Molly stopped crying just past El Paso and sometime later, in the harsh afternoon heat, she ate a greasy burger at a roadside restaurant sculpted like a giant metal bull. Under the glare of the bulls glowing red eyes she wiped threads of dried tears and grit from her face, washed her burger down with a soda then climbed back into her car and drove.
The desert floated past, a flat plane of dust split by a thin stretch of highway shimmering in the dying light of afternoon. The cancerous shapes of cacti deformed the landscape in waves that crashed against the distant mountains rolling past Molly’s passenger window. The deep, angular creases of the mountains were lost in the shadows of dusk and she exerted some effort keep her eyes on the road for fear she might drive across the stretch of dry scrub to lose herself in those folds of talus and salty rock.
“Right turn in 400-hundred meters,” suggested her GPS in a drawling Australian accent. Over the course of weeks Molly had spent many evenings alone at home poring over voices until she found Thomas. He was her perfect guide and his voice was magic: promising the sweetness of security and the raw, whiskey tang of adventure. Molly visualized herself squeezed into the voice-over booth with the actor, her arms around the breadth of his chest. Like the mountain he would be the measure of quiet strength and muscular angles. In his shadow she would feel safe and calm. Every inadvertent sound in the booth smothered between her breasts and the expanse of his torso. He read his lines, whispering in her ear. Please turn left. Get off at the next exit. You have arrived at your destination.
“Right turn in 300-hundred meters.”
She pulled her eyes from the road and touched him lightly. He was warm, baking in the sunlight from his perch on the dashboard and a flash of concern knitted her eyebrows. Perhaps she should pull him off the dash and let him rest in the shade of the passenger floorboard? Or maybe he would be fine with the coming cool of twilight?
“Right turn in 200-hundred meters.” A tug of anxiety pulled at her chest as it had at every exit since she hit the open road so many hours, so many miles, ago.
Normally his commands would be irresistible and her faith in him unwavering. She had to remind herself that he would respect her more if she showed some will. Molly grabbed the steering wheel firmly with both hands and whispered a soft apology that was lost in the groan of her old Toyota’s engine, “I’m sorry, Thomas.”
He ignored her. “Right turn in 100-hundred meters.”
The exit slid past. The tension in her chest slowly release as the exit shrank in her rearview mirror. Eventually, she knew, Thomas would speak up. He always had something to say.
Molly wondered why she was doing this. Why was she punishing him? How long could she continue driving and where was she going? She knew he would forgive her and eventually. In the meantime the drone of her wheels on the highway, the arrhythmic quirk of the Toyota’s engine and the hiss of static bubbling from the radio produced a white noise that was more soothing, more conducive to reflection, than the silence of her apartment.
The awareness that something was missing pulled her focus back to the road. She glanced at Thomas. He should have suggested an alternate route but he was mute, staring at her with a steady green gaze. She reached over and jiggled his power supply where it connected to the cigarette lighter. Nothing. He didn’t even blink. Even if he were lost he would assure her that he was calculating a new route. A swell of panic constricted her chest. What is he doing? she thought. Is this the silent treatment?
She was already slowing down and pulling the car off the highway when she flicked her eyes at the rearview mirror and saw an 18-wheeler a half-mile behind her. The Toyota swayed in the loose gravel crunching beneath her wheels. The light of the dying sunset was soft and crystalline, refracting through the cloud of dust settling over the little car. They came to a jerking stop in the shallow depression running along the highway.
Molly shifted the car into park, put her hands in her lap and took a deep breath while she waited. Seconds crawled by and the 18-wheeler surged past. Her car shuddered and she rolled up her window to keep out the dust.
“What are you doing?” asked Thomas.
“What are you doing, Thomas?” Molly replied. She cast him a sideways glance and knuckled dust from her eyes.
He sighed, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re giving me the silent treatment or something.”
“Christ, Molly,” said Thomas, “you ignore me for hours, hundreds of miles, and you’re upset because I’m ignoring you?”
“I just thought…
“What?” Thomas interrupted, “What did you think, Molly?”
“Well”, she looked him in the eye, “I thought you’d respect me more if I had my own ideas. You know…if I made some decisions.
“That’s what this is about?” Thomas laughed. “Listen, next time you should just tell me you want to lead. Don’t ignore me, just tell me and it'll be fine. I will always be here for you, Molly, but you know my natural impulse is to take the lead.”
“I know," She sighed. "and I’m sorry. I don’t know what got into me.” Molly reached out, placing her hand on the dashboard. “Forgive me?”
“Of course!" Thomas paused. "I hate it when we fight.” Molly imagined he was staring into her eyes. His display was glowing, a radiant expanse of possibilities. Seconds drifted by and she felt the relief and embarrassment of an issue long ignored but easily addressed.
“Where do you want to go from here?” he asked.
“Nowhere, Thomas. I just want to drive.”
“Sounds good to me,” he said. “You want to call the shots?”
She smiled, “No. I’m tired. You go ahead.”
“Finally you’re talking some sense!” Thomas laughed again and Molly smiled. He was back.
“Plotting destination.” he said. His display went gray for several seconds and then refreshed with an aerial view of their position in the desert. The camera dove towards them and settled into a position behind the icon that represented her car and new coordinates cascaded onto the little screen. “Here we go, "said Thomas, "take Tucson-Ajo Highway west.”
Molly blew him a kiss, shifted the car into drive and accelerated slowly back onto the highway.