The toe of her boot met the rubber as she dealt the tire a swift kick. “God dammit. It’s flat.” He rounds the hood of the car, kneeling to investigate the front-right tire. He takes off his dust caked sunglasses, pointing to a small incision. “Must’ve been a nail.” His sister scoffs. “Well, this is fucking great.” She reaches into her purse for a pack of cigarettes. The Arizona sun has acquiesced with the demands of an eager nightfall, slowly fading into the ground. Few cars are on the highway. Returning to the driver’s seat he turns on the hazards, muttering obscenities to nobody in particular. She takes a drag, turning toward the vast expanse of land opposite the highway. Over the din of engines roaring by, he can hear her inappreciable attempt at humor: “Hey, remember when we were kids and we said we wanted to trek the Sahara? Here we are!” Cigarette pinned between both lips, she opens her arms wide, exhibiting the cactus filled Sonoran desert much like a ringmaster would a circus. She lowers her arms slowly and whispers softly to herself: “Just one big fucking desert.” Turning back toward her brother, she brushes her thick, auburn hair from her eyes. Another drag and she drops the cigarette to the ground, smothering it with the toe of her boot. She speaks loudly over the rising wind and the occasional straggle of passing cars. “This is an omen Daniel. I wish you would’ve listened to me. This whole thing is a bad idea.” Eyes closed, Daniel pretends not to hear her. Frustrated, she stomps her way toward the passenger side door, opens it, and sits down next to her brother. Her piercing eyes reserve every bit of intensity for moments like these. “Daniel.” Eyes still closed. Ignored again. She rolls her eyes, reaches across her brother and leans heavily on the horn. Daniel’s eyes snap open. He rises startled, only to slump back down again at the sight of his sister’s satisfied smirk. “Why the hell would you do that?” She answers matter-of-factly: “I hate being ignored.” Daniel rubs his eyes and puts his aviators back on, eager to avoid another onslaught of dust and sand. “Ain’t that the truth.” She ignores him. “I just don’t understand why we’re doing this. I really don’t. This is a terrible idea.” Daniel’s retort is quick and biting. “Well then why the hell did you come with me Jen? Huh?” She’s quiet for a moment. “I don’t know. I’m curious too. I want to see what he looks like. Mom slapped me the one time I asked for a picture.” Daniel: “So what’s the problem?” Jennifer stares at him incredulously. “You don’t see the ramifications of this? How this could be a very, very bad idea?” Daniel stops her short. “Jen, I know. Okay? You don’t have to lecture me. I just need to see him. For myself. I need a little bit of closure.” She sends a bemused look her brother’s way, obviously searching for words. Her mouth hangs wide for several moments, weighing the consequences of furthering the argument. Finally, she closes her mouth and looks forward. “Call Triple-A.” Daniel: “What’s the number?” Jennifer’s hands fly into the air. “How the hell should I know?” She turns toward her brother as he files through the contents of his wallet. He shakes his head and relinquishes a defeated smile. “Well, doesn’t matter now. I forgot the card.” Through pursed lips, Jennifer recites a well-rehearsed obscenity. Daniel: “Hey, there should be a callbox along here somewhere though. Shouldn’t be more than a half a mile down the road.” This comment is greeted by a contemplative silence. Eyes meet. The siblings turn to each other simultaneously, placing a clenched fist on an open palm. “Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!” Jennifer smiles triumphantly as she snips her brother’s flat, prone hand. Pleadingly: “Best two out of three?” A headshake no and a dismissive wave. “Shoo Daniel. I think I’ll have my nap now. Do hurry though, I’m craving a hot bath.” Daniel storms indignantly from the car, making sure to leave both a sinister glare and a slammed door behind for his sister. Jennifer wears a self-satisfied smile as she lights another cigarette, shielding the lighter’s flame from a determined wind. Slipping off her boots, she raises her long, slender legs and crosses them gracefully atop the dashboard.
Daniel lies prone on his bed, one hand behind his head, the other firmly grasping his copy of “The Dharma Bums.” Jennifer emerges from the bathroom, head tilted to one side. A succession of grimaces run their course across her face as she attempts to comb through the knots in her thick, damp hair. “God dammit.” Daniel lowers his book and peers at his sister over his prescription reading glasses. He notices her attire: strapless shirt, blue jeans, boots. Six of the ten fingers are adorned with a variety of rings and an elegant necklace hugs her collarbone. “Where are you going?” Still brushing. “There’s a bar just down the road.” Feeling his look, she reassures him. “Listen, just one drink. Maybe two. I just need a beer Dan.” Dan readjusts his glasses and returns to his book. “Okay, but remember, we’re getting up pretty early in the morning.” Jen relocates to the bathroom, turning on the faucet to brush her teeth. Between rinses, a barely coherent “Yeah, yeah” is discernable. Another thought crosses Dan’s mind: “And no guys!” Jen winks as she saunters back into the room. She slaps her brother’s leg, eager for his attention. He looks up. “Listen, take advantage of any and every complimentary object in this hellhole, okay? I already shoved those tiny shampoo and body wash bottles in my suitcase. Can’t beat free shit, right?” Dan shakes his head. “Hey, at least you don’t have any shame.” Jen smiles and kisses her brother on the cheek. “Love you too. Don’t stay up for me. I’ve got the keycard. I’ll be quiet as a mouse.”
He can’t get any sleep. He sits upright in bed, his bare feet meeting the hotel carpet for the first time in several hours. He checks his phone. Still nothing. She hadn’t returned the last three texts he had sent. Still sporting his pajama pants, Daniel dons his deck shoes and grabs a sheet off of the bed. Outside the air is crisp and vital. The blackness is wholesome and only off-set by a faint neon sign every quarter mile. As if drawn by some invisible force, Daniel’s eyes rise to absorb the thousand specks above him. The black pool fills his vision, reciprocating simultaneous feelings of ineptitude and admiration. Daniel smiles as he recites a line his last Kerouac escapade: “The stars were the same then as they are now.” He inhales deeply, loving the moment. Life is a language that few people ever become fluent in. Daniel sees, listens and hears. As the wind caresses his cheek, Daniel smiles acknowledging the opportunity of clarity he’s seldom been exposed to in his 26 years of existence. He reaches the bar, gazing silently at the image of a Crimson hound eagerly gulping a mug of brew. WELCOME TO BIG RED. Daniel’s eyes widen. “Christ.” He enters and is immediately greeted with a sparsely populated collection of bikers, benders, losers, trampers, and far-off lovers. Over there. He spots his sister in the arms of a young 30 something . They’re slow dancing. The 30 something whispers sweet nothings into her ear. She laughs and buries her head into his shoulder. The juke box is playing “I Found A Reason” by The Velvet Underground. Daniel knows immediately it was she who put it on. She played the record over and over again the week their mother died. Daniel would listen against the door as she would cry for hours and hours. He would hug her, but he knew it wouldn’t help.
HONEY, I FOUND A REASON.
Daniel leans against the far wall, watching his sister dance. His initial annoyance with her being out this late had subsided.
AND YOU KNOW THE REASON, DEAR IT’S YOU.
He looks around. He sees the lonesome. Drinks nursing all wounds.
AND I’VE WALKED DOWN LIFE’S LONESOME HIGHWAYS.
A golden retriever nurses her pups in a make shift dog bed in the corner. Big Red, no doubt.
HAND IN HAND WITH MYSELF.
Jennifer laughs with the man she doesn’t know.
AND I REALIZE HOW MANY PATHS HAVE CROSSED BETWEEN US.
Daniel draws strange looks. He forgot about the pajamas and the blanket. He rebuttals with winks and nods.
OH I DO BELIEVE.
Jen wobbles slightly. 30 something catches her fall. She’s vulnerable.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU PERCEIVE.
Daniel approaches his sister.
WHAT COMES IS BETTER THAN WHAT CAME BEFORE.
Dan taps on his sister’s shoulder. “Honey?” The 30 something looks up suspiciously. Jennifer turns slowly, eyes glossy. Her answer is louder than she intended. “DAN? I told you I was..gonna be back later.” Dan grabs his sister’s wrist gently. “I know babe, but we’ve gotta get up early tomorrow remember?” Jennifer sports a puzzled mask. The 30 something’s mask has hers beat. He stutters: “You..you’re…married?” Jennifer shrugs. “I guess so.” She lets out a giggle. Daniel looks wild-eyed from her to the confounded man. “You didn’t let her drink did you? She’s pregnant!” He turns back to the intoxicated Jennifer, whose state of mind allowed for this type of game playing. The 30 something’s eyes widen. Stumbling: “Hey man, I…I didn’t know anything about that! I didn’t even know she was married, man!” Daniel shoots a vicious stare, leaving poor 30 something rooted in his spot. Brother and sister pour out into the street laughing hysterically. “Holy shit. His face was priceless!” Jen nods, giggling frantically to herself. “He com-completely bought it! I…kinda feel bad though you know?” Dan waves this off. “Nah, he’ll be fine.” He glances at his sister, who has begun to tremble slightly in the brisk early morning air. He wraps her in the sheet and pulls her tight. “Come on, let’s get you back. You’re gonna have a rough morning.” A moment of silence is ultimately broken by Jen: “I gotta pee.”
I-10. Windows down, wind filtering through her thick hair. Johnny Cash’s baritone voice rattles the speakers. She takes a drag. Looking down at the note-card, she turns to her brother. “2105 Hayden Dr. Casa Grande, Arizona. 15 miles. We’re almost there.” Daniel stares forward with both hands on the wheel. He nods. “You getting nervous?” Jen takes a moment before answering. “Yes. And I still think this is a bad idea. This feels wrong.” He retorts: “Listen, I’m having a tough time listening to ominous warnings from someone who’s smoking herself to death.” He turns to his sister. She meets his gaze. The two exchange glares for a moment before Jennifer inhales deeply from her cigarette and blows it in her brother’s face. “Shutup Dan.”
Dan pulls to the curb. Jennifer checks the card. 2105. “This is it.” Brother and sister stare at the modest home before them. The exterior is entirely white. A humble flowerbed rests underneath the master bedroom window sill. A yard composed entirely of gravel. Several cactuses rest unassuming, scattered sporadically across the yard. They exchange looks before exiting the car. Dan has begun to perspire. He drags his palms across the denim of his Levis. Jennifer lingers. She fumbles through her purse. “Dan, hold on a second.” Daniel whirls around and groans at the sight of another cigarette. “God damn. You’ve got to be kidding me?” Inhale. Pacing. “I can’t do this Dan. Why the fuck are we giving this bastard the time of day? We should’ve just erased this scumbag from our minds.” He approaches her, laying a hand on her arm. His eyes search for hers. She turns her head away. “Jen, you know we can’t do that. I’m not here to forgive. I’m here to forget. I need this to finally move on with my life. I’m sick of wondering.” She bites her lip. Those involuntary tears flood the ducts of both eyes. Long drag. Exhale. She dabs her eyes and meets the longing stare. “Alright. I’m right behind you.” Dan flashes a weak, sympathetic smile. “Come on.” Jen snuffs the cig. The two warily approach the front door. Daniel inhales deeply, taking in 26 years of ambiguity and doubt. He exhales even deeper, ready for some type of resolution. His knock is firm and authoritative. The next moment lasts an eternity. Finally, a voice from the other end of the door. “Heather, I’ve asked you 6 times to make your bed! I am NOT your maid, ya hear? What do they teach you kids in college these days?” The woman opens the door and is faced with a 20 something kid in need of a shave and a new pair of jeans. The girl to his left, slightly younger, looks uneasy. “Can I help you?” Daniel extends a hand. “Yes ma’am.” She takes it. Daniel commences his monologue. “I’m Aaron Piper and this is my sister Kelsey. We’re both graduates from University of Arizona, and we were wondering if Professor Norwood was home? I don’t know if I would’ve survived sophomore year without him. Drove from Colorado to see if we could pay the old man a visit!” Daniel forces an uneasy chuckle. Jen obliges with an uncomfortable flash of teeth as well. The woman’s powder blue eyes moisten. She liberates a sad smile and shakes her graying hair gently. “That’s sweet of you…but my husband passed almost four months ago to this day.” A small jingle. An American Shorthair passes between the woman’s legs and presses against Daniel’s jeans, purring audibly. Daniel looks down at the cat. He’s suddenly overcome with a wave of nausea. He can feel the hot tears fighting to exit their restraints. Jennifer bursts into tears and runs off the front porch. The woman looks after her. “Is she alright?” A moment passes. Daniel looks up, fighting back the wave of emotions that run their course unchecked throughout his body. “How did he die?” The question was hard, slipped through grit teeth. A slow tear finds the woman’s cheek.“A heart attack. He died of a heart attack.” Daniel nods. “I’m sorry for your loss. He was a great teacher and a good man.” Those tear filled blue eyes piercing his own. She nods adamantly, lip trembling slightly as she attempts to hold her chin high. “Yes. Yes he was.” Daniel’s consolations feel cold and involuntary to him. The woman points toward Jennifer sobbing in the car. “Are you sure she’s okay?” Dan nods gravely. “She’ll be fine. We really missed your husband’s guidance.” The woman: “Won’t you please come in for some tea or a sandwich or something? I can’t leave you two going all the way back to Colorado unfed.” Daniel humbly declines, hugs the woman, apologizes again, and turns his back to the small white house with the poor woman, the unmade beds, the jingling cat, and the cacti. His world goes silent as he treks the gravel walkway back to the car. Numbness consumes his body. As he walks, he becomes the unthinking, unfeeling vessel that too often plagues this planet.
Daniel opens the car door, sits down, and turns to his sister. Jennifer’s cheeks bear the tear-stained paths that amalgamate at the drop-off of her jaw line. Mucus leaks from either nostril. She turns abruptly and precedes to ravage her brother with an onslaught of slaps, punches, screams and scratches. “WHY?! Why the FUCK couldn’t you have just let it go Dan?” Daniel catches her lashes, holding both her arms. He holds her close as she continues to struggle against him. The tears flow unchecked once more. She finally relents, burying her face into his chest. Dan rests his chin on top of her radiant auburn hair. He whispers softly: “We’re alright. It’ll be alright.” She moans. Quietly: “He died not knowing who the fuck we were Dan. He didn’t care if we lived or died.” “Sh. I know. We’re not gonna do that to our kids though, alright Jen?” Still sobbing. He lifts her chin. “Hey, look at me.” Eyes rise. “We are NOT going to do that to our kids Jennifer. Your husband will always be there for you and your kids, and me and my wife are always gonna be there for ours. We always have that opportunity to do right.” Jennifer nods slowly. “I just feel so…alone.” Daniel looks sternly at his sister. “We’ve always got each other. Besides, you’re too gorgeous to be by yourself. Just ask that poor jackass in the bar last night.” Jen lets out a choked laugh and sniffles loudly. She lays her head in his lap. He brushes her hair gingerly. Daniel is surprised at her newfound calm. As the Arizona sun lapped his skin, Daniel wasn’t sure what he would do next. A sense of pride trickled over him with the realization that he survived this moment and would survive the next. It’s important to survive these moments. He took one last look at the late Professor’s home, kissed his sister lightly on her forehead and closed his eyes. The impression left from the morning sun was still visible through closed lids. Daniel felt the breeze through his hair and addressed his sister: “Let’s go home.”