They have been on the road for probably seven hours and spent another hour and a half at stops for lunch, the bathroom, and changing drivers. It’s dark now, and they are northwest of Albuquerque. They started from their home in Corpus Christi two days ago, and they plan to stay in Utah for a week and a half. They are in the Caprice Classic, and the boy is in the seat behind his dad, who is driving. Stephen has the seat behind Mom, and Ruthanne has the middle, though they have taken turns piling up pillows and getting on the floor.
The boy has been asleep for probably an hour, and he is starting to wake up. What he’s first conscious of is light–the world appears to be flashing, and there are headlights all around them. Some of the headlights are heading opposite of them; some are flowing with them through the night. And periodically, the whole sky illuminates, and he can momentarily see across the desert vistas for miles.
“What’s that flashing?” he says.
“Oh, you’re awake,” Mom says. The other two kids are still asleep. “Lightning.”
“Lightning? It’s not raining.”
“Heat lightning. Happens out here quite a bit. No rain, just a difference in electrical charge between sky and ground,” Mom says. “It’s pretty cool.”
The periodic flashing continues. As it does, the lights behind them get bright–very bright and close.
“What is this guy doing?” Dad mutters to Mom.
She spins around. “Boy, he’s close. What a jerk.”
Dad moves from the left to the right lane to let the car pass. It doesn’t. It moves over also and stays on their tail.
Dad plays with the rearview mirror. “Can hardly see out of the mirror thanks to his stupid lights.”
“He moved over with you, huh,” says Mom. “Wonder what his problem is.”
They’re coming up on a pickup that is moving slower. “Let me swing around this guy and see if we can lose this jerk,” Dad says.
He doesn’t put his blinker on, just moves left, and speeds up rapidly. As he pulls even with the truck, the lights appear behind them and as close as ever. Dad pushes further, passes the truck, then pulls back into the right lane.
The lights behind do also.
“What’s with this guy?” Mom says.
“I don’t know,” Dad says.
“I wonder if he’s mistaken us for another car he’s supposed to follow or something,” Mom says.
“Why would you tail anyone this closely?” says Dad. “Even if you were following them.”
Stephen stirs awake and sees how bright their car cabin is. “What’s going on?”
“Shh,” Mom says.
“Is something wrong?” Stephen says.
“Just be quiet,” Mom says. “We need to focus.”
“Let’s see if I can annoy him enough to get him to pass us,” Dad says.
He slows the car to forty. Cars and trucks fly by in the left lane. Almost everyone in the right lane swings around them. Except the lights behind them. That car slows to forty and stays.
“Why is it so bright?” Stephen says.
“I think he even has his brights on,” Dad mutters.
Dad slams on the gas pedal, and soon, they are flying up the freeway . . . 60, 65, 70, 75, 80, 85 . . .
The lights stay behind them in the same spot.
“This guy’s gonna kill someone,” Mom whispers.
“Now what?” Dad says.
Ruthanne is awake now. She rubs her eyes. “I’m hungry.”
“Shhh,” the boy whispers.
For the next several minutes, they drive in silence, and the boy notices every bounce in the road, every jounce of the lights behind them, every flash of heat lightning. Each heat lightning flash reveals distant purple and black clouds, the black ribbon of road cut through the brown and red landscape, and streams of cars on both sides of the freeway flowing along the black ribbons. He notices his father leaning forward over the wheel, checking the rearview mirror, the side mirrors, the cars in front of him over and over and over.
“Is there a town nearby?” he says.
Mom looks at the map. “Another fifteen miles or so?”
“See if you can find a route to the police station.”
“Small town. Easy to find,” Mom says.
Ahead of them is a long string of cars moving at the speed limit in the right lane.
“I got one last idea,” Dad says. “And if this doesn’t work, we’re getting off at the next town.”
Dad brings his speed up to close in on the clump of cars in front. He pulls dangerously close to the car in front of him, jerks into the left lane, then floors it. The lights behind stay with them. The boy watches Dad checking the right side view mirror and the rearview mirror over and over. There’s a sliver of space between two cars in the right lane.
Dad slams the brakes and jerks the wheel. Their car shifts suddenly into the right lane, narrowly fitting between the two cars. The car behind them pulls beside them, rides at their speed for a moment. They can see nothing in the other car–the windows are tinted black.
Then, the other car takes off, almost like it’s shot from a catapult. To be sure, Dad lets five cars pass on the left, eases back left, slows down, lets cars pass on the right, then eases back right. The car is gone, way ahead and forgotten.
“You’re hungry, Ruthanne?” Dad says. “I suppose we should stop soon, grab some dinner, and maybe call it a night.”
“I’m hongry too,” Stephen says.
“Hongry, huh,” says Dad with a laugh. The boy sees his father looking at him in the rearview mirror, sees Dad wink at him.
When they finally get out at the restaurant, the boy steps onto the pavement on shaky legs. He shudders even though the summer evening is warm. His dad puts an arm around him.
“You okay, Son?” Dad says.
“I thought something really bad was gonna happen,” he says.
Dad squeezes him a little tighter, then runs his fingers through the boy’s hair. “Nah, we were gonna be fine. We’d have parked at a police station with him on our tail if we had to. No one’s gonna kill you at the police station.”
“I guess not,” the boy says.