It was officially dark. Night. The sky burned with glowing stars, which would’ve been beautiful if it weren’t for the dire situation in which Marilyn found herself. Every time she glanced out the windshield, gazing upwards, her muscles relaxed, the tension eased. The universe felt divided in two: sky and earth, heaven and hell. She ached for the normalcy of yesterday.
Seth clicked his tongue, obsessively rocking in his seat, excited by his discovery. “I don’t know why I missed it… so damned obvious.” He gritted his teeth, slammed his fist on the steering wheel. The whites of his eyes shone in the moonlight.
“Can we stop, please? Can you stop the truck? I want to get out.”
“What?” He looked at her as if she were insane. Maybe she was, but Marilyn couldn’t stand looking at his maniacal smile any longer.
“Just stop the truck. I’ll get out here.”
“Do you have any idea how cold the desert gets at night?”
“But what? You’re actually gonna escape this place, which is more than I could say, and you want to freeze alone in the desert instead?” Seth shook his head longer than necessary. “No, no I’m not gonna stop the truck. We’re gonna stick it out.”
Stick what out? She wanted to scream in his face. Drive forever?
“Look, the gas station will show up soon. My tank is almost a quarter full. It usually appears when I’m about to run out.”
She squinted, confused by his mysterious statement. “Are you saying that the gas station… senses you’re running on empty and magically appears or something?”
Seth remained silent for a couple of awkward minutes. “I wouldn’t call this place magical.” His words hung in the air like the stench of rotten food, slowly filling her with disgust.
Marilyn was momentarily distracted from Seth’s crazy talk by an eagle soaring through the dark air, gliding effortlessly, wings slicing the air with enviable efficiency. It was a cliché, of course, but all she wanted was to hop on that bird’s back and fly out of this mess. Eventually, though, it became a speck in the distance, then a dot, then nothing at all.
The truck’s headlights provided some reprieve from the darkness, but it was disheartening to stare at the endless yellow line that stretched the highway ahead. It didn’t take long before Marilyn grew dizzy from the repetitive flash of neon. Just as she was about to turn away, a slick, brown animal darted across the road. A wild dog?
“Careful, something’s on the road.” Honestly, she didn’t expect Seth to react. He didn’t seem like the kind of person to avoid killing an animal on the road. Instead, when he caught a glimpse of the bony creature in the spotlight, he slammed heavily on the brakes.
“What the hell are you doing?!”
She clutched the dashboard for support as the heavy vehicle struggled to stop so quickly, lurching and jerking like a carnival ride gone berserk. The back end twisted to the left, slamming into various cactus plants and bushes along the way. Tires screeched, the fumes of burnt rubber infecting the air in seconds. It wasn’t until they skidded forward that Marilyn realized it wasn’t a wild dog, but a coyote.
Peaches? No, of course not. Peaches had been darker. Right? Don’t be silly.
Even more strange, the coyote wouldn’t move. It sat in the middle of the road, waiting.
When the truck finally skidded to a stop, Marilyn braced herself, neck suddenly feeling stiff and sore. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“Stay here.” Seth jumped from the cab, leaving the door open. He stared with fascination at the coyote.
“Are you insane? I’m not staying here.” She jumped from the high cab, landing heavily, ankles tingling from the jolt.
But Seth, who remained distracted, didn’t respond. She felt utterly useless, standing next to the giant wheels, blocking her nose from the putrid fumes. Tears drying in crusty trails down her cheeks, out of shock and confusion, Marilyn wandered away from the giant vehicle, its lowest point nearly at her shoulders. It took several minutes to walk around the entire bumper, which had spun out nearly ninety degrees, practically perpendicular to the cab.
Marilyn knew that she could’ve easily ducked under the belly of Seth’s eighteen wheel monster, but it rumbled like a cave dweller in heat and she couldn’t bring herself to venture that close. In the background, Seth’s footsteps grew faint. Alone again? The thought was arresting, enough to paralyze Marilyn’s feet. She couldn’t move.
“Seth?” Only moments before, she wanted to escape the insanity of his grin, the nonsensical words pouring from his mouth, but now she just wanted company. Anyone, really. “Seth?” This road made her heart beat too fast, so quickly that each thump bled into the next. It became a steady thrum.
The silence that remained was insidious. “Seth?”
Only the rumbling monster responded. Slowly, she bent forward, peeking below the beastly truck for feet or paws.
No more crying. Stop it. Stop your sniveling, little girl. Marilyn suddenly felt ridiculously young, like a naïve little child, incapable of taking care of herself. “I’m not an idiot, Mom. I know how to drive, and I have a good sense of direction. Give me a little credit, will you?” Yes, those were the words she’d used to convince her parents of this university-bound road trip.
“I give you plenty of credit. It’s the other people out there that I don’t trust, the ones who can’t drive, or who think it’s funny to pee out a moving window,” mom responded with her typical humour. Thinking back, Marilyn smiled at the joke.
“C’mon, Chloe has a sturdy and smart head on her shoulders.”
Mom had nodded her ascent. “That’s true. She doesn’t take any crap, does she?”
“No, she sure as hell doesn’t.”
“Some of that attitude needs to rub off on you, sweetie.”
The conversation, which took place only a month ago, evaporated, the words floating into the air, then away. A mental picture of Marilyn’s mother, a stern but humorous glare on her lips, arms set on her hips, dish towel over her shoulder, slithered into a hazy stream of smoke, as if pulled upwards by a gust of wind.
She took a huge breath, closed her eyes and squeezed her hands into fists. Then, before her nerves could stop her feet from acting, Marilyn launched one leg forward, then another. Once she cleared the tail end – which stood ajar, the latch loosened from the impact – she surveyed the landscape.
Empty. Nothing but dust and exhaust fumes twirling in the air.
Nothing but silence, that same rumbling, spider-crawling, fear-churning, left-in-the-dark quietness as before. The headlights continued to shine into the distance. Finally, unable to stand it much longer, Marilyn marched into the driver’s seat of the cab and turned the ignition.
Blackness swallowed the road whole. The canyons and rocky landscape in the distance stood tall and dark, close enough to smother her, never to be found again. Now that the beastly truck had been put out of its misery, Marilyn held her breath, unnerved by the echo.
“Seth?” She listened carefully for footsteps… or screaming, maybe even a howl. Feeling brave, she called out, “Chloe?” No response. It was worth a try.
She slid from the high cab, once more landing with an uncomfortably, tingly thud. The road stretched into an invisible, inky horizon.
Okay, think. Just think.
So that’s what’ she did. Marilyn stood in the middle of the road and let her brain roam, tried to concoct a solution to this bizarre nightmare. She paced the length of the truck once, twice, three times, then propped herself onto the rear fender, ignoring the layer of dirt collected there. Desperate for some form of communication, she attempted to make a call on her phone one last time. No service. Out of frustration, Marilyn was about to throw the useless device across the road when the reflection on the screen caught her attention: a familiar license plate number. The latch on the door had fallen open, exposing the contents of Seth’s load. With a mighty heave, she lifted the rickety door and gasped. At the end closest to the cab was a white Dodge mini van, but that wasn’t the reason Marilyn felt fear bubbling through her veins. Keeping the van company was a black motorcycle, and a red Honda Civic.
Written by Lydia Kardum
Stay tuned for part 7…
Who is Marilyn and Chloe, and how did they get into this mess in the first place? Check out part one of Highway 49.
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