A Road Leads to Two Destinations

Submitted by Arthur Tiberio to Contest #6 in response to: Write a story about two people in a long-distance relationship, driving to a location mid-way between both their cities.... view prompt

The coffee steamed very gently in his hand, sending plumes of steam like cigar smoke around his slicked back hair. He wasn't a usual partaker of the habit, but the drive was a long one, with many miles still to go, and the espresso helped him think. Whether or not that was a good thing was yet to be seen.

He was a young man. What does that mean? His head was full of fancy yet - dreams and ambition and ideals. Love was prominent among them, for Matthew was a firm believer in the innate power of that theoretical philosophy of Man. All things felt love, he held, and deserved love in turn. In his head, twisting diction reiterated the point and made new ones, but that was the heart of it all, the crux of his morality. He was teased for it, of course, by friends and family who found the concept rather feminine, but there was a familiarity to it that calmed him in times of distress. A Buddhist would have been able to nicely explain this particular yen, but Matthew was a Kansas man, and had seldom met anyone outside of the Baptist and Catholic chapels of his youth.

He closed his eyes, and thought of Roxanne. Who more deserving of love, than this angel given form in flesh and beautiful auburn hair? In his pocket, his fingers found a cough drop, and quickly deposited it into his mouth. He wasn't sick, but he hated the aftertaste of the coffee and the cool cherry down his throat brought a simple pleasure. Clacking the candy around his teeth, he pulled out his phone, a simple machine encased in a shell of hard blue plastic. Tapping past the key-lock, he frowned at the lack of notifications. He'd told her he was coming, had expected a happy answer, cheerful expectation. His last message was yet unread, marked as sent a good six hours ago. He deposited the device back in his pocket, half rose to leave, then paused.

A girl was staring at him, very oddly, from across the lonely cafe. The sun, newly risen, gave her a hazy look, and upon deciding that she was not, after all, too pretty, nor that her look was noticeably lewd, Matthew considered it safe to indulge his curiosity.

"Good morning," he tried, and received a tired grunt in response. Forgoing all pleasantries, then, he struck right at the matter. "Something on your mind?" he asked, sitting down.

She was, after all, a rather odd girl. Her hair highlighted with purple, coiffed into a fine, curling shape not unlike the texture of Parisian twilight. He had been to Paris once, and had found it an utter marvel. Roxanne had complained of the smell, and so they had left rather sooner than he'd have liked, and yet secretly he had been planning his return. He'd found a reasonably priced tour, comprising a ten-day of "Immersive Central European culture," for which he was eagerly saving.

Her hair shifted with her head, which tilted slightly now, in ostensible confusion. "I suppose... but what an odd question to ask."

"Not as odd as staring at a stranger, I would think. Late night?"

She nodded, slowly. "Been driving for hours." She laughed. "Oh, it's been a long night." Something seemed to occur to her then, and she added, "was I staring? I'm sure I didn't mean to. Sorry about that."

And he gave her a smile, receiving a rather pleasant one in return, and soon they had shaken hands and were talking in the way people will, when free of such cumbersome things as prior acquaintance or romantic interest. At some point, of course, as the sun finally broke free of the dawn clouds, the conversation turned to the very obvious, and Matthew wondered why he hadn't seen the question coming.

"So what brings you on the road?" She sipped coquettishly at her mug of rich black brew, but Matthew, feeling rather more awake, was risking a glass of orange juice. He frowned for only a moment, considering how to frame his answer.

"I'm going to see a girl."

"A friend?"

"More than that, I think. But she's moved all the way to Cali, so... I suppose we'll just have to see, how long it lasts." Why had he said that last bit? He felt a pang of sudden shame, soon eclipsed by the girl - Nona - who gave a short scoff of amusement. He asked her the same question, and she regarded him for a moment in coy, smiling silence.

"A boy," she said at last, and raised her eyebrows suggestively. Matthew had known girls like her in high school, all black leather and painted faces, and yet the immediate realization struck him that she had no piercings whatsoever; not even the discreet earrings Roxanne so liked found a place upon that simple mien. It was certainly a peculiar distinction, and he found himself wondering at a possible significance. Disapproving parents, perhaps? But such a thing did not stop a girl (or a boy, for that matter) for very long, if she were determined to gain her way.

"How nice," he was saying, and was doubly relieved to see that he meant it. "Where does he hang around?"

"Kansas, if you can believe it." The playful scowl held blatant affection, and a slight smidgen of concern. "Poor thing's grandpa's in hospital."

"That's too bad..."

She nodded emphatically. "He's rather distraught. It's only right I visit."

"No doubt." A twinge of anxiety. Depositing another cough drop, he tried to resist checking his phone. He had the volume up, so a text would instantly alert him. She should be up by now, he thought, for the clock behind her read a cool 8:35. Her class started ten minutes ago, and she always checks her phone before class, it's how we stay in touch...

He noticed her staring at him again. "Are you sick?" she wondered aloud.

"No, no. It's just... a habit, I guess. You said your boyfriend's from Kansas? Really?"

"If you're about to make fun of him just after I told you"-

He shook his head quickly. "Of course no. Not. No. It's just... you know, I'm from Kansas myself."

This caught her interest. "Really?"

"Yeah. Hey, maybe I even know him! Whereabouts in Kansas? I'm a Topeka native."

"Ach! No luck, sorry. He's Ottowa."

Matthew shrugged. "Still not too bad."

"Wait. Didn't you say your..."

"Roxanne."

"Yeah, her."

Understanding slowly came upon him. "California... wait, you couldn't"-

Her smile was a sun in itself. "Sacramento. Come on, tiger, tell me I'm lucky."

"Oh, my god."

"Really? Oh, that's so exciting! Darwin High?"

"Some place called Jensen."

"Well then," she sat back with a self-satisfied smile. "Looks like I still won."

Laughing, he finally succumbed to the tugging desire. He tugged at his phone, making up some flimsy excuse for opening it. "Just wondering what time it is," he mumbled. "Analogs'll be the death of me..."

8:45. One notification, no messages. He sighed, disappointed. Nona was peering at him.

"It's not too late," she said, looking curious. "I mean, Sacramento's only eight hours down."

"It's... not that. She hasn't texted back, yet. I told her I was close - I guess I at least expected a 'good morning'. Is that a little needy?"

She rolled her eyes. "All you boys are the same," she laughed, and poked at the notification. "Oh, that's so cool!" she exclaimed, and sounded so genuinely surprised that he found himself smiling.

"What?"

"Your weather thingy... It's set for Utah?"

"Well... we're in Utah." He gestured lightly at the rocky plain outside, so bereft of life besides the dusty, ghostlike shops of the small town.

"Yeah, but..." in amazement her words were slowed, thoughtful. She pulled out her own phone, and clacked it open. "See? I can never get it off of Sacramento. Sometimes it'll refresh once I stay in Kansas awhile, but... wow!"

"It's supposed to be blazing, so you might wanna curb your enthusiasm." He eyed the heavy leather jacket. "I hope your car at least has AC."

"Yeah, actually." She looked at the phone again, frowning. "See, it keeps refreshing for Sacramento, but won't switch to my current location..." Something seemed to catch her eye, and she hurriedly put the device away, looking slightly pale.

Matthew looked regretfully at the time. Just past nine... If he started out now, he might be able to treat her for dinner somewhere nice. Perhaps that sushi place they'd gone to, for their fourth date? The memory brought a smile, his warmest yet since walking over to Nona's table, which the girl noticed. She followed his gaze to the old clock behind her, and smiled sadly. "You should get going, huh?"

He only nodded. She laughed again (did she ever run out of things, to laugh about?), softly. "Well, don't let me keep you."

He stood to go, but paused at the door. "I hope the old man's alright."

"Thanks. It's sweet of you to say."

His expression was glad, bright. Hopeful. "Perhaps we'll see each other again, sometime."

"I certainly hope so. I think I'd like to meet your Roxanne. It is such a pretty name."

"That it is." And he was gone, driving a beat up old sports car out of the dusty lot, trailing gravel and clouds of brown desert breath.

Only when he was completely gone, did she pull out her phone again. Only when he was out of sight, did she dare to confirm her fears. The news banner trailed under the weather report, her local stations all chiming with the news, so peculiarly macabre even in a city of Sacramento's size and peculiar urban mentality. The car had flipped completely, shattering glass and metal across all four lanes of the freeway. No one could have survived. The face next to the story was beautiful to the point of heartache, doubly so because of the subtitle, written in light grey type that could've been Damascus steel. She closed her eyes, and listened for a while to the tinny sound of the radio, playing through cheap speakers into the sudden silence of the cafe.

It was an old song, Simon and Garfunkel, and they were singing of old bridges and fights long forgotten and men who've fought their last fight, whether they acknowledge the fact or not. And she thought, of course, of Garfunkel, in lieu of another name she had so recently heard, so recently read, so recently lost without ever having had her, and as she slid her check under the now-empty mug she moved to the lot as if in a dream.

"Such an interesting name," she muttered, and soon she, too, was gone, like a phantom in the hot desert wind.

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