Night Driving

Originally Published in Moonchild Magazine

Tendrils of smoke lifted from paper into air so sharp that you could cut your teeth just trying to open your mouth. Fingers, wrapped in knit mittens worn thin around the webbing, brandished a cigarette half burned, emitting the only source of heat to be found underneath of the gas station’s metal pavilion. Collette stared idly at the no-smoking sign printed clearly on the metal paneling of the gas pump and wondered if, perhaps, this minor flirtation with death would be what she needed to get her going for the day.

She heard the pump click off and walked over to the trashcan to prematurely snub out her cigarette. She sat back into the shabby sedan and groaned at the lack of working heat in the vehicle. It was three o’clock in the morning and already below freezing. If it was this cold now, she couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like when she reached her destination, 400 miles north. The car wasn’t even hers. She had borrowed it from a friend and, quite honestly, she couldn’t even believe that it was still running well enough to drive that distance. The tires were shot, the heater had quit, the transmission was slipping every so often, and yet, that 20-year-old clunker was still rolling. It was almost poetic.

Collette had left work an hour ago, quickly exchanging a torn jersey and Dickey’s for a sweater, overalls, and tennis shoes. Come to think of it, she hadn’t packed much more than underwear for the trip, despite a pretty obvious call for snow along the way. Her brown hair was swept into untamed dreadlocks that she hadn’t yet actively decided whether she wanted. She had no make up, no food, and $200 in cash, off to see a boy who had told her two months before that he no longer loved her. Desperation. Was the word that rolled through her mind over and over like the back beat of an electro-house song.

The highway was dark and expansive. The overpacked roads of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area had quickly gave way to flat expanses of farm land as she crossed through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. It wasn’t long until the only vehicles she saw were trucks and the encounters became fewer and farther between. The farther north she drove, the more foreign the road became. Why am I doing this? It was beginning to snow.

The kind of hypnotizing snow that almost punishes you for the use of headlights—drawing you in and away from the pavement as it steadily drops in your path. Her mind flicked to the bald tires underneath her, briefly weighing the option of pulling off and waiting the storm out. But it was freezing and she wasn’t really sure if she cared about the risk anyways. Besides, the snow was soft and quiet. It fell easily over the car and over the road and made the sleepless drive seem almost pleasant.

Gettysburg, Harrisburg, Allentown, north, north. They rolled in one by one, past her fogged windows, smallish bastions of lights built into the hilly valleys of Pennsylvania. Collette didn’t quite care for any of them. The snow continued to gather beneath her, blown sideways by tractor trailers, creating scant traction for her already blown out wheels. And then she heard it—a thin squealing break from asphalt, air rushing across the hood of the car, and the wheel jerking out of her hands as if propelled by sudden spirit. She had lost control. Time slowed as the black sedan whipped across the two lane highway, narrowly missing a cautiously passing Ford and finally settling sideways in an embankment.

Her heart was racing, her cheeks flushed and burning against the cold air now rushing in as she sat wondering how she was still unscathed. As if she had wished it to happen. As if she needed the reminder that her will to live was buried only as shallow as the skin under which it rested. She breathed deeply and sat back against the seat, wondering whether she should assess the damage or try and drive out off of the snow. Choosing the latter, she popped the sputtering car into drive and pressed cautiously down on the gas peddle, edging it forward little by little until a wheel caught traction on some uncovered grass. Christ. She pulled forward into the emergency pull-off lane, unable to shake her own dramatic sense of near-death from her breath, and carefully pulled out another cigarette.