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The Passenger

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The road stretches so straight and so far ahead of them he can’t fathom the end. The faintest hint of the asphalt on the horizon simply wanes and disappears into the darkness, untouched by headlights and barely kissed by a rising sun, which has only begun to make its journey back to this side of the earth. As soon as a piece of road comes into view, it’s replaced with a new one, an illusion of infinity. He wishes they’d find the end already.

A rock song is made hardly recognizable by the roaring static of a disappearing AM signal. The man in the driver’s seat fiddles with the tuning knob on the radio, but doesn’t find anything much better to listen to out in the desert—a recap of Saturday’s football games, a deranged businessman trying to sell something, a channel in Spanish. He mumbles something under his breath about how this damn thing hardly gets a signal, and both of his hands return to the steering wheel.

The man riding shotgun would typically formulate a quip about how he shouldn’t have skimped on his new stereo. He doesn’t. Instead, he stares out the window with bleary eyes, watching the sunlight trickle in over the sand, turning indigo clouds pink at the edges.

He watches the clouds, the sun, the dried shrubs flying past—because if he didn’t look at them, he’d be looking at his driver instead.

And he can’t.

If he didn’t force his eye to lock onto the mountains in the distance, the whispering desire to reach over, to snake his fingers up the driver’s wrist into his palm, would be a banshee’s scream. A deafening, fully-encompassing roar like standing next to the engine of an aircraft, one that he’d feel rumbling within his ribcage.

So, rather than indulging in a glance at that five o’clock shadow, those hazel eyes glimmering with the reflection of dashboard icons—he hones in on anything else.

There’s a paper wrapper in his hand that he must have accidentally stuffed in his pocket at some point. He rolls it and rolls it and rolls it between his forefinger and thumb until the fibers begin to rub off and pill onto his skin. It gets carefully folded and discarded back into the khaki pocket. He picks at a piece of lint and starts the ritual over again, anything to keep his hands—and by extension, his mind—busy.

“I’ve had enough of this radio,” the driver finally speaks up, eyes leaving the empty road for just a moment to open the console and pull out a tape. The passenger watches him eject the tape already in the player and insert the new one in one motion.

The tape deck audibly thinks for a few seconds before there’s a quiet click, and a soft piano ballad flows from the speakers.

Lying beside you, here in the dark,
Feeling your heartbeat with mine.
Softly, you whisper, love so sincere—
How could our love be so blind?

The passenger closes his eyes and tries not to let a scowl come to his face. There’s an image in his mind so vivid he feels the linen against his arms, sheets in his bed warmed by a second body. He sees his eyes, full of fondness despite barely being visible in the night. God, he wants to shake this away, but he can’t when he reaches out to caress black stubble.

So now I come to you with open arms,
Nothing to hide, beli—

Click.

He’s violently roused from his daydream by the sound of the tape rewinding. “Sorry,” the driver apologizes with a breathy chuckle. “Thought I’d start the album over.”

“...That’s fine,” the passenger manages.

Just a small-town girl,
Livin’ in a lonely world…

The sun creeps ever so higher; it sets the sky ablaze with crimson and gold to consume the weaker stars. Shadows begin to form on the near side of the never ending shrubs, and he wonders just how many are there, spanning a false forever to the horizon before falling off the edge, just like the highway in front. The ones closest to the flimsy roadside wire race past and become mere flashes of darkness in his peripheral, but the ones further out stand unmoved by the spectator’s velocity. They seem to loom there, staring back. If he didn’t know better, he’d feel taunted.

“So, uh,” the driver speaks up again, readjusting in his seat. “Sorry if you had stuff to do Sunday. Didn’t think we’d be out so late.”

He was, of course, referencing the reason they’d driven out to Santa Fe in the first place—a night out with a few guys from security had turned into a late twilight on the town. No, it is not ideal that they hadn’t started their return drive home until after four in the morning, and yes, Sunday is typically a day reserved for all the things thrown aside throughout the week.

“It’s alright,” says the passenger. He doesn’t mind. “I had a good time.”

“Well, good,” the driver replies with a tired smile. “I did too. Those guys are real fun.”

“Yeah.”

The passenger thumbs at his seatbelt. The material is soft in one direction and rough in the other; he opts to stroke at the smooth side.

“You okay, Gordon?” He looks over to see the driver peering at him between the lines in the road.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” He’s lying through his teeth. “Tired,” he chuckles.

“Yeah, ‘course.” The driver seems satisfied with his answer, after his last glance at the road he doesn’t look back. His fingers tap a beat onto the wheel and he begins to babble to the tune of the song. “Strangers waiting, up and down the ba da-na na…”

He listens intently to the half-words streaming from the man’s mouth as he rests his head gently against the cold window. He’s exhausted; there’s a little pain somewhere behind his eyes that won’t cease no matter how much he rubs them, and as the light continues its ascent, it threatens to cut through him with its dagger-like beams. When his eyes are closed against the window, he sees orange, dancing cells and veins transposed out of focus. The only thing he can draw his attention to with eyes tightly shut is the strained grit at the back of the driver’s voice. Hoarseness from shouting, laughing.

There’s a moment from the night that decides to wedge its way back to his consciousness—a hand wavers over the small of his back before it travels to give two firm thumps between his shoulders, then ceases its touch. Even with his imagination he cannot make it linger, only replay, replay, replay. One quick caress. An unfortunate accident.

The passenger wants to look over to the driver. He wants to tell him, please touch me like that again. He desires to beg. Just for one more moment. In this state of exhaustion, he could rationalize making an utter fool of himself at the feet of his driver. Please. Again. Let me savor it.

Maybe one of these days he’ll tell him he’s in love with him.

Today, though, he has laundry.