She’d thought the stars would have been brighter. Funny how memory played tricks on you. Her mind had taken the clear, seamless nights you only saw on campsites, with their vast glittering skies, and transposed those above the squat buildings, unlit streets, and distant city lights. She hadn’t been here in a while.
Aero rummaged through her handbag, withdrew an apple and bit into it, feeling the hum of Donovan’s sedan beneath her. Park-n-flys blurred past, and the lights of the airport fell away behind them.
“New car?” Aero asked.
Donovan nodded, running his thumb down the steering wheel. “’08. I got her used. Nice ride, though, isn’t it?”
“And you’re keeping it clean.” There weren’t half so many stains across the seats as in his old car, an SUV that seemed to be undergoing repairs more often than not. Soda cans clustered in the footspace of the passenger’s side, but she didn’t mind.
Donovan laughed, turning through an intersection that would have fit two or three apartments in the city she’d left. The streets back there were narrow, the houses tall and clustered, and the streetlights burned too bright for Aero to make out any stars.
“Thanks for coming out here.”
“It’s still okay if I stay?”
Donovan rolled his eyes, cracking a smile. “How many times have you asked that?”
She took a bite of apple and shook her head. “I don’t want to impose, is all.”
They drove past looming, anonymous hotels, and fast food restaurants with their lit signs blazing. The streetlights were bleak and yellow, until Donovan turned onto a side street, and they weren’t there at all. The broken yellow line shined under his headlights, slipping past.
There was too much space here, between the houses, one clump of civilization to the next. Especially in the dark, when you couldn’t see the next gas station up ahead, just a blur of distant lights. Aero shifted, her boots rustling the soda cans.
“You want to get something to eat?”
“Aren’t you tired?” Donovan said.
“Not really.” She wasn’t used to so much space around her. Part of her wanted to reach his apartment, messy and cramped, and to languish on the sofa, comfortably closed in. But another part was itching, aching for the openness, the way it beckoned.
All their usual places were closed this late, so Donovan navigated to an all-night Denny’s surrounded by a big, empty parking lot. The only other cars were likely the employees’.
“I’ve got it,” Aero insisted. “Consider it rent. Prices are so much lower here anyway.”
This was the kind of place that seemed to sit between anywhere and everywhere, in among the urban sprawl and at the waysides of single-lane highways.
Aero finished her apple hastily before the waiter approached, eating through the core. She imagined she could feel the cyanide disperse within her stomach, seep through into her cells. Maybe in a dozen years or so she’d die peacefully and when they cut her open, they would find the built-up traces and think she had been poisoned.
Donovan ordered some sort of cheesy omelette, and Aero realized as she was speaking that she wasn’t really hungry. She asked for blueberry pancakes boxed to go.
“I was gonna feed you breakfast, you know,” Donovan said.
“Don’t worry, I’ll save ‘em for lunch. You can have some too.”
She snorted. “Yep. How’s that hippie street?”
“Blooming. Especially now that they don’t kick us out of bars.”
“I’ve been back since I was twenty-one, Don.”
“Yeah, but you never went out.”
“Did you really?” he chuckled.
Aero drank her coffee. She had been drawn away from the open space, then, cooped up against the heat. It boxed her in the way that tall buildings did, and that had felt too comfortable to fight.
When their food arrived, Donovan said, “It’s not a bad night. Want to go outside?”
The air was warm despite the calendar saying it was winter. Aero crossed her legs atop Donovan’s trunk, cradling a ceramic mug she’d have to bring inside, while Donovan cut a piece of his omelette and raised it high, the gooey cheese stretching between his fork and plate.
“You keep looking up.”
“I think I’m expecting more stars.”
“Global warming hits all of us.”
A woman walked out the door, untying her red apron. She ducked into one of the few cars and backed out in a rush. Donovan and Aero watched her red headlights speed away.
In the city, it had seemed that no matter how many trains you took, or how far you walked, you couldn’t escape the buildings rising up on either side. But here she could see the dirt at the edge of the parking lot, and dead grass crowding a vacant lot across the street; the houses weren’t enough to keep away the desert. It made her want to get into Donovan’s car and drive past all the lights, past the gridlike streets of the city and the empty, winding ones beyond, until it was just her and him and the highway and the stars.
“How long do you think you’ll be staying?” Donovan asked.
“On your sofa? Not long.”
“I meant here.”
“I don’t know.” She looked up. The sky was still dusty, no hint of dawn. “Maybe for a while.”