Route 160 out of Durango runs crooked and dusty past Mesa Verde National Park, and that’s where the first fight of the day erupts. Asher is apparently on his sister’s side. “Mo-om!” Ellie pleads. “Make him move!”
Justine, from her own front seat, can feel the tensions rising. Her new husband Mason and her new stepdaughter Cora inhabit the left side of the too-small car. This first joint trip is quickly wearing off the freshness of their marriage, now only nine months in, and she’s wondering if it was a good idea after all. This is only the third day, but it feels like the thirtieth fight. She looks over her shoulder, gives a half-smile. “Ellie, it’ll be okay. Just keep your hands to yourself. Asher, you too.”
Mason puts a hand on her arm, gentle and comforting. “You know, he’s in the middle. Maybe he can get a little more space.”
She feels her blood rise, pounding on her temples. It’s too early for this. Is it because he’s a boy? Is he always going to take Asher’s side? She sighs, sips lukewarm coffee. “Maybe you’re right. Honey, scooch over.” Ellie’s nose turns up and her lips turn down, but she scooches.
Sixty minutes of silence blesses them. Cora breaks the peace. “When’s lunch?”
Mason speaks without turning his head. “About a half hour. What do you want?”
“Hamburgers!” Cora pounds the seat with her hands and chants in time. “Ham-bur-gers!” Mason thumps the steering wheel in rhythm. “HAM-BUR-GERS!”
Asher and Ellie shout their retort, clapping their hands. “Piz-za par-ty. Piz-za par-ty. PIZ-ZA-PAR-TY!” Justine joins in, enjoying the ruckus.
“Okay, okay,” Mason says, holding up his hands. “We’re outnumbered.” The victors cheer and spread high fives all around.
They avoid further conflict until the afternoon. “There’s an arcade at the next exit,” Cora says, brandishing her phone as proof. “Let’s go!” Asher shouts. Ellie and Cora agree and soon the din rattles Justine’s teeth. Mason gives her a sideways glance, gently negates the kids and asks them to calm down.
But they don’t. Instead, the waves of passion, from them and inside her and inside Mason, rise and rise, cresting like the snow-peaked Rockies, emotion and desire and insecurity and frustration crashing together in a tsunami of love, of like, of tolerance. The flow shatters Justine’s resolve, snaps her like a too-tight wire. “QUIET!” she shouts. “SHUT YOUR MOUTHS RIGHT NOW! For once on this trip, we will do what the adults want.” She pants, sweat beading up on her forehead, trickle down the back of her neck. Justine glances in the rearview mirror, sees Asher and Ellie and Cora wide-eyed, shaking. She looks to Mason who nods and steps on the gas.
They spend a couple of hours at one of the roadside attractions, a museum of better days. When they pull into a restaurant, Justine’s throat is sore and her palms show half-moons. They eat onion rings in near-silence, watching the USA v. Mexico soccer match on the screens above. The players run, they argue, they knock one another down and help each other up. The whistles blow, and they exchange jerseys.
“You know,” Mason begins, “I was—”
“We get it, Dad,” Cora says, rolling her eyes. “We need to be more like them. They fight on the field but then they stick together, they’re a family and they have to like one another. You know, not everything needs to be a lesson.”
Mason catches Justine’s eye, nods agreement. She smiles, and pats Cora on the arm.
“I was going to say,” Mason continues, “I think we need some more onion rings.” A pause, then everyone laughs and it is a relief, it is a goodness, it is a blessing that brings Justine and Mason and Cora and Ellie and Asher together, almost as if they planned it.
Stephan James lives in Missouri with 4 kids and a cat. He has recently quit his day job, kept the girlfriend, and cannot seem to keep the hair from escaping all on its own. Previous stories have won awards in the Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest, and he has been published online at 101words and Bewildering Stories.