Heading up the steep grade, Dave punched hard on the gas. The ancient Dodge pickup shuddered, then picked up speed, finally clearing the semi.
“Pull over at the next town,” she said. “I need to pee.”
Dave hit his palm on the steering wheel. “Can’t you hold it? I just passed all these trucks. Jesus.”
“Fine. I’ll wet my pants.”
His grip tightened on the wheel. The small vein in the soft spot between his thumb and finger pulsated. Not yet three p.m. and already he needed a drink. Carolyn could use one herself.
“Why didn’t you say something earlier? We’ve passed a dozen rest stops.”
“One. And I didn’t have to go then.”
They were coming up on a town called Scipio, a borderless expanse of a few houses halfway through Utah. The Flying J took up most of it.
Dave cursed as he passed another car. Carolyn stared out the window. A flash of something caught her eye. A coyote? But with a quick and graceful twist of its torso, it slipped behind a rock and was gone. Perhaps it was nothing more than a shadow.
The last two hundred miles had been flat and unchanging, but up ahead steep cliffs straddled the highway. As they entered the canyon, sun and shadows patched Dave in half. His knees were in sunshine, while from thigh up, he was all black. She envisioned a horror movie with them driving into it. She wanted to tell Dave, but he wouldn’t understand. Dave passed another car.
“It’s right here. Come on, I’ll only be a minute.”
“Skipio,” that’s how he pronounced it, “what kind of dumb name is that for a town?”
In high school, she’d studied the Roman fighter who had defeated Hannibal. “It’s Scipio, like ‘sip’, you idiot. Not skip.” It was out of her mouth before she knew it.
Dave turned his head his voice low. “You think you’re so fucking smart.” His fingers pinched the signal shaft like he was squeezing a bug. They pulled in beside a busload of Asian tourists. “Better hurry,” he said.
She rushed to get in front of the line but only managed to wedge somewhere in the middle. Anxiously she looked over the river of black hair wending its way to the toilets. Dave was going to be furious. A young woman tried to pass her, but Carolyn stuck out her elbow. The woman released a soft grunt, then stepped back in line. Come on, come on, she pleaded silently. She looked at her watch. What was taking so long? She hoped Dave’s line was long too. But she knew it probably wasn’t. He’d be done and getting more irritated by the second. Carolyn’s turn finally. Jesus, just in time. After finishing, Carolyn looked for the woman but didn’t see her. She washed her hands quickly then dried them on the thighs of her jeans. The mirror caught her as she passed—big and square-faced, with long sweeps of graying hair on either side. Her shoulders hunched as if expecting the worst.
She checked the cashier line, but no Dave.
Outside, squinting against the bright light, she scanned the rows of cars. But the old blue pickup was nowhere in sight. She surveyed the lot one by one. Then circled the building. Once. Twice. She crossed the lot to a small straggle of trees and shielded her eyes. No Dave. This was not funny.
She returned to the building. The tourist group had lined up for ice cream at the attached Dairy Queen. Animated and chatting happily in their strange language, Carolyn was disoriented, as if she were the one in a foreign land. Laughter broke out. Were they laughing at her? She spotted the woman she’d elbowed. She smiled, but the woman turned away. Carolyn dropped her gaze too.
Red wooden benches lined the front of the store, and she took an empty seat at the far end. Enough was enough. Goddamn Dave. Her face broke out in a sweat even though it wasn’t hot. They were going to be late if he didn’t show up soon. Just then the old blue truck pulled in. She jumped up, not sure if she was angry or relieved. But it was just some kids. Two teenage boys and a girl. She got too close and mumbled an apology at their backs as they hurried into the store. She took her place back against the bench and checked her watch. Three-forty.
The tourists prepared to leave, lining up dutifully like kids in grade school. A woman with a whistle stood at the door counting heads as the group was sucked up into the bus, dark bumps materializing as they took their seats. The bus pulled out, blowing tumbleweeds from under its wheels, leaving a blast of black smoke hovering in the parking lot before disappearing. Carolyn stifled a cry. He’d be back.
She dug the toe of her shoe into the fine gravel and made a circle. She started to add the rays of the sun but stopped, instead crossing her feet, and hiding her size-eleven shoes under the bench. Side-by-side hers and Dave’s shoes looked about the same.
The parking lot was a shimmering pool, reflecting the sun back into her eyes. They watered, and she wiped them with the sleeve of her black tee-shirt. If you didn’t have blue eyes, Dave said, I’d never have noticed you. He didn’t say it to be mean. It was true. But that’s the way she liked it. Unadorned and receding into her surroundings. Like the camouflage Dave wore hunting.
They’d been on their way to Vegas to see Dave’s friends but had spent most of the trip in silence, Dave’s skinny arms hugging the oversized steering wheel. Hers were bigger by half. He’d never hit her, but she’d hit him once. They’d been on the bed watching TV, and in the middle of the movie—she couldn’t remember what it was—he’d climbed on top of her. Casting a sly eye, he grabbed a pillow and held it over her face just as her father had done when she was little. As a joke, he always claimed. She’d learned to be still. To take small breaths and quiet her panic until her dad got bored and let her up.
But that night her rage was sudden. She flailed, kicking up her legs and thrashing her arms. Her fists flew and her legs pumped, striking, hitting, slapping. When she sat up, Dave was on the floor, one knee up, a dazed look.
“You’re like the fucking Hulk,” he said, which drew a smile from him. She laughed then. Dave got up and handed her a beer with a glint of admiration. For something inside she had successfully hidden.
Scipio. It was a strange name for a small Mormon town. In her history class, they’d studied the Second Punic War. One of the few classes she’d liked. Her teacher, Miss Gregory, had dressed up in a toga and brought in Roman foods like unleavened bread and dates and olives. She hadn’t thought about school in years, but she remembered this class. Scipio’s army had been outmatched by Hannibal but he’d prevailed in defending his homeland. Maybe the Mormons felt that way too. It was a strange religion. But weren’t they all? God or many gods? What difference did it make? But in the end, they’d turned on him.
A family in a big Suburban pulled in. Four blond children piled out. They did have good looking families, the Mormons. The littlest boy stared at her, and the mom gave an apologetic smile.
“No worries,” she said. Her voice sounded foreign.
“Come on, kids,” said the young-looking dad. “Ice cream time!”
It was almost too quaint to be real, but Carolyn couldn’t help smiling. On the way out, the same little boy dropped his cone. Mom got the kids inside while Dad ran back for another. Carolyn couldn’t believe they’d let all those kids get into that nice car with ice cream. Lucky kids. They waved to her as they pulled out. She waved back, smiling, and hiding her tears even from herself.
Carolyn searched her jeans for a forgotten dollar. She’d kill for a cup of coffee. But her money was in her purse. In the truck. Could he be that cruel? Leave her here with nothing? She wasn’t perfect and neither was he. But really? Her ass was numb and she stood up, stretching. But she didn’t want to bring attention to herself and slumped back down. It reminded her of school again.
Carolyn had had few friends. A bulky girl from an early age, she’d learned to curl in her shoulders, lower her head, even buckle her knees to appear smaller, duller. Alone at lunch, she’d pull out her paper bag, consisting of a sandwich and an apple. Always on a diet, she nibbled at the edges. With her head in a book, hair over her face, she listened to the conversations around her.
Miss Gregory had encouraged her to go to college, calling her bright. Carolyn filled out a couple of applications but left them in the drawer, knowing she’d never go. Instead, she joined the army, where she met Dave. A skeletal stretch of human bone and skin. She’d been attracted to his haunted look. The way the two of them could disappear together. Then she got pregnant. She never dreamed Dave would want to marry her. But he did.
When she lost the baby, Dave held her and told her it would be okay. “We want to bring the kid up right,” he said. “Not like you and me had. Timing’s not right is all.” She didn’t want to try again. The hope, the possibility, was too much for her. But Dave convinced her, and after three years she got pregnant and again lost the baby. She took a bottle of Vodka and some sleeping pills she’d saved up to bed. She woke up with vomit in her hair. Dave stopped talking of a family. They worked, they drank too much. This was the first trip they’d taken in forever.
Carolyn still kept a stack of history books by the side of her bed that she got at the library. Dave thought it a waste of time. When she couldn’t sleep, she read.
“Why?” was Dave’s only question. “They’re all about dead people.”
“They are more alive than anyone I know.” She spoke softly, not sure he heard her.
Dave flicked through the channels. “You know you’re never going to see any of those places.”
Perhaps he had heard. She put the book down and took to reading in private.
She looked up at the last of the day. The sun was cresting. Dark recesses pooled beneath the cliffs. Something, she knew, hid there in the day. Maybe the coyote. She understood. Hiding in bright daylight was something she was used to. She checked her watch again.
As evening fell, fewer cars straggled in and out. In a couple of hours, it’d be dark. For something to do, she paced the parking lot. Blended odors of old frying grease and sickly-sweet soured cream hit her as she passed the Dairy Queen. The pavement stuck to her feet. Although nauseated, her stomach growled for food. But she’d already been inside a couple of times to use the restroom and to drink from the bathroom sink, and after a few minutes she returned to her bench.
Lights blinked on in the scattered houses across the highway, her own darkness now more complete. Hot tears filled her eyes and she quickly dried them. There was never any use in it. Stupid town. Named for something great, it was now forgotten and lost. She’d been named for nothing.
It was past six o’clock now. If they were home, Dave would crack a beer or open a jug of wine. If he drank too much he would start. They never should have gotten married, he’d say. Two of their halves did not make a whole. She cupped her ears, curled into a tight ball, and went to sleep. She could fall asleep standing up, Dave always said. But she could never remember her dreams.
Of all the things she’d wanted in life, she’d never asked for one of them. Was it too goddamn much to expect her husband not to leave her in the middle of goddamn nowhere? What had she ever done to deserve this? It was all just too goddamn much. Her heart raced as her eyes darted from here to there. Where would she go? What could she do? She didn’t need much. A dark quiet place. A little food.
Headlights startled her out of her thoughts. They swept across her chest and then cut off. A pretty dark-haired woman pulled in alone.
Carolyn was up out of her seat before she knew it. “Excuse me,” her voice came out small. She cleared her throat. “Excuse me. Could I use your phone? My husband left me.”
The woman glanced at her, squeezing her purse to her side. “Sorry. I’m in a hurry,” she said, pushing past.
Carolyn stared at the woman’s back as she went into the store. The bell chimed above the door before shutting in her face. Shaking, she stumbled back to her bench, numb. Who would she have called, anyway? She had no one except for Dave. When the woman came back out, Carolyn ducked instinctively.
The woman hesitated in front of her, then dug through her large leather bag and held out her phone.
“Never mind, it’s okay.” Carolyn was crying, her face wet. She couldn’t stop it now if she tried.
“Do you need money?” The woman opened her wallet and pulled out a twenty. Then another. “Here. Take it.”
It took everything she had, but Carolyn stood. She struggled to steady her voice. She was hungry and tired and thirsty and wanted the forty dollars. “No, really. I’m fine.” Then she blurted. “My husband, Mike.” She wondered why she changed the name. “He thought I was asleep in the back of the car. He didn’t know I’d gotten out. He’ll be back.”
The woman narrowed her eyes in pity. She glanced at her waiting car.
“It’s fine. He’ll realize I’m not there and… He’ll be back.” Even if their two halves did not make quite a whole, it was still better than nothing. Right?
“Well, if you’re certain.” The woman dropped the money and her phone back in her bag.
Certain? Carolyn wasn’t certain of anything other than this woman offered nothing she could ever have. She took a step back into the shadows, breathing more calmly now. The woman lingered and then with an almost indiscernible shrug got into her car.
The parking lot was mostly quiet. The semis entered at the other end, their bright lights not reaching her. Fewer cars pulled in and those that did were colorless now. As were the people. Framed but not detailed. None of them saw her. Carolyn tried to make herself comfortable on the hard bench. She curled up, knees to her chest, her chin resting in her hands. An eerie chattering started up in the dark. The coyotes.
She must have fallen asleep. Remnants of a dream floated above her, but she couldn’t quite reach it. Bright beams nearly blinded her, their searching headlights uncovering her. She rubbed her eyes. And stared into the cab of the old pick-up.
Kelly Simmons received her BA from the University of Montana and MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, NC. She recently published her first novel and is currently working on a screenplay about a true Montana murder. Her stories appear in “The Forge Literary Magazine,” “Prick of the Spindle,” “Lost Coast Review,” and “Scintilla Press.”
Photo: Tante Tati