Further away than the most fuel efficient car could drive on a single tank of gas, out where the world and the sky met each other in a secret communion few human eyes had ever seen, a jeep trundled through the dirt. No roads out here, in this forsaken expanse of land. A country of 300 million people and even in all of that teeming life there were places like this, raw places that felt as though they were cast out of time.
Not that I appreciate that enough to keep it unspoiled, Palmer thought to himself as the jeep bounced over a few rocks and then coasting evenly over the hard packed dirt. He wasn’t all that comfortable being off road still, but it was his turn to drive. Still, he didn’t believe in cars existing off of roads. That’s what they were there for. If a train skipped its tracks it was derailed and it was a disaster. Why should a car be so different?
The body in the other seat shifted slightly, making a small noise from inside the comfort of her blanket. It was still early morning, the sun barely rising, and the air was cold. The blanket slipped from her as she turned and stretched and yawned. One hand came up to sleepily rub at her eyes.
“Good morning, sleepy head.”
“How long was I out?” Lucy asked, looking over at the horizon, a thin orange fingernail slowly creeping up above the faint line of hills far distant.
“Oh, maybe seven hours or so. Not too long.” Palmer reached up and turned on the music. This far out, they weren’t getting anything for radio. But they had come prepared with dozens of CDs.
Lucy groaned as the first track came on and fell back against her seat. “This again? C’mon, Palmer, you have to be kidding me. We can’t be doing this every morning.”
“It’s not my fault you have no taste in music.” Palmer didn’t take his eyes too far off the ground ahead of him. There had been too many boulders coming out of the darkness last night. That would be the last time he’d offer to drive through the night. They could stop and camp next time.
“I bought like … twenty CDs neither of us have ever heard before. And yet you’ve gotta go and put in the one you’ve listened to a thousand times. How long has it been since Marton Syan broke up anyway? Like … five years?”
“Three years,” Palmer said, trying not to get too annoyed with her. This was part of the morning ritual, after all.
“Let it go, superfan.” She hit the eject button on the CD player and the first track stopped no more than two minutes in. Each morning she let it play a little shorter. Soon it’d be out of the CD player entirely. Palmer felt like he was being weaned off of cigarettes. Thank god she hadn’t actually tried that. He might leave her out here to be eaten by vultures.
She slid in another CD and then twisted around to pull out a water bottle from the back seat. “You all right driving for a little while? I’d like to have breakfast before I take over.”
“Be my guest,” Palmer said. “I’m fine. Never mind the seven hours of driving, all of it in the complete dark, with starlight and a nearly new moon and some piddly little headlights to light my way.”
“Aw, poor Palmy,” Lucy said, leaning up against him and hugging his arm. “I appreciate all the driving you did to get us out here, though. That’s gotta count for something, right?”
Palmer rolled his eyes. “Sure does, it counts as one you owe me next time I want to take a ridiculous vacation and you try to back out of it.”
“Oh, c’mon, this hasn’t been all bad. Besides, it’s not as if you had anything better to do.”
Palmer didn’t answer her, his jaw clenching as he continued to drive out out further than the middle of nowhere. He wasn’t going to get mad, wasn’t going to start a fight. Not here, where they could argue and fight and shout and still had to sit in the same jeep, endless miles ahead and behind and long hours that would have to be passed in stony silence. That was too much like his dim memories of childhood trips with his own parents.
“Anyway, we’re almost there, thanks to you,” Lucy said as she tore open an energy bar and began to pick it apart. “We’ll be there by afternoon, set up the tent, cook some dinner, and kick back. You’ll feel a lot better with a hot meal in you.”
“I’d feel a lot better with a long shower,” Palmer said. “Maybe your dirty hippy Asian skin is immune to kind of hard travel, but I feel gross.”
“Don’t act like such a bourgeoisie. We’re going primal. Out here in the land where our great great great and so on ancestors lived. And all you can think about is getting back to your big city and running water and decadent American excesses.” She fell into giggles and leaned against him. Palmer looked down at her, her dark hair pulled back into a messy ponytail and her eyes bright as she ate her breakfast.
Palmer’s jaw loosened though he tried not to smile to himself. If she was going to try so hard to get under his skin, he wasn’t going to give her the pleasure of an easy reaction. He drove on in silence. With the sun up, the path ahead was much clearer, and he pressed the accelerometer down, the jeep creeping up to 50 … 60 …
“Hey, lead foot, where’s the fire?” Lucy was sitting up, a bit nervous as the speedometer crept forward. Palmer knew that after a day in a half of him complaining about not being comfortable driving on this kind of terrain, she wasn’t about to trust him pushing it. Which was all the more reason to speed up.
“C’mon, Palmer, this isn’t safe.”
“What? Safe? I thought you wanted tribal. Animal instincts, y’know, to go as hard and fast as I can. Cutting loose.” The needle slipped past 70. The jeep was really shaking now, tearing across the flat land ahead of them. Palmer was intent, watching for anything that was coming. Not that it would matter, there was no time to dodge it if it did.
“No, no, stop.” Lucy was sitting up, one hand tentatively resting on the dash like a bird about to take flight. Palmer grinned, not taking his eyes off the road.
“Come on, Lucy. Where’s your sense of adventure? Let go, live a little!”
“You bastard! Stop this fucking jeep right now or so help me I’ll rip your throat out when you finally do.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Palmer said. The needle rose up to 80, hovering. He was flooring it, but on the ground this was about as good as their heavily loaded jeep was going to get. Still, at this speed it was terrifying, ripping across the landscape with lunatic haste.
“Palmer, c’mon, stop it! Stop it!” She was freaking out, sitting there clutching the dashboard for dear life.
Palmer kept going, but turned to look at her. “You going to let me listen to my music, just a little bit, in the mornings? And stop teasing me for growing up in a civilized place with lights and buildings and fancy stuff like that?”
“Fine,” she said. “Just stop!”
Palmer knew better than to slam on the breaks, slowing down carefully. The needle began to fall, then fall faster, down to 50 and 40 and then all the way down as Palmer brought the jeep to a full stop and put it into park.
“You’re an asshole!” Lucy started the moment they had stopped, her fear turning quickly into anger. Palmer remembered her how she used to be, younger and angry and a constant foil to him. It was pleasing to see her like this. The anger put red high up on her cheeks and brought a shocking clarity to her eyes.
“I know, I know,” Palmer said, keeping his hands resting on the wheel. “And yet who was the one who dragged me out here when I have a deadline just two weeks away and a whole stack of things to do beforehand?”
Lucy balled her hands into fists, still glaring at him. “You agreed to it!”
“I was coerced,” Palmer said. “I was promised beautiful vistas and you ravaging me under the wide open sky. Also, that I could drive your new jeep.”
“I’ll let the coyote’s ravage you,” Lucy said.
“I’m the one in the driver’s seat.”
“I’ll move you.”
“Try it," Palmer answered with an indifferent shrug.
She reached forward to shove him, but Palmer was ready for her. He grabbed her hands by the wrists and tugged her forward, so that she was set off balanced and leaned forward into him. He let go of her wrists and lifted her head and leaned down and kissed her. It was slow and sweet and he could feel her initial surprise melt as she leaned further into him.
When he pulled away, she glared at him. “You know you’re not out of the dog house yet, right?”
Palmer smiled. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful when you’re angry?”
“You, every time you make me angry. But I don’t believe it.”
“Because if it was true, you wouldn’t work so effectively to immediately diffuse it.” She punched him in the shoulder and pushed off of him, settling back into the seat. “Now hurry up. You’re wasting daylight.”
“Yes ma’am,” Palmer said. He put the car back into drive and pulled forward. He was going a much more measured rate of speed, now.
He glanced over at her. She was looking at him, a reluctant smile tugging at her lips. Palmer responded with a bigger grin of his own. She wrinkled her nose up at him. Palmer burst into laughter.
“Yeah, yeah. Just wait. When I’m driving I’ll flip us and make sure your stupid face gets crushed by rocks.”
“I love you, too,” Palmer said. He turned up the radio, and the two of them continued their long drive away from absolutely everything but the place where the land met the sky and they would be alone together.