High Road

“So, Marcus, when will I ‘be ready’’?”

Carrie had crossed her arms, and leaned hard against the back passenger seat. The leather creaked like a tightening rope.

In the rearview mirror, she could see wrinkles erupt over her stepfather’s brow, as he shifted lanes to keep the big Mercedes on the San Diego Freeway towards LAX.

Marcus pushed the pedal. “I never said you were not ready, Caroline.”

Carrie huffed. “Sure.”

Carrie’s mother sighed loudly. “—Could we just try to get to the airport, please?”

Deborah was holed up in the front passenger seat beside Marcus, arms and legs as tightly crossed as Carrie’s. In her orange jogging suit, she looked like an inmate.

The Mercedes’ engine roared, and they plowed past a huge truck, close enough to make out the dust on its fenders and breathe in a good dose of diesel exhaust, too.

On the backseat, beside Carrie, nine-year-old Emma was fully absorbed in a game on her new iPad. But her fingers moved faster and faster over the screen.

The iPad had been a gift from her grandmother.

Sure, it had. Carrie eyed the back of Marcus’ jacket. Just the small part visible above the front seat had to be worth at least a thousand dollars.

Marcus bought a lot of gifts. Not all of them with ‘sender’ clearly marked.

Carrie looked out the window at the ever-thickening traffic.. “I just don’t get this shit that you try to pull on me.” 

“What is it you do not ‘get’?” Marcus was also dead-focused on traffic. “I explained to you clearly that if you want to be part of the Church’s grant program, apply like everyone else.”

“Yes, you were very clear all right. I had to sit two hours in a fucking waiting room until I got that form, but before that little stunt we had a very clear appointment to meet in person because I was not to apply like everyone else.”

“Caroline—” Deborah tapped the glove compartment with increasing fury “—we talked it through last night, and agreed that it was my fault. I had misunderstood everything about the grant. Let’s just get to the goddamn airport.”

“You said ‘goddamn’, Granma.” Emma did not look up from her game.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” Deborah stopped tapping. “I forgot the rules.”

“I meant it, too, when I apologized last night.” Marcus sped past another lane full of trucks. “I think we should look forward now.”

“Yeah … ” Carrie shrugged. “Would be nice to be sure what the hell you were thinking yesterday, though.”

“Uncle Marcus said he was afraid you’d be mad,” Emma chirped, “if he told you that you could not have the money, anyway. That’s why—”

“Mind your damn game, Emma.” Carrie’s voice was venomous.

“You said ‘da—”

“Shut up!”

“Carrie,” Deborah pleaded, “don’t talk like that to Emma.”

Carrie leaned back even more as if to get further away from her mother in the seat in front of hers. “You talked a lot like that to us back home on Skye.” 

“That island was never really home,” Deborah said wistfully. “Perhaps that was the problem.”

“Why did you marry Dad, then? He always said he’d never move to a big city, because the birds sounded stressed.”

“Damn.” Now it was Marcus’ turn to say the d-word, but this time Emma just clasped her iPad firmly, looking down.

The car came to a complete halt in a sea of other vehicles which moved absolutely nowhere.

It looked like that was going to be the state of things for a considerable while.

“I had hoped we could make it past Del Aire,” Marcus sighed, “then take some of the smaller roads, if traffic got too heavy.”

“Or we could have taken an off-ramp before this mess,” Carrie remarked through thin lips.

Marcus turned in the driver’s seat to gaze at Carrie. The elderly Chinese businessman-turned-evangelist had perfect skin and most of the lines under his eyes had been taken care of with the usual measures. He was in all ways like a grandfatherly model from a commercial for fine wine.

But his eyes were like a tiger’s. “You always have some kind of critique of others, Caroline. What about your own behavior? When do you feel like subjecting that to your constant evaluations?”

Carrie turned towards Marcus like another hunter who finally had cornered her prey. “You made a promise, buster—again, and then you treated me like just another nobody who signed up for your Church’s newsletter. ”

Deborah opened and closed her fists. “We talked it all through last night … ” She looked despairingly at the sea of cars around them.

“More like the usual shouting and excuses,” Carrie grunted.

Marcus also continued like his wife wasn’t there. “If you wanted to know more about how you could get special consideration before all others for the Church’s grant, you should have phoned me directly. Not set up a meeting through my secretary. We are supposed to have been a family for seven years now. But you treated our—” he glanced quickly at Deborah “—my offer, like it was a poison pill.”

Carrie shot back. “And you expected me to clap my little hands because I am unemployed and home with my autistic son all day, and then you could tell your whole ‘congregation’ how good your money and bogus self-development courses are at saving someone like me.”

I expected you … ” Marcus’ tone was like a razor “ … to trust what your mother told you: that maybe—maybe the Church Universal could have made a special consideration for you to get our new Give Way grant first, without the normal application procedure—as a use-case, to promote the benefits of the program. I expected you to trust me like … ”

Carrie’s face was all stone now. “Well, if you felt that bad about that secretary-call then why didn’t you just call me? Why pretend everything was okay and have me waltz up to your HQ and look like the village idiot?”

Marcus narrowed his eyes and checked the traffic again. It had moved exactly nowhere since the last time he checked. “Maybe I made the wrong decision. I can apologize again, if you wish. I can even explain my reasoning again …” he took a breath ” … I thought that if you could show some … restraint when things don’t go according to your own head, then you might actually be, yes, more ready for such a grant. And I felt—” he breathed deeply again “—that leaving you to wait with just the application papers was the best way to test that.”

“So from family to lab rat, then?” Carrie made a derisive shrug.

“I knew this whole ‘Give Way’ shit was only meant for people to give way for more promotion of your ‘church’. You use people—” she leaned forward now “—Every. Fucking. Time. Or do you think I’m illiterate, too? That I don’t read the news?”

Marcus clenched a hand hard around the wheel, “If you felt that way all along—then why did you come to L.A. to see me in person at all? You could have told me your reservations over the phone. Or used our contact form on the website.”

Carrie’s voice became hard and hollow at the same time. “You always think it’s about you. Emma wanted to visit her friend who moved here. Marie, who had a liiiittle problem with her most trusted teacher, remember?” 

Carrie was keenly aware of the rhythm of Emma’s tapping on the screen and how it sped up. But she didn’t look at her daughter. She could not.

“I am aware of that,” Marcus said. “You still should have called.” 

“Would have been strange if I flew in to stay in your house and then have a phone meeting with you, wouldn’t it?”

“You could have called before you left Yuma—or just waited to talk to me about it all until I got home from the office last night.” Marcus’ voice had shifted to the same steely quiet tone he usually used during board meetings. “It was a very simple proposition, Caroline. But you twist everything to become a conspiracy directed against you personally.”

Carrie just shook her head. “Good lord … you still don’t get it.”

“What? What don’t I get?” 

She snorted. “Oh, I dunno. Why you always come off as a self-conceited asshole?”

Marcus inhaled again like he had just come up from the Mariana Trench, having had to hold his breath all the way.

“Carrie! Enough!” Deborah looked as if she was about to have a seizure.

“All of you—stop shouting!”  

Emma held up her hands to cover both her ears, her eyes were clenched shut. The iPad fell down on the floorboard.

Carrie picked it up. “Emma—not now. I’m trying to make your ‘uncle’ here understand why he can’t just treat all people like his gullible church-goers.” 

Marcus raised his hands in frustration at Carrie. “If you feel that I’m only out to use you for god-knows-what, why not get out and walk the rest of the way?”

Deborah shook her head at her husband. “Don’t you start, too!”

“‘Start what’?!” Marcus was exasperated. “This was just meant to be a drive to get your daughter and granddaughter to the airport!”

Carrie rolled her eyes at them both. “I didn’t ask for you to drive us—” she glanced at her mother “—she practically gave us an ultimatum.”

“Why do you insist on twisting everything?!” Deborah was practically screaming now.

Stop it! Stop fighting!”

Emma was screaming, too, now.

“I’m not your little girl anymore,” Carrie said acidly, ignoring her daughter’s wailing.

“You sure as hell acted like it, last night,” Deborah struck back. “And now.”

Marcus’ fist came down hard on the wheel, so he accidentally hit the horn. “Has everyone lost their mi—dammit!”

And then, in the time-span of about two seconds Emma unbuckled herself, opened the door and ran out on the freeway in one of the narrow lanes between the queued vehicles.

Belatedly, Carrie tried to grab her daughter but by then Emma was already halfway out the back door. Then she was gone. 

In the third second, everyone froze. 

Then it was a whole new level of hell. 

“Why didn’t you lock the doors?” Deborah yelled at Marcus, panic completely overtaking her.

“I thought my driver—” Marcus began, then tore open his own buckle and the car door almost in one motion. “Stay in the car!”

Deborah briefly came back to Earth, although she was still hyperventilating. But it only lasted sometime into the fourth or fifth second, then she heard the crack of metal against metal and Carrie swearing in some of the foulest Scottish, Deb thought all but suppressed. 

“—Ye fuckin’ arsepiece!!”

Cold mist all year round, constant bullying in school and her father’s whiskey bottles piling up at home … Those memories had to be locked way at any cost. When she was a teenager Carrie had worked feverishly to suppress her accent.

But now the idiot Greyhound bus had stopped way too close to their lane on her side of the car, so Carrie did not hold back.

Swearing didn’t move the bus, though, so Carrie had to squeeze herself out the door, losing more precious seconds.

“Boggin, fuckin’ arse–“

Marcus was out, though, and desperately trying to catch Emma.

He was closing in.

But as he ran in the narrow line between the cars and breathed in exhaust and heat, he could feel his heart very much wanting to do something else.

There was some pain, and it was like he couldn’t get enough air in …

Not good, he thought. Not good.

But he pushed himself on.

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The story continued in my collection Challenge.

Buy on Amazon. Buy from other retailers.

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CARRIE, EMMA, MARCUS AND DEBORAH CHEN, 12 JULY 2015

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Cover photo by Jason Hinrichsen

Los Angeles traffic photo by Sebastian Enrique on Unsplash

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