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Are We There Yet?

Under the Joshua Tree

By Hyde Wunderli Published 6 months ago 9 min read

Just for a moment, I wanted to embrace the light. All I had to do was not correct the wheel.

‘Poetic Justice.’ I thought

The blinding lights from the Semi Truck filled the space of my tiny windshield just before I swerved. The truck passed like a bull plowing through the streets of Madrid. Sitting water jumped from the road and submerged my car.

‘Not this time I guess.’

“My God Ozzy, I thought we were getting hit by a train.”

Irene stretched her body after contorting it into the corner of her window. She gave one of those cartoonish yawns where the eyes disappear, and the mouth dislocates into fitting an absurdly large sandwich in the mouth. A strand of blonde hair covered her left ear and part of her brow until she tucked it behind her ear.

“Sorry to wake you,” I said.

“Well, that’s alright I guess. I don’t need any sleep.” She gave me a sheepish smile. “Are we there yet?” Her smile grew into dimples on each side. Her bottom teeth were slightly twisting into each other. Not enough to noticeably need braces or invisalign. Just enough to give her character.

I gave a courtesy crooked smile, then frowned but turned away so she wouldn’t see. Fearing what our destination meant, I let off the gas and went a few miles under the speed limit.

“Were you dozing off?” She asked.

But it wasn’t judgemental. More concerned. When she asked the question she held my hand that rested on the gear shift. Her soft hands felt like a silk sheet dipped in vanilla coconut moisturizer.

I teased her again about her overuse of lotion, “The amount you use per day would turn a bearded dragon into a gecko.”

“At Least she’d smell nice.” She responded.

Then we went on discussing animal species that sound like they should only be male or female.

Just after passing a large overhanging boulder, a dirt road hung off to the right. It required a quick sharp turn and a down slope off the main road. The empty cans of energy drinks on the backseat floor clinked together as if laughing at me for my repugnant driving. I rolled down the window. The crisp air bit into my arm hanging out the side

“You trying to freeze your wife into preservation?” Irene pulled her sweater all the way over her skinny shoulders and folded her arms. I could no longer see her defined collarbones I like.

“What you don’t think it’ll work? I’ll keep a frozen coffin next to my bed just so you’ll be next to me every night.”

I took my eyes off the road, just for a glimpse at her face. But she was used to my weird jokes. I didn’t get as much as an eyebrow raise or even the deep-throat scoff she’s famous for.

“You can’t have me forever. But wouldn’t you rather live the short time we have together where your wife is fun and happy, instead of putting up with your need to feel rushing air outside a window?”

The smell of a dead skunk almost made me cave but instead, I waved my hand out the window and let it ride the wind, “I don’t know I think I’ll keep it down.”

Her finger slid along her fogged window. I raised an eyebrow in curiosity. She leaned back into her chair so I could view her proud artwork. Inside a tombstone was my name underneath the words R.I.P.

She held a straight face for as long as she could, but she was known to break easily. It was her smile that got me to roll the window up, not her threat. No more dead skunk, and back to coconut hands.

The vast sands, tall Joshua trees, and remarkable boulder formations were eerie in the night. But to me, it still felt like home. For the first few years traveling out here together, Irene would argue that we could just leave in the early morning.

“And miss the sunrise together? Not a chance,” I’d say every time.

The real answer is I didn’t like sitting in a bed with crippling insomnia listening to the irritating sounds of the concrete jungle. The desert always calmed the noise in my head. Instead of running from the memories of war, I embraced them in the sand. It was like a fix for me, a high I’d be chasing the rest of my life since I got back.

“I’m here with you,” Irene said. “Hey don’t go there. I’m here. Don’t leave me. Stay out of that head of yours.”

She saw the apprehension in my face. My tell is trying to push my eyebrows into my eyelids. wrinkles of distress streaked across both sides of my nose under my eyes. It also didn’t help that I was gripping and twisting the steering wheel like ringing out water from a rag.

A pink hue was striped just above the mountains in the distance. The sun was coming.

“We aren’t there yet. I’m here.” She slipped her hand under my armpit and placed it on the inside of my elbow.

Despite her assurance, I was already slipping away. Our destination was nearing but I was forced to face it. Staring into her eyes was like drowning in the ocean. I disappeared into the memory in my head, and then returned back into her eyes; her look of sadness and desperation throwing me a life rope.

A streak of blood flowed down her forehead and paved its own way; down the slope into the socket of her eye, along the border of her nose, and then touched her lip. I blinked, and the blood was gone.

She leaned her head against the window. Looking up, admiring the stars, she said, “It takes millions of years for a star’s light to reach our eyes. Looking at them-”

“Is like going back in time.” We said in unison.

“I’m your Star, Oz.” Irene looked at me the same way she marveled at the universe. Her fascination with the unknown and mysterious. “I’m here now. But for how long?”

“Stop this, not yet.” I panicked.

The blood down her forehead returned with a stronger presence. Other streams joined it, flowing down and covering her face like war paint.

The windshield on her side was cracked and caving in with every bump in the road. The car rose and fell on the uneven dirt. The rigorous path narrowed, sloped inward on each side and boxed me in so I was forced to drive straight. With no way to avoid large holes and bumps in front of me, I faced them with a stubborn uneasiness growing in my chest. The slanted hills that met the path I was on turned to larger walls. I was in a ravine.

Somewhere along the road I must have veered off.

‘Did I doze off again? When did I turn off the road?’

“Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.”

Irene was manically shaking my forearm. I stared at her with confusion, but lacked the ability to respond. A light in the distance appeared at the other end of the ravine. The faint light had a voice that called to me. I wanted to turn and give Irene the attention she desperately wanted but I couldn’t turn my head. I couldn’t close my eyes. I couldn’t remove my cramping hands from the steering wheel. My foot was glued to the pedal.

“OZZY!” I wasn’t even sure if it was her voice anymore. “OZZY! Let it go.”

The sky ignited into a fury of flames and blood but down here in the ditch, I was covered by shadow. The growing light in the distance exposed the path ahead of me. For a moment I could see more clearly, as if it was day. The rocks in front of me, the shrubs, and small cacti lining the outside of the ravine. Then the light became overwhelming and I was driving blind. Still, my foot was on the gas, powering through the rough terrain, bouncing and tilting. The engine’s roar of my little sports car was exhausting itself.

The light grew brighter still. Behind the white cloth of LED’s appeared the silhouette of what looked like an old jeep. It was close enough now I could see the cherry paint. Above the front left tire, metal was rusting away.

‘Poetic justice.’

Moments away from colliding. A horn sounded off. Five more seconds and I’m going under the lifted tires.

Four. Irene was now silent. Her efforts surrendered to my distress and left me with an empty stare.

Three. Light managed to roll down the steep decline into the ravine. Large Joshua trees lined the top of the ridge like warning signs. My foot pressed harder into the gas pedal.

Two. Irene was consumed by the bright lights in front of us. Her body seemed to be taking a celestial form before my eyes.

One. Now the collision. I braced myself. Stiffened my body. Closed my eyes.

There was no collision. No resistance to stop my car from moving forward. No metal being smashed above me, to the side of me, or under me. The horn continued on but passed right through me with no damage done. The windshield was now in perfect shape again. The blood pouring from Irene’s face disappeared.

“You’re living in the stars,” Irene said, as if she was in my head, knowing my thoughts.

I stopped the car, put it in park, and looked at her blue eyes in search of answers. The deep blue kept going. I’d never felt so distant from her.

Irene opened her car door. It hit the ravine wall. There was no room to step out. She pushed herself up and sat on top of the car. When I joined her she was lying flat. Her legs fell down the windshield.

We were soaking in sun rays, but the cold air persisted. The sky's rage had calmed into a striking blue with cotton candy clouds. Irene sat up to have a staredown with the Joshua tree in front of us. It leaned over the ravine as if to scoop up water that was no longer there.

“Do you know what a Joshua Tree symbolizes?” Irene said. She’d told me a number of times before but I let her answer anyway. “Its outstretched arms are a symbol of peace. That through jagged edges, and splitting dysfunction, you can find restfulness.”

“We didn’t even make it there this time. You aren’t leaving me.” I became too agitated to stay still on the car. I hopped up and made a swift leap onto solid dirt. I stood at the edge of the ravine and turned my back to Irene.

“Look at me Oz.” I turned towards her. “It’s become too much for you to bear. Look where you are. In a ditch, in the middle of nowhere.” She stood up and joined me where I stood. “Forgive yourself.”

“I can’t. I miss you. I should’ve let you drive. I shouldn’t have fa-”

“SHHH.” Irene’s oily finger pressed against my cracked lips. “I’m gone. Accept it. You deserve peace.”

“No, I don’t! I killed you!”

My voice echoed. A murder of crows perched on a boulder took flight into the sky. The Joshua tree in front of us seemed closer.

“I’m going now. Find peace.” Irene’s body started to fade.

“No, please. Let’s get to your memorial at least. I think we’re close.” I barely managed the words in my disgruntled state. Her body continued to slowly disappear. “Don’t go, Irene. I don’t know if I can do it. Come back Irene, I’m not ready to let you go.”

She was gone.

I groveled on the floor pressing sand through my fingernails. I crawled hopelessly until I came upon the Joshua tree. Its outstretched limbs hung over me as if to condemn me. I let out a resentful scream that pierced the canyons and rumbled the sand beneath me. I knocked on the earth with a resounding fist. Twelve knocks at hell's gate. Twelve notches in my chest keep my lungs from expanding. Twelve years living with a ghost.

The Joshua tree was bending lower than before. Or at least it seemed. Between two limbs, high in the blue sky, one star remained. I turned my body laid on my back next to the trunk of the tree and kept my gaze on the shimmering star. The tree no longer seemed to sentence my mistake with damnation and angry waving limbs. Instead, its graceful body was stretched out as if to embrace me with a hug.

‘We aren’t there yet, Irene. But perhaps someday we will be.’ I thought.

Laying in the sand, I accepted the small amount of shade that the Joshua tree provided. I felt relaxed. At ease. And for the first time in a long time, I felt I could sleep for days. I closed my eyes.

Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.

Short Story

About the Creator

Hyde Wunderli

Enthusiast of dark romanticism or, gothic romance.

Inspired by the works of edger Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, and Stephen King

Here for the dopamine, the passion, and the challenge to push my comfort zone.

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Comments (2)

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  • Test4 months ago

    Outstanding work, Hyde Wunderli!!!

  • Novel Allen6 months ago

    Sad but beautifully written.

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