Next Exit: A Short Story

A family car trip takes a detour.

by Nalini Jones ’01SOA Published Winter 2012-13
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Illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso

They had reached the highway when he noticed a light flashing red on the dashboard.

“What’s that? We need fuel?”

Marian eyed the gauge. “Oh, shoot, we’ve passed the gas station. Should we turn back? We’d have to get off at the next exit and turn around, I’m not sure where. Or there’s one where we get off for Sears ...”

She changed lanes with a worried glance in the rearview mirror. Large green signs hung over the highway and Francis read one aloud. “Is that the one you want? You know the route from there?”

“No, but I can ask.” The red light, which flickered once as they crested a hill, was again solid. Marian laughed, a nervous sound, and spoke with false cheer. “What do you think, girls? Will we make it?”

Had she been nervous as a child? He didn’t think so. Obedient. Cautious, perhaps. Francis wished he could remember better. When he thought of her he saw a tall, thin schoolgirl, long legs, dusty socks and shoes, a watchful expression on her soft, young face. He had wondered sometimes what she was thinking but without any notion of asking; their conversation did not follow such courses. Even now, overhearing the lively talk of his grandchildren, it did not occur to him to feel regret. It had been enough, in those days, to see her with her brothers or sitting at the table reading. She had worked hard at her studies. Sometimes, when Essie had gone out of the room, he used to put a hand on Marian’s shoulder and tell her: Enough. Go and rest your eyes. In such moments, roused suddenly from her books, she looked up at him with no sign of guardedness, none of her usual reserve, and he was shocked to see how beautiful his girl had become. Go and run in the garden.

“What do you think, Dad?”

He peered at the fuel gauge. “Better to be safe.”

The girls slid closer together. They seemed both smaller and older, staring. Tara had stopped singing and her round face was grave — an echo of her mother’s face at that age, Francis realized.

“How long has it been on?” Marian asked.

He could not tell her.

They had nearly reached the exit ramp, but another car had drawn up alongside them on the passenger side.

“Should I go?”

“This fellow is blocking you,” Francis said. “There, go!”

But she hesitated and missed her chance.

“Never mind, Dad, we’ll make it to the next one. There’s always a little extra. Cross your fingers, girls!”

Nicole bounced up and down on the seat. “We’ll make it!”

First came the noise like a knocking inside a pipe; then came a hill. Tara imagined riding her bicycle up such a painful grade, training wheels jutting to either side behind her, legs aching as she pedaled. The car felt quiet beneath them, suddenly powerless. Nicole threw her body forward, as though to help the car reach the crest. Tara looked at her grandfather, who was shaking his head so slightly that she could not tell what he meant by it. Her mother’s face was strained, her voice thin. “Oh, God. I’ve got to get over.”

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