by Jo-Anne Rosen
He knew it would be a mistake to let Bella drive. She was hard on cars and his was past its prime.
“You don’t want to drive all day, Charles,” she said. “How far is it to Joshua Tree? You’ll need a break.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “You need a holiday from driving.” Bella drove an airport shuttle full-time in snarly city traffic.
“Bullshit I do. I like my job.”
She sulked all the way to Modesto. Finally, he decided it wasn’t worth spoiling their vacation, and he pulled off the highway at a truck stop.
“Promise not to speed, Bella?”
“Cross my heart.” She was all smiles and dimples now.
They got out of the car to stretch. Bella flounced over and pressed herself against him. “Thanks, babe,” she said huskily. A trucker turned to stare. She was a little plump, a knockout in tight jeans and a low-cut shirt. Charles, thin and angular, relished the contrast.
It was cool in the valley for February and windy. Under a cloudless sky, Highway 99 went straight on forever through flat and stubbled fields, bypassing the towns. Bella wove between double-load semis, talking nonstop about her psychology classes at City College.
“You really should express your feelings more,” she said. “I think you’re getting emotionally constipated.” She drove faster. The speedometer read 80 and rising.
“Bella, you promised not to speed.”
“There’s nothing to see, it’s ugly, let’s just get through it.”
“This really sucks,” he said slowly. “How can I ever trust you?”
“Lighten up, will you. You’re so neurotic about your car, it’s making me crazy.”
He took a deep breath. This was only day one.
They stopped for lunch in a hamburger stand in Fresno and Charles reclaimed his keys, though not without a fuss. He promised she could drive again later, but neither of them believed it. They ordered burgers and coffee and he spread out the map. “We can take this alternate route to Bakersfield,” he suggested. “Get off 99, go through the small towns. There’ll be something to look at.”
“There better be,” she said.
Back in the car she sat with arms folded across her chest, staring straight ahead. Charles ignored her. He enjoyed driving on two-lane roads, closer to the details—a decaying barn, a water pump, fields of dried out, ball-shaped shrubs, large rolls of something white stacked at intervals. They were bales of cotton, he realized. Now Bella was snapping photos out her window. She turned and trained the camera on him. He made a horrible face and she burst out laughing. He breathed easier.
“It’s still boring as shit,” she said. “Where are those little towns?”
“The sky isn’t boring,” he said.
A haze was staining the horizon bluish brown, like a veil over a bruise, and spreading as they watched. The wind picked up, rattling the car, and the pickups and semis ahead were slowing down.
“Something weird’s going on.” He turned on the radio but could raise only static.
“Pull over,” Bella said. “I can’t get a clear shot through the windshield.”
“Pull over where?”
The road had no shoulders. He drove on. The sky darkened abruptly, and the wind shrilled. Ghost-white cotton bales began rolling around the fields. A tumbleweed bounced off Bella’s side of the car, and she flinched. The dead shrubbery seemed to spring to life. First a few and then dozens of tumbleweeds smacked the car, shot across the fenders, and crunched under the tires.
They quickly rolled up the windows and he turned on the brights. Within minutes he was following the red lights of a farm truck not ten feet ahead and the semi behind was tailgating. The air was thick with dust that blotted out the sun.
“What is this?” Bella whimpered.
“Dust storm. The damn cotton, it’s stripped the soil.” He talked, to distract her and himself, about pre-European grasslands in California, while visibility continued to decline. Soon he could barely discern the taillights before them or the headlights behind.
“It’s like a recurring dream I’ve had,” he murmured.
“Tell me about it,” she said eagerly.
“They’re driving dreams. I’m driving in pitch blackness, and I can’t see a thing. I don’t know where I am or where I’m going. I’ve had them for years.”
“Well, they’re clear as daylight to me.”
“You’re blind to your innermost feelings.”
“That’s an interesting possibility,” he said dryly.
“You really are a lost soul.” She sighed. “I could help you if you’d let me.”
“I don’t think we’d have a healthy therapeutic relationship, babe. You’re not supposed to sleep with your clients.”
“I don’t like that rule,” Bella sniffed.
They were quiet for a few minutes, then the car shook and swerved in a sudden gust. Tumbleweeds and dirt rained on the windshield and she burst out, “Jesus, are we going to get out of here alive?” Bella crossed herself, something he had never seen her do. He tightened his grip on the wheel.
“Everyone’s driving so slow,” he said. “Even if we collided, we’d be fine. It’s under control, believe me.”
“Under control,” she repeated slowly. “Now there’s the root of your problem.”
“Hey, I’ll look into those dreams, okay?”
“You’re just saying that. I know you never will.”
“No, I mean it. I still have all my psych books from college.”
“You never told me you studied psychology.”
“Yeah, I did the whole Freudian analysis, A to Z. It took me a year. The dreams must’ve started after that.”
“What, you analyzed yourself?”
“It wasn’t hard. I figured out lots of stuff.”
“Childhood trauma, parents, the usual.”
“Why’d you stop?”
“What’s the use of stirring up the same stuff over and over?”
“That is so typical of you. Mr. Charley Know-It-All.”
“Isabella, you’re not helping this lost soul by insulting him.”
“Oh,” she sputtered, and said nothing more.
The car rocked them in silence through the storm.
“Look,” he said suddenly. “Is that a turn signal?”
“Is it?” Her voice wavered a little.
Charles followed the truck ahead off the road to where one arc light burned dimly on a tall pole. It was a diner, its parking lot filling with vehicles. He turned off the ignition, surprised to find his hands were shaking, and looked quickly at Bella. Her mouth was a tight line, as if she were trying not to cry. He didn’t know what to say to her.
They got out and struggled a few yards to the door, hands over their faces, gritty dust in their mouths. Inside, the diner was brightly lit and people stood in every available space, chattering excitedly. Charles, frozen like a deer in headlights, stared at the crowd.
“Bella, where are you going? Stop!”
But she hadn’t heard him. She elbowed her way through to the counter and he followed in her wake. “Hello, how you doing?” she boomed cheerily right and left, and strangers took their hands and greeted them. Trays of coffee and burgers glided by, and dishes clattered in the kitchen.
A TV set mounted on a shelf in one corner flickered on and off, spluttering unintelligible sound. Someone fiddled with the settings.
Suddenly the screen came into focus. A newscaster was describing a twenty-five-car collision on Highway 99 where the dust storm had blinded drivers in the evening commute.
Everyone stopped talking and turned to watch. They saw smoke and flames, twisted and blackened cars, clumps of soot-faced people, ambulances, body bags. It could be one of the circles of Hell, Charles thought. His hands still trembled.
Then the screen went black.
A young girl cried, “Daddy’s on that road.” And someone else said, “Jeez, we almost went that way.”
“So did we,” Bella put in.
Land lines were down; cell phones, not working. The mood in the diner lowered. People spoke in anxious whispers.
Bella turned to Charles, damp-eyed with arms opened. “Mr. Know-It-All,” she murmured. “You saved our lives.”
He wasn’t sure he knew anything at all anymore, other than the need to be held, the sudden heat of her embrace.
Jo-Anne Rosen has published fiction in over two dozen literary journals (among them, The Florida Review, The Summerset Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Pithead Chapel, FlashFiction.net, Spank the Carp). She is a book and web designer living in Petaluma, California. She publishes Wordrunner eChapbooks, an online hybrid chapbook/journal (at http://www.echapbook.com) and co-edits the Sonoma County Literary Update (http://www.socolitupdate.com). What They Don’t Know (2015) is her first fiction collection. See http://joannerosen.us for more information.