As Gabe backed off the accelerator, the engine droned downward in fourth gear; he kicked in the clutch and braked, steering onto the wide gravel shoulder. There was no way he had been speeding. He knew the limit on this stretch, was prone to frequent checks of the speedometer. His gaze darted again for the mirror. Dust rose up behind him in great billowing clouds, blotted with shafts of colored light. He came to a stop.
He pressed the back of his head into the headrest, covered his face with his hands. Recently, he had torn through a dozen-or-so crime thrillers, now spilling from the nightstand back in his childhood bedroom. They were plagued by scenes just like this.
He shut of the engine. His first thought in the still heat was, of course, of the present contents of the trunk. They were packed densely in, heavy enough to affect not only the way the car drove, but how it sat: squatting on its haunches as if ready to pounce.
The night was quiet except for the faint patter of the patrol car, whose engine labored under the burden of air conditioning; a droning condenser fan cycled on and off several times before the officer approached. Through the mirror, Gabe picked out a faint smile, but when he turned to face the man through his open window, it was gone.
The officer was handsome, and young—younger than Gabe's boss, Eddie, who was himself only in his thirties. The man's hair was golden and his face was superficially tanned, spotted with freckles. "Headlight's out." His voice cut low through the sage-filled air.
Gabe glanced ruefully down the hood at the sloped red lid of one pop-up headlight, then the other. "Which one, sir?"
"The left one."
He made a show of scanning the ground ahead. "I think I can see it now. It's not so bright on the left side."
"Now you see it, don't you."
"I do. Can't miss it, now that you've pointed it out. Wish I'd noticed sooner."
The officer's mouth shut and became a flat line. He stepped back in appraisal of the car. "Sitting pretty low in the rear, aren't we?"
"The struts are getting weak. That's why it sags like that." He had devised the lie carefully, over months, in frightened anticipation of this night. But until now, he had been naive enough to think it might never come.
"Uh huh," said the officer. "A car's not roadworthy with bad struts."
"I know," said Gabe. "I'm looking into replacing them—"
"Where you from, kid?" The interruption had come in the form of an annoyed bark. "Where's home?"
"I'm from the markets."
The young patrolman looked doubtful. "Rent's getting high in the markets, these days."
Gabe nodded, aware that the officer—blue eyes waiting, scrutinizing, hungry for a slip—was not making simple conversation. Why hadn't he asked for Gabe's license and registration? "It's my parents' place."
"Your parents from around here?"
What do you think, Gabe wanted to ask. Instead, in a flawless, colorless voice, he said, "You mean the city? Not originally, no."
For a moment he thought the officer was going to come right out and ask. It wouldn't be the first time. Instead, the man's strong, freckled arm, sprouting from a short tan uniform sleeve, gestured up the highway. "If you go back out that way, you don't get anywhere at all. You get a hundred miles of desert. So where exactly were you coming from?"
"Just out for a drive," said Gabe. His voice fought with itself not to sound desperate. "I've got stuff going on at home. I needed to clear my thoughts."
There was a strange instant of tenderness in the eyes of the officer. He leaned in toward Gabe, as if about to share a secret, breath laden with the tang of vinegar. "You and I both know," he said in a tragedy-summoning voice, "that you're not the kind who gets off scot-free in a place like this."
"I don't understand."
"I think you do," he muttered. "There are people whose looks don't work up suspicion. They don't look like you. And they drive nice cars—cars with two working headlights. Cars that don't look loaded up with god-knows-what in the trunk."
Gabe read the man's thoughts: You're sure as hell not white, so what are you? He felt the heat of the officer's angry confusion as it festered beneath their exchange. What the fuck are you?
He knew from experience that it was much better to be either one bad thing or another. He knew this because he was neither. He knew it because he was both. A peculiar strain of frustration mounted in men, even young ones like the officer, when they could not pin someone down. Gabe presented a fast-moving target, a blur that the man in uniform could fire at, but never hit—thereby tarnishing his badge-brandishing prowess.
"I can't help it how I look," said Gabe. "But I promise I'm just out for a drive." He hated that his voice was soaked in apology. "And, look, it's just an old car. I like old cars. I swear I'll get it fixed right up."
"I like old cars, too," said the officer. His features softened. "Tell you what. You let me take a look at what you've got back there, and then I'll let you go. Don't even need to see your documents. We're going off script here—you okay with that?"
One by one, Gabe felt tiny droplets of sweat surface on his upper lip. The inside of his mouth dried up. "Sure, just need to reach down here."
He reached down. At first, his clammy finger slipped against the molded plastic of the lever. He got a better grip on it and pulled up. There was a clunk and the muted sound of a spring as the trunk lid released. It arced upward on its hinge, blocking the rear window and the warm headlights of the patrol car, casting him in darkness.
The officer, still caught waist up in a beam of light, looked down at Gabe's now blackened form one last time before trudging slowly, boots scraping the dirt, toward the rear of the car.
Maybe the young man spent only ten seconds back there, standing deathly still and peering (stupefied, Gabe imagined) into the trunk. Maybe it was an entire minute, or five. Gabe had no way of recalling; time stretched out before him then, into an expanse so vast that it lost meaning. He was on an otherworldly plane, perfectly, conceptually flat, like a video game. The ground was a lime-green turf that extended, beautifully unvaried, until the theoretical horizon, at which a disruption stood: the promise of purple mountains, and orange sky, and clouds whose undersides glowed pink. He was desperate to get to these mountains, to find peace in them. But they were just a backdrop, a figment that he could walk forever toward and never reach. Later, Gabe would look back on that night and recall spending what felt like many hours in this space.
The trunk lid came down hard. The officer returned.
"What is all that stuff?" His voice was low and magnetic.
"Bullshit. Or else you would have told me you were hauling car parts. I need you to tell me what it really is."
"I don't know," said Gabe. Walk toward the mountains. "I really don't know." He tried maintaining eye contact. He thought it might help somehow, might steer them both in the right direction. Just keep walking.
The officer regarded him in silence. He brushed his hand down the front of his pants. The highway was empty and quiet.
"Tell me," he said, "how far off the script do you want to go?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that if we stay on script here…I'll arrest you, take you in. I'll ruin everything for you. …Or we can go off script." The officer touched the front of his pants again, and his hand lingered there. "Way off script, I mean."
"Off script," said Gabe, his voice shaking. "I want to go off script." Maybe it was just his imagination, but those beautiful, inviting mountains didn't seem quite so distant now. Perhaps it was possible to reach them after all. Better keep walking and see, he thought, as the officer's gentle voice asked him to step out of the car.