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The Attraction of Asphalt

Story by Stefani Nellen (Read author interview) June 15, 2007

Mother and daughter drive up the switchbacks to the Heiligenberg to get spring water, because black tea tastes best with spring water. Plastic canisters tumble over on the backseat as the car takes the curves. The daughter, Martina, fingers her seatbelt. She imagines the canisters are alive, thirsty comic book monsters yearning for moisture.

The mother says, “If I told you to jump out of the car because we’re going to have an accident, how fast could you do it?” She stares ahead, wrestles the steering wheel, muscles working under her tan skin.

“Come on,” she says, “I want to know. If I said, jump out now, what would you do?”

Martina’s hands grow hot. The heat travels up her arms, into her chest and tummy. “I don’t know.”

The mother pushes the accelerator. The switchbacks become narrower and steeper, like arrowheads pointing in a new direction each moment. One of the canisters falls to the floor. The mother’s palms slap against the leather of the steering wheel. She blows a strand of hair from the corner of her mouth and accelerates more.

Martina says, “I’d open the door and jump out and protect my head.”

The mother nods. “And don’t forget the seat belt. Take it off first.”

“I will.”

“And jump away from the car. The door could hit you and push you under the car. You don’t want that.”

“No.” Martina sweats. Sunrays flicker dangerous messages through the leaves. She imagines opening the door. Branches snap past. The air pulls the handle out of her hand. She jumps out. Asphalt and gravel tear at her skin. Tires screech. She can’t imagine the sound of a car crashing into a tree. Do trees feel pain? Only if their roots are hurt. Otherwise, they grow new branches.

The mother says, “Ready?”

The seat belt buckle burns the girl’s palm. The strap bites into the side of her neck. She tightens her grip on the buckle, puts her thumb on the release. “Ready.”

“Good.” The mother nods at the road, at the ghosts she sees. “Good. You need to be prepared.”

The girl clutches the seatbelt, waits for her mother to yell, “Jump!” She waits curve after curve, all the way up the mountain, until mother pulls up next to the mountain spring and stops the engine and thuds her fists against the steering wheel once, twice.

After a while, the daughter lets go of the seatbelt. A red welt crosses her palm. She opens the door. The scent of moss and fresh buds seeps into the car. Birds chirp, and the nearby spring tinkles its quiet silver laughter. The hot engine settles with pings.

Mother and daughter fill the canisters. It hasn’t rained for a long time, and the flow of the spring is weak. The mother carries four canisters at a time back to car. The water sloshes behind milky plastic. When they are done, she opens the door of their car and, one hand atop the door, the other on her hip, says, “Come!” Her cheekbones reflect the sun.

Martina pulls her fingertips out of the cool stream and walks around the car. She puts on her seat belt. The sound of the engine starting blocks out the birds and the mountain stream. Her mother’s knuckles rest on the steering wheel, solid, symmetrical. As they zigzag their way down, the girl waits for the yell “Jump!” to erupt from her mother. She waits for the wheels to lose traction. She imagines the switchbacks leading back and forth, back and forth, and wonders whether, over the many days of water fetching, a direction will emerge from this, a road forward, an escape. She cups the seat belt buckle with her hand. She’s prepared.

About the Author

Stefani Nellen is a psychologist-turned-writer living in Pittsburgh and the Netherlands with her husband. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in VerbSap, Bound Off, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Cezanne’s Carrot, FRiGG, and Apex Digest, among other places. She co-edits the Steel City Review.

This story appeared in Issue Seventeen of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventeen
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