Miranda figured she had twelve hours until her world imploded.
She crept along, on her way home from work, the car ahead moving at a snail’s pace on the rain-slicked road. The ever-earlier darkness strained her fatigued eyes. She slipped by bus stops and gas stations and houses she’d passed a thousand times before while her mind darted into corners, seeking a solution on how to return the fifty thousand dollars she’d borrowed from work. It had seemed so simple: use the unauthorized check to stave off imminent foreclosure on home equity loans, then quietly put the money back.
Sweat pricked her hairline as she negotiated a hairpin bend in the two-lane road. Holiday lights in her periphery triggered a reminder of the costume waiting to be assembled for her daughter’s upcoming school play. She should have taken care of the costume last week instead of spending her evenings hunting the daily flash deals at MyHabit. She tamped down the self-reproach and concentrated, instead, on the crisis at hand, willing a resolution to emerge from the surrounding shadows. There had to be a way to fix this. Twinkling reindeer lights pulled at her, promising distraction, and before she could muster a defense, her mind escaped into the bright lights of the high-end department stores and their endless offerings. Silk pajamas, cashmere sweaters, 1000-thread-count bedding: textiles for every mood, every occasion. Last month’s lowest-prices-of-the-season shopping frenzy had been delicious. She’d emptied her daughter’s college account to fund the excursion, and the acknowledgement dimmed her momentary joy.
Miranda refocused on the road, her fingers locked around the steering wheel. She drove for several miles this way—past the Dollar Store, past the red-bricked bank that quietly denied her request for a personal loan last week—while mentally searching for a miracle. She dismissed the drained emergency-home-repair account, the nine maxed out credit cards, and paused at the fake surgery option, but quickly rejected it. How many bone spur removals, frozen shoulder repairs, and wisdom teeth extractions could she expect her mother to buy? With her shoulders bunched at her ears, she accelerated through the intersection at Virginia Street and reiterated her mantra: calm and focused gets the job done.
She was out of time. Tomorrow was a new month; the books would be reconciled, the missing money discovered. A finger of fear tapped on her spine. She drew a breath, deep and deeper still. The radio was on low but a snippet of melody caught her attention and, just like that, she was in a canoe with her husband. She breathed in the scene: sun warming her face, their shared laughter as they splashed each other with water, a picnic of grapes and cheese waiting on the beach. Looming red disks pierced the memory, and she hit the brakes, the car thudding to a stop. As her adrenalin slowed, irony bloomed. Soliciting her husband’s help wasn’t an option; the days of sun-drenched tenderness were long gone. In its place echoed his supplications to corral her mounds of in-progress cross-stitch projects, to purge her piles of clothes and books.
She reached across to the passenger seat and dug blindly through her purse, searching for chapstick. Her attempts were clumsy and ineffective, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the road for more than a few seconds at a time. She gave up, frustrated, and shoved the bag onto the floor, cursing the chapstick, the traffic, the gigantic mess before her. What she needed was a time out, like those she administered to her kids when they misbehaved. Hers would be welcomed, though, used to stop time so she could think. A little breathing room. If she could talk to someone, her boss, her boss’s boss, explain how she got here. She’d tell them about the itch for something new because it was the perfect color or precise shape, how the craving grew until it overtook her, the insistence pressing pressing, the anxiety that swelled to atomic proportions, the sweet release of holding the purchase in her hand.
Traffic moved again and Miranda pressed lightly on the accelerator. The distance between her and the car ahead lengthened as she drove, unseeing. A soundtrack looped in her head, her mother’s voice mixed with her husband’s: Can you follow through, please? Where’s your head? Why is everything always a mess? At Kentucky Street, she blinked and blew out a breath. She would prove herself worthy; she would fix this disaster, make a payment plan, get things back on track. She squared her shoulders, then checked the mirrors. The tail lights from passing cars left faint streaks along the wet pavement and the effect pulled her back to the nights when she’d scoured the cityscape learning nighttime photography. Staking out a vantage point on the I94 overpass, calculating moonrise over downtown skylines, light painting the Old Soldier statues marching through Monument Square. Life seemed simpler then. If she had her gear with her, she could leave this behind and escape into the world of long exposures.
As she approached Highway C, she switched lanes and got into line. Going northbound regularly required a long wait. She thought of her granddad Oscar—Oscar the grouch, they called him. He hadn’t always been surly. She remembered the times when she was young, back before every inch of space in his house became choked with stuff, they’d walked to A&W, the sun hot overhead and his stride slowed to match hers, how they’d sat on picnic tables and shared a root beer float.
The dash-embedded clock glowed orange-red against the darkened interior, and as the minutes crept onward, panic cinctured Miranda’s belly. She knew there was a solution, there always was. She needed only to relax and let it come. Flashes of her scheduled life intruded—her son’s soccer game on Saturday, the dinner party at her sister’s house afterward—but she refused them with a decisive shake of her head. She had to right this before her kids found out. She cracked the window, swallowed against the rising bile, and conjured up soothing images: skipping rocks across the lake, mashed potatoes and cornbread, the perfect sunrise photo. Would sunrise hold the answer? In those moments right before daybreak, when the world was asleep and the day’s congestion still at bay, everything was possible.
When her turn came, Miranda merged onto the highway with a quick glance in the rearview mirror to confirm she’d allowed enough room. She half expected to find flashing red lights chasing her down. Ahead, the sea of oncoming headlights sent pinpricks to the backs of her eyes. She traveled several blocks, then maneuvered into the median’s left-turn lane while her brain served up inventory for Saturday’s assigned dessert: chocolate chips, tapioca pudding, graham cracker crust, gummy bears.
She sat, warm and dry in a cocoon, while cars raced by in both directions. The road ahead curved upward in a gentle slope. Think, she demanded. She heard the honking horn as the metal bars of a jail cell clanking shut. When the sound morphed into an insistent bleating, she startled and refocused. With a mumbled apology at the rearview, she inched forward.
Eleven hours and counting. The finger tapping Miranda’s spine became a fist, pummeling her. Desperation clogged her throat and dampened her armpits, and when a primal urge to turn the car around and head to the mall gripped her, she nearly laughed out loud. Wouldn’t a new pair of Bandolino heels be the perfect answer? Even better: a pair in prison orange. She looked dully at the unbroken path of approaching cars, then flicked her eyes at the night sky, and for the briefest of seconds, she searched for a focal point, something to highlight the frame of stars.
She sat, her spine rigid, her breaths shallow as the minutes ticked by, relentless. How had she allowed this to happen? She swiped her bangs out of her eyes, then slammed the heel of her hand against the steering wheel. She expected her head to blow any minute, like a teakettle. The wave of oncoming cars appeared endless. Maybe, she thought, she should have listened when her husband suggested therapy.
Lulled by exhaustion and the hum of passing cars, she sank into a void, one where the weight on her shoulders vanished and her mind unfurled. She’d been here before; it was welcoming, comforting. She eyed the continuous lines of bright lights and thought: what if?
She eased her foot from the brake to the gas pedal and marveled at how something so powerful could feel so invisible beneath her shoe. She hovered there, between the known and the unknown. Images swirled like glossy snapshots: her daughter’s ribboned braids, heaps of past-due notices, family dinners, QVC delivery boxes, concrete cells. They all coalesced, building, building, and in that moment of white-hot pressure an understanding surfaced. She looked over her shoulder, seized an opening, and shot back out into the northbound traffic.
At Howell Avenue she turned east. The road was narrow and sparsely lit, and the space between houses gradually grew until there was nothing but empty fields on either side. When the entrance to the rock quarry materialized, she slowed and rolled onto the gravel drive. A half mile later, Miranda veered to the right, past giant bulldozers and mute dump trucks, following the curve of the canyon until she could drive no more. Swinging out, she angled the car, nose first, toward the chasm. A flick of a button lowered all the windows, and the silence, expectant and weighty, washed over her.
Miranda extinguished both interior and exterior lights and drank in the vast night sky, reveling in the fixed points of light, pure and bright, like her children. The view intoxicated her. The pinpoints seemed to expand, a deliberate odyssey, drawing her in. She wished for her camera in order to capture the ethereal beauty, wished she could showcase how the fixed points weren’t fixed at all, rather, they blazed a trail home.
She sat this way, in the glow, for several beats while the stillness pulsed in her ears. She inhaled, a deep-through-the-belly intake, then placed her palm on the gear shaft. Acceptance trickled through her, warm, certain, and she closed her eyes. She imagined the thrill of the stars rushing toward her, enveloping her, imagined their effulgent tips bending and smearing as she dragged her fingers through them, the silky sky a panorama of bleeding white.
Mitzi McMahon lives in Wisconsin, near Lake Michigan, where she writes fiction and chases the light, camera in hand. Her fiction has appeared in over two dozen publications, including The Bitter Oleander, The Summerset Review, The Santa Fe Literary Review, and The Evansville Review. Her photographic work has appeared or is forthcoming in Marathon Literary Review and Apeiron Review. She holds a BA in Business.