Monday, December 19, 2011


("Traffic" by Jessica Brilli)

Brake lights on a highway. Not her favorite sight. It must be an accident. Or road construction. Either way, it wasn't right. Not when they were so close to home. Not after their day.   
She looked out the passenger window. A blue sedan pulled alongside as her husband tapped the brakes. The driver of the car was looking out. Their eyes collided in the semi-darkness. 
Toby, talking on his bluetooth, didn’t hear the sound she made. 
The years had altered his face, but underneath it, he was the same. Same eyes, same lips, same skeptical look arching into incredulity. Christopher. Toby nudged the car forward. Her hand reached out for a grip, a hold. A gap opened between Christopher’s car and the truck ahead of him. Someone honked a horn.   
She looked at her husband. She looked to the window. The gap was gone and there he was. 
A smile tugged at her face. He was smiling, too; almost against his will, it looked. She smiled more as his expression turned a somber corner. Her eyes said "what the fuck?" He shook his head and inched forward. 
Reluctantly, was it? She noticed the woman nodding off in the passenger seat next to Christopher and the two kids in the back, watching a DVD of Aladdin. Christopher pulled a full car length ahead of her and Toby. She could see his eyes in the driver’s side mirror, watching her. A green glow suffused the car. Then yellow. Then green again. The seatbelt was snug between her breasts. Too tight, really.  
Everything suddenly too tight. And oh God, this was happening. This was all right now.   
It made no sense. It made no sense that they should be here, three hundred miles removed from their Indiana life, in a shitty Columbus traffic jam, eleven years after the fact.  
Did he live here, too, then?  
“Nora said twenty, but I told her that was crazy.”
She didn’t know who her husband was talking to. That seemed significant. She hadn’t been paying attention. How long had she not been paying attention? The flashing brake lights were arrhythmic, dissonant.  
“Not reliable at all, no.”
Her foot pushed a nonexistent pedal. Christopher’s car was two lengths ahead. She couldn't see his eyes. Was he watching for her? He must be. He was. A stuffed animal of some kind had rigor mortis in the back windshield. There was a bumper sticker she couldn't make out on the rear left side. The license plate read Michigan. 
Christopher hated bumper stickers. 
“Shouldn’t be a problem. Trust me.”
A car from their lane edged in front of Christopher. Toby took advantage. She gripped the arm rest and looked over. He wasn’t looking back. He was speaking to his wife, who had finally stirred. She tried to get a look--a good, gulping look--at the woman’s face, but Toby forged ahead. 
They should talk. They should have talked more. They ought to have talked. It was shudderingly obvious: how afraid she'd been to talk. It was not okay that they hadn’t talked. She had things to say. Surprising things she hadn’t given voice to. Silly, dormant things waking up all over the place. Brake-lights-on-a-freeway things.        
She eased back into her seat. Toby was coasting now. Twenty miles per hour. Twenty-five. The gridlock was breaking up. They’d be gone in a--
The seatbelt pulled her back.   
She craned her neck, but it wasn’t necessary. He was there, next to her. Five feet away, if that.  Christopher. Chris. Her once-upon-a-time guy. His wife leaned across the middle arm rests, saying something to the kids. He looked over at her, sober now. His hands were tight on the steering wheel. 
“Sorry about that, man. We’ve hit a traffic jam here.”  
Toby was talking to Ryan. That was his Ryan voice.  
The cars were stalled. All that momentum had been a tease. She looked at Chris, and he looked at her.  Each second of looking felt long and compressed and awful and aching. His eyes held hers and would not be shaken. Her breath came fast on the windowpane. She wiped away the fog and touched the side of her nose. After a moment, he touched his own.  
It was their sign, their signal, their lighthouse at sea. Rescue me. For the love of God, rescue me from this man, this woman, this never-ending party banter. Take me home again. 
“Yeah? Same here.” 
She knew this was it. The once-in-a-lifetime chance. She didn’t care what cost. She wrote her words in the condensation just as his wife turned and gestured to Chris. The lane was clearing again. His jaw tightened, he nodded slightly, and the car lurched forward.  
She turned to the road, but kept her fingers on the window, guarding the backward thing she'd scrawled. Toby was talking about football now. He reached over and touched her swollen belly as they passed a broken-down truck in the median. The driver’s face was an impression of misery.  
She grasped Toby’s hand in her own and leaned back, the blood coursing through her, the highway lights pulsing faster and faster, the exit signs looming and sucking by. The world around her was dark and mysterious, endlessly dangerous and shockingly normal.   
Chris’s car started to accelerate, and he put more distance between them. This was it, then. In a moment they would be gone. Her eyes swam to the right and she could finally make out, in the roiling darkness, the bumper sticker on Chris’s car.  
If you’re close enough to read this, don’t be.   


mark said...

That's some thingamajig you wrote. Thanks for sharing it

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow. This is gripping and heartbreaking and just so well done. I am in that car, I am with her, I am invested.

(What did she write, what did she write, WHAT DID SHE WRITE.)

Sarah Hina said...

Mark, thanks for reading.

JA, I had this idea during a long drive to my MIL's this weekend. I was taken by the idea of this amazing, astronomical thing happening during the most irritating circumstances possible.

Thanks for everything you said! I'm not sure what she wrote. But I imagine it had to be less than 140 characters. :)

Richard Levangie said...

Thanks, Sarah. A lovely, heartbreaking moment. If she changed her name, I think she wrote her new one.

:::Because I still believe in happy endings:::

Sarah Hina said...

Richard, I like your take on it. Thank you.

Wendy said...

Wow, Sarah. I love this and was on the edge of my seat. Tense and yearning and fabulously heart-wrenching.

Sarah Hina said...

Wendy, I appreciate that. I was shocked to look back at my archives (such as they are now) and see that I hadn't written a vignette in over a year. It felt good to stretch those muscles again.

Stephen Parrish said...

This story is full of subtle conflict, which is what makes a story great. The tension between the protagonist and Christopher is the structural glue, but there is also the traffic jam, and Toby off in his own little world. And the swollen belly.

My favorite metaphor: The flashing brake lights were arrhythmic

I know what she wrote in the condensation, but I'm not telling.

You should do more of these. Don't make me come over there and sit on you.

the walking man said...

Take a look at this. Today is the last day for submission I liked the ebb and flow of the tension and the very subtle explanation of why it was so, nice bit o writin' Sarah.

Sarah Hina said...

Steve, thanks for pointing out all the chaotic pushes and pulls in the piece. I liked playing with the idea of fate/control, too.

I should do more of these. Yer right. (Don't let it go to your head.)

Mark, wow, thanks for that link. I might throw something out there.

It's really good to see you here. I always appreciate your thoughts.

Charles Gramlich said...

Dynamite from start to finishing. Wow, you know how to hook a reader.

Rick said...

You know, you just have to submit to White Cat Magazine. Really. We actually pay writers!

Sarah Hina said...

Charles, that means a lot to me. Thank you.

Rick, I'm so lazy about submitting! Maybe that'll be my New Year's Resolution. :)

I sincerely appreciate the invitation.

Aniket Thakkar said...

This is what happens when people who love Before Sunrise/Before Sunset write a heart-breaking piece. I'm guessing we'll have to wait another 10 yrs to know what happens next? Did she write 'I'm with Stephen'?

"Her foot pushed a nonexistent pedal." --- I sooo know this feeling. I didn't get to say what I wanted to say though. And I'm not sure if it was a bad thing.

I'm glad you wrote this. You should go out more. :)

Sarah Hina said...

Aniket, it's a little scary because I haven't been having as many story ideas come to me lately. Some of that is the novel, a lot of that is the busyness of the kids' schedules lately, but a good chunk of it is that I haven't been open to the notion. I've become complacent. Throwing a vignette up here makes me realize how much I've missed the thrill of writing something fully realized in a short amount of time.

Truthfully? I think she wrote, "I love you." Or "I'm sorry." Or "I wish..." But she firmly believes the story's better without our knowing. ;)

Catvibe said...

oh, I"m sitting here reading this, my hands cupping my face as my head draws closer and closer to the screen in the shortening string of connection she is feeling with this Christopher person. Gripping! Just wow on the tension factor.

laughingwolf said...

sarah... i'm speechless... it's that good!

more... please?

[cat, thx for posting it on +!]

[sarah, i'm putting it on my fb page]

Sarah Hina said...

Wow, Cat, I'm amazed it affected you that much. Thank you.

AND thanks for sharing the story on G+: it was a wonderful, belated Christmas gift to see a new batch of readers hop over here tonight! :)

Tony, it's great to see you stop by! And I'm honored that you're linking to it from FB. Thanks!

Catvibe said...

I only wish you'd use the notify feature when you post these on G+ because I just don't always see stuff right away otherwise. :-( Sorry it took me so long to get here for this and your poem.

Sarah Hina said...

No need to apologize, Cat! I probably should use the G+ feature: I just don't want people feeling obligated to check something out.