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Emergency Turnoff

by James R. Gapinski

    Trees zip past. Bug guts plaster the windshield in a thick paste. The speedometer is stuck at its maximum position. Our actual speed may be beyond that. We have been coasting down this mountain for days, ever since I swerved onto that unmarked gravely road, desperate to avoid the deer. The maneuver failed anyway. I clipped the deer, and it wound up underneath the axle; its bones ground into the brake lines; its flesh wrapped around the transmission, suffocating the car’s ability to do anything but coast. Downward. Endlessly downward. If we veer to the right, we smash into rocks. To the left, we go off a cliff. We must keep coasting, hoping for a safe landing or at least a better way to crash.

          We’ve been living off the camping gear in the back of the car. We sleep in shifts. I drive at night; you drive during the day. There are overlapping hours when we are both awake, and we talk. You tell me why it’s over. You tell me why the campsite blowup was bound to happen. You say I am controlling. I agree that I am controlling; I see the truth in it, evidenced by my insistence that we pack the tent my way. And the fact that I refused to take your path to the lake. And how the cooler is full of almond milk and not soy milk. The list of small transgressions continues for hours. I say I am sorry. I say that you will always be in charge of the tent and how to find the lake and what type of milk we drink. To prove my seriousness, I dump all the almond milk out the window. You say that I still don’t get it. Furthermore, I’ve wasted the last of our fluids. I say it’s okay, and I explain that I know how to collect rainwater using those empty jugs in the hatchback.

         I go to sleep. When I wake, we negotiate the terms of our shared possessions. I relinquish control of our vinyl pressing of Against Me!’s Crime as Forgiven EP. You smile at this, saying that it shows maturity. I think we’re making progress. You say there’s no progress to be made, reiterating that it’s over. We talk about who gets to keep the goldfish. This devolves into a screaming match. The temperature drops, and the sun blinks below the horizon.

          Your shift is over. You snuggle in a sleeping bag, and I take the wheel. Through the grimy haze of bug splatter, I navigate the occasional curve and bend. I keep the car heading downward, toward some distant site where piles of twisted metal mark our final stop. The night wears on, and I pass a sign that says “Emergency Turnoff—Runaway Vehicles Only.” The emergency turnoff resembles a ramp, rising out of the mountain like an opposing mountain. It offers an end to our downhill plummet. I do not take this turnoff.

          You wake hours later. We talk about friend groups and who gets to drink at which bars on which nights. You lay claim to our karaoke machine; I do not tell you that I broke it while rummaging for our tent in the basement. Eventually, we tire of bickering, and I go to sleep. When I wake up, I check the rain jugs. Our food is running low, so I use the fishing poles to retrieve a hunk of venison, still wrapped around the car’s underside. It’s time for a shift change, and you go to sleep without saying a word. The road offers me another dimly lit turnoff, but I do not take it. Night after night, this continues. The turnoffs increase in number, sometimes three or four in just a few miles, as if the road is begging me to reconsider. I keep the car pointed downward, hurtling toward the place where all things stop.

Author's Note

After a camping trip, I saw these runaway truck ramps on the drive home. I liked the image of an out-of-control vehicle barreling into these ramps to reduce speed. As I wrote and rewrote drafts that involved this image, I quickly discovered that a distressed car willfully avoiding these ramps was a more intriguing angle. It became a metaphor for a breakup—a deconstruction of how some people handle stress, trying to control or rationalize everything, pushing things down a steeper and steeper slope, even when there are plenty of options to halt that downward trajectory.

Side note: the real-life camping trip was quite lovely, with none of the tension displayed in this story—though we may have bickered about which lake path was best.

James R. Gapinski's flash fiction chapbook, Messiah Tortoise, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. His work has previously appeared in The Collapsar, Juked, Monkeybicycle, Psychopomp, SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, and other publications. He's managing editor of The Conium Review and associate faculty at Ashford University. James lives with his partner in Portland, Oregon. Find him online at and on Twitter @jamesrgapinski.

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