Carl and Melissa had been on the road for more than an hour and still hadn’t gotten out of Los Angeles County. Their phones were telling them they still had another two hours to cover the forty-five miles left to get to Ventura, but what was bothering Melissa was the warning light on Carl’s dashboard. She knew it could come on randomly and for very minor issues like a tire being slightly low on air, but the car had been having problems for a few weeks and he promised to take it in during the week. She was pretty sure he hadn’t done it and she hadn’t been able to bring it up yet.
They had been seeing each other for a little over four months and that she felt uncomfortable bringing it up made her start thinking that there was something wrong with the relationship, or at the least that there was something about it that wasn’t right for her. If something was bothering her, she should be able to bring it up without it feeling like it is a big deal. Instead, she found herself glancing over at the warning light, like it was a beacon, every couple of minutes whether she wanted to or not, while also fearing that other lights would start coming on. She heard Carl talking, as if he was reciting a list, and she realized that she hadn’t really been paying attention for the last couple of minutes. “Maputo. Kampala. Abuja. It’s not Lagos,” he said, “Shit, what’s the capital of Rwanda?”
“I’m sorry, what?” Melissa asked.
“African capitals. They always work at least one of those in during trivia night. It’s something I can contribute besides stuff like construction equipment, tools, and basketball trivia. As we know, there aren’t a lot of questions about construction equipment and tools and I’m thinking your friends think I don’t know about anything else. I feel like they just tolerate me sometimes.”
“That’s not true,” she said, “That’s not true at all.” She gave him a smile that she knew probably looked fake, but since he was driving, however slowly in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, he might not have noticed it. She took a deep breath and exhaled, and she decided to be a little braver, “Hey, did you take the car in to get fixed? I still I’m hearing that clanging sound every once in a while.”
He nodded, but didn’t speak right away. “I was going to,” he said in a hesitant voice, “But then I couldn’t.”
Melissa looked over at the dashboard warning light and then over to Carl, while giving her right earlobe a slight tug, a nervous tick of hers, “But didn’t you have an appointment? The helicopters are going to be out, we talked about this.”
He started nodding again as loud semi-trucks idled next to them on both sides, the one on the left belching out black exhaust. “Jesus, you see that thing? That should be getting fixed, or at least getting a freaking smog check,” he said.
Melissa felt the tension rising and hated it. “But why didn’t you take it in?” she asked.
“I think it’s going to be fine. It hasn’t actually broken down in a long time.”
“Oh my God. That is not reassuring.”
For a guy who makes a living as a handyman, Melissa was regularly surprised at how poorly Carl took care of some of his own things. And he was a good handyman. She had hired him twice, though she would admit that the second time was partially because she thought he was cute and she wanted to ask him out. She turned the radio back on, scrolling through the stations until she found something soothing she could listen to while reading through the script she brought with her.
For a brief stretch the traffic picked up, and they got up to a steady twenty miles per hour for about ten minutes before settling back down to about fifteen and then back to stop-and-go. The sun glared through the windshield, and they both pulled the sun visors down with Melissa taking a quick look in the mirror attached to hers.
Carl turned down the radio. “Look, money’s been really tight recently, you know that. I haven’t been getting a lot of work,” Carl tried to explain; “And I thought your brothers might want to work on it while we’re there.”
“Isn’t that making a bit of an assumption?”
“Maybe, but isn’t that basically all they do?” Carl asked.
“And that might be a bit of an exaggeration.”
“Don’t they start working on their own cars as soon as they get home from the shop? That’s what you said.”
“I did, but those are their own cars. That’s what they do for fun.”
“Maybe this will be too,” Carl said hopefully, “and I’m not expecting them to do it for free.”
Melissa tried to focus on the script for a moment, but couldn’t concentrate on it. She wanted this part. It was for a play that might not get a lot of attention, but it was a significant supporting part and it was work. Film and TV roles still hadn’t gotten further than her credits like, “Jennifer’s neighbor” and, “Young woman with shopping cart.” She put it down.
“You’re still making an assumption that they will want work on it.”
“But it probably isn’t a bad assumption, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know,” she answered wearily; “My mom said they’ll be around, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have plans. It is a holiday weekend and remember that Gio has kids.”
“Okay, so maybe they won’t be able to. It’s going to be all right. I feel it.”
Not being able to put it out of her mind, Melissa again glanced over at the warning light; “I hope you’re right, but this makes me nervous and I don’t like feeling this way. We’ve got a ways to go. We aren’t even out of LA County yet.” Looking out her window she saw a big shopping center with a Target, a Home Depot, a Kohl’s and a bunch of other stores she didn’t care about looking very crowded. She felt herself sweating on her face and a couple of drips went down her spine, both from the heat in the car and her nervousness.
“Can we talk about something else?” Carl asked.
“Fine,” she answered. “Kigali.”
“What? What’s that?”
“The capital of Rwanda.”
Carl didn’t say anything and after a couple of minutes Melissa turned up the volume on the radio and went back to the script. During a break in the music the station went to a traffic report and they heard about a helicopter brought into service for the first time. Melissa decided it wasn’t time for an “I told you so” moment, but she felt her anxiety increase with a sighting of a helicopter not far in front of them. Thankfully, traffic eased up a little bit again and as the car accelerated she didn’t noticed any sounds that shouldn’t be happening.
“And, ladies and gentlemen, we have achieved thirty miles per hour,” Carl announced.
Melissa looked up from the script and tried to smile. “It is progress,” she said, as she took deeper, slower breaths and tried to relax and focus on the script. She needed to get to know this character better and to figure out exactly why she would be slowly poisoning her aunt. She needed to find the subtext; it couldn’t just be to take the aunt’s share of the family lake house. “There has to be something more,” she said.
“What was that?” Carl asked.
“Just something with the script, I’m still figuring out my character’s motivation. Oh my God, that sounded like such a cliché. There are just some things about her I don’t understand yet and it’s bugging me.” She glanced over at the dashboard again, telling herself to look at the speedometer and not at the warning light. The needle was right on thirty when she looked over, but just as she looked at it, the car began to slow down and she started hearing the clanging sound again, only a little louder than before and with more frequency. “Carl, this isn’t sounding good,” she said warily, immediately thinking about the helicopters and the worst thing that could happen to them.
Carl gripped the steering wheel tightly and but didn’t say anything. The car began lurching forward and they looked at the each after hearing a loud snapping sound and whipping sounds under the hood. The car slowly came to a stop in the middle of the freeway.
“I think the timing belt just broke,” Melissa said.
“That’s a really bad thing, isn’t it?”
Melissa leaned forward as if she might be able to see something; “It’s really bad. You should turn on the hazard lights and I’ll call AAA right away. You have that, don’t you?”
He hit the button for the hazard lights and nodded. The cars behind them honked and they could hear people yelling at them.
“I can’t believe this, my God, Carl.”
“I’ll get the card out.” He fumbled through his wallet going through different frequent buyer and discount cards as they heard a helicopter hovering above them. “Jesus Christ, how did they get here so fast?” Carl called out.
“They said it was going to be this way. I’m surprised it’s this fast, but that’s what they said.”
“I don’t know. The news, people on TV, my news feed. It’s been all over the place.”
Carl shoved his wallet back in his pocket and leaned his forehead on the steering wheel in defeat. They could hear the helicopter approaching and then a woman’s voice roaring through a loud speaker, “Please make sure you seat belts are buckled and your doors are locked, immediately. I repeat, make sure you’re buckled in and have your doors locked, now.”
They checked to be sure and then sat looking forward and not speaking. They heard a loud thump on the roof and Melissa knew that had to be the magnet she read about. Then they saw pairs of cables with hooks on each side of the car and after a moment of adjustments, they felt the car, and themselves, being lifted into the air, straight up at first, but then they could see that they were headed over to a field a few hundred yards away and it was a surprisingly smooth ride.
“I can’t believe they were serious about this,” Carl muttered while shaking his head.
“This is what they said would happen. I guess anything goes to keep the traffic moving on a weekend like this.”
They were lifted higher to make sure they cleared some power lines and they proceeded very slowly over to the field. “Carl, I’m not sure it is going to work out between us,” Melissa said.
The sun was starting to go down behind the hills to the west and they could see the line of cars stretching north as far as they could see. New housing developments were just off to their right beyond the field. He gripped the steering wheel tightly. He could feel his heartbeat quicken and he felt like he was about to tear up. He looked over at Melissa and nodded before looking out again, “The view is amazing up here, Melissa. It is really amazing.”
Bill Richter is a writer in San Rafael, CA where he lives with his wife, their child, and their dog. His fiction has appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader, Typishly, So It Goes, Ocotillo Review and The Molotov Cocktail. His work also appeared in Hungry? San Francisco and Thirsty? San Francisco.