My headlights disappear into the black abyss of this unbending stretch of highway. Nothing to see in the dark, and even come daylight, there’d be nothing but a rolling desert landscape. For the umpteenth time, I try to coax my radio to tune to something besides static. At this point, I don’t care which station, anything to break the silence. Sighing, I shut it off. I’ve driven this lone stretch of highway in New Mexico before, but reception isn’t usually this bad.
My eyes feel like heavy gates trying to close.
You should’ve stopped in the last town and got a motel. My wife’s voice chides me in my head.
“But then I wouldn’t get home early and surprise you.” I smile, speaking aloud to no one just to keep myself awake. She isn’t expecting me till late in the evening, but having driven all night, I should arrive shortly after breakfast.
I glance at my cell. No signal. I lost reception not long out of Santa Rosa and haven’t even had extended network for the last hour. Note to self: as soon as my contract is up, switch cell services. This one sucks. Take two steps outside a major city, and I lose my signal. I feel alone—cut off. Just passing another car would be a welcomed relief. I won’t even complain about it ruining my night vision.
I see something up ahead—roadkill. Some poor, small animal had its guts paved into the asphalt.
“Crap!” I jam my brakes, but too late. A great winged creature, reluctant to leave its mutilated supper, delays too long before attempting to fly out of my way. A claw, nearly as big as my hand, slams into my windshield, before the bird’s body tumbles across the top of my roof. Checking my rearview mirror, I can’t see if the thing lived. A great horned owl, I think. I didn’t know they ate carrion, always assuming they were hunters. I’m sorry I hit it, but am relieved that it didn’t bust my windshield.
Slow down. There is no excuse to drive fifteen over. My wife’s voice is in my head again.
Don’t worry, honey. It’s an empty highway. “I’ll be home soon,” I say, finishing my thoughts aloud. How soon, I’m not exactly sure. My clock seems to be at a near standstill. Has it really only been five minutes since I last looked at it? In any case, it should be sunrise soon. Then not long after, I’ll be pulling into my drive in Las Cruces and walking through my front door. My wife will look up from her cup of coffee in pleasant surprise at seeing my smiling face earlier than she expected, and my two little munchkins will come running into my arms saying, “Daddy!”
The buzz of my wheels hitting the shoulder jerks me awake. I shake my head and pinch myself. I could sing to keep myself awake. My singing could keep the dead awake. But I don’t really feel like singing. Instead, I just long for the sunrise…and home. Normally, I liked the quiet of long drives, but this was too quiet, too long…too lonely.
As I go around a slight bend, my headlights momentarily light up an old structure—a dilapidated stable, maybe. I can’t really make it out in the dim light, plus I’m trying to focus on the road. Strange, I think. How everything about this night seems so familiar. Of course it does, I mean, I’ve driven this stretch before. But something about this night, how it seems so long, as if I’ve been driving forever and time has lost all meaning.
Postpone it till next week. You’ll miss her birthday. The last argument with my wife replays itself in my head. Business trips are a part of the job. Kids have birthdays every year; I won’t miss them all. That’s what I told her, and it shouldn’t have been a big deal. I’ll bring her an extra special present. It’s giftwrapped with pink paper on the seat beside me.
The horn of an eighteen-wheeler blares, and I blink, suddenly blinded by bright headlights. Heart pounding, I slam on the brakes and swerve. A deafening roar, like that of a freight train, shakes my being, and time crawls—the faces of my wife and girls play through my mind. Then I’m driving on the road again. For a moment, I was sure it was the end. My wife is right—not that I will tell her this—but driving while drowsy is always a terrible idea. A faint glow on the horizon—morning, finally—yet dimmer than I expected, somehow muted.
Slowing down to the speed limit, I pass a car on the side of the road just as a woman and two children, curly hair blowing in the wind, climb out of the car. They remind me of my girls, only a year or two older. I wave to them as I drive by. The woman is looking away and doesn’t see me, but the girls stare with wide eyes. The smaller one lifts a hand. I glance at my rearview mirror. The woman is placing flowers at a wooden cross by the side of the road—a lost loved one. That could be me—my family, I think. I swear silently never to drive this stretch at night again, and my heart is suddenly filled with longing for my own family. I feel alone, so alone. I muster a faint smile. I’ll see them soon, I tell myself and try to hum a tune.
As I drive, the desert scene glows eerily in the faint light. A cow skull sits atop the fence post of a ranch house like a ghastly signpost. I know I’ve seen that. The feeling I’ve been here returns. This has all happened before. I’ve been driving this desert highway for so long—alone—and forever almost home. Yet, never quite making it there….