[I wrote this for my writing class at SMU a few years ago, so this isn’t new content.  It’s also not my usual kind of blog post:  it’s thinly veiled fiction, and it’s very long.  We’ll be back to our usual programming next week when I’ve had some time to sort through the things that I have swirling in my head and get them written.  Thanks for your patience.]

“That had better be a rock in my tire and not a nail,” said Stacy.

Veronica reached the front driver’s tire first.  “Good eye.  That’s a nail.”  Veronica saw the fury overtake Stacy’s lean frame and flung her own eyesight back at the tire to avoid eye contact.  Twenty-four hours of biting tongues and forcing sisterly cheer, and their truce was undone by a 25-cent piece of metal.  The fight clock started its countdown.

Veronica drove while Stacy searched for a Discount Tire on her phone, muttering indictments against Arkansas for strewing nails on the road, the car for being old, and the heat for making her hair stick to her neck.  Her conversation with customer service revealed that the nearest location was Nashville and that it would be foolhardy to try to get there. Another round of muttering and searching found a Wal-Mart.  Veronica had questions about Stacy’s obsession with Discount Tire, and why she picked Wal-Mart, but before she opened her mouth, she remembered the countdown clock and stopped.  The woman who answered at Wal-Mart helped with a street name and not much else.  Stacy hung up, cursed Memphis, and found the way on Google Maps.

When they pulled off the highway, they passed a Goodyear and a Firestone, and Veronica couldn’t resist.  “Why Discount and Wal-Mart?  Why not one of those tire places?”

“Discount gives a roadside guarantee, and Wal-Mart is cheap.  I don’t waste money like you do.”  The countdown clock doubled its speed.  Veronica beat back the urge to snarl that spending and wasting were different and laughed instead.  The clock slowed.

Veronica pulled into the Wal-Mart parking lot, slaloming around the hordes to find the entrance to the tire store.  Stacy shooed Veronica away. “I’ll handle this,” she said and headed to the clerk.  Veronica slumped on a plastic chair, dragged her hair into a damp pony tail, and reminded herself why she was there.  They were moving Stacy to medical school in the mountains that formed the border of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.  She crammed the Sentra with half of her stuff; she shipped the other half to her apartment from New York City.  If their parents weren’t overseas, if the Sentra weren’t 10-years old, and if Harrogate, TN weren’t a 20-hour drive from Plano, TX, Veronica would have been relishing the peace of having the house to herself and avoiding the clock.  But who sends her little sister into the unknown by herself, even if the sister was over 30?  The family fretted with too much imagination, not the kind that led to the creative arts, the kind that came up with the infinite ways a woman traveling alone could die.

The heat wasn’t helping.  That morning, Veronica and Stacy fled Dallas, baking at 100 or higher for weeks.  The forecast for their route claimed that as they drove east, the temperatures would drop into the 90s, even as far as the 80s when they reached Harrogate.  They swaggered about the facts and forgot to check the context.  Memphis ended up being the first place on the route where they spent more than the time it took to put gas in the car and use the facilities.  They planned to stop for lunch at the Cracker Barrel with the fewest cars in Little Rock, but Google Maps and the GPS, unaware of the plan, directed them to a route that bypassed all the Cracker Barrels.  Doubling back was not an option.  Stacy didn’t love Cracker Barrel like Veronica did, but she refused to eat at any of the other restaurants along the highway, and so they powered through to Memphis.  The second the car doors slammed shut at 3:30pm in the parking lot, context smothered them in a bear hug.  It was 10 degrees cooler, but relief mocked them with 1,000,000% humidity.  They started the 20-yard walk to the front door tired and ended it on the brink of death with their t-shirts and shorts sticking to them.  Sweet tea, apple butter, and gravy revived them until they found the damned nail in the parking lot.

“Let’s go,” said Stacy.

“We’re not staying?” said Veronica.

“They can’t even look at the car for 90 minutes, and I don’t want to wait that long to get back on the road.  Plus, neither one of them knows how to spell Bartlett.  I’m not leaving the car with people who can’t spell the name of their own city.”

Veronica sighed at the ignorance that aggravated Stacy’s irritation.  Why was the universe doing this to them?  Every time Veronica and Stacy spent more than three hours together, they fought.  There were seven years between them, which made each a functional first-born, and first-borns are always in charge.  Veronica thought Stacy’s version of being in charge manifested as disrespect and disdain – nobody knew better than Stacy, not her bosses, not her parents, and especially not her sister.  Stacy thought Veronica was a bossy know-it all who interfered in things that weren’t her business.  On every family vacation, Stacy would cross the line in being disrespectful to their parents, and Veronica would criticize, or Veronica would give Stacy one too many orders, and then Stacy would be furious for the rest of the trip, going out of her way to infect everyone with her displeasure.

Before the road trip, their mother pulled each one aside for the usual, begging them to be patient, not to say anything inflammatory, and to remember that when she and their dad died, Stacy and Veronica would be all that each other had left.  There was an addendum for Veronica:  “You know that Stacy has wanted to be a doctor since she was 10.  She’s been applying to med school for 8 years, and she finally got in.  Your dad and I are depending on you to make sure she gets a good start.”  Stacy and Veronica calculated 76 hours spent together running errands, driving to Tennessee, and settling Stacy in her apartment before putting Veronica on a plane home, so they worked at doing as asked.  When Veronica had asked Stacy one more time at the mall about running too many errands and not having enough time to load the car, Stacy flipped out and Veronica apologized and braced for the fight.  After a few seconds of wrestling their own thoughts, the air cleared, and they continued without incident until they found that stupid nail.

Goodyear was a bust.  It closed at 6, and it was only 4:40, but the manager dismissed them with the superiority afforded to retailers on Saturday afternoon.  “No room.  Firestone.”  Stacy double parked in the Firestone parking lot, so Veronica offered to wait in the car.  Stacy turned the car off and took the keys with her.  Veronica’s temper spiked with the mercury, and the countdown clock ran faster.  Veronica poached in sweat for five minutes before Stacy came running out.  “They don’t have room, but he’s got a buddy who’s the manager at another Firestone down the road, and he can take me, but we have to get there by 5.”  They screeched into traffic.

“Which way?” asked Veronica.

“I don’t know.  He said it’s just down the road.  Can you just look it up on Google?  It’s on Blue Valley Parkway,” said Stacy.

Veronica wanted to yell, Down which road?  What’s the address?  Did he point a certain direction?  Instead she pulled up their location on her phone and hesitated.  “Blue Valley Parkway is the next street, but I don’t know whether we go left or right,” she said.

“I think he pointed left,” said Stacy.

You THINK?  Oh, my God.  Veronica tried to do something constructive and looked up Firestone in the browser, entering Bartlett as their location.  She scrolled through the results; every person in greater Memphis must have owned three vehicles each to support that many Firestones.  They were never going to find it, they’d have to find a hotel in Memphis, she’d have to pay for the room in Nashville anyway, and they’d arrive in Harrogate too late to unpack everything.  Her finger brushed an address with Blue Valley Parkway.

“I found it!  11904 Blue Valley Parkway.  We’re in the 9000s now.  The evens are on the right.  Get in the right lane.”  Crap!  She’d given Stacy an order.  She pictured the clock counting down in a blur.

“Ok.  Can you watch the street numbers and let me know when we’re getting close?”

Veronica unfroze, and the countdown clock slowed to a walk, but the clock on the dashboard marched on.  4:55.  4:56.  4:57.  Would they make it by 5?  4:58.  4:59.  5:00.  Where the hell was it?  5:01, 5:02 – “There it is!”

Stacy swerved into the parking lot, and Veronica gave thanks for the extra weight in the car holding them down.

“Stacy, if they say we’re too late, start crying.  Cry real tears, and tell them you have to get to school and that we have a nonrefundable hotel reservation in Nashville.”

Stacy nodded, put on her game face, and ran inside.  The manager laughed as they hurried to explain their tardiness and told them not to worry.  His guys took the car into an empty bay, and while Stacy chatted with the manager and the receptionist, Veronica hid with some Angry Birds.  Thirty minutes later, Veronica walked and Stacy stomped to the car.  The countdown clock hovered.

“You drive.  I can’t,” said Stacy.

“Ok.  What’s wrong?  You look mad,” said Veronica.

“There were two nails, one in each front tire.  That would have been ok, but the manager said that the right front tire needs to be replaced as soon as possible.  Dad lied when he said he took the car to Discount Tire like I asked him to.  I guess he was too busy watching golf.”

“Stacy.  Dad and I took your car to the mechanic, where he told them four times that the car needed to be fit to drive cross country, and then he paid for all the repairs.  After that, he took your car to Discount Tire for the sole purpose of asking them about a cross-country drive, and they said everything was fine.  He ran errands non-stop with Mom when they were home.”

“If he’d taken the car to Discount Tire, they would have replaced the bad tire.  I’m really mad at him.  He never does what I tell him.  I don’t want to argue about it.”

Veronica set her jaw and the GPS; two and a half hours to Nashville and personal space.  Once they reached the highway, she changed the subject.  “We’ll be in Harrogate tomorrow.  Are you getting excited?  Medical school!  It’s what you’ve been waiting for!  I’m excited for you.”

Stacy squirmed.  “You guys keep asking me that, and I wish you wouldn’t.  I am excited, but mostly I’m really stressed.  I could fail out.  Twenty percent of the first year class fails out.  Everybody keeps saying it’s so great, and I’ll be a great doctor, but I might be in the 20%.  I can’t talk about this,” she said.

Veronica heard a click as the countdown clock stopped.  She saw that for her the road trip was a fun inconvenience.  For Stacy, it was 16 hours to stew in the pressure of her own expectations and insecurities.  It didn’t excuse the temper or the disdain and disrespect, but Veronica finally understood Stacy, and her own anger and irritation faded.  Veronica had confused getting into medical school with becoming a doctor, and Stacy was trying not to crack in the pressure of the difference.

“What time did you finally go to bed last night?” Veronica asked

Veronica watched Stacy waver, contemplate lying, and cave.  “I think the clock said 3am when I turned out the light.”

Veronica said, “You got up at 6:30!  Just sleep.  I’ll wake you up when we get there.”

Stacy closed her eyes and passed out.  She snorted as she shifted positions, and Veronica played her iPod at the lowest volume that could be heard.  Ugly concrete buildings gave way to campgrounds, then forests and mountains that barely noticed the cars zooming through.  She switched on the headlights, drew peace from the stone, the trees, and Rosanne Cash, and dismantled the countdown clock, not forever, but at least for the rest of the trip.

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