It was all Laurel’s fault. She said they could make it to The Wall Drug before they ran out of gas. She was wrong. They ended up on the side of the dirt road, surrounded by endless dirt fields covered in gray shrubs without anything else as far as the eye could see. The girls scrambled out of the hot, stuffy car and slumped around it in the South Dakota sun, baking and trying to get a signal. Emily glared at Laurel, who was leaning against the car with her eyes closed as if she was being blown by a lovely cool wind. She had gotten them into this mess. Laurel opened her eyes to find Emily looking at her and smiled brightly before closing them again. Emily decided to blame Karla instead. Laurel was excitable and cheerful, with an infectious smile. She had loudly proclaimed every inch of the way that they could make it. Stupid optimism. So you couldn’t really blame Laurel. She was too…oblivious. She didn’t even know she was being blamed just now, or else why would she have smiled?
Now Karla…this trip had been Karla’s idea in the first place. She’d organized it, getting all “the girls” - Emily, Laurel, Susan, and Tracy - together again. A "fun road trip" to drop off some stuff Karla’s grandma from South Dakota had left behind last Thanksgiving. The old lady had apparently insisted that it not be shipped in the mail, lest things be broken by rough handling. Like a pillow, a coffee cup, and an old cassette player were in such great danger of being broken in the mail.
So Karla had to rope them all into her own mundane errand. And then when Laurel kept driving, insistently claiming that they could make it to Wall Drug without getting more gas, Karla had just let her have it her way. She should have stopped her. She knew they couldn’t make it. And now they were stuck, on the side of the road, in this stupid sun, waiting for someone to get a signal. Emily rubbed her hot neck. Stupid sun. Stupid Laurel feeling a wind.
She closed her eyes and pretended she could feel a cool breeze. Sweeping over the shrubby fields, playing with her hair. She could feel Emily glaring at her like the muggy air of South Dakota, which seemed to be gone now. It was a dry heat, caused by the blazing sun, which made Laurel hold out in hope for a breeze. She opened her eyes and smiled, pretending she didn’t notice Emily’s glare. Emily looked away.
“My phone’s running out of battery,” said Tracy, looking up from it. “Shouldn’t have played all those songs for you guys.”
“You’re blaming us for it?” Emily snapped, jerking up. “It’s your phone! We didn’t force you to-“
“Everybody calm down,” cut in Susan smoothly, without looking up from her phone. After a moment of silence she stopped scrolling and glanced up. “I don’t think anybody’s going to get a signal.”
“There’s a connection called “Davesphone90” but I don’t know where it’s coming from,” said Karla. “Maybe we can try to track it down and find civilization?”
Karla was so resourceful. Always organizing things and coming up with ideas. Not always good ideas - like squeezing a group of girls into a tiny car with broken air conditioning and driving across the country – but ideas.
“So you think we should just follow the trail of an internet connection?” asked Emily flatly. She seemed to be really having a bad day. Probably the heat was especially annoying for her.
Laurel ran a hand through her hair. “Maybe we should try that,” she said. “There’s no other way we can call for help and we can’t just stay here forever.”
The others shrugged and grunted. Laurel wondered why they were still staring at their phones even after it had been established that those couldn’t help them. Probably they were just waiting for an opportunity to take them out and stare at them instead of interacting with each other.
No. They were probably just texting their parents to let them know what was going on.
She looked up and down the road. It seemed like it kept on going forever and ever. And not a cloud in the sky. Everything was open and hot all around. A wind blew across them all, and the talking stopped abruptly as everyone faced it in relief. A strong wind, for South Dakota.
Something caught her eye on the road in the direction they were going. She squinted at the dark dot. “What’s that?”
It was a cowboy. "Roy Rogers!" thought Susan, her heart leaping. She caught herself before she said it out loud. Of course it wasn’t Roy Rogers. Nobody even watched Roy Rogers anymore. It was just an ordinary cowboy.
As ordinary as a real, honest-to-goodness COWBOY could be.
He looked like an ordinary guy, wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a jacket, except he was wearing a cowboy hat and riding a horse. The girls clustered in front of the car and watched him approach with excitement. He appeared to catch sight of their little group and cantered up the rest of the way. Or at least it looked like cantering. Susan had only read about cantering in books.
He tipped his broad cowboy hat to them. “Afternoon. You ladies in some kinda trouble?” For some reason, Susan had expected him to have a Southern accent. He had a deep voice, but she couldn’t’ place his accent. Just vaguely western. That was mildly disappointing.
“We ran out of gas,” said Karla.
“We thought we could make it to Wall Drug, so we didn’t stop,” explained Laurel.
He seemed surprised. “You ladies headed to Wall Drug? ...Don’t you think you’re a little out of your way?”
“Well, we ran out of gas before we could get there,” huffed Emily.
“Right…” said the cowboy. His horse shifted, and he patted it absently. “You’re pretty far past Wall Drug by now, ladies.”
“What?” Tracy asked. “The GPS said we’d get there in 57 minutes. It even gave us a shortcut. We can’t have passed it yet!”
“Ah, the GPS,” said the cowboy. “I see.”
“Do you know where we can get a signal?” Karla interrupted. “We need a way to get gas.”
“Could you maybe ride ahead and get a tow truck from Wall Drug or something?” asked Susan.
He looked at them with an almost pitying expression. “Ladies, you are in the middle of Wyoming,” he said.
“What? No. That’s impossible!” Tracy cried. “Why wouldn’t our GPS tell us?”
The cowboy shrugged. “You’re in Wyoming,” he repeated. “Smack in the middle of the O’Sullivan ranch.”
“That’s a thing?” asked Emily, disbelievingly.
The cowboy looked at her quizzically. “Is the O’Sullivan ranch a thing? Yes. It’s where I work. There’s a gas station off the ranch north of here. I can ride and get you a tank and then you can drive the rest of the way to fill up. Sound good?”
“Thank you so much!” gushed Karla. He tipped his hat again. “No problem, miss.” Then he wheeled his horse around and galloped back up the road in the direction he had come.
Tracy’s phone died. “Give me yours,” she said, holding out a hand to Laurel. “I want to see what the GPS says.”
“You trust the GPS?” she asked, handing it over.
“You trust him?” asked Tracy raising an eyebrow.
“He seemed nice,” said Susan. She walked over and sat in the open car door, elbows on knees and eyes back on her phone. “He’s helping us, and why would he lie about where we were?”
“Yeah,” said Emily. “I’d trust a person over a machine any day.”
Tracy snorted and kept staring at the phone. She wasn’t really typing or looking at anything. She just needed somewhere to put her eyes.
When they were in the car, she could look at her phone because she was the DJ. None of the girls knew about the breakup yet, and she didn’t plan to tell them. She was frustrated and angry inside, bored and disinterested on the outside. None of them had been having much fun talking to each other in the cramped car, so they had just blasted music from her phone the whole way, because the radio was broken. She could look at her phone to pick songs. Then her phone’s stupid battery had died, and she had nowhere else to look.
“You guys want to listen to more songs?” she asked in a detached way.
Laurel shrugged. “No, we don’t want to waste battery. Let’s just turn our phones off and talk.”
“Our phones are going to be using battery anyway,” Tracy grumbled. “We might as well get something out of them.”
Laurel looked at her strangely. “Maybe so,” she said slightly sharply. “But your phone’s dead. So please give me mine back.” Tracy handed it to her, and she put it in her pocket and leaned against the car expectantly.
“Wyoming,” she remarked. “That explains why it’s so dry.”
“What are you doing?” snapped Tracy.
“I’m just trying to start a conversation. There’s not much we can do on our phones anyway, and we’re on this trip in the first place to have fun with each other, so why don’t we start talking?”
Karla put away her phone and looked up. “She’s right. Why don’t we take this time to catch up?”
“We already caught up on the drive,” said Tracy.
“Why are you so against talking?” asked Emily suddenly.
“I’m not, I’d just rather listen to music!”
“Let’s not get stuck to our phones again, guys,” pleaded Laurel.
“How about the car radio?” called Susan from inside the car.
“It’s broken,” said Karla. “Guess we’ll have to talk.”
“Look, I really don’t want to talk!” Tracy exploded. They all looked at her with surprise. “I…I just want to listen to music or be quiet while we wait. And not talk.” There was a short silence.
“What about that cassette player?” asked Emily suddenly. “Does that still work?”
“The question is,” said Karla, going over to get it from the trunk, “whether we even know how to make it work.” She brought it out and they gathered around.
“What does that button do?”
“It says stop. It probably stops it.”
Laurel reached over and pushed down a random tab down with a click. The top flew open, and they all jumped back, yelping.
“Try pushing it down again,” said Susan, coming over. Tracy tentatively pushed the top down. It clicked, and then the whole thing started whirring. Fuzzy music came out of it. Karla scrolled the volume wheel up and it became clearer.
“-Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs,” the cassette played swayingly. The music had a certain vibrating quality to it. The girls crowded around, silently listening to the Beatles hits on Karla’s grandma’s cassette tape. When the whole thing had been played through, it stopped whirring and the top popped open again. They pushed it down and listened to it again. After several replays they figured out that if you turned it over it played a different set of songs. They were singing softly to Strawberry Fields Forever with their arms around each other when the cowboy returned.
“Thank you so much,” said Karla again, standing outside the car. She felt relieved. It had worked out fine. Their deaths would not be on her head.
He tipped his hat. “No problem.”
She doubted that. “I hope you didn’t go too far out of your way.”
He grinned and chuckled. “Not as far as you did.”
She blushed, embarrassed. “Um...this is random but - are you actually a cowboy? Like, the horse, the boots, the hat? Are they legit? Like cattle-ranching and stuff – does that really still happen?”
“Out here it’s all that happens, miss.”
“So the boots and the hat…”
“Are the most practical for the job.” He nodded to the road. “You ladies be careful not to get lost again. Station’s down the road 15 miles. There’s a map there you can use to get yourselves turned around right.”
“Thank you,” said Karla again. She got into the car and the girls watched in silence as he rode away down the road. All eyes turned to her.
She nodded. “Yes. He is actually an actual cowboy, for real.” The girls whooped and oohed.
Karla smiled. “Let’s go, Laurel.”
About 20 minutes later they sat in a car that had given up on air conditioning altogether, with all the windows down, hair whipped around by cool, dry Wyoming air, and driving the opposite direction from before. They had reached the gas pump without trouble, and spirits were lifted even further when Laurel characteristically emerged from the gas station with ice cream bars.
Their tank was full of gas and Karla had a map in her hands for direction. It looked like this trip was actually going to be a success. Everyone was smiling again, the way they had in the old days.
Laurel drove the empty roads with her hair flying behind her, one hand on the wheel, one hand holding an ice cream. The girls in the back leaned close to listen to the cassette player Tracy had balanced on the hump, silently licking ice cream bars from the gas station freezer and nodding along to the fuzzy, swaying beat.