“You’re such a moron.” I’m touching the steering wheel with just my fingertips, it’s so hot.
“I’m a moron?” Randy laughs from the passenger seat. He hits the dash with his palm. “You’re my brother — what does that make you?”
“It’s not necessarily genetic.” I pull my shirt sleeve over my hand to keep the heat off. It’s midday and traffic on I-15 is crawling. It would freaking suck if my car overheated and we got stranded, halfway between Riverside and Barstow, where Randy wants to meet a guy about a motorcycle. Even though the motorcycle is a stupid idea, at least he’d buy it for himself and not spend money on that girl.
“Carrie, Cara, Carla — you pay for everything for her.” The hotter I get, the more pissed I’m getting. “Her books, her rent, her phone bill — and she’s over in freaking Italy and won’t take your calls? Cut her off, man. You don’t even have to do it in person, so it’s perfect.”
“I love her.” Randy cracks his window. It’s so hot he’s starting to stink. Or maybe I am. Maybe we both are.
“No, you don’t — your dick loves her, and your dick’s not even getting any. She’s using you.”
“She’s probably screwing some guy right now and using your money to buy the condoms.”
“You’re such an asshole.” Randy punches my arm. He’s punched me harder, though. “At least I have someone.”
My hands slide off the wheel. The car’s stopped now, anyway. My shirt clings to me in gulps around my armpits, the small of my back. It’s been hard after Rebecca, but what happened happened — thinking about it isn’t going to bring her back.
“Did you hear that?” Randy sits up right as I do. “Sounds like gunfire.”
“Gunfire doesn’t sound like that,” I say. It has a trailing hiss, this sound. It’s tires popping — I figure it out when I hear it again. I crane my neck out the window, and it’s then I see it over the ridgeline — black clouds of smoke, an ember of orange. “Shit, there’s a fire.”
The smoke comes in fast. Randy pulls his shirt up over his nose, showing his stomach and carpet of belly hair. I hold the crook of my arm over my face and look for an exit off the highway, but nobody’s moving, the cars with the popped tires definitely aren’t moving, and our car feels like a can in a bonfire.
“I’m getting the fuck out of here.” Randy’s hand is on the door.
“Don’t be stupid.” I grab his left arm. “The road’s so hot it’s popping tires. You wanna run out there in your fucking flip flops?”
“Fuck off.” He jabs his finger toward the windshield. “Other people are.”
He’s right. Some are jogging across lanes toward the shoulder. Other are sort of meandering in a daze, as if they don’t quite believe what’s happening. A few are standing in the direction of the fire, taking pictures of the ridgeline from their phones.
“Let’s just not be stupid,” I keep saying it, but it’s not helping. It’s not even buying time. The smoke keeps getting blacker and thicker and, along with the percussion of tires, sirens bleat through the air. I just want to hit the gas, weave through the other cars, but we’re stuck. If I hadn’t agreed to help Randy, I could be home in the dark, an icy can of beer against my cheek.
Randy lunges out of the car, and before I know it, I’m outside, too. I survey the ridgeline. If the fire crosses over, we’ll never outrun it.
“Come on!” About fifty feet away Randy is waving his arms wildly, like one of those windsocks at used car lots. There’s brush on either side of this part of the highway, nothing for miles except accelerant. I catch up with Randy and we jog as fast as our lungs — pressed like flat accordions — let us.
“I never meant that about Carly,” I say to Randy when he slows to adjust one of his flip flops.
“Whoever.” He never said anything about Rebecca. Not that he could now.
Randy doesn’t answer, or if he says something I can’t hear him because all I can hear is the sound of my heart in my ears and the soft roar of crackling fire behind us, like a fireplace on one of those television channels, except the asphalt is hot and my neck is hot and my peripheral vision is dark. We’re going to die, I think, we’re going to burn to death, and no one’s going to know.
Carrie knows. I mean, she knows we survived. He hasn’t said, but I know that’s who Randy’s talking to on his phone as we’re all standing around the ambulances later a few miles north of Cajon Pass. I finish my water and grab a second bottle from a police van. I hold ice cubes in my hands, feel them melting, the water running between my fingers. My whole body feels molten, and I’m worried I’ll have to scoop it up back together, wait for it to solidify rock tight. Wait to feel all right again.
I watch Randy walk back and forth, his free hand moving animatedly, the way he pitches his body forward and backward as he describes the fire to Carrie, how lucky we are to be alive. I understand now why he stays with her. Why anyone does.
I pull out my phone and pretend to make a call, too. For a second, it really feels like she’s there on the line, though it’s impossible — it’s probably just the hiss of water hoses or the crackle of fire. I still feel melted like those tires, but somehow I’m hopping around like Randy, the words pouring out of me, words followed by breaths. I’m alive. I live. Alive. Live.
Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, a couplet of novellas, and three short story collections. She is the editor in chief of the literary weekly jmww and lives in Southern California.
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