“Exit’s coming up. Turn off here.”
Evan cut the wheel hard to make the ramp that came out of nowhere. It was a tight turn for a highway off-ramp, and for a few seconds Evan, Luis, and Alex could only grip the oh-shit handles and fight the turn’s urging to be flung to the side of the car.
Then they were on a skinny, two-lane road heading north, the lights and hum of the highway fading behind them. Evan looked to his left to see the last rays of blood-orange sunlight crowning the mountains to the west. The lights of the highway could mask what time of day it was, but out here the desert was in full dusk.
Alex turned around in her seat to gaze wistfully at the retreating interstate.
“Someone tell me again why we’re not stopping at a hotel on the highway?” she asked.
Evan knew how she was feeling. He’d heard some…not great things about northern Nevada before, and hadn’t been too crazy about taking I-80 to San Francisco in the first place. Going south and cutting across the middle on the state roads had been shot down by both Alex and Luis because it would have added another two hours to a car trip none of them wanted. The three of them would have flown to San Francisco if Luis’ older cousin Marty wasn’t paying them a very generous amount to get his Buick from Cheyenne to his new place in Richmond. So, if it had been up to Evan, they would have powered through I-80 and never strayed far enough to lose sight of it until they were past Reno.
Of course, it wasn’t up to Evan.
“Because,” Luis said without looking up from his phone, “This motel is supposed to be the fucking shit. It’s all over TikTok and the ‘gram right now.”
Evan and Alex exchanged knowing glances through the rearview.
“Ah,” Alex said.
“We get it now.”
“Get what?” Luis was flipping through his phone.
“You need more photo ops for your social media presence,” Alex said, pushing brown hair out of her face.
Luis shrugged and glared at them both. “Yeah. Exactly. I wasn’t hiding that.”
Somewhere out here in the desert – not far, he hoped – was the High Desert Motel. Luis had shown them pictures, and it did look pretty neat. It looked like it had been built in the 1960s and then frozen in time, all mid-century modern and neon. There was even supposed to be a swim-up tiki bar in the back. Very stylish. Evan just wasn’t sure if it was worth it.
“How far off the highway did you say it was?” Evan asked. He glanced in the rearview to see the lights of a few trucks on the far horizon.
“Google says a mile,” Luis says.
In the back, Alex sat up and looked around. “Then Google is full of shit.”
“How can Google be wrong?”
“Look around, Luis. Do you see anything?”
Luis finally pulled his eyes off his phone long enough to look out the windows.
The road they were going down was an unwavering march north. Desert lined either side with only mountains and hills to break up the view. In front of them was just the headlights and the roads. Behind them the highway was officially gone. The only other light now was the setting sun’s rays topping the west.
“It’s got to be around here somewhere,” Luis said with a shrug. “Around the next curve, maybe.”
Evan snorted. “What curve?”
“Maybe it was the next exit,” Alex said. Her voice seemed to be getting smaller and smaller the further away from the highway they got.
Luis shook his head. “Everyone is very clear online. That was the right exit.”
“I mean, was it, though?”
Something about Alex’s tone, nervous and dreamy, made Luis turn to look at her and Evan to cut his eyes to the rearview.
“It was a really weird exit for an interstate, wasn’t it? There was the big ‘exit in a quarter mile sign,’ and then there the exit was. No way that was a quarter of a mile. And then there was no other ‘exit’ sign. No blue signs for food or gas or anything. And it was a really sharp turn.”
“It was just a weird exit.”
“I’d expect that shit from a state road,” Evan said. “Not an interstate.”
Evan and Alex shared another look through the rearview.
“I’m turning around.”
“Guys, come on!”
“You said it was only a mile off the highway, Luis. We’ve gone farther than that already. Obviously, we turned off too early. Probably a service entrance or something. We’ll get back to the highway and find the right road and get you to your photogenic motel.”
Luis grumbled a little bit but otherwise didn’t fight too much. It was obvious, as Evan slowed and made the K-turn, that there was nothing around them, and going further on this road wouldn’t make the motel rise up out of the sand.
Alex shot him a grateful look, but he’d done it for himself, too. He didn’t want to be in northern Nevada in the first place, let alone driving away from the only thread of civilization for miles around.
They’d all met as freshman in college, almost ten years ago. Jesus, ten fricking years, Evan thought to himself. I am in my upper twenties. It was a thought he had a lot, ever since his mom had mentioned it as a joke around the time he turned twenty-seven.
I am in my upper twenties, and in less than two years I will be thirty. He was still young by any metric. Just not as young as he had been. And he was already feeling it. In college the three of them had partied hard. Frat parties. Tailgating. Driving down to Denver to go clubbing and then driving back to Laramie at three in the morning, stopping at every Del Taco they came across. Sliding into his eight o’clock anthro class with a muffin and a barely-there headache, already waiting for someone to text him the plan for that night.
Last week, he stayed up half an hour past his usual ten pm bedtime to work on some reports for work and woke up the next morning feeling hungover. His parents were always teasing him, saying he was wasting ‘the best years.’ What best years? He had to work two jobs to cover the rental house he was sharing with three other people. When was he supposed to have time for his ‘best’ years?”
The three of them had been saving for this trip for three years. They planned to get fucked up and stay out until sunrise every night, even the days they planned to go out to wine country.
Evan glanced at the setting sun and yawned.
Sure, going to stay up and party when you can’t even–
Evan’s eyes cut back to the setting sun. Then the clock in the dash. Then back to the west.
It wasn’t outright fear that crept through him. No, no, not that. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he didn’t know how long a sunset could take when the Rocky Mountains weren’t towering above you. No, what dripped into his veins and slowly filled them up was something akin to the existential dread about climate change he had every other week. A nervy feeling in his chest and vague cramping in the abdomen and joints. He took a long breath and hoped the others didn’t notice how it wavered.
Shouldn’t the sun have set by now?
He phrased it as a question to protect himself. He knew the answer. They’d driven for ten minutes in one direction, and now five in the other. The west should have gotten darker. If there was still light coming over the mountains, it should have been faded and purple. The sun should have been just about gone.
But it wasn’t. It was the same. The exact same shades of orange-red were coming up over the mountains, just as bright as they had when they had gotten off the exit. The dusk around them had not settled one bit, everything still painted in pale purples and blues.
Next to him, Luis was still on his phone, typing away. Some message to his followers. Wrong exit, but soon it’ll be Mai Tais in the middle of the Nevada desert! #swaglife or whatever the fuck.
Alex, though. Alex was looking west. Evan watched as she looked down at her watch, and then glanced back up at the setting sun. He could see it in her face. He knew what that feeling looked like.
“Shouldn’t we have reached the highway by now?” Alex asked.
Ten minutes out, seven…no, now eight minutes back. So, not quite.
But they should have been able to see it.
This was the desert. Flat flat flat. Going the other direction, the highway had only dropped out of the rearview seconds before he decided to turn around.
He should have seen it this whole time.
Evan gripped the steering wheel.
“Relax,” Luis said, barely looking up his phone. “It’s got to be around here somewhere.”
Something inside him snapped. He practically stood on the brakes, jerking Alex and Luis forward. He put the Buick in park and turned, slapping the phone out of Luis’ hand.
“Hey, what the fuck?” Luis shouted. He reached down to find it but Evan pushed him back.
“Luis, use your fucking eyes for three seconds.” High emotion had sprung on him so fast he hadn’t seen them coming. At least he was managing not to shout. Barely. “Something is wrong here. There is no highway. We’d fucking see if there was a highway by now and there isn’t.”
Luis didn’t look overly impressed with Evan’s snapped grip on reality, but he did deign to look out the windshield. Toward where the highway used to be. Luis squinted his eyes. Hands in his lap, his thumbs twitched like they were desperate to post something about it.
“Well,” he said. “It has to be there. We got off of it. We never left his road, right? It didn’t just, I don’t know, slip through a crack in the universe or something.”
“The sunset,” Alex said from the backseat.
“What about it?” Luis asked.
“Fucking look at it, dude. It hasn’t moved. The sun isn’t setting anymore. It’s…sitting.”
Luis looked west, but the same emotions did not seem to be moving them as they had moved Alex and Evan. He only shook his head and looked between them.
“The two of you are riling yourselves up over nothing. Nothing! Does anything you’re saying make a lick of sense? ‘The highway disappeared and the sun stopped.’ What? What does that even mean? The two of you. Fuck out of here. Evan, put the car in gear and drive. We’re going to see the highway on the horizon in a couple of minutes and the two of you are going to feel like the fucking morons you are.”
Maybe not a great pep-talk if you didn’t know Luis. But Alex shared an embarrassed laugh with Evan, and put the car in gear he did.
Luis was right. He had to be. Whatever was going on, wasn’t. It didn’t make sense, so it couldn’t. They would drive, and they would find the highway.
Any minute now.