Salt Lake, 1964
Well the car really could be safer, thought the girl. She stared out into the very black night and tried to pick out individual trees in the juniper forest. They were driving up the eastern side of Arizona, on a small road that snaked through the trees, and Bill had been trying to explain to her the forces which would compel a car to overturn. Physics bored her and after a few minutes she resolved herself not to raise the topic again until they had at least reached home. Money was tight. She would not acquiesce and believe the 1955 Ford Squire to be as sturdy and reliable as Bill insisted, but she would keep her observations of its flapping and crumbling edges to herself for now. She would try to make a game out of the particular noises that occasionally pinged from its engine. The frame around the car's license plate read "Manhattan Motor Sales", but neither she nor Bill had ever been to New York. Everything about them, their year-old marriage and Bill's position as an assistant architectural engineer, was rooted firmly in Salt Lake City, which they planned to return to by morning. We'll unpack and then you can rest, Bill had said, and patted her on the stomach.
Before the car had issued the low groan which caused her to wonder aloud if they might not spin off the road, upside down and into the trees if a tire should suddenly fall off, they had been talking about the baby. A baby, she reasoned now to herself, will add a certain amount of joy to both of our lives, a kind of joy that hadn't been there before. But I don't feel the absence of joy either, she answered back to herself, and thus settled on staring into the trees without hurting her head over it any further. The evening was still cool enough to be attributed to spring, and both windows were rolled up, and the temperature inside the car was just right, without the heat or the air on. They had a bag of fruit, small, hard plums given to them by Bill's mother just before they'd said goodbye in Guthrie, sitting between the two seats. They had each eaten three earlier in the evening until the girl's mouth felt sour and she said that she thought they might give themselves bellyaches.
She listened to the grumble under the hood as Bill steered the car up a hill. "It's good that we got gas beforehand," she said, to fill the silence.
"Yes," he replied, and did not look up from the road. Route 191 was the kind of tiny highway that zigzagged, crossing and connecting with other tiny highways back and forth up the state, merging and then turning off into the distance. The town of Guthrie itself sat at one of these intersections, where the 191 met the 75. Bill's mother liked the sun, and the fruit trees, but she despised the migrant workers - Guthrie being so close to the border - and the rednecks. She allowed for the latter two only by reminding herself, and her children, constantly of the former two, and that the dry air would prove good for her health.
Thinking of Bill's mother caused the girl to sigh, and she reached forward and turned the knob to the built-in radio, tilting her ear towards the static coming out of the speakers. The red finger moved steadily along the numbers but only an irritating hum filled the car. She snapped the dial around to the 'off' position and sat up straighter in her seat. "Plenty of people are excited for us." She looked at him.
"Yes," said Bill again. His eyelids dipped sleepily.
"We must buy a crib," she continued, "and a stroller so that he and I can take walks through the park." Bill did not reply, and so she slouched again. There was nothing to think of, she thought.
At once the car made a slow moaning sound. Bill stiffened his arms and squinted his eyes. "Oh," she began.
"Shhh," Bill replied, and downshifted. "I'm not able to pick up any speed." He downshifted again but still the car moaned on, and she could feel the wheels slowing on the asphalt. "I think something may have snapped." The car was now going slowly enough that the girl could pick out the silvery outlines of the trees closest to the road. Bill's foot pushed emphatically on the gas, and he cursed once. He turned the wheel towards the shoulder of the road just as the car came to a slow stop, and they sat, staring out the windshield. It was very, very black outside, thought the girl.
"Try to start it up again," she suggested, after a moment had passed. Bill did not answer her, but stared into the blackness. Finally, he seemed to gather his thoughts.
"I think I know what it was. I've got tools in the trunk," he told her. He unbuckled his seatbelt.
The girl looked alarmed. "Billy," she began, her eyes widened. He stared at her, and the down at the hard plums. She gulped down her protests. The juniper trees were endless. "We haven't got a flashlight, though." She said this more as an after thought, to herself.
He opened the door and the girl felt the cool night air pass over her arms. "Stay here," he told her, and locked the door before shutting it firmly. She listened as his boots scuffed in the gravel on the shoulder of the road. Turning to peer through the passenger side window, pressing her forehead into the glass, the girl was dismayed to find that she could see no further than the trees closest to the road. She crossed her legs and ran her fingertips over the vinyl edges of the seat. The car shook slightly as the latch on the trunk slammed. She hummed a little song, a lullaby, but at once stopped because it reminded her of Bill's silence when she mentioned the crib. She chose a different song, and hummed it loudly, and decided that she did not care if he heard her and thought she had a horrible key. She reached the last verse and sat silently, staring at the dash. The air in the Squire was very, very still. After a while she wondered if he had taken a walk to pass water in the forest. It had been some time since she heard the trunk open and close. She craned her neck around in the seat and tried to stare out the rear windshield but all she saw was the dark reflection of her own eyes and hair, the rest of her face blurred into blankness by the glass. The image perturbed her and she turned quickly back around in her seat.
"Billy?" she said hesitantly. She knew that he couldn't hear her, especially not if he had gone into the woods. Still, she said it again, louder. "Billy!"
She tried to think of how long she had been sitting there humming. Had it been a reasonable amount of time? She thought she heard a scratching noise from above her head. The wind, she thought. Maybe he's seen someone just coming up the road and they've gone for a tow truck. The girl sat uncertainly in the seat. She picked at the skin around her fingernails but stared straight ahead. She didn't dare turn around and look out the back again, but she felt her miserable half-reflection there, at the back of her neck. She stared at the keys dangling in the ignition. A silvery cross, given to Bill by their pastor, hung at the lowest point on the chain. The noise came again: scratch, scratch. The smallest sound, like a mouse, at the roof of the car, scratching.
"Bill?" the girl said again. She tipped her chin up and stared at the spot on the ceiling where the noise seemed to be coming from. "Bill?" she said again, because she didn't know what else to say. The sound kept coming, a tiny, terrible sound. The girl started to hum loudly, louder than before, so that her humming was not so much music but more of an urgent command. She forced the off notes from her throat. But the little noise continued: scratch, scratch. In the window the girl searched again for her husband's human form in the darkness. Instead the trees stretched towards the sky, the branches reminding the girl of long, black fingers. She turned and looked straight ahead. A tiny fly walked on hair-thin legs along the dash. How had the insect entered the car, it wasn't there before, with the windows and the doors and everything shut up tight? It stopped to rub its wings together.
At once she felt a clawing at her gut. The baby, she thought, but the pain was higher, in her stomach cavity, where the plums released their acid. In the hours since leaving Guthrie they had moved from the bright, starched land full of Saguaro cacti and purple and bluish wildflowers and scrub to the reddish, crevice-ridden hill country. Gone were the acres of flowering fruit trees and the flat, modern highway. Bill's mother had implored them to drive West first, over to the interstate, where another lane in each direction had recently been added. At the time, when the sun was bright and high, the girl had been delighted when Bill waved to his mother and then promptly turned and driven North instead. Now, staring at the tiny fly, she felt the hollowness in her stomach, tinged by that sour acid, and thought of the bright diners with steaming burgers that must have lined the interstate. They had agreed they would eat in a restaurant once coming and going, each way, to make it a real vacation. She pictured oil-hot fries piled in a basket next to the burgers. A jukebox playing. Damn it, she thought, but did not curse out loud.
Thinking of the hamburgers had kept her from the little scratching sound. Now it came back, seemingly amplified. It crawled over her eardrums, slid over her belly, plucked mercilessly the nerves under the skin on her thighs. It had become a sound so loud that it might have been coming from inside her. Again it came, again and again, louder still, and more urgent than before.
About the author:
Sarah Leavitt lives in San Francisco, where she recently completed an MFA at San Francisco State University. She works as a writer for the University of California system. Her fiction has previously appeared in Colorado Review, Portland Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. When not writing she can be found running and playing with clay.