He was dead before we made it halfway there, but only from a literary perspective. You have to be careful — or at least I do — with the distinction. Once you get close to the bone. A literary death, for instance, would include any metaphorical or symbolic slant (e.g. death of idealism, death of an era); but does it mean details, too? rot? A strictly literary head lolling on a limp pillow in the back seat, lips just parted, useless eyes, no formaldehyde on the premises? — and me with my seat belt stuck under his hip bone. I don’t know if we’re still in the realm of literary, then. I don’t know where else we could be. The road was full of tire tracks, fifty stories smeared across asphalt in ink and rubber; there was no space to write. There was no space to go. I opened my window and the decay filtered out in a roar of highway wind. Miasma (or poetic sentiment? The link between signifier and rot) trailed the car like an oil spill, and marine mammals sickened, mutated, and literarily unliterally foundered in its greasy black legacy. I know almost nothing about ecology. Of course, we kept driving.
I’ve known two dead people, one dead place (with constantly widening perimeter), and roughly a thousand dead marine mammals. Mostly sea lions. They’re susceptible to literary pollution in a way dolphins and sometimes people are not. Except he was always a little literary, and always a little polluted.
Start the story again. I was waiting in the redwoods for a ghost. He was dead in the back seat, and I drove through sixteen miles of mountain roads without a seat belt because I don’t move corpses. No, that’s wrong. I was home, and he was in love with me. We were going to see the redwoods. We were going to save the world. No; I was never home, and he was never in love with me. Or he was always dead. And the world was always — what? saveable? unsaved? someone else’s. And my seat belt was never buckled.
To save you the suspense, we never crashed.
To save you the suspense, I won’t save you the suspense. Enjoy it — savor it — drink it down like pollutive language with mutagenic properties. Like a cocktail bubbling with ink, the grit of worn paper and squeal of tires and every story we arrived too late to write settling thick beneath your tongue. Sicken, mutate, and join me unbuckled in the back seat. Or don’t. Dangerous curves the next twenty-three miles; but if you shut your eyes it’s just like falling asleep on a sinking ship. Which is to say, nothing you need a seat belt for.
Buck(le) up. It’s a long way home, and if the ship sinks, the water’s full of oil, restless sequels, and sea lions with eight legs.
This story first appeared in the fifth edition of our charming, walkable, but surprisingly affordable Ampersand Review. For obvious reasons, we nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.
Nora Offen is from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and currently attends Bard College, in New York, as a fledgling creative writing major. Her work has appeared in Lux and To The Bone Literary Journal. She would love to talk to you, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.