Listening to the stereo, Lance tracked time and distance with the reflectors on the road. On some stretches, the yellow squares came at him through blackened asphalt looking more like Morse code than a steady metronome pulse. Dot, dot, dot. Dash. Dot… Staring ahead, hands on the wheel, the sounds of Steve Perry and Neil Schon blaring through the speakers, he wondered how long it had been that way. Had some department of transportation employee, working off a previous night’s bender, decided that maybe he would have a little fun? He supposed it might have been possible. Closer to the truth, however, was that the missing markers had simply taken too much stress and finally cracked.
In the distance, under a haze of violet sky, the stars gradually poking through the waning resistance of daylight, wind turbine lights spanned the horizon, their synchronized flashes of on-and-off red like that of a cheap motel sign. Vacancy. Vacancy. There was always an empty room available. Out here, in the middle of Texas, the lights were the only company a driver could rely upon to keep his mind from wandering. From thinking about things said. Or unsaid.
On the seat beside him, the bouquet of flowers lay wrapped in a blanket of green paper. As he picked them up earlier tonight, the florist had looked at him and smiled.
“Going to give your sweetie some nice roses?”
He had nodded.
“Gonna surprise her, huh?”
“No, the surprise is that I’m a day late.”
She gave him a knowing look and, as he turned to walk out, she said, “Good luck.”
Driving down the lonely stretch of road, now about fifteen miles or so south, south-west of Sweetwater, those words hung across the beams of his headlights, dangling in front of his eyes, forcing him to look at them one more time. Luck was a misnomer, a misconception for those who hadn’t seen the harsher realities of fate and consequence. We are the sum total of our choices, Woody Allen had once postulated, and boy did he live up to that one. In fact, if Woody ever decided to pull together a calendar based on his lines, Lance’s face would be the one posted above the month of December, that line serving as more than a caption.
In another mile, he knew, the road would curve ahead. There the beams of his headlights would ride the line of barb wire stretched out into the darkness.
He wasn’t sure how the argument had started, only that he hadn't seen it coming. It had been something about time, though—his time and hers. All she had wanted was for him to massage her feet, and then spend a quiet evening soaking in the hot tub, glasses of champagne perched on the drink tray.
“Not tonight, okay?”
The pouty, disappointed look followed. “Why?”
“I have too much to do.”
“You always have too much to do.”
“Uh-huh, well, look around. You can’t tell me you don’t like the results, can you?”
“Sure, it’s all fine.” She shrugged. “But it’s not enough.”
“Oh, please, not again.”
Noticeable hurt registered in her eyes. “And why not?”
“Because.” He swept an arm around the room, as if to point out all that they had. “We’re not ready.”
“But I’m not. In fact, the longer we go, the more stupid the idea seems.”
From there, the conversation spiraled, sucking the energy of their life down with it. Fifteen minutes later she had walked out, telling him he was a fool. And now, he felt like such a fool. What a great decision maker, a planner among planners, he had turned out to be.
After the bend in the road, he slowed down, allowing his eyes to adjust to the natural rise and fall of the landscape. His turn-off was right… around…
He saw the tree along the side and pulled over. He stopped the car, switched off the engine, but left his lights on. The stereo continued to play and would until he opened the door. Journey was Sarah's favorite band and this, their Frontiers project, was her favorite collection. He allowed the song to finish before he opened the door, finally silencing the music.
Sliding out from behind the steering wheel, Lance stepped out into the middle of the highway and held his arms outstretched. Maybe, if he was lucky, just maybe. A minute later, he realized again that luck had nothing to do with it. It was still all about fate. And fate was a tyrant, never yielding. Unlike tonight, where he could look out and see a canvas of stars that one who lived in the city could never imagine, the night over five years ago had been weighed down by thick clouds. It had rained, too. And in his experience, that was how fate worked, raining down on some while leaving the rest dry.
He walked back to the car, reached in and grabbed the flowers, and then stepped around to the tree.
“Hey baby.” He smiled for a moment, remembering the night they first met, when the world held so much promise. The smile quickly faded then. At the base of the trunk, the crosses were still where he had left them. Of the dozen roses, he placed eleven, all red, at the foot of one; the lone rose, its petals as white as newborn snow, he laid at the base of the second cross—a tiny replica of the first.
Finished with the flowers, he knelt down and waited. Soon, in spite of the clear sky, a torrent of tears would eventually wash over him. It always did.