The car, a wedge of dark brown metal dissecting the landscape, cast a long, slender shadow as it sped east along Route 140. It ran on autopilot, because Kara had a headache. She rifled the glove compartment for ibuprofen. She felt cool, so she rolled up the window. Her legs, though, were hot and tingly. Too much sun. She glanced down. Her thighs seemed redder. Funny, I usually tan easily. She remembered the anti-depressants. The doctor said the drug would leave her photo-sensitive. Stay out of the sun, she’d told Kara. They’d both laughed. Who worries about too much sun in a Seattle winter? She’d hated the pills and chucked them.
The low sun bronzed the underside of the thickening dark clouds that hung over the Oregon plateau. Earlier the car had climbed a steep grade (7 percent, the sign said) to Blizzard Gap (elevation 6,100 feet). No more trees. No more soft, calming green. Just a featureless, undulating plain dotted with tufts of stuff that looked like sagebrush — Isn’t that what it always is in the cowboy movies? Unkempt fences isolated dense slabs of dirty snow from the highway — bad-ass snow reluctant to step aside for spring. It’d been hours since she’d seen a house or even another car. Near Hawk Valley a rusted, burnt-out frame of a trailer lay broken-hearted next to the highway. Just west of Guano Valley, she passed a half-eaten roadside carcass of a deer or an antelope. Wolves? Buzzards? Monsters? Maybe one of the coyotes she’d seen loping in the brush near the road had eaten it. They’re scavengers, aren’t they? She thought of Sheepskin Hat. If he’d asked, would I have gone through with it?
As twilight dimmed into deepening gray, flashes of lightning danced over the distant horizon. A dark cliff, several hundred feet high, waited silently ahead. The car climbed the winding road slashed in its face. No guardrails. The strobe-like flashes in the sky illuminated the potential consequences of not minding the road. The shoulder of the highway was neighbor to nothingness, a nearly vertical drop to the plateau below. She parked at the top of the cliff to stretch. She walked toward the cliff’s edge past a sign that said Doherty Rim (elevation 6,420 feet). Another sign beside the opposite lane gave her a warning she didn’t need now — “8 Percent Grade, Three Miles, Last Warning, Trucks Use Low Gear.” Last warning. Advice? Or prophesy? She walked to the edge of the rim. The great emptiness below held only a deserted, ancient shack she had passed earlier. A spidery network of rutted dirt roads crisscrossed the plateau on journeys to nowhere or everywhere, if you’re an optimist. The faint light electrified the dark colors in the layers of lava in the cliff. Blacks grew iridescent like that bird’s tail, browns swelled with lustrous yellow, reds deepened so darkly that they looked like freshly shed blood. Hearing the first, distant rumble of thunder, she drove on.
She felt uneasy, and she did not know when that happened. She tried to laugh it off. If I’m uneasy now, does that mean I was easy earlier? They thought so in high school. She shook her head. What a sick joke. She wondered about parameters ignored, about shifting conditions, about when something transitioned into something else. Earlier she had parked to watch the last light fade, to see day become evening become night become deep, dark, dangerous night. Words, she thought, but not actualities. She couldn’t find the dividing lines between day and twilight and night and deeper night. Even television, she thought, is only a series of increments, flickering images rescanned every thirtieth of a second. She gathered and recorded the data: It’s dark. It’s after sunset, after twilight, but the night isn’t completely black. Dark grays lurked among the blacks, an impression of uneven thickness of clouds, of uneven depth of darkness. Maybe the moon and the stars were lighting the clouds from above, or the clouds were uneven in thickness. Or maybe the night has just not fully defeated day yet. No boundaries, no limits, no lines drawn in the sand as a dare to the next step. Kara could find no distinctions with which to organize gradations between day and night. Shouldn’t I be able to?
She stood on the cooling Oregon plateau, shivering as she yawned. The sun had left her, and here, high on the plateau, she seemed too close to the thick, gray clouds that had been tinged with sunlight and had been quite beautiful. Now they hovered over her, around her. They were bulky and big, rumbling with thunder and alive with lighting. Firecracker bursts crackled inside the black clouds. That’s how the cattle must have felt — hemmed in, closed off, shut out. She knew kinship — I’m glad I’m a vegetarian. But that politically correct dietary habit had waned. The occasional bacon at breakfast. The quick trip through the Golden Arches for a Big Mac because she never had time for lunch. Riiiiight. Solidarity with cattle. Now I know I’m losing it. I’m over the edge. I’m a wreck. I should be stampeding, too.
She got out her sweats and a lacy white camisole. She’d always thought it was sexy and assumed he did, too, because he gave me the damned thing. Kara disparaged it in his presence but in fact she loved it more than any other clothing she owned. She stripped off her Tyvek and shorts and stood shivering under the dark sky. She walked around the car, rubbing away goose bumps. This feels dangerous. But I like it. I like it a little dangerous now and then. Don’t I? She looked up and down the road. It’s okay. She’d see the lights of cars miles away. Plenty of time to hide behind clothing. Nevertheless, she slithered into her lacy thing, pulled on sweats, and slipped into her Tyvek.
She drove on, using Driving Position No. 4, favored by the brothers who’d taught her to drive, laughing at her most of time. They’d taught her several. No. 4 was left foot planted on the dash next to the door, left hand at the bottom of the wheel, right hand tucked part way into the top of her sweatpants. Sixteen and oh, so cool. But she still drove like they taught her, yawning occasionally, weary from the miles driven and the pasts revisited.
The lightning no longer hid above the clouds. An occasional bolt struck the plateau. Silhouettes appeared in bright, brief flashes. Some looked like horses. Mustangs? Once, the car’s headlights framed deer, nibbling on grass. Am I a deer? She imprinted the colors of the beautiful, slender animals — white, dark honey brown, a bit of black on the horns. A sign corrected her, saying that she had entered the Charles Sheldon National Antelope Refuge. Later, in a hollow protected from the rising wind, she drove through a silver heaven come to ground — motionless, interleaved sheets of mist hovering about three feet thick on the highway; probably, she assumed, condensation fog formed where the warmer, moist air sat undisturbed on the cold road. Meteorological analysis dispelled the grasp of melancholy. But the luminous magic of the miniature landscape clutched at her for many miles.
Near the Nevada border, hunger stopped her. She got out of the car and munched on a PowerBar while leaning against the hood. Lightning outlined the contours of distant hills. Upthrust tendrils of rock formed triangles of land shaped like a lady’s fan illuminated at its edges. She slipped her hand under her lacy thing and touched her breast. I have this world to myself. Big, pulsing shocks lit sixty or seventy degrees of the horizon, underscoring the texture of the clouds. Like seeing God’s balls. Strange. Does anyone think of lightning as feminine? I don’t want to. I want it to be a man. I want it to hit me and get me off like I know it must be sometimes. Kara sighed. Why am I here? A gust of wind snatched the PowerBar wrapper from her hand.
Kara longed for the lightning prancing like a centaur in the distant peaks. She slammed her hand on the hood. Damn. She pulled the zipper of the Tyvek all the way up so the collar rimmed her neck and chin. She got in the car and opened the windows and sunroof. She put on her faded Campagnolo cap. She pulled on her leather gloves and started the car. She dialed up a playlist of violin concertos by Prokofiev on her iPhone. She yawned. She adjusted the earbuds. Kara grasped the gear shift and pulled it out of park into first. Her foot flattened the gas pedal, and the tires threw gravel into the face of the wind. She spun the wheel, and the hatchback slewed toward the road, accelerating rapidly. She shifted into second and let the engine whine and scream until the speedometer shouted 50. She pushed the shift lever into drive. Her car had an automatic transmission; she didn’t have to shift, but she liked to. It made her feel good. It made her feel like her brothers must have. It makes me feel competent.
The cool air roared through the interior of the car, blowing loose papers about. The map fluttered noisily in the passenger seat. Kara snatched it and tucked it under her lacy thing. The edges of the map poked insistently at her breasts. Sitting with her hands on the wheel, she breathed heavily. Why has this fucking map become so damn important? The cold touched her again. She pushed the heat control to full. The distant lightning laughed at her. Damn you. She rubbed her eyes. She was tired and jittery.
After a few miles, the jangling in her forearms eased. Her thighs stopped quivering. The tense muscles in her groin unkinked a bit. Kara and the Subaru ran hot, straight, and true astride the centerline, hell-bent for Nevada. The car knew what Kara wanted. It watched the road. It looked for obstacles. It kept Kara out of harm’s way while a distracted, sleepy Kara watched the lightning. They chased the lightning together. We both know the stakes.
They swept through occasional rain. The rising wind cracked the clouds open, and they saw the full, fat, laughing moon. Moonlight and starlight sparkled on the raindrops captured by sagebrush at road’s edge. The air smelled of sage and the freshness of the wind-driven night. Kara and the car had never run better or faster. They fused themselves to the road.
They dashed downhill from the Oregon plateau toward the Black Rock Desert through a narrow canyon near Thousand Creek Ranch. The car carved a fast, delicate line. Torn remnants of clouds hugged arroyos and gulches and little side canyons, hiding from the reaping wind. The moon and the stars transformed patches of fog and cloud into silver ghosts. I wish I had a pendant of clouds. Her breasts felt as if they had been caressed with a warm, damp washcloth. She slipped her hand under the Tyvek and the lacy thing and touched the map. It reassured her. I wish I knew why.
They raced onto the desert floor. They had closed on the lightning. The ragged summits of the mountains and the boiling interiors of the squalls shone in every stroke. Her mind tried to catalogue every fragment of atmospheric violence. Each time the lightning struck, she wanted to possess it. She wanted to contain, control, and capture the ferocity of the squalls. But she couldn’t. I’m not competent. She badly wanted to sleep.
They gained on the storms. The squall line became a circle, surrounding Kara and the Subaru in an eye of momentary calm. Kara asked the car to coast to a stop and wiped her eyes with the back of her glove. She got out and walked around it slowly, watching the lightning taunt her as it, too, circled the car. Something inside hurt, something secret, something unfathomable. I love you, she screamed at the lightning. Why do you keep me away? Attracted to the dangerous, rejected by the dangerous. Why, god damn it, why?
To hell with you. Kara decided to dance alone and got back in the car and turned off the headlights. Her eyes adjusted to the monochromatic light of the hiding-and-seeking moon. She drove onto the barren surface of a broad playa in Bog Hot Valley. The car carried Kara onto her empty ballroom floor. Should I curtsy before I begin to dance? The end of the playa lay miles distant. With all-wheel-drive, she could dance here without worry.
Kara guided the hatchback through long, exploratory curves, getting a feel for the playa’s hard but slick surface. Tightening the turns, she found the instant when the tires lost traction and the car danced on the edge of adhesion, pitting speed against radius of turn. She pushed the Subaru faster until the turns became pirouettes and the car would spin around and around and drift to a stop. Kara would press the accelerator and do it again, spinning the car. The tires tracked an intricate passion as Kara flaunted herself before the circling lightning that flashed angrily beyond the windshield. She drove to the end of the playa, turning and spinning the car with the freedom of a child who knew not an adult’s inhibitions. She raced the car in long dashes along the edge of the playa, turned, and let the hatchback spin at its own will across the desert pavement. She taunted the lightning. You should have taken me when you could.
The lightning marshaled an army to punish the infidel for her insolence. It sent forth its heavy armor — the dense, soaking squalls lashing out of hidden canyons preceded by its plodding foot soldiers, the low, swirling, scud clouds. Above, the towering, night-cloaked cumulonimbus rumbled with salvos of thunder. Small but furious masses of rain raced onto the playa, cutting off her path to the highway. Fuck you. She studied the advancing army of rain. You won’t get me. Kara knew how to deal with rain. She liked rain; she walked in Seattle’s rain often just for the sheer pleasure of feeling it fall on her. Kara drove straight at the nearest line of squalls. Just before the onrushing rain swallowed them, Kara darted into a narrow gap between squalls. The wind drove rain through the window and sunroof, wetting her face and hair. A tiny rill trickled down her cheek. She licked the moisture at the corner of her mouth. Lightning’s blood.
The car broke through the line of squalls and rushed toward the highway. It bucked over hummocky ground as it fought through the wind rushing down from Oregon’s high plateau. They reached the highway and fled east past rutted side roads leading to forgotten box canyons like Bottle Creek Canyon. She ignored them. In the movies, posses trapped the bad guys in them. They offered no sanctuary. The squalls raced across the Black Rock Desert to intercept her. Kara aimed the car at the heart of the first squall and burst through it. She looked in the rearview mirror. The squalls nipped at her. The lightning danced in the peaks with other lovers — how fickle. It hurled thunder from the mountains, passing sentence on Kara. The car could go no faster. Her pursuers closed. I’m scared. The harsh wind screamed through the window and sunroof. It gripped the back of Kara’s neck. She was so tired and she didn’t know how to get away, so she closed her eyes and dreamed, and in the darkness of her fraying consciousness she saw an enormous white spinnaker, full, lush, and pregnant, blossoming in front of the car. Its Dacron handmaidens reached out to Kara and the little car and pulled them swiftly away from the frustrated squalls.
Kara never saw the sharp curve west of Denio Junction. The Subaru flew off the cliff into space but she feared nothing now and dreamed that the spinnaker would become a parachute and gently lower her through soft, warm rain and find her shelter from the storm. And it did.