The sun sank slowly into the southwest, burnishing the smog and blinding motorists for miles around. Ten lanes of ashy cement held them up in a sea of smoggy cars. Ordinarily, they flowed in either direction as conditions permitted; today, however, one side was stagnant. Millions of cars stood motionless on the southbound road, leaking fumes of rage and carbon monoxide. It was getting late, and it was still unseasonably hot. Two young people languished in a blue Honda Civic, idling in the afternoon stillness. Particles of ash from the far distance wafted through the air.
“Hand me a water, will you?”
“They're right back there.”
Sighing, he turned back and reached his arm behind the passenger seat. He struggled, one-handed, tearing into the plastic wrapping that kept the bottles packed tightly in their crate; the crate itself packed tightly between her seat and some stray baggage. He managed, after a moment, to extract one, and he looked forward through the dirty windshield. There was no change, no movement in the line of traffic. He unscrewed the cap and drank the water, but it tasted bad: too warm, like plastic and dust. Her cup holder was empty, so he placed the bottle there.
She looked at him wearily. “Hey, how long since we've moved?”
“About an hour. I think I see lights up ahead.”
“Police lights. Hell with it, I'm turning off the engine.”
“Great. Great.” She turned away, her eyes resisting the murky orange glare. Her long, blonde hair gave some protection, casting feathery shadows across her cheeks. She lay partially reclined, staring into the distance, away from him. She looked tired, and angry. She looked amazingly, incredibly beautiful. She looked as though she were a million miles away.
“I don't want to waste gas just sitting here. It's ridiculous, how much we have to pay for it down here. I hate it.” He watched her face intently, waiting for a reaction, or a hint of conversation.
“Whatever.” Still angry.
He looked down, afraid that she might catch him staring. He didn't want to provoke her. There was garbage on the floor, strewn casually through weeks of neglect. The bottle was likely to end up there as well, but it was still half-full. An ache throbbed in his leg, and he clutched at it, wishing he could stand. Her legs were bare, in no apparent discomfort, and it was all he could do to look elsewhere.
The lights were coming steadily closer. Shortly, he could see the source: the Highway Patrol, officers on patrol bikes, moving slowly toward them between the congested lanes, stopping to interview the idle motorists. A drug bust? Border patrol? This wasn't how it was done. Ash settled on the hood of the idle Civic, and the smell of twisted chaparral filtered in through the air conditioning.
“The police are coming,” he said. He rolled down the window, anticipating their arrival. The smell was not pleasant.
“What do they want?”
“I don't really know. Nothing, I hope.” His fingers squeezed the wheel. “I don't know, I'm a little nervous.”
“Why? Is something wrong?”
“I don't think so. I mean, we aren't doing anything wrong.”
She closed her eyes, murmuring, “then there's nothing to worry about.”
“Yeah.” Nothing to worry about, except perhaps the effects of his persistent fantasy of persecution. “I just hate having to justify myself to the authorities.”
“Justify what? You don't have anything to justify.”
“I guess. But sometimes I worry that I will, and if I can't do it, they'll take everything away.” He looked at her face, hoping for sympathy. Pity would do in a pinch.
“That's silly,” she said. “They can't take anything away just like that.”
“Maybe you're right.”
The CHP officer loomed unannounced, rolling slowly past the stately Dodge Ram that held the forward ground. The young man smiled as the cop approached, but he didn't smile back, absorbed as he was with the paper on his clipboard. Despite having recited its contents to the occupants of many sports cars, trucks and SUVs, he clung tenaciously to the printed words. With nary a greeting, the officer (whose name was Snerk) launched into the official communication.
“Sir, ma'am,” he began in his flabby monotone, “I'm here to inform you, that, this section of the freeway is, closed, indefinitely. Although you are, currently, in no danger, an orderly evacuation of the area is, currently, being conducted. Please, remain in your vehicle, until, evacuation crews come to assist you.”
“Where are we evacuating to?” the young woman asked. “There's nothing out here but shrubs and dirt. Where are we going?”
The officer clutched his paper, annoyed by the latest deviation from the approved script. “Arrangements are being made. Please, just wait for the evacuation crews.”
The young man felt uncomfortably small beneath the imposing officer. “Why exactly are we being moved? Is everything alright?”
“There was an accident about two miles up the road, a couple of trucks got knocked over. There's some chemicals on the road, it's not safe to drive through.”
“Is anyone hurt?”
“Believe me, you're safe for the time being. Just stay in your car, please.”
“Well, do you know how long we'll have to wait?”
“About, a few hours. Four, I think.”
The couple were understandably incredulous. “Why on Earth would it take that long!?”
“I'm sorry, ma'am. Please, just wait in your car.” Without another word, the officer was rolling forward, clipboard in hand, to inform the occupants of a shiny new Silverado.
Demanding, she turned to the young man, her eyes in a wild panic. “How could it take four hours? How could it possibly take four hours?”
“I don't know. Maybe they're short handed. They've got all those people dealing with the fires in East County.” The intensity of the question was a little too much; he turned his head out the window for a moment, watching as Snerk delivered his report to the man in the truck.
“I think they've got their B squad out for this one.”
“B squad? What do you mean?”
“He didn't seem very smart, is all. Like he was just talking, didn't really know what he was saying.”
“Oh, I don't think so. I think he knew exactly what he's saying. What a dick.”
What a dick. He looked out the window again, but Snerk had moved on. He couldn't see him anymore; only Rams and Silverados, their headlights flipping on at odd intervals. Why headlights? No one was getting anywhere soon. It was getting dark, though. Maybe they just wanted to see the ocean, or the clouds, or the grey bushes on the darkening hills. But definitely not the cars.
The sky got darker, fast. The sun was coming down, and the flakes of ash moved to settle on the ground without the hazy beams of light to keep them aloft. It got a little cooler; he could tell she was uncomfortable. He could always tell, because she would grab her arms just a certain way, and her eyes would be cast down in some corner where no one could see them. Sometimes she got goosebumps, and tonight she had those as well. The two of them sat silently for a while, as the young woman looked this way and that; the windshield, the dashboard, the waves breaking on the beach. From his seat, the young man couldn't quite see them. But he saw the way her shoulders would shiver, and he couldn't concentrate on anything else.
“Are you cold? I can turn on the heater.”
“No, don't do that. It'll waste gas.” She wouldn't look at him at first.
“OK. Well, we'll probably be here a little while more. We should get some rest.”
“I think I'm too cold to sleep. I don't think I want to sleep, anyway. I just want to go home.”
“I know what you mean.” But he didn't really know. He heard the words she softly spoke; he imagined that he could hear a hint of tears in them. He understood those words, but it was as though they fell apart in the air. She could be speaking in a foreign tongue, and he wouldn't have felt any more isolated from her thoughts. He didn't know what she meant.
All he knew was sadness and frustration; he could see them in her face.
“We've got blankets on the back seat, I could get you one?”
“I guess.” She looked exhausted.
“If you're tired, we could probably get some sleep back there? There's a lot more room.”
“There's no room for two people.” She was in no mood for this.
“No, I, I guess not. Let me get you a blanket.” He reached back and grabbed two, handing one off to her as she reclined her seat further back. She took it, and wrapped it tightly around herself like a fuzzy red cocoon. Only her face and her hair were uncovered, but she didn't look warm. He felt guilty, for making her suffer by sitting so long in such a miserably cramped, cold little car.
“Listen, babe. I'm sorry. I'm sorry we came out here.”
“It's fine. It's not your fault.” She hid her eyes under her bangs, looking at nothing. If she could wish herself anywhere, she'd have been gone somewhere else; anywhere she wouldn't have to look at him.
“I know, but I'm sorry. I hate it out here.”
“I was just so happy to get the chance to do this with you. I've missed seeing you. I think about you all, well, I just wish I saw you more. I want to make you happy.”
“It's alright,” she said. “I'm happy. You don't need to do anything.”
“I'm sorry.” He looked pleadingly, hoping to catch her eyes, but she turned her face away. She looked vaguely out the window, perhaps at the muddy beach. It was difficult to see now; the stars were not shining through.
“Are you warm enough?”
“I'll be OK.”
“It just seems weird that it should be so cold in here. Like we'd be warmer if we went outside. It's too bad we have to stay in here.”
“Yeah, it's too bad.”
“I'm just, I don't know. I don't know. I feel pretty, horrible I guess.” He looked at her, and she was so far away, but under the red blanket he discerned the slender shape of her shoulder. He hadn't dared to touch her, not since fifteen miles and so many endless minutes back, but in spite of himself, he reached out now. He slowly, gently touched her shoulder; she didn't move. She didn't acknowledge. “I love you, babe.”
She turned back, slowly, to face him; his hand snapped back and he was momentarily unbalanced. Her face looked sad, and her bright blue eyes were gently shaking. She looked at him, and then down again; somehow, he found the nerve to take her hand, and touch her fingers softly. She looked at him again, and smiled slightly. Somehow, he smiled back.
“It's OK,” she said. “Everything will be OK.”
The young man answered in silence, having run out of words to say. His sentiments choked in the heavy air, and his hands hung low. At last he covered his eyes with lazy fingers and smiled, wry and unhappily. “Yeah, I guess so.” His heart was so twisted inside, he worried it might pop out.
She glanced back to the rear of the car, shadows crossing her face. “I think I'm going to try sleeping in the back. This seat isn't very comfortable.”
“Yeah, OK, sure. I'll wake you up when it's time to go.” And he watched, blankly, as she climbed back between the seats. He watched as her arms, her legs, and all the soft fabric slid gracefully past him. He made sure to look away when she was all settled in, wrapped in the relative warmth of her cocoon.
In a few minutes she'd fallen asleep; he thought he could tell by her breathing. He had no such luck in drifting away. The hood of the Civic was dusted with ash, and he could swear he saw the hint of an orange glow behind the hills. The sound of helicopters? Perhaps not. The smell drifted in somehow, and it wasn't pleasant; it made him feel parched. The sound of her breath was unsettling. Uncomfortably, he adjusted himself in the seat. Nothing helped.
It was night, and many other people were sleeping. He looked out the window for something beautiful. Out over the sea, into the sky, he searched for the hint of a star. In silence he remembered things, trivialities he'd forgotten for longer than intended, and he remembered her. The way she laughed at every little thing. The way she asked the oddest, most interesting questions. The way she looked for adventures like they were the most ordinary things. The way her long, brown hair looked different from everyone else's. He could hardly believe that he'd almost forgotten that.
Many minutes passed, and lights flickered between the lanes again, blue and red and white. They were a long way off, but he thought he could see doors opening, and tired drivers clumsily falling out of them. He turned back over his shoulder, and saw that she really was asleep. He couldn't bear to look. The lights advanced slowly and he waited for them, quietly. He looked for his keys; did he need them? Or was he supposed to leave them there? When would he get the car back? The lights came closer, and there were more policemen, thinner than the ones before.
“Baby? Hey, babe,” he said, as loud as he could manage. “I think it's time to go. We have to get ready, they're almost here.” If it weren't for her breathing, he couldn't have told whether she was awake or not. She didn't move, she didn't say a word. “Baby?”
She restlessly tossed under the red blanket. “I don't really want to go.”
“I know,” he said. “I don't either. But we've gotta go. They're coming.” He closed his eyes to block out all the lights. They were coming, and soon they'd take them all away.