Stevie watched the road. Driving right now made him nervous. Cars moved tightly in each direction on the highway. Stevie’s wife, Ruth, was next to him in the passenger seat, and their friend, Helen, shared the backseat with the dog. Everyone sat in silence, Stevie driving, the others thumbing a phone. Stevie tried to concentrate.
“So many more cars than I expected for a Sunday,” said Stevie.
Helen spoke up from the rear seat. “Normal for this part of the country.”
Stevie started to say, “Maybe it just feels crowded because of,” but he trailed off.
“Whatever it is that’s happening,” said Helen.
“When do we get home?” asked Ruth. She thumbed her phone without looking up.
“Best guess a couple of hours.”
There were lines of cars on the interstate. Every lane was congested. It had been Stevie’s second time in Philadelphia, but the first since he and Ruth moved to D.C. on New Year’s Eve. They met Helen shortly after the move and decided a trip together for St. Patrick’s Day would be a nice way to get to know each other. But now they were heading home, worried they might get sick. The virus had come to the States, and it seemed like every minute some city or state ordered a shutdown of all businesses. But there were so many cars still on the road. He wasn’t sure if this was actually normal, or if it was just the typical end of a holiday, or if he was just nervous from the lack of any direct answers about what was going on.
Traffic sped up at intervals in places and slowed down in others. Cars darted between lanes and cut people off. There weren’t as many billboards along the road as he was used to either. Unlike the open highways of Texas that were cut wide and deep, these coastal highways cut narrowly through the thicket of the woods, the dense forestry standing so close to the pavement it almost leaned over onto the road. It didn’t help that clouds covered the sky and held back rain, casting darkness on everything. All Stevie could see were all the taillights of the large trucks he couldn’t get around and all the trees looming over their place there in the road. It felt claustrophobic. From the driver’s seat, it looked like everyone was trying to escape to somewhere else. Stevie didn’t like it.
“What is happening out there?” asked Helen.
“I have no idea,” said Stevie. He looked over at Ruth in the passenger seat. “Have you seen anything yet?”
“Nothing we don’t already know.” Ruth thumbed her phone.
“We don’t really know anything,” said Stevie. “That’s the problem.”
“Everyone is guessing that people are heading home to prepare.”
“I thought they already were home,” Stevie said. “It’s Sunday.”
“We’re the only losers who went out this weekend,” said Helen.
“We barely spent any time inside with other people,” he said. “That’s how you get sick.”
“But people are dying,” said Helen.
There was a pause.
“Again, you get it just like any other virus,” said Stevie. “And you didn’t make out with any strangers, that I know of.”
Ruth laughed. “Such a shame for Rick,” she said.
Helen laughed along. “Oh, my god,” she said, “why did you invite your friend to join us from New York City?”
“We live four hours apart, now,” said Stevie, “and I hadn’t seen the sumbitch since the Army.”
“Maybe there’s a reason for that,” said Helen.
“Don’t be so hard on the guy,” said Stevie.
“He walked into my room at three a.m. and asked me to make out with him.”
“And what if he brought it with him?” asked Helen. “How close does he live to New York City?”
“You can see it from his house.”
“Christ,” said Helen.
“That doesn’t mean he had it.”
Everyone fell silent again. Stevie was looking for a gas station and trying not to think about everything going on out there. Why had they gone to Philadelphia? He had been excited to finally live in the mid-Atlantic and to finally see his friend. He didn’t ask for all this to happen. It was nice to see his friend. Even when the concert they were going to attend was canceled, he didn’t feel like it was a wasted trip. The city still celebrated St. Patrick’s Day and everything remained open.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do anything or go anywhere if there was something to be worried about,” he said. “And we’re going home now.”
“Who really knows,” said Helen. She sat in the backseat looking out the window. Helen slouched into the corner of the backseat where it met the door, and Stevie could sense that she was worried. Next to her slept Stevie and Ruth’s dog, undisturbed.
“Let me say, thanks for coming along,” Stevie said to Helen.
“You said that earlier,” she replied.
“I just needed to get away.”
“Might have been the last time,” said Ruth.
Stevie found an exit with a Wawa. He couldn’t see the gas station from the highway, but he knew it was a popular truck stop in the area. It would be big enough to get in and out of easily. Stevie took the off-ramp and felt relieved to be away from the busy highway. The exit led from the interstate and into the tree line for a half-mile before opening up at a small shopping center. The traffic light had only two gas stations on either corner, and Stevie saw the Wawa to his right. A line of cars stretching the entire parking lot and out into the road waited to get to the gas pumps. There, tucked into the small intersection carved out of the swamp, cars gathered in a frenzy and fought for space. It felt claustrophobic again, like everything coming down on them all at once. Stevie moved the car into the first line and then saw an open parking spot. He quickly moved out of the line and parked instead.
“We can make it home,” he said, and then again, “We can make it home.”
“Do we have enough gas?” asked Ruth.
Stevie looked over the console. The reading showed the car could make it up to 110 miles, but the GPS indicated the drive would be 98 miles to home. Stevie didn’t like cutting it close. With every passing minute it felt like they were already cutting too many things too close, and needing gas was getting in the way. Stevie looked again at the gas station. This intersection off from the highway should have been free of traffic, but there were cars surrounding the building and people were walking in all directions.
“There’s enough to not get into this mess,” Stevie said.
“Is it a run?” asked Helen.
“What?” asked Ruth.
“Panic buying,” said Helen.
“Why would they need gas to stay home?”
“People will buy anything in a panic,” said Stevie.
“Are you going in?”
“Could use a piss and a water.”
“Let me know what it’s like inside.”
Stevie walked through the commotion of the cars and then into the station. It looked like all convenience stores, except people inside were rummaging through everything. Servers paced behind the deli counter, and cashiers barked out orders from behind their face masks. When did that start? Stevie thought. He didn’t remember hearing anything about masks. He found the restroom, used a urinal, and left without touching anything. He wondered if he could touch anything, even to wash his hands. He didn’t know for sure.
Outside the restroom, Stevie paused as other customers rushed by on their way to somewhere. He grabbed the few water bottles remaining in the refrigerators and the only bag of chips. Stevie laughed to himself. He didn’t think that single-use bottles or bags of chips would save anyone, only that he was thirsty. Then, he stopped himself from laughing out loud because that seemed out of place as well. He didn’t really want to laugh right now.
Checking out didn’t take long. Everyone moved quickly. Being outside again relieved him. He got in the car and handed a bottle of water to Ruth.
“Has there been any news?” he asked.
“What more is there to learn?”
“In the absence of everything, anything would be sufficient.”
Stevie sat in the front with the air conditioner blowing on his face. Cars backed up now through the parking lot and into the shopping center next to the station. He wasn’t sure how they’d get out of the lot. A sign pointed traffic in one direction, but with so many vehicles coming and going, it all kind of just ran together senselessly. It made Stevie anxious. He knew it was going to take a few minutes just to get in a line to leave the gas station. He tried not to think about it. He set the navigation on his phone and plugged it into the dashboard.
“This is pretty wild,” said Helen.
“I can’t tell if it’s panic or not,” Stevie said.
“Like, it’s a disease,” said Ruth, “not a hurricane.”
“I think that’s why everyone is so confused,” he said.
Stevie got the car into the line exiting the lot, but it took half an hour to get through the traffic light and back out onto the road. Thick forestation crowded the road on either side, and nothing could be seen for miles but more trees and traffic ahead. It felt to Stevie like everything, including home, would never be reached. He just wanted to get moving again. He just wanted to get home. Just then his phone buzzed with a text message from work: telework starting Monday, acknowledge.
“There it is,” he said. “I’m not reporting to work tomorrow.”
“But you still have to work?” asked Ruth.
“From home,” he said.
“You’ll get a job, hon,” he said. They had only been in Washington, D.C. for two months, but he still felt like that wouldn’t be a problem for her. It always took time to get a new job, and there were more opportunities for her in the District than there were back in San Antonio. It would just take more time. “Everything’s going to be okay,” he said.
Stevie finally got the car onto the interstate. It looked like there were more cars than before. They were moving along, but he didn’t like being stuck behind so many others. He could never guess what someone else might do, and it made him tense. He just wanted to be in his apartment. He wanted to be in his bed. He wanted to be home with his wife and his dog. He wanted to feel safe.
“All this for something we can’t even see,” he said.
“Aren’t people choking on their own lungs?” asked Helen.
“Didn’t they say it was just like the flu?” he asked.
“Who knows,” said Helen.
“There should be something,” he said. “Not all this… nothing.”
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” said Ruth.
“Maybe we’re being misled.”
Helen replied, “Maybe no one really knows anything and everyone is just guessing.”
Stevie wanted to know what was going on. Everyone he met this weekend joked that it was nothing to worry about, but he worried that he just didn’t know. Some information was saying the virus would spread around the world, but all the governors and mayors held press conferences to talk about patience. Stevie didn’t think there was anything to be concerned about, but he was worried that, in the end, he just didn’t have any information at all. He worried now that they had made the wrong decision. The trip had been paid for in advance, though, and they weren’t going to get the money back, and even then they didn’t go to the concert because it was canceled, and also, they hadn’t really been around too many people, and now they were heading home. That should have been enough, but he worried he was compromising. It was hard to make sense of it all. It was hard to hold back regret. He wished he’d been smarter.
Stevie calculated the distance to their home over and over. Even as they rounded Baltimore and passed through the harbor tunnel, he kept looking down at the console over and over. There was an old tale about cars, that they held a gallon in reserve, but he could never remember if that was calculated into the distance reading or not. He tried not to worry and kept his focus on driving them home. The interstate would lead them all the way back home without a break, a stop, or a turn. It was going to be a long drive. He wanted it to end. It was a disaster. Stevie had an awful thought.
“This is just like 9/11,” he said.
“That’s a statement,” said Helen. She sat in her slouched posture in the seat, still staring out the window. She never broke her gaze. He didn’t know Helen well, but he could tell she was worried, too.
“There was this whole thing happening somewhere,” he said, “but I couldn’t see any of it from where I was.”
“I was only seven years old,” said Helen.
“Marching band rehearsal was outside that morning and when I got to second period, a girl I knew leaned over my desk and said something like, ‘Two planes hit the Twin Towers, and there’s smoke coming out of the Pentagon.’”
“She wasn’t wrong,” said Helen.
“Then, the teacher walks in and says we’re not allowed to watch the news ‘because we have things to learn.’”
“To her, it was just something happening on the news,” he said. “It was all just something going on out there.”
“But looking back on it now,” said Helen.
“Changed my entire life,” said Stevie.
“Governors are recommending to stay home now,” said Ruth. “Like, ‘if safely possible, it is recommended’ or whatever.”
Stevie wondered if that meant anything. He asked if it was an official statement or an emergency, but Ruth couldn’t tell if it was just guidance or a mandate, or a rule, or however it might be called. It remained confusing, and Stevie didn’t think it would help anything. He didn’t feel any better and just wanted to be home.
“You know, I met these younger kids here in town a couple months ago,” said Helen. “Like just turned twenty years old or so, friends of a friend.”
“College kids are going to be so fucked up with all of this,” said Stevie.
“And these boys had no idea what the Watergate Hotel was,” said Helen.
“What do you mean?” asked Ruth.
Helen said, “They didn’t know the building, they didn’t know anything about Watergate, they didn’t even recognize the term or know a single thing about Richard Nixon.”
“Watergate takes up entire chapters in even basic history books,” said Stevie.
“Who reads books anymore?” said Helen.
“People still score it as the root of all distrust in this country,” said Stevie.
“We even talked about it,” said Ruth.
“In Europe?” asked Helen. Ruth nodded.
Stevie rushed through all his childhood memories learning about these events. He remembered his journalism professors spending entire months picking apart the Washington Post coverage of that election, and he remembered studying the coverage of race during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He thought of all the patriotism surrounding 9/11 and how he ended up in that same war fifteen years after it began, just to pay off that education. So many years before now, with this thing happening now out there, without any explanation. It never felt like he was going to get away from it all.
Traffic held up all the way home but seemed to disappear once they were inside the District. Stevie looked from the road to the console and back again. There would be gas enough to get all the way home, and he could fill up in the next couple of days.
The sun remained overhead when they got back to D.C., but there weren’t any cars on any of the residential roads and it didn’t look like a single person was out anywhere. No one walking on the sidewalks, no one buying groceries, no one going anywhere to do anything. It felt more abandoned than empty, like everyone had not just gone inside but had actually gone away to somewhere else. Stevie thought to get gas now while it seemed easy, but he could sense that everyone just wanted it to be over.
He drove to Helen’s apartment in Georgetown and parked in the road, opening the hatch to get her bags. Everyone exited the car and stood on the steps of the sidewalk leading to the door of Helen’s duplex. The sun had come out of the clouds. There were no sounds of the city. Everyone just sort of stood there.
“So, we’ll see you soon,” said Ruth.
“Oh, I know it,” said Helen.
Everyone hugged. It was brief.
“What do you think happens next?” asked Helen.
“I just want to get to the other side of this,” said Stevie, and after another minute, “Then we’ll be able to look back.”
Stevie and Ruth got back in the car, where their dog waited for them. It was only a few blocks until they were parked and inside their apartment, at last. More news spread of shutdowns all across the country and all over the world. Messages came in from family members and friends. It would be months later before the car would need gas again.
Thomas Johnson works as Associate Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, and afterward enlisted in the United States Army. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Writing at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, D.C. His work is available in the Museum of Americana Literary Review and forthcoming from Valparaiso Fiction Review. All credits and biography are available at ts-johnson.com.
Cover Design by Karen Rile