Switchbacks

Our last story for the regular season — keep your eyes open for our Humor Contest winners in the next few weeks. In this lovely, lyrical tale, a troubled girl tries to find her way. 

By Milena Nigam

Shani hears the other car before the headlights break around the line of trees. It makes a shaking sound like a box of sand in constant rotation, and the sound stays soft even as the car approaches. She’s traveled more than 1,300 miles over the past few days, sitting next to Ronnie in his beat-up Saturn, the muffler roaring their passage across the country. Ronnie’s not a friend; he’s a ride just a few years older than she is, and now the Saturn is toast and they’re stranded somewhere in the mountains. Shani’s untethered, sitting on the side of the road on a dirty Mexican blanket, folded and folded again and smelling thickly of damp cardboard and smoke, while Ronnie’s passed out in the mossy grass. Her loose insides shake around quietly like the soft-sounding car driving up. On the other side of the country, her little brother, Duncan, sleeps locked up in a school for boys.

“Country Road” © Nr. Nixter https://www.flickr.com

Earlier that day, driving through Colorado, Shani was quiet and Ronnie was chatty.

“I love canoe camping,” he went on. “Have you tried it? My dad used to take me through the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.” Ronnie tapped twice on the rearview mirror.

Shani stared out the side window. She could see that Ronnie looked over at her but she kept her gaze on the corner of the car hood. A leaf was trapped at the joint, fluttering with the car’s velocity. All around them were the gray-brown skeletons of standing dead trees. Shani had asked someone about the trees at a rest stop miles back: Colorado tree die-off. She looked for signs of regrowth closer to the ground, but the forest around them was colorless and barren.

“I saw it once, from the air,” he said. “I was on a plane with my mom and stepdad. Flying to visit my stepdad’s parents in California. We lived in Boston then. Anyway, below the plane was this endless plateau, literally carpeted with trees. So soft-looking, right? It went on and on; we must have flown across half of Pennsylvania. And the canyon cut through it the whole way.”

He scratched his nose. When he wiped his finger on his shorts, Shani wondered if he was wiping away snot.

“I couldn’t say anything to my mom. You know. You can’t talk about good times with the dad in front of the stepdad.”

“My stepmom’s OK,” she said. There were no other cars on the road.

Ronnie shrugged.

“Hey, I’ve been wondering. What kind of stone is that?” he asked her. “It matches your eyes.”

The stone is howlite, a cheap healing crystal dyed a cloudy purple she wears on a long chain. Her eyes are also a cloudy purple, but they gray up when she’s angry. Duncan and their father have straight gray eyes. Her name, Shani, means red.

They’d been climbing the gentle switchbacks all afternoon, and the sun was just beginning to pink up through the hollow evergreen silhouettes lining the road. Something pulled away from the car near the fluttering leaf. Shani pointed at the hood.

“Is that smoke?” she asked, and Ronnie looked down at the dashboard. He hit the steering wheel.

“The temperature gauge is going crazy!”

Dark smoke, suddenly everywhere, wafted out the hood seams, the sharp odor slipping through the vents into the car. Shani felt a slow flickering in her chest. She rubbed her fingertips together, and through the thickening smoke they saw a turnout. Ronnie swung the car off the road.

“Let me out!” she yelled, and they leapt from their car doors.

A flame peeked out from under the hood, then spread quickly along the perimeter. Shani’s bag had been on her lap, so she grabbed it, along with the blanket that was serving as the passenger seat, and ran from the car in her sandals.

Ronnie risked an extra moment to pop the trunk and save his cooler. The flames jumped and reached, and then, uneventfully, crept back down to close up quietly and disappear. In the end, nothing in the car was damaged, except for what was under the hood. The ground off the road was covered in a cool moss, and Shani wondered if that had saved the forest from a massive wildfire.

“Shani, have a beer,” Ronnie said, once they knew the car was shot. She shook her head no. He was short—elfin—and wore his curly brown hair tied back in a purple bandana. Even after four days on the road, his face was as hairless as a boy’s. The chemicals in the air made them both gag when Ronnie popped open his first can of beer.

Now, late at night, the strange car’s headlights bounce and grow in Shani’s face and bathe her limbs in yellow. She holds her breath. Her long legs are scabbed and picked over, leaving shadows of gray scars on her skin like charcoal rub almost erased. She covers her eyes and looks through two fists. The vehicle isn’t going fast, and it slows and stops just past Ronnie’s discarded car.

Ronnie’s shoes are across the paved road where Shani threw them, although they’re barely visible in the dark. The breeze has carried the smoke from Ronnie’s burnt out car into the tree branches, and Shani doesn’t know if they’re still in Colorado or if they finally crossed over into Utah.

A plump arm reaches out the driver’s window and a woman’s head, unable to turn all the way around, crams through.

 


 

“What do you think?” Shani had asked her brother, Duncan, when she told him she was thinking of leaving Cortland and driving west with a stranger named Ronnie. She was worried about going so far away without him, leaving him behind in his new school.

In just four months, her brother had grown half a foot and now hung uneasily over Shani. He ran his thumbs in and out of his fingers while they stood together. Other adolescent boys in uniforms sat around at tables. There was a dullness to that dark indoor space, the dormitory’s common room. Shani had had to leave her necklace with security at the front office.

Duncan replied in his deepening voice, “I think they’re all assholes.”

A carpenter bee, trapped inside the room, knocked into the stained glass window behind Duncan, its nugget of a shadow cutting through the narrow slice of green sunlight on the stone floor.

“Who’s an asshole?” she asked.

Duncan knotted his thumb around each knuckle.

“Dad. Teachers. No matter who you think you want to be, they tell you you’re wrong. They tell you you’re joking yourself.” The bee buzzed past them and disappeared. “If you stick around here, you’ll always be who they say you are.”

 


 

“You need some help?” the woman calls back from the stopped car.

Shani sits in the night for a moment longer, glances at Ronnie sleeping in the grass. She can’t hear him snoring anymore, but his back rises up and down with pillowy breaths. Shani stretches out her legs and slips on her sandals, brushing off the translucent yellow hash marks still on her big toes, leftover from finals. It’s highlighter not nail polish, and it seems to glow in the dark. Ronnie hadn’t known she was in college the semester before. That’s not necessarily what people expect of her. Besides, she’s still just seventeen; she left high school after three years with enough credits and good enough grades to go right to SUNY Cortland.

Shani stands up and crosses to the car.

“You and your friend need some help?” the driver asks. She has a thick face and razor short hair. The person in the passenger seat pushes in front of the driver, peering out the open window. Both women have leathery tan skin that looks flat in the moonlight; the passenger wears glasses. She speaks.

“What happened? Your car broke?”

Shani nods. “The engine caught on fire.”

“What about your friend?”

“He had a few beers after the car died,” she says.

“You want to wake him?”

Ronnie was harmless enough and had bought her coconut donuts at rest stops when they shook out their cramped legs, but he means nothing to Shani.

“No thanks.”

The two women look at each other.

“You got anything in that car?”

Shani holds up her bag. It’s shapeless, taupe hemp weave, large enough to hold some clothes and a face towel, soap and toothpaste. She has $280 tied up in a bandana.

“This is it,” she says.

“We can drive you as far as Salt Lake City. There’s no cell service out here. We’ll call highway patrol for your friend the next time we stop for gas.”

“OK. But he’s not my friend,” she tells them. The driver of the car nods. Shani leaves the blanket in the dirt. It belongs to Ronnie.

“I’m Lana,” the woman in glasses says when Shani takes her seat in back. “My partner’s Amy.”

“Shani.”

Shani tucks the seatbelt shoulder strap behind her back and lays her head against the door. She pulls at the frayed hem of her shorts and adjusts her bra. The inside of the car smells like oranges. Amy turns the key and the shaking sound starts back up. Outside the car window, Ronnie’s canvas shorts bunch up on his butt like a pile of crumpled paper bags. The moon hangs at an angle above the skeleton trees.

Lana turns around, faces Shani. She pushes at the center of her glasses. She and Amy are both pudgy, but Lana is the rounder of the two. Her shadowed mouth twitches sideways.

“Where you traveling from?”

Shani tries closing her eyes. It feels good.

“New York. State.”

“And you’re headed…?”

Shani’s head grows lighter, seems to lift up into the nearness of sleep.

“Vegas.” She half forms the word.

“Lana, let the girl be.”

Shani hears Lana turn back in her seat.

“I just want to know a little about the stranger we have in our car.”

“Are you a runaway, kid?” Amy asks, her voice full and heavy, deep like a smoker’s.

“Dancer,” Shani mumbles.

 


 

When Shani was in her second semester of college courses, Duncan punched a middle school teacher, then stole their dad’s truck and crashed it into a dumpster by the bus station. They sent him away to a school for delinquent boys. He was only twelve. The administrators at the new school labeled him a flight risk.

“He was the best of us!” Shani screamed at her stepmom from the front yard after her dad drove off in the smashed-up truck with Duncan. Large, flat snowflakes fell singularly from the sky, icy flowers that stilled against Shani’s hot skin before vanishing into melted nothingness. A neighbor down the street was burning leaves and the sweet, brown smoke caught in Shani’s throat. She clawed at her necklace, felt like someone was gripping her trachea; there was nowhere for the air to come in. She choked out, “How could you let Dad take him away? Take him away from me?”

Her stepmom stood crying with her hand on the rusted storm door handle, her body deflated into herself. Shani pushed past her and ran into the house, kicking a hairbrush under the couch and grabbing a paper Weis Market shopping bag from the hallway. She threw clothes into the bag. Her textbooks tore through a different bag so she wrapped them in her jacket. She chewed into the side of her mouth, the bloody saliva tasting like pennies.

As Shani left, her stepmom was sitting on the front steps. It was colder, and the falling snow clung to spikes of yellowed grass.

“How will you pay for your classes?” her stepmom asked quietly from behind her.

“Why do you care?” she replied, leaving shallow footsteps in the light snow cover.

For the rest of the semester she slept on different couches and saved up money from her waitressing job. It wasn’t enough for another semester, and after finals, Shani knew she was done.

“Las vegas showgirls performing at the Sahara casino, 1955” © Kristine https://www.flickr.com

A friend told her about Ronnie. He was headed west on an adventure, bumming around after college graduation. Shani shopped for a small travel bag and left her used books on the edge of the sinks in the second floor bathroom at SUNY Cortland’s Memorial Library. She had danced through high school, so she thought she would audition to be a showgirl in Las Vegas, with a back-up plan of waitressing or even stripping if she was that desperate for money. It would be easy enough. The boys she’d been with were so clumsy. What did it matter, standing up in front of a room of them, taking her clothes off? She’d heard some club owners made the girls kiss each other to bring in bigger tips.

 


 

The car with the three women stops a few hours later, just as the sky lightens into the thinness of early morning. All around, the trees stand fuller, alive, their needles bursting and blue against the disappearing night.

Shani’s neck is stiff and her body temperature cool; Amy’s left her car door open while she pumps gas. It’s a Chevron station, and country music is piped through speakers. The lyrics, a man singing about his truck, hang like moisture around the edges of the car. Shani’s heavy bladder aches.

Amy taps on her window.

“You hungry?”

Shani shakes her head and frowns. “I have to use the bathroom,” she says, and jumps out of the car.

The indoor lighting in the mini-mart is disorienting, and, at first, Shani can’t find the women’s room. She slinks down the nut aisle and past the red hotdogs turning slowly in their steamer, beads of sweat pooling on their skins. The cashier points her past the beverage coolers without looking up from the TV, and Shani grabs her crotch and bites her lip, but she’s too late. She wets her underpants before she can lock the door and unbutton her shorts. It’s cramped in the stall as she steps out of her clothes and balances her bag over her head so it doesn’t drop into the toilet.

She wraps the soiled underwear in paper, pushing it deep into the metal sanitary napkin can. The lid scrapes white lines across the back of her hand. The ventilation fan hums. Embarrassed, and worried that Lana and Amy will get tired of waiting, Shani doesn’t bother changing into new underwear. Instead, she just steps back into her jean shorts and pulls them up over her bare skin. She wipes her thighs dry with rough paper towels at the sink, and in her hurry lets the sheets flutter from her hands to stack up messily on the dirty, peeling bathroom floor.

When she returns to the car, Amy’s on the payphone. She’s holding a tray with three cups of coffee and a bag of gas station pastries. Her hand is thick and masculine, and she wears her t-shirt sleeves rolled up to her pits. Lana’s in the driver’s seat, adjusting the mirrors. Amy walks with Shani back to the car. They are the same height. The song that’s playing now reminds Shani of “White Christmas,” from her stepmom’s Elvis Presley collection.

“You drink coffee, Shani?” Amy asks.

“Thank you,” she says. “Sorry I took so long.” The paper cup burns hot through her skin. Birds nest silently in the support beams above the gas pumps. Shani’s eyelid starts to quiver. For days now while Ronnie drove, she’s slept in a car. All she wants to do is keep sleeping.

“No rush. I figure we still have about six more hours before we reach Salt Lake,” Amy says as they get back in their seats.

“That much?” says Lana. She takes off her glasses and cleans them on her shirt. Shani thinks the women are both in their fifties, older than her dad, who would never tolerate a couple of lesbians. Lana drinks half her coffee quickly, yet when Shani brings her mouth to the rim of her cup the steam is too hot for her to take even a tiny sip. “The scenic route only makes sense during the day, I guess,” says Lana.

“Life’s a journey.” Amy turns from Lana to Shani. “Right, Shani?”

“I guess.”

“Oh, shush,” says Lana.

“Shani’d still be on the side of the road if we hadn’t climbed that mountain last night.” Amy looks again at Shani. “I let highway patrol know about your friend’s car, by the way.”

Shani wonders whether Ronnie’s still passed out in the grass, his bandana wet with dew. He’ll probably check to see if she stole any of the beers when he wakes up and finds her gone.

“It sure is pretty here,” Lana says, indicating beyond the gas station. “Shani, did you sleep at all?”

“Yes, I slept,” she answers.

“You slept,” Amy says to Lana.

“I know. My leg fell asleep. It felt good to stand up and stretch. Shani, you let us know if you need anything back there.”

Amy puts her head on Lana’s shoulder, and Lana scratches her partner’s short hair with the pads of her fingers before turning on the ignition. They get back on a state road, shaking toward the moon that’s fading into an outline in the brightening sky.

“Driving down the Switchbacks on the Burr Trail in Utah” © Road Travel America https://www.flickr.com

After some time, the mountains begin to stretch out around them, and the road ribbons back and forth in switchbacks; the green forest has grown sparser. Ronnie was wrong last night when he thought they were almost in Utah; here they are—Amy, Lana, and Shani—still weaving through the Colorado Rockies. They open their windows, and the thin air spins wispy clouds into threads as the car pushes forward. Lana sings some of the lyrics to a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. Shani’s shorts rub uncomfortably against her skin and she wishes she had put on a new pair of underpants at the gas station.

“I don’t think they’ll be happy to see us,” Amy says, looking out the window.

“Who? My mom?” asks Lana. “Courtney? Who won’t be happy?”

“They always put on a good show. You like to think it’s real, but it’s a show, Lana. Even Courtney. It’s just a show for you. They let me see right through it.”

A motorhome bends with the road toward them, and Lana slows their car into the turn. Shani’s low in the backseat and can’t make out the driver when it passes. Up ahead, there are white patches of snow balancing against the rocky mountain faces. Shani has never before seen a landscape like this one. With fewer trees at the higher altitude, the terrain feels desolate, like the moon, but the snow shines like ice.

Lana hasn’t responded. Amy reaches over, puts her hand on Lana’s.

“You are my everything,” she says.

Lana gently lifts her wrist from the steering wheel, nudging Amy free. Amy looks away.

“Your mom and sister blame me for Janice.”

“Blame you for what?” Lana asks. “For cancer?”

“They loved Janice. Like a daughter and a sister.”

Amy shifts in her seat, lengthens her back. Shani puts her empty cup around her nose and mouth, breathes in the tepid memory of coffee.

“They wish she was still here with you. Instead of me,” Amy says, her deep voice raspy and incomplete.

“Shhh,” says Lana. Her hair is a mix of gray and ashy brown. “You saved me, Amy. You saved me.”

 


 

There was a time when Shani’s little brother had a buzz cut like Amy’s. When lice went around the fifth grade, Shani’s stepmom took an electric razor to Duncan’s hair and shore it down to the scalp. He had a purple birthmark behind his ear that no one remembered from when he was a baby. It looked like a dog on its back, at least that’s what Shani told him since he’d always loved animals.

Duncan had been the kind of kid who liked to snuggle, who tucked his body into Shani’s while she watched TV or did homework. When she started dancing more seriously, Shani would have him lie on her back, his little boy weight pushing her into a deeper stretch. He would sing songs from school in a whisper in her ear, a toneless little bird. They’d rest like this in her room while their father stomped his feet and scraped chairs across the floor outside Shani’s door.

After the lice incident, Duncan would rub his shaved head against Shani’s bare feet, tickling her with the pointy stubble. He told her his scalp itched as the hair grew back. It made him jumpy, he said, like he wanted to hit someone.

Shani knew what he meant. When she was in high school, she would hold a lighter to the pads of her fingers. The burning would travel her body, first tingling the length of her thighs, then buzzing at the bottom of her earlobes, finally splitting into her fingers like snake bites. She learned how to feed the flame at just the right distance to watch the blisters color and raise. If she could count to four slowly after the blister started to form, the smell of burning skin would make her lightheaded, like she was floating.

 


 

In the middle of the morning, they pull over into a picnic area. Amy thinks they have finally crossed into Utah. Salt Lake City should be less than two hours away. In the distance there are towns bumping up in the lower valleys.

Lana gets out sticks of beef jerky, pita bread, a carton of hummus from a small cooler in the trunk. They fill their coffee cups from a pump sticking out of the gravel and scrub their hands under the flow of ice cold water. There’s a picnic table made of rotting wood and covered with sprouting lichen. Ronnie’s blanket would have been nice to spread across the bench.

Lana walks down a long, worn path to the compost toilet.

“The bathroom looks pretty decent,” she calls back to them, shouting across the distance and pantomiming her words. She waves her hand. “I’ll join you in a minute.”

Amy straddles the bench, bites off a piece of jerky. She has a tattoo of a flaming sun on the top of her foot.

“We can get comfortable. She’ll be in there for a while,” Amy says, pointing the jerky toward the bathroom.

“Yellow Wildflowers” © Thomas Huston https://www.flickr.com

Tiny wildflowers dot the ground. The grass is green, plentiful. They’re at a lower altitude now.

“So what’s your plan, Shani?” Amy asks. “Have you thought about California, instead of Vegas?”

She shakes her head, picks at the perimeter of a scab. “Should be a lot of jobs for dancers in Vegas.”

“Hmm. Maybe.” Amy pushes the hummus and pitas toward her. “Make sure you eat something.”

Shani looks out over the valley. Her fingers play with the edge of a pita, and after a while she breaks off a small piece. She chews slowly, carefully. Amy gets up to refill her water. There is a sweetness of pollen that rises in the breeze, and mountain birds chatter from the grasses.

Maybe she should think of California. She could see the ocean for the first time, and stand next to those giant trees. As of yesterday, the only concrete plan Shani had was to stop in on a friend of Ronnie’s once they made it to Nevada. But she’s got a new ride now.

The breeze picks up, and Shani’s hair blows in front of her face.

In California, she could get a job as a dance teacher. Help little girls in pink leotards reach up to the sky as high as they can stand on their tiptoes. She could get an apartment in San Francisco, and Duncan could live with her, go to college if he wanted when he was old enough.

Shani pushes the hair out of her eyes. She swallows a bite of pita. Down below, the valley looks never-ending.

“You know,” she says to Amy, swallowing again, “I took Italian in college.” Her stomach jumps around, buzzes with lightness.

“Yeah? I was guessing you were still a little young for college.”

“Not that young, I guess. My little brother Duncan’s still in school, though.” Shani pulls at the howlite. “I wanted to see what it felt like to be someone else, you know? Italian, maybe.” She laughs at herself, and looks away. The vastness of open space is dizzying. Shani wants to fill herself with endless gulps of air. In this moment, she feels like she really could be anyone. Do anything.

Amy nods. “I can understand that.” Amy chews the last of her jerky. She brushes off the table top in front of her, breaking the brittle frills of lichen with her thick fingers. “Lana’s worried about leaving you at the Greyhound in Salt Lake. You know, just on your own. We talked about it while you slept this morning.”

The lightness in Shani’s stomach shifts, drops to her groin. They’ll be in Salt Lake City too soon.

“Vegas. California. Either way, you’re kind of young to be traveling so far on your own. Might get lost. Or hurt.” Amy sips her water. Shani stills her breath. “Your younger brother? Maybe he wants you home,” Amy says.

“I’m not going home,” she says. But she feels shaky. What’s Duncan doing right now, locked up in school? A bird dives behind the picnic table, and Shani grabs for the bag of pita. Her necklace flicks up, stinging her skin when it hits her back in the chest. She holds the pitas to her shirt. The breeze wraps her dirty hair across her neck.

“I could guess that,” Amy says, unstartled by the bird. Her eyes are kind, the skin loose beneath her lower lashes. “You know, as you get older, you make your own family. It gets better.” She smiles, adds in her deep voice, “You might meet an Italian to run away with.”

An insect buzzes at Shani’s feet. It darts under the table, then is behind them. Amy slaps her neck. “Ow. Mother f—” She scrunches up her face, starts rubbing. “Lana?” she calls out. “Lana, you almost done in there? I think I’m stung by a bee.”

“Are you OK?” Shani asks, standing up.

“It’s nothing. If the stinger’s in there—” she makes a scraping motion with her splayed fingers— “I get real itchy.” Amy’s skin marbles, flushes red. “It’s nothing,” she says, but then she calls again for Lana. She says to Shani, “I’m just— I’ve got to ask Lana to help me with the stinger.”

Shani’s tongue is dry and smacky from the bite of pita. She tries to get more saliva in her mouth by swallowing and sucking at her cheeks.

“Don’t worry,” Amy says, getting up. “It’s really nothing. Lana?” she calls again and starts walking away from Shani.

The tiny communities are scattered below at the bottom of the mountain pass. The path to the toilet is worn and pebbly where others have tread, and clover grows in clumps all around. The sound of Amy’s voice is an echo swallowed in the flapping breezes. Lana, shut up in her stall, feels a mountain range away.

 


 

Many years ago, when Duncan still lisped his s’s and r’s and followed Shani around like a baby goose, they found a nest of bunnies behind the shed where their dad kept his tools and lawnmower. The mama rabbit had dug underneath the foundation, and the pile of tiny, sleeping rabbits pulsed like individual cells of a single organism in the dirt pocket she had carved out for them. In the dappled shadows, the nest was a pile of soft round rocks radiating heat. Duncan ran on little legs to the house to tell their dad, his joy streaming from his face like sunshine.

When their father walked outside with Duncan, Shani watched his boots. Shit kickers, people called them. They were what men wore. Their father kept his laces threaded tightly and double-knotted. The toes were stiff and round and the color of mustard.

“Oh no you don’t,” said their father.

He didn’t pause. He walked right up to the hole with Duncan and started pounding into it with the toe of his boot. Pound, shift his weight; pound, shift his weight. He had to hop back a bit when his heel got caught in the tightness of the nest, but then rammed his body weight again down through his foot. A high-pitched sound exhaled from the pile of bunnies, and then there was only the pounding of the boot. A grown rabbit jumped out from behind a bush. It darted in zigzags across the yard and disappeared into a denser patch of grasses.

Duncan stood frozen with his pudgy hands in front of his mouth. Behind them, Shani pressed her fingernails into her thighs, tugging and tearing at tiny bits of skin until she could feel the thin wetness of blood smearing under her touch. When he finished, their father hosed off his boot and left it to dry in the sun.

 


 

Shani doesn’t like the feeling of being alone. Without Amy sitting and talking with her, she can’t remember what it could be like to move to California instead of Vegas. There’s no place for Duncan in Las Vegas.

She kicks her sandal in the gravel and looks at Amy’s car, then past it. The women are standing outside the toilet stall. Lana is leaning over Amy. They aren’t paying attention to Shani.

She scrapes up a handful of gravel. She cups her hand and walks slowly to Amy’s car. Her cut-offs scratch at her crotch. A run of dried pee reflects flatly off her thigh. The gas tank is missing a cover, and she unscrews the top.

“2011_2207 – Random Textures_5” © Ben Hosking https://www.flickr.com

She’s thinking that she needs more time with Lana and Amy. She doesn’t want their ride to end at the Greyhound station in just a couple of hours. She doesn’t want to go home. And she doesn’t want to be a stripper at a casino. The women can help her with a better choice.

Shani makes a shallow funnel with her fingers and lets the sand and gravel sift into the gas tank. Sand falls around her bare toes, around the dusty hash marks from finals. When the breeze blows her hair in front of her nose, she smells the smoke from Ronnie’s car last night. The fire under the hood had scared her. While she and Lana and Amy wait for a tow truck at the picnic spot, she can tell them how scary it had been, how they had almost started a wildfire.

She scrapes up another handful of gravel and tries to fill the tank some more but most falls to the ground. The top grinds against the dust and sand when she closes up the tank with trembling fingers.

Shani’s heart thumps deeply in her chest. She thinks of Duncan’s prickly scalp, of his foot on the accelerator of their dad’s truck before he crashed it at the bus station. As she swallows and wets her tongue, she wonders what Lana’s girlfriend before Amy looked like before she got sick.

She trusts Amy that the bee sting is no big deal. Lana will get the stinger out. Maybe they’ll figure out what Shani did to their car, but it won’t be right away. She’s glad she told Amy about taking Italian.

A large cloud blows across the sun, its journey reflected on the ground: the coolness of shadow running over the picnic table, the grasses, the women’s car, across Shani’s eyes. Higher in the mountains the snow glitters in unencumbered sunlight. Down in the valley, Shani imagines the trees are leafy and green.

 


Milena writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and the occasional poem. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in “Pithead Chapel,” “Slice,” “Full Grown People,” “The Fourth River,” “Hippocampus Magazine,” and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction editor at the online journal, “Halfway Down the Stairs,” and has recently completed a short story collection. Please check out her newly minted website, www.milenanigam.com.

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  1. Piotr Koziol says:

    I have just finished reading “Switchbacks”, its many twists and turns as the lives we live… Being on the road brings thinking thru the past as we travel across time and space. Future shares equally with our past, and keeps on changing. Having a plan what’s next is no plan. Dizziness of unexpected, anything can happen, just help it a bit and let it ride…

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