Last Day of Summer

by | Sep 10, 2017 | last day of summer, Short Fiction

last day of summer

September 10th, 2001

The deer.

It stares; hypnotised by on-rushing headlights.

On instinct, Chris pulls down hard on the steering wheel, into the outside lane. The rear-view mirror suddenly awash with white light, the shrill burst of a horn, the car behind almost upon them. He swerves back inside. The deer, its trance broken, bolts into the trees and the safety of the forest. They fishtail then straighten up, as the other car speeds by; two red lights disappearing into the darkness. Annie’s head jolts against the side window, waking her. Simon & Garfunkel play on the stereo.

It’s late, past midnight. They’ve been on the road more than eight hours.

“What’s going on,” she asks.

Chris feels his heart pound, throbbing up into his ears, an inner beat to accompany the music. The road again quiet; no cars, no animals, no threat. He sucks in air, tries to catch his breath, regain his composure. Cool trickles of sweat leak from his armpits, inch down his side. He sees the exit sign. Sees the little pictures on the bottom corner, familiar visions of civilization; Golden arches and Motel 6. Eyes heavy, blinking — glancing across at his girlfriend, nodding back towards the road, towards the blackness beyond the arc of artificial light ahead. Simon & Garfunkel singing Richard Cory.

“We’re coming off here,” he says, another large sign looming up out of the darkness.


“Human again,” she says “You going in? It’s a good shower.”

Ten weeks on the road. They’d become shower connoisseurs; fierce critics of bad plumbing.

“Maybe.”

“I think you should.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She smiles, joins him on the bed, leans over and sniffs the air.

“Nothing.”

She’s wrapped in a white towel; her moisturised face shining.

Another Night, another motel. After a while they blended into one. Straight from the movies. The first, after they left New York, was a two storied L-Shaped building on a side road close to the Interstate. They joked about the paper stretched over the toilet, the cellophane wrapped cups; joked about Norman Bates. They re-enacted the shower scene with a toothbrush, Annie played along, a faux Janet Leigh squeal turning to laughter as he made the eek-eek sounds.

They’d left England at the start of July, new lovers on a whim of post-graduate liberation.

Ten weeks ago, 29 states ago. It felt longer but not long enough.

“What’re you watching?” she says.

Their day had begun in Knoxville, Tennessee. Somewhere outside, beyond the trees and the six lanes of I-95, was Washington DC.

“Not sure.”

A chat-show host he didn’t know talking to a celeb he vaguely recognised. Staring at the screen without really paying attention, his mind elsewhere.

They were on the final leg; the journey north. In the morning they were heading back to New York. In a few days the flight back to England. Back to reality, as his dad would’ve probably said. He didn’t want to think about it.

“Didn’t he used to be on Dawson’s Creek?” Annie says.

“I’ve no idea.”

“Liar.”

The deer’s face staring into the light. Simon & Garfunkel singing Richard Cory.

He sips from a beer found in their supplies bag. It’s warm. Sipping, then resting the can on his chest, eyes peering over the rim at the television.

“You going to shower?”

“In a minute.”

He places the can on the side table, takes her wrist and pulls her on top of him, his hands loosening the towel, the rush of excitement at the body within.

“I’m tired,” she says, their faces walled in by drooping, damp hair.

“Me too.”

He pushes up onto his elbows, both lean in to meet the others’ lips. The audience from the chat show whoop and holler, his tongue darting into her mouth. She’s cleaned her teeth. Her minty breath escapes her nose, tickling his face, her hands moving, fingers sliding through his hair. He pulls at her towel, she digs her hands into his chest, straddling him as he presses against her. Their mouths separate, lips trailing over faces and necks; hands roaming, exploring and then slowing. Entwined, suddenly quiet and still. The flare receding as abruptly as it arrived, exhaustion taking a hold as they drift helplessly, bodies twitching towards a deep sleep.


He moves the car around to the front of the motel, reversing into the space in front of their room, across the lot from the reception. Bruce Springsteen playing on the radio.

“We should go back into Washington,” she says.

He hoists her rucksack into the boot of the car.

It’s still early and the sun hangs low over the buildings, glistening bright on the wet tarmac; a smell on the breeze that reminded him of the old yard from his primary school, playing football before lessons.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Just feel we should see it once more before we leave.”

They’d been to DC weeks earlier, their zigzag route, intentionally haphazard, bringing them down to the capital after Chicago. They stayed in a B&B downtown for three days and Chris couldn’t wait to leave. Three days anywhere and he grew restless.

“What do you want to see?”

“I don’t know, the White House, maybe?”

They’d had a photo taken by the gates of the White House. An old lady from Texas took the photo and commented on how cute a couple they made. She wore a pink cap and white running shoes that gleamed in the sunlight. When Chris saw it the first thing he noticed was a dark figure standing on the roof of the building. It conjured up thoughts of shadowy CIA men, watching them, watching everyone. Cloak and dagger plots and conspiracies. She thought he watched too many X-Files episodes.

“Really?”

“We don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t mind if you really want to. We’ll get caught in all the city traffic though.”

“I suppose so.”

“We can go if you want to. We’ve no real rush.”

“No, it’s O.K.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“I mean, it’s not like it’s going to be any different.”

“No.”

“Sure?”

“Yes. I’m sure.”

He pulls the boot closed. Annie walks around the side of the car, the key to the motel room twirling on her finger.

“There’s a Denny’s across the car park, behind those trees.” He feels like he needs to say something. “We could get some breakfast before we head off.”

“O.K,” she says, distracted “If you want.”

“Or we could get going, stop off later.”

“I don’t mind. Whatever you want to do.”

She squints into the sunlight, which makes it look like she’s smiling.


“What day is it?” Chris asks

“Monday, I think.”

Days melded into one. It nags in the back of his mind that soon he’ll have to keep track again. Days which ebb unavoidably away. Annie plays with the dial on the radio, snippets of songs and adverts skipping through the car. Still early, barely ten; the sun low, to the right of the freeway, rays sneaking in behind the lenses of their sunglasses. They pass an animal, dead on the side of the road — unable make out what it is; what it was. A raccoon maybe. Road-kill. Thoughts again of the deer.

“It’s the tenth?” he asks

“I suppose. Why?”

“Just wondering, that’s all.”

He’s working out how many days they have left. The tenth — in five days they’ll be home. He’d always associated September with beginnings — a sort of unofficial new year. The start of the school calendar, the University year. His own birthday — at the end of the month he’ll be twenty-three.

It’s busy, cars weaving ahead of them and around them, silhouetted in the sun. Annie settles on a station playing Supertramp, Give A Little Bit . Chris glances over at her, surprised at the selection. She’s looking out of her window, looking into the woods that run alongside the freeway. Looking away from him.

“You O.K?” he asks, for his benefit rather than hers.

She looks across at him, a faint smile that teases the edge of her mouth.


“Where do you think you’ll be this time next year?”

Annie sips from a can of coke as she leans against the side of a picnic table, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. It’s hot, midday approaching. She holds the coke to the side of her face, resting it against her cheek. They’d stopped at a rest area off the quiet freeway, the occasional car or truck rumbling past.

“Don’t know,” he replies, slightly perturbed at the phrasing. As he walks from the shelter of the car he can feel the sun on his face. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

She nods and sips at the can before handing it over. She’d said where did I think I’ll be, not where we’ll be.

“Working in some office or something, I suppose.”

Chris doesn’t really want to be thinking about this. A truck sounds its horn as it thunders past; a large eagle painted onto the side of the container. The trucks are huge, bigger than the Eddie Stobart’s from back home. Another car, a beige Buick, pulls into the rest area. Chris observes, the crunch of the wheels on the loose dirt, the slight cough of the engine before switching off, the rust on wheel arches.

“Maybe we’ll still be travelling,” he says.

There’s two men in the car.

“Perhaps we’ll be somewhere in Asia, with dark tans and long hair. We’ll have taken to wearing beads and flowing kaftans and we’ll have fallen under the spell of some mystical guru.”

The driver, a grey-haired man gets out of the car and hitches his trousers up, shaking his right leg.

“Good morning,” he says, his voice sounding as though he were dragging the words through a blockage of phlegm and gravel. Instinctively Chris checks his watch as though verifying the accuracy of the statement.

“Hello.”

The second man gets out of the car and smiles then follows his companion towards the toilets.

“I’m not big on the kaftan look. A bit too sixties, for me,” she says, moving towards the car, running a hand through her hair, untangling non-existent knots. “So, what do you think,” she adds, nodding towards the toilets “Lovers escaping their unsuspecting wives for a secret tryst?”

Chris smiles, happy the conversation is moving into more familiar territory.

“They’ve told their wives they’re off on a fishing trip with some old pal from the office. No, an old army buddy.”

“From their time in Korea.”

“Vietnam.”

They made stories up about the people they saw, the eclectic, anonymous folk whose paths they briefly crossed.

“It’s sad,” she says “A life of denial and secrets. You know they’ve both got kids in college who’d be totally cool about it but they’re too filled with shame.”

“A generational thing?”

“Exactly.”

The two men re-emerge from the toilet, one of them, the passenger, wiping his hands on the thighs of his trousers. He’s smiling, looking down at the ground in front of him. Unaware of this new narrative for his life.

“Have a good day,” the other one, the grey-haired driver, says, nodding politely in their direction.

“You too,” Chris nods back.

Kindred travellers carrying secrets.

He drains the last of the coke and tosses the can into the waste bin by the table, watching out as the Buick pulls away, for a moment convinced that their story for them is true.

“Tragic really,” Annie says, leaning in before heading back to the car.

A small dust cloud hangs in the air for about a minute after the Buick drives off, before dispersing, drifting into nothing. Looking up Chris watches as a plane, a tiny black speck, moves silently across the sky; cutting a white line into the blue.


He looks at the notebook that rests in his lap. Leather bound, leafing through pages. He bought it before they left England, the intention of writing a journal, diarising their exploits, inspiring him to produce some Kerouacian prose. It’s just a collection of lists; place names, miles covered, motels where they’ve stayed, observations about the weather. She’s the writer, not him. He flicks through the pages, Annie drives.

She took over driving duty after lunch. They stopped at a Subway on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Chris persisted on calling it Philly and singing the theme from Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It was gone two when they hit the road again, filtering into the congested traffic, heading north, heading home.

“We were in Santa Fe on the 1st August,” he says.

“Were we?”

“It was 108 degrees.”

“Celsius?”

“Fahrenheit.”

REM plays on CD: Everybody Hurts.

“We’d be dead if it was Celsius.”

“I never remember which one is which.”

He looks across at her; she stares ahead, concentrating on the road, a thick strand of hair trapped under the arm of her sunglasses. She often said this sort of thing. He wasn’t sure if she was being serious; there was always a sense that she was deliberately underplaying an intelligence he knew to be considerable. She never worried about the exchange rate either. He worked in Sterling, she worked in Dollars. Why do we need to worry about how much it costs in England? We’re not in England.

Everybody Hurts, sings Michael Stipe.

“We were in Flagstaff before that.”

“I liked it there.”

They went there first then doubled back to New Mexico. It was Annie’s idea — didn’t want to follow a plan but rather be random. Forwards, backwards, up, down. North, south, east, west. Chris had mapped out a route before they left. It was on page one of his notebook, in point form. Ordered, logical.

He was glad they ignored it.

Flagstaff seems a million miles away from here. They stayed in a lodge on the edge of town, met a girl from Wales who was travelling through the states on her own. It was weird, disconcerting, meeting someone from near home all the way out in Flagstaff, Arizona. They stayed there for three days, drove out to the Grand Canyon. They stood on the edge of the Eastern Rim, looked out at the red earth, the jagged rocks that scratched the sky, too big to comprehend as real. They held hands and stood in silence and later, getting stoned and drunk on a quiet veranda they looked into space and proclaimed to never fall into the trap of work, the drudgery of 9–5 living, of suburbia. How could you when you’d seen that?

“What time do you think we’ll be in New York?”

“Don’t know. Five, five thirty, maybe. We’ll probably hit traffic.”

It’s past three already, The song ends on the CD, Annie reaches across and skips it forward, past the instrumental, past Sweetness Falls, past Monty got a Raw Deal.

“What’s up?”

“These songs,” she says “How many times have we heard them?”

“Put something else on.”

“Like what?” she snaps, the anger in her voice surprising them both. “We’ve heard everything like a million times,” she adds, softer.

She skips the next song then turns the stereo off. They drive in silence, a rarity. For ten weeks they’ve been accompanied by music, a soundtrack of their trip that Chris romanticises about. He knows in the future these songs will evoke memories, fill him with pathos for this time.

“How long have we been going?”

“What do you mean?”

She pauses, indicates and pulls the car into the outside lane.

“Travelling. I mean, how long have we been travelling? What do you think I meant?”

“Ten weeks.”

She nods, surely she knew this already?

The car in front is an old station wagon; a young boy looks out the back window at them, waving a toy gun.

Annie turns the stereo back on, skips to Man on the Moon. The boy pretends to shoot them. Chris pretends to die.


The car is a Chrysler.

A hire car picked up in Manhattan; a gift from Annie’s dad. They’d spoken of going by Greyhound and Amtrak, city to city, town to town. The only way to see America was by car, he’d told her. It had always been his ambition to travel the states — was obsessed by Americana, she’d told Chris before they left, in the rushed days of planning, of booking tickets. Of excited, whispered talks during dark, sleepless nights, giggling in bed at the prospect of what they were about to do. After her mother died, she’d tried to convince her dad to go but he didn’t. He stayed, helped her finances through University. Now she was travelling, following his dream, as she’d put it.

Chrysler: an American car.

It had two hundred miles on the clock when they picked it up. Chris wrote the number down in his notebook. 214 to be precise. Now it had more than fifteen thousand miles on the clock. They hadn’t washed it once, except the windows; they had to wash the windows. There was a film of grime on the paintwork, desert grime and city grime. The remains of insects, perished on the grill at the front. Chris had scraped some off, when it got clogged heading through Texas, most remained, embedded into the body of the car. The residue of rainstorms and dust clouds. The grime of America.

They cross the Betsy Ross Bridge, over the Delaware, into New Jersey. Their thirty-first state. He writes the name in his notebook. Betsy Ross.

It was the only way to see America, he supposed. Planes, trains and automobiles. That’s the American way. But mostly automobiles. Wide roads, cracked grey and dark asphalt, full and fuming in the cities, straight and empty in the heartland. Maps defined by roads; the Pacific Highway and the regimented order of the Interstates. Cities and towns built up and laid waste by roads. Tangled freeways of concrete and steel. Nobody walks in LA, city of cars. The Big Dig in Boston; new roads. The grids of Manhattan, streets that run west, avenues south — iconic names, names from the movies, the songs, Broadway and 42nd Street, 5th Avenue. The streets of San Francisco, the streets of Philadelphia. Main Street, USA.

Weeks earlier they decided to pull off the Interstate in Nebraska, drove into a town called Kearney. It was early evening and the streets were quiet.

They ate soup in a diner; made stories up about the people they saw. Before they departed they leant against the side of the car and kissed. Standing beside the car, alone in the street, free from inhibition. He didn’t really know where they were. They could have been anywhere, the middle of the country. The middle of nowhere.

They drive on, Annie at the wheel, a local station on the radio. All the stations have acronyms for names. Either that or adjectives ahead of the frequency. WCAB of Detroit, or red hot 99.8 FM. A Johnny Cash song plays: Ring of Fire. It was used in an advert for jeans back home. The song ends, adverts begin, always adverts.

“You want me to drive?” he asks.

“Nah,” Annie says.

They pass signs for motels, fast food joints, a strip club that proudly boasts total nudity of every girl. They went to a lap dancing club in Nevada.

The news comes on the radio. Democrats criticising defence spending, something about George Bush, an indictment of somebody that sounds like they might be famous and defeat for the Eagles in last nights big game. The news is a distraction and read out as brief headlines; unimportant among the adverts and music.

Drive on, see a sign for the New Jersey Turnpike.

“It’s like in the song,” Chris says.

“What is?”

“The New Jersey Turnpike.”

“What song?”

Annie is expressionless as she drives, looking straight ahead, eyes hidden behind dark glasses. She knows. He knows she knows.

“America. The Simon and Garfunkel song. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.”

“Right.”

They’ve listened to the song about a hundred times. Played it at night as they drove empty roads, looking for motels. Played it as they lay in bed, as hands roamed in the dark, as they cuddled and shut out the rest of the country and drifted away.

“We almost hit a deer last night.”

“What?”

It was the song that played as they lay in bed all those weeks ago, after graduation; words to which plans were made.

“A deer. It was in the middle of the road near Washington, frozen in the lights. We nearly hit it.”

Annie turns her head. More adverts on the radio.

“Could have been bad,” Chris says, “Really bad. You were asleep. I didn’t tell you in case you worried.”

A Sheryl Crow song starts playing, All I Wanna Do. He remembers the song from his school days, pre-Uni. A sixth form party song.

“Why are you telling me now?”

“I’m not sure.”

Time passes and the scenery moves, falling away behind them.

“Was it big?”

“Big enough.” He pauses. “Big enough to have done a lot of damage.”

“Do you think it could have, you know, killed us?”

“Not sure. Possibly. Would have been messy.”

A tingle of excitement, the dramatic nature of what he was saying. There’s a thrill at its recall, now the danger had passed.

“It would have smashed up the front of the car,” he says.

“You should have told me last night or not at all.”

“I suppose.”

The sun catches the corner of his eye, leaking in behind his glasses, making him turn his head, look down; the notebook still in his lap.

“Imagine we’d hit it,” she says.

“Doesn’t bear thinking about.”

“Doesn’t it? Just imagine. It would have changed everything.”

“I guess.” He only started saying I guess recently.

“The direction of our whole lives could have changed on that moment.”

Similar thoughts scratched at the edge of his mind last night. The what-if thoughts.

“Lives change on single moments,” she says, not exactly at Chris. More a thought spoken aloud.

He thinks of the night they met, in the summer, after their finals.

“Very profound,” he says. She smiles, a faint smile, but a smile nonetheless. It was a chance meeting at a bar, grouped together through friends of friends, mutually escaping the tedium of election talk. She’d voted for Blair, he was scolded for his apathy. From there to the New Jersey Turnpike.

“Do you think there’s an alternative world, where versions of us hit the deer?”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Right now, in some parallel world there are versions of us, wounded in a hospital, or laying in a ditch. Maybe one of us is dead and the other is sitting on some moulded plastic chair with a blanket around our shoulders trying to recall what happened, trying to work out what to say to our loved ones.”

Once her imagination got going there was no stopping it.

“That’s a nice, happy thought,” Chris says.

“If we had hit it…”

“This is why I didn’t tell you last night.”

They drive past a road sign — forty miles from Manhattan; maybe an hour’s drive. The last hour of ten weeks on the road.

“Of course, there may be a parallel world where we’ve never even met.”

He doesn’t reply, at first. He stares out of the window, fingers tap on his notebook.

“Who knows?” he says, eventually.

“Can’t believe we’re nearly there,” Annie says.

“I know. Looking forward to seeing New York again.”

They’d both declared how much they wanted to see, visit, experience New York before they’d left England. A certain mystical romance attached to a place they’d seen so much of and yet never really seen. Visions of the skyline, the Empire State and World Trade Centre, the statue of Liberty; of congested avenues full of taxis and hot dog vendors, steam rising from manholes in the pavement. Noise and music, beeping horns and aggressive swearing, maybe a jazzy soundtrack muffled in the background. The New York of their movie influenced minds.

They landed at JFK, stayed in a low end hotel near Times Square for three days; drank Guinness and listened to an awful folk singer in a bar on Bleecker Street, watched the sunset from the Empire State Building and walked endlessly through the humid, crowded streets. It lived up to expectation but they wanted to move on, to see the country, to live on the road. The night before they set off they sat in an all-night diner near the hotel until five am, laughing, declaring how much they couldn’t believe they were here, doing this, just the two of them — the rest of their lives an ocean away, in another world.

Ten weeks ago. Thirty-One states ago.

“It always had to end at some point,” Annie says, reading his mind.

“I know.”

The road ahead grows busier as the warm afternoon ebbs away, as they move north, ever nearer.

Signs: road signs, billboards, tall logos at the side of the road that live everywhere all at once, that you know and recognise; that you see with your eyes closed. People moving, flowing north and south. A man in a red convertible drives alongside them going at almost the same speed. He’s wearing a baseball cap that Chris expects to see fly off at any moment and he’s talking into a mobile phone, engrossed in conversation as he drives one handed, oblivious to the rest of the world, oblivious of all the signs around him.


It’s half past five, the traffic slowing to a crawl as they pass the exit for Newark, the airport away to their left, planes above them, circling, stacked, drifting out of view in the glare of the sun.

“You can drive us in,” Annie says.

They come off the interstate, find a rest stop nearby. Chris goes into a McDonalds and buys two drinks — huge Cokes — buckets with plastic lids and straws.

“One of those would have done.”

“Let’s live on the edge.”

Chris walks across the car park, the rumble of rush hour traffic in his ears. Only one other car is parked up, a battered SUV with blacked out windows that makes it impossible to see inside. He stays clear, cautious. On the other side of the car park is a verge that looks as though it should be grass covered but instead is a mound of dry dusty earth. Sipping his huge Coke he steps up onto the verge, looks east, across the river, at the Manhattan skyline, towering buildings that glow in the afternoon sun.

“The Emerald City,” Annie says, joining him. He sips his coke and continues to look out at the jagged buildings, pressed into the deep blue background.

“From the Wizard of Oz,” she adds.

“I got the reference.”

He thinks about getting his camera, capturing the shot, the iconic buildings: the curves and spires of Empire State and Chrysler mid-town, the towering blocks of the World Trade Centre at the foot of the island. Annie sips at her coke and leans her head, cradling it into Chris’ neck and shoulder.

She clicks her heels.

“There’s no place like home,” she says.

Chris holds the enormous cup out in front of him, blocking the towers from view.

In maybe an hour they’ll be there, across the river, into the heart of the city. They’ll drop off the car, and their travels will be all but over. He’s reminded of the last day of school holidays past. The end of the summer and the eve of a new term, a new time; the similar sense of ambiguous dread.

Tomorrow, most likely, they’ll wake early, eat muffins, drink coffee and let the rush and bustle of a working Manhattan morning wash over them, happy to be among it but not a part of it — a daily grind that can wait forever. Maybe they’ll go to one of the towers and look down on the city; maybe take the subway or stroll through the park with the joggers and dog walkers.

Or maybe they’ll do something different.

Annie hooks her arm around his, the way they do in the films.

“Ready?” she says.

“Yes,” he says, although he’s not sure this is true.

Walking to the car he looks back over his shoulder. A helicopter flying silently out over the river, away from the city, tiny against the backdrop of concrete and steel.

He thinks again about getting his camera.

THE END

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