They’d been in the car for hours. Carly woke to the smell of eggs, and her tummy rumbled. She’d been dozing off and on in the back seat, under her favorite Dora blanket because the air conditioning made the car so cold. She rubbed her eyes, calling out.
“Oh, sweetie…you’re awake. Are you hungry?”
“Do you want some of this?”
Mom gestured to the Tupperware container on the console between the front seats. Hard boiled eggs and cold fried chicken. Every long road trip, they were the staples. And every long road trip, Carly’s answer was the same.
Mom sighed. “I didn’t think so,” she said. Then she reached between her legs on the floor and pulled out a small, hot pink lunch bag. “There’s a peanut butter sandwich in here for you. Here, take it.”
Carly leaned forward to grab it, her eyes taking in the dry, flat land and endless brush on the sides of the road. That’s when she saw it.
“Dad! Watch out!!!”
The car swerved slightly as Dad yelled out, then he pulled back into the lane as he and Mom shouted the same question.
“Why did you do that!”
“I see water on the road, be careful!”
They chuckled, and Dad reached back to pat her leg.
“It’s okay, sport. It’s just a mirage.”
“A mirage. It’s when you see something that really isn’t there. The road is so hot, the air kind of shimmers, and that makes it look like water. See how we never seem to reach it? How it’s always just a bit further away? That’s because it’s not real.”
Carly stuck her lip out mutinously. “It looks like water.”
Mom nodded in agreement. “It does. It really does. But Daddy’s right. We never seem to reach it, no matter how far we drive. So it must not be real.”
Carly stretched, turning her head to look out the window. She stretched again, trying to get comfortable. It didn’t work.
“When are we gonna be there?”
“Oh, not for a while yet. Probably not till dinner time.”
“Eat your lunch, honey,” Mom said. “It’ll make the time pass faster.”
Carly unzipped the lunch bag, pulling out the Cheetos first and wondering if she could eat them before the sandwich without Mom or Dad noticing. Probably she could. She opened the ziploc bag and crammed a few in her mouth quickly, wiping the orange residue off her fingers with the edge of the blanket, then quickly running the blanket across her mouth just in case. She swallowed, realizing suddenly how thirsty she was.
“Mom? Can I have a soda?”
“I’d rather you drink your juice, honey.”
“Please? We’re on va-ca-tion.” She stretched the word, trying to give it more weight.
“Oh, I suppose. They’re in the cooler in the back, though. You’ll have to wait till we stop.”
“I can climb over real quick. It’ll only take a second.”
Mom looked at Dad for a moment, and he nodded. “OK,” she said, “but make it fast.”
Carly unlocked the belt on her booster seat, throwing a leg over the seat back. She slid to the other side, landing awkwardly.
“The cooler is right next to the big red bag,” said Mom.
“I see it, but I can’t get the lid off. There’s something heavy on it.”
“Ugh – the camp stove.” Dad said. “I forgot I put it on there.”
Mom unclicked her seatbelt, twisting in her seat to try to climb over.
“Put it back in that far corner,” said Dad, also twisting around to look. “Back by the bike pump. I think we have some room over the–”
It was a long time later, she thought. Or maybe not. Sometimes, when she was watching cartoons in the morning, she’d close her eyes and dream a big, long, dream and when she woke up expecting it to be hours later, the cartoon hadn’t even ended yet. When you sleep, time is different.
Hot. She was really hot. Her arm burned. She opened her eyes, and realized she was in the dirt near the road, and her mouth tasted bad.
Oh no! She thought. I fell out of the car. Did they know she was gone? Did they leave her behind? She tried to turn her head, but her neck hurt and she cried out. She pushed herself up on one elbow and managed to turn her body a bit. She couldn’t see the car, but there was a big mark in the road and in the dirt and a bunch of bushes at the end of the mark. She turned a bit more, and then she saw Mom.
“Mom! Mom!” Mom didn’t call back, but she was probably sleeping now, in the road. She fell out too, and maybe her dream was lasting longer.
Hot. Carly was burning. Her arm, where it was touched the edge of the road, was red and bloody from the burning heat of the asphalt. She whimpered as she looked at it, then cried out loudly when she tried to push herself up to her feet. Her head hurt so bad, her neck felt like a bee had stung it again and again. Her foot didn’t work, and it looked like it was pointing the wrong way.
“Dad! Daddy! Dad!” Nothing. “Mom! MOM!”
Her Mom still didn’t move. She was hurting so much, and so hot. The sun was burning. The road was burning. She never got her soda and she was so thirsty still. She got up on her knees and crawled slowly, agonizingly toward Mom. She’d be okay if she could get to Mom.
Then she saw it. The water! There it was, on the road. She was so thirsty. Even if she couldn’t drink it, she could lay down in it, right? Like when Mom blew up that small inflatable pool on the first hot day of summer. It was a baby pool, and she was too big for it now, but it felt good to lay down or sit in.
She was getting closer, and the water wasn’t moving away.
They were wrong, she thought. You can reach it. Maybe you just have to be on the road.
Closer. A little closer.
She could see the water, dark against the asphalt, pooling and liquid and waiting for her. Maybe if she put her lips in it, she could even drink. It might not be cold – it was too hot for it to be cold, probably. But it was wet.
“Mom, I’m coming. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.” She said it over and over, a litany as she pulled herself, panting, sweating, stopping to rest when she got too dizzy or pulled her foot or her neck wrong and it hurt to much to go for a few minutes.
The water didn’t retreat. It was still there, and she was getting closer. Maybe Mom would feel better if she could splash it on her face. They do that in movies. They throw water on your face and you wake up.
With one last effort, shaking and dizzy and sick, she pulled herself to the water’s edge, collapsing, reaching her hand out to grasp her mother’s arm. The water was warm, just as she thought.
“Mom,” she panted. “Roll over. Roll over.”
Her mother’s head was right at the water’s edge, as well. It even looked like her head was in it. The water flowed out from where her head was in a big circle. If Mom just rolled over, she could cool off.
Carly closed her eyes, turned her face into the wetness, and slept.