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In the Desert

We were all packed into a tiny car. Tracy Chapman on the tape deck. The red desert before us and behind us. The blue bowl of the sky above us and around us.

We were all sweaty inside this tiny car, and smelling of the smushed avocados that had ridden with us all the way from California, blackening in the heat. The road spilled out before us like ribbon from a spool, no end to it, our tiny car sliding along it to the end of the world.

The tape finished, and we flipped it over to hear the other side, and then again, and again, till it got dark. Still the road spooled forth without end, and the red desert, gray now in the darkness, on all sides, beginning to loom. It had a looming feeling in the dark.

We lit cigarettes, all of us in the tiny car. It felt unseemly to smoke in the heat, but in the cooling air it made sense, and the red tips of our cigarettes were only so many more stars freckling the deep cold night.

We stuck our heads out the windows to look at the stars. Even the driver, whoever was driving, stuck his head out the window and looked up without taking his foot off the gas. We looked up at the stars, a head sticking out from each window, a red-tipped cigarette sticking out from each window, yearning up at the stars.

Someone said have you ever seen anything like that? and we all said no.

Then whoever was sitting in the middle of the backseat, whoever didn’t have a window to crane out of, and so was just looking straight ahead at the road, said holy shit. And we said yeah, this shit is holy that’s for sure. And she said no, holy shit, stop the car.

The driver said what? and he didn’t stop the car but he did draw his head back in.

I saw a lady.

What? A lady?

Yeah, by the side of the road, just standing there.

We all had our heads back in the car by now. We were still hurtling along the road, the car still eating up miles by the inches visible right in front of the headlights, foot by foot. But we were all looking at each other, confused.

Stop the car, she said. There was a lady out there, just standing by the side of the road, looking at us, and I don’t think she was wearing shoes, and I think she had on just a little sundress and nothing else.

I sensed that she was fabricating some now, but I was still getting spooked. We slowed down, and finally we stopped. But the driver, it was John, didn’t pull over. He just stopped in the middle of the road and didn’t cut the engine or even put the car in neutral. It didn’t seem like a good idea to turn off the car.

We all turned to Lydia–that’s who it was in the middle of the backseat there, next to me–and someone said, OK now, tell us exactly what you saw.

You all had your heads out the windows, and I was watching the road, and I saw a lady standing by the side of the road with bare feet and not wearing much and nothing or nobody anywhere near her, and she was just standing there looking at us drive by, and I only saw her for a second but I’m telling you her face looked grim.

But we haven’t seen another car for hours! John said.

And Lydia said, exactly. So what do we do?

Nobody responded. My cigarette burned down between my fingers, and I stubbed it out on the side of the car.

Here’s something I’ve never told any of you, Lydia said. She was hugging herself, and her eyes were open wider than anyone else’s. We all had our eyes hunched against the smoke that filled up that tiny car, but her eyes were wide and she was breathing slow and hard, like she was trying to draw in all the information she could from the world, so she could process something.

I have never told this to any of you. I ran away from home when I was 16, and I was gone for a month, and then I came home. But while I was gone, I hitchhiked all over Pennsylvania and New York, and mostly it was OK, it was pretty much fine, but there was one night that someone picked me up, and he was bad news, really bad, and I had a knife in my pack, so I got myself out of that situation, and I got out of that car, and that fucker kept on driving. But then I was on the side of the road, and he had my pack, and all I had was my knife and the wallet in my shorts, and I was in the darkest woods you can imagine, on some road in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, and I stayed on the side of the road all night, just standing there, watching, with my knife in my hand and nothing else, and a few cars passed by, and I tried to look those drivers in the eye and find out if they were alright and let them know that I was alright to pick up, but you can’t see anything with the headlights bearing down on you, and I must have looked fucking crazy. So no one stopped. I’m just saying we should turn around, because who knows what that woman has been through, and who knows what will happen to her if we leave her out here tonight.

We all listened while Lydia talked, John with the car still in gear and his foot on the brake, Jake up there in front having turned down the music, me and Nancy in the back, each with a hand on one of Lydia’s knees.

OK, I said, let’s go back. Turn the car around, John. We have to go back and see if she needs help. We might be saving her life here.

Jake nodded, and so did Nancy, and John didn’t say anything, but I guess he knew he was outnumbered. He turned the car around but I can’t say he drove back the other way as fast as he’d come.

We drove for minutes, maybe four or five, and then Lydia said, stop. This is exactly where she was.

John stopped, and we all peered out into the dark, but we didn’t stick our heads out the window, not this time. We stayed inside the car. We kept all our extremities inside the car, but we peered and peered into the dark, and our pupils were huge, our eyes adjusted to the black desert night, but we didn’t see anything. We didn’t see any lady, just the sand lapping up at either side of the road, and in the distance the blacker shapes of the flat-topped mesas.

I guess she’s gone, John said.

Lydia was climbing over me, and before any of us figured out what was happening, she was out the door and wandering off into the sand, calling out to that roadside phantom.


Chloë Gladstone writes catalogue copy for a living, which is not exactly what she had in mind when she was six and decided to be a writer when she grew up, but still it’s pretty fun.

Read more stories by Chloë Gladstone


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