“Dear God, this had better be important.”
The phone was already ringing, and Liz had just gotten home from a long day of school followed by her after-school job at the local pizza parlor. It was a Friday night, so the patrons at the restaurant had been particularly rambunctious that evening. She had slung more pizzas that night than she had in her six-month tenure and had also been scheduled for the closing clean up.
There were a few video-game machines and pinball machines, so it was a popular spot for the kids in this small, rural town. Tables were askew, the “table checkers” were scattered across the floor. Cups, straws, pizza crusts, and various droppings from the salad bar made it look as though a food fight had taken place, as it was everywhere. When she finally got home, her feet were aching, and her back was feeling much older than her 18 years. She longed for a hot shower and her soft bed. As she turned towards her bedroom, the phone rang.
“Are you kidding me?” she mumbled, as she stared at the phone. The Conair phone, in its transparent plastic glory, was flashing various neon lights, and the bell inside was ear-piercing. Her mind flashed back to the day she received this phone that she had wanted so badly. Taking it out of the box, plugging in the colorful coiled cord, and then plugging the line into the nearest phone jack to experience the first phone call to her new telephone.
“Jeez, why did I want this thing again? OKAY…. I’m COMING!”
She answered the phone, annoyed.
“Liz? It’s Gramma Toby. I need you.”
Liz immediately calmed down, feeling a pang of guilt pinch her stomach, and winced. That immediately turned to concern when she realized it was midnight. Her grandmother was never awake at this hour, much less making phone calls.
“Gramma? What’s wrong?”
“It’s Marie. Her daughter just called me. She took a bad fall when she took the trash out a few days ago and is still in the hospital. They say she’s not doing well. She’s slipped into a coma and she…might not make it.” Her voice hitched on the last few words. She sniffled. Liz could feel her sorrow through the ridiculous phone. For a moment, she wished she were on a different phone. One more suited to sad news. Black, no lights. Serious. Somber.
“Oh, Gramma, I’m so sorry, what can I do?”
“I need to get to Cottonwood right away. Can you drive me?”
Marie was Gramma Toby’s best friend for the past 40 years. Usually mistaken for sisters, they were a force of nature in their youth. Miniskirts and go-go boots, beehive hairdos – they turned heads everywhere they went. Toby had beautiful blue eyes and red hair, while Marie was blue-eyed and blonde. They were inseparable, and unstoppable. Marie had lived in Cottonwood, Arizona, for the last several years.
“Of course Gramma, you know I’ll do anything. Let me change and get some coffee and I’ll be right over. Get packed and I’ll call dad.”
“Oh, my sweet girl, I love you so much! Thank you!”
Liz quickly dialed her dad’s number. He and his wife Heather were night owls, so she knew they’d be up. She quickly explained what was going on.
“Oh no,“ he replied, genuinely upset over Aunt Marie, “Come over before you leave town. I’ll check the fluids in the car and give you some cash for gas. Heather is already packing food for your trip.”
Liz could always count on her family to be there when she needed them. She quickly packed her bag and hopped in her Mustang and drove the 5 minutes to her grandmother’s house. Her car was small and sporty, but not built for long road trips, especially to Arizona. The car had no air conditioning. She parked next to Toby’s silver 1977 Thunderbird in her driveway. Immaculate and fully loaded, the car measured over eighteen feet from nose to tail. It was a sight to see, and Liz loved to drive it. Toby always loved being shuttled around running errands in her Thunderbird while Liz acted as chauffeur, even if it was just to the local post office to check mail. She joked with Liz that it made her “feel fancy.”
Toby was ready and waiting for her in the T-bird already, so Liz quickly moved her bag over, locked up and fell into the driver’s seat. On the way to Liz’s parents, Toby held Liz’s hand and thanked her again.
“You know I love you and would do anything for you, Gramma.”
Liz’s dad and his wife came rushing out, one carrying an envelope of cash, the other with a full-size cooler packed with food and drinks. They opened the hood and checked the fluids: oil, washer fluid, coolant, transmission. Her dad was nothing if not thorough. He topped off what was needed and put some extras in the trunk.
“You two be careful going across that desert. Don’t stop for anything and only go to gas stations that have lots of people. Here is the map. I highlighted the route you should take. Call me as soon as you get there.”
Liz took the paper map and placed it on the dashboard. She hugged him, hard. “I will. We’ll be careful. I love you, dad.”
He hugged her back, then walked around the car to his mom.
“It’s okay, mom, everything will be okay. Be careful and keep me updated, okay? I love you.” He hugged her, holding on for an extra moment or two, before Toby and Liz finally closed the doors and headed down the road.
Before they reached the interstate, they stopped and filled the tank. It took every drop of twenty-five gallons to fill. They had over four hundred miles to drive overnight.
Liz was doing her best to keep Toby’s spirits up. She listened to the stories of their youth, their wild days, the tough times when they supported each other. Some stories were hilarious, others were somber. As they drove from Southern California to Arizona across the desert, they desperately tried to find new radio stations as the previous ones faded away. Just some kind of music to lighten the mood and keep them awake.
Just over three hours into their journey, they stopped one more time for fuel and bathroom breaks. They were halfway there. A good stretch, a couple of hugs between them, and they were back on the road.
An hour later, Liz started feeling uneasy. As she was driving across the desert, she remembered checking her dad’s route on the map and was certain that they should have passed through another small city. She scanned ahead of her in all directions and saw no lights. No other cars, trucks, or buildings – just blackness.
They were on a two-lane road with dense brush hugging both sides of the roadway. This car needed a space more than twenty feet long and ten feet wide to accommodate its size and be able to open the doors, if necessary.
“Gramma? Can you turn the overhead light on and check the map? I think I may have taken a wrong turn, and I have yet to find a turnout.”
“Yeah, give me a second.”
Liz heard Toby fumbling around in the dark for the map and then turned on the overhead light. She looked at their last stop, and sure enough, Liz had turned left instead of right, sending them northwest, away from their interstate. Liz cursed under her breath.
“Shit. Do I need to turn around?”
“No, this will take us a little bit out, but there is another highway coming up in a bit that will take us back to the 17. It’s ok dear.” Toby patted her arm. “You’re tired. I’m tired. It happens. I wish I could take over. Shitty old people eyes!”
Liz burst out laughing. No one in the world could make her laugh the way her gramma did. In many ways, Gramma Toby was her best friend. Toby smiled back, a glint in her eye.
“Ok, just try to help me keep a shitty old eye out for the turn, would ya?” They both broke into laughter this time. It was exactly what they needed.
Another 45 minutes had passed. Soon, signs and lights began appearing along the highway. Any indication of civilization was a welcome sight. They both heaved out sighs of relief.
Liz, in her extreme fatigue, squinted her eyes at the road ahead of them, she could see red lights in the distance. These were not the taillights of another vehicle, as she was closing the distance between them quickly. Suddenly the lights started flashing, left, right, left, right, and as she approached, she recognized the black and white barrier that had just dropped in front of them.
A railroad crossing. Wonderful.
“Of all the dumb goddamn luck, we catch probably the only train currently crossing Arizona in the middle of nowhere,” Liz grumbled. She was tired and did not want to wait on a train.
Toby looked up from her lap and looked concerned. “This is an odd place for a train crossing, don’t you think?” She leaned forward in her seat and squinted, looking left and right. “I don’t see a train, do you?”
Liz blinked. She looked left, then right, then left again. No lights. She continued to look back and forth, as the lights continued to flash, swinging her head back and forth to the rhythm.
“No, I don’t see anything.”
She rolled her window down and turned off the radio to listen for the rumble of the train tracks or the train horn. Nothing. Crickets, coyotes, and other creatures of the night were making various noises, but no train. Suddenly, she was blinded by white lights filling all her mirrors at once, and light pouring into the back window lit up the interior as if it were daytime, this was quickly followed by the sound of a loud engine. She saw the look of terror wash over Toby’s face.
“Where did they come from?” Toby whispered, shrinking down a little into her seat.
“I don’t know Gramma. They just appeared out of nowhere!”
Liz sat in stunned silence for a few seconds, dread welling up in her belly. The only thing she could think of was that they rolled up on them with their lights off and killed the engine so they wouldn’t hear them right away. She reached down to the electronic controls and locked the doors while staring at her driver’s side mirror. Something was very wrong here. She glanced up at the flashing red lights and the boom barrier that was still in front of them, then quickly scanned left and right for any indications of a train. Still nothing. She dropped her eyes back to the mirror. Stay calm. In the nose, out the mouth, focus. Don’t hesitate. Protect Gramma.
What felt like a lifetime later of staring at the mirrors, trying to see what was behind the light, slight shadows of movement on either side of the headlights set her heart pounding rapidly in her chest. The doors of the vehicle behind them had opened, indicating at least two people were getting out.
“OH, HELL NO…” She wrestled the shifter into drive, turned the wheel hard left and mashed her foot on the pedal. The Thunderbird lurched forward, the tires squealing on the blacktop. There was no room for a U-turn, so she pushed forward around the first barrier, then spun the wheel hard to the right on to the tracks, and then hard left again around the second barrier, coming out on the other side as if she had willed the 18-foot whale of a car to slither around the barrier like a snake. She didn’t stay to try to figure it out or revel in her driving skills for out maneuvering…whoever that was, she just pushed harder on the gas pedal. She squeezed every bit of power and speed from the V8 under the hood, hitting one hundred miles per hour barreling across the desert until she could no longer see the railroad crossing or headlights behind her. Toby reached over and touched her shoulder.
“Are they still behind us?” Her voice was shaking.
“I don’t think so, I’m pretty sure I lost them. I’m hoping they were too shocked to follow. I don’t know.”
“Okay, well, can we drop it below 80, now? I don’t think it’s safe to keep up this pace after we’ve been up all night.” She exhaled shakily, as if she were blowing out a candle.
Liz finally let out the breath she’d been holding and let up on the gas pedal until they were doing a steady seventy-five, and she set the cruise control.
Mountains were starting to take shape as the sun was coming up. The desert was breathtakingly beautiful at dawn, full of color and life, but Liz couldn’t help but think about the tracks, and what could have happened to them had she not been capable of handling this massive car. Or worse: if Gramma was driving alone. So many terrible scenarios came to mind; she couldn’t stop checking the mirrors.
As the sun continued to rise, they started to see the familiar glint of morning sun reflecting off glass on both cars and buildings. Liz, however, could not take her eyes off the rearview mirror. The unsettling feeling in her stomach was still there. She felt, no, she knew, whoever that was at the crossing, was still looking for them. Watching. Waiting for the 18-foot silver Thunderbird to come back through the desert, like a bright, shiny target. She decided that while they were in town, she would find out everything she could about those tracks.
Biography: I am a 47 year old married mother of two. I decided to go to Aims when my husband was diagnosed with cancer over three years ago. I want to enjoy life, build a stable retirement and finally see my dream of graduating college come true.