about the author

Ginny Levy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. She lives in New York City, where she serves as managing editor of Lime Hawk Literary Arts Collective. Her writing has appeared online, but nowhere exciting until now.

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The Highway

Ginny Levy

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I count dead dogs on the side of the road.

“Maybe they just sleep,” the old man next to me says, licking the paper of his rolled cigarette. The bus hurtles south, and all the withered palm trees and collapsing shacks blur together gray and green.

“No, no, no.” I shake my head. They aren’t asleep. I know roadkill when I see it. I’ve counted thirty-eight since Lima.

The old man next to me boarded in Ica with a leather suitcase. We talk, sometimes. Where are you from? Where do you go? What do you do to pass the time?

His body appears exhausted, gravity gently tugging his skin as if he’s already dead. His eyes are all sockets, hollow pits of a former being. When he finishes his cigarette, he pinches a hefty wad of tobacco from his suitcase and constructs a new one.

“Where do you go, Americano?” he asked me somewhere in Peru, where the highway seemed straighter, newer maybe. A fly buzzed around our necks and thrust its body against the window.

I stared at him, uncertain, as he pulled smoke through his pallid lips.

He sighed. “Me, I go to the farm where my son died,” he said. “I had a son. Now I just have these.” He held up his cigarette. “Americano, where do you go?”

I pointed down with my thumb, whistled low. The old man nodded. We were all going down.

After a week on the road, the scenery blends. Desert is jungle and ocean and plains. My forehead pressed to the glass window knocks and knocks like the tick of a clock as the bus bounds further south. I am sick to my stomach. It must be the dirty water, but I fear it’s something worse. The sun burns hot through the bus’s roof, stirring the air inside like a thick soup.

In my hand I hold the necklace that belonged to the girl. I don’t want to think about it, but I can’t let it go. The pendant bears a face of carved silver. A saint, maybe. I turn it over between my palms and look through the glass. Shantytowns of refuse and collected cardboard span the valleys. There are muddy ditches and shredded tires. Dead dogs. But in the distance, bulldozers and cranes develop the spine of an oceanfront resort.

“I recognize this place,” the old man says. He is awake now and unlatches his suitcase to gather his papers and tobacco. “We must be close.”

I shift toward him. We haven’t spoken in a day, and I wonder if my lungs still have the strength. “What did you grow on your farm?” I ask.

“Sheep,” the old man says. “With my wife and my son.” He squints out the window. “Yes, we’re close now. We might make it by sundown if we speed up a little.”

“Not in this bus,” I say.

“Maybe in a truck,” the old man says, striking one of his matches.

“I had a truck,” I hear myself say.

“But no more? Where is your truck now, Americano?”

The silver pendant burns between my palms as I consider how much I should hide from this old man. Would he know my face if someone asked? Would anyone care at all? “It was a rental,” I say. “It’s gone.”

Cigarette smoke bends out the open window. Somewhere in front of us, one of the other passengers cries out, and I remember we are not the only ones.

The old man gathers himself upright. He latches his suitcase and places it readily between his feet. Outside the bus, the same trees and grassy hills scroll by, but now the old man regards them with a sort of familiarity. We’re close to his farm, I guess.

“What were you doing here?” he asks.

I tell him. “Surfboarding.”

The bus slows down to cross an intersection, and for a moment I am able to focus on the shapes beyond the window. Just off the road lies a mound of fur and twisted limbs. I discern a paw then look away.

“How many is that?” the old man asks, pointing past the glass.

“Ninety-five.” I rub my fingers over the edges of the pendant.

The old man breathes in deep. I can feel his eyes focused on me. The engine of the bus screams to a higher gear as we speed up again. “My son, he was a sweet boy,” the old man says. “Like his mother. He hated to make trouble. When he did something bad, he’d cry and cry and cry until I was the one who felt guilty.” He looks out the window. “I don’t remember much else. One day I left them. I packed a suitcase and just left, and that was that. Only now I hear that he died. They say he was a gambler and had much debt. He couldn’t live that way anymore.” He pauses. “They found his car driven into a ravine. It’s my fault. So I go back.”

The old man releases a loud breath and presses his cigarette stub into a napkin. On his face, the strange twisting of lips and brows gives way to what I can only perceive as a smile.

“Look at that,” the old man says. Beyond the glass, far in the distance, a blood-red sun falls below the shadowed plane of the horizon, and the old man is laughing, clapping his hands like a madman. “Now we can get some relief. Tell me, Americano, what happened to you? Go on, tell me.”

“No.” My face feels as hot as the emblazoned sky. “I can’t even breathe,” I say. The stench of all the passengers—the sweat and skin—is nauseating. I cover my mouth with my hand.

“Go on!” the old man shouts.

“No,” I say. “Please stop.”

The old man pats his knees and hums an upbeat tune.

“Stop that,” I say. “This heat is torture enough. Stop it.” I fold over, head between my knees. If I can just sleep, all will be still.

In darkness, my truck’s headlights fall upon lizards and scorpions that dart off and disappear into jungle, black as death. I don’t know what lives behind those leaves because I can’t see it, but I hear it breathing. A breeze. Windows down, I drive from the beach against the briny air, hair still damp and blowing. The dirt road is erratic, seething with its jagged rocks and crevices. The truck crawls up and slides down, vibrating out of control on the washboard. Parched from the day’s heat, I drain another can of beer then propel it, flattened and jagged now, too, into the darkness of night.

The bus slows to a stop, and the shift in momentum jolts me awake. Above, the sun blazes hot. Another day. The passengers shuffle off the bus and I follow them, tumbling onto the sandy road like I haven’t seen daylight in millennia. It’s a market, with food and bathrooms and music playing through warped speakers. Thin girls with black hair and dirty faces cling to my legs as I stagger toward the food stands. They laugh and click their tongues, trying to sell me broken wristwatches. I can see the girls’ ballooned-out bellies, not pregnant but herniated, and the yellow anemia in their eyes. They whisper in English, “Please.” I shake them off and keep my head down.

I buy spit roasted chicken from a stand and eat it under a tree, letting the meat burn my fingertips. Behind the stand, the girls sift through discarded chicken carcasses for the scraps. They are so fragile, so unaware. One blow, and they’d shatter like glass.

Back on the bus, the old man has vanished. Only flecks of tobacco linger on his empty seat. If he suspected me of anything, by now I’d know. Through the window, I watch the market shrink away until it’s no more. The sun beats on my face, hotter than yesterday, and the day before that. Motion sickness snaps between nerves in my brain, spreads down and gnaws the lining of my stomach. I feel my organs rotting from the inside out. One hundred and twenty. Stupid dogs.

Slowly, the day passes at racing speed. The others moan about the heat and the scent of decaying cells. We shout and thrust our bodies against the windows. I am so thirsty. I lick sweat from my hand and it tastes like the ocean up north where I tumbled in the swell and felt at peace with the earth.

I sleep a while then wake uneasy and drenched in sweat. I sleep again. In a dream, I call out to the old man but remember he’s gone. I am alone with my truck in the night, driving along the waterlogged road up through the jungle. Empty cans of beer litter the passenger seat and roll onto the floor. The headlights bounce off thick trunks of trees, otherworldly ferns and oversized leaves, all innocent in the night. The truck slides along the washboard, and I react quickly enough, yanking the wheel back aright. Then, a thud, solid under the tire. Even before I get out to check, I know. I vomit beside the wheel, steady my hands on the hood, and bend down to the ground.

She stares past me into the forest with fading eyes. The silver necklace swings from her bent neck like a pendulum stuck in motion. Her body is free of the tires and so light, I discover, as I pull her out of the way of the road. Rain falls upon us, muddying her dress and skin, droplets beading down her cheeks as if she’s crying.

The ignition turns on so confidently, the engine revving and windshield wipers flapping with no reservation. It’s easy to shift into drive, pull away, not look back.

I wake to the bus’s engine screeching—another pit stop. Another day? I don’t know. South, further south. Inescapable is the girl’s blank stare, as the image flashes before my eyes and burns deep in my sockets. I need to get off, no matter where. Rushing toward the bus’s exit, I push aside the others who wait in the aisle. They scream and tear at my arms. Someone yanks the necklace from my hand and I hear it fall against the floor.

Outside, I search for the market, desperate for a fountain, or even a puddle to drink from. But this stop is different. No children, no food stands, no music. The highway extends straight across flat desert, red and cracking. Above, a bright sky without a sun.

I stagger away from the bus. The scorching air is suffocating, and I try to push through it as if in water. Forward, my feet scrape the hardened ground. I stumble on something soft, fall to my knees, and reach out to feel matted fur, sticky and still warm. I look at my hands and see a glistening red as deep as that falling sun.

I wake. The bus engine groans and sputters forward, south, further down the highway. I open my eyes to the blinding light of another day and continue counting.

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