The night was cold and ominous. The New Mexican desert surrounded the blue van. It sped along the highway with only its headlights and the full moon illuminating the land beyond. Inside Dan Fisher could feel himself slipping in and out of sleep as he gripped the steering wheel. He knew he should have gotten more sleep the day before, but Madison kept crying keeping everyone up, especially him. Though how could he be angry at his little girl or any of his three little girls. Glancing in the rearview mirror he could see each of them sleeping in their car seats; each holding onto their little fleece blankets and stuffed animal.
Dan remembered when it was just him and Elise. Those were the carefree days when they would go on vacation on a whim and just drive wherever the car would take them. Now it seemed more of a chore to pack all the toys, crib, diapers, wipes, baby powder, lotion, medicine, car seats, lots of juice and animal crackers. Despite having lost his freedom there were those moments that he wouldn’t trade for the world, like when Beth and Meredith began to walk or when they each spoke their first word, ‘Momma.’
As the night stretched on he knew that he needed to keep himself awake. Maybe if he cracked the window a bit letting some of the cold air in it might help to alleviate the problem. Grabbing onto the handle he cranked the window down a few notches and sighed as the cool air whistled through the crack and onto his face. As he relished his newfound alertness, Elise rustled in her seat. She stretched her arms, touching the ceiling. She asked him where they were. Dan said they were about 15 miles outside Albuquerque and headed towards Colorado Springs.
With her eyes still a little glazed over from just waking up she nodded her approval and looked back towards the girls making sure nothing was amiss. She said, “We have it good don’t we?” Smiling he said, “We sure do.”
She adjusted her body in the passenger seat and scrunched her face looking around for something. Dan, noticing her fidgeting, glanced over and asked her what was wrong.
“Don’t you hear that whistling sound,” she replied as she motioned to the other side of the car, “I think that it’s coming from your side.”
Looking at his door up and down, it dawned on him and he answered, “Oh, I just cracked the window.”
Elise relaxed back into her seat and peered out the passenger window towards the moon, which was beginning to lower in the sky.
“You know I was talking to my mother the other day and she said that she wouldn’t mind taking the girls for a few days so that we could have that honeymoon getaway we never took,” she said while peering out at the moonlit desert.
Dan didn’t answer though he had heard her. As much as he loved Elise’s parents they tended to spoil the girls, giving them too much candy and letting them stay up way too late. Then he remembered that it is the nature of grandparents to spoil their grandchildren. Yet it was just those instances that got under his skin, even more so when they both would just shrug it off and say to him not to get so worked up.
Turning away from the window Elise said, “Dan, so what do you think?”
Taking a second longer to ponder his thoughts Dan considered telling her the truth. He knew that she would eventually just pull it out of him later anyway. Biting his lip he breathed hard and said, “I’m not so sure honey. I mean I love your folks but remember last time they watched them.” Dan turned to look at Elise for a moment. “Remember when Beth wouldn’t go to bed for a week without one of us in the room, because your dad insisted on watching that scary movie. Then there was Meredith and her whole ordeal with not wanting anything but candy. And I am sure that Madison would have voiced her opinion if she knew any words besides ‘Momma’ or ‘Dada.’”
Dan kept his eyes locked on the road even though he could feel Elise’s stare. It burned a hole through his neck. She never liked it when he talked ill of her parents. And to make matters worse, she now knew that he didn’t like the idea of her parents taking the girls. Dan was sure that the next thing out of Elise’s mouth would not be pleasant. She always told him to tell her the truth. Still she would get mad at him every time he told her the truth.
Trying to take charge of a situation that he knew he had no control over, Dan turned toward Elise. She stared back at him for what seemed like minutes, then peered back towards the desert.
“If that’s how you feel Dan, then you can just tell them yourself when we get to Scottsbluff,” she replied sarcastically.
Dan swallowed hard. He wasn’t sure what she wanted to hear and he was far too tired to carry on an argument with her. Dan took a quick glance at Elise who was still gazing out the window. Then he returned his vision to the road and tried to forget the incident, knowing that it would again arise as it always did.
Hours passed and the night waned. The sun rose over the distant hills hitting Dan in the eyes. Briefly blinded, he pulled down the visor shade, adjusted it and continued driving. Though as he pressed the pedal harder he realized that the speed was steadily dropping. Not sure what was going on he craned his neck to see if smoke was coming out of the engine. Nothing. He pushed the pedal to the floor again. Nothing. As he peered out the drivers’ side window he knew something was wrong as the semi-trucks he had passed earlier flew by the blue van. Not wanting to put anyone in danger Dan jerked the wheel to the right and pulled off the highway. The van hit the gravel hard and lurched to a stop startling Elise in the process.
“What happened? Why did you do that?” Elise said.
“Something’s wrong with the van. I couldn’t get it to accelerate and…I… I just didn’t want to get into an accident!”
Looking out the windows Elise replied, “Couldn’t you have picked a better location to pull off the road, like at a rest stop?”
Raising his hands Dan pointed out the windshield and said, “Where should have I pulled over Elise we’re in the middle of a desert! There probably isn’t another rest stop for a hundred miles. I didn’t want to stop here but we weren’t going to make it much further the way the van was acting.”
A little angry, Dan reached under the steering wheel, popped the hood and got out of the van slamming the door behind him. Setting up the hood Dan surveyed the engine looking for leaks or anything that would notify him of a problem. Then Elise walked up beside him and crossed her arms.
“I thought you had this thing checked out before we left California?” asked Elise.
“I did!” replied Dan.
“Well maybe you should have been watching them.”
Dan stopped looking at the engine, leaned back and placed his hands on his sides. He turned to Elise his eyes cold and blank. Elise threw up her hands in the air and said, “Fine!” He watched her as she walked away; a little relieved she had left, cracked his neck and proceeded to look at every nut and bolt of the engine for anything out of place. He wasn’t a mechanic, though he did know a thing or two about how an engine worked. He didn’t see anything out of place. But he knew he had no idea what to look for. All the hoses were firmly in place; the belts where tight, the radiator was full and the gas tank had just been filled up before they left Albuquerque. What could it be? He thought to himself as he leaned back to take everything in, his hand on his chin. He turned to see if there was a gas station or anything within distance to walk to. Nothing but dirt, sand and probably snakes. He looked past the van, but there wasn’t anything just a road heading in either direction with sand looming all around.
Taking a deep breath he walked back to the driver side door and got in the van. Inside Elise looked at him sympathetically and said, “Did you find the problem?”
He looked over at her and shook his head. Her shoulders dropped and she slumped back into her seat. Luckily the girls hadn’t woken up yet. Dan stretched out his left hand and said, “Elise can you hand me your cell phone I’m going to call us a tow truck.”
He tried at least five times and threw the phone to the floor. There wasn’t a signal.
“What a great piece of technology! When you need it, it doesn’t work,” said Dan, slamming his hands against the steering wheel.
Elise looked at him then picked the phone off the floor and tried it herself. Dan looked at her and scoffed knowing that nothing she did would help. Failing her first attempt she slid the phone back into her purse and leaned back in her chair.
“What are we going to do now?” asked Elise.
“I don’t know, but at least we have enough food and water for a few days. I’m sure someone will be coming down this highway eventually.”
Elise dashed what was left of Dan’s calm demeanor instantly, “Actually I never got a chance to buy anymore food; we only have a few bottles of water, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and two bags of potato chips.”
“What? How can we have nothing left!” yelled Dan his voice cracking. (How long have they been driving? – Specify.)
“We kind of ate it all, Dan.”
Dan placed his hands on the steering wheel and pressed his face into the back of his hands. He started thinking of how this situation could possibly get any worse.
“Mommy are we there yet?” Lifting his head he turned to see Beth wide-awake and smiling at him. The only thing he could think to do was to smile back and pretend like nothing was wrong. Even though it was a complete lie. Still how do you tell your four year old daughter that you are broken down in the middle of nowhere with very little food and water?
“No honey we aren’t there yet, the van’s having some problems and we had to stop for a little while. Are you thirsty?” asked Elise. Beth shook her head back and forth.
Elise asked Dan what he planned to do. He didn’t know and gave only a look of concern. He knew his girls and they never tended to want to sit and wait. The sun was only going to get higher and everything was only going to get hotter. He had to keep his girls safe. That was all that mattered. He had to expedite the problem and the only thing he saw as the problem was fixing the engine.
Dan took a break from tinkering and walked away from the van. Looking out over the desert all he could see was cacti and a small pile of dried bones. Nothing in this desert would help him. Not even the snakes rattling in the distance waiting for their opportunity to strike. He wasn’t sure if there was anything he would be able to do. He breathed hard, licked his lips and turned back to the van. He saw Elise in the back playing patty-cake with Madison and arguing with Beth and Meredith. They were fighting, hitting each other from the way it looked. Each one pointing the finger at the other for something. Elise grabbed Beth by the arm, who screamed. Then Madison began crying. While Meredith cupped her hands over her ears and began yelling louder and louder. What was he going to do? He noticed the side door open and Elise jump out.
“I can’t take this anymore Dan. I’ll fix the damn engine and you…you take the girls! They’re driving me nuts!” she screamed at him while walking past.
He didn’t answer her. Just looked right through her and watched as Meredith leaped out of the van and ran over to him.
“Daddy, Daddy. Beth hit me in the eye, see.”
Beth right behind shouted, “Naw uhh, I didn’t do it she hit herself.”
Dan kneeled down and pulled each of them closer. “You can’t keep picking on each other okay. I need you both to work together for me.” They both nodded, their eyes looking at the ground. “Now what do you say.”
“Sorry Daddy,” they both echoed.
“Good girls. Now go get back in the van so that your Mom and I can talk for a minute.”
As they ran back to the van everything began to hit him. It had been only four hours since they broke down but it felt like days. Each succeeding hour was filled with another fight and another scream fest, Elise grew more frustrated and Dan tryied to be the mediator. He was growing weary of it all. Dan looked at Elise who was standing off to the side. Her look concerned him as tears began to stream down her face. She attempted to wipe them from her eyes, but couldn’t as more began flooding out. Dan walked over and wrapped his arms around her. Trying to comfort her saying that everything was going to be alright. He knew it wasn’t. They hadn’t seen another vehicle since the breakdown and nothing was looking promising.
As Dan held Elise in his arms he felt the burden becoming too great. He had to do something, anything. Standing there waiting for someone to save them was driving him crazy. His own wife was crying in his arms and they had no food or water left. His frustration turned to anger as he thought of all the times Elise never planned ahead.
“Why didn’t you pack more food?” he asked.
“What?” she replied pulling away from him wiping the tears from her face.
“You never plan ahead Elise. You always just let everything wait till later. Like the food. You’re always blaming…”
“Blaming who, you? Well why didn’t you make sure the van was working before we left?” retorted Elise
Peering over Elise’s shoulder Dan noticed movement in the distance. All he could make out was a tall black blur carrying something. It couldn’t be a hitchhiker, not way out here. He told Elise. Dan watched as she jumped back into the van, slammed the door shut and began pressing down the locks one at a time. She just looked at him and yelled, “Dan get in the van.”
“What?” he replied.
She threw him a nasty look and started cranking up all the windows as fast as she could. While Elise frantically tried to secure the van, Dan took another glimpse down the road and instead felt relieved. Dan didn’t like to meet new people (Add something here about his character), yet as the man approached he no longer felt worried about the situation he was faced with. Everything including the girls, the van, even the fight with Elise just passed away.
It took the man a few minutes to reach the van. As he drew closer Dan could see a large smile on his dirty face. His hands, like leather, were cut and bruised on every knuckle. His hair was white and wiry jutting off in every direction. His clothes hung loosely against his body. Walking up to Dan, he threw his bag to the ground and thrust out his hand and said, “Hi there my name is Peter Làngelo,” Peter looked around for a moment. “Kind of a bad place to break down ain’t it.” Dan, feeling
Peter’s kindness, took his outstretched hand immediately and shook it.
Peter still holding on to Dan’s hand looked at the van saying, “Anything that I can do to help?”
Dan peering back at the van replied, “Not unless you’re a mechanic.”
“Well I used to own a car once. Does that count?”
Dan laughed still looking at the van, “You know it just might be enough.”
Twenty minutes passed since Peter had showed up and even though the van wasn’t working Dan felt relieved to be talking to someone that for once was not looking to him for a solution. He had already told Peter that they were headed to Elise’s parents house and had broken down a few hours earlier and tried to call a tow truck to no avail.
“Sometimes we all put too much faith in technology you know,” said Peter reaching into the engine compartment pulling on some of the hoses.
“You got that right. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve been frustrated by something that is supposed to make our lives easier. But my wife certainly doesn’t make it easier on me, either.”
Peter leaned back from the van; “Your life can’t be all that bad, I mean being married and having kids brings joy into your life. Maybe you just need to take a step back and get some perspective of what you have.”
Dan rubbed his chin thinking about what Peter had said. Before he could answer though Peter shouted and grabbed the top of the air filter. Lifting the lid from the compartment he yanked the filter loose and laughed.
“Well here’s your problem!”
“What was it?” Dan looked at the filter perplexed as Peter held it up to him.
“It was in backwards. No wonder it worked then suddenly stopped. It wasn’t getting any air in the system so it just stalled out.”
Dan flipped the air filter over in his hand, “Something that simple.” He laughed then handed it back to Peter who slid it back into place correctly.
“It’s amazing how something so simple can change your life. But I can give you some advice: just love your wife and kids and everything else will come naturally Dan. I wish I could hold my kids again, but we only have so much time to do the things we are allowed. Don’t waste it.”
A little confused by the comment Dan just smiled back at him.
“Well aren’t you gonna give it a try?”
“Oh yeah,” replied Dan as he walked to the driver side door.
He gripped the handle and pulled, it wouldn’t open. It was locked. He looked at Elise through the window and tapped on it, motioning for her to unlock the door. She did without hesitation. But as soon as Dan got in the car she quickly voiced her concern in hushed tones.
“Dan how could you just let…that guy, a complete stranger just walk right up to the van, he could be a serial…”
“Honey he’s not a serial killer. You know how I get around people I don’t know and besides this guy just seems okay. I don’t know why but he doesn’t worry me in the slightest.” Dan turned the key in the ignition, as Elise kept her eyes on the man standing outside watching them.
As Dan turned the key, the lights on the dashboard blinked to life and the engine turned over with a slight thump. Dan looked at Elise with a smug look on his face and said, “Get the girls strapped in. I’m going to ask Peter if he needs a lift, it’s the least that we can do for him.”
Dan knew that Elise was slightly put off by his recent decision but he knew she had no reason to distrust him. Dan leaned out the door, the engine still running and asked Peter if he needed a lift. Peter didn’t answer so hewalked to the front of the van. Before he could ask again, he saw that no one was there. He checked all sides of the van and even beneath it. Peter was gone. As Dan looked down the road ahead and behind the van he couldn’t see anyone. Peter had vanished. Dan removed the rod holding up the hood, placed it back in its holding clips and dropped the hood with a thud. Dan looked at Elise and shrugged his shoulders. He returned to the driver’s side, opened the door and got in.
“I thought you were going to give him a lift.”
“I tried but he…he’s gone.”
Elise repeated, “Gone?”
“I know I looked all around the van he…he disappeared.”
“He couldn’t have disappeared, I mean where could he…” Elise looked out the windows of the van. She could not see anyone or anything other than cacti, bushes and sand.
Dan began to get a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach and remembered what Peter had told him about loving his wife and kids. The comment he thought was strange before, but with Peter’s disappearance he felt uneasy. Who was Peter Làngelo? Elise nudged him as she climbed back into the passenger seat motioning Dan to get going. Dan slowly pressed the accelerator and steered onto the highway. He tried to push the whole incident to the back of his mind, just as he heard Meredith behind him saying, “Bye, bye Peter.”