Next Exit: A Short Story

A family car trip takes a detour.

by Nalini Jones ’01SOA Published Winter 2012-13
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They trailed to a stop in the breakdown lane just below a road that crossed overhead. A stretch of dun-colored concrete sloped sharply up to where the overpass began. There were pairs of thick, round pilings at the top and bottom, and the slope itself was smooth and shaded.

Her mother tried to start the car once, then again.

“It won’t go. We’ve run out,” her grandfather said.

“One more try ...”

Her mother turned the key in the ignition again. Instead of rumblings came a flat-sounding click, like something final locking into place.

“It’s empty,” her grandfather said. Her mother said nothing. She withdrew the key and let her hand rest heavily in her lap.

“What will happen?” Nicole asked.

For a moment her mother didn’t answer. Cars careened past, rocking their own in tremors and making a windy noise that reminded Tara of planes. The road looked different now that they were still, foreign and menacing. On the pavement she could see bits of black and white and dark, oily spots on the roughened surface instead of a smooth, unbroken stream of gray. The white lines that swam together in motion had split into discrete lengths. The whole world seemed flattened, elongated, full of new distances, and Tara herself felt taut and hollow, like the cat’s-cradle tricks that Nicole had shown her, string looped around fingers, hooked and crossed and woven into figures; all lines stretched tight with nothing in between. Where was her father in his office at school? she wanted to know with sudden urgency. How far away?

But she didn’t ask. She took her sister’s hand. “What will we do?” Nicole spoke up again.

Even her grandfather appeared to be waiting for her mother to speak.

“Well, we’re stuck!” her mother said at last. She turned around and smiled at them.

Tara was not convinced by this performance. But Nicole said “Stuck!” in a satisfied tone.

“I’ll have to walk to the next exit,” her mother said. “Right? Dad, you’ll stay with them?”

Her grandfather was frowning. “Why not all go?”

“Dad, they’ll be exhausted. They’ll only slow me down.” She paused. “What else can I do?”

The sound of her mother not being sure was like a note struck off-key. Tara began to hum beneath her breath, a familiar song, the song her father sang to her when she could not sleep. A fox ran away into town and took a goose and a hen, All for his little ones, eight, nine, ten.

“It’s safe to walk on this road? A woman alone is safe?”

“Totally safe.” Her mother spoke firmly for the first time since they began watching the fuel gauge. She had set herself in motion again, reaching for her handbag. “I’ll call Daniel and he’ll come and get me. We can pick up a gallon of gas for the car. I’ll leave you the keys, Dad, and there are snacks here in case the girls get hungry.” She gave him baggies of carrot sticks and graham crackers, a roll of fruit gums. “Girls, be good for Grandpa. Do exactly as he says, no talking back.”

Tara felt a slippery fear; her mother was leaving.

“How long will it take?” asked Nicole.

“An hour at least,” Grandpa said to her mother. “Two miles up the road, in this heat, and then waiting for Daniel to come.”

“It might be faster,” her mother said, but then her voice trembled a little. “I’m sorry, Dad.”

There were plenty of miles to go that night, before he reached the town-o. Tara felt the hour stretching like the lines in the road, breaking apart into so many long minutes that she could not see the end of them.

They watched her go. Marian had told them they could get out of the hot car and sit in the shade. She had pointed to a line in the pavement, about a third of the way up the slope. “Not past there, you understand me,” she told the girls. “Stay above that line unless Grandpa takes you and you’re holding his hands.”

Yes, yes. They were frightened, solemn.

“I’ll be as quick as I can, Dad.”

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