“I wish we’d never bought this fucking bus.”
She was in the front seat, and her voice vibrated the length of the VW camper and through the metal of the engine compartment where my head was. It sounded like she was yelling through water.
I yelled, “Don’t say that” and winced as the sound hit the metal walls and bounced right back.
“Because doing so will not change the fact that we did!”
Her silence suggested that she was mulling this over, but she might have been rolling her eyes or giving me the old double-middle-finger dance from the front seat.
“It also won’t change that we have to figure out how to get moving. Let’s stay focused, OK? I don’t want to get stuck here.”
The interior of Iceland was a place whose utterly unfamiliar landscape could be best captured with the oft-cited guidebook tidbit that U.S. astronauts once trained here because there was no place on Earth more like the moon.
The description was apt. It felt otherworldly: a final frontier. If we hadn’t stopped moving, if we had just kept our momentum, we would have been pulling out all of our space-themed jokes. I would have jumped out and bounded around, doing my best to recreate the astronauts’ gravity-free bounces. She would have cupped her hands over her mouth and repeated her own words at different pitches to mimic an echo: “That’s (that’s [that’s]), one small step (small step [small step]).” I would have told her that just over the hill we would find Newt Gingrich’s moon colony. She would have told me that I was wrong; over the hill we would find Luke’s Skywalker’s family, burned to a crisp.
“This was a stupid fucking idea.” She was standing right next to me.
I pulled my head out of the engine compartment.
“That’s helpful.” I grabbed a screwdriver from the row of tools I had laid out on a small towel. “Are we talking about the trip, or are we talking about other things?”
“What do you think?”
I took my gaze off her face and put my head back into the engine compartment, where a tangy hint of gasoline lingered. I made a show of popping the cap off the distributor and looking inside.
“I think—I think that if we don’t figure out why this engine stopped working, we will be in for a cold night.”
She threw her arms up. “There’s a fucking textbook James answer.”
“Would you like to switch places? Please do drop down on your knees and check the fuel pump for me, Sarah.”
“Ha. Like you even know what you’re looking for.”
I closed my eyes and took three deep breaths. When I looked up at, she had one hand on her hip. Her lips were pursed. She knew she had hit her mark.
“I guess we’d better just hope that someone comes along.”
I put the cap back on the distributor and stood up, looking at her face for a moment and then over her head. Black sand rolled off in the distance. There were weird circular depressions, sand lakes set in sand valleys. Nothing solid anywhere; everything shifting.
I sprayed my hand and the screwdriver with carb cleaner and wiped both with a paper towel.
“Yeah, and let’s hope that whoever passes by is a lawyer named Ryan who drives a silver BMW, right?”
She took a step back and crossed her arms over her chest, but her hands were spooked birds that wouldn’t stay put. “First it was the dog. Then it was Thailand. Then this fucking VW bus. Now it’s the bus in Iceland.” With each item she ticked off, she chopped her hand down on her palm, a little farther to the right each time. “We can’t just keep doing this stuff. We used to just work. Without all this.” The wind soughed along the dunes and skittered tiny grains of black sand across the road.
It wasn’t conscious, what we were doing; it was just easier. One distraction then another. It wasn’t that our story was special or unique, it was that we couldn’t accept that fact.
“Brilliant insight, Sara. Just brilliant.”
I ex-pected her to tell me to fuck off, but instead she walked to the road’s edge. She looked back at me and said in a voice that was almost pleading, “Why are we doing this?” but she stopped and turned again. She walked down the embankment, and then up toward a black sand dune.
I knew that even if she went over the hill and out of sight, I could find her by following her footprints in the sand. I looked back at the road we had followed, winding through the dark, rolling dunes and remembered that the Russians had sent a dog named Laika into space. The once-stray pup was chosen because she was especially good at remaining still and calm under stress. I imagined a glittering orb drifting across the empty blue above the black sand and her in there, waiting, patient and silent against every instinct. And then I thought of that orb, still floating today, and I wondered if Laika had the courage or the sense to finally give a bark, maybe a howl, when she knew that something was wrong, out there in in the dead quiet of space.
I stood for a moment before scooping up the tools that were laid out on the towel. I closed my eyes, spun in a circle, and threw the tools, one at a time, as hard as I could, off, in different directions. I imagined them catching the sun and throwing shards of steel light against the perfect blue emptiness of the sky. I knew it was dumb. I knew I’d have to go find them, eventually. I knew that someone would come along, even here. The engine would start again, but I had no idea where we’d be.