Ana and Trace Striver were supposed to be in Low Point over an hour ago. Ana had missed the exit off of I-55 and they ended up in Normal instead. Trace refused to carry a cell phone and Ana’s battery died when she put her phone back into her purse in flashlight mode, making it necessary for them to amuse Normal’s gas station attendants, fast-food employees, and pedestrians with the sentence, “Can you tell us how to get to Low Point?” The man reading The National Enquirer behind the counter at the Citgo station told them that drinking liquor before breakfast would get them there pretty fast. The teenage girl with one lock of green hair and a safety pin pierced through her ear said that they were already there. They were starting to believe her.
“It’s ironic,” Ana said when they got the phone call two days ago.
“Coincidental,” Trace replied. “It’d be ironic if it happened in Brilliant, Ohio.”
Trace’s brother-in-law Elvin died in Low Point in a head-on car crash. He was playing a game of chicken on McKinley Street with his neighbor, Phil, who also died in the crash. The game was ruled a draw.
“Regardless, it’s kind of funny,” said Ana. “Cynthia decided our presence wouldn’t be enough to bring down God’s wrath upon the pious, churchgoing folk?”
Trace nodded. “I suppose since he’s already dead, she’s not worried about us leading him down the devil’s path anymore.”
The phone call broke a three-year period of silence between Trace and his sister, Cynthia. “The Bible says we should forgive those who’ve done wrong,” she’d said.
“Well jeepers, sis, that’s mighty big of you,” Trace had said, mocking the regional twang he’d lost for TV.
There was breathy sniffling on the other end of the phone. “Just promise me you’ll be here.”
By the time they had pulled over in Normal, Trace had buried his feet in crumpled sheets from his legal pad. He’d been scribbling since they left Chicago. He just needed to find that opening line—the headline—then the rest of the story would fall into place. So far, nothing was sticking.
Elvin always met challenges head-on.
Elvin was never one to duck out early.
Elvin never strayed from the path he knew was right.
He could only stare at the paper for a minute or two at a time before he started to feel carsick and had to crack the window. The short bursts of November air forced the nausea out of him. Ana, after having her recently-straightened, shoulder-length blond hair blown into her face a dozen times, pulled it into a tight bun.
“Why did she want you to do the eulogy?” asked Ana. “You haven’t spoken to him in three years.”
“Because I deliver eulogies for people I don’t know every night as anchor of the Action 7 News `Team.” He turned to her. “At noon, five, or online: tragedy, when you need it most.”
“Oh it’s not all doom and gloom. At the end of every broadcast, you get to show videos of kittens cuddling with dogs or hamsters stealing cigarettes.”
“I don’t think that kind of thing would go over well with this audience, but I like where your head’s at.”
Outside, cornfield after cornfield rushed past them, every once and a while punctuated by the appearance of a dilapidated barn or an adult video store.
They stopped at a Starbucks in Normal. Trace sat across the table from Ana, who was sipping a black coffee. There was a boy, about three years old, sitting at the table next to them, waiting for his mother who was at the counter, placing her order. The boy was squatting on top of the chair, leaning out over the table. He was staring at Ana.
“You’re pretty,” he said.
Ana smiled at Trace. “I think I might have found my second husband. What’s your name?”
“Jacob,” the boy said, burying his face in his arms.
The boy’s mother sat down with her latte next to him. “Are you making new friends?” she asked him.
“He’s trying to put the moves on my girl,” Trace said.
The mother smiled. She was about Ana’s age, maybe even a few years younger. She wore an Illinois State Redbirds t-shirt and had her cellphone facedown on the table in front of her. “Is that right?” she asked and tickled her son gently.
The boy giggled and nodded.
“Well she’s already married, sweetheart.”
“Yeah but he’s old,” said the boy.
Ana laughed and looked at Trace.
“Hey that’s a mean thing to say,” said the mother. “Say you’re sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Trace said. “He’s only telling the truth. You’ll make a good journalist someday.”
Ana noticed the woman’s phone and asked if she’d be able to look up directions to Low Point. After convincing her that it was indeed a real place, the mother obliged. Ana scribbled down the directions on the back of her receipt. Take I-39, past El Paso, to IL-116. If they hit Minonk, they had gone too far. Meanwhile Trace smiled at Jacob through closed lips. Ana blew the boy a kiss on their way out.
When Ana and Trace got back onto the highway, Trace let his pen rest in his lap and stared out the window at the flat, yellow fields. “Didn’t you get your first on-camera work around here?”
“It was farther downstate, but really once you get south of Chicago, everything is pretty similar.”
The first time Trace saw her, she was standing in a field nearly identical to ones now kaleidoscoping outside their windows, reporting on a bug that was eating the local crops. Her demo tape was in a pile with countless others at the station, but she kept sending new copies over and over again until Trace and the station’s news director finally sat down and watched it. Trace knew from the first few seconds of watching her that she had it—the indescribable thing that allows certain people to transcend time and distance, to stare into a camera lens and give the impression that she is talking directly to you. Once they started dating, a lot of people at the station accused Trace of hiring her based on her looks alone. Whenever those accusations were made, Trace would simply show the original demo tape to anyone who wanted to see it. That shut them all up rather quickly.
Since then, Ana had worked her way up: from lifestyle reporter to legal correspondent to recently becoming a chief political correspondent and occasional fill-in anchor at a rival network. There were rumors that she might get offered the anchor chair when Natalie Reyes retired Trace told her that it was best not to invest too much hope in rumors. It was a cutthroat business after all, and things change quickly.
Ana followed the directions and got onto I-39. She laid the receipt next to the gear selector. Trace began scribbling in his notebook again and, after a few minutes, cracked the window. The sudden burst of air blew to receipt onto the floor.
“Shit.” The car drifted in between two lanes while Ana pawed blindly at the floor. “Shit, shit.”
“Pull over.” Trace clasped his hand over his mouth.
Ana pulled onto the gravel shoulder of the highway. Before the car was completely stopped, Trace opened the door and ran out into the weeds that were growing next to the road. He retched and emptied his stomach into the weeds and litter that collected on the side of the highway. He looked back at the car to see Ana trying to fish the receipt out from in between the seat and the center console. Trace retrieved the seltzer water he had bought at one of the gas stations in Normal and gargled. Afterwards, taking slow, deep breaths, he sat sideways in the passenger seat with his feet resting on the gravel. “I need a minute.”
“Are you okay?” Ana was now in the back seat, trying to reach the receipt from behind.
“Leave it for a while. Come sit with me.”
Ana slid across the backseat to the passenger side and sat sideways with the door open, like Trace. Her feet didn’t quite reach the gravel. They looked at each other through the opening of the raised headrest. Trace’s shirt was untucked in the back. He took off his tie, which now had a stain on it. In front of them, beyond a split wood fence, was a massive cornfield. The stalks were starting to yellow and wilt. The stalks shimmied when the wind blew and a few of the long, curved leaves shed with the breeze. The leaves collected on the ground around the stalks, covering tiny, half-formed cobs that never thrived.
“It’s strange,” Ana said. “You read all the time on the subway.”
“There’s something about cars.”
Trace was running his thumb along the silk tie. They hadn’t seen much of each other since Ana started her new job. She was on the evening news and Trace was on in the morning. They only crossed paths for a few hours late at night. A strong breeze rattled the corn stalks. Several leaves fell to the ground.
“I’m okay now,” Trace said.
Ana smiled. “Breaking news,” she said.
“Breaking news,” Trace said.
When they pulled back onto the highway, Trace set his legal pad on the floor. They weren’t going to get there in time for him to deliver a eulogy. They exited onto IL-116 about the time the funeral was scheduled to start. Suddenly there was a loud pop. The left rear tire had blown.
Ana slapped the steering wheel. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
They pulled onto the shoulder. There were no other cars on the road. Trace took off his jacket and dress shirt and crawled underneath the car to retrieve the spare tire. Ana paced back down the road. Trace struggled with the rusted crank mechanism that was supposed to lower the tire. He had to use the tire iron to pry the tire loose, eventually sending it bouncing to the ground under the car. When Ana returned, she was holding the head of a pitchfork that had its middle prong bent. Ana showed it to Trace, then hurled it into the field beside the road. It landed in the grass, twenty-five feet or so off the road—bent prong straight up in the air. Trace finished swapping out the tires and left the shredded tire off to the side of the road.
They drove on for miles before they started seeing signs saying that the road was ending. They looked for a place to turn. Then, abruptly, there was no more road. They stopped and looked from side to side, seeing nothing but open fields all around.
“Did we miss it?” Ana asked.
“I didn’t see anywhere to turn.”
They turned around. They drove back the other way, slower this time, looking for any sign of a town. They drove past the pitchfork head with the bent middle prong. In a few miles, they were back at I-39. They pulled over.
“I don’t get it.” Trace scoured a poorly folded map. He couldn’t locate IL-116, let alone a tiny town like Low Point.
It started to rain. They sat in silence for a few minutes.
“You know what? Fuck it.” Ana said. “I didn’t want to come to this funeral in the first place.”
“Ana, it’s my sister’s husband…”
“Your religious kook sister who wants nothing to do with us anymore.”
They sat in silence for several minutes, listening to the rain tap on the windshield.
“I don’t know, Ana. Sometimes I feel like she might have been right.”
“Are you kidding me? You voted for Obama twice!”
Trace shifted in his seat. “I don’t have a problem with it in general. I just don’t know if it was the right thing for us.”
“We decided together that the timing wasn’t right.”
Trace looked out the window. He could see for miles over the flat land. The storm clouds only got darker and darker. “Maybe the timing is never right.”
Ana shook her head. “No.” Tears were welling in her eyes. “You don’t get to do this. We decided together. You don’t get to make me into the bad guy.”
Ana got out and walked in front of the car. Trace felt like he should go after her, but he buried his face in the map instead. After several minutes of Trace trying to fold the map back to its original size, Ana got back into the driver’s seat. Her wet clothes squeaked against the leather upholstery.
“Let’s just go back to Normal,” Ana said.
“Yes, please, forget I said anything.” Trace looked up from the map.
“No, I meant let’s drive back to Normal. The town.”
“Oh yeah, of course.”
A pair of headlights appeared in the distance—a tanker truck. Ana started the car. The tanker roared past. Ana pulled out, then turned around and started following.
“I thought we were going back to Normal,” Trace said.
Ana ignored him and drove on. He didn’t have a say in where they were headed. A few miles past the pitchfork head, the tanker turned onto a small dirt road that Ana and Trace hadn’t seen before. She waited for the tanker to get some distance and then made the turn. Trace felt his nausea return as they headed towards Low Point.
Illustration by Nick Anderson, Miami University