Highway 49: Running on Empty

By Lydia Kardum

Without any warning, the car rolled to a stop.

Chloe leaned over Marilyn’s shoulder to get a clear view of the gas gauge. “It’s empty. Bone dry.”

Marilyn, who sat in the driver’s seat, stared blankly at the dashboard, and then blinked in shock. “That’s impossible. I had half a tank a few miles back.”

Heaving a great big sigh, Chloe shook her head. “Great, this is just great. Where the hell are we?”

With an incredulous stare, both girls gazed through the windows of their useless Honda Civic at an insanely long stretch of highway. In an attempt to drive to college without the help of parents or relatives, Marilyn had insisted that they plan the route on their smart phones before leaving. Unfortunately, somewhere between California and Arizona, the signal failed and neither seventeen year old knew how to read a proper map.

“What road is this?”

“You’re asking me?” Eyebrow arched, Chloe scoffed at the question. “You know I suck at geography.” Once again, she turned to her phone for help. “What is up with the sketchy signal? Did we drive into a grey zone?”

Thankful that the late August sky was still bright and sunny, Marilyn opened the door, stepped out and got down on all fours. Cheek pressed to the hot cement, she investigated the underside of the car with her limited knowledge of mechanics. Did the gas tank have a leak? If so, it would have to be fixed immediately. Otherwise, their budgeted two hundred dollars for fuel wouldn’t last more than a few hours.

She heard Chloe jump out the passenger side. Her painted toenails and pink flip flops shuffled on the other side of the Honda Civic. “What are you doing down there?”

“Looking for a leak, but I don’t see anything. There isn’t a puddle.”

Standing once again, brushing the dirt from her knees, Marilyn turned to the road. The horizon was startlingly flat and dusty. There were no cars in the distance. The vast, empty, open road was intimidating and somewhat eerie.

“Look, there’s a sign over there.” Chloe pointed into the sun. “I’ll go check it out.”

Nerves slightly jangled, Marilyn leaned against the open car door while she waited for Chloe to return. Although she wasn’t especially hungry, she rummaged through their luggage in the back seat and found a box of granola bars. The instant sugar surge helped her feel more alert.

Chloe’s blonde head bobbed back into view.

“Well? What does it say?” Marilyn, always the nervous type, tried to ignore her beating heart. She held her breath.

“We’re on Highway 49. Apparently, there’s a gas station about three miles away.”

Thankful for the information, Marilyn found the paper map, unfolded the massive document and immediately began searching the tangle of squiggly lines for a familiar point of reference. Thirty minutes and a few disagreements later, using a stubby pencil to trace the route, Marilyn felt like the problem was close to being solved.

“I have an idea.” Chloe squinted but seemed confident.

Every time Chloe said those words, Marilyn winced. Their friendship was the perfect example of how opposites attract. “What?”

“Don’t look so scared! The gas station is about three miles away, right? Why don’t I put on my running shoes and jog down the highway? Wait, before you say no, hear me out. I’m sure a mechanic could give me a ride back. Worst case scenario, I have to walk back with a bucket of gas. It’s only, like, four or five kilometres. I can do that in my sleep.”

“I don’t like the sounds of that. We shouldn’t split up.”

“Neither do I, but do you want to leave the car, with all our stuff, here unwatched? My laptop is worth over $1500! If it gets stolen, I can’t afford to replace it.”

Marilyn didn’t want to admit that Chloe was right, so she simply nodded with agreement. She watched as her friend kicked off the pink flip flops, pulled on some socks and runners, and ripped open a box of cookies. With a tenacious smile, she said, “Fuel for the road. Don’t look so worried. Seriously. You’ll get wrinkles.”

“Leave it to you to think about wrinkles at a time like this.”

“At a time like what?” Chloe spoke with a mouth full of cookie. “Our car broke down. We’ll fix it. Just be thankful our mothers are at home and not here yammering in our ears about the spread of STDs in college dorms.”

A laugh escaped Marilyn’s lips at the joke. “You’ve got a point.”

“Of course I do.” She paused again, chugged some water. “Okay, I’m off. Give me about an hour. Half an hour each way. And stop biting your nails!”

Marilyn rolled her eyes. “Speaking of mothers, you sound like mine when you nag me like that!”

Face contorted in mock horror, Chloe gasped with a smile on her lips. “Oh, please. I could be a lot worse. Just be glad I care.” She checked her watch, tucked some cash into her bra strap, and started running in place. “Okay, see you later. Two hours tops.”

“And bring your phone, just in case you find a signal.”

“Okay.”

“And, if you can’t find the gas station, just come back!”

“I’ll find it, I’ll find it. Geez, it’s not that far. The sign said 2.8 miles.” Chloe waved one last time before turning her back to the Honda Civic, and setting into a rhythmic jog. Her ponytail swung from side to side, athletic legs propelling her forward with impressive strength and speed.

Marilyn watched until Chloe eventually disappeared into the horizon. The sun seemed to swallow Chloe, enveloping her in bright yellow light. Before long, Marilyn was tinkering with her phone, wandering from one side of the highway to the other, trying to catch a signal. Unfortunately, her efforts were a waste of time. The supposedly sophisticated, and expensive, piece of technology continued to flash an “Out of Range” message.

Now hungry in earnest, Marilyn grabbed a handful of chocolate chip cookies from the bag Chloe opened earlier. However, instead of savouring the taste of chocolate, the lovely sweetness of sugar, she could only concentrate on the nerves building in her stomach. She checked her watch for the millionth time.

Relax, she chided herself. It’s only been forty five minutes.

As the seconds slowly ticked by, Marilyn struggled to sit still. She would sit down for two minutes and promptly stand up again moments later to walk in circles around the car. All she did was eat, pace, and monitor the time. In the back of her mind, she couldn’t help but notice that, for as long as she had been waiting, not a single car or transport truck had passed. The lack of traffic was troubling. Even intimidating.

It wasn’t until the sun’s rays turned pink and a distinctly cooler breeze passed through the car that Marilyn could feel the lump of panic in her throat begin to swell. It was not three hours later and Chloe had not returned. Marilyn stood in the centre of the road, palms up and forward to shield her eyes from the intense light, staring at the horizon as through she were possessed. Her friend’s familiar blonde head was nowhere to be seen. The expansive highway taunted her with its stretch, size, and formidable desertion. Where the hell were all the people?

Without a phone or a working car, Marilyn felt the walls of desperation closing around her, poking her in the ribs. Without some form of communication, how would Chloe keep in touch once the sky went dark? The dusty, red desert stretched far and wide beyond the empty road. A few scattered cactus plants stood like stray hairs on a man’s bald head.

Finally, Marilyn decided that she would wait for thirty minutes more before embarking down the highway on her own. In the meantime, she popped the hood, inspected inside the Honda Civic with clueless eyes and tried to start the car once, twice, three times. They couldn’t burned through half a tank of gas in under eight miles. It was absolutely impossible, especially when there wasn’t any evidence of a leak!

Once the sun started to sink below the clouds, she knew it was time to make a decision. There was no more time to tinker and worry. After one long, last stare into the distance, Marilyn packed a bag with cookies, granola bars, a bottle of water, and her defunct phone. She pulled a sweater over head and locked the car, but not before hiding all their valuables beneath the front seats. Both Chloe and Marilyn’s laptops were tucked into a beach towel for safe keeping.

Hesitant to stray from the car, it took a few tries before Marilyn felt willing to separate herself from the only point of reference on this strangely empty road. Each step felt like ten, she was so aware of her movements. Before long, her thoughts drifted to Chloe. What if something happened to her? What if she had hurt herself, or what if she was lost in the middle of Highway 49?

Marilyn marvelled at how quickly a trip to college had turned into an episode of The Twilight Zone. One minute the girls had been singing along with the radio, giggling about Chloe’s hilarious summer trip to Korea, the next Marilyn found herself trudging along the shoulder of a deserted highway in search of her officially missing friend.

When Marilyn glanced back to gauge how far she’d walked, her heart dropped like a forty pound stone. She couldn’t see the car. Where the hell did it go? Had someone stolen the vehicle already? There was no way she had travelled more than half a mile in under five minutes. She broke into a run, reversing direction in an instant. Not nearly as experienced in track and field as Chloe, it wasn’t long before Marilyn felt out of breath. It didn’t matter how fast she ran; there was no sign of the car.

Stay tuned for part 2…

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3 thoughts on “Highway 49: Running on Empty

  1. Pingback: Highway 49: Crash « The Literary Lollipop

  2. Pingback: Highway 49: Sinking In « The Literary Lollipop

  3. Pingback: Highway 49: Quicksand Rewind « The Literary Lollipop

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