The desert seems more barren in this area than in the previous. Jack is in the back seat looking out at the ocean of sand passing by at speed, my wife sits passenger, silent as well.
It wasn’t always like this. We all used to be a family of chatty best friends. My son would be bouncing around in his safety seat, and my wife would turn around and play along with him. My daughter would be humming in the back seat to some tune she found on YouTube. It was always perfect.
Not everything lasts forever. Not traditions and certainly not life. Not long after her fifth birthday, the doctors diagnosed Liliana with lung cancer. Within a year, she passed away.
Although any type of cancer can attack anyone, my daughter’s lung disease wasn’t abnormal. Well, it was, but it wasn’t just a random occurrence of cancer. It resulted from my smoking habit. I never gave a second thought as to how dangerous it could be to smoke in the car with my children in the back seat, even with the windows open. My stupidity was my daughters end.
My wife, Kelly, looks at me and then at the gauge cluster. She says, “You better fill up before we get stranded out here.”
She’s right. Plus, I’m incredibly tired. I need to get something to wake me up if I plan to drive through the night. So, I nod in agreement, and she doesn’t say anything further. We aren’t a catty couple. She doesn’t nag and I don’t pick fights.
Ahead, the road appears fluid, a river through this Egyptian-like desert. To the right of the lemon-lime horizon is a small gas station. The giant sign twisting languidly at the top of a long pole had once presented the name of the station. Years of weather and neglect caused one side to break apart and reveal the lamps inside. The other still had the name, but it had faded to a light pink logo that I couldn’t read.
Pulling into the station, we transition from tarmac to gravel. Small pebbles kick up and tick inside the wheel well. I stop at the first pump on the right, and the hot desert wind carries a cloud of dust past us. For a moment, it twists into a dirt devil, and then dissipates as quickly as it appeared.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell them. They know I’m coming back, but I feel like I have to say something. I want to interact with them because we all need it. Silence is a killer. Perhaps it won’t actually kill anyone, but it will destroy relationship, and I needed to break that silence to make sure that they’ll be okay while I’m gone. To let them know that I’m here for them, and that I will always return.
The inside of the station is much cleaner than the outside. A quick glance through the door behind the attendant reveals that he lives here. My guess is that he originally didn’t want to drive every day, so when he bought this station, he decided to move into it.
“Twenty, please,” I say as I hand him a fifty note. “Can I also get one of those energy drinks in the cold case back there?”
“Yes, sir,” the man replies.
As I wait for him to start the pump and make change, I walk back and grab one of the cherry flavored drinks. Returning, I spy something to my left. My eyes dart over there, but I see nothing more than a rack full of flavored jerky.
I thought it was my daughter. This isn’t unusual, though. I’m used to keeping an eye on her in my peripheral, as one must do with children of any age with so many creeps in this world. Even now that she’s gone, I still see her everywhere.
“Son, are you okay?”
I meet the old man’s lazy blue eyes, and smile weak and thin. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.”
With my change and drink in hand, I return to the car and start pumping the fuel. As the LED screen indicates that I’m nearing the end of my twenty-dollar credit, I hear for the first time in months my son screech with laughter. It warms my heart so much that I almost drop the pump and cry with joy. Thankfully, I’m able to maintain composure as I kneel down to see what has him so excited.
My wife is gone from the car. I don’t know exactly where she went. I don’t recall hearing her exit the car. My brow furrows, and I turn my attention to Jack.
He has his mother’s deep brown eyes that are reminiscent of crystal rather than mud. The light allows the small golden flecks in those pools of joy to twinkle with life. He looks away from me, and laughs again. I’m not sure what enamors him so, and although I want to study him for a moment to figure it out, the pump handle clanks hard letting me know it finished.
I get back in the car, and my wife is sitting in the passenger seat again. However, this time she’s facing the back seat, playing with Jack.
She says, “The bathrooms here are so clean. I expected to walk into some kind of CDC death trap, but I have to hand it to the guy, he really knows how to scrub.”
She hasn’t shown this much affection or attention to either of us in a long time, so I don’t respond. I know I’m still broken even if she has suddenly become okay, and I don’t want my dour mood to sour hers. So, I remain quiet as I pull out of the station.
Jack continues to play. Kelly lightly claps her hands and urges him on. I glance over at her, and I want to caress her skin, to feel her warmth, but I know I don’t deserve to touch her. Instead, I look in the rear view mirror to steal a glimpse of my son, and I see my daughter sitting next to him.
Slamming on the breaks causes me to lose control of the vehicle for a moment. I wrestle it back into a straight line on the road, and then I stop the Chevy entirely. I try to turn around and look at my daughter, but the seat belt stops me. I fight hard with it, and finally release the latch. I look back, and see her sitting there as alive as ever.
While Jack has his mother’s eyes, Liliana has mine. They’re azure, but warm. The light haloes from her blonde hair and filters through the fuzzy peach hair on her cheek. She looks scared because of my reaction.
Kelly says between panicked breaths, “What the heck was that?”
I shake my head, unable to speak.
“Babe, are you okay?”
My heart pounds in my chest, and I step out of the car. With my hands on my head, I try to control my breathing. I look out into that hot abyss. A lizard skitters from one dead bush to another. A fly buzzes near a pile of coyote droppings; it lands for a moment and then takes flight again.
I know this can’t be real, but it’s too vivid to be a dream. It has to be a reality, but then, how is my daughter alive? I don’t know, and because I figure that it can’t be real, I fear turning around because I worry she won’t be there.
Eventually, I gain the courage to turn, and gasp in horror. The car sits overturned in the embankment, fluid dripping from the hood. It takes me a minute to process what I’m seeing, and then I run to the car.
“Kelly!” I scream, and I fall to my knees to look through the window.
It is there I find my wife crumpled in the passenger seat. In the back, my son lays silent, still hanging in the safety seat. I search for my daughter, who is supposed to be in the car. She isn’t there. However, someone else is in the car. Me. I sit there with blood all over my face, teeth smashed, and eyes bulging and staring through the cracked windshield.
I look anywhere but there and find my daughter standing a short distance away from the wreckage. She smiles warmly, and beckons me with her hand. Her mannerism isn’t that of a child but of someone with finer motor skills. She smiles again, and I go to her. When I arrive, I find Kelly standing next to her with little Jack sleeping peacefully in her arms.