Fire streaked through the dusky horizons, swirling reds and golds amid wisps of spectral smoke. The sky was a collision— a clash of vibrancy and terror and ruin. It spoke of longing, the sort which holds no object, yet does not loosen its grip for want of one. It was a brutal, unforgiving sky, and yet, gazing at it from the aegis of a window, its viewers found it muted— docile, even. Two of the youngest found their eyes drooping as they sat huddled closely together in the backseat.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” murmured the woman behind the driver’s wheel.
The girl sitting next to her nodded, tapping her fingers against the glass. Outside, she could see her own reflection in the rearview mirror. She saw the way her hair drooped, clinging to her head at all the wrong angles. She saw the way her skin bickered quietly with the outside world, rising and stinging as though its bitter quarrel was with its own form. She saw herself, her own, expressionless eyes peering back at her. And she could not look away.
The woman glanced over. “It really is a stunning one,” she tried again. Her tone was enthused, although, admittedly, her actual impressions of the heavenly display were substantially more subdued.
“Yeah,” the girl said, her tone more of dismissal than agreement.
Fingers drummed against the steering wheel. From the backseat, a muffled grumble emerged from the younger of the two children when the older shifted in her seat. The engine made all the sounds that are eventually forgotten on a long trip, intricate hums and heartbeats which eventually fade into obscurity.
“Allison,” the woman in the front seat said softly. The girl, Allison, who had begun to reach for the radio, left her hand suspended in the air as she shifted her eyes towards her mother. There was something about her voice— something gentle, painfully intimate, which pulled her back into reality. Or, at least, whatever sort of reality could exist there, in this dreamscape of a moment, with fiery skies and dozing siblings and a world that sped past their windows like a memory sooner forgotten than it was conjured.
Allison glanced back at her sleeping sisters. “Sorry,” she muttered, withdrawing her hand. “I forgot.”
Her mother shook her head. She had not meant to extract an apology. What she wanted was her daughter’s voice. She wanted to know how her day had been. She wanted to know what she was thinking when she sat there and stared out the window like that. She wanted Allison to know that she loved her, and that she had her father’s eyes. Eyes that she had once thought she would never see again.
She knew the look of sadness in those eyes. And it terrified her.
“Allison,” her mother said again.
Mother looked to daughter. Then back to the road. “Sit up straight, okay?”
Allison nodded. And slowly, slowly, her eyes drifted back towards the window. Back towards the deep brown of her eyes which her mother so cherished. Against the canvas of towering gray buildings and skyscraping lights, she watched the ghost of her reflection fade, and fade, and fade into obscurity.
From another set of eyes, the same vision, of cityscapes and lights and phantasmic reflections, sat planted decidedly ahead of the dark and winding road. Another car, of similar size and similar speed, raced in the opposite direction. The backseat was empty— that is, empty of life, rather than of empty of substance. Old toys, broken car seats, and more fast food packaging that could have been from just one, or even a week’s worth of meals, littered every inch of the vehicle. The man in the front seat seemed to care very little, however. If the smell of old food and unwashed cloth bothered him, there would be no telling from his expression.
As something vibrated next to him, he reached over to turn down the radio. Without taking his eyes off the road, he traced the tiny tremors back to their source with one fumbling hand, then brought it to his ears.
“Laura,” he said, not missing a beat. His voice was more prayer than greeting.
He let his eyes rest gently on the horizon as he listened, caressing the city’s outline with his eyes as distant words fell like petals upon his ears. When he spoke again, his smile was just as much a note in his voice as a fixture on his face. “I’m on my way home now. Tell the boys I’m almost home.”
The phone fell gently back to the seat. And then, once again, it was just he and the road. The radio still hummed with a muffled chatter, a song so quiet that its words were nearly impossible to discern. The man did not reach over to restore the volume. In his head, he could only hear the echo of his own voice. I’m almost home.
Outside, the passionate hues of the sky had gradually darkened, granting a stage upon which the first eager stars began to burn. A certain serenity glazed over the chaos of the fading day, and yet, the sun still peaked over the bustling earth. The day was not over quite yet.
A man, rather young, but rather more worn in appearance, did not seem to share this view, however. At least, his heavy eyelids most certainly did not. Against his will, he found them slowly shutting, more than once, before he forced them open with a jolt. He had already burned through three cups of coffee. He shouldn’t be tired. He couldn’t be tired. It was still an hour longer before he was home. Although he was far too close to warrant stopping, the distance seemed almost unbearable as he shifted in his seat. The car, which had been freezing only minutes ago, was now unbearable hot. Agitated, the man tried to find a more comfortable position, but to no avail.
The world around him was vast, or so the setting sun seemed to suggest. And yet, from a seat that was just a couple centimeters too narrow, a car that was just a few inches too small, and a road that was entirely too full of nameless and faceless people with so many places to be, everything just felt small. Too, too small.
When the cars in front of him stopped, the man slammed on the wheel. Once. Then again, then again. A tear escaped, then another. Everything began to spiral. He would be home later, and his mother would be angry, again, and he would have to listen to a month’s worth of scolding, again, and he wouldn’t have time to start any of the many tasks that he knew needed to be done by the end of the week. Time was running out, and time was taking away every hope he had of a night, just one night, of respite. And he had no choice but to sit, to sit and watch it flee.
He hated his job. And he hated his home. And he hated that he had to go to either.
He did not make the turn to drive back to his old neighborhood that night. He missed the turn, and he kept going. He kept going and going into the night, until his eyelids closed and he couldn’t find the strength to open them.
The sound of horn filled the darkening night, then the sound of a startled engine and a startled voice. Finally, a deafening crash. As the sun ended its journey across the sky, so too did the young man and his companion in the wreckage. Fire flooded the night sky.
Perhaps, the next day, a woman and her daughter would reconcile on a crowded road. Perhaps, a man would kiss his wife in the passenger seat as his kids protested from the back. Perhaps, a tired young man would return home to sleep. Perhaps everyone would go back to their jobs, to their families, and to their lives, unaffected by a distant collision.
No matter what, rest assured, the road would hold something new tomorrow.
Phoebe Houser was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is currently a senior in high school. She has loved writing since she was in second grade, and doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.