by Sabrina Hicks

When I order at the diner in the desert, I point to the picture of two perfectly round eggs on a piece of petrified toast, thinking about the roadside memorial I passed turning into the parking lot – a melted shrine, colored a sick gray, consisting of a stuffed creature with sun-singed hair, leaning against a cross of plastic flowers — a small gesture of remembrance becoming a stain in the grout of earth. 

“Coffee, miss?” asks the server, wearing a costume of what a waitress at a diner would have worn decades earlier – knee length, flared pink skirt and white blouse. She’s too old for the outfit, but somehow it suits her. I look around and realize the entire diner is a throwback to another day and age. A Before. 

The waxed memory of the memorial leaves me speechless. I shake my head, loosening my tongue. “Who died on the corner coming in here?” 

The server shrugs, deciding what to tell a stranger passing through this small town. I can tell she knows. 

“Jackson McCabe,” she sighs. “He hit the post after leaving The Oasis.”

“Was he drunk?” 

She stares at me, holding the pot of coffee over my cup, resisting the pour. If he was drunk, his tragedy is downgraded to a reckless decision, wielding a deadly weapon. I can see her weighing this, part mad I’m asking, part mad about the truth. 

“Where’re you heading?” she asks, opting for a distraction. 

I’m in Arizona, but I could be heading to Utah, Colorado or New Mexico, depending how I drive out of here. I have Colorado locked into my GPS, a route leading to my sister’s house where I will walk in and find my three nieces. I haven’t been there for years, but I remember the sweet smell of their rooms, each a different bloom woven into a house full of women. Photos line the ledges: her girls smiling on California beaches, in Europe, on campuses of the schools they’re attending in the fall. There may even be one of Sasha mixed in with her cousins, and then I might forget how to breathe. 

“I don’t know,” I say, which I realize is the truth. Last year, I didn’t make it this far. I only got two hours out of Phoenix before I turned around. I think I should feel a sense of accomplishment, but I don’t. I only feel the strong tug back. 

“I thought you might be heading to the Four Corners. It’s only twenty minutes away. People love standing on that plaque of imaginary lines.” 

I look at the nametag of my server – Claire. She winks at me, and I think she knows, but then again, all acts of kindness feel this way. She combs back her gum gray hair gathered in a thick bun, takes my menu, and disappears into the kitchen.

Outside the day is bone white and one hundred and eleven degrees. People walk in red-faced and sweating, complaining about the heat, the lack of rain, about how their car batteries are melting in their garages where scorpions linger under a collection of bicycles and coolers and bins stuffed with camping gear, and I resist doing that scene that has played out in my mind every day for the last three years where I stand up and scream as loud as I can until all the words around me have vanished and there is nothing but silence and the face of Sasha before she turns to get behind the wheel of her aqua green 2014 Honda Civic. Before she pulls away with a wave and says, “Bye, Mom,” in a voice that says I’m overprotective. Before the boozy driver of the 2011 Ford Ranger runs the light and pins her to that corner of the intersection where she takes her final breath. Before my life had an After. 

Claire returns with a plate of eggs and a smile that feels intimate. “Fuel for your journey,” she says. 

I eat, watching Claire work the tables, slinging plates with her thick arms, chatting up the customers, but her eyes seem to linger on me and it puts a lump in my throat, making it difficult to swallow the already dry eggs. 

Outside the cicadas shriek as I make my way to my car. I sit behind the wheel until I can no longer stand the heat, then pull up to the stop sign, next to the melting memorial for Jackson McCabe, following my GPS, heading north on 160, crossing the Four Corners into Colorado.

Image: Untitled by rjcox via Flickr