“Wish You Were Here”

A short story by Janet Eoff Berend

This story contains strong language. It is intended for a young adult and adult audience.

The kitchen lights severed the darkness of the predawn morning.  Zack immediately noticed the bright yellow post-it note stuck to the white tiled counter.  “Be careful on your adventure.  Snacks in fridge.  Love, Mom”.  He shook his head.  19 years-old and she still leaves me post-it notes, he thought.  The note irritated him, the snacks didn’t.  He whisper shouted into the living room, “Danny, time to get up”.  When there was no reply he entered the room and flicked the light switch.  “Come on, dude. Get your ass up!”  Danny rolled over and moaned.

Zack carried the cooler into the kitchen.  He loaded it with hotdogs, hamburger meat, cheese, a head of iceberg lettuce, a twelve pack of Pepsi and a grocery sack with two turkey sandwiches and a Ziploc baggie filled with Cheese-Its.  He gave another whisper shout towards the living room.  “Danny, get your fat ass up now or I’m leaving without you.”  He heard shuffling and was satisfied.

Zack slid out the front door and zipped his hoodie to his neck to fight off the brisk morning air.  He started loading gear into the back of his rig.  Eventually Danny emerged from the house and slithered into the passenger seat.  Danny rested his head against the cold glass window.  Zack continued to work in silence.  He loaded the tent, the cooler, the duffle bags, the canned goods, the firewood and his acoustic guitar.  When it was all loaded up he stood back and admired his work.  It reminded him of a sick picture from Off Roading Magazine; the knobby tires, the reinforced bumper, the winch, the bar of lights.  He looked up into the sky. The stars were slowly fading into the purple haze and he remembered the time he and his best friends Danny and Robbie used to play off road adventure with remote control cars in his backyard. That was a long time ago. Now it seemed like all Danny ever did was sleep with his head against cold glass windows.

Zack took one last look around and then he hopped in the car and drove a few blocks.  Danny rubbed his eyes when he heard Zack kill the engine. 

“We gotta get a few more things before we split” Zack said. 

They entered 7-11 with Danny shuffling behind.  Zack carried 3 bags of ice to the counter.  He grabbed a few jugs of drinking water and a bag of chips.  Danny stood at the magazine rack and sleepily fumbled through a magazine.  Eventually Danny placed a package of Ding Dongs and a couple of Monster drinks next to the ice on the counter.  He asked the cashier for matches while Zack paid.  They headed back to Zack’s jeep and stuffed the last of their provisions into the back. 

Before Zack started the car he looked at Danny.  “What are you gonna light with those matches?”

Danny shifted his gaze to the floor mat and then stared straight ahead.  “The campfire.” 

After gassing up and checking the tire pressure Zack pulled onto the freeway.  40 miles to the south, 60 miles to the east and they would be to the turn off.  Zack knew that Danny wouldn’t be much company until the sun was well on the horizon.  With one hand on the wheel, he fumbled with his cell phone.  He scrolled to Pink Floyd and hit play.  David Gilmour’s twelve string guitar seeped through the speakers.  Zack nodded his head to the music and sang the opening lines to one of his favorite Floyd tunes. He stopped singing mid-chorus and glanced in his rear view mirror.  He could never get through that chorus without thinking about Robbie, how he should be here too, sitting in the back seat, playing air guitar, laughing.  Zack quickly tapped the screen of his cell phone to make the music stop. He shifted his eyes toward Danny.  His sweat shirt was balled up against the window and he was still sleeping.  Zack breathed in deeply and then he sighed. 

To the east, the sun was just starting to climb into empty sky and Zack knew it wouldn’t be long until a dirt road would replace pavement.  He kept the car moving at a steady 50 mph.  He would have liked to have gone faster, but with the weight of so much gear this was the best he could do.  Danny finally lifted his head when he felt the car slow to a stop.  They were off the freeway now and driving a two lane highway toward the desert.  Zack pressed the button at the tip of his turn signal. A spray of water splattered against the front windshield and wiper blades quickly passed along the wet surface clearing what remained of a handful of smashed bugs. He arched his back and stretched an arm toward the ceiling. “Morning,” he said.

Danny yawned.  “Dude, how long have we been driving?”

“5-years” Zack looked straight ahead and focused on the road in front of him.

“Was that Pink Floyd I heard, or was I dreaming?” 

“It was Pink Floyd.”

When they finally reached the turn off, Zack pointed at the road sign he’d been waiting for and smiled; 35 miles to Sage Flats. He put the jeep into 4-wheel drive and took the road at about 15mph.  The thumps and pings of the washboard road forced Zack to concentrate.  Both hands gripped the gray steering wheel.  He scanned the road directly in front of him.  He was ready to hit the brakes or turn the wheel to avoid ruts and rocks.  He could feel the potholes; anticipate their attempt to jack up the shock absorbers he had worked so hard to install.  He glanced in Danny’s direction.  Danny’s forehead rested against the back of his seat and he was facing the passenger window silently.  Zack couldn’t see his eyes, but he knew that Danny was looking beyond the edge of the dirt road and staring into the deep, vast space of the desert floor.  He wondered what Danny was thinking. As sage brush, rocks and Suero cactus skipped horizontally through the frame of his window was he thinking about the sharp edges, the points and needles, the empty space, or was he thinking about all of the low lying, desert plants–their thirst, their desire for that first drop of clean desert rain.

Danny’s voice cut through the silence. “It’s so powdery out here,” he muttered.

Zack glanced into the rearview mirror. “Whaddya mean?  It’s not powder it’s dust.”

“Whatever—It’s not like they’re different.”

“Of course they are. There’s a big difference. Dust particles are tiny.  Powder’s bigger than dust.”  Zack popped a sunflower seed into his mouth.  He cracked the shell between his teeth and forced the nut out of its hull.  He peered out his left window.  White puffy clouds hung over purple mountains.  A hawk circled in the distance.

“There’s another difference ya know” Danny said. “People use powder.”

Zack shook his head and laughed.  “No, not everybody uses powder, dude. There are lots and lots of people who don’t use powder.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, you use powder . . . like gun powder or like . . . like that white chalky powder stuff you use to make fat lines on baseball fields.  You see what I mean?  Dust . . . dust just floats off into space . . . it’s useless.”

Zack nodded slowly and continued navigating the washboard road, popping sunflower seeds into his mouth, spitting the empty shells into a paper cup he held between his legs.  He could feel the salt on his lips.  They felt dry, like the landscape all around him.  Danny rested his head against the back of his seat and drifted off to sleep.  Suddenly, Zack heard a pop and the jeep started to sag on the rear left side. “Crap. Flat tire,” Zack announced and slowly pulled over to the side of the dusty road.  They got out of the car and stared at the half deflated tire.  They could hear the faint hiss of air as it escaped into the atmosphere. 

“What are we gonna do now?” Danny asked. 

“Fix the damn thing,” Zack replied.  He started pulling gear from the back of the jeep.  Danny grabbed the ice chest and dragged it to the side of the road.  He sat down.  Zack continued pulling gear from the vehicle while he cussed.  Why the hell didn’t he think enough to not bury his jack? 

“Dude,” Zack heard Danny’s voice break through the chatter in his brain. “Can’t we just call somebody to fix it, like that “A” place or something?” 

Zack removed himself from the cave of his car.  He looked at Danny. “We have a flat tire. You get a flat tire, you fix it.” 

“Yeah, but wouldn’t it be easier if we just called someone?” Danny asked.

Zack tilted the palms of his hands toward the sky. “Who the hell are we gonna call?  Look around, Danny. We’re in the middle of the fricking desert.”

“I hate the desert.” Danny stared at as his shoes. “It’s hot. And it’s dry. And it’s cold . . . especially at night.”

“Yeah, well you’re gonna hate it a lot more if you get your ass stuck out here.”

Zack and Danny locked eyes for a second and then Danny leaned forward, picked a pebble out of the dirt, and hucked it at a dried out cactus. “What do you do if your spare tire gets punctured and every single one of your stupid tires is flat?” he whispered.

Zack clenched his jaw.  He shook his head and went back to the jeep.  He continued digging for the jack.  When he found it he wrestled it out and set it on the ground.  He carefully placed the handle into the jack and slowly began to raise the jeep.  Once the rear left side of the car was raised he began unfastening the bolts.  He had one bolt unfastened.  He held it in his fist.  It felt warm in his hand.  He carefully set the warm bolt in his pocket.  He did the same with the remaining bolts, jiggled the flat tire from the axle and rolled it to where Danny was sitting.  He looked at him for a second.

“Danny, here’s the thing. If your tire goes flat, you replace it with a spare.  If your spare goes flat, you plug the hole or you call someone or something. You get some help, man. One way or another, you figure it out. If you try, if you really try, you can almost always fix a flat tire. You get what I’m sayin?” 

He dropped the dusty tire on the ground and stared at Danny who watched the punctured tire wobble in the dust until it came to a complete stop.  Zack peered into the vast dry desert and sighed. He went back to the raised jeep.  He could feel Danny’s eyes on him. He knew that he was watching him methodically fasten bolts to the spare tire, and then Danny’s trembling voice interrupted his concentration.  “What if you’re wrong? Ever think about that? I mean, what if you can’t fix it? What if things get permanently fucked up and you can’t fix it. No matter what. No matter how hard you try. No matter what you do.” Zack stopped turning the bolts. He turned around and faced his best friend. Danny curled into himself, buried his face in his hands, and the sounds of choked sobs coming from deep within his gut like a wounded animal spread like expanding rings into the desert.

Zack turned back to the jeep. He stared at the half-fastened tire in front of him and stood up slowly, wiping his greasy hands on a ratty, torn-up cloth, tucked into his back pocket.  He walked over to Danny and dropped to his knees.  He stared at a small jagged rock on the side of the road for a while.  “There’s something I need to say to you.”  He closed his eyes, tilted his face toward the sun and tried to keep his voice from trembling. “Robbie had a choice that night.  You hear me? You didn’t hold a gun to his head. You didn’t make him swallow those pills.  He made a choice . . . his choice.” Zack opened his eyes, and took a deep breath. “Look at me,” he said. “You have to quit beating yourself up because I don’t want to lose you, too. Understand? Fix whatever it is that’s broken. Fix it, and then let’s get the hell out of here.” Zack stood up. His whole body was shaking. He walked back over to the jeep and dug the last few bolts from his pocket.  He could hear Danny’s choked sobs fan out into the empty landscape.  He kept working until the last bolt was securely tightened.  He brushed the dirt off his hands and wiped them on his jeans.  He looked out into the deep desert landscape and shivered, thinking about being stuck in such a dry, barren, unforgiving place.  He gathered his tools and helped Danny put the cooler into the back of the jeep.  They climbed in and drove off slowly, tires flinging orange, powdery, dust behind them, a Pink Floyd tune penetrating the silence of the dry desert air.