Danny grins right into the sun and revs the engine, nudging the speedometer past eighty. There’s not a sign of life for as far as he can see, until the ochre of the desert bleeds into the heat haze on the horizon. Just the endless sameness of rocks and dust and melting tarmac. It really makes the man beside him, tux rumpled and disheveled, hair a windswept mess, all the more interesting.
He laughs, draping one wrist over the wheel and turning to look at him. “Y’know, I haven’t seen a groom look so damn miserable since my Uncle Jimmy married into the family. Hell happened to you?”
The man doesn’t reply. He’s got one elbow propped against the door, pushing his fingertips into his temples, and it doesn’t seem like he’s hearing much of anything. Danny’s been around the block enough to recognise the look of a man who’s just made a major impulse decision and is slowly coming to terms with the consequences.
He doesn’t even know the guy’s name. All he knows is that he was closest when the crazy bastard came sprinting out the little chapel and yelled at him to start the car. A regular citizen might’ve hesitated, but Danny’s been in a few similar spots himself and likes to imagine there’d be a soul out there willing to help. So, he’d let the man in with no questions asked and blasted the hell outta Dodge – Dodge being, in this case, Nowheresville, Nevada, population eighty on a busy day – all the way out onto the wide rolling road.
He rolls the windows down. The guy moves his arm. It’s the most reaction he’s got so far.
Now Danny can recognise the man’s in shock, but the dead-eyed staring is getting tedious. He fumbles for the gearbox. “If you ain’t gonna talk, what kind of music you like?”
Zero. Nip. Nada. Not a goddamn thing from Mr Comatose. He fumbles for a cassette, slides it in the player. Heavy bass rolls through the car and judders to the rhythm of the creaking suspension. He’ll get that checked out next time they stop. The car’s his baby, a vintage Chevy Impala, and he’ll be damned if as much as a scratch mars her glossy black paint.
“I like country,” the man says.
It’s so quiet he barely catches it. “Country, huh? You’re all outta luck. It’s AC/DC or you walk. And I got a feeling you don’t really want to walk, especially given the only thing round here for three hundred miles is that miserable little truck stop of a town.” He glances at the man again. There’s still white confetti in his curly hair. Christ, he can’t be a day over twenty-five. “Y’know, if someone tried to get me hitched when I was your age, I would’ve run too.”
Still nothing. Danny’s tempted to start pushing his buttons, but that’d just be kicking a man already down and he does his best to be a good guy, if not one always morally upstanding.
“Now, my Lucy,” he says. “That was a rock’n’roll girl. Met her at a concert out in California. She wanted to walk down the aisle to Highway to Hell, if she could’ve got the church to play it. Some old bat on the piano, though, had a word with her momma-”
“God,” the man mutters, and pitches forwards to bury his face in his hands.
“Nope,” Danny says cheerfully. “Just you and me. But I reckon you could get the Devil to answer out here. Hot as his preferred environment, anyway.” He feels good, talking about Lucy. It’s been a long damn time since he could say her name without dragging out all the memories.
“Pull over,” the man says.
There’s a guitar-filled pause. Danny looks at the man, then at the long, empty stretch of road in front of them. He’s pretty sure any conversation they want to have, they can have at eighty, and says as much.
“Shit, all right,” he says, slamming on the brakes. The man jolts forwards. Tyres screech. The stench of burning asphalt dissolves into the bleary heat behind them. “What’s the-”
His guest is kicking the door open and climbing out. Danny rolls his eyes, kills the engine. The music shuts off sharply. He gets out, leans on the hood. If he stays too long out here the leather of his jacket is going to melt to his skin, but he’s not taking it off.
“Listen,” he says. The man is walking in circles, tugging at those lovely dark curls. Danny wonders what it was. Some chick he’d knocked up, thought to do the honourable thing? Wouldn’t be unheard of. “Listen to me… what’s your name?”
“Rick.” He rolls it around in his mouth, tasting it. “Rick. I know you think this is the prime spot for a proper, questioning-your-life-decisions breakdown, but can you keep it in until we at least hit the next town? I can drop you off there, you can get a proper taxi wherever you wanna go.”
Rick turns to face him, and Danny’s struck by the bluest pair of eyes he’s seen this side of the country. Hot damn. Those are the kind of baby blues people write songs about. There’s more than a little desperation in there, too, though, and he guesses he’s running from more than a wife. Has to be, with that little lost puppy look. He’s cute, and Danny is not blind enough to deny it, even with the kicked-puppy thing he’s got going.
“I can’t,” he croaks. “I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Damn, where’d your folks live?”
Rick jerks his head back down the road. Figures. Small-town boy. Danny had been a small-town boy himself once upon a long time ago.
“I can’t go home,” Rick says. “I don’t- I don’t have one anymore.”
“Well, then,” Danny says, “you should probably get back in the damn car.”
He stares at him. Then he gets back in the damn car. They sit in a hazy silence, the engine clicking as it cools, heat snaking in through the cracks in the windows. Finally, Rick says, “What are you doing?”
“Helpin’ a stranger in his hour of need. What’re you doing?”
“There we are, then.” Danny turns the key in the ignition and the air conditioning comes back with full force, along with the guitar. Content enough the man’s not going to do a runner, he steps on the gas and the car roars forwards. Rick rests a bare hand on the windowsill. No ring. Must’ve gotten out before the ceremony.
“Y’know,” he says, real casual, “I’m on the way to Arizona, but after that there isn’t a place I’ve gotta be for a long, long time.”
Rick glances at him. He shrugs, adds, “Like you said, you got nowhere to go. And the East Coast’s mighty long. You can drive it twenty times and never hit the same place twice.”
His throat bucks. “What do you do?”
Now the man asks. “Whatever I damn well please,” and he flashes his pearly whites in a broad grin, “but if it’s a job you’re enquiring about then I drive. Things, usually. People sometimes, if I like them. I take the goods you can’t transport any other way than with a trusted driver.”
The song rolls to a close and the next begins. Danny says, “Now I imagine you don’t want to ask, because you’re probably thinking you’ve pushed your welcome to the limit. But I’ve got a spare passenger seat. Any time, any place.”
“Thank you for the offer,” Rick says quietly. “That’s very generous.”
“Ah, ain’t nothing. Us small-town boys gotta stick together. So, what do you say? Want to find out why California’s called the Golden State?”
He almost thinks he has him, then. Rick turns his head and he can see the lure of late nights in strange towns, days behind the wheel in new territories. The whole wide open road in all its scorching and unknown glory.
At last, softly, he says, “Thank you. But I can’t.”
Danny sighs. The bassline throbs between them. They drive on.
They stop for dinner at the next place along. The diner is practically empty when Danny shoulders past the chiming door, tired fluorescents guttering over the chequered floor. They take the booth in the far corner, and he orders for both of them. The waitress doesn’t bat an eye at the two of them, one in a crumpled tux and one in a leather jacket and denim. She probably sees weirder on the daily.
Danny gets a coffee for Rick because he looks like he’s in no state to have a decent conversation yet. He can see the purple crescents graven under his eyes, the pinched worry line on his forehead that has yet to smooth out. Danny wants to draw his thumb over it, tell him he’s got nothing to worry about any more.
Rick talks more once they’re face to face, those shocking electric eyes meeting his with a degree of newfound confidence. Danny hears about the childhood ghosting between the scrubland and little hometown, the graveyard shifts at the gas station, the compulsion to escape. He doesn’t say a thing about the wedding, and Danny has sense enough not to push it. He’ll hear about it later, he knows, when Rick is ready to tell it.
By the time the sun has set, the line on his brow is smooth. Their booth is as heavy with secrets as a confessional box, and Danny is seeing an awful lot in that handsome face – but readiness to say goodbye is not one of them.
So he makes the most of it. Chucks a few bills on the table, says, “I’ll see you around sometime.”
He hums along to his own tune as he strolls out, zippers on his sleeves jangling, a little smile on his lips. He’s counting back from three. Two. One-
He unlocks his baby and turns. Rick’s standing under the low yellow light, one hand still on the door and stare something fierce.
Danny leans on the door. Gestures to the passenger seat. Says, “Well, get in, then.”
They leave the diner in the dust, blasting Metallica all the way into the night. For the first time, Rick’s smiling, and Danny is willing to swear he’s never seen a thing more beautiful.