Kyle took the lead as the trail opened into a gentle ravine that broadened toward the semi-graded dirt road, an entry point to broad washes of increasing flatness. The Mustang was still where they had parked it, covered in a fine layer of dust. Unearthing keys from backpack, Kyle popped open the trunk and arranged bags amid a scatter of clothes and a very hot bag of trail mix, chocolate oozing into clumps of peanuts and raisins. Dylan held back as if the hot spring, and the wild women he had encountered, held some ineluctable pull. Kyle inserted key and gingerly cracked open the driver’s side door, releasing a vapor-lock of heat––the pungency of sun-baked leather creating a reasonable facsimile of sneakers in the oven. Into the fiery furnace, seat branding his skin through t-shirt, “Shit goddamn!”
Then they were settled, the smooth-fanning AC countering oppression at a tolerable rate. Kyle brought the car into first gear and felt the tires take grip on rock through cloud-forming dust. He completed a three-point turn and opened the engine into second gear and then third. It was at this last upward shift that something slipped into an out-of-gear stutter––something wrong, something not quite right. Dylan’s distracted gaze came to sharp focus on the steering wheel––“Kick it into higher gear.”
The car responded reluctantly as Kyle followed his friend’s advice, regaining smooth momentum. He gave the odometer a hard look––the gas tank was more than three quarters full. “Think it’s––?
“Cycle it through.”
Downshifting worked just fine, but the slide back into third generated the pungent protest of overheated gears, a staccato shudder undercarriage.
“Stop the car.”
Kyle did not need to be told––the car was telegraphing its desire. Ignition cut, Kyle sat mute for a stock-taking eternity, peering through smoke-engulfed rearview mirror at miles of absolutely nothing. They were stranded, plain and simple, dozens––if not hundreds––of miles from any mechanic. Dylan jumped out and ran to the back of the car, dropping onto hands and knees. “We still have plenty of gas,” Kyle saidas he stumbled out, feeling an instinctive need to break the silence, no matter how incidental the message.
Dylan craned his head under the car and pointed––there was a distinct reddish trickle snaking in the direction of where they had started. “You must’ve put a major crack in the pan yesterday, on the way down from Beatty.”
“There were heaps of rocks and scraps of metal along the track you took like an obstacle course. I remember the bottom of the car scraping rock a good few times It was my doing––if I hadn’t given you the reins, none of this would've.....”
Free-falling into realization that they were well and truly fucked, Kyle was blindsided by Dylan’s attitude. It had been his friend’s idea to take that sketchy route, the reins had been willingly thrown in his lap. He tried to pinpoint the times the car had really scraped the bottom… there had been one or two moments of hard against hard. He had not been super concerned… this was a Mustang after all and he had had similar experiences in a far older vehicle, on summer back roads past Percy following his mom’s divorce. Only difference––in Australia, in his own car, he had been confident of finding a way back in a landscape that, from certain angles, passed for home.