Behind the Wheel (Free story – found in Swallowing the Worm)

“I’m sorry,” he says, the harshness suddenly gone from his voice.

She doesn’t respond.

“Look, when we get home, we’ll sit down and talk about this. Okay?”

Nothing.

“Okay?!”

“Fine,” she says.

“For now, let’s just get through this last hour of the drive.”

The Jeep sits idling, its engine purring. Outside, the constant hum of the busy freeway is interrupted only by the wind beating against the Jeep’s body. The vinyl windows snap back and forth violently. Windshield wipers scrape clear the last of the raindrops. The clouds above are nearly empty. For now, the storm has passed.

“You know I love you. Right?”

“I know,” she says from the passenger seat.

“And you know I don’t like hurting you.”

“I know.”

“It’s just, when I’m behind the wheel, I’ve got things covered, ya know? I don’t need you telling me how to drive.”

She stares blindly through the windshield, her leg still stinging from where he had grabbed her. It’ll leave a nice purple bruise, no doubt. A little five-fingered temporary tattoo, but a permanent reminder.

“I mean, I know the rain was coming down pretty hard, and things got a little hairy, but trust me, I’m never not in control.”

She can hear him talking, but her attention is on the people milling around the rest area: the elderly man studying the large map mounted on the front of the stone building; the truck driver beside his rig stretching the stiffness from his back; the child waiting impatiently as her mother roots through her purse for vending machine change. All of them were on a journey to somewhere else; somewhere better than the direction she was heading. To them, to her, this was just a place to stop. A place to rest before moving on.

“Ya know, Evan and Stacy want us to come over and watch the game Saturday. I told them we would. That’s okay, right?”

“Sure.”

“It’ll be a good time. Matt and his fiancée will be there, so you’ll have someone to talk to while the guys watch the game.”

“Okay.”

“Maybe you could make some of your famous black bean dip. Or those mini sausages I like so much. Just don’t cook them so long this time.”

“Whatever you want.”

“Great! See?” he says, unfastening his seat belt. “Everything’s gonna be good.”

He leans over and places a kiss on her cheek. She flinches, and as she turns away, her watery eyes come to rest on the scene playing out beside the Jeep: a mother waits patiently next to a van as her daughter puts on her shoes. She can almost hear the conversation taking place between them, as if she is a part of it. The ground is wet, baby. You can’t just jump. You gotta think about these things before you take that first step.

He opens the driver’s side door and starts to get out. The wind howls through the opening, and if there had ever been any warmth to begin with, it was now gone.

“Do you think the storm is over?” she asks, eyes forward.

He leans back into the idling Jeep.

“Huh?”

“Nevermind.”

He shrugs, then shuts the door. She watches him walk up the damp, grey sidewalk toward the building that houses the restrooms. She watches him turn his collar up against the steel breeze. She watches him check out the backside of a young redhead while holding the door open for her, pretending to be chivalrous.

It’s only when a semi thunders by that her eyes turn away. The truck rolls slowly down the entrance ramp, picking up speed as it goes. It merges onto the long, outstretched freeway and soon disappears over a hill.

As she sits alone in the Jeep, she wonders what’s on the other side of the hill; what lies ahead. She looks on, imagining the possibilities long after the truck is out of sight. Subconsciously, she rubs her wrist. Another old reminder. Her eyes drift down to the keys dangling from the ignition.

Pulling out of the parking lot, the Jeep’s engine screams just before shifting gears and settling into a nice, steady roar. Its tires pick up speed as it rolls down the entrance ramp and merges onto the long, outstretched freeway ahead. Approaching the oncoming hill, she doesn’t question how effortlessly she will climb it. After all, the Jeep’s load leaving the rest area is lighter than when it arrived.

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