BY WHITNEY MORET
The People Are Restless
“Where do Jeff and Marin think they’re going?!”
“I don’t know!”
“Why are we following them? Turn down the radio!”
“Where are we? Hey. Hey!”
“Aren’t you listening?”
“Huh? I couldn’t hear you. Where are we, anyway?”
“I would say we’re still wandering the desert.”
“Look, there’s another rest stop. Let’s pull off and see what we can find.”
“Shouldn’t we call and tell them we’re stopping?”
“Well, I don’t have any reception.”
“It feels like we’ve been out here for like, forty years. Where’d they get the directions, anyway?”
“I think they were just following some signs.”
“I’m hungry. Look, an am-pm! Thank God!”
“Let’s gather some powdered donuts for the road.”
“ok. You can never have too much good stuff.”
The Peace Corps Wouldn’t Take Them
They had made the journey in desperation.
Marin’s mother had already disowned her for wanting to marry Jeff, who wasn’t white and wasn’t Catholic. Jeff had been accused of cheating in law school but had been losing interest anyway. And he hadn’t paid his parking tickets for the past three years.
They wanted to make a difference.
And Central America was poor.
Anyway, Jesus would help. He had talked directly to the mission directors (Rick and Karina Scheffler), you know?
Rick’s directions had been a little off, though.
It didn’t matter, because Jeff and Marin would be together.
Follow the Signs
“Hey, I don’t see Kristen and Jill’s car behind us. Where’d they go, Jeff? Jeff!” Marin’s knuckles were white as she hunched over the steering wheel. She recalled the doubt in the girls’ voices as they went over directions at the last rest stop. “You think they went back? Don’t they trust us?”
Jeff snorted, unable to ignore Marin’s shrieking even in deep sleep. “We’re just following the signs.”
“Let’s stop and ask for directions.”
“Let’s get some food,” suggested Jeff.
“Oh yeah, quick, before we starve! It’s almost been two hours!”
“We should go back to that am-pm.”
The fluorescent light made the gray bags under Jeff’s eyes look more profound, especially in the thickening darkness, as he leaned up against the gas pump and waited for a click. His stomach knotted forcefully with a growl. As the minutes slipped by, Jeff’s anguish grew. What was going on in there?
An eternity had passed when Jeff lifted his eyes to the automatic sliding doors ahead, behind which dim shadows crisscrossed to and fro. The doors would open – any second, they’d open. But he couldn’t have guessed the glory that would emerge from within.
A wave of smoke tumbled out into the night as the fateful gates slid open. White light flashed into a sudden blaze, reflected in a brilliant halo from Marin’s blond hair as she descended the steps out toward the pumps. Jeff blinked, overcome by the brightness. It was… majestic.
“I got them!” Marin pulled a scrap of notepaper from her purse and shook it in the air triumphantly. “I got the directions! Oh, man, the lights weren’t working. I was practically blind, and then they almost dropped this thing of dry ice right on my foot…” But as she approached Jeff, her smile faded, and her eyes grew wide. She stopped, hovering just inches away. Jeff could feel her breath in hot puffs on his face. She nearly whispered: “Did you eat the Ho-Ho?”
Jeff stared at the white plastic wrapper at Marin’s feet.
“Didn’t you trust me to bring you food? That was my experimental Ho-Ho! I’d been keeping that for three years! It still hadn’t gone bad! Where am I going to find a three-year-old Ho-Ho?!”
“The dollar store!”
Marin threw the directions down to the concrete, where they landed in a puddle of spilled soda. She ground the paper into the pavement with her heel. Her nostrils flared. Silence.
Marin was pretty good at giving “the look.” As Jeff made his way behind her toward the steps to the fateful gates, he darted carefully to avoid being bitten by the snakes writhing on her head.
“What happened? Your girlfriend couldn’t figure out the directions I gave her?” The cashier smirked as he handed Jeff his change.
“She’s not my girlfriend.” Jeff didn’t know why he was lying.
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know. I mean, my sister.”
The moonlight was bright blue on the empty, endless highway.
“Fine! We’ll pull over! Just don’t puke in my car!”
Jeff was glowing green.
“I can’t believe you ate free samples at a gas station. It’s a gas station, Jeff! This is not Costco!”
“Maybe it was the Ho-Ho?”
Marin glared. Jeff tumbled out of the car.
“Well?” she asked when Jeff came back.
He nodded, lingering a moment in the open car door.
“Yeah, better. Thanks for stopping.”
Marin sighed in irritation and jammed the key into the ignition. She started when she felt Jeff’s hand on her leg.
He said, “Hey, sorry.”
Marin cleared her throat but kept staring out the windshield. She took a deep breath. “Well, I was the one who brought the bad directions in the first place.”
“You think we’ll ever get there?”
“You think the others really turned back?”
“Maybe.” Marin’s lip might have been quivering.
Jeff leaned in a little closer. “Are you okay?”
“We’re running out of money, Jeff. What if this place doesn’t work out? How do we know? All this time and energy and traveling. God, it’s not like my parents are going to take me in again. I mean, there’s no one back home.” Marin took a breath. “My experimental Ho-Ho…”
“It’s not about that. You left everything. I mean, home, college. Consumer capitalism.”
“Yeah.” No one said anything for a minute. “Well, it’s not like there was much for me there. I hated that town. And if this works out, it’ll be everything I’ve ever wanted. This is the right thing. This is what God wants for me. And,” Marin spoke very quickly, in a sharp exhalation, “And I have you.”
The desert contracted like a heartbeat. Jeff’s hand tightened around Marin’s thigh.
“Don’t be afraid,” he breathed, too quiet to be audible, his face drawing closer to hers. And their hands and faces knotted together under the fading overhead interior lights. They squeezed and pulled and melted and fought not to be afraid. Outside, the desert was cold.
The dawn was a frosty pink through the fog of the car windows. Marin rubbed her eyes and groped around the backseat for the warm Gatorade she’d bought at the gas station. Her skin itched with sweat. She rummaged through her over-grown Louis Vuitton knock-off until she found her phone. She flipped it open and sighed. Still no reception. Her heart knocked against her chest. Something else was wrong. She rummaged for a few seconds longer, but couldn’t think of anything specific to worry about. The highway was the same as yesterday. As morning waxed into noon, the air conditioner gave out.
“Did you fart?”
“It wasn’t me; who was it then?”
Maybe it was sweat-bred bacteria. Maybe it was the nasty moods of the passengers. Whatever it was, the car was full of it, and it was suffocating. The same desert rolled dismally past the windows.
Jeff bolted upright. Marin gasped. They were almost there: the border crossing.
As she waited in line, Marin’s face grew increasingly flushed. It wasn’t just the heat anymore. It wasn’t some sense of guilt about what had happened the night before. Something was wrong. At the bottom of the Louis Vuitton knock-off, Marin found nothing. And that was it.
“I don’t have my passport,” she reported limply. They were two cars away from the front of the line.
“What do you mean?”
“I know! I knew I had it yesterday… I always keep it in the same pocket in the purse… but I folded up the directions…and I think… I left them at the gas station!”
“On the ground?!”
“On the ground!”
“Okay. Well, I mean, we can get you another one at the embassy…you have your ID…”
Marin rocked back and forth as if trying to induce some coherent thought. Her eyeballs were on fire; her brain was melting in the heat.
“Ummm…” No such thought came.
“You can still get in, Marin, it’s cool. Relax.”
The others would be back home by now.
Maybe they were swimming.
“I don’t have the money to get a new one…” she muttered.
“Karina and Rick will help us… It’ll work out… look, we got this far…”
The line shifted. They were next.
“But if we go now,” said Marin, “we can’t go back.”
“Well. Isn’t that the point?”
The Swimming Pool
“You think Jeff and Marin made it?”
“We tried to call them a thousand times. Still no reception.”
“Hey, don’t splash! I’m trying to tan! Maybe their batteries are dead.”
“You think they kept following the signs?”
“Maybe they were just following the wrong ones. You know all that weird stuff you hear sometimes about Rick and Karina.”
“Well, I’ll pray for them.”