Ed Baldwin squirmed uncomfortably in the low-slung bucket of the passenger seat. The rough denim of his jeans rustled softly against the dark gray leather. He regretted drinking the rest of his ice tea at the restaurant, especially with the desolate distances they were driving, but he hated to leave anything to waste. He hadn’t asked for the last two refills so technically he shouldn’t have felt compelled to finish the glass, but their waitress had been friendly and despite his twenty-eight years he couldn’t escape his mother’s voice in his head cautioning him not to appear rude.
“I told you.” If the word smug came with an illustration in the world’s dictionary, on the page would be the strong profile of the man sitting in the driver’s seat beside him, his features barely visible in soft glow from the dashboard.
“I’m not listening,” Ed replied. Ignoring the way his waistband pinched his belly, he leaned forward and increased the volume on the CD player. With no gym in his immediate future, he shouldn’t have eaten that bacon cheeseburger. He turned his face to stare out the passenger window at the surrounding blackness. He knew he was irrational, but any thoughts he had about asking Joe to pull over so he could relieve the building pressure were forgotten as soon as he recognized the knowing tone in Joe’s voice. “I’m ignoring you.”
Joe reached toward the dashboard and fumbled for the volume control in turn, Maynard James Keenan fading into the background with his action. “Ignore me all you want, you know I’m right. We go through this every time. Why do you care so much about what people think?”
Rain beat steadily against the windshield of the car, the wipers moving in a predictable counter rhythm as they worked to clear the glass. The road shone wetly, dark silk illuminated by the headlights of their vehicle, the only sign of life on the tiny, two-lane path cutting through the swath of forest.
Chicago and its familiar city streets were memories now. Having reached Michigan’s Upper Peninsula the land of expressways and neon fast food plazas were many miles behind. Ed frowned at his reflection, cast on the window by the low light of interior gauges; his sandy hair had frizzed from the summer humidity, and despite the close cut, wanted to curl into an unmanageable clump regardless of his overuse of product.
He refused to dwell on the double meaning behind Joe’s words and concentrated instead on his eyes as they appeared and disappeared in the changing patterns cast by the lights from the expensive stereo system’s graphic equalizer. The atmosphere outside the vehicle appeared heavy and oppressive but was still lighter than the tension filling the tiny space between them.
“Are we really going to fight about this?” Ed rubbed his forehead against his smeary image in the cool glass and closed his eyes. “Any reason we need to discuss things right now?”
“Who’s fighting?” Joe asked, his voice dropping to the overly calm tone Ed understood meant he was holding back. “I’m just making conversation. You’re the one all prickly and weird ever since we started this trip.”
“You’re not helping, you know?” Ed knew he was over-reacting, but he couldn’t stop himself. After a day and a half of travel, his moodiness kept increasing the closer they got to their destination. Besides, he hated when Joe refused to fight back and simply became more rational. Despite Joe’s passionate nature he managed to stay annoyingly even-tempered no matter how Ed tried to provoke him. “And don’t use that tone of voice with me.”
As expected, Joe ignored his sharp reply and plowed on. “I’m trying to understand what’s going on inside your head. This is a classic example of the way you act sometimes. I’m no mind reader, you know. All you have to do is ask for something and I’ll do it, but you can’t even make yourself ask me to pull over when you’ve had too much ice tea. Why is everything with you so hard?”
Ed stared at the small group of billboards off the side of the road as they drove past and squirmed again as the constant patter of rain continued to work its torture. The faded signs were briefly illuminated; a motel, an insurance company, a gas station claiming the cleanest restrooms of something he couldn’t read, and yet another antique store begging them to come visit. They must be close to one of the small, rural communities built up around the two-lane road and then forgotten once the interstates had been expanded.
He knew Joe was waiting for a response, but everything was stuck inside his head, and even when he did manage to say something things came out different from what he intended. He couldn’t imagine trying to explain the Joe the contradictory mishmash that had been his upbringing, the reasons he struggled to open up. God, he wished Joe could read minds. Everything would be a lot easier.
“You used to appreciate that when we first started dating.” Ed regretted his defensive attempt at deflection as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but too late to take them back.
“Fine. Make a joke.” Ed bit his lower lip as Joe drummed his long fingers on the steering wheel and let a few miles pass by in silence. “I’m too tired for this. We’re stopping for the night.”
“Here?” Ed glanced up and realized they had driven out of the darkness. From the scattered lighting, he guessed they had entered the outskirts of a small community. “You’re kidding me, right?”
In answer, Joe pulled over into a parking lot and turned the key to off. Ed listened to the tick of the cooling engine and gazed at the flash of neon announcing a vacancy at the Easy R st M tel. Ed puzzled out the name despite the missing letters and protested as soon as he took a glimpse past the sign. “No way. We can’t stay here. This place is a dump.”
Ed watched as Joe slammed the car door behind him, and ran through the rain toward the office entrance marked with a red arrow. “We’re the only car, doesn’t that tell you anything?” he yelled at Joe’s retreating back.
The tall, outdoor fixture at the end of the parking lot offered a backdrop of yellowed glare, illuminating the individual drops of rain. Ed lowered his window and let the cooler air wash over him, inhaling the mixed aromas of car exhaust and wet earth. Viewed in the dim light, the motel resembled a location used in a low-budget horror movie.