A Crash on the Highway

A Crash on the Highway

Javi and Trent had been driving eighteen hours straight when they ran into two lanes of stopped traffic on I-84 in northern Utah. Eight a.m., the sun was already unremitting, turning the scruffy hills on both sides of the black highway yellow, even the creosotebush. The new tar on the interstate threw heat waves, and through those waves Javi stared at a series of brake lights arrayed in front of him. After ten minutes, drivers started turning off their engines, emerging from their vehicles to stand in the sun. They were almost all white, sunburned, wearing sleeveless tee shirts, cargo shorts, and sandals. The women wore blouses with loose collars. Normal, everyday people.

“What the fuck,” Javi said, though he didn’t feel any way about the jam at first.

“I’ll bet it’s a crash,” Tyler said.

“No shit it’s a crash.”

Javi slid out of the 80’s model Mustang they’d stolen in Boise to stretch in the sun. The temperature would top a hundred again, easy, but was in the 80’s now. Javi was built like a flyweight, compact and lithe, his dark red skinny jeans sagging in the back, his gray tank top loose. Reaching around, he rubbed the tat he’d been given in High Desert State Prison, a satanic symbol on the nape of his neck, scratched out in blue ink. He hadn’t struggled when they gave him the tattoo, knowing that struggling wouldn’t stop anything and would just make the tat come out shitty, but the tat had come out shitty anyway. Most people couldn’t tell what it was. Which was all to the good.

Shoving his hands deep in his pockets, Javi shuffled along the side of the highway, which had only a one-foot strip for a breakdown lane. Some of the people who’d stepped out of their cars glanced at him, maybe sensing that he was not of their world, that he only surfaced in their world at gas stations or bars, best to be avoided, but most ignored him. He could have been anyone to them, so he was no one.

Dust caught in his eyes, turning the corners of his vision soft, but when he blinked the dust away everything came into sharp focus again, the world too damn clear. A few cars ahead, a trailer full of pigs rattled inside their enclosures, every few minutes a sound like something struggling against its bindings. Javi could see just an ear or a pink teat through the holes in the metal grates. The truck driver sat impassively, mustached face shaded under a baseball cap, watching as Javi walked past.

As he drew closer to the crash site, the crowds clotted up, standing in the dusty median. White folks with red faces. A skinny redheaded kid wearing a red tee shirt. Tractor trailers and cars sped past going the other direction on I-84 with a sound like the universe tearing in two then sewing itself back up again quick.

Finally, after walking about a half mile, he was at the crash site itself. A bright red pickup truck mashed and mangled against the back of a tractor trailer. The metal looked seared and scarred, as if it were as sensate as skin. The state police had arrived already but no tow truck. A helicopter hovered, preparing to land, raising dust clouds that reached the edge of the crowd, and Javi realized he must have been hearing it for a while without recognizing the sound or letting it touch him. The cops had opened what remained of the driver’s side door and were struggling to drag a limp body out, a big guy, white, wearing a ball cap, his tee shirt pulled up to expose a fishwhite belly. The face was bleeding, and the left side of the body was as crumpled as the pickup.

Javi had seen plenty of dead bodies in his life, beginning with his brother Luis, beaten to death by their father when they were kids, in Nevada. The bastard had disappeared after that. He probably hadn’t intended to kill anyone. Their father was a square jaw, a squat body, nothing more. Javi couldn’t even remember the old man’s voice. He remembered how heavy Luis had been, how he had not been Luis at all, just this empty weight, this suit that kind of still looked like Luis. The man in the truck was not dead yet, but his hold on life was tenuous. EMTs from the heli strapped him onto a body board before loading him in, then the helicopter took off in a wide arc.

It would be a while before the truck and debris, a long shit-trail of chrome parts from the pickup, were cleared from the road, but Javi turned and walked back past the same people, who were familiar to him now the way people on a TV show were. Trent sat waiting in the Mustang, staring straight ahead.

“Yo, what happened? Someone die?”

“Nah, bro. It’s all cool.”

Trent nodded. When another cop car passed, half on the road, half in the desert, lights flashing, Trent flinched.

“Are they going to be there still, if we show up late?” Javi said.

Trent shrugged. “Maybe, yeah. I think.”

Souls were supposed to rise. That was the whole idea of souls. They were supposed to take flight once a person “passed,” but instead Javi felt the pickup truck driver’s soul fall out of the helicopter. It freefell down through the crystalline air before slamming against the hot dry ground, so hard it raised a cloud of yellow dust. The guy had most likely led a straight life—had a wife, probably, kids, a nine-to-five. He’d tried to do some good in this world. Had struggled and strived like anyone else. Javi saw his soul sitting there in the desert like a black box that could never be opened again and felt envious.

He popped three more pills from a plastic baggie in the glove box and rocked forward. It would be another hour before they were able to drive again, speeding across the high desert, but he was fucking ready.

By the time they were allowed through, the crash had been cleared and the red truck rested by the side of the road, crushed beyond reckoning, reminding Javi of the body of some prehistoric animal dredged out of the ground. Some kind of beast. He felt a little sorry for the truck, which would no doubt be crushed now, turned into something else.


Hours of zoned out driving on I-84, traveling deeper into Utah, 83-85 miles per hour, passing trucks on the left while giving everyone a wide berth because no way he was going to end up like the putz in the red pickup. Javi also wasn’t going to drive like an asshole and get pulled over, risking everything. They didn’t see a single cruiser on the road all morning. He pulled off the interstate where Trent told him to, an exit with no services.

He’d been “working” with Trent for two years now, ever since his release. They’d been in school together, back in the day. They had never been friendly, but Javi had sold Trent weed, and after he was sent away Trent moved in to fill the void. They went in together on a few jobs. Javi didn’t like or trust Trent—didn’t understand why he didn’t appreciate the family he had, a mother, a father, both with decent jobs, a nice rancher—but acted like they were best friends, because of this, because of where they were going right now. Trent had hooked it all up. Nobody involved even knew Javi’s name.

Trent pushed in the CD that had been in the car when they stole it, and for the fifth time they listened to the heavy metal album, a band called Pantera Javi had never heard of, not that he had much time for music. This music was thick, turgid, full of thrashing guitars that reminded Javi of the time he’d gone down the Colorado River on an inflatable raft. They weren’t supposed to be there, were in a restricted area, but who the fuck was going to stop them. He’d wound up face down in the water with the sound of the rapids filling his head. The heavy metal was like that.

Trent pointed him left and right and right again until they came to a little town on the edge of the desert with nothing in it but an old closed motel, its broken windows letting in the sand when the wind blew, and an old gas station that was also closed. The gas station’s old fashioned oval sign was sandblasted to hell, impossible to read, the pumps like something out of a black and white movie. Trailer homes were scattered around, like no one had thought about the footprint of the town. They passed a trailer where a woman watered a dead lawn, the water looping out in sad arcs from the end of the hose. Trent pointed to an old brick building that looked like it had been there since the pioneer times, one of the few places with a patch of green lawn, and Javi pulled in.

Surprisingly, it was a house, a normal everyday house that looked like it had been lifted out of someplace much nicer, Moab or something. When he grabbed his .44 out of the glovebox, Trent looked at him but didn’t say anything. What was he going to say? Javi saw it again: the soul of the pickup driver falling out of the helicopter and thudding onto the desert floor. He thought of his brother Luis, who he hadn’t thought about for years, and his father, who he hadn’t stopped thinking about for years. He thought about the guy who had marked him with the tattoo in High Desert, initiating him into something he had no desire to belong to. He secured the .44 against the small of his back and arranged the tank top over it, while Trent went around to the back of the Mustang to grab the backpack. The car smelled like burning oil, the metal of its hood clicking as it cooled. Hard to believe anything could cool here. It was more than a hundred degrees. The motion of the road kept moving behind Javi’s eyes and he was thirsty as fuck.

At the front door of the house waited a man and a woman, both late middle-aged, the man at least a foot taller than Javi. He didn’t wear a cowboy hat but looked like he should have been. His face was dark, the skin thin, as if Javi could see straight through to his skull. He wore a thick mustache like Wyatt Earp but was all business. The woman, small, looked like a grandmother in a storybook, roly poly, wearing a white shirt with an American flag embroidered on it, denim shorts that looked like a skirt. Her legs were covered in cellulite it was hard not to notice. Javi nodded, smiled, acting harmless, and let Trent do the talking.

They sat in an air-conditioned living room with matching furniture and a deep forest green carpet that brushed against the sides of Javi’s feet in his sandals. The place made him feel dirtier than before. It didn’t smell like anything. The woman offered them sweet tea, but Javi asked for a glass of ice water instead, which he drank so fast it gave him a headache. Trent and the couple talked like distant relatives, telling each other how they’d been, mentioning names Javi didn’t recognize. At one point the old man took the backpack and walked out of the room, and when he returned he replaced it by Trent’s feet. They said their goodbyes. Javi was reluctant to leave the cool house. He looked around as if he could hold it with him.

As Javi drove away, Trent lifted out glassine packages of meth from the body of the backpack. Hundreds of them, prettily packaged. He took out a small packet, cut some up, using a math textbook that had been in the back of the Mustang and a maxed-out credit card, and snorted it from the crux of his thumb and his pointer finger, then cut more for Javi.

“The big score,” Trent said. “The big fucking score!” He pounded the dashboard and laughed, and Javi just looked at him.

The full flush of the high was immediate, sending him speeding down the long empty desert roads. Now the heavy metal sounded new and hard and perfect, a thing born into this world. The high was better and more intense than sex, which might be why Javi hadn’t had sex in almost a year and didn’t really miss it. He kept his usage reasonable, was not hooked on crank, not really, though he did feel shitty if he didn’t get at least one bump a day. He wasn’t ever going to be like some meth-heads he saw losing their teeth, demeaning themselves to get cash to score. He could maintain. Though probably not forever. He would have to push forward into real use or leave the shit behind forever. Soon.

Trent had him pull over so he could take a piss, and Javi got out of the car to stretch. The endless desert. It felt like getting out of the cockpit of a jet or after a long journey across space. He couldn’t remember the last time he had paused. 112 degrees, the day was hot and dry and the second he stepped into it he felt thirsty. He got out the emergency gallon jug of water from the back and drank. The water was lukewarm but glugged around the sides of his mouth and refreshed him.

While Trent was still pissing, Javi took out the .44, walked over and pressed the barrel against the back of Trent’s head. He saw a scab through the fuzz of Trent’s short hair. He was just a white boy trying hard to disappoint his family. Trent dribble-pissed to nothing and stood, his dick out, waiting. Javi let seven seconds pass before pulling the trigger, a loud sudden shot that sent his arm recoiling and reverberated until the sound was swallowed by the desert. Trent’s brains raveled out for about three feet in front of him, but it was less messy than Javi had expected. He imagined picking up the brains and shoving them back into the skull, imagined Trent getting up and holding the hole in his head, laughing about it. “What the fuck did you do that for, bro?”

Javi shrugged, walked back to the Mustang, and drove away, the backpack open on the passenger seat beside him. He filled up at a travel center before leaving the main highway again for a county road through the desert. Dozens of people were crowded into the travel center, at least fifteen lined up at the Subway counter waiting to buy food that didn’t even taste like real food. An old man with little braids in his long white hair, wearing a full get-up, leather chaps and a buckskin shirt, an old white man who wished he was an Indian, was last in line. Javi couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten. He wasn’t hungry but bought a plastic package of salted peanuts anyway, and another gallon of water, and he downed some handfuls of peanuts, washing them back with the last of the lukewarm water.

He sped down county road 6, passing trucks, weaving in and out of traffic, stopping sometimes to take a snort. He didn’t want to get too fucked up but wanted to maintain his buzz. He pulled off and cut up five packages into powder, placed the powder in an old film container he’d had for years, drove on.

Night fell as if it didn’t want to, bands of peach and light blue layering themselves on the horizon for what felt like hours. The first star appeared in the east, in a dark blue almost purple quadrant of the sky. It was pretty, Javi guessed, though it had a bad energy that made him think of the tat on his neck and what the people who put it there would do on a night like this. When the engine light lit up on the dashboard he ignored it, pushing the Mustang harder. He was past the ability to think about safety or the future. He pushed the car up to 110 miles per hour over a pass in the desert where he saw eyes reflecting like pennies in the night.

The Mustang gasped, then a loud knock sounded from inside the engine compartment, like something huge and angry trying to get out. The car sputtered to a halt. Javi pulled it off the road then took out the lug wrench from the well in the trunk and smashed the windows with it. It took more effort than he expected but felt real good. He stood on the hood kicking in the remainder of the windshield with his sandals. It reminded him of a picture he’d seen of a man in a riot smashing a cop car. He felt clean and pure and entirely alone as he grabbed the backpack and the fresh gallon of water and walked into the desert.

Now that night had taken hold, it settled in. Stars multiplied. He could feel the day’s heat radiating off the sand as he headed toward some rock structures in the distance that looked like a dark, silent city.

After his father had beaten Luis to death and abandoned them, Javi had vowed to kill the man, to hunt him down and make him pay, no matter how long it took. He had imagined elaborate means of revenge, pulling the fucker’s toenails out, stringing him up by a tree, not so he died from a broken neck but so he suffocated, a long, slow, painful death. In addition to Luis, their father had also beaten their mother, who’d drank too much and fucked around with too many men in town. Javi had loved her and been ashamed of her at the same time. When he was sixteen he’d ventured out to find his father, traveled all over Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, but the man was nowhere to be found. Dead or hidden so well no one would ever find him. He’d talked to men in bars, men at the edge of the world, showed them photographs. There were a lot of shaking heads.

When he reached the stone formations, Javi took out the film container, snorted more than he usually would. He just kept snorting. It was dark now and the heat had almost entirely left the earth. Before long it would be cold. Hard to believe. He had no idea what kind of animals lived out in the desert at night. Wild cats maybe. He wasn’t afraid of anything. Slinging the backpack over his shoulder and feeling for hand- and footholds, he climbed the stone formation, which was basically a little mountain range in the middle of the desert, like the landscape of hell. The moon was half-full and he could see clearly by its light.

As he climbed he realized that he’d left the .44 back in the Mustang, that if he was going to kill himself out here he was going to have to do it some different way, maybe with his pocketknife. He wished more than anything that he could take his soul out, that it was lodged inside a box in his chest or just behind the tat on the back of his neck and he could figure out some simple way to dislodge it. If he could, he would leave it right there in the middle of the fucking desert and walk away from it.


About the Author

Jamey T. Gallagher lives in Baltimore. His novella, Midwinter, a fundraiser for a friend with a bad heart, is available as a Kindle download.