By Rhonda Schlumpberger
Highway Sixty east to Riverside bustles with people like me. We’re due for important events, and we’ve all started out a tad late. Asa sits tight-lipped beside me, his elbow brushing mine. My curly-headed, round-cheeked boy—my sweetest of three kiddos and a diplomat at ten. He doesn’t remind me his drumming performance is within the half-hour, but the sun sinking in my rear-view mirror does.
We’ve hit traffic at its sweet spot, the magically short period when all the lanes are full, but the cars still move. To my left is the express-slash-carpool lane. I barrel past the broken white lines of an entry point traveling at the speed of traffic. I should jump in before the regular lanes clog. Except express drivers are bullies. You enter the lane, you sign up to a speeder’s code of conduct. If you’re the slug who bucks the code, the car behind you push, pushes. Fly or get out; that’s the deal.
The staccato lines of the entry point flee behind me. The dual set of unbroken double-white lines begin, the lines representing solid barriers in the eyes of Johnny Law. I’ve missed my chance and let out my breath. Ahead, a silver Lexus swerves over the unbroken lines and barges into the lane.
“Did you see that, Mom?” Asa’s an alert dog. His head swivels between the escaping driver and me, pointing with straight-armed righteousness. “I hope he gets a big, fat ticket.”
“Bad move. Where’re the cops when you need’em?”
But my insides prickle as Silver Lexus speeds away from the building traffic tangle. I have a sense the very next car entering the freeway will tip the balance and gum up the whole works. The car will be red because red is the color of trouble. The red cars, then, it’ll be like getting gum in your hair as I did when I was a kid. Like when my sister refused to let me go with her to Six Flags.
“No, Cassie—you’re staying home!” her words reverberated with the slam of the chest-of-drawers where she’d tossed her stash of cinnamon spice gum. After she left, I chewed every last stick. I chewed all afternoon while the sun sank into Daddy’s new-planted fields. The gob grew inside my mouth and made me yawn. When I woke up, gum matted my long blond hair at the roots. I tugged at the stickiness, but the wad seemed to multiply like the cars on highway sixty.
Yep, the red cars’ll keep entering, and the lanes’ll slow; a little at first, and before you know it, fifty thousand of us whisking over this old road will tap tap tap our brakes until we’re at a dead stop.
Maybe I should hop into the express lane at the next entry point.
Maybe I should have waited to sign. My pen hovered a split-second over the papers representing the memories of a lifetime. Regret buddies up with its accusations, choking me like my wool scarf. I tug on its scratchy folds. I stared longer at the papers after signing than before. Staring may have cost Asa his winter festival performance. A sea of braking lights winks ahead. Soon, we’ll be at an all-stop. The imaginary barrier to my left mocks me.
“Mrs. Howard gives us superhero stickers when we’re on time,” Asa says.
On time? On time’s taken a hike, kid. I’m just shooting for being present.
Asa’s rounded cheeks soften into a smile. Oh, how can I disappoint my diplomat son?
I snap a glance into my mirror and swerve over the unbroken white lines into the express lane … and a speeding bullet roars past my left shoulder in a smear of black fury and red near-death.
I scream. Jerk the wheel with fingers the color of bleached bones. A miracle keeps my SUV tires pointed straight and rolling inside the express lane I’ve taken by proverbial force.
We race on with traffic, and my heart keeps pace.
“We’re okay.” But I’ve nearly made a motorcyclist a sound bite on the evening news. Stupid stupid move.
Anybody who travels California’s major highways sees cops stop traffic to clear lanes of trash. I’ve seen car bumpers, mattresses, even a washing machine litter the road. They’re good, the cops, weaving back and forth in figure eights, rolling slower and slower until cars halt. Is it my imagination, or is motorcycle guy who isn’t a cop slowing the traffic in the express lane?
I come to a dead S.T.O.P.
“Mom? What’s happening?”
“I don’t know.”
Behind me, the carpoolers are patient sheep. No horns. Nobody exits their vehicles because nobody knows what’s happening. I read once if you’re stopped in an interior lane, you stay with your vehicle, buckled, until help comes ’cause odds are you’ll be hit. If you’re in an outside lane, you should exit the vehicle and get to safety. Where would we go? Besides, there’s no time for that now.
Motorcycle guy’s caught in my SUV’s phosphorus beams. His shadow stretches endlessly into the deserted lane ahead. He wears all leather, from boot heel to cuff: snug black pants and a fitted jacket. A sensible choice, leather. So when dumb drivers like me cut in front of you when you’re going balls-out-for-broke, and you slime a Jersey barrier, maybe forensics’ll scrape off a morsel your mom can identify.
He’s removed his gloves. With a hatchet motion, he tosses them onto his rocket ship. Fingers of deep oak unstrap his reflective-faced helmet, and lift. Dark hair scatters about in the wind. Pivoting, his boots churn up the distance between us.
“Oh, shit.” My heart’s on fire, launching into space. “Shit!”
I lean over Asa and pop the glove box. As though waving my registration will help? Suddenly, I’m cold. Hot tears blur my vision. I’m strapped in with my sweet son, and I’ve made a terrible mistake. A very big, very angry motorcycle god-man is going to break me in two. He nears the driver’s side, dark eyes snapping, and raps with his knuckles on the glass.
I hit the toggle—why do I open the damn window?
“I’m sorry,” I blurt in a voice of fracturing crystal. “I was stupid and wrong. I could have killed you.”
He steps back. Hooks a thumb in a belt loop.
Is he a judge at the end of days or something? His gaze slides to Asa, and my hackles rise. Motorcycle guy doesn’t need a gun to hurt us; not with those eyes. I straighten in my seat. You threaten my kid, mister, you’ll get Armageddon.
There’s a shout, and I glimpse into my mirror. Now car doors open. A man in a rumpled shirt and tie swings up from his BMW. His door is a shield like knights of old. A question mark curls about his thirty-something face.
Tipping up his chin, motorcycle guy spits a healthy gob onto the pavement. “Be more careful,” he says in a voice I strain to hear over traffic’s incessant buzz.
And just like that, he saunters away, leaving me shivering in a puddle of oh, shits. At his bike, he tamps on his helmet, flicks on his gloves, and takes off, a firework in the deepening sky.
The cars race on and on to my right, and Asa says, “Coulda been worse, Mom. He coulda shot us the finger or something.”
“Oh, Lord, Asa—I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I pull him close and tuck his head under my chin. I breathe in his scent of SpaghettiOs and innocence. The horns behind us beep beep; let the bullies blow.
“It’s okay, Mom. Some nutbar, huh?”
I can’t stop shaking. White noise folds around me in billows the same as when I awakened that night with gum in my hair, the night Daddy told me about Liz and how she forgot her EpiPen. Those pens of hers littered our house the same as airborne seeds in spring. A bee got her at the amusement park. A bee. I keep thinking about taking Liz’s gum without permission. I chewed it all up, enjoying my brand of revenge, and all the while, she had a destiny I didn’t see coming.
Liz’ll never grow to adulthood. Never marry. Never go all melty inside when her child grips her hand in the way Asa does mine. And I’ll never get a chance to apologize or say, I love you, Zizzy.
Some things aren’t replaceable, like my son, for starters, and my family farm. My tears slip down, and I’m bursting inside, as though a dam’s churning waters cracks me wide. I was ten when Liz died; Asa’s age. I miss her. The farm holds more than memories: that soil is the root of my early life, my foundation. And I just signed it away without a second’s thought.
When will I stop making split-second decisions that hurt people? The gum, being late, nearly killing motorcycle guy—the farm.
When will I start taking my time when decisions matter?
“I’m sorry about the gum,” I whisper into Asa’s hair.
“What gum, Mom?”
I sniffle. “Nothing, sweetheart.” But inside, that aching place lightens.
I’ll cancel the sale. It’s not too late. I’ve made my own family. We’ll restore the farm and grow new memories. The name Legacy Farms comes to mind. It’s a good name and settles between the chambers of my heart like warm kisses. I know I’ve not made a snap decision because it occurs to me I’ve never wanted to sell, not really.
I palm away the tears and slip the SUV into drive. We’re moving—not quite at the speed of traffic like before. Asa won’t get a superhero sticker from Mrs. Howard. But we’re okay, aren’t we? Everything feels just fine.
Rhonda Schlumpberger‘s short fiction appears in Silver Blade Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, and is forthcoming in Bewildering Stories. She holds an M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and has nearly completed her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University’s literary program.