“They won’t see a damn thing,” Dad grumbles, checking his rearview mirror.
He always drives faster at night, like daybreak will catch him in the middle of some unforgivable act of sin. We have plenty of late hours left, but pre-chase jitters are already hitting him. I’m ready to be at Grandpa’s.
A thud underneath hops me out of my seat a little. Before I can fully look back, Dad taps my shoulder and points ahead, his tacit way of telling me to watch the road already etched into his mind. A nervous glance follows, signaling a glove compartment check.
“We’re good,” I say, not expecting an answer.
I smell shit hanging in the air—that musty, dead-earth kind that’s too rank to be a horse’s—and confirm we’re on track. Through Oklahoma, a couple miles into Texas now. The night’s getting real heavy, heavy enough to consume the sweat-glazed highlights rolling over his wrinkles, even the spotlight of flesh on the tip of his nose. I’m itching to slump down and relax, but I know better. In a few moments, Dad will start his lecture.
“These officers don’t give a damn…” he begins, “…I don’t care where they from, where they say they from, who they hang with, what church they goin’ to, none of that…”
I nod along automatically.
“When it’s lights out, you can’t trust nobody out here. No-body.”
He shoots me the usual I’m-not-playing-with-you glance and carries on. Five trips ago he would’ve made me look him straight in the eye. Every time we “make it,” he gives me a signature grin of approval, filling me with pride I don’t want for showing courage I don’t understand. I’m looking forward to it somehow.
The second part of his lecture comes in fuzzy while I’m watching the road slur past my eyes. It’ll straighten out soon, and that’s when all the lights go out. I tune back in to hear Dad rambling about his Navy days, back when loyalty “actually mattered.” Some new details creep into his stories. “Bag man” becomes Anthony, and he, once again, saves Dad’s wedding ring while they’re salvaging a wreck, only to steal it and pawn it off later. I can’t help wondering when loyalty stopped mattering.
Three. Two. One.
Dad shuts off the headlights, and we become nearly formless. It’s hard not to tune into the final part of his lecture.
“You think that shit can’t happen to you,” he whispers. “Did everything by the book. First time? Broken taillight. Second time? Now that’s when…”
His voice becomes too low for me to hear. Whiffs of air hit my face, and I figure he’s worked up again. Wild hand gestures and all that. This part I mentally fill in with Mom’s voice: “I thought I’d have you any minute. Your father, he was supposed to be back in three days. Supposed to be. I didn’t see that man for three weeks.”
A tingle crawls up my spine. That was the second trip ever. Grandma was sick, and Mom was sick of carrying me in her belly. The way she tells it, it’s like Dad missed an important interview or something. Bad as it sounds, she was just grateful Grandma’s passing delayed these trips for another sixteen years—till Grandpa got sick, too.
Dad exhales. His lecture’s winding down. I prepare for him to raise his voice. As usual, he makes sure I don’t miss his last line: “You get seen, you get done in.”
I offer a cavalier “yeah, I know,” losing track of our progress but shrugging it off; I’ll see how things look when the light’s back. We roll on.
Like a botched note in a chorus, a sharp sound breaks out from the monotonous engine whirring and tire rolling. Dad preemptively grabs my arm and squeezes. Red alert. He tells me to close my eyes, but it’s too late—a glint of red and blue on the windshield forces me to swivel, and I spot the speeding vehicle homing in on us, sirens blaring.
“Son of a bitch!” Dad yells. He motions for me to stay low in my seat as he accelerates.
My chest tightens as the horizon bends, and the siren screech amplifies. We shift slowly to the left then skid. My body locks up, and Mom’s voice echoes in my head: “On God, I got enough worries for two women.” Seconds later, everything’s still.
A bloated white mass recedes from my vision, and my nostrils fill with the rusty smell of blood. Garbled commands pound in my ears. Shards of glass dive from the windshield.
Dad’s crimson-speckled face looks calm for the first time this trip. He fumbles around for the glove compartment, his breath chopped into huffy, pained groans. My vision goes blurry, but I know what he’s doing. He strokes my seeping forehead a few times and gets out.
Three. Two. One.
Ellis Jackson: "I graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2016 with a degree in resource economics. I currently work as a freelance writer, editor, marketer, and creative professional."