I don’t recall which came first: the headlights turning off or our shouting. When I think about the memory now, it’s a scorching blur. It’s the ember of a cigarette floating outside of a car window. Four sixteen-year-old kids stuffed into a Mazda. One drunk driver. Loud music. A long road that stretches out in front of us, and the engine’s roar as the speedometer surges.
Somewhere along that long stretch of Berry Lake Road in Port Orchard, the drunk driver, Aaron, my supposed friend, flicks off his headlights with a smug smirk. It’s past midnight, dark and moonless outside, and when those beams disappear from the two-lane road in front of us, it feels as though the very last light in the world has been smothered.
I shout—I think that we all shout—for him to turn the lights back on; maybe we’d been shouting all along. He complies—but only to do it again, flicking the switch back and forth, on and off, chuckling to himself at the game he is playing as he pushes harder on the gas, forcing the pedal more and more toward the floor.
Aaron had been playing games like this all night. He’d bounced quarters and balls into plastic cups. He’d hung upside down above a sweaty keg while someone pumped lukewarm beer up his throat. We all drank, the four of us, but Aaron drunk more than everyone who was at the party, and he insisted on driving us home anyway. We could’ve said no. But Aaron was the only one with a license, and nobody else who had one at the party was in any better shape than he was. Many of them shouted at us to turn up our stereo as we lurched out of the driveway and into the dark, their silhouettes glowing in the dim front porch light as we backed out onto the road.
Aaron ashes his cigarette out his window. He turns up the stereo until all we can hear is the stereo, until our shouting at him is just another harmony joining the flamboyant chorus of Don’t Stop Believin’.
We begin ascending a hill, the car’s nose pitching upward like a plane before climbing into the air. I know this hill well. Soon, we will come to a T where Berry Lake meets with Clifton Road, and after a few more minutes, we’ll reach my neighborhood. But the more that the car climbs, the more I think that I’ll never go home again. Instead, this car will be the first automobile to fly without wings, and the four of us will be something close to celebrities, our glowing faces adorning newspapers and appearing in the clouds when our parents wander outside and stare at the sky.
Their shadows searching in the night.
The headlights flick on one more time, and all I see is red—the night is no longer black. The night, this car, are the same blistered sear, the same thrashing heart. A crimson death rattle. A cardinal mistake. A developing photograph.
The headlights bounce off the red sign.
The headlights turn off for the last time.
The brakes lock and the tires screaming.
The road is an abyss that we drift across.
Our shouting like static in a microphone.
Stephen Haines is an MFA graduate of Western Washington University and the former managing editor of Bellingham Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at Epoch Press, Rathalla Review, Sidereal, Olit, Adelaide, Creative Colloquy, and Bright Flash.