur Mills, Mrs. Mills herself, and I don’t mean his mother. You see I never thought he’d tend much that way myself. Home and hearth. But you know what they say about the love of a good woman.” He looked between the two of them, grinning.“That it sure must beat the love of a bad man.” He slapped the table and his knife slid off the rim of his plate. Edie’s face was gripped in a forced smile.
“I seem to have soured the mood,” Everett said. “How about a game then, after dinner?” He pushed his plate away, half-full.
“The pie,” Edie said. “Well, we do have a couple of packs of cards.”
“None of that business—too close to gambling. How about,” he looked at Art, “truth or dare?” He produced a knife from his front pocket and flicked the blade up before placing it on the table in front of him. A new silence emptied the room. “I’ll go first.” He spun the knife, a brief wheel of quicksilver that stuttered and stopped, pointing blindly between Edie and Art. Edie half-rose.
“I think I’ll leave you boys to it,” she said, moving to clear the dishes. As she reached for the rim of Everett’s plate, he grabbed her by the wrist.
“We need your wife to play too,” he said, looking at Art. Edie was staring at her hand, emerging frozen from Everett’s grasp, the fingers spread wide.
“What’s happening, Art?” she said. Art met Everett’s eyes but couldn’t seem to speak. “Mr. Dobbs,” Edie said, a rasp of panic roughening her voice.
“Everett, please. Call me Everett. Mrs. Mills—Edith. Has your husband been telling you lies?” She sat down and he released her wrist. Everett took a stick of unwrapped chewing gum out of his front pocket and folded it into his mouth.
“What’s he talking about, Art?” Edie asked. They were both looking at him now. He didn’t think his face could bear it.
“It’s all right, Edith. A lie’s an easy thing. Light-weight, flexible. There’s all kinds and degrees. For example I’m sure it just hasn’t come up between the two of you—omission that’s called—the time he spent in prison. I take issue with that one in particular, seeing as he ought to have been locked up for longer. It seems unjust for Artie here to strike it entirely off his record.” Edie’s eyes returned to her hand, lying open on the table where Everett had left it.
“Ain’t that right Art?” These words delivered like a series of swift light slaps to the cheek. “You talked that crime to life. That old buzzard in the shop you said. Show him what-for, bastard having your truck towed. Give him a scare and more if he asks right.” Art’s mouth tasted like running when you were out of shape. Douse the thought—he hadn’t looked at it in years didn’t touch it—but he did remember paying some whopper of a fine and hauling his ass out to Cathedral City to pick up the Chevy. He used to park it in the convenience store lot for hours and never buy anything. Everett looked at Edie again.
“He gave most of that up—the straightforward hell-bound raising Cain—but he kept up stealing. Your husband’s been paying the mortgage with money knocked off from his boss. He used your nest egg to buy this house, the house you still don’t own, and he never even let you lay anything in it.” He smiled, finished with her. “Nothing here belongs to you.”
“Never did want children, did you Artie? Couldn’t rouse yourself to give the girl a brat? I can see why you went for her in the end though. Just enough of a woman to shut people up.”
“Get up,” Art said.
“You should have stayed with me in the pen, Art,” Everett said. “You might’ve liked it.” Spittle shone on his lips.
Everett’s words clapped around in Art’s head, an echo off the bone. He had nothing to say. It had always been a matter of doing with Everett, of taking the dare. Art needed to move, to slice through his mind’s paralysis by severing one moment from the next. Cut loose, Everett’s grin said. Cut free. Fall, and share the grace of a single, inevitable perspective: the world seen from the eye of a dropped bomb.
Art snatched up the knife on the table and slashed at Everett. He was after the necktie, he thought, if he thought anything at all. Everett slapped the knife away without flinching and laughed, a bright seam appearing on his hand. A fine patter of blood bloomed on the tablecloth. Edie screamed.
“I seem to have worn out my welcome,” Everett said, standing. “It’s been a pleasure.” He held Art’s eyes as he reached over to Edie and shook her unresisting hand, marking it with a wet kiss of blood. He hooked his thumb around the neck of Art’s undrunk beer and left.
Art and Edie stood looking at each other over the dirty dishes. The sideboard was sloppy with leftovers. They’d be eating this mess for days, Art thought. Edie was gazing at him with undisguised revulsion, her cheeks unevenly mottled, like she’d been bitten by a snake.
“Why did you marry me?” she asked. Art said her name—Edith—but she shook her head once, tossing the word out, and said, “Have you always lied?”
He marveled again at how solid she seemed—the wide hips measured by her shoulders, the shapely legs grading into ankles a little too thick for grace. The bookshelves behind her were solid too, heavy for the room, pine painted to look like something older and darker. They’d chosen them together. Art felt lightweight by comparison. He looked at the photo albums lining the shelves and felt a surge of unexpected tenderness. Art and Edie at Niagara, Art and Edie taking a boat out on Lake Arrowhead. She had always been satisfied with the pictures, even when his eyes were closed or a hapless tourist’s finger blurred the lower corner of the frame. She had been satisfied with the picture he presented of himself, slotting it in gamely with the others. She had never challenged it. She had never challenged him to be anything at all. How could he tell her that he’d loved her for that?
It was hot already when he left, the sky a cloudless unwrinkled blue. He stopped briefly at the bank and cleared their joint account—four hundred and forty-two dollars—and was on the road early, with the first commuters. He’d taken the money but not much else, clothes and camping gear, three peanut butter sandwiches. He stopped at the Valero and bought a bag of potato chips while the tank filled. A dry wind scuffed an eddy of dust across the paved lot of the station, dulling the door of a newly washed car. It was going to be a scorcher.
Art drove with the windows up. The landscape rippled from one town into the next, half-empty parking lots mushrooming out, flat, gray, continuous. A balloon figure whipped itself into a boneless frenzy over a yard of bright, undriven cars. The heat climbed but Art didn’t turn on the air. He kept the radio off too. He wanted to be sealed in, shut up, unruffled by a breeze or sound. He could suffer the heat for this, or the fires of hell. Art drove for hours, entranced by the steady glare of concrete and sky. Sweat drew dark parabolas under his arms. He was perfectly contained, a capsule responding to the slightest pressure of his foot.
Art swerved hard when he heard the shot. The crack in the calm sent his heart sailing in terror, while the car kicked blessedly into the empty shoulder and was overtaken by the successive screams of a horn. He sat trembling at the wheel. The windscreen was intact—the windows too. The bastard had missed. Art realized after a few beats that it seemed to be snowing in the car. Pale flakes drifted down through the baked air and settled without melting. Art touched a hand to his damp forehead and his finger to his tongue. Salt and vinegar. He twisted round. The bag of Lay’s sat in a litter of crushed potato chips, its exposed lining making a silver gash on the backseat. It had swelled and exploded in the heat. Art sat stopped on the shoulder for a long time while the cars thundered past before rejoining the bright eternal stream of traffic.
Olivia Parkes is a British-American writer and painter based in Berlin. She writes about California to keep warm. Her work has been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The New Haven Review, SAND Journal, Stand Magazine, and Bosque. She was named runner-up in the Bosque Fiction Prize in 2014.