“Arizona Sunsets” by Charlotte Maertens

Bonnie’s parents had said they would be back in five minutes. It had been almost fifteen according to the waterproof watch she received for her birthday, and Bonnie suspected they would be a while yet. Not that she minded, really. She was too hot and drowsy to be annoyed. ‘Languid’ she thought, remembering her last vocabulary test. How far away it all seemed: classes, homework, gold stars. Her parents had taken her out of school a month before the end of the year to go on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. ‘We are going to have such a good time’ her mother had assured her as she’d packed their bags.

They had been driving around the desert for days now, stopping at motels and roadside restaurants, her parents uncharacteristically vague about their itinerary. At this point, Bonnie started to feel they might never make it to the Grand Canyon at all.

Her parents had spent the past hour arguing about directions, her mother insisting they had missed an exit and should be turning back, and her father adamant they just had to carry on a while longer. With the sun rapidly setting over the horizon and no town in sight, Bonnie had felt the undercurrent of tension in the front of the car build like a rumbling summer storm. The appearance of this squat strip of stores seemingly out of nowhere along the endless desert road had given pause to her parents’ silent dialogue of glares and shrugs. ‘Stay in the car, sweetie,’ her mother had said as they’d pulled into the parking lot. ‘Back in five, champ. Keep the doors locked,’ her father added with a stretch and a yawn.

Now, with her parents presumably stocking up on snacks and directions, Bonnie was alone for the first time since they had left home. Her mind was too sluggish and uncooperative for her to read or even think properly to pass the time. Lying on the back seat of the rental car, staring up through the open sun roof and slowly melting into the leather upholstery, all she could focus on was the dry and relentless Arizona heat. It had a weight to it, an almost physical form: a large cat curled up on her chest perhaps, or the thick woolen blanket her mother pulled out of the closet only on the bitterest nights of January. If Bonnie held her breath, she could imagine sitting at the bottom of the swimming pool on a summer afternoon, the world as still and heavy here as it was underwater. 

The minutes ticked by, the setting sun slanting in liquid beams through the windshield, illuminating specks of dust floating in the air above her. She glanced at her feet pressed up flat against the window, her toes painted a new watermelon pink she had found in her mother’s makeup bag. Her mother had never liked pink. She had never liked the heat either. Or car trips. Bonnie frowned, and propped herself up on her elbows to look outside. Still no sign of her parents. Getting to her knees, she reached into the front seat and grabbed her mother’s discarded sweater, tying the arms in a knot around her waist. Then, before she could change her mind, she used the headrests to shimmy up through the sun roof, emerging into the last golden minutes of the day with the world awash in the deep orange of overripe clementines. From her perch, Bonnie swung her legs and slowly unpicked the French braid her mother had woven her into that morning.

Still no one, just the silence and the emptiness of the parking lot at the end of the day. None of it felt quite real; the rented car, the expanse of asphalt around it, the squat beige stores she could just see out of the corner of her eye, and the desert stretching away from her in its vast, merciless beauty.

Sometimes, when she was swimming, Bonnie looked up through the water at the surface and imagined that if she waited just long enough, and emerged in just the right way, she would find herself in a different world. She never did, no matter how many times she tried. As she sat in the hallowed quiet of the evening, it dawned on her that perhaps, just perhaps, this was the place. The place she had been looking for in swimming pools and wardrobes and potting sheds. The place where time stood still and the fabric of the universe wore to a translucence.

She could stay, she thought. She could wait for her parents to finally come out of the store, their arms laden with treats they would never normally buy at home and their smiles wide like they had not spent the past half hour arguing where she couldn’t hear them. About mom’s new nail polish, and all the late nights dad had been putting in at work lately, and the hundred other reasons they had felt this vacation was so urgent it couldn’t wait until she graduated from the sixth grade with her friends. She could stay, and of course Bonnie knew she would.

Yet, as the sun set and the desert sky bloomed to a bruised purple twilight,  a small part of her whispered, ‘you could go if you wanted to’. She could slide down the side of the car, sandaled feet meeting the asphalt with a slap, and start walking. She could take one step, then another, and then another, across the parking lot, across both lanes of the highway, and into the desert. She could walk with her eyes closed and her hands outstretched, feeling for the edges, the secret liminal spaces between this world and the next. She could keep walking, shedding a part of herself with every step in a puff of desert dust until she walked out of existence completely, leaving nothing behind. Not a footstep, not an echo.

CHARLOTTE MAERTENS lives and works in Montreal.

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