Red Connor’s headlights flashed on the large blue sign up ahead to the right of the Interstate. The sign sparkled in the beam of light, glowed really, as he sped toward it. The blue became deeper and the words, despite being blurred by his tears, became clearer. The cartoon image of the sun with exaggerated red and yellow rays shooting from the horizon sat below the words “Leaving Arizona.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and breathed an unwarranted sigh of relief. He watched the sign welcoming him to New Mexico come and go. No matter how far and how fast he traveled from Phoenix, he couldn’t escape. He knew this, but he kept his foot pressed on the gas pedal and his eyes focused on the largely vacant road ahead of him.
The hum of the car’s engine surrounded him, soothed his frayed nerves. He sunk back into the supple leather seat of the luxury sports car. He remembered when he bought the car and how it made him feel. He loved the way the seat wrapped around him and kept him snugly in position when he zipped around sharp turns. The steering felt firm like he was gripping the road with his own two feet. The low profile of the car gave him confidence that he could handle any turn, and he did. He’d spent many weekends just driving through the desolate canyon roads of northern Arizona testing the limits of his driving skills. How else could he stamp out the anger that swelled inside him.
For a moment, only the glow of the dashboard provided him any light inside the car. Either side of the freeway was vacant as the darkness swallowed him. He felt safe in that moment as if he hid behind a giant cloak and no one knew he was there. That’s the way it’d have to be from now on. He had no one but himself to blame for what he’d done.
In the miles-long, dark space behind him, two needlepoint lights pierced the night sky and Red held his breath. He maintained his speed right at the speed limit – he couldn’t draw any unnecessary attention to himself – and gripped the thick steering wheel a little harder as the two eyes grew brighter. The car behind him traveled at a very high speed, much more so than normal on this long stretch of isolated road in western New Mexico. Red peered into his rear view mirror trying to discern the type of vehicle approaching him. Was it a police car? He couldn’t tell.
The car came upon him quickly. It’s bright lights flooded his car almost blinding him. He swallowed hard and blinked away the light before the approaching car jerked into the left lane and sped past him. Red tried not to look, but he couldn’t help but notice the clunky old Dodge Charger as it gunned by him. He couldn’t make out the driver in the dim light, but he doubted that the driver noticed him or his car. If he had, he would have slowed down or given some indication that he had seen something out of the ordinary.
The Charger’s taillights disappeared into the darkness like two evil eyes descending into a cauldron and Red felt alone again, relieved, but the red lights brought a memory to him, something deep in the recesses of his mind. His Uncle Carl owned a Charger when Red was a boy. He’d seen those same taillights disappear in the darkness before. A feeling of loneliness overwhelmed him. Shouting, crying, and the sound of flesh being slapped and punched flitted through his foggy, repressed memories. He pushed the sounds out of his mind and refocused his eyes on the road ahead, but his heart still raced like the eight-year-old version of himself threatened to burst out of his chest.
His headlights struck a bright, green sign along the side of the road that announced that Gallup, New Mexico was only two miles ahead. He felt a need to stop to get some coffee and maybe something to eat, but he knew that he couldn’t. Not now. He watched as the exit came into view and then fell by the wayside. He’d have to stop at some point or he’d get stopped against his will. Either option filled him with dread.
His phone buzzed in the console between his seats. The screen momentarily brightened his dark car as the notification floated on his lock screen. He squinted at the screen and read the text from his wife. “Where are you?” The screen went dark. Marie. What would he say to her? He blinked slowly and took a deep breath. Nothing would make this easy. He decided to ignore her text.
More traffic appeared on the road ahead of him and in the other direction. Headlights on the opposite side of the freeway washed across his car and lit his face. He glanced into his rear view mirror and caught sight of his bruised right cheek and the cut that run the length of his right eyebrow. He winced as if the sight of his wound renewed the pain, but the truth was that the pain had settled into a dull throb. He didn’t really feel it anymore. He didn’t feel anything. The adrenaline still gushed through his veins.
A mile or two east of Gallup, darkness once again shrouded him. He felt safe at that moment as if no one would ever find him. His phone lit up again with a text from his wife, each text becoming more and more frantic. He couldn’t put off texting her back or calling her. She deserved to know what had happened. She deserved a lot, certainly more than him. He didn’t know what to say to her. Nothing he said would make her understand or make the situation any better.
In a moment of clarity, Red knew he had to come clean. He had to tell the truth. There was no escaping it. He grabbed his phone from the console and pressed the button for his home screen. His poked the telephone icon and slid his thumb down to a familiar number before he held the phone to his ear.
After three rings, his mother answered, “Hello.”
She sounded groggy as if he had woken her from a deep sleep. He looked at the clock above the touchscreen in his car. It was only 8:30 PM in Texas. He swallowed hard suddenly unable to speak. Thoughts and memories raced through his mind in a jumble of confusion that only made him feel disoriented, discombobulated. The wound on his face suddenly radiated pain and a burning sensation sparked through his chest. He gasped for air inaudibly and heaved.
“Hello?” his mother said again. “Who is this?”
“Red? What’s wrong?”
His car veered to the edge of the road and his tires struck the rumble strip along the white line. He pulled the steering wheel to his left and corrected his path. He still couldn’t breathe or speak. He felt outside of himself as if he were looking down from above the car watching himself struggle to say something to his mother.
Finally, words formed on his tongue, “I…killed him. I killed Dad.”
He heard her breath hitch on the other end of the line like something had jumped out from behind her couch and scared her. “Red, please tell me this is not true. Please.”
A tear escaped the corner of his eye and trickled down his cheek. He sucked in a long breath trying to maintain his composure. The air in the car felt limited, stale. He could smell the blood on him, the residue of the gunshot.
“I couldn’t take it anymore, Mom. Not after all of the things he did to you – to us. I did it for you.”
“Red…I didn’t want that…”
He could hear her begin sobbing and he began to cry as well. He’d always reacted that way when his mother cried. He’d seen her cry so much throughout his life that he thought he’d be immune to it by now, but instead, her sadness overwhelmed him.
“What about the kids? Marie?”
“I don’t know…”
Her breathing and sobs rattled in his ear. She caught her breath. “Where are you now?”
“I’m just outside Albuquerque. I’m on my way to your house.”
She fell silent on the other end of the line. Red imagined that she had a tissue in her hand swiping away the tears that wouldn’t stop.
“Okay…I’ll be here…” Her sobs overwhelmed her again.
“It’ll be okay.” Red tried to assure her, but he knew his words were hollow, improbable. He waited for her to respond.
“Just get here…I love you, Red.”
“I love you, Mom.”
He punched the red icon on his screen and dropped the phone back in the console. The road ahead of him blurred in his tears. He wiped his face again with the back of his hand and pressed the gas pedal a little harder. His car sped up and cut through the darkness with a renewed urgency. He didn’t have much time left before the cops realized where he was or figured out where he was headed.
A renewed determination filled him as his tears dried on his cheeks. He didn’t regret what he’d done. He should have done it years ago. That much he knew, no matter the consequences.