Carrion Coast Highway
by Barton Aikman
I count dead whales. Meanwhile, he drives slowly on the mountain road, both hands on the steering wheel. The two windows still intact are rolled down, letting more thin air in, and the tires sound like shuffling feet kicking up pebbles. Straight ahead of us is the coast but we turn left, then right, left, then right, curving down the mountain to the beach like a snake.
The whales are dark marks on the sand. From my vantage point on the mountain, five of their bodies are spaced out and look like the fingers of a deity, dominating the otherwise flat sands. I keep watching the beach and see smaller figures circling the whales. At first the figures look like ants in haphazard formation but morph into people as we descend and get closer.
When we reach the beach, he pulls over and gets out. I wait a moment, then follow. The sand is soft but we don’t take off our shoes. He walks slowly and I mimic his footsteps, placing my feet carefully in his prints, his slightly larger than mine, leaving a hybrid of the soles of our shoes. He glances at me now and then, waiting for me to catch up. I make a few more hybrid footprints. He loses patience and picks up his pace.
The rotting of the whales is so strong my nostrils burn then go numb; it happens so fast it tickles my nose. We approach one of the carcasses. He circles the perimeter of the corpse and I step out of his footprints and start to do the same, going in my own direction, the other way. There are a few people around but they either stay still or maintain their own trajectories.
Segments of the whale refuse to rot in unison. The tail is swollen, colored red, purple, violet, but the head is dark marble, blue and gray and black with cracks of white scars. The long mouth is slack-jawed, frozen in what might be a scream or a plea. One eye is glossed dead and the other has been pecked out to quench a bird’s hunger. I wonder what it’s like to see under water, if whales can see clearly or if it feels more like drifting in the dark. I’ve heard they sing but I’ve never heard their songs. Recordings might exist somewhere. I hope the sounds they make are beautiful.
A person nearby makes their way toward me. Like the others, they are covered with a poncho made from repurposed tarp. The person crinkles and crackles as they approach. They’ve collared their baby blue poncho with duct tape around the neck to keep it tight around their head, and they’ve cut a hole in the front for their eyes but mask their eyes with big murky goggles. They’ve cut two more holes for their arms, which are sleeved with a fabric I can’t identify. The material hangs low on their arms, hiding their hands up to the fingertips.
The person waves at me, keeps a polite distance.
“Don’t get closer to the whale,” they say. Their poncho puffs in and out where their mouth is hidden underneath.
“Might explode. Guts and stuff everywhere.”
“How do you know?”
“Seen it a few times today.”
“Was your group trying to save them?”
“They washed up dead.”
“All of them?”
“All the ones I’ve seen.” The person turns and watches other members of their group moving around. Some of them gather in a circle around one of the other whales. “I didn’t think there were any whales left in the ocean. Not even bodies,” they say.
I look down toward the water. The ocean is murky and cryptic. Thick waves like black tarred tongues lick the sand endlessly, the resulting gust a breath dense with salt and decay.
“I didn’t think whales would look so delicate,” I say. “Something about not having arms and legs.”
The group by one of the other whales starts a fire. I see the flames but don’t feel the warmth.
“Are you going to stay here tonight?” I ask the poncho-person.
“I don’t think so. It gets too cold at night this close to the ocean.”
“Then why the fire?”
They look over at the group again, pause. “We thought we might be able to eat parts of them, the parts that haven’t rotted. Some of us are still going to try.” They stay still, the baby blue poncho shuddering in the wind.
“But not you?”
“No,” they mutter, and the word almost gets lost in the breeze.
I see him walking over to me and the poncho-person.
“Where are you two traveling to?” the poncho-person asks me.
I stare and don’t respond.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” they add.
“Just taking the highway. Seeing what we find along the way,” I say.
“Good luck. I can’t imagine being in a car, too much to worry about,” the poncho-person says.
He’s close, almost in earshot.
I say, “I hope the whale doesn’t make anyone sick.”
They say, “I hope you find somewhere pleasant.”
He comes beside me and takes my hand. I take his in return. Together we nod at the poncho-person I’ve been talking to and head back toward the car. They idle and watch their group by the fire.
On the way back, trudging through the sand, we don’t talk, and I listen to the crunch of our walking and the lapping of the ocean’s always-open mouth. My nose tickles less, and I more clearly smell the brine of the sea before we get to the car.
We hold hands. Before we step off the sand, he squeezes mine hard.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t tell them where we’re going,” I say.
Hands still interlocked, he brings the back of my palm to his dry lips. I can feel where they’re cracked and split as he kisses my hand but it’s still nice. I take our palms, sewn together with our fingers, and kiss his hand in return.
I notice the car sits in the shade of the mountain, likely has been this whole time.
“Park the car directly in the sun next time,” I say, making my way toward the driver’s side, eyeing the solar panel roof as I walk, its smooth black shine. “We should always make sure the panels get as much sun as possible. Don’t want to run out of fuel.”
He doesn’t speak, runs a hand through his hair, enjoys the breeze for one more instant, then gets into the passenger seat. I feel the moisture from his kiss still on the back of my hand.
I put my arm on the car’s windowsill while I drive one-handed and let the rushing air dry up his saliva.
• • •
The ocean bubbles, the mountains watch, and I drive between them. Coastal bushes yellow and brittle twitch in the breeze, appearing frightfully alive for things clearly dead. I imagine the plants uprooting themselves, revealing something like a hedgehog or porcupine attached and hiding underneath.
Next, I see hills covered half in sand and half in rock. I want to peel the rocks off like scabs and throw them into the water, watch them plummet off the cliffside in silence, then thunk. For an instant they’ll be like feathers, falling and seemingly weightless.
Then another car, the first one in a few days, since before we drove up the mountain to get to the coast, but it isn’t moving; it’s pulled over to the side of the road. A man sits on the hood, looking toward the mountains. Without giving it too much thought, I pull over beside him.
When I get out the man waves with his face, a jut of the chin, then goes back to looking at the mountain. Wind whips his hair across his face, long, greasy strands crawling across his cheeks like tentacles. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“Car trouble?” I ask.
“Nah,” the man says, then makes the shape of a gun with his hand and points to where he’s looking. A mass of clouds hangs above the mountain range. I stand beside him and try to see what he sees. I don’t immediately notice anything. All I perceive is pastels of brown, gray, and green.
“Look at the top,” the man says. “On the peak.”
I do. There are little figures on all fours, in a line, moving slowly, too far away to look like anything other than silhouettes.
“Deer,” the man says. “Watch.”
Keeping in their neat little line, the deer reach the peak at a leisurely pace. The deer in front walks up to the highest point, noticeably elevated from the others, and from this podium it stays for only a moment before floating away. The little silhouette legs don’t squirm or thrash, the deer simply floats up and up and then it’s gone in the clouds.
“Pretty wild, right?” the man cuts in.
“I wonder how they know to go up there. To do that,” I ask aloud.
“Maybe it’s like when animals migrate, or hibernate,” the man adds. “They sense a change, or their bodies do, and they just know what to do.”
Another deer floats into the clouds like an inflated balloon.
“I just had to watch for a while, you know?” the man says on his hood.
“Can’t blame you.”
“He okay?” the man then asks, gesturing behind me.
I turn around. He never got out of the car, his head a foggy blob behind the dirty front windshield.
“Yeah,” I say. “Probably wants to keep going.”
“Where you headed?”
“Nowhere in particular, just moving around.”
“Hey, aren’t we all,” he says, looking back at the deer, which are all nearly gone now. After, he digs through a pack by his side and hands me a can from it.
“Here,” he says.
“No, no, we’re fine. Thanks, but we’re fine.”
“It’s one can.”
“We’re okay on food,” I say. “Besides, even when I don’t eat, I haven’t felt hungry in ages.”
“Me too,” the man says, and holds out the can with his arm fully extended, its chipped yellow label right in my face, the silver layer beneath showing in places. The label is smudged and torn but I can still see a large plate of simmering black beans printed on it. “They’re just beans.”
“Why?” I ask.
The man looks at the ground and smiles, thinking something to himself. He does this for a while and the smile turns sickly and sad.
“Hard to run into people out and about these days,” he says. “Shit, why not do something nice for the few you run into?”
I take the beans from him. “Thank you,” I say.
“You’re welcome,” the man says, not looking at me, and he smiles that sad smile again. “You’re welcome.”
The car honks behind me.
“It was nice talking to you,” I say. “Thanks again for the beans.”
The man is lost in thought but gives me a little wave as I step away. I look to the peak of the mountain one last time. All of the deer are gone.
“Maybe we should stop driving and just start hiking up that mountain,” I say. “Then we can float away, too.”
The man snaps out of his trance.
“Not a bad idea, but don’t waste your time,” he says. “Where do you think I just came from? Doesn’t work on people.”
I can’t help but tilt my head at him, puzzled, but I flash a smile before I get back into the car.
“Too bad we weren’t born deer,” I say.
I open the door and hand him the can, which he stares at before shifting his gaze to me. “I wanted to stretch my legs. Plus, I got us a can of beans. He gave it to me.” I get behind the wheel and take us back onto the road. I go back to looking at things I see out the window while I drive because we never talk in the car.
• • •
The highway takes us through a city of trees. Some are thin and frail, like a single bone off a skeleton, while others have thick midsections I don’t think I could wrap my arms around entirely. But all the trees, regardless of size, have no leaves. Their bark comes in shades of red, burgundy, and gunmetal. I worry about the darker trees the most; I think it means they are dying, and the ones close to the road might fall and hit the car.
I drive faster. I know the trees aren’t moving, but it feels like they are multiplying. I can only see the turn in front of me and the one I just made. My rearview mirror is full of trees watching me drive. I turn to him, to see if he’s worried, but he’s sleeping and has been for a while now.
The sun sets and turns parts of their bark magenta, black, and the color of blood. The trees themselves do not bother us from the safety of the road, but now their long shadows splice across our car and obscure my vision.
My ass is numb, and I think I’ve been driving for too long. I slow the car down to a crawl. Everything is fine. There’s just something about all of the dying trees that scares me. I don’t know when they end or if anyone or anything is hiding between them.
Softly, he puts a hand to my shoulder. With his eyes he suggests I pull over. There is just enough space between the first row of trees and the road for me to wedge the car. The moment I put the car in park I find myself putting my forehead to the steering wheel and closing my eyes.
He opens the door for me. When I get out I stretch and feel a little better. I still find myself hating the trees, but I like the change in the air, denser and crisp. He opens the door to the backseat. I splay out onto the seats in the back and almost fall asleep. I hear him again, this time opening and closing the trunk. Before I nod off, through swollen tired eyes, I see him sit on the hood of the car with his machete. Like usual, he plays with the hilt, spinning it in his hands and what little light is left from the day reflects and bounces off it.
I guess we’re sleeping here tonight.
• • •
I wake up a few times throughout the night to the sound of him screaming. Not screams of pain but defense. Each time I wake up I keep myself flat on the backseat cushions and listen. Twigs break and dirt shuffles. Might be paws, or shoes, or something else. If I hear the sound more than once I then hear him walking toward the sound, then his screaming, and the swoosh of his machete.
It only takes a minute or two of complete silence for me to fall back asleep. Before I do, I remind myself of our goal. Take the highway until you see the roses, then turn inland. People are there, they know what to do. I try to picture it every night before I nod off.
• • •
When the car door opens again, I feel him crawl into the back with me and I don’t have to open my eyes to know that it’s morning and that it’s okay if we lay together for a little bit. At this point I don’t sleep, just lay there with my eyes closed, waiting for the light to get strong enough to turn the darkness behind my eyelids from black to blue.
Somehow, we find a way to both fit together in the back. Part of me hovers off the side but I don’t mind.
I stroke his forehead and lightly scratch his scalp. I kiss his cheeks and his neck and say thank you thank you thank you and then I go back to being still, so he can sleep.
By the time he wakes up, I’ll be driving us again.
After sleeping, when he shimmies himself up into the passenger seat, we can share the can of beans.
• • •
After the city of trees there is nothing for miles. Rolling hills, sure, but not even weeds grow on them and even the structure of the hills themselves seem to be deflating. I keep my eyes peeled for movement but see nothing, not even one thing that moves in the wind. Occasionally I spot pools of mud.
He’s still asleep in the backseat and I have nothing but the wasteland surrounding us for company. I tilt the rearview mirror so that I can watch him sleep. I make sure he’s still breathing, his chest still rising and falling underneath his jacket that has lost its color; to me, it looks like a collage of the places we’ve been, and the things we’ve done. I look at him sleeping in his jacket and I see mountains and the ocean and trees and the marble coloring of the dead whales and the dark silhouettes of deer leaving the earth. I look at his curly mess of brown hair and his scrunched-up forehead and remember when we didn’t have a car and walked everywhere, and our feet bled. I look at his shoes now, with the fronts so torn they flap like mouths, his socks the tongues. I imagine those shoes would be completely gone, worn to ash, if we had kept walking, if that family hadn’t picked us up.
That family. The mom and dad and little boy.
I almost start to think about the family, but a rose petal soars and lands perfectly at the corner of the windshield. A deep ruby red, its contrast to everything else around me is so strong I feel an impulse to wipe it off, but don’t. Instead, I reach a hand into the backseat and shake his leg.
He grunts and pushes himself up and I point at the petal. Seeing the petal gives him a jolt and he jumps into the passenger seat beside me. Together we scan the barrens. Nothing, at first.
Then, finally, a variation in the landscape. It’s still small and difficult to decipher, but there is no mistaking the change in geography. They look just like little bumps on the horizon, like tumors or growths poking out of the earth’s skin. I push my foot on the gas, the car lurches, and we jettison across the asphalt toward the shapes.
• • •
We get out and stare at the column of rose bushes. They have more girth than I expected, and I love it. I adore how many roses grow on each of the bushes and the contrast between the red of the petals and the green leaves of the rest of the bush.
Some of the roses haven’t bloomed yet, dormant in their pods. Others have opened, and I count their layers. I see all of them as variations of faces; the adolescent roses are like tight sleeping faces and the open ones are wide-eyed and yawning or laughing or smiling. I touch one carefully, with just the edge of a finger, and revel in its softness. I haven’t felt something so soft and delicate for I don’t know how long.
He comes over to me with a freshly plucked one. Like a paintbrush he goes up and down with the rose on my neck. I close my eyes and feel goosebumps shoot down to my toes. When I open my eyes again I look at him and see a rose, he’s holding it right at my face and tickling my nose. I go to move the flower aside.
“Be careful with the thorns,” he says. A thorn does prick me, but just barely, and I ignore the little bit of pain as I take his arm and guide us down onto the patch of grass that the roses grow out of.
I feel like I did before, before our feet bled and before we drove all day and started sleeping in shifts. I see just him, feeling nothing else but the two of us in the world, even the ground beneath us disappears. I look into his eyes, the color of wet bark, and that’s all I see; how wonderful, for an instant, that’s all I see. We hold each other, and I feel him shaking.
Then it all comes rushing back. I try to find something to look at to distract myself but laying on the ground I mostly just see sky. I stay down long enough, and the memory of the family comes back to me. The wife with plump cheeks, the husband with a beard and small gut, and the little boy with big eyes and smooth forehead.
“That poor family,” I say. “We left them for dead.”
Firmly, he pushes himself off the ground. I’ve ruined whatever moment we were sharing. Still splayed out, I watch him approach the car with my chin pointed to the sky. He appears upside down, stuck to the earth, and he leans against the car and I remember that window, the driver’s side, broken now, as the one I shattered with a rock when we stole the car.
I sit up.
“We’re close. We’re so close,” he says.
• • •
I forget where I had first heard the rumor. Did he tell me, or did I tell him? In the end I only remember the steps: Take the highway. When you see the roses, turn inland. There are people there that know what to do.
We found the roses, so we head inland.
I don’t see a road, but I do make out what looks like faint tire tracks, so I follow them. This goes on for miles, we barely fit between the rocks and trees, the car ricocheting us around. I can’t believe we thought we could have walked here. We never would have made it this far.
We enter a valley and it’s been cleared out. I can’t believe it. The trees, the rocks, everything, it’s all been cleared away. I see fields with fruit and vegetables growing and soil ready for more seeds. A rush surges through me and I want to drive the car across the entire field, seeing everything, driving in circles until I’ve memorized everything that grows here.
But first, there is a fence.
And a guard at the fence with a gun. He points it directly at me, so I stop the car.
“Get out,” the guard says. So, we do. He stays behind the fence and goes back and forth pointing it at each of us. “What do you want?”
“We came to live here, I think,” I say instinctively. I look around at the farm some more and realize it’s true. I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else again.
“You can’t just live here,” the guard says.
“We’re here to work,” he says.
The guard and I both look over at him. He seems more focused on the fields behind the guard than anything else. I stare at him, then join him at looking out at the fields, and realize this is true.
“And you can have the car,” he adds.
I agree. I never want to see the car ever again. “Yes,” I say. “Please, take the car.”
The guard starts to lower his gun.
“I also have a machete,” he says. “You can have that too.”
“And a can of beans,” I say, which we never ate.
The guard pauses, then pushes open the fence.
“There’s a barn about half a mile down,” the guard says. “They’ll have work for you.”
I throw the guard the keys and find myself running. That only lasts for a moment because I’m tired and, actually, hungry. I slow down, and he catches up to me. We walk together and lace our hands and run our thumbs across the others.
I see the barn, a third of it painted, and people. They’re wearing clean-looking clothes and they aren’t just surviving but working and building. Before we reach the barn, he squeezes my hand again.
“That family is okay,” he says, eyes staring straight ahead, on the barn. “All we did was take their car. That family is okay.”
At the front of the barn a man with a clipboard asks for our names. I can’t remember the last time I saw a clipboard and I also can’t remember my name because I haven’t needed to know names for a while.
“Happens all the time,” the clipboard guy says, and writes down a name for me, which he repeats to me, but I’m too caught up being around clean-looking people and the barn to hear it.
The clipboard guy gestures for me to go to one of the unpainted walls of the barn. I start to walk over and realize the clipboard guy has sent him to another part of the barn. I lock eyes with him as we head in different directions. I feel and see all the things we’ve done together and tell myself there is still kindness underneath. I get this funny feeling I’m never going to see him again, but that can’t be, we’ll both be on this farm.
A man hands me a paint roller soaked with red paint. I go straight to work, and it feels great. The rolling, back and forth, back and forth, seeing the red spread across the naked wood. I move down the panel with rigor and almost bump into another painter.
“Oops, sorry,” I say.
“S’okay,” the other painter says. They roll a few more lines of paint over the board they’re working on. “How’d you get here?”
“We were walking here and got picked up by a family, only they were headed the opposite direction. So, we waited, stole their car, turned around, and drove all the way here.”
I continue to run the roller across the wood, painting it red.
“We didn’t hurt them or anything, broke into the car when they had stepped away. The worst part was their little boy. He came running up to the car as we drove away. I watched his face as we picked up speed. The way he looked. Not sad, not terrified, nothing like that. He just understood things differently. It only took an instant, and he realized something about people. I saw it happening on his face. It was awful. I’ve had the hardest time not thinking about it ever since. I just kept driving and looking out the window and driving and looking out the window and —”
“Hey, get back to work,” someone shouts.
So, I do. I work, and it feels so good to focus on just that. Before I know it, for the first time since I can remember, I think about absolutely nothing.
Copyright © 2020 by Barton Aikman