The stars are illicit, the moon garish. Raising the beer to your lips you taste its disappointment, its tepid defeat. Suffocation presses against your chest like a seatbelt. You stop at the gas station, top up your tank, but the slot for the payment is right there, part of the machine. No need to step into the building and have the girl behind the cash register smile at you, no reason to strike up a conversation with the two boys lounging by the screen door.
Even if you could get someone in this town to acknowledge your presence, what would it mean? They would only greet you in that automatic way we reserve for strangers. The casual glance, the quick nod. The person seen and not seen, like a milestone passed very fast on an open road. Compared to such indifference even hatred would be a relief. Passing through a town the local restaurants taunt you with their simplicity - their formica tabletops, their one page philosophies. The people inside laughing, content.
They, unlike you, have nowhere to get to.
Desperate, you shove a tape into the stereo, let the music whelm you. The sound of The Who singing Won't Get Fooled Again pushes your mood into a higher gear. You sit up. You feel as though you were trailing the great bulk of the music behind you, a sixteen wheel trailer, its momentum rushing you forward into the desert night. Blood accelerating in your veins, you push yourself just a little over the speed limit, experience a sense of liberation in breaking the rule, feeling dangerous, feeling free.
A little further and you see something dark on the road. Instinctively you take your foot off the accelerator, swerve wildly, realising too late that if someone were behind you it would mean an accident. But the road is empty. You breathe a sigh of relief, turn down the music a little, crack open the window to clear your head.
Half an hour later you see a motel with a sign saying Vacancy in bright neon letters, so you pull into it. The silence when you turn off the engine cuts you back to size, restores the night to its proper distance. For a minute you sit marooned, as if loneliness had flooded the world and you were afraid to open your door because it would fill the car up and drown you. Then you grab your bag from the backseat, make your way to the office to check in.
Later, lying in an anonymous bed in a too-familiar room, watching a TV program you recognise even though you've never seen it before, you think of that animal in the road. Was it worth saving, you wonder, worth taking the risk for? What would have happened if you hadn't missed it? Was it even really alive?