(Page 1 of a 22-page story, unpublished.)
The summer sun baked the broad shoulder of the Interstate. The hitchhikers sat under a sign banning pedestrians from the highway. Their packs were scattered around them on the hot asphalt. Robert held up a piece of cardboard. Kansas City. He’d spent hours laboring over the calligraphy with the fat-tipped Sharpie he carried. Lily stood and ran back down the road. She turned toward Robert, looking at his sign. She lifted her hand, pointing her thumb up to the sky. This signal was to tell him that the drivers of oncoming cars, if they were to come, would find his message legible among the flourishes.
“Thanks,” Robert said flatly, as Lily returned to their spot on the shoulder. He flipped through his atlas with his free hand. He did not look at her. Lily sat back down on the rucksack she’d fashioned from an elephant-print sheet. She was dizzy in the heat. She squinted her eyes, trying to focus in on the story she’d have to tell. She was cultivating scenes for the story. Three feet to her right was a smear on the pavement that had once been a live animal. How long had this one been cooking? Robert’s body, to her left, was angled toward the road. Patches of sweat glued his ratty t-shirt to his narrow back. This was a scene in the story. This was only a scene.
They waited in silence, shielding their eyes from the sun until clouds moved in to cover them. When the shadow hit the shoulder, it cooled. Lily breathed out. An opaque curtain had dropped on the scene. The rain began lightly. A van pulled over for them just as the last sliver of sun slipped away under the drizzle. They stood and dragged their soggy bags and soar bodies toward the van. The Grateful Dead were blaring through its still-open windows. A young couple, about their age, sat up front. When Robert spoke to the driver, the woman riding shotgun grinned at him. Robert nodded to Lily, who shuffled, carrying the fat rucksack to the door on the opposite side. To make room on the seat, they shoved two cartons of bottled water over the seat and into the back of the van. Some of the bottles were full. Others were empty. Between them poked crumpled dollar bills. The van smelled of pine-scented air-freshener and patchouli and marijuana.